This review was first published in GMS Magazine and written by Thilo Graf.
This pdf is 119 pages long, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page of ToC, 1 blank page prior to the content, 1 page of Kickstarter thanks to patrons, leaving 113 pages of content, quite a bunch! It should be noted that the new version of the pdf is separated into 2 files - adventure and map-sheets and thus uses up less space than before. (The high-res map-sheets should be printed out anyway!)
The adventure kicks in with a neat splotch of blood and a famous line by Oscar Wilde prior to getting into the action. It should be noted that this adventure uses the mega-dungeon map from Gaming Paper and includes 25 sheets for the map of the dungeon. The sheets are b/w and large enough to use with miniatures and come with a grid. Early in the adventure we also get an extremely useful one-page overview map and this is just as far as I can go without delving into massive
...Potential players, please jump to the conclusion. Seriously, you don't want to spoil this one.
All right! The adventure takes the PCs into a citadel sealed by liquid, magic-resistant stone that once belonged to mad and sadistic Vilseph Dumond, who sought to transcend mortality by building the ultimate torture device. Prior to the Citadel being sealed, an almost vanquished army of monster sought refuge and the citadel has lain dormant for long. The PCs are hired via 3 sample hooks or one of your own making to enter Rogthondar, the dread citadel, alongside Twith Ballancastor, alchemist extraordinaire, whose drilling tank provides for the PCs entrance to the otherwise sealed dungeon. Yep. They enter a citadel covered by liquid rock via a drilling-tank. How cool is that? Of course, this act of drilling is not too simple and panicking guards as well as the dread dumondite (the liquid stone) do their very best to make the entrance to the citadel feel well-deserved. Additionally, the atmosphere of claustrophobia is almost tangible right from now on to the very end of the adventure.
Even cooler, though, is the micro-society that has sprung up within the bounds of the citadel, sentient altar-prototypes of the legendary Eureka Rib lead different fractions in an ongoing struggle and seek to further transform and propagate their very brand of superior creatures. The PCs enter the playing field of the dungeon's politics via the fraction of the deviceless (they don't have an intelligent torture device), who are lead by humans and work as a kind of police-force in their quarter, which also contains the bazaar, a rather surreal hodgepodge of ogres, minotaurs, bugbears and troglodytes. Food, of course is scarce, valuable and especially any food not being fungal or a derivative of an alchemically-modified edible vermin called slitch is guaranteed to bring A LOT of attention with it.
Another peculiarity of the area controlled by the deviceless is a huge cistern from which alchemical slough is extracted to create so-called demi-potions - unstable alchemical potions that come as three sets of quality and with 20 (sometimes utterly hilarious! Examples include blown-up lips that blind you, but help you swim due to increased buoyancy, becoming a meaty ball with a face and growing hair... a lot of it...) side-effects per level of quality for the imbiber that are thankfully temporary enough to make the game-relevant, but also amusing to the afflicted player. A simple mini-tracksheet containing the factions also helps the DM manage the reactions of the different factions, but more on that later, after all, the PCs have just crashed into the citadels neutral ground, the kitchen, and may be stunned to see a kind-hearted troglodyte futile attempts at saving one of the guards that accompanied them and got hit by the dripping, deadly liquid rock. That's where the fun starts: Lou Agresta & Rone Barton's former collaborations have been more than rife with several interesting and ingenious tidbits of fluff and this one is no difference: The premise of a wholly isolated society with its own balances and the arrival of newcomers is played up to the fullest: From cults springing up to celebrate the advent of the liberators to the simple fact that in such a limited population everyone knows certain rules. Everyone but the PCs, that is. Add to that a nice smattering of a kind of urbane "slang" employed by the denizens (with easily mistakable measurement units like "a human hand" - no, the ogre does not want a severed human hand, you sicko!) and you're in for a background that may in and of itself offer hours of roleplaying fun and potential for both hilarious and dangerous situations.
