It’s a perfectly reasonable impulse to want to have your own favorite volumes of iconic fantasy literature retroactively included in the Appendix N book list. Indeed, it was not surprising to see a few glaring omissions addressed in the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons.¹ That said, I’m generally flabbergasted when the discussion turns towards who should get booted from one of gaming’s most notable honor rolls. Roger Zelazny gets brought up in spite of the wide ranging appeal of his Amber series– a series that inspired one of the most innovative roleplaying games around! (Amber Diceless, naturally.) Gardner Fox, too, is brought up even though he created the Lich– easily one of the most significant D&D monsters that wasn’t inspired by those weird plastic toys from Taiwan. John Bellairs gets mentioned here in spite of his hilarious anachronisms and compulsive readability. Most surprising to me, however, is to see L. Sprague de Camp’s work singled out for a place on the chopping block. That’s really shortsighted, though. The guy covered a great many things that are of especial interest to gamers– including some things that they consistently neglect. Cutting de Camp out of the Appendix N library does a great disservice, both to him and to gamers in general.
You see, Lest Darkness Fall is a tale of inadvertent time travel that’s loaded with stuff that can help you bring the oft-shortchanged domain level of play to life. Not sure what to do once your kingdoms are all set up and ready to go…? Why not follow de Camp’s lead and have emissaries from the surrounding kingdoms come calling one after another to demand their piece of Danegeld? If the player chooses to pay them all off, he’ll bankrupt himself. If he gives them all the brush off, then he better be ready to fight them all… simultaneously. (And of course… if the player chooses to ally with one power in order to crush another… his hardscrabble alliance of “free peoples of the West” will just have that must less materiel when the beastman armies crash the big board a few strategic turns later…!)
What about stuff like gadgeteering, inventions, and spell research? This book highlights exactly why it is that Gary Gygax would write “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT” in all caps in his Dungeon Masters Guide. Sure there are plenty of game changers that you can conceivably whip up. But it isn’t going to come together overnight. Not every project will come to fruition. Even the ones that can actually be accomplished are often going to be irrelevant by the time they can actually be brought to bear. And you can’t expect the world to just leave you alone to sort all this out at your leisure.
If you think that every single engineering project you can conceive will play out exactly the way that it did for Captain Kirk when he had to fight that big reptilian Gorn in single combat, then you’ve got another thing coming. Face it, your character is not (in most games, anyway) like that android from David Weber’s Off Armageddon Reef. You don’t have all the recipes for everything all safely backed up in your memory banks. There’s no telling if you could even get the proportions of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate correct. And even if you did, it’s not a sure thing that you’ll be able to manufacture enough to be useful or that you’ll be able to create an effective killing machine with it on short notice. And even if you could pull that off, do you have enough social savvy to protect yourselves from rivals that can have you brought up on charges of witchcraft for even accidentally insulting them?
And this is the area where Lest Darkness Fall really comes alive. Telescopes, brandy, Arabic numerals, double entry bookkeeping, and Morse code are all well and good. But yellow journalism, blackmail, dirty politics, and down home barbecues are even better– especially if you’re of a mind to take over the ancient world and prevent the onset of the dark ages. The way he writes, it’s pretty clear that if L. Sprague de Camp was a Dungeon Master, charisma wouldn’t be the dump stat that everyone else seems to think it is…! And nowhere is de Camp’s grasp of human nature more clear than in his depiction of our “book smart” protagonist’s encounter with women of the past. It starts innocently enough with a drunken fling with his house keeper:
He moved carefully, for Julia was taking up two-thirds of his none-too-wide bed. He heaved himself on one elbow and looked at her. The movement uncovered her breasts. Between them was a bit of iron, tied around her neck. This, she had told him, was a nail from the cross of St. Andrew. And she would not put it off.
He smiled. To the list of mechanical innovations he intended to introduce he added a couple of items. But for the present should he…
A small gray thing with six legs, not much larger than a pinhead, emerged from the hair under her armpit. Pale against her olive-brown skin, it crept with glacial slowness…
Padway shot out of bed. Face writhing with revulsion, he pulled his clothes on without taking time to wash. The room smelled. (p 82-83)
But as our “skeptical inquirer” type hero continues his meteoric rise in business, politics, and war he necessarily moves on to more attractive prospects. He hits the jackpot, even: he finds someone that is both ravishingly beautiful and able to afford the kind of personal hygiene that could maintain her appeal even to a guy with 20th century grooming standards. She’s better connected than Princess Leia– and even better, her home world hasn’t been blasted into asteroids. And even better than that, she’s she seems to be developing feelings for the protagonist ever since he rescued her from having to be married to a positively odious guy. It’s a classic fairy tale plot point. It’s almost too good to be true!
