Sunday, October 5, 2014

Block Island



*If you're one of my players, stop reading now.*

The first scenario I've been running in my Call of Cthulhu campaign is split between Arkham and Block Island. I was attracted to Block Island as a locale for three reasons: personal experience, horror literature, and history. In this post I'll talk about the first two. Next time I'll say something about the real history of the Island, which is actually pretty sinister itself.

First, experience. Julie and I weren't planning to go on a honeymoon after our wedding. But at the end of the weekend, as our friends left one by one, we found ourselves lonely and sad. So we decided to go for a short honeymoon after all. It would have to be somewhere we could drive (our wedding was in upstate New York), where we could still find reasonable accommodations. Shaina, a friend of ours, suggested that we go to Block Island, a small vacation spot off the coast of Rhode Island. She had grown up going there in summers and spoke of it fondly. Among other things, she emphasized that we needed to go to some place called "Rodman's Hollow", apparently a nature preserve on the interior of the island. She wouldn't say why.

Block Island was charming, with interesting geography, and a deep New England history. It still catered to ordinary people, lacking the pretentiousness (and massive wealth) of the other New England islands. The beaches were pretty and it had all the obvious seaside charms. We were able to stay at a lovely old hotel dating to the 19th Century. It was perfect. Following Shaina's advice, we eventually sought out Rodman's Hollow. It was easy enough to find on the better tourist maps. It was connected to a set of trails ("greenways") that wended throughout the island, passing alongside and through private property and connecting up with the island's beaches and nature preserves. 

Our first four attempts, on separate days, to get into the hollow were failures. (Keep in mind that this was before the smartphone and Google Earth.) We found ourselves circling around in our car where it was supposed to be on the map. When we saw what we thought was an entrance, the trail always led somewhere else altogether. Strangely, locals tended to be, on this point, uncommunicative, and the directions they gave were either incomplete or unhelpful. At times, we believed ourselves to be looking down into Rodman's Hollow, which appeared to be a valley of dark and dense woods. On the fourth try, we tried to walk directly into the hollow through the woods, but were defeated by thorny roses and dense underbrush. 

At first, the failures seemed comical, obviously a combination of tourist's ignorance and dumb bad luck. But as the failures mounted, the whole affair took on an eerie character. I couldn't shake the feeling that Rodman's Hollow somehow didn't want us to enter it. 

On the fifth attempt we succeeded. It was evening, about 2 hours from sunset when we walked in to the hollow. It had an overgrown, fey appearance. The floor of the path was covered in a carpet of lush grass. The details are a little hazy, but I remember dark tunnels cut through overarching trees, and trellised arches covered in green brambles. This fairy-like decoration was abetted by dilapidated, hand-painted signs pointing the way to trails with names like "Enchanted Forest" or "Weeping Rock". In our entire time, we didn't see another soul. The place was utterly still and deserted. At one point, we came up a hill into a glen where we saw a bald eagle feasting on the carcass of a deer. The huge bird took flight as soon as we arrived, leaving the bloodied carcass behind in the middle of the path. 

We had expected a simple set of trails in the hollow that would be easy to follow, but the criss-crossing paths seemed labyrinthine. At certain point we realized that we were lost. As the sun began to reach the horizon, a mild panic set in. We had no flashlights, and even if we found an exit from the hollow, we were not confident that we would be able to find the road where our car was parked in the dark. In the twilight, we began to run through the still glades of the hollow. At last we found a trail leading out onto a ridge overlooking a beach, resplendent in the magenta glow of the setting sun. From there we found our car, as the last light dwindled to darkness.  

I was put in mind of this experience when I later read Robert Aickman's story, "The Real Road to the Church". The narrator of the story has bought Le Wide, an old house on an out of the way island, hoping to get away from it all. She employs locals who speak an ancient dialect of French. She overhears them one day remarking in their antiquated French that her house is "where the porters switch". After pressing them, the locals reluctantly inform her that Le Wide is on the "le vrais chemis de l'eglise", "the true road to the church". When she asks them what this means, they say only that this is the road that "one takes to the church and also to ones grave". When she protests that she has never seen anyone passing by the house, they reply that this was because before she didn't know. The protagonist surmises that these must be a network of ancient trails that locals take to their church, probably direct and convenient ways that predate the system of roads. But it is only having learned of the existence of the "true road" that she begins to perceive--hear--the unnerving sounds of night time travelers passing by her home. While it is never clear what has happened by the end of an Aickman story, the truth is strange and sinister. This story, like most of Aickman's masterful tales, I found unnerving, frightening actually, and quite evocative. 

