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Reviews - Citadel of the Corruptor
 
by Gerald Cameron


DCC #61 coverDungeon Crawl Classics #61: Citadel of the Corruptor
Published by Goodman Games
Written by Adrian Pommier
48 page saddle-stitched softcover, full-color cover, b & w interior
$12.99

Dungeon Crawl Classics #61: Citadel of the Corruptor (CotC) is the eleventh adventure in the Dungeon Crawl Classics line for Dungeons & Dragons: Fourth Edition. While it is a standalone adventure, it can also be used as a sequel to DCC #54: Halls of the Mountain King and DCC #57: Wyvern Mountain.

The Situation
This time, the heroes are drawn to the Ul-Dominor mountains, where they find Fort Frostbite (depending on the story hook used, they can find it accidentally or intentionally). Taking shelter against an oncoming magical storm, they come across a scene of slaughter, but things may not be entirely as they seem.

The plot of this module is not going to win awards for originality, but it is completely serviceable, and stands as a solid example of a typical Dungeons & Dragons premise. Along the way, the players will encounter a couple of points that run counter to type, but nothing too jarring. Perhaps the only bit that is a bit too strange is the shape of the weapon that the Big Badguy at the End of the Game (BBEG) uses in the final encounter.

Unfortunately, CotC is rather linear, and even veers toward railroading at the beginning. The DCC format does not leave room for a more "exploreable" environment, of course, so a certain amount of linearity is to be expected. Using the aforementioned magical storm to push characters into the fortress leaves a bad taste in my mouth, though. Better story hooks would serve just as well, and would give a nod to player agency, at least.

On top of that, the text admits that the first encounter is designed to keep the PCs trapped by draining resources they could use to fight the storm, too. The idea is to keep them indoors so they will investigate further. There are even tips on how to draw reluctant parties onward so they can finally uncover the beginning of the main storyline. For my money, a better approach would be throwing the situation in their faces, forcing them to act rather than just camp out. I'm not sure the plot is grabby enough as written if keeping the players "on track" requires the techniques described in the text.

It's worth noting that one encounter also involves an infanticide in its history, which some groups might find too horrible for D&D play, especially if it touches on personal tragedies. Other groups will find it a welcome breath of a mature outlook on gaming, though.

Substance and Crunch
Like all Dungeon Crawl Classics, CotC is published under the Open Game License, aided and abetted by fair use, rather than the Game System License Wizards of the Coast is trying to promote for 4th Edition products. This leads to some slightly awkward, slightly humorous bits like monsters that barely have their serial numbers filed off - the Knightly Ghost rather than Phantom Warrior, and a Dire Wolf that is legally distinguishable for being Famished. The most amusing instance of this is a Winterclaw Owlbear dressed up as a tribal totem animal, never once using the word owlbear. There are also some instances of magic items named without any description or reference, which is less amusing.

That aside, the monsters in CotC are better designed than the new monsters I've seen in other DCCs. While there are a couple cases of brutes and soldiers that only have one option, most monsters feature enough powers to stay fresh for a single fight where they are one party of a diverse group, at least. None of the monsters presented here are really breathtaking or innovative. The best ones are above average, though, and offer a range of tactics, even if one of the better ones is lacking a deserved leader tag in its header, and another notable is relegated to the role of wandering monster.

Licensing notwithstanding, CotC feels more like a Fourth Edition adventure than other DCC adventures that I've read. There are fewer solos and plus-level elites fighting the party by themselves; combats with multiple monsters are more likely to feature a mix of monsters; traps are used as an integrated, dynamic element of an encounter, not standalone gotchas; and the skill challenge presented in CotC is complex, featuring a long list of useable skills. In fact, the skill challenge is better than most that Wizards of the Coast have published, although WotC has started raising the bar again lately. Encounters tend to be solid, not exceptional, but there are a couple of minor highlights.

The final encounter is a bit of an anticlimax, unfortunately. While the fight itself offers an intriguing twist, it is set in a storage room, and there is almost no build up. There is some foreshadowing of the BBEG's terrible weapon, but he does not develop a strong sense of identity. At least DMs are advised to ham up his megalomania in best 70s comic book villain style. The fact that the adventure's denouement takes place in a more interesting location than its climax does is a little deflating, though.

