Tower of the Time Master
OSR ruleset (AD&D? Whatever ruleset has a merchant class?)
Lvl 1 – 3
When I announced this contest I used to run mental exercises of possible concepts I would come up with as I was taking my midday walk/exercise routine. My first idea was something called Garden of the Beast Master, a vaguely east-asian palace + garden housing a nature worshipping cult of aescetics, tame wild animals and their Swami, secretely
RPGPundit a Rakshasa. My second idea would have been considerably more autistic and lacked a certain refinement, why not do a dungeon with all the dinosaurs in the Monster Manual?
Somehow the muse must have caught hold of this idea, refined it from the raw lumps of ore into the spun gold of a fantastic vision of oriental fantasy and delivered it to Ben Gibson in a dream, because Tower of the Time Master is a fine, exotic adventure location involving dinosaurs. YES! It is very good, but there are numerous minor points of improvement, likely stemming from his more recent enlistment in the ranks of the fighting OSR-men. May my humble pointers serve to refine this already great entry even more.
The premise is that a century ago, a strange crystal fell from the sky. Rumors of strange monsters were soon stilled, as a powerful wizard took control of the crystal, and built his tower around it, which resembles the Taj Mahal. For a century the Time Master has held the surrounding area under an iron fist wrapped in a velvet glove.
Useability I always forget to cover. If I don’t get annoyed its fine. Area key followed by a room name followed by curt paragraphs in literate, ornamental prose with tasteful underscoring or bolding for particularly relevant content. The format of civilization.
1.2, Coat Room: This spacious closet contains numerous coats, boots, and cloaks; notably in the northwest corner are a pair of fine boots of levitation completely covered in dust and (if closely inspected) fly parts. They are coated inside and out with sovereign glue to trap a thief. The secret door leading to the ladder in the south is concealed by winter coats too warm to be needed in the local environment.
The hooks are actually very good because they change how the party is likely to go about things. In one the PCs simply find a half-eaten body with an invite so they may scout out the place, in one they are imprisoned, with some of them turned into babies with the baleful influence of the crystal, in yet others they must discover the secret of the Time Master’s eternal youth, or even ASSASSINATE the Master, who is level 10 so good luck to you! The most likely scenario, however, is a heist, and it seems optimized for this. A rumor table adds some local spice, and offers tantalizing possibilities to for would-be thieves to exploit, or fatal misinformation that will get one killed.
The open-endedness of the whole location puts me in mind of some of the earlier Judges Guild supplements (Temple of Nodens?), which really did feel less like missions with a definite purpose and more like areas one just plonked down in a hex and it was left mostly up to the PCs what to do with it and how to interact. It is described as a dungeon but it is more of a location, with living quarters, guards, traps against intruders, multiple means of egress, a chart on different NPCs with various relationships etc. etc.
This is immediately my first point of improvement, because as is, the module hints at various relationships and personalities but does not really have a procedure for the PCs meeting with the Time Master. This is only a minor oversight, but since everything from his Dinosaur Bone throne (2500 gp to a king!) to a secret trap door pitching you into a prehistoric underworld are described, it seems a waste of potential not to cover it, as clever PCs will certainly attempt to get an audience with the eponymous Time Master. It does cover the behavior of its NPCs in case of an alarm, and there is a fine patrol schedule that serves in lieu of a random encounter table. For a heist it is fit for purpose!
The map is a glorious affair, I suspect based off a real building or at least with more verisimilitude than I am used too, 43 rooms and some encounters in the hollow below the basement. There are secret doors, multiple stairways, windows that can be climbed through and the whole comes across more as a real location then a dungeon level, which is to its credit.
A heist really needs two things besides guards; interesting things to steal or discover, and traps. Time Master provides both in spades. In fact the one minor error that one can lay at its feet is that every room tends to have either something of value, or an inhabitant in it, and often both. In general it is considered a good idea to give your dungeon a bit of ‘breathing room’ and it paradoxically helps get the players get more engaged. If every room has something of interest players become sort of conditioned to ‘expect’ a reward or danger whenever they try something, and will get bored as soon as a stimulus is no longer provided, and will give up sooner. Conversely, Intermittent reward, so uncertain reward, will condition them to be more persistent in their efforts, and more grateful when they find something.
