Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 8: Alternity!

Hello! As you might expect, I’m continuing on my survey of old adventures. This week, it’s all about Alternity.

Back in the tail-end days of TSR, I was brought onto the Alternity team as Bill Slavicsek’s co-designer after Lester Smith left the company (he was Bill’s original partner on the idea). Bill and Lester had the core mechanic worked out, but I distinctly recall that I convinced Bill that negative steps where you subtracted the difficulty die were necessary because there wasn’t enough difference between d20+4 for something that was easy and d20+d12 for something that was pretty hard.

Alternity happened at a strange and bad time in TSR’s journey. The company was vapor-locked and couldn’t print books, but we were still coming in and trying to work every day. Some of my co-workers whiled away the days playing Doom. Doing nothing wasn’t in my nature (and definitely wasn’t in Bill’s!), so we put our heads down and worked hard on the new SF game. It was way better to feel like we had a reason to keep coming in to work!

I could tell many stories about the Alternity development process, include some of the most infuriating sorts of interference and office-politics I ever saw in my twenty-plus years in the game biz. (If you see me at a con, ask me, “Does there have to be gravity in the future?” and I’ll regale you.) But since this series of posts is about adventures, I’ll move on to my Alternity adventures.

#8: Cauldron Station
When I composed my list of adventure credits, I completely overlooked this one. It appeared in the Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game Gamemaster Guide, and also in the Fast-Play Rules booklet (a free promotional item intended to provide a little taste of the new game). So, between this and the adventures in the First Quest boxed set that I forgot about, I’ve actually published 30 or 31 adventures, not 28. I won’t bother to correct the blog title now!

“Cauldron Station” was intended to be simple. When I was working on Alternity, I was on something of a hard-SF kick, so I was always looking for ways to emphasize the science in the sci-fi game. That’s not to say that “Cauldron Station” is based on any real science, it’s just that I wanted to create a scenario that made the players pay a little attention to the technology keeping them alive on an inferno planet.

#9, #10: Black Starfall, Red Starrise
Two more promotional adventures I worked on back around the Alternity release. In all honesty, I usually approached marketing-oriented pieces with a real lack of enthusiasm—I didn’t like drawing those assignments because I wanted to work on big, serious adventures. But part of being a pro is doing good work even on projects you’re not excited about. I remember that I was actually pretty happy with how Black Starfall turned out. I managed to catch a pretty good “technothriller” vibe, and that was one of the sub-genres we hoped Alternity would support. Rather annoyingly, I cannot actually find a copy of Black Starfall in my house, so I couldn’t re-read it to remind myself of why I liked it.

#11: The Last Warhulk
In the fall of 1997, I finally got the chance to write a *big* Alternity adventure. It was a darned busy time for me, since my family and I moved from Wisconsin to Seattle in August of ’97 as part of the WotC-buys-TSR move. The Last Warhulk was pretty much the first thing I worked on after the move.

Being an ambitious fellow, I set myself a difficult challenge for the adventure: I wanted to include a complete deck map of the Warhulk. That put some real constraints on just how big I could let the Warhulk be. My main inspiration for the robotic ship was Fred Saberhagen’s berserkers, and in his stories front-line berserker battleships might have kilometers of armor and be fifty or a hundred kilometers across. I couldn’t square that with the goal of avoiding the cop-out of providing no deck plan, so I decided to go with a smaller Warhulk and keep the map. (A fair number of readers seem to feel that was the wrong move, and wonder why the Warhulk isn’t miles across.) I will point out that the “small” Warhulk is still about three or four times the size of an Iowa-class battleship.

Despite the fact that the Warhulk has a pretty thorough map, it’s not a keyed-location adventure. It’s set up in event-based acts and scenes that use the Warhulk as a backdrop. Parts of the adventure can be pretty railroad-ish; there are places where I really forced the action (for example, the outcome of the first visit to the ship’s control room, or the timing of the ship jumping to its next target). I feel bad about that, but it does build a strong narrative and conveys an excellent “thriller” script for the right group of players. By way of making up for that, I provided a lot of different ways for the players to take out the Warhulk: Kill the AI, detonate its own ordnance, sabotage the engines, and so on. There is a lot of room for player creativity here if you push the NPCs to the background, where they belong.

