Saturday, 26 June 2021

Publish or Perish: d100 reasons your wizard had to drop out of academia and become an adventurer instead

My department has been interviewing for new academic posts this week - and as I contemplated the mountain of incoming job applications, the vast majority of them inevitably doomed to failure, I found myself thinking about D&D wizards. Becoming a D&D magic-user clearly requires a specialised education, and yet many of these highly-educated wizards end up as expendable dungeon-crawling adventurers. This suggests to me that D&D wizarding, like modern academia, is probably a profession in which supply and demand are badly out of balance, with many aspiring magi competing over every institutional post. 

In situations like these, gatekeepers proliferate like weeds. There are lots of qualified applicants for every position, so having long lists of arbitrary hoops to jump through helps to winnow them down to a manageable level. (If half of them don't even know about the hoops, so much the better!) A lucky few will master all the formal and informal rules of the profession well enough to get one of the coveted seats around the high table at Wizard College. The rest have to settle for a life spent casting Magic Missile spells on goblins, instead. 


So where did it all go wrong for your magic-user? Why are they shivering in a dungeon instead of dozing in a nice warm corner of the Senior Common Room? Why are they plotting how to sneak past a troll, when the only plotting they wanted to do was about how to get a seat on the college wine committee? Roll 1d100 to find out!

  1. Your deep and subtle knowledge turned out to be no match for your terrible exam technique.
  2. Disastrous relationship breakdown just before finals scuppered your chances of a top grade. At the time you thought love was more important. You were wrong.
  3. You coasted through your education, getting by on natural talent, until you finally hit a subject you couldn't master at first glance and discovered you had never acquired any actual study skills. 
  4. You joined a drinking society in your first week at college. You finally sobered up shortly after graduation, which in retrospect was probably a bit late.
  5. You proudly declared your support for one faction in an ongoing intellectual controversy, only to discover that the people assessing your work all adhered to the other side.
  6. You were too busy doing part-time work to pay your extortionate college fees to actually do any studying.
  7. You foolishly prioritised mastering your subject over making the right connections while at college.
  8. Hosting ever-more-legendary college parties seemed like a great idea until you got expelled for setting fire to the accommodation block.
  9. A senior academic took against you and failed all your assignments out of spite.
  10. Impenetrable university bureaucracy meant that a minor clerical error on your part somehow led to you failing on a technicality.
  11. You unwisely took the advice of your tutors at face value and studied the subjects that you, personally, found most intellectually stimulating, not realising that you were rendering yourself unemployable until it was too late.
  12.  You got really into student politics, and were too busy organising protests and having intense conversations with sexy young radicals to do any actual studying. 
  13. You became fascinated by avant-garde theory, and denounced your tutors as a bunch of obscuratist authoritarians too old and scared to recognise the true brilliance of your ideas, which in retrospect may not have been the best way to open the first paragraph of your dissertation.
  14. Discovered too late that you'd enrolled in a low-status college whose degrees no-one really took seriously. 
  15. The one topic you'd revised for most carefully didn't come up in the paper.
  16. You suffered a massive panic attack in mid-exam, destroying your prospects in a single horrible hour.
  17. You devoted yourself to the fearless and objective pursuit of truth and enlightenment, regardless of where it might lead you. Turns out it led you to some very, very low grades.
  18. The exciting new theory on which you wrote your thesis was discredited shortly after you submitted it. 
  19. You staked everything on making a big breakthrough, but someone else got there first.
  20. Your academic supervisor was exposed as a fraud and you were tainted by association. 
  21. Your tutor stole all your ideas and took all the credit.
  22. You unintentionally offended your tutors by turning down too many social invitations, and discovered too late that none of them would write you references.
  23. Your hazy grasp of academic referencing conventions led to your whole dissertation being failed for plagiarism. 
  24. Your breezy, irreverent, informal presentation style made you stand out in all the wrong ways.
  25. You were written off as a hopeless case when you forgot to wear full academic dress to your first formal dinner.
  26. You didn't find the real library until it was much too late.
  27. You made the wrong friends at college, and subsequently discovered that all your applications for funding kept being mysteriously rejected.
  28. It turned out that scholarship you were counting on was not, in fact, a sure thing.
  29. How were you supposed to know that was a secret society handshake?
  30. Invited to dinner with the professors, ordered the wrong wine, career dead in five minutes flat.
  31. Fell asleep and started snoring loudly in the middle of a very boring lecture by a very famous visiting academic. 
  32. Sent to a conference as a representative of your college, completely fucked up your paper, tutors loathed you for making them look bad and failed you in revenge. 
  33. Tutored by an affable drunk who gave you brilliant grades for everything. You believed you were a genius until you met the real competition.
  34. Just because the invitation to meet the Master says it's optional doesn't mean it's actually optional, idiot!
  35. Went to the wrong lectures.
  36. Used the wrong archives.
  37. Cited the wrong sources.
  38. Spoke at the wrong conferences.
  39. Competed for the wrong prizes.
  40. Sent manuscripts to the wrong publishers.
  41. Collaborated with the wrong academics.
  42. Applied for the wrong kinds of funding.
  43. Held visiting fellowships at the wrong colleges.
  44. Chose the wrong referees. 
  45. Wore the wrong shoes to interview.
  46. Used the wrong honorifics when greeting the Master. 
  47. Said what you really thought about the Master's taste in painting while he still wasn't quite out of earshot.
  48. Came from the wrong town.
  49. Went to the wrong school.
  50. Spoke with the wrong accent.
  51. Worshipped at the wrong church.
  52. Patronised the wrong tailor.
  53. Had the wrong opinion about that new play everyone was talking about.
  54. Spent too much time working.
  55. Spent too little time working.
  56. Didn't get the right permissions.
  57. Mentioned the wrong people in your acknowledgements.
  58. Took the same drugs as everyone else, but made the major faux pas of admitting that you took them.
  59. Walked on the grass without permission.
  60. Fought back when viciously attacked by the college cat.
  61. Passed the port right at High Table.
  62. Dared to complain about the food.
  63. Using long strings of on-trend content-free buzzwords may have sufficed to get you shortlisted, but oh God it did not play well at interview.
  64. Did so well as a poorly-paid teaching assistant with no job security that the faculty decided to just carry on exploiting you forever. 
  65. Couldn't compete with the research resources available to much better-funded rivals.
  66. Staked everything on a brilliant job opportunity without realising it was only ever meant to go to the inside candidate.
  67. Loyally followed your boyfriend/girlfriend to a new city, without realising that everyone at college would forget all about you the instant you left town.
  68. Turned down a safe job to follow up a tip about a more prestigious post elsewhere. You didn't realise that you'd only been invited to make up the numbers until you saw the rest of the shortlist, and by then it was too late.
  69. Just because they say they want your 'honest feedback' doesn't mean you should actually tell them the truth!
  70. All those 'unmissable research opportunities' turned out to be unpaid, and you eventually ran out of family money. 
  71. Used as an expendable catspaw in some kind of esoteric power struggle between two senior academics.
  72. Took a few years out and found that the field had moved on without you.
  73. Framed for academic misconduct by an ambitious rival who wanted to remove you from the competition.
  74. The professor you gave up your old post to work with was undoubtedly brilliant twenty years ago, but these days he's just senile.
  75. Applying for high-status posts made you look over-ambitious.
  76. Applying for low-status posts made you look desperate.
  77. Application letter was much too long and nobody read it.
  78. Your interviewer was your grandfather's college rival fifty years ago and still takes the feud extremely seriously.
  79. Your work was too traditional and it made you look boring.
  80. Your work was too non-traditional and it made you look unsafe.
  81. Panicked in the interview and just started babbling.
  82. Couldn't think of anything clever to say when the interviewer asked: 'And now, do you have any questions for us?'
  83. I think you'll find that that term is now considered highly offensive.
  84. No, of course we don't mean anything by it when we say it. Don't you have a sense of humour?
  85. Insufficiently active in defending the college during the latest town vs. gown riots.
  86. Failure to attend sporting fixtures shows unpardonable lack of college spirit.
  87. Insufficiently aggressive salary negotiations meant that your 'dream job' left you a pauper.
  88. 'Yes, I can see that your work is terribly clever. But has it had any public impact?'
  89. 'Is it relevant to current government priorities?'
  90. 'Does it have any commercial applications?'
  91. 'How does it fit into our college strategy?'
  92. Oh God you should have researched this place more thoroughly before you said that in your interview.
  93. How were you supposed to know they hated each other?
  94. Citing too little existing scholarship made you look ignorant.
  95. Citing too much existing scholarship made you look derivative.
  96. Your first book received a devastating review in the field's leading journal and your career never recovered.
  97. It took you years to work out that the reader was rejecting all your articles because he wanted you to send them to his journal, instead!
  98. Failed to keep pace with changing intellectual fashions.
  99. You were stupid enough to believe them when they said that the dinner wasn't part of the interview.
  100. Learned too late that the college tiddlywinks society was the real key to success all along. 

