Tuesday, 29 March 2022

[REVIEW] Fractious Mayhem at Melonath Falls

The Chair
Fractious Mayhem at Melonath Falls (2021)

by Trent Smith


Levels 5–8

Hello, and welcome to part SEVEN of **THE RECKONING**, wherein entries of the infamous No Artpunk Contest are taken to task. This promises to be both a treat and a challenge, as the competing entries were written with an intent that is close to my heart: to prove, once and for all, that the power of old-school gaming is found in a fine balance between finely honed and practical design principles, and a strong imagination. That is to say, it is craft before it is art, and this craft can be learned, practiced, and mastered. The following reviews will therefore look not for basic competence – it is assumed that the contest participants would not trip over their own shoelaces or faint at the sight of their own blood – but excellence. The reviews will follow a random order, and they will be shorter than Prince’s original pieces. One adventure, the contest winning Caught in the Web of Past and Present, shall be excluded for two reasons: one, the author plays at my table (and I have previously played in his one-offs); and two, I am going to republish it in an updated edition. With that aside, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

* * *

Consider, my brethren, the Parable of the Chair. How simple it looks! On four legs it rests, and a seat and a back it does possess. Naught more does a chair need – and it can sometimes do with even less. How come, then, that so few good chairs are being made, and that those dabblers who can not assemble a simple chair have set their eyes on fancier upholstery, obscuring the fact that the fruit of their work is scarcely fit for sitting on? Falsehood and clumsy workmanship lurk there. But these pretenders are easily unmasked, for their vile tricks melt away at once before the simple command: “Makest thou a good chair!”

Supreme skill is revealed in simplicity. High concept and fancy presentation can conceal faulty game writing just as much as too much spice can mask spoiled cooking ingredients. In a simple, straightforward design, everything is transparent. Can you work under the limitations of the general toolkit? Can you create “good vanilla”? This is a true test (note, not a “one true way”!) of design ability. Consider the deceptive simplicity of Keep on the Borderlands, the tutorial dungeon crawling of In Search of the Unknown, or the plain “orcs in a hole plus some tombs” premise of Borshak’s Lair. They are often dismissed as uninteresting and basic, their popularity only ascribed to nostalgic memories and a large print run (Borshak’s is an obvious exception – it has been virtually forgotten, even though the fanzine where it is found is relatively easy to obtain). Yet that cannot be the cause, as people who are introduced to them in our time, with no previous experience, love them just the same. Truthfully, they are not particularly deep or sophisticated experiences: they are elementary, even primal. Keep was allegedly written and playtested relatively hastily; there is nothing to suggest Borshak’s is anything but a zine article. On the contrary, many have tried to crack the “basic humanoid adventure” code, and failed. Very few remember TSR’s later efforts in this area, and few of the new old-school humanoid lairs have a reputation comparable to B1 or B2 (meanwhile, megadungeons have a modern canon). And this leaves the aforementioned as examples of pure, effortless craft.

The previous considerations serve to make the case for Melonath Falls, a humanoid lair adventure for mid-level characters. A multi-level complex of four, loosely connected caverns behind a mighty two-tiered waterfall, it is a low-key homage to Gygaxian adventure design which does nothing “special”, except do every “simple” thing expertly. A band of xvarts (why xvarts? and why do they crop up so often in great modules?) are operating from the caverns behind the falls, harassing the river and the rough lumber town downstream. The setting is quintessential North American frontier myth: grandiose natural wonders, outposts of civilisation populated by hard men not afraid of getting their hands dirty and ruled by charming individuals named along the lines of “Boss Bowlton” (indeed, the lumber town is scummy enough to present trouble for characters looking for a place to rest and store valuables without getting gutted), and a dangerous wilderness teeming with hostile tribal civilisations beyond the realm of men. Setting is not the main concern of the adventure, although the background it sketches up with a few broad strokes and later backwards references add a layer of intrigue to the baseline scenario.

