Monday, August 12, 2013

Pardon the Interruption

I've got a few more post regarding my return to 2nd Edition AD&D and the Forgotten Realms planned, but preparations for Gen Con 2013 have thrown a serious spanner in the works. I'll pick up the series once I get back from Indy and have a day or three to recover. My apologies to everyone looking forward to me.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

GenCon 2013 Schedule

Hey, readers! If you’re planning on attending GenCon 2013 next week (holy crap!) and want to say hello, get something signed, kick me in the shins, or otherwise interact with me, I’m bound by law to be in certain places at certain times. For those of you looking to track me down, you can pretty much guarantee I’ll be at the following places when scheduled. If I’m not, I’ve been abducted and you should alert the proper authorities.

Scheduled RPG Events
DCC RPG—The Croaking Fane (RPG1344549): Thursday 8/15 @7:00 PM
DCC RPG—Frozen in Time (Zero-level funnel) (RPG1344551): Friday 8/16 @ 9:00 AM
DCC RPG—The Croaking Fane (RPG1344550): Friday 8/16 @7:00 PM
DCC RPG—Frozen in Time (1st level PCs) (RPG1344552): Saturday 8/17 @ 9:00 AM
DCC RPG—A Night on the Town (RPG1344553): Saturday 8/17 @ 7:00 PM

Goodman Games Booth (Booth #1819)
Thursday 8/15: Scheduled from 10 AM to 3 PM, but I might be there as soon as 9AM.
Saturday 8/17: 1 PM to 4 PM
Sunday 8/18: 2 PM to 3 PM, but possibly until the dealers’ room closes at 4 PM.

If you’ve met me at cons previously, you know I’m always up for chatting about gaming, signing books I’ve worked on (and even those I haven’t!), and meeting fellow gamers. Feel free to introduce yourself, but please leave your 19th level Paladin stories behind.

I’m looking forward to meeting you!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Current Clacking

In every player pack I created for one of my Realms campaigns, I included “current clack”—news and rumors characters would hear locally (including from caravans passing through their locale) as play began. This is…how it all begins, every time—because if you, the players, are going to choose where your characters go and what they explore, I must dangle an array of possibilities before you. You have to feel the world is no lifeless backdrop, but a gigantic flood of many lives constantly unfolding. 
Ed Greenwood Presents Elminster’s Forgotten Realms, p. 45
That’s Ed demonstrating his old school roots (as if there was ever any question). From that one quote, you see that Ed’s Realms campaigns were “sandbox” affairs, even if he didn’t use—or even know—the now-common term. And although 2nd edition AD&D somehow got the reputation for being the version that eschewed the sandbox for the railroad, there’s nothing in the actual rules that says it has to be played that way. Deneir knows I wasn’t going to run my campaign that way.

Taking a page from Ed’s book, I created a list of rumors the PCs would know at the start of the campaign and then did some minor preparations to cover my ass should they choose to pursue them. I specifically didn’t flesh out every possible avenue of adventure, cribbing from the old Dungeoncraft articles the adage “Never create more than you have to,” but sketched out an encounter or two related to each rumor. I figured once the players chose a direction to pursue I could add more details to the scenario they wanted to explore. That method has worked well for me in the past and it continues to do so now.

After character creation in the first session, the players got a single page of rumors. Here’s what it contained:

Current Clack for the 9th of Mirtul—Year of the Shadows (1358 DR)
  • Rumors are flying that a trade coster (caravan) traveling from Loudwater up along the Dawn Pass Trail was attacked and looted by brigands of uncertain origin. The ambush occurred a half-day’s travel west of the Nighthunt Inn. Common opinion holds Zhentarim raiders are responsible for the attack, but no definitive evidence links the Black Network to the brigands.
  • In light of the recent ambush, a small caravan bound for Lonely Oak is seeking to strengthen its defenses. Polgan Dranthmir of the Thunderpine Trading Coster is looking to hire stout swordsmen and spell-hurlers for the roundtrip journey from Elf Water to Lonely Oak. The trip is expected to take two tendays. Dranthmir is offering 3 silvers per day for freeswords and 5 silvers a day for spell-masters.
  • “Elf fire” was spotted late last tenday by travelers approaching the village. The mysterious green fire was sighted south of the western trail near the vicinity of Grumber’s Meadow. Elf fire is believed to appear in places were lost treasure is concealed or where ancient spell-casting once occurred.
  • Heavy spring storms have uncovered a sealed portal set in the rocky walls of the Orc Trough, a deep gully located west of town. In addition to this recently unearthed door, the Trough contains a number of old catacombs believed to be of elven origin.
  • Erig Wholodown of Wholodown Brewery has a standing offer to buy leathertop mushrooms. He is offering 2 silver per dozen toadstools. Leathertops are found throughout the Southwood, typically in moist earth between the northern roots of crumblebark trees.
  • Fresh land urchin tracks have been spotted along the western river bank, indicating a “quill” of land urchins is hunting the area. These curious creatures often form pearls within their bodies, and some older urchins have been known to create up to two dozen pearls with each valued between a hundred and six hundred gold coins. Unfortunately, the bizarre creatures’ myriad spines are poisonous, so urchin hunters should take care.

