The Lair of Maldred the Mighty (1981)
Mark Byng (White Dwarf 24)
For moderately high level (???)
The winner of many a contest and included in the White Dwarf Best Of compilation, the dreaded phrase ‘for moderately high levels’ should have clued me in that this was going to be a stinker. And its not the usual low-effort zine shovelware either. This is someone committing to a critically flawed design philosophy with total conviction and nothing short of herculean effort. The end result is something that the suffering GM can squeeze about ** out of with copious highlighting and note taking, or possibly a diverting evening of solo ‘dungeon-designing sin bingo’ for the catpissmen among us.
17-pages, downright verbose for White Dwarf, and its nearly all fat and gristle. Gone are the two paragraphs of opening text, followed by some short punchy hooks, and terse encounters with maybe one or two memorable details to make it stick. Instead a dungeon of hefty chonkers, each encounter filled to the brim with obsessive detail on how heavy the doors are, how high everything is, where everything is placed exactly, what they used to be, along with a meticulous catalogue of every single item in the room larger than an angstrom. A detailed composition on the crew of the ship, along with its armaments, hull points, weapons, to the number of arrows it carries are provided, but the ship never enters the encounter area and no random encounters are provided for the journey to the island of Midfallos.
The backstory is fairly short but rotund, going into at times excessive detail about the reign of the evil high-priest Maldred and his empire of evil. His empire fell and he was believed dead, but later it was discovered that he had built himself a hidden stronghold and obtained a tract known as the Book of Yandross, which must be studied for 900 years after which one turns into an Arch-devil. That last part is just crazy enough to work, it reminds me of Indian mythology where one could obtain god-like abilities through the performance of ascetic penances. Anyway, the time is almost up and only now have the forces of good located the island. Enter the PCs, who are supposed to have at least a paladin or cleric with them.
The adventure starts out kind of good, with the island surrounded by reefs and high cliffs so there is only a narrow entryway and an immediate attack by a Dragon Turtle, which is foreshadowed in a cryptic prophecy so you have an excuse to murder the PCs if they didn’t pick up on it. There’s a shipwreck the PCs can scrounge through for loot, nice atmospheric loot mind you, and the beach with the cave is protected by a weird obelisk made of greenish stone quarried from hell. An exact level for the adventure is never provided but I gather it should be around 6-9, given the strength of the encounters. The single point of entry into the complex proper and the symmetrical map probably should have been a second red flag.
Maldredd the Mighty is, essentially, a Tomb of Horrors clone, and as such the probability that it is going to be good is very low. Why is this the case? Because making an adventure based on a mostly linear tomb format without wandering monsters is like signing up for an MMA tournament and offering to fight your opponents blind-folded. Even if you are good or you put in herculean effort, you deny yourself so many advantages and appealing design choices that ALL THE HEAVY LIFTING is going to fall on your encounters. You can’t use an interesting map to drive exploration or foment some sort of tactical ambush, the resource management element is almost entirely lost as the PCs can simply retreat after each encounter, faction play is hard since you will likely encounter these elements in a pre-determined order and you cannot use the geography of the dungeon to trick them or play them out against eachother, let alone maintain the verisimilitude of two hostile factions in a linear location is effectively static so you end up doing traps and monster encounters that are traps. You SHOULD if you go for this method, include riddles, outside the box thinking, and fairly complex obstacles since they are the centerpiece upon which your dungeon is built.
And Maldredd the Mighty, to its credit, does its darnedest. Rooms with monsters in illusionary alcoves. A succession of curtains, one of which is made of yellow mold, floors that break and dump people into phosphorous or brown mold. Constructs. Unique undead. It’s all very tomb of horrors, without the brilliance of Tomb of Horrors. A corridor full of glyphs of fucking warding? I hate glyphs of warding. A secret vault full of spellbooks and ALL OF THEM have explosive runes cast on them? Its high level DnD so I guess its fair but it comes across as dull. You have occasionally very clever traps like a basin with a stopper in the bottom. How do you get past it without getting dumped down the 100 foot empty shaft below it? That’s a good encounter. A secret fake vault filled with cursed and evil items is another good call. It even, at the end, throws in a rotating room with a single entrance, with a fakeout final encounter to screw with you. That last fakeout is a bad one, as the illusion would at this point fool no one and it is finished with a single blow. I always liked the fake Acererak in tomb because it’s not quite a pushover encounter, its moderately difficult so it takes a while for the PCs to get clued in on the fact that they were bamboozled. A much better fake-out, a treasure map to another location, is a superior method of tricking the PCs into retreating. These traps are the only method by which the PCs and the master of the dungeon interact, and if the dungeon is well designed something is revealed about the nature of their opponent. ToH was so good because it was not only difficult, there was an element of mockery and challenge in its lethal encounters, as if Acererak himself was laughing at you, beckoning you on. Lair doesn’t have this to the same degree, it walks an odd line between funhouse deathtrap dungeon and actual place and ends up being neither really.
And holy fuck this format. Look at this. LOOK AT IT.
Tomb is excoriated for heavily gimping the players but I struggle to understand how a dungeon that includes only a handful of iron doors and some divination shielding on the final chamber is going to stop characters with access to passwall, dimension door, etherealness, gaseous form and whatever other abilities become available once the characters hit a certain level. This is also why level recommendations for high levels should become more precise and why getting an accurate level recommendation is probably vital. Two levels of wizardry can turn a formidable encounter into a trivial one with the application of some utility spells.
There’s an entire habitation area, 5 rooms, that are included for versimilitude’s sake as rooms where the cleric, wizards and slaves were kept but they break up the pace of the rest of the dungeon by being comparatively safe and easy. A slave room with dead halflings and a violet fungus seems throwaway, especially when contrasted with some of the unique undead strewn throughout the dungeon.
Magic jar necromancer lady. 6 HD Guardian Skeletons (fuck off), paralyzing flying undead bats, 6 HD suggestion casting semi-ethereal assassin monster that tries to pick off the rear character. The monster section pulls no stops. Someone is actually trying. There is such care put into the encounters but everything is mired beneath exhaustive detail. Magic items are all very good, new too. Cursed maces with charges to double the damage but that age you if you use them, enchanted plate lined with contact poison, a Stirge figure of wondrous power, a potion that gives you STR 25 for a few turns but then reduces it to 3 and even when you recover your STR is permanently lowered by 1. Even “mundane” magic items are given unconventional shapes, command words inscribed upon them etc. That’s all good shit.
The final showdown just comes across as underwhelming. You have to break through a cube of force, then some guys and cockatrices come out of stasis and they have all sorts of bullshit spells on them and you have to bash their skulls in before you can deliver the killing blow to the Crysalis proper, which remains inert. Everyone has many bonuses so its harder? You win nonspecified treasure based on how much the GM wants to introduce into the campaign setting.
I’m this close to giving Lair of Maldredd the Mighty the benefit of the doubt for the care and craftsmanship it puts in some of its traps and the magic items but the fact remains that this is no ToH, and no Tomb of the Mud Sorcerer either even if it were easier to run and read. There is a level of complexity and weirdness in the former that is absent in Lair. I feel that at times it strays into enjoyable territory but I can’t imagine running this in a way that it wouldn’t be kind of a slog. It’s certainly not the worst tomb out there, it has an understated sort of satanic menace to it and if you have players that are into this type of game then PERHAPS give it a try but for the rest of you, nah. Nu uh. Don’t do it.