athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
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Three Prisons: The Cursed Chateau by James Maliszewski (cover by Yannick Bouchard, graphic design and interior art by Jez Gordon), England Upturn'd by Barry Blatt (cover by Jason Rainville, graphic design and interior art by Sarah Richardson), and Maze of the Blue Medusa by Zak Sabbath and Patrick Stuart (cover and interior art by Zak Sabbath).

I've recently received three RPG books about imprisonment. Two of these are recent Lamentations of the Flame Princess releases, and one is the first thing from Satyr Press. These reviews will not be spoiler-free; if you're planning on playing the modules, rather than reading and running them, you may want to put off reading this piece until you've been through them.

The Cursed Chateau is an expansion and rerelease of James Maliszewski's earlier piece of the same name, which makes it sort of like Death Frost Doom or Carcosa. However, although I've read the earlier versions of each of those, I had never read The Cursed Chateau before.

The Cursed Chateau is a haunted house. It makes this quite explicit in the introduction, and structurally it stays very much within the expectations thus established. Rather delightfully, Maliszewski identifies the specific haunted houses he's evoking as not, in fact, being the haunted houses from crappy horror movies of the 1970s, as you might expect, but rather the (much scarier) haunted houses imagined by the kid whose parents did not let him see these movies but had to imagine them from his friends' breathless reports.

The translation of these movies into D&D modules points to the two modules Maliszewski specifically calls out: Tegel Manor and Castle Amber.  I myself see a lot more Castle Amber than Tegel Manor in The Cursed Chateau. But then Tegel Manor makes me think of Scooby-Doo rather than anything, y'know, scary.

A lot of the Amberness is the French setting of The Cursed Chateau. However, I think Maliszewski is going for a more weary and decadent feeling than Castle Amber; more Baudelaire than Clark Ashton Smith. Indeed, the foreward to Les Fleurs du Mal could just straight-up be slapped onto The Cursed Chateau and it would fit just fine. As a matter of fact, the tl;dr summary of The Cursed Chateau could probably be "Roll Castle Amber around in Les Fleurs du Mal for a while." (One might also note that Room 22 of Castle Amber itself is named "Flowers of Evil.")

Funhouse dungeons get a lot of their fun from how gonzo and, generally, ridiculous, the juxtaposition of stuff-that-doesn't-make-sense is.  Tegel Manor has very little in the way of organization or theme (beyond, "Rump Family! Kooky House! Go!"); it's a terrible read, but it's a delightful setting to actually play in. (If you're ever at Gary Con and Kevin Kelly is running Tegel Manor, do try to play.)

Castle Amber (and The Cursed Chateau) are far less goofy, although they certainly contain their share of WTFfery. Neither one is the sort of anything-goes kitchen-sink lunacy that Tegel Manor is. Their tone comes a lot closer to Gothic Horror than to Scooby-Doo.

The Cursed Chateau begins by trapping the party in the Chateau and its grounds; once they enter, there's an impenetrable force field that keeps the party imprisoned until they sufficiently amuse the undead Lord Joudain, master of this domain, which will break the curse that holds them inside the Chateau. (Note the similarity to the fetch-quest required in Castle Amber to break the curse and dispel the gray mist preventing the party from leaving; however, the exit criteria seem much more discoverable in Castle Amber.)

Joudain and his entire staff are undead, and trapped in eternal ennui (along with any unfortunate visitors) until someone can lift the curse by sufficiently amusing Joudain.

The goal of the module, therefore, is simply to perform enough amusing actions (with few enough tiresome ones) to fill Lord Joudain's Fun Meter. This is unlikely to be discovered quickly by the party. In turn, this implies that the party is going to spend much of its time aimlessly wandering the house and grounds, encountering the various undead NPCs.

The NPCs are quite good. They are certainly the best part of the module. Each one typically has one or a few strongly distinguishing traits, which would help an even minimally observant party tell them apart, and perhaps piece together the history of the Chateau and the nature of the curse. They have relationships with one another. Some are implacably hostile to the party, and some may be neutral or friendly. I am particularly fond of the young Guilhèm and Landri the long-suffering majordomo.

