Monday, 3 February 2014

Castle of the Mad Archmage (2014): Short Review

This weekend BRW Publishing finally released the commercial version of Joe Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage megadungeon. I've been running people through (mostly) my homemade level one and the shallower levels of the free fan-release since I started DMing again, so I immediately ordered it from RPGNow in pdf and print.

Really, the Castle's unique virtue is that it's truly capable of taking an old-school party from level 1 to name level, with loads left over. No other product can make that boast. With 12 major levels averaging over 150 areas each, and abounding in special areas and challenges, the Castle is first past the post and still uncontested as a truly complete Old School megadungeon experience.

The other part of the Castle's appeal is that it's constructed, where possible, to match the reports and reminiscences of Gary Gygax and his players about the original Castle Greyhawk dungeon. Here you'll find analogues of the Great Stone Face, the Man of Gold, the chute to China, Obmi the dwarf, and many other legendary features. In the BRW release, necessarily so, the Greyhawk intellectual-property serial numbers have been filed off, but I suppose those who care about the difference will by definition know enough about the old Greyhawk campaign to make their own substitutions in play.

The main added material beyond the older, free pdf includes a complete upper castle works and Level 1, both of which are nicely designed, with a mix of weak monsters, powerful NPCs, and factions who -- much as in the original Castle Greyhawk -- extort tolls and tribute from parties venturing deeper. There's also an illustration booklet, Tomb of Horrors style, for some of the key sights in the dungeon. A nice touch, although I'm thinking some of the pages could have been used to illustrate difficult-to-describe puzzles like the Greek letter or ping-pong ones, rather than dungeon landmarks that can more easily be described verbally.

For the most part, except for some format changes and minor rewriting, the levels and rooms appear much the the same as in the previous product, at least from my perusal of the most familiar Level 2. There are expanded notes on play, including a huge table of rumors, a selection of quests, and improved information about the factions on each level. A nice touch at the start of each level chapter is a miniature map showing the location of any factions or special areas. The full-sized maps have their own booklet and are resized to fit a two-page spread. That's very useful, although I miss the grayscale rather than black background of the maps, as being easier to write notes on.

And notes there will be, because as before, much of the dungeon is given over to essentially empty or undetailed rooms, with one or two sentences describing by-the-book inhabitants and treasure. Many of the tricks and puzzles seem dead-dropped into the dungeon, bringing to mind the likes of White Plume Mountain. Along with certain features, these give a decidedly goofy feel to the environment; nonsense limericks, skeletal musicians, clown murals, and the like.

There's a conversation going on about hacking megadungeons, and I'll write soon about what I do to add  to the Castle myself. One thing to realize - there's not much to choose between a set of rooms left empty for the filling, versus a set of rooms filled with random monsters, undetailed treasure, clues and dungeon dressing features that lead nowhere, and so on. While the Castle has many subtly interesting situations and set-pieces, there is also a lot of filler in the spaces. Still, the thing is finished and out there, so I can't criticize too much ...

In conclusion, serious old school aficionados should put the Castle at the top of their shopping lists this year. Again ... there is nothing else like it. The full set of pdfs is $20 and the full set of softcover books (plus pdfs) will run you about twice that, plus shipping.

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