Saturday, December 27, 2008

REVIEW: Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works (Part I of III)

Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works -- or, more precisely, Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works -- is the coda that brings the symphony of Gary Gygax's game writing to a melancholy conclusion. Consisting of six staple-bound booklets (varying in length from 20 to 48 pages) and three glossy maps in a large box, The Upper Works (hereinafter abbreviated TUW) is available from Troll Lord Games for $44.95 until the end of December 2008, after which TLG's license to publish and sell it and other Gary Gygax-related products ends. This had made TUW an instant collector's item for devotees of the late Dungeon Master. And collector's item it ought to be, for TUW is a remarkable, if flawed, piece of work. These flaws do not, I think, diminish the remarkable achievement Gygax and his protégé, Jeff Talanian, have given to the gaming world, but they do contribute to the lingering sense of time wasted and promises unfulfilled that swirl around Gary's gaming legacy.

Gamers have been waiting to see the fabled levels of Castle Greyhawk since 1980 at least, when Gygax indicated that TSR would be publishing them in an upcoming module. Since then, no such module has ever appeared, although numerous products supposedly connected to Castle Greyhawk have been published. Gygax was involved in the writing of none of them and the relationship of even the best of them to the megadungeon of the original Lake Geneva campaign is tenuous at best. Consequently, news that Troll Lord Games would be publishing a series of products detailing the renamed "Castle Zagyg" was met with great excitement. That not only Gary Gygax but also Rob Kuntz, co-DM of the Greyhawk campaign, was actively involved in writing these products only heightened the anticipation many felt. At long last, it seemed as if the fabled Holy Grail of fantasy roleplaying was about to be revealed to the world.

Alas, such hopes proved to be misplaced. The first Castle Zagyg products appeared in 2005, consisting of the 250-page hardcover Yggsburgh by Gygax, detailing a large settlement near Castle Zagyg and the surrounding wilderness, and the 40-page softcover module Dark Chateau by Rob Kuntz, detailing the ruined and abandoned former abode of the Mad Archmage himself. Anyone who read these early products with clear eyes could have seen warning signs that the Castle Zagyg project would likely never see completion nor would it fulfill the fondest hopes of gamers. Yggsburgh, while a worthy product in many respects and full of trademark Gygaxian goodness, offered little to nothing in the way of new information about the fabled Castle nor about the campaign whose centerpiece it was. Dark Chateau hinted at much but was ultimately constrained by the fact that it was quite clearly a "space filler," a bone thrown to gamers while they chomped at the bit for the main course of Castle Zagyg itself.

It took two more years before additional Castle Zagyg products appeared -- the East Mark Gazetteer and the "City Expansions" series -- but none of these new products detailed the Castle and most of them contained not a word of Gygaxian prose, instead focusing on the ever more minute details of Yggsburgh. TLG in fact planned to produce 19 separate products describing each of Yggsburgh's districts. Of these, only four were ever published. Again, it was an omen of things to come and in more ways than one. Along the way Rob Kuntz removed himself from involvement with the project, with several explanations from several sources being offered for this turn of events, but, in retrospect, it seems most plausible that it was disagreements about the direction of Castle Zagyg that were the most pertinent. When TUW finally debuted at GenCon 2008, I have to admit that I was more than a little surprised. I honestly never expected to see any more Castle Zagyg material, especially since Gary had died almost six months beforehand. I saw no reason to doubt that Castle Zagyg would disappear into the same black hole as the Castle Keeper's Guide and other such announced-but-never-materialized TLG products.

I didn't attend GenCon this year and so I waited to see TUW in one of my local game stores or available for order through an online retailer that didn't treat shipping to Canada as if it were shipping to Antarctica. I never saw either occur and so bit my tongue and ordered directly from TLG at the exorbitant shipping costs they charged to get it to me. Even at that price, I was glad to pay it, because I doubt I would otherwise have ever seen TUW. Fortunately, TLG was prompt in shipping me my copy and it arrived not long after my having ordered it. Despite being in a box, my copy of TUW was not shrink-wrapped, which at first worried me that it might not be intact. My worries proved unfounded, but, when compared to companies like Necromancer Games or Goodman Games, both of which have produced expensive boxed sets over the last few years, I can't help but be a bit disappointed that similar care wasn't taken with TUW as they showed with their products. After all, TUW was clearly meant to be a flagship product for TLG and Castles & Crusades and yet it certainly didn't appear to be treated as such.

