Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Completionism: Or how 5e's release schedule saved my life

I'm something of an obsessive-compulsive when it comes to D&D-- I want the game to feel complete, like nothing is missing or unaccounted for, like it's all thought through.

Sometimes this works for me. Sometimes it compels me to pull at threads and I get a fun, insightful article that gives me (and hopefully you) a greater appreciation for the game, or an interesting new way of handling things. Other times it just causes a lot of trouble and stress for me as suddenly it occurs to me that I overlooked something, and now its absence gnaws at me and leaves me dissatisfied.

This, as a matter of fact, is why I haven't really followed the OSR too closely since my big hiatus. I spent long nights cribbing from every blog post, retroclone, zine, and supplement out there-- and occasionally from the WOTC editions that formed the bulk of my background-- until I lost sight of the simplicity and fun of the game and developed a veritable Frankenstein's monster of house rules, custom classes, and edge cases, every bit as bulky and inaccessible as late-period 3.5 or tax law.

Enter 5th edition. A new D&D, compatible enough to be familiar, or even to reuse old material when necessary, but different enough from TSR!D&D to not allow for direct porting, containing very nearly everything I expect D&D to include in its toolkit, it gave me an opportunity to cast off all the cruft I let myself accumulate-- the cruft I would have had to make a significant effort to stop myself accumulating. It was a breath of fresh air.

There was, during the fall, an expectation that this Elemental Evil/Princes of the Apocalypse campaign they're now preparing to launch would include a supplement, an "Adventurer's Handbook." Whether this was the actual plan and they changed their minds or the whole thing was just misguided speculation isn't for me to know, but either way there's no Adventuer's Handbook planned, either for Elemental Evil or for any future offerings, and there never will be. For the foreseeable future, 5e is just those three books.

Of course there will in all likelihood be new options for Elemental Evil, in all likelihood released through the web (and the monthly Unearthed Arcana column as well, of course.) But the ethos of 5e has so far been very-core focused, so I expect they will not be too many or too sweeping and I also expect they will be treated in a more optional fashion than supplemental rules have been in the past. As such I do not feel the same pressure to keep up with them as I did when I played 3.x and 4e. And furthermore since I feel like I don't have anything vital to my conception of D&D missing, only things I might like, I don't feel the same pressure to incorporate additional options that fell outside of the traditional OSR purview that I felt from about 2011 onwards.

For the first time in a long time, I don't feel like I'm having to extensively kitbash or run the Red Queen's race to get the game I need. Instead, I have everything I need and am being presented with an occasional spate of extras if the mood should strike me.

Now if only I can start feeling ready to accept a little vagueness when I'm worldbuilding...

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Great Karameikos Campaign

Over at RPGnet, the inestimably clever Blacky the Blackball and NPCDave have been doing a retrospective of each Mystara/Known World setting product in turn. Reading it has helped me to gain a new appreciation for a setting I've traditionally been somewhat ambivalent about. Today Dave posted the writeup for the AD&D2e Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure box set, largely focusing (logically, since obviously much of the rest of the information is similar) on the changes that did-- and occasionally inexplicably didn't-- happen during the 12 in-setting years that passed between Karameikos's previous iteration in the GAZ series. There's actually quite a bit, from Karameikos seceding from Thyatis to the disappearance of Alphatia. Either way, it was eventful enough, as were some of his remarks on the smaller details of the setting that seemingly stagnated during that time, that it got my mind moving a little.

One of the most beloved RPG supplements of all time is Pendragon's The Great Pendragon Campaign, a massive volume largely concerned with detailing the events of the 8 decades between Uther's rise to power and the end of Camelot. The sense of grand, sweeping, momentous history happening with the players right in the thick of events is a big reason why the Campaign is so beloved. Although not quite as grand, either in scope or in scale, as the entirety of the Matter of Britain, those dozen years offer no shortage of interesting times. Why, indeed, could one not create a similar detailed project about Karameikos, perhaps taking more or less inspiration from some of the BECMI modules set in the region?

I dunno, just something I've been thinking about the last few hours. Maybe it'll go somewhere. Maybe not. I should probably take this to the Piazza or Vaults of Pandius or something, surely it'll either fire the imaginations of the community or drag out the obsessive lore-experts to shout me down and point out exactly how and why it's utterly misbegotten.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Maybe the rivers of the Thunder Rift make more sense than I gave them credit for?

