Thursday, December 9, 2010

Welcome to My World

Since I’ve taken a good look around me and realized that I have a literal box of books that I’ve purchased in 2010 and have yet to crack open, I’ve decided to catch up on my reading. Some of that reading includes the more recent issues of Fight On!, since I got sidetracked somewhere around issue #6 and haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy that publication as of late. However, rather than dive right back in, I started with #1 again and I am slowly working my way forward.

While the premier issue still holds up and contains more than a few nuggets worth mining, what really caught my eye this time around was the editorial written by good old Ignatius Ümlaut, publisher and editor of the fanzine. Entitled “In the Time of the Broken Kingdom,” it is, amongst other things, a love letter to the open game of yore, the sort of campaign where anyone at anytime could stop by, pull out a character from their overstuffed briefcase, and spend a few hours as a guest in an ongoing campaign world.

That is a rare thing these days. As a whole, the hobby has become a place where, to quote the editorial, “we often content ourselves with smaller communities: our own group’s game world, the fandom of worlds like Tekumel, Glorantha, Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Arduin, the Forgotten Realms, the World of Darkness, and so on, communities devoted to the particular ruleset we like best, even communities of game designers.”

The way we play these games has changed since they first blossomed out of the organized chaos of the sand tables of the Mid-West. If I may be so vainglorious as to quote myself from the intro to The Dungeon Alphabet, the hobby, like the dungeon, “is no longer the unexplored country it was in its youth. And, like any unexplored land, it has lost its wildness and unpredictability with the arrival of more and more people and the laws and rules that a population brings with them.” Things have been “mapped and codified, rendered predictable with familiarity. It is no longer the Wild West or the lawless high seas.”

It is almost difficult to imagine, as the clock slowly winds down on 2010, that the campaign world was often a much more fluid place, one where people came and went depending on the whims of their schedules and travel times. The gamer of today might be hard pressed to imagine this scenario described in an article from a 1980 issue of New World entitled “It’s Only A Game…Or Is It?”, by Moira Johnston and quoted in the Fight On! editorial:

The liberal immigration policies of [Deanna Sue] White’s D&D-based ‘open universe’ allows characters to visit from other worlds and universes, making Mistigar an intergalactic entrepot. “Whenever I’m in L.A., I call to see if Deanna’s having a run,” says Clint Bigglestone, Bay Area fan and producer of the FRP convention, DunDraCon. His characters adventure through Mistigar, returning to the Bay Area with wounds and stories that spread Mistigar’s network of contact…The FRP network has become so sophisticated that it is now possible for jealous, upstart worlds from all over the country to attack Mistigar. Two attempts to subvert her world have already been thwarted, one by Bigglestone, whose characters discovered, while campaigning through Dave Hargrave’s world near San Francisco, that evil members of Hargrave’s Black Lotus Society planned to attack Mistigar. Loyal to White, Bigglestone’s characters attacked and killed the plotters.

As the date of the article suggests, the situation described above was not an uncommon one even as the hobby entered the boom years of the early 1980s. I remember playing in several campaigns in junior high which featured characters hoping from one world to another in the school cafeteria depending on whose turn it was to referee, bringing their grudges and artifacts of unbelievable power with them for the journey. This style of play was to fall out of fashion as the years progressed and campaign worlds became more insular in nature. Ironically, the open campaign went into decline as the commercial campaign setting began to ascend, a product that, on paper, would seem to make the open campaign more accessible to gamers around the world.

This editorial got me thinking about the way things once were and what they are no longer. There have been and continue to be attempts at “organized play,” moderated events that do what White and others did without the benefit of an overseeing committee or communication methods more advanced than the mailed letter, mimeographed fanzine, or telephone call. Outside of a brief membership in the RPGA back in the late 1980s, I haven’t been exposed to these efforts and I can’t claim to know if they do an adequate job of recreating or maintaining this level of campaign openness. But what I can do is undertake efforts to make my own campaign world more accessible to visitors.

I’m not proposing some OSR-wide organized play: that way leads to madness. Instead, I’ll be taking steps to make my own personal campaign setting, the Kinan-M’Nath or “the Uncertain Lands” that forms the basis of my Labyrinth Lord game, a place where people can occasionally come, experience Stonehell Dungeon first-hand, gain some treasure, and depart with “wounds and stories”…and maybe a bit of loot.

I’ve been thinking about this since I reread the FO! piece and it seems to be a logical step for my own campaign. When I was younger, I always envisioned that I would someday have a massive campaign world of my own, one detailed down to the smallest little square foot. As I grow older though, I see the sense in quality over quantity and it’s becoming quite clear that any and all of my future campaigns will be set in the same small(ish) region that I’m currently playing in. Since the Kinan-M’Nath is based on both an original play map (Outdoor Survival) and original rules (D&D via Moldvay via Proctor), why not go whole hog and assume the original play style as well? I would much rather have more visitors to a well-detailed region than a vast world that rarely gets visited by tourists.

