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Monday, 1st September, 2008, 08:59 PM #1
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk
Title - Expedition to the Ruins of Castle Greyhawk
Publisher - Wotc
Format - Hardback
Pages - 224
MSRP - $34.95
Reviewer - Glenn Vincent Dammerung aka GVDammerung
Reviewer’s Note - I am and have been a long time Greyhawk fan. I do not have a dominant preference for a particular iteration of the Greyhawk setting, although I generally thought less of the From the Ashes era in terms of tone than any other.
Expedition to the Ruins of Castle Greyhawk (ERGH) is both a very good product (4 Stars) and a not so good one (2 Stars), yielding an overall impression of being average (3 Stars). I will explain.
The Plot (SPOILER WARNING)
The general plot of ERGH is as follows.
Vayne, a lieutenant of Iuz, has discovered an subterranean passage through the Underdark that leads from the viscinity of Iuz’ capital at Dorakaa to the dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk, just outside the Free City of Greyhawk. Iuz has sent Vayne with an army to capture the City of Greyhawk by surprise, using the underground tunnel. The timing of the attack is to coincide with the appearance in the City of Greyhawk of a number of notable Greyhawk personages who will be attending the funeral for the cleric Riggby and upon whom Iuz wishes to be revenged for their past actions against him.
Vayne is not confident of success and, having failed Iuz twice before, fears for his life if the attack on Greyhawk is not successful. To this end, he seeks an agency to use against Iuz. This agency is a simulacrum of the Witch-Queen Iggwilv that Vayne created using a strand of the real Iggwilv’s hair. The simulacrum is not as powerful as the real Iggwilv but is formidable nonetheless.
The problem is that the false Iggwilv is self-aware and wants to become an actual, living being, free from Vayne’s control. To achieve this goal, the false Iggwilv intends to use Zagig’s God-Trap, which Zagig used to achieve demi-godhood by trapping nine deities and which is still functional within the ruins of Castle Greyhawk. The false Iggwilv intends draw Iuz to the ruins of Castle Greyhawk, trap him in the God-Trap and siphon enough of his divine energy to facilitate her transformation into a living being - at which time she will become in all ways a duplicate of the real Iggwilv in knowledge and power. The hapless Vayne will unwittingly bait the trap to draw forth Iuz and die for his efforts, thereby fully freeing the false Iggwilv of any outside controls.
The PCs must 1) stop the attack on Greyhawk and 2) stop the false Iggwilv from achieving her goal and becoming, in effect, Iggwilv II.
There are several problems with the plot and how it is executed.
Much of the action takes place in the dungeons of Castle Greyhawk. These dungeons were previously described in detail in Greyhawk Ruins (WGR1). ERGH only utilizes certain levels of the dungeons, some previously described in WGR1 and some new, and only describes those levels. Characters are imagined to successfully traverse the other dungeon levels to arrive at the appropriate levels. This is not satisfying. While a system of random encounter tables is provided if a DM desires to make the trek to the appropriate levels more memorable, this feels as tacked on as it sounds. Again, this is unsatisfying.
Once the PCs arrive at the various, appropriate levels that are described in detail, the encounters therein are rather humdrum. It is essentially “kill the monster” time. A huge part of the problem in this regard is immediately recognizable in the delve format that is as obviously keyed to the use of miniatures. This format is wooden. What is presented are a series of mapped out miniature battle encounters, each contained in a room. The effect is to create a “monster in the box.” While innovative terrain use might leaven the “monster in the box” formula, no such innovations are found here and the delve format is not a good one to begin with.
Making matters worse are how a number of major Greyhawk NPCs arrive and depart the adventure. For example, both Mordenkainen and Iuz show up to interact with the characters. None of these interactions are really meaningful from a PC perspective as the PCs either get to watch or listen to the NPCs. The worst example is Iuz, who the characters have a chance to conceivably attack. The adventure makes clear, however, nothing the PCs do will effect Iuz in the slightest. He has an appointment with the false Iggwilv and the God-Trap and the PCs are not to be allowed to derail the plot. Making matters still worse, if the PCs try to stop Iuz once he appears, Iuz will casually smack them down and then, uncharacteristically, let them live to go about their business unhurt. You see, the PCs have an appointment with the God-Trap, Iuz and the false Iggwilv and they cannot be allowed to derail the plot either. In case you have not guessed, once everyone assumes their preordained places in the God Trap, the PCs get to watch the proceedings for the most part. Even when Iuz is rendered feeble from the false Iggwilv’s use of the God Trap, the PCs are given no opportunity to take advantage before Iuz is teleported away to safety.
