Sunday 14 May 2023

[REVIEW] Vault of the Mad Baron

Vault of the Mad Baron
[REVIEW] Vault of the Mad Baron (2022)

by Christian Toft Madsen

Published by CTM Publishing

Levels 3–5

A hollow Earth with a populated interior is a great setting for adventure stories, and a good way to place even stranger things under your fantasy world. From Verne, Doyle and Obruchev to Burroughs and Lovecraft, as well as the highly underrated weirdo children’s science fantasy series, Sunken Worlds (a.k.a. Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea), it has been occupied by dinosaurs, UFOs, cavemen, nazis, punk pirates, dancing yellow pangolins, and intelligent lizardmen. This module is the second in a three-part series exploring the “Inner World”, two of which have been published so far. Journey to the Inside Out (itself an outstanding module I read but have so far failed to review) was a lost world setting with cavemen lorded over by a technologically advanced alien race, Vault of the Mad Baron is a bustling mediaeval city, and the forthcoming Labyrinth of the Dreaming Machine is going to be post-apocalyptic. The three modules are set in the same place, except separated by millennia (with time travel possibly linking them). For instance, the main dungeon of the first module is revisited here in a way that leaves most of the physical space intact, while showing how the place has been affected by the passage of time and repurposed by its new inhabitants.

Vault of the Mad Baron has a more conventional setting than Journey to the Inside Out, being set in Bergfried, a Late Mediaeval / Early Modern port city ruled by a hereditary monarchy founded by Northman conquerors, as well as a monotheistic church, the nobility, the guilds, and a rising criminal underclass. The pulp elements of Journey are still present, but fairly well hidden underneath the thick layers of a normal fantastic mediaeval society that reacts to these elements – a mysterious plague caused by messing with things that ought to have been left buried – in a fairly realistic way a fantastic mediaeval society would. Corruption, intrigue, the lust for power and revenge come to the fore as the plague spreads and things start falling apart, heading towards some sort of resolution between Bergfried’s competing factions.

This is the module’s basic premise: it presents a complex, interconnected sandbox setting in a large city with an eye towards realism, then throws curveballs when the characters start to dig deeper and events in the city escalate. It is sort of a low-magic and relatively low-level sort of D&D; light on monsters and treasure (perhaps a bit too low, especially on the latter), and high on realpolitik and competing factions. You could easily run it without the hollow earth premise if you wanted. The module notes it “contains topics which may be unpleasant to embrace in a fun pastime activity such as colonial aspects, abuse, murder, drug substances, poverty, diseases”, which is a bit like saying a candy jar contains candy, or a fantasy story features swords. Luckily, the module delivers on the good stuff in spades, without it being either preachy or puerile.

Vault of the Good Layout
The first impressive thing about the module is its scope, and its efficiency in delivering it. This is a 60-page book that would probably be a 240-page volume in lesser hands. “So what is in the sandbox?” “Everything.” “Everything?” “Everything.” The quantity of material crammed in is exemplary, containing everything you could conceivably need to run adventures in the city, with a gazetteer-style writeup, several random tables to facilitate play therein, detailed writeups of its six factions, their main NPCs and mapped headquarters, plus a large two-level dungeon system with a total of 80 keyed areas. “Good layout” has largely become a counterproductive obsession in this corner of the hobby, but that is not the case here. This is, in fact, good information design and good layout. A ton of information is presented, but it is being made accessible in the same breath. Page spreads are laid out to facilitate ease of use, with a plethora of random tables and charts next to the main text. The text is economic, and things are meticulously cross-referenced.

This efficiency is a necessity. As sandbox settings go, this one is heavily interconnected. The keywords are complexity, complexity, and more complexity. Everything relates to something, leads to something else, or is in conflict with a third thing. There are many moving parts, but the book does an admirable job of keeping them within the GM’s reach. There are occasional hiccups with table coding: is that Table BG, Table EG, or Table G1? It is not always completely straightforward to find where they are, and let me tell you, there are a lot of tables – it is hard to find a page spread without one, or five. However, this is the worst thing I can say about the module’s presentation. It is mostly just very solidly made.

Vault of the Shady Factions
The second thing that impresses about Vault of the Mad Baron is its handling of political intrigue. The rival factions are presented with their agendas, key objectives, things they want done in the city’s power struggles, and the people who run them. All of them crave power over Bergfried, but they do so in different ways – from the rising power of the Iron Guild and the doctrinal conservatism of the Church to the mystery cult of Dagon and the Baron’s grievously wronged wife who is plotting her revenge. This is not the railroady sort of political intrigue. Rather, you are handed the game board, you are handed the playing pieces with their capabilities and motivations, and let it play out in game as the players throw a wrench into the machinery. The city is a conglomerate of interlocking systems, and you can disrupt and destroy these systems through your actions.

