Dungeoneer #9 doesn’t have a lot going for it. Snatches of bad fiction, various articles dedicated to science fictional gaming, a few monster entries for Starships & Spacemen, a game that I suspect might be altogether forgotten, and a Jaquays character background generator that is suitable for little more then the induction of acute carpel tunnel syndrome, it would have made me depressed if not for one glaring exception: Another Paul Jaquays adventure!
Paul Jaquays (Judges Guild)
Lvl 1-2 (Prepare Your
Buttholes Backup Characters Edition!)
Morkendaine is known even to precious few oldschoolers, it is seldom mentioned and that is a shame as it is legitimately good, even occasionally skirting greatness, especially as a primer to vanilla D&D. Not quite on the level of Night of the Walking Wet, it is a ‘standard’ dungeon easier compared to Borshak’s Lair, Horror on the Hill or perhaps a spiffier, sexed up version of Role Aids’s Beastmaker Mountain, and feels like Jaquays in shape, on a regular day. Let’s stock a dungeon with monsters and add some cool shit. Of course, Jaquays on a regular day is almost any OSR author on the best day of their lives.
Backstory is minimal but serviceable. A paladin constructs a mansion atop of the ruins of a lawful good temple. Over time, his descendants stop paying taxes (what is it with the JG legacy of swindler paladins?) and the place falls into ruin. The wizard Hostephris purchases the manor, excavates the dungeons underneath, unearthing the ruins of the temple, and promptly gets himself polymorphed into an animal. His various scumbag descendants take with them bands of murderous humanoids and turn the place into a den of iniquity, with plentiful scumbag wizards, marauders, shitbag ogres and other reprobates. Enter the PCs.
We waste zero time on hooks, random encounter tables are promptly dunked into a bin (with the exception of a small area of the first floor of the manor), the surrounding area is ignored with a scoff and we are catapulted straight into the action. We get a small courtyard, a 2 floor 22-room manor, a 38 room cellar, and 59 dungeon rooms encompassing 2 dungeon floors. A hefty chonker of a dungeon.
There are the usual Jaquaysian trademarks to observe. Nonlinearity is emphasized, with multiple means of egress into both the manor and the dungeon proper, some of which are hidden. These are further fortified by teleporters, both voluntary and traps, one-way chutes, or other such means, compensating for the lack of random encounters. Secret doors are enthusiastically employed, walling off as much as half the dungeon but offering plentiful incentives or subtle clues as to their existence. Take for example the illusionary wall (a second recurring feature of the place), above room EE, which terminates in a dead end. Having just a dead end corridor would be one thing, but placing it behind an illusionary wall is just enough of a hint that something is going on. It doesn’t quite have the insane, looping, overlapping intensity of Walking Wet or Borshak’s Lair but the author’s touch is recognizable.
All of which comes into play later. The mansion gives the wrong first impression. The monster frequency is high, maybe credible in an underground labyrinth with long winding passageways and traps but a bit much for a 2 floor manse housing dozens of bandits, 80 kobolds and an assortment of natural predators, all of which are unaffiliated with the factions inhabiting the dungeon. I had to puzzle over how exactly the bandits (some which are away by day) would even enter their quarters without running into the leopard guarding the front stairway. If you count the thieves busy picking over a lock, and a group of celtic heroes fighting some of Morkendaine’s Guards, it is fortunate that most monsters are content to stay in their quarters and cannot be alerted! Notice occasional subtle shades of the encounters, the kobolds are fornicating or dressing dismembered Rats, the bandit leader has a merchants daughter captive and is the only one who knows of the dungeons beneath the manor (remember how we talked about making sure there would be the occasional reason to keep people alive) and goblins are telling crude jokes. You get the impression of motion, even if the actual procedures and systems are lacking. There are examples later on of guards summoning other guards but it feels scattershot, the few instances almost seem to imply that in many other cases there is no response. You do not get a sense that the various hubs are really connected.
An almost incredibly varied mixture of the dungeon fare, Gelatinous Cubes, Rats and goblin guards, are intermixed with more dynamic encounters. Invisible monsters. Illusionary hobgoblins attacking a prisoner. You meet an old man that begins prophesying your doom. A hideous witch offers you a gift, dare you accept it? Its still got one feet stuck in funhouse 70s dnd but another is tentatively feeling up versimilitudinous 80s DnD. The various assholish magic-users of Morkendaine are content to huddle in their respective rooms, surrounded by the odd guard, a far cry from their more organized counterparts in WG5. A room with regenerating gnomes, cursed to spend eternity cleaning its walls, who will spit and throw dirty sponges at anyone who interrupts them. In the centre of a room are two silver dice, dare you roll them? Also back in force, a tonne of prisoners to be rescued, some of which might join the party, others which provide a reward. It even includes that most Gygaxian of prisoners, the Secret Asshole, a guy chained to the wall with Silver Manacles should clue in the more cautious player that SHIT is about to get down.