Over at the Piazza (and right here on this blog as well), some feedback on my rant about the fluvial system of everyone's favorite micro-setting reached me that I thought was particularly interesting. Maybe these things were more thought-out than I initially assumed they were, or maybe it's just a happy accident that they seem to hold up to surface analysis. Either way, it put me in a good mood. Here's the comment itself reposted for the convenience of those of you who don't follow links.

Possible ret-cons or reinterpretations:

• Change the flow of the southern rivers. They now empty into Lake Melinir. We can’t really tell the slope of that SE canyon/channel from eyeballing the map. 
• Where does Lake Melinir drain? It drains into a subterranean river system that leads into cavernous realm connected to the Rift. Thunder Rift’s Underark, if you will. 
• The Gloomfens, as you note, may be whacky due to magic origins. But why not Wizardspire, too? Does the stream in fact flow uphill in contravention of the laws of nature? That would be pretty trippy. These two sites, Gloomfens and Wizardspire, have linked histories, of course. The Wizard-Warrior feud, magical curses thrown down.
• Option two Wizardspire- Somebody left the tap water one when the assassins wiped out the magic-users. That’s not ONE stream flowing uphill and then down, but TWO streams flowing downhill from two windows/spouts/gutters on the hidden side of the spire. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Seven Cosmic Rumors

Might as well try to write something.

  • Illithids once had an empire that spanned worlds. Why have they degenerated and devolved into a handful of enclaves deep within the earth? Because the dead god on which the Githyanki built their astral capital is Ilsensine, their patron. What the Githyanki don't know is that sooner or later Ilsensine is going to stop playing possum.
  • It's easier to get to the Astral Plane from the elemental planes of water and air than the planes of fire and earth. Water and Air elementals are known to brag about this in mixed company.
  • It's said that there's one location in the world that is a natural gate to each outer plane. Mount Celestia is a particularly tall mountain range on which an order of Lawful Good monks live forever in pursuit of spiritual alignment, the Abyss is a massive gorge shrouded in scalding-hot steam and noxious vapors, Mechanus is an elaborate space station that has sat in orbit since time beyond memory, and so on and so forth. Regardless, all are hopelessly remote and it would be a fool's errand to try to journey to them... unless one were a great hero.
  • The best way to get to the Moon is by ethereal travel. Somehow it manages to be the one part of the Ethereal that's really scenic. The moon itself is ethereal stone and exists equally in both planes.
  • Ilepho, a gnome philosopher, once wrote that the Feywild and the Shadowfell are not separate planes unto themselves, but that the material plane, like many outer planes, has overlapping layers (if you must know, he compared it to a Spanakopita). His half-sister Argia the Elder disagreed, she wrote that the Feywild is the ancient, mythic past and the Shadowfell is the aftermath of some future catastrophe yet to be seen. Their disagreement culminated into a duel to the death.
  • The stars are roughly divided (in increasing order of frequency) between being the distant suns of other worlds, holes in the dome of the sky through which the radiance of distant planes leaks, the eyes of unfathomable entities that coolly and enviously regard the earth, and ordinary rocks with Continual Light spells cast upon them that slipped the surly bonds of earth to float in the sky. Depending on who you ask, this list might be in a different order.
  • There used to be other elemental planes. No one has seen them in centuries.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

And here I am, three months later.

Don't worry, it hasn't been anything too horrible. But when my depression and stress claw at my life, gaming in general is the first thing to give and this blog in particular suffers as my creative juices slow to a crawl and what inspiration does come gets constantly second-guessed. It's no way to live, but we all keep trying like fools. Now that all three core books for 5e are out, and hopefully, I'll be getting for Christmas, maybe I'll get the chance to flex my gaming muscle a little more... But by saying that I've probably jinxed it.

I have been gaming a little, in a Forgotten Realms campaign over at the BFRPG forums. I may have mentioned that earlier this year. But it's been a big help to me. It's given me a little bit of creative outlet, and my pair of halflings in that game has been a much-needed opportunity to spread my wings a little bit.

