Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Aversion Therapy

Last week, I discussed Gary's short-lived attempt to run a by-the-book AD&D campaign. After he quit running, I decided that I was one of the few members of the group who had not yet stepped up to run D&D and decided to try my hand at it. However, my campaign wasn't going to be by-the-book like Gary's, not by a long shot. Nor would it be the same extended ultra-killer Monty Haul power trip dungeon crawl of Paul's game.

No, my game would be closer in spirit to what Homer had done, in trying to bring the flavor of his favorite novels to the gaming experience. I've mentioned before that I'd had a very ambitious plan for my first V&V campaign that I never came close to fulfilling. Well, this time would be different. I had more time and experience under my belt, and I had a better idea of how I wanted my games to run. And I already had a campaign world in mind.

I had actually tried to start the campaign a couple of months before, as a Dragonquest game. Dragonquest was a roleplaying system put out by SPI, the wargaming publisher. SPI published lots of games that simulated battles in the Civil War and World War II, but also put out some other odd games in other genres, like the mini-game classic, "The Creature That Ate Sheboygan" and even a game based on the prime-time TV soap opera Dallas. Dragonquest was their version of a role-playing game, with the rules written in numbered sections, just like their wargame rules, for easy reference.

I hadn't played Dragonquest much, but I liked the many ways in which it was different from D&D. Everything was rolled on 10-sided dice, which was simple. It emphasized a wide range of skills that D&D didn't include. Magic was not a Dying Earth-style fire and forget system, but a point-based system that split magic into several different disciplines, so that you could never know exactly what spells a given wizard might know.

So at some point during Gary's campaign, I announced that I was going to start a Dragonquest campaign in the evenings, but for many reasons, it didn't happen. Instead, I decided to make it easier on everybody and stick with a rules system we were all familiar with.

This was going to be a huge, epic campaign. The idea was that the party of adventurers would start out low-level nobodies, like any other D&D game. But, influenced by Raymond Feist's D&D-adapted novel Magician, as well as game-mastering advice absorbed from the many Champions books I'd been accumulating and an interview with the brilliant Aaron Allston that I'd read somewhere (The Space Gamer, I think), I decided to put my players on an epic quest.

Actually, several epic quests. They would start out as adventurers from the same village sent on a quest to solve the mystery of a poisoned spring. Then they would have a few more adventures to season them and spread their fame, including at least one adventure that would gain them the attention of a high-ranking noble. Then they would travel to the capital of the Empire, where they would come to the attention of the Emperor himself, who would send them on a quest to recover his lost seven years, which would put them at odds with corrupt nobles, evil clerics, anti-paladins and an ancient demon.

The first adventure went very well, if a little too quickly. The players were sent to discover the source of the poison tainting their village's water supply. It turned out to be blood from a wounded Gold Dragon that was causing the problem. The characters drove away the Lizard Men harrying the dragon, then went on a long journey in search of the rare Snow Lily to make a healing potion for the slowly-seeping wound. The search was supposed to take several sessions, but they did it in one. I didn't have nearly enough side-quests set up, and the ones I did, they didn't really follow.

That should have been my first warning.

Weeks of game time went by in one long afternoon-evening-night session, and when it was over, everyone agreed that they'd really enjoyed themselves. The next game, I set up another not-quite-as-epic quest for them to follow--a horde of Wemics (lion-centaurs), nomadic tribes from the plains, had gathered under a single leader who had discovered a royal seal from the ancient kingdom . The Wemics were threatening war against the Empire in a bid to set up a new kingdom in the plains. The characters were sent in as a sort of special ops force to steal the seal. Think of the Seven Samurai infiltrating Sitting Bull's camp and you're in the ballpark.

It was crazy, suicidal, but I had decided I was going to run things more like Champions than D&D. The characters were the heroes of the story, and it was my job as the DM to help them achieve coolness, not try my best to destroy them. So I fudged a lot, and made much out of the Wemics drunken confusion to keep the players from being overwhelmed, and everybody agreed it was intense, but fun.

So now I was on a roll, but I could tell that the whole "There's this awful menace threatening the world that you can only stop by finding this one rare McGuffin" approach would wear thin really fast. So I did a change-up. The characters traveled to a nearby city for training and supplies, and I informed them that the city was going into curfew because of a visit by the Emperor's Inspector General.

The plan was that the Inspector General would learn of them through some adventure in town, and then send them off on another adventure that would gain them a powerful friend in court.

Unfortunately, as soon as Gary heard the words "lock down" in association with "Inspector General," his paladin panicked. He insisted that the party camp outside the city, then run in the next day, buy their stuff and take off. He wanted nothing to do with the I.G.

This, of course, would leave me with nothing to run. The in-town encounter wouldn't happen, they wouldn't meet the I.G., they wouldn't get the clue to the dungeon--a clue I was particularly proud of: a music box with a jeweled lid in which the jewels formed a map of the region leading to a lake, and the shape of the box itself matched the shape of the lake with the dungeon being located at the point on the shore that matched the latch on the box--and all my work would be wasted.

One of the other players (I believe his name was Robert) realized that, yeah it was a railroad, but if they didn't get on the train, they couldn't enjoy the ride. So his thief snuck into the city and broke into the palace where the I.G. was staying. And got caught, leading to the rest of the party being arrested. The I.G. then basically forced them to go off to the dungeon and bring back what they found there to prove their innocence or something, which led to hard feelings in the group and Robert's character being banished from the party by the paladin.

The players solved the puzzle, found the dungeon, cleared it out and found the item the I.G. wanted. But instead of going back to the city and gaining a powerful ally, the paladin decided to beat feet in the other direction. I had based my world very roughly on a map of North America, with the city the players had been sent away from being either Houston or New Orleans (memories fade and the maps are long lost). Gary and the others basically took off west, heading for the Rocky Mountains.

Which left me double-fucked. Not only could I not get them into my Seven-Years Quest, but I had never really filled in the map on the Western side. I had no idea what was out there. Not only that, but I had the feeling that no matter what adventure seeds I threw out there, Gary's Brave Sir Robin of a paladin would flee screaming from them. I was triple-fucked.

I think I ran one or two more perfunctory adventures, where they ran into lost temples on the far frontiers of the Empire or something, but my heart wasn't in it any more. I had designed the entire world to lead up to an adventure that now wasn't going to happen because the players didn't trust that I wasn't going to try to wipe them out, and the idea of running a fleeing fugitives campaign didn't appeal. So I let the campaign drop.

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