Creating an Oriental Adventures Setting with Appendix N

Monday , 18, July 2016 10 Comments

The most critical element of role-playing game design is the reduction of friction. If it is not addressed sufficiently, the game will not be played. Now, this is not an issue quite so much for people that treat rpg’s as a new form of literature or for whom the primary design goal is to sell a lot of books. Chalk it up to the games industry being prisoners of capitalism if you want, but there’s a clear conflict of interests between the hobbyist and the publishers here. And while it’s the novices that will be most stymied by the presence of friction, even experienced game masters can get worn down by it to the point where playing practically anything else will start to look like a good way to go.

Here are some examples of what I mean by friction:

  • Any game where character generation takes two hours or more, as GURPS Prime Directive did for me.
  • Any game that has rules subsystems that are incomprehensible even after two hours of digging into them, as figuring out the AD&D initiative bonus for high dexterity was for me. (Trust me, it’s weirder than you’d think.)
  • Any game where the players are liable to bring contradictory assumptions about the tone or setting into play. (Just as a minor example when I was running Dwimmermount, players assumed background flavor about the Auran Empire from the ACKS rule books was applicable. Pausing a game to get a meeting of the minds on what was and was not in play with regard to that material would be a type of friction.)
  • Finally, a friction point for people returning to tabletop role-playing after a lengthy hiatus, encountering more recent editions of D&D, and then having their character concept shot down by people that know which feats everyone “has” to choose in order for the party to be viable over the course of several sessions.

Now, all role-playing games are going to have friction points and they’re often going to have dedicated fans that deal with it, route around it, or else simply ignore whichever parts get in their way. That’s fine. But your collection of unplayed role-playing games are going to consist predominantly of stuff that suffers from multiple types of friction that reduce them to being little more than picture books containing occasional bits of inspiration that can be plundered for games that will actually hit the table. First Edition Oriental Adventures is one of those games! I’m going to show you how Appendix N can be used to create a setting that can actually support ongoing play rather than apply drag to it– more or less in line with Gygax’s advice from the original Dungeon Masters Guide.

Now, for me, the monster “gazetteer” approach that has been done with everything from TSR’s Known World, to Traveller’s “Official” Universe, and on even to GURPS Banestorm really leaves me cold. The unending series of supplements for things like Forgotten Realms and Palladium just boggle my mind. Where does the friction come from precisely? Well… I’m going to use that stuff I feel like I’m responsible for conveying the gist of it all faithfully to the players. I fret over which particular subsetting is the best one to start the players in. I worry that a player might know more about the setting than me and then call me out on the liberties I take. Mainly, though, these overwrought supplements create a design problem for me. I have to both master the material and translate it into something relevant and playable. If the setting material is overlayed on a challenging or wonky rule set– or worse, if the rules and the setting are in conflict with each other– then I’ve just loaded myself down with a tremendous headache.

The answer to this problem became clear to me when I ran Dwimmermount in a series of marathon sessions. When I would come back from game night, I would know which dungeon levels, magic items, and monster entries I would need to study before the players came back the next afternoon. There was always a gap between how things were “supposed” to be run and how much of that was in my head. Now don’t get me wrong, it was great fun… but when GURPS designer Peter Dell’Orto pointed out to me how he did not have to freak out nearly as much as I did, I knew he had a point. You see… he’d built his own mega-dungeon himself from the ground up and had complete mastery of his creation. He knew why everything was set up the way it was and he needed a much smaller volume of notes to keep himself on track. His campaign had one less friction point than mine did, and it was such a significant one, he was strolling down Game Master easy street while I was running around like some kind of headless Game Master chicken!

Honestly, forty odd hours of ACKS Dwimmermount was worth the “hassle” for me. But the friction levels involved with getting a first edition AD&D Oriental Adventures game off the ground is so high, rolling my own stuff starts to look like a far better investment of my time. Here then is what I would look to pilfer from the Appendix N books in order to get a playable game going that I could actually look forward to.

Start with Robert E. Howard’s “Xuthal of the Dusk”. It’s just fantastic, really. There’s so much gaming inspiration packed into this one story, it’s nuts:

  • First, have the players be from out of town, suffering from amnesia, or recently unfrozen from cold sleep and pulling some kind of Rip Van Winkle. But don’t make the players be part of some kind of elaborate, alien, and/or foreign civilization. (The reason for this is identical to the justifications of humanocentric campaigns.)
  • Second, the city that’s presented here is an excellent basis for the first level of a big dungeon. Its buildings make up one giant maze of interconnected rooms that are loaded with secret passages. The decadent oriental people make excellent low level monsters and the weirdness of the story’s premise makes it very easy to improvise randomly generated encounters.
  • If you’re looking for a more gameable spin on Lovecraft-style monsters, that’s here as well.
  • If you’re looking for some science fiction elements to help make it easier to rationalize your dungeon, that’s also here in the form of potions of rejuvenation and light gems.

