Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 4

Hi, there! As promised, I’m continuing with my weekly look at each adventure I’ve published since I started in the game biz.

In other news . . . this week marks the release of Princes of the Apocalypse, the super-adventure for the current Elemental Evil season of the new Dungeons & Dragons edition. I wrote about 60,000 words of the adventure, plus I handled the creative direction and a good deal of the art direction. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. Oh, and here's a nice review of our Primeval Thule Campaign Setting:

Still with me? Good! This week, I’m moving on to the fourth adventure I published in my career: HHQ4 Cleric’s Challenge.

#4: Cleric’s Challenge
In my reflections on Dark of the Moon (two blogs ago) I described how assignments were scheduled back in the days at TSR. Cleric’s Challenge is one of those “other” assignments I picked up from time to time—it wasn’t anything I asked to work on, it was just put on my schedule because someone had to do it. Sometimes those assignments were real chores; nobody back in Lake Geneva wanted to work on Buck Rogers products, for example. But sometimes things you don’t ask for somehow manage to draw out some good work from you. Cleric’s Challenge turned out to be one of those for me, I think.

The first thing I note about the adventure is the “HHQ4” module identifier in front of the title. It seems like the early ‘90s marked the very apex of module codes in D&D adventures; I worked on modules that had codes like DSM and DSQ, after all. By the early ‘90s, those codes really didn’t mean anything anymore. Yes, HHQ4 was preceded by HHQ1, HHQ2, and HHQ3, but there was nothing in common between the adventures. The only reason we still used those codes was marketing, pure and simple: TSR had managed to teach their customers to look for codes like “S1” or “G3” on adventure titles, so we kept doing it for sales purposes even when we didn’t need or want them anymore.

The idea behind the “Challenge” adventure series was to provide the DM with something he or she could run when the whole group couldn’t get together—in fact, each of these was designed for one player character. Even twenty years ago we recognized that one of the biggest obstacles to creating a successful D&D campaign was simple time management and getting busy people together on a regular schedule. You could run a “Challenge” adventure when your regular group was going to be unavailable for a time, or as a “between-sessions” activity to let a player who missed do some catch-up. It was a good idea, and I’m a little surprised that so few publishers have gone back to the notion in the years since. People are busier than ever now, it seems!

The “Challenge” series modules that preceded mine included Fighter’s Challenge, Thief’s Challenge, and Wizard’s Challenge. When I was assigned to work on Cleric’s Challenge, I looked them over and gave a good deal of thought to what elements would make an adventure into something that seemed appropriate and relevant to a single cleric PC. One element seemed obvious from the start: a special focus on undead. Thinking some more about what kind of monsters clerics would especially hate and fear, I came up with a somewhat unusual choice [SPOILER ALERT] . . . a lamia. A monster that drains Wisdom is scary to characters who need their Wisdom, after all! But more importantly, the beguiling and seduction represented by the lamia is exactly the sort of threat a pious and moral hero ought to be tested by.

One design choice I made has attracted some debate over the years: Cleric’s Challenge, unlike the previous Challenge adventures, specifically revolves around the idea of building a party of NPCs around the hero. In effect, the PC gets to adventure as part of a complete party, and the DM provides him with several NPC adventurers to make a full team. I set up the adventure this way because I felt that clerics, more so than other PCs, ought to be the instigators and organizers of adventures. They’re likely to be motivated to deal with things that threaten the peace and prosperity of the realm simply because it’s the Right Thing to Do. And mechanically, the cleric works best by making other characters more effective. (Remember, this was 2nd Edition, and clerics had few offensive spells to work with.) With that in mind, I populated the area of the adventure with potential NPC allies for the cleric PC to meet, evaluate, and marshal against the big threat. I even included a bad choice for a player who wasn’t being choosy enough.

Over the years, I’ve created a number of “typical D&D villages.” The town of Pommeville in Cleric’s Challenge was the first one I ever wrote up for publication. I’m pretty proud of Pommeville, and I’ve used it in a number of my own campaigns. (It’s basically French for Appletown, which sort of tickled me, since there is an Appleton in Wisconsin.) In fact, many of the place names and character names are deliberately French-looking or –sounding, just to help the mini-setting hang together and feel distinctive and coherent.

One thing you might not know about Pommeville and its French touches: It’s also an homage to Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne stories. In fact, the Averoigne tale “The End of the Story” features a lamia. Smith was perhaps the best and most talented of the pulp writers of the ‘30s,  and Averoigne is a great milieu for D&D stories. (The old D&D module Castle Amber is an adaptation of Smith’s Averoigne story “The Colossus of Ylourgne.” Put it on your D&D reading list, it’s good stuff!) I’ve been a fan of Clark Ashton Smith since my college days, and every now and then I find a way to sneak some Smith-inspired material into my work . . . most recently, the Primeval Thule campaign setting!

Next Week: My first Dungeon magazine adventure, “Prism Keep”!

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