On the Edge of the Map

I still recall when I had to wait till Monday to call the Library of Congress to find out things. 

You don't really know what's out there. We see a lot more of it. A cat with a thumb. A fish standing on land. Some weird underwater squiggly giving inspiration to the Flumph. 

A few months ago, I wrote an article On the Lie of Colonialism in Dungeons and Dragons. I still believe my core thesis in that post. In the entirety of my experience of gaming, I have never had a group that didn't treat or deal with sentient culture-having creatures in a modern "enlightened" way. They always helped the oppressed. They fight against those with power for the good of the people. Even in evil campaigns, they were concerned about Order against Chaos. 

In the real world, there is no objective morality. There's no glowing purple-green force one can syphon that by it nature is inimical to the existence of life. There explicitly is in Dungeons & Dragons. You can see it with magic. 

But,

I mean, people overreact right? "Oh, hey, what a miserable take this guy has in an article I didn't read, but will publicly complain about on twitter as a preening gesture for my preferred ingroup!"

But, 

I have direct experience of working with several extremely low-income high-risk cultural groups. I spent five years in Alaska working with Yup'ik and Cup'ik native tribes. I have experience working with economically disadvantaged cultures in my local area. And I find it strange to have to say this, but this isn't because of any 'white savior' complex. Frankly, you can't save shit. Like, it is in a very straightforward way, the government using money to directly ease the extinction of a culture. And let me tell you, the destruction of a culture is not pretty. 

But,

Maybe

Maybe I haven't been to that edge of the map. Maybe one of monkeys banging away on typewriters that fit into their pocket, knew something that I did not. So I've been looking into it. Partly because I'm working on large semi-historical adventure for a. . . uh. . . a thing. . . that I'm clearly not supposed to be talking about. 

But it takes place in the colonial era. My initial weeks of research led me, to a conclusion that seems obvious in hindsight, that if an adventure is literally set in a colonial time, in an area nations were fighting over colonies, you can't avoid having colonization in the adventure.

So, what does this mean? Is the act of pretending to be a wizard who engages in slaying orcs, somehow some kind of dog-whistle racist activity? Well, MyFarog and Racial Holy War are universally derided and maligned for their obvious racism. I've never seen or heard of anyone running one of those racial cleansing simulators, so if role-playing were some front full of people engaging in genocide fantasies, I would expect them to be more popular. I mean, maybe those tables are out there, full of people who live their lives like extras who get killed in an action movie. 

But, you know, edge of the map. I went out (and am out) listening to lectures, reading and listening to those who do understand the issues, and people who are not like me. I mean, we are all different. That is to say, we all possess infinite worth, but our externals can be radically different. This is something I've carried inside as a truth, that I hold with a fervor equal to its arbitrariness. I.e. total.  Now I'm not done thinking, but it seems pretty obvious from my study that when we engage in entertainment via movies, table-top games, video games, reading, story-telling, we construct tales of overcoming adversity versus the self, other people, nature, supernatural, technology and society.

That is, you can totally pretend to shoot bad guys and that doesn't make you a bad person.

That isn't the end of it. 

There are clearly depictions of racial stereotypes in the monster manual c.f. dervishes, hobgoblins, et. al. that represent a bigoted view of culture inherited from the sword and sandal novels of the early and mid-twentieth century. A bigoted view Gygax clearly had, and I know for a fact there were people who did not have that bigoted view in 1970. 

And what do you do about a thinking culture's children after your murder their adults for being on your land before you got there?

Therein is the rub. You can make the game match cultural understandings and expectations, but you can't stop someone from being a racist douche. So you kind of have to play by some unspoken rules. E.g. You can't have an inhuman enemy that you kill without compunction who has its own culture and values. If they do have a culture, they must have a value that is deleterious to your very existence, which makes it palatable to kill them. Or you've got to expect your players not to want to kill them.

The thing is, and by far, I'm no arbiter of the state of the world.

But I've never seen a game or met a person who doesn't play by these rules. In point of fact, in every game in my entire life I've been involved in, covering these questions has always been done explicitly at the table, to make sure we aren't engaging in some nefarious act. 

In fact, it's an ancient trope, being the exact point of U2, The Danger at Dunwater (1982). You are given the location of the lair of the lizard men, but they are just chill dudes, who's really just arming themselves to protect themselves from the cuthonic undersea horrors of the Sahuagin. It's an adventure that literally is about understanding cultural differences to avoid conflict. I've been in and run the adventure an astounding amount of times. Sometimes it takes a fight or two, but there's a 100% rate of 'Oh Geeze, these aren't the bad guys, let's help them defend against the evil, which neither of us could defeat apart', which is a literal parable about why racism is bad.

So has the game "Since its inception in the ‘70s, . . . had profound issues surrounding racism and the colonialist mindset. Fifth Edition has done little to mitigate these issues, and if anything, the West Marches only make the longstanding rot more visible."- Izirion's Enchridiion of the West Marches

I mean, yes. The game has had stereotypical and inappropriate representation. e.g. please do not look at the cover of X8 Drums on Fire Mountain. (I told you not to look.)

Does the game have a colonialist mindset? It's feudal. It has depictions in monsters that have been used to demonify other cultures. Are antibiotics colonial? Spiritually, the core of the game is about going into the chaotic unknown and retrieving knowledge to return to strengthen society and further the cause of order and man.

The argument is, yes. We do so. To take the world and bring it to order, imposes by definition an unjust order. Order itself is a problem. Too much and the world becomes frozen and rigid. I mean, did you see earlier where I used the common colonialist trope of "we are making things better for you." when I mentioned Antibiotics?

You see, while listening and thinking and pouring over tomes, which amazingly enough is my actual job (Made possible by awesome people who give me money! You too can join this exclusive club of raising the volume of a voice you like. Blame capitalism.) It occurred to me that the discussion, and there is a discussion, is about how to respect autonomy, dismantle unjust hierarchies, eliminate unfair exploitation, and make the world a better place.

Which, funnily enough, is exactly what the fuck Dungeons and Dragons is about.