Monday, 21 June 2021

Escape from the Ghoul Queen!

This post is about a situation that arose in a recent session. One of my players suggested that I post it, and I thought it might be of interest as a case study of in-game problem-solving.

The situation was as follows: the party had arranged a meeting with the fearsome Ghoul Queen, in order to negotiate future trade arrangements with her people. The meeting was to take place a few miles from the ruined city she ruled over, one hour before dawn. The PCs really wanted to meet with the Queen, but they were also aware that she was very, very dangerous, and they needed to have an escape plan that would allow them to flee the meeting in case she decided to abduct or murder them, instead.

Image by Sam Kennedy

The Problem Stated:

  • The meeting takes place in a blasted, rocky desert, with quite a lot of cover.
  • The Ghoul Queen is accompanied by a large retinue of ghouls, numerous enough that fighting them is not a realistic option. 
  • The Ghoul Queen is known to have hidden dozens of ghouls in concealed pits around the meeting area, so simply running is likely to be difficult - the ghouls will pop out and grab anyone who tries to flee. 
  • Ghouls are relatively weak individually, but have paralytic claws, so anyone attacked by a whole bunch of them is going to end up paralysed. They have no effective missile weapons.
  • Ghouls have a sharp sense of smell, and can see in the dark.
  • Ghouls hate sunlight, and will retreat underground at dawn.
The party's resources
  • Two clerics, whose spells include Detect Evil, Light, and Levitation (self only, long duration, permits vertical movement only). One of these clerics is a crab mutant who can breathe underwater.
  • Three magic-users, whose spells include Illusion (visual only, lasts as long as the caster continues to concentrate), Ghost Sound (creates audio effects, lasts as long as the caster continues to concentrate), Agility (boosts dexterity), Spider Climb, Gaseous Form (self only, short duration), and Gust of Wind. 
  • Five fighters, skilled in archery, riding, tracking, stealth, camouflage, and concealment.
  • One ratman, who can see in the dark and has an even better sense of smell than the ghouls.
  • Three trained giant rats, saddled and ready for use as mounts or pack animals.
  • A ring of invisibility to undead. (Does not conceal smell.)
  • An amulet that grants perfect night vision as long as the moon is in the sky.
  • A bag of half-rotten internal organs.
  • Quantities of rope and strong metal wire.
  • Survival gear: tents, bedrolls, supplies, etc. 
  • One spyglass.
  • An animated prison block, 20' cube on stompy stone legs, which the PCs can crudely steer using an undead lizard-monkey on a fishing rod, but which makes huge amounts of noise and stops dead at random and unpredictable intervals.
  • One preternaturally intelligent trained raven. 
Take a look through the lists. Think about the situation.  How would you solve it?


Here's what the party did. 

  • Step 1: Two fighters ride out stealthily on giant rats and conceal them behind rocks several hundred feet from the meeting place, well outside sniffing distance. 
  • Step 2: Two magic-users smear themselves with offal from the bag, making themselves smell intensely distracting to ghouls. The clerics, meanwhile, wash themselves to minimise their scent as best they can. 
  • Step 3: One of the clerics puts on the ring of invisibility to undead.
  • Step 4: One of the magic-users casts Illusion and Agility on the non-invisible cleric - Illusion to make it seem as though there's no-one there (an illusion of empty ground), and Agility to allow them to move more stealthily.
  • Step 5: The two clerics and two magic-users go to meet with the Ghoul Queen, although the ghouls only see the two magic-users: one cleric is invisible, one is covered by illusions, and the smell on the magic-users is strong enough to distract the ghouls from the smell of the unseen clerics. Each cleric carries a blanket and a rope.
  • Step 6: As they reach the meeting spot, the two clerics quietly cast Levitate. They then levitate straight up until they are hovering, unseen, above the meeting, holding blankets in their hands. 
  • Step 7: One magic-user conducts the negotiations while the other concentrates on keeping the levitating clerics hidden behind an illusion of empty night sky.
  • Step 8: When the Ghoul Queen gives orders for them to be seized, the magic-users both cast Gaseous Form, passing harmlessly through the grabbing claws of the ghouls, and drift straight upwards until they reach the levitating clerics.
  • Step 9: The magic-users rematerialise behind/on top of the levitating clerics, clinging to their backs and shoulders. The clerics shake out the blankets so that each cleric holds the bottom of their blanket and each magic-user grabs the top, holding them vertically in front of them like sails. The ghouls swarm below, but are unable to attack them while they are airbourne.
  • Step 10: The magic-users cast Gust of Wind spells directly into the blankets they are holding and cling on for dear life as they, and the levitating clerics they are riding on, are propelled hundreds of feet through the air until they are vertically above the spot where the fighters and the giant rats are hiding. The ghouls pursue, but the PCs have a substantial headstart.
  • Step 11: The fighters break cover and ride out to meet them. The clerics let go of the blankets and each drop one end of their coil of rope, which the fighters catch and tie onto the saddles of their giant rats.
  • Step 12: The fighters spur on their giant rats and ride away from the ghouls as fast as possible, heading east towards the rising sun, dragging the levitating clerics behind them on the ends of their ropes, each one with a magic-user still clinging onto their backs and shoulders.
  • Step 13: Dawn begins to break and forces the ghouls to abandon the pursuit, allowing the PCs to circle back to their main camp under the cover of daylight. By evening they are many miles away. 
The players were pretty happy with this triumph of lunatic ingenuity. I bet there were other solutions possible, though. They didn't even use the raven in this one.

Feel free to post your own solutions in the comments below!

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Condensation in Action 10: Wrath of the Righteous

Part 10 in an irregular series where I take bloated Pathfinder adventure paths and try to prune them into something more useful. Previous Condensation in Action posts can be found here:



Wrath of the Righteous was Paizo's attempt to write a high-level campaign. Normally their adventure paths top out at level 15, but this one goes all the way up to level 20, as well as awarding the PCs additional power boosts in the form of 'mythic tiers' along the way. If you think this sounds like a recipe for disaster, you'd be right. D&D has always had three basic tiers - levels 1-3 for scrappy underdogs, levels 4-8 for tough, capable fantasy heroes, and levels 9-14 for epic heroes and domain level play - and has tended to really struggle to imagine what adventures are supposed to look like beyond that point. (Tellingly, most of the original classic module series like Dragonlance and Queen of the Spiders topped out at level 14.) What are you meant to do once you've outleveled the dragon at the bottom of the dungeon?

