Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Too Many Campaign Worlds - Analyzing 20 Years of Campaigning in Various Editions of D&D and Pathfinder


I did a little number crunching last night, and while I have no doubt skewed this a bit I found it interesting to determine that my most used campaign world is Realms of Chirak, by a wide margin, over the last 20 or so years (a number picked because prior to 2001 there were only 2 campaign worlds and one game system: AD&D). Realms of Chirak has been the center of at least 21 significant campaigns since 2001, most of which were medium or long in length (meaning lasting 5-10 or up to 15+ levels in development, respectively, which is typically 6 months to a year of play or more). One campaign, now retired, made it all the way to level 27 in D&D 3.5 back in the day, and ran across multiple editions over a period of 14 years.

#2 is Lingusia, which as my original and most venerable campaigns has seen the most transformation and revivals, in that I have three timelines/epochs of play, and it rests squarely at about 11 campaigns in the last 20 years. At least one of those campaigns (Warlords of Lingusia) retroactively became non-canon after a change in the timeline instigated by the players.

#3 is Enzada, with 7 campaigns since roughly 2010. Unlike Chirak, which started in 1992 as a Runequest campaign that then migrated to AD&D 2E where it took off on a wild roller coaster ride, and unlike Lingusia which started in 1981 as my default AD&D world, Enzada was custom built to be the core setting for my Pathfinder 1E campaigns when that edition first came out. I rapidly expanded Pathfinder to the other worlds, too, but Enzada was exclusive to PF until D&D 5E arrived. I migrated it over to that system for a couple campaigns, but it just didn't feel right; Enzada's core theme is "nonwestern fantasy in all forms" and Pathfinder supported that much better than D&D 5E did.

The two new campaigns, of course, are The Ironvast/Selentar campaign (using 3.5 edition) and Oman'Hakat (for Pathfinder 2E). I am quite in to exploring these two worlds, though I have not done much to post anything on the blog (yet). The Ironvast/Selentar setting is a fantasy version of a world with a lot of mirror analogies to Earth in the fifth century AD. Oman'Hakat is an archaic fantasy world with a weird history and mythology that ties closely to Lingusia, and it's built squarely on a fantasy reinterpretation of the archaic area from the Late Bronze Age on down to the rise of Rome. Both worlds are fantasy analogs for these time periods so they are better considered derivative; I much prefer to run "fantasy, but themed with historical derivations" that you can spot if you squint closely, rather than "history, but tinged with fantasy." If I want to run an actual campaign in the archaic Late Bronze Age, I will run an actual campaign set in that timeline with as much historical authenticity as possible, using something like GURPS. But for both of these campaigns the idea is to create disguised fictional analogs of these timelines, then let the fantasy elements take hold and go wild. 

To some degree it may be hard for my players to keep track of all the campaigns I run. I even have some which were short runs and may never return (Pergerron, Irkalla, and Isomular are a few), or ones which I have not yet found a good way to represent by system (Sarvaelen, which never quite gets a proper trial run outside of a one shot here and there). This all probably matters more to me as GM than my players, because I will most benefit from the world which lets me springboard the best scenario and campaign ideas off of it, but my long time players do get quite invested in these worlds, especially The Big Three.

These days, with the proliferation of options, I have thought a bit about which campaigns are best suited to which game systems. With my experiment this year running a Chirak campaign using Cypher System with the Godforsaken sourcebook, I've found that it does allow for some interesting focus on flavor and details that could (in theory) get muddied with more conventional D&Disms. Likewise, I designed the current Selentar/Ironvast campaign specifically with D&D 3.5 in mind.....the idea is that literally anything that is part of conventional D&D lore should have a place somewhere within that game's cosmos; not all such D&Disms, by contrast, have made it in to Realms of Chirak. And my Keepers of Lingusia campaign will eternally suffer an identify crisis, being a world built on AD&D 1E blocks, a universe where dwarves rarely cast much magic, paladins are supposed to be human, and weird racial options are exceedingly uncommon. Yet....I only ran a couple campaigns in this world using 13th Age but you know what? It was kind of a really good fit. I only wish the Icon System of 13th Age was less exhausting (and gimmicky) to me as a GM. 

