Monday, May 19, 2014

B9 - Castle Caldwell & Beyond - Review



THERE’S NOT MUCH BEYOND CASTLE CALDWELL
Club Sleeper hit of 2005
It’s not worth noting, but Castle Caldwell’s cover art is amusing, a droopy eyed lizard man carries an attractive swooning woman who is wearing an outfit straight from a mid-2000’s anti/neo-folk album cover: mini-heeled ankle boots with slouch tops, a studded girdle, some chunky jewelry and a white peasant dress.  If I’d worked for Rolling Stone in 2007 a photo shoot recreating this silly scene with the folk-rock ingénue of the year would have been a personal goal. Sadly this is the best thing about Castle Caldwell.

Castle Caldwell and Beyond is a bit strange, a series of small adventures designed to each be played in a few hours, rather than a larger location or set of problems to be solved over several sessions.  I really enjoy this idea of module design, but Caldwell just doesn’t come together very well.  It also depends on the use of boxed text, and the boxed text is terribly dull, fleshed out with the obvious and uninspiring.  B9 is broken into five smallish adventures, beginning with the named Castle.  There’s a lost opportunity here as only the first two of these little scenarios are tied together, while the final two are unrelated.  Ultimately Caldwell is poisoned by dull writing, uninspiring map design, incomprehensible monster variety and pointless treasure.

Castle Caldwell and Beyond begins with fairly standard but decent advice on play: expect PCs to die, use common sense as a supplement to dice rolling and adjust things based on your setting.  It really has little to offer beyond this and its sterling idea of creating a module that is several linked small scale adventures.  The first two of the little adventures are Castle Caldwell itself and its dungeons.  The hook for them isn’t even terrible.  A wealthy fellow who really wants a castle has a deed to the abandoned castle.  He wants it cleaned out because it’s full of monsters.  Specifically it appears that the monster menagerie left its more boring denizens to populate the castle. Goblins, wolves, and bandits have their own apartments within the perfectly symmetrical single level castle. 

The second of the two Caldwell adventures is to clear out the castle cellars, titled ‘the Dungeons of Terror’, on behalf of Clifton, who the party previous worked for.  The ‘Dungeons of Terror’ offer no terror.  There’s a doppelganger and the trap door entrance shuts magically, trapping the players within.  While I do appreciate the name of Area 2, ‘Magic-User Lair’ and at least there’s a vague feel that this is some kind of sorcerer’s workshop, this adventure is simply bad.  It also has an ugly quantum ogre in the form of a necessary key that is always in the last of several rooms searched.  There’s also gratuitous Thouls – something I can’t decide is good or bad, given that hobgoblin/troll/ghouls crossbreeds are pretty hilarious and never has an edition of D&D explained where baby Thouls come from (please don’t).  I generally think thoul stats make them pretty scary and suspect they deserve better - reskin thouls as some sort killer hag, lesser lich or undead goblinoid shaman ancestor rather than a joke/gotcha monster.

The third execrable outing in Castle Caldwell involves rescuing a princess.  Apparently the party’s thoul bashing and dungeon tidying service has gotten the attention of the local good king, whose good princess daughter has gotten kidnapped by a motley gang of monsters.  I’m almost on the side of the monsters here - If the monster gang had a really religious guy doomed to ‘crack’, a handsome Texan sniper and a wise cracking kid from Brooklyn they’d be the subject of a monstrous WWII buddy movie.   As it is there are some lizardmen with accents, some goblins, an evil wizard and an owlbear (who the art suggests wields a spear).  Still the adventurers need to drag the dirty dozen out of their monster hole.  The monster kidnap squad are mercenaries, kidnapping princesses for profit, to prevent dynastic marriages and because they are naughty monsters.  Still at least the gang leader has an owlbear based combat plan and uses his spells (motley monster squads are always lead by wizards) well.  The map again has a terrible symmetry, and not in the Blakeian sense.

