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.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Review: Ba5ic

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

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

Presentation & First Impressions:

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

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

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

Rule stuff:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Impressions:

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 25 November 2019

Comparison: Five Torches Deep vs Into the Unknown

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

Introductory remarks:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Introducing the core mechanic in ItU

Overview of combat actions in ItU

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

Some basic mechanics in 5TD

Rule stuff:

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

The Commonalities:

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

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

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

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

Both have rules for henchmen.

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

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

The Differences:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Impressions:

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