Interview with Richard Barton, Author of Arden Vul

Here's a text interview I conducted with Richard Barton, medievalist and author of the upcoming Arden Vul megadungeon from Expeditious Retreat Press.

1. Tell me about your personal rpg history. when did you begin playing D&D, and with what edition? Favorite retro-clone, if any?
I started with the Holmes Basic set, purchased at Heritage Hobby in Needham, MA, in late 1978, when I was in 7th grade. This was the printing with B1 (In Search of the Unknown) and real dice (not chits). I still have that copy of B1, with the dungeon map pretty faded from all the times we reused the dungeon, penciling in new monsters each time to 'shake things up'. My buddy Chris got the Monster Manual pretty quickly after it appeared, and I got the Players Handbook soon thereafter. We waited a long time for the DMG to appear, growing more and more eager to move on to the 'advanced' rules. I honestly don't really remember how we ran games in that interim period, before the DMG came out; probably we mashed up Holmes and early AD&D. I started out as the DM since I had the Holmes Book, but pretty quickly it was apparent that another kid in the neighborhood was the best DM, so I was a player for most of the rest of middle school and early high school. We badgered our DM into letting us roll up evil characters (cool!), and he obliged by crafting an incredible underground dwarven citadel that seemed pretty much like a mega-dungeon to us. He was a great DM, even though he was only 15 or 16; his dungeon was vibrant and responsive, and his 'villains' (the good-aligned dwarves) creative and opportunistic foes. Good times!  Although that was our primary campaign, lots of kids I knew played D&D: I remember another friend getting G3 and running me through it solo (I played an entire party and fucked up badly, ending with a TPK in the lower level of the Fire Giant halls); I remember running some sessions of U1 and Caverns of Thracia for some other buddies who weren't really into it (they wanted to smoke pot, not roll dice!). I managed to get a subscription to Dragon, and remember the first issue (#34, Feb. 1980) arriving when I was home sick; what great timing, eh?

I took a break from gaming starting in 1982, only returning when I entered graduate school in the autumn of 1988. At that point, my friends were 'beyond' D&D, so we played all kinds of other systems: Champions, Ars Magica, Cyberpunk, TORG, Vampire, etc. I was mostly a player at that time, but since I missed high fantasy and dungeons, I eventually got back into DMing by creating home-brewed campaigns using a variety of systems that were popular in the '90s: Rolemaster, Talislanta, and Brett Slocum's GURPS hack of Empire of the Petal Throne. I took another break after I got my first academic job, but picked up the gaming bug again during the hoopla surrounding the launch of D&D 3e. This rekindled my interest in D&D, but I found 3e difficult to love. For a number of years I tried to satisfy my gaming jones through acquiring and reading systems and adventures and hanging out on message boards (mostly the old NG site). When I became aware of Castles and Crusades, it seemed like a 'modern' version of D&D, and so I started up my first campaign in almost a decade. That campaign ran for 3 years until, for a number of reasons, I grew dissatisfied with C&C. The group was dissolving anyway (some key players moved away), and since I had learned about OSRIC, I figured it was time to return to my first love, AD&D. I restarted with a new crew and OSRIC/1e in 2012. That campaign is now finishing its sixth year and is still going strong with seven players (including my 18-year old daughter). We use OSRIC, although I freely mix in material and charts from the AD&D books (and I use all sorts of third-party resources, like Kellri's netbooks). It was in 2009, just as I was starting gaming again, that I decided to make a tent-pole dungeon for my campaign; this dungeon grew and developed over the past decade into Arden Vul. At some point, Andreas Claren, whom I'd met on the NG boards, heard I was working on a mega-dungeon and asked to look at it; he liked the early levels and offered to do the maps for it. He was the one who encouraged me to contact publishers, which we did starting in 2012. I received good advice from some old-school heroes, and ended up with signing a contract with Joe Browning in 2013 - he's been incredibly patient in the five (plus) years since then!

