Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Where is the Companion Guide?

 Every so often, I get questions about the status of Book 6, the companion volume for Into the Unknown. I've mostly said "still in the works", sometimes with quarterly estimates that haven't held up. Thank god I never kickstarted this

So, what has been the hold up?

I feel like at this stage, I might as well give a proper explanation. Basically, for the past 3 years, I've been sick from a tick bite that the doctors weren't able to diagnose. Antibiotics didn't work. For a few months, I could barely walk more than 50m without a break. Getting up the stairs to the 1st floor of my apartment was a struggle. Couldn't even watch a movie or read a book as my mind was so foggy, I couldn't follow the plot. 

Things got a bit better after about 3 months, once I started herbal treatment. I was able to push Into the Unknown out the door because I had the vast majority of the work already done and I was lying home sick every day anyway, so even though I was very reduced in functionality, the sheer amount of time on my hands allowed me to finish.

The I started work part time. And life ever since has basically just been about getting through each week. And on the side, trying to finish my psychotherapy studies I had started the year before and making sure my relationship didn't fall apart. Friends, family etc were all put on the backburner. 

I've sat down with the Companion every so often, but getting through those time consuming work periods to see it done has simply not been possible. I could process a bit of creativity, but all the grunt work of writing, calculating, balancing, etc. was just not doable with the level of mindfog I've been living with. What energy I had for those things I've had to devote to my workplace.

I didn't communicate this clearly at the time, because it was a struggle for me to accept that I was not able to do it. I kept wanting to and found my body and mind just falling short.

So where am I now? Well, I was diagnosed back in June at a specialist clinic. It was borrelia all along, just a type they didn't test for originally. Completed 8 weeks of antibiotics in august. This month I am going to the clinic again for some quite advanced treatment that should hopefully finish the job. But it's not an overnight thing. 3 years of sickness takes a toll on the body and I can't expect to be fully functional for at least 4 months, assuming it is a complete recovery.  

That said, I am doing a lot better just from the antibiotics already. And I am finishing my studies this month as well! Which means time and hopefully a lot more energy should be freeing up in the near future.

I am not going to tell you that I will have it pushed it soon after that. My backlog in life has accumulated a fair bit over the past 3 years. And we're buying a house on top. But I am pretty psyched about what I am able to do again already on a weekly basis. 

And finishing the Companion is, unlike many other projects that become a millstone round the neck after too much delay, something I am genuinely looking forward to completing. It will be a nice confirmation of re-entry into a more active life when it's done.

And I am genuinely excited about the content as well. I think it will be a high level guide unlike most others in the end, whilst still remaining true to the B/X spirit and ItU toolkit.

What does that mean for the timeline? It means it is back on my horizon of projects I want to pursue again at a time where time and energy is freeing up. So in whatever amount of time it takes to finish it in those circumstances.

Here's the cover, btw. I think it sets the tone well.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Forgotten Realms: Old School Redux

I've reviewed the Forgotten Realms as a setting before. To sum up the issues with the setting:
In its present incarnation it's an unmanageable mess, plain simple. The tabletop equivalent of the Marvel universe - Overburdened with an absolute immensity of 'canon' , loads of 'story line' developments that have no relation to gamers, universe-wide 'crossover events', desperate retcons and a handful of mary sue novel characters blazing a trail of shit through the setting that no one cares about. 

WotC have done what they can to salvage the wreckage in 5e. An ill defined event to normalize the wreck that was 4e, move the timeline forward to let the passage of time erase as much of the canon baggage as possible, be intentionally vague about what has actually changed and otherwise just leave the setting the fuck alone, so gamers can walk around without tripping over 'setting lore' at every step. It's ok I guess, as a cardboard background for generic D&D on the shelves.

But as I see it, it began its descent into chaos with their first setting-wide event (the aptly named "time of troubles"). Which was only two years after the setting was first released. So the halcyon days of the setting didn't last long.

But that early setting, best encapsulated perhaps by the original gray box and Jacquay's The Savage Frontier, had a lot going for it. I quite like how it puts takes a Tolkien-esque setting and dumps a fledgling feudal/mercantile Sword & Sorcery civilization into it. There is something to work with here that really captures players' genre assumptions of D&D. But to me, it still needs a bit of work to really accentuate what works and what doesn't. This merits further exploration to me.

So I am going to try and riff a bit to change what doesn't work to my mind and put some stuff in to accentutate the good stuff. I am mostly rewriting some of the history to paint a bit more coherent picture that more properly explains why the modern realms are the way they are today (Cormyr and Dalelands for example, I find make far better sense as successor states of Myth Drannor rather than millenia old minor nations dating back to before Myth Drannor). This itself I find also paints the picture of this Redux well enough.

Forgotten Realms: Old School Redux

First, Ed Greenwood's introduction in the gray box to set the tone for all that follows:

"Most of the area under discussion here has until recently been covered by wild forests and unsettled grasslands. Civilization is still a novelty in much of this world, even the oldest of cities on the Inland Sea, or the founding of Waterdeep, the greatest City of the North, are within the memory of the oldest living elves of Evermeet."

"City-states are common, and nations on the increase as more of the wild lands are pushed back and gathered under a single king or government."

"Finally, the Realms are a land of adventure, and therefore adventurers. It is the time of heroes, when one man of pure heart (or with a powerful artifact) may hold his own against enemy hordes, where legions of evil forces may muster and be destroyed by the actions of a few, where the nations rise and fall on magical tides which mere men can control."


The Realms is  a setting of once-high romantic fantasy, in the vein of Tolkien's Middle Earth, that has fallen into a state of decay from which humanity is emerging as the dominant power. City-states dot the realms as isolated survivor-states of former realms, whilst a growing feudalism and mercantilism is giving rise to an emergent phenomenon in the realms, that may yet prove more influential than what has come before it: Human nation-states.

The state of mankind in the Realms is somewhat analogous to the transition from the post-roman barbaric migrations in Europe to a feudal society (except that Rome here is the elven Myth Drannor and the roaming barbaric tribes are orcs, who simply move on after pillaging, leaving it to the human survivors to build a far more scantly populated post-imperial society than post-roman Europe).

A History Primer

Ancient Times - The Age of Magic
For untold millenia before mankind grew out of barbarism, the elves and dwarves had civilized and tamed the Realms. The first human civilizations emerged in two places:

Far to the south and east from the Heartlands (which is our primary topic), in what is known as the Old Empires. Alas, these lands are so distant from the Heartlands so as to have barely affected them at all. These ancient empires are said to still exist in the far south as crumbling relics, a fossilized monument to a bygone age.

The second starting point of human history, in the Heartlands, begins with Netheril, which arose perhaps sometime just before or just after the the Old Empires in the south.
For millennia, this greatest of magical empires dominated central faerun. Although the mainlands of that empire are now buried under the sands of the Aunaroch desert that spelled the end of it ages ago, it seeded the Heartlands with outposts and infrastructure that would sow the seeds for future human endeavors in these lands. 

