The Black Maw (2018-2019)
by Craig Pike
Easier said than done! Megadungeon projects tend to begin with lofty promises, and tend to die somewhere between mapping the first few levels and keying the first one. Know, oh readers, that I have been there, too, and failed like all the rest of you. This is no endeavour for the faint of heart! For good megadungeons live or die by the ingenuity and variety of their ideas, and evolve through continuous exploration. And those who fail this test are cast aside, down among the chittering of rats gnawing on a dusty pile of 2000 copper pieces… forever.
The Black Maw is a serial level-by-level megadungeon construction project on DriveThruRPG. It is an ongoing effort, with three published levels and a product split between two sublevels to date. This makes reviewing it kinda risky – how much do you need to form a reliable impression? Is the initial impression subject to change? (YES!) I didn’t know where to place the Black Maw after reading the first level, and didn’t come away non-plussed, but with a few more parts on hand, a better picture emerges. I was, honestly, also hedging my bets, waiting to see if the followup instalments appeared at all, and where they would take the dungeon. Turns out they took it in a good direction.
|The Black Maw|
This, after all, is a somewhat TRV OD&D-style megadungeon: a nonlinear maze with a bunch of level connections, undergoing continuous expansion, featuring a mix of whimsical and dangerous stuff, and varying its themes just enough to feel fresh while sticking to common elements which serve as a sort of glue to bind it together. The intro – one mid-length paragraph in all, again a sign of TRV good taste – itself establishes it as an anything goes place, “occupied time and again by civilisations both ancient and recent”. The dungeon’s common tissue is based on these different groups of (mostly) intelligent monsters coexisting in various forms of truce or conflict. “Dungeon factions” is fairly elementary these days, sometimes reduced to meme level to the extent that it comes across as suspicious – but it is fairly well realised here. Ordinary monster types are given a twist – dwarves are religious sectarians, goblins are kinda-Victorian gentlemen “in tattered waistcoats and tophats”, troglodytes are murderous alien reptilians, and ghouls are refined, somewhat bored aesthetes. Not my aesthetics, but credit where credit’s due: they work within the context of this personal dungeon, and they form the “rules of the game” the characters may choose to engage with, subvert, or ignore. What makes me happy are the “special” NPCs found on different levels. These are inventive vignettes, never overdone, with a lot of idiosyncratic colour.
BUT is it really a TRV megadungeon? The guardians of the Sacred Canon may register their complaints. It is too small “horizontally” to be all-encompassing, since the individual levels are more medium- than mega-sized. The first level in particular feels constrained and far from endless. It is, frankly, the weakest of the bunch, and makes for a fairly “meh” initial impression. The monster stock is sparse, and random encounters also deplete a finite, small pool of opponents, which is completely out of place. It feels empty and sort of generic, paint-by-the-numbers. Likewise, the dungeon levels are sometimes lacking in the empty space considered to be important for the care and feeding of megadungeons – no rooms are left unkeyed, and things are a bit squashed together. (Yes, gentle reader, Yours Truly stands guilty as charged on this point, too.) Monocled purists will come away with arched eyebrows from this one.
However, from Level 2 and on, the dungeon suddenly comes into its own. The writing becomes livelier (and has a characteristic wit that’s one signature of this dungeon). Monster-populated zones take on a distinct character, NPC lairs start cropping up in earnest, and there is a growing presence of imaginatively designed magical stuff – enigmas, simple puzzles, things to mess with for fun and profit. This is perhaps the best element of the dungeon – a continuous feeling of discovery and magical whimsy. Loot is interesting and well placed (although the author may be lowballing it if we go by the book… not as much as I do, but OD&D BTB is kinda ridiculous in this department). Magic items are varied, customised just enough to give them character. And again, the environments change, with each level after the generi-dungeon first one having its own style and challenges. There are steam tunnels to get lost in, just like in the old days! Monster-controlled zones where rushing in will bring down God’s fury on the hapless characters, but guile and negotiation may save the day. Underground pools and a tunnel system populated by ants (but you must shrink down to enter, making them into giant ants). An arena for ghouls and a troglodyte opera. Ways down to deeper level. The good stuff.
The Black Maw follows a minimalist presentation. Every instalment so far can be printed on one paper sheet via booklet printing for the text, plus a single sheet for the level map. The first page introduces the level with its common inhabitants and features. A key follows on two pages – 35-45 areas tend to be the norm, one paragraph each. The final page is a reference sheet containing a custom wandering monster chart and a helpful OD&D-style creature roster with all the stats you need in play. This packaging is user-friendly, and remains at a level of detail which does not sacrifice ideas and flavour on the altar of ill-conceived ideas about minimalism. The one-page dungeon was a mistake, but a five-page one? That’s workable. The maps are starting to get decent – the first one is a more polished one from Tim Hartin, but the next two, presumably by the author, are kinda rough. Level connections are still missing on the more recent ones.
The Black Maw is a worthwhile project to follow. As I have suggested above, it starts out unassuming, and gets better as it progresses. It is fairly true to the idea of the OD&D megadungeon, and even if you don’t play it, it is worth looking at for the ideas and structural look. (I would gladly hear of the concrete actual play experiences, too.) There is potential here, and it has the proper DIY spirit. Rating goes for a “so far” impression.
No playtesters are credited in these publications. Would appreciate a roster of playtest characters.
Rating: *** / *****