Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Known World and Me

I know it's called Mystara but it was introduced in the 1981 Expert Set as "The Known World" and that's how I like to remember it. When I first saw it I thought it was awesome. I had seen Greyhawk and loved it and the Darlene map but this was a started-but-not-yet-finished map that spurred some creativity in different ways than GH. it was generic D&D but we didn't care back then because there weren't a dozen D&D worlds out there already. Much like the GH folio each nation had about a paragraph of information, then there was a more detailed map and description of Karameikos. Plus the Isle of Dread - don't underestimate the Isle of Dread's impact in making this world cooler because not only did you have this nifty map but you also had an adventure in the box that required you to do some traveling to get to it and a rulebook in the box that gave you rules for how to do it! It was a complete package and one that I am sure a lot of people used. 

Later sets expanded on this world and the gazeteer line gave it a realms-like treatment in regional detail and maps. I have some of these and they are very nice. The Companion Set gave us rules for ruling territory and fighting mass battles and I thought those were cool too. 

All that said and despite the long history of this world, I never really played or ran it very much.  I know we used it some back in our BECMI D&D days  but we didn't go into much detail with it as back in those days we made up some of our own worlds or just used the Greyhawk folio.  As we got a little bit older some of the names were a little too simple or obvious and the whole world seemed a little too kiddie for us teenagers.

There was a big overdone box set for it in the 2E era but I never had one or played/ran with it. as we had moved on to other worlds by then. The whole Immortals thing was a little weird to me then but I actually like it now and can see how it could be used for a pretty decent D&D 4E setting if WOTC decided to make it one or if a fan group really dug in and worked it up well.

 So my history with this one I'd happily play in a campaign run by someone who was passionate about the setting, but otherwise it's not something that's really on my radar. I just thought it deserved mention since it was one of the early campaign worlds and had a lot of influence on how people built their own worlds, including myself.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Dark Sun and Me

Dark Sun launched as a boxed campaign in 1991 (a revised set was released in 1995) for AD&D 2E. I owned this set and liked it a lot. The world was very different, magic was tweaked, races were different, and even classes were modified somewhat, but it had a lot of possibility for traditional fD&D activities - looting, pillaging, fighting, and carving out your own place in the world. It was "Points of Light" (4E's catchphrase description) before PoL was conceived with a few scattered city-states (that were not bastions of good by any means) separated by a whole planet full of hostile deadly wilderness where even the halflings were nasty cannibals.

One of the reasons it clicked with me was that it felt like it was written for grownups, unlike Spelljammer's "Saturday Morning Cartoon" version of D&D or the PG rated Forgotten Realms this felt like it was the "rated R" version of D&D - more raw, more violent, less nice and not coddling new players. It touched buttons in me that covered everything from Road Warrior to Spartacus to some of the Conan stories to countless westerns.

Specifically, making psionics a major element distinguished it in a lot of ways both flavor-wise and mechanics-wise. Adding half-dwarves in any other setting would have been laughable but in this one they were bad-ass bald guys that were tougher than just about any other race. Half-giants (another questionable race that worked out OK) were even tougher. This world was so tough that you started at 3rd level and rolled up you backup characters as a standard part of character generation! I really liked it. I talked my players into trying it out, we made up characters, and I ran something like 4 sessions before it petered out -

To some degree it was too different with things like bone weapons, weird monsters no one knew anything about added on top of the magic and racial changes. Additionally, 2E psionics was a wildly unbalanced system more akin to Gamma World mutations than any coherent levelled sub-system and that didn't help. A lot of our vision of D&D was tied up in a Human Paladin, an Elf Wizard, a Dwarf Fighter, and a Halfling Thief gearing up in town then riding out to some ruin and that was tough to recreate in Dark Sun.

Timing was also an issue -1992 was a year with a lot of changes for people too - some of us were working our first jobs out of college, some of us were having babies, and our once-stable schedule for the groups I played in was a thing of the past. I brought it up a few more times over those next few years but I could never get more than one other person interested in it at a time.

