Adventures for Fun and Profit

But let’s forget about the profit for now.

Noism started an interesting debate with two posts about a seemingly overarching theme of bleakness in modern oldschool RPG releases and discussion. And I think it’s an accurate observation. The majority of content that is getting major exposure these days is pretty dark. But I think the main reason for this lies in the popularity of the works of James Raggi and Zak S., whose personal styles simply are bleak and grotesque. You could easily count Patrick Stuart as also having ascended into this exclusive group. Together they and their works easily tower over everyone else combined. This of course creates the perception that oldschool gaming is dominated by dark and bleak content. And when it comes to commercially produced publications this is actually the case. But I believe these great adventures are popular primarily because they are really good, not because they have bleak tones and dark themes. It probably is mostly a coincidence that the most successful creators are sharing such similar artistic styles.

That being said, it’s still a valid question to ask how we all could produce content that is just as good but taking a more positive outlook on things? Having bleak adventures dominate is indeed kind of a problem, in that it is quite easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm that is surrounding their reception. Deep Carbon Observatory is awesome and makes me excited to make something just as awesome with my own ideas. But at least for me it’s always very easy to fall into the trap of falsely assuming that something similarly great would also be similarly structured. It takes me conscious effort to say “This is not what you wanted to do. You had a different idea that is also awesome and your own.” So I find it very worthwhile to encourage a discussion about what other shapes great oldschool adventures can take and to get people to put more of those out there so that we have a broader perspective on what we can be doing that builds on our own passions and develops into our own personal style.

The original question that started this was “can RPGs be cheery?” I am not a native speaker but this doesn’t seem like a word that I could align with fantasy adventure RPGs. Cheerfulness seems to be in conflict with …well, conflict. As I see it, every adventure needs conflict. Without conflcit there’s no treat and therefore no tension. Maybe you can have RPGs that are cheery, but I don’t see it working for games of the fantasy adventure type. However, what these games do have the capability of is FUN!

To me, the absolute holy grail of a perfectly executed adventure is Raiders of the Lost Arc. It has violence and pain, a terrible threat, and the most evil of evil villains: Nazis! Is it in any way cheery? No, I really wouldn’t say so. But is it a bleak movie or a pessimistic one? I’d say far from it. It’s exciting and wondrous and Indiana Jones is a hero who has no pretentions of glory but is good without a trace of doubt. And it really is fun.

I do enjoy a certain gloominess in my favorite games and movies, but I would say that those are all cases in which the mood isn’t bleak but rather somber. To me the big difference lies in the outlook forward. In bleak settings there is a universal certainty that the actions of the protagonists won’t be making and difference for the better. Things might even end up being worse despite their best efforts. Things are bad and are only going to be worse. Adventures in such environments can be fascinating and entertaining, but unless everyone is set to go down in a blaze of glory, it’s not going to be fun. (Early Warhammer 40k always seems hilarious to me.)

But dark elements or periods of gloom do not have to drag everything into bleakness. As with Indiana Jones you can still have an overall very positive outlook, simply by giving the players confidence that their efforts will make things better. Things will look up in the future because the heroes took great risks and paid great personal costs. if the players walk away with a confidence that it all had been worth it, then even an adventure full of darkness can have an overall positive outlook. A great example for such a tale would be Princess Mononoke. That movie gets outright terrifiying as shit goes to hell, but even then the hero keeps pushing forward because he knows that he can make the future much better than it’s currently looking to be.

I don’t think I’ve consciously been thinking about it this way, but I believe that my Ancient Lands setting is at its core a world meant to be about the struggle for making things better. The setting is build around the concept of treasure hunting, but not about gold fever and the suffering it brings to everyone involved, but again much more of the Indiana Jones type. The main motivation for PCs is the excitement of discovering magical wonders that people back home would never have dreamed of. To reach them, great threats have to be overcome and there is fierce competition from highly dangerous and unsavory people who might use such discoveries to harm. You can easily have the PCs encountering great dangers and dealing with serious threats, but overall I find it an approach that lends itself very much to having a lot of fun while doing so,

As I see it, the world is not so much “Points of Light surrounded by a vast sea of darkness”, but rather islands of the familiar surrounded by oceans of the unknown. When it comes to designing settings and adventures it’s really very much the same approach, but the dangerous unknown doesn’t have to be dark. Even if it’s just unfamiliar you can still have high tension adventures without any need for bleak darkness.

Am I done?

Certainly feels like I am done. Despite saying just a few weeks ago that I felt I barely had made any real progress over the last six years of working on the Ancient Lands, I think that I now have all the pieces togther. Not ready for a publication by any stretch, but you could say the setting has reached the beta stage, where it’s completely playable.

Some monsters still need proper names and a handful still needs their stats written down, but I got a 100 entries bestiary. The gods still need naming, but I have them all together and religion properly worked out. The four character classes are all ready to play and the magic system is complete. I got all the races and an outline for the culture, and good sounding names for almost all of them. The map is an ungly sketch but it has all the countries that I want to include.


This thing can be played.

This week I was reading through the older posts I’ve written here about the Ancient Lands in more detail, and while it is true that almost all major elements of the setting where already in place in early 2011, the vast majority of them had a sometimes quite significantly different shape and appearance back then. Based on what I’ve been writing about the process, the setting really grew into the world I want it to be in the last 8 months. Many things I now consider crucial to the theme and style of the setting I wrote about only last summer. Looking back a full year before now, there’s still a lot of stuff that now seems completely out of place to me. Deserts, empires, trade networks, criminal organizations, humans! What was I thinking?!

