Thursday, January 21, 2016

What's missing by Paizo

Although I've long since kinda stopped paying attention, I still pop in every so often and see what Paizo is doing with their setting development (they lost me a long time ago with rules development; they kind of took what was wrong with 3.x and made it worse).  They've started doing repeats; there are new(ish) books out for Osirion and Cheliax, for instance, even though I also have older books dedicated to those two areas of the setting.  That said, there are a few areas that really could use some more development.  All of these areas have been mentioned in, at least, the campaign setting book, Distant Worlds, or some other source, but none of them have sufficient development that they're ready to use in any meaningful sense, at least not without a lot of homebrew to get it ready (hence the use of that tag.)

So, what would I specifically want to see, and where would I decide to focus?
  • Realm of the Mammoth Lords.  No relationship to my own long-running (although little has been done with it) setting tag MAMMOTH LORDS which actually more closely resembles the Savage Worlds setting Totems of the Dead, this is a polity or region with lots of prehistoric La Brean and similar megafauna, including warm valleys in the mountains inhabited by dinosaurs.  This, naturally, is sufficient for adventure in and of itself, but there's more: the region is surrounded by enemies.  To the north is the path over the crown of the world to Tian Shan.  To the west is the hostile Witch-Queen Realm of Irrisen.  To the south is the Hold of Belkzen, who's orcs often raid their southern reaches to capture their own megafauna for war platforms, and to the east is the Worldwound—once a kingdom that culturally, if not politically, was closely tied to the clansmen of the Mammoth Lords, but which is now a beachhead for a demonic apocalypse.  It also borders a small part of northern Varisia, and is very close to Ustalav, and the ties of Kellid blood cry out from all of those areas, as well as Numeria.  The Realm of the Mammoth Lords is kind of the last redoubt of Kellid culture.
  • Akiton, the Red Planet, and the Pathfinder equivalent to Barsoom.  This is actually very sparsely described, but there seems like a lot of opportunity here; sword & planet romance all through the surface, but with strange Lovecraftian horrors buried in the ice at the poles, and other unique and unusual settings for adventure that are very different from that found on the "Hyborian model" design of Golarion.
  • Nex.  Normally I'm not a huge fan of over-the-top high magic areas, but I'm a little surprised that this hasn't been further developed, given that it's the place in Golarion for high magic wahoo.  Geb too, I suppose.  Maybe the two of them can't be done separately, which means that the Paizo folks aren't quite sure what to do with it.
  • Varisia.  What, you say?  There's tons of material for Varisia!  Well, yes and no.  There are sourcebooks for several of the cities in Varisia, including Magnimar, Korvasa, and the Pathfinder Burning Man analog, Kaer Maga.  There are several adventure paths set mostly in coastal, semi-urban Varisia.  But most of the rest of this vast area remains a big cypher.  I'd love to see something in the Varisian hinterlands above the Storval Rise; a kind of Pathfinder Old West almost, with Shoanti barbarians standing in for Indians and Huns or Mongols as the case may be.  Of course, Paizo would screw this up with the "Avatar Myth" which is just an expression of anti-white racism.  And I'd love to pretend like I never heard anything at all about Kaer Maga.  Blegh.
  • Eox.  I've been fascinated by the concept of Eox, which —in many ways—reminded me strongly of the Atropus section from Elder Evils.  The two could be easily combined.  Not sure why the concept of an entire world of undead is so interesting to me, but it is.  I wonder; maybe this could also be combined with Thanatos, as described in Fiendish Codex I?  Sure, why not?
  • Arcadia.  Sure, I can adopt my own MAMMOTH LORDS or Totems of the Dead to some degree to give me material that works as Arcadia, but why hasn't Paizo given us more than a single chapter on a single city?
A lot of what I'm interested in is extraterrestrial—either in the planes or the planets, which are virtually indistinguishable from each other, both being exotic and often hostile environments for adventure of similar esoteric provenance.  I've actually just about finished re-reading for the first time Distant Worlds and I'm finding that my old REALMS TRAVELER setting idea is one that I'm missing right now.  I might have to put together a hex map of the Realms as a next step.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Gun Control

From a source on firearms in the Middle Ages (again, assuming that the baseline of D&D is, essentially, a fantasy version of a Middle Ages esque world): "Firearms, of which the handgonne was an early example, gradually came to dominate European warfare, and the reasons are clear. The hand gonne was inexpensive and easy to mass-produce. At the same time, the forging methods required meant that centralized governments had a measure of control over their manufacture (and especially the manufacture of ammunition—an important consideration in a medieval Europe wracked by rebellion). They had superior armor-penetration capability; the longbow was effective against mail armor and plate, thanks to the bodkin point, and the crossbow very effective against heavy armor, but the handgonne could pierce heavy plate as well as act as a terror weapon to troops and horses that had never seen the weapon before. Furthermore, much like the crossbow, the weapon could be effectively used by non professional soldiers.

The other hand-operated ranged weapons of the time had their own drawbacks. Crossbows had superior accuracy and similar power as compared to early hand cannons. However, they were expensive to make, slow to reload and their performance was almost as severely affected by wet weather as that of hand cannons. While the handgonne could not match the accuracy nor speed of fire of the longbow, gunners did not require the special training and continuous practice from childhood required of a good bowman. Yew, the primary stave making material for the European longbow, became scarcer as the medieval period progressed. Firearms only supplanted longbows in England after almost all European yew supplies had been exhausted."

Although I'm far from a strict simulationist, we see that for the most part, D&D rules for "primitive" firearms has really got it all completely wrong.  I don't pretend to be an expert on rules for guns over the years in D&D—which has largely relegated such to the fringes anyway, but which periodically get covered by a variety of sources.

Here's a few things where I think they've got it wrong.

  • Although not universally true, many have damage ranges that are not comparable with other weapons, assuming somehow that firearms are more lethal than non-firearm weapons.  This is absurd; but quite honestly, there's something flaky with damage ranges in general.  Most weapons do too little damage (either that or most characters have way too many hit points.)  But regardless, the damage range of firearms shouldn't be outside of the norm for other weapons.  
  • To offset this, many rules have firearms be very difficult to reload, and take a long time to do so.  This is actually fairly historically accurate—but the same would be true for crossbows.  For whatever reason, nobody ever does this for crossbows.  This sudden turn towards a simulationist exception for firearms is strange.  Either simulate or don't simulate.
  • The same balancing effort is made for ranges, which for "primitive" firearms are often very, very short.  This actually is not historically accurate, so its not even good simulationism.
  • Misfires are popular.  This might be fun to introduce a little tension and risk, but it's also fairly silly.
In general, firearms rules betray the fact that most games designers don't really care very much (or know very much) about guns.  That's OK.  Actually, my own rules have several of these same problems—the range is shorter than for bows, crossbows, etc.; I have increased damage, but a reload time.  I might have a look at those after all.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Timischburg—with hexes

I'm thinking of converting my CULT OF UNDEATH compression of the Carrion Crown adventure path by Paizo into, of all things, a hexcrawl.  This will, of course, change significantly the way that the game will play and require a bit more work to be doable—but that's OK.  In fact, I think it's desirable.

First things first, if I actually do this: I've added a hex overlay to my map.  It doesn't have a key yet; but you can, of course, simply count.  There are 26 columns across and 17 rows.  While the rows don't necessarily line up (because they're hexes, not squares) if you count the columns first, going left to right, and then count down the second number, you'll get to the targeted hex.  For example, Grozavest is located in 11:9; 11 hexes over from the left edge, and 9 hexes down from there.  I'll probably eventually actually add numbers, but... no rush.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

What is the OSR playing?

I was kind of curious what the hot titles in the OSR are lately; as I've mentioned them several times, I've made some assumptions that may or may not be valid.

