Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 11: Rana Mor

Hi, thanks for stopping by! I’m back on my target schedule after last week’s pilgrimage to the craft brew capital of the US, Portland.

The excitement this week is that my younger daughter, Hannah, is now starting driver’s ed. That involves riding around with her behind the wheel and trying to maintain a calm demeanor. Yesterday we returned from a drive around town, and she zoomed the minivan into the driveway with the apparent intent of shaving the side off my parked Mustang while I yelled, “Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! STOP!” The minivan came to a rest with its passenger-side mirror touching the driver-side mirror of the Mustang. Tears ensued (hers, not mine). No damage, just a few more gray hairs for Dad.

OK, on to D&D stuff. This week, I’m looking back at my second adventure for Dungeon magazine, the jungle temple of Rana Mor.

#15: Rana Mor
After my early work on the 3e system, I took over the Alternity product team and ran that group for a couple of years. But with 3e coming out, we were ready to wind down the Alternity product line. My boss, Bill Slavicsek, called me in to his office one day and offered me a new challenge: He wanted me to take over the Forgotten Realms team and shepherd the Realms into 3rd Edition. So, with some regrets, I stepped away from Alternity (most painfully, the Warships supplement that was going to be the Trillion Credit Squadron of the game line) and returned my attention to D&D. Along the way, I retained some part-time design duties. The next thing I was asked to work on was a Dungeon magazine adventure.

Through my early career at TSR and Wizards of the Coast, magazine articles were generally treated as “overtime” opportunities for those of us on the R&D staff. We usually weren’t assigned work on Dragon or Dungeon, but if we wanted a chance to do some extra work on our own time and make a little extra money, the magazines were the place where we could do that. (TSR and Wizards, unlike most other hobby game publishers, prohibited their staff designers and editors from doing freelance work for other companies.) However, “Rana Mor” was an actual assignment—the business team wanted to get some good adventures by prominent writers into Dungeon early in the 3e release cycle. Later on I had to refuse a separate payment for the article two or three times, because people didn’t understand I’d been assigned to do it as part of my day job and kept asking me to submit an invoice.

Anyway, I hadn’t written a Dungeon magazine adventure since 1993 (“Prism Keep”), but I was happy to get a chance to pitch in. And, for once, I wasn’t trying to write to a preexisting title or sell copy. I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted to do, as long as it was a 3e adventure and could fit in the magazine format.

With that in mind, I sat down with the new 3rd Edition Monster Manual and looked for creatures I might want to feature in an adventure. I found myself drawn to some of the new creatures that were making an appearance in the 3e MM for the first time. (I think the idea of coming up with some brand-new critters that highlighted interesting aspects of the new system came from the fertile mind of Jonathan Tweet; these turned out to be some of the most interesting monsters in the new edition, or so I thought.) I noticed that a bunch of the new monsters clumped around CR 6, so I decided that my Dungeon magazine adventure would feature as many of the first-timers as possible. Creatures like the chuul, destrachan, digester, and tendriculos all made the cut.

Now the question got tricky: What kind of adventure would such a mishmash of creatures actually work well in? All the monsters I was looking at seemed to feel like they might fit in a jungle environment . . . and that gave me my idea. I decided to write an adventure that would present a D&D-ized version of Angkor Wat, or at least a very pulpish version of jungle ruins. (Think of the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland.) Thus Rana Mor was born.

In my original draft, the final crypt chamber was guarded by a summoned angel (a trumpet archon, IIRC). Chris Perkins, the editor of Dungeon magazine, pointed out (rightfully) that it was a tough dose of feel-bad for players to fight an obviously good celestial being in order to loot the crypts. He suggested changing the greater glyphs of warding to more straightforward traps. The water trap was all mine, though. One other weird thing about the adventure: I deliberately designed it with oversized doors at key points to make sure players couldn’t just use knock spells to get around the puzzles needed to access different parts of the temple. Early in 3e I was very concerned about honoring the rules as written and making sure that we didn’t invent new rules to serve as plot devices.

While I was working on “Rana Mor,” the R&D department was committed to regular weekly playtest sessions, so I had an opportunity to play D&D and get paid for it. I DM’d “Rana Mor” for a selection of my coworkers for a few weeks, which led to what is probably the single most horrific demise I have ever inflicted upon a PC while running a game. Early on in the adventure, the party is sailing up a jungle river in a small sloop, working their way up to the location of the ruins. The encounter I wrote for that part of the adventure was a hungry chuul that would climb up from the river and board the ship in search of a meal. So far, so good.

I don’t recall everyone who was in that game, but one of the participants was Anthony Valterra, who worked on the D&D business team. Anthony’s character was a half-elf rogue/sorcerer type, some kind of flamboyant (and squishy) jack-of-all-trades. Anthony’s half-elf had the misfortune of getting too close to the chuul, which grabbed him with its claws and shoved him into its mouth-tentacles, promptly paralyzing the unfortunate PC. The chuul rambled around the deck for a round or two with the paralyzed half-elf, but the rest of the party was landing big hits on it. My encounter description specifically said that the monster was looking for a meal, and that it would retreat if knocked down below half hit points (I was trying to be a nice guy, I guess). So, the chuul decided its mission was accomplished, and slithered back over the side . . . the half-elf still clutched in its mouth.

The party stood there on the deck, looking into this black jungle river. And not one PC even considered the idea of going over the side and following the chuul into the water. (If there is one thing I’ve learned as a D&D designer, it’s that players HATE water. They’re like cats, they want no part of it.) So, there were some bubbles on the surface, and Anthony’s half-elf was Never Seen Again. He was dragged off paralyzed to an underwater burrow, where I like to think that maybe he drowned before the chuul started to eat him.

Anyway, “Rana Mor” is one of my favorites. I felt the setting was full of color, the evil tribes quickly earn the hatred of most PCs, and there’s a good mix of interesting monsters and puzzles. I wish I could have made it bigger (Angkor Wat is gigantic, after all), but Dungeon magazine does not have unlimited space, so I had to keep the ruined temple to one floor.

Next Week: Back to Dungeon magazine for “Prison of the Firebringer.”

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