Thursday, 13 July 2017

I'm the Worst Part 2

Apologies for the missed post, whoever's reading this. Despite my apparent resolve in the last post, I spent the whole weekend fretting about what to run for my new group and how. I stopped and started a bunch of notes that didn't go anywhere. I drew an entire dungeon level and keyed half of it before scrapping both. Finally, on the way over to the game I decided on just straight up running Keep on the Borderlands, and then changed my mind again literally while the players were rolling up characters.

What I ended up going with, and am now committed to (thank God), is Keep of the Borderland with my own megadungeon, The Maze of the Mad Magus, in place of the Caves of Chaos. I came up with the name that morning; I had Castle Greyhawk on my mind, having almost decided to run Greyhawk Ruins of all fucking things (and I still might have if the maps weren't so goddamn terrible). I was going to just use the first level of Stonehell and then start drawing my own maps for the subsequent levels, but the duo never even left the Keep because they immediately got suspicious of everyone's favourite Friendly Priest Who Is Actually an Evil Cultist and spent the session spying on, and avoiding being assassinated by, him. That's given me a chance to work on the first level, which is actually looking pretty good, but we'll see if I get enough done in time for it to be useful.

For the purposes of that first session. I gave my players the thinnest of back stories: Xilbog, the eponymous Mad Magus, built the Maze some three hundred years prior, disappeared about two hundred years after that, and the place has since become a popular adventuring locale; the Keep (which I'm still calling Castle Goatmass, though I've dropped the additional village) was built to keep an eye on the place and to facilitate adventurers moving in and out and contributing to the local economy.

For next session, I hope to have an elaborate rumour table completed (more on this, and why I love rumour tables, next time), but the first thing I've had to establish are some basic facts about the Maze and its history; these are the things the PCs probably already know, or can easily find out from pretty much anyone in the area. Let's call them "non-rumours":



  1. The Maze was built some 300 years ago (when the Kingdom of Elisbury was still fractured into the warring territories of various barbarian tribes) by a magic user named Xilbog, who would later come to be known as “the Mad Magus.”
  2. With the Maze as his base of operations, Xilbog wreaked havoc on the barbarians, and later on the Kingdom, for a century. A truce was finally drawn: Xilbog was to leave Elisbury alone in exchange for being granted sovereign control of the land around the Maze; this is why Elisbury never expanded into the unclaimed wilderness to the south (a similar treaty was struck with the Dwarf Kingdom which lies underneath Elisbury). A custom was established of the Truce being formally re-affirmed every ten years.
  3. On the eleventh reaffirmation day (i.e. on the one hundred and tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Truce), Xilbog did not arrive at the customary meeting point. He failed to show up again ten years later. A small expeditionary force was sent to the Maze, and found it overrun by goblins, orcs, and other monsters. It was learned (through questioning some of these creatures) that Xilbog hadn’t been seen nor heard from in twenty years, and that creatures he had employed to guard the Maze or for other tasks had opted to just take over the first few levels of the complex for themselves. Other creatures had subsequently moved in, including whole tribes. That first expeditionary force returned with considerable quantities of gold and magic items, which began to attract adventurers to the area.
  4. After learning of the Magus’ disappearance, Elisbury tentatively established Castle Goatmass at the southern border not far from the Maze, both to guard against creatures emerging from the place and to attempt to begin the southward expansion which was so long denied it. Having a civilized outpost nearby increased adventurer traffic, which in turn began to boost the local economy. A small township grew up within the walls of the Castle, to cater to the needs of adventurers and those doing business with adventurers. 
  5. There were initially disputes between Elisbury and the Dwarf Kingdom which lies underneath it (the two have long been strong allies) over whether human adventurers have any rights to enter the Maze and take its riches, given that it is underground and thus arguably belongs to the dwarves. The counter-argument goes that it never belonged to anyone but Xilbog and it should thus not be taken for granted that ownership should now pass to the dwarves just because it happens to be beneath the earth. After heated negotiations the consensus was finally reached that the Maze formally belongs to both kingdoms, who each have the right to tax half of the total revenue any adventuring party brings out (regardless of whether said adventuring party consists of humans, dwarves, or for that matter elves or halflings).
  6. It is not known how large or how deep the Maze is. Only the first few levels have been extensively explored, and even these have unknown corners.
  7.  Adventurers have established a permanent settlement of sorts in the rooms closest to the entrance, replete with places to sleep, buy supplies, and get a drink.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Fuck Dragonborn

Which is to say: I've changed my mind once again, but at least only about system this time. My new game is next week, and I decided to push for B/X instead of 5th edition, which everyone else was fine with (most are new to D&D and have no real preferences, except for one person who actively dislikes 5th, so).

It's not really because of dragonborn, it's because of the inevitable logistical nightmare of playing 5th when none of us have physical copies of the books and none of us really know the system that well. I know B/X pretty well now, the essential rules are simple enough you could put them on an index card, and there are no fiddly abilities and a gazillion customization options for character creation; for 5th, as for most later incarnations of D&D (probably even including 1st), you really need a book in hand to make a character, but that's not the case here. I like that. And yes, I'm moving from Labyrinth Lord to the source, but it's not really that big of a leap; funnily enough, I actually like the way Moldvay's Basic book is laid out better than the LL book, although the advantage of the latter is obviously that the contents of the Expert book are also worked in and don't have to be separately consulted. Still, like with all new gaming groups it's unclear if this one will even make it past the first session, so Basic is good enough for my purposes right now.

