This is going to be one of my relatively rare gaming posts, but I think it also has some pertinence in fiction, so buckle up your Chain Mail +3 Vs Geekery and here we go:
I wanna complain for a while about Clerics in D&D.
Okay, okay – that was perhaps too harsh, allow me to rephrase: Clerics’ role in D&D parties is a terrible one and I hate them for it. I’m all for playing devoted followers of this or that god (you won’t hear me complaining about paladins, for instance) and I think a divine-oriented campaign or party or adventure is pretty cool. What I don’t like is all the healing magic.
One of my central tenets of GMing is that players have the most fun when they are the closest to destruction. The corollary to this rule is that players work the absolute hardest they can to avoid being close to destruction. This central paradox constitutes the GM’s primary obstacle to creating a fulfilling and sensational adventure. You want to press them, make them desperate, force them to come up with the most outlandish and riskiest possible solution to their problems while, at the same time, they are working feverishly to prevent that from ever happening.
If the players of the world had their way, every dungeon crawl would be a methodical slog in which everyone left with approximately the same hit points they had when they went in. They would win every combat by a country mile. They would save the day with effortless flair and exact revenge on their enemies exactly 24 hours after being wronged. And then gaming would be (and sometimes is) terribly, terribly boring.
The cleric aids and abets this goal of the players. Work really hard to get them desperate and clawing for supplies? The cleric’s gods waves away their exhaustion and heals their injuries. Blind a guy? The cleric’s gods give him back his sight. Kill a PC in an earth-shattering climax? The players are only a brief prayer session away from getting the dead guy right back.
Players love clerics. They love them to the point where, when a D&D party is forming and everybody is making their characters, there’s always somebody who looks around the table and asks “so…which one of us is gonna be the healer?”
Now, whenever this is said, I always (always) say “you don’t need a healer to be an effective team” or “sometimes it’s more fun to not have a healer.”
They never, ever believe me. Not once in 25 years of GMing.
And the real tragedy of it all is that, frequently, nobody really wants to be a healer. They’d much rather be a wizard or a rogue or a paladin or something. They had this cool idea for a halfling barbarian and then they looked around a realized they wouldn’t have anybody throwing healing spells and shrugged and said “well, all right – I guess I’ll be some guy with a bald head and a mace.” This is so, so sad. You’ve got this group of players who “take one for the team” so they can play a character class that actively reduces the chances of things ever getting interesting.
Now, I should point out that there are exceptions to this. There are players who cook up interesting cleric characters and play them in an interesting way (I just ran a campaign with a viking-esque tempest cleric who was pretty cool, it must be said), but these I’ve found to be in the minority. Instead of playing their hearts (and thereby being really, really invested), they play cautiously, making sure to heal up everybody before they get into a scrap, making sure they’re there to prevent anything dire from really happening.
As long as the cleric has spell slots, you are working with a net. As long as you are working with a net, things don’t get “real” (as the kids say). If all the damage you have sustained can be waved away, why were you scared of being gored by that minotaur in the first place? When you play a game like D&D strategically, you can very easily kill the drama. At minimum, you make it way, waaay more difficult for the DM to present you with challenges that test your ingenuity. And challenges that test your ingenuity are the things that you wind up telling stories about later – the sessions you remember forever and which you identify with the most excitement.
There is an analog here in writing, too. Beyond simply healing magic, you need to be cognizant of consequences in your fiction. You need to make sure that the danger is real and that your protagonists don’t deal with it too easily. You need to yank their safety nets away so the audience is hanging on the edge of their seats. So, if you do have world with magical healing, you need to make sure it is associated with the proper sets of complications and consequences that make things interesting. In my Saga of the Redeemed, for instance, I have Tyvian saddled with the Iron Ring, which has very, very potent powers of rejuvenation and endurance associated with it, but that power comes with strings attached (Tyvian’s behavior) and has a variety of costs. Even when he does heal people with it, it creates problems more than it solves them.
Now, such dramatic flourishes are difficult to accomplish in an RPG, but one thing is pretty easy: next time somebody asks who is going to be a healer, volunteer.