I've picked up quite a few of the retro-clones over the years and have been impressed with many of them: Labyrinth Lord, AS&SH, C&C, S&W, SWN, etc. Why did I gravitate to OSRIC? I think because it modeled the D&D that I played the most in my formative years (AD&D). I thought for a bit about using LL, but some of its tropes (taken from Basic D&D) were just too unfamiliar to me (even as I admired the system). I had a major epiphany in 2011/2012: so long as I was playing actively, I wasn't really interested in testing out new systems to find the 'perfect one'; I liked OSRIC/1e because it was familiar, and because I was comfortable modding it as I liked. I consider OSRIC a brilliant piece of work, since it clarifies a number of the systems from AD&D that I obviously never understood as a teenager.

Today, I'm a professor of history (medieval France is my specialty) in Greensboro, NC. The university setting has provided me with a steady stream of like-minded colleagues and graduate students interested in gaming. Currently my home group includes two other professors, two former graduate students, my daughter, and two guys whom I met through former graduate students. It's been a great opportunity to preach the virtues of 1e AD&D!

2. what are your favorite adventures, authors, mega-dungeons?
Tough question! These days I mostly design and run my own home-brewed adventures for my players, but back in the '70s and '80s I either ran, played in, or read most of TSR's classic modules (at least those published up until 1982). I still have my pastel copies of some of the early ones: S1, D2, C1, and G1, all of which got a lot of play bitd. Of the classics, I have special fondness for S3 (Expedition to the Barrier Peaks), D2 (Shrine of the Kuo-Toa), D3 (Vault of the Drow), C1 (Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan), T1 (Village of Hommelet), and U1 (Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh). Somehow I got ahold of some Judges Guild modules, too; these were eye-opening to me, especially those written by Jennell Jaquays. Perhaps my all-time favorite module is her Caverns of Thracia, which I consider the greatest early (published) mega-dungeon. Indeed, many of the influences on my own dungeon design can be traced to Jaquays and Thracia. One of the modern modules that I've run almost as-written is Matt Finch's Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom, which I consider brilliant. I should note, too, that my players are soon to find themselves trapped in an amped-up version of C1 (at least I think that's what's going to happen).

I read fiction in a lot of genres, not just fantasy. When it does come to fantasy, I'm pretty picky. I've been a huge Tolkien fan since the 70s, and Moria was (and still is) a major inspiration for my gaming interests (I was pretty disappointed with ICE's module version of it, in fact). I like Jack Vance, but came to him late, only after 2000. It may sound incredible, but the same is true with Howard and Conan; somehow I never got Howard as a kid, and only read the canon as an adult. I did read a lot of Leiber and Moorcock in the 70s and 80s, as well as loads of others I'd prefer to forget (Brooks, Eddings). Of recent fantasy authors, I'm a fan of Scott Lynch, N.K. Jemisin, Fred Chappell, Kai Ashante Wilson, G.R.R. Martin, Scott Hawkins, and many more.

As noted above, my all-time favorite mega-dungeon is Jennell Jacquays' Caverns of Thracia. I've gotten a lot of use out of that dungeon in the past! Coming in a close second is Rappan Athuk (Necromancer Games/Frog God Games), although I've never run it. Both of these products have taught me a lot about dungeon design, map flow, and level interconnectivity. I've read parts of some others - Undermountain, Castle Whiterock, World's Largest Dungeon, Dwimmermount, Joe Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage, but haven't really explored them in depth. In fact, once I started working on Arden Vul I consciously stopped reading other mega-dungeons so as to prevent myself, even subconsciously, from emulating them.

