[Review] Card Dungeon (LL); Sierra Adventure Game Style Baby

[Adventure]
Card Dungeon (2017)

Unbalanced Dice Games
Low levels



Innovation in module writing is hard. On the one hand we have slavish imitation; a thousand Tegel Manors, Caves of Chaos and Tombs of Horrors. On the other hand we have someone handing in their 1st year creative writing assignment (“the theme is Dada children”) and expecting lavish praise to boot. Somewhere there is a middle ground. Somewhere someone must be able to produce original work that still has some connotation or connection, however vague, with D&D.

It’s Prince reviews Unbalanced Dice Games time again. A gift from myself to myself. An original idea, bereft of ostentation or even concessions to utility, with a tone that exists somewhere in the liminal space between complete irony and utter solipsism. Font, weird art, and everything must be original…with one exception!

It was a grim night for a gambler. He lost so many hands with the party it almost seemed like he was losing intentionally. The man owes the party some gold but he doesn’t have it. He smiles at the party and hands them the Joker. He tells them when they want it will take them to the ultimate card game. His debt to them is paid he says and pulls out another Joker card. The gambler laughs as the card enlarges to his dimensions. Through the Joker he walks and then the card and man are gone. The party has a card just like his. What will they do?

Ah the Deck of Many Things, among the most infamous of magic items in D&D. I can recall a 7th level rogue swashbuckler Emilio Cortez that was nothing at all like Zorro (this was 5e), who met a mysterious gambler on the road, and drew from his deck a single card, giving him the choice of 10.000 xp or two more draws. He promptly selected the second, and got the Void on his second try. The end. But the idea, the mystique of the Deck of Many Things goes all the way back to the dawn of the hobby. A single draw can mean either immense bounty or ruination for any who are bold enough to draw from it.

Who but Unbalanced Dice Games to pick up the torch left a long time ago by Jaquays who was cheeky enough to just dump one on a table in Tegel Manor somewhere? The party walks through the gateway and enters a magical Card Dungeon. Let the Saturday night Special Begin!    

So: Let’s make a shit sandwich, start with something bad, mention something good, then end with something bad. The usual gripes about utility abound. References are difficult to parse, highlighted text has been thrown out altogether, and rooms reference other rooms in a reversed or oblique fashion that means you had better have some notes, a working memory or maybe you give your PCs some time to “roleplay” while you frantically parse the text looking for hints. The gist of it is that in order to reach the reward in the heart of the Card Dungeon you must pass through 8 Card Doors, each of which has a picture on it that contains some clue to the items or actions you will need to open it. You can leave at any time…but the Dealer, the skeleton in the top hat from the dimension of ill-luck, will exact a penalty! First in the form of gold, later in the form of magic items or XP.

So! Good idea, fresh, wacky but not goofy, literally funhouse. Modular too, and reminiscent of charming adventures like The Chest or Mystery of the Mantle’s Pockets. Very offbeat. It is a cunt hair away from being a system neutral adventure, with no meaningful combat encounters besides a horde of flying cards that function like Stirges (good encounter though). Everything else is slapstick or bizarre inhabitants, a ball with chicken legs that shoots glue, clowns, teleporting mice, and weird objects.

It is entirely devoid of random encounters, treasure, traps, locked doors etc. etc. etc.  There are only 40ish rooms, their bizarre contents, and the card doors to make sense of. You are either in this and you are a fan of Sierra Point-and-click adventure games or you will fucking hate this and you should never buy it.

Ah! But wait! It is possible to play or interact with the enigmatic Dealer, to play him in a game of chance, and perhaps expedite the path to Glory! The chance is low. Do you dare use some of the other card decks that one can find in one’s bizarre sojourns through the Card Dungeon? A deck marked with nothing but skulls, found on a corpse, do you risk using it? What of a book filled with answers to all of the doors? Or is it?

I think what would have killed Card Dungeon is if the riddles themselves were too easy but they are actually properly cryptic without being utterly impossible. In true Point-and-click fashion, you must intuit the solution by a combination of intuition, deduction, trial-and-error and whatever mystical instinct that allows other human beings to empathize with eachother so one can read their intentions better.

Here’s an example;
C3 Card Door 3

The picture looks like the Ace of Spades. Upon closer inspection the spade appears to have a line around its edge. The line if touched feels like a rope while the inside feels oily. The party must get the 50′ rope(from the Card area. Or maybe they have that much rope on them.) and shape it like the spade. Then they must pour a gallon of oil into the center of it. When the oil has flowed to edges of the rope the door opens.

This is all dandy, and you now know if this is for you, but is this good D&D? It might be good, but it is not quite D&D. A normal adventure combines different activities, combat, exploration, interaction and (occasional) puzzle solving. This is basically straight up puzzle solving. It’s pretty decent puzzle solving all things considered, and probably fun, but as a curiosity only.

I keep tinkering with my rating system in an effort to condense an estimation in an easily referenced format and the current one serves fine but if I had another one which would go something like {Garbage – Tricks only – Solid – Exceptional – Masterpiece} it would fall in the tricks category. It’s not bad as a change of pace, in fact for a pure puzzle dungeon its better than most and it commits entirely to what it tries to do, but in the end its not quite D&D.

I’d give this about **, *** if you are really in the market for a puzzle-heavy dungeon, in which case you will eat your fill.


9 thoughts on “[Review] Card Dungeon (LL); Sierra Adventure Game Style Baby

  1. I’m not buying in to this “we’ve run out of ideas for an innovative adventure”. Your readership I’m sure will surprise and delight with their creative use of the humble one level dungeon. But there are many themes ripe for exploitation by talented writers:
    (i) Military campaign, as a number of key small unit actions. See Red Hand of Doom, Dark Sun’s Road to Urik, and a fantasy trip adventure Dark Lord’s Doom for inspiration;
    (ii) Consulting Detective in a renaissance setting, a mashup of Sherlock Holmes and the Rockford files. A collection of short cases, with Night at Fausen’s Manor as an example (although I would use an urban setting). Commodore could write this;
    (iii) Rebellion. Either as a backdrop to PC mercenaries trying to get rich, or actively fighting for one side. The flavour of Better than any Man;
    (iv) Political Adventures, trying to influence appointments/elections. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay as inspiration, see for example Power Behind the Throne; Melan’s Helveczia might work for this;
    (v) Small island adventures in an ocean, crews of say 6 or so PCs.

    Please could the frontier settlement menaced by aggressive humanoids take a short rest? We’ve run out of goblins.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I have seen some of Melan’s stuff in this area, and it is good. But do you think the concept is played out?

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    1. Speaking of a rebellion theme, I’ve thought urban riots and unrest could be pretty game able. Slowly deteriorating social conditions could provide easy opportunity for adventurers and once a riot breaks out, you could have 5 separate extreme groups with conflicting goals all announce “THE TIME IS NOW! WE MUST GO TO THE MASSES!” Political intrigue, mass combat, rapidly changing block by block warfare could all be fun.
      Hopefully next year such an adventure would be less.. topical so people don’t try to read political statements I to it.

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    1. Anecdotally, that’s definitely been the primary mode people have played it with. Funny, because my playtest group was playing in the “criminals and assassins” mode.

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