Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stonehell Progress Report

Between hosting visiting family, Forgotten Realms Week, and the final days of judging the One Page Dungeon Contest (winners will be announced tomorrow), I skipped my normally scheduled progress report on the effort to compile the first five levels of Stonehell into a single document. Let me correct that now.

Due to the chaos mentioned above, I didn’t make as much headway as I had hoped since I last checked in. Despite the competition for my attention, however, I did manage to finish up Level One. This means that the surface works and Levels One, Four, and Five have been banged into some semblance of a finished product, placing the dungeon past the midway point. I started in on Level Two yesterday and have completed the first quadrant. I’m currently reformatting section 2B in order to begin work on the Reptile House. My hope is to have Level Two at least 85% completed by the weekend.

My gut tells me Level Three is going to require a bit more work than usual, as the maps are a little tricky and there’s going to be a few more new monsters than usual to detail. I’m going to avoid speculating on how far along I’ll be when I make my next report, but I will say that I really hope to have the dungeon completed by the end of August - time and inspiration allowing.

I’d like to thank everyone who has expressed their anticipation to see the completed compilation and to gratefully acknowledge your patience as I do the heavy lifting to make it all happen.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Idle Hands

As much as I enjoy writing this blog, penning submissions for Fight On! and Knockspell, or creating The Dungeon Alphabet and Stonehell out of mental whole cloth, there are times when I find the end results of all these efforts to be a bit ephemeral. This is especially true since my writing is done on the computer and thus lacks even a finished manuscript to heft in my hands once everything is completed. I miss the tactile reward of a solid, completed project that exists in three dimensions.

Two weeks ago, this lack of the physical began to get to me. My hands were itching to start work on a project that would have a tangible end result. I considered and discarded a few options before remembering that I had starter “Paint Your Own Miniatures” set which I had purchased some years back but never began. The need to do something tactile overwhelmed my initial lack of confidence in my ability to paint something that small (the memories of the miniatures I painted some twenty years ago are unfortunately still as bright as the garish Testors plastic model paint I used), and I broke out the set.

Despite the lack of use, the years of sitting on the shelf had not been kind to the included paints and brushes, so the following day found me at my friendly local hobby shop to purchase a replacement (and to help spread awareness of The Dungeon Alphabet : “Order two hundred copies for the shelves, will you, Gil?”) I came home with a Games Workshop starter kit and two blister packs of minis scrounged from the bargain bin.

A week later, I had finished my first set of miniatures; a trio of vicious mole-men come to the surface world for plunder. While I’m certainly in no danger of winning any awards anytime soon, it’s nice to see that a little bit of patience, combined with much better miniatures, paints, and tools, produces markedly better results than I could have imagined twenty years ago. For the first time since I started playing these games, I know I can finally paint a mini that I wouldn’t be ashamed to put down on a gaming table.

While I don’t picture myself painting Warhammer armies anytime soon, I did find the experience to be an enjoyable one, and I finally see the allure that it has for some people. I was surprised to discover how much the world vanishes when your concentration is so focused on a tiny bit of pewter and miniscule brush strokes. I easily found myself losing two hours as I concentrated; looking up only to discover it was time for me to retire for the evening. It’s a much better alternative to plopping down in front of the TV and succumbing to the urge to snack.

I’ve picked up a few more paints and brushes, along with another set of minis, and started in on the next batch. It’s a simple pleasure and having something concrete that I can point at and say, “I did this,” is a nice remedy to the more ephemeral craft of writing.

Addendum: Immediately after completing this post, I found that Scott Kurtz, the man behind PvP, recently had his own experiences with painting miniatures. I found it interesting that someone who makes their living with art had such a diametrically-opposed opinion to the experience than my own. I speculate he may hold himself to a different criteria of excellence than someone who works primarily with word-craft, such as myself.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

No Gen Con for Me

It’s with a heavy heart that I finally had to admit to myself that my first trip to Gen Con will not be this year. I had remained hopeful for the last few months that my current financial situation would have improved in time for the end of pre-registration, but it never came to be. I’m extremely disappointed in this turn of events, as, if things remain as planned, The Dungeon Alphabet will most likely makes its debut at Indy this year. Like any proud poppa, I’d hope to be present for my baby's entrance into the world.

I had hope to be able to shake a few hands and meet with several people face-to-face who I’ve only had the opportunity to communicate with via email and over the blogs and forums. I speculate that 2009 will turn out to be a watershed year for the OSR and wanted to make my first ever trip to the con in order to coincide with this. Instead, I’ll have to make due from the sidelines once again.

My thoughts will be with all of you who are making the trip this year, albeit tinged green with envy. I hope you all have a blast and represent the Old School with authority and pride. Rattle a few cages and make people remember that the old ways are still alive and well.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Farewell to Faerun

So here we stand. After two weeks of looking back on the Forgotten Realms as it was way back when, we now prepare to leave the land behind us, much like elves readying to depart for Evermeet. And like those elves, our leaving might be for good or it may be merely the start of a long absence from a place we once knew well but no longer recognize.

On this night as I write these words, I cannot recall what spurred me to write what I believed would be but a single entry about the Realms. Regardless of the original purpose, the result was a much longer and detailed retrospective than I had in mind; one that I’m not sorry to have done. It gave me the opportunity to tread lands I’ve not look at for almost two decades. The chance to think about friends long-absent and to smile at the time we had together. I opened the grey-bound books that first introduced me to the Forgotten Realms and could still taste foods I ate while reading them or smell the scents that filled the rooms in which I sat with them open in my lap before me. While this movement in which we wrap ourselves, no matter what term by which we refer to it, is not about nostalgia (much), these posts certainly were and I thank you for allowing me to revel in it.

In a comment to one of the earliest posts in this series, I stated that I didn’t embark upon this retrospective will the intent to apologize for my love of the Realms. I realize now that that was untrue. Perhaps I did feel ashamed on some level for the enjoyment that I received from romping in the Dalelands or wandering down the streets of Waterdeep. I certainly do recall that even back in the late 1980s, I’d sometimes get looks of distain from fellow gamers when I informed them that I was running a Realms campaign. Maybe those responses struck deeper than I was aware and I’ve shouldered some guilt in thinking I was a subpar Dungeon Master or an uncreative individual - or so I believed. Certainly as a student of the Old School, I’ve felt the odd man out on occasions when people recall fondly Greyhawk or the Wilderlands, places I’ve never been a resident of. So yes, I guess there were some apologies to all this after all.

That’s ended, however. I realize that there’s nothing to apologize for. The Realms came to me at a time when I needed them and helped me develop my craft to the point where it stands tonight. While my future endeavors may never reach the heights of Old Mage himself, I believe I’ve demonstrated that the spark of creativity does indeed burn hot in my breast. My road to this place might be different from my contemporaries, but it is no less valid because of the lands through which it travelled.

I look upon the Realms now as I do upon the neighborhood in which I played as a youth. The landscape has been altered by the passage of time and the wooded scrap lots in which I played may no longer stand, but the memories remain. I can look past the housing developments that now occupy the spaces where the copses and bogs once lay and remember the joy that I wrought from those places. And that joy and those memories helped define the man I am today. By the same token, I cannot disparage the youths who now play in the places I once did despite the dissimilarity of the environment. Their own memories, years from now, will be just as precious and important to them and will play their own role in forging their adulthood.

This all begs the question of whether or not I would return to the Realms as more than a casual tourist. Would I again set my own adventures in the Realms or play with those who do? I can only surmise that my time for running adventures in Faerun has long-passed. Not that I’ve outgrown them, but my desires certainly lay in other directions now and are best fulfilled by my current efforts. As to playing in the Realms again, that certainly depends on whose Realms they might be. The canonical Realms as decreed by WotC have no interest to me, so I would decline an invitation to visit that version. But someone’s homebrewed, grey-green boxed set version, one that’s stripped to the bone and filled with the efforts of the players and DM? In a heartbeat, if only to see how they see the Realms through their own eyes.