3. what are your top 3 favorite (standard/published) monsters, and why?
This question actually gave me pause. My first thought was that I don't have any. Still, I'll give it a go.
1. goblins: humanoids are a core part of D&D, and goblins are my favorite humanoids. I realize they're not impressive or particularly dangerous, but I love them as foils for low-level parties. I enjoy giving them unique-to-my-campaign cultural traits and attributes (mine like baggy trousers and exotic hats). I guess I play them for a bit of comic relief, even as they periodically cause fits for 1st- or 2nd-level PCs.
2. doppelgangers: I love these guys for the plot potentials that they represent. I also tweak 'em a fair amount to give them more possibilities than what is presented in the MM. By this I mean that I sometimes give them good equipment as well as classes and levels; my PCs have encountered 'boss' doppelgangers as well as normal ones. I came up with a good spin on them for my campaign world: the doppelgangers are engaged in an eternal war with the secretive dwarven settlements, and the 'gangers like nothing more than impersonating dwarves and infiltrating dwarven settlements.
3. umber hulks: although monstrous and thus not regularly a part of 'plots' in my campaign world, I like these guys for underground melees: the combination of good AC, good HP, multiple attacks dealing plenty of damage, and the confusion attack renders them pretty fearsome.

Honorable mention: kuo-toa. I have loved these guys ever since I acquired D2 in '78 or '79. Their Lovecraftian vibe is very cool (although I didn't know anything about Lovecraft bitd). I also appreciate their versatility as opponents, since some are classed or multi-classed, they can have spell-casting support, etc. I consider them (and the drow) as models for how to draft formidable intelligent opponents (indeed, by comparing the MM to the FF, we can a radical shift in how Gygax chose to present intelligent foes). I ended up using the more substantive presentations in the FF as models for my own creations, such as the kaliyani, the heqeti and the varumani. In fact, the only reason the kuo-toa didn't make my top 3 is because I don't use them very much.

4. What are your favorite unique creations (monsters, locations, items etc.) in Arden Vul?
I'll try to give one or two of each.

Favorite intelligent foe: I just mentioned the big three that can be encountered in Arden Vul, the varumani, the kaliyani and the heqeti. Although the heqeti are in some ways the ultimate opponent of the mega-dungeon, I think I like what I did with the kaliyani best. The kaliyani were originally one of the servitor races of the (mostly?) extinct rudishva people. Here's the physical description, taken from the new monsters appendix:
Kaliyani are six-legged beings with a 4’-long, sinuous, relatively thin body that extends another 2’ before and behind the main part of their torsos. The torso is remarkably flexible, allowing them to curl up into smaller spaces. Their heads are spade-shaped, with a slit ‘nose’ and four almond-yellow eyes set widely apart on either side of their head; they have infravision to 90’, and their eyes glow ruby-red to others with infravision. Their mouth is full of small but sharp teeth, which are dominated by a pair of visible fangs. On their necks they possess a pair of gill-like membranes that can flare open, especially when aroused or excited.
What I like most about them is the culture I drew up for them. It feels alien and different. They've got a weird-fantasy vibe to them, with utterly alien language, technology, and magic. I know my PCs are completely spooked by them; they only encountered them once, and fled like rabbits. So the effect seems to work.

Favorite Monster: giant rudishva skeletons. This is an example of one of my critters that has a specific inspiration: Peter Mullen's cover art for the first printing of Swords and Wizardry (the one with the giant, horned skeleton sitting in a chair in front of a pile of corpses). When I saw that image I knew I had to do something with it. So, back when I was running C&C, my group entered a very early version of Arden Vul and did something incredibly stupid: they found a shaft descending down hundreds of feet and decided to follow it to the bottom. Of course I hadn't the slightest clue what was on the bottom of that shaft. So I improvised, and a pair of Mullen's horned skeletons appeared at the base of the shaft. I also had what I thought was a cool idea: the skeletons could rip bones off of their bodies and hurl them as missiles at their foes (with new bones magically regenerating so they didn't collapse into a heap). As I implemented this idea, the PCs quickly realized they were overmatched, and fled (again! you're going to think I'm some kind of hard-ass!), leaving one of their number impaled by a giant femur on the wall of the shaft (he's still hanging on the wall in the developed version of the dungeon, by the way). Of course I then had to come up with a real monster description and 'real' stats for these guys. A couple of other inspirations later (one taken from Stargate, I will add somewhat cryptically), and I ended up fitting them into the mythology of the dungeon. They're one of my favorites.

