Thursday, February 3, 2011

Actual Play, Nightwick Abbey, the Underworld, and Gamer ADD

Warning: this one rambles a bit, but it's the synthesis of lots of ideas that have been whooshing around in my head recently and I needed to get them out.

Recent posts over at Grognardia have got me thinking about how awesome it is to see a campaign setting develop through actual play.  I've seen this first hand with a Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaign I ran off and on for a large part of my undergraduate career.  By the end of it our gaming group created and defined a slew of new cultures, reinterpreted existing ones, had characters who achieved apotheosis, established new dynasties in certain city states, and even saw the destruction of the CSIO due to a giant robot.  These served as the basis for a very short term 4e game I ran, but it fizzled out largely due to my frustration with that system.  Still, my version of the Wilderlands is wildly divergent from "canon" and 99.9% of that divergence came about as a result of the needs of actual play.

This shouldn't be that strange to anyone whose played any RPG for an extended period.  Even if one uses an established setting -- as I did -- eventually the group will run into things that aren't cover or are only sparsely covered by the setting material.  Still, one of the most exciting things about RPGs is seeing this kind of transformation of a setting through player action and DM development.

What James M. is talking about though doesn't just include the setting but also the rules.  The above Wilderlands example pretty much used 3.5 (with the spell recharge system from unearthed arcana).  What he is advocating, and he is right in doing so, is the development of house rules, adjoining systems, and supplements from actual play.

Originally I conceived of Nightwick Abbey as such a project.  I'd start with the Swords & Wizardry White Box, build a big dungeon, a nearby, and a really rough sketch of the overall area it existed in.  Then I'd start playing and build out from there.  That changed partially when I started this blog, and then again when I ran into my current group of players.  Now I use Labyrinth Lord with dabbles from Raggi's Game, the Rules Cyclopedia, and an increasing amount of AD&D.  This was largely because the players had already played Labyrinth Lord and were currently playing AD&D, and partially because it's just the way I ended up doing it. I've discussed already the fact that I just like handling the AD&D books and that I like Gygax's prose. Stil, it's more or less by the book D&D, even if which book is a bit contentious.  

The Underworld is a whole different animal.  I'd still largely consider developing it on an ad hoc basis.  Though I'd likely use the White Box for it as well, I may hold out to see what Brave Halfling Publishing's new Delving Deeper looks like.  The main idea though is to use a skeletal version of OSD&D and build out from there.  

I'd like to do this through play.  Unfortunately it's unlikely that I'll run the Underworld in the near future.  I've got a good thing going with my Nightwick Abbey group and I think these sorts of campaigns work best if they're designed for the long haul.  I'd ultimately like to be a one setting/campaign man.  If I ever DM for your group, it's gonna be X-thing-I've-been-working-on-for-years, assuming I ever figure out what that is.

The problem here is that I have one of the worst cases of GADD in recorded history.  The aforementioned Wilderlands campaign has the distinction of being the only game I ever ran that stopped at a logical point.  Even then, another DM had taken over and I was a player for the last few months.  Just this week I've pondered running HarnMaster, Nightwick Abbey again, AD&D set in the Savage Frontier (I always seperate the Paul Jaquays book from the rest of the FR setting.  Bullywugs riding dinosaurs!), Cthulhu Dark Ages, and now I'm sitting here thinking about how cool it would be if I could ever get a handle on the Underworld.

Part of Nightwick Abbey's success has been it's staying power.  I thought of the concept about two years ago in a blinding epiphany that occurred while listening to the Black Sabbath song Black Sabbath while looking at the cover of Supplement II: Blackmoor.  While I've only recently begun to run it regularly, it's been on my mind steadily for several years and no matter how far my mind wanders down the ADD path it always comes back to it.

So what does that mean for the Underworld?  Obviously I'm not currently running it, and I'm not likely to.  Perhaps I'd be better off devoting my attention solely to Nightwick Abbey.  The thing is, that the Underworld concept is just as recurrent in my brain as Nightwick Abbey is.  It's a bit more hazy and amorphous, but thats largely because it hasn't been set through the rigors of play that the Abbey has.  The Underworld and Nightwick Abbey are permanent fixtures in my daydreams, and it'll be a long time before either of them is swept out.

So what does all this mean?  Well I don't know yet.  Perhaps the level of development I'll do for the Dark Country will make it the out and out winner.  It'll become my Blackmoor/Greyhawk/EPT.  Or maybe the party will wipe and be in the mood for something else.  Bam!  Here comes Underworld.  Maybe I'll start an online Underworld game so that I can be developing towards something.  Who knows?  I sure don't.


  1. Seems like if you have an idea burning your brain tissue like that, you should at the least be trying to see how it fares with a Skype or PbP group.

    Why not have your tabletop cake and eat it too?

  2. FWIW, my own experience suggests that it's perhaps more productive (and always more rewarding) to pour your effort into what's currently interesting to you.

    It sounds like a no-brainer, but (GADD or not) it's hard to give constant focus to the same setting or the same system. We all like variation. The heavy hitters, like Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Forgotten Realms, Wilderlands, and Hârn all create the impression that a GM should stick with a setting for the long haul, but that's not always possible when you're trying to find a home for your most recent Great Creative Idea.

    Mashups of game worlds, systems, and genres should be encouraged. They're great creative outlets, even for a one-off, and like you say: actual play will fuel their continued development and direction.