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Saturday, 9 January 2016

Perilously Large

The MegaDungeon in Dungeons & Dragons is not just a dungeon, but a dungeon that is large enough, deep enough, ecologically viable enough, and has plots enough to support an entire campaign. The classic example is 1991’s The Ruins of Undermountain for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, and it has been revisited in subsequent editions of the RPG again and again. For the Old School Renaissance, perhaps the best known example is Dwimmermount, James Maliszewski’s love letter to the concept designed for use with Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord. The most recent addition to the large dungeon concept is Castle Gargantua. Now Castle Gargantua is as big as its title suggests, but not only is it as different as those megadungeons that have come before it, it is also different all but each and every time.

Published by Kabuki Kaiser for use with Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying—but compatible with other retroclones, Castle Gargantua is subtitled “A grotesque gothic horror megadungeon that’s never the same twice”. Yet it is not strictly speaking, a megadungeon. For Castle Gargantua is not actually a dungeon, but rather a tower, though a tower of immense proportions, being the same height as the Empire State Building and having the same floor space as as Ceausescu's Palatul Poporului in Bucharest or the entire old city of Venice. Yet it is also ‘gargantuan’ because its original inhabitants were not normal humanoids, but rather giants and thus the internal dimensions are scaled to a far larger size such that each map square is not ten foot square, but sixty feet square!

Castle Gargantua is also different because it has long since ceased to be home to either the original occupants or the original designer, and indeed the dungeon never quite specifically identifies either. Further, its halls and corridors have long since been emptied and plundered several times over of the monsters and riches once found there. Instead, the castle is home to adventurers, explorers, treasure hunters, bandits, and more who have come to the complex for reasons of their own and found themselves trapped and forced to adapt, in turn becoming new threats and factions indigenous to certain parts of the castle. Other dangers lie in the magics and chaos that lingers from the day of the castle’s founding, warping the ordinary and the trivial into the grotesque and the gruesome, both elements that run rampant in Castle Gargantua.

Just eight locations, each consisting of between six and eight rooms, are described in Castle Gargantua. Each is beautifully mapped by Dyson Logos and is comprised of a little pre-generated mini-adventure where the player characters might encounter the grotesque, the mysterious, the weird, the fantastic, themselves—and worse!  The rest of the megadungeon is something that the Dungeon Master will create as the game proceeds, from the moment that the player characters open Castle Gargantua’s enormous front doors until they reach until they reach the ‘end’, the final encounter. Instead of working from a map, the Dungeon Master works from a five-by-seven grid of squares known as The Big Picture. In fact, the players themselves will be creating the map because it is all based upon the Dungeon Master’s rolls and description  rather than his paraphrasing of pre-written material.

The squares are divided into five different colours—Blood, Gold, Lust, Stone, and Wine. Each square consists of between four and six rooms and connecting corridors and stairs, the number and type of exits between them, the size and type of room or chamber, and the contents of the room or chamber, including treasures, monsters, weirdness, traps, and atmospheric details being generated on the fly by the Dungeon Master as the player characters move from one room to the next, using the tables provided. There several sets of these tables, one each for Blood, Lust, Stone, and Wine squares, the Gold squares being the reserve of the special, pre-generated encounters. Each of the other four colours and their associated squares have their particular theme or environment. Blood squares are violent locations filled with the dead and the undead; Lust squares are wild places, horny with rampant desire; Stone squares are the most dungeon like, filled with a deep dungeon halls, weird architecture, and grim corridors; and Wine squares are places of alcohol sodden revels distorted by madness. The contents of these tables match their themes, so Bacchus, Murderous Revelers, and Wine Puddings will be encountered in Wine squares, whereas Cursed Chastity Belts, Houris, and a Monstrous Angora Cat will be found in Lust squares. There is also a long list of room types, such as Barracks, Charnel Ground, Fissure, Jail Cell, Ossuary, Taxidermy Laboratory, and more, for each environment  that the Dungeon Master can cross off as he uses them so that no room type can be used more than is necessary—so there might be more than one Battlefield, but only the one Zoo for example.

Upon entering through the giant front doors of Castle Gargantua—they are not the only entrance to the castle, but the other will only apparent upon exploring inside—the player characters will find themselves on square one of The Big Picture. Once they have explored the four or more rooms of the square, then the Dungeon Master rolls a six-sided die and moves the party that number of spaces along The Big Picture. Some of the squares are marked with the Clubs symbol and an arrow that leads back down The Big Picture. If the player characters land on one of these squares, then after they have explored the square, the next exit they take leads down the arrow. The supplement even goes so far as to describe this as like a game of ‘Snakes & Ladders’, though there no ‘ladders’ as such. Each time that the player characters lands on a Clubs square, they are always going to go down the ‘snake’ or ‘arrow’ to a Gold square and a pre-generated encounter. 

Whilst it is possible to play each square one after another in sequential order, the default method of rolling the die and moving the player characters gives Castle Gargantua a more organic, interwoven structure, with seemingly unlinked parts of the castle in reality connected by secret doors and tunnels. It also means that because the types of squares that are played through is determined randomly, a play through of Castle Gargantua is going to be different from the previous one and the next one. Of course there are only twelve options for the types of monsters, weirdness, and traps for each environment, and only seven Gold locations, so there is not an infinite number of possibilities for each environment. Yet there are enough given that the Dungeon Master could run Castle Gargantua more than once for his players if he wanted to.

Although Castle Gargantua is designed to run using Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, it definitely feels more suited to the latter than the former. Not only because it makes reference to the real world, but because of its weirdness and the often uncaringly arbitrary nature of that weirdness. The sense of unreality to Castle Gargantua is enforced by several factors. First, there is its sense of inhuman scale. Second, there is its seemingly ability to wrap back upon itself via the use of The Big Picture. Third, there is the fact that Castle Gargantua refrains from using the standard types of monsters and treasures found in Dungeons & Dragons-style RPGs. The author instead uses individually designed creatures, NPCs, and treasures that strengthen the off kilter atmosphere of Castle Gargantua and divorce the megadungeon from the superficiality of those traditional elements. Fourth, and finally, Castle Gargantua is infused with the gothic, the gruesome, and the grotesque inspired by the works of the French Renaissance writer, François Rabelais, whose work was noted for wild and absurd, sometimes satirical fantasy.

Physically, Castle Gargantua is well presented. The cartography is excellent, the writing clear, and larger font size will make it easier to use during play. The illustrations are slightly odd, but this is in keeping with the tone and feel of the dungeon as a whole. Given the tone of both the content and the artwork, it does mean that Castle Gargantua is better suited for a mature audience, especially with the inclusion of the Lust theme. Admittedly, it does clearly state this in that section and anyway, it is written with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying in mind. That also does mean that content of Castle Gargantua may be too odd and too over the top for an audience that is more used to Labyrinth Lord rather than Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying.

The truth of the matter is that Castle Gargantua is not going to be to everyone's taste, the likelihood it being too weird for a broad audience. Nevertheless it maintains its off kilter tone throughout, despite being more of a toolkit than the linear dungeon more commonly seen. The tools in this kit keep the running of this dungeon simple and straightforward, easing the otherwise challenging task of running a dungeon with the minimum of preparation. With Castle Gargantua, the Dungeon Master has the well-presented means to create an eerie, creepy experience on the go.