Monday, February 24, 2014

Why Dark Tower is My Favorite Module

There's something extraordinarily primal about Dark Tower. You have a cursed village, dominated by an evil cult, its inhabitants never aging, hardly able to recall a time of law and good. Two buried towers, barely poking above the ruined countryside, its ancient powers locked in stalemate. An underground network connecting the towers, every other room a death zone. It haunts my imagination like no other module, and is the best dungeon crawl ever designed.

It doesn't hurt that it relies on my favorite pantheon of the Egyptians. (My lawful-good leaning PCs worshiped Egyptian deities; my chaotic-good characters bowed to the Norse.) Here the opposing gods are Mitra and Set, and the history bears repeating. During his mortal life (around 1500 years ago), Mitra was a paladin who opposed the serpent-demon Set. Both were killed in the battle between their followers, and both ascended to godhood. A thousand years later (500 years ago), Set finally enacted his revenge on the village of Mitra's Fist by creating a dark tower to oppose the white sanctuary. On a starless night the tower suddenly appeared out of nowhere and crushed half the village. Few reached the safety of Mitra's tower, and most of the village was wiped out.

New settlers came to Mitra's Fist, naturally hoping to find buried treasure. But their greed awakened the evil of Set's buried tower, and for the last three centuries the village has been dominated:
"It took a hundred years of digging before searchers found the location of the original village. However, they encountered the unexpected. Something was digging up to meet them. News eventually stopped coming from the village. Mitra's Fist had changed almost overnight. Some force had possessed the village and its occupants, causing them to slay children, non-humans and Mitraic priests in one night of hell possessed fury. It is these very same villagers who have inhabited the old decaying buildings of Mitra's Fist for three hundred years since, never aging. For three centuries the village of Mitra's Fist has existed, unmolested by the outside world. Few have noticed that the village has had the same occupants for over ten generations. Few have noticed because few are those who can visit the village and not fall prey to the sharp, ceremonial dagger of the high priest of Set."
That powerful set up takes the long defeat theme of The Village of Hommlet (evil is cyclical, it can never be truly defeated, it will keep coming back) and meshes it with the steady creep of chaos in The Keep on the Borderlands (lonely isolated outposts fending off evil forces), but with a threat worse than either. This is a close-quartered clash of good and evil, in an underground of sadism and sacrifice. Enemies lie only rooms away, and the cold war has been festering for bloody centuries. The villagers above are cursed by immortality and unable to leave the mountain pass, dominated by the Set cult. Avvakris the Merchant (actually the high priest of Set) is one of the most memorable villains from any module, his son a half-reptilian, and his concubine a ravishing beauty who can either be found making love to him or as a half-eaten corpse with her heart removed.

The architectures are genius. Jennell Jaquays is famous for her non-linear dungeons and confusing environments in which no two groups of PCs can possibly have the same experience going through (note that the credits refer to Paul Jaquays, the name she used at that time in her career). They can retreat, circle around, bypass underneath, go back over old ground, or even use teleporting short cuts that appear without rhyme or reason. The dungeon is nested between the two towers via equally contorted passages. The rough path is a descent of Mitra's Tower followed by a climb up Set's, with a lot of unavoidable dungeon mess in between.

Dark Tower is cherished even by today's players, and that surprises me a bit. The design is uncompromisingly old school: The clash of good and evil is primitive, and the forces of light don't always come across as benign. Mitra may be lawful good, but he speaks the language of war. His "lions" (saints) don't suffer fools gladly, and their holy relics are as likely to rape and possess you (even rob you of intelligence or leave you insane) in order to bring down Set's minions. The module is also light on plot, and equally tailored for evil-aligned PCs. There are rules provided for the bonuses received by clerics of both Mitra and Set when they enter the dungeon areas or tower under control of their deity. Needless to say, the scenes of blood sacrifice and mutilations are alien to the sissified elements that overtook the game by around the mid-'80s.

I suspect the module is widely loved because it's so archetypal. Villagers hunker down in oppressed, cursed isolation, whilst hideous rites are conducted beneath their homes. It's as haunting as D&D settings get, and I already mentioned the long defeat theme. Even assuming the PCs succeed in killing Pnessutt the lich, the liberation isn't a happy one: the villagers die (their bodies fast-forwarding 300 years of borrowed time), and neither tower is completely destroyed by the underground cave-in. The final sentence points to a future replay: "Considering the history of the dungeon, it probably won't be long before the digging starts again..."

What can I say? Dark Tower is my favorite module for every obvious reason.


Blogger Unknown said...

D&D used to be transgressive, like the original fairytales. Very cool writeup. I'm glad you're doing these!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the write-up, I only ran this once as a DM but it stuck with me far more than any other. Judges Guild produced some real beauties in their time, Caverns of Thracia, Citadel of Fire, Dragon's Crown, Inferno and Survival of the Fittest (my first taste of D&D!) to name but a few, but Dark Tower had so much atmosphere. It taught players that hack & slash can be bad for the health and even the good guys could be a problem. The party I DM'd for refused to be anything other than brutal, were hideously over-equipped (yeah, yeah, definitely, it really is a +8 vorpal, vampiric holy avenger, I picked it up in a campaign ran by, oh, what's his name again...) and they still took a hammering. I don't like TPK dungeons as a rule, but this time it was sooooooo sweet. A fine adventure, well written and requiring role play and thought

Anonymous Anonymous said...

why would the clash of good and evil be primitive? thats such a primitive remark

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