Monday, September 13, 2021

Spectral Interrogatories III - Caverns of Thracia


The Caverns of Thracia was published by Judges Guild, an early 3rd party publisher of Dungeons & Dragons material, in 1979. Written by Jennell Jaquays, Caverns is widely regarded as one of the best adventures produced for early Dungeons & Dragons -- a proper dungeon crawl with factions, unique setting, excellent maps, and coherence often lacking in other early dungeons. Certainly, The Caverns of Thracia is among the largest and latest of the noteworthy early adventures: 78 pages for 117 keyed location compared to the 11 page, 58 key Steading of the Hill Giant Chief or 36 pages (really 8 pages of keying and a large number of illustrations), 33 key  Tomb of Horrors. Even Temple of the Frog, found in “Supplement 2 - Blackmoor” and which I consider another early template for Dungeons & Dragon adventures, is 13 half-sized pages long and covers 44 keyed locations (it’s a bit hard to determine), a city, and a small region.

This makes The Caverns of Thracia larger and more lavishly keyed then most early adventures. The only notable early adventure with a similar size is the 171 key, ultra-minimalist Palace of the Vampire Queen. Thracia’s higher page count is the product of its extra detail compared to other early adventures, and unlike the dense text of Wizard’s of the Coast’s contemporary Dungeons & Dragons adventures, this detail isn’t superfluous. Jaquays builds an adventure with a coherent whole: ecology, politics, history, and mysteries that will be discovered through play and unraveled for the benefit of the party. The adventure’s reputation as a profoundly successful dungeon crawl is because of these extra elements: added detail, a history that produces a naturalistic present, and the way they build a believable whole. Gygax’s adventures such as Steading of the Hill Giant Chief do something similar, but often become a bit excessive or muddled in their fantasy and tend to focus on complex combat encounters or traps without providing enough detail to support more involved faction intrigue or imagery.

How does The Caverns of Thracia earn its fine reputation, and what lesson does it provide to contemporary writers trying to create large and complex dungeons or ‘Mega Dungeons’?

The first and most consistently striking thing about The Caverns of Thracia, especially compared to other early adventures, is that it’s well situated in a fantasy world, not entirely built out of implied setting and player genre expectations. While it uses some creatures drawn from rule books or monster manuals, it bends them and transforms them to best fit its setting. Theme and naturalism are foremost in Caverns, with description, monster choice, mapping and faction structure all roped together to form a cohesive whole. There are complex mysteries and stories deep in the Caverns, waiting for the players to discover, though it’s an open question if they are sometimes too deep and occluded for the majority of players, and how useful they are in play.

averns most profound departure from the traditions of 1970's design is its willingness to build its own setting. While not a radical departure from Gygaxian vernacular fantasy and the implied setting of D&D's rule books Thracia has its own themes and aesthetic that completely permeate the adventure. Best described as late-classical antiquity swords & sorcery. Foes within the Caverns are human cultists - death worshipping human "tribesmen" (thankfully they are more classical Minoans rather then some Aztec or Zulu pastiche despite the jungle setting), with beast and lizard men used later as a greater threat. These humanoids though are far less Gygax's stand-ins for colonized people and more aliens and animalistic beast men. Guardian krakens, lizardman lich kings, animated statues, dryads and a sphinx round out the other notable inhabitants, making for an adventure with a distinct mythological feel, but Thracia also has the odd fairy tale or weird fantasy element such as the "giant gnome" who guards a bridge.

The Caverns themselves are dazzlingly complex and multi-leveled, riddled with hidden passages, varied environments, and most impressively a sense of living, active possibility. What’s important about the setting is that it makes sense - the factions of death cult, beast men and their untrustworthy lizard men allies all have relationships of understandable antipathy. Numerous other monsters, either remnants from the ancient past, undead, or dangerous beasts lurk in the recesses of the Caverns as specific threats and guardians, but its primary tension exist between the weaker human cult and beast men (gnolls and minotaurs). The Caverns of Thracia may not stray too far the implied setting of Dungeons & Dragons, but when it does it manages to do so in interesting ways that reinforce the location's own history, offering a coherent fictional whole rather then an assembly of haphazard elements. This coherence and holistic approach -- a stellar example of fantasy naturalism -- may be its most important contribution to dungeon design, and something that makes it an excellent dungeon crawl, even now, forty years later.

