[Review] F’Chelrak’s Tomb (OD&D); Back to the Source!

[Adventure]
F’Chelrak’s Tomb (1976)

Paul Jaquays (Judges Guild)
Lvl ??? (4-6 seems on par)


We’ve gone through most of Gygax [1], so now it’s time to take a look at another legend of the Dawn Age. Paul, now Jenelle, Jaquays was a prominent writer for Judges Guild, one of the first third party companies with a legendary status among gamers, responsible for such publications as The Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower, most of these by either Bob Bledsaw or Paul Jaquays. Today we take a look at an early publication in the Adventuresome Compendium, a zine with some terrific content. Though there are some aged sections on elaborate fatigue point systems, extra classes for ladies, a room that is basically a modern kitchen with animated household appliances or revisions of the difference between ability scores for men and women, much is still material that would be considered good today; The monsters! Mirror men, slime zombies, flaming gremlins, vorpal bunnies and gigantic flying strands of DNA, the menagerie is an odd mixture of colorful appearances and interesting abilities. You will find therein not a hint of ecology or versimilitude, merely fancy that fires the imagination. The Jim Ward & Paul Jaquays entries stand out.

F’Chelrak’s Tomb is one of the earliest adventures to have come out and really should be required reading for anyone attempting to dabble in ultra-light or one-page dungeon territory and somehow squeezes in a lot of creativity and wonder from the minimally keyed format. The layout proper is an opponent almost as formidable as anything within the tomb’s environs and the map switches gleefully from the vertical to the horizontal. Given its small size, you will survive, even if the players might not.

Pictured: Horizontal to Vertical to Horizontal to Vertical

There is no elaborate backstory or pretense. Both sides are assumed to know what is up. A great black iron door confronts the players, dotted with Lawful script. “Know ye that this is the Tomb of F’Chelrak. Enter with fear and trembling…But ware ye, as F’Chelrak would leave again.” Magic Mouths urge would be adventurers to turn back. I mentioned the importance of setting the tone with your first encounter. This is the good stuff, and you know it when you read it.

Delicious minimal keying, low on fat, great nutritional value


The adventure proper is a prototypical tomb adventure with prototypical tomb encounters. Urns filled with poisonous serpents, cryptic clues that must be puzzled out if the secret door is to open and passage continue, near bottomless shafts that must be climbed down, pits filled with vipers. This flavorful decor is combined with formidable challenges. Fake doorways, fake treasure, tombs that are underwater. Mantichores. Gremlins that can wreathe themselves in flame. Skeletons bursting from alcoves. Cryptic clues hidden throughout the dungeon are required if the true resting place of the Wizard F’Chelrak is to be found.

This combination of exploration and puzzle solving and deadly combat is finished by a delicious icing on the cake. The weird! Inexplicable curtains covering idols that bring either Weal or Woe. Do you push your luck? The Compendium notes that the Deck of Many Things exerts an inexorable fascination on the player and provides many variants of Deck of Many Things so you can have them occur more often without thrashing the campaign. There is an area in the tomb that is like it, idols covered with cloth, revealing them might mean treasure, or it might mean death. One of the most interesting effects splits the player into two clones, with different properties! And then somehow, Jaquays manages to fit an artifact shield in there that is also a mirror of life-trapping whose prisoners are only released if the original owner (stats provided!) is trapped within, setting up the seed for yet another encounter.

If the PCs somehow manage to survive this gauntlet of traps, tricks and monsters, a formidable hoard, together with an awful guardian and many traps, awaits them at the end. An urn of solid platinum, serving as the Magic Jar for the spirit of F’Chelrak, and many other magic items, beneficial and cursed, await those who can discover the wizard’s true resting place, which is by no means a done deal.

There is a playful fluidity to the treasure that belies the later, more conservative style of Dungeon Magazine. Common items, Rings+1 or +2 magic swords are interspersed with more weird fare; torches with strange blue light that will freeze any opponent they strike in water, spells carved on the backs of tiles, semi-cursed necklaces that allow you to take Ooze shape with its last use being permanent. The mirror of life-trapping artifact shield is perfect, but consider also the effects of unveiling the various weird statues: A stone face that makes you permanently invisible or gives you +1 Con. Concealed under straw, or hidden in dead end corridors.

F’Chelrak’s Tomb is great material and holds up well even today. 20ish encounters (including traps) spread out over 3 levels, it never overstays its welcome and Jaquays nails most of them. It’s quite tough, capricious, low on versimilitude (what do the Mantichores eat etc.) but high on wonder and archtypical imagery, and skill and caution are required to complete it. The use of shafts and verticality helps give more weight to what might otherwise be fairly cramped. While it is certainly eclipsed by more sophisticated tombs later in D&D’s lifespan, and the encounters are by their nature barebones, there is an essential quality, an elegant simplicity to it combined with some creative set pieces that should prove inspiring, if only as an example of what can be done in such a light format. The good stuff, as the kids say. Sadly the Adventuresome Compendium has not been reprinted nor is it readily available in electronic format, with 2nd hand copies going for anything from 14 to 40 dollars. Extra super special recommendation if you are one of those itch.io future electronic landfill content providers trying to up your 3-page dungeon game. It CAN be done well, it is just hard.