The meat is the network of four caverns opening from the waterfall face. These entrances are connected by various treacherous routes, some obvious and extremely hazardous, and some only made available to players who can think about the environment and don’t fall prey to routines which will just channel them into danger. (While there are diagrams illustrating this all-important front sections, if there is one thing this module would need is a player handout giving the players exactly what they see – the written descriptions are exact, but long enough to miss details.) And here, we get the real core of the adventure: what on first sight looks like a vertical B2 homage in fact works like a WG4-style murder machine, where a gang of relatively weak monsters are operating from entrenched defensive positions to repel and harass much more powerful intruders. The xvarts of Melonath Falls are ready with rocks, harpoons and nets, deceptive and treacherous terrain segments, a freight elevator exposed to observation and missile fire, axes ready to cut ropes in a desperate situation, and a xvart Magic-User with a push spell, one of AD&D’s “never memorise” spells, used here for that “fractious mayhem”. Not quite Normandy, but it will take tactics and party discipline to clear the bottleneck – almost hopeless for a normal force, but then a mid-level party should have just enough extra juice to clear the obstacles with some trouble. Break out that Swiss army knife and get to work on the problem.

Just like the B2/WG4 reversal from fun smurf-killing excursion to deadly meatgrinder, the caverns do not connect quite the way you would expect them to based on knowing previous adventure classics. The two lowermost cave systems are inhabited by incidental monster groups unconnected to the xvart levels, and only connect to the main adventure core through obscure and hazardous connections – or, in the case of cave B, not at all. Adventurers who get it into their heads to just go in through an undefended rear entrance may either not find that back entrance at all, or waste a lot of resources doing so. There are climbing hazards, other environmental dangers, bizarre vignette encounters (a mushroom garden with a very strange gardener), and cleverly hidden treasure. The final cavern, on the top, is a strange enigma and easily missed.

Fractious Mayhem
The main caves are a more conventional environment (your usual combination of barracks rooms, a shrine, a prison, chief’s quarters, stolen good, the mostly unused caverns, etc. – all the common notes are being hit), where the remaining, lurking foes are supplemented with a landscape of finer-grain complexity which are an excellent test of player resourcefulness. Here, you can go deeper and mess around with stuff for fun and profit. Valuables will seem sparse on a surface scan, but some of the non-obvious stuff is rather neat, and it adds up. There are interesting choices to be made – how to get rich on stolen trade goods that are, technically, still owned by somebody, or what to do with loot pieces which are valuable but heavier than their gp weight, or connected to organised crime. The xvarts are allied to a company of shady wererats – mutual benefits, mutual distrust. The rat god may appear in person and give you the smackdown of your life if you mess with his temple (no stats, alas!) These minor touches contribute a lot to the “campaign-level” impact of the module, the stuff that happens afterwards. There are hostages, and a few NPCs to interact with. Unexpected possibilities like triggering a marble elephant figurine in enclosed spaces (ouch!) There is always a layer of very Gygaxian misleading and deception, which draws the players’ attention in one direction to hit them from another (or steer them away from the really good stuff). There are a few spots where it seems a bit “too clever” (a mild case of the “hidden depth” problem you find in RJK modules) – certainly, this is a module for highly skilled players. You have to see behind the façade and notice the odd detail or error in the pattern to get ahead. Some players who are not into this style of play would probably see the module as frustrating, while others would get a kick out of it.

The presentation is utilitarian – mostly clear two-column text, could use the occasional visual anchor because the information density can get very high in tight spots. Italics and boldface were invented for a reason, and were used in the TSR modules to good effect, so why not use them here? Likewise, another editing pass (or even map notations) to add cross-references to show how reinforcements and other forward/backward links work in the caverns would be useful, and even important to the flow – although all this can be added with a little effort. The content, however, is gold, without rushing forward to convince you of its originality – it is just there. It is also highly Gygaxian, but not in a tryhard way. The homage is obvious, but the personal take is clearly there too. Here we return to the chair analogy: if Melonath Falls was a chair, it would be the unassuming hand-me-down your eyes might skip over when appreciating the décor, but after a few hours of sitting, you would get up without any discomfort or back pain. How odd… A chair for sitting? Who has heard of such a thing?