Mathaswentha sat up and straightened her hair. She said in a brisk businesslike manner: “There are a lot of questions to settle before we decide anything finally. Wittigis, for instance.”
“What about him?” Padway’s happiness wasn’t quite so complete.
“He’ll have to be killed, naturally.”
“Don’t ‘oh’ me, my dear. I warned you that I am no halfhearted hater. And Thiudahad, too.”
She straightened up, frowning. “He murdered my mother, didn’t he? What more reason do you want? And eventually you will want to become king yourself–“
“No, I won’t,” said Padway.
“Not want to be king? Why, Martinus!”
“Not for me, my dear. Anyhow, I’m not an Amaling.”
“As my husband you will be considered one.”
“I still don’t want–“
“Now, darling, you just think you don’t. You will change your mind. While we are about it, there is that former serving-wench of yours, Julia I think her name is–“
“What about– what do you know about her?”
“Enough. We women hear everything sooner or later.”
The little cold spot in Padway’s stomach spread and spread. “But–but–“
“Now, Martinus, it’s a small favor that your betrothed is asking. And don’t think that a person like me would be jealous of a mere house-servant. But it would be a humiliation to me if she were living after our marriage. It needn’t be a painful death– some quick poison…”
Padway’s face was as blank as that of a renting agent at the mention of cockroaches. His mind was whirling. There seemed to be no end to Mathaswentha’s lethal little plans. His underwear was damp with cold sweat. (p 145-146)
And there you have it. This is not the over the top idealized presentation of women that you get in a rip roaring Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Neither is this the “man with boobs” shtick that you see in everything from Chronicles of Riddick to Agents of SHIELD. This is women as they are, with their own ambitions, their own unique strengths, their own passions and jealousies, and their own effortless mastery of intrigue. As enticing as she might otherwise be, our smart aleck know-it-all from the future just isn’t up to the job of dealing with her. (And if you think that all women that predate the suffragettes had to have been passive, wilting violet doormat types, then you clearly haven’t read too many characters cut from the same cloth as de Camp’s Mathaswentha!)
The other thing here is that the author is depicting the ancient world as being one without privacy, without tolerance, without due process, without habeas corpus, and without anything remotely like a principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” Indeed, anyone that grew up in a small town will readily recognize just how potent a force the local gossip ring can be. And in contrast to Robert E. Howard’s vivid portrayal of civilization being set up expressly to pervert justice in favor of foppish nobles over honest thieves, here we see just about everyone as being free game! It’s the “nice” people that especially seem to bring it on themselves. The guy that quietly lets go a workman that is caught embezzling is liable to be brought up on outlandish charges. Jilted lovers and political rivals are equally liable to make false accusations that have drastic consequences. Even bribing the right people isn’t always enough to get out of trouble: the various functionaries and bureaucrats are more liable to fight over who has the authority to torture confessions out of people than see anything remotely like justice served. It’s a mess!
It’s no wonder that the nuances of these sorts of social interactions are rarely dealt with in the average roleplaying campaign. Tabletop gaming is necessarily going to play to its own particular strengths whether it’s looting a dungeon or playing out an epic fantasy battle. And unless they’re Diplomacy fans, the average player of these types of games is going to be of a mind to escape from the kind social pressure that goes with navigating society, establishing a dynasty, and dealing with ostracization. People just like to be able to go into a town in Ultima II and not have to worry about the guards coming after them unless and until they really have stolen something from one of the shopkeepers. Outwitting the shopkeeps in Nethack is a blast, sure, but gamers don’t necessarily want to deal with some sort of shotgun wedding scenario when they come back to town and discover that the saucy tart they met last session is suddenly with child. Neither would they want to put up with every single towns-person not only ripping them off but doling out false accusations to The Watch about the players when they get called on it. Indeed, a town where that sort of thing happens routinely is liable to see every single level zero peasant wiped out when the player characters finally reach their breaking point. Heck, the entire place would get burned to the ground if the players are anything like the people I’ve played with.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The trick for game masters wanting to invoke culture, society, and local color is to make sure that none of these trimmings are seen as a barrier to the players getting what they want out of the game. If you know for a fact that the players are interested in dipping into domain level play, then marriage, titles of nobility, and land grants should be top the list of things thankful potentates are willing to dole out to adventuring groups that have accomplished deeds of renown. This works equally well in everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Traveller to even Car Wars… and yet it’s not something that people tend to think of when they design adventures or set up campaigns.
