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!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 11: Rana Mor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 10: Forge of Fury

Sorry for the late post this week—yesterday I partook of my twice-a-year pilgrimage down to Portland to sample the finest brewpubs to be found. I make the trip with a whole gang of engineers from a major aerospace manufacturer that shall remain nameless, and I’ve been doing it for something like three or four years now. Anyway, I was out of the house all day on Tuesday, so I didn’t get the blog posted.

Speaking of Portland and beer, the discovery of the day for me was The Commons Brewery, which I had never visited before. I had the Walnut (an excellent dark ale) and the Biere de Garde (a “French farmhouse ale,” also excellent). If you’re in Portland sometime, I’d heartily recommend the place. I’ll even post their website to be a thoughtful guy:

Okay, now to carry on with my tour of RPG adventures I’ve worked on during my career. This week, we’re almost at the halfway point!

#14: Forge of Fury
I’ve never had the chance to investigate the actual sales numbers, but I am pretty sure that Forge of Fury is far and away the best-selling of all the adventures I have worked on. As the second adventure to be published for the wildly successful 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons game, Forge of Fury was purchased and played by a vast audience compared to some of my 2e or 4e adventures. It’s one of those adventures that it seems *everybody* has a story about. I’m happy to have played some small part in setting the scene for those tales of adventure!

Forge of Fury was the second entry in a series of eight adventures that came to be called “the adventure path.” Early on in the series, we didn’t have any strong mandate to establish common elements between the adventures—they were a “path” only in the sense that the level progression would support playing them in order, and they were not remotely intended to contribute to some kind of overarching narrative. (This is in direct contrast to the approach Paizo uses with its Pathfinder adventure paths.) So, I very consciously avoided ties back to the Sunless Citadel.

As far as the adventure itself, I approached Forge of Fury with the determination to build a good, old-fashioned dungeon crawl. If you’ve been following along with this series of blog posts, you know that I worked on a number of story-based adventures toward the back end of 2nd Edition D&D. Well, part of our whole plan with 3e was “back to the dungeon,” so I set out to write something that would be an interesting and challenging place to explore without much in the way of story overhead for the DM to worry about. Plus, 3e was new enough that I didn’t want to try anything too fancy—I wanted to present a meat-and-potatoes dungeon, not a gourmet adventure. Forge of Fury is what it is; the world will neither know nor care if your PCs take one look at Khundrukar and decide to go do something else.

(Easter egg: I used the name again in my novel City of Ravens for a macguffin called the Orb of Khundrukar. Jack Ravenwild hears the name only once, so he garbles it into the Orb of Kundugar when he tries to name it later.)

I seem to recall that I suggested the title, which is something I didn't get to do very often. (Might be wrong about that, it's been a while.) I picked the title to fit the basic premise the D&D team had settled on: A dungeon crawl highlighting "dwarf settings" in some way. Moria was out—hey, it’s only 32 pages!—but I was reminded of the secret stronghold of Mîm the dwarf from Tolkien’s Silmarillion (it’s in the story of Túrin Turambar), so I took a little inspiration from Amon Rûdh. When I sat down to plan out the dungeon, I decided that I wanted to feature a lot of verticality, and create a maze where navigating from level to level really meant something.  The cross-section map in the adventure is there because I went and begged Ed Stark (D&D team leader at the time) for an extra quarter-page map to help the DM grokk how these levels stacked on top of each other.

I started off by working out the XP and treasure budgets for the adventure. This was fairly new tech in 3e, and it took quite a lot of planning to figure out just how many monsters needed to be in the adventure to provide a good expectation of leveling to 4th and 5th during the adventure. The treasure budget was also problematic because I had a hard time fitting magical weapons into the adventure, and the basic concept for the Forge suggested that there ought to be a good number of them present. I eventually cobbled together a workaround in which I assigned a “get chance” to some of the more well-hidden treasures. My thinking was that most parties would miss a treasure or two. So, it’s not really over-treasured, unless the DM is really going out of his way to make sure the players don’t miss anything.

I’m sorry about the roper. We decided that it was important for the early adventures in the Adventure Path to teach people how to be good D&D players, and one of the lessons I was asked to impart was “you don’t have to fight every monster”—sometimes you can just run away. So, I looked for a monster that would be too strong for a low-level party but *slow*, so that the PCs could get away when the time came to flee. The roper seemed like a good answer for that . . . but, of course, a roper grabs you and *prevents* you from running away. I should’ve seen that coming. (If you happened to get washed down the underground river to die a terrible death in icy, lightless water a few hundred yards downstream, you may find it interesting to know that I was thinking of the Whirlpool Death from the old arcade game Dragon’s Lair when I wrote that part.)

Idalla the succubus isn’t actually my design. My editor, Miranda Horner, observed that the adventure was full of things to fight, and not a whole lot that might decide to talk to you or trick you instead of killing you. So, she removed the encounter I’d written for that room, and replaced it with the succubus. (A vestige of my original encounter remains as the note about the wizard who died in that room.) I think she was right about the need for a change of pace somewhere in the dungeon, although I wish we’d done more to “fit” the succubus into the rest of the dungeon ecology.

Nightscale the dragon is in the adventure because I was given the marching orders right up front: There *had* to be a dragon in the adventure. In all the stories I’ve heard about Forge of Fury over the years, Nightscale is responsible for a truly impressive number of character deaths. She might be the single most effective monster (in terms of total kills scored) of any monster I’ve ever put in any dungeon. We had a great playtest group in the office going through the adventure, and I distinctly remember Curt Gould’s gnome sorcerer using levitate to get up out of reach, then riddling the dragon with magic missiles. Well, Nightscale got tired of that real fast, so she burst out of the lake and flew up to maul the gnome in mid-air . . . where he slowly bled out to –10, bobbing unconscious 30 feet up in the air where the cleric had no chance to reach him. Good times, good times!

All in all, Forge of Fury seems to have been well received by a lot of folks. I’m proud of the interesting map and sheer density of adventure crammed into that 32-page booklet. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Next Week: A long-delayed return to Dungeon Magazine, “Rana Mor.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 9: Dark Matter

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

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

#13: Exit 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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