The Slumbering Tsar Saga just crushed my mailbox. This thing is huge! And epic.
Flipping through my thrilling purchase, I had some questions about the mega adventure. So I reached out and asked Tsar author Greg A. Vaughan some questions. As a bonus, I rolled a 20 on my Diplomacy check and he’s shared some GMing tips with us!
The first thing I want to ask you, Greg, is how you stayed fresh during the writing of hundreds of encounters and almost 1000 pages. Where do you get your inspiration from?
Greg: Stayed fresh? What is that? This thing sucked the life of me like a good demon lord should.
The inspiration for the adventure came directly from Rappan Athuk, which I’ll get into more in a bit. As for the encounters, I kept a little notepad with me at all times, and every time I had a thought on a good encounter or NPC that would fit in with what I was wanting to do, I took notes.
I kept it by my bed and carried it with me. I ended up filling two steno pads with notes for encounter and design ideas.
I worked on it for a year and a half, which gave me lots of time to come up with stuff, and the result was that I horribly overwrote the thing. Bill wanted about 100,000 words, and I gave him 550,000. However, it also allowed me to use all of my ideas without abridging them, which was pretty awesome I have to admit.
I’m a backer for the Rappan Athuk Kickstarter, which gets funded July 2nd 1:59 PST [hint, hint readers]. Is there any way I can use that campaign with Tsar? And, does Tsar allow GMs to run side adventures throughout, or is it fairly linear in style?
Greg: You can absolutely use them together since they’re both big sandbox adventures. There is an overall plot to Tsar, but it’s not a railroad for the PCs to follow but rather a series of secrets that they can discover.
Likewise, Tsar’s development led to the creation of an overall plot for Rappan Athuk, since the two are intimately connected. However, other than the difficulty level of encounters, there is nothing to dictate what order things are done in.
So, a party with some teleport spells could absolutely bounce back and forth between the two. I think that would probably create an even richer gaming experience as the players could see how the relationship between the two unfolds.
In addition, there is at least one magical gate in the lower levels of Rappan Athuk that leads directly to the Hidden Citadel in Tsar. So, they are a natural fit together.
Tsar starts at PC level 7. And I’m salivating at the thought of running it. However, I like it best when PCs start out at first level. It gives campaigns nice continuity. Plus, when the group finishes Tsar, they can brag about how their characters were just wee pups when it all began.
What build-up adventures would you recommend I run to bring the PCs from level 1 to 7? Feel free to mention Frog God adventures, or any others. I’m just wondering if you have any recommendations that fit the theme and style for a smooth transition to Tsar.
The Tomb of Abysthor will take PCs to above 7th level, so you’d have to have them head out early to get them into Tsar at the appropriate level.
For my own game, I had the churches of Thyr and Muir in Bard’s Gate contact the PCs with the mission to Tsar just after they had raided the Temple of Orcus on Level 4 of Abysthor. That not only fit in thematically (there is a temple in Tsar that emulates the temple in Abysthor), but it also allowed them to learn a bit about the Justicars of Muir and their tombs which ties directly into the first book of Tsar.
My idea was to tie a bunch of Necromancer Games products together when I first wrote Tsar, and that goal continued into its current incarnation with Frog God Games.
Alternately, now that Rappan Athuk is being expanded to include play for first-level PCs, you could also have a party cut its teeth for 7 levels on the upper portions of the Dungeon of Graves before heading over to Tsar since they both tie directly together.
Long-term campaigns have just come up as a topic in Roleplaying Tips. A game master was having problems making his campaigns last. What advice do you have for GMs thinking of running a long-term campaign like Slumbering Tsar?
Greg: Other than one-shots in convention play, long-term campaigns are just about all I play. I have always found that to keep it going long-term is to make it about the characters not the adventures (though you definitely need cool adventures, too).
I have my players roll up their first level characters and provide me a paragraph of backstory (more if they like) subject to my approval.
I then take those backstories and weave more into them, some of which they know and some of which they don’t and will have to find out over the course of the campaign. It creates a huge buy-in from the players as they not only get to contribute to the meta-story of the campaign with their backstories, but they also get to have the experience of learning the secrets about their characters’ own personal story as they progress.