Favorite Iconic Location(s): it's a toss-up between the Obsidian Gates and the Ziggurat of Kauket. The former also has a specific inspiration, Al Krombauch's blog entitled "Behind the Black Gate." I was reading his blog a lot in 2009-2011, just when I was getting started in dungeon designing. I liked the mysterious nature of the blog title, along with its intimations of Tolkien, pulp fantasy, and so forth. So I decided there would be some mysterious Obsidian Gates in the heart of the dungeon, doors that had never been breached for the majority of the settled period of Arden Vul's 4,000 year history. As with the giant rudishva skeletons, the Gates weren't conceived as part of a story or even a culture; I had to fit them into the dungeon's history as it developed. I also had to come up with some (hopefully plausible) reasons why they had never been breached. Adventurers who find the Obsidian Gates are thus in for both a treat and a puzzle - how to get behind them? and what fabulous treasures lie behind them?

Unlike the Gates, which were simply a phrase that needed a backstory, I knew from a pretty early period in Arden Vul's design that there would be a ziggurat at the bottom of the dungeon. One of the many ways to use Arden Vul, therefore, is for PCs to gather clues about the return of great evil to the complex, and to track that evil through the upper levels to the lower ones; such campaigns will eventually culminate in an epic confrontation with the heqeti atop their dread ziggurat. It's even possible, if the GM likes, for the PCs to confront a demon lord (Kauket!) on the ziggurat. The funny thing is that unlike the Obsidian Gates, which was one of the first areas I wrote up (although they changed in detail many times), the ziggurat was one of the last; I realized I needed a pretty firm grasp on all the other parts of the complex before turning to a potential concluding location (the ziggurat level was only completed in August 2017). I also felt a lot of pressure to get the ziggurat right, and I'm pretty pleased with the results: it'll form a suitably epic conclusion to some Arden Vul campaigns.

Another favorite location: the Drowned Canyon. I knew that I wanted a lot of tombs, since tomb-robbing is one of my favorite D&D tropes. I decided to combine an entire region of lost tombs with some unusual physical challenges: water. So, as the name suggests, the Drowned Canyon is a region of the dungeon in which tombs are carved into the walls of a canyon delved by a subterranean river. That's pretty standard stuff. The 'trick' with these tombs, however, is that for reasons I'm not going to spill here, many of the tombs are now 'drowned' in water. PCs will need to be crafty in how they maneuver through the tombs; water breathing spells or items will be essential. I also like the area because it provides PCs with a number of ways that they can affect the dungeon itself (I'm not revealing any spoilers, though!).

Favorite Items: with something like 400 new magic items present in Arden Vul, this is a tough one. To be fair, some of those items are fun but not particularly unusual. I did come up with a set of true artifacts, which provide another way for PCs to orient themselves to the dungeon (one of the suggested hooks involves a search for these items): these include the iron crown of Ghanor (see that JG reference there?), the bone ring of Jagri-Naz (the latter is a corruption of Jarnegus Argenteus), the ebon spear (said to be 'of Kentillian'), and the tablet of the Beacon. I had fun coming up with my own version of the Deck of Many Things, known as the Deck of the Magi, as well as a couple of powerful staves (staff of the frog, staff of the necromancer). My players found one of my horns of chaos, a sounding horn that produces chaotic effects; this has led to some fun, although I think they ultimately decided it wasn't worth keeping it and traded it for information. A personal favorite is the the rudishva useful palm, which comes in several varieties (and which have an inspiration in the work of M.A.R. Barker); my players have yet to find one, though. Another fun (non-magical) item that I drew up is the dreaded heqeti spore-bomb, each of which delivers a different variety of 'biological' trouble to the heqeti's foes; fortunately, my players also have yet to encounter them.

