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.