Ten Years Today

On Wednesday, 6 October 2000 – ten years ago today – the first dice was rolled in the first Iourn campaign. It was the Notoriety of Kings campaign, and it was the start of the convoluted adventures of a bunch of misfit malcontents that continues even now.

On this, the tenth anniversary of the Iourn setting, I hope you will indulge a retrospective of those heady days when the third edition game was new, and everything was still to come. Read on, and you’ll also see my original notes for that first campaign. My players can titter over just how much has changed.

The Summer of ’00

In August 2000, Wizards of the Coast introduced the third edition of the Dungeons and Dragons game. It was an utterly fantastic system that plugged 90% of the holes and inconsistancies of 2nd edition AD&D. It was simply better on almost every conceivable level, and I was extremely excited to run a third edition campaign.

Up until this point, I’d only ever set adventures in published campaign worlds. I’d run some jolly good Darksun games and some less successful Planescape material, and truly stonking Ravenloft campaign of 1998-99) – but I’d never invented my own campaign world. Part of the reason for this was that I felt my understanding of the 2nd edition game was not complete: but here was a new game, a third edition game! I could get onto this band wagon at the very beginning, and for the first time I could afford to buy all the supplements.

So during the Summer of 2000 I began to invent Iourn. I think my players would be surprised as to quite how little depth the setting had when we played the first session. Many of the elements of the world, its history and major players didn’t exist this time ten years ago. I remember a car journey to Devon the week before the campaign started, when I was still furiously scribbling potential names for the moon gods on a piece of scrap paper.

Iourn was (and is) designed to be a generic fantasy world. There’s no high art here, little originality or sophistication in the background or the metaplots… it’s not the setting I would use if Iwas writing a novel – but as a roleplaying setting it works remarkably well. It works because it is generic, because it is something that everyone is immediately comfortable with. But it was also a setting born in second edition. I wrote most of the background before I fully understood the third edition rules. Things like the moon faiths (who were closely based on the elemental priests of Athas) always bumped and scraped against the third edition ruleset.

The campaign background and all the extra rules were posted online at <www.teacosy.demon.co.uk>. Don’t try looking for the site, it doesn’t exist anymore. It was supplanted by www.iourn.com a few years later. I was then all set for the first ever session. This session was a one-off run after a meeting of the University of Kent’s Adventure Gaming Society on 24 September 2004. I had seven players, and it was a fun little adventure. But it was just a prelude to something better.

Looking back on Campaign One

The Suger and Spice one-off is not the date I think of, when I think of the start of the Iourn campaign. For me, the date is today and the start of the first great campaign. But how did it all begin? What were my original intentions for the plot and the players? Glad you asked. I recently unearthed my original notes for the Notoriety of Kings. Shall we have a look through them?

The Tournament. An ancient evil is returning to the world of man (not very original I will grant you) and the elves have known about it for years. The Grey Elves have known about this for ages and are preparing to make a run for it. However, for many human generations, the high elves have decided to warn the lesser races and try to stop the unstoppable. Think of B5 with the minbari cast as the high elves and the grey elves cast as the pre-revelation vorlons.

Yeah. There are quite a few parallels between Babylon-5 and the Iourn campaign. The much-talked-about-but-rarely-seen Hadradan Empire wasn’t really based on either the Romans or the Turks: it was based on the Centauri. What’s interesting here is my original take on the elves. There are two elven factions Grey Elves and High Elves (another hang-up from my second edition days), and the Grey Elves are only now preparing to leave Iourn. Of course, in the actual setting they had left 1000 years before, and created their own parallel plane called the Greymere. That wasn’t even in my mind at this stage. Let’s continue:

 The first step is to find some heroes, for which they turn to their old ally, the ancient wizard Naramac (“as strong as the mountain, as deep as the sea”) who resides in an enormous moutain fortress (the mountain is the fortress). The locals have come to call the mountain Mount Narramac, and no-one ever goes there.

Mount Narramac? That became Mount Korvast of course, and it was never famous for being Narramac’s secret hide out – rather a holy place for the Moon Gods. I guess the whole story of Uros and the summoning of the gods hadn’t been formed at this stage.

