The Castle of the Mad Archmage

While a lot of the rest of the world was sitting down to play their first games of the new D&D using the Starter Set, my regular crew of players were playing AD&D with me. Mainly because the Starter Set isn’t out here yet in Australia, which does make it just a little difficult to play The Lost Mine of Phandelver!

Our regular numbers were down just a bit – winter and school holidays, most likely – so the team wasn’t so enthusiastic about braving the palace of the Overking of the Great Kingdom! I gave them the option of talking to the nobles they’d befriended or in adventuring into the local megadungeon. They chose the megadungeon.

The megadungeon in question is Castle of the Mad Archmage by Joseph Bloch, which he wrote after Gary Gygax was prevented from completing Castle Zagyg
by his untimely death. It is somewhat ironic that I’m using the dungeon for an entirely different part of the World of Greyhawk than what it was intended, but I have my own version of Castle Greyhawk. So, as this campaign is somewhat built around megadungeons, using this one here seemed like a good idea.

What’s quite unusual is that there have now been about six or seven sessions of adventuring into the Castle, but only two of those sessions have been Dungeon Mastered by me. The reason for that is that often our group has gotten entirely too big for me to handle it on my own, so some of the other players have volunteered to DM for a session. I’ve given them the Dungeon of the Mad Archmage to use as it is relatively simple to run unprepared. I’ve got them scribbling in the book (in pencil) so that other groups know which areas have been explored. I occasionally hear reports like “We’ve killed all the elves!” which make me just a little curious as to what has actually happened…

Castle of the Mad Archmage is not a uniformly great dungeon. There are a lot of rooms that have monsters without much more detail about what the monsters are doing there, but every so often you find little details that you can turn into great encounters. The first encounter the group had today was one of those: upon reaching the fourth level of the dungeon, this being a group with some rather experienced characters, they avoided a greyish pool of ooze to make their way up to the leader of the White team of gladiators who lair in the dungeon. (In dungeons, monsters lair, they don’t live!) That leader happened to be a barbarian from the Northlands according to the adventure. Well, I’m running a campaign with a lot of characters who are Frost Barbarians! This is one of those wonderful coincidences that I could have a ball with!

(I rolled a d6 to discover which of the three groups of Barbarians he came from – Frost Barbarian came up trumps, which made this into a role-playing encounter rather than a combat encounter, which would have happened with a Snow Barbarian, as the two barbarian peoples hate each other!)

In the middle of the role-playing, which was all very amicable – it’s great to have players who don’t attack everything on sight – I had the gladiator widen his eyes and exclaim, “What the hell is that?!?” It seemed that the puddle of greyish ooze had turned out to be a grey ooze after all, and it had followed the group down the corridor and was attacking Carver, the thief, with surprise. Unfortunately, it rolled extremely badly and was slain by the party without inflicting any damage. Nor had it managed to corrode any weapons.

It’s worth touching on that point: most editions of D&D say, “it corrodes weapons” and give some details as to the process. The Grey Ooze entry references the Black Pudding for how it corrodes armour, but leaves out the weapon corrosion rules, except for a note that says it does it. I decided to use the much-ignored Item Saving Throw tables for once to see what happened; alas, all the weapons saved. One day I’ll write more about Item Saving Throws, but we’ll leave that for now. However, this lacking detail in the Monster Manual is pretty standard Gygax. How long does a ghoul paralyse its victims? Yeah, that’s missing too!

The best bit about the encounter with the Barbarian Gladiator was that he could tell everyone how to get to the fifth level of the dungeon, as this one was still a little too easy. They were greeted with one of the details in Castle of the Mad Archmage that elevates it into being something really worth running: a tiled pattern on the floor that led through several rooms, culminating in a wizard’s summoning chamber, with lots and lots of magic circles, pentagrams and the like inscribed everywhere. It’s not a combat encounter: it’s something to discover and to evoke wonder in the players. I love those sorts of detail.

Explanations, such as they were, came from the Djinni Librarian in the next room. Although I misread the entry and described him, initially, as appearing more like an Efreeti; I just had his form change as the discussion went on to emphasise his otherworldly nature. The group, once again, were content to converse with him and not steal the books; I was quite impressed with their forbearance!

The major action piece of the session came as they discovered the bugbear tribe living in this part of the dungeon; or rather, when the bugbear tribe discovered them. The bugbears launched a surprise attack before discovering that perhaps that wasn’t the greatest plan, and the one survivor ran back to find reinforcements. This he was successful in, but still the party were able to slaughter the bugbears before they reached their main chamber, only to find it empty.

The group were a little taken aback when a pair of trolls arrived behind them and attacked, and even more surprised when, as they fought the first two trolls, a secret door opened to reveal two more trolls – who charged Latud the Magic-User. Latud avoided being slain a second time in two sessions, and eventually the trolls were slain, with some bugbears looking on from the nearby secret door. The bugbears closed the door in a hurry after the trolls were slain, though!

Once the party discovered how to open that door, they were quite surprised to see it led to an empty 10’x10′ room. Josh said that it must be the troll staging point, before realising how stupid that was. Eventually they found the other secret door, and from there found a room with a troll and a bugbear arguing in it. They could have attacked, but noting how many other unexplored doors were about, and fearing (correctly) they all held trolls, they chose to retreat and take up the fight another time.

This will be last of the weekly AD&D sessions for a while; in two weeks, I’ll start a D&D Next campaign for my Saturday players, and that will alternate with AD&D from then on. Unfortunately, next week, the Magic pre-release will prevent any D&D at Goodgames Ballarat.

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