Greyhawk Grognard

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All about old-school (AD&D) role-playing-gaming, the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting, the gaming industry, and anything else that happens to cross my mind.Joseph Blochnoreply@blogger.comBlogger1578125
Updated: 5 days 11 hours ago

On Divination

Sun, 04/15/2018 - 16:12
In doing my analyses of various early adventure modules, it strikes me that some of the things that players are expected to figure out are pretty damn impossible. How to know that wearing the robes of the clerics of Tharizdun will protect against the numbing cold of the Black Cyst? How to know that the chain in the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief has to be put in the form of a figure 8 to become a teleporter to the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl? They're way too specific, and way too improbable. There has to be a way in-game for the players to be able to figure this sort of stuff out.

And there is. Divination.

Divination spells seem to get the short end of the stick, especially since most of them are on the cleric spell lists, and everyone knows that clerics are supposed to stock up on as much healing magic as possible.

But I submit that divination spells are really where the cleric shines, and the reason there are all these impossible-to-figure-out puzzles is that they're there to form yet another layer of logistical challenge in terms of spell memorization. A party whose spellcasters don't have at least a few divination-type spells will find themselves blocked out of some of the choicest treasure and other goodies.

Let's look at some of the divination spells from 1st edition AD&D.

Identify (1st level magic-user spell). Discover the dweomer of some magic item, with a base 20% chance per round of discovering one power.

Augury (2nd level cleric spell). Base 70% chance of knowing whether a specified action within 30 minutes will be positive or negative.

Locate Object (2nd level magic-user/3rd level cleric spell). Finds a known or familiar object within 100 feet or more.

Clairaudience (3rd level magic-user spell). Lets you hear what's going on in some known location, such as on the other side of that door.

Clairvoyance (3rd level magic-user spell). Lets you see what's going on in some known location, such as on the other side of that door.

Speak with the Dead (3rd level cleric spell). Ask 2-7 questions of a dead creature (how long dead depends on your level). Interestingly, the spell description never says the dead are compelled to answer truthfully, but I think that's how it was generally taken.

Divination (4th level cleric spell). Lets you know strength of monsters, general amount of treasure, and whether a powerful supernatural creature might become involved (!). Applies to a building, small patch of wilderness like a wood, or a part of a dungeon level. This is clearly one of those mechanics in the game that were specifically geared towards megadungeon play, and whose significance was lost when that style of adventure design quickly dropped out of fashion. And let's not ignore the fact that it requires an animal sacrifice as the material component!

Wizard Eye (4th level magic-user spell). Lets you see what's going on, at a rate of 3" per round.

Commune (5th level cleric spell). Ask your deity one yes/no question per experience level (at least 9 of them, then). You can find a lot out with a 9-question game of yes/no.

Contact Other Plane (5th level magic-user spell). Ask a... um, plane of existence... one question. The greater the likelihood of success, the greater the likelihood you'll go insane. And you could get a deliberately false answer. Maybe stick with a cleric for this stuff.

Find the Path (6th level cleric spell). Gives you the most direct route to wherever you want to go, whether it's home or to some locale within a dungeon or spot in the wilderness.

Legend Lore (6th level magic-user spell). Learn all about some person, place, or thing. But you'll need to sacrifice a magic item to do it, and it takes a long time.

I think a large part of the reason these spells exist is to give players a fighting chance of figuring out some of those incredibly specific and picayune puzzles, for which there really aren't any actual clues. Rather than pure trial and error, or the tedium of checking for secret doors in every 10' of wall space, these spells allow the players to use clever questioning to at least know that there's something to know. It's also good to know that clerics have another use other than walking healing stations (although it's once more interesting to note that there's now a logistical choice to be made when one gets access to 4th level cleric spells - do I choose cure serious wounds or divination?).
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Thoughts on The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 23:59
I'm going to take a break from my ongoing delvings into the inner workings of the Giants, Drow, and Temple of Elemental Evil adventures to venture into new territory. I'm going to start picking apart the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, and see if there's anything that we might glean from a close examination.

I should begin by saying there's a lot more to this adventure than my recollection led me to believe. It's been years since I've done more than crack it open for a quick glance, and it's much denser than I remember.

In terms of physical and narrative structure, the most obvious aspect of the module is the fact that the really cool stuff is completely hidden and almost entirely cut off. In fact, it's entirely likely that a party will battle the humanoids on behalf of the gnomes, grab their treasure, and not even realize there's an Undertemple to be explored. the PCs would have to discover one of two secret doors in a very out of the way place to do so, and then more secret doors to get to the really good stuff.

This seems to be a recurring feature in Gygaxian dungeons. Very elaborate encounter areas filled with interesting stuff, but which could easily be ignored or which could go undiscovered entirely. The original Castle was like this, and we see it in G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief with its secret third level and in S4 the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth with the underground river and lake, among many other examples.

[As an aside, I think my proposed hidden shrine to the Elder Elemental God as the lowest level of the Temple of Elemental Evil would fit into this category, and doing so would be tonally consistent with this aspect of Gygaxian design.]

This design philosophy speaks of a sort of "strategic patience" in dungeon design, which pays off in ongoing campaigns run over the course of years with many players, wherein areas once discounted as "cleared out" are re-explored for things that might possibly have been missed, or moved in since they were first mapped out. This is at odds with contemporary dungeon design, which regards such "one missed secret door check means you miss the good stuff" as a serious flaw. In modern games, which are much more plot-driven and which demand the PCs move on to the next location to advance the story, this would indeed be a problem.

In a location-based adventure, however, which is still there years later for the PCs to return to and see what they might have missed, it's a jackpot which the patient DM can wait for years to see discovered, and he (and his players) can gain all the more satisfaction therefrom. I think this is an aspect of Golden Age dungeon design that is little recognized, let alone appreciated, today.

For all its near-inaccessibility, it's exactly this hidden area of the dungeon that stands out in one's memory of the adventure. It's not the well-organized waves of humanoids who will swarm over adventurers who invade their lair. It's the cyst, and the needlerock altar, and the rest. In fact, there's very little in the humanoid areas that isn't completely prosaic and ultimately forgettable as nothing more than a well-organized humanoid lair complex, a la the Caves of Chaos from B1 Keep on the Borderlands. There are a few trappings in the Lower Temple area, such as the columns and the carvings in the aisle, but even those are pretty low-key bits of weirdness that only set up what is to come below. And so it is to the hidden area that I will now turn my attention.

It's important to note that the Temple itself was very significant in the cult of Tharizdun. This isn't just some random temple that was lost to the ages - it was a vital center of the cult, and thus should hold a properly important place in the campaign as a whole. Behold this passage from the introduction:
The Temple was built in a previous age, a secret place of worship to Tharizdun, He of Eternal Darkness. It drew the most wicked persons to it, and the cult flourished for generations, sending ot its minions from time to time to enact some horrible deed upon the lands around. However, a great battle eventually took place between Tharizdun and those opposed to his evil.  Unable to destroy him, they were strong enough to overcome his power and imprison him somewhere...After a time his servants returned again to the Temple, deserted as it was of any manifestation of their deity. Amongst these wicked folk were many powerful magic-users and clerics. All sought with utmost endeavor to discern what had happened to Tharizdun, so that he could be freed and returned to rule over them once again. All attempts were in vain, although the divinations and seekings did reveal to these servants of Eternal Darkness that a "Black Cyst" existed below the temple. ... In the hemisphere of black needlerock (floating as if by manifestation) a huge form could be seen. Was this the physical manifestation of Tharizdun?The rhetorical question at the end there is of course intended to lead the reader to the conclusion that it is Tharizdun in there, although there's no actual evidence to that effect whatsoever. All we have are intimations and suggestions. In the description of the Black Cyst itself, and the block of needle-rock, no definitive answer is given as to what is within, nor is there any way to determine it. The PCs are able to get to the treasure (using means doubtless used by the ancient priests - more on that in a minute), but the hemisphere of needlerock remains an enigma.

That leads us to the biggest enigma about this adventure. Why? What is the point of the PCs coming into the Undertemple and the Black Cyst? There's a treasure to be had, sure, but it's pretty meager; 333 gems, worth about 40,000 gp or so all told. Plus a wand of force, a cube of force, and a book worth 33,000 gp. That's a lot, but for a party of 5th - 10th level characters, it's really not that much of a payoff for enduring all the weirdness of the place.

Speaking of the book, we're left with this tantalizing description:
If anyone other than a cleric of Tharizdun opens and attempts to decipher it, he or she will, with the aid of a read magic spell, be able to understand that it is titled LAMENT FOR LOST THARIZDUN before their mind goes blank for 2-12 rounds and they take 3-30 points of damage. What this tome is, says, and does is the subject of some later revelation.This module literally forces the PCs to dress up like
Tharizdun cultists or take damage"Later revelation???" What the heck could that be? Was there to be some sort of follow-up to the Lost Temple at some point? It was published in 1982, so not right on the cusp of Gygax's removal from TSR, and to my knowledge there was never a hint as to what that later revelation was to have been. Alas.

What intrigues me with the whole thing is that it seems designed to force the PCs into taking on the role of worshipers of Tharizdun.

Think about it - in the Inset Area, there are robes for them to find, which are required down in the Octagonal Chamber of the Undertemple, or else they'll start taking damage. There they will also find balls of incense which are used in the Undertemple and are necessary to reach the Black Cyst. Once there, the incense is again needed to get the gems and book, and leave. The iron horn called the Wailer for Tharizdun must be blown in order to activate the idols of Tharizdun in the Dungeon Level. Recalling what is said in the introduction:
As generations passed, various other things necessary to survival in the Black Cyst were formalized into a paeon of lament and worship for Tharizdun, and endless services to awaken the being were conducted by rote. Then, as time continued to pass, even this ritual grew stale and meaningless. The clerics of Tharizdun began to pilfer the hoard of beautiful gems sacrificed to him by earlier servants -- 333 gems of utmost value, ranging in worth from 5,000 to 50,000 gold pieces each. Replacing these jewels with stones of much less value, the former servants of this deity slipped away with their great wealth to serve other gods and wreak evil elsewhere.That's exactly the funnel the module demands the PCs move through; the very "various other things necessary to survival in the Black Cyst" are exactly what the PCs have to do. Sounding the Wailer. Donning the robes. Lighting the incense. Devoting themselves to Tharizdun in the Shrine, to get the benefit of the water. Touching the walls in the Aisle might cause one to subconsciously call on Tharizdun in a time of need. On and on and on. The module is designed to turn the PCs into worshipers of the Chained God.

This is done in a way that we don't see in other Gygaxian evil temples. Certainly the Elder Elemental God's shrines will only (!) cause madness. Tharizdun's temple seems designed to convert intruders to his dark service, whether through their own conscious actions, or purely through ignorance of the significance of their actions. It's downright subversive. I've got to say, that seems a bit more Kuntzian than Gygaxian in its own right, and let's not forget that Gygax gives "Special Thanks To" Rob Kuntz at the very end of the adventure.