Naramac was a very famous and powerful sorceror – everyone had heard of him, but no-one has seen him in about 30 years. He announces that he is going to hold a contest to give away powerful magic everyone comes flocking, including the PCs. All contenders are teamed together in groups of six (hence bringing the party together). All the groups are sent off on a number of minor quests that whittle their numbers down to ten groups. These assault Mount Narramac, and only the winner gets the magical power.

Well, that’s sort of what happened. I envisaged the end of the first adventure to be a battle against the other nine teams of adventurers as they all scaled Mount Korvast simultaneously. The scene was completely stolen from the first two episodes of the Visionaries cartoon series if anyone can remember that. PCs would have to overcome magical traps as well as help or hinder their fellows (depending on their conscience). Interesting that I only refer to “magical power”. I know for a fact that I didn’t know what the magic prize was going to be when I started running the adventure. The Blades of Virtue would come later. In fact the concept and background of the Blades would come much later – long after the PCs actually got their hands on them.

Whatever happens, the PCs impress Naramac sufficiently (he’s everywhere during the adventure) for him to have them as his heroes. It’s against the recommendation of the elves, but Naramac knows what Naramac knows. This first, rather lengthy, adventure is greatly dependent upon interaction between the PCs and the other teams on the quest. Character backgrounds are unusually relevent in this first adventure

Giving away some GM secrets there. “Whatever happens, the PCs impress Narramac”. Well, it would have been a short campaign if you’d just lost the grand quest wouldn’t it? Also note, how this plot doesn’t make any sense at the moment. The elves want to warn the lesser races of the rise of this great evil through Narramac, so they hold a tournament to give away powerful magic items. Um, why are they doing that? It’s obvious that at this stage, I haven’t got a clue what I was doing.

There are many attempts to distract the PCs during the quest, and it will be to their advantage to allow themselves to be distracted. Such distractions will be humanitarian in nature. For example, they are on horseback racing to find the next clue or the next item. Another group in front of them almost runs over the body of a young woman lying on the road. If they stop the PCs discovered that she’s been brutalised and raped. Helping her would earn them more respect then blindly going after the next clue.

This scene appeared in the final campaign almost unchanged. The unfortunate young woman in question was Honor, and her attacker was the corrupt Squire Osroth. The way the PCs dealt with Osroth was a defining moment for the campaign. It was the first time they zigged when I expected them to zag. Minsc the paladin’s steadfast adherence to his paladin code led to the arrest and incarceration of the rest of the party. Happy days.

As winners of the competition the PCs are instant celebrities, catapulted from the dreary lives and into the spotlight. They are the chosen of Narramac and suddenly everyone wants to be seen with them. As the rich and the powerful seem to toady to their demands they must be careful not to allow arrogance to rule because there are plans a afoot to destroy them. Now that they have the items Narramac says that it is up to them what they do with them, but he may appear from time to time and set them a task. The items (he says) only work when all six are together, so they have to stay as a group. 

This was the core conceit of the campaign. Give the party powerful magic items that only work when the six of them are together. There’s no better way to unite a party of adventurers! Of course, once they lost the swords it became hell to keep them together. This was a theme of – heh- pretty much every campaign that followed.

Look at adapting some of the new D&D scenarios for this campaign. An adventure like The Sunless Citadel could be useful, but it seems as though it isn’t coming out before Christmas, so all adventures will have to be my own.

I never used any published third edition scenarios in the game – they were all a bit Dungeon-crawly for my taste. But the map of the Sunless Citadel was repurposed as the broken citadel of Ashardon (and indeed all the Temples of Concordance) later in the first adventure.

The PCs will have to choose a patron to support them in their new found fame. Maybe Narramac will even suggest that they choose a patron, but they must choose one wisely. Not everyone is what he seems. Beware the greyshadows, he says, enigmatically. But if that’s the set up, what about some ideas for adventures? Obviously we have back ground material, and the elves keeping eyes on the PCs, the necessary in-fighting and the like, but what’s happening in the foreground?

