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Wednesday, 9 March 2016

RPGPundit Reviews: Castle Gargantua

This is a review of the OSR adventure "Castle Gargantua", written by Kabuki Kaiser (one hopes that's a nom de plume), and self-published (I think).

This is as always a review of the print edition, which comes in a nice, smaller sized hardback (roughly the same size as the Lamentations of the Flame Princess books, which have popularized that shape with the OSR), with a color cover featuring an ominous looking castle entrance (again, I think; the cover is kind of shadowy), and the back cover some gloomy mountain steps.

The interior art is in a mix of black and white as well as color, and features mostly ominous and weird monstruous creatures, plus of course some map areas. The color art in particular features some very nice work.  The whole book is about 108 pages long, plus some worksheets at the back.

Castle Gargantua is promoted as a "grotesque gothic horror megadungeon that is never the same twice".  It is one of various products in the recent developments in the OSR that make use of randomizers to create a more fully variable environment (compared to earlier D&D/OSR adventures that might have some random tables or a couple of randomized elements, but not at the major scale of defining the entire layout).  This concept is massively useful in that it increases the re-usability of the product; but it is obviously trickier to pull off from a design point of view than a straightforward sandbox (or railroad, for that matter).

The introduction of the adventure makes it clear that you can expect it to be gloomy, sometimes gruesome, and likely very bloody on the players.  This puts it in the 'gritty' styling that has become in many ways the standard of OSR play these days.

We are told the castle is very old, and that its original creator (whose real identity is shrouded by the mystery of time) has long since vanished. By some accounts it's a giant, which would explain the castles insanely large proportions; or others say a wizard. But the main thing is he ain't around anymore.

We're also told that pretty well all the original contents have long been taken, and that what remains are "adventurers and bandits" mostly killing each other, and "lingering chaos magic" that has turned ordinary creatures into monstrosities.

The introduction is a bit troubling to me. It has the whiff of a "negadungeon", a style preference all too common to some OSR material (especially LotFP products, which Kaiser is clearly inspired by) which amount to adventures set up to screw over the players. That is, dangerous dungeons or adventures that offer no meaningful rewards, and leave a great part of the party dead, corrupted, or otherwise fucked over.

I sure hope Gargantua turns out to be more than just another negadungeon.

We are told that Castle Gargantua lives up to its name: it's about as big as the Empire State Building!  Now that's a MEGAdungeon for sure.  Its rooms are so enormous that sometimes they have clouds and rain inside them.

The scaling of the actual adventure is such that PCs of any level will encounter the same monsters, but their size and power level will vary according to the average party level.  I'm not sure I see the need for that (it's not my own particular old-school style), but I guess some of the more sensitive types who get this book might appreciate it.  There are some decent random rumor tables, based on PC class, to determine some legends the PCs might know about the castle.

The majority of the castle is entirely randomly determined.  To assist this process, the castle's sections are divided into five general types.  Red zones are particularly violent. Gold areas have more treasure.  Pink zones have 'particularly naughty' things in it (there is a note in the later details of this section that mention that if you are running a 'family-friendly' game, you can just treat all pink areas as if they were blue areas instead; in any case, none of the naughtiness reaches the truly perverse levels of certain other OSR products). Blue areas have weird rooms and construction.  Purple areas are especially crazy, thematic of 'alocohol & madness'.  Of these, the Gold zone areas are the ones that have specific keyed areas; they're elite zones with special dangers and rewards. The other regions are all determined through a set of random checks.

The zonal map, the only full map you get, is shaped somewhat like a Snakes & Ladders board. There's a set of squares, color coded as listed above, and numbered. Each square will mark a series of 4, 6 or 8 rooms (and some corridors that connect them). After the PCs have explored all the rooms on a square, the GM rolls 1d6 and the next area they enter corresponds to the the square that far from the one they're on.  Some squares have a downward-pointing arrow; this means that the PCs' next area will be back down on the destination square of that arrow.  If they get to the final square (Square 35), that location contains the climax (and theoretically conclusion) of the adventure.

When PCs get to any given room, the GM rolls 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d12, and 1d20, and notes each number (or just leaves those specific dice where they are).  Each die represents one random element: the d4 is how many exits there are, the d6 is the size and type of room, d8 is its contents, d10 is for treasure, d12 for monsters/traps/weirdness, and d12 is for atmospheric details.  There are worksheets at the back of the book that can be used to assist in this whole process.

The book provides a few ways to vary this whole process, including playing out the whole damn thing step by step with 10 rooms per square-area, to make it into a true megadungeon.  

The random encounters consist of Gargantua's guard-constructs. There are random tables to determine just what each troop of guards is made from and quirky details about them, to help make each encounter a little bit distinct.