One of the issues I've sort of retroactively discovered is that as we get older and we have less time to devote to games and other hobbies is that the interest in trying out Option Y decreases significantly, but not because we're older necessarily. It's more because if I have 4 hours on Friday night every week to play something and I know I like Option X, then when someone brings up Option Y I have to consider whether or not I will like it better than Option X. It's not that I think Y sucks or is an inferior thing. It's not that I would have to go buy a book for Option Y. It's not even that I think I won't have fun with Option Y - it might turn out to be a great way to spend that time. It's that I have Option X, I know I will have fun playing it, and that playing Option Y means I won't get to play Option X. this is known as "Opportunity Cost" in economics and it applies quite well to this problem. There's a cyclical element to it too - when I was in junior high to high school to college I had plenty of time for games but not a whole lot of money to spend on them. For the last 15 years or so money hasn't been a huge issue, but finding time to play has become harder.

Recruiting the kids now that they are old enough to play has broken this logjam to some degree as they are more available than my adult friends who have jobs and families of their own and they are enthusiastic about everything really - they don't have enough background to declare that  Option Y sucks or that Option Z had rules  issues that were never fixed or anything else (and I count myself among the guilty here) - they just think these games are cool and want to play more of them. 

With Dark Sun coming out now for 4E there's a pretty good chance I will pick up those books down the road and run at least a limited campaign at some point. This is sort of a drilling-down of the problem stated above - now beyond having more games than I have time to play, I have more campaign ideas for each game than I have time to run. For example, I have 3 or 4 good ideas for 4E D&D campaigns and I have only been able to sustain 1 and that one has been spotty lately. Rather than retro-gaming back to 2E I expect the 4E version will retain the same flavor and provide better mechanics which make it the version to run whether it's with my grognards or with my Apprentices and that's probably the next time I'll bring up Dark Sun, though it may be 2011 before it kicks off.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Birthright and Me

Since the theme of the week has kind of turned into campaign worlds, here's a post I wrote on EN World earlier this week as someone brought up Birthright, why it failed, and whether it would be worth bringing back today.

Birthright was published in 1995 during the 2E era when LOT of campaign worlds were supported with print products. There had already been Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Planescape, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and Dragonlance box sets. The production values were amazing - the boxed set came with nice rulebooks, a full color poster map or 3, army cards,, and a nice DM Screen with that full-color painting on the outside - it probably did lose money (many TSR products did as it turned out later)  but it was a very striking set and made a strong impression. Also 1995 wasn't right at the end of the TSR run, but looking back that might have been the last plateau for them.

The wikipedia entry describes the history well:

Cerilia was originally inhabited by the elves, dwarves, and goblins. Fleeing the corruption of Aduria by the dark god Azrai, human tribes settled Cerilia. At first contact between the elves and humans was peaceful, but conflict soon arose as the human population expanded into elven lands.

After years of manipulation and machination Azrai's armies marched on Cerilia. On his side were his Adurian minions, the Vos (a human tribe he had corrupted), and the elves, bitter from their wars with humanity. The human tribes and their patron gods met him in battle at Mount Deismaar, located on the landbridge between Aduria and Cerilia. The elves realized they had been tricked by Azrai and most switched sides. As their armies fought on the slopes of the mountain, the gods themselves met in battle. The other gods were only able to defeat Azrai by sacrificing themselves. In a colossal explosion, they destroyed themselves and Azrai. Mount Deismaar and the land bridge were destroyed.

The power of the gods was not wasted, however. It shot out and entered those present at the battle. The champions of the gods, those closest in ideal and virtue to their patron as well as physical proximity at the time of the cataclysm, received the most power. They became gods themselves, a new pantheon that would replace the old.

Other combatants also received some of the divine power of the gods. On the battlefield it did not take them long to realize that this power was in their blood, and could be stolen. A scion, as one of the divine blood is called, could have his blood strength stolen if killed by a blow piercing his heart.