I worked with the theory that I should construct a scenario around a place I actually knew, drawing on things that had actually frightened me. So I decided that at the heart of the scenario would lie in a hidden hollow in the interior of Block Island. It would be a place that worked to keep people out, but once inside would be difficult to escape. A dark and disorienting fairy woods, it would be a living place, home to something with a hatred of mankind. The island would be criss-crossed by ancient trails of hidden purposes, nearly impossible to perceive until your mind had been readied to receive the truth. These trails would connect to the hollow, and perhaps other places. This was the seed of the adventure that grew in the fecund soil of Block Island's colonial history. I'll talk about that history next time.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

House Rules for Combat in Call of Cthulhu



Combat is deadly in Call of Cthulhu. So the stakes are high. Close range with firearms provides enormous bonuses to hit: you literally double your skill with the weapon at close range. The result is that if you have 50% in the weapon, you only miss 1% of the time. I found that players naturally were wanting to utilize this advantage for themselves and minimize it for others by moving into and out of close range in the middle of combat. I needed some house rules on moving and shooting. Furthermore, I had an investigator who was badly injured and I wanted to introduce some official rules on injuries and recovery, so I wasn't just making it up. Here are the results. (The stuff on initiative order is by the book.)

Movement Rates:

A character can always take a 5’ step in a round, whatever else she is doing. A character can walk safely 30’ in a round. She may sprint 60’ in a round.


Order of Initiative:

Combat occurs in the order of dexterity. A player announces what her investigator will do when it is her turn to act. An investigator may defer her action to any point later in the round. She may also give conditional actions. For example, she may wait for someone else to act before she acts, or declare that she will shoot anyone who moves towards her. 

If an investigator is carrying a loaded firearm and expecting to have to use it, it is readied. Anyone with a readied firearm adds 10 to her dex for the purposes of determining who goes first, provided she is solely shooting.

An investigator charging 30’ and then attacking with a grapple or melee weapon subtracts 5 from her dex for the purposes of initiative. An investigator moving 60’ subtracts 10.

Firearms Penalties and Bonuses: 

*Note: All fixed amount penalties or bonuses are applied before scores are doubled, halved, or quartered.

Close range (=dex or less in feet) x 2 
Long range (up to twice base range) x .5
Extreme range (up to triple base range) x .25
Target has partial cover x .5
Target has near total cover x .25

An investigator may take a 5’ step and fire without penalty. 
An investigator may move 15’ and fire with a -10 penalty. 
An investigator may move 30’ and fire with a -20 penalty. 
An investigator cannot fire while running wildly.

An investigator firing at a target moving 30’ takes a -10 penalty.
An investigator firing at a target moving 60’ takes a -20 penalty.

Damage and Death:

An investigator who falls below three hit points is unconscious. 
An investigator who falls below 1 hit point is dying. A dying character loses 1 hp per round, until someone makes a successful first aid check on her.
An investigator who falls below negative two hit points is dead.

An investigator who suffers more than ½ her hp in damage receives a minor wound. This wound should have one real world consequence. Some examples: the investigator must wear the off arm in a sling or suffer pain, the investigator walks with a limp and -5 to movement, or needs to wear an eye patch and takes -10 to firearm shots, or has an obvious shiner and takes -10 to credit rating or persuade checks among high society types. 

An investigator who suffers an impale receives a moderate wound. This wound has one real world consequence and also provides -10 to all physical checks. 

An investigator who falls below 3 hp receives a major wound. This wound provides one real world consequence and also provides a -20 to all physical checks. 

*Note: The penalties to all physical checks for being impaled and falling below 3 hp stack.

