Greyhawk Lives! River to a Sea of Choices

A couple of days ago, I was contacted by the Living Greyhawk module author Grant Featherstone. He had stumbled upon the collection of Living Greyhawk modules by Sampo Haarlaa and myself from a couple of years back, and wished to contribute his own module to the collection, the Splintered Suns metaregional ESA6-03 – River to the Sea of Choices.

I remember playing the module. It is a fairly straightforward piece of work, but it showcases what was from my point of view one of the central tensions in the Splintered Suns plotline, the conflict between the United Kingdom of Ahlissa, which represented a strong military and rule of law, and the Iron League, who had weaker militaries but more individual freedoms. Law vs. chaos, basically. The military strength was relevant because the Scarlet Brotherhood posed a threat to everybody in the region and the kingdom of Onnwal only was liberated from Brotherhood occupation during the campaign.

ESA6-03 – River to the Sea of Choices, by Grant Featherstone

The revenue brought in by gemstones panned from the River Thelly is vital in the maintenance of the war-damaged city walls and defences of Nulbish. The Royal Guild of Merchants need guards to protect a barge full of grain and gemstones destined to be sold at Kalstrand for the Windmarch fair. The Ahlissan army after all routed many bands of outlaws and humanoid tribes during the recent campaign around Wyverntor, and these are desperate for coin and food. An adventure for APLs 2-8.

And here is Mr. Featherstone’s commentary:

This is the first and only adventure I wrote for the RPGA. It took a little over a year from the first contact I made with the local Triad when I whimsically offered to write a module to finally getting it polished enough for release. I did have an idea for a follow-up adventure but I do not think the Triad wanted to wait another year for it.

The title came about as a bit of a poke at the railroaded adventures most of the other RPGA modules were. However, once you take on the knowledge that someone else has to run it and with a group of any PC type you can think of, it actually becomes very challenging not to railroad the adventure and ironically the choices generally came down to help the Good guys or the Lawful guys. Or the other choice being to pay 25 gp to get off the boat! Apparently from the feedback I got most PC’s are tight with their gold and refused to pay for an additional roleplaying scene. The other feedback I got ranged from the encounters were easy “we backstabbed the cleric game over” to it is so dangerous its broken.  Ideally its APL 4-6 being a bit too deadly at APL 2, and too easy with the high level magic available at APL 8.

Apparently, he also received only one report where the party sided with the cleric of Hextor against the Nemoudian Hounds.

I’m pretty sure that was my table. I’m so proud.

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Review: The Unofficial Living Greyhawk Bandit Kingdoms Summary

I recently got my hands on a most curious book. The Unofficial Living Greyhawk Bandit Kingdoms Summary is perhaps a unique work in that it discusses the World of Greyhawk, an intellectual property owned by Wizards of the Coast, yet it is self-published by Casey Brown (and available print-on-demand and for Kindle from Createspace and Amazon).

Brown himself has described the book as more of an academic work discussing the campaign rather than something copyright-infringing. Indeed, a certain remarkably disagreeable member of the Greyhawk fan community mailed about the book to WotC’s legal department, who issued a DMCA notice and got the book removed from Createspace. It looked for a moment that my copy, then winding its way over the Atlantic to me, might become a rare collectible indeed. It was not to be, however, and Mr. Brown was vindicated, the notice withdrawn, and the book returned to Createspace.

The book itself, then. It is 81 pages in length, with a cover illustration from a 14th-century illuminated manuscript that I’m afraid is rather pixellated. The contents are what it says on the tin, an overview of the approximately 150 rounds of adventures that the Bandit Kingdoms region produced in the eight years of Living Greyhawk.

It begins with a discussion on the tone of the region, titled “I had to save the bad guys from the other PCs,” quoting a paladin player from another region upon his first foray into the Bandit Kingdoms. The BK is rather like our own Principality of Naerie was, in their lack of clear-cut heroes and focus on moral grey areas. While Iuz was always the bad guy, the PCs might find themselves in the employ of, say, the church of Nerull, the death god. The BK player characters don’t seem to differ a lot from Naerie PCs, except that ours dressed better.

This is followed by a critical analysis of the Average Party Level system, experience and Encounter Levels in Living Greyhawk and their problems.

The majority of the book, however, 52 pages, is taken up by a variety of summaries for the adventures produced by the Bandit Kingdoms. The book is not comprehensive in this—it includes only those scenarios that somehow affected the Bandit Kingdoms plot arcs. This mainly excludes special missions, only one of which is discussed in the book, and mini-missions. There’s a general listing of modules; longer summaries of each with their level ranges, adventure series, blurbs and Casey Brown’s comments; and listings of the modules according to location and adventure series. The book is rounded out by a timeline of Bandit Kingdoms events, a reproduction of an in-character letter sent by a player character to a major villain, a selection of quotations from Bandit Kingdoms (my favourite is “This would get your PC pulled in most regions.”), and a listing of Bandit Kingdoms Triad members.

The book is tagged “BDKR1” and promises to be the first of a trilogy, followed by BDKR2: Rogues’ Gallery of the Bandit Kingdoms and BDKR3: A Mercenary’s Guide to the Bandit Kingdoms.

So, it’s a book full of information on a campaign that ended four years ago, whose scenarios are no longer easily available and which includes no rules items whatsoever. Is it of any use?

Well, the timeline will be handy for DMs wishing to run a game in the Bandit Kingdoms. However, what the book is about is documentation. It details and discusses a slice of the largest roleplaying game campaign that ever was and sets the information in print before it is lost. It is about the history of our hobby (and more than a little about nostalgia), and it is well made. The production values may not be all that, but the writing is good and the book has been edited with an admirable attention to detail, with a hundred footnotes. Some of them are impressively long. The only things I feel are missing are a complete scenario listing, including those mini-missions and special missions that did not warrant longer summaries (turns out even my collection has one, a Year Four mini-mission titled Two Gentlemen of Veluna), and perhaps an entry in the longer summaries for the original designation of the module in question. For the purposes of clarity, the author has dropped the original, often discrepant, module codes for intro, special, interactive and mini modules and introduced his own.

It’s good stuff. I would never try to do this for the Principality of Naerie, but it does give me some ideas for the next revision of the Principality of Naerie Gazetteer that I’m still occasionally working on. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the trilogy.

Module Retrospective: Red Hand of Doom

I recently chatted with someone about Red Hand of Doom. I cannot for the life of me remember who it was, where it was, or even what language it was in. However, the conversation gave me a push to reread the module, which in turn inspired me to write this post.

Red Hand of Doom really isn’t that old a module, having come out in 2006. It was one of Wizards of the Coast’s better adventure modules, released in the final years of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, and written by Rich Baker and James “Mr ENnie for Best Adventure” Jacobs. According to the cover, it’s for characters of levels 6-12. In practice, as I recall, it took the party from around level 5 to level 11.

The module clocks in at 128 pages, and I think it takes the cake for being the longest single adventure module I’ve run from start to finish. I ran it under the Living Greyhawk campaign from December 2006 to April 2007. The RPGA, around 2006, started to adapt published WotC adventures for use with Living Greyhawk. Unlike your normal LG modules, these wouldn’t have caps on gold or experience points, but would just take up an amount of Time Units comparable to that much XP’s worth of Living Greyhawk modules. Your normal Living Greyhawk module took one TU, and the adapted modules could take anything from five to twelve, easily. Your character had 52 Time Units per year, and after you’d used them up, you couldn’t play that character again until next year. This wasn’t usually much of a limitation, and even though we played like crazy, I never hit zero Time Units with a single character. However, some other players did, and it was because of the adapted modules. The three big ones were Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, at 22 Time Units; Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, at an impressive 32 TU; and the biggest one of them all, Red Hand of Doom, which ate up 51 of your precious Time Units, a whole year’s play time. That was partly why we hurried to get it started in 2006, to spread the cost over two years.

The big modules were also split up into multiple parts along the chapter breakup of the adventure book. In Living Greyhawk, you received an Adventure Record after each module, which kept track of your gold and experience points and their expenditure. Ideally, with a Living Greyhawk character of any level, you could pick up their stack of Adventure Records, flip through it, and see how they’ve earned and spent gold starting from their leftover starting cash and accurate to the last gold piece. Also, your average LG module was written for a four-hour convention slot and lasted a single session from beginning to end. After playing dozens, maybe hundreds of these in the Living Greyhawk environment, you got into the mentality that the session weren’t over until you had a brand new Adventure Record, signed by the judge.

With that background, you may understand the thought process that led to us playing the entire module in five sessions, taking from eight to twelve hours each.

Incidentally, there will be SPOILERS in this post.

The Plot

The adventure, perhaps even “mini-campaign”, is set in Elsir Vale, a generic D&D anyplace, though with a geography modelled after a location in southern Faerûn in the Forgotten Realms. Living Greyhawk dropped it into western Sterich. An army of hobgoblins and dragons under the banner of Tiamat are threatening the population of the vale, and it’s up to the PCs to beat back the bad guys. (Yeah, it’s the same valley as in the Scales of War adventure path. I’m gonna be diplomatic and just ignore that it ever existed.)

The module is broken up into five chapters, each handling one stage of the invasion and the PCs’ actions against it. In the first one, “The Witchwood”, the PCs are ambushed right at the beginning by a big force of hobgoblins , supplemented by hell hounds, as they are on their way to Drellin’s Ferry. When they reach the town, they’re contracted by Norro Wiston, the town speaker who looks a lot like Sean Connery, into investigating the Witchwood and driving off the hobgoblin bandits they figure have set up shop somewhere in the forest.

In the forest, there’s a variety of encounters, from meeting the reclusive woodsman Jorr, to fighting a hydra and negotiating with a wood giant elder. The centrepieces of the first part, however, are taking out Vraath Keep and the sabotage of the Skull Gorge Bridge. Vraath Keep is a small ruin where the hobgoblins have established an outpost, watched over by Wyrmlord Koth, a bugbear sorcerer. Once the PCs have taken out the hobgoblins, and their allied goblins and manticore, they’ll find a map with an invasion plan in Koth’s quarters. The invasion force plans to cross the Skull Gorge Bridge nearby, but has not yet done so, and can be delayed significantly if the bridge is destroyed.

Of course, they already occupy the bridge, leading to a set-piece battle when the PCs try to drop the bridge into the gorge before being overwhelmed. Here, we also meet the first dragon of the adventure, the green Ozyrrandion.