Make yourself a Trickster Cleric with NO healing magic.
Make a rogue who practices quack medicine.
Make a druid who specializes in health food (more goodberries, anybody?).
Go into battle without a cleric, and trust the GM and your fellow players to come up with some seriously memorable adventures that won’t be easy, but will be a hell of a lot of fun.
This is going to be partly a writing post, partly a gaming post, and partly a literary post. I don’t outline these things, so who the hell knows what’s going to happen next. Let’ start with… (throws dart) literature. Okay, so the past few years I’ve themed my Lit Survey class around the Hero’s Journey (mostly Campbell’s Monomyth, etc.). Inevitably, we start talking about superhero movies in the class, as superhero tales are the ones most recognizably Campbellian in form. While I do like these movies (overall), after reading hundreds and hundreds of pages of student work on Calls to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, the Normal World Vs the Special World and so on and so forth, I tend to get bored with the whole thing.
Now, as it happens, it’s rather difficult to escape the basic rhythms of this story form, particularly if you intend to tell a story involving a protagonist intended to be even vaguely heroic – this stuff is deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious and our ideas of story. Inevitably we wind up following some variation of this path – both in our reading, our own writing, and even at the RPG table.
The challenge, though, is to resist the urge to paint by the numbers – follow the journey, step by step, like a kind of roadmap. While you can tell some very competent tales that way, you also fall into being predictable. Spend enough time with this structure, and things cease to amaze you, which is, frankly, a terrible loss.
Of course, totally diverging from this format has its own problems – the story becomes unsatisfying or strange to the point where you no longer connect with it. Kafka, for all his brilliance, isn’t telling stories that delight and engage so much as confuse and confound. This has its place and its own appeal, naturally, and I’m not suggesting the avant garde, post-modern, or abstract tale is a worthless endeavor. It’s that if you want to tell a heroic story but you also want to make it new, you need to find variations of the monomyth that are poorly traveled. There are many ways to do this, of course – shake up who your hero is, shake up the setting, shake up the stakes, and resist hitting the steps of the story “cleanly.” If you want a master class in how this is done, watch any given Cohen Brothers film – they are regularly, consistently unusual and amazing, even though, in broad terms, they are (usually) telling the story of a central character who is yanked from their normal world, sent through an ordeal, who then returns to the normal world somehow changed and enlightened. They just do it in the messiest, most bizarre way possible.
In tabletop RPGs, there are dangers in rhythm, as well. The standard form is this: Players receive a call to adventure, they delve into the dungeon and slay monsters, and they are rewarded with treasure. In D&D in particular, this is what we sign up for, right? But there is only so long this can happen before the game gets old. Too many gaming sessions can be described as “role-play, role-play, kill little thing, argue, big battle, treasure.” I fall into this routine myself. There are plenty of games out there that don’t lend themselves to this, sure, but plenty more that do, I’d argue. Even in those games that don’t do this, the danger of routine still looms large, it’s just that the routine changes.
I say routine and rhythm is “dangerous” because it risks, to my mind, what is ultimately fatal to a book or game alike: becoming boring and predictable. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants things to go smoothly and perfectly all the time (even when they say they do) because it kills the excitement of the unknown. For gaming, as with storytelling, this requires you to consciously seek variations on a theme. Break the mold. Have the dungeon be empty, but have it lead players on some different, deeper quest. Have the monster be absent – it’s back at the village, killing and eating all those people your players are sworn to protect. Never forget the narrative fun that can be had with a cursed item (note: not for making players look stupid, but for giving them benefits that have extreme costs. Yes, that’s a +5 sword. No, you can’t ever sheathe it or wipe off the blood. Enjoy visiting the orphanage.). Have the players be wildly overmatched to the point where they need to flee the dungeon (and make it back through all the deathtraps backwards). Have the adventure involve no dungeon AT ALL. Have the players save the town from a flash flood. Drop them in a desert with no food or water and watch them scrabble to survive. Make one of them king for a day.
The point here is that, as important as the forms and rituals of our storytelling world are to making our stories satisfy, we also need to remember that variety is the spice of life. Break the mold. Change the dance. Improvise.