5. What inspired you while writing Arden Vul? novels? music? real world history?
As you can tell from the preceding discussion, I take inspirations from a lot of places. Arden Vul began when I conceived the the idea of developing a tentpole dungeon for a fantasy campaign and began sketching maps for it. Pretty soon I realized I needed some sort of world within which to place the dungeon. For a while I used Judges Guild's Wilderlands as the default setting (and early versions of the manuscript have JG-inspired names), but I ultimately decided I wanted my own setting, since I could then develop the back-story and culture of the dungeon as I liked, without having to fit it into a pre-existing narrative. For the world of Archontos (in which Arden Vul is located), I realized that I wanted the 'feel' to be more medieval than renaissance (a lot of published D&D evokes large Renaissance cities and very late medieval armor/technology, and I preferred an earlier feel). So I settled on two major inspirations. The first was early medieval Byzantium. To be clear, I wasn't interested in simulating Byzantium, and I'm sure professional Byzantinists will shake their head at my efforts! Still, I liked a couple of things about it: the sense of devolution from the glories of the Roman past (I apologize again to my Byzantinist colleagues!), and its combination of militarization and bureaucratization (which seemed perfect for fantasy rpgs). In addition, using Byzantium, even lightly, allowed me to raid a different set of names for people and institutions. I eventually decided to apply the Rome-Byzantium sequence pretty closely to my own Archontean Empire; the golden age of Archontos (now 1,200 years in the past) is much more closely 'Roman', with Latin-inspired names and institutions, while modern Archontos is more 'Byzantine', with Greek-inspired names and institutions.

The other major inspiration on the setting was Moorcock's Melniboné (I know, I know! So middle-school, eh?). I've always loved his idea of a fading empire whose glory days are past. I also admired his explanation for Melniboné's initial successes: the union of Melnibonean sorcerers with dragons. So I pretty shamelessly borrowed that idea for the back-story of Archontos (that's actually a pretty big spoiler, as almost nobody outside the imperial family in modern-day Archontos knows about the old alliance with dragonkind; my players certainly don't know about it). The sorcerer-lords of the city of Archontos struck a bargain with the Seven Princes of Dragonkind, which they used to extend imperial domination over their home island and the western continent of Irthuin (where Arden Vul is located). About 1400 years ago, the emperors breached the compact, and memory of the great alliance has been lost. I also wrote into the backstory a cataclysmic civil war that effectively rolled back Archontean dominions across the world (i.e., the 'fall of Rome'). So, while the Archontean empire is still the default, human-dominated 'setting' in the present, it is an empire of faded glory, whose current rulers attempt to regain their past glories (including what they lost in Arden Vul). I hope that I've managed to use the inspirations from real history and from Moorcock to create something that is, nevertheless, unique.

I've liberally taken inspiration from loads of other sources. I've already mentioned that sometimes the inspiration can simply be a word or phrase ('Behind the Black Gates') or an image (Mullen's cover art for S&W). Other times it comes from specific literary or historical scenes. For instance, I took a well-known trope from Arthurian literature and inserted the core dynamic into Arden Vul; this includes both individuals and a puzzle (I'm being opaque to avoid spoilers). In another location I used a wonderful short story by Scott Lynch to develop a dangerous critter that haunts libraries; the creature has been a favorite foil for my own players. I love names, and often play with names to get the right feel for stuff I've inserted into Arden Vul. For example, the rudishva and their servitor peoples (varumani, kaliyani, and varuda) have names (and, to an extent, culture) that is loosely inspired on some classical Hindi linguistic and cultural practices. In naming monsters, I also have on occasion used google to help me develop a fantasy-pleasing variation of a real-world word for the critter's chief attribute (e.g., my sumuksu, which I built out of a Turkish word). And then there's just the fun stuff. One of my best friends will be surprised to find himself in Arden Vul (or perhaps he won't be surprised!), and I've managed to throw easter eggs for myself and my players into numerous locations.

