Saturday, November 30, 2013


I have known Benoist Poiré for some time. He and I are both moderators at and he recently recruited me to work on a project for GP Adventures (Crossroads to Adventure). Several months ago, Benoist sent me a sneak peak of the adventure called The Marmoreal Tomb of Garn Pat’uul. Written by Benoist and Ernest Gary Gygax Jr., The Marmoreal Tomb will appear in issue #3 of Gygax Magazine. It is truly impressive, and the map, which is also Benoist’s own work, is a sprawling masterpiece. I thought it would be interesting to talk with him about his work on the module and with GP Adventures.
Brendan: The Marmoreal Tomb of Garn Pat’uul is an old school dungeon crawl adventure written by yourself and Ernest Gary Gygax Jr. Can you talk a little about the premise and what sets this module apart from others out there?
Benoist: Hi Brendan. Thank you for inviting me to answer your questions on the Blog. I appreciate the opportunity.
The basic premise posits that an abandoned settlement of dwarves, whom we call the Stone-Cutters in the text, since that was their specialty, has been found somewhere in the wilderness, at the foot of the Bitter Peaks, in the setting of the Eastern Duinnsmere (which could be any mountain range infested by humanoids in your home setting's present time). The dwarves are long gone, and the Peaks are known not to be safe, but your party gets out there to explore the settlement and find something, anything, be it coin, history, magic, whatever might be relevant to the players' characters, or die trying. This is the quintessential introduction to the game.
The Stone-Cutter dwarves were carvers and builders. They worked for the archmage Nester De Guyx when he decided to build a keep and a series of mazes under it, what ultimately would become known to the dwarves as “Nester's Folly” and is known under different names to different folks around it. This is the place you know out of the game as “The Hobby Shop Dungeon”. It is a mega-dungeon created in 1978 by Ernie Gygax while he was working at the Dungeon Hobby Shop of Lake Geneva, WI. Hence the name of the product.

Ernie and I wanted to find out a way to introduce The Hobby Shop Dungeon campaign and setting that wouldn't be too taxing on gamers, wouldn't require a huge investment of time and resources right off the bat, and would allow them to get an idea of what's to be expected from us in the future. TSR Games and Gygax Magazine gave us the opportunity to do this in a way that would be connecting with all sorts of gamers out there, and would represent an immediate added value for their home games and campaigns. Ernie and I seized the opportunity and started crafting what would become the Marmoreal Tomb.
Since The Hobby Shop Dungeon itself is so big and the setting around so wide with plenty of color and adventuring opportunities, we thought it best to introduce it with an adventure setting that would be directly related to the history of the dungeon, but at the same time would be entirely autonomous, could be run entirely on its own merits. We wanted to leave room for GMs to either run the module as-is for great game play, or develop and adapt it to their own specific needs, making it more or less lethal, adding layers of creatures or background onto it as would be needed for their campaigns.

This touches on an element of the Marmoreal Tomb's design which I think sets it apart from a lot of different offerings out there. I think there are many game designers who have correctly deduced from years of experience that a lot of what makes or breaks a role playing game session is the end user him/herself, the Game Master and players bringing the material alive at the game table. Some game designers out there construed this as a flaw of game play, the idea being that the result of game design should lead to predictable—hopefully satisfying— outcomes in terms of fun and entertainment for the players at the table. The consequence of this type of thinking is an attempt to “box in” the role playing game experience and script it in order to have okay games even if you GM and the players are really bad. We've seen this logic at work in a variety of ways, from the scripting of possible actions that could be attempted in a game via its core rules to the very structures of play and how they are presented to GMs in adventure modules.
The problem with this type of thinking is that it ends up undermining what I see as a fundamental strength of the role playing game medium: that it is indeed the end user, the GM and his players, who are truly in charge of the finished product, the adventure itself as it is being played. That is a feature of the role playing game medium, not a bug. And yes, that may mean that you as a player or GM might have to learn how to play with others, might come to explore the recesses of your own imaginations, but that is kind of the point isn't it? To be able to play a game where you are in fact the one who imagines what is going on, you are the one who is in charge, and you can take the game into any direction from there. There is no other type of game that allows for such freedom and such empowerment of one's own imagination. That is something that should be embraced, not shunned.

The Marmoreal Tomb embodies that kind of return to those design values for us at GP Adventures. The Tomb can play great right off the page, as written, and provide the quintessential adventure game experience that way, or it can be tweaked, modified in a number of ways that would fit your game's particular circumstances. It leaves breathing room for the GM to work with it his own way, and allows the players to do their own thing within it and explore it however they see fit. The module gives some pointers to customize the setting in order to run different games. More ways to customize the module will likely be expounded upon on The Hobby Shop Dungeon facebook page, at

Brendan: You mention the problem of modules that box in the GM and players. Can you give some examples of ways modules might do this, and then explain how you and Ernie might approach the same material in a way that doesn’t box people in?

