Friday, March 12, 2010

Bidding Farewell to the City-State...and the Silver-Age Wilderlands? (Or, "Classic D&D, What Am I Going to Do With You?")

The dust is finally settling after the Big Move and I have a chance now to blog about my Wilderlands campaign. I know it's been a little while, and there have been some interesting developments, culminating in a discussion I had today with Des that set my gamer wheels turning (never a good thing, I can assure you).

Art by John Blanche: "Marienburg"
Let's go back a little bit. About two weeks before moving day we had our last face-to-face session our Wilderlands campaign. It was fitting, I think, that as Des and I were preparing to bid farewell to our own real-life City-State, the PC group decided they were fed up with the City-State of the Invincible Overlord and bid it a not-so-fond adieu. In so doing, they threw down one of those challenges that really tests the mettle of a hybrid sandbox-module GM like myself--they pretty much ignored the adventure hook dangling before them and said, "Let's go do this instead!"

Fortunately, that point came relatively late in the session and I was able to BS my way through the remaining time, leaving off with many mental notes on stuff to read up on for next time, when we'll "meet in the aether" as one player put it. (With cross-platform Mac/PC compatibility and low buy-in cost as my top priorities, right now I'm looking to use a combination of Skype and d20 Pro.)

The irony, of course, was that the adventure hook I was dangling happened to be the very module I had intended to run for the group as soon as they arrived in the City-State. And I would have too, except I ran out of prep time before that particular session, so I just threw a bunch of rumors at them from the CSIO "Rumor Table"--which in turn sparked about 3-4 sessions' worth of bopping around, some of which I've written about. I don't think I mentioned running them through the "Tower of Mouths" scenario from Knockspell (a fun little dungeon crawl), a venture which resulted in Rumple Wumpkin nearly dying a third time (poison gas this time around) and the group barely escaping from the tower as it collapsed in on itself after Pilar the Halfling Cleric jammed the tower's massive hydraulic pumping mechanism.

So after a week of game time spent whoring, boozing, getting cursed and chased and ambushed, the group finally met with a sage they'd hired at the Sage's Guild, one Gigex the Erudite, to answer some questions; namely, Rumple Wumpkin wanted to know about the history of the Beastmasters, since she was apparently the only known living example. After finding out what happened to the other Beastmasters and the possibility that there may still be one lurking in the heart of the Dearthwood, the group seemed suddenly interested in moving on.

Realizing what I'd done, I tried in vain to dangle the adventure hook before them, and they sort of took the bait. Unfortunately, the first clue in the new adventure took them down to the houseboat shantytown on the banks of the Conqueror's River. After nullifying the exciting chase scene that the module had spelled out by simply shooting the guy they were after, they hopped a boat and booked it for Modron.

And that's where we left off. I've had some opportunity to think about the campaign since then, and I've come to a couple, well, disturbing conclusions.

First off, I've been thinking about the way I've been running the setting. The Wilderlands are, of course, one of the all-time classic "old school" campaign settings out there. Running the setting "as intended" (if such a term can be applied to a Judge's Guild product) pretty much requires lots of 70s flash mixed with a healthy dose of Frazetta. And god knows that's how I wanted to run it. Really! But I've come to the realization that my love of fantastic realism and my "Silver Age" roots are much stronger than I gave them credit for. As much as I've tried to stay faithful to the sword and sorcery baseline of the setting, I'm afraid things have been much more vanilla in execution. I posted a bong-rattling Wilderlands mix last year, but since then I have failed to bring the proper vibe to match the music in that playlist. Instead, it's been something much less like this, and much more like this.

Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. It's just that I was hoping to do something a little different with the Wilderlands. And don't get me wrong--it's not like I've turned the Wilderlands into the Forgotten Realms or anything. It's just that my roots are showing. It's sort of the opposite process of what Amityville Mike has been writing about lately. In the end, I decided, "To hell with it--I'll run my version of the Wilderlands as a pastiche of S&S and Silver Age fantasy." Then I had an interesting conversation with Des today.

See, Des doesn't like D&D. No sir, not one bit.

She's a Chaosium/BRP fangirl through and through: give her Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon, and she's perfectly happy. (This, of course, is why she has won my heart.) She plays D&D for the social aspect; the other two players in the group are good friends, and D&D is how we get together. Over the past week or so, as I've been preparing to start up the Wilderlands campaign again, I've been thinking about ways I could inspire Des to be a little more enthusiastic about the game itself. Maybe creating a new character? Or giving her halfling cleric a developed background with my copy of Central Casting: Heroes of Legend? These suggestions were met with a sort of shoulder-shrugging reticence that told me there was some pretty deep stuff going on.

