Thursday, 13 December 2012

Impressions: Tower of the Stargazer

Earlier this year I ran Tower of the Stargazer for a small group. Two of the group hadn’t played a role playing game before. I wanted something self-contained, short enough to run in a single, short session, ideally a good introductory adventure that was neither a railroad nor a hack-n-slash combat fest. I also wanted it quick. Tower of the Stargazer seemed well reviewed, and at just a couple of Euros for the .pdf, it was a relatively risk-free buy.

The adventure is a location (i.e. not a plot) and can be explored in a non-linear manner. In the case of this group, that mostly involved opening a door and saying ‘No. We don’t like the look of this. Not one bit. We’ll try somewhere else. We shut the door. Quickly’. But this was not bland, mechanical caution, a worry that their PCs would be overmatched by the Ogre hiding behind the curtain, but a growing sense of unease derived from the PCs interactions with the environment, even things that were absolutely harmless. Of course, this is an adventure by Jim Raggi, so there were lots of hazards even though there are few ‘monsters’. Given this, the Tower of the Stargazer encourages caution before the PCs even reach the door of the tower – if the PCs die, it isn’t likely to be a run of bad dice, or a monster that wasn’t ‘balanced’ against the PCs, but because the players made certain decisions as to what their PCs would do, making it an ideal tutorial for old school play.

All this reminded me of one of the better Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. There were few fights – the majority of the adventure is an exercise in player choice and, god forbid, player skill. There is lots of strange stuff for the players to have their PCs mess with, sometimes with catastrophic results. If the players do mess with the Stargazer’s stuff, they will find themselves ‘Testing Their Luck’ via a few ‘Save or X’ throws.

There is even the requirement for the GM to hold his finger in a page as his players decide to do something terribly stupid before the adventure has properly begun. Player choice driven TPK. ‘nuff said.

The adventure ran very well. The players enjoyed it, once we decided that we couldn’t let the session end quite that abruptly*. The one thing my players did not enjoy was the puzzle that protected the Stargazer’s treasure horde. My players could not crack it, and it seems that neither could Raggi’s playtest groups. If I do run the adventure again, I might well change that puzzle.

All in all, I really enjoyed Tower of the Stargazer. It is suitably strange, pretty lethal – though not necessarily so, as the lethality is so strongly tied to player choice – and could be a great beginning to a campaign, providing both a Big Bad and a number of ‘treasures’ that are bound to get the PCs into trouble with somebody or something.

*If this were a game in a proper campaign, you can be sure that there would be no ‘backsies’ – it is the persistence of the consequences of player choice that differentiates a tabletop roleplaying game from a CRPG

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