Benoist: Sure.
Let's take the Marmoreal Tomb as an example. Some people might create a comparable module thinking of a string of carefully paced and crafted challenges that must follow each other in a particular sequence, with maybe two or three variations possible, in order to get to the big dramatic battle at the end and defeat the big bad guy there. The map would look very different, because it would have to carefully funnel the player-characters along the intended path, giving an illusion of choice in the process, in order to reach its intended, measured outcome.

The Marmoreal Tomb does not work like this. It has three main entrances (there is a fourth one that is both much more dangerous and harder to find—that's without counting other entrances that could be added by the GM along the river running through the complex or possible stairways that could be likewise added onto the original design), therefore three initial ways to approach it. Whatever entrance you choose, you will be faced with different choices in terms of threats and directions pretty much immediately. So you are not facing a script that has been determined before-hand on the page, and your party is really in charge of what it wants to explore, whether it wants to back off from a given threat and try another entrance instead, turn left instead of right, and so on. The Marmoreal Tomb also doesn't have a “big climatic battle at the end”, because there's no “end” per se.
There are certain specific areas that are much tougher than others in the Marmoreal Tomb. These areas could land some sort of reward for those parties who would tackle them intelligently. The module does have its highlights. I'm sure different groups will remember things very differently when comparing their experiences playing through it, and that is the point here: This idea that however you play the game, you will take part in the shared experience that is The Hobby Shop Dungeon, but your experience at the same time will be unique compared to other groups that played it. Likewise, I could imagine the same players going through the Tomb multiple times with different characters with great replay value, without any insurance that the chips are going to fall the exact same way every time they venture through it.

This is what the old modules like S1 Tomb of Horrors, or T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil used to do really well: create this shared experience in gaming, while at the same time ensuring that they can be played in a great variety of ways with great replay value that makes every run through them essentially unique. “How far did you make it into the Tomb of Horrors?” is a classic question of the shared experience of the game you hear in hobby stores when D&D gamers talk to each other. HSD0 The Marmoreal Tomb of Garn Pat'uul aims at creating this same type of experience. “What happened with the Ogre on the Jenga pile?” might become such a classic question for those who know The Hobby Shop Dungeon. That is the shared experience I am talking about.


Brendan: You and Ernie seem to have a great partnership going, how did you end up working together?
Benoist: It all started with a bunch of questions Gustavo Iglesias, aka “The Butcher” on the RPG Site, was asking about the big dungeons of yore, how to set them up, how to run games with them, and build a setting around them. As I started answering I thought whatever I was writing needed to be practical, readily understandable, so I decided to actually build a sample dungeon right there on the discussion thread.

This ultimately evolved to become my advice to build the mega-dungeon and the campaign around it:
It is not finished, but one day I'll get around to it, add the missing parts (including discussion about the PCs' home base, the hex map around the dungeon and all that) and share it with gamers beyond the internet.

In any case, long story short, I ended up sharing the maps I did for this thread on facebook. This is when Ernie noticed my work, and commented on it positively. From there, when Gygax Magazine was announced, I thought of contacting Ernie and Luke to offer whatever help I could. It was more wishful thinking than anything at this point, but when I mentioned it to my gaming group, along with my doubts that they'd take me on-board anyway, my friends' reaction was to say “you should absolutely do this. Are you insane? Of course they'll take you on-board. ” When I contacted the Gygax brothers I was bracing myself for a polite rejection, but Ernie instantly spoke about the “Dungeon Hobby Shop Dungeon”, this huge pile of maps and keys he'd been sitting on for some time, and how he'd love to see what we could do together in order to publish them.
What happened immediately after is that we found out we had a lot of things in common, like our love of war movies, jokes, good food and spirits, and so on, so forth. What started as a partnership really became a long lasting friendship between he and I. Ernie is a great guy. He loves gaming and gamers, loves humor, jokes and puns, has enormous amounts of creativity, loves his dog as I do mine, has a thing for samurai movies and feudal Japan, lives life with a big heart and is not afraid to tell whatever he's got on his mind like it is. When he doesn't like something he'll tell you so. When he likes something he'll be bursting out with enthusiasm for it. I couldn't think of a better partner on a project like this.

The Hobby Shop Dungeon project is labor of love, of passion for gaming. It's anything but a chore, thanks in part to my friend and partner. It is a gift, and a blessing in my life. It is what I have always wanted to do, since I was a little boy. I am honored and privileged to be able to work on The Hobby Shop Dungeon in order to bring it to other people's game tables. That's the real reward for me, right here.

