My local Barnes and Noble has finally found the proper niche for Dungeons & Dragons products:
So… is D&D Humorous, Helpful, or Odd? Or is the sign suggesting that it’s all of the above? I could live with that.by
My local Barnes and Noble has finally found the proper niche for Dungeons & Dragons products:
So… is D&D Humorous, Helpful, or Odd? Or is the sign suggesting that it’s all of the above? I could live with that.by
When my wife and I finally made the choice to became real Americans (i.e. go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to buy a house), one of my requirements was that said house have some sort of subterranean chamber which I could convert into a basement game room. One year later, my game lair is finally ready.
Of course, no game room is complete without cheesy posters adorning the walls. No longer being 13, I can’t get away with supermodel pinups or Megadeth posters. But this is a perfect excuse to dig out those vintage game posters I’ve been hauling with me around the country for the last two decades. After a few trips to Hobby Lobby to pick up some cheap poster frames, here’s what’s hanging on the walls of my game room. (I apologize for the flash glare in some of these… if my game room had adequate lighting, it would not be authentic.)
First up is a pair of (unfortunately fairly weathered) Battletech Mech schematics, bought way back in the early days of FASA:
On the opposite wall, découpaged to an oh-so-classy piece of wood, is the map that came with one of my favorite Infocom games, Beyond Zork:
And now back to Battletech. The only Commodore 64 game I played as much as Wasteland was Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception. It was my introduction to Battletech, and ever since, the poster that came with it remains the iconic Battletech image in my mind:
Moving along, we have (surprise) another Infocom poster, this one of one of their least-known games: Quarterstaff: The Tomb of Setmoth. It was a quirky RPG/text-adventure hybrid (and only available on the Mac, strangely); but I really enjoyed it back in high school.
No game collection in the late 80s/early 90s was complete without at least one SSI Gold Box AD&D game. Here was mine:
The next item is a change of pace: a poster that came with one of my favorite NES games, Dragon Warrior. This game was surpassed not long after its release by Final Fantasy I, but was a great deal of fun. And it has one of the most annoying/awesome catchy soundtracks of any NES-era game.
And last but not least, I devoted most of an entire wall to one of the most iconic locations in D&D: Undermountain, the megadungeon. I framed three of the four maps that came in the 2e Undermountain boxed set:
So that’s what’s hanging on the walls of my basement game lair. I like to think of it as inspirational artwork. And believe it or not, there’s a stack of maps and posters that I’ll have to put back in storage because there wasn’t room to frame them too….by
Of all the skeletons in my GMing closet, perhaps the darkest is this: I almost never use random encounter tables, even when running games with a deliberately “old-school” vibe.
Why do I ignore this staple of roleplaying? Well, my experience with using random encounters can be summed up in these two memories, both of them from my early days of GMing.
Random encounter #1: the best thing ever. When I first started GMing (with Middle-Earth Role Playing, which was a trimmed-down version of Rolemaster), I followed to the letter all of those rules that, in later years, I learned to sometimes skim over: encumbrance, travel times, and—yes—random wilderness encounters. For one of our first-ever games, I ran the “Ar-Gular’s keep” adventure included with the MERP rulebook. Faithfully following the rules for wilderness travel, I rolled on the random encounter chart to see what, if anything, would happen while the party of 1st-level adventurers set up camp.
I rolled, did a double-take at the result, but never even considered “cheating” by ignoring what was almost certainly going to be a total-party kill: a troll.
In Middle-Earth, trolls are nasty. The party, caught unawares while they camped, was almost certainly going to die. But the encounter chart said TROLL, so a troll it was. (This was the Trollshaws, after all.)
A frantic, panicky combat ensued. Things were not looking good for our heroes. And then, in a stroke of awe-inspiring luck only possible when you’re using Rolemaster’s glorious critical hit charts, one of the characters did the impossible: with one frenzied jab of his sword, he killed the troll.
It was, as they say, a one-in-a-million roll, one that turned a nearly-certain party massacre into the most memorable possible introduction to roleplaying. And it would never have happened if I had massaged the random-encounter results or picked out a “balanced” encounter.
This was followed by another random encounter.
Random encounter #2: the worst thing ever. A few months later, the characters had been through many adventures in Middle-Earth and were coming into their own as true adventurers. One character, an elf ranger, had after much heroic toil reached 3rd level (dizzying heights of glory, from our perspective). I was growing more confident in my GMing abilities, and so when the player asked to head off on his own on a personal quest, I heartily agreed.
