Tower of the Stargazer

[Caveat lector: some partial module spoilers contained below.]

As mentioned previously, I ran The Tower of the Stargazer this past Monday using Moldvay Basic D&D for my standard group of players. Character generation was 3d6 in order. No adjustments were allowed. The PCs included two clerics, two magic-users, two thieves, and a halfling. That’s right, no fighters. Players seemed to choose class based on their highest ability score, making class selection effectively random as well.

This is another way that basic D&D is humanocentric that I had never noticed before: none of the demi-human classes have obvious prime requisites in the way that the big four human classes do. When players rolled intelligence highest, they immediately gravitated towards magic-user (despite my saying several times that playing against type was completely viable due to the decreased emphasis on ability scores). When a few replacement characters were rolled up following some PC deaths (more on that below), one player did choose to make an elf, but only because he rolled a 16 strength and a 17 intelligence.

I said before that I was trying to avoid provisos and exceptions, but I did introduce three house rules. The first was LotFP alignment restrictions (elves and magic-users had to be chaotic and clerics had to be lawful). I wanted to emphasize that alignment was about cosmic forces, not character behavior or morals. The second was a save versus death ray when reduced to 0 HP by damage. Make the save and the character is unconscious rather than dead. This rule was used several times, and it saved one retainer (but none of the PCs). The third was my first Vancian magic variant, a save versus spells to retain a memorized spell after casting. None of the magic-users cast their spells though, so it didn’t come up.

One cleric rolled exactly enough GP for Plate, so he spent all his money on armor and armed himself with a heavy branch as a club (you can’t get much more murderhobo than that). In general, buying equipment was much smoother and quicker than I expected. I told them to not worry about rations since this was a one-shot, but that they would definitely need light sources. I suspect this process was so smooth because all available equipment is displayed on one page (including weapons and armor) and everything is priced in terms of whole GP (no fiddly fractions or multiple coin types). Game designers take note.

I also included two retainers generated using Meatshields! so that there would be some backup characters for players to control if primary PCs were killed (I wasn’t really worried about combat strength). I was originally going to include four retainers, but seven players showed up (six of my normal players and one curious coworker who was entirely new to tabletop RPGs). 11 adventurers seemed like a crowd for the tower.

The session went very well. Several players told me how much more they enjoyed the simple rules and quick character generation. One player said that PC death was the fun part and that being unhappy with character death was like being unhappy that eating an apple leaves a core. This same player wondered if he would be happy with a B/X character for an extended campaign though.

In hindsight, there are a few things that I would have done differently if I was running this adventure again. The first is that I would have included more retainers. The murderhobo cleric was killed by a poisonous spider and then one of the hirelings was knocked unconscious, leaving only one retainer for the cleric’s player and no backups for other players.

When more PCs died because of an exploding door trap, there were no more retainers to take over. I wanted to get the players back in the game as soon as possible, so I had them roll up new characters and begin at the entrance of the tower. This was a mistake, both practically (splitting the party) and atmospherically. Prior to the introduction of the replacement characters, all the PCs had been keeping pretty close to each other, and I felt like this emphasized the strangeness and danger of the tower. After the introduction, everything felt a bit more scattered (though it was still fun). Lacking extra retainers (obviously, you can’t have unlimited retainers, even if I had included more), it would have been better for the new PCs to be discovered trapped in stasis by the wizard 60+ years ago (I wish I had thought of that during play).

I would also create some diagrams for myself of the lever possibilities for the treasure room force field puzzle. Before the session, I reread that area description several times and thought that I had the details down, but during play I still found myself referring to the description continuously and confusing myself. They didn’t solve the puzzle.

There is a set of generative tables in this module for creating labels for crates in a storeroom. The tables creates results like “the rib … of a sailor … who collected … happiness.” I knew that I should pregenerate a set of results, but for whatever reason I didn’t. Rolling on these tables during play felt artificial. After two results, one of my players asked if there were any labels that didn’t follow that formula. Totally my fault here; I knew it would be an issue. (Being a teaching module, I’m surprised the text did not suggest pregeneration though.)

You need to have a backup plan ready in case the players decide to free the wizard and take the 100 GP reward, because that ends the adventure. My players didn’t choose to do that, but if they had I don’t think the adventure would have been nearly as enjoyable. I had some basic ideas for several more encounters in the wilderness, but they were not very well planned out. Since this was a one-shot, there was not a populated sandbox ready for them. I’m glad I didn’t have to improvise.