I just finished Stranger Things last night. Loved it – it’s magnificent television, some of the best I’ve seen in years, and you need to get your ass on Netflix and watch it yesterday. It’s Goonies meets the X-Files if written by Stephen King and no, that is not even remotely an exaggeration. It’s glorious. Not perfect, granted (there were a couple places it might have been *better,* but really I’d be quibbling), but crazy good.
Spoilers Below, by the way…
There are probably dozens of things I could write about this series and about the reaction to this series. Like, why the obsession with Barb? Why doesn’t anybody ever use the buddy system ever? Even when they do use the buddy system, why does nobody ever say “hey, look at this thing!” before wandering off, thereby defeating the purpose of the buddy system? Also: Does Matthew Modine live at the lab? Does everyone? If so, where the hell were they all when Hop broke in? If not, where do they all live, if not in the exact same small town as everyone else? Where do they commute from? I could also go on and on about Dungeons and Dragons, about that special kid-friendship that we have when we’re twelve but that melts away as we get older. I could even talk about the Acrobat and the Flea for a bit. About bullying (again), and on and on and on. But no – the topic I choose today is the tale of two moms, Joyce Byers and Karen Wheeler.
This show deliberately and consciously poses for us a pair of mothers who are, for all intents and purposes, opposites of one another. On the one hand, we have Joyce – a harried single mother, barely able to manage her life and her finances. She’s a terrible cook, has a bad relationship with her ex-husband, works a crappy retail job, and looks like she hasn’t seen a hairbrush in years, let alone used one. On the other hand, we’ve got Karen Wheeler – sensibly dressed, classy, well-to-do. She makes beautiful turkeys, sits her family down to dinner on time, maintains a beautiful home, and seems to have this mom game all sewn up. On the surface of things (and, indeed, in the eyes of Hawkins, Indiana), Karen is the “good” mother, and Joyce is the failure. I mean, hell, Joyce has her kid kidnapped right from under her nose, right?
But that isn’t the case. In fact, I’d like to argue that Joyce is the very best kind of mother and that Karen is, frankly, a pretty slack performer. Here’s why: Joyce trusts and believes and is engaged in her children and their lives. Karen just has small people that live in her house.
Let’s start with Karen Wheeler, shall we? First of all, Karen seems to have absolutely know idea where her children are at any time. Granted, neither does Joyce, but she’s busy fighting nether-demons and one of her kids is on an alternate plane of existence, so she should be given a pass on that one. Meanwhile, Nancy sneaks not one but two boys into her room while her mother is home. At the same time, Mike is hiding a psychic wunderkind with a shaved head in the basement and Karen has no goddamned idea at all.
But, okay, kids at a certain age acquire a life of their own, sure – Karen isn’t going to keep them in the Panopticon, right? Consider this, though: Karen doesn’t knock on Nancy’s door, she just comes in. Because she doesn’t trust her or because she is unwilling to grant Nancy the right to privacy, in either case it doesn’t speak well of her. Jonathan, who’s got a whole different kind of mother, is surprised at this.
And further: When Nancy learns that Barb has disappeared and suspects that something terrible has happened to her best friend, what is the thing Karen wants to talk about when they get home? That’s right – did you sleep with that boy. Not “how are you doing with all this scary stuff going down,” no, instead it’s “you LIED to me!” Classy move, Karen. Now, should she discuss the fact that Nancy has embarked upon an active sex life? Yeah, sure – obviously a serious discussion has to be had – but maybe approaching the topic right then and in that way isn’t the wisest plan, lady. Look, we’re all upset that she decided to sleep with that douchebag, but maybe the disappearance and possible death of her best friend takes precedence. Maybe you shouldn’t make her feel like a villain in her own home if you want her to talk to you?
And here, here’s the final straw: When her son runs out the door in a panic saying “if anybody looks for me, I’ve left the country” and then creepy government agents start rifling through her house and start taking her kid’s stuff, she gets upset, sure. But when Creepy Scientist Guy sits down and says “trust me – tell me where your son is,” what does she do? She gives him up. Just like that. It’s only fortunate that she is so disconnected from her kids lives that she is unable to give him up effectively. She has no idea where Mike might be.
