This review, like any review worth reading, contains spoilers.
Thus continues my epic chronicling of the most OSR product ever to win the coveted Emmy-award. In this part we are given two dungeons, the castles of the Queen of Hearts and the Red King respectively, and a few sample locations. As far as dungeons go, these are…strange, with many interesting features and good design choices and some missed opportunities.
Both dungeons are appropriate for a party of adventurers of levels 9-13. Mention is made that it is possible that the many spatial and temporal distortions might accumulate in such a fashion as to be too much for the GM to handle, in which case we are advised to ignore them. Fuck you. Design it so it can be run effectively or provide tools or techniques to enable a GM to run it if it not. Next advice is good, make sure the Queen of Hearts/Red King want something from one of the players rather then it devolving into a straight up melee. Examples are given: Information, unique talent, aid or Make them fall in love(cheesy but effective as the book self-consciously mentions).
The First Castle(Castle Cachtice) is that of the Heart Queen and is written as at least partially a social adventure(to the extent that anything involving dnd can really be said to be a social adventure self-depreciating joke to win hearts of vapid casual readers). The first level is inhabited by the court of the Queen of Hearts, who are not immediately hostile to intruders. Notes on how the inhabitants of the palace respond to intrusion are given, which is excellent. In addition, magic is fucked up within the palace so you get to roll under your level on a d20 or your spell works in a strange way(Gm’s discretion but guidelines given, no magic mishap table >:() and you get teleported to a random room that will be spatially buggered. Divine spellcasters take damage from casting divine spells and might alert the palace. That’s hardcore but its a lot more interesting then simply gimping them. Random encounter tables are provided, consisting of not simply soldiers but all sorts of professions one would encounter in castle, as well as several notable NPC’s. The game notes you should roll for random encounters every 2 in game minutes or whenever the players make noise, which seems kind of brutal to me.
True to form, the first thing we encounter on our adventure to Castle Cachtice is an ugly map. This would not have been a problem if not for the Gravity room(described below), which would have benefitted immensely from a clear 3D-perspective(counterintuitively utilised later on in one of the sample Interior(the giant nation-sized palace dungeon underneath Voivodja)). The outer grounds are well done, with defences clearly outlined and multiple (sometimes secret) ways of entering the palace, rewarding exploration as any good dungeon should.
Palace proper is fairly interesting. Many of the creatures have some sort of tactic or strategy, there are some cleverly hidden tidbits to pilfer(not a lot of treasure for levels 9-13, though what there is usually interesting and unique[rapier of unnaming+1, vorpal bolt, bottle labelled drink me etc.]), you get your spatially fucked up rooms with dissapearing entrances, your fun deathtraps, opportunities for clever players to flood the lower levels with water[thus disabling many of its inhabitants], and many of the doors go through the floor or ceiling, making for fun mapping shenanigans. The fun mapping shenanigans quickly turn into not-so-fun mapping shenanigans when we are introduced to one of the main features of the Palace, the Gravity Room. Thanks to the power of space time being your bitch, it is possible to walk through a set of doors and get locally reversed gravity for some of your players(in a moebius-strip esque 4-dimensional fashion). Hence, you can end up on the ceiling or walls by entering the series of rooms in the right sequence. This is neccesairy because part of the palace is set at a 90 degree angle to the rest of the palace. This also means that you are going to have to make notes where the local gravity is now(and you are going to be fucked if some of your players take different angles of gravity then others). This is a very interesting feature of the dungeon but clearer mapping would have made running it a lot easier. Occasional scenes of grotesque horror alleviate some of the silliness, and extra special fun bonus points for including opportunities to rescue (human) prisoners for xp. An appropirately giant hoard at the end, an epic location to face the queen in, sparse use of interesting death traps or hazards and other such silliness. If this were a single adventure i’d give it a 9 out of 10. It’s really well done.
