Sunday, June 27, 2010

Stonehell Skye Begins

Today I started Stonehell Skye, the fourth adventure arc in my Englandia campaign, more or less by accident.

For the last two years I've been reading the blog and bulletin-board writings and maps of Philotomy Jurament, Sean "The Stonegiant" Stone, Gabor "Melan" Lux, "Evreaux", "Wheggi", Trent Foster, Allan "Grodog" Grohe, Stefan Poag, Joseph "Greyhawk Grognard" Bloch, "Mbassoc2003", Jeff "Jeff's Game Blog" Rients, James "Grognardia" Maliszewski, Michael "The Society of Torch, Pole, and Rope" Curtis, Michael "Chgowiz" Shorten, David "Sham" Bowman, "A Paladin in Citadel", James Edward "Lamentations of the Flame Princess" Raggi IV, Zak "Playing D&D with Porn Stars" and "I Hit It With My Axe" Sabbath, and many others.

It's been a heady mix of megadungeon theory, old-school theory, and just plain fun I've been soaking my tired gamer brain in, and it's reminded me in just about the best possible way how much fun it used to be to kick it old school.

Our plan for today had been just to run practice combats to get more familiar with the 3.5 rules, but as I was preparing I realized I no longer wanted to put off that old-school fun entirely. Instead, this morning I unexpectedly decided five things.

First, I didn't want to practice combat artifically, in arenas or generic settings. It would be just as easy and a lot more fun to practice combat in actual play, to learn by doing. The connective tissue of the game would make the combat mean something.

Second, if we were really going to play, I wanted to run a megadungeon. I came this close to starting my own then and there after rererereading the Dragonsfoot megadungeon threads, but I was dissuaded by that same reread. One of the commentators pointed out how personal a true megadungeon needs to be to sustain it over time. My old megadungeon from Walla Walla, Seven Levels, is no longer where my heart's at - it's not personal to who I am now - so I couldn't resurrect that, and I'm still exploring which parts of a megadungeon speak to me the most, so I'm not ready to create my own again from scratch. I knew then that I was going to run someone else's megadungeon, running it pretty straight at first and gradually making it more personal over time, and that this would be the setting for our "combat practice" today.

Third, I knew I wanted to run a mythic underworld dungeon. Philotomy's conception speaks most deeply to me. In pre-articulated form it's what long ago excited me about Dungeons & Dragons, the kind of underworld that haunted my happy childhood dreams, yet it's the form I never ran. Early on I was distracted by Gygaxian naturalism, and although that served my Dagorëa campaign well for many years, it's also ultimately what sucked the vitality out of my dungeons, why I abandoned them in the 1990s. I just know the mythic underworld is what I'm craving, so whoever's megadungeon I adapted was going to get a serious dose of mythos from the get-go.

Fourth, although my players are committed to D&D 3.5 for their characters and skills and combat, I've grown equally committed to Holmes and original D&D's approaches to experience, time, resource consumption, monster and treasure distribution, wandering-monster frequency, challenging the players rather than their characters, and above all on the focus of the game being about exploration and resource management rather than straight-up combat. I decided we'd run this as a fusion game - as Wizards-style characters in a TSR-style game - and see what happened. My goal here is not perfection, just an experiment, a light-hearted investigation into the mad science of fun.

Fifth, after catching up on the last two years of Order of the Stick on Friday night and watching the most recent eight episodes of I Hit It With My Axe Saturday and Sunday morning, I've decided one of the worst mistakes I made in gaming over the last twenty years was in approaching it entirely too seriously, in trying too hard to get it "right." Above all, it was watching Mandy, Connie, Satine, KK, Frankie, and Justine bubble over with excitement at the creative silliness of Zak's attack goblins riding in inflatable-pig balloons that gave me my epiphany this morning. I decided to kick the quest for awesome epic quality out the door for a while and replace it with sheer, ridiculous fun. My job gives me all the seriousness I need. What's missing is real play of the childlike variety.

I had to have something ready by 1:00, so I knew I'd have to pick something I'd already studied.

