Jacob’s Tower

Jacob’s Tower

This mega-adventure clocks in at 152 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 149 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

This review was requested by one of my patreons, to be undertaken at my convenience.

 

So, Jacob’s Tower is a kind of mega-dungeon, with each level assigned to the respective APL of the group – level 1 for level 1 groups, level 5 for level 5 groups – you get the idea. Regardless of performance in encounters and enemies killed, the dungeon works under the premise of XP being awarded upon level-completion. The module is made primarily for groups of 4 or less (though 3 will be difficult) and suggests using the advanced creature template for larger groups. The module suggests how to handle smaller groups (make the PCs have a higher level than the floor), but considering PFRPG’s action economy constraints, I would not advocate this. Jacob’s Tower can generally carry a whole campaign, encompassing a total of 13 levels.

 

Now, the design of this mega-dungeon is somewhat different from most old-school mega-dungeons. This is not, at all, about the things we traditionally associate with them: The grind and accomplishment of clearing a place, establishing a base deep within, deciding on when and how to return to the surface, etc. – all of these factors don’t really feature in Jacob’s Tower. Instead, the aesthetic evoked is pretty much one that made me recall, almost from the get-go, videogames like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry. There is a sort of window-less interplanetary bar, including a collective of winged construct barkeeps/servers/blacksmiths/etc. – this entity is called “Nine” and represents basically all the stuff you’d need to go to towns for: Purchasing, crafting etc. – it all feels like an elaborate menu between missions/levels; a kind of Velvet Room, if you’re a fan of the Persona franchise, f you will. This also, in a way, mirrors said games with Nine being a mystery and a creation of Jacob…but more on that below. 13 portraits in the bar represent the 13 levels. Nine does not identify items, and sleeping is free of charge. This extradimensional bar/menu-screen conceit also allows for pretty seamless integration into an ongoing campaign, should you choose to splice this module into your games instead.

 

This videogame-like aesthetic also applies to the respective levels – if you want an internally or thematically-consistent or organic dungeon, then this may not be what you’re looking for. If you instead want e.g. “levels” that feel, well, like videogame levels without having to mind consistency or the like, then this will deliver. This is also mirrored in some design decisions: There is, for example, a secret door on the first level that can only be opened by a super-high Strength-check that the PCs won’t be able to meet. Finding the door also shows two “magical chords” running along the walls, vanishing in them. These provide a clue that there are levers to be found on the level, which, when used, open the room. It’s basically a secret/exploration prompt. I actually do not mind this – I am a big proponent of not all DCs being beatable, of not all solutions being contingent on rollplaying, so yeah – that’s an aspect I can really get behind.

 

There are three crucial, final components that should be mentioned, both of which may not be immediately evident: One, the bar represents basically a “safe spot”, a means to recharge sans running the risk of encounters, of drained resources, etc. – this gets rid of the “global” attrition gameplay we traditionally associate with mega-dungeons. This is not to say that the module does not make use of attrition, mind you: In the dungeon levels themselves, it’s usually a very bad idea to sleep! Two, the lack of direct connections between the distinct levels mean that the PCs won’t necessarily “learn” to explore a traditional mega-dungeon – it’s not the intent here, and finishing the adventure will not have to the players in a position to e.g. have an easier time with Rappan Athuk. While their enemies can’t hunt them, neither can the PCs create base camps, trap gauntlets or the like and lure higher level foes down to “their” turf. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly for the GM, the level-based nature of this dungeon and the diverse themes employed mean that it’s really easy to cut up the module and slot the levels into ongoing campaigns.

 

As far as presentation is concerned, we get pretty much the definition of no frills: Two-column, b/w, stock art, if any. Formatting conventions are maintained for the most part, though e.g. hazards are not always specifically noted in their own entries, and sometimes, a hazard felt like a haunt to me, but that is nitpicking. You’ll also read sentences like this: “Our heroes must make a DC 12 Reflex save to half d6 slashing damage from the glass.” It’s “to halve”, and this deviates from rules-formatting. Number of d6s are usually noted and verbiage structure tends to be different. Similarly, there is no Dungeoneering skill – it’s Knowledge (dungeoneering).

