Dark Tower (1979)
Paul Jaquays  (Judges Guild)
Lvl 7 – 11
Alright. It’s time. I’ve done my push ups. Its time for one of the big ones. This is about as close as we get to the absolute zenith of old DnD short of Gygax himself. After some initial fan publications, Paul Jaquays and the chaps at Judges Guild made a few modules for AD&D, and Dark Tower, next to Caverns of Thracia, is among the most celebrated and renowned. Any who would claim the OSR has long since eclipsed the golden days of the hobby would do well to measure his strength against THIS!
The renown is not unearned. This is a grand module, majestic in scope, almost mega-dungeon-esque in size, challenging even to veteran players, and invested with all the wild creativity and dirty trickery a Jaquays at the top of his craft can muster. It is so permeated with Sword & Sorcery that it all but cracks open and the S&S bursts forth in searing hot torrents. It is THAT module. The one your players are too wimpy to be able to tackle and running it for them now would just ruin it. That’s right. It’s one of those things you have to earn.
Speaking of earning, bullet-point afficianados and subliterate lovers of the OSE Newspeak format best avoid this behemoth like vampires should avoid silver-plated crucifixes carved from the petrified wood of the Cross of Jesus Christ Himself! This baby is THICC. A shittonne of entrances and exits, teleport traps , bands of NPCs with their own agendas, coomers , unique magic items, intelligent blades, unique magic creatures, random encounters, rooms that respond to other rooms and FUCK YOU if you thought any of those 72 pages are going to be spent on conveniently listing any of it. This is a thorough read, note taking type of adventure and for once I wouldn’t have it any other fucking way. Fetch me my fucking decanter of bourbon! Assemble my in-this-day-and-age dubiously acceptable retinue of surly half-chinese, half-portugese manservants! Put on the ole’ Ludwig Van! This is a module to be savoured.
The premise concerns the time-less theme of good versus evil which in this particular case takes the form of the struggle between the gods Mitra & Set. The site of Mitra’s first temple, a great white tower, has long since fallen to evil, as the minions of the demon god set sought to oppose the designs of Mitra by erecting a great Black Tower opposite the white one. The ensuing conflagration sees both towers buried in rubble. A sleepy shrine of Mitra worshippers is erected at the site, to search for possible remnants. A little wealth trickles in and, in time, stops. One day, an inimical force RETURNS to the village, and things are not well. Enter the PCs.
The map is the window to the soul. You cannot be a frustrated novelist with a map. It is almost pure gameplay. Its quality in many cases directly indicates the quality of its contents. Authors who think in terms of map think in terms of the framework in which they embed their encounters. They understand the big picture. This is a grande map. We have overhead, the sleepy village of Mitra’s Fist, below which 4 dungeon levels are hollowed out, populated by all manner of assholish terrors. Piercing these 4 layers are the White and the Black Tower, one of good, the other of evil, both only accessible under very specific conditions, with the evil tower forming, effectively, the last obstacle of the map. PC’s are teased with the existence of both structures while they do not yet understand what the fuck is going on and finding information on the nature of both places is FUCKING ESSENTIAL to penetrating the lower, most difficult areas of the adventure. It is conceivable some parties will not even make it that far. Nothing is given for free.
This adventure does not fuck around and the danger begins immediately while the PCs are still drunkenly stumbling through the village of Mitra’s Fist. There are enough subtle clues that things in this sleepy little village that seems strangely inured to the passage of time are not what they seem, and if you do not catch on to that one can soon find oneself having a pitched battle in its muddy streets or starting the adventure drugged in a prison cell on level three, stripped of all equipment, awaiting to be sacrificed to Set and possibly molested . The inhabitants of the village have nearly all been supplanted by cultists of Set, kept immortal by the baleful influence of the ancient evil that is commanding them but this is slyly counter-balanced by a trinkle of NPCs that are keeping their head down and a few hints that things are off, such as an entire caravan disappearing with no trace over night. Myriad hidden entrances to the dungeon complexes surrounding the two towers below provide a means of both egress into treasure heavy areas and a possible means of escape from the heavily armed mobs of cultists above. Already the number of ways in which the situation can unfold is without number, there are so many NPCs to befriend, people with specific knowledge, different ways into the dungeon.