There's no answer to the question. We still remain as a species in the period of unknowing. Maybe there will be an answer to the question of a perfect society one day. Hell, I don't have to wait till Monday morning to call the Library of Congress to find things out anymore. But the game itself is literally about answering the question: what is right, what is just, and what is within my power to improve?

The game itself deals with profound issues. Important ones. Like racism and the colonial mindset. Fifth edition hasn't done anything to mitigate this, it's still about important things, like Freedom and Representation. The game is about personally taking agency and being confronted with this question. It is about what colonialism means and what complicity and rebellion cost. It's about what it means to be a hero. So when I say that colonialism in Dungeons and Dragons is a lie, what I mean is that the idea of our personal exploration of these issues is somehow bigoted or racist is, as the kids say, a bad take.

And I would hope, in my heart of hearts, when you venture into the West Marches, beyond the edge of the map, that the longstanding rot is clear and visible, so your blade may strike true when you fight for justice. 

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope this post finds you and yours well. I've very recently solved looming housing insecurity, and it occurred to me no one should have to suffer housing insecurity. If your interested in helping, there are a lot of resources that allow you to help out locally and nationally. We are in for a rough decade—and we can make it through, together. Tell your loved ones you love them. 

The whole colonialism issue strikes me as "Satanic Panic-ish" because where are the people sacrificing these children? Is this something that is really happening, or is it a reaction to the ambiguity of what other people might do 'wrong' while playing a game? I don't think so, but don't know for sure. It seems somewhat self-selecting, racists are almost by definition provincial, and role-playing does require a lot of traits that are contraindicated to someone who has racist beliefs. What's the angle on targeting it? I'm not sure. But there's a definite disconnect between the claims and the reality. What, exactly do we do about racism? Forty years of anti-racist propaganda and societal efforts, and. . . nothing. Still Racism. It might be, I think, related to genetic in-group/out-group stuff and I don't know how we get rid of that. I don't have to know to play D&D. 

If you're curious, I'll put the old article up Friday and you can read it then.

If you're interested in something cool, I have some crazy art in this adventure about a dungeon inside a dead sea god. There's other factions and goals, it's a really smart adventure. So much cool stuff and my art, too! Take a look at Voyages on the Zontani Sea!

And, oh, it's so crazy. Dungeons and Dragons is so crazy popular, JeShields who's both a technical and spiritual mentor of mine creates crazy high quality art. It's so good. Someone like it so much, they are turning the art into 3-d miniatures? It's just awesome. I think everyone should go have a look. Just to see how cool it is to take a 2D old school type illustration and turn it into a monster. 



On Gygax Design IV

My thesis here is that something was misunderstood. The question I'm left with is how did that happen?

Let's take a look.

Cave Introduction

The first page of the caves proper contains the flavor text we discussed in the last post. It's lurid, and therefore interesting.

If you're going to ask someone to listen to something, it better get a reaction.

Immediately Gygax takes one column line to outline all his overview notes for the adventure: 600 words. He describes how to read the cave contour map on the outside, describes the woods, underground, and interiors.
He then covers prisoner ransom ("Set the sums low — 10 to 100 gold pieces or a magic item. . . "), the specifics of the tribal relationships, how monsters should react and handle player actions, and what happens in empty areas.

It is a training module, but these sections only contain nine sentences containing specific  'newbie' or training advice. The rest of the information is all useful, reduces the need for repetitive text, and is easily found in the front of the appropriate section. This is the really interesting thing. Here's a room description
1. Guard Room: 6 kobold guards (AC 7, HD 1/2, hp 3 each, #AT 1, D 1-4, Save NM, ML 6). They will throw their spears the first round if they have initiative. Each carries d6 silver pieces. One will run to warn areas 4. and 6.. The guards will be altered by loud noises or lights.
Is there a single unnecessary word in that description to craft an emergent encounter for the players?

What is an Adventure?

All the rooms are like this.
"Number. Description: # creatures (one line stat block), Rules and tactical information, treasure."

Is there any boxed text? No. Each room only tells you what you need to know what's in it, and more importantly how they act. The text is there to create emergent play. Here are quotes.
"This huge kobold is so powerful that he fights with a battle axe. . . and a large gem on a great golden chain around his neck."
"Six goblin guards are alterly watching both passages for intruders of any sort"
"If there is a cry of "BREE-YARK" similar to "hey rube!" (ed: noted in the rumor section as goblin for "We Surrender"), 2 of these guards will rush to the secret door, toss a sack with 250 gold coins to the ogre and ask him to help him"

This is over and over again in the room encounters. Set-ups from earlier pay off. Encounters are dramatic scenes. We know from his own play descriptions that he used random encounters and avoiding keying many areas in Greyhawk for these reasons. Each one uses as few descriptive words as possible to give the Dungeon Master a hook to hang his hat (the encounter) on.
There's no ancient history text, no unknowable background information.

Mostly. I lied a little bit. Everyone had to get the wrong idea from somewhere, right? Even when there is some unknown history, it is referenced and due to non-player character actions is discoverable by players. e.g.
13. Forgotten Room. Only the two orc leaders (from this area and from B.) Know of this place. They secretly meet here on occasion to plan co-operative ventures or discuss tribal problems, for although separate tribes are not exactly friendly, both leaders are aware of the fact that there is strength in numbers. . . . 
Looking at this alone, it certainly looks like the usual dump of information to the Dungeon Master that is completely inaccessible to the players. Except, note the following sentences:
From 12. Orc Leader's Room: . . . If hard pressed, the leader will wiggle behind the tapestries on the south wall and attempt to work the catch on the secret door to the south and go to the rival tribe for help. . . 
From Dungeon Master notes: If the leader is slain, the survivors will seek safety in area B/C, taking everything of value (and even of no value with them)

So you know, it's part of a dynamic encounter.