And don't get me wrong - I think that's a Good Thing. That "if you keep going, you're going to be corrupted whether you want to or not" aspect is what I think makes this adventure unique, all said. Tomb of Horror will (almost certainly) kill you, but Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun will pollute you. It's as close to actual "character horror" as you can get. It certainly lends a much deeper and more layered aspect of horror to the second half of the adventure than one typically sees in the early TSR modules. I like it!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

More Black Moon Chronicles Maps

Wed, 04/11/2018 - 02:09
Those of you who've been following my blog for a few years might remember the Black Moon Chronicles, a series of graphic novels by French author François Marcela-Froideval. That name might also sound familiar because he was one of Gary Gygax's cohorts, who did a first draft of Oriental Adventures (which was never used), was the co-creator of the Greyhawk quasi-hero Kelanen, Prince of Swords, and it is said that he was to be "given" a section of the far western portion of Oerik to develop.

The legend/theory then goes that his later Black Moon Chronicles graphic novels were an expression of that intent, and thus they assumed the status of sorta-kinda-maybe-canon. The fact that the much-maligned Dragon Annual #1 map of Oerik has some names in that very region that are very similar to his own creations (specifically the Empire of Lynn, as opposed to his own Empire of Lhynn), adds credibility to the case.

So, just today, over in the G+ Greyhawk community, W.K. "Icarus" Nolen discovered some new maps in the art of one of the newer volumes of the Black Moon Chronicles. Here's the whole panel in question:

As he puts it:
The main one the half-orc in red armor is holding looks to me like it could be Oerik, essentially from a latitude of the Sea Barons on an angle across to Thalos in the Sundered Empire on the western shore.   the big area of water in the middle would be the Sea of Hyperboria. 
I think the map the orc with the map in his mouth is holding looks like the coastline of Western Oerik, if West were towards his face.
So, the two would line up with the eating orc's right hand being at the same place as the red-armored orc's left thumb.  Hmmm. Let's see where this goes.

First of all, for reference, here's the DA1 map:


And here's the first map Icarus mentions, rotated and cropped as he suggests:

Even if we are charitable and say the orc's hand is covering up the entire Celestial Sea, I just don't see it. There are peninsulas where none should be, and what Icarus calls the Sea of Hyperborea comes way, way too far south, and is too wide. Plus the whole of eastern Oerik is completely wrong. Even accounting for the vagaries of Medieval-style maps, I think it's a stretch.
But what if we flip the map upside-down? We get this:

To my eye, this makes a LOT more sense. Bearing in mind that even if this is supposed to be an accurate representation, it's going to be an accurate representation of François Marcela-Froideval's western-Oerik-that-never-happened. So a close match to the DA1 map is not going to happen.
But here, we clearly see that big island at the southwestern tip of Oerik, next to the Barbarian Seameast. We see the islands of the Tharquish Empire, and we see the Celestial Sea (including the islands east of Erypt and the Gulf of Ra). 
It's not perfect by any stretch. The island of Thalos (which we know from the Sundered Empire setting) is turned into a peninsula. Nippon is smaller and moved very close to the mainland and south at the same time. The Flanaess is atrophied to the point of near-non-existence. But if one were inclined to make a Medieval-style map increasingly inaccurate as one got further from its point of origin, that might make sense.
Let's take a look at that second map, being chewed on by orc #2:

It's hard to tell when you zoom in like this, but the center of the map is actually overlaid by yet another map, so it's only the coastlines we're looking at here. Here's the relevant portion of the DA1 map zoomed in:

The Elven Lands (aka Empire of Ravilla in the Sundered Empire setting) get turned into islands, and Thalos is more peninsula than island, but we see the big triangular jutting-out of the Tarquis Dominions, and the coast seems to turn eastwards at the right point, even if the details are off. It's possible.
So I come to a firm conclusion of "50-50, but even if it's so, it's not Greyhawk, it's François Marcela-Froideval's setting that never made it into Greyhawk." Still, it's a neat addition to the lore and something else to chew on. Now I have to buy more graphic novels!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dating Modules - Slavers, Elemental Evil, Giants

Fri, 04/06/2018 - 23:19
A fun, and sometimes necessary when delving into the deep lore of the published adventures, pastime is to try to figure out when, exactly, a given adventure module takes place. Originally, of course, the early modules such as Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, had no definitive date beyond their year of publication. Too, some are completely location-based, like Tomb of Horrors, and thus could take place in any number of time-periods, as needed.

But some do take place in specific years in the World of Greyhawk setting, based either on the characters or events mentioned therein, or in later publications. Using the good but sometimes flawed Greychrondex as a jumping off point, I thought I'd take a pass at determining when some of the classic modules that have been my focus here, might take place.

A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity
A2 Secret of the Slavers Stockade
A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords
A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords

This is probably the most straightforward series of adventures to date. In the much-later follow-up, Slavers, we are given specific dates for the earlier events:
After a year of preparation, recruitment, and organization, the Slavelords began their operations in 576 CY. Yellow-sailed pirate ships, under the command of the Slavelord Eanwulf, began raiding the coasts of the Sea of Gearnat, from Onnwal to the Wild Coast. In addition to netting slaves, these raids sowed terror throughout the region. The fact that the local militias proved unable to stop the Slavers only heightened the fear spreading across the land.The Slavelords' operations ran for four years. (Slavers, p. 121)So that sticks a pin in module A4 for CY 580, four years after the start of their piratical raids in 576. Nice and neat. Oh, and Slavers itself takes place ten years later, in 590, but that's kinda out of my current period of interest.

T1 The Village of Hommlet
T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil

The timing of Hommlet and the Temple of Elemental Evil begins with the Battle of Emridy Meadows, which the timeline in the Gazetteer and Guide to the World of Greyhawk place at CY 569. In the Introduction to Temple of Elemental Evil, we read:
For five years afterward [after the Battle of Emridy Meadows], the village and the surrounding countryside have become richer and more prosperous than ever before. ... The villagers heaved a collective sigh -- some pained at the loss of income, but others relieved by the return to the quiet, normal life -- and Hommlet continued its quiet existence for four years more. But them, a year ago, the bandits began to ride the roads again -- not frequently, but to some effect. ... This information has been spread throughout the countryside, and the news has attracted outsiders to the village once again. (Temple of Elemental Evil, p. 5)So, 569 + 5 + 4 + 1 = 579. The PCs are supposed to arrive at Hommlet, and take on the Temple, in 579. Crap, I need to revise my latest Greyhawk's World article. Because I put it in 578. Dammit.

G1 The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief
G2 The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl
G3 The Hall of the Fire Giant King
D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth
D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa
D3 Vault of the Drow
Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits
GDQ1-7 Queen of the Spiders

Oy. Here we go.

Here we have something of a confused muddle, when it comes to the giants, and the drow, and all that. On the one hand, Temple of Elemental Evil implies that the events of G1-D3 happen before that module:
Lareth was one who sought to serve both the Temple and Lolth. And although Lolth hated Zuggtmoy's Elemental Evil, she so lusted for power that she accepted such service. Had she not been routed, her dark followers so crippled, much might have come of this.But as it transpired, Lolth could -- and can yet -- give only encouragement, without physical or magical aid, to those who call on her. (Temple of Elemental Evil, p. 29)That certainly sounds like a description of the aftermath of a bunch of PCs going through the Vault of the Drow and slaying Lolth's mortal form. So, based on that tidbit, we might be strongly tempted to put the GDQ modules in the 577-578 time-frame. That mostly squares with the later module Against the Giants - The Liberation of Geoff, which explicitly says they take place "in the years 576-580 CY" (p. 2).

However, if we accept that Temple of Elemental Evil took place in 579, and D3 took place before that (with Lolth's mortal form being slain), that 580 reference cannot be right. It has to be earlier, because T1-4 takes place in 579, and Lolth has already been slain.

It gets worse, though, because in the combined version of the modules, GDQ1-7 Queen of the Spiders, which has a different introduction, explicitly claims that the Eilservs were backing the Slave Lords!
Two noble families, House Eilserv and the lesser House Tomtor, have sought to extend their power over the surface world through actively encouraging evil agents in the lands above. It is house Eilserv that provided the support for the slave lords of the Pomarj, and have been rallying the giants of the Crystalmist mountains to raid the human lands. (GDQ1-7 Queen of the Spiders, p. 4)So we have:
  • The Giants modules take place between 576 and 580 
  • The Giants modules take place before 579 
  • The Giants modules take place after 576 and before 580 
So here's my brilliant theory as to how the drow could have been supporting the slavers after the events of Vault of the Drow.

The support for the Slave Lords given by House Eilserv was early on, while the slavers were still getting organized. It had certainly ended before the Slave Lords themselves were destroyed, since by that time the events of D3 happened, and Lolth had already been destroyed. One point that would support this even further is the background of one of the Slavers, the drow fighter-cleric Edralve:
Edralve is an exile from Erelhei Cinlu, from which she barely escaped after an abortive coup. (In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, p. 20)And I think that fits perfectly. The whole motivating force behind the actions of Eclavdra and House Eilserv in the whole Giant/Drow series of adventures is to seize control of the Vault of the Drow away from the priestesses of Lolth. If Edralve was indeed the representative of House Eilserv among the Slavers, it makes perfect sense that once the Eilserv plot was undone by the PCs, she would be stuck in the Pomarj, unable to return home. And that would also fit in neatly with the original plan for Q1, which would have seen both Lolth and the Elder Elemental God dealt with once and for all, because the full imprisonment of the EEG would render the Eilservs and Tormtors largely powerless.

Okay, so that works out pretty well.

The other fly in this ointment is the fact that later on in the timeline, we see that the giants actually won. They overrun Sterich and Geoff in CY 583, according to the Greyhawk Wars Adventurers Book:
Atop these other setbacks came a new threat from the Crystalmists: giants, ogres, and other hideous creatures, long held at bay, surged into the mountain vales of Geoff and Sterich. The rulers of these lands sent frantic appeals to King Skotti of Keoland, but, with the bulk of his army gone, the king had little help to offer. Even his reserves were largely committed to the Ulek frontier. Nonetheless, King Skotti scraped together what forces he could and offered them to Earl Querchard of Sterich, provided the earl recognize Keoland's authority over him. Negotiations wasted precious time: before the two could come to terms, Sterich and Geoff were overrun. (Greyhawk Wars Adventurers Book, p. 20)The CY 583 date is explicitly corroborated in Against the Giants - The Liberation of Geoff: 
In Fireseek of 583 CY, the cluster of cloud islands reached the southernmost tip of the Crystalmists. ... Coordinating the alliance had taken several months, and devising the plan of attack would take several more (especially considering the dull minds of some of the lesser giants). Gorroda was finally ready to strike in the middle of High Summer, sending messages to all of her subject tribes to attack when the large moon was new. (Against the Giants - The Liberation of Geoff, p. 4) Now, that still doesn't get us too twisted yet, because it's entirely possible that the reference to the giants being "long held at bay" could refer to the original G1-3 series, with PCs coming in and blunting their attacks. Fine. The attack in 584 is a follow-up to the original raids in 577-8.

But...

Here we come back to Against the Giants - The Liberation of Geoff. And here's where things go all cattywampus. From the Using the Classics with the New Material section:
If you wish to use these classic adventures [G1-3] as part of the "Liberation of Geoff" plotline, there are two main ways to do this. The first is to have these events take place ten to fifteen years in the past and set them somewhere in Geoff or Sterich; the new material can represent a new crisis which the heroes who defeated the last giant incursion have been asked to deal with. In this case the three original adventures can be run "as is." The second is to move them to the present day (591 CY) and shift their settings for easier use withthe new information in this product.Ugh. Honestly, things would be easier if they just left well enough alone, but here they have to go around talking about moving things in the timeline. Fortunately, the whole thing starts with a great big "if", so I'm going to go with a canonical assessment that moving the classic modules around was simply presented as an option, and their inclusion in the module does not necessitate such movement, even if it is seemingly encouraged by filling up more than a third of the book with a reprint of those three modules.