There's very little data to speak of.  Wikipedia references some site-meter type statistics at ENWorld, but there's a heckuva selection bias at ENWorld towards the current edition of D&D and against any other game.  Not that they're not talked about, or can't be talked about, but that that simply isn't the hot place to talk about it.

Today's statistics on the Hot Roleplaying Games page suggest the OSR tag is used on 3.7% of the discussions had.  That said; older games, or specific OSR games really should be added to that list, which brings it to 5.57%.  Not bad, for a subset of gamers that probably don't really have much in common with ENWorld's M.O. to begin with!

Here are the games that I presume OSR themed gamers are using, to some degree or another:

  • First off, keep in mind that WotC have released most of the actual older editions of the games, either as pdfs or as reprints.  You can get 1e, 2e, B/X, OD&D, BECMI, and the RC at least this way.  Presumably many players who would be drawn to retroclones don't actually need the retroclones if they can get the actual regular rules themselves; the retroclines then become more useful as a platform to enable other ancillary products like modules, settings, or customization options.
  • It looks like Castles & Crusades is still kicking around.  This was a curious hybrid; old school SRD before the OSR really started for realzies.
  • I've mentioned specifically ACKS and LFP, but I don't know how much use these get.  They seem to have gathered a lot of talk online, at least.  Dungeon Crawl Classics probably belongs in that grouping as well.  Neither are exactly retroclones, being rather evolutions of the retroclones in many ways.
  • OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord were very early retroclones (of 1e and B/X, respectively) but I don't hear much about either anymore.  Then again, I don't trawl through OSR blogs and whatnot, so maybe I'm just out of the loop.
  • Swords & Wizardry, especially in its even more stripped down "White Box" version seems, from my limited perspective, to have quietly become the mechanical chassis of choice for much of what's going on in the OSR.  Given that S&W is meant to be a retroclone of the original 1974 version of D&D, there's a kind of odd "circle of life" symmetry to this, if so.
What would I use if I were into the OSR?  I'm not really, but I'd like to do a B/X retro-game for a time.  I'd probably do B2: Keep on the Borderlands and then X1: The Isle of Dread specifically and then can the game.  I'd also like to do a more old-school style game for a time as an experiment, or just for fun; a good old-fashioned hexcrawl.  But I probably wouldn't actually use old rules for it; I'd probably use an m20 variant.  Purest Essence seems like the most D&Dish of the bunch without getting specifically into more complicated or esoteric variants, but Microlite74: Standard Edition might be a good choice too.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Brief Contest of Champions update

I don't intend to make updates on this a regular occurrence, but here and there, I'm interesting in logging my progress.  I still don't have any 4-star champions, but I do have a lot of 3-stars now; more in fact than I do 2-stars.  I got rid of a couple of 2-stars that I had that were duplicated by 3-stars, and then—since I wasn't doing anything with 2-stars except fighting in 3x3 match-ups to earn specific 3-star heroes, I decided to go back to having a number divisible by 3, so I could make teams.  I have 12 2-star heroes, then—4 teams—and even when I get duplicates, at this point, I think I'm going to keep what I have.  This will just be my 3x3 roster that will remain unchanged.  I've been trying to gradually level and rank these guys up, though.  Five of them are now rank 3 (which allows them to use the super move) and I'd like to eventually get all of them maxed out.  But that's a slow process, and it takes away ISO that I could be using to bulk up my roster of 3-star heroes (and eventually 4-star, I hope.)  And because of that, I've decided to slow down on my Story Quests (I'm in the 2nd Act, and I'll keep at it, but then I'll stop until I've accomplished some other goals.)

Actually, I'm spending quite a bit more time in event quests, to earn catalyst.  This is, however, really boring, because it's the same quest over and over again, and although it does (slowly) give out catalyst, it's not great at giving out anything else.  It's really long past time that they retire the Groot quest and replace it with a new one.  I don't know how long its been since I finished the Groot quest, but it sure feels like forever ago.  And I also desperately need the catalyst.  But until I get some, I can't even do the medium catalyst quests very well; the difficult track is full of 4-star heroes to defeat that are in the 1,100-1,200 or so rating.  I either have to burn through a bunch of heal and revive potions to even do those, or I have to simply do the easy track and then wait until I've gathered enough shards to complete catalysts.  I really want my 3-star characters to all be up in the 3rd rank where they can get into the 1,000+ ratings themselves before I start tackling these.  I've got several heroes that are just barely in the 3rd rank, and are in the upper hundreds for rankings, but I need a lot more ISO get get them at the top of the rank and ready to get their final ranks.

So, that's where I'm at.  I feel like I need to "farm" ISO and catalysts so I can get my champions good enough to really move on in the story mode—as shallow and stupid as the actual story is—and the farming is getting tedious.  Does this mean that I won't be playing the game as much?  Maybe.  I've already slowed down from my furious investment into it over the holidays, but a lot of that is simply that I don't have the time that I had during the holidays too.  I'd love to get a different event quest up; I joined when the Jessica Jones one was on, but it finished before I did, and it's been Groot ever since.  I finished Groot weeks ago; I could have turned around and done it again at a higher difficulty level (and in fact, I probably would have if I'd known it was going to stick around so long) but now I'm mostly just interested in seeing what's coming in its place.  I'm also enjoying the quick 3-day (or so) challenges where you can win a 3-star hero in the Versus mode 3x3 teams.  I've done a few of those now, and I think it's a great way to bulk up my roster and earn units, premium crystal shards, and gold.  It seems like there's a new one over the weekends, and then it repeats again during the week.  I'll keep a weather eye on what's happening there.  Although without quests, I end up just getting more heroes that I can't afford to level or rank up, which starts to get old.  I'm feeling a real shortage of ISO.

Anyway, here's my current list:
2-star champions

  • Cosmic silver Iron Man: 398
  • Iron Fist: 392
  • Wolverine: 373
  • Star-Lord: 370
  • Punisher: 366
  • Regular Iron Man: 354
  • Deadpool: 316
  • Juggernaut Colossus: 313
  • Rhino: 313
  • Yellowjacket: 312
  • Ronan: 310
  • Drax: 309

3-star champions:

  • Magneto: 883
  • Thor girl: 828
  • Hulkbuster: 762
  • Ms Marvel: 750
  • Spiderman: 731
  • Winter Soldier: 690
  • Black Panther: 664
  • Daredevil (Netflix version): 638
  • War Machine: 586
  • Juggernaut: 576
  • Dr. Strange 575
  • Groot: 548
  • Rocket Raccoon: 545
  • Spiderman Miles Morales: 522 

Friday, January 08, 2016


From the comments, by Lord Kilgore: "I honestly believe (and have since the days of the original Unearthed Arcana and the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide) that there is an inverse relationship between page count and potential for easy fun.

Maybe the quicker references to the rules speed things up and make it seem like more is happening. Maybe quicker combat keeps everything flowing. Maybe the DM has to put a little more into it because he can't just read off a table. Maybe the players do too. Maybe you don't take it quite so seriously because it's "just a simple version of the game."

Or, maybe, it's all of that and then some."

I don't disagree, to a degree.  And hour for hour, I probably had a lot more fun simply playing the various setting iterations of "cops and robbers" or "cowboys and injuns" or "the Scooby gang and the monster" or whatever other game we played as kids that had no rules at all whatsoever.  Not that I'm interested in doing that again (even my kids are too old for that kind of thing; I'll have to wait until I can chase grand-kids around the playground, I guess) so I think there's a limit to how far the rule Lord Kilgore refers to goes.  But just for the heckuvit (and for bragging rights) let's make a few comparisons.  Keep in mind; this makes no concession to the presence, absence, or size of artwork and white space, or even the size of the pages themselves.  A word count would be better.  But, what can you do?  This gives a bit of an advantage to the free supplements put together by indie guys on the internet, who didn't pay for any art (although some of them include public domain artwork a fair bit) but by that point, where in the region where the rule about diminishing page count stops having any real meaning, in my opinion.