The different sections on the random color-code areas are all quite detailed.  You get a list of possible rooms fitting the theme (for example, the red-code 'blood' rooms can include things like an arena, a battlefield, crematorium, gorge, trophy room, etc.; whereas a pink-code 'lust' room may be an aviary, ballroom, bedroom, brothel, game room, museum, salon, garden, etc.).  You get table breakdowns for each of the die rolls you do for the rooms (as detailed above); these are unique to the color-code, that is to say that each color-code's room contents will be different, particularly the d20 roll for atmospheric details (a blue-code room will have things like "the cenotaph of a forgotten hero", "a metallic smell" or "the sound of drums", while a purple-code room may have "a fountain of wine", or "the smell of incense" or "a dead, worm-infested pink elephant"). The treasures and monsters are detailed for every entry on the table, and many of them are quite unique.  A lot of the magic items tend to be somewhat two-edged, often having either a random chance of being good or bad, or having some kind of disadvantage as well as an advantage (this is typical of the style popular with LotFP-style adventures).

The Gold Areas are different.  There are 7 in total, and each is a specific pre-keyed area, described as "a little adventure of its own". They contain "more danger and better rewards" than the other areas. It is noted that each of these gold areas involve in some way an NPC party or what became of an NPC party after years in the castle.

Obviously, I'm not going to go into any great detail on any of these keyed areas so as not to cause spoilers for anyone who might play in them.  They are all pretty ingenious, and each fairly unique from the others. A lot of them certainly have 'negadungeon' qualities, with treasure that is either very difficult to obtain or not really worth the risk; and while some of the dangers are quite obvious, others take the form of dirty tricks. There are a few traps/dangers that can cause PC death when a player character should have no real expectation of dying (for example, a picture that if stared at requires a saving throw to avoid instant demise).  It'll certainly be quite difficult to get through Castle Gargantua (especially the gold areas) without half or more of the party ending up insane, unplayably altered, or dead.

The book comes to a close after the last of the gold-area sections which is an 'ending' of sorts. There's two appendices of sorts too, which consist of a long list of suitably 'gargantuan' names, and an 'appendix n' for the module.  The chief influence being Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. There's also Gormenghast (whose influence I also note in the adventure) and as far as RPG influences are concerned, there's "Against the Giants" and "In Search of the Unknown".   Finally, the aforementioned worksheets that can help the GM in keeping track of what is present in each randomly-generated room.

So, all in all, I would say that Castle Gargantua is very clever, but it's also not suitable for general consumption.  You have to want a very particular type of adventure.  It is a kind of dark fantasy, and I'd have to say it certainly does approach the levels of what we now call a 'negadungeon'.  This is a module that will have enormous potential to mess up a party.  If you like this sort of thing, Castle Gargantua is a tremendous addition to that collection.  Its creativity is remarkable, and it's design is limit-breaking.
If you don't really want an adventure that is highly likely to leave half your party dead or ruined (or if your players are the sensitive sort that will not handle that well), then you might want to look elsewhere.


Currently Smoking:  Castello 4k Collection Canadian + Image Latakia


  1. I'm starting to wonder if OSR designers are getting a little too enamored of the random-generator table concept. I got excited about the notion a few months back and have been running a "sandbox" style campaign which relied heavily on random encounters, each of which could be a story hook.

    The problem: players get overwhelmed. Even the most obsessive note-takers can't really keep track of more than two or three plot threads at a time. So once they've learned about the Sinister Cult and the brewing rebellion against the Mad Tyrant King, they just got confused by things related to the Crime Boss, the Pirates, the Harem Intrigue, and so on.

    In future I'm going to pare things down to about three main conflicts in any given area -- maybe one with a completely local focus, one linked to some of the other areas, and a third with potentially large-scale implications.

    1. Many seem to believe random = good. Unclear why. Random generators work best as an inspiration to keep from being predictable or routine. Sometimes too many options can be as bad as too few, as well. But I never saw the appeal of the "mega" dungeon.

    2. Random is AWESOME. In Castle Gargantua, the random rolls are set up brilliantly, and work out really well. There's no complaints there.

      Now, there are some ways where using random rolls is not helpful; first, if the tables themselves are badly designed (too few options is a common problem, so that things start getting repetitive; another is where it isn't good at generating the thing it wants to generate). Second, if people use them wrong; rolling a random result and then just dropping it on the setting without any thought to context is the wrong way to use a random table.

    3. Random is what you make of it, the GM is still in command.

      If the players are on a good plotline at the moment the GM should skip anything on the table with an irrelevant story hook.

  2. I actually ran Castle Gargantua; the content is actually very good, but the connective tissue is less so. I think the best thing you could possibly do for this if you were to run it is to at least preroll the rooms and zones, and even then it'd be easier to just steal the ideas and rooms you like and put them in your own dungeon.

    1. Hmm, I guess we'll see. I plan to run it sometime relatively soon.