An Endzeitgeist.com review
This mega-adventure dungeon-crawl-saga clocks in at 505 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page backer-list, 4 pages of blank space for notes, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 493 pages of content, so let's take a look!
This massive book was moved up in my review-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
So what is the Grande Temple of Jing? Well, basically, this is the personal playing ground of the trickster deity Jing, who baits people into entering the temple with promises of untold riches - but exiting the temple is pretty difficult. The stay is limited to a number of Jing days, which (imho, annoyingly) deviate from solar days in being cumulative - 6 solar days would equal 3 Jing days, for example. These reset the dungeon upon elapsing. Leveling up in the temple requires an offering of gold equal to the number of XP needed to gain the next level...so, does this mean TOTAL XP or the difference between old and new level? No idea. After this donation, characters auto-level. The temple recognizes factions: Visitors, Honored Guests, Trespassers, Templers, Devout and Defilers - certain effects inside the temple affect only those that belong to a given faction.
The temple has 10 so-called Grande Levels, which can be divided into sublevels by Jing-blocks. These are unique and usually are closed when encountered. They block all teleportation and scrying as well as means to bypass them and are impervious to damage. Cloaked blocks are undetectable until uncloaked. Phased blocks are keyed to creatures and objects - these beings can pass through them. Non-keyed entities treat the block as solid. Each Jing block can be opened by a lever or similar means. The Grande elevator and highway represent the basic means of traversing the levels. Thankfully, the phased blocks are pretty well-explained and even sport a visual representation illustrating how they work. Various Jing statues with unique benefits and challenges associated can be found here as well. There are additional peculiarities: Getting on Jing's bad side can prove problematic for divine casters (though it's admittedly not easy to accomplish), which may result is less reliable spell gaining. Jing's favor is codified in certain blessings that unlock e.g. the aforementioned highway and similarly, combat-relevant blessings can be gained. The most important of these would be the boon of life - basically, an extra life. Upon dying, you dematrialize and are reconstituted at the next Jing day in a preset location. And yes, this means that dying can be actually used as a tactical gambit, provided you have the boon...
Now the dungeon also sports a specific design decision I am not a fan of: Namely, it cripples your PC's capabilities in several places: The trickster god's dungeon forces you to play his game and e.g. flight, teleportation and similar tricks are often impeded or outright countered from the get-go. More interestingly, there are special jingxes, which can change how a spell works, instead e.g. limiting the distance you can fly. I get why this was done and the in-game rationale is sound as can be, but ultimately, I consider this to be cheating - the challenge of high-level dungeon-crawls is to make them work, even with the PC's massive capabilities. Jing Blocks already constitute a pretty harsh restriction regarding the PC's options and these specific hampering options, ultimately, hurt the dungeon more than help it, as they enforce a particular way of dealing with the challenge "as the author intended" as opposed to "how PCs creatively solve it with their own, grown capabilities."
Flavor-wise, a unique currency is part of the deal and 7 sample storylines as (kinda) optional metaplots govern the idea, though ultimately all take a back seat to the narrative of the dungeon itself. (That being said, e.g. Xorn Poker is pretty cool - and yes, Jing is pissed they're not cutting him in on the action...) If the above was no indicator, Jing being a god of mischief, the mega-dungeon does offer instances where humor is the theme - which is nice to see. Missions and basic questlines as well as 20 sample end-games are suggested. 100 myths and rumors about Jing and the temple are provided in a dressing file, and the Grande Highway's function is explained in detail, so if the PCs manage to gain access to it, they'll have an easier time traversing the temple. Taking a further cue from video games, parties that are underleveled and stumble into certain areas can benefit from a "positive level" and, surprisingly, the rather complex implications of these are covered in sufficient precision. Speaking of the highway - there is a cool quest that requires the collection of the fully depicted song "The Language of Birds", which is based on exploration and fluff, rather than sheer numbers - it also makes the book feel magical and old-school in a good way.