The Age of the Orc
When Netheril fell, so did human civilization - Centuries of orc warfare, low populations and scattered points of civilisation meant that mankind survived only in fortified city-states increasingly isolated from each other, and the haphazard and short-lived existence of villages and barbarian tribes across the landscape.

Realms such as Anauria, Hlondath, Illusk and decadent Asram emerged in the wake of Netheril for a while, but none could not stem the tide of orcs, increasing isolation and natural hazard and all eventually left the land to untamed growths and barbarism.

Dwarves also saw their last great realm of Delzoun pillaged by humanoids in the same period. The time after the fall of Netheril belonged above all else to the orcs. And for an age mankind cowered in its shadow.

The Age of Myth Drannor / Age of Wonder
This changed about 1300 hundred years - When the elves of Cormanthor opened Myth Drannor as a haven for all races and erected The Standing Stone to commemorate the welcoming of all good people to the elven woods (this also marks the first year of Drannor Reckoning [DR], the commonly accepted calendar of the heartlands).

Under the protectorate and civilizing influence of the elves, mankind began to flourish. Elves routed the orcs and for five hundred years, the Pax Myth Drannor spanned all the heartlands and kept the the roads safe from the Sword Coast to the Sea of Fallen Stars. From the elves, humans began to rediscover the lost arts of magic and with the threat of humanoids on the wane, began to develop vassal states enjoying the protections of Myth Drannor.

South of the Myth Drannor sphere of influence, in the lands north of the now receding Old Empires, proud city-states had already developed on the Vilhon Reach, and these now prospered further from the rich trade that began to flow from its northern neighbors.

On the Dragon coast, settlers from the Vilhon Reach erected trading posts that would soon grow into cities in their own right, connecting the Inner Sea of Fallen Stars with the emergent civilizations of the Sword Coast.

And on the eastern shores of the Dragon Reach, city-states such as Tantras, Calaunt and Procampur began to emerge in what was once untamed wasteland, opening new traderoutes to the south and east.

Even the harsh Moonsea began to be civilized, buffering Myth Drannor from the savageries of the lands beyond. Fabulous Northkeep was erected there as the first shining beacon of civilization in these lands and proud protectorate of Myth Drannor.

In the Western Heartlands, the storied Kingdom of Man, in truth an alliance of elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes and mankind made in the image of Myth Drannor's Pax, brought the first measure of peace and civilization to these lands since the fall of Netheril.

Even the savage frontier north of these lands slowly began to be settled for the first time since the fall of Netheril.

It was not to last however. When Northkeep was destroyed by dark hordes from Thar, Myth Drannor retreated from the Moonsea area.
The humans of the Moonsea, left to fend for themselves, were forced to become a hard and cynical people to survive. This development is perhaps best exemplified by the rise of the martial city-state of Zhentil Keep, whose Bane-worshipping warriors have since spread across the Realms as the beliggerent and subversive mercenary company named the Zhentarim.

The Kingdom of Man fell to goblinoid hordes in 702 DR, and Myth Drannor found itself unable to assist its vassals with the same strength it had in former centuries.

When demon hordes finally assaulted Myth Drannor itself a decade later, there were no allies left to help. In 714 DR, the grandest experiment in civilization was left in ruins, which to this day are festering with demons and corrupted magics.

The Modern Realms

In the six centuries since the Fall of Myth Drannor (or simply "The Fall"), elves have isolated themselves from the rest of the world in hidden sanctuaries, where visitors are as likely to be shot before questions are asked, as they are to simply to be asked to turn around and leave.
Dwarves remain holed up in the last few fortified citadels they still control of their former great kingdoms, fighting off the humanoids that now roam their ancient departed halls.

It has been left to mankind to try and rebuild civilization. In the heartlands of Cormanthor, a few human successor states soon emerged in the wake of the Fall.

In the very heart of the Cormanthor woods, human refugees from Myth Drannor spead into the vales dotting the ancient woods, finding that their new rural way of life made them too insignificant for evil forces to take notice of. The Dalelands, as they eventually became called, have lived on ever since under the cover of rural and decentralized inconspicuousness. Though elves still inhabit the deeper woods, the dalelander know to stick to their well-throdden paths and villages where most monsters will not go.

On the western rim of old Cormanthor, a feudal society emerged soon after the Fall where, in the image of the gallant elven champion, righteous warriors assumed lordship of the peasant population they protected. The greatest among these "knights" (as they came to be called) they named 'King' and thus was born the kingdom of Cormyr. In the centuries since the Fall, much of what was once deep woodland has been tamed to make way for town and agriculture, but much monstrous wilderness still remain to threaten the fragile communities of this kingdom.

South of Cormyr and the Dales, the trading communities of the Dragon Coast were left to fend for themselves in a hostile world. They've grew into fiercely independent and festering pits of rogues, backstabbing and corruption.

The Vast on the eastern shore of the Dragon Reach soon regressed to untamed wilderland, but less than a handful of human city-states, now left isolated and independent after the Fall, remained as points of light, where mankind could shelter themselves behind its walls against the encroaching spread of chaos.

A few centuries later, in 913 DR, settlers seeking their fortune in new lands away from the now stagnant and quarreling city-states of the Vilhon Reach, founded the mercantile nation of Sembia on the edge of the old Cormanthor woods and its rise has seen proper trade begin to emerge in the region for the first time since the Fall.

In the Western Heartlands, no successor states have emerged in the wake of the destruction of the Kingdom of Man and the land has reverted to mostly uncharted hinterlands, dotted by a smattering of small holds, villages and keeps that spring up, only to be abandoned within a generation or two.
A handful of small city-states and scattering of walled towns are the only enduring signs of civilization here. The most significant of these is the emergent city-state of Waterdeep, which has become the main hub of the Sword Coast. A hope perhaps, that civilization may take root here again some day.

North of these lands lie the Savage Frontier, where civilization ends. Even moreso than the Western Heartlands, the North is an untamed wilderness grown over the ruins of long lost empires such as Netheril and  dwarven Delzoun. It is teeming with orcs, trolls, barbarian tribes and monsters, who regularly descend upon the hapless palisade of villages that eke out short-lived lives in the wilderlands.

Paradoxically, the last unspoiled remnant of Pax Myth Drannor lies in these northern wastelands. Silverymoon, though originally no more than a frontier outpost erected in the finals days of Myth Drannor, has survived untouched, as if frozen in time, from the halcyon days of Pax Myth Drannor and is now famed as "the gem of the north", a sanctuary of arts, lore and magic where people of all races continue to live in harmony amongst its gilded streets, marbled domes and arched bridges.
This is all thanks to its succession of powerful "High Mage" rulers who have protected the city from its savage neighbors since the days of Myth Drannor. The current High Mage is a powerful sorcery queen whose just rule has extended for nearly two centuries.