There's a hedge maze with a lilac bush I recognized (as Stetson's) from Eliot but which likely comes originally from a Symbolist. There's also a basement dungeon with a batrachian theme; some sort of Arnesonian nod, I guess. It all hangs together pretty well, in a world-weary decaying-finery kind of way.

The whole thing is--by design--pretty dour and joyless. This is certainly meant to reinforce the themes of the scenario, but it makes the module kind of tough going. And therein lies the problem.

I'm pretty sure I'm never going to run this module for any of my current groups. None of them pay enough attention, and thus they will never figure out how to break the curse. Everyone will get cranky and butthurt. If you have a group of players who like solving mysteries and don't mind a fairly slow pace, you might get better mileage out of The Cursed Chateau. For my use, well, I just can't see it producing much enjoyment for me or my players. That's no indictment of the work, just a realization that I want more freewheeling gonzo and less mannered melancholy, and that my players tend not to be detail-oriented.

The PDF is cleanly laid-out, in black, brown, and tan. What the PDF does not make obvious is that if you buy the physical book, all the "tan" is metallic ink, and it's a much more golden color than you'd expect from the PDF. Yes, this drives up the cost of the book a lot. Is it worth it? I'm on the fence here. The book is otherwise a typical LotFP hardcover: slick cover, slightly-larger-than-digest size, solidly bound. Still, 27.50 € is pretty steep, and this isn't a book that is stunningly beautiful the way Maze of the Blue Medusa is. If you want a melancholic haunted house, and you want a pretty physical book, it's worth getting. The PDF is $7.50 at DriveThruRPG, which seems reasonable for what you get.

In summary: not my cup of tea, but if you want a gloomier Castle Amber, it might be yours.

Next we have England Upturn'd by Barry Blatt. As you might guess from the title, it's set during the English Civil War, and it owes a great deal of its setting to Christopher Hill's magnificent book The World Turn'd Upside Down. That all by itself endears it to me.

The premise is insane and wonderful. Basically, Bad King John was a sorceror, who came into possession of a phylactery to hold his soul upon his death. That phylactery was lost somewhere in the Lincolnshire Fens in 1216 with the Crown's treasure, and John's soul entered it upon his death a couple weeks later; it has remained imprisoned there ever since.

Back in the present of the module--which, not coincidentally, happens to be the spring of 1642, just before the English Civil War boils over--the Crown has now given out private charters to drain the fens; if a wealthy man drains the fens, he gets to claim the drained land (which was previously common-use) as his own. I'm sure that any current political allegory is entirely coincidental, and anyway, those guys draining the fens were actually doing something kind of useful, unlike modern financial services. I seem to have gotten off in the weeds.

So you have England simmering in a state of economic unrest. You have Ranters, Diggers, and Levellers. You have Irish Catholics looking to foment religious trouble. You have the usual LotFP collection of Rich Guys Who Are Right Bastards And Also Secret Diabolists. Andrew Smeaton is ostensibly draining a swamp, but he knows that John was a sorcerer and is looking for his magical artifacts so he can gain great sorcerous power. Of course, this being LotFP, the phylactery is with the stuff he really wants, and when that phylactery is popped open and releases the soul of Bad King John from its long imprisonment, the results will be disastrous. They will almost certainly involve a PC being possessed by John. Hilarity will ensue.

But that's not even the crazy part. No, the crazy part is the Swedish Witchfinder Niklas Brahe. He thinks he's an avatar of Odin, and might actually be, and his plan is to enact the ritual that gives the module its name. That's right: turns out we're not talking about social upheaval, but a curse that will flip a big chunk of Lincolnshire into the Hollow Earth and the corresponding chunk, populated with Niflungr (scary sea-faerie types), into Lincolnshire. The bad-assest of them will be--of course they will--in a castle on the back of a giant turtle, and they're looking for King John to exact their revenge.