The fourth of B9’s depressing outings into the realm of conventionality has the party mysteriously slipped mickey finns or ‘captured by opposing forces’ and locked up.  This adventure is horrible, there is an outpost to escape and fighters to fight.  The party will succeed in any sort of hijinks because they are guarded by a lone gnoll, perhaps it’s a lonely gnoll to, because certainly everyone else in the out post is a fighting man or fighting woman (much time is spent on making sure there are proper amenities for each).  Besides begging the question of why a human military force would hire a man eating hyena beast as it’s prison guard, and creating wonder over the fact that Lonely the Gnoll is the toughest enemy in the outpost, nothing makes this adventure interesting. Nothing.  I am normally not so harsh on monster placement, especially in old modules, but to my mind having a sensible group of monsters who behave sensibly becomes far more important in context of an organized outpost or fortress.  Crawling around in abandoned castles a player is far less likely to ask “what’s with the lone gnoll”, but in an organized military camp, one needs to explain why enemies other then soldiers, their warbeasts, camp followers and support elements (like wizards or clerics) are about because it’s easier to understand the naturalism involved then it is in some weird mythical underworld. 

The last of B9’s adventures is better because it’s last.   It’s the understaffed fortress of an evil cleric.  There are orcs and some maps.  It might even be possible to rescue this one from it’s dullness, but really at this point why bother.  The map to this one is halfway decent, it’s symmetrical on the outside, but a very strange spiral within.  It’s a pretty good map for the home of some crazy two hundred year old renegade cleric. Unfortunately the adventure insists on trapping the party in the evil shrine and then having some token opposition to overcome and a few tricks to unravel for escape.

MODULE WIDE FIXES
PLOT – Some vague relation between the locations seems worthwhile, here’s the one I’d use.  Castle Caldwell rules over a largely worthless swamp and is inhabited by an almost extinct line of deranged nobles.  The neighboring Duke decides it’s in his best interest to clean the worthless pocket sized barony Caldwell out, because as a lawless, festering hole where his predecessor exiled the Duchy’s undesirables it’s become a source of vagabonds, clubmen and humanoid bandits.  The players are told they can have Castle Caldwell if they can take it.  Who doesn’t want a barony at level 1?  It’s a terrible barony, and the line that has ruled it for twenty generations isn’t all dead.  Sure they have taken up worshipping a blood god, become robber knights and grandpa disappeared into the cellar/family crypts a few years ago to practice necromancy but they don’t even control the whole castle at this point.

Once the castle is in the hands of the party, and I’d propose having the evil acolyte being the heir of barony Caldwell, and perfectly willing to deal with the players to keep the barony in her family. Grandpa is indeed down in the basement still, but he's gotten pretty creepy (like reskinned thoul creepy). Once the party have dealt with the Basement of Necromancy (which will make everyone happy really) the true situation in barony Caldwell becomes clear.  The neighboring Duke has some woman named Sylvia who is part of a Caldwell cadet line, and who he proposes marrying to his cousin to cement control over the Caldwell swamps.

Sylvia was kidnapped on her way from the convent, kidnapped by the local bandit lord/hedge wizard Horn (previously responsible for the alchemical goblins that were pushing the Caldwell’s out of their manor).  Should the players ever try to return to the Duke (with or without Sylvia) they will be tossed in jail and accused of a variety of crimes.  If they escape, they can return to Caldwell, where they may have a chance to marry or be adopted into the Caldwell family and take up the job of defending the barony against the Duke’s perturbed cousin.  They might also consider joining up with Horn, who I’d play more as either a mercenary scoundrel or a local who just wants to restore order to the Barony (and get rich, murder the people he dislikes and make part owl abominations).

The shrine of the lunatic priestess becomes something that is ever present in Caldwell, a floating fortress/shrine above the swamps, that supposedly hold a holy relic, or maybe the crown of Caldwell (not a very nice crown to be sure, but perhaps it has a single emerald cabbage on the brow) and is a totally optional adventure locale.  Perhaps in the distant past, the mad priestess of the floating shrine warred against the Caldwells, and is now making a claim on the barony herself.