So basically, ignore the "you can move those old modules to the new era" stuff, and keep the background as written, for Liberation of Geoff. We're still left with the original giants in 577-578, and have some more supporting evidence.

To recap, here's what we come up with looking through the source material:
  • CY 576: Slavers appear and have drow support
  • CY 577: Giant raids start
  • CY 578: Giants/Drow modules events occur, Temple bandits start to re-appear, drow support for Slave Lords ends
  • CY 579: Temple of Elemental Evil events occur
  • CY 580: Slave Lords modules events occur
That is certainly different than the "accepted" mega-campaign sequence that's been described over the years, which is Temple of Elemental Evil, then Slave Lords, then Giants/Drow, with the expectation that it's all one PC party doing all the work, and the modules increase in difficulty as they rise in level.

That leaves us with a few implications as to how to make the sequence work "as is" from a canon timeline perspective. More on that anon, perhaps. For now, we've seen where the evidence leads us in terms of where these modules belong. Sweet Myhriss's Lips, I hope they're not all this hard to work out!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Initial Thoughts on Mythic India

Wed, 04/04/2018 - 23:32
So no sooner do I make a post about the projects that I've got going on at the moment, but I start knocking out the "in progress" stuff almost immediately. Obviously that leaves a hole, and my nature abhors a creative vacuum.

I've not committed to it yet, but I'm toying with doing a "mythic India" version of my Golden Scroll of Justice book, which was centered on mythic China. So, essentially a supplement to provide Indian-themed races, classes, skills, magic, and monsters to your 1E, ADD, LL, SW, and so forth, games.

The obvious player in this sphere is the RPG Pundit's excellent Arrows of Indra, which I absolutely love. So if I do decide to go this route, I will be consciously trying to take a different direction than the one he took. Where his work is firmly based in history, with magic thrown in, mine will be analogous to "Medieval Europe is to AD&D as Medieval India is to mythic India".

Terrific game, and one I want to
consciously avoid copyingIn other words, I'll play (much) faster and looser with the material, in the same way that Gygax and Arneson took Biblical miracles and turned them into spells (part water) and magic items (staff of the serpent), and took Ancient and Medieval European realities and turned them into 2nd century BC druids, 11th century clerics, and 17th century cavaliers rubbing shoulders in gleeful defiance of historical timelines.

History and mythology will be an inspiration, but not a guide. The tropes of Dungeons and Dragons will be maintained, and the source material will be changed to serve them, if needed.

But there are other fantasy India products out there. Against the Dark Yogi. Sahasra. Tales from the Ganges (sadly no longer in print). Probably others, too. I'll want to make sure I do something that stands out from that crowd, and takes the source material in a unique direction.

In one way, I have an advantage because I'm putting everything into the larger 1st edition meta-setting and using the ADD rules. For instance, take the elements. In classic Hindu cosmology, there are five elements - air, earth, fire, water, and void. So, like I did with Golden Scroll, I'll have to account not only for the new void elemental, but the resulting para- and quasi- elementals that result from the introduction of yet another elemental plane. (That's in addition to the elemental plane of metal which Golden Scroll introduced.)

As an aside, I love the metaphysical ambiguity that having such relative planar geography causes. It's one of those things you can just say "it's a mystery that sages cannot explain" and it adds depth to the whole cosmology.

It's also the case that I will not be including a setting with the book. Like AD&D and Golden Scroll, there will be some "implied setting" stuff by necessity, but this will be a sourcebook for DMs who want to create their own mythic India, not a setting unto itself.

I want to turn this into a gameable mechanicSince I'd be using Golden Scroll as a model, I'd want something to use in the same way that I used the skill system for kung fu. The obvious choice is yoga. There are some pretty out-there types of yoga, many of which claim all sorts of supernatural benefits. That will be my framework.

New sub-classes of clerics and mages are a given. Races? Monkey-men (vanaras) to be sure. I'd like to come up with at least one more. I'm thinking apsaras and gandharvas might be a good choice for the basis of a new sub-type of elf. Pointed ears aside, they could be good choices; associated with music, dancing, and sex. Remember, these aren't supposed to be exact correspondences - in a game where "medusa" becomes a type of monster rather than the specific name of one of only three Gorgons, it makes sense, in much the same way as the Norse Alfar don't map to elves in the details, but they do in the broad strokes. Is there an Indian analogue for a dwarf? Research will tell (or maybe someone in the comments).

I'm not saying it's aliens, but...Now, much like I tried to make Golden Scroll an amalgam of Chinese folklore and mythology along with some of the tropes of modern kung-fu movies, so too would I really love to figure out a way to bring in some Bollywood tropes into the mix. Is this my chance to write rules for romance? Or will I be able to bring in some sort of weird song and dance number into adventures. This will take a lot of thought, but as they say "you make rules for things you want to happen in the game." I would add as a corollary that "you make things meaningful, fun, and rewarding, or else the players will ignore them." Ahem.

Finally, I have to put some ancient astronaut weirdness in here. Several episodes of the History Channel show Ancient Aliens dealt with India, and specifically called out vimanas as being flying craft or spaceships that would sit on top of Hindu temples. Oh MAN do I have to include that.

Now, this doesn't mean I'm necessarily throwing my hat into this particular ring. I've got a bunch of other ideas that are percolating in my mind, which I might talk through in some subsequent posts. But getting these sorts of initial thoughts down helps me organize things in my mind, which is a good thing.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Greyhawk's World: Events of the West-Central Flanaess

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 22:59
Since my first effort at continuing the Greyhawk's World articles was so well-received (and I had so much fun doing it), I thought it only proper to keep going. For those who don't know, Greyhawk's World was a series of articles in Dragon Magazine from the early 80's describing the ongoing events of the Greyhawk campaign in the years CY 577 and 578, right after the Gazetteer itself was published.

This one was a bit trickier than the first, since some of the events described herein were already covered in previous articles, albeit from the point of view of Iuz and the Horned Society.

Hopefully I did a good enough job of making everything fit together, as well as setting the stage for what will ultimately be called the Greyhawk Wars (ugh... I don't mind the concept per se, but that name is terrible). So I tried to make sure nothing herein would contradict that timeline.

What should leap out is just how much the Gygax and Kuntz articles were setting the same trajectory as was eventually taken by Zeb Cook and Carl Sergeant in Greyhawk Wars and From the Ashes. The wars between Iuz and Furyondy and the Vesve, the wars between the Great Kingdom and the Iron League and Nyrond/Almor, and lots more. I'm not sure if Gygax would have broken up the whole Great Kingdom, but its fascinating to re-read those old articles and see just how much they presaged the events that happened after Gygax left.

You can see a thumbnail of the article in the upper-right. You can download the whole thing here.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Irons in the Fire

Thu, 03/29/2018 - 17:05
I just wanted to give a quick update on the various thingamabobs that I'm working on.

Musicland: The Kickstarter campaign was a huge success (and thanks to everyone who supported it!). The manuscript is off to the editor, the cover is done, the interior artist has given me sketches that have been approved. So all systems are go, and we're right on track for the summer release.

Bitterbark's Circus: As part of the Musicland Kickstarter (since it's technically another side-level for Castle of the Mad Archmage, albeit one which is eminently suitable for inserting into any campaign), we reached a stretch goal wherein I promised to prepare Bitterbark's Circus for print on demand. That is currently scheduled for April. Update (3/30/18): The files have been submitted for review. Once they're approved, I'll get a proof copy, and then it'll go live if all is okay with it.

DM's Guide to Greyhawk 576: Should be done this weekend; there are just a couple of monsters left to convert. Wizards of the Coast is still calling the shots as to if and when Greyhawk will be opened up on DM's Guild. Over that decision I have no control, of course. Update (3/29/18): Done! Last monsters are statted up, and this one is in the rear-view mirror.

Greyhawk's World: I'll probably finish out the last few installments of that venerable series of magazine articles by Gygax and Kuntz, since it was so much fun the first time. One correction I'll be making, though, is to remove the reference to the fall of Strandkeep Castle, which it turns out should probably be a few years down the line, given the time frame of the novel Artifact of Evil.

Armies of Greyhawk: I've been neglecting my miniatures painting for a long, long time. One of the things I've really wanted to do is put together some 15mm armies with livery from the Flanaess. I'm hoping to start doing just that this spring, and of course there will be plenty of pictures.

Moving the Blog: For years, www.greyhawkgrognard.com has pointed to the Blogspot home of my blog. I'm thinking of moving it over to the domain completely, which would give me some flexibility to do some other things besides pure blogging under the GG moniker.

After that, there are a few things I've been toying with, but since I haven't taken the plunge on any of them yet, I'm loathe to make any announcements just yet. Stay tuned...


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Thalos

Thu, 03/22/2018 - 23:56
Tucked away in one of the corners of the Sundered Empire on the far northwest of Oerik is an island called Thalos. When I did my Beyond the Flanaess series of posts a few years ago, I naturally included it, but recently there's been a request to show the full-size version because someone is thinking about setting a campaign there.

As an impulsive whim of beneficence has overtaken me (quite alien to my normal nature as a Dungeon Master), I have decided to put together a composite map from the earlier ones, and post it here at full size. It's not a perfect map, because I just superimposed one atop another (you can probably see where, where the coast line sort of disappears), but it's serviceable. If I ever do the area in detail, it'll certainly get redone.

Click to embiggen.


I'm not going to get into the history of the place. Those with access to the Chainmail setting know it all already, and a quick Google search of "Thalos Chainmail" will get most of the broad strokes to everyone else. Part of the problem is that my own focus is on CY 576 at the moment, and Chainmail takes place years later. But it will be interesting to explore what the place looks like before the death of Stratis, won't it...?
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The fall of Molag

Fri, 03/16/2018 - 00:08
The conquest of the Horned Society by Iuz is one of the seminal events of the Greyhawk campaign. It is a It is described in both Gary Gygax's novel Artifact of Evil, as well as the history of the Greyhawk Wars written after Gygax's departure from TSR, after which the setting took a somewhat different turn.

In the book, this happens after a siege of Molag, the capital of the Hierarchs' realm. Devils and the spawn of Tarterus came to their aid, but the hordes of Iuz prevailed:
First the wild kin of these humanoids made up the bulk of the attackers, but soon enough things far worse than troll and ogre, bugbear and gnoll, were there. The masters of the Hierarchs summoned monstrous creatures from the lower planes to fortify the defense of Molag. ... In answer to this, the besieging force was sent demons when they called for aid. ... Then the Dukes of Hell took an interest in what was happening. They sent legions of their servants to assist the masters of the Hierarchs because their cause was one with Nerull and the rest. ... The terrible battle waged day and night for a week. When it finally ended, all of the things summoned were dead or returned to their own planes. ... Molag fell to the mundane armies of Iuz. ... Of the Hierarchs, not even Iuz knew for certain. ... the Ten had surely managed to flee somewhere. Rumor said that they had been carried far to the south, but nothing was known beyond this tale. As the month of Sunsebb brought the chill of winter to the land, the ones who opposed Evil wondered what would follow. (Artifact of Evil, pp. 341-343)The takeover of the Horned Society by Iuz is somewhat different as depicted in the Greyhawk Wars Adventurer's Book:
Nor did the Lord of Evil stop at rebuilding his own lands, but reached also into the Horned Society to replace leaders there. The Dread and Awful Presences, the Hierarchs, made the task easy for him. The Hierarchs reigned in veiled seclusion, hiding their human identities from their humanoid minions. Rumors that the Hierarchs were fiendish overlords arose among the humanoids of the Horned Society -- rumors the Hierarchs fostered to cement their power. Iuz decided merely to make the rumors reality. In the month of Coldeven, at the height of the Blood-Moon Festival, the citadels of Molag ran red with blood as Iuz staged his coup. In less than a fortnight, the Hierarchs became creatures of mere legend and Iuz held absolute control over the Horned Society. (Adventurer's Book, p. 9)To be sure, the details of the two accounts seem irreconcilable. The novel places the fall of the Horned Society in winter, while the guide specifically mentions late spring. The novel presents us with a full-on invasion crowned by a siege, while the guide frames the events more as a bloody coup, with Iuz's troops coming in afterwards. In the book the fate of the Hierarchs is uncertain, while the guide strongly implies (but interestingly never explicitly states) that they were slain.