Then there is the whole false Iggwilv as main villain problem. First, one must get past the plot holes concerning how Vayne conveniently was able to find and identify a strand of the real Iggwilv’s hair to create the simulacrum. Second, one must get past the plot holes that see the false Iggwilv, allegedly under Vayne’s control, acting as if there were virtually no controls on her behavior at all, much less acting as any sort of catspaw for Vayne. Finally, one must get past the “Doombot” problem.
When the Fantastic Four fight Dr. Doom, only to see Dr. Doom revealed in the end as a Doombot, a robotic double of the real Doom, it takes something away from the fight. The false Iggwilv has this same problem as the major villain - she is not really Iggwilv. The difference is that, while the Doombot is only revealed as such at the end, the false Iggwilv is revealed as such fairly quickly. The false Iggwilv’s nature, necessary to propel the plot involving the God Trap, also undercuts the dramatic effect of the plot. This was a poor design decision.
At least some of the above issues could have been resolved if ERGH had had more page count. But it did, you see! The authors simply chose not to use it for the development of the main adventure. ERGH includes extensive material on the City of Greyhawk, the Green Dragon Inn, various Greyhawk personages and a number of sidetreks that have little or nothing to do with the main plot. All of this page count could have been used to further the adventure, instead it comes off as filler and as an attempt by the authors to try to squeeze a Greyhawk sourcebook, or at least a City of Greyhawk sourcebook, into what is supposed to be an adventure. This helps advance the adventure not at all. Put bluntly, most of this material could have been left out and the actual adventure would not have suffered but could only have benefitted for having more room to work. Of course, this is where the going gets good. You see the “filler” is better than the actual adventure!
Greyhawk Source Material in ERGH
ERGH is full of tributes to the World of Greyhawk campaign setting that have nothing to really do with the adventure. These easter eggs are marvelous if you are a Greyhawk fan, but I imagine they would go right over the head of most non-Greyhawk fans. The list is extensive -
First, ERCGH contains a defacto gazetteer of the City of Greyhawk to include a revised city map that makes the city seem more densely packed and thus realistic. While of little use in running the adventure proper, these sections will be of immense value to those new to the Greyhawk setting. The authors have quietly turned part of an adventure book into a City of Greyhawk gazetteer. Given that Greyhawk is not high on Wotc’s list of settings to support, the authors appear to have taken the last chance available to create something of a setting sourcebook so that it would be available to new gamers. This is a very good thing.
Second, within the context of the City of Greyhawk mini-gazetteer, the Green Dragon Inn is described in considerable detail, providing characters with a familiar place to call home within the City of Greyhawk. This is mostly new information. Again, while not strictly necessary to the conduct of the adventure, this is a great aid to the World of Greyhawk setting, particularly when combined with the mini-gazetteer, described above. The idea that ERGH is as much Greyhawk sourcebook as adventure becomes obvious, again.
Third, as if to further solidify the utility of the above two points, sprinkled throughout ERGH are references to the recent Age of Worms Adventure Path that concluded Dungeon Magazine’s print run, and Castle Maure, one of the more popular recurring Dungeon entries over the past couple of years. Of course, all of the authors work for Paizo Publishing that has, until recently, published Dungeon. These tie-ins to popular Dungeon Magazine adventures make the mini-gazetteer immediately of use to anyone using either the Age of Worms Adventure Path or Castle Maure. “See you can run a Greyhawk campaign with just what is available RIGHT NOW!” That seems to be the not so subtle message and it is a welcome one.
