Short Story Long
This is definitely going to meander, but by the end I'll probably sort it out.
I was spending a little too much time thinking about the next blog post or the next thing I might produce for Lulu. That's not where I want to be.
I started this blog to provide help understanding 1st Ed AD&D, how you can run it, how you can embrace its controversial weirdness, and how all of its quirks can work for you.
And I did decide to start sharing my home-made modules so that other groups could play and find the many easter eggs my group couldn't possibly...for what party of treasure seekers ever finds them all?
Plus there was the nonsense I'd seen on the internet about AD&D's rules and limited viability (low level games are great, high level doesn't work)...this uninformed drivel is actually what prompted my lunatic spiral into high-level module design since no one else seemed capable of fathoming life beyond 9th level. If I was going to run a real actual AD&D game, I had to rely on *this guy*.
I'm usually a terrible self-marketer who generally believes that one's work must stand on its own. But this is where I say (in one place and one time only) that my high-level adventures are fucking fantastic. In fact, they're some of the best you will likely ever find. I know what I'm doing and I do it great.
Geir Loe Cyn-crul was a BLAST. Oh. My. God. We had SO much fun. And people died. But it wasn't the non-stop combat I thought it would be. It WAS hack and slash but not as much as I thought. See, the thing the DM/Designer always misses when they READ a module are the choices of the players.
There was a lot of tactical choice and puzzling: this by virtue of the random occurrence table and the negative space (which you don't and can't fully realize unless you play with minis) but also by virtue of fear and learning on the part of the players.
One of the random encounters that came up was a baby blue dragon (which of course fled toward you-know-who) so the party launched every missile they had to bring it down before it could escape and then spent a considerable amount of time planning and speculating on the implications of baby dragons and the eco-system of the vast, open map. Their mental state changed when they realized they were in one big room and there were things crawling around everywhere.
The puzzles in the adventure held together so well, in an over-arching way, that it guided most of their moment-to-moment choices: especially after some auguries and a commune, whereupon they found the golden book.
My group never assaulted the Drow stronghold and actually left somewhat "treasure-light", thinking that their success in ascending the Throne was treasure enough!
And in this way, I realized just how good a job I'd done. I punted a few times, gave a hint here or there...but uh, that's what the DM is there for? Right? The module is the foundation. Otherwise you just play a CRPG.
But the details of the module and the way it felt at the table were things that even my decades of experience failed to fully anticipate until I RAN it.
Playing the thing. There is no substitute.
And play, not words, is what this whole blog is about.
I wish there was a better way to come together as old school gamers beyond the table. Or to put it another way, I wish the table wasn't the ONLY place.
I've gotten a recent influx of love in my in-box and some posts on my site. And it's such a dopamine trap. It triggers you to try and do the next thing that will generate that praise unless you are wary.
But I have to remind myself why I'm doing this. I'm doing this because I want AD&D in its original form to have a chance at being played by younger people interested in the true Golden Age.
Yep. That's my opinion. But I stand by it. AD&D was the true Golden Age of the game. And yes, I LOVE Isle of Dread, but have to also admit that it doesn't fill my heart the way S4 does. I'm doing this because if I offer supplements with page numbers that reference the spells and obscure rules in the original books, maybe, just maybe, you'll give a shit. Maybe the dark esoteria of the original DMG won't vanish forever into a shelf or collector's sleeve. Maybe its sometimes-labyrinthine text will be given the time it deserves. Maybe you'll consider again that this set of books wasn't a first attempt. It was the culmination of YEARS of gaming.
And mostly, of course, I'm making these supplements because no one else makes the supplements I want to run...I HAVE to make them myself. These things are not meant to be art or make me famous. They are for my players.
Yet sometimes, when you own a blog, you have to remind yourself of that truth, which is what I've been doing: reminding myself where I want to focus.
My next supplement will be out when it's out. I have NO time table. I'm about HALF way through keying it. I want it to be done before my players get to it, and that's the only pressure.
Yet even that was too much pressure now that my players are wanting weekly games during the quarantine. They need an escape. Weekly games are of course TWICE the prep but more importantly they are TWICE the burn rate.
Burn rate means you, as the ref, begin to outrun some of your reserve material. The stockpile dwindles. I can ad-lib reasonably well. It's not my strongest talent in the DM tool box and many do it better than I, but I CAN do it. Yet my obsession with consistency and record-keeping always floats to the top...so that I can remember the details. Because this isn't a summer game.