Thracia's First Level

Jaquays and The Caverns of Thracia aren't best known for their naturalism, but are both widely acknowledged for their map design. Jaquays' name has even become synonymous with the practices derived from her map design: multiple access points to area, looping, interconnecting corridors, and verticality. Some of these design principles are explicitly described in other sources (notably the Underworld & Wilderness Adventures booklet of the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons), but Jaquays both uses them with a rare level of skill and innovates on them in ways that justly earn her acknowledgement as one of the best and most innovative adventure designers.

The specific map design of Caverns of Thracia has been exhaustively detailed elsewhere, but two elements of it that are perhaps underappreciated even in the classic dungeon design community are its nodal/sublevel structure and the way its interrelation to the keying and overall themes of the adventure render its complexity more coherent and discoverable to the player.

Nodes or nodal megadungeon design were a topic of discussion in the middle period of the “OSR”, presented as a less complex and more manageable way to organize the megadungeon. Sectioning a dungeon into themed sublevels or areas, linked via an abstracted set of connections but with distinct random encounter (or in more radical versions individual procedural generation tables). The Caverns of Thracia doesn't go this far, but Jaquays heavily themes areas and sublevels and separates them with modified encounter tables (treasure vaults and other areas sometimes have no encounters).

Caverns of Thracia
’s levels are still largely seamlessly mapped but also incorporate sublevels to form some of its most interesting areas: several multilevel treasure temples and the abandoned crypt/cathedral of the ancient lizards for example. These areas are mostly sealed off from the main map of the Caverns and partially (for their “extra” levels) use their own maps, creating separate themed adventure locales within the larger dungeon. Not only does this give scale and greater complexity to the dungeon as a whole but these sublevels present landmarks and destinations for players who have begun to understand the adventure and so encourage player generated goals. Including and outside these sublevels there’s also a considerable variety to Thracia’s sections: the hidden tombs of the lizardman lich king, draped in stalactites and decay and the secret temples of the death cult have a different feel from the ruins patrolled by the beast men or their underground forest and palace.

In a brief discussion with Warren D. of I Cast Light, Jaquays has said that she was influenced by her early education in historical architecture when writing Thracia, and while the complexity of the maps feels too extensive for many ancient structures (other then the Palace of Knossos - which is an obvious influence), the adventure includes a naturalistic layering of both construction and history. Areas of the Caverns have been transformed and reused through time in a very real way: bricked up doorways, haphazard new structures, earthquake damage, verticality, and out of place decoration all feel very real. Likewise the variety of environments from the guano filled halls near the surface to the fantastical underground forest and science fantasy secret chambers of the ancient lizardfolk work to make Caverns of Thracia compelling for the explorer, and tantalize with implications of the past or the clues they offer to the location’s secrets and layout.

As much as Cavern’s maps present a complex and interesting world, Jaquays’ keying and overall design principles are what makes them effective. Verticality and interconnection alone is of relatively limited benefit if it’s not deployed in ways that players and referees can understand and use. While the techniques of multiple entrances, secret connections, looping, zones within levels/sublevels, discontinuous connection, and landmarks are all useful, "Jaquaysing" shouldn’t be considered just a set of cartographic tricks so much as the philosophy of creating a themed, coherent, naturalistic, fantasy space. The map is a key element of that but naturalism is the most powerful tool.  Naturalism here doesn’t mean that one should balance inhabitant populations based on available calories within a functional food web, make sure there's enough load bearing pillars (they never will be), or design with similar obsessive realism, rather a naturalistic dungeon crawl presents a fictional space that players can learn from. A naturalistic dungeon follows specific themes and rules which can be interrogated (literally in the case of its inhabitants) for information about how its interconnections and secrets can benefit the players.

