Friday, 13 December 2019

More Thoughts on How to Run a Proper Dragonlance Campaign (and how it all went wrong)

One of the blog entries I find myself returning to is the one I wrote about Dragonlance being a unique sandbox setting. I ran it as a kid and it's a campaign I'd love to run again as an adult. Here are my thoughts on where it all went wrong for Dragonlance and how to fix it to run a proper campaign that feels like a dragonlance campaign.

My main frustration with Dragonlance as a setting is how unrealised its gaming potential is. 

There's the issue of the novels, obviously, and the iffiness of how to set them aside in a way that makes the world more open to player characters. 
And how the original adventure that mirror the novels kind of ends up being the only story worth telling in the setting. It's not of course, but the setting has continuously struggled with its identity as a gaming world in light of this. How to escape the novels and make the setting itself greater than the original adventure path?

They've tried, but the attempts have been hamfisted. An opportunity for it was sensed perhaps, when the novels moved the timeline 25 years into the future and showed the descendants of the Heroes of the Lance able to have regular adventures free of the yoke of the "War of the Lance". This perhaps could be a time where the setting could find itself as a more open-ended one, primed for gaming. 

But no, this was just a stage for "DL is epic right? That's how we started. Let's make an even bigger more epic plot to fix things (hint: epic != bigger)" and then they blew up the setting beyond recognition with the War of Souls novels.

Game designers took a stab at evolving this into a setting more suited for gaming with the "SAGA 5th age" game. Succeeded in part, but also went down the "no wait, we need something even bigger". Setting barely recognisable, game system changed. What was even the point anymore?

"Fine, we will push the reset button to go back to something more recognisable. By going BIG one last time".
Which ended up with a setting that had been so fucked in the *** that the "reset" result was still a very weird place, that you needed to squint with some good will to really recognise, but good enough for the fans to go "good enough if they will release some game books, I suppose".

But the overall result of all this is that the first exercise a DM must undertake when starting a Dragonlance campaign is to trim the radioactive fat of all the nuclear explosions the setting has been exposed to. More on how to do this further below.

And then there is the question of what kind of adventures to run and how to do it. 
Dragonlance as a world is obviously ill suited for running your classic old school "plunder dungeons for gold and XP" campaigns that D&D is quintessentially built to run. 
How to capture the feel of a fantasy saga that you'd want to play, where the evanescent guiding touch of the deities and myth in setting the stage is felt at the edge of vision, but the heroes' own actions are what decide the outcome; that the PCs are playing their part in the weaving of history against the echoes of a rich past, without having to go to the scale of getting your faces etched into Mount Rushmore for your deeds.

A lot of the attempts have been disappointing on account of simply being uninspired. The original Dragonlance Adventures, while a decent enough setting book, set the tone by making a book that was essentially "crunch for playing knights of solamnia, etc, History section, geography section, gods, NPCS, magic items, the end." Not a wit about the feel of adventures in the setting and how to achieve it.

Most disappointing from this perspective was the 3e run. It was all about crunch and setting material and more than any edition, I felt like the setting had adapted its tone and character to the system, rather than any attempt at the reverse.

Before going into how to actually run a campaign, let's take a look at two products that actually made proper attempts to help make Dragonlance adventures feel like dragonlance:

SAGA - the 5th Age

SAGA, the game that was launched between AD&D 2e and D&D 3e that replaced dice with cards, was a valiant attempt. It's been much maligned and there are things to malign. 
The cover of the boxed set

The Fate Deck - Surprisingly good quality
The 5th age as a game setting had some nice ideas - some hooks on dragons actually play an integral part of the setting, opening the world for gaming potential rather than a stage for novels. But it was too different from the original. Dragon Overlords had transformed half the landmass of the continent, no gods, new magic. If they'd toned down the dragon overlords bit, it could have been something I reckon. As it was, it got reset with another push of the nuclear button.
And the system itself - It had potential. It really did allow for a different style of play, one that felt closer to the kind of stories Dragonlance wants to tell. But it had two problems:
  1. It was immature. Although it was developed over time in the subsequent supplements (all of them small boxed sets. I loved that), there were too many lacks and flaws. A second edition could have been a great system, but that never materialised.
  2. It wasn't D&D. It may have been more suitable genrewise to Dragonlance than D&D as a system, but at the end of the day Dragonlance wasn't a setting that attracted players who then picked up the system to play there. It was a setting that attracted D&D players who wanted to play D&D in that setting.
But, god damn it, it tried. It wasn't just crunch and tourist guides, like DL succumbed to in its 3e years. From the original boxed set and throughout the subsequent supplements, the focus was clearly on helping DMs answer the question of "how do you play the kind of game that Dragonlance as a setting wants you to play?" Both in terms of discussion of how to run adventures, but also in how the system can support the style of play.

And they made this supplement:
Any Dragonlance campaign I would ever run would absolutely make use of this book
Which is probably the most dragonlancey book ever made. It had a fair new rules crunch to patch some of the holes of the SAGA system to make it a kind of "SAGA DM's Guide" , but it also had stuff like this:
  • An extended system for creating character immersive backgrounds (see also Beyond the Wall which occupies the same genre space and has similar mechanics), complete with family, friends, enemies, companions and life-defining events. Unlike old school D&D, where the virtue is to discover your character in play, the kind of sagas Dragonlance wants to play calls for this kind of fullfledged characters from the outset. This is the only book that gives you that.
  • A whole chapter of random encounters that are more than "1d6 goblins", but can be story hooks, challenges, something from one's background popping up
  • Advice on how a GM can narrate games to make them more immersive.
  • An analysis of how to use Joseph Campbell's The Heroes With a Thousand Faces as a template for creating good adventures (seriously! good shit).
These three chapters here sit at the core of what Dragonlance adventures should be about.  William H. Connors, take a bow.

Tales of the Lance

I've enthusiastically blogged already on the sandbox found in the Tales of the Lance boxed set. If you haven't read it already, go read it, because I will assume you've read it from here on out. Go on. I'll be waiting.

Tales of the Lance represent the only other remotely qualified attempt at helping DMs run a campaign that feels like a dragonlance campaign. It is berated by Dragonlance purists for its issues with 'canon' (groan) and it carries a lot of hallmarks of being a bit messy and incomplete. Rushed out the door a bit too quickly perhaps.

The open sandbox is innovative and explores a style of play that is quite rare for D&D. One that really cuts towards what Dragonlance is about - Exploring the mythic and historical fabric of the land and in the process having a heroes journey with meaningful interactions with other characters.
Stuff like how all entries in the sandbox section have a Mood and Response descriptor helps set the tone.

The Talis Deck, like the Fate Deck in SAGA, is also used for generating adventure hooks, motivations, omens (a great lever to pull to create a more mythic atmosphere), rumours, quests and fortune tellings. The story track section on the map also hints at further use of the deck that was never realised. Overall, it adds a nice flavor element, which is what you need. And if the Fate Deck went a bit too far in the non-D&D direction by removing dice altogether, this perhaps is a good supplement.

Its main contribution is showing that Dragonlance adventures done right do not need to be scripted railroads - But can in fact be open-ended sandboxes. It turns the focus away from the grandiosely epic continent-wide adventures, to the local more faery tale-inspired coming of age tales and does it in an open-ended manner. 
Beyond the Wall does similar and accomplishes this by making the sandbox creation a collaborative effort between players and DM. Tales of the Lance accomplishes it by making the hexmap fully open, even with details of the adventure sites that can be explored. The result in both cases is a sandbox where the players have an in-game and out-of-game awareness of the their local landscape.

How to actually run a campaign that feels like Dragonlance

Alright, enough analysis and pontification. Let's get to the meat of this.

A campaign that feels like dragonlance should have the following elements:
  • Characters that start out with a background story and connections to other people. These should be elements that are activated in play. Players should know their local NPCs and be connected to them.
  • Adventures that are about exploring the mythic and historical fabric of the land.
  • Heroic quests that involve personal challenges and growth, overcoming of obstacles and meaningful interactions with other characters.
  • These adventures should be tied to the local community in some way. The net outcome of most quest, besides character growth, should be that one's heroism has had a tangible impact on the community in need of heroic intervention.
    Quests that do not may happen, but should be more akin to side treks and vignettes in the campaign.

Choice of system:

Beyond the Wall is a really genre appropriate system for all this and it should not be difficult to re-work its chargen system for the setting to include knights of solamnia, wizards of high sorcery and (depending on timeline) holy orders of the stars.

