Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness

This module has sat, unread, in my collection. I remember not buying it because my cousin had it and I was going to play it, but that didn't happen.

This is one I really enjoyed reading. I'd never read the whole thing - this was part of what I inherited from my cousin's collection. My only memory of it was hearing the intro text, and using the 25,000 gp to buy magic items from the Duke's collection. That's it - not a second of actual play. Probably we got sent outside to play because it was a nice day or something.

In the weeks ahead I'll try to get through the other adventures people requested I take a look at, and others from my collection I especially want to talk about.

by Allen Hammack
20 pages
TSR 1980

This module was originally a tournament module, for (according to the intro) Wintercon VIII in Detroit in 1979. The copy I have is the release version from 1980.

The adventure is basically a dungeon crawl, penetrating a ruined fortress seeking a McGuffin desired by an NPC. The tournament setup is that the PCs are coerced into the adventure - four prisoners from the Duke's prisons, and a monk indentured to the Duke as payment of taxes. Oddly, they come unequipped, but get 25,000 gp to buy normal equipment and select magic items from the Duke's treasury. I wouldn't want to try that with an inexperienced or rusty game group, because buying equipment (especially mundane gear) is always time-consuming. Selecting magical gear is pretty fun, though. I remember doing it myself with these lists, and it's a lot of competing trade-offs between powerful but costly items that limit your overall choices and cheaper items that might just not get the job done. Still, "here is 25,000 gp worth of gear you can take from my treasury" seems a really contrived way of putting the item choice into the player's hands.

On to the adventure itself. It is basically a big puzzle made up of puzzles. It's a find-the-keys puzzle with nested puzzles. Enter the dungeon, find the key, find the door, back off, try again until you get all the keys. Then complete the one-path-only way to the McGuffin.

The puzzles are pretty cool - they reward general caution, player skill, character abilities, and knowing when to take bold action. You can't easily get through them all with cautious 10' pole pokes and refusing to do anything dangerous, just as you can't easily get through them all with bold action and straight combat. And that's without even touching the scoring bonuses the tournament players would get for choosing the right course of action for each puzzle. Some of them are player-facing (player skill resolved), most are at least equally character-facing (resolved by character abilities, if correctly applied.) Add on top of that a time limit in the tournament and it must have been pretty tense, choosing between boldness and caution in turns.

Some of the puzzles require combat - for the tournament, monsters all do specific (sub-average) damage. There is an interesting range of monsters in there, but they're clearly chosen for a mix of thematic appropriateness and level of challenge.

The non-tournament additions are just more encounters embedded in previously empty rooms, or additional monsters or traps stuck into the more puzzle-like encounter areas in the Ghost Tower. Some of them are probably appropriate for a regular campaign, others seem like they'd just make the encounter more complex (and bloody) for little real gain.

I mentioned scoring. The scoring is individual and team, with a winning team and winning individuals being given prizes. Scoring is for loot, damage given, minus damage received, plus all sorts of bonuses for handling specific encounters and even for making observations about the environment.

Some nice bits:
- lots of blown-up maps of special rooms you can show to players (and smaller ones for the GM).

- pictures of the "keys" so you don't have to explain them without a visual aid.

- an umber hulk illustrated by Jeff Dee and one illustrated by Erol Otus.

Overall, I was quite impressed with this one. It seems like a killer dungeon with a poison cookie for a prize, but looking at it from my perspective now, I feel a bit differently. It's a real challenge adventure, with a dangerous prize you probably wouldn't want to keep (unlike, say, some of the weaponry from S2 White Plume Mountain.) Like S2, it puts more emphasis on using your head than your weapons, but you need both. Also like S2, it will find a way to fit a trick or puzzle in even if you need to suspend your disbelief a bit to swallow it being there.

All in all, it's one I wished I'd played. If you have, let me know how it was in your game in the comments!


  1. I took a look at my copy (one of my two copies, the other is still shrinkwrapped) just a couple of days ago, maybe in a remote future I will use it in a one-o-one campaign I am planning to start.
    As a kid I read and played the game book based on this module so I wasn't impressed by some of its ideas when I first read C2 some years ago, though the setting and many ideas are still very good. All in all, it is a quite original dungeon with many weird (and pleasant) elements.
    The quest you are compelled to fulfill is quite "mechanical" but considering it was written in 1979 the "find-the-pieces-of-the-key" routine is acceptable.
    I guess many scenes will be interesting when (if) we will play it.