To create naturalistic dungeon, map design has to work in tandem with keying. Complex map design is easy to overdo, and cartography in many early adventures resembles a maze. This is not an accident, books of paper mazes were extremely popular in the 1970's and early 1980's, and the mapping mini-game is part of early Dungeons & Dragons that has faded since. Cavern's map is extremely complex, but it is also extremely interconnected and densely keyed, meaning that it's locations are rich with landmarks and interactivity. Nor does Jaquays rely on many of the tricks to thwart map makers that are included in the Underworld & Wilderness Adventures' 'sample dungeon': shifting walls, secretly sloping passages, spinning rooms, teleportation traps and oddly shaped rooms. While these sorts of obstacles or cartographic puzzles occasionally appear on The Caverns of Thracia's maps, they aren't the extent of its spatial puzzles or obviously included to frustrate players and slow exploration.

Rather, Thracia's spatial complexity is both allowed and highlighted through density, clues, faction, and individual key design, because interaction with the space produces engagement and recognition. The density of landmarks and memorable spaces allows players to better conceptualize the space, either literally recognizing when they come across a previously explored region, or by recognizing thematic elements of shared nodes or pathways. Caverns are connected to other caverns, as are abandoned ritual spaces and waterways to form nodes. Dangers and threats such as bat filled chambers, and guardian statues also repeat in a similar manner, with increasing risk.

The overarching spatial puzzle of The Caverns of Thracia is not simply navigation of the map, but how to move between its two most distinct type of spaces - a series of secret puzzle and trap filled treasure complexes that are intertwined with an active faction conflict ridden dungeon. Moving thorough each allows access to different parts of the others, and thus gives the players opportunities to avoid traps, guard posts, and set-piece monsters. Exploring the details of the keyed locations in the activel inhabited dungeon and interacting with the factions offers intrigue, problem-solving, and puzzles in turn gives clues about the risks (usually higher) in the treasure complexes or offers new entrances. Thracia is a clue rich environment and the density of the keys (there's almost no empty rooms in Thracia) are what makes the "Jaquaysness" of the map accessible to the player.


Faction intrigue is a near essential element to any classic dungeon adventure that’s not entirely a trap maze or siege, meaning almost any dungeon adventure of significant size. The Caverns of Thracia manages factions well, though without many tools to make them easier to run at the table. There are three major factions in Thracia: its beast men rulers, their untrustworthy lizardmen allies, and human cultists. None are especially sympathetic to random adventurers stumbling about their domain, but all have other more pressing problems -- mostly the desire to kill the others -- that can be used by clever players to make them into temporary allies or trick them. This is how faction design works best, a knife’s edge situation or detente with the adventurers potentially holding the balance of power. In the Caverns the beast men can’t find the hidden temples of the cultists, the lizardmen haven’t unraveled the tomb of their lich king yet, and the cultists can’t meet the beast men or lizards in battle. There are other less or more antagonistic individual powers or small groups: ancient warriors and clerics trapped in various ways ready to join the party, escaped human slaves, besieged dryads of the underground forest, and a variety of guardians and singular creatures. All of these inhabitants present a social web that the players can manipulate, and even the powerful unintelligent beasts and living statues offer ways to dispose of other enemies if the players are crafty enough to leads them to these dangers.

Thracia’s faction structure isn’t perfect, or especially clear, but if given a little work it offers a powerful tool that works in tandem with its layout. The factions are another themed mystery to unravel and use, and their rivalries are opportunities to weaken the (at times overwhelming) opposition in the dungeon allowing easier exploration and higher survival chances.

The Caverns of Thracia's faction intrigue and encounters add to the sense that it’s a living location with a coherent story. Both random and lair encounters are limited to creatures whose explanation is found in the location's history and include a relatively limited cast of creatures largely related to the major factions: the cultists (and their death god) and the beast men. Jaquays’ isn’t afraid to depart from the monster manual either, while a fair number of her monsters are standard creatures such as minotaurs, fighters, skeletons and gnolls they are slightly reskinned to explain their presence in Thracia, and there’s also no shortage of unique creatures, especially among the more dangerous enemies and leaders.
Unique monsters offer wonder and mystery for players who have memorized the monster manual. Even the simple reskinning of gnolls as canine beast men transforms them from mundane threats to something that the players will have to engage with - imaging and assessing as threats or potential allies.

This is all good design choice, but most effectively a limited selection of creatures, most of which are obviously tied to specific factions, makes the adventure’s faction structure far more important as it impacts the majority of the decisions players make about when to engage in combat.  By providing a limited menu of faction linked foes who the players battle or parley with has consequences beyond the immediate - weakening factions, befriending, or enraging them and because the factions are distinct and limited players can also access this information to make choices.

