Thursday, December 17, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 25: Primeval Thule

Time is flying by these days! I’m pushing to finish up all the Thule 5e stretch goal projects and make sure our Thule 5e books all get to where they’re supposed to go. I’m also up to my eyeballs in prepping our next Kickstarter project, Ultimate Scheme.

Ultimate Scheme is a Euro-style boardgame I designed a year ago that is now well on its way into production. Here’s the basic pitch: You’re a sinister genius or secret organization out to take over the world. You’ve got an ultimate scheme such as Become a God, Destroy Rock ‘n’ Roll, or Global Chaos. You’ll need to execute a number of stepping-stone schemes such as nuclear extortion, making a deal with the devil, or creating a dance craze to pull off your master plan. For you boardgame nerds out there, it’s basically a “worker walkment” game that’s easy to learn and hard to master, built around a not-too-terribly-serious theme. You’ll be hearing more from me about this soon!

Speaking of fun things from Sasquatch Game Studio, that brings me to this installment of my adventure collection: the adventure I wrote for the Primeval Thule Campaign Setting.

#30: Cavern of Golden Tears
A couple of years ago, I had what I thought was a good idea. “Hey Rich,” I asked myself while driving back and forth to Redmond. “If you could write any game you wanted, what would that be?” And the answer I came up with was a RPG setting that brought Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea stories to life for today’s D&D and Pathfinder fans. So I invited my good friends (and former WotC colleagues) Dave Noonan and Steve Schubert to join my little cabal, and Sasquatch Game Studio was born.

Along the way, the initial concept of Primeval Thule—basically, the subgenre of fantasy that I like to think of as “fantastic horror”—broadened a bit to absorb influences such as Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Pellucidar, and pulpy sword and sorcery stories in general. Much as the old Dark Sun setting captured “desert” sword-and-sandals adventure, we decided to build the 21st-century d20 setting that could capture lost worlds, barbarians, thieves, and a little dash of Lovecraftian horror. In my opinion, a game or setting should meet the “you know it when you see it” test, and I think Primeval Thule holds its savage head high in that regard.

We also decided to try out the experiment of seeing what happened when you created one IP (intellectual property) and supported it with multiple game systems. We initially built Thule for Pathfinder, the new 13th Age game, and the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons system license – and just this month, we’re bringing out a 5e version of the setting. So if this sort of thing interests you, check out DriveThruRPG for the pdf version, or ask your FLGS to see about ordering it for you!

Okay, on to the adventure part of this whole thing. We wanted to make sure Primeval Thule was playable “out of the box” so we made room in the outline for several short adventures. Mine was Cavern of Golden Tears, my best take on a pulpy sword-and-sorcery tale complete with hostile natives, a lost city, and a sinister priest of Set who’s out to beat you to the prize. It’s all about capturing a memorable hook—a hidden ruin where a dead king weeps tears of gold—and presenting it as if you were playing through a Conan story.

As it turned out, I used my design draft of Cavern several times as a playtest/demo of Primeval Thule—I ran it at PaizoCon, GenCon, and once or twice in private settings. At the time I felt it was a good taste of what the setting was about, and I’m lazy enough to fall back on “What have I already written?” when I’m looking around for a scenario to run. I also put together a fun group of pregen PCs for the convention games, including the ranger Zargon the Deadly, Marresh the thief of Quodeth, and Isko Yhoun, the Atlantean wizard. (In one game session I killed Zargon dead in a single round of combat when he failed to note the approach of a saber-tooth tiger. Heh.)

Is Cavern of Golden Tears any good? I’d have to leave that to the readers. As I’m getting close to the end of this retrospective series, I’m naturally drawing closer to things I worked on quite recently, so it’s harder to get a sense of what other people think about something as compared to what I think about something. Cavern of Golden Tears really isn’t that old yet, and hasn’t been played by all that many people. But I think it’s a fun little one- or two-session expedition into the jungles of Thule, and I hope that the folks who have seen it enjoyed the trip!

Next Time: Princes of the Apocalypse.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 24: D&D Starter Set

Turns out this is a busy time of year, and keeping up on a regular blog post is a little challenging. My apologies—I really had planned to finish up this little retrospective series before the end of the year. Juggling the Primeval Thule print job, our PDF accessories, and shifting Sasquatch to a new distribution partner wound up absorbing a ton of my time and attention over the last few weeks. Plus, there was an exciting new development this month: My agent sold the first three books of my Sikander North military sci-fi series to Tor Books!

So what exactly is Sikander North? About a year ago, I found myself with a good writing window and asked myself a simple question: If I could write anything I wanted, what would I write? I decided that since I enjoy sci-fi with plenty of military action, “geopolitics,” and thriller trappings, that’s what I ought to focus on. So I came up with a take on the future that’s inspired by the Great Power rivalries of the late 19th century and the dreadnought era, and a character that I could write some fun stories about (the aforementioned Sikander North). Valiant Dust, the first book in the series, should debut in 2017—it’s almost done now, but I need to do one last set of revisions for Tor.

As much as I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to write Forgotten Realms novels, it’s always been my goal to break out of the shared-world reservation and write my own stuff. So, as you might imagine, this is a very exciting bit of news for me. I’ll keep you posted on the progress!

Okay, on to the meat and potatoes of the blog post today: My ongoing look back at adventures I’ve worked on over the years.

#29: Lost Mine of Phandelver
About two years ago, I decided to part ways with Goblinworks and focus on Primeval Thule, my own writing, and freelancing work as the opportunity presented itself. (I liked Goblinworks just fine, but the 75-minute commute each way was stealing too much of my day.) Anyway, I sent a note to Chris Perkins at Wizards of the Coast to let him know I had some bandwidth to take on any work he might have, and it turns out Chris had just the right project: the adventure that would be included in the new D&D Starter Set for 5e. I’d worked on 5e for a few months right at the end of my time on-staff at WotC, so I was happy to dive in and pick it up again.

The opportunity to work on an adventure that appears early in an edition’s life cycle is both fun and challenging. It’s fun because you know that a lot of people are going to see it, and some of your work is going to wind up becoming a touchstone of shared experience across many thousands of D&D players. I wound up writing the second adventure in both 3e and 4e (those being Forge of Fury and Thunderspire Labyrinth), plus Reavers of Harkenwold in 4e Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit. It’s cool to create starting towns and introduce monsters and villains that players might be seeing for the first time ever. The challenging part is that writing early in an edition—potentially before the core rulebooks are published—means that some things just haven’t been figured out yet. The encounter-building rules and treasure rules that would appear in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide weren’t even close to finished when I worked on the 5e Starter Set.

The other challenging part was that Wizards of the Coast provided me a list of “make sure you include X” about as long as my arm. There were dozens of locales in that corner of the Sword Coast that WotC wanted to touch on, a bucket of old Realms lore, different types of dungeons, a mix of combat, exploration, and roleplaying . . . I kind of started to think of the mission statement as “write the kitchen sink adventure.” That daunted me a bit at first, but then I realized that it actually dovetailed nicely with the idea of a wide-open sandbox, which is probably the strongest and best example to give a new DM on how adventures should be put together. Plus, these days, new D&D players are almost certainly coming to the tabletop game after years of experience in World of Warcraft or console games featuring ideas like “quest hubs.” Creating a D&D adventure for beginners that used those expectations effectively made a lot of sense.

So, with that in mind, I looked through all the material WotC had dropped on my desk, and winnowed down the list of locales and elements to something I could fit in the space I had to work with. Borrowing a bit of Realmslore, I decided to “hide” the final dungeon (the mines of Phandelver proper) and make the finding of that dungeon the major story thread tying together the earlier pieces. As it turns out, the story of the Phandelver Pact, Phandalin, and that little era of the history of the North is actually quite confusing and contradictory in places, so I had to work pretty hard to present something that was not too deep in Realmslore for a casual FR fan to understand. In a perfect world I actually would have omitted a lot of that material, but fitting the new adventure into existing Realmslore was important to WotC (and me, too, to be honest).  I was also handcuffed a bit by things like the requirement to feature the banshee Agatha but not let her fight the PCs and making sure all the player factions got into the mix—nothing that was really onerous, just a bit more complicated and nitpicky than I would have liked.

When I was close to wrapping up the adventure, Chris Perkins asked me for a title suggestion. I just drew a blank. This was a kitchen-sink adventure, after all, and it was hard to figure out what it was *about.* The best I could come up with was something like “The Lost Mine,” but that felt super-generic. Since I couldn’t come up with a title hinting at the sort of activities or plots the heroes were facing or a clever twist on a well-known turn of phrase that would apply, I settled for adding a proper noun that would at least make the title distinctive. I thought the suggestion was weak and I figured WotC would brainstorm up a better one, but it stuck. So, there you have it: Lost Mine of Phandelver. Sorry if you don’t like the name.

