Saturday, 2 May 2020

[REVIEW] Broken Castle

Broken Castle
Broken Castle (2019)
by Gene Weigel
Published by Gene Weigel Games
Low to high level

In our lesser age, he is only a whispered legend. Most supposed old-schoolers do not know his name, and have not seen him in his mighty stride. In what is colloquially referred to as “the OSR Taliban”, the name brings more recognition. “The Human Torch”, as he had sometimes called himself, is half man and half force of nature. He had been the first to raise his mighty spiked flail against the beast Lorraine Williams, and her poodles Zeb Cook, Ed Greenwood, and “Skip”. For long, he had fought them from his hidden base in Brooklyn (or thereabouts). When his own comrades tried to tell him the war was over, and Lorraine Williams was long gone, he sent back their severed heads and kept on fighting. Gene Weigel takes no prisoners. He is still out there, fighting the good fight for AD&D’s soul, so that we may sleep peacefully and not have to know the ultimate price of our peace. Now he has gifted us with an adventure. Broken Castle is the realest deal in the old-school. Half Temple of Elemental Evil homage, half mega-campaign synthesis, and half teenage asshole DM fever dream, it is 150% pure Gygaxian AD&D. It is a whiff of gaming cocaine, and a barbarian mess.

To make more sense, Broken Castle is a really enormous 268-page module you can (and should) buy from Amazon. It provides a complete sandbox treatment of the Barony of Grogham, itself a part of the Fallen Kingdom of Skulldon, in an even broader setting called the Swordlands. It describes the eponymous village and castle, two more villages, several smaller locations, five dungeons, and Broken Castle, a huge central dungeon. This is a bit of an understatement, since Grogham Castle also has a big multi-level dungeon under it, as well as forty-odd businesses and thirty castle rooms described in the location key, just in case you want to go “Keep on the Borderlands” on the hapless residents. There are brief writeups on scattered farms, their problems, and what might be found there if the PCs visit. The module includes a small supplement’s worth of new monsters, a selection of magic items, NPCs, new classes and spells, and more. If 268 pages sounds long, it is because this book is packed to the gills with material – in most respects, not overwritten. It is just big, a campaign’s worth of stuff.

In its lineage, Broken Castle is best considered a successor to The Temple of Elemental Evil: it starts in an idyllic feudal village, proceeds to lesser, “moathouse-style” adventure sites, and ends with a massive and hideously lethal dungeon of pure evil. However, the Temple was Gary’s monumental folly, a labour of love that was never truly completed after years of promises and delays, to be finished in an unsatisfying manner by Frank Mentzer. This grand homage to T1-4 raises the stakes by being “The Village of Hommlet / The Temple of Elemental Evil, but bigger” in every sense – there is little here that has not been extended, multiplied or squared – and it succeeds where Gary and Frank ultimately failed. It fulfils a promise originally made in the 1970s – that of the AD&D-campaign-in-a-book. It is as if you didn’t just get the Keep on the Borderlands, but the whole freaking Borderlands, providing several months of adventure. (The recently published Hoard of Delusion follows a similar concept and structure, and actually shares some common history design with this book, but it is smaller and much less baroque. It will also be reviewed here.)

Below, I will examine Broken Castle from various aspects before providing a summary.

***

Mammoth Flank

Italics? What italics?
Let’s get this out of the way. When I call something a gem in the rough, I mean it. This is one, and not in a middle of the road way. Except for the actual production (Amazon print on demand), everything about this book is homemade, and while a lot of that “homemade” is good, some of it is pretty dire. It is somewhere above the level of raw campaign scribbles, but it is barely edited. It is like someone heaving a bloody and still steaming mammoth flank on the table before thundering “Now make something out of it!” The bulk of the text is dumped on the page without care, avoiding such luxuries as “bold type”, “italics”, or even “justified text”. The only visual anchors are represented by ALL CAPS text (e.g. room names). It is a massive work and it is easy to get lost in, miss a crucial detail, or fail to find something in the appendices (some of which are in alphabetic order… mostly… and some of which aren’t… mostly).

