[Megadungeon] Castle Gargantua (2014)
Levels 1 – 10
After reading through multiple haunted house dungeons and ending with something of a an armpit-fart with the decidedly lukewarm The Cursed Chateau, I figured I might as well give this short lived theme a nice send-off and end with something big, bold and impressive. Castle Gargantua by crazy OSR veteran Kabuki Kaiser fits the bill perfectly. It has been published for both Lotfp and Labyrinth Lord (yet another basic clone).
It’s not about killing monsters, looting treasure, and gaining experience as you delve deeper into some mad archmage’s architectural folly. It’s about surviving in a loathsome, terrifying environment where nothing is quite as expected. It’s about atmosphere, gloom, and despair. It’s a thriller. The characters’ 10′ poles shall be broken, their ropes cut and their rations spoiled. They will die, many of them, many times and there’s no happy end when it’s over. It’s never over anyway.
And with those words we are introduced to the mood and purpose behind Castle Gargantua, a vast, sprawling castle, as high as the empire state and as wide as “…Ceausescu’s Palatul Poporului in Bucarest, a little bit over three million square feet…”, made by the mysterious Gargantua and now abandoned. I chose to review the Lotfp version since the adventure seems perfectly suitable for use within the implied 17th century European dark fantasy/weird horror setting, in the sense that it is filled with oddly grotesque creatures and is bound to kill rather a lot of players before it is properly dealt with.
So more on the premise. Like any megadungeon the place has been plundered a dozen times over but it is so fucking huge there is bound to be plenty of filthy lucre left to satisfy the greed of enterprising young men. In a nice move, Gargantua really is fucking huge, with its maps being drawn using 60 foot squares and its rooms filled with giant-sized furniture. Location is up to the GM, but 1d10 pretty awesome suggestions are given to help out the inspiration-bereft GM. By far the best one:
ON TOP OF A HILL ABOVE A CITY THAT WASN’T THERE AN HOUR AGO. ALL THE INHABITANTS ARE GONE, AS IF THEY HAD LEFT IN GREAT HURRY THE DAY BEFORE.
And we are off to an ominous start. Castle Gargantua is a randomly generated dungeon, purely bottom-up, dice-driven mania like the little brown books on meth. Encounters are simply beefed up based on the average character level, with monsters increasing in size as characters increase in level. A simple solution that is worked seamlessly into the background of the castle, thus it rocks. As a nice touch that is often overlooked, Gargantuan creatures cannot surprise people very well, if at all.
At this point it should be no more then expected that all character classes, including the Duck (?) are equipped with a nice random rumor table to get them invested in the adventure, with most rumors being either true or up to the GM to turn into hooks and encounters. Nice.
And what of the dungeon proper? Ah. Here is where it gets interesting. There are, broadly speaking, five “types” of locations, centered around a theme. You have your Blood rooms, your Lust rooms, your Wine rooms, your Stone rooms and your Gold (unique) rooms. Every location type has about 4 rooms, connected in various ways, with randomly determined content and a random number of exits. Rooms are connected solely through Player exploration. Once 4 rooms have been explored, you roll on a bizarre sort of Snakes and Ladders style board to get the theme for the next 4 rooms, with the last tile representing the end of the Dungeon. I kind of dig the Snakes and Ladders model since it ensures the Dungeon will be of variable length. Whenever you would step on a snake this means you add a weird gate, stairway or secret door or somesuch. And voila, instant interesting dungeon material.
The corridors of the Castle are patrolled by randomly generated automatons that look like your typical city-guard. Each time they are encountered they will be composed of a different substance and have a different special ability. The special abilities and the different substances which grant them different immunities or vulnerabilities, making even random encounters (a feature often included more for balance then verisimilitude) fresh.
Each grid proper (with the exception of Gold, which will be described below) is generated by rolling a bunch of dice simultaneously. You are given a huge list of room types for inspiration for each theme (Blood has plenty of barracks, sacrificial pits, butcheries, morgues, jails etc. etc.). Next one determines the number of exits of the room, the size, the content (in keeping with the olden days, many rooms will be EMPTY) , followed by the type of content (monster, treasure, weirdness or a combination thereof). A d20 atmospheric detail generator is the cherry on top. Voila. You may now explore these vast, gargantuan parlors.
The themes themselves are well done and appropriately grotesque, with pointers being given on the general appearance and atmosphere of each theme. Blood is kind of what one would expect, with red marble hallways, bloodstains and omnipresent signs of violence. Monsters vary from ancient warriors, drugged mobs of violent peasants, hideous body horror creatures and a few blood-drinking variants of old time dnd favorites. Hazards consist of dungeonesque trappings such as Iron Maidens and rusty spikes, as well as more esoteric features such as a blood red monolith that spawns horrors until destroyed if so much as a single drop of blood is spilled on it.
