Friday, January 31, 2014

Castle of the Mad Archmage Now Available!

At long last, the print version of Castle of the Mad Archmage is now available!

The free serialized version from several years ago has been added to, scrubbed, edited, and generally improved upon. The adventure now is self-contained, from the surface ruins to the dreaded lowest levels, with a separate map book and illustration book (with pictures to show the players what they see at given places in the dungeons). You can get all three of the books that make up this adventure at

All three books are available in pdf format as well, and as always you get a free pdf copy when you order the hard copy books. The adventure book was written with the Adventures Dark and Deep rules in mind, which means it can easily be used with most OSR-type rules.

You can get get the whole set for $20 pdf, $35 with a softcover adventure book, and $45 with a hardcover adventure book (the map and illustration books are only available in softcover).

It's been a long time getting here, but I hope you have as much fun with it as I have over the years.

Monday, January 27, 2014

576, 591, or beyond?

I'm in the very early stages of putting together a new Greyhawk campaign, and I'm giving very serious consideration to setting it in the CY 591 time-frame, rather than the 576 period which I usually use.

For those who aren't as close to the "inside baseball" of Greyhawk as I am, that means that I am waffling between using the setting as shown in the folio and Gold Box set, and the setting as it is shown in The Adventure Begins and the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer. The one is before the "Greyhawk Wars" (Gods how I loathe that term) and the other is after.

Part of the reason is that I want to use the D&D Next rules for this campaign, and something about using the latest version of the rules leads me to want to use the latest version of the setting. Too, I find there is a great connection between the 1E rules (or Adventures Dark and Deep) and pre-Wars Greyhawk in my own mind, and I want to give the new game a spin; first with the playtest rules, and then with the final version once they're published in August.

I know the post-Wars Greyhawk has a bad reputation in a lot of quarters, but I don't particularly dislike it. I certainly don't find it "unrealistic" as some of my fellow Greyhawk fans do; there were periods in European history that make the border-shuffling and kingdom destruction/building of that 15 year stretch in the Flanaess seem positively sedate.

Tonally, it is a very different setting, however. In 576, evil is present, but not omnipresent. Strong bastions of Good such as Keoland, Nyrond, the Iron League, and Furyondy (and their allies) keep forces such as Iuz, the Great Kingdom, and organized humanoids and giants at bay. There are skirmishes, but large-scale warfare is rare, and the civilized lands (even those of evil bent) are, as a rule, prosperous and peaceful on a large scale. It feels "sunny, with clouds in the distance."

In 591, none of this is true. Not only has Iuz conquered the north-central Flanaess, but humanoids taken the Pomarj and southern Wild Coast, the Iron League is shattered and many of its members conquered either by the remnants of Aerdy and the Scarlet Brotherhood, Geoff is overrun, Almor is destroyed, etc. The scars of warfare are everywhere; cities lie in ruins all across the continent (especially in the now-riven Great Kingdom), there is famine, and trade is much lighter than it was. Too, the three greatest Good realms are severely weakened and are themselves in perilous positions. It feels "cloudy, with smoke from burning villages making my eyes water."

I'm halfway tempted to just jump the whole thing another five or ten years in the future to fix some of the problems and bring a little stability to the Flanaess. A never-ending grind of misery, chaos, war, and death gets old after a while. In order for threats to be credible, the potential outcome must contrast with the present state. "See that smoking ruin over yonder? If you brave adventurers don't slay the dragon, it'll get more smokey and more ruined!" just doesn't seem to do it for me.

I'd make 591-601 a period of exhausted rebuilding and increasingly tense stand-offs. Give Furyondy-Veluna a chance to rebuild its northern frontiers and come to terms with the presence of the Empire of Iuz. Let Nyrond and the North Kingdom fence over the former lands of Almor, which are finally starting once more to blossom. Have North Kingdom and Ahlissa establish a border, with Rauxes still a no-man's-land where most folk fear to tread. Irongate and Free Onnwal, with support from the Kingdom of Sunndi, expel the last of the Scarlet Brotherhood troops from Onnwal and retake Scant.

