Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Astrologer's Tower


An introductory role-playing game ought to have an introductory adventure.  For Wizards' Realm, that adventure is called 'The Astrologer's Tower' which – including the floor plan – exceeds five pages by a couple of paragraphs.

Creating an introductory adventure can be a difficult prospect when you consider that, in effect, you are attempting to teach a first-time game master how to run an adventure.  Yes, it should also serve an an introduction for the players and demonstrate application of the rules, but educating a GM is most important.  Examples in the rulebook should show how to apply rules and – nowadays, thanks to computer games and other media – most people have a basic notion as to what players do.  GM advice and an example 'script' of a GM interacting with players is fine (if not necessary), but all of that is theory while the introductory adventure is actual practice.  The success or failure of how the adventure plays out affects the participants' liking of not just the game, but RPGs in general.  So, yes, it's quite important.

Ideally, the introductory adventure helps the game master create an enjoyable experience for everyone involved.  It is not necessary to hold the GM's hand (e.g., “Read the text in the grey box to the players...”) nor is it necessary to explore the subtleties and finesse of being a GM.  It's all a matter of achieving a balance.  Give the players enough information to get their interest, but don't subject them to an infodump.  Introduce an appropriate objective, but don't let the players think they're being railroaded.

So, the characters of the authors and playtesters of Wizards' Realm are all buddies and they call themselves 'The Company of the Keep.'  Stats are provided for some of these characters and some have a presence in Mousehole.  In the introductory adventure, the editor's character – Lady Felicity, 7th degree physician and fencer – has been abducted by the foul Wizardess Margali.  Most of 'the company' are conveniently indisposed; the one remaining member has a broken arm and recruits the player characters to rescue the damsel.  Besides the damsel-in-distress trope, the “You all meet at an inn” trope is also deployed.  In an introductory adventure, I think it's fine to use tropes blatantly.  Tropes are something recognizable to which participants can relate.  Tropes offer a comfort zone – a foundation upon which participants can role play.

Anyway – assuming the characters survive and the players have a continuing interest – the adventure provides the party with a monetary reward, the goodwill of powerful non-player characters who can act as allies/mentors/contacts, and their own base of operations in the form of the eponymous astrologer's tower.  These results, at least, seem well-suited to encourage further gaming.  However, the execution of the adventure is less than ideal.

The player characters are present when the proprietress – a member of 'the company' – receives “a note and a map” informing her of Felicity's abduction.  None of the inn's other patrons “are eager to be off to the 'haunted tower',” which leaves the player characters as the last hope.  The NPC says:
You look like a hardy lot...and I have need of your aid.  If you will take this map and can bring Lady Felicity back, I will see that you are handsomely rewarded.
There's that map again.  If the characters get a map, the players will want to see it.  Unfortunately, no map is provided.  So maybe what the map looks like isn't important; maybe it's just something that allows the characters to find the tower.  We'll see.  The NPC continues:
Be warned!...Margali is a potent foe, and she surely has henchmen waiting on the high road.  If she's prepared for Sir Tarl, she's more than ready for you.  Best you take the swamp paths to avoid the road entirely.
The adventure can be divided into three phases:  the introduction, “swamp encounters,” and the tower.  In case you couldn't tell, the party is expected to reach the tower by traversing the swamp.  After all, the high road “leads to certain doom!”  Now, if the henchmen were expecting Sir Tarl and/or his well known compatriots, why would they accost anyone else?  Are they supposed to prevent all traffic on the high road?  That's not the worst part.  It turns out that the tower is located on the coast – a fact that the players could clearly notice if they were allowed to see a map showing the tower's location.  The quickest means of getting to the tower is by boat and boats are available for hire in Mousehole.  So, characters are supposed to travel through the swamp only to find that the tower is on the coast – a fact they should have known by virtue of the map.

Also, without a map, there's no way for the game master to determine the amount of time it takes to reach the tower; the adventure only notes that the journey takes more than a day.  For every four hours, a roll is made on the encounter table.  Some encounters can only take place once; the only way there can be no encounter is if a 'once only' result is rolled a second (or later time).  Most of the encounters involve fighting something, like spiders or hobbit bayou bandits.  There's a quagmire that the party can avoid if they are “checking for such dangers.”  However, such caution cannot allow them to avoid the snake pit.  One of the encounters involves a poor man's Baba Yaga.

The adventure notes that “Margali's goons” have cleared out the tower.  Regardless, there are a few traps and obstacles, two of which make no sense if Margali's goblins are expected to report to her.  Here's the thing – Margali waits in a room on the highest level and that level has an observation deck.  If Margali has the wherewithal to station henchmen on the high road, why wouldn't she have a couple of goblins as lookouts?

The climax of the adventure occurs when Margali summons “doublegangers” to fight the party.  Each character confronts an exact duplicate of him or herself while Margali gets away.  Of course, Margali was expecting Sir Tarl and company and they would have fought their duplicates.  At least this is a plausible way for the party to survive a trap intended for characters much more powerful than they.

Although 'The Astrologer's Tower' has the potential of being a good introductory adventure, there are logical flaws with which a first-time game master should not have to cope.  Background information about the tower is provided to the game master, but there's nothing that instructs a beginning GM on how to convey any of this information to the party.  Ideally, the adventure should have accommodated alternate strategies or at least provided reasons for the party to prefer the swamp route.

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