Saturday, February 20, 2010

Review: Castles Forlorn

This isn't so much of a review as it is a retrospective, but I've been unable to come up with a better term that isn't a direct steal from Grognardia, so here we are.

While I don't get any time any more to DM (working 12 hour days can do that to you), I do get to play in a semi-regular weekly game, and for the last two years of real time, our group has been deeply embroiled in TSR's Castles Forlorn module. It's not exactly a great secret that AD&D2nd edition's tenure as the current D&D game represented a profound dearth of good modules. TSR seemed incapable of bringing out modules of the same quality as T1, the G and D series, and pretty much any of the 1st edition modules that truly created the shared experience that was AD&D 1ed. Dungeon Magazine certainly had a few that were noteworthy, even great, but it was hardly a suitable patch for a gaping hole in the time.

So, consider my surprise when, from the player's seat, I found myself dropped directly into one of the huge boxed set adventures that can so easily go so very wrong, from Ravenloft of all places, a campaign setting whose published modules are notoriously bad at times, and finding that not only was it good, but great. I'm going to talk about this module from the perspective of a player, since that is how I have experienced it first, and in the interest of full disclosure I should say that our GM had stitched a number of other modules into the main, most notably the otherwise horrifically bad Feast of Goblyns, one of the first Ravenloft world modules. I've only lately been able to look at the insides of the module books themselves, and I'll talk about that a bit too.

In short, this is adventure appears to be a standard gothic horror type story that Ravenloft made its life's blood on and threw so many gamers into fits because of the heavy handedness of it, with a time travel aspect thrown into the works. Yes, time travel. And it works. At its core, the module is still the story of one of the Dark Lords, the system breaking big bad guys, that rule parts of the Ravenloft world, one Tristane apBlanc. His story is appropriately angsty without ever seeming to go over the top or into the realm of the hokey like so many of the others did. In the end, the main villain here amounted to little more than a colossal prick damned to an eternity locked up in his own ironic prison. All pretty par for the course up until reality itself breaks around the castle and three separate time periods begin to coexist in the same location.

Wandering through the castle, the players stumble upon certain points within the place which will trigger a switch in time between three points in history representing a spread of about 300 years. Clever players will realize pretty quickly what's going on (as a reference, it took the group I play in about 3 game sessions to realize what was actually happening, and a great deal longer to figure out a way to use it to our advantage). In the end, you get a couple of different things. First, you get about three times the dungeon for the price of one as the castle is significantly chnaged between time periods and requires exploring in each to learn enough about what is going on in order to deal with it. Second, and this is more interesting I think, it provides the opportunity for players to "get at" the story of what has happened in this place from a number of different angles and force them to work at piecing it together themselves. What you learn in one time period may shed a differnet light on what happens in a previous time, or a future one.
Yes, this kind of setup will definately throw Old Schoolers into an unhappy place. After all, what has "story" got to do with D&D? In the end, though, I think that what you get is an excellent Middle School style module with a strong balance between the gothic story that gives purpose to the place, but not too much heavy handed material that forces the players to conform to a pre-determined sequence of events (see Ravnloft II: Gryphon Hill for the most egregious example). In the end, it's a huge location based module that hands the DM a place, a story of what has happened in the past, what's going on at the moment, and then sets the players free to deal with it, or to just walk away if they so choose.
There are, though, a number of flaws within the whole product, though. First, and primarily, the presence of a story that many, if not most, would find overwrought and dull. Yes, the story is a little romantic (in the literary period sense of the term, not the genre sense) and melodramatic, but it's believable enough that it doesn't really get in the way. For the most part, it's merely an excuse for the place to exist rather than an integral part of game play.
Second, I have no idea what analytical geniuses playtested this module, but it could have used some more help in that regard. Ostensibly, Castles Forlorn is intended for characters of 4th - 6th level. Truly, PC's of that level range are more than likely going to be slaughtered in short order in this place if they are not tremendously careful to the point of impotence, one of the primary reasons that it took 2 years of real time for us to finish this module. One of the primary foes is the Goblyn, a very excellent creature that I recommend for use everywhere, but one that can easily take a lower level party apart in a matter of moments. The main villain here is even more powerful and posed a significant threat to a party of level 7 and 8 characters. This particular issue, though, can easily be fixed by shoehorning other modules into the periphery of this one. A few side adventures orbiting about the main one will give the PC's a bit more XP and resources that will better prepare them for diving into the heart of this monster.
Thrd, and most damning of all in my opinion, is a truly bad case of Elminster Syndrome. Relatively high level NPC's who are single handedly capable of resolving all the issues at hand lurk about the corners of this module, and they don't do so for no good reason. Players are going to sit back and ask why in hell the 12th level + druid and her cohort of other high level druids haven't just plowed the castle into the ground by now and destroyed the evil that infests it as they could so so very easily, and the text itself provides no real answers on this matter. To its credit, though, the module does not throw the PC's into the role of supporting cast to sit back and watch as more powerful and more important NPC's do everything, nor do the NPC's fall into the equally aggravating role of "quest givers." Perhaps the only solution here, really, is to decrease the levels of notable druids, or merely to push them into the background more.


  1. Sounds like an interesting one. Thanks for the review! On the subject of Ravenloft modules, do you know which was the one where the player characters die as part of the plot and then continue as undead?

    1. ...and in another one they die and become flesh golems, and in another one they "die" and become dopplegangers :D

  2. That particular one was called Requiem. I cannot say that it's worth the paper it's printed on.

  3. Thanks for this retrospecitve review whatever. I've kinda wanted to take a look at this since it came out but never have.

    As fro Ravenloft II, I've recently been thinking about that and wondering if there would be a way to rework it into something fun. I've always been intrigued by the idea to play both of the modules simultaneously, but part II never sat well with me despite what I think is an actually pretty cool premise.