But I feel 5e is also a suitable system. It's much less character crunch oriented than 3e (which made 3e a very bad fit) and strikes a nice balance of starting characters being solid enough to be able survive their initial adventures and higher levels not running amok. Restrict multi-classing and splat books and cut down on classes, since the focus of the game should not be game widgets for the players to game, but the characters roles. 

Or (PSA: shameless self-promotion:), just use Into the Unknown as a suitably lighter version of 5e. Reskin Halflings as Kender and write up some new backgrounds to use as templates for Knight of Solamnia, Wizard of High Sorcery, Ranger, Barbarian, etc. Maybe add some light mechanical bennies for these backgrounds for a bit mechanical flavor in the role.

In either case, I recommend picking up Tales of the Lance for the sandbox treatment of the Solace area and A Saga Companion for the character background and random events generation and adventure creation advice. You can easily substitute dice rolls for draws from the fate deck the Saga Companion might want you to make. 
But if you have a fate deck, I recommend using it at the table and find other ways in the game to make use of it as a bit more flavorful alternative to dice rolls. I am envisioning letting the players influence outcomes by drawing from the deck, having the draw then also serve as a kind of premonition for that character.

Choice of Setting:

I discussed above the difficulties dragonlance has with situating itself as a world open enough for gaming. My recommendation is to start the campaign in pre-war-of-the-lance years and use the open sandbox map found in the Tales of the Lance boxed set. 

Personally, I would also make a show of opening the first session with the news that a local group of adventurers, including the local blacksmith, have tragically disappeared (if the PCs decide to explore the Sanguine Manor location, they will find the would-be Heroes of the Lance animated as undead by the vampire lord there and get to kill them to send them to their final rest - that's about all the interaction I care to for a campaign to have with characters from novels).

Besides the sandbox hexmap being set in this time, there are many excellent reasons that capture the essence of that dragonlance feel to set it here:
  • Pre-war Ansalon is a slumbering world, held back by prejudice, low level of trade and travel and a skepticism towards many supernatural/mythic phenomena that can at times escalate into persecution of wizards and followers of the old gods (I quite like the inversion of the superstition-as-the-peasant-fallacy trope. In pre-war Ansalon, the woke are those who actually believe in magic).
  • This makes it an ideal setting for low-level coming-of-age adventures where the PCs start out as adventurers somewhat outside the boundaries of a local ordinary community that they are nevertheless strongly connected to, exploring the liminal realm of the wider mythical world of Ansalon that most people don't really believe in anymore.
  • Such crossing-overs into the mythic landscape are almost transgressive acts against the ordinary community they come from ("I am telling you, the undead of Sanguine Manor are very very real and they will prey on us if we don't do something!" "And I say young troublemakers who conjure up fanciful tales to frighten children should be run out of town till they get their heads straight!").
  • Nothing big has happened yet. The impact on the world is for the PCs to make.

Where to go from here:

As the players level up, they will no doubt set their sights beyond the immediate surroundings of Solace and expect adventures of wider impact.

I recommend simply not having a War of the Lance arch and making this clear to players from the outset. Ditch the railroad. Instead, take the good elements of it and convert it to a sandbox. Make adventure hooks and Fronts out of them that the PCs can pursue at their leisure. 

A lot of these elements can make for really good adventures, but there is no real reason that they must be tied into a grand "One Threat to Rule them All" story arch with a forced pacing of "the war of the lance means the world needs saving right now" and strict sequence, nor does a campaign need a culminating result of saving the world and becoming alltime great heroes of the world.

In fact, I would argue they become a lot more meaning without it, when they are adventures that the PCs choose themselves, that unfold at a more natural pace with adequate time given for these events to soak into the unfolding of the campaign. 
It still makes the world one that is awakening to a new age of dragons, but rather than a dramatic all-in-one event, it is a more gradual unfolding. A series of independent streams of events that each in their own way herald the dawning of a new age, that need not happen in any particular sequence, where there is no mandate for all of them to happen, nor any specific outcome for them to happen in.

With that said, I would plunder from all future events in the SAGA as possible hooks and fronts. Here are my ideas for it. Plenty more could be added to it:

Adventure Hooks & Fronts:

  • [hook] Re-discovery of the True Gods - With a focus on the impact of bringing the news back to Seeker country.
    A quest to Xak Tsaroth seems like a good way to do this. This would also make an excellent stage for encountering their first dragon. The PCs are not necessarily the ones who bring back the gods to all Ansalon, but they can be the ones bringing it to their region. Maybe the quest is spurred by rumours of clerics returning in other faraway lands.
  • [Front] Lord Verminaard in Pax Tarkas - rumours of an evil priest of Takhisis with a red dragon having taken over the fortress of Pax Tarkas down south and using it as a base for slave raids and maybe even conquest.  This one would have a series of portents for the PCs to act on before it would blow up. I am thinking the trigger for this front would be PCs discovering the true gods.
  • [Front] Draconians & Dragonlords - I am stealing from the 5th age here, since I think it is a cooler concept than mixed dragonarmies ruled by humans. A front where the appearance of Draconians is the first portent of the return of dragons. They can meet them in Xak Tsaroth and Pax Tarkas as well.
    This escalates into very large dragons, dragonlords, seizing territories around Ansalon with their draconian armies and select human minions (yes, the human "dragonlords" are minions to dragons). Nothing like the scale of 5th Age or even the war of the Lance. Plenty of scope for regional conflicts, but this is not a coordinated continental war. But plenty of scope for the PCs to get involved here (especially if they have dragonlances. see below).
    This, alongside the hook below, is the main signifier of the dawning of a new Age of Dragons.
  • [hook] The return of the good dragons - an adventure site that comes into play after PCs have encountered draconians. A nest of dragon eggs, a ritual altar. Maybe the PCs get to witness the process. PCs should be able to recognise the eggs as metallic from stories and rumours told to them prior to this (sandbox style). Option for pursuing a quest to the dragon isles. If good dragons return, they will take their grudge to the dragonlords. A few will also set up shop as benign protective dragonlords. Sometimes to the chagrin of "good" nations as well when they take over part of their land.
  • [hook] The Dragonlances - Seed rumours of these and where to find them. It's a good adventure on its own. Should only come into play once Dragonlords have started making an impact on Ansalon. Up to the PCs to decide what to do with them once they have them and who else gets to play with them. Might be triggered by an adventure involving the Silver Arm, so they have that before they set out to find these.
  • [Front] The Dark Knights - I am unsure of how to play this one. I like the 5th age way of simply disconnecting these from the dragonlords and they are a kinda cool conceit. But maybe it is too much. If introduced, I would put them up as adversaries to both dragons and normal lands alike, coming out of Neraka.
    But also as prophets, missionaries and manipulators.
    A first encounter with Knights of takhisis would probably be far away from Neraka with a few spreading the gospel of the great queen takhisis and offering conversion. Rather than straight up invaders, I'd play them as insidious and subversive.
    Protection rackets, divide and conquer tactics, push outside threats on local communities that the knights of takhisis are conveniently there to protect against when no one else is there to help.
    An enemy that is not so straightforward that you just draw swords, but rather a malign insidious growing influence across Ansalon, who pop up wherever solamnic knights are not plentiful enough to eject them, manipulating their way into more control and power over local communities. But also with enough upsides to them (they do actually protect, they do have their own honor codex, it might actually appeal to some PCs) that it is not a simple matter.
  • [hook] Silvanesti & Cyan Bloodbane - this is also an excellent adventure, with Cyan as an emergent dragonlord with eyes on the elven woods for his domain. As with all these, there is no reason this one has to happen as part of any particular sequence of events. Can happen whenever the PCs are in a good position to act on it. And if they don't act right away, then the silvanesti are just in exile for a while longer. The payoff here is of course discovering a dragon orb and saving the elven lands.
There is also no imperative for any of this to actually happen. If the campaign takes a turn where the stories unfolding are too good to be jerked around by the coming of dragons, then maybe dragons aren't coming anytime soon in this campaign and this remains a campaign of adventures in the later years of the Age of Despair. That's the whole point - an open-ended campaign, with a wealth of possibilities to draw from in the back catalogue, but nothing that has to happen.

Idea: Time Travel as re-enactment

This is more of a stray thought. But if you are into the whole re-enactment of epic events thing that the original adventures propose, a way of doing that that actually has in-world substance to it is time-travel. The laws of time travel means that you can't really change what happens, as we find in the legends trilogy where the heroes find themselves bound into almost inevitably enacting the roles that they have now filled in place of historical characters.