The divine gifts of the scions make them able leaders. They form a connection to their people and land, drawing strength from them. And in times of need returning that strength and perform great deeds. They also can have a variety of other divine powers, such as long life, the ability to detect poison or project a divine aura, depending upon their bloodline strength and the god it was derived from.

Those who find themselves with the blood of Azrai often become powerful abominations, or awnsheghlien. Corrupted by their dark blood, their bodies twist to reflect their inner corruption. Many of the major villains and monsters are awnsheghlien. Examples include the Gorgon (stone-skinned with a petrifying gaze, perhaps the strongest creature in Cerilia), the Sphinx (an insane half-cat lover of riddles), the Spider (once a goblin-king who fought at Deismaar), and the Vampire (once a young hero who killed a blood abomination named the Sinister and thus became corrupted himself).

I liked the background for the most part - the "Archvillain" style monsters like the gorgon and the spider fit a lot of fantasy fiction very well - it's more high fantasy than sword and sorcery but it should work in D&D quite well. The destruction of the gods and the creation of the bloodlines gives a nice epic historical feel and then links it directly to the PC's. The emphasis on domains with actual mechanical support is a nice change and when added to the bloodlines and the big bads gives the world a unique feel. 

Now mechanically the bllodline powers were pretty simple to handle, but domains were an entirely separate system and didn't really interact a ton with the rest of D&D at the time. This made it easier in many cases to just ignore it which I think hurt the game. Better integration mechanically and even some simplification would have led to more use of the domains in actual campaigns. I think 4E could do this better with it's new design philosophy - maybe we'll get a chance to see down the road. My take is that although it may not apply in a realistic sense, in a D&D sense being "the king" should always be a benefit to your character, never a hindrance. Wealth, some kind of inherent bonuses, power boosts tied to paragon paths - there have to be some ways to do it.

Mass combat was done in kind of a clunky way - it was a sort of card game with stats for different units on cards which were positioned on a poster map / battle mat kind of thing - yet another new subsystem that looked complicated and played a little clunky which led to a lot of handwaving. If it had come back for 3E it would have been cool to see it supported with some kind of miniatures play but realistically you need a non-gadget way of handling mass combat for D&D to really integrate it and have people use it.

The marketing was strong at the start - Dragon had big foldout ads in full color and they talked about ruling a domain and all of the things that made it different. They did that part right. Later though...with 5 major nations, putting each one out as a boxed set was probably a mistake - I know I struggled to gather them back then as it seemed like they took forever to come out. In the meantime we were also buried under a seemingly endless set of "players secrets of x" supplements that were short on content and tough to distinguish from one another (wikipedia says there were only 15 of them but it seemed like more). I think this helped kill interest in the line too as it was too much detail too fast for a brand new setting.

Overall I think timing was a factor - if it had launched about 1990 and been handled as say 2nd edition's "Eberron" (as Eberron was to 3E) then I think it would have fared better although the mechanical complexity tied into Domains and Mass Combat would have impacted its popularity. There isn't anything inherently wrong or weak as far as the concepts behind it - big progenitor archviallian monsters who control chunks of the main continent (some of whom are fallen heroes), an emphasis on running nations controlled by semi-divine player characters , adventuring to further your nation's position in the world and possibly for political reasons - it can make for a really interesting campaign that runs a little deeper than our traditional looting games. It could have been positioned as truly "Advanced" D&D - bigger stakes, bigger responsibilities. more power - but it ended up positioned as "one more option among many" and as the youngest of the 2E worlds it never matured enough to deserve a revisit by the company.

Birthright was something I really liked when it came out but I only ran a few sessions of it as my players were already into Greyhawk and FR campaigns and weren't really looking to change. It sat on a shelf, asking to be played but it never really went anywhere and then once 3E came out we never looked back. 