I wouldn't roll back everything, of course; the Empire of the Pomarj would still be a growing threat, creeping up the Wild Coast after their abortive attempt to invade Celene and increasing pressure from the Principality of Ulek. Iuz would loom over everything, of course, but the empire is fragile in the extreme, ready to burst into a dozen shards if something were to happen to the Old One. After all, it happened once at the hands of Zagyg, and almost happened again at the hands of the False Iggwilv. Third time's a charm?

The Doctor's New Duds

Goofy pose aside, I like it. Plain, with just a little flash of color. Long coat evokes some of the earliest incarnations of the Doctor. I like it. From the official Doctor Who Twitter feed.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Trailer: The Great Kingdom

I've gotta say this looks amazing. Love the soundtrack - I hope they keep that. And, as far as I know, this is a different thing than Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary, which was Kickstarted back in 2012. At least, the name of the production company is different.

Happy Birthday, D&D

Renowned D&D scholar Jon Peterson has pinpointed the post likely date of D&D's creation as January 26, 1974. So, thanks to Gary and the rest of the pioneers for many years of fun.

Friday, January 24, 2014

How Gary Gygax described Greyhawk in 1989

Anyone who aspires to run a game in Greyhawk would do well to read this. In four paragraphs the entire vast potential of the setting (and the game as a whole) just springs to life:
Within the dungeon settings of the Greyhawk campaign were areas that removed play to exotic places of water, wilderness, sky castles, and strange planes. Portions of the underground complex contained labyrinths; others led to caverns, unexpected places of beauty, dark temples, and so forth. In one place there was much combat, in another none, in a third a mixture of fighting and activities requiring thought and investigation. Outward and downward and elsewhere the delving adventurers went, and still they could never hope to know the true geography of that strange place.
Around that deep place of danger and the unknown sprawled both wild land and the teeming metropolis of the city. Those readers familiar with my Gord the Rogue stories will know a bit about the City of Greyhawk. Cosmopolitan and rude at once, its towers and catacombs offered as much in the way of derring-do as any dungeon could. Espionage and politics were there aplenty, all alongside simple taverns where thieves held concourse. Other cities and towns near and far beckoned. A whole continent filled with wonders of man and nature, kingdoms and despotic realms, and savage places too.
Beyond that world were the infinite places of the sort most humans of that milieu could not reach--except for the bold adventurers. These were the elemental planes and those connected to them, shadow and the ether. The multiverse extended below the realms of darkest evil, above the palaces of light, and laterally to the home of uncaring chaos on one end and absolute order on the other.
With all of that, and a co-GM too, there occurred from time to time a slackening of interest because one group or another simply had enough immersion in the realms of fantasy, magic, and make-believe. When that happened, a quick shift of gaming milieu would enable play to move to another adventure better suited to the player mood. The Old West, a brush with some World War II events, an expedition into New York City, an inadvertent transportation to a Starship, or a similar trip to some setting conceived by an author such as Edgar Rice Burroughs or Jack Vance--anything was possible.
- Gary Gygax, Master of the Game, pp. 89-90

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Iuzian Conundrum

Last March, when I posted about the meta-campaign originally envisioned by Gary Gygax that would encompass The Village of Hommlet, Temple of Elemental Evil, Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, commenter fluxisrad made an interesting observation about the timing of the events surrounding Iuz's interactions with Zuggtmoy and the Temple not making sense in the context of the other things we know about Iuz.

And he has a point. Consider the timeline of events as we know them:
479: Iuz appears in the north
505: Iuz is trapped beneath Greyhawk Castle
513: Horned Society, taking advantage of Iuz's absence, officially breaks away and declares their own nation
569: Battle of Emridy Meadows. ToEE is sacked, Zuggtmoy imprisoned
570: Iuz is freed from beneath Greyhawk Castle
573: Prince Thrommel of Furyondy kidnapped, taken to ToEE
The question becomes, when did Iuz and Zuggtmoy get together and plot the rise of the Temple of Elemental Evil? The obvious choice is sometime between 479 and 505, which is the only time that both Iuz and Zuggtmoy are both free from imprisonment. However, that carries with it a problem, as the Secret History of the Temple [of Elemental Evil] tells us that Iuz's motives for helping Zuggtmoy were that:
If the Temple triumphed, then he could call upon Zuggtmoy to repay his aid and make sure that Iuz, not the Horned Society, benefited most from the territorial acquisitions in Furyondy. Also, a strong Chaotic Evil ally against the power of the Horned Society could be most useful. (ToEE 29)
And there's the conundrum. If the only time that Iuz and Zuggtmoy were both free was before the Horned Society came into existence, how could it be that the Horned Society loomed so large in Iuz's plans?