That's the paradox of depression, isn't it? It sucks all the joy out of doing things, but then if you actually knuckle down and do them it turns out to not be so bad after all. This blog is probably the same way. If I got back in the swing of things I bet it'd come as naturally as anything.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

13 Monstrous rumors

Some ideas I had while paging through the 5e Monster Manual (which I'm quite impressed with, I may have to write a review later.)
  • The basilisk is the female of the species. The cockatrice is male. To stumble upon them as they mate is not a pleasant experience.
  • There once lived an albino red dragon whose favorite amusement was battling wizards who, believing him to be a white dragon, had filled their minds with fire spells.
  • Erelhei-Cinlu and Menzoberranzan are the drow equivalent of the (ahem) Deep South. While dark elf society is decadent and duplicitous, other drow mock their excessive devotion to Lolth and cultural obsession with slavery.
  • Dryads love to ride on the shoulders of treants. It makes them feel safe.
  • Gargoyles only move when no one is watching... or so they believe; they are in fact rather poor judges of other creatures' visual acuity.
  • All genies are able to grant wishes, but only nobles are authorized to do so.
  • Ghouls and ghasts are actually a living race, not a type of undead, they merely recoil from holiness as if they were.
  • Ice devils are not truly devils, but have lived in the nine hells so long as to work their way into the hierarchy anyhow.
  • It is a mercy that the Invisible Stalker cannot be seen, and an even greater one that enchantments to see the invisible relay only a vague, formless outline. Those under the effects of truesight who have seen an Invisible Stalker uncloaked invariably retreat beyond the farthest shores of madness.
  • "Blibdoolpoolp" is just an approximation of the name of the Kuo-Toa's lobster-headed goddess. Her real name is pronounced identically to the last three bubbles of air that leave a drowning man's lungs.
  • In the far north, the deathless creature we call a mummy is known as a draugr.
  • A shadow that impresses Orcus may become a shadow demon.
  • All wraiths are bound to a magical item they coveted in life, all wights are bound to the tomb in which they were buried, and all spectres to a particular bloodline they wish to exterminate.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

In which the last horse crosses the finish line, or "Hey Rachel, why come so many dungeons?"

You may not know this, but I spend a lot of time around Reddit. One of my favorite subreddits is /r/AskScienceFiction, where people ask questions about sci-fi, fantasy, and occasionally other fictional universes, and the answers are provided from an in-universe perspective. Some of the time the answers come from an obscure bit of canon, but a lot of the time it's just a platform for who can come up with the most interesting speculative answer.

Recently, someone asked what defensive fortifications look like in a high-magic fantasy world. After all, he reasoned, real castles evolved to combat the siege tactics that were being used historically, but a world with magic-users, dragons, and other fantasy elements would present different challenges to a lord looking to protect his holdings.

One common answer we use is that these things are so rare that it seldom presents an issue. But that doesn't quite jive with the assumptions most versions of D&D (really, any versions that I can think of) present about the world by default. But there's another answer that does. To put it simply, the keep as we know it is obsolete as a form of defense in D&D. It is replaced, interestingly enough, by the humble dungeon. A thick layer of earth provides a barrier to many forms of divination, and hinders many magical forms of ingress (teleportation becomes a risky proposition if you can't see where you're going, even with otherwise relatively safe short-range methods like Dimension Door), The narrow, twisting passages of a dungeon reduce visibility, create defensible chokepoints to halt invaders from, and discourage the use of area-of-effect spells by an attacking force, and can be constructed to be a difficult or impossible fit for larger enemies.

More traditional fortifications do retain some use-- after all, moats, palisades and curtain walls will still serve as obstacles for an approaching army, and towers offer a vantage point for spotting any approach, as well as high ground for archers and mages to rain death from above on. But the construction of these will differ. I would expect to see, rather than the more conventional open roofs with parapets, a wide room or machicolation with a sturdy roof and many arrow slits, the better to protect the defenders from being snatched up or dive-bombed by flying monsters.

Most people, and most domesticated animals, will still prefer to live aboveground, so there will likely be buildings inside the bailey. Generally these will be made from cheaply-replaceable wood, as the auxiliary buildings of many real-world castles are, but even the main hall stands a good chance of being made of wood. Any strategically-important business must be conducted underground where prying magical eyes and ears will have a harder time spying on it.

In short, the reason your campaign setting is peppered with underground complexes is because the dungeon is the natural evolution of a castle to defend against the kind of threats unique to a fantasy world. Much as abandoned or ruined castles are scattered across the countrysides of Europe today, so will the remains of an old or conquered fortress be a common sight for travelers and explorers. The advantages of underground fortifications against magical or monstrous assault will have been realized early, probably even before the advent of masonry, so the dungeon will remain even when the wooden structures and fortifications of more ancient castles are gone.

As always, questions, critiques, or further insights are welcome.