But what if these two accounts are merely two phases of the same event?

In the winter, Iuz invades, laying siege to the city, involving many hundreds or thousands of demons, demodands, devils, and daemons. The city is taken, but the Hierarchs are able to hide or escape. However, the fact that their fate remained unknown would naturally lead their loyal supporters to resist the occupation by Iuz. By the spring, however, their hidey-holes in the citadels of Molag were discovered, the Hierarchs finally destroyed, and Iuz's "absolute control over the Horned Society" became a reality.

So, basically, the massacre of the Hierarchs during the Blood-Moon Festival happened months after the siege of Molag. It essentially cemented Iuz's control over the Society by eliminating their leaders, the only possible source of resistance.

I make no claims that this was the intention of either Gygax or Cook. I'm just trying to reconcile the two accounts so they make some sort of narrative sense.

In my construction, the narrative lays out thus:
Nor did the Lord of Evil stop at rebuilding his own lands, but reached also into the Horned Society to replace leaders there. ... First the wild kin of these humanoids made up the bulk of the attackers, but soon enough things far worse than troll and ogre, bugbear and gnoll, were there. The masters of the Hierarchs summoned monstrous creatures from the lower planes to fortify the defense of Molag. ... In answer to this, the besieging force was sent demons when they called for aid. ... Then the Dukes of Hell took an interest in what was happening. They sent legions of their servants to assist the masters of the Hierarchs because their cause was one with Nerull and the rest. ... The terrible battle waged day and night for a week. When it finally ended, all of the things summoned were dead or returned to their own planes. ... Molag fell to the mundane armies of Iuz. ... Of the Hierarchs, not even Iuz knew for certain. ... the Ten had surely managed to flee somewhere. Rumor said that they had been carried far to the south, but nothing was known beyond this tale. As the month of Sunsebb brought the chill of winter to the land, the ones who opposed Evil wondered what would follow. ... [Three months pass.] The Dread and Awful Presences, the Hierarchs, made the task easy for [Iuz]. The Hierarchs reigned in veiled seclusion, hiding their human identities from their humanoid minions. Rumors that the Hierarchs were fiendish overlords arose among the humanoids of the Horned Society -- rumors the Hierarchs fostered to cement their power. Iuz decided merely to make the rumors reality. In the month of Coldeven, at the height of the Blood-Moon Festival, the citadels of Molag ran red with blood as Iuz staged his coup. In less than a fortnight, the Hierarchs became creatures of mere legend and Iuz held absolute control over the Horned Society. I think it works. In fact, it makes things even more dramatic, as it implies a few months between the conquest of Molag described in the novel, and the final destruction of the Hierarchs by Iuz described in the adventurer's guide, were marked by some sort of guerrilla campaign of resistance by the Hierarchs and their minions, until their final defeat. I like that!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

GaryCon 2018

Tue, 03/13/2018 - 19:53
The original plastic castle that was the model for
Gary's Castle GreyhawkI had the pleasure of spending this past weekend in beautiful Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, for my first ever GaryCon.

I drove out (twelve and a half hours, for those who are counting) from New Jersey, as I had a car load of products to sell at the BRW Games booth. Sales were very good throughout the weekend, but I was amazed at how many people had already heard of me and my work. The kind words were really appreciated, everyone!

I got to hang out with a bunch of OSR luminaries over the course of the weekend. Putting names to faces was a great thing; Erik Tenkar, Jeff Talanian, Jon Hershberger, and many, many others. But the highlight for me was meeting Anna Meyer (of GHMaps.net fame) and Darlene the artist, who created those magical Greyhawk maps many years ago.

Unfortunately, being a solo vendor means that most of my time was spent in the exhibition hall, but I did manage to run a game of Castle of the Mad Archmage on Saturday night, and got to see a lot of other games being played. Tons of pics beneath the fold:





Miniatures wargaming

An honest-to-goodness sand table







Just some folks I ran into...
The BRW Games booth, ready for action.
Gary's Table of Honor


An absolutely amazing looking gaming table
by Hammered Game Tables




Anna Meyer and myself
Board games
The Moathouse from the Village of Hommlet. I wish I had been
able to see the battle!





I love how the roof sections come off of the Moat House




Jousting using the rules from the original Chainmail.




More of the original Greyhawk castle inspiration.




Minis






And finally...
I have no idea why the hotel felt the need to warn people
not to enter the laundry chute. Was this an issue in the past?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

If only...

Sun, 03/04/2018 - 04:42
Back in the early 1980's I was a huge fan of the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting, and especially of the articles in Dragon magazine by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz, which "advanced the timeline" and laid out the goings-on in setting during the two years after the established date of CY 576 for the folio/gold box era.

I know "advancing the timeline" has a bad reputation in many quarters of Greyhawk fandom, thanks to the bad taste that Greyhawk Wars and From the Ashes left in folks' mouths, but I loved these articles at the time. I really wish that Gygax/Kuntz had been able to at least cover the whole of the Flanaess, but unfortunately the series was discontinued before the south and central Flanaess could be covered.

I hereby present a wish, an "if only this had been able to be", in the spirit of the original articles. It hopefully adds a little color to the setting at this time, without directly contradicting anything that comes afterwards.

Man, I would have given up a lot to have actually read this article back in the day.

You can see a thumbnail of the article in the upper-right. You can read the whole thing here.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

See You At GaryCon!

Fri, 03/02/2018 - 16:43
Just a reminder - next weekend I'll be at GaryCon for the first time (woo-hoo!). I'll be manning the BRW Games table in the dealer's room, and running sessions of Castle of the Mad Archmage on Friday and Saturday nights (both are sold out, sorry!).

Do stop by and say hi, if you're in the neighborhood!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Make Aerdy Great Again

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 00:20
Hey Greyhawk fans! I'm coming to you tonight to urge and ask that you sign the following online petition, to let Wizards of the Coast know that there are a lot of Greyhawk fans out there, and that we want to see some official support for the setting for 5th Edition.

The petition can be found here, and reads as follows:

Dungeons and Dragons, the world's most popular role-playing game, has seen a renaissance with its wildly popular 5th edition rules. However, fans of the World of Greyhawk setting have been largely ignored, with no official support for the setting using the latest version of the game.

This petition will send a message to Wizards of the Coast, publishers of the game, that fans of the World of Greyhawk setting want to see official support for Greyhawk in 5th edition from Wizards of the Coast, and would enthusiastically support including the setting as one of the options for the DM's Guild online publishing platform.

Feel free to share the petition link far and wide. Let's let WotC know we want to see Greyhawk back as part of the official D&D family, along with the Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

All Marvel Cinematic Universe Titles, Ranked

Sun, 02/18/2018 - 20:26
Now that we're moving with headlong speed towards the end of Phase Three, and into the unknown maw that is Phase Four, I thought it might be interesting to rank all the various titles that make up the MCU. In this, I am not only including the films, but also the ABC and Netflix television shows (ranking each by season), as well as the long-lamented Marvel One-Shots. As of February 2018, that's 38 movies, one-shots, and television seasons in the can. Pretty damned impressive!

Here's the list, from least favorite to most favorite. I'll try to keep this listing updated as more MCU things are released.

Marvel's Inhumans (2017). Black Bolt and the Inhuman royal family is banished from the moon to Earth, while his brother Maximus takes the throne. I so wanted to like this. But the downgrading from feature film to low budget TV series really shows; bland sets, terrible CGI, and bad writing. They could probably redeem themselves with a higher-budget Season Two, but this was such a disaster that that ain't happening. My review.

The Incredible Hulk (2008). Bruce Banner evades the authorities while Emil Blonsky becomes the Abomination. Meh. I never cared enough about Banner to really get emotionally invested in the movie, and the action scenes were mediocre.

Item 47 (2012). A Marvel One-Shot included on the Blu-Ray release of The Avengers. A pair of small-time criminals gets hold of a discarded Chitauri weapon following the events of The Avengers. A neat idea, but I never got a feel for the two main characters.

Thor: The Dark World (2013). Thor must fight Malekith and the Dark Elves who want to bring darkness to the universe (literally). It fails largely because the villain's motives are so difficult to figure out, and he himself is largely wasted on the screen. My review.

The Consultant (2011). A Marvel One-Shot included on the Blu-Ray release of Thor. Agents Coulson and Sitwell sabotage an effort to get Emil Blonsky out of prison following the events of The Incredible Hulk. A clever idea, but since half of it was already seen as a mid-credits scene in Incredible Hulk, it felt unearned.

Agent Carter Season Two (2016). Now in California, Peggy and Jarvis unravel a mystery around "Zero Matter". I confess I found this season to be quite disjointed, and the central concept didn't seem fully fleshed out.

Doctor Strange (2016). Brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange is injured in a car accident and learns how to use magic. I found this one lacking, unfortunately. Strange himself is great, but Kaecilius is the real weak spot. Why is he doing what he's doing? For that matter, what is he doing? Another weak MCU villain spoils the film.

Iron Fist Season One (2017). Long thought dead, Danny Rand returns as a mystical warrior who must take on the figures controlling his father's corporation. Yes, it's true, Danny himself comes across as a whiny bitch, and there's way too much board room infighting and not enough mystical glowing hand fighting. But I think it set up some good things for later, especially showing dissension within the Hand.

Daredevil Season Two (2016). Daredevil must fight the Hand with the help of his mysterious ex Electra. I have to say this got a bit tedious, as I want to see Matt and Foggy together, not at each other's throats. But the introduction of the Punisher and the unexpected return of the Kingpin make up for a lot of deficiencies.

The Punisher (2017). Ex-soldier Frank Castle uncovers a conspiracy that was involved in the death of his family. Went a little too long, and I was hoping for more Death Wish and less Three Days of the Condor, but overall a worthy effort. I think The Punisher works better as a supporting character than a lead, though, just by his nature.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer (2011). A Marvel One-Shot included on the Blu-Ray release of Captain America: The First Avenger. Agent Coulson stops a robbery at a convenience store while driving out to New Mexico for the events of Thor. Very clever, and fleshed out Coulson's character a lot.

Agent Carter (2013). A Marvel One-Shot included on the Blu-Ray release of Iron Man 3. Peggy Carter proves her mettle by taking a case on her own. Very well done.

