Arcallis: World of Adventure


In the past decade-plus that I've been running games, I've probably read close to two hundred adventures and campaigns, both professional and amateur. Most of them were junk. Here's a campaign that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Welcome to the world of Arcallis and the Prophesy of the Phoenix.

In the past decade-plus that I've been running games, I've probably read close to two hundred adventures and campaigns, both professional and amateur. Of the one hundred or so professionally written adventures, five or six of them, most notably the Challenges (Fighters Challenge I & II, Thieves Challenge, etc.) written for D&D 2 ed. and Caravan to Ein Aires written for GURPS 2nd ed., were actually intriguing enough that I ran them. I did have to change them to suite my game, my players, and their characters, but the changes were minimal.

The rest were junk. They were nothing more than garbage written for immature munchkin players of the worse sort. Adventures where EVERYONE has magical items (including beggars, kobolds, goblins, average Guardsmen, etc.), the characters earn tons of money along with (even more) magical items, fantastic races/magic/magical items/rules are introduced for that one adventure (usually something EXTREMELY powerful and useless, like the Rod of Seven Parts D&D 2ed.). Even stuff written for low level characters have more to do with boosting the characters up a couple of levels and giving the characters a bunch of cool stuff than with a plot or story. The worst of these are Dragon Mountain, the aforementioned Rod of Seven Parts, the Ruins of Undermountain (and all of it's supplements), and pretty much everything written for the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. I don't think that it's a coincidence that all of these adventures were written for D&D by TSR. And people wonder why the company got bought out: I do have to admit, Wizards of the Coast has done a much better job with D&D 3rd ed. so far.

I want a STORY with a clear beginning, middle, and end to it.
I don't know about you, but I'd rather have a compelling story, a labyrinthine plot, characters (player and none player alike) worth remembering with rich backgrounds and realistic motivations. I want a STORY with a clear beginning, middle, and end to it. I understand that these are adventures for the most part, made to be inserted into an existing campaign and not made to be turned into one. But that doesn't excuse shoddy writing, stupid plots, or anything else. Remember, these people earn a living writing this junk.

Adventures and campaigns that I've read that were written by amateurs seem to fare better in my opinion. These adventures are written by people who (for the most part) don't like an overabundance of magical items, prefer having something resembling a plot, and want to be able to continue running the same group of characters through multiple adventures instead of retiring the characters after one or two. As a result, I'd say almost forty percent were interesting enough that I wouldn't mind playing or running them. About five percent were so good that I've incorporated all or part of them into my games.

The closest that I've ever come to that Great Game was Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time adventure supplement for D&D 3rd ed. Which is awesome, unless you're not a Robert Jordan fan and don't have a clue what the rules of the world are or its history.

Never, in all the years that I've been roleplaying, have I ever found an adventure or campaign that was so well written, had a storyline so rich in character and plot development, an adventure that just had so much going for it that I HAD to run or play it. Until now that is.

Just a few days ago I was surfing the net and I stumbled upon a website written by Murray J. Towle at:

...munchkins will have a hard time in this world.On this website is a campaign called The Once and Reborn King set in the GM created world of Arcallis. It's written with no regards to rules, game systems, character creation, or players. In fact, it's written as a 3rd person narrative. The Game Master used D&D 2nd and 3rd ed., GURPS, Masterbook, Rolemaster, Quest and Earthdawn when running the game, which he has been running for at least ten years. Arcallis is his own creation, though he has been free in using the good parts of other games and game worlds, such as Earthdawn, Harnworld, Forgotten Realms, Al-Qadim, Birthright, GURPs, and even DeadLands. The campaign is written as a series of adventures set as chapters. The campaign tells of the fulfillment of The Prophesy of the Phoenix that will free Arcallis from an ancient evil. The characters in the adventures are written with minimal backgrounds (i.e. Journeyman Sorcerer) and no classes, although some classes are obvious and some can be guessed at. The cool part is that it's almost impossible to tell when the backgrounds end and the adventuring begins. The scenarios within the adventure are tough. Stupid characters (players), pc's who charge into combat and kill people and things on a whim, and munchkins will have a hard time in this world.