AREA MAP – The inside cover of B9 includes monster stats. Dull repetitive monster stats, broken up by room for each adventure.  Rather than this Castle Caldwell needs an area map so that these locations can be put in context, and the story unfold with plenty of wilderness wandering, including random encounters.   A pitiful town with some NPCs as mercenary, criminal and decrepit as the Caldwells would also do wonders and provide someone for the PCs to interact with.
BETTER TREASURE – The Caldwell family used to be rich, so treasure should be in the form of damaged oil paintings, cracked china, tarnished silver plate and maybe a magical heirloom or two while in the Castle.  Horn the Alchemist undoubtedly has some strange magical equipment in addition to the normal (slim) pickings of hinterlands banditry.  

FIXES - CASTLE CALDWELL & THE DUNGEONS OF TERROR

Castle Caldwell - designed like a motel
NEW MAPS – I don’t normally decide these old modules need a new map, except Palace of the silver Princess (B3) which needed ½ a new map and was easy to redo because the descriptions made sense.  Caldwell doesn’t make sense and its map doesn’t look like a Castle Map. It needs multiple levels, and a sensible floor plan for a castle, meaning a lot of asymmetry based on the funny shape of the rock outcropping it rests upon. .  It only has 31 rooms, but most are pointlessly empty, so one could pare it down into two or three areas each with a monster faction.   The Dungeon of Terror also could use a new map, something that looked like cellars (converted into a low rent wizard lab) attached to a family crypt. No magical sealing, unless crazy grandpa necromancer and his evil hag (thouls make good hags/evil necromancers) manage to get a wizard lock in. 

Krak des Chevaliers
aka Castle of the Kurds
aka An interesting floorplan
SENSIBLE ENCOUNTERS – There are humans within Castle Caldwell, which is nice, because humans suggest negotiation and a social aspect as opposed to ‘bash the beasts and take their treasure’.  In Caldwell these consist of an evil Lvl 1 cleric (what danger a single HD of cleric poses to an adventuring party is questionable) a few bandits and three traders.  Obviously these folks are in league.  In my version of Caldwell they are either the last remnants of the nobles who ruled the place at one time or a robber baron and his ‘knights’.  They also get more HD and are open to working as the party’s flunkies, or conspiring with them to keep Castle Caldwell in the Caldwell family. Second there’s a goblin raiding pack, undoubtedly made up of weird cauldron born runts in the service of the alchemical bandit lord “Horn”.  These ‘Crucible Imps’ have some strange alchemically altered riding beasts as well.  The castle also has some vermin in its abandoned parts, but mainly it’s goblins v. human dregs. 

The Dungeons of Terror will likewise need some reskinning, but less.  Crazy necromancer Grandpa Caldwell, his hag/berserker cabal and skin stealer creation will provide the one faction, while some rather perturbed, but neutral cranky, Caldwell wights make up the second.

FIXING THE ABDUCTION OF PRINCESS SYLVIA

NEW EVERYTHING – I’ve mentioned the revised plot, but this adventure needs a revised map, and better motivations.  The monsters and treasure need to be reworked as well.  This bandit lair is an organized, currently occupied location, manned by intelligent enemies.   I’d think Horn the Alchemist is most trying to impress Sylvia (it’s going poorly) with his not insignificant charm and whatever rustic comforts he and his gang of alchemically empowered bandits, crucible imps and his bizarrely mutated alchemical steed (It’s still an Owlbear – because Owlbear).  I note that the internal art of this adventure includes a polearm wielding bipedal owlbear, I approve of this as owlbears should always be scary and weird, but it does sort of show the slapdash way that B9 seems to have been created. 
Something to encourage the players to rescue Sylvia (or assassinate her) may be worthwhile, perhaps the idea that if Sylvia is gone Caldwell stays with the hapless Caldwell family, or that whomever marries Sylvia can become baron of Caldwell.  Sylvia should have a say in all this as well, even if she swoons at the sight of lizard men.  I suspect she wants nothing to do with Caldwell, or marrying anyone to claim it.

