Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 9: Dark Matter

Welcome back! I have to say, I’m a little surprised by the amount of Alternity chatter that picked up on Facebook after last week’s post. I didn’t realize there were that many Alternity fans still around! For that matter, I didn’t realize I had contributed to as many Alternity adventures as I evidently did. I completely forgot about “Cauldron Station,” and I left Black Starfall and Red Starrise out of my initial count.

This week, it’s on to my only Dark Matter adventure, “Exit 23.” I actually drove across the Idaho panhandle on I-90 just a year or two before I wrote the adventure, so I had a great mental image of what I was shooting for. There is an Exit 22 on that road, but not an Exit 23!

#13: Exit 23

For a short time after Wizards of the Coast bought out TSR and moved most of the D&D team out to Seattle, I worked on Alternity projects. Then, after Last Warhulk, I drew what was probably the plum assignment of my career at TSR/WotC—I was given the job of designing 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons along with Monte Cook and Skip Williams. (Jonathan Tweet joined the team a little later, and Peter Adkison contributed where he could and offered plenty of suggestions and feedback.) For eight months I worked on 3e every day, and I am gratified to say that many of my contributions are still a big part of 3e’s descendants today. Like barbarian rage? You’re welcome!

At the eight-month mark, an interesting new opportunity came my way. The RPG team underwent a major restructuring, in which some of the more business-minded creatives shifted over to join a brand team headed up by Ryan Dancey. I was asked to step up and replace Jim Butler as the creative director (AKA product group leader) of the Alternity product line, which we were continuing in parallel with the new D&D game. With some hesitation (because 3e was awesome!) I took the new position. Heading up a product team really cut into my available design time—instead of writing, I was managing the team, coordinating freelancers, creating outlines, contributing to product plans, and reviewing other people’s work. As a result, from 1999 through 2005 or so, my creative output slowed down quite a lot.

As the leader of the Alternity team, I did have the opportunity to shepherd along one of my favorite projects ever: The Dark*Matter Campaign Setting. This was a beauty of a campaign hardbound that presented a wonderful brew of conspiracy theory, fringe science, and UFOlogy as a setting for your Alternity game. When I was a kid, I owned a Reader’s Digest collection called Strange Stories and Amazing Facts. Well, Dark*Matter is pretty much that book translated into a RPG setting. Interestingly enough, Dark*Matter was part of the original Alternity pitch by Bill Slavicsek and Lester Smith—from the very get-go, a modern conspiracy/weird science setting was envisioned as the second Alternity product line after Star*Drive. 

It wasn’t my job to contribute to Dark*Matter as a primary writer, so I tried to stay out of the way of Monte Cook and Wolf Baur and let them run with their ideas. (Part of being a good CD is knowing when to get the hell out of the way!) I did get to pitch in a bit here and there when we needed some extra words, and I contributed to some other Dark*Matter stuff later on. But then, very late in the project, the business team requested that we add an introductory-level set of “fast play” rules and a beginning adventure for the Dark*Matter setting. Everybody else was plenty busy, so I rolled up my sleeves and jumped in to write “Exit 23.”

“Exit 23” is an introductory adventure, so it’s short. It talks the GM through the job of running the adventure, and presents a good snapshot of what Dark*Matter is all about. Looking over “Exit 23” now, the story is evocative, it presents a good mystery to solve and the right clues to do it, and it’s a good mix of action and horror. I’m especially pleased with the improvised-weapon angle of the adventure—I think clever players will have a blast coming up with ways to fight the supernatural with only materials on hand in a tiny little Idaho rest stop. Finally, I’m kind of proud of the pregen PCs for the adventure. They have good backstories and really fit the setting. One silly thing: I garbled the French for the villainous organization. It should be Corbeaux. Sorry!

The adventure is loaded with little in-jokes you probably won’t notice unless you know me very well. For example, the adventure takes place in the imaginary White River Rest Stop. As it turns out, I live about a stone’s throw from the White River in Washington state. One of the pregens is named after the family doctor. Another pregen is named (sort of) after a good college friend. Most designers sneak in those sort of references, and as long as they’re subtle, no one minds. (Although I distinctly recall drawing the line at ‘Becky’ the evil githyanki captain, who appeared in one manuscript I was reviewing.)

Next Week: Perhaps my best-known adventure, Forge of Fury! Would you believe I left it off my initial list of adventures for this series? I think I'm up to 32 now, not 28.

1 comment:

  1. One of the best intro adventures I've ever read. A great kick-off to get the heroes involved in the setting