Healing:

Successful first aid restores 1 hp. 
Seeing a doctor or going to a hospital restores 1d3 hp (-1 if you already got first aid).  
For each week that passes after the wound, the investigator recovers 1d6 hp.
Minor wounds go away on their own in 1 week. After a week the real world consequence no longer applies.
Moderate wounds and major wounds will not heal without medical treatment. 
Penalties to all physical checks from moderate wounds and major wounds heal at the rate of 5% per week if the investigator is active. If she is in a hospital or resting at home, she heals at twice that rate--10% per week.
The real world consequence from moderate and major wounds are removed only once the entire penalty to all physical checks has been reduced to 0%.



Example: A Pinkerton with a .45 in his hand emerges from the back door of the house a mere 10' from Rust. Distracted by another investigator at first, the Pinkerton does not see Rust until he sprints 60' into the woods. Being a seasoned veteran and natural born killer, the Pinkerton's skill with a .45 is 80%. The base range of a .45 is 15 yards. The Pinkerton first takes a -20% penalty for firing at a sprinting target, so his skill check is at 60. Furthermore, after his run, Rust is 70 feet from Pinkerton, well into long range, so that is halved to 30. Furthermore, Rust has partial cover now that he's in the woods, so that number is halved again, and the Pinkerton will need to roll 15 or less to hit. Unfortunately for Rust he rolls a 12%! Rust takes a whopping 10 hp as the slug enters the back of his right shoulder! Rust had 11 hp to start, so he falls to 1 hp. Since he has fallen below 3 hp he is now unconscious, but since he is above 0 hp, he is not dying. When he regains consciousness, his shoulder injury will be a major wound, requiring medical attention, and giving him -20% to all physical checks in the near future. He'll be wearing an arm in a sling and will not easily be able to perform actions like climbing a ladder or riding a bicycle. Since he's working on a case, and cannot afford to lollygag around all day, his penalty will decrease at the rate of 5% per week. At that rate, it will be a full month before his arm comes out of the sling!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

My Call of Cthulhu Campaign



*If you're one of my players, stop reading now.

Over the summer, I left D&D behind to start a Call of Cthulhu campaign. Strangely, prior to this, I had never played the game before, despite having devoured all the Lovecraft I could find as an adolescent and having done a heck of a lot of roleplaying. I had a strong desire to rectify this terrible deficiency in my later years. What pushed me over the edge was reading Robin Law's brilliant Trail of Cthulhu campaign, The Armitage Files.

At its heart, the Armitage Files consists of a series of 10 documents. Their apparent author is the chief librarian of the Orne Library at Miskatonic University, Henry Armitage of "The Dunwich Horror" fame. The first document presents itself as a desperate missive from the future, sent back to his earlier self from a point in time after Armitage failed to prevent the Old Ones from awakening. Having watched the towers of New York sink beneath the waves, Armitage is now fleeing in upstate New York from "the things that stole his face". The writing is disjointed, and in parts, seemingly mad. He refers to the "Moebius Wasps" that have colonized his mind, and stresses that the documents written earlier should be trusted more than the documents written later. The other nine documents, which arrive slowly over time, are apparently drawn from Armitage's notebooks, written (mostly) before the Cthulhu Apocalypse, case notes from his ultimately failed investigations. Each document introduces a large number of hooks for a desperate sandbox campaign. I am one of the (lucky?) gamers who is capable of feeling fear when reading horror, and I am happy to report that these documents, especially the first, but also certain sublime later ones, scared me.

I knew right away that as an open ended sandbox the Armitage Files was too much for me to handle without some experience running Call of Cthulhu. Also, the documents presuppose that the investigators are in some way linked to Armitage. Drawing on one of the campaign settings presented in Trail of Cthulhu ("The Armitage Inquiry"), it suggests that the players might be members of a secret society put together by Armitage and other professors at Miskatonic University to investigate mythos phenomena. I like the idea of the secret society, but it didn't seem like a good starting place. I wanted the quintessential Call of Cthulhu experience, where the investigators start as ordinary people with no knowledge of the mythos and slowly acquire, at great cost, a dim vision of the horrors that surround them. Seen in this light, beginning as a member of the Armitage Inquiry is a shortcut: you start as part of a secret organization, in control of the Necronomicon, whose members have had a good bit of mythos experience. So I also wanted a way to slowly introduce Armitage and the Inquiry, and to set the stage for the delivery of the Armitage Files into the laps of the investigators with as big a punch as possible.

