[Review] WG5 Mordekainen’s Fantastic Adventure (AD&D); Left-Hand Path

[Adventure]
WG5 Mordekainen’s Fantastic Adventure (1984)

Robert J. Kuntz & Gary Gygax (TSR)
Lvl 8 – 14



Twilight approaches. The great odyssey through Gary Gygax’s ouvre of fantastic modules, beginning with the platonic B2, covering the fantastic GDQ series, the stellar S series, the promising but ultimately unrealized T series, the interesting but sub-par EX duology ends at the WG series. There will be later works of interest. There will be other sublime works by Jaquays, Kuntz, or promising contemporaries like Gabor Lux, Fullerton, Huso, Kowolski. But the original run nears its end. What better way to play it out then with one of the strongest entries in the entire series.

WG5 by Rob Kuntz and Gary Gygax is terrific, vastly different from the Gygaxian naturalism of the GD- series, yet lacking the somewhat artifical nature of the S series. It has more in common with the fecund creativity and weirdness of OD&D then the magical ecosystems of AD&D. The denizens and features of the Dungeons under Maure castle lack versimilitude, but the module is all the stronger for it. You really do feel as if you are intruding into some area where all earthly rules have been abrogated, and you are interacting with ancient magic, forbidden knowledge and power beyond human ken. The fantasy of WG5 is less like Conan and more like a Star Trek TOS episode where Kirk gets trapped on the Halloween planet. You stand in the footsteps of giants, on the threshold of otherwordly power. “Huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses” indeed!

WG5 is supposed to be the (somewhat adapted) original dungeon by Rob Kuntz in which Gygax and co. adventured, got messed up and eventually emerged victorious. The module helpfully provides the (considerably altered from their original) characters of Mordekainen, Bigby, Yrag and Riggby, endowed with a fucktonne of magical items, to brave these midnight halls. Party size has departed considerably from the football-team sized expeditions of yore. Backstory is three paragraphs that amount to ‘There is a castle with an indestructible door that none can open’, which suffices. I think some notes on the nature of the actual Castle Maure above the dungeons would have been helpful, but is hardly neccessary [1]. The minor artifact in Mordekainen’s possession suffices to open the impenetrable iron gates (that or a Wish spell) and the adventure begins.

The obligatory bitching about the format shall take place here. The lead up to the Castle, which consists of all of 6 night-time encounters, consisting mostly of birds, is written in the third person for some inconceivable reason. It’s almost fluff but I appreciate giving players some breathing room to get in the zone because from hereon the danger level is set to 11. Room descriptions are LONG, not verbose, but dense, element upon element. Extracting exactly what the point is of a level and how the various inhabitants interlink and respond to threats is probably vital and will require either some notes, careful study or an extraordinary memory.

Three levels, 68 rooms. The maps are things of beauty, winding labyrinths with plentiful empty rooms, switchbacks, Deadly magical traps, obscure secret spaces and all the stairways to lower levels are hidden. WG5 curiously does away with random encounters and its hard to blame it, because as written I don’t think it will need any. The colorful and unique hazards of Maure Castle are as formidable as they are unique.

Welcome to map-hell!



This is somewhere on the farside of G-1 and might be far more in line with modern (non-shitpunk) adventures. Unique creatures, weird magical effects, unique items. Almost everything is custom, or has some twist or hidden depth to it. The wizard Tomorast who holds dominion over these levels and seeks entry into the Lost City of the Elders has his hands replaced with demonic mutations, granting him all manner of strange and occult powers. His familiar Rel is a 2 foot umber cyclopean midget. They and their minions pay homage to the unique Guardian Demon Kerzit, with limbs like whips and saw arms and a wolf-head so they may study sorcery from the Tome of The Black Heart. What about a room with strange holes that compels you, magically, to throw your magic items in them to be crushed? Das rite, says WG5, that’s two level 8 assassins and they both have Dex 18. Das’ a barracks with level 8 fighters. What u gonna do about it?

