Monday, September 8, 2014

Castle of the Mad Archmage actual play reflections

I think we officially crossed the line last session between having a bit of fun with the funhouse old-school megadungeon that is The Castle of the Mad Archmage over to goofing on it.

Why is that?

Castle of the Mad Archmage is a lot of fun, let's get that out in the open first. It's a big layer cake maze of monsters and treasures and tricks and traps. It's dangerous, for sure. We've been enjoying our games in it, and we've occasionally found some things that really pulled us into the danger and excitement of delving into a big dungeon.

It's clearly emulating the very old school feel and stories of Gary Gygax's Castle Greyhawk, which came about organically and somewhat randomly, not with an eye to a coherent whole:

"[. . . ] I populated the levels hastily, generally without regard to "ecology," with an aim toward challenge, surprise, and diversity. When there was time, I could change the single-line encounter entries or expand them easily. The key was to make the encounter fun." - Gary Gygax, Dragon #287

So what's the problem?

The problem is that so much of COTMA feels either random, unexplainable, or silly. There are "challenges" but they haven't, so far, felt challenging so much as just peculiar.

Case in point - the clown mural. Okay, what's with that? Silly and unexplainable. Is there a clown theme in the dungeon that we can learn from, interact with, or something? Doesn't seem like it, except "clowns are evil and scary" perhaps.

Big rooms full of beetles? Why are the beetles there? There is mold, but why mold, and why boring beetles? I couldn't see this coming because nothing we're run into so far gave us a clue.

Why the rainbow room chain? It was clear it was a follow-the-rainbow puzzle, but not clear why. There is a reward for doing it right, punishment for doing it wrong, and punishment for greed, but no reason I can see that it is there in the first place. It's not protecting anything, it's not leading to somewhere, and it's just a weird use of power to test, what, if we know what a rainbow color progression is? When we did it, I figured it was a 50/50 shot we'd either get some kind of special bonus (leprechaun encounter, find some gold, whatever) or some horrible consequence like 3d6 damage, no saving throw.

How about the maze of doors? I'm not sure what the point is. We could eventually conquer it with enough 1-4 rolls on 1d6 (we have three regulars with STR 17, by coincidence) but to what end? If there is treasure in it, why, and is it worth hitting my Generic D6 macro on Roll20 until we find it? If there is a reward, why? If there isn't, that only magnifies the question. It made no sense as a section of the dungeon geomorphs, and I'm not sure if Joseph found a much more clever implementation because nothing tells us to try it or not.

Now, some of the tricks make some internal sense. Some seem to work as puzzles you'd place to test folks (the key room, for example), but even then, I don't feel like I know what they're there for aside to see what I know as a player. In game, they serve to pull me out of game, because there isn't a connection to some larger series of tests.

A lot of the traps and dangerous places felt like they pop up without warning, so there isn't anything useful to do to avoid them. We're not falling for things and saying, "Oh, man, we should have seen that coming!" - because it sure seems like we can't. It contributes to the "Dungeon Robber" feel some sections have - I'll risk another room and wait for my random punishment or reward for doing so. This might be the room that has a death trap or the pot of gold pieces. Who can tell?

The tense bits are there, and some of the sections have been really entertaining (like the wizard fight or the lizard man brawl). But it feels so oddball and funhouse it's hard to really feel like it's anything but an excuse to drink beer and roll dice with friends and hope the room you enter isn't a teleporter, chute to level 10, no-save-death-by-pink room, etc. I feel like I'm just taking chances instead of honing my skills. Having played with Tenkar with other adventures, I know it's the source material that's what's throwing me here. That elevator room door, and the elevator room? As far as we can tell there was no clue whatsoever that it was such a room. Aside from sending in sacrificial prisoners and waiting to see what happens, it feels like we're just betting our characters that we've randomly selected a room that isn't a deathtrap or trick to try and open.

I still like COTMA, but I just feel like it needs a bit less random silliness, a bit more tension, and a lot more clues to help piece it together as a whole. Something to pull us down deeper, something to drive our understanding of the place so learning gains us some in-game ability to avoid its tricks and traps instead of just hope for the best and see what falls on our heads for opening a door. Right now, what pulls us deeper is we like fighting tough monsters and finding cool magic items and rich loot. We assume that's down deeper, just because the rules generally say so. But what's not pulling us down is some sense of the mystery of the environment.

What I felt like we had some of in the converted DCC modules was a nice bit of tension and the feeling that we were messing with stuff we might not come off well from messing with . . . but that if we racked our brains we might figure out what's up in time to avoid some badness. We could figure it out - we could profit from seeing the risk and rewards correctly. What's more, there was an impetus to clear the dungeon and complete the quest, because, well, we were the ones there and it damn well needed to be done. With COTMA the drive is merely to drive to keep playing and leveling, not level in the quest to do more things in the game world.

I suppose the dungeon is leaving a lot of this up to the GM. But while you can write you own dungeons sparsely and then expand on the mental picture you had when you jotted down the notes, it's hard to do that when it's not your own creation. Work written for others needs more guidance, I think. Tenkar showed us a room description the other night, and it wasn't any clearer to us what the heck was the point of the room than it was to him. When your GM has a more-than-full-time-job, it's a big request to ask him to explain stuff that just happens to be stuffed into the dungeon. It should at least be clear to the GM what the big picture is, and what the little pieces there might be there for.

Short version? The feeling of randomness to it, and the feeling that there just isn't a cohesive, rational whole to be revealed is getting to me. It feels like the cohesive whole is to unite the disparate stories of Castle Greyhawk, but that's not doing it for me.

