Guest Writer: Nick Monitto
I came to the “Dungeons & Dragons” game when both it, and I, were quite young. In the heady days of the late 1970’s and early 80’s it was just about the biggest of my hobbies. It easily took up much of my free time, and more than a little bit of my spending money! At a young age then, I did not do much buying by mail order or anything like that; when I would get new books they were usually from our Duane’s Toyland or Waldenbooks in the malls.
Most of what I saw and bought were the modules from TSR itself. I would come across a few odd things such as the “Grimtooth’s Traps” series from Blade (from which I reviewed a book a few weeks ago), but those were definitely the exception. A lot of other publishers did not get as wide a distribution, so I never had the chance to find them. Many stores concentrated on the dominant publisher TSR, and most other companies at the time did not seek to officially tie in with them, whether for the license cost or for the ‘coolness cred’ of remaining independent.
One company which did maintain a close relationship with TSR was Judges Guild. Founded in 1976 by Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen, the company initially contacted TSR about publishing the ‘homebrew’ style materials they had created on their own. Instead, an agreement was struck to be a separate licensee. For a half dozen years they put out numerous supplements where TSR was given review authority and Judges Guild was allowed to use a “Designed and Approved For Use With ‘Dungeons & Dragons’” notation on the books.
In their prime, Judges Guild held a great reputation around the gaming community for its products. As game books evolved to a more slick and professional look in the 1980’s, though, the appeal of their casual ‘fun of it’ original style waned. I regret having missed this company’s books when they were new; as I find ones for my modern collection, I feel certain that I would have enjoyed reading and running them back then.
One of those classic books is “Dark Tower”. Written by Paul (now Jennell) Jaquays, this was one of Judges Guild’s most popular products. At 72 pages, it is huge, much longer than most of the better-known adventures we would see for several years to come. The foreword calls this “the first in a series of dungeons and adventure scenarios designed and illustrated” completely by Jaquays (perhaps alluding ahead to things like “The Caverns of Thracia”, which I reviewed on this site a short time back). It also warns the reader that it would “incorporate rule changes and additions as included in the two available AD&D rule books”, meaning the Monster Manual and Players Handbook. A little reminder that this classic module predates the legendary Dungeon Masters Guide!
Much like “Thracia”, “Dark Tower” is massive in both its area and span of time. The history starts with a tease about how Redmoon Pass is largely abandoned, bringing obscurity to the village of Mitra’s Fist, also known as Mitra’s Curse! We are then taken back more than 1500 years, to the start of conflict between the worshipers of the Lawful Good deity Mitra and the Evil snake demon Set. Mitra founded a sanctuary, leading a crusade against Set and his army. They were all vanquished, but in the battle, Mitra died as well. Over hundreds of years, a temple was established and a tall white tower was built. A thousand years after that historic battle, Set (who now had the power of a god himself) attacked it. Out of nowhere, a similarly gigantic tower of black stone just appeared and crushed half of the nearby village. Mitra’s high priest, and all but a handful of others were killed.
By powerful magic, there was a vast landslide, burying what remained of the village intact under hundreds of feet of rubble. The officials of Mitra’s church moved hundreds of miles back to the site of the battle where he fell. A new village of treasure hunters formed over the rubble in the pass- this is what is known as Mitra’s Fist (or Curse). A small shrine was built to keep tabs in case any of its artifacts might emerge. A hundred years were spent digging downward into the rubble. To their surprise, they found something digging upward to meet them!
Some treasures did get out, and for a time the village was a popular destination for traders and travelers. Over another hundred years though, fewer pieces of news would be heard from there. Fear drove people to abandon the Redmoon Pass; one that would be well justified! Possessed by an evil force, the villagers killed all of the children, non-humans, and priests of Mitra in one dark night. This power would also cease them from aging, so they would continue to live in Mitra’s Fist for another three hundred years- kind of like a sinister version of the musical “Brigadoon”! It is at this point of time where the adventurers would find their way in.
Along with this deep history, there is also a great deal of background information to help a Dungeon Master prepare to use it. The section of Designers Comments is perhaps the most important. Making up a large portion of the book (14 pages), it gives a great deal of information about the religious components of the setting. There is only a casual mention of the deities Mitra and Set (in the book’s layout, this section actually comes before the detailed history summarized above), but far more detail about their followers. Those who worship either of those gods have enhanced powers and abilities in this area. Details and statistics are given for several religious artifacts such as the three Soul Gems, Avvakris’s Ring, and three worn artifacts of Mitra. Ancient followers of each deity are also represented by special creatures that are introduced here, the Lions of Mitra and the Sons of Set.