Stats
The stats are quite something. This is the most AD&D adventure not to actually use AD&D stats. Most people these days don’t blink twice before publishing something with *cough* *cough* OSRIC stats. Not Gene. He knows Lorraine Williams and her lapdogs are still out there, somewhere, and they are just waiting to pounce on someone who wrote down the word “Thief”. This is why they are called “Stealers” in Broken Castle, which returns to the 1980s-1990s tradition of writing unofficial AD&D modules with heavily disguised stats “for any game system”. Hit Dice is “Man Calibre”, Hp is “Points”, the number of attacks is ROB (Rate of Blows), damage is “Sword Calibre” (expressed in terms of weapon ranges, so a squogg’s SOC is equivalent to a flail for each tentacle, while the swampyr is “claws as short swords and bite as dagger”), and so on. Experience is called Seasoning. A +10% sword is +2, and ability scores are expressed in percentiles (40% is 8, 80% is 16, etc.). The module uses a silver standard, an idea I can sympathise with, but then also uses copper and bronze coins liberally. If you have practice reading AD&D stat blocks, you will know what is what, but it is all quite useless, and makes for a mess when fast lookup is essential (try to decipher a high-level NPC on the fly and see the problem – then repeat the exercise with a high-MC spellcaster).

Likewise, while the module is meticulous on the encounter level, it is mostly lacking in an introduction that would provide a sense of who-goes-where (and why). There is a lot of background detail simply scattered through the individual encounters, while there is no discussion that I can find which tells us what actually happened to Broken Castle (the dungeon), or how all this stuff comes together with the Baron’s schemes, the interests of outside powers, or the labyrinthine evil plots which crisscross the Barony of Grogham. Sometimes, the key is missing entries found on the maps (Broken Castle the dungeon has a lot of these). Something the sequence of the number key jumps around a level a bit too much.

In the end, it turns out this is a mammoth that’s not quite dead yet, and you have to club it yourself to submission. This is probably going to be a turn-off for people looking for something ready-made. However… when was the last time you had mammoth? Have you ever had a full one? I suppose one could always write a negative review based on the bizarro editing, or the weird stats. One could also stop being a philistine and recognise greatness where it is found.

***

The Gygaxian Milieu

“Into the Jaws of the Quasi-Mediaeval Fantastic” declares Broken Castle on its back cover. “Venture into the ruins of the nearby crumbling castle of mystery and other strange locales from the quasi-mediaeval Castle and Village of Grogham in full functional detail” it declares on the front cover. This is quite important. What we are seeing in the book, Gentle Readers, is a fully functional Gygaxian Milieu out in the wild. That is, this is exactly the kind of thing you will get if you build a world according to the ideas found in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, while also adding your own spin to it. The DMG is the assembly guide; this is the applied result, and it makes for a hell of a demonstration. If you want to understand the appeal and grand vision of AD&D as God (and Gary) intended, this book will give you a complete walk through some guy’s campaign he ran for years. It is just as much a look into how one might construct a great old-school campaign, and I think this will be its main legacy.

The Fallen Kingdom of Skulldon
The bits and pieces about AD&D’s frontier baronies fall into place. Greyhawk’s “militant neutrality” is replicated in the fallen Kingdom of Skulldon, and its precarious balance between Law and encroaching Chaos. It is centred around sleepy rural communities living a very armed feudal existence, barons and knights who have to contend with orc raids, haunted ruins, and neighbourhood jealousy in equal measure. In true Gygaxian fashion, dark powers are slumbering in the hills and forests, and sending out agents to slowly pave the way for their triumph, while the forces of Law likewise turn to their own devices to prevent them from gaining the upper hand. You will see what kind of society this forms. Baron Marll’s castle is not a real mediaeval castle, but a quasi-mediaeval fortress built to thwart monsters, enterprising adventurer parties, and magical incursions. It has evolved to fill a niche. Baron Marll has an arena for monster fighting with its own Gamesmistress (a 10th level Fighter!). His dungeons have a pool of hallucinatory alligators, a hall of skulls, a wall of robotic arms, a pool of real alligators, and a chicken aviary (“The room is filled with wooden pallets and contains 1000 chickens […] as food for the alligators” – see, it makes complete sense!).

Everywhere in the barony are bits and pieces of intrigue and incidental detail. A podunk village hides a bizarre shrine to chaoticism; someone has left a carved demonic statue in an abandoned (?) home; a secret passage leads to a hidden meadow, and a villager is a high-ranking highwayman. Minor locations can contain full-day adventures, stumbled upon entirely at random. The depth of treatment is dazzling – for my preferences, sometimes overwhelming. On the upside, everywhere you go, Gene has left you an adventure to embark on, a mystery to ponder, a little find to make you say “Aha!” It is a bit like an Ultima game, with every corner of the world filled with oddities and personal touches. Broken Castle is filled with idiosyncratic wonder that could be Gygax, but it is ultimately a personal take. It is both standard and non-standard, based on which way you look at it.

