Friday, March 22, 2024

Shadow Over Sojenka Relfections

 I have been playing various OSR games with Stephen Smith, a true gaming mad scientist for three years now, and as we are coming up on a close to his second campaign, which ran for over 100 sessions, I wanted to describe the mad experiment he ended up running in the campaign he called Shadow Over Sojenka.

Unlike a few of the other articles you might read, mine is no "postmortem"; I am still playing in Sojenka. I have an ancient evil to stop, and a town to build. I hope to be playing in Sojenka for another year, or preferably, many more.

First off, compliments to the chef: Stephen doesn't do traditional Western Fantasy. He starts with a setting that takes you further afield. The first setting we ran was a mix of post-apocalyptic and late Byzantine Empire with a zombie apocalypse going on in the background. This latest campaign was set in a culture built heavily on Slavic myth and culture in the Early Modern period. In both cases he creates rich, weird elements such as unique monsters, magic items, and spells that make certain you are always meeting something unexpected.

Second, each campaign has been a science lab. Stephen is trying to hack his way into experiencing a version of D&D that is closer to its wargame origins... and a rich campaign that requires a little front-loading, but otherwise took very little effort on the GM's part once play commenced. Some of his experiments have been absolutely fascinating to take part in.

With Shadow Over Sojenka, Stephen was inspired by The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg to try to capture the essence of what Dungeons & Dragons must have been like when it was being run as a series of experiments by the war gaming societies in Wisconsin around 1973. Including trying to reverse-engineer some elements of play that disappeared as TTRPG culture evolved to become its own thing separate from wargaming in the early '80s.

There was an initial temptation to run the game using the TAZ system in The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg, but of all the players Stephen was considering recruiting, I was the only one who had the book. Requiring others to have the book presented two problems:

  • First, it expected players to shell out for a fairly expensive tome of rules.
  • Second, that would mean the players would be constantly facing the temptation to look at the module, and he would be asking them to buy a book, then only read a fraction of it.

As it was, I was willing to do so (and to this day, have not looked at the actual dungeon maps and keys since Stephen said he wanted to run it. But it was an awful temptation some days, as those maps are damnably confusing.

 He settled on Blueholme as the game of choice. The Prentice version of the rules were free, and the Journeymanne rules very affordable. These were fairly close to the TAZ (reconstructed rules from an early playtest version of D&D featured as an appendix in The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg) And where they varied from those, they were simpler. We removed the Thief class to be more consistent with D&D in its original form (they were added in a sourcebook a couple of years after the launch of the game, and redefined it in many ways.)

Of course, Stephen began hacking away fairly quickly to add some custom options for clerics of different deities, some new race-as-class options, and some options for hirelings based on Chainmail mixed with a little bit of the Adventurer Conqueror King System.

And he quickly began innovating to reintroduce play elements that you can see were in early Dungeons & Dragons play from discussion by its early players, but that were never overtly discussed in the game itself.

One of the key things to remember about the early days of Dungeons & Dragons was that it evolved from a highly experimental wargaming group that was heavily influenced by early Free Kriegspiel ideas. There were a lot of conventions and ideas that they used without overtly discussing it anywhere in the text of the game. They were writing D&D with the assumption that they were dealing with wargamers, and likely wargames who had already read about and were trying at home the experiments such as Braunstein in The Tactical Revue, the magazine where the rules for Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons were first published in a piecemeal fashion.

When the second wave of players picked up Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s, they didn't have the benefit of this context, and missed out on conventions of play and evolved a radically different plays-tyle to the original groups. It has always been Stephen's conviction, and an idea that I have come to appreciate, that learning about and (to a greater or lesser degree) re-incorporating these ideas makes for a far richer TTRPG experience.

Stephen took several steps to make this happen:

  • First he incorporated one-to-one time: a week of real time is a week of time in game. This allows for multiple groups to play simultaneously, for players to move between groups, and to plan and handle downtime activity offscreen. A process that must be much easier now with Discord than it ever had been before.
  • Second, he encouraged players to build up a stable of PCs and run multiple PCs at once. because the game used training rules and 1:1 time offers ample opportunities for PCs to get tied up for weeks at a time (which we called "Time hail") it paid to have a few running at once.
  • Third, he recruited "Patron Players". these players take command of powerful and influential PCs who make decisions for a faction, such as a guild, county, cult, monster band, etc. Ultimately, the goal of Dominion play at higher levels in TSR Dungeons & Dragons was to give players control over large portions of the world; the choices of those players, combined with the actions of secondary, lower-level PCs and Henchmen would eventually make the campaign mostly self-driving. Stephen jump-started this process by effectively handing a group of players dominion-level characters and played them using Braunstein-inspired rules of his own devising.
  • Fourth, he centred the campaign around a single large megadungeon; the factions all had a stake in what was going on in the dungeon, and the PCs had the capacity to be a disruptive influence by delving into it.
  • Fifth, he used gossip and rumors to drive a lot of movement in the campaign using living rumors in a way similar to my Silver Gull system.