The Last Warhulk has some extremely lethal parts, and I wish I’d paid a little more attention to just how dangerous the battle scenes were. Unlike 3e, 4e, or 5e Dungeons & Dragons, we never built any kind of hard encounter math to figure out what made for a balanced combat in Alternity. In all honesty, we sort of defaulted to, “What should be in the room? That’s what’s there,” which is a very 1e-2e way of doing things. Looking back on it now, it amazes me that we wouldn’t have worked out some kind of basic guidance for what kind of opposition is too much for a group of heroes to handle. People learned to eyeball it in earlier editions of D&D (if nothing else, the encounter charts by dungeon level helped with that), but Alternity was different enough that we should have expected GMs to have trouble determining lethality.

Oh, and one thing I did enjoy about the adventure: The personality of Ares 22 is a lot of fun. Your players will *hate* that AI before they’re done.

Overall, I’ll give The Last Warhulk mixed reviews. Some people loved it, some people felt it was flat. As they say: YMMV.

Next Week: “Exit 23,” my adventure for the Dark*Matter Campaign Setting.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, #7: Eternal Boundary

Welcome back! I hope folks are enjoying these little retrospectives on old adventures. The process of writing this series of posts has enticed me to pull old modules down off the bookshelf and re-read things that, in some cases, I haven’t looked at in 10 or 15 years. I keep a nice barrister-style bookshelf in my living room, and do my best to stock it with one copy of everything I publish. I call it my “ego shelf” since it’s pretty much a stack of things that I’ve done over the years. It’s my resume, so to speak. Over the last few weeks I’ve actually popped books out of twenty-year-old shrink wrap so I could look through them and remind myself what I did when I was just getting started in my career.

Okay, on to the adventure of the week. This time, it’s Eternal Boundary.

#7: Eternal Boundary

When I started at TSR in October of 1991, they’d just released their big new world of Dark Sun. I look back at Planescape (released in 1994) as the first big new world that was created while I was on board. Rather surprisingly, I only wrote two Planescape products: Planescape Monstrous Compedium II, and Eternal Boundary. I say surprisingly, because I was really excited by the new shiny, and I was eager to dive in and contribute anywhere I could. But the cold calculus of The Schedule just didn’t ever seem to give me much opportunity to work on Planescape stuff.

I regarded Eternal Boundary as something of a challenging assignment, because I had to create the inaugural adventure in a product line that was just so darned different from the middle-of-the-fairway fantasy settings I was used to. Basically, writing the first Planescape adventure meant that I had to figure out what Planescape was *for*, if you follow me. Fortunately, the Planescape team—Zeb Cook, Dave Wise, and other folks involved in making that big, beautiful boxed set—were very helpful and provided lots of good guidance for things like using the lingo and factions.

(Yeah, I actually worked in the same building with Zeb Cook, for about four years. It took me about a year to work up the gumption to actually speak to the man. I was also contemporaneous with folks like Jim Ward, Jeff Grubb, and Bruce Nesmith. That’s what starting at TSR in 1991 meant.)

Anyway, I had to adhere to some pretty big decisions that had already been made: for example, I had nothing to do with the title of the adventure. I was just told to write an adventure that fit the title. (That happened quite a lot back at TSR.) I also had to feature Sigil, make it low-level, and do something that would make sense given the existing artwork for the cover. Sometimes you have to color inside the lines!

The physical format is quite nice—the idea of including a stiff gatefold that could serve as a DM screen and include the maps was pretty smart (don’t know who came up with that, sorry). The internal layout blew people away back in 1994, although things like the pull quotes and the texture-patches must have been a real headache for the typesetters. You may also notice the Exocet font for headers and quotes, which then popped up everywhere (for example, Diablo and the 13th Warrior).

I think my favorite touch in the whole adventure is the way the Xaositect faction addresses the situation. With barmies turning up dead and someone obviously responsible, the Xaositect basher who’s got the job of figuring out the mystery just goes around randomly thrashing people in the Hive, figuring that sooner or later he’ll thrash the guy responsible for the dead barmies. It was the most chaotic way to proceed that I could think of.

Looking back at Eternal Boundary now, I’m pretty happy with it. The mystery-solving in the Hive is a lot of fun, the Mortuary section just begs for skulking around instead of trying to kill your way through it, and the final section offers a nice taste of the size of the multiverse and an unexpected development. I think that in some ways I was actually a little too conservative—parts of the adventure didn’t really need to be keyed locations, and might have worked better as an event-triggered flowchart. In my defense I’ll say that writing the first adventure in the setting meant that I was still thinking about “creating a D&D adventure in Planescape” instead of “creating a Planescape adventure.” The folks who came after me were able to really follow up and explore the kind of scenarios that weren’t possible in more conventional settings. Hey, someone had to go first!