The Defenders Season One (2017). Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Jessica Jones band together to fight the Hand. Picking up on the factions-within-the-Hand thing introduced by Iron Fist was a good idea, and at least the motives of the bad guys were finally explained. Some of the interactions between the leads was just amazing, too.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Three (2015-2016). Focused on the Inhumans and the secret history of Hydra, which has been trying to bring the powerful Inhuman Hive to Earth from an alien planet by using the obelisk. I have to say I found the episodes on the alien planet intensely boring, but the rest of the season was great.

Luke Cage Season One (2016). Ex-con Luke Cage uses his impenetrable skin to clean up Harlem, including the criminal Cottonmouth. I loved most of this, but thought Cottonmouth was a pretty weak villain who only seemed to be a bad guy because he was a bad guy. I thought the city councilwoman Mariah Dillard was a much better villain, and hope to see more of her.

Thor (2011). Thor is banished from Asgard to Earth, until he proves himself worthy of his hammer and defeats the usurper Loki. This is really great up until the Destroyer comes down to Earth. Since it's essentially an automaton, it doesn't really count as a villain, and I thought the menace was wasted. If Loki had sent a few frost giants instead, I think that would have been much better.

Iron Man 2 (2010). The son of Howard Stark's former partner uses the ARC Reactor technology to become Whiplash, using Tony Stark's bumbling rival, Justin Hammer, as cover. I really like this one, even though I know it's not very popular. I thought Whiplash was a great villain.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season One (2013-2014). Famously off to a slow start in the first half, but once the second half was able to pick up the Hydra storyline from the contemporaneous Captain America The Winter Soldier, things really took off.

Ant Man (2015). Scientist Hank Pym recruits burglar Scott Lang to stop his old colleague from rediscovering the secret of the Pym Particle, which can cause things to shrink and grow. Not quite a comedy, but close enough, using the heist film as a model was a great idea to change things up. My review.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Four (2016-2017). Featured storylines relating to Ghost Rider, the Life Model Decoys, and a computer-generated world in which Hydra rules called the Framework. I didn't particularly care about Ghost Rider, but the LMD and Framework storylines were top-notch.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Two (2014-2015). The now-fugitive agents of SHIELD fight Hydra's attempt to learn the secrets of an alien obelisk and a Kree city. I think this was the high-water-mark of the series so far. Really interesting plots, and very well done all around.

Iron Man 3 (2013). Suffering PTSD after the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark must fight the Mandarin who is waging a war of terror against the United States. I love the concept of AIM playing both sides off one another, and I thought the Mandarin twist near the end was great (I know I'm in the minority). My review.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers is turned into supersoldier Captain America and fights the Red Skull and Hydra during World War 2.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 (2017). Star Lord meets his father, Ego the Living Planet who then must be stopped before he destroys all life in the galaxy. This is just marvelous, building on the relationships of the first film, and adding greatly to it.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Artificial Intelligence Ultron is out to destroy the Avengers and help evolution by wiping out humanity. I found Ultron to be a really great villain, and I hope they bring him back someday (just saying that he left one of his robot-selves behind at the Battle of Sokovia would be enough).

Agent Carter Season One (2015). Peggy Carter helps prove Howard Stark's innocence with the assistance of his butler, Jarvis. I really loved this one; 1946 New York was brilliantly brought to life, and the writing and acting were great.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). A bunch of misfits band together to keep Kree renegade Ronin the Accuser from getting an Infinity Stone to Thanos, the Mad Titan. The first true comedy entry in the MCU, it's the writing and the characters that make this shine. Ronin is so-so as a villain, but certainly better drawn than many. My review.

Daredevil Season One (2015). Blind lawyer Matt Murdock fights the villainous Wilson Fisk and ninjas. The writing here is some of the strongest in the MCU, and the choreography of the fight scenes is justly praised.

All Hail the King (2014). A Marvel One-Shot included on the Blu-Ray release of Thor: The Dark World. Trevor Slattery is interviewed in prison following the events of Iron Man 3. The best of the One-Shots, both hilarious and at the same time redeems the Mandarin as a real (non-Trevor Slattery) villain that could be brought into the MCU in the future, showing just how much world-building and MCU-expanding these one-shots can do. And the scene with Justin Hammer is just amazing.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Asgard is attacked, and Thor and Loki must team up to destroy Hela, but the eccentric Grand Master has other ideas. Bright, colorful, and funny; if this is any indication of the direction of the cosmic side of the MCU going forward, it's a good sign. My review.

Jessica Jones Season One (2015). Alcoholic superhero-turned-PI Jessica Jones fights Killgrave, a man who can control others' minds, including hers. This is a really great piece of work, and the psychological angle of Jessica's trauma from her time with Killgrave is really well-expressed. And he's just a great villain himself. And dead, of course. Because Marvel.

Captain America: Civil War (2016). The Avengers are torn apart by a government plan to require super-heroes to register themselves. The airport battle remains one of the standards by which other fight scenes are measured, and for good reason.

Black Panther (2018). The king of high-tech Wakanda must regain his throne from Killmonger, an exile who wants to wage war on the world. Really great world-building and visuals, and another strong villain. Ulysses Klaue as a supporting villain is just superb, too. My review.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). High school nerd deals with his newfound superpowers, while being mentored by Tony Stark. Tom Holland is good, but it's Michael Keaton's Vulture who gets the most praise for his easy menace and clear motives. My review.

Iron Man (2008). The one that started it all. Kidnapped in Afghanistan, Tony Stark creates a prototype Iron Man suit from scraps. The montage where he's making the Mark II suit is one of my favorites in the whole MCU.

The Avengers (2012). Nick Fury of SHIELD brings together a team of superheroes to fight Loki and regain the powerful alien tesseract. The training scenes are great, and Red Skull stands out as one of the great villains of the MCU. Wish they'd stop killing them all the time... My review.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Captain America must fight the super-assassin Winter Soldier, while uncovering a Hydra conspiracy inside SHIELD itself. Tense political thriller mixed with superhero adventure, plus the great reveal that threw the whole MCU on its side. Great stuff. My review.

________

Note: Not included yet are Agents of SHIELD Season 5 (2017-2018) because it hasn't finished its run yet, and Runaways Season 1 (2017-2018) which I haven't watched yet.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Thoughts on Black Panther (Spoilers!)

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 23:55
Fair warning - there are going to be spoilers in this post. So if you haven't seen Black Panther yet, and want to remain spoiler-free, don't read on.

If you'd like to read my spoiler-free review, please click here.

(Spoiler-filled discussion after the jump)

So, Black Panther. Assorted thoughts...

I said in my review that they did a much better job with the villains than has been the norm for the MCU, and that's still true. Killmonger was a very well-developed villain, with a motivation and a plan that was clear. Ulysses Klaue was also a fine villain, giving us a manic fun performance that I would have loved to see pop up in other MCU films.

SO WHY THE HELL DOES MARVEL KEEP KILLING THE VILLAINS!?!?

I mean, seriously. The only main villains I can think of off the top of my head who didn't die were Loki, Trevor Slattery/The Mandarin, Adrian Toombs/The Vulture, and... um... Could that really be it? In 18 movies, only 3 villains make it out alive?

I don't count Thanos, because he's been more a behind-the-scenes presence up until now. Nor do I count Justin Hammer, since he was more there just to facilitate the real villain, Whiplash. Who dies.

Not only does Marvel struggle to have good villains, but they're profligate with them, killing them off even when they're good characters.

* * *
Following up on my statement in the review:
Having seen it, there wasn't any "white people are evil" stuff (aside from a few exceptions about which I won't go into details), and the ultimate message of the movie was actually quite uplifting.What I was referring to there were the couple of times the white CIA agent was called a "colonizer". That's the most egregious example of politics in the film that I noticed, and it was completely undermined by the final message of the film, that "we should all be one tribe."

Killmonger's hatred of white people as "oppressors" and who seemingly exist only to steal stuff from black people is one of his defining motivations as a villain. So to the extent that message is in the film, it's held up as the example of what not to do. I'll be honest, given some of the over-the-top reviews from far left sources, that was a pleasant surprise.

* * *
I was very shocked that there was no mention of the Soul Stone in the film. It's the only one of the Infinity Stones unaccounted-for, and given that Avengers Infinity War comes out in three months, I figured there would be some mention of it to lead into that film. But nope. Nada.

I still think they'll tie it in with the vibranium meteor that is the source of Wakanda's wealth and technology, somehow. Like they'll discover the Soul Stone in the mine, and that will trigger Thanos' assault on Wakanda. But I'm genuinely surprised they didn't do it in an end-credits scene.

* * *
How about you? If you've seen the film, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Review: Black Panther (Spoiler Free)

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 22:57
I just flew back from Wakanda, and boy are my arms tired!

Seriously, I saw the newest Marvel Cinematic Universe film, Black Panther, today. The theater was a Dolby theater, with improved sound (think Sensurround, for those old enough to remember it) and a higher contrast film. No 3-D, but there are recliners and assigned seating, which alone makes it worth the few extra bucks to get it. The theater was filled (as indeed were the other eight or ten theaters showing it in various formats in my local AMC).

Short version: Black Panther is really good. It's not the best film in the MCU (that goes either to Avengers or Captain America the Winter Soldier), but it's definitely a solid entry overall.

The visuals are truly astounding in this film. Wakanda is fascinating, with a distinct architectural style that almost feels like it belongs in a Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy film. In particular, the use of color throughout (even when the film is in places like London and Korea) is very well-done. The MCU has clearly moved into a phase where bright colors are the palette of choice, rather than the rather muted colors of earlier films in the series, and it's a welcome change. I would daresay this shift in color presages the coming shift in Phase 4 to the cosmic and magical side of the MCU.

It's also worth saying that it makes the Marvel movies stand out visually from the muted-to-the-point-of-being-drab DC films.

The music was also a standout element, and captures the cultural differences of Wakanda, using a number of African themes woven into a traditional soaring orchestral form to come up with something new. Definitely an improvement over Doctor Strange's forgettable music.

The acting is great as well. The casting is excellent, and all the performances are well-done. I particularly loved Andy Serkis' return as villainous arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, as he really stepped up his crazy with the character, and it worked perfectly. Chadwick Boseman is just as good in the lead as he was as a supporting character in Captain America Civil War, and has the chops to carry the film. His sister Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, provides most of the humor, although Martin Freeman's Everett K. Ross has his share as well.

The stand-out, though, is Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger. The same praise I gave to Spider Man Homecoming's Vulture applies here as well. He's fully fleshed-out, with a clear mission and a clear motivation. He's full of menace, and it's very clear that he's a capable threat. I hope Marvel continues it's recent streak of good villains; a tendency towards underwhelming villains has been their only consistent weak-spot for years.


One thing I should also point out is that the film didn't get as preachy as I feared it would. Specifically, some of the early marketing for the film gushed about "black exceptionalism" and "Afrofuturism" and so forth. Having seen it, there wasn't any "white people are evil" stuff (aside from a few exceptions about which I won't go into details), and the ultimate message of the movie was actually quite uplifting. So, my worries about the films potential politicization were unfounded. Yay!

All in all, this is a terrific film and well worth the price of admission. While there are (inevitably) call-backs to Captain America Civil War, which directly sets up the events of this film and which was the introduction of Black Panther, it's much more of a stand-alone film than we've seen in years, although we know from the trailers that Wakanda will feature prominently in May's Avengers Infinity War. Four stars out of five.