And I'm not sure how to count up 4e, because of the weird release schedule, I was never really sure which books I would need to look up page count for.  Do you need the PHB 2 or 3 to play?  I dunno.  So I didn't bother counting it at all, and just left it off.

This is also the "core" rules only.  Obviously, most of these lines had a great deal more material available, although it was specifically called out as optional.  This is the stuff that you absolutely need to play.  I fudged that call just a bit too: Pathfinder is generally considered as requiring at least the 1st Bestiary to be a complete game, so I added it too.  This is what I've got:

5th Edition: 992 pages
3.5 Edition: 960 pages
Pathfinder: 896 pages
AD&D (1e): 470 pages
Rules Compendium: 304 pages
OD&D (LBBs plus the 4 supplements): 183 pages
Labyrinth Lord (Advanced; free no art version): 160 pages
Swords & Wizardry: 146 pages
Labyrinth Lord (Basic; free no art version): 140 pages
Moldvay Basic/Expert: 128 pages
Swords & Wizardry White Box: 72 pages
OD&D (LBBS only): 56 pages
Microlite74: Extended: 32 pages
Microlite74: Standard: 28 pages
DARK•HERITAGE m20: 28 pages
Microlite74: Basic: 20 pages
Microlite Purest Essence: 16 pages
Microlite (Original): 3 pages (granted, if you don't already know how to play, you're probably hosed with this one, though.)

As an aside; I sometimes forget, since not everyone has been involved in messageboard and other D&D discussions over the last ten years or so like I have.  Here's a list of common abbreviations:
  • OD&D: Original D&D; the 1974 (and later reprintings) of the first version of the rules.
  • LBBs: Little Brown Books; which were actually white in most printings.  The actual rulebooks contained in the OD&D boxed set.  This is done, usually, to distinguish between the basic OD&D rules, and the OD&D rules containing one or more of the four supplements that were released.
  • AD&D: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons; could refer to either the first edition (1e) or second (2e.)  Occasionally you'll here references to 1.5e or 2.5e; this refers to 1e with the implementation of the Unearthed Arcana (UA) book; 2.5 refers to the implementation of Skills and Powers.
  • BD&D: Basic D&D.  Technically, it should probably refer to the Holmes set, since the Moldvay and Mentzer have their own abbreviations (and go beyond Basic) but in practice, BD&D is used as a catch-all for almost all of the D&D games that were not OD&D or AD&D until the release of the RC (see below.)
  • B/X: Basic/Expert: referring to the version of the game that game in two separate boxes.  Basic was written by Moldvay and Expert was written by Zeb Cook; but the entire version, as well as being called B/X, is often simply called Moldvay.
  • BECMI: The progression of boxed sets as written by Frank Mentzer, with the Larry Elmore covers.  The acronym refers to the various boxes in the series: Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal.  Sometimes also simply called Mentzer.
  • RC: Rules Compendium; the book version of BECMI after it was revised and collated.
  • With the collapse of TSR, the D&D line and the AD&D line were collapsed into a single game again, but the edition numbering followed that of AD&D.  So when you see 3e, what that usually refers to is D&D 3rd Edition, which came out in 2000.
  • 3.5 is the revision to 3e that came out in 2003.
  • 4e is the 4th edition.  
  • 4.5 is a nickname sometimes given to D&D Essentials, which was a restructuring and revision and reprinting of 4e.
  • 5e is the newest (and current) edition of the game, which was released in 2014.
  • PF is Pathfinder, and since it was specifically meant to be a revision of the 3.5 SRD that stayed more faithful to the 3.5 game than 4e was obviously going to be, many PF fans actually consider PF to be more faithful to what D&D is than 4e ever was, in spite of the fact that it obviously lacks the brand name officially.
  • OSRIC: Old School Reference and Index Compilation: the first "retroclone" which used the SRD and OGL to recreate a facsimile of 1e and managed to get away with it.  Spawned, indirectly, the entirety of the OSR
  • SRD: System Reference Document: almost all of the rules of 3e (and later, 3.5) and made them freely available for anyone to use or work with under the auspices of the OGL.
  • OGL: Open Gaming License: the license that allows anyone to use the SRD to develop their own material for the game.
  • OSR: Old School Revival (or Renaissance, or Revolution): products that are compatible with older editions of the game, thanks to the presence of retroclones like OSRIC, S&W, or LL.  As the movement has evolved, to a great degree, it's developed now it's own games that are like evolutionary to those older games, rather than merely being faithful(ish) reproductions of them, like ACKS or LFP.
  • S&W: Swords & Wizardry; a retroclone specifically of OD&D.
  • LL: Labyrinth Lord; originally meant to be a clone of B/X, but has evolved an AD&D variant as well since then.
  • ACKS: Adventurer Conqueror King System: an evolutionary game that expands on the concept of BECMI, where as you level up and the genre changes, you actually do different things rather than dungeon-crawl harder dungeons with Orcus in the room instead of an orc.
  • LFP: Lamentations of the Flame Princess: another evolutionary OSR themed game with a decidedly "grindhouse" vibe; gratuitousness and maybe that Ron Edwards "phantasmagoric" except this time turned very, very wrong, feel to it.

Using D&D for planetary romance

Since Jeffro has pointed out that it might well have been expected in the mi-70s that you use D&D to run games that aren't necessarily a vanilla thud and blunder hybrid of sword & sorcery like game-play in a setting that looked like a vanilla extruded fantasy product high fantasy...  I wonder what using D&D to play sword & planet, or planetary romance would be like.

Clearly, D&D has borrowed a lot from sword & planet stories over the years.  The Dark Sun setting was specifically designed to be similar (in some ways) to Barsoom.  Creatures like the gorillon are quite explicitly the same as Barsoomian white apes.  The Pathfinder setting book Distant Worlds is clearly designed to be the Leigh Brackett solar system, complete with Barsoom-like Mars and Amtor-like Venus, turned into fantasy (it's actually a bit more science fiction and less planetary romance than I expected.)  Other, non-D&D games have explored the territory even more thoroughly; Space: 1889 has a strong planetary romance angle, Hollow Earth Expedition has a Mars add-on that's just like Barsoom (given that normally the setting is just like Pellucidar, it's fair to say that Jeff Combos is a Burroughs fan...)  Lizard wrote what may be the most popular (if my own completely unscientific observations about it and people asking about it online are any guide) of the d20 mini-games in Iron Lords of Jupiter.

White ape of Barsoom?  Or gorillon of D&D?
But what about seriously using D&D to run an unapologetic sword & planet setting; not a sword & sorcery setting with some sword & planet influences?  How would that be done?

I said a few days ago that sword & sorcery and sword & planet are already almost indistinguishable save for the rather arbitrary distinction that the former uses magic, and the latter uses pseudo super science to essentially do the same thing.  This was a rather facile over-simplification, so let's have a look at what is really different, shall we?

1) First off, the races.  While you could conceivably come up with some way to make fantasy races fit into planetary romance (Pathfinder's elven kingdom on Venus actually works pretty well, for instance) you're better off changing them.  The classic sword & planet setting has humans—although of some exotic ethnicity unlike any on earth, usually, and then a bunch of really kind of gonzo non-human races.  The Green Men of Baroom, for instance, are ten feet tall, have chameleon-like eyes, huge porcelain tusks, and four arms.  Lin Carter's Yathoon on Callisto are giant insect people.  Barsoom also has kangaroo-like hopping people, and gigantic head-like spiders that ride headless humanoid bodies as steeds.  Amtor has bird people, fish people. people that grow as buds from plants, and people that reproduce via mitosis, etc.  Look for some really gonzo, unusual races, mix that up with regularish human people with green skin and blue hair or something like that, and your racial selection is good to go.