Now, I don’t think Karen is a bad person and yes, she obviously cares about her kids, but she also has no idea what caring ought to entail. She is focused on keeping her kids clothed and clean and well fed (all admirable) while totally failing to appreciate or even like the fact that they have independent lives and are actual people worthy of her respect.
Which brings us to Joyce.
Yeah, Joyce can’t be home all the time (she’s a single mom in 1983 – cut her some slack, guys!) and she had some pretty terrible taste in men, but think of all the interactions we see between Joyce and her kids. She encourages Will’s creativity. She is engaged in the emotional well-being of Jonathan. She does more than love her kids – she admires them, she is proud of them, and she has their back no matter what.
When her kid talks to her from another dimension and everybody else thinks she’s completely nuts, you know who she trusts? Her. Kid.
When they show her a solid mock-up of her son’s body through a double glass pane from ten feet away, does she fall for it? Not for a second.
When an otherworldly monster rips a hole in fucking space-time right in front of her eyes and chases her from her house, you know what she does? Do you know what Joyce Byers does? SHE GOES BACK IN THAT FUCKING HOUSE AND SITS THERE WITH A GODDAMNED AXE ACROSS HER KNEES.
Why? Because her kid’s in trouble, she knows it, and even if the rest of the universe thinks she’s nuts, she is going to find him. Come Hell or High Water, she will be there for him. That – that – is true, pure, powerful motherhood. Not the birthday parties or the pretty house or the nice clothes. Not the quality of her mashed potatoes, but because of who she is to her kids: not a jailer or a disciplinary officer, but a lioness. Proud bearer of her children’s standard. Guardian of their potential.
All parents (God, don’t even get me started on the fathers in this show – a whole other post) should learn from her example. Believe in your kids, trust them, admire them, be there for them when they need you most, and they will return the favor.
The paperback version of No Good Deed comes out next week! On August 9th, be certain to pick up your copy in cold, hard paper! It’s a limited release, so don’t expect to see tons of them in bookstores – order online, from Amazon, B&N, and anybody else selling real, actual books.
Related to this, I will be doing a reading and book signing at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA, on the evening September 8th, so mark your calendars if you want to meet me/get a book signed!
Having a crazy week, so here’s just this quick link to a guest post I made over on Ragnarok yesterday. It’s about how writing novels/stories differs from tabletop RPGs, which is something I feel I know a bit about, as I’ve spend a good 25 years parsing through the differences.
Check out the post here, and check out Ragnarok, too – they’ve got a lot of cool things going on over there and they’re relatively new, so wander around.
Talk to you next week!
What’s that? Oh, right – adventuring. Yeah, that’s what you kids call it. Nothing crazy sounding about that, no sir.
Eh? Oh, yes – that barrel there is full of pebbles. Lightweight, easy to toss, guaranteed to reveal deadfall traps or your money back. Just a silver piece a handful.
Why yes, that price does seem a might bit high, I suppose. But gravel here is pretty hard to come by. I got a mess of children, see, and they go out mornings and collect rocks for their dad. Go ahead and look – I can wait. You won’t find a pebble worth lobbing for six miles in any direction, gods as me witness.
Oh right – here we get to the part where you threaten me with beating and mutilation and such. Same old story. I tell you what, Thagg the Magnificent, if’n you wanna hack off my head, be my guest, but good damned luck finding a healer in this town hereafter. Father Paldrick is a business partner, see? You kill me, and any of your pals what get cursed by spider demons or have their entrails eaten by gorefinder worms or just wind up plain dead are going to stay that way. So, go on mister – I’ll wait.
Today I’m having a special on used rope. Oh, yes – I’ve been gathering rope from the…err…less successful spelunk…errr…adventurers have left around. Damnest time untying it all sometimes. You wouldn’t believe the stupid nonsense these people try to make outta rope. Catapults, winches, belaying lines, boulder traps – you name it, I’ve hacked it down and respliced it to resell. What? It ain’t stealing, honest! Them folks ain’t needing it anymore.