The aforementioned weird is very strong in this dungeon but it’s the good weird. It’s not random, it feels proto-archetypal wonderously alien. There is no direct inspiration, rather it seems to be tapping into a stratum of proto-fantasy that my wayward mind inextricably links to the psychedelic 70s or the collective unconscious. A glimmering chalice stands in the middle of a 30 ft. radius Amber pool. Part of the first dungeon (maybe the strongest floor actually) is covered by a giant curtain, behind which is an open area with viewing stands, and a monolith on which are perched 3 statues. Phantasmal crowds appear on the stands and cheer on the characters as the invincible fire-breathing iron golem with a whip of cockatrice feathers and a crystal blade animates to kill them, while 6 statues of elders wager on the outcome. A purple glowing telepathic rock imparts you with knowledge of the area, or horrible delusions. A strange black hand in the centre of a chamber puts you in telepathic contact with some of the dungeon inhabitants. Murals of fighting men will animate if the candles that illuminate them go out. A corridor that will keep teleporting you so you face a blank wall. An ogre mage disguised as an old man with a spinning wheel trades magic items for his own cursed material. Holy shit!!!

There is a extra layer of depth (known to some as Kuntzian Hidden Depth) to many of the encounters that is rare outside of Gygax. There are extra layers of material dotted throughout the module. A carpet of flying has a golden pin in it, do you pull it out? An empty box has a hidden compartment in it revealing the terrifying Sword of Ebon Flame! Even encounters with ‘normal’ guards have strings of contingencies, fallback locations, alerts etc. etc. 8 fighters, each has a treasure hidden somewhere in the room. Mundane rooms often conceal treasure. This hidden depth is not common, but sprinkled throughout the dungeon, which avoids it becoming predictable. Sometimes the customization goes too far. There is an encounter on the third level where one of the wizards wants to use fireball but has a miscasting chance, and the result requires all of 3 fucking dicerolls. That’s too much.

There is a second level of hidden depth to the Dungeon in the form of frequent allusions to the Lost City of the Elders, a mysterious place that is never fully described. Hooks, a strange tapestry and expensive occult rituals in the back of the Tome of the Black Heart might allow one to gain access to this numinous and forbidden place and it should provide for one hell of a follow-up act in case the GM is feeling particularly ambitious, as the Lost City of the Elders was often alluded to but sadly never published by Kuntz [2].

The first level is essentially a gauntlet with a few brutal set-piece traps meant to wear down (or in one case obliterate) the party. The second and third levels are more organized, with a handful of guard posts, contingencies and the bulk of the treasure. A little pocket kingdom of occultists, scattered among winding empty corridors and deadly traps and illusions. Much is concealed and cryptic and will have to be extracted, by hook or by crook, something I have come to associate with masterful dungeon design. The third level feels somewhat weak compared to the second level, but since it is probable that the Wizard Tomorast will fall back and rouse the occupants there, this makes sense. The module evolves from set pieces to a more free-form game of cat-and-mouse, where it is a matter of time until the PCs inadvertently alert the inhabitants of the lower levels, who will organize and take all manner of scum-bag measures to thwart and kill them, meanwhile avoiding rooms of deadly peril.

The third level perhaps makes sense in this light, as it mostly lacks the supernatural peril and elements of the first and second levels, being composed of more mundane hazards like a pit full of corpses or a band of gnolls [3], the Slow shadows in the unmappable room have been traded in for two assassins in a torture chamber. It is meant to be only recently hewed out and it feels like this too, despite the presence of the inner sanctum of the Cult and the caverns of the Guardian Demon Kerzit. I suspect an actual playthrough will cause all the pieces to fall into place, provided the clever party does not get the drop on Tomorast and kills him before he can teleport to the third level and rouse his troops. In fact killing Tomorast early has a large chance of getting Kerzit to just take the Tome and teleport away, leaving the PCs with a tonne of gold and unique magic, and only cryptic hints. The more amusing option, which causes the Demon to rampage through the castle, massacring all the inhabitants in blind rage, is sadly fairly unlikely to occur. Going toe to toe with Kerzit with a 4 man party seems like an extremely bad proposition however, so who knows.

