AD&D Review: Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure

The earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons saw Gary Gygax run many people through his Greyhawk campaigns, including a young Rob Kuntz. Rob, being something of an inventive sort, soon became a Dungeon Master himself. He DMed Gary through a number of games – giving the creator of D&D a chance to play the game he’d invented rather than just running it. One particular adventure that Kuntz ran in 1973 would eventually be published as Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure. It would be ten years before it would be released as a commercial adventure.

When it was, it was converted to the AD&D system from the pre-publication D&D it was written for, and it was placed in the World of Greyhawk. As noted, Kuntz’s own campaign world was Kalibruhn, but the primary D&D setting at the time was Greyhawk, and so that’s where it was set.

The adventures of 1984 were changing in nature, becoming more story-based and goal-orientated, led by the work of Tracy Hickman. In contrast, Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure dates from before D&D was released commercially. It’s a very old adventure, coming from the days where the primary style of adventure was the dungeon delve, and inventiveness in the tricks, traps and monsters the players encountered was paramount. Gygax described it as the most difficult adventure he’d played; and, indeed, his original expedition beyond the Unopenable Doors met with disaster, with Mordenkainen, his high-level wizard, becoming petrified by an iron golem wielding a whip of cockatrice feathers! Only a second expedition with his other characters was able to recover the petrified wizard and defeat the further challenges of the dungeon.

The adventure describes three levels of the dungeons beneath Maure Castle, the Greyhawkified version of Kuntz’s dungeon complex: El Raja Key. The dungeon is accessed through a set of doors that – until now – have been impassable. Unopenable. However, with the aid of a magic key acquired from Dalt, the Lord of Portals, Mordenkainen and his friends were able to access these dungeon levels. Thus, the adventure’s hook is “here’s somewhere no-one has been able to enter. Let’s find out what’s there.”

The first dungeon level is the one I really like. Apart from the Terrible Iron Golem, it has Arley the Weaver, an ogre mage, who sells cursed garments to those foolish enough to trust his lies. It also has a particularly unfair encounter: a room where adventurers who fail to make a saving throw versus spells will drop a number of their valuable items into holes that crush them. Perhaps just one, but there’s a small chance they’ll permanently lose six items to that trap!

The first level is large in dimension; indeed, the chamber where the golem is met measures about 200 feet by 300 feet! Despite its size, many of the rooms are empty or have little of interest. The attraction is that Arley is great fun to role-play, and the Terrible Iron Golem is incredibly inventive and difficult to fight.

The two levels below are, ahem, problematic.

Now, it should be said that they have a lot of good ideas in them. There’s this fabled “Lost City of the Elders”, that can be accessed through a magic item that the great demon Kerzit guards. And then you have Eli Tormorast, an evil wizard, and his servant “Lord” Hubehn, who command the forces in the lower levels. There’s the potential for the players to stop an evil wizard from whatever he plans. The trouble is, of course, that this is an exploration scenario, and Eli Tomorast exists only to try to kill the adventurers. He has a history, but no motivations. When he encounters the adventurers, he attacks, and only ceases the attack if badly hurt – whereupon he retreats to raise the rest of the dungeon against the characters. And, unfortunately, the design of the Lost City is left up to you. No follow-up adventure would materialise detailing it. In fact, it’s quite likely no adventurer ever visited it, so there was no need to design it!

I am, of course, displaying my prejudices by dismissing Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure in such a matter. The fact is, I much prefer scenarios where the players have a clear goal to work towards. Pharaoh is the design I prefer: equally inventive encounters, but with the characters striving towards breaking the curse, rather than just exploring the dungeon in search of loot. Many people I respect find this adventure one of the best published by TSR. I don’t think it’s even close.

The solution to my problems with it, of course, is to do something more with Eli Tormorast. Make him a villain who is known to the players, who they need to stop lest something terrible overcome the campaign. That said, the encounters on the lower levels still don’t quite inspire me.

It should be said that this actually is a very significant adventure in the history of the World of Greyhawk because, for the first time, the adventure is presented with pre-generated characters of note: statistics for Mordenkainen, Bigby, Lord Yrag and Riggby the Patriarch are presented in the appendix, allowing the players a chance to play these characters. The statistics for the characters are not those of Gary’s actual characters. The original D&D players were, in fact, very protective of their characters and wouldn’t allow their stats to be printed. This was the second time these characters had seen print – after 1980’s Rogue’s Gallery – but neither printing presents accurate portrayals of the characters.

The adventure also possesses a new trade dress, which would grace the next few World of Greyhawk products, based on the design of the 1983 boxed set.

This is an adventure from the earliest days of D&D, and it shows all the raw inventiveness and flaws that early products have. I’ve both played it and DMed it, and in neither instance did it really capture my imagination, but it has done so for many others. It’s a dangerous, difficult adventure, which really challenges the skills of its players and its Dungeon Master. For those interested in the early history of D&D, this is one of those to investigate.

5 comments

  1. weirddave23

    Yeah I agree with your assessment wholeheartedly. Did you ever get a chance to read/run Paizo’s update of Maure Castle in Dungeon Magazine? Eli Tomorast gets a much better focus and I recall the entire thing being done in collaboration with Rob Kuntz. I have not had an opportunity to run Maure Castle, either in this originally published form or the 3E update, but it remains an absolutely fascinating piece of D&D history.

    Like

    • Stelios V. Perdios

      I ran a modified version of this module back in the day for AD&D 2e. My players had fun with it. I had fun with it, but I agree with your assessments. But the issue too many empty rooms also applies to the 2nd and especially the 3rd levels. You can forgive the first level, the golem is the main event.

      But at some point on the second level, my players started become bored with all of the empty rooms. So I added more encounters–especially on the 3rd level where there’s lots of empty space.

      And have you ever noticed that the map of the 3rd level is upside down? (North is really south).

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    • MerricB

      Yes, I have the Dungeon version. (In fact, you’ll find a letter from me in a subsequent issue, complaining about the map!) Never got to play that version, though.

      Like

  2. Douglas Bailey

    I played this adventure in 1989 with a slightly-intoxicated GM who forgot to provide us with the Silver Key of Portals, so we spent the entire session trying to find a way past the Unopenable Doors. Not really a highlight.

    Liked by 1 person

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