Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Retrospective: Ghost Tower of Inverness

It's becoming accepted wisdom in old school circles that what we think of as an "adventure module" says more about the exigencies of tournament play than the way referees constructed scenarios for use in their home campaigns at that time. That is, the module format is largely artificial and gives a somewhat false impression about early adventure design. There's definitely a lot of truth to this perspective, but we should all bear in mind that a great many TSR modules were in fact clearly identified as having their origins in tournament play and indeed made no effort to disguise this fact.

1980's The Ghost Tower of Inverness is a good example of a tournament adventure turned into a published module. Written by Allan Hammack, it's a very difficult adventure, one that my players came to loathe when I ran it back in the day. That's because it's filled with a wide variety of ingenious -- and deadly -- tricks and traps, in addition to more than a few monsters. But it's the tricks and traps that really stand out nearly 30 years later. There's the chess room, the reverse gravity area, the temporal stasis room, and many more. And of course the module's MacGuffin, the Soul Gem, is itself a death trap for the unwary -- a classic move that many players of a certain vintage will remember all too well.

The Ghost Tower itself is something of a "funhouse" dungeon. There's very little rhyme or reason to the way the place is constructed except that the challenges it presents were deemed "fun." I have to admit that they are fun. The Ghost Tower is a big puzzle, a brain teaser that tests the quick thinking and logic of the players. As I noted yesterday, this style of play appeals to me a great deal more now than it did when I was younger, although, even then, my qualms about it had more to do with my own mental inadequacies than with any absolute dislike of the format. Indeed, I always felt that dungeons should include lots of really fiendish traps; I simply wished I was better at overcoming them myself!

The Ghost Tower of Inverness might be fun to run as a tournament-style module someday, since it includes both pregenerated characters but also a scoring sheet. Never having participated in tournaments back in the day -- and, even now, the whole concept of it strikes me as odd -- I will admit to some curiosity about the entire undertaking. I will also admit to some trepidation, since, much as I love the very focused approach these modules possess, it's probably a lot more focused than my games ever were (or are). Still, as a historical exercise, it might be worth a try. If I take this up at some point, I'll be sure to make some posts about it.

20 comments:

  1. I never much cared for C2 as a player or DM. It was one of the few dungeons that I had I regretted buying. But it has been many years since I've flipped through it and I'm curious if my perspective has changed.

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  2. Unlike Tim, this was one of my favorites as a kid. I especially liked that it was strongly themed, and played off those expectations.

    I think one of my favorite aspects -- which I appreciate even more as an adult -- was how much of a boondoggle the rest of the castle-dungeon was. In a tournament situation you could easily fritter away the entire allotted time tooling around the dungeon, never finding the Ghost Tower that was the "real" adventure.

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  3. I've played in a lot of team tournaments at GenCon over the years and, when they work right, that sense of being a team in-synch is truly satisfying. It's not roleplaying, but fun for itself.

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  4. I liked running it back in the day but it didn't age well. It was so distinctive that I could only run it once per for a group of characters. Plus like Tim said not everyone liked it either as it was obviously gimmicky in a way that Tomb of Horrors wasn't.

    This is compared to something like the Secret of the Slavers Stockade where I could changes some name and circumstances and around and reuse it in a different campaign.

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  5. C2 is responsible for a TPK when I DM'd it. The party was of higher level then the range the module was written for but it was so different from my general style at the time it whipped them out.

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  6. This module lives up to its name in being modular. It's good for me as someone who plays with a few longstanding players very infrequently. It can pop up in my campaign world without any complicated wiring and it didn't take that long to play.

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  7. I'm curious--how did the 'scoring' work? I don't understand the entire tournament model at all, really. Was it based on individual performance or on the adventure party's performance compared with other groups?

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  8. I think I can remember (this is over 30 years ago) playing in at least one tournement at some con as a kid. Besides the usual experience points for combat and treasure finding, there also tended to be points awarded for certain things, such as "save the princess rather than let her get charred by the dragon" or " parlay with the kobolds rather than just slaying them all" type crap.

    I found tournement play to not only suck the soul out of the rpg experience (even as a dumbshit kid I knew this), but often stupid in what and why you were awarded points for.

    Also, we have all been asked by outsiders "How do you win?" The existence of tournement competition makes it so you actually have an answer for the most asked dumbass question posed to gamers.

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  9. I DM'd C2 once and had 3 out of 5 PCs bite it. One of the survivors managed to escape with the gem using the amulet of recall. He returned to get the bodies of his companions but WITHOUT the amulet. D'oh! This had some interesting consequences when he attempted to leave the ghost tower.

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  10. I have participated in quite a few tournaments, and they were even wonkier. There are more than one way to skin a cat...

    Then it was supposed to be rewards for "roleplaying" and not for slaying monsters. Actually, there were nary a dungeon to be seen. It was just the GM delivering a judgement, and hopefully they scenario writers who popped by once or twice and looked at how you were doing. I never understood how it worked, even after winning a bunch of those tournaments.