One solution is that the Horned Society existed prior to 513, not as an independent state, but as an association among the "calculating generals and unholy men at the vanguard of the push against Furyondy" (LGG 62)

This also has great implications for the history of the Temple itself. Before the timeline problem was pointed out to me, I always saw the Temple of Elemental Evil as having a rather meteoric rise over the course of a couple of years, leading up to its downfall in 569. But if we go with this explanation, then the Temple must have been around for many decades, working slowly and stealthily until it felt itself powerful enough to declare itself to the world in the absence of Iuz's support.

But... this explanation still doesn't cover all the issues. Again, the Secret History of the Temple tells us:
Having just learned of the sharp check dealt to Lolth in her plans to wreak Evil, the Lady of Fungi agreed to accept Iuz as an (almost) equal in the Temple. She saw him as an excellent weapon, especially useful against the Horned Society once she had absorbed most of Veluna and Furyondy. She would then encourage Iuz to crush the might of the Society, and she would be left as the great Evil power in the Flanaess, ready to absorb the Wild Coast and Pomarj, while the rumps of Iuz and the Horned ones served as buffers in the north and east. Her hordes, in turn, could concentrate on the hateful elves and dwarves to the west...
And so the alliance formed, and actually worked, but saved not the Temple. Zuggtmoy was bound in its dungeons, but Iuz remained free (just as he had planned).
This passage speaks of the Horned Society as holding territory, and most definitely doesn't portray them as a shadowy cabal within the empire of Iuz. And when it says that "Iuz remained free" that speaks to the notion that all this happened after he was freed from the dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk, because he most certainly did not "remain free" after 504!

Another possibility is that it was not Iuz himself who approached Zuggtmoy, but one of the various "false Iuz's" who we are told sprang up following his imprisonment. This doesn't seem very likely, though, as surely Zuggtmoy would have realized that she was dealing with an impostor at some point. Too, the text of the Secret History of the Temple makes no mention of such a thing, maintaining that it was Iuz himself who dealt with Zuggtmoy.

Yet another possibility is that Iuz was able, somehow, to communicate with Zuggtmoy from within the Godtrap beneath Greyhawk Castle. This, however, is extremely unlikely, both because no other such communication is mentioned anywhere, and Zuggtmoy's plans described above seem to assume an Iuz who is a free and powerful agency unto himself.

I confess this is a tough one, and I can't come up with an explanation that satisfies both of the key requirements; a time when Iuz and Zuggtmoy are free, and the Horned Society is a powerful nation unto itself. Any suggestions? Am I missing some vital clue?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

70's Victorian Caper Films

There's a very specific sub-genre of film that I just can't get enough of, and that's the 70's Victorian caper film. There was a time in the 1970's when several period Victorian-era films were made that essentially were what we would call today "caper films". They show some sort of criminal enterprise and the various trials and travails in its execution. Sometimes these are shown from the point of view of the criminals, and sometimes from the point of view of the folks trying to capture said criminals.

Take, for example, The Great Train Robbery (1978). Starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland, it shows the painstaking preparation leading up to the first-ever robbery of a moving train in England in 1855. There's a shipment of gold being transported to pay the soldiers fighting in the Crimean War, and the crooks must secure four keys to open the safes on the train before they can actually pull off the heist. I love the great period costumes and sets, there's wonderful humor throughout (but not enough to turn it into a farce) and both Connery (who did his own stunts, including running along the top of a train going 55 mph) and Sutherland are spot-on as the calculating rogues orchestrating the robbery. Bonus points for the twist at the end.

