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.