Most of Wrath of the Righteous is very boring: just standard-issue dungeon crawling with much, much higher numbers. The situations quickly start to get ridiculous: the PCs are strong enough to take on dungeons full of demons by book 2, so all that books 3-6 can do is fill their dungeons with ever-bigger demons. One late-campaign dungeon has guards who are fourteenth-level demonic clerics made of locusts riding ancient black dragons. In any other campaign, just one of these guys would be a terrifying end-boss whose dark schemes threaten entire nations. In this one whole groups of them just sit around like glorified security guards, keeping an eye out for intruders and waiting for the over-levelled PCs to wander past and kill them all. 

This hexcrawl is what I was able to salvage. About half of it comes from the appendices rather than the adventures proper!


Context: This adventure takes place on a militarised frontier zone, where a crusading military order maintains a string of fortified settlements along the edges of a demon-haunted region of deserts and jungles, blighted by the release of unholy energies a century ago. (The order was founded in response to this event, and has had the same leader, Queen Galfrey, ever since.) Recently, stories have been emerging from the jungles of some kind of magical and/or industrial undertaking by the region's most prominent demon-cult, the Templars of the Ivory Labyrinth. Armies fare poorly in the jungles, and Queen Galfrey is in the market for a team of disposable, deniable scouts willing to brave the warped lands of the south and work out what's going on before it's too late...

A Note on the Military Situation: The land north of the jungles is notionally controlled by Queen Galfrey, though the border is porous, and beasts and cultists from the south sometimes slip across. The jungles are inhabited mostly by monsters and cultists, too few in number to meet the crusaders on the field of battle, but amply capable of whittling down military expeditions who enter their territory. Over the last century the crusaders have several times advanced as far as the southern coast and claimed 'victory', but the jungles are impossible to hold and they have always ended up retreating, leaving nothing but abandoned forts and temples in their wake.


Hexes are 12 miles across.