Skulls. Why did it have to be skulls?
It can be too much in some respects – like The Village of Hommlet, this supplement has a tendency of over-describing every village steward’s personal livelihood, every barrelmaker’s inventory (I counted 20 different barrel types from the tierce to the puncheon), and every guard’s coin stash (64 copper/35 copper/43 copper/53 copper/20 copper, etc.). Where does a moment of local colour (the barrelmaker shows you 20 different, bizarre barrel types you might never have heard of) turn into oversharing? Broken Castle has a very inventory-like approach to conveying a sense of the world, and it is not always to its complete benefit. Sometimes, it is an inventory of turnips (34/1 bronze coin value for 6) and beets (491/1 bronze coin for 15).

Just on the side, Broken Castle finally settles the age-old debate concerning fantasy heraldry. Lame storygame sop or quasi-mediaeval awesome? Broken Castle has a full page of banners and devices, most of which feature skulls, swords, and other kinds of heraldic excellence. This is the proper way to use heraldry in your game supplement. And use it – various heraldic signs periodically turn up in the various dungeons, where they actually serve as useful clues, if the players stop to think about them.

***

Advanced Dungeons & Designs

The last part of the review discussed the setting background; this section is for the “adventure adventures” in the book (inasmuch as you can draw an exact line in a monster-infested frontier setting). Five are on the smaller size, but this is a misleading statement. They are still about the size of a smaller early TSR module (say, White Plume Mountain or the Moathouse for Hommlet), with 30-60 keyed entries. They are also the opposite of overwritten – room entries are lean, punchy, and come in quick succession.

Two novice adventurers enter
Uncle Gene's dungeon (colourised)
This is once again a mixture of AD&D design bedrock with an added layer of individual invention. The style is halfway between funhouse and Gygaxian realism. It is realistic “in context” (magical fantasy world with carnivorous gelatine and glowing superswords), and in respecting the cause-and-effect dynamic, while it is completely fanciful when dreaming up challenging and fun dungeon rooms. The Gygaxian flair is there in the design, with a similar playfulness, love for puzzles, and sense of wicked humour. In some ways, it is “high school killer DM”, but matured and perfected. Dungeons have room concepts like “The Pit of 3 Deaths”, “The Statuary of Death” (they are on facing pages), “Golden Room”, “Sword Golem”, “Hands of Death”, and “A Flame That Isn’t a Flame”. Challenge first, justification later, if at all; strange little ideas realised in a paragraph or two, before moving on. The dungeons reward a bold but careful approach, where the foolish die horribly, but the smart and ingenious can prosper. It is more challenging than the AD&D default – done with the full understanding that the players will play dirty, and therefore so can the DM. Welcome to Crazy Uncle Gene’s dungeon!

There are things to interact with, and sometimes break in fun ways (fucking around with a magical ice crystal used to cool food in a cellar can yield a darkly hilarious final result – “(…) eventually unstoppable if not contained before 6 weeks when it reaches 10000 million cubic feet (464.1589 feet on each side). At that point it rapidly starts covering the entire planet plunging everything into a new ice age.” [sic]). You find odd and awesome things in a fantastic Underworld, and there is always a promise of more things lying “beyond” where you are. A stairway suddenly descends 10,000 feet, and you find yourself in a foreign underworld realm, if only for the span of a few encounters. The “mundane fantastic” of monsters, wizards and dungeons is supplemented with the extra layer of the “fantastic fantastic”, things which would feel strange and a little awe-inspiring even to inhabitants of the fantasy world, and you can step from one to the other through the book’s stream-of-consciousness approach to the fantastic.

Orc Mound (revised and colourised by Settembrini)
Each of the dungeons have their own design approach and individual identity. The Grogham Castle Dungeon is filled with “everyday” room types jerry-rigged with improbable magic stuff and defences; The Mine is an eight-level complex slowly conquered back from below by Underworld monsters; the Anchorite Tower is horror, with a seemingly benign religious order facing interior corruption, leading to a set of crypts, and eventually something really bizarre and unexpected; Orc Mound is a humanoid hack-them-up in a risky and exposed environment; and Cavern of the Man-Apes is more than what it seems, as it houses none else but… the Murder Cult! Yeah, those guys. The odd one out in my opinion is the mines, which are too big and too empty to be anything but a slog – the rest are all good stuff in one respect or another. Perhaps slightly more low-level material would have done the module good – this is more for the long mid-range. Note that the maps tend to be on the complex side – I would not dare to run this with the players mapping out everything, particularly the central dungeon, with its 3D cavern nightmare layout.