Encounter Design

I've talked before about how room environments should consist of clearly interactable objects in Red Herring Agency. That article uses the example of play from the Dungeon Master's Guide, and it's pretty clear the same design aesthetic is in use here. In the forgotten room, it describes "A small table and two chairs", "a wooden chest", "Two shields hanging on the wall", and "Two pouches behind an old bucket." The chairs are normal, as are the shields. The chest is unlocked and contains some weapons. The pouches have treasure, but cover 2 centipedes.

It's explicit, direct. Here are the interactable objects. Each one has a different effect and clues are available in the environment.

There is a specific structure to the different pillars of play. This is what the exploration pillar means. It means there are specific presentable things—clickable objects— within play. It's these objects, their integration into the environment, their creativity, and the tactical infinity options they offer that is the gameplay of exploration.

Walls the players can knock over, doors that open into space, a ring that shrinks objects, a chained megatherium. Give the players simple things that allow interaction. Create a world where non-player characters take action in response to the players. The complexity and gameplay is emergent.

Every single piece of information is either immediately accessible to the players, or is necessary for the Dungeon Master to run the encounter.

Each room is an encounter designed, and it should be like a good scene in a movie. Interesting, helping create tension and set the pace. It shouldn't be simple, boring, dull, and buried in a thousand words of useless text. It requires both active actors and things to act upon, and it must be designed and not just generated. This doesn't require verbiage, it requires thought. You want my examples of this in use, check out Megadungeon (or any of the modules I have coming out soon!)

From RPG Cartography
I'm not saying it's perfect. It's certainly raw—for example many rooms have information on how people act if they hear someone nearby. This could be on the map, along with other modern improvements due to better tools. Which way the doors open, what the light levels are. . .

When the goblins rush the players and yell BREE-YARK, if the players got the rumor that it means "We surrender", shenanigans ensue. This isn't the only setup. More than one character is lost when the chaotic evil priest that offers to come with them from the keep casts 'inflict wounds' on characters instead of cure wounds.

The prisoners have a variety of races and genders, as well as each providing some non-standard reward, trick, or trap. You may notice a theme. There are also slaves that can be freed and armed. Each of these things creates a specific experience for the players. He isn't just writing descriptions of rooms! He's creating a scene flowchart just like the one in the start of Deep Carbon Observatory, but using the dungeon as his flowchart paths.

I did find a sentence of flavor text, "The owl bear. . . sleeps in the most southerly part of its den, digesting a meal of gnoll it just caught at dawn." That's some information that's not accessible to the players. It's on page 19.

There's also quite a lot of humor within the module. Signs posted on doors say things like "You are
invited for dinner!" and "Safety, security and repose for all humanoids that enter — WELCOME! (Come in and report to the first guard on the left for a hot meal and bed assignment.)" The thing is, it's not just a joke for the reader. The players will also find this joke amusing, and although it's funny, like all Dungeons & Dragons, it's deadly serious. I ran Hackmaster for years, and a gummi bear golem seems really funny, until it crits your fighter in the head for 38 points and kills him in a shower of sticky blood.

All of the rooms contain setpieces—interesting reactions and organic events, but this is one of the best.
"[Bugbears] lounge on stools near a smoking brazier which has skewers of meat toasting over the coals. Each will ignore his great mace when intruders enter, reaching instead for the food. Through they do not speak common, they will grab and eat a chunk, then offer the skewers to the adventurers — and suddenly use them as swords to strike first blow (at +2 bonus to hit due to surprise!) unless the victims are very alert. . . 
I mean, that exclamation point though.

If you aren't creating scenes and experiences through activities for players (and not excess verbiage) please start, and point people to this series to get them to change.

You don't have to write a bunch of words about how encounters react to every last thing, you just have to write something interesting well, and from that the Dungeon Master will be able to know how it reacts.

Enter the Present.

This is INFURIATING.

Why? I just downloaded the most recent Dungeons & Dragons pay what you want adventure to find a room description to compare. Each room description is literally a full page. In lieu of typing the whole page, I'm just going to quote some random sentences from this full page of text for a single room. A whole page. It's not even an A5 page! It's a full letter page.

"The bed is perfectly normal and has a warm, soft blanket stretched over it."
"The party is in the right place, but this isn't the chamber in which the wardrobe is kept."
"Unbeknownst to the players, a hidden passage lies beyond the bookcase"
The box text says "the chamber. . . is not quite what you imagined"

I will summarize the entire room description, as I think Gygax would have laid it out.
3. Wizard Bedroom. Locked Chest (Disable Device DC 15, Strength DC 20) contains pouch 32 gold, 13 silver pieces, 21 copper. Secret door behind bookcase filled with bird books. Note in book about secret door. Corridor beyond trapped, must flap like bird or say "[REDACTED]" 50 XP for door, 50 XP for ladder.
You do not need 1,200 words! I am a Dungeon Master looking for useful tools!

The early examples were great and maintain their popularity and utility decades later, look at the sales of the poorly-reviewed Keep on the Borderlands 5e reprint. They had to hold a second pre-order since pre-orders exceeded their first print run.

This endless glut of poor adventure writing is someone emptying their uninteresting brain noise right in the middle of what I need as a person that runs a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. Is there a market for people who want to read an adventure and have no use for it during play?

Yeah. there is, and it's pretty big. That's the problem.

People keep trying to characterize "What the old school renaissance" is. This has never been a mystery.

It's just people trying to find something they can use in play!

People were playing Dungeons and Dragons until people who did not play, and instead just read and admired ran it into the ground and nearly caused it to cease to exist. You can clearly publish a game with no firm rules and just allow everyone to do what they want, but they aren't very successful are they?

I would think everything in this post is obvious, but due to my inability to use 90% of everything ever published it apparently is not. If you feel the same way, link it the next time someone doesn't know how to write a module. Or, if you're feeling generous, you can join our hierarchy over here, and support more posts like this on Patreon, where you can get special access to my discord

On Gygax Design III

There are like 12,000 terrible modules and adventures.

This hobby is almost 50 years old at this point. There have been literally thousands and thousands of adventures written and are available.

Why are we always playing the same ones? Why do people always fall back on Keep on the Borderlands, Forgotten City, Ghost towers, Horror Tombs,  and Giants in their lairs, leading to drow?

