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.

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