There are a couple of headscratchers, too. The tactical guidelines in one early encounter encourage the DM to have a monster "hang back and let [an aura 1 power] afflict the party. I'm not sure how this is supposed to work with a power that does not extend beyond melee range. I also thought the decision to make operating a (load-bearing) crane an Arcana skill check a bit odd. I'm not sure if I'd make it a skill check at all, but, if I did, Arcana doesn't seem like the right skill for using a non-magical item.

CotC also features, like most D&D adventures, a pet peeve of mine: the trivial skill check. In this case, there are a couple of DC 8 checks, one to find some barely hidden treasure. If you want characters to have or to see something, just let them find it or see it; you can still say it is barely visible, or something the PCs notice out of the corner of their eye. Trivial skill checks are usually a waste of time, and when they aren't they may screw over the players or, worse, bring the game to a grinding halt. Enough!

Artistic Elements
Overall, the writing in CotC is solid, which puts it above the average for the RPG industry. Unfortunately, the read-aloud sections, featuring descriptions on areas and events, are a bit creaky. Occasionally, Pommier reaches for a flourish that feels a bit forced and out of line with the rest of the writing. Nothing that should concern a would-be DM, perhaps, but it should be better. There are also several places where the DM is advised to paraphrase the description if the PCs do not take the "standard" way in, so the read-aloud text is not always, in fact, read-aloud text.

More problematic is some of the editing. All of the read aloud text for a section is placed at the start of the section, which leaves elements dangling without sufficient context until the reader delves further into the section. In fact, this seems to be part of a general editorial decision to stick to the facts of the immediate situation as much as possible, without so much as a cross-reference to help. Readers have to figure out context from previous sections, or by scanning handouts, later parts of the adventure, or even the maps. This is more of a nuisance than a problem when first going through the adventure, but if a key bit of information doesn't stick in the DM's mind, it could cause a lot of confusion and delay when playing.

I found one section (1-4) especially confusing at first. In addition to the main description, there are two event descriptions that are presented out of sequence relative to how they will likely happen. There are three other important elements described, but one of them is written as if the DM should know it is talking about an item that was introduced in a throwaway line in an earlier piece of read-aloud text. Once you go back and look at it having read the entire book, it's not so bad, but there is a lot going on, and when I first read that section I was at a loss.

The art by Doug Kovacs is interesting, distinctive and just a bit more ambitious than typical RPG line art. While it is not quite to my own taste, it is always nice to see illustrators that try for something other than dull verisimilitude. I could see others liking it a lot. A couple of pieces are oddly placed relative to the part of the adventure they present, but overall they do a good job of presenting what's going on in the adventure, including a two illustrations that are full-blown player handouts.

The maps at the back of the book are not as good. They have been developed in a graphics program, and seem to have been designed in full color. In black and white, they are not as clear as they should be. You can read them well enough if you take a moment, but I could not comprehend them, even the second or third time around, at a glance. Actually, this is one area where publishers should turn back to the methods of older editions. AD&D 1st edition and Moldvay/Cook D&D dungeon maps were a model of clarity and readability, and it would be nice if Goodman Games (and other publishers) returned to this approach, like they did in their 3rd edition DCC modules.

The layout and print design is typical of the DCC line, which is to say that the typography is professional and solid, although the stat blocks could do with a little rethinking. They try too hard to be a black and white version of the WotC full-color stat blocks, and black and white print would be better served by other approaches that do not rely on shaded backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the experience of the page is marred by a background illustration of a world map that reduces the page's legibility a bit, distracts from the content, and makes the book look dirty and dreary. It's a shame that this one element drags down what is otherwise very good work that is far above the average for the industry. Also, if you buy DCC products as PDFs, intending to print them out, this background will be an ink hog, even in a book this short.

Conclusions
Citadel of the Corruptor is a solid upper-heroic tier adventure for Dungeons & Dragons: Fourth Edition. While it will not blow your doors off, and there are elements that bug me, it gets the job done. It lacks the pulpy fun vibe that some other DCCs do, but it fits clearly into the mainstream of D&D fantasy. Also, it can easily be adapted to a DM's own ongoing plots. A macguffin you can tie to Fort Frostbite would probably be a better hook than what the text offers, and you can even ditch the irksome storm. I would recommend it to DMs looking for an easy-to-run adventure, such as a one-shot game, DMs that have played and enjoyed the earlier installments of this adventure path, or DMs without a lot of time and with a macguffin in search of a home.

 
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