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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Hack & Slash 

3 comments:

  1. How would you reorganize all the information in the second adventure if you were to play it as a small town drama? I am curious as on what format would you use.

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    Replies
    1. Check out Deep Carbon Observatory for a format for worked reeeally well for me. The links between events made for quite an interesting construction, with closer details for NPCs when you need them, not when you first read them.

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

    Well, it COULD be relevant. But mostly depends on if travellers are not just other adventurers or pilgrims or fluff npcs, and instead include people like travelling merchants and quest givers, etc. Like, there's somebody who carries a rare item that he's selling for a high price, so the PCs only have a small amount of time to scrounge up the cash, taking a gamble he won't leave or sell the object before he gets out?

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