At the end of “The Witchwood”, the PCs must convince the population of Drellin’s Ferry to evacuate. Staying in the town to defend it is lunacy, but the module does include information on what the PCs will encounter and the tactics of the horde if they want to make a stand, along with several chances to let them flee. They’ll be fighting an army, and they can’t win, but they’re free to try.

The second part, then is “The Ruins of Rhest”. The centrepiece of the chapter is the assault on, well, the drowned ruins of Rhest, where the army of the Red Hand is breeding spawn of Tiamat. The ruins are guarded by greenspawn razorfiends, hobgoblins, some ogres, some more hobgoblins, and a total of 66 lizardfolk tribesmen. And an ettin. They’re led by the goblin Wyrmlord Saarvith, who rides a black dragon.

In addition to the assault on Rhest, spread around it are interactions with the local tribe of wild elves in an attempt to secure their help against the encroaching Red Hand (snow elves in the LG conversion) and a number of encounters to be played out in the countryside of Elsir Vale during the evacuation – looters, hobgoblin road blockades, a spy, the PCs’ first encounter with a spawn of Tiamat, and, once they’ve really managed to annoy the warleader Wyrmlord Kharn, a hit squad. These encounters really build up the atmosphere of a country under the threat of war. Refugees, evacuation, martial law, burning villages in the distance. Desperation, fear, and grief. There are also details and instructions for how to proceed in case a PC gets captured by the hobgoblins – where he’ll be taken and on what timetable, and what sort of guardians there will be. I appreciate this attention to detail.

From Rhest, the characters find a phylactery of a druid lich (!) called the Ghostlord, who dwells in a dungeon to the south. The army of the Red Hand has been holding it hostage to secure the Ghostlord’s cooperation, and the PCs get to go down and return it to him, in exchange for the lich retiring from the field of battle. They can also attack the lich, and it’s even possible to win, but it’s not an easy fight by any means. Either way, they’ll have to clear out the Red Hand leadership occupying the dungeon – a bard Wyrmlord, Ulwai Stormcaller, and Varanthian, a fiendish behir. When I ran it, Varanthian swallowed Waldemar the dwarf fighter whole and they only got him out with four hit points remaining. “The Ghostlord’s Lair” is a short dungeon crawl, and the shortest of the five parts. Sort of a breather, really, between the slaughter of hundreds that was “The Ruins of Rhest”, and the night of blood and fire that is “Enemy at the Gates”, part four.

In “Enemy at the Gates”, the army of the Red Hand has arrived at Brindol, the regional capital. This one is handled in the style of Heroes of Battle, with the PCs taking the tactical role of a commando squad – a small, independently operating group that strikes hard and fast at very specific tactical objectives, be they hill giants bombarding the city or a red dragon strafing the defenders. If they managed to ally with the wild elves of Tiri Kitor, they have a few helping hands here. Before getting their hands dirty, though, there’s a tactical palaver with the leaders of the city, where PCs may try to affect their tactical decisions about the deployment of clerics and so forth.

“Enemy at the Gates” is epic. After the party has fought several encounters’ worth of delaying actions on barricades and dropped the red dragon Abithriax, there’s a final showdown in the cathedral of Pelor at the centre of the city, between the PCs and Wyrmlord Hravek Kharn and his bodyguards, as well as whatever other Wyrmlords got away in the previous parts, and the Ghostlord, if he’s still allied with the Red Hand.

After the battle, it’s time to tally the wins and losses. There are a number of things the PCs can accomplish in the first four parts of the module, which grant them victory points – defeat enemy commanders, secure allies, destroy the bridge over Skull Gorge, convince the Ghostlord to stay away, destroy greenspawn eggs in Rhest, and so forth. Here, it’s all tallied up. If they’ve done well, the enemy force is broken, and flees back to the mountains, pursued by the PCs and the Lions of Brindol. If not, the next guy down the line assumes command, calls in reinforcements, and assaults again. Here, the PCs have one more chance to kill any named commanders left, but if they fail, it’s a defeat, Brindol is overrun, and the horde wins this round.

Either way, if it just didn’t end in a TPK, there’s still the last part to go, “The Fane of Tiamat”, where the party heads up into the mountains whence the horde poured forth to take out High Wyrmlord Azarr Kul himself, the brains behind the operation and the overlord of the whole horde.

The Fane of Tiamat is a 17-room dungeon with some very dangerous encounters, including the last one with Azarr Kul and his abishai bodyguard. He’s not the last fight, though – when Azarr Kul falls in his sanctum sanctorum, he calls out to his boss. Who then shows up, in the flesh. The actual final battle is against an aspect of Tiamat herself, the goddess of evil dragons.

The Battle of Rhest

The Battle of Rhest is not the largest fight I’ve ever seen in a roleplaying game. That one would have been a battle between a merfolk tribe and an invading force of sahuagin in COR6-13 Tears for Bright Sands, which involved a total of 137 NPC combatants, plus six PCs, with the NPCs using a total of seventeen different stat blocks, and that was played out under the D&D Miniatures rules.

However, the Battle of Rhest was still pretty big, and managed to take longer due to the tactical intricacies of the battlefield. There were a total of 27 different enemy combatants with ten different stat blocks that originally were spread out over several encounters but ended up being alerted when the PCs showed up and then it sorta degenerated into complete chaos that took three hours to play through, with the entire session taking twelve. It was the most physically draining RPG session I’ve ever run, but it was also fun and rewarding – so much so that I came back to run Part II again when another Living Greyhawk group was playing the module.

Somehow, the party prevailed though they were about 7th level and the odds arrayed against them added up to Encounter Level 14. They killed the Wyrmlord, they killed his guards, his soldiers, his animal companion, his dragon, and even his advisor. They killed and then they killed some more. All told, “The Ruins of Rhest” was the bloodiest of the five parts of the module, with a complete total of 110 NPCs slain at the hands of the PCs. The module, with its war theme, is incredibly violent. By the end of the third part, there was a trail of 220 bodies behind the party. The final tally of the entire Red Hand of Doom was around 340-350 dead enemies and NPCs. I remember dimly asking the players: “So, you’ve just killed a hundred living, feeling, intelligent beings. How do you feel?” (Part II included the lizardfolk genocide, when the party wanted to take out all the lizardfolk guard huts, which made tactical sense at the time but was not a real challenge, so we just fast forwarded it, rolled them some damage and declared 54 lizardfolk dead.)

The party composition made it all the grislier. They had only a single primary caster, a cleric, whose spells invariably went to healing the other guys. There was Sir Tharik Hume, a fighter/paladin of Heironeous; Tular, a monk/fighter; Girger Gorluk, a half-orc barbarian/bard; Raziel Whitewind, a half-orc cleric of Pelor; Ardil Alaestrin, a wood elf barbarian/ranger/cleric of Rillifane Rallathil; and Waldemar, a dwarf fighter/dwarven defender. They had no offensive capabilities beyond the reach of their swords, and every kill was made in ugly, brutal melee combat, close enough to smell the enemy and see the light go out in his eyes as you gut him. They were magnificent, as they strode through the bloody battlefield of Elsir Vale and made red ruin of their foes. Somehow, the entire module passed without a single PC death, though a few times it was a close call.

Most awesome of the lot was Tular, who regularly grappled with ogres and won. During the Battle of Rhest, he was bullrushed into the lake by an ogre, and dragged the brute down with him. Underwater, over several rounds, he choked it to death before swimming to the surface. Raziel was another great character, who originally started his career as a human cleric, but managed to get killed in the dungeons below Icespire in COR4-16 The Frozen Spire and was reincarnated into the body of a half-orc. He was also one of the characters who made it into the final Naerie Gazetteer, as the leader of the church of Pelor in Naerie. I’m currently actually working on a module where Raziel appears as an NPC.

(As a side note, Raziel’s death occurred because of a hilarious player error – he’d just been laid off, and came to the game rather tipsy. This led to choosing an inadvisable course of action, namely jumping on his tower shield and tobogganing down an ice slope into a dark, cold, cursed dungeon, far ahead of the rest of the party. Down in the dungeon he met a skeletal dragon. Fortunately, the rest of the party was able to defeat the dragon and recover his body.)

The Spawn of Tiamat

The spawn of Tiamat are a new type of monster that was introduced in a number of sources around the same time: Red Hand of Doom, Fantastic Locations: Frostfell Rift, and Monster Manual IV, which had a whopping 66 pages of them, for a total of 14 monsters. Other new spawn were here and there in different supplements. The spawn encompassed a variety of different kinds of creatures, all keying off the five classic evil dragon colours. There was the blackspawn raider, the bluespawn godslayer, the redspawn arcaniss, and so forth, each with their own schtick. They’re hit and miss, with more misses than hits. I think the whitespawn hordelings are fun, being small bastards that will just swarm over you. The rhino-like bluespawn stormlizard is also pretty nifty, and I’m fond of blackspawn raiders, which form death squads and attack from ambush. However, then there’s stuff like the bluespawn godslayer, which looks like a huge reptilian hunchback of Notre Dame with mumps, and whose attack tactics in a group are to use Awesome Blow to fling smaller enemies into the threatened area of other godslayers, who will then use their attacks of opportunity to beat them some more. There’s the whitespawn iceskidder, which has skates for feet, and the blackspawn exterminator, which is a blackspawn raider with class levels. Six of them, to be exact. The class is ninja.

The spawn of Tiamat had a potential to be a cool addition to the game, but in practice, they were mostly boring or stupid. Fortunately, Baker and Jacobs had some taste when using them in Red Hand of Doom, and we were saved from the more insipid creations, with the possible exception of the greenspawn razorfiend, whose sole reason for existing is to deliver ridiculous critical hits.

Why the Red Hand of Doom Rocks

The module, despite being broken up into parts, and being very long, works as a single, cohesive whole. Especially parts one, two and four have great atmosphere, with a sense of urgency informing the PCs actions when they race to evacuate the town, or cut off the invading force, or break down a roadblock. The situation lives, and it’s not in their control, which makes things tense. There’s also the sense that the lives of hundreds or even thousands depend on their success.

Also present is the option of failure. Often, failure automatically means that the party has died, roll up new characters. In Red Hand of Doom, however, it’s fully possible for the party to royally screw up and see the Red Hand horde win the Battle of Brindol, and live with the shame. This is something I’d like to see more often. There are also options for lesser failures, such as deciding to stand and fight an army at Drellin’s Ferry, or getting captured. There are many options open for the PCs and the writers have accounted for all the likely scenarios.