For the first below-ground level, I would take a page from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Gods of Mars. Not only are there set piece encounters that could be run very nearly as is, but there is also a great excuse to have all kinds of monsters down there. For the even deeper dungeon levels, I would transition to something akin to Lovecraft’s “The Mound”. The important thing is to have not just the difficulty level go up the further down you go, but to also have radically different themes as well. (A mere mortal like myself could actually handle these transitions, but coherent ten level megadungeons are going to be much harder to construct. Being able to create whatever you think is awesome eliminates friction from probably the most critical point of all.)

From movies like Iron Monkey and Jackie Chan’s stuff, I would *not* take the urban setting with the mind-numbing bureaucracies. And I certainly would not impose that tone onto the Eastern equivalent to Elfland. (That is another critical failure on the part of Oriental Adventures there!) What I would take is the off the wall combat moves like “Flying Sleeves” and the “Drunken Master” shtick. If you’re going to play this sort of game, then now is the time to wrap your head around Matt Finch’s Ming vase principle. Put in umbrellas and bicycles and twenty foot tall posts that are on fire and just go to town with it!

From Big Trouble in Little China I’d take Lo Pan and his minions. I’d also take the non-Vancian approach to magic-users presented there, possibly with low level mages being able to brew potions. We’re still kind of light on oriental-themed inspirations here, though. I might go looking for more, with Otis Adelbert Kline’s Maza on the Moon being at the top of the pile, but certainly A. Merrit’s “Dragon Glass” will be here somewhere. Another potential source for an evil Eastern empire would come from Changeling Earth, but the sort of mortal threat he represents is unneeded in the early stages of the game. (We do not need a “boss monster” when there is no explicit end game for the campaign.)

Now, my first thought with Oriental Adventures was to have use the bits from Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, and C. L. Moore where the advent of Christianity is destroying the world of myth. I was thinking that the Eastern lands would have more active spirit activity due to the absence of any missionaries and then perhaps have everything be out of whack there as various gods and creatures flee there seeking refuge. This is not consistent with the off the wall adventuring environment I have outlined above! What premise from Appendix N would actually fit with it…? I think one of the alternate realities from the Carnelian Cube provides a better start. This would make the players sane interlopers from something closer to the “real” world encountering offbeat satirical cultures. (Rather than ape Tolkien for the overall approach to world building, de Camp and Pratt is the model here– at least for the primary culture sitting on top of the mega-dungeon.)

This pretty well nails down the game’s structure, tone, and style. What’s left to deal with? Easy: the random bits of the D&D ouevre that I never really had a handle on but which Appendix N has speaks directly to:

  • The Hell of Being Cut to Pieces, The Hell of Boiling Oil, The Hell of the Upside-down Sinners, and The Hell of the Oily Dragon will replace the AD&D multi-planar cosmology that derives from its 9-point alignment system. How do players travel to them? Just like Jirel did in “Black God’s Kiss”, of course!
  • For the wilderness surrounding the mega-dungeon, I would use Lin Carter’s Warrior at World’s End as its main premise, the idea being that the Oriental elements of the dungeon locale give way weirder and crazier and more dangerous stuff the further you get away from it. Rather than a bunch of fantasy domains patterned after a range of barbarian cultures from history and neatly broken up into a pile of nations, I think strangeness that quickly descends into total chaos is much more workable.
  • For the towns, you want them to be usable as a repository almost any conceivable one-shot adventure concept– just like Cugel got to deal with in Eyes of the Overworld. (It’s the same principle as the themed dungeon sublevel, but applied to the wilderness regions.)
  • Is the wide world ripe for conquest, as in a Pellucidar style uplift project…? I’m not clear on that, yet. Luckily, I don’t have to be clear on that! But there will certainly be magic items that could make a player character an instant potentate. There are princesses to rescue that would of course bring lands and titles to anyone that could extricate them from the dungeon. That’s a way better reason to get people to travel outside of the mega-dungeon than some lame treasure map anyway.
  • The most prominent feature of the players’ party in these games is that they are bizarrely diverse, they die in droves, and they are almost immediately replaced with someone else when they do die. It may make sense to combine the premise of these characters being from another dimension or some such to the odd “respawning” that goes on in Jack of Shadows.

