Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Railroad Tycoon: Memoir of a Failed Campaign I

In my first post from the labyrinth I described how it was a fascination with storytelling and exploration that first drew me to D&D. When I felt familiar enough with the rules of the old basic set, I wanted to set up a campaign of my own, and attracted a group of players with similar interests in storytelling and exploring. It began well: crawling around some home-brewed dungeons but then expanding out into the wilderness with the the D&D Expert Set, but over time exploration began to recede into the shadows, and storytelling began to take over...

Cover art is adventure serving suggestion only...
Back in those halcyon days my allowance precluded the purchasing of published modules, and I found the local hobby shop- the only place that sold them- to be incredibly intimidating. I wasn't able to reach out to the internet community for support (it was 1990- in those days, ordinary people were not really aware of the internet) and so had to splice the few bits of information I had together to create a backdrop for my games. This consisted of details from the expert set, namely a paragraph of notes for each of the major nations of the known world and some extra information gleamed from X1: Isle of Dread, the adventure that came with the expert set. What was great about Mystara (as I later discovered the D&D campaign setting was called) was that most of the nations of the known world possessed a real world historical analogue: The Northern Reaches, for instance, strongly resembled Scandinavia; The Emirates of Ylaruam was a nation of fanatically religious desert nomads (though I could never quite work out how this scorching desert was just south of the Sjodorford Jarldoms, a nation of icy mountains and deep fjords...). It was easy to come up with colour for these areas by referring to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (kids: this was basically wikipedia, but in the format of several books), or geting a book from the local library if more detail was required.

It was a long time ago but the campaign was good fun: the characters killed a few monsters, captured some dinosaurs and foiled the evil schemes of Baron Ludwig Von Hendriks and his lieutenant, the arch-mage Bargle (actually a bad guy from the adventure in the D&D basic set). Some of the PCs even won the favour of the Arch Duke himself, and were rewarded with minor titles and a hex or two upon which to build a castle and set up their own dominion.

The campaign was really secondary to my WH40K hobby by that time, and as I became more absorbed by that I started to spend more time at the local Games Workshop. I'd got myself a Saturday job (I was only 13 so GW weren't interested, but I persuaded a relative to let me wash dishes at their restaurant)to pay for this incredibly expensive hobby, but gradually started to turn my gaze back to the previously intimidating hobby shop. Rumour had it they sold generic paints of equivalent quality to the official citadel ones, so there was money to be saved- fifty pence off a pot of paint was a big deal when you had 3,000 points of Dark Angels to paint.

Karameikos: apparently, this is what adventuring in a fantasy medieval Balkans setting looks like...
It took a long time, but after a series of blitzkrieg-esque raids (I'd dash in, grab the paints I needed, hand over the requisite cash and leave without making eye contact) I eventually had enough confidence to actually browse through the store's stock without fear of a snarky remark from one of the grizzled hippies manning the till. It was here that I discovered TSR's Gazeteer series for Mystara. For those of you who don't know, these were a series of excellent publications containing detailed information about each of the nations of the known world. Over the next few months I pretty much bought the whole set of 14 (apart from the Minrothad Guilds and the Five Shires, but including the Dawn of the Emperors boxed set)

Armed with my set of gazeteers the D&D campaign (which had been quietly trundling along beside other gaming interests) received a massive injection of flavour as well as (more importantly) renewed enthusiasm. At first my players really took to it, and were enjoying the addition of grand story arcs to the previously parochial campaign. However, the gazeteers introduced me to an approach to world-building that I hadn't really considered, that being the level of precise detail. Across the fourteen or so gazeteers was a wealth of information that would largely go unused- yet I had a demented desire to expand on this, to fill on the gaps with as much additional detail as possible. Furthermore, after a few years of creating adventures without any input from external sources, I now had access to a wealth of published products and the means to purchase them. It was the beginning of the end.

When I purchased Wrath of the Immortals the PCs had progressed to mid-level (about 14 in D&D cyclopedia terms) and were ready to be involved in the Immortals' Fury adventure that came with that set. Well, they were ready in terms of level requirements: in reality, the players were having plenty of fun kicking around the Frankenstein's hybrid of Mystara we had created together: they weren't ready to be rail-roaded into a pre-scripted adventure, have a lot of their prior achievements ret-conned (including bringing the aforementioned Baron Ludwig back to life and having his dominion reinstated) and generally have all the fun sucked out of the game.

What do you give to the power-gamer who has everything? How about deity status?

By the time we reached the conclusion of that adventure the group had dwindled to two members. I'd NPCed the PCs who'd dropped out and was totally ignorant to how bored my remaining players were of the campaign. The epic conclusion of the adventure (Shadow Elves invade Alfheim! A giant meteorite strikes the Broken Lands! Alphatia sinks into the ocean- only to re-appear in the Hollow World!) was received with a shrug. The players' had no investment in the outcome: it was as though they'd only been there to make up the numbers, as though they were there to facilitate my entertainment.

Needless to say, though I ran a few one-off adventures, no-one really wanted to revive the old campaign. I was bitterly disappointed. I'd shelled out ten quid on the Poor Wizards Almanac, and that provided a day-by-day timeline for an entire campaign year's worth of play (the year was 1010 AC, in case you were wondering). I never once stopped to analyse why the campaign had failed, I just assumed my players just didn't like D&D. Perhaps if I had, my next foray into running a campaign might not have been a failure, too.

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