Saturday, February 4, 2012

Gamer ADD Strikes Again

It was roughly, let's say June of last year, when I started running my current Engines & Empires campaign. It was meant to be a pretty simple affair, a forest near a town with a big ten-level dungeon and a few dangling plot-hooks. These months later, the party is just now reaching name-level and planning the construction of a stronghold, and it really feels right to let this campaign start winding down towards the conclusion.

The problem, of course, is that a number of plot threads have woven together to build up some pretty high expectations. If I wanted to, I could carry this game on for another year or more, following an "alien invasion" plotline which has been hinted at since very early in the game. But since I'm feeling the itch to run something different, I want to make sure that this game finishes up by the time the characters reach 14th level or so (I don't really want to move from the Expert Set to the Companion Set). That means that I need a way to wrap this last plot thread up with a major bang, one fell swoop, a deus (DM?) ex machina that will let the players thwart the alien invasion in one fell swoop, SG-1 style.

So, enter the spiffy alien artifact at the bottom of another big ol' dungeon (I think I'll use the Temple of Elemental Evil this time; all of my players are either youngsters or newbies, there's no way they'll be familiar with it). If they can snag it before the flying saucers show up, they save the world. If not, the game's epilogue will be downright depressing, and moving onto a new setting will be the only option left, what with the one currently in use getting invaded and demolished and all.

...

It is interesting, too, how this group of characters is constituted, since all of the characters were rolled up with 3d6-in-order. We have a mage, a tech, an expert (a late addition to the gaming group), a boxer (2nd character for this player, his original was a fighter), and a dwarf (resurrected 1st character for this player, he ran a fay for the interim). No healers in the party at the moment, though from time to time they've been joined by a pair of recurring NPCs, one scholar and one elf; these characters just might have to make a comeback for the finale. We'll see how things play out between the time they finish the current adventure (the glorious Death Frost Doom) and the time I introduce the plot-hook leading up to the Temple of Elemental Evil.

...

As for my next campaign, which has me all giddy and excited now, I'm going to be using Retro Phaze to run some jRPG-inspired epic fantasy. The E&E campaign I'm running now is (as per usual) populated by several Neutral rogues who just want to survive and grow powerful; one Lawful hero (the dwarf) who drives most of what the party does; and one Chaotic villain (the boxer, like his fighter before him) who seems more interested in committing atrocities than looting dungeons. But then, E&E (following the D&D it's based on) is pretty morality-agnostic. It handles free-wheeling swords-&-sorcery better than heroic high fantasy. Retro Phaze at least carries with it the option to enforce a black-and-white morality system, like d20 Star Wars and CODA Lord of the Rings (both of which have a very similar and entirely appropriate system for corruption by the Dark Side/Sauron's Shadow).

Now, before I can even get into the nitty-gritty of coming up with a "plot" for this new campaign, I want to cook up a setting and map it out. And that's what has me excited: I haven't built a game-world in quite a while, not since I cooked up the E&E version of the Gaia setting. This time around, I'm abandoning steampunk for a more traditional flavor of medieval fantasy. And as the foundation for this game-world, I'll be revisiting Faerith, the setting I used to use in high school.

...

Faerith, as we ran it back in the day (mostly for AD&D 2nd edition games, later 3.0), was actually very similar to Gaia in a lot of respects. A steampunkish Europe pastiche with lots of countries obviously based on real-world cultures. Indeed, the Gaia setting only departed from Faerith in that it was more deliberate: more deliberately a steampunk setting from the start, more deliberately meant to resemble Napoleonic Europe, and more intentionally derived from myths and legends (what with countries named for Avalon, Asgard, Elysium, Atlantis, Utopia, and so forth). But then, Gaia was my creation alone; Faerith was a collaboration.

We were much younger then, so everything was more ad-hoc. What started as a fairly generic place to play D&D gradually absorbed a patchworked mish-mash of science-fantasy elements, began to crystallize with time and continued gameplay, and eventually took the shape of a setting which isn't very conducive to an epic fantasy. But honestly, neither is Gaia, for the simple reason that it's just too plain easy to get everywhere. In a setting with lots of heavily populated major cities, lots of railways and airships, you can have pulp fantasy -- crazy action/adventure, searching for lost artifacts with Indy and Short Round, racing against the clock to thwart Dr. Blofeld's doomsday weapon -- but you can't take a year and a day to schlep from the Shire to Mordor just to torch a ring, and that kind of journey is the sine qua non that makes an epic out of a fantasy.

...

So I'm going to be doing two things as I rework the map of Faerith for this new game. (1) I'm going to strip away all of the modernity and as much of the resemblance to Europe as I can, as well as certain locations and elements of the setting in which I feel no particular personal investment; and (2) I'm going to break everything up with as many difficult-to-cross geographical barriers as I can. The point of this game will be to make a plot-driven fantasy epic centered around a long journey across the setting's vast stretches of depopulated wilderness, the very essence of "Lord of the Rings" meets "Final Fantasy I". To that end, I will need to map everything out for a long-term hex-crawl campaign, and add a few "points of light", islands of civilization and culture that provide respite between the long journeys.

I'm working on rough sketches of the campaign maps now. As I finish up the first area, I'll post that map and detail how I'll go about filling it in with interesting places and encounters.

Meanwhile, my next post is going to be all about the "big picture" framework I'm using to revive this neglected setting -- since I'm going to be running a "generic medieval fantasy" setting rather than an "Early Modern Europe caricature" for the first time in what feels like forever, it'll be worth taking the time to spell out a few things that I want to see appear in this game -- stuff for the characters to get tangled up with along their epic journey.

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