    1. I'd love to hear about it. Assemble-the-key is pretty mechanical, yeah, but it's both easy to understand and sufficiently clear that the players can focus on getting it done creatively instead of guessing what to do to move towards the goal.

      If you play it, remember this post and come back and comment!

  2. I bought this a few years ago from a used bookstore. I've never read or run it. I might have to give it a look and maybe trot it out next time I'm running at a con.

    1. It would be interesting to run it on a 3-hour time limit just like in the module. Hand out the PCs, hit the clock and let it run until 3 hours are up.

    2. So 3 hours with the D&D/AD&D rules. How long would it take using GURPS 4e?

  3. And finally we played it. There was a delay since the character was drained of 3 levels by a vampire during Fighter’s Challenge I…
    My player’s character is a Wild Mage (Academic kit) and I tailored the module to become a sort of challenge between wizards of various schools of magic, being an occasion for the character to show his power with a famous Conjurer. I changed the back story so that the Tower of Inverness is no more a recent find but a well-known feature of the world of Greyhawk.
    The party was made up of 8 wizards, two specialists for every Schools of Magic (be it based on Philosophy, Thaumaturgy or Effects, as per Player’s Option: Spells & Magic) plus a Chronomancer and a Sha’ir. Since my friend is one of the most important expert in Fluid Dynamics in the world, the names of the other mages were spoofs of some colleagues of him or of other important Physics.
    Obviously many of them were just cannon fodder to spare the life of my character, and having played the gamebook of the Ghost Tower as a child I introduced a mystery element: my player had his character learn via a messenger spell that someone would try to kill him, but that was a misinformation and the only wizard who was a target for assassination was the Chronomancer, since the existence of Chronomancy must be kept secret.

    First of all, the player discovered the lower hole (just 4 feet from the floor) in the east wall and so the party get inside through that way, being the portcullis too heavy to lift even for the powerful Force Mage/Militant Wizard with a lot of strength-enhancing items. But inside the courtyard my player got the wrong idea that there must be something interesting in the central pile of rubbles – maybe the intention of the author was exactly that. And so, even if some of the other mages didn’t discovered anything with their Detect Magic spells, my Wild Mage lost precious time examining the ruin of the old tower and finally he felt in one of the various pits hidden in the rubbles… fortunately he made his saving throw, suffering only 4 hit points of damage out of a total of 9.

    The group then headed for the north-west tower and after some inspection they decided to go down the wrought iron spiral stairway. The curious gnome artificer activated the trap in room 9 but fortunately released “only” a carnivorous ape. Not much of a thread for a group consisting in many Magic Missile-wielding wizards and a powerful Militant Mage who has a total of +15 damage bonus.
    My character got the hint that all 4 creatures should be freed to open the door on the south wall and so one by one they “summoned” the remaining 3 monsters. As with the ape, they were easy fare for the group. Then they went in room 10 where the Umber Hulk proved a much more threatening menace. While the monster was entering the room the gnome artificer found the KEY. 3 characters out of 8 (including my player’s Wild Mage) were Confused by its attack and the Militant Mage missed one attack, but they could kill it after a while without casualties – obviously, being wizards they don’t get good attack rolls, so even if they were confused into attacking each other nobody get hurt…
    By the way, a Sha’ir of moderate level sending his Gen to search low-level spells can be a great aid to a party.

    The group then reached room 14 and discovered the mechanism to activate the door. My player’s character used a Locate Object to find where another KEY could be and located the one in the South-West tower.
    During their way back to the courtyard they had two random encounters: 5 giant badgers and the illusionist. Nothing particularly difficult, even if the first giant badgers in the chart have maximum (or few less) hit points and require more than one round to be put down.
    The first session ends here, although we played more than 2 hours (maybe 3) my player didn't go too far!
    CONTINUE NEXT WEEK (or so I hope!)