This publication was not playtested (the author ran out of time due to the contest deadline), and it would no doubt be a little tighter if it was. Still, a mighty good effort.

Rating: ***** / *****


  1. Wow. 5 stars? That's one more than I was even hoping for, so I'll take it. Thanks!

    I still haven't had a chance to actually run this yet - several close calls haven't quite materialized. Scheduling is hard! Ironically, now that it's been out for a few months it's likely someone else will end up running it before I do (but if that's happened I haven't heard about it yet).

    One problem is that I'm wary of running it as a one-off, both because I think dropping a set of new players who aren't used to my style and aren't used to working together as a team into this is likely to make it more of a meat-grinder, but also because I don't think a single session will be enough to do it justice - one session is enough for a careless party to get wiped out for sure, but I feel like to effectively explore the place probably needs more like 3-4 (or more) sessions.

    However, trying to run it in the campaign-context in which it was originally envisioned presents its own challenges - both that I'm still working on writing the lower-level material that's supposed to lead up to it, and also that starting at level 1 means several months (at least) of play before they'd be ready for this one, and as hard as it's been to get together even a one-off session I'm pretty sure that's asking too much both of me and the prospective players.

    Still glad you liked and appreciated it, even with its acknowledged rough edges. I like to think that in a perfect world I could have handed this manuscript over to a third-party editor and graphics/art team who could have transformed it into something that looks/feels fully "professional" but in the context of Prince's contest that wasn't going to happen (and of course if I did hand it over to such a group I assume they'd insist on owning all rights and all I'd get would be some lump-sum pittance of like $100). We'll see what happens when/if I finish writing the larger-scale campaign set from which this was extracted...

    1. The rating is well deserved. As usual with 1s and 5s, I spent some time thinking about it, and decided I'd rather give a high score to something genuinely excellent with some flaws (like Broken Castle), than something that ticks all boxes but doesn't have a core that is really a cut above the rest. The contest entries have all been pleasant surprises, but even among them, this entry has stood out (next to The Temple of Hypnos, a very different kind of excellent). And the problems, which are light in any event, are something that can be fixed with some underlining and minor notes. If you ever produce a high prodution values revision, I'd suggest a "this is what you see" illustration handout, perhaps even as the cover image.

      You might have a successful test game at one of the few genuine old-school convention (I heard SoCal Minicon was decen?), even if it would necessarily mean only a part of the location could be explored. I actually wanted to run it for my ongoing campaign (it would fit surprisingly well), but Chomy, who plays our M-U, read the reviews and contest entries, so it will have to wait for a different occasion. Fairly similar to what happened with Welleran's Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords.

    2. SoCal Minicon was more than decent and I would happily run a session or two of this there (the same way I ran my Castle Xanadu megadungeon, The Abduction of Good King Despot, the Tomb of Rahotep, and Garden of the Plantmaster). Alas, the final SoCal Minicon was held in 2012. After the guy who handled most of the organizing and promotion moved to the east coast the rest of us sadly let it fizzle away...

    3. Hi Trent!
      I'm curious, is there anywhere one could read "Castle Xanadu"?

    4. 'Fraid not. Castle Xanadu was mostly a thought exercise created c. 2006 in an attempt to do an "old-style" megadungeon a la Greyhawk or Blackmoor and most of it only ever resided in my head - I mapped 4 (non-sequential) levels and parts of a few others and the keys were minimal shorthand notes supplemented with tons of at-the-table improvisation. There were Campaign Journal threads at Dragonsfoot about the sessions I ran at SCMC1 (2008) and another game day we held in a restaurant a year or two later but not long after that I shifted back into "AD&D mode" and haven't done anything further with it since then. If I shared the maps and keys they wouldn't look like much of anything, which was kind of the point - proving myself that "module-style" presentation wasn't needed to run fun games.