  • 0000: This broken-down old town is sinking into the swamps, and has been abandoned by all but its most misanthropic inhabitants, who are increasingly coming to resemble the toads that infest its rotting buildings. One among them is a master astrologer, an expert in predicting all kinds of ill-fortune, but the only thing he wants is to be left alone. If he could be persuaded to cooperate, his divinatory abilities would provide one way to navigate the ivory labyrinth at 0104.
  • 0001: This shadowy, bat-haunted town is run with psychopathic violence by its despotic governor, who has reduced its people to a state of abject terror. In truth, she, in turn, is a mere pawn of the cabal of vampires who secretly run the town, using its cowed inhabitants as food stock. The vampires are no friends to the Templars, whose victory would ruin their comfortable living arrangement, and could be convinced to ally with the PCs if they were persuaded that the threat against them was serious enough. (Such an alliance would, however, obviously need to be kept secret from the crusaders.)
  • 0002: In this tower lives a crazed cavalier, a defector from the crusades, who believes the victory of the demons is inevitable and hopes to win their favour and attention by committing random acts of pointless villainy. The townsfolk of 0001 hate and fear him, but their governor is in no hurry to apprehend him, as his depredations are a good excuse for all manner of restrictions and curfews.
  • 0003: A succubus lairs in this desecrated chapel. She is served by a band of charmed warriors - mostly ex-crusaders - who believe her to be a holy goddess, and will gladly lay down their lives in her service.
  • 0004: These mountains conceal a ruined and accursed city, among whose shattered buildings can be found an ancient library of stone tablets containing many secrets otherwise lost to the outside world, including maps of the Ivory Labyrinth at 0104 (which was built by the same vanished race who constructed this city). It has no guardians, but its curse afflicts all who discover it with psychotic and murderous jealousy, meaning that expeditions that stumble across it tend to self-destruct long before they bring word of it to the world beyond.
  • 0005: This blasted ash waste is the origin-point of the demonic taint that afflicts these lands. The earth here trembles with magical energy, and the air is full of demonic whispers. Anyone remaining here too long will be tainted in body, mind, and soul. 
  • 0006: The jungles here are roamed by a filth spirit who takes the form of a woman made of mud, rising from foul-smelling seepage of its rivers and caves. She is furious about the mining activities of the Templars in 0105, which are polluting 'her' waters with all kinds of weird magical run-offs, and will gladly assist in any efforts to shut them down. 
    • 0100: These marshy hills are collectively known as the Moonbog. They are dotted with huddled settlements, who live in fear of the werebeasts who roam the moors by night.
    • 0102: Hidden in these hills is a trap-filled dungeon of iron and stone - the stronghold of a cruel demon, the Razor Princess. She is served by a demonic murderer with the head of a stork, who abducts victims for her and drives them through her deathtrapped mazes so that their blood might lubricate her cruel machines.
    • 0103: The jungle here is roamed by a flayed, headless angel, once an ally of the crusaders, now a victim of the Templars. It attacks intruders with its still-blazing sword, its body continuously spurting gouts of boiling, sulpherous blood over anyone who comes too close.
    • 0104: Here stands the Ivory Labyrinth itself, a vast subterranean maze paved and walled with ancient bones. It is inhabited by primitive humanoids who have dwelt there for centuries, but who have recently been enslaved by the Templars, who have claimed the place as a site sacred to their demonic patron Baphomet. The labyrinth is very confusing, mostly due to the demonic magic that infuses it, and navigating it successfully is almost impossible without very good scouts (such as the Pitlings at 0401), magical aid (such as the Stalker's Crossbow from 0205 or the divinations of the astrologer at 0000), or a map (such as the one at 0004). The Templar leadership are all demoniacs, who willingly invite demonic spirits into their bodies, and spend most of their time in states of entranced spirit-possession. Their champion wields an enchanted golden scimitar, which once belonged to the wife of the antipaladin from 0404.
    • 0105: Here, deep in the jungles, the Templars have begun mining enchanted crystals from the magic-saturated earth. Their mine labourers are demonic minotaurs, who use their immense strength to hack their way through the rock. The more of these crystals they mine, the more demonic spirits their leaders will be able to call down into their bodies. If left unchecked for too long, they will become powerful enough to sweep away the crusaders once Queen Galfrey finally meets her death. 
    • 0107: Here a demonic sorcerer dwells with his herd of man-eating aurochs. He is notionally allied with the Templars, but is happy to turn a blind eye to visitors as long as they bring offerings of human flesh for his herd.
    • 0201: This manor house is home to a noble family, supposedly subjects of Queen Galfrey, but secretly loyal to the Templars. Building a labyrinth in their own home was a bit impractical, so instead they settled for a hedge maze, consecrated by unholy stone bull's heads buried beneath its corners. Unbelievers who try to navigate it find themselves becoming confused, their bodies growing heavy, their skin scratched by branches and opening in hundreds of tiny wounds that never, ever stop bleeding. By the time they reach the centre of the maze, where the family wait for them, they're ripe for slaughter.
    • 0204: This ruined temple is full of maggots that constantly squirm across its floor, spelling out heretical prayers with their writhing bodies. If intruders enter, the maggots twist themselves into the shape of unholy runes instead, blasting all those who gaze upon them. Beneath the temple are tunnels made from heaving, cancerous flesh, continuously fed upon by vermin. At their heart meditates an awful cleric made of locusts, the servant of an ancient demon lord of vermin. If he is still alive after the Templars are defeated, he will lay claim to their abandoned places of power and start calling forth horrible insect monsters, laying the foundations of a new demon-cult to replace them.
    • 0205: This Templar stronghold is guarded by obese naked undead armed with scythes, who have the power to cause bloody wounds to open upon all those they gaze upon. Within dwell a nest of cultists who have amputated their own feet and replaced them with enchanted brazen hooves, the better to resemble their demonic master. If their stronghold is invaded they attack in a kicking, trampling mob. One of them wields the Stalker's Crossbow, whose wielder will always be able to find the last person wounded by it.
    • 0302: This frontier camp is the current base of Queen Galfrey. Galfrey swore at the very start of the crusade to vanquish the demons or die trying: she is now over 100 years old, her life prolonged at crippling expense by alchemical means. Utterly weary of her life of endless warfare, she has developed a not-so-subtle death-wish, and has begun provoking new battles mostly in order to give herself a chance to die in them. (It hasn't worked yet because people with alchemically-enhanced bodies and a century of combat experience and are very difficult to kill.) Morale in the camp is low, as the soldiers resent being made to risk their lives in unnecessary battles. They have been secretly infiltrated by an agent of the Templars, Hosilla, who is here posing as a knight from a minor (and fictional) noble house. If the queen actually does manage to get herself killed, Hosilla will hasten back to the Ivory Labyrinth at 0104 and tell the Templars to call down as many demons as they can and strike as soon as possible, while the crusaders are still reeling from her loss. If the mine at 0105 has not been disabled yet, they will probably win. 
    • 0304: The trees here exude a sticky sap into the poisonous, swampy waters below. Anyone who ascends into the canopy is set upon by monstrous bird-creatures, who attack in screeching flocks
    • 0307: Here the jungle is torn open by vast rifts inhabited by warped and troglodytic humanoids, who roam ceaselessly searching for prey. 
    • 0401: This massively fortified clifftop city is the stronghold of the crusaders. The cliffs beneath are riddled with caves and tunnels inhabited by the 'pitlings', deformed descendants of the original crusaders who found their children were born warped by the weird energies to which they had been exposed during their campaigns. The people of the city regard the pitlings with scorn, but the pitlings still revere their warrior ancestors, guarding the graves of their crusader forebears and nurturing a pathetic loyalty to the state that rejected them. They are hardy and stealthy and can see in the dark, making them perfect scouts for any attack on the Ivory Labyrinth at 0104.  
    • 0404: The jungles here are inhabited by giant slugs and dire crocodiles. On its poisoned rivers floats an enchanted barge, pulled by a great skeletal serpent, and manned only by a freezing undead antipaladin as cold as his own frozen heart. He wields a terrible icy halberd, which freezes the blood of all those it wounds. He will curtly question all those who pass if they have seen his wife, who vanished into the Ivory Labyrinth years ago: anyone failing to give a useful answer will receive an icy death, instead. If touched or wounded by her scimitar (see 0104), his heart melts and all his unholy powers desert him.
    • 0405: Deep in these jungles lies a hidden chasm, apparently bottomless, whose walls are lined by the immense fossilised bodies of dead demon kings from ages past.
    • 0502: In this town, the people long ago started to adopt the talking animals that occasionally wandered from the forests, keeping them as pets and messengers. Unfortunately for them, the animals are demon-tainted and delight in defamation and slander, with the result that the whole town is now a tangle of feuds, scandals, and misplaced attempts at revenge. (In particular, everyone is convinced that their neighbours have something to do with all the children who have been going missing recently - in fact these have been taken by the inhabitants of the house at 0503, frequently with the connivance of the talking animals.) The people are highly resistant to the idea that their animal companions are anything other than loyal and adorable. 
    • 0503: High in these gloomy mountains stands a huge house in which kidnapped children tend to a great clockwork mechanism of obscure significance, guarded by cloaked, silent figures and clanking automata who hunt down any who try to escape. What, if anything, the machine actually does is deeply unclear.
    • 0504: A succubus inhabits this mansion, beset by besotted admirers longing for her favour or even acknowledgement. Most starve to death in her courtyards, or kill one another in desperate attempts to win her attention and prove their devotion. Only the most exceptional displays of talent or prowess will suffice to win an audience. 
    • 0600: This steep mountain valley echoes with distant, half-heard songs. (These come from a tragic ghost who haunts its slopes, but finding her is extremely difficult.) It leads to a smug little town, bright with mirrors and loud with bells, whose vain inhabitants are notionally loyal to the crusade but actually care nothing for the outside world. It would be a good source of mirrors with which to torment the rat-demon at 0603.
    • 0601: This town is a prison-colony, to which convicts are set from throughout Queen Galfrey's domain to work as slave labourers, mining gems from the hills. (These are the kingdom's most profitable export.) Because slaves are so much more profitable than corpses, many captured low-level demon cultists have been sent here, and their teachings are spreading covertly among the convicts. If the flow of gems from the mines was disrupted then the crusaders would soon be unable to afford Queen Galfrey's ruinously expensive life-extension potions, and she would wither and die within a year. 
    • 0603: This ruined town was built by the crusaders during one of their expansionist phases, only to be abandoned when the tides of war turned. Now it is infested by flocks of fiendish vultures, and roamed by a ghastly knife-wielding rat demon that hates and fears its own reflection. A band of mad knights camps nearby, utterly unreconciled to the town's abandonment and determined to reclaim it regardless of what it may cost them (or anyone else). 
    • 0604: This ruined shrine is inhabited by a deeply confused demon, who unwisely preyed upon a priestess of the goddess of dreams. The priestess linked their minds as she lay dying, and now the demon has a head full of someone else's emotions and memories and is having a massive identity crisis. She still has her demonic instincts towards cruelty, but her new human feelings mean that she feels revolted by them. If her newly human side was carefully nurtured she might be guided along a path of repentance, but any kind of severe stress will cause her to have a massive breakdown and start lashing out. 
    • 0605: Here a boiling river pours out of the mountains and runs through the jungle to the sea, terminating at a beach of powdered bone.
    • 0607: This graveyard island is surrounded by shipwrecks, driven upon its shores by the regular floods and hurricanes that beset it. It is the home of a powerful ghoul, the Coffin Groom, who feasts upon the drowned dead.
    • 0701: This ghost town was abandoned when its well ran dry. By night it is haunted by the walking corpses of the parched and vengeful dead. 
    • 0704: This desert is inhabited by gigantic scorpion-human hybrids, who know ancient spells capable of calling armies of mummified demons up from their crumbling tombs to do their bidding. They greatly predate the conflict between the crusaders and the Templars, but have been stirred up by the energies released at 0005. If the taint could be lifted from the land they would go back to sleep.

    Sunday, 16 May 2021

    Meet the new boss: some thoughts on domain-level play

    I've long since lost count of the exact number, but I'm pretty sure that my current 'City of Spires' campaign has now run for almost as many sessions as the 'Team Tsathogga' campaign that preceded it. This has prompted me to think a bit about the different shapes that the two campaigns have taken. 'Team Tsathogga' was, from beginning to end, an extremely freewheeling, even anarchic campaign, with the PCs roaming randomly around the map getting involved in whatever seemed most interesting at the time. In 'City of Spires', on the other hand, the PCs took over their city twenty-odd sessions ago, and everything since then has dealt with their ongoing attempts to cement their positions as regional power players. 