The fact that Stonehell Dungeon has become a popular visiting place for adventurers also makes an open campaign style of play sensible. With a pre-existing axis mundi to rest cross-campaign travel on, it’s a small matter of extending the idea of many Stonehells scattered across the multiverse and allowing travel between worlds (although I claim rightful possession of the Ur-Stonehell!).

Lastly, I run my campaign in a public setting, one where anyone can walk in and see the campaign unfold. And although I may not live in a transportation hub, I am located a short train ride from the most magical city on Earth. One never knows who might be in the area and looking for a game to play during their visit.

Like any nation, my campaign world will have some laws regarding visitation and immigration, and I’ll get to those in posts next week. In the meantime, let it be known that the borders between worlds have grown a little thinner in the Kinan-M’Nath. Should you ever find yourself headed to the New York area, be sure to pack a character sheet or two. I might need help defeating the Black Lotus Society.


Chris Kutalik said...

I was reminiscing the other day about how fun weekly AD&D club play was at this community center in Arlington TX was back in the early 80s. A lot like how you describe it in terms of open world play, you could go from one table to the next playing in different DMs worlds.

I'd love to see a return to that even if on a much smaller scale.

scottsz said...

You nailed it, Mr. C.

scottsz said...

Just a thought: did the spread of campaign 'canon' influence this?

It wasn't OK to just have a 'Greyhawk-ish' campaign... it had to somehow follow within the parameters of what others had written?

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing "campaign = a big heroic plotted story about the PCs" is what killed it.

John said...

YES! I discovered this myself last year - the megadungeon supports episodic play.

We strive to have each session start and end back in town, so no matter who shows up to play, they can meet up with the group and head out for a night of fun.

Episodic play was one of the surprises we rediscovered when we returned to the game's roots. (It works for megadungeons; haven't quite got my head around making it work for a hexcrawl... yet).

Spawn of Endra said...

The campaign I'm in has spent ~10 game sessions in Stonehell, in Carter's Lands of Ara campaign, and it makes me think about how many different worlds it is inserted into that otherwise might not have any other connection in terms of game mechanics, house rules, political relationships in that world, and so on. And it does seem built (as far as I can tell as a player from cracking the first few levels) to allow for the perforation of spatial and temporal borders, which is pretty cool.

The other thing about the Stonehell experiences in our group is that they have shaped the play style of 3 players that are essentially new to any kind of RPG (that is, they are starting off as Old School now, not referring back to earlier experiences since we are playing Lab Lord rules). So, often during game play, if there's something that looks like a trap or looks too good to be true, they will turn to the actual Old Schoolers and ask "What do you think? In this type of world is this usually a trap, or what? I don't know how this universe works as well as you."

And then I tell them "I have no idea how this universe works. Yes, this looks like a classic trap from Caves of Chaos, but so far we haven't seen a parade of cliches, exactly. YOU have to decide whether your character pulls the lever."

"But what would you do?"

"I'm not saying anything. I'm searching for secret doors over here. You decide for yourself and find out."

And so it goes. So I guess my take-home message is, for as much of the grand-scale universe-meshing Stonehell potentially could create, you should also be encouraged that there is a population of nouveau Old Schoolers that are cutting their teeth and gauging their expectations of dungeon adventures on your work. To the extent that that happens, a newer cohort of Old Schoolers may come to expect (or not be surprised by) the fluidity of settings, and realize the style of play you're writing about. And so what looked like weirder stylistic transgressions to me as a kid (like Barrier Peaks) might not throw off some of these folks.

Anonymous said...

New York Red Box and its siblings are drop-in-friendly, open-world campaigns. I think the key elements here are playing in public, as Michael says (since you don't necessarily want to invite strangers to your house), ending sessions back in town for episodic play as Beedo says, and the general old-school idea that the campaign is a freewheeling thing, limited neither by being an epic story about one particular set of PCs nor the tightly-bounded creation of a DM-demiurge that would be derailed by the presence of characters developed in a realm outside that DM's control.

Folks in any of the cities with a Red Box group should definitely set up a visit to its campaign by posting at the appropriate forum (since scheduling happens by web-consensus), and for myself I will definitely look forward to taking that short train ride to visit the Stonehell of which all others are shadows!
- Tavis

Michael Curtis said...

I keep meaning to hie myself into the city for a NYRB game (and am still kicking myself that ICON and the Arneson Tribute game fell on the same day). So far, that's been an unsuccessful quest but I remain confident that one day time, money, and events will all coincide.

Michael Curtis said...

you should also be encouraged that there is a population of nouveau Old Schoolers that are cutting their teeth and gauging their expectations of dungeon adventures on your work.

Aw shucks, man. I just write these things to get the monsters out of my head, but thanks for those encouraging words.