Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Postponing the Story to Resume the Blog

Evidently I don't want to write about Nia Revo right now, since the prospect brought me to an abrupt halt. So, let's finish the story of how we got here later, and for now, let's skip ahead to the present.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tables! Tables! Tables! And Snails!

My favorite posting so far by Sam Kisko on his blog Valley of Blue Snails is this marvelous post called "You spy your long time love laying eggs in the wilderness one evening." It contains a truly baroque suite of tables called the Traumatic Adolescent Background Generator, which is one of the wonderfully weirder things I've read in a while. Although most of these are more fun to read than to have inflicted on your character, I suspect, a few of these are very close to events from my campaign:

19 – You awake most mornings with smallish fey creatures cuddled against you. They leave tiny offerings of flowers, sweet food, and perfumes.

14 – While near a waterfall you think you saw a pair of feline eyes behind it. Exploring behind the waterfall you see a crevice that sinks into the depths. You also find a huge discarded cat-claw larger than you are.

1 – A fey creature leaves a child at your door step. (if taken) The child grows to adulthood in 1d4 years, looking exactly like you.

Overall, these tables start out hilariously depressing and mean-spirited - I particularly like the Comeliness table in which no matter how beautiful or ugly you are it still works out badly for you - but gradually grow increasingly weird and charming. Here's one of my favorites from near the end:

18 – A small duck billed Hadrosaurid will periodically approach you when it thinks you are asleep and clean any parasites from your skin and hair. This is strangely soothing and does not wake you.

I'm not sure why this makes me so happy.

My second favorite posting of his is "A fire-breathing were-mammoth destroys half the village while calling your name." This is his earlier table suite, the Traumatic Childhood Background PC Generator, which is slightly less weird but still highly entertaining. The first few tables are generic enough, but once it gets into the events tables the weirdness begins. Some of these sound like things I've done to my players, like:

13 – The PC finds a large tar pit and strange fey creatures appear to live within. They have invited the PC into the pit to see their home but the PC has yet to accept.

14 – A traveling Elf maid gives the PC an orchid plant. The orchid never changes and is perpetually pointing towards one direction, even if turned or moved. If the Orchid is followed like a compass, it leads to a strange and wondrous place leagues away.

15 – The PC finds a lone boulder marbled with lapis. Before the PC can take any, a deer-spirit emerges and begs the PC to leave it. (if heeded) A yellow deer can be seen in the distance when the PC is in the wilds. (if ignored) Gain 1500gp in lapis.

Others - I'm sure my players are thankful - I never have and never will. After reading through these bizarre entries, we can all appreciate this one:

1 – Perfectly normal childhood. The PC's peers mock the child for his normalcy.

Because if these are the things that usually happen, normalcy would be tres outré.

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.

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.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Second Campaign Setting: Mainore, Atlantis, Dagorëa

From age five (January 1972) to age eight (1975), my subscription to Time-Life Books's series The Emergence of Man brought each of the twenty volumes to me, one at a time, from Life Before Man to The Persians (and many blessings upon my father for realizing that even at that young age I would love and devour these books intended for adults). As a very young child, I was most interested in the early volumes, dinosaurs and Neanderthals being more to my taste than early civilizations, but later, in 1979, in eighth grade, when I was searching for a model for a glorious palace to be my characters' home base, it was the later volumes on Greece, Rome, and ultimately Persia I searched for inspiration.

In the end, I modeled our home base of Mainore on the floor plan of a royal Persian palace from The Persians. For some reason, the players were a bit aggressive with one another, seeking out and attacking one another's home bases (not an activity I participated in, except as a defender against it), so Mainore had to be more than a palace. It had to be fortified as well, a castle. True to the original D&D end game, my characters recruited armies of followers and made use of magical items and spells to defend Mainore from the henchmen of the other players. Evidently my several generations of maps of the palace of Mainore are long-since lost, though I could easily and may yet recreate the first draft, which was a near-copy of the Persian original.

Although at first that was sufficient defense, during the escalating inter-player struggles of late eighth grade it wasn't long before I needed to find a far more obscure, far more difficult-to-find or -reach location for the palace. Using one of my characters' powerful magics, my characters traveled back in time to long before the sinking of Atlantis and rebuilt their palace-castle there and then (in the ten mile by ten mile area granted them by the deal described in the previous post) where the other players' more conventional characters could not possibly reach us.

The Atlantis my characters lived in was based on Athanasius Kircher's 1669 map from his work Mundus Subterraneus, as reproduced in Charles Berlitz's 1969 book The Mystery of Atlantis. I inverted it to place north at the top of the map and added details based on descriptions of Atlantis by Plato and others. For names of the seven kingdoms and geographical features I coined names from the Sindarin and Quenya languages invented by Tolkien as documented in the appendices to The Return of the King.

Since my brother Rob's characters also needed safe haven and land to develop a home base of their own, I developed an island archipelago to the south of Atlantis inspired by the maps in Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea.

By ninth grade, the D&D players of south Seattle outgrew their pointless internecine competition and matured into DMs, and their home bases were increasingly converted and developed into campaign settings for other players to enjoy. As relations improved, I too converted Atlantis from a hidden home base to a campaign setting, first sinking it to the bottom of the ocean, then relocating it on the moon, then transplanting it by 1981 (tenth grade, after moving from Seattle to Walla Walla) onto a planet of its own, then finally to an artificial planet in the shape of a great wheel that spun through space on an alternate plane of existence (a fairly original idea arrived at quite pragmatically after a year of struggling with the problem of accurately transposing a spherical map onto a flat piece of paper).

From its peculiar origins in 1979 until my abandonment of it and of D&D for many years starting in 1989, Dagorëa, as the wheelworld and my campaign was named, was my first serious campaign setting. It developed into one of maybe a half dozen core campaigns of the Walla Walla Super Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (SAD&D) gaming community, and it single-handedly changed my life.