Thursday, August 2, 2018

My Four Landmark Campaigns

It occurred to me today that I've been a RPG gamer for 36 non-stop years now. GenCon, a four-day gaming convention, is going on right now. If I had my own four-day gaming convention, each day dedicated to nine years of the time I've been a gamer, what games would be played on each day?

My first nine years were 1982-1991. During this time, campaign play was almost unheard of in our gaming community until 1988, with most of us only played one-off published modules.  My first attempt at a campaign in 1990 was really just the Fate of Istus super-module (with some Dungeon magazine filler stringing Rookroost and Rel Mord together) -- and it was not until 1991 when I started my first ambitious campaigns, the City of Greyhawk (AD&D 1st ed.) campaign and the Wimpy Tales (Marvel Super Heroes) campaign. Neither was very long (the City of Greyhawk campaign never saw anyone rise past 4th level), but they were elaborate in a way I've seldom had time to duplicate since.

The Wimpy Tales campaign (for at least the first two sessions) had their own comic book covers I drew. It avoided the pitfalls of the MSH rules for higher-powered characters by keeping everything, well, wimpy. It studiously clung to comic book continuity, while its lighthearted tone (until the Maggia scenario that killed the campaign) made it accessible to players who didn't read the comic books.

But even more ambitious was the City of Greyhawk campaign. Though the meat of the campaign was the City of Greyhawk boxed set combined with the adventure super-module Greyhawk Ruins, and a smattering of Dungeon magazine offerings for side quests, what made this campaign special was that it was really five different solo campaigns, each with its own cast of characters and ongoing plots, and the player-characters only crossed over and teamed up as needed. We had some pairings on some adventures, and a single case when three players all teamed up together. There were ambitious storylines, like the wild magic surge/time travel adventure that allowed Perrin the elven thief to confront the killer of his parents, too late to save them. I have never had the time to achieve that level of complexity since.

My next nine years were 1991-2000.  During this time I ran Forgettable Realms, a Wimpy Tales-like campaign using D&D; started and aborted an ambitious Pendragon campaign; but my greatest achievement -- my most successful campaign ever -- was the South Province campaign (AD&D 1st ed.) that I started during this stretch. Running from 1997 to 2005 (eight years, though I have long mistakenly remembered it lasting ten), South Province had 14 players over the course of the campaign, had one character reach 10th level, and a compelling story arc that ended with the heroes confronting and besting the evil herzog of the province. In some ways it was City of Greyhawk-lite -- there were character-specific supporting cast and subplots, and characters sometimes spent weeks of game time separated on different tasks, but it was understood that everyone was part of a group (the Band of the Grinning Gargoyle, marking one of the only times my players ever chose a group name) and would adventure together.

Every character died at least once. A TPK was foiled once with a Wish spell, while in my most ambitious plotline I intentionally killed off every character that had ever been a member of the Band of the Grinning Gargoyle so that they could be brought back to life as prisoners in a duplicate of the Tomb of Horrors created by Acererak's spurned wife! For much of the campaign, I had time to keep up a running newsletter (The Prymptown Courier) that included write-ups of what was happening in sessions, along with interviews with NPCs and other goodies. I even found time to create an original three-level dungeon (that wrapped around one published dungeon level) that they kept coming back to, though the rest of the adventures were various published modules, heavily modified. We played through a lot of the classics like G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (with ogres instead of hill giants), G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl (with yeti instead of frost giants), and Tegel Manor.

My next nine years was 2000-2009.  After South Province wrapped up in 2005 I floundered directionless and largely player-less. But I was also moving away from wanting to run D&D as-is. In 2008 I had begun working on Hideouts & Hoodlums, a retroclone that combined the game I wanted to run with golden age comic book adventures, and in 2009, right at the end of this span of time, I began my first online H&H campaign on

But, before that, I ran my most successful online campaign ever in Yahoo! Clubs, Superland, from 2001 to 2004. Superland was largely freeform, but with a thin veneer of Marvel Super Heroes layered into it to keep combat fair. I had at least 13 players over the course of Superland; some of could not keep up and dropped out quickly, while Captain Comet, Mr. Terrific, and Dr. Eternity were mainstays who formed the foundation of the Crimebusters Club and shaped the course of the campaign. Though City of Greyhawk and South Province had a lot of this built-in, this campaign was more about simulating everyday life in a world of superheroes than it was about them having adventurers -- though that did not stop them from facing the occasional supervillain. The premise was that, in 1955, Disneyland opened, but was incorporated into the City of Anaheim instead of separate from it, and Walt Disney had invited the aging superheroes of the golden age (who were aging in real time) to come live in Disneyland. It was a shared universe setting with a hodgepodge of characters from various comic book publishers all interacting together.

My last set of nine years has been 2009-20018. During this time, I have only run two AD&D campaigns, a live session Garham to Greyhawk campaign (all east and south of the City of Greyhawk, but never reached it before a TPK ended the campaign) and an online Verbobonc campaign (my plan was to run them through the Living Greyhawk tournaments, but we only did the first one and then detoured into stopping the Cult of the Flaming Eye from possessing Dieg Manor from the super-module Fate of Istus, kind of bringing me full circle D&D-wise).

All of my other campaigns in this period have been H&H campaigns. Two also-rans were my Library Campaign, that saw a lot of young people try H&H and saw them choose to move from exploring hideouts in the Midwest to fighting Nazis in Occupied France, and a short-lived JSA campaign online that emulated just All-Star Comics #5, with a lot of wandering encounters added.

My three best campaigns in this period have been three Hideouts & Hoodlums campaigns. First was my Rpol campaign. Like South Province, the goal here was running through heavily modified classic D&D adventures -- Temple of the Frog, Tomb of Horrors, Escape from Astigar's Lair, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks -- but set in 1940. I believe that ran for four years and saw heroes reach 6th level, but erased my archive so I can't go back and check anymore.

I'm also proud of the campaign I'm running now. My first ambitious attempt to run a sandbox campaign setting using H&H, the Mount Prospect campaign (also known as Batman and the Golden Age Outsiders) is in its second year, has a steady group of five players, heroes as high as 6th level, and is largely based on the early unpublished D&D works of Rob Kuntz (with a little Len Lakofka's Lendore campaign thrown in).

But my greatest accomplishment during this period were my Blue Box Campaign/Sunday Nights Campaign, using H&H. For the only time ever, I had two independent groups of players who could cross over into each others campaigns, as happened twice. The Blue Box Campaign frustrated my players sometimes because of my ambition, but it was a perfect emulation of the solo and group adventures of the Justice Society of America from All-Star Comics #4-7, mixed with additional comic book adventures and classic modules like Dark Tower. Meanwhile, the Sunday Nights Campaign ran longer, saw heroes rise as high as 8th level, and had adventures like exploring an alternate Norway that had become magically merged with the Wilderlands campaign setting, and explored the Citystate of the Invincible Overlord. They returned to the Americas, where they fought Nazis in Brazil and wound up saving President Roosevelt from an ambush from a magic gate, but accidentally burned down the White House in their grand finale.

So my four landmark campaigns were:
City of Greyhawk
South Province
Blue Box/Sunday Nights