The actions of the PCs are meaningful throughout the module. The things they do or leave undone or fail at accomplishing are tallied up as victory or alliance points in secret, and in the end determine whether they’ve managed to really break the horde of the Red Hand or if the hobgoblins will strike back. Foes who got away will come back to fight them again in later parts.

I am not really a fan of the fifth part, though. Its length feels redundant after the epic climax of “Enemy at the Gates”. Were I to run it again, I’d probably strip away a full half of the encounters. Still, the fight with the High Wyrmlord and the aspect of Tiamat is awesome, and because of them, I would not drop the entire fifth chapter. The length of it is just too much, and even though the previous four parts have kept the insane amounts of violence in the module varied and interesting enough to keep from becoming boring, this one gets repetitive.

Actually, I must repeat that – the first four parts of Red Hand of Doom are probably the combat-heaviest D&D material I’ve played through, and they never once got boring. I think this is because each combat had a clear reason for being there, interesting enemies and usually also some tactical depth. In “Fane of Tiamat”, it’s just clearing out dungeon rooms.

Finally, it has these little grey text boxes here and there, with the designers’ notes on why this or that element of the adventure is so and so, and sometimes ideas on how to change it if there’s a need. Glimpses behind the curtain like this are valuable for the GM when adapting the adventure for their own needs, and I’d wish more modules had such commentary in them. They also communicate to the DM that there really was a living human being with a brain making conscious decisions about the module and not just dropping random stat blocks one after another.

Overall, it is a fine piece of work that deserves more recognition and fame than I feel it ever received. It was great fun at the table, even in the twelve-hour killer sessions, and there was not a whiff of boredom until the very last part, where it is quite fixable. I recommend that if you see this in a discount bin somewhere or find it on eBay, you pick it up. It’s well worth it.

Greyhawk Modules – Mr. Haarlaa Has His Say

Sampo Haarlaa, fellow Living Greyhawk module writer and a former Triad-member of the Principality of Naerie, mailed me some commentary of his own on the modules I put up last week. Since he asked me to post it here and I’m all for other people writing me content, here it is.

TSS5-04 The Sun and the Nightingale, by Nick Silverstone & Sampo Haarlaa

This was mainly Nick’s baby. He had an idea for an investigative module but we could not really place it in Naerie and the town of Poelitz for few reasons. Trennenport was chosen because it had been detailed previously by Creighton Broadhurst and offered us a good locale. The movie Third Man served as a bit of an inspiration.

Anyway… this became quite a magnum opus, mainly with statblocks and details of locations. It also requires quite a lot from both DM and players. It could perhaps do with some cutting down and tightening up but as locale presentation, it works pretty well in my opinion and many people definitely liked it.

ESA6-05 A Point of View, by Sampo Haarlaa

A Point of View was first the proper “Naerie metaregional” in the sense that it used local NPCs and so forth (there had been few earlier ones but Naerie had been mostly glossed over in details). It was also born out of an argument on forums with certain people over D&D being all about alignments and how there can be no middle ground, “evil” in alignment means you are always wrong, etc.

Basically, I wanted to make an adventure to take the piss out of such people. For this the whole borderland fortification with slave/prison labor, Hextorites and other such things offered a good setting. The original plan was to make both sides of the story totally despicable but in the end Ahlissan side comes out looking more clean here (writing constraits were also the limit, would have essentially required 10 more pages for other plotline). The villain also has a bit of a tragic side to his character, having gone mad in the Calling Mines (PCs who played ESA3-08 Prisoners of the Calling Mines can relate [a module known for starting the characters without equipment and having an allip as the final boss. – Editor]) and which also foreshadowed later adventures occurring there.

I was quite satisfied with the end result and ties very much with NAE6-05 Sharafon as my pick for “best adventure”. Also, a song by Apulanta, “Pahempi toistaan” (Eng: Each One Worse Than the Other) served as an inspiration when writing this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=754e3-5OZn8

ESA7-05 And All the Prince’s Men, by Sampo Haarlaa

I still don’t know why this was turned into metaregional module as it really offers nothing for surrounding regions. Nonetheless, Pieter Sleijpen, our Circle rep, kindly asked if it could be one and I said “Okay, but it really is a regional module”.

Anyway, it was supposed to be foreshadowing for the reversal of the Flight of Fiends, which was to occur at the end of the campaign, and also shake the command structure in Naerie City a bit. I had some trouble starting the adventure but Sir Ridley Scott came to rescue as I watched the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven for the umpteenth time. In other words, a good public hanging is where it is. The Nasranite Watch introduction has even been copied from same scene where Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) and Raynald of Châtillon (Brendan Gleeson) argue over the men about to be hanged. Here it is, of course, the long-suffering Sertern Embric* (our local Michael Garibaldi/Zack Allan) having words with Commander Wanworth.

Originally, I was not supposed to even write this adventure, having written the barebones structure for another author. However, it soon came clear that the author was frankly clueless, refused to take into account previous adventures or set facts (for example, in that version Nasranite Watch wore leather armor and carried spears like some ancient tribesmen). After NAE4-03 The Apprentice, the policy was to keep it simple and use vanilla Monster Manual stuff if it could suffice. Not here, as much of the original author’s plot relied on a near epic-level druid to pull it off and had stuff like, I kid you not, an advanced legendary dire snake of legend with a page and a half of statblock. So in the end I informed the author that “Sorry, but since you cannot make the changes required, I will write this myself”.

I still retain the original version as example “how not to write an adventure”.

* Who turned into an often seen recurring NPC despite his somewhat humble beginnings in the intro module NAE5-I01 In the Docks, where his main task was to stop the PCs from derailing the plot completely.

ESA8-02 Old Debts, by Sampo Haarlaa

This is not one my favourites. Originally there was supposed to be an epic three-part series for finale of the metaregion, ending eventually in Irongate. Alas, timetables, authors withdrawing and other factors prevented the two others seeing the light of day, so only the first part made it in.

As this became clear, my enthusiams to write also waned quite a bit. Nonetheless, eventually I managed to turn in a completed module. Originally, it was supposed to be very straightforward adventure but I could not resist adding the prison escape sequence to it. In the end, I think it worked well enough as adventure and the prison thing gave PC’s something else to do than just teleport out of the town when shit hits the fan.

NAE4-03 Apprentice, by Sampo Haarlaa

Urgh… what can I say here other than apologise..?

It was my first regional effort, I had more enthusiasm than skill and considered the editing process to be something that happened to other people. Also, I had fallen in love with templates and insisted on using them (you cannot imagine how many times I cocked up those stat blocks).

Anyway, I got the basic plot premise from then Triad, proceeded to write and it sort of became unnecessarily bloated and epic in its scale in regards to adventure and so on. Well, at least a few useful NPCs and locales were created so not a total loss. [indeed, I believe this is the first appearance of Damar Rocharion, who is awesome – Editor]

NAE5-01 When Nightingales Sing…, by Sampo Haarlaa

After NAE4-03 The Apprentice, I wanted to do something simpler, having been humbled by the experience. The result was NAE5-02 Return to Gefjon, but due to various happenings (people stepping down, editors/sanctioners going on holidays) and such, NAE5-01 was published first.

I sort of wanted to look for a non-standard mystery/investigation with some odd angles, having been inspired by a story in old Finnish roleplaying magazine. In fact, much of the plot has been copied there but who cares. In the end it seemed to work out, as I playtested it and then playtested some more to avoid the catastrophe that was NAE4-03 The Apprentice. Hence, the credits section is pretty substantial.

I always liked Ekehold as place and it’s a pity that this is the only adventure where it really features.

NAE5-02 Return to Gefjon, by Sampo Haarlaa

I always liked the premise of NAE3-I01 The Stone Strider but the actual module left me with a vague feeling of “meh”. Why bother with this great setting if the only things you face are some giant rats? So, I decided to write the adventure as I envisioned it, taking into account the earlier adventure’s results.

I liked the end product, was certainly tightly written without any padding. It’s simple, it works, it’s good. At least in my opinion. Also, the statue in AR was a special bonus. 🙂

NAE5-03 Heart of the Wood, by Nick Silverstone & Sampo Haarlaa

This adventure is purely written by Nick. He used to have a small company that published D20 adventures under the OGL. He had abandoned the adventure and offered it to be used as Naerie regional. So the job was promptly done, some local colour added and we had new adventure. My job was to just add the local colour and do the bookkeeping required for an LG adventure.

NAE6-03 Legacy of the Serpent, by Sampo Haarlaa

The Serpent Guard plotline was supposed to be secondary plotline for Naerie and eventually culminate in a two-parter in the town of Gornor’s Cove, which ultimately never happened as the campaign ended. I wrote this to foreshadow possible future events but in most terms it’s a stand-alone adventure, which much inspiration being taken from a certain Bandit Kingdoms regional.

On hindsight, the plotline was largely unthinked and we could have done without it if we had other options, but since the first part got written, there was not much else to do than bite the bullet and go for it.

NAE6-05 Sharafon, by David Howard & Sampo Haarlaa

I don’t remember whose idea it was to feature the prison camp as an adventure location, whether it was me or David Howard. Jukka’s comments are sufficient as far as introductions go so perhaps I shall reveal some history behind this adventure. It was extremely hard to get it out in its current format. For starters, as the adventure progressed, there were certain creative difficulties between me and David, which resulted in me writing the bulk of the adventure as the original was nearly as “grey” as it turned out. However, in the end we sorted out our differences and David liked the adventure too (he was supposed to write another module but that never happened).

Then came the sanctioning process where I was repeatedly told that the ending could not happen, no way it would never be released, and so on. However, in the end the text went through like it was written, with AR entries giving both sides some goodies even if they lost.

Fine module, was worth the struggle to get it out. This was also run in GenCon UK Open Fiesta and got pretty high-praise from people if I remember correctly.

NAE7-05 Trail of the Serpent, by Sampo Haarlaa

It’s a mess, really. I felt need to visit Radoc at some point so as local description it works, but at this stage I was running out of ideas for investigative modules and in the end the module is largely a result of whoring from several different sources. At some point it also came clear that the Serpent Guard plotline would probably never be ended but nevertheless, the adventure was written. Like it’s predecessor, I think it’s okay but does not bring much to the table except the local colour, which itself is pretty good.

Radoc would definetely work as place for mini-campaign. Feel free to give it a shot.

