Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 10 September 2010

White Box Fever I.I

Among the Old School Renaissance movement, one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2010 is James Raggi IV’s Weird Fantasy Role-playing. Included in this boxed set is the setting, Weird New World and the scenario, Tower of the Stargazer. Both are written to support the new rules and the author’s design aim to present a setting with more sinister, slightly horrific feel, and go towards making Weird Fantasy Role-playing a complete package, but both are also available separately.

Tower of the Stargazer is an adventure designed for a party of four to eight characters of first level. It describes an isolated wizard’s tower, standing at the centre of a lightning blasted circle. The building appears abandoned, but it holds more than its fair share of puzzles and secrets. This all sounds like a cliché, and to extent it is. One of the aims in this introductory is to present the cliché of the abandoned wizard’s tower, but in Raggi’s hands it comes alive through almost nothing happening. Combat encounters are few and far between, the emphasis being on the puzzles, the secrets, and the traps. This still leaves plenty for the players to explore and interact with, the one lesson they will learn is that too much curiosity can be a dangerous thing. The lack of combat encounters, the emphasis on traps and puzzles, and the lack of treasure are all trademarks of Raggi’s naturalistic dungeon design.

The overall design consists of just twenty-six locations, comprising of the area immediately outside the tower, the tower itself, and a small dungeon beneath the tower. It is intended to be placed in a relatively remote area, allowing to be added to almost any campaign. Playing through should take no more than one or two sessions. Mechanically is written for Weird Fantasy Role-playing, but it can just as easily be run for any “Edition 0” RPG.

What sets Tower of the Stargazer apart is that it is written as a “Tutorial” module. As such it is not only is it designed to be played by those new to gaming, but it also is designed to be run by someone new to refereeing. To that end, almost every location described in the adventure is accompanied by a separate box of text wherein Raggi himself steps forth to discuss the elements of the adventure he has written. Primarily, these sections explore what the players might do; the significance of the items to found in each location – of books, in particular; the author’s thoughts in designing and writing; as well as giving staging advice. All of this advice should be useful for the neophyte referee, but some of it should also be useful to someone more experienced, and all of it makes for an interesting read around the adventure. So rarely do we get the chance to hear an author’s thoughts about the module he has written in media res, rather than as designer’s notes in an afterword. On one level, the advice is not quite enough of a tutorial, but the danger in that is that it could turn into preaching.

Physically, Tower of the Stargazer is not quite up to the standards of previous releases from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The use of a heavy black border and artwork as watermarks on several pages make for quite an oppressive reading experience, very much at odds with sixteen page length of the scenario. The maps inside the folder though, are very clear and well done. True, it would have been nicer if they had been larger as they do feel slightly cluttered. Another issue with the booklet is the lack of artwork except that in the background, as any such artwork could have been used to illustrate some of the locations in the adventure.

What is surprising for what is an introductory designed for new players is that experienced players are just as likely to enjoy it. Primarily because of the attention to detail that the author has brought to what would otherwise be a cliché, making feel Tower of the Stargazer fresh and part of any setting. Although designed for first level characters, it could easily be played using characters of second or third levels, and given the lightness of the mechanics, be scaled up for higher levels, just as easily as it could be run for the Dungeons & Dragons variant of your choice. The combination of the advice and the attention to detail serve to bring Tower of the Stargazer to life and to make it very playable. Another fine design from James Raggi IV.