2) Secondly, classes: A lot of D&D classes (at least in most editions) are related to some kind of magic; either divine or arcane.  While I can imagine a planetary romance that uses magic, normally it does not.  Curiously, psychic (or psionic) powers is not at all out of place; in the first John Carter novel, Burroughs goes on and on about the telepathy that is common on Mars (although it's rather conveniently forgotten and rarely mentioned again later; kind of like midichlorians that way...) and on Callisto, the Mind Wizards are another example of weird psychic mind-readers and mental manipulators.  Some of the more colorful tricks of a psion in D&D are essentially indistinguishable from magic, other than the mechanics and the pseudo-science names attached to the powers.  I think something a bit more toned down than actual wizards is desirable.  Something more like the Jedi would work.

3) Many fantasy stories, even sword & sorcery, don't really emphasize the "pulp aesthetic"—things needs to be gee, gosh, exotic, exciting, over the top: gratuitously exciting in a boy's adventure tale kind of way.  One fascinating feature of planetary romance (actually, Burroughs, who created the genre, did this in most of his other books too) is that just over the next rise or hill, just on the other side of the next sea, or whatever, is always some really bizarre, unguessed, exotic location.  Although the action is fast and furious, there's also a sense of the travelogue about these books; it's also about showcasing the imagination.  Quiet little villages and farmlands are never as exciting as abandoned cities protected by illusion-projecting primitives who everyone assumed were extinct, or valleys filled with weird cyclopean carnivorous plant people, or a sea made of red mist instead of water, or... y'know.  Whatever.

4) To be really true to the genre, you might think about being the PCs be Earth people stranded in a strange land.  While it's not required (there were Barsoom, and other settings, books that featured native characters from time to time) it's customary.  Burroughs did it, Carter did it, Resnick did it, Kline did it, Akers did it, Moorcock did it, Howard did it, Norman did it, etc.  With a pedigree like that, you've got to give it some serious thought.

5) While there certainly are super-science elements to a sword & planet campaign, your scientific stuff can't be so effective that it eliminates a) big, angry, primitive monsters that are basically equivalent to alien dinosaurs, or b) the effectiveness of hand-to-hand combat with swords and stuff.  Make sure that your rayguns (or whatever kinds of guns you have) aren't so good that naturally everyone will switch to using them exclusively as their weapons of choice, for example.

Along those same lines, while it was really only (mostly) Barsoom that had naked people running around, this is supposed to be a swashbuckling kind of genre.  Plonking around in heavy armor doesn't seem to really be the way things are done.  D&D has some optional rules for scaling armor class (as to hit scales) without needing armor; I'd either adopt these, or find some others that do more or less the same thing.

6) In a swashbuckling combat game, lots of dungeon-crawling doesn't really seem appropriate.  While certainly John Carter or some of the other guys occasionally got into a fight with someone or other in a cave, the entire paradigm of dungeon-crawling seems highly inappropriate for this genre.  Zipping across the planet in a flying ship, sneaking into an enemy city at night to rescue a supremely hot space princess or eliminate a political rival—that I can see.  There's lots of politics, gladiatorial games, mass combat of mounted and/or flying troops, and the discovery of strange and exotic cultures, races or terrain while lost out in terra incognita.  If there's an old school model that you need in order to run the game, the hex-crawl makes a lot more sense than the dungeon-crawl.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Minor upcoming m20 tweaks

There's a tweak a'coming for my m20 system, or at least one that I'm noodling around, trying to find out exactly how I want to address it.  Prompted by discussions I've read, and one or two I participated in, on the apparent invulnerability of PCs in 5e, it occurred to me that higher level PCs in my game have too many hit points, and will tend to thus prolong combats to an undesirable level.  It is not, however, just a high level problem; I think I've been way too cautious overall, and given much too much thought towards low level play at the expense of high or even mid-level play.

I'm reminded that in B/X (I checked my pdfs to be sure of all the details) you only get one hit die per level; you never start with a "full hit die" at 1st level, the CON bonus modifiers are much more modest than they were in d20, and at "name level" you stop gaining hit dice and only gain a single hit point after leveling up (assuming you were human; demihumans just capped out their levels entirely at name level.)  And arguably, B/X was generous compared to OD&D.  While I don't have OD&D around to check, using Swords & Wizardry as a proxy (and I think it's the same, or very nearly so) everyone's hit die is a d6, but you just roll it, and unlike in B/X; you don't always get a hit die when you gain a level; some characters, like magic-users, only get a new hit die every other level.  The progression is otherwise a bit all over the map.

While I do think it is highly desirable to flatten out that hit point progression somewhat, I think that it is not desirable to shift it upward.  So starting out a 1st level character with only 3-4 hit points sucks and should be discarded, but I don't want to end up with 9th and 10th level characters—or even 5th or 6th level characters—with so many hit points that combats become tedious, overly long, and therefore boring.  And I think as it stands, that can happen a bit too easily.  The flattening needs to happen by pulling hp totals up on the front end, but leaving them about the same on the back end.  Also; keep in mind; even very powerful enemies, such as a balrog... er, excuse me: baal-rog—only has 40 hit points.  If any but the highest of high level characters has hit points equivalent to or more than a baal-rog, then I'm not doing it right.  The most hit points any monster on my monster list has is 100—the angel.  But that's more as a point of reference; you're not really ever meant to fight one.  Not meant to imply that the baal-rog is a good choice for a war of attrition; I'd probably go for the 75 hp sea serpent there, but the sea serpent is meant to be a big monster and therefore it makes no sense for PCs to ever be in that hit point range.

The way it was structured now, a character could; if he rolled an 18 for STR, picked the Neanderthal race, and had really good hit point rolls, easily end up in the mid-70s for hit points by 10th level.  Something was wrong.  I miscalculated that aspect of the game.

The proposed way hit points will work going forward is that you start with your STR score as your hit points (not your STR score + 1d6, as it was in the outgoing system.)  Every time you level up, you gain +2 to your maximum hit point total.  That incredibly high STR Neanderthal at 10th level now has 44 hit points (which reminds me; I need to make it more clear if your STR score is adjusted by leveling up, you do retroactively update your hit points to reflect that as well.)  A truly average STR character (10) would, at 10th level, have 28 hit points.  A real weakling, a scholar who focuses on learning magic, for instance, could be closer to 20.  I would imagine that for most characters, hit points would top out at 10th level in the upper 20s or somewhere in the 30s.  This seems consistent with the range in S&W and not terribly unlike B/X (a little lower, but that's OK.)  And it is certainly a lot flatter, which I really like.  If an average character starts out with hit points in the low teens and ends up, ten levels later, in the mid to upper 30s; that's a heckuva lot better than starting out at 3 hit points and ending up, ten levels later at around 50, as in B/X.  Heck; an average 10th level Rogue in Pathfinder would have closer to 100, and a 10th level Barbarian could easily be brushing up on 150 hit points.  That's insane.  And, of course, since in my game the damage ranges and enemy hit point ranges are lower, it only makes sense that PC hit point ranges be lower as well.

Cons: there's no variability.  The idea of rolling your hit points was always half the fun.  I did think of having hit dice still make an appearance; a hit die of d4 would give you very close to the same average result, mathematically, as a flat +2 (+2.5 to be more precise.  So at 10th level, you'd have only 5 more hit points on average by rolling.)  If I do that, I will also eliminate the notion that you can roll twice and take the better of the two results, though, because that skews the math upwards and we start getting way out of the desired range.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Ruminations on early D&D, sword & sorcery and more

I've been very pensive and philosophical lately about the origin of the game of D&D, the type of fantasy that used to be prevalent and the type of fantasy that is now lately.  Allow me, if you will, a slight rambly digression to establish some context...

