Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Building the Sandbox

After thinking about running a campaign to the roots of gaming and considering the various possibilities offered to me for a while, I finally settled for the World of Greyhawk as our backdrop. Just as I wanted to use the Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) rules and let the game system shape itself organically, from actual play, I knew I wanted to make the game world our own, through and through.

This meant I wouldn’t try to run an official, “canon” version of the World of Greyhawk, but instead would create my own setting by picking and choosing among the many offerings of the 1983 boxed set. Along with other game elements from outside sources I would want to use in such a campaign, I would rearrange all these bits and pieces into a coherent, workable whole that would entertain us by providing a large, open-ended background for the game.

What applies to rules, I thought, must apply to the setting as well.

One of the characteristic aspects of vintage gaming to me is what many aficionados of the game call “the sandbox campaign”. The idea stems from the realization that the game isn’t about telling stories, or narratives, or anything of that sort. The game is about actual, if fictional, events as they occur, experienced by the players as they immerse themselves into their characters’ roles. The “story” here is a consequence of game play, the stuff you can talk about to your buddies once the game has been played.

The idea of the Jade Lantern here is just a component of a much larger environment which may be explored by the players’ characters (PCs), or not at all. It’s not up to me, the Dungeon Master (DM), to force the players to investigate this or that mystery of the game world, but rather to react to their decisions, whatever they may be.

This is why so many adventure modules were based on locations, and their keyed descriptions thereof, rather than laundry lists of events which could, would, or should occur if the PCs decided to do this or that during the game.

The direct application of this principle on the scale of the entire game world itself is the notion of a sandbox, a large area centered around the PCs that they can explore to their hearts’ content, whenever they please, however they please. In practice, this means the PCs start somewhere, at a point X on a map. From there, they can go North, South, East or West, and explore the setting. It’s an open world, a completely free, unscripted game experience, which I believe brings about the best out of role-playing game sessions.

With all this in mind, I picked up some hex graph paper and, using the original Greyhawk maps, started to craft the campaign setting.

First, I took the East Mark as depicted in Castle Zagyg, vol. 1 – Yggsburgh and blended it with the Greyhawk area of the 1983 boxed set. It was like fitting two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together, rounding out edges where they didn’t exactly fit, in some areas, and just letting my imagination run wild and draw whatever came to mind, in some others. I ended up with a fair idea of what the resulting geographical landmarks would look like: rivers, lakes, forests, swamps, hills and mountain ranges. A few surprising elements came up from this process, like for instance the presence of a gulf very similar to the Morbihan I always wanted to use in a medieval setting.

I then placed adventure locations on the map, the goal being to provide possibilities of delves and exploration wherever the PCs decided to go. Some came from other game resources, like Rappan Athuk and Bard’s Gate from Necromancer Games, Clydwell Keep from Paizo, Castle Whiterock from Goodman Games, Brindenford from Monte Cook’s DungeonADay website, and more. Other locations were of my own design, like the Oerthwound (though the name is obviously inspired by Golarion’s Worldwound), the Black Abbey (my own megadungeon project), the Sunken City or the village of Aradon (which is a direct translation of my father’s childhood town in Bretagne, France, along the shore of the Morbihan Gulf I talked about earlier).

Progressively, the Greyhawk area became “my” Dunfalcon area, a region ripe for adventure and exploration.

Once I was done with the map’s hand-drawn design and shaded the various areas with pencils, I scanned it and coloured it all using Photoshop, placed standardized icons for the various locations and landmarks I depicted, and finally added all the names, designations, scale and other components the map required to be complete.

This is the final result:

I now had a complete sandbox. All I needed at this point was a starting point, a base situation for the game to begin. This would be my next step.

Post Scriptum (October 08, 2009): While discussing this setting at the Knights & Knaves Alehouse, the scale of the original East Mark and its adaptation to my Dunfalcon map brought up some interesting facts and comparisons.

The original East Mark fold-up map included Castle Zagyg, vol. 1 Yggsburgh had no scale included, whereas the Players' maps, later released as an electronic document on the Troll Lord Games website, did indicate one hex equals 1.5 miles. This is in direct contradiction with the landmark references in the original text of the book, which basically imply that one hex equals 1 mile. The corresponding area on the Dunfalcon map I drew is much larger, with about 1 hex of the original Yggsburgh map equating to about 2 miles of the Dunfalcon setting.

In other words, according to the text of the Yggsbugh volume, Darlene's East Mark is about 33 x 50 miles, while the scale included on the Players' electronic version results in the same area being about 50 x 70 miles. The corresponding area on my Dunfalcon map is about 70 x 100 miles.

It's also worth noting that, while trying to retrofit the East Mark within the Greyhawk area, I contemplated the possibility of greatly increasing the scale of the overall map. I was thinking of one hex = 10 miles, originally, but was unsure about the results. I actually had to superimpose a map of Eastern France on the original Greyhawk map to realize the full scale of it all, and finally decided against any further modification of its scale, thus keeping one hex = 6 miles for the final map you can see here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Jade Lantern

Spoiler alert: If you are a player of the upcoming campaign discussed here, please do not read any further. This will completely spoil the fun of the game for you. You have been warned.