 

The one thing that I really hate about this minimalist set-up, would be the maps. They are  functional, showing squares and sometimes making use of color to e.g. denote chess-board like set-ups, but they are super-minimalistic. There are no player-friendly maps provided either, which struck me as odd in light of the videogame-like aesthetics of this mega-dungeon. More jarringly, determining the dimensions of the dungeon is pretty hard. Rooms don’t specify their precise dimensions, and neither do the maps offer any sense of scale. Depending on what you assume, the tower may thus end up as rather vast, or as rather cramped. The map-situation, to me, is a serious detriment here.

 

There is one more thing I usually mention at the bottom, in my conclusion, but here it’s *really* relevant. This 150+ page pdf…has no bookmarks. No, I am not kidding you. For a module of this size and scope, that is super-jarring and really hampered my enjoyment of the material within. Your best bet is to print it out, but VTT-groups will probably gnash their teeth.

 

I will now proceed to discuss the individual levels, briefly noting highlights and/or issues, where applicable. Considering the size of the pdf, I will not provide a step-by-step breakdown of all challenges faced. It should be noted that, as a whole, the adventure often makes use of interesting terrain features, which is a plus in my book.

 

Okay, this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

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All right, only GMs around? Great!

 

So, level 1 is basically the tutorial level, which looks like a vanilla dungeon without much extravagance, and the enemies faced mirror this: Animals, low-level undead and pretty simple traps can be found, and the boss is an evil enchantress that has murdered her compatriots after running afoul of an illusion. My favorite part here were the grimples: gremlin-lice infested, disgusting nuisances with acidic vomit that interrupt sleeping attempts in ever-increasing hordes. Where do they come from? Well, if you’re asking this, then you’re not yet in the right mindset. They just spawn. Again, not judging, just observing. As a note regarding formatting: Their super-script “B”s sometimes used in statblocks to denote bonus feats…is not superscript. That’s something you’ll encounter time and again.

 

Anyhow, level 2 is interesting: The walls are of glass. The PCs can see through the level, and in the middle, encased in a forcecage, is a raging pyrohydra! The gimmick of this level is as follows: As the PCs explore, an illusionary hourglass will appear, counting down two minutes, which you should do as well as the GM. An easy riddle is provided (including DCs to brute-force it through rollplaying), and if the PCs solve the riddle in time, one of the hydra’s heads will be blown off, to never regenerate. These rooms also include some combat challenges, mind you: there is, for example, a red/green chessboard room, where the right level can cause bursts of flame or acid, which can help dealing with the amoeba attacking here. Ultimately, PCs that have failed at least one riddle get a final shot with a bonus riddle (here, a Tolkien-classic is used), and then, they’ll have to face the hydra-boss. Attempting to sleep on this level results in attacks by spawned in skums. This level represents a bit of a missed chance: Since the glass walls don’t block line of sight, this could have been used for really creative puzzles/enemy-encounters, and not just foreshadowing the boss.

 

Level 3 has a dual focus: It features chasms and tight corridors, as well as a theme of social interaction: There is a combination lock preventing progress, and there are the ghosts of 4 adventurers throughout the complex: these ghosts are not hostile, and each knows a number. Collect the numbers get out. This is basically a cramped-condition/social tutorial of sorts. The PCs get the chance to solve the ghost encounters with combat instead. Once more, no resting.

 

Level 4 takes the PC’s gear away, providing a prison level of sorts – and yes, halfway through, in the eminent tradition, they may reclaim their tools. Still, if your group’s a wizard, a cleric, a gunslinger and, e.g., an occultist, this may be rather…öhem…challenging. That being said, PCs with really good Handle Animal may get a dog and other prisoners to help…Ultimately, their jailor has met an unpleasant demise, and both a yeth hound and an aberration boss fight represent the toughest challenges here…though the traps pull no punches either. Sleeping here is possible, but lack of food means that there’s a risk of starvation.