Brendan: What can people expect from The Hobby Shop Dungeon after the Marmoreal Tomb?
Benoist: We are going to unfold the world of The Hobby Shop Dungeon progressively, and build a momentum towards the reveal of the dungeon itself, which we are projecting now will include at least two boxed sets. The first boxed set, which will ideally cover the area of the Eastern Duinnsmere in a gazetteer-type format, will introduce the first levels of the dungeon along with the wilderness, landmarks and settlements around it, would be published at the end of 2014.

In the meantime, we have something in the works that we call the “Crossroads to Adventure.” The point of this is to introduce the world through the eyes of the characters living their own adventures within it. We didn't want to start with novels and passive entertainment. The point of this setting is primarily to be played and lived, not read about from afar. This is how this idea of using the game books format came about.
What the books in the Crossroads to Adventure series allow you to do is play within the world of The Hobby Shop Dungeon like you'd play an adventure of say, Fighting Fantasy, or the Lone Wolf game books series, but with a definite first edition vibe to it. You explore the world through the main protagonist of the game book, and discover more about it through his or her own eyes.

But the adventure doesn't end with the books for these characters. If and when you transition to the actual first edition tabletop game experience, the traditional role playing game setting, you might meet these characters with the past you yourself played through the books and say, save some of them deep inside the dungeon, or hire them as henchmen, or even, why not, play them as your own player-characters later in the campaign. So it ultimately is all tied together and brings people onto the tabletop game, drawing them towards the dungeon in a way which, as far as I know, has never been attempted before.
The first of these books is tentatively entitled Opal of Light and Shadow. We play through the eyes of Opal, a female (yes!) gnome thief illusionist in an adventure where she finds herself leaving the comfort of her home in order to help her people and the gnomish community of Oakvale. I don't want to spoil the adventure for our readers, but I want to say that it is shaping up very nicely. The book is authored by Michael O. Varhola, a veteran of the gaming industry with quite a number of valuable contributions attached to his name, and I have to say, his enthusiasm for Opal and her adventures is definitely contagious. I cannot wait to see gamers live these adventures through her eyes.

All this is just the beginning obviously. We have several other partners at work on their own game books featuring different adventurers in the Crossroads to Adventure series, but you know about that Brendan, since you are one of them!
There will be more. Much more. There will be modules and game aids and all sorts of things, all geared towards this idea that our products are there to enable people to play adventure games their own way, to take control of their own imaginations and run fun games with them. This is ultimately what it is about: an active, participating hobby in which you live your own adventures, your way.

Brendan: What have you learned about D&D and the history of the hobby working with Ernie?
Benoist: I learned a lot listening to Ernie. One overall theme that stands out to me is that the history of the game, and in particular its pre-publication era, is made of practical experiences that ultimately made it into the printed form as a framework and structure everyone could start with. People like Gary weren't so much thinking about games in a vacuum (in terms of theoretical thought experiments and “designs” as we like to think about them now) as they were thinking about the games they were themselves playing, and how these experiences would translate into advice and guidelines onto the printed page. It was about translating practical game play into a workable format others could use, not about framing abstract ideas of what others ought to do with the rules and nothing but the rules.

I think this is still one of the great lessons to learn about good game design: that it is concerned with the practical application of its object, rather than some abstract construct dependent on what ought to make sense and what shouldn't in a theoretical vacuum.
One story I remember concerns the Cone of Cold spell, which really was a way for Tenser (Ernie) to be able to gain treasure from the creatures he blasted, and alleviate the limitations inherent to a fireball spell. Cone of Cold was construed at first as a third or fourth level spell. Later on, Gary actually revised it, and made it the fifth level spell we all know. This wasn't done thinking “ah yes this is how 'game balance' or whatever ought to work.” It was done to reflect lessons learned at the game table, and reproduce something after the fact that would add to the game as a whole.

Another story is how Erac's Cousin, at first a magic-user, ended up adventuring on Barsoom, and became a fighter, since he couldn't use spells there. This participated in creating what would later be known to us as dual/multi-classing in the Advanced game. Many aspects of the D&D game came to be out of the practice of the game, adding and revising elements to suit the moment, and it is something that can still be witnessed in action today with the Original and Advanced versions of the game, where some things might not make immediate intuitive sense, or might look out of place or baroque in the context of the overall design, but actually work great with the whole when you put them in play.
Too many people think about games as self-contained systems divorced from the reality of actual play. I think there is no game beyond what actually happens at the game table. I try to remember that as I design game materials for others to use.