Looking at it now I realize it's one of the directions D&D could have gone that was stifled mainly due to business problems, not flaws inherent to the concept. It's not a new or even an uncommon story in RPG's, but this one in particular bothers me as it had and still has potential untapped. Fans have made an effort to keep it alive but I admit I was not one of them. I held onto my stuff for about 10 years but I finally sold it a few years ago. I periodically feel the need to clear out some space and a half-shelf of campaign material for a game I only ran a few times about 1996 was pretty easy to shed. At some point I might look into picking it up again but it didn't take off here back when it was new so there's no nostalgia factor at work and it's not rally a major part of D&D history, so I'm not that keen on playing in it's original form. A new version would have potential though.

If WOTC sticks to the one campaign world per year plan they have followed for 4E (although 2011's announced schedule so far makes this a little murky) AND 4E has several more years left to run then I think Birthright is worth a revisit. One book or box on the world with paragon paths and epic destinies and maybe a domain system, one book of monsters detailing the big bads and some of the different Cerilia versions of regular monsters, plus an adventure and you're good. Make Heroic Tier = "you're one of the royal family", Paragon = "you're the heir apparent" and Epic = "you're the ruler". In this world you're not going to spend your Epic levels gallivanting off in the Nine Hells, you're going to spend them gathering your armies and meeting The Gorgon head on as he tries to invade your realm! There's a certain segment of the D&D crowd that that's going to appeal to. Whether that segment is enough to justify putting it out again, I can't say but I would play it and I would run it so there's one vote.

Here's a link to the Birthright Wiki that has a lot of 3E conversion material. 

Here's another link to a short article by someone who has a lot of love for the setting and talks about some of the more detailed changes from standard D&D.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Quag Keep

Since I noted I was reading it on the sidebar I figured I ought to put something up about it now that I am finished.

It's an interesting read. I had forgotten a lot of it since I read it many years ago so I really could not remember the resolution of the story. To summarize it's a fairly average quest story. A party gathers at an inn in the city of Greyhawk, discovers details about their quest, then heads out. They encounter danger and weirdness, get some further information along the way, then eventually reach their goal (I'm being fairly vague here but spoilers will be plentiful below). The initial difference here is that the main characters are from the real world and have been sucked into a proto-Greyhawk. This is a device that turns up quite a bit in early game-related fiction but it makes it's first appearance here. Also it is technically a Greyhawk novel but well...not really. more on that below.

-Is it a good fantasy novel? No. It's just not really all that fantastic, the characters are shallow, the world is very lightly described, and the quest takes about a week from what I can tell. Plus it has something of a science fiction feel to it - not a bad thing, and not unusual in a lot of older fantasy fiction, but it doesn't read like Tolkien or even Moorcock.

- Is it a good D&D novel? No. It feels somewhat old school as in the characters are really not superhuman but the plot of the quest is not something that would happen in a D&D game and the conceit of the merged players and characters is also not something that would come up in a game. Additionally there is no magic-user in the party but there is an elf ranger, a bard, a cleric, a female fighter who knows some kind of magic, a lizardman, male fighter who knows zero magic, and a wereboar with a pseudo-dragon pet. Not exactly a typical adventuring party.

-But it's a Greyhawk novel right? Sort of. It's set in Greyhawk but it's at best a proto-Greyhawk where the city and the Sea of Dust are the only anchors to the GH we know today and almost all of the country and regional names are different and the gods are unrecognizable. They run into some strange shadow creatures, some undead (confusingly referred to a Liches though they are clearly not the MM style Lich) and some human opponents. They do speak briefly to a Gold Dragon, so there's something familiar at least. 

-Sooooo...what's the point? Well if you're a longtime Greyhawk fan or want to read the first gaming novel ever, it's worth a read. If not, skip it - there's nothing precious here. I admit I was a little disappointed in the lack of Greyhawk here. I'm not sure if it's due to Andre Norton ignoring details from EGG, EGG not sharing much, or EGG not having a lot of the countryside nailed down (as we know much of the classic flanaess map was developed for publication, not in his home campaign) or what exactly influenced how this ended up but it's minimal at best. 

