Castle Zagyg: East Mark Gazetteer – a Review

There has been a reason I’ve never had a credit card until quite recently, and it’s this: I don’t trust myself. Of course, it doesn’t help that just after I actually finally get the card, MilSims have a big game sale, with 10% off all RPG products and 20% off all boardgames. I’ve spent quite a bit of money there in the last few weeks. I’m lucky, though – some of the games I want are on backorder and won’t be charged to my card for a few weeks, allowing me to pay off the initial debt first…

(Actually, I have the money now for almost everything I’ve bought; the excess will only be $100 or so… I’m not doing too badly).

In any case, what I want to talk about now is what arrived on my doorstep yesterday: Castle Zagyg: the East Mark Gazetteer.

I’ve been interested in Gary Gygax’s version of Castle Greyhawk for some time now, but I’ve always been stymied by one basic factor: it hadn’t been released. Troll Lord Games eventually teamed up with Gary and started work on the Castle Zagyg project, but it’s been very slow going. Yggsburgh, the first volume of the CZ work, was released in 2005, but further supplements have been very slow in seeing the light of day. I didn’t even buy Yggsburgh, which is the town near the castle. However, it’s looking quite likely that the first levels of the actual Castle will be released in just a few months (August), so my interest has been rekindled. I ordered the four CZ products that MilSims had in their catalogue, and two were delivered yesterday: the Moatgate section of the town, and the product I’m discussing in this post, The East Mark Gazetteer.

This product is presented in an attractive cardstock folio. It consists of four “small-poster” maps in colour, and two booklets, 24 and 48 pages, which are printed in black & white. The product is credited to Gary Gygax and Jeffrey P. Talanian, with art direction and cartography by Peter Bradley.

So, what is the East Mark? Well, it’s the province in the World of Urth where Castle Zagyg and Yggsburgh are situated (with Dunfalcon being just a few hundred miles to the west). One of the maps shows these environs: an area of about 30 miles (EW) by 20 miles (NS) in which are a number of woods, lakes, hamlets, hills… Castle Zagyg and Yggsburgh. The map is full of names that are very Gygaxian in nature: “Wychwood Forest”, “Serpent Ridge”, and “Great Leech Marsh” to give a few.

I would have liked a bit more colour differentiation on this map. Everything seems to be in shades of green, even the rivers. Still, it’s legible enough.

Accompanying the map is the first booklet, the Gazetteer of the East Mark, a 24-page B&W guide to the people and places that inhabit the East Mark. It is very reminiscient of the original incarnation of the World of Greyhawk Campaign Setting in its presentation. Even some of the text evokes the Gazetteer in that book. “There is little doubt that the East Mark cradles the epitome of culture, enlightenment and sophistication in the known world…” If you do possess the 1980 or 1983 World of Greyhawk books, those words should be quite familiar to you, although in a new setting.

I understand that this material has been extracted from its original presentation in the Yggsburgh book, but, as I don’t yet have that tome, it’s new to me. It is also, unfortunately, underwhelming. A lot of this is due simply to the fact that I am comparing it to the 1983 World of Greyhawk books. There are details on the trees found in the area, the zodiac and calendar, and a brief history of the East Mark, all similar to material in the Greyhawk gazetteer. The history, I’m afraid, suffers in comparison. Whilst Greyhawk’s history had events of great note and significance in it, the history of the East Mark just looks mundane.

Yggsburgh itself is described very briefly, although there is an accompanying map (the second of the three colour maps in the product). I find this map to be very attractive, although some of the streets and districts seem surprisingly regular in construction.

The bulk of the Gazetteer is taken up with descriptions of various geographic locales in the Mark. Many of these are descriptive but quite dull, but there are several that provide adventure hooks and material that a good DM should be able to turn into something greater.

The layout of this section is not helped by an inability to use secondary headings. “Great Hillwood” is followed by “Stonewyck” and then “Great Leech Marsh”, all headings with the same appearance. “Stonewyck” is actually a subheading of “Great Hillwood”, but it doesn’t appear as such in the text, causing confusion as you thumb through looking for references.

Sadly, one of the more interesting places isn’t shown on the map, although it’s briefly described in the text: the Purple Tower, home of the evil wizard Lord Uvoll. All-in-all, I find the Gazetteer workmanlike with occasional flashes of brilliance. It doesn’t scream to me, “Use me! Use me!”, unfortunately.

