Friends of the Stew, Ed Healy and Rone Barton, co-hosts over at the gaming podcast Atomic Array , are going to put the goodly folks of Goodman Games  beneath the bright strobe lights of inquiry — or at least subject them to one of Rone’s description-defying rants.
Anyway, the subject at hand is Goodman’s latest game line — Master Dungeons — Fourth Edition adventure modules designed specifically for experienced GMs. As the introduction to both adventures promise: “The adventure is designed to reward intelligent play, just as foolish choices must surely be punished.”
Killer dungeons? Not quite. These aren’t the “Tomb of Horrors” revisited. But they are unforgiving to PCs who fall into thinking they can overcome every obstacle with an attack roll. And the adventures are grander in scope than what is regularly seen in Goodman’s signature line, Dungeon Crawl Classics.
“Dragora” was written by Harley Stroh with Aeryn “Blackdirge” Rudel while “Curse” was a Stroh solo effort. Both adventures feature full-color cover illustrations from the catalog of Clyde Caldwell.
Stew GMs who run Fourth Edition will be enlightened to know this series has some goodies worth including in their toolbox — things they generally aren’t getting in the modules being produced by Wizards of the Coast.
Once a staple of some TSR modules and Dungeon magazine adventures, the encounter table lists all the encounters in the module, and in this case, presents them by location, type, the name of the monsters and their encounter level. It’s the kind of short-form document that allows those GMs with an inclination to tinker to plan any changes they intend to make.
Recently, some publishers have foregone including the encounter table, citing space concerns or the fact it’s one of the things that a tinker-inclined GM could build on their own. I think if the expectation is this module is for experienced GMs, then it makes sense to provide it, and let them hit the ground running.
Random Discovery Charts
“Curse” utilizes these to good effect, and I was surprised at how much they appeal to me as a GM. I certainly want to see more of them, and will be using and developing my own in the future.
The Discovery Chart is essentially an information gathering tool, a way to seed a locale with flavorful dungeon dressings and clues without having to write up a description for every nook and cranny on a map.
Because the charts are grouped thematically, the GM has greater control over the information and descriptions of each find.
Now, clever PCs may have an inclination to metagame when the GM is using the charts, just as they do when Random Monster charts are in play. I think that is OK, because once the PCs hit two or three similar locations, they should have gleaned enough information to move on.
This is important. The manner in which the charts are written dispenses with the PCs feeling the need to explore every last corner, of a town or village before moving onto the dungeon. They can feel confident they can move on, that some “crucial” clue was not missed, because the nature of the descriptions from the Discovery Charts are designed to keep the adventure moving.
Moreover, the flavor of the descriptions are such that the PCs could return to town or village, have the GM roll on the chart, and still come up with a result that adds some color to their exploration.
The hallmark of both adventures is the use of NPCs with opposing or conflicting motivations and ambitions. These are done to create dramatic tension, but also to provide some roleplaying opportunities and instances of alliances and betrayal.
NPC motivations are clearly spelled out — which is refreshing. GMs can use this tool to devise their own skill challenges and NPC interactions, advancing the plot and story as need be.
Dispensing with the delve
The clearest signal that Master Dungeons is for experienced GMs is that the delve format has been discarded. Encounters follow the familiar “magazine-style” presentation with italicized read-aloud text followed by explanatory GM -only text. Only stat blocks for monsters and traps follows the 4E format. There is a conscious effort to keep the relevant stat blocks together to limit page turning during an encounter, but that’s the only nod to 4E layout.
The verdict: Clearly, experienced GMs — regardless of system — don’t require the delve format for every encounter. The advantage of the format is that everything a GM needs is clearly laid out before them on one or two pages. The disadvantage is that sometimes you don’t need to devote a full page to have an interesting encounter.
The best illustration of the latter was the Killing Hall encounter in “Curse.” This encounter is a simple, straightforward buzz saw. A couple paragraphs of description are all that’s needed to prep the GM. Players who have their PCs charge forward with a “kick in the door” approach are going to get mowed down.
Yet, the challenge can be beaten with other tactics. All told, the delve format would have been wasted on this encounter. Does that make it any less of a tactical challenge? No, it fits perfectly with the system, and requires the PCs to have mastery of their character’s 4E powers.
Is the delve extinct? That said, selective use of the delve format might serve even those GMs who know their way around an adventure but who are still gaining a handle on the mechanics of the 4E system. If I were to make a suggestion, it would be for Goodman to employ the delve format for such complex encounters. In “Dragora,” for example, the climatic section in The Fane of Tiamat is even written so that those elements GMs are accustomed to seeing in a delve — especially stat blocks — are already presented. Because tactical encounter maps and opponent stat blocks are both crucial to how this section runs — and because PCs would most likely move through these encounters in quick succession — it seems a logical place to employ the delve format, especially when the layout of the section is so close to being “delvish” anyway.
In such a case, I don’t the think using the delve format “dumbs down” the adventure at all, but rather enhances it by allowing the encounters to move at a brisk pace.
Maps you can use
I would be remiss if, before I close out this article, I didn’t chime in on the cartography, which strikes the right balance between the artistic and utility. Plainly, these are maps you can use — and use again. Ed Bourelle’s footmaps in “Dragora” are straightforward — exactly what’s needed to navigate The Fan of Tiamat in the last section of the adventure. And Tom Martin’s use of perspective enhances the grandness of “The Kingspire” without sacrificing playability (which I’ve often found to be true with isometric designs). Black and white maps serve sufficiently.
Want to learn more about Master Dungeons? Read on…
- Atomic Array: Episode 017: Master Dungeons 
- Game Cryer: Curse of the Kingspire Review 
- Musing of the Chatty DM: Curse of the Kingspire Preview 
- Campaign Mastery: The Plot Thickens – Hooking Players Into Adventure