It's something I think is actually quite thematically appropriate to a world like dragonlance, as a kind of Journey into Myth, exploring the mythic fabric of the world by re-enacting the history of it through time travel. It would have to be something more haphazard and mysterious than "let's travel to the second dragonwar and be like Huma", more like the accidental crossings into faerie of medieval lore. I am seeing a lot of parallels in this kind of mythic quest with Glorantha. Anyway, just an idea for what could be a cool way for PCs to connect more deeply with the world and its history.


That's it, basically. In sum:
  • Ditch the railroad War of the Lance and make the campaign an open-ended "Dawn of the Age of Dragons" sandbox, with a slower pace and little attention to sequence or outcomes. There is plenty of very good adventures  to use from the back catalogue once you unhinge them from their railroads.
  • Focus on how to create these tales meaningfully. Focus on character development, community interaction and engagement and exploration of the mythic and historic fabric of the world.
  • Use a system that will lend focus to richness of character over richness of character options. Use a detailed character background system such as found in A Saga Companion or Beyond the Wall. Do not use Pathfinder or 3e or other games where character optimisation is a mini-game unto itself.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Review: Ba5ic

On reddit, I was alerted to another 05R game, BA5IC, an OSR adaptation in 54 pages that was released in October and is PWYW. I shelled out the recommended 2 bucks and decided to have a look. I will do a basic review and also compare it a bit to Into the Unknown and 5TD.

tl;dr - A whiteboxed Epic 6 treatment of 5e that has some good stuff in it, but ends up looking a bit more like the author's heartbreaker than a fullfledged game.

Presentation & First Impressions:

Clocking in at 54 pages in letter format (23,000 words), this is another candidate that goes even slimmer than whitebox. The layout has generous whitespace on the outside, a bit too much for my liking considering the narrow space between columns and slightly cramped space between paragraphs. It is not so much worse than Into the Unknown in this regard though, but still a noticeable difference coming from 5TD's generous spacing on every page.
Still the layout is mostly neat, paragraphs mostly don't bleed on to new pages (or columns, even) and most of what you want to be able to see in a single pagespread, you do see. All in all, a nice and usable layout for the table.

With its slim volume, I first thought this was perhaps another whitebox treatment of 5e, but that doesn't seem quite right. Nor is it B/X. It strikes me more as something more akin to a mix between whitebox and Holmes Basic as an introductory game perhaps? This is underlined by how it goes only to 6th level. But in other areas, it clearly is more of a whitebox game, as we shall see in its monster treatment. More on this later.

The first two pages give us a very brief introduction and then a handy page of definition of terms. Then its off to chargen.

Rule stuff:

We get your usual three classic races+human, and only three very broadly defined classes - The adept (the spellcasting class), Warrior and Expert. Where Into the Unknown uses 1st level Class features and 5TD uses 3rd level archetypes to pay homage to the wealth of 5e classes weeded out, Ba5ic uses backgrounds. I like this a lot. It's probably my favourite way of 'kitting' the 3 or four base classes with the flavour of later classes, that I've seen so far.
After reading that, my head is toying with the idea of an 'unearthed arcana' class structure for Into the Unknown using this framework (though I think I'd take the feat currently baked into the class feature choice and assign it to the 'kit' background to give it this customisation choice a bit more oomph).

Spells are quite limited. Even though the game goes to 6th level, spells cap at 2nd level and there are only two of those (and six 1st level spells). A sidebar later on explains that this is to help the referee control what magic looks like in their world and that they should feel free to pull in whatever they like and want from 3rd party supplements. Although I wholly agree with the principle of it, I dislike the tendency towards making games requiring 3rd party support from the outset, also found in 5TD.

Unlike 5TD, Ba5ic is meant to be fully compatible with 5e. This is not true for the classes though and I am a bit confused with what the author is going for here. 1st level characters get an extra hit die, adepts recover all spell slots with a mere short rest. Opposite direction of the more old school take 5TD went with.

Experts seem to vastly outshine Warriors as they both have d8s for hit dice, both get extra attack at 6th level and the expert can do loads of extra actions as bonus actions, whilst the warrior gets +2 to hit and a second wind. All in all, class builds strike me as the most significant change from 5e. Without having seen them in play, I frankly find it hard to tell from reading how they work out at the table.

Anyway, a lot of the stuff that comes next is straight up 5e, such as equipment, weapons, adventure stuff like light, vision, movement, encumbrance, short & long rest, until we come to:

Encounters. Here we get an old school take on surprise, random encounters and time in the dungeon progressing in 10 minute sequences and 1 day in the wilderness. This feels a bit too brief and tacked on to me, but I am biased here given how ItU takes pain to try and make a timekeeping system that integrates long and short rests with resource management etc. into the dungeon/wilderness unit of time.

The combat system is as per 5e, with a few sections on movement, underwater combat and such taken out.

Monsters get an interesting 'whiteboxy' treatment, in that we get a list of stuff monsters in general can do and then tables of monster stats sorted by challenge rating, with no further description and a sidebar explaining that this leaves the referee free to come up with descriptions and so forth. I like it. This is the right kind of stimulant for old school creativity to insert into a 5e old schooler.

In a novel move, XP has simply been discarded and levels advancement is based on number of adventures completed. This feels more like a reflection of how people end up playing 5e when XP for killing monsters is (rightfully) discarded.

And here we also learn that the game actually caps at 6th level, making this an Epic 6 implementation of 5e. Curious, but interesting.

We get a basic treasure awarding mechanic, which is fine since the game doesn't use Gold=XP anyway and a small basic/dull garden variety list of magic items (sword +1, bag of holding etc from the SRD).

Then, in an unexpected homage to Holmes Basic, we get a sample hexcrawl wilderness and a sample dungeon, with nice encounter tables, each on a two page spread. I like this a lot.

Final Impressions:

This review maybe ends up harsher than I expected from the outset.
Despite being broadly compatible with 5e, this is something sufficiently different from 5e that it is worth making (*cough* dungeonesque *cough*). Yet, what is it? A whiteboxed epic 6 version of 5e that is somewhat old school, yet in other departments goes its own way in ways that are a bit... neither here nor there. This gives it more the character of a heartbreaker thrown together with nice format and layout than a game that really knows what it wants to be.

As with 5TD, though it impresses on the brevity, I feel the price of brevity is too costly. Though this is more of a standalone game than 5TD, it still feels a bit incomplete. Or perhaps moreso - lacking in focus.

If this were reworked into a proper introductory game that spends some more pages explaining what an old school game is and how to use this to learn the old school way, telling the reader more clearly what it wants to be and why it is the way it is (some of the sidebars do a good job of it, but I want more), maybe even going full Basic with "what is a roleplaying game" handsholding, this could be something really really good. As it is, it is... interesting, but in a way that makes me more excited about a potential new edition than the current one.

Get this if: You want a whiteboxed version of 5e with E6 baked in. Or want to check out the neat take on backgrounds.

Don't get this if: You don't want that. But really, it's PWYW so check it out. If you find anything of use, go back and pay the recommended 2 dollar tip.

Monday, 25 November 2019

Comparison: Five Torches Deep vs Into the Unknown

It's time for the.... Battle of the 05R games! Into the Unknown squares up against Five Torches Deep and we take a look at how these two games differ and what they have in common.

Introductory remarks:

As I summarised in the review post on 5TD, If Into the Unknown is a 5e adaptation that seeks to emulate the "non-advanced" B/X style of play, then 5TD is the 5e equivalent of S&W Whitebox, an even lighter retroclone than the famously brief B/X.

This difference is evident in word count. Into the Unknown clocks in at 133,000 words (B/X had 113,000). Significantly less than the 'Advanced' version of 5e it compares itself to (the 5e PHB & DMG together clock in at 410,000 words, add in the Monster Manual and it probably comes to around 600,000 words). 
Meanwhile 5TD has a mere 18,000 words (whitebox, for comparison, has 33,000).

So what do you get for the difference here? The most obvious are number of monsters and spells. 5TD has a one page spread with six monsters. ItU has a dedicated book of 64 digest-sized pages. ItU has a dedicated 54 page digest-sized spellbook. 5TD gets the job done in 4 pages. Monsters in particular is something you'd probably need 3rd party supplements for when running 5TD. Since both use gold for xp and morale, and ItU's monster book has both morale scores and treasure types for all monsters, the ItU monster book seems like a good fit for this.

Overall, 5TD seeks to be the slimmest possible version of an OSRed 5e geared towards wilderness exploration and dungeon crawl (limiting itself to 48 in letter format pages was a design goal for 5TD). Although this makes it somewhat inaccessible to those who are not already familiar with both 5e and OSR-style gaming and demands use of 3rd party material, it nonetheless succeeds at putting a body of rules ready for the table play in very accessible format and layout in just 48 pages.

