Running Games vs Writing Books

   When creative types choose to write books instead of running games, it usually means they’ve encountered a wall – because, yes, there are a few “walls” in role-playing games. Lack of realism, is one of them. Lack of emotions, is another. Lack of complexity. Lack of consistency. Let’s study those dreaded walls, then. Maybe we’ll find a few concealed doors in ’em, or something.

   But first, let’s just take a quick look at some of the best-known “DM authors”.

   Steven Erikson is a shining example: he ran a very detailed and whimsical campaign for years, and then quit playing, only to write everything down in a staggering ten-volume, 13,000-page epic. These books are undoubtedly better than the original campaign, but we’ll never be able to make a real comparison between the two – only Erikson’s old players can do that.

   Professor Barker is another perfect example, and he transcended both writing and RPGs because he didn’t switch from one to the other: he wrote books and ran games simultaneously (well, not simultaneously, but you know what I mean). His gaming fueled his literary production, and his writing fed his campaign world – so, in this regard, he may very well be the most accomplished DM author of all.

   Charlie Stross is also a guy who gamed for years, stopped gaming, and then started writing full-time. His books are a good read, and some sequences are hilariously similar to genuine RPG fight scenes, with characters scoring crazy critical successes on totally unimportant rolls, and critical failures right at the worst possible moment.

   It is said that young H.P. Lovecraft himself used to run a “make-believe” game with some other kids from his neighborhood. We don’t have much information about that, alas, so we probably won’t ever know if any Great Old One names / plot hooks were actually invented in an Angell Street backyard or toolshed while eight or ten young 1905 LARPers scuttled around looking for Envelope #3 or something.

   Gygax wrote novels. Saga of Old City is the only one I’ve read, but it was so long ago, I don’t remember any detail, so I can’t comment on it. D&D fueled that novel, though: that’s a given.

   There are many more DM authors, and it would take fifty blog posts to list every one of them.

   Wall A: Lack of realism

   The example I’m gonna use here isn’t taken out of a pen-and-paper RPG, but rather out of an MMORPG. I’ve never played EverQuest, but my friends played a hell of a lot. They told me about that enormous gigantic dragon with 1 million Hit Points (or maybe it was 500,000) and a “regeneration” ability to top it off. Like, impossible to kill. But some Guild Masters started to recruit lots (and I mean lots) of players, arrange them in various units and platoons, and did the math, basically. Optimal unit was 1 cleric for every 5 fighters. The fighters dealt constant damage to the dragon, and their cleric was always able to heal them on the spot, so no fighter ever died. Every warlock managed 12 such units (12 clerics with 5 fighters each, so 60 fighters). Every Guild Master managed 30 warlocks (360 clerics and 1800 fighters). And, lo and behold: all the Guild Masters / warlocks / clerics / fighters threw everything they had at the dragon, for exactly 11 rounds (or was it 17?), and if nothing broke down in that complex equation – if they were able to keep it up for 11 (or 17) straight rounds –, they registered 1 million HP of damage +9% regeneration margin, and killed that dragon!

   Impressive feat. Long live Mensa! But it is... utterly unrealistic. Plus, a scene like that would be über-boring to read in novel form. This is how things work in the Matrix, but not in any medieval universe.

   If you read the accounts of the battles of Crécy and Calais – the first major clashes of the Hundred Years War, you’ll see what I mean. It’s a humongous mess. Total breakdown in communications. No Bluetooth. No discipline. Every knight wanting to kill the first enemy Lord. Every man-at-arms wanting to take as many prisoners as possible, because of the ransom money. Night is falling. It starts to rain. Earls and dukes try to rally their knights – to no avail. Soldiers soaked in mud can’t recognize each other: French soldiers kill other French soldiers; English archers kill other English archers... It’s a gripping read, yes sir, but don’t expect these troops to whack any million HP dragon anytime soon!

   Wall B: Lack of emotions

   I never witnessed any remorse or regret, in 30 years of DMing. I have never seen a PC walk up to another PC or to an NPC and say: “It is my fault your brother / son / heir didn’t survive. I assume full responsibility for it. To try and redeem myself, I hereby offer you my sword arm: make me one of your knights, and I’ll serve you; tell me where to go, and I’ll go; tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”

   In a novel, that sort of thing can happen. But in a role-playing game, as I have already said in a previous post, it is way more interesting to remain some sort of biker gang and roam from town to town without aim, causing mayhem, and never settle down for good.

   In the James Bond 007 RPG, three PCs had to transport a bomb, but they were careless, and the device got stolen from them. Two days later, twenty-seven people died in an embassy bombing. They knew it was the same bomb, but there was almost no reaction. One player said: “Dude, aggravated.” Another guy laughed. And it was the end of it. I won’t try to put lipstick on a pig here: RPGs are cold and ruthless, for the most part. Lack of emotions – that will drive creative DMs towards writing books, sometimes.

   Wall C: Lack of complexity

   It’s a foregone conclusion: if you stick to the same party of seven characters, your campaign won’t ever achieve the complexity of a series of books. The Silmarillion covers millennia of history across three continents. The Malazan Book of the Fallen has between 2 and 3 hundred characters, both heroes and villains, some of whom never ever meet, because the action is scattered across an entire planet, and many other “realms”. Some DMs still try to attain that kind of universal scope, but it is a huge workload – such real herculean tasks cannot be sustained in the long run. Also, players get lost in their 63 pages of campaign notes and sketches. Who will remember the old art dealer from the first adventure, three years ago – the one who mentioned having been possessed by a Yithian when he was younger?

