Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review/Play Report of "The Tower" by James Raggi IV, published 2009

If Mr. Chick were to reprise his well-loved Dark Dungeons adventure tract for a new generation of gamers, he’d do well this time to employ the services who both understands the game and can put forward a clear, strongly worded message about the dangers of fantasy role-playing: “The souls (or spirits) of those killed by her, because they were doomed by greed (the want of an underserved kingdom) or lust (the hand of a woman they have never met) are delivered to some foul god to be tortured for eternity.”

And what is it exactly that D&D players and their characters do that leads to their doom?
“The Tower,” by James Raggi IV lays it out, with the first two levels of the adventure devoted entirely to helping PCs understand what's expected of them; four talking statues, followed by an elaborate frieze in bas-relief break down the "courtship ritual" as follows

  • Put aside your workaday pretenses and defenses.  (Take off your armor and put it in a box.
  • Assume the persona of someone unlike yourself.  (Put on the ritual robes and proceed up the tower.
  • Revel in collaborative story-telling with like-minded nerds. (Open the magic box and meet your prom date. )
Spoiler alert . . .

Many have opened this box.  You won't find her here either.

Something is lost. RPG players have some things in common with the readers of a novel or the audience of a play. But RPG players also expect to be full participants and to have significant influence on how the game progresses and on its outcome. From this standpoint, the big problem with this adventure is that the only way to “win” is not to play it all. (Again, Mr. Chick would be proud.)

Before I ran this adventure with PCs, I had the thought this was the kind of adventure that’s intended to be read rather than played. But in fact my players did seem to very much enjoy it. There was much debate over whether to follow the step-by-step instructions for meeting the entrapped princess. McDowell and Thundar did suspect some kind of trap, but Fezziweg the Cleric overcame them, arguing that the bas-relief depictions of a courting ceremony should be understood metaphorically. By setting asides one’s material possessions, and putting on the tattered robes of humility, he argued, those who completed the ritual would be in some way enlightened. The others were in time convinced. None expected to be awarded a kingdom they did not “deserve.” Nor did they express their “lust” for the “hand” of a woman who had not yet introduced them to her parents. They weren’t necessarily expecting wisdom and enlightenment either, but instead came around to the idea that if they went along with it, something cool would happen.

It was more me as the DM than the other players who felt keenly disappointed and ripped-off when the sarcophagus turned out to contain—surprise!— the obligatory wight (ahem, “undead thing” with an at once overdone and callously-written backstory) that haunts so many low-level adventures. The (enlightened?) players very wisely ran for their lives. Two characters (Thundar the fighter and Deah the elf warrior) was killed by the undead thing's chilling touch, while Fezziweg got sent back two levels. (Somewhat appropriately as his order is a very orthodox one, with little tolerance for the esoteric belief systems he had espoused in convincing others to open the box.) Fernac the card-sharp had a scroll of protection from undead enabling his companions to retrieve their weapons and do a little more searching of the pile of bones.

The party regrouped outside and made a last foray into the attic of the tower, expending a choice magic item to confirm that the treasure wasn’t hidden up there either. Fezziweg knew they’d made a big mistake, but wasn’t sure how: “Did we believe too much or not enough?” Was it wrong to leave their NPC associates at the bottom of the tower to guard their armor? Would the ritual had worked differently if they had gone “all in,” without a contingency plan? Or should one of their number have gone in alone, foregoing the protection of numbers? At this point I felt like the joke had gone on for enough. There was no treasure, I told them, there was nothing that they had missed, the only point of the adventure was to sucker them in and kill them and they’d done well to only lose two PCs.

I mentioned to White Bear that I was writing this review and she said: “If you are trying to encourage new players to try D&D, avoid this one. It feels depressing and unsatisfying like some kind of low-calorie bagel.”

In fact, there was one relatively new player for this session and he said he enjoyed it. My sense is that he enjoyed it as a kind of magician’s trick and has expressed his amazement that I was able to convince them to take off their armor and open a sarcophagus. In fact, I don’t remember doing any convincing at all, beyond reading the descriptions. It says a lot about the module’s imaginative power that the PCs were so captivated by its narrative. There are an abundance of interesting details (e.g. thornless roses) and the details contribute to Raggi’s intended themes (e.g. thornless roses get picked). The next step for Raggi or others who share his interests in writing convention-breaking D&D adventures is to relinquish some control over plot and even theme in combining fully-imagined scenarios with a greater possible range of player motivations and outcomes.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Hommelet: Introducing Phoebe, Philomena, and (briefly) Philch

After a recent cock-up involving a heart-shaped key, a tattered map, and an unrewarding tower, Fernac was preparing to leave Hommelet, when a new group of na├»ve fortune-seekers arrived. One of the newcomers, Philomena, was a natural-mage—the people of Hommelet surmised that she had as good a chance as any other young woman of convincing Burne to take her on as his apprentice. The other two—Phoebe and Philch—were not, as it turned out, Philomena’s sister and brother, but just her friends: “Our parents had adjoining farms—back in Philidge.”