After I’ve discussed the basic premises of the campaign with the potential players, I usually need to let this all mature and work itself out. I wouldn’t write about it, wouldn’t really try to structure anything just yet, but would rather write down ideas, bits and pieces of inspirations that would allow me later to have a clear idea of where I’d want to go with the campaign.

In this instance, I already had a clear idea of the setting. I knew the game would be run with the vicinity of Greyhawk and Yggsburgh in my own Oerth. I knew I wanted to use elements of DungeonADay and my own designs through the Black Abbey of St. Yessid.

Since Nerissa created an Oriental character, and since she was disappointed that I wouldn’t use Oriental Adventures straight out of the box, I knew I would have to bring a strong Oriental flavour into a very medieval version of the Flanaess. I knew I couldn’t just blend the two. The result would just have weakened both components of the campaign by fusing them into an unrecognizable whole, which was completely at odds with my original goals to experience a vintage gaming experience (1).

I needed a way to actually make both settings coexist into a single campaign. The fact that I had thought of using Oriental components into my layout of the Black Abbey through an old, evil mandarin raised from the dead in the depths of the earth after being smuggled there by pirates a long, long time ago provided me with the seed I needed.

Somehow, the actual overarching quest of the game would be linked with that original lost mandarin buried within the dungeons of the Black Abbey. Rather than a simple goal, however, I wanted the Oriental flavour to carry the campaign in the medieval setting of the Flanaess.

This is when I thought of the Jade Lantern, an artefact that would allow the user to be transported to an alternate plane of existence, some sort of Oriental pocket or demi-plane, to be more precise. There, the spirit of the mandarin would be trapped out of existence. He would seek whoever entered the demi-plane and try to use the visitors as vehicles through the material plane to make the conditions of his literal reincarnation happen.

How would it happen? Who was this lost mandarin I kept writing about?

I would read through game materials of Oriental Adventures, look through Asian myths and legends and would never quite find what I was looking for. This is then, when it seemed like I had to come up with a completely made-up character on my own, that I thought about Lo Pan.

I suppose many of you have seen John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. The adventures of Jack Burton in Chinatown would ultimately pit him against an undying, incorporeal noble who would have been cursed by Qin Shi Huang, the First Sovereign Emperor of China, to live between worlds until he could marry a woman with green eyes.

Though I didn’t have to stick in any way with the movie’s plot, this provided me with enough material to decide to use Lo Pan straight away. He would make a great bad guy, certainly could be shaped into whatever I wanted him to be in a D&D Oerth context. Both Swords & Wizardry's Ruins & Ronins and the original Oriental Adventures would provide me with all the mechanical support I would need. I am covered in that regard.

I’m still not sure what exact components will be needed to allow Lo Pan to come back to the material plane, but whatever they are, the players will need to travel to all the locations I originally wanted to use in the campaign.

I intend to use the Jade Lantern, or rather to let it be used by the players, as a gateway to a neutral ground where they can get advice, side-quests and other experiences in an Oriental setting. This means, of course, that if this is indeed Lo Pan’s prison, and if the players meet him from the get-go, the mandarin will first try to look like an ally and manipulate the characters into helping him.

Maybe the discovery of each of the actual components necessary to Lo Pan’s reincarnation could trigger some other, yet similar access to other realms of existence and other side-quests associated to them. The main reason to spawn such side-effects and side-quests would be to not have the Jade Lantern itself constitute some sort of deus ex machina of the campaign, or a bottleneck of the adventures' design. I don't want the PCs to ever "have to" use the Jade Lantern but to instead feel compelled to do so by the very allure of the Lantern itself.

I’m still debating what these quest components necessary for Lo Pan's resurrection would be. As you can see, the actual brainstorming is still going on. If you have any idea, or input to share with me, by all means do so by commenting on this entry! Who knows what we could come up together?

In the meantime, I’ll keep writing down all the ideas that come to mind and shape them into an actual workable campaign frame.

(1) - Interestingly enough, working with Oriental components in a campaign attempting to reach back the roots of gaming actually is very much in tune with the evolution of the game, as far as Oriental Adventures are concerned, especially from a French perspective. One of the prime individuals who would make OA happen would be François Marcela Froideval, who would later create the French magazine Jeux & Stratégie which itself would later morph into Casus Belli, a landmark on the French gaming scene by all accounts.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Campaign Wish List

I believe one important step in campaign-building consists in an exchange of thoughts and wishes between players and referee. It is the only way to communicate in the clearest of terms what the game will be about, and what the players can get out of it.

It is a win-win situation for the referee.

First, it allows him to know how to reach a certain level of satisfaction from the other participants, and through it, what kind of challenges, and thus entertainment, are required for the game at hand.

Second, it promotes the idea that the campaign is a collaborative effort, and not solely the result of the referee’s imagination. In other words, the campaign before it even starts isn’t the referee’s game, but the group’s game. This is, I believe, central to the idea of role-playing games.

Third, it helps frame the campaign’s original concept into a workable whole, a template from which the game’s components will naturally spring to life.

Case in point: the game I am about to start with Nerissa, my better half, is going to be a Greyhawk campaign combining elements of Castle Greyhawk, Castle Zagyg, DungeonADay, as well as my own designs, through the Black Abbey of Saint Yessid, at the very least.