The content is both clever and fun. Boots of levitation coated with universal solvent to catch thieves! A talking skull that asks for a body and claims to know all the secrets of the universe (only knows gossip). Taxidermied dinosaurs, time crystals that will age or de-age, fine wines, a trapped Time Elemental and animating baby pteranodon skeletons. It is fucking great, like you are planning to rob the fucking Wizard of Oz. The Time Master is one gnarly dude, trapping a Mightier Time Wizard (Galifrey, british much?) in secret cells, guarding his treasure chests with a sleeping Dinonychus, leaving some stuff to catch insolent thieves and chilling out at the top of his palace with his stoic Elven Clr 2/Wiz 2/Ftr 2 and a menagerie of fucking pteranodons.
There is a curious omission. The NPCs all have personalities and the pitch perfect 1 sentence of description but they don’t have stats. While it is certainly forgiveable to omit 1st level guards in the name of space constraints, omitting the statistics for major NPCs like the Skywarden or the Time Master seems counterproductive. With his level and Spellbook it should prove no trouble to come up with a suitably deadly antagonist in the spirit of the rest of the work, but the omission is somewhat suprising.
For a party of 1-3 level characters there might be a bit too much magical treasure but IT’S A FUCKING WIZARDS TOWER. OF COURSE THERE IS MAGICAL STUFF. Scrolls of disintegrate and scrying, universal solvement, time crystal that acts like a staff of withering. Combine this with a very large amount of treasure, emeralds in a stuffed tyrannosaur head, dinosaur eggs, silver cutlery. Hell yeah. And the danger is certainly proportional to the reward. I dig it too that it seems like many of the encounters, like a hungry guard Dinonychus, can be avoided or bypassed by quick-thinking players. The wizards apprentices are described as lazy and cowardly, which I dig. The flavor is vaguely oriental or African, very nonstandard.
Weird stuff, like the aging radiance of the Time crystal, is also present in spades. As written there does not seem to be a way one can remove the time crystal (doing so would cause crippling aging at any rate) but I think it is too tantalizing a possibility not to consider. It is also not entirely clear how the Crystal exists on each floor. I got the idea it was only the radiance that was captured but for the life of me I couldn’t find it. There is a rooftop observatory that provides vistas of the heavens, and observing them correlated with the magic signs of the Zodiac can give you +3 Int or drive you mad. I like the madness part, but 3 points of intelligence is too much!
The Cave below the palace holds a one-way gateway where prehistoric monsters come forth and might provide an incentive for enterprising PCs to steal fucking dinosaur eggs and later domesticate them, which is something any PC with his spirit unbroken will try to do if given half the chance. I keep considering whether or not there should be some sort of major reward here that is not present in the Palace above and I don’t really think so. The eggs should be sufficient incentive.
A very original entry, which is really already fully publishable in its own right and of superior quality, minor warts notwithstanding. I still detect subtle echoes of 5th edition DnD, diligently unlearned, but there is no way you can drink this and tell me it isn’t OSR.
It might be interesting to consider some sort of procedure for the Master sending something after retreating Thieves, I would imagine the Pteranodons can reach quite far. The presence of a 10th level fucking asshole wizard should keep the immediate instinct to muderhobo somewhat in check. A crucial detail, a backup spellbook for the Master, might prove an unwelcome surprise for cheeky PCs seeking to covertly strip him of his greatest asset. It might be worthwhile to consider an exit strategy, but against a party of 1-3 characters, he shouldn’t have much trouble. I would run this for a party of 1st or 2nd level characters and be very happy, and they would too considering how much fucking loot there is to find in this place.
This is so good. You guys are really making the choice heartrending.