More maps in the reviews I think, it is important.

****

[1] With one very large exception still underway!

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13 thoughts on “[Review] F’Chelrak’s Tomb (OD&D); Back to the Source!

  1. Having dug up a copy through dark magic, those fatigue rules are atrocious and the rules re women are just…well, the suggestion that the monsters have been down there a long time so be careful if you want your unicorn to associate with you is something else. Interestingly, they also feature a response from a woman a few pages later, an unusual thing in most such rules (or most compendia). These are also Jaquays creations, and it is an interesting and important reminder that great dungeon-making and great rules-design do NOT necessarily go hand in hand.

    That said, the various female-specific classes are sometimes interesting (the Circean and Delphian are both neat). Also interesting for the way the fighting skills are just how many men-equivalents they are in the chainmail tables. This is OLD school.

    The thing I find most interesting about the adventure is its format – it’s a lot more stream of consciousness than later adventures, but despite that is still fairly comprehensible. The other adventures are similarly formatted, which I find of deep interest for some reason. Much better for presenting things as a linked area and part of a breathing whole, IMO.

    There’s a few more dungeons in here (including several Jaquays ones) – were you going to do them all at some point?

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  2. Great review. AustinJimm ran this dungeon for me, Matt Finch and a few others at NTRPG Con back in 2013-2014 or so. We had an absolute blast! Definitely one of my favorite games of all time.

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  3. A few years ago, getting hold of a second hand copy of the Dungeoneer 1-6 Compendium wasn’t too difficult, with the price towards the low end of your range. I think I have one buried somewhere. Paying special attention to the maps is a wise move. Scrolls on the back of floor tiles, how inventive, and I wonder if many groups found them. You can see why undead became so popular in tombs, they can be standing around sulking and no-one questions it. I’m looking forward to the rest of your reviews of Jaquays’ work.

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    1. Presumably he’s going in order so Borshak’s Lair will be next and Night of the Walking Wet will follow after that. I’m a bit curious what of Jaquays’ later-era (post-Judges Guild) work will get reviewed – will the RuneQuest and Dragonquest stuff make the cut? The short-form stuff included in the late-1E-era anthologies (WG7, I13, REF4 & 5).? The non-adventure supplements (Unknown Gods, FR5, DMGR1, the Central Casting books)?

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      1. Forgot about Borshak’s Lair, despite Melan praising it a few years ago. I hope Prince won’t limit himself to D&D modules – I really dig Legendary Duck Tower and Unknown Gods too.

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      2. If it helps influence your decision I consider Griffin Mountain (RQ campaign pack by Jaquays, Rudy Kraft, and Greg Stafford, released in 1981) to be pretty much the Platonic ideal of rpg modules – a massive sandbox setting with so much potential stuff going on that we had it in play for something like two years (until our group broke up when I graduated from college and moved to California full-time) and it felt like we had barely scratched the surface. The entire rest of the rpg industry has spent the last 40 years playing catch-up to this book.

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      3. I believe in you Prince, you can do it! Classic RQ is not that different from OD&D. There are plenty of similarities in gameplay, mechanics, even numbers. That and its focus on adventuring makes it far easier to graps for us old-school D&D geeks than the current edition. Trent highlighted Griffin Mountain as a damn fine sandbox, I would also add Snake-Pipe Hollow as a mustread – it is a fine dungeon with a surprisingly good presentation.

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  4. Having started playing D&D circa 1982, I missed all of Jaquays’s “greatest hits,” and would not have even associated the name with adventure writing till 4-5 years ago (when I started researching long-neglected Judge’s Guild products)…artwork, yes,; design, no.

    Look forward to more reviews of her work.

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    1. Yes. A lot of content was stripped out when Mountain became Island and went from being an area in Glorantha (north of Dragon Pass) to a generic/universal self-contained island. Admittedly, much of that was Glorantha stuff that was probably added by Greg Stafford and the Island version may well be closer to Jaquays and Kraft’s original draft version, but the stuff that Stafford added was so good and flavorful that you can’t unsee it and looking at Griffin Island knowing what’s missing (depth and context) feels like a hollow shell of itself.

      That said, because Griffin Island was a boxed set it had some really nice player handouts – 4 page folios about each of the citadels with an overview and player map showing the key locations (palace, temples, marketplace, taverns, etc) without any of the secret stuff.

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