Then centre-piece might be the aforementioned Tome of the Black Heart, which contains not only the secret of Golem creation (prohibitively expensive though it might be), but also the means to enter the mythical Lost City of the Elders, and the names of different spirits of the outer and inner planes that can be summoned to gain information. Nothing is ever simple or straightforward in WG5, there is a depth and a sly treachery that lurks there. It feels occult, mystic, the threshold of a higher world is near. Drugged incense, a tracing of a black hand, a cup on an amber pool and a sword burning with black fire.

There is something about the promise and the mystery of WG5 that transcends the module itself, which is extraordinary in its own right. I can’t imagine how it would have been received at the tail end of the 1e era, with the rising of Hickman-style railroads becoming increasingly common. A module, deadly, requiring both knowledge of good play and the ability to deal with novel threats. Also a module that requires genuine player skill, out of the box thinking, effective information gathering as well as boldness and decesiveness. Creativity, like MotB, but still inextricably welded to the framework of AD&D. Creativity as addition, not creativity as substitution. A game of kings.

Like many a module of the olden days, you will need to do some note-taking to get it into fighting trim. If you have the testicular fortitude to do so, you have yourself an extraordinary challenge for high level characters, putting all their abilities to the test. Stirring, mystical stuff, not Tharizdun good, but there is something about it that reeks of the transcendent, the sublime. *****




[1] I assume it to be either Ruined or inviolate by ancient magic. Either option works.
[2] Interested parties might study this play report by Fullerton
[3] For some reason the appearance of this normal humanoid signifies a transition in my mind





27 thoughts on “[Review] WG5 Mordekainen’s Fantastic Adventure (AD&D); Left-Hand Path

  1. Another adventure module that I acquired long after my 1E days (and long before my return to 1E), I have read it perhaps once (?) and relegated it to a dusty shelf in my Closet of Holding. For some reason, I found the module irritating but cannot, for the life of me, remember why. Maybe I was hoping for something more historical and failed to examine it as a stand alone adventure? Maybe I disliked the pre-gens, maybe I disliked the 1.5e additions…I really can’t recall.

    Regardless, it is obvious from this review that the adventure bears closer examination. I’ll take a second look at it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A fascinating module. It showcases Rob’s gift for creating magical enigmas and nonstandard magic, as well as extraplanar connections which hint at greater things of a large intertwined whole. Iconic encounters which seem like you meeting legends (that you were never aware of, but your character probably was), or which have the feeling of interacting with dark sorcery and world-moving forces. Good stuff. White Album D&D.

    In this module, it is slightly less bullshitty than in later work – pull this tiny golden button off of a gown, read the engraved TINY words on the backside thrice, and do a sommersault to access the Tower of Zam™ (coming soon from Pied Piper Publishing™) – not yet overwhelming. But it is there.

    I am not sure I’d run this even if I had the high-level party for it (the encounter density is a bit lower than preferable, and the maps are probably more fun to wonder about than actually explore), but as a piece of inspiration, it really makes you daydream.

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    1. There is a lesson there. Something about the divarication of an original idea as part of a balanced mixture to a bloated parasite that has supplanted and devoured its host.

      I think with the inclusion of random encounters the giant maps would be very punishing. As is you can’t convince me the 1st level wouldn’t be a fucking blast to play. The lower ones, very dependent on the GM style and the players I think. Something to try out perhaps?

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  3. Rob did publish 68 pages of the original notes and map manuscripts for The Lost City of the Elders, as well as the level maps and some of the keys to Castle El Raja Key in his _El Raja Key: Archive_ (a DVD or USB archive available at https://www.tlbgames.com/collections/archive).

    WG5 and Maure Castle (which saw three follow-up levels published in Dungeon under Erik Mona’s tenure, and one published via the old PPP web site as well as in the Oerth Journal) remain the high water mark for TSR-era published mega-dungeon works—an admittedly smaller grouping than we’d all prefer. I have a copy of my mapping/player notes for Castle ERK somewhere on my web server (and will find a pointer), and think I also have a copy of my similar notes from playing in the Lost City of the Elders (although as I recall when I played it was similar to Guy’s acocunt, in that we didn’t actually explore much into the City itself, due to time).