Fernac explained to the three newcomers that a traveling prophet named Gerilynn had several months ago led an expedition to the ruins of an old moathouse a few leagues away and, unlike several previous expeditions, had driven out the resident evil who lived there. “Now it’s for us to glide in and sweep up the cult’s treasure before someone else jacks it.” Fernac convinced Gerilynn that another successful expedition would further improve the stature of her nascent sect. She agreed. And Bucko, a local farm hand with a keen in
terest in Gerilynn and perhaps her Faith asked to join the group.

The party followed the well-known path from Hommelet to the Moathouse. Before crossing the pile of rubble that led across the muddy moat and into the courtyard Gerilynn warned the others that giant frogs lived in the moat and vaguely remembered that she, Cinderblock and Gruber had discovered another exit, but couldn’t remember how to find it. The party circled and noticed a breach in the rear of the moathouse itself. The moat itself looked deep but there were a sufficient number of stepping stones that they decided to cross there.

Still concerned about the frogs as well as anything that might be lurking inside, Gerilynn summoned a cloak of silence over herself and her companions. One at a time, they crossed noiselessly over the stones and into the gloom of the moathouse. After passing through two large, ruined galleries, the party came upon a dark hole. Philch argued that the lower hanging fruit had already been picked, and convinced the others that they should tie a rope and climb into the hole to see what lay below.
Gerilynn shared the maps that her literate friend Cinderblock had drawn and these further convinced the party, that greater rewards required greater risks. Philch led the way and Philomena phollowed. (Sorry.)

At the bottom of the hole, they found a stinking mess and, in kicking it around, a nest of giant centipedes. The party repelled the beasties with their daggers and torches, but not before one or two had crawled into Philch’s boot stinging him on the foot and leg. The pain was enough that they nearly called off the expedition and returned to Hommelet immediately, but Gerilynn tried a healing poultice that neutralized or numbed the poison enough that Philch thought he could carry on. Exploring a little more cautiously, the party found two storerooms filled with weapons, armor, and a cask of decent brandy. Pressing on, the party discovered a torture chamber, jail cells, and several more empty galleries. Through careful study of Gerilynn’s map and tapping on the walls, Philch discovered a large block that could be pushed aside, permitting egress to a secret passage, and then a staircase spiraling down at least 50 feet.

The party descended eagerly, certain that they had discovered something previous explorers had overlooked. At the bottom they found a solid, heavy, and locked door. Philch, who had reluctantly passed on the set of unaffordable lockpicks offered him by Hommelet’s traders, started to pry the door open with his crowbar. When the oak splintered, a rush of wind plunged the party into darkness. Phoebe was good with tinder and phlint and before anyone could panic, she soon had a new torch burning.

Philch managed to get the door opened completely. Behind it there as a small alcove and another door—this one much less solid-looking, and with a ring in the center. Gerilynn pulled the ring to open it. The door didn’t open. Instead there was loud grating sound coming from above. Philomena pulled Gerilynn out of the alcove. The party watch. Indeed, a ceiling block was falling into the alcove, but its descent was much hindered by friction. The danger of being instantly crushed seemed less likely and thus less weighty than the risk of losing their opportunity to get beyond this second door. Phoebe ran in and put her shoulder to it and found that it opened outwards. Furthermore, opening it, seemed to halt the fall of the ceiling block.

The party passed through a rough-hewn passage—much different than anything seen above in the dungeons of the moathouse, and stepped into a large cavern. Here, two shaggy white creatures bearing enormous swords rushed to attack them. Philch flung a spear and then charged with his sword. He was joined by Gerilynn, Bucko, and Phobe while Philomena hid herself in a dark corner and Fernac guarded the retreat route. Fearsome, but lacking finesse, the monsters were stabbed again and again while their own heavy blades clanged against the cavern walls. Philomena circled for a surprise attack, but her dagger got entangled in the monsters matted fur without reaching its body. The monster turned on her and Philch charged to her defense. He was hit by two solid blows and crumpled to the ground. Here Fernac loosed two arrows in quick succession to kill this monster while Phoebe slew the other with her war hammer. Philch was alive, but badly wounded. Bucko, too, had sustained serious wounds. Gerilynn ministered to them, and helped them regain their feet and their breath, but it was obvious to all that they must return to daylight and civilization.

As the party reached the top of the spiral staircase, the party heard footsteps and voices. The party stopped and listened. Nothing. After waiting a few minutes, breath hushed and weapons ready, the party continued to the top of the stairs. They passed through empty galleries and reached the storeroom where Philch had been bit by centipedes. Philch and Bucko did not have the strength to climb out of the hole under their own power and so the party created harnesses to hoist them out.

The party moved quickly through the ground level of the moathouse to the breach and the stepping stones to cross the moat . . .

Sadly, Philch fell in and the splash attracted the frogs attention. Fernac shot arrows at the bulbous eyes breaking the surface, but Philch only came up for an instant before being sucked under for good. Another frog broke the surface just long enough to shoot a long sticky tongue and grab Bucko as he teetered on the bank. The rest of the party made it across safely and trudged back to Hommelet in silence.
a cloak hangs on a peg at the bottom of some stairs leading up by Brayo