Lust chambers seem opulent but most of the furnishings turn out to be cheap or worthless (even some of the treasure is fake). Many orificed bloated things, porcine orcs, Bluebearded female ghouls, killer houris and anything else that may habitually be encountered in a college campus Safe Space roams its parlors and boudoirs. Very NSFW, but it never seems like Kaiser is getting off on it, it fits well with the overall grotesque aesthetic of the Castle.
Stone chambers evoke imagery of ancient dwarven palaces deep below the ground to give it that gothic feel, you can almost hear Wagner in the background. In fact, all of Castle Gargantua radiates a sort of twisted post-reinassance aesthetic, with its references to classical music pieces, strange grotesque reinassance fiction and norse mythology (see also fucking Wagner). Dwarves, troglodytes, albino moles and gargoyles roam its halls, alongside Valkyries and Gugs. Ancient treasures of the Sea Kings and enchanted chisels make up the treasures to be found therein.
Wine is of course dedicated to the Great God Bacchus and within one may encounter such creatures from greek mythology as Satyrs, Maenads, Dipsodians, Bacchus himself and so on and so forth. Everything is a little bit more violent and vomit-covered but overall it manages to pull off both Greek mythology and grotesque horror quite well. Expect such treasures as precious bottles of wine, gnarled staves that turn people into animals and a cornucopia. Bitchin.
Gold Areas are special areas that are NOT randomly generated but instead function like little mini-dungeons. They are all very creative, centered around bizarre fairy-tale themes; invulnerable blind mice, cannibals that pretend to invite the characters for dinner, A room of magical pools (In Search of the Unknown Callback with satisfying variety of effects), a Sorcerous library (though there is danger here, this is presented more as a location for recuperation and temporary base, which is nicely done), a mirror that shows you your inner evil, sleeping beauty the list goes on and on. Very well done and a nice way to break up what can become monotonous after a while.
Another point that bears mentioning, in a procedurally generated mega-dungeon like this it is easy to fall into the trap of just giving random monster tables and letting it descend into a hackfest (Albeit a hackfest of astonishing variety). I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that each theme has encounters that do not necessarily end in combat, as well as encounters that revolve around monsters attempting diplomacy first in order to trick the players and then kill them, a nice trade-off between risk and reward.
Like any good thing, even Castle Gargantua must end and end it does, with a whoop and a whiffle and a bang. Three gates from which you must choose, with a variety of possible effects (one of them doom for the players without a doubt). It is nice to see a Megadungeon with some sort of pay-off other then a huge pile of go(Edit:l)d (there is that one too of course). Some may find some of the endings a bit too anticlimactic or even farcical but this depends greatly on taste. This is a negadungeon, and the best the heroes can hope for is a bittersweet ending, to have their follies and mishaps whispered across the world by the asshole demi-god squirrel that lives underneath Yggdrasil.
Where do I go on from here? There is a fucking bizarre as fuck, balls to the walls crazy possible ending that is not recommended for being too silly and inspired by Castle Greyhawk (YES THAT ONE) for AD&D 2e. You guessed it bitch. The players must roll dice and survive for a turn and fight you, the GM, who makes attack rolls by grabbing paper miniatures and throwing them in his coffee, squeezing them gently or flinging dice at them. If you live everyone gets a fuckton of gold. I think with this one Kaiser has just Out-Raggi’d Raggi.
While I can imagine Castle Gargantua growing somewhat Formulaic as it drags on, many of the encounters are fucking awesome, the treasure is impressive, the weirdness and the hazards are nice and the unique gold sections are gold. There is enough variety here to sustain an extended campaign, which is requirement numbero uno for a Megadungeon. Nevertheless, Castle Gargantua is a thoroughly disturbing descent into realms of grotesque enlightenment era-faery tales and reinterpreted mythology that lends itself perfectly for the implied setting of Lotfp with just enough ties to regular Dnd to make sure grandpa likes it as well. I’d have to see how well the dungeon generation on the fly holds up in actual play to judge it further but the theory remains sound.
One element that is somewhat absent in this megadungeon is the somewhat labyrinthine aspect of the OD&D dungeon, where mapping itself and disorientation is a more prominent aspect. I applaud the ability to find other exits out of the dungeon, which is an absolute necessity in the megadungeon. Nevertheless, Castle Gargantua is an excellent take on Grandpa’s megadungeon, and the use of a generator as opposed to a fixed geography means it probably resembles his megadungeon more then any 300 page behemoth. I likes it. 8 out of 10.