Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pulp Island-Hopping D&D

I’m not thrilled doing two nostalgia pieces in a row, but an idea from the Dark Corners of Role Playing blog (sister site to the fun and resourceful Swords & Stitchery blog) challenged me to consider my recent pulp roleplaying game material in a nostalgic framework; what if the island-hopping pulp adventures for Heroes of Rura-Tonga transposed themselves into a B/X Dungeons & Dragon Sea of Dread island exploration campaign?

Both blogs recently highlighted several of my free/pay what you want adventures for my two system-neutral pulp setting sourcebooks, Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga. The latter -- heavily inspired by such 1980s television fare as Tales of the Gold Monkey and Black Sheep Squadron -- focuses on a crew of a Grumman G-21 “Goose” amphibious aircraft island hopping around the South Pacific, encountering strange phenomenon, exploring ancient ruins, and avoiding entanglements with forces from the nearby Japanese Mandate in the late 1930s. Most of the scenarios in the sourcebook and those featured for free/pay what you want at DriveThruRPG.com occur on islands near the heroes’ remote tropical base.

Among his many complimentary comments, Eric at Dark Corners of Role Playing wrote something about Gift of the Gods (one of the free/pay what you want scenarios) that hit that inspiration chime in my imagination:

“It could be with little work be done as an OD&D style game.”

So I started thinking about my own early experiences with Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons long ago, how many Heroes of Rura-Tonga scenarios involve the heroes travelling to and exploring islands, and it all started drawing me back to the Sea of Dread….

The Summer of D&D

The summer after I discovered Dungeons & Dragons was spent exploring the possibilities opened by the Expert Set and its rules for above-ground adventures beyond the dungeon-delving action of Basic D&D I’d explored that spring after getting the Basic Set as an Easter gift from my parents.

While the Grand Duchy of Karameikos opened up an entire kingdom for adventuring, the map of the known world included in module X1 The Isle of Dread -- much of which was covered with the vast Sea of Dread -- seemed far more enticing for adventure possibilities. As a fledgling gamemaster I quickly populated many of the small islands strew across the sea with isolated adventure seeds of my own; unfortunately the only one I can recall was an island with a settlement of centaurs on one half which was constantly at war with the cyclops lurking across the mountain chain that split the island. I’ll freely admit it wasn’t terribly imaginative and was awfully derivative; obviously my island of the centaurs and cyclops was inspired by such Ray Harryhausen fantasy fare as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (which I’ve discussed before). Nonetheless the neighborhood kids who played D&D with us had some fun chartering a ship, hiring a crew, and wandering from one island to the next seeking excitement, fortune, and glory.

The Sea of Dread also served as the setting for the wonderful solitaire adventure XSolo Lathan’s Gold, which used a combination of wandering monster charts and programmed adventure format to enable the player to explore various islands and accumulate enough gold to ransom his betrothed. I’d played the adventure several times in my younger days and enjoyed it for the vast range of encounters, dangers, and results it provided. (No doubt it fueled my interest in solitaire adventures.)

I’d never really considered returning to that potentially rich setting of the Sea of Dread until Dark Corners of Role Playing mentioned the Heroes of Rura-Tonga scenario Gift of the Gods might port to D&D.

Flying Across the Sea of Dread

Although Heroes of Rura-Tonga focuses on the crew of a seaplane flying among and exploring remote South Pacific islands, the general concept -- and elements of many of the scenarios I’ve produced for the setting -- could easily port to a fantastic D&D campaign centering on the Sea of Dread or a similar environment.

Give the heroes some independent means of exploring and traversing the vast expanses of an island-filed ocean: a ship of their own, a gnome-built dirigible, or even a magical skyship akin to those from the Spelljammer setting. Use the Empire of Thyatis to assume the Empire of Japan’s role as the main political antagonist -- its principle role in Heroes of Rura-Tonga -- with other kingdoms taking the place of political rivals and potential allies/patrons for the heroes. Populate the region with nuggets of self-contained scenarios focusing on single islands: the pirate base whose leader “kidnapped” a princess who secretly loves him (whose father hires the heroes to rescue her); a long-abandoned temple containing primeval horrors and hidden knowledge; a dwindling settlement of centaurs waging a desperate war against cyclops invading from over the island’s mountain range (okay, that’s still “meh”). Aside from wandering wilderness encounters on land and sea, the heroes must also steer  clear of the galleys of the Empire of Thyatis intent on conquering neighboring kingdoms, extending its reach across the sea, and seeking resources and magical items necessary for its plans of fantasy world domination.

Looking at the free/pay what you want scenarios I’ve offered for Heroes of Rura-Tonga, you could easily port major concepts to a D&D setting: heroes chase an adversary or seek supplies/treasure on an unstable floating island (the premise behind PBY SOS); an island settlement seemingly tore itself apart after discovering an antediluvian pit with something sinister lurking at the bottom (The Paranoia Pit); seeking an otherworldly treasure guarded by fierce tribesmen brings the heroes in contact with friendly spies and adversaries intent on hunting them down (Gift of the Gods). And that’s not even considering the five adventures in the setting sourcebook itself.

Eric’s comment from the Dark Corners of Role Playing blog inspired me to break down the setting definitions of these scenarios and re-imagine them -- and the Heroes of Rura-Tonga campaign -- in a completely different genre.

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