Jun 1, 2015

In the beginning. . .

Like any good middle-aged nerd, I got my start playing Dungeons & Dragons in late middle-school, and continued with the same group well into my college years. Back then, it was first edition Advanced Dungeon's & Dragons using the classic Greyhawk setting. I had a phenomenal DM who was as smart and creative as anyone could ask for, and ensured that every session was an immersive experience, that all of the pieces fit together, and that the overall campaign led to a most satisfactory climax. And he did all of this before the Internet, keeping a homemade card-catalog of index cards to look-up everything he needed from source books, modules and Dragon Magazines. He is still going strong today with a new generation of adventurers if you want to read about it here, http://oldeschoolwizardry.blogspot.com/.

While the real lives of me and my group members went their separate ways, my passion for role-playing never died. Over the years, I connected with many different like-minded friends and co-workers and attempted to play many different games. RoleMaster, Amber diceless, Heroes/Champions, Middle-Earth RPG (based on RoleMaster), 3rd edition D&D (and that awful 4th edition we would all like to forget), Game of Thrones RPG, HackMaster and others. I even tried DMing a few times, but despite having the most awesome story in my head, I really struggled to keep the players engaged long enough for them to experience it. Being a Dungeon Master is hard work, requiring far more preparation than I ever imagined (and I imagined a lot). And as much as you would like to let your players be free to do whatever they want, you need to be able to nudge them in the right direction, and some players need more nudging than others (something I also underestimated). I eventually gave up on trying to be DM because I felt I just wasn't as good as I needed to be, and so I played everyone else's games. But as good as my other DM friends were, they would get burned out really fast, and so campaigns rarely went beyond a single adventure or two. I longed for the long-term fantasy campaigns of my youth, and I realized it was going to be up to me to pull this off, and so I began to prepare.

The first thing I realized, as full-time working father of three children, is that spare time is not something I had a lot of. I knew that to build a truly immersive world full of depth and interest, I had to rely on the work of others. I had some recent experience helping a friend build-out his own custom world (http://vindrazzi.blogspot.com/) and, as fun as it was (and still is, since we are still playing it), it just reaffirmed for me that building my own world with a rich history, a multitude of kingdoms, cities, cultures, politics, and people with dreams and motives, was not something I wanted to do from scratch. And so I turned back to the world I already knew best, Greyhawk.

For those who have followed the publication of Greyhawk, it has gone through many fits and starts over the decades, has never been completely fleshed out, and is full of contradictions in the various published materials. Aside from the contradictions, this really created the perfect opportunity to customize a campaign by filling in the blanks. Because I was already familiar with most of the material as published prior to the From the Ashes boxed set, I had a good idea of what elements I wanted to keep and what I wanted to change. A general guiding principal for me would be that if I didn't explicitly change something, then whatever is published is considered canon for my campaign. This would allow me to give my players a lot more freedom to explore the world, because if they decided to go to a particular city somewhere, or speak to a particular person, I had information at my fingertips to ensure that the experience would be very real and interesting for them, and that nothing that I describe as happening would need to be later retconned (a problem we have had in other games). But like every other attempt to DM, I quickly realized that the amount of preparation, despite picking a familiar setting, was still exponentially more than I anticipated.

The first thing I decided to do, even though I can get most of the material online, was to buy-up every single Greyhawk module, sourcebook and boxed set I could get from 1st and 2nd edition. This includes early D&D expert modules that were loosely associated with Greyhawk, before the official launch of Advanced D&D. I relied heavily on this source, http://www.adnd3egame.com/documents/advtimeline.pdf to make sure I understood where everything fit within the published canon. I have no problem doing things in my own order, but I need to know whenever I am going to break from published canon so I can fix the continuity. I can't have a former bad-guy show up to take revenge on the party for something they haven't done yet, and I can't have people making references to wars or other political events that aren't actually happening.

If you are familiar with Greyhawk canon, you also know that setting itself was re-written multiple times. There was the Greyhawk prior to the publication of the official World of Greyhawk boxed set (original D&D and 1st edition AD&D), the boxed set Greyhawk (1st edition AD&D, moving into 2nd edition after the Fate of Istus supermodule), then the From the Ashes Greyhawk (2nd edition), which describes a world after the major Greyhawk Wars. After this, TSR abandoned the setting for a while, until briefly reviving it with a series of modules by new authors just prior to TSR being bought by Wizards of the Coast. WotC brought Greyhawk back for 3rd edition D&D, but set several years later, with a new generation of political leaders and re-writing, to a certain extent, major parts of the history of the Flanaess, as well as expanding the continent of Oerik beyond just the Flanaess (something I am not a huge fan of because, well, where were these other people for the last several thousand years when we had magical means to pretty much go anywhere). WotC took another crack at the Greyhawk setting in 4th edition, adding and changing even more, and given that 4th edition had an entirely different idea about the planes, it had to be re-imagined quite a bit. So as you can imagine, I had quite a job ahead of me to read through all of the published materials and decide what to keep and what to toss, as well as resolve all of the conflicts (and there are a lot). The good news is, there are a lot of other people like me who wanted to do the same, and Internet is full of really good unofficial source material, and no shortage of people who have done the work finding all of the conflicting information in the published works and offering suggestions on resolving them. So from all of these sources, I began building my own planned timeline for the Greyhawk setting. "Planned" in the sense that I want to start my campaign in the 1st edition setting, around CY 579 with the Temple of Elemental Evil, and progress the timeline from there. But any plan can be altered, depending on what the characters do in the campaign, and so as things happen in the game, I will be continuing to alter this timeline to see where things go.