Next Week: A little side trip to the Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game for The Last Warhulk!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 6

Hi, there! Thanks for stopping by. April has been a busy month so far: I’m working hard to finish up a first draft of a new military SF novel that I hope will inaugurate a series, and I’m getting close. I’m in chapter 21 of a 25-chapter outline, about 75,000 words done so far. With a little luck I’ll be shopping it around in another month or six weeks, and we’ll see what comes of it!

In other news: Baseball! I am a big baseball fan (for those of you who don’t know). While my beloved Phillies look pretty terrible, I’m excited for my AL team, the Mariners. Just this weekend I watched two games that I think the M’s would have lost last year. Nelson Cruz, their new free-agent slugger, hit crucial home runs in each of those games that made the difference between victory and defeat. That big right-handed presence in the lineup was something the Mariners sorely lacked last year, and the early evidence suggests that they’ll be a much more dangerous offense this year. It should be fun to watch!

Okay, on to gaming stuff. This week, I’m still working through my AD&D 2nd Edition adventures.

#6: Night of the Vampire

One of the more unusual adventures I ever worked on, Night of the Vampire was one of the very few D&D products to include an audio CD. (Back in the mid-‘90s, people used to actually buy these things called laser disks that had music on them.) It was a low-level adventure set in the Mystara campaign setting, which I didn’t know much about. Fortunately, the adventure is pretty self-contained, and I didn’t have to do a ton of studying up to write it.

My marching orders required me to A) write a low-level adventure, and B) make sure the Big Bad was a vampire. However, in 2nd Edition, low-level PCs would get absolutely killed by a vampire. Heck, they wouldn’t even have weapons that could hurt him, and every time he hit somebody, they’d probably die. I spent a fair amount of effort seeding the location with magic weapons the heroes could borrow, pointing out the location of things like garlic and mirrors, and providing some rules guidance for how a whole gang of low-level PCs could grapple, tackle, and stake a vampire through sheer weight of numbers. I also had some fun by creating several NPCs who might easily be mistaken for the vampire in question.

The big challenge about working on these adventures was that the script was written separately by a sort of “West Coast TSR affiliate” that was headed up by Flint Dille, the brother of TSR president Lorraine Williams. That team was given the job of producing the audio recordings for the CDs. Those of us who were ordinary shop-floor RPG designers in Wisconsin had no idea who was involved, what they were doing, or what exactly we were going to get back. Voice casting? Not a chance. Final approval? Please. Heck, we weren’t even supposed to write the scripts for these things, although in practice, we created a sort of “here’s what needs to be in this script” script that the West Coast office used or didn’t use as the mood took them. Some of the tracks used dialogue reasonably close to what I suggested. Some didn’t. We only found out which it was when a FYI copy was sent to us so that we could make a final error-check to see if something had been introduced that literally made the adventure not work.

(As an example of the sort of challenge this sometimes entailed. I wrote a scene in which the PCs are extracting information from captured assassins by threatening them with stern punishment. The line I wrote ran something to the effect of, “Tell us who hired you, or we’ll put your head on a pole!” OK, not brilliant, but it’s medieval. But when this scene was “fixed” by the West Coast scriptwriters, one of the PCs demands, “Tell us who hired you!” and another PC shouts, “GET A POLE!” When I heard the track for the first time, I just about fell out of the chair laughing. I mean, my first reaction was, “Dear God, what’s he going to do with THAT?”)

Given the fact that I was writing an adventure with a bunch of intrigue and sleuthing about, I decided to go ahead and assume lines/interactions from the PCs. I just couldn’t see a way to cover “random heroes talk to Lord Gustav” without having someone feed Lord Gustav conversational cues. I felt bad about essentially putting lines in the players’ mouths. I also wasn’t happy about the voice casting, or the fact that the PCs addressed each other by their class names—for example, “Get a boat in the water, Thief!” I don’t think I did that in my proto-script. There was another audio CD adventure called Hail the Heroes that was a more conventional adventure, and was able to do without PC dialogue to concentrate on “what do you hear now” type audio tracks. Certainly less intrusive, I suppose.

While the audio CD was painfully dorky (man, you should listen to the early-‘90s synthesizer), I think Night of the Vampire is actually a pretty cool little adventure. The NPCs are interesting, there are several plots going on for the PCs to unravel, and the mix of event-based encounters with a well-described nobleman’s manor works really well. The poster map is good, the handouts are pretty good, and the page layout is just gorgeous (the artwork, eh, it was 2nd Edition). Anyway, you could pitch the audio CD altogether (I would!) and run this as a nice little intrigue adventure. My only concern would be that there is no good time to let the party rest, and it would be a real challenge to slug your way through without recovering spells and hit points before the finish. I think I would let the party get a “full rest” before the masquerade starts, and another one after sunup, even if there isn’t really 8 hours for the characters to sleep and study spells.