Next Time: Primeval Thule!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 23: Loch Finnere

Greetings again! I’m afraid I got caught up in a collision of Primeval Thule 5e deadlines and fell behind on my write-something-each-week resolution. The good news is that I seem to be mostly climbing on top of the pile again—I’ve got the 5e Primeval Thule Gamemaster’s Companion pretty much in hand, I’ve got Steve Winter’s Red Chains adventure for 5e Primeval Thule edited, and I’m digging in on my assignment for the Primeval Thule Player’s Companion. Plus, I think I’ve got two printers, one bindery, three freelance illustrators, and a freelance cartographer all pulling in the same direction, so things are slowly coming together. Finally, I tried out a change in the Ultimate Scheme play sequence last week that worked like a charm. It might be the change that takes Ultimate Scheme from being a good game to being a great game. We’ll be Kickstarting it after the holidays, aiming for a midsummer release in 2016. So get ready to get your sinister genius on!

For those of you living in the Cincinnati area, I’ll be out your way next week. I’m going to be a guest at AcadeCon, November 13th to 15th at Hueston Lodge. I’m going to run a couple of Thule games, run a couple of Ultimate Scheme games, and maybe even play a game or two if I can. I hope to see you there!

#28: Banshee of Loch Finnere
Next on my list is a little PDF adventure I wrote for the Accursed game from Melior Via: Banshee of Loch Finnere. This was something new for me on a couple of counts. First of all, it was the first thing I’d ever published outside of the TSR/WotC/Paizo family. Secondly, it was the first thing I’d written specifically for publication as a PDF. A number of things I worked on over the years were made available as PDFs after they were printed and distributed as physical products, but Banshee was intended for digital publication from the get-go. Finally, it was the first time I’d written for the Savage Worlds game system, one of the more successful and broadly published non-D&D RPGs out there.

My contribution to the Accursed setting came about because Melior Via happened to be Kickstarting their new game around the same time that me and my fellow Sasquatches were Kickstarting Primeval Thule (the first one, for Pathfinder, 4e, and 13th Age). I’ve known Ross Watson of Melior Via for many years, and when he reached out to ask about some cross-promotion for Thule and Accursed, I was happy to oblige. The Accursed guys offered to serve as a stretch goal for our Primeval Thule Kickstarter, and we offered to return the favor by supporting the Accursed game. As it turned out, John Dunn of Melior Via wound up writing our Night of the Yellow Moon adventure for Thule. I, in turn, wrote Banshee of Loch Finnere for John and Ross.

In case you haven’t heard about Accursed before, it’s a dark fantasy setting in which evil has essentially won. The world is in the hands of a small number of powerful and terrifying witches, each of whom rules her own dark domain carved out of the defeated nations of the old world. The “heroes” of the setting are actually monsters who have turned against their mistresses—vampires, zombies, golems (Frankenstein monsters), and so on. It’s a nicely done world, a little reminiscent of the old Ravenloft setting from TSR. I started my work by reading through the Accursed files, and trying to wrap my head around the idea of what would make a good adventure in the setting.

Reading through the book, the part of the setting that really caught my eye was Caer Kainen. It’s got a great Gaelic/Black Cauldron feel to it, and I found myself thinking of Scottish ghost stories. I hadn’t worked on a horror-based ghost-story adventure in quite a while (the closest would be Night of the Vampire, Part 6 of my blog series). The first thing you need to figure out about a ghost story is, of course, who’s the ghost? Why is he or she haunting the living? And why is it important to stop him or her?

A number of years ago, I read a good book on writing by Orson Scott Card, and I remembered a bit of advice from that book: In any given setting, who’s in the most pain? Who needs things to change the most? That’s a great choice for a villain, or a protagonist. I realized that the story of Caer Kainen’s fall began with a terrible betrayal. The heroic king was seduced by the witch known as the Morrigan, and abandoned his wife and children. Later on, when the witch drew him completely into his doom, he slaughtered his family with his own hands. As bad as it was for the kingdom that the heroic king was lured into evil, the most tragic part in this play belonged to the betrayed wife and mother of murdered children. That would be someone with a reason to be angry and miserable in death, but she came to blame the wrong people for her tragic fate. After all, a ghost that hated the right people for the right reasons wouldn’t need stopping, would she? For this to be a tale of horror and betrayal, Queen Aideen’s vengeance had to be focused on the wrong victims—in this case, her own family, Clan Finnoul.

More than that I won’t say, because if you do wind up playing through this adventure, you’ll want to be surprised by the twists and turns. As far as I can tell, Banshee of Loch Finnere was well received. Even if you don’t play Savage Worlds, I think it would be easy enough to pick it up and use it in your game system of choice.

Next Time: Something that quite a lot of people have played through in the last year or so: Lost Mine of Phandelver!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 22: Diamond Staff

Apologies for the delay! My schedule since GenCon has been pretty crazy, and finding the time to continue my once-a-week retrospective on adventures is harder than I thought. Over the last few weeks I’ve been scrambling to finish the update of the Primeval Thule Campaign Setting to 5e, and start work on various supporting adventures and companion books Sasquatch Game Studio promised in the Kickstarter campaign. It’s good to be busy, but sometimes it seems like there just isn’t enough time in the day.

The good news is that we have the PTCS 5e off to the printer, we’ve made the PDF available to our backers, and we’ve got design drafts in hand for two of the adventures we promised: Steve Winter’s Red Chains, and Robert Schwalb’s Watchers of Meng. Primeval Thule is turning into a small product line—within another 5 or 6 weeks we should have 5 PDF adventures available, along with the Gamemaster’s Companion, the Player’s Companion, and maybe a secret bonus or two. We’ll see how it goes!

If you follow me on Facebook, you might have noticed that I’ve been doing some hiking lately. I’m fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the country—Washington state is a hiker’s paradise. Two weeks ago I got out to Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park and hiked Hurricane Hill. Last week I went up to Chinook Pass (just outside Mount Rainier National Park) and hiked the Naches Peak loop, one of my favorites. Fall hiking is the best. We have too many pine trees to get much in the way of really spectacular fall colors, but I love the cool air, the lack of bugs, and the absence of big crowds. Check out my pictures on Facebook if you haven’t seen them yet, they’re great!

Speaking of hikes, I guess it’s time to dive into the next in my blog series: Search for the Diamond Staff, which of course presents the heroes with the opportunity to hike all over the Dalelands.

#27: Search for the Diamond Staff
As you may or may not know, in December of 2011 Wizards of the Coast decided they could no longer afford to retain my services. Thanks to Washington state law about laying off folks and then hiring them back as contractors, I couldn’t do any work for WotC for almost a year (not that I’m sure I would have wanted to right after our parting of the ways). But in the fall of 2012, my “blackout” period ended, and WotC reached out to ask if I’d be interested in doing some freelance work for them. I decided that I had the time available, and it couldn’t hurt to foster good relations with my former employer just in case opportunity led me back in that direction. The game biz is just too small to make burning bridges a good idea.

Anyway, the job WotC had in mind was a new Encounters Season adventure. I’d already knocked out one of these a couple of years previously (my Dark Legacy of Evard adventure), so I was reasonably familiar with the expectations and the challenges of the format. As before, Wizards knew a lot about what they wanted the adventure to be before I even started an outline: It needed to be set in the Dalelands, and they wanted it to tie in to a previous Game Day one-shot adventure in which the PCs raid a dracolich lair and steal the mystical artifact known as the Diamond Staff.

I put on my thinking cap, and came up with several ideas for how different power groups in and around the Dalelands might be up to no good, and how the PCs might interact with those plots. That brainstorming led to the idea of an action-adventure chase across the Dalelands involving several factions all out for the same thing (the Diamond Staff, of course). WotC also asked me to make sure that each session of the Encounter Season included not just a fight, but also opportunities for roleplaying and some small amount of exploration. That last bit was a little tricky, because the map budget was effectively zero; everything I came up with needed to be something that could easily be pieced together with Dungeon Tiles or with repurposed poster maps from previous products.

I’m not sure how well I pulled off creating small areas worth exploring, but I’m pretty happy with the roleplaying and interaction opportunities I worked into the adventure. The adventure opens with a job interview: The sage Imani wants to hire reliable adventurers to escort him into a dangerous ruin, so he posts a flyer reading, “WANTED: Experienced and reliable adventurers to participate in a potentially hazardous expedition. Must be skilled with blade or spell, stout of heart, steady in danger, loyal, trustworthy, and of generally agreeable disposition.” I also worked in a fun three-way fight at the end of the adventure in which the PCs get to decide which group of bad guys they temporarily cooperate with; I expect that opportunity engendered some great group discussions when players stumbled into it in the last session!

Search for the Diamond Staff was also used as something of a playtest or demo of 5e rules, although that work was done after I wrote the adventure with 4e mechanics. Checking around on session reports online, it seems that most people played it with 5e, not 4e. If the 5e elements were good, bad, or indifferent, I can’t say I had much to do with them.

One final thought: The title was a real chore. Chris Perkins and Greg Bilsland at WotC kept asking me for title suggestions, and I just didn’t have anything good. So finally I threw out Search for the Diamond Staff as a lowest-common-denominator “call it what it is” suggestion. Some days the inspiration is there, and some days it isn’t.

