Monday, October 26, 2009

The Dungeons of Castle Blackmoor - First and only Impressions

The thing getting RPG Bloggers' panties in a twist this week has been megadungeons. Whether they can be published or not, and blah blah blah.

Before all this online angst I was at my FLGS looking for Shard (Which still isn't available dammit!). Since I am unable to leave a game store without buying something I picked up a $40.00 tome by Zeitgeist Games. "The Dungeons of Castle Blackmoor". One of D&D's elder gods' PUBLISHED Megadungeon. Something several say can not exist. This book supports their claim. It is not a megadungeon (rather just a large module. If you don't understand the difference you'll have to go drink Grognardia's and Philotomy's kool-aide) Still, you might brush that aside as semantics. What's more important is that I feel "The Dungeons of Castle Blackmoor" to be a waste of $40.

To be fair I'm prejudging as I've not played with it and only skimmed it (there's not that much to read, more than half the text is statblocks and ability descriptions). From what I've seen I don't want to give it a more complete reading. It's probably a good d20 all stat blocks, difficulty checks, combat, kill, kill product but it pretends to be something else and I'm bitter that I fell for the bait and switch.

The first level is straight out of the Great Sweeney's description of Castle Blackmoor's basement. There are call out boxes "Arneson Speaks!", cool bits of history and advice. These end after the first few pages. There are three or four in total. There is also an overview of the level. Level One is pretty boring, but I read Level Two's with it's warring factions. Cool just the sort of megadungeony thing I expect. Level Three is the last level with an overview.

So, reading the first few chapters (as I did in the store) you come away thinking, "This could be a pretty cool old-schoolish product". Only to get it home and realize the rest of the book is just boring level appropriate combat encounters. Mostly static (although there's a single page describing the scripted raging battle occurring on levels 12-14). A telling fact, from my point of view, is there are no less than three persons credited for "Game Mechanics". I have no idea if this is actually Arneson's dungeon or how much he influenced it. He's listed as "Lead Designer" not as one of the writers. I can see him describing this or that encounter/room/trap he rememberd and the Game Mechanics reitepreting that through a d20 lens. There're touches of creativity here and there. But, not enough to save this product. I get the feeling it was slapped together to exploit the Blackmoor license.

I found one thing to like! Rooms mostly have cool evocative names like "Trial of the Adepts", "Goblins Galore", "Crushed", and "Crush, Crush, Crush". Also, every level has it's own wandering monster table.

And I will say it has a lot of features to help make d20 play less burdensome. Each level has a Encounter Index listing area, page, type, EL, and numbers of monsters. "Wasting" all that space on repeating stat blocks and listing out all the rules for critters' special abilities really helps during play. Freeing DM from thumbing through several books just to figure out what a monster does. This is probably what Zietgiest spent much of their effort on and they have done well. Unfortunately, I'm so over soul/mind crushing rules and that level of complexity.

300 pages (about 3/4 of which are stat blocks and d20 special ability descriptions/rules). No index, No appendix, One new monster (a pretty cool one), Ah, there are a few more boring ones buried in the chapters. No new magic items (unless they're hidden within room descriptions). 20 levels too many, esp if you roughly line them up with character levels. Should be 7-9 levels with several sublevels, planer nodes, etc. None of the level maps look particularly inspiring. And mostly go at 45deg angle which is annoying, not clever.

I'm sure there are some salavagable cool bits, looks to be a few clever puzzles/traps. This could be a megadungeon, with a lot of work (writting level overviews, deleting crap, adding interesting monsters/magic). It could have been about 60 pages - 1 map, 1 page overview/tables, 1 page of one-line room descriptions, 3 pages per level. As written it is a boring hack/slug fest to get to the BEG on the bottom level. Just not worth $40. (unless you're the least creative sort of d20 hack and slasher)

[BTW A proper megadungeon (or at least a mini-megadungeon) has been published, It's called "T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil". Great video game based off it too.


  1. Ouch. Looks like Philotomy's website has given up the ghost.

  2. I almost bought the Blackmoor Dungeon on the weekend. But my initial thoughts (as I thumbed through it) were similar to yours.

    I remember seeing the same maps in First Fantasy Campaign, I can't I was impressed with them in that book either. Some of the background in FFC was interesting though.

    I ended up buying the Mongoose Traveller soft-bound rulebook, instead of Blackmoor Dungeon.

  3. Well, the maps are authentic Arneson maps so if you dislike their odd angles the publisher is not to blame.

    While I understand a lot of the opinions in this overview I must ask if it's fair? Frankly, complaining that a 3rd ed. product contains gobs of stat blocks is kind of silly. That's how they look. If you pick up a 3rd ed module for old school purposes you have to be prepared to ditch 70% of the text. That's just how it is. Also, it will be scaled to level.

    But. The fact is, there have never been much of a, perceived at least, old school dungeon. They always seem to be "improved" to a "better edition".

    I have a bunch of the 3rd ed Blackmoor stuff, and since I know enough of the history of the realms I can read between the lines. That's fun to see gaming history like that.

    Were I to run my own DoCB I'd probably use the same tables for monsters, but just randomize how much there's be, and make sure there's a balrog in there somewhere. I actually think the maps are neat.

  4. I liked the First Fantasy Campaign booklet, except for the dungeon. And Arneson is definitely to blame for that. Why he didn't turn the map 45 degrees is beyond me, or simply ditch the underlying grid.

    As for the 3rd edition stat blocks, Arneson could have published his stuff "edition-free". Lamentably, he did not.

  5. Yeah, I don't disagree that the review is "unfair". Although, I did mention the good job Zeitgiest did as far as making a d20 product.

    My major complaints are:

    1) The first few chapters are a different product than the last 17. I find that deceptive and dishonest. Since customers are likely going to read some stuff at front and skim the rest prior to purchase (at least I do).

    2) It could have been so much better and for $40.00 with Blackmoor on the cover it should have been.

    Re Arneson, reading play accounts and looking over original materials (Blackmoor map, these maps) It doesn't seem to me that he was that great of a DM. OMG, I know, the blasphemy! I don't think he was bad, and DM's have different strengths(acting, plot weaving, creative insanity, etc.).

    He was obviously fun to play with. But, with the more analytical stuff (world building, maps, rules) Arneson seems, unsophisticated. Ya know, like someone who was inventing a hobby as he went. Like someone who was just having fun. Which is totally awesome, really. But, translating your ideas into written word and publishing supplements requires that "analytical" talent.

  6. Pretty interesting discussion. If you want to gain a true glimpse into the creative mind of Arneson, try to get ahold of the First Fantasy Campaign. Unfortunately, circumstances meant that Arneson was less a part of the industry than he might have been. What we have of his work are mostly things he did early on in his life and tales of 30 years of running games in Blackmoor. :)


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