Perhaps it's a small thing and I shouldn't think to much of it. Nevertheless, the lack of shrink-wrap suggested to me a kind of slapdash approach that I feared might carry over to the contents of the boxed set itself. Given the history of the Castle Zagyg project up till the release of TUW, I think my concern was justified. In Part II tomorrow, I'll return to this question at length as I discuss the actual contents and presentation of Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works. In Part III, I conclude my review with my thoughts on the place of Castle Zagyg in the gaming legacy of Gary Gygax and what the future might (or ought to) hold for Castle Zagyg now that Gygax Games has rescinded its license to Troll Lord Games.

9 comments:

  1. I've gotten exactly three boxed products from Troll Lord Games and only one of them was shrink-wrapped. And the guy at the store told me that they themselves had shrink-wrapped it.

    Apparently Troll Lord Games isn't interested in such things.

    They make great stuff, but their professionalism leaves a bit to be desired, in my opinion.

    Though I've gotta say, that's pretty old school...

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  2. I've read figures to the effect that about a third of what we pay for any given product is actually paying for the extra plastics and whatnot with which we package them. I'm sure shrinkwrapping alone would have minimal impact on the price, but I just don't see that it's necessary. Maybe it was when RPGs were prone to come with punch-out counters and stand-up figure flats, but for a small pile of booklets I just can't see the need of it.

    In fact, I kind of appreciate the fact that TL boxed sets aren't shrinkwrapped, as it has allowed me to peruse the contents in order to make an informed buying decision. Sadly, my informed decisions have generally been either "Not on my current budget" or "Not until a revised version is produced," but I'd rather decide that before a purchase rather than wish I'd decided afterward.

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  3. IMHO, TUW should have come out in hardcover book form. Like it was originally intended.

    I'm convinced that since GG moved it's IP elsewhere, we are going to see further CZ products of better quality and quicker pace.

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  4. Since then, no such module has ever appeared, although numerous products supposedly connected to Castle Greyhawk have been published. Gygax was involved in the writing of none of them and the relationship of even the best of them to the megadungeon of the original Lake Geneva campaign is tenuous at best.

    Gygax did write Beyond the Magic Mirror, Dungeonland, and Isle of the Ape, all of which were, by all accounts, directly taken from the original LG campaign. Plus there are The Living Room and Bottle City by Rob Kuntz which, while not authored by Gygax, are reliably placed in the original campaign as well.

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  5. I have no issues with a lack of shirink-wrap. I'm generally opposed to superfluous packaging, especially when it's non-biodegradable and made from petroleum.

    Not to say I wouldn't have bought UW it it had been shrinkwrapped.

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  6. I totally passed on TUW because I saw it wasn't shrink-wrapped. I thought it was a returned or damaged item.

    Doh!!

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  7. I was a little leery of the fact that TUW wasn't shrink-wrapped when I got my copy as well. I'm glad to see that this wasn't a unique case.

    I quickly got over my anxiety that elements were missing. I'm now dealing with the extra-bonus material that was included in my box: scores of tiny pieces of white paper that seem to be super-charged with static electricty and cling to the covers of the books, the maps, my clothes, the cat, etc...

    Those I could have done without.

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  8. My copy finally arrived today in the mail. I have just started to look through it. Clearly there is a lot of information provided. On my first initial review, the overall quality (not content) is not quite as good as Necromancer's RARE. Necro did a nice job with the presentation, and I am a little surprised that Troll Lords did not put the same care into their flagship product.

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  9. Gygax did write Beyond the Magic Mirror, Dungeonland, and Isle of the Ape, all of which were, by all accounts, directly taken from the original LG campaign. Plus there are The Living Room and Bottle City by Rob Kuntz which, while not authored by Gygax, are reliably placed in the original campaign as well.

    Very true. Indeed, I'll be talking about all of these products in the context of TUW in Part III of my review.

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