Curabel Setting

Mountains: More than a Speed-bump, less than Survivalist Porn?

Recently, my AD&D 1E campaign involved some travel and exploration within a mountain range, including scaling one particular peak in search of a dragon’s lair. My preparation suggested two possible approaches to mountaineering by-the-book: the dry application of a movement speed penalty (DMG) or a hyper-realistic treatment that assumes both a detailed area map and skill system that I don’t use (Wilderness Survival Guide). Faced with those extremes, I decided to put together my own system that offered a bit more than a speed bump but still adhered to the “keep it simple” ethos of early editions and the OSR. I make no claims to realism or balance, but it worked pretty well for a couple of sessions and can probably be modified to cover other “hazardous terrain” situations.

Mountain Terrain Assumptions: Movement and Time

  • Movement across mountainous terrain: 1/4 Speed
  • Climbing Mountains (Average): 4 hours to tree line; 6 hours from tree line to peak

Mountain Exploration Process

Below the Tree Line

  1. In addition to normal encounter checks, roll a d6 for each hour of the climb
  2. On a result of 6, the party encounters a special event; roll 2d6 on the event table below
  3. Roll another d6 to determine which turn within the hour the event occurs

Above the Tree Line

  1. In addition to normal encounter checks, roll d6 for each hour of the climb
  2. On a result of 5 or 6, the party encounters a special event; roll 2d6 on the event table below
  3. Roll another d6 to determine which turn within the hour the event occurs
  4. Roll another d6 to determine if the special event coincides with an encounter

Special Event Table

2 Rock slide! All party members save vs. paralyzation or tumble 10′ (d6 damage); save again or continue tumbling d4x10′ (4d6 damage); repeat until dead or successful save.
3 Path split by chasm with no obvious means of crossing; width of chasm is 4d6x10′ (add another d6 for every result of 6); depth of chasm is 8d6x10′ (add another d6 for every result of 6)
4 Path split by chasm with weathered bridge (20% chance it is a rusted automaton collapsed to form bridge); roll d6 for each character crossing — on the second result of 6, save vs. paralyzation or fall unless secured (see above for width/depth of chasm)
5 Path obliterated by rock slide creating treacherous terrain; d6 for each character crossing and save vs. paralyzation for all fails or tumble 10′ (d6 damage); save again or continue tumbling d4x10′ (4d6 damage), etc.
6 Sheer wall impedes progress; thief or grappling hook needed to scale with rope required for others to follow (height of face: 4d6x10′, rolling again for each 6 result); if no means of ascent, an hour detour to find alternative route.
7 Sheer wall with overhang impedes progress; thief or grappling hook to scale (thief skill at -15%) and rope needed for others to follow (see above for height of face); if no means of ascent, an hour detour to find alternative route.
8 Cave with 60% chance of lair (roll on random encounter table immediately); 20% chance that cave is a shortcut to higher/lower area, cutting off one hour of travel.
9 Drop-off next to path leaving only a narrow ledge; roll d6 for each character passing and on third result of 6, save vs. paralyzation or lose footing; fall is 8d6x10′, rolling again for each result of 6.
10 Path split by swift-moving stream cascading down mountain; treacherous footing means d6 roll for each character crossing with every 2nd result of 6 requiring a save vs. paralyzation or fall (d4x10′ distance).
11 Exposed section of path where wind whips around mountain; cannot effectively communicate for d6 turns, otherwise safe.
12 Large rock dislodged from above path; randomly determine targets in character group and roll to hit as 7HD monster (can target any number of targets within 10′ of each other); 2d6 damage on hit and save vs. paralyzation to avoid fall (d4x10′ feet)

Notes on Table:

  • Improvise strength check if characters tied together with rope and some succeed and others fail required saves
  • Cross off events as used; replace table items as needed with new events between game sessions
  • Above tree line, roll for random encounter with special event (i.e., ambushes utilizing special event feature)

Some Considerations

All of this is meant to be random and loose — and that also means there will be a lot of minutiae to adjudicate in the moment. Still, I found this more satisfying than just making the trip take longer or needing to map out the entire mountain and place interesting features ahead of time.

Cover of Saddle-stitch print version

Luka Rejec’s beautiful cover in the flesh!

Having approved the proofs from both DrivethruRPG and Lulu.com, my low-level OSR adventure module is now available in print from those vendors. I am quite happy with this as someone who, while regularly purchasing PDF resources, only makes use of things for which I have physical copies. As someone who has worked in digital publishing for more than a decade and whose dissertation was written in XML before that was cool, my Luddite tendencies when it comes to books sometimes surprises even me — heck, I’ve never managed to read in eBook in all the years that I have been producing them for a paycheck!

Leaving aside issues of hypocrisy or technophobia, though, there are some real reasons to check out the print version of Automata Run Amok. Chief among these is that the map key portions of the module (see my previous post) were arranged on purpose to take advantage of the two-page spread. That explains the following features:

Interior spread from Saddle-stitch print version

Interior spread (Map Key)

  1. The map key portions of the module are oriented differently than the rest of the adventure (landscape versus portrait) and the spreads are flipped so that you can turn the book and read straight down across the gutter.
  2. All keying information appears on the same spread as the relevant mini-map (the map appearing in the top-left of the spread when you hold the book sideways).
  3. Visual information trackers and commentary for section of the map key always appear at the lower-right of the page spread.

While I have been happy with the comments on the layout of the PDF version to date, I think these choices show my print prejudice and my future publications will likely save these flourishes for a print-only layout since they add little to the reader’s experience when viewed in a digital format. Lesson learned!

Links to Print Versions

Detail of illustration by Luka Rejec

Let’s take a look under the hood … (Art by Luka Rejec)

Last week I published my first RPG product, an OSR module entitled Automata Run Amok designed to be an introductory adventure for low-level characters. I’ve been pleased with the reception so far and, barring unforeseen circumstances, there will be a much more substantive follow-up publication next year. Before going to work on that new project, though, I thought it might be good to discuss explicitly some of the design choices that shaped Automata. This post is the first in a series to tackle that subject and it focuses on that topic of perennial debate at the heart of most modules: map keys.

