The Tiger Roars
Lonelylands, Part 2 by Kenton Kilgore
An Aside About Gaming in the Internet Age
You younger folks, who have spent seemingly your whole lives hooked up to a computer, can skip this part: it’s for old farts like me. As I’ve mentioned, I actively played/ran AD&D games from 1982 to 1998, then took a 12-year break (except for some dabbling with 3rd Edition in 2004). While I did own an Osborne Executive during that time, I didn’t use it a lot for gaming.
Once upon a time, this monster was considered “cutting edge” and “portable”
I did, however, create blank character forms that I printed out and players could fill out with pencil, replacing them only when the sheets wore out or were almost illegible (back then, you will remember, printing stuff was expensive and slow and involved tearing off those side perforations—weren’t those a total PITA?). I also used the PC to type up and keep an index of Dragon Magazine articles, as well as lists and descriptions of NPCs.
But everything else—writing up adventures, drafting rule changes, drawing maps, calculating experience points, maintaining an adventure log of what happened in each gaming session—I did with pen and paper. I’ve never been a computer geek and I’m still not one now (despite what my wife thinks), and as late as 1998, I was dismissive of computers and the Internet. You didn’t need a PC for gaming then, and truth be told, you really don’t need one now.
However, in coming back to gaming, I’ve embraced the computer as an invaluable tool. For the new campaign, I’ve developed character sheets using Excel, and I don’t just print them out and have the players fill them in: instead, I keep all the PC’s info there and crank out fresh sheets for each gaming session (because printing’s cheap, quick, and easy now), recycling the old sheets. I wrote up all my rule adjustments (as discussed here and here and here and…well, you get the idea) using Word, and store them on the computer. Ditto for coming up with adventures and filing them: back in the salad days, I used to throw out most of old “modules” once I’d run them.
A blank player-character sheet that I created with Excel. I type in all the info and make changes after each gaming session
Most of my players (like me) are and have been very visually-oriented, preferring pictures of what their characters encounter over verbal descriptions. Google Images has been a godsend for that: I pull stuff off, print it, and hand it out at the appropriate times during games. What’s fun for me as a DM is to use an image that’s a little bit different from the players are used to, and then have them wonder if, say, what they’re seeing is an orc* or something worse…
I don’t care what GW says, to me, this is what orcs will always look like
*In my campaigns, by the way, orcs aren’t green, and they have pig snouts. And muskets.
Maps used to be something that my players knew existed on my side of the screen, but rarely saw. Now I use PowerPoint to draft copies for them—minus “interesting details” like locations of secret doors/traps, and exactly what is in each room—that they can look at during games to speed play and to give them a better idea of where their characters are.
I used to have well over a hundred issues of Dragon Magazine—I subscribed from ’82 to ’96 or so, if I recall correctly—and as you can imagine, those took up a lot of space. I bought the Dragon Magazine Archive (5 CDs with Issues #1-250), got rid of all those mags, and stopped maintaining my own index.
I regularly drop by Grognardia for inspiration (even if he does favor original D&D over AD&D) and to listen to what another old-school dinosaur like me has to say. While I like some of the 4th Edition D&D artwork, I have no use for the game itself, so I don’t visit the official website.
Thus endeth the aside. Back to your regularly-scheduled article….
The “Lost” Campaign
As I’ve mentioned several times before, this campaign is inspired by one of my favorite TV shows, Lost. This is not to say that the premise is that the player-characters were aboard a plane that crashed on a mysterious tropical island. Rather, this campaign borrows some of the elements of Lost and goes from there. What elements, you ask?
Mystery. Lost threw a bunch of strange stuff—polar bears in the jungle, the Smoke Monster, electro-magnetism, “The Numbers”—at its characters and its audience, then took its sweet time explaining what they meant (some things were never explained).