Next Week: My only Savage Worlds adventure, The Banshee of Loch Finnere.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 21: Emerald Spire

Sometimes irony is, well, ironic. The day after I posted my blog about Thornkeep, it was announced that Goblinworks laid off all but three of its people, and the company was looking for a buyer for the Pathfinder Online game. I feel terrible for the guys I know who sank a couple of years of hard work into putting the game together. Unfortunately, that is the digital game biz—companies fall short and collapse all the time, some of them quite a bit bigger and better-funded than Goblinworks. I’ll be pulling for the Goblins to land on their feet, wherever they wind up.

I still think there is a good market for a small, clever, shoestring MMO publisher to create an EVE-like fantasy game—it’s not for everybody, but there is a really interesting niche there. You can do quite a lot with a small number of highly invested fans who make your game their own and introduce their own social structures and player-kingdoms. If there is any postmortem I might offer at this point, I suppose it would be this: That game I just described isn’t what Pathfinder fans necessarily wanted. The initial enthusiasm for Pathfinder Online was driven by an unrealistic expectation on the part of the Pathfinder audience that somehow Goblinworks would create a $100 million dollar WOW clone that let them explore Golarion like it was Azeroth. That was never in the cards. I think Ryan and the Paizo leadership were pretty upfront about what they were trying to deliver, but people really had their hearts set on hundreds and hundreds of hours of PvE content showcasing huge parts of their favorite fantasy world, and that is an extraordinarily expensive proposition.

Pathfinder Online also faced another significant obstacle in the fact that the OGL on which Pathfinder itself is based explicitly does *not* extend to electronic games. So, Pathfinder Online couldn’t use the mechanics familiar to Pathfinder players. This was not necessarily a fatal flaw—there are some very good reasons to go with EVE-style time-based skill advancement instead of grinding for XP, for example—but, taken with the fact that the game couldn’t be built to spotlight the world of Golarion, it was heading toward a place where PO wasn’t the Pathfinder game and it wasn’t the Pathfinder world (at least in the eyes of Pathfinder fans). Great gameplay attracting deep-end MMO players is what Pathfinder Online had to go on, and I guess that just wasn’t enough to pull in the second-stage funding/investment they needed to build out the game.

During my work in and around Pathfinder Online, I did get to create an interesting little town called Thornkeep, which got published as a sourcebook and small collection of dungeon levels. And I also got to build another town called Fort Inevitable, and a much bigger collection of wacky dungeon levels: The Emerald Spire.

#26: Emerald Spire
Pathfinder Online actually ran two Kickstarters. The first was for the “tech demo,” an initial exploration of the game concept and basic engine. Thornkeep came into existence as a physical Kickstarter reward associated with that first Kickstarter. The second Kickstarter (with a cool $1 million ask) was to begin the funding of the game proper. The signature physical reward for that second campaign was the Emerald Spire Superdungeon.

The Emerald Spire itself was a “nearby feature of interest” I came up with when I worked on Thornkeep. The Inner Sea World Guide suggested mysterious Azlanti ruins in that corner of the River Kingdoms, so I made sure to create a handful of likely sites. To my surprise, the Paizo folks seized on the notion and ran with it, choosing to make it the focus of a multi-level superdungeon with each level created by a notable game industry luminary. Celebrity contributors included Keith Baker, Wolf Baur, Ed Greenwood, Frank Mentzer, Chris Pramas, Mike Stackpole, Lisa Stevens, and myself. To that list. Paizo added a number of staff aces including Jason Bulmahn, James Jacobs, Erik Mona, Sean Reynolds, Wes Schneider, and James Sutter, along with freelancers Tim Hitchcock and Nick Logue. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the herculean work of Logan Bonner as the developer who put the final polish on the whole thing.

I took point on wrangling the sixteen authors up front, soliciting dungeon pitches from each of them, suggesting refinements, and then organizing the dungeons so that the high-level dangerous ones were deeper down than the low-level ones. In a couple of cases, I contributed a lot of help on Pathfinder mechanics—a couple of our contributors hadn’t written for a 3e-era product before. But overall I tried very hard to keep each authors’ original vision intact, and allow levels to be whimsical or serious as the author preferred.

The trickiest design constraint was once again the maps. The Paizo folks wanted to make sure that each level could be represented on a flip-map (basically, a tactical-scale map of a level, shown in 5-foot squares). So, the maximum horizontal spread of each level could only be 22 by 30 squares, or only 110 feet by 150 feet. On the bright side, there was no reason we couldn’t stack up a lot of small dungeon levels one on top of each other, so we figured out that the Emerald Spire needed to be a “dungeon shish-kebob” of many levels joined by a common story or theme. I met with James Jacobs, Erik Mona, and Wes Schneider, and we came up with the idea that the Spire itself was a physical object—a needle of green crystal 2 miles deep—that passed through or adjoined each of the levels we were creating, linking the surface to the deepest stratum of the Darklands.

My level was Level 6, the Clockwork Maze. Since the brief writeup on the Emerald Spire in Thornkeep had mentioned a Numerian wizard playing around with weird constructs, I figured at least one of us authors ought to make that guy the star of a Spire level, and I volunteered myself for the job. The fun part of the level is that giant clockwork revolving turntables change the alignment of key passages and intersections—to fight your way through the level and continue your descent, you’ll need to figure out how to align the control levers found throughout the level. I also had fun using the metal-clad template to create a steam-borg wizard who looks a little like Tharok, the Legion of Super-Heroes villain.

My other big contribution to the project was the first 20 pages—the town of Fort Inevitable, and big-picture overview of the Spire, how it works, and why it’s there. I seem to be in the business of making up starting towns, for some reason—besides Thornkeep and Fort Inevitable, I also wrote up Phandalin for the recent Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, Duponde, Harkenwold, Fallcrest, Pommeville, and more.  Fort Inevitable is interesting because it’s a lawful-evil starting spot ruled over by an iron-fisted tyrant; your characters have a Sherriff of Nottingham they can play Robin Hood to.

Next Time: The Search for the Diamond Staff.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 20: Thornkeep

Welcome back! My apologies for the interruption in my regular blog postings over the last few months. Between July and August, I took a vacation, ran a Kickstarter, went to GenCon, rewrote a novel, and chased down a hundred small details pertinent to our upcoming edition of Primeval Thule 5e. For most of the summer, I’ve been frankly swamped, and I had to focus on some other things. But today I think I can spare an hour to continue my retrospective on adventures I’ve created, so I’m back—this week, at least.

Before I get to Thornkeep, let me tell you our Glacier story. This year for the family road trip, we decided to go to Glacier National Park, someplace we’d never been. I carefully plotted out our route, picked out a week when the wife and kids could get away from their summer activities, and made a reservation to stay at a condo in downtown Whitefish, Montana. We started out on Monday, July 20th. On the first day we drove to Palouse Falls (fascinating terrain, it’s in the heart of the Washington scablands) and then stayed in Colfax. On Tuesday the 21st, we drove from Colfax to Whitefish—quite a haul, but the scenery in Idaho and Montana is really just breathtaking.

After driving all day, when we were just 15 miles from Whitefish, Glacier National Park burst into flames. A huge wildfire broke out in the eastern half of the park, closing most of the Going to the Sun Road—which, as I had previously determined from my research and prep on GNP, is THE THING YOU DO when you go to Glacier. The park burned for like two weeks; we were in Whitefish for three days. As it turned out, we did get to see the western half of the Going to the Sun Road, but we missed Logan Pass, and a bunch of neat stuff around St. Mary’s Lake. Instead, we took a very long drive around the southern border of the park and saw the Two Medicine area. That was quite spectacular too . . . but I have unfinished business with Glacier National Park now, damn it.

Okay, on to Thornkeep and the Accursed Halls.

#25: The Accursed Halls
In December of 2011 my long association with TSR/Wizards of the Coast came to an end, and for the first time in a very long time I found myself a free agent. At WotC we had a draconian non-compete policy which meant that I couldn’t even consider writing for any other companies on the side, but that of course came to an end when they decided they could no longer afford to retain my services. A couple of months later, in the winter of 2012, I received a call from Ryan Dancey, a former colleague of mine at WotC who is perhaps best known as the D&D brand manager who led the effort to create the Open Game License back in 2000. Ryan was laying the groundwork for Pathfinder Online, and he needed a writer/designer to help deliver on the initial tech demo Kickstarter—specifically, a sourcebook on the town of Thornkeep in Golarion’s River Kingdoms. I was only passing familiar with Golarion, but Pathfinder I certainly knew pretty well, and I had some free time, so I was in.

I joined Ryan and some other Goblinworks principals at Lisa Stevens’ house on a snowy day in early spring to learn everything I could about Thornkeep and Pathfinder Online. My mission was pretty straightforward: Create a well-rounded town that could serve as “a hive of scum and villainy” and perhaps grow into a “starter zone” for the MMO that would be moving ahead. That sort of source material is second nature for me, so no problem there. I also was asked to create a short dungeon representing an old set of ruined chambers hidden below the town, and thus the Accursed Halls came into being.

