Thursday, December 3, 2015

In Search of the Unknown: How the Party Gathers

B1: The party gathers by David Sutherland
B1: The party gathers by David Sutherland
In a classic D&D adventure, characters in search of adventure find themselves meeting by chance in an inn or tavern where, listening for rumors and looking for fellow adventurers to join forces with. They simultaneously learn about a potential adventure, find each other, and agree to work together. Time is pressing, the stakes are high, they at once equip themselves and set off to begin their adventures together.

In many ways, In Search of the Unknown is a classic adventure, but this is not one of those ways.

Dungeons and Dragons evolved from wargames, in which the real reason the two sides fought was that the players wanted to have fun together. In the early years of D&D, the characters' motivation was that their players wanted to play. As we gamed together over the years, the theatrical and role-playing side of the game grew, until it became normal to focus on how the world looks from the characters' perspective rather than the players', and modules began to invest more column inches in explaining why the characters joined together and embarked on this expedition.

In Search of the Unknown was an early TSR module. Author Mike Carr developed a backstory for the dungeon and an entertaining table of rumors the players might randomly know about it, but when it came to why these characters per se wanted to get involved with this place, here's all the module has to say:
If all this is true, their hideaway and treasure lie abandoned somewhere in the wilderness, awaiting discovery and exploration. 
Now comes to you a crude map purporting to show the way to their hideaway, a place apparently called “Q.” If it is accurate, it might lead you to the mystical place that was their home and sanctuary. Who knows what riches of wealth and magic might be there for the taking? Yes, the risk is great, but the challenge cannot be ignored. Gathering a few of your fellows, you share the secret and embark in search of the unknown.
B1: Journey into the wilds in search of adventure by David Sutherland
B1: Journey into the wilds in search of adventure by David Sutherland

In other words, loot and pillage and excitement!

Later, during the scaremongering of the 1980s, when people made up lies about D&D being a Satanic ritual of some kind, TSR worked hard to revise the D&D narrative to one strictly about the forces of good mustering to face off against the forces of evil. But back when Carr was writing this module, there was an amusingly practical Fafhrd-and-the-Grey-Mouser quality to most D&D adventures.

More than a few reviews of B1 cite this threadbare character motivation as a weakness, but some note what I note: this is an introductory module designed to be customized. It's an adventure template, not an adventure. Each time you run the module, you lay out different monsters, treasures, stories - and motivations. All Carr needed to provide was a generic sample motivation; after the first run-through, even novice DMs could come up with suitable motivations based on how they stocked the module.

I began gaming with the Holmes Dungeons & Dragons set and this module, but I was quickly caught up with everyone else in developing increasingly elaborate premises for adventures and motivations for player characters. In revenge, my players came up with increasingly centrifugal character personalities and goals - self-disintegrating parties.

With Englandia, I turned the tables on them. It's now the players' jobs to come up with characters who want to be together and want to pursue the adventure. This fits well with 13th Age's focus on collaborative storytelling, and it has replaced an old chore with a new delight.

For this module specifically, the players came up with characters so highly motivated that I cut Carr's front-loaded exposition - the dungeon backstory, the rumors - and left the premise of the dungeon a mystery onto which each of the three characters at first projected a different concept, based on their goals and personalities. This added a stronger element of mystery and story-discovery to the module and has lent itself to some amusing discussions and differences of opinion between the player characters, as we shall see.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

In Search of the Unknown: Setting in Englandia, Islandia, Skye, The Minginish, Dun Merkadale

Pendragon's Caledonia map from Beyond the Wall
Pendragon's Caledonia from Beyond the Wall
As described in "The Road to Englandia," after too many years of studying history, science, and so on, I need my game world to have a lot of verisimilitude and depth to it or I find it unsatisfying, so in 1997 Beverly (my history-major wife) and I settled on the British Isles in the year 1000 as the base setting for my gaming campaigns.

(Extreme verisimilitude is not something I require when I'm a player, just when I'm running games, because the internal coherence makes it much easier for me to think on my feet about what might happen next. As a player, I don't need those crutches, since the character's personality and understanding of the world are all I need to figure out what to do next. I can play in much less grounded worlds than I can run, oddly. YMMV.)