There's another thing I noticed while crunching the numbers on the last twenty years of campaigning. I found plenty of abandoned campaigns, which all fell into the following categories:

--Campaigns I wrote up but never actually ran

--Campaigns I started, but then immediately lost steam on (too soon from last campaign, the concept didn't seem to click after the first few sessions, I was experiencing GM fatigue, player attendance sucked, etc.)

--The campaign started and persisted, but player/GM issues led to its demise (I've had at least one campaign I'd like to restart one day which led to a group meltdown, mainly due to two players who did not really get along tanking it for the rest of us; I think enough time has passed now that I could rekindle that campaign once more)

--The campaign started but was aborted when something newer and shinier came along, or I realized I needed a break from that particular genre, but not until after firing up the campaign. Usually these quickly turned into short scenarios and wrapped quickly instead of withering on the vine.

By my count there are around 18 of these over the last 20 years, though likely there are more I simply don't remember due to their being so...well....unmemorable. Not all ideas are worth pursuing! 

Still, when I trawl through the thousands of pages and hundreds of files of notes I have on hand, I see some interesting gems pop out and I wonder to myself why I don't just go back and re-explore some of these aborted concepts. 

There was a great campaign I started that would explore the lands of the Xoxtocharit in Chirak, a land loosely inspired by a pulp version of Mayans, long serving as sideline villains in prior campaigns. The campaign itself was designed to focus on the actual region of the Xoxtocharit, and to explore what life was like in an extremely hard environment, dominated by priest-kings of demonic gods that treated life as cheap and expendable for their purposes. It would have been an interesting campaign, I think, but an unexpected (and rare) TPK left us interested in a new pursuit. All the material is there, though, just waiting for a better start to explore from a future group.

Another campaign, wrecked by inter-player issues (it ended up tanking an entire group and left me more than a little irritated with the two players in question) involved a complex plotline in Enzada exploring the mysteries of the so-called Star Gods and a stellar convergence of heavily Lovecraftian horror. It was sufficiently good that I still think about where it could have and should have gone, had not the players in question created so many issues that I shut it down and tried (briefly) to run something far more vanilla and plebian, before realizing the problem was irreconcilable and I simply stopped gaming with those two players. It's been a few years, I think I'd really like to take a shot at a reboot on that one now, maybe this time powered by Pathfinder 2E.

Anyway....just some thoughts for the week. Of the many systems used over the years, I do find it interesting that right now I find D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder 2E the most captivating (for different reasons), and I am surprised to notice that I have sufficiently fond memories of 13th Age that I may be tempted to revisit that system again someday.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

My Nostalgia Sweet Spot: 1989

I have discovered, at last, where I think my nostalgia sweet spot lies: 1989. Probably, more specifically, 1988 to around 1992, but definitely in that zone. Top on my list of recent nostalgia finds is a vintage, almost mint condition copy of the 1989 original (not revised) version of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Dungeon Master Guide. The AD&D 2nd edition core books from 1989 are  notorious for having been fairly flimsy,* and it is not difficult to find one with tattered corners, an eroded spine or any other number of blemishes and issues, but it is extremely hard to find one that looks like it just came off the shelf at the game store, and the DMG that just showed up in the mail looks exactly like that....not even any page yellowing! Insane. 

I'm also waiting on a Player's Handbook, also from 1989, which from the images looks to be fairly intact (some corner issues but they look minor). I have a later bound Monstrous Compendium on the way, but I'm not even trying to find one of the 1989 binders filled with three-ring-punched monster sheets. It was a well-intentioned by terrible idea then, and finding those old loose-leaf folios for the original MC is hard. I still have some from back in the day (Spelljammer), but so few have survived to the present.

All this is happening because after realizing that my recent enjoyment at once again playing (and rekindling) my D&D 3.5 collection didn't so much spark nostalgia as it demonstrated that the 3rd edition rules hold up exceedingly well even in today's era of games that are inspired to heavily simplify from their predecessor. If you want crunchier mechanics and a sense of meaty stakes in your game, 3rd edition in its various forms delivers quite nicely.