Yes, nobody has come out the Black Mine alive as of yet. Oh, yes, I’m sure you’ll be the first ones. Why, the Black Mine has never had to face a bloodthirsty barbarian, a charming rogue, a secretive wizard, and a forthright cleric before. No sir. Most folks bring a paladin or a plain old fighter instead of Thagg over there. Sure he’ll make all the difference.
What’s that? Yessir – all those “craptastic rusty lamps,” as you put it, come with a lifetime warranty. You just come on back if it don’t work and I’ll either give you a new one or store credit, I swear. Never had nobody ask for it yet, gods as me witness.
Maps of the dungeon? Now how in the Nine Hells am I supposed to have that hanging around? You think anybody around here actually goes into the Black Mine? We had us a wizard in here to seal it up just so nobody would. But then some fool has to go about running his mouth about all the treasures down there and next thing you know, weird little groups of three to five people start showing up and marching past all them magic wards. Damnest thing, if you ask me. Fools, the lot of them.
Well, except you. You lot look exceptionally intelligent. Can I interest you in a selection of skeleton keys? I’ll give you a money back guarantee.
So, that will be the crowbar, sledgehammer, door wedges, one lamp, five torches, one-hundred and fifty feet of rope (new), four bags of pebbles, some of them ball bearings, and a wheelbarrow. That will be fifty-seven gold and five silver, please. Most generous of you.
You know, now that I think about it, might be there’s treasure to be had off this Black Mine after all.
Last night I finished up my involvement in a D&D campaign run by my friend, Fish. It ended poorly for my wizard, the elderly Baltigast – he took a pair of bad draws from a Deck of Many Things as a last ditch effort to recover his lost power and prestige, and instead wound up a toothless old madman without a penny to his name. Ah well.
Tomorrow, I start running my own D&D campaign (which was the reason I left Fish’s game – I like running better than playing, and I can’t wait anymore). So, today, in memory of those PCs who came to bad ends and in anticipation of those PCs who are going to, let me tell you some stories about the miserable ends some of my players have fallen victim to over my 23 year history of running RPGs.
In no particular order:
Barooza, 3rd Level Half-Orc Berzerker, Amedio Jungle, Oerth
Barooza foolishly drank an Elixir of Madness, making him…unreasonable. An unreasonable berserker in a dungeon crawl is a dangerous prospect, and so the other players tied him up. Now, however, they had a thrashing, 250lbs half-orc to carry around, and nobody felt up to it. “Hey,” said the pirate, “I’ve got this Bag of Holding! We can just stuff him inside and carry him around!”
Yeah, that Bag of Holding? Actually a Bag of Devouring. They stuffed poor Barooza in head-first, and he only had time to scream once before he was consumed by an extra-dimensional predator. Bummer of a way to go.
Wheeler, 5th Level Mage, Crystalmist Mountains, Oerth
The party was in a large, hollow tower. They could scale the walls up to the top, but the walls were crawling with nasty critters that would try to eat them. The alternative? Well, Wheeler wanted to levitate straight up the middle of the tower and, once he reached the walkway at the top, he could let down several coils of rope for the rest of the PCs to scale. The trouble, of course, was they hadn’t really done the math on how far Wheeler could levitate for the duration of the spell and whether that would be sufficient time to reach the walkway. It was not – he came in ten feet shy. He then fell a couple hundred feet to his death. At least the prophet at the top was good enough to resurrect him.
Mac, Sergeant, Xplore Corporation, Abandoned Eridani War Cruiser, Fornax Galaxy
The party was being shot at from the floor below by war bots that were pumping plasma up through the deck plating, leaving molten holes in the steel floor. Mac attempted to drop a grenade through one such hole, but instead of dropping it through, he decided this was the time to play a game of hoops. He shot from half-court, the grenade took a very bad bounce, and landed at his feet. Boom. His internal organs were pulped, and so ended Mac.
