Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Castle of the Mad Archmage - Review

This was expected to be finished last week, but due to holidays and family commitments, it is a week late. Happy New Year, everyone!

Castle of the Mad Archmage, a megadungeon by Joseph Bloch, was released in 2014 and is currently available on drivethrurpg. I am reviewing the Pathfinder version (mainly because I can't find my OSR version). This version is 164 pages with two additional books: a map book and an illustration book. 

As this was an early OSR megadungeon, it begins with an intro for the game master that includes a short history. The section shows Bloch's love for the genre. A note is made about "funhouse dungeon" and this is an important concept, because CotMA is exactly that. 

(For refresher, here's my definition):  Funhouse Dungeon:A dungeon that is rooted more in lighter aspects of gaming. They typically have little "realism" with everything within being based instead on fun. 
And from Bloch: "which has as its central conceit some vehicle to explain the unexplainable, to give a rationale for situations that defy a more naturalistic justification. In such cases, one need not ask why there are monsters crammed together in mazes, large piles of treasure guarded by riddles and puzzles, or the like. They're there because the Mad Archmage, an insane demigod, wants them there, and that's all the rationale is required." <This introduction intentionally not graded.>

The first real piece of the book is the "General Information" section. Again, I think it is important to mention this is an early megadungeon. Bloch covers making sure that the megadungeon isn't static (to the point of keeping track of fireball singes), He mentions what happens to dead bodies, teleporters (including undetectable ones), "standard rooms and corridors," a lot of Pathfinder information, humanoid lairs, and that there is little or no backstory for the rooms/creatures. Also within this section are the following sub-sections:

Location (how to place the dungeon in your world)
Overview of the Dungeon Levels
Entrances (four are listed here)
Camping in the Dungeon (don't do it)
Dying in the Dungeon (including a chart of what kind of undead may arise)
Quests within the Dungeons (a full page and a half)
Tournament Play
The Greyheim Construction Company, LTD. (why the dungeon changes, including the ability to add new sub-levels) 
Introduction for the Players (a 3 paragraph boxed text). 

Overall, this section is sparse on lore. But, it is in the vein of the early OSR. 6/10

(I found my OSR Copy! I will be using that moving forward. 152 pages)

Getting into the meat and potatoes of the book, we start with the Surface Level: The Upper Ruins. 41 keyed areas are listed within this section. (I am spoiled by Gillespie boldening the monsters within rooms. Bloch should revise and follow suit.) Bandits, giant rats, wild dogs and other common low level faire live here. The deadliest encounter is probably the harpies (but Bloch notes them in the Great Hall, when they are listed in the Gallery adjacent to it).
Overall, the Surface Level is pretty bland and standard. (That's what a low level entry should be) 8/10

Level 1: The Storage Rooms is a very unique and fun-looking map. Immediately I am drawn to "Room" 70, The Maze of Doors: 47 10' square rooms with doors going every direction. When playing this, I remember it being a pain-in-the-ass because our mapper sucked. And our DM wasn't great at glossing over things we had done dozens of times. The first 3 times or so, this was a great encounter though.
Bloch has 110 room listings on this level, giving an idea of the true scope of the dungeon. There are 4 factions on the first level: elves, dwarves, kobolds and zverts. There's also a surprise dragon hiding within this level!
Overall, you really get the funhouse sense of the dungeon here, and the well designed map, paired with several unique factions and even better unique encounters makes this level a really fun one to explore. 9/10

Level 2: The Deep Cellars is 184 rooms, with 6 factions, including rival orc factions (isn't that fun!) Bloch sneaks in a legendary encounter from the original Castle Greyhawk, the Fountain of Snakes, a fun pi puzzle (using the Greek alphabet). There's also room #104 "CLOWNS. The walls of this room . . . with drawings of clowns.  At first they seem normal, but if studied, a more sinister appearance can be noted." I really want to know what the author envisioned here, There's literally no explanation of the sinister appearance. 
More of the Funhouse aspect comes out, but this map weirdly feels like quadrants. 7/10

