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!