I know I want to be able to forge my own Greyhawk and not play someone else’s. This means all published Greyhawk materials are sources of inspirations, and not sources of canon. There is no canon in this campaign but mine.

The same logic applies to the game’s system. I want to be able to craft the rules as we go, and in so doing, to get the most out of it. I want to reach back to the roots of the game and make it mine. This is what entices me to use Swords & Wizardry (which truly is a combination of the 1974 original rules and some selected elements of Supplement I: Greyhawk) and build from the ground up.

Nerissa created a character for the Pathfinder role-playing game system back when I was working on Nall-Morrain. Our intention is to just convert the character’s concept into OD&D mechanics. This character, Pei Lin, is of Oriental decent. As I was perusing through AD&D’s Oriental Adventures, Nerissa was enthused at the idea of playing an Oriental campaign. When I told her this was at odds with my campaign goals (the spatial goal of playing within the Free City’s vicinity and all these dungeons I had in mind, namely), she looked sort of disappointed.

This alone pushed me to work on a way to use Oriental Adventures with a pure medieval Greyhawk, to get them to complement each other’s feel rather than blend them. I will talk a lot more about the Oriental components of this campaign later, so forgive me as to the teaser nature of this particular point.

Nerissa wants her character to travel, to experience the world, not only within a dungeon’s confines, but through journeys, outdoors exploration and the like. This goes against a single megadungeon’s approach. She wants some dungeon exploration and wants to kick butt, however. This, to me, suggests a blend of outdoors vs. dungeons, or rather, a journey between dungeons to fulfill an overarching goal or quest.

During one of the many conversations we had about this potential campaign, Nerissa told me she would like it to feature puzzles, dungeon exploration, some NPCs interactions and ways to use her thievery skills. Her original Pathfinder character is a rogue, and I do not want to make her choose between restricting options in a Swords & Wizardry environment - I would rather have her experience the minimalist approach of the rules through the game first rather than force it onto her before it even starts. This is why I plan on adopting a thief character class for this game from the get-go.

The “puzzle” component is interesting in the sense that Nerissa points out here that she wants to be challenged as a player, not a character. As Hercule Poirot would put it, she wants to have to use her little grey cells, which blends nicely with my vintage gaming aims, in that the players are just as much, if not more, challenged than the characters.

NPC interactions imply opportunities for such like inns, caravans, ship crews and the like while the thievery skills imply obstacles such as locks, chests, doors, cliffs/walls to climb as well as situations to charm, pick pockets, hide and sneak. The kicking butt component means just that: combat situations, occasions to just stick it to the adversaries, which rules out heavily investigative scenarios.

It’s actually quite shocking what you can grasp from a few exchanges between referee and players before any campaign elements have been designed. This provides some pointers, aims, campaign elements which all will ultimately help reach this most elusive of goals: entertainment for everyone around the game table.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Town Cryer: Lost For Words

This has been a very long, straining week for various reasons I am now attempting to lay out for you and me. I needed some time to rest my mind and think about it all before I would come forward, add some contrast and perspective to the picture, and hopefully discern a pattern through this very writing.

It is not an easy thing to do when emotions rush back and forth over the substance of the message, but I am going to try anyway.

When last week I received an invitation to participate as an author to the Lords of the Green Dragons, I felt vindicated in my quest for answers, my thirst for knowledge as well as the opinions and tales I try to share with you on this blog. I both felt honored and terrified, like it is often the case when we cross a gateway and wonder whether we are worthy of the good feelings expressed towards us. These are times of doubt and ecstasy, times to be cherished because they are the substance of what it means to be alive.

When I learned within the next few hours that Dave Arneson had been sent to the hospital and was waging what would become his very last battle against cancer, I was deeply concerned and couldn't help thinking that, in my particular case, there was some sort of bittersweet irony to it all. I followed the events as they unfolded, reflecting on my situation in the light of Dave's passing and how I would not have been offered any of the opportunities handed to me for the last while if it hadn't been for his original ideas, his imagination and his work with E. Gary Gygax.

It couldn't ever be stressed enough, really. Without these giants' shoulders on which we all stand, millions of us would be lacking the imaginative outlets we've been enjoying for so many years. D&D and tabletop role-playing games, computer role-playing games, MMOs like World of Warcraft and others, hundreds if not thousands of volumes of fantasy fiction, all owe an enormous, undying debt to Dave and Gary's contributions to gaming.

If the impact of Dave's work and passion on my own, as well as their very existence, weren't hard enough for me to seize in a tragic moment such as this, the Coastal Wizards' latest blunder when they simultaneously stopped all sales of their products in electronic format sure made it a lot more complicated during these last few days.

It is obvious that there was no connection whatsoever between these two events, but I have to wonder if the stars aren't trying to tell us something in this instance. With all the vintage gaming material suddenly becoming harder to obtain and peruse, it now befalls to us more than ever to keep the flame alive.

I think of it this way: before this week's events, we were working on keeping the games we love in print and building upon their legacy so that others could profit from the entertainment they provide. This has not changed. What has changed, however, is that today these gamers interested in vintage gaming will not be able to discover these games we honor like we were. Sure, there are still some second-hand items available for purchase, but for how long, and how much?

Let's face it: our responsibilities suddenly became a lot more important to the very survival of vintage gaming itself and through it, the legacy of the creators of the game.