Brendan: So Tenser was one of Ernie’s characters? Did you learn anything about some of the other famous names from spells and magic items?
Benoist: There are so many stories— Ernie is a great storyteller. He has the same knack as his dad to tell entertaining stories about the past, and make you have a good laugh in so doing. One thing he likes to say is that many of the elements limiting magic-users or boosting fighters by comparison in some way came about because of Tenser's rivalry with his friend and companion of many adventures, Robilar, then played by Robert J. Kuntz.

You see, Ernie and Rob are very different types of persons (I had the chance to converse on the phone with Rob many a time, before all of this unfolded, and I count him as a friend), and yet very complimentary from a game standpoint. Rob is very shrewd and improvises a lot when he plays. He's the kind of guy who can remember the details of the map without drawing anything, who can improvise very quickly and use all sorts of tricks to get out of dangerous situations in the game. Ernie, by contrast, is of the planning sort: he'll study the map and deduct where there should be a hidden room, he'll plan an assault carefully to overwhelm the enemy, he'll build up his forces—as did Tenser—in a very purposeful way. Both of them are great players with very different styles. Don't get me wrong: Rob also is a great strategist and Ernie a great tactician, but they approach the game in radically different ways. I imagine Gary must have had a blast running those two through the dungeon.

Things like multiple attacks for fighters, weapon specialization, or the way some spells have been limited when you compare their versions in the Original game of 1974 versus what they became in the Player's Handbook of the Advanced game later on, many of these things for Ernie are directly or indirectly related to the way Gary witnessed what Ernie and Rob were doing in the game. In that sense, their contributions to the game and what it became in its later years cannot be understated.
As far as spells and magic items are concerned, I know that Gary did attribute names to spells that actually were not invented by the players of these characters, whereas some other spells, which do not include a magic-user's name, should really mention their inventor. The obvious example is Tenser's Floating Disk, which in fact was not invented by Ernie, and Cone of Cold, which really should have been named “Tenser's Cone of Cold” in the rules. This isn't always the case, however: some spells really did originate with the wizards that created them in the game, as is the case with Melf's Minute Meteors, or Tenser's Transformation for that matter.

Brendan: You mention baroque in reference to earlier editions of the game, that’s the first time I’ve ever encountered that particular word to describe older editions versus the newer ones, but it is quite interesting. It captures the difference but not in a pejorative way. What would you say are some of the baroque features of OD&D and AD&D, and how might these be underappreciated or unfairly judged?
Benoist: In both cases this has to do with elements that don't seem to fit together to the modern gamer's eye and actually play great together and in fact allow for a lot of personal modifications enhancing the play experience of those involved. “Baroque” fundamentally is that which, compared to more Classical styles, seems extravagant, tacked on, embellished to a point nearing complication.

Chainmail helps me understand the Original game the same way the Original game helps me understand the Advanced game. When you go about the games in that order, you can see why certain things are omitted, like say the way morale works in the Original game, or the default frequency of wandering monsters checks in the Advanced game, or the way some things were added onto the whole, like say listening at the doors and opening doors with a six-sider in the Original game, or the way man-to-man combat worked in Chainmail with two six-siders versus the “alternate combat system” using a twenty-sider in the Original game itself (which as far as I know was used at Gary's table from the start, and was never really 'alternate' in practice, during the playtests prior to the game's publication), or the way Exceptional Strength with percentiles feels added on to the Advanced game, or the way you open doors with a six-sider in the Advanced game (as you did in the Original game), but Bend Bars uses a percentile roll instead.

This type of practical design can come off as really bizarre, the antithesis of “elegant design” and “streamlined everything” that are often championed as virtues in games today. I don't think there's anything wrong with streamlining a game system, or referring to it as “elegant” (though that term sounds a tad condescending to me), but I don't think of these things as ends in themselves: a game doesn't practically gain anything from being “streamlined” in and of itself. It is a mean to an end, whether to simplify action resolution, make the underlying system of the game intuitively understandable and expounded upon, whatever the case may be.
Conversely, the “baroque” or “ad hoc” design of games like the Original and Advanced games are not ends onto themselves. You don't use a six-sider for one thing and percentile dice for that other thing “just because,” or in order to purposefully throw you off your mastery of the game. It's a way to make the game more manageable, adaptable and modular, in the sense that it allows you to cut or change the parts you don't like, extrapolate and add to the game using those parts you do like, and allows you to keep a sense of mystery that is very useful in the actual game, especially when you play with people who have never played the game before. You can see this type of “baroque” aspect of game design in other games too, like Palladium Fantasy and its descendant, RIFTS, or Role Master, which really was a collection of LEGO bricks house rules in the first place to be grafted on your preferred role playing game system and became a whole of its own, or more recently, the DCC RPG of Goodman Games.