Over the past eighteen years, I filled two bookcases with reference materials to help flesh out my understanding of that time and place (Anglo-Saxon Books has been a godsend). Although some would find this a chore, for me it's a pleasure, since I love to learn and am relieved when the game does not distract me with too many anachronisms—other than those I put there myself on purpose, to advance the fun in the game. As with a poet who writes haikus or other structured poems, I find the structure and limitations imposed by the details of what we know about this setting stimulates my creativity about the many, many things we don't know. They don't call it the Dark Ages for nothing.

For a year I set Englandia adventures in the rural lowlands of Cheshire, but for the following nine years they were south in the Shropshire Highlands, near the border with Wales. I still think of those Shropshire adventures as my main Englandia game, despite not running anything there for eight years. I painted myself into a storytelling corner with too many non-player characters at a Jane-Austen-meets-Beowulf social dance with a lot at stake. Then my nonprofit ate my life, leaving me too few spoons after work to solve the problem, though I've known for years what the solution has to be.

Wikipedia's map of the Hebrides
Wikipedia's map of the Hebrides
I still think of those Shropshire adventures as just paused, so for the new and different dungeon-based adventures I planned to start a few years ago (after reigniting with excitement from reading all the wonderful old-school renaissance posts about dungeon design and the mythic underworld) I did not want them to take place anywhere near Shropshire, to reduce the odds of cross-contamination of the adventures.

Looking for isolation, I found it in the far North, which led me to Greg Stafford's marvelous supplement Beyond the Wall, which describes North Britain for his magnificent role-playing game Pendragon. If you're going to do Dark Age historical gaming in the British Isles, you need Pendragon, which is brilliantly constructed, meticulously researched, and beautifully mapped, with gazetteers full of concise place descriptions as stimulating as the best work Judges' Guild ever put out for their Wilderlands of High Fantasy supplements.

My players tend to be a bit disruptive—the Shropshire campaign has so far accidentally set two enormous, angry, warring dragons upon Normandy, which is currently in flames, and refugees are fleeing all over Europe and so unlikely to invade England in another sixty-five years, oops—so even with the help of the physical dimensions of dungeons to constrain them, I wanted to place this new cycle of mythic-underworld adventures someplace isolated even from the isolated places, to limit the damage.

Thus, I turned from the mainland of Scotland and Pictland to the islands, quickly settled on the Hebrides, and dubbed this new cycle of dungeon-based adventures Islandia. After all, the history of the Hebrides at this time was already so disrupted that historians and archaeologists are still struggling to piece it all together, like a dark age within a Dark Age, so those lacunae can cover a lot of player-induced chaos, allowing the mainland of Britain to still stay enough on course to leave me an intuitive baseline to work with for what's happening when the players aren't around.

Some of the first fantasy novels I read as a child were C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy, and British Celtic legends are packed with moody seascapes, mysterious islands that come and go, and hollow hills. I could at once see how this setting could greatly enrich gaming in the mythic underworld, inspiring changes in the modules that would make them less generic fantasy, more a unique experience for the players and me.

To avoid cross-contamination from the increasingly epic Shropshire adventures, to create the space needed for these mythic-underworld adventures to develop their own flavor, I also isolated them temporally. The Shropshire cycle had advanced up through 30 June 1001, so I reset the Islandia games back to mid-Spring 1000, before my players upended the table on history.

Campaign map of Skye, based on Wikipedia's topographical map
Campaign map of Skye, based on Wikipedia's topographical map
With the general time and place set, it was time to dial in and place where In Search of the Unknown could best take place.

Of the Hebrides choices, Beyond the Wall's gazetteer described the most adventure material for Skye. Google searches revealed this was no anomaly. Skye is packed with ancient brochs, cairns, duns, ghost villages, and other material ripe for fantasy gaming development, and Skye has a rich tradition of documenting their folklore. It was an embarrassment of riches, so Skye was the obvious choice.

The combination of small population (to avoid the players' disruptive powers being too early inflicted upon a population center), central location, and a pleasant writeup in Beyond the Wall (which we won't be sharing with my players yet, because the details of that gazetteer entry have not yet come into play for the party) led me to the small village of Drynoch on Loch Harport, on the north edge of The Minginish peninsula. Our first game walkthrough, which we'll start in my next post, takes place in what passes for a public house in wee Drynoch. And as a small reference to A Wrinkle in Time—another early read, courtesy of my fourth grade teacher, Helen Yorozu, at Emerson Elementary School in South Seattle—it opens with a blustery, stormy day; anything or anyone might blow into town on such a day, even—gasp—player characters!