In one scenario, the pc's are sneaking into the castle of Baron Montrose, the Optimist, in order to rescue the Lady Fairchilde who has been kidnapped. They enter the castle through hidden tunnels where they are attacked by living walls. When they get to the dungeon they find the Lady and the real Baron, a man who was supposed to have died over a month ago. The party is outraged at this and decides to head upstairs and throw down on the unsuspecting Optimist and his cronies. Of course, the Optimist is expecting them, has several heavily armed and armored cronies, is a master swordsman, has recently begun studying magic, and is an Undead Horror. The Optimist beats down the party who fights a retreating battle back into the dungeons using fire magic to cover their escape. This fire burns out of control and the Optimist is seen to go down under a roof collapse. It is later learned that the Lady Fairchilde has been turned into a vampire and has made the Captain of her ship into a ghoul.

Here's another scenario. This one I'll quote directly:

"A reality storm sweeps up from the Sea of Ash over the Barrier Peaks and catches the party while camped this night. Strange arcane lightning strikes all that is animate and transports it a thousand miles in an instant. The party is swept-up and deposited in the heart of the Sea of Ash. Hot ash rains down on them from the volcanoes spewing gouts of flame into the air close by. The air is thick and hot and smells like rotting eggs. Gagging and blinded by the air, the party collects the livestock and team members and strikes out towards a ruin visible in the distance.

Along the way they are attacked by large burrowing creatures with tough skins and thick shell-like armor. The party flees into the rocky area around the ruins to escape. The ruins are a mysterious Gate-stone, a relic from the ancient past when the Atlanteans ruled the world. The Gate-stone seems to be in good shape for being thousands of years old, and the party mages, begin deciphering the cryptic runes. While the party is so engaged, the Gate-stone's guardians, a pack of Jethula, which are strange spider creatures, attack. The party fights bravely but more of the spider creatures and some other dark constructs began to arrive. Marik (a pc mage) manages to create a Gate-stone activation spell on the fly and charges the stone up and opens a Gate to what he hopes is back to their camp. It is."

This is all around the absolute best campaign/adventure that I have ever been exposed to. I cannot give a higher recommendation or endorsement than I have to this campaign. It stands as a testament to the author's skill at creating the world, running his players through these adventures, and then writing it all down in a way that anyone can relate to. I hope one day to play this campaign in this world. I don't want to GM it as I like it too darn much. Check it out and see what you think. Drop the author a line of thanks for an incredible journey.

Hm. Normally, I'm allergic to anything with "Prophesy" in the title.
This doesn't sound bad, though.

There is heroism and brute warfare on the ocean floor, unnoticed by land-dwellers. There are gods and catastrophes.
-"The Scar", China Mieville

Calamar, your insight into the structure of adventure and campaign scenarios is fascinating. I very much enjoyed reading the first six paragraphs of your article. I would be interested in seeing your advice on how to craft a proper adventure module.

It has been my experience that gamers tend to enjoy those adventures which offer interesting dynamics in game or story design. For example, take the most often named favorite module.

I've asked many old school gamers which module they like the best, and the same answer almost always is given to me -- Return to White Plume Mountain. After skimming the book myself, I realize that the writing is actually very sub-par. The adventure involves involves traveling to a hollow mountain and dungeon crawling through an inverted ziggaraught (which doesn't make any sense in a high fantasy, surreal way) and fighting through a series of pointless and seemingly random monsters and traps. The reason players liked it so much is because of the dynamics. At the beginning of the game, the party is given a collection of powerful and cool magic weapons by the king to aid them in their quest. The trick is that the king only has a small number of these weapons, one less than the number of character in the party. Of course, everyone wants a magic weapon, so one player is going to be left without. This leads to tremendous begging, bartering, and outright theivery during the trip to White Plume Mountain. To add a twist to the twist, one of the weapons is a cursed evil sword which drives its human into a bloodlust -- usually during the ship voyage toward the mountain range.

