Wednesday, June 24, 2009

An Alchemical Proposal

Back in the Before Times a DM generally started out with a rulebook and was expected to homebrew everything else. Later when RPGs became commercially successful, whole product lines came into existence to support play. The DM as artiste/worldbuilder/lone nut is very fun but a helluva lot of work. The DM as high priest of canon has its own challenges and rewards. Personally, I think the smart thing to do in the latter case is to treat a games' canon as a lawyer treats the canons of law or an English professor treats the canonical literature: pick a position and bend the hell out of the canon to suit your needs. But today I want to propose (or perhaps just highlight) a middle road between the two, the Dungeon Master as alchemist.

Here's one alchemical recipe for a new campaign.

1) Start with any ol' D&D-esque ruleset, though a simpler system without alot of fiddly bits probably works better here.

2) Add some supplementary rules material. You're primarily looking for new Gygaxian building blocks (classes, races, spells, monsters, magic items, etc) to drop into the game. In this recipe you want exactly two different sources for this stuff, one of which is easy to put into your game, like adding Mutant Future as a source of monsters and treasures to your Labyrinth Lord game. For the other one choose something that might be a little harder to fit into your system of choice without some work. Something like Creatures & Treasures II for Rolemaster or the monster book for Mazes & Minotaurs, the Hekatoteratos. Don't be scared to go far afield for this second supplement book.

Part of the magic of this formula will come from the tension between the two selected supplements and part will come from your own personal adaption of the second, less compatible source. Another tension, and thus more fuel to the fire, can possibly be achieved by making one of supplements an ancient text and another one a more modern invention, like using your favorite issue of Fight On! or Knockspell combined with the Best of Dragon, volume I.

With most supplements that you select, there will be some material you don't like. Like I adore the monsters, magic items, and spells in the original Arduin Grimoire, but some of the classes leave me cold. The best thing you can do would be to challenge yourself to use this stuff anyway, to stretch your own chops. You don't have to use everything in your selected books, just try to go a little outside your comfort zone.

3) Now you need some fluff to hang all this stuff on. Pick exactly three sources of campaign inspiration. Two of these sources should be recognizable as fantasy material, like selecting your favorite Conan paperback and maybe Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Note that you are picking individual works, not entire bodies of work. Pick one Conan book. Don't use the later Dying Earth books. And for Grodd's sake don't look at a fan wiki or crap like that. These books are meant to be launchpads for your own campaign, not the final word on your setting.

Your third fluff is meant to be the wild card. Pick something way out in la-la land for this one. Don't even look at fantasy novels. That'd be too pedestrian. You want something like an issue of the Micronauts comic or the movie Krull or the Principia Discordia. Or a book like Barlow's Guide to Extraterrestrials.

Using the Alchemical Method your job as Dungeon Master is to make something syncretic/synthetic that takes all this disparate stuff and coheres it together in a single campaign. Achieving this will require a lot of trial and error work as you decide what from each source to keep, what to adapt, and what to drop. The result may be a trainwreck, but it will be YOUR trainwreck.


  1. Gee, just post this right after I put a campaign prospectus out.

    And right after I argue that the biggest thing I learned from City States of the Apocalypse was that D&D just doesn't do it for me.

    Hmmm...D&Desque rules old BRP/Magic World/GORE apply.

    Yeah...Gore plus...hmmm, some third party Runequest stuff or maybe one of the AH supplements like Vikings or even better Monster Coliseum or my "close" supplement and Dragonsinger by McCaffery for one of my novels...


  2. Anonymous11:02 PM

    Interesting idea. One of my favorite things to do in RPGs is to take different ideas and make sense out of them (such as with random roll tables), so this could be a fun challenge.

  3. Mix and simmer is one of the best ways to get fun campaign settings (and rule systems, if you don't mind making up your own character sheets or forcing your players to write on scrap paper).

    Also, I would be honoured if you read this over and gave me your thoughts: The super-easy Adventure RPG.