I spent time designing an adventure around his character’s backstory and goals. Accompanied by a few NPC henchmen, he set off on his quest, which took him through a vast swampland.
I faithfully rolled for random encounters as he journeyed through the swamp, and sure enough—he ran into an obstacle: an alligator. A regular alligator, not a Dire Alligator or a Sauronic Minion Alligator. Figuring that a quick battle against the reptile would get the action going (what is an alligator going to do to a noble elf warrior?), I set the beast loose against the player.
You can guess what happened. A few unbelievable dice rolls and several profanity-filled combat rounds later, the party was dead and the noble elf, hero of Middle-Earth, was bleeding out from a severed leg. With no help anywhere in range, this mighty Noldor, distant heir of Feanor, creator of the Silmarils in an Age long past, bled to death in an alligator attack straight out of late-night TV.
Remember that epic scene from Lord of the Rings where the Fellowship is mauled by a random alligator? Yeah, neither do I. Because that would be stupid.
It seems silly in retrospect, but at the time it was a severely frustrating experience. The player had spent months building up his character and it had all been thrown away not with an epic fight against the Dark Lord’s minions, but with a random and meaningless alligator attack. And the time I had put into adventure prep designing a quest tailored for his character were rendered rather pointless.
I realize now that there were plenty of things that both I and the player could have done differently to avoid stupid, non-heroic reptilian death. But the lesson I learned was that random encounters, while they had the potential to be memorable and entertaining, also had the potential to spoil a game session. Having seen random encounters used to good effect in games like Rogue Trader, I’m starting to accept that they do add something challenging and exciting to a game. These days I make use of what you might call semi-random encounters: encounters rolled randomly but then adjusted a bit for balance or storyline coherence.
But while the memory of that epic troll kill still warms my heart, it will be a while before I put my complete trust in the random encounter table again.
What about you? Do you adhere to random encounter results… and have you ever lived to regret it?by
Last week I saw Prince of Persia. While I wouldn’t call it a classic for the ages (it turns out that “the best video game adaptation to date!” is not especially high praise), it did get me wondering what sort of “1001 Arabian Nights”-inspired roleplaying games are out there. While I’m most interested in the “flying carpets, evil djinn, and sinister viziers” style of game, I wouldn’t mind a more historical game, either.
I was surprised to find that there isn’t a whole lot out there. Granted, it’s a niche genre within a niche hobby, but if samurai Japan and Arthurian Britain have managed have long-running roleplaying games, you’d think somebody would’ve kept the lamp of Arabian gaming burning over the years. At any rate, here’s what I’ve found; if you know of any I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments!
The Arabian Nights-style game that springs to mind immediately is Al-Qadim for the long-defunct AD&D 2nd edition. At one point I owned this rulebook and was impressed by it (it was lavishly illustrated in full color, I recall), but if I still own it, it’s buried in a box in my basement somewhere. This was pretty heavy on the fantasy ends of things, and to my knowledge did not attempt to tie itself into real-life history at all. Has anybody played it, and can you comment on the general quality of the line?
GURPS Arabian Nights (for 3rd edition) is available as a PDF, and I know nothing about it except what the product description lists—it looks like a nice combination of both fantastic and historical “Arabia.” Tempting to grab a copy purely on the strength of other GURPS historical supplements.
Paizo’s Legacy of Fire adventure path is set in the Arabia-analogue region of their published campaign setting for 3rd edition D&D. I actually ran the first few adventures in this series last year, and it was fun, although it didn’t quite evoke the flying-carpets feel of Prince of Persia. That may have been my failing as GM, but I also think Legacy of Fire is meant to be D&D first and Prince of Persia second. That said, there are a few supporting supplements that flesh out Paizo’s fantasy version of the Middle East, and one of them has a bonafide flying carpet on the cover. And hey, if all faux-Zoroastrian clerics looked as good as this, I’d convert in a heartbeat.
Perhaps most promising-looking is Paradigm Concepts’ Tales of the Caliphate Nights. It looks grounded in semi-historical Arabia and appears to cover Islam in a somewhat serious manner—certainly one of the most intimidating parts of gaming in this genre.