The most unusual design challenge of the Accursed Halls was that we had some ambition of matching the tabletop map and adventure to the dungeon map you’d actually experience if you visited Thornkeep in the MMO and went exploring. That was a tough order, because in the spring of 2012 the MMO only existed as a set of design documents and possibilities. One of those was a game engine and sample dungeon that looked like a potential fit for Pathfinder Online, so I actually had a map to work from. The problem: a reasonable tabletop map and a reasonable MMO dungeon experience are two very different things. The map of the Accursed Halls therefore represents my best interpretation of an asset that, at the time, looked like it might very well be incorporated into the MMO.

Naturally, the creation of a MMO involves many, many false starts and design explorations that end up leading nowhere. The initial opportunity on which I based my map of the Accursed Halls didn’t pan out (although it made for a perfectly fine dungeon map for the Thornkeep sourcebook, and a fun little adventure). As it turns out, I wound up signing on with Ryan and Goblinworks at the end of 2012, and stayed there until October of 2013 working on Pathfinder Online (and Emerald Spire, which I’ll get to in another post or two). Perhaps the most interesting part of the project is the fact that some of the source material I created for Thornkeep—the town map, the key personalities and factions, and nearby features—is, of course, featured in the MMO. Over the next few years, a lot of players will brush up against some names and places I made up, and that’s kind of cool.

Next Time: My second D&D Encounters adventure, The Search for the Diamond Staff!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 19: Dark Legacy of Evard

Welcome back! My apologies for the interrupted blog posts; the last three weeks have been very busy for me. First my partners and I at Sasquatch Game Studio launched our Primeval Thule 5e Kickstarter, then I headed out for a family vacation at Glacier National Park, then I came home just in time to head out to GenCon. Time for blogging has been in short supply lately!

I’ll talk a bit about Glacier and GenCon in future posts, but this week I wanted to revisit our 5e Thule Kickstarter campaign and provide a bit of an update. We are over 200 percent funded, topping $30k with just about two weeks to go! Naturally, we’re using that support to make Primeval Thule 5e the biggest and best product we can. Right now someone who pledges in at a level that includes digital rewards will receive not only the Primeval Thule Campaign Setting book, but also PDF adventures by Rob Schwalb and Steve Winter, along with a Thule 5e Gamemaster’s Companion that will include new Thulean monsters and additional adventure sites and hooks. And, if the campaign continues to go well, we’ll soon be adding a Player’s Companion to provide additional spells, narratives, and other character-creation info for Thulean PCs. If you’re looking for great new 5e content, this is a good place to start. Here’s the link:

OK, on to my next adventure retrospective!

#24: Dark Legacy of Evard
In late 2010 I was assigned to work on D&D Encounters Season 5. The Encounters program was a sort of “outreach” content plan designed to provide D&D players with a weekly D&D game at their friendly local gaming store. Basically, you show up and play for an hour or two one night a week, and over the course of three or four months, you’ll play through the adventure currently being shared by all other people participating in the current Encounters season. It was a very successful program for Wizards of the Coast and brought many thousands of gamers out every week. My job as the designer assigned to the next Encounters season was to create a fun, episodic adventure that would keep ‘em coming back for another 13 sessions.

While I came up with the storyline, some of the big elements had already been settled on before I began work on the adventure. So, I was given the marching orders to create an Encounters season that was more of a ghost story than a dungeon crawl, something that revolved on the story of Evard. Evard, like Mordenkainen or Otto or Bigby, was a name that had been around in D&D since 1st Edition. However, while those other mages had actually been characters played by real people participating in the earliest D&D campaigns, Evard was mostly just a name associated with a spooky spell or two. Toward the end of 3rd Edition, the character had emerged a bit more in the lore that was developed around the school of shadow magic, and Evard finally showed up as something more than just a name—the creator of the school of shadow magic, a dark, sardonic personality who dabbled with sinister magic and mocked those who disapproved of his studies.

Thinking about the idea of spooky magic, a dark wizard, and an adventure intended to showcase overtones of horror in D&D, I hit upon a simple question: Who’s buried in Evard’s Tomb? (Yeah, it’s a version of the old New York joke about Grant’s Tomb.) And when I realized the answer was not the obvious one, the story of Evard’s old rival Vontarin, the town of Duponde, the reckless young mage Nathaire, and Evard’s terrible curse all fell into place. I borrowed a bit here and there from Clark Ashton Smith’s excellent fantasy horror stories about the haunted province of Averoigne to polish up the “feel” of the setting and story. (In fact, the name Nathaire is from one of the characters in “The Colossus of Ylourgne.”)

The Encounters format was very tough to work in, because you couldn’t assume that the DM running your adventure would have the same players at his table every week. Likewise, you couldn’t allow for the adventure to be tackled out of order—people would be talking about their experiences in Week X, so if some table played out X+3 on that week, they could spoil the story for other tables. That was tough for me, since my design taste runs a lot more toward sandbox-style adventures where people can engage whatever story thread they find and follow it as long as they want. For Dark Legacy of Evard, I had to embrace a much more rigid storyline—I couldn’t let the players make a decision in Week 3 that would make the Week 5-6-7 content irrelevant. So, I decided to make it the most flavorful and suspenseful linear narrative I could manage. If you can’t give players the chance to make a lot of big choices, you can make sure you deliver a riveting story instead.

Going by what I saw of people writing up their Encounters season responses, my approach seemed to work well enough. Dark Legacy of Evard was well received, and people seemed to really groove on the spooky setting and the old story of Evard and Vontarin. Based on the number of people participating in the Encounters program, Dark Legacy was probably the most widely-played of my adventures since Forge of Fury. You can still find it on if you’re curious (it’s for 4th Edition D&D).

Next Week: Thornkeep, my first non-WotC adventure!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Change of Topic: 5e Thule!

Hi, folks –
With your permission, I’m going to take a short break from my adventure retrospectives. I’m heading into the busiest three weeks of my summer, and I just don’t have the bandwidth to give ‘em the attention they deserve. I’ll try to pick things up again after GenCon.

In the meantime, let me engage in a little shameless self-promotion. Today, my partners and I at Sasquatch Game Studio launched a new Kickstarter for a 5e version of our Primeval Thule Campaign Setting. If you’re a fan of 5e, or you know someone who is, I encourage you to visit the link and check it out.

Feel free to spread the word to all your gamer friends! Just getting the word out is quite a challenge, and we can use all the attention we can get.

Something interesting we’re doing with this Kickstarter: We’re running it across GenCon. Kickstarter campaigns often have a quiet period in the middle weeks (the “doldrums”), so we figured we might as well set up the timing so that GenCon fell in the middle of the campaign. Plus, it’ll give us something to talk about at the show. (We’ll be in Booth 674, and we’d love it if you stopped by and said hi!) We started the campaign a little early to make sure people had a good chance to see it before heading off to Indy, and we’re continuing well into August so that folks have time to recover after the show and notice it again before we’re up against the finish line.

We think that 5e is a great fit for Primeval Thule. Thule’s narratives are basically backgrounds on steroids, we already had new Cosmic and Serpent domains for our Pathfinder version, and of course monster stats are pretty straightforward adaptations. There are a few things we can bring to 5e that folks are perhaps a little hungry for, such as monsters with slightly more flavorful powers, a few more cleric spells, and backgrounds with cool, distinctive abilities. Plus, Thule will be the first complete campaign setting available for the new system!

Finally, we’re also taking advantage of this opportunity to reorganize the book and bring the narrative mechanics from the previous versions’ Appendix up into Chapter 2, right next to the narrative descriptions. This lets us optimize the space a bit, providing us with the ability to add a few pages of all-new content to the 5e version. You might have noticed mysterious references to Thulean Great Old Ones that didn’t appear in the previous book, such as Yga-Ygo and Lorthnu’un. We’ve got Lorthnu’un all statted up, illustrated, and ready to go in the new version of the book. It’s cool stuff!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 18: Gamma World

Hello! I can’t believe that July is already upon us. That means GenCon is less than a month away! I will be at the show, spending most of my day around the Sasquatch Game Studio booth. We’ll have copies of Primeval Thule available in all three game systems currently published, plus a few special offerings you can’t find in your FLGS: Posters of the Thule cover art signed by artist Todd Lockwood, Thule GM Screen packs, and a few premium leatherbound copies while supplies last (signed by the Sasquatches, naturally). We will also be offering demos of our upcoming Ultimate Scheme boardgame. Oh, and we’re thinking of hosting a Friday evening Sasquatch meet-up for anyone who wants to socialize a bit, more details to follow.

Drop by and check out our booth if you’re at GenCon—we’d love to meet you and talk games!

