Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wending My Way Back Home

I had a long journey, but I'm back home in the tower and ready to start howling again.

My hiatus was not caused by a lack of writing but by an overabundance. I've finally wrapped up two adventures for Wizards of the Coast that together totaled over 80,000 words, not counting rewrites. The first of them, "The Blood of Gruumsh," just came out in Dungeon online this month. You can't get it if you're not a subscriber, of course, but if you are a subscriber, I'm always interested in hearing reactions. Though the adventure is written for 4E, it isn't dependent on 4E to work. You could run it with minor alterations in any edition of D&D or whatever other fantasy RPG you favor.

The mandate for "The Blood of Gruumsh" was to write an adventure using all the miniatures from the just-released "Blood of Gruumsh" expansion to the Dungeon Command miniatures game. During the planning process, the phrase "the blood of Gruumsh" came to mean something entirely different from where it started (and from what most people will expect), in a way that gave the adventure a whole new twist. That sort of thing pleases me greatly when it happens.

Here's the quick and dirty setup from the adventure:

Somewhere in the deep forest lies a derelict elven religious colony. Vines and overgrowth now obscure its elegant beauty, and brush chokes its soaring halls. This colony thrived quietly for generations before a sudden, brutal raid destroyed it. No survivors escaped to tell the tale, and those outsiders who did know of its existence blotted all traces of it from the records—or so they believed.

This idea of an elven settlement sculpted from living forest, then abandoned -- essentially a dungeon suspended in the branches of trees instead of carved underground -- is one that I've carried around for several years waiting for an outlet, so I was happy for the chance to finally put it into action.

The second project was a Forgotten Realms adventure that will be published as a standalone product as well as being used as a D&D Encounters season and as the basis for the D&D Game Day adventure. It's called "Murder in Baldur's Gate," and it's very different from anything that's been published for 4E. The characters arrive in Baldur's Gate just as the fuse gets lit on some really bad business, and it continues burning no matter what the characters do. They can get involved in the unfolding catastrophe to whatever extent they choose. There are events they can prevent, events they can interfere with, and events that are simply too big for them to alter significantly, even if they choose to get involved.

The schedule on this was grueling, and the only way I got through it was by bringing in my son Alexander as a co-writer. Aside from the obvious gain in having four hands pounding out words at the keyboard instead of two, it was invaluable to have another head that was intimately wrapped up in this complex plot so we could kick ideas back and forth. I can't think of any adventure, for any edition or game, that's structured quite like Murder in Baldur's Gate. It's not exactly a sandbox adventure -- there is some essential structure and there are scheduled events -- but it takes a unique approach to the setup, as far as I know. That uniqueness was a problem during writing, because we experienced several false starts before the pieces clicked together.

If you're a fan of film noir, the mob, and hardboiled detective action, you'll probably find a lot to like in MiBG. We packed as much corruption, crime, decadence, and duplicity into Baldur's Gate as could fit in one Medieval city.

The writing process was further complicated by the fact that the adventure is meant to be equally playable with the 3rd, 4th, or upcoming 5th editions of D&D. Since no one even knows what form D&D Next will finally take, we wound up writing in a way that was largely edition-agnostic. In some ways, that made the writing easier, but in others, it made the writing much more difficult. In the end, I'd say that the total amount of work was substantially more than it would have been if the adventure was for just one edition, because doing it this way demanded so much mental overhead. And that doesn't account for the couple of weeks that were "lost" to just figuring out how this idea could be put into action. In the end, the solution we adopted was not ideal -- that is, I'm sure a better solution could have been devised if we had another six weeks to experiment and putter and rewrite again -- but as we always said at TSR, "a writing project never gets finished, it just gets done."

Which should not be taken to mean that I'm in any way disappointed with how Murder in Baldur's Gate turned out. It was a tough assignment with a grueling schedule, and I'm very pleased with the final product. Reactions from DMs and players promise to be interesting.

So that's what I've been doing for the last several months while Howling Tower was on hiatus. I still have other writing projects going on, but they shouldn't dominate my time the way those two did. Regular updates will resume with a new installment of Adventure Notebook on Monday. Here's a list of topics that are in the hopper:

  • Why monster stats don't matter
  • Rules porn -- Are we addicted to rules?
  • Dungeons = Mystery
  • Death, failure, and feelings of inadequacy
  • You get XP because the world is a dangerous place
  • The emergent climax
  • Ruleplaying
  • A review of Playing at the World by Jon Peterson


  1. Good stuff! You got my imagimination goin already.

  2. Welcome back sir!

    I await your words with bated breath.

  3. Sounds like a couple of interesting adventures. Welcome back!