Beyond its factions and unique monsters, The Caverns of Thracia uses a complex random encounter system to support the dual nature of its spatial design. Random encounters for the caverns are dungeon-level based, but limited to specific areas (generally the open or beast man occupied areas) and many encounters are not infinite. It’s possible to “clear” levels of Thracia to some degree (though never completely), and it’s common to find safe areas within that can be used as either between session camps or in session recovery areas. Generally these empty areas are in the secret treasure vaults, where most of the puzzles are located, meaning that players can approach them at their leisure with complex time consuming schemes. These modifications of the encounter table are an effective tool, though like much in The Caverns of Thracia, aren't immediately clear or accessible and work to create a slowly paced game that seems hard to run under modern conditions. I suspect, as with much of The Caverns of Thracia's complexity many referees simply miss them.

Secrets and stories to unravel abound in Caverns, the entire location is defined by its long history and each of its major epochs (ancient super lizards, decadent human empire, beast man revolt) are well illustrated in its regions and sublevels. This makes exploring the Caverns more interactive, and help players find things to interest then -- to form their own goals or plans as well as to make moral decisions about the factions within. The larger mysteries: the fate of the last Thracian king and his entourage, the temple of the death cult, and the tomb of the lizard emperor are each tied to entire well hidden sub-levels of the Caverns that provide some of Thracia’s most compelling content.

Almost every room in The Caverns of Thracia has dressing and obstacles/puzzles within that hint at its past, refer to other locations and factions and provide something for the players to investigate
.  This high degree of detail, theming, and interactivity is created from the dungeon's history, detritus of the past (including the grim remains of at least two scenes of disaster and massacre) offers an archeological wealth of clues, that even when they aren't directly useful to exploration help the players engage with the location's past. For many players this acts as a sort of consolation prize to investigation and exploration - picking through rubble and examining murals may not always find gold or reveal a secret door but it always gives the players context and new knowledge about the environment and new imagery to better envision it. Unlike information dumps, this baked in story adds to play rather then detracting because it pulls interested players deeper into the imagined space and encourages imagination of it and speculation about it. The negative of this density is longer keys, but it feels worth it to make the location far more compelling or alive, and to allow the players the joy of discovering information they can use to decode and predict risks.

For example, the most easily accessible rooms on the first level of the Caverns are largely abandoned, but they are filled with disgusting (and annoying to players - requiring care to avoid falling) bat guano in huge piles. This isn’t just a minor, largely harmless obstacle, but a hint regarding the presence of giant bats deeper in the level, giant bats that present a serious danger as they lair in the unfinished natural cavern areas of the level above a precarious rope bridge that they will swoop down onto and buffet characters off. Similarly a recurring theme in Thracia is that both powerful guardian creatures and magical statuary have gemstone eyes or gems otherwise embedded in their head. These gems form one of the more consistent sources of treasure in the Caverns, but they are almost all connected to a serious risk. The monsters are obviously dangerous, but the gem studded statutes are also almost universally protected. Some have curses or similar effects, and others are or summon animated protectors. These stone guardians are some of the most dangerous enemies in the Caverns, and figuring out how to defeat them, use them against other foes, or trick them is a tempting, consistent, but escalating challenge throughout the adventure.

At the risk of repeating myself one too many times, The Caverns of Thracia uses its abundant clues and mysteries to support it's large scale puzzle: two dungeons intertwined - a faction intrigue based ruin and trap maze treasure vaults. The combination of map design, faction placement, and detailed, clue rich description make Thracia a preeminent example of exploration-focused design.  There's so much to interact with that players are constantly tempted to investigate, increasing their risk from random encounters in exchange for both the rewards of treasure (the majority of Thracia's valuables are hidden in its secret complexes) and ways to evade or ambush its dangerous inhabitants.

The well know maps of the Caverns, while they form a coherent whole -- a set of interconnections and landmarks that allow players to orient themselves in the fictional space -- are less comprehensible for the referee. The Caverns of Thracia's 1970's style presentation is reliant on densely drawn, top down maps, with sublevels separately mapped and interspersed with the text in a way that can make even a forty room level impossible to understand at a glance and hard to comprehend with a close reading.