I would argue that The Man who would be King (1975) would also fall into this category. Again starring Sean Connery, this time paired with Michael Caine as a pair of rogues who want to set themselves up as rulers of the nation of Kaphiristan (in the region of Afghanistan). This time we the Victorian period is represented by the British Indian colonial experience, with our two rogues being ex-British soldiers out to make a fortune for themselves. The set-up involves the big con they pull on every local warlord they meet, but naturally things can't go well indefinitely. Again, lots of great humor, but not a farce by any means.

Harry and Walter go to New York (1976), on the other hand, does dip more into the musical comedy end of the spectrum. It features James Caan (!) and Elliot Gould as a pair of would-be vaudevillians who decide to pull off the world's greatest bank robbery after escaping from prison. In so doing, they cross paths with Michael Caine, a gentleman celebrity criminal adored by all. It's a great wild romp of a movie, and the scenes of Caan and Gould doing 1890's song-and-dance numbers is worth the price of admission alone. It's not what one might call a "good" movie, but it's fun, and the sets and costumes are first-rate. 

The inverse of the genre is, of course, best served by Sherlock Holmes. Aside from the straight adaptations of the original Holmes stories (I personally prefer the Jeremy Brett versions that were originally shown on PBS from 1984-1994), the 1970's came up with two very different takes on the character. The Seven Percent Solution (1976) features Nicol Williamson (who played Merlin in the film Excalibur) as Holmes and Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson. The real "caper" here is Watson's plan to trick Holmes into going to Vienna to meet Dr. Sigmund Freud, played by Alan Arkin, to assist with Holmes' addiction to cocaine. Naturally, they stumble upon a real mystery while in Vienna, and the two plots intermingle nicely. A lot of excellent performances here, not without some humor (in particular the tennis match between Freud and the villainous Baron Karl von Leinsdorf, played by Jeremy Kemp).

Finally, we come to The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), which is less of a "caper" film than a more traditional Sherlock Holmes adventure, but which I nonetheless feel deserves inclusion here for its pitch-perfect presentation of Victorian London, even though the film has a decidedly... goofy quality in places, as if it couldn't decide if it wanted to be a serious movie or a comedy. Robert Stevens stars as Holmes, but I think Christopher Lee as his brother Mycroft steals the show. It's also one of the more fantastical Holmes adventures I've seen, bringing in the Loch Ness Monster of all things, and the film is (in)famous for its inferences regarding Holmes' sexuality, but for all the baggage I still enjoy it.

There are, of course, other Holmes films from the 70's, such as Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976) starring Roger Moore as Holmes, and Murder by Decree (1979) with Christopher Plummer in the role. There's just something about that era, and the way it was depicted in the 1970's, that has a certain authenticity to me that later films, even though they strive for just as much historical accuracy, just can't match.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: Black & White

Black & White is a six-issue comic published by Kenzer from July 2002 through January 2003. (Interested readers may wish to glance through my review of another Kenzer series from around the same time, Tempest's Gate.) The six issues are entitled:
  • Once a Thief...
  • New Friends, Old Enemies
  • Woodwych
  • Lambs to the Slaughter
  • The Return
  • Coming Home
The series starts off in Rel Mord, capital of Nyrond, with no date specified. Lynwerd is king of Nyrond, though, so that places the action sometime after 586 CY. It focuses on Tinelith, a half-elf thief, Snibb, a gnome mage, and Benni, a half-orc, who are soon joined by Bernleough, a cleric of Fharlanghn.

The plot revolves around a scheme to overthrow Lynwerd as king of Nyrond. Our heroes get swept up in the action when Tinelith cuts the wrong purse containing some incriminating scrolls, and the three are forced to flee the city, heading into the Celadon forest, pursued by the captain of the castle guard, Grakin. Over the course of the adventure, characters are revealed to be not what they seem, the principles are captured, let go, recaptured, and so on, and the plot progresses to the inevitable showdown with the plotters, whose plan is to kill Tinelith and Benni in front of the king, framing them as assassins, thus proving the plotters' loyalty, allowing them to strike from a position of trust.

Naturally, the plot fails, and the plotters (if not backed by the Pale, at least deeply associated with the priests of Pholtus) are executed. Snibb dies as well, turned into some sort of undead creature by the plotters. Tinelith is officially recognized as the daughter of the Baroness of Woodwych (which we were told about earlier, but honestly I couldn't get worked up about the supposedly-grand revelation), and is shown grieving for her lost friends. 