Although my first game of D&D was in the late 70s using the white box original D&D set was when I was in... oh, third grade I think (maybe 2nd) in the late 70s, it wasn't really until I was in 5th grade when the Moldvay sets were new that I really kinda got it.  That's also the first time that I actually got my hands on a rulebook (borrowed) and read through them.  For many years, these B/X sets were the only ones that I'd read all the way through, although I also read pretty large portions of the Holmes set (honestly, I don't think I really understood exactly what the differences were supposed to be between them, although it was obvious that there were many) and the AD&D books, I never owned a copy of any of them, and I never read them all the way through either—to this day, the Moldvay set is the only pre-3rd edition set of D&D rules that I've read all the way through.  Since I bought the B/X books a year or so ago from DriveThruRPG as pdfs (along with Keep on the Borderlands and The Isle of Dread as they would have been originally packaged in the early 80s) they are the only set of D&D rules earlier than the year 2000 that I own as well.

So it's curious that I consider myself a kind of old-fashioned gamer in many ways, if not actively old-school (I dislike some of the quirkiness and idiosyncratic nature of the rules) since I didn't really truly embrace D&D until 3rd edition.  My "glory years" of gaming in middle school lasted from about 5th-8th grade, and utilizing either B/X and AD&D—or maybe occasionally a hybrid of the two, neither of which I ever owned.  But my tastes were formed then, and they haven't changed (in many respects) since then either.  My tastes in fiction, formed at the same time, are similarly somewhat calcified.

I was always a fantasy fan, of course, nearly as long as I can remember, although what I considered fantasy has been at times more and less inclusive than now.  When Star Wars came out I was five years old.  It's literally the first movie that I remember seeing in theaters.  I was also a huge fan as a little kid of the Disney movie Sleeping Beauty—mostly because of the dragon (and the Tchaikovsky soundtrack.)  The very first book I ever remember getting at the library—even before I could read—was the Big Golden Book Dinosaurs: Giants of the Past with the Rod Ruth illustrations (the big yellow cover.)  The first book of my own that I remember ever owning was the Little Golden book of dinosaurs with the fabulously colorful (and weirdly lizard and snake-like) illustrations of William de J. Rutherfoord—an immensely talented artist, if not a very careful anatomist.  I was always a fan of the exotic and fantastic.

By 1976—before Star Wars and when I was still young enough to not yet be in school—I was watching Filmation's Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' star character, complete with Mangani language words, all kinds of lost cultures and cities in deepest Africa (including Greeks, Vikings, various man-ape peoples, and even UFOs!); by 1979 I was watching their Flash Gordon (officially renamed The New Adventures of Flash Gordon to separate it from various other programs of the same name) which was also a relatively faithful (to the tone, at least, if not the details) of your classic planetary romance.  By 1980 (the year I was 8) my favorite cartoon was Thundarr the Barbarian (curiously, I recently discovered that the same voice actor played the protagonist characters in all three of those shows) a truly gonzo sword & sorcery affair set in a far future post-apocalyptic Earth, which had the added conceit of always showing recognizable ruins of some famous location or landmark in nearly every episode.  Despite this post-apoc veneer, Thundarr was pure sword & sorcery—he was a furry undies wearing barbarian (with a freakin' lightsaber—kinda, and a wookie companion) who almost always pitted himself against wildly inhuman tyrant-wizards who oppressed the good, salt of the earth peasant people of what was once North America.  The next year, I was also a fan of the short-lived Blackstar; a similar show that had a planetary romance slash sword & sorcery vibe.

This established a pretty gonzo expectation of what fantasy was for me at an early age, but literally the same time, I was starting to get pulled into very traditional stuff.  Also in 5th grade was when I first read Lloyd Alexander and The Hobbit; by 6th grade I was devouring The Lord of the Rings which I had asked for as a boxed set for Christmas (with the Darrell K. Sweet covers) and before I knew it, I was on the train to what is now given the derogatory label of extruded fantasy product; y'know, the Terry Brooks stuff, the Raymond Feist stuff when he's phoning it in, David Eddings, Weis/Hickman, Salvatore, etc.  But I also in about 6th grade or so, starting discovering the older pulps—thanks to the Tales of Fantasy artisan coloring book by Troubador Press, I was familiar with the concept of Barsoom, Conan and some Lovecraft—and luckily, my public library had some of that, and used book stores and later even limited access to the university library (where my dad worked; I wasn't old enough to check things out on my own there yet) gave me easy access to a lot of Burroughs, Howard, Leiber, Lovecraft and more.

And now to the point.  Because of my personal history, I was initially skeptical of the "generation gap"—also because most of the gamers I know (who, naturally, are roughly my age) have read the older pulps and are fans of them as well—I thought gamers and the "canon" of sword & sorcery were pretty well hand in hand.  I knew that younger gamers weren't necessarily as clued in, and I remember, of course, when the bookshelves of both my library and my bookstores eventually lost their long Burroughs shelves and Conan shelves, not to mention the huge Gor and Horseclans collections, etc.  There certainly was a change in what was out there, but I attributed that to simple attrition and changing patterns in what was fashionable and popular in books (at the time, I knew little of the massive shift in business patterns behind the scenes with the paper supply, the publishers and the book distributors that was happening in the later 80s.)  In fact, I still think that that was largely behind the change, combined with the business plans of the distributors, publishers and book sellers.  After all, when this pulp stuff came back into print in the 60s, it had been out of print for 15-20 years or so, and had come back into fashion.  I have to speculate and extrapolate to some degree, because data isn't really available, but I think the generation to which Gygax belonged could also have perceived a generation gap of sorts; a lot of what he loved which is older was really only relatively recently back in print and available, and without the internet to disseminate information, fans wouldn't have had much luck tracking down older stuff, or even knowing about it anyway.  The pulps boom was over by the time WWII ended, although a few managed to hang on for years, or even decades longer than that. In movie form, the equivalent to the pulps, the serials, only lasted until the mid-50s or so.

But hold the phone!  Even guys like me have a generation gap of sorts.  Although I was pretty familiar with the pulp serials, as novelized after their initial publication—especially stuff by Burroughs, who is today still my second favorite author after Tolkien—I never really got into, or in many cases even heard of, some of the other guys who were concurrent with Gygax and who also informed D&D a great deal.  I didn't read any Poul Anderson or L. Sprague de Camp or Fletcher Pratt (with the exception of some of Anderson's science fiction, and of course de Camp's work in the Conan oeuvre) or some of the other stuff that Ron Edwards (my paraphrasing) kinda refers to as the hippy and drugs airbrush van art style of whacked out counter-culture phantasmagoric fantasy fandom and the stuff that they liked and to some degree produced; the whole Heavy Metal magazine style fantasy.  To the extent that that is key to understanding the early D&D experience from the point of view of fantasy fans in the 70s, I guess I missed out on that, and I'm OK with staying missed on that, actually.  I've sampled a bit of it here and there (again; without the internet; the only way to know if anything was any good was to try it.  I used to read truckloads of bad books as a teenager and didn't really think twice about it.)  Besides, Ron Edwards as a self-confessed counter-culture hippie, not a regular guy, so he doesn't necessarily represent gamers the way that he thinks he does, and he wasn't all that much older than me, really.  He's a data point, but I doubt he's as representative as he thinks he is.

