Friday, March 5, 2010

[Article] The Shadow Peaks Campaign

It was probably the Summer of 2001 when I decided to get back into playing Dungeons & Dragons; the exact course of events is somewhat hazy in my memory, but I recall that we used the First Quest boxed set initially. Things developed organically from that starting point, and soon we were digging back through the various “complete” supplements and the like, searching for memories and new visions of past knowledge. Eventually I went looking for my old campaign notes, having decided that the campaign needed a world and knowing that I had one ready to hand. The world of Silver Blade was what I was using in my early to mid teens, and the material hardly seemed suitable to me in my early twenties. After all, I had been sporadically adventure role-playing and world building in the interim, just not using any of the various Dungeons & Dragons systems. My studies kept me mainly in Surrey at the time, so play was intermittent and related to the holidays, as that was when the members of our old group were located together and had sufficient time to spare. However, that grew increasingly difficult to arrange and unsatisfactory, so in the Autumn of 2002 I decided to put together a new group in Surrey.

And that was the beginning of the Shadow Peaks campaign. Having taken part in the earlier games, my girlfriend Maki was persuaded to participate, along with Chris and Phil, who we met through the university gaming society, both of whom would be regular players for the following three years and have remained good friends of ours ever since; rounding out the initial group was our housemate, Ajit, who had always wanted to try Dungeons & Dragons, but was too near the end of his studies to participate regularly. In order, the characters they created were a human magician/thief, a half-orc barbarian, a dwarf cleric, and a human knight. The adventure was set against the backdrop of the Calthornian reconquest of the eastern territories, which had been lost during the Talisasian invasion, and the assumption was that the player-characters had fought, or been present, at the decisive Battle of Black Crag, and subsequent pursuit of the enemy into their own territory. So, when the Calthornian army began dispersing to winter quarters, the adventurers find themselves in a fortified camp on the edge of the new frontier, and at the feet of the ill reputed Shadow Peaks mountains.

The background of the Talisasian invasion goes back to the first Silver Blade campaign I ever ran, which was set in the aftermath; the Calthornian reconquest was begun in earnest by one of the few player-characters to reach the heady heights of ninth level, a human fighter named Cirin, and was played as an amalgamation of Dungeons & Dragons and a strategic war game, with varying degrees of success. We did not have access to Battle System, so largely improvised the rules, utilising other miniature and counter based war games with which we were familiar. Naturally, once the new group were made aware of this, it leant the campaign world a sense of history and continuity, and in being furnished with an idea of what others had accomplished they seemed more greatly enthused about the potential deeds of their own characters. That only came up in conversation later, at the outset of things the main aim was to play an enjoyable game. It is not clear to me whether I wrote the campaign introduction before or after the first session, but if the latter then most of the content must have been explained at the table. A somewhat rewritten version of what eventually made its way to the players by electronic mail is available here for those interested.

Since the group was new, the hook was written to both get the player-characters swiftly into the action and to provide them with an immediate initial focus. As envisioned, the adventure was not easy, so the addition of an allied non-player-character, a second level fighter, and his four zero level men-at-arms seemed reasonable. The idea was to give the party some extra muscle, provide opportunities for role-playing, and alternative characters to play if theirs were incapacitated or killed, but it was otherwise designed largely for expediency. Despite being the one to have propositioned the adventurers, Ulius was treated as though an exceptional henchman of associate status. He turned out to be well liked by the players, his services being engaged fairly regularly over the course of the campaign. The adventure itself was tentatively titled the “Shrine of Sirke”, being partly inspired by a few lines from the Odyssey, and the premise was that a band of kobolds were operating out of the shrine aided by some powerful magic. These were, predictably, responsible for the disappearance of the survey party and various other mischiefs, it being left it up to the adventurers to find a way to the lair and deal with the problem.

From this small kernel grew the campaign; a number of clues to wider mysteries were present from the start, though their meaning had not at that time been fully thought out. It took two or three sessions to complete the initial adventure, and against all the odds the player-characters survived. With Ajit unable to play regularly, we canvassed for another player, which turned out to be Ed, and the following year we were joined by Ian, after Maki found herself having to divide her year between Japan and England. As with Chris and Phil, they were recruited through the university gaming society, were regular players for the rest of the campaign, and remain good friends outside of that context, which I think is the key to success with these sorts of games. If it matter, they both started at first level. We had a number of guest and temporary players over the course of the campaign, and in the last year Matt joined us as a regular player, again starting at first level. There were twelve major adventures, which I have been looking at publishing using OSRIC or some variant thereof, and a number of more minor encounters, locations, and settlements that I am undecided about how to present. I am also thinking of putting together a Silver Blade Adventures companion supplement of some sort.

Most of the adventures are already written in large part, though they will have to be edited for compatibility, since they were written with the proficiency system strongly in mind, and there is a lot of boxed text, both of which have since fallen out of favour with me. The least developed of these is the oft mentioned Twisted Tower of Mordras, which was initially conceived of as an introductory module for the university gaming society and a method of recruiting players, but because it was not really needed it never got fully developed. As a result, it may well turn out to be the most challenging instalment to write of this, admittedly, rather ambitious project, but it may also serve as the best testing ground with regards to feasibility. On the other hand, it was also intended to be played with pregenerated characters in one four-hour session, somewhat on the model of a tournament module; as long as the need for relative brevity is born fully and prominently in mind, it should be within my ability to complete before the end of Spring. That seems like a long time away at the moment, but there are many pressing matters to attend to in the meantime, and there never seems to be quite enough time in the day, so we shall see!