Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 3

Welcome back! So far, so good: I’m keeping up on my retrospectives about the RPG adventures I worked on over the years. This week I’ll be looking at my second Dark Sun adventure, Merchant House of Amketch.

In other news, I’m pleased to announce that my Primeval Thule Campaign Setting will go on sale in hobby retailers next month (April). Thule is available in Pathfinder and 13th Age versions; we also have some 4th Edition versions leftover from our Kickstarter, but if you want one of those, you’ll need to send us a note at info@sasquatchgamestudio.com. I’m very happy with how the book turned out; our printer did a great job with high-quality paper, vibrant color, and top-notch production values all around. I think I can say without reservation that me and my fellow Sasquatches managed to publish a book that is fully the equal of anything industry leaders such as Wizards of the Coast or Paizo Publishing normally print. Our sales partner is PSI Inc., which works with most major hobby distributors. Make sure you tell your FLGS you want your Thule!

Speaking of WotC, keep your eyes peeled for Princes of the Apocalypse next month. This is the giant adventure book for the Elemental Evil campaign, the second of WotC’s campaign arcs for 5e D&D. Sasquatch Game Studio designed this adventure for Wizards, and we’re pretty proud of how it turned out. I personally wrote big pieces of the book, including Rivergard Keep, the Sacred Stone Monastery, and the earth and water temples.

Okay, time to return to the burning sands of Athas!

#3: Merchant House of Amketch
My third published adventure, Merchant House of Amketch was the second title in the “DSM” adventure series—the second adventure arc of the Dark Sun product line. (The first arc was the “DSQ” set, which closely paralleled the story of the Prism Pentad novels.) The DSM adventures represented something of a start-over point; our assumption was that after playing the Freedom series and finishing up in Dragon’s Crown, DMs would want to be able to start another campaign arc from the beginning with low-level characters. Unlike the previous series, there wasn’t really any common storyline or continuity between Black Flames, Merchant House of Amketch, and Marauders of Nibenay. This was a more episodic set of adventures, and the only linking element was the set of sample PCs who leveled up through the series.

(Two of those sample PCs were actually drawn from a short Dark Sun campaign I ran for fun while at TSR. Ka’Cha was Tim Beach’s character. And Rowan was based on the character briefly played by my wife, Kim. Kim has never been a gamer, but every now and then she played a little to socialize with friends and humor me. The moral of the story is that if you play in the group of the guy writing the adventure, your character may be immortalized.)

(We also decided that all Dark Sun dometic animals were named for the sounds they made. So kanks simply said “KANK!” and erdlus said “erdl-erdl-erdl-oooo!” and mekillots said “mek mek mek mek.” That’s the one thing my wife remembers about that campaign.)

Merchant House of Amketch was presented in one of the most unique physical formats of any adventure I ever worked on: the Dark Sun “flip-book” format. The main part of the text appeared in two 5 by 7 spiral-bound booklets, one for the DM and one intended for the players, in a slip-case. There was also a standard-sized self-covered 16-page booklet used to present a short story (in this case, “The Gambit,” by Simon Hawke). I will say this: The flip-book format was frankly about the most difficult and limiting adventure presentation I ever had to use. It was terrible for presenting keyed descriptions of areas unless you’re willing to commit to a page per room. And figuring out how to present an adventure that gave the players relevant material in the same page count that the DM had was really challenging (although I will admit it was okay for the “you now see THIS” type of encounter or room description paired with an illustration).

One other weird thing about Merchant House of Amketch: The editing completely vanished. When it was published, I looked carefully and found only one word of my original draft that had been changed (a word I spelled correctly had been altered and misspelled). Back in the day we used to joke about the “spellcheck, grammar check, paycheck” school of editing. Merchant House of Amketch was the one book of mine in which I saw that happen—most of the time my editors did great work. Fortunately I’ve always tended to produce pretty clean turnovers, and Amketch turned out okay.

As for the adventure itself . . . For some reason I was not yet satisfied with gimping psionics in Dragon’s Crown, so I went and did it again six months later. I don’t recall if I did that deliberately or if I was perhaps steered that way in the concept meeting. Looking back on it now, I find it strange that the only Dark Sun story I could come up with was, “What if somebody did [stuff] that threatened PSIONICS?” That said, Merchant House does it in a fun way: parasitic beetles that are being smuggled as contraband. To solve the mystery, the PCs have to go undercover and join up with a merchant house so that they can find out where the beetles are coming from.

