Armagideon Time

While the start of my sophomore was an academic shitshow, my routine outside school hours remained unchanged from my junior high days. I continued to spend a lot of time with my pals Scott and Damian (though almost never simultaneously). We were all still into role-playing games as a concept and cash sink, but our actual playing sessions grew fewer and further between.

Numerous attempts were made to put together an ongoing campaign, yet they all fell apart during the planning stages. We were teenage fanboys living an era of geeky riches and the number of distractions to choose from was staggering. No amount of preparation or anticipation could save a scheduled session of Champions or D&D from the irresistible call of “My mom said she’d drive us to the arcade this afternoon” or “my cousin lent me his VHS copy of Aliens” or “I just got Castlevania if you want to try it out.”

Ironically enough, we continued to parse this stuff in role-player game terms. Everything was a source of inspiration for a new campaign setting or sourcebook purchase or character concept. “This would make a really rad [insert game system] adventure!” Countless “AWESOME” concepts came and went, but nothing could stick within the endless churn of immediate excitement.

We’d watch/play/read something nifty, get all het up about adapting it for the gaming table, let our enthusiasm carry us through the initial planning stages (and purchases), then drop the whole thing once another shiny objected drifted into our field of vision.

Though all these passing fancies, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons remained our system of choice. My affection for it was blunted by exposure to more modern game mechanics, but I kept on buying sourcebooks, modules, and new issues of Dragon Magazine. Flawed or not, AD&D was the lingua franca of the RPG realm. Everyone was familiar with the rules and setting up a simple dungeon crawl adventure took little effort. Rulebooks didn’t have be loaned out for a weekend or precious time spent explaining some novel game mechanic.

The biggest hurdle was overcoming the lingering effects of the previous summer’s Wagnerian hack ‘n’ loot campaign. The players loved it and I learned a lot from running it, but it made it difficult to scale things back towards a more restrained low level campaign. How do you keep players on the farm once they’ve decapitated Orcus with a Vorpal Blade?

That didn’t stop me from making an effort, which manifested in a half a dozen aborted campaigns that got lost in the above-mentioned churn. The adventures were a mix of homebrew scenarios and adventures pulled from the (relatively) newly launched Dungeon Magazine. The publication was a bi-monthly companion to TSR’s Dragon Magazine. Unlike its long-running elder sibling, Dungeon focused exclusively on providing semi-pro and fan-created adventures for hard-pressed Dungeonmasters. Each issue featured three to five scenarios of varying lengths and level requirements, and for a couple of bucks cheaper than a single official module would set you back.

It was an exceptional deal in a hobby populated with publishers who’d sell a hand to consumers one finger at a time, and I purchased a number of issues during the first couple years of Dungeon‘s run. I’m pretty certain I still have most of them, too, buried within some storage crate in my grandma’s attic. Only one managed to register in my long term memory, however — issue #8, with a November/December 1987 cover date.

I remember it for once scenario in particular — John Nephew’s “Mountain Sanctuary,” a compact dungeon crawl in an abandoned wizard’s workshop concealed along a narrow mountain trail. It was a follow-up to an adventure published in Dungeon’s first issue, but could also function as a standalone scenario.

It was created for very low level (1-3) players and did a remarkable job at keeping the hazards and rewards scaled toward such an adventuring party. No rampaging hellbeasts or balance-busting magic drops, just some illusion-casting mice, enough loot to feel rewarding, and oodles of atmosphere. (My favorite touch was the couple of pieces of better-than-average treasure stuck to the bottom of an old chest by a broken vial of magical superglue. It’s the type of thing that infuriates players while spurring them toward some wildly creative solution.)

There wasn’t much to “Mountain Sanctuary” but it was an incredibly instructive lesson in how to create satisfying low-level challenges without risking a total party wipe or giving in to the temptation to force-buff the players’ arsenal and experience rewards in order to move on to “the good stuff.”

I ran the adventure as printed a couple times and used its template for several homebrew scenarios. It even ended up making a slightly-adapted appearance during my first Warhammer Fantasy Role Play campaign in college, as its restrained approach lent itself perfectly to the system’s hyper-lethal nature.

All in all, that was some pretty great value for a $3.75 impulse purchase.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: Surfeit and twenty-sided die
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: Inertial tomb
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Braving the elements

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