In contrast, ItU seeks 'merely' to be a significantly lighter OSRed version of 5e geared towards wilderness exploration and dungeon crawl, but one that is still a full-fledged standalone game that should give game tables the same tools to run a campaign as B/X originally did (for comparison, my design goal was to keep book 1 at 50 digest sized pages or less. It came to 52 in the end as it would have been too much compromise to reach that goal).
So ItU has a more thorough treatment of what old school play is and how to run games and campaigns accordingly. Same as B/X it has rules sections on how to make a dungeon (and run a dungeon) and settlement (and running urban phases of play) and, oddly enough, is the only game I know of that has comprehensive chapters on how to design and run a hexcrawl. Despite the popularity of hexcrawls in the OSR-sphere, there aren't actually many rulesets that tell you how to do it.


5TD shares the same design vision as I went for with ItU in regard to layout: That the text should be optimised for easy scanning and use at the table. ItU splits the rules into 5 digest sized booklets, to help avoid too much fighting over who is using what book at the table. 5TD doesn't need that, as it is comparable in size to each of the booklets (except book 2).

In terms of the layout and design overall, I think %TD succeeds better at this. Its paragraphs are less cramped than I ended up having in Into the Unknown, easier to scan.
Below are some examples of roughly equivalent sections in first Into the Unknown and 5TD (note that ItU is digest sized and 5TD letter sized):

Introducing the core mechanic in ItU

Overview of combat actions in ItU

The Core Mechanic in 5TD - note the generous sidebar with example

Some basic mechanics in 5TD

Rule stuff:

This will be a dense overview of differences, but I hope it give you a detailed impression of how the two games approach their common task in different ways.

The Commonalities:

Both games are based on 5e and simplify the 5e chassis a great deal to achieve an old school style of play.

Both games  shave down the number of classes to a basic four and both implement a class choice to pay token homage to the variety of classes found in 'advanced' 5e (fx. Itu has a Class Feature choice at 1st level that let Magic-users choose between Wizard/Sorcerer/Warlock, 5TD has an archetype choice at 3rd level that give Mages similarly named options).

Both games have ditched feats and the skills system in favour of an even looser and more broadly defined 'proficiency area/check' system.

Both games are explicitly designed to support wilderness and dungeon exploration and what they add of rules to the game are all geared towards this aim. Neither game shies away from using more modern mechanics to achieve this goal (for example, in tracking encumbrance.

Both have rules for henchmen.

Both games are geared towards procedural generation of content and outcomes in play. So they both have reaction rolls, morale rolls and so forth (more about some of these procedures below).

Both games have level progression tables closer to old school numbers (5TD approximating the Wizard xp progression, ItU based on the Thief progression table) and use gold=xp for awarding XP.
Both limit the available levels to 10 and 9 respectively.

The Differences:

5TD (incidentally, following white box on this) has race distinct from class and offers the classic three demi-humans.
ItU, following B/X, has race-as-class as an optional rule and offers the classic three demi-humans as class options.

ItU has full compatibility with 5e as a design goal. Thus the classes are designed to be fully balanced against characters designed with the 5e PHB and vice versa and basically the game uses similar math.
5TD departs from this to have classes be significantly lower powered than their 5e counterparts and more similar in this way to TSR-era D&D and ditches backgrounds. It also flattens the overall maths of the game even more than 5e.

Likewise for compatibility purposes, a lot of rules in ItU are taken straight from 5e, with the main difference to 5e being terser presentation and clarity of when to use the rules (fx. exhaustion, hiding, light & vision, traps, conditions and the combat rules).

In contrast, 5TD has its own simpler rules for traps, stealth, light and exhaustion.

In what is perhaps the biggest departure from 5e, 5TD radically simplifies the combat system. Gone are bonus actions, or having a suite of standardised actions to take, along with rules opportunity attacks, two-weapon fighting, unarmed combat, cover, being prone, creature size, initiative rolls, underwater/flying/mounted combat. In its place, we get a simpler range definition (close, ranged, far) and a declaration that if one side is wildly superior in combat, no rolls are needed. Less than 2 letter-sized pages all in all.

In contrast, ItU follows 5e but focuses on condensing and clarifying all the combat rules to a mere 12 digest sized pages with clearer layout and organisation for use at the table.
Its new contributions are on the GM side - A new framework for encouraging and adjucating improvised moves in combat and distinct rules for retreats (both orderly and not) and chases and a 2 page discussion on how GMs can make combats more exciting.

ItU retains and condenses the 5e rules for breaking items, poisons, traps. 5TD has its own corruption mechanic for dealing with poison, disease etc and has a very basic handwaving mechanic for traps.

5TD has a simple "gold captured = xp" mechanic (I read 'captured' here as returned to safe camp, as 5TD also has a mechanic for returning to safe camp).
ItU only awards XP for gold spent on non-enhancing stuff (so no XP for gold spent on new armor and such) and takes the 5e Downtime framework and expands it into a "how to spend your gold between sessions" framework.

Following B/X, ItU has a stronger focus on time-tracking in the dungeon and wilderness than 5TD. It departs from B/X with a modern take on time-tracking, by rolling resource-management and procedural encounter generation into the same mechanic and applying the same time-advancing mechanic to all phases of play (dungeon, wilderness & downtime), basically making wilderness and downtime more explicitly turn-based the same way dungeon exploration is in B/X.

On the other hand, 5TD puts more focus on the resource management aspect of the game, introducing new modern mechanics for supply and load, with rules for foraging, equipment damage, repair and crafting tying into this.

ItU adapts and expands the basic overland travel pace system of 5e into a fullblown hexcrawling system, tied into its time-tracking mechanic. 5TD uses its own basic overland travel system, with its own time-tracking system and a nice mechanic for returning to safe camp.

I mentioned both rules favour procedural generation of content and outcomes in play. Since 5e has very little of this, it is perhaps not surprising that the two games manner of implementing this differ.

Both have Morale - ItU morale lifted straight from B/X and its main contribution here is adding in morale scores to all creatures in the monster book.
5TD has a simple and elegant morale calculator based on wis mod+proficiency bonus+HD against a d20 roll.
Both have reaction rolls. ItU uses a modernised version of B/X reaction rolls, whilst 5TD has its own d20 mechanic.
On a personal note, I would never use a d20 for morale and reaction rolls as I'd want a bell curve for this to make it less swingy.

5TD has an excellent 4 page spread for creating new monsters on the fly and a sample of six pre-generated monsters.
Meanwhile ItU has 5 pages dedicated to procedural generation of new magic items and another five pages of pre-generated items.

Finally, ItU comes with 10 extra pages on how to make new tables, make rulings and houserule your game to suit your needs.

The last point I want to discuss is spellcasting. ItU simplies 5e spellcasting system a little bit and shortens the spell list somewhat (but not overly so) to a more manageable number, but its main contribution is making spell descriptions a lot shorter and terser, as opposed to the overly detailed boardgamey spell descriptions of 5e.

5TD, in its secondmost radical departure from 5e, has one page for arcane spells and another for divine spells. Five spells per spell level, each get two lines of description and that's it. The more I look at this, the more I like it. This is a proper open-ended magic system (the open-endedness is balanced against a spell failure mechanic).

Because let's face it - 5e spells are boring as fuck. They've solved the linear-fighter-quadratic-wizard problem by making spellcasting a wholly utilitarian boardgamely-constricted affair. That is to say, taking all the magic out of it.
Spellcasters in TSR era D&D had limited and more difficult opportunities for casting spells, but where the casting of spell could radically alter a given situation. In 5e, spells are easier to cast and can be used far more frequently. In contrast, spells are weighted more in the direction of influencing situations as opposed to radically altering them. This to me takes most of the flavour out of spellcasting in 5e.
And ItU more or less follows suit on this (I chose to do so in full knowledge of my own dissatisfaction with the system). Which is why I like that 5TD have gone towards a much more open-ended system that demands creativity from spellcasters. I'd also offer up Wonder & Wickedness as an alternative level-less spell system that I think could work well. In the future, I'd love to make an alternative spellbook for ItU (or several) that offers an OSR take on spellcasting for 5e, even moreso than what TSR D&D managed, which still has plenty of bland utilitarian spells (deliver us from Spider Climb and Magic Missile).