In the tradition of 70s modules giving two shits if some bodies hit the floor, Morkendaine also does not fuck around. For an adventure labeled for level 1-2 there is a suspicious number of Ogres, spellcasters, the odd Wight, and a FUCKING BLACK DRAGON and the highly ominous Skeleton King, perhaps one of the coolest (and deadliest) encounters in Morkendaine. I do appreciate the courtesy of placing these types of hideous murder machines behind secret or wizard-locked doors or occasionally behind weaker (but still formidable) guardians so the PCs must make a conscious decision to wander off the beaten path and move into the deep end of the pool. Unlike some its later grandchildren, this particular death-trap dungeon is very generously stocked with treasure, meaning that characters are unlikely to get discouraged, even if the deaths start piling up.
The weird is frequent but is used to break up the various monster encounters, and do so tastefully. The Mörk Börk/early Lotfp tendency to make every weird thing negative and thereby dissuade any sort of interaction from people trying not to die is largely avoided. Illusionary Egyptian ladies offering ladles of water, magic dice that bring weal or woe, a column of darkness that is larger on the outside then the inside, passing through it leads to another room with a column of darkness in the centre, Steel Skeletons and (eventually) a Shadow Giant keep watch over an enchanted forest, a dryad’s grove (where for once, it makes sense to actually rob the damn dryads, its just very dangerous)…Morkendaine is certainly not without its share of wonders.
The second dungeon level is much smaller and much more coherent then the first, taking place largely in the shrine of the Lawful good deity Asura and here the fantasy goes to eleven. A sanctum with a flower perch, guarded by a Vorpal Bunny (!), then a door that will punish evildoers, a room of solid gold, relics encased in glass, skeletons that form from gold dust and an artifact crown in the treasure pile. Jaquays is not fucking around in the ending. Well done.
If this were an examination of standard dungeon dressing ability, I would give it an A-, the individual encounters are very strong without showing off and the map and its various tricks and traps are sufficiently dynamic to create the state known as Good DnD and do so wonderfully. But it is also not much more. I am looking for some sort of greater coherence, organization, a sense of scale, a feeling of the grandly fantastic. The (one presumes) randomly stocked inhabitants, defy even the generous palette of the dungeon-crawling afficianado. The whole middle section feels like an extremely sophisticated level of Rogue or Nethack. The mansion is solid but not great, the ending is very good. I think it illustrates quite well what can be done with random stocking and decent mapping skills, but the strength of the ending underlines that more then that is required if one aspires to greatness.
Morkendaine is perfectly playable (sans a few girthy room keys) and probably exactly right for anyone looking for a vastly above average vintage dungeon crawling experience. Its interesting to compare it now to something like B5, which previously I awarded five stars. While I would put Morkendaine above it in a heartbeat, my newly refined palette can afford only four stars. Still, this is one that is well worth remembering (and even giving it a spin)!
15 thoughts on “[Review] Dungeoneer 9 – Morkendaine (OD&D 3PP); Archeotech”
If Jaquays has a major weakness, I think it’s dungeon naming. Dear God, are these bad names.
The naming improves over time. Caverns of Thracia is not a bad name for a greek-inspired heavy dungeon adventure.
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Does this have a Kent remaster?
Hahaha Night of the Walking Wet only!
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Your grading got harder as you experienced more good stuff! 🙂
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I gotta autism you on a small point: The cellar doesn’t have 38 rooms, the whole upper works has 38 keyed areas of which the first 25 are in the manor and the last 13 are in the cellar. The upper works is simply continuously keyed (and then he shifts to letters for dungeon level 1, and back to numbers for level 2).
Good review, though, Weird to name a dungeon after Mordenkainen so transparently.
Oh yeah, I was asleep at the wheel for that one. This one is very good, there’s something about having a more dangerous part of the dungeon outside of the main part that is appealing, it doesn’t get used that much I think.
What a shitty way to use the word “autism.” What, is being pedantic not edgy enough?
Fair warning, this is not a great place for tone policing. Good luck on your next comment.
I snorted Tegel Bungalow. Can’t wait to see you get to the big guns.
Thanks for reminding me I have this; I’ll give it a read.
And thanks too for pointing out that sweet, sweet Spaceport Bar on the cover!
This is completely utterly forgotten, most likely due to availability. Like JG’s great Ready Ref Sheets, The Dungeoneer’s Compendion seems to have been massively overprinted, so prodigious quantities survived for modern eBay. You can still get luck and snag one at non-insane prices (we will not mention dark, forbidden sorceries here). This issue, however, is a rarity; it took me years and some effort to track it down, and it was still rather expensive at that.
The module itself is not a masterpiece; its inconsistencies and constant half-baked feeling makes sure of that. However… the observant reader will surely recognise it as a sort of study for the monumental Dark Tower, the real Howardo-Egyptian extravaganza. When it hits, it hits hard. Even the trademark perversion is there, if you look hard enough. So, on its own, decentish, but as a promise of great things to come, it is a helluva sign.
” Dark Tower, the real Howardo-Egyptian extravaganza.” This should be a quote for the new edition kickstarter.