We need to keep the flame alive. Dave and Gary deserve it, and to tell you all the truth, I wonder more than ever if I am worthy of this task. Time will tell, ultimately, but I know I am far from being alone in thinking about all this. I know I am not alone in feeling this call of duty, and this is a comforting thought indeed.

Here's to you, Dave. Farewell, and Godspeed.

From the Gate of Kings the North Wind rides, and past the roaring falls;
And clear and cold about the tower its loud horn calls.
'What news from the North, O mighty wind, do you bring to me today?
What news of Boromir the Bold? For he is long away.'
'Beneath Amon Hen I heard his cry. There many foes he fought.
His cloven shield, his broken sword, they to the water brought.
His head so proud, his face so fair, his limbs they laid to rest;
And Rauros, golden Rauros-falls, bore him upon its breast.'
'O Boromir! The Tower of Guard shall ever northward gaze
To Rauros, golden Rauros-falls, until the end of days.'

- JRR Tolkien, The Lament of Boromir.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Campaign Genesis, Take Two: Crusade & Epiphany

One excellent thing, besides the OGL, that came out of the 3rd edition years is a new generation of products putting the emphasis back on the gaming table. The play’s the thing, and many products want you, players of the game, to take a module or setting and make it your own. There’s been a relative de-emphasis on “this game ought to be played that way”, and more of “this could be used this or that way in your campaign”.

This certainly was partly consequential of 3rd edition’s “back to the dungeon” mantra, and surely, early actors of the “old-school” scene like Necromancer Games, Goodman Games or the Troll Lords, and even other publishers like Green Ronin (via the Freeport series, for instance) and Malhavoc Press participated to this phenomenon (Monte Cook often speaks of the importance of modules and adventures for the game, and his designs constantly stress the role of the DM as the final arbiter of what would be appropriate or not at his game table).

In hindsight, these concepts influenced me greatly when I came up with the idea of a Black Abbey of Saint Yessid, which in turn kicked off my return to the roots of the game along with my come-back to the Internet. As I wrote random thoughts in my diary of the Summer of 2008 I would constantly go back to the Mont St. Michel and how it could be used as a dungeon microcosm.

A massive monastery on top of a narrow island surrounded by an entire village and micro-economy presented all the requirements for a dungeon delve: the monastery could hide an entrance to underground levels within the island and beyond, the village would provide the basic necessities of visiting adventurers, the monks themselves could be used for a host of character interactions, and the list went on. It was as if this place begged to be used as a gaming template.

As I started conceptualizing the dungeon environment, I found myself reaching to landmarks of the genre such as the Ruins of Castle Greyhawk, Undermountain, Rappan Athuk, Castle Whiterock and others.

The idea clearly was to share this dungeon setting with others. To this end, I thought of ways in which I would present the design with an eye for maximum versatility and adaptability at a DM’s game table. I wanted a sort of micro-Ptolus with a Gygaxian approach avoiding the natural pitfalls of modern campaigns such as plot points, railroading and narrow tactical situations. I wanted Lego-elements presented in a straightforward, direct-to-the-DM fashion. A conversational tone which would not take the DM for some sort of uneducated, incompetent and/or lazy individual, a Temple of Elemental Evil spelling out ways in which to use it as a base for decades of gaming.

Talk about ambition.

Later in the year I acquired Castle Zagyg vol. 2, The Upper Works and was blown away by the general feel of the product. Along with vol. 1, Yggsburgh, it was presenting to me clearly, black on white, the sort of tone I wanted to achieve.

From there, I would reconsider using Castles & Crusades and would research as much as I could about the origins of the Castle. This would obviously lead me back to Castle Greyhawk and the original Lake Geneva campaign.

This is around this time that I would get back to the Internet and find out about Greyhawk Grognard, Grodog’s Greyhawk, which would in turn lead me, along with various discussions on message boards, to Pied Piper Publishing and Rob Kuntz’s Lord of the Green Dragons.

That’s when all the pieces really started to fall into place. I would come back to the idea of running games with my better-half with a new eye for something I have been missing for years in my gaming: enchantment. I liked (and still like) C&C a lot, but would find myself house-ruling from the get-go, mainly because of instances of dissociated game mechanics with class abilities and math/design issues with its SIEGE components.

As I read more and more about the Lake Geneva campaign, the idea of making the game my own, of taking the simplest expression of the game and rebuild it from the ground up to my liking made its way in my writings. I would have a second look at the original booklets and their supplements and find that my appreciation had evolved over time. This was not a complete game. This was a tool, a gate to build my own game.

With this simple realization I would read through the World of Greyhawk and think to myself: “if the rules-as-written are the gateway to my own game system, what if I treated Greyhawk not as a complete setting, but as a gateway to my own setting?”

Writing this now I realize how it might seem obvious to many of you, but at the time these thoughts struck me powerfully and initiated a full-blown epiphany on my part. I had already created a new map mixing different setting elements to play with Nerissa, but with these thoughts in mind would just go back to the vicinity of Greyhawk and decide to use the Flanaess from there.