I thought about cobbling it together from existing classic modules, but my third ongoing Englandia story arc, Skye, is already exploring classic modules. Besides, for this fourth arc's setting I wanted something more organic in its entirety, not just a pile of unrelated dungeons one atop the next. The difficulty levels of the ideal megadungeon should flow smoothly enough that a party of beginners should be able to begin adventuring at the top and develop their entire careers within its boundaries, exploring downward as their own experience levels climb upward (not that things ever proceed so smoothly in practice). Making that possible requires a certain minimal design coherency lacking from any random assemblage of dungeons.

After reviewing many of the incredible maps in the megadungeon threads I also realized I needed something that was already keyed to make me relax enough about running this. That ruled out some truly beautiful work - I was sorry not to be able to run Gabor Lux's gorgeous and organic Khosura maps, for example - but I had no choice. I needed enough of the work already done so I could focus my energy for now on running an existing weave and embroidering it as I went rather than exhausting myself creating the entire weave myself out of nothing more than maps.

I reviewed Joseph Bloch's impressive Castle of the Mad Archmage, but ideally it should follow Gary Gygax’s Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works, which I don't yet have and didn't have time to get before game time, so I decided to save exploration of this excellent adaptation of one of our hobby's founding megadungeons for a future adventure arc. Besides, I want to be more on my game before I tackle a work of such historic importance and confident whimsy.

I spent a good long while looking again at Stefan Poag's marvellous The Mines of Khunmar, but in the end I needed something more fully keyed. That will be remedied when Stefan gets his module fully transcribed, updated, and published soon. I'll be better off running Khunmar then, but it wouldn't serve me today.

For now, I settled on Michael Curtis's excellent megadungeon Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, which he developed in part as an experiment to prove that a megadungeon can be captured sufficiently in a publication, a subject of much speculation over the last couple years in the old-school renaissance community. Stonehell is both packed with inventiveness and also structured with great economy and discipline.

The format for the maps and keys for each level are derived from Michael Shorten and David Bowman's highly influential one-page dungeon format. The constraints of that format helped guide Michael Curtis toward complete but extremely terse text explanations for each level reminiscent of such Judges Guild classics as Tegel Manor and City State of the Invincible Overlord. The result is very interesting. The endless expansiveness of the megadungeon concept is expressed in just about the tightest possible format, which I've elsewhere described as the gaming equivalent of an epic written as a series of haikus.

So now Stonehell Skye, Michael Curtis's Stonehell reset on the Isle of Skye in Scotland in the year 991 AD or thereabouts, will be my 3.5-OSR-fusion-megadungeon playground, a more light-hearted complement to The Hebrides, my ongoing 3.5-dungeon adventure arc, and The Severn River, my long-running but currently hibernating non-dungeon adventure arc.

My thanks to more or less the entire OSR D&D community for your indispensible help in getting me restarted.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Englandia History: Romans versus Druids

The Emperor Claudius's imperial designs on the British Isles turn out somewhat differently in Englandia.

Here's the first of three major changes to British history in Englandia:

The province of Britannia was incredibly important to the Roman empire. The Roman occupation changed Britain forever, but Rome never fully conquered the British, just enough to break the back of druidic power forever. Indeed, there is much reason to conclude that was the primary motivation behind the conquest of Britain was to stop the British from supporting the Celtic resistance on the continent, that destroying the British stronghold on Anglesey drove the shape of the conquest.

The problem is, breaking the druidic line in 60 CE destroyed some marvelous cultural complexity that I would rather have had to enrich my campaign in 1000. To recover it, I would have to find a tipping point in the Roman conquest that would have allowed the druids to survive until Emperor Honorius in 410 declined to defend Britannia (Rome was busy getting sacked by the Visigoths), effectively letting the province go its own way. Fortunately, finding what I needed was easy, inevitable, because all of Britannia already was a tipping point for the Roman empire.

The Romans never even tried to conquer Ireland, and they tried but failed to conquer Scotland, after wasting enormous expense and manpower: abandoning the Antonine Wall after 160 and losing 50,000 Roman soldiers to successful Scottish guerilla tactics during the rein of Septimus Severus.