All that said this is the first D&D novel and a thumbs up to TSR for getting a real science fiction author to write it. It's not among her best work but at least they tried to get an experienced professional and not a game designer who just wanted to be a writer like so many later novels would feature.

At the time this was published (1978) fantasy was entering a new period of popularity and I'm sure that drove some of the effort to get this published. If you count the rediscovery of Conan and LOTR in the late 1960's and Frtz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories and Moorcock's Elric stories in the early 70's as a "first wave" of the modern era then you have a second wave of popular fantasy starting in the late 70's with books like the Sword of Shannara, Piers Anthony's Xanth stuff and then Thieves' World as a sort of "second wave". From what I can tell this novel did not do terribly well and there wasn't another D&D novel published until 1984 - Dragons of Autumn Twilight which you may have heard about sometime in the last 26 years. Fortunately that means we don't have to blame Andre Norton for the tide of crappy D&D books that washed over us in later years and that's good as I like a lot of her work. 

So anyway, Quag Keep - at this point it's really more of a historical curiosity for old-school gamers and fantasy fiction fans than an actual good read. I'll be keeping my copy, mainly for that reason. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Forgotten Realms and Me

After all of my talk about Greyhawk I though I should spend a little time with Brand X...

I remember reading Ed Greenwood's articles in Dragon in the early 80's and liking almost all of them. he had a very easy way of making it seem like all of this stuff was coming from a real place  - the seven swords article, Pages from the Mages, the ecology articles. There was one he wrote about building a campaign world that stuck with me for years because it was so good. So when the word came down that TSR was putting out a new campaign world and this guy was the driving force behind it I thought it would be pretty good. It was.

I have a friend that I've known since I was 13. We don't see each other much anymore but he got the FR boxed set when it first came out and when we DM'ed for each other (and others) we pretty much settled that he ran the Realms and I ran Greyhawk, and we kept that arrangement for more than 20 years. So I played 1st edition Realms but it really took off for us with 2nd edition.

The 2nd edition Realms boxed set was just pure gold - gods, monsters, lots of maps, some NPC's to place. At the end of the 80's and the early 90's, the Realms was the hot world to be in - everything from the gold box computer games to the Bloodstone adventures (Battlesystem!) were set in the Realms, and I had a blast. My friend was very much an old school DM with no fudging, wandering monsters, and a fairly strict adherence to the rules, so I can't tell you how many characters I buried there but it's in the double digits somewhere. I know that just counting clerics I was up to Brutallus Maximus III, priest of Tempus, before we wound down and moved to 3rd.

The thing I liked best about it conceptually was the maps - lots and lots of maps. Poster-sized maps. Faerun. Waterdeep. Undermountain. All of these came with lots of big huge maps just dripping with interesting places. The Hill of Lost Souls. The Halls of the Hammer. Dragonspear Castle. The Battle of the Bones. The Moonsea. All of these places make me want to gather a party and go exploring. 

The thing I liked best mechanically was Faiths and Avatars. Finally, clerics could belong to a specific god and play differently than each other mechanically. Once this came out I read my friend's copy, bought my own a week later and never looked back. I played specialty priests (usually of Tempus, the war god) from then on and that's how I finished out 2E Realms. 

The thing I liked the least about the realms was the novels - many of them were just bad, some terrible. They did little to enhance the world and a lot to cheapen it. Many of the concepts in the game - The Harpers, Evermeet, Dracoliches - were cool, but then the novels just destroyed whatever uniqueness or mystery there was to them. I'm pretty tolerant of game fiction, but these were the novels that showed me it could suck.

