Favorite RPG Writer — #RPGaDay2015, Day 11
There are points, only occasionally, where I think I should entertain a certain brevity with these responses, for the simple sake of snark and counter-intuitive obnoxiousness. Y’know, answer a topic like this with just a name and walk away, self-satisfied and abruptly missing the point.
This would be an deliberate case for comically avoiding the purpose of the exercise, even as it would briefly amuse me and allow me to go on with my life without having to space out a simple reply into a thousand word rumination about why certain writings have attracted me to a specific writer over the years. A better case might be to have to name my least favorite writer, whose games have offended me on some spiritual level with their terrible ideas and whose prose is execrable even by the standards of gaming fiction. I have several candidates that would serve well in this capacity, but it seems sort of unfair to make this topic into a hit piece.
But it might be fun.
Bitchy speculation aside, I do have a very specific favored RPG writer that I’ve been a careful fan of for a number of years now. I figure that the two of us would do well to share a beer and discuss gaming theory, even if I’ve never actually met the man as yet. There are specific writers and designers that I do know and have drank with at the different conventions, but it seems a little incestuous to name my friends as my favorites.
Favorite RPG Writer
All truth be told, there are two specific writers that would fit my criterion, which I will go into momentarily. For me, the favorite writer category requires that my patent adoration persist over the passage of years and products, to the point that nothing that the writer in question does falls outside of my interest. This ranges toward the unlikely and / or impossible, but let’s give it a shot anyway, ne?
Depending on the era, I would have immediately picked out Shane Hensley for this spot. Deadlands remains as one of my favorite games of all, suitable for pick-up games or long campaigns of dire accord. The fact that he set his course towards Savage Worlds is about the only thing that pings the top spot away from Shane, to be honest. There are some thing that just can’t be forgiven.
What’s interesting about Shane is that his pre-Pinnacle writing counts among some of my favorite gaming worlds. He wrote the Temple of Rek Stalek module for Torg, a properly brutal module that dealt with a cult of death worshiping lizard men in the hellish jungles of the Living Land. He was responsible for City by the Silt Sea, one of the rare boxed set adventures for Dark Sun which deals with an undead sorcerer-king turned dracolich. He put together The Nightmare Lands for Ravenloft, as well as the Red Tide module for the Masque of the Red Death boxed set. (Golly, a Victorian era horror module? From the guy that created Deadlands? Seems unlikely.)
I also read the weird little Bloodshadows novel that he did, Blood of Tarrian. I don’t remember it being terrible, but since I was in a spate of reading gaming fiction at the time, I’m not really thinking I was the best judge of literature right then and there. I do remember that the other books set in that world seemed better.
One of these days, I’m going to have to write something on the phenomena of gaming fiction. I’m not really sure why it continues to be cranked out, but some subset of fools is buying these things. (And don’t get me started on the wasted space in the Paizo Adventure Paths that is devoted to gamer fiction. Give me ten more pages of world or monsters or dungeon, you bastards.)
So, my actual favorite RPG writer would have to be Bruce Cordell.
The reasoning for this is somewhat odd, in that Cordell is literally the first RPG writer that I ever properly noticed in the course of gaming. I mean, sure… you find Gygax everywhere, and Frank Mentzer and Rob Kuntz show up on a regular basis in the early days of D&D, but they did such a wide and varied amount of writing for the hobby that they just ended up being part of the scenery. And Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were their own subset, crossing between gamer fiction and established world / module series. Since I only read the Dragonlance novels, without ever adventuring in Ansalon, I didn’t have the same connection. (And is this where I admit to having read the entirety of the Darksword, Rose of the Prophet and Death Gate novel series, despite my earlier bitching? There are times when I question my tastes. Or at least the tastes of my younger self.)
For whatever reason, there’s a difference with Cordell. There was a point when I was going through the Monstrous Arcana series, marveling at the ideas and debating whether I would ever be able to run these modules for whatever extant game was going on at the time, and I realized that the ones I liked the best were the ones Cordell had written. I mean, he made an epic campaign out of sahaugin, for gods’ sake.
When 3rd Edition came around, I started seeing his name on the Malhavoc psionic books, which eventually led to the Expanded Psionics Handbook, which still ranks as one of my favorite supplements for 3.5, for good or ill. There was the Diablo II sourcebook, which had the mother of all magic item tables (I can’t say for certain that he built that, since there was another edition of the Diablo stuff at that same time, and without them in front of me, I couldn’t say for certain whose work came first. But like many things, Cordell’s name was attached, which caught my attention.)
Lately, he’s been working up an entire game line with Monte Cook with The Strange. I have the main book and every intention of playing it at some point, but as yet, it’s not something that’s happened. I’ve heard it compared favorably to Torg, which happens to be enough of a selling point for me, so an epic campaign with this game is just something that will happen sooner or later.
But at the end of it all, the one reason that I would cleave to Bruce Cordell’s line is what he did with the greatest module ever written. The Sunless Citadel.
Sunless Citadel ranks right alongside The Haunting from Call of Cthulhu as the module that I have run the most times for the most groups. It’s a first level module written as part of what amounts to being the first real Adventure Path for 3rd Edition D&D. The characters happen upon an innocuous adventure hook of investigating a disappearance, and they happen into an ancient and forgotten cult of a dragon. There’s an evil druid, a tree of mysterious and legendary evil, and the (largely unseen) hooks for the larger campaign.
But none of this is what makes the module great. No, what sets this adventure apart is the sheer potential for brutal mischief on the part of the dungeon master. This is a low level game, where the characters are largely incompetent and their every equipment choice is vitally important. If the characters haven’t packed in enough rope, they’re going to be stranded at critical points. If they fail their saving throws, the abundant rats are going to inflict them with a raging case of filth fever, and there’s going to be close to a week of down time as they weather the sickness and try to recover. And there are environmental hazards that can wipe most of the party out if things go sideways.
The beauty of this module is that it’s one of the best introductions to 3rd Edition that exists. 3.0 and 3.5 are mostly remembered for their DungeonPunk motifs, where adventurers can become canny avatars of 21st century ideals, backed up with judicious magic use and applied tactics. (The John Tynes module, Three Days to Kill, sums this up perfectly, with a James Bond-esque espionage caper using D&D as the base, with magic items standing in for Q’s arsenal.) But with Sunless Citadel, the characters are brought back to their roots, forced to consider how best to use the available equipment or surroundings in order to succeed. It’s a 1st Edition module, using 3rd Edition rules, and the results are glorious.
The fact that this adventure is followed up with truly fascinating campaign arcs with the following adventures is merely icing, to be honest.