Platonic vs. Aristotelian Map Keys

There seem to be two schools of thought on keying maps for published RPG adventures. In more traditional products, like many of those created in the early days of the hobby by TSR, map keys read like the authors were transcribing the platonic ideal of a play-through for that module: copious text lays out the details of each location with the assumption that every Dungeon Master aims for the same tone and style of information management, that the DM has carefully read and at committed much of the product to memory, and that the group consists of well-behaved players who will dutifully listen to and absorb those details before acting. Everything needed to run the location is present, somewhere in the text, but there’s very little indication that the writers concerned themselves with the realities of variable humans interacting with their creations in real-time. An example of this would be the key entry for the Earth Temple in The Temple of Elemental Evil:

Example Page for The Temple of Elemental Evil

May Zuggtmoy help you if you need to know who and what is in the Earth Temple quickly while running ToEE …

The alternative to this ‘Platonic ideal’ approach is what I guess could playfully be described as Aristotelian — an empirical approach to map key information design based on observation and direct experience of what really happens at the gaming table. There have likely been examples of this throughout the history of the hobby, but the explosion of small publishers and other hobbyists dissecting and philosophizing about RPG design has intensified the drive to innovate the map key. Of course, like anything based on observation and direct experience, this innovation has led to a number of competing and idiosyncratic approaches. I will not even attempt to describe this variety except to say that, generally, these methods favor the hierarchical arrangement of information based on its perceived importance to play and the use of formatting to provide visual cues so DMs can quickly parse what is being presented. My work in Automata Run Amok borrows shamelessly from what I feel to be the best examples of this ‘Aristotelian’ map key design, distilling the practices and recommendations I have encountered over the last few years into what I hope is something solidly useful if not innovative.

Dissecting a Map Entry from Automata Run Amok

So, what does it mean in practical terms for my module to employ ‘Aristotelian’ map key design? That will be easier to explain by grounding the discussion in a specific example from the publication and then explicating how it embodies my design philosophy. Let’s look at the first entry in the key, which describes the public part of a tinkerer-wizard’s shop that has been overrun by out-of-control automata:

Map Key example for Automata Run Amok

Some Aristotelian Key Entries (Click to Enlarge)

This makes an excellent example for three reasons: there is quite a lot of stuff for characters to investigate, its default state is rather static in terms of opposing NPCs and monsters, and it integrates some non-key elements of the module like its random tables and timeline. Even before diving into those details, though, notice how certain items are called out using color or styling (i.e., italics and bold-face) while the key entry largely consists sub-headings and bullet lists to create a clear hierarchy of information. Comparison with the entry for the second room shows that this layout is consistent so that, once the Dungeon Master learns the module’s visual vocabulary, he or she knows everything necessary to parse subsequent entries on-the-fly.

Now let’s walk through each element of the entry:

  • Room number, name, and dimensions (larger red font): As the only non-black font in the module, the red titles for each entry clearly divide up the key’s entries instead of relying on spacing alone to convey this information. This allows the DM to find the entry’s beginning quickly and jump back-and-forth between the text and map without losing his or her place. The number’s purpose should be self-explanatory, while the name of the room simultaneously provides a shorthand indication of what kind of location is being described and makes sure there’s enough text for the red font to stand out. Finally, the dimensions are given in the top line since the player group’s mapper (remember, this is an OSR module!) will need this information. My habit when Dungeon Mastering is to give mappers the information they need early in the description unless there is a logical reason — such as a huge chamber or attacking monsters — that would prevent someone from quickly eyeballing the size of the room. That allows them time to sketch and revise even if the party is prone to moving along quickly from location to location.
  • Brief evocative phrase (italic font): Quite a bit of the debate surrounding RPG map keys involves boxed text and I tend to agree with the argument that blocks of read-aloud for the DM are largely useless or even counter-productive at the table. It constrains the tone of the game to whatever the module author thinks is appropriate for a “typical” group and assumes a level of patience and attention to detail among players that I have rarely encountered in an individual let alone an entire party. However, ditching boxed text does limit the module author’s opportunities to convey the non-visual elements of a room that would be immediately evident — its smell, sounds, and general feel. My compromise is this evocative phrase, which describes the flavor of the room yet still allows the DM to couch that information in whatever tone or style fits their gaming group. For example, this particular room has “shelves of arcana and pungent herbs” — in other words, it’s a crowded shop of curios of mysterious origin suffused with the smells of magical ingredients. My opinion is that a DM doesn’t need more than this to describe the room in appropriate terms according to the needs and attention span of their player group.
  • Subsection detailing room occupants (if any; bold-face header with bullet list of details): Once the DM has been given the top-level information about the room’s dimensions and feel, the module’s key consists of subsections presenting information in a hierarchical list from most to least important. Since the first thing players (and DMs) will want to know is whether a room contains living creatures to either speak with or kill, those are covered in the first subsection entitled “Occupants.” The shop room in the key above is typically unoccupied, but this subsection is still present because there is a chance of encountering monsters (monkey automata) or NPCs (robbers) as the adventure’s timeline, as outlined earlier in the module, advances. When appropriate, this description of the room’s occupants will also cover the likely reactions along with references to the module’s bestiary. A good example of this comes from the alchemy chamber later in the module:

Occupants:
• The first time the party enters the tower, a single monkey automaton (AC:6; HD:1+1; #ATT:2; DAM:d6; Bestiary 1) is in this chamber collecting the last two acid vials (the remainder are already piled on the catwalk near the ladder). Hearing the group enter, it will climb the wall and perch above the door – making a last few squeaks in the process
• When the first party member enters the room, the monkey will attempt a surprise attack and toss one of its acid vials (2d4HP direct damage; 1HP splash within 1’). Any counterattack will cause it to scamper over to the other side of the wall and toss another vial; a successful counterattack will cause it to leap onto the catwalk (which provides 25% cover from missile attacks)

  • Subsection listing and describing exits (bold-face header with bullet list of details): Once the players know whether there’s anything in the room, the next thing they need to know is where the available exits are located and whether those exits are barred, locked, or otherwise impeded. This is also the next thing the party mapper will need to know once the outline of the room is sketched and therefore appears towards the beginning of the entry.
  • Series of subsections listing items of interest (bold-face headers with bullet lists of details): The last thing a DM must provide players is a list of miscellaneous items within the room that can be interacted with or investigated. My intention here is that only the headers would be shared during the initial room description and that the additional information detailed in the bullet lists would only be disclosed if the party spends time (i.e., expends resources) to look more closely at the item in question. So, in our example, the DM would let the party know that there are shelves covered in items, a counter, and a closet in the shop. In most cases, I imagine, the party will be interested in seeing exactly what’s on the shelves and choose to spend a turn investigating those; at that point only they would learn that these contain objects “artfully arranged to look cluttered with no labeling,” including several large crystals (one of which is valuable), spell components if a magic user is doing the searching, and something special from the random magic item table. Similarly, if the party or member thereof spends a turn investigating the counter, they will find the shelf underneath with the book and money-box.

So that basically demonstrates my Aristotelian style of map keying, which leverages visual cues and the hierarchical presentation of information to make running the adventure at the table a smoother experience requiring less preparation. The page layout supports the structure of the key entries, with each two-page spread in the module containing all the entries relevant to the map (an innovation lifted from Maze of the Blue Medusa) and trackers with check-boxes and blanks for the DM to note the passage of time, defeat of enemies, and other changes to the location (suggested by my editor and illustrator, Luka Rejec). When printed out, all of this information would be visible at once and (hopefully) easy to interpret even with the reality of excited players, imperfect recall of module details, and a tone that in my experience inevitably oscillates between epic and farce.