    WG5 also sparked my interest in Rob’s materials, and was my raison d’être to meet him at DragonCon #1.

    Allan.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Good luck making ANY sense of the LCotE material on the CD-ROM. It’s not anything even close to the beginnings of a manuscript – it’s almost all shorthand notes (mostly in cursive writing that’s hard to decipher) and little freehand sketch-maps and diagrams that look a lot like Rob was making it all up as he went along and then writing quick notes for himself so that he’d remember it later. That’s a fine way to run a game but it’s very, very little help to any of the rest of us.

        My favorite page is the one that has at the top a sketch-diagram of a box with 4 pistons or smokestacks on top, ramps going off either side, and a squiggle at the bottom, with a caption under it saying “hydraulics to move sewage downhill” and then scrawled at the bottom of the page “John Kowalksi – ‘Assistant City Planner'” and “Puerto Rican Food?” underlined. I honestly have no idea if this is relevant to the LCotE at all or if it’s just something that happened to be on the other side of a piece of paper that had some LCotE stuff on the reverse and Paul Stormberg wasn’t sure whether or not it was relevant so he figured he’d scan and preserve it just in case. Not all of the pages are quite so randomly enigmatic, but many of them are close.

        There is some interest in looking at all this stuff to see how another DM’s mind works (and I know that it helped me become more confident in the quality of my own half-finished stuff, realizing it wasn’t all that different that what one of the “pioneers” was doing back in the 70s) but unless you’ve got a lot of spare $ and not much else to spend it on I can’t really recommend purchasing it. I know when I got it I spent about two days digging through it and studying all the hand-drawn Maos and cryptic notes, but have looked at it maybe 3 or 4 times (including just now) in the ~5 years since.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. The RJK Archive is fun, but it is for the amateur hobby historians and collectors. A lot less of it is coherent and whole than you would be led to suspect by the ad copy. (In fact, a lot of it is ad copy from the 2006 eBay auctions.) If you have a fondness for deciphering crumbling pieces of papyrus with cryptic hints, some of it is really cool and fascinating, and may hold the secrets of D&D. Some of it might just be the pizza bill. Some of it might be both.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I feel like there’s an interesting random dungeon generator in “take a page from these notes. Give a copy to each player. Ask them what it means (privately). Combine the results into a coherent whole.”

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  4. Most of the stuff made by the good DM who’s group I finally started playing with in the 70’s was in a similar vein. Wild, sometimes wacky, magical and odd—and yet oddly fair and balanced. “Winnable” to a certain extent, but probably not with your first half-dozen attempts. So, deadly, yes, but also oh-my-so-creative too. Fun and challenging—what more can you want? And being an insomniac, he was prolific too. We never got even close to the bottom of that well.

    When I read Castle Mauve, it does feel nostalgically like D&D home-base more than anything else. I do wonder how often this style played out in little groups across the USA back then on the OD&D chassis.

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  5. I did a double take reading this review because you made this easily dismissed module sound interesting. So, I dug it out and read over it again. No it is exactly as I remembered it from ten years ago, the sketch notes of a precocious 15 year old.

    There is a difference between artful surreality, and the incoherent mashing together of random elements because you are too young to know how to put things together. Kuntz strikes me, from his modules, as an imaginative teenager who did not grow up. In all seriousness this is a widespread phenomenon among traditional D&D crowd. It is why there has been so little interest in making D&D movies. This immature, incoherent, underdeveloped type of D&D is not the deliberate product of thought and style. It is the product of incapability.

    It is the secondary virtue of D&D that we can create anything at all as teenagers, but the primary virtue of D&D is that it accommodates player maturity and knowledge quite naturally.

    Tharizdun WG4 is the polar opposite to this module in every regard. Also the maps here are rubbish. You still haven’t grasped what makes a map beautiful and clever because you are just regurgitating characteristics you have read about, and have not learned how to make maps yourself. Look to real life architecture first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Spirited, I like it.

