Design Challenges for the Nibelungs

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

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…

6 responses to “Design Challenges for the Nibelungs”

  1. My most recent Q&A video – currently available to patrons, to be visible here in Seminar in early June – goes directly to this issue, regarding early role-playing.

    The fantasists who published games like Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, Chivalry & Sorcery, The Fantasy Trip, and early RuneQuest were in a trap, partly of their own making. In the Three Fantasies course, I describe it as “wanting The Lord of the Rings but you’re stuck in the Mines of Moria.” In that video, I suggest that they hit upon a solution which turned out to be, arguably, certainly in the long run, worse than the disease.: world-building.

    Talking about this requires the vocabulary and concepts that my courses teach, so I’m not sure how it will work here. Briefly, world-building only broadens the scope for the same problem, because it’s missing the fact (evident from fantasy fiction itself) that settings develop only from played situations, not from codified texts. It’s skipping the process for the idealized product. It’s the same mistake that fandom always makes, thinking that The Lord of the Rings is good because Middle Earth is so “well-developed,” or that Conan is good because the Hyborian Age is so “rich in detail,” or, or, or any of the hundreds of other examples.

    So I’m suggesting something to you. Drop that Hommlet in the trash, it will not help you. Instead, honor whatever those players said about what they want the treasure and glory for. Using those things (that they said) always as the core, make up some NPCs and whatever sketchy but appropriate social context those things require. If you use a regional or community map, mark only a couple of places on it; don’t populate it or introduce unnecessary complexity. You will fill in and develop the details piecemeal, whether in play or between sessions.

    Do you see the difference? It’s not building-out the setting, building by building, bartender by stable-boy. It’s honoring the situation. Whatever you introduce and play always revisits the core of whatever the players want their characters to do, i.e., to address with newfound wealth and glory (or its failure). Or it provides sensible context for those things, which is good too.

    I’ve seen many people take that turn you just described, thinking that if they just do what Gary did, they’ll be fine. It wasn’t fine for him. It didn’t work and it cannot work. Each time, it kills their game.

  2. For my last two, long-running DCC campaigns, I provided the usual ‘base’, i.e. a village near the (starting) dungeon(s), with a roster of NPCs.

    I feel that having a nice visual representation of a village in each case helped me and the players relate to the setting. Also, the maps came in handy when one village was assaulted and the other was affected by a spell gone awry (both events arising from play and weird dice rolls).

    But other than that nothing much came of my preparations. The local baron, level 2 due to being diminished by an encounter with undead etc. etc.? No interactions at all that stick in my mind years later.

    Memorable scenes in ‘town’ were the result of the PCs’ actions (e.g. fumbling a spell that turned a tavern wench into an earth elemental).

    In the recent Nibelungs campaign, I really should have been paying attention when a player asked if his starting character, a knight, could have “a silk ribbon from a noble lady as a sign of favor”. I said yes and named the lady … and then never followed up on that.

    Shame on me. Luckily, Oswald the Bear survived the TPK – the player was not there that night – and will be part of the follow-up campaign…

    (Dunno what I’ll do with my prep regarding the Keep. I did not go into anywhere as much detail as Gygax. Neither “lives in location 3b” nor “has stashed away 20 gp under his bed” bullshit. I have eight NPCs, each with a resource, a connection to another NPC and something he or she wants, likely from the PCs.)

    • Johann asked me to include this image in his comment, but I failed my site-admin dice roll … anyway, second-best solution, including it here.

  3. I’ve watched the Q&A on myth (and character death) and have gained some insight into my process, perhaps.

    When I designed that NPC baron many years ago, I was building the setting – or so I thought. In fact, I was daydreaming about the setting, imagining some character and his adventures, vaguely hoping this would later enrich play.

    My approach to the latest batch of NPCs ‘in town’ was quite different: I designed them to be interacted with, i.e. defined them by giving them something they want from the PCs and something they might offer, plus some connection to another NPC. Crucially – I think -, I have no particular expectation what or that anything at all will come of it — they are fodder for play, with little meaning beyond whatever use they see.

    This still feels somewhat less natural, less immersive, less real, but I was inspired nonetheless.

    In changing my approach to NPC design I might be repeating my changing approach to dungeon design: Among other things, these days I usually follow James Raggi’s advice for LotFP of including one super-powerful creature out of any party’s league.

    I’m not geeking out, imagining this supercool monster or Mary Sue NPC, deep backstory and all. I’m just placing something or someone that *fits the bill* with the *bare minimum* of information/color/inspiration I might need. I can add stuff later, if needed.

    It’s always a win: the creature is a serious threat, but also immensely valuable (when slain and plundered *somehow*, sicced on other dungeon denizens, befriended etc.). And I’m fine if the PCs just run and decide to never go into that section of the dungeon again.

  4. “… less immersive, less natural, less real …” I’ll look forward to seeing what you think about it after some time in play, using preparation of this sort.

  5. Two addenda:

    1) I consider the seven sessions played a succcess (though “rocked” was confusing/inappropriate, given the problems described): Once the PCs arrived on site, i.e. the dungeon or wilderness, we had plenty of action and hard decisions, inspired tactics and dice rolls driving the game. More importantly, the players were invested in their PCs’ success and seemed on the edge of their seats at times, cheeredetc. Good times, but I was at times pre-occupied with the negative.

    2) Allow me to elaborate on the companion booklet of ‘house rules’ for *In the Realm of the Nibelungs*. Basically, I took all the rules that make up my ‘homunculus of D&D’, i.e. my very personal version of D&D, and asked: Is this rule integral to my Nibelungs game? If not, I put it in the second booklet. Some examples:

    a. I like to re-roll all hit points upon gaining a level. A matter of taste and thus part of the house rules.

    b. I use simultaneous initiative now and players declare their characters’ actions in order of social rank, as established by my character creation rules. Nobles declare first, then clergy etc. Beautiful on several levels, but not at the heart of my game, hence a house rule.

    c. Knocking someone out is a big deal because monsters owe a service when their life is spared. Hence, rules for this as well as healing etc. are slightly different from S&WCL and part of my core rules.

    This is not about marketing, by the way, but aesthetics: There are many variants or homunculi of D&D, but they are largely meaningless to all except their authors and their groups (except maybe to mine for ideas). I want my game to be as sharp as possible for its owns sake, with no unnecessary cruft, arguably a key quality of a lot of poetry. The German word for poetry, “Dichtung”, literally derives from “verdichten”, i.e. compressing.

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