The cosmic battleground between the powers of good and evil is embodied in various ways throughout the dungeon, the least of which involve Shrines to the two powers that react differently depending on the alignment of the user, the greatest of which involve three cosmic gemstones that embed themselves in the forehead of the user and provide all but omnipotent power in exchange for likely destruction. Artifacts of Mitra can, and to a degree must be located, and the immortal spirits of his greatest fighters, the Lions of Mitra, may be called upon to come to the party’s defence. Parties of any alignment can attempt Dark Tower because of the number of variously aligned prisoners that can be freed or parties that may be allied with and it is actually miraculous how the adventure manages to avoid becoming one-dimensional or geared towards a specific alignment, although I suspect parties with plentiful LG characters might have an easier time of it.
Zooming in on the dungeon design is challenging because almost every part you look at has some desirable element that Dark Tower does that every dungeon should do. Take, for example, the fact there are several encounters that can be bypassed if the PCs have the right knowledge, or password, or have managed to obtain the right item. In any other dungeon this would reach the stage of set piece but here it is merely one of fifteen other interesting gameplay elements that are working on the players at all time. Or enchanted rooms that subject enterprising players to various spells and torments. Or a hallway guarded by a chaotic evil and a lawful good talking door that must be tricked or badgered into allowing egress. Or maybe you will make friends with a 12th level evil tyrant man and his resentful mercenary manservant, and maybe he will trick you and you will die of poison.
Monster selection and encounter creation is everything, hitting all notes at once. There’s a lower barracks of high level fighting men run by a perverted wizard that magic jars between three idiot hosts. There’s collections of trolls. There’s monsters making intelligent preparations if you are loud or slow. You can bypass some of the checkpoints if you know the right password or if you snatched some documentation from the top. Then there’s a section where you have to fight a horde of giant rats (!), in a narrow, maze-like section of tunnels and they keep reinforcing and are led by a were-rat. Traps are cruel and well-placed. Invisible items and monsters are a frequent occurrence. The beginning sections are soft to the point I was curious whether the 7-11 level requirement is accurate but they ramp up FAST, and there are hard points scattered throughout, in the form of the Shrines of Set, which always hold great loot and are always protected with terrible magic. The one merciful instance is that unlike many adventures of its ilk, many of the potent random encounters, once defeated, do not return, allowing one to tackle the dungeon at a somewhat more sedate pace. A cruel counterbalance to this is that there are several instances where the PCs must react quickly to avoid death and will likely maroon themselves deep into the dungeon.
There is a way to do rampant creativity and I think it comes from working from a definite theme, rooting half your dungeon in traditional dungeon fare but using them in interesting ways or adding some complication and gradually phasing out the rest until you end up with crazy shit like an intelligent chest that is also a wizard or skeletons that divide into more skeletons if you do not obliterate them in one go, or a schizophrenic cleric of Mitra/Set tending one of the crypts that changes alignment like Jekyll and Hyde. If there is minor put putting to do it is at the encounter density, which gleefully ignores the 1/3 of all rooms are empty rule like an unwelcome speedbump.
It is easy to make the case that Dark Tower is a classic because it kind of does everything. Everything you would expect to be in a great dungeon is there, but it never feels like it is aimless, perfunctory or random. All the components work in harmony. Riddles? Check! Secret doors  and teleport traps! Check! A cryptic prophecy written on the walls halfway through that provides a vital clue to gaining access to the lair of the evil mastermind puppet-master behind the rise of the evil? Oh yes! Cultists that turn into snakes? Tests of champions against animating statues. Getting zapped by evil idols. Complicated minefields of Glyphs and then methods of avoiding them. Prisoners that can be freed, and are of various uses. Doors protected with blasting sorcery. There are weird areas with cryptic benefits that can be unlocked by experimentation. Traps that require caution to find, but also Traps that require quick thinking to avoid. A detect magic revealing a map of a lower level on a magical shield. A wide and masterful spread, challenging to disentangle. Over 120 rooms, and many of terrible potency. And then you encounter a room and there is just a rust monster feeding on old plate. There is not a hint of frustrated author syndrome.
There is something archetypal about Dark Tower that illustrates the potency and power of AD&D, if wielded skillfully. It evokes ancient tales of gods and heroes, forbidden underworld places, enchanted statues, the forbidden, the sacred and the will of the divine. Many sacred rooms of Mitra punish the trespass of the differently aligned. There are cursed things, made by Set, with abilities never seen. Dare you face off against the Chosen of Set, his unholy progeny, or even against his spirit animating dead flesh? Will you be transformed by the relics of Mitra, or the three Soul gems? Will you be granted egress to the White Tower by a Storm Giant having taken statue form? You are heroes, standing with one foot in the domain of gods, and not all will return.