I think a big tipping point was writing the Project Forest Moon post. This was when all the ideas and things I liked really became one coherent concept. That’s when it clicked and I realized which of my many inpirations I really want to set the overall tone for the world. Endor, Morrowind, Kalimdor, and Planescape (Beastlands and Pandemonium). I want the Ancient Lands to feel like those, and everything that doesn’t have anything to do with bringing that style to life can go. No empire, even when it’s lizardmen. No deserts, no steppes, no tundra. Certainly no criminal organizations, multinational mining consortiums, or national borders. But as I now recently realized, also no stone age hunters. In my quest for making a more solid tribal society and animisitc religions in a largely unsettled world I regularly kept forgetting that it’s still supposed to be a Bronze Age level setting. But now it finally all looks right.

There’s still a good amount of things to be done. The first priority being the creation of a sandbox for my next campaign that I’ll hopefully be starting before the summer. The setting I have created now is a set of rules, monsters, cultures, and general geographic overview. Creating adventures for it is another step entirely. The other thing I want to do is to actually get all the ideas that mostly exist in my head and on some indecipherable notes into a coherent text that can be shared and used by others. I am still not putting any hope in any kind of commercial success with this setting, but I definitely want to release it to the public. Over the many years of working on the Ancient Lands I’ve been getting a considerable number of comments and also messages from people simply wanting to tell me that they really like my ideas and would love to play in such a campaign. And that’s really all the confirmation I need that this isn’t a completely pointless undertaking. Even if nobody else ever runs an Ancient Lands campaign, it can still be a useful sourcebook for material or at the very least a source of inspiration for GMs wanting to start making their own settings.

Amulet of Life Protection

I love wraiths. I also love wights. I love how their attacks can permanently cripple their victims who can get away with their lives. While this is all cool when dealing with one such creature in a campaign once or twice, this does cause a major problem if you want to use them frequently in large numbers. Thematically, energy drain is a nice threat, but it’s not actualy that interesting or fun if there isn’t really anything the players can do about it other than “don’t get hit”. Always running away and using only arrows and spells isn’t tactical fun. It’s just annoying.

Given how the XP requirements for gaining levels work in B/X, I consider level loss to not be terribly bad as a mechanic. Since the required XP for each new level are doubled, you will very quickly catch up to your companions who didn’t get drained while at the same time always lagging behind just a little bit. I just wish it could be more interesting instead of something that just happens to you more or less at random.

The Companion Set introduced the spell restore, that can heal the lost levels but requires a 17th level cleric. Which don’t exist in the Ancient Lands. It also does not add anything tactically and makes energy drain less of a threat and even more of an annoyance. There is also a new magic item called the ring of life protection, which is a ring of protection +1 that can negate a total of 1-6 level losses. That’s a start, but throughout a longer campaign with many PCs, you’d be needing a lot of these things and end up with a sack full of rings of protection.

Way back in my first Ancient Lands campaign I was trying out the Taint mechanic, which I think was from the 3rd edition Unearthed Arcana. It drained a character’s Constitution and Wisdom instead of levels (which I now think was needless redundancy) and had more complex rules, but was a very similar concept that filled the same role from a narrative and worldbuilding perspective. Now I just use energy drains with a saving throw for going into demonically corrupted places for long periods of time. The cool thing about Taint was that it came with a more mundane counter than magic items. If you’re carrying pieces of jade on your body they will absorb the corruption and keep you safe until they reach their limit and crumble. But carrying more Jade didn’t mean that you were better protected, since at some point it just acted like a magnet for corruption and burned out even faster. I think that last detail made things actually too fiddly (this being 3rd edition after all), but it holds the general idea that I think can make energy drain a much more fun game effect.

Amulet of Life Protection

This simple amulet is made from special minerals, branches, herbs horns, feathers, or vials of magical water, often tied to a cord to hang around the neck. It is relatively simple to make with the right ingredients and does not require and actual enchantments.

The amulet can absorb and negate the corruption of demons and sorcery. When a character is hit by an energy drain attack or other level draining effect it automatically negates the level loss. The player has to roll 1d6 (or 1d4 or 1d8, based on the quality of the amulet) and on the roll of a 1 the amulet crumbles and loses its power. If a saving throw is allowed a roll still has to be made, regardless of whether the saving throw might have succeeded or failed. When a character is wearing or carrying multiple amulets at the same time, a roll has to be made for each one individually. Amulets left unattended in areas where a creature would be exposed to regular energy drain effects also have to make a roll against disintegration at each interval.

I think this should make fights against wights and wraith much more interesting. You still want to avoid getting hit, but even if you do get hit multiple times you still might make it through unharmed (other than hit point damage). But you can never know in advance how long your protection will last. As the amulets are easy and inexpensive to make you can always stock up on them before going into haunted places and demonic lairs. But carrying multiple ones doesn’t mean that you can be sure to not run out either.

D&D’s Deadliest is back

I love this series!

There’s only eight episodes so far and they have way fewer views than they deserve, and I was rather sad when they ended. Not only are these videos hilarious, they actually really make me want to use these incredibly goofy monster in a completely serious way. Glad to see he started to make new ones.