Posts Tagged ‘new-school


the fighter is the thief of fighting

Two examples of D&D play.  First example:

Dungeon Master: The treasure chest looks to be made of an unearthly metal: it is a deep, slate grey color, but in your flickering torchlight it shows tints of magenta, lime green, and a nauseating purple which, when you gaze at it too long, seems to shrivel your eyeballs.  The clasp is worked to resemble a face somewhere between that of a preying mantis and a giraffe.  If the chest isn’t locked, it sure as hell doesn’t look inviting, either.

Fighting-Man: I’m gonna try to get that chest open.

Dungeon Master: How?

Second example:

Dungeon Master: As you and your allies try to scramble down from the Titan’s bookcase with the scrolls you found, its bookends–worked in brass to resemble an otherwordly hybrid of a purple worm and a lion–begin to roar in alarm.  As the Titan’s pet wyvern, hearing the noise, beats its wings furiously against the bars of its cage, hissing at you, the worm-lion bookends detach from their bases and come slithering toward you.  Now what?

Fighting-Man: I attack.

Dungeon Master: Okay, roll.

The first example cannot be resolved without obtaining additional fictional inputs from the character.  This can slow down the pace of the game to an absurd degree, but it leads to a richly imagined scene.

The second example may have some pretty nifty things operating on your character sheet (exhausting your spells one by one; losing hit points; getting enhancements due to your magic items), but usually the fictional events in the game are imaginatively anemic.

Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t require much in the way of fictional inputs for combat.  In the worst case scenario, the situation in the second example can degenerate into “I hit . . . 6 points . . . You miss . . . I miss . . . You hit, 5 points.”

This isn’t inevitable – a good Dungeon Master or good players can always gussy up this basic exchange – but the rules operate without that degree of creativity and imaginative investment, and there’s always a drift toward laziness which can result in less scintillating play.

(Case in point: in Tavis’s White Sandbox game, Tavis allows players to narrate how they land the killing blow against an enemy.  Sometimes this results in some very nice additions to the fiction: although Eric’s Halfling Archer was the one who reduced the Beast Lord to 0 Hit Points, Eric used his narration to describe that it was Adrian’s character who lopped Stronghoen’s head off.   But often we’re too lazy to say more than, “Um, I just totally kill him.”)

Giving some situational modifiers (+2 for high ground) is a step in the right direction, but these tend to get lost in the spread of a 1d20 roll.

Contrast Gygaxian combat with D&D 4e.  Fourth edition requires zillions of fictional inputs in order to work, it’s just that the fictional inputs are largely confined to relative positioning on a battlefield.  I find it hard to imagine how 4e could be played without figuring out exactly where people are standing, and exactly how they’re attacking.

As a result, combat in 4e is imaginatively rich, in the sense that how you attack someone both requires input from the imaginary environment and also changes the environment in a way that impacts later decisions.

The downside is that in 4e there are so many inputs to track that fighting slows to a crawl.  This isn’t a problem if you’re fighting the Beast Lord, but it stinks when you’re just mowing down encounters that only exist to bleed resources prior to the big showdown.

What would be nice is a version of D&D where resolution has a scalable complexity.  When you’re frustrated by bullshit caltrops on a staircase, just roll the Remove Traps skill and get it over with.  When you’re trying to do something really complicated, like blowing up a Lich by re-binding its booby-trapped spell books to deceive it (as Maldoor did), do something pretty freeform to enable the players to show creativity.  Stupid fights against lame-o’s, use the baseline combat system.  Big fights against major enemies, adopt a system where, say, special abilities or feat-type things come into play, allowing for some more tactical complexity.

Credit where it’s due department – Vincent’s making the same point here, over a year ago.


sandbox lifecycle

Jesus's face is, like, 6 hexes in itself

I wanna run a couple of D&D adventures to highlight parts of the rules that the New York Red Box gang hasn’t gotten around to yet: wilderness hex crawling, naval battles, high-level delving, dominion type stuff.

And what’s killing me is that in D&D there aren’t very good tools for limited runs–say, 18 hours or less.

