Launching Alex Kierkegaard's D&D Battlegrounds

Another day, another crazy event launched by icycalm, another Cult Event, that is.

What is D&D Battlegrounds? I made a site. It's far from ready, but even in this early state it should give you a good idea. Head on over there, and come back after you've read everything:

Note that, as I said, the site is far from finished. The rules explanation, for example, only covers 2/3rds of the major mechanics (I'll be explaining the final 1/3rd below, and integrating it into the site at a later time). Above all, the various planets and settings have not been populated with the adventures yet, only Planescape has. You will note the couple dozen red circles dotting the map of the Planescape setting (which is the first one in the list because it's the one that binds all the rest together). These red circles represent adventures and other material published for the Planescape setting. If you click on them, you'll get a picture of the cover of each book or boxed set, and in the case of adventures you'll also get the recommended player numbers and levels to tackle it. I also plan to add the back-of-the-box descriptions for each product in the white space below the image. So basically the players will browse the maps in the same way they might browse the shelves of a videogame store or Steam, look at the covers, read the brief descriptions and recommended power levels, and then based on that info decide what adventure to pursue, just like they decide which game to play when they feel like playing a videogame.

For example, how does Doom of Daggerdale sound to you? Never heard of Doom of Daggerdale? Ah, there's a lot of videogames you've never heard of, my friend, and that's what you come to me for. So let me tell you about Doom of Daggerdale. The way I have designed my D&D Battlegrounds, Doom of Daggerdale is essentially a videogame, no less so than any Baldur's Gate or Divinity game. The only difference is that Doom of Daggerdale IS GOOD, and BG and D:OS ARE BAD. Sure, the latter are good as videogames, and especially as tactical/adventure hybrids, but the former is on a whole other level entirely. Not only is it 100x deeper and better as a tactics game and adventure game, but it also links up with THE LARGEST FICTIONAL WORLD EVER CREATED. People don't understand this, and it's one of the (many) things I am trying to explain in my still unfinished Role-playing Culture essay. D&D is far and away the deepest and largest fictional world ever. The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones settings could fit in a CORNER of ONE of the dozen or so D&D PLANETS. LotR and GoT don't even have a full planet, they are merely a continent each, and D&D has A DOZEN planets. PLUS the space around the planets that's explored in the Spelljammer setting, PLUS the alternate dimensions explored in the Planescape setting, merely ONE of which is the horror-themed demiplane of Ravenloft. It's all mapped out in the maps I've featured on my new site, so go back and have another look (though the connecting points between the maps are not immediately apparent to beginners and non-DMs, so I intend to make the connections more visible by editing the maps to show where exactly you have to go in each one in order to jump into another).

Moreover, it's not about pure size either. Size is good, and all else being equal the largest setting will be the most immersive because that's how immersion works, and that's why the universe is the largest setting ever and therefore the most immersive; but D&D eclipses all other fictional words in depth too (just like, once again, the universe). After all, LotR and GoT consist of a single story each. One story. You read that story, and that's it, it's over, there's nothing more to do in that world. Now granted, it is an epic story, but it's still just one story, and by the way, it's not interactive either, which means it can't be played. Now some smartass will pop up to inform me that there are LotR and GoT role-playing games perhaps, but I would advise him to read my Role-playing Culture essay where I explain that a rule system is not a game, it's just a rule system, and without actual published adventures you have nothing. I may as well throw Unreal Engine at you and call it a great videogame because teams of hundreds of specialists can make great videogames with it if they work 80-hour weeks for years. Yeah buddy, those teams can make great videogames, but I can't because I am just a guy and couldn't even code a screensaver, so spare me with your retarded factoids about the fact that barren role-playing adaptions of LotR and GoT have been published to scam some cash from idiotic fans of these literary works who can't tell the difference between one artform and another and will throw cash at anything with a logo on it and pretend they are having fun.

Back to D&D then, we find, on top of the sprawling multi-planet and multi-dimensional extent of the setting, an incredible number of ACTUAL PUBLISHED ADVENTURES for it. We're talking HUNDREDS of them, if we're only counting the major ones (because the minor ones, including magazine-published ones, surely number in the thousands). Moreover, among those hundreds, there are about a couple dozen TRUE EPICS, a few of which are even on or around the level of LotR and GoT, but they are INTERACTIVE. Some of them even exist in dual form: you have the adventures, but you have also the novels, some of which are best-sellers rivaling popular fantasy novels and fine literary works of their own accord. And if you buy the adventures first, YOU CAN PLAY THEM. That's on top of the countless source books and boxed sets that flesh out all the planets and regions and planes and dimensions. To put it in crude terms so everyone can visualize the gross disparity in the depth we are talking about here, if you put the published D&D materials in a room, you'd cover the entire space up to the ceiling and there would barely be any space to walk around, whereas for EVERY OTHER FICTIONAL SETTING EVER you can basically carry all its materials IN A BACKPACK. Maybe TWO backpacks for the biggest ones. THAT'S the difference in breadth and depth between D&D and every alternative in a nutshell. And nowhere else will you find a more comprehensive and eminently viewable representation of this monstrous fictional world than in my new site—once it's done, that is. It'll be a wonder of the world once it's done, so keep an eye on that page.