Nameless XF Inc Mercenary, US Naval Base, Lone Wolf Planetoid, Wolf-359
So, after attacking an armored US Marine with a kitchen knife (and barely surviving), he and his compatriot were cut off in the detention wing of the facility, with their only possible escape route being a cargo elevator. Into the cramped elevator they crammed and slowly began to ascend to the laundry room, however, the marines had reached the elevator and were guiding it back down. The elevator was a cage, and there was just enough room to stick a pistol out to maybe shoot out the counter weights to release the elevator. The other guy took the shot. After much random ricocheting, the bullet hit the mercenary between the eyes.
Major Russ Carmady, Olympus, Groomsbridge 1619
Major Russ was a big fan of planning out his defenses, so when they landed to secure a drop zone on a strange alien planet, he ordered the whole area littered with antipersonnel mines – just in case, you know? Cut to a few days later, when they are being bombarded from orbit by a Chinese battlecruiser and actual extraterrestrials are about to storm their base, and what does Russ elect to do? Well, he obviously can’t be captured, so he makes a run for it. This was my question:
So, do you remember where you placed your own mines?
No. No he did not. Kablooey.
Got any other ridiculous tales of PCs’ untimely demises? Share them here!
Say, did you miss my last book signing? Feel guilty? Well, have I got some good news for you! I will be doing another book signing at the Prudential Center Barnes and Nobel in Boston this coming Saturday, 5/30, from 2pm to 4pm. I will be signing copies of the Writers of the Future Anthology, Volume 31, so come on down!
No, seriously, come on down. I don’t want to be lonely. I want the nice people at Barnes and Nobel to appreciate my business. I’ll have cookies and stuff. Just show up and let me scribble on your book!
Been a while since I’ve put on my gamer hat hereabouts, so here we go…
Role-playing games campaigns are social enterprises that rely on a good group dynamic to be successful. In this sense, they are similar to team sports (observe how the jocks and the nerds doth rage at such an analogy! Indeed, it is beauteous to me!). A good RPG campaign, in order to work, goes beyond what actually happens at the table and into the social and (even) political sphere. Good GMs know this, and they set their games up to enhance it. Poor GMs don’t pay any attention to it, and they wonder why everybody quits their campaign halfway through.
A Word About Ideals…
Okay, so it’s worth pausing for a second to define what I consider an “ideal campaign” to be. An Ideal Campaign has the following characteristics:
- Everybody Has Fun: This is a minimum requirement. Everybody should be laughing, everybody should be hanging on every die roll, everybody should be invested in what is going on.
- Everybody Is Engaged in the Action: The storyline of the campaign should matter to the players. They should care about what happens and should want to know what happened last time. Ideally, they should even discuss what might or is happening with each other and with you outside of the game itself. In other words, they are so deeply invested in the game that it stays with them at least some of the time.
- Everybody Gets Along: The people playing are compatible personalities who, even if not great friends, generally get along well and are able to be comfortable with one another.
- Everybody is Organized: The game starts on time, it ends on time, the GM keeps things moving, the players show up consistently, and the meeting schedule is regular and consistent.
These four things, when combined, mean the “campaign morale” is high and everything is going well. If one or more of these things aren’t working, the campaign is not going well (at least according to the Ideal).
How Is This Done?
Assuming we all want to get to Goal#1 up there, we actually need to address these goals in reverse order.
Organization: The first order of business is Goal #4: getting organized. This is really essential, because it’s the basic requirement of having a game: everybody needs to show up regularly and on time. Understandably, people will miss the occasional session due to illness or unforeseen circumstances or what-have-you, but on average everybody should be there. Furthermore, the game should meet often enough to create a kind of momentum. If you meet once and then not again for two months, people forget what is happening, the GM is less invested in continuing (since people have forgotten about it), and the whole thing can just fade away. Meet regularly, show up on time, and you can go from there. The party that plays together, stays together.
Group Dynamic: As the GM, it is your job to make sure the party in your campaign is compatible and able to get along. If you have a friend that nobody else likes, inviting him to play may be a mistake for everybody. Now, generally I’ve found most gamers can get along with most other gamers for a few hours a week (or month), but there are exceptions (and you know who they are, too, I’d bet). Not inviting a buddy of yours because you think his incessant need to creepily leer at women might offend the two women playing might hurt his feelings, but hey – he’s the one being the creep, not you. That, of course, is an extreme case and, again, I’ve found personality conflicts like this to be rare.