I mean, Modern cinema isn't obsessed with the movies that came out in the 70's. You don't see Deer Hunter being played and replayed over by viewers. (The fact that a significant portion of my readers were not alive when that movie came out, much less have even heard of it. In hindsight maybe it shouldn't have won best picture of 1979 versus Grease and Superman, which you know, weren't even nominated).

It's a joke, surely. But it's not.

We keep replaying the same old old modules because they are good and other adventures are not.

The old masters, Gygax, Jennell, and others—they knew how to write an adventure. Everyone else copied the form, not understanding the intent, and produced jumbled linear messes that are boring and dumb; literally not fun to play. How many good adventures can you name? What percentage is that of 12,000?

In part one we looked at how Gygax presented Keep on the Borderlands in just a page so that Dungeon Masters understood the excitement and wonder that was about to occur. You can't read his introduction without getting hype!

In part two, we looked at how the sequels just presented jumbles of random, useless, and most importantly inaccessible information. More importantly, we saw how Gygax used the physical layout to generate tension in the keep with player desire, a deliberate tactic used to create the tension that emergent play develops from.

The Journey to the Keep

You know how if you want to go on a theme park ride, there's a big sign? You just walk up to it and ride? That can be fun, but it's not an adventure.

You have to find the adventure. Finding the adventure location isn't something that delays play. Eliminating it to "speed things up" is missing the point. The adventure location exists among a living world. Travelling there, through the fantasy realm, to the threshold of chaos cannot be removed simply to get to the combat fasters.

Let's look at these wilderness encounters:

A madman hermit(thief) with a pet lion who wants to attack the party but is friendly first.
A mut pit with a roof and a hole, which lizard men come out one at a time to fight players, until only the women and children are left in the mud hole.
A group of bandits with their eye on the keep and any adventurers
Two spiders who guard the corpse of an ancient elf.

Explicitly, each of these create tension within the game world. This tension drives emergent play. Each is described in a way that makes them easy to represent by the Dungeon Master. All the relevant information is accessible to the players.

I'm not saying it's perfect. There's useless text in there (how many gold and silver pieces each of the different bandit types are carrying.)

But each of the different encounters creates a new tension in the world. Each is memorable and easy to represent. Each inspires other thoughts, questions, and adventure. Each is an event that can go many different ways on how the players approach.

How did "2.2d4 Dire Boars" become a standard?

The Caves

This being a learning module isn't relevant to our discussion, but it does provide some interesting insights into presentation. Gygax cautions at the very front: "Add whatever you feel is appropriate to the description of what they see, but be careful not to give anything away or mislead them." This is a concrete example of how he viewed the Dungeon Master as impartial arbiter of the game.

His description of discovering the caves is short and is entirely devoted to explaining the space in a way that allows us to visualize it, and, of course, setting the tone:
The sunlight is dim, the air dank, there is an oppressive feeling here—as if something evil is watching and waiting to pounce upon you. There are bare, dead trees here and there, and upon one a vulture perches and gazes hungrily at you. A flock of ravens rise croaking from the ground, the beat of their wings and their cries magnified by the terrain to sound loud and horrible. Amongst the litter of rubble, boulders, and dead wood scattered about on the ravine floor, you can see bits of gleaming ivory and white - closer inspection reveals that these are bones and skulls of men, animals, and other thing,. . .You know that you have certainly discovered the Caves Of Chaos.
Here's another thing that's explicit in the module. "With this knowledge, they might be able to set tribes to fighting one another, and then the adventurers can take advantage of the weakened state of the feuding humanoids." In this adventure, indeed in most of his adventures Gygax assume that there will be multiple forces, often in equilibrium that the players will disturb or can leverage as they explore. It's this dynamic response that creates emergent adventure and dramatic scenes.

 On the next article, we'll take a look at they keys for the caves themselves. . .

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On Gygax Design II

Let's look at the background section of the adventures B2: Keep on the Borderlands, and Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. Part I of this article is here.


Keep on the Borderlands has a four paragraph background, and a two paragraph starting encounter. The expectation is that the background is read aloud. 



The Realm of mankind is narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures. If it were not for a stout few, many in the Realm would indeed fall prey to the evil which surrounds them. Yet, there are always certain exceptional and brave members of humanity, as well as similar individuals among its allies - dwarves, elves, and halflings - who rise above the common level and join battle to stave off the darkness which would otherwise overwhelm the land. 

I mean, he wrote it as if it pulsed fire in his heart.

The starting scene is particularly appropriate because it instructs the players to introduce themselves to the gatekeeper, and thus the other players.

What follows is six pages detailing the keep itself. We're going to talk about this in a minute.

The Return to the Keep on the Borderlands has a five paragraph introduction, and a two paragraph starting encounter.

But wait? What chicanery is this?!

The introduction is not to be read to the players and contains ancient history. What's more it's dull. No, really. I'll—just look:

Such, at any rate, was his plan. In the event, Macsen found that retirement agreed with him. He devoted all his time to managing the affairs of the garrison and the Keep, . . . Fortunately Macsen had chosen his castellan well. Devereau was a faithful henchmen, an archer who only remained behind because of a crippling wound received in an early adventure. . . Today it is a small but thriving community once more, less populous than of old but warded by people who have invested years of hard work making this into their home and been willing to defend it to the bitter end. 
That's how it ends. That's the call to adventure. Let me sum up.

Once a dude got a keep, and it was too much effort to dick around with assholes in the woods. And so other people did it, and then all the monsters were dead. Then he went off and died in war, and the rest of the people stayed and now they are strong and happy.

Two paragraphs on a dude that's dead. Story that's both boring and not accessible to players of the game, and the call to adventure is "It's a safe, nice place."

The starter encounter has a paragraph of read aloud text as you approach the keep, and you are hailed by a guard. The boxed text makes no horrible affronts, only slightly telling the players what they feel or do. Then there are eleven pages detailing the keep.

So Much of the Keep

Why do we care about the keep? What can we learn about the way it's presented in the module? What's in those six pages?

