Saturday, May 31, 2008
Thus spake E. Gary Gygax in issue number 65 of Dragon magazine, way back in 1982. He was speaking in the context of new player-character classes that were "being considered for inclusion in the expansion volume for the ADVANCED D&D® game system." They were to appear in Dragon prior to the publication of that volume (Unearthed Arcana), but alas only two of the six ever made it into print. The mountebank, jester, savant, and mystic have never seen the light of day. In the latest issue of Footprints (#12), David Prata finished a two-part piece on these classes, and did an admirable job in doing so. However, in the case of the Mountebank, I believe he overlooked a prime source of information.
In EGG's collection of short stories, "Night Arrant", specifically the story "The House in the Tree", we are treated to one of the many memorable characters of the Flanaess; Hop. Owner of the Inn of the Brothers of the One and Score, only a few days' ride from the City of Greyhawk, Hop is explicitly described as a mountebank, and his description in that story (he appears in another, but only peripherally, and with little if no relevance to the subject at hand) lends itself to the description of the intended sub-class as related above.
Hop is described as "charismatic". (I take that to indicate a minimum charisma score.) We are told "If he truly had bardcraft, as some claimed, and some small skills with unusual dweomers, as others claimed, then this man could be the Mountebank of Mountebanks!" So, bardic powers (and bear in mind we're talking about 1E bards here) and a spell list with many unique spells as well, acquired at higher levels (like the Ranger or Paladin, but with new spells).
Hop is said to sell quack medicines for profit, although he is equally said to sell useful ones as well. As Gord put it... "But... you offer spurious cures for the gullible and credulous, not real, working potions! How come I feel so... so lucid?" It is obvious that, although the Mountebank's concoctions are often mere trickery, he has at his command the power to produce ones of real effect as well. Does he even know the difference? Who can say? Look to the purveyors of patent medicines in the late 18th and early 19th century for inspiration on that aspect of the Mountebank's abilities.
It should also be pointed out that the main portion of the story is brought about by Hop's desire to acquire magical mushrooms. He obviously knew of their efficacy (he is able to identify the valuable ones by color), and so no little skill in herbalism and the concoction of really efficacious potions is indicated. Perhaps with a chance to fail, but not always...
What strikes me is one very subtle bit of characterization. Hop always refers to himself (and is called by others) as Hop the Savant. We know from the above that the Savant was to be another character sub-class. In the stories, Hop certainly plays the role well, quoting Yogis from their arcane wisdom, but there is always a tinge of cynicism in his quotations. It's almost like he's giving a credible performance, rather than a true expression of the Savant's calling (although it might well be an insight into how the Savant was originally conceived as well!).
Which leads me to my next and final supposition. Perhaps the Mountebank has within his bag of tricks the ability to imitate other character classes. Within limits? Certainly. But a skill at illusion, disguise, and sleight-of-hand would certainly lend itself to such a power. Imagine a Mountebank posing as a pious Paladin, fleecing his prey and then disappearing into the wide world wondering where that sterling fellow with the fine armor who "spoke" with his horse had gotten to? Just supposition of course, but it certainly fits and wouldn't it be an out-of-the-box (and very useful!) sort of power to possess?
We'll never know what these classes were ever intended to look like, because EGG was very tight-lipped about them, as a result of his falling out with TSR. Short of those manuscripts being published (and I certainly hope for that day!), I hope these poor notes give some inspiration.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
From the DMG:
WHAT YOU NEED TO PLAY
A place to play [check]
Dice [check, although I loves me my Dragonbone electronic dice roller]
Paper and pencils [check]
Battle Grid or D&D Dungeon Tiles [errr... what happened to the paper and pencils?]
Dungeon Masters Screen [okay...]
D&D Miniatures [choke!]
Character sheets [check]
Laptop computer, PDA, smart phone, or digital camera [CHOKE! SPUTTER!]
D&D Insider [whimper]
[And, from another section of the DMG...]
"Most groups get through an encounter in about an hour of play."