    Frankly, I think it makes much more sense to have a score sheet and discrete goals to accomplish. At least you could claim impartiality.

    Would it be fun? God knows, I never played it that way but sometimes when I look through my old AD&D modules I feel tempted.

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  11. Most tournament games I've run/been in, tend to have a fixed objective which they must reach before the end of the session, with success being measured by progress towards that objective. Bonus points for role-playing, overcoming obstacles with style and panache, and making the gamemaster laugh (or cry) are usually awarded. After all, having fun is also an objective of playing the game.

    Most players have one of two styles. The first are the characters who attempt to be uber competent and race to the objective as a smoothly working machine of dungeon plundering. The other type are those that enjoy accumulating bonus points. Both styles work and are fun, and if the scoring system has been set up properly both styles are competitive. There are groups that combine the two approaches (and usually win thereby), but they are actually exceedingly rare in my experience. [It's the pressure of the time constraint/competition aspect which changes how most people play.]

    The interesting thing is that gamemaster styles are the bigger influence. Even with all the gamemasters having been put through the module by the designer and extensive working notes, every gamemaster has a noticable different style.

    They're lots of fun (both to be in and to run [although it may not seem so at the time to the designer]), although you generally need an available pool of experienced gamemasters to call on to be able to run a tournament. Because of the difficulty of obtaining these gamemasters they tend to have gone out of fashion at conventions down here in Oz, being replaced by non-competitive game sessions.

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  12. I'm a competitive kind of guy. I played in a Gen Con tournament in 2004, and my reaction was a very intense: aha, THIS is what D&D is supposed to be like!.

    For me it's possibly the most rewarding experience, but of course to do it right you need a totally huge number of players. (Other option: Take each of your home players through a solo quest one-at-a-time.) A lot of the early-module "killer DM" mentally finally clicked into place. No awards for roleplaying, just tactical success.

    One of my favorite reads is the old Dragon article written by the winning team in the G1-3 tourney (before the modules were published). That's some inspiring high-caliber play, there.

    Re: C2 in particular, having read but not played, it really is one of shakier classic modules. Didn't make we want to run it in a campaign much at all.

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  13. My group had a blast with C2 back in the day. I integrated it into my campaign and stocked the ruins and the empty rooms with monsters.

    James neglected to mention one of the cleverer elements of the module: the deceptive title and cover. The real world's legendary Ghost Tower of Inverness, of course, is a haunted tower in Scotland. The module cover illustration depicts a ghostlike creature attacking adventurers, reinforcing the notion that the adventurers will be exploring a tower haunted by literal ghosts. In reality, the tower itself is the figurative ghost in question, which the party must summon from another time and dimension into the here and now.

    I love the modules from that era--not just Gygax's, but also the funhouse features of White Plume Mountain and the Slavers series. Is anyone publishing cool adventures like those anymore?

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  14. I ran this in the summer of 1987 (I was 14) and my friends and I loved it. I've run it as an adult a few times, but it's never really worked for me again. I would consider it one of the "classics", but now I'd probably put it at the end of the list. Still, it may have inspired the most enjoyable night of AD&D I ever had.

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  15. I never had the opportunity to purchase C2 (though for some inexplicable reason I owned two copies of C1). However, I recently purchased the HackMaster version of the same module. I haven't had a chance to read it yet (I got it right before we moved and it's still packed in a box somewhere)...I wonder how close it adheres to the original module.

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  16. MacAnnihilator said...
    "In reality, the tower itself is the figurative ghost in question, which the party must summon from another time and dimension into the here and now." The way I remember it, the characters actually went back in time to when the tower existed. In the present, the tower exists as a pile of rubble.

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  17. Ghost Tower was one of the first adventures that I completed with a DM. I remember it was a Dungeon Parties' Harbourfront sessions on a Saturday. We sloughed through this baby from 9-6 for two consequective Saturdays.

    It may be a tourny, but, that is probably the hallmark of the electrum age when DMs took the published adventures and incorporated into their campaigns by weaving it's background to suit his/her needs.

    Yes, it was highly structured but many times did I go back and DM Ghost Tower with very different results. So, while not Sandbox, it elements of the old school thinking there.

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  18. Thanks for the clarification, Don. Sorry about the imprecision... it's been 20 years since I ran the module.

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  19. Ran this one a bunch. The pre-gens made it easy for folks to jump into the game. Plus they started with a fair share of magic items (iirc). The funhouse feel nails it - it was easy to wander into. And then it was too late...

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  20. I ran this as a tournament back in school, roping in everyone I knew who played AD&D in order to make different teams, and DMing every session myself over several days. It was quite interesting to see how the different groups dealt with the module. The scoring system as presented therein is a bit wonky, though. As I recall, each player get points for (among other things) damage dealt - but does that include the magic-user's spells as well as the fighter's sword?

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