Sunday 31 May 2020

[REVIEW] Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag

Gatehouse on Cormac's Crag
Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag (2020)

by David Bezio
Published by David Bezio’s Grey Area Games
Levels 1–3

Nothing is harder to do well than simplicity. Gaming history is littered with the corpses of attempts which had tried and failed. The badly written Keep on the Borderlands clone (its own subgenre); the flat goblin hole module; the uninspiring cavern system with dungeoneering 101 monsters; the orc castle with endless guard rooms and footlockers containing 1d6 gold pieces and a rat on a string – we have all known several, and they never stop. It may be easy to declare the creative potential of this style has been exhausted, that there is truly nothing there… but then nothing would explain how Jeff Rients and David Bezio can do it. Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag is solid proof there is still untapped power in ultra-vanilla Moldvay/Cook-style beginner dungeons.

Gaehouse on Cormac’s Crag thrives in the same aspects where its competitors fail. It is very close to the platonic idea of a Basic D&D dungeon. That platonic idea is of course the Skull Dungeon sidecut, and this is one dungeon which gives you a dungeon just like that, including its own take on the fabulous Domed City – and more, precisely enough context to make it feel just a bit more than the central adventure location. There is a background section to discuss how the dungeon came to be as the end result of multiple unrelated dungeon building projects, and an overview on who controls its various areas now. A home base, The Village of Caoilainn, is provided over a two-page spread for adventure hooks, shopping, recruitment, and a rumour table. A small one-page wilderness section describes the various ways the party can travel to and around the dungeon through customised, simple encounter tables (with monsters, local colour, and even the odd friendly NPC). Nothing is superfluous – it is all simple, yet there is no feeling here that corners have been cut. D&D’s owners have long been selling crippleware in their beginner sets. This is not crippleware, but the kind of adventuring experience you should pack into an ideal beginner box.

All the way down
Most of the module is dedicated to the seven dungeon levels of the Gatehouse. That’s right – seven levels, with 134 keyed areas, in a 40-page booklet. These are not enormous dungeon levels, but they are big enough, and there is a pleasant progression through the adventure, as you go deeper into more dangerous, more lucrative, and more strange locales. You can follow a gradual path of engagement, or take an enormous risk and try your luck in the deep levels by descending down a shaft that goes all the way down (if it has not been completely clear this is indeed a love letter to the Skull Dungeon, it should be by now). But wait! There are two side levels hiding a dangerous secret, and there are clues leading you deeper underground on the trail of three lost girls, or an adventuring party who never came back. There is also enough combat, interaction and puzzle-solving to teach a new group the ways of proper dungeoneering. There are dungeon mushrooms, coded messages, treasure maps, green slime, and the rest of the good stuff.

Much of the joy of Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag is found in the way these small links tie together different levels and different themes. You have a kobold outpost, a lair populated by ratlings, a larger level featuring two goblin tribes duking it out in an abandoned dwarven stronghold, the hideout and shrine of an evil priestess, a slave mine operated by ogres, and a lost level with the greatest “low level” archetype, a mysterious underground lake. These are quite different places, and might disintegrate in a badly made module, but they are connected by small stories weaving through multiple levels; leads which encourage adventurers to explore further; and secrets which can be resolved by visiting multiple levels. Nothing on its own is very deep – most room entries are simple encounter types described in a paragraph – but there is a dynamic which is very well realised, and establishes the dungeon as a complex environment for exploration and decision-making.

Would you buy a used
glaive-guisarme from this guy?
This is not a module for everyone. There is a good reason many of us prefer AD&D’s more complex encounter design, shadier aesthetics, and its promises of a broader world behind the adventure scenery. This is painted in stark black and white, like the excellent, Jeff Dee-flavoured illustrations – here is an evil cleric; he has a forked beard and he dresses in black; here are ogre slavers doing ogre slaver things (there is actually an evil shrine area that’s fairly dark, and which I think is going to be food for a lot of thought if run for a bunch of 10-years-olds). It is cartoonish, low-concept, good-vs-evil D&D. I have to accept it is not for me. But let’s say you want to run a substantial adventure for your kids or distant family, or you want to hand a module to someone just getting into the hobby. This might not be the perfect module for all times and people, but it could be the perfect module for that occasion. It excels at formal matters like presenting information efficiently and directing the GM’s hand (while also leaving enough open to encourage building from its base and establishing opportunities for further adventures), and it is also a hell of an underground journey which strings you along naturally as you go deeper and deeper into a fantastic underworld. If I were WotC, I would be taking copious notes about this one.