This all added up to a pretty vibrant campaign. 

Fleeing Tonisborg 

In retrospect, I would say that The Lost Dungeon of Tonisborg itself was not the ideal dungeon for this campaign.  Our first encounter in the dungeon was a group of 5HD giant ants that were way too much for our party. Our hirelings and one PC were slaughtered and we ended up fleeing in terror. 

By the time we reconvened the next week with poisoned meat, the Ants, unleashed upon the dungeon had left the chamber and the three treasure chests had either been snapped up by the other group on (I'll refer to them as Tuesday) or some NPCs. The Tuesday group had also eliminated some of the other weaker monsters on the first floor, and we ended up leaving the dungeon empty-handed a second time. Unable to pay for passage into the dungeon a third time, we had to start looking for adventure elsewhere.

The combination of a toll needed to reach the dungeon (on a fortified island by ferry) and the incredibly lethal nature of the dungeon made it very hard to get anywhere in it. We had three sessions without a penny of treasure, and had to go further afield. Already, Stephen was forced to start building a world where Tonisborg was not the centre of the campaign.

The Tuesday group, by all accounts, had other plans as well. While my group were all D&D kids first with relatively little wargaming experience, Tuesday were mostly wargamers first, and decided that they wanted to build an empire of their own. They started looking for easier marks, land, and opportunities to make something for themselves.

Had we been in a dungeon that was built on the conventions that D&D later cemented, such as keeping creature's Hit Dice commensurate (more or less) with the floor that they are on - such as in something like The Temple of Elemental Evil or The Lost City, we probably would have remained focused on delving that dungeon.

While "balance" is not my first priority in any D&D game, I respect that a gradually increasing threat level gives players a chance to get momentum going in the campaign that can be stalled if the first few sessions are nothing but bloodbaths. This is a design issue that I suspect was learned from some of the early playtests like Tonisborg.

One of Stehpen's real gifts is reskinning content: The World of Weirth campaign I had played in with him previously was a mix of The Empire of the East (transformed into Byzantium) and The Masks of Nyarlathotep reimagined as events in a fantasy setting, along with Keep on the Borderlands and a few other classics. I don't think us running off away from Tonisborg was a great hardship for him, but it certainly vastly changed the scope of the campaign.

Intrigues and Gossip

Once "out in the wild," the campaign took some pretty intense twists and turns. Among them, the Tuesday group developed a sense that they were in competition with us. It might have done with the fact that they had beat us to some treasure, or perhaps the mere existence of another group. In any case, we very quickly found ourselves dealing with intrigues from the Tuesday group.

Among other things, they planted a spy among our hirelings, and kept careful tabs on opportunities to take advantage of our bumbling early on.

As the campaign progressed, even though we had seen only a little evidence of Tuesday, but a sense of competition kept building. Eventually, one of our number discovered that Tuesday had been dealing in goblin slaves, and set off on his own. He used his share of what little gold we had finally managed to earn by avoiding Tonisborg to buy and free the goblin slaves and make overtures to the Goblin King in hopes of getting us an "inside lead" on monster lairs.

This meant the Goblin King gained intelligence on Tuesday. After Tuesday then had a bad run-in with the goblins and also experienced some sabotage from a Patron player, they assumed we were as a group sabotaging them, at which point they began a serious cold war against us, to which 75% of the party was totally oblivious.

Wheeling and Dealing 

Of course neither group was sitting still in this time. Tuesday was building an army, excavating a ruin, and building a fortified encampment in a ghost town. We began striking inot the dungeon when our fortunes were up and we could find hirelings, or following leads on treasure in the wilderness when our luck was down. We started a few enterprises on the side.

The players on both teams were diving into the economy and politics of the campaign world. We were running up against factions, and making alliances with various organizations.

Tuesday, over all, was more successful a group; they managed to build reasonable fortunes fairly quickly and build up their PCs to a fair strength. Our party, on the other hand, suffered losses of most of our hirelings and a at least one PC every session or two. By the tenth session we had had total party roll-over at least once.

Tuesday tended to bring armies of NPCs with them. They ran their crawls like military campaigns, laying siege to the dungeons from a base camp, while we tried to stick to small and stealthy groups that could easily get in and out of dungeons.