Brendan: The Marmoreal Tomb has an interesting back story, involving a clash between dwarves and giants in an ancient burial chamber and mine over possession of a powerful artifact.  What was the inspiration for the history of the tomb?
Benoist: A mix of different things. One big part of what we are trying to do with the setting of the Duinnsmere around The Hobby Shop Dungeon is to bring back a sense of fairy-like medievalism and warfare that was very much present in the Original game but faded progressively off the picture as the various iterations and variants rolled out of the press in later years. What we do has a lot to do with what we call the “Chainmail” feel of the game, Fantasy Supplement included. The idea of a confrontation between the dwarves and the giants partially rose out of that desire to bring back that kind of a vibe with The Hobby Shop Dungeon and campaign.

As we looked at the drafts of the Tomb's dungeon map, Ernie and I imagined what kind of forces the dwarves were up against, the goblins that would be thrown into the fight like cattle ready for the slaughter. The hobgoblins riding their dire wolves. The gargoyles following their giant masters. How the dwarves would retaliate with boulders the giants would pick up and throw back at them right into the main entrance corridor. We looked at this from the point of view of wargamers, and were talking at the same time of WW2 warfare, of Gary Gygax's Alexander the Great war game, of movies like Spartacus, with the Great Kirk Douglas, and the like.
Young Krassus, the Cambion and Stone Giant leading the forces assaulting the Stone-Cutter dwarves, was loosely inspired by the historical Marcus Licinius Crassus who crushed the rebellion of the slaves led by Spartacus in the first century B.C. Adventuring parties will get the opportunity to learn more about him as they explore the world of The Hobby Shop Dungeon.

The dwarves are strongly Germanic in our minds, and have something to do with the rise of the Frankhian Kingdom, the analog of the Franks and Merovingian of our world in the Duinnsmere setting, and the historical spread of metallurgy amongst the human populations around the dungeon.

Brendan: I think a lot of people will grasp the medieval aspect of earlier D&D immediately, but can you elaborate on the fairy-like element and what you mean by the “chainmail” feel of the game?
Benoist: Many fantasy elements in the Original game owe not only to JRR Tolkien's fiction, but to a number of sources, some of them spelled out much later with the Appendix N of the Dungeon Master's Guide.

When you look at the Chainmail rules, you get a definite sense that this is meant as a set of rules for medieval warfare first, with the Fantasy elements tacked on for good measure. This has to do with the fact that Jeff Perren, the co-author of Chainmail with Gary Gygax, wasn't much into Fantasy at all, whereas Gary of course was a huge fan of the genre. So you get this core feel of historical medieval warfare coming out of the Chainmail rules, with the Fantasy Supplement having been included by Gary knowing full well that many wargamers would latch onto it and play the heck out of its additional rules.
This sense of medievalism made its way into the Original game, what with the way Clerics were retrofitted into the framework of the game in the first place, the rules to build a Keep and all that. Via the Supplements, this same vibe ultimately made its way into the Advanced game as well, with its Paladins, Pole arms and so much more.

Which brings me back to the DMG and Appendix N. In there you will find the mention of Poul Anderson, which truly deserves a lot more praise for originating some of the key elements that made it into the Original game, such as the system of Law versus Chaos, the way elves and dwarves and many of the creatures of Monsters & Treasure (volume 2 of the original D&D boxed set) are presented, and so on. Medievalism and this sort of fantastic distortion of history is also a big part of Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, The Broken Sword and others, which really were big contributors to OD&D framework.
This is this particular vibe, vaguely medieval, definitely fairy-like, and avant-garde compared to the later fiction of one Michael Moorcock, that we want to bring back to the fore with The Hobby Shop Dungeon. We used the Matter of France (Charlemagne's Epic), the Matter of Britain (including Monty Python jokes), brought back the elves as these creatures born out of Chaos who mingled with the world of mortal men, brought back this Cosmic opposition between the forces of Primordial Law and Chaos, of which the Material Plane is but one of the many battlegrounds and prizes to be seized, mixed all these types of elements, and more besides, into a big pot, and created a setting that meshed with the earlier elements of the Dungeon Hobby Shop Dungeon as it was played in the 1970s to emphasize what in our minds was best about the campaign.

This is a setting around the dungeon that may or may not be used in conjunction with the dungeon itself, but these influences are felt throughout and mirror each other in a way that builds a whole greater than the sum of its parts, a whole which hopefully, will talk to gamers of these original influences which have been partially lost to the game with the passage of time.