Sublevels and in-level height variations are especially tricky, leading to areas that appear connected but instead only overlap vertically. This confusion is a product of the time when isometric maps were very uncommon and contemporary gestures towards playbility or convenience weren't a part of standard design. Still, as offered the cartography of Caverns of Thracia will likely lead to the party discovering connections that aren't supposed to exist, well-hidden rooms popping up at the top of a random stairway, and in turn all sorts of referee justifications and mapping improvisation simply because the maps are too dense, with too much overlap. It doesn't help that keying is somewhat disorganized, with numbers in odd order, and only a level map to refer to; a level map that doesn't hint at the missing sub-levels or complexes and offers no shading or marks denoting height differences. In Thracia's defense the map is excellent for it's time, as is Thracia's art.  All is hand drawn by Jaquays' herself, the work of a singular creative talent, something that helps make the adventure even more of a cohesive whole. Still, the maps are difficult, and while more contemporary editions of Caverns of Thracia have been released, a well draw isometric map of the Caverns doesn't seem to exist, and one wonders if it's even possible given the heights, layout, and connections of some rooms. However, such a map would go a long way toward improving and clarifying the adventure.

Alternatively, it's possible that some of Thracia's mapping, especially the interrelation between level 2 and its sublevels, is too complex. Like some modern megadungeons that seem to delight in their huge size and enormous number of keys at the expense of detail, coherence, and playability, Caverns may simply be too muddled to play without a significant risk that the referee will get lost in it. I've just praised its connections and consistent themes above, and
I suspect a new edition, with a modern attention to mapping and usability would solve this problem,
but the difficulty of reading and understanding Thracia's spatial structure may push the limits of what even well written keying, theme, and landmarks can do.

If the maps in Caverns of Thracia are sometimes too complex and impractical, so to are some of its mechanics.  In the Gygaxian style, Jaquays has included long individual mechanics for many traps and hazards (a slippery path near the 2nd level's river and the embarrassing guano deposits described above come immediately to mind) that are unnecessarily complex, requiring several reads and multiple steps to determine relatively simple things.  Similarly, some of the traps feel punitive in ways that are unnecessary and poorly thought through.  Despoiling a lizardman shrine summons multiple berserk lizardmen seemingly forever, a few each round.  There's some warning of this trap's existence, and the idea is solid enough, but it makes no real sense: how do the lizard men know of the desecration? How and why are their numbers infinite? These issues are easy to fix, and like the map issues, appear a product of Thracia's age, but they are obvious and jarring in an adventure whose coherence and fidelity to its own fictional logic are otherwise consistent. Finally, if one were to rewrite Caverns of Thracia using today's adventure design tricks, the factions could be improved.  Beyond orders of battle and tactics for the major factions, hooks and goals related to the faction leaders would greatly add to faction structure and thus the adventure.

The Caverns of Thracia’s reputation has always been high, and it’s grown over the years despite the adventure filling a strange place in the design and thinking about RPG adventures. It's worth a brief gloss on the state of RPGs in 1979 when Thracia was written to help place it in context as an exemplar of a design path only partially explored. When Thracia was published (or even more so when Jaquays’ “F'Chelrak's Tomb” was published in 1976 - debatably the first published adventure - certainly the first that feels keyed in a modern style) Dungeons & Dragons was still young, but the question of how the game worked was a conflict as much as it is today.

Early disputes were largely split between seeing the game, and thus its adventure design, as a variety of war game or conversely as a way of creating collaborative genre-fiction stories. Gygax and his Lake Geneva group of fans were in the war game camp, seemingly approaching Dungeons & Dragons as an extension or even a supplement to their prior hobby of fantasy medieval war games. This play style began by conceiving the dungeon as an alternate battlefield for skirmish combat with wargamming concerns such as logistics and movement speed assumed as baseline knowledge and persisting even after its adherent began to move towards more modern roleplay. On the other side of country at CalTech, fantasy fiction fans were creating a different style of play as detailed in Lee Gold’s Alarums & Excursions. This style of play, calling itself “Dungeons & Beavers" (the college mascot) seems to have lacked the war game associations and expectations of the Lake Geneva fandom and instead used Dungeons & Dragons as a way of telling interactive pulp fantasy stories. For the Dungeons & Beavers group heroism, story, and genre emulation were far more important then movement rates or spell duration. While both groups played with the early Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets (collectively abbreviated as “OD&D”), these editions' rules are sparse and famously full of ‘fruitful voids’ -- situations that commonly arise in play that the rules don’t cover. From these fruitful voids conflict and distinct play styles emerged - play styles that still mark the RPG community, despite fifty-odd years of evolution and revisions.