Murder Cultist
Of course, the crown jewel of dungeons is Broken Castle itself, which is to this module what The Temple of Elemental Evil was to T1–4. It is a legendary evil place so horrible, so depraved that it was swallowed up and undone by a magical catastrophe, literally split in two by a chasm cutting through walls, buildings, and two whole dungeon levels. What remains is an enormous pile of ruins, dead-ends, cave passages, new connections created by the chasm, and more. It is a bad place, starting from The Inn of the Manticore’s Testicles, and descending into two vast, deep levels with a total of 90 keyed areas, and some monster lairs which are nothing but nightmarish. It makes a very good job separating foolish adventurers from their life and valuables; it is filled with fair but tough “gotchas” and dirty tricks. Broken Castle the module is on the challenging side by default, and Broken Castle the dungeon is a test of all skills and abilities that adventurers have amassed so far. It gets odder as you get deeper, going from relatively realistic, to a place distorted by magical forces, where time travellers start appearing on the random encounter charts, greater undead and a demon make lair, and all bets are off. Just the first three rooms of the lower level include: a devious (but fairly obvious) killer trap playing on the greed of foolish adventurers; a word puzzle with an oblique but fair clue; and a room with “a dead dinosaur neck emerging from the east wall that seems to have cut it off” – a room that lets you travel back 6 million years and mess with stuff in the distant past.

Hey! What the hell?! I was just taking a
The dungeons are heavy on custom ideas, and custom stuff. It is actually not easy to create good monsters that aren’t just variants or reskins. These are quite good monsters, the kind that come from notebook scribbles and a good sense of the challenging and grotesque. Even the names roll off the tongue: caskeleton, swampyr, phantasmode, serpent ghoul, quggers, toll devil – yeah, this is the stuff that populated the better AD&D compendiums. The monsters are “gameplay weird”, in that they make no sense whatsoever, except in the context of an AD&D adventure, where they suddenly make perfect sense. So, uh, there are these man-shaped stone statues which are so lazy they just sleep in a lethargic stupor, but they love minerals so much that when they sense armoured trespassers, they suddenly become agitated. Let’s name them sleeping stonemen – we’ve got an AD&D monster right here. The magic items are quite good as well, and they represent both the mainstays (+1 swords and such, fairly common) and individual pieces (only found in tricky places, mostly one-of-a-kind). This is a rather good balance. The really good items are fairly rare, and tend to be very challenging to obtain (this may be the module’s least authentic aspect – it is much less magic-rich than AD&D modules tend to be). There is, also, a three-handed sword.

***

Therefore,

So this is Broken Castle. It is, surprisingly, not even a single book – at least two followups, THE CELESTIAL VACUOLE OF THE ASTERYX, and THE RUINS OF SKULLDON are mentioned. I am not suggesting you need to own this because you will run it – you probably won’t. It is too big for most of us, and perhaps we are not even meant to recreate it in full – it would be a folly to, because Gene has already been there before us. But if you need a great AD&D dungeon or three, the ones in the book are each worth a full old-school module (OK, I am still sceptical about those mines). The settlements and minor locations are as modular as anything. But above all, if you want to understand the appeal of Gygaxian fantasy at its greatest, or what makes for a great home campaign, this is an instructive book on how to develop your own, and make it fit together. Or if you just want to read someone’s published campaign notes for inspiration, this is a great one to pick up. It is the promise The Temple of Elemental Evil made, but never delivered on.

This publication credits its playtesters and several others, including “E. Gary”, in a full-page special thanks section. That’s class.

Rating: ***** / *****

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for this great review!

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  2. Amazing review. I'm convinced.

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  3. The artwork has a homemade, hobbyist charm, but that map looks genuinely appealing. More designers should make use of color in a utilitarian way to highlight zones of elevation, activity, etc.

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  4. That is a telling review. I would have picked up Broken Castle five years ago without a second thought; this late, too late, my contempt for D&D material has petrified into a pebble in my brain. I like the way you give full marks while observing the flaws, and given your own preferred style is not Gygaxian.

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  5. Sounds wild.
    Is this available as PDF or print only?

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    1. Seems print-exclusive.

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    2. hmm .. I can't find a pdf version either.
      Gotta put it one the list nontheless ;)

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  6. Having bought this and read up to and including Grogham Castle (so not yet the real guts of the book, but enough) - it's fascinating, brilliant, sort of insane. Very pleased I got it - but the usability issues are very, very severe.

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