Friday, December 4, 2009

My Second Campaign Setting: Get Real

Early into my senior year at Walla Walla High School, in September or early October 1983, Cathy Couch decided I would make a nice addition to the group of friends she was creating, so she sought me out and recruited me.

Her timing was excellent. Several of my SAD&D gaming friends were in the year ahead of me and had just graduated and left Walla Walla, so my gaming group was suddenly smaller. Cathy reconnected me with Linda Yaw (who I had met in Spanish class in tenth grade but never gamed with before), introduced me to Ron Richardson, Chris Wilke, Wayne Burley, Mike Gilbreath, Mark Mulkerin, Cecily Fuhr, Angela Marks, and others, and brought me together with my future wife Beverly Marshall. (On October 17th Beverly and I began dating. We've been together twenty-six years.)

Cathy's group was independent of the SAD&D gaming community (at least until Cathy and Peter became an item a year or two later), so the group she brought me into played at far more normal power levels and more vanilla rules. More importantly, she emphasized character role-playing, and stories often turned on the basis of character interactions rather than monsters slain or treasure found. Certainly there was plenty of standard-fare adventuring, but the additional element of human drama forced me to develop as a player and as a DM.

The cosmic powers in Dagorëa thus became a background tapestry, and the new stories began to emphasize low-power PCs at the beginning of their careers facing unusual situations.

During my SAD&D years part of my campaign stock-in-trade had become a combination of cosmic struggles and immersive sensory detail, describing scenes in enough detail that players could visualize their characters' experiences and thus get more emotionally involved in the events themselves. With the epic scale removed to the background in my post-SAD&D years, the immersion, the detail, the verisimilitude became my DMing obsession.

I got better and better at bringing a scene to life, sometimes to the benefit of the game, sometimes to its detriment as a distraction or an imprudent end in itself.

At its best, this focus on setting produced amazing adventure sequences like the time Ron's character Arhíriel had to escape an enraged dragon by leaping from its nest atop an icy mile-high spire and then sky-diving without a parachute through the winter air and arranging to survive by landing just right in a deep alpine lake. It took all Ron's ingenuity as a player to work out how to survive this astonishing sequence of events, but in the end, with dislocated shoulders, cut feet, broken bones, a broken nose, black eyes, frostbite, and nearly drowned, Arhíriel could nevertheless look up afterward from her shelter beneath the snow-blanketed boughs of a fir tree, up the impossibly high and sheer spire of rock, to see the dragon circling far, far above. Afterward, Ron and I both chortled with glee at how cool that session was. I can still see it clearly in my mind to this day.

At its worst, a new character we'd spent an hour putting together would fall into a river during a rainstorm and lose all her possessions fifteen minutes into the game - all lovingly described in vivid detail but not actually any fun to play. Sorry, Beverly; my bad.

The other tool of immersion I learned by playing with Cathy's group was more of an unalloyed good: how to develop and run compelling non-player characters. It had always been a weakness of mine, but playing in campaigns that emphasized character interaction - plus actually socializing myself with this new group of friends - finally taught me by example what makes conversations and other social interactions fun. I practiced turning these lessons into good gaming material the usual way - by practicing over and over, making and running lots of bad NPCs until I'd made enough to learn from so I could finally began making less cliche, more interesting people.

By the middle of 1984 I'd worked out the art of making NPCs so engaging that I could hook the players into adventures just through social interaction alone. I knew I'd arrived when Ron and Beverly grieved over the tragic death of the NPC Bulano, a ranger who had been Arhíriel's mentor and Tinaelin's friend. Beverly actually wrote him an elegy. Likewise, although it was inconvenient, I recognized that when Tinaelin ended her association with Arhíriel because Ron's character blasphemed against Tinaelin's goddess, it meant my campaign finally had such compelling social interactions that the characters were more interesting than the monsters and adventures, a degree of social realism completely impossible for me to achieve only a few years before.

