Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My Second Campaign Setting: SAD&D

The summer of 1981, much to my surprise, my brother Rob and I moved abruptly from Seattle (me) and New York (him) to Walla Walla to live with our mom. This move was very good for Rob, who'd already been uprooted from Seattle the year before to move with our dad to New York, a move that disrupted his life and traumatized him. Moving to Walla Walla was a great relief for him. For me at the time it was a more ambivalent and problematic change. Although there were many good things about the move, like living with mom, Rob, our younger brother Tom, and a great many pets, it cut me off from my step-mother, my friends, my gaming group, my girlfriend, my karate dojo and sensei, and the city and surrounding wilderness I'd grown up in and around all my life.

Although many good things about my family and about Walla Walla eased our transition, D&D itself especially helped. Rob and I played regularly, so we gradually found the other Walla Walla players. First, at Walla Walla High School, I found John Boen, Frank Beeson, Wade Hilmo, Todd Lincoln, Lea Rush, Danny Barer, and others. John and Frank helped me find the larger and more serious Walla Walla gaming community, people like J.J. Hays, Bob McSwain, Jr., Roger Rojo, Peter Adkison, C.J. Jones, Russ Woodall, Chris Van Hooser, and many many more. These gamers and I would later form the Northwest Dungeon Masters' Association, a precursor to Wizards of the Coast.

Somehow, partly because of the three colleges in such a small town and partly for reasons I still don't quite understand to this day, Walla Walla's gaming community became intensely creative and eclectic. They coined the term Super Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (SAD&D) for their approach to the game, which sounds like hubris, but after pondering it for years I have to conclude they named their style well.


First, just like AD&D added a baroque level of complexity to original D&D, so SAD&D upped that quality dramatically. Specifically, SAD&D rejected TSR's growing interest in standardization and official rules, returning to original D&D's hobbyist, do-it-yourself mentality, but it embraced and extended AD&D's taste for more complex rule systems and options.

SAD&D was a "system" (more of a human system than a rules system, a gaming culture) of catholic tastes, absorbing every supplement, every rule system, every scrap of interest from everything anywhere in the role-playing game (RPG) world, no matter how obscure, and every original idea from every fantasy or horror book published. This was not pragmatic eclecticism; it was a ravenous eclecticism for its own sake, systematized universal plagiarism to create a very messy and tumultuous but also very fun creative ferment. This gaming community had an insatiable appetite for RPG novelty and for synthesizing anything and everything into highly idiosyncratic and intricate campaign settings and rule systems.

The little town of Walla Walla added an early but measurable statistical bump to the bottom line of every RPG company in the world. These gamers built up remarkable collections of published material, and those too poor to buy were supported with Xerox copies from those who did until they could afford to buy their own. In turn, they then produced and passed around new reference sheets and cards that pulled together the ideas into new forms for their games. This feeding frenzy and drive for synthesis and integration was one of the more important qualities that led these people in particular to later form such a successful RPG company as Wizards of the Coast.

Second, in the same way AD&D represents a jump in power levels over basic D&D, SAD&D was another jump in power. Killer dungeons & megadungeons were all the rage. Everyone built and ran them, and we played almost every day, so everyone's characters - those who survived - rapidly shot upward in power. As characters grew more powerful, the power levels of the adventures were ratcheted upward in sudden and dramatic quantum jumps. Characters played heroes, superheroes, demigods, lesser gods, then greater gods. Adventures moved beyond dungeons to battles and wars, to apocalyptic struggles, and - this is where it really moved into SAD&D territory - into the realms of science fiction, interdimensional warfare, multiverses, alternate systems of science and magic, and ultimately mythological and cosmological revolutions.

It's not that other gamers in other cities and towns around the world didn't do these things, too - after all, planes and planar adventures are described in the Dungeon Masters Guide - but rather that the Walla Walla gamers self-identified as doing it enough to coin a term for it and for their happy power-gaming community. They regularly played the whole range of powers from untrained commoners to pantheons of deities and kept having to stretch their adventures, their rules, and their settings to accommodate that range.

Third, under these two pressures, the Walla Walla DMs worked hard to differentiate their campaigns dramatically from one another, right down to the rules of magic, science, and fundamental reality. In theory this should have made movement between these campaigns more difficult. For example, how does a wizard who casts spells using a spell-points system work in a campaign setting in which magic does not work that way? Instead, the Walla Walla DMs compensated by cooperating with one another, by being flexible about temporarily accepting unusual characters into their settings to encourage high-level character travel between their multiverses. With players free to take their characters wherever they wanted, SAD&D became a medium for the Walla Walla DMs to each come up with something original and interesting to offer those players, to draw them to adventures in their setting. The DMs competed to offer the most original and interesting adventures and settings.

During the four years I lived in Walla Walla I was increasingly drawn into that SAD&D culture. Although Dagorëa was already coming into its own as a campaign setting when I lived in Seattle, it really blossomed in reaction to all these gamers and their play style. I was lonely, so I wanted to impress them enough that they'd accept me into their community. They were a smart and experienced bunch with wildly varying educational backgrounds, so to find something original to contribute I leaned hard on my lifelong immersion in science to create situations, treasures, powers, and challenges they'd never seen before.

My strength in this creative competition among DMs was my ability to think orthogonally, to come up with challenges that legitimately circumvented their powers and defenses by expanding their understanding of reality, revealing new avenues of attack, defense, and exploration. I used time travel, alternate dimensions, new laws of physics, advanced chemistry, new phases of matter, principles of biology, and really anything I could think of from my understanding of science, architecture, and mythology to create new gaming opportunities. I translated Lovecraft's cosmic approach to horror into a cosmic approach to fantasy to keep up with my players, to surprise and delight them.

My weaknesses as a world builder and adventure designer were equally distinctive. As a lifelong outsider, I understood human psychology poorly; other people just didn't make sense to me. As a result, my magic and monsters were always more interesting and compelling than the non-player characters (NPCs) I designed to interact with the players. Likewise, and closely related, sociology, politics, and dynastic struggles remained areas I couldn't adequately develop. My NPCs tended to be loners, outcasts, individualists, interesting singly or in small groups but unable to cohere into compelling clans or societies. Oh, Dagorëa certainly had cities and nations, but they were abstract, institutional, lacking that exciting tension between the one, the few, and the many that makes fictional societies interesting. So, as players, we looked to other Walla Walla DMs and their more political campaign settings for those kinds of delights.

This wasn't a competition I could win. No one could. It wasn't that kind of competition. The drive of the Walla Walla SAD&D culture wasn't toward one victorious campaign but toward a community of highly original campaign settings. Over a couple years, Dagorëa developed into one of maybe six foundational campaign settings in Walla Walla, not the best, but one of the most unusual.

Those were heady times for me as a DM, but by October 1983 I was leaving behind the SAD&D style of play in Dagorëa, because something unprecedented happened to me and to my campaign setting.

I met my future wife.

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