The Lands Beyond
Where the history of the Heartlands have seen ages of splendor ended by long ages of darkness and something new having to be built on its ruins, mankind south of the old Pax Myth Drannor have had a different evolution of history

The Old Empires to the south, though withered and decayed, still stand as they have since the days of Netheril. As the Old Empires receded from their wider territories, the successor states that sprang up in its wake - the Empires of the Sand and the cities of the Vilhon Reach - have themselves grown now millenia old by now.

Where they touch the borders of the Heartlands, they remind the fledgling realms there that their civilizations are still no more than barbaric upstarts in the eyes of the old kingdoms to the south. And yet, for all  its proud unbroken history, the southlands are stale - Visitors to these land find a sense that their times of prosperity have come and gone and they are merely living out their last ages of decadence and insularity on the shoulders of past glories they can no longer emulate themselves.

In the Unapproachable East, even more exotic successor states to these ancient empires developed. Woodland realms ruled by powerful sorcery queens and witch covens. And dread Thay, the legendary kingdom of the red wizards, where undead are said to walk the streets and slaves toil to build arcane ziggurats and towers of their wizardly rulers.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Setting Review: Primeval Thule (+new setting map)

NB. If you're only here for the cool new map, it's at the bottom of the post.

Primeval Thule is a "sword and sorcery" pastiche setting that takes its primary inspiration from Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft - For D&D. It has books for 5e, 4e, pathfinder, 13th Age and Savage Worlds. Here I will be reviewing the book for 5e.

Despite the strong influence these authors have had on the D&D genre, D&D settings who take these as a primary and overriding influence are rare, so a setting adopting a more purist interpretation of these is a welcome addition. The concept art for the setting certainly makes an evocative intro:

What other settings might compare to such an effort? Setting to one side pastiche OSR efforts (such as Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea), then Wilderlands of High Fantasy has a lot of S&S, but its (delightful) kitchen sink approach means it can not be considered a focused effort for the genre. Dark Sun perhaps is the best attempt at the genre. Not in the least because it is a genuinely innovative and well executed take on the genre as opposed to the pastiche efforts seen elsewhere (note: I love a good pastiche. It's a timeless stable of fantasy - And Primeval Thule being a pastiche effort in no way detracts from its merits. It just means I evaluate it on how well it manages to pastiche). 

Which brings us to the design team: David Noonan who worked on a bunch of D&D books for WotC from 3rd to 5th edition, Stephen Schubert, once lead-designer on 4e D&D, and Rich Baker, who wrote a bunch of 3e books (including the Forgotten Realms setting), wrote some books for the original Dark Sun line and was the lead designer on Dark Sun for 4e. An interesting cast for a mainstream setting effort in a genre that is typically the domain of DIY creators in the OSR.

The setting at a glance

Primeval Thule is a sword & sorcery pastiche that most calls to mind Conan's Hyboria. It is set as a bronze age society in Greenland 25,000 years ago, three centuries after the sinking of Atlantis.

It has all the things you'd expect - decadent city-states, lost worlds, barbarians, corrupt priests and wizards, slaves, savage wildernesses and such. It narrates this in the form of a travelogue from someone from another land. This allows the book to explain also what it is not ("there are no knights here, O king") and frames the callous and brutal nature of the setting as it would appear to a non-native. It is not quite The Wanderer's Journal from Dark Sun, but it does its job well enough.

The book does a good job of describing the lay of the land (which is dominated by jungle and glaciers) and its flora and fauna and how hostile all of it basically is to humans. Reminiscent of Dark Sun (albeit less extreme) and sets the tone in a good way.

Besides a plethora of unnamed lesser gods, there is a widely worshipped pantheon of nine deities of civilisation (half of them evil), who generally oppose the many slumbering Old Ones seeping through the cracks.

Your go to monsters are not orcs, goblins, ogres, devils and demons, but beastmen, deep ones, serpentmen, winged apes, mi-go, moonbeast, Shoggoths, giant snakes, sabertooth tigers, rakshasa, headhunters and cultists of the Old Ones. Your otherworldly critters tend to come from beyond the stars rather than other dimensions (parallel earths are still a thing). I like it.

The bad

I have read some online critiques that it does not do what it sets out to do (which is - properly pastiche the Conan+Cthulhu genre) but I mostly disagree with this. Some of the critiques are put down to inconsistent editing and tone of the setting and others are, imo, simply a product of a much too restrictive view of the genre.

One argument I will address is the presence of demi-humans. Elves I find are quite well executed - They have their home city which is eerily quiet because they are all basically stoned out on drugs. Love it! 

Then there's dwarves, which is less well executed. They are a race of arms dealers and mercenaries who have only one city (and a few wild clans in the icy north), so there is that. And in the bronze age culture of Thule, they are the only ones who know how to craft iron and steel, a secret which they guard zealously (including hiring assassins if they discover thieves or looters wielding steel). Nice touch. And then what? I am missing some attempt here to situate them better in a S&S context. Accentuate their greed, maybe make them incapable of empathy (clan loyalty does the job) and obssessive nature. Guys like these maybe:

"Heard you carry an illegitimate steel sword, guv. That's about to end."
rather than this
This is the picture in the setting book for "Thulean Dwarf".... :(
I don't know... But something more.

And then there are halflings. I don't know what the fuck they wanted them in for. They are described as savage-but-friendly woodland dwellers who prefer to hide from others and are very good at that. A kind of Dark Sun-lite take on them? I don't know what they are doing here. Absent a good new take on them, I'd simply erase them. Outside the player-facing description, they are referenced only very briefly in the atlas, so it's an easy job. If kept, I'd go the Dark Sun route and have them stand in for REH's Picts: short, absolutely savage and hostile head-hunters. Thule has head-hunters anyway, so not a far stretch.

Either way, making any of these a player race seems odd given their rarity and doesn't fit well with the tone of a S&S setting. The kind of races I am looking for in a setting like this is Amazons (sadly absent) and Atlanteans (which we do get). If you must have a demi-human PC, make it a sidebar as a strictly optional rule for those rare groups who come into contact with them.

Though I recognise the inconsistent tone of the book at times (grim and brutal setting... with 'heroes'. Episodic adventure, here's some campaign arcs), they are more cosmetic flaws than anything, easily brushed away and do not significantly detract from the upsides of the book:

The Good

First of all - This is a solid pastiche. It oozes flavor, hits a lot of great notes and you have no problem envisioning Conan having Conan-esque adventures in Thule. It works. What few things I may be missing can easily be inserted.