Quick Summary of Map Keying Practices

  1. Consistent ‘visual vocabulary’ across all map key entries
  2. Hierarchical presentation of information (from possible threats to miscellaneous objects to investigate)
  3. Front-loading of information for mapper (dimensions and exits)
  4. Use of ‘evocative phrase’ as substitute for boxed text to convey non-visual information not specifically associated with items in the room (i.e., the ‘flavor’ of the location)
  5. Subsections for each item in the room with which players can interact; bullet list details only shared with players if they expend resources (time, light source, random encounter rolls, etc.)
  6. All key entries appear on same two-page spread as map that references them along with visual tracking tools to keep track of monsters defeated and similar things

[If any of this sounds interesting, please pick up a PWYW copy of Automata Run Amok at DrivethruRPG; if you have any feedback — including reviews — please let me know!]

automata-title-pageThis blog has suffered severe neglect in recent months, although my RPG-related activities have continued unabated. Besides my ongoing first edition campaign (which recently surpassed five hundred hours of play), I have also been working hard on converting some of that game’s early adventures into publications. The first such adventure is the incident at the tinkerer-wizard Talessin’s tower (see the annotated play reports: first session and second session).

That work is now complete and my first adventure module, Automata Run Amok, has gone live on DriveThruRPG as a PDF with print versions to follow as soon as possible both there and on Lulu.com (spiral bound in the latter case!). This module is being offered for free (PWYW) as an appetizer for what I hope to be a series of publications. Here’s the marketing copy blurb for this adventure:

Out-of-Control automata have driven a wizard from his shop. He would like the PCs to solve the problem (without damaging his creations) while his rival will pay for evidence of the wizard’s dabbling in forbidden knowledge.

This is an adventure suitable for four to five low-level characters written to be compatible with OSRIC and early editions of the world’s most popular RPG.  In addition to full details on a tinkerer-wizard’s tower overrun by rampaging automata, this module includes:

  • Random tables to generate elements of a bustling port city situated in the tropics and titles for books on both magic and techno-magic
  • Twenty unique magical items of variable usefulness and danger with which to tempt players
  • Several unique NPCs and monsters, from a clock maker revolutionary to a brain floating in a machine animated by the spirit of a long-dead racist dwarf
  • Eight illustrations by the wondefully talented Luka Rejec

This twenty-page adventure should provide between four and eight hours of Old School fun. Enjoy!

Here’s a link to the page to “purchase” and download the module.

Earlier this week, Richard LeBlanc shared his OSR time tracking tool on G+. It was an excellent resource, but not quite what I needed for my current campaign. Using his sheet as a model, though, I decided to create my own version optimized for dungeon exploration in the ongoing AD&D 1E campaign detailed elsewhere on this blog (I will likely create another specialized sheet the next time the group embarks on wilderness adventures). Creating the tracker specifically for my campaign allowed me to highlight those exploration activities I find myself most often needing to record as well as add sections for tracking rounds.

CurabelTimeTracker

Link to PDF: CurabelTimeTracker

Link to Adobe Illustrator File: Google Drive

Here is a quick explanation of the document’s contents:

  • The header allows the DM to record the date (both real and according to the in-game calendar), adventure location, and campaign session number. My own inclination is to use a new sheet each session. I make a quick G+ community post with various bookkeeping information the day after a session, and this tracker has already proven easier to use then tally marks on notebook paper (not to mention the greater granularity of information).
  • Below the header is the first major section of the sheet (each section being indicated by double horizontal lines). This first area is for recording the time spent on activities typically measured in turn increments. As with Richard’s sheet, I use six-piece pies (each representing one hour of in-game time divvied up into ten minute turns). However, instead of generic recording forms that could used for any activity, I went ahead and created dedicated subsections for the specific activities I tend to track: Exploration (i.e., movement), in-depth area searches, casual examination of areas, resting, treasure collecting, destroying doors, memorizing spells, ten round combats, and spells. A few of the activities I am less likely to mark as distinct activities are grouped based on the typical time they take to complete.
  • Next, the middle section of the sheet has areas to record activities that most often take place in increments of one round (i.e., minute) divvied up into blocks of ten — which would be equivalent to a pie slice in the upper area. I wanted somewhere to record this information in the tracker document because these one minute activities tend to add up but often happen in fractions of one turn. A great example of this are listening checks — if you have six rounds of combat and four listen checks spread across a four-hour gaming session, that’s equivalent to a turn and there should be an easy way to track that alongside those activities that are normally a full turn in length.
  • Finally, the bottom section of the document has places for recording the use of limited resources such as light, rations, water, and spells. Light and spells are setup to allow turn-based recording, while the rations and water are simple check-boxes since they are normally exhausted at a rate of one per day for each adventurer.

Fully aware that this document is derivative of Richard LeBlanc’s original and specialized to reflect the peculiarities of my campaign, I still hope there are some who find it useful.

Jungle River, by i_netgrafx

Jungle River, by i_netgrafx

[This is the seventh post in a series dissecting the campaign ‘bible’ document I drafted while planning my AD&D 1e campaign. See here for an introduction to this series of posts.]

Island Hopping: Adventure Locales

The last section of the campaign ‘bible’ detailing the physical aspects of the Curabel setting consists of a collection of minor islands that were intended to provide several different adventure locales for my players. However, I have not done much with any of the setting’s locations outside of Curmidden (the central island) since it has provided more than enough room for adventure through seventy-six sessions. This means that, with the exception of Lonely Isle, there is not much to say about these locations other than in terms of my original intentions in creating them.

Curabel

This island is where Imperials first landed. Now called Watcher’s Island, though no permanent settlement has existed here is more than a century.

My campaign has featured some intrigue involving the human empire located across the ocean to the east (albeit not as much recently), but the Watchers mentioned in this brief description have not been a presence at all. It was my thought that, if this semi-secret cabal dedicated to protecting the islands from Imperials had interacted with the party more, the existence of an unsettled island that this group intermittently occupies and located at the eastern end of the archipelago might prove an interesting adventure locale.

Serpent’s Tooth

This island is one of the most inhospitable of the islands, although ancient ruins still draw adventurers. There is one permanent settlement on the island’s western coast called “Poison Spit” that serves as the launching point for most expeditions into the interior. Most residents of this town are native humans who have been fishing the waters here since the ancient dwarven empire, although each failed expedition tends to add a few survivors to the local population.

Conceived as an area for higher-level adventure in a truly wild jungle setting, it hasn’t been necessary to flesh this island out any more than the above blurb. The dwarven ruins, imperial forts, and jungles of Curmidden have been sufficient to occupy the players to date. A secondary campaign that I run for middle school students (my wife is their teacher) will be headed here soon, though, so I will have a chance to fill in some of the blanks.

Crescent Isle

This is the breadbasket of the islands and home to the second-largest human city-state, Feldmark. Compared to Midmark on Curmidden, Feldmark is a small town with a modest harbor. There is not the same strict division between districts and modest residences can be found side-by-side with industrial and civic buildings.