Since he died 400 years ago, that'd be a problem--except that now he's probably back, and likely inhabiting the body of a PC.

I don't know that I'm ever going to play straight-up LotFP, and I don't know that I particularly want to run a game set in an almost-historical Thirty Years' War, which is the LotFP setting. Still, I feel like I am a lot more likely to use this than The Cursed Chateau. Although most of this stuff is pretty grounded in the setting, it would be trivial to steal "old king's soul imprisoned in just-unearthed treasure" or indeed "big chunk of underworld flips into game world, or vice versa."

There is one rule-system change that warms the cockles of my heart: Alignment changes. The Law-Chaos axis is replaced with Cavalier-Roundhead, and Good-Evil with Royalist-Republican (the chart on p. 106 seems to be incorrect in the lower right and should be Republican Roundhead, I think).

I freely admit that I came to this module primed to enjoy it. As I said earlier, I love Christopher Hill, and in fact my grad school roommate's Ph.D. thesis was about the draining of the fens. Also, I've played in and enjoyed some of Barry's games. In short, though, it does not disappoint.

The historical research here is good; not just Ranters, Diggers, and Levellers, and their songs, but, most crucially, Muggletonians.  Seriously, these guys actually existed, and are the finest Christian cult ever. Although their God is probably slightly shorter than the Jesus of Silver John, they...well, wow. Mad props to Barry Blatt for not only pulling them into LotFP, but making their cosmology ontologically correct within that world. I'm also a big fan of using the Sephiroth and Tarot to drive game-world occurrences, and it's a thing that pops up over and over in my games, so again, yay Baz Blatt Confirmation Bias!

On the other hand, it seems pretty cruel to ask the reader to peruse Liber 777 to do more Sephiroth/Tarot-associative magic. However, if you really do pick up Liber 777, tell me that it doesn't read like David Hargrave's Arduin tables. Seriously, I'm thinking of doing a web quiz that is "Crowley or Hargrave?"

In summary: England Upturn'd is highly recommended. As a physical artifact, it's an LotFP paperback. Well-constructed, looks nice. It's not terribly expensive at 16.50 €. If you want physical books, great, you won't be disappointed, and if you are happy with PDFs, then there you go; also $7.50 at Drive Thru RPG.

And that brings us to Maze of the Blue Medusa.

Holy shit, is this thing big.

It's going to take a lot of preparation to run this successfully. There are lots of factions and an immense number of NPCs with their own agendas and complicated interlocking plots. The titular character has spent ages in her Maze, largely acting as a prison guard. There are the three perfect Torn sisters, imprisoned. There's a lich who's in love with one of them. There are, in fact, several alliterative liches. There are cannibal art critics in a gallery where metabolism runs way too fast. There's a wedding frozen in time mid-cataclysm involving a machine that turns souls into gold. There's the Medusa's father the trapped-in-an-endlessly-rekeying-puzzle-box devil. There's a Garden Of Live Flowers from Through The Looking Glass only sexier and deadlier.  There are the remnants of an ancient Saurid empire and its library, with mummies each stuffed with a particular genre of book. There's a creepy and genuinely helpful child-ghost. There are a pair of petrified werewolf lovers. There are ....

You get the idea.

There's more than 300 rooms of this, and almost none of them are low-cognitive-load rats and 2000 copper pieces.

I've read through it once, all the way, and didn't manage to retain enough of the structure to feel like I can run it. I'm on my second pass now.

The fundamental physical structure of the megadungeon is that it's one of Zak S's hyperdetailed pieces, with lots and lots of geometric spaces of differing sizes, each with an image in it. This then is used to generate a colored, unillustrated, numbered map, and the dungeon is the map of numbers to room contents (which are illustrated in the actual painting). The dungeon is divided roughly into regions: Gardens, Archives, Prisons, and so forth. This makes it slightly easier to keep track of what's going on, although there's still a lot of classic-fun-house things-next-to-each-other-with-little-rhyme-or-reason juxtaposition room-to-room. I don't mind this, but I imagine it's not to everyone's tastes. There's a lot of thematic consistency, but not so much tactical consistency, which makes it feel different than, say, Tegel Manor on the one hand, or the Caves of Chaos on the other.