The evidence is clear: the Romans wanted to complete the conquest, they needed to—failure to do so cost them dearly in military expenditures—but they couldn't simultaneously hang onto the rest of the empire and also finish the conquest of Britain. Rome was at its limit in Britain. Shifting that limit backward to prevent the destruction of Anglesey would not have taken much of a change.

The question for Englandia is whether the shift in the supernatural world—in supernature—would have been enough to bring that about.

On the con side of the argument, a real supernature along the lines planned for Englandia would have been great for Rome. A martial culture that revered Mars, God of War, would have found that a real Mars would have loved them, too, and his favors would have made Rome even more devastating in battle—and that's just one important god out of a vast pantheon who would have taken care of the Romans. For all the parts of life that fall between the domains of those great gods, imagine lares, penates, and genii filling up Rome with intelligence and concern, helping out in myriad little ways to keep every Roman on the path to success and out of trouble. Then, too, augurs and auspices, signs and portents, diviners and oracles, which the Romans so cherished and believed in, would have helped Rome immensely if they had been real, if they actually could foretell the consequences of their plans; imagine how many disasters they could have avoided.

Englandia's supernature would make the Roman empire and every individual Roman citizen staggeringly more formidable.

Unfortunately for Rome, there is also a pro side of the argument. In a nutshell, Rome is outnumbered; Rome is one culture trying to conquer dozens of others, and every one of those cultures also benefits from Englandia's supernature. It's one supernature against dozens of others. The further a supernatural Rome expands the more supernatural enemies it makes, just like in real history and with the same consequences, more or less.

Not exactly like real history, though. Some things would change. The intensity of the struggles would increase and acquire their new, supernatural dimensions. This would shift the texture of conquest and resistance—some cultures that had resisted Rome well would do less well against a supernatural Rome, and conversely some that fared badly would stop Rome in its tracks because of this new dimension to their struggles. Based on design principle two from last post, the crucial variable would be which cultures had the poorest supernatural traditions and which the richest.

Which brings us to the British Isles.

The British mythology was as rich as the Roman. The land would be crawling with monsters of every variety. Every Celtic subculture in the British Isles had its greater gods and goddesses, and the lesser deities would be in every well, grove, and spring, in every venerated place in Britain—and almost every place in Britain was venerated.

As for magic use, this is one place the British would have an edge. Mediterranean conceptions of magic involved mostly nonmagical, heroic mortals interacting with supernatural forces and beings, but the British conception of magic was very different. The British supernatural extended into the lives of mortals. Sure, only a few would be mighty druids and witches, but even the many had their formidable gesas, talents, and second sights. Anyone familiar with Celtic mythology knows a gesa can make even a "normal" person profoundly mighty (at least until the downside kicks in and destroys his life, but hey, that's the Celts for you), but it's the second sight and related forms of divination that make all the difference.

Many Celtic magics resulted in the ability to foresee the future. Yes, many Roman ones did, too, but this is one ability where being evenly matched favors the otherwise-conquered. The problem for the Romans is simple: as important as their military might was to their imperial conquests, their political savvy was crucially important to their conquests.

Rome, like empires before and after, relied heavily on Divide and Conquer, a strategy that in turn relies upon finding feuding groups and lying to one of them that if they side with you then only their enemies will get conquered. In this way, a people who could have defeated you if united instead split up into small enough groups to beat. Rome used this strategy over and over and conspicuously used it to prevent the warring British tribes from uniting against them and kicking them out of the British Isles.

Divination, real divination, destroys this strategy utterly, because the parties being encouraged to feud with one another can check their divinations to discover that those feuds will result in their conquest, whereas uniting against Rome will result in their being able to kick the Romans out of their homeland. The Britons were mighty warriors and highly effective against the Romans (witness the Lost Legion, among many other examples).

If the Romans couldn't convince the Britons to break into small enough groups, the Romans wouldn't have made as much progress in their conquest of Britain.

So how far would the Romans have got under these conditions? They were still mighty and would have been mightier still, but so would the Britons have been, and their powers of divination would have let them unite against Rome. I'm opting for a conservative interpretation of the results. The Romans would still have pushed into Britain and held territory for an extended amount of time, but they could not have spread so far so permanently. They would have held the lowlands, but could never have permanently conquered any of the highlands or outlying areas.