In realizing that the nostalgia bug didn't lie there, I realized that it did, for me at least, lie with AD&D 2nd edition, but also very specifically those books which came out in 1989. That particular style of tome, with the mixture of classic late 80's fantasy art, woodblock-style images, and an aesthetic that was both evolved for its time and already curiously quaint just a few years later makes these books stand out to me. It was the edition my 1989 gaming group pleaded with me to purchase and run after they had graciously put up with a year of SPI's Dragon Quest and Avalon Hill's version of Runequest.** I still remember my first AD&D 2E campaign in great detail and the general enthusiasm of both myself and the group has been hard to replicate ever since.

When in the mid-nineties they released revised versions of the books, followed by the Player's Options series (an effort to reconcile dozens of other splatbooks published for AD&D by TSR), the style of art changed to something which, while interesting, just didn't evoke "D&D' for me in a manner consistent with how I felt the original 2E tomes did. It felt off, but hard to say precisely how since the look is nice....but I had grown accustomed to the older style of presentation.

Anyway, it turns out that yeah, I totally enjoy seeing intact, decent copies of tomes from this era again and reminiscing about the great adventures I had. It's part of the missing nostalgia equation, chiefly because my earliest gaming memories with D&D B/X and AD&D 1E are a mixture of interest punctuated with various compounding issues: the fact that for most of the 80's my opportunities to game were sometimes far and few between, the fact that I moved rapidly from AD&D (which was at times monolithically obscure in its design for a kid of age 10-13 when I was running my approximation of it) and started exploring dozens of other games on the market at the time, and the fact that a great deal of my time investment in gaming in the early and mid-eighties was spent writing fanzine content, going to conventions and playing games like Tunnels & Trolls, Dragon Quest, Palladium Fantasy, Runequest and Call of Cthulhu. AD&D 1E was replaced at various times by its many other contemporaries, and when you look at my classic campaign setting (Keepers of Lingusia) carefully, you can see the grains of other games and where they made their mark: Blackwell (a city on the map in RQ2) was once in the deep north on my game map, where broo-like beastmen roam free; vyrkasha wolven populate the Northern Wilderness thanks to Palladium, the great city of the plains, Karan, was my cypher for Khazan, etc. etc.

So for me, my campaign world that started in AD&D 1E in 1981ish didn't fully bloom and return to the fold until 1989 when I finally caved in and decided maybe AD&D 2E made the game something I would like to revisit. And it sure did....with some caveats (which included me immediately writing up new stat blocks for all the missing demons). That first campaign during the fall/winter semester set the pace for all my gaming going forward through about 1995, in which I structured each AD&D campaign around the length of the semester, since I never knew if I would have the same players in time for the campaign the semester following. In this manner I got quite used to a story structure that would last around 10-15 game sessions, with pauses during mid-terms and finals. It was a good approach.

Because of the turbulent and weird years of my youth, I also have what I would describe as "more unpleasant memories than good ones" from 1980 to 1988 or thereabouts. AD&D 2E arrived in my life at a time when that trend reversed, dramatically, for a time. From the year I went to college and on I had more control over my own destiny, and while there were plenty of bumps to be had in the road of time, it is indubitable that I had both more control and more freedom to compensate for it. Amidst all of this I had a handful of games, AD&D 2E in the lead, which were my key go-to forms of entertainment. I ran AD&D 2E every week, pretty much, for all of the 90's. And in those earlier days during my college years I also leaned hard on games such as Cyberpunk 2020, MegaTravller, Dark Conspiracy, DC Heroes, GURPS and Call of Cthulhu. 

It's harder to find serious nostalgia for Call of Cthulhu, GURPS and Traveller, since I never stopped playing those games. But for AD&D 2E, I very much took a hard stop on it when D&D 3rd edition came out, which was a serious revision to the game, enough so to argue that it was an entirely new and different game system. AD&D as a result isn't just an archaic set of mechanics, it's a specific thing that I did for a specific period of time and then just....stopped.

Anyway, no idea if I will try running it again (though the notion is being tossed around and the group seems receptive), but I sure am enjoying re-collecting those original books from 1989.  

