Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Choosing a Backdrop

To say the Realms is large place is an understatement, even if I’m confining myself to regions covered in the Gray Box and some of the supplements. Those poster-sized maps only hint at the scope of Faerûn and it’s not until you put down the transparent overlays and start counting hexes that you realize how much an area even a small section covers. Needless to say, I was going to have to zoom in on but a small part of its grandeur for the campaign.

My usual choices for campaigns are the Dalelands (Mistledale in particular; see my original campaign map of Ashabenford here), the Western Heartlands along the Trade Way, or somewhere in the Savage North. One of these years I’ll tackle Tethyr or the lands east of the Sea of Fallen Stars, but since this was an exercise in fun, I decided I’d keep to my old haunts. Having a backlog of previously-generated campaign materials for those regions doesn’t hurt, either.

Since I was coming off of Kingmaker, and as an old school DM I have a preference for such, I wanted to keep the campaign on the fringes of civilization, thus allowing me to play with some of the plot ideas I had in mind. This crossed the Dalelands off the list and I wasn’t feeling like managing the constant stream of traders and costers rolling along the Trade Way. Plus, I personally like mountains and forests. A return to the Savage North was in order.

Breaking out my copies of FR1 Waterdeep and the North and FR5 The Savage Frontier, I started re-reading them and looking over the landscape. Although a Waterdeep-based campaign would be fun, running an urban game requires a lot of work, and I discarded that idea. The same reasoning also removed Silverymoon, Neverwinter, Luskan, and other large urban sites from the list. Then my eyes fell on the Loudwater environs and the creative wheels started churning. A nearby fallen Elven empire, a large town, the biggest forest in all of the Realms, a Zhentarim-controlled village, an abandoned dwarven kingdom, and Hellgate Keep all in close proximity to one offered more potential adventure seeds than I could count. This had potential.

Following my decision to only incorporate Realms canon as interested me, I started looking for what was actually detailed about this area. None of it is covered in the Gray Box, so it was time to move on to secondary sources, namely the above-mentioned supplements. Loudwater and Llorkh garner a paragraph or two each in Waterdeep and the North, while Hellgate Keep and the High Forest each earn three. Hardly a treasure trove, but exactly the amount I felt like dealing with. The Greypeak Mountains have a paragraph in The Savage Frontier, and more detailed information for Loudwater, Llorkh, and Hellgate Keep is provided. The High Forest earns an entire chapter, but by this point, it’s become beyond the scope of my focus for the initial campaign adventures, so I can ignore that material for now.

What does catch my attention is a small entry covering “Other Woods” in FR5. It reads in its entirety, “This is not the name of a single forest, but includes the Lurkwood, Southkrypt garden, Southwood, Moonwood, and Westwood. These [sic] edges of these forests are logged by men, though their dark depths are largely a mystery.” Southwood (or South Wood depending on if you’re going by the text or the map) is located just beneath Loudwater and seems perfect what I’m thinking about: A frontier area close to a bastion of civilization but offering unplumbed mysteries.

I decided to consult a tertiary source—The North boxed set—to see if there was anything further I could use in there. As much of the material in that set is based (or copied outright) from both FR1 and FR5, it might or might not provide additional glimpses or inspiration. Luckily, there was a little more, but the entry was still sparse enough for me to monkey with. I’ll decline quoting it in case it spoils any surprises for my players.

Next, I started brainstorming and came up with the following background for the campaign:

After the transformation of Ascalhorn to Hellgate Keep, the elven kingdom of Eaerlann fell, and most of the moon elves fled down the Riving Shining to either travel to Evermeet or join the Fallen Kingdom near Ardeep Forest. A few, however, lingered in the Loudwater area, either joining the small mixed-race community or occupying the Southwood. These displaced refugees harbored dreams of resettling the ancient kingdom if the forces of Hellgate Keep were ever banished. For centuries, the elves claimed the Southwood as their own, a small domain of displaced elves dreaming of their former glory. This enclave dubbed themselves “Lanymthilhar.”

