Lvl 3 – 5
A recurring trend in the discourse of the contemporary OSR, that is to say, not the movement that kept playing AD&D and strove to rediscover and rekindle enthusiasm for this venerable hobby, but the people that were attracted by that movement were in the 3rd wave whose retroclones departed more from the original mould, has been a critique of many of the procedures and trappings of ‘old’ D&D in favor of contemporary “innovation” or simplification. This is a process that repeats across many different fields and strata of society. “Yes we like the idea but the actual material was badwrong and you should buy our material, which takes only the good stuff.”
This ‘discourse’ takes place in tiny covens of the literati in complete isolation of anyone who would ever be knowledgeable about the actual game that is being discussed and has reached such brilliant conclusions as “Caves of Chaos can be boiled down to a 1-page dungeon”, “You don’t really need procedure X, Y or Z” and “Here is a list of commandments for Artpunk that boil down to 75% Oldschool D&D + My Identity politics of choice!” and what a great feat indeed, to reach all these sagacious insights in a solipsistic vacuum, unburdened by even a hint of prior knowledge. The result is largely junk, prevailing and proud illiteracy among many of the newer players, a focus on peripherals and surface pyrotechnics and a never-ending cavalcade of games that are at best all flash and no bang. This is why we must No Artpunk.
I preface my review like so because Trent Smith, who I believe had the honor of playing with Gary Gygax himself multiple times, including his famous and lamentably never published for 1e AD&D ‘Necropolis’ module, has seen fit to enter the listings with a module that is about as AD&D as you can make it without Xeroxing Caverns of Tsjocanth and replacing all the names with the next letter in the alphabet and just handing it in and it fucking rocks but at the same time the density, prior knowledge and the thick meaty paragraphs are likely to render it inaccessible to neophyte players.
Melonath Falls, or perfunctorily titled by myself, a Humanoid Lair Assault Module of Rank S+ . A 500 metre high waterfall, one of the most spectacular sights in Oerth, threaded through with a network of caverns that houses (among other things) a tribe of Xvarts that have been raiding the local area. The neighbouring logging camp is described in passing, enough for you to infer what the deal is, and with some nice complications (i.e. connections with a local brigand band). “A humanoid lair?” you exclaim. “In 2021?”
You will not find ‘le terse evocative descripcion’ anywhere in this module. What you will find is this.
The tunnel between areas 3 and 4 is only semi-submerged – the water is about 6’ deep with 4’ of air-filled cave overhead. The entrance to the small tunnel leading to area 10 is in the floor of this tunnel and is blocked by a boulder so it will only be spotted as a concealed door (and only then by someone looking under the water surface) and takes a successful bend bars roll to push it out of the way by hand (made simpler by employing levers or ropes). Cave 4 itself is the lair and spawning ground of giant frogs who are trained and kept by the bullywugs. A party that is quiet and listening carefully is 30% likely to hear these frogs croaking from as far away as area 3, thus negating any chance of surprise. There are 6 adult (3 hit die) and 8 juvenile (1 hit die) frogs here, alongside two bullywug trainers who live in this cave. In addition to harnesses as per those bullywugs in area 3 they also each carry a long (8’) prod (count as tridents) and a net, which they normally use for training and corralling the frogs but will also use in combat against intruders.
What you will find is craftsmanship and sophistication and a full understanding of how to apply the (as Settembrini calls it) ‘Gygaxian Building Blocks’ that make up THE CORE of D&D.
The map is fully mobilized, 40+ encounters, spread out over 4 caves, three dimensional, chutes, drops, multiple pathways up, partially submerged areas in the bottom. Slippery pathways lead up to the lair of the Xvarts, and there is a complicated pulley system that the Xvarts use to haul up their stolen loot. There are FUCKING SHIPS in the lake that you can conceivably cart off. It feels like a real place, complete with storerooms, latrines, barracks, temples etc. etc. Notice natural hazards, slippery pathways, high pressure currents that threaten to cast one into the fucking lake.
There’s an immense richness in the encounters proper too. The lower caverns are inhabited by a tribe of bullywugs, a giant Catfish (remember those?) in the lake, there’s a charming side cavern with cave crickets, hook horrors and a lone insane myconid gardener and his mushrooms (random effects time UNLESS you have some sort of horticultural knowledge or you befriend him), and the wonderous, a gateway to the elemental plane of water and a shrine to an ancient river god at the very top. A dungeon ecosystem.
Dozens and dozens and dozens of Xvarts. Everything from Shamans to Wizards to caves full of females and xvart younglings. FULL order of battle. That means the alarm can be sounded, stones will be thrown at Adventurers walking the path up, there’s a secret tunnel allowing a flanking force to move up behind an attacking party, the Chieftain has an animated statue of an elephant, the Shaman has a unique burning hands power, guards can wake up, there’s mustering grounds, there’s tonnes of traps, a hierarchy between the Chieftain and the Shaman, prisoners to free…THIS is how you do a humanoid lair assault.