For example, just as the Romans actually had to abandon the Antonine Wall and fall back to Hadrian's Wall, so under these supernatural conditions they would never have made it as far as building the Antonine Wall, and would have been unable to hold Hadrian's Wall either, falling back further into the Scottish lowlands where they would have built the walls and fortresses they could have held, closer to the center of their power in the southeast.

More importantly, they would not have made so much progress toward the centers of British magical power, where the most mighty magics would have been brought to bear against them. Thus, the more the Romans neared Anglesey (Ynys Mon), center of druidic power in Britain, the more they would have bogged down and failed. Just as the Romans in our world failed to hold Scotland and had to fall back to line of fortifications, so in this fantasy world they would have failed to conquer Wales and would have done likewise. Where Offa many centuries later would have built his dike to hold back Welsh raiders at the Severn River, the Romans will instead build Nero's Wall to hold back the terrifying ancient Welsh.

First change accomplished:

In Englandia, the Romans never defeated the druids.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Englandia: Two Design Principles

The more I studied history, the more trouble I had with the supernatural, with magic, monsters, and the divine. Although a great source of gaming fun and a powerful tool in the DM's arsenal for expanding the game's horizons, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that almost any magic item or spell from Dungeons & Dragons could have changed the course of history at some time in some place. If the world were a Gygaxian cornucopia of magic items and crawling with monsters, history would not even remotely have unfolded the way it actually did. Likewise, the divine.

No, to run a historically-based campaign, balancing verisimilitude and fantasy correctly would have to become a central goal. This led to my first design principle:

In Englandia, the supernatural is real but rare.

In 1997 when I was designing Englandia, I had been gaming for twenty years, so I knew this principle was going to be a problem for me. I was spoiled by the supernatural glut of my previous campaigns, in which magic was always at hand to spice up an adventure. As I've written before in this blog, I used it too readily, especially in Dagorëa, leaning on it as upon a crutch, and it delayed my ability to create convincing non-player characters by a decade during which I tried to compensate with the wild imagination of my monsters and magicks. I'd come a long way since then, but still, cutting the supernatural back enough in my games to keep the setting remotely related to real history was going to be a real challenge.

The solution lay in the adoption of a second, balancing design principle. As rare as the supernatural had to be to protect the historical integrity of the setting, it would have to be just that much more interesting than it was usually handled, to get every bit as much gaming juice out of it. That is, I would reduce its power to change history, but increase its originality and memorability.

For example, if I eliminated dwarves, elves, gnomes, hobbits, and half-orcs as choices for player-character races, I could compnsate by making human beings that much more interesting. After all, any DM worthy of the name ought to be able to create endlessly interesting player races out of the diversity of humanity: God-fearing Roman Catholic Saxons, enbattled pagan Mercians, heathen Scottish tribesmen, shamanic and tattooed Picts, headhunting Irishmen on chariots, fatalistic Northmen in long ships, sullen and xenophobic fenfolk, devout and cosmopolitan Moors, and so many more.

So that's how I would pump up my diminished supernatural, too, how the second design principle would work:

In Englandia, the supernatural varies culturally; it works the way each culture believed it did, most strongly in that culture's homeland.

So, for example, though there would be very few magic-users in Englandia, they would be extraordinarily different from one another, maybe between one and three wizards per culture to represent the range of magic in that culture. Likewise the monsters: from selkies on the Scottish coasts, to waterhorses and loch monsters in Scotland proper, to redcaps on the Scottish borders, on down to pagan Mercia where night stalkers haunted the land, to Christian Wessex with its demons and hags, and beyond.

Common throughout the British Isles was the belief that such things were disruptions, intrusions from the land of the dead, the otherworld, the faerie lands, and so I could set aside D&D's armies of undifferentiated humanoids and replace them with highly individualized beasties crossing over from beyond, each one carrying more meaning than just itself because it also represented a breakdown in the natural order of things, some unique kind of corruption that also had to be addressed.

Beverly and I already knew this was going to be fun. Even just the choice of setting combined with these two design principles was enough to solve many of the problems I'd had with my previous campaign worlds. The more we talked about these ideas, the more I could feel my creative juices flowing again. What a relief!

