Black Monastery

Review

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I picked up a hardcopy of [Black Monastery](https://froggodgames.com/frogs/product/the-black-monastery/) (you can also [purchase it as a PDF](https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/112797/The-Black-Monastery--Pathfinder-Edition?affiliate_id=845571)), which I'd purchased once before as a PDF in a Humble Bundle and found to be slightly overwhelming as a digital-only module. The module, such as it is, consists of 87 pages of a single mega-dungeon, with no particular story or goal for the player characters. It's a dungeon delve in the purest of forms. Player characters can explore it, they can find treasure and slay monsters, and they can do that for an hour, or four, or for 87 days, or whatever they please. I myself have not yet explored the entire dungeon, but I've read about 40 pages of it, and I've run players through various parts of it in 3 separated games so far. This is a review based on those experiences.

Dungeon design

The Black Monastery itself is huge, spanning about 1000 feet in width. That means lots of rooms and chambers and courtyards and towers, and that's pretty much the design philosophy of the dungeon. There's no logic to the layout of the monastery. It's a gigantic conglomeration of nearly random rooms clustered together with no indication of why anything is placed in the location it's placed. The only implied story is that the monastery just kept growing, just as did the dark cult that rose to power within it. It's meant to be illogical and random, a grab-bag of encounters and settings.

One small problem is that this is hard to manage, from a purely pragmatic point of view, for both DM and players. For the DM, the maps are unwieldy. The maps in the PDF are not useful as maps for a virtual tabletop system like [Maptool](https://opensource.com/article/19/6/how-use-maptools) because they're just scans of maps in the book, meaning they don't scale up without becoming severely pixelated. The maps in the book are not useful as maps for a real tabletop because they're too small. There's a fold-out map in the back of the book, but even it is too small for miniatures. Essentially, a DM must either pay for a professional copier to scale up the map, or else redraw the relevant parts of the map at the table, which is a little frustrating after purchasing the book.

To make matters worse, the map uses 10-foot squares instead of 5-foot squares, so even if you do get it printed, the grid is wrong for Pathfinder and D&D.

A third option is to leave it to the players to map out their environment as they explore. With a map so large, I don't expect players to physically have paper large enough to contain the monastery. Besides that, I never really liked making players map their own dungeon, because few people play D&D for the joy of geographical surveying.

Map problems aside, the black monastery is a motley assortment of random rooms. It could easily be overwhelming to players not ready for a mega-dungeon crawl, but then again it doesn't have to be used as a mega-dungeon. You could effectively chop it into lots of small dungeons, dealing with only a portion of the location at a time. You'd still have to deal with getting a properly-sized map, but at least you could probably find paper for your section to fit onto.

Story, or the lack thereof

The module has no story. Like the lack of any coherent dungeon design, this is intentional. The introduction suggests that the Black Monastery is meant to mimic the "classic era of Dungeons and Dragons", when "monsters might be stronger or weaker without having to figure out why", and that "this module assumes that the dungeon master (GM) will take control and mold it to his campaign". Even the back of the book warns that player characters "might not even survive the first encounter", which doesn't mean much since there's really no way to predict what the first encounter will be when the playing field is a 1000-foot conglomeration.

I'm not clear why the book belabours these points. Maybe Frog God Games anticipated people would be upset with the module's haphazard design, or maybe they really didn't make any attempt to balance the dungeon in any way and wanted to make that clear. Whatever the cause, it's clear from the book itself that this is meant as raw material, with context to be provided by the DM.

Luckily, it's relatively easy to provide context for the black monastery. The most obvious context is exactly what the book itself provides: it has a rich backstory for the monastery, and it is otherwise a great dungeon to explore for exploration's sake.

It could also easily be a stop during a bigger adventure, a mini-quest that the characters encounter briefly to dig up some important artifact, or the lair of the villain, or a temporary campsite as they travel. Or it could exist on a different plane. In fact, it could be a different plane, or the streets of Sigil, or it could be re-skinned as an ice fortress concealing a fearsome white dragon at its heart, or whatever you need. There's just so much material here, it's difficult to imagine how it could be on your bookshelf and not be useful for something.

This location is pure gold, in a sense, because you can casually drop it into any campaign and let your players decide how much of it they actually care to explore.

Running the module

Frog God Games, for all their creativity, keeps their book design minimal. They don't love white space and tend to cram as much information on every page as possible. This is no exception, and of the 87 pages in the book, pretty much every inch is occupied. This means there's a lot of very dense information, with very few visual cues to help you parse it. I'd give anything for tabs along the side of the book (I've created my own with markers, not that the help much on such a small volume), or some iconography to help distinguish one section of the dungeon from another, or a way to distinguish one level from another.

Aside from that, though, the book uses Frog God's usual methodology of marking each room with a letter indicating the section of the dungeon (M for Main, TK for Tower of Kran, D1 for Dungeon and D2 for Dungeon level 2) followed by a number. With over 200 rooms on the main floor, however, turning straight to a room quickly is unlikely. I find it much easier with a well-marked physical book, personally, and I find that using a map helps track character location. The first time I ran this dungeon, we didn't use a map and I only had the PDF, and keeping track of what room might be next was very difficult, because sometimes the room numbering just isn't what you expect (for example, the party can be in M117 one moment, and then dash out into the hallway M69 the next). Doing a Ctrl+F and searching for a room number seems obvious, but some rooms have 6 or 7 results because they're referenced in the text somewhere. I found the physical experience far better, but maybe with more training and drilling I could manage it digitally.

Frog God estimates that characters should be from level 7 to 9 to begin this dungeon. In practice, I've run it with as low as APL 3 (with CR adjustments when necessary) and as high as APL 6 (with no CR adjustments necessary), and never at APL 7. That said, these have been one-shots, so much of the dungeon wasn't explored and so many of the serious threats were avoided by pure happenstance.

This isn't a Paizo adventure path; there's no indication when players characters should level up, there's no progression through grades of difficulty, and there's no big boss battle at the end. The player characters enter the location, and they can go to any point on the map they want to, and there's the guarantee that there's something for them to interact with. It might be a room littered with nothing but useless remnants of the past, or it might be an encounter with a monster, or a puzzle to solve, or a locked door they'll have to return to later to unlock, but there's definitely something.

And make no mistake: there are some truly excellent encounters in this book. For fear of spoilers, I won't reveal any of them, but if the book is on your bookshelf collecting dust or if you've just recently purchased it, I point you to room M213 on page 60, M147 on page 44, M132 on page 39. These encounters are representative of the variety of what players find in the monastery, and indicative of the general tone and atmosphere.

Verdict

The problems I have with this module are its lack of conveniently usable maps, and the way information is packed into the book. I still haven't been able to find a great workflow for tracking progress and for quickly finding and parsing information I need. This is definitely not a case of reading the relevant chapter the night before the game to get familiar with what's coming up, because there's just too much information for that to be useful. I think the best thing to do would be to go through the book with a highlighter, marking important information, like traps and monsters and treasure, and otherwise run it often enough that you get a feel for where rooms and levels are located in the book.

For all the emphasis Frog God puts on the intent of the module, in the end the module speaks for itself. This feels like it's a traditional dungeon crawl because that's what it is. It's the amalgamation of every dungeon I've ever sketched in my trusted graph paper binder, the culmination of every randomly-generated dungeon I've ever run. This is all that, and not a single thing more, by the bucket load. If you're looking for a dungeon that's just a dungeon, then The Black Monastery is a pretty good bet.

Header image copyright Frog God Games

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