What I find annoying about this particular series is the ending. It breaks the primary rule of game plotting (and, for that matter, plotting in general) - the principle characters are entirely superfluous. It's not Tinelith and Benni who foil the plot, it's the baroness. The king knew exactly what to expect, and as soon as the plotters' trap was sprung, it was foiled through no agency of the main characters. It I had been playing Tinelith, I would have been quite disappointed. The only thing they really did to actively move the plot along was to steal the scrolls by mistake and then flee westward. After that, the plot ran pretty much on auto-pilot.

The art is... capable but annoying, and done in, as one might tell from the title of the series, black and white rather than the full color of Tempest's Gate. Unfortunately they were forced to switch artists halfway through the first issue, and in so doing the design of the two main characters changed drastically. Tinelith, who is a redhead on the cover of issue 1, has black hair later on. Snibb, who starts off as an aged, portly gnome with a monocle and bulbous nose, has a chiseled chin and movie star looks in issue 2. (At the end of issue 1, Snibb is shown casting a spell on the group as they leave the town, but no mention is then made of why Tinelith and Benni revert back to their original forms, but not Snibb.)

There are several elements of interest to DMs running a game in the Nyrond/Celadon/Gnatmarsh region. We get a good look at Stalwart Pines, a ranger training school in the Celadon, which is mentioned briefly in other sources but never really developed. There's also a spell used by the clerics of Heironeous to hold the dying in some sort of floating stasis while their friends collect enough money to pay for full healing. It struck me as somewhat incongruous for a good-aligned temple do bleed the loved ones of the sick that way, but it works in a cynical sort of way.

One other interesting feature that could be of use to game masters is the use of quotes from books to set up scenes in several issues. We see snippets from The Travel Companion Guide, Chapter XXVI: Nyrond. and The Middle Flanaess on Ten Silver Pieces a Day. I wish they had expanded the practice with more names. Still, the excerpts give some interesting background on the region that would be directly applicable to games set in the period. There are no game stats presented in the books.

On the whole, the story itself doesn't really advance anything in the setting, and takes a long time to get to where its going, but Tinelith and Benni would be good NPCs to use in a game (most of the other surviving characters are pretty much just window dressing). There's some useful background to be had, and the art, while not great, is certainly not awful. You can get the back issues for less than cover price, which is nice. I give it two wizards out of five.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What do you want to see in 2014?

I'm looking for some input into what you might want to see from me in 2014. Please take a minute to complete this quick four question survey and let me know!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Greyhawk fans - where's your favorite campaign locale?

I'd like to ask a question of all the Greyhawk fans out there.

Where's your favorite place, region, etc. to set a campaign? The Great Kingdom? Wild Coast? Keoland? Ull?

More importantly, why?

To answer my own question and get the ball rolling, I personally prefer the City of Greyhawk itself. The proximity to a variety of different terrain types (hills, marshes, forests, desert, and the Nyr Dyv) maximizes adventuring possibilities, and the fact that it is a major urban center is a plus as well. Not to mention the fact that Castle Greyhawk is right there, and I happen to be something of a fan of the megadungeon concept. Ahem.

But I've also had a great deal of success and fun with campaigns set in Verbobonc/the Kron Hills (with Hommlet as a centerpoint, naturally), the Wild Coast, Tenh/Rift Canyon, and Highfolk. I'm still dying to do my big Irongate/South Province campaign, which I've been talking about for years and never made happen.

That's one thing I love about Greyhawk. So many possibilities besides the obvious choices.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Timing is Everything

You know how I'm working on a wuxia/Chinese mythology supplement for Adventures Dark and Deep™? Check out these two awesome movie trailers. First is The Monkey King, coming out January 31:

And then we have Journey to the West, coming out March 17:

Technically, they're both based on the same Chinese legend/novel, but they seem to have two very different "feels"; the one pretty serious and the other pretty light-hearted. But what gets me is the timing; just as I'm immersed in reading Chinese folklore, history, and mythology both of these show up in the next couple of months. 

If they made D&D movies that were half this awesomely over-the-top, I'd be a happy camper. Surely, the tortoise shells have indicated good fortune in the coming months. :-)