The Feldmark city-state was intended to serve as a foil to the larger metropolis of Midmark — an agrarian society with stronger democratic (as opposed to aristocratic) traditions. However, neither of my campaigns have delved much into the tensions between the various human city-states. It is possible that this will change in my primary campaign, though, when the United Council of the Marks (mentioned later in the campaign bible) has their annual meeting in two months in-game time.

Agmar’s Folly

This island was a thriving rival to Midland and Crescent Isle until all the settlers disappeared under mysterious circumstances several decades ago. It is now avoided by all but the most desperate scavengers and pirates.

Somewhat of an homage to the Lost Colony of Roanoke, this locale was created as a straightforward adventure hook — a mystery for the players to solve, whether they sought it out on purpose or found themselves there while interacting with “scavengers and pirates.” I strongly suspect, though, that my players feel they have more than enough mystery on their plate right now between imperial spies, ancient dwarven gods that are less dead than previously thought, and slavery rings tied to corrupt guild, companies, and politicians on Curmidden.

Lonely Isle

This is a blasted and desolate island is often subject to geological instability.

It figures that this blank slate of an island, which just has a vague hint of adventure related to its “geological instability,” has become the one location on this list that figures prominently in my primary campaign. Part of this was anticipated during the initial design of the setting when I decided this island was an important location for the ancient dwarven empire that my players have been doggedly investigating. However, there was also a bit of serendipity owing to collaboration with one player who wanted to play a monk. Originally, this class was not part of my conception for the setting, but, since it was never explicitly banned from the campaign, I let this player help integrate it into the world. During that process, we decided together that this island would be the original headquarters of the Order of the Celestial Dragon, a fierce anti-imperial counter-espionage force. This Order recently abandoned their headquarters, though, in a diaspora intended to be an opportunity to find a more appropriate home after the island was overrun by a company interested in mining its resources. This company is the same one involved with the slavery ring and other shady business and its very likely that the campaign will eventually make its way to this location.

One last note on this collaborative world-building: typically, I am not a fan of letting the players contribute to the design of a campaign setting. The world and how it works is part of the mystery that players uncover as they play and that mystery is impossible to have if the eventual investigators design it. In this case, however, I was able to give the player the ability to make certain choices — like the name of the order and its headquarters — without telling him the significance of those choices or how they fit into the world (i.e., that the location was an important site already and that the order was a ‘reformed’ offshoot of the dervishes who served the human empire). In essence, the player chose some facts but I gave them the significance. This has happened a few more times in the campaign since then and I will definitely be experimenting with this approach more in the future.

Detailing the Heavens Above: Basic Cosmology

  1. Meidia has a single sun that travels east to west. Curabel’s days and nights are roughly equal year-round given its proximity to the equator.
  2. Meidia has two moons:
    1. Imperial: Cinthal, Cinmar (Shadow-son and Shadow-daughter)
    2. Dwarven: Fathil, Fatha (Dark hunter and Dark huntress)
    3. Elven: Mithilun, Cithilun (Silver-lady and Dark-lady)
  3. Currents and winds run east to west; since Midland straddles the equator, currents break to the north on islands north of that island and south to the south (on the eastward side) and flow around the top and then back either south or north (on the westward side)
  4. Storms are frequent but generally mild in this equatorial region
Suraya Bay at Night

Suraya Bay at Night

There is not too much to say about this bit of the campaign bible. With the exception of the double moons, most of these details reflect with information taken from the Wilderness Survival Guide or my own research into the tropical islands/climes. Looking back on the names of those moons, though, I am reminded of a linguistic connection intended between the imperial and Elven nomenclature — specifically the purposeful similarity between the “Cin” element in one and “Cith” in the other. This builds on the bit of historical lore I drafted about how the empire’s home in the east originally belonged to the elves before that latter groups conquest and exile to Curabel.

Quick Note About Upcoming Installments in this Series:

The next section of the campaign bible is about the setting’s various races. This is information I have covered already in my discussion of the individual islands in Curabel (see the posts on humans, elves, and dwarves). Rather than skip this section, though, I will be revisiting the peoples of Curabel and posting some tables of random backgrounds for new player characters that take into account both race and island of origin.

Temple Ruins (Ta Prohm in Cambodia was built by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university)

Temple Ruins (Ta Prohm in Cambodia was built by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university)

[This is the first post in a series of session summaries (i.e., play reports) for the first campaign I have run in the Curabel setting. Each summary was written by one of the players, but I am adding my own ‘DM Annotations’ on these write-ups before uploading them here. These annotations will mostly call attention to bits of the summaries that will be significant later in the campaign (with links to relevant summaries to follow as they are posted) or else explain my rational for my game-mastering choices.

Please note that the summary will be displayed as regular text and my annotations as block quotes throughout.]

Session 1:

This summary was written by Larry, who plays the dwarf Thorfus. This was fortuitous because his detailed notes set a high standard for subsequent summaries and (I think) inspired the other players to be more observant. He has a blog on old school role-playing at http://followmeanddie.com.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014.

With the exception of a couple of vacations and one or two weeks when there were not enough players for a quorum, we have played every Wednesday for four hours since the campaign’s inception over a year ago. I don’t like cancelling sessions because I want the expectation on the part of players to be that the game is happening regularly and that nothing less than an extraordinary circumstance will keep me from being there. Since I’m not one to harangue players about attendance, this is my way of making the point by example.

Starring:

  • James: Sthorm (thief) dwarf

Australian who stayed with the campaign for the first dozen or so sessions. He had some role-playing experience, if I remember correctly, although not necessarily with AD&D 1e.

  • Brian: Ir’Alle (cleric) Human

U.S. player with a good bit of RPG experience, although not necessarily old school AD&D. He stayed with the campaign for at least the first twenty sessions and returned for another five or so later on.

  • Riese: Galron (paladin) Human

Youngest player who had tried various RPGs, but also had some bad experiences. He is still officially part of the campaign 70+ sessions in, although he hasn’t attended recently since starting college.

  • Larry: Thorfus (fighter) dwarf

U.S. player with quite a bit of experience with 1e AD&D (the most in the group). He is still playing and quickly became the closest thing to the party’s leader/caller.

  • Antony: Axel (fighter) dwarf

U.K. player with no tabletop RPG experience that is still playing. He quickly picked up good habits, though, and I often forget that he hasn’t been playing for decades.

  • Scott/tzx: Uthruk (fighter) half-orc

U.S. player with a good deal of RPG experience who disappeared after the first session. He came back a year later, though, and rejoined with the same character for another dozen or so sessions.

Summary

The hearty adventurers met on a ship going to the island of Midland and its capital and largest city, Midmark.

The hearty adventurers met on a ship: A useful introductory gambit: no one is from the starting location or has unique background knowledge immediately relevant to the campaign (everyone is a greenhorn); not quite the cliché that the tavern meeting is but still provides a logical reason for the party to form – they’re trapped for at least a couple of days on the ship and so talked about their plans in the big city.