Listing these out, it seems that there actually is a decent array of 1001 Nights-type games… they’re just spread across several different game systems (some of them defunct), so you’d need to be willing to loot from several sources and port the end results into the system of your choice.
What good books have I missed that support Prince of Persia-style gaming, or a more historical version thereof?
Update: I just remembered another one: Veil of Night for Vampire: the Dark Ages. I’m guessing this supplement does not have a lot in the way of light-hearted princess-rescuing flying-carpet action… but if I’m wrong, please oh please correct me, because, well, Prince of Persia where the titular prince is a vampire sounds kind of awesome, in a terrible sort of way.by
Over the last year, I played through Bioshock and its sequel, the appropriately-named Bioshock 2. Both are very good games. In both, you assume the roll of an “outsider” exploring the wreckage of a failed underwater utopia called Rapture; as you progress through the ruins, you learn about the politics, intrigue, and violence that “wrecked” Rapture and paved the way for your arrival on the scene.
The backstories of both games are filled with warring political factions, double agents, megalomaniacal villains (on all sides), betrayal, mass murder, twisted science, and sordid affairs. Or so is implied by the bits and pieces of history you pick up as you roam through the game.
By contrast, the plots that you, the player, experience are interesting, but rather tame by comparison. It is not inaccurate to say that in both games, you’re merely playing out the epilogue of a grander, more intriguing story that has already taken place.
I feel a bit ridiculous critiquing the Bioshocks on these grounds, because as it happens, both feature excellent plots and memorable characters. But both games teeter on the brink of an age-old danger in game design: making the game background so interesting and involved that it threatens to overshadow the players and their stories.Related to this problem is the fantasy genre staple of the “lost golden age”—an era in the distant past in which everything was simply more awesome in every respect than the current age. Think Middle-Earth’s First Age; Exalted’s (uh) First Age, 4th edition D&D’s fallen empire of Nerath, all post-apocalyptic games, many sci-fi games, etc. (Exalted does get bonus points for actually publishing a sourcebook on its lost golden age.)
I know there are some excellent reasons that “golden ages” don’t make great adventuring settings—but surely I’m not the only person who, upon reading about the greatness of what came before, occasionally wonders why I’m not adventuring in that setting, instead of picking my way through its wreckage.
What about you? Ever played a computer or tabletop game and been more interested in its backstory than its current setting?by
Randall at RetroRoleplaying has written an interesting post on doing “save the world” fantasy in a sandbox setting in response to my own post on the subject. He argues that it can be done, and lays out how to do it. Go give it a read!by
I ran a game of Castles & Crusades on Friday evening for my wife and a friend. I realized two things:
I’ve run C&C off-and-on for several years now; it’s my go-to game when we want to do something with an old-school vibe but don’t feel like wrangling with the generally Byzantine rules of the actual old-school games themselves. It’s trivially easy to master and to teach to new players, and yet it manages to preserve most of the charm of Gygax-era D&D.
We played through the first half of Shadows of the Halfling Hall. Despite the aforementioned cold medication, it was surprisingly fun. It’s rather rare, in my experience, to come across adventures set in halfling/hobbit settlements, which due to the nature of their inhabitants tend to be dull, safe, and pleasant locations. Kudos to Troll Lord Games for finding a fun way to work dungeon crawls and zombies into Hobbiton-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off.
(Speaking of Hobbiton, one of the better MERP supplements was The Shire, which did a nice job of showing how many adventure possibilities lurk within the superficially dull Hobbit homeland.)by
Writing my last post on epic adventure paths in D&D got me thinking about some of the most famous adventure sagas in other roleplaying systems. Consider these famous game campaigns, all of which are considered to encapsulate the essence of the games for which they were published:
I’m not familiar with every one of these, but I know that each of these campaigns lets players participate in a significant, world-changing storyline within the framework of the game. They involve lots of travel to interesting locations around the game world, a wide variety of opponents and challenges, and memorable scenes and characters of the sort that players will reminisce about years later.
One game that almost never got around to publishing a “Tolkien-esque” campaign saga was, ironically, Middle Earth Role Playing.
MERP has often been criticized for being “D&D in Middle-Earth”—for using the setting and trappings of Tolkien to do the same dungeon crawls and treasure-hunting that characterized D&D, rather than empowering players to live out grand stories in the vein of The Lord of the Rings.