Greyhawk Modules Online – Naerie Endures

Well, some of you may remember my involvement with the Living Greyhawk campaign of yore. I was active in our local region, the Principality of Naerie. Small stuff – wrote a module, collaborated with Sampo Haarlaa on another, worked on the final Gazetteer, which incidentally is available from the download link on the blog sidebar, there. Well, that campaign is over, but the modules remain, all two thousand of them.

From the Principality of Naerie side, we’ve now decided that the modules aren’t doing anyone any good if they’re gathering pixelated dust in the dark, dank recesses of someone’s hard drive. So, I present to you the fourteen adventure modules by me or Sampo Haarlaa, plus collaborations. These were originally posted to the Naerie Yahoogroup back in April, but for ease of access, I’m now presenting these here.

The collection is not complete – one notable thing that’s missing is COR7-18 Into the Mist, Sampo’s Core module. The collection also lacks a handful of introductory modules he wrote for Onnwal and the Bone March around 2002-2003, though he assures me that these are not a great loss. Apparently he has lost the original texts, and even I have not been able to scare them up from the depths of the web. We do have a special bonus module, though, the unreleased Lordship of the Isles module The Luminous Cloud that the Spanish Triad was supposed to translate and release over there as a regional. There’s also Bordermarch, which debuted at Ropecon last year, well after the campaign was over.

Generally, Living Greyhawk modules were password-protected. These are not. If you also want the Adventure Record files, e-mail me and I’ll zip them up for you. The Luminous Cloud and Bordermarch don’t have ARs. Also, a word on the module codes… For instance, ISL6-01 The Luminous Cloud. ISL is the three-letter region code. In this case, it’s Lordship of the Isles, which was Spain’s region. The number after that is the number of the year. Year Six was 2006, which would’ve made the module available for play until the end of 2007. The final number is its release number. Every region could release eight regional modules annually, plus four introductory modules and any amount of mini-missions and convention interactives. These limits were in place mostly for balance reasons, I understand. The APL thing stands for Average Party Level – modules were written so they worked on many levels of play.

I would’ve liked to do this with a single zip file, but WordPress doesn’t allow me to upload one, so we’ll have to do this the hard way, with separate download links. Many of these modules get rather involved with the lore of the setting, and it may not be a bad idea to download the aforementioned gazetteer for a reader’s companion. But, without further ado… fourteen great modules that kept us entertained and coming back for more for four years.

Splintered Suns and Scarlet Signs – Metaregional Modules

These metaregional modules were playable all over Europe, during the campaign. The module code fluctuated from ESA to TSS and back again, dependent on the phase of the moon on the first Tuesday of the month, or something. I never understood the logic there, but it sure fucked up all alphabetisation schemes.

The Splintered Suns metaregion was comprised of the Principalities of Adri and Naerie, the Free Kingdom of Sunndi, Onnwal, Bone March, the Lordship of the Isles, the Sea Barons and Dullstrand, and some lands between. Especially southern Ahlissa saw action in the metaregionals, as did the Solnor Compact and Medegia.

TSS5-04 The Sun and the Nightingale, by Nick Silverstone & Sampo Haarlaa

The strength of Ahlissa rests in the hands of the Great Guildmaster and his formidable merchant vessels. Sometimes these ships have more than bounty of Ahlissa in them and trouble ensues. Now a merchant is dead, his secrets with him but some loose ends remain… A one-round investigative scenario for APL 4-10.

This is one of the finest investigative adventures I’ve seen for D&D. The usual pitfall of investigatives in D&D is that they try to take a normal investigative module formula and just hammer it into D&D. Unless it’s a really low-level module, this usually fails. The game comes with such a wide variety of divination spells for finding hidden items and people and having chats with murder victims that the whole Agatha Christie repertoire is just shot. Every good module must take into account the abilities of the PCs at the level of the module, and with investigative scenarios this is especially true. TSS5-04 pulls it off perfectly.

ESA6-05 A Point of View, by Sampo Haarlaa

Since 590 CY, the Ahlissans have worked to build a fortification to guard the Adder’s Pass that separates Principality of Naerie from the Kingdom of Sunndi. The work is nearing completion but acts of sabotage have hindered the progress. Perhaps you can discover what is really going on? A one round meta-regional set in Principality of Naerie for character levels 1-11 (APL 2-8). Recommended for groups of adventurers who do not have conflicting loyalties.

A Point of View takes the same tack as The Sun and the Nightingale – take a story element that the D&D ruleset tends to break too easily and develop ways to counter the unconventional tactics of PCs. In this case, the element is a small border fortress. There’s also a pretty nifty story, cameos by NPCs we learned to respect and in some cases fear (I was ready to piss my pants when the White Lady rode in, and Damar Rocharion and Walennor didn’t exactly make it better). Both The Sun and the Nightingale and A Point of View are also very intelligent modules, and will mercilessly punish players who make certain stupid assumptions. The one in TSS5-04 hopefully doesn’t apply outside the campaign, though, since it breaks an adventure formula that you don’t get outside the strict scenario writing parameters. Incidentally, the playtest draft included brothel price charts. They were cut from the final.

ESA7-05 And All the Prince’s Men…, by Sampo Haarlaa

Patriotic Knights, a group of Oeridian supremacist and rabble-rousers, and their allies have suffered blows in the past but are hardly a spent force. Now, yet more fuel is thrown into the flames that threaten to tear Naerie City apart. Riots, robbery and revelations, all within one hectic day in the city. Recommended for well-balanced parties who have had past dealings and no enmities with the Nasranite Watch. Closely connected to ESA6-05 A Point of View, NAE6-05 Sharafon and NAE7-03 Incognito and introduction to the year 8 meta-regional trilogy Trouble Within. A one-round Splintered Suns metaregional set in Principality of Naerie for Character levels 2-13 (APL 4 to 10).

This one was originally supposed to be a regional module, but was co-opted by the metaregional coordinators for a metaregional to fill a gap in the schedule. I’m not entirely sure how it worked out, since the central NPC is a signature Naerie character and the plotlines it deals with mostly originated in regional modules. Still, a good module, and I especially like the end fight at the lowest APL. This one apparently offended the playtester group, because it portrayed the commoners as bloodthirsty rabble who thought that public executions are good entertainment for the whole family. Out of all the things in Simpi’s modules you could be offended about (there’s a [deserved] personal dig at another module writer in A Point of View, and Into the Mists contained a gay couple in direct response to a certain fan’s homophobic tirade), this one was pretty unexpected. The scene was inspired by Kingdom of Heaven, incidentally.

ESA8-02 Old Debts, by Sampo Haarlaa

14 years ago the armies of Ivid destroyed most of Pontylver in an orgy of violence. Now its harbor has finally been fully restored, and its docks have produced the first ships to rebuild the Ahlissan fleet. This is cause for a celebration and all are invited. This close to the cursed grounds of mainland Pontylver a few wonder if it is a good idea, wondering whether violence will strike. A one-round metaregional with an optional encounter set in Pontylver in Ahlissa for character levels 2-15 (APL 4 to 12).

This was our metaregional finale, pretty much. It’s epic, big in scale and magnificent, and has an ending so nifty it deserves to be made into a movie. Old Debts tied into the larger plotlines at the end of the campaign, such as the reversal of the Flight of Fiends. It also ties in with some of the themes explored in And All the Prince’s Men… and some of our regionals, and, of course, the canon of the region’s history. I think this is one of Simpi’s more challenging modules, from a sheer combat point of view. Old Debts also contains a Darwinistic dumbass test that will get overconfident PCs killed or at least seriously hurt. You can probably tell by now that Naerie modules did not suffer fools lightly.

The Lordship of the Isles – Regional Modules

The Lordship of the Isles was a region given to Spain, where the Triad promptly sat on it and did nothing. Simpi even wrote up this entire module for them, had it playtested and sanctioned and sent it to them for translation and release. They did nothing. This is a great pity, since their region was one of the most interesting in the setting. It had been taken over by the Scarlet Brotherhood (think Shaolin Nazi Communists, and you’re not too far), and was still during the campaign an occupied territory. The role of the freedom fighter fell naturally to the player characters and there was great potential for all sorts of Secret Army shenanigans, sabotage missions and the promise of eventual liberation by Ahlissans or Sunndi forces. Alas, it was not to be, and the only thing we have is this.

ISL6-01 The Luminous Cloud, by Sampo Haarlaa

A ship beaches near Sulward and a local pickpocket brings the news into town. Several groups want to investigate it but who will get there first? One-round regional module for APL2-6.

Not a spectacularly awesome module, which is why it was never rewritten for Naerie or even offered up as a metaregional module after it became clear that Spain was a dead zone. Still, it’s a solid piece of work, and probably fits most campaigns with more ease than the rest of these. In the playtest copy, several NPCs were still named after players in our local circle. I like the opening scene, set in a tavern inside the hollow shell of a dragon turtle. It sets a nifty ambiance, tells that we ain’t in Kansas anymore. An important thing about the regional system was having an individual feeling and tone for every region, and this one starts by setting itself apart from Naerie, or the City of Greyhawk, or Onnwal, or Sunndi.

The Principality of Naerie – Regional Modules

Now we come to the real meat. This isn’t everything we released – fortunately, we had many excellent authors – but it’s everything that Simpi or I had a hand in. During its five years of adventures, Naerie saw political turmoil, a couple of assassinations, Living Greyhawk’s only Circle-sanctioned orgy (not included here), and every shade of grey. Simpi, who practically ran the show in the triad, didn’t really go for the good vs. evil thematic present elsewhere, and instead built political themes with no easy answers. The central conflict was between the United Kingdom of Ahlissa, which was the lawful neutral iron fist in a velvet glove that drove out the Scarlet Brotherhood and annexed the formerly-independent region, and the Idee Volunteers, who were this ragtag bunch of freedom fighters who wanted to kick out the Ahlissans and form a free Idee. It made for interesting dynamics between player characters and really fun scenarios. Another theme explored in one of our series was the Victor Hugo-esque mercy vs. vengeance theme going on with the prison camps full of Scarlet Brotherhood slave soldiers.

We occasionally got told that we’re playing wrong, that D&D isn’t meant for these kinds of things, which was always really funny.

NAE4-03 The Apprentice, by Anders Lindborg & Sampo Haarlaa

You have come to Naerie City in time for Richfest. Weather is pleasant, people are polite and there is always something new around every corner. Unfortunately, someone sent some uninvited guests and it will be up to you and the Nasranite Watch to clear up the situation. A one-round regional adventure for APLs 2-10.