* I still have my original DMG, for example, which is held together by duct tape.

** Which means yes, I am shopping around for the old Dragon Quest and Avalon Hill Runequest books on this nostalgia kicks (and Palladium Fantasy 1E), but I'm not quite willing to pay out the premium prices copies of these books in good condition command.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Days Go By....and 2021 Marches On

The good news is my local city and county in New Mexico have gone "Turquoise" which is is the local marker for a sharp decline in COVID cases and a sharp rise in vaccinations. All good! It means among other things that for the first time in over a year movie theaters get to open. My son and I are actually going to see a movie today: Godzilla vs. Kong....a film I am sure I will loathe a little bit since I also disliked the last one, but as a good father I know he loves these movies so that's what this is actually about. With any luck we won't see a reversal of trend before some actually, genuinely good movies like Black Widow release later this year. Either way, I am stoked to finally go to a real theater again! I'll post how the experience was later.

I'm hopeful that the public venues where gaming used to take place open soon. I have never been much to host, though I have the room to do it, and for various reasons prefer not to use my place I live for entertainment whenever possible. It's a hidden introvert thing, trust me. As such, when I used to run games in the Before Times it was always at a local game shop, the two of which are around locally (and still in business, thank goodness) have room for gaming. I think it is still a while before they have the city's permission (and build up the nerve) to open these spaces again, but give my entire gaming crew is also vaccinated I think we could resume live sessions soon, at least on Wednesday/Tuesday nights. Saturdays, we shall see.

I've blogged before about the issue with online gaming. It's better than nothing, I have concluded, but it suffers for gaining traction in certain areas of the RPG space like convenient die tracking, virtual maps and minis, and sacrifices the live experience in other areas, such as face to face interaction, the difficulty of a shared channel for speaking (speaking over one another is instant chaos), the general lack of physicality and what I personally would call "headphone claustrophobia." It doesn't help that work has also dominated the virtual space when it comes to meetings, so there's essentially no escaping the medium. 

Computers do some forms of entertainment extremely well, and those also compete with the clunky online RPG experience. It's hard to want to play an online Roll20 game when you are staring at another compelling graphical experience that caters directly to you. Video games dominate the computer, RPGs are weird outliers in that space, requiring more effort. They are more naturally suited to a table, where they can create a nice, structured social space.

You might wonder about whether I really am a closet introvert, given I seem more interested in face to face gaming than online gaming. The answer would be: totally, yes. The reason I have always enjoyed face to face gaming is it is a nice, structured, timed environment. I am not the kind of guy to find much deep satisfaction in hanging out at the pub or coming over to someone's house for the hell of it. I'm not a sports guy. I reluctantly go to family events and I almost always have a book or something in hand in the vain hope I can get some reading in. But I have always disliked interacting with faceless noises on the internet. It's why even in all the years I played World of Warfcraft or Destiny I have never raided and I have hardly ever done dungeons (or strikes), because those entailed having to deal with other humans, or at lest their polygonal avatars. 

This could all be just me, but it isn't too hard to find other people online commenting, at least, on the lack of satisfaction in online game environments. I'm trying to get used to it, though, as I realize in twenty years this could very well be the only way a geriatric me might get any gaming in. That said, I might not actually care or have the energy by then, who knows.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Six Months In with the 9th Generation Consoles and....

When this sordid story of next gen console acquisition left off  I had secured a Playstation 5 a week before Christmas in an unorthodox move which involved driving 2.5 hours from Albuquerque to Farmington just because Best Buy only had one in stock there. Two weeks later a pre-order from Gamestop coughed up my Xbox Series X, miraculously surviving a journey via UPS to my doorstep. Meanwhile, I had secured not one but two Xbox Series S consoles (the budget machine) for the rest of the household, one for my wife and one for the living room (and ergo the kid). So yeah, by about January 5th I had one of each next generation console sitting in the house. So how has it been?