We were awakened to what we thought were sailors making ready to dock, but it was actually the crew rescuing the 4 survivors of a wrecked and burning ship. The wrecked ship was attacked by a devil fish not more than an hour before our ship came upon them.

The wrecked ship was attacked by a devil fish: A couple of things here: first, this signals that the world is alive and that things happen even when the party isn’t there to do anything about it. By the time the group arrives, there’s nobody to fight, just miserable people who were victims of some monstrous evil. Second, this foreshadows likely events in the campaign (assuming the party bites on the “starter” dungeon I’ve created) and provides some context for a decision they will need to make there.

After a few more hours we entered the great harbor of the biggest city we had ever seen. The harbor was a forest of masts and rigging and ships of all sizes. The first thing we noticed about the harbor was the smell of tar, giving it the popular name of the Tar-Water.

In the middle of the harbor is an artificial island with foundries belching smoke and dry docks building the ships that make Midland the merchant power of the islands.

Medieval Port by Kurobo

Medieval Port by Kurobo

The docks were packed with people milling, walking and boarding and de-boarding ships. There are huge cranes for loading and offloading cargo. The docks are very high above the water, since with two moons there is a rare double high-tide.

the great harbor … for loading and offloading cargo: I actually wrote out the initial description of the city and its harbor long-hand – this was going to be the base of operations for the party for a while in all likelihood and this was my chance to introduce what was the equivalent of a key NPC. The description itself borrowed heavily from both historical and fictional accounts of Amsterdam during the eighteenth century – especially Neal Stephenson’s work in the novel Quicksilver. As the kind-of sort-of capital of colonial humans in Curabel, who can be described as being like former employees of the world’s Dutch East India Company who became revolutionaries, this seemed appropriate.

docks are very high … rare double high-tide: I did want a little bit of the fantastic to show in the description – although, keeping with my penchant for Gygaxian realism, this expresses itself in terms of how the forces of civilization normalize and assimilate the fantastic in order to function.

A sailor on our ship told us that people at the docks were all the time putting together expeditions to the other islands.

Before we docked, we were met by a boat with one of the customs agents of the Harbor Master, Baswick (something). He told us the rules of the city, which sum up to stay out of trouble, no murder (self-defense is OK), and find work or we will find it for you. We noticed lots of indentured servants on the docks. Baswick then recorded various facts about us, name, where we are from, etc.

He told us the rules … find work: Setting some expectations in game – first, there will be consequences for the characters’ actions; second, the party needs to find something to do (no hand-holding or pre-canned adventure paths here).

We debark to the docks and notice lots of dirty children looking for work.

We asked around and were directed to a grizzled dwarf at a desk by a ship and a tall man next to him. The dwarf, Mortimer, had a golden helm with a built-in eye patch for a missing eye. He was readying an expedition to (the dangerous island). We decided not to sign up and he told us he wouldn’t hire us anyway. We decide to stay local to the island.

The dwarf, Mortimer … wouldn’t hire us anyway: More expectation setting: not every adventure hook is appropriate at every level. If the party had tried to sign-up, they would have had to beat Mortimer’s 5th-level fighter associate in wrestling/grappling. Given the house rules, this is almost (but not quite) impossible. If they had won, I would have let them join the expedition – and they probably would have died very quickly on that “dangerous island”.

We hear of another dwarf, Desric, who sends adventurers locally for dwarven artifacts. There is a hint that he can’t be trusted.

Galron, our paladin, picked out the dirtiest child he could find, who we couldn’t tell if his skin was black or he was just that filthy. Galron gave Efram a gold piece to lead us to Desrick’s. He said it was about an hour into the city. Other boys argued with Efram that he didn’t know the way, etc. Galron made clear we were going with Efram.

Other boys argued with Efram that he didn’t know the way: They said this – they also said not to trust Efram (much like the hint that Desric could not be trusted provided by his business rival, Mortimer). My goal here was to highlight the fact that the party was making a choice and weighing options. I was also showing them that my job wasn’t to tell them what to do or who to trust; they needed to decide based on what their character could see. In this case, they gave the NPC the benefit of the doubt – although they were also on guard for betrayal (which helped them anticipate the ambush mentioned below). Their paranoia has only increased since the beginning of the campaign.

We journeyed N/NW and noticed to the east the town had hills, cathedrals, castles, government buildings, etc. The area where we were had numerous warehouses, narrow streets, and few people.

Unfortunately, Efram appeared to get lost. We soon learned that this was a ploy and that his older brother, Gartric, and some friends had him guide the unwary into a tight street. We did not go down the dead end alley, but met them in an intersection.

Five of them came up to us demanding gold, thinking we were rich. We refused and battle ensued. We dropped three of them and the last two surrendered, but fled at mention of the constable. We patched up the wounded thieves, Galron healed the leader who we soon learned was Efram’s brother.

We patched up the wounded thieves: This turned out to be a serendipitous opportunity to show the group how their actions would have consequences. They could have simply killed the bandits, but instead made sure they would live (even leaving them at a temple for care and healing). Later, when the group’s thief, Sthorm, needed training, the gang/guild these ruffians belonged to would know about the group and have a better opinion of them because of these actions. Instead of making an enemy of “Cutter’s Mad-dogs,” they had a potential ally and resource.

We learned that there was a great canal running through the city, and there are only a few bridges where it can be crossed.

We encountered another shrine of the Ark and a cleric was present. We were all healed for some of our damage. The note entitled us to free healing for a service to the Ark. Normally, there would have been an expected donation.

The note entitled us…: This was an even more immediate consequence for the group’s merciful actions – which also happened to get healing to a low-level group with limited resources.

We finally reach Desric’s. It looked like a junk yard, with ancient dwarven artifacts in various states. Across from it is the Cock & Bull inn & tavern. We banged on the door until Desric let us in, it was early, but other businesses were open. He place was fulls of bits and pieces and lots of books. He told us he got word of an emergency at Talisin’s place. He told us that he was too old and tired to go out in the middle of the night. Desric said that Talisin was doing dangerous things and shouldn’t be meddling with what he was. Desric offered us 50 gold to bring him papers that explained the ancient dwarven automata that he was working with.

Desric offered us 50 gold…: Here is the introductory adventure’s hook – some quick money for looking into some shady business across town. It also introduces the first hint of politics of the world (in this case within the Tinkerers’ Guild) and the fact that there is quite a bit of interest in recovering and messing around with ancient doodads.

Desric told us that Talisin would probably be found at the Lucky Gam, if he was not at his place. He gave us directions to the Lucky Gam.

We find the tavern, and Talisin and two of his three students were with him. The missing student, Osric, has not been seen since last night.

Talisin explained that he and Desric are member’s of the Tinkerer’s Guild and that Talisin is secretary and that Desric wants his office. Talisin has hopes of doing something wondrous with the automatons and becoming president of the guild. We get the impression that Talisin is more honorable and tell him what Descric wanted. Talisin offers us 150 gold (was that right?) for each automaton that is not destroyed.