Sampo Haarlaa’s first Naerie regional. He doesn’t think much of it these days and personally, I agree that it’s not that great, though it’s not really bad, either. It just… is. It does introduce Damar Rocharion, the Vic Mackey of Naerie City Watch, though, and I like the carnival competitions in the beginning. One thing that’s not in the text that I always did when running this was that if the PCs manage to kill the wizard’s familiar at the end before entering the mansion, the XP hit is enough to take him down a level, depriving him of some spells.

NAE5-01 When Nightingales Sing, by Sampo Haarlaa

Baron Berik Oedil is re-marrying and the Barony of Ingmalt is preparing for the festivities. However, it seems someone does not like the idea and suddenly you find yourself drawn into a web of intrigue. A one-round adventure for an APL 2-8 party who are skilled in both diplomacy and swordsmanship.

The first and best of the three Year Five modules that Sampo wrote for Naerie. When Nightingales Sing is the beginning of a couple of plot threads that snuck around in the background before resurfacing for resolution towards the end of the campaign, and introduced a couple of really cool NPCs, such as the old Baron Berik Oedil, who in a movie would be played by Clint Eastwood, and Traneth Etali, Knight of the Chase, who’d be played by Clint Eastwood c. 1965. As a module, it has a certain investigative element, and the opportunity to be a total dick for some extra bonuses. An excellent module.

NAE5-02 Return to Gefjon, by Sampo Haarlaa

Breddol the Sage once again needs someone to visit the caverns of Gefjon Isle and the sleepy village of Bandhar. It’s been two years since the last trip, but surely things haven’t changed that much? Or maybe they have… Either way, it’s time to board a ship and return to Gefjon. A one round scenario for APLs 2-8.

This one is actually a sequel to a Year Three introductory module called The Stone Strider. I think it’s technically the first Naerie module released, but we’d all like to forget it and prefer to think that NAE3-01 Daughter of Idee, by Steven Zwanger, was the first. Aaaanyway… Return to Gefjon is a bit of a sandbox, and there are several directions the PCs can go and many solutions to the problems – some of them quite unexpected. I’ve never actually run Return to Gefjon, but were I to do so, I’d probably play up the isolation of Bandhar and present them as a bunch of rural hicks with a hint of Lovecraft – especially since both sahuagin and kuo-toa swim these troubled waters…

NAE5-03 Heart of the Wood, by Nick Silverstone & Sampo Haarlaa

Sapling Wood is haunted by a curse that terrifies the folk of Falenthorpe. All attempts to lift the curse have failed and people are being taken by the spirits in the wood. Can the heroes find the woods’ secret or will they perish like so many others before them? A one round scenario for APLs 2-8.

The third of the Year Five Naerie regionals. Heart of the Wood holds a special place in my heart because it introduces the village of Falenthorpe, which later lent its name to the Naerie message boards. This was because it’s possible in the adventure to gain the ownership of a house in Falenthorpe. As more and more PCs played the module and acquired the house – which was not difficult – it became an in-joke that Falenthorpe was the tax paradise where rich adventurers build their houses. In the grocery store, an egg would cost ten gold and the storekeeper would be the only original inhabitant left (the tavern owner would, of course, be a retired adventurer). In the evenings, Ahlissan loyalists and Idee sympathisers would lob trash over each other’s garden fences. There was even a whole introductory module we thought up about this setup, but never wrote. Anyway, this is a pretty nifty module, where the forest environment comes through nicely and really matters. I also like the end fight.

NAE6-03 Legacy of the Serpent, by Sampo Haarlaa

A trip to Gornor’s Cove lets you see some old and new acquaintances. But is there something darker going on in the town than everyone knows? A one-round Principality of Naerie scenario for characters of level 1-11 (APL 2-8). This module is a follow-up to NAE6-02 First Bite and it is recommended that you have played that module first.

I’ve always visualised this module as the Naerie plotlines standing still for a moment for a breather, to take stock of the situation. In the bigger picture, it ties together some plotlines and sets the stage for some others, but there is no big plot payoff. However, it works as a module and has no obvious flaws. There was some potential for an interesting recurring villain, but the campaign consequences swung so that she got killed. Well, not a great loss, we have enough bad guys to last years. Not a bad module.

NAE6-05 Sharafon, by David Howard & Sampo Haarlaa

You rarely notice them. Sometimes you see them in the streets or on the docks. Many remain in labor camp servitude. Others have made the Menowood their new home. Hepmonaland warriors rampaged through Naerie in the service of the Scarlet Brotherhood, but now they are slowly becoming part of the population. Will they always remain on the fringes of society? You will help decide. A Naerie regional adventure for character levels 1-11 (APL 2-8). This module will have important effects on future plotlines. Parties that share an ideological point of view are recommended for this module.

This is one of Naerie’s absolute best modules and sets the stage for the prison camp plotline, with its subtle political commentary, realpolitik and moral greyness. As an interesting point of note, in every table I’ve seen play Sharafon except for one, the final battle had the party split along ideological lines and beat each other black and blue. I played this series with a character who himself once fought for the Scarlet Brotherhood, which brought interesting depth to the proceedings. We also meet Traneth Etali again, in a most unexpected place – especially since most of us had thought he’d died.

NAE7-04 Unyielding, by Jukka Särkijärvi

In the days of yore, the keeps of the Eddri Line defended the County of Idee from the forces of the Great Kingdom. In their duty they were unsuccessful, for the attack came from a different quarter, yet some never admitted defeat. Now the forts lie empty and forlorn in the hills – right up until some stalwart fools with a deathwish come traipsing through their halls. A one-round regional adventure set in the Principality of Naerie for character levels 1-12 (APL 2-10).

My first Naerie module and the only one I wrote alone. (If you want to get techical, there actually is a Sunndi mini-mission that I adapted for Naerie, but I don’t count that.) I’m pretty happy with Unyielding, all things considered. It’s not as good as the rest of the Naerie regionals, but the players have been happy, and I think it can hold its own. If there’s something I’m unhappy with, it’s that the damn thing ended up too short. I’ve never seen it run the full four hours a LG module technically should. The basic concept of the module is that of a dungeon crawl that you can complete without a single fight and that actually rewards noncombat solutions. I haven’t seen anyone accomplish it, but it is theoretically possible.

NAE7-05 Trail of the Serpent, by Sampo Haarlaa

While the Serpent Guard has been destroyed, authorities in Felten & Gornor’s Cove still require assistance in discovering their past. The trail of the serpent began in village of Radoc, on the outskirts of Hollow Highland and it is here where the secrets will be revealed. A sequel to NAE6-01 First Bite and NAE6-03 Legacy of the Serpent. A one-round regional set in Principality of Naerie for Character levels 1-13 (APL 2 to 10).

The sequel to Legacy of the Serpent works a lot better. It’s a difficult module and especially the end fight is a tactical challenge. If I recall correctly, we never bagged the villain, either. What I really love about this one is the Deadwood-esque milieu of Radoc. It’s a crapsack town, ruled by an incompetent lackwit and policed by the Keystone Kops. However, there’s a promise of a turn for the better, if things aren’t totally screwed up during this module. Amusingly, the Radoc in the final gazetteer houses at least three high-level former player characters. One of them, Eremis the High Priest of Kelanen, ended the campaign with two different powerful evil outsiders having dibs on his soul. We had plans for an adventure where Eremis would die of the myriad curses he managed to accumulate during his career, and the PCs would be left cleaning up the mess when a balor and a pit fiend would start duking it out in the middle of Radoc.

NAE8-04 Bright Sun, Black Lion, by Sampo Haarlaa & Jukka Särkijärvi

It is a festive time in Naerie City, as Keoland and Ahlissa prepare to sign the historic Azure Sea Treaty for mutual cooperation against the Scarlet Brotherhood and the great cathedral of Wee Jas is reconsecrated after a decade of disuse. However, nothing ever goes smoothly in Naerie and even less so when the members of the Scarlet Sign are concerned. Can the heroes of the Principality present a unified front against their age-old enemy, or will all come to ruin? A one-round regional set in Principality of Naerie for Character levels 4-14 (APL 6 to 12) and the final adventure for Principality of Naerie. Warning: This adventure features untiered encounters.

And here we have the Naerie finale, the big bang that ended the plotlines of the Principality of Naerie. We wrote in references to every previous Naerie module, and get loads of returning NPCs, including every assassin that ever got away in a Naerie module. The adventure was partly inspired by the movie Smokin’ Aces. It’s got challenge, it’s got scale, it’s got ways for stupid players to get themselves killed, it’s got former player characters, it’s got something for everyone. I love it to bits. That “untiered encounters” thing, incidentally, means that there are encounters that are the same for all APLs, which should be a warning for the players that there are some things you should not even try to fight.

NAE9-01 Bordermarch, by Sampo Haarlaa

With the outbreak of hostilies in northern Ahlissa, Prince Barzhaan is keen to secure the borders of Naerie and the best opportunity comes after negotiations with the Kingdom of the Iron Hills. Now someone just has to go out mark where the border goes… A one-round outdoor adventure set in Principality of Naerie for character levels 1-4 (APL2).

And here’s the new beginning, a new Naerie for new characters. Elements of Bordermarch are inspired by the movies Raja 1918 and Sauna. I haven’t seen it in action myself, but I think it looks like it works, and player reports have been mostly positive. There’s something wonky with the PDF and the DOC file I converted it from, and I can’t find a way to remove the yellow highlighting. It annoys the hell out of me and if someone can tell me how to remove it, I’d be much obliged.

The Principality of Naerie – Introductory Adventures

One more module. The introductory modules were modules designed only for first-level characters. Stuff that was easy for the beginners, without difficult fights relying on equipment that a starting character would not have, and so forth. Because of the way experience points gains worked out, you could only play three intro modules with a single character before he hit second level, which sometimes resulted in more active players having several second-level characters with three intro modules each. Intro modules were not retired like normal modules were, but a region could only have four of them active at a time.

One of the more outrageous ideas we had for an intro module would’be been a scenario that was actually set during the days of the Scarlet Brotherhood occupation, and which would’ve featured a bunch of events that were later referred to in other modules, like the Burning of Poelitz. After that, the characters would’ve tacked on 14 years to their age and gone on to adventure in the present-day Naerie. It would have been awesome. Instead of that, I have to give you this. A bit disappointing.

NAEI6-01 The Temple Below, by Sampo Haarlaa

An easy job takes you to Eragern where an old grizzled soldier tells you about things he saw in the war. Will you follow the way he points you? An introductory adventure for 1st-level characters only.