More common (and arguably just as important), though, is simply thinking about everybody’s playstyle. A band of by-the-numbers point munchkins probably won’t understand or appreciate a real Role Player in their midst and vice versa. I personally recommend getting a variety of play-styles involved, assuming everybody understands how you are going to run the game. If everybody is on board and aware of the expectations, everything will go much more smoothly.
Engagement: This is a tough one. Even if you nail the first two, this one is probably the hardest one to master. It also might be the most optional of them all – players don’t have to love the plot of the game if they just love the action of playing – but I firmly believe having this in your corner makes everything better (everything!). As GM, this one lands mostly in your court. All players, when they make a character, are telling you the kind of things they want their character to be and do. If I make a greedy Halfling rogue with a complex about how short he is, I am pretty much telling you that I want to pick a half-orc’s pocket at bar and then have a bar-fight when he calls me “short-stuff”. You need to figure out what your players want and then you need to build the storyline around those desires. Alternately, you can tell everybody before the game starts what the game is going to be about and then ask everybody to make a character that fits inside that arena. Of the two, the latter is easier but the former is far more effective (if you can pull it off). In either case, if players love the concept, they will love the game, and they will be more likely to show up, more likely to have fun, and more likely (even) to get along.
Fun: The game is fun if people are smiling (or shuddering like they just saw a horror movie) after a session is over. How this achieved is complex, but generally I’d say the above three concerns are a good place to start. The other thing to remember is that this is a game. Try to avoid getting anyone’s ego involved. Laugh. Act like you’re having fun (which you should be, dammit, or else why do this?). Generally speaking, the more fun you have, the more fun everybody else will likely have.
In the end, these things all feed off one another. If you can get all four of them to work, then your campaign is guaranteed to be a success (I promise). If they all fail, people are going to be checking Facebook in the midst of the game and blowing off a session anytime a second cousin is in town. Believe me, I’ve been in both situations, and they are the best and the worst role-playing experiences I’ve ever had. Good luck out there, and have fun!
When The Oldest Trick, Part 1 is released early next year, I will officially be a published fantasy author. Ideally, a few months after that I will be a successful one (hint hint, folks). As I have wrestled this summer with writing the third book in the as-yet unnamed Tyvian Reldamar series, I have been considering what it means, exactly, to be an ‘epic fantasy author’ (epic fantasy being my subgenre, apparently, though that word ‘epic’ gives me fits). Now, this question has as many answers as there are authors. For me, a key part of fantasy has always been maps. I love maps, and especially fantasy world maps. I feel like a good map tells its own story and makes the world real. A good map makes you want to live there. I have extensive maps for Alandar (my fantasy world) and an atlas that I guard like the Holy Grail (as they contain the only copies of the maps I’ve drawn). I bought Campaign Cartographer to help me make more maps, but ones which I can copy and distribute (it’s awesome, by the way, but I’m not good enough with it to make the maps as awesome as they are in my head – still easier to hand-draw them.).
So it is that, recently, when I was invited to play in my friend’s Forgotten Realms D&D campaign, that pulled up a copy of the map of Faerun – the world of Forgotten Realms. It’s….it’s just awesome. Incredibly awesome. I was instantly transported back to high school, pouring over the atlases of places like Ansalon and Faerun and Oreth. Feeling the inspiration to make my own maps and, by extension, create my own worlds. In large part, I attribute the existence of Alandar to those big TSR boxed sets from the 1990s with their piles of awesome maps. They were a lot of the initial inspiration for it all.
What’s So Great About These Maps, Weirdo?
If you love history (like I do) and study it, it becomes clear that geography has a powerful effect on culture, civilization, and history. Europe was created by the Alps more than by the Roman Empire; the Roman Empire was created by the Italian Peninsula. America owes its America-ness to the Appalachians and the Great Plains, to Cape Cod, and to the Potomac and Hudson River. Study it, and the connections are all there, plain as day.