The classic sandbox style campaign, being open-ended and plotless, is no good for my purposes: the pleasures of sandboxin’ comes from watching structure emerge over time.  If you cut things short, the game simply ends without any satisfactory resolution.

(By the way, this occasional frustration with the long-term investment necessary for a payoff in sandboxy stuff was a pretty frequent concern of mine six months ago.  I think sandbox play has a lot to recommend it, but it’s built for – or at least really favors – massive time commitment, which in general I personally can’t sustain as it gets in the way of not just my regular life, but other gaming as well.)

You can slam stuff together in a railroady way – you have this encounter, and then THIS encounter – but that robs the players of agency.

Alternately you can handle this the indie way with relationship maps and keys and player flags.  But this involves grafting a lot of new stuff onto D&D which (a) sounds like work and (b) would, at least in my mind, distract me from figuring out how well the various under-used sub-systems work.

(As an example of new-fangled sub-systems I refer you to Clinton Nixon’s Sweet20 XP system, which was originally designed for later editions of D&D but could probably be tweaked for older games.  If you like it, you might like his game Shadow of Yesterday which is available free on his site if you poke around a bit.)

Has anyone had any great success with mini-campaigns?  If so, what worked and what didn’t?


Conan the Contrarian: Creative Agendas in Conflict

I can’t stand it, I know you planned it
I’m gonna set it straight, this Watergate
I can’t stand rocking when I’m in here
‘Cause your crystal ball ain’t so crystal clear

So while you sit back and wonder why
I got this fucking thorn in my side
Oh my God, it’s a mirage
I’m tellin’ y’all, it’s a sabotage

—Beastie Boys, “Sabotage”

One of the most useful terms to come out of the controversial gaming forum called The Forge is the “creative agenda.” Sheared of excess verbiage, this boils down to what the player wants out of play. One may want to beat the opposition, explore an imaginary landscape, partake in witty in-character banter, or any combination of these and other things.

Conflict between players’ creative agendas can lead to conflict between players. Player A likes combat while Player B prefers diplomacy. They encounter a monster; A wants to fight and B wants to talk. What happens? Maybe there will be an argument at the table, and eventually one side or the other will prevail and play moves forward. More likely, Player A’s character will attack, rendering the point moot.

It is important to note here that conflicts between creative agendas are typically asymmetrical, in that it’s easy to take actions in support of some agendas that will preclude pursuit of the other agendas. Attack overcomes negotiation, while both inhibit stealth. Latching on to the Big Noble Quest thwarts sandbox-style roving exploration. I’m sure the reader can come up with other examples.

DM: You press on into the tree-lined ravine. Cave mouths yawn darkly up and down the slopes of the ravine. These are the Caves of Chaos, and your skin crawls as you consider what horrors may lie within. What are you doing?
Player 1: I follow the route to the wizards’ cave, moving quietly and staying low so as to avoid attention.
Player 2: Me too.
Player 3: Ditto.
Player 4: I climb atop the tallest rock I can find and shout, “Creatures of the Caves of Chaos! I am Dragoon Lancer Captain Era of the Company of the Crossed Swords! Be warned that we are here to destroy you!”

Of particular note is the agenda of interesting failure. This is a common theme in new-school play dealing with stories and thematic issues, and in such games it’s a very useful tool for fun and engaging play! But adversity in such games is generally provided by the player(s), and characters typically act on their own and take their own lumps. In old-school games where adversity is generated by the DM and your fellow players are expected—and expect—to work together, this can be a frustrating agenda to deal with, because not only does it oppose many other agendas, it typically trumps the others in play. If you poke the dragon, insult the king, conceal the villain’s weakness or push the shiny red button labeled “DOOM,” everyone else gets dragged into a disaster of your making.

A similar problem arises when a player seeks out conflict with the other players. Whether their agenda is catharsis or simply being the center of attention, such a player gets off on arguing in-character with the rest of the party. Such a player can easily bog a group down for a large part of a session by taking the opposite side in any debate about the party’s goals, strategies or tactics.