There's a lot of old-schooler hate for some aspects of the realms, but most of them never bothered me - Elminster, etc. but I was coming from Greyhawk where we had a bunch of named high-level NPC''s too so that didn't really seem all that different to me. Modenkainen, Bigby, Otto, Robilar and Tenser didn't come from Faerun. Seven Sisters? We had the Circle of Eight. Too many gods? Look at the list in the 3E Greyhawk Gazeteer and tell me that's a short list . It's compiled from all of the 1E and 2E published material, it's not just made up for 3rd.  Now I didn't care for Kara-Tur or Maztica (more bad novels - though the final Horde novel, "Crusade" was pretty cool )  but they've largely ignored those areas since 2nd edition anyway, and in 4th Maztica got replaced by a big chunk of Toril full of Dragons and Dragonborn, which is much cooler anyway. 

So once 3rd edition came along I kept running Greyhawk and playing in the Realms and it was good. My final character was a 3.5 human barbarian who took the shield-bashing feats and had a good time smashing things up. We saw the terror of Rappan Athuk and fought some giants in a conversion of G1. I discovered the fun of high level druids who could wild shape into a Dire Bear and have a Dire Bear as a companion, letting our party take 2 giant melee beasts into the oversized hallways of the Steading, where much butt was kicked. It was a good run and 3E fit the Realms just fine. The DM was great. He didn't care about the stupid novels or the metaplot, he just ran his adventures in the world and we liked it. 

Along came 4E and I would say that a majority of the people who liked the Realms through 1-2-3E hated the changes for 4E. Gods died, nations and cities changed, NPC's died off or disappeared, continents were moved or reappeared or retconned...and I was fine with it. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with 4th, but when I finally got a look at the Realms campaign guide, well, the parts that changed I kind of like. It is a more modern cinematic style of high fantasy (floating chunks of rock in the sky, etc) and it does explain the mechanical differences with magic and the new races quite well. Plus the Realms has always been a kind of anything goes type of world so you can fit darn near anything in it and 4E finally gives us a system that supports the ridiculously high power levels seen in some of the older material, including being the chosen representative of a god on earth. One problem with older version of D&D vs. the novels written about D&D (yes Gord the Rogue included) is that the book characters would do crazy powerful things that could never happen in the game so they tended to be the Chosen of Mystra or the son of a deity or some other very special background. Now all that stuff can happen in the game  - between 20th and 30th level. If Greyhawk is a Heroic tier to Paragon tier kind of world, then the Realms is a Paragon to Epic kind of world and there's nothing wrong with that.

I haven't played any 4E in Faerun. My friend isn't running 4E as he hated the changes and there are other issues there too. 

I have however run 4E in the Realms. When I finally started looking at running a 4E game (after much resistance on my part) I didn't want to run a published module, I wanted to write my own stuff. I looked through my material and realized somewhere along the way that one of my favorite touchpoints with FR was the old computer game Pool of Radiance. It was a cool idea that was handled in a rather lackluster fashion for 1E as "Ruins of Adventure". The setup though was perfect for 4E's new "everything is leveled" approach. Once I grabbed onto this idea I pretty much had to set it in the Realms - like the Temple of Elemental Evil belongs in Greyhawk, Phlan belongs on the Moonsea in the Realms. It's not really a conversion - it just uses the same general layout of the city and has some of the high points I remember from the computer game and some of the same background. The encounters are my own creation. Many 4E books and sheets of graph paper later we're playing through it and the group is having a good time, including the DM. 

So much fun that when the time comes to start the apprentices on 4E I may place them in the Realms instead of Greyhawk as it opens up the possibility of their party meeting up with the Friday night party and teaming up for an adventure or two. Multiple parties sharing the same campaign world and crossing paths with them either as allies or rivals - now that is truly old school.  Greyhawk will be seeing some attention with the 1E campaign anyway, so I may delay its 4E time until later - I don't think it's feelings will be hurt. Down the road I can turn the Realms campaign over to another DM -maybe one of the apprentices - and actually get to play 4E - and the Realms - again.