And an offer to sit, even for an hour, at Ed’s table? “Well met, good sir. Let me grab my dice.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Greenwood’s Dragon Contributions (Partial List)

Because the Pen & Paper RPG Database entry for Ed Greenwood is incomplete and the search function for the Dragon Magazine Archive isn’t the greatest, I had to do the research for Wednesday’s post the old-fashioned way: re-reading old Dragon magazines. Since there doesn’t appear to be a collected listing of Ed Greenwood’s Dragon articles and contributions available on the web (at least, not one that I found) and I have the information at hand, I thought it might be a nice gesture to list those articles so that later researchers might avoid the painstaking process I endured. Those of you looking to fill any gaps in your Greenwood reading might also find some use for it.

The following list only extends as far as issue #125, as that was the issue that immediately followed the release of the Forgotten Realms boxed set and was at the end of the scope of time covered in Wednesday’s post. Those looking for anything after #125 (September 1987) will have to go it alone. The list is chronological, with article title appearing first, followed by the issue number in parentheses.

“Dragon’s Bestiary: Curst” (#30)
“Dragon’s Bestiary: Crawling Claw” (#32)
“Mapping the Dungeon" - Greenwood listed as a DM in Ontario, Canada (#33)
“For Your Minarian Merriment” (#34)
“From the City of Brass to Dead Orc Pass” (#37)
“Bazaar of the Bizarre: Greenstone Amulet, Mist of Rapture, Laeral’s Storm Armor” (#39)
“Dragon’s Bestiary: Wingless Wonder” (#40)
“Bazaar of the Bizarre: Wand of Ochalor’s Eye, Nidus’ Wand of Endless Repetition” (#40)
“Bazaar of the Bizarre: Arbane’s Sword of Agility, Singing Sword” (#41)
“Dragon’s Bestiary: Tomb Tapper” (#41)
“Dragon’s Bestiary: Lythlyx” (#43)
“Dragon’s Bestiary: Gaund” (#45)
“Bazaar of the Bizarre: Staff of Ethereal Action, Syar’s Silver Sword” (#47)
“The Merry Month of…Mirtul?” (#47)
“Up on a Soapbox: Players don’t need to know all the rules” (#49)
“Dragon’s Bestiary: Rhaumbusun (with Victor Selby) (#52)
“Down-to-earth Divinity” – first mention of “the Forgotten Realms” (#54)
“Dragon’s Bestiary: Stroan” (#54)
“More feather tokens” – credited as Edward J. Greenwood (#54)
“Flat taste didn’t go away” – review of Fiend Folio (#55)
“Dragon’s Bestiary: Dyll” (#55)
“Modern Monsters” (#57)
“Dragon’s Bestiary: Sull, Beguiler” (#58)
“Dragon’s Bestiary: Bleeder” (#59)
“Firearms” (#60)
“Dragon’s Bestiary: Firetail” (#61)
“Pages from the Mages” – first appearance of Elminster (#62)
“The Scribe” (#62)
“Plan before you play” (#63)
“The Assassin’s Run” (#64)
“Law of the Land” (#65)
“Runestones” (#69)
“More Pages from the Mages” (#69)
“The Smith” (#70)
“A second volley” (#70)
“Gems Galore” (#72)
“The Electrum Dragon” (#74)
“Seven Swords” (#74)
“The ecology of the mimic” (#75)
“The Nine Hells: Part 1” (#75)
“The ecology of the beholder” (#76)
“The Nine Hells: Part 2” (#76)
“Curses” (#77)
“Treasures rare and wondrous” (#80)
“The ecology of the basilisk” (#81)
“Rings that do weird things: Jhessail’s Silver Ring, Ring of Lore” (#82)
“The ecology of the stirge” (#83)
“The ecology of the trapper” (#84)
“The ecology of the ixitxachitl” (#85)
“The ecology of the slithering tracker” (#86)
“The ecology of the rust monster” (#88)
“Six very special shields” (#89)
“The enchanting incantatrix” (#90)
“Bats that do more than bite” (#90)
“The ecology of the leucrotta” (#91)
“Nine Hells revisited” (#91)
“Eight devilish questions” (#91)
“Treasure Trove: Censer of Thaumaturgy, Cloak of Guarding, Girdle of Lions, Goblet of Glory, Trumpet of Doom, Demonbane” (#91)
“Pages from the Mages III” (#92)
“The ecology of the ettin” (#92)
“The ecology of the eye of the deep” (#93)
“The ecology of the chimera” (#94)
“Creature Catalogue: Belabra, Bhaergala, Firestar, Flamewing, Orgautha, Xaver” (#94)
“Into the Forgotten Realms” – tournament module reprinted as “Lashan’s Fall” in the FR boxed set (#95)
“The ecology of the cockatrice” (#95)
“The ecology of the gulguthra” - better known as the otyugh (#96)
“The ecology of the gorgon” (#97)
“Pages from the Mages IV” (#97)
“Seventeen new treasures: Catstaff, Hand of Remote Action” (#99)
“Pages from the Mages V” (#100)
“Creature Catalogue III: Burbur, Hamadryad, Orpsu” (#101)
“Nine wands of wonder” (#102)
“The ecology of the ochre jelly” (#104)
“The well-equipped victim” (#105)
“The ecology of the maedar” (#106)
“Open them, if you dare” (#106)
“The ecology of the sea lion” (#107)
“The Cult of the Dragon” (#110)
“All about Elminster” (#110)
“Cloaked in magic” (#112)
“The ecology of the remorhaz” (with Kurt Martin) (#114)
“Airs of Ages Past” (#115)
“The Ecology of the Harpy…Songs of death” (#115)
“Rogue Stones and Gemjumping” (#116)
“By Magic masked” (#117)
“King of the Jungle” (#119)
“The Ecology of the Korred” (#119)
“The Ecology of the Gas Spore” (#120)
“The Ecology of the Rot Grub” (#122)
“Music of the Forgotten Realms” (#123)
“Sailors on the Sea of Air” (#124)
“The Ecology of the Gelatinous Cube” (#124)
“Woodlands of the Realms” (#125)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Before there was Elminster, there was Ed

As we prepare to leave the Realms behind us for good, it’s fitting that we take a look at the man from whose brow the world sprang. Ed Greenwood, a humble library clerk from Ontario, has achieved what many gamers dream of: to take their homebrewed world to places outside their game room and into the world at large. And although this will undoubtedly Ed’s greatest legacy, it certainly isn’t his only contribution to the hobby as a whole.

Like many aspiring game designers, Ed got his start in the pages of Dragon magazine. Issue #30 featured a new monster, “Curst,” designed by Greenwood and appearing in the magazine’s “Dragon's Bestiary” column. Ed has admitted that his sole purpose in sending the monster to Dragon was his hope that, by getting it published by the TSR periodical, it would gain a measure of legitimacy and stop his players from complaining that he was “cheating” by not using monsters from the game books. Two issues later, another of Ed’s creations (one that would become a Forgotten Realms icon), the crawling claw, appeared.

Had Ed continued to limit his contributions to the “Dragon's Bestiary,” we might not know his name today. Although many of these monsters are, at the minimum, workmanlike creations, when was the last time you encountered a “wingless wonder” during a game session? Luckily for all concerned, Ed would prove he had the talent to do more than churn out a monster of the month.

He contributed an article on Divine Right, the new TSR board/war game, entitled “For Your Minarian Merriment” (issue #34) and followed that up with an article on magical gates in D&D (“From the City of Brass to Dead Orc Pass”) in issue #37. He continued to submit new magical items for the regular feature, “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” and some of the names associated with these pieces of magic would become very familiar years later when their creators appeared in the Forgotten Realms boxed set and source books.

Ed’s steady contributions of solid design pieces landed him a spot on the Dragon masthead starting with issue #45 (listed with Roger E. Moore as Contributing Editor). It would be soon after this that the first tendrils of the Forgotten Realms began to work their way through Ed’s articles. “The Merry Month of…Mirtul?” saw print in issue #47 and mentioned Ed’s unnamed campaign world, but it wouldn’t be until “Down-to-earth Divinity” (issue #54) that the public would see the words “Forgotten Realms” in print. These articles would be the beginning of Ed’s use of the Forgotten Realms as a framing device for Dragon articles – a device he would use to great effect for years to come.

Not everything Greenwood submitted to Dragon contained veiled references to his home campaign. Those who only known Ed in conjunction with the Realms sorely need to acquaint themselves with his landmark articles “The Nine Hells” parts 1 and 2, “Plan before you play” (a solid article on world-building from the top down, rather than from the dungeon out), and his “Up on a Soapbox” piece, “Players don’t need to know all the rules,” about introducing new players to the game. His contributions regarding gunpowder and adventuring in the 20th century (“Firearms,” “A Second Volley,” and “Modern Monsters”) are both indicative of the once-common tendency to mix technology and magic in D&D, as well as a unique take on the topic from someone whose become associated with the “high magic” world of the Realms.