A third option and an outlier in early play style existed in the “Braunstien” approach, found in Dave Arneson’s work, but starting with Dave Wesley’s game in 1969.  A style of play that came to roleplaying with a focus on the diplomatic aspects of war game scenarios, borrowed from the boardgame Diplomacy, and favored the application of lateral thinking and problem solving. The linage of this style follows from Braunstien (Napoleonic town simulation), Banania (simulating an early 20th century Latin American dictatorship) and Brownstone (a Western) to Blackmoor, Dave Arneson’s fantasy campaign.  Arneson's group ultimately merged to a degree with Gygax’s but it brought with it the mark of diplomatic simulation and with a focus on regional intrigues.

The earliest published adventures somewhat replicate these play styles: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, Tomb of Horrors, Arduin Grimoire (though this is more a system redesign, Forgotten Tower in 1981 offers some insight), Palace of the Vampire Queen, and Temple of the Frog Caverns all exists within the influences and conflicts of the early Dungeons & Dragons scene, as does The Caverns of Thracia.
While a careful taxonomy and map of the influences and poles in early Dungeons & Dragons fandom is too grand for this review, it suffices to say that The Caverns of Thracia is a glorious and strange outlier. For some Thracia fits within the wargamming style of Gygax, yet Caverns is quite different from the trap mazes and monster zoos or fortresses of Gygax's adventures -- it's far less about the opposition within and more about the location itself. Less focused on the tactical acumen required to defeat its evil humanoid inhabitants and more on exploring, infiltrating and unpuzzling a huge mysterious environment.  The Caverns of Thracia is designed to evoke wonder, to spur investigation and thought beyond a war game style tactical confrontation with fantasy foes.  It seeks to pull the imagination of the player into its enormity, to aid referee and players in visualizing a fantastical environment, and in doing so it defines its own style of adventure design, focused on the location itself and offering it up for a near archeological exploration.

Thracia fills the fruitful voids of early Dungeons & Dragons with description and artistry rather then storytelling, mechanics, or tactical puzzles.  Its goal is to create of a location to wander through and interact with as both a complex spatial puzzle and linked social one. This exploration style of design, where observation and careful study of the location provides landmarks, alternate paths, and reoccurring themes that in turn inform the players about specific obstacles and allow them to bypass or engage with encounters is still novel. The Caverns of Thracia does an amazing job of it ... in 1979. To accomplish this Jaquays departs sharply from the minimalist design orthodoxy of the era, using dense description, complex vertically connected space, and creatures linked strongly to the location. She must, because her goal is to draw the players into imagining the the Caverns and finding fun in exploring them, interacting with their dressing (much of which has no mechanical element or reward), and navigating through them rather then rushing into battle.

To put it more succinctly, The Caverns of Thracia are revolutionary because they utilize spatial puzzles, naturalism, high-detail keying and faction intrigue to promote exploration and disfavor combat. 

One of the most notable features of The Caverns of Thracia is the abundance, or perhaps excess, of secret doors. They are everywhere in the adventure, and are key to its spatial puzzles. They also create a risk that less cautious and curious groups will miss most of the Caverns' treasure and interesting locations. This is part of the complexity that I've raised above as a critique of The Caverns of Thracia; however, an abundance of secret doors is a notable feature of many early dungeon adventures and Thracia's issues aren't unique.  Most often secret doors in Classic play have been resolved by leaning on the "board game" aspects of Classic play - rolling a search die almost constantly.  In this context The Caverns of Thracia's secret doors represent a grave problem, hiding the bulk of the adventure, forcing low level parties directly into confrontation with large groups of dangerous gnolls and making treasure very hard to find. 

