Maze of the Screaming Heads

By Brian Rideout
Deathtrap Games
Levels 5-7

Ninety-seven years ago the Cult of Malphas created the greatest library of Arcane Lore ever collected : the Maze of Yes’od-caj. They invited Sages and Luminaries from all over to witness its consecration. When the guests arrived, the cultists set upon them, beheading every sage and trapping their minds inside their undead skulls to serve as the source of the library’s lore. One sage avoided the slaughter and took revenge, poisoning the Cult with a killing spell, sealing the library to all but himself. Now, a century later, the doors to Yes’od-caj are open, and something stalks the streets, collecting the heads of the wise and holy… And there is Forbidden Lore and lost treasure ripe for the taking…

This 52 page adventure uses 22 pages to describe a 22 room dungeon. It’s trying to pull off a “trapped in a maze” thing, with a couple of options to get out. It’s got a couple of decent ideas, and a nice “bargain with a demonlord” encounter, but overall comes off a very samey in almost every room. This combines with some long winded read-aloud to produce what, I think, would be a dreary exploration.

So, let’s talk about those encounters/rooms, since that’s what a substantial portion of my negative feelings on this one come from. There are two environmental conditions in the dungeons. The first level (15 rooms) has a bunch of “scholar” skulls embedded in most room walls that scream gibberish. (This is meant to be satire about some specific online forum, but “the conversation has moved from scholarly discussion to furious shouting” could describe every online forum.) Because of this screaming, every party member must make, every two turns, a save vs spells or be confused for 1d4 rounds. I get the desired impact, but I also think this is quite a tedious mechanic and could have used more thought on how to implement it. On the second level (eight rooms), most rooms have a fine layer of dried poison dust on everything, which forces saves if kicked up through searching, fighting, etc. Again, I like the concept, but again, I think it might be a bit much. I like the push your luck aspect, but the concept here would seem to encourage an avoidance of interaction with the environment … not a good thing. Finally, something like twelve of the rooms on the first level (fifteen rooms) are essentially the same room encounter. A bunch of skulls on the wall, screaming at each other. That save vs spells effect. They each have some treasure in an alcove underneath them and they each have some kind of words of wisdom carved in to the wall above them. The formula for Gaseous Form potions, or some spell, or some other “word” treasure. In a couple of the rooms something drops down on your head to ambush you. You go in, collect some loot, question the skulls to get a clue about the riddle for the exit (you’re trapped inside, remember) and then rinse and repeat. In all of these cases, to one degree or another, the designer has taken a good concept and just repeated it just a little too much. There is a sameness to them that begs the question: why not just have fewer rooms? 

Against this samey-samey interactivity are three other encounters that DO stand out. First, we’ve got two linked rooms. The undead bad guy can be talked to and will let you out if you kill some NPC roaming around in the dungeon. She’s the second part of this linkage. So, a little bit of talking, some negotiation, and maybe a showdown with the bad guy … or killing the NPC so the bad guy can take her skull. Second, we’ve got the “secondary” exit on level two. It’s guarded by a giant ooze. The idea here is that you put a giant monster in front of the exit and force the party to make a choice: stay inside and dea with the skulls/baddie or risk the fight with the monster guarding the exit. Except … this isn’t really telegraphed at all. And the monster hides on the ceiling. And, it’s not really an impressive creature to be feared … I mean, it’s an ooze. Yeah, sure, maybe it has a lot of HP and kills people, but, it’s not TELEGRAPHED that way. Which is its purpose. Finally, we’ve got the demon lord. In an evil chapel you can sacrifice some treasure and/or people to summon a demon lord and ask for favors. Including getting you out, or a variety of other things. And there’s a book that explains what you need to do and a variety of “Reward” levels. This, then, is a classic push your luck. Look, right there, you can get out. All you have to do is summon Bob and promise him X. Oh, and want a stat bump, or XO, or something else? He’s ready and willing to respond, assuming you offer enough. That’s a PERFECT D&D encounter. You are making a choice. And, it probably leads to further, longer-term in-game complications. 

I should cover the text a bit. We’re looking at longer read-aloud, multiple paragraphs … although many of them are single sentences. Again, read-aloud should be kept short. Further, the read-aloud over reveals information, citing things like “the bronze plaque appears burned” and other details that, ideally, should be left for the party to investigate and learn about. The back and forth between party and DM is a critical part of the game, the heart of it, and over-explaining in read-aloud kills that interactivity. Finally, the DM text can off backstory and justifications for whats in the room, neither of which add anything to the game. I would normally add “and that makes it harder to scan and locate information …” but, in this case, since the vast majority of the rooms are essentially the same, that’s not an issue. 😉

“But, but, it’s a satire of an online forum!” … being sold as an adventure. If you want to be an adventure, castle greyhawk, then you have to be an actual adventure.

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages and, unfortunately, doesn’t show the buyer anything interesting to help them make a purchasing decision.

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5 Responses to Maze of the Screaming Heads

  1. The Heretic says:

    Oof, compared to Caste Greyhawk. How did this not get a Worst Evar?

  2. Dave says:

    Trapped in the dungeon adventures are good in small doses, but the gimmick can get old for the players. My thinking now is one per campaign, and maybe even only one per group.

    And if I’m only going to run one, that sets a high standard. The Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng is pretty good, The God That Crawls is good if you up the treasure a little bit, so already I’ve got options.

  3. The premise of this adventure sounds so promising. I believe I could steal it and come up with something far better and more workable. The over abundance of rooms is pointless especially as repetitive as they seem, but if you change the mechanic so that the talking skulls slowly increase effect on the players, the goal would be to get away from the skulls as quickly as possible. More rooms would make sense tIme would become the currency. Perhaps players would have to find some way to appease the skulls to get advice on how to get out, perhaps the skulls could be from differing factions, some working against and some working with the players. I think I will buy this just to see if I can salvage it.

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