Let it be noted that there never was a Skull Mountain Dungeon, only the idea of one, and numerous fascinated gamers taking notes and trying to make it happen. Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag did not just try, it succeeded admirably and making something that, if not a straight carbon copy, is damn close to what a good practical realisation would look like. It was a one-man job, too: writing, illustrations, cartography and editing – all of them good to excellent, with a sparse yet effective style – seem to have come from the mighty hand of David Bezio. And that is no small feat either.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

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

Saturday 23 May 2020

[BLOG] The Anatomy of a Dungeon Map

Over several years, in posts and forum comments, Yours Truly has ranted and raved about the general decline in mapping quality in tabletop roleplaying games, later switching to first person shooters, and then back again to RPGs. Wading through disappointing map after disappointing map, it is easy to get the impression making a good dungeon map – the sort that leaps off the page and encourages exploration, environmental puzzle-solving, and creative tactics – is a bit of a lost art. Many dungeons are in fact not dungeons at all; rather, they are illustrations depicting something like a dungeon map, but offering none of the dungeoneering experience due to their limitations. It becomes all the more important, then, to highlight the good stuff, maps with the right scope, complexity, and structure.

Good structure is especially tricky, since many promising maps conceal a rather banal layout under visual frills, as well as twists and turns which do not, in fact, do anything – they are visual noise masking linear corridors and the occasional, vestigial side branch you can visit before returning to the main one-way rollercoaster ride. Good structure is still more of an art than an exact science, but it is generally agreed that some structural features are better suited to “map flow” than others, by encouraging meaningful decisions, environmental interaction, and emergent gameplay:

  • non-linearity, aided by branching and looping elements;
  • three-dimensional environments with verticality, interesting interconnections between dungeon levels, and a variety of terrain (c.f. “jacquaying”);
  • relative openness, counterbalanced by occasional bottlenecks usually referred to as “pinch points” or “choke points”, and maintaining significant barriers to make navigation a challenge.

Not every dungeon has to have these features to be a good dungeon (and keying is the second half of the puzzle), but generally, they help. Furthermore, the principles apply to tabletop games and FPS games in different ways; thus, Ultima Underworld, classic Quake levels, or Thief’s Down in the Bonehoard embody these principles differently than Caverns of Thracia, Tegel Manor, or Tomb of Abysthor.

The Winter Tombs
The current post looks at good design through the example of The Winter Tombs, a free dungeon level by Dyson Logos. This will also be released as a dungeon dungeon by Jim Pinto, but for now, we will restrict ourselves to the map. This is a particularly good test case, since it is a map that has a pleasing complexity without obfuscating analysis, and its structural elements are easy to identify and discuss. Here, I will only reproduce a low-res specimen; for the larger map, go to Dyson’s site, download the map, and print it at home. For the sake of analysis, I rotated the map by 90 degrees, putting the entrances on the bottom (hereafter referred to as “South”), then I produced a line graph to showcase the map’s structure. So, what lies beyond the cross-hatching?

The Winter Tombs is a single-level dungeon map with a tomb/caverns theme. The closest analogy is Judges Guild’s classic Sunstone Caverns, a semi-keyed dungeon from their second campaign instalment. Like Sunstone Caverns, this one is densely (although a bit less densely) mapped to provide a large playing area in one map.

Dungeon graph
The first element that leaps before the eyes is the selection of ways in: right from the start, the explorers can choose among four tomb entrances and two cave mouths. One of the tombs is a dead-end: a simple, but pleasing trick. Others are connected to the dungeon in ways that integrate cavern and tomb elements, with signs of environmental degradation and blockage to complicate navigation. The way the characters choose to enter and exit through will have a meaningful effect on how expeditions develop. Nevertheless, there is no initial difficulty selection, at least no outwards sign that makes one or more entrances harder to discover or access. (As a counter-example, consider the lower level back door to In Search of the Unknown!) Notably, there are not many outright exits. They are in the distant reaches of the map (near the octagons and in the upper right corner). If this dungeon has lower levels, it will take a lot of initial effort to reach them – the overall permeability is quite low until secure routes are identified and firmly established!