#23: Gamma World, Legion of Gold
One fine day in 2009, Bruce Cordell and I were called into Bill Slavicsek’s office. I wondered if I’d done anything that might merit a chewing-out. To my surprise, Bill informed the two of us that, as of immediately, we were now working on a special project: A new edition of the Gamma World game. Bill went on to describe some of his initial thoughts about the project and some of the unusual requirements—for example, designing the game to include a collectible card component, and making sure it was a true stand-alone game, no other purchase needed. Bill also emphasized that he wanted to see a game that lived up to its zany, kitschy roots. He was looking for something more like Paranoia or Ghostbusters, and wanted to make sure that Bruce and I were up to the task of writing for humor. We both agreed, and away we went.

I was pretty stoked about the idea of working on Gamma World. I got the first edition box way back in 1978, and played it alongside old 1e D&D collection. But as Bruce and I sat down to begin brainstorming, I told him I had a confession. “I know it’s supposed to be zany,” I said, “but when I was a kid, I took Gamma World seriously. I played it straight, not for gags.”

“Me too!” Bruce admitted. So, here we were, with marching orders to go build a humor RPG based on a world we took (probably way too) seriously when we were kids.

A brief digression: Writing humor is tougher than you might think. I figured out years ago that there was really no way to judge which gag, wisecrack, or wry observation of mine was funny, and which wasn’t. About 25% of any humor I write is honestly funny and appeals to anybody who reads it. About 50% is situational, and funny to some folks but not others. And 25% is funny *only to me.* Unfortunately, I can’t easily tell which category a gag I write falls into.

Anyway, off we went to create the 5th, 6th, or 7th Edition of Gamma World, depending on how you count ‘em. Bruce and I decided that we needed a new take on how Terra Gamma came to be, preferably one that could easily accommodate your mutant riding around in a ’57 Chevy armed with a fusion rifle. So, like the Alternity version of the game, we assumed that the “base” timeframe of the setting was pretty much our own modern day. Bruce is a big science geek, so he suggested we might use some of the worst-case fears about particle accelerator experiments as a mechanism for destroying the world. That seemed pretty awesome to me, and thus our idea for the Big Mistake was born. And I got to nuke Peshtigo, for no particular reason.

In terms of the Gamma World system, I’m actually really proud of the way the Origins work. Basically, your character powers and stats are determined by two random rolls: For example, you might be half-Yeti, half-Radioactive. In an early playtest, I rolled up a character that was Hawkoid/Seismic, and I spent the whole session trying to work it out in my head as to how my character could be a flying rock. An hour in, it hit me: My dude was a gargoyle! That was when I realized we had something really fun with the Origins. It occurred to me you could do a fun, light version of D&D using the same mechanism that mixed up classes, races, or even signature magic items. We also went on to explore the notion a bit for a potential superhero RPG, but that didn’t go anywhere (too bad).

The Alpha mutations and Omega tech cards weren’t necessarily something that Bruce or I were enthusiastic about including, but our business team really wanted to explore the territory of mixing in a collectible card component with a RPG. We had several competing objectives for the cards: They needed to be integrated into core game play, but we couldn’t assume players would use them. They needed to be good enough that players would want to buy them, but not so good that players could break the game just by spending money. (I suppose it’s better to experiment with different business models in a sideshow product like Gamma World than to try them out with the flagship line.) In retrospect, I wish we’d pushed harder to build a true card-based char gen system. Given the randomness of the dual-origin character creation, there’s no reason that couldn’t have been covered by drawing from a deck.

So far, I’ve been talking about system and components here, not adventures. I actually didn’t have anything to do with the adventure that came in the 2010 box: All my writing was in the rules and overview portion of the boxed set, while Bruce wrote “Steading of the Iron King.” I wasn’t involved in Famine at Far-Go, the follow-up box by Bruce and Rob Schwalb. Instead, I finally got to write a Gamma World adventure in the Legion of Gold box, the third in the release arc. Legion of Gold was my favorite old Gamma World module from back in the day, and I was really looking forward to revisiting it with our new engine. Bruce was again my co-writer for the box, but this time I took the adventure content, while he took on the crunchy stuff.

The really tricky part about the adventure design was that I had to make sure that battle maps existed for each encounter, but I could only ask for two new posters in Legion of Gold. So, I had to create sites and encounters that relied heavily on maps from the Gamma World box and Famine at Far-Go (we figured that most GMs would pick up all three sets). I also wanted to create an adventure that was strongly influenced by the original from thirty years back, but did something new. So, I hit upon the wacky idea of taking the adventure to Gamma Terra’s moon. Bruce was amenable to the suggestion, and that’s how Moon Zone 9 and space eels and all the rest came to be a part of the adventure. It’s like a 1950s SF version of what the moon might be like before people figured out that it was an airless rock.

I’m pretty happy with how Legion of Gold (heck, the whole Gamma World product arc) turned out. The format was a little tough, since tying ourselves down to “all fights on a poster map” and the standard tactical encounter format made it tough to stay away from railroad-ish narratives or cover lots of different approaches to a situation. But you really shouldn’t be playing Gamma World for deep narratives or challenging decision points. You should be playing to blow things up.

Next Week: Dark Legacy of Evard!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 17: Reavers of Harkenwold

Welcome! I hope you’re enjoying the summer. We’ve finalized our vacation plans for July, settling on Glacier National Park as our main destination. We’ve been to Yellowstone a couple of times, but Glacier will be new for us. I hear great things about it—if you have any “can’t-miss” suggestions about enjoying the park or the area nearby, please let me know! I think we’ll work in a half-day at Palouse Falls along the way out, and maybe look for another good stop on the way back. My wife and I are big fans of the wine country around Yakima!

On  to my next stop in looking back at adventures: Reavers of Harkenwold!

#22: D&D Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit
After my work on P1 (King of the Trollhaunt Warrens), I was assigned to work on the first adventure in a new H-P-E adventure series. Our working identifier for the new adventure was simply HH1. Because we were a good long ways ahead of the game, I wasn’t tied down by an existing title or concept—I had carte blanche to think up the beginning of the next D&D adventure series and do whatever I wanted with it.

As I have noted once or twice in this series, my first impulse when I get the marching order to do what I want is to ask myself what I haven’t seen published for the game in a while. The answer I came up with this time was basically, “When was the last time we saw a good Robin Hood adventure for D&D?” I’d worked on a couple of adventures that were close to that concept: Red Hand of Doom and Shadowdale: The Weave Unwinding. But Red Hand of Doom was really more of a “cast of thousands” battle against an invading horde, while Shadowdale was a high-level scenario tied into the current Realms storyline. Nothing was out there for a group of low-level characters to fight the Sherriff of Nottingham or stage a Scouring of the Shire, so that’s what I settled on.

While I had a lot of room to come up with the adventure I wanted to write, I did have one important requirement: It needed to fit into the Nentir Vale, the default setting in the 4e DMG. (Nentir Vale, by the way, was a very late addition to the 4e DMG. We had that book pretty much done, and at the last minute the brand team and the R&D management team decided that we ought to provide something for novice DMs to use as a starting point. So, I was called in to create a county-sized “sample” world to serve as a chapter in the DMG. Nentir Vale is what I came up with.) I studied the Nentir Vale pretty carefully, and decided that Harkenwold was the best place for the kind of adventure I wanted to write. Thus the title Reavers of Harkenwold was born.

Around the same time, we were also developing the idea that we might spin out the new H-P-E series into a tighter story arc than the first group of adventures. I participated in a small committee with the other designers to cook up a suitable story arc, which led to an idea for a strong devil theme across the new series. That gave me a great hook for the bad guys who would serve as the unwelcome oppressors in bucolic Harkenwold: The Iron Circle. Awesome! I spent the next few weeks in March of 2009 knocking out the adventure, using the same two-booklet and slipcase format we’d been using for the previous 4e adventures.

Then we decided not to do a new adventure series. No HH1, no Reavers of Harkenwold.

Well, I was a little saddened by that, since I felt I had a decent adventure on the table. Unfortunately, part of being a pro game designer is watching things you worked on get canceled. It’s kind of the way you get to join the club. Fortunately, my disappointment did not last long. As we reconsidered our plans for 2010 products, the D&D Essentials concept came into being. Chris Perkins, head of the design team at that time, immediately recognized that Reavers of Harkenwold could be re-purposed to serve as the adventure for the D&D Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit. He took the adventure I’d written for the 96-page 4e adventure format, and boiled it down to its new size and purpose so deftly that I hardly noticed a difference. So, my adventure survived, and wound up being a well-received introductory adventure for our “4.5 Edition.”

I’m rather proud of the tar devils (new monsters introduced in the adventure). Classic D&D devils ought to have strong observable characteristics that create an identity for the monster: for example, spined devils, barbed devils, beard devils, bone devils, etc. The idea of a tar devil feels infernal, and has that same sort of visual identity or theming that existing devils possess; it’s a good fit for the flavor. Mechanically, the tar devil guards have an excellent “stay near me” aura to lock down PCs, and the harriers have a nice signature attack with their hot tar balls. Monster roles and monster powers in 4e work really well, and the more I worked on 4e-era monsters, the more I came to appreciate how poorly monsters often worked in other editions. Unfortunately, I doubt tar devils will ever be seen again in the game. It’s surprisingly hard to introduce new demons or devils into the D&D game, since players are so heavily invested in the existing hierarchy of fiends. (I also whiffed on storm devils from the 4e Manual of the Planes; oh, well.)