In the end, the players seemed most interested in the hired caravan guards, the unearthed portal, and the land urchin hunt rumors. They would do a little rumor-mongering of their own in the first session before deciding on which one to pursue. Their choice and the subsequent events will be covered in the next series of posts.

As an aside, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about these Realms posts. I hope you’re enjoying my return to Faerûn and maybe are inspired to make your own visit, either for the first time or to reacquaint yourself with old ground.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Adventure in Your Own Backyard

I took an atypical approach when designing the outskirts of Elf Water. In the past, especially when I anticipated a megadungeon-centric campaign, I’d locate potential adventuring sites a bit of a distance away from the PCs’ home base. This was a nod to realism, seeing as how an ancient ruin rife with fell monsters situated too close to a settlement would mean constant raids and the eventual deaths or departure of any sentient residents living nearby. That’s not the course I undertook with the Realms campaign, and there were several reasons for this design choice.

The first was that the Realms have such a rich and long history. I didn’t quite grasp this in my younger days, but now I have a better idea of what Ed was going for when he built the world. With a history stretching back millennia, the Realms have seen innumerable civilizations and cultures rise and fall, with each potentially leaving their mark behind. There are a lot of similarities between the Realms and Middle Earth, and Peter Jackson’s movies have influenced my mental picture of what the Realms “looks like.” Just as in Jackson’s films, a moss-covered ruin or broken statue of an ancient potentate isn’t out of place in the wilds of the Realms, lingering evidence of those who tread Faerûn long ago. I could conceivably place such enticing lures close to the village and thereby hint at the Realms’ history and to serve as adventure hooks.

Secondly, since I was running a by the book AD&D game with a small number of players, I wanted them to have ready access to help for the first level or two. They could flee to the safety of civilization if they ran out of important materials or got in over their heads. Borrowing from the MMORPG school of design, the outskirts of Elf Water is the “yard trash” newbie zone where one can familiarize themselves with the world before pursuing grander and more dangerous goals. In the future, I could see myself using Elf Water and the environs as an introductory campaign for players experiencing RPGs for the first time, but I hope it’s also challenging and interesting enough that veteran players will enjoy their own explorations.

Thirdly, I wanted to ground the PCs in their home town, making it seem like a real place, one they have familiarity with by virtue of living there their entire young lives. I have many pleasant memories of rambling through the wooded glens of my own neighborhood in my youth, dreaming dreams of what adventures might be found there and making my own discoveries of places and things forgotten in the scrap woods of suburbia. It stands to reason the PCs would have similar experiences, albeit of a slightly more dangerous variety.

Lastly, and I make no bones about this, I was influenced by Ed’s map of Shadowdale that appeared in the Gray Box. In addition to detailing the village of Shadowdale, there are a number of geographical features depicted on the map, many of which have legends and adventure potential assigned to them. If it’s good enough for the Realms’ creator, it’s good enough for me.

With these design decisions in mind, I set out filling in the rest of blank space on my big piece of poster paper that already held my Elf Water map. This is the result:

Blank poster paper and colored pencils: Life's less celebrated wonders.

There are few special landmarks and places the PCs know about—and more they don’t. I have a master map with each interesting place or thing detailed, but these are unmarked on the big map. During the game sessions, I lay the large map down on the table and let the players consult it, replicating their familiarity with the area. Of course, growing up here doesn’t mean they know everything about their own backyard. They know the major landmarks and legends, so I’m not spoiling the fun by pointing out a couple of them. Maybe it’ll get your own creative juices flowing.