Amazingly, it's very gamified. Each section of the keep is a tool to drive the adventure. Gygax meticulously details the arms, armaments, and tactics of people in the keep in addition to documenting the location of every loose copper piece.

What's noticeable is the expectation that the interior of the keep will be explored as a dungeon environment. The players walk in, and then walk around to all the different places. Let's look at some of the gamification of the environment:

1. Main Gate: "Two men-at-arms. . . require that persons entering the keep put their weapons away and then escort them to area 3."
3. Entry Yard: "All entrants, save those of the garrison will be required to dismount and stable their animals (area 4). The Corporal of the Watch is here [and] is rather grouchy, with a low charisma, but he admires outspoken brave fighters and is easily taken in by a pretty girl."
He doesn't have a name, but he gets a personality. Further:
Map by Dyson Logos
3. Entry Yard: Cont. "A scribe. . . records the name of each person who enters or leaves. . . Lackeys will come to take mounts or mules. Any goods not carried will be stored in the warehouse. Another lacky will then show travelers to the Traveler's Inn."

This connects directly to the entrance scene, informs characters of the stables, that there's goods in the warehouse, and then walks them over to the inn. Which is at area 15. If you're using the map, this walks the characters directly past every other interesting player facing building on the map. To wit:

They walk south past the stables and warehouse, directly towards the bailiff tower (at 6), then west directly past the smithy/armory (at 8) and the provisioner and trader (at 9-10) and the fortified loan office on the south wall (at 11).

By the time they've reached the tavern, they've been exposed to everything there is interesting to do in town for a new adventure, but it doesn't stop there.

Areas marked 7 on the map are private apartments, and Gygax provides two. A jeweler who will exchange gems and money for the characters, and a priest who is willing to assist the party in the caves (but spoilers secretly is chaotic and will attack the party—I've killed more than one player who came to the priest for aid and got a cause wounds for their trouble.)

The apartments (and their many empty partners) are set up for the Dungeon Master to introduce characters of their own. Though this is not explicit, the introduction does say "Special quarters are available for well-to-do families, rich merchants, guild masters, and the like."

How do we know that the information that's listed here is deliberate and not just something compulsive Gygax did because he was an insurance actuary? Because of what he leaves out. He does not detail the normal family members of the personages of the keep.
"The five small apartments along the south wall are occupied by families of persons dwelling within the Outer Bailey of the KEEP."
This is the only sentence addressing what Gygax felt were non-game entities. They aren't described, given treasure, etc. because they aren't likely to be involved in gameplay. The smithy's grandmama isn't going to need combat stats, and the players aren't likely to interact with a house full of women and children, so those "apartments . . . are occupied" is all the text that is given.

This deliberate presentation of some things and not others is designed for what the Dungeon Master needs in play. What if the keep is attacked? What if the players attack the keep or try to steal things? Well, that information is there for those Dungeon Masters. The contents of the bank and warehouse are documented. 

Can you figure out why? I can. Because I've played Dungeons and Dragons before.

Where is there to go in this keep? What can the players do? Those questions are also answered in the text, in a very sort of computer game, pick the smithy menu, here's some information about that encounter.

What's in the northern half of the outer bailey—you know, the part the characters don't walk past on the way to the tavern—is unsurprisingly the things the characters will need after their first foray out into the wilds. 16 is the guild house for travellers, 17 the chapel for priests and healing, and most importantly, the gate to the inner keep, which you can only gain access to after you have accomplished deeds in the caves.

You can't go home again

In Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, the map remains very similar (with one or two new tricks). The guard challenge is repeated and they are met at the gate by a named non-player character, Sabine the Gatekeeper who directs them  to the stable, warehouse, marketplace, and inn/tavern. Everyone in the sequel is given names ("The second floor houses. . . Laurl, Charl, Wort, and Joop.")

Each home in the sequel has details of their occupants, no statistics, just a story about what type of person they are.
"A quiet man who keeps mostly to himself, Reece. . . has since married a local woman (Asgrim, a young widow whose first husband marched off to the battlefield while they were still newlyweds, never to return). They have a three year old son, Decius, and a year-old daughter, Nadya."
I don't see how the above is accessible or useful to play. He's a cobbler. When will the players intersect with this information? Why is it detailed? 7f details three sisters who are milkmaids and their schedules throughout the day, but should I references 7f which I'm deciding who's in an area?

Each paragraph is giving me a little character story or vignette. . . and no tools to integrate it with what's actually going to be happening at the table. The presentation is convoluted bullshit with zero effort given into what I'm supposed to do with that information.

It gets worse. The players can't buy anything at the smithy "Rafe can make horseshoes, nails, and bits with ease, but weaponsmithing and armor-forging are beyond him." followed by this useful gem that can in no way impact our game, "The keep once had a resident weaponsmith in Mascens day who kept the garrison supplied."

!?

Let's play a game. In what world where you have sat down with your friends to play Dungeons & Dragons is the following information useful?

"Beasley's daughter, Calista, divides chores and responsibilities with her husband."

"Most folks only stay here for a few days, but some stay for extended periods."

There's literally thousands of words detailing small family relationships, who's married to who, local town politics, organized only by building title:"Guild House" under which you find, Greeves and Peta who are the grandparents of Jess who is in the one-eyed cat.

Is the adventure about small town drama? If it is, why is it so poorly organized? How would I keep this web of stories and relationships straight without re-writing everything?

Every entry in the original adventure contained information that I might need. And it did so in the correct place. Anything else, it left me to create and keep track of (such as the large number of un-named guards and people)

There are some bright spots. Even though entirely too many words are used, there are an entertaining collection of colorful characters that the players can collect as henchmen. There's no indication of where they are located in the keep next to their stats, but: Third, a warrior who wears a bronze mask all the time, Brother Martin, a fair cleric who makes sure that everyone provides input (even shy people), Opal, a neutral moon cleric who's Lawful-Chaotic alignment axis changes with the moon. A clever but loony mage, a manipulative necromancer who just wants to find a way to worship at the hidden temple, and a cowardly thief.