And make sure you stay through the credits; there are two helpings of schawarma.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

My Dream FLGS

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 00:43
Now that I've pre-ordered Gary Ray's fascinating-looking book Friendly Local Game Store: A Five-Year Path to Middle-Class Income, it's naturally got me thinking about what sort of a game store I'd make if I won the lottery. Naturally, this is just a thought experiment (but we can hope!).

One of the things that Gary's Quest for Fun blog stresses is that a FLGS* must be more than a place to buy games. That's a losing proposition, since it's incredibly easy to buy games online at deep discounts most of the time. Thus, the FLGS has to offer more - it has to provide added community value.

In the case of the FLGS, that usually means functioning as a "community center" for gamers of sorts, offering both a place to get together and play, as well as providing a place to bring gamers together with new groups and opponents. To that I might also add being a place where new and lesser-known games can have a little time in the sun, to let customers discover new games they might not otherwise have heard of.

I've seen a bunch of game stores in my day, but the one that still feels like my "main" game store is The Compleat Strategist in New York City (I used to work for the one in Boston, right out of college). This is what's known as a "shock and awe" store. It has everything, crammed in incredibly densely, and in the case of the Strategist, still marked with the original prices when the item was originally placed on the shelves (I found stuff from back in the 80's the last time I was there). That would be a component of my dream store. Shock and awe. Because remember, this is my post-Powerball fantasy we're talking about here.

As part of that, I would want to appeal to, and serve, the five big tabletop gamer subgroups; card games, board games, roleplaying games, miniatures, and wargames**. That would go both for the sales floor as well as the playing areas.

I envision a two-story building, with the first floor dedicated to sales, and the second dedicated to play, with a large open space in the middle to connect the two, so the players look down on the sales area.

For the sales area, I want things bright. High ceilings and lots of light. Aisles wide enough to let two people browse comfortably (not like the newly-shrunken aisles at Barnes & Noble, ugh!) but densely packed with product.

All this empty wall space to me screams
"we're operating on a shoestring"Which reminds me, I'd be on the lookout for game stores going out of business. I'd pick up miniatures, wargames, and (select) RPGs. Nobody needs twenty copies of Everquest the RPG. There wouldn't be a bargain bin, but anything that would qualify would be sold online.

I'd need staff and managers knowledgeable about specific areas, but willing to be cross-trained. For instance, I know nothing about CCGs, so I'd need a couple someones who did. But I'd insist that each was also able to be a back-up for one or more of the other areas. The same would apply everywhere.

And if I could swing it, healthcare for the employees. Hey, I've got Powerball money, I'm going to be the best boss I can.

In the gaming area, there would be several different things to think about. Different sorts of games need different sorts of tables. Miniatures usually need large spaces, while board games and CCGs need much smaller spaces. For RPGs, being able to hear what everyone says is a premium quality. In the interest of attracting and serving the several clubs that are active in my area, I'd definitely want to have rentable locker space to hold miniatures and wargames, to spare them having to cart the stuff around all the time. A few private gaming rooms, probably primarily for RPGs.

And I'd love a snack bar. I don't think a bar bar would be needed since I'm aiming at a game store and not a game cafe (although I wouldn't rule it out), but a place to get snacks and water and soda and such. Nothing too adventuresome; hot dogs, pizza, hot pretzels, ice cream, chips, etc.

So anyway, that's my dream wish-list for a store. What about you? What would you like to see in a FLGS?

_____

* FLGS is a term that's been around since at least the 70's. It usually means Friendly Local Game Store, but the F can sometimes be interchanged with other, less salutary, words.

** By wargames, here I mean hex-and-counter (and similar) wargames, such as those still published by GMT Games, Decision Games, Amarillo Design Bureau, and many others.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Let's Read: Greyhawk Adventures (Part 12)

Sat, 02/10/2018 - 21:35
Well here we are at last, the final entry in my Let's Read series for the Greyhawk Adventures hardcover book. It's certainly taken a while to get here, but I hope the trip's been worth it.

We close the series with what is perhaps the weakest section of the entire book, and the one I believe got the least use; zero-level characters.

These rules are unique to the book, and have nothing to do with Len Lakofka's attempt to deal with pre-1st level characters way back in Dragon #51.

Rather than experience points, 0-level characters have something called Aptitude Points, which start anywhere from 91-110, and everyone starts with 3's in each ability score, and 3 h.p. The AP are then used to raise those attributes at a rate of 8 per week (spend 2 AP and your strength can go from 3 to 5, for instance). Demi-humans need to reach their racial minimums first, before they can start raising other stats.

The downsides of this system are instantly seen. Presumably everyone in the world is a weakling, a moron, is clumsy, and couldn't convince a beggar to accept a copper piece. It also replaces rolled stats with a point-buy system, which I think would be something of a revolution in terms of gameplay that isn't exactly called out.

Here, characters don't have an alignment to start with; they develop an alignment over time, with the DM keeping track of each character's behavior with a 1-20 based point system.

Class abilities are learned and practiced across class lines, and can be learned by spending "study points". So if you want to try turning undead, you'd learn the skill for a cost of 4 study points. If you want to cast a 1st level spell, you could learn how at a cost of 6 study points. Some more advanced skills need a payment of Aptitude Points as well.

Or you could "trust to luck" and just try it, with a 55% chance of failure of some sort, and a 45% chance of success of differing varieties. The same system is used for proficiencies (weapon and non-weapon) and learning languages as well.

When the 0-level characters learn all of the skills of a particular class, they become a 1st level member of that class, and have a chance to retain some of the other class skills they've learned along the way. But there's no real way to expand or improve those powers later on, so it's not exactly like a skill system, but a weird hybrid.

Personally, I don't know of anyone who ever used this more than once (we tried it, hated it, and dropped it almost immediately). It's a sort of tedious version of Traveler's character creation, which builds up experiences prior to play, but in this version those experiences have to be actually played out before one can even get to 1st level.

Plus, there's nothing that particularly ties this to the Greyhawk setting at all. It's just sort of lumped in at the end because there wasn't anyplace else for it. Unfortunately this is flyover country, and these pages would have been better spent on other things.

And that's it. The whole book, from start to finish. Some great parts, some okay parts, some not so okay parts, and some completely forgettable parts. I hope you've been inspired over the course of this series to check out this often-forgotten book. Thanks for taking the journey with me; I promise the next one won't take so long.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Project Oasis is 50% off Tomorrow!

Sat, 02/10/2018 - 18:07
Hey everyone - I just got notified that Project Oasis, my setting for GW / Mutant Future / Apes Victorious / etc. will be the Deal of the Day over at RPGNow.com tomorrow. This is your chance to get it at 50% off the normal price!


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Interview: Secrets of Blackmoor

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 15:24

What a treat today!

I had the privilege of interviewing the maker of an upcoming documentary film on the early history of our hobby, focusing on Dave Arneson's Blackmoor, but naturally ranging far beyond that. There have been a few efforts along these lines (I backed a few on Kickstarter...), but this one looks like it's well on the way to completion.

If you'd like to keep up with developments on the film, head on over to their Facebook page and "like" it.

And here's a trailer!


And now, on with the (lengthy) interview.


GG: How would you describe your film?

SB:

Oh man.

It really is a lot like the cool mossy foot prints of an Accordion Sloth's tap dance.

(laughing)

It's several things rolled into one movie.

It is the history of role playing games as told through the collective memory of Dave Arneson's gaming group.

At the same time, it is also a lesson in role playing and how it evolves.

Most of this revolves around trying to answer the oldest and hardest question that exists: What is a Role Playing Game?

Ask your friends this question. It's a real brain teaser like something Buddha may have asked of his disciples.

We propose our interpretation for how to define these games and we apply it to the known history of gaming in the Twin Cities that is coming from the people who were actually there.

The whole movie is sort of a RPG 101 Class. We expect that it will inspire a lot of people to feel great rage and argue all over the internet over all things RPG -- we've got popcorn and comfy chairs ready in our secret hideout.

GG: What got you interested in doing a documentary about Dave Arneson?

SB:

It was just an accident. We had no idea we'd be doing this.

a. We got into arguments with strangers about who invented D&D while on the internet.

b. We met some guy on the internet.

c. It turned out the guy was Dave Arneson's web master, Kevin McColl. If you hate our film, email us, we'll give you Kevin's address, It's all his fault.

d. It also had to do with being compelled by a mystery. If you compare Gary Gygax, where you have all these books and even a graphic novel about him, to Dave Arneson, who is really fairly invisible and nearly impossible to get info on, then the logical thing is – long pause - is to do the easy story, Right?

Now, if you are a complete dork who always seem to do everything the hardest way possible in life, you end up trying to find out more about Arneson.

So we're pretty sure it's all out of sheer idiocy.

GG: There are several other fan documentaries about the early days of Dungeons & Dragons in the works. What makes your film stand out?

SB:

Are you comparing our film to the kinds of videos you find on YouTube? Are you talking about Dungeons & Dragons: The Documentary?

If you look at the YouTube videos, there are some good ones out there. Their limitations are that they are relying on each other's sources. So there is no first person narrative coming out of those. You don't get a Blackmoor player talking about the first time he, or she, ever played an RPG with Dave Arneson, but there is some good stuff out there.

As to the other feature films, again, there are several big films: Dragons in the Basement; D&D: The Documentary; and others. We know of 4 that are in production. We do not see any of them as being in competition with us because all our films will be different. We want to see those films too.

We actually talk to some of the other directors. Anthony Savini the director of: D&D the Documentary, is a wonderful guy. We just chatted with him the other day.

Our film is in its 5th year of production and we may actually get a film done. We're sharing lots of cool stuff on our FaceBook page and posting the occasional video as well.

But getting back to what makes us stand out: we chose to do something really odd, instead of going for a movie about people who were already famous like Gary Gygax and his group, we chose to talk to people that nobody knows about. If we say, who was the Wandering Elf? You have no idea what we are talking about, but he's in the movie.

We have a lot of people who never played D&D in the film, yet they helped nudge this crazy idea forward RPG's are something that didn't just spring out of nowhere, they have a long history and a lot of that history resides in the Twin Cities.

Our trailer gives a strong idea of what our film is. You see people telling their stories. It will be a bit slower and less bombastic, but it's going to be a lot like that. And we'll also show images of a lot of old documents that we have found.

GG: Did the publication of Dungeons & Dragons change the way Arneson ran his own campaign?

SB:

Arneson already had a game before Gary saw it, just as Megarry had a game before that very same evening when they both demonstrated their game ideas in Lake Geneva. These were not incomplete games, they were prototypes.

If you talk to the Blackmoor players, they will tell you the same thing over and over -- Blackmoor was a verbal exchange between Dave and his players, they did not use miniatures, it was a full on RPG already. If you talk to Rob Kuntz, he says the same thing as them, and he was there at the demo in Gary's dining room.

We were just speaking to David Megarry and his game got accepted for publication by Guidon Games before anything happened with Arneson's Blackmoor to make it into D&D. He mailed them his prototype, they played it, they liked it. Sadly the multi color map led them to reverse their plans.

So no D&D didn't change how the game was played, the only thing that changed were the mechanics of the game.

But you have to understand that Dave Arneson is already a very skilled referee by the time he begins Blackmoor. It is a moving target. It goes from being more like David Wesely's game, to being maybe more like Duane Jenkin's wild west game, and then it becomes what one see's in D&D. You also have to understand that Arneson was running these massive RPG military campaigns in parallel to Blackmoor. His vision for an RPG is much greater than what most people play today, so what he thought the game should be is different from what it became in terms of scope.