Horn’s motives and general lack of real evil should help make this another bit of complex social conflict, now between the Duke, the Caldwells and Horn.  Sylvia may have her own goals as well, perhaps she was kidnapped by the Duke in the first place and just wants to go back to being an acolyte somewhere, or return with a church army to take Caldwell in the name of some deity.

FIXING THE GREAT ESCAPE

TOTAL REWRITE – The dungeon escape is a cool concept, but frankly the lack of creativity here is stifling.  I would want at least three or four tricky but fairly obvious ways to escape besides “bash 2HD jailer in head with chamber pot”, perhaps it would even be fun to use this as an opportunity for the party to play their henchmen or allies (Horn’s gang of alchemical freaks, or the Caldwell family depending) and break the PCs out of the Duke’s prison.  As written the stockade where the party is trapped is dumb, as is the idea that they can fairly easily get their equipment back.   A better, more fantastical prison (Say it’s the cleaned out portion of some ancient barrows, or a prison hulk floating in the bayou) would be better than the overly complex military outpost provided.  Also these options allow for something besides fighters of levels 1 & 2 to guard the place.  Whole thing needs a rewrite, nothing more to say, and given this is an optional scenario in my rewritten version of B9, I don’t think it needs more detail.

FIXING THE SANCTUARY OF ELYWINN THE ARDENT

FIT IT INTO THE REST OF B9 – While the Sanctuary of Elywinn the Ardent is the best of the B9 adventures (not that it’s good) it’s also the least related to any of the others.  I think keeping it a strange location on the Caldwell map seems about right.  A place of ancient magic with its deathless, insane clerical keeper.  Why Elywinn has orc servitors (and only five) is questionable, let them be some kind of warped religious fanatic, held together by faith and old prayer book bound around their crumbing skin. If one is going to go through the trouble of having a strange evil shrine masquerading as a potentially good shrine spring up in the wilderness, the GM needs to run with the bizarre.  The place should be a glassy arc rising up from the swamp incrementally, some kind of divine battleship of corruption, being birthed from the swamps and attracting devotees at an alarming rate. 

CONCLUSION      
B9, Castle Caldwell is a waste – even its maps are bad.  All it really has to offer is the idea of a series of small location based adventures instead of a large dungeon, which may be an important game design idea, but was done earlier and likely better by Judges’ Guild.  

8 comments:

  1. The map is truly atrocious, I used the map I found here when I ran this thing as part of B1-B9 In Search of Adventure last year.

    http://warlockshomebrew.blogspot.com/2009/12/b9-castle-caldwell.html

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  2. Maybe the cover art could be applied to a better adventure? Like lizard men invade a fantasy world version of Lilith Fair.

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    1. Lizardmen wouldn't do that Trey. I think that the scaly juicer there is like "Hey, we found this lady in the swamp, your young people really need to stop wandering in here after eating those red mushrooms, now I gotta go make sure my eggs are warm. Peace bro."

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  3. Hands down the worst adventure I've ever read. The reviewer neglected to mention the part where the players have to recite "owa tagoo siam" 3 times to exit the dungeon of terror.
    I always wondered who wrote this, because it appears they changed the name to protect the guilty.

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    1. That goose bit didn't seem the most egregious bit of bad. Edited by Dobson, who is also responsible for some later Dragonlance and the bloodstone modules. I don't blame him though.

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  4. This was interesting read because B9 occupies in parts of Finnish roleplaying scene that started with translation of Mentzer Basic perhaps same mental space Keep on the Borderlands in US.

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    1. That's fascinating. It's kind of a terrible module I thought - like I say above the core idea is good, but the little adventures are all just kind of bland and dull.

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    2. We call the design of Castle Caldwell a Chrismas Calender Dungeon because you open the door like you would pop up the suprises calender. I think when this came to discussion of finnish OSR google group (Siniset luolat & Valkeat lohikäärmeet) best thing about the adventures was said that they are really short. Rahasia that was also translated to finnish back in the day is generally agreed tto be awfully huge and confusing.

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