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...


  1. Great stuff, Benoist! I'll be adding you to my feed reader.

  2. Thanks! Glad you enjoy it! :-)

  3. Thanks, J. I'm sure I'm going to use it sooner or later. I just don't know when!