It’s a dungeon crawl. You go to a dungeon and crawl a bit. As far as I can tell, The Temple Below was written in an afternoon so we’d have a fifth introductory scenario and The Stone Strider could be retired. It’s not exactly bad, but it’s not exactly good, either. Lacks ambition.

Disclaimer

The above modules are the property of their respective authors, except for the World of Greyhawk elements that are the property of Wizards of the Coast and the Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 and 3.5 rulesets and their accessories. No challenge to these copyrights is intended.

Greyhawk Still Alive: The Principality of Naerie Gazetteer 599 CY

When Living Greyhawk ended, we always had the plan to make one final Gazetteer for our region, the Principality of Naerie. We wanted to update our setting to the post-LG era, to show how plot arcs ended and new ones began, and where our beloved characters retired after the last Adventure Record was signed.

Not all characters survived the campaign, and not all of those who survived retired. Not all of those who retired were significant enough to warrant inclusion. However, there’s maybe ten former PCs in there.

This was actually finished months ago, but due to problems with the hosting of the old Naerie website, we couldn’t get it up anywhere. I feel a bit stupid, actually, since I didn’t understand until now that I can upload it on my WordPress account and have it downloadable here.

So, I give to you… The Principality of Naerie Gazetteer of Common Year 599!

It’s still not what I’d call a finished work. Sampo Haarlaa wrote expanded city gazetteers for the provincial capitals and Radoc, which could be updated and added to the Gazetteer. It could also do with some reorganising and an Organisations chapter, which could include such things as the Order of the Blue and Gold, who were our little-used Jack Bauer-esque paladins, and the Midnight Darkness, the Patriotic Knights and a few others. The religion chapter seems to lack an entry for Pelor, whose church in Naerie was established at the end of the campaign. If we had an official update on the end of the Bright Sands plot arc, we could also decide on the fate of the Bright Lands embassy in Naerie City and the two PCs who’d be associated with it.

That is all for the future, however. I may get around to doing some of those things later on, especially if we can get final, official campaign consequences for the 598 Core plot arcs. For now, we have a gazetteer. It’s not perfect and it’s not complete, but it is done – and really, if it were perfect and complete, there wouldn’t be anything left for the adventurers to do, now would there?

To go along with the Gazetteer, grab yourself Anna Bernemalm’s map of the Principality from her Maps of the Flanaess site. It is an absolutely beautiful piece of work, and includes a great deal of material from our Gazetteer.

Requiem for a Living World

It was the best of campaigns. It was the worst of campaigns.

At Gen Con Indy eight years ago, Living Greyhawk kicked off. It was big the moment it started and got bigger as it went. During the campaign’s run, it has seen perhaps eight to nine hundred different adventure modules, when all core, core special, regional, metaregional, introductory, adaptable, adapted and interactive modules plus mini and special missions are all tallied together. Maybe even more – I have no total figures, no complete listings of the massive amount of introductory modules that Nyrond released annually, or a full reckoning of the mini-missions of Sunndi. It is not outside the realm of possibility that now, in the end, the modules of Living Greyhawk have reached quadruple digits.

Living Greyhawk was global campaign, breaching, with its strong online support, language barriers and borders in a way its predecessor Living City never could. I’ve played Living Greyhawk in three different nations, with fellow players of seven different nationalities. If there is or has been another campaign in which this has been possible, I am not aware of it.

It was good while it lasted.

Dies Irae

At Gen Con Indy 2007, the axe fell with the announcement of Dungeons & Dragons 4E. We got a year to wrap up our regional storylines with a cut-down module allotment. Play numbers fell when the campaign’s finitude became clear. Module writers fled, triads lost motivation. There was and still is a great deal of bitterness and a feeling the final core storyline was poorly handled, as well as a perception that the campaign and the players were screwed over in what should have been the campaign’s beautiful swansong. What campaign infrastructure didn’t fade got mostly transferred over to Living Forgotten Realms, the supposed heir to the throne, and have had to divide their attention between ending Living Greyhawk with the dignity it deserves and kicking off Living Forgotten Realms less than two months from now.

And now it ends, with a bang, not a whimper, and the culminations of a dozen major storylines, some of them originating from the first years of the campaign. There has been great upheaval in other regions, with wars, fiendish invasions and planar rifts plaguing the land. A full reckoning of these end days will, I am sure, be forthcoming in due time.

The module database is still active until the end of the year, though all the triads will be let go of their positions at the end of today. After December 31st, 2008, it will be gone, like rain in the mountains, like wind in the meadow, behind the hills, into shadow.

Sanctus

Though I have had frequent harsh words for various aspects of the campaign, I have said them because I cared. It was a good campaign, one of the best. I have said it before, and I will say it again: in Living Greyhawk I have seen both the best and the absolute worst of adventure module writing. There have been magnificent epics, investigations that dared to be intelligent, exhilaratingly straightforward hack-and-slash adventures and even moral and ethical challenges.

I have played 149 Living Greyhawk modules. Most of them were pretty good, a few were pretty bad, and some were the finest I have ever played, putting many if not most of Wizards of the Coast’s and TSR’s published modules to shame.

Though I have called out the worst in the past, I must refrain here from naming the best – the list would simply be too long to be included here. It will have to be a future project.

Meanwhile, I ask that the readership name their own favourites among the corpus of Living Greyhawk adventures. My own experience is mainly limited to the Principality of Naerie, the Splintered Suns, and the core – though I’ve also adventured in both the Free State of Onnwal and the Kingdom of Sunndi – and I only came to the campaign in 2004. The rotation of adventure modules and the regional system make it so that no single man can know all that has been released for the campaign.

I consider this a feature, not a bug.

It fostered an atmosphere, a feel unique to each of the regions, giving the modules a context beyond the immediate. Done well, they felt like different places, with different peoples, customs, politics, and local concerns. As France is different from California, so is the Caliphate of Ekbir different from the Kingdom of Nyrond.

The other thing Living Greyhawk did remarkably well was create the sense of a truly living world. It is possible it came out clearer in Naerie with our relatively small population, but in Living Greyhawk, you felt you were truly affecting the world of Greyhawk, and even more, there were other people also affecting it somewhere out there in the world, and the stories began and ended, thrones toppled and rumours came to our distant shores from those lands without our characters ever intervening. The Liberation of Scant. Sewarndt’s coup in Nyrond. Iggwilv’s attack on Perrenland.

Agnus Hextorii

Of course, the RPGA has, all this time, had only a handful of paid employees. The vast, overwhelming bulk of the work done on Living Greyhawk has been volunteer or freelancing for a nominal fee. Regional and metaregional modules were, at least in my time, unpaid labour. So were regional websites, gazetteers, metaorganisations and cartography. While core modules were paid for, the fee was so small that I know at least one writer outside the United States had the checks framed instead of cashing them.

Thus, I thank these Stakhanovite heroes, who each did their part in making Living Greyhawk the best campaign it could be. While nothing is perfect, and I would be the first to admit the many imperfections of both the campaign and my own contributions to it, it was good. While often slowed down by bureaucracy and accounting, these did not detract from the experience once the table convened and the dice began to roll.

I thank the Circle, the metaregion representatives, the Triad members, the module writers, and anyone else who worked for the benefit of the campaign in these eight years, be they webmaster, playtester, moderator of a regional discussion forum, convention organiser, proofreader, or card-carrying judge.

Finally, I must thank the players. A campaign does not exist without players. By my association with Living Greyhawk, I have met many wonderful people, made new friends, gamed with a hundred different people. I couldn’t always get along with everyone, but when you put enough people in the same room, personalities will eventually clash. It’s been a great campaign, overall, and for that, I thank you.

Libera Me

And now it all comes to an end. We still get to play, sure, and the database isn’t going anywhere for another six months, but the campaign has reached its conclusion. There will be no more.

What now?

I, and I expect some others, will keep their Living Greyhawk characters and continue the campaign past December 31st, into the undiscovered country of home campaigns. The Principality of Naerie is not going anywhere, we have a backlog of modules from other regions should our characters wish to head abroad, and we can write our own adventures. So, in January 2009, we’ll release the Naerie Gazetteer 599 CY, tying up the plots concluded in our regionals and adding some new developments. We’re offering it as a fully fleshed region for anyone to use in their home campaign, ripe with adventure hooks.

RPGA is moving on to Living Forgotten Realms. I’m not, for a variety of reasons that I shall not elaborate here. It is an option for those who like 4E. I wish RPGA luck with it. They’re going to need it.

Finally, there’s the next global campaign for me – Pathfinder Society, by Paizo Publishing. It uses the Pathfinder RPG rules, developed from Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. It is run by Nicolas Logue, one of the finest adventure writers whose work I’ve had the pleasure to peruse, and the campaign’s faction system would seem to be straight up my alley, offering ample opportunity for skullduggery and developing some friction between party members, which I find creates better roleplaying. Reading their forums, the campaign staff’s enthusiasm is contagious, and I cannot wait to get my mitts on the rules and the setting book – significantly inspired by Greyhawk, by the way.

It’d seem I’m not the only one feeling Paizo’s love – there’s a couple of familiar names to be spotted on their forum already.

Though this is the end, there are great many new beginnings in the works.

Game on.

A Time to Relax

It feels good to get a workload off one’s shoulders. NAE8-04 Bright Sun, Black Lion, the final Naerie regional for Living Greyhawk was just playtested and should be sent off for sanctioning tomorrow – with abundant six days left on the deadline, too. Got a little something back from my proofreaders and sent off to Roolipelaaja, too.

I’m not the only one who’s been busy with stuff, though. On Monday, Paizo Publishing put up their offering from Free RPG Day (an event that places in the world that were not Finland celebrated on Saturday – we had Midsummer, when the game store was closed and the vodka bottle open) as a free download – D1.5 Revenge of the Kobold King, by Nicolas Logue.

Very cunning, Paizo, to make it a sequel to D1 Crown of the Kobold King. Now I’ll have to get that one, too.

RPGA, meanwhile, has put up the “final AR” for Living Greyhawk. It is a questionably edited document that lays out your character’s retirement in a few words depending on what favours he has acquired. While I’ve got a good bit of those unplayed, it looks like Achmed ibn Fahdlan ibn Raschid ibn al-Hazred, my asherati bard/swashbuckler, will be joining Rary’s court. Possibly as the ambassador to Tenh. Apart from that, not much for my characters. A bit meh, that. We do have something similar in the Adventure Record for NAE8-04 Bright Sun, Black Lion, though.