Players with contrarian agendas typically aren’t doing it to mess with everyone else’s fun. They may not recognize that other players have different agendas. More likely, they recognize the differences but fail to grasp the asymmetrical nature of the conflict, thinking that each player can do what’s fun for them and it’ll all even out in the end.

As always, this sort of thing needs to be calmly and frankly discussed by the players and the DM. People who enjoy one another’s company will find a way to compromise! And if compromise fails… well, that’s a subject for another post.


Just Talking: Communicating Your Character

Over at Ars Ludi, Ben Robbins brings up some interesting points about sharing one’s character’s point of view.

I think it’s very important to note that good roleplaying isn’t something that just happens, nor does it happen in a vacuum. If you want your character’s personality and backstory to feature prominently in play, you have to put something on the table. No one’s going to drag your character’s secrets out of you!

This has come up a lot in White Wolf games I’ve played in, especially LARPs, but I’ve seen it in other games as well, including old-school D&D. Someone designs their character with dark secrets—drug addictions, broken families, betrayed masters, forbidden loves, and so forth—then works so hard to cover their tracks that no one ever finds out about those dark secrets. At which point they’re puzzled and disappointed, because the whole point of having all this cool stuff in your backstory is to have it come out in play!

The point is, if it’s important to you for your character to have a Big Reveal in which Stuff Is Found Out—or even if you just want them to notice the little things about your character’s behavior and persona—you have to arrange it out-of-character. You can’t depend on people noticing your in-character clues. After all, they’re all busy with their own business, not to mention whatever the referee is throwing at the group!

Hell, I’ve done it myself, playing taciturn characters who never let anyone past their guard. But if no one else at the table knows what’s going on inside your character’s head, how important is it?

There are a number of useful expository techniques for sharing a character’s inner life with the group. These include:

  1. Monologuing: This is where you turn the old adage of “Show, don’t tell” on its arse and tell the group what’s going on in your character’s thoughts. This can be a first-person or third-person monologue. If you do this, keep it short. Non-interactive presentations on the table get boring much faster than you might think!
  2. Blue-booking: This is where you write your monologue down and share it with the group between sessions. This can be a brief excerpt or a full-on short story. Unlike a monologue, you can be as verbose as you want because you’re not stealing spotlight time at the table.
  3. Staged scene: Here you work with your fellow players and the referee to set up a scene in the game that showcases your character’s issues. This may be best accomplished troupe-style, with other players running relevant NPCs—your character’s friends, family, rivals, etc—as appropriate to the needs of the scene.

The one thing I don’t recommend is running long solo staged scenes. No matter how cool your character is and no matter how masterful a thespian you are, a two-hour scene with just you and the referee is likely to bore everyone else to tears. Solo scenes are useful, but keep them short and snappy!

Lastly, it’s important for referees to remember that if a player presents a secret in their character’s backstory, that’s a red flag indicating a point of conflict. Secrets are there to be revealed! You shouldn’t expose it directly without the player’s permission, but you should threaten its exposure on a semi-regular basis. It’s a good way to up the tension, and it offers a good avenue for giving the player a meaningful choice.


Flavorful Fighting: Behind the Screen

Player #1: I flank the bugbear. What bonus do I get?
DM: Bonus?
Player #1: To my attack roll. For flanking.
DM: Uh, none.
Player #2: We don’t do that third-edition stuff here.

One of the great strengths of old-school D&D play is the speed at which combat is resolved. Later editions add a bevy of maneuvers and modifiers, and reading and calculating their effects can slow play significantly. But you don’t need codified rules for this! It’s part of the referee’s job to incorporate the actions of the player characters into the system, either as house rules or by adjudicating on the fly. (For Moldvay Red Box players, this is explicitly stated on p. B25: “The score needed ‘to hit’ may be adjusted by … occasional special situations.”)

