Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Review from the Grave: Book of Challenges

With the store credit I earned from an astonishing third place win in the one page dungeon contest this year, I purchased the Book of Challenges. The store credit was to Wayne's Books, and Wayne has a pretty astonishing collection of tabletop books for sale.

My initial impression of the book was fairly good. I flipped through some interesting traps that each have interesting twists on the usual trap formula. Each trap comes with a small, black and white map to help flesh it out further. The first few maps I flipped to had a fun premise and would be fun to run.

Flipping more in depth through the book now to write this post and my impression of the book has dropped significantly. While the initial charm of new traps and puzzles got me at first, it really starts to wear thin. They never run out of original ideas. If anything they are too original.

Many of these look like a major headache to run and would definitely break my immersion in the game if I encountered them from the players' side. The convoluted setups, architectures, or shear wastefulness of the traps and puzzles means that most of these are entirely out of place in anything but a crazy wizard's tower.

Take, for example, a convoluted spiral filled with untriggered traps that all reset once the party reaches the middle. Who would ever build this? Even if your death room kills the thief after the first trap, eventually, enough minions could ostensibly retrieve whatever treasure you spent absurd amounts of money to protect. If the goal is to have it retrievable only by the right person, guards and locks do a much better job than expensive, repeatable magic traps. If the goal is to lock it away forever, encase it in stone in the middle of nowhere.

Even a dozen pictures like this would have made the book so much better.
A second effect of having elaborate, tricky traps and puzzles is that even after reading some of them over a half-dozen times, I still couldn't understand what was going on. Maybe I'm an obtuse idiot, but if I can't understand them, I would never try to put it in front of players who will nit-pick and tear apart any cobbled together understanding I might make. Questions like, "How does this mechanism function" or "What happens if I do this random action?", will leave me turning pages while my players die of boredom. Maybe if the traps, puzzles, and encounters included more specific art instead of vague and generic room layouts. A book with half as many encounters but with meticulous trap mechanisms drawn out in black and white sketches would be amazing even if all its traps sucked. It would still be a cool coffee-table book. I suppose there's a different sort of book for that. Alas, the only art that isn't a basic, grey room is art borrowed from other wizards of the coast books.

The book isn't all bad, it does have some neat ideas like a trio of giants so heavily diseased and cursed that characters can handle them much before they are able. The idea of scaling down monsters in this way is neat. Likewise, there are some novel aspects of traps included here like animated walls in a maze or a honeycomb of rooms to fight teleporting enemies. An interesting purchase, but I am glad I did not spend any of my own money.

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