   Unless you and your players are all committed to playing twice a month, every month, don’t aim for too much complexity: it’ll sabotage your entire game. If you really need both, better write a complex, enthralling book, and run a straightforward, fun campaign.

   Wall D: Lack of consistency

   Dedicated readers can devour an entire trilogy in four days, but even the most dedicated of all players couldn’t play an entire campaign in just four days. Books are consistent: the tone doesn’t change drastically around page 315. Campaigns are spread out across months, years, and in some cases, decades: lots of things will change over such a lengthy period of time. One of my players was unemployed, single, and living in a crappy 1-room apartment at the beginning of a campaign; when that campaign ended, he had a full-time job, a pregnant girlfriend, and was shopping around for a house. In a previous campaign, another player was a goofy, joyous lad at the beginning; then his mother passed away, and he became one of the angriest, most disruptive players you’ve ever met. Mood, spirit, and atmosphere can change on very short notice, at any moment – your only option is to adapt. Grim campaigns can derail into parody, trust me... I once ran a 1955 Cthulhu that veered into comedic Paranoia. I urgently sent in a new “guest” PC to ask questions, investigate the mess, and hopefully help the other players refocus, but they just stalled the newcomer, denying the existence of any supernatural phenomena whatsoever. “It’s all a Jewish conspiracy”, they said (I kid you not). So, in a strange way, it was quite consistent with the “1955” aspect, only not with a cult of Yog-Sothoth necromancers plotting the annihilation of all rival sects!

   Guaranteed consistency is possible in writing, not in gaming. Players can hijack your story and turn it (willingly or unwillingly) into something else entirely, but characters alone won’t.

   Final word

   The realism thing is easily fixed. Let your players get their Mensa on, sure, but at some point, tell them: “You simply don’t know how much damage the others have inflicted yet; your character doesn’t understand what ‘damage’ technically means.”

   The complexity thing can also be fixed. Have multiple groups of characters play games in the same world, but maybe they won’t meet anytime soon. (Of course, you will have to work your butt off: way more separate adventures to prepare.)

   “Encountered a wall” is a misleading expression, and I apologize. There is no wrong way to go, really. You can give up RPGs and write books – let’s call this Team Stross. It’s a good team. Or you can run your games and not write – that is Team Arneson. Also a very good team. Or you can do both – that’s a rather small team, but we’re out there all right: don’t count us out! 


Sabre River

   Looking through my old D&D stuff, I came upon this thing called Sabre River, and I’m quite sure I didn’t run that adventure, because the cover says: “For Characters Levels 18-22”, and I never had a party reach those higher levels, in my D&D years.

    I don’t even remember buying that module, but I probably bought it out of curiosity: I guess I wanted to see what kind of awesome shit the “Levels 18-22” were up to. (Those mods were plastic wrapped, back in the day, remember?)

   Here’s a summary, and some scans.

   The PCs have to help rid the country of a dreaded curse: the river water is enchanted and anyone / anything drinking it becomes charmed. This curse was uttered a long time ago by a general who failed to conquer the land and died on the banks of Sabre River: “Let this land remain a savage and uncivilized wilderness for seven times seven centuries!”

   Young villager Cutter alone is unaffected by the curse. He follows the party.

   The village elders send the PCs to the Isle of the Seer, because the Seer is the only one who really knows about the curse. So the PCs tackle some monsters and get to the Seer, who then redirects them towards the Tower of Terror, a dungeon inside a volcano. There, the characters fight a lot of monsters, and finally obtain the hilt of the ancient general’s sword – which has the power to lift the curse. Here is the Tower of Terror’s isometric map (it was merely a year after Ravenloft, after all).

    It’s an incredible monsters galore, almost cartoonish, if you want my sincere opinion. A huge 108 Hit Points red dragon, a 75 HP green dragon, a 70 HP black dragon, a 100 HP hellhound, a 160 HP gargoyle, a 77 HP revenant, two 160 HP giant rocs, a nasty 190 HP beholder, a massive 252 HP fire elemental, and many more lesser creatures: goblins, carrion crawlers, golems... The PCs actually have to fight the beholder three times: first, in a “dream”, then as a “summoned” guardian, and finally for real – when they get to the Heart of the River. The illustration below remains one of the very best beholder pics ever created! It’s terrific.

    Once the heroes have the sword hilt, they return to the Isle of the Seer and discover they have to fight the Seer because he’s the physical incarnation of the curse. NPC Cutter merges with the sword hilt and becomes the blade; this weapon is the only thing in the world capable of harming the Seer (who is otherwise immune to all magic and all weapons).

   After they kill the Seer, the PCs journey upriver in order to locate the source of the charmed waters. When they get there, they find a ruined summer palace built by some king of old. Inside these halls dwell more powerful monsters, and the Eye Tyrant. The Heart of the River is actually an open gate from which the Elemental Plane of Water ceaselessly bleeds into our good old Prime Material Plane. A black monstrous growth pulses there, and pollutes the entire river. Only the sword can destroy that black growth. Then, the curse is lifted...

   Good times indeed... Levels 18-22, you were some lucky bastards!