Okay, I have taken a lot of heat over on EnWorld for daring to suggest that, on the basis of the demo game I played at Ubercon last April, it seemed to me that miniatures were a necessary component of the combat encounter system. Well here it is in black and white, straight from the horse's mouth, doubters.
I don't need an hour to run a normal combat encounter. Now, that's not to say that a pre-planned set-piece battle can't take a lot more than an hour, but for an average encounter, with (for instance) equal numbers of PCs and roughly-evenly-matched enemies, an hour is just excessive.
Now, while there seems to be quite an emphasis on combat encounters, to their credit WotC has an entire chapter on non-combat encounters in the DMG. The sections are:
- Skill challenges
- Traps and Hazards
Am I the only one who sees something missing from this list of non-combat encounters??? Apparently 4E has banished role-playing encounters to the dustbin of history. Oh, you can speak in character, but the final effect comes down to the roll of the dice. Put the "challenge the player" concept in the ground, it is dead.
I need time to digest. To consider. To absorb. My primary focus in reviewing the 4E books will be on how 4E will impact my beloved World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting. But I cannot help but post a few (hopefully salient) thoughts as I wade through the material. I might write a full-blown review, or a point-by-point comparison of 1E and 4E. Time will tell.
Canonical Greyhawk is important because it represents the baseline. It is that common stem from which all Greyhawk campaigns derive, and it defines the corpus of material common to those campaigns. Non-canon elements may be introduced, of course, but the corpus of canon material represents that minimum which cannot be redacted, lest the kernel be lost and the DM be left with something that is not-quite-Greyhawk, no matter the name and map that is used. That is not to say that every canonical element must be actually used; the spaceship of S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks may exist in my Flanaess without my PCs ever visiting it, but the fact that it is there as a potentiality has, I think, an important impact.
It must always be remembered that Greyhawk is neither defined nor bound by any given set of rules. One could run a Greyhawk campaign using the GURPS rules and be perfectly within the bounds of canon. Differences between D&D, AD&D, 2E, 3.X, and soon, 4E are irrelevant to the setting itself. Rules come and go, but the setting, as a collected history, interacting political and private entities, personalities, religious and social customs and practices, etc. transcends rules. Furyondy is Furyondy whether or not it's in 1E or 2E. Tenser is Tenser whether he's described using D&D or 3.5 rules. The sole exception would be if the rules mandate radical changes to the setting to accomodate those rules. (That's one of my forebodings concerning 4E and Greyhawk, but that's a topic for another post, and I will not make any judgements until I've actually got the rulebooks in my hands.)
Many people have proposed lists of canonical Greyhawk works, and I will be no different. I would argue that, given the above definition and intention of canon in the context of the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting, the following works represent that baseline, below which one has lost something ineffably Greyhawk.
The list must needs start with the 1980 folio and the 1983 boxed set. Without these you don't even get the basics of geography, history, religion, and politics. I would add the "obvious" modules from the early 1980's; the Giants, the Drow, the Slavers, Temple of Elemental Evil. S1-4 have a lot of background material as well, and the setting is definitely much lessened without the likes of Iggwilv and White Plume Mountain. I would add the "From the Sorceror's Scroll" articles penned by EGG, describing the then-current events of the Flanaess. Often overlooked, those articles breathe life into the setting, and provide an excellent example of the sorts of things that the DM might have going on in the background, either for color or for the sake of adventure instigation. I would add the novels Saga of Old City and Artifact of Evil, as well (and, naturally, the short story At Moonset Blackcat Comes).
The big question, of course, revolves around the Greyhawk Wars and From the Ashes. Are they to be included in the baseline definition of canon? I, with no little amount of regret, must argue "yes". Those two products, while they certainly describe changes to the people and places of the setting, really aren't the apocalyptic setting-smashing works they are often portrayed as being. Many DMs, I think, throw out a lot of good material in an effort to achieve an innocent purity, and I think that's a mistake. Similar changes were foreshadowed by EGG himself in the Sorceror's Scroll articles mentioned above, where kingdoms contested, Iuz plotted and schemed, and so forth. I might disagree with the notion of "advancing the timeline", as was done with these products (I do, and believe it's the job of the DM to advance the timeline in his or her campaign), but the fact remains that it was done and needs to be dealt with rather than ignored.