Treasure is of course rich and flowing, properly concealed where appropriate, and involves many a charming reskin, like being able to use the gemstone eyes of the magic missile firing animated idol of set as Wands of Magic Missile. Both Magic items and treasure are high, but not excessive when compared to something like G1 or D2. Treasure is hidden in a manner that falls short of deliberately cryptic but it is by no means certain the PCs will find (let alone be able to carry off) all of it. The largest challenge will be transporting it to civilization, considering the village itself should hardly qualify as a safe zone. Parties of levels 7 – 11 are likely to have such resources at their disposal that they should be able to circumvent this. The glorious ability to use passwall for once is mucho obrigado.
The White Tower proper is perhaps a bit more puzzling? It feels likely it will be entered as a social encounter and the PCs will be allowed to pass if they have resolved to fight the intruding evil and want to find their way into the Black Tower. This is one area where I think some minor notes would have helped clarify its purpose. I suppose it is certainly possible to slaughter your way through the gnome warriors and Lions of Mitra but this does not seem likely.
It ends, as these things go, with a glorious crescendo, an epic smackdown against first an all but unstoppable Chosen of Set, bursting out of a statue with lunatic fury, and subsequently a 21 HD lich. By this time the PCs could be armed with several artifacts, as well as accompanied by all manner of retainers, summoned spirits of Mitra, so I give the PCs above average odds if they have actually made it this far. Both the conclusion and the ample rewards should remain with the characters for a long time.
Dark Tower is rightly considered a classic both for the variety and the individual quality of its myriad components. There are so many ways I can envision it playing out and that are rewarded, from sneaky illusion-backed infiltration fuckery to full on pitched battles in the streets of Mitra’s Fist, to later on allying with various NPCs, it feels incredibly rich. There are myriad little niggling gripes I could make wrt the useability but none of that matters in the grand scheme of things when one is performing at this level. I suspect its placement in the 7-11 bracket, the Orange Zone of D&D, will allow it to be run without the use of hard and heavy-handed nerfing and not risk the PCs running roughshod over it. It is high level DnD at its finest, where both you and it go hard, the rewards are high, the magic items are plentiful, there’s six artifacts, and you can find yourself at the wrong end of a 84 damage glyph of warding if you are not fucking paying attention.
I typed all that and I still feel like there is much left unsaid. A testament to the fecundity of its author’s mind. Should be somewhere in the upper echelons of the upper echelons with guys like WG4, D3 and G3.
 Currently going by Jennel
 Jaquays has an especial fondness for teleport traps and repeated use of them is a distinctive mark
 Coomers are also a distinctive mark of Jaquays adventure writing, edging this one vaguely in the direction of NSFW. There is, for example, a 60% chance any female character will be used for the evil wizards pleasure if captured, and a 5% chance of running into the wizard while he is having sex in one of his bodies, the systematic qualification of which I like to call Jaqooming the Dungeon.
 See 
 Albeit it in nowhere such profusion as in Borshak’s Lair or Morkendaine.
41 thoughts on “[Review] Dark Tower (AD&D 1e 3PP); Summa Coom Laude”
This sounds amazing; I need to read it.
Also, new personal goal: inspire someone to quote A Clockwork Orange while reviewing my work.
I hope you’d like it. I only reviewed RC1 but you might enjoy the dynamic use of NPCs and traps to supplement your own very tight- if a bit straightforward BECMI-style DnD.
Between this comment, and “I shudder at alternate timeline where Matthew Evans was an AD&D Gary-Gygax Style GM or where he discovers that you can add NPC interactions and faction play and shit” previously, I can’t wait to see your reaction to RC3. Mwa ha ha.
Adventurers barging on a wizard having sex is the true Gygaxian naturalism.
Fuck yeah! This one doesn’t seem to get as much love and attention as Caverns of Thracia but I like it better because it’s higher level and more action-packed. COT is more sprawling and episodic and megadungeony and feels like you could spend months playing it and still miss huge sections; this one is more like G1, G2, and G3 all stacked on top of each other – totally relentless. Sadly I never owned this back in the day (I think I picked it up on eBay around 2003ish) and none of my 21st century campaigns have made it to these levels so I’ve never actually run it. Maybe someday (assuming the upcoming deluxe reissue from Goodman doesn’t make it so high profile that it be impossible to find a group who doesn’t already know it).