I started with some fairly empty maps of Skye to work with, which was fine at first because the players were going to have their hands full dealing with their immediate environs, but after a little over a year of gaming I finally broke down and built the above campaign map of Skye, capturing all the ancient settlements and structures I could. Drynoch's isolation from big (well, "big"; this is Skye, not Yorkshire) population centers in 1001, already evident to me before I built this map, is nicely visualized here. I have no way of knowing if Drynoch existed at all back then, since William the Conqueror's Domesday Book—so useful to my Shropshire adventures—never reached this far north, but that works in our favor, too, since it leaves us free to invent, so long as we retain verisimilitude and internal consistency.

Ordnance Survey map of the vicinity of Drynoch, showing Dun Merkadale
Ordnance Survey map of the vicinity of Drynoch, showing Dun Merkadale
Great Britain's lovely and indispensable Ordnance Survey maps let me scout the immediate environs of Drynoch from the comfort of my home. Even though much has changed in the past thousand fifteen years, it's surprising based on the Domesday Book how much has not. Unlike America, which lost a lot of its history in the Great Plague and subsequent conquest of the Native Americans, Great Britain's history is deep. Wee villages and even the boundaries of fields have in many cases remained stable for twelve hundred years or more, so even a modern map like this is very helpful, when seen after spending years comparing modern Ordnance Survey maps to the Domesday Book.

Ordnance Survey Map of Dun Merkadale
Ordnance Survey Map of Dun Merkadale
In keeping with our haunted-isles-and-hollow-hills theme for the Scottish mythic underworld, I chose the nearest dun—Dun Merkadale as the setting for my take on In Search of the Unknown.

The Ordnance Survey website also includes an option to look at the same location using some of their earliest maps, which date back a century or two. Those maps are much closer to the geography of 1000, with a lovely look and feel, and make valuable gaming references if you're lucky enough to be running games in the British Isles.

For my Shropshire games back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I ordered both folding and rolled up maps to cover the areas we were gaming in. Seeing the locations of copses, wells, streams, cliffs, and ruins is extremely stimulating to story- and scenario-production when gaming, so it's a good investment if you're going to stick with a setting.

I've not yet made that investment for these adventures based on In Search of the Unknown because the remarkable professionals at Ordnance Survey somehow never got around to mapping the hollow hills and other settings of the mythic underworld with the same level of attention to detail and professionalism they brought to the surface world of mere mortals—and who can blame them, since the lands of the fae are so often difficult to pin down—so for the players' home base and other aboveground needs, captures of online maps are all we need for now.

I'm sure many of you are bemused by the absurd lengths to which I went to choose the setting for a module that originally had almost no description of the surrounding area, but I had good reasons. First, that very absence was noted by several reviewers of the module as a weak spot and was among the reasons Gary Gygax replaced it in the Basic D&D sets with B2 Keep on the Borderlands, because sandbox play is a fun element of D&D but it demands a sandbox, which B1 failed to provide. Second, just as the wells and springs and ruins on the Ordnance Survey maps for the Shropshire Highlands were creatively stimulating, so the details of this choice of settings has already proven very fertile ground for me, as I knew it would. Third, though, as I noted at the outset, for me this is not work; it's fun. There's no right or wrong way to prep your games, so long as you and your players are having a good time. Do what works for you. This works for me.

And so, without further ado, starting next post, we'll begin to recount the tale of Mahdi al-Wali, Sorcha the Urchin, and Evadne Moon-Touched as they venture In Search of the Unknown.

Monday, November 30, 2015

B1E Dun Merkadale: aka B1 In Search of the Unknown

In Search of the Unknown back-cover art by David Sutherland
In Search of the Unknown: David Sutherland's back-cover art
My regular Thursday-night gaming group—Brendan Barr, Eileen Gormly, Kathy Ice, and Beverly Marshall Saling—has been playing in Brendan's 13th Age campaign once a month when Eileen can join us, usually the first Thursday of the month. The remaining Thursdays I've been running them through the classic 1979 Dungeons & Dragons module B1, In Search of the Unknown.