If you look at your average fantasy world map, it often has just enough detail to let you know where you are, but nothing more. Comparing that map to a map of the real world is like comparing a child’s finger-painting to a Renaissance masterpiece. Accordingly (and obviously), the complexity of the real world dwarfs that of your average fantasy setting. This is probably always going to be true (few fantasy authors are as monumentally good world builders as George R.R. Martin, for instance), but a really good map can help make the gap that much narrower. I feel that TSR’s maps always did a good job of this. Let me discuss them in turn.
The primary setting for the D&D Dragonlance world, Ansalon is a continent that suffered a great Cataclysm in the recent past (a comet hit the planet, swallowing one corner of the continent and seriously upsetting the rest of it). The destruction wrought on the landscape is clear simply by looking at the map. Everywhere is isolated from everywhere else by oceans, mountains, and wastelands. Ansalon, therefore, is a land of peoples isolated from one another. The riding of dragons (a major setting element) is sensible in this setting – you need a way to get around these obstacles if you intend to conquer anywhere. It makes sense.
This map also demonstrates how the creators of the world (Weiss and Hickman) build this place in order to have fun with it. There’s a lot going on here – a lot of cities, but also a lot of trackless wilderness. There are plenty of places for dragons to hide. There’s a giant evil whirlpool/storm in one corner. The waterways are choked and complex, making for much sailing adventure (if desired). It looks like the kind of place adventures can be had, and that was something I latched on to long ago as important in a map. The more fun the place looked, the more fun you could get to happen.
The principal setting for Greyhawk campaigns, Oerth is a massive continent with a intricate series of petty nation states, kingdoms, duchies, and principalities all jockeying for position in a heavily populous world. Unlike Ansalon, where the struggle is clearly Man Vs Nature, here the struggle is Man Vs Man. The wild places exist on the fringes – over mountains, across distant oceans, far away and out of mind. The day to day business of the citizens of Oerth is protecting their land from violent neighbors. The setting contributes to that, too – part of the world’s history is a world-wide war that shattered much of the political status-quo. Oerth is a land of intrigue and warfare and less one of exploration and discovery. Its geography is well suited to this.
I confess that Oerth had a definitive influence over my design of Alandar. Not only did I run a long-running Greyhawk campaign in high school, but I loved the precarious balance of powers presented by the world and noted how the geography of the place contributed to that. If you have been reading my Alandar background pieces (and God bless you, by the way), you can see that elaborate political alliances are part and parcel for the setting. One of the things that does this in Oerth is the Azure Sea and the Nyr Dyv (the inland ocean/big lake about map center and the mostly-inland sea in the south). By having these big waterways ensconced by competing powers, it makes the ocean not a venue for distant exploration so much as a setting for trade, travel, piracy, and naval warfare. Think of the Mediterranean and the Caribbean – same idea.
Faerun is the grandpappy of them all. The primary setting for Forgotten Realms campaigns, it is, first and foremost, huge. Of all of the maps thus far discussed, this is the one I feel best simulates something akin to the real world. It is almost a mixture of Ansalon and Oreth – there are isolated pockets of civilization cut off by wide swathes of wilderness, but also big blocks of civilized countries that must be jockeying for resources in their little corner of the world. There are mountains and rivers, inland seas (which are themselves a result of cataclysmic events), distant wastelands, forests and jungles and so on and so forth. Unlike Ansalon or even Oerth, one look at the map of Faerun makes it clear that there is more than one story to tell in this world. What is happening in the North along the Sword Coast is not the same as what is happening in the Dalelands around the Sea of Fallen Stars, and both are distinct from the troubles of Calimshan and Chult. This is a world in regions, like our own, which clearly must have their own distinct politics, habits, cultures, and peoples.
If the West in Alandar is inspired by Oerth, the whole of Alandar is very much inspired by Faerun. My world (separated into West, North, South, and the Isles) is very much separated that way, even if inter-regional conflict does occur. Cultures, languages, and religions all differ, just as they do in Faerun. I only hope my own world is as much fun to explore and adventure in as this one, which has enjoyed 30 years of passionate fans of the books, RPGs, and video games.
I should be so lucky.