However, the Gazetteer is only the shorter of the two booklets. The longer booklet (48 pages) is the original adventure, The Mouths of Madness, which is the first part of the actual dungeons of Castle Zagyg. This is, in essence, a preview of material that will be seen in the second full release of CZ material: The Upper Works. If you’ve got the patience, it might be worth waiting just a few more months – I’m told August – until it’s released. However, most of you probably bought the Gazetteer some time ago, and it’s only now that I, a latecomer, review it.

Whilst I just described The Mouths of Madness as an original adventure, I’m not quite sure that’s the case. You see, as I was reading it, I was sure that I’d seen a lot of it before. You may have as well, for Gygax had published similar material a long time ago, in what is possibly the most played D&D adventure of all times – The Keep on the Borderlands. Even the title of the adventuring area is similar – The Mouths of Madness compared to The Caves of Chaos? Yes, I think that’s a match!

The first part of the adventure – about 20 pages worth – describes the wilderness surrounding Castle Zagyg, along with rumours and adventure hooks to get your group into the adventure. All the monster stats are given for the Castles and Crusades system, but any player of AD&D would be able to use them almost unmodified. One of the wilderness encounters comes straight out of European fairytales and folklore, another has definite reminders of one from The Keep on the Borderlands. There is a double-sided map accompanying this – one side shows the wilderness for the players, the other the wilderness for the DM… an inconvenient arrangement, I must say.

After this, we move into the adventure site proper: the caves surrounding the base of Castle Zagyg. This is a very strange throwback for me. Many of the cave systems are near matches of those in the Caves of Chaos. There’s an ogre, an owlbear, tribes of kobolds, bugbears and orcs. There’s even an battle call of “Kree-ahk!”, reminiscient of the goblin call of “Bree-yark!” in KotB.

I’ve must say, now I’ve started playing 4e, the simplicity of the encounters and maps seem strange to me. There’s a lot of “10′ wide corridor ending in a door”. I really wonder at how much combat will occur in those corridors. Where 4e goes for mobility in combat, this is an adventure with many constrictive passageways, although there are some notable areas where a goodDM will have monsters attacking the hapless adventures from several directions at once. It’s areas like those that will make combats here tactically interesting. The entire dungeon is shown on the fourth of the small “poster” maps.

Where Gygax and Talanian shine in this part of the adventure is in putting together a plausible set of small humanoid encampments, with rivalries between the monsters and details in the furnishings and encounters that just bring verisimilitude to the entire affair. There are many details that will make the reader smile in delight, and that a wily DM can use to entertain his or her players. The roleplaying details, in particular, rise this adventure above its antecedent, The Keep on the Borderlands, which was aimed primarily at novice DMs.

However, despite all of this detail, the adventure never really soars. Part of this is because it has been emasculated: these caves are meant to lead into the dungeons of Castle Zagyg, but such are not yet available. So, just as things get interesting you discover the way forward is blocked by a roiling fog, a cursed conjuration of Zagyg (wherever he is!) Some of the entrances, such as the Dwarf Entrance, sound very interesting indeed, but there’s only a brief teaser with no real content. Wait until August (or later!)

Another part of my dissatisfaction with the adventure would be due the nature of most of the monsters: they’re humanoids. And humanoids, in AD&D, weren’t that interesting. They differ from each other only by a couple of hit points and in their weaponry. You need interesting tactical situations to really make them shine.

I actually think I’m being somewhat unfair with that last point. There are some interesting situations that will come up in this adventure, and I’m currently experiencing 4e for the first time, which really makes humanoids distinct from each other. Many DMs, especially those still running AD&D or C&C, will not have that problem at all. It’s just how I see it at this point in time.

Probably more significant is the lack of real “tricks” and areas of wonder in the caves. There’s one great, great area – the gate to Barsoom – and a few other areas out of the ordinary – I love the glowing mice – but mostly you’ve got humanoids and more humanoids and the mundane details of their dwellings. Well detailed, yes, but mostly mundane details. I’m not sure if I’m being too hard on it or not, for more details will become evident through actual play. Still, I’ve spent most of the last day reading and thinking about the adventure, and I wanted to get my thoughts down about it.

So, this is a “capsule” review, with further reflections to come if I ever actually manage to use it in play. I’ve been making notes for converting it to 4E (not particularly hard, I finished most in about an hour last night), and it may see use sometime soon, especially if my players are interested.

I’m glad I’ve bought it, although I’m not sure if everyone will find it useful – it’s really an “in-between” product, brought out to show everyone that there is more to the CZ project than just Yggsburgh. You’re probably better-off getting just Yggsburgh and The Upper Works, as I think there’s little here that won’t be reprinted (or that hasn’t already been reprinted).

Style: 3 stars. Substance: 3-1/2 stars.

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