Quick review: Towers of Adventure by James M. Ward

My brother got me several gaming-related gifts for my birthday this year, including James Ward’s “Towers of Adventure.”  It’s published by Troll Lord Games and uses the Castles & Crusades system to stat out monsters and NPCs, which means it can be very easily adapted to any older version (before the WotC editions) of D&D.  In fact much of the material lacks any kind of stat blocks or mechanics so you could use this for any game really.

Jim Ward is justifiably famous in the RPG industry as the creator of many great things, such as the original Gamma World and it’s predecessor, Metamorphosis Alpha, as well as the original Gods, Demigods, and Heroes booklet for OD&D, the Greyhawk Adventures book for AD&D (and much of the work that went into developing 2nd edition), and others.  I was saddened to hear of his recent health troubles and I’m glad gift will provide Jim with some royalties to help pay for his medical expenses.  If you happen to be in a position to do so, I hope you will consider donating something to help him & is family pay his expenses.

The product comes in a small box, and box is fairly full, including a couple of goodies not even mentioned on the packaging.  The bulk of the set is three digest-sized, saddle-stitched (i.e. stapled) booklets.  They are meant to be used together to quickly create tower adventure sites.  The box and booklets suggest that either 5 minutes or 30 minutes of preparation would be all a DM needs to create an adventure using the set, which is pretty unlikely.  But, there are a lot of great ideas that should help any DM.

Volume 1 (32 p.) is “Illustrations & maps” which includes 15 full-page illustrations of different towers. On the pages facing the illustrations, there are small maps, generally representing plans for two to five levels of the tower, and also a column of small blanks to use to key the maps.  Most of the towers are “themed.”  There is an elven tree fort, a gnome “steam tower,” a crude orc tower, and so on.  Rather disappointingly there are several “plans” that amount to little more than squares or circles with staircases and windows, but other plans are fairly ingenious.  About half of the plans are unique enough to really be helpful; the ones that are just big boxes could have been skipped, IMO.  I’m not real big on player handouts that are just pictures but the illustrations can be a good spur to imagining locales.  Oddly, the plans don’t always have any correspondence to the illustrations.  For example, the Cloud Giant’s tower is pictured round and very tall while the plans are for two square sections.  Others are better matches.  The blanks for keying the towers are very small and could fit a couple of words or more likely the numbers from the lists in the other two volumes.

Volume 2 is “Hooks, NPCs, & Monsters.”  There is 35 pages of material here, plus a page given to the OGL.  This booklet actually delivers more than that.  There are acouple of pages of price lists for the services one might purchase at an NPC’s tower (such as assassination fees, hiring NPC fighting men, or buying spells).  This is a nice touch. The next part gives twenty adventure seeds or “hooks” that a DM could use.  Each is a paragraph or three long and they look as good anything I’ve seen on a blog posting.  Part three lists 116 NPCs, arranged by level and class.  Each gets a stat block and a few lines of background/description.  Part four lists about 90 assorted monsters and monster groups, again arranged by level.  The idea is you could use the numbers of the entries in parts three & four to key the encounters in the map booklet.

Volume 3 is “Treasures & traps.”  This is a list of 284 treasure hoards, arranged by themes (most of the major classes and several kinds of common monsters are covered) so that if you need a treasure for a Thieves Guild or a barbarian tribe, you can look up the theme and choose from among four hoards of increasing size.  The treasures are nicely described and clearly some thought was given to make sure that fighter types don’t contain a bunch of  magic wands and orcs don’t hoard fine art.  Several treasures are very imaginative (valuable young monsters, hostages, etc.) and some include guardians or NPCs using the magic items.  The author mentions that the treasures follow the “conservative” rules for treasure in the C&C monster & treasure book, which I do not own, but they look fairly generous to me.  Mr. Ward admits that he tends more toward the “Monty Hall” school of thought on treasure.  There is also a nice little gem table which lists ranges of value and suggested descriptions, with the caution that the cost of gems varies according to local scarcity.  The gem table is a nice little touch.  Lastly there are about 80 traps listed, arranged by type (mechanical, magical, noise, etc.).  The traps are mostly interesting, from what I looked at, and these make a nice addition.

The box did not mention the last items: two sheets of floor plans scaled to use with miniatures (making four 7×7 square tower levels, with the rooms labeled and things like furniture drawn on).  The plans are in black and white and very simple, but as a free bonus they are nice.  They don’t correspond to any of the plans in volume 1, which to me is a good thing.  They’d make a perfect guard tower location.  Lastly, a pair of bone colored ten sided dice were in the box.  There is no real reason for these (there are no random tables to roll on in the books, and the numbered lists of npcs/monsters and treasures/traps both go much higher than 100), but hey, free dice.

So, what is the verdict?  This set is basically the equivalent of the old TSR “Monster & treasure assortment,” with the added bonus that it also has some neat traps, DMing tips, and maps to use them in.  An experienced DM could probably take a map and key it pretty quickly, but I don’t see doing it in 5 minutes.  In so far as the monsters are organized by levels (low/medium/high) and the treasures are organized by size, 30 minutes may be a possibility, especially if you are already familiar with some of the NPCs and traps.  Keying directly in the booklet might work but then you’d need to flip through both other books to look up encounters, which seems a little unwieldy.  I’ll more likely copy the maps at a larger size and write out the key rather than just record numbers.

I’m a complete sucker for digest-sized books, and box sets, so I really like the physical presentation.  They probably could have made this a single book just as readily, but I like the boxed set.  On a scale from poniard to zweihänder, this rates  an estoc!  I’d rather not have the room names printed on the freebie map, and the dice are nice but glaringly unnecessary — they only draw attention to the fact that the books have no random tables.

Content-wise, I’m not convinced I’d use this as intended (creating quick tower adventure locations).  I’ll use this to spur ideas for encounters, and probably apply some of the ideas to themed areas in dungeons, since my campaign is mostly dungeon-based.  On a scale of one to Michael, this rates a solid Janet.  The extra materials (services costs, adventure hooks, etc.) and the very clever idea of organizing treasures by the types of things that might own them are great.

Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 8:00 am  Comments (6)  
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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I can’t see doing it in five minutes either. I took me just over an hour, and I still haven’t finished the Dungeon of Reversals (Though that is admittedly a fiddly one, and it covers almost an entire sheet of graph paper and extends onto 3-4 more). And that’s without keying it!

    On the subject of plot hooks: They were better than “The king has choked to death on a concubine. When the party arrives it turns out to be a misunderstanding. It was actually a cucumber. The messenger wasn’t great with the local language.”, or “A magical construct has insufficient dates due to a war in the _____. A fresh supply must be procured.”? Or are you looking for more serious ones?

    • I actually love the idea that a king had a cucumber in his harem, and will use it.
      The “hooks” provided in “Towers of adventure” are more serious though.

  2. Hmm does this mean you didn’t like it?
    No one ever uses an estoc…

    • Not many people really used zweihanders either. But an estoc is two handed, so it pretty far up the list. The fuller scale low to high, I guess, is: Poniard, cinqueda, seax, gladius, falchion, scimitar, backsword, rapier, flyssa, war sword, estoc, claymore, zweihander? Just going by length.
      I’m not really sure where the other Jacksons lie on the other scale. Probably something like Tito, Latoya, Frank, Victoria, J.J., Andrew, Janet, Samuel, Michael?

      • I guess you could use a number scale …

        • I don’t know, that sounds confusing.

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