As an aside, it is certainly true that Greyhawk's "decline" began around the time that Wars and FtA were released, and I think that many people's impressions of those two products are tied to that fact. However, I would argue that the decline was more due to the release of the 2nd edition rules, which had a similar impact across the board, than it was to the contents of the two boxed sets.
For those DMs who simply cannot abide the changes that the Wars make to the kingdoms and personages of the Flanaess, there is of course a way out, even while keeping those products within the sphere of canon (thereby allowing the DM who cares about canon to use the "good bits"). In fact, it's what I am doing in my own campaign. More on that in a future post.
To be continued...
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 5 segments
Saving Throw: Neg.
Area of Effect: One creature
Explanation/Description: The ylfe-shot (pronounced “ilf-shot”) is one of the few direct attack spells possessed by the witch. It causes a seemingly-natural pain, such as a stabbing pain in the back or leg, which nevertheless causes 1d6 damage. The ylfe-shot is never fatal; at worst a creature can be reduced to 1 h.p. The target is allowed a saving throw vs. spells at +4. If the target is 10” or closer to the caster, it only gets +2 to the save. If the target is 5” or closer to the caster, it gets no bonus to the saving throw. The material components to this spell are a miniature bow and arrow with a flint arrowhead. The arrow is consumed in the casting. A shield spell will thwart the spell.
The intrepid party of adventurers began with an exploration of B1 In Search of the Unknown, but that soon turned into a side-note for the main story. The local town, it turns out, was threatened by brigands, and the town leaders seemed quite content to maintain the status quo. A little more digging turned up the fact that behind the bandits was a witch (using, albeit unknown to the PCs at that point, a new NPC character class of my own invention, so they got treated to all sorts of off-kilter magic and powers that they're still trying to sort out). An encounter with a black dragon proved that the witch had her own enemies, as did an encounter with a diabolical lawyer (complete with gum-popping succubus for a secretary) who offered some assistance in their fight against the witch in exchange for... well... let's just say signatures were involved. And during all this investigation of plots-behind-plots were repeated forays into the dungeons of Quasqueton, with the PCs trying to figure out how the dungeon played into everything else.
This brief thumbnail sketch, I think, demonstrates what I'm trying to achieve in this campaign and how I'm getting there. I'm trying to give the game as much of an "old school charm" as I can, and I'd say it's working. We have the greater-evil-behind-the-bad-guys theme that the early Greyhawk modules used so well (hill/frost/fire giants in turn controlled by drow), as well as the non-monolithic nature of evil (the drow riven by internal rivalries and beset by their own external foes in the underoerth such as the illithids). We have the "old reliable dungeon crawl" close to hand in case the PCs get restless and decide to simply go kill things and take their stuff (in their case, they very properly saw the potential to gain treasure and experience in the dungeon to improve their chances of taking on the bandits and the witch). We have the gee-whiz factor of completely new and unknown magic and powers; my witch isn't to be found in any rule book or magazine article. There were also a number of very memorable NPCs (I tend to do different voices for my NPCs, so that's a lot of fun for me). Plus, I tried to introduce more than a little humor in places (the succubus secretary, a faerie dragon named Flibber who ended up joining the party as an NPC, etc.) and was not too uptight about introducing the occasional anachronism (the devilish attorney, for example, used an intercom and had a modern office tucked away in an interdimensional space). I was very consciously not trying to maintain a "pure" setting so much as a "fun" one, and I think my players (none of whom had played AD&D before) are really liking the approach.
Now that the PCs have resolved the witch story arc, and they've reached the mid-level range, I'm going to be shifting the action over to the City of Greyhawk (right now the PCs are in the Tenh/Pale region) so I can repeat the process, but only more intensely this time, with the City and Castle Greyhawk, forays into the Wild Coast and the Pomarj, etc. Good times!
