Monday, August 10, 2009

The Natural Mutations of a Campaign

I've got two Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord games running right now. In one, the group has just returned from a dungeon, sold their loot, and is considering what challenge to tackle next. Nothing unusual there.

In the other, in spite of being in an efreet city on the Plane of Fire, the last game was largely taken up by the blossoming romance of the single PC and an NPC. Some clues were gathered, some mysteries were solved (which, of course, led directly into new mysteries needing to be explored), but mostly it was conversation about the difficulties inherent in a relationship between a dwarf who'd been transformed into a nixie and a human cleric. I don't think we rolled a single die the entire game.

Are we still playing D&D? Yep. The nixie could give her beau the ability to breath underwater, the cleric prayed for his spells in the morning, and their efreeti host had 10 hit dice and the ability to create illusions at will. I'd be shocked if nobody else ran games like this. In fact, I know other people do. It might not be typical, but it does happen.

And this is the way it's supposed to work. The point is for your group to take the game and make it their own. Do you want to destroy the great artifact of evil and return the rightful king to his throne? D&D can do that. Do the PCs rarely leave the city-state and instead strive to make their guild of Blades and Shadows the masters of every criminal enterprise within its borders? D&D can do that, too. Maybe the PCs are all students in an ancient and storied thaumaturgical university, or mamluks of the cabal of brain-eating tentacle-monsters who rule the world.

This is why the modules of original D&D were so bare in terms of setting and story. They were built to be dropped into any of these campaigns. Sure, the assumption was that you'd have to march a few days through the wilderness to reach the The Slave Pits of the Undercity, but they could just as easily be placed in the sewers of your campaign's largest metropolis. You were supposed to take what TSR and others had made and make it your own. The modules of those days way back when were not so much games or stories, but miniature sandboxes. Some might not fit as well in your campaign as others (funhouse dungeons, for instance, are a poor fit for my campaigns), but the bulk of the translation work was up to the DM and players.

This is why I tend to be pretty vague when writing about RPGs and campaign construction. What's perfect for my game might not have any place in yours. I tend to run relationship-centric campaigns, were groups A and B team up to combat the forces of the loose and fractious alliance of C, D, and E. Other campaigns are focused on a particular location (Ptolus or the megadungeon campaign). Some are like action movies, with the barest plot stringing together action scenes like beads on a cord, or grand strategic visions where logistics and planning take center stage. The important thing, of course, is finding what works for your group and what doesn't. Learning what you don't like can be as important as figuring out what works.

Image credits: John William Godward and Paul-Marie Lenoir.


Natalie said...

I don't think stuff like this gets said enough. I spent about five years reading DM tips and honing my technique without ever figuring out what I wanted out of a game, thinking that the style of play my first group wandered into was naturally the one I was most interested in. Which turns out not to be entirely true. I enjoyed the nixie/cleric romance stuff much more than I've ever liked the plot-based, awesome-focused gaming I grew up with, and while some of that's a result of maturity, it's partly because I never went looking for anything else.

Which is the basic problem with the concept of DMing advice. Not that it's not often useful, but focusing on technique to the exclusion of style can make game problems with worse.

Also: Why is the guy in the second picture getting ready to throw a cat? (And that first picture is really cute, given the context. ;) )

Anonymous said...

Heh everyone loves nixies. There was a great scene in a previous campaign where the party cleric was out jogging around the lake in the morning, and the party fighter staggers out of the lake and vomits out a lungful of water, because he was having an affair with a nixie in the lake and was just coming off his water breathing. The cleric (and the player) were extremely disturbed by this little scene.

Adam Dickstein said...

One of my pet peeves about most modern RPGs is that their worlds/settings and the adventures in them seem almost over-defined. There often feels like their is not enough room to add things and move around, the setting being far too crowd with stuff.

Oddly, settings that should feel like this but often don't include original incarnations of D&D, Traveller, Champions and other none lincensed Supers games, Star Trek and Star Wars (the games and the rest of the phenomena. The last two are particularly interesting because that have built into them the idea that there is more out there. We're here talking about the Enterprise or Luke and Han but somewhere there are Bounty Hunters on a planet called Ord Mantell and the USS Yorktown.

Give me ideas but keep the 'follow this campaign path for the next 6 months' crap to a minimum ok?

Barking Alien

trollsmyth said...

Why is the guy in the second picture getting ready to throw a cat?

That guy is Cambyses II, king of Persia. He'd asked the king of Egypt to send him one of his daughters to serve as Cambyses' concubine. The king of Egypt, not wanting his daughter to suffer such a fate, instead sent another woman, the daughter of the previous king. She, of course, told Cambyses who she was. Incensed by this deception, Cambyses invaded Egypt.

While Cambyses apparently had a yin for Egyptian girls, he thought the Egyptians were a bunch of silly, superstitious nuts. He knew that Egyptians venerated cats, and would save a cat from a burning building before themselves. So he had his soldiers paint images of the cat goddess Bastet on their shields (probably the first example of using Hello Kitty in a culturally jarring manner, but certainly not the last). He also had his soldiers drive herds of cats, dogs, ibeses, sheep, and any other animal he could get his hands on that he knew the Egyptians held sacred, before his army. He gave credit to this psychological warfare for his victory over the Egyptians, and afterwards taunted the defeated Egyptian army by tossing live cats at them.

This picture kinda conflates the two parts of the story, showing him throwing cats at cowering, but still fighting, Egyptian soldiers.

(As for the daughter, I'm not sure we hear what happened to her. By the time Cambyses arrives in Egypt, the king who had sent the wrong girl was dead and his son was on the throne. His son was publicly executed, while his daughter was forced to dress as a slave and fetch water in a public display to humiliate the king. The corpse of the king who sent the wrong girl was exhumed, tortured, and finally burnt.)

Cambyses' disdain for Egyptian religion didn't stop there, and included the actual slaughter of a sacred cow. According to the Egyptians, it was this act which eventually drove him mad and led to his own murder.