B1's stated purpose is to introduce new dungeon masters to the art of designing and running their own dungeons. Author Mike Carr did the hard work of creating a dungeon—came up with the premise, built the maps, described the rooms, wrote guidance about how to DM, and built tables to help stock the dungeon with monsters and treasure—but deliberately left out the most creative parts for novice DMs to fill in: deciding which monsters and treasures to place where, working out their story, if any, and deciding whether or where to place a boss monster. One of B1's virtues, therefore, is that it's never the same module twice, because the DM's design choices can change everything. Its replay value is excellent.

When I found out my gaming group had never played any classic D&D modules, I knew that I wanted to be the one to introduce them and that this was the one I wanted to start them with. I never run a module the way it was published. I started gaming before there were modules, so building or at least tinkering is second nature to me, and this module is tinker-friendly.

In Englandia, Sutherland's tower becomes a mysterious Scottish broch.
Besides, I have to tinker with any module I run today for three reasons:

1) I've read far too many excellent articles from the Old-School Renaissance about the finest qualities in dungeon design not to want to apply them in my own dungeons. Who wants to play in an underground fortress when you can play in the mythic underworld!

2) Our game group isn't playing original or Holmes D&D, which B1 was written for, but Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet's 13th Age, which adds intriguing dimensions to the game, some of which I need to prep beforehand.

3) Since April 1997 I have DMed neither generic fantasy settings nor any commercial ones such as Greyhawk, Blackmoor, or Mystara but rather my own homebrew world of Englandia, based on Earth in the year 1000—if the supernatural were real, rare, and worked the way each real-world culture thought it did at the time. For example, instead of generic clerics, thieves, and fighters, Englandia has:

  • a Moon-touched Greek priestess of Artemis with a waxing-waning love-hate relationship with her goddess;
  • an inconspicuous basket-wielding Scottish urchin who only takes things because they call out to her and insist on going with her; and
  • a Persian Sufi demon-hunter traveling the world to free people from demons in the name of Allah the most merciful.

When the setting is this specific, the rules this different, and the mythic-underworld potential this rich, the module is definitely going to go through a transformation.

In this next series of posts at Oaths and Fates, I'll share our party's play sessions, with diversions about the module, the setting, the rules, the Old-School Renaissance, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Since my players are having a blast, they agreed we should share the fun with all y'all.

One caveat: since my players have never been through this module before, I'm not going to explain things they have not encountered or figured out yet, and I ask that you do the same. In Search of the Unknown is known for its mysteries and surprises, so let's ensure these players get to enjoy them.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

13th Age

Work has continued to consume my life, but it's long since time to reassert some better work-home balance. Life must hold its share of joy and mirth. To that end, I'm resuming work on Oaths and Fates. The continuing history of Wizards of the Coast will resume a little later; several of us are discussing teaming up on the project, which can only help enrich the history. For now, let's return to some simple gaming fun.

What's happened in my gaming world since 2011?

My 2010 plans to run my regular party - Beverly Saling, Kathy Ice, and Eileen Gormly - through Michael Curtis's Stonehell Dungeon using Jonathan Tweet's Everway game system was sidelined by work and illness, so I shifted to playing instead of running games. We were joined by Brendan Barr to play Danger Quest and D&D 4th Edition in 2010 through 2012. Late 2012 and early 2013, I played an early draft of D&D Next with Peter Adkison DMing and filming for his project The First Paladin, which gave me some quality time with our dear friend CJ before his unexpected and untimely passing. I also did some prep with a third gaming group to play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which has not yet come to fruition, though someday it may yet.

All of these entertaining distractions helped postpone my plans for Everway, but it was Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet's 13th Age project that put an end to them, because 13th Age is a fascinating creation and the focus for my playing and DMing these days.

We've been playing 13th Age - intermittently, as illness and my work schedule allow - for the past two years and enjoy it greatly. I've even started DMing again - I ran sessions in May, June, and December of last year, and resumed again this month.

Some day I'll pick back up my Stonehell Dungeon project with 13th Age instead of Everway, but for now I've shifted my DMing focus to the classic D&D and AD&D modules we grew up with. Beverly never got to play in those modules, and she'd like to experience them, so we're recreating the classic modules of D&D using 13th Age rules set in the mythic Englandia of 1000 AD. I'll be sharing background and play sessions of the party's complete run through these adventures, starting with the module that launched so many of us, B1 In Search of the Unknown by Mike Carr.

I hope you find our weird mix of historical fantasy, classic role-playing structures, and modern role-playing rules entertaining and enlightening.