That being said, if the video-gamey rules regarding extra lives and the like were no indicator, there also are a couple of room designators that obviously fit in that vein: There are, for example, gauntlets and arenas and vaults - defeating these challenges, some of which require Gold to participate in, reminded me of bonus levels in games like Devil May Cry and the like - basically, they are challenges you can (or have to) complete to progress or gain special benefits - and yes, I am vague here because the intent of this dungeon lies in a massive exhibition of modularity regarding quest-structure and, to some extent, rewards - this is very much designed to be exceedingly modular and can be taken apart for multiple modules, should you choose to go that way.
The pdf also sports information on Jing-enchanted items - these are keyed and sport drawbacks. The book sports a rather complicated-looking default configuration of the dungeon, though the actual use is less complex than the presentation may make you believe. Also, much like the highway's basic look, my pdf's text on this page strangely is less crisp than on other pages, making it somewhat harder to read - perhaps a compatibility issue with adobe's reader or something like that - not sure and since I don't have the print copy, I can't tell you whether this extends to the dead tree version.
Anyways, the dungeon ultimately begins with the entry-chamber level that already sports the leitmotifs of the temple - namely, a presence of puzzles, somewhat wacky entities, suffused humor...and a potential for death not being the end. Without spoiling too much, there is an exceedingly gruesome way to (temporarily) die that needs to be passed to enter the temple - fortes fortuna juvat...or rather "Jing favors the bold" is rather important to bear in mind.
If that component hasn't been ample clear so far...well, this is a huge module and as such, it is pretty much impossible for me to cover everything contained herein. As such, the following review will cover the contents of the Grande Temple at the very best in broad strokes.
I have already covered the entry chambers in as spoiler-free a means I can muster, but from here on out reign the SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion of this review.
All right, only GMs left? Great, so the respective sublevels all have their individual taste, the first of which would be kobold caverns, sporting a corridor of exploding doors hiding the proper caverns. The kobolds are domesticating protean jellies in a rather nice take on dungeon-ecology. At the same time, their leader King Lickabutt XXIII and his familiar Buttlick's names may elicit some groans from some readers.
There would also be an interesting undead-themed mini-dungeon that sports skeletons that animate depending on whether they're in light or darkness - which is a cool idea that could have been used to make the level favor the smart and provide a significant challenge, but as presented, it's pretty easy. Beyond a pretty run-of-the-mill orc-dungeon, a filthy dungeon covered in sticky slime (difficult terrain) is more interesting.
Here, the dungeon breaks from the level by level formula and instead goes on to present the exploration of the upper highway and the first trial/gauntlet, which, btw., constitute size-wise smaller dungeon-levels of their own. The training ground would constitute a more uncommon level - here, the dungeon not only sports a potentially lethal adventuring training ground, it's also the first time the players REALLY need their wits, with multiple levers and moving platforms (and prohibited flying/climb-enhancers) making this partially a platformer level in the vein of old NES-classics - basically, it constitutes a kind of puzzle...and yes, the level sports riddles and a subquest that pertains the ultimate riddle.
There would also be a goblin-themed dungeon, complete with hangman-minigame of guessing names of deceased kings. There would also be the twinklestar caves, which allow the inhabitants of the temple to find much needed water. A smaller level would provide a means to test the mettle of the PCs in ziggurat-containing caves against troglodytes. The next gauntlet and trial are fire/cold-themed. More interesting would be a truly uncommon level that has challenges according to rough representations of children's board games - and yes, here, you can play operation with a storm giant...and there's a tipping maze... Unique and evocative!
Chaos is also a leitmotif in two levels - one depicting more the primal chaos-cultist caverns, whereas another represents more of a deranged trickster deathtrap dungeon with unique hazards and hobgoblin denizens. Crab-themed river caves (including an apparatus) and the front door of the dungeon (including the great library) are next before the next trial, gauntlet and arena-section.