Brendan: I really like the map. Like a lot of GMs making maps that look good and have the right structure to them, is a big challenge for me. Can you share some of the techniques and principles that went into making The Marmoreal Tomb map work so well? What makes a good dungeon map and what are some features of bad dungeon maps?
Benoist: I discuss this at length in my advice to build the mega-dungeon. I think a key element for me, as I come up with the structure of a map, is that I view it as a direct representation of the paths that could be chosen by the player-characters as they explore the environment, and I visualize it as a real place with its own sounds, smells, lights, ambiance at the same time. When I play a role playing game, what I fundamentally want as a player is choice. I want to be able to choose whether to help the NPC or ignore his requests. I want to be able to choose whether I go see what's over that hill up there to the north, or instead walk in the opposite direction towards the thick forest I spotted further south.

I want to be able to choose to go left or right when I explore the dungeon.
Choice and its management are at the heart of any well-designed game map. The structure should allow for different paths of exploration, ideally involve several possible entrances and exits, and be built with the idea that you can face the challenges it presents in any particular order.

The adventure is not what is written on the page, or described in the map's key; it is what is lived out of the game as it is being played. In that particular context, the map is a physical incarnation of that principle of choice from which the sense of adventure is generated as embodied in the game world.

There is nothing worse to me than a map that serves no purpose in the game beyond its looks.

Brendan: Looking at the map and the text it is interesting because there is so much to explore yet the text of the module is easy to navigate and reference. I know from my experience this is easier said than done. Can you talk about this aspect of writing the module?
Benoist: Writing a module is a balancing act between making sure you provide the information the GM needs to understand what it is you are talking about, to provide that frame of reference and the key information that is needed to effectively run the environment as one's own, and making sure that the GM has the creative room to do his own thing however he wants, to fill in the gaps with his own imagination, set things in motion and “get it” as a creation of his own mind, rather than someone else's on the cold page.

The way we went about it was first a question of looking at the map, thinking of what happened before in this place, and noting the areas of interest in order to make sense of the whole and know what is going now as the adventuring party or parties arrive in the area. We then went through each particular area together, and wrote a first draft of the key proper. We then corrected, changed things that didn't seem to fit, polished the whole, and added the introduction and conclusion around it.
The structure of the module was partially inspired by the early TSR modules', which I think were doing their own thing really well. We knew we wanted to get back to this sort of bare bones structure with meaty bits in terms of atmosphere embedded in the text itself, as embodied by the likes of Tamoachan.

The point really was for us to make sure the module was a clearly laid out, with no intentional filler and yet enough matter to chew on for the GM and the players. The explicit intent is to not take the GM for a lesser, incapable human being who would need to be told what to do. On the contrary, we assumed we were talking to someone eager to take it from there, able to read between the lines, to add and subtract material based what would feel right for his own games. We purposefully avoided the “lowest common denominator” approach, preferring instead to talk to the GM like he was our equal, an imaginative, adaptable, intelligent human being who ultimately knows better than us the particulars of his gaming group and therefore, what works and what doesn't work at his own game table.

Brendan: You’ve been a strong advocate of old school play, and The Marmoreal Tomb is definitely planted firmly in the Old School Revival (OSR) approach to module design. I think there are many misconceptions about what that means. To people who have never played older editions of D&D or are unfamiliar with OSR, what is this style of play really all about? What problems or needs does it address ? And perhaps more importantly, what are some misconceptions about OSR adventures you think need to be cleared up?
Benoist: I think there are as many definitions of the “OSR” as there are people claiming to be part of it, to be honest. I don't see myself as being part of a club, like a card-carrying member of some elite of old-school gaming or whatever. I do know what I like and do not like in my games, and what I want out of a role playing game session in general, and these are the things I try to think about when I am sharing my opinions with others.

I think there is this misconception out there that the “OSR” is a “thing” like some type of political affiliation or religious movement or philosophical school of thought where you are “in” or “out” or something. Beyond the fact that people who identify themselves as fans of an old school revival that is going on right now in role playing games—and yes, it is a fait accompli—will tend to like games loosely related to the early D&D experience and the games that immediately followed it, I don't think you'll find many who will agree on absolutely everything like it came out of a gospel. In that sense the “OSR Taliban” is a myth.

To people who have never played older versions of the D&D game, or other vintage role playing games for that matter, I would simply say: “There are cool games out there which happen to be very old. You might want to try them some time. You never know, you might even like them, regardless of what people like me have to say about them!”

I think that beyond the question of ideologies and RPG politics and all that, what the play style really comes down to is enjoying the games for what they are and play them on our own terms. It's fundamentally not about theory-crafting or brainstorming about systems in a vacuum wondering how to “fix” them. It's about playing the games and enjoying them for what they are.