Who were the PCs to trust? It wasn’t as obvious at the beginning. Should they trust the ailing king? What about the elves? Some seemed to be working with Narramac, but others were trying to kill Raza. What about the enigmatic Aylisha? Lucien? Alberdark? Gaston? Would they be better off siding with Galahyde and Kristus? I tried to give the PCs ample opportunity to pick a side in these early adventures.

The upshot is that the PCs are being set up. These artefacts that they carry belonged to the Enemy and he wants them back. However, the forces that are against him (Narramac and the high elves so far) want to force the Enemy’s hand. The PCs are basically targets. Throughout the adventures the party may find themselves encountering more and more evidence of the evil one.

And there’s the twist, that wasn’t properly explained until the second year of the campaign. It’s not properly explained here of course, either. Just a vague understanding on my part that all wasn’t what it seemed. Sure the Enemy wanted the swords back – but why did he? What was their significance? Again, that would come later.

After I fleshed out a little more for the background, I tried to fill in some of the gaps:

The PCs attend Narramac’s summons and compete to gain great magical power. They quest brings them into conflict with many other groups and, successful or not, they are chosen by Narramac as the victors. It’s important that this part of the campaign doesn’t take too long – perhaps six sessions in total.

Six sessions! Ha. The adventure took thirteen sessions. That was certainly the shape of things to come…

As heroes the PCs are taken in by a local lord, and they will have to fight off an attempt to steal one of the swords. The assailants should succeed, demonstrating to everyone that these swords cannot be used by anyone. Many individuals and groups attempt to co-opt the PCs to their cause. It’s up to them to decide who to join, but hopefully they will find themselves in the service of the ailing king, Yaddagon – as either his allies or as spies.

Well, that adventure never happened. Alberdark took the PCs directly to Uris. The whole conflict between the Watchers and the Church of Fire wasn’t even on the table at this stage.

The party travels to the capital, Uris to meet with the king. They are allowed to conclude any business they may have in the vicinity. They are accompanied by a trusty aid to Alberdark. On the way they are asked to dinner by a minor noble and play through the ‘die hard’ scenario.

The King is really ill when they arrive. Doctors have advised that he go to his hunting lodge for the summer but Yaddagon wishes to remain in the city for fear of Galahyde the Black striking while the king is absent. He continues to go through his routine although it is killing him slowly.

Well, the Die Hard scenario was put back a few adventures, and took place after the PCs met the king. More on that scenario below. However, the main Norandor-specific plot was starting to come together here: the ailing king Yaddagon, the battle for the succession and the off-camera threat from Duke Galahyde.

Yaddagon will command that the PCs prove their loyalty to him in some manner. Then there is the encounter with and elf that is inside the palace walls. The elf has been to see the king. The king then demands their presence, and tells them that they must not mention the instance to anyone. He will not reveal any more. But the PCs will probably want to investigate a little bit more.

The encounter with the elf inside the palace walls was repurposed as the finale of the second adventure, From Humble Acorns. And Yaddagon never really commanded the PCs to prove their loyalty. His blind trust of Narramac was enough for the trust.

Let’s finish this self-indulgent retrospective with a look at my first ideas for the following adventures:

Die Hard. The PCs are invited to a party at an old castle where they are asked to speak about Narramac and the nature of the powers they have received from him. The castle belongs to a nobleman who is pretty inoffensive. During the meal a band of 20+ terrorists (think up weird motivation) turn up and hold the ensembled hostage, making some stupid demand of the king. Can the PCs talk their way out from the inside, or do they do a die hard and pick the terrorists off one-by-one.

This of course because the plot of the fourth adventure, Dai Caled. It’s a pun you see. Dai Caled was the name noble who ran the castle. Dai is a Welsh name. “Caled” is Welsh for “hard”. Dai Caled. Die Hard. You get it? My puns were never appreciated. Anyway – part of this game did change. Dai Caled could hardly have been referred to as inoffensive in hindsight. Also the “weird motivation” of the terrorists was an excellent way to bring Steve’s character background to the fore. This was the first appearance of Rio Shai’ir. Such a tragic story in hindsight.