Besides the overall good execution of the setting atmosphere and depth, the setting stands out as being more than just a tourist guide to the setting as many books of this type end up being, with a strong focus on helping both GMs and Players to get into the setting and make use of it. Make no mistake - This book wants to be used for gaming.

On the player side, we get narratives for 5e - which is basically backgrounds, but anchored in the setting and with a few extra mechanical bennies. An excellent and simple way to get players immersed in the setting from the get go. It's stuff like "Free Blade", "Dhari Hunter", "Katagian Pit Fighter", "Jungle Trader", "Star Lore Adept", "Ice Reaver" and "Sacred Slayer". They all come with nice suggestions for where one might be from and what classes work well with them. All settings for 5e should come with their own background selection like this. It's great stuff. Also, no paladins. Worth mentioning.

On the DM side, there is advice for how to run S&S adventures with an emphasis on episodic adventures, horror, the rare and alien nature of magic,  XP for gold and, bit odd given the emphasis on episodic adventures: suggestions for campaign arc. But whatevs. Having a few red threads running through a campaign is no bad thing in a sandbox campaign either, if the railroad can be avoided.

The rest is there to support the DM at the table and fuel his imagination. No less than 24 dungeons get quick writeups. The Atlas has nice little sidebars on what kind of adventures could be run in each area. Scatterred through the atlas are select maps of dungeons in the region. And the focus in the atlas is generally on "Here's the quick intro to the place, here are blurbs for interesting NPCs to have some fun with and here are adventure locations for you to explore". It's good solid game-friendly material.

I like terse and slim settings that don't burden me with 'canon' and excessive lore. Thule is on the heavier side for a setting book, but its focus is absolutely on the game utility side rather than developing lore and trivia. A top effort in this regard and something that makes it a really worthwhile investment to pick up rather than just make your own setting. It packs the book with info to get your imagination going and develop stuff, rather than encyclopediatically tell what it is all about.

One last thing on the "good" list deserves its own entry:

The Map

My first impression of the map was one of those things that turned me off the setting a bit to begin with. I mean look at this:

In terms of artistry, this is as functional as it gets. Just plain colours, no iconography, barely even any gradients. But when you look at it in detail as a game map, it is marvelous. It does the same thing that I praised the Tales of the Lance map of Ansalon for doing in my review of that map. It fucking loads the map with adventure sites.

What's the deal with Cruel Haddar's Tomb in the Skullthorn Wilds? What is in the Dungeon of the Man-bane in the Semiji Jungle? The Sleeping Fortress in the Valley of the Last Breath? The Caves of Entropic Wonder at the edge of the Serex Glacier? Or City of the Risen Apes in the Kurmanur Wilds?Or Lair of the Thought Eaters in the Sussurian Jungle? Or the Tombs of the Marrow Reavers? Temple of the White Ape? Caves of the Red Plague? Eyrie of the Sky-steeds?

I don't know, we are never told anything about them. But it makes me want to fucking go there and find out. I could go on listing sites; the map is absolutely littered with them. And some of the locations do get short blurbs in the Atlas to get you going.

It's the kind of map that makes me want to run an open sandbox campaign where the players (not the PCs) have full access to the map and can indicate to the DM what sites hold their interest and then the DM can seed the rumours table with these and more.

Fortunately, the basic nature of the official map means that it wasn't all that difficult to separate the different geographical types and legend of the map into layers and re-draw a new map on top of it with just a bit more artistic effort. 

That's right, kids. Never say your uncle Anders doesn't bring you any treats!

Below is the map I whipped up in a day or two, in two versions. A clear one and a more faded 'older-looking' map. They are really big (6853x5514, 37 MB) so you get all the wonderful detail of the map if you want to print this on a giant-sized sheet. I'm printing it on A3 later this week and looking forward to the result, but this could easily take A2 as well.

This is just a preview. Click here to download the full-sized image.

This is just a preview. Click here to download the full-sized image.

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Alternate Oerths - Mythic Greyhawk: More on Iuz

First, a little sidenote further on the nature of gods from Appendix A in Temple of Elemental Evil. Here we get a full list of deities and they are classified in three: "Greater", of which there are roughly a dozen, "lesser", of which there are many, and "demigods", of which there's a handful. 

Looking at the number and nature of the greater gods, it tallies well with my assumption that lesser gods are the kind of embodied, fallible deities who busy themselves with human affairs I discussed in my previous article, whilst greater gods are genuinely transcendent; pantheon fountainheads. more akin to sentient cosmic principle than to the kind of "divinely endowed people" the lesser gods are. With that out of the way, on to Iuz...

Representing Iuz the Old as something more out of a slavic mythic north, a la Koschei the Deathless
The description of Iuz in the Folio as "Old Iuz of fear-babe talk", who has ruled the lands from the Howling Hills to Wyestil Lake "for ages longer than any man can live" is a nice pithy summary to frame any discussion of Iuz.

Again, this doesn't really paint a picture of the hell-bent Sauron-esque conqueror of later supplements, but leads my mind more in the direction of Koschei the Deathless. I like this image of Iuz as an ancient and mythic slavic evil, whose origins opaquely fade from history into myth. A male Baba Yaga, but way more wicked.

After so long of being a bit 'meh' about Iuz as stock evil overlord who simply wants more power and territory, I am fascinated by the concept that follows from bigging up his cleric aspect - Iuz as the philosophical Zealot of Chaos, upsetting the nature of things by being the first human turned chaotic evil godling.

I now also figured out what to do with him being "the first human turned chaotic evil godling", as Gygax named him in his original writeup in Dragon #67:

In Mythic Greyhawk Cosmology, I have demon princes of Chaos stand in for 'evil gods', and the gods of man are basically seen as the Lawful bulwark that keeps the demonic hordes of Chaos from swarming over and destroying the world (followers of the Old Faith might say that the primal spirits of the Oerth have kept both Chaos and Law from doing this). 

A Lawful/Good/Chaotic scheme that basically maps to Gods/Primal Spirits/Demon Lords and also, roughly, to Mankind/Elves/Humanoids. 

Gods have clerics, Demon Lords anti-clerics (mostly because they thought it made a nice perversion of clerics) and primal spirits have druids. Only Law gains any power from worship and it is not really for themselves, but to protect lawful lands, and Oerth itself, from being overwhelmed by the influence of Chaos.

And Iuz has broken that order. Iuz the Zealot is the Herald of Chaos, the one who would unleash all of this on Oerth, simply because Chaos is what he serves.

Moreover, he is not just a servant, but has ascended to become an actual god. The only god of Chaos and evil (well... most don't know that Tharizdun exists, not even among lesser gods), and thus also able to usurp the power of worship that is exclusive to gods as a source of power to protect the Oerth.  The cult of Iuz is truly the most blasphemous of all.
And to boot, he makes his home in the frigging Flanaess, alongside mankind. A truly tangible evil.