Then there are three keep encounters, one keyed to happen after the first three times the characters return to the keep.

If the intent was to detail family relationships, following the form of Gygax is the worst way to organize it. Even though the original module has six pages devoted to the keep, it just feels like six pages of tools for the Dungeon Master to respond to players ideas and successes. Whereas the house descriptions in the sequel are devoid of any mechanical information.

I can see how you could interject some of this drama into the lives of the player characters, but I want to be clear. The text provides no tools to assist with using this information in play, besides creating the unexciting situations: A ward falls in love with her step-father, or how the twenty some-odd members of the Lum clan make up most of the militia. etc. What's more is that the format actively works against this.

I can run the keep with a single pass over Gygax's text. I couldn't even understand the second adventure unless I spend the time to reorganize all the information it gives me.

Next time, we'll look at the wilderness and cave encounters proper.

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On Gygax Design I

It's unspoken in the rulebooks all over the place.

You are just supposed to know certain things from the culture of wargaming. But it blew up way past that microculture.

The immediate casualty was the adventure. This has been my focus now for over a year. What went wrong? Why are the modules Gygax wrote good, while others that ape the style are so bad?

Keep on the Borderlands

Let's just start with the introductions. 

"You are not entering this world in the usual manner, for you are setting forth to be a Dungeon Master. Certainly there are stout fighters, mighty magic-users, wily thieves, and courageous clerics who will make their mark in the magical lands of D&D adventure. You, however, are above even the greatest of these, for as DM you are to become the Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to all the universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow. The others in your group will assume the roles of individuals and play their parts, but each can only perform within the bounds you will set. It is now up to you to create a magical realm filled with danger, mystery, and excitement, complete with countless challenges. Though your role is the greatest, it is also the most difficult. You must now prepare to become all things to all people."-Gary Gygax, "Keep on the Borderlands"

Let's see.

"You are not entering this world in the usual manner" is literal. He presents this powerfully as descending not only personally into the realm of fantasy, but the, and I quote, "become[ing] the Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to all the universe."

Heady stuff. 

Let's look at the introduction of Return to Keep on the Borderlands by John D. Rateliff 1999, at the tail end of the dark ages of Dungeons & Dragons:

"Return to the Keep is an update of the classic adventure, detailing what has happened in the Caves of Chaos and the Keep itself in the two decades since brave adventurers cleaned out the monsters and departed for other challenges. The rules have been fully updated. . ., encounters have been fleshed out, and the section of advice to inexperienced Dungeon Masters expanded and rewritten. In the main, however, Keep on the Borderland remains what it has always been: A series of short adventures, distinct enough that player characters can catch their breath between each section, that smoothly segue together. Altogether, this adventure gives novice players and characters a chance to learn the ropes without getting in over their heads; characters who survive will have learned the basic tricks of their trade, just as players and Dungeon Masters will know the basics of good gaming."

What the f$% happened here? Do you see this shit? Apologies to Rateliff, but I try to edit my blog posts better then this introduction. There's just extra, redundant, words in excess of the words that are needed, for some reason that's a reason there's extra words for a reason. Right? 

"A series of short adventures." is the short description of "Adventures distinct enough that player characters can catch their breath between each section". How about "In the main, however". What purpose does that equivocation serve?

An example from one of the worst printed module of all time, N2, The Forest Oracle. Although terrible, it's common in quality to the vast majority of material on RPGnow and DM's Guild. But I'd rather not punch down on amature creator, so consider this a stand in for the type of dross you find on onebookshelf. 

"The Forest Oracle is an AD&D module for levels 2-4. It is an independent adventure, and not part of a series. It can be integrated into any existing campaign or played as a separate adventure to help initiate players into the world of AD&D." -Carl Smith Forest Oracle
Every single word of the above introduction is patently obvious. The level range is on the cover. You can integrate any adventure into an existing campaign or play it as a separate adventure.  This is literal wasted space. Compare with original borderlands text.

The point I'm driving at here, is Gygax used every word of the introduction to drive home a mind-blowing idea, the introduction was copied for the sequel by a writer who writes as if he gets paid by the word, and the worst adventure writers don't even understand the point of the introduction so they just say truistic generic comments. "This is a module." or one of my personal favorites "This module is for X level characters, but you can run it with higher or lower characters if you increase or decrease the difficulty."

No shit?

Why did I pay? How does this help me? What does this do for me?


Dungeon Master Text

This text varies between each individual module.

Let's look at the original keep:
This module is another tool. It is a scenario or setting which will help you to understand the fine art of being a Dungeon Master as you introduce your group of players to your own fantasy world, your interpretation of the many worlds of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Adventure. THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS is simply offered for your use as a way to move smoothly and rapidly into your own special continuing adventures or campaigns. Read the module thoroughly; you will notice that the details are left in your hands. This allows you to personalize the scenario, and suit it to what you and your players will find most enjoyable.
Which commits the sin of being obvious, but considering the dearth of modules at the time, this was good advice then. Is the pass I'm giving the above text unfair?

The DM should be careful to give the player characters a reasonable chance to survive.
Hopefully, they will quickly learn that the monsters here will work together and attack intelligently, if able. If this lesson is not learned, all that can be done is to allow the chips to fall where they may. Dead characters cannot be brought back to life here! 
Then, Gygax lines out his conception of Dungeons & Dragons:
The KEEP is a microcosm, a world in miniature. Within its walls your players will find what is basically a small village with a social order, and will meet opponents of a sort. Outside lies the way to the Caves of Chaos where monsters abound. As you build the campaign setting, you can use this module as a guide. Humankind and its allies have established strongholds—whether fortresses or organized countries—where the players’ characters will base themselves, interact with the society, and occasionally encounter foes of one sort or another. Surrounding these strongholds are lands which may be hostile to the bold adventurers. Perhaps there are areas of wilderness filled with dangerous creatures, or maybe the neighboring area is a land where chaos and evil rule (for wilderness adventures, see DUNGEONS & DRAGONS@ EXPERT SET). There are natural obstacles to consider, such as mountains, marshes, deserts, and seas. There can also be magical barriers, protections, and portals. Anything you can imagine could be part of your world if you so desire. The challenge to your imagination is to make a world which will bring the ultimate in fabulous and fantastic adventure to your players. A world which they may believe in.
He is a priest, his sermon dense with meaning. Note particularly "will meet opponents of a sort" and "hostile foes of one sort or another".