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
I didn't hate it.
I am sorry to say that's the most rousing endorsement I can muster. This film definitely veers into more sci-fi territory than the previous ones, which were more fantasy, but that's not a weakness, and it was done about as well as could be expected. The basic plot was fine, although it took them way too long to get there. Thinking on it purely subjectively, the initial sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark was maybe a third fewer minutes than the pre-plot sequence here, and a helluvalot more believable.
I found the "big chase" in the late-middle of the film (equivalent to Indy trying to get the truck carrying the Ark, or the mine-car race) to be just a little too long. There was also a nasty peril that seemed very derivative, both conceptually and special-effects-wise, of the first Mummy film with Brendon Frasier. Note to parents; my 7-year-old was able to stomach it just fine (my 30-something wife is another matter). From a purely technical point of view, the special effects were of course outstanding (and my players can expect a few new traps to populate my Castle Greyhawk thanks to the film), but the crystal skull itself seemed a bit light whenever the actors lifted it. Like it was made of plastic and not, well, crystal (which is heavy as all get-out in real life).
But the biggest problem was the alterations in the characters. Marion Ravenwood went from one of the finest "strong woman" characters in film history, plenty able to keep her own whether drinking or fighting, to a meek wallflower who essentially spent her life waiting for the Man Of Her Dreams(tm) to come back into her life. Indy seems to have transitioned from the quintessential confident man of action into... well... into his father. I realize that twenty years are supposed to have passed, but these are simply not the characters they were, and no real explanation is given other than the implication that the torch is about to be passed to the next generation and you'd better get used to it. To me, that was the biggest disappointment.
And Nazis are definitely better villains than Commies.
In the scale of Indiana Jones films, I rank 'em thus:
#1 Raiders of the Lost Ark
#2 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
#3 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
#4 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Give it three stars out of five.
Friday, May 23, 2008
Monday, May 19, 2008
Compare this with the Forgotten Realms, where everything was given to the DM through innumerable guides, books, articles, and so forth. Ed Greenwood's material was encyclopedic, and he is to be commended for the amount of detail he brought to his own campaign world, but when it came to being a published game setting, very little was really left to the DM to do, other than run players through adventures. And woe betide the DM who didn't keep up with the deluge of information, as small details, once overlooked, could come back to bite you later on when they became pivotal. And you had no idea which ones were the important bits! All of those books and supplements told you everything you could possibly want to know about the Realms.
That's not to say that Greyhawk didn't have details. It most certainly did. But even in presenting its details (and I am here speaking of the pre-Wars material), the World of Greyhawk did things differently. There was never any "Depths of the Oerth" supplement, dutifully cataloging the various races, places, and "adventure hooks" to be found in the warrens of tunnels beneath the Hellfurnaces. Nowhere was there a "Complete Guide to Giants" with details of their social structure, sample encounter areas, relations between the tribes of giants, etc. No! What you got were adventure modules. You didn't find out about the Depths of Oerth by reading about them; you found out about it by running your characters through the modules that described it. And the details were sparse indeed; the DM was expected to take the information in the module and riff off of it as a starting point. There was never a map of Erelhei-Cinlu for a reason, I am convinced. It was left for each DM to make it his or her own. All those adventure modules showed you what the necessary details were, through example, and the DM was left to fill in the vast gaps in detail.
Other settings told you everything you could possibly want to know. Greyhawk showed you what you absolutely needed to know, and left you to fill in the rest.
It's the empty room principle writ large; give the enterprising DM the barest outline, and he will step up to the challenge. It's shame that newer versions of the game have entirely dropped this principle, but it is understandable. There's a lot of money to be made in producing endless supplements, books, and so forth.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Personally, I think this is an outstanding idea, and could really help to provide a common ground for all of us who prefer an older, more Gygaxian style of play, and want to help others at least have a choice between what WotC feels is the "best way to play" and what has gone before.
