In honor of OSRIC’s tenth anniversary, I cracked open the first edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide in order to see if– yet again– I could stumble on something useful or insightful that I had never come across before. I didn’t flip around much when I started reading the section entitled “The Ongoing Campaign.” Here it is:
While it might seem highly unlikely to those who have not been involved in fantasy adventure gaming for an extended period of time, after the flush of excitement wears off – perhaps a few months or a year, depending on the intensity of play – some participants will become bored and move to other gaming forms, returning to your campaign only occasionally. Shortly thereafter even your most dedicated players will occasionally find that dungeon levels and wilderness castles grow stale, regardless of subtle differences and unusual challenges. It is possible, however, for you to devise a campaign which will have a very minimal amount of participant attrition and enthusiast ennui, and it is not particularly difficult to do so.
One thing that sets Gary Gygax apart from a lot of later rpg writers is the rather large amounts of gaming experience he had. I read stuff from the second edition days and it drives me nuts because it’s written by people that have barely played at all. The game design necessarily suffers and the game mastering advice is downright execrable as a result.
One think I want to point out about the long campaigns he’s referring to here is that it’s original D&D he’s talking about here. A lot of quintessentially AD&D type rules did emerge in OD&D’s supplements, sure. But it was a different scene without an “official” Dungeon Master’s Guide to propel TSR’s flagship game into the eighties.
Another thing about this passage… he’s talking about something that is (to me) one of the most challenging things in gaming and he introducing it by declaring its solution to be “not particularly difficult.” Alright, Gary… I’m all ears, man. Lay it on me!
Is has been mentioned already, the game must be neither too difficult to survive nor so easy as to offer little excitement or challenge There must always be something desirable to gain, something important to lose, and the chance of having either happen. Furthermore, there must be some purpose to it all. There must be some backdrop against which adventures are carried out, and no matter how tenuous the strands, some web which connects the evil and good, the opposing powers, the rival states and various peoples. This need not be evident at first, but as play continues, hints should be given to players, and their characters should become involved in the interaction and struggle between these vaster entities. Thus, characters begin as less than pawns, but as they progress in expertise, each eventually realizes that he or she is a meaningful, if lowly, piece in the cosmic game being conducted. When this occurs, players then have a dual purpose to their play, for not only will their player characters and henchmen gain levels of experience, but their actions have meaning above and beyond that of personal aggrandizement.
Okay, there’s plenty here to reflect on. My most successful campaign was with ACKS and Dwimmermount and I wrapped that one up when the players were solidly at the third level or so. I think of the opening stages of the game as sort of ten foot wall that forces the players to master the game and learn to cooperate. I did get player feedback saying there was too much death, but I also got a request to run another game that started at first level.
I think the design of Dwimmermount is designed to address these directives here… but the way the module is set up with lots of situations for the players to walk in on (ie, as basically most traditional modules are done), this “cosmic game” is established a little differently there than how Gygax might have done it himself at the time. Certainly, elements of both the domain level play of the game and also of the game’s wider cosmology should come into play at some point. When I did the Appendix N survey, I had my eye out for anything that could provide inspiration for handling this sort of thing as it’s long been something that I’ve struggled with. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t think there is a whole lot effort on the part of the old school scene in general to get into some of this. Many of us are quite happy focusing at length upon the ten foot pole and iron spike stage of D&D’s gameplay, sure. But maybe we overreacted against the “Hickman revolution” a little, too.
But if serious purpose is integral to a successfully ongoing campaign, there must be moments of relief as well. Such counterplots can be lesser and different themes within the whole, whether some side dungeon or quest, a minor altercation between petty nobles, or whatever. Occasional “pure fun” scenarios can be conducted also. That is, moments of silliness and humor help to contrast with the grinding seriousness of a titanic struggle and relieve participants at the same time. After all, ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game, a pastime for fun and enjoyment. At times the fun aspect must be stressed. Thus, in my “Greyhawk Campaign” I included an “Alice In Wonderland” level, and while it is a deadly place, those who have adventured through it have uniformly proclaimed it as great fun because it is the antithesis of the campaign as a whole. Similarly, there are places where adventurers can journey to a land of pure Greek mythology, into the future where the island of King Kong awaits their pleasure, or through the multiverse to different planets, including Jack Vance’s “Planet of Adventure”, where they hunt sequins in the Carabas while Dirdir and Dirdirmen hunt them.