Level 3: The Dungeons: 202 entries, so the definition of Megadungeon already qualifies in 3 levels (running total: 537 rooms already!) The Bloody Axe Orcs (one of the factions from level 2) controls a significant portion of this level, including the area directly around an entrance to level 2. Having a faction split across 2 levels is great design, and makes the dungeon flow a bit better. The first "mini-boss" (Brekk, the dwarven pain) resides here with a small group of followers, Including those two factions, the level holds 5 total factions (again, the same two orc factions as on level two).
Room 172 is another Clowns room. "Spending more than 1 turn in this room will cause anyone to grow uneasy; a successful WIS check is required to remain longer than that, although nothing overt is causing it" I never ran into these rooms as a player, and if I read them as a DM, I do not remember them. Now, I am getting curious.
Room 196 has 16,807 keys within, and a riddle to solve which reveals the proper key. Bloch does make some clever puzzles.
I really liked the addition of the faction overview at the beginning of this level. 8/10

Level 4: The Lower Dungeons: 152 rooms, with a lot of long hallways and a few interesting geomorphs comprise this level. He should have called this level "the Arena" however. My group had a lot of fun interacting with (and eventually taking over a faction) the groups here. We made a lot of money fighting in the arena.
Arena levels are a bit schticky for megadungeons, but this one is a lot of fun with the right DM. 6/10

Level 5: The Deeps: this is where the dungeon transitions to "lower levels". There is a chasm here that connects levels 5-7, and the threats amp up significantly.. Bugbears, trolls, ogres, wereboars (?!), gnolls and flinds (one faction, with the flinds being leaders/aristocracy) are the factions listed within. (Where is the faction breakdown??? It was great on level three and four, but it is gone again. Instead we have a relationship guide, that doesn't cover the wereboars).
The flumphs have a room within the level, and a not-a-beholder shows up as well. 
Overall, I want more consistency with faction breakdowns. But, with some work, it is still a fun level.  6/10

Level 6: The Labyrinth: Bloch says it best in his intro to this level "corridors are boring." I have no time as a player or a DM to make this level enjoyable. 
Oh joy:  Level 6a: The Sub-Labyrinth. I will pass on both of these. It may be someone else's cup of tea though. NA/10

Level 7: The Crypts.
(I really wish that Bloch would put the mini-map in every level. It makes a very easy find-the-page marker. There is plenty of room on the previous page or at the end of the chapter to make room for it,)
I love undead. I love undead levels. I also like cults, and this level has the "Chapel of the Reaper" and a few others in the complex. A chirurgeon dissects bodies on this level too. Rats and ghouls are apparently waging a war over the bodies on the level. 7/10

Level 8: The Lesser Caves the map lists the following: Temple of the Rat Lord, Trolls, and Shadow Dragon as controlling areas on the map. One way doors get a paragraph as well. A sudoku puzzle shows up on one of the doors here. The rats/rat lord feels out of place here (too weak for the level). 7/10

Level 9: The Greater Caves my favorite part of this level is the hidden shrine to the goddess of love and beauty. Hill giants and vegepygmies are the main forces in this level (along with ants, bees and other insects). Overall 6.5/10

Level 10: The Lesser Caverns is a Planar Nexus. Everything else seems humdrum in comparison. 8/10

Level 11: The Greater Caverns (the mini-map is back!) Apes, trolls, mushroom men, jinx midges and a demonurgist are listed as the factions (but the demonurgist keeps to himself).This level is dense. It packs in a demon, wizard, a couple of factions, the demiplane of Sugarland (not described), a teleporter to Bitterbark's Circus (I think this was an expansion printed later with clowns), and a gate to a Red Planet. This level is probably the most gonzo in the dungeon, with a lot of stuff left for the DM to flesh out. The prompts are enough though. 9/10

Level 12: The Catacombs 8 dragons and their followers make up the majority of this level. They plot and scheme against each other and with others. Sub-passages dot the underside of this level, implying false levels below. This level presents itself in many ways, so no two groups who reach it will have the same experience. 8/10

Level 13: The Maze is the smallest level of the dungeon, but it truly is a maze, with teleporters bouncing the PCs around. At the center is the mad archmage himself. It feels very Gygaxian, eventually sending the characters to the other end of the world. 6/10

Final Thoughts

Artwork: 9/10.  I don't have my physical copy nearby, so that is based solely on the PDF.
Layout: 4/10. Lots of white space. Inconsistent mini-maps, inconsistent faction information. I would like the images from the illo book reprinted in the main book. There is a lot of white space, so it should not increase page count
Cartography: 6/10. Simple, but effective maps. The glaring mistake is the side view map, showing the chasm on 6-7 instead of 5-7.

I think that using every level's score is skewing my overall grade. I think the things in final thoughts are the most important parts. Moving forward, I will be tweaking this grade equation until I feel it is right. This time I am averaging the artwork, layout, cartography and lowest and highest level scores. Overall, CotMA gets a 


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