I know that not every style of game is for me, but I was taking a quick look Dungeon of the Mad Mage and this was driven home. I was enjoying a lot of what I was reading, but then I got to…
No, really. If you’re thinking of playing this adventure, don’t read this. Not one word.
Ok, just people with other plans still here?
There’s a room deep in the dungeon, on a level explicitly targeted at characters 17th level and higher. That room has powerful monsters (a challenge for a 17th-level group but, depending on their luck up to this point, not unreasonable) and a glass floor over a pit of acid. The only door out of the room is under the glass floor with no easy access (you’d have to break the glass and then cling to the wall or hang from a rope or be able to fly or something), and the only ways to open the door are to use an obvious-ish spell three times (but it might or might not be obvious it did anything the first two times, so I don’t know if you’d cast it 3 times) or to brave the acid for a minimum of 3 rounds (~100 hp of damage) to activate the door mechanically. I think it was a secret door, too, so you’d have to (1) get through the glass floor, (2) get under the floor without falling in the acid (or survive the acid), and (3) then think to search for doors under the floor that has no intended way through it. Oh, did I mention that the monsters are immune to acid, so they might just shatter the floor to dump the characters? And if you break more than a couple panels of the glass, even if you’re careful, the entire floor collapses?
So, let’s say you defeat the monsters, survive or avoid the acid, discover the door, and figure out how to open it. Beyond the door is an empty room. Unless you go into the room and say a trigger word (a proper noun; I’m assuming there are clues elsewhere that could’ve given you the word). Then and only then, the treasure inside appears:
A +3 shield once used by someone of (minor?) historical note five centuries ago.
That’s just not my idea of a fun game. You have this impossible vault to penetrate that you have to go out of your way for, guarded by creatures that could give a party of 17th-level characters a real challenge, with some arbitrary changes to game rules (i.e., there are spells that would normally penetrate the vault, but they description says none of them will work, only the 1st-level spell specifically intended has any effect) that require you to not only be creative, but to only be creative in the one way that the dungeon designer has chosen. The treasure should be something commensurate. It doesn’t have to be super powerful, but at a minimum it should be something that a 17th-level character would consider notable, and adding a 1-sentence history to an item really doesn’t clear that bar. The arbitrary traps/puzzles, with special rules that mean there’s only 1 way to survive/solve them? Sure—that’s part and parcel of the classic dungeon crawl way. I’ve built and run encounters like this and played in them. But the assumption was always that if you did everything right, were clever and planned well and were lucky, worked together as a team, and so on, the treasure was appropriate. It doesn’t have to be powerful magic—it could be knowledge or valuables, or even a clue for later.
Not a +3 shield a dozen character levels after that’s a big-deal reward.
That’s just yanking the players around. Even if you win, you don’t win.
And on top of that, it’s possible to get into the vault and get nothing, unless you know a particular proper noun and think to say it. There are no clues in the room itself. So it might not even be a +3 shield for all this trouble; it might be nothing. The better way to do that is to let them have the treasure if they get there, but need the keyword to activate its magic, thus giving the players the possibility of later realizing their reward if they think to take it with them.
Look, I’m not saying nobody wants a game like that. I’m sure there are people who think that a piddling reward after a hard fight sounds hilarious. But it is so not for me or the people I play with. And that plus a few other excerpts I read make it clear to me that this is not the adventure for me, as player or GM.
Which is too bad. I was really liking the less-linear nature of it, giving players a chance to explore and choose which parts they wanted to deal with, instead of an ongoing plotline like the rest of the big D&D5E adventure books. And the maps are pretty good, too. Reading some reviews (and from flipping through it, reading a few bits here and there), there are a lot of parts of this that sound really well done. But if that’s representative of the tone it’s going for, I’ll add it to the list that includes Tomb of Horrors. (i.e., games I’ll marvel at the existence of, but want nothing to do with personally.) I guess if I find myself in need of some dungeoncrawling, I’ll find some other adventure.