This is true to a large extent. The modules published for MERP exhaustively detailed particular geographic points of interest in Middle-Earth (and their wonderful thoroughness makes them a joy to read even now the game itself is long defunct). But despite the obvious obsession with Tolkien that produced such thorough game modules, there was rarely any effort to lay out an epic quest or adventure that would tie all those locations together. It’s as if the game writers assumed that what people loved about Tolkien was the detail of the setting rather than the characters and storyline of Tolkien’s tales.
You could, of course, create your own epic, Lord of the Rings-scale quest, but it was odd that the published game rarely helped you do this; it seemed to assume your party would rather stick around the Barrow-Downs for months raiding tomb after tomb for petty magic items, instead of passing through them as part of a bigger, more epic heroic quest. Toward the end of the MERP timeline, Iron Crown did publish at least one product that took aim at an epic storyline: Palantir Quest, which set the PCs off on a quest for a lost palantir. It was good, but was the only product of its type (that I’m aware of).
Maybe it didn’t sell well; maybe most gamers didn’t want epic quest campaigns. It’s impossible to know for sure now—but if more like it had been published, maybe MERP would have its own “classic campaign” to add to the list of all-time favorite game sagas above. As it is, it’s unfortunate that the roleplaying game based on the greatest fantasy narrative of all time shied away from, well, great fantasy narratives.by
Looking back at the many adventure modules published for D&D through the decades, a distinction between two types of published adventure becomes evident.
On one side are what you might call “sandbox” or “old school” adventure modules, which sketch out a slew of locations and adventure opportunities in a particular geographic area. It is assumed that the PCs will engage the adventure at the points and pace that appeal them, based on their own motivations. This type of module is well represented by Keep on the Borderlands, which describes a “home base” surrounded by dangerous wilderness, and expects the PCs to carve out their own adventures within that very broad frame.
On the other side are “plot point” or “adventure path” modules, which cropped up a bit later in D&D’s history but continue to be popular. These are more focused adventures that expect the PCs to adhere to a pre-ordained plotline, moving through the module’s challenges in a particular order that shuttles them from beginning to end. The DL-series of Dragonlance modules is the most famous example of this type of adventure (and Paizo’s Pathfinder adventure paths are the modern incarnation).
(Of course, the distinction isn’t always black-and-white; there are many modules both old and new that combine elements of both the “sandbox” and “adventure path” extremes. But for the sake of discussion, I’ll define them as two sharply distinct adventure types.)
It is held by many gamers, particularly those of the “old school renaissance” crowd, that D&D at its best can be found in sandbox adventures, and that adventure paths marked a step away from what made D&D so good. Adventure paths are restrictive, limit player choice, and replace the open-ended nature of roleplaying with a canned narrative that players must follow in order to complete the module.
While there’s of course some truth in that assessment, I want to step forward in defense of the adventure path. This is partly because my introduction to D&D was through those railroad-y, narrative-heavy Dragonlance modules. But also because I see the development of the adventure path as an effort to correct an imbalance in the D&D game itself.
To oversimplify things a bit, D&D draws heavily from at least two very different strands of fantasy literature: the grim and sometimes savage world of “swords and sorcery” (think Conan); and epic, heavily plotted, highly moral high fantasy (think Tolkien). The influence of Conan-esque swords and sorcery can be seen in many core elements of D&D: dungeons to explore; treasure and money as a prime motivation for adventuring; the heavy representation of rogue-ish classes like the Thief, Bard, Assassin, and Illusionist; a very deadly world; and more. The influence of Tolkien-esque fantasy can be seen in many other elements: the character races available for play; lots of strange and interesting magic weapons and items; parties of adventurers who all work together; and countless “classic” monsters.
But imagine for a moment that you are a Tolkien-obsessed teenager in the early 80s (and at that time there were more teenage boys obsessed with Tolkien than with Howard, I would venture to say.) You’ve picked up a cool new game called D&D because the game’s art, language, and contents promise Tolkien-esque awesomeness: dwarves and hobbits! Rangers! Orcs! Magic swords! But scouring the available adventure modules published for the game, what do you find? Lots and lots of modules that pit you against very localized, non-epic, Conan-esque challenges: bandit attacks. Bands of slavers. Tribes of goblins. Tombs with traps.