I know campaign fatigue can be a problem – especially with a meatgrinder like Tsar – but my group spent seven years playing through it and stayed engaged throughout because it was always about the characters and their stories first and the adventure itself second (one PC actually murdered another one without the others knowing, and the victimized player took it in stride because it fit their characters so well).
It takes some creative thinking on the part of the GM to personalize an adventure or series of adventures, but that is something I think gamers typically have in spades and is not an insurmountable task.
When you wrote all the installments for Tsar, did you have the whole plot outlined in advance? Could you tell us a bit about how you went about planning a massive adventure?
Greg: I planned the overall plot for Tsar from the beginning when I made my initial pitch to Bill, and then spent a year and a half filling in the details.
Since it was originally a three-book series, that wasn’t as difficult as it sounds since I wasn’t juggling 14 separate components. Only later, when we decided to publish it as a serial, did it get divided into 14 parts along the most logical divisions.
As for the planning of the adventure, it all began with Rappan Athuk. There’s a little bit of flavor text history at the beginning of Rappan Athuk that talks about the battle of Tsar and how it resulted in the creation of Rappan Athuk.
I always felt that paragraph left a lot of unanswered questions and was just rife with potential. My whole thought process began with: Why, after the Army of Light was defeated at Rappan Athuk, did the city of Tsar remain abandoned if it had been such a stronghold for the victorious followers of Orcus?
That led me to believe it all must have been part of some greater master plan, and from there it was just writing the history of Rappan Athuk by exploring what happened at Tsar.
A lot of it practically wrote itself since there was such a wealth of undeveloped campaign detail in many of the products by Necromancer Games. I think the biggest compliment I ever received was when I was still working on the third book building off of material that Bill and Clark had created, and Bill sent me an e-mail saying, “Hurry up and finish. I want to see how this ends.” Highest praise, in my mind.
There’s an obituaries section at the end of the book for successful GMs poor characters that don’t survive. That’s awesome. Whose idea was that? Have any fans reported back on their kill counts?
Greg: That was created by Bill, if I recall correctly, and I think that just gives a little insight into the mind of the man who personifies Tsathogga. What can I say, he thinks adventurers are delicious.
I have seen messageboard threads here and there talking about PC kills, but nothing organized yet. However, the book was only recently released, so I’m expecting for something like that to pop up eventually.[Update: Frog God just let me know there's a PC obituaries section up at their website now. :)]
Encounters are the building blocks of great adventures. Could you give my readers two or three tips on how they can improve their encounters and make great ones?
Greg: Forget the math and trying to balance it. Come up with a cool encounter idea that is atmospheric, fun, challenging or all three. Then go back and make it fit the game balance you want.
The worst thing to do, in my opinion, is set out to make a bunch of perfectly balanced encounters with level-appropriate monsters and treasure. I think that just creates bland, predictable, homogenized encounters.
Make awesome encounters that are fun to play and run, and then tweak them so they fit the power level you want. The rules are there to help you, not hurt you.
What are you working on next? Will it be so heavy it collapses my mailbox too?
Greg: As revealed by the sneak peak at the end of Tsar, my next major project is The Sword of Air as a sequel of sorts to Tsar (though it will also start at first level).
It will be big and will be released in a serial format and will be big (did I mention that), but I expect it will not be as big as Tsar. I expect I’ll never write anything as big as Tsar again because, let’s be honest, writing Tsar that big was nuts.
It was the ultimate gamer dream of writing and publishing his campaign exactly how he wants it with basically no restrictions, but it’s not a very practical idea. I think Bill would not consider me to be a very much of a contributing part of Frog God Games if I only cranked out one adventure every 8 years.
But it’ll be big, and it’ll be fun. So your mailbox should be safe…unless it was perhaps structurally weakened by the delivery of Tsar, in which case all bets are off.
We’re also in development of a new series of adventures by Richard Pett revisiting his decadent and desolate home campaign world that has previously been represented by the Styes in Dungeon Magazine and Carrion Hill through Paizo. It’s going to be a lot of creepy fun.
And then I’m off to write the campaign world to tie all the Necromancer Games and Frog God Games products together and for us to work from in the future. So just a couple little things on my plate.
That sounds awesome. Thanks for your time, Greg!
No, thank you. It’s been fun. I hope you and your players have a lot of fun with Tsar. And be sure and fill up those pages in the back!