I find myself disagreeing with your glowing review of Prophecy of the Pheonix campaign. Granted, I haven't read the material myself, so I may not be judging it fairly. From you descriptions, however, I can see a pattern emerge. As adventure scenarios, the Pheonix games demand an incredible amount of choices being made by author which should be made by the players. This is commonly called running over the players with the plot wagon, and players hate it.

Look at the example you chose about the castle of the Optimist. I can understand the author assuming that the party will approach through the underground maze. The party could have just as easily decided to sneak in another way, but a reasonable amount of assumption must be made for the purposes of drawing maps. This assumption is more of a dictation that my players wouldn't accept, but another group may be more forgiving.

From that point, the author goes bugnuts in micro-managing the story. He dictates how the players react emotionally, and then describes when and exactly how they decide to escape. This is the most extreme example of GM manipulation that I have ever seen. The next described scenario isn't any better in this regard.

As adventure scenarios, the Pheonix games demand an incredible amount of choices being made by author which should be made by the players.
I had the same impression. Anytime a scenario doesn't leave the PCs options, or assumes certain behavior on their part, I consider that poor adventure design.

There is a tension between telling stories in one's game, and letting the players help tell the story. In my opinion, a properly designed adventure considers many possible avenues of the players' approach to their situation, and provides enough detail for the GM to react intelligently -- and far more important, entertainingly -- to the players' decisions.

Nephandus used to tell stories about a guy who wound up one of his labyrinthine-plotted campaigns by reading a summation of the finale aloud to his players...over a period of two hours. That's plot micromanagement.

And while I am speaking of old posters, Eater of the Dead would probably blast me for saying this, but: I think there is merit to Siembieda's style of simply giving open-ended "scenario" setups for Palladium. He gives you a situation, some quick NPC/monster stats, and lets you go. Sometimes, that's the best way to do it.

That the players will do things you don't anticipate is not the worst thing about being a GM, or even a bad thing. In my opinion, it's the best thing. My players surprise and delight me with their ingenuity, their brashness, and sometimes, though not as often as they seem to think, with their sense of humor.

I also find that my players hate being 'managed' by the referee in too much detail - they want to feel as if their choices make a difference. And they need to have the freedom to screw up as well (a freedom that they make all too-liberal use of!).

Roughly speaking, the approach that seems to be working well in our group is as follows:

1) Players have multiple PCs that collectively form a very loose network of acquaintances. They don't all hang out together all the time and they haven't even all met each other. There is no 'party' - situations arise in the campaign setting and a group is assembled, or assembles itself, to go and deal with these situations according to their motivations (duty, personal advantage, altruism or some mixture of the three)

2) There's a BIG STORY going on but no single PC knows the whole picture. Though some of them think they know more than they actually do, or are just plain wrong about it. Heh heh. There are hints and clues out there and what's really going on is gradually being revealed.

3) Not every adventure is a 'BIG STORY' adventure. Many are simply 'side-treks'.

4) Adventures are fed into the campaign gradually and often months or years in advance of them 'happening'. The players aren't merely presented with a linear sequence of tasks. They actually have a backlog of stuff they want to do - especially the higher level ones who are setting up strongholds.

5) Sometimes characters will try to tackle adventures that they are way over-powered for. Because many of these are 'side-treks' that don't matter to the BIG STORY, I just let it happen, when it happens. It would be statisticallly unlikely in a 'realistic' campaign that every adventure will be perfectly matched to its participants.

6) Sometimes the reverse happens, and characters end up fleeing for their lives (or dying). Resurrections can (and have) happened but they are not 'on tap' - not all deities grant this spell and don't do so lightly either. PC's have died and remained permanently dead. Not often, but often enough.