For these reasons, I set about cooking up a scenario of my own, something more manageable that would introduce the world of the Armitage Files. My group is now 8 sessions in to that scenario. The year is 1935. The scenario is split between depression era Arkham, Massachusetts and Block Island, Rhode Island. Working up Block Island as a setting for Call of Cthulhu has been unusual good fun. I've been to Block Island twice, once on my impromptu honeymoon. I am fond of the place, and I had an experience there that was eerie enough to have stayed with me through the years. (I'll talk about that another time.) It's been great fun to learn about the history of the island, and to weave it together into sinister layers--Native American, Colonial, 19th Century--with a delicious mix of the real and the imagined. It's also given me the opportunity to delve into the beliefs of strange Christian sects, since on my Block Island there is a Shaker village, a heretical offshoot of the Harvard Community. This has allowed me to introduce theological disputes and occult texts.

I'll be posting about all this in the weeks to come.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Call of Cthulhu, Baby


Luis Nessi

So I started a Call of Cthulhu Campaign with Chicago area folks I (mostly) met on G+. I ran it all summer with a hiatus around the birth of my daughter Maddy. One player left town at the end of August, but we're still going.

Here's the thing. My work is demanding, I have two kids, and I game about once a week. The result is that I'm only able to produce content that I make for actual play. If I'm going to post anything to this blog in the near future, it's going to have to be Call of Cthulhu. This is a change of identity for the blog. When I get back to dungeon mastering D&D around February or March, I'll return to Ruined Ghinor. Right now, my head is in New England of the 1930s. I'm crazy for Call of Cthulhu. I regret nothing.

More transmissions shortly.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Desperate Men for Hire



*With much haggling, at Wolsdag you are able to secure passage on an aging vessel, the Bare Bodkin. It is newly inherited by the young captain Lillimar, and he agrees to transport you on the condition that none of his crew be involved in the execution of your schemes. The throngs of roustabouts, privateers, and seasoned mercenaries usually willing to risk their lives for coin melts away when they hear what you propose. To sail among the Shattered Isles is ill-omened and foolhardy. But to sink beneath the waves of that cursed sea through the art of sorcery is sheer madness. Among those desperate or foolish enough to agree should you choose to employ them, the most promising are:

Lem F0 AC9 Hp3 Spear 1d6 Morale:-1 Fee:1/4 share of treasure
Chafing at the rigors of the Scarlet Censors in Rastingdrung, this youth gave up his life as an apprentice carver to seek his fortune beyond the city's walls. He is on the verge of starving, with hollow eyes and sunken cheeks.

Voldar F1 AC6 HP6 Sword 1d8+1 Morale:+1 Fee:1/2 share of treasure
A fanatical devotee of Manannan, Voldar believes with all his heart that the true home of man is beneath the waves. Although he believes that your plan is mad, he views the opportunity as a gift from his god that he dares not decline.

Luther Th2 AC7 Hp7 Shortsword 1d6 Light Crossbow1d6 Morale:+0 Fee: Full share of treasure
PL23 F/RT17 PP27 MS27 CW88 HS17 HN1-2    
This greying ruffian of dubious morals has a scar around his neck from a near miss with the gallows. A long career of thieving has netted him little, and he wishes to risk everything on a final gamble.

We will be using these house rules for underwater exploration.

