It’s March! That means a number of exciting things, but first and foremost for you, dear Adventure, it means that there’s a new Featured Campaign! As you know, we feature a new Obsidian Portal campaign every month. We do this so you can see some of the best table-top campaigns the internet has to offer. And this month, we have something very special for you this month.
This month’s Featured Campaign is DMed by Rodney Thompson, RPG Developer at Wizards of the Coast. Rodney was the Lead Designer for the Star Wars: Saga Edition RPG and he’s currently the Lead Developer of the upcoming Dark Sun 4th Edition setting. And his Obsidian Portal campaign, Forgotten Realms: The Savage North, is awesome. Rodney was kind enough to let us interview him about his work at Wizards of the Coast, and his campaign.
Obsidian Portal: So we hear that you work at Wizards of the Coast. Can you tell us more about what it is you do there?
-What are your responsibilities?
-What cool stuff are you working on now?
-If you could change any aspect of the current edition of D&D, what would it be?
Rodney: My job title at Wizards is technically RPG Developer, but I’m a man of many hats. While my primary responsibility is to be a Developer on D&D, I’ve also spent the last few years as the lead designer and developer on the Star Wars RPG.
As for recent projects, my biggest projects coming out in 2010 are the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, which I was the lead developer for, and the D&D Essentials line, which I co-designed. I was also the lead designer on the Monster Vault.
It’s tough to say what I’d change right off the top of my head, because any change has a lot of repercussions once made. I’ll say that we’ve got some exciting new stuff coming up in the Essentials that really are going to surprise (and, I hope, delight) people. I think if I was going to make one change to my 4E campaign, it would probably be to change the way magic items interact with character math. Basically, I like my magic items to be a little more special icing on the cake, and a little less of a required part of the character needed to succeed. That said, we’ve made some headway down that path with DMG2 and we go even further in Dark Sun, so that’s one change that’s coming about.
Obsidian Portal: Where do you get your inspiration for your games?
Rodney: I tend to be a very classic fantasy/classic D&D style of gamer. That said, my current campaign is heavily inspired by Western films—not necessarily in their environment or visual aesthetics, but definitely in terms of the story. My campaign plays on a lot of classic Western themes—lawlessness vs. civilization, dangerous men on a dangerous frontier, authority figures who are little to no help at all, etc.
Obsidian Portal: How much time per week do you spend getting ready for a game session?
Rodney: I tend to prep one adventure at a time, and each adventure I design covers about 1 level’s worth of play. I usually do a few hours of up-front prep before I start the adventure, and then over the course of the three or four weeks it takes to run I usually do about an hour of prep every Sunday night before I run on Mondays. On top of that, I’d say I put about an hour a week into things like maintaining the Obsidian Portal wiki for the campaign, sketching out custom magic items and other rewards, and generally brainstorming the direction that the campaign is headed in.
Obsidian Portal: So your campaign is called Forgotten Realms: The Savage North. Can you tell us about its world, its inhabitants, the PCs, and the overall story?
Rodney: I’m running the campaign in the Forgotten Realms of 4th Edition, but in the North, mostly in Icewind Dale and the lands north of the Spine of the World mountains. Since the 4E Campaign Setting didn’t really touch on that area much, I’m pretty much filling in the gaps using my 2nd Edition FR materials. When I was in college I ran a pretty expansive 2E campaign in the North, and I’m using all of my old materials as a basis, but updating things to the new timeline.
The great thing about the North is that it’s very much the frontier, and there’s a lot of fertile ground for thrusting the heroes into a position of influence right away. There’s less intervention from higher powers there, and plus I’ve always liked the sort of frigid, snow-covered lands as a backdrop for D&D.
The main antagonists of the campaign’s heroic tier were a group of bandits called the Blackhands, known for their distinctive black gloves. More than just outlaws, the Blackhands were pretty much controlling the entire North through fear and intimidation, and were found in most of the Ten Towns “protecting” the inhabitants from harm. When the heroes arrived, they started liberating Icewind Dale from the clutches of the Blackhands, and at the conclusion of the heroic tier they finally discovered the secret citadel used by the Blackhand leaders, laid siege to it, defeated the white dragon Aurelion that had been aiding the Blackhands, and discovered that the Blackhand’s leader had secretly been dead for years. As we enter the paragon tier, the players have discovered that some githyanki had been manipulating the Blackhands all along, and were clearly involved in some kind of plot that seems to encompass not only the North but also the Nine Hells, Baldur’s Gate, the prison-city of Wheloon, Zakhara (yeah, that’s right, I’m including Al-Qadim material in the campaign), and Myth Drannor.