Final Impressions:

Although both systems get mentioned as candidates for those seeking lighter OSR versions of 5e, it should be clear from this comparison that their design goals and ways of implementing a fundamentally similar vision are quite different in scope and execution. Recommendation? Get both and take what you like from them. :)

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Review: Five Torches Deep

When I first learned of Five Torches Deep, it was seeing their kickstarter launch just as I was preparing to release Into the Unknown and I was wondering just how much overlap there was going to be between this 'O5R' game and my own.

After reading Robot Goblin's comparative review of both systems, I decided to pick up the pdf and do a review of it myself. I will of course be comparing it to Into the Unknown as well, but will leave that for a follow-up post. Without further ado, let's go:

tl;dr - a "whitebox" style adaption of 5e. Even slimmer than whitebox, it is missing essential parts for running a full game, but wins out with superb layout and usability at the game table.

Presentation & First Impressions:

Five Torches Deep (hereafter 5TD) is a 5e-inspired OSR system in a mere 49 pages. Despite its short page count, it doesn't skimp on rich full color art, makes generous use of whitespace, has large fonts and a dedication to small and easily scannable sections that makes it pleasurable and easy to read.

The pdf is an unconventional landscape letter format, which looks very nice on my desktop monitor. It also has "digital spreads" which look even better on my wide screen and a 15x26.6 inch version optimised for tablet use. Really nice touch. Of the 49 pages, 17 of them are full page art, or table of content, quick reference sheets of previously explained rules and character sheet. So the game itself (or, the digital version I am basing this review on) is a mere 32 letter pages in landscape letter format.

One way it achieves its extreme brevity is skimping in places. Its rule sections on reaction rolls could have used another paragraph or two. There's no magic items, only six monsters and no equipment list. Traps are glossed over. For a gold=XP system, the lack of any treasure tables stands out as well.

The major criticism I have of 5TD is that it is not a standalone game. It basically assumes you have already played 5e and requires use of 3rd party material since due to the lacks mentioned above.

Rule stuff:

Compared to 5e. we get four races (elf, dwarves, halflings, humans), four classes (warrior, thief, zealot, mage), xp=gold and a slower XP progression table. Morale and reaction rolls are back and everything is simplified and the math made even flatter. Old. School. As. Fuck.

5TD does not seek to be fully compatible with 5e. It uses old school ability modifiers and generally blends the 5e math with B/X math. It is quite transparent about this, to its credit.

You can customise the four basic classes a little bit with your choice of archetype at 3rd level, which basically substitute for the wealth of classes in 5e (archetypes for the zealot, for example, are cleric, druid and paladin). 

Starting HP is a bit lower than 5e. The good stuff you get as you level up is much more pared down compared to 5e (except warriors, the stars of the game, who get 3 attacks at 9th level).

Combined with old school ability modifiers, it makes characters more squishy than their 5e counterparts, especially at lower levels, which should suit most old schoolers just fine.

Some of the class choices strike me as a bit odd. Zealots are proficient in all armor. Druids in heavy plate is a thing. Thieves can use all weapons, but only light armor. Watch our for the greatsword-wielding rogue in leather armor. But thieves in this game are much like in OD&D - they shine mostly out of combat and have little to do with the skirmisher rogue from 5e. 
Overall, it is a class chassis that invites homebrewing on and I mean that as a compliment.

Skills are replaced with vaguely defined but terse and to the point proficient checks, much like proficiency areas in ItU but terser. Works as it should and makes me wish I had been more terse in implementing proficiency areas in ItU.

Its combat system is very pared down. There is an active action, movement and a quick action. That's it. Usable I suppose, but perhaps not very fun if you are not used to running imaginative and descriptive combats where the rules just resolve your described actions. Fine if you are an experienced old schooler, but I would have wished for a bit more hands-holding here.

Its spell section is among the briefest of any system anywhere, and is perhaps most comparable here to S&W Light. Basically a page spread for arcane casters and another for divine casters, with five spells per spell level and no more than two lines of description per spell. On one hand, this seems too little (it also gives guidelines for how to import spells from 5e). On the other, it is a tantalising invitation to the kind of whitebox style of play 5TD seems to go for - They describe the bare essentials of each spell and looking at them, I am inclined to think it is good enough for playing the game with a DM comfortable making rulings and letting wizards be inventive with the rest.

New rule stuff:

Paring down a game to make it lighter and faster is in itself a simple exercise and 5TD does well enough on this to achieve its aims. What is more interesting and says more about the kind of game it wants to be is the rules added to its slimmed down framework. And here there are some very interesting innovations:

As compensation for not having statted out monsters, it somehow manages to pack a monster creation system into its 32 pages which is excellent and worth the price of admission alone. I will be referencing this section in my own games going forwards.

5TD simplifies encumbrance (I especially like its elegant gradual loss of speed and wish I had thought of it myself). And from here 5TD further develops gives an interesting and modern take on a resource management focused game:

Intelligence determines your (re-)supply rate, with rules for foraging, durability and repairs adding into it. This sets a clear tone of an exploration game with well defined boundaries for resources and how to mantain and manage them.

Using INT in this way ties into the design goal of no dumb stats. CHA for example, determines how many magic items you can attune to and how many henchmen you can retain. All characters have a use for every ability score.

We get rules for returning from the dungeon to safe camp which is a lovely touch. Simple resilience/exhaustion mechanics and solid overland travel rules that builds 5TD further as an exploration game. There are also simple and elegant rules for renown, which is nice.

The running the game section gives some brief and decent advice for how to run adventures along with some helpful tables for getting things flowing. Alongside the monster generation tables, morale and reaction rolls being back

Final Impressions:

If Into the Unknown is a 5e adaptation that seeks to emulate the "non-advanced" B/X style of play, 5TD is the 5e equivalent of S&W Whitebox - Extremely pared down, too slim for newbies to just pick up and play, but a welcome basic platform for old school tables that don't want the rules to get in the way and are confident of adding what they need or like on top ad hoc. 

What it adds to this is an emphasis on using this slimmed down 'whitebox' version of 5e is a resource-management game of wilderness and dungeon exploration with an emphasis on procedural generation of content and outcomes in play. So overall, a very old school re-make of 5e.

The major criticism I have is that you can't run this game without having to supplement with stuff like monsters, equipment and treasure tables from other games. 

Which is a shame, as they strike me as very low hanging fruits for a game that could easily add a dozen pages without losing any of its slim lightweight character. The game is simply too pared down as a standalone game. A few comparisons on word count:
  • PHB & DMG 5e: 410,000
  • Into the Unknown: 133,000
  • B/X: 113,000 words
  • White Box S&W: 33,000
  • Five Torches Deep: 18,000
When your game is nearly half the word count of the game that is renowned for its brevity and lightness, I think a case can be made for being too lightweight. S&W Whitebox spends 15,000 words on having a basic equipment list, a generous monster list and good magic item selection. So basically the difference in length between the two systems.

Get this if: You're old school gamers who'd like to take 5e for a pared down light and fast old school whirl and are comfortable filling in the blanks yourself. Or if you would like to steal some nice modern mechanics for old school games. I am in the latter category, will definitely be stealing stuff from this and am happy with the $10 investment.

Don't get this if: You don't like old school games or are new to gaming.

Overall, a welcome addition to the O5R sphere. It is exciting to me that we are seeing old school spin-offs of 5e. I see a lot of old school bloggers who happily ran labyrinth lord or Sword&Wizardry, but are now running old school games with 5e. I'd love for them to start picking the 5e spin-offs like 5TD and Itu that are actually adapted for old school play.

next up - A more in depth (and possibly subjective) comparison between Into the Unknown and Five Torches Deep!

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

A short review of "5e-ish retroclones" by Robot Goblin

Robot Goblin has posted a short review of three old school games with modern mechanics.

I am slightly peeved that 5TD gets full credit for "every class, and all core rules fit on a single spread or page" when I've sweated blood, sweat and keyboard-ink to achieve the same for ItU (if I hadn't been so slow to produce the thing, I could have claimed credit ahead of Necrotic Gnome for this!).

But mostly I am glad to see someone else recognise the effort I put into book 4. 
"But Book 4: Running the Game is worth the price of admission, even if you ditched everything else. I think it may be the cleanest, most interesting guide to running a game I’ve ever read and incorporates outside thinking like Fronts from Dungeon World. Its sections on dungeon and hex crawls are short and solid as a beer keg."
It was definitely the hardest to write of the five. In the other volumes, I had a skeleton to go off and a clear idea of what goes into it. In the GM guide, I was starting from scratch and relying a lot more on my own creativity. Simply figuring out what chapters to have (and not to have) took a very long time.
I consider that booklet my magnus opus in a way. I had set set myself the challenge of taking everything worthwhile I know about old school DMing and condensing it into a volume that is actually usable at the table and speeds up preparation. Really pleased to see it wasn't for nothing.