And when you have to maintain the lore and events of the entire campaign over many-many years, record keeping can become a significant chore.
Gee, Anthony, I'm sensing some stress in the way you're describing this.
Upside, I'm learning (even after DMing for this many years) novel things. I'm also re-learning lessons because the job of DMing is so profoundly complicated that you can't help forgetting as you go. It's like continuing education.
Here are some things I'm musing about, stemming from the VIRTUAL TABLE TOP environment.
Rate of sessions = rate of material burn = either time or money = don't burn yourself out.
Assuming you are like me and cannot accept ANY dip in quality, consider carefully how you proceed.
Virtual games are wonderful ways of connecting during a pandemic but present a suite of other problems.
Playing with minis is quite possibly the best way to play the game if you're serious about pacing at the table and about tactical interest.
So hey look at this salad I made out of items 1 thru 4: As you burn material, choices become available to players. Players making choices is what burns material. This is the basic loop of the game. But when you are playing once a week, you are tested in ways you weren't before. Vegetative time is important for generating connections in the game (and twists) that you wouldn't have come up with if your mind wasn't in an "idle" or meditative state.
How many times have you come up with a great idea for an NPC/Faction response to player character choices in the in-between time while doing nothing much? But playing every week reduces the amount of meditative time you have. Additionally, (and unfortunately for HOME BREW) the VT takes MORE time to prep. And that's a serious drag when you are gaming every week. Running a premade module in a VT is a snap...but homemade adventures are another beast entirely. In addition, I've noticed that the VIRTUAL table sucks resources and processing power from the game in subtle ways. The virtual table is wonderful. The virtual table is destroying D&D. I'm overstating. Allow me to explain. Reasons a VT is seductive are obvious. Reasons they might be impacting your game negatively are more subtle and might go unnoticed. In computer game terms we refer to cycles. The processor has to devote "cycles" to every thing it does and every computation that it makes. Cycles are like light little straws...the same ones that add up to breaking the camel's back. You are the processor of the game. Interacting with a VT over the internet is different than using a VT to run a live game in your home with minis. In your home, you can assign a player to scroll the map and so on, leaving you with mostly inconsequential tasks such as changing the map or pinging it. Understand that my experiences are based on NOT using whistles and bells. I use a VT in my home ONLY as a way to expedite miniature play. It's high-tech low-tech, sticking to the roots of the game's early days. Because of this, my head is in the room with the players, on the papers and physical dice. I'm much more clear-headed. But running with even the most basic usage of the software over the internet suddenly monopolizes a portion of my screen (that would normally host my DM familiar for example) which causes me to have to shift focus between windows more frequently. I am using more "cycles" to interact with the program in a host of tiny ways. I personally also find it harder to speak to a person through a screen because I miss cues...or the person has gotten up and wandered away for a moment to grab a cookie from their kitchen. Certain things are much faster with a VT...but I find that the overall experience is more fractured than the whole offered by the intimacy of people in a room. For HOME BREW adventures (and to a small extent even for published modules) you also have to drag and drop tokens, create encounters, populate the list, help the player who lost his pog and so on. It's not onerous in its own right. And it doesn't actually irritate me until I begin to realize how easy it is to reach for a mini in my wall case and set it on the table [OR] consider the time I could be spending on quickly rolling up some additional encounters or planning the next adventure instead of ensuring that my client is up to date, that i imported that note from the king, that the players can't see through the dungeon walls and so on. At the table, in the real world, you are the dungeon master because you can focus the room like a lens to your will. Focusing a person's attention when they are at their own computer, in their own house, doing other things, is simply not as feasible.
To sum up again, I'm not pooping on VTs. I LOVE VTs in the right context.
But because I feel the experience is not quite as good as a game in my home I've decided to postpone certain experiences (like entering the Fabled CIty of Brass).
The party now ranges from 9th to 16th level (which btw isn't as much of a gap as it sounds and I'd be happy to tell you why in a later post. Any-hoodles, this fucking wrecking team marauded all over Robert J Kuntz' tournament module for three weeks.
I ran a passable game and I'm including my player map above (which I used in the VT) in case you want it. The adventure still holds up by the way, all these years later. Granted some of the encounters are far TOO tournament for regular campaign play (where carpets of flying obviate heated stones and players have more tools to support more choices). Still, it was a pretty epic slog through the wastes that one player mentioned "really underscored" the sense of remoteness and difficulty in reaching the fabled goal. But I just don't want to enter the City yet. That's because, much like Geir Loe Cyn-crul, there's a significant amount of negative space with the open setting that wouldn't be utilized in theater-of-the-mind OR potentially in the slightly more casual movement of online play.