Jeff Dee's art is a treasure
This is the first module, a teaching module, the first time many of these things had ever been seen. Yet the form of treating it as the first-ish publication anyone may ever see, is not something that other and later modules needed to copy. A lot of the text in the original B2 is almost an errata—a detailed description of procedures in play for lost or confused Dungeon Masters. Other then a few pointed notes, I'm going to excise this from the analysis, due to the singular artifact of "being first".  A rules addendum is tangential to our examination of Gygax's content versus the imitators of form.

Of particular note:
To defeat monsters and overcome problems, the DM must be a dispenser of information. Again, he or she must be fair - telling the party what it can see, but not what it cannot. Questions will be asked by players, either of the DM or of some character the party has encountered, and the DM must decide what to say. Information should never be given away that the characters have not found out - secret doors may be missed, treasure or magic items overlooked, or the wrong question asked of a townsperson. The players must be allowed to make their own choices. Therefore, it is important that the DM give accurate information, but the choice of action is the players’ decision.
It's bolded like that in the original text.

In Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, the text and advice is largely similar and fascinating. Perhaps Ratcliffe was just warming up earlier and needed a sharper editor for that paragraph. I'd like to quote  things that indicate people carried true knowledge always with them, even as those who claimed to be kings had lost that knowledge. To wit:
"Boxed text can either be read out loud by the Dungeon Master, or simply paraphrased in his or her own words. Paraphrasing is often preferred by experienced Dungeon Masters. . ." 
"Players have a habit of doing the unexpected; resist the temptation to force them to follow a particular track." 
"For purposes of this adventure, the Dungeon Master is strongly urged to use the optional rule that grants experience points for treasure (at the rate of 1 XP per 1 gp value); this sends the message to the players that there are a multitude of right approaches to take (combat, stealth, negotiation), not a single preferred method of play."
This was in 1999, before the release of 3rd edition, where traditional games of Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire were advising Dungeon Masters to invalidate their players choices, and modules consisted of badly constructed railroads of the sort a grade schooler might create. In the darkest moment the hobby of Dungeons & Dragons has experienced, light still shone.

Next time we're going to look at the background section of the adventures and dig into things both nitty and gritty.

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On a Definitive Table for Avoiding Death

Hit Points are abstract. 

Do you feel that your games might like more realistic combat wounds and damage without losing the ease and abstraction of hit points? Would you like critical hits and wounds that create gradations beyond down at 0 up at +0? One that takes into account all types of damage?

Go ahead and download the free Pandect if you are already interested.

The core of this system doesn't change default gameplay, it just creates a space between 0 hit points and dead, where damage results in actual wounds and permanent damage instead of death. Perhaps you'd like a less lethal and a more gritty setting—this isn't for all games. It's a poor fit for super heroic games like 5e and Pathfinder at level 7+

The other advantage is that it makes players significantly more resilient in low level games. Once your hit points are gone, instead of being dead you are subject in increasingly severe wounds. It helps character survival, adds character (people dig scars), and creates more realistic consequences for adventure for games like AD&D, OSE, and other low fantasy settings!

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On Erecting a New Campaign

Do you smell that?

It's the smell of a new campaign. New players, new dynamics, new adventures! 

Here's how this goes:

Suggest a couple of games to players a month ahead of time.
Finalize the game date.
Realize no one has picked a game.
Players select the game they want 48 hours before the game.
Hurriedly design an entire campaign from scratch.
Frantically try to print off everything you need before the game.
Forget to print off a bunch of things.
Realize only after the game starts that all the .pdfs you need to reference are on the tablet your daughter is using to watch kid's shows.
Bargain with your daughter for the tablet.
Decide to use your phone instead.
Give up on using your phone.
Refer to things as "That country I made up a name for that I can't find."
Spend 20 minutes looking for that one piece of paper that has the entire campaign on it.
Find it in the folder you made for the players.
Watch a 5e player's eyes go wide as a critical chart takes off the clerics arm.
Have her leave to go smoke.
Convince your daughter that the phone is better then the tablet.
Hurriedly try to find the name of that rebel group in the .pdf.
End the session rolling up new characters.

Beginning a campaign from scratch


I joke, but this touches on a real issue. Even using an system with no house rules and an adventure path, there's still a tremendous amount of work that needs to happen to get a campaign off the ground.

Let's take a look at what needs to be done, just to start:
  • You have to create an area for the players to adventure. You need to populate this area. If you're being a good dungeon master, this area should be able to handle both expansion, foreshadow the course of the campaign, and be thematically interesting.
  • You need to decide what races and classes you are going to allow.
  • Generally, you have to provide a selection of deities for clerics.
  • You have to either select or design a calendar to keep track of time. (YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.)
  • You have to decide what languages are available for the players to learn.
  • You need to create a facebook/G+ page and an obsidian portal/wiki as a reference for the campaign as it develops.


How much work is that already?

Then you have character creation, which even in the best games, feels like needing to do taxes so you can get your refund.

There's some person out there, full of more vigor then sense, who will likely point out that you don't have to do these things. Sure, you don't have to. You don't have to brush your teeth in the morning, but who wants to be a damn savage?

The tools have been getting better for this process over the years. I find starting a campaign from scratch much easier now–not only because I've written my own tools, but because there are more useful tools out there.

The process


Because this is something that's really opaque, I'm going to outline my process below. 

The very first thing is you get some players interested. I find, these days, it's as easy as "I'm running a game at date/time, anyone interested?" I then create a venue on a social network where these players can all interact.