In 1235 DR, the Year of the Black Horde, a never-before seen force of orcs boiled out of the Northern mountains, rampaging as far south as Calimshan. One tribe, the Black Slashers, charged down from the Graypeak Mountains towards the River Shining. Forging a tentative alliance, the humans of Loudwater and the refugee elves of Lanymthihar battled the Black Slashers, breaking their invasion near the northern verge of the Southwood. After this defeat, an accord was reached between the Lanymithihar elves and the residents of Loudwater. The agreement opened the outer edges of the Southwood to human logging and settlement, but the forest interior would remain sacrosanct and protected by the elves. So long as this compact was obeyed and the loggers didn’t become greedy in their yearly felling of timber, the two cultures would pursue their own agendas separately and in peace.

The PCs would begin the campaign in one of the few forest edge communities, caught between civilization to the north and forbidden mystery to the south. A decision to play up the mystery of elven culture and the phenomenon known as “The Retreat,” led me to prohibit elves as a starting race for the PCs as mentioned previously. While not actual enemies, I wanted to explore the “alien” factor of elves, rather than making them pointy-eared humans. I hope to have fun with this aspect of the campaign.

After a quick trip of the maps through my scanner and importing the scans into Photoshop, I made minor changes and additions to the canonical landscape of the region. I also took a look through Volo’s Guide to the North to see if I could use anything in that book, and decided I’d incorporate one of roadside inns mentioned therein. Situated to the east of Loudwater, “The Nighthunt Inn” might come in handy should the PCs ever decide to travel toward Llorkh. I now had my regional campaign map.

Loudwater and Environs as Ed never imaged.
The next step would be zooming in even more to detail the PCs’ home base of Elf Water and the adventuring opportunities in their own backyard.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Establishing Boundaries in the Realms

Having decided to go ahead with a 2nd edition AD&D game in the Forgotten Realms, my first task was deciding what to bring to the table and what to leave on the shelf. Between the various rules and campaign supplements available for 2nd Edition and the Realms, there’s a small mountain of books waiting to be climbed. And I wanted this to be fun, not mountaineering.

Deciding my limits for the rules was easy. Although not my usual “go to” D&D rules, I’ve never had too much a problem with 2nd Edition in its initial form. The core rules are close enough to 1st edition in practice and don’t make for far-reaching changes to the original advanced game. I’ve found that it’s only once you start bolting on the supplemental material that the power levels start getting wonky and the wheels fall off.

So no problem here: I’d only allow the players the class and race options available in the Players Handbook. No “Complete Book of…” class kits allowed, no Tome of Magic spells, and especially nothing from the Player’s Option books! This kept it strictly in the classic AD&D family, and had the bonus benefit of freeing me from such troublesome classes as assassins, cavaliers, and barbarians. I had forgotten that 2nd Edition removed half-orcs as a playable class, but that wouldn’t matter for what I had in mind for the campaign. And, of course, as the DM, I could make use of any of the verboten material freely. Sometimes it’s good to be boss.

Choosing the Realms material I intended to limit myself to required a bit more thinking. My introduction to the Realms—outside of Ed’s excellent Dragon articles—had been the “gray box.” Using that as the backbone was a no-brainer. But I’ve got a respectable collection of other Realms stuff I’ve accumulated over the years. Would say the material in The Dalelands supplement trump what was presented in the Gray Box, which was much less detailed or would I stick to the bare bones presentation found in the original set?  Would I make the Volo series my primary source for all things Realms? Was I going to concern myself with Realms canon?

I wrestled with these decisions a bit, and my original thought was to go all the way back and just utilize whatever information was given in the Gray Box, building my own campaign from that modicum of information. The designer in me loved the idea of such a challenge and I readily imagined myself pouring over the two slim books from that set, ferreting out small nuggets of information and implied hints at the larger world to build upon. But then I remembered the real purpose of the summer campaign: Let Mike have some fun for a change. This isn’t work, knucklehead!