Some of these “special situations” might include:

  • Flanking/Encirclement: The thief’s backstab ability makes it necessary to consider the possibility of striking from behind, so why not look at it more generally? It’s very difficult to defend against multiple attackers, something that appears clearly in much of the sword & sorcery source material (especially that written by trained fencers like Fritz Leiber or Roger Zelazny). One might impose a penalty to AC equal to (defender’s HD – number of attackers). Additionally, attacks from the rear might ignore the defender’s shield entirely.
  • Charge: Barreling at full speed into the fray might give an advantage to one’s attack and damage rolls, or might even yield a bonus to initiative! On the other hand, being off-balance from the charge should result in a penalty to AC, and a defender who’s prepared for a charge may get similar bonuses on the counterattack as she uses the force of the attacker’s charge against him. The extra momentum provided by heavy armor might increase the charge’s bonuses and penalties.
  • Higher Ground: When you’re standing above your opponent—on a slope, stair, table, dais or whatever—gravity’s doing some of your work for you and you have easier access to your opponent’s head and torso; this may provide a bonus to attack and damage rolls, especially with heavy slashing or crushing weapons that depend on a powerful downstroke. The opponent on lower ground may suffer similar penalties.

Player: I charge into the fray!
DM: Okay, if you’re really going all-out, that’ll give you a bonus to hit and damage, but a sizable penalty to your AC.
Player: Um, in that case I’ll just attack.

If, as a DM, you’re going to make a practice of incorporating the minutiae of the imagined combat situation into the mechanics of play, I strongly recommend that you keep all of the modifiers to yourself. This isn’t about the DM being “in control.” In fact, an inflated sense of authority is a risk of this method! But hiding the modifiers has two big advantages:

  1. Speed of play: Codified modifiers slow down play as you and the players flip through the rulebooks to figure out exactly what modifiers apply. As long as you wing it, play should keep going at a rapid clip.
  2. Let it flow: If players know exactly what bonuses and penalties they’ll get from a given maneuver, they’ll be tempted to crunch the numbers in their heads before acting. Not only does this slow down play, but it takes them out of the action as they concentrate on the stats rather than on the imagined scene. By keeping the modifiers hidden, you help everyone focus on the action!

In general, it’s best to err on the side of the players when applying hidden impromptu modifiers. The power in your hands is all too easy to abuse. Don’t abuse it.

In addition, if an attack or other action succeeds or fails as a result of a specific combat tactic, remember to include that in your description of the results! If they only hit and downed the orc because of the force of their charge, let ‘em know; and if they’re pincushioned afterwards because they were off-balance from the charge, let them know that too! Feedback is critical to engaging play.


Rules Do Matter: Emergent Behaviors

Rules matter. As long as you rely upon them to generate results, they guide play in various directions by encouraging some choices and results while discouraging others. Vince Baker, one of the most insightful new-school game designers, likes to discuss this in terms of “emergent play“: results that emerge from unexpected interactions within—and with—the rules.

In old-school D&D, the most significant example would be the advancement rules. By the book, most experience points come from obtaining monetary treasure. This encourages to prioritize treasure-finding over other activities, and discourages adventures that yield no monetary profit. Defeating monsters serves as a secondary source of experience points. Low-level monsters give a lot more experience in White Box than in Red Box; in actual play, we’ve found that the players in Tavis’ White Box game are more prone to seek out fights without a guarantee of monetary reward than in my Red Box game, where the party generally eschews combat if financial profit seems unlikely.

As Philotomy has noted, a lot of old-school gamers stopped giving out experience points for monetary treasure because they felt it didn’t make sense in the context of the fiction. This alters the play of the game! Seeking out treasure in emulation of swords & sorcery heroes like Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is an emergent behavior derived from the XP-for-gold rule; without that rule, play tends in other directions as players seek to gain experience and level up their characters. My own history as a player bears this out; in a favorite 3e D&D campaign where we gained no XP for treasure, we’ve actually turned down monetary rewards because that seemed appropriate to our characters.

The lesson to take away here is that, when designing or modifying rules, it’s important to consider how the rules guide behavior! As demonstrated above, putting verisimilitude above all other considerations can lead to unexpected—even undesirable—effects on play.

When I fleshed out the Vancian magic system in my setting, I was concerned with encouraging certain elements of play and discouraging others. Defining the rules around these concerns was my primary goal; the flavor and color, however important, were subordinate to these considerations.