In a further cave-complex, the god of cave-stars shatir sleeps the aeons away, while bat-people do their best to avoid it. A section of rolling hills contains its fair share of ogres is once again a pretty much run of the mill level, before the nexus of doors becomes interesting again - ridiculous amounts of odd door qualities and a surreal atmosphere make this puzzle-style level very atmospheric and intriguing, while the troll-laden swamp level is less unique.
Back to full-blown weirdness and uniqueness is the dungeon when the PCs find a level where cyclones are generated and exported. Oh, and yes, the PCs may have to fight rhinoceraptors here. Yes, they are exactly what they sound like. On the nitpicky side of things, the infernal observatory is all about demons and devils...and pretty much a solid, if none too remarkable level with a damsel-in-distress-angle that doesn't work for any group with a modicum of experience, but oh well. The pdf is back on its more imaginative side with further explorations of the highway and the trial that emphasizes choice and grants benefits based on them and similarly, the gauntlet of the Jing Ring, which emphasizes teamwork, ir rather interesting.
A huge forest, including the council of trees and a vast plateau makes for a ncie change of scenery and also provides an option to embark on various quests and storylines - this area alone can generate a vast array of roleplaying options. Further levels here are a ruined, decrepit snake-themed temple and a subterranean forest. There would also be a fey forest quest that brings the PCs to an ancient observatory and a living labyrinth, wherein weretaurs can be encountered. For PCs looking for something cooler, a journey into the heart of a remorhaz-breeding ground or a trip through the caverns of the yeti-queen may be more to their liking. Another level presents clouds upon which you can walk and massive (rather sketchy) harpy-town, while a more trite and less imaginative smithy of salamanders and devils provides potential for new weapons...or conflict.
Okay, it's been some time since we had something more novel, right? Well, there is a level that made smile from ear to ear: There actually is a level that features intelligent oozes that behave basically as though they were 1930s-gangsters. Yes, including the slimefather. Hilarious fun and unique - I just wished this level had more room to shine! Meanwhile, the turtlefolk of the Koniyata want their totem returned to their caves, while the gravecaves sport an ever-increasing doom-counter and, surprise, legions of undead. The deranged gauntlet of heads, comparably, is more tame, while another level is all about size increases and fighting giants - personally, I'd suggest the more detailed rules from Everyman gaming's Microsized Adventures here - apart from that novelty, the level doesn't have that much to offer.
Fun for people like yours truly: The level containing a river of gold actually has a duo of interesting characters called Sam...and Max. And yes, these guys will always be my favorite LucasArts-characters, so bonus points in excess of providing one of the more unique and evocative areas. An underwater level full of mantapeople, while the gray zoo sports an unpleasant guy who seeks to put colars on the PCs to transform them into monsters.. In a skull-and-bones-shaped level, evil outsiders and undead vie for control over one book of power (which usually means: PCs kill everyone), while stormwrack caverns sport mystic weather that contains e.g. transformative lightning. A one-page entry on the back-door exit and the last section of the highway are next...and then we're in the deeper levels, the first of which is an antimagic desert...at least until the rainbow phoenix is slain. Yeah. Ouch. Next up would be the quintessential mad cultist's dungeon, where they call forth cosmodingus, the horror beyond the stars...yeah, I don't consider the juvenile funny name-thing funny. Sorry.
The Hall of the gods provides shrines and a quest where the PC can worship...basically Jing posing as other gods and get passports that award a blessing if all are visited. A reference to New Jersey is part of the read-aloud text, just fyi. More to my taste would be the gauntlet of a deranged ettin mathcaster, who grades the performances of PCs and their deductive abilities. The 9th level of the temple would be the massive, aquatic-themed area, aptly named the undersea, and it sports a ghost ship (the Grim Fandango...of course), a corrupted water temple, the demesne of an ancient sea god. At the end of the road, the PCs can btw. challenge a particularly nasty CR 25 dragon with unique breath tricks in an arena, but personally, I really loved the surreal level devoted to madness more, where lethal icosahedrons, a sublevel made of frustration and a moebius strip need to be navigated.