System


My next step was to discuss what system we are going to use. No matter what is picked, there's always issues. I don't like clerics and find % thief skills obnoxious. 3.5/Pathfinder games you need to decide what books you are allowing. In this case, the players and I voted for 1st edition AD&D.

Right away, my long experience gives me some insight into how this plays out. Demi-humans are far superior to humans in almost all respects, and most players end up playing Demi-humans as humans in funny hats. I make humans mechanically superior (4d6DL & assign, versus 3d6 in order, switch 2) and add drawbacks to each race. I used Andrew Shields Death Dwarves and their meatsmithing, took a bit of the chaos elves and have them all start with at least one madness, and have half-men (Halflings) have rows and rows of teeth, who prey on the failing morals of men.

I also replace the thief with the expert class and change all the thief skills and secondary skills to use Skills: the Middle Road. I also inform the players that I will be using my Death & Dismemberment table, along with Hackmaster Critical hits.

World


I give a moment's thought to theme. I decide on a frontier style game. Instead of having a foreign land , where all the cultures are bizarre, I'd prefer a more traditionally medieval setting. My inspirations include Berserk, the 100 years war, Artesia, Bladestorm, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and all the drama inherent in war.

With the idea that the characters are at a forward outpost of a despotic country, with conflict brewing with the nearest city, surrounded by unknown militaristic forces, I head over to Wizardawn and generate maps until I find one that I like. Mountains to the north, a few lakes. I generate it sans any generated sites. I save this map to my Dropbox, print out a color copy and a very light almost faded black and white copy. On the light copy, I create a few cities, about half a dozen towns, and place resources and obstacles over the map. I don't generate the content for any of these. Partially because some answers will be obvious (one city and town on the west side of the map will reflect the outpost and the nearest settlement) and partially because they will develop in play. 

This map is at a scale of 6 mile hexes, making it about the size of my home state of Arkansas. The distances are substantial, but not unmanageable. There's endless adventure inside a single six mile hex, so it provides plenty of room for play and expansion. I can have a whole ancient empire in just a few hexes or introduce a new castle or force late in the campaign.

Then I generate some monster threats. One worldshaker, two that are formidable opponents for Lord or name level characters, and then four that are challenges for superhero level characters. Most of the hero level challenges don't influence the campaign enough to design now.

Now that all that is written, I rationalize clerics and select a calendar. I have a few default options, one from a campaign my father was in way back in the early 80's, another that I designed to be a unique calendar that I use from time to time. Not having to do this from scratch is a big time saver.

Preparation

The next thing is what we will need to start play. I'm playing 1st edition with hackmaster criticals so armor placement is important, along with character sheets. I print off a 1st edition Player's Handbook gear list, and consider printing off some gear packages, but I've been burned with having differing prices before. This later turns out to be a mistake, considering exactly how much gear the players were missing. They had a bullseye lantern no one could light, and no rope. I print out blank spell lists for spellcasters, and then I turn to my Binder.

I find some suitably gory and bizarre images to insert into the covers of the binder, and begin collecting what I need from online and my older folders. I need a copy of my "Table for Avoiding Death", some blank paper, a table for random monster behavior, combat commentary styles, Non-Player Character features, A table for random hireling traits, random backgrounds for henchmen (which will partially decide their class when they acquire enough experience to level), and a list of completely random rumors, which is often useful for inspiration.

The next section contains a cheat sheet for 1e morale, evasion, and encounter detection and a table of 100 reasons the characters are together along with a list of totally bullshit taxes that can be levied on players. The 100 reasons sheet is extremely useful for creating emergent play.

Finally, I have a section devoted to overland travel. The first page is a way to determine with one die roll when the next encounter is based on encounter frequency, instead of having to roll three, four, or even six or more times per day of travel. Then I have several lists of non-standard wilderness events, some creative tables for merchants, war travel, short encounters, unique treasure, holidays, strange inns, etc. Then I have a page devoted to an article from a hackjournal that contains a random system for naming small villages and hamlets. Finally I have a copy of the d30 random wilderness book.

Adventure


Well, what now?

There's still a lot left to do. Like what are the players actually going to do when they get to the game? I generate three key Non-Player Characters, and an opening setting for their arrival in town. I also go through the various books and monster manuals (The Creature Compendium, Fire on theVelvet Horizon, etc.) and pick a small (2-6) selection of monsters per terrain type near the starting area. These will be the primary antagonists and animals the players will meet.

Due to time constraints, I forgo creating an actual wandering monster table. In order to create an actual experience of discovery and realism, I follow the method for monster tables outlined on the retired adventurer blog, each containing spoors, lairs, and other monster sign.

I then flip through some resources, looking for a few activities for new adventurers, along with ideas for other local factions and groups. I select a few from here and there, and write them down on my campaign sheet, which at this point is still a single piece of paper with a lot of writing on it. I grab a copy of a few interesting files, and dump them on my tablet.

Then I gather the books I need. My "On the Non-Player Character", Delta's "Book of War", Crawford's "An Echo, Resounding", My 1e Dungeon Master Screen, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Player's Handbook, A copy of "Dyson's Delves" for treasure maps. I also keep a copy of my Critical Hit/Wild Magic Resource, and Kellri's CCD:4 for wilderness travel nearby.

I gather dice, pencils, dice trays, my tact-tiles, dry erase markers, buy a fruit tray, and just hope for the best at this point.

The Beginning


Well, after you had the first game session, that's it eh?

Not hardly. Then comes setting up the Obsidian Portal, drawing pictures of the non-player characters, creating new non-player characters, writing the random tables, creating interesting and connected rumors, and more.

In 2017, I was able to handle all the above in about 48 hours, whereas as short as a decade ago it could take weeks, or more. Are we there yet? We are getting better. Newer rulesets like ACKS, DCC, and Perdition require a lot less house-ruling of core systems it seems; adventurers, tools, and resources seem to be getting more useful as time goes on. Even the quality of official material seems to be of a higher caliber (but often fails from trying to be too many things to too many people).

What about your campaigns? Is every single one a task of pulling the entire world up by its bootstraps while you are astride it?

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