So yeah; I think the generation gap is real, but I think generation gaps are cyclical and commonplace when it comes to the kind of entertainment that we sample.  What makes this generation gap different than other generation gaps of the past is twofold:
  1. The counter-culture, drug-addled, van-painter fantasy culture of the 70s was heavily tied to unique, generational trends that were dependent on the social and cultural atmosphere of the time.  Whereas someone like Burroughs or Howard wrote stories that are more timeless, artifacts of the late 60s or 70s are not.  This is part of the reason why, I believe, I've never liked Michael Moorcock, for instance.  As the beat generation evolved into the hippies who evolved into the "van-painters" Edwards relates to, we see the first flowering of the nihilistic cultural Marxist oikophobic death cult since the falling out of favor of the bolsheviks and the fascists.  Anyone who's not an SJW is going to be repulsed by the cultural context behind this kind of fantasy, and anyone who is an SJW has already moved on, since SJWs always devour and disavow their immediate intellectual forebears in short order.  I think the Ron Edwards van painter phantasmagoric fantasy is gone forever unless cultural conditions change to something that is more favorable to it—although that's not to say that stuff that only superficially resembles it might not be ascendant again.
  2. Speaking of which, the rise of the SJW in the fandom self-proclaimed literati has partly created this generation gap too; works of the past are "problematic"; they're cis-gendered; they're white privilege, they're racist and sexist, etc.  It's all nonsense, but you see it clearly in reviews of many folks who come across this stuff more recently; they are literally pained to have to read dialogue by Jane Porter's loyal attendant Esmeralda, and they think Robert E. Howard (or even Tolkien!) is a virulent racist (although they're usually short on details that led to this conclusion.) 
Switching gears somewhat, implicit in a reading of Jeffro's conclusions about the Appendix N, which I'll link one more time, is the notion that fantasy at the time of D&D's advent was much more wild and crazy than it is now, where it's been turned into what is sometimes called extruded fantasy product; like I mentioned above, the Weis/Hickman, Eddings, Brooks, etc. guys and their descendants like Goodkind, Jordan, and others who dominate the shelves of the fantasy section today.  However, I think it's easy to go too far with this notion, and it needs to be tempered with a few caveats.  The term extruded fantasy product tends to refer to unoriginal, predictable, "vanilla" high fantasy pastiches of Tolkien to some degree, but it's a bit unfair to them to so single them out.  Poor quality and unoriginal pastiches have always been around, and many of them dominated the scene during the 60s, 70s and early 80s too—although they weren't necessarily pasiches of Tolkien yet.  I've read literally dozens of Barsoom pastiches, only a few of which were memorable, and many of them were written and published in the 60s and 70s.  As Den Valdron over on ERBZine said years ago on the tail end of a review of the short-lived Mike Resnick Ganymede series (with a few editorial comments by me added in): "On the other hand, it does lay out the strengths and weaknesses of the whole "Swords and Planets" genre as it evolved during its original heyday in the 1930s and 40s, and [separately] in the 60s and 70s.

The trouble was that as a whole, it had only a limited number of tropes, and it really made no effort to push itself.   Any genre, of course, evolves a limiting series of conventions and formulas.   That’s just the nature of the beast.   The survival and prosperity of a genre, however, depends on its ability to rework beloved old formulas, to turn the cliches on their head, to challenge and create something new. [I'd argue against this; that's not really true, because then it would cease to be the genre.  The survival and prosperity of a genre depends on its ability to evolve cues that keep it relevant as social moods and fashions change, and on the ability of its creators to execute with some skill and style.]

The truth is that there isn’t anything in Resnick’s Ganymede novels or Carter’s Callisto novels that could not have been written in 1932. [Again; editorial aside: I think the Callisto novels by Lin Carter are among the better pastiches, actually.  The Ganymede ones by Mike Resnick, however, are not.]

In an age when Michael Moorcock was literally reinventing the Conan barbarian fantasy genre with Elric, [seriously overselling what Moorcock was doing here] when MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman was reinventing historical adventure, when science fiction was delving into its new wave, when it was fracturing into hard and soft sf, military sf, etc, it seems remarkable that Resnick and Carter, two of the more talented young writers of their era were simply churning out same old, same old.   [It's remarkable to me that deconstructionist, a "let's simply turn all our tropes upside down and call that innovative" approach by entryists who are literally trying to subvert the genre is considered an interesting reinvention to me, and literally all of his examples here encapsulate that kind of juvenile approach.  But he makes a point; those genres were growing and splitting at a time where planetary romance was turning more and more stagnant]  A formula disparaged by detractors as ‘thud and blunder’ and not wrongly so. [...]

Rather, the genre plays out increasingly as photocopies of photocopies, with only superficial and imperfect understandings the very strengths and weaknesses of the genre.  Often these photocopies minimized strengths and magnified weaknesses.   The writers of the genre showed so little insight that they simply lacked the ability to ring changes."

"Thud and blunder" was indeed the phrase that predated "extruded fantasy product" and was used specifically to (in spite of Valdron's use of it to describe planetary romance, or sword & planet above) describe sword & sorcery pastiche of Howard in the same way that extruded fantasy product refers to high fantasy pastiche of Tolkien.  Cynical references to "mighty thews" served much the same purpose.  In the 80s, this kind of poor pastiche of thud and blunder jumped media, and following the perhaps unexpected success of the Schwarzenegger movie Conan the Barbarian, a long stream of derivative barbarian sword & sorcery movies followed.  Few were notable enough to make any kind of splash (anyone remember the Barbarian Brothers or Yor?  I didn't really think so.)  And if D&D has evolved into the game of extruded fantasy product, it's fair to say that it started off as thud and blunder.  There's little about D&D that isn't pretty bland pastiche from the beginning.  The Appendix N is itself much more varied and diverse than the game it inspired.  Of course there wouldn't be anything stopping an early player of D&D in the 70s or early 80s from adapting the game to run something as gonzo as Vance's Dying Earth, or even Thundarr the Barbarian, or the setting of Dorian Hawkmoon—but at the same time, the system didn't really support it, and I have a hard time imaging doing so occurring to anyone, really.

Part of this was due to TSR's own business strategy.  D&D was "generic" fantasy pastiche.  If you wanted post apocalypse pastiche, you played Gamma World.  If you wanted a western, you played Boot Hill.  If you wanted pulp adventures you played Crimefighters, and if you wanted space opera, you played Star Frontiers, etc.  It would have been nice if these systems were cross-compatible enough that you could mingle and intersperse elements from one to the other, but they weren't, and it wasn't intended that you do so, I don't think.  Nor did it occur to very many to try.  Curiously, it wasn't until the release of the d20 system 15-16 years ago that such cross-genre pollination all within the same game became possible—but by then, gaming had largely calcified into its genre chimneys.  If you wanted outre, wild weird tales type settings, you didn't have a lot of options to pursue besides pretty serious home-brewing, or playing something like Rifts.  In fact, you could make a case that Rifts is a better successor, in some ways, to the really gonzo fantasy of the time than D&D ever was, and yet Rifts was always a marginal game that catered to a market that was relatively on the fringe.  Plus, it had a quirky system that many people didn't like.

But the fact is, D&D always went for relatively "safe" bland pastiche, and for the most part, that's also where the market was.  In the 70s and early 80s, this pastiche was thud and blunder, later in the 80s (and on up 'til now) this pastiche has been extruded fantasy product.  But either way, that was always the nature, and arguably, even the intent of D&D anyway.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Dark•Heritage m20 on Kindle

Now, for the first time, I'm also offering my little ruleset in mobi format, in addition to the pdf format already linked. 

Mostly just so I could play around with Calibre and figure out how to use it, but then I thought; hey, it might be handy.

I got rid of the table of contents for now (although I may add it back in later); it's simply too small of a file to bother with anyway.

Starting the Dreamlands Remixed

I'm really feeling it (again) for the DREAMLANDS REMIXED setting concept that I outlined some time ago (a little over a year ago, as it happens.)  Let's establish (or reestablish, in some cases) the baselines.

