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!