There's no “one size fits all” in role playing games. Notions like absolute game balance, canning the game play experience, construing the game as the rules and the rules the game. . . these ideas are pointless and even detrimental to some gamers' enjoyment of role playing games out there. They yearn for less thinking about playing, and more actual play. They want to be back in the driver's seat, and run their own games on their own terms. That's what the original games fundamentally allow them to do. That these games happen to be “old” or “vintage” is completely incidental to their actual merit and function – to empower their users, and make them explore “the realms of their own imaginations”, to paraphrase the old TSR tag line. 

Brendan: I see you speak a lot about “the dungeon” and the brilliance of the dungeon as it was described in OD&D (and eventual exploration of the setting or milieu). I think everyone has a vague notion of “the dungeon”, but you appear to have something very specific in mind. Can you elaborate on what you mean, and how this approach to adventure structure is different from what people may commonly encounter?
Benoist: A dungeon is an exploration setting. Usually underground, it will involve some threats or challenges the player-characters might or might not overcome during the course of their adventure. In its more traditional form, the dungeon is drawn with a pencil on a sheet of graph paper, with rooms and corridors forming a maze where certain specific zones or areas hold a mixture of threats and rewards, whether we are talking about traps, monsters, obstacles, puzzles, gold, gems, magic items and the like.

The dungeon format is a very simple, straightforward way of envisioning a game world to explore. Some would – and did – call that sort of game structure “primitive”, but I think they are blinded by their own bias. I think this is in fact this simplicity that makes the format such a compelling idea, and a stroke of genius when it is used as the starting point of such an open ended concept as tabletop role-playing. It's a stroke of genius because it is clear, concrete, practical and progressive/emergent in complexity.
There is no role playing game play structure I am aware of which would rival this original concept's brilliance: other game play structures (such as the investigation structure, the mission structure, the network/conspiracy structure, etc) will either appear more confusing, more abstract or more limiting in some way, shape or form. To me, it's like OD&D knocked the ball right out of the park on the first try, and nobody's ever come up with a better idea since then.

Brendan: How do you approach things away from the dungeon, when the players venture into the wilderness or go to the city (or build a fort)? Does the dungeon still have lessons and structure that can be employed?
Benoist: Yes. The lessons are the same. You build the adventuring environment with idea that it will provide choice and create the adventure through actual play. The way this is done in the context of the wilderness is by using a map with hexagons, which guarantees a better if abstract representation of geographical features, and allows for more liberty of movement than the dungeon's grid would. The way rivers intersect, where the mountain ranges and forests are located, what counts as normal or difficult terrain, all these things influence choices from the players as they explore the landscape.

The city is no different. In terms of exploration value, replace corridors with streets, junction points with market places and town squares, and rooms for buildings, and you are pretty much there. The form is even more free-form because of the absence of a grid of any kind, but fundamentally we are still talking about the organization of a physical space that is ripe for discovery and adventure.

Brendan: Why do you think the OSR has been such a huge success. I have been playing since the 80s and in that time, there have always been some people who continued to play older editions. But the recent resurgence in interest is truly unprecedented. What do you think is driving this development?
Benoist: I think what most gamers want is to play games.

This sounds like a dumb truism but hear me out: I think gamers are tired of hearing game designers and other gamers around them tell them what the proper way to play this or that game really is, or how balanced or over, under-powered this or that is, or how to optimize a character like you do your taxes in order to “meaningfully contribute to the party,” and all these sorts of things which are, by and large, born out of the theory-machine that is the internet sometimes.
Vintage role playing games, and the older editions of the D&D game amongst them, offer a simple framework which you can use and take in all sorts of different directions, whether you want to play Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror, Swords & Sorcery, Swords & Planets, Superheroes . . . whatever feel or genre you might be interested in, chances are, there's one vintage game out there that does it, or—and that's the important part—it would be trivial to kit-bash your own game out of an existing framework that might more-or-less fit the bill otherwise.

They key element here is that the rules book is a mean to get to the game table. It's not an end in itself.
It really is no wonder that a revival of interest for old school games goes hand in hand with a kind of “do it yourself” approach, with lots of groups organizing spontaneous gaming on Google Hangouts, Skype, at the Hobby Shops, and hobbyists self-publishing dozens upon dozens of game variants and toolkits every day. I think it's exhilarating, and great from an inspirational point of view, one idea or variant leading to the next, then the next and so on.