There's also a Random Encounter table which generates stuff that the party will have to deal with, and provides for mixing of the dungeon regions as inhabitants wander around.

The Patrick/Zak collaboration is a delightful one. A lot of this feels like the same sort of actinic lunacy that powered Deep Carbon Observatory. In terms of bang-per-page I'd have to give the nod to DCO but there is, rest assured, plenty of bang here too. I'm pretty sure that the groanworthy puns are Patrick's ideas (such as the Lampen Proletariat). There's also a shout-out to Baudelaire, if you're keeping score.

Maze of the Blue Medusa seems like it'd be a hard thing to mine for parts. I suppose some of the NPCs could be stripped out of it and dropped into another game pretty easily, but a lot of what makes reading it fun is figuring out who is trying to put one over on whom, and trying to keep track of the web of social plots. It would diminish most of the characters to disentangle them from the others. In general, I think if you're going to run this, you don't have a lot of choice but to run it as a 300-room megadungeon, which may or may not let players leave once they enter. The obvious way out (which is to say, "the way we came in") comes with a fairly strict time limit, although if the players do the obvious thing, the prisoner they immediately free will be back in a couple weeks with her own small army, presenting another escape opportunity.

I'm not actually sure under what circumstances I'd run it. If I had a weekly game with a stable player roster, it'd probably work, assuming they were the sort of players who liked traversing deadly environments, thinking about what they were doing, and keeping track of the relationships of the people in the game. Murderhobos will probably not fare well in here. Since my current group meets more-or-less monthly, and we rotate between three campaigns, we're not going to attempt this: a quarterly run at it is not going to get very far, and no way will my players remember in July any details of what happened in April--and this module will punish them for not remembering. In fact, there's a living mosaic who makes a point of calling out a party that wasn't paying attention when she delivered her riddle.

The titular Medusa, Psathyrella, might or might not be the villain of the piece. She's very likely to be an adversary, but she's a pretty reluctant jailor. She makes a very good case, to the players and to the reader, that killing her is just going to make things a whole lot worse. One of my favorite items in the book is Levalliant Green, Supervillian. He's a perfectly ordinary guy whose superpowers are that he anticipated it all with DMly prescience, and that he didn't do any of the first d4 things the players thought of. This is genius.

And then there's the physical artifact. This book is every bit as beautiful as Red and Pleasant Land, in many of the same ways: robust fabric binding, clean layout, heavy paper. It is larger than Red and Pleasant Land and will not remind you of fairy-tale books you had as a child. But gosh golly is it ever gorgeous. If you're going to buy this, spring for the physical copy, not just the PDF. The PDF is fine; it's totally readable (although my aging eyes require that I zoom in on it). But...damn, the physical book is magnificent. It is right up there with Red and Pleasant Land as "one of the prettiest RPG books I have ever seen." The hardcover is $50. The PDF is a fucking steal at $5. And in this case, I'm recommending you spend the extra $45 for the physical book--but I'm kind of a fetishist when it comes to books, so cum grano salis and all.

Should you buy Maze of the Blue Medusa? Yes. If you like pretty books, this is a hell of a lot of pretty book for fifty bucks, and if you don't, five bucks is less than two cents a room.

So, to summarize: The Cursed Chateau left me lukewarm, but if you want to run a straight-up haunted house scenario, it's quite well-done. England Upturn'd is an insane, and delightful, picture of a 1642 that wasn't quite. Finally, The Maze Of The Blue Medusa is one of the prettiest RPG books you will ever see, and if an incredibly socially-complex madhouse megadungeon appeals to you, or if you collect beautiful books, you need a copy.

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