That's what has put us over the line from poking fun to mocking as we go, even if we're enjoying the actual play. It just feels so random sometimes, that going further or cutting our losses is just a bet on randomness and not a bet on our ability to leverage our skill against our diminished resources. And that's kind of too bad.

That said, if our GM pulls down COTMA next game, we'll play cheerfully. It's been a fun campaign. But that's despite some of what is in COTMA rather than because of it. Maybe this is just me (well, just us - we're all making those 5% slope jokes.) But maybe even an excellent pastiche of what worked for the hobby as a dungeon back in 1974 just isn't for us, here in 2014.


  1. I truly enjoyed this post. It discusses what I was thinking about after reading through CotMA - to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there doesn't seem to be any there there. That is, it doesn't seem to hang together in a way that indicates some overarching sense.

    Maybe that's the point; Zagyg, the patron spirit of the thing, was a strange, chaotic being, so that's what his abode-fortress should be like. But...a Halloween haunted house you pay a few bucks to walk through in October can have zombie doctors working in a suite of rooms right next to a gray alien landing site right next to a swamp with a giant crocodile, and it's fun for those few minutes. However, something of CotMA's size and complexity needs exactly what you say: a cohesive element that pulls it all together, like the Dude's rug. I just didn't see the Dude's rug, and was thinking it must just be me.

    That said, CotMA does seem to be a classic in its own right, and is without doubt one of the best fan creations out there. This is especially true given that it attempts a truly Herculean task, conjuring up the archetypal superdungeon that was so long anticipated, but which, sadly, we'll never see in the form its creator intended.

    1. It's not just you.

      Even all of that crazed chaotic mix-up would feel okay if we felt like traps, tricks, and weirdness had clues and themes. If there was something to figure out that helped us explore, that rewarded people who drew the right conclusions. It doesn't feel like a mad wizard guarding his stuff or a mad wizard testing delvers (or even a split-personality mad wizard doing both.) It just feels like "mad wizard did it" explaining random rooms that don't have a connection to each other or any real chance to apply what you know to what will come.

      Some of the rooms feel like playing death dice - 1d6, on a 1 you die, on a 6 you get treasure. Ooh, a 2. Want to play again? We're saying yes, mostly because it's fun to laugh on a Friday night with Tenkar and the others.

  2. Reading the last "encounter" sort of explains the place. Or at least give's DM a "cause" to tie it all together. Haven't read all the bits in between. But I surmised it was suppose to be "the big reveal". But, if one needs more reason to explore the place than "because it is there" then DM could sprinkle more forshadowing, hints, bait as to what might await to make players want "to get to the bottom of this", literally.

  3. Reading the last "encounter" sort of explains the place. Or at least give's DM a "cause" to tie it all together. Haven't read all the bits in between. But I surmised it was suppose to be "the big reveal". But, if one needs more reason to explore the place than "because it is there" then DM could sprinkle more foreshadowing, hints, bait as to what might await to make players want "to get to the bottom of this", literally.

    1. I'm assuming you're trying to hint around the idea that on level 13 you get to meet the mad wizard behind the place. I don't think that's a spoiler for, well, anyone at this point. It was the way Greyhawk worked originally and how countless video games play out.

      It's not just the "get to the bottom of this" issue so much as - like I said - it just seems so random, and that every door we open is just betting our character's lives that it's not some deathtrap. Every rainbow room path we find is betting following gives us +1 HP and not 3d6 damage, no save. There isn't anything we can do except open doors and hope. We can't piece together clues because we don't feel like we're finding clues, only random stuff. We can't look sadly at each other and say, "We should have been more careful" because careful doesn't seem to help any.

  4. This makes me sure I won't buy this adventure. When I used to play I loved solving the dungeon mystery so if it is just random enounters then I would be very bored playing it and would not be interested in being a dungeon master for it. When I played Temple of Elemental Evil and we solved the dungeon I thought that was a great ending. It made sense and there was a reason for why the monsters were where they were located. I would be disappinted to have an adventure just be a random set of encounters when it ended. I would feel it was a waste of time for me.

    1. I haven't read it, just played games set on levels 1-3 so far (out of 13). But like I said, it feels random. Or at least, like there isn't a handle to get on it.

      ToEE is a good example. The clear factions, the overarching puzzle to be solved, the tricks there clearly to befuddle invaders - you can dig right into the conflict. This one, geez, a door can have a witch behind it, an elevator, a rainbow, a bunch of orcs, whatever - they're grouped together, often, but it's not clear to me what's going on or how to apply my wits to anything except choosing to press my luck.

  5. Sad to hear about it. I was planning to buy COTMA, but this article reminds me of the dissapointing "Isle of the Unknown". That hexcrawl has no reason or rhyme (for me at least), just a bunck of random encounters. Not impressed.

    I don't mind some level of silliness or unexplained things on dungeons, but not if that is all that there is...

    1. I heard a little about Isle of the Unknown. The counter-criticism I heard of that was, it's a framework for GMs to work with, and people who disliked it couldn't handle that. Maybe that kind of thing is what COTMA is going for - here are monsters and maps and puzzles, now YOU get it to hang together in your way!

      Unfortunately, I'm clearly not the target audience to GM or play that. I'd rather have it all done and explained, so I can either run with that or change it.

    2. Talking about frameworks for GMs to work with, "Blackmarsh", by Robert Conley or the various settings in "Points of Light" is more to my liking. They are hexcrawls with a theme.

      IotU feels too disconnected to me.


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