I think Merchant House does a couple of things pretty well. It’s one of the few Dark Sun adventures that spotlights the giant mekillot-drawn caravan wagons and the trading house culture. It presents plenty of intrigue and story, but doesn’t railroad the party. Part Three offers plenty of coverage for the possibilities of a party that has been captured, that has evaded capture, or that includes some captive PCs and some free PCs. I think my favorite encounter was Mothgar, in Part Four. He’s a giant who’s been hired to track down and kill the PCs, and he carries a heavy ballista that he uses like a crossbow. (Mothgar fancies himself a sharpshooter.)

So, overall, I think Merchant House of Amketch is pretty strong. I wish I hadn’t gone back to the psionic-threat theme so quickly, but I think that part of the reason is that I was one of the very few designers at TSR at the time who was familiar with the psionics rules and willing to feature them in an adventure. I like the mix of intrigue, detective work, colorful villains and interesting NPCs, and of course action. So I think I’d give myself a solid “B’ on this one.

Next Week: One of my personal favorites—Cleric’s Challenge!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 2

As I promised last week, I’m continuing on my stroll down memory lane, reviewing the RPG adventures I designed over my gaming career. Over the years many people have asked me, “How did you get started as a game designer?” or “What was it like to work at TSR?” Well, you’re going to get a little peek behind the curtain at what it’s like to design games for a living as I continue through my list of published adventures. If you’re into the history of D&D, I hope you’ll find my own little contributions interesting. If not, maybe these discussions will point you at some decent old adventures you could pick up and repurpose for your current campaign—most of these can still be found in places like Amazon, DriveThru, or the more cluttered sort of FLGS. (That’s Friendly Local Gaming Store, for those who don’t know.)

I should note that 28 adventures is not the sum and total of my D&D bibliography, by the way. I’ve written or contributed to over a hundred game products over the years. It’s just that 28 of them are specifically published adventures. Maybe I’ll do a series on sourcebooks or character classes or something later on. Anyway, on to this week’s entry: Dark of the Moon.

2. Dark of the Moon

My second published adventure was Dark of the Moon, a Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition adventure for the Ravenloft Campaign Setting. I worked on the adventure in 1992, and it was published in 1993. It was the only Ravenloft adventure I wrote during my career at TSR and Wizards of the Coast, although I did make a couple of small contributions to the setting in other spots (I seem to recall that I came up with Captain Pieter van Riese, the “Flying Dutchman” of the Sea of Sorrows).

In my early years at TSR, one of the most exciting events for the designers and editors each year was the annual assignment of specific people to specific projects. Bruce Heard was the schedule master for the department, and he would send around a copy of the product schedule for the upcoming year. Each one of us would look over the list and submit our requests for the things we wanted to be assigned to. I suppose it was a little like registering for college classes—you knew it was going to be a big part of your quality of life in the next few months, you could see at a glance that some projects would necessarily be exclusive of each other because they would need to be worked on at the same time, and you knew that all your colleagues would be competing with you to get the coolest and most interesting projects. Usually, you’d get a couple of your top picks, and then you’d get a couple of things you hadn’t asked for because somebody had to work on them.

Dark of the Moon was one of those “other” projects for me. There was a tight group of Ravenloft fanatics among the creatives at TSR—Bill Connors, Bruce Nesmith, Andria Hayday, and David Wise spring to mind. Personally, I was hoping for more Dark Sun or Spelljammer work. But any D&D assignment is a good D&D assignment, so I set out to do the best I could with it.

The first thing I will note about Dark of the Moon is that I actually appear on the cover. I mean, I am in the cover painting. I’m the face in profile in the lower left corner, gaping at the werewolf that is breaking through the window. Robh Ruppel, the cover artist, was actually on-staff with TSR at the time, and worked just down the hall in the artists’ bullpen. He approached me and asked if I’d be willing to pose, so I went over to his house one Saturday morning, and he took some photos at the proper angle that he could work from. During that time period, several of the artists liked to borrow folks around TSR as models from time to time, so if you look over covers in the early to mid ‘90s, you’ll see quite a few of us! Later on in my career at Wizards we lost the staff artists, which I always felt was a great shame—having artists in the same building led to some great collaboration, and it meant that I didn’t get into any more paintings, darn it.

Okay, now on to the adventure. Before I was assigned to it, the title and the general plot (a werewolf adventure) had already been set in stone. The Ravenloft brain trust pointed me in the direction of Vorostokov, from the Domains of Dread set. So, a good deal of Gregor Zolnik’s story and the general outline of the domain were already in place when I was asked to write Dark of the Moon. I can’t claim credit for coming up with the loup du noir or the domain.

