Finding the Path back to Fantasy RPGs

In hindsight, we played Dungeons & Dragons for too long. Our World of Greyhawk campaign lasted 12 years, included dozens of characters, hundreds of plots, and forays into Castle Greyhawk, the Temple of Elemental Evil and our own homegrown creations. It spanned the 2nd and 3rd editions of the game and saw us buy hundreds of books.

At first glance, it might seem like D&D 4th Edition, with its wildly different ruleset, is what killed the campaign, but that was only part of it. Burnout had struck several other players (myself included), driven by both genre and rules fatigue. Not all felt that way, but after our D&D 4E playtest, it was clear we needed a change.

Star Wars was that change, and for the last two years its served us well. Science fiction provided a wellspring of new ideas and adventures for me as the game master, and did the same for character concepts. We explored the galaxy, created a shipping company, defeated space pirates, battled Sith, and went up against Mandalorian invaders. We visited dozens of worlds, from the burning sunward wastes of Ryloth to city planet of Jolus to the asteroid Rock Garden of Qualis. We’ve waged epic space battles ranging from simple starfighters to fleet actions.

Through it all I’ve been avoiding fantasy fiction. With the exception of the last two Wheel of Time books, I’ve read nothing but hard science fiction and space opera: The New Space Opera anthology. Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet. Alastair Reynold’s Absolution Gap. Peter F. Hamilton’s Void series. I’ve also played a lot of science fiction computer games, notably Halo: Reach & ODST and Mass Effect. They inspired my Star Wars campaign, and provided a counterpoint to years worth of sword and sorcery.

It was a welcome relief, and it’s provided me with some perspective. Looking back on my D&D campaigns after my fantasy sabbatical, I’ve decided what killed fantasy for me was familiarity. Familiarity with the monsters, the stats for which half the guys in my campaign had memorized long ago. Familiarity with the tropes and cliches of the fantasy, which had served us well as story fodder, but had worn thin after a dozen years. Familiarity with my campaign world of Greyhawk, a long time favorite, but also one who’s shades of grey had begun to feel decidedly dingy.

Three years ago the idea of playing any fantasy game was repugnant. Now I’m looking ahead to a Pathfinder campaign.

What changed? Two words: Dragon Age.

Not all the credit goes to Bioware’s computer RPG, but the dark fantasy setting started me on the road back. The moral complexity, the non-standard racial background for elves, the political infighting of the dwarves and the rich story appealed to me in ways that traditional hack’n’slash fantasy games hadn’t. Sure, it had plenty of those old familiar fantasy tropes — like the big bad Blight that rises up to threaten The Land — but it also had the unexpected. I played through the game as a power-hungry mage hell bent on world domination who never thought twice about the consequences of his actions. As a result, I found missed a much of opportunities to pick up NPCs, inadvertently saw a town destroyed behind me, and caused a party member to try and kill me (well, he succeeded the first time … thankfully I had a recent save).

Dragon Age got me thinking about what was really bothering me about fantasy RPGs. Familiarity was a huge part of it, and Dragon Age dealt with that by providing just the right amount of darkness to transform a standard hack’n’slash adventure into something more.

But it wasn’t just familiarity. It was also the rules.

Flashback nine years: we’re playing D&D 3rd Edition for the first time. It’s a pirates campaign, set in the Vohoun region of Greyhawk. Our characters are all swashbuckling heroes, and as such, they got into a bar fight.

As the melee unfolded, one of the heroes — a swordsman named Wesley — climbed to the second floor balcony and prepared to make a heroic jump to the chandelier. His plan was to land on a table in the middle of the fight, surprising his enemies and seizing the higher ground.

That’s when we realized the D&D 3rd Edition jump rules were … problematic. He leapt from the balcony and fell about 15 feet short, crashing to the ground and nearly killing himself in the process (side note: Wesley had notoriously few hit points, so much so that a “Wesley” became a unit of measurement in the Pirates campaign).

D&D 3.5 fixed the Jump rules, but the fundamental problem remained throughout 3.x’s entire run. It just wasn’t as cinematic as I wanted. That’s not to say our campaign didn’t have its epic moments — it certainly did. But the system doesn’t lend itself to spontaneous acts of heroism the way that Savage Worlds, Dragon Age or Cortex do, with the occasional exceptional result catapulting the entire encounter to new heights.

The group’s move to Star Wars showed that the d20 rule set could be fast and cinematic, cutting out the cruft that slowed down the game (grapple, trip, conditions, multiple attacks) and streamlining the skill set. At the same time, a subset of the Blackrazors have been experimenting like mad with new rules and game systems. D&D 4th Edition playtest introduced skill challenges. Cortex taught us about plot points. Hackmaster and Savage Worlds explored the joys of exploding dice.

At the same time, I found myself getting back into fantasy through non-D&D rules. The Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion is a digest-sized book packed with spells, magic items and monsters, in short everything I loved about D&D from the old days, but without the tons of overhead. The Dragon Age RPG, a pen-and-paper translation of the computer game, brought with it the concept of stunt points, a mechanic that allows players to easily setup up a combat narrative that marries game mechanics with story (admittedly one of those players — the same one who played Wesley — died while attempting to jump a lava-filled chasm, but he knew it was a long shot anyway).

And then there is Inner Sea World Guide, a beautiful new book from Paizo that chronicles their Golarion setting. This is the third such campaign book from Paizo, and it does a spectacular job in packing the setting full of fantasy variants. Sure, you can use Golarion to run your typical late Renaissance, mid-level fantasy campaign, but lurking in its pages is a winter kingdom ruled by the offspring of Baba Yaga, thrill-seeking gnomes exploring the world for adrenaline rushes to replace the wonder of their lost homeland, vikings who must slay dragons to become kings, and a French-inspired land of revolutions where anyone might be sacrificed to magical guillotines. It’s a place where dwarves once quested to find the sky, and where elves retreated to a far off plane of reality, only to return and do battle with the demon who infested their ancestral forests.

Golarion evokes of everything I enjoyed about The World of Greyhawk: a setting painted with a broad enough brush to encompass the entire world, but with enough specifics for game masters to run games anywhere their inspiration takes them.

As I walk the path back to a fantasy campaign, I’ve identified what I need to make it work for me. First, I need something new. I originally shied away from Golarion because it felt like a warmed over Greyhawk to me, but while there’s definitely a Gygaxian feel to it, the setting itself is packed with cool, fun quirks. I also want to take a campaign in new directions, and fight unexpected foes. Paizo’s Second Darkness adventure path fits the bill; it features drow at their twisted best as they scheme for world domination. My gaming group’s never had more than fleeting encounters with drow so this should be a good change of pace.

Second, I need better rules. In a perfect world, that would have meant a leaner, cleaner version of Dungeons & Dragons — call it a D&D: Saga Edition — but Wizards of the Coast went a different route. Instead, we have Pathfinder, which streamlines some aspects of the game — like those infernal grapple rules — while introducing enough new character mechanics to keep things fresh. There are still aspects of Pathfinder that I don’t like — particularly “Save vs. Do Nothing for 3 hours” spells and the myriad conditions — but the game’s run well in our playtests.

I can’t say I’m all the way back. I’m looking forward to this campaign and I’ll happily see it through to its end, but when the adventure path is concluded I’d love to do another stint of Star Wars, Warhammer 40k or some other game system. I think the key is to keep things fresh; that may be through a new fantasy campaign or it may be by jumping genres. The answer is not, however, running another 12 year campaign.

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