I've been glancing at 5TD, mostly a bit nervous that they were going to do a better job of it all than me. On the back of that review, I might pick it up and do a review myself. I think it's terrific the O5R movement is taking off in 2019!

Friday, 27 September 2019

Zak, Raggi, Drivethrurpg & Drawing Lines

Normally, I would simply not comment on these things, but as I am now publishing my stuff on DriveThruRPG, I felt compelled to write something.

Quick recap of what went before: Zak Smith wrote a blog about OSR stuff and was a pillar of that community. He also wrote some award-winning OSR products and consulted on D&D's 5th edition. He was always an asshole, but tolerated by many for his talents. Then earlier in the year, it transpired that he was also the kind of asshole who serially abuses women. Pretty much everyone in the RPG community disowned him, DriveThruRPG banned his titles and James Raggi, who owns the Lamentations of the Flame Princess publishing outfit that produced a lot of Zak's work, ended his working relationship with him in a "I'm sorry I had to do this" manner.

Then at GenCon, Raggi published an adventure called "Zak has nothing to do with this book", by not-zak. A few days ago, this was published as a pdf on DriveThruRPG. The plot is about "the hateful eight" who did something bad and are "blaming... Zachary Canterbury, who goes by the nickname, Zak, because he said unwise things making it rather easy to be made the scapegoat... ...They all know they’re accusing an innocent man, and are doing so to prevent themselves from being subject to any kind of scrutiny." So a fairly transparent commentary on how Zak was unfairly maligned.

The original print version from GenCon had a longer "word from the publisher" where Raggi overtly proclaims how he regrets ever having disowned Zak, how he will now 

and the house must be rebuilt.
And it will be rebuilt in accordance to my wishes, and mine alone. Anyone that thinks they have a say in this is very badly mistaken. The ‘community’ will have no say in the matter, because the ‘community’ is poisonous. You’ll take what you’re given, or you’ll go away.
With this book I reclaim my power and deny the policers, the censors, the puritans, the kindly inquisitors, all those that seek [to] define for other people what is ‘proper’, and those who endeavor to enforce their moral will upon the dreams and imaginations of others and dictate what other people may and may not create, purchase, or read.”

Renaissance Gamer has the full lowdown on this steaming pile of dung that I would encourage anyone interested to go read. Basically, Raggi is going to the mattresses for Zak.


The question then is. What to do with all that? DriveThruRPG's CEO made an executive call to leave up Raggi's not-zak product as a meta-commentary in the name of Free Speech. This in turn has led a lot of people, and also publishers, to also boycott DTRPG.

There are questions to be asked in all this. 

1. Should Zak be boycotted? Is Zak the Author distinct from Zak the Molester? 
The overwhelming response from the community has been, yes he should. I also happen to support that. At least as far as putting money on the table. The products I own already from him I might still use if it comes up (Vornheim, Death Frost Doom).

Raggi has now broken rank from this consensus to say they are distinct and he will not boycot him. Which raises another question:

2. Should those who support the publishing activities of molesters-as-authors also be boycotted?
This is, I think, a more difficult question to answer. It is certainly a lesser sin than actual molesting, and it could be argued that it is his philosophical convictions that demand that he distinguish between the author and the molester. Which, while I don't think I entirely agree with such a conviction, does change the picture. I don't think this is the case though. Quote Renaissance Gamer: one of the most puzzling defensive maneuvers I have ever read, similar to an animal that defends from predators by punching itself in the face, Raggi tells us about the not one, but two women who are accusing him of assault and sexual abuse. You see, Dear Reader, Raggi has also felt the cruel sting of people holding him accountable for his shitty behaviour, so how could he not sympathize with Brother Zak? Let he who has not beaten, or stalked, or sexually assaulted a woman cast the first stone!
I think rather Raggi has found his sympathies for Zak easier to reconcile with his own Edgelord provocateur habits and the fact that Zak has earned him a pay check for a good while, than having arrived at any sort of philosophical purity. The obnoxious and hostile manner in which he has decided to stand with Zak likewise lends itself to my conclusion - I shalt not put money in the pockets of James Raggi in the future. I also think it would serve the common good if others followed suit.

But there is a third question:

3. Should those who decide not to ban those who support the publishing activities of molesters-as-authors also be boycotted?
Here is Steve, CEO of DTRPG, and his statement about not removing the title from their shelves:
Some customers have reported this title to us as being offensive and/or asked us to remove the title from DriveThruRPG. I appreciate their taking the time to offer feedback on this title. At DriveThruRPG, I want us to provide as much space as possible for our publishers to publish books, and I want to remove books only when absolutely necessary.
Our policy is to not support the work of Zak Smith, and I have made it clear in both public and private statements that this is the case. I am aware that a legitimate reading of this book makes it a defense of Zak Smith and, in addition, can be seen as a criticism of the RPG community who moved to exclude him — including criticizing DriveThruRPG, for our decision not to carry any new works by Zak.
I have decided not to ban this book. Separated from a meta connection to Zak Smith, the content of the book itself does not cross the line into being offensive.
To the degree that the publisher’s intention is to put forth their perspective, however much I may disagree with it, on the events around Zak Smith, that is the publisher voicing their perspective. DriveThruRPG has a responsibility as the largest marketplace for makers of RPGs to tread carefully when removing content, especially when doing so would be silencing voices critical of us.
I appreciate that this decision will not be welcome to everyone. I wish that the publisher had gone a different direction and moved forward, but I won’t ban the title for expressing the publisher’s dissenting perspective.
Personally, I disagree with the decision. I think a game publisher need not give space for publishers to provide what is essentially "fuck you all rpg-community" blogpost rendered in adventure module format. I also think the premise is flawed - It is clearly authored by Zak and it is just a much a middle finger to DTRPG to have published it on their platform. I can't see it as anything but Raggi daring DTRPG to ban all LotFP products from their shelves.

But basically, Steve answers question 2 above for himself and DTRPG by arguing that those who support the publishing activities of molesters-as-authors should not necessarily be boycotted. This in turn has led to a lot of people, and even some publishers, to boycot DTRPG. 

It is at this point I find myself asking - Where does one draw the line? I will not be boycotting DTRPG as a result of their decision. I disagree with their decision. But if Steve has committed a transgression-by-association here, it is too far removed from source for me to weigh that strongly. 
I might consider buying from alternative sources though. It might also spur me to put my stuff on Lulu and recommend that people buy from there. But I will not be removing my products from DTRPG based on this either (although in considering it, I am grateful that I did not choose to be exclusive with them).

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Alternate Oerths - Mythic Greyhawk: Wizardry & the Circle of Eight

I mentioned in the introduction to Mythic Greyhawk that:
The occult workings and experiments of the eccentric scholars, alchemists and mystic savants called "wizards" can somehow tame Chaos and produce so-called "arcane magic". But how controlled is it really? And who can say how tainted they become? Godly and Law-abiding people do not meddle with such forces. Witch hunts are rare, but wizards mostly stand outside the social ladder on the fringe of society, somewhere between shunned and exiled.
A contributing factor to this is the fact that Alignment Language is a thing in Mythic Greyhawk and wizards are in the disreputable position of having to learn Chaotic and Neutral in order to cast their spells.

Archetypical member of the Circle of Eight
But a large part of the distrust of wizards is historical: It was wizards who catastrophically wiped out the two biggest empire in human history (not to mention sinking the Isles of Woe, creating the Bright desert and probably also the Rift Canyon and Land of Black Ice). And when it was time to build something new from the ashes it was mostly ordinary Oeridian men, and divine assistance, that built the foundations for the Flanaess as we know it. So who needs wizards anyway?

Which brings us to the Circle of Eight. They are not mentioned in the folio, so could easily be dropped, but I am thinking to include them anyway. Except, I've already established that there is no real Balance position in the Mythic Greyhawk cosmological alignment scheme. Neutral is more like 'unaligned' and can flip either way. So what is the Circle's Raison D'Etre? Enter Jack Vance and "Murgen's Great Edict" as found in the Lyonesse trilogy:

Murgen's Edict basically bans all wizards from getting involved in the political arena. When the wizard Twitten defies the edict, Murgen shows up and turns him into an iron post.