Next Week: My only Planescape adventure, Eternal Boundary!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, #5: Prism Keep

Welcome to the fifth installment of my tour through the adventures I’ve worked on over the years. Today marks an interesting milestone that dovetails nicely with my recent blog theme—it’s the official release date of Elemental Evil Princes of the Apocalypse, my most recent adventure to see the light of day. Since I’m working through my career in chronological order, I won’t get to PotA for a while. But I will say that I’m happy with the final product, and I think Sasquatch Game Studio can hold its head up high with the effort we put into this book.

I personally wrote the earth and water outposts and temples, and I also knocked out the Fane of the Eye. (I was originally going to knock out the earth and water nodes too, but I just couldn’t make it work in my schedule.) I also wrote the “linking” event-based material in the beginning of each chapter, Dark Dealings in Yartar, many of the monster descriptions, and lots of other bits in the introduction and the appendices. Oh, and I also did a ton of art direction too. Anyway, it’s great to see the book in print—it was a TON of work, but I’m very proud of it.

(Worth noting: Chris Perkins at WotC should get top billing for the overall concept, outline, and story bible. We had a very sound foundation to build Princes of the Apocalypse on.)

Anyway, on to the next stroll down memory lane: Prism Keep!

#5: “Prism Keep”

This was my first publication in Dungeon magazine, appearing in issue 45 [edited, I originally said 47]. The story of how “Prism Keep” came is a little entertaining. Basically, in early 1994 I did my 1993 taxes, and discovered that I owed Uncle Sam $1000. I didn’t really have $1000 at the time, and I needed to come up with some way to earn the money fast. So, I decided that the best way to do that was to write a big adventure for Dungeon magazine, and do it fast.

At TSR, writing for the magazines was a voluntary activity for the designers and editors on the creative staff. We worked on magazine articles after-hours, and we were paid for that work as if we were external freelancers. Since the base pay for being a new-ish game designer in Lake Geneva wasn’t all that great, several of the people who hired on at the same time I did were very enthusiastic contributors to the magazines. I wrote a bunch of Dragon articles early on in my career because that was the only way to keep up with my bills.

(We also had the opportunity to volunteer to take “freelance” assignments to work on D&D products. The Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix II was something I knocked out on my own time, and got paid for on a piece-work basis. So if you like monsters such as the eladrin, the guardinals, the darkweaver, the keepers, etc., that’s where those came from—Rich needed to make a decent living and was vacuuming up all the extra work he could wheedle out of our schedule guru.)

Anyway, Barb Young was the editor of Dungeon at the time. She was sympathetic to my situation and let me shoehorn a big adventure into an upcoming magazine, and I went off to go write “Prism Keep.”

“Prism Keep” in some ways might be the most 2e-ish of all the 2nd Edition adventures I wrote. It’s one of the most puzzle-centric of my adventures, since the heart of the adventure is recovering the shards of the big central crystal, and some require a good deal of problem-solving to figure out. One interesting wrinkle is that many of the monsters you fight are warriors who have been charmed by the enchantress who runs the place. In my original draft, these were all pretty much faceless “Ftr 3” type bad guys, but Barb wasn’t satisfied with that. She suggested that these bad guys needed more personality and variation, so based on her feedback, I created a short roster of Irinia’s collection of charmed minions.

(Just a couple of years ago, I put together a 5e conversion of “Prism Keep” early in the 5e design process. (I was part of the initial 5e team for eight months or so before parting ways with Wizards of the Coast.) I needed some adventure content for our ongoing playtesting and development efforts, and pulled up “Prism Keep” as an old favorite that included plenty of physical challenges, roleplaying, puzzle-solving, and combat in good measure. I think it suits the 5e sensibilities quite well; of course, my update was based on a very early version of the 5e rules, so now I would have to update the update to make it really usable.)

Anyway, I’ve always liked “Prism Keep,” and I think it holds up well in the 5e era. It’s got a little bit of whimsy here and there, something I don’t often indulge in. The villains are interesting, the setting is magical and fantastic, and the puzzle-solving is important without being tedious. It’s worth checking out in my not-so-humble opinion!

Next Week: I think I’m going to skip over the adventure I contributed to the First Quest starter set, because I honestly don’t remember a thing about it. Instead, I’ll go on to Night of the Vampire!