The castle map is good—DMs collecting poster maps from 3e and 4e products rarely got usable depictions of castles, and that would seem to be one of the things you can never have enough of in a D&D game. I wish I could have mapped the whole thing, but there’s only so much you can do with one poster map and a sandboxy adventure that might or might not use different pieces of it. I’m also really happy with the way the “infiltrate the castle” challenges worked out. D&D adventures in the 3e or 4e era very rarely made use of any kind of “sneak past the monsters” material, since the combination of better-balanced encounters and awards-by-encounter made it difficult to get players to buy into the idea that some battles shouldn’t be fought. But we’ve all seen a hundred action movies where the brave rebels come up with a plan to get into the villain’s stronghold, so I did my best to provide the DM with ways to adjudicate the player’s use of clever ploys or audacious imagination—and make sure the adventure rewarded the PCs for thinking like heroes.

I wonder if Reavers is perhaps a little too hard for a true novice DM to handle, which might make its inclusion in the Dungeon Master’s Kit a little problematic. But in my defense I’ll point out that I didn’t design it for newbies, that’s just where it ended up. Most people seemed to like it well enough, as far as I can tell.

Next Week: Gamma World!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 16: King of the Trollhaunt

Hello! A strangely quiet week here at the Baker household—both of my daughters are off on a mission trip, so it’s just Kim and I holding down the fort (with our big baby of a Lab). Last night we snuck out to catch a Mariners game. I found a nice ticket-resale site and came across a pair of really good tickets that someone had to dump at the last minute, so we sat 8 rows from the field and only paid $15 apiece for the seats. Of course, the beer still costs $10 at Safeco, but you’re allowed to bring food into the park, so Kim and I enjoyed Jimmy John subs while watching the Mariners get thrashed by the Royals. At least we didn’t pay $50 a seat for the privilege.

#21: P1, King of the Trollhaunt Warrens
Ah, King of the Trollhaunt Warrens. My contribution to the adventure was the Trollhaunt and the Great Warren, including Skalmad and his magic eye. I also came up with the backstory of the sad fate of Prince Etheran. My co-writer, Logan Bonner, covered the town of Moonstair, the troll attack, and the Feywild material that forms the conclusion of the adventure. As in Thunderspire Labyrinth, I didn’t have any input in the adventure title or the “catalog copy”—it was my job (and Logan’s) to write an adventure that matched the title we had in hand.

Trollhaunt was my second adventure for D&D 4e, and the first adventure Wizards published for paragon-tier play. I worked on it immediately after Thunderspire Labyrinth, and had a better handle on skill challenges at that point. The “find your way to the dungeon” challenge at the beginning of the adventure is actually pretty interesting. I also came up with a challenge for negotiating with a dragon, and Logan included a couple in his section of the adventure. 

For some reason, when I thought about the idea of “the Trollhaunt” and what sort of environment might be overrun with trolls, I kept thinking about the old Star Trek episode The Galileo Seven. So, when you read or play through the Trollhaunt trek, just imagine thick mists hiding big giant dudes who occasionally throw fifteen-foot spears at you.

One little goal I gave myself in the design of Trollhaunt: I wanted the players to get to know Skalmad, the troll king, and face him several times in the course of the adventure. All too often adventures that feature an interesting bad guy have exactly ONE meeting of heroes and villain—the climactic battle scene. I wanted to see if we could think up a way for the PCs to fight Skalmad multiple times. That notion led to the Eye of Moran and the Stone Cauldron. If you play through Trollhaunt, you will come to hate Skalmad, and that’s good.

The map of the Great Warren was challenging, because we had hard rules in place about making sure that any area map we created for an adventure had to be re-usable as the insert maps in the tactical encounter spreads. So, I had to map out this sprawling maze in 5-foot squares. I took two full pages to make the biggest spread possible. One interesting feature: If you don’t mind getting wet, the stream tunnels provide a whole different path to explore the complex, and make this a very non-linear map. However, it has always been my experience that PCs hate getting wet (they’re like cats), and I wonder how many groups out there realized how valuable this alternate pathway could be.

Funny story about the art order: Check out the spot illo on page 4 of Adventure Book One. I had a hell of a time getting that through our art approval process. Chris Perkins thought I was absolutely nuts to ask for an ominous-looking sack, but I just knew it had to be there. When the trolls of the Trollhaunt inform the people of Moonstair that the noble Prince Etheran is not welcome in their realm, they do so by throwing his head over the wall in a bloody sack. The PCs later recover a letter from the town mayor to the lord, in which the mayor diplomatically says that, “a troll warrior delivered a token proving your son is dead,” which I thought was a masterful bit of understatement. Anyway, it turns out that making a sack look threatening is tough, and I had to fight for that little bit of gallows humor in the adventure. Sorry, but the bloody sack is just funny to me for some reason.

One other thing I’m proud of in Trollhaunt is the will-o’-wisp. Working early in 4e, we only had one Monster Manual to pull from, and I was bummed that the will-o’-wisp hadn’t made the cut for the first monster book. So, I got to design the first 4e appearance of this iconic D&D monster. It turns out that a monster like the will-o’-wisp works so much better with 4e’s idiosyncratic monster powers and templating of actions than it does in earlier editions of the game. In 1e, you’d see lights in a swamp, and there was nothing to make the characters actually follow them into danger. Plus, the idea of lurker monsters that join other fights is perfect for the making the will-o’-wisp an interesting encounter. IMO the 4e wisp finally delivers on what the monster was trying to do since 1978. I think 5e could benefit from incorporating a little more of 4e’s monster design tech.

So, overall, I like P1, and I’ve used it (or pieces of it) a number of times in my own games. It seems to have been well received, with a good mix of story, colorful demi-Celtic trappings, and memorable fight scenes. I ought to update it for 5e sometime.

Next Week: Reavers of Harkenwold, the adventure from the D&D Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 15: Thunderspire Labyrinth

Hi, there, welcome back! I’m continuing with my retrospective on the various adventures/scenarios I’ve written for RPGs over the years—most of them in various editions of the D&D game, of course.

In other news, wow, the Mariners are unpredictable this year. I thought they would break out of the gate fast and be a top-flight team throughout the season, but clearly I was wrong about that! However, I’m going to make an insanely bold prediction: I think the M’s are going to heat up and put together a very significant winning streak. There is a ton of talent on this club, and I think they won’t be kept down forever. In fact, I think they’re going to be fighting for a playoff spot in the last couple of games of the season. Whether they can claw their way in or not, I couldn’t say—it’s unfortunately true that wins in September don’t count any more than losses in April. But I think we have not yet seen the measure of this team.

Okay, on to the D&D stuff!

 #20: H2, Thunderspire Labyrinth
My first adventure for 4e Dungeons & Dragons was H2, Thunderspire Labyrinth. Over the years TSR and Wizards had waffled over the question of whether the “letter+number” designator on an adventure module really helped the consumer at all; in this case, the H stands for “heroic tier,” meaning it’s an adventure designed for characters under 10th level.

My co-writer was Mike Mearls. I did the sections on the Seven-Pillared Hall, the Chamber of Eyes, and the Horned Hold, as well as some of the upfront presentation. Mike’s contribution was the awesome Well of Demons section, and the Tower of Mysteries. As it turned out, we didn’t really collaborate all that closely—the adventure’s sections are very episodic, and don’t lean too much on each other. That’s okay by me, because I viewed the ruined city of Saruun Khel as a gigantic sandbox and wanted to make sure the players could engage the adventure just by wandering around if they wanted to.

Thunderspire Labyrinth offered some tricky presentation and philosophy questions right up front, simply because it came so early in the 4e product run. (Yes, Keep on the Shadowfell was released earlier, but we had to start on H2 before H1 was completely done.) Not being entirely sure how to present a good 4e adventure, I erred on the side of caution at first, and shot for a middle-of-the-fairway dungeon crawl experience in my sections. (Mike, of course, was a little more ambitious.) If you’ve been reading the blog, you might recall that I felt the same sort of trepidation about Forge of Fury, and adopted a similar approach. For the same reason, I shied away from some excellent opportunities to create skill challenges in the adventure—the subsystem for navigating the giant ruined city really should have been set up that way, but when I was writing H2 I just didn’t know enough about skill challenges to feel comfortable placing much reliance on that system.

I didn’t pick out the name of the adventure: This was one of those assignments where I had to write to suit a title that had been created months before I started work. Chris Perkins also gave me the basic premise of “underground market city, where the surface races and Underdark races can deal with each other.” So the Casablanca-like vibe of the Seven-Pillared Hall really originates in the initial catalog blurb that Chris and Bill Slavicsek came up with; all I did is execute on their concept.