I like the idea, it solves a lot of issues with magic in a medieval world. So here is:

Slerotin's Stricture

"Under penalty of death, or similar finality, no wizard may act directly in, interfere with, or intervene in, worldly affairs or secular conflict."
Slerotin was the last Mage of Power who survived the Rain of Colorless Fire's destruction of the Suel Empire. After founding the Silent Ones in Keoland to uphold his Stricture in the Sheldomar Valley, he retired to act as overseer of his Stricture across the Flanaess as needed and nothing else, hoping that he might precent such disasters as Vecna, Keraptis, the sinking of the Isles of Woe and the Twin Cataclysms in the future. A short history of the Stricture:

  • From a pocketworld chamber outside space and time, Slerotin monitors Flannae wizardry for over six centuries, from the founding of Keoland till the 300s CY.
  • Zagyg then becomes the temporal ruler of the city of Greyhawk. Slerotin disappears after attacking Zagyg in Greyhawk. The Stricture is largely unenforced from here, except at local level.
  • A century later, his apprentice Iggwilv conquered and ruled Perrenland for a decade by use of demonic summonings
  • When her son Iuz began cultivating his own realm in the howling hills, he was likewise unopposed, until Zagyg imprisons him for reasons of his own.
  • Two centuries after Slerotin's disappeance, Mordenkainen founds the Circle of Eight to enforce the Stricture at a higher level again.

The Circle of Eight

Traditional wizard's manse
The Circle of Eight are the primary present enforcers and interpreters of Slerotin's Stricture. Mordenkainen founded the group out of the belief that if such a group had been around in the early years of Iggwilv and Iuz, they could have been stopped much earlier. By making it a Circle, Mordenkainen hoped to avoid the gaps that followed in the wake of Slerotin's disappearance after his battle with Zagyg and also that the consensus of a circle of eight of the most powerful wizards would make their judgements less arbitrary. He hopes for the Circle to endure for many generations to come.

Their primary foe is Iuz, who stands out as the clearest violator of the Stricture, and any wizardly apprentice and lieutenants he may have.
The wizard of the Valley of the Mage is something of a gray zone. So far his isolationalist and non-intervenist approach, and the unclear nature of his arrangement with the inhabitants of the valley, have kept the Circle from acting against him.

There are presently a number of wizards who are councilors to rulers, or rulers themselves of domains in the Flanaess. These have been visited by the Eight with strong edifications on the Circle's interpretations of the Stricture (basically - you may use divination to help your realm and overt magics to protect yourself and your nearest. You not use overt magics against political foes, nor charms and similarly subversive magics).

The Circle is known, and feared, by pretty much all wizards of the Flanaess. The exact members are a matter of speculation. A few, such as Mordenkainen, Tenser and Bigby, proclaim their membership as a matter of pride no matter the dangers of such public knowledge, while others are rumoured and a few members wholly unknown.

Most all of them are 'neutral' and, as is typical of powerful 'neutral' wizards, temper having a modest conscience with being a bit mad, self-absorbed, power-hungry and vain. (though Tenser is said to be burdened with a virtuous absence of these qualities and afflicted with a polite dignity and empathetic spirit in its stead. And rumored member Rary of Ket is said to be harrowed with an always calm and discerning intellect bordering on being considered 'wise')

They all have lower tiers of agents, apprentices, henchmen and even private troops to act as proxies, informants and muscle - Both to uphold the Stricture and to serve the personal ambitions of the Circle wizards.

The Present State of Wizardry

Although wizards are generally an independent and competitive bunch (if you think stage magicians on earth like to guard their trade secrets, they've got nothing on wizards on Oerth) who rarely organize into more than loose cabals of hard bargained exchanges, most agree that the Stricture is a useful safeguard, also from potential repercussions of the common people.

As a result, since wizards stand mostly outside the conventional social and political ladders, they perceive themselves as being a social class of their own (as do most common folk) with status amongst themselves granted by might, discoveries and knowledge. All this has led to a culture among wizards of the Flanaess wherein temporal power, or even overt use of magical power, is seen as boorish and vulgar. More salient signs of real power and attainment are peer recognition, and preferably peer jealousy.

Of course there are wizards who break the Strictures, believing they can get away with it. Either from flying under the radar of the Circle's attentions, or from going undiscovered altogether, or, more rarely, from being powerful enough to deter the Circle from enforcing it. A few do get away with it, but rarely for long. Most who violate it are punished in extremely public and demonstrative ways, to show the common people, and other wizards, that wizardry in the Flaness is governed by their own.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Alternate Oerths - Mythic Greyhawk: Religion & Cosmos

I find that I am enjoying chronicling Mythic Greyhawk more than I anticipated. Much of it are impressions from way back when, but some of it is also new discovery from taking a closer look. One thing I like about exploring a non-homebrew setting like this is the sense of exploring an independently existent world. The fact that others have studied the same world, albeit through a different prism than my 'Mythic' one, renders a feeling that somehow Greyhawk exists 'out there' to be explored. My interpretations don't feel like creating either. It is more of a - "when looking through this mythic prism, what is Greyhawk really like?" I study the lay of the land, observe and mull until Mythic Greyhawk reveals itself to me. And putting all this into writing is like a refinement process. Greyhawk stands out much more vididly and alive to my inner vision now than before I started. It's been fun. 

With that said, let's talk about religion, metaphysics and other higher order stuff.


Overall, I am not terribly smitten with the Greyhawk pantheon, to be honest. It's a bit of a hodge podge. I like hodge podge, but it should be blended in with something a bit more thematic that links more visibly to the human cultures. Since they are not in the folio, I could have just discarded them, but I decided to give it a go anyway.

I mapped them out along basic alignment lines: 
  • Neutral: There is the old (druidic) faith. These are predominantly neutral and as such considered heretical by both the Church of the Blinding Light and the Oeridian pantheon.
  • Lawful: The Oeridian pantheon of (which has a number of dark, or at least callous) gods that are predominantly Lawful.
  • Lawful Good: A major driver in the separation of Ferrond and Nyrond from Aerdi was the rise of the heno-/mono-theistic Church of Pholtus/Pelor/Rao (he has many names, depending on which aspects of his being are emphasised as most important) - The breakaways were in part religious wars - Splits that still define the Flanaess.
    The western Pelor/Rao factions are exponents of a new and higher kind of Law (Lawful Good) than the eastern one Pholtus faction, which claims the special relevation of the Church is that Law is unitary (non-comittal on the 'good' part).
  • Chaos: These are the howling demon princes and other lords of chaos that wish to invade Oerth and corrupt its people. But also elemental primordials and such. Basically, nothing that anyone sane would worship or strike deals with.

The Old Faith

The Old Faith was the predominant 'religion' of the Flanaess before the great migrations and still holds sway in many places today.
It is centered around the primal spirits that inhabit the Oerth and whose concerns (unlike gods, demons, devils et al) are strictly confined to Oerth. They are the Neutral (of the 'leave-us-alone' variety) buffer between the forces of law and chaos that keep gods and demons alike out of Oerth.

As "neutrals", they are not so much interested in balance for the sake of balance, but rather for the self-preserving concern of safeguarding Oerth, their dominion, from being overwhelmed by the forces of either Law and Chaos. Unlike the gods, they neither require nor ask for worship, but may nonetheless be supplicated for favors through various rites and sacrifices. All priests of the Old Faith are druids of various sorts - even the psychopomp Death Druids of Nerull and the Harvesters of Incabulos (the sane ones mostly work to keep his 'gifts' away. The others are frigging feral). The primary nature spirits of the Old Faith are:

  • Beory - the spirit of the Oerth itself; 
  • Elohnna - the Spring Lady of fertility and new life. Patron of all rangers (they all get their spells from her); 
  • Obad-hai - Summer King, The Green Man, Leader of the Wild Hunt; 
  • Incabulos - The Autumn Lord of decay, plagues, sickness, famine, nightmares, drought, and disasters. He who clears away the stale, weak and static so that nature may grow something new when the rot turns to soil. A hard god.
  • Nerull - The Winter King of Death. Even harder.

The Oeridian Pantheon

The gods of Law, the pantheon of the Great Kingdom and beyond, are seen as the major patrons of mankind across the Flanaess. They are the standard-bearers against the forces of Chaos that would otherwise overwhelm the world and the main reason why Man has ascended to its tentatively dominant position in the Flanaess.

They reside in the Astral Dominions (being barred from Oerth itself by the aforementioned primal spirits) and rely on worship for their power - As such they have a strong vested interest in mortal affairs, which is also reflected in their themes and domains. They are almost all of them gods of human endeavors.

