[Review] The Fabled Garden of Merlin (OD&D 3PP); F’Chelrak’s Tomb +1

The Fabled Garden of Merlin (1976)

Merle Davenport (Judges Guild)
Lvl ??? (somewhere in the 2-5 range?)

Another entry from the excellent Adventuresome Companion by Judges Guild. The adventures in the Dungeoneer tend to be very short, almost 1-page territory, but manage to pack quite the punch. Last time we had a wizard’s tomb that was almost pure funhouse with only lip service paid to any sort of versimilitude, this time we have a wizard’s tomb that is almost pure funhouse with slightly less lip service paid to any sort of versimilitude!

The Fabled Garden has many similarities with F’Chelrak’s Tomb but is, if anything, even more fickle. The author held the B button and charged up his shot and then wrote the module. The puzzles are heavier, the dangers more arbitrary, the magic is even more bizarre, there is EVEN MORE water and the adventure somehow manages to squeeze in 3 different ways of entering and going about the dungeon. I hope you love Trial and Error because that’s what’s for dinner. The various bugbears and poltergeists of 1970s cheap printing-press layout are by now so well known that they need not be reiterated. They should hardly hinder anyone from absorbing 3 pages of text.

Entrance with ominous writing, in Alignment Tongue. Riddles are couched in Shedu or Lammasu. Use of language, barely used in this fallen age. The opening text ‘If you dare to go in here, you will see what we have in store for you‘ is much weaker, belying the batshit nature of the place. A door with double gemstones, flanked by two urns and two boxes. Attempting to steal the gems will ’cause 1000 skunks running out of the woods in order to fill the air with their fragrance and lower the Charisma score of any in the line of fire to -6…’. And that’s the first warning. This module is not fucking around. There are two ways of getting your soul drained, and only one way of restoring it in this opening alone. An illusionary man in an urn with a tortured look on his face, clutching a real wand of polymorph with a 10% chance of turning the user into a Frog also. Gemstones that you can throw that turn into Type I-IV demons that attack the first thing they see (roll 1-8 for direction). In the first room.

Interesting vertical map design. Notice simple keying and legibility

There is sloppy treasure placement and there is clearly not giving a fuck, and Merlin’s Garden is doing the latter. More magic in the first two rooms then in an entire campaign. A statue with an amulet and a belt, obscenely powerful but with serious drawbacks if worn by the wrong character class. Braziers full of rings of water breathing so you can explore the garden pool and discover the 4 entrances down. A convoluted gemstone puzzle that involves figuring out cryptic hints and pulling on magic trees, some of which are lethal and will stun and then eat your character. Inside one of the branches, if broken off, is an invisible +1 sword. One of the trees summons a 9th level fighter with 18 STR and a 6th level wizard to demand a tax from everyone in the room.

The entire adventure, 11 rooms, is like this, except for one room where you just fight 3 ogres. Trifle with a glowing hot wax golem. Skeletons that regenerate as long as you keep looking at them. Dangers come out of left field and you have no idea what to expect. You must rely on wit, intuition and trial and error and you will assuredly pay a price while you brave this enchanted hell. In some cases Merlin’s Garden becomes actively punishing. Five bags of cloth in the apex of the dungeon, and 2 of them are {essentially}} Bags of Devouring?!? You have to figure out to jump through a mirror, but then get immediately fucked as you slide down a slimy shaft, carrying only what you held in your hands. A gender-swapping room. Cabinets full of artifacts and powerful items, of unbreakable glass, each with a terrible ghostly guardian and with nigh unbreakable locks, prompting experimentation and perhaps, later return? Zero fucks given. The breaks are not just cut, the module does away with the entire concept of breaks. Splendid use of verticality. Dirty tricks. An invisible mummy that just wants to chill. It is 1976 baby! Woooooh!

The conclusion? or climax of the dungeon is a set of enchanted mikado sticks that will propel whoever looks at the pattern first into another dimension. More screwbaggery because in case of one set this dimension is A) a long hallway with a Type III demon on one end and a Carrion Crawler on the other and B) Large room w. Hill Giant. The third set constitutes the final resting place of Merlin. It doesn’t go to the same extreme lengths as F’Chelraks tomb to have a big fake-out treasure coupled with a very well concealed proper treasure but to its credit most of the treasure is still properly concealed or has drawbacks so no freebees.