Notice also the complexity stacked atop of complexity, the band of wererat assassins using the Xvart tribe as a means of smuggling the addictive black and red lotus, the kidnapped relatives of the local Baron, among them a concealed Wererat assassin. There are leads or hooks that can spur on adventure in different locations. The finally, conceit of concealed treasure that only a few characters know how to find, occasionally incentivizing the taking of prisoners or sneaky use of ESP or other shenanigans. This is one where I feel I can keep digging and digging and I will notice another interesting detail or example of the possibilities of D&D. The shrine to the rat god with a small chance of having the God himself show up and come to the defence of the Xvarts if they do battle on sacred ground. Further up a defiled shrine to a forgotten river deity, who seeks vengeance against the Xvarts that have defiled his sanctuary and stripped him of his power. Do I go into the part where you can get dragged off by a grue into the Plane of Elemental Water?
Treasure…it has reached the point where I don’t even feel like I have to pay any attention to it because there is nothing here that I can meaningfully critique. Hidden, hard to carry off, occasionally trapped, noble titles, potential allies etc. etc. The understanding supersedes my own. It’s not just the surface appearance, there are deeper layers that are revealed by investigation, command words on wands that must be discovered, secret messages written on pages of vellum. It is all encapsulated in lengthy paragraphs but not needlessly verbose. I am sure there is a way to compress some of this information but at the same time doing so in the past has led to a loss of information. How do we balance brevity and information density with complexity and sophistication? This would have been an interesting discussion to have had, but instead we get BULLET-POINTED, IMMACULATELY LAID OUT FUCKING JUNK BANALITY THAT READS LIKE IT WAS MADE FOR AND BY TODDLERS. Contrast whatever dogshit OSE or Mörk Borg module you just picked up with the text below and ask yourself if something has been lost.
The first two (nearest the entrance) are both empty. The third and fourth hold very old corpses that have decayed almost completely away. Each wears a single piece of jewelry: the one on the north wall wears a wrought silver and gold clasp worth 900 g.p. And the one on the south wall wears a wrought gold armband worth 1,100 g.p. Sarcophagus #5 (against the north wall) is sealed by a glyph of warding that inflicts 20 points of electrical damage when the sarcophagus lid is first touched unless the glyph is removed or its name is spoken first. Inside is the corpse of the former high priest, which is more intact than the previous two but has still been dead for several centuries. He wears three pieces of jewelry – a chain of platinum set with five green tourmalines worth 5,000 g.p., a wrought gold locket worth 1,500 g.p., and a wrought gold ring worth 700 g.p. (the latter is actually a ring of fire resistance). The last sarcophagus contains a bone golem that will animate and rise as soon as the sarcophagus is opened and fight until destroyed.
Underneath the golem is a secret compartment that contains a substantial treasure hoard (once held in burlap bags that have long since rotted away): 4,182 c.p., 1,850 e.p., 7,953 g.p., and a gold chalice set with four black opals worth 8,000 g.p. Additionally, the bone golem’s left femur is a hollow bone case containing the following two items: a scroll of protection from possession, and a wand of metal and mineral detection with 31 charges. The command phrase “Invenire metallum” is carved onto the wand in common runes. However, if the wand is grasped by a dwarf or gnome the runes change to reveal a different command phrase – “Imperare metallum” – as the item is actually a wand of metal command. Note that the god Umpumitu does not consider it an offense if a group that has gained his favor by restoring the shrine (area 2) takes these treasures, but neither will he guide them to this area or warn them of the traps here.
Melonath Falls is probably not easy to run. There is the indignity of having to take copious notes. All the elegant little sub-systems for resolving say, what happens if the Xvarts attempt to cut the ropes of the elevator fill up room. Absorbing some of the room keys will take you a few extra seconds, perhaps crucial. There are absolutely some gains to be made in rendering it easier to use. Is that the most important thing? HELL NO. This is a deep, tactically complex, rich fantastical environment to explore. Innovation and caution are rewarded, stupidity is punished. There are complications upon complications, sophistications upon sophistications, branches, complexities. There is intelligence behind the overall organization and behind individual encounters within that framework.
Besides the issue of layout, it might be interesting to at some point formulate a theory on whether or not the starting premise of an adventure meaningfully affects the overall quality and what premises produce the best results but this is so far away from the scope of this contest that I won’t even deign to apply it. This is a fantastic humanoid lair, in the high mode.
An entry so good it made me angry. Well done.