      There is something to the wildness and creativity of this older D&D which is not captured by crafting a fully detailed, crystallized, coherent world. You idealize the fiction, the world building elements of DnD because you have lost the sensation of watching players explore these enchanted labyrinths, sometimes of our own devising, to listen warily at doors, to cobble together theories on the nature of things or halt for a second as you describe a treasure within plain view, suspecting some malicious trap. This is the DnD that comes before.

      I still have not figured out if your thesis of realistic maps or real architecture is superior. I think there are probably elements that can add to it, but the appeal of a map is not its realism because it is not experienced as an architect inspecting a floorplan but as an interloping primitives, wandering through the ruins of some older, greater civilization that is in many ways beyond their understanding. I have certainly made dungeon maps since my Dark Heresy campaig and I freely admit I can use much practice therein, but perhaps more importantly, I play and run DnD often, so I have figured out that the characteristics I have read about are likely correct. Would real architecture add greatly to it. I find the notion intriguing. House of Tizun Thane is spectacular, but so is Lichway, and it owes little to versimilitude.

      Prove me wrong and write a module fit for kings.

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      1. “Would real architecture add greatly to it. I find the notion intriguing.” I hate to bring up Hell’s Own Temple (no I don’t) but the maps are all based on real world places and it’s just not something I could ever come up with.

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      2. I’d make some distinctions here. For a town/city, I prefer something that has a decent correspondence to actual medieval/renaissance locations. (The small village in the middle of nowhere, a staple of modules, is on shaky foundations: see some articles of Paul Vernon in White Dwarf.) For castles/fortified structures, again I would opt for something based on real world experience. (But where are the ditches, a traditional defence?) Dungeons, however, should be allowed to be more fantastic, with the aim of making exploration an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Are real life caves systems that interesting, with loops, multiple entrances (some secret)? (Hell’s Own Temple can be an admirable exception to the rule.)
        A castle in an other worldly place falls into this category I think.
        We are approaching a review of Jaquay’s work, which might represent the apex of dungeon design.

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      3. @Shuffling Wombat

        Village in the middle of nowhere is not necessarily unreasonable, depending on what you mean by “middle of nowhere.” For example, where I grew up (rural Atlantic Canada), the towns are basically in the same spots as they were when they were founded 200-300 years ago. Most are 30-50 km apart. You DO get general stores more often than that, though. But I know a man (sadly now dead) who had a rather tense time trying to get the horse into town to the blacksmith and back before dark (he took a shortcut, and the tide came in. Tension ensued. Genuinely one of the best stories I’ve ever heard), and there’s people who lived further out than him.

        Of course, land there was handed out to individuals in 100-acre-odd lots. So it’s not quite a medieval situation. But might make sense for something like the keep on the borderlands – an area where land was handed out to individual settlers will have a very different setup than one where it was handed out to lords. A village in the middle of nowhere may make sense for something like a mining settlement, or if all the other land is crap, or if they have a specific reason for wanting to be isolated. Fishing villages can also often be much more isolated – look up Newfoundland outports for some truly impressive/disturbing examples. Or the Shetlands. Probably why they have all that sex with Deep Ones – it’s that or your sister.

        If I were a betting man, I’d bet that a lot of early module designers are coming at this from a North American context, where villages seem to be at least somewhat more spread out than in Europe, without appreciating the reasons for the difference. This theory, of course, may be wildly inaccurate.

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      4. @Simulated Knave

        “On shaky foundations” rather than “unreasonable”. The basic premise is that 3 to 5 villages within easy travelling distance can support each other. There are sensible reasons for exceptions, such as the ones you have listed. Hommlet, for example, makes sense as a watchpost over the Temple of Elemental Evil.

        I would agree with your observation concerning “Wild West” versus “medieval/renaissance Europe realism”. But I’m happy with either when it is done well.

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    2. I want to make a point about what *realism* means in the context of AD&D. It is not a concept which is opposed to the concept of *fantasy*. Whatever supernatural or bizarre elements you include in your campaign are considered *real* in that fantasy world.

      *Realism*, instead, is a contract with your players that your presentation of the world to them is honest and considered, so that they should be capable of drawing inferences about the world in your absence, and reasonably expect to to act on them in play. In other words the more experience they have in the world the more they can exploit it, in a sense at your expense because you are bound by the *reality* you created.