So we had a conversation today. "What don't you like about D&D?" I asked.

She thought about it quietly for several minutes. Not even joking. She was committed to giving a comprehensive answer, and I got one.

In essence, it boils down to a dislike of the system and a dislike of the genre conventions. In other words, pretty much everything that makes classic D&D, well, classic D&D.

She dislikes all the pluses and minuses and "to hit" calculations and so forth involved with most D&D iterations. She dislikes the steep learning curve for most classes ("Okay, I'm playing a cleric and I've never played a spellcaster, so now I have to familiarize myself with all these spells and then remember to cast them at appropriate times."). She dislikes the classic power progression of starting out as miserable weaklings, hitting a sweet spot for a half-dozen levels, then topping out, preferring instead to start out with some level of competency and then progress in a steady, linear fashion. She dislikes having to keep track of multiple powers, equipment tracking and resource management, and so forth. She dislikes classic D&D's implicitness, is how I'd put it. As I listened, I made the conjecture that it sounds like 4e is the perfect system for her! Too bad I won't be going down that road...

She hates dungeon crawls with a passion. She hates sandbox play. (Interestingly--and I asked her this directly to make sure there was no misunderstanding--she prefers story path-style adventures, even if that means a bit of railroading from time to time.) I told her that the heart of D&D is exploration, and dungeons are a perfect encapsulation of that aesthetic. She countered that she loves exploring in Call of Cthulhu. I was surprised by this.

"In Cthulhu," I said, "exploration only leads to madness and death. At least in D&D there's a balance between peril and reward."

"I like the Cthulhu approach," she said. "It feels more authentic. I like that whether I do good or bad, I'm still doomed in the end."

This is what being a Catholic-raised gamer is like, I suppose.

From a genre convention standpoint, she really dislikes vanilla D&D. She likes settings that have fewer playable races but deeper opportunities for background. What's the point of having a half-dozen character races if they're all cardboard stereotypes, she asked. From a genre convention standpoint, it sounds like she'd love a setting like Magnamund or Legend, a more human-centric world that's a sort of D&D-by-way-of-Pendragon setting. Or something totally off the wall. I told her about Dark Sun and her eyes lit up. "Coooool!" she intoned. At the very least, I told her she was certainly not alone in feeling left cold by vanilla D&D.

Art by Frazetta, natch!
The irony, in fact, is that for years--years--I was one of those very people. I've run a lot of vanilla, Silver Age-style D&D in my day, mainly because that's what my old group demanded. But I longed to run the more offbeat, unusual settings, or come up with something of my own that was somehow different from the norm. I still want to run campaigns like that. When I eventually get my copy of the Swords & Wizardry White Box, I want to run a total science-fantasy swords-and-blasters extravaganza set in Gabor Lux's Formalhaut world. Considering that Dark Sun was the first campaign boxed set I ever owned, I'd love to finally run an extended campaign in that world. I've even toyed with taking the current Wilderlands campaign up into the crystal spheres when the current story cycles finally play out around mid-level range or so.

And that's the crux of the problem: the campaign must go on. I'm always battling that curse peculiar to many gamers, the "Ooh, shiny!" phenomenon. Time and again I've questioned by choice of system (Castles & Crusades) and setting. Particularly in light of my conversation with Des today, I can now toss into the box labeled "other systems I might like to use instead" D&D 4e, FantasyCraft, or even BRP, along with earlier candidates like Swords & Wizardry or modded-out Labyrinth Lord.

I still might consider switching systems (although I'd feel a little bad about that, since I left my 1st-printing copies of C&C with our other players for the express purpose of giving them a chance to read through the rules), but one thing I can't do right now is dump the campaign entirely. Rumple Wumpkin's player, you'll recall, is going through some really rough times right now, and I know that this campaign and this character are very special to her. I'm not about to yank that rug out from under her, not as long as we can all still have fun with the campaign.

And there's not doubt in my mind that I can. I just need to reset a few expectations. In the end I guess that leaves me with the following action items:

  • Embrace my fantasy-realist, Silver Age inclinations and run the Wilderlands the way my heart wants to, rather than as some left-brain exercise in proper old school sandbox blah-blah.
  • Be not afraid to venture forth into domains of the weird and non-vanilla when the campaign merits it.
  • Resolve to make my next D&D campaign as bizarrely off-the-wall as my long-held dreams will allow.
Should be fun.
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