Glancing at Temple of Elemental Evil and its Secret History section, this also makes a lot more sense. Iuz didn't approach and aid Zuggtmoy 'for his own ends' which was a bit too convoluted for my taste, but rather because his ends are simply to advance Chaos and Zuggtmoy's plot was a strong means to that end. Which is also why he tried to free her after it went tits up, rather than just taking over the banner of 'elemental evil' himself. He's simply dedicated to the cause above all else. 

This also explains why the folio describes the Horned Society as being on good terms with Iuz. He doesn't really care who is in charge as long as they advance the aims of Chaos.


Noodling on Iuz' backstory

Let's first take a look at what the Folio tells us, ignoring later sources:
  • Ruled the lands from the Howling Hills to Wyestil Lake "for ages longer than any man can live"
  • Some time around 479 CY, the "might of Iuz grows" causing humanoid invasions to rise.
  • He was imprisoned by the wizard Zagyg alongside eight other demigods(!), which left his land leaderless for "many decades" and he only recently (570 CY) got out. 
How long is "many decades"? The Horned Society entry tells us the society sprang up "some decades" ago, which was six decades ago, in 513 CY, and I'd wager it sprang up in his absence. 
I'd also say 'many decades' is more than 'some', but less than a century. So presumably he was imprisoned some time between 480 CY (since he was was definitely around in 479 CY) and 500 CY (seven decades prior to his release), give or take a few years. I lean towards the tail end of that span.

This means he just missed the party with the Horde of Elemental Evil that the folio talks about happening in 569 CY. 

But, if we go beyond the Folio to look at Temple of Elemental Evil for background on the horde, this can't be right, since, according to ToEE, Iuz helped formed the Horde in the years prior to 569 (according to the player introduction, it rose "in but three years").

So either the Horde formed later (unlikely historians would get that date wrong), or Iuz was free of his prison earlier than 570 CY. I'm going with the latter option and calling 570 CY as the year in which he made his return known to the world by returning to Dorakaa, which also makes sense for him to do after his elemental evil plot went haywire. 

This means he was released in 566 CY at the very latest. But maybe even sooner? The hordes of humanoids that popped in 560 CY in the Bone March has all the hallmarks of a Chaos instigator like Iuz.

I imagine he's been around for quite a while prior to 479 CY as well, though it is perhaps around this time he expands his holdings from his childhood haunt in the Howling Hills and takes over Dorakaa. Perhaps it is also around this time his cult begins to spread.

I wonder though... What kind of CV would the most capable cleric/assassin servant of Chaos accumulate on his path towards apotheosis prior to that point?

Well, the Turmoil Between the Crowns in Aerdi started in 437 CY during which the last heir of house Rax was assassinated, and it is commonly accepted that since 450 CY, all the Overkings of house Naelax have been insane, demon-ridden or both. Call me crazy, but that seems exactly like the sort of shenanigans you'd expect a high level evil cleric/assassin of Chaos to engineer when performing epic quests on the road to apotheosis.


Accepting the tale of Iggwilv being his mother fits nicely with the slavic mythic theme I've got going on, with Iggwilv being Louhi (Finnish myth, but close enough) to Iuz' [more evil and male] Baba Yaga.

But her being his literal mother is just a bit too fan-ficcy for me (sorry EGG). I much prefer the story of Iuz having come from humble beginnings somewhere in the Howling Hills before making it big with Chaos (where does the 'son of iggwilv and grazzt' story come from anyway?). This is D&D - I like my heroes & villains earning their levels with XP, not birthright So let's see...

According to Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Iggwilv conquered Perrenland 'nearly' a century ago, after having gained much power from the lost caverns. 

That is very close to 479 CY where Iuz' "might grows" in the north according to the Folio. Which makes it quite plausible that Iggwilv was the one who assisted an old, but still mortal, high level cleric/assassin Iuz in his ascension and rebirth into demigodhood. This ritual bound the two to each other and made Iggwilv the figurative 'mother' of Iuz the demigod.

Same story for Grazzt (or Orcus) being his 'dad' (perhaps Iggwilv bound him for this very purpose) - I imagine it was him who chipped in with Iuz' demonic alter ego body for the transformation.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Alternate Oerths - Mythic Greyhawk: Deities & Demi-gods

I already wrote about the deities and pantheons of Mythic Greyhawk before
, but after reading Dragon Magazine #67's article The Deities & Demigods of the World of Greyhawk I'm inspired to doodle a bit more about this, taking the implications of that article as a springboard.

The first thing that jumps at me from that article is the initial coverage of the nature of gods. We are told what kind of spell-like abilities gods of various statures have. Each of the four deities (Heironeous, Hextor, Iuz & St. Cuthbert) are statted out as conventional (albeit powerful) critters who, apart from being deities of certain things, can be encountered and killed like any other. We learn this from the note stating how Iuz has a soul object secreted away in the abyss that leaves him free to roam outside his domain with no fear of permanent harm. No mention of 'avatars', or other divine trappings of later editions.
From left to right: Heironeous; Hextor; Iuz & St. Cuthbert - all in their true form.
Some have applied this as a critique of AD&D 1e being so hack'n'slash that even the deities were statted up so you could go and kill them. I've also heard the counterposition argued that they were statted to be so powerful that the designers imagined this would settle any question of ever trying to kill them.

Both to me miss the point of what this actually says about deities in Greyhawk. They are not the transcendent immaterial cosmic beings that modernism tends to envisage as qualities of a deity, but closer to stature to the ancient nordic or greek gods - embodied, fallible and more akin to uplifted humans with great power than cosmic beings beyond the ken of human understanding.

And if they wanted to get shit done, they'd have to run the risk and go do it themselves. Or better yet (D&D rationale:), empower a cleric to do it for them at no risk to themselves.

However, the fact that each entry devotes space to how to treat them as an encounter suggests that Greyhawk deities aren't afraid of getting their hands dirt if need be. More likely than hands dirty is that they aren't shy about showing up in disguise to nudge mortals the way they want them to go, as we are also told of Hextor's strong social skills when in disguise. Greyhawk deities start plot hooks with a tangible guiding hand on Oerth and probably interfere with plots in much the same way.

The deities statted here are not so powerful that they won't get their ass handed to them by a tarrasque, and around the same tier as the demon lords statted in AD&D. Which tallies well with my assumption in Mythic Greyhawk that gods are more like a class of beings, like dragons or demon lords (in many ways the chaotic counterpart to deities).

The article lists the four gods as "deities commonly active and/or known to adventurers and those who travel the reaches of the Flanaess." This is an interesting sentence, given also their writeups as encounters. These four are ones that PCs might expect to actually encounter as adventurers and travellers, because they busy themselves with the mortal realm. They are also all lesser gods (except Iuz, a demigod). Maybe involvement in mortal affairs is a bit of a juvenile affair, divinely speaking. Perhaps greater gods generally have better things to do with their time, whilst the lesser gods haven't quite matured enough to leave the soap operas of the mortal world alone.