    This has been a new experience for me as a GM, as I've never had to deal with this form of domain-level play before. The PCs in my long-ago AD&D games sometimes rose to become high priests and archmagi and whatnot, but their non-adventuring duties always remained firmly in the background. The Team Tsathogga crew regularly took over entire communities by accident, but they never stuck around long enough to actually rule them: they'd just appoint some viceroys and wander off. In City of Spires, by contrast, we now sometimes have whole sessions that are basically just 'upkeep', with the PCs checking in on all their various civic projects and trying to deal with whatever barriers they may have encountered. (One recent example saw them plotting how best to scam an ancient subway AI into lending them a digging robot through the use of rigged customer satisfaction surveys.) They've built bridges. They've set up trade routes. They've negotiated diplomatic marriages. They've organised the planting of stands of date palms and the digging of irrigation canals. I keep worrying that they'll get bored by all this SimCity stuff, but they insist they're really enjoying it. Mysterious wildernesses on the edge of the map remain resolutely unexplored in favour of yet more civil engineering. 

    Over the course of these sessions, I've developed a set of rough-and-ready principles for running games which devote a lot of time to domain management. I don't claim that this is the best or only way to handle such situations, but this is what's worked for me, at least so far...


    1: Keep the focus on problem-solving.

    I think that one reason people often shy away from domain management is because they worry it will make their games dissolve into a morass of tedious accountancy and logistics. In reality, of course, such logistics are absolutely crucial to running a successful polity. But they're also crucial to running a successful military unit or long-distance wilderness expedition, and we never let that stop us when running normal D&D!

    If you were running a wilderness trek, you probably wouldn't keep the focus on the exact logistics of pack animals, trail rations, and so on. Instead, you'd focus on the moments of crisis: how are the party going to get themselves and their supplies over this raging river? How will they sneak them through this hostile territory? Running a domain is just the same. Of course, you need a general sense of what kind of resources the community does and does not possess, to keep decision-making grounded in some kind of shared imagined reality. But for the most part I've found it helpful to assume that the day-to-day stuff just proceeds at its own pace in the background until it hits a specific problem, at which point the PCs have the option of stepping in. They're not project managers - or maybe they are, but that's a role they play off-screen. When they're onscreen, it's because they're acting as troubleshooters. 

    2: Keep the problems OSR-style

    The general principles of OSR encounter design - 'an encounter that can be solved by simply crossing some resources off your character sheet is a bad encounter' - apply here, too. The problems the PCs encounter should never be the kind that can be solved by just throwing more resources at them. Instead, they need to be qualitative problems, the kind of things that act as potential bottlenecks for the whole project. 'You thought you'd need X amount of lumber, but then a fire destroys some of it, so now you need Y amount of lumber instead' may be a serious problem, but it's not an interesting problem. You can assume all these sorts of things are already 'priced in', and are being dealt with by the local management: that the mine foreman, for example, knows perfectly well how to deal with normal problems and setbacks involved in running a mine. It's only when his crews accidentally mine their way into a haunted subterranean city, or when a tribe of goblins cuts off the roads that the ore is carried down, or when flooding cuts off production just before a time-critical deadline, or whatever, that he'll come running back to the PCs to beg for help, because he knows that they're the kind of people who can be relied upon to come up with creative solutions to otherwise-intractable difficulties. 

    (Important addendum: this doesn't imply that every time the PCs attempt something, no matter how routine, you should throw some kind of intractable difficulty in their way. If it's the sort of thing they have the resources to straightforwardly accomplish, then just let them have it. But if it's something more ambitious, then they should have to overcome obstacles to achieve it - and the more those obstacles are qualitative rather than quantitative, the more rewarding the resulting play is likely to be.) 

    3: Make sure the PCs have access to lots of highly specific assets

    So the PCs set a project in motion, and it works fine until it hits a problem that threatens to derail it, at which point they have the option of stepping in to sort it out. Again, the normal principles of OSR-style problem-solving apply: an encounter that has only one correct solution is a bad encounter. Problems should be amenable to PC agency in lots of different ways, enabling plenty of out-of-the-box thinking. 

    I've written before about the importance of giving PCs heaps of stuff to try solving problems with, and the same principles apply here, just on a larger scale. In the same way as dungeon encounters are much more fun if PCs are trying to work out how to deal with them with the aid of a fishing rod, a wedding dress, and a box of fireworks, solving domain-level problems will be much more interesting if the PCs have non-standard tools to work with. 'A unit of soldiers' is fine, but boring: if the problem could be straightforwardly solved by just sending in the troops, the middle management would already have sorted it out by now. But if the PCs have to solve problems with the aid of a malfunctioning robot eagle and a sleepy cannibal giant instead, they'll get much more creative, and will feel much better about themselves when they come up with some loopy solution that actually works.

    You don't need to tailor specific assets to specific problems. In fact, you should actively avoid doing this. Just make sure that the PCs a bunch of random stuff to work with, all with potentially powerful applications and potentially crippling limitations, and leave them to work something out. Some of these resources can pass into their hands when they take over their domain, and some can be acquired on adventures, or be given to them in tribute. However, much of it will probably already be there, waiting to be used, because...

    4: What were once threats are now resources

    The PCs are now the masters of their domain. The dungeons that they once fought their way through fearfully, one room at a time, have now been mapped and cleared out. And that means their resources are now available for the taking.

    If your PCs are anything like mine, then by the time they acquire a domain of their own they'll already have done plenty of more traditional wilderness exploration and dungeon-crawling, encountering all sorts of weird and dangerous nonsense in ancient ruins and accursed tombs. But while, from the perspective of an adventurer, an enchanted lake of acid is a dungeoneering hazard, from the perspective of a ruler it's a resource. Just think of what you could accomplish with all that acid!

    If you're like me, you'll probably feel an instinctive resistance to the idea of PCs taking things that were once expressions of the Mythic Underworld and turning them into military-industrial assets. Resist that instinct. The PCs earned their access to these things, access that they paid for in time and hit points and dead characters: it's only fair to let them enjoy the fruits of their exploits. Let them turn the Heat Metal room into a power plant. ('Hey, free energy!') Let them weaponise the monsters and traps and curses they've long since learned to evade. ('What if we kite the zombies all the way to the frontier?') Let them redirect that river of screaming ghosts out of the dungeon and into the moat around their castle. ('This'll keep the barbarians out!') In this way, all the weirdness they've encountered in their adventuring career so far becomes the kind of highly specific resources that allow them to come up with creative solutions to their civic problems, solutions that would never have occurred to anyone other than a D&D PC. 


    5: Simplify factions

    When my PCs took over their city, the first thing they did was organise a grand council of all the other local power players to help them run the place. I tried to run a full meeting of this council, with all the dozens of NPCs involved in it, exactly once. Never again. 

    When PCs are on the outside of a power structure, it makes sense to play out each of their interactions with it individually. But once they are the power structure, and everyone else has to come to them, trying to play it all out would be madness. Logically, they'll need to talk to every single local stakeholder about each new development: but for sanity's sake it's much easier to simplify all these groups into a few main coalitions, and reduce what would actually be a long series of interactions into a handful of conversations with their spokesmen. All those weird and idiosyncratic bandit chiefs they had to negotiate with back when they were ruin-crawlers can now merge into the Bandit Coalition, with one representative who speaks on behalf of all of them. Otherwise you'll never get anything done.

    (PROTIP: The representative for each coalition should be whomever the PCs have the most history with, even if they're not actually the coalition's most senior member. This both makes in-world sense - the person appointed to talk to them will be the person who knows them best - and makes interactions more meaningful, because of all the shared history they have behind them. I have loved seeing relationships that began with cutthroat encounters in the ruins end up taking on institutional significance. 'Hey, remember when you tried to kill us with hellfire? Good times. How's the literacy project coming along?')