Such an organization could be set up as a 401(c)3 organization, a non-profit corporation with a stated goal of popularizing and promoting old-school role-playing gaming and games as a literary form (literary societies are explicitly allowed as non-profits under IRS regulations). Ideally, I would like to see such an organization approach WotC to obtain a license to republish the original AD&D rules, to help generate interest in the older form. Since the license would be going to a non-profit, I'm certain the financial folks over at Hasbro would be able to turn that to their advantage.
There would be a number of advantages to such an organization. I would think of it as a combined industry association and player community. It would serve to promote gaming using the 0E/1E rules. That includes the clones as well. The very small and not-so-small companies producing products for that market would benefit by having a place where they could pool their marketing and market research dollars. The OSGA would conduct such research collectively, and turn around and produce targeted marketing campaigns aimed at three audiences:
- New-style gamers who might be interested in playing using the old-school approach
- Current gamers already playing 0/1E games who might not know there are others doing the same and companies selling product
- Former gamers who might be persuaded to return to the hobby given a proper marketing approach
I've got a background both in non-profit orgs and market research. If there was some support for the idea, I'd be willing to step up and start some wheels moving. The question is... do folks support it?
Saturday, May 17, 2008
I must say, though, that I genuinely enjoyed this film. I thought it was a substantial improvement over the first in a variety of ways. Definitely one of the better fantasy films I've seen in years.
I found the plotting of this film to be much tighter than in the first. The villains are given clear motivations (rather than the nebulous "I want it to be cold all the time" motive in the first film), and there were enough plot twists to keep me interested in what was happening. The acting was, in my opinion, superior this time around, perhaps because there were more non-CGI characters and the starring kids were better as well.
The special effects have definitely moved up a notch, although the CGI on Aslan was notably lacking. There were no instances of "greenscreen outline" as there were in the first film. The kids were also, by dint of this being a sequel, much more comfortable with the whole Narnian world, so we were not forced to sit through an interminable "wow, isn't this so cool?" sequence. I liked the fact that this Narnia was grittier, "more savage" in the words of one of the characters. It definitely felt like the "Empire" to the original movie's "Star Wars" in terms of tone.
A few things I didn't like, however. It was too long. The end could have come about 20 minutes sooner and I don't think I would have felt cheated. The badger didn't get enough time, and the mouse a tad too much (although my daughter loved the mouse, and I must say the scene with the cat was brilliant). The Christian allegory was a bit more heavy-handed in this film compared to the first ("Why doesn't Aslan just prove his existence to us?" "Perhaps we are supposed to prove ourselves to him." Ugh.) But on the whole none of that interfered with my overall enjoyment of this film.
Give it three and a half stars out of five.
Essentially, I'm trying to systematically go through all of the Q&A threads on places like Dragonsfoot, ENWorld, Pied Piper, etc. and cut-and-paste the various Greyhawk-specific posts by folks like Gary Gygax, Rob Kuntz, Scott Gregg, etc. Each tidbit is sourced with a link to the original post. They are then collected in an .rtf file to make it easy for the Greyhawk lore-hound to do a search on a given topic in his or her favorite text editor. Search for "Robilar", for example, and you'll get a plethora of posts on the subject of that particular worthy.
Of course, this is all very specific to the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting. It misses all the other discussions, certainly the majority. I highly encourage those interested to read the complete conversations, as they give invaluable insights into the personalities and inspirations behind the legends of the original fantasy role-playing game and campaign; this is specifically intended for those who are looking for particular pieces of information on how the original Greyhawk campaign was played.
Friday, May 16, 2008
The project itself is on hold for the moment for a couple of reasons. First, I'm in the midst of my "Greyhawk Lore" project, in which I'm going through all of the public forums I can find where Gary Gygax, Rob Kuntz, etc. etc. etc. did Q&A with fans, and doing a copy-and-paste into a reference file of all the material that pertains directly to the Greyhawk campaign as it was, or in some cases, as the originals intended it to go. I'll be making those reference files public as well, but it's an enormous task!