Anyway, on to the actual gods:


I covered my take on the brother gods already in my previous entry on gods. They are basically the best and the worst of the Great Kingdom. Heironeous is a simple god and likes it that way. He is basically the patron of goddamn chivalry and knightly heroism. When people think of the noble fight against Chaos and just causes, he's the archetype. He was the one who showed the Great Kingdom a promise of being more than just an imperalist invader, but a realm that could beat back Chaos and lay down borders of Law for civilisation to flourish. It was a glorious age.

These days, he has all but given up hope for the empire he once helped rise to its greatest heights and turned his sights to the rest of the Flanaess. He is enjoying a renaissance in the Sheldomar Valley, but is somewhat perplexed by the rise of the One-Above-All's henotheism. In countries like Furyondy, Veluna and the Shield Lands, he's even been turned into a popular saint of the Blinding Light, like St. Cuthbert (below).


I envision Hextor as more lawful than evil. Sure he is a vicious war diety, but he's also the god of fitness and has qualities that mark him out as a genuine asset to the societies he patronages and it is perfectly possible for non-evil people to take him as their patron deity, including PCs.

Hextor is the great general, tactician and calculator, married to the passion and raw fury of battle. He is never static and always pursuing greatness, skill and victory through changing circumstances. He bring order to the chaos of the battlefield, but doesn't stifle it in the process, transmuting it instead into victory and growth. He represents growth through adversity.
Hextor isn't merciful or lenient, but he’s is fierce opponent of Chaos and so stands high among the gods of Law.*

He often wanders the Oerth, making Law stronger and opposing those who would make it weak (including culling those who could not grow stronger). He sees the doctrines of his brother as Law and strength subverted to vainglorious ideals and fiercely opposes him.
  • Sample Worshippers:
  • The trained warrior who never backs down from a fight yet always seeks to set the terms of battle to ensure victory.
  • The quiet street urchin who finds unbending pride in the path of growth through adversity and never shies away from the next challenge to take her higher in life.
  • The mystic priest who seeks and nourishes discord so that Man will not grow stale but continue to grow - and is himself an exemplary of both internal growth through adversity and external martial prowess. He debates with his brothers whether falling to overpowering adversity represents lack of wisdom in pursuing proper circumstances for growth, or an opportunity for Hextor to cull those too weak to grow as they should.
* An interesting note from the article is that "the lords of evil" gave him his six arms so he could defeat his brother. So while he may not identify as evil per se, he may have cut a deal with some wrong people at some point to win over his brother. One might deduce that the Great Kingdom is paying the price for Hextor's victory and the consequence of his deal inevitably make his actions more evil than lawful. Something that would be anathema to him if he realised this.


My impression of Iuz has always been 'evil cambion wizard, powerful' and not really knowing what to do with that to make that interesting and not-one-dimensional.

Here's he's statted as a cleric/assassin and the author of the article (EGG) wonders if he is truly the offspring of Orcus or has simply become more demonic over the centuries. I like this take a lot.

The vision I am having from this article is of a truly successful anti-cleric over the years, the star proxy of the fiendish hordes in the mortal plane who has seen off many an adventuring party in his day, as he completed foul rituals and dark deeds galore.
He didn't just join for the quick route to power, but is a true devotee of Chaos and champion of the cause; a genuine philosopher of entropy. As such, he enjoys the trust and loyalty of many of the demon princes.

The article also tells us that he is "the first known godling of chaotic evil", which is an interesting point. Iuz represents something new, an x-factor in the cosmic game. Not, as one might be inclined to think, because he remains in the mortal plane, but because he's the first godling of chaotic evil.

This is just perfect for Mythic Greyhawk. I've already written of how I see 'gods' as a class of being, primarily associated with Law and something mainly connected to humans, whilst the chaotic equivalent of a 'god' is typically 'demon prince'.
Yet, here we have Iuz, a human (?) cleric-raised-to-godhood who has embraced Chaos to its most evil core. And his apotheosis is a game changer. I am not quite sure how yet. But suddenly, he's a lot more interesting than the faux-sauron he came across to me as before.

It also blends well with how I envision his political game.  Less imperalist Mordor and more like a darker version of Vlad the Impaler's Transylvania; festering, opaque and random. He's not playing the expansionist game of power, but brewing a cauldron of Chaos - A vision borne not from ambition, but philosophical conviction and insight into entropy. I don't really know what the fuck his end game is here, but I don't think I need to either. It's cool enough as it is. Let the Horned Society play their games of power and conquest. Iuz is playing a completely different game.

St. Cuthbert

St. Cuthbert of the cudgel is a fitting opposite to Iuz, as he is also a human cleric-raised-to-godhood, except he stayed on the side of Law. Like a good cleric, he's a missionary, mainly concerned with conversion and preventing "true believers" from backsliding. When he enters the mortal plane (rarely, unlike Iuz), it is mostly for conversion and testing the faithful in disguise.

All in all, he sounds like he could easily be a bit of a holy dick. But given he's also the god of wisdom, truth, common sense and forthrightness, I'm gonnna assume that he's real wise and compassionate about this stuff.

His epic rivalry with Pholtus I am re-tooling into a a rivalry between sub-cults of the Church of Blinding Light (since Pholtus is an aspect of the One-Above-All and Cuthbert a divinised saint of that deity), since Pholtus theology is also big on conversion and preventing backsliding. But more of the 'forceful conversion and inquisitions to prevent backsliding' variety than Cuthbert's wise and forthright style. This rivalry is potentially a schism within the Church, which has so far managed to hold together in spite of its various theologies (violent religious conflict is a good hook).

In my entry on the Church of the Blinding Light, I wrote how Pholtus/Pelor/Rao "in 251 CY revealed himself to priests of Ferrond to be the one true god of Law 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."

I am now thinking: Maybe St. Cuthbert was the original prophet of the One-Above-All back in 251 CY. Yeah, that actually makes a whole lot of sense and really situates St. Cuthbert within the Church. That is also a suitably epic quest for a cleric to complete for apotheosis, so works in a D&Dist sense as well.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Alternate Oerths - Mythic Greyhawk: Central Flanaess

The central Flanaess. Home of the city of Greyhawk & the Nyr Dyv; the Wild Coast, Fyrondy and Veluna; Celene & the Pomarj; the Urnst states. Verbobonc & Dyvers; the bandit kingdoms and shield lands. Also desert.

