A Review of Castle Gargantua by Guest Critic Claytonian
This is a guest review by my awesome friend Claytonian! Enjoy!
Castle Gargantua (aff) (hereafter CG), by someone that goes by the nom de plum of Kabuki Kaiser (real name in the work if you really want to know), is the self-proclaimed biggest mega-dungeon in the history of the OSR. Well, the size is much more an issue of the fiction than of anything that might be quantifiable if we compared the thousands of dungeons in the nebulous movement that is the OSR, but what I discovered in my read-through is that CG does represent something epic and interesting in scale, and it will most likely keep your players occupied for quite some time. I have heard of the literary classic Gargantua, and even included a book about toilet paper substitutes as an homage to it in one of my own dungeons. However, I must admit to not being overly familiar with it, so I think some of the references included in CG will continue to go unnoticed by me until I read CG’s appendix N. Any product with an appendix N is already ahead in my esteem, and CG has 10 works as recommended reading, including R.E. Howard’s Red Nails and E.E. Gygax’s Against the Giants. The product feels like it draws from a lot of sources, and, to its benefit, it comes across as a fairy tale straight out of the early modern period of European history. CG doesn’t really mention it on its RPGnow (Onebookshelf) page or inside its covers, but it really seems like it was written with Lamentations of the Flame Princess1 in mind, considering the setting details, but it could just be a bit of a coincidence considering the classic Gargantua was published in the early modern era. Whatever the intention, it would fit really well in an LotFP campaign, due to things like the languages and adult themes that pervade everything.
I had heard that CG was a good mega-dungeon generator, something that might even be used on the fly. How successful is it at those goals? I’d say it does a pretty fair job at such a gigantic task. The innovation is that CG has no set map (rather one will be generated by play if at all). Instead, there is a generator that is laid out much like a board game, but I’ll try to not give away all its secrets. Suffice to say, the board tells you what section of the book to pull rooms from (there are four categories), and you improvise the little details based on the rooms. Rooms are peopled with combinations of monsters, weirdness, traps, and treasures, but only half the time. 50% of the room will be empty, save for furnishings, which might be of fantastic scales, but improvisation will be helped by thinking about the room’s purpose. The board includes tiles of a color that indicate special sections, and they each have an actual map, history, and denizens. As these are like small dungeon products on their own, a good GM will want to have at least one read ahead of time, so they can manage the game without slowing everything down. There is a bit of concern that GMs might have to slow down to read individual monster, trap, and treasure entries outside of the special sections too, but the creativity of all of these things make the extra effort worthwhile. There are a lot of clever monster abilities and puzzles for the players to figure out. One of the sections deals with the cruder aspects of human nature and has lots of sex and bodily functions mentioned. CG itself points out that most mentions of sex have been confined to just the one section, and you can skip it, but be wary of the occasional one outside of it, and know that you’ll be triggered if you are the type of person that gets triggered by triggery things. All things considered, you’ll probably want to read all the entries for each section before you run it. That could take a lot of time, but as I said, it’s a worthwhile endeavor. CG is filled with interesting things. I got a bit of the same vibe that I got when reading another OSR work, Deep Carbon Observatory (aff), in the sense that there is a wistfulness to the things you are reading about. However, CG is far less personal in tone and thankfully has fewer typos. The dice will also tell you useful things like when to add halls, stairwells, and more. All the usual polyhedral dice get employed in CG. So I don’t think it will be the fastest you’ve ever spun out a dungeon room at the table in real time, but good things come to those who wait. The innovations and creativity spun into CG make me really want to give it a go at the game table sometime.
There are a couple typos. Nothing major, but one table (page 8) did have a result follow directly after it’s preceding result without a new line to denote it. There are some descriptions that carry over to a new page, but nothing confusing. The layout of the special rooms section is a bit confusing at a glance because what look like headings are actually subsections of the numbered paragraphs they follow. However, once you are aware of the format, it is no problem whatsoever. The thing about flipping a coin to decide furniture sizes is a bit odd in a game where a die could decide things with equal probability. I’m really just nitpicking now. The vocabulary includes some old and obscure terms. The GM will probably want to look these up ahead of time and hope to remember what they mean. It would have been nice is some of them had parenthetical information. For instance, instead of just saying a guard is wearing a “morion”, it could say “morion (helm).”
The art is not really a selling point in my opinion. The text stands on its own, thankfully. In any case, art is subjective, and you can see how you feel about it on the RPGnow page, but don’t let it keep you away if you don’t like it. The art seems to be dispersed in a semi-random fashion. For instance, the image of porcine orcs appears six pages before they are detailed. The special section maps will appeal to any fans of Dyson Logos' style, but they are, ironically, very concise things compared to the usual sprawling works he is known for. I’m happy to see them there, though! The text and its layout are very pretty. It uses colors, sizes, and font choices that make it easy on the eye. I was able to read it all on my computer, and that is not usual for me. The dungeon generator board shares the color scheme but opts to have weird shapes for each of its sections. This seems to have no game function, and it just looks kind of silly in a faux-edgy kind of way. The room record sheets at the end are crisp and lovely looking, though.
The text is probably not great for pre-teen DMs. Not just because of the sex, but also some of the hard to understand vocabulary for rooms and items. Well, I say that, but maybe our culture has too many hangups about sex and maybe kids could afford to learn ten dollar words every once in a while. Overall though, this is a product for a mature and self-sure GM that can handle lots of little processes.
Buy this if
- You are looking for something that will surprise and delight you and your players for countless hours.
- You are looking for a good, self-contained campaign with a cohesive theme and goal (let’s get to the end and make Gargantua suffer!).
- You are looking for LotFP, Against the Giants, and Dungeonland feels.
- You are looking for the fun of a fun-house dungeon, but with the logic of a fairy tale.
- You want to challenge jaded players bored by all the Monster Manual’s usual fare.
Castle Gargantua (aff): PDF USD $5.00, PDF+Softcover USD $9.99, other options available
- It does suggest Labyrinth Lord and LotFP as exemplars of OSR rules sets. ↩