    6: Don't overestimate the powers of the state

    Compared to modern states, most pre-modern polities are ramshackle as fuck. Remind your players early and often that just because they have 'a government' doesn't mean they have anything resembling a modern bureaucracy, with a police force and a civil service and so on. They probably have a stronghold, an army, a treasury, a bunch of advisers, spies, and informers, a network of local 'big men' who can be expected to semi-reliably enforce their edicts as long as they are kept in line with threats and bribes, and not a whole lot else. Their writ may run along the roads and the rivers and the major agrarian areas - but in between, in the woods and the swamps and the deserts and the mountains, there are going to be all kinds of places where state power barely functions, and where adventures can consequently continue to flourish. There are still lots of situations in which having an army isn't actually all that useful, and where it might consequently still make sense to get the old adventuring team back together for another journey into the unknown.


    7: Let the PCs enjoy the fruits of their success

    If your players have gone to the trouble of building a real powerbase, it's probably because they're interested in actually having and using power. So let them. It's totally OK if the rise of the PCs to power mean that a lot of things that were previously threats for them can now be trivially dealt with. The level of power they wield in the world has just increased by an order of magnitude: 3d6 goblins in a cave just isn't going to cut it any more. 

    D&D PCs tend to be powerful, highly competent, individualistic, and more than a little crazy, so if a bunch of them have just seized hold of a domain, then that domain is probably going to be in for some interesting times. Let your PCs make changes. Let them make big changes. This doesn't mean that everything they attempt should succeed, but everything they attempt should have consequences. If their domain has been changed beyond recognition within a few years of them taking over, then that's a good thing. 

    You know all those crazy lords and wizards in the backstories to D&D scenarios, the ones who are always building weird strongholds and meddling with arcane forces and making pacts with inhuman beings and bringing about lost golden ages and magical cataclysms and so on? Well, now your PCs have the chance to be those people. Let them make the most of it.

    After all, just think of the dungeons they'll leave behind them!

    Wednesday, 31 March 2021

    Image archaeology: Paladin Girl

    Who knoweth not of Paladin Girl?

    M:tG card art for Knight Exemplar, by Jason Chan (2011). Exemplary in more ways than one!

    Paladin Girl has become a cliche of modern fantasy art. She always looks the same. A young, slender woman in plate mail armour (often improbably form-fitting), no helmet, straight hair usually worn long and loose, conventionally-attractive face. On horseback, she might have a spear or lance. On foot, she usually carries a sword. 

    Paladin Girl is a fairly straightforward combination of traditional masculine and feminine signifiers. Her weapons and armour convey traditionally masculine power and 'hardness'; her face, hair, and figure convey traditionally feminine 'softness' and prettiness. The optimistic reading would be that strength and heroism are compatible with femininity. The pessimistic reading would be that women only get to be powerful as long as their strength remains compatible with conventional standards of female beauty. Either way, she is clearly associated with a particularly chaste and non-threatening form of sex appeal, with her armoured body symbolising her guarded sexuality. Unsurprisingly, she mostly turns up in works targeted at predominantly male audiences.

    I became curious about where this image came from, and did a little digging. Here's what I came up with.

    One obvious source is Joan of Arc. A sketch from her own time depicts her like this - 


    but by the later fifteenth century she was being painted like this - 


    - and by 1505 like this:

    Then there's Bradamante and Clorinda, the original 'female knight' characters, who appear in Arisoto's Orlando Furioso (1532) and Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (1581), respectively. Around 1600 they were being depicted like this:

    Paolo Domenico Finoglia. Clorinda's the one on the right.

    Antonio Tempesta, Bradamante Valorosa.

    This, in turn, is not dissimilar to the way Joan of Arc was being depicted in the early seventeenth century:

    Reubens, Joan of Arc (1612)

    William Marshall, Joan of Arc (1642)

    So 'attractive female knight in armour' is clearly not a foreign concept in Renaissance art. But the armour looks like real armour, and there's little sign yet of the extravagant hairstyles that are so much a part of contemporary Paladin Girl imagery. Reubens shows Joan with long hair, but that's because she's literally letting her hair down. In battle she's obviously going to be covered beneath the black helmet on the ground beside her, relying on her plumed crest rather than her bare head to ensure she stays visible in combat. 

    Like most of modern fantasy iconography, Paladin Girl derives much more from nineteenth-century art than from anything actually medieval. As late as 1856, Delacroix was still painting Clorinda pretty much in the Renaissance style - 


    But three years later he also painted this image, of Ermina, also from Gerusalemme Liberata :

     
    Classic Paladin Girl, right? Except the whole point of this image is that Ermina isn't a female knight: she's a princess disguised as a knight. (More specifically she's disguised as Clorinda, whose armour she's 'borrowed'.) Thus the long hair and the skirt: this is less wargear than cosplay. Clorinda, who's the real deal, wears full armour, has a more practical haircut, and carries a rather unfeminine bearded axe.

    The real shift comes with the Pre-Raphaelites, whose chocolate-box medievalism lies at the root of most modern fantasy art. Here's Millais 1865 painting of Joan of Arc:


    We're getting very close, now; and Walter Crane's Britomart, from his 1895-7 illustrations to The Faerie Queene, gets us even closer. Note sword, long hair, armoured skirt, and the large rondels on her chest that give the impression that her armour has breasts.


    Leighton's 1901 painting The Accolade isn't a Paladin Girl image as such, but it clearly fed into the subsequent iconography.


    There are plenty of other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century examples:

    Charles-Amable Lenoir

    John Gilbert

    Albert Lynch, 1903 - surely the secret inspiration for the haircuts used by 40K's Sisters of Battle!

    Paul Antoine de la Boulaye, 1909

    Note that more form-fitting armour is becoming the norm, here, with tapered waists and armoured skirts allowing these painters to display a classically feminine 'hourglass' figure even in full armour. (Contrast this with the armour in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century images, which would mask the wearer's gender.) It's this iconography that fed into the 1948 Joan of Arc film starring Ingrid Bergman, although the need to make a costume that was actually wearable clearly led to some concessions to practicality.

    Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc, 1948.

    Bergman again, in the 1946 play the film was based on.

    Paladin Girl went into abeyance somewhat during the 1970s, when warrior women in fantasy art tended more towards the 'valkyrie' or 'amazon' archetypes. (E.g. Red Sonja, Valkyrie from Marvel Comics, Hildebrandt's interpretation of Eowyn, every woman Franzetta ever painted.) She only started to make her way into D&D via Larry Elmore's illustrations of everyone's 1983 fantasy waifu, Aleena the Cleric.

    BARGLE YOU FUCK DON'T SHOOT HER FOR SHE IS MY ONE TRUE LOVE!

    NOW ALEENA IS DEAD AND I HAVE ONLY MY EIGHTIES HAIR TO CONSOLE ME!

    It took much longer for her to become the default, though. In the very same book, Elmore's other female cleric - an idiosyncratic reworking of the 'valkyrie' type - looked like this: 


    Most 'female fighter' illustrations in 1980s and 1990s fantasy media tended much more towards 'sexy' designs with lots of exposed skin, and armoured female fighters in D&D-adjacent media were more likely to look like this - 

    Clyde Caldwell, cover illustration to Dark Heart (1992). 