In addition to the detailed static setting, a dynamic element is introduced through a simple but useful progression chart handling the advancement of NPC agendas – all based on how things get resolved through faction intrigue and player agency. Bergfried is a powder keg ready to blow, and there are serious opportunities for tipping the balance – with an element of moral dilemma. The city’s mighty and powerful all have something to hide, and are all eager not to have the skeletons in their closets disturbed. And disturb them you can: the headquarters of these organisations are written up as mini-dungeons (usually with about 30 locations each) ripe for stealthy and determined infiltrators. The cloak-and-dagger aspect is well done in both the physical and intangible sense, even if the room descriptions are mostly one- or two-line notes. As one-page dungeons go, they are the better sort.

Vault of the Vault

The Bergfried Dungeons form the module’s centrepiece. The two levels (three if we count the castle above them) are more detailed than the preceding city sites, using bullet point-based presentation with terse, matter-of-fact descriptions. The room entries are nothing to write home about – they serve their purpose, but you will not find entries that make you go “Wow, I should have thought about this one.” It is more of a low-key and realistic affair of prisons, workshops, guard rooms, cultist/bandit lairs and abandoned sections, without much in the way of “specials”. Realism takes precedence over whimsy. However, the dungeon system is ultimately saved by its interconnected nature, and even its size. This is an appropriately large place to explore, containing enough mysteries and dark secrets to uncover – all of which links back to things going on in the city. As a nice touch that will be mostly lost on those who do not have Journey to the Inside Out (an error you should redress when you can), the upper dungeon level is identical to the one in the previous module, and contains several callbacks to Bergfried’s prehistory. While the upper level is largely abandoned with the occasional guard outpost and NPC/monster lair, the challenge of the lower level involves four distinct areas, two of which are occupied and run in a systematic fashion by the Baron’s men, with guard schedules, checkpoints, and defensive systems. We also find the module’s weirdest things crammed in here, deep beneath the surface – and there is a large contrast indeed. It makes for a pleasant sense of discovery if the players come this far.

In summary, Vault of the Mad Baron is an exemplary adventure in both content and presentation. It lies slightly outside the standard D&D paradigm – it is a more-or-less realistic, low-magic Late Mediaeval setting with an underlying element of science fantasy, focused on a combination of cloak-and-dagger intrigue and dungeon infiltration instead of reckless adventuring. It lowballs its treasure values (something I am also guilty of, although not to this extent), so not that much character advancement will take place here, but that can be altered if you wish, and the NPCs largely play by the same rules. The tone is serious and tends towards the darker side; shades of grey and hard decisions all around. If you are looking for something after you are done with Hole in the Oak, this may not be the perfect sequel. You could say it is a bit like a LotFP adventure not written by edgy children. This is a module which inhabits its niche effortlessly: if you are interested in the premise, you will be happy with what you are getting. It is a large-scale, high-effort scenario that does “everything”, and does it very well. It comes with GM and player maps for VTT use. Oddly enough, there is even a trailer.

This module credits its playtesters, and that is, also, as it should be.

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


  1. I read your review, thought to myself "something like this sounds really expensive" and then discovered it's 5 USD. That's...shockingly good value.

    Also, LotFP-but-not-written-by-edgy-children is what more people should strive for.

  2. How can I get hold of Christian Toft Madsen and force him to make a POD version available?! I need to have this in a physical form, grumble grumble!

    1. He made a comment about this below Journey to the Inside Out on dtrpg. Looks like when the series is complete, he intends to combine the modules into one book and provide a print option then, but might be considering PODs for each module separately as well if there's demand?

    2. Hi Jiri. Thanks for your comment and your interest in the module.

      My idea was to release all three modules as PDFs and see what feedback and requests such as yours I would receive on the individual modules. However, it has always from the beginning been my intent to collect all three modules into a POD supermodule.

      This would allow a second round rewrite, editing and layout on the whole thing.

      I will need to figure out licensing also, as I will likely go with Matt Finchs new licence for IW3.

      best, Christian Toft Madsen

    3. You do realise you have just discourages me from buying by promising an improved second edition? :)

      Anyway, great to hear about your intention to publish a POD supermodule. I may wait for it as I prefer physical adventures to PDFs, and Gábor's glowing review definitely drew my attention. Can't wait!

    4. Hi Christian,

      Congrats for the 5* review!

      Do you plan to update the already purchased pdfs according to the 2nd round rewrite?


    5. Hi Walpole.

      Yes defintely. Plan is to keep the singular PDFs for each module. And after 2nd round rewrite they will individually be updated and available.

      As mentioned below by PrinceOfNothing, its primarily IW1 I want to revist and update. I am ok with current status of IW2 (but will update a table annotations and smaller things). But IW1 will need a more substantial rewrite.

      Might also allow some time for IW3 to obtain any critique and points for improval.

      Lots of work, and little time unfortunately. Real life has intervened here. But it will be done.

  3. Wow, a 5/5 by you surely means something! I'll take a look, because I believe I'm in the same page: my D&D tends to be really 'realist', until everything devolves into some weird mythological-pulpy shit and then the people returns to count cattleheads, manage towers and raid the orclands.

    So this sounds like totally my thing.

  4. Ha! For your sake Venger .. I did put in one tentacle monster in .. but you are right - not a typical gonzo-venger style thing :)

  5. I remember IW1 had some warts but also some definite potential. Great to see IW2 rising to such heights.