I would find an appropriate location for the Black Abbey on the shores of Nyr Dyv’s Midbay (hex. A4-118), plug Yggsburgh at the confluence of the Ery and Neen rivers (hex. D4-84) and Chordille Keep (from between the two (hex. C4-82). I strongly doubt all these locations will be visited during the course of the solo games I’m planning, but it is part of the process of making sense of Oerth for myself.

This is where I am now, in a nutshell. I will of course explore the evolution of these ideas through this blog. The Black Abbey itself will be discussed at length, as well as the way I mesh Nerissa’s desires with the way I’d like the campaign to work out for myself. There’ll be much more to come, but there you have it: how I reached this point in time, and from there, what I hope to accomplish in the near future with my gaming.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Town Cryer: Rejecting the "Old-School"

Where I introduce the Town Cryer and through it expose some of my own opinions about various topics relevant to the Citadel of Eight.

I've never been fond of the term "old-school" and couldn't really put my finger on the reason. I knew it had to do with a strict adherence to the rules and what some consider to be the "one true game", be it Original Dungeons & Dragons, Holmes D&D, AD&D or any combination/other edition thereof.

Something was out of place. I would often find myself writing down thoughts about it but could never quite put my finger on it, so to speak. I believe this is ultimately what pushes me to use the original rules of 1974 for my own campaign.

Today, EN Shook over at Lord of the Green Dragons posted a fascinating piece of insight about how an "old school movement" would ultimately fall on its face due to the unavoidable fundamentalism it promotes. It's entitled "Old School vs. New School" and well worth a read.

This fundamentalism, this relative, subconscious zealotry Eric is talking about was present at the very foundation of what people call the "old school renaissance". Indeed, the very existence of the first retro-clone, OSRIC, owes quite a bit to the reservations fundamentalist gamers had against the Castles & Crusades game system when it was conceptualized. The "old-school movement" sustained itself via many gamers going through editions changes who, disenchanted and disheartened, finally decided to reach back to their roots. I guess I'm one of them. This is all fact: there's no denying it.

I think this kind of reactionary movement does have some good points to bring to the table, in the sense that it brings to our attention divergences from a spirit we would gradually forget in favor of more instantly gratifying, if erroneous, ways. But, in the same way revolutions and bloodshed led to the renaissance of the idea of democracy in the Western World some centuries ago, we should not succumb to extreme interpretations of our desires that would only lead us to stagnation and hypocritical ideals.

One of the fundamental idea at the core of this "old guard spirit" we are trying to seize, as I perceive it, is that the game itself is no more and no less than a gateway to fantasy and enchantment. Surely, in that spirit, getting back to the roots of the game helps us understand the ins and outs of what spawned our hobby, what its original aims were, and through them, how our own gaming can be more relevant to our lives.

As I wrote some time ago, D&D is just a game. If we dedicate years of our lives playing a game, if we really like it, we gradually invest ourselves in this game. In the end, the game itself ends up being the epicenter of a whole lot of things in our lives: we learned many things through it, met countless friends, maybe even a future loved one, accumulated miriads of fond memories, joined some groups or associations we wouldn't have otherwise known, contributed to its legacy, met opportunities through it we wouldn't have had any other way.

Whatever the case may be, the sum of all these things might explain why we feel invested with this game and the way it evolves. It quite literally becomes a part of ourselves.

This is partly why we feel so strongly about Dungeons & Dragons. We want to keep that part of ourselves alive. I think we can all agree to some degree. But here comes the hard part: what do we do with this part of ourselves? Which feelings within our souls do we want it to fuel? Is it nostalgia, self-pity, anger and despair, or is it vision, pride, hope and vitality leading to more constructive endeavors?

The choice ultimately is for each and every one of us to make. Personally, I hope we take all these wonderful tools given to us by other gamers, like Castles & Crusades, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry, Fight On! and Knockspell, and use them, not to recreate what's already been done, not to play tourists returning to shores which would have already been explored by others, but rather to create enchantment anew and reach new, unexplored regions like our forefathers did through this hobby.

This is ultimately what I feel my journey is about. I can only hope this somehow resonates with some of you so that together we might reach for the stars.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Citadel Watch:

First Watch: Where I introduce the Citadel Watch, i.e. entries which discuss and hopefully bring to your attention some of the websites, books and other sources of inspirations to my campaign and this blog in the form of reviews and general comments. If you would like me to discuss some of the sources brought up in other entries, please don't hesitate to post or email your suggestions. I shall happily oblige. (DAD for short) is a subscription-based website managed by the author of the 3rd edition Dungeon Master's Guide, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil and numerous titles under his own label, Malhavoc Press (among which such excellent OGL products as the Book of Eldritch Might and Ptolus), Monte Cook.

It offers the development of a megadungeon a few rooms at a time, along with numerous side-offerings, for any of the three subcription plans: $10 a month, $84 as a charter member (i.e. $7 a month until April 10, after which it's likely to become $96, $8 a month) or $27 for a quarterly subscription (i.e. $9 a month).

DAD is actually a pretty good offering for vintage gamers out there, since "Dragon's Delve", the dungeons buried under the ruins of Chordille Keep in the Fallen Duchy, basically is a megadungeon with huge vintage gaming undertones. The dungeons do have a history behind them the players may discover while plundering through their depths, and this history basically explains the presence of various groups and factions within the dungeon, but I could not find a "plot" per se, and by this I mean, Dragon's Delve isn't tainted by some overriding idea of how the game "ought to be played out". The play's the thing, like it was intended to be.