They also put up the third issue of Greyhawk Grumbler, an in-character broadsheet from the City of Greyhawk, where some quick quill lambasts the powers that be. It’s written by Eric Menge, and actually good. Looks like old man Nerof Gasgal finally bought it.

Goodman Games, a third-party D20 publisher best remembered for their Dungeon Crawl Classics series, is the first company to announce GSL products – to be released at GenCon, before the October 1st date that the Game System Licence enforces. I’m unclear on what’s behind this, but apparently they have cut some sort of special deal with Wizards of the Coast – or they’re just trying their luck. I hope it works out for them.

ICv2 releases some comparative sales figures from the areas of roleplaying games, miniature games, card games and board games. It’s an interesting read, and confirms what I’ve long suspected – Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures has been outselling the main game. This goes some way in explaining why 4E is so heavily reliant on them – it’s not just the game, it’s WotC’s profit margins.

It’s the tragedy of D&D – to always be outsold by one’s own spinoff products.

And speaking of tragedies of D&D, WotC has finally got some of its act together and released the first part of Dungeons & Dragons Insider – The D&D Compendium. I am not impressed, and have yet to see anything on their site worth paying $1 a month for, let alone the $15 they’ll be asking if they ever get everything online.

Shit Saturday

In Living campaigns, there exists an interesting and a bit strange phenomenon.

Living campaigns are based on pre-made adventure modules distributed by a central authority, in Living Greyhawk’s case the RPGA. This means there are a limited number of adventures available at any given time.

In Living Greyhawk, character advancement is tracked by a special form, the Adventure Record, that is unique to each adventure. They track the acquisition and expenditure of experience points and gold, as well as any permanent curses, favours and conditions that may apply to a later module. ARs are a decent way to accomplish this; the Dungeons & Dragons Campaigns that RPGA also runs work on an online character tracker system, which, like pretty much every other online application or computer program that Wizards of the Coast is somehow responsible for, sucks ass.

ARs also have the coat of arms of the locale they take place in. These are cool.

This gives rise to a certain spirit of completionism, where some players feel driven to play every module available. Characters need to get to certain levels to play certain modules, module series must be played to their conclusions, and so on. It’s a lot like Pokémon, really, except the monsters are less cute.

Occasionally, though, you run into a module that is exceptionally bad. Or even several modules.

How to Cope with the Suck

There are ways to deal with bad modules. One way is to unsuspectingly play one and only during the game realise that the writer must have been high or drunk or stupid. This is not recommended, and to this day I hold a grudge against Maya Deva Kniese and her module TSS5-02 Seeds, for costing us a good player. In its megalomaniacal length of over a hundred pages, complete lack of encounter maps and concepts like the text “Immortal” on the chest of an earth elemental, an amorphous creature, to signify it must be beaten unconscious because you can’t kill it, this is the worst adventure module I have ever read, for any game system or campaign.

Another way is to just run them as fast as possible, generally together with a module that’s actually worth anything. This works, but tends to feel unsatisfying.

And then, yesterday, there was Shit Saturday.

It was an event that originated from an ill-considered promise to run the module COR6-17 Something of Value, by Sam Weiss and Rick Miller. It’s probably the second-worst module I’ve seen in Living Greyhawk. It’s incomplete as written, mischaracterises a number of canon NPCs, represents all authority figures as Keystone Kops contrary to their earlier portrayals (and to the guidelines of good writing in general), is one big railroad without any reasonable explanation and worst of all, is written in an adversarial fashion, for a game of DM (or in this case, module writer) versus players. This never results in good gaming. However, the encounter design didn’t actually take into account the capabilities of player characters at the module’s levels. The big bad is a glass cannon who gets his surprise round and then dies miserably.

In a refreshing change of pace, though, I couldn’t spot any glaring stat block errors. There’s something to be said for using stock Monster Manual content. Additionally, it seems that several NPCs in the module are caricatures of prominent users at Canonfire, a Greyhawk fan site that both I and the writers are members of. They’re not entirely flattering.

Anyway, I promised to run it after having erroneously ordered it from the scenario database some time previous (I confused it with COR6-20 Shades of Grey, a very good module). Upon reading it, I concluded it’s crap, I didn’t want to run it and that the group would not want to play it. Except they insisted.

The idea of Shit Saturday was then formed, and the suggestion was made that a selection of known bad modules would be offered on a Saturday, along with cheap beer.

The solution worked admirably, and much fun was had, despite the modules.

The other modules we ran were both work of one Tim Sech. They were COR6-12 Calm Before the Storm and INT7-04 Ritual of the Damned, a pair of modules that, like the rest of his work that I’ve seen, are playable but not enjoyable and do not quite follow the rules of either English grammar, basic logic or Dungeons & Dragons.

The good thing here is that neither of them has a plot as such, and therefore I can’t spoil it. There are just railroad tracks that lead to weird places in defiance of common sense and geography – among others, a scene where the party first walks some 70 miles to a river. At the river, they meet a sea captain and his large sailing ship. Yeah, no idea why or how they’re there. The party is expected to return with the ship, because it’s “more comfortable and safer”. However, by ship, the journey would be nearly 2000 miles, some half of that through enemy-controlled territory. The encounter stats are also wonky, and barely a sentence of module text goes by without a typo, a grammatical error or a stylistic mistake.

INT7-04 Ritual of the Damned is significant in other ways as well. It, along with its equally execrable predecessors, INT7-01 Ambition’s Folly, INT7-02 Trial by Fire and INT7-03 A Dead Man’s Job, is part of the introductory series distributed to retailers with the WotC retailer’s kit. These are the first Living Greyhawk products to see print in many years, and they’re crap.

I could write a better adventure in a day, and, indeed, have (and no, I don’t deem it good enough to be distributed in public). They’re illogical, badly structured, again grievously misrepresent canon NPCs, and the writing is barely intelligible. It occurs to me now that none of the four credit an editor or playtesters. It can be an honest mistake, or they really weren’t edited or playtested. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if the first drafts were the final ones.

Here’s a selection of the immortal prose of Tim Sech, completely unedited by me (or anyone else, for that matter):

“A letter, with big bold inscription states ‘Open Immediately’ on it, has been sent to you each of you with the seal of Aramis on it.” – The first boxed text of one of the modules. It certainly sets the scene for the rest of the adventure.

“By the looks of it he appears to be built like an ox […]” – The Head of the Department of Redundancy Department.

“If the [enemies] are captured they refuse to speak and if coerced only speak lovingly but very vaguely about their master. They do not know who he is, but it is clear of his hold over them.” – Considering even the DM isn’t told, I don’t think it’s clear at all.

“Hello there! Humanchi says his hello as well. He wanted us to get a ‘feel’ on your thoughts about a few things but we would rather just beat you to a pulp first.” – You have bad honour against me. Now you will must die.

There are others. Ritual of the Damned, especially, reads like the Eye of Argon. For some reason, the modules also fluctuate between referring to gold crowns and golden orbs as the currency of Greyhawk, but that’s a minor detail. (The latter would be correct, however.)

As stated, though, these all became quite agreeable in the proper state of inebriation.

The Root of the Problem and its Solution

I feel the quality of RPGA has been steadily declining over the past couple of years. The good adventures, when we get them, are still awesome, but there are less of them. The bad ones are getting worse, and they’re getting more frequent.

Part of this is likely because quality takes time. You need to concentrate and think about what you’re doing when crafting a complex intrigue in the vein of Chris Chesher’s and Greg Marks’ Rallying Point for the Bright Sands or an open sandbox like Jason Bulmahn’s Key to the Grave, or a great epic such as Pieter Sleijpen’s Broken Chains series or Pierre van Rooden’s Trust or Treason series. Stuff like Sech’s Core Introductory modules can be farted out in a matter of hours.

Also, I think there’s been a failure in quality control. I don’t know exactly whose job it is to make sure that Core modules aren’t complete drek. Judging by the results of their work, I’m not sure they know either. At that level, people get paid for their writing. RPGA should have an expectation of quality, but it evidently does not.

Public reviews of modules are not available due to the fear of spoilers and there is no centralised website to host them all. Nyrond.org is the best we’ve got, and it’s not much. Without actual, verbal criticism, the stars have no context. Module writers get no direct feedback and there’s very little public discussion of adventure releases except when they’re either something truly hideous or utterly magnificent and worthy of an ENnie. The system lacks transparency, which allows low-quality material to get through again and again.

RPGA now has a chance to change that, with the advent of the Living Forgotten Realms campaign. The system can be retooled from the ground up. Demands of quality must be stricter. At the very basic level, plots should make sense, the rules items should follow the rules and the module text be written by someone literate.

In LFR, one would also hope that the writers retain creative freedom. While I am sure that with the brand recognition comes a pressure from the above to cater to the largest audience, one should never write for the lowest common denominator. A campaign of cookie-cutter dungeon crawls would drive away those players who like their stuff with a bit of depth and would get boring for the rest sooner or later. With the 4th Edition Forgotten Realms being what it is, care should be taken to keep what few players there will be left. Especially the ones who also write modules, unless they’re planning to start paying professional rates. The North Europe Point of Contact has already stated he is disinclined to write adventures, and there appears to be some confusion with our Event Coordinator as well.

It does not bode well. Unless RPGA pulls its head out of its ass and quick, I see little hope for its future.

It’s a pity. It used to be fun.

Online Roleplaying

Today, I’ll be talking about online roleplaying games.

Not MMORPGs. I consider the term a misnomer, because you’ll be hard-pressed to find any actual roleplaying even on a roleplaying game server with most of their ilk. Also, the graphic user interface is an inherently limiting feature, which goes against one of the most basic things that RPGs mean to me. In World of Warcraft, my character can’t climb a tree, for example. I can /emote it, sure, but the character will still just stand there beneath the tree, looking vaguely lost. Though I enjoy World of Warcraft (and to a lesser degree, enjoyed EVE Online), I would not call them roleplaying games.

Not play-by-post games, either. I’ve tried them, and concluded that they move too slowly for me to retain interest and stay inside the game. Also, there doesn’t seem to be an elegant way to involve the rules, and there are strange and imaginative ways of producing unbiased dice rolls for the GM to view, all of which are overly clunky. The alternative is a storytelling freeform thing, but I don’t do freeform and the ones I’ve followed have had the unfortunate tendency to devolve into purple prose riddled with Mary Sues, stories with six main characters locked in a passive-aggressive mortal combat for the limelight.

No. When I roleplay online, it’s on IRC, OpenRPG or, in the distant past, a MUD.