I’ve taken a similar approach to the campaign, starting with the fact that none of the players know how their characters got to the ashen campaign world I call Lonelylands, or even what Lonelylands is. I’ve been more forthcoming with answers, though, than Lost was, bearing in mind that many of the show’s initial viewers bailed because they didn’t get explanations fast enough. In only their second gaming session in Lonelylands, the players learned that a “Red Faction” (see below) might have brought them here to neutralize them.
What is Lonelylands, and will the player-characters ever manage to leave?
Other times and other dimensions. The narrative of Lost moved back and forth through time and even, in the final season, into an alternate reality. In addition, the protagonists wandered about the island, finding and puzzling over artifacts from earlier times: another crashed plane (full of drugs), an old sailing ship in the middle of the jungle, a ruined temple, the remains of an Egyptian-style statue, and—most notably—bunker-like stations built by the mysterious Dharma Initiative.
Flashbacks and “flashforwards” like Lost did are hard to replicate in a role-playing game, but I have littered Lonelylands with plenty of “stuff” from elsewhere and elsewhen. They’ve encountered:
Though it’s still early in the campaign, the tone has already been set: rather than restricting play to a particular milieu, there will be lots of cross-dimensional (and even cross-time) goings-on.
Literary allusions. Lost referenced many books: Watership Down, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Carrie, Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, etc. My campaign is heavily influenced by one work, T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.” In their travels, the party encounters:
“Madame Sosostris” in her true form. She almost succeeded in taking down the party
I make references to other literary works, too. As mentioned previously, the “Table” that the party arrived on had names of places from The Lord of Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. The lair of the leucrottas was a tomb for a prince of the Kelmain, a warrior race from the Elric series. And they encountered a friendly stegosaurus that an NPC insists on calling “George.”
If you’ve never read this, well, you really ought to
New “cast members.” Speaking of NPCs, let’s talk about them—and new PCs, too, for that matter. Lost had a big cast of “core characters” (Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Locke, Sayid, etc.) and an even larger cast of major and minor characters who came, went, and sometimes returned (either to stay or to leave/get killed off).
When my little gaming group started up with all of three characters—a ranger, a thief, and a magic-user—it was obvious that they were massively short-handed in the beating-on-stuff department. This didn’t improve much when two new player-characters—an assassin and a cleric using mostly mind-affecting spells—joined. Accordingly, soon after the party arrived in Lonelylands, I gave them some muscle in the form of a friendly NPC they met.
Actually, I gave them a LOT of muscle.
“Grunga” is the latest version of a character I played many years ago, back when my buddy Pat ran a Forgotten Realms campaign. Later on, Pat started up a Shadowrun campaign, and I transmogrified the character for that game. In his AD&D iterations, Grunga is a half-ogre fighter of—as you might imagine—tremendous Strength and Constitution, and very limited intellect (he tends to talk like Cookie Monster or the “crockydiles” from Pearls Before Swine). Grunga is and always has been, however, a very nice guy (Neutral Good alignment, reflecting his human heritage and upbringing) and extremely loyal, the Labrador Retriever of NPCs.
Sometimes a DM will inadvertently create an NPC that overshadows the PCs, either in terms of raw power or in personality. Though Grunga has always had plenty of hit points (I introduced him as a 3rd level fighter) and can dish out plenty of damage (18/00 Strength and ogre-sized weapons), he’s never dominated the group. That’s mostly because he just plods along, keeps his mouth shut, and does what Lassiel (the group’s leader) tells him to do (which is usually bashing down doors or particularly tough opponents).
Shortly after adding Grunga to the group, my friend Pat and his wife Pippa (who have played in several of my previous campaigns) joined, adding Gelion, a male half-elf fighter/magic-user specialized in the bow; and Jocelyn, a female human fighter. Suddenly, my little wimpy party was a good size and could kick some serious butt.