6. what comes easier for you: mapping or keying?
It's a cop-out, but I'll say that it depends. Arden Vul took a long time (8+ years) to write, and my tendencies changed over that time. When I began the project, in 2009, online communities (message boards and blogs) seemed to be cultivating a mega-dungeon renaissance. I read a lot of them, mostly as a lurker, and took inspiration from the ideas of many of the OSR luminaries - especially Allan Grohe, Trent Foster, Melan (Gabor Lux), Al Krombauch, James Maliszewski, etc. From all this, I decided that the best plan was to just start mapping. So that's what I did. The first maps I drew were what are now Level 3 of Arden Vul. I didn't necessarily have an idea about what type of area I was mapping. Instead, I had a couple of broad principles in mind: 1) I wasn't doing a mad-archmage dungeon, so the construction mostly had to have originally been designed by whoever built it for comprehensible reasons (so, at least initially, no winding mazes, etc.); 2) the maps should have internal elevation changes within levels; 3) there should be multiple interconnections between levels (and not just a single set of 'stairs to the next level'), and some of those interconnections should jump more than one level (i.e., leading from Level 3 to Level 6 or whatever); 4) the design had to incorporate at least two periods of construction and development (ultimately I ended up with 5 distinct periods of construction); 5) maps shouldn't be obviously aligned to a 8.5x11" piece of graph paper; and 6) levels should contain challenges appropriate to varying PC levels, regardless of depth below the surface (I don't like to feed the assumptions of those players who want to believe that Level 2, say, will always feature 'level 2 monsters'; I want to keep players on their toes, ready to fight or flee as the need presents itself). With all this in mind, I'd just sit down in front of the TV with my family and sketch maps. The ones I liked, I kept.

At some point, however, the mapping got more difficult as I realized that the levels needed to work together in a coherent, "realistic" way. I developed a system of x,y coordinates (with the home point of x=0, y=0 as the pyramid of Thoth on the surface); this allowed me to ensure that the interconnections between levels actually 'worked' on a vertical plane (so, a tunnel located at x=34, y=-22 on Level 3 had to emerge at the same coordinates on Level 4, or wherever). That process was a slog, as I had to redraw a bunch of stuff; it meant, also, that the lower levels had to be drawn more systematically and with more forethought, so that they 'worked' with the levels I'd already drawn. This meant that my mapping had to change a bit ... I needed to ensure that the maps of the ultimately levels followed logically from the keys that I'd been writing. As a result, I slowed down in mapping the lowest levels; indeed, the map for Level 10 was only drawn in 2017, after 80% of the key had already been written (and all the other maps had been drawn).

An important part of the mapping process also resulted from the fact that I had become online friends with Andreas Claren (Sir Clarence). We met on the old NG boards, and have developed a good friendship. Indeed, my wife and I visited him and his family in Hamburg in 2016, and he and his family vacationed with us in the US the next year. So, when I showed him some early sketch maps back in 2010 or so, he was enthusiastic and offered to draw up some 'professional' maps using one of the mapping programs (not sure which). I cannot emphasize how important his advice and encouragement has been to the entire project. Not only did he encourage me to show it to publishers, but he offered a lot of valuable design advice about both the maps and the key. He's been DMing for more than 30 years without interruption, so I often turned to him for practical advice as I was constructing encounters. He has been incredibly patient with the innumerable changes that first I, and later Joe Browning, asked him to make. In fact, I just sent him four map changes this morning (sorry, Andreas!).

In terms of the key, Level 3 was the first to get written (although it, too, developed and changed over the years). Levels 2 and 4 followed, and then Level 5. Level 1 was written later, as a 'starter' level for brand new characters. All of these were relatively easy to write, as they followed some pretty standard dungeon tropes: lost crypts, factions of low-to-middle level opponents, hints about deeper levels, etc. I didn't have too much trouble churning these out. I had some vague ideas and fleshed them out with themed areas within various levels. I also had no problem with skipping a room or series of rooms if I didn't know what should happen there, returning once inspiration hit. For several years the process of writing and mapping were actually synergistic: I'd map a bunch of stuff, and then backtrack to fill the key in for some earlier levels. When the key approached within a level of where I'd ceased mapping, I'd start mapping again. At some point in 2014 or 2015, though, I made two realizations. First, the cycle of mapping-writing-mapping was fun but was also potentially endless; that was a scary thought, and I realized it was time to wrap things up. Second, the specific shape of the dungeon had finally come to be fixed in my mind. These realizations were a relief in one sense, but they also made the writing of the keys to the later levels a lot more difficult. No longer (with the exception of Level 8, which is a sort of 'wild west' of Arden Vul) could I freestyle the maps and fill in the keys with whatever seemed cool; now I had to pick up all the threads and hints that I'd dropped in all the first levels and make sure they were fulfilled in a satisfying way. I found this part quite difficult; often I'd have to take a 3 or 4 week-long break from keying in order to let ideas percolate in my mind; only after this sort of subconscious digestion was I ready to churn them out on paper. In this process, Joe B. became the patient one, accepting that the writing process for such a large, complex, and integrated dungeon would be different from that required by a 32-page module.

