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
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!