  4. Back in the courtyard and heading to the South-West tower the group was attacked by 3 giant lizards – nothing particularly dangerous. In the tower properly they reached room 7, the one with two big piles of rubble, but having detected nothing dangerous, magical or undead they decided to leave. The manticore attacked with its darts but didn’t hurt any of the mages seriously, so they rapidly counter-attack and killed it. The Wild Mage discovered the second KEY.
    Fortunately, with just some (ahem) “advice” by the DM the group left the tower after the find, so they spared me encounter 8 which could turn quite annoying to handle.

    Then they went in the South-East tower where they found nothing less than a Basilisk (!!!) to await them in a 20x20 feet room facing the long corridor. Fortunately nobody got petrified and the monster was defeated with a fireball cast by the Artificer which caused a cave-in. The Wild Mage cast a Web spell, just in case…
    Room 5 was quite annoying with its mechanics. Monsters popping out just from nowhere didn’t prove too much a challenge even if I didn’t read correctly the description of the room and made two leucrotta appear…
    Room 6 was much more challenging, even if the quality of the monsters inside it wasn’t top. But SIXTEEN bugbears can be quite devastating if fought together. With the aid of spells such as Grease and Lance of Destruction the mages survived the encounter, but they were running out of potions of healing and some of them was really hurt. After taking the third KEY they left the area with almost no problem, but on the staircase up dice decided that they should have a random encounter with an Ogre Mage. They spotted it but it turned invisible and so the group reached the spiral stairs just to be the target of a Cone of Cold. 4 mages out of 8 were hit, and 3 died (but the enchantress had a Dalamar’s Ring of Healing so she was instantly resurrected).
    Without the Chronomancer and the Sha’Ir the group must now face the perils of the fourth and last tower before reaching the real challenge. I guess the Chessroom will be a great slaughterhouse…

    CONTINUE NEXT WEEK BUT I DON’T KNOW WHEN (next Saturday I probably won’t be home)

  5. (sorry if I posted more than once... I have connession issues...)

  6. And so the party went to the North-East tower. After a wild goose chase in the empty rooms to the right of the bead curtain (fortunately with no random encounters) the mages entered the corridor leading to the famous chess room after a Dispel Magic cast at the curtain. The gnolls weren’t that difficult to deal with.
    In Room 13 the group didn’t pay much attention to the pattern of the tiles since the Wild Mage had a great idea: the Artificer was Flying and with the aid of his Robe of Useful Items he secured a pair of ropes to the statue in the back of the room, making the challenge of this room much easier. Obviously just moving to the place where the ropes were secured caused damage to characters who could not go that way (i. e., the Bishop and the Knight) but this was not a great problem.
    Finally the party reached room 14 (no random encounters on the route) with all four KEYS and so they entered the strange room with the eight stuffed chairs. My player really appreciated the vague science-fiction twist of the adventure when the room seemed to reach for the stars.
    Even if the six remaining characters were all wizards and not thieves, the chute of room 16 wasn’t an obstacle with the proper spells handy (levitation, fly). Considering the visibility conditions of the Air room 17 the party members decided to proceed cautiously and remain in contact with each other. The use of a Mordenkainen’s Faithful Hound proved to be a great choice in detecting and fighting the Hyeracosphinx. The party didn’t find its treasure, and the pteranodons were easily defeated with the help of a wand of missiles and a wand of cold (I don’t remember if the name is correct, it is the one that releases Cone of Cold).
    Earth Room #20 seemed not so difficult: the maze was simple and the su-monsters weren’t that dangerous with the aid of a Militant Mage who deals 1d10+15 damage/hit. Then the wizards stumbled upon the medusa… my player failed his saving throw and I had no way to save his character. I already cheated more than once in determining the outcome of a dice throw, but I could not help with the miserable 8 he obtained.

    1. Great stuff, thanks so much for writing these up!

    2. You are welcome :)
      All in all, I would suggest C2 as a one-shot but not as part of a campaign. Being a tournament module it is very, very difficult!
      (hope my English is not too bad)

  7. I'm Old School, and both played and ran this adventure in high school. The tight design made it a lot of fun, and a quick play.

    I'd love to run it as a 5e adventure. I've seen lots of conversion guides, but does anyone know if someone has simply already written up a 5e conversion?

    1. I wonder myself. A quick Google search didn't turn anything up, though.


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