  4. Fun!

    Mutant Future
    Barbarians of Lemuria

    The Secret of Sinharat by Leigh Brackett
    The Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans
    and the 1978 pilot of Battlestar Galactica

  5. Car Wars
    Belter (Traveller sup.)
    Advanced Trooper VOTOMS
    Principalities of Glantri
    Armoured Furries compete for Resources in System Space

  6. My tentative set:

    GORE (firm)
    AH RQ Monster Coliseum (semi-open...will be some RQ non-Glorantha supplement)
    Palladium's Library of Bletherad (semi-open...will be Palladium Fantasy and/or Nightbane)

    Dragonsinger by McCaffery
    Some other fantasy novel/story...rule is I have to have reread it more than once.
    In Search of the Trojan War by Michael Wood

  7. Nice post, imagine doing this for 20 years for a single campaign and you get what I done for my Majestic Wilderlands. (Harn, Ars Magica, etc).

  8. Fun...

    D&D-esque Rules:
    Swords & Wizardry (white box)


    The Road (by Cormac McCarthy)
    I am Legend (by Richard Mattheson)

    La-La Fluff:
    The Old Testament

    =A god out to protect his people in a world in ruins, overrun with invaders from a rip in space/time. Cannibals, bleak, no future...

  9. Barlowe's Guide to, I used to pore over this book religiously. Imagine a campaign set on Thype's world!

  10. Awesome post, Jeff. I think this could be just the thing to shake up my homebrewed Traveller setting, which I'm afraid is too staid.

  11. Adam, great stuff!

    "(or pick, if you can't handle surprise)" cracked me up!

    "Since you are a Hero, you have some capacity for Magic." is a great concept.

    I'm just eating the writing up!

    "You start the game with one of the following packages (all packages include belts, backpacks, and that sort of thing; also, anyone who wants one can have a cool hat)"

    All in all, it's well written and looks like it would be a hoot to play. You should send it to Fight On! for publication.

  12. CityTech(Urban Battletech)
    Mutant Future
    Aliens x Hellraiser
    Gwar x Primus x Clutch x Master of Puppets

    I think I just scared myself a little.

  13. Anonymous11:45 AM

    Frakkin' rad idea. I particularly like your advice to LIMIT the fluff sources and to avoid the Canonical Loremasters of Wikidom.

    My rulesets: OD&D&S&W + GBI/Risus + The R.E.C.G.F.C.F.RPGS&T.M.S.

    My Fluff: '80s science-fantasy animation (see, I limited it! I didn't include My Little Pony. But I will) and Flash Gordon (this includes Star Trek and Star Wars in my mind).

    Ah, I can't do it. The Mutant Earth is Kitchen Sink all the way.

  14. Rules:
    Arduin Grimoires 1-3

    H.P. Lovecraft
    Pretty Much anything by Gene Wolfe
    The Areas of my Expertise by John Hodgman

  15. Wow, this is very close to how brainstorm out new campaigns. I just have never seen it written down before. I do prefer more complex rule sets though.

  16. "Gygaxian building blocks"?



  18. 1. System: Ruins and Ronins version of S&W Whitebox (technically cheating I guess)

    2. Supplements: Oriental Adventures and Expanded Psionics Handbook

    3. Fluff: A Princess of Mars, A non-fiction book on exo-planets, and Ghostbusters the movie

  19. Hmmm, I think I've always done this. I love the post but get a feeling about it I don't usually connect with a Jeff Rient post, a mix of "Been There, Done That" and "Deja Vous".

    My D&D campaigns have always been some combo of:

    Rules: AD&D 1st or D&D 3.0 + Champions combat + Assorted House Rules
    Setting: Final Fantasy (All/Mixed) + Tellos + Legion of Super Heroes.

    My Traveller campaigns have always been some combo of:

    Rules: Original/Classic Traveller + MegaTraveller + Assorted House Rules.
    Setting: Larry Niven + Halo meets Mass Effect + The Terra Trade Authority Books (with a heap of Traveller canon in the background)

    Don't we all do this? I'm not sure what the difference is between this and the type of sandbox game you normally address.

  20. I can hardly pick only only 3

    Homebrew of C&C/True20/HackMaster Basic or whatever

    Fomalhaut by Gabor Lux from various Fight On! #3 and others.

    Conan the Barbarian (movie)
    John Carter of Mars
    Cleopatra 2525

  21. Adam Drew7:28 PM

    Thanks, Jeff!