      Now then. The “wild creativity” you sense in WG5 is straightforward pull-it-out-of-my-arseness. I witnessed plenty DMing of this kind three decades ago among misshapen dweebs.

      Genuine creativity in AD&D requires, at a minimum, overhauling the classes and the magic system to suit your environment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Genuine creativity in AD&D requires, at a minimum, overhauling the classes and the magic system to suit your environment.”

        ???

        Why?

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      2. >Real

        In the general sense I will accept your defenition of realism as desirable. The overlapping framework, the great currents of your fictional world, these should more or less line up. If Barry the Potter invents Undeath in C.A. 1022 then probably no later encountered Undead should hail from before that period. If empire A uses weapons of steel then that steel should be mined somewhere. This is one of the reasons most of Zaks settings fail to appeal fe, they have no underlying consistency and are cartoonish, allowing for everything and signifying nothing.

        But that is only the overal framework. If you consider the dungeon delve, the expedition into le monde souterrain magique, and its themes of facing the Unknown and trifling with Ye Anciente Magicke then you are in fact allowed to spring things on the players whose origin they might not be able to infer (because they lack a frame of reference), things are (occasionally) allowed to be inexplicable, and doing so hints at a world that is much larger then the average GM might be able to encompass.

        This is an adventure at levels 8-14, embedded in a (somewhat thought out) framework, and at that level it is perfectly natural that you start to chafe against the hierarchies and framework of the established world and start fiddling with the exceptions, the things that are beyond, if only for the sake of challenging the players. In case of WG5, the inexplicable magicks part is all Maure or the Tome of the Black Heart, the cult leader and his followers are (with the exception of his monstrous hands) cut from the same cloth as the normal world. The elements that go beyond the ‘normal’ framework of DnD, the asspulls, are delineated with considerable care.

        >>Genuine creativity
        This position is too extreme and probably false but I do find it appealing. Elucidate.

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    3. @Kent
      Can you point to what distinguishes these maps from good ones? I am curious what the distinction is. These look better than a lot of D&D maps, if only because the room layout looks a lot more like “we made a big hole and put walls in it” school that many real locations follow than the “we made a winding series of caverns that happen to be perfectly square” of many D&D maps.

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  6. I’ve done some mapping analysis of the Maure Castle dungeon levels* following Gabor’s original flow approach** but apparently I’ve not dug into the WG5 levels, which would be an interesting comparison sometime!

    * see https://www.enworld.org/threads/dungeon-layout-map-flow-and-old-school-game-design.168563/page-7 and http://www.greyhawkonline.com/grodog/temp/maure_castle_mapping_analysis-grodog.pdf.

    ** Reproduced at https://knights-n-knaves.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=28&t=8720 and originally posted on ENWorld in 2006.

    Allan.

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    1. Thank you for this. I remember Melan’s original email, and thought then (as I still do now) that this is exactly the sort of abstraction that is useful. You have modelled the referee’s instinct about how interesting a map will be for exploration in play, and turned the nebulous into something coherent. And Prince’s “read and look” feeling is confirmed by your analysis.

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  7. I ran this module when it first came out (mid-early 80s). Prepared was I, for High Level shenanigans, as I had previously enacted my take of the Greyhawk-ian “City Of The Gods” (*) epic that encompassed SO much extreme spell Gonzo-ness. So, upon hearing of that groups amazing successes, a newer group of power gamers decided they would most certainly exceed them in such endeavor were I to run a vanilla TSR published module. Enter the “Fantastic Adventure”. By pretending to be E Gary Gygax’s Archmage alter-ego ( cover art of a svelte E Gary that had access to Scrolls Of Doughnut Negation) and his band of pre-generated assorted tossers of Various Hand spells. No fudge .., as written. TPK I ran it again a month later.., a story for another time.
    As an aside, I liked the Dragon mag that went back into Maure, fairly good.

    Up Inda Attic,

    * -City Of The Gods would came out much later. Thanks TSR!

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