*This pertains to my upcoming flailsnails game exploring the Submerged Spire of Sarpedon the Shaper at 9pm-12 Sunday 9/7. There are still a couple of slots open. Leave a comment if you're interested and haven't read through the dungeon. I'll send you the invite.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Road of Lost Tombs



The Road of Lost Tombs is a free adventure by Gus L. of the Dungeon of Signs blog. He is a prodigious creator, with over 12 free adventures available here. The module is inspired by Piranesi’s etchings of the Via Appia. These etchings represent the Via Appia as a phantasmagoria of cluttered and incongruous monuments and tombs. In the adventure, the road once was the major trade route connecting the Capital with outer provinces. Later it became the pilgrim’s way to the religious centers of the Empire. Now, having lost this function as well, it is an ancient road leading nowhere. But throughout its history it has served as burial grounds, accumulating the surreal pastiche of tombs and monuments depicted in its source material. The great achievement of the module is that in 42 pages Gus L. channels these etchings into something strange and wonderful that could serve as the centerpiece of an entire campaign.

The hook for the adventure is a familiar one. People have been disappearing from the Road of Lost Tombs. Until the troubles began, it served as the primary smuggling route along into the city. Hints suggest that it has something to do with the Red Massif, the tomb of an ancient sorcerer general and his slaves that lies 20 miles down the road. In the few miles just beyond the city walls the Road of Lost Tombs is a red light district. Beyond the reach of the law, its abandoned mausoleums and catacombs have been converted into whorehouses, black-market bazaars, and sword schools where ex-gladiators teach the finer points of bloodletting. The module includes a rich set of rumor tables about the trouble on the road.  They have separate entries for the bearer of the rumor and the rumor itself. This allows the society of the red light district comes to life by introducing a fine cast characters. There are some wonderful touches, including a guild of tomb robbers who are marked by the stone mask they must wear in public, and an ex-gladiator who sips water painfully through a grill that has been bolted to his head. In short, the red light district is the sort of place where adventuring scum should feel right at home—the seedbed of a thousand lawless adventure.

Further out, the road becomes a forlorn and dangerous place. The adventure provides a brief encounter table (d6) for the road that is evocative but a little thin. For the adventure, this is not a problem, since the trip to the Red Massif will take the PCs only a few hours on horseback, or a day on foot. The table includes the unquiet dead, and also a neat reimagining of owlbears as arcanovors who feast on magical trinkets scrounged from graves. I love the idea of owlbears as scavengers among the tombs, but was itching for a grottier version. If I were going to run this, I would probably treat them as filthy beasts, drinking putrid flesh, cracking dried bones, and rutting and rolling in the dust of tombs. 

The destination of their travels, the Red Massif itself is an enormous cube of red stone, pulled from the rock below through the sorcerer general’s puissant art. Gus L. provides a gorgeous map. (Even if you don’t want the adventure, you should download this map. Just staring at it for 5 minutes will give you all kinds of ideas.) Gus L.’s maps are among my favorites, up there with Benoist Poire’s rare achievements. The massif has four locations: the Necromancer’s Repose, The Court of the Robber’s Bride, The Chambers of the Sleeping God, and the Feast Halls.  Each of the locations is well crafted. 



The necromancer’s former abode is pleasantly quirky and low-key. (He was no great shakes, being primarily a re-animator of horses.) It is the sole location not connected to the others. The Chambers of the Slumbering God is delightful. The God in question is a yazata, a war titan, the greatest servitor and siege weapon of the sorcerer general. He lies curled up, his slumbering body taking up an entire cave through which the underground river on the map passes. His empyrean dreams of the Celestial Thrones have poisoned his resting place, and woe to those who manage to awaken him!   

The main action comes with the other two locations. The Feast Halls is the home to the Order of the Golden Feast, a truly hideous cult that has set up an inn in the massif to lure travelers into their clutches. The Order is a formidable adversary and the descriptions of their depredations are not for the faint of heart. They are highly organized with packs of paralysis inducing ghouls on leashes and eerie cursed hounds whose baying can be heard only at a distance owing to the ring of silence they radiate. The Feasters have some high level villains among them, and the Golden Ones—“elevated” Feasters who have become beast men perpetually in the frenzy of the hunt. Everything about them is deliciously awful. The Court of the Robber Bride is home to the other faction in the massif, the Dust Family. This scrappy band of brigands has its hideout in secret chambers of the massif. Outgunned, they are conducting a guerrilla war against the Feaster. They are led by Sister Dust, a Robber Bride—a human possessed by the avatar of a goddess of lawless thievery and social rebellion. The Robber Bride is a fascinating and capable character who will try to play the PCs against the Feasters through ruses and misdirection. (One small thing that mars this otherwise delightful locale in the massif are the names of the “Dust Family--“Chancibel Dust”, “Donald Dust”, “Morely Dust”, etc.--which seemed more at home in a Boot Hill adventure than in the twilight of the Roman Empire setting of the Road of Tombs.) 