When I wrote a review of the Darlene maps, I scribbled this about the central regions:
Appealingly, the 'safer' area to go through from old Aerdy East to Old Aerdy West is adventuring area numero uno - The Wild Coast. I love its placement on the map and its relations on the map. Anywhere is in feasible reach for an adventurer on the wild coast. The Nyr Dyv and Wooly Bay gives you plenty of means of getting around. For adventurers in the Wild Coast, the Flanaess is your oyster. The whole Nyr Dyv/Wooly Bay/Relmor Bay area is just really well constructed for bringing these lands into contact with each other and opening routes of travel.
No wonder the City of Greyhawk is such a big fish - The Nyr Dyv is obviously a really central area. The rivers flowing into it pass through 16 different countries! And itself opens into the Whoolly Bay - From there, the Sheldomar Valley and great kingdom are in reach. You could get on a boat all the way up north in Blackmoor, sail through the vast Burneal forest, across Lake Quaag in Perrenland, through Veluna and Furyondy into the Nyr Dyv, past the city of Greyhawk into the Wooly Bay and then the Azure Sea and from there set sail to anywhere from Hepmonaland to Irongate or the Hold of the Sea Princes. I love that - Simply looking at the map gives you real ideas about trade routes and itineraries.
I won't be discussing cultures and lands much here though, since that is not what this region evokes for me (also, I mostly covered that part already). Where my general approach with Greyhawk is confidently taking the framework and putting cool stuff on it, I find myself with a different attitude to the central Flanaess. One of discovery moreso than creativity, inspiring an almost timid sense of awe. 

This area is not just a framework. It's the original D&D land. That tantalizing ur-flavor of D&D that is most easily recognised in the vague echoes of adolescent memories. A sensation of wonder and earthiness together that even then was diffuse, but somehow tactile. If it can be captured at all, then what fragrant ethers there may be to capture float most clearly throughout this particular region.

Exploring this region feels more like chipping rock from a gem to uncover something originally there than exploring cool hooks as a stimulant for creativity (a creativity that nonetheless is aimed at connecting to the flavourful, but established archetypes and tropes of fantasy). Take this description of the Wild Coast from the Folio:

Long before I even read this, the name itself drew me in as something just so very D&D
Yes! This is a land where D&D adventures happen. The original sandbox - open-ended, wild but not desolate, its own thing but not too far from other lands. And with plenty of room for the PCs to stamp their own mark on things here.

Yet, despite my love for the Wild Coast, and despite it being derived from the actually historical original D&D campaign, my own search for the quintessential D&D land does not end here.
I'm looking for something a bit more naivistic, with just a few more whiffs of knights and elves, some kind of calmer more rural enchantment (images of Dalelands [FR], Thunder Rift, Solace [DL] come to mind) that says 'a smaller corner of a bigger world'. I go west and find this:

I like taking sections out of larger maps to reveal the local relations
The county of Verbobonc in and around the Kronn Hills. A realm dotted by small villages and one not-too-big-city. Geographywise, there's hills, mountains, deep woods (and lighter woods). And a river that takes you to the central sea.

Its got Knight-land and Cleric-land just to the north and Elf-Land to the south. Dwarf-lands in the western mountains and gnomes in the Kron Hills.
On just the other side of the woods, you have "The Wild Coast", The Big City and Orcland.
Across the mountains are generic but-not-too-big kingdoms.

Historywise, wars against evil were fought here - the Hateful Wars against the humanoids some 60 years ago. And the battle against the forces of elemental evil a decade ago. Both have left imprints on the adventuring landscape.
A campaign map with Verbobonc in the centre simply has everything you'd want in your classic D&D fantasy campaign in proper distance to your starting location. Gygax sketched out the region perfectly in Temple of Elemental Evil:
Welcome to the exciting WORLD OF GREYHAWK fantasy setting. It is a world rich in history, intrigue, and magic ... a place of opportunity, and of danger as well.
This story unfolds in a small part of that world, a very small part indeed. But this place, at the foot of the Kron Hills not far north of the great Azure Sea, could breed dangers to threaten the nearby greater realms with the fine-sounding names- the Archclericy of Veluna, and the kingdoms of Celene and Furyondy. Hommlet and Nulb are two small villages, which squat in the vales between these great powers like two dark and tiny eyes, surrounded by the ancient wrinkled hills on the face of some evil demiurge.
In fact, I think I'd cheat a bit and add a supplement to my Folio Greyhawk. Gygax' descriptions from Village of Hommlet is an excellent player primer, no matter whether I'd run the adventure or not (or Temple of Elemental Evil for that matter). Homlett is simply an outstanding homebase for starting a sandbox campaign:

Click here to download it in pdf

THIS is it... It simply doesn't get more originally and quintessentially D&D than starting 1st lvl characters here. I can't think of any traditional D&D adventure that wouldn't be suitable from here. The sandbox from here contains all the elements you'd want for that D&D experience.

Friday, 20 December 2019

Alternate Oerths - Mythic Greyhawk: The North

My thoughts have returned to Mythic Greyhawk and fleshing it out a bit more. 
I like the north, geographically speaking, in Greyhawk. It strikes me as a region with its own distinct life and character. A good mixture of barbarian 'nations', some not-lawful kingdoms (Bandit kingdoms), large swathes of unforgiving wilderness, definite chaos lands of variable flavors (Iuz, Horned Society, Stonefist) and some lawful lands on its borders (Shield Lands, Tenh, Ratik, Blackmoor). In other words, a savage borderland with plenty of potential for adventure in lands where Law exists mostly on the edges.

The vibe I am getting from its barbarian cultures strike me as a bit dull though. I'm pretty sure what the reader is meant to take from the folio is that wolf & tiger nomads are turko-central-asian horse nomads, ice/frost/snow are vikings and and rovers are northern native americans. Wolf and tiger nomads strike me as especially dull, since that trope is already covered in the baklunish lands.

Fortunately, the Folio gives us mandate to make greyhawk our own, so here is my take on how to make the barbarians of the north a bit more S&S-like for adventure potential and flavour:

  • Rovers of the Barrens - Cimmerian. Conan comes from here. Hunter/Gatherers. 
  • Frost, Snow & Ice Barbarians - obvious obviosity. I think I'd just use the Northern Reaches Gazetteer for the Known World if I needed more detail, since that also describes a threefold viking land.
  • Wolf Nomads - Germanic plain barbarians from the time of the Romans. On horse. Human sacrifices and other pagan shit. Large drinking horns, tribal valor, blood oaths and warrior societies, both in pelts and barechested.
Wolf Nomads - Do not fuck with them.
  • Tiger Nomads - I am thinking Cossacks of the east Slavic plains and steppes here. Steeped in slavic sorcery and myth. Baba Yaga, wagon towns and fierce Rus warriors. 
  • Amazons - not mentioned in folio, but I am inserting them for campy s&s vibes.
    Origin - a Suel migratory tribe was captured by raiders in the wake of the rain of of colourless fire. They killed all the men and children of the tribe and took the women for chattel. The captured suel women conspired and killed all the men during the night not long after. They formed a warrior tribe and swore that men would only ever be allowed as chattel and breed studs. They appealed to the goddess wee-jas (whom they worship not as a goddess of anything per se, but simply as their all-encompassing patron goddess) who sealed their vow by making it so all amazonians would only ever conceive female children.
    Culturally, they are a curious mix of a wholly female Sparta, having retained some of their ancient suel knowledges (primarily armor and weapon smithing) thanks to the beneficence of Wee-jas, and a more barbarian viking-like culture.
    Their homeland used to be the land between the Howling Hills and Wyestil Lake, from whence their longships would raid the Nyr Dyv and beyond. That was until Iuz. Since then, the amazonians have been a displaced people. Tribes of them roam north in the Burneal Forest, Blackmoor and the bandit kingdoms. The largest group have made a home north of the Forlorn Forest on the west side of the White Fanged Bay, where they war with Stonefists and the rovers of the barrens. Smaller bands of them may be found all across the Flanaess as mercenary troupes or nomadic raiding bands. 