A thanatotic titan can be found past norns and challenged aplenty (here's to hoping the PCs are up to their best behavior...) and there is also a superbly lethal flower-themed Grimtooth-gauntlet, which may be required to escape.
The book also contains a short fiction by Dave Gross, aforementioned song of birds, a crapton of riddles and a ton of creatrues/statblocks, though the latter generally fall into the "more restrained and less original than I would have expected"-category. The magic items introduced generally are pretty cool, though they sometimes fail in the details - the gearblade forces you to expend an immediate action upon rolling a natural 1 - but what if the wielder has none? The book also contains a huge amount of sample stashes by APL and two empty maps.
Editing and formatting are generally impressive for a freshman offering of this size - one can see the hand of industry veterans in editing and formatting in this book -Amanda Hamon Kunz did a good job here - if you need any proof regarding my claim that editors are the unsung heroes of the industry, take a look at the player's guide. shudder While here and there a "see above" or reference to a "table above" now should refer to "below" or to the next page, probably due to a layout-change, generally, this is well done. On a rules-language level, the book is also concise for the most part, with glitches, when they do come up, pertaining minor aspects. Layout adheres to a pretty printer-friendly two-column full-color standard and the pdf sports A LOT of absolutely original, gorgeous artworks of top quality. The same, alas, cannot be said about the cartography - while some levels sport neat maps, others were made with dundjinni (which isn't bad per se!) but also used in a rather pixelated version. High-res would have been better here and I've seen what you can do with that software! A massive issue that gall me to no end, however, is that we do not get player-friendly maps for any level - no keyless versions, none sans secret doors...sigh On the plus side, the book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
As mentioned, I do not have the print version and hence can't comment on its virtues or lack thereof.
Lead author Danny O'Neill has amassed an illustrious cadre of additional authors: The book credits Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, Skip Williams, Ed Greenwood, Jim Ward, Grimtooth, Stan!, Chris Pramas, Larry Wilhelm, Matt Mayfield, Dave Gross and Kevin Andrew Murphy as authors, while a significant list of kickstarter backers has provided additional development.
The Grande Temple of Jing is a huge book. It took me a couple of months to properly take this apart, re-evaluate and get back to it, time and again. I feel I have arrived at a point where I can fairly assess the strengths and weaknesses of this book. As far as the strengths are concerned: The Grande Temple of Jing manages to capture the sense of wide-eyed wonder that featured so prominently in quite a few of the classics, it manages to recreate that sense of weirdness and happy-go-lucky-adventuring. In the best instances, it's a wonderful romp of the creative ID running wild, when dice golems try to pummel you to death, when you stumble into a level that represents boardgames we all know and love, when slime mobsters rule...this is where you fist-pump and smile from ear to ear.
However, there also are quite a few levels I'd consider boring filler; granted, they tend to have at least one interesting idea, but some levels are tiring, unimaginative slugfests through the same creatures, again and again. with so interesting builds or similar means of mitigating the dreary "it's the goblin level, guess what tries to kill you..."-symptom. Btw.: Thankfully, the annoying make-believe Jingcraft skill is not required a single time in this book. It's not even mentioned! So if you DID take it, heeding the advice of the horrid player's guide, hoping you'll do something unique with it...No. You won't. Retrain.
Speaking of creatures: Don't expect anything regarding interesting or innovative builds. There are reskins and modifications here and there, but unique templates or the like, smart builds or even a fully employed roster of PFRPG-classes can't be found in here - you'll be facing mostly creatures from the basic sources and core classes and monsters, spiced up, somewhat arbitrarily, via Jing's boons...which don't really interact well with their CR-ratings. Oh, and the "final boss", the toughest challenge? Ashardalon did that schtick better in the days of 3.X. Utterly lame and anticlimactic. 'Nuff said.