So back to Doom of Daggerdale for one second. That is an introductory adventure set in the Forgotten Realms setting, whose in-setting name is the planet Abeir-Toril, that is to say that that's the name that the inhabitants of that world have given to it. They don't call it "Forgotten Realms", that's just the marketing name of the product for us. So Doom of Daggerdale is set on the planet of Abeir-Toril, in the continent of Faerûn. You can google all this stuff, there's tons of scanned maps etc. on the internet, and if you want to read the actual source books, those are available too if you know where to look (and I know). And this is the cover of the adventure/game:

And this is its description:

Randal Morn certainly has his hands full! The temple of Lathander, which burned to the ground eight years ago, seems to be the source of a curse affecting the entire town. People are taking ill, animals are dying overnight, crops are failing. All this seems to have started after Eragyn, priestess of Cyric, disappeared from Daggerdale. Shortly before that, a forgotten mage-lord's crypt was discovered and opened; things just haven't been the same since.
Constable Tren is displeased with the situation, what with suspicion being cast in the Zhentarim's direction as well as toward Cyric's priesthood. He's undoubtedly making the Dalesfolk's lives more difficult than usual because of this upheaval. Randal has sent out the call for aid to all who are interested and able to help; his freedom riders have their hands full already.
A missing evil priestess, a mage-lord's crypt-curse, a plague, and possible Zhentarim involvement: all the elements of a rousing adventure in one place! Where do your characters sign up? Step right this way, won't you?

This is a videogame that's 100x more tactical than any CRPG ever, and 100x times more interactive in terms of plot, dialogue, and everything else. Moreover, it's not a standalone videogame. When you finish it (IF you finish it, because unlike CRPGs there is no saving, and it's permadeath), your characters' adventures don't just end. You can continue them in hundreds of other videogames set over the entire D&D universe, and what's more, the choice of which ones precisely to pursue is largely yours. At the end of Baldur's Gate, you can also continue the adventure, but only in Baldur's Gate 2. You can't just take those characters to, say, Icewind Dale, or Planescape: Torment. But in my Battlegrounds, you can. Now, if you are playing a conventional D&D campaign with some other Dungeon Master, you can also continue your characters' adventures there, but in conventional D&D it's the Dungeon Master that picks your next adventure for you. Sure, he may PRETEND that you're in control of your fate and choices, but all DMs know that the players have precisely zero control of where they go or what happens to them. This is the most well-guarded secret in the DMing industry, and I am blowing it right up right now for the first time in human history. If the DM has paid 20 bucks to buy an adventure that he likes, you will sure as fuck be playing it no matter what you and your friends feel like doing. It's even worse if he has made up some half-assed piece of shit adventure in his head, in which case it's not merely his time and money, but his EGO that's at stake, so he will shove his poor writing and dumbass encounters down your throat no matter what the hell you feel like doing. Even worse, a good 50% or more of DMs won't even have a gameplan, let alone a written one, and will just improvise dumb boring shit for months on end (the biggest douches will even improvise SETTINGS). If you've played D&D, you've likely played with a douche like that as DM, because they are legion. Tabletop games somehow attract the biggest douches as DMs.