But, also, fuck dragonborn. They're easily the worst idea in the history of the game. You take this iconic, eponymous monster that has always signified "we're into the real shit now," since basically The Hobbit, and then go, "Oh yeah, you can basically play one." By the time you fight a real dragon, it's not a big deal if your party is already half dragonborn. It takes away the mystery, the awe, the sense of sheer terror, that the dragon can and should evoke.

Really, it's a problem that has its roots in 3rd edition, when suddenly a whole bunch of monster races had rules for turning them into player characters. I mean, I think the half-dragon, which is basically the dragonborn, is from 3rd. It's not a problem which stems from Council of Wyrms, the 2nd Edition setting where you play actual dragons, because I thought it retained a lot of what made dragons mysterious and interesting - and in any case I'm not even sure it's fair to call it a D&D setting, since it makes so many changes to both mechanics and fundamental premise.

But ANYway. I'm still standing my ground as far as setting goes. I've got my village: Goatmass, in the Kingdom of Elisbury (thanks, Judges Guild random name tables!). It stands on the edge of a swamp that used to be the home of a sinister cult which was subsequently wiped out, but which it is rumoured is on the rise again. The whole setup is, obviously, heavily informed by The Village of Hommlet, but I want to develop a vibe of "sinister backwoods England" that I don't think is quite there.

The main dungeon will be accessible through a crumbling manor house that used to be a cult headquarters. I also think I'll be dropping in the Keep from Keep on the Borderlands as "Castle Goatmass," and I'll probably include the Caves of Chaos as well. My thinking at this point is that both the Caves and the basement of the manor house will connect to an elaborate cavern/dungeon system to which the Cult retreated and in which it is currently rebuilding itself.

But more on this next time!

Monday, 3 July 2017

I'm the Worst

Hey, it's next time, and I have in fact changed my mind about what I'm running again.

Sort of. To be more precise: I've changed my mind about the scale I should be working at. It's fun to try and figure out the general thread and theme of a whole campaign setting and to draw a big world map, but at the end of the day that's just not really the level at which the game is actually played. Published campaign settings are expansive and large-scale because that's what makes them worth buying: a bunch of background work has been done for you and you can drill down into the specifics of whatever particular region or adventure hook catches your fancy.

When it comes to doing it yourself though, that kind of work often turns out to have been superfluous. Campaigns often spend multiple real-life years in a relatively small in-game space. Yes, having done a bunch of background work beforehand can help make thing seem richer, but so can taking the time you took to do that to design a small area and make it cohesive and interesting. Background can emerge organically; that's how it's going to happen for the players, in any case. Those big infodumpy speeches you give at the beginnings of campaigns to explain how the setting works? Nobody's listening, dude. I know this from the experience of attempting to run various published settings, for both D&D and other games, including settings like Planescape that seem to demand that players have a bunch of extra information up front. In pretty much every case, as far as I can tell, if players don't already know the setting, they absorb it through play, and they understand it primarily in the context of what happened in play. So if having a bunch of information up front doesn't really do the players any good, it doesn't seem like it does the DM any good either.

I know all of this, intuitively, but I still seem to have gotten caught up in big grand world-building. Even going "I'm going to set this in the Wilderlands" got me into all kinds of trouble as I started expanding and tweaking things that would take months for my players to actually experience, if they ever did.

Part of the problem is that I've become too enamored of the idea of  the "sandbox hex crawl," or at least with a certain idea of one typified by the Wilderlands and by modern incarnations like Carcosa. The truth is, I just don't need to detail that much real estate right off the bat. The classic beginning-of-campaign paradigm is "Everyone starts in a tavern and then goes and explores a nearby dungeon" for a reason. A single village or town and its surroundings are more than enough for a good sandbox - certainly for its early stages, and probably enough for an entire campaign. The entirety of Skyrim fits into a single six mile hex. In terms of what you directly need to start a campaign and even to maintain it long-term, the Wilderlands paradigm is perhaps a bad example to follow.

So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to design a village or small town, probably with the help of the many random tables in Judges' Guilds Villages 1, and probably kinda-sorta based on The Village of Hommlet. I'm not going to worry about what the continent it's in looks like or what the nation it's in is like or what the larger geopolitical situation is or whether elves and dwarves get along or any of that shit. I'm going to take the time I would have spent worrying about that shit and apply it to fleshing it out the village and its inhabitants in reasonable detail and designing the first couple levels of a large-ish dungeon that will be nearby and to giving some thought to a usefully vague and malleable "vibe" for the kind of game I want to run. There will also be some other dungeons nearby, that I'll probably take from classic modules. I'll come up with a rumour table full of adventure hooks that may or may not hint at broader things going on in the world at large. I may even work out a single six-mile hex's worth of map, probably at a half-mile-per-sub-hex scale. And then I'll just let shit develop from there.

So that's my plan. Join me next week when I really sincerely fucking hope to God I haven't changed my mind again.