Sunday, December 28, 2008

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

As I noted in Part I, Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works consists of six staple-bound booklets and three glossy maps. I'd like to comment first on the physical qualities of these items before diving into a more detailed discussion of their contents. I think it's fair to say that TUW is by far the best looking and presented product Troll Lord Games has ever made. It's very clear to me that they quite correctly saw this boxed set as a prestige product and made every effort to avoid the past mistakes of earlier TLG offerings, many of which are legendary in their production missteps. That's not to say that TUW is entirely free of the gaffes I've come to expect from TLG -- there are typos, omissions, and other editorial infelicities to be found throughout, but none that I came across struck me as anything more than the kinds of errors one might reasonably expect from a product of this size and scope. Cory M. Coserta is listed as the editor for TUW and he deserves a debt of thanks for his work on it.

The five booklets containing the descriptions of the Upper Works all use the same workmanlike two-column layout that TLG seems to use for all its products. It's not pretty but it's quite serviceable, particularly given the density of the text itself, which uses a very small typeface. The text is broken up by black and white art drawn by TLG stalwart Peter Bradley and Jason Walton. Of the two, I found that Walton's work was by far more to my liking. There's a sameness to Bradley's pieces that reminds me a bit of Elmore's later work, whereas Walton's pieces have a "rougher" and slightly cartoonish look that somehow struck me as more appropriate to the subject matter. Ironically, Bradley's color work for the covers of the booklets were much more in a vein I like. Art, of course, is highly subjective, so I certainly won't hold my own opinions against TUW.

On the other hand, I will hold cartographic errors against TUW. Aside from lots of minor but inconvenient issues, such as inconsistent map symbols, there are a number of missing or misnumbered locations. Likewise, there are places where the maps contradict the text or where the maps were drawn in a way that I found difficult to follow. In a location-based product of this size, I would have hoped that greater care would have been taken to ensure that the maps were made as exactingly as possible and that their presentation would aid the referee in their use. The sense I get, though, is that this project was just a little too big for TLG's resources and, while they put forward a solid effort, it still wasn't quite as professional as TUW demanded.

Two more brief points before proceeding: TUW includes neither an overview of the entire Castle nor an index. In themselves, neither omission is ruinous, but their lack contributed to the "drip, drip" in the back of my brain, slowly wearing down my enthusiasm for this product. An index would certainly have made using TUW much easier and an overview of the entire Castle would have given some much needed context to the material we were given in the boxed set. Combined with the unnecessary contrivance of the "Curse of Fog & Frogs," this made me wonder exactly how much of Castle Zagyg had been completed at the time TUW was published.

1. Mouths of Madness: This is the first of the six booklets included with TUW. 44 pages in length, it details the wilderness surrounding Castle Zagyg, including the eponymous Mouths of Madness, a collection caves in which dwell several different types of humanoids and other monsters. If that sounds remarkably like the set-up for Keep on the Borderlands, I'm sure that's no accident. Despite the nostalgia this elicited, I found Book 1 to be one of the weakest bits of TUW, consisting mostly of repetitive humanoid encounters. There are a number of memorable bits -- the ogre's cottage, the gateway to Barsoom -- and several references to fabled locales (such as the Black Reservoir), but these were few and far between. I suppose it didn't help that TLG had already sold me this booklet in the previously-released Eastmark Gazetteer, but I can't say I found much here that excited my imagination or inspired me.

2. Ruins of the Castle Precincts: This 48-page booklet was much more to my liking, both because it deals directly with the Castle's grounds and because the encounters within it were varied and generally interesting. There is a goodly supply of tricks, traps, and diversions amongst its monster encounters, as well as snippets of Greyhawk lore (with the serial numbers filed off, of course). It's here that you catch glimpses of the whimsy and mercilessness that are Gygaxian trademarks. There's also a fitting -- if heavy-handed -- tribute to Gary himself in the form of a goblin cobbler that seems all the more poignant in the wake of his death.

3. East Wall Towers: At 20 pages, this is the shortest of the booklets, but it hits well above its weight category in terms of allusions to Greyhawk lore. Here we encounter the brothers of the Crimson Hand, as well as a shrine to a "celestial deity" that includes a number of nice twists and turns.

4. Castle Fortress: This 44-page booklet is another excellent one, detailing the ruins of Zagyg's old surface fortress. This area of the Castle contains a goodly mix of encounters, some of them quite memorable and challenging. According to the introduction, which includes quotes from Lake Geneva campaign regular (and Gamma World designer) Jim Ward, these ruins received very little exploration in the original campaign, as the subterranean levels had "more and bigger loot," to quote The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. Consequently, the material here is potentially quite new, in the sense that it has never before been even hinted at in earlier accounts of the Lake Geneva adventures. I found this booklet held my attention for quite some time, as I read and re-read it for details I might have missed. There's lots of inspiration to be found here.

5. Store Rooms: Another 44-page booklet, it's a mixed bag, with several interesting encounters and far too many rooms filled with humanoids barracks, armories, and storage chambers. It's probably unfair to have expected anything more from it, given its name, but I did feel a mite disappointed. I'm a fan of Gygaxian naturalism, as you know, but this section of TUW proved fairly dull because of it. The book concludes with many new magic items, monsters, and a fully-statted rival adventuring party, the latter being a very nice old school touch that I greatly appreciated.

Maps & Illustrations Booklet: 36 pages in length, 20 of them is devoted to maps of the Upper Works. I've already mentioned my feelings about them above. The remainder is a series of 33 illustrations (all by Jason Walton) that are presumably intended to be shown to players at appropriate times, after the fashion of the illustration booklets of TSR modules of old. I was very taken by many of these pieces, as they nicely highlight the whimsical and deadly nature of the Castle. Just looking through them is a terrific antidote for anyone who, like me, tends to look down on the unique pleasures of funhouse dungeons. In some ways, I found it the most inspirational portion of TUW.

Taken as a whole, TUW didn't shake that "drip, drip" feeling I noted earlier. Part of it was that my own expectations for this boxed set were unreasonably high. I had hoped that we'd actually get to see something of the fabled dungeons, not just the areas immediately above them. Clearly, that was never the plan and I can't hold TLG accountable for that. Gary Gygax likewise decided that, rather than attempt to recreate one of several versions of Castle Greyhawk from the past, he would instead create a new castle that was a distillation of all of them that was at the same time none of them -- a kind of Gestalt. This was certainly not my own preference, but, again, I can't blame TLG for this, since it should have been clear, after having read Yggsburgh, that the best I could hope for was an "impressionistic" approach to the Castle and its levels.

Even so, TUW felt "small" and I don't just mean in the sense of its expanse, although it certainly did seem far smaller in size than I'd have expected. Rather, it felt as if there was a great deal missing from it -- its "heart," if you will. What we got in this boxed set certainly had lots of Gygaxian flourishes to it. It was hard not to recognize the spirit of the Dungeon Master hovering above it. Yet, it also had many other hovering spirits and, while I can't quite put my finger on all of them, their presence at all made me feel that TUW wasn't as good as it could have -- should have -- been.

It's not as if there's not a lot to like here, because there is. I know I'll be swiping portions of it for use in my own Dwimmermount campaign. However, I was never moved to try to and run TUW straight out of the box. Indeed, I found TUW wanting compared even to the notes that loremeister Allan Grohe has assembled on his webpage. Certainly, TUW is more "complete" in the sense of containing more statted up encounters, treasures, and so forth, but there's a very real sense in which that attempt at completeness works against it. For one thing, TUW isn't complete; it's only one very small part of a much larger megadungeon that still hasn't seen publication yet. For another, it doesn't invite the kind of tinkering and personal modifications that, say, Rob Kuntz's Lake Geneva Castle & Campaign products do, which perhaps says more about my own expectations than it does about the weakness of TUW, but there it is.

In the end, I like Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works. It's a worthy product and one I'm glad to own. But I don't love it; it didn't knock my socks off and I had hoped that it would. Again, maybe that's unfair, which is why the final part of this review will be a discussion of what I had hoped I would see and what that means not just for this product, but for any future publications of Gygax-derived material.

17 comments:

  1. I loved UW.

    However, I suppose that this has a lot to do with how I see it: As the long-promised Castle Greyhawk "warts and all." That is, separated from unrealistic (dare I say "fanboyish?") expectation of ULTIMATE DUNGEON PERIOD that decades of frenzied anticipation have engendered in some.

    Do I honestly think that a version of the castle published by TSR in the early 80s under the auspices of GG himself could have equaled this effort? Perhaps...but quite possibly not. In any case, equaling it is one thing, but noticably exceeding it would have been a Herculean feat.

    I guess all I'm saying is: How does UW fare against the "average dungeon module" and how well could we *fairly* expect it to in the absence of overpoweing nostalgia?

    ReplyDelete
  2. FWIW, Will, I rated CZ:UW against other peer mega-dungeons and found Caverns of Thracia as well as Ruins of Undermountain to be superior products; I thought CZ:UW was better than Rappan Athuk. I also rated it against the other published versions of Castle Greyhawk, and found it better than all of them to date (I didn't compare it against the various sub-levels published by EGG or RJK, just the TSR/WotC Castle Greyhawk products).

    Allan.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I guess all I'm saying is: How does UW fare against the "average dungeon module" and how well could we *fairly* expect it to in the absence of overpoweing nostalgia?

    I'm going to address that question in Part III tomorrow. My capsule answer right now is that I think, taken purely on its own merits as a megadungeon, TUW is something of a failure. I actually prefer Rappan Athuk, 3e stat blocks and all, to TUW and think Caverns of Thracia blows them both away. I also think Greyhawk Ruins provides a better baseline for a megadungeon campaign, even if its Greyhawk connection is more tenuous than TUW.

    Now, as a product in its own right, I think TUW is very good indeed. It's an important example of slightly retro dungeon design and ought to do much to convince people of the playability of the megadungeon set-up. The biggest problem is that TUW is incomplete, lacking both the coherence of something like Rappan Athuk and providing only the scantest of overview about how to expand what's in the boxed set. TUW is clearly intended to be a part of a greater whole and, in the absence of that whole, I think it's weaker than it should have been.

    But I'll elaborate on all of this in Part III.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree there. Undermountain is less than 10% of a decent module and stinks of Greenwood to boot (when I buy a mod, I want usable descriptions for ALL the dungeon rooms, thanks). Caverns is fine, but too small to be a true megadungeon IMHO. Greyhawk Ruins is just godawful on every level. That one is just baffling to me.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I definitely agree that UW had (still has...?) the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts, though.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Undermountain is less than 10% of a decent module and stinks of Greenwood to boot (when I buy a mod, I want usable descriptions for ALL the dungeon rooms, thanks).

    For me, the lack of descriptions for all the rooms is a selling point, because it means the referee has to add his own material, which is an essential part of the old school feel.

    Caverns is fine, but too small to be a true megadungeon IMHO.

    I don't disagree, but I think that, as written, there's enough of a guide to know how to expand it, which is one of the things I found lacking in TUW.

    Greyhawk Ruins is just godawful on every level. That one is just baffling to me.

    All I meant by my comparison was that Greyhawk Ruins provided a better sense of vast scope than did TUW, which is an important characteristic of a megadungeon. I agree that it's less than ideal on many levels, although I'm not sure that it qualifies as "godawful."

    ReplyDelete
  7. Will said: Undermountain is less than 10% of a decent module and stinks of Greenwood to boot (when I buy a mod, I want usable descriptions for ALL the dungeon rooms, thanks).

    and then James said: For me, the lack of descriptions for all the rooms is a selling point, because it means the referee has to add his own material, which is an essential part of the old school feel.

    I agree completely: being "forced" to design additional encounters is one of the reasons I like WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure so much.

    Allan.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The maps alone make a case for GR being awful. The butchery of the setting material is pretty bad, too. Don't get me started on Zagyg's spelljamemr ship...

    ReplyDelete
  9. "I agree completely: being "forced" to design additional encounters is one of the reasons I like WG5 Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure so much."

    WG5 does have descriptions for every room on the maps, if I recall.

    I'm okay with adding on to a module, but that's in addition to whatever's on the original map, not just a way to make the original map playable.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The WG5 map are fully-keyed, but not all of the rooms are numbered (in the WG5 version; in the Dungeon 112 version, each room is keyed and numbered).

    Allan.

    ReplyDelete
  11. as a self-proclaimed expert of Barsoom, i wonder does the gateway to Barsoom include details about its inhabitants ?

    ReplyDelete
  12. No, it just mentions that it'll be detailed in a future CZ volume :-/

    You can read details from Warriors of Mars @ http://p085.ezboard.com/fpiedpiperpublishingfrm11.showMessage?topicID=63.topic and more generally @ http://odd74.proboards76.com/index.cgi?board=mars

    Allan.

    ReplyDelete
  13. "No, it just mentions that it'll be detailed in a future CZ volume :-/"

    Not entirely true. Here is the text in question:

    "If the CK desires, this cave can serve as a gateway to a red planet not unlike Mars, where a lesser gravity is in effect and where 4-armed green giants, blue men resembling plants, huge albino apes, and six-legged riding beast dwell; the world by and large ruled by the green giants and various colors of humanoids. The Castle Keeper can either develop such a setting whole cloth, utilizing any and all appropriate fictional resources as inspiration (such as the novel John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs) or wait until such a supplementary adventure to the Castle Zagyg product line is released."

    It's funny, grodog, but you seem powerfully eager to sell UW short at every turn, fair or foul. Strange, and disappointing.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Apologies in advance for that last comment, grodog. I posted in haste.

    ReplyDelete
  15. It's funny, grodog, but you seem powerfully eager to sell UW short at every turn, fair or foul. Strange, and disappointing.

    I don't think that's true at all. If you read Allan's extensive review of TUW, you'll find that he's actually quite positive about the product, far moreso than I am.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Will: no worries :D

    James: I agree that I am basically positive about CZ. It's just a B/B- product for me, rather than the A/A+ one I had hoped for.

    Allan.

    ReplyDelete
  17. It's just a B/B- product for me, rather than the A/A+ one I had hoped for.

    That's similar to my opinion, although I think it's more solidly a B-. That's better than many products, but I had hoped TUW would hit it out of the park, so to speak, when what we got was ground rule double.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.