The more variants and products you have out there, the more confusing it becomes for the newcomer who wouldn't know where to start if he was left on his own. I'm not too worried about that particular issue, however, for the hobby has always spread from gamer to gamer, via word of mouth, rather than people just jumping in and buying a role playing game for the first time “cold turkey”, not knowing at all what to expect. The internet provides all sorts of pointers to those trying to find out what's what, and I think that's only going to get better and clearer from here.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sertorius: Campaign Developments and Power Levels

One of our goals when developing the Sertorius setting and system was for the game to work for a wide range of adventure styles. We didn’t want the game focused on a narrow purpose, because our own adventures tend to crawl over the map, ranging from political intrigue to dungeon crawls. In the coming weeks, I will explore how Sertorius works for a variety of campaign styles and include discussion of mechanics and setting information. But right now I want to focus mostly on political adventures since the nature of Sertori creates opportunities and pitfalls that don’t always exist in other games.

Because the characters have access to magic, something as simple as casting a spell can lead to unexpected changes in direction. They also afford the players opportunity to impact the setting. It isn’t far-fetched for players who choose their spells wisely to end up taking over a city or dethroning a king, for example.
Sertori (spell casters) are powerful in Gamandria. As they gain experience and grow a following, their power only increases. With the right spells, characters can drastically shift the setting and campaign focus  if they put their mind to it. Our initial response to this was to dampen spell effects and place greater limits on their effectiveness. But over time we realized the more you do that, the more you risk losing the spark that makes magic so special. So we focused more on adapting to developments arising from spell use.
While playtesting Sertorius, we noticed the game works best when the GM remains adaptable to campaign developments. And I think the word developments is crucial here. It ties in with how I’ve always run games like Crime Network: as characters make choices, this potentially shifts the direction of the campaign. With Sertorius, adhering to that play philosophy has been what makes our own games successful. We found that the less you worry about campaign arcs and the more you focus on campaign developments, the more you’ll enjoy Sertorius.
What’s the difference? A campaign arc would be having a beginning and final destination in mind when you establish your campaign. Not necessary a railroad, but just a sense of where things will go. Development is more about taking things on a case by case basis, not worrying where they are going in the end, instead placing your focus on where the campaign is, what just happened and how that may have changed things. The GM may have anticipated the players would arrive in Talyr and answer King Tauq’s request to help him solve a great mystery in the city.  Instead the characters use Captivation to lead King Tauq to a place where his guards can’t protect him, then kill him by casting Avalanche of Flame, Splintering of Yaum and Bolt of Fury then take over Talyr. Yes that disrupts the GM’s initial premise, and on first glance appears to stop the campaign in its tracks, but it is also genuinely interesting and logically leads to a number of new developments.  A GM might be tempted to resist the perfectly legitimate use of Captivation, because he wants to protect Tauq and his plot, but there is no need.  By killing King Tauq the party made your job as GM easier, because you have a whole premise for a campaign right there. That can lead to months and months of exciting sessions.
The important thing is to remember there are always greater threats out there. The party that takes Tauq’s crown and establishes a new rule, now contends with the challenges of running a city as others seek to undermine their position or thwart their authority. And the presence of other groups of Sertori in the setting, who may also be eager to govern Talyr, complicates things further.

This applies to other adventure structures as well. The key is Sertori have the potential to “break the scenery” to smash through physical, social and political barriers in ways other people in the setting cannot. So the GM either needs to account for this in his designs, or as we press for here, adapt and not resist legitimately won victories or developments.
In one of our playtests, the characters went back in time to change the present. It required access to a rare power in the game, but once obtained, the GM had to adjust accordingly. In that particular case it led to an even more interesting campaign.
Next week: Followers in Sertorius

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sertorius Interview

Did an interview about Sertorius with Game Knight Reviews. Here is part one:

Sertorius Interview

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sertorius Monster Preview: Krut

We made a lot of monsters for Sertorius, but I think these guys are my favorite:


Krut (pronounced “Kroot”) were once the loyal Den Guardians of Senga, but upon his death their connection to him faded. They no longer felt his presence and they started losing many of their powers. Small traces of Senga’s spirit remain in each Krut but they must eat humanoid hearts to sustain it, or they will die.

A Krut in its natural form looks like a tall birdlike creature with the upper body of an ogre, wings and clawed legs. Its mouth is long and filled with sharp jagged teeth. However, Krut can assume any humanoid form they wish, in whatever specific appearance they desire.
To survive Krut must eat at least one humanoid heart a week or they suffer a wound a day until they crumble to dust.
Krut still have a small number of their powers, but these are mostly quite weak. However in the presence of Sertori their power grows as if they were in the presence of Senga. They acquire the ability to cast anything the Sertori can cast and they are able to regenerate at a faster rate.
Though they were once proud servants of Senga and his musicians, now most Krut are selfish and filled with hatred.