There is a lot to like about the Fabled Garden. By packing the initial rooms full of interesting interactive objects you immediately create a sense of possibility and the variety of treasures, puzzles and occasional antagonists should delight. Notice the layering too, seldom rooms have just one gimmick. At the same time, the unique and deadly nature of the threats means that very often players will be unable to tell if a punch is coming and are forced to rely on Trial and Error in order to progress. The urn that turns characters into coins is a classic example; the magical nature of the threat is completely unpredictable and cannot be anticipated even by skilled players short of casting augury on everything. The amount of times the instant death or soul trap is trotted out is limited but might be too much for some. In a sandbox setting, this could be a fine location, as long as players have the option to leave. Then there is a more obvious drawback; a great deal of the adventure’s treasure is located in the 2nd room of the adventure, with the lion’s share of the rest locked behind cabinets that are frustratingly difficult to open. It doesn’t quite have the same smooth progression of F’Chelrak’s Tomb, which lures you in, baits the hook, intersperses slogging matches with secret door finding/riddle solving, does a proper fakeout, and stows the lion’s share of its treasure in the back of the book, where it belongs. There’s also the subtle cruelties, the Gargoyle at the bottom of the underwater tomb, the way the Mirror shield spins off into possibly another adventure, that Merlin’s Garden doesn’t quite reach.

Do we draw some lesson from this? Quality comes from creation, tempered by craft? Don’t eat the yellow snow? Fun and wild in the ways of the 70s, front-loaded with colorful magic, and the occasional arbitrary deadliness that that entails. Recommended. A high *** bordering on ****

Additional News: The No Artpunk Vol 1. Charity run is over and with your help we have managed to collect over 1300,- USD (after Drivethru took its pound of flesh and three kidneys [1]) for the Autism Research Institute. I want to thank everyone for their contribution. If you haven’t checked out No Artpunk Vol 1. yet, it is now FREE and a Silver Bestseller on Drivethru, and contains some of the finest adventures that have come out these last few years. That is not even hyperbole, that is true. Expect a new contest announcement somewhere in the next week, along with preparations for No Artpunk Companion, which will come out soon and will likely be free.


5 thoughts on “[Review] The Fabled Garden of Merlin (OD&D 3PP); F’Chelrak’s Tomb +1

  1. A look into the charm and whimsy of early funhouse adventure design, no fucks given. The arbitrariness of the challenges should be mitigated by the fact that any campaign with this level of magic shall feature wishes, divine intervention, and other “get out of Jail free” cards. We are just not used to those assumptions any longer, especially since the majority of old-school gamers vouched for the gritty and low-powered interpretation of the original texts.


    1. Easy high power in old school gaming is unwieldy, unstable, unpredictable, it doesn’t lend itself to campaign play and in the early days there can have been no *campaigns* to feel these flaws.

      Well-drawn high power is essential but should be remote from players like a mountain backdrop.


    2. Every campaign map should have at least one area that is generally agreed upon to be death for all those who venture there, waiting for eager PCs. There’s probably some sort of marvelous statistical model one could devise where one considers the age of the (unplundered) dungeon, figure out the average number of adventuring parties that make the attempt per time unit and arrive at a suitable deadliness. Lower level dungeons must be of comparatively recent making, else they would have been plundered long since. There is probably some sort of assumption to be made where a plundered ruin is re-inhabited by monsters after a certain interval of time has passed.

      Regardless, your statement seems generally true, but I wonder if they cannot be compensated for by some techniques or adjustments. David Hargrave must have had campaigns of considerable length surely?


  2. I have all my copies of the Dungeoneer stashed away in a box somewhere. I remember when I was a kid, having read Dark Tower, Thracia, Tegel Manor, and Badabaskor, wanting more. Then reading stuff in the Dungeoneer, and feeling that it just wasn’t up to the quality standard that I was expecting. This adventure is a perfect example.


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