Still, we couldn't help feel some regrets. The price of finding a historical backwater and all the freedom that entailed was giving up some diversity, a cost we felt more keenly the more we designed a supernatural that flourished and unfolded ever more beautifully the more cultural diversity it had to work with. What we wouldn't give to be able to use fabled Baghdad, crossroads of the old world, as our setting, but its history was just too well documented and too foundational for the course of world history.

The solution, though, lay in those two design principles. The world so made not only thrived on diversity, it increased it, creating a feedback loop. The supernatural is inherently destabilizing to history, and so could increase its diversity, but also, as shaped by the second principle it could stabilize history by surprising would-be conquerors far from home.

Beverly and I studied British history in detail as we never had before to find the delicate turning points, the places where the application of these two design principles would surely have changed the course of history, searching for the fewest number of changes we could make—to keep history close to its actual course—that would both follow inevitably from those design principles and also increase the cultural diversity of the British isles in the year 1000.

Between April and September of 1997 we settled on just three changes to British history that would help to illustrate those principles and shape the character of Englandia.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lawful Good, Part One

On February 28, 2009 on Facebook, a few months after I joined, I took the D&D Alignment Test. The results showed me as Lawful Good.

For what that's worth.

These tests never quite offer the right choices. I consistently come out lawful good on alignment tests, but it's not quite accurate.

I'm a big believer in principles, virtues, standards, conventions, and manners, but I also believe the law is often used to enforce injustice, or worse (yes, I think it's worse), that legal systems tend to treat justice or any other higher principle than the law as imaginary. In such cases, the law become a force for nihilism, for the void, for the death of meaning, in short, becomes a tyranny of process over result that destroys any possibility of justice. People at least can understand that overt injustice must be opposed, but nihilistic, inhuman processes tend to confuse people into inaction because there is no clear "bad guy." The corollary to Pogo's "We have met the enemy and he is us" is that it is in such situations, when our own activities inadvertently result in meaningless and justice-blind systems, that we are at our most helpless to fix things.

Thus, lawful, yes, but not in the sense of human law except to the extent that human laws comply with higher laws and principles. When human laws conflict with justice and other deeper principles, I will oppose such laws to the extent available to me because I care too much about the deep principles that should underlie the legal system to let the legal system itself subvert them.

Unfortunately, legal systems tend to make themselves immune to improvement by bloating up themselves and their processes beyond the reach of any individual human beings or even beyond any meaningful organized control by democratic majorities, devolving into self-sustaining amoral systems of processes, a machinery of behavior that is the enemy of individual responsibility and authority.

I am a different kind of lawful than that.

Likewise, good, about which our culture has far less of a clear idea than about lawful, but that's a discussion for another day.

Two more things.

First, the idea of a nation of "laws not men" leads directly to a nihilistic legal system divorced from justice. We need a nation of principles, around which people and laws organize themselves. The law must clearly be subservient to principles and must be edited and adjusted all the time to conform more closely with those principles.

For the law to be a human tool for justice, there must also be few enough laws that dedicated people can actually learn them all. The current situation in which even legal specialists cannot fully know all the laws in their chosen area of expertise is risible, insane, and the legal principle that ignorance of the law is not a defense is actually an evil, a form of cruel and unusual punishment when coupled with a system of laws too vast for the majority of people to be anything but ignorant about most of them. That is, this legal "principle" renders all human beings defenseless against its own inevitable consequences.

Second, what do we do in the meantime? Well, as flawed as the legal system is, it is currently the only tool we have with which to try to bring about some measure of human justice - since there is no formal place in our society for principles, the only sources of true justice - so we do our best to learn about and follow just laws and to learn about and work around the unjust ones.

And we certainly don't flout the law in a vain effort to "prove" how free we are. We save our battles with the legal system for the ones we cannot avoid, where the damage to justice inflicted by the law is so high that it takes precedence over all the other things we could or should be doing with our lives and requires us to sacrifice some part of our lives to this quixotic struggle to eke justice out of a system that cannot conceive of justice yet wraps itself in that very mantle.

That is, we should be law-abiding citizens except when justice demands otherwise.

That is the kind of lawful I am.

