Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Blue Dancer campaign begins!

Actually, it begins again. But this time, I'm focusing on a megadungeon.

In the last several months, I've been reading various old school blogs. One of the key elements that I think were lacking in all my previous campaign starts was a so-called tent pole megadungeon. I knew that Greyhawk and Blackmoor started with a large dungeon. But I suppose that I hadn't considered such dungeons essential until recently.

For the last several years, I had been tremendously interested in the imminent release of Castle Zagyg, Gary Gygax's legendary dungeon. In anticipation of it's release, I obtained a copy of WGR1 Ruins of Greyhawk and a copy of the Free City of Greyhawk boxed set. Impatient for the release of Castle Zagyg, I purchased the Yggsburg hardback and examined the region surrounding the castle dungeon. Finally, Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works was released. As I examined the module, I wondered if I could do better? Now I'm trying to put that to the test.

I had never gamed with any of the players before. But our common interest was playing 1e (OSRIC) in the old school style. Our first session was mostly spent getting to know each other, rolling up characters, and re-familiarizing ourselves with the rules. Of primary importance to me was knowing what the players expected out of playing D&D. The real learning experience for me was the second session, which took place last night, when I could learn more about how the players wished to conducted the game.

This time around, I made very minimal world building notes before I started the first actual session of game play. Excessive world building can cause infant campaign death syndrome. The best way to prepare for a sandbox campaign is to make a map of the local country side, place a few monsters here and there, note some important NPCs, briefly detail the "home base" town of the adventure, and prepare the first dungeon.

But although I knew the essentials of starting a sandbox campaign, I spent almost no time working on anything other than the megadungeon itself and the map how to get there. Because of previous attempts at starting this campaign, I had already worked out some general details about the campaign world. With this group, I was starting it again at a new locale. I knew the name of the home base town, Walton, but I wrote up absolutely no detail about it other than the name of the tavern and who owned it. I knew that there was a chain of forts linked together, Hadrian's Wall-style, on the nearby frontier border but I drew up no floor plans or details of any NPCs. I knew that beyond the wall was a valley that was a part of the Feywild that was permanently affixed to the Prime Material Plane but I detailed nothing other than a random monster encounter table. And although I had focused most of my attention on Castle Xeva, the megadungeon sitting in the middle of this magical valley, I had only drawn up one or two complete levels and I had only sketchy notes about the inhabitants.

One might think I was horribly unprepared for DMing a new campaign. Especially in the last decade, it seemed standard practice to work out all of the details of a campaign world before it actually begins. But it seems to me that tremendous preparation yeilds little in the way of anticipated results. Unless you're trying to railroad the players. And my ability to anticipate the actions of players I had never gamed with before was nearly zero. So what was the point of rolling up stats for the captain of the town guard? The players might not interact with that NPC at all. What if the players make a bee-line to the megadungeon and purposefully skip any nifty side adventures? This time around, I really did not want to put any work into anything that had less than a good chance of being used.

So I prepared a list of randomly-generated names of people, places, and things. I typed up one-page briefings of the campaign world and the history of Castle Xeva for the players. The campaign details I gave them were very general and allowed for tremendous latitude. Before I start filling in details of this campaign world, I want to see how the PCs behave. Indeed, I learned much during the first session of game play.

Luckily, this crew of players turned out to be excellent, experienced gamers. All of them had played various editions of D&D before. Although few had actually played 1e, this wasn't a problem. To my delight, the players had plenty of ideas that gave me fodder for future encounters. They all knew the cliches of D&D adventures. It turns out that I could have thrown a few adventure hooks at them because they were expecting them. But since I was laying out a clear path straight to the megadungeon, I didn't put such distractions before them.

Perhaps players have been conditioned to expect plot hooks. I intentionally started with just one. This band of heroes are all friends for whatever reason they want to work out amongst themselves. The half-orc fighter and halfling thief won in a game of chance a map to a secret entrance to Castle Xeva. With the help of the cleric and magic-user, the party obtained official permission to travel beyond the wall. They were there in the town of Walton to equip for an expedition to this legendary dungeon. All PC inquires about local threats and kidnapped merchant daughters turned up nil.

Was this lack of side adventure hooks a mistake? Maybe. But I have every intention of providing new adventure hooks later on in the campaign. But not now. I tried my best to make this clear to the players. They seek gold, fame, and fortune. And gold. When/if they come back from the dungeon, they'll gain a bit of noteriety. But right now, they are just 1st level nobodies.

The first encounter was randomly generated. A group of four goblins were out on patrol on the trail leading to the castle. After the ambush and capture, the PCs questioned the goblins. Uh, oh! I didn't expect that. I figured that the PCs would probably just slay them and take their stuff. The players wanted information! So I made it up on the spot. The goblins, of course, were based in the castle. Their chief brought them there from the mountains to the north. And, along with other tribes of demi-humans, they work for a group of humans that seem to be calling the shots. But these lowly goblin chumps knew little else. While the PCs argued about what to do with the surviving golbin prisoner, an unnoticed treant standing behind them snatched up the golbin and ran off into the forest. Why did that happen? Did the treant rescue the goblin? Or was something else going on? Did I make up all of this on the spur of the moment? Some parts yes, some parts no. But I won't be specific because my players will more than likely read this blog. The point is that I had some general ideas about wilderness surrounding the megadungeon and I'm letting random events shape the course of things to come.

Not all of the encounters that happen in this campaign will be random. But it's been my experience that random events can precipitate new directions. This one little random encounter has set a chain of events into motion. Not only has it given me ideas, it has given my players some ideas as well. One player thought it might be good to take the goblin shortbow and arrows and use them to kill members of rival demi-human tribes within Castle Xeva in order to precipate fueds. Brilliant! I had no idea that they would think of something like this. Maybe it will work! Go for it!

Another interesting PC-inspired development was that our cleric decided that he was a follower of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Sure! Why not? I expected the player to pick from the defined set of deities from the rule books. I could have set up a big campaign story arc involving the scheming of gods that used their priests as pawns. Or maybe a world-shaking divine threat needed to be thwarted. All such long-term story planning would have been shot to hell because the cleric PC decided to take on a joke god. So I'll probably address the campaign gods in a more humorous manner for the time being. And lots of pasta jokes.

Our first session of game play ended with the goblin encounter. No doubt next week they will enter the dungeon proper. And already the plot thickens like a good tomato sauce.


trollsmyth said...

Sounds like a great start! Yeah, I keep on hand a few statted out generic humans that are no threat, mild threat, and serious threat to the party, just in case they decide to attack a merchant's caravan or start a brawl in a tavern. Otherwise, I prefer the minimum prep like you're using.

So does the cleric dress like a pirate and shout, "Fear His noodly appendage!" when charging into combat? ;D

M.gunnerQuist said...

Indeed he shouts, "fear his noodly appendage!" I'm not sure about dressing like a pirate. I'll have to ask him about it.

The Acrobatic Flea said...

Thanks for this - I am just in the process of "rethinking" my campaign for Labyrinth Lord having rushed ahead and done a major world-building job on the original setting and eventually realising I wasn't happy with it.

So the characters have now been transported - via a "magical dungeon" - to a new world that operates under different physical laws (e.g. a new rules set) and they (and I) don't have all the world information to hand in a nicely prepared, but slightly overwhelming campaign background booklet.

You've given me several ideas on how to proceed and look forward to hearing how your campaign goes.

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