As it happens, I’m very interested in Russian history and culture. During college I took a solid year of Russian history, and Vorostokov gave me the perfect venue for exploring some fantasy-Russia themes in an adventure. The other theme I figured out that needed to be explored was the idea of losing control. The heart of the werewolf legend is the fear of becoming a monster. So, to present PCs with a really engaging werewolf adventure, I figured it was important to get the players wondering if their characters were going to turn or not, and maybe even force them to examine the question of whether they wanted to be heroes or be survivors.

The last thing I wanted to feature in the adventure was using the weather as an adversary. Since the whole premise of Gregor Zolkin’s tragedy is that cold and starvation brought him to the worst sort of desperation, I wanted to make sure the players got the chance to walk a mile in his shoes. Most D&D adventures hand-wave any kind of survival challenge; the D&D rules really don’t handle things like slowly freezing to death or starving in snowy woods very well. So, I devoted a few pages to refining some detailed systems for tracking those things in an “Exposure and Survival” section.

(Quick side note: I just recently read In the Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides. It tells the story of the polar expedition of USS Jeannette, which was crushed by the ice north of Siberia. The crew trekked over the ice to the huge delta of the Lena River, but couldn’t reach any settlements before winter set in. Cold, hunger, loneliness . . . the same ingredients as Dark of the Moon, but all the more terrible because it really happened. It’s worth a read.)

Looking back on the adventure now, I think it shows a lot of the same 90’s sensibilities that Dragon’s Crown did. I wrote more read-aloud text than I needed to, and the plot takes control of the PCs more than it probably should. The prevailing design sensibility back then was to write a good story and present a memorable narrative, even if that meant limiting player agency from time to time. I generally try to create more open story structures when I write adventures now, but sometimes the “railroad” is the way you can present the story you need to tell. That’s especially true if you want to make sure the PCs interact with the villain a couple of times throughout the story, instead of meeting the bad guy for the first time when they attack the last room of the adventure. Dark of the Moon does that pretty effectively (in my humble opinion), so I’ll cut myself some slack for being a little railroady. Besides, it was the 90s, that was how we rolled.  

Next Week: It’s back to Dark Sun for Merchant House of Amketch!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures (Part 1)

As you may have noticed, I have been delinquent in keeping my blog fresh over the last couple of months. For most of the summer and fall, I was insanely busy with work on Princes of the Apocalypse, the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons adventure designed by Sasquatch Game Studio. Then I spent much of the last couple of months catching up on my writing and working on our Primeval Thule PDF adventures.

(By the way . . . the Primeval Thule Campaign Setting should be available in better retail stores in early April. If you missed the Kickstarter, ask your FLGS about ordering it for you!)

Looking ahead to the next few months, I’d like to make sure I provide a regular and interesting discussion of gamer-friendly topics, and give folks a reason to keep up with what I’m doing. So, I’ve decided to use a bit of nostalgia to lure people in for a bit. The nostalgia in question is simple: During my career as a professional game designer, I’ve written 28 published adventures. For the next six months, I’m going to look at one adventure a week in chronological order, telling you a little bit about each one and what I was trying to do. These 28 adventures span twenty-three years of work in the RPG biz, and hopefully they’ll give me opportunities to share some interesting stories and insights about what it’s been like to work as a game designer over the years.

I’ve been told a number of times that I’m a good adventure designer, which strikes me as a little ironic. You see, I generally don’t like writing adventures all that much. Every time I’ve taken on an adventure project, I’ve spent weeks or months feeling like I was behind schedule and overmatched.  I do my best, and I generally end up feeling reasonably proud of how it turns out, but it’s never easy.

What Qualifies
To make it onto my list, I decided that I would only include complete adventures. So, while I’ve written dozens of adventure locales—for example, some of the keyed sites in the 3rd Edition Lords of Madness book, or the 4th Edition Draconomicon II—they don’t count because they weren’t separately published. I did include complete adventures that appeared as samples or introductions in other books, so my “Exit 23” adventure from the Dark Matter Campaign Setting makes the list. Also, I didn’t include anything that I worked on as a developer or editor, even though sometimes my contributions were pretty substantial. So, with those conditions, my list begins with the Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Dark Sun super-adventure Dragon’s Crown. It wasn’t the first thing I wrote at TSR, but it’s the first adventure of mine that saw publication.