A massive plus of this mega-adventure, beyond its feeling of the magical, the truly "anything goes", would be the sheer amount of riddles, mini-games and puzzles - in a day and age where dungeons often devolve into slugfests, these are more than welcome and provide scavenging potential for campaigns galore and may even justify the purchase on their own. In fact, I'd rather recommend this as a scavenging ground for ideas than as a full-blown campaign. Why? Because no matter the overarcing storyline you choose...there is not much going on. The promise of fractions and the like in the beginning really doesn't pay off that much over the course of this mega-dungeon. The puzzles, flair and challenges are unique, but story-wise...well, let's just say that if your players want more in that regard, you'll need to do some work. Even Rappan Athuk and similar old-school mega-dungeons did a better job at creating a meta-narrative - here, there's nothing at stake but gold and glory.
Since we're speaking of Rappan Athuk, here's two subtle weaknesses of the Grande Temple of Jing: For one, even though the elevator and highway seek to evoke a sense of depth, there is not really one - the dungeon-levels themselves are rather flat and I'm quite frankly surprised to see no more 3-dimensional levels, even though several of the areas lend themselves perfectly to these peculiarities - the rules do offer for some great means to use more dimensions. Still, a good GM can add these elements...though ultimately, a GM seeking to run this will need to add more - expect no siege weapons or playful use of planar traits. You see, one of the core issues of the Grande Temple lies in its terrain: Basically, most areas and combat-centric regions could have frankly used a bit more going on: Pits, sharp rocks, exploding patches of shrooms, hazards...the like.
Instead, this book tends to use Jing's blanket effects...and they ultimately aren't utilized to their full extent...and they cheat. Basically whenever a particular spell or item would be especially useful, be it flight or teleport, the book prohibits it - not with a powerful effect you could potentially break for a short time...but with a blanket "doesn't work/screws you over" instead. This may fit thematically, but it also is lazy and enforces a playstyle rather than rewarding creativity. I consider that stifling and bad design - working WITH the system instead around it would have been significantly more elegant, particularly considering how the Jing blocks on their own could still work as progress blockers and prevent abuse. Still, it is when the book becomes prescriptive for the sake of enforcing a playstyle that it's the weakest.
Similarly, the video-game-esque components and design decisions here and there may annoy some of you out there, though they offer some of the more creative tricks - but ultimately, they also take away the threat of finality and...of the challenge. The Grande Temple of Jing is not easy; it can be brutal...but it lacks, by virtue of its design and particularly due to the not-so-interesting foes, the sense of stakes and ultimately, the sense of achievement that accompanies beating an old-school killer-dungeon. Since death is marginalized pretty much from the get-go, there is a higher acceptance for risk-taking, yes...but the sense of danger and threats is diminished. Sure, you can play the dungeon as though you were an adolescent again, doing odd and weird stuff sans fear of perma-death...but, to me, that was what made it fun. The challenge. The bragging-rights.
So...over all...I really did not like this book as a whole. As a whole, I will never run Grande Temple of Jing - too many components rub me the wrong way and I consider the framework itself to be not that intriguing.
BUT WAIT. This book DOES have a lot to offer - while falling short of perfection and the self-aggrandized goal of being the archetypical dungeon (No. Sorry. Just no. I can list at least 3 megadungeons at the top of my head that did that job better.), the Grande Temple of Jing excels at being a truly astounding scavenging ground - the puzzles and ideas contained within this massive tome make it worthwhile to have and I do not regret analyzing it: There are so many unique tricks I WILL use in my games, so many riddles to scavenge, so many level-concepts and rooms to steal that even when used in this way, the book is worth having.
This book sports a lot of unique ideas and it is these ideas that elevate this mega-dungeon beyond the self-imposed restrictions and gyves. When this shines, when its ID runs rampant, then this is a book of awesome ideas, which is ultimately what elevates the book to being a worthwhile read. Taking the great and the less than stellar into account, I arrive at a final verdict of 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 stars for the purpose of this platform due to this being the freshman offering of Hammerdog Games.