Reading through the adventure though, it doesn't appear that the D6 search mechanic is how Jaquays expects the referee to run secret doors. Her keys are descriptive, and almost every door has details about its placement and the nature of its concealment. Jaquays secret doors engage directly with description and from that the core Classic game loop of: description/observation -> question/action -> description/observation. This greatly improves secret doors, giving players greater control over thier discovery by embedding them directly into room description rather then segregating them as a mechanical obstacle and offers several key lessons for using secret doors in contemporary adventures. Secret doors in Thracia are marked by description - hidden behind a sheet of lime stalactites that mar the symmetry of a chamber, behind a plaster patch, or marked with a decorative pattern.  These details aren't always emphasized, and I suspect that Jaquays misjudges the curiosity of most players, but they point a way to more usable secret doors.  A 1 in 6 chance alone to find these doors seems unreasonable, because they aren't meant to be found through a repetition of the search mechanic, they are part of the descriptive space of the adventure. Instead Thracia's explorers must learn to examine thier surroundings and discern where to poke and prod accepting the risk of random encounters to do so.  Once they pick the correct descriptive element to examine however, the doors should be easy to discover and open.

Secret doors are tricky, secret door discovery is one of the few mechanically modeled exploration actions (a "skill check" even) built into even the earliest iterations of Dungeons & Dragons. As such secret doors have always caused difficulty. As mentioned above, the most obvious and clumsy way to manage them is for the players to spend a turn searching a specific 10' section of wall and for the referee to make a roll. This method is both boring and tends to take a very large amount of in game and out of game time, unless the exploration procedure is reduced to fast and repeated mechanics, to make it a 'board game'. Besides brute persistence, the traditional ways of checking for secret doors, or at least knowing where to search for them, is to create a map and look for missing rooms beyond dead end hallways or in oddly shaped areas where another room might fit - part of the 'maze' mini-game. Jaquays offers a third option, one that still functions without 'maze' or 'board game' conventions - using dense description to 'hide' the doors (or clues to their existence) from the players.  The door is behind a mural in the wall, or brittle flowstone, and when a player says they investigate the stone or mural they will find further evidence of the door - the mural has a hairline crack with a breeze behind it, some part of the pattern depresses to unlatch with a click, the stone is brittle and cracks away to reveal an arch.

This sort of "interactive" search, rather then a dice based one, depends on having an interactive environment, a location where the hints and clues that identify a secret door don't immediately stand out as  something special.  Dense keying and an engaging space is required. Once accepted, the method offers a great deal of flexibility, including a chance designers to theme thier secret doors and for players to become better at recognizing their presence. Is the pattern that shows their location always similar? Is it worth tapping at any plastered wall? Taking a quick glance behind every flow-stone formation? Descriptive secret doors are another area where the use of a densely keyed space can offer the chance for players to engage with it, and to reward them when they do.


Jannell Jaquays is a trans woman, and I note this explicitly because it’s something that shouldn’t negatively impact her legacy and space in the hobby, but it does. Some of the same people who laud Jaquays’ work refuse to acknowledge her identity or do so only in a derogatory way. Undoubtedly there are others who have ignored The Caverns of Thracia and its status as the most innovative early D&D adventure because of Jaquays' identity. Likewise there are parts of the roleplaying scene where misogynistic, transphobic, and homophobic sentiments are tolerated. Because of this exclusionary posturing it's easy to lose the fact that many of the hobby’s most interesting contributors were not and are not middle-aged white men.

One often hears a claim in roleplaying communities that games and the culture around them were or are a maligned pastime that was deeply nerdy and unfashionable. Confessions abound that some hobbyist was bullied as a youth for making up fantasy worlds and rolling dice, but also how they persisted to find community and acceptance within the hobby. Yet, some of the same people telling this story about social exclusion or the satanic panic of the 1980’s make light of and seek to exclude others based on their gender identity, race, or sex. Many more hobbyists are willing to ignore this gatekeeping activity, dismissing it as jokes or demanding it be accepted to “keep politics away from gaming”. Finally there's a lot of unthinking false equivalencies made between folks who point out the history of colonialism or sexism in the hobby and those who actively insult or malign others' identities. All of these actions and attitudes are reprehensible. Not only does this attitude insult and drive away individuals of the groups targeted, but it ignores and belittles the long list of contributions to roleplaying games whose identities vary from gamer stereotypes.