This factional struggle at the heart of the Red Massif is masterfully designed. The PCs are walking into a situation that is like a tightly coiled spring. Depending on how they interact with the Feasters, they may be ambushed immediately, or may take up residence of the inn to be used against the Dust Family, or be poisoned by the evening’s meal. Or perhaps they will have an initial skirmish at the Inn, only to be approached by the Dust Family when they camp somewhere outside the Red Massif. There’s no saying how it will play out—it might go a dozen different ways in a dozen different games. The Red Massif is open-ended, presenting formidable challenges, capable and interesting factions, and numerous tactical possibilities to players who are good at this kind of thing.

I have one only one criticism of the Red Massif itself. The map, although excellent in every other way, represents the Red Massif as very small. As a result the factions are practically on top of one another. For me, this stretched my credulity a bit. The PCs could walk out the door of the inn, walk around the corner of the massif, and find the rather obvious secret door concealing the Court of the Robber Bride in 10 minutes. Similarly, somehow the Feasters have never explored the Necromancer’s Repose, supposedly because there are some skulls enchanted with a magic mouth that scare them away. (The Feasters have at their disposal an 8th level cleric, a 5th level fighter who can’t be killed by natural means, packs of ghouls, etc.) Now there is a long tradition of dungeon design in D&D with factions in implausibly close proximity to one another. This might even be said to belong to the genre, so it won’t bother some people. But I have an easy fix for those it does. Just look at the Piranesi etching that Gus L. presents of the Red Massif. 


If I were to run this module, I would present the Red Massif as gargantuan. Each side of the Massif is very long, much longer than on the map, and jammed packed with monuments and statues. Numerous arches lead to tiny courtyards, and dizzying steps lead up to tiny nooks, or to faux doors carved into stone. In that sort of riot of architectural over-design, the Red Massif would be a challenge to explore, and the factional co-existence would be more probable. I would probably cook up a d20 chart to cover exploration of a side of the massif in a pinch with entries like this: 

  1. A set of narrow steps lead up precipitously to a narrow nave, which is taken up with a statue of the sorcerer general’s chief eunuch. Its once jeweled eyes have been chiseled out, and some filthy bedclothes at the foot of the statue now serve as a nest of rats.

The best thing about this module, however, is not the Red Massif, or not the Massif alone. It’s the way in which the module left me wanting more; not to be given more, but to make it. Reading the module, I found myself with a keen appetite for cooking up a long and narrow hex crawl following the Road of Tombs and its environs for 100 miles or so outside the Capital. It would be replete with catacombs and barrow mounds, some repurposed as smuggler’s dens and others home to the disturbed and unquiet dead; with tombs of the ancients still sealed by their wards and defenses; with reclusive orders of tomb dwelling penitents, or colonies of lepers; with hags and necromancers; with shrines and temples to strange and forgotten gods; and everywhere, the owlbears rutting and feasting. Of course, for this sort of thing you would need an encounter table with 20 or 100 entries on it, perhaps divided by the regions through which the road passes. But this would be a delight to concoct; it feels like it would practically write itself. Maybe I should do it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Two Approaches to Sharing the Screen



In my last post I discussed sharing the screen with three rotating DMs in a single campaign. A conversation with +cole long on G+ got me thinking about some of the problems with rotating, how we were dealing with them, and what alternatives there were. Here I discuss an obvious problem with DM rotations, and two different ways of handling this problem. They would give rise, I think, to campaigns with very different flavor.