 

In level 5, the obsidian walls are brimming with energy, and after a brief chance to make a skill checks that nets +2 on a save, the PCs will be subjected to a cool effect: Mindswitch. You hand your character to the next player that failed the save. This type of mechanic can be really cool if all players are rules-savvy…if not, then it may be frustrating. I once pulled that off at 15th level with my PCs, and there, they really gulped. At 5th level, this is still feasible, in spite of Pathfinder being relatively complex. That being said, the module acknowledges that this mechanic is not required. If your players have different degrees of rules-familiarity, you may want to forego this one – it’s really frustrating for players to have to play another player’s character and see their own PC be used ineffectively. Still, I very much applaud this effect! Interesting: If the mindswitched PC dies, the CONTROLLING player’s character perishes, while the dead PC is fully healed…so no screwing over your buddies. Wise decision. There are rune-crystals littered throughout the level, which need to be activated…and activating them switches minds again! The final boss here is a glass golem, and sleeping requires a save to avoid Wisdom drain. Still, by far my favorite level so far!

 

Level 6 is really cool. It’s called “The Gauntlet”, and upon getting there, the walls behind them will exhibit spikes, buzzsaws, etc. – and begin moving! The whole level is an exercise in quick problem solving, as the PCs escape the ever encroaching doom past enemies and magical walls designed to test their mettle and endurance. I really enjoyed this one…though here, the opaque nature of the complex really hurts the adventure, as scale is not evident, which makes movement tracking…challenging. It’s nothing an experienced GM can’t handle, granted, but it makes an otherwise inspired level feel rough.

 

Level 7 is an abject failure. Called “Gothic”, it expects the PCs to resurrect a vampire by collecting stuff in a “creepy” environment, that at best, comes off as tacky. Horror is contingent on psychology and the mindset of both players and GM, and the structure of this adventure, even more so than regular high fantasy roleplaying, is anathema to these notions. Horror must be developed and set up, and this does neither, hoping that creepy environment and the same old monsters will do the trick. They don’t. This level sucks.

 

Since we’re going through adventuring staples, level 8 has the planar theme – to be more precise, the inner planes theme for the elemental planes, positive and negative energy planes…and wild/dead magic planes? The idea here is nice, but I have several issues here: There are no planar traits noted, for one, and secondly, the module seems to labor under the misconception that angels hang out on the positive energy plane. I consider these deviations from established planar geographies to be rather unnecessary. The bosses are 4 Huge paralementals. Not a fan of this one.

 

Level 9 is called “Campfire”, and it is a really cool return to form: We have an outdoor area here, with the PCs in charge of a campfire. The fire must be fed, and a treant may disagree. A note (with a typo…) tells the PCs to keep the fire burning at all costs – and indeed, they better do this! Taking a cue from several survival games, letting the fire go out can result in seriously frantic struggles, as an endless supply of colors out of space begins manifesting when the fire goes out…so watch those flames! The PCs just have to keep the fire burning till sunrise…and how hard can it be? Hard. Very hard. Ettins, forest dragons, thriae and worse attack…and there are some other encounters as well. Basically, the level takes an event-driven approach, which makes for a great change of pace. Oh, and 1 minute before sunrise…and advanced T-Rex shows up. The PCs either need to survive 10 rounds or somehow kill this thing! The former is more likely, mind you! Two thumbs up for this level!

 

Level 10 is also rather creative: The PCs manifest in a disgustingly-fleshy environment – the insides of the body of one titan named Haradim, whose lungs are filled with water, the blood stagnant. A friendly ghost greets the PCs and tasks them to explore Haradim’s body and return the titan to life! Sleeping in this level may afflict the PCs with magical diseases, and as the PCs explore the level, they will have quite a unique environment on their hands. I really enjoyed this one, though I also found myself thinking that it falls short of the unique premise it has.

 

A gaudy Victorian manor awaits the PCs on level 11 – a grandfather clock tolls regularly, and inflicts nasty sonic damage to every PC on the level. Key will need to be collected…and frankly, this level does a better job at horror than the designated horror-level. Not that much better as far as true fright is concerned, but the surroundings and challenges, from ghostly butlers to dangerous pianos, make for an interesting, pretty dangerous location, one that sports a pretty tough boss that I did not expect to see. It’s basically challenging fantasy with a slight horror coating and less clichés than level 7 – it feels a bit like playing one of the early Alone in the Dark games.

