One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” -Hunter S. Thompson

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ruins Of Intrigue

Yesterday I said I would start talking about how I wanted to go about presenting the information in my Swords & Wizardry module code named Operation: Demogorgon. Why use a code name? Because code names are cool thats why.

Here's a secret. One of my inspirations for this project is not "old School" at all. I never grew up playing D&D back in the day. I started playing in the the late 90's with second edition, and to be completely honest I found it really confusing. It was only when third edition was released that I really began playing D&D hardcore. This was the during the d20 boom, and I would go on a limb to say that it was even a new golden age for the hobby itself. Shit loads of new material from a myriad of publishers began to overwhelm the shelves of local gaming stores. There was a lot of crap, but eventually a number of great d20 publishers began to emerge.

One of those rock solid publishers was Monte Cook's, Malhavoc Press. In a lot of ways it would probably have been a bad sign if his company hadn't done well, particularly since he was one of the co-designers of the new edition, and of course the author of the 3e DMG. Eventually Monte would create his own d20 variant player's handbook called Arcana Unearthed, which would constantly be confused with WotC's Unearthed Arcana that came out a few months before riffinng off 1st edition version. Later, perhaps in order to reduce the confusion, Monte would revamp and repackage the book with his directors cut version and renaming it Arcana Evolved.

At about this time Mike Mearls joined Malhavoc Press. Before he moved on to work for WotC he wrote a ton of material. In fact it's unbelievable just how much stuff Mike wrote during the d20 boom. Not only did he write a lot, the quality was always high and you knew that you could trust that a book with his name on it wasn't going to suck.

All of which brings me to Ruins of Intrigue. Mike wrote this 96 page campaign sourcebook for Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved. So whats so special about this book, and why has it influenced me in Operation: Demogorgon? The answer is utility and organisation. This quote is taken from one of Mike's design diary entries:

Unfortunately, adventure design poses a single, basic problem to writers and publishers: Every group has different needs. It's easy for a DM to find something useful in a book with dozens of feats and prestige classes, but most adventures live and die by their basic premise. If the plot doesn't fit the group's setting, or if the encounters are designed for too high or low a level, a DM probably doesn't have much use for it. True, you can always cannibalize an adventure for NPCs, encounters, and monsters, but in most cases they aren't organized for this sort of use. If you have a shelf full of modules, it's difficult to remember exactly which one had that 5th-level NPC you need for tonight's session.
Later in the same article:

The answer occurred to me as I looked over my collection of modules and back issues of Dungeon magazine. An adventure typically provides the important facts needed to manage the environment or story it presents. If an NPC is a lying villain, the adventure tells you so. When describing the caves outside of town, it lists the exact number of trolls, their stats, and their treasure. What if, I wondered, an adventure didn't provide all the answers? It could suggest a variety of possibilities instead of one canonical truth. If a traditional adventure were a picture of a situation or area, this new format would be a jigsaw puzzle that you could put together in different ways, depending on how you wanted the resulting picture to look. You could create only a finite number of pictures with it, but that's more than the single situation or area that most adventures cover.
And Finally:

The final format for Ruins of Intrigue came into focus as I read over my old issues of Dragon. Ray Winninger, designer of the Underground roleplaying game and a multitude of books from Mayfair's late, lamented RPG division, wrote a series of articles on campaign design for Dragon a few years back. One of the ideas he put forth was that every important NPC in your campaign should have a secret.
So how does Mike go about doing this? First he breaks up the key elements of what makes an adventure. His basic formula for adventure design breaks down like this:

Hook + Goal + Obstacles = Adventure

Each NPC and location is given a tag detailing one or more of those adventure elements (hook, goal, or obstacle) . Then those same NPCs or locations are also tagged based on the level it's approriate for (any level, low-level, mid-level, and high-level). These tags can then be used to mix and match as the DM wishes to create a variety of diffrent adventures by filling in the advneture formula above and getting creative with things. In the appendix at the back of  the book a Tag Reference Table makes it easy to locate and utilize each of these elements and where they can be found in the book. 

But the utility dosent stop there. Mike gives each NPC and location at least two or more secrets for the DM to choose from. This not only allows maximum flexibilty for the DM in terms of how he can use a particular NPC or location, but it means that you can actually get two or three diffrent locations or NPC's if you choose to use each secret speratly. So really an NPC with two secrets could be used as one or two diffrent NPC's for the price of one with very little work on the DMs part.

But don't just take my word on it. I highly reccomend that you check out Ruins of Intrigue yourself and see what I mean first hand. I'm really surprised that this style of adventure design was never adopted by anyone else before now. This will be the model for how I plan on presenting my own forthcomming S&W module. Of course I can still hear the grumbling comming from some of you skeptical grognards in the OSR. Quiet down you there! Heres a quote from Mike on page 12 of Ruins of Intrigue that might make you calm down, re-consider, and pick this awesome sourcebook up for yourself:
One of the biggest themes running throughout Ruins of Intrigue is the idea of strange, wonderous magic that seems to violate or transcend the established rules.
Later on in the same section he writes:
Fantasy roleplaying game material from the early 1980s often proves a particularly good source of ideas for bizarre magical traps, weird chambers and locations within dungeons, and other inspirations.

The point here is that despite certain elements that need to be pinned down from the start, I want my adventure module to be as useful to as many people as possible. One of the key elements that I have observed in the OSR is that player's and DM's alike dont want to be railroaded down a path to adventure. Rather, the goal is that the adventure or campaign evolves organically based on player choice.  

1 comment:

  1. I like this formula: Hook + Goal + Obstacles = Adventure. I think it makes total sense, though for me it is the "Obstacles" variable that can make or break the game. Personally, I enjoy a well thought out strategic/tactical based obstacle, than a mundane smash and grab or melee. Bludgeoning has its place, but there are just so many ways to describe a wicked slash, ya know? Give me a brain teaser or a bad ass trap or some crazy enigma to ponder my fate over and you've got me "hooked". The goal, for me, has always been the adventure itself. But then again, I ain't like no one else!