When I refer to DM rotation, what I mean is that everyone in the group plays, and everyone has the opportunity to DM, all in the same campaign. This can be contrasted with co-DMing, where the roles of DM and player are fixed in the traditional way, with two or more people in the role of DM cooking up together the campaign world and adventures. Rotating has some advantages over co-DMing, since playing and DMing have distinctive pleasures, and it's nice to get to regularly experience both in the same campaign. In our campaign, I find that I learn a lot by playing under the other DMs in the group as they work their magic (and sometimes fail to work it). Also, since we spend less time "on" as a DM, there's less burnout, and a more equitable sharing of the preparation. (We're three years in and going strong.) But most of all there's the sheer pleasure of making a thing together. It's a higher degree of creative unity than a traditional fixed role arrangement provides. We build a campaign world together, all as players and, at least potentially, all as DMs. It's a lovely thing.

The two approaches I have in mind arise as responses to a special problem that DM rotation presents in light of two elemental joys of D&D. The first joy arise from genuine player agency. In the kind of game I like to play, a great deal of the fun comes from the fact that the world is open to the players. As a player, I want to be deciding where I go when and what I do when I get there. This is why, for me, the ideal campaign will always have the structure of a sandbox. It need not involve a literal hex crawl across an open map--maybe it centers on court intrigue and planar travel--but it needs to involve equivalent combination of structure and potentially infinite open endedness. The world is our playground with the limits set only by our shared imagination.

Another of the great pleasures of D&D is the uncovering of secrets. By design, an informational asymmetry exists between the dungeon master and the players. This is the source of great fun. When my group stood on the parapet of Submerged Spire of Sarpedon the Shaper, looking down beneath the waves at the tower below them, there was a sense of tension and anticipation on their part. They were embarking on a thrilling journey into the unknown. As DM I shared in that pleasure from the other side. It delighted me to see them deliberate about how to enter the Spire (e.g. should they take the stairs down from the bell tower, or plunge down to the base of the keep and enter from another level? etc). Similarly, knowing about the mad laboratories in the inner precincts of the dungeon was fun for me from the get go, and it would have been fun even if they had left the dungeon without having discovered them, or had left for the moment to return in a year's real time. From one side the pleasure in question involves involves cooking up secret wonders, and mapping undiscovered countries; from the other side it comes from the sense of anticipation, from exploring, probing, discovering.

The problem with rotating DMs is that these two elemental pleasures come into tension under this arrangement. For example, suppose I cook up the Submerged Spire and the players partially explore it. During some other DM's turn, the players (including me) decide they want to go there. How's that going to work? If I have to share the map and key of the Submerged Spire with the other DM, then I reveal my secrets to him. But now I'm also a player going into the Spire. I have to pretend I don't know what's coming and that's no fun. Indeed, the point generalizes; it's not just about maps and keys. Suppose another DM sets in motion a chain of events. We have learned that the white pods of the Moon Lich have crashed into the Screaming Hyena Jungle, somewhere near the lost City of the Archivists. Is this an advance force, scouting for an attack? Does the Moon Lich seek something slumbering within the lost city's precincts? Presumably the DM who introduced this event knows or has some ideas. But suppose we don't figure it out for now, and we switch DMs. And suppose then we head off to the jungle. You see the problem.

It seems to me that there two ways of handling this problem, each of which comes at a cost. The first involves sacrificing some player agency. Here the general approach is to collaborate on a campaign by dividing and conquering. Each DM is encouraged to take responsibility for some portion of the setting by introducing locations, central NPCs, and chains of events that are his own. While there is room for endless cross fertilization, borrowing, and mutual influence, these elements, once introduced, are the presumptive property of the DM who introduced them. If you're going to the Submerged Spire, then I'm your DM. If you're going to try to go up against the minotaur Malveraux who slaughtered Pierre's character, then Winston is your man. This can be accomplished on the side of the players by having a norm that they will only interact with something that belongs to one DM during that DM's turn. This is a cost because the balkanization of the campaign world introduces an artificial limitation of player freedom. (This is the approach my group uses. It works well, and is a viable solution, but I definitely feel the loss of agency that it introduces.)