One strange thing about Thunderspire Labyrinth: I wound up featuring duergar (gray dwarves) in the Horned Hold, which marked their debut in 4th Edition. Ironically, I’d done the same thing in Forge of Fury at the beginning of 3e. So, in two consecutive editions, I rolled out the duergar for the edition. One of the things about 4e is that we stepped back and considered the question of whether monster stories/context ought to undergo development in the same way their mechanics were being updated. At the time we felt that the "just like <good guys> but EVIL" races weren't necessarily holding up after you got past the drow, so we gave the duergar a very devilish new twist. In retrospect, we learned that folks are way more touchy about the story elements of the D&D universe than we'd imagined, and many of our "new takes" actively angered our fans. 

People with a sharp eye for detail have noticed that the scale of the map depicting the Nentir Vale in the 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide conflicts somewhat with the description of the Old Hills given in H2. That was not my fault—I knew perfectly well that the range of hills shown in the Nentir Vale wasn’t all that big and hardly constituted a mountain range that could hold a place like Thunderspire, since I wrote up the Nentir Vale chapter in the DMG. However, the decision was made to make sure that H2 was located right smack in the middle of the Nentir Vale. Sorry if that bugged you, I didn’t do it!

Looking back at H2 now, I am pretty proud of the Seven-Pillared Hall and the super-flavorful setting of a whole ruined city to roam around in. The dungeon is infinitely expandable, and the Mages of Saruun are scary and ambiguous villains for a low-level party. The Horned Hold is an evocative setting, but it’s pretty static—working under the constraints of the tactical encounter format and my own caution in balancing fights for the new edition, I deliberately kept things simple in my sections. Fortunately Mike Mearls dialed it up to 11 in his part of the adventure! As I grew more familiar with 4e, I felt more comfortable in writing more ambitious material.

Next Week: P1, King of the Trollhaunt Warrens!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures Part 14: Cormyr, Shadowdale

My apologies for falling a day behind; this week has been busy and I just didn’t stay on my schedule. It’s also been unseasonably hot for June in Washington State. Normally we don’t push 90 around my house until mid or late July, and June can often be a cool and rainy month. Not this year, it seems! I wouldn’t mind so much—after all, an arid 90 is way, way more comfortable than a humid 90—except for the fact that we have no AC. We can often manage okay with strategic use of fans, but there is no denying that the house is hot.

Continuing on with my series of reflections about RPG adventures I’ve worked on, we move on to my last two 3rd Edition adventures: Cormyr and Shadowdale.

#18: Cormyr, The Tearing of the Weave
In the spring of 2006, I drew the assignment of joining a collaboration of in-house designers to knock out the start of an epic adventure trilogy set in the Forgotten Realms. My co-designers were Bruce Cordell, Dave Noonan, Matt Sernett, and James Wyatt. I was unenthusiastic about the prospect, not because I didn’t like those guys, but simply because we were all up to our elbows in working on the 4th Edition system and the 4th Edition version of the Forgotten Realms. Cormyr, Shadowdale, and Anauroch occupied the unfortunate position of being adventures for a system we were finished with, set in a world we were about to drastically re-envision. Worse yet, the audience knew that 4e was coming, so sales of tail-end 3e material were already dropping off. It seemed to me that the three big adventures just weren’t going to be worth the trouble.

Another tricky part of the triple-project was that the adventures were intended to work alongside a major storyline being developed in the Forgotten Realms novels. Early on in the 3e era, I was the team leader for Forgotten Realms RPG products, so I worked closely with the Book department on broad FR themes. But by 2006, I was no longer heading up a Realms team and wasn’t in the driver’s seat for the last half-dozen or so Realms products in 3e. The addition of big, hardbound adventure modules to my schedule caught me by surprise.

Finally, one more new requirement was handed down for the project: The adventures would all make use of the “Tactical Encounter” format, which Dave Noonan came up with a few months prior as an exercise in looking for new and better ways to present material for the DM. While I liked the Tactical Encounter format for certain purposes, I found it difficult to wrap a lot of narrative or description around the structure. We wound up using a sort of semi-tactical encounter presentation in Cormyr that presented the formatted encounters at the end of each chapter, and did not rigorously obey the requirement. (It was one of the few times that Bill Slavicsek, my boss at WotC, was seriously sore at me. Or one of the few times that he let me know that he was, at any rate.)

My part of Cormyr was Chapter 4: The Path of Shadows. I tried to have some fun with an extended journey in the Plane of Shadow and present plenty of mood along with the adventure. The thing I remember about this adventure was the evil boat I came up with for the journey through the swamp: the Necreme. That was kind of cool.

#19: Shadowdale, The Scouring of the Land
The second adventure in the trilogy based around Shar’s attempt to use the Shadow Weave to supplant Mystra, Shadowdale presents a very different type of story in which the PCs are cast as the leaders of a good uprising against evil oppressors (a classic story that is generally underserved in D&D adventures). My collaborators for this one were Eric Boyd and Thomas Reid.

In Shadowdale, I assigned myself Chapter 3: The Dread Lair of Alokkair. This was a classic site in Shadowdale that hadn’t been used as a setting for an official D&D adventure in many, many years, and it was just too cool to let a whole edition pass by without visiting it again. So I looked at the old info on Alokkair’s lair, and set about expanding and updating it to fit in with the overall story arc depicted in the adventure series. (It would be nice if the PCs had a compelling *reason* to go muck about in a lich’s lair when there’s a land to free from evil conquerors, after all.)

Thomas and Eric did a great job with the liberating-the-dale and beneath-the-Twisted-Tower chapters, which made this into a pretty solid adventure. I’m particularly proud of the “death tyrant” the PCs meet in area 24, and the advice to the DM for running the encounter. I never got the chance to run that at a table, so I don’t know exactly how it would play out, but I think it’s one of the more fiendishly clever things I’ve ever done as a designer. I won’t say more than that because I don’t want to spoil it for anybody!

I had no real involvement with Anauroch, The Empire of Shade (the third entry in the trilogy). So, I don’t have much to say on that one, sorry.

Overall, Cormyr and Shadowdale were tough ones for me. Part of being a pro is getting in there and punching hard even when you’re working on something because it’s on the schedule, not because you were hoping you could. I think Shadowdale is the stronger of the two, but they both seem to have been well received.

Next Time: My first 4th Edition adventure, Thunderspire Labyrinth.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures Part 13: Red Hand of Doom

Thanks for stopping by! At Sasquatch we’re gearing up for some summer work we’re not quite ready to talk about, although I hope to be able to say something soon. We’ll be at GenCon (in our very own booth this time), and we’ll be showing off our upcoming Ultimate Scheme game and selling various versions of Thule—and, with a little luck, some signed copies of Princes of the Apocalypse, Thule posters signed by Todd Lockwood, Thule GM Screens, and maybe some of our adventures in print format. If you’re planning on coming to Indy, come by the Sasquatch Game Studio booth and say hi!

OK, on to the adventure of the week. Look, I'm almost halfway done!
#17: Red Hand of Doom
In 2002 and 2003, our headcount in the RPG R&D department was beginning to trend down sharply. The magical days of Pokemon were definitely in the rear-view mirror by that point, 3e was already out in the wild and 4e was not yet in development, and of course the effects of joining Hasbro were slowly rippling through the organization. Shortly after the 3e release, it made sense to have dedicated team leaders when R&D could be split into three or four teams of 6 or 8 people each. But by late 2003 we were definitely in retreat, and my days as a full-time team leader were at an end. I resumed a half-time design schedule, and started back in again with Complete Arcane (where I came up with the warlock!), Stormwrack, and Risk Godstorm. Then in December 2004 I was assigned to write “a superadventure for 2006.” That project became Red Hand of Doom.

I was given a wide-open slate to do pretty much whatever I wanted to do, although there was a directive that the adventure ought to touch on Tiamat and dragons—we were already planning the Spawn of Tiamat miniatures and knew we wanted to feature Big T in our 2006 products. With that broad direction, I sat down to think up what would make a cool super-adventure. If you’ve been reading along with this blog for the last couple of months, you know that my adventure process often begins with something like, “Has anybody done [X] lately? Isn’t it time to do [X] right?” In the case of RHoD, the X that occurred to me was a good stop-the-horde adventure—a staple of fantasy fiction that just didn’t show up at D&D tables as often as it should.

In tying together “stop the horde” with “Tiamat,” I realized that hobgoblins would be just right for a serious invasion scenario. Banners with multicolored five-headed dragons seemed a little sophisticated for a hobgoblin horde; they needed a more primitive symbol, something powerful and simple. The idea of a hand as a representation of a five-headed dragon came to me, and thus the title Red Hand of Doom was born. (I later learned there was a Solomon Kane story called “Right Hand of Doom.” I’d never heard of it before I came up with Red Hand of Doom. Weird but true!)

