Part 2: Success and Decline in the Living City

Last time, in part 1 of this series, I talked about the beginnings of the first Living campaign, called Living City. From its humble beginnings back in the late '80s as an alternative play experience to the tournament-style convention play the RPGA was offering, it grew to become the most popular program the RPGA had yet seen.

By 1995, Living City was what most RPGA members were playing. The campaign had dozens of adventures released yearly, and multiple story arcs affected the city of Raven’s Bluff in the Forgotten Realms. There was even a long-running war plot arc that lasted the better part of two years. Many players had multiple characters; it was simply impossible to play the same character in every adventure.

While certificates were certainly one of the first organizational breakthroughs for the campaign, it was at this time that a “tier” system was becoming more and more necessary. An avid Living City player might have a 12th-level character, and while the RPGA wanted to keep those players playing their favorite characters, there was also still a strong need to introduce new players to the campaign. Many adventures started to incorporate tiers -- the adventure’s plot and backstory would be the same no matter what level characters participated, but the challenges would be tailored to something appropriate for the group’s average level. This helped to solve problems with delivering new content to a widening membership, but created some others in its wake.

2nd Edition wasn’t exactly the most flexible system for this tiered model. Power levels for monsters weren’t as clearly defined as they would become later on, and it often led to uneven play experiences. Most adventures had a “sweet spot” -- usually, the level of play the author had envisioned for the adventure. Playing in the sweet spot (or close to it) made for an ideal play experience; more often than not, playing too far outside the sweet spot led to either story inconsistencies or unbalanced combat encounters. Players and DMs made the best of it though, and play continued to grow throughout the 1990’s.

It was also around this time that a separate play arena was established for high-level characters (those that had attained at least 10th level). It was becoming increasingly difficult to adjudicate the actions of higher level groups in a “normal” adventure. A common high-level group would have access to hundreds of magic items and very powerful spells. Many DMs had difficulty providing appropriate challenges for them in the regular adventures. A special series of high-level adventures were written specifically to deal with the avid Living City players that had characters requiring a greater challenge. Eventually, two high-level areas were established for play: the Underdark and the planes. Segregating the highest-level characters into their own mini-campaign helped to maintain tighter writing on adventures for both groups.

In 1997, TSR went out of business, and the future of Dungeons & Dragons was in question. Winter Fantasy, a long-standing RPGA convention, was cancelled that year. Folks working in the RPGA continued to provide content through this uncertain period. For a few months, it was the only new D&D content that was being distributed anywhere. Eventually, Wizards of the Coast stepped in and kept the D&D legacy alive. Even though times were tough, the RPGA and Living City continued to grow.

In 1999, Wizards announced at Gen Con Indy that there would be a new version of the D&D game coming out the next year -- 3rd Edition. At around the same time, work began on a new Living campaign designed to expand upon the scope of what had already existed. This campaign was called Living Greyhawk. (We'll discuss Living Greyhawk in more detail in a later article.)

With 3rd Edition looming, Living City players were given a choice. Certainly, the onset of a new edition of the game brought obsolescence to the play of 2nd Edition in the RPGA. So, a crossroads was reached, and a vote was taken at Gen Con Indy. The options were to (1) convert all existing characters and some content to 3rd Edition, (2) keep the campaign but completely restart, or (3) conclude the campaign in its entirety. In the end, conversion won out. It would prove to be incredibly daunting and helped to speed the campaign's decline.

The biggest, most difficult issue was conversion of certificates. Players had been collecting them for the better part of a decade, and they represented all the magic items each character had accumulated throughout their adventuring career. D&D was a very item-based game; many characters were defined by the magic items they possessed. Every item that had ever been issued in the game had to be converted to 3rd Edition rules (or ruled as non-convertible). In addition, since the items were issued on paper, all the members had to mail their certificates in to Wizards. They had to be processed and new certificates had to be reissued. Everything had to be tracked. It was a logistical behemoth.

The strain on the RPGA staff at the time was massive. In addition, there were printing errors in the first batch of certificates that went back to the players, so another printing was needed. Character conversion went smoother, but there were still a number of rules issues that simply couldn’t be addressed by the 3rd Edition conversion document. Adventures were also treading new 3rd Edition ground, and many preconceptions of writing adventures for D&D needed to be reassessed.

The workload became too great for the RPGA staff to maintain, particularly since Living Greyhawk had entered the system, was larger in scope, and required more attention. Living City was handed off to a company called Organized Play for management. Attempts were made to revitalize play. A new campaign, the Ruins of Raven’s Bluff, was an attempt at a restart, but it was too late. Living City concluded in 2003, with only a few hundred players participating in its final adventure. By that time, most of the player base had either moved to Living Greyhawk or other 3rd Edition shared-world campaigns.

Next month, we’ll talk about Living campaign fever spreading throughout the RPGA in the 1990’s, and give brief summaries of past “spin-off” programs that existed over the last thirteen years.

About the Author

Originally thought to have been raised from a humble Midwestern family, Chris Tulach actually fell to Earth in a meteorite-shaped capsule flung from a planet far outside our galaxy. While under the yellow rays of Sol, Chris’s nerdity far surpasses that of any normal human. Using this precious gift only for good, he has recently become the RPGA Content Manager, responsible for the development and deployment of Dungeons & Dragons organized play programs.

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