    When D&D 3rd edition came out in 2000 there was a self-conscious push against this kind of imagery, with Elmore's influence rejected wholesale in favour of the 'dungeon-punk' iconography for which the edition is famous (or notorious). Its iconic female paladin, Alhandra, looked like this:


    However, in 2004 World of Warcraft launched, and all its female paladin-types looked more or less like this:


    What had happened in the interim, of course, was an explosion in the popularity of anime, manga, and JRPGs in western geek circles. Manga and anime had a long preoccupation with 'female knight' characters, from the original Princess Knight manga series in 1953-6 to the epochal Lady Oscar (1972-3), and modern Japanese fantasy media is littered with 'cute female knight/cleric' figures. From the female priest in Dragon Quest III (1988), whose chainmail bodysuit, tabard, boots, mace, and haircut seem to have been directly based on Aleena five years earlier - 


    to the iconic figure of Saber from Fate / Stay Night (2004), who basically defines the type going forwards. 


    These Paladin Girl types grew out of the older pre-Raphaelite Joan of Arc figure reinterpreted through a manga filter, and in the early 2000s they were reimported to the West, with immediate effect. This anime-by-way-of-World-of-Warcraft style was everywhere in the fantasy art of the period. Tellingly, the 9th Edition of Magic: the Gathering (2005) saw the art for the iconic white card Serra Angel shift from this cone-bra stripper-samurai horrorshow -


    To this - 


    And that's where we've been ever since, basically. In 2009 Pathfinder even made it quasi-official by having their actual goddess of paladins, Iomedae, look like this:


    And finally we end where we began, with Joan of Arc.

    Art from the Joan of Arc board game, released 2019 by Mythic Games.

    So what does it all mean? Paladin Girl, I'd suggest, represents a compromise between the sexualised 'warrior woman' designs of the 1980s and 1990s, with their loincloths and armoured bikinis, and the ideals of equal-opportunities empowerment that most modern fantasy media pays at least lip service to. She's 'empowered' - she wears full armour! She's got a sword! - but in a way that emphasises her 'good girl' femininity, rather than clashing with it. (The armour emphasises her breasts, waist, and hips rather than hiding them, she's obviously wearing make-up, and her power is clearly wielded on behalf of the existing social order, not against it.) She stands for female empowerment in its most non-threatening, least socially-disruptive form. Probably this is what led male artists to develop the type in the first place, against the backdrop of the original women's suffrage movement of 1897-1918, which presented them with much less comfortable models of what female power might look like.

    But I wouldn't want to paint too bleak a picture of Paladin Girl. She can get pretty silly in her more fanservicey incarnations, all bare thighs and miniskirts and breastplates with cleavage windows: but, despite this, I've known several women to whom this iconography really appealed. As I mentioned early on, the optimistic reading of the archetype is that femininity is not incompatible with martial fantasy heroics. Think of it as the Legally Blonde of fantasy art cliches. 

    Because if Elle Woods ever played D&D, you know her PC would look something like this...

    Sunday, 7 March 2021

    Failing better: a GMing retrospective

    Ever tried.

    Ever failed.

    No matter.

    Try again.

    Fail again.

    Fail better.

    - Samuel Beckett


    Learning to run an RPG, like most things, is mostly about practise. You can read all the theory and advice you like, but fundamentally you learn it by doing it. Bluntly, this means that before you run a really good campaign you're probably going to have to run lots of really bad ones, hopefully getting a little bit better each time. Luckily, the nature of RPGs is such that even a 'bad' campaign should still be a lot of fun as long as everyone approaches it in a spirit of good humour: and each one will inevitably yield lessons for next time, even if it might require a post-mortem chat with your players in order to draw out exactly what they might be.

    I've been GMing games for an embarrassingly long time, now: and while I wouldn't claim to be any kind of gamesmastering genius, I've got to the point where I can run a game with little or no preparation and still be pretty confident that both I and my players are likely to have a good time. The last year has really pushed me on this, as I've been running my City of Spires campaign weekly online, alongside a crippling increase in my professional workload that has cut my prep time virtually to zero. Every Wednesday morning I wake up with a sense of dread, remembering that on top of everything else I have to do that day I somehow have to run a game in the evening. Every Wednesday afternoon I seriously consider calling the session off. But every Wednesday night I sit down and log in and everything actually goes fine. There are a lot of reasons for this: I have great players, the campaign is friendly to low-prep play, the system is minimalistic to the point of invisibility, etc. But I think the biggest one is the simple fact that I've had a lot of practise.

    I'm not really sure how many campaigns I've run over the years - dozens, probably - but in this post, I'm going to briefly run through ten of the longer-running ones, with a few notes on what worked, what didn't, and what I learned from them. I may not have really succeeded straight away, but I carried on learning and experimenting and I got there in the end. Hopefully this can provide some reassurance to anyone out there currently contemplating the wreckage of their latest campaign: and maybe some of the lessons learned will be useful to someone else, as well!


    Campaign 1: Stormbringer (Stormbringer 1st edition)

    • What it was: Not the first campaign I ever ran, but the first one that lasted for more than a few sessions. I ran it as a 12-year-old high on too many Moorcock novels, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. It was terrible.
    • What worked: In retrospect, the chargen system gave an early example of how random rolls can generate much more interesting and memorable characters than a bunch of 12-year-olds would ever have come up with unaided. I didn't really appreciate this at the time, though: I just used it because the idea of not following the rules as written genuinely hadn't occurred to me yet. 
    • What didn't: Everything. My idea of encounter design was 'suddenly, seven hawks attack!' There was no story, no role-playing, not even any tactics beyond 'scream and charge and hope the dice are kind'. Characters died in droves. Unsurprisingly, no-one took the whole thing particularly seriously.
    • Lessons learned: Even at the age of 12, it was clear to me that I'd need a more consistent tone and less random character death if an RPG campaign was ever to be more than absurdist black comedy. I didn't have a clear idea of how to achieve that yet, but I tried.

    Campaign 2: Heroes of Greydawn (AD&D 2nd edition)

    • What it was: The D&D game that my friends and I played at school as teenagers: one main campaign that ran from level 1 to level 12, plus three side campaigns set in the same world that gave everyone a chance to play different characters for a change. It remains the longest-running game I've ever run: all told, probably well over 600 hours of actual play. Given that (a) I am no longer a teenager and (b) it is no longer the 1990s, I don't really expect to ever run a game this long again. 
    • What worked: Quantity, as the saying goes, has a quality all of its own. This game started with primitive kill-em-all wilderness treks and dungeon bashes, but it ran for so long that it built up its own momentum: lore, narrative, recurring NPCs, and the rest. PCs who started out as blank slates gradually accumulated so much history that by the end of the campaign it was actually quite moving to say goodbye to them.
    • What didn't: My early games were horrible railroads, which simply ran PCs from one scripted encounter to the next, often with heavy hints about the 'right' way to proceed. It took me a long time to finally relax and accept that it was OK for PCs to circumvent encounters, develop creative solutions, cause meaningful change to the campaign world, etc. (A lot of this was forced on me by the levelling process: it's pretty hard to push PCs around when they can teleport, walk through walls, and raise the dead!) 
    • Lessons learned: That the most important thing is just to keep the campaign rolling. That it's OK to let PCs be clever, and awesome, and change the world. That the best games are the ones that don't go the way you expected them to. (This was something I noticed at the time, but it took me many more years to properly internalise it!)