First, I wanted to strike a balance between allowing magic-user PCs to share useful spells and retaining their specialties. On the one hand, everyone wants access to powerful spells like sleep and fireball. On the other hand, a magic-user’s spell selection provides a colorful distinction from other PC magic-users, much as how fighters are often distinguished by their magic weapons, or how any character might be distinguished by a unique special ability. So I split the difference between making spell sharing free and denying it altogether; researching one’s own version of a fellow PC’s spell is not instanteous or free, but provides a discount over designing a spell from scratch. (This dovetails with our carousing rules for turning gold into XP; learning new spells, whether from fellow PCs or through original research, always generates experience points.)

Second, I wanted to give access to new spells in a controlled fashion. I wanted the ability to give access to new spells as part of a treasure hoard, but I didn’t want the PCs to immediately gain access to every spell in a defeated magic-user’s spellbook. So I engineered the system to allow me to control how many new spells the PCs received by defeating an enemy M-U. Ideally, this will give the magic-user PCs a nice benefit from captured spellbooks without encouraging them to spend all their time hunting down and killing their NPC counterparts to steal their power.

It’s only at this point in the process that color considerations come in. But even color considerations have emergent effects! For example, requiring initiations with expensive components to learn new spells has a number of effects on the game world. Wizards’ labs will generally be full of expensive components, and that’s treasure. Magic becomes more exclusive; since you need a lot of money to become initiated into the art, only the wealthy or the chosen apprentices of existing wizards can afford to practice magic.

On the other hand, one can base magical traditions around cheaply procuring components that are expensive for city-dwelling magic-users. Shamans would gather their own herbs and minerals, for example, while dark wizards would exploit the price that slavery places on human life by performing initiations around human sacrifices!


it’s CLOBBERING time!

This, but like 5 sessions' worth of it

Jack Kirby + Joe Sinnot, Fantastic Four 73

We finished our five-session arc of With Great Power . . . last night.  It’s certainly the best gaming experience I’ve had in years, and in the short-list for my best gaming ever.  From start to finish it was pure joy.

A lot of that joy was contextual: as noted I am a madman on the subject of Silver Age Marvel comics, and  I was lucky enough to have two magnificent players (Sternum and Invincible Overlord) who, in addition to also being huge fans, were terrific role-players and enormously funny people.

Some of that joy was due to the fiction.  Last night:

  • The Thing single-handedly defeated a Troll army that was marching on Asgard (including clobbering Ulik, who had humiliated and enslaved him last session).
  • Spider-Man, tapping into the power of the Norn Stone, defeated the mighty Thor in single combat.  Just as he was about to steal Thor’s hammer in accordance with Loki’s sinister plan, Peter Parker realized he was going too far–and returned it to the thunder god.
  • The Enchantress, who had seduced Peter into near-villainy, came to understand that, though nought but a mortal, his heart was more valorous than many an Asgardian’s.
  • There was a funny scene when the Thing tried to tell-off Odin the Omnipotent, but the All-Father basically yawned him away.
  • Loki, frustrated, made a play for the indestructible Destroyer.  There was a big fight between Spider-Man, the Thing, Thor, and the Fantastic Four against the Loki, the Destroyer, the Radioactive Man, the North Vietnamese Army, and the United States Air Force.  In the end, the heroes triumphed (of course).

And some of the joy was due to the system, though I’m not sure how much.  With Great Power .  .  .  is played with a deck of cards rather than dice.  You generally want high-ranking cards, and in order to get them the player will choose to sacrifice certain aspects of his or her character.  Thus, Spider-Man might ignore Aunt May for a little while in order to save the city.  In mid-game, however, many of these aspects fall into the clutches of the Game Master, who can then do sadistic things: like say that Aunt May has gotten engaged to Doctor Octopus.  In the end-game, a couple of rules shift around to favor the players, and if they’re lucky they can save the day and any spinster aunts.