Choke points and tricky bridges
Of course, many elements which appear complicated on a first look are essentially straight lines – a labyrinthine set of catacombs in the lower middle is a simple loop, impressive halls are essentially fancy corridors (bottom right), and many of the twisting cavern passages are simple “bridging” connections. However, the map uses these bridging pieces in a shrewd and disorienting manner, via over- and underpasses, slopes, and loops which reverse the direction of progression, diverting expeditions towards unplanned dungeon rooms. This is an underutilised navigation trick, and one which can be used well to draw the company into a danger zone. We can identify one of the dungeon’s main choke points in the bottom middle: a cave with four exits (one a dead end) is one of the main points linking multiple sub-sections. It is easy to reach from what looks like the “main” entrance, and it allows access to many further points of importance. He who rules the choke point rules the dungeon!

Two main structuring elements are also easy to see. These are the level’s waterways and a very large set of caverns. These play a different role. Water blocks or impedes movement, and conceals invisible monsters from the deeps. Hence, the rivers and the lake are barriers. The E and SW river branches separate the map into its southern and northern sections, while the NW branch further subdivides the northern part into two sections, almost as if they were separate sub-levels (I would certainly be tempted to design the key this way). There are multiple places where the rivers are crossed by bridges, and more where it would be fordable to an ambitious group. We can call these environmental challenges limited barriers. The lake is something that would probably be impassable at first, but become a potentially good way to access the rest of the level once the characters return with a canoe, build a raft, and neutralise whatever threat might inhabit the lake. Ironically, the easiest access to the lake (right from the “main entrance”) is bound to be completely useless on the first visit, aside from offering a tantalising glimpse of things to come!

A case of two octagons
The caverns are not barriers: they represent a nexus point. Although similar to choke points, nexus points are relatively open structural elements, which usually offer multiple ways of traversal, and collect multiple routes departing in various directions. You can see another one on the opposite side: the larger octagonal room with its five main exits (the NE one does not realy count as a full one). This is also a piece of dramatic architecture which stands out from the lower-level dungeon texture: it is YUGE, regular, and perfect for a complex set-piece encounter. Of course, sometimes, appearances are misleading: the other octagon just off to the NW does not actually do anything in the context of the map – it is a linear route to a lower level. Also, nexus points may start off as choke points, ruled by a nastier monster or puzzle before being cleared and used to the explorers’ benefit.

Dungeon highways
There is one more interesting feature concerning this map, which may not be noticeable first, but which has a strong bearing on its flow. This is the presence of long corridors linking distant corners of the dungeon, and once you look for them, you will find a bunch. We might call them accelerators (or fast lanes?), since clearing them allows fast travel through the dungeon. The clearest accelerators are found in the distant reaches of the level, including one which just “caps” the whole thing with a sequence connecting everything to everything. Once you get there, you can choose a way back just as freely as you could at the beginning, a dark “mirror image” of the dungeon’s multiple entrances! Others include the corridors bisecting the octagons, and the corridor to the right, going from the entrance areas all the way to the cavern. As the company finds the accelerators, they will prove very valuable in subsequent expeditions, getting them past the entrance areas and into the depths of it!

So, this is what a good dungeon level looks like. It walks the right balance between openness and navigation challenges, it has a good sense of progression, it is structured in fun ways that suggest both exploration puzzles and exploration solutions, and overall, it has a pleasing complexity that takes effort to figure out, but does not descend into unpleasant pixel-bitching and the exploration of dull, featureless mazes.

Friday 8 May 2020

[ZINE] Echoes From Fomalhaut #07 (NOW AVAILABLE!)