IRC

IRC, Internet Relay Chat, is the easiest of the lot, though poses certain problems with certain games. It’s a text-based medium, and in many ways identical to a face-to-face game. Just slower. With a good dicebot script, you can do all the regular dice, plus weird stuff like d39, for example, in pools or all counted together, with bonuses and penalties. I’ve seen a deck of cards for Deadlands, too, and a One-Roll Engine pool script that calculates the roll’s height and width for you.

Private messages are a handy feature of IRC that facilitates secret conversation between the Game Master and players, which is a big plus. You can pick your fellow party member’s pocket without everyone deducing it was you based on that slip of paper you gave the GM. (Now they can deduce it based on you having the highest ranks in Larceny, Pick Pocket, Sleight of Hand or whatever.) Out-of-character chatter can be directed to its own channel, to keep from cluttering up the game channel. It’s a good system.

The major shortcomings are the general slowness of the game – a snail’s pace compared to tabletop – and the lack of a proper battlemap for more tactical games like Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. However, I’ve played several campaigns of D&D over IRC without great problems, other than the strange tendency of the party’s clerics dropping like flies. I don’t think that’s tied to the medium, though.

OpenRPG

The second, and my current medium of choice, is the free software OpenRPG. It’s basically a chat program with a built-in dice bot, character sheet support, and a whiteboard that may be overlaid with a battlemap grid or used to display images for the players. It’s still buggy as all hell, however, but when it works, it’s the best way to play D&D online. I’ve been using it to play Living Greyhawk over the net. Unfortunately, the majority of the player base is American, which leads to many games starting at three o’clock in the morning.

The character sheet (or monster sheets, or scenario boxed text, or whatever else you want to pester the players with) is a little thingy where you write down your characters skills and abilities and whatever you may need to roll for, along with a short dice code. Then, when needed, you can click a button on the sheet and it sends the text and the dice code to the game table and rolls dem bones.

For example, “Melee attack: can of whoopass [1d20+9], damage [1d12+10]” would come out as “Can of whoopass [1d20+9] -> 28, damage [1d12+10] -> 18”. The DM or the player can then give descriptive text for how said ass is whooped.

When OpenRPG works, it’s great. The rest of the time, it keeps eating all my nodes when I shut it down and every time I play a new game I have to rewrite my character sheets. But then, I don’t play online all that often. Like IRC, OpenRPG has that inherent slowness compared to actual tabletop gaming. Your average Living Greyhawk module is supposed to run about four hours, so I generally schedule at least six for any play on OpenRPG. Recently, many groups have moved to using Ventrilo as a supporting software, which speeds things up a little.

MUDs

Here’s one for the old school…

For those not aware, MUDs, Multi-User Dungeons, are the text-based predecessors of today’s MMOGs. Some of them, such as Aardwolf, are entirely hack and slash and killing mobs for xp and loot. Entertaining, yes, but not really roleplaying.

Despite the name, not all MUDs are dungeon crawling. However, the structure of the world is composed of separate rooms, be they a stretch of city street, a bit of the forest, or a 10′-by-10′ room with an orc guarding a pie. The one I devoted most of my time back when I had the time to devote was called FaerunMUD. It’s no longer active, after a cease and desist from Wizards of the Coast in 2001, but it did spawn a pair of spiritual successors, Rauvyon and Arantha. I deny responsibility for the Nurminen gnomes of Arantha – the name was given by a friend of mine, Lari, a fellow Finn who originally introduced me to FaerunMUD around 1999. When FaerunMUD turned into Rauvyon, we got to keep our characters, and I continued until Rauvyon went offline in 2002. It returned later. I did not.

FaerunMUD was based on the AD&D 2nd Edition ruleset and set, as one may have guessed, in the Forgotten Realms. The clunky AD&D system was quite bearable even after the release of 3rd Edition. It’s easier when the system is hidden and the computer gets to do the rolling.

On FaerunMUD, and Rauvyon after it, roleplaying was heavily enforced. Killing other player characters was allowed, but you had to write a 500-word, in-character mail to the admins about the event and its motives. It was an automated system that sent the requests whenever you attacked and killed someone in combat or with a spell, but me and Lari created a precedent by killing someone with poisoned tea. I’m slightly proud of that. Also, whenever a character levelled up past level three, the player had to write an approval text, a piece of in-character fiction going over what the character has been up to since the last level-up, and his hopes and dreams for the future. The rest of the player base would vote yes, no, or skip on the approval. If it passed (50 yes votes in a week’s time, I think), you could continue levelling. If not, you had to rewrite it and wouldn’t earn xp until you were approved.

The system is a bit harsh, looking back at it, but it did have its advantages. It was a living world, easy to immerse oneself in. It felt like the Forgotten Realms, and there were a number of cool player characters there. For one thing, there were elves who weren’t played like pointy-eared humans. There were heroes and villans and people in between, from the literally baby-eating evil of the drow Drinlith or the cold, conniving mind of the witch Nacinthe to the exemplars of law and good, Stromgren of Waterdeep and Lawrance, blind paladin of Tyr.

Ah, those were the days. This, however, brings me to one of the things I perceive as advantages of a text-based online medium over a face-to-face game.

The Pros

The first advantage, which is a purely personal thing, is that it’s easier for me to get and stay in character on a text-based medium. It’s probably partly because I’m a writer by nature – just look at the size of this entry – and a bit shy in real life. Online, it’s simpler for me to find and maintain the voice of a character with those ten seconds longer that I have to think through my word choices.

Of course, the experience is also one step detached from a face-to-face game.

The second one pertains to the poisoned cup of tea I mentioned earlier. I’ll relate you an interesting anecdote relating to the subject. It’s a stunt that Sampo Haarlaa, a Living Greyhawk module author and Triad member and the Point of Contact for our Living Forgotten Realms region, pulled a while back in a series of Living Greyhawk sessions over OpenRPG. The modules played were part of the Blight on Bright Lands plot arc, which includes a couple of the finest modules released for the campaign.

The Tale of Avrian and Gardakan

Avrian is a half-orc, a fighter and a ranger, with a grim demeanour and a knack for hitting things with his trademark halberd. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he is very cunning.

During the recent crisis in the desert domain of Bright Lands, Avrian worked for Rary, called the Traitor by some, who rules the desert and its tribes from his tower in the Brass Hills. Opposing Rary was the paladin Karistyne, backed by the archwizard Tenser, a mortal enemy of Rary’s.

For those keeping track, Rary is neutral evil while Tenser is lawful good.

Most other adventurers in the region were allied with Karistyne. Pesky do-gooders. However, the goals of Rary and Karistyne coincided – both wished to gain possession of certain powerful magical items, such as the evil scimitar Bane of Itar and the warhammer Goggorddu.

Avrian saw no reason to disclose all his allegiances when he joined a group heading into the ruins of Utaa to retrieve Bane of Itar. The party’s leader carried a powerful magic item that would whisk them and their prize magically back to their employer once it was recovered.

The ruins were dangerous, home to a variety of enemies. In the end, the heroes prevailed, and Avrian, being the physically strongest of the party, picked up the Bane of Itar, which sapped the very life force of all but the vilest of men who attempted to wield it.

Surely, it affected even Avrian, though hardly as much as he was letting on.

The artifact claimed, the group huddled together with their leader, who activated his magics and sent the party miles away back to their employer.

Except for Avrian, who had refused the magic. Teleportation spells do not work on unwilling targets.

When, hours later, the party’s leader had managed to have himself teleported back into the ruins, there was no Avrian and no Bane of Itar – only a set of footprints leading into the desert.

The rest of the party were not to be stymied by this setback, and directed their energies toward acquiring the warhammer Goggorddu. The party’s makeup was, of course, slightly changed on this next errand. Avrian wouldn’t have been accepted even had he been found. Instead, a human warrior named Gardakan, with a backpack full of javelins and a sword at his waist, joined them.

The party again set out, overcame tremendous adversity and recovered the powerful warhammer. No teleportation magics were handed out this time, and they had to make their way home by the conventional means – trekking across the desert. Goggorddu was carried by Gardakan, a physically strong individual.

On their walk home, the party was accosted by a small cavalry force loyal to Rary. Combat, naturally, ensued. Gardakan began by downing a potion. The label read “Bull’s Strength”. He also picked another bottle into his hand, and then, at the dramatically appropriate time, suddenly soared into the sky. Ten meters of height he gained, discarding his sword in the process. Then, he drew from among the javelin shafts of his backpack, a familiar-looking halberd. Finally, he removed his helmet, dispelling its illusionary magic, and shifting his form and visage into that of a familiar half-orc.

“It is I, Avrian!” he announced, before quaffing the second potion, turning invisible, and flying away with Goggorddu.

——————

The tale above is true, for the most part. I may be off on some details as I wasn’t present, but that is pretty much how it went down. It’s a masterpiece of deception, plotting, and intrigue that enhanced the game for all concerned and would’ve been quite hard, if not impossible, to pull off in a regular game.

The layers of deception are many. Avoiding the teleportation was easy – a private message to the DM saying “I’m an unwilling target.”

Pulling the wool over the party’s eyes the second time was harder. Firstly, I believe his public sign-up was done under an assumed name. The DM was, of course, mailed with the real personal details and an outline of the plot.

The character of Gardakan was announced as a human fighter, as opposed to the half-orc fighter/ranger that Avrian is. I think Gardakan was also said to be a level lower, possibly to account for his slightly decreased combat performance when not wielding the signature halberd so easily connected to Avrian. The helmet was, of course, a hat of disguise. Even the name Gardakan was carefully considered to arouse no suspicion and create the image of a casual player out just for fun.

With the potions at the end, he stated on the public channel “I drink a potion of bull’s strength and pull out a potion of cure light wounds“, while privately messaging the DM of their true natures – a potion of fly and a potion of invisiblity, respectively.

This kind of intrigue and deception is great when it works out in a roleplaying game. I should know, we played that series in the same way. In the last five adventures, not a single one went by without at least one juicy double-cross. Really, it’s one of the most fun things you can get in a roleplaying game.

While it can be accomplished in a face-to-face game, the other players will still know something is going on because you and the GM will be passing slips of paper back and forth. They can read expressions. They can choose not to use metagame knowledge, of course, but the awareness will affect their playing and they must take an extra step back from the character to think what their character would do were he ignorant that the other character is up to something.

Online, all those problems are removed. The medium does have its own shortcomings, no disagreement there, but in this one area, it is easily worth it.