It was a moment for celebration and relief in August 2017 when I finished the dungeon keys (10 main levels, 15 sub-levels, and ~2,000 keyed areas). Of course with such a big project, the ancillary materials also needed to be fleshed out. I've spent the past year editing alongside Joe, drafting text for hitherto unstated monsters, magic-items, books, etc., and writing the introductory materials. The last five pages (some general words on the types of architecture within the dungeon, and the teaser and introductory text) should be finished in the next two weeks. Then all we have left is "only" the editing and layout (ha!).

7. how has the scope of the dungeon changed during the publishing process, if at all?
I addressed this point in the last question to an extent. I can say here that I had no idea how big the thing would get other than that I wanted it to have the standard ten levels of most large D&D dungeons. I also knew that I was dissatisfied with some so-called mega-dungeons because they didn't seem all that mega to me. While Arden Vul is certainly not the 'mythic underworld' beloved of some old-schoolers (something like that seems inherently un-keyable), I always intended Arden Vul to be too big to be 'cleaned out'; that is, I wanted it to be something that I (and other DMs) could return to as often as we wanted, without the players ever growing tired of it. Even with that basic idea in mind, I had no idea how long it would take me to write it up. I'll also say that once I had decided to shop it to publishers, the scope seemed to grow, since what I might have been comfortable 'winging' with my players had to be fully developed for publication. So the decision to publish actually added to the scope of the dungeon. I had to complete and finalize ideas that were sort of half-assed when they first came up.

I will also say that I did actually scale back some ideas that I'd been thinking about. With two factions (the Priscians and the kaliyani), I had originally planned to draw up extensive 'bases' for each faction on the lower levels of Arden Vul. As the project wound down, and I realized that the factions that I had already drawn up were large enough to serve as hubs for PC interaction with the dungeon inhabitants, I decided it wasn't necessary to develop the Priscian and kaliyani areas in the ways I had originally intended. In fact, doing so would probably have made the dungeon too crowded. So rethought those ideas, and gave both the Priscians and kaliyani smaller footprints within Arden Vul.

8. How modular is it? Can individual levels/sub-levels etc. be easily plucked out for other uses by the individual GM?
My knee-jerk answer, is "sure!", since I can and have pulled levels out to use for one-shots with friends and family. The main levels are especially modular, since they are so large and encompass loads of different sub-regions and types of encounters. It's true that one of the defining features of Arden Vul is the integration of ideas (cultural/faction links, etc.) between the levels, a fact which might mitigate against pulling them apart. In this sense, the background that renders some of the encounters interesting and unique, and that serves to link the dungeon levels together, might be seen as an impediment. I know it wouldn't seem that way to me, as I don't have any problem hand-waving or improvising as necessary; but for some DMs it might seem a problem. On Level 6, for instance, one of the most important regions is the tomb of Marius Tricotor, one of the early archons (governors) of Arden Vul. There's a lot of Arden Vul history tied up in that set of encounters, and it will be most satisfying if players have been acquiring hints and teases about Marius from other parts of the dungeon. Still, any DM worth his/her salt could easily transform that encounter into something that works well with his/her campaign world. So, while I'm sure that some DMs will find the levels tied together too tightly (nice alliteration, eh?), others will have no problem cutting out levels or encounters and dropping them into their own worlds. Finally, I'm proud of some of the new races I drew up (the kaliyani, the heqeti, the rudishva, the varumani, etc.), and hope that some DMs might be inspired to work them into their own campaigns.