The ghost encounter was not very impressive the way I ran it. We didn’t have time for a full game of chess, so we just diced for it. I’m not a big game player other than D&D, so there was not an immediately obvious alternative. This encounter needs a carefully planned game or a redesign. Even Raggi admits in the text that during his play testing, a number of his players were bored while one or two concentrated on the challenge. I still think this was totally my fault though, as I foresaw the problem, I just wasn’t able to find (and learn how to play!) another game prior to the session. An empty room plus a generic secret door probably would have worked better. It wasn’t horrible or anything, it just wasn’t very creepy. Live and learn.

I hope we get a chance to continue the adventure, as they were just about to explore the real laboratory and the telescope when we had to stop. Also, the clerics were brainstorming ways to kill the trapped wizard, and it would have been interesting to see if they could pull that off without a TPK.

10 thoughts on “Tower of the Stargazer

  1. Beedo

    Great report and observations. I really like that death save house rule, that’s a great add for any BX or BX clone. Before we tried our AD&D experiment, I used alignment as cosmic allegiance the same way (divine magic is lawful, arcane is chaotic).

  2. Michael Bolam

    Nice write-up. I was the person on G+ that mentioned I had run TotSG recently. I used the tower to kickoff my sandbox game. My write up is here – — Sessions 1 & 2 cover the Tower. It’s a bit more of a blow by blow account, rather than a report/review, though.

    For the chess game, I swapped in a quick dice game from Steve Jackson Games called Zombie Dice. It’s playable in a few minutes. Obviously, it doesn’t have the strategy of something like Chess, but it was better than drawing cards or something. The rest of the players at the table were cheering the dude on as he beat me, so it worked out.

    My players missed the trapped corridor. They looked through the trap door under the statue, but never went down. When it got to the end of the session, they left it without exploring it further.

    I royally screwed up the treasure room. Even though I had read it a bunch of times, in play, I missed the part about the force fields still being apparent even after they were down. They did a bunch of trial and error stuff, heading down the right path. Eventually I just hand waved it, say that if they continued that route, they’d get it eventually. If I were to run it again, I’d probably do a better job of it.

    They didn’t free the wizard. They got a bulk of the treasure. They played with the telescope, but didn’t manage to get it to blow up/teleport anyone. They walked with all the treasure, including the crystal. The wizard did get one parting shot in. 3 session later, one of the characters drank the poisoned wine bottle from the cabinet on the ground floor, failed his save, died, and was robbed by a prostitute (who remarkably saved vs. poison) in an inn. I was really hoping for the reverse result, so I had a dwarf trying to figure out what to do about the dead hooker in his bed, but that’s the way the dice fell.

    Somebody is likely to release that wizard eventually, though, and I know who he’s going to try to track down.

  3. Michael Bolam

    Dorf the Dwarf – “I have three of those bottles of wine from the first adventure. I want to class it up.”
    [I Rolls a d6. Poisoned bottle on 5-6. Rolls a 6.]
    DM — “Okay. You start feeling funny after a little while. Save vs. Poison.”
    [Thinking…this is a dwarf. A level 2 dwarf, but a dwarf. He’s got this save in the bag. Rolls for prostitute and gets a 18].
    Dorf — Haha…am I saving vs. venereal disease? Damn. I got a 4.
    DM — Damn…hand me your sheet. The rest of you find dwarf in his room, dead and stripped of all his valuables.

    1. Brendan

      That’s a great coda.

      My players were about to start popping some bottles as soon as they found them but then decided to save them for “the celebration after the tower had been explored.”

  4. Brendan

    One other thing that I did that worked very well is make a printout of the potion descriptions in the fake workshop so that I could just hand it to the players rather than needing to continuously read out the bottle descriptions. This is a bit meta in that it telegraphs to players that the potions are a game element rather than just dressing, but it worked very well. Like rolling dice behind the screen, I suppose sometimes one should give out props that don’t actually have any game elements just to keep players guessing, if one were to use this technique regularly.

  5. Beedo

    Incidentally, I should point out – in my campaign, the players went on to claim the tower; they bought brick and mortar and walled off the section of room holding Calcidius while the old guy pleaded. It was pretty cold.

    That part of the land was overrun by a zombie apocalypse early in the campaign (death frost doom) and the players never went back.

    Calcidius was freed, I haven’t explained in game yet how it happened, but the players know he’s out there and he’s a major campaign enemy. The current story arc will bring things full circle.

    One of the things I love about Raggi’s modules are these campaign changing elements that provide debarkation points for great future stories.

    1. Brendan

      I was trying to remember where I read that play report of PCs walling off Calcidius! Thanks for reminding me that it was Gothic Greyhawk. I also love the potential repercussions of Raggi modules. I’m gearing up right now for my 4E hack versions of Death Frost Doom and Hammers of the God.


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