The conflict between these religious groups, as it has continued to the module’s present day, is the firm backbone of the story. Because of this, the comments suggest (and I agree) that one should not simply start it off by having a party just happen to wander down the road to the Redmoon Pass. It is almost certain that one’s campaign would not have any evidence of Mitra or Set in its regular operation, so the background will have to be established. As they advise, it is good to have the adventurers inside of their own comfortable surroundings when they begin to hear the rumors and legends about this “Dark Tower”. This can spur them to find the temples for Mitra and Set, or to try finding busy merchants and travelers, anything to let them discover the information ‘in game’, instead of just having it laid at their feet.
Even when the players are inside the dungeons and towers themselves, there are some equally good role play opportunities to be found. While not expressly detailed, the author hints to the idea that factions of each side may be operating in a sort of détente, keeping the balance while not actually bringing forth a ‘final’ battle. Certain strong non-player characters within the dungeons are perfect to be leaders of these kinds of groups, if the DM wants to go in that direction. At the very least, even without the political angle, they would still serve as helpful allies or powerful foes.
Next comes a section of footnotes and bookkeeping details. The idea of a Reduction Spell (as the reversal of Enlarge) cast upon someone’s armor is explained. It is noted that humans will have a certain amount of food and wine or water in their lairs, and that it is a given for spell casters to carry their components. We are reminded that (as in “Thracia”) the upcoming wandering monster charts will include certain unique creatures that are also detailed in room layouts and that if they are killed in the course of one, they may not be found by way of the other. While this may seem obvious on the surface, I have found that in most modules of the time, wandering monster charts were treated more like their own pool of odd monsters. This idea makes much more sense that some inhabitants of a dungeon would leave their rooms to roam the halls.
The suggestions for a party to tackle the module remind you of how gritty early AD&D games could be. They believe that a group with “6-10 adventurers of 7th-11th level should have little more than a difficult time” in getting to the end, a mildly optimistic prediction at best. They want your party to be diverse, heavy with Fighters and Magic-Users, but remembering “at least one Thief and one or more Clerics”. I found the choice of words to be interesting when they said this was designed for “players with experience in using fairly high level characters”, perhaps warning that while you might just hand anyone a sheet with some powerful character, not everyone could actually play them well.
With background and setup done, we move into the adventure itself. Right away the village provides opportunity for excitement: after the party arrives, a caravan comes into the town, and it completely disappears by morning. If the characters are brave (or foolish) enough to be wandering around at night, there is a significant chance they will meet the brigands responsible for its disappearance, leading to what could be a massive battle. If they make it to the next day, they may soon find their way into the ancient underground areas themselves.
The maps in the module are nicely done, and the room labels make them easy to work with. Each room is identified with a letter (“V” for village or “A” through “L” for the towers) or a number (“1” through “4” for the dungeon) followed by a room number, so each section starts again at “1” instead of using ascending numbering throughout. A cross-section map shows the four dungeon levels spread between the ancient towers of six levels each. The overall layout is tricky; I presumed that capital letters on the dungeon maps corresponded to where they met certain levels on the towers. If so, this seems to mostly work out right.
The dungeons contain more than 120 keyed rooms to explore, aside from the towers themselves. They are filled with a challenging variety of monsters, tricks, and traps, along with plentiful amounts of treasure. In the early 1st Edition style, there is not boxed text to work with, just the basics for the DM to present for themselves. A room description may be as simple as:
3-6 Rust Monster is munching on an old suit of armor. AC: 2, Move: 18, HD: 5, HP: 24, Damage: Corrosion of metals. This is the upstairs to an old dry goods merchant shop. 4 or 5 (dead) skeletons lie amongst the broken furniture and dishes.
As the characters get further through, they will find that this is no typical dungeon crawl. The NPC’s they meet become stronger and more adversarial (particularly in the latter Tower), and the situations become more fantastical. Reaching the true top of the Tower of Set requires passing through a Gate to a plane of Hades, where they will meet the terrifying Lich known as Pnessutt!
Overall, this is a great adventure, and I agree with those who have named it to “Best ‘D&D’ Modules” lists over the years. It is a huge book, but not bloated or rambling. It presents deep detail for its backstory and many sessions worth of content to explore. This would have been a bargain for the buyer, given its price back in the day. It would take a lot of work to prepare it to run; I had to reread some parts a few times as I looked to imagine one’s path through it all. A DM would need to make good advance notes, and perhaps separate copies of some sections in order to progress through them a bit more easily. But however much it may challenge the one running it, it is a significant challenge for the ones playing it! This is one that adventurers should brag about for years, if they survive it.
Nick Monitto is a gaming geek who came of age on the classic games of the 1970s and ‘80s. He still sometimes gets mixed up between this module, the Stephen King novel, and the classic Milton Bradley board game.