Okay, that’s plenty to get a fantasy role-playing game started there. Running something like this would be far, far easier for me than attempting to dig something out of a pile of mid-eighties TSR splat books. Heck, it’d be less work for me to create a game off of this than it would be go use very nearly any other product off the game store shelf. Not only is this this setting is something I’m already intimately familiar with, but I have not not one iota of anxiety at the thought of having to improvise something related to it in a game session. And being a heterogeneous “kitchen sink” style environment, I can feel free to add on practically any setting, creature, or adventure concept that strikes me as being fun to play. This is the sort of thing that you never have to worry about whether or not you’ve done it right!

That is not only one less friction point I have to deal with, but the hum-dinger of a show-stopper that has killed more campaigns than any other in my gaming career as well! Granted, my setting outline might have any number of friction points for you. If you want to use different set of inspirations to go in a completely different direction, that is obviously a really good idea. Of course, that is the very spirit that these games were given to us with in the first place.

10 Comments
  • Your comments about friction have reminded me of a short lived campaign that I played in. The DM was new to gaming and had just bought the Ravenloft dungeon–mostly on the strength of the cover.

    The main problem was that he was primarily a horror fan was trying to run a “House Of Hammer” style horror game with D&D rules.

    And the problem with that is that when D&D characters see zombies they don’t run screaming–they kill them. Basically the DM was making encounters for normal people and we were reacting like adventurers.

    Eventually, though, that guy found out about “Chill” and ran one of the creepiest games I’ve ever played in. He had a habit of having PCs that died come back as monsters, and was really good at it.

    The point is that a game system/campaign genre mismatch can keep a game from getting off the ground. Kitchen sink can be a great thing, but some things just don’t go together.

    • Alex says:

      This kinda reminded me; i just saw that Wizards of the Coast has created an official D&D setting based off one of their MTG settings that was Ravenloft with the Serial Numbers Filed Off.

      I’m thinking that the next game I run will be a bit more experimental and off the wall, given how much fun the folks I play with have had with Index Card D&D. I need to start statting up robots with steam-shovel jaws, Owl Bards, least-liches and figure out some traps and puzzles for the Infernal Deathcrypt of Rasty McNasty and adjoining robotics laboratory of Dr. Neumann

      • Jeffro says:

        Just as an aside: Ron Edwards has an rpg setting that is inspired in part by Magic’s color coded sorcery battles.

        • Alex says:

          Early-to-mid-90s default setting MTG was pretty cool, back before the settings became narrative driven. I might have to check that out.

    • Jeffro says:

      I could probably have been clearer in my presentation here, but it sounds like your friend was trying to run an adventure that was inconsistent with the both the wonky rule set and with the players’ expectations. That’s exactly the sort of friction point I’m talking about eliminating here.

      This idea of a kitchen sink setting is a very specific approach to fantasy that is common to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Margaret St. Clair, original D&D, Tunnels & Trolls, and Traveller. I will continue to try to pin down exactly what I mean by it.

  • I do think I understand what you’re saying, and I agree that it is a difficult concept to express.

    I think that the Kitchen Sinkableness of a setting is a sort of complimentary quality to Tom Simon’s idea of “Legosity”.

    That is to say that some settings are intrinsically more hospitable to the inclusion of disparate elements.

    This is a deep issue, I think, and one that I need to explore in more depth.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    A few weeks back in the thread that asked readers here what they wanted I think I said something about not caring for or about the RPG stuff.

    Yeah I take it all back.

    This post is great.

    I don’t understand much of it as I have not read most of the books mentioned which is why I am reluctant to comment on specifics about the article.

    Just general praise and I look forward to how this evolves and coming back to this post as I read more of the books mentioned.

    • Jeffro says:

      Thank you!

      I have to warn you, though: I do have several more rpg posts queued up here while I try to get my Mark III Retrospector out of the garage, cleaned up, and in working order again. My pile of paperbacks has some really crazy stuff in them, though…!

  • […] of supplements I have ever seen and perhaps is the best TSR published example of what Jeffro calls Kitchen Sink. For X2 Castle Amber Tom Moldvay really went all out in drawing from literary roots to flesh it […]

  • […] own stuff, but not me. I was surprised when I did it, but when I finally tried my hand at making a hodge podge setting like Traveller or Gamma World the results were surprisingly gameable. If you build your […]

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *