As I noted in Part II, I like Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works. I believe it's a very fine product and well worth the money I spent on it. I also think it's a fitting capstone to Gary Gygax's life and career, even if it's a somewhat melancholy one. I say "melancholy," because TUW is a textbook example of opportunities missed and promises unfulfilled. While it is still, by any measure, a worthy product and a truly Gygaxian one, it could have been better than it was. There's a host of "could have beens" associated with this product and I'd like to talk about several of them to give a better context for my final review of TUW.
1. Timeliness: As we now know, TUW will be the last product of the Castle Zagyg line published by Troll Lord Games. That it was also, by most standards, also the first product in the line to attempt to make good on what most fans expected from it only makes this fact harder to accept. I understand that at least some of the delays in getting TUW to press were not TLG's fault. A combination of factors, no doubt including Gary's failing health, contributed to its tardiness. By the same token, had the projct been better managed from the start, with a realistic timetable and a fewer about-faces in terms of content and format, there's a chance we might have seen more than TUW in the four years since the project was first announced. A good portion of my dissatisfaction with TUW stems from the fact that, after all these years, it's all we've managed to see of the megadungeon I had hoped we'd have seen by now.
2. Appearance and Organization: Being an old schooler, I'm quite accustomed to amateurish products and indeed have a certain affection for them. At the same time, there are many companies out there that have managed to produce attractive and well organized materials without having the resources of Wizards of the Coast. TUW should have been treated like the prestige product that it clearly is. Its organization should have included at the very least an index and better cross-referencing and I don't think it's asking too much in expecting an overview of the entirety of the Castle and its levels. TUW is packed with information -- which is a good thing! -- but it's not particularly user friendly, especially compared to products like Rappan Athuk Reloaded or Castle Whiterock, both of which are larger and yet easier to use. Likewise, TUW's box is flimsy; mine is already splitting after very little use and its pasted-on cover is starting to peel and crack. All these complaints are minor in themselves and I'd have quite happily overlooked them, but, in aggregate, they contribute to the impression of a product made with less care than it ought to have been.
3. Historicity: I had hoped that Castle Zagyg would have taken an approach closer to Rob Kuntz's products, such as The Living Room and The Original Bottle City. In those products, Kuntz not only presented a reconstruction of material from his days as co-DM of the Greyhawk campaign, but also commentary on the origins of this material and how it was used, including reminiscences of events from those days. In some cases, this made the material very "modular," which is to say, disconnected from its original environment, but it also made the material far more useful for referees hoping to drop it into their existing campaigns. Furthermore, it made the material of terrific interest to people whose primary attraction to it is in gleaning insights into the early days of the hobby, not to mention details of one of the oldest fantasy campaigns in existence. Granted, there was never much chance that the Castle Zagyg line was going to adopt this approach. Anyone who'd read Yggsburgh could have seen that. Gary himself stated on numerous occasions that he didn't favor treating the Castle as a "historical" product. I think this was an error in judgment on his part, if only because I don't think historicity need get in the way of gameability. Indeed, I think a greater emphasis on historicity would have made the material of wider interest and greater gameability, particularly for old schoolers such as myself. Again, it's probably unfair to judge TUW too harshly because it didn't adhere to a model that its creator rejected, but I can't deny I held out hope that he might have changed his mind in the course of writing it.
4. Completeness: In itself, TUW contains everything it promises. It does detail all of the Upper Works of Castle Zagyg. Unfortunately, the Upper Works aren't where the Castle "lives." They're, at best, a tantalizing glimpse of what lies beneath them, a sideshow that briefly holds our attention before we move on to bigger and better things. Jim Ward notes that, in the original Greyhawk campaign, the Upper Works occupied very little of the players' attention, because the subterranean levels were far more lucrative and intriguing. I find it hard not to feel the same way. Were it not for the fact that the Upper Works are all that have been described, I rather suspect that most adventuring parties would imitate their Lake Geneva predecessors and delve deeper, lured on by the promise of sights more exciting than endless humanoid barracks and store rooms. To be fair, there is much more to the Upper Works than these things, but, taken as a whole, the feeling I come away with is that TUW describes only a handful of truly memorable encounters and a whole lot of filler intended to keep players busy until such time as the Real Dungeon is published. Alas, it never will be, at least not by TLG -- and that's deeply frustrating.
As you can see, my complaints are, in large part, extraneous to the actual product itself, having more to do with what I wish had been the case rather than what is. For me, TUW, like the entire Castle Zagyg line, is timid and mundane when it should have been daring and otherworldly. TLG and Gary clearly decided to "play it safe" in presenting the Castle and I can't shake the feeling that this approach was unwise. Had TUW (and Yggsburgh before it) treated us to lots of commentary, historical context, and vintage Gygaxian lunacy, I would likely have deemed the entire line a glorious failure cut short by the vagaries of licensing. As it is, what we have is a solid -- dare I say "workmanlike?" -- product with occasional moments of brilliance. TUW has a kind of watered-down, washed-out feel to it, as if it were a copy of a copy of a copy. You can still see the artistry of the original piece of art, but it's muted compared to what it must have looked like fresh from the brush of the Master. Instead of being grateful that the original was preserved, however badly damaged it was from the toll of years, I found myself thinking it far less impressive than the stories I had read of it from those who saw it in its glory.
My hope is that Gygax Games, now that it has reclaimed the license, will take a new tack in any future publication of materials relating to Castle Greyhawk. There are many valid approaches a company could take that would, I think, do justice to this most famous of megadungeons. My own preference is for an approach similar to that adopted by Rob Kuntz in his own work, with additional input from members of the old Greyhawk campaign, where possible. This approach would almost certainly run counter to the tastes of modern gamers, but then I don't think Castle Greyhawk was ever likely to appeal to modern tastes and it was a fool's errand to ever think it could. Perhaps the best approach is to treat Castle Greyhawk/Zagyg primarily as a document of historical interest rather than as a complete, ready-to-play "mega-adventure." Such an approach would be truest to the spirit of the Lake Geneva campaign back in the day and also the most realistic as a publishing project. Anything more would, I fear, reduce Gary's legacy to a mere brand -- which isn't to say it won't happen. Even TLG was heading in that direction, as they dubbed the line "Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg."
As far removed as we are in time from the days of the Greyhawk campaign, it's well-nigh impossible to produce a definitive version of the Castle that fulfills 30+ years of hopes and dreams. It would be best, I think, not even to try to do so and it's here that TUW's reach exceeds its grasp. By aiming for a playable Gestalt approach to the megadungeon, it winds up being less than the sum of its parts, at least as far as I'm concerned. It's lacking both in the expansiveness necessary to make me overlook its disconnection from history and in historical depth to make me overlook its smallness. For some, these are probably not flaws and the middle of the road approach adopted in Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works hits a sweet spot that neither of my preferences would have done. I certainly recognize that my own tastes are idiosyncratic and far from widespread, even among old schoolers, most of whom seem to like this product far more than I do. Even I, for all my complaints and nitpicks, can't grade it too harshly. I remain unmoved from my repeated assertion that I am glad I own this and find much good in it, but I am equally unmoved from my belief that, as the final work from the pen of the Dungeon Master, it's disappointing on numerous levels. Gygax Games has one more chance to fulfill the promise this megadungeon holds. Let's see if they do so.
Final Score: 3½ out of 5 polearms