Gamers today are only playing about a third of the game as Arneson had envisioned it. If you read the Blackmoor supplement within the context of how he ran his campaigns, then you realize it's a very useful book, most people aren't aware of this. No one is going into the dungeon to fight monsters and then coming up and being ruler of a castle, so they have no need to hire spies and assassins; in Blackmoor they did.

GG: Can you go into a little more specifics on this? The Blackmoor supplement is usually treated like a simple addition of some rules (especially underwater rules, which I understand were a non-Arneson addition). What parts of the Blackmoor supplement do you think aren't properly understood today?

SB:

Do you want a short answer? (laughing) Let's talk more about Accordion Sloths.

Well, for example: The Temple of the Frog Is the first D&D module. It's just that it doesn't look like what people have come to assume one should look like. It is essentially Arneson's play notes for a dungeon he knew by heart because he designed it. It also does not follow how most people play the game. Arneson's group was often on a mission. They played their games like military commando raids sometimes. Temple of the Frog is a good example of this. You can't walk right up to it. You have to sneak into it and try not to get found out. You may actually be avoiding combat the whole time, but that goes against rule numero uno in most games; where players are trying to soak up points to gain levels.

We actually just wrote a lot about play style in our latest Facebook post.

One also needs to consider that Arneson was used to collaborating with Gary. It seems like they had established a type of work-flow between them when they wrote D&D, that worked very well. His expectation was that he would have an editor who would work with him. Kask never liked Arneson and he was chosen to edit the Blackmoor supplement. Arneson probably wasn't too keen on Kask either. So that team was just not going to work out -- it was a train wreck from the very beginning.

The two had very little dialogue and it shows in how the volume ended up as a published product. The only parts that seem like something Arneson was doing are the Temple Module and the section on hiring specialists. Arneson was also a complete naval history scholar, so the sea creatures make sense within that context, but who knows? If you've seen maps of Blackmoor, it seems that Arneson wanted to make sure to have lots of sea ways so they could have lots of naval battles with minis.

I'd say the one thing they did get right on the Blackmoor supplement is the cover art. In its day it was the most enigmatic and evocative image of all the D&D covers. For many people, it still is.

To understand how much is being played today, you need to have an understanding of what Arneson was doing simultaneously to the creation of Blackmoor. He was running a massive hybrid Napoleonic military campaign with roleplaying.  All of this is documented in his Corner of the Tabletop fanzine, yet most people have never seen these. (We would like to see the whole set get published at some point.) If you could see those, and the massive volumes of paperwork that were produced in the game and still exist, you'd see Arneson in a different light.

So what is going on in this mega campaign, or the Nappy Campaign as Arneson always called it -- almost too much to describe in this interview. In the film we dedicate about 25 minutes to talking about these nappy games. Even there, all we can do is address it as an abstract concept. We try to use some first-hand accounts of events, but those can get really long and half the people who played in it have passed away.

And when we say lots of players, we're not kidding. A list of players from 1976 takes up a whole sheet of paper. The game is being played in at least three different cities. Arneson is the lead ref, Mike Carr is in charge of the personalities, there are land battle refs and sea battle refs. There is even a rules committee that approves proposed rule changes. This is all being done by hand with paper and pencils and dice.

And when we say personalities, we mean characters. We've found a sheet with a matrix of people from a royal household. These personalities actually have attributes. Maybe on a certain turn Arneson rolls some dice and determines that the king is ill, well now another persona has to take over as head of state. These events are documented in Corner of the Tabletop as well.

This mega campaign is operating on multiple levels of scale. Each turn the players who are acting as the leaders of nations are making out expense budgets and planning large scale troop and ship deployments and moves. This can also be compared to the game called Civilization; yes, there were even rules for inventing new technology in the Nappy game.  This is Dave Arneson and his group, from 1967 onward doing these kinds of things.

The leaders are also writing letters to each other. They are negotiating treaties. Pete Gaylord offers up the queen's hand in marriage to another player in order to solidify one of these alliances. If you read these letters you begin to wonder if Role Playing isn't already going strong in this game before Blackmoor. Lets say this is 33% of the game.

So now we go a bit smaller. As these armies and navies maneuver around maps of the world, they may come up against each other. When this happens, everyone goes to Arneson's basement and a battle is set up on his ping pong table with lead minis. In some cases we're talking thousands of lead soldiers in one battle. Now everyone is a general in charge of a wing of one of these armies. During a Strategos battle, that being the house land combat system, players can do things that aren't standard war game stuff. Lets say you move your troops into the town; you can interrogate the townspeople about enemy positions. Or, the river is too fast to get your canon across it, yet you can ask the referee if there is a barn you can take apart to build a bridge. So this is another 33% of the game.

And then there are the individual events. What most people think of as role playing today. You've besieged the castle, but they seem to be doing fine in there. What if you sneak some guys up with ladders in the middle of the night and then they get in and open the gate for you? Ok, says the ref, lets see what happens. This can instigate a RPG game type situation.

Overlapping all of this are numerous Bruanstein games that are part of this campaign.

Ok, so the individual stuff is the last 33%.

Arneson expected people to want to play in full-fledged socio-political simulations. That is how Blackmoor begins. Blackmoor isn't just a dead static thing that only reacts when players do something. Blackmoor is a living world, the Egg of Coot's minions are on the move, and you have to find out what they're planning and stop them. But your army isn't very big. Maybe you need to send emissaries to the next barony and ask for help. Bob Meyer says he loaned his army to the other guys because they needed help in a battle.

If you see the result of his notes he provided from his own campaign as they appear in Blackmoor supplement, they talk about hiring specialists of all types and how much it will cost you. Knowing about the Mega campaign, what do you think of all of this? Is it making connections for you? Do you see how Arneson was seeing a bigger picture?

Backmoor operated on multiple levels: a grand strategic military campaign game where they played rulers, a tactical war game where they played generals, and a D&D style adventure game.

For Arneson, a dungeon adventure makes no sense, unless it is part of an over-arching world conflict. People try to say that there are a lot of different literary influences, yet that kind of world level and personal level activity is clearly an analogy for The Lord of the Rings.

To get back to dungeoning –

One of the researchers we work closely with, Daniel Boggs, has discovered a manuscript of early rules. This manuscript contains many of the mechanics you find in D&D. Few of these mechanics are coming from Chain Mail. So what do you see in these rules?

-Hit points
-Armor classes
-Magic spell points
-Equipment lists
-Character attributes and skills
-Monsters

It's all there, and more is implied since they are incomplete.

Perhaps the most telling mechanic of all is the door opening rule. D&D has a simple mechanic for opening doors. Interestingly the board game: Dungeon!, it too has a door opening mechanic. And again we find this in these old rules from around 1972. Gary Gygax had never played this kind of game until november of 1972.

What does this tell you about what Arneson was doing in 1971 and after?

Is it possible that D&D is derived from Blackmoor to a greater extent than most people realize?

We should add that if these kinds of questions about where D&D begins make you nervous, you may not want to go see Secrets of Blackmoor. We propose a lot of questions like this and we reveal things that may lead you to challenge what you already believe is true.

GG: Obviously a film like this takes a lot of research, as you mentioned with Daniel. Have you reached out to Jon Peterson, author of "Playing at the World"? He's also a collector and analyst of early versions of the rules.

SB:

We talk with Jon. We also argue a lot with Jon.  ;) One thing you have to understand is that the community of people who know a lot about these things is very small. So you end up finding each other and arguing different ideas.

GG: How would you describe the Blackmoor players you interviewed for your film? Were they aware of the significance of what they were doing at the time, or afterwards?

SB:

We had a blast talking to everyone. They are all awesome people. Very thoughtful and kind. The best part is getting to game with the original players, that's both humbling and at times hilarious. You're with a group of guys who have been playing war games for half a century and they all just know each other so well. And to top it off, you're either playing with Wesely and Arneson's Napoleonic minis, or you're playing with Dave's civil war Airfix minis. How cool is that right?

We still talk to many of them often and it's not about movie things, we just like to check in and see how everyone is doing. We've also become good friends. When both Pete Gaylord and Duane Jenkins passed away, we knew right away, and called everyone. It was a really sad time for us.

It is one of those things you may not expect if you have not done a documentary, you become close to people and they affect you deeply.

The funniest thing about it, is that although they helped to invent D&D; as Ross Maker says, they are the development team for the game. Most of them do not know how to explain what they did. When we interviewed them, they would use this gamer babble all the time. In the trailer we ended up using Gail Gaylord's comments to explain the game because she was the only who could capture the core of it by saying it was make believe. In the movie we have to explain it for them, and we use language that is as simple as Gail's. If we can't say it with just a few words, then maybe it's not going to work in the movie at all.

GG: How would you describe Arneson's contributions to Dungeons & Dragons, specifically compared to Gygax's?

SB:

To be honest we don't understand why people want to say one or the other is more or less.

We live in a time where people like to take supreme vengeance on strangers via the internet. We just don't want to do that in any way. The film is about Dave Arneson and his group of gamers. A lot of people are going to assume that the only way we can say nice things about Arneson is by saying crappy things about Gary Gygax.

We aren't doing that. We begin in 1963. Arneson and Gygax don't meet until 1969. Yet we are going to debunk a lot of un-informed garbage that people tell each other about Dave Arneson.

You've probably heard this kind of junk yourself: Dave couldn't type, Dave was lazy, Dave didn't write any of the rules, blah blah blah.

Dave couldn't spell and had abysmal grammar - clearly since millions of people play Arneson style RPG's all over the world, his ideas are sheer genius, does it even matter if he can spell? And he did get better at spelling as he got older.

Dave created a body of work that is absolutely massive. There are boxes all over the United States with his war games rules and game notes piled in them. There is a second installment for Don't Give Up the Ship, called Ships of the Line. It was never published. Yup, totally lazy dude.

Dave created drafts of D&D that he sent to Gary. They also made phone calls. The real issue for Gygax, was more one of quantity and how to edit it down to include it in D&D, because Arneson could produce massive quantities of material. At one point Gygax asked Arneson to make some rules for aerial combat. Within a couple weeks Arneson mailed back an entire game for aerial combat that was too big to put into D&D.

It would be really easy as film makers to turn our film into a Hard Copy type of propaganda film. We could work it so that Dave Arneson is this helpless victim and Gary Gygax stole everything from him and ruined his life.

Well, the real story isn't like that at all. It's more nuanced. Since we are letting the Twin Cities gamers tell their story, what they want is for everyone to stop arguing about who did what and just acknowledge that they did it together.

As David Megarry, author of the Dungeon! board game, eloquently stated: "We're tired of the arguments... These two men got together and made this fantastic thing."

Gary and Dave did it together and the reason D&D is so great is because it had some of both of them in the game and the result is this amazing synergy.

GG: That's always been a question for me. Before you said that the publication of D&D didn't change the way the game was run, only the mechanics. How does changing the mechanics not change the way the game is run? Especially with Gygax's input, it seems like the experience at the table would have to change, even a bit. How does that synergy you mention factor in?

SB:

From what we know neither Dave nor Gary used minis in their games. Rob kuntz told us he DM'ed Jim Ward through Greyhawk with no maps or dice or anything, over a pizza. Greg Svenson says it was the same for them, before D&D, and after.