Ultimately, I made what I feel is the wisest choice and decided that the only limitations I’d place on myself was “Is the ‘canonical’ material in X entertaining, inspiring, useful, or fun? If so, use it. If not, forget it.” This gave me a lot of leeway while still maintaining a game which would be easily identifiable as the Forgotten Realms to anyone playing or observing it. Sure, a die-hard Realms aficionado might take me to task for fudging a few dates or adding new places, but last time I checked, I didn’t need anyone to vouch for the orthodoxy of my home games.

And speaking of dates and orthodoxy, this led me to my biggest alteration of the established Realms’ timeline: The Time of Troubles.

It never happened, folks.

I started running my first Realms game back in 1987 when the Gray Box was released. Reading that set completely changed how I approached world design. In fact, the experience of turning the pages of that set remains such a developmental milestone for me that I can still remember what food I ate and what was playing on my tape deck as I paged through Cyclopedia of the Realms (if you’re interested, I’ll always associate the Gray Box with port wine cheese, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and Eddy Grant’s Killer on a Rampage.)

So when the Time of Troubles happened, it needless to say had a great impact on my vision of Faerûn. Although even then I realized it was a marketing ploy to steer gamers towards the 2nd edition of the game, I made a half-hearted attempt to adjust my own version of the Realms to accommodate the changes inflicted by the Time of Troubles. But it always stuck in my craw a bit. Years later, it seems that most of the world-shaking changes that Time of Troubles wrought have vanished (Bane’s been back for a while now), so why bother? Let’s just pretend it never happened and excise any obvious Time of Troubles-related material from the campaign setting. It’s surprisingly easy.

Removing the Time of Troubles was also a breeze due to my choice of when to set the campaign. Rather than keep the game relatively current to the established timeline, I went back to the beginning. This campaign takes place in 1358 DR, the Year of the Shadows (and interestingly not “Year of Shadows” as later supplements would refer to it), the suggested starting year in the original Gray Box. So technically and temporally, somewhere out there in the Realms, the campaign I ran in 10th grade is currently underway with a much younger Michael at the helm. Maybe I should finagle a crossover event between the two groups?

The last limitations I needed to establish were campaign ones, boundaries stipulated by the focus of the campaign. I had a few possible themes and potential plots I wanted to introduce (which I’ll cover in a forthcoming post) that would be best done if I drew a few lines in the proverbial sand. In the end, it came down to demi-humans in character creation. With a small group, I wanted humans to equal the number of demi-humans (if not outnumber them) in the party. Originally, I was looking at three players, and decided only one person could play a demi-human, ability scores allowing. At the last moment, we picked up a fourth player, so I relaxed that limit to two non-human PCs in the party. But there was a catch to this: To quote a famous ad slogan for Talislanta, “No elves!”

What? No elves in a Forgotten Realms campaign? You’re mad!

There’s a method to my madness, gentle reader, one I’ll explain in a future post.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Back to Faerûn

Ah, summertime! The season where one can relax a bit, spend time with long-neglected friends, go to concerts, attend barbeques, and enjoy a momentary escape from the workaday chores of modern life—that is, unless you’re a handsome, gregarious, freelance designer and writer struggling to keep the bills paid and the wolves away from the door for another month. Then summer is pretty much like any other time of year, except more humid and mosquito-filled.

As many of you know, I came back into gaming after a prolonged absence, returning to the role-playing fold about the same time the OSR started gaining momentum in the back alleys of the internet. I was lucky enough to return with a minor splash, one that swiftly moved me from hobbyist to professional, and, before I knew it, I was working as a freelancer as a second job. While the upswing of that development is that people actually pay me to use my imagination and I get to share my creations with a wider audience than I ever imaged possible, the downside is that there’s no longer a dividing line between recreation and vocation for me when it comes to role-playing games. I know: cry me a river.