There was some real confusion about whether or not it should be set in the Forgotten Realms, so I created a location (the Elsir Vale) which was a very close analogue of a particular area in the Realms. Then I built the outline and dove in, knocking out the first part of the adventure. Things were going great! But at that point I got pulled in for an emergency assist on Magic of Incarnum, and was tapped for 30,000 words to help fill out that book after the development team took it apart. After that, I was assigned to work on the new Axis & Allies Miniatures game. That was a ton of fun, too, but all of the sudden I was only able to write about a third of Red Hand of Doom. I got through the set-up, the Elsir Vale description, Part I, and a good number of the stat blocks in the Appendix (mostly rank-and-file like Doom Hand monks and Blood Ghost berserkers).

At that point, we brought in James Jacobs as a freelancer, and he knocked out Parts II, III, IV, and V. It wasn’t until May of 2005 that I returned to Red Hand, and spent a month stitching up my stuff with James’s stuff to make a seamless whole. (The free-floating events in part II came from my second pass.)

Fortunately, James Jacobs did a pretty good job picking up the work that was assigned away from me. Red Hand of Doom turned out pretty well! If Forge of Fury is the adventure of mine that has been played the most, Red Hand of Doom might be the best-regarded of all the adventures I’ve worked on. EN World named it #5 on the list of Best Adventures of All Time (and #1 for 3rd Edition) in 2013—check out the YouTube videos.

Things I like about Red Hand of Doom . . . I like the Drellin’s Ferry material in Part I, and the fact that the PCs get to see a town they care about overrun by the horde. The adventure is brutal on players who think that they’re clever enough to kill a horde by throwing fireball spells at it instead of trying to be *leaders* and unite the defenders of the Elsir Vale. I really wanted to cast the PCs in the roles of “the Captains of the West,” to borrow a term from Lord of the Rings; if you play through this adventure, your character gets to be awesomely heroic, and that is a ton of fun. I really dig James’s work in the drowned city in Part II, and the Battle for Brindol in Part IV is pure epic. He did great work! Oh, and one more thing: Mike Schley’s maps are beautiful.

If I have a regret about the adventure, it’s just that Part V feels a little too much like a letdown after the gigantic Battle for Brindol in Part IV. In retrospect, I wonder if it almost might have worked better as an either-or thing, just to really encourage player agency. You can beat the horde by rallying the defense of Brindol, or you can go find the fane and try to win there. Or maybe if I’d been really clever I could have set it up so you could do them in either order. I’m also a bit sorry that I had to hand over so much of it to James. As it turned out Magic of Incarnum vanished without a splash, although I did have a lot of fun working on Axis & Allies Miniatures, and that became one of my guilty pleasures in my last five years or so at Wizards of the Coast.

Next Week: Cormyr, Tearing of the Weave.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 12: Prison of the Firebringer

Welcome back! One of the advantages of working out of my home is that I can listen in on ball games while plunking away at various projects. Since I live in the Seattle area, that means listening to a lot of Mariners games. Baseball broadcasts are good “white noise” for writing, just like cranking up my favorite playlist in iTunes. And, since the M’s are a West Coast team that has to play a lot of games in other time zones, a lot of their games air around 4 pm our time. Sometimes they’re even on around 10 in the morning if they have an afternoon game on the road, which is great for my writing schedule.

Before the season started, I thought the M’s were positioned to make a move in the AL West and perhaps take over the division. So far this season, that hasn’t happened; they’re still a couple of games under .500, and the Houston Astros are playing ridiculous baseball. But I am hopeful that the Mariners will hang in there and make up ground—they’re a good, well-balanced team, and there’s just no way the Astros can keep up their torrid pace.

So much for baseball—back to gaming, and my third and final Dungeon magazine adventure.

#16: “Prison of the Firebringer,” Dungeon #101
For several years after 3e came out, my responsibilities as the head of the Forgotten Realms team edged out most of my hands-on design work. In theory, this let me work on helping other designers be better, but of course the downside was that I wasn’t didn’t get to do something that I liked and was pretty good at. I was always looking out for opportunities to pick up some writing contributions, so I regularly pestered Bill Slavicsek (the head of the D&D creative team) for assignments to help out with. But most of my creative energy went into a big burst of after-hours novel-writing that included the books City of Ravens, Condemnation, and The Last Mythal series.

In late 2002, I was really feeling the itch to do some adventure design again, so I started work on a big new adventure for a home FR campaign I was running. Usually in my home games I don’t bother to do more than slap together quick outlines and terse notes with stat blocks as needed, but for whatever reason, I found myself expanding those basic notes into full-on adventure presentation along the lines of what we were actually publishing at the time. I eventually pulled together 20,000 words of pretty solid adventure, so I decided to take it to Erik Mona (who was editing Dungeon magazine at the time) and see if I couldn’t sell my home campaign adventure, since I’d already gone to the trouble of writing it out. Erik loved it, and even though it was monstrously big for a Dungeon adventure, he picked an upcoming issue and cleared the space needed to accommodate “Prison of the Firebringer.” Everybody wins!

My idea for “Prison of the Firebringer” originated in the “Known Dungeons of Faerûn” section of the 3e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, which for my money is four pages of the best D&D ideas you can find in one book. The brief description of the setting spelled out a wizard’s school, dwarven ruins, and froglike monsters. A few months later, I pitched in to help out with Silver Marches, one of the first 3e Realms sourcebooks. Ed Greenwood and Jason Carl were the primary designers, but Silver Marches needed a good deal of reorganization, development, and expansion, so I wound up contributing 10,000 words or so to the manuscript. In my work on Silver Marches I expanded the information on the Dungeon of the Ruins, inventing the name “Bazim-Gorag” and describing a unique slaad lord hidden in the depths. So far it was just a colorful adventure hook, but then I picked up my own idea for a home game, and began to write a real adventure based on the drive-by description from Silver Marches. As it turned out, Bazim-Gorag made the leap from Dungeon Magazine to Realms canon a couple of years later when he was picked up and featured in Champions of Ruin. He also appeared in the 4e Realms.

The mechanical premise of the adventure is simple: If you know a boss villain is in the last room and you can make any preparations you like, just how tough of an encounter can you take on? I assumed a well-prepared party would halt just outside the prison and summon up a dozen big, beefy elementals, or go back to civilization and buy spell scrolls of seriously over-leveled spells like time stop so that they could take on a monster who is otherwise a very lethal fight for the party. That’s not the way it went in my home game, though. My players included Ed Stark, Dave Noonan, Warren Wyman, and (IIRC) James Wyatt. The best story: The monk and the sandwich. (SPOILER ALERT!)

At the conclusion of the adventure, the party reaches the magically sealed archway beyond which the slaad lord Bazim-Gorag is imprisoned. Bazim-Gorag has a pretty good idea that the party is coming, and like many powerful slaads, he has the ability to assume a human-like guise. So, he takes the form of a regal human lord, and greets the party at the doorway to his prison. Bazim-Gorag attempts to persuade the party of PCs that they ought to help him escape from his “unjust” imprisonment, and promises to reward them richly. Roleplaying ensues.

I’d be very grateful if you could help me with your magic,” I say, playing the part of B-G. “I was trapped here by a treacherous archmage, and your assistance would be greatly appreciated.
You must have quite a story to tell!” says Ed Stark, playing his character—a high-level monk. “Can you explain how you came to be trapped?
Of course,” says Bazim-Gorag. “You see, a long time ago this wizard promised me—
Say, do you want some beer? I have beer in my backpack,” says the monk.
Well, okay,” says B-G. “That’s very considerate of you. Now, as I was saying—
“I hand him a flask full of beer,” Ed tells me, making it clear that his character is carrying out the offer.
“OK, he takes it,” I tell Ed. “He nods and goes back to his explanation. ‘I did what the Ar-Magus asked me to do, but then he reneged on his payment. Instead, he imprisoned me here—‘”
How about a sandwich?” asks the monk. “Would you like a sandwich?
Umm, sure. That’s darned decent of you,” says Bazim-Gorag. “I haven’t had a sandwich in forever. Now, about your part in this—
“I hand him the sandwich,” Ed tells me.
“Okay, he’s got the sandwich,” I reply, struck by the unusual affability of Ed’s monk, and wondering how exactly the slaad lord is going to bring this conversation around to getting out of prison.
“So he’s got the beer in one hand and the sandwich in the other?” Ed asks.
“Uh, sure, I guess,” I reply. Last time I checked people had two hands, after all.
“Great!” says Ed. “I kick him in the nuts!”

Needless to say, we’re all in stitches for a good long time. I decide that Ed’s monk has, indeed, managed to achieve surprise with this ploy (he sure surprised me!), and gets his free nut-kick and stunning blow attempt. Bazim-Gorag has a Fort save of +25, so he’s almost certain to not be stunned, except I roll a 1 on the saving throw. A bad initiative roll follows, and the whole party piles on and goes through one-third of Bazim-Gorag’s hit points before he even gets a chance to act. As it so happens, the party fights Bazim-Gorag to a draw, even though one of the characters is butchered by the angry slaad lord. They wind up withdrawing, and use magic to bury the place. But the beer and sandwich story survives to this day.

Next Week: Red Hand of Doom!