The site of adventuring itself isn't linked to any particular campaign milieu and makes it easy to use in your own games. If you can fit somewhere a fief that would have lost its ruler some time ago and would have later become a wild area for adventurers to explore, you're set.

I've been one of DAD's subscribers from the start, and after three weeks of offerings and some conversions to Castles & Crusades, I can safely tell you this dungeon is absolutely playable with any of the older editions of the game and corresponding "retroclones" without much of a challenge on the referee's part. Substitute a "Search Difficulty Class" for an astute search description from the players, a save for another appropriate save, a creature for its equivalent, and you are basically done.

DAD isn't "old-school" through and through, obviously. It is built with 3rd edition's rules in mind, and thus features scaled encounters and challenges appropriate for this or that level of adventurers, but nothing that couldn't be altered to fit a vintage game directly appealing to the players' tactical senses rather than the characters'.

The maps were designed by Ed Bourelle, who is a known artist to vintage gamers through his work for Necromancer Games, d20 Judges Guild products like the City State of the Invicible Overlord, and other well-known quantities of OGL gaming like Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire. I found his artwork to be very clear and well done in this instance. The colors are evocative, the mapping itself serves its function and also delivers an appropriate feel of the dungeon's features.

Another interesting feature comes from the fact DAD is sponsored by both Dwarven Forge and Reaper Miniatures. For each room's description, you get some pictures showing the area built using the DF props, and some propositions of miniatures to represent various NPCs and creatures of DAD at your game table. Interesting plus.

The dungeon is not the only offering you get access to while subscribing. You also can participate to the DAD community effort, where suggestions, discussions relative to the contents and website are more than welcome, and also get access to all sorts of conversions and add-ons by the fans themselves; you can read the "Dungeon Blog" where Monte Cook describes his design ideas and intents in building Dragon's Delve, as wells as various ideas about DMing in general; you get tons of handouts to be printed and given to the players at appropriate times of the dungeon's exploration; you get a podcast, photos and even videos to improve the playability of the whole thing. Add to this the obvious new magic items, monsters and so on and you get a really large panel of offerings bundled into one website.

It's also worth noting that DAD as a website puts these technologies into play to make the dungeon all the easier to use. The inclusion of hyperlinks to link to various NPCs, items, rooms/locations and the like is really helpful and brings the best out of the medium. I can also point out, as someone who's been trained in the field, that in pure terms of web-design this site does all the right things: it's clear, not charged with needless art (particularly as backgrounds and other components that would just make the site harder to load), easily accessible with a comprehensive navigation bar and numerous paths to find your way through it.

I find DungeonADay to be a fabulous resource for dungeon exploration. Either you use the whole thing along with its convoluted history, many twists and turns and so on, or you pick and choose areas or levels you'd like to use in your home dungeons. Since I am about to start a new campaign, this is a win-win situation for me, but more about this particular point later.

DungeonADay is an outstanding online product. If you find the whole idea of being inside the head of a designer as the design progresses, enjoy the opportunity of interacting with said designer directly in a community of fans who will help you out with your campaign, conversions and ideas, and most of all, if you enjoy megadungeons like I do, this is certainly a subscription to consider.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Campaign Genesis, Take One: Nall-Morrain

To understand where I am now as far as this next campaign is concerned, one needs to rewind to the lessons I learned from my first Praemal Tales campaign. One must understand that all the players involved were introduced to role-playing games through the Seven Spires.

When a few of these original players left the area where we live, I decided to launch the Praemal Tales. The relevant consequence here is that the players were not originally gamers, and thus had no predispositions as far as gaming was concerned. They did not think in terms of "what the game ought to be" but rather in pure terms of what was exciting and entertaining to them.

I must also point out that all the players of the Praemal Tales (besides yours truly) were female colleagues of my better-half, aka adult teachers themselves.

All this is particularly interesting when considering what, in the end, was really entertaining for them in a game of Dungeons & Dragons:

First, they liked to play their characters' interactions, so much so in fact that there were many asides when the campaign's main plot was discarded in favor of their characters' relationships. No surprise there, I would guess.

Second, they liked to kick butt, and by this I mean they really liked combat and action. They liked to kill stuff and take their stuff. They loved to roll dices with the universe. Now that's not really what we've come to expect from female gamers, I'd wager. To me, this strongly suggests that the stereotype of the delicate, artistic, plot-oriented female gamer is actually bogus through and through. That might be the subject of a later post.

Third, while the players enjoyed the dice-rolling tremendously, they didn't care that much for the intricacies of the game system and sometimes thought of it as an obstacle to the actual fun of playing the game. In other words, they really didn't care for what has now been dubbed "game system mastery", which made "ivory tower game design" completely moot at our game table - not because there was a concern for "game balance" (the balance of the game resulting from the actions undertaken within the game milieu itself and the cooperation of the participants around the game table, not from some sort of magical consequence of rules balance in a game book) but because the players actually did not care for character optimization beyond a certain point.