So the card-economy does a great deal to affect the pacing of the game.  Going into this session, I was concerned that I had beaten up the super heroes so much that there was no way they could build up a hand strong enough to take me on.  Since Sternum kept his most valuable aspects out of my grasp, I couldn’t win outright, but (I thought) neither could the heroes.  It turns out that I was mistaken.  The card economy is clunky, opaque, and feels a little ad hoc, but it worked out beautifully last night, and I’m very impressed with Michael and Kat Miller for getting this design right.  (That said, we did end up house-ruling it that I couldn’t take an aspect all the way to Transformed in the course of a single fight.)

So – best supers gaming I’ve ever had, and a good time was had by all.  Excelsior!


How many choices does it take to make a cleric in OD&D, AD&D, and 4E?

Inspired by my previous post about character building in AD&D and 4E, I made a Google spreadsheet tracking how many decisions it takes to create a character in three different editions. Since the number varies depending on character type, I chose to focus on the human cleric I was making as a pregenerated character for my Anonycon AD&D and 4E games. I didn’t include choices like a characters’ name which have no mechanical effect on the game, and didn’t consider decisions about equipping a character.

To make a 1st level cleric in OD&D, you make decisions about your class (3 options), race (4 options), alignment (3 options),  and languages spoken (no specific options  given beyond “all other creatures and monsters which can speak have their own language”), for a total of 4 choices from among 10 options.

In AD&D, that same 1st level cleric requires 7 choices: class, race, gender (which has mechanical effects in AD&D, unlike any other edition), alignment, languages, and spells (1 because AD&D clerics have a spell at 1st level, and 2 more because this cleric has bonus spells from 18 Wisdom). Counting each multiclass possibility as a separate option, these selections are made from among 60 unique options (you choose 3 times from among the same set of 12 spells; this counts as a dozen unique options, not 36.) I didn’t include deity both because it has no mechanical effects and because the AD&D PHB says nothing about this choice for clerics or any other class, as far as I can tell!

In 4E, you make 23 separate decisions in the course of building a 1st level cleric: class; race; alignment; languages; class build; deity; point buy decisions for Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, Dexterity, Wisdom, and Charisma; four trained skills; two feats; a bonus ritual; three at-will powers, one encounter, and one daily.  If you’re just using the 4E PHB , you make these selections from among approximately 165 different options.

To make my 4E cleric I used the Character Builder, which includes all currently published material for 4E, and made a total of 27 decisions from among 780 options to choose from. It might be interesting to make a similar comparison against all AD&D material, including the roll-swap decisions from the DMG Appendix P and the non-weapon proficiencies from Unearthed Arcana. My suspicion would be that this would probably bring up the number of choices into the 4E range, but provide nowhere near as many options to select from.

The differences between editions are reduced when making a higher-level character is the focus of comparison. In OD&D, creating a 10th level cleric requires a total of 19 more selections (picking spells) from among 36 unique options. In AD&D, it’s 27 decisions from among 106 options.  In 4E, it’s 34 choices from among 193 new options. (Note, too, that these choices will stay more or less fixed, while the older-edition clerics could re-choose their spells each day).

What are these data good for?

One thing we can do is to quantify the oft-repeated maxim that in 4E, making a fighter is like making a spellcaster in older editions. In AD&D, making a fighter of any level only requires five choices (as long as you’re rolling stats in order and not using non-weapon proficiencies). We can now say definitively that making a first-level fighter in 4E requires about as many choices as it’d take to build a 8th level cleric in AD&D.

More generally, this confirms my intuition that 4E character creation requires making many more decisions and considering more options than in previous editions.  It also allows us to make conceptually dodgy but numerically-supported statements like “one character creation choice in OD&D is worth six in 4E” (if we accept the premise that, as with randomness, making fewer decisions gives each one a proportionally greater significance) or “4E’s character creation process is seventy-eight times deeper than OD&D’s” (if we accept that the fundamental unit of a game’s depth is the number of meaningful options it presents to the players).


9 minute campaign design

Maldoor has a good post about collaborative world-building, which asks how a group can distribute the world-building process, and also, how to bring a new player up to speed quickly.

There’s no answer to the last question other than to present relevant information clearly and concisely.  But that sort of presentation can be enormously helpful in the initial stages of campaign design!