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Getting a group up to this level is a bucket list challenge for me too. That reminds me, when can we start slavering over the expanded Melonath Falls super area.
It’s coming along. I’ve got probably somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of it written (including a couple towns and another dungeon that’s about twice the size of Melonath Falls for character levels 1-4); in addition to finishing the writing (the bottom 2 levels of the big dungeon plus a couple more mini-dungeons and a wilderness area) I also want to do some actual playtesting, and (hopefully) improve the production values at least a bit before expecting people to actually spend money on it. If all goes well it could be released before the end of this year, but all rarely goes well, so we’ll have to wait and see…
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One of my favorite modules. My players have been working through it for the last year and they are close to finishing. They will be the first party I’ve run in 40 years that made it through (if they do!). https://lostdelights.wordpress.com/2021/02/28/cy-541-the-party-begins-dark-tower-from-judges-guild/
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Damn, I didn’t know you existed. Regular 1e player, very cool. Godspeed to your players!
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Thanks. We are still having fun on Roll20. Having moved to Claremont, New Hampshire, I haven’t managed to put together a face-to-face group yet. Still trying, but we are running 4 campaigns online. 🙂
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My contender for the “best ever” spot, right next to Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and locked into eternal mortal combat with it; certainly peak AD&D. Brif notes:
1) It starts deceivingly, in that the surface area looks like a throwaway locale, and can easily trick the players into entering “NPC interaction mode” and getting caught by surprise.
2) As super-deadly modules that test your skills go, Tomb of Horrors is the usual thing by which they are measured, but ToH is an exception to the rule, while Dark Tower is the ultimate expression of it. Ultimate deathtrap vs. ultimate meatgrinder. The treasures are unbelievably generous.
3) What goes for the players also goes for the GM. Parts of this require a lot of brainpower to run. Complex combats, room complexes that interact and have ripple effects around them, complex trap mechanisms – tricky.
4) Thracia’s three-dimensionality is archetypal, Dark Tower’s is pushed to the limit.
5) Haffrung Helleyes: still the best original AD&D villain.
6) Woah boy, would the author get cancelled for this one if it came out today.
7) For all its sword&sorcery stylings, some of it is earnestly goofy.
I almost ran this as the finale for our 3e campaign (by then heavily house-ruled). We were maybe three sessions away when my game materials were stolen on a commuter train, including all character sheets, several handwritten adventures, rulebooks, and my original copy of Dark Tower. There were no valuables, and the thief probably just threw it all into a dumpster. The game was set up perfectly, with lead-ins, carefully cultivated character motivations, skilled players with powerful players, and a divine quest for a Paladin to come to the aid of the fabled White Tower of Mitra. Loss of my gaming career; still salty about all the lost potential.
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Your Lordship’s notes are insightful as always.
1) The village is a particularly nasty opening trap very much worthy of the types of challenge high level characters should be prepared to face.
2) I don’t know if I went over this on my review, but yes, T1 is actually not high-level D&D at all. It is the ultimate test of your mastery of mid-level D&D dungeon-crawling, and it goes so far as to curtail heavily most high-level powers that would allow you to bypass any of its challenges. It is…a trick? A gambit? A brilliant one to be sure, but still. Its only tragedy is the legions of terrible imitator dungeons.
Dark Tower & G-D is where it’s at, full range of motion, mano e mano.
3) Flashbacks of the D series almost 😛
4) A map of gods
5) One likely to stick with the PCs, they might encounter him for quite a few times. He reminds me of one of the evil magic users from R.Scott Bakker’s novels, who escaped death by flitting his soul between numerous hosts.
6) This age will pass, as do all others
My condolences for your loss. Ever considered reaching out and making your own heavy-weight adventure? I think you are one of few who could do so.
I played a oneshot at GenCon using ASSH that did a dip into this dungeon. I still fondly recall the party ambushing the snake cultists while they were doing some big sacrificial ceremony, with my barbarian using his MIGHTY THEWS to push over a big statue right onto the head priest.
A+, would love to venture through the whole thing.
Rocks, it would be epic I think.
I ran this for my friends in high school in the early 80s. For me, it absolutely blew away every TSR adventure published at the time, including the D series and G series of modules. It remained my favorite module for decades, IMO nothing matched it for a really long time. I liked it better than Thracia, which I regarded as having far too little treasure. When one adds nostalgia into the mix this module is easily Peak D&D for me.