  • The Dream Cycle of Lovecraft's stories purportedly take place in the Dreamlands, a unique setting where people go when they dream, that resembles a fantastic sword & sorcery setting, in many ways.  Many of the so-called Dream Cycle stories actually don't detail any locations in the Dreamlands, however.  The only one that really surely does is The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
  • This brings up another point.  Many of the stories that are traditionally "binned" to the Dream Cycle are probably actually not meant to belong to the Dreamlands at all.  Lovecraft's habit of reusing names of characters, places, and objects—regardless of the genre that he was writing in—means that one can draw tenuous ties between his horror stories, his dream stories, his weird science fiction stories, etc. that may not have been meant to be seen "together" at all.  Stories such as "Polaris," "The Doom That Came to Sarnath" or "The Cats of Ulthar" (and others) therefore get mentioned prominently in, for example, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and therefore some of their details are adopted into the Dreamlands, but these are more likely meant to be seen as a kind of prehistoric proto-sword & sorcery type story, not unlike the Hyperborean stories of Clark Ashton Smith.  This isn't necessarily super important; I'm going to follow the tradition of letting these locations be in the Dreamlands, of course, but it's worth mentioning.
  • Given that, it makes even more sense to add Smith's Hyberborea directly to the Dreamlands.  Why not?  For that matter, why not add Zothique?  Sure, it's supposed to be Dying Earth far future sword & sorcery, but the tone is still very similar.
  • None of the maps of the Dreamlands (or for that matter, Zothique or Hyperborea) that I've ever seen is truly definitive.  They are all simply the inventions of writers who came along later, and most are heavily dependent on the map included in the Call of Cthulhu supplement on the Dreamlands.  This means that the geography that most of these maps posit is readily suitable for change; even quite significant change, as needed.
  • For that matter, the CoC supplement started the habit of including locations detailed in a bunch of Gary Myers stories.  These stories were only ever published in pretty limited form, and they are not readily available today, making their inclusion as "canonical" in the Dreamlands questionable at best.  Frankly, if we need to go beyond the Lovecraft and Smith stories, we'd be better off looking at Brian Lumley's Primal Lands stuff; that's at least in the same vein.  And Lumley even wrote some specifically Dreamlands stuff.  None of that seems to pop up in the maps and gazetteers I've seen.
  • I'm not that familiar with the Primal Lands myself, though.  Honestly, I'd rather take some names from the Thulian Age of Robert E. Howard instead.  The Hyborian Age is perhaps a bit too familiar to really fit in the same oeuvre as the Dreamlands, on the other hand.
  • I've been trawling through wiki entries on the various Dreamlands, Zothique and Hyperborean stories, and I've created a pretty big list of place-names.  Referencing the Gazetteer in the Dreamlands sourcebook, I should be able to create from this a new Gazetteer for my remixed setting easily enough.  I'll have to do a bit more research into the Zothique places—I don't know them as well, and there's a lot of names from those stories.  Of course, I may not use them all...
  • The single most important sources for this setting are the stories "Polaris," "The Doom That Came to Sarnath", "The Cats of Ulthar", "Celephaïs" "The Quest of Iranon," The Other Gods" and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.  Other stories, including the entirety of the Clark Ashton Smith corpus, will be added in a more ad hoc nature, but I expect that eventually I'll get around to making the entirety of Hyperborea on the map.  Smith himself, in a letter to Derleth in the 40s said: "My Hyperborean tales, it seems to me, with their primordial, prehuman and sometimes premundane background and figures, are the closest to the Cthulhu Mythos, but most of them are written in a vein of grotesque humor that differentiates them vastly. However, such a tale as 'The Coming of the White Worm' might be regarded as a direct contribution to the Mythos."  And Lovecraft, in a letter to Smith said this: "I must not delay in expressing my well-nigh delirious delight at 'The Tale of Satampra Zeiros'... [W]hat an atmosphere! I can see & feel & smell the jungle around immemorial Commoriom, which I am sure must lie buried today in glacial ice near Olathoe, in the Land of Lomar!" As an aside, this is pretty compelling evidence that many of these so-called Dream Cycle stories of Lovecraft's were always meant to be a prehistoric setting, not unlike Hyperborea or Howard's stuff.
Which is why I'm making the Dreamlands not a Dreamlands at all, but rather a regular sword & sanity setting that I'm playing straight.  

Spotted online...

From Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque; "The most compelling reason to play older editions of the game (or new games that take inspiration from those older editions) is the ridiculously weird and unnervingly unique game materials being produced for those games by the diverse authors and artists involved in the OSR. The OSR embraces self-publishing and the DIY aesthetic; anyone with a crazy idea and the backbone to do the work is encouraged to unleash their strange and uncanny game ideas onto an unsuspecting public.

The best works of coming out of the OSR are delightfully off-kilter. These are the books that would never make it through corporate approval, the auteur works that could never be designed by committee, the real-deal fantasy."

I don't really follow trends in the hobby very much.  In fact, I hardly gamed at all in 2015 to be perfectly honest, although we've now restarted our (slightly reconfigured) gaming group back up again with a Call of Cthulhu campaign based on the Horror on the Orient Express megamodule, and I've certainly tinkered plenty with my own m20 rulesets and my settings.  I'm not sure if I bought a single RPG product in 2015 (maybe my pdfs of B/X were early in the year? I can't remember for sure.)

So, I'm reasonably out of touch with what D&D 5e is doing, and I'm reasonably out of touch with the OSR (and other gaming) blogosphere, and I've even lost touch with most of the blogs that I used to follow somewhat regularly.  It's curious to me, though, since belatedly discovering Jeffro's Appendix N survey and reading through most of it, to have pointed out to me the obvious (in hindsight) generation gap between source materials that older gamers utilized and the newer generations read.  And it's curious to me to see hinted that the OSR has, in many ways, become the standard bearer for the older generation's style of fantasy—not style of game, which is what I assumed, but that style of fantasy, which is very different.  I've always thought of the OSR has being more focused on the rules rather than the tone and setting, and I think that was definitely true back when Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry or especially OSRIC were brand new.  Perhaps now the rules have become somewhat more unimportant and the way we play, and the types of settings we use, and the DIY ethic with really wild and woolly weird tales is what the OSR means?  If so, I need to give it another look... But that's not how I originally saw it.  And looking back at the older products, its not necessarily how they were sold either.  There's more in common between the G-series and D-series of modules and the extruded fantasy product of Forgotten Realms than most gamers admit; there's very little of the truly extraordinary weird tales vibe in most of the earliest D&D products.  The Appendix N is much more varied and diverse than the game itself which references it—although the game occasionally allowed for and hinted at more.  Curiously, even back then, those hints didn't often go over well; Blackmoor was never as popular as Greyhawk, and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was clearly a very polarizing module—a cult classic at best, not one that gamers return to time and time again to revisit (like Keep on the Borderlands was, for instance.)  And neither of them are really anywhere near as gonzo as something like, say, Carcosa.

I read recently on Cirsova's blog that 5e was oversold in its appeal to the OSR.  It's basically a warmed over, dumbed down, simplified, improved, modified (whatever verb you want to use to there, but you get the point) variation on the 3e experience.  My own experience with 5e is non-existent, but that rings true, and I'll believe it.  And as Jack Shear noted above, old school is in many ways antithetical to the Extruded Fantasy Product that D&D has evolved into.  To the extent that the generation gap separates wild, earlier fantasy from extruded fantasy product, then the differences are probably irreconcilable, and that's that.  D&D is now Terry Brooks and David Eddings and Forgotten Realms, and the OSR will be playing ACKS or Lamentations of the Flame Princess and they simply don't have anything in common anymore except the shape of their dice.  And then the odd ducks like me kind of go our own way, sympathetic to some aspects of both camps, yet also virulently opposed to other aspects of each camp.  For me, I'm more a fan of some of the implied settings of the weird tales than of warmed over Tolkien also-rans, but I'm not a fan of OSR-styled rules systems.  Then again, I'm not really a huge fan of highly detailed 3e, Pathfinder or 4e style rules either; the "My Precious Encounter" aspect of those games, or the constant need to reference volumes and volumes of obscure and esoteric rules lore to play it "correctly."