If it sounds like I'm bragging or describing a triumphant march of progress, then I'm telling this all wrong. It's embarrassing to reflect upon and describe just how socially backward I was for so long, or how grandly shallow my adventures were. For a long time my adventures had to be cosmic and wildly original because I was incapable of engaging my players with anything less overtly interesting than that, like a bad novelist who can't create drama without putting women and children in danger or whose villains are always threatening the existence of all life in the universe in order to try to keep the audience's attention. I was such a slow learner. But I have to describe these things to characterize Dagorëa, because above all it was my most important setting for learning how to DM well.

By 1986 I'd worked out most of the fundamentals. I wasn't yet a great DM, but after years of practice and study I'd finally reached the point in my gaming career where I was often a good DM. Intermixed with the occasional dud, I ran a lot of entertaining adventures.

Unfortunately for Dagorëa, success bred failure. I outgrew it. My passion for realism grew into a demand that my first true campaign setting, created so early in my life in such epic, erratic, implausible gestures, could never meet. Over the next few years I DMed adventures set there less and less often until in 1989 I bid farewell to Atlantis, Dagorëa, all its history, and all its dynasties of characters for a new, wild, fantastic, original setting I would create from scratch: geography, biology, languages, writing systems, and all.

At the same time, I decided my RPG rules weren't realistic enough either, so I also bid farewell to D&D, AD&D, and SAD&D in favor of the hot new thing in RPG rule systems, Steve Jackson's Generic Universal Role Playing System, better known as GURPS.

I thought these changes were unique to me, that I was making a personal decision to introduce more realism in my game based on my individual development as a DM and a player, but I was unconsciously part of a mass migration. In the late eighties, at the same time many new DMs were coming to AD&D for the first time, many experienced DMs were leaving it for skill-based systems, which we all thought were more advanced and realistic. As the crowd roared in Monty Python's Life of Brian, "We're all individuals!" Or as Oscar Wilde said, "Most people are other people."

So, in 1989, for the sake of realism, I created my third campaign setting, Nia Revo.


  1. Rick, I am enjoying the history lesson here on how your gaming developed. We entered gaming at the same time, but at different ages (you were younger, I was in high school when introduced to D&D in the late 70s). We have a lot of parallels but many differences also, no one in my circle of Texas/DFW gamers was concerned with world building, it was all about the adventure itself. The official TSR style of tournament type adventures and Village of Hommlet type mini-settings dominated our gaming during the 70s and well through the 80s (with every campaign taking place, of course, in the World of Greyhawk). Anyway, nice to read a completely different type of game evolving at exactly the same time!

  2. Badmike, I'm glad to hear you're enjoying the posts. I used to think no one but my gaming group would be interested in how this all came about, but the more I've read on other blogs and forums the more interested I've become in different play styles and the different ways people have got into gaming.

    Thus, I thought it was only fair to put my cards on the table before getting into more current events, so my readers would have some context to understand the reasons behind our current campaign setting.

    I still have very warm feelings about the TSR tournament style of play and especially about all those classic modules, TSR, JG, and others. I'm not surprised your gaming circle was able to stick with that style sustainably without getting caught up in the distraction of worldbuilding. I hope to do some posts about the classic modules in the near future. That's where my gamers and I started, too, so pulling out a copy of C1 or Tegel Manor still feels like coming home.

  3. Interesting to read about the stuff that happened after I left Walla Walla for UCLA.

  4. Hi Rick,
    Being one of your older players in your world. I just remember a few things. The movie that played everytime we played, Excalibur and of coarse ohhh, on the tip of my tongue with Rutger Hauer changeing into a wolf. ummm, smile It gets bad not to know being a movie person. lolol. I could look it up on the internet. lolol. Yes, I love being a part of you, ron, linda. You all changed my life with your values, human nature approach to life. Love, Honesty. The discussions were always live and full of hope. Yep, You changed me in ways I will never forget and honor. It is now and always will be a part of my life. Umm, I'll keep reading my friend. Thanks for the invite.
    Mr. Bob

  5. Thank you, Bob. The feeling is mutual.

    And the movie you're thinking of is Ladyhawke.