  1. Part of what I find most interesting in this review is your distinction of three currents in very early gaming: wargaming, storytelling, and whatever Arneson was up to (call it Braunsteinism), and your argument that Jennell Jaquays was presenting a kind of alternative vision to these that makes the exploration of a wondrous but naturalistic (in your sense) location the central organizing concept of play. I know it would take a lot more argument to show this, but it rings true to me.

    1. It's the part that was unexpected to me when I read through Thracia and started really thinking about why it's such a strong adventure. It's simply that the space feels dynamic and wondrous ... real almost.

      It's a strange direction to go given the era Thracia was written in and obviously the adventure can be played as a board game style hack n' slash, a narrative melodrama or even a social complex diplomatic scenario, but it really does seem written for exploration. Naturalistic, archeological -- much player time will be spent trying to figure out how things work or worked, interrogating the GM about description and poking around.

      It's an interesting style, one I have a lot of interest in myself and I think it very much mirrors your style of adventure design as well - the holistic creation of a fantastical space.

  2. Very nice. I appreciate the reminder about how Thracia handles secret doors. I tend to think of them more like “hidden doors” in my home game. Most of the time if a player decides look behind a curtain or explore the strange scratch marks in front of a bookcase they are rewarded with more clues or find the actual door itself

    Rolls are reserved for things like picking locks or tinkering with traps -places where failure might have a consequence beyond just lost time

    Your summary regarding exclusion and gatekeeping -well noted, and always worth pointing out

    1. To me Thracia's secret doors felt like the most easy "handle" for the whole design of the place, its play style even. I think its puzzles large and small all sort of encourage interrogating the description and thinking up schemes far more then they leap out as locked doors or sheer walls to overcome with a skill check or spell.

  3. Thanks for this thorough and appreciative review. I am using this adventure in my current campaign, and the factions connect up well to outside forces in it, making it a nexus of conflict and diplomacy. The factions can be played "loose" for lower levels, or "tight" to bring larger numbers of reinforcements to challenge higher levels. One more thing to mention is the specifically ancient Mycenaean theme, seen in the plate armor of the death cult tribes, and continued more broadly through the Greek gods, architecture, names, and mythical beasts.

    1. I like the theme as well - and Jaquays' art keeps it pretty solidly in the classical era. For me (and all in my own head obviously) I imagine it later then the Mycenaean era - far later. I can see Byzantine adventurers poking around in the Caverns. Of course there's the science fantasy hinds and giant walking statuary as well - a sort of Clash of the Titans meets Buck Rogers romp.

      It does deserve a full region around it I'd think. A bigger ruined city, some outpost/shrine dungeons, and of course a few villages.

  4. Thank you for that last bit on inclusion. You're right, as bullied as many kids who played D&D were, you'd think they'd be more open. I should know: I started playing D&D in 1978, eventually working for TSR as a freelance editor (92-94). Oh, and I'm also transgender, having transitioned years after leaving the gaming industry, which back then, was a "boy's club."
    RPGs are far more inclusive today with younger players of all kinds of gender, race, etc, enjoying the game. Sadly, it's my generation (and the one before) that has the hardest time adapting to this. Most of that generation (and mine) came upon D&D through the wargaming hobby, which is VERY white, male, etc.
    Jennell is a friend of mine, and she posted about this entry. I'm glad she did.

    Keep the faith!

    Sophie Lynne

    1. Thanks for the read and support Sophie.

      I may have started playing back in '81 with the Moldvay set (and taken a 20 year break right around when your work was coming out)but a lot of the folks here at Bones of Contention are from that younger and more varied generation of RPG players.

      It does me endless good to write and talk with them on this stuff and share what I've learned or imagined. I appreciate the folks of your age that are interested in doing that was well and deeply honored that you and Jennell took the time to read this review.

  5. Thank you for the great review! Very inspiring; I wish someone would make a competent remake with Janelle!

    Also, thanks for the blurb on inclusion. Love to see this blog being forward about such matters!

  6. Very inspiring review! I've been getting closer to Jaquays's works since I read a post on this same blog about "jaquaying the dungeon".

    Something that caught my attention in your post, as Ben L. said, was the analysis of the different playstyles in the early D&D. I am very interested to see this discussion deepen.


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