Looking Over Book of Challenges: Where's the Party?


It's just cover art

Premise

A magical maze teleports the party through an endless string of fights unless they figure out the way through.


Good

While the “Mazes and High-Level Characters” sidebar has issues, the broad idea that using magic to get between rooms in a maze instead of normal doors, halls, etc. will increase the difficulty is accurate. Not only can that stymie attempts at bypassing the maze, it also increases the risk of the party being split involuntarily and confounds attempts to draw meaning from mapping/navigation.


Salvageable

Given that the “maze” is essentially a magical highway with no limits on where it can go, I’d agree that a background story to explain its existence is important, which makes it mystifying that the writer didn’t even try to provide one.


It’s hard to believe that the former owner had the clues engraved to help with their own forgetfulness. I suppose it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility (perhaps they were just someone with far more money than sense), but I think the more obvious explanation is that the clues were for minions, servants, or underlings who didn’t need to know the full details of how the whole thing works.


While bold font engravings are certainly possible, I’d underline the key word instead. Given that the clues were apparently for people who had to count from one to three with their fingers, I wouldn’t trust them to either noticing the bolding or keep track of which word is the key.


The encounters behind the wrong doors should be changed to fit a sensible theme instead of being a random assortment that hits the desired EL.


Bad

The intro claims “many spells and magic items can make [mazes] problematic” at high levels because of characters being able to pass through walls, teleport, turn ethereal, etc. There are at least two major issues with this line of thought. First, part of what makes high-level play different from low-level or mid-level play is that characters have access to a different toolkit. That lets them face different challenges and/or use different approaches to overcoming challenges. This is basic game design, and an inability to adapt to that is a failing on the part of the adventure designer, not a problem caused by the players. That gets to the second major issue: the intro is framed as it being “problematic” when the players use their high-level abilities to overcome obstacles. It’s adversarial bullshit to act like the players are causing problems for using the items and abilities that they’ve been given. If the item/ability is actually a problem (i.e. if the actual “problem” isn’t a matter of interpersonal power/control dynamics), it’s a problem that the GM caused by putting it in the game and allowing it to be used in a problematic way. The correct way to address that is to (a) acknowledge it and (b) speak with the players about it, not to try papering over past mistakes by coming up with contrived reasons why the item/ability isn’t useful anymore.


The writer claims “[t]his encounter presents a non-linear maze as a flowchart”, when every room of the flowchart has exactly one exit that actually progresses towards the end. That is entirely linear, and calling it a maze at all is inaccurate.


As ever, I dislike using letter puzzles in Dungeons & Dragons.


The sidebar comes right out and says that “[u]sing nonlinear rooms for a maze keeps the Dungeon Master in control”, even though dice rolls are the only part of a Dungeons & Dragons game where the GM isn’t in control (and many GMs try exerting control there, too). It doesn’t matter what’s written in the rules, in an adventure module, on a character sheet, or anywhere else; it is fundamentally impossible for anything to happen in a Dungeons & Dragons game without the GM’s consent, and I say that as a GM who believes strongly in being an impartial simulationist adjudicator when it comes to resolving actions in the game and as a GM who believes strongly in working with the players to help them imagine how their characters can achieve their goals within the bounds of the game. At any moment, I could make the imagined world do whatever I want; the players probably wouldn’t stick with me for much longer afterwards, but it is a simple fact that the GM has ultimate power and control at any given moment. Recognizing that and striving to have a fun and healthy game despite the gross power imbalance between the people involved is the key mark of a good GM, in my opinion.


The sidebar’s mindset of “herd[ing] the party along” as if they were mindless livestock instead of actual people indicates a severe clash in perspective between me and the writer.


Locking the PCs in an empty room with one to three automatically-hostile creatures for a minute if they step through the incorrect doorways is pretty much the most boring way possible of making a “maze”. Having an infinite supply of such creatures doesn’t make things any better.


As ever, I dislike rolling dice to get hints for a puzzle.


Overall

In 1981, Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead finished their development on Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. This was one of the most successful early commercial attempts at a Dungeons & Dragons simulator, in part because it provided more focused gameplay than others like Akalabeth or Temple of Apshai. Wizardry was all about getting through mazes and fighting monsters until you proved yourself to Overlord Trebor by defeating Werdna and escaping with his amulet. Despite the limited computing power of the time, the mazes in Wizardry were quite devious, including features like fake walls, one-way doors, spinners, dark zones, teleporters, connections between levels that accessed mutually exclusive areas, and so on to confound attempts at mapping.


Wizardry also included spells which could increase your viewing distance, report your exact location, or teleport to exact coordinates in three dimensions. Despite granting the player so much power, it was still a difficult game that pushed players to make full use of that power in order to survive and prevail.


Encounter write-ups like this one make me marvel at how brilliant Wizardry (and many subsequent games in that series, especially Wizardry 4: The Return of Werdna) were. The people responsible for producing this encounter had no significant barriers impeding them from seeing those past ideas for balancing extreme power by making it a necessity, they probably even played games (tabletop or video) which used those ideas, and yet they still ended up making this waste of space and passing it off as something so great that the public should pay to see it.


All in all, this suffers from the same problem as Zyphur’s Cryptic Spellbook where the only remotely good part of it is the sidebar, and even that has issues in this case. I’m less confused as to why this was kept in the book (it’s the only EL 17 write-up), but that doesn’t mean it has any redeeming qualities.

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