By Johnstone Metzger
Red Box Vancouver
EDIT: The morning after writing this review I feel guilty. MAN, I’m a hard ass these days! The first 10% of this was a turn off and some of the rooms lack purpose. If you can deal with that, and the modular nonsense, then it’s a good dungeon.
This is a 352 digest-page modular megadungeon with five levels and 51 different little dungeon map areas to connect together. About 180 of those pages describe the dungeon with the first thirtyish being into data and the last ~140 or so describing all of the new monsters. Special attention has been paid to usability and art, especially for the monsters. The modularity doesn’t really add anything and a few too many rooms come off as “just throwing some rando shit at the wall.” Still, this is a great effort and is hovering around a C+/B-, and you could justify a purchase based on it being a monster manual alone if you were in to such things.
Most of the layout of this book is great. It uses a “facing pages” layout os the map is primarily on one page and the encounter keys are on the facing page. In addition to room numbers, red lines are sometimes drawn from the room description to the room on the map, or small little notes appear on the map. This is GREAT design, putting a lot of what a DM needs right in front of their face, and is a great alternative to the “map on the DM screen and encounter keys on the table” format. Note that both put the map right in front of the DM’s face as well as the encounter keys.
It has a couple of other tricks up its sleeves as well, when it comes to usability. Here’s the description of the second room:
2. Worship Hall
This hall is empty. A secret door at the bottom of the stairs is camouflaged by tiles.
• Black and white tiled floors and walls. • Defaced statues of forgotten gods.
• Doric columns. • Smells like dust. • Very high, fan vaulted ceiling.
Note the use of the bullets to communicate impressions of the room. It’s a fast and effective way to communicate a general vibe and let the DMs brain fill in the rest. I REALLY like this format of communicating information. Note also the focused and short DM text that appears above the bullets. It all gets in and out fast and is easy to scan and then summarize/communicate to the party. This is EXACTLY what a room description is supposed to do. The text also has cross-references to direct the DM to specific page numbers for more information, an invaluable addition to usability.
Not all of the rooms use this format and, frankly, I think the ones that don’t are missing out and come off as weaker descriptions. Further, that description for room two is a bit generic in places and could use a second pass. “Very” is a very bad word. 🙂 Towering, cyclopean, there are lots of replacements that could replace the generic “very high,” I’m not overly fond of the abstraction in “forgotten gods” either, but at least the gods are not “very forgotten.”
The text also uses bold to call attention to certain words. “A glow and be ceen from further inside the cave.” Another effective technique, although I could again quibble a bit on its use. The bolding overloaded a bit too much. Keywords and concepts as well as creatures are bolded. In a couple of room statues are bolded. “The two headed diva statue is against a …” This being D&D … that could be a monster. Is it a monster? You don’t actually know until you go check the back of the book for the monster list. By bolding both monsters and keywords you sometimes confuse. A different treatment for monsters, sticking a ‘*’ in front of monsters, some other technique, etc could have been used to help with the confusion.
Monsters are very good and treasure pretty decent also. Monsters get either a full digest page description with art on the facing page or a one page description with the art integrated to the page. “Savage beasts tearing limbs from their victims and blubbering like children as they go about their assaults”, so says the first line of the Blubbering Manglers. Note that the focus here, the very first line, is directly applicable to using the monster at the table. It’s not some generic background/history/origin shit, but rather something that the DM can use AT THE TABLE while running the creature. The art for the monsters has a certain Low Life/Andy Hopp vibe which I find quite evocative, it again doing a great job of lending impressions of monsters. The number of +1 swords is on the low side while the “200# rhinocorn statues” and gold chains decorated with tiny rhinocorns” are on the high side. A lot of the magic swords, in particular, have that OD&D “and they do something else” quality to them. +1/+5 vs dragons, and so on. The magic items could use a little more work to bring them up to the monsters & mundane treasure lequalityvels, but they are better than generic book items.
The encounters are hit and miss. The Ghost Pool is made up of the ghosts of people who died in a certain area. Pretty cool. Even cooler? There’s a little section on what happens when you take a drink! (Why the hell do you think there were so many wish items in the early versions? In case drinking from the ghost pool was a bad idea you could reverse it!) Those sorts of things are great, but for each of those that are present there’s at least another room that seems … random. A pool of blood randomly shows up in a room. A strange smell. There’s a bit too much emphasis on window dressing There was a platonic example of this in the Dwimmermount draft, a room with two ghost chess players. Just two ghost images playing chess. You couldn’t interact with them in any way and they contained no clues or mysteries to solve. You can get away with a little of that in a dungeon but too much and I think the players start to not care anymore. And there’s a non-trivial amount of that in this dungeon. There’s a statue and if you touch it then you see the statue out of the corner of your eye at random intervals over the next two days. That’s it. Nothing else.
This extends in to the wandering monsters. While most are just names of creatures there is also a “special” list. “A pair of resh severed hands.” Well, ok I guess. How does that advance play? There are some decent examples that can drive play, like a local child lost in the dungeon, but they are all rather weak.
In fact, I’d say the entire thirty-ish page lead up to the dungeon-proper is weak. How to read the stat blocks, the wanderers, how to use the modular nature, and some friends and foes to spice things up.
The friends and foes, a kind of combination of potential hooks and things to spice up the non-dungeon aspects, are a good example of what I’m now calling abstracted content. It’s not actually aimed at the players. The church of law is just a generic LG church without any specifics. Or Mary the lizard wants you to go get some thing, and if you look in to her then she’s actually been hired by (a random table.) The content isn’t actually aimed at play. The church is generic, Mary’s backgrounds CAN be used to expand play, if you put some work in to it, but it’s not directed, specifically, at play. They lack the specificity that would allow the DM to, on the fly, insert them in to the game.
The “modular” nature is the weird part. I have no idea why this is modular. All that does is confuse things; it doesn’t add anything at all. Some fine person should hack up a permanent version.
This is an not a bad megadungeon … it’s just not stellar. I’m not a fan of the supporting material in the first thirty pages, but fuck it, you can just ignore it. It feels like a generic add-on to the main content (the dungeon & monsters) anyway. The organization of this is top notch, are are the monsters. The encounters proper could use a little work, as could some of the descriptions. It could do a better job providing a summary of what’s going on in the dungeon, specifically. It’s REALLY large for an on-the-fly figuring out of stuff.) When the encounters are good they are really good, and the rest of the content, rando window dressing or not, isn’t too offensive. It WILL fit the needs of a lot of people, it’s just not best of the best. It’s one of those I-Wish-Everything-Were-At-Least-This-Good.
This is $15 for the PDF at DriveThru, with hard/soft available for ~$50. The preview is quite long and shows you the (not useful) background, several dungeon sections, and several monsters. Note the great use of color and notes on those maps and some of those great monster illustrations.