No Artpunk Entry #11: Tower of the Time Master

The 1798 Egyptian Expedition Under the Command of Bonaparte by Léon Cogniet
Léon Cogniet, The 1798 Egyptian Expedition Under the Command of Bonaparte

Tower of the Time Master
Ben Gibson
16 pages
OSR ruleset (AD&D? Whatever ruleset has a merchant class?)
Lvl 1 – 3

Note stunning cover

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!

A mere overview of all the maps in Tower of the Time Master

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.

18 thoughts on “No Artpunk Entry #11: Tower of the Time Master

  1. It sounds like this one has the same problem as the Halls of the Blood King OSE thing you reviewed a few months back – the author had a good idea for a mid-to-high level adventure but wrote it up as a low level one for whatever reason (lack of confidence? not wanting to worry about the ways higher-level characters have – scrying, teleportation, divination, etc. – of flipping the script?). But either way it’s cool to see how many imaginative high-concept ideas folks have come up while remaining true to the contest rules – craft stuff can be learned with practice; coming up with good imaginative ideas and vivid settings is a lot harder (at least for me).


    1. Man that’s harsh :P. I think it works for a low level adventure. There has to be some sort of old school precedent for using high level entities as a threat not meant to be engaged directly? I am drawing blanks at anything older then City of Skulls or the occasional stats for deities that would manifest if you would fuck with some of the temples in JG.

      Palace of Blood was bad because the scale seemed off. A 10th level wizard building a tower and dominating the surrounding three villages seems about right. The king of all vampires in the multiverse being 8 HD in a house that is perhaps 300 by 300 feet and getting curb stombed by characters of level 4-6 is dumb.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Although the module bills itself as for levels 1-3 and is geared towards a heist scenario, could it also work with a higher-level party (say maybe 4-6 or 5-7) taking a more direct approach? If so then all is good and it’s actually commendable to have made an adventure that works in different ways for different levels of characters – something that’s very needed in sandbox-type settings but hard to pull off in D&D where 3-4 levels usually spells the difference between a walkover and a TPK.


      2. My players were talking about coming back around level 6 to actually assault the tower, I personally think it would be best at level 5 but yes, my playtest group will probably be back for a keep assault in a few more levels and I think it’ll stand up very well to that.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. You have recently reviewed the most classic case for me: D3 Vault of the Drow. If you try and fight it out against the city’s forces, you die: see the Tower encounter. And essentially it’s the same deal in City of Skulls: if you improbably defeat (two!) squads led by 18th level priestesses, Iuz himself eventually turns up. I think it is reasonable that any group directly attacking the wizard supported by his retinue automatically loses. Lightning strikes against individuals should be dealt with by normal rules.


  2. GAZ11 (The Republic of Darokin) for BECMI/RC included a merchant class; there is also a “merchant-rogue” kit in Al-Qadim (2E). Arneson made reference to having one in The First Fantasy Campaign as well, though I don’t recall any particular rules/system being provided by DA. On the other hand, the only place I’ve seen deinonychus is in the MM2 and the 2E MM. The time elemental only shows up in MM2. So…1E? Magic-users don’t build strongholds in 1E before 12th level, so that would make the “Time Master” a bit underpowered (even in B/X…and Labyrinth Lord…a magic-user doesn’t gain apprentices before 11th level).

    SO…which system? Your guess is as good as mine.

    Which is pretty annoying. Sorry to be pedantic, but it’s hard to judge how closely one followed the “BTB” guidelines without knowing which book is being used.

    Cool maps. Love the use of dinosaurs in a non-European, non-Lost World setting. Time magic is awesome stuff (and I love things that age/wither the unwary…also neat when PCs can find ways to turn those types of curses on their opponents).

    RE lack of NPC stats

    I suppose they don’t NEED stats…one can always assume average (no adjustment) stats across the board; if you have HD, HPs, AC, and spells then you’re set for most combat encounters. And if you have a descriptive line or two about the NPC’s motivation/personality you can adjudicate most social interactions (throwing in reaction rolls as needed).

    But it seems just as likely that the author felt the need to stay “system agnostic” with the NPCs…a “make-up-stats-to-fit-your-favorite-edition/retroclone” design choice. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen such a non-decision. And it wouldn’t be the first time it bugged the hell out of me.

    But, yes: dinosaurs are super cool. I agree.