    Campaign 3: The Sign of Fourteen (WFRP 1st edition)

    • What it was: The WFRP game we moved onto after deciding we'd 'outgrown' D&D. (We were about 17 at the time.) Started off as an embarrassing exercise in grimdark nonsense masquerading as maturity, but improved greatly as we moved onto the published Enemy Within adventures. (Only parts 1-3, obviously - I wrote my own final chapter!)
    • What worked: The Enemy Within was a triumph, though I don't think I could have run it successfully if I'd been any younger. (Power Behind the Throne really pushed me to my limits - so many NPCs!) In retrospect I think that some of the horror imagery I came up with in my own adventures stands up pretty well, although other parts are pretty cringeworthy. ('And then the skaven eat the babies! GRIIIIIMDAAAARK!')
    • What didn't: Railroading remained a vice to which I frequently succumbed, right down to forcing PCs to sit through villain monologues. I also struggled to write adventures without using combat as a crutch, meaning that players with non-combat-focussed characters were often left without much to do in the inevitable 'suddenly, mutants attack!' scenes.  
    • Lessons learned: This campaign taught me how much could be achieved by maintaining a consistent pattern of mood and imagery, which my previous campaigns had never really had. Running The Enemy Within also served as a crash-course in running investigative adventures, although it wasn't until later that I fully understood why an adventure like Shadows Over Bogenhafen works as well as it does. 

    Campaign 4: The Arltree Campaign (Mage: the Ascension 2nd edition)

    • What it was: Like all pretentious teenage roleplayers in the late 1990s, I decided to tried my hand at running a White Wolf game. It was going to be Deep and Meaningful and full of Themes. Unfortunately I wasn't nearly as clever or sophisticated as I thought I was, so it basically ended up being a street-level superhero game, which in retrospect was probably for the best.
    • What worked: This game saw my first fumbling attempts towards character-driven drama, character development, and even PC-NPC romances, which represented quite a milestone for me at the time. The PCs and NPCs were certainly much more vivid and three-dimensional than in any of my previous campaigns. 
    • What didn't: Every attempt to raise the tone above the level of 'pulp action-horror' crashed and burned on the rocks of my limited GMing skills and lack of general life experience. 
    • Lessons learned: This was the campaign that really taught me the value of having a cast of colourful NPCs for the PCs to bounce off. To the extent that it worked as a campaign, it did so largely on the strength of its supporting cast.

    Campaign 5: Smoke and Mirrors (Delta Green)

    • What it was: A horribly over-ambitious attempt to run a David Lynch style game of surreal conspiracy horror. It had symbolism. 
    • What worked: The point of the campaign was to transition steadily from reality to surreal nightmare, without ever making clear at exactly which point the PCs had moved from one to the other, and in this I think I was moderately successful.
    • What didn't: The actual game. I had a head full of scenes and symbols and metaphors and I was going to use them, damn it, with the result that most of the campaign was a massive railroad from one symbolic set-piece to another. In retrospect I would probably have been better off just writing it as fiction, instead. 
    • Lessons learned: Your set-pieces are never going to be as cool as you think they are. If the PCs aren't making real choices then there's no point in playing an RPG!

    Campaign 6: To the Ends of the Earth (Exalted 1st edition)

    • What it was: An attempt to run a properly open-world fantasy epic, with the PCs as reincarnated kung fu heroes on a mission from God to save the world. Go anywhere! Do anything! Kick people in the face!
    • What worked: Breaking away from D&D-style fantasy into epic-scale anime-fantasy mythic weirdness was very creatively liberating, and I'm still quite proud of some of the fantasy imagery I came up with for this one. 
    • What didn't: I was simply not prepared for the level of power and agency the PCs brought to the campaign, meaning that most of my epic villains turned out to be paper tigers. The system was also an absolute nightmare in terms of complexity: I'd spend ages statting out each NPC, only to have the PCs splatter them in a couple of combat rounds. The campaign ultimately became so unsatisfying that we abandoned it in mid-adventure - the only campaign of all those listed here to come to such an ignominious end.
    • Lessons learned: This campaign taught me an important lesson about the limits of my tolerance for complex systems, starting me on the long slide towards minimalism that ultimately brought me to OSR D&D. It also taught me to recognise that giving PCs certain kinds of agency over the campaign world can actually make the game less fun for everyone, pushing me towards an interest in lower-powered games. 

    Campaign 7: The Red Queen (Vampire: the Requiem 1st edition)

    • What it was: A tightly-contained vampire game dealing with one mystery, in one city, over the course of about fifteen sessions.
    • What worked: Almost everything. This was the first campaign where, at the end, I was able to look back and think that everything had gone pretty much the way I wanted it to.
    • What didn't: There were some moments where I was over-ambitious with horror content that I wasn't really able to do justice to, emotionally, and which consequently fell a bit flat. 
    • Lessons learned: This was the campaign where I finally started to understand the power and value of sandbox play. One location, one cast of characters, one unstable situation, enter the PCs, stand back and watch the fireworks. (I should have been able to work all that out from Shadows Over Bogenhafen several years earlier, but I was clearly a slow learner...)

    Campaign 8: Falling Towers (D&D 3.5)

    • What it was: A fairly tightly-scripted D&D campaign, running from level 3 to level 7, and dealing with a single extended plot. 
    • What worked: By this point I'd become pretty confident in running games. I could reliably run exciting chase scenes, heist scenes, fight scenes, exploration scenes, and so on. I was relaxed about letting the PCs have major impacts on their world, and even dabbled a bit in collaborative world-building.
    • What didn't: This campaign was fine, but it didn't take risks. I kept to my comfort zone throughout, complete with balanced encounters and a mostly-linear plot. Everyone had fun, but the game as a whole was not a particularly memorable one.
    • Lessons learned: That you can't learn any lessons if you don't try anything new!

    Campaign 9: The Pale Man (D&D 3.5)

    • What it was: A low fantasy D&D game, with a setting loosely based on Dark Ages Scandinavia. Initially it was only meant to run for a few sessions, but it kept getting extended, with the result that what was originally meant to be a short and tightly-plotted adventure ended up expanding into something much more ambitious.
    • What worked: This was my first real attempt to run a game in which the players tried to take on the mindset of people from a culture very different from their own, and it sort-of worked, at least in relation to the animistic religion of the setting. It was also probably the most character-driven game I'd run to date, with a plot that essentially boiled down to 'different people want different things, this generates conflict, enter the PCs.'
    • What didn't: This was a very low-key game: relatively low stakes, relatively low risks, most situations defused by diplomacy and negotiation. That's fine as far as it goes - not every game has to be about saving the world! - but I struggled to invest these purely personal stories with the energy and significance that they deserved.
    • Lessons learned: That while I might want to run deeply personal, emotionally-charged, character-driven games, I'm actually much better at running action-adventure material, and I should probably play to my strengths.

    Campaign 10: Team Tsathogga (B/X D&D)

    • What it was: The first game I ran after discovering the principles of oldschool D&D, and the longest one in years, with well over 200 hours of actual play. A vast, sprawling weird science fantasy sandbox, with player agency placed firmly front and centre.
    • What worked: I put the OSR principles into action and they fucking worked. Having no set story, no plot armour for PCs, and no prior assumptions about what might or might not happen was incredibly liberating, both for me and my players, leading to a gloriously freewheeling campaign that surprised and delighted me at every turn. 
    • What didn't: As I discussed here, what was gained in breadth was lost in depth. Many of the people and places that the PCs interacted with were very lightly sketched in, mere backdrops for their latest insane adventure.
    • Lessons learned: That sometimes less is more. This is the lesson that has informed 'City of Spires', where, by focusing on a single ruined city, I've been able to bring the people and places within it to life much more vividly than I ever could have in the previous campaign, where the PCs would just have wandered in, wrecked some stuff, and wandered off again...
    So. Those were the campaigns that I learned the most from running. Feel free to tell me about yours in the comments!