7) With BIG STORY adventures it is often the case that I want specific results and so I will be more inclined to (subtly) manipulate things. I'll modify encounters to suit the current state of the party, for instance. All those side-treks in which I let the chips fall where they may tend to make the players less suspicious of such manipulation and preserves the illusion of freedom of action.

8) The BIG STORY may be subject to change at my discretion - as long as what it changes to is consistent with what has gone before. It has changed once already - because I had a better idea that still fitted with what the PCs had already uncovered.

Got to dash. Toodle-pip!

Back again for more. Whilst I think about it, a story-based series of adventures worth looking at for examples' sake are the 2eD&D 'Falcon' series of modules. Now these modules do have some good material in them (much more so than the awful 'Vecna Lives' - worst linear plot module ever), but as with most published adventures they need a bit of work to make them sensible for one's own particular campaign.

Now, I understand where the authors of these modules (Richard and Anne Brown) were coming from in wanting to have a nice storyline to glue together the action/dungeon crawling sequences. But the way in which it is executed is so painfully contrived. The worst part of the whole thing is the party's mysterious patron - a Greyhawk Dragon and a high level spellcaster to boot - who if played with a little imagination would have been capable of taking on the bad guys entirely solo! There was no need to involve the party and risk their lives in the first place.....and it's not as if the dragon is a recluse who doesn't like getting his hands dirty either - he turns up in the final scene and kills the arch-baddie (in a very unfair contest) while the characters stand and watch.

Another thing that needs to be considered when 'placing' an adventure in the campaign setting is, are the PCs the only characters around who can deal with this, and why? The Falcon series was set in the City of Greyhawk and was for a party of 4th-7th level characters, and involves a citywide threat. Now if you run the City of Greyhawk setting as it is described by the various official Greyhawk supplements (and I don't recommend that anyone should) then the guy running the cornershop down the road is probably a 20th level mage. Why is no-one else much more powerful dealing with this threat?

I think that adventure writers need to pay closer attention to the motivations and likely actions of their NPCs and not treat them as mere plot devices in order to avoid the credibility errors of the Falcon series and similar 'story based' adventures. And please, please, no more 'This happens whatever the party tries to do' passages......

In regards to the author of Phoenix, he wrote what happened to the players and their character reactions in a storytelling mode. Much like what Margaret Weise and Tracy Hickman did for Dragonlance.

Both games were played our and the authors wrote about them in an entertaining fashion, often supplying motivations and thoughts to the characters involved which may not have come out during the game.

As for me writing an adventure, email me a genre and a cast of characters and we'll see what I can come with.

"Pain heals, chicks dig scars, glory last forever!"

I haven't read more than probably a dozen modules, but I do definately have a favorite. It was entitled Apokermis Now and printed by West End Games for the Real Ghostbusters RPG. I author placed the character's city is a situation which involved events unfolding which were largely out of the characters' hands for the earliest parts of the timeline. The module included a timeline of events, NPC's working both for and against the threat but mostly innocent bystanders, and a dungeon map of the confrontation area. The story involved a race of poltergeists who had partied themselves to death thousands of years previously. After archeologists rediscovered their city, the ghosts were awoken and their high priestess to transform the entire living world into a never ending, chaotic, and destructive party for her own amusement. Other characters included a new secretary for the characters who served as the damsel in distress, an old woman who had the unique skill Attack with Broom, and a guacamole monster. There was enough silliness to keep the players interested and enjoying themselves but underneath was a very basic adventure plot moving events forward. Best of all, there was no particular way for the party to solve any problem set before them -- it was very open ended. I adapted the game for Star Wars, and it was one of the better games I ever ran.

Calamar, I will be taking your offer to brainstorm an adventure module. Expect my e-mail as soon as the yahoo mail servers are back online.
I agree, I don't see a reason for a game to go on unless its an ongoing drama, with good plot npc's and world. If I wanted hack and slash I would just play video games. Good article.