1. Dragon’s Crown
Nothing like jumping in at the deep end! I was hired by TSR, Inc. in October of 1991. When I joined the R&D department in Lake Geneva, it was organized into four product teams: Core D&D, Basic D&D, Old Worlds, and New Worlds. Everybody in the creative department belonged to two different product teams—your assignments weren’t necessarily exclusive to those lines, but you would attend a product team meeting every week and contribute to discussions and tasks such as line planning, coming up with product names, writing marketing copy, and so on. Jim Ward asked me which groups I was most interested in, and to my surprise, I was assigned accordingly to the Core D&D group (led by Steve Winter) and the New Worlds group (under Tim Brown).

The New Worlds group was a pretty awesome place to be in 1991 and 1992. It focused on the Spelljammer, Ravenloft, and Dark Sun product lines. My first project was the Spelljammer sourcebook Rock of Bral, but then I got a string of Dark Sun assignments: Valley of Dust and Fire, Dragon’s Crown, Merchant House of Amketch, The Will and the Way. So, I stepped into the “second-year” Dark Sun planning and work, following up on the plans Tim Brown and Troy Denning put in motion for the original boxed set and adventures.

Dragon’s Crown was my fourth assignment at TSR. I worked on it from August through November of 1992. The basic idea was pretty epic: A 288-page high-level super-adventure by multiple authors, back in a time when the vast majority of TSR’s adventures were 32- or 64-page efforts by single authors. My direct responsibility was 2 MU of design, plus overall outlining and freelancer coordination. (A “MU” was the scheduling unit used at TSR for RPG work. It stood for “module unit” and represented 32 pages of writing/design, or 20,000 to 22,000 words. When I first started at TSR, the standard was that a designer like me would be scheduled for 1 month per MU. If it seems generous, remember, we also handled a lot of outlining, planning, and freelancer oversight while plugging away on our design assignments.)

After a concept meeting to brainstorm up ideas for this gigantic adventure, I sat down and tried to hammer it all together. Naturally, the focus of the adventure needed to involve the Dragon’s Crown Mountains (the title was already approved), so I took a look at what was said about this mysterious place in the Dark Sun boxed set. For a plot, I figured that something threatening “psionics as we know it” would work well by giving every Dark Sun hero a direct slap in the face. That led me to come up with the Order, a neutral group of powerful psionicists whose stronghold was located in the lush valley at the center of the mountains. The Order was after nothing less than establishing a monopoly on psionic power by covering Athas in a field of psionic suppression, and it would be the PCs’ job to stop them.

I was very paranoid about carving up one continuous story arc between six different authors, so I decided to assign myself the beginning and the end of the story, and establish clear “stop” and “start” points for the other designers. In other words, I made sure that Geoff Pass and Alex Bund knew that the PCs were supposed to be ready to go to Urik at the beginning of Part II, and needed to be ready to leave Lake Island at the end of Part III. So, I personally wrote Part I (Out of the Valley), and Part VII (Dragon’s Crown Mountains). The other contributors were Kirk Botula and Lisa Smedman.

One major problem cropped up with Dragon’s Crown: Most of the work by Geoff Pass and Alex Bund was lost due to some mysterious incompatibility between our word processor programs. When I first started at TSR, we worked in WordPerfect. I have no idea what the other guys used, but the fact that they were in England and we were exchanging files by physically mailing each other 3.5” disks might have had something to do it. (Looking back now, it seems only slightly more advanced that chiseling cuneiform on clay tablets.) Bill Slavicsek, the editor for that section, received almost nothing for a turnover. He “edited” huge stretches of Part II and III of the adventure by writing it himself.

So, how do I think I did with 23 years of hindsight? As I write this, I have the old module spread out on my desk, and I’m looking through the various components. (Annoyingly enough, I don’t have the darned poster map, so I can’t admire my awesome psionic fortress. Wonder where that went?) In retrospect, there are definitely parts that are pretty railroad-ish or heavy-handed, although part of that was my excessive paranoia in making sure all the contributing authors knew where to start and stop their sections. I also seem to have been VERY fond of boxed text back in the day, although that was kind of a 2e style thing.

Finally, I wonder how many people really played through Dragon’s Crown—it was a high-level adventure in a world where adventures are not very portable to home settings. I mean, I’ve never played it or run it since working on it, and I wrote the darned thing. But there are parts I like a great deal, such as the fortress of Dasaraches, the Order and its factions, and the Road of Fire. I look back at the adventure as “fair to middlin’” by my own standards, but I did come up with lots of interesting pieces to play with.

Next week: My only Ravenloft adventure, Dark of the Moon!