When we play at my house, with the map exposed, every pixel of the map represents a reality of space with potential hazards in every corner. The mandate in miniature play that the placement of your mini IS where your character is...means higher focus, more fear, more use of a dungeon's negative space in terms of pacing and drama.
And, because I'm able to control the table top (focus attention where I want rather than knowing that players are scrolling around or reading facebook) everything just feels better.
So I paused the party at the druid's tower (you know, that tree laden with crazy fruit?) and decided to kick off my new campaign arc early. Thank god for Greyhawk.
The players have yet to suspect that the kickoff is happening on a totally different world. They are unfamiliar with Greyhawk and do not recognize the hallmarks that would be obvious to fans of the setting.
Anthony, why are you doing Greyhawk?
Because Greyhawk is LESS bandwidth. I am not required to stick to the current campaign's time arc or try to juggle the calendar while the main party is paused. Instead I have a clean slate with many known personalities and locations to draw from, disregard or morph to my will AND I can [and will] provide a gate back to my own setting/world when it becomes convenient to do so. This is fantastic as it will greatly expand play and offer the chance for legends such as Mordenkainen to make appearances.
Further it allows me to have the same gods appear in both worlds under different names, magnifying the stature of these beings while also providing some consistency and familiarity.
Finally, it buys me time. In exchange for a brief burst of prep, I get WEEKS of freedom in which to re-build the reserves of the main campaign arc: finish the Dream House of the Nether Prince and so on. And, when I move back to the main party, I can start the ACTUAL design work of the new arc (including the bits that will take place back in my own setting outside of Greyhawk).
I don't get it, Anthony. It still sounds like MORE work.
But it's not. Because I'm going to be leaning on Greyhawk. So many modules and NPCs are just ready to go. N1 is on the docket (but disguised with new names). Plug your McGuffin into any TSR module, add pepper and away you go. My game isn't a story railroad. So there's time to meander, especially at low levels. So yeah. I'm going to buy a LOT of time with this while still giving my players what they want, which is a game every week.
Anthony, what does your burst of prep look like?
Let me show you (with the caveat that there will be typos).
It starts with a well-conceived seed and then I use the players' own interest to further formulate:
FROM THE CAMPAIGN SLACK:
Anthony 10:10 AM joined #themistkingdom along with 7 others. Anthony 11:17 AM Thus begins a new tome.
Each of you are proud members of the Olman race...and people of the Jaguar. But your tribe has fled its former homelands of Hucanuea to the Isles of Axuxal. Your new capital (Renkrue) is barely a decade old and sits proudly on the northmost of roughly 14 tiny islands where you have ensconced yourselves.
Some of you are old enough to remember the events precipitating your people’s exodus: the terror of Telaneteculi, the bat worshipers to the north; and Xamaclan, the great burning blue eye—which rose as a new and terrifying god in the wilds of the south.
The Olman people have always distilled into different tribes and war has ever haunted the jungles. But this is the first time the people of the Jaguar have been stripped down, lost their feathers, and driven from the mainland to the isles.
Although the islands offer some security, many of them are yet to be explored. Weather is a constant hazard as storms roll from the south, off the Vohun Ocean. Even more ominous is what Yantho (the great warrior-king of Renkrue) has discovered to the east, a place he calls the Mist Kingdom.
Thus, the Xamaclan to the west; the Telaneteculi to the north, hurricanes from the south and the ominous Mist Kingdom to the east...never have the people of the Jaguar, former rulers of the vast Amedio, been brought so low and so existentially threatened.
Yet, for nearly eight years, life has been good for you until now…
The problems can be summed as starting with frogs...
Perhaps the elder of your tiny village of Ang-wat is the first place to start? Then again, he has been strangely quiet. The outcast witch, Akna, might be another place to start? Certainly these seem more sane than a dangerous journey (from your island) across the Pearl Seas to the capital of Renkrue…confronting Yantho the King with "frogs" seems…imprudent?
