I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Castle of Mirrors (OSR/5e adventure mini-review)

Castle of Mirrors* is an adventure, or, well, "a dungeon, setting, and series of adventures" in 38 pages. The system is "5e Hardcore Mode" (which I haven't read), but to me it seems more compatible with the OSR mindset than 5e proper. You can use this with other systems... but it will require some conversion and the data is not always clear (some monsters, for example, have no HP or damage listed... maybe the CR is their HD, I can't be sure).

Why did I buy/read this? I like the themes, and it is short enough for a quick read. It is also dark fantasy. And it was on sale.

Here is the blurb:
The sinister influence of an ageless dragon is plagueing the Westlands with vampiric evil. Can the heroes confront these undying dooms, and solve the riddle of the magic mirrors?
If you've been reading my Curse of Strahd posts, CoM is similar: a castle with a vampire and some lesser undead, a village nearby, some exotics/barbarians who can be enemies or allies, etc. It adds caves and a dragon below the castle (which turned out very cool) and a few additional twists. Since I like CoS (despite its flaws), I liked this one too; it is, in some ways, an small example of how CoS could be written with less clutter.

The book is well written; it is dripping with inspiration. The text is terse, the stat-blocks are very small... the way I like it! Just take a look:

The most interesting thing about the module is not the setting, however; the adventure has a great procedure to explore locations. Instead of detailed maps, it has a few scenes divided into smaller zones; to move between scenes, you make an exploration roll to see if you have an encounter or discover something useful. Additionally, the order of scenes is pretty intuitive; start with the gate, then the yard, etc.

In short, like Fate or Castle Gargantua*, CoS uses abstract movement instead of mapping. I really like this method do, especially for cursed castles such as this one. It reminds of Castle of Otranto, Gormenghast and similar stories.

Overall, it is an AWESOME system, and very simple.

The layout is simple and efficient; everything is well organized, no orphan lines, lots of small paragraphs (and bullet points), one subject per page (or two at most). Writers, take some notes.

The system stuff is a bit confusing. One monster gets "Extra Action", other gets "3 Actions: Lash, Lash, Grapple", and other gets "Bite/Claw" with no mention of actions. The page above has a monster with two lines mentioning HP (probably a typo?). Not really clear, but not hard to decipher either.

The maps are cool, the art is mostly low-res public domain stuff. 

My only caveat is that I find the book hard to look at. I dislike the gray background, it looks terrible on my tablet. Black on white would be better IMO. Also, the author (Hankerin Ferinale) is an artist with some GREAT drawings, full of contrast... which makes this choice baffling. Well, you can see for yourself above; maybe it is just a preference of mine or a problem with the tablet. I dislike the grayness in Shadow of the Demon Lord (one of my favorite games) too.

OVERVIEW (explanation here):

Useful? The book is very useful, but it is not exactly ready to run, requiring some conversion and lots of fleshing out. It is extremely usable - good index (but no bookmarks unfortunately), good organization, etc. - but unless you really like improvising, you must work a bit before running it. as the book puts it:
When it comes to reading, creating, and running Castle of Mirrors, there are so many unanswered questions. There are maps to make, items to understand, villains to imagine, encounters to plan. This is by design.
Castle of Mirrors is meant to be a PROJECT for the Gamemaster, not simply a set of

It is worth mentioning that this isn't exactly balanced, either; lots of save-or-die effects, and although it mentions "5th level or higher", I don't see how they could beat this before, say, level 10. Just look at the monster with 180 HP in the first scene, pictured above: hidden, immune to everything but blades, etc.

Inspiring? Yes. The system and organization inspired me the most, but the contents - teleporting mirrors, steam caves, etc. - are cool too.

Bloated? Not at all. Always to the point. Very good.

Tiresome? No.

Clear? Yes, very clean and clear.

In short: If you're looking for a concise scenario or a collection of places and ideas for you "gothic D&D" games, this one is worth checking out.

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  1. In Hardcore mode AC is 10+CR, HP is 10 times the CR and the CR is also the bonus to rolls.