Tower of the Stargazer (OSR)
This module clocks in at 34 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page b/w-version of the cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 28 pages of content, though these pages are A5-booklet-sized (6” by 9”), which means you can fit about 4 of them on a given sheet of paper, provided your eyesight is good enough.
This review is based primarily on the print-version with new layout from 2014, though I took the electronic version for reference purposes.
So, first things first: This is intended as an introductory module…perhaps not necessarily for gaming as such (more on that later),but for LotFP’s distinct style of design. What do I mean by this? Well, this module is suffused with numerous designer’s notes that elaborate on specific design decisions and rationales, helping the referee understand why and how certain things are the way they are. At the same time, if you’re expecting copious read-aloud text or the like, you’re at the wrong place here. If you expect mercy or a gradual learning curve, then you’d be similarly in the wrong place. This module is pretty much sink or swim for referee and players alike.
The hook is as simple as it gets, intentionally so, and the dungeon is very much a contained and relatively static environment, making that aspect “easy” – but only that aspect. The story’s simple: There was a wizard known to gaze at the stars; his tower remote and removed from the nearest civilization. People talked about him in hushed whispers and his only lackey took care of most things pertaining paltry mortals. It’s been a long, long while since anyone saw the wizard. The intrepid group of victi…ehrr, I mean murderhob…ehrr, I mean “valiant adventurers” has decided that the tower’s rife for the plucking.
….and this is about as far as I can go without going into SPOILER-territory. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
Only referees left? Okay. So…know how I consider both “Grinding Gear” and “Hammers of the God” hard but fair? This one…makes sense in a similar manner, but is mean. Logical and methodical in its meanness, but yeah. We begin in the field before the tower: Iron spikes rise from the ground equidistantly, ringing it and the open ground between the spikes and the tower is a blasted ruin, where lightning bolts keep striking. Do the PCs carry long poles? Metal armor? Then they should hurry and get inside. Between the spikes and the tower, there is a percentile chance to be hit by lightning…something a level 1 character is not likely to survive. In order to get in the tower, two options present themselves: A knocker and a handle. The knocker makes the doors open themselves. The handles are shaped like serpents…and touching them makes them come alive. Bite the touching character. Save vs. poison or DIE.
That may sound harsh, but when you think about it, it makes sense in-game: Guests should knock when visiting an evil wizard…and the handles are serpent-shaped. The detail *is* there…and this is a level 1-module in a relatively rules-lite system. It also serves a purpose of establishing a design-paradigm: Details matter and internal consistency is important. In fact, the whole module can be seen as a conditioning, a teaching experience if you will…one that is gleeful in some of its more sadistic moments…but never one that can be considered to be thoroughly haphazard. There are some moments that are nasty, though: There would be wine as treasure, for example: Well, one bottle has gone bad: Drinking it will cause…bingo. Death. The wine’s worth something, so with some ill luck, either a PC or a client may die there…which can spark further adventures, sure…but considering the lack of options to detect the spoiled one, it feels cruel.
Speaking of cruel: You see, the aforementioned lackey of the wizard’s been gone for many a year, frustrated by the constant misuse by his cruel master…whose spell he sabotaged, trapping the wizard in a circle of salt. The PCs can find the old stargazer. He’s been standing, upright and still, confined in the circle, for more than 50 years and his mood is foul…but he does try to put on a benevolent Dumbledore-act…and if the PCs buy it, he asks them to go. If they refuse, he drops his act and becomes threatening. But as long as the PCs don’t do anything, he can’t do jack. It’s the choice and consequence paradigm.
At the same time, the wizard tower depicted here feels very much magical: Within these halls, one can find a levitation shaft used to navigate it, a frozen storage containing vials of blood (which animates and becomes aggressive) and a ghost custodian of the eldritch section of the wizard’s library. This ghost challenges the PCs to a game: Select chess, darts, anything you have that can engage your players and potentially is over quick to not stall the game…if you’re too good at chess, for example, and doubt that your players could beat you…well, then don’t play chess. Why? Well, if the PC fails, the ghost is freed and the PC dies, taking its place. There is no salvation for the eternal guardian here.
One highlight of the exploration of the dungeon would certainly be the wizard’s workshop, where an acidic pool of liquid contains strange fish and a complex telescope-like device allows for the opening of the tower’s roof…and perhaps the most hilarious, amazing and mean part of the module: All this arcane machinery pertains the wizard’s studies: He’s been obsessed with other planets and wanted to learn to get there.
Unless the PCs were VERY thorough with their research, they may be in for a surprise: Looking through the telescope, they can see strange entities on another planet. With some serious experimentation, item-use and the like, they can use the device to fire a transport-beam t the planet…but unless they have VERY carefully done their research (unlikely), any PC foolish enough to try to use this beam will be transported to that planet…his molecular consistence changed to something that is considered a delicacy there…and he’ll be eaten/drunk/slurped up. (And yes, there is an artwork of a view of the entities…) This whole procedure requires A LOT of effort on part of the PCs, is mean and memorable and pretty unlikely to happen…but it exemplifies to a degree the philosophy of magic being very dangerous, demanding respect.