“The Nine Hells: Part 1” appeared in issue #75 along with another of Ed’s articles. This other article, “The Ecology of the Mimic,” began Greenwood’s long-running stint as Dragon magazine’s monster ecologist. In later issues, Ed ran the gamut from basilisks to ixitxachitl, making logical sense out of fantastical creatures. Unfortunately, despite some entertaining fiction used to couch the monstrous information, for many gamers (myself included) the ecologies were more curse than blessing. The ecologies may not have solely contributed to the trend away from the “wild and woolly days of the dungeon,” when no explanation for funky monsters was required, but it certainly fueled the movement towards realism in fantastical worlds.

Although the Realms had been mentioned obliquely and in passing before, one article firmly cemented the associated of Greenwood’s name with the world he created. In issue # 62, the first of Greenwood’s “Pages from the Mages” articles appeared. In my opinion, “Pages” is one of the classic series from Dragon’s heyday. For the first time, magical texts and tomes became more than a lisitng on the treasure tables. Greenwood’s grimoires contained notes on their appearance and history, as well as the obscure spells and magical properties they contained. A fitting topic for someone in the library science field. “Pages” also featured the first appearance of Elminster, Ed’s fantasy alter-ego and Realm’s icon.

A few more non-Realms pieces appeared in the pages of Dragon (“The Scribe,” “The Smith,” “Curses,” “The Electrum Dragon”), but Ed’s framing device/campaign had found an audience despite the limited details that peppered his articles. Before long, all of Greenwood’s articles featured mentions of the Realms, even his ecology pieces. Outside of monster contributions, a retrospective on the Nine Hells articles, and the occasional magical item, the Realms and Greenwood became synonymous. Articles detailing aspects and objects from the Realms were now the norm and this only increased as the release date for the Forgotten Realms boxed set approached. The creation had outstripped its creator in many respects.

Greenwood remains an icon in the hobby, especially in a time when we’re losing so many of them. He stands as an inspiration for many gamers with dreams of sharing their creations with a broader audience. In no uncertain terms, Ed is one of the Tribe: a gamer, a dreamer, and a creator who was talented and lucky enough to make the jump from the game table to the profession. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is this leap that is responsible for much of the ire directed at him. As a wise man once wrote, “Those who can write, write. Those who can’t, criticize.” Ed proved he had the chops to get himself noticed, much to the chagrin of those who lack the talent and the ability to realize it.

I, myself, have learned a lot from Greenwood – both good things and bad things. While I have no illusions that everything he’s ever created is a masterwork, he remains the designer who has had the most impact on the way I approach world-building and the people who inhabit it. His Realms gave me a wonderful place to play in during a time when I was still learning the craft, and for that I will always be extremely grateful.

Thank you, Ed.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Real Life Cha-Cha-Cha

I have family in town visiting this week and the One Page Dungeon Contest is headed into the final round where the Six Sinister Judges determine who's going to face off in Thunderdome for the grand swag. Postings will continue uninterrupted throughout the week but I won't have a chance to catch up on comments until after the weekend. Just so you don't think I'm ignoring you all...

Faerun After Dark

Somehow, it doesn’t seem honest to talk about the Forgotten Realms without talking about sex. On some level, the two will always be intertwined for me. That association may not be a common one amongst role-players, but I think it might not be unique to myself, making it worthy of discussion. I will allow the possibility that I might be the only freak in this show but it’s a chance I’m willing to take to discover if there’s anyone else out there hiding.

By Ed Greenwood’s own admission, the Forgotten Realms is a pretty bawdy place. Knowing librarians the way I do, this doesn’t surprise me. Some of the meekest-looking librarians reveal a very different persona when out of the public eye and being comfortable in their sexuality is often the mildest of these hidden quirks. The fact that lust, sex, and physical satisfaction is part of Ed’s game world seems as natural as skinny-dipping on a hot summer’s night.

While the published version of the Forgotten Realms had much of the overt sexual color stripped from the world in order to satisfy TSR (see the oft-repeated anecdote about brothels on Ed’s city maps being replaced with the vague “festhall”), the Realms always struck me as a rather lusty place. My initial impression were largely formed by Ed Greenwood’s novel, Spellfire. For TSR game fiction, that novel features, as my friend Chris might say, “a whole lot of schtupping.” More so than anything else TSR had put out previously (no pun intended). Although earlier novels features sexual situations that occurred largely off-camera, which is also how Spellfire handles such events, it occurs much more frequently in Ed’s book.

To both the book and Ed’s credit, such scenes don’t smack of gratuity. Instead, they seem to be natural human responses that occur when people regularly place their lives in danger. The omnipresent spectre of Death heightens the appetite for more earthly pleasures and Ed’s characters regularly satisfy those hungers. After being exposed to the Greenwood’s own vision of the Realms through the novel, it seemed natural to include sexual themes and encounters in my own campaign.

Deciding to incorporate sex in a game is a decision that can have either the wonderful result of adding a previously unplumbed depth and complexity to the shared world or it can reduce the game to blushing faces and rampant snickering. To this day it’s not something I do often or lightly, and the composition of the players and what they’re looking for in a game experience large determine whether we’re going to address the subject directly or gloss it over.

Sex became a no-longer taboo topic in our Forgotten Realms campaign for two reasons. The primary reason was that our gaming group was the first regular mixed-gender group I had that met on a regular basis. I’d run games with mixed groups before for one-shot or short campaigns, but the Forgotten Realms players were the first male/female group that met every weekend on a regular basis. The ratio was also 1:1 between the genders. Additionally and more importantly, all of us were in our mid-teens at the time and going through our own initial experiences with sexual relationships. While we were still struggling with coming to terms with the new facet of adulthood, the idea of sexual encounters and the consequences of such were no longer imagined events but part of our real lives. To deal with this aspect of our characters’ lives seemed natural.

The second reason sex seemed a natural topic for games set in the Realms was that the setting, despite its reputation for being a high-magical world, seemed more realistic to me than any of TSR previous boxed campaigns. There’s something very pagan to the Forgotten Realms, by which I mean it seems to be a place whose inhabitants are much more in touch with nature and all the natural urges that define humanity. Perhaps this is because of richness of Greenwood’s elves or the vividness of Realms’ vast forests, rugged mountains, and tempestuous storms. Regardless, the Realms were more alive to me than Greyhawk or Krynn were, so sex was not out of place. In the Realms, a couple wandering down to a river’s edge to make love under a brilliant full moon seemed more appropriate than the same act occurring in Krynn – a world which, despite Kitiara’s sexual appetites, I’ve always associated more with courtly love than the physical.

Because of these elements – this period of my life, the naturalness of the Realms, and the people I shared it with – I’ll always associate the Forgotten Realms with the pleasures of sex. While that might seems strange to some people, it’s really no different than making the same association with a particular song, a model of car, a fragrance, or even the way sunlight falls at a certain part of the day. It’s with little wonder then that I’ll always look back on the Forgotten Realms with a sense of nostalgia and sweetness, no matter how many years go by.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Still to Come

When I set out to spend the week doing a retrospective on the Forgotten Realms, I had no idea how much I’d find to say on the topic. In the end, there wasn’t enough time to include everything I wanted to cover without going into a Grognardia-esque posting schedule. I have three more posts to make about the Realms, after which time I believe I’ll finally have put my ghosts to rest and be able to move on.

I was hesitant about spending a week on the topic and purposely didn’t so much as glance at the traffic numbers for fear that a sharp dip would influence me to abandon the topic before I had worked out my issues. Looking at them today, I see traffic has remained constant (even increased) throughout the week, so this gives me confidence to ask your indulgence to allow me to finish my thoughts regarding the Realms.

Next week will be M/W/F postings again and will present the final Faerun postings of the now misnamed "Forgotten Realms Week." We’ll look at the man behind the Realms, my closing words on the subject, and why I associate the Forgotten Realms with sex. Enjoy the weekend, all.

Brand Expectations

There’s a common counter-argument that’s raised whenever one complains that TSR’s aggressive marketing of the Realms robbed it of its old school “do what thy will with it” charm. This argument is used both by defenders of the Realms and by those with no particular investment in the setting. Summed up, this school of thought states that there’s nothing forcing the DM to use all the supplemental material published for the Forgotten Realms if they don’t want to. It’s a valid argument and I support it completely in theory. In practice, however, I’ve found problems with it.

The issue here is that the Realms have become a name brand – one with a significant amount of marketing and product awareness behind it. It could be said that the Forgotten Realms has become the Coca-Cola of the role-playing game industry, solely based on market penetration and name recognition. And like Coca-Cola, certain expectations have arisen whenever the Forgotten Realms brand name is invoked, most of which were spawned by the plethora of novels and sourcebooks that were published to drive the brand.

As a DM wishing to run a Forgotten Realms-based campaign, I’m now trying to compete with TSR’s (and WotC/Hasbro’s) media machine. That places me in the predicament of trying to convince potential consumers that my brand of the Forgotten Realms is just as good as the mass-produced one they’ve been exposed to. In essence, it’s as if I’m trying to get you to drink the homemade root beer I cook up out in my shed. We both want you to buy our soft drinks, but Coke’s got the edge on me.

Does this mean that there’s no market for the crazy homebrewed stuff I make and enjoy? Not at all. In fact, a great many people like homebrewed products because it’s such a welcome change from the mass-produced stuff that gluts the market. The problem becomes, “Is the effort required for me to win a share of the audience worth the enjoyment I’m going to get out it?”

After the demise of my first Forgotten Realms campaign, I joined another gaming group as a player. We had been playing the DM’s homebrewed campaign world for almost two years when he decided that he wanted to take a break from behind the screen and join the ranks of the player class again. This decision coincided with the release of the Spelljammer boxed set. He and I talked it over, and it was decided that I’d start a new Realms campaign to give him the downtime he wanted. Since Spelljammer was the new toy on the market, we thought it’d be an excellent vehicle to allow us to export the current adventuring party from his world into the Realms, and after getting our hands on a ship, we shoved off from his game world to crash land in a turnip patch in Ashabenford. Everyone was keyed up for a brand new campaign in the Forgotten Realms. Unfortunately, the reasons the players were excited were different from why I was excited.

It’s said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but when it comes to the Realms, a lot of knowledge is damn near fatal. Unlike the players in my original Realms campaign, this bunch arrived with a lot of preconceived notions about the setting and I found myself having to explain again and again that things were different from what they might have read. After about the tenth or fifteenth utterance of “Not in my Forgotten Realms!”, both the players and I were getting frustrated. The players weren’t getting what they had expected in a Forgotten Realms campaign and I was feeling like King Cnut swinging a sword at the tide. The campaign fizzled out a few months into it and, in retrospect; this incident was the catalyst for my eventual exodus from the hobby.

I discovered that I didn’t enjoy spending time trying to convince the players that my crazy Forgotten Realms was just as good (if not better) than TSR’s published one. I’d rather spend that time playing the game or adding more details to my own version. The effort vs. enjoyment ratio was horribly uneven in my case.

When I returned to hobby in recent years, I toyed with the idea of revisiting the Realms as a campaign setting, but in light of the even greater amount of detail and world change that had grown up around the Realms, I quickly abandoned that idea. I’d been down that path once before and had no desire to try and swim against the tide yet again. Instead, I’d concentrate on my own homemade world which had no preconceived notions associated with it. I wouldn’t be fighting against the expectations of a name brand.

Does this make me a poor or a lazy DM? Possibly, but I play this game because it’s something I enjoy and I’ve discovered that, as I get older, I have less tolerance for anything that doesn’t assist the entertainment value I get from the hobby. Does the branding of the Forgotten Realms mean that everyone wanting to use the Realms as they see fit is doomed to failure? Absolutely not, provided they have the desire to overcome the established canon and players willing to embrace their DM’s possibly unconventional take on the Realms. But as some of the comments made during the past week indicate, many DMs feel like I do and would rather spend the time cultivating a campaign world with less baggage attached to it.

To those of you either still playing a homebrewed Faerun game or who enjoy the “official” Forgotten Realms, I'm glad it remains your playground. There are days I wish I could join you, but I’ve come to realize that I lack the tenacity or wherewithal such a commitment would require on my part. I wish you the best.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Forgotten Realms, Forgotten Adventures

I made a deal with myself that, if there seemed to be enough interest in my version of Ashabenford from 1987, I’d make the two surviving adventures from that era also available to anyone interested in what a session around 15 year-old Mike’s gaming table was like. As I write this, there are now more than eighty copies of my version of Ashabenford loose in the world. I suppose that indicates there might be suitable interest to warrant full disclosure of my old Forgotten Realms notes.

I’ve put both adventures into a single, 8-page .pdf. Only one of them has a surviving map, although it seems the final room (#9 – the basement) for that location has been misplaced. I wish I could provide the context in which these adventures were run, but even after re-reading them, I have no idea where they fit into that campaign. I know only that I wrote them up on my old electric typewriter that I’d bought at the local Sears that year, and that I obviously ran the players through them. The pencil marks and scratched-off hit points indicate as much.

I wince reading parts of them now, but take consolation in the fact that I’m a much better DM and adventure writer than I was twenty-odd years ago. At least, I hope I am. If you still remain interested, you can grab a copy of the adventures here. I wish I had more interesting relics to share but this is all that remains.

Lessons Taught By a Lich

During the roughly two years that I ran my Forgotten Realms campaign, almost all of the adventures we had were self-created. Although this was partially due to the lack of modules set in the Realms, mostly it was because we had such a great time creating our own vision of the world. I was coming into my own as a DM during this period and the adventures were of much greater depth and complexity than anything I had done before. My skills were growing because both myself and my players were maturing and looking for something other than smash-and-grab dungeon encounters. I think the realistic feel and color of the Realms also helped foster this in us. And while I was definitely in top form, there were still lessons to be learned.

To my recollection, the only two published adventures that we used were “Lashan’s Fall” from the "DM’s Sourcebook of the Realms" and the Desert of Desolation supermodule, both of which had profound impacts upon the game and ultimately became the bookends to the campaign. “Lashan’s Fall” was one of the earliest adventures, although looking at it now, I can’t say for certain when we ran through it. My initial impression is that it was one of the first adventures we did, but rereading it, I’m certain that that was impossible. I recall they were underpowered somewhat, but even if I had started them at 2nd level, I don’t see how they could have survived the encounters with the stone guardian and the doombat, both of which they would have had to face to complete as much of the adventure as they did. I can only assume I either modified the adventure to some extent or they had a few levels under their belt when they attempted it.

Regardless of when we played it, “Lashan’s Fall” featured an event that had long repercussions on the campaign. The adventure features an insane lich, Azimer, who believes the adventurers to be his former pupils. Azimer would make short work of any adventuring band if roused to anger but a smart party can keep him passive and out of the way while they loot the dungeon. What I didn’t count on was the greed of the party’s thief.

Although time has robbed me of the exact events that led up to the moment, I clearly recall that Azimer was duped or lured from the room, leaving his massive spellbook unguarded upon his desk. Our halfling thief, seeing the potential market value of such a tome, quickly stuck it in his pack and the party ventured forth into another section of the dungeon. Not anticipating this, I rolled a few dice to determine how long it would be before the lich returned to find his most prized possession purloined.

A little while later, after the party had put some distance between themselves and the lich’s lair, they heard ghastly screams of anger and the sound of destruction being unleashed upon the stone walls of the dungeon. Taking this as a sign it was time to flee the dungeon post-haste, they fled down an unexplored hallway they hoped would lead back towards the surface. As is wont to happen, they found themselves in a cavern with no exits.

Before they could extricate themselves from the situation, Azimer blew into the cave with spells crackling at his fingertips and doom in his eyes. The party was as good as dead. But again, the unexpected occurred.

Having nothing to lose and limited options, one of the players pointed her recently acquired wand of wonder at the lich and invoked the wand’s power. On my side of the screen, the dice clattered and a result of 63 stared up at me: vanish any non-living object of up to 1,000 pounds mass and up to 30 cubic feet in size (object is ethereal). Ruling the lich to technically be a non-living object, the party was perplex, yet relieved, to discover their imminent doom had been replaced by a roughly lich-sized chunk of stone. They beat feet back the way they came, prayers to Tymora on their lips.

That single roll gave me a nemesis to use against the party for almost two years. Azimer wanted vengeance but was trapped on the ethereal plane until he could beg, borrow, or steal a way back to the prime material. In the meanwhile, he used what little ability he had to interact with the physical world to send assassins, set traps, and otherwise seek the party’s doom. It would be several game months before Azimer found his way out of the ethereal plane, by which time the party had acquired a few somewhat faulty amulets of proof against detection and location to cover their tracks.

After many months of other adventures, I decided to run the Desert of Desolation supermodule, both to give myself a break from penning my own adventures and to challenge the party with an environment quite unlike the usual Dalelands/Sword Coast area they’d gotten used to. Before long, the party was trekking through the desert, deciphering ancient codes, and exploring lost tombs. It was to be their final adventure.

I don’t have the module handy, but I recall they found themselves in a corridor that featured a series of locked doors. As their attempts to bypass these portal failed again and again, the party’s ranger, throwing fists to the air, shouted “Azimer!” as if the lich was to blame for their troubles. I did mention they were in possession of faulty amulets of proof against detection, right?

Again the dice clattered behind the screen and a baleful “1” rolled into place: the exact roll needed to indicate a failure of the amulet’s protection. Deciding that the invocation of his name, combined with the temporary lack of shielding was enough for the vengeful lich to locate the party’s whereabouts, within a few minutes, Azimer had teleported without error into the corridor behind the party. There, undetected by the party who were still attempting to open the doors, he unleashed a barrage of fiery death upon the adventurers. The inferno wiped them all off of the face of Faerun.

While the demise of the party certainly seems apropos to the Forgotten Realms as run by Ed Greenwood and I don’t recall too much grumbling, although there was much sadness, I later felt that I had erred in this ruling. Years later, I’m certain of it.

The problem lies in the fact that I made rulings on Azimer’s power that were inappropriate for even the lich’s significant spell-casting ability. I ruled that speaking his name was enough for him to possibly detect the party, something that’s more akin to the slight chance of a deity showing up if mentioned by name. I didn’t have any notes that specifically said he was constantly searching with magic to find them, so my decision that he happened to be looking when they called his name was arbitrary. At the very least, I should have made a roll to determine if it was possible that he was currently scrying for them, and if so, only then rolled to see if the amulet failed. Likewise, I never detailed what spells the lich had access to after he returned to Faerun minus his spellbook. I simply allowed him to teleport without error because I wanted him to. I should have predetermined what spell the lich had access and made my decision on what he could do based on those parameters.

I know now that I failed to uphold my end of the DM/player social contract, and the incident remains an important lesson in my DM career. I also came to realize that I was getting burned out after two years of running a game every weekend with little break and that played a large role, consciously or unconsciously, in my wiping out the party. I wasn’t experienced enough to recognize the warning signs and to make arrangements to give myself either a break or a change of venue until I got back up to snuff.

If there was anything positive about this lack of proper judgment on my part, it was that the campaign came to a close before the Realms changed from an old school game setting to a marketing brand, allowing me to have my memories of that campaign firmly set in a version of Faerun we made for ourselves.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Time of Troubles

To say that the Forgotten Realms became a victim of its own successes is accurate, if not 100% truthful. Although the amount of source books, novels, and other ephemera associated with it might have been slightly less, I’m certain that its bloated state was a planned goal. As the first game setting published under the helm of Lorraine Williams, I think it’s safe to surmise that the development of a Forgotten Realms brand was inevitable.

Despite this predetermined fate, the deluge of additional Realms material might have been lessened if not for two events: the publication of the Icewind Dale trilogy by R.A. Salvatore and the release of the 2nd edition of AD&D. These two happenings, which occurred within two years of each other, created a perfect storm of publicity for the Realms and an insatiable appetite for all things Faerun – needed or not.

Bob Salvatore catches a lot of flak from gamers, myself included, but despite some validity to these accusations, I think picturing him as a nefarious mastermind who hoped to have the effect on the Realms that he did is ludicrous. By his own admission, when he was approached to write his first Realms novel, Salvatore had no idea of the breadth and scope of the world he was about to enter. When his initial proposal (set in the Moonshae Islands – which he believed were the entire Forgotten Realms – and utilizing characters created by Douglas Niles) was shot down, Drizz’t and the Icewind Dale rose to replace them. As I stated previously, Salvatore was doing exactly what the Realms seemed intended for: take a small portion of it and make it your own.

By accident or design, however, Salvatore created a character that resonated with TSR’s audience, which is hardly surprising in retrospect. A social outcast, misunderstood by society yet gifted with awesome fighting skills and dual-wielded scimitars, is a natural fit with adolescent boys, many of whom are struggling with their own feelings of social ostracism. If there were any doubts that the Icewind Dale trilogy wasn’t going to be a big seller, they were allayed when The Halfling’s Gem, the trilogy’s final installment, reached the #14 position on the New York Times Bestseller List. The trilogy proved that there was a market for Forgotten Realms fiction and TSR began flooding that market as quickly as they could line up writers.

The deluge of Forgotten Realms novels changed the role game fiction had previously played in the industry. Once, game fiction were a minor offshoot from the game lines themselves, regulated to the minor supporting role of advertising the game and siphoning off extra cash from role-playing hobbyists. Once the Forgotten Realms steamroller got moving though, the fiction line rose from a support role to that of an equal partner, and sometimes even overshadowed the game itself.

Each new trilogy added another layer of detail and metaplot to the Realms, thickening the setting’s canon. These new details and additions created the need for new game materials that incorporated or expanded upon what was presented in the novels. They also had an unfortunate (from the DM’s point of view) side-effect of establishing what the Realms “were” in the minds of the audience – casual readers and RPG players alike. Woe be it if a DM wanted to use the Realms in a way that didn’t coincide with these preconceived notions of the Forgotten Realms.

The Realms as an old school campaign world might have weathered the storm brought on by the success of the fiction line, but an even worse tempest was brewing: the release of AD&D 2nd edition. Once that storm broke, it unleashed devastation upon the Forgotten Realms, both in the game world and in the real one.

Although the foundations had been laid for a revised version of the AD&D rules under the Blume/Gygax years, it would take Williams’ business plan of turning D&D into a marketable brand to come to fruition. The Forgotten Realms (being both the newest kid on the gaming block and the one growing in popularity) was chosen to be ground zero for the second edition’s release. Unfortunately, in order to better market and incorporate this new edition, TSR decided to inflict a titanic event upon the Realms - one which would greatly change the setting.

Known as the Time of Troubles (in game and out), the release of 2E coincided with the gods of Faerun being cast from their heavenly abodes and the upsetting of the laws of magic throughout the Realms. A handful of gods perished in the chaos, magical and natural disasters transformed the landscape, and a trilogy of novels and modules were released so that the audience could play along at home. Play along, however, is a very loose term.

When asked to point at the worst example of railroad modules in the history of the hobby, a great number of gamers would choose the Dragonlance line as being the guiltiest of culprits. I can only assume that these individuals were blessed enough to have missed the Avatar trilogy of modules, FRE1 – Shadowdale, FRE2 – Tantras, and FRE3 – Waterdeep. Players “fortunate” enough to have experienced these modules were treated to novella-length boxed text, carrying the spears of various NPCs, and waiting for events they had no chance of altering to occur. Because of my respect and admiration of Ed Greenwood, I prefer to live under the illusion that he wrote these modules with either a gun at his head or a large briefcase of cash in his hand.

The release of 2nd edition also acerbated a trend in role-playing game marketing, which would lead to the final blow against the Realms as an old school sandbox setting. For years, TSR and other game companies had realized that the problem with the traditional game support book, the module, was that you could generally only sell one copy to a particular gaming group. The DM would buy the module to run, but the remaining four-to-six members of that group weren’t buying TSR products outside of the core rules. In order to tap into this virgin market, game books intended for use by both the DM and the players were written.

While this trend precedes 2nd edition in the form of the Dungeoneer’s and Wilderness Survival Guides, as well as Greyhawk and Dragonlance Adventures, 2nd edition cranked out similar products by the truckload, starting with the “Complete” series dedicated to individual classes. In time, the Forgotten Realms would see specialized “Complete series” book, the Volo Guides, a trail map, the Forgotten Realms Adventures hardcover, et al. It seemed that every square inch of Faerun was being catalogued and codified. To make matters worse, even the previously undiscovered lands off of the map were being covered in extended detail, thanks to TSR’s plan to bolster boxed sets of questionable value or interest by slapping the Forgotten Realm’s logo on them and adding them to the game world. Is anyone out there still running a Maztica or Horde campaign?

Between the two factors of the success of Forgotten Realms novels and the release of 2nd edition AD&D, the branding of the Realms was complete and its last old school vestiges swept away. For players such as myself, the Realms no longer resembled the happy home we had made it since the box set’s release just two years before. Instead of endless possibilities, we found ourselves with a limited choice of options. We could accept the changes and try to relearn our game world, we could ignore all that had happened and attempt to swim against the tide, or we could put away our game and move on to something else. Sadly, the third option seemed to be the best for me.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Of Realms Forgotten and a September Remembered

David, over at The RPG Corner, in a display of the preternatural synchronicity that often pervades the old school blogosphere, has posted a transcript of Ed Greenwood's tale of being introduced to D&D.

After re-immersing myself back in the Forgotten Realms over the past few days, I can see that the richness and flavor that Ed imparted into his game world is just as present in his account of his first DM. I've read this tale once before, but I had forgotten how touching it was and how it plays upon the emotions the same way the Realms did with me once. Thank you for reacquainting me with it at this most fitting of times, David.

Ashabenford - 1987 (Year of the Acid-Washed Jeans)

In going through my old notes in preparation of this week’s series of posts, I came across the original Ashabenford I put together back in 1987. Consisting of eight pages (including map) of dot-matrix printer majesty, I scanned them and turned them into a .pdf, both for my own purposes and to share here with the easily-amused. Spelling errors and other goofs are maintained for historical accuracy. For those students of history interested in seeing what we did back before the flood of Forgotten Realms material saturated the marketplace, you can grab a copy of this relic here. This was how we rolled back in ’87.

The Undeveloped Realms

Because the Forgotten Realms gets short shrift as having any legitimate claim to being an old school game setting, we’re going to take a detailed look at what exactly comprised the Forgotten Realms in the years 1987-1988, which was the period that I believe Faerun still retained its old school pedigree. In light of what it has become, an overview of its early days as a published product reveals that things weren’t quite as bad as the setting’s detractors say they were.

Anyone who was exposed to the Forgotten Realms after the mid 1990’s may be surprised to learn that there was once a paucity of support material for TSR’s (and now WotC’s) most popular game setting. That seems unimaginable now, considering the mountain of material that has accumulated in association with the Realms. It is not hyperbole to stay that the Forgotten Realms is the most detailed and supported published campaign world in the history of the hobby. It has seen boxed sets, modules, sourcebooks, splat books, monster manuals, novels, magazine articles, computer games, comic books, trail maps, atlases, guide books, and other assorted materials set in or detailing the world of Toril. This glut of material grew to such an unmanageable size that WotC seemed to have little choice but to advance the world’s timeline a century or two in order to escape what had been wrought.

This ocean of detail is the target of most of the vitriol hurled at the Realms and that ire is completely justifiable. The Forgotten Realms has long since made the transition from game world to a company brand, losing all of its old school credibility in the process. The Realms no longer welcomes the casual gamer who wants a framework to hang his adventures upon. Now, a self-taught degree in the Faerunish History seems to be necessary in order to use the world “properly.”

In the all-too brief golden period of the campaign world’s history as a published product, however, this wasn’t the case. As with any yet-unproven product, TSR seemed to be hedging its bet as to whether or not the Forgotten Realms would have an audience in the first few years. Support for the game world was substantial enough to help keep the product afloat in its infancy but nowhere near what it would become once it had become an established property. Additionally, what was available was very compartmentalized and could be utilized or not without much impact on the setting at large.

Without question, it was the initial run of sourcebooks that took up the biggest piece of the marketing pie. These books would prove to be an indication of the ultimate fate of the Realms and much of the blame for the world’s transformation from traditional game setting to structured, metaplot-centric, marketing brand is placed upon them. I happen to agree with these sentiments but early on the impact these books had on Faerun was limited in scope and could easily be ignored.

In 1987-88, TSR published six books in the FR series. These were Waterdeep and the North, Moonshae, Empires of the Sands, The Magister, The Savage Frontier, and Dreams of the Red Wizards. With the exception of The Magister, each expanded upon an area of the Realms not already detailed in the original boxed set (The Magister being a collection of spells and magic items, many of which had previously appeared in Dragon Magazine). Each sourcebook covered an individual region and, if you weren’t playing in that area or had no desire to start a campaign in those lands, they could be disregarded or (as I did) mined for ideas but have no other impact on one’s homebrewed campaign. The beginning of “detail overload” was present in these books but the ripples they caused were small enough to overlook.

During this time, and I remember being surprised at this back then, the Realms saw very little support in the form of game modules. To anyone who’d been playing in the hobby for awhile and well-acquainted with the number of Greyhawk adventures on the market, this lack of support seemed strange. In researching what modules TSR put out at this time, I was astounded to find that there were only three traditional adventure modules published between ’87 and ’88 that were set in the Forgotten Realms. These were N5 – Under Illefarn (the first FR module), FRC1 – Ruins of Adventure (a “module-ization” of the computer game Pool of Radiance and my pick for the worst module in TSR’s history), and H4 – Throne of Bloodstone (which was the final entry in the Bloodstone Pass series and is the only module even written for 100th level characters). The module pool was so shallow that TSR retrofitted 1986’s N4 – Treasure Hunt into the Moonshae island cluster and co-opted the entire Bloodstone Pass series into the Realms. One-shot adventures were also available in either the pages of Dungeon or in the sourcebook REF5 –Lords of Darkness (an excellent undead reference book that is still useful after all these years), but the marketing strategy had definitely moved away from the module and towards the sourcebook at this point, and was a harbinger of things to come – not only for the Realms, but for the hobby in general.

The Forgotten Realms also saw what was to be the first of many tie-ins to computer and video console games during this period. TSR had previously licensed Dungeons & Dragons to Mattel to produce a hand-held video game and two titles for the Intellivision video console, but the Pool of Radiance game was the first D&D property to be set in a specific TSR game world. Although entertaining for its time, Pool of Radiance nevertheless had little effect on the overall Realms.

Finally, there were the novels. Clearly, TSR hoped to recapture the lightning in the bottle that the Dragonlance novels turned out to be by launching three planned trilogies set in the Realms (with a fourth developing after the fact). In May of 1987, as accompaniment to the boxed set, Douglas Nile’s Moonshae trilogy started with Darkwalker on Moonshae. Although a Forgotten Realms novel, the book’s events are set within the Moonshae Islands and occur far away from the lands presented in the boxed set. In April of ’88, the second book in the trilogy, Black Wizards, appeared but remained centered in Moonshae. Like the initial sourcebooks, this trilogy is compartmentalized and therefore of limited impact on Faerun.

In January of 1988, The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore was released. Although intended as just another trilogy, the book’s publishing would be one of the two events that altered the Realms forever. I’ll cover The Crystal Shard in another post in detail, but it should be stated here that R.A. Salvatore did exactly what the Realms seemed intended to invite: take a small portion of it and make it one’s own.

That same year would see the birth of two more series: The Finder’s Stone Trilogy, which began with Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb’s Azure Bonds, and Shandril’s Saga by Realm’s creator, Ed Greenwood. Shandril’s saga is a special case, as it seems to have originally been intended as a single book: Spellfire. The two sequels to Spellfire, Crown of Fire and Hand of Fire wouldn’t see publication until 1994 and 2002 respectively. Out of these novels, Spellfire would have the most effect on the campaign world in my opinion and will be discussed in greater detail at a later date.

In a time when entire bookcases in retail stores are now devoted solely to Forgotten Realms brand novels, it seems preposterous to think that once there were but five, three of which were set in areas outside the scope of the boxed set. The rain may have started and the water begun to rise, but the dam wasn’t yet creaking under the strain.

Looking back on these two years, we can see that, while the Forgotten Realms was already beginning to accumulate the amount of detail, metaplot, and other additions that would turn the world into a brand name, it remained an old school campaign setting at heart. This is unsurprising considering this was a time when AD&D was still in its first edition and the Realms themselves a product of Ed Greenwood’s ongoing home game sessions. There was still more than enough space for a DM to customize the Realms to his own tastes and to the wants of his players. Even in a post-Dragonlance world, the old ways of gaming weren’t dead yet, although the plug was getting ready to be pulled.

Monday, June 15, 2009

My Forgotten Realms

I didn’t like the World of Greyhawk when I was a boy. That’s a heretical admission for one who associates himself with the Barony of Eld, but a truthful one, nonetheless. My exposure to the World of Greyhawk, outside of the background notes for various modules, was the 7th printing of the campaign world boxed set. Prior to that time, I had been using my own homebrewed campaign world - one inspired by the Known World map from the Isle of Dread.

The reason that I disliked the World of Greyhawk was ironically its main selling point for many gamers, which was the lack of detail provided. Oerth was a canvas painted with broad strokes that left a lot of room for DMs looking to pencil in their own details. But to my twelve-year old mind this wasn’t a benefit. I instead saw it as a rip-off. If I was going to spend my hard-earned lawn mowing money (and my not-so-hard-earned birthday cash) on a TSR product, I’d better be getting my money’s worth. At the time, I certainly didn’t think that this was the case with Greyhawk. There wasn’t even a complete adventure included, just some ideas for some which I’d have to make up on my own – something I had been doing all along. I would admit to the map being fantastic, but that was slim condolence for a boy who had been expecting much more bang for his buck.

In 1987, the release of the Forgotten Realms boxed set changed my mind about the feasibility of using a published campaign world. A couple of different factors were responsible for my new opinion. The first was I was a few years older and wiser, and I could appreciate the appeal of blank space on a campaign map, so to speak. The second was that I felt that the format of the Forgotten Realms boxed set was superior to that of World of Greyhawk. I was (and remain) the type of person who gets great joy out of reading encyclopedias. The mental adventure of reading alphabetical entries without knowing where they may lead to next is something that entertains me. The “Cyclopedia of the Realms,” which was included in the boxed set, pushed all the correct buttons of my psyche. The last factor, while an apparently minor one at first glance but very important to me when I first read it, was The Promise.

The Promise, as I refer to it, appears on p. 6 of the “DM’s Sourcebook of the Realms.” Consisting of a mere two paragraphs, to my eyes it was nevertheless the most important piece of text in the entire set. In brief summary, The Promise states that several locations in the Forgotten Realms will never see “future adventures, modules, or sourcebooks” for them. The “will not” was even italicized to demonstrate how serious they took this statement.

I can only properly explain why these two paragraphs were so important to me by revealing an embarrassing secret: I was a TSR fan boy. Shameful, yes, but I was much younger then and didn’t realize that not everything coming out of Lake Geneva, WI was written on stone tablets handed down from on high. So blind was my devotion that even the Dungeoneer’s and Wilderness Survival Guides were treated as holy tomes. As far as I was concerned, anything and everything with a TSR logo on it was canon and had to be treated that way.

The Promise was, although the term wasn’t in my lexicon at the time, a social contract between me and TSR that effectively said “do what thy will.” The scales fell from my eyes and I embraced this idea with a fervor that exceeded my previous devotion to the company. It suddenly became clear to me that, outside of my purchase of their product, I had no further connection or obligation to TSR and was free to pick and choose and bend and break anything in the Forgotten Realms that I wanted to. And that’s precisely what I began to do.

Taking the suggestion of the boxed set, I wrote my own version of the town of Ashabenford in Mistledale. Although it was inspired by the entry for Shadowdale, Ashabenford was mostly my own thoughts put on paper and I was rather proud of it. Gathering a group of my friends together, we set about exploring the brand new (to us) setting of Faerun, as seen through my fifteen-year old eyes.

Almost every adventure we had in the Forgotten Realms was self-created. I pulled color, NPCs, and locales from the boxed set to give it a veneer of Faerun but that was it. Even as the first Forgotten Realms source books began to appear on the market, which I purchased to mine for ideas rather than use whole cloth, our weekend meets in the Forgotten Realms took place is one that was uniquely our own. We explored Myth Drannor long before the canonical version appeared, strode the streets of Waterdeep in the time before City System and which only owed slight acknowledgement to FR1 – Waterdeep and the North, opposed the plots of the Zhentarim and the Red Wizards of Thay (who more closely resembled the Cosa Nostra and the sorcerers of Stygia than as they’d ultimately be presented), and generally made ourselves at home in Ed Greenwood’s home, although with much redecorating to the premises. I can also say that a certain arch mage never even poked his beak-like nose into our goings-on.

Between the years of 1987-1989, which fortunately was the time in which my Realms campaign was most active, Faerun was little different from the published campaign worlds that had proceeded it. A bit more detailed, perhaps, than Greyhawk or the Wilderlands, but still a world that was wide-open to exploration and homebrewed creations. It was a world that was perfectly suited for someone such as me – a person looking for enough detail to help guide them into a more serious and realistic game experience. Despite how reviled the Realms has become to certain schools of thought, if one looks back on the original grey-green boxed set, many of the arguments against the Realms hold very little water.

But time stands still for no man, especially when there’s money to be made, and in 1988 and 1989, two events would occur that irrevocably changed the Forgotten Realms forever.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The City-State of Catharsis

In preparing my week’s posts about the Forgotten Realms, I’ve discovered something previously unrealized: I have a lot of unresolved issues regarding the place.

I find myself hopping back and forth across the fence of opinion. Sometimes I’m defending the Realms and other times I’m throwing stones at it. I had no idea that I had sublimated so much in the last twenty-two years.

I bring this up for two reasons. Firstly, it appears as if Forgotten Realms Week is going to be a full five days of posts, rather than my usual three. There’s just too much to ground to cover and each post dredges something else up out of my unconscious. The second reason is to let you know that I’ll going to be wrestling with some of my own issues with this, so there may be more philosophy and navel-gazing than normally occurs around these parts. Game war stories will appear and we may even stray into the subject of sex at one point. Consider yourselves properly advised and, should you decide to take the trip with me, I’ll see you tomorrow for the first stop on the itinerary.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

An Appeal for Information

If one of my readers happens to own a copy of Fritz Leiber's Night's Black Agents (Arkham House, 1947), would you be so kind as to drop me an email at poleandrope [at] gmail [dotcom]? I have a question regarding the letter from Harry Otto Fischer that Leiber quotes in length in the foreword of that book. I know an appeal here is a longshot at best, but I never ceased to be surprised by the comraderie and depth of reference sources possessed by the OSR.

EDIT: Thank you very much everyone who contacted me with offers to help me out. Unfortunately, what I was looking for isn't found in Night's Black Agents. What I was searching for was the date of Harry Otto Fischer's letter to Fritz Leiber in which Fischer first mentions Fafhrd and Mouser. In the introduction to Swords and Deviltry, Leiber states that he replied to Fischer's letter on September 24, 1934, but I was hoping to discover the exact date of Fischer's correspondence, as that would be, as best as could be determined, the "birthday" of the Two. It seems, however, that Leiber doesn't provide a date for the letter in the foreward. Alas, another one of life's mysteries goes unsolved for now...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Forgotten Realms Field Trip

Next week, the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope is turning the calendar back to 1987 and taking a field trip to the Forgotten Realms. I started writing a single day’s post about my own experiences in Ed Greenwood’s homegrown campaign world and discovered that I’ve got more to say than will fit in a single post.

I can already hear the eyes rolling in their sockets but bear with me. We’re going to look back at what Faerun used to be and why that boxed set changed the way I look at D&D, rather than concentrate on what it has become. There may even be a “war story” or two before we’re done. James Maliszewski’s been down this path before me and I’ll direct you to his “In Praise of Ed Greenwood” and “Greenwood Replies” posts if you want to reacquaint yourself with the destination before the blog buses leave.

Since the Forgotten Realms has a way of polarizing the Barony of Eld, I thought a fair warning of next week’s content might be due. Come back the following Monday if you want to avoid the subject altogether. Otherwise, pack a lunch and bring your permission slips.

Red + Blue = Death

Blame it on the Sleestak.

Perhaps the only positive result of Hollywood deciding that the world craved a re-imagination of "Land of the Lost" as a comedy starring Will Ferrell was that marketing synergy deemed it necessary to release the entire original series on DVD. That release has allowed me to be able to relive the Saturday mornings of my youth whenever the desire strikes me. I’ll make no apologies for being a fan of the 1974 Sid & Marty Krofft version. For me, the show scratches the itch that Doctor Who does for others, possibly for similar reasons: no budget, cheesy special-effects, acting of a questionable caliber, and sometimes surprisingly good writing. But "Land of the Lost" isn’t what we’re talking about today. Instead, we’re going to cover the game trope of combining diverse elements to produce unforeseen effects.

Fans of "Land of the Lost" will remember that the series featured “light crystals” – gemstone of alternate hues that, when combined, produced an array of various effects. LotL was not the first to introduce this concept, as anyone who was ever given a chemistry set as a birthday present can attest. It’s an idea that has sturdy legs though, and it has become a gaming trope. If I remember correctly, one of the later Ultima titles required players to mix various reagents to manufacture spells, and players of Resident Evil can tell you that, while green + green is good, green + red is even better. Completing the LotL/gaming Ouroboros is Un’Goro Crater in World of Warcraft, which is a homage to "Land of the Lost" and features power crystal combination to produce in-game effects.

This concept appeals to me because I’m a fan of encouraging players to monkey around in the dungeon. While I primarily rely on random tables to produce the results of such environmental interaction, the idea of using combinations of materials to achieve the same results fits snuggly in the old school gaming mentality. There’s no skill checks involved, no following explicit directions, and no necessary rhyme or reason to why things happen. The only way to find out what happens next is to cross your fingers and go for it. If the results are bad, at least the survivors have learned something.

What follows is a generic chart for referees wanting to spice up their games by introducing this trope. Although the inspiration for it was the light crystals, colored gemstones aren’t the only option. It could easily be used to produce the effects of mixing powders of different colors in an alchemist’s workshop, combining potions of various hues discovered in a wizard’s laboratory, or even what happens when levers of alternate colors are thrown in conjunction. The results of such combinations are broadly defined with suggestions as to the actual game effects provided afterwards. All you need to impliment it is to throw in a few multicolored geegaws and let the party start combining them willie-nilly.







Mental Effect

Protective Effect

Damage Effect

Fatal Effect


Protective Effect

Physical Effect

No Effect

No Effect


Damage Effect

No Effect

No Effect

No Effect


Fatal Effect

No Effect

No Effect

Damage Effect

Effect Possibilities

Damage Effect: Explosion, electrocution, conflagration, or poisoning. A quick rule of thumb is that this combination does (1d6)d6 damage with a save for half damage allowed.

Fatal Effect: Death ray, turned to stone, dissolve into puddle of goo, deadly poison created. Save or die.

Mental Effect: Beneficial effects include gaining a point of Intelligence or Wisdom, gaining temporary ESP, telepathy, or telekinesis (duration of 2d6 turns), learning a new language, or learning a new spell. Detrimental mental effects might result in the loss of a point of Intelligence or Wisdom, become feebleminded, go insane, uncontrollable thought projection (attracts wandering monsters or makes surprise impossible), or become possessed.

No Effect: Nada, zilch, *sad trombone*

Physical Effects: Beneficial effects could be gaining a point of Strength, Dexterity or Constitution, gaining a level, temporary increased STR, DEX, or hit points, hasted, spider climb ability, invisibility, flight capability, or increased size. Detrimental effects might be losing a point of STR, DEX or CON, level loss, polymorphed into a harmless animal, lycanthropy, slowed, or paralysis.

Protective Effect: Temporary bonus to AC and/or saving throws, immunity to poison, protection from evil, magic, or other effect as protection scrolls, immune to charm, surrounded by force field, protected from normal weapons, or blessed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Ten Families

A couple weeks back, I wrote about the idea that I had had about creating a list of famous families and then having human characters roll on that table during character generation to see which bloodline they’re part of. I’m skimming Herodotus’ The Histories again for something I’m writing, so it seemed like a good time to put that plan into action while the inspiration for the idea was in front of me. I started sketching out ideas and very quickly compiled a list of ten families. I figure that’s a good number to start with and I can always add to it later. The table is a bit too big to reproduce here on the blog so I’ve settled on a screen grab of the first page. You can click the image for a larger version. If that’s still not enough for you, you can check out the complete .pdf here.

Family Lineage Table The table’s pretty self-explanatory. The only thing that might need clarification is the “Bloodline trait” column, which is rolled for after the character’s family has been determined. On a 1 in 6, the character has especially strong family blood and possesses the trait - either positive or negative - which is commonly associated with that bloodline. Originally, I had the chance at a 1 in 4 but I’m currently of the mind that that may be too much. I want to add a little randomness to the process but not have it become a tremendously common occurrence.

In sticking with my ethos of the illusion of depth, I’ve got very little clue as to what most of the events mentioned in the table actually are, nor am I worried about it. If a player sees something that catches his interest though, I’d be eager to sit down and think more on the subject, perhaps if only to produce a few threads for the character to follow.

It’s a germ of an idea and I like it in concept. I’ll need to take it out for a test run before I decide if this is something that will be a boon or a bane to the shared world experience, however.

Monday, June 8, 2009

October Country: The MacReady’s Farm

I won’t pretend to utter any profundities when I say that I have no true understanding on how the creative process works. Much better artists than myself have tackled this topic to little or no avail. When writing, some projects are unwieldy beasts that need constant battle to wrestle into submission. Others spring fully formed like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Most fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

I do subscribe to the belief that sometimes an idea needs to put down on paper as soon as possible, if only to clear out the creative” In Box” for more suitable material yet to come. At other times, an idea needs to be written down in order to perform a creative exorcism; a way to keep it from haunting me and allow me some control over its ultimate fate. Over the past weekend, I encountered one such mental ghost that needed to be put to rest.

I can’t be positive where the idea came from but I suspect that it was a form of mental rebuttal to both Stonehell and the One Page Dungeon Contest entries that I’ve been eyeball deep in for awhile. It has little resemblance to what’s become my normal workload. It started simple enough: a very clear mental picture of a sleepy, upstate farm house underneath a grey autumn sky. But the more I turned the picture around in my head, the more the oddities of this farm became clear. First, I got the impression that the farm was located in some land where it is always autumn. The seasons never change there and the rustling of dead leaves is ever-present. Secondly, I saw a windmill protruding from behind the two-story farmhouse. It was an old thing, battered by the years, but the most striking aspect of it was the nimbus of lightning or some other energy that formed around it. I had no idea what this all meant so I undertook the task to find out by writing about it.

Firing up the computer, I sat down and, over the course of a couple of hours, wrote a four page description of the farm in a role-playing game format. The writing process was completely stream of consciousness. I didn’t break to ponder what certain things meant or why they were there. I just wrote them down as I encountered them. The end result was a very fantastical locale – the sort of place one explores in a dream, only to awake with half-memories of their encounters. An aura of melancholy and the slightly macabre pervaded the whole piece, which added to this unreal feeling. The next day I went back to paint in a few details but left the piece almost completely unchanged from its original and abrupt birth.

It’s not a traditional adventure or location by any stretch of the imagination. There are no monsters to fight; no traps to overcome, and no treasure to be gained. I’m not even certain that a game system exists that this could be used in. Perhaps some weird homebrewed game or experimental game system from the New School might suit it, but I can’t imagine what sort of game world would easily embrace this weird farm.

I went back and forth on whether to let this piece molder quietly in the folder of unused game ideas or to make it available for others to read. Ultimately, I thought that maybe, someone, somewhere, might find this of interest so I turned it into a .pdf and uploaded it to Orbitfiles. You can download a copy of October Country: The MacReady’s Farm here. There is no map accompanying the piece. Try as I might, I couldn't quite get what I had in my mind to jive with what I could produce on paper. Those interested with doing more with the farm will need to provide their own layout.

At the very least, the piece might give the reader some insight into what thoughts play around in my head when I’m not focusing on dungeons. Armchair psychiatrists will have a field day with it, as would my therapist, if I had one. At best, it may help me avoid being pigeon-holed as “the dungeon guy,” a title that I sometimes feel I’m in danger of acquiring forever.

For the record, let me state that I’m not certain what everything in the piece means or why things are the way they are. The title “October Country” is of course a reference to the Bradbury book by the same name. It has a certain beauty and mystery that felt appropriate for a land in which the winter never comes.