All Stars take on the Mega Dungeon
By Thilo Graf
This adventure compilation for Gaming Paper’s Mega Dungeon map pack is 62 pages long, 1 page front cover, 2 pages editorial/SRD, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of advertisement and 1 page back cover, leaving 55 pages of content.
This anthology provides for takes on the mega-dungeon, i.e. for configurations of the some of the components of the map pack. It should be noted that each configuration results in a small dungeon and that they cannot be pieced together to create a huge dungeon – essentially, the 4 dungeons are completely separate from each other. If you’re on the fence about the map-pack, you should know that while the pack facilitates running these adventures, it’s not a requirement. That being out of the way, we’ll delve into the adventures and this, being an adventure review, from here on contains
Potential players might want to skip to the conclusion.
Still here? All right!
Monte Cook is the first with his dreadful Temple of the Half-Born, which some of you might remember from Ptolus -this is no reprint, though, but a completely original take on the concept introduced – essentially, the dungeon is populated by several deadly half-formed fleshy, cadaverous abominations under the control of a dread fleshformer who makes for a surprisingly hard foe – the creature turns out to belong to a race of humanoid outsiders, who are rather hard to kill… I’m not one of the Monte Cook fanboys. I really like some of his designs, but I also own books that I did not enjoy. This short adventure, though, captures what is great about his writing when it works – one of his excellent works and even better when you have a Ptolus tie-in. Level 7-8 characters wil definitely remember their sojourn into the temple…
The next all-star would then be Brian Cortijo, who abducts us (quite literally!) to the Arena of Souls – a subterranean arena where individuals have to fight for their lives for the amusement of depraved individuals of all species. While the premise of the adventure is cool, it uses a mechanic that not all groups will be comfortable with – namely the fact that the lvl 3-4 PCs are abducted and stripped of their gear to fight in the arena. The battles in the arena are another potential problem that remains unresolved – I know for example that my players would flat-out refuse to fight for the depraved audience of the arena, even if it meant their death. The possibility of the PCs attacking with the audience is also not covered. The escape attempt and subsequent defeat of their captors (with a rather climatic final fight) rocks, but the limitations and possible loopholes in the plot that accompany this kind of scenario makes it a tad bit more problematic than it necessarily has to be.
Ed Greenwood is next up and has a rather interesting scenario – a once great smuggler/merchant guild has fallen some years ago, and while the guild is gone, several of their huge assets remain to be found. Against the backdrop of cool smuggling tactics (alone how the gold is concealed is pure genius), the lvl 5-6 PCs finally find the secret complex which harbored the guild’s treasure. This makes the adventure rather high on the treasure’s side, but also means that the PCs will be hard-pressed indeed to battle their way through the complex: The new inhabitants belong to the most disturbing variety and act and fight SMART. Really smart. Environment stacked against the PCs, intelligent adversaries, smart spell-selection. I can see this complex become the tomb of more than one group of hapless (or greedy!) adventurers. Combine that with frightening scare-tactics and the fact that the PCs have no easy way out of the complex and you’re in for a deadly, claustrophobic, well-written adventure. My favorite of the bunch, to be honest.
The final take on the mega-dungeon by Steven Schend is entitled “Keep away from the Borderlands” as a nice nod for all the grognards out there and centers on a border keep (Captain obvious is obvious today.) that has failed to respond to inquiries for some days. The adventure is unique in that is uses the maps of the map-pack not to provide the framework for a subterranean complex, but rather for aforementioned keep. The adventure is intended for 1st-level characters and starts off by the PCs witnessing a suicide by one of the guards who jumps to his death. Blue fires have haunted the keep ever since a holy day has passed and the PCs are up for a mystery: Some of the soldiers have raped silent temple maidens and subsequently got punished by a dread curse that was brought upon the keep as divine punishment by a splinter sect of the moon god. The fact that a relative of a local lord is involved with the crimes (and the lycanthropy-inducing curse) further complicates things, as does the (largely obliterated) strike squad that was supposed to get him out.
The now-cursed fortress hence includes the remains of the guards (some of which now lycanthropes), undead, some of the religious knights hell-bent on retribution and the remains of the strike-team. The adventure is interesting due to the coverage of the consequences the survival of individual NPCs have as well as due to the plethora of conflicting agendas – unfortunately to the point where the respective plot-lines get a bit muddy: The players will have a hard time figuring out just what the hell is going on in the fortress. The adventure also presumes a certain political landscape (and a belief) that makes the adventure feel rather setting-specific – while this works in favor of the adventure with regards to flavor, it can also be considered detrimental with regards to the plug-and-play potential of the adventure. When all’s said and done, the final installment of the All-star compilation felt as if it was intended for a longer module and had some parts cut that would have made the adventure truly outstanding. As written, it requires some work on part of the DM as the nature of a dungeon map used to represent a keep makes close-reading the individual entries a requirement, as there seem to be some minor discrepancies.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I only noticed 2 minor formatting glitches (words in italics, for example). Layout adheres to a clear b/w-two-column standard and the pdf features extensive bookmarks. The b/w-artwork is nothing to write home about, unfortunately. It should also be noted, that due to space-concerns, only the bare minimum of statblock-information is printed herein, but that is not a reason to detract from the final score. What does fracture into my final score, though, are the problems I encountered with the second and fourth adventure: While both are good adventures, the second involves two angles some groups will have problems with, namely being captured and fighting for an evil audience. The fourth, while making for an interesting mystery-scenario, somewhat felt a bit shoehorned to me in that it felt more like a campaign-setting specific adventure that has been cut down to fit into the available space. That being said, even with these gripes, the first and third adventure alone are worth the low asking price and the 2 adventures I had problems with still remain good adventures, though they are not exactly stellar. With the epic Citadel of Pain, one of my most favorite adventures of this year, this adventure-anthology has rather big foot-steps to step into and while the scenarios herein are excellent to good in quality, the whole anthology feels like it falls just short of being stellar. For the low price, you should check out the 4 adventures, especially if you already own the AWESOME Citadel of Pain. My final verdict will be a good 4 stars.
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