In either case, both groups were in the business of buying and selling treasure, exotic captive monsters, and eventually building religious orders and businesses. One to one time meant that we always had roughly a week for our characters to do something with their downtime after the adventure. We discovered that he who used it the most ambitiously was often rewarded.

Blueholme was not well suited to this kind of play; it was too stripped down. I started to understand how many of the complexities of BECMI D&D arose over the course of the game's development, even though most groups in the 80s seemed to ignore these rules. If you played the game the way the guys at TSR played the game, tools for economics and armies became invaluable very quickly.

Stephen very quickly hacked together a fusion of ACKS, AD&D, and Low Fantasy Gaming economic systems to keep things rolling. Domain game and faction play had become so central that at least once he talked seriously about moving to ACKS as it was better equipped for how we were actually playing.

Challenges aside, this was definitely a strength of the campaign: players became invested in outcomes. Both groups often chose our adventure hooks based on what might or might not affect our enterprises and larger political goals. Playing off of what we presumed the other group was doing helped energize the campaign.

The Necromancer

 Early in the campaign, the rush to get a few "wins" often distracted us from paying attention to the activity of NPCs and Patron players (we never knew which was which by the way, Stephen enforced a strict fog of war.) Bad luck on our part led to a great deal of tunnel vision.

This meant that both groups ignored a rising threat of the resurrection of an ancient Necromancer.  While the babbling of a cult that had predicted his arrival was worrying, our party was making our monthly upkeep payments by the skin of our teeth, and so any promise of gold or a way to expand our enterprises and make them profitable took precedence.

This meant that the Necromancer, who was either a Patron player or being run with a dice-driven AI was perfectly free to bring himself back up to full strength, crush the few who opposed him, and rebuild an undead army before we really started putting clues together and taking any kind of notice.

When we finally saw the treat, it was already almost too big for us. And as far as we could tell, Tuesday was so busy tangling with a vengeful Goblin King to take notice.

The campaign's wargame elements here reinforced a style of play that was often less heroic: characters were more like scoundrels from pulp sword & sorcery than the heroes of a high fantasy epic.

I can see how the shift in tone and emphasis in AD&D2e came about: players were more interested in  heroic stories, and less interested in this kind of kriegspiel. Shifting the game's rules away from the Dominions, leading of armies, etc., and making characters a little more elaborate went a long way to how the game played.

A TPK is not the End

Perhaps the definitive moment for me occurred in July 2023. After the Tuesday group caught some very bad luck at the hands of the Goblin King and their other patron enemies, they assumed we were behind their woes, and thanks to a well-paced spy were able to ambush us with a (flattering) 90 soldiers as we headed to a dungeon we were clearing.

I have written details about what happened here. And transcripts and recordings of it are available on Stephen's blog.

The end result was that our party of 3rd and 4th level PCs and their henchmen and followers were slaughtered, with the exception of two magic users who were away studying under a guru.

In a more modern campaign this would have been game over for our Thursday night group. (As it was we had one player leave the game in frustration.) But the world was still moving. Opportunities were still accruing, and NPCs in our service were still recruiting on our behalf.

It was pretty easy to build a new party and start hitting Tonisborg again. Once our wayward wizards were able to rejoin in the fall after their studies were complete, we could pick up at least a few of the threads we left off.

It has taken me seven months of weekly games, but we are finally back to pursuing the same enemy with better equipment, training, and skill. Sadly, he has moved ahead in His schemes in that time. A campaign with patrons and one-to-one time ensured the bad guys keep moving, too.

Some Observations

Shadow Over Sojenka, like World of Weirth started as a game science experiment, and took on a life of its own. It continuously does things both the players and Stephen as GM don't expect. Because it has enough human inputs, no "plot structure", and is designed to give players as much freedom as possible to play the game how they want to play it has become effectively self-generating. It creates enough hooks, conflicts and events that Stephen only has to plan the adventure sites ahead of the PCs reaching them once they state intent.

This is not a coincidence: Dungeons & Dragons infused with Kriegspiel, some random elements and players who set objectives within the setting is essentially self-writing and can run perpetually, with  much lower time and energy investment by the GM.

I look forward to adding more reflections in another year's time, and I have no doubt that it is possible to do so.

1 comment:

  1. Players will come up with things the GM never could. I've been a player in a multi-party game, and it went really well. I've also been an NPC mastermind, terrifying the PCs with evil plots. They hit my dungeon? I threaten their home town as a feint for the real attack on their keep. The old spell "item" (2e, Wizard 3), followed by "animate dead", made for a psychological horror show when they got back.