Indeed, after maneuvering the strange and curious bazaar and at least partially getting to know the place, the PCs will have the opportunity to defeat some foes and thus gain the option to talk to an ambassador of the alchemically-mutated deviceless (who don't have an altar, i.e. a sentient torture device), who seeks to use the novelty of the PCs for a "diplomatic" mission to the respective monster clans. As a benefit for the PCs, the deviceless mention the fabled eureka rib, perhaps the very only possibility for the PCs to once again escape the citadel - of course, coincidentally one of the sentient altars worshiped as gods by the humanoids might very well be said rib... Unbeknownst to both ambassador and PCs, the grandmaster of the linen-wrapped mutated alchemists has more on his agenda, though and the ambassador seems to be an instigator of the worst kind... This concludes act 1.
Act 2 serves as a rather free-form flow of the different monster territories, first of which is the Fantôme-bugbears: Mutated bugbears half-caught in the realms of dream, whose altar is possessed by a ghost who in turn acts as a seal that holds back the tide of nightmarish creatures from the depths of dreaming shallows. Interfaction events, already explained prior to this, also are presented: They are events that can be introduced to change the balance between the factions like assassination attempts to keep the political landscape of the citadel mutable. Mutability is a good cue: The fantôme bugbears all come with individual, imaginative, cool mutations and whether the PCs battle or negotiate with the dread Oneiromant, the ghost trapped on the dread bed-altar has some rather interesting/disturbing dreams and if one PC accepts the boon and curse of the bed, they'll have to contend with a dread invader from dream.
The second faction presented are the minotaurs, who worship the dread white witch, a rotating marble pole with an attached harness that end its merry-go-round by suddenly stopping and slamming the victims against its base - the resulted witch-kissed minotaurs regenerate and henceforth are infected with strange...things that make them almost unkillable. To make matters worse, interfaction events and an internal power struggle between king and high-priest over the amount of minotaurs to be exalted by the witch has the faction torn and not necessarily makes the PC's quest to see the devious and aggressive torture device any easier. Even more interesting: The device actually has an inkling how to escape and in an act of self-preservation might even try to creatively talk to PC out to destroy it.
The Troglodyte camp is similarly unique: Transform by their altar, the foul-smelling brutes have found a monastic (and a pronounced contempt for their untransmogrified brethren) calling via their iron-skinned new forms. The paranoid leader wants one of the regular troglodytes forcefully recruited and once again, faction politics might make it harder than at first glance. The metal-syringe-studded iron ball they use for transformation might yet offer another clue, though...if the PCs brave the merciless troglodyte's requests or infiltrate the compound.
The final faction are Riddle's End's Ogres, three-eyed intelligent ogres (wizard class levels, baby!) obsessed with magic and subsequently out for the PC's tools. The deceptive ogres actually can prove to be a significant challenge, as they prepare one of the smartest and deadliest ambushes I've seen in quite a while in their partially submerged complex- the PCs will definitely remember the clever ogre's assault. The hidden altar of the ogres, a grisly spine-snapping chair, sunken and yet possibly repairable. Have I mentioned a water elemental and its pet octopus or the possibility of the PCs flooding a region of the citadel?
And then there's the slog, a kind of common ground to which the PCs will frequently have to return on their subquests. Sooner or later, the saviors from Without (the term for "from outside the citadel") will come to the attention of Gabrele, a GOOD ogre to assassination attempt, minotaur recruitment drives etc., the PCs will have their hands full and you as a DM enough fodder to make the citadel feel even more alive. More importantly, the slog offers the PCs something to fight for - the unique culture of the citadel, as mentioned earlier, its endearing slang and the fact that here of all places, while besieged by mad factions, humanoids and men have begun an probably unprecedented, more or less peaceful coexistence, at least among the general populace. This rather strange yet endearing utopia, based on a claustrophobic equilibrium of power, is about to come crashing down with the PCs finding the lower condensing room where a nasty surprise sits ready to initiate the furious climax of the adventure.