Talisin explained …: The party is now coming to expect that the initial story isn’t always the whole story and that they need to make judgement calls (see the Efram bit above). They are completely wrong here, but they’re at least being thoughtful (and trying to play NPCs against one another to get a better deal – a fine and profitable art in itself).

What happened is that he built three monkey creatures and two dwarven warrior [automata] without issue. The automaton he was working on last night needed one final piece. Often he has custom pieces made. This one was a custom piece and when put in place the automaton took over the others, he called it an Overseer. He said that if we removed the circlet from its dome, it would cease to control the others. Talisin said that it was directing the others to build more automatons.

This one was a custom piece … to build more automatons: I thought this was suitably unconventional, obviously worth the party’s time, but not too overwhelming “quest”. It also further added to the foreshadowing and preparation for the “starter”’ dungeon and what they would encounter there.

He gave us the key to his place. We explored his shop front and the lower level of the tower, then made our way up the stairs. We encountered a monkey creature in one room and it threw acid at us. Thorfus was the only one hit, but water stopped the acid from doing more damage. The rooms had no ceiling, so the monkey came over the wall, but did not follow us when we went through double doors that took us in to a workshop.

The rooms had no ceiling: It’s not so clear in the summary, but I wanted to make the first “adventure” location tactically interesting. Therefore, I imagined a multi-room workshop with ten-foot walls but a 30’ ceiling above all those smaller spaces. Above the walls was a metal walkway that Talissen would have used to watch his apprentices while they worked below without needing to go into each workshop room. Now, though, this openness became a tactical challenge when fighting mechanical monkeys that could climb the walls and gangway and throw acid.

We heard noise on the other side of the door, but as soon as we entered the noise of work stopped and we were faced with a monkey creature and a dwarven automaton. We could tell the monkey had been trying to put some gears together.

dwarven automaton: In this context, a automaton shaped like a dwarven warrior but taller (just a bit more than man-sized).

We tried to run past the dwarven automaton, some of the party made it, but Thorfus was hit and went down. Others in the party attacked. I believe it was Sthorm that hit the dwarven machine for a little damage, but Uthruk jumped off the gangway above us and hit it for enough damage that it stopped attacking, Galron lept down and grappled with the monkey creature and others helped him tie it up with wire that was there. Ir’Alle came to Thorfus’s aid and cast cure light wounds.

Uthruk jumped off the gangway … Galron lept down and grappled: This was a fortuitous event, as well. The first player, Scott, described what he wanted to do even though there were no clear 1e rules for “jump down off a gangway to stab an enemy.” We talked about it, though, and decided this would be a kind-of charge except that Uthruk would face more dire circumstances (being prone, fall damage, etc.) if he failed to hit. It worked, showing the group that creative thinking would be rewarded and that we would negotiate resolution mechanics for situations the books didn’t cover rather than artificially limit choices. This immediately inspired Riese (playing Galron) to try the grapple maneuver described next and many similar events in subsequent sessions.

Play then ceased for the night just after midnight.

A glorious time was had by all and we can’t wait to continue the adventure next week.

Dwarven Miners, from the AD&D 1e Players Handbookk

Dwarven Miners, from the AD&D 1e Players Handbook

[This is the sixth post in a series dissecting the campaign ‘bible’ document I drafted while planning my AD&D 1e campaign. See here for an introduction to this series of posts. One thought I’ve had is that I should create some random tables for generating customized backgrounds depending on a PCs race and home island. Rather than append that to this post and revise the previous ones, I will post something on this after completing the geographic and racial survey of the setting.]

An examination of the dwarves and their homeland on the southern island of Curasur (“South Island” as per the pseudo-Latinate imperial convention used elsewhere in the setting) has proven very difficult to write. Mostly, this is due to the central role the race and its history has taken in my current campaign – the nature and eventual fate of the dwarven race’s ancient kingdom has not been fully pieced together by the players and I don’t feel like spoiling one of the game’s mysteries here. There are some things, though, which I can reveal about my initial conception of dwarves in the campaign setting by discussing some of my inspirations. Here is the description of the dwarven homeland from the campaign bible document:

The “South Island” is the stronghold of the dwarves.[1] Originally known as Zur’Khel (Home Fortress), this is the ancestral home of all dwarves in Curabel and the seat of an empire that had ruled most of the isles up until several centuries before the Imperials arrived (the collapse of that empire is a mystery). Slavery and ill-treatment have soured the dwarves on outsiders in general. Elves call this island Silverhome (Mithrihal). This isle supplies metals and precious stones throughout Curabel.

[1] Note: Curasur technically refers to several of the southernmost islands (hence the plural construction). However, in common usage, the name refers to the largest of these islands.

Dwemer Cavern Concept Art (Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim)

Dwemer Cavern Concept Art (Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim)

A Symbiotic Relationship between Magic and Ancient Technology

The first big inspiration for the dwarves described above were the Dwemer elves in the Elder Scrolls series, both as something to borrow from and also react against. As the party in my campaign has discovered, the ancient dwarves once ruled the islands of Curabel and ruthlessly dominated and enslaved the native islanders using technology more advanced than anything the current civilizations of the islands possess. This clearly owes something to the Elder Scrolls series, as does the mysterious collapse of the dwarven empire two thousand years before the current campaign’s kickoff. However, unlike the Dwemer and most other dwarves, I didn’t like the idea of a major race being averse or indifferent to using magic – in fact, it just seems natural that the two would be combined by any powerful civilization that theoretically has access to both. The ancient dwarves of Curabel were therefore also the greatest mages known to the world because how could they not be if they were the undisputed rulers of the islands? In fact, while I have used some “steampunk” type contraptions and automata, the majority of the dwarven technical creations that have come up in the campaign have been magic-powered (or electrical, which amounts to the same thing).

Of course, I didn’t want to stray too far from any prospective players’ assumptions about the race (or those written into the rules as presented in the AD&D 1e core books). Therefore, I decided that whatever disaster had brought the dwarven empire to an end also soured the remnants on the techno-magic of their ancestors – making the “current” dwarves of the campaign world standard enough. Players could then have their “normal dwarves” (or perhaps “fallen dwarves”?) explore the more alien ancestors of their race if that interested them (and it certainly has).