    1. Dark sun 1e too if I recall correctly. The merchant class was originally introduced in Gaz 9 as the Sea merchant, where it was even more dissapointing. I love Gaz 1 & 3 to death and even the Elf and Dwarf ones were decent but they produced some stinkers.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent, glad you so enjoyed it. Couple of things that I’d definitely want to answer/specify better:

    -It’s written for AD&D 1E, with probably more MM2 than MM1 (Merchant is a Man subtype, etc). Playtest was in Knave for whatever that’s worth, but Knave is just “grab any D&D before 3rd and go”.

    -I ran this with a group very focused on the heist, as most 1-3 level groups would. The Time Master himself was absolutely their boogeyman, less a guy to fight more a deadly hazard to avoid. I had him with different spell loadouts each day, but I really should have made a “standard” statblock, likewise for the Skywarden.

    -Map is all my own, I am proud of that puppy. Trying to make a real place is a goal with anything I’m mapping, glad that hit right. Although the main feature apparently didn’t hit:

    -*The Time Crystal is frickin’ huge*, stuck through the center of the whole tower. That’s why it’s not really stealable, although if the PCs manage to capture the tower I say good luck to them.

    -I’m disappointed you didn’t cotton on to the “flood the world” issue that comes with a room where 1 minute=1 year plus a Decanter of Endless Water. Couple that with the eggs and you’ve got yourself a place where you can raise dinosaurs in minutes if your PCs are total PCs about it. I like it when they break stuff but I wish I’d spoken about it more. :p


    1. The comment section is saltier then usual but you did very well. I am impressed.

      The time crystal threw me off because from the description I had assumed it was small or at least spherically shaped, with the cavern underneath the tower serving as a sort of ersatz impact crater and I never fathomed it to be lance shaped and so tall it would tower over the area. If it were normal matter it would either mostly vaporize or burrow deep into the earth but since its magic time crystal we can postulate any set of properties and leave it at that.

      Good call on the accelerated aging/de-aging/stasis stuff. That is indeed a very interesting part of the area, and something that will no doubt see horrible abuse by clever PCs.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t feel the need to have a unique magic item in part because of how weird and magical the huge lance of the Time Crystal is; the players felt its presence as something weird and yet potentially useful on every level of the dungeon. Of course, the other reason is that I feel that the contest is truest when you see that literally zero new monsters or magic spells/items are needed to make a strange and fun dungeon adventure.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I will correct you on my influences, by the way. I run Pathfinder and Starfinder and Stars Without Number and Knave and AD&D. I’ve run Cypher System and D&D 3 and Dread and Spears at Dawn and GURPS and (bless me) even D&D 4th Ed. I run my own light 5-torches-deep-esque 3.P hack. But as a note of pride, I’ve never *run* 5E. Don’t tar me with that brush.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahaha good on you. I have advanced to the level where I can recognize late BECMI from early B/X and AD&D from 2e AD&D, MAAAYBE tell British influenced D&D from Murica D&D, but anything after that falls into the grainy category of ‘newskool’ that I automatically associate with 5e, possibly because it is a game that is so watered down by successive generations of influences.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This sounds like it fills a gap in the market: there aren’t many good heist (as opposed to rescues or assassination missions) adventures. The Gamelords Thieves Guild materials come to mind (the Duke’s Dress Ball being a strong one); a short but effective recent offering is A Little Bit of Thievery (on DriveThru). Commodore’s previous works suggested he could write this: I’m delighted he has succeeded so well. It is an opportunity to see what
    plans, clever improvisation, deception and trickery an inventive party can muster.
    (I haven’t seen the 5E adventure Dragon Heist, but reviews I have read suggest that is my good fortune.)
    Touched on by Trent above, adjudication of certain spells (or magic item abilities) is important. An intelligent group is bound to use Charm Person; how helpful does this make a particular NPC? To echo a couple of the Prince’s points: (i) a few empty rooms can be used as hiding places, giving a heist more chance for success; (ii) what steps will be taken to recover anything stolen, possibly depending on its value?


      1. That could make things interesting: if the PCs locate the secret doors, it has even more value as a hiding place; if they fail to find them, disaster beckons.
        Another heist I might have mentioned is Cowpie Mushrooms; there is the potential for carefully planned burglary in Statues and also Kellerin’s Rumble.


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