In the lower left-hand corner is a gorge running through the woods. This is the somewhat infamous “Orc Trough.” The elven/human alliance broke the Black Slashers’ drive toward Loudwater in this gulley back in 1235 DR with a cunning ambush. The rocky walls of the Trough contain a number of elven catacombs known as Sinomrin. An Espruar word that’s closest Common translation is both “tomb” and “remembrance place,” the Sinomrin were formed from the surrounding rock to memorialize some of the great lights of Eaerlann who fled south when Hellgate Keep rose in power. When the Black Slashers marched through the Southwood, guerilla engagements drew the horde to this location. Human and elven troops concealed themselves in the Sinomrin, springing out to ambush the horde and cutting the orcish flanks to bloody ribbons before routing the Slashers and sending them back to the Graypeaks. When the elves conceded the verge of the Southwood to human settlement, they emptied the Sinomrin, leaving the catacombs bare. Since that time, the Sinomrin have served to host teenage parties away from parental eyes and more than a few adulterous rendezvous. But they are not all completely abandoned as the party has recently learned.

Just north of the Orc Trough on the far side of the brook is the farm of Amrig and Sobashy, a woodsman and healer, respectively. The couple prefers the solitude of the woods over the hustle and bustle of the village proper, and they are largely believed to be “elf friends,” individuals who deal with the isolationist Lanymthilhar elves.

At the eastern edge of the banana-shaped clearing bisected by the western road stands a single tree. This is the Hangman’s Tree, a relic of the rough frontier justice enacted regularly in the early days of Elf Water’s settling. Although no longer used, rumors say a ghostly figure is sometimes sighted beneath the tree and is undoubtedly the spectre of an unknown criminal who met his (or her) death on the tree decades ago.

North of the large clearing where the Hangman’s Tree grows is a rocky hill known as “The Prow.” The southern edge of the hill is steep and narrows to a point, giving it the appearance of a ship’s bow breaking through the surrounding trees. A stone bearing Thorass runes is located atop the Prow and some of the PCs have seen it in their youth, but the lack of fluency in the dwarven tongue means the stone’s writing remains a mystery.

Immediately east of The Prow and in the vaguely star-shaped clearing located east of the Orc Trough are two large clearings. The presence of a pond and creek in each meadow makes for damp earth, making both places possible sites to gather leathertop mushrooms, should one be in the mood for such fare.

All my initial prep work was now finished and I was ready to begin the campaign. There was just one small chore I needed to do: seed the campaign with rumors and see which ones would spark the players’ interest, thus deciding the course of the campaign for the first few sessions. I’ll share those rumors, or to put it in Realms terms, “the clack,” tomorrow.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Welcome to Elf Water

The next step in the campaign prep stage was establishing the PCs’ “home base.” This was a much easier phase than settling on a region in which to set the campaign—largely, because I cheated.

I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated maps, even before I discovered RPGs. One might even argue that my fascination for this hobby stems from that love. I still recall a map from the interior of some children’s book I owned that showed the protagonist’s journey through a forest, diagramed in dotted line fashion like a “Family Circus” cartoon. For me, the attraction wasn’t what adventures were documented, but what possible events might occur in the areas unvisited by the hero. Maps still have that effect on me.

The “cartographilia” has manifested in a peculiar habit of mine. I find it incredibly relaxing to sketch maps of small towns and sylvan areas, rending such landscapes in either regular or colored pencil. My mind wanders during the process, pondering who lives in these imaginary places and what life must be like for them. It’s a wonderful way to de-stress when something’s bothering me. As a result, I have a number of little maps tucked away in various stages of completion. When it’s time to introduce a new community into a game, I check this collection first to see if anything fits the bill. In this case, I had the perfect map.

Coming up with a name for the community was a quick chore. I imagined that the settlement was situated on a place where the elves and humans first came into contact, a place to trade and negotiate the accord that ultimately led to the human settlement of the outskirts of Southwood. Picturing a forest glen along a riverbank, a place where elves once danced graceful waltzes underneath a summer moon, the name “Elf Water” sprung to mind as an appropriate human-given name for that place and the community that arose on that site would share that moniker.

In the past, I’ve gone to great lengths to detail most of my home bases before play begins. The pages accompanying my old Ashabenford map is a good representation of how much effort I’d expend before the game started. But this time, going along with the “this is supposed to be fun” mantra, I whipped up just two pages of notes documenting a few important NPCs and buildings to guide me. I plan to flesh Elf Water out as future play dictates. I know who’s in charge, what temples are in town, who has their fingers in quasi-legal (or outright illegal) pies, the major wizards, and a few other colorful individuals. That’s all I needed to get things rolling.

The final step was to scan my village map and key the important buildings for the players to consult as needed. A quick trip through Photoshop and—viola!—Elf Water was ready for PC inhabitation. With plenty of space to add new material, I can get a lot of use out of this community, now and in the future.

Yes, I know what "festhall" really means.

That’s it for this week. There’ll be a post on Elf Water’s outskirts and some actual play reports next week as I continue to ramble on about the Realms.