I’ve been fooling around with my old Alternity sci-fi RPG books, where they present a quick way to design campaigns.  This way of presenting the material is mine, but the ideas are courtesy of Richard Baker and Bill Slavicsek of the Alternity Gamemaster Guide, published by TSR, Inc.:

  1. What is the Look & Feel of your campaign? Forget about cosmology and rule modifications: what’s your campaign about, in emotional terms and general aesthetics?  Crucially: what are inspirational novels, movies, comics, etc. that put players on the same wavelength so they’re ready to collaborate with you?
  2. What’s the high concept of your campaign? If question #1 is about evoking an emotional response, this one’s about your 30 second elevator pitch.  What’s going on in big picture terms?  Here’s one possible way of doing this for Star Wars: “A tyrannical galactic empire has finally eliminated the last defenders of the old regime, but a new generation of revolutionaries are preparing to strike back.”
  3. What’s the core story? (or: “Lovable misfits who…”) Where do the players fit into that high concept?  What do they do in a typical game?  In Dungeons & Dragons, players are lovable misfits who delve into the depths of the earth and attempt to win treasure by overcoming fiendish traps and (usually) must slay horrific monsters; rinse and repeat.  The core story of Mouse Guard is that the players are lovable misfit mice who patrol a harsh wilderness, protecting the Territories from predators and natural disasters; rinse and repeat.
  4. What rules will you be using in your campaign? Self-explanatory: game + house rules.  I’m of the opinion that house rules should be minimal and carefully designed to provoke an emotional or thematic response, but YMMV.  (As a recovering rules-tinkerer, I find it crucial to ask: why does this change matter vis-a-vis items 1, 2 and 3?)
  5. What are the big-scale social institutions or groups in the campaign? This is stuff like churches, cultural institutions, corporations, governments–movers and shakers which plug into the High Concept or the Core Story (preferably both).  People generally glaze over after about 5-9 options.  A sentence description of each is a good idea.
  6. Who are the major supporting cast? These NPC’s could represent the socio-cultural forces listed above.  In any event, they’re men and women who want things relevant to the High Concept and who will get in the way of the Core Story, preferably sooner rather than later.  These guys are designed to be big-leaguers, who are relevant across several adventures and whose desires span most of the campaign.  (These characters don’t need to be high-level or powerful demigods like Elminster, but there ought to be some people with long-range goals and staying power to serve as foils, allies, and antagonists to the players.)  A little goes a long way here.
  7. What are the major threats in the campaign? Perhaps a sub-set of the socio-cultural institutions or the supporting cast.  What are the campaign-wide problems?  They don’t have to be immediate threats, but urgency always helps focus the mind.   Note that “threats” should be relevant either to the High Concept (what the campaign’s all about) or the Core Story (what the heroes do in a typical adventure) – but preferably are relevant to both.  Pick a few of the supporting cast, and figure out how they react to the various threats – no need to be super-detailed, just a general notion.
  8. Draw a map of the campaign setting. Self-explanatory, but it’s better to start small.
  9. Draft up your first adventure. Make sure to get immersed in your Core Story right away, and try to introduce your major threats, major supporting cast, and socio-cultural stuff early on, and in easily digestible pieces.

Here is an example of a nuclear-winter setting I whipped up using these guidelines.  A friend used the same format to design a futuristic dystopian allegory (based on the DMZ comic book by Brian Wood).

Here is my attempt to catch up on the Tavis White Box campaign:

  1. Look and Feel – lighthearted picaresque fantasy farce.  Emotional influences include The Dying Earth and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
  2. High Concept – It’s a half-civilized barbaric wilderness, and in the center of it are the Caverns of Thracia, a holy site dedicated to a vanished culture, now overrun by generations of freakish half-human oddities.
  3. Core Story – Players are lovable misfits who delve into the Caverns of Thracia seeking treasure, striking faustian bargains with the monstrosities therein and slaying monsters when necessary.  Much carnage ensues.
  4. Rules – OD&D + player-created classes + bizarre hit point rules + drunk-friendly ability modifier rules
  5. Socio-Cultural Stuff – There are the Churches of Law and Chaos, a Syndicate of Wizards, a Thieves Guild, and a long-lost throne.
  6. Supporting Cast – Celerion the Eagle-Charioteer, Bassianus the Half-Orc Merchant-Gangster, Patriarch Zekon, the Verdant Paladin (deceased), the Ninth Menegril of the Nameless City, Philomena the Enchantress.  (This list is just about too long.)
  7. Major Threats – the Beast Lord, the Gynarch, Evil High Priestess Maxielle, Ashur-Ram the Necromancer, Patriarch of the Dark One (deceased, thanks to the genius of Maldoor).
  8. Map – Outdoor Survival Guide
  9. Intro Adventure – Caverns of Thracia, by Paul Jacquays

Easy enough!  The hard part, for a newcomer, is working out the relationships between items 5, 6 and 7 – but this comes with time.  The absolutely crucial thing for a brand-new player, namely figuring out how to play this campaign in the first place, is all about the synergy between between items 1-4, which for most D&D games will be very similar.  (Late 1980’s 2e campaign worlds differ considerably on High Concept, but the other items are in broad agreement and I suspect play style didn’t vary too terribly much.)


Zolobachai’s Wagon and Azagar’s Book of Rituals

Going to Limbo and breaking the dimensional barrier can have strange effects. For James’ PC Arnold Littleworth to be transported from the White Sandbox to Glantri is a giant step for a man, to be sure. But from the perspective of the gods who dice with the lives of such mortals, the distance between two campaigns run in the same city with the same extended group of players using editions published seven years apart is not so huge.

With the impending publication of Goodman Games’ Azagar’s Book of Rituals, however, Arnold has accomplished the transition to an edition published twenty-seven years later, where his legend (or at least that of his alias, Zolobachai of the Nine Visions) will spread through those gaming groups all over the world who have the discernment and modest financial means necessary to acquire this mighty grimoire of rituals and include one of them, Zolobachai’s Wagon, in their campaign. Or, as James put it:

First I breach the dimensions into Glantri, then I breach the dimensions into the real world!!!
I have to retire the character now. It would all just be downhill from here. (I suppose I need to cast my newly researched spell first, just to be able to boast about it. But then: retirement.)

Some thoughts:
1) James is rightly stoked, as am I. I remember well how awesome it was when I first discovered that names like Melf and Mordenkainen weren’t just evocative color added to the descriptions of AD&D spells, but actual players in Gygax and Kuntz’s Greyhawk campaign. I am pleased to be able to create such connections between the bones of D&D’s published ephemera and the actual play that is its beating heart.

2) Such connections are all too rare. I’m currently working on my eleventh professional D&D writing assignment, and this is the first time that I’ve been able to draw direct inspiration from a campaign I’ve been part of. There are many pressures that push what happens in RPG writing away from what happens at the table, which I’ll perhaps enumerate in a later post; this one is to celebrate that those pressures can be overcome. Or at least partially, for:

3) The transition from play to print distorts. In the game so far, Zolobachai’s wagon is not a magical conveyance of spectral force but a mundane (if gaudily painted) wooden cart. The most memorable appearance of the wagon in play was heroic but decidedly un-magical: Arnold drove it into the swamp of the Lost City so that he could creep through its interior and gain the element of surprise when he emerged to brain a lizardman with a frying pan. And while Arnold has in fact been researching a new spell during his carouse in Limbo, he should rightly be considered the creator of Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation; the wagon-creating ritual is a piece of fakery at worst or flattery at best by another would-be wonder-worker who has seen fit to adopt the mighty name of Zolobachai. It might be that this is always the way of things – at GaryCon II I will be sure to ask Melf whether he did in fact invest game time in inventing a spell to hurl an acid arrow at his foes.

I’d love to be able to include Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation, as well as the many other inventions of my fellow players that are worthy of game-book immortality, in a future Azagar’s Second Book of Rituals. To help make that happen, rush out and buy the first one and tell your game-store owners and Joseph Goodman that you want more like it!

Past Adventures of the Mule

June 2021

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