Looking Over Book of Challenges: Medusa's Traveling Casino


It's just cover art

Premise

A traveling underground casino provides opportunities to bet on games of chance.


Good

Mentioning that “[w]ord spreads of the casino before it opens” is basically an invitation to have the casino’s impending arrival come up in rumors.


While I think the details are overly complicated, the mechanics for handling PC attempts to cheat are a great idea to include. That’s definitely something where it can be hard to improvise without a framework in mind.


Golddigger is a quick and easy game to actually run, and the detail of the playing card face cards resembling the three proprietors instead of the standard jack/queen/king is cute.


Salvageable

The boxed text mentions seeing “[t]he silhouettes of a dozen or more creatures” cast on the tent walls, but the dice formula for the number of occupants averages 27.5. Given that there are plenty of reasons why getting an accurate count from outside would be very difficult (overlapping of silhouettes, shadows from multiple light sources, etc.), I’d drop the estimate from the description.


It’s unclear to me what the point is for needing checks to “learn the basics of the game” or to “learn exactly how the game works”. Given that it comes right after mentioning the games are all crooked in favor of the house (as expected for a casino), I think that’s supposed to be about sharing details on the odds/expected payouts with the players, but the actual wording makes it sound like it’s about the actual rules and mechanics of the games. I’d share the latter freely and leave the former as something for the players to work out.


The stake and payout structure for Boneyard is confusing. As I understand it, the first round is a 1-unit stake (with no reward for winning), and then each subsequent round requires an addition of 1-unit to the stake (so 2 units total on the second round, 3 units total on the third round, 4 units total on the fourth, etc.) with a winnings pool equal to the stake for each round won after the first (so 2 units total for winning the second round, 5 units total for the third round, 9 units total for the fourth, etc.). That works out to match the numbers in the breakdown of the house’s average gains from 100 players up until the part about going beyond a fifth round.


While Boneyard is a reasonable game for simulating how many games at actual casinos work (relying on high numbers of gamblers losing small amounts to turn a profit despite the occasional large payouts), the players are probably more interested in the thrill of gambling to win big. At the very least, I’d make it so the house wins ties but gives a payout on the first round (incidentally, this works out better for the house compared to the rules in the book as long as it goes beyond one round). That still keeps a low-stakes game for the risk-adverse (akin to penny slot machines) without the big red flag of needing to win the first round to earn the privilege of having a chance to gain money.


The mention of a betting limit “in the early hours of business” for Golddigger is bizarre. Again, the players are probably looking to gamble, not to simulate a real casino. I’d keep the open betting limit.


As written, there’s an easy way to exploit Golddigger (start with a modest stake, then increase it as much as possible if a matching card is drawn before reaching the draw limit). I’d change the rule for increasing the stake partway through to letting the gambler raise the stake (without limit) after drawing their starting card but before “digging” into the deck.


Bad

The advice to avoid having creatures above CR 8 in the casino on the grounds that they “could pose a threat to the proprietors” is odd. If such a creature showed up, would the patrons keep it out by force? If so, why do they not object to the PCs entering?


The combat tactics for the proprietors are quite brief compared to what they’re capable of. It’s especially noticeable for the ogre mage (where cone of cold is the only spell mentioned), and it sticks out compared the denser tactical detail common in the back-half of the book.


The diagram for Boneyard doesn’t make sense because someone messed up in numbering it across the rows instead of down the columns.


The line about a fight sometimes breaking out when an irate gambler figures out the odds for Boneyard is weird. The odds for any given gambler to win some money are about 34%, which is pretty decent for a casino game, and nobody goes into a casino expecting to win more than the house earns, only hoping to win more than they spend.


The arm-wrestling game just feels weird and out-of-place. I’m not a fan of its mechanics, either.


Overall

While games of chance have likely been around for as long as any cultural concept of wealth, the organized professional casino is a relatively recent invention (like Wikipedia citing the 17th century as their start in Europe). However, despite not fitting into the setting that people often say Dungeons & Dragons tries to emulate (medieval Europe, though of course that claim can be questioned as soon as the first elf or goblin shows up), they often fit right into a D&D game, in no small part because dice are being used so much already.


That said, the casino in this encounter is pretty lame. Boneyard’s default stakes are extremely low for EL 12, and the arm-wrestling feels like something more fitting for a carnival than a casino, so all that’s left is one game with rather generous odds (42% is lower than blackjack’s near-even odds, yes, but keep in mind that 46% of the initial draw cards both give better than 50% chances of winning and allow for eight to ten chances to increase your bet while playing, with no limitation as-written against increasing it after guaranteeing a win) where there’s no real strategy beyond cranking up the bet on the high-probability cards. Some might feel this is fine for steering the players towards a game likely to produce a good return, but I think it cheapens the experience by removing the challenge in the way of success.


All in all, I’m not sure what this encounter was really trying to do. The games presented in it are on the bland side, but there’s not enough tactical meat presented to read it as a pretense for a fight with the proprietors, either. Unless the stakes are raised significantly (perhaps by taking a page from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure by having PCs bet souls or body parts for chances at winning specific priceless items they want), it all feels like a waste of time. Boneyard and Golddigger aren’t terrible as ideas to use as random games, but I’d take pretty much any any of the gambling games in Appendix F of the 1E DMG over them.

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