Vampire Hunters. A petition from the lord of a Venice-like city arrives at the PCs’ domicile and requests their help in driving off an evil undead creature that has been plaguing the town. Soon the PCs are hot on the heals of, not a vampire, but a collection of vampire-wannabees, aspiring to acts of darkness. The PCs should know that something is fishy with the vampire’s ability to pass over running water. The cult has plans to bring a real vampire into the city and this must be prevented at all costs.

This adventure changed a fair amount before I got around to running it – which is not surprising as I waited more than a year. This idea formed the core of the first part of the Seventh Sword. Sorgar is indeed a Venice-like city, although they didn’t face a cult of vampire-wannabees. That would have been too easy.

A Decade On

So where are we now? In the last ten years I have run a total of 326 sessions set on Iourn. Marc should receive some special commendation for attending every single one. The story of the setting is far from over. The Chosen of Narramac are now putting together a grand alliance against the rising evil. The League of Light campaign will come to a close during Roleplaying Retreat VIII in 2012, but there’s another campaign awaiting the Chosen after that.

What is most remarkable to me is not the setting or the plots, but the characters. Some of my players have been playing the same character for the last ten years. That’s a long time – you’d expect them to be a higher level really – so I guess something must still be going right.

Over the past year or so, my disappointment with fourth edition and continuing issues with the third edition rules have distracted me from returning to Iourn on a weekly basis. I think that’s something that’s going to change sooner rather than later. It’s time to resolve the rules issue, and get on with writing the campaign. That’s more fun anyway.

So I’d like to thank all my players (there have been eighteen of you over the years) for ten successful years of gaming. Some campaigns have been more memorable than others, but on the whole I think we’ve kept the standard pretty high.

Here’s to the next ten years!

HD&D: Character Races Redux

The playtest date is fast approaching, and it’s time to get cracking with some more blog posts. There’s still the cleric, the wizard and the spell list to go – but today, we’re going to have a little look at player character races.

“Why races?” you ask. Haven’t we already covered all this before. Admittedly, the initial post of character races was some time ago. It was followed by a post detailing the stats of the dragonborn, tiefling, elf, dwarf and human. Then Graham pitched in with more stats for a dwarf, Daniel gave us the gnome, and Steve gave us the half-elf. There have been a lot of posts about races.

Well, there have been a lot of posts – but they were all some time ago. The game has moved on from there a bit. Many of the powers and abilities of the races I came up with were predicated on HD&D being much closer to fourth edition that it actually turned out being.  Also we never got around to rules for the halfling.

Today’s post brings up to date, playtest-ready versions of the human, the dwarf, the elf and the halfling. They are the big four races of Dungeons and Dragons, and it seems appropriate that they are all available for the playtest. They are similar to what has come before, although they have slightly different spins on some of their abilities.

You can download the PDF with the racial information here:

What’s Changed?

There is one fundamental change that I would like to highlight. The great idea for HD&D is that all races are balanced. They all start with +2 in two ability scores, +2 in two skills, +3 to one defence and two racial traits. If the race logically has more than two racial traits, then the player must select them with his available talents and feats instead of selecting class abilities. I’ve changed that slightly.

Some of the races here have access to two racial traits, but some have three or more. Some races come a little top-loaded with racial traits (or so it seems). Does this cause imbalance? Well, we’ll see in the playtest won’t we? The truth is that it’s very difficult to only hand out two traits to some races and still make their feel like members of that race. This is especially true when looking at animals like bats and octopi, but it is also true for elves, dwarves and halflings.

Does this mean that races with fewer racial traits (in this case humans) are getting the shaft? Well, I think that traits can be semi-balanced with their relative worth and how often they would prove useful. Humans can have an extra feat of their choice – that’s generally altogether better than a dwarf’s Stonecunning. If they select the right bloodline feat, then a human’s bonus feat could even be Stonecunning.

There are still racial talents and racial feats. Anything that is too powerful – like a medusa’s gaze, or a dragon’s breath – would still need to be  a talent and not a trait. However, I think HD&D is robust enough that it can  survive racial traits being broader and more numerous. The game will be better for it.