I’m ecstatic to report that the text & layout for In the Realm of the Nibelungs are finished, though publishing may take awhile: I still want to write up my introductory adventure, polish two DM flowcharts and finish a booklet of optional rules.
In any case, let me look back on some design challenges:
Tackling an early roadblock head-on
I realized right at the start that I needed a decent looking map of Burgundy but had insufficient mapping skills.
The game is focused on dungeon crawling, so said map is not required for play, but I consider it crucial for orienting my players to the setting.
(Burgundy historically moved westwards multiple times and later ended up in today’s France, but visually grounding the setting seems even more important than such details. Where in Europe AD 434 are we even playing?)
Rather than postpone this task, I researched my options and finally settled on buying a program to do it myself: Wonderdraft. Next, I got a freely available topographical map of Germany, selected the appropriate area and then marked mountains, rivers and cities (that already existed at the time as per Wikipedia) on a different layer in Wonderdraft. The program then allowed me to make said features look decent in an afternoon’s work (see partial image above).
I had dreaded this part of the project but it was actually fun and I learned a lot.
Getting over a negative reaction
One of my players did not like parts of the game, namely the time pressure of the approaching mists. He reacted by insisting everybody hurry up and ditch all roleplaying (e.g. talking to NPCs except in abstracted ways). We stopped playing soon afterwards, ostensibly for real-world reasons (a seven-week hospital stay with my son) and a natural endpoint (a TPK) but I realized much later that my friend’s reaction had seriously dampened my enthusiasm for the game. Months later, I reviewed our seven-session campaign and found that it had actually rocked. I’ve been on a roll with designing ever since and look forward to another campaign.
Settling on S&WCL
I had planned on making my game compatible with all old D&D games (OD&D, B/X etc.) as well as their retroclones. It was a huge relief when I finally settled on one game instead – Swords & Wizardry Continual Light by Erik ‘Tenkar’ Stiene. Keeping my own text non-specific had turned into a headache. Much better to say “This is a supplement for S&WCL”. Once I had made up my mind, I finished the game in two days: one to clean up, one to contact Tenkar about greenlighting the game under the OGL.
(This is such a niche of niche that anybody chancing upon my game and taking an interest is very likely capable of adapting my game to their preferred version of D&D.)
Sticking to 32 pages
I want to be able to print out my game as a brochure and staple it myself, so there’s a limit to the number of sheaves before stapling becomes hard and ugly. I settled on 32 pages (i.e. 8 sheaves of paper).
This limit proved very productive, as I had to treat many subjects in just one page. Rather than backfiring, it led me to condense everything to the bare, punchy essentials, to be entered into my layout. Probably not something to recommend, but it worked for me.
I’m particularly happy with my setting description, as I feel it orients the reader, evokes the feel I am going for and provides just the bare minimum of information. No lists of important NPCs, fluff that is better left to the players, justifications and what not.
Consulting Ron here at Adept Play helped me clarify my goals, gave an extra-boost to my motivation and even opened up a new vista: how to teach this game to others.
In the process I overstated the PCs aspirations to get married etc. in reaction to Ron’s enthusiasm but that’s easily corrected. These are real PC goals but not the focus of the game. It’s a dungeoncrawl. To acquire that brideprice, perhaps.
An open question
This touches upon the sole remaining issue I perceive, which may or may not be in the purview of the game:
It’s a kickass dungeoncrawling game … but where does ‘the game’ actually begin?
In the Realm of the Nibelungs is well-suited for just starting at the dungeon entrance (because picking equipment is exiting and a breeze, for instance), as I and my friends did when we started gaming in the late 80s: ‘Town’ was just an abstraction, with no name, locations or NPCs.
However, there’s a natural and often welcome tendency for this to change: Players desire specialized equipment for the PCs or to describe just how Oswald the Bear is parted from his gold — grudgingly giving to the church and drinking heavily, perhaps?
We played for seven sessions and downtime was really anemic because I wasn’t interested in that. After all, interesting and recurring NPCs were to be found in the fairy realm of my adventures, no?
In retrospect, treating downtime between quests like that left some of the players at a loss, their characters unmoored. Next time, we’ll start from the Keep on the Borderlands, adapted and fleshed out (with NPCs whose motivations and ressources likely matter to the PCs).
But as I said, I’m not sure if this should be a design concern here. You can play In the Realm of the Nibelungs with or without detailing its larger world…