A Clan of Fundamentalist Dwarves Confronting the Shortage of Females (Poor Dopey is Doomed to Be a "Lost Boy")

A Clan of Fundamentalist Dwarves Confronting the Shortage of Females (Poor Dopey is Doomed to Be a “Lost Boy”)

Patriarchal Fundamentalism as a Means to Create Adventurers

The other influence on the dwarves started with me considering the logical ramifications of the clichéd idea that dwarven women were rare. What would that mean for their society if we also assume it has the patriarchal clan structure often seen in standard fantasy settings? Musing on that subject led me to think of the so-called “lost boys” of fundamentalist Mormon sects (see Wikipedia for more information on this phenomenon). To terribly over-simplify things, a traditionalist society with an endemic surplus of men will often develop a system to excommunicate “extraneous” males so that the socially powerful have less competition for mates. In Curabel, that means the dwarves have a complex system of social expectations with often contradictory requirements so that punishments for violation can be enforced arbitrarily by the patriarchal leaders of the clans. Younger sons and dwarf boys from socially insignificant families can easily find themselves in violation of some of the arcane (in the non-magical sense) rules and therefore exiled  — which is, incidentally, a perfect way to create adventurers out of members of an otherwise insular society. While my current campaign in the setting hasn’t explored this idea in too much detail, the two dwarf player characters created backgrounds for themselves as an exiled heir to a clan leadership ousted by an uncle (think Hamlet) and the youngest son of an influential merchant. I imagine if they ever return to their homes, these “lost boy” issues might become more of an immediate concern.

So that’s the basic kernel of the idea behind the dwarves of Curabel: fundamentalist Mormons from Morrowind. More about the dwarves and their history has been revealed since the inception of the campaign, but I will discuss those as I post annotated session summaries (hopefully beginning next week).

[This is the fifth post in a series dissecting the campaign ‘bible’ document I drafted while planning my AD&D 1e campaign. See here for an introduction to this series of posts. Technically, this installment should have dealt with the dwarven settlements on the island of Curasaur, but that is a more involved post given how the campaign has panned out so far and needs more time to draft.]

The First Problem with Elves, or “How Elrond Destroys History”

 

High Elf Warriors, by Adrian Smith

High Elf Warriors, by Adrian Smith

As described in the first edition core books, elves are problematic for any campaign setting intended to have a historical background that is meaningful yet not overly deterministic. The core of this issue is made clear on page 13 of the DMG: a venerable high elf — the presumed standard elf as per page 16 of the PHB — with a bit of luck and healthy living can hope to see their 1500 (if not 1600) birthday. In other words, the default AD&D setting has NPCs running around who in our world could have been personal friends with King Hygelac of the Geats (d. 516 C.E.) long before his story was co-opted into Beowulf. Consider for just a moment how different our conception of history would be if eye-witnesses to fifteen or sixteen centuries were wandering around and able to answer our questions. Yes, yes … I know that elves are supposed to be aloof and insular with no concerns about the world outside their society because Tolkien said so, but aloof is not the same as ignorant. That’s not even getting into the question of why a race that must put up with the world for longer than anyone else would think it’s a good idea to sit back and let the chips fall where they may rather than actively seek to shape their environment.

In any event, it all boils down to the fact that by-the-book elves undermine our standard view of historical knowledge in which its possible to have competing narratives of events that only happened a couple hundred years ago and to be completely ignorant of basic information about life a thousand years ago. You want an ancient civilization that no one knows much about in your standard setting? It’s going to have to be many thousands of years since its fall or else your average elderly elf may have visited that civilization’s capital city in its heyday. For reasons that will become clearer as this series and the play reports to follow progress, this was not a satisfactory solution for me. Instead, I decided to peg the lifespan of high elves to the standard given for mountain dwarves, effectively chopping off a thousand years. That made it possible to have ancient history that was mysterious and yet not so ancient as to be meaningless. Now it was time to tackle the other Tolkien-inspired clichés.

The Second Problem with Elves, or “Can You Have Non-Apathetic Elves that Don’t Rule the World?”

Example of an elf less apathetic about the world

Example of an elf less apathetic about the world

AD&D elves have a lot in common with Tolkien elves and Tolkien elves are worn out from their endless struggles against evil. In the original context of The Silmarillion or Lord of the Rings, that makes perfect sense. Outside of that context, though, it is hard to justify the kind of apathy among elves that would lead to the human-centric world that is also an assumption of the AD&D rules. This is not really a great insight on my part — others have wrestled with this same issue and one common solution has been to depict elves as victims of the human race’s expansionist tendencies who now hang on the edges of society as a marginalized people (e.g., Dragon Age, The Witcher series). That’s not bad, but that solution is becoming a bit of a cliché in its own right and my solution was to assume that act of marginalization was in the Curabel setting’s past and to consider what a elven society that has come back from the brink of extinction at the hands of mankind would look like once the counter-revolution is over. In other words, what kind of society would those Bolshevik elves create once freed from the Tsarist oppression of a human empire.

The Northern Island: Elves as Political Exiles

The description of the elven homeland in Curabel is a succinct two paragaphs, but there my intention was to pack a lot of implied background into these lines:

Curanost
The “North Island,” originally designated a penal colony for elves, has now been adopted as the elven homeland in Curabel and rechristened Valhal (Wood home).[1] These elves are friendly with humans – especially descendants of the imperial colonists – but human forgetfulness of history sometimes strains that relationship. This isle supplies the great trees for ship masts throughout Curabel.

Vallande is the only city-state on Curanost – indeed, it is the only city of any size at all on the island. The city is notable for its lumber yards, sizable harbor, and plentiful parks.

[1] Note: Curanost technically refers to several of the northernmost islands (hence the plural construction used). However, in common usage, the name refers to the largest of the north islands.

Ostensibly, these paragraphs just tell players that the elves have taken the northernmost islands as their homeland and that they are generally friendly with humans. For the purposes of the campaign as played to date, that has been sufficient because my players seem much more partial to dwarves and their society/history. However, here are some of the hooks built into this description:

  • Elves are political exiles and Curabel is their penal colony. The unstated assumption here is that they were designated enemies of the human empire, hence their special closeness to the descendants of the imperial colonists who led the rebellion against that empire. This has come up in the ongoing campaign in the person of an Elven sage named Aldus Runnelbrook. Aldus, who now runs a bookstore, was a leader in the rebellion and responsible for organizing the underground presses turning out anti-imperial propaganda.
  • The Elves have a strained relationship at times with humans because that other race is forgetful. In other words, elves remember the revolutionary struggle vividly and oscillate between pitying and resenting the ability of their human allies to forget the danger posed by the bourgeoisie — sorry, I mean empire. Aldus, for instance, tends to be more understanding and councils his human descendants (from a second marriage to a human) to be watchful but merciful; his oldest son (from a first marriage to another elf) still feels the loss of his mother shortly after the rebellion strongly and is more warlike, recommending a policy of preemptive violence.
  • Their island is heavily forested, inspiring their renaming of the island and explaining the ongoing trade relationship with the sea-faring human city-states. This fits with the typical view of elves as a people more in touch with nature (even if the existence of massive lumber yards indicates a slightly more utilitarian ethos). However …
  • Note the mention of “plentiful parks” in the description of the only city-state on the island of Curanost. It seems like a throwaway fact, but my intention was to imply a underlying uneasiness among the elves in their new homeland — a place of wild tropical forests very different from the more temperate (and orderly) forests they lived in prior to exile. They are still closer to nature than humans, but they keep it at arm’s length because it is in some sense an alien environment. Their parks and gardens are a way to keep their past alive artificially amidst new surroundings much like many of them keep the past conflict with the imperials alive when others have begun to forget.