I've also spent a lot of time fleshing out the major influencers, that is, the good and bad guys (both within the world and outside of it) what they want, how they will get it, who their agents are, and then spending the time to track what they are doing as the campaign moves forward. I've laid out a rough order for all of the available modules, which is far more than the party will be able to complete, but I want to have options depending on which adventure hooks they choose to follow. I have then documented how each module contributes to the overall campaign arc, including adding and substituting characters and plots as necessary. All in all, this has been about two years of preparation, which means I am heavily invested and really don't want to screw it up now. To mitigate this, I am starting with a small group so I can hone my DM skills and work out the kinks in the house-rule variations I am coming up with (those will be posted in a permalink here so that I the players may use it as a resource).

I am starting this blog late, and now have a year and a half of stuff to write about, but its been going well so far.


  1. Boy, do I ever understand the joys and limitations of the full time working dad-DM (the chiefmost joy being when you get to introduce your own hobbits into the imaginary worlds that you romped through in your own youth)!

    These days I'm served so well by the many products and supports generated by my fellow nerds that I never lack for short cuts or inspiration -- The Dungeon Alphabet and One Page Dungeon Contest entries being among my favorites.

    I really appreciate the broad and thorough ground you've laid for your campaign and like how you've seeded your world with hooks or doors that lead off to a variety of published modules. Do you have a flowchart of sorts? I think that would be fun to see.

    Updates please ("Please sir, I want some more.").

    1. Thanks for checking this out. My love of RPGs was inspired by the fantastic work you did and a lot of what I am trying to do is re-create a lot of the feelings of the original games we played. I have realized that this is harder with adults, whose minds are not as curious and in awe of fantasy in the same way as children. While I am trying to get their minds wrapped around the setting and the situation, some of their minds are wrapped around the mechanics of the dice and how to optimize their next combination of moves. This is one of the reasons I went with the old first edition rules. I don't want players focused on the character-build, getting the best combination of skills and features that work together to dominate the dice. I've watched our group break enough systems in the past (and I'm just as guilty) to see how it distracts from the imaginative play that we had in our youth. All of the members of my RPG group agree, but just can't help themselves, so the simple rules of 1st edition, while limiting and, in many way, senseless, force us to focus on the narrative. I have the added advantage of using familiar materials for a setting, without having to convert those materials to another system. We've tried that many times. We've been playing HackMaster, which we all agree is a better system, but has limited source material and its too much work for the DM to convert from AD&D sources.

      I didn't mention it in the article above, but this really started out as me asking two members of my regular group (one of whom is Curtis Neff) if they could play AD&D Greyhawk with me on the side. I told them I had a campaign in mind, and would have them play a "prequel" to the campaign in order to help me get some practice and flesh out my DM skills. We started playing, but when another member of the group learned about it, he asked if he could join. Then my wife asked me if I could invite her friend's husband, whom I had just met, and I did. And then I realized the most important thing about all of this that I had almost forgotten. This is a social game and its about friends getting together, not rolling dice and killing monsters, and about whether or not I am getting enough practice as a DM. And only one regular member of my RPG group was being left out at this point and I asked him if he was interested and he enthusiastically jumped in. So we now get together every other week and they group is enjoying it, so I feel good about that, even though I feel my DM skills are not up to par yet.

    2. As far as a flowchart, I didn't put in a flowchart, but I like the idea. What I did do, which I can share with you privately (so the players don't see it here) is a rough timeline of about 10 to 15 years during which the results of each module has an impact on the world. For each module the PCs play, they will be exposed to pieces of the larger campaign story, and their actions will shape things (for example, they are currently playing the Temple of Elemental Evil and one of the possible outcomes was rescuing Prince Thrommel, which they have done, and this already has world-changing consequences). For the modules that they don't play (and they can't play them all because they will quickly out-level many of them), we have the option of playing with a separate group of PCs, or leaving it to me, the DM, to decide if the events in the module unfold anyway, or what happens to the world if they do not. Mostly what I have in the file (in Excel) is a list of modules, where they take place, when (approximately in the timeline), the character levels, and some DM notes about how it fits into my campaign (i.e. here are some things the PCs will be exposed to, and here are some possible outcomes). After that, I am taking notes and adjusting things as I go, trying to make sure I keep track of the little things for realism, while also keeping focus on the big things for plot purposes. My group enjoys the complicated plots, and the steady reveals and mis-directions keeps them engaged - not unlike a serial television show in the spirit of Lost.

  2. Yes--I hear you loud and clear on the idea of roleplaying as a social interaction. In fact, while I run two games a week for middle schoolers, my 3rd campaign is for adult players and uses my homebrew RPG ... the eponymous "Olde School Wizardry." That system recognizes the implicit social contract of RPGs (with adults) in which fully developed humans set aside time from career, family, and interests on a regular basis to play pretend inside of the GM's imagined world (which is really weird when you think about it). I bet there's a Lewis Carroll quote that captures that notion neatly. In OSW, character advancement is a function of how many times players are willing to get together to devote effort to our shared delusion rather than the product of what their wizard PCs actually accomplish in-game.

    It sounds like you all are having terrific fun--ToEE is a swell place to start too. Do you ever slip and accidentally call one of your other players "Matt" or "Joel" I wonder? Please give Curtis my warm regards. I should like to get together face-to-face one day to reminisce.

    1. The good thing is that none of the players in my game have the same eccentricities as Matt or Joel, so I don't do that. I do occasionally call one of them Curtis - but I think that's probably okay with him. These players have their own eccentricities, which is so much a part of the fun.

      I just reached out to Curtis. We will absolutely make plans to get together, and soon. I'm going to guess his work schedule will dictate, but we'll figure it out. You can find us both on Google Hangouts if you want to chat.