One last thing.

Some people's alignments are accidental, just a description of whatever they happen to do, but my alignment is deliberate and very, very important to me. I am passionate about moral, philosophical, and organizational issues. I work hard to understand what the right thing is to do and to try to do it, and I try to sleepwalk through life as little as possible. I fall short plenty in both understanding and execution, as a fallible mortal who overextends himself, but the lifelong struggle to become a good and wise person is almost always on my mind and in my heart.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Road to Englandia

Englandia, my fourth and ongoing D&D campaign world, is my current recipe for a fun campaign setting to run.

My ravenous studies in science, history, sociology, and anthropology satisfied my drive to learn but left me unable to enjoy either the random fantasies of my first childhood campaign world or the arbitrarily organized and highly derivative fantasies of Dagorëa, my second campaign world. Both originality and intense verisimilitude have become necessary ingredients in my fantasy play.

However, six years of developing and running Nia Revo, my extremely detailed and original third campaign world, was enough to teach me that inventing a reality from scratch is more work than fun. After three years of running games there, from 1989 to 1992, the increasing intensity of my work life reduced my free time and energy too much to support both running games and the necessary investment in inventing their reality, so I gave up active gaming and spent the last three years of Nia Revo building a notebook detailing its physics, languages, writing systems, history, etc. That turned into an expectations trap, in which the more time and energy I put into the development of the game without actually playing, the more impossible it became to justify all that investment. By 1995 I was burned out and had forgotten how to have fun.

It was clear we had to try something else.

Fortunately, that was the summer Mike Ryan interviewed with Beverly to work for Wizards of the Coast as an editor for the game Magic: The Gathering. Mike liked to DM, so for two years I played and did not DM. Those two years rekindled my love of the game and gave my DMing muscles some time off. Playing in Mike's game taught me that I can't DM unless I play, that the fun of play helps me enjoy life and makes me more playful, and that the tensions and irritations of play stimulate my creativity.

I thought back over my life and realized that D&D was the fountain of my creativity. I learned to draw better for D&D. I learned to write better for D&D. I learned cartography, linguistics, calendars, architecture, geography, storytelling, psychology, and dozens of other things to improve my D&D games. And it worked. My adult games were so much more interesting to me and my players than those of my childhood.


After Mike's game ended in 1996, Beverly and I talked about the rundown of Nia Revo and the lesson I learned from playing with Mike, that I needed to play and DM—that I needed to play to be able to DM—and that I was a better and happier person for doing both.

We talked about the tension between my need for verisimilitude and my need to have the work of DMing be manageable, to fit within our crazy work lives. The limited free time in our schedules meant I had to give up on achieving fantasy realism by inventing it.

Instead, we decided to borrow it.

From history.

Because ultimately, no matter how good I am at simulating history and geography, the results will never be as realistic as reality itself. In hindsight it's obvious, but it took me about twenty years of gaming to relent and admit it to myself.

So over dinner one night in April of 1997, Beverly and I talked through the range of options for when and where to set a new historical campaign. We needed an era that had a lot of interesting cultural diversity, intensity, and turmoil, a time that had a lot of historical material to work with, but a place that didn't, a place where the historical record was sparse enough that we could embroider without unraveling it.

As students of history, we knew that during the Dark Ages the Arab world was the dazzling place to be—and China, the Americas, and many other places were also historically rich and marvelous—but that Europe was a poorly documented cultural backwater, some places more than others. Case in point, from the time the Romans left until the Conqueror's scribes compiled the Domesday Book lie six hundred years only sketchily documented by some chronicles, law codes, deeds, legal documentation, and so on—a lovely but tattered weave on which to embroider our little revels.

And so it was we settled on Saxons and Celts and Picts, Vikings and Magyars and Moors, a series of adventures set on the British Isles starting January 1st, 1000. I named it Englandia in honor of Alfred the Great's lifework and in echo of Jean Sibelius's masterful anthem.

. . .

I never realized it before researching this blog, but Englandia may well never have come about were it not for Mike's fun and fascinating 1995–6 D&D game with us, which rekindled my love of the game. He's like Englandia's godfather, and he was one of its first players. Thanks, man.