If you read any of the rules for D&d, they all have these mechanics. The only thing about roleplaying is in the examples of play. If we assume Gary ran his games like the example of play in D&D, then he only allowed one person to represent the players; in OD&D there is a DM and a Caller. Our personal experience with D&D is that players all are interacting with the DM, we didn't have Dave, or Gary, there with us to teach us how to do it. David Megarry describes the same type of game we played as kids. We've sat in with the Blackmoor Bunch as they played, it was the same thing, yet they were not using D&D rules, it was more like Blackmoor where most of the mechanics are hidden from the players. the only kinds of feed back might be, you are lightly wounded, or severely wounded.

Lets say your character stats are only rolled on 2 six siders, how is this going to alter play if the core mechanic you are using is role playing? What Gary did was to simplify the mechanics because Gary didn't have access to the same caliber of minds that were in Arneson's group. And To clarify that, we're talking about mass market here. Gary was aiming for the average consumer, that is part of his genius The Twin Cities group was made up of a lot of college students, some where in physics, computing, and mathematics. So where the Twin Cities gamers were fine with equations and complex rules for creating probabilities, Gary just cuts corners. Gary's design paradigm is more like something from the previous decade such as what you see in Avalon Hill games. Gary was fond of charts. Arneson was more fluid in design style. He wanted interlocking mechanics that are more like algebraic equations, as you find in games like Pathfinder. You can see it in the spanish royals character matrix; the stats you see there aren't just for show, they are used in order to test outcomes or he would not have bothered to generate them.

Arneson always claimed to have been the creator of the combat system in D&D. Well, years later someone came up with THAC0. Do you think THAC0 could have been derived from it if Arneson hadn't already been thinking in terms of mathematical equations?

So these two guys with different approaches to game design made this game and whatever each put in helped to create something that worked as a product --You have to remember that this is a product.

What you see in D&D, is Dave Arneson as visionary game inventor, filtered through Gary Gygax as co author and genius in his own way. So where do you decide either is less, or more important? And you also have the players in both groups adding to this mix. They are just different styles. You can't do it. Even the courts couldn't do it.

Why try to slice it all up when you can just sit back and observe and see the result?

We will say this, there are a lot of people still denigrating Arneson's ability and his life's work, yet these people are putting food on the table as game makers -- because of Arneson's ability and his life's work. These people should be ashamed of themselves.

...And while gamers sit around and argue over who invented D&D they're doing the typical useless behavior you see over and over that accomplishes nothing. What they should be doing is writing letters to Wizards of the Coast and complaining that neither Gary or Dave's name is on the cover of the new edition. And what mechanic have they derived for the combat system in the new edition? It's basically THAC0, which comes from Gary and Dave's Game.

GG: How would you say modern Dungeons & Dragons has diverged from its roots in miniatures and hex-and-counter wargaming?

SB:

Well, we play the old rules; as in the white box with the three little brown books. We've played a lot of other systems, but strangely, with the exception of white box and perhaps Tunnels and Trolls, and or Empire of the Petal Throne, everything that comes later gets lost in rules. Mind you, Holmes Basic set is wonderful. AD&D seemed ok, but our experience was that now all the players would do the rules lawyering on the DM at every chance, "Says here on page XX that Y -- and you're wrong!"

I personally had all the AD&D books. I ran maybe 2 sessions and never played it again, the players were jerks. ;) I also found D&D mechanics and generic world styles so clunky, that by then my group was onto new things. Actually, we merged Melee and Wizard with Empire of the Petal Throne, and played that until ITL came out -- that was really fun. I still have a players handbook from that campaign.

I just bought a starter set for the new edition of D&D. I get the impression it is going back to an older style of play. I played a bit of pathfinder with a group for a while. I found that to be like fantasy wargaming. I would rather just play with historical minis, or play a big huge fantasy minis battle.

I think what you are talking about is the role playing itself. Ultimately the game is just story telling. David Wesely, who we think invented the RPG, likes to call what he's done:

Collaborative Story Telling.

I guess everyone is a CST'er then. (ha ha ha)

Once you start using all kinds of play aids like minis and a playing surface, you've gone away from playing an RPG. In fact, what you are doing is reverse engineering the RPG back to the role playing war game like they were doing around 1965 in the Twin Cities.

The only way to explain the difference between Old School and New School is via an example.

One of our new players, Michael Catlin, is an actor. Not having played the game we just helped him make up some characters and got right into it. Mind you, I make people run at least two characters in my games. If you know the original game mechanics, you also know how lethal the game is, one sword hit at first level and your done for the night.

Anyway, he was running a cleric, and as an actor he got into his character. He was praying over everything, forgiving the dead monsters, asking for divine guidance, he just worked that cleric character to the hilt. It was awesome!

At the end of the night I tried to explain the limitations of his character based on the rules. I even said, praying doesn't really do anything. The look of complete disappointment that I saw on his face made me realize that I was failing as a DM. I went home and thought long and hard about things and realized I was doing what I hated most.

My player was asking for something because that was his fantasy game expectation and I wasn't delivering. What's more, I was playing it by the rules and it wasn't role playing anymore.

The next session began with the party in the common room in an old Inn. It's dark and only candle lit. Suddenly a brilliant light appears and grows until it takes the form of a beautiful maiden. I explain that she is barely clothed, but she doesn't inspire romantic feelings, instead what the cleric feels is an emanation of intense wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. That what he is experiencing is a form of true knowledge about universal love.

So they have this verbal exchange. She expresses her appreciation for his piety and gives him two magic items. One of them is a snake that he can order into battle. The other is a flaming heart like bauble that he can use when he is in the direst of need – he has no idea what it does.

All of this takes place where all the other players can watch our interaction, but I then explain that their characters do not see or experience anything out of the ordinary and they can't see his magic items either. Interestingly a lot of our gaming seems to happen in these kinds of player and NPC interactions and it takes up about half of our game sessions, but everyone seems to like it a lot.

So getting back to your original question the answer is now simple. In Role Playing, as it was envisioned by the original creators, the most important things happen without any rules at all. The DM is paying attention to what the players say they do and the players are paying attention to the story reality that is being created by the DM -- It's a recursion that feeds on itself.

The newer games have come to rely on rules instead of this collective story telling and ad-libbing by everyone involved.

Jeff Berry joked about this in his interview, "These days when my character eats caviar for the first time, I have to find a chart to roll on that tells me if he likes it or not."

GG: At one point, Arneson seems defensive and almost bitter about having invented role- playing in 1971. From your work on the film, how would you describe his feelings about how his legacy has been portrayed in the RPG community?

SB:

You must be talking about the clip we have in the film where he says, "Role Playing began in 1971, don't ask me how I know this, because I'm the one who did it, thank you very much..."

That's Dave saying it how it is, and challenging the world to even try to contradict him.

We love that clip so much. The minute we saw it, we said, "ok, we know how the movie starts."
I don't think Dave is being defensive, I think he's being assertive.

You've got to understand, in 1976 Dave was demoted to being the mailing room clerk for TSR. His original title was something along the lines of new games acquisitions and designer liaison. By the end of his time at TSR he'd gotten bumped down to being nearly nothing. This is the inventor of Fantasy Role Playing. The co-author of D&D.

That's the other one I love, Dave being lazy because he isn't designing games. Well gee, you try working in a mail room packing copies of D&D that people have ordered, for 8 hours a day, and then see how productive a game designer you are.

We're told they were even opening his personal mail. I would say that Arneson was deeply humiliated at this point in his life.

And then after he is no longer at TSR all the lies begin via editorials in The Dragon, so now Dave is being publicly humiliated.

Something every Arneson detractor neglects to do is to compare how Gary writes about Dave before they have their falling out, and then afterward.

Read the forward to the Blackmoor Supplement where Gygax clearly states that Blackmoor is the first D&D campaign before Greyhawk.

Now read his editorial in the Dragon magazine where he begins to downplay Arneson.

He changes his whole story and says D&D is based on Chain Mail and that Greyhawk is the first D&D campaign, that all Dave did was show Gary 18 pages of notes.

Because modern historians now know that Gary's assertions in that Dragon magazine editorial cannot be supported and are deeply flawed, there is a lot of revisionism being done to protect Gary Gygax. I suppose that is part of what inspired the film as well, our bullshit detectors went off and we wanted to get to the bottom of it all.

It's easy to get pulled into the injustice of it all, but one should remain objective.

After all the lawsuits and stupid stuff happened, Gary and Dave would write letters to each other. I've been told there are letters where Dave is asking Gary to play in one of his many military campaigns. Gamers need to know that Gary and Dave had forgiven each other to a great extent, and still kept in touch. Rob Kuntz says it was Gary who asked Dave to come do his Blackmoor D&D modules; people should think about that too. If Gary hates Dave so much, why is Dave making modules for D&D?

Again, why are people arguing when the two people who should be angry with each other seem to have worked it out?

And in the end, what you see are two different stories. Gary's supposed friends betray him and sell him out. It's like a tragedy out of a Shakespeare drama. On the other hand, Arneson's friends are loyal and they stick by him through his whole life. Gary basically blew it when he decided to side with the upstairs crowd instead of the downstairs crowd, at TSR, and he paid dearly for it.

But we aren't interested in that story, our film is about role playing.

We've gathered a lot of material about Arneson's feelings after he left TSR. In his later life Arneson seems very thoughtful about his whole experience.

At the same time, Dave is a gamer. A dyed in the wool war gamer too. For most RPG'ers, one would think D&D is the most important thing. But Arneson was a fanatic over military history. He loved to war game and was always sneaking off to do so, up until his very last days. And even then, Ross Maker and David Wesely would go over to play boardgames with him. I was told two of his favorite board games are Nuclear War and Settlers of Catan.

From what people close to him say, it bothered him that if you ask someone who invented D&D, the most common answer is Gary Gygax. When asked about it, he always said "I am the co-author of D&D".

He was also amused by his life experiences. He found humor in it all and was not poisoned by it. The things that mattered most to him where the people in his life. He was in touch with a lot of the original group when they had time to make a call, or write a letter. He and Greg Svenson both lived in Florida, so they spent holidays together like family. He still had his father too. It goes without saying that the greatest joy of his life was his daughter Malia, and he also had grandchildren he adored.

Actually there is one hand held shot in the film where his grandson is running the camera, we're gonna use that shot because we know it will make Dave get a big smile wherever he is.

GG: If there is one thing you would like viewers of your film to come away with, what would it be?

SB:

Oh my, good question!

There are many approaches to film making. The hollywood model is very precisely controlled in order to control the viewer and garner a heck of a lot of cash. It is all entertainment brand name product like toothpaste, thus even Star Wars is akin to "Nine out of ten dentists prefer Crest". I'm not dissin' on those movies, but it's a lot different when you know one type of film is being made by a machine and another is made by a couple of people in their living room on home computers.

We aren't constrained by financial pressures. We have a limited time on this planet and we try to do cool things. So if you see this film, maybe you will get inspired to do something you think is cool too.

If you are trying to make art, then there are other avenues of understanding. It isn't that you impose what you want onto the artwork. You are actually listening to it. Over time, it tells you what to do. It will become what it wants to be.

Michelangelo is quoted as saying that the statue already resides within the piece of marble and that it only takes the sculptor to come and remove the excess stone to reveal the form that lies within.

We struggled with the edits for a long time. We made about three different drafts for the beginning of the film. The last one was the one that seemed to be the most natural form that was waiting for us reveal it. You've seen it yourself, so maybe you can say if it is effective or not.

Maybe you will see these things in this film and it will affect how you approach life and art. And maybe you can just learn to sit and listen and let things change you, so that you can then change things around you.


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