The conclusion seems clear enough: I didn't need a game system as convoluted as D&D's Third Edition to have fun with these players. It did show, however, that the players really liked the essence of D&D - the monster-bashing, treasure-seeking, dungeon-delving experience it primarily offers to its players. Surprisingly enough, the actual convergence of these facts with my desire to go back to the roots of the game wouldn't occur right away. It would take months for these clues to neatly fall into place and lead me to their natural conclusion.

Back when the Praemal Tales ended and the players left for other ventures in their daily-lives I was left with this very valuable feedback. Since both I and Nerissa, my better-half, wanted to still play the game somehow, I started thinking of a new campaign that would use this information and move the ball forward, so to speak.

All campaigns start with a few ideas about the kind of game one wants to run. For me, this is almost immediately followed by a discussion of these ideas with the potential players of the game. It helps create a climate of cooperation and understanding between me, the referee, and the rest of the game table, and instantly points out that I want as much feedback from them as I possibly can. Out of these first conversations with Nerissa one thing in particular struck me: she wanted her character to travel, wander in the wilderness and experience the outside world during the campaign.

This probably struck a chord with me because it basically respected the evolution of the Mentzer boxed sets of the 1980's from the dungeon environment of the Basic rules towards the great outdoors of the Expert add-ons to the game without her knowing anything about D&D prior to its Third Edition.

With all this in mind, I would start thinking about a setting. I wanted to keep running the game in Praemal, but the urban setting of Ptolus would obviously not do. I needed to pick a wilderness area within the world of Praemal that would fit Nerissa's needs and give me a taste of the vintage gaming I was craving. I went back to my Ptolus tome, searched for a convenient, inspiring area of the world, and ultimately found what I was searching for:

Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire, Chapter 2: The World.
Said to be haunted by the ghosts of the “first men,” icy Nall is a rough northerly forestland trapped between the Dragonsbirth Mountains to the west, the Grey Mountains to the east, and the Endless Sea of Ice to the north. The people of Nall are few but hardy. Most of them live in nomadic barbarian tribes, each ruled by a shaman woman. Some dwell in the depths of the Black Angel Forest or the Great North Woods. The small communities here are isolated, accustomed to living through the long winters without ever seeing anyone from another village or tribe.

The idea of a northern campaign would greatly appeal to me at the time. I wanted to put more of a medieval emphasis to it, and thus searched for some campaign element to add to this area. I finally selected Castle Whiterock, which I thought would bring an unmistakable vintage feel to the whole milieu, mixed the Praemal names with a few Gloranthan references, and also added some elements of the first campaign I ever played (T1-4, Temple of Elemental Evil).

While I was blending these elements, the Beta version of the Pathfinder role-playing game was the news. I would seriously consider running the campaign with it, would add a few locations from Paizo's Darkmoon Vale to the map, and would even generate Nerissa's character using these rules. I was attracted by its novelty and wanted to support the efforts of Paizo Publishing to keep the 3rd edition rules alive (I still do, but that's a different story).

I would come up with a hand-drawn map of the Nall-Morrain area, but in a matter of weeks, would completely abandon the project due to my ongoing arguments online about the Fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, as I explained in a previous entry of this blog. Months would come to pass before I would get back to the idea of a vintage campaign, and by then, my mind would have wandered to other game systems and settings more appropriate for what I intended this campaign to be...

Monday, March 23, 2009

How did the Citadel come about?

If there was such a thing as an "average" gamer, then I think I would embody the concept rather well.

I started role-playing in the 1980's with First edition AD&D, started running games using the French edition of Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye RPG, a German clone of the D&D Basic boxed set), and later ran and played dozens of different RPGs. Most notably? Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, Vampire: The Masquerade and other White Wolf games. Also some French-speaking games like In Nomine Satanis/Magna Veritas. I still really liked D&D, unlike most of my gaming friends of the time, but moved along with the fads as they did. My love of the game was put on the backburner during all these years, until Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd edition brought me back in the year 2000.

Some time during my 3rd edition period I became weary of the abundance of mechanics in modern game designs. I have to credit 3rd edition itself, Monte Cook, and the whole OGL movement for educating me tremendously about game and adventure design and in so doing, making me more self-conscious as to my game choices and preferences.

I guess the opportunity to share thoughts with E. Gary Gygax on various boards (he was very active and welcoming all manners of questions, comments and interactions before he passed), the publication of (so-labeled) "old-school" products by various publishers such as Necromancer Games, Goodman Games and Troll Lord Games, as well as the very existence of message boards like, the Acaeum or the Knights & Knaves alehouse, gradually pointed me in the direction of vintage gaming.

I would toy with the idea of running Castles & Crusades, the Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) game of 1974 I acquired from Monte Cook or the First Edition Advanced D&D (AD&D) game for some time until I finally decided it was time to let go of 3rd edition D&D and search for something that would prove to be a better fit for my gaming inclinations.

This decision wasn't made at a particular moment but rather gradually during a period of time following the announcement of the 4th edition of the D&D game. As the summer of 2007 unfolded, the Praemal Tales, my 3rd edition Ptolus campaign, had just come to a brutal end when most of the players left the island where I live for professional reasons.

As I perused through pages of 4th edition previews over the Internet, I realized this game was a complete departure from what I loved about the D&D game. I won't go into the details, since they are not the focus of this blog. Suffice to say that I wanted to love 4th edition enough to get involved in countless arguments on various message boards about what the game was and wasn't anymore. So much, in fact, that I soon realized my love of the game was irreconcilable with the Coastal Wizards' design.