From Beneath the Glacier

I am pleased to announce the publication of the seventh issue of my fanzine, Echoes From Fomalhaut. This is a 40-page zine dedicated to adventures and GM-friendly campaign materials for Advanced old-school rules, with cover art by Matthew Ray, and illustrations by Graphite Prime, Denis McCarthy, Stefan Poag, and the Dead Victorians.

The Bat Plague may still be out there, but now so is this zine (and YOU can be the judge which one you like better). Not all restrictions are gone, but they are suitably relaxed to resume print sales and shipping. Delivery is bound to be slower than usual for a while – I am hearing that packages, which had taken five or six days to reach European addresses now take twelve days or so – but at least it seems to work without major problems. If you can trust the Post, you can perhaps trust the rest of our civilisation as well.

And so, we have this issue! The common theme this time seems to be “things that go deeper than anticipated” – at least this is one aspect which, by some act of Fortune, unites the four articles. There is something quite fascinating going into an adventure, and discovering that the dungeon you expected to end has a deep well going down to a new level; the plot threads you have almost had in your hand suddenly trail off again in new directions, or the room beyond the secret door has a second secret door, hidden even more carefully. What lies beyond the door, the well, or the almost solved plotline? Only one way to find out!

The titular adventure, From Beneath the Glacier, takes the characters to the high mountains where something has gone wrong. Where do the nighttime raids and strange corpses washed down the rivers come from? The answers are found in this scenario, with 21 keyed areas, offering challenges related to navigation, exploration, and confrontation – not to mention a major dilemma once the company is victorious. This is an adventure for mid-level characters, levels 5-7 (our test party was slightly stronger by the time they got there, and had an easier time).

Of course, sometimes an undead-haunted cellar is just an undead-haunted cellar – The Hecatomb of Morthevole is a take on the proverbial “help this guy with rats in his cellar” dungeon, except it is not rats, and the cellar goes deeper than you might think (levels 2-4, 12 keyed areas, which is not bad for a two-pager – I am thinking there will be more smallish scenarios in future issues).

This issue’s centrepiece, drawn from The City of Vultures, is the best known of its Underworld complexes. The Tomb of Ali Shulwar is fairly well known among the city’s thieves and smugglers, but few know of its deeper layers, and none before have mapped its connections, secret sections and true depths. This article presents two entrance levels and three main levels of the tomb (more precisely, what lies below the tomb… if the tomb is even the real tomb) in 66 keyed areas. The dungeons are mostly for the 4th to 6th level range, with outliers (and tougher side-areas, to be presented next issue).

The issue’s final article, The White Hand, introduces one of the City’s lesser conspiracies. A vigilante group formed to mete out “good old-fashioned street justice” to market thieves (and everyone the members believe to be one!) would usually merit little discussion beyond “Thugs (3d6)”… but something is off here. Links to now extinct organisations, infiltration attempts by other conspiracies, odd musical tastes and bizarre characters hanging around the White Hand make it a gateway into an entire world of hidden meanings and secret warfare.  Who is using whom? Who watches the watchers watching the watchers? Most importantly, what happens when it all falls apart at the slightest shove? Whether used in the City of Vultures or somewhere else (which would be easier than it first looks), it will be fascinating to find out.

The issue’s map supplement this time is an unkeyed dungeon level. Or it is multiple smaller dungeon levels on one sheet? You be the judge!

The print version of the fanzine is available from my Bigcartel store; the PDF edition will be published through DriveThruRPG with a few months’ delay. As always, customers who buy the print edition will receive the PDF version free of charge.


In other news...

  • Castle Xyntillan is being reprinted. While copies of the first printing are still available, there will be more soon. The PDF edition is also out there, although the promised, improved functionality will still take some time (my IRL job has been picking up pace again).
  • If you look at the back cover of Echoes #07, you will discover a listing for EMDT62. This was too optimistic, but this module – the English version of the great In the Shadow of the City-God – should be published early next month… if things go well, along with a module collection.
  • The Four Dooms of Thisium, our Bat Plague placeholder campaign, keeps racking it up. 44 PC and follower casualties have been noted, and while one Doom has been averted, three more still hang over the city, abandoned and cursed by its very gods!

From Beneath the Glacier

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).

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.



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: ***** / *****