The rest of the north also deserve some notes.

The Borderlands:
  • Highfolk = Rivendell. 'nuff said.
  • Shield Lands - Teutonic Knights meets the Crusades. Not really part of the north per se, but this is the point from which the realms of Law try to expand its sphere into the north and push back the forces of Chaos. 
    The Horned Society is an obvious justified 'good vs evil' enemy, whilst the bandit kingdoms are the target of more conventional political expansion tactics, as the teutonic knights employed in the Baltics. They get their funding and support from Veluna and Furyondy.
    Good for military campaigns of all kinds. Would also make a good place to carve out a domain of one's own in the Horned Lands or bandit kingdoms and get a landed title (maybe even some support) to go with it from the Shield Lands.
  • Tenh - Been covered. A barbarian realm that evolved into civilisation, but retains its roots. Its neighbours make it a good place for adventure, with incursions from the rovers and (especially) stonefist an issue, the bandit kingdoms to the west and the Pale to the East (whom I envision are militantly impositioning themselves in religious affairs. Usurpation via religion, basically). And plenty of wilderness to explore as well.
  • Blackmoor - Ignoring the real-world history of how Blackmoor ended up in Greyhawk, this is a bit of an oddball. Formerly the most remote of aerdi outposts, it is a civilised community of law that has somehow ended up isolated and cut off from the rest of the lawful flannaess by barbarians, wastelands, evil chaos realms and the fact that the civilisation that originated blackmoor no longer has the reach, power nor desire to maintain contact with its former province.
    Its only real contact with other realms is downriver through the Burneal Forest and wolf/tiger nomad territory to Lake Quag in Perrenland (and from there, further downriver through veluna to the Nyr Dyv). Not exactly a safe journey, given that the folio describes the savages of the Burneal as what seems to be basically R.E. Howards' Pictland.
    Blackmoor reminds me a bit of Nentir Vale from 4e, but perhaps more isolated. Dantredun evokes Damkina (of Wilderlands of High Fantasy) to me, and makes me want to set up a White Throne there for the Lord of the North (little actual power, but the name still attracts trade and respect in the north). An excellent point of light for a northern borderland campaign where the emphasis is more on very little happening in terms of the wider world, but room for the PCs to shape this local isolated sphere.
    Culture? Anglo-saxon (like Ratik below) with a good splash of Mad Max, owing to its isolation and proximity to chaos. 
  • Ratik - I never really took much notice of Ratik before, but now that I did I wonder why I overlooked it for so long. This looks a great place to run a campaign from.
    The northernmost point of civilisation in Aerdy, in disturbing vicinity and reach of the longships of the Frost/Snow/Ice barbarians. And still separated from the rest of Aerdy by the savage Bone March. Danger on all sides basically, a realm that survives explicitly thanks to its dedication to virtues like honour, bravery, honesty and compassion.
    Quite unlike its southern fat cat cousins, whose self-absorbed indifference to the trials of the north may itself cause problems. The Theocracy of the Pale across the Rakers probably have more interest in Ratik than anyone in Aerdy (I imagine some of its inquisitors take liberties they shouldn't inside Ratik). An excellent place to run a borderlands campaign.
    With the demi-human enclaves supporting Ratik and the on-off enmity with the north barbarians (depending on how big a threat humanoids are to force temporary alliances against them) and its isolated nature, there's an almost romantic fantasy feel to this. Reminds me a bit of Thunder Rift and might be used for similar purposes.
    I see the culture as being a developed anglo-saxon one.
The Antagonist lands:
  • Iuz - Less Sauron's Mordor and more Vlad the Impaler's Transylvania. But with real monsters, humanoids and dark magic. As mentioned previously, I don't envision Iuz as the obvious Sauron figure (at least not yet, if ever). He's powerful and evil no doubt, but also a mysterious and largely unfathomable entity.
    His aims are unclear and his main rival at this point is the Horned Society. You tell them apart like this - Iuz's land is a Chaotic morass of festering evil with opaque purpose and direction to it, other than that Iuz is master of all. Lots of random evil shit going on for no real reason. Whilst the horned lands are more organised, industrious and seem to have simple conventional aims of power - solidify hold on current lands and expand into neighbouring lands as far as possible.
  • Horned Society - This is a bit hard to grog other than "humanoids with evil human masters". Are they basically the bandit kingdoms with humanoids and deviltry as the religion? Unlikely, given the emphasis on the hierarch being high-level priests and magic-users. No, this is more distinctly Cabal-of-Evil-Land, in the style of Saruman's orcs. Industrious, focused.
    They see the chaotic evils in Iuz' lands as potential conquest, and hold back only out of healthy respect for the power of Iuz. Like most others, the Hierarchs see the Horned Lands as the superior force between the two and the greater player in any potential theatres of war.
    The clerics among the hierarchs really fucking hate Iuz and want to destroy him, since they are compacted to devil princes and Iuz is demonic (theologists and philosophers interpret devils' brand of 'lawful evil' as just another spin on Chaos, but the distinction is seemingly meaningful to devils and demons).
  • Stonefist - evil s&s Frank frazetta style barbarians. Mad Max fantasy. No one likes them and they are fine with that. Come for the fighting pits. stay for the loot.
  • This guy definitely fits in with the hold of Stonefist

  • Theocracy of the Pale - As mentioned, this is basically the Children of the Light from Jordan's Wheel of Time, where we are most likely to have witch and wizard hunts and inquisitions.
    I see the Pale more as an influence in other lands than a land of adventure itself, where they go to stick their religious noses in other people's business; with mace and chainmail.
    Not that they are evil, but they are menacing and quick to ruthless enforcement of their own orthodoxy. The kind of righteous assholes PCs love to hate. OTOH, as extremely lawful they are also likely allies against chaos forces. And some of them may even be just, fair and wise in their interpretation of the Law.

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.