Notable Oeridian gods:
  • Hextor & Heironeous - These opposites are worshipped in the same temples and are considered dual aspects of the same warrior god. A fitting image for the many flip-flops the Aerdi have made on what makes the Great Kingdom Great. Clerics tend to strongly favor one aspect over the other. Currently Hextor is the dominant god of the Great Kingdom.
  • Zilchus - The priesthood of Zilchus perform an invaluable, and mostly impartial, service to the people of the Flanaess: Banking. The Holy Tellers basically maintain the economy and are the only Pan-Flannae bank in Greyhawk. Your go-to-guys for reliable service. Screw them over and you will soon find no one will do business with you. Anywhere.
  • Olidammara - The trickster god of the pantheon. Though often acting highly chaotically and mingling with Chaos, he is nevertheless aligned with Law and on the side of mankind. A less malignant Loki basically.
  • Pholtus - Though heretically seen as the One-Above-All in the Church of the Blinding Light, he is still worshipped as the Lawmaker, a major deity, in the Oeridian Pantheon. His priests often act as judges in secular courts, when the nobility for whatever reasons have disavowed that responsibility.
  • Fharlanghn - Oeridians attribute the spirit of Fharlanghn to their successful migration and eventual domination of the Flanaess. A mentality of discovery and willingness to travel far is still considered strong virtues among Oeridians as a result.
  • Bralm - the god of industriousness has played a pivotal role in building the Oeridian realms, but plays an equally important role in maintaining them. From him comes the righteousness of the classes, that society needs Those Who Toil to be governed by Those Who War. When all remain in their allotted station and perform their given duty, society prospers.
  • Erythnul - Despite his fearsome nature, this dark god has a place in Oeridian society as that which drives their enemies before them and has those who should cower in righteous fear cowering.
  • Ralishaz - Similar to Erythnul, Ralishaz has a place among Oeridians as one who brings misfortune to their enemies.

The Church of the Blinding Light

The heno-/mono-theistic Church of the Blinding Light is devoted to the worship of Pholtus/Pelor/Rao (his name differs depending on culture and theological interpretation of his most important aspects, but all agree it is the same god) as the One-Above-All.
'He' had a presence in all human pantheons but in 251 CY revealed himself to priests of Ferrond to be the one true god of Law (three years later, Furyondy would be founded in Dyvers as a result) and was further strengthened when the people of Nyrond and its satellite states saw the Light, converted and broke away from heretical Aerdy, establishing the Church as the biggest religion in the modern Flanaess.
Certain patron saints of the One-Above-All, who have become hero-deities in their own right, are also supplicated. Most notable of these is St. Cuthbert.

Other Gods & Godlings

The Suel pantheon was once the primary hegemony of Law on Oerth, but fell from power and influence after the Rain of Colorless Fire. These ancient fallen gods  are still found in places, but are mostly degenerate shadows of what they used to be, insane, embittered, turned savage or even feral, or all of the above.

A range of other gods exist who are mostly ignored by the gods of the established pantheons due to being either too insignificant or pursuing aims that do not impact the cosmic concerns of these pantheons.

This covers anything from fledgling hero-gods, highly local deities, forgotten and sleeping gods of ancient pantheons, the gods of the Flan (in addition to the old Faith nature spirits) and the mysterious Bakluni gods, but also gods such as Boccob the Uncaring, the ancient god of magic who is somehow a tangential part of every pantheon, and his recent vassal Zagyg.
Notable other gods:

  • Thor Kord, the heroic quest god of the Flan.
  • Wee-Jas, a mysterious and ancient psychopomp deity of death, magic and necromancy.
  • Boccob - the uncaring. featured in all pantheons
  • Istus - The enigmatic goddess of Fate among the Baklunish. Some argue she is a female Baklunish emanation of The-One-Above-All.

Non-Human Faiths

Religion is mostly a human thing, that's why humans see themselves as especially privileged species of Law and why they are the ones who tentatively rule the roost of the Flanaess. Halflings and dwarves are also lawful and have pantheons similar to Mankind's (with a few patron gods specific to their own kind), but this is glossed over.

Elves as neutral to chaotic children of the Oerth, have no gods and do not care for the cosmic conflict of Law and Chaos. They have a relationship of a sort with the gods of the Old Faith but do not venerate or worship them the way humans do. They see themselves as being basically of similar family stock as these beings and you wouldn't worship your grandfather, would you?

Other creatures also do not have gods. The "gods" of goblins, orcs, hobgoblins etc. are not gods at all, but the foul lords of the host of Chaos, demon princes and devil lords. That's like totally different.

Cosmos & Alignment

  • Law/Neutral/Chaos axis. Alignment as factions and allegiances moreso than conviction.
    Good and evil exist, but are less important (and optional) in comparison (though adherents of Rao/Pelor might beg to differ) - People who have the good or evil descriptor always have that part of their alignment as a deep conviction.
  • I am using a variant of the 4th edition world axis cosmology. I will probably tweak the mirror realms into more of a localised Fading Lands/Demi-planes thing, but otherwise:
    Astral Dominions (also sometimes referred to as the "Overworlds", or simply "The Overworld") are the cerebral domains of Law. There are many realms besides the god ones, some more wellknown than others. Possibly even infinite in number. Basically, any kind of platonic ideation-as-reality realm you can think of probably exists here.
    Elemental Maelstrom (from whence begin "the Underworlds") is the more bodily/physical domain of Chaos. We currently live in the flawed hegemony of the gods, after the victory in the Dawn War against the Hosts of Chaos. Below that is the abyss, where entropy takes a turn towards oblivion and annihilation.
  • The over- and under-worlds, though principally otherdimensional, are also physically connected to Oerth through the principles of mythic geography. Hence, one can reach the Overworld by simply flying deep enough into space. And the Underworld basically begins below the ground you stand on. Venture deep enough (very deep) and it becomes the elemental maelstrom (this also implies a certain directionality to Law/Chaos).
  • The Homebase vs Weird dichotomy is very much a thing and runs along similar tracks as Civilization/Wilderness, Law/Chaos, Mundane/Mythic, Gods/Demons, etc. A wholly Lawful Oerth would have no mythic fabric left and consequently also no magic.
  • Exposure to Chaos plays a big part in the transformation of mundane characters into mythic (=high-level) heroes. This is the paradox of champions of Law - even as they fight Chaos, they are suffused with it and made greater by it.
    And consequently, heroes are inevitably alienated from the mundane world they started from (Frodo Syndrome).
  • The sci-fi bits are downplayed (for now) and there is a stronger focus on a mythic flavor, inspired by the (often dark) folkloric faerie tales of medieval times.
    I make heavy use of Fading Lands (below) to play up the otherwordliness of encounters with the Weird and fantastical (fx. all elven kingdoms are fading lands). Many, if not most, wilderness and dungeon forays will effectively be in these 'Weird zones'/Fading lands.
  • Alignment Language is a thing. Oeridian is the common tongue and is an offshoot of Lawful. Flan is a mixed offshoot of Lawful and Neutral. Baklunish and Suel are both lawful offshoots.

Fading Lands

Classic example of a Fading Land
When places become too dissonant with the orderliness of the Law set down by the current godly hegemonythey warp and rip out of sync with the reality of the rest of the world to a certain extent. They become more akin  to private pocket worlds or demi-planes, where space, time and other rules of reality can become distorted. Essentially, chaotic pockets and hollowings in Oerth's otherwise regular dimensional fabric of spacetime.

Fading Lands become more frequent once you pass from the corelands of civilization and into the borderlands. In the deep wilderness where Chaos is still thick and unrestrained, the boundaries between fading lands and 'normal reality' become increasingly indistinct and blurred.

Common to all Fading Lands is the sense of otherwordliness, of being in a land-out-time (or at least has its own rhythm and pulse of time), that all visitors instinctively feel after entering one. Fading Lands do not participate in the same flow of time as the rest of Oerth.
They are remnants of something lost, akin to memories of something that once was, which the Oerth can no longer hold without losing its structural integrity in time and space.

Some Fading Lands are more otherworldly than others. Some of them may connect, or be coterminous, with the Overworlds or underworld. What distinguishes them from the Over and Under Worlds is that, though connections may be faded, they still have links or origin on Oerth and are in some way or another connected to Oerth geography and/or history.

Examples of Fading Lands

  • The Elflands: Once the elves roamed and ruled the Flanaess. Though the elflands remain the most accessible of the fading lands which can be entered from many places, as time passes they too are becoming more remote from the mundane lands of Oerth.
  • Faerie - Some say the Elflands are a part of Faerie. Others that Faerie is an Overworld dimensionally coterminous with Oerth.
  • The City of Gods
  • The Isle of Dread
  • The Land Beyond The Magic Mirror
  • Dungeonland
  • Isle of the Ape
  • Most of these
  • And a lot of these