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Badass, bought it many years ago on eBay when it was stil cheap. On my “run it before I die” list.
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I hear it’s so badass, that the Ukrainian Army is now using as a manual for Combined Arms tactics.
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I would love to run this module one day. Hopefully the next time I read it I’m going to have an easier time wrapping my head around the map. I’m also glad that this isn’t a WotC module, so Goodman Games can release their deluxe revamp with a pdf and a DCC RPG conversion. And Jaquays hinted just today, that there are plans to do the same with Caverns of Thracia too. What a time to be alive!
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The return of JG stuff is great, even if the Frog God reprints have made me suspicious of bloated re-issues or 5e conversions or whathaveyou.
I don’t care about anything Frog God Games is doing nowadays. Their main target audience are 5e DMs, and I don’t play D&D5e anymore – I had a 5 years long Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaign using it, and that was enough of that edition for me. While they usually have a Swords & Wizardry conversion, they are only paying lip service to the OSR. Their conversions are awful and mindless, even for the short indiegogo adventures.
Now Goodman Games is an entirely different topic – while their hands were bound with the earlier Original Adventures Reincarnated books due to their license with Wizards of the Coast, this is not the case, and I trust that they won’t halfass the DCC RPG conversion, because it’s personal.
Not just quoting a Clockwork Orange, also working in 1984 and a Shakespearean sonnet alongside coining Jaqooming the Dungeon. Pope of the OSR? More like genius enfant terrible.
Never played it, but loved reading it. I have two minor concerns: (i) would benefit from some monsters having a bit more elbow room (as you mention); (ii) the stark good and evil towers rather dictates which side the party will align with, although it is part and parcel of the overall theme. I am afraid I am one of the reprobates who prefers Thracia: I’m not sure any other module has done “layers of history” so well.
Lots of unfulfilled love for high level play in this thread. Player skill is now vital, as clever combinations of magical items and spells can win the day. And to paraphrase Melan, there is considerable interest in
using incredible abilities to achieve the impossible. I do sometimes miss improvisation with meagre resources..
I think as written, it is almost as if getting into the good tower is a prerequisite for getting into the Evil Tower but I suppose the cult leader guy from the set cultists knows how to bypass the glyphs of the Evil Tower anyway.
High level play is a rarity, you see it in the dearth of (good) high level OSR modules, you see it in the yearning. It makes sense; there is a vast difference between GM’s and players that merely start at high level and those that have played through all the preceding levels, and have integrated all the tactics and abilities into their repertoire. The one merely apes at divinity, the others are a formidable force, sure to walk over any neophyte GM.
The improvisation I think, is a component that, like encumberance as soon as the PCs get a Bag of Holding or two, is gradually phased out. There is only so much complexity the game can carry.
This was super helpful for me in running this awesome adventure.
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This is an actually useful article. Nice!
How in the Nine fucking Hells have I never heard of this dungeon? I blame the American education system.
Well, it sounds awesome! Is it easy to acquire? Was it ever re-printed? Something something Cha’alt?
Reprint by Goodman games is coming I think.
And Jennell released a set of minis to go with it. 🙂
It’s a rich dungeon environment with lots of moving parts for good DMs and players to use.
The first time I ran it, I had a group of experienced players, who somehow missed all the clues in the village. They went and investigated the caravan exploration and died in an ambush in the wilderness. They were seen following the tracks and the followers of Set had time to respond and hit them with an organized response. KotB, CoT, a few others scattered during and between, and then dead because they let their guard down and didn’t consider active foes.
The players wanted their revenge but it was months until their new PCs were ready. They got a couple levels in and we started playing daily due to the Covid lockdown, but one of the players brought the gift of bedbugs, so we never finished. A bad ending in every way.
A zesty F in the chat for the chosen slain.
I’d love to be able to DM this, not sure I’d be able to pull it off! 😀
Great review thanks!
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Stealing all these notes too! 😉
I am looking for resources that list connections between levels, NPCs and rooms/ items that respond to other rooms
Help DMs where can I find this?
Isn’t there a level map in the module itself? I forget, but anything to make running it easier 🙂
I meant a “vertical” map – not sure what those up-and-down maps are actually called 😀
I see the vertical map! That is good
More of like an NPC flowchart or room connections guide would be sweet
Dms have to have made this at some point
Salt of the earth them
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All your “Chad” and “coomer” talk sounds so fucking dated already.
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If being dated gets you to stop reading then this is a price well worth paying.