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!