Fourth, in a stroke of near genius, ERGH attempts to address one of the longest standing problems within the World of Greyhawk - how do you create new villains, while still grounding them strongly in the setting, without it seeming such villains just “suddenly appeared” out of the ether. The answer is Uerth - one of Oerth’s dimensional quintuplets (Oerth, the actual name of the planet where the World of Greyhawk campaign setting is placed, has four dimensional dopplegangers). As presented, Uerth is to Oerth as the Mirror/Mirror universe is to the regular universe in Star Trek. Uerth is darker reflection of Oerth. The heroes of Oerth are villains on Uerth and they have found a way to crossover, giving Greyhawk new villains who are tied to the setting through their well known counterparts. Thus we have in ERGH:
Robilar - Bilarro
Murlynd - Lyndurm
Nolzur - Rulzon
Zagig - Xagig
Keoghtom - Komoghet
Heward - Wedrah
Quaal - Aluuq
The possibilities are endless. As Superman comic, bizarro world, as this seems at first blush, when you think about it more, it works and it works well. This is an extremely nice touch.
Fifth, ERGH presents information on the demiplanes of Dungeonland (based on Lewis Carroll’s famous fiction) and the Isle of the Ape (a tribute to Skull Island and a king named Kong). This is a nice touch for Greyhawk old timers and a better service to Greyhawk newcomers, introducing in this way the World of Greyhawk’s fetish for demi-planes. There is also presented an excusion to the Abyssal realm of Hollow’s Heart, home of the Demon Prince Fraz-Urb’luu, as recently described in much greater detail in an entry in the Demonomicon of Iggwilv in the pages of the now defunct Dragon Magazine. All these excusions are necessary to the adventure while also being nice tips of the hat to the World of Greyhawk setting more generally.
Sixth, on the topic of planes, ERGH offers a tantalizing suggestion of the multiverse before the existence of the Great Wheel, familiar to many from its exposition in Planescape. This is just marvelous stuff. At the same time, the illithid (mind flayer) city of Dra-Mur-Shou gets several mentions. While not directly tied to the multiverse before the Great Wheel idea, scholars of mind flayer lore will immediately see the connection as illithid’s are reputed to have entered the present multiverse as (perhaps the only) survivors of what had existed before the Great Wheel. (The exact origin of the mind flayers or illithids is open to debate as both the Spelljammer and the Far Realm mythoi, at the least, ascribe more prosaic origins for the brain eaters).
Seventh, Greyhawk fans will be familiar with the infamous map of Oerth published in Dragon Annual No. 1, wherein “Nippon” and the “Celestial Imperium” are identified. “Nippon” has all but been renamed after the fact as Ryuujin. The Celestial Imperium now appears to be similarly renamed Shaofeng. While these identifications are not certain, they are superior to the dubious names on the Dragon Annual map of Oerth.
The above seven points do not begin to encompass all of the juicy Greyhawk tidbuts scattered throughout ERGH but they hit the highlights. From a Greyhawk fan’s perspective, ERGH does not disappoint and is, in fact, a treasure trove of cool information, even if one must go hunting for it, but then that is half the fun. For the fan of the World of Greyhawk, then, ERGH is a “must buy.”
How then to evaluate ERGH? As just an adventure, it is subpar. As a Greyhawk book, it is superior. If I was rating ERGH as just the former, I would give it a 2 Star rating and feel justified in doing so for the reasons set out. If I was rating ERGH as just the latter, I would give it a 4 Star rating and feel justified in doing so for the reasons set out. As it must of needs be rated as both, I split the difference and give ERGH 3 Stars as its rating. Saying this, however, I would recommend this title to every fan of the World of Greyhawk fantasy setting as a “must buy.”
One final note. As I see it, if there is an overriding difficulty with ERGH, it is the combination of Wotc’s insistence on the awkward “delve” format of landscaped miniature encounters and Wotc’s refusal to offer more than halting support for the World of Greyhawk setting in print. Neither of these difficulties can be laid at the doorstep of ERGH’s authors. While I feel the authors sacrificed the adventure to create more of a Greyhawk sourcebook, I take my hat off to them, even as I note the adventure did suffer for that choice. I do not envy the authors the position into which Wotc placed them but I am glad it was they who undertook the task.
Greyhawk is dead. Long live Greyhawk!
Last edited by cougent; Wednesday, 3rd September, 2008 at 04:56 AM.
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Sunday, 7th September, 2008, 04:33 AM #2
Enchanter (Lvl 12)
Great review, GVD!
Editor and Project Manager
Black Blade Publishing
http://www.greyhawkonline.com/grodog/greyhawk.html for my Greyhawk site