But all of this ends with my Battlegrounds. Cult Games is preparing a Windows interface (and eventually a mobile app like Rust's [ > ]) through which each group of players participating in the world will navigate the world entirely through their choices, exactly as in a videogame overworld map. Your starting planet will be randomized (out of six possible starting planets—all the main ones of D&D, with the minor ones accessible later in the game as side-content), but once you're in the universe, you'll be presented with the adventures in your vicinity that correspond to your group's current numbers and power level, and you'll pick one with the app and head towards it, at which point the game will switch to the Fantasy Grounds interface for resolution of the trip there, and the eventual adventure. Once, and if, the adventure is completed—in one way or another, because failure but with survival is still a form of "completion"—you'll switch back to the Battlegrounds app to pick your next destination, and so on. And all the other groups will be doing the same, perhaps some of them on the same planet as you, perhaps not—leveling up and growing stronger, in preparation for the eventual—and always tragic, for one group or another—showdowns. As for how the meeting of the groups will be facilitated, when the universe is so huge and the groups have full freedom in their travels, there'll be specialized mechanics that accomplish this, and I've already roughly outlined them on the site, so take another look there if you want to get an idea. Moreover, the greatest epic adventures in the D&D universe will only be unlocked in the app for groups that have vanquished another group. If you want to play the biggest epics, you'll have to kill another group, and then they'll appear on the map for you. Epics aren't for losers, and if you kill a full player party you will have proved your mettle beyond doubt. That's all I can say for now on these aspects, and look for more detailed rules explanations on the site during September as we gear up for the start.

Now, the role-players in the audience will be wondering why I am trying to turn pen-and-paper D&D into a videogame, when we role-players know full well that D&D is superior to videogames, and especially to CRPGs. But it's not quite as simple as that. D&D is superior to CRPGs in many aspects, that is true, but it's inferior in many others. And that's precisely my goal with this Battlegrounds project: to combine the best aspects of both (and more besides) into a mega-game far superior to both. Now, I won't get into the details of my thought process in designing this supreme synthesis that is Battlegrounds. First I have to complete my "Role-playing Culture" essay, so that I can explain to you the long history of the problems—both of tabletop and digital RPGs—and only then will you be able to understand my solutions that form the basis on which I designed Battlegrounds. All of that info and analysis will be published here and on the Battlegrounds site, and also on the Battlegrounds forum [ > ]. Suffice it to say, for our present purposes, that I arrived at the last piece of the puzzle earlier today, and you can read all about it in the TaleSpire thread [ > ], as TaleSpire will comprise the third piece of the software puzzle powering my Battlegrounds. In brief, the three pieces are as follows:

1. The OVERWORLD phase. Connecting everything together is the Battlegrounds app, through which the various groups navigate the D&D universe, the largest fictional world ever, and hunt each other down via the Battlegrounds versus mechanics.

2. The ADVENTURE phase. Once a group has selected a location or adventure, we switch to Fantasy Grounds to play it out. Once the adventure is complete, in one way or another (meaning not necessarily victoriously), the group returns to the Battlegrounds app.

3. The EMPIRE phase. Once the group has chosen a place to settle, anywhere in the D&D universe (and each group only gets one such place at a time), this is marked in the Battlegrounds app, and the group can return there whenever it wants to found, and expand, via the TaleSpire interface, its empire—which of course can be discovered and invaded by the other groups at any time according to mechanics I'll be publishing shortly.

Now, for more details on the Empire phase, please read my TaleSpire thread carefully, I've already said in there all I can reveal at this time. I've also included some pics illustrating the sheer power and beauty of this program. Since then, I have found more such pics, and I will share some of them here to get people excited. Take a look at this.

It's not just a program for resolving battles like Fantasy Grounds. This is what many people don't get. This is next-generation virtual tabletop (VTT) where you can create pretty much an entire 3D world, and precisely because, unlike first-gen VTTs, this makes full use of the power of digital computing, it merges with the survival-building and even FP4X genres of videogames! TaleSpire essentially brings Minecraft into D&D! You can even terraform! You can dig out a whole Dwarf Fortress in a mountainside if you want! Right now they are adding water, so you can build ships and travel across oceans and dive under the waves! [ > ] Take a look at all this shit, it is fucking I-N-C-R-E-D-I-B-L-E and a dream come true I didn't even know I had.

The most astonishing thing about it is IT LOOKS EVEN BETTER THAN MOST VIDEOGAMES. I mean the GRAPHICS too, not just the mechanics. VTTs were never known for their graphics prowess; sure the art scanned from the D&D books is often stunning, and the maps and floorplans are very well done and atmospheric and evocative too, but it's just 2D illustrations, it's not Divinity or Icewind Dale at the end of the day, and that's why even the most hardcore tabletop players do also play Divinity and Icewind Dale, so they can also feast their eyes, not only their minds. The problem is that the videogames are braindead, so you can ONLY feast your eyes on them, pretty much. Moreover, their plots and dialogues are so bad that even their best environments are ruined by the programmer story and programmer writing. Well, TaleSpire puts an end to that, combining the best aspects of both: fully-interactive role-playing set in a beautiful, tangible environment, not just in your head. TaleSpire btfo almost every isometric CRPG in terms of both aesthetics and graphics tech with only a handful of exceptions: Planescape: Torment and the better areas of Icewind Dale and the Original Sin games pretty much; but even then it's not universal, as there are areas in which TaleSpire is stronger than anything else: e.g. the underwater areas. Show me an isometric WRPG that goes under the waves. Or show me one in which the action is set in massive fully-explorable castles that instill a sense of awe by their sheer size. The videogames are set in a bunch of small areas surrounded by invisible walls, so few of them you can almost count them in two hands. It's pathetic, and not at all what role-playing is about (which is why, as I explained 13 years ago in my CRPG essay, they aren't role-playing games, they are squad-level tactics games with a light exploration aspect).