Short version is: satisfying to have them, but the actual games one expects to see from a new generation of systems is anemic, to say the least. For most owners, the advantage of these consoles has been about seeing how the newer machines improve existing older gen experiences. Days Gone and Horizon: Zero Dawn are better experiences on the PS5, for example. Gears of War 5 and the Halo franchise likewise show improved performance on the Xbox Series X/S. 

But....the new games? Well this week we are finally seeing some new stuff. Returnal for PS5 is out and I am quite enjoying it. Resident Evil 8: Village with the Big Scary Lady is about to release. But in terms of what a console generation's groundbreaking first few months are supposed to look like? It's pretty shallow. If Activision and Ubisoft hadn't dumped out their usual annual affairs (well, in Ubisoft's case if they hadn't delayed them a year) there would have been precious little to enjoy on the new generation. For PS5 we have...Demon's Souls (a remake, albeit a very nice one), Godfall (a game which I have thoroughly enjoyed but for which most had a mixed reception), and...um.....I'm sure there was something else....* And for xbox Series X/S we have Medium (well, if you discount the PC release) and....um....yeah I am sure there is something else, right? 

I'm discounting titles like Outriders (a frenetic co-op shooter with some identity issues), Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Watch Dogs Legion and Call of duty Black Ops: Cold War because while playing these titles (and a handful of others) on the new generation provides an enhanced experience, they are all still retroactively available. And let's not even talk about Cyberpunk 2077, which somehow managed to release without any forward compatibility for the new consoles (see endless other blogs and videos on that subject).

Let's not even mention Fortnite, which provided next gen consoles with exclusive amazing graphics such as: thick clouds and chug jug animations. Wooooo.

Amidst all of this has been a flood....a torrent, if you will, of weird cashgrab and indie titles, most of which can "technically" claim to be forward compatible but their graphical demands are sufficiently low that actually being able to tell they are taking advantage of the new systems is difficult or even impossible. Many of these are insanely cheap, disgusting cashgrabs (I have for the first time ever asked for my money back twice on Xbox purchases....and gotten it!) due to games which were essentially unplayable, in a state which at best suggested that the publishers or devs of said games have barely concealed contempt for their potential audience. Worse, these garbage titles, what was once called shovelware, are so bad it demonstrates that there's a critical failure in Microsoft's vetting process for what sort of titles they let on to their console. I haven't had a truly unpleasant purchasing experience on the PS5 yet, but that would be even worse if it happened since Sony's refund policy is cryptic and not at all consumer friendly.

Still, better I suppose than the Nintendo eShop on the Switch, which is tantamount at times to diving into the shallow end of the kiddie pool and hoping that there's more water than urine in it. Speaking of which, thanks of course to the pandemic the Switch is also suffering from a rather shallow (but wide) lineup of releases this year. Without Monster Hunter Rise (a game I am having a hard time seeing the appeal of) it would be a much less interesting year for most Switch owners. 

All the ranting aside, I'm glad I got the consoles when I did if only because without them I'd be delegated to the Other Camp, the much larger group of gamers who watch in dismay as dismal restocks trickle out only to be snapped up by scalpers again and again, where one can only wonder if those reviews about Returnal being either A: an amazing experience because it is a roguelike or B: an awful experience because it is a roguelike (let's not even worry about the $70 game debate for a moment) are all just imaginary hypotheticals to you, answered at best by watching streamers play through the game.

(By the way: I know the answer, and Returnal is awesome. I am not a fan of roguelikes, having found Dead cells fun but tedious after a while, and Hades charming but not worth the effort. Turns out if you make it a really good 3PS shooter/exploration game with a mix of Prometheus/Alien design in a roguelike package I will play it obsessively and when not playing it think about how I can't wait to play it. So there's my answer) 

Still, now that we have Returnal and RE: Village it looks like this console generation is at last going to get some stride. If only they could have had some of these titles on release! And even better, if only they could get these consoles on store shelves at non scalper prices! 

Thanks, 2021! You're not as ugly as your big brother 2020 but you try.


*Spider-Man Miles Morales, which my son played through three complete times in the first week we had the PS5, then was done with. I watched the entire game in action and could not see significant differences in the graphics from the first Spider-Man outside of some better framerates, so yeah.