Second, I'm waiting to see what Troll Lords Games comes out with this summer. The first of their Castle Zagyg books, detailing the Upper Works and first level of the dungeons themselves, will be coming out. This is Gary Gygax's vision for how he wanted the dungeon to be presented to the public, so I would like to see how it looks before I continue on with my own levels, just to maximize the "look and feel" intangibles.
At the moment I'm not too worried about running out of material for my own players, but I'd like to keep well ahead of them when it comes to exploring the ruins.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
I, however, am somewhat more concerned about the second half of the article, which has gleaned not nearly as much attention, which deals with "civilization" and how the implied 4E economy operates.
I should point out here that one of my chief objections to 4E lies not with its mechanics (although I do have some problems with those), but rather with the assumptions it makes regarding setting. Specifically, it forces certain assumptions on settings which, by rights, should be setting specific. The lack of half-orcs and gnomes, and the forced inclusion of tieflings is only one example, and a rather cosmetic one at that (although its one which will turn the Forgotten Realms upside-down in just a few months, and some FR fans are justifiably upset). The "points of light" assumption is one which has much greater implications when it comes to Greyhawk, and to date I've not yet seen anyone argue against a 4E treatment of Greyhawk on that basis.
But specific to this post are the explicit economic assumptions that are built into the new game. First and foremost is the notion that magical items have but one of two destinies. Either they will be sold off for 20% of their value, or the PCs are expected to melt them down through a "disenchanting" ritual (woe betide the party that doesn't have a magic-user who can perform the proper ritual) and gain gold or X.P. that way. Concomitant with this is the notion that magical items will be available for sale; the article states so outright (although I have to wonder if the author really knows where the City of Brass is supposed to be located; doesn't 4E do away with the Elemental Plane of Fire?).
I must wonder also at the notion that there are scattered tiny villages, each with its own inn (which implies a thriving traveling culture), which are visited by wandering merchants (which has its own raft of implications). Does this really jive with the stated design philosophy of 4E, which is "islands of light in a sea of darkness"? Is trade really so lucrative that merchants are willing to brave not only the normal bandits and brigands that a traditional D&D world possesses, but the monster-ridden wilderness that spreads between those tiny outposts of civilization? The above-referenced article implies that adventurers are the primary customers; the implications inherent in THAT are manifold...
That is, all of the modules that TSR came out with early on were, by necessity, tournament modules. They were linear, with a defined goal, and the proverbial Boss guarding the Treasure Room. This, I think, is where Goodman Games gets their inspiration from; modules like the G or A series.
However, as is clear from reading not only accounts of the Greyhawk, Maure Castle, etc. campaigns, as well as the PH and DMG (as well as the LBB's) is that the original original campaigns were centered on a single, vast dungeon complex with no particular singular goal (at least, none that was immediately known to the PCs; to wit, the "slide to China" on level 13 of Castle Greyhawk). PCs were left to formulate their own goals and pretty much wander about the place killing things and taking their stuff. Smaller self-contained modules (such as S3) were side-treks, rather than the central focus. Yet we never got any model for the mega-dungeon concept back in the day; it was all tournament modules. I think this lack has colored a lot of folks' idea of what "old school" campaigns were like.
I've been thinking that there might be a market for modular mega-dungeon levels (or groups of levels) that could either be inserted into a DM's own mega-dungeon complex or pieced together to form a singular whole. Seems to me that would be a lot more genuinely old-school than most of us realize...
As the name implies, I'll be posting on topics related to gaming. Specifically, old-school type gaming (in my particular case, AD&D), the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting(tm), and on occasion the state of the gaming industry including the latest version of the D&D line, 4.0. At the time of this writing, 4.0 hasn't been released, but we've been given a lot of previews (and I personally got to play in a preview game at a convention less than a month ago) and I must confess I am not only unimpressed with the system, but I am filled with bile-to-the-top-of-my-throat-dread at the prospect of what shoehorning my beloved Oerth into the new version of the rules will do to the setting.
Anyway, off we go!