Now, TaleSpire has its blind spot too, and I've discussed it in some length in the Insomnia thread I linked above. You can't use this program to run the published D&D material because, to do it properly, you would need an entire game studio's worth of concept artists and 3D artists to custom-create building blocks that look exactly like what's described in the material and illustrated in the sparse illustrations in the books, which are extremely varied. That's almost as expensive as making a videogame from scratch, and no gaming group can do it (and there's not enough profit in it for a game studio to do it). The masses of idiotic tabletop players and DMs of course will try, and since their standards are so low, they won't be able to tell the difference. I mean they can't even tell the difference between their DM's wretched scribblings and the NYT-bestselling Dragonlance Saga for cryin' out loud. They are utterly retarded! But that's old news, and the same thing applies to videogame players, and everyone else in the public at large: the majority are braindead zombies with no taste, and there's no reason to expect the RPG community to be any different, and they aren't. My point here at any rate is that it is BAD to use TaleSpire for the purpose its developers are trying to get you to use it, so I won't be doing it for my Battlegrounds. Instead, I will be using it to power a brand-new phase of the campaign, the Empire phase, in which all of TaleSpire's strengths will shine because, unlike everyone else who will be trying to REcreate someone else's material from another medium—and failing—we will be creating brand-new material from scratch which can therefore be designed to exploit the toolset's strengths, instead of succumbing to its weaknesses. Now, you might say at this point that "icy, the DMs who run homebrew campaigns will be creating content from scratch too", but that content will be bound up with their stupid badly-written made-up-on-the-spot non-stories, so it will suck. You have to somehow DIVORCE the campaign's story-arcs from the TaleSpire content in order to get the best of both worlds, because the best story-arcs were written by professional writers many years ago when D&D was at its height in the '80s and early-'90s, and cannot be adapted to TaleSpire without destroying them. Those adventures were written to be played out in our heads, and that's the ONLY place they can be optimally played without contracting a game studio to create 3D assets for them costing millions of dollars. However, just like some of the best isometric WRPGs like  Baldur's Gate 2 and Pathfinder: Kingmaker feature a keep phase or town-building phase, quite simply because that's pretty much the endgame for a fantasy world (even Conan became a king in the end), so TaleSpire can be used to bring this part of the campaign to life in a "tabletop" D&D campaign, to a previously unachievable level of depth and fidelity, turning it essentially into a survival-building FP4X videogame.

In this sprawling universe of locations created with unmatched imagination and tens of thousands of pages filled with drama, the possibilities are mind-boggling. One group might eschew the building phase to chase endless adventures and leveling and artifacts of power, hoping to crush the other groups with overwhelming might, while another group might skip the adventuring to settle somewhere asap and dig deep roots in a community so as to take it over and then use it as a cudgel to beat their enemies with. "At last, I am a level 20 Wizard!", one of the former players might exclaim, and another might respond "Ok, but I have 20 level 10 Wizards in my employ, and 500 foot soldiers, and 40 troll mercenaries on contract with the taxes my peasants are paying. Have fun with that." And fun indeed we will all have, as D&D includes rules for resolving large battles as in a strategy game, and when sieges happen in TaleSpire holdings—no matter how many PCs or NPCs they might involve—we can play them out zoomed-in over days and weeks. Other groups might seek out powerful allies in the planes, where gods reside, or hide in shadowy demiplanes or deep space where the versus mechanics are frustrated (more on which soon). In this dangerous universe, death will be frequent, swift and final, to be sure, but it will also be cause for joy as it will only return the players to the start screen of the Battlegrounds app, to roll once more for starting planet, and a brand-new set of characters and adventures. What planet will you end up in for your next run? What build of character and what group composition will you try this time via the deepest and most complex character generation system ever? (numbering dozens of books and thousands of pages, not just a couple of computer screens). Enter Alex Kierkegaard's D&D Battlegrounds, and find out.

More details coming soon.

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