Traveller adventurers are generally assumed to be more concerned with making starship payments than setting down roots.² And the default reward for a band of hardened autoduelists is $100,000 in cold hard cash… which will generally be blown immediately for repairs and vehicles that will get used up in the next adventure or battle. Even in Dungeons & Dragons where domain play is an explicit part of the end game, people tend to assume that they have to wait for players to get to the right level before it can start. As if there aren’t jobs for which the only people available for them are the ones that aren’t ready for them, yet…! Part of the friction here is that the very concept of adventure is seen as being at odds with civilization… or at least, something that occurs mostly on its frontier. High society just isn’t always what players are looking for in their flights of fancy– and it’s not what many game masters are used to running, either.
Now, I want to explain how to work around all these pitfalls and tendencies… but first let me explain a general method for running a wide open campaign. What most people do most of the time in a long-running campaign is simply connect one prepackaged module or scenario after another into a loose continuity. The rules are generally silent on precisely how to do this. (Indeed, the rules were generally written before the modules were even published!) But even if there is a well articulated default campaign system, it generally gets forgotten or deprecated as the system continues to be developed. The tested and tightly scripted modules are what tends to catch on in actual play, because they give a “good enough” result that requires less confidence, fluency, and specialized knowledge to implement.
Consequently, campaign development rules often end up getting the least amount of development and coverage in classic role playing games. Oftentimes, the gamemaster is presumed to just know what he needs to do– and he’s often expected to just ignore entire sections of the rules wholesale. This leads to a weird situation where campaigning is something people do in spite of the rules under the assumption that everyone else must already be doing it just fine. So here is (completely spelled out) my pointers on running campaigns– this stuff I wish someone could have told me back when I was thirteen years old and had all those endless summers to fill with nonstop game session. After this, I’ll break down my pointers on how to actually get to the domain type game that a lot of us never really got around to doing.
Now, as you dig through that deluge of points there, you’ll begin to get a notion of why it is that the action in your roleplaying campaigns never quite looks much like what you read about in L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall. I’m explaining all this so that you understand the panoply of forces that are stacked against your ever getting to something like that. It’s just not how people play by default! And all those gamer friends of yours with dreams of running the perfect campaign with lots of real world history and realistic people…? You know, those guys that never really got a long-running campaign off the ground…? There is a reason why this stuff doesn’t just come together all that often.
If you are really serious about going from having players roll 3d6 in order all the way up to running domain level play incorporating elements ranging from gross injustice, to marriage, and epic military battles, what you need to keep in mind once you’ve already mastered the basics of running a more conventional campaign:
Nothing I’m saying here is all that new, to tell you the truth. I’m just reiterating the standard advice for not railroading the players, not engaging in adversarial play, and not front-loading all of the adventure design. Along with that, I’m also generalizing the basic idea of the “sandbox” to incorporate additional elements that people seem to not get around to playing as much. If this sounds like a lot to take in all at once, don’t panic. Just start with the standard town and dungeon setup and ease into things from there. It worked for Gary Gygax way back in the seventies and it can work for you today! But read this book by L. Sprague de Camp. It’ll help you wrap your head around the sort of things you can do to make the domain game come alive. It’s a good read– and there’s a darn good reason for why it made the Appendix N list in the first place.
¹ See Patrick Rothfuss’s Thirty years of D&D for the low down on 5th edition D&D’s “Appendix E”.
² The online JTAS from Steve Jackson Games has an adventure called “The Last Hand-to-Mouth Adventure” by John G. Wood that demonstrated how to transition away from the typical Firefly style campaign setup.
³ This is Ron Edwards’s terminology, which I first saw in his game Sorcerer (reviewed by me here.)
⁴ I am certain that I picked up this tip from a game blog or an issue Fight On! or Knockspell. I’d like to give credit where it’s due, but I just can’t remember who explained this first. (I know this sort of advice was practically unknown when I was trying to run these games as a kid, though.)
⁵ See Lawrence Schick’s post The “Known World” D&D Setting: A Secret History over at Black Gate for a particularly famous example of this technique: We dubbed this setting the “Known World,” to imply there was more out there yet to be discovered, because we didn’t want to paint ourselves into a corner.