Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Permissiveness vs. Restrictiveness: The Whitelist vs. The Blacklist

It started as an interesting discussion on a message board over at Giant in the Playground: over here. I'm not going to go over the crux of the entire thing here, you can read it for yourself, or not, as you please.

Suffice to say that, from my perspective, the entire thing boils down to whether one (the DM in particular) is permissive, or restrictive. The whitelist is, in short, a list of those rules that are positively accessible to the players while the blacklist is the polar opposite, being a list of those rules, books, and bric-a-brac specifically forbidden them.

I suspect, but cannot confirm due to terminal youngness, that D&D "back in the old days" was very permissive/whitelisted, simply because there was so little in the way of official material to go around. A GM was forced to create a list of what was available for the use of his players for two simple reasons. First, that only a very few people actually had the books to begin with in the early days. Players didn't need copies of the three little brown books to play, they only needed a quick run down of "need to know" rules such as how many of what kind of dice to roll to get ability scores, and the basic gist of each class. The rest of it is GM knowledge. Second, in the case of at least the LBB's, the game was as much a GM creation as it was a creation of TSR. The material there was was simply too thin to be called a complete game really, and so one GM's game was vastly different than another as each filled in the perceived gaps with their own material. The Arduin Grimoire's are, frankly, the best example of this, in my opinion. Those books are a giant whitelist of the weirdest and highest caliber.

Blacklisting has, supposedly, become far more popular in modern games. Rather than going through the entire list of what is allowed, the much shorter list of what is forbidden is dropped on the table on day one and players are expected to abide by it, or more accurately, in my experience, whine about it inccessantly as their favorite super power is not permitted until the GM relents in a fit of exasperation or fear of loosing players.

At first blush, I thought this was all due to the simple volume of material available at any given time. The more books available to players, the more material the GM is going to have to go through with the red pen.

In the end, though, I think it has much more to do with a shift in paradigm. With the advent of D20 and much of White Wolf (and to a lesser extent, AD&D 2nd edition), players seemed to be operating under the assumption that anything not specifically forbidden was permitted, and even then that anything in print in an "official" D&D sourcebook must be permissable. This last point is viciously lampooned in The Gamers: Dorkness Rising.

The change came about not because of the increase in material, but when the D&D rules were codified into a solid, cohesive whole like a computer program, all designed to work together and be enlarged with various expansion packs. After all, if the campaign doesn't allow elf ninja swashbucklers, how can it be D&D at all? Look, they're right there in the rules!

The thing about it all, though, is that like my favorite edition, I find myself straddling that particular fence. I'm halfway between writing up a document with all the "acceptable rules" and additions to the system that I make, and simply going at everything with a red sharpie marker and crossing out vast tracts of text.

Is there such a thing as a "Greylist"?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

My Favorite Monsters

Well, Nosims had a good idea, and while it seems like a geeky thing to do, I am nothing if not a geek.

So, as if anybody cared, my favorite monsters.

1. Giant Spiders: Like James, I'm absolutely terrified of the real thing, and whenever they appear in my games, I make absolutely sure that the players are too. Something about the spindly, knobbly jointed legs supporting that drooping, glistening body that looks wet and slimy, but is really warm and dry, its touch like so many pin pricks . . .

1b. Crystal Spider: This one is a varient giant spider from one of my favorite boxed sets, Dark Sun. A spider adapted to a desert world positively rife with psionic energies that has the ability to dazzle and blind enemies with a flash of light, or even cook the flesh from your bones with a concentrated blast of heat. Worst of all, its web is made of near invisible crystal strands that victims will happily walk into without hesitation and be shredded by sharp edges.

2. The Ghoul Lord: Right out of the Ravenloft setting, this little nasty is, essentially, a suped up ghast, adding a particularly nasty diseased touch and the ability to walk through circles of protection like smoke rings. Relatively boring in concept, but in execution, and from the players' point of view, truly terrifying.

3. Dragons: No, really. They're (ugh, I can't believe I'm about to type the word) "iconic," especially when they're not being reduced to the role of overgrown kittens by idiot authors. It's not just a matter of the fact that they're half the name of D&D, it's that dragons, or creatures suspiciously like dragons, have been a part of almost every single human mythology across the planet for thousands of years. They're a part of what it is to be human, which is a lot of what fantasy and speculative fiction is about. If you asked Tolkien and the Beowulf poet, they'd tell you that they are, in fact, illustrative of humans themselves.

4. Vampires: By the same token as dragons, really. These things have been with humans for our entire history. They prey upon certain primitive anxieties and do it so well when they're not subjected to vamp glam.

5. Zombies: One might think they notice a trend with the undead here. And they'd be right. The undead are inherently connected to a deep rooted anxiety of the human condition, and that's why I'll always like them. Of course, I'm talking about the Romero/Russo type zombie rather than the voudon zombies.

6. Galeb Duhr: Living boulders. That is all.

7. Goblyns: Another Ravenloft nightmare, these fellows are particularly vicious in melee combat when they wrap their hands around your neck and then proceed to bite your face off, scoop out your brain, and feast. Something about that just hits a deep seated fear with players perhaps even moreso than anything else.

8. Aboleth: After becoming familiar with HP Lovecraft, I suddenly had a new appreciation for the Aboleth. Ancient, evil, and unfathomable, they lurk in the cold, dark, wet places of the world pursuing what goals only they know. Through their racial memory, they remember a time when the universe didn't exist, a simple fact that makes them an aluring target for an attempted information exchange.

9. Dwarves: Ok, not really a monster, but . . . Before the stout fellows fell prey to the same death as elves, these guys were one of my all time favorite bits of the game. Probably had a great deal to do with The Hobbit truth be told.

10. Treants: Another strong influence from Tolkien, the sentient, motile tree. When the PC's feel that the forest around them is watching them, they might not be entirely wrong.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tannhauser: Gateway of the Dwarven Kingdom

This post started as a meandering and aimless 400 word post. At about midnight, I realized that this little excerpt did a better job of broaching the subject of Thylian dwarves.

Tannhauser - Southern most outpost of Elmoran, dwarven capital city
Current Population: ~2000 dwarven soldiers and craftsmen plus 400 human men-at-arms and wizards and ~50 gnome architects
Leader: Lord General Lathman

More than 300 years after its fall to the orc plague that swept out of the eastern lands, General Latham of the Hearthwarden clan led the assault that finally reclaimed the gateway fortress of the dwarven kingdoms. Though triumphant, the dwarven forces were too late, for in the centuries of the siege, the great glaciers of the mountains moved with greater speed than even the oldest dwarves had ever seen. Contact with Elmora was lost as the ice closed the passes north through the mountains, and nobody has been able to determine the fate of the northern settlements.

Lathman considers his conquest to be his craft masterpiece and has petitioned for induction to the gerontocracy. The elders' slow deliberation is a source of great friction as they scold the general for presuming too much in conscripting the majority of the city's populace as his apprentices and beginning intensive militia training for all citizens. As a result, other crafts in the city have suffered from neglect causing agitation among the older castes.

Those who have not been inducted into the militia have been put to work strengthening the outer walls and fortifications and, more importantly, carving away at the advancing glacier with picks before it can scour the last outpost of the dwarven kingdoms from the face of Thylia. Slowly, the ice carvers are losing the battle.

The gnome population has constructed what they call "The Great Glass Gardens," massive structures that harness what weak sunlight there is in this extended winter and protect crops from the cold. Local human leaders have sent emmisaries to learn the secrets of these gardens in hopes of providing food for their populations in the face of the advancing cold.

At its deepesst level, the mines of Tannhauser - the only source of iron south of the moutans within a thousand miles - have been reoppened and all the scrap stone has been strewn before the walls for a full mile preventing enemy armies from approaching the walls easily, except by the ancient road which has been left clear.

As the last outpost of dwarf law - for dwarves will establish no kingdom other than their lost Elmora - Tannhauser serves as a beacon for The Diaspora. After learning of the retaking of the city, many clanholds in the boreal forests of the Northern Marches and even further abroad have abandoned their homes in exile and begun the journey home.

Dathmor, a small village two days journey south, sends daily shipments of coal, Tannhauser's only source of heat. Premin, leader of the coal mining operation and the local representative of the Gerontocracy, is worried about Lathman's preparations and about his blindness to the increased activity of hobgoblins in the forest. The humanoids have taken small keep only a week's journey from Dathmor, and despite requests for aid, no soldiers have arrived to defend this vital link in Tannhauser's supply line.

Divorcing the Gygaxion Canon

Nicht bin ein Gygaxian

Well, that's a bit strong I suppose. To come out, as a long time D&Der and say that you're not a strong fan of the personality behind published D&D, is probably not the best way to ingratiate oneself in the grognard community, but it's true to a certain extent. I never got to meet the man in person, which I have always regretted, and have only gotten to exchange a sparing few emails with him where he told me I was more than a bit of a lunatic. I certainly admire his body of work, even his novels which I could never read.

But in the end, I'm not terribly fond of things overtly Gygax.

For the most part, it has to do with the fact that AD&D 1e (and less so OD&D and BECMI) was thick with Gary's overwhelming force of personality on the written page. I cannot speak for the man in person, but in words, his presence is palpable, like a tap on the shoulder. I've always believed that one of the greatest strengths of D&D was its insistence that it be made one's own, that it be adapted to the group that was playing it, and the first AD&D books always struck me as Gary's game less than mine.

Why is that? I don't know really. Perhaps I'm even wrong here, but whenever I pick up my early printing PHB with the adventurers prying rubies from the idol and dragging lizard man corpses into a pile, I can almost feel a glass of scotch being pressed into my hand and a friendly voice telling me not to worry about it because my fighter character won't last too long anyway. And I tend to get swept up by it, to go with the Gygax flow to visit the Shield Lands or Furyundy, anticipating the inevitable trap that will be found easier by a ten foot pole than the roll of a thief's skill. Everything in it is Gary's.

Many denigrate TSR's 2nd edition because it excised everything that was uniquely Gygaxian about AD&D, that the books had become bland and flavorless in comparison, and that's entirely true. And that's why, in the end, AD&D 2e will probably always be my choice system. It is far less front loaded with the original Game Master's notes and style and becomes much easier to mold and modify and make into my own.

It's a strange feeling, really, to look at D1-3 and realize that they are fabulous modules, but that I'll never go there as a DM or as a player, and that I probably won't ever miss it except from the perspective of nostalgia.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Campaign Catastrophe: Winter is Here

Whatever the cause - magic, malign cosmic entity, or divine retribution - the climate has changed. Out of the north, great masses of ice, sometimes hundreds of feet thick at the edge, move south, encroaching on the towns and settlements there, or even overrunning them. With the glaciers come strange new animals: bears the color of the snow and ice that prove difficult to spot and white wolves that breath the cold itself, preying upon solitary explorers, or falling in force upon small villages at the edge of the glaciers.

Glaciers themselves, though we always think of them as slow and relatively nonthreatening, can move 30 meters a day! For the metrically challenged amongst us, that's nearly 100 feet, or enough to envelope my home and front yard twice over in the span it takes to recover from a particularly wild party. Traversing the glacier itself is even more dangerous because unlike the ice we curse at on the sidewalks in winter, glaciers are riddled with cracks, chasms, and buckles that can prove quite deadly. Not to mention can provide homes for creatures like white dragons, yeti, and the like.

The advance of a glacier - or, if the world is anything at all like Earth, the return of the glacier - is like to scour existing landmarks clean. The strongholds of the mighty, having withstood a thousand years of war and strife, will be wiped away entirely in the space of only a day once the ice reaches the walls in its inexorable creep. Perhaps not even the dungeons would survive as great boulders a hundred feet in diameter are carried along, gouging great rents in the ground. I have visions of a castle being wiped clean, and only a single oubliette surviving. Inside, a man left behind by evacuating forces, trapped beneath the ice, doomed to an eternity as a ghoul or wight gone mad from long isolation and starvation, unable to escape until the ice recedes. Forgotten place indeed.

As the ice advances, devouring the arable land used for food production, civilized areas will face famine as food runs short. They will be forced to push into other areas in search of land to farm, perhaps clear cutting forests to make room for cereal crops and grazing land. Sylvan races will, of course, be less than pleased.

All around the world, the seas will recede as more and more water is locked up, exposing land that was at the bottom of the ocean for the last five thousand years. Perhaps even the ruins of a civilization that prospered during the last cold period will be revealed, leading to a free for all as treasure hunters look for lost artifacts to sell on the market, wizards seek clues to ancient and powerful magics, and the foolish seek excitement and adventure. A temple to a long forgotten deity emerges from the surf almost over night and leads to a crisis of faith for a theocratic port city that now finds itself landlocked, its docks and quays miles from the shore. Certainly priests are to be sent to investigate these matters and discover if the city is being punished for its opulence. Perhaps citizens will flock in droves to the temple, reviving a god who had long ago passed on from this realm as the faithful remnant inaugurate an inquisition to stop them.

Of course this is not quite the shot in the dark that a falling asteroid is, or a midnight military coup in the capital, but the creeping doom of advancing, seemingly eternal winter can open the doors for a campaign. Not least is the possibility of adventuring parties being hired to plumb the depths of citadels, cities, and dungeons abandoned before the advance, sites now under a thousand feet of ice.

Perhaps another option is the exact opposite. The planet has begun to warm again after many centuries frozen. Port cities and coastal farms are inundated by the advancing oceans and the retreating ice exposes long forgotten ruins that somehow survived the grinding forces of a billion tons of stone and ice and then the flash floods of melt water, forming new lakes, rivers, and swamps.

At the very least, it's an excuse to dig out the Wilderness Survival Guide and have fun with figuring out what temperatures of fifty degrees below Celsius will do to exposed flesh.

Media Influences: 8 Months Late

About eight months ago, Lamentations of the Flame Princess issued a challenge to list the primary, secondary, or just any influences on one's home game and gaming style. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Old School Community's response, though varied to be sure, generally seemed to draw from the same genres at least, or from the same general area. James over at Grognardia seemed to be rather emblematic of the general mood and response.

Before people pull out their ropes, torches and pitchforks, let me state unequivocally that I'm not in any way denigrating this, merely commenting on it as a curiosity since, from my perspective, most of the authors that are cited are simply not influential to me at all. Whether this is because of age (I'm definately too young to have caught the first wave of D&D and, despite their presence in the DMG Appendix N, have only just now started to investigate those strange books that Mr. Gygax put down as suggested reading) or simply the focus on a different vein of Fantasy, I just never caught the Pulp Fiction Fever. To me, Conan always was, and mostly likely always will be, an Austrian bodybuilder with a thick accent.

Going through it all, it's pretty clear that, though closer to the Old School than the New, my generation of gamers really doesn't fit there either. We're still the new kids who, if we promise to behave, get to sit at the table and play the cleric NPC and cast healing spells when told to.* We grew up with Tolkien as the core of the fantasy genre rather than Leiber or Howard, though they were still interesting enough to grab from the dime store if we saw them (I, for some odd reason, never did). We didn't have Hammer Films. As a matter of fact, most people I knew at the time considered such films hokey and silly. Instead, we got loaded with films like "Lady Hawk" and "DragonSlayer": both of which I watched so often I about wore the VHS tapes out. Not only that, I grew up a second generation Trekkie, who thought that the original series was plainly inferior than Jean Luc Picard's sofistication and obvious competence right up until I was 16 and learned exactly what made Kirk so damnably cool. I never even heard of HP Lovecraft until I was 20.

All together, it seemed strange to me that people repeated again and again that D&D had little to do with Tolkien and would I please put away such childish notions. Clearly they were out of their minds. It had halflings and ents and dwarves and elves and practically shouted out Middle Earth in a hundred different ways! I'm sure there are any number of gamers today who can say the same thing.

Where is this all going, except on some twisted journey through the dark and cobwebby corridors of my brain? Well, World of Thool seemed to pick this up and take it that one extra step and use the same idea of listing influences, but applying them to a speciric campaign. The literary influences of a campaign world, the germinating kernels that would grow up into the deliberately wierd world of Thool. That's an excellent place to start.

So I present unto you, the faintly interested and most likely bored by now, the inspirational kernels of what will grow into the World of Thylia:

1. Goerge Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire: I have an almost indecent appreciation for these books. In so many ways, Martin's Westeros embodies almost everything that I love about fantasy and jettisons from it so much that has become stereotypical that I practically gush over at least the first book Game of Thrones. Intricate, but not absurdly complicated plots. A focus on the gritty and realistic point of view that has little of the "Dark Lord on his Dark Throne in the Land of Shadows wherefrom the Legions of Evil issue forth . . ." that gets repeated over and over again by people trying to imitate Tolkien. Real characters rather than token symbolic characters. I would love it if my NPC's could even approach this level. Most of all, Martin appears to be the undisputed master of what I call "Normal Fantasy." The wierd, strange, and mystifying is there, but it feels normal or it creeps in at the edges of the book's conciousness. By the time that the fantastic begins to show up, it never really feels fantastic, which is to me a great acheivment. Assimov's greatest statement concerned the writing of Science Fiction. He said that a good author only asks his audience to believe one unbelievable thing, and that the rest had better be rooted in the familiar and comfortable bounds of life.

2. Tolkien: Of course The Professor is on this list, and for obvious reasons. The man didn't just write an engaging and fascinating story that, apparantly, has outsold the Bible, he wrote a mythology for his modern age. A trite statement by now, I'm sure, but no less pertinent. One of my clearest memories today, and one that makes me chuckle again and again, is thinking at the tender age of 10 or 12 that "Tolkien got it right!" when I read The Hobbit and came to the passages concerning Smaug. Tolkien got it right because, of course, because his dragon guarded a great horde of stolen riches and, according to the illustrated version I was reading at the time, had red scales. Obviously this man had read D&D!

3. HP Lovecraft and other Wierd Tales: Though I will always push toward a "Normal Fantasy" setting, I will always adore the idea of unknowable and likely malign strangeness gnawing at the edges and roots of the world. Somewhere in the dark, the forests, the mountains, or locked deep within the ice, Things that predate this world and reality lurk still, just waiting for the brave and foolhardy to come looking for them.

4. Pulp Fiction: I will state flat out that I am not a fan of the likes of Moorcock (always felt that he was trying too hard to be "not Tolkien" to me), Leiber, and their crowd. They're just not my thing, I suppose. However, I do love the thought behind some of them, especially the innate curiosity that drives them and the characters in them to go out and explore, loot, and pillage the world around them. The original inception of the restless and adventursome individuals who are never satisfied with living in West Podunk in the Great Kingdom as a blacksmith or carpenter. The one's just looking for the excuse to pack up and move on to the next interesting thing. D&D adventurers exactly.

5. Vance's Dying Earth: This I'm pulling out of number four for special attention. It's not so much the stories themselves. Like the other Pulp Fiction mainstays, I could just never get into them. The concept of the old and dying world, on the other hand, is deeply alluring. History throughout the world so old that it was forgotten by civilizations that were themselves forgotten ten thousand years ago.

6. Dragonslayer: Not so much for the story, but for the sets and filming locations. That, right there, is what Tylia looks like, except warmer. Just drop a glacier in the background and there you go. Dingy, cold, downright unpleasant at times, danger lurking just beyond the walls.

7. DragonLance: No matter how much I hate the fact, the DragonLance novels will always be an influence on me. I grew up with them and, for a time even, they were the yard stick against which even Tolkien was measured. For a long time, it was the embodiment of bog standard D&D in my eyes. Knights in shining armor riding around on dragons. Beautiful (obviously blonde and bouxom) elf women. Irrascible dwarves who most obviously spoke with a Scottish accent. Fighting the evil gods. And so on. As much as I'd love to just sever those books from the gaming hemisphere of my brain, it'll never happen.

8. Beowulf: Really all Anglo-Saxon poetry, and the Icelandic sagas, and for that matter most other epics, but Beowulf will always wear the crown here. The story of a hero, and so much of the untold story as well (such as the details of the Finn Fragments, and the story of the people who build the dragon's barrow) are evocative. Another that get's special mention is The Wyf's Lament, but that's for another post entirely. Norse, British, and Germanic legend as put down in these works will become a strong influence in Thylia.

There are more, of course, but for now, these are the basics.

*Yes, my very first experience in D&D was exactly that. It took me all of 1 hour to locate the spell descriptions for the claric in the PHB and six seconds later I declared defiantly that Bob the Cleric would be memorizing "Sanctuary" instead of "Cure Light Wounds" and if the party thief didn't like it, he could suck it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Few Minor Changes

After a moderate break in this relatively young blog due to the insanity known as a day job, I've been forced to break one of the cardinal rules that I set myself when I started this project: that I would not post while in the office. That rule lasted less than a month, and I suppose good riddance since now this means I'll actually be able to put thoughts down on "paper" before they get jammed out of my brain by the next quarterly spending report, staffing profiles, and purchasing quotas. This means that there'll be somewhat more frequent posting here, though most likely somewhat rushed, not spell checked well, and even more scatter brained than usual.

Hey, I never made any claims to sanity here . . .

Second, imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only did a few people actually read my blog, but felt inspired enough to post comments! In all honesty, that's a first for me, and it's got me just a bit flabergasted.

I feel that, in light of that revelation, that I owe any sort of regular readers more than just the random and errant thoughts out of my gaming brain that may or may not prove my madness. This blog needs a direction, more than just exploring the Middle School concept, it needs a cohesive goal.

So, I've settled upon the absolute most uninspired and unoriginal plan I could think of: I'll devote at least part of the space here to designing a campaign setting or campaign model (more on that in another post) that draws its inspiration from that which is distinctly middle school: that which is not the realm of the old grognards, and that which is not the realm of the faddish and excitable new schoolers, but that nebulous middle ground that rests somewhere between, next to, underneath, or within the same postal code of the other two. Race profiles, new spells, new monsters, perhaps a megadungeon with a different twist, and the reimagination of the D&D canon materials.

This is not entirely out of the blue as said campaign setting was, in fact, the inspiration for starting this blog in the first place. Not sure why I didn't decide to just throw it up in the first place, but that's going to be the case now.

Hopefully, it'll make for a moderately interesting ride.

Campaign Cataclysms: Throwing a Rock Into the Sandbox

As comfortable as it is to think that Greyhawk, no matter how many years pass, will largely stay the same - Geoff will always be threatened by giants, Iuz will always be scheming in his wasteland of a kingdom, and the Scarlet Brotherhood will always be a mysterious and nebulous force in the south - sometimes the best thing for the sandbox is to throw a really big rock into it: knock down a few castles, kick some dirt into somebody's eyes, and watch a little chaos - or perhaps a lot of chaos - ripple its way through things. Every now and then, I think it behooves a DM to do such a thing, to break the campaign setting just a little bit with an event well outside the control and scope of the adventuring party, and just watch what changes to the landscape take place and how the players/characters are forced to react.

Of course, the key to this is not to force author edict changes upon the campaign simply because you can, but, as I said, to change things up and every now and then yank out the support structures and familiar rules of the players, force them to adapt and survive. After all, one of the core tenants of old school play is to challenge the players, not just the characters, is it not?

When I first started putting this article together, it was going to include other topics - ice ages and glaciers, civil wars, invading conquerors, dead gods, and the like, but then I realized that in order to cover everything that I wanted to, it would end up being an intolerably long wall of text. So, in an effort not to drive away my 2.5 readers, I'm going to break this up into separate topics over the next few days and see where it leads.

One of the most basic ways to do that is to, quite literally, throw a really big rock at the setting. A meteorite, comet, or other bit of space debris can very minor repercussions, or cause massive devastation across the landscape. A moderate sized meteorite (say, a few kilometers across) landing in the wilderness will kick up enough dust and debris into the atmosphere that will, even though the impact site might be a thousand miles away, cover all the land in a second darkness if you'll forgive me cribbing notes from the recent Lord of the Rings atrocities. The first result will be a widespread fire from the heat of the impact, burning out large portions of the wilderness and forest, driving animals, logging communities, and monsters from their places and into the more civilized lands. Previously non-hostile elf tribes may suddenly find themselves pushing into human farmlands in order to find a place to survive and weather the storm of goblins, orcs, and trolls driven out of the dark forest by the flames. After the fires, the dust in the air would dim the sunlight, leading to a drop in temperature. Crops begin to fail, leading to famine, starvation, disease, and, inevitably, war as various duchies, baronies, and kingdoms fall upon each other in a desparate bid for survival.

Such a large impact would certainly be cause for sweeping changes throughout the campaign world. Reduced temperatures and crop failures (not to mention species extinctions later on) would not be limited to the immediate area. Peoples on other continents may suffer and never suspect the cause. An impact of a similar sized body close to or directly in a major population center would be a truly horrific event, an event that could wipe out a location the players thought of as a safe haven, an island of calm in the wilderness.

Of course, this is not to say that such an impact need be large. A bit of falling debris the size of, say, a wagon or bull might be just enough to destroy or gravely damage a particularly important building or few blocks of the local metropolis, killing old contacts of the PC's, or old enemies, paving the way for a power struggle as people dig their way out of the destruction. Or perhaps an even smaller body may strike, doing little damage, but causing significant changes. A small meteorite the size of a dwarf, for instance, crashing into some thoroughly explored portion of Castle Greyhawk opens up the entrance to a previously unknown section of the dungeons, perhaps leading to a lost laboratory or library of the Mad Archmage, perhaps even throwing one of old Zagyg's experiments into high gear again after centuries of dormancy.

Before I get off the subject of rocks, I feel the need to point out at least one more possibility with things falling from the sky: something brought along with the falling stone. Back in the high days of the Ravenloft campaign, there was a brilliant little monster workup that - though a direct steal from Invasion of the Body Snatchers - was nevertheless a wonderful monster. The Doppleganger Plant. I shouldn't even have to explain what it does. Suffice to say that, at least from the perspective of a player (where I first experienced this monster) the creature is truly a marvelous thing in the hands of a good GM. In fact, the Dungeon adventure in which the plant was introduced (#54 I think, or thereabouts) is truly excellent.

Of course, malign plant life isn't the only thing that can catch a ride in from outerspace. Perhaps the meteorite carries with it a strange and seemingly uncurable disease that spreads through the slums of WaterDeep after a falling star burned down a dissused warehouse near the thieves' guild headquarters. Perhaps, instead of just one, dozens, or even hundreds of stones fell, and around each one, a contagious anti-magic field, spread via close human contact. Wizards and clerics would be forced to quarantine themselves lest they lose all their abilities. And then again, who could forget one of the most classic stories of passing meteorites/space debris? Or, for that matter.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Forward the Metaplot

A new article over at Greyhawk Grognard talks about historical analogies and the From the Ashes boxed set published for the Greyhawk world, advancing the timeline of that world a ways. It seems that, unsurprisingly, the "Old School" is not particularly fond of the concepts put forward in the boxed set. Specifically, making published, "official" changes to the setting and advancing the timeline.

Jeff Rients sums up the sentiment exceptionally well thusly:
. . . I split hairs on the difference between a published campaign setting and a living campaign in actual play. I've used some of the ideas in From the Ashes in my own Greyhawk games, but I abhor the idea that publishers should advance time lines with new canonical material.

The PCs should be the William the Conquerors of their world, or the dudes responsible for Geoff going to jotunheim in a hand basket. I much prefer the Wilderlands approach, where you get a snapshot of the world circa now and future products flesh that out more rather than push a publishing agenda by creating an unnecessary core timeline.

I have to say, I agree for the most part. After all, it is the advancement of the timeline that killed the Forgotten Realms setting. A constant flood of new official source books, each pushing forward the meta-plot in weird and obnoxious ways so that one must have purchased a dozen or more minor products just to understand what's going on in the single module you were interested in in the first place. The Dragonlance campaign setting seems to be built upon this concept, growing out of the original modules as it did.

Probably the worst offender of the lot was not Forgotten Realms (which I will regularly poke fun of here) and its 5 versions of the main campaign setting, but the various White Wolf product lines: towards the end, in order to understand what was happening in Vampire the Masquerade, it was necessary to be equally versed in the Werewolf, Mage, and Wraith product lines. Tabletop gaming should not be reduced to a "gotta catch-em-all" prospect.

Publishers of campaign settings should not be in the business of plotting out stories via game supplements. It's a foolish practice that reeks of a staff full of failed novelists. At the very least, it puts the players into the position of witnesses rather than active parts of the game. When player action and metaplot start trampling over each other, player action wins.


While one of the key elements that make for the greatness of shared worlds is that the starting point is the same for each group, at the same time, no campaign setting (published or home brew) should be permitted to lay fallow and stagnant because of the choice not to make changes to the base world. Refusing to make changes to the world leads directly to one things: a dead setting. Careful, considered changes now and then can breath new life into a setting, and that's what I think the From the Ashes box did for Greyhawk. It provided a new common starting point for groups who had either never played with the original World of Greyhawk box set or the folio edition, or who had played it out.

Personally, I find the possibilities endless. Particularly, a campaign that starts here:

and ends here:

To be fascinating.

A published, "official" change isn't someting to neccessarily fear, as long as it's reasonable, responsible, and easily excisable if one does not care for it.

Next time, I want to look briefly at possible major campaign events, world changers.