So this post started out as the report on last night's Mutant Future session, but it went off the rails along the way.
Last night I was all set for my players to locate and explore Death Heart, the high level Arduin dungeon that was teased at the end of the previous session. Lord Brain (imagine the Spider-Man foe Myserio, but with a brain-in-a-jar instead of that weird fishbowl, and powers akin to a Thundarr style wizard) had promised the group riches and power in exchange for the spellbook purportedly hidden in the dungeons of Death Heart. Carl, who missed the last session, asked for more details on this proposed adventure. When the rumoured "scorpions the size of your house" were mentioned he argued vehemently for going back to the Howling Tower and continuing to plunder that dungeon. The regulars at my game are usually a pretty easy going bunch, so whenever one person feels passionate about a course of action the rest tend to follow that lead. So I put away Death Heart and got the Howling Tower back out.
I've got to say that running Dave Hargave's The Howling Tower has been a real eye-opener for me. His Arduin Grimoire and the first two or three follow-up books are some of my favorite books from the early years of the hobby. So when I got a chance to snag some of his modules I jumped at the opportunity, assuming I would really dig on 'em.
Turns out I like Hargave's dungeons a lot less than many of his other works. The maps drive me crazy. They're crowded with way too many oddly shaped rooms that are a pain-in-the-ass to describe and almost as hard to draw. The number of utterly pointless secret doors is very high. And only rooms with monsters and treasure are keyed. So if there's a skorpadillo and some magic boots in a room I can tell you the lighting, what the walls and floors are made of, what the air quality is like, etc. But the sixteen empty rooms next door have no descriptors whatsoever. So I end up busting my ass to trick out all the other rooms, because the last thing I want is for a player to say "Uh oh. This room actually has a description, watch out for monsters."
And while I appreciate funhouse dungeons a lot more than some people, I think it's a little weak that none of the stocked rooms have anything to do with one another. The text gives no clues as to how the Priest of Cthulhu in room 16 and the ogre in room 18 interact. Furthermore, it feels weird not having the least idea where either of them go in the dungeon to get something to drink or take a dump. Every serious dungeon I build has at least on crapper and one place where the monsters can go to get a drink of water. Is that crazy?
All the Hargrave dungeons I've looked at are mostly empty time-wasting labyrinths with nothing but monsters dutifully guarding treasure chests. I can't believe I'm complaining about that fact, but I am. Something about his presentation sucks all the fun out of funhouse dungeons for me. So I spend a lot of each session putting that fun back in on the fly. Which can be a great way to spend a few hours twice a month, but at the end of the night I feel tired from all that swimming against the current. I might as well be working off an empty map and some randomly generated monsters and treasures.
Note that I'm not casting aspersions here on Hargrave's skills as a DM. I have no reason to doubt these dungeons were a hoot to play at his table. What I feel is probably at work here is a recurring problem with adventure modules: module writers have to work hard to figure out the difference between writing for themselves and writing for another DM. Maybe Hargrave assumed that I would figure out that of course all the undead on level one are under the control of the evil cleric, etc. On the other hand, if there's a unifying theme to the Howling Tower I'm not finding it. Jamie Mal finds Tegel Manor too funhouse for his tastes, but there's a lot more rhyme (and some reason) to that dungeon compared to Hargave's work.