Monday, January 04, 2016

Someone else's Dreamlands Remixed

As is frequently the case, when I think I've got a great idea, someone else has already done it.

Here is my DREAMLANDS REMIXED setting, as done by someone else, featuring the Dreamlands with a bunch of Zothique and Hyberborea from Clark Ashton Smith added in, as well as a bit of Pegana by Lord Dunsany (including the name of the "world".)

I probably would have been a bit more direct in my borrowing of Zothique and Hyperborean elements myself (i.e., they'd be explicit big islands, easily spottable in the setting) and would have used some Hyborian and Thurian Age borrowings from Howard as well.  But this is still very close to what I would have done.


As I'm currently re-surveying much of my classic sword & sorcery collection right now, I'm feeling like this setting is in need of revisiting; or perhaps initial visiting, since it never advanced in my mind beyond being a high concept.  I don't have the wherewithal to make a map as nice as this guys, but I can still pull something together, and then make a quick and dirty gazetteer to go along with it.

Timischburg map, updated

The very sketchy map that I hand-drew and scanned has now been replaced by this slightly prettier digital sketch.  Basically, I whited out my hand-scrawled labels, reinforced some of my pencil scratches, spent just a bit more time digitally manipulating it (but only a bit; this is still a sketch) and put new labels in with the text tool.  Then I sepia-ed the file, added a vignette overlay, and made it look just a bit better, but keep in mind, this is still meant to be nothing more than a sketch.

This then is both my DARK•HERITAGE kingdom of Tarush Noptii and my CULT OF UNDEATH kingdom of Timischburg—which of course is the entirety of the CULT OF UNDEATH setting, as it happens.  I didn't label it as either on purpose, so it can be a switch hitter and stand in for either as needed.

Timischburg / Tarush Noptii
Although I didn't think to label the Mezzovian Sea, the big jagged line that runs about a third (or less) of the way up from the bottom is a big coastline.  Just in case that wasn't obvious, which on retrospect, it isn't.

New settings...

Over the break, I saw a few things that have prompted more incipient setting development ideas in my mind.  Some of these are not necessarily new, but some of them are.

First off, let me do a quick round-up of my settings so far.  Some of these are relatively well developed, some of them are about at the level of the d20 mini-games in Polyhedron back in the day, and some of them are little more than a high concept in need of nearly all of the setting development necessary to make them playable.  That said, here they all are:

  • AD ASTRA: Superheroes in a space opera.  Think Guardians of the Galaxy, or the Starjammers of X-men comics fame.
  • CULT OF UNDEATH: Kind of a Ustalav (from the Pathfinder setting of Golarion) remixed for use in an abbreviated and less SJWish Carrion Crown adventure path for m20.  Also doubles as a slightly more detailed look at an area of my main setting.
  • DARK•HERITAGE: The main setting of the blog, one that's been developed via literally hundreds of blog posts by now—although it's still a far cry from the level of detail that something like, say, the Forgotten Realms has accrued...  Described as part swashbuckling pirates, part spaghetti western, part picaresque crime story, part Yog-Sothothery.
  • EBERRON REMIXED: This should be self-explanatory; it's the setting of Eberron from Wizards of the Coast 3.5 era game.  Not only is it adapted via rules into the m20 system, but the setting itself is somewhat modified to better fit what seems to be the direction of the setting, rather than it all being shoe-horned into a D&D paradigm.
  • DREAMLANDS REMIXED: Originally called HYBRID DREAMLANDS, since it's the Dreamlands setting, hybridized with some other notions.  Taking Lovecraft's Dreamlands, mixing them up a bit with some Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard stuff, giving it a more overt sword & sorcery tone and playing it like a straight sword & sorcery setting, rather than a place you go when you dream.
  • MAMMOTH LORDS: The concept of the Hyborian Age (i.e., taking real cultures, giving them new names that make them different, yet still transparently the same as your real life historical culture and slapping them all together into a fictional map that somewhat resembles the real world) but focused more on Viking era settlement of the New World.  Add in Ice Age megafauna for extra fun, and lost Atlanteans, etc. to make it well and truly sword & sorcery rather than alternate history.
  • MYTHS REVISITED: Ancient pagan gods and goddesses of classical, Norse, and other mythologies converted into pseudo-science superheroes.  Think of the comic book versions of Mount Olympus or Asgard, and you're most of the way there already.
  • ODD D&D: Using all d20 D&D rules to run a game that eliminates almost all of the standard D&D tropes.  In place of magic, you have psionics.  There are no elves, dwarves, halflings, etc. The continent is ruled by reptilian cultures—lizardmen and yuan-ti—and the mammalian races are forced into the fringe of the continent, fighting for the freedom and even their very survival.  Also; big, gnarly dinosaurs wander the land, making travel especially perilous, even if you can avoid the lizardmen or snake-men.
  • REALMS TRAVELLER: If Star Trek was pitched to the network as Wagon Train to the Stars, this is Wagon Train to the Planes.  Rather than the Great Wheel, the cosmology is like a road, using elements from Beyond Countless Doorways, Distant Worlds and some layers of some planes from regular D&D thrown in for good measure.  This makes it almost a "setting of the week" kind of game, as the PC party travels from one plane to another over the course of the campaign.
  • SOLNOR: Named for one of the large oceans in the Greyhawk setting, this is D&D except completely under the sea.  Only aquatic races are available, and the game literally never comes up for air or broaches the surface the entire time.
  • STAR WARS REMIXED: Started long before the new movie came out (and I'm pleased to note that nothing in the new movie invalidates my remixed setting)—this is Star Wars 1,000 years after Return of the Jedi, where the remains of the Empire and the Republic both have fragmented and balkanized.  There are a number of knightly orders, some of claim the mantle of the Jedi, the Sith, or others, while other orders make no claims on being anything other than themselves.
While I don't yet have names for the new ideas that I had over the break, here's what they are in capsule mode:
  • Hatari! plus Jurassic Park (especially the scene from the second one where they're all driving around in wicked cool off-road vehicles and catching dinosaurs) plus planetary romance a la Barsoom.  In an alternate history world in which the Seven Years War is interrupted by the discovery of gates to other worlds, where strange wildlife, and even "archived" past Earth wildlife faunas exist, bands of adventurers, settlers, colonists and others go to harvest resources, establish colonies, or catch crazy wildlife for zoos and menageries back on Earth.  Eventually, it becomes a planetary romance alternative to the Scramble for Africa and the American Revolution itself... except it isn't the American colonies who rise up in revolt for freedom against monarchy; it's the interplanetary colonies of Great Britain, allied with some from Prussia, Austria, France, Sweden and the other Great Powers.  This is actually an idea that I've kicked around for quite some time, (originally as two separate ideas, in fact) but I watched Hatari! again recently, and it made me want to see what I could do with it again.
  • I watched my son play his new copy of Destiny just a bit over the holidays, and at an extremely high level, I could envision a setting that caters to some similar tones and themes by combining, to an extent, Halo, the Leigh Brackett solar system, and Thundarr the Barbarian.  Humanity formed a solar-system spanning civilization in the (relatively) near future, including terraforming to a greater or lesser extend Mars, Venus, the Moon and maybe some other bodies in the system.  Now, hundreds if not thousands of years later, that civilization has broken down.  Genetically engineered people or animals, and/or outright aliens have taken over, and put the solar system into a post apocalyptic dark age.  Bringing what's left of civilization back from the brink, and reestablishing it via Reconquista of territory claimed by alien invaders, etc. feature strongly in this setting.