Thursday, 21 December 2017

System and Setting (+thoughts on ASSH)

I received +Jeff Talanian's Magnum Opus in the mail last week - The 2nd edition of ASTONISHING SWORDSMEN & SORCERERS OF HYPERBOREA (Jeff was a real gentleman and let me get in on the kickstarter run even though I missed the deadline).

It's kinda the opposite of what I am trying to do with Into the Unknown. It's built on the chassis of Advanced D&D 1e, while I am trying to build a modular 'un-advanced' edition of 5e. I am going for as lean as at all possible, with six booklets optimised for table play and 200 pages of gaming material being my top limit. ASSH is a massive 608-page hardbound single volume.

I am quite in awe of what Jeff has made though. The feel of the book alone, heavy from quality paper and binding, gives it potential to become one of those treasured tomes on many a gamer shelf. And the content is dead-on. I'd like to 'un-advance' a few bits here and there. But the classes, setting, monsters and spells are just dripping with ready-to-play S&S flavor that begs to be used.

I like to just hold it. It's that well made.

Which brings me to the point of this post - What ASSH does right is that it has no implied setting. Rather, its setting is fully explicit and everything in the rules is geared towards supporting that. It works. The monster list, the spells, even the class you play - all of it leaves you no doubt that you are playing a game of sword and sorcery - All of them are situated within the lands of Hyperborea beyond the North Wind. I can't think of a better way to establish the theme of a campaign.

Ranger fighting orc in D&D
Huntsman fighting a giant gorilla in ASSH
D&D wants to be a generic fantasy system, that you can then adapt to your own specific taste. This is a bit of a false assumptions though - Because the rules themselves carry their own implied setting. +Wayne Rossi showed how this is the case for OD&D - By the time of 5e, though D&D still sells itself as an adaptable generic fantasy system, it seems at least self-aware that by now D&D is basically its own genre of fantasy.

The downside of this is that when you adapt such a system to your own choice of genre, you end up with concessions to the implied genre of the game system. Your spells say nothing about the tone or workings of magic of your world. Your monsters neither. Classes and races only to the extent that some may be banned. Your monsters are picked from the same book as any other.

Really, setting publishers releasing D&D settings are too often taking the easy route. Any proper setting realise should have a fresh spellbook, its own set of classes, its own races and its own monster manual. At best we get a few choice additions for each.

Incidentally, this is why I think Dark Sun was such a well realised setting. Every class and race got a new entry in the Dark Sun rules. Only thieves were basically left untouched. And you get to play 4-armed bugs who like human flesh. Although spells were left untouched (a new spellbook just for Dark Sun would have been beyond awesome though), the way they worked was significantly altered - And with psionics so embedded, a distinct tone for the setting was set for this as well. And monsters - I don't recall ever using a non dark sun monster. The ones made for the setting just fit so much better. Even so, the list of monsters from existing generic compendiums that actually exist on Athas is limited to 36 critters. Fuck yeah. We don't ride horses or fight orcs. We ride Crodlu (upright lizards) and fight telepathic Belgoi that ring tiny bells to take over your mind, drain your CON with a touch and want to eat your flesh.
Belgoi - Upstaging orcs since 1991
ANYWAY....

The point being - Systems explicitly supporting a system really goes a long way towards supporting a setting. And the implied setting of generic systems can actually hold the realisation of your own setting back somewhat.

The upside of generic systems is of course that you don't have to learn a new rules system every time you want to try a new take on fantasy. And everyone knows D&D. But this is what I like about the OSR - We get spins where everyone knows the chassis being used - But with exactly these things being tailored to specific genres of fantasy. ASTONISHING SWORDSMEN & SORCERERS OF HYPERBOREA is just one example. Warriors of the Red Planet another. Fantastic Heroes & Witchery, though not geared towards one genre, understands that different genres require different rules and offers a variety of them. Dungeon Crawl Classics is Goodman Games' attempt to build a more genre attuned version of D&D.

So what does this mean for generic Into the Unknown? Well, one reason I think B/X was so popular is that being so lean makes it easier to build your own stuff on top to suit your needs. And I want to do the same with ItU - Basically to realise one of the stated design goals of 5e that were only half realised: Making a genuinely modular D&D. It's easier to add stuff from a lean base than take out stuff from a more complex base. So in the future, I hope to release a Sword & Sorcery module, with a different Classes book, Spell book and monster book. A Low Fantasy module. Etc.

In the future. For now, with playtest being open, I am just focusing on getting the basic system out the door.