Towards the end of the heroic tier, the heroes started to realize that they were not just brought together randomly, but that they all have some connection to the greater scheme of things. Zereb-Khan (a genasi swordmage, played by Logan Bonner) discovered that an old apprentice of his former master was once a Blackhand lieutenant who served time in Wheloon with Sardon (a genasi warlord, played by Chris Tulach). This apprentice and Sardon were members of the Seven of Wheloon, a group of criminals who escaped from the prison-city after being broken out by drow of the Shadowstep clan. Malkyr (a drow rogue, played by Mike Mearls) is a member of this clan, but wasn’t involved in the breakout. Theren (a half-elf warlock, played by Derek Guder) discovered that his father was murdered by this old apprentice; Theren’s father was also once an instructor at Blackstaff Tower, who set Harold Glimmerswick (a human wizard, played by Greg Bilsland) on a hunt for a mysterious substance known as godsblood. They all recently discovered that the aforementioned apprentice was turned into a seeker of godsblood by the Order of Blue Fire, who apparently have plans to do the same to Sardon. As you can tell, there are a lot of connections between the heroes’ backstories that have come to light over the course of the campaign.
Obsidian Portal: How closely do you stick to the Forgotten Realms canon?
Rodney: I like to use the FR setting as a backdrop, but not as a metaplot. The story I’m telling is definitely my own. As I mentioned before, I’m using a lot of 2E reference materials for my game, so it’s kind of a hodgepodge of the 2E Realms with 4E Realms overlays. In general, I’ve used the 4E Campaign Guide as a jumping off point, and occasionally circle back around to pick up things from time to time, but it’s very much my own story.
Obsidian Portal: We hear that many of your players are also game designers. Do you have to grapple with them for control of your game world, or do they typically let you DM as you see fit?
Rodney: I’m usually pretty flexible about letting my players define the campaign world anyways, so there’s no grappling. If anything, I try and encourage them to take ownership of the setting. For example, Chris Tulach completely made up the whole concept of a group of escapees called the Seven from Wheloon, and I took that and ran with it, tying it into the character histories of other characters. I find that letting my players be creative like that keeps them engaged, and whether or not they are game designers.
Obsidian Portal: How much of the campaign world is original content developed by you and your players?
Rodney: Almost all of it. While I use canon FR locations for most things, every single NPC and storyline is completely of my own making. The only exception is that I inserted the Scepter Tower of Spellgarde adventure into the game at one point, but customized it heavily.
Obsidian Portal: Where do you get your inspiration for your story?
Rodney: The heroic tier, at least, is heaviliy influenced by Westerns. The Blackhands are sort of a cross between the Zhentarim and the Cowboys from Tombstone or Calveras’ men from The Magnificent Seven. Going into the paragon tier, I’m easing back on the Western themes, and leaning more toward classic D&D adventuring. It’s tougher to do the Western-inspired stories at paragon tier, so for that I’m drawing a lot upon the design work I did for the upcoming Plane Above sourcebook, as well as the Al-Qadim campaign setting. I feel like the campaign may head to Zakhara at some point, but up until then the players will be spending a lot of time in Baldur’s Gate, if I had my guess. We’ll have some urban adventures, and then go from there to Zakhara, or possibly to the Underdark or to the Astral Sea, depending on how the campaign develops.
Obsidian Portal: Where does your game group typically play?
Rodney: We have played in numerous places thus far, but we currently play in conference rooms at Wizards of the Coast. The office has some really nice rooms with big white boards, large tables, and comfortable seating that I like to take advantage of. Some rooms even have speaker systems, so I can connect my iPod to it and play background music during the game.
Obsidian Portal: How well do you know your players?
Rodney: I’d say we’re all pretty good friends. I currently work or have worked with four of the players, and the others are either close friends or have come in from other campaigns. We hang out outside of the game, and of course I see several of my players around the office on a daily basis.
Obsidian Portal: What kinds of challenges are you faced with in your campaign?
Rodney: It’s definitely had its ups and downs. I originally started the campaign as a more casual, beer-and-pretzels kind of game. While we were having fun, we weren’t making much progress, and I was itching to run a game that was more fast-paced and plot-heavy. So, late last year I started implementing a series of changes to make sure we played more regularly and got more gaming in. Since then, the game has really picked up momentum. In fact, I started a series of blog articles on the Wizards Community site called Campaign Repairman to chronicle the process of me turning my game around. I figure a lot of DMs probably have some of the same problems that I have faced, and could benefit from some advice on how to make changes and salvage a lackluster campaign.
We’ve also lost a couple of players due to real-life obligations, and so we’ve had some challenges in introducing new players, but so far the core group has remained engaged.
Obsidian Portal: What aspects of your campaign are you really proud of?
Rodney: I’m really excited about how well the game has turned around after slowing down from time to time. I was worried that the campaign was going to fall apart at a certain point, but things look to have turned around. I’m also very proud of the capstone adventure I ran to get the players from 10th level to 11th level. It was an all-day adventure that played out over the course of about 8 hours. It was a blast, and I hope I can top it in the future. Maybe for the 20th level adventure…
Rodney has dedicated his career to his love of gaming. His Obsidian Portal campaign is a living testament to his cause. For the dedication exhibited by Rodney and his players to keeping table-top RPGs alive and well, we welcome them with open arms into the immortals halls of the Obsidian Portal.