As I promised last week, I’m continuing on my stroll down memory lane, reviewing the RPG adventures I designed over my gaming career. Over the years many people have asked me, “How did you get started as a game designer?” or “What was it like to work at TSR?” Well, you’re going to get a little peek behind the curtain at what it’s like to design games for a living as I continue through my list of published adventures. If you’re into the history of D&D, I hope you’ll find my own little contributions interesting. If not, maybe these discussions will point you at some decent old adventures you could pick up and repurpose for your current campaign—most of these can still be found in places like Amazon, DriveThru, or the more cluttered sort of FLGS. (That’s Friendly Local Gaming Store, for those who don’t know.)
I should note that 28 adventures is not the sum and total of my D&D bibliography, by the way. I’ve written or contributed to over a hundred game products over the years. It’s just that 28 of them are specifically published adventures. Maybe I’ll do a series on sourcebooks or character classes or something later on. Anyway, on to this week’s entry: Dark of the Moon.
2. Dark of the Moon
My second published adventure was Dark of the Moon, a Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition adventure for the Ravenloft Campaign Setting. I worked on the adventure in 1992, and it was published in 1993. It was the only Ravenloft adventure I wrote during my career at TSR and Wizards of the Coast, although I did make a couple of small contributions to the setting in other spots (I seem to recall that I came up with Captain Pieter van Riese, the “Flying Dutchman” of the Sea of Sorrows).
In my early years at TSR, one of the most exciting events for the designers and editors each year was the annual assignment of specific people to specific projects. Bruce Heard was the schedule master for the department, and he would send around a copy of the product schedule for the upcoming year. Each one of us would look over the list and submit our requests for the things we wanted to be assigned to. I suppose it was a little like registering for college classes—you knew it was going to be a big part of your quality of life in the next few months, you could see at a glance that some projects would necessarily be exclusive of each other because they would need to be worked on at the same time, and you knew that all your colleagues would be competing with you to get the coolest and most interesting projects. Usually, you’d get a couple of your top picks, and then you’d get a couple of things you hadn’t asked for because somebody had to work on them.
Dark of the Moon was one of those “other” projects for me. There was a tight group of Ravenloft fanatics among the creatives at TSR—Bill Connors, Bruce Nesmith, Andria Hayday, and David Wise spring to mind. Personally, I was hoping for more Dark Sun or Spelljammer work. But any D&D assignment is a good D&D assignment, so I set out to do the best I could with it.
The first thing I will note about Dark of the Moon is that I actually appear on the cover. I mean, I am in the cover painting. I’m the face in profile in the lower left corner, gaping at the werewolf that is breaking through the window. Robh Ruppel, the cover artist, was actually on-staff with TSR at the time, and worked just down the hall in the artists’ bullpen. He approached me and asked if I’d be willing to pose, so I went over to his house one Saturday morning, and he took some photos at the proper angle that he could work from. During that time period, several of the artists liked to borrow folks around TSR as models from time to time, so if you look over covers in the early to mid ‘90s, you’ll see quite a few of us! Later on in my career at Wizards we lost the staff artists, which I always felt was a great shame—having artists in the same building led to some great collaboration, and it meant that I didn’t get into any more paintings, darn it.
Okay, now on to the adventure. Before I was assigned to it, the title and the general plot (a werewolf adventure) had already been set in stone. The Ravenloft brain trust pointed me in the direction of Vorostokov, from the Domains of Dread set. So, a good deal of Gregor Zolnik’s story and the general outline of the domain were already in place when I was asked to write Dark of the Moon. I can’t claim credit for coming up with the loup du noir or the domain.
As it happens, I’m very interested in Russian history and culture. During college I took a solid year of Russian history, and Vorostokov gave me the perfect venue for exploring some fantasy-Russia themes in an adventure. The other theme I figured out that needed to be explored was the idea of losing control. The heart of the werewolf legend is the fear of becoming a monster. So, to present PCs with a really engaging werewolf adventure, I figured it was important to get the players wondering if their characters were going to turn or not, and maybe even force them to examine the question of whether they wanted to be heroes or be survivors.
The last thing I wanted to feature in the adventure was using the weather as an adversary. Since the whole premise of Gregor Zolkin’s tragedy is that cold and starvation brought him to the worst sort of desperation, I wanted to make sure the players got the chance to walk a mile in his shoes. Most D&D adventures hand-wave any kind of survival challenge; the D&D rules really don’t handle things like slowly freezing to death or starving in snowy woods very well. So, I devoted a few pages to refining some detailed systems for tracking those things in an “Exposure and Survival” section.
(Quick side note: I just recently read In the Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides. It tells the story of the polar expedition of USS Jeannette, which was crushed by the ice north of Siberia. The crew trekked over the ice to the huge delta of the Lena River, but couldn’t reach any settlements before winter set in. Cold, hunger, loneliness . . . the same ingredients as Dark of the Moon, but all the more terrible because it really happened. It’s worth a read.)
Looking back on the adventure now, I think it shows a lot of the same 90’s sensibilities that Dragon’s Crown did. I wrote more read-aloud text than I needed to, and the plot takes control of the PCs more than it probably should. The prevailing design sensibility back then was to write a good story and present a memorable narrative, even if that meant limiting player agency from time to time. I generally try to create more open story structures when I write adventures now, but sometimes the “railroad” is the way you can present the story you need to tell. That’s especially true if you want to make sure the PCs interact with the villain a couple of times throughout the story, instead of meeting the bad guy for the first time when they attack the last room of the adventure. Dark of the Moon does that pretty effectively (in my humble opinion), so I’ll cut myself some slack for being a little railroady. Besides, it was the 90s, that was how we rolled.
Next Week: It’s back to Dark Sun for Merchant House of Amketch!