Thursday, May 21, 2015

Tales of the Blue Swan: My college AD&D campaign

I've been GMing regularly since I was in 8th grade, but college was the first time I ran a truly long-term campaign. I ran AD&D 2nd Edition every other weekend during my sophomore, junior, and senior years at Denison University. During this time, the PCs went from 1st level to around 6th or 7th. With this being a college group, turnover was high, but we always had at least a couple players who continued into the next school year--and exactly one who was in the party for all three years. (When he and I reconnected many years later, he informed me that he ran a D&D game of his own during his senior year, using the setting I had created. Music to a world-builder's ears!)

Our original players that first year included two that I had played with in another DM's game the previous year. Kevin was a fellow fantasy and SF fan and long-time gamer, a junior who I'd originally met during my prospective weekend and remained close friends with throughout college. He played a human mage who had devoted his career to learning enough magic to adequately protect himself and his scanty, precious hit points.

The second was Gail, a biology instructor doing a two-year stint at Denison while she completed her doctorate. She was relatively new to gaming, but enthusiastic and eager to learn more--and she helped us get use of a meeting room in the Biology building for our sessions. She played a halfling thief largely based on a character from a TSR novel she had enjoyed.

We had one other female player: Carol, the daughter of a professor at Denison. She had recently finished her bachelor's degree and moved back home while looking for full-time employment. She had the most gaming experience of the group, and she and Gail were the two players who put the most effort into the role-playing side of the game. (I was sorely disappointed when they both moved out of state the next year. We never did manage to recruit another woman into the group, and were sadly diminished for it.) Carol played a half-elf bard, and was content with being a lore-seeker in a supporting role. Her character carried a backpack full of every little piece of mundane equipment she had ever found useful in a previous game.

Ed, the three-year veteran, played a human thief who spent much of his time trying to show off how sneaky he was. He and Gail frequently concocted schemes that got both their characters into entertaining scrapes.

Hassan was a Muslim who felt strongly about playing a character who embodied his own beliefs. He found a suitable match in playing a cleric of the god of light and healing. He didn't socialize with the rest of us outside of game, and I regret not getting the chance to know him better.

Scott was an athlete whose sports schedule also didn't give me much time to see him outside of game. (I ended up living across the hall from him a year or two later but, ironically, he had dropped out of the group by then.) He played an elf ranger, specializing in archery. With the high minimum ability scores required for AD&D rangers, he was the most consistent damage-dealer in the group, at any distance.

The final member (but one of the earliest recruits after Kevin and Gail) was Aaron, whose many geeky interests soon made him inseparable from Kevin and me. In fact, he and I became roommates the next year, and the only reason he didn't play for the campaign's full run was because he transferred to another school after two years. He played the party tank, a human fighter. Unfortunately, he tended to have long runs of bad dice luck that resulted in him being the least effective combatant in many important battles. Even at his most flailing, however, he and his heavy armor could be counted on to draw attention away from the less tough members of the party. His fighter and Gail's thief were good friends--she kept him well-supplied with booze to show her gratitude for him being a living tower shield, as well as a convenient tall thing to climb whenever bugs were around.

Now that I've introduced the Company of the Blue Swan, I'll share just one brief anecdote from that first year. Half of "D&D" is "dragons," so I threw one at them for their final adventure near the end of term. The PCs were all 3rd-4th level by then, so it was a very young black dragon (only 8 HD, IIRC), but it provided a very challenging hunt and fight for the party. As the dragon lured them further into the swamp, I built up their sense of paranoia with a number of eerie sounds and false alarms. When they reached a large stream that they needed to ford, they linked themselves together with ropes so that the stronger members could keep the weaker ones from going under. The dragon chose that moment to double back and attack. Most of the party made it safely across by the time the dragon reached them, but Aaron's fighter brought up the rear and so was out in the open when it made a strafing run. His usual dice luck held true and he badly flubbed his saving throw, taking full damage. Luckily, he was at full HP, which was just a hair above the maximum damage I could have rolled, so he survived--while getting the greatest scare of his life. His dice just rubbed it in by easily making the save for his platemail to avoid being melted. The party directed all their firepower at the dragon and, a few rounds later, emerged victorious without losing anyone.

The aftermath of the adventure, when they skinned the dragon and brought the hide home, was a golden opportunity for the party to show off their many quirks. Carol's bard was the only PC who had enough cash to pay for making dragonhide armor, and eagerly commissioned a suit. With such a young dragon, the armor was only as good as leather, but to a bard, its use in getting people to ask for the story was well worth the loss of 1 point of AC. Aaron's fighter had a shield made from the largest remaining piece, and some other members of the party commissioned smaller items with the rest. Ed's thief spent all his available cash on acquiring dragonhide boots and gloves, and dragonhide pickle tongs. Why pickle tongs? Well, why not? And it had never been done before.

I may tell more Blue Swan war stories in future columns, though few of them are as clear after all this time as the dragon fight. At the very least, the origin story of the world I created for that campaign, and later recreated in highly altered form for a couple other campaigns (using GURPS and D&D 3.0/3.5) is worth a column.


  1. Do you still have any of your original maps or notes from those games? I love that stuff.

    1. I no longer have any of the original maps or notes from the original AD&D 2E game. However, I have used the same world as the setting for a couple of campaigns that I've run since then, and still have many of the maps and notes from those later games. The longest of these sequels (about 3 years) used GURPS, and I made very substantial changes to the world to make it less obviously D&D-derived. Some years later, though, I retro-cloned a small piece of the original world for some D&D 3.5 adventures. For that game. I even worked some of the original 2E PCs (mentioned in my column here) into the background material.

  2. Do you still have any of your original maps or notes from those games? I love that stuff.