I became so frustrated with this fact that I decided to step away from the Internet altogether. If I could not discuss about role-playing games like I used to, without getting upset in the process, then it was time for a break.

I took care of my life, explored other venues, but my passion for tabletop RPGs was still there, in the back of my mind. This went on for a few months, until the summer of 2008 and my trip back to France. There, visiting my family and friends, I picked up a new diary and started writing whatever came up to my mind. Soon enough, it became clear I was getting back to tabletop gaming, but the kind of games I was writing about seemed radically different.

On an impulse, I would grab a copy of the World of Greyhawk boxed set of 1983 on eBay and get really excited about it. I would start writing about the Mont St. Michel and how it could be used as the base of a megadungeon. I would remember my first game experiences and wonder how I could extract the essence that made them so exciting and, using the experience I accumulated over decades of running games, how I could move forward with it all.

Ironically, my computer died in the meantime. Back home, I was without Internet, without access to websites, messages boards, online stores to stir me into different directions. I was left with my own needs, wants and inclinations, and this allowed me to clear up my mind to some degree. It is when I finally acquired a new computer and attempted to catch up with everything that had been going on while away that my final doubts finally disappeared. The Flame was burning brighter than ever.

I finally had a sense of knowing where I was going.

I decided to reconnect with the vintage gaming communities out there. I applied for membership in the Castles & Crusades society. I acquired a copy of Castle Zagyg vol. 2 - The Upper Works. Monte Cook came up with his I found out about Pied Piper Publishing and reached out to Rob Kuntz, who I found was a very likable guy. To make a long story short, the stars were right.

This is how this Citadel of Eight came to be.

Now, it is time for me to make the most out of this opportunity and reconnect with what makes gaming the greatest passtime in the world to me. A craft I want to tend to, grow and cherish for many more years. All the tools and opportunities are there, ripe for me to seize. I just have to pick, choose, and make it all work out for me. That's what this blog is all about.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Welcome to the Citadel of Eight

For as long as I can remember, I have been playing role-playing games. I was introduced to the world of Dungeons & Dragons in the late 80's, when my much older cousin ran some games for my brother and his friends. I was deemed too young to play at the time, so I had to watch as the first game unfolded.

I could not know it at the time, but this was my cousin's own rendition of the D&D module T1 - The Village of Hommlet. During that first game session, my brother and his friends were exploring the catacombs under the town's cemetery. My brother, who was playing the adventuring party's magic user, soon found the game horribly boring and decided to stop playing altogether. He left the other players fending for their lives to their own devices.

I had been mesmerised by the tale spinned before my eyes. These guys were actually the heroes of a medieval fantasy... I just had to step in. Find a way to play. When my brother gave up abruptly and left the room, I knew this was an opportunity. I jumped to my feet and quite passionately begged my cousin to allow me to play my brother's magic user and join where he left.

I must have been quite persuasive because my cousin ultimately gave in to the idea. I played this wizard exploring catacombs with his dagger and light spell... I could hear the drops seeping one by one through the cracks of the stonework. I could smell the rot and stagnant mud all around. I couldn't see anything beyond a few feet as I waved my magical light. I was there. Somewhere where I was a hero in the making. The feeling was overwhelming. Ecstactic. I turned a corner... and got backstabbed by a skeleton waiting in the shadows.

The skeleton killed my character instantly.

That was my first role-playing game. I was hooked.

What exactly does it have to do with the Citadel of Eight? Well, this moment in many ways represents a place in space and time where role-playing wasn't so gamist, so complicated, so entangled in a miriad of rules, variants, and different games out there. I didn't know anything of role-playing games, and somehow, that's what at this precise moment made role-playing games feel so right to me.

The Citadel of Eight originally is the name of a group of adventurers from the very first D&D campaign ever. The Greyhawk campaign, or Lake Geneva campaign, included people who would make the game's earliest history and quite literally build it from the ground up. You might have heard the names of these (in)famous characters: Mordenkainen, Robilar, Bigby, Riggby, Yrag, Tenser, Serten and Otis.

Since the name could also be understood as a location instead of a group's denomination (the original name coming from Mordenkainen's Obsidian Citadel), I decided it would be a brilliant symbol of my own journey's ultimate destination, the rediscovery of my own gaming roots, of this moment in time when role-playing games made the most sense to me.

This blog is intended to be a testimony and a reminder, a trace relating this journey as it unfolds. It is not about some objective definition of what "old-school" gaming may or may not be, though I surely would be able to elaborate on a personal definition of the term. I leave this debate to other experts and pundits to discuss. No. This is about what "my" old-school, my RPG home, so to speak, is all about.

This blog's header (the gray hawk and shield above) is a symbol of this journey as well. Currently used by Pied Piper Publishing as the logo for the original Lake Geneva campaign, I added my own arms to the shield to symbolize that, even while I search for the origins of this hobby, what this quest truly is about is for me to reconnect with my own, personal roots and being.

Here I go on my way. The Quest has just begun. As I document the twists and turns of this journey you will hopefully find food for thoughts, enlightenment, and most importantly, entertainment in your daily lives.

Simply put, I just hope you enjoy the ride!