  22. Adam Drew8:13 PM

    @Mike D:

    Holy sh*t I want to play your game!

  23. @Barking Alien, You're right, we all do this to some extent, but I think the key that Jeff has hit upon here is the idea of setting limits so you can't wander too far in your sandbox. You can't pick a whole book series--just one book, issue, etc. At the same time, you have to choose antithetical elements that play against type.

    I'm rather smitten with this technique as a brainstorming tool, esp. since I realized you could use this for writing in general. I've been scribbling out several themes already. I'm up to 18 so far.

    Kudos to Jeff and for everyone submitting such fantastic ideas!

  24. @Barking Alien: Jay hit it on the's the same thing about choosing to write sonnets instead of poetry. Sure, writing sonnets is writing poetry but the limitations in line length, rhyme scheme, and line count force creativity.

  25. I suppose I get what your saying but I honestly don't think I would, generally speaking, do this for a game. I'm a bit of a genre junkie, really playing up a particular genre's cliches. Sometimes its to reinforce the genre, sometimes I play against type (which works best after you've established type for a several sessions).

    Basically what this means is I'm unlikely to use the Monster Manual in my Traveller game when I have access to Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, The Wildlife of Star Wars or the Alien Compendium's from Alternity. I am likely to use all three of those however.

    Its not that I won't add offbeat elements, but I tend to play off a theme. That's my version of self-limiting my campaign and again, its something I always do.

  26. Adam Drew said...

    @Mike D:

    Holy sh*t I want to play your game!


    Thanks Adam, it would be one dark and grim epic.

  27. Great post. This is bending the rules of straight fantasy fluffers a bit but here's what I came up with off the top of my head:


    Arduin Grimoires
    Encounter Critical: Opponent Opuscule

    Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen
    Rush: "Fly By Night", "Caress of Steel", & "2112" albums (this counts as one IMO)

    the 3rd heat:

  28. Rules:



    Masks of Nyarlathotep from CoC, 1e Gamma World, 3e Oriental Adventures and White Wolf's Storyteller system


    Conan ("Rogues in the House," "Red Nails" and "Beyond the Black River"), Heavy Metal (the movie), The Road Warrior, Italian horror movies, Master of the Flying Guillotine and Children of Men.

    If the result were a printed game, the art on the cover would be a black knight with a guitar strapped to his back blowing away Lovecraft ghouls with a machine gun while Frazetta-type women clung to him for safety... plus mushroom clouds in the background.

  29. Oh yeah -- and when you open the book, there's a little chip that plays a song like a musical greeting card. But instead of playing "Happy Birthday," it plays Metallica's "Battery."

  30. Let's get RPS!

    Rules - In A Wicked Age, using Fudge ladder for scale and Feng Shui dice mechanics. Have I maxed the Pretentious meter yet?

    Supplements - whatever 4e D&D the player decides to bring to the table. Limit 1 per player. (Retro-stupid, but within reason)

    Fluff - Andrew Vachss' Burke novels, "Gorky Park," "Maltese Falcon," and "Sixth Sense." Throw in some random lines via the IAWA oracles to use as world Aspects...

    I'm running this tonight! The adventure is ostensibly Tomb of Horrors - but I have a wonderful noir plot twist to throw behind the Green Devil Face... I'll share later.

  31. Anonymous5:22 AM

    B/X or AD&D 1e/2e hybrid

    Mutant Future
    Rolemaster: character law

    Dying Earth
    Call of Cthulu
    Call of Duty 5 world at war: Nazi zombies!!!!

  32. Anonymous7:26 AM

    Late to the game, but I thought this was interesting as my friends and I did this a lot in the early 90s.


    Stormbringer (2nd /3rd ed)
    Adeptus Titannicus
    Simple 10-page medieval miniatures rules picked up for $3 at the hobby shop


    Karl Edward Wagner's Kane
    The Elric saga
    Patterns of trade in Maya civilization


    High-fantasy campaign in which the last survivor of an ancient race leads Human armies against the forces of the Drukahn Empire, whose leader is actually the (maimed and insane) last survivor of an even more ancient race.