Still, it remains a fact that what I once did for fun and personal enjoyment is now labor and there are many times when I wish—if just for a little while—I could treat RPGs as a pleasant pastime. I’ve been running a lot of DCC RPG on the convention trail, which is just play-testing in the guise of fun, and even my semi-regular home Pathfinder campaign is more of an exercise to familiarize myself with the mechanics and design needs of the industry’s current 800 lbs. gorilla in hopes that it’ll pay off with more work down the line.

At the end of April, one of the players in the Pathfinder campaign informed us he received a summer scholarship to study out of state for the summer. The Pathfinder campaign I’m running is the Kingmaker adventure path, which if you know Paizo’s APs, is designed for four players. The campaign had also reached a pivotal point and I (and the rest of the group) thought it be best if we put the campaign on hiatus until the departing player returned, and then pick things up from there.

That left us with the summer to play something else. I originally proposed that we’d spend the summer months doing a playtest of my Shiverwhen game and anticipated giving it a thorough shakedown and chronicling it over on the Shiverwhen blog. We got as far as the players generating characters and me doing the initial prep work when cold reality hit: this was going to be more work than I felt like doing. The problem with running a game you’re currently developing means there’s always something that need attention, sometimes even built from scratch to fill gaps. It quickly dawned on me that the last thing I wanted to do was spend the summer with an even greater workload. I’ve already got a lot on my plate between crafting new DCC RPG material and sewing the final parts of Stonehell 2 together. I didn’t need more work masquerading as recreation.

I told my players of my revelation and my desire to scrap Shiverwhen before it began, but that meant we had to find a replacement game for the summer. I gave them four options of what we could do: 1) DCC RPG (a chance for me to playtest and develop material); 2) OD&D (beer & pretzels dungeon crawling that’d be easy for me to write and keep everyone entertained through the summer); 3) Pathfinder (a non-adventure path to keep us in fighting shape for fall and allow me to further try my hand at designing for the system); and 4) 2nd Edition AD&D set in the Forgotten Realms (just because it had absolutely nothing to do with my paying design work).

To my surprise and delight, option #4 carried the day.

So for the last three weeks, I’ve found myself back in Ed Greenwood’s world running a game using a system I’ve not really touched since 1990 or thereabouts. And I must say I’m having a wonderful time. Long time readers know that I remain a fan of the Realms, despite everything that’s been done to the poor place over the last (can you believe it?) twenty-five years. Returning there has been a joy, like falling back in with old flame or seeing someone from your youth and reminiscing about days gone by.

In the weeks ahead I’ll be posting more about the Realms campaign, sharing the work I’ve done with it, displaying maps, and boring you with the occasional actual play reports. For the first time in a long while, I’m having fun as a DM and designer again, and not viewing my time in front of the computer as work, but an engaging and entertaining process. This blog’s been too much of a marketing venue and it is past time to utilize it as a means to disseminate “fun stuff” and frolic in the shared happiness of these strange games we play.

More to come.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Off to ConnectiCon Tomorrow!

I'm departing for my northerly neighbor of Connecticut tomorrow to attend ConnectiCon as one of the convention's Traditional Gaming Guests of Honor. My official con schedule begins at 8 PM tomorrow night when I kick things off with "Frozen in Time," but I'll be slouching around the convention center for a few hors prior to that. I've several other games scheduled throughout the weekend. Also, on Saturday, I'll be participating on a panel with James Carpio of Chapter 13 Press and Gygax Magazine about Old School Gaming.

There's still available seats in my games, so if you're planning on attending or still thinking about it, please come on down and play. My scheduled events are as follows:

Friday, July 12th @ 8 PM: DCC RPG—“Frozen in Time”
Saturday, July 13th @ 9 AM: DCC RPG—“In the Court of Chaos”
Saturday, July 13th @ 8 PM: Shiverwhen Playtest
Sunday, July 14th @ 9 AM:  DCC RPG—“A Night on the Town”

Hope to see some of you there!