Act 3 features the condensed sentient alchemical waste hinted at in the bazaar during the very first encounters, a dread and deadly ooze. made out of gallons of discarded alchemical waste. To make matters worse, the deviceless finally move into open action trying to bury the PCs alive buried and sealed in dumondite - but to no avail. At this point, the undead (and surprisingly nice and cooperative) gnomish engineer might offer the final clues for the activation of the Eureka Rib, which initiates the epic final confrontation of the module: Here the faction-tracker will come in handy - the PCs and their allies as well as the opposition are up for an epic showdown, having the PCs try to get past several attack squads and offering a very cool cinematic run, finally facing off against Grandmaster Sinas Crabbe of the deviceless. After this showdown, a PC (or ally!) will have to brave the unimaginable agony of being subjected to the Eureka Rib (or destroy it and escape thus) and thus choose the fate of all Rogthandor: Freedom for all, escape for but the PCs and continued confinement for the inhabitants or an escape for the PCs alongside a devastating self-destruction that kills everything inside - quite a weighty decision to thrust upon the subject's shoulders, after all, while the inhabitants are peaceful now, who can tell how they'd react to life outside? Do they remain relatively docile, becoming the PC's faithful army? How do the humans react, with prejudice or even a pogrom? Or do the humanoids revert to their usual clichés, ravaging the lands? If the PCs killed all, how can they live with such a genocide at their hands? And what to make of the ribs significant permanent (yet not overtly game-influencing) powers like stopping to age? And what of Vilspeth? The possibilities are endless.
The pdf also features stats for optional assassins, a list of magic items by value, 8 pages of lovingly-crafted hand- outs (which should be standard - handouts are GREAT and help immerse the players in the story), a one-page version of the faction tracker and two pages of the handouts of the torture-device visions.
The pdf closes with the additional sheets to expand the mega-dungeon.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I didn't notice any glitches - the few that existed in the first version have all been taken care of. Layout adheres to the clear two-column standard, is b/w and features aesthetically pleasing borders. The inside artwork is b/w and ok, though nothing to get too excited about. The pdf is EXTENSIVELY bookmarked, with each subchapter, encounter etc. there, including the CRs - commendable and a boon for the DM.
I'm not the biggest fan of large dungeons, at least most of them tend to degrade into "Kill all"-sprees or fail to present sufficient social/infiltration changes of pace to keep my attention. Some dungeons are well-enough designed in their craft to have me ignore this time and again, Necromancer Games and its heirs being among the prime examples. But then there are some dungeons that don't feel common. That feel different. Like e.g. the classic Banewarrens. The Citadel of Pain stands tall and proud in this tradition, feeling completely unique in being not a dungeon to wade through and slaughter anything that crosses your path (though that's an option, too!), but instead combining political intrigue and mystery of urban adventures with the claustrophobic and hostile environment of a dungeon.
It took forever to write this review, if only due to the fact that I was hard-pressed to give you even an essential overview of the possibilities and imaginative potential of this environment - the society Lou Agresta and Rone Barton crafted rivals e.g. the strange societies of China Mièville in imaginative potential and iconic quality. Even better, the duo of authors have managed to create an adventure, that thanks to the tracker makes it easy for the DM to handle complex faction politics and ensure modularity. The crowning achievement of adventure-writing any sandboxy adventure, at least to me, is utter modularity and freedom of choice. While printed adventures always have to somewhat rely upon minor guidelines to ensure the story works, I've rarely seen an adventure that can be modified this easily and I guarantee that no two ventures to Rogthandor will be the same - there are that many possibilities.
The climax, the sentient altars - there are a lot of great ideas herein and, sometimes, adventures make players ask themselves questions: Is it right to slaughter all these humanoids that don't hurt anybody and are oppressed by cruel ruling castes? Is it right to eradicate the sentience of an intelligent item begging for quarter, even if it's evil? Where does being a hero end and being a murderer begin? Even if the general populace is not evil, is it right to release them into the world? The repercussions of the successful adventure are wide and might upset the social order of a certain stretch of land (and I haven't touched upon the boons for the PCs...), offering adventure ideas galore and the sympathetic cultural hodgepodge in Rogthandor potentially points towards questions of culture, identity and racial understanding. While not the easiest adventure to run and definitely not one to run spontaneously, Citadel of Pain ranks among the most rewarding, iconic, complex and thought-provoking dungeon-adventures I've read in quite a while, supported by a commendable amount of handouts, map-sheets and awash with creative ideas. Have I mentioned the subtle and gratifying humor that is interspread within some of the encounters and e.g. the demipotion-lists? I'm running out of superlatives to heap upon this awesome piece of writing and thus will just say that, if I could, I'd rate this 6 stars - my final verdict will be 5 stars and the Endzeitgeist seal of approval. If you're even remotely intrigued by dungeons or any of the things I mentioned, do yourself a favor and check this out. You won't regret it.
[5 of 5 Stars!]