It’s hard to discuss Dungeons and Dragons as a game without hearing the name Tolkien. It’s like a special case of Godwin’s Law, except that Tolkien is generally well-regarded by the people making the comparisons. Worlds full of wizards, dragons, dwarves, and elves tend to be given the label Tolkienesque. It’s not wrong, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The elven alphabet in the illustrations in your official D&D rule books might look like it comes from Middle Earth, but the game certainly did not start there. It started in two castles: Greyhawk and Blackmoor.
These two castles were the settings for the first fantasy roleplaying games that lead to the development of the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons. David M. Ewalt, whose book Of Dice and Men I mentioned last week, tells us the history of how two wargaming enthusiasts created the first settings for fantasy story-driven roleplaying games. This was a radical departure from the traditional wargaming settings, which tended to focus on American military history from the revolutionary war, to Civil War conflicts between the union and the confederacy, to World War 2 battles between allies and the axis. And there we have it, a reference to the Nazis. Thanks, Godwin.
The third castle I allude to is one that never inspired thousands upon thousands of games. Castle Stirling is the one I cobbled together for the second campaign I ran in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons. As I read the histories of Greyhawk and Blackmoor in Of Dice and Men, I smiled and felt proud of myself. It’s not often I feel like I can compare myself to the legendary fathers of D&D, but in a small way, I can here. These settings, unlike Middle Earth, were not created for the sake of a linear plot. They were designed for play. That is what Stirling has in common with Greyhawk and Blackmoor. I didn’t start with a place and make a game of it; I did some research so that the outline of the castle would make sense, then designed a series of encounters (combat and otherwise), then detailed the castle to accommodate the game.
The process for outlining Castle Stirling was deliberately anachronistic: I got on a bicycle, rode to a public library with a notebook, looked up some books on castles, and drew some rough diagrams by hand. This might not sound novel to people who have been doing this since they were teenagers in the 1980s or 1990s, but I was a twenty-something working in the late 2000s — it was already in the age of Wikipedia and vast repositories of professionally designed D&D modules, and I could have driven my own vehicle if I wanted to. But I wanted to see if I could tap into the excitement with which men of my dad’s generation recall their AD&D adventures. That meant I needed a memorable setting in which legends can be forged, itself born of creativity rather than consumption. While I did do a little bit of homebrew in my first campaign, Castle Stirling was part of my first attempt to create a truly engaging setting rather that linking published modules together into a longer campaign.
Once I had a castle in mind, I started thinking about how I could capture the excitement evoked by the phrase “dungeon crawl” without making it a procedural check for traps, kill the monster, get the treasure sort of thing that would bore the roleplayers in my group to tears. None of the rooms in my castle were empty save for cobwebs and a single pressure plate that triggers a hidden blowgun, because that doesn’t leave a lot of room for players to push any limits. Allowing the players to negotiate with sentient Yuan-Ti henchmen is not innovative in the fantasy roleplaying world anymore, but some of the players had never been involved in the sort of game where sarcastically mocking the enemy’s hissing speech could actually have an impact on how the game proceeds. Further into the castle, the players came across a massive iron golem acting as an automated gatekeeper, demanding a blood sacrifice as the price of admission. I knew there were some obvious solutions (refuse and fight the iron golem, give a small amount of one’s own blood to an evil demon god, or go find one of the hapless henchmen outside the door to sacrifice) but fully expected that someone could try and circumvent the whole setup, at which point I would have to improvise and bend the rules to keep the game going. What ended up happening followed one of the standard solutions, which I expected from the black sheep assassin in the party of otherwise pious characters. What I didn’t expect was for a priest of Pelor to help harvest the bodies. Our group still fondly refers to him as the best cleric ever.
So, like the fountain of snakes in Greyhawk, I had a bunch of nifty things that at face value did not seem to add up to something grandiose. A long hall which contained an invisible maze that starts filling up with water (and then sharks) when the players make it halfway through just doesn’t evoke the same majesty as a rich description of Rivendell or a long legend of how the old gods delivered the dwarves to salvation from the fire giants. The reason I focused on the little things is that they were all things that players could interact with in many ways including ones I could not possibly control. In some ways, within the walls of the castle, there were fewer boundaries than being outside in a majestic world where the plot proceeds inexorably to a predetermined end.
Of the various highs and lows in my campaigns, I think the design of Castle Stirling was one of the high points. Of course, having only used it once in a home campaign, about six people at the time of publishing this post have ever heard of Castle Stirling. But the magic of the fantasy tabletop roleplaying game isn’t in the rules or the famous settings or the particular one I made for my friends. There are thousands of other castles, pyramids, palaces, towns, forest groves, ad infinitum imagined by the game runners (dungeon masters, game masters, storytellers, whatever they’re called in your rule set) for their own campaigns. What other type of game offers such a wealth of opportunities to engage players in new and interesting ways? That’s not entirely rhetorical. If a game other than a tabletop RPG offers that kind of potential, I really do want to play it.