What this all adds up to is an elven race that is significantly shorter lived than the AD&D standard, deeply involved in the post-colonial era of the Curabel islands but ignorant of their history before that time, and somewhat preoccupied with both old grievances that other races don’t recall as vividly and memories of a former homeland to which they can never return. This answers my desire in the Curabel setting to have the history of the islands be important (i.e., not too ancient) but somewhat mysterious (or at least open to competing interpretations) while explaining how the elven race can be both deeply concerned about the course of history and active in shaping it without dominating the current society of the islands. It’s also convenient that the changes are subtle enough that most of your average player’s expectations for the race are still fulfilled despite these tweaks and that no special background information would need to be provided because the more significant ramifications of the changes would only impact older, NPC elves — the player could discover the small changes in the campaign setting’s conception of elves during play rather than through an info-dump during character creation.

[This is the (somewhat delayed) next post in a series dissecting the campaign ‘bible’ document I drafted while planning my AD&D 1e campaign. See here for an introduction to this series of posts.]

In Media Insulae

Jongkind-Johan-Barthold-View-on-harbour-Rotterdam-Sun

“View on Harbour Rotterdam Sun” by Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891)

After the introductory remarks on the Curabel’s geography, my campaign bible zooms in to consider each of the three largest islands in the archipelago. First among these locations is the central island of Midland, home of the most powerful human-dominated city-state and my eventual choice for kicking off the first campaign in the setting. Given that this would seem to be the most mundane and ‘realistic’ of the Curabel population centers, I actually spent a good bit of time considering how to subvert player expectations without losing grip of verisimilitude completely. The key to achieving this was imagining what a failed colony of an imperialistic and mercantile nation would look like — in other words, a thought experiment about it would have been like if a major outpost of something like the Dutch East India Company decided to declare its independence*:

The “Middle Island” was the administrative seat of the colonial government. After the rebellion, it became the seat of power for the strongest human city-state (Midmark – founded by the disaffected naval commander who led the rebel forces against the imperial armada). Called Midland now, this island still has the largest port and naval base in the isles. Elves call this island Valmor (Tree Grave; Val = tree, mor = death) in reference to the many ship masts swarming the harbors, while the dwarves call it Xen’Khel (Far Fortress) since it was once their northernmost settlement. This isle is home to a fleet of merchant ships that facilitate trade throughout Curabel.

Several facts that could be translated into adventure hooks are established here: first, this location will be a prime spot for players interested in embarking upon ship-based and other aquatic endeavors; second, ruins and other locations associated with the imperial occupation should be easily accessible from this location; third, ruins from the ancient dwarven empire would exist nearby but would be from that civilization’s frontier. At the same time, I once again managed to work in some pseudo-linguistics that both extend the logic of one language (the dwarven use of Germanic compounds somewhat like Old English kennings) and indirectly characterize another culture (the specific metaphor used by the elves invoking the old tree-hugging clichés of the fantasy genre that I will soon be complicating).

Looking back now, it was probably a foregone conclusion that Midland would become the jumping off point for my first campaign set in Curabel. The clearest evidence of this is the very next paragraph, the only instance in this high-level overview of the islands’ geography in which I start to sketch out the specifics of a settlement — the city-state of Midmark, City of Gulls and natural powder-keg for simmering animosities between descendants of the colonial rebels and their erstwhile native islander allies:

Midmark proper is a large city, often called the City of Gulls, on the island’s main bay. While it may be mid-sized in comparison to some mainland imperial harbors, it is by far the largest urban center in Curabel and boasts a plethora of shops and other adventurer amenities. The city is divided into several districts, although businesses related to sea-faring can be found in all but the most upscale areas.

Most likely I was only resistant to the idea of committing to Midmark as the first adventure location because conventional wisdom claims that the ideal is to start players in a small settlement with equally small problems so that they can gradually discover the larger world and its more serious problems as they advance in level and become better able to deal with the greater danger. Keep on the Borderlands and Village of Hommlet certainly suggest that pattern implicitly, and later editions of D&D turn that implicit endorsement into explicit advice. The City of Gulls, on the other hand, is the political center of the islands with its superior naval force and “plethora of shops.” The logic of the conventional wisdom would suggest that starting PCs would be overwhelmed by the dangers and intrigues of a large city or relegated to bit-part players in a location that must (logically) have far more powerful NPCs. Of course, that kind of worry about artificial balance and careful DM shepherding seems anathema to general OSR ethos — after all, why wouldn’t prospective adventurers head to the biggest urban center available to them? Also, wouldn’t these adventurers be more likely to find employment opportunities commensurate to their skill level in a place where the forces of civilization have already eliminated the most hazardous dangers (if we exclude for a moment those more subtle dangers made possible by the mechanisms of civilization)? In fact, the next paragraph lays out a rationale for why a starting location near the center of civilization can make sense for low-level PCs:

In addition to Midmark, the dwarven fortress of Xenilum’Khel (“Second Farthest Fortress”) is located in a mountain called Ramithil on the western side of the large bay. It is new and relatively small relative to the great dwarven khels of Curasur; it is also very friendly with Midmark and travel/trade between the settlements is brisk. Further inland there is an older, abandoned dwarven fortress called Xen’Khel (“Far Fortress”) that has been picked over extensively by adventurous humans from Midmark and inquisitive dwarves from Xenilum’Khel. It is widely believed that the dwarves built their new fortress for more convenient access to the water and trade, but some voices whisper of dark secrets locked in ancient halls beneath Xen’Khel that have never been penetrated by post-imperial explorers.

Leaving aside for a moment the active dwarven settlement, a mega-dungeon in close proximity to a large city that has been picked over by previous adventurers seems no less appropriate for low-level PCs than a compact but pristine adventure site within walking distance from some backwater hamlet. In truth, though, I didn’t even need to go as far afield as Xen’Khel to provide adventure sites for my players and at this point in the campaign (50+ sessions) they will most likely be skipping those previously looted ruins for the “dark secrets locked in ancient halls.”

* One of the big inspirations for Midmark was the Neil Stephenson’s depiction of Amsterdam in his novel Quicksilver — in fact, many of my notes for the campaign’s first session borrowed imagery and language from that book (I especially liked the floating shipyard he describes). Amsterdam, of course, is the exact opposite of a company outpost but I would like to think it’s reasonable that if a Dutch East India Company settlement on the other side of the world did declare independence and slowly built up their own naval-centric city-state over a couple of centuries they would almost certainly end up mimicking their one-time home.

[Next in the series: Why AD&D’s standard, Tolkien-inspired elves undermine attempts to make a setting’s history meaningful yet mysterious and how I solved that problem while turning the race into Bolshevik-like political exiles]