by Ben Gibson
Published by The Merciless Merchants
Hello, and welcome to part TWO of **THE RECKONING**, wherein entries of the infamous No Artpunk Contest are taken to task. This promises to be both a treat and a challenge, as the competing entries were written with an intent that is close to my heart: to prove, once and for all, that the power of old-school gaming is found in a fine balance between finely honed and practical design principles, and a strong imagination. That is to say, it is craft before it is art, and this craft can be learned, practiced, and mastered. The following reviews will therefore look not for basic competence – it is assumed that the contest participants would not trip over their own shoelaces or faint at the sight of their own blood – but excellence. The reviews will follow a random order, and they will be shorter than Prince’s original pieces. One adventure, the contest winning Caught in the Web of Past and Present, shall be excluded for two reasons: one, the author plays at my table (and I have previously played in his one-offs); and two, I am going to republish it in an updated edition. With that aside, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!
* * *
An infiltration adventure focused on what it says on the cover, Tower of the Time-Master presents a three-dimensional dungeon environment inhabited by a powerful Magic-User and his retinue. The tower’s nameless, immortal (?) builder has mastered time itself through controlling a peculiar, enormous time crystal, reaching into past eras to draw his guardians. Since the player characters are low-level, the guardians are relatively formidable, and the Time-Master is really bad news if encountered, this adventure is an exercise in stealth – which can mean social subterfuge as easily as the old grappling hook on the parapets. There is no set purpose to the module – six good adventure hooks are provided for use, which can radically change the flow and objectives of the adventure you have inside the tower (ranging from an assassination mission to getting out from imprisonment to chance burglary after finding a lost invitation letter). This is really well done.
Tower-based dungeons have obvious design problems which are acknowledged by the author, and which he tries to address in this dungeon. Tall and narrow structures do not allow much in the way of interesting navigation and non-linear room connections, as already seen in Tower of the Elephant – Conan climbs up, then goes straight down the stairs encounter from encounter. This is, accordingly, a large tower with a respectable footprint and eight above-ground plus two below-ground levels. In the interests of modern layoutry (layoulatry?), level maps and keys are presented on a single page each to make for easy reference. Certainly, page-flipping is nicely kept to a minimum, and the whole text is more or less accessible. (Caveats later.)
As a mapping challenge,
this is as good as towers get. There are multiple access points: front and back
entrances, windows and parapets, all with their own risks and benefits. There
are ways to gain entrance peacefully, and ways to land the company in enormous
trouble if they miscalculate their odds. This is the beauty of thievery – plan a
heist based on the information you have (there is a short but rather good
rumours chart), look how much it sticks, and improvise when it falls apart. The
tower allows for planning, which is a plus. It is also comfortably
three-dimensional, with multi-level staircases, trapdoors, shafts, and hidden
passages/rooms. This environment would work decently as a Thief mission,
and this is meant as a compliment. Guard schedules, servants and apprentices
use the tower day and night (their positions and patrols might have been
annotated on the maps, but this can be done by the GM as well), and they have
their own small-scale conflicts and hangups which attentive players may
The module key is less successful. It communicates its intent well, and it is not one of those crappy ten-room dungeons, but the overall scenario is missing something. With a title like The Tower of the Time-Master, it holds an implicit promise for a place where you could find some really crazy stuff from other timelines and realities – but the real surprise is how sober and safe it is. It has a strong sense of fantastic realism that hangs together well and provides rational explanations for how and why things in the tower work the way they do work, but it lacks a sufficient taste of the truly fantastic. So, say, there are a few relatively small dinosaurs, and a magic crystal that can offer youth at a dangerous price, and a display room with pre-historic flora and fauna, and a talking skull, but overall, 90% of the tower is guest bedrooms, servant’s quarters, even a buffet. A room called “Twisted Shrine” is only twisted because “this formally correct shrine to local saints shows neglect with the incense bowls long empty and most of the icons dusty”. One might expect a DINOSAUR ROOM where you walk into a different timeline with a T-Rex in pursuit and a TIME STASIS ROOM with time travellers in cryogenic storage (there is a Gallery of Statsis, but it is much less ambitious) and even a STOREROOM with discarded astronauts’ equipment and caveman stone tools. This sort of material is entirely lacking. The TIME-LOST UNDERWORLD (great name!) has an “Under-Pantry”, a “Wine Cellar”, a “Cold Stream” and a “Path Below”, plus an unkeyed second underground level where you may find dinosaurs and their eggs coming through a portal (which is a good start).
There are two issues with old-school design as well. One, the tower’s monetary treasures are not “modest” or “meagre”, the place is positively impoverished. One of the Time-Master’s main henchmen has a workshop filled with delicate self-made art that’s worth all of 150 gp, and the Time-master himself has a precious wind-up watch also worth 150 gp, plus a supposedly awesome throne carved out of a single, enormous bone piece (2500 gp, 416 XP each for six PCs, so your 3rd level fighter only needs to sell ten of these to gain a level). This can be addressed by adding more treasure and valuable artwork where sensible, and bumping up the gp values. The magic items are very nice for a low-level party, although it is unlikely the tower will ever be cleared out.
More seriously, the adventure has no monster and NPC stats. The GM is instructed to consult the rulebooks for general monsters, and just make up stats for NPCs. This is a terrible idea, especially when the action gets going in a reasonably compact, interconnected space, and you need stats pronto for a deinonychus, three guards, servants (one of them a classed NPC), and one of the Time-Master’s confidants. It is not a case of missing Hp or equipment – they have no stats, from lowly scullery maids to the Time-Master himself (a high-level M-U with a large repertoire of memorised spells). Quick, where can you find deinonychus stats? (Hint: I looked it up, and it is not in the 1e Monster Manual or the Moldvay/Cook booklets). Quick, what magic items does the Time-Master carry? The answers are not there. Was it because it did not fit? Certainly not, since many of the levels have ample white space where this material could fit perfectly (and add to the “no page turning” principles). There is an NPC relationship chart that could have been replaced with NPC and monster stats. There is a one-page copy of the OGL that could have been replaced with NPC and monster stats. The omission is so enormous it is almost puzzling.
Therefore, Tower of the Time-Master offers you a decent, solid infiltration scenario, but not the content that would make the infiltration make you really go “Whoa!” once you are in. It did not have to be over the top gonzo like Ghost Tower of Inverness, or even RJK’s ambitious, flawed Tower Chaos, but there could have been more to it. In that respect, Tower of the Elephant still has it beat, shitty linear map and all. Needs more elephant-headed guys from Pluto and weird star gems, damnit.
This module credits its playtesters. Excellent!
Rating: *** / *****