The Palace of the Red King(Poenari, he said with a straight face) is designed as more of a straight up dungeoncrawl and is less interesting(still sorta good) and more horrific. Only 1 entrance:( Noted feature is the second level of the castle being folded 4-dimensionally into the first and thus only accessible through a floating cube in the middle of a room(a tesseract or hypercube if you will smug self-satisfaction). Another noted feature is the 3 Brides of the Red King(Dracula reference), who can be randomly encountered and each has different agenda’s(betray the king, kill one of the other brides, loyal), making for much intrigue opportunities that could have used more guidelines. We are left with a ‘This could be interesting but requires some creativity on the GM’s part’ which is a pity, because i agree that this can be a really good feature of the adventure. Poenari also means to make use of the Quiet Side, alternate dimension by placing mirrors/looking glasses on numerous locations, but this really only comes into play in the last two rooms, a wasted opportunity. It also fucks you by placing Vampire Dopplegangers(weaker then their counterparts and made of gears and twigs) on the other side, that try to hold you until you go mad from the Quiet, nice. The map should have indicated what rooms contain mirrors, not that it really matters. Space remains as fucked up as in Castle Castiche, but we get less gravity shenanigans and more non-euclidian shenanigans.
This castle is also more puzzley then the Card Castle, with hidden keys and chess puzzles and shit some sections feel gamey, which is alright in an unreal place, i mean, we cannot argue its implausible, its a fucking land of unreality. The puzzles require a combination of intelligence and trial and error to solve, but sometimes shit feels cheap. A reversed gravity ceiling with spikes and people impaled on them, with flowers on the floor and blood dripping down, and astute players are supposed to realize gravity only works on living things in this room? Go home GM you are drunk. There is this chess puzzle that you can alter in different rooms in order to make a certain challenge easier but it is poorly explained and confusing as shit. I would have liked an example(Edit: Nope its not, i figured out a way to solve it perfectly, it makes slightly more sense now). Some parts are still stupidly explained. “The stone chess pieces are large enough that they effectively block both movement and line of sight but not missile fire and cannot be moved or knocked over.” Lul whut. The best puzzle is a room that involves everyone getting tagged with 4 invulnerable doppelganger golems, it has multiple solutions, can be solved logically, and is flavourful as shit. The buildup and showdown with the Red King is fucking awesome and thematically appropriate as shit, you go through the mirror, onto a giant chessboard and fight the Red King along with your own evil vampire mirror dopplegangers ON THE FUCKING CHESSBOARD THAT YOU DID THE CHESS PUZZLE FOR. Making the battle take place on the quiet side is some grade A bullshit though, Wisdom score times 10 seconds before you go bonkers in a mirror matchup with fucking dracula and your vampire duplicates? I hope you roll really high dawg! Incidentally, i think this encounter is perfectly well suited for some Dracula murdering, you don’t need the Red King to fall in love with you or read you your hororscope or whatever. Eat shit Red King! Its probably best to make this confrontation the aepex of your campaign, since i dont see this fight going down without some serious deaths. Put on One-Winged-Angel just to be on the safe side(the orchestral version). Lots of hidden treasure to be found afterward(and i mean HIDDEN), very few magical items sadly(the few are unique but kind of meh). This one gets a 7, it aims high and does some great shit but there is more suckitude and arbitrary stupid in this one. Also the Red King himself is also subject to the Quiet rules so this should be an interesting fight and by interesting i mean WHAAAAAAAT? Good idea, haphazard execution.
We are also given three 2 page spreads of some sample locations in Voivodya, a forest[overgrown garden] location(featuring shoe thieves, various monsters, ruins, wells and whatnot), a temporally frozen battle(with yet another shitty map!) with some means of breaking it(arbitrary) and a sample of the interior that looks like In Search of the Unknown as conceived by MC Escher. The sample shit going on is kind of weak but it gives a good indication of the type of shit people are expected to do in Voivodya. I’ll be writing an overview of the last section(mostly tables and optional rules) along with my conclusion in Part V: Undo Previous Event or A Desert Called D&D.