I’ve written before about my general dislike of dungeoncrawls so I won’t go into the reasons why, but the Ghost Tower seemed workable. For starters, the dungeons of the adventure are so absurd that it’s easy to throw plausibility out the window and just accept it for what it is. I’ve seen it referred to as a “funhouse” adventure and that makes total sense. The premise is that the PC’s are all the prisoners of some Duke and he frees them from his dungeons in order to have them retrieve the fabled Soul Gem and bring it to him in exchange for freedom. The Gem was the possession of some wizard who constructed an insane tower filled with monsters and traps to protect the Gem. Eventually the wizard disappeared but the Gem remains! Alright, that’s not too bad. I suppose one could ask some questions about why the Duke (who has tons of resources at his disposal) is choosing this motley crew of vagabonds to undertake this important quest, but whatever. If I start asking questions now I’ll be at a million words by the time I reach the underground chessboard that electrocutes people when they make a wrong step. Ghost Tower was originally a tournament module run at Wintercon VIII in 1979 and featured five characters, so I rounded up five players to fulfill the roles of Lembu, Discinque, Hodar, Li Hon and Zinethar the Wise. And we’re off…
My initial thoughts on the experience are twofold. One, 1st edition AD&D is legitimately awesome. It’s easy to play and very clear cut. For as many bizarre rules and charts exist, there really isn’t all that much that the characters can do so just about everything is left to the imagination of the players and the whims of the DM. That’s fine with me. And secondly, dungeons are just as horrible as I remember them being. And what’s maybe even worse are wandering monsters. Where do these things come from? Are they really wandering? Or do they have a destination that we just don’t know about?
As far as the actual adventure goes the Ghost Tower is pretty good for a packaged romp, but the lack of roleplaying inherent in a dungeon crawl limits what it can do. It consists of two main components, a dungeon in which the characters need to locate four parts of a key and use them to unlock the second section; a tower in which the Soul Gem is located. The initial dungeon is really four separate sections that each has some sort of gimmick room that the key is in. As a DM I never design puzzles as an encounter because I just don’t think that they are very fun, most of the time they come off as a yes/no type of proposition in which the players either get it or they don’t. So the result winds up as something that is easily bypassed or completely frustrating. A good example of this is the bizarre bead curtain that is waiting for the characters in one of the many ten foot wide corridors.
On one level of the dungeon the passage is blocked by what appears to be a curtain of beads. This is the not the entrance into the lair of stoner teenagers or gypsy fortune tellers, but rather an immoveable obstacle for the PC’s to surmount. Pushing against it does nothing, nor does any sort of damage inflicted on it. The only way to pass through it is to either cast Dispel Magic (which seems the most logical), cast Knock twice on it (I can’t imagine anyone has ever done that. If Knock doesn’t work the first time, why would you cast it again?), or to run into it at full speed and make a successful Open Doors check on it. The running part seem weird to me. Why doesn’t pushing work? Why does it have to be running? In yesterdays game the party eventually decided to rest up and have the cleric memorize Dispel Magic in order to make it through. It was a thoroughly boring encounter that ultimately tested no part of the party. It was sort of just filler. Which is a bit of a problem because the adventure takes a really long time to get through. I had picked the Ghost Tower because it seemed like it was something that we could get through in a single session. I allotted most of a Sunday for this game and we still didn’t get through it, having called it quits around the five hour mark with the party just entering into the second part of the adventure.
I was bummed that we didn’t get further along but it was getting late and people do have to spend time in the real world, not just the fantasy land of Wintercon VIII. Which also brings me back to the wandering monster issue. A lot of the dungeon level is filled with long corridors and rooms that literally have nothing in them. When the party was entering into a space I felt compelled to have something happen; an encounter, a description, really anything to break up the monotony of the ten foot wide passage. It’s not fun to open a door and find nothing in a room. It’s boring and breeds the bad kind of paranoia that ultimately just wastes everyones time. So in true first edition style, I leaned heavily on the wandering monster chart. Turns out that this long forgotten tower isn’t all that forgotten. The corridors are populated by giant ants, giant badgers, giant centipedes, and other giant pains in the ass. Some of them were actually very challenging encounters (such as the Horned Devil and, shockingly, the giant badgers) but ultimately they were like the bead curtain. Boring, mainly because they just didn’t mean anything outside of the damage they inflicted. I grew up playing 1st edition D&D modules and it’s the perfect game for kids getting together after school and on the weekends. You kill a bunch of shit and then bicker over who gets what treasure as you tally up your experience points and watch your character grow in power. As a teen I wasn’t interested in being anything other than chaotic and getting more magical equipement than I could possibly carry. But as I’ve gotten older I want a lot more out of my roleplaying games, especially as a DM. I don’t get to have a character that levels up and acquires a Robe of the Magi so I would much rather be really invested in a story that is compelling and interesting as opposed to a linear walk around interrupted by some fights and some puzzles. It really has nothing to do with the edition, like I said I really like 1st Edition and think it’s wonderful, but premade adventures just aren’t all that good. They are great for stealing some ideas and kickstarting the imagination but not really for good adventures.