Oh, and regarding internal logic: It makes sense. Traps and dangers are where intruders shouldn’t be. When the PCs find a corpse, sewn up with gold thread in the basements and loot the thread, they’ll be attacked by the animated organs inside – deservedly so, I might add! Another aspect I’d consider haphazard in its design: Several magic mirrors provide either significant benefits…or suck in a character, consuming his soul after 3 days, with no means of saving him: Breaking the mirror kills the PC. Sure, anyone who’s read Kull-stories knows that gazing into wizard mirrors is a bad idea…but still. Somewhat akin to a deck of many things in its randomness, without the warning the item carries. There is no way to determine the function of mirrors before, btw. – no reward for being smart or observant. Such unfair sections are what tarnish this module in my book, which is a pity, for the atmosphere evoked is cool indeed: In which other module can the PCs find a 16-armed skeleton in a cell…complete with artwork…and have it have no function apart from sparking the player’s imagination? The dressing and details are great and evocative.
Heck, the module even has a puzzle – a simple one, but yeah: The treasure chests are contained beyond damaging force fields and the PCs will have to manipulate a console and try to find the right combination to lower the force-fields and gain access to the significant treasures contained in the wizard’s vault…provided they don’t panic and run into them when they’re separated by them…you see, if your PCs believe they can smash their problems away, they’ll be in for a rude awakening that is bound to be pretty terminal: There is a very real possibility of the whole tower blowing up in a devastating nova if the PCs try to use brute force to solve the problems of e.g. the workshop. I get it. The angle here is to cultivate a consciousness for when to tamper with something and when not to…but, at least in my opinion, Grinding Gear and Hammers of the God did that job much, much better.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to a nice and easy to read two-column b/w-standard. The b/w-artworks provided herein are amazing, particularly for showing weirdness rather than the usual suspects of monsters, rooms, etc. – they show stuff when it matters that it has an artwork. The pdf version comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The softcover booklet is printed darker than the pdf, being mostly grey-black…which, ironically, enhances rather than detracts from the artworks…though the cover is pretty much a mush of black, the stairs nearly imperceptible. Cartography is detailed and functional b/w, with furniture etc. included. there are no player-friendly maps included as a cut-up handouts or the like.
James Edward Raggi IV’s “Tower of the Stargazer” is actually a well-written crawl through a wizard’s tower – as in: The ideas and environments are amazing, the things that can be found are interesting and the emphasis on player choice refreshing: The more greedy the PCs are, the higher is the chance they’ll die horribly. And, for the most part, the module is fair in its risk-reward-ratios. For the most part, for there are a couple of scenes, some save-or-die-sections, that can only be described as dickish and completely out of left field.
Where Hammers of the God rewarded deliberate exploration and meticulous respect for the environment and its story, where Grinding Gear‘s whole set-up required care, precision and a keen mind, this one has this tint of haphazardness not only within the roll of the dice, but within its underlying structure. It feels a bit like an “You must be this tough to play here.”-sign that exaggerates subjective flaws (or merits, depending on your perspective) and clichés some folks attribute to old-school gaming. In short: This was obviously written, at least in parts, as a kind of proving ground highlighting some of the best, but also some of the worst aspects of old-school gaming. As a whole, this feels, at least to me, like the weakest of the early LotFP-modules. It showcases the aspects that made the other modules stand out and has the very distinct narrative identity, but, both in comment and design, it also requires you to buy into a certain mindset of capriciousness when it comes to the lives of PCs that contradicts the paradigm of successfully letting PCs dig their own graves, so perfectly exemplified by the telescope, the animated organs, etc..
I like this module, but as a whole, I do feel like it undermines its own point regarding the way to game it tries to teach. Then again, perhaps I’m overanalyzing this and the module’s playtest ran too smooth, requiring a couple of middle-finger save-or-sucks. I don’t know. If you enjoy HARD, brutal and unforgiving modules, if you don’t mind a very real potential for a sudden, not entirely deserved PC-death, then this makes for a great, challenging and atmospheric dungeon. If you firmly adhere to the “reap what you’ve sown”-school of GMing, I’d suggest getting Grinding Gear or Hammers of the God instead. How to rate this, then? Well, this is not a bad module, but neither did it blow me away. For groups that like the dark and weird that consider themselves to be hardcore…this is worth checking out. As for my final verdict…well, while for me as a person, this is closer to 4 stars than 3, as a reviewer, I can’t round up from my final verdict of 3.5 stars.
You can get the pdf-version here on OBS!
You can get the print version here on LotFP’s store!