Gather around the fire, my friends, and I shall tell you the tale of the Tower. It is the story of an innocent young man who was seduced by the siren song of the Goddess of Gaming. Risking the scorn of his players, and the acid words of the critics, he dipped his pen into the murky inkwell of Creation to create his own adventure. Yes, this is the story of how I came to write my first dungeon module, The Tower of Indomitable Circumstance, and how it changed my life.
Slay Them All!
I discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1970′s while working on a computer project in Chicago. Jack Eilrich was the main DM, and ran a “killer game”, with the average life expectancy of a character maybe 3-4 sessions. Jack’s games were full of imagination, excitement, and challenge. We even managed to get in some role-playing, especially during the frequent roll-up-a-character process. One night, I rolled up three consecutive characters within an hour as two of them died before becoming old enough to quest.
Sitting in my hotel room one night, I decided to give DM’ing a try and put together my first full dungeon module. It was a beginning adventure set in a remote tower filled with puzzles and mystery. When I ran our usual group through the scenario, the players made very favorable comments on it. Of course, that might have just been because I didn’t kill any of their characters.
The Tower of What?
The original scenario consisted of the ground floor and the tower rooms and sprang from my head in a single sleepless night. Filling out the details, adding the underground area, and coming up with a title for publication took 5 more months.
I don’t quite remember how I came up with the title, “Tower of Indomitable Circumstance.” Probably it was something that just popped into my head, so I figured I’d use it as a working title until I came up with something better. Eventually I reworked part of the module so that the title made sense… sort of. (In case you didn’t know, “indomitable” means something similar to “indefatigable”.)
Lesson #1: Working titles take on a life of their own. When you try to change them, they fight back. It’s better to get it right the first time.
DM’s Get All the Girls
Since I preferred playing games to working for a living, I decided to turn Tower into a formal game module and become a professional game writer. I submitted it to Judges Guild, the major 3rd party D&D module publisher at the time, and waited.
At this point I was playing or running D&D games about 20 hours a week, as well as working full-time. I was too busy gaming to write any other modules, so my career as a writer began to look doubtful. I did have one major success with Tower, running it at the 1979 WesterCon in San Francisco for a group that included a lovely young lady named Lori. She was sufficiently charmed by my D&D game as to miss some of my other shortcomings. Yes, it’s true – DM’s get all the girls!
Several months later, when I called Judges Guild to ask if they were going to publish my module, they asked, “Oh, you were submitting that for publication? We’ve been playing it for the last few weeks in our in-house campaign. We love it!” Next thing I knew, I had a contract, and in 1981 Tower finally saw print.
Lesson #2: Publishers have a long turn-around time. If you want to make a living as any sort of writer, you need to keep writing while you’re waiting to hear about your first submissions.
Building the Tower
As a D&D player with no dungeon master experience, how did I start writing a module? Obviously I was influenced by the games in which I played. I had also played Adventure and Zork at this point, and had some experience with a real-life quasi-religious cult. Looking back at Tower of Indomitable Circumstance, it has a lot more detail and puzzles than most of the role-playing modules I’ve seen.
Tower was designed to be an interesting adventure for beginning characters, so I based it on problem-solving by the players rather than on their characters’ abilities. I tried to give Tower the flavor of “something interesting in every room”, rather than having a lot of generic rooms full of inappropriate monsters. Many of the rooms of Tower have “On Closer Examination” sections to reward players for actively doing and examining things.
I also wanted a consistent setting. Many early dungeons seemed to be a random collection of traps and monsters. I wanted a “real” place, where everything had a purpose and fit in with the theme of the location and the adventure. For Tower, I accomplished this by creating a tower that was originally designed as an initiation tests for acolytes who aspired to become Priests of Math (the Celtic God of Magic). As a result, the tower is both a series of tests and of instruction in knowledge a Priest should have.
For example, two adjacent rooms have mirrors, one of which shows the viewers as extremely beautiful, the other of which makes them look incredibly ugly. Once the players have looked in both mirrors, a voice intones, “For after all, both beauty and ugliness are ethereal in nature, and the Wizard has both at his command.”
Lesson #3: If you start with an interesting theme, then keep the rest of your writing consistent with it, you will find it much easier to write something fun.
Posing a Passable Puzzle
I have a confession to make. I pretty much suck at “solving” adventure games. I come across a puzzle and say, “Huh? How am I supposed to figure that one out?” It could just be me, but I don’t think so. I think that most puzzle creators try to “beat” the players by coming up with puzzles they won’t be able to solve.
I look at puzzles a different way. I think the purpose of a game designer is to challenge players in a fun way. That means you want them to solve your puzzles – after some thought – not get frustrated by them. I also try to create puzzles that are closely related to the setting and the story. This helps give players the context they need to solve the game.
To create the puzzles in Tower of Indomitable Circumstance, I started out – as I still do today – with a character who has a problem. The demigod Math has seen his temples destroyed and followers persecuted because people distrust magic. He wants students and worshippers, but he can’t just advertise for them. So he creates a challenge that will let qualified adventurers test themselves and learn the principles of his “religion” before making a choice.
Tower introduced a few innovations, such as the then-radical idea that a Priest should actually have a religion. It was also a strongly puzzle-oriented scenario as compared to the mostly hack-and-slash nature of most D&D adventures. Finally, Tower was designed to solve a specific problem – Getting new characters started without killing them off on the way to the dungeon. Our wilderness encounter charts in those days were completely random, so beginning adventurers were as likely to be eaten by Dragons as to fight Kobolds.
Lesson #4: Don’t create puzzles only you can solve. A strong setting will tell you where the puzzles and decisions need to be made.
Belay Those Birkenstocks!
Not all of my puzzles were winners. One of the first ones in Tower involves trying to open a locked door. Near the door is a Japanese-style stand with several pairs of sandals. The players are supposed to figure out that this is a temple, and the priests do not want it soiled, so they should take off their boots and put on sandals before attempting to open the door. I’m not sure any group for which I ran the game actually solved this one. In one case, I noticed on a character sheet that the mage was wearing sandals, so he was able to simply open the door and walk through. It took the rest of the party about an hour.
What happened there? I knew the solution before I posed the problem, but the players could only work with the information I gave them. I needed to add more clues so that the players could “see” the room as I saw it in my mind. “Muddy footprints lead up to the chest, where you find an old pair of boots and several clean pairs of sandals. The area between the chest and the door looks totally clean.” You don’t have to hit the players over the head with this sort of thing, but additional hints can be essential if they’re obviously stuck.
Lesson #5: Shoes Wisely! Don’t assume your players can read your mind.
So there you have it. One lonely night in Chicago, a muse caused me to try something new, and my life changed as a result. Because I wrote Tower, I met my wife. Because I had a published RPG module, Sierra hired us to create Quest for Glory. If my life had gone a different way, I’d probably be a retired, ex-programmer spending my evenings playing World of Warcraft. (Not everything has to change in an alternate future story.)
Lesson #6: Some decisions are more important than others. Some are turning points that alter everything that happens afterwards. These are the most interesting places for puzzles in games, and they’re also the most interesting and meaningful moments in the game of life.
[If you're interested in trying out my first role-playing module, Tower of Indomitable Circumstance has long been out of print, but (being unable to find my own copy) I was able to download a very readable can of the module from RPG Now for $3.00. If you decide to play it, let me know what you think and how well it converts to modern RPG systems and the 21st Century.]