Even the most epic of these modules generally kept the action fairly local in nature. You might save a town from a gang of bandits or take out an evil wizard or foil a demon’s plan, but you never saved the world, fulfilled an ancient prophecy, travelled across a continent to rescue a princess, or anything like what the heroes of Narnia or Middle-Earth get to do. D&D did a great job of letting you be Conan, raiding tombs for loot and collecting the bounty on kobold heads. At very high levels (which the general lethality of the game made difficult to attain), you might aspire to save a city-state or become the ruler of a kingdom.
But sometimes, if you were a Tolkien-obsessed teenage boy, you wanted to be Frodo or Legolas or Aragorn, doing something Really Important with the fate of the entire world resting on your shoulders.
And the “adventure path” type of module, starting with the Dragonlance series, aims to do exactly that. You’re not an unknown adventurer who might one day hit level 5 if he kills enough goblins. You’re an unknown adventurer who is going to change the entire world. Your quest will send you on a whirlwind tour of the whole wide world, rather than requiring you to spend months delving deeper and deeper, level by level, into the depths of a single dungeon underneath a ruin in the middle of nowhere. The price you pay for this epic narrative is relinquishing a certain amount of player control; you have to follow where the plot leads, trusting that the narrative payoff will be sufficiently epic to make it worthwhile. In a true sandbox game environment, with its emphasis on random encounters and total player freedom, it’s very difficult for a game group to put together a Tolkien-style epic fantasy story. Even the well-regarded G-D-Q-series of modules, which ended on an epic note, felt more like a loosely-connected series of dungeon campaigns than a Lord of the Rings-style saga.
In a podcast interview two years ago, Margaret Weis (co-author of those Dragonlance modules I keep mentioning) described the thinking that prompted TSR to take a chance on a narrative-heavy, epic adventure path:
[Dragonlance co-author] Tracy [Hickman] envisioned Dragonlance as a story arc that expanded over twelve different modules. He was really opposed to what was happening at the time with modules, which he kind of said was like “Find the dragon, kill the dragon, steal the dragon’s treasure, and then next month you find the dragon, kill the dragon, steal the dragon’s treasure.” His idea was that the heroes would have a nobler purpose and goal in mind, and that to achieve this they would launch out on an adventure would get more complicated and more dangerous from one module to the next.
I don’t think D&D needed fixing, exactly, but as Weis hints here, something like a creative rut had developed in the way people approached D&D modules. Sandbox adventuring was and is great. But I think there was a creative gap in the world of D&D gaming; here was a game that drew heavily from Tolkien and his successors but which made it difficult to actually play out the very things everyone loved about Tolkien’s stories. Before we condemn narrative-heavy story-modules like Dragonlance or Ravenloft or Pathfinder, consider that they’re trying to put D&D back in touch with the other half of its roots.
What does this mean today? Well, adventure paths are alive and well, as Paizo’s success demonstrates; and the “old school renaissance” has demonstrated that sandbox adventuring is as fun and viable as ever. Some of the best old-school gaming blogs (like Grognardia) have been praising old-school products and fan material that moves classic D&D in new and interesting directions without sacrificing the old-school vibe—as opposed to endlessly republishing variants of Keep on the Borderlands or Tomb of Horrors. What, I wonder, would be the result if today’s old-school designers took on the challenge of the adventure path? Learn from the mistakes made in the Dragonlance modules, of course; and take hints from the understated but intriguing narrative arcs of the A- and D-series of modules… but with the goal of giving that Tolkien-obsessed teenager with a copy of Labyrinth Lord something to get excited about? I’d love to see what might result!by
I’m getting ready to run a dungeon crawl on Friday night for my wife and some friends. In casting about for a good published dungeon to use (yes, I’m too
lazy busy to create my own), my mind darted immediately to The Temple of Elemental Evil, the classic megadungeon. I can’t run the entire megadungeon in one night, of course; but there’s a neat mini-dungeon near the beginning of the module (the Moathouse) that makes for a great short adventure. I’ve run it several times independently of the much more monstrous Temple, and it’s always gone well.
Unfortunately, my copy of TToEE is literally falling apart from age and heavy use. Perhaps, I thought to myself, it’s time to replace it. And while I’m replacing it, wasn’t there a fun-looking Hackmaster adaptation of it a few years ago? Maybe I could pick up a used copy and try that out!
Off to check the used dealers on Amazon, then. Uh:
That’s just a little outside my budget. Maybe I’ll come up with my own dungeon after all.by