Okay, there is a great deal in this paragraph. I believe the old school scene of recent years has done a great deal to revive the “silliness and humor” that is referred to here. Certainly, the pages of Fight On! magazine is loaded with humourous material that is completely at odds with the overly serious, brooding model types that grace the pages of today’s fantasy novels. Another thing the old school has helped bring back is an understanding of the utility of dungeon sublevels and so forth. I think the lore surrounding much advice in mega-dungeon design is in tune with what Gygax is saying here.
I caught a lot of flak over what I’ve said about rpg settings over the past year or so, so I want you to take a look at what he’s saying about Greyhawk here. Note that when he says “Greyhawk Campaign” he doesn’t mean anything remotely like what most people mean when they talk about a “Forgotten Realms Campaign”. The thrust of what he’s talking about doesn’t sound anything like the 1983 boxed set that pretty well defined the game world for children of the eighties.
I’m sure there are gaming scholars that are much more familiar with the backstory on this, but when he says that his “Greyhawk Campaign” includes an “Alice In Wonderland” level, it sure sounds like the heart of his campaign setting was a very large– and occasionally nonsensical– dungeon. And that stuff with a Greek Mythology land, time travel, and King Kong…? You’re talking an anything goes, off the wall, kitchen sink campaign here.
Why would it be like that? Because, amateur Dungeon Masters in the old school scene do not produce professional style, coherent, and painstakingly detailed game settings when they engage in the “Do It Yourself” approach that typifies the OD&D era. When you tell people over and over that they need to have a serious, realistic setting to game in or else they’re totally el lame-o, they don’t start making awesomely coherent works of art. They start buying somebody else’s masterpiece because it’s takes a lot of work to develop that stuff.
Now a lot of people bemoan all this “gonzo” stuff that goes on in the old school scene of today. It just doesn’t set well with a lot of people. And that’s fine– I mean, different strokes and all that, right? But genre mashups and the characters drawn from anything that can be turned up in a Google image search and… well… basically anything that’s ever been done with Encounter Critical…? It serves a purpose beyond just being freaky and hilarious. It puts “Do It Yourself” campaign setting development back within the reach of the average Dungeon Master.
And take a look at what Gygax is doing with Jack Vance’s “Planet of Adventure” there. Oh yeah, it’s practically the same thing he did with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom stories in the pages of OD&D. That would be the other big secret to “Do It Yourself” style play. You can adapt old pulp novels to classic D&D with very little work. If megadungeons ever get boring, you can just turn the players loose in the world of nearly any classic science fiction and fantasy author.
So can people stop saying now that “Appendix N is ultimately a list of Gygax’s favorites”? I mean, I thought it was enough to show just how much was pulled from those books in the creation of AD&D. I would have thought that Tim Kask’s statement on what it was was enough to put an already asinine claim to bed. But just look it. Appendix N defines large stretches of Gygax’s personal campaign setting as it was actually played. And beyond that, he’s telling you that this is part of the secret to running a long-lasting campaign that will keep people coming back.
Of course, such areas represent a considerable investment in time and effort. Many of you will not have hours to spend creating these diversions, so it might seem that your campaign is doomed to eventual stagnation. Not so. The various prepared modules available commercially are ideal for use as sidelights to the whole of your game. In addition, there are many games which can be “plugged into” your AD&D campaign to serve as relief. After all is said and done, role playing is role playing and the setting is not of paramount importance. The trick is to adapt one system to the other so as to enable continuity of the characters from AD&D into the other setting. This allows not only a refreshing change, but it poses new problems to participants and adds new factors to your campaign – new abilities, new weapons, etc. TSR has many games and rules systems which can be used with this game to expand and invigorate your campaign. Space does not permit detailed explanations of how to do this with each and every possible system, but two readily lend themselves to both the spirit of AD&D and its systems: BOOT HILL and GAMMA WORLD.
And no, even with a kitchen sink style setting and a pile of Appendix N books, not everyone is going to want to roll their own. On the other hand, “the setting is not of paramount importance” to role-playing. Wow. Did you catch that…? The setting is not of paramount importance!
Really, though… if your kitchen sink is not doing it for you, then the only thing to do is kitchen sink even harder. You need six guns and random mutations in your AD&D game… and probably space ships and powered armor just to be sure. (Heck, it’s already got psionics and green slimes straight out of Heiro’s Journey, so why the heck not, right?)
Okay, I guess you don’t have to go that far in order to play AD&D correctly…. But one thing’s for sure. Pretty much everything people take for granted about how rpg settings are “supposed” to be done is antithetical to how AD&D was intended to be played.