The alternative approach that I've been thinking about this week resolves this tension in a different way, by sacrificing, to some extent, the pleasure of keeping secrets. Here the central concept is campaign canon. Something is canon if it's an established fact that has been encountered in play. For example, if the players have been to the second level of the Submerged Spire of Sarpedon the Shaper, then the map, layout, and contents of that level are canon. Similarly, if we have learned that the white pods of the Moon Lich have landed in the Screaming Hyena Jungle, then that too is canon. On this second approach, what passes from DM to DM is canon only. Supposed the PCs don't explored the bottom level of the Submerged Spire that I created during my turn. Suppose that they return at a later time, during another DM's turn. At that point, the DM works with the map and location as it exists in canon, but is free to put whatever he wants beyond the last closed doorway. Then, when I go as a player into my own dungeon, I have no idea what I'll find. Player agency is thus perfectly preserved. But it does come at the cost of wiping clean the geography of the undiscovered country that each DM may have created. The secrets count for nothing when the DMs rotate; canon is everything. Longterm slumbering secrets would not really be a viable option, since everything is always up for grabs. Here we see the same problem resolved in the opposite direction from the divide and conquer approach.

I haven't tried this second alternative, but I think it could be a real blast. It would be great fun to see another DM take something I made and spin it out in a direction that I never anticipated. I suspect that it would naturally produce some interesting dynamics. For example, it would certainly encourage DMs not to prepare too far in advance. I suspect it would also lead DMs to introduce evocative hooks that he would enjoy seeing other people develop. I bet there would also be a premium on elaborating canon in a surprising way, and I might expect a competitive dynamic to develop with DMs vying to take one another's material in a strange and wonderful direction. But then I don't know, since I haven't tried it.



The Protocols

Getting Started


On either approach, you will need to start with what I call a campaign frame. The campaign frame consists of three things.

(a) A paragraph long description of the setting that captures the aesthetics, genre inspirations, and main themes of the campaign world.*

(b) A campaign map. This can be a hex map for a sandbox, or a looser world map of some kind.

(c) A barebones description of the campaign base and its immediate environs.

*For example, "A sword and planet campaign set in the final days of the dying sun. Vast graveyards from the Draftsmen Wars dot the landscape, their technological horrors slumbering, as a dwindling mankind turns ever inward, languishing in highly mannered, hierarchical societies. Imagine it as sort of a fusion of Jack Vance's Dying Earth and Rifts."



The Divide and Conquer Protocols


(1) Everyone is a player, and everyone has the opportunity to DM.

(2) A schedule will be fixed in advance, giving everyone a chance to DM who wishes to do so. Alternatively, volunteers can be solicited towards the end of a DM's rotation with preference being given to those who have not DMed before, or have not done so recently.

(3) Once a DM has introduced a major setting element, including an adventuring location, NPC, or chain of events, that element is considered his.

(4) Players may do anything they like in the world, except interact in a significant way with the property of a DM who is not behind the screen without first seeking his permission.

(5) A DM's typical rotation will have an expected length suitable to your schedule and the number of DMs who wish to participate. In our group, the expectation is 6-8 sessions per rotation. When the upper end of that limit is being approaches, players and DM will voluntarily allow adventures centering on the current DMs property to wind down.



The Canon is Everything Protocols


(1) Everyone is a player, and everyone has the opportunity to DM.

(2) A schedule will be fixed in advance, giving everyone a chance to DM who wishes to do so. Alternatively, volunteers can be solicited towards the end of a DM's rotation with preference being given to those who have not DMed before, or have not done so recently.

(4) When DM rotations occurs, all that is carried over to the next DM is campaign canon. Canon is defined as fact that has been established through play. DMs are free to treat what is not yet canon in any way they like.

(5) Players may go anywhere and do anything with any DM.

(6) The length of a rotation can be fixed by arbitrary fiat, or by social consensus. I would suggest starting with the presumption of 6-8 sessions per rotation.*

*In theory, using the Canon is Everything Protocols, you could rotate DMs as frequently as you like, even every session. I suspect that this would produce an experimental quality to the game that would probably be a buzzkill once the novelty wore off. It would also be a bitch to rotate in new PCs every session. How did they get there?