9. are we seeing all of the levels and sub-levels, or is there material that's been left on the cutting room floor?
I've offered to cut stuff from the manuscript on several occasions, but Joe Browning, to his credit, demurred, saying that we had passed the point of no return and should just "go for it". So, the answer is no. Everything I've written to this point appears in the product. Of course I did have a number of additional levels and sub-levels planned, but they never got mapped and keyed. Those could be developed in the future, if there is any demand for them. As a teaser, one undeveloped idea is the lost laboratory of Vul the Sorcerer.

10. any plans to run Arden-Vul at game conventions after its published?
I've only attended one Con in my life. That was ConCarolinas in Charlotte, NC, which I attended last June. Shocking, isn't it? I confess to being a bit nervous about gaming with strangers. I also have to travel to quite a few academic conferences each year, so my opportunities for attending gaming cons is somewhat limited. Still, I had a blast at ConCarolinas. One of my players convinced me to attend, and I did so with the express purpose of running some AV (I ran a section of the Drowned Canyons that I'm calling the Tomb of the Twins). I had six or eight players, and everybody seemed to have a good time. I should also say that I've made a pact with Andreas Claren, the mapper for Arden Vul, that we will attend Gary Con together once the darned thing is published (or just about to be published): this means probably 2020 or 2021. I've also heard great things about NTRPG Con, but it comes at a tough time of the year for me.

11. how did Arden-Vul get is name, and what does it mean?
Arden Vul is the name of a ruined city lying atop the cliff within which the dungeon levels are located. Of course that's not very helpful, is it? Alright .... The city takes its name from two of the great heroes of antiquity in my home-brew setting, the world of Archontos: those heroes are Arden the Defender (also called Arden the Spear-warden) and Vul the Sorcerer. So great is their fame that the pair are counted among the Twenty Worthies of the Archontean Empire. Arden and Vul lived during the period in which the Archontean empire was expanding from its island-home of Mithruin onto the western continent of Irthuin. There, on Irthuin, Arden and Vul discovered the site that would bear their name. The magical properties of the region drew imperial sorcerers like flies, and a city grew up on the cliff top even as the great temples of Thoth and Set delved into the halls below. Sadly, the city of Arden Vul was destroyed utterly some 1,200 years ago in the great Archontean civil war, known today as the War of the Sortians and Theosophs. In the present, Arden is viewed with great warmth by ordinary Archonteans as the epitome of the protective and caring legionary; her Twelve Labors can be recited (with some variation) by most schoolchildren. Vul the Sorcerer is also respected, but not with as much warmth; he is viewed instead as the taciturn, moody companion to the great Arden. Of course, Vul is also well-known to members of the Archontean collegia of magic for his infamous Four Summonings.

12. do you have plans to publish other adventures set in the same world as Arden-Vul, but separate from it?
Yes! If Joe or others think them worthwhile, that is. I've got a couple of site-based adventures set in Burdock's Valley, where Arden Vul is located: one is an introductory adventure featuring kobolds (with a twist), while another involves a couple of lost shrines to Arden the Defender. I'm also tempted to finish writing up Narsileon, the 'big city' that is the seat of the Archontean exarchate nearest to Arden Vul. Near to Narsileon I've got a third adventure involving a lost shrine of Set and a fourth (the most developed of them) that is an urban/suburban adventure involving smuggling, rebellion against the Archontean empire, and a dangerous chthonic cult. The PCs in my home campaign are currently stranded far from civilization, in the jungles of the Shining South; I might also work up some new cultures and adventures out of their current predicament.

13. Did you know Arden Vul is an anagram for Luv A Nerd?'
As Johnny Carson used to say, "I did not know that!" Now I do. Thanks, Scot! Hmm... it's also an anagram for 'Laved Urn'.


Ronald Redmond said…
I hate when my urn is laved.
Thanks Kellri! Good stuff.
Ron Bishop said…
Good interview! It's always fun to hear others inspirations - weather you have shared inspirations and you get to see where it led others or you are familiar with their current work and you get some insight to the journey of creation they have taken.