Each of you may now ask a single question before we take the first step in character creation. (I will be aggressively curating this thread so it reads as condensed and concise...ergo: no chattiness) when you ask your question, I will answer and then you'll have to be silent. pretend this is play by mail for the moment) (edited) George 1:20 PM Why is Akna outcast? Anthony 1:30 PM Because whereas the awakened ones have always advised the leaders of the tribe's gynarchy, Akna despises the societal expectations of Itotia (the "king"s mother) who manipulates her son's ambitions through prophecies and ceremony. As Akna refuses to swear fealty to the "king" she has no choice but to live alone in the wilds. Jen 1:49 PM What are these new problems? (edited) Anthony 2:06 PM The variety of frogs on your island has always been rich (for the people of the Jaguar have long sought them out for their various medicinal and toxic uses) but the colorings now are extraordinary. The numbers are increasing. Every tree seems to have at least one or two. These are akin to poison arrow frogs of course...but some are slightly larger, bearing many small fangs. And then, there are the stories of diminutive masters--equally colorful but so fey like--holding tiny blowguns and razors of volcanic glass. Frog bites are now a "thing" the medicine woman is constantly treating. People bitten have begun acting strange? Personalities have changed? Maybe. Evanore 2:52 PM What do the rumors say about the nature of the Mist Kingdoms? Anthony 3:12 PM Indeed. You are not near to Renkrue and are certainly excluded from the royal musings of Itotia and her kin. Almost nothing about the Mist Kingdom has been heard in Ang-wat and to be fair, no one here seems to care, except perhaps you...for there are frog problems. The one or two sentences that have passed lips on your island are likely nothing more than evocative speculation, wishful thinking, manipulative assertions, or whimsical etceteras.
"Surely it is the land of the gods come upon the ocean...where dwells the feathered serpent and the jaguar."
"Surely this is another curse, brought forth from the spirit realm by the Great Sorcerer of Telaneteculi, destined to swallow us all!"
To soften the blow of this non-answer, here is a map based partially on Olven knowledge and partially on legend
Ricardo 4:45 PM Why has the elder been strangely quiet? Anthony 5:29 PM Unknown, of course, as this is one of the avenues of inquiry available to your group (of anxious tribal members) and thus framed as “semi-mysterious”. However, in drilling down on “strange”, what can be said is Hobnil the druid elder usually visits the Chieftain’s wife once a week and there drinks blood while considering the heavenly signs. Although he is hermetic and roundly feared (and thus otherwise scarce in the village proper) protocol is that he call Cabaguil the flutist bard to travel to Renkrue once per month and represent the druid’s interests (and presumably the interests of Ang-wat and the Chieftain’s wife) at the royal court. If Cabaguil is not called, she does not make the journey (for it is not without risk) though Ang-wat is then not represented at court nor is any news brought back from the capital. It has been 2 months that Cabaguil has not been called to go to Renkrue. (edited) Rich 5:34 PM Why would one be hesitant to approach the King with problems in our kingdom? Anthony 5:43 PM If you are not a proud warrior of the jaguar people, able to kill a tiger by the age of 12, you are useless to the tribe and should kill yourself. Your voice is the voice of the king or it is silent. Your arm IS the arm of the king or it is still. You are the spear that is thrown to bring meat and riches. If you are thrown and return with nothing, what good are you but to be eaten by the tribe? Your flesh at least in this wise gives instead of takes. Jeremy 11:56 PM What year is it? Anthony 9:52 AM For the people of the Jaguar, the year is perhaps 5040 (ish). Your ancestors used to keep perfect time. Now that survival has become the most important thing, some of the old ways have been lost. It feels like sacrifice and ceremony are attempts to claw back some of that which has fallen into shadow. Of course, you have also heard that there are other lands and other people beyond the Amedio Jungle that likely do not count O.C. (Olven Calendar). The Suloise are the only people thought to have older blood than yours...but of course, they are mostly lost now. If the legends are true of vast kingdoms to the north, you assume they have their own systems of counting time.
As you can see, I confiscate and conscript the map for my own designs. I riff on whatever they ask and the riffing BECOMES the material. It is now recorded. The text becomes document. It becomes canon. We roll from there...
The classes (non PHB classes all from Dragon) that will be on offer to these folks after the riffing is over are listed below. All will be heavily re-flavored of course for the setting:
That's right. No Magic-Users for the moment. That will ease after the initial crop dies off and new recruits are brought in from places like Renkrue.
I've been crying for a long time about wanting to run/play in Greyhawk again, and this is going to provide the best of both worlds (in a literal sense).
Welp, that's it. These have been my thoughts and struggles during much of the pandemic. I wish you all health...
and happy gaming.