Had I known that Pat and Pippa were jumping aboard and bringing bruisers, I wouldn’t have introduced Grunga, and sometime soon, he might be written out of the campaign, just like a minor character from Lost. For now, though, he’s good to have along to keep Clover (my daughter Ally-Jane’s character) safe, and to keep Matt’s assassin “Volke” in line (Matt sometimes likes to act up).
Lost had recurring villains (most notably, Ben Linus) who bedeviled the protagonists, but that’s sometimes hard to replicate in a game. Player-characters (well, the ones I’m dealing with, anyway) have the annoying habit of sticking bad guys with a lot of arrows or other sharp, pointy things, and then jumping up and down on said bad guys’ broken bodies until they just die already.
Nevertheless, I’ve challenged the party several times with a large tribe of hobgoblins (“The Dog Skulls”), tossing lots of them and their goblin lackeys at the PCs. The party has also tangled twice with a quartet of badass githyanki warriors, Chaotic Evil Psionic Plane-Jumping Dickheads who like to trade punches with the PCs just for gits and shiggles. Most recently, our heroes have thrown down with a horde of human cannibals, and they’ll see more of those scary dudes in the near future.
Githyanki: ruining people’s gaming sessions since 1981
Secret and/or sinister organizations. Lost had “The Others” and the “Dharma Initiative,” mysterious groups who inhabited the island before the protagonists crash-landed. The Others initially seemed sinister and hostile, but eventually joined most of the protagonists. The Dharma Initiative was revealed to have been a scientific group conducting weird experiments. Though no one in Lonelylands is trying to abduct random party members or tap into enormous reserves of electro-magnetic energy, there are nevertheless two organizations rumored to exist.
Early on in Lonelylands, the player-characters in my campaign ran into an NPC wizard, Sessemdyr, who said he belonged to a group called “the Collectors,” and that one or more of them might be “Collectors” too. To prove his point, he showed the party a tattoo on his arm that he said was the group’s identifying mark: he then proceeded to calmly scrape off a layer of false skin on “Volke’s” arm to reveal an identical tattoo.
Sessemdyr speculated that, like him, the party had wound up in Lonelylands because another group, “The Red Faction,” viewed them as a threat. Though the party didn’t know if they could believe Sessemdyr (they had never heard of either group), they nevertheless remembered two bits of graffiti on “The Marker,” a stone monolith they had encountered shortly before. The first piece read:
Do not trust the Collectors
The second read:
The Red Faction lies and waits
Since taking their leave of Sessemdyr, the party hasn’t learned anything more about either the Collectors or the Red Faction, but they might soon enough…
Getting off the island in Lost wasn’t easy, and it won’t be easy to get out of Lonelylands, either
Escape. Many of the plotlines on Lost focused on the protagonists’ efforts to leave the island, either by raft, freighter, sailboat, lifeboat, frozen donkey wheel (don’t ask), or a forced-to-land jet plane (yeah, yet ANOTHER plane). Most of the characters were anxious to get off the inhospitable place filled with weirdness and danger (though some never wanted to leave), and who can really blame them? They were just ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary situation.
AD&D player-characters are not ordinary people, though, and you would think that an inhospitable place filled with weirdness and danger would be just the environment they’d be craving. And you would be wrong. All of my players want to get their guys out of there ASAP. I don’t think they’re bored (at least, I hope they’re not bored), but the setting is, perhaps, a bit too grimdark for them. Also, I think they miss little things like, say, having a place to spend any of the loot they’ve been gathering on their travels. Or, say, being able to take a bath, or not having to wonder when the sunlight is going to return.
Soon after their characters first arrived in Lonelylands, they were informed by Sessemdyr that there was no escape, save perhaps a place (which he had never seen) called “The Edge,” thousands of miles from where they were at that time. Later on, they learned that the zeppelins had entered Lonelylands through “The Gate,” some sort of very large magical/scientific/both construct supposedly much closer. So they changed direction and are headed that way.
Next time, I’ll tell you about what they found along the way….
More Black in Black
Posted March 2011