 

Level 12 would be “The Arena” and sports a combination of combats (the arena transforms to suit the environment – and yes, this includes water…), a game-show-like quiz, a Performance-based challenge, an obstacle course and finally, pointing out a true ankou from doubles, makes for a gloriously over the top level that makes excellent use of the far out premise of the mega-dungeon. I frankly wished more levels would do stuff like this (or Campfire). And yes, we get different maps for the different arena-modes.

 

The final level of Jacob’s Tower…begins oddly. Nine is nowhere to be found. The backdoor is open, and the PCs can exit the place, seeing it swirl in the void. The PCs will cross the void, fall…and immediately face Jacob, supported by a paladin and an antipaladin henchmen. The mighty mage is guarded by energy walls through which he can cast, and defeating him sends the PCs to phase two of the combat, as the arena transforms and Jacob goes into Angel mode, in the great tradition of Sephiroth et al. He is supported by adventurer ghosts…and once form number two is bested, he morphs once more into dragon form!

 

If the PCs vanquish Jacob, Nine will show up, in truth the goddess of death. Turns out the gods wanted to have Jacob slain, but he tricked them. He’d be trapped in this dimension, but only mortals would be able to kill him. Which the PCs now did. After a sufficiently epic reward, the adventure concludes. Roll credits.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are inconsistent: on the one hand, I am frankly in awe how professional this is for Jeff Gomez’ first stand-alone offering. It’s a huge task to assemble a book of this size, and more so sans editor/developer. As a whole, formatting is pretty tight, though time and again, at times confusing rules-formatting deviations and nonstandard verbiage instances can be found. Similarly, e.g. items in statblocks aren’t italicized, superscript Bs not superscript – there are quite a few such hiccups in the book. Less than what you’d expect from a one-man offering, but still, more than I’d happy with. Layout adheres to a no-frills two-column b/w-standard, with a  few okay stock art pieces thrown in. The cartography is the worst part of the module – barely functional, not pleasing and basically just blocks and rectangular walls. The lack of bookmarks is a jarring comfort-detriment that also really hampers this book.

 

Jeff Gomez “Jacob’s Tower” was not written for me. I like classic mega-adventures and the safe zone, and I like dungeons that simulate a sense of plausibility. At the same time, though, I’m a big fan of a lot of videogames, and I found myself curiously less appalled by the module than I thought I’d be. While there are quite a few levels that I’d consider to be bland indeed, there also are several ones that really captured my imagination, that I thoroughly enjoyed. Sure, the metaplot is as flimsy an afterthought as that of e.g. “Devil May Cry”, and you better not start questioning the logistics or consistency of this place. This is literally the “A WIZARD DID IT”-dungeon. Yes, in all caps. When the module tries to provide a “regular” playing experience, it thus becomes annoying and jarring. When it embraces its ridiculous concept, it becomes amazing.

 

Now, if formal criteria tend to bug you, if rules-language deviations, player-maps, bookmarks and the like are what you want, then this will not deliver. That being said, for the asking price, you get A LOT of gaming out of this one. 10 bucks? That’s, length-wise, 15 pages per Dollar, basically a whole adventure. Now, these levels diverge greatly in quality, in imagination and in coolness, sure…but when they work, they work surprisingly well! To the point where I honestly consider them worth scavenging and refining! The highlights herein burn brightly indeed!

 

But just as much do the bad ones suck. Similarly, the formatting and editing guffaws show that a picky editor, or better even, developer, could have really enhanced this module to the point where it could have become something outstanding. The end feels anticlimactic to me, and the frame-narrative of the Inn could have yielded so much more interaction and relevance for the respective levels.

 

As a reviewer, I am ultimately in a difficult position regarding this book: On a formal level, just taking formal features and rules-language into account, I consider this to be in the 2.5 star-vicinity, while content-wise, it oscillates between 1.5 and 5 stars. Ultimately, I consider this to be a mixed bag, though one worth checking out if you’re willing to work a bit, polishing off the rough spots. If you do, you can scavenge some rather exciting ideas from the pages of this mega-adventure…and if that’s your goal, then round up. If you want a go-play experience with any degree of comfort, though, then look elsewhere. Ultimately, I feel I can’t round up for this one, at least not in its current state. With a detailed editing pass, player-maps and bookmarks, this most certainly would have had more universal appeal.

 

You can get this mega-adventure here on OBS!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

 

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About Endzeitgeist

Reviewer without a cause