Saturday, August 21, 2010

REVIEW: Tower of the Stargazer

Tower of the Stargazer is a 16-page adventure module "for beginning players, characters, and referees" written by James Raggi and included with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, although it's available separately in both print and PDF formats. The module consists a small staple-bound booklet and a detachable cover on which maps have been printed. The interior black and white artwork, by Dean Clayton, is good but, to my mind, not as evocative as that of Laura Jalo, whose illustrations have appeared in most of Raggi's earlier products and whose moody style I so strongly associate with his weird fantasy offerings. The color cover is by old school favorite Peter Mullen and is a solid effort, though, again, somehow not quite as evocative as Jalo's covers, such as that of Death Frost Doom, which remains a favorite of mine. The module's layout is more "cluttered" than the clean two-column designs of earlier Raggi products. A heavy black border around each page, the use of grayed boxed text throughout, and, on several pages, watermarked images all contributed to a less enjoyable reading experience than I've come to expect from Lamentations of the Flame Princess releases.

Those esthetic criticisms aside, Tower of the Stargazer is an excellent adventure module, ideally suited for beginners, including the beginning referee. The module takes the clichéd premise of an abandoned wizard's tower and turns it into something genuinely original, playing on one's expectations to present an adventuring locale that's challenging to both the beginners for whom it was written and the old hands who are, let's face it, very likely to be the largest segment of its purchasers. That alone is a remarkable achievement. Most introductory modules are judged on how much fun they might be to true neophytes, which is as it should be. On that scale, Tower of the Stargazer already stands proud, but how many introductory modules can legitimately claim to hold the interest of experienced players, as I believe this one likely will?

There are many reasons why I think this adventure will be of interest to long-time players and referees but its chief one is a feature intended for the benefit of tyros. I noted above that the module makes heavy use of grayed boxed text. This is where Raggi speaks directly to the referee, explaining the reasoning behind his having designed and presented the adventure the way he did. In the process, he puts forth a philosophy of both old school refereeing and how to evoke the weird and mysterious effectively. Not all of the advice is gold and some of it I disagree with, in principle and from experience, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I also learned a few things from Raggi's boxed discussions. I find it hard to imagine that I'm the only player/referee of long years who will find insights in these pages.

Even if one doesn't find Raggi's asides insightful, the fact remains that the module's eponymous locale is a fascinating place. Consisting of just 26 rooms spread over five above-ground and two subterranean levels, the Tower is nevertheless jam-packed with cleverness. Most of its rooms are devoid of monsters but few are devoid of interest. There are lots of imaginative -- and frustrating -- tricks and traps throughout, as well as terrific little details that, while not necessarily serving any immediate purpose, help to make the Tower feel "real." A few of these details also point toward follow-up adventures or expansions for the referee, although, as an introductory module, Tower of the Stargazer is mostly self-contained and thus easily used in any fantasy campaign setting.

Introductory adventures are not difficult to write, but they are difficult to write well. Most such adventures simply ape either The Keep on the Borderlands or The Village of Hommlet and expect that, because they depict a different isolated rural locale being menaced by a different set of evil humanoids, they've somehow done something original. Fortunately, Tower of the Stargazer doesn't follow in their footsteps, preferring instead to present an intriguing locale in great detail, along with some advice and suggestions to the referee before turning him loose to do with that locale as he and his players please. To my mind, it's a great approach and one that's come to define James Raggi's adventures, of which this one is yet another excellent example.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a great low-level adventure.
Don't Buy This If: You don't want/need low-level adventures.

8 comments:

  1. Very nice review! I'm looking forward to running this, and I'm happy for the advice since it'll be the first thing I've run in ages. (But I figure Kesher deserves a chance to play now and again...)

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  2. Is it strange that TV's "Star Gazer" Jack Horkheimer died today?

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  3. The cover immediately brings to mind the Rainbow song "Stargazer" featuring Dio on vocals, and (IMO) the finest song on the album:

    _"Now look, look, look, look
    Look at this tower of stone
    I see a rainbow rising
    Look there on the horizon
    And I'm coming home
    Coming home, I'm coming home"_

    Do I win a No-Prize?

    ;)

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  4. I'm kind of interested now that you mentioned he comments on why he designed things the way he did. I don't think I've ever seen that before in a module.

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  5. Dang, now it looks like I'll have to pick this up for my new game. :P

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  6. I picked this up today entirely on the strength of your review. It's definitely good stuff. I'd be interested in knowing what you disagreed with in the boxed sections, though I'm not sure you could discuss them very thoroughly without spoiling the contents of the adventure.

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  7. You know, I think your ambiguity about this game makes me want to pick it up even more, for some reason. I really enjoyed Raggi's adventures, but the cost is just so prohibitive... same old.

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  8. I ran it this weekend for a group of five, 2 of whom were completely new to RPGs. It was a huge hit with everyone, despite the TPK (which was, to be clear, entirely their fault).

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