the_gneech: (Default)
  • Stealing From the Monster's Golden Hoard: Despite looking like a crab, narratively speaking, Tamatoa is actually a dragon. Discuss.


  • Vision vs. Perception: Tamatoa has a whole song about how what's on the outside is most important, and praises Maui for his tattoos (while simultaneously seeing right through to Maui's weakness)– but he also can't focus on Moana when she's right in front of him and is fooled by her fake Heart.


  • Emasculation: Maui tore off one of Tamatoa's legs. Tamatoa stole Maui's magic hook. Which injury was the more grievous one?


  • The Obvious: The "Land of Monsters" might as well have been guarded by a three-headed watchdog.


Essays by the end of class. Go.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Legolas silhouette)

When I started trying to brainstorm for NaNoWriMo this year, I had nothing to go on. Months of shopping Sky Pirates of Calypsitania around to agents had received mostly chirping crickets, with the occasional “You’re a good writer, but… nah.” On the advice of J.M. Frey, I decided to write a more “mainstream fantasy” novel that would help me get my foot in the door, figuring that once I had a body of work, it would be easier to get people to buy in to other stuff.


But again, what to write? I can craft prose all day, but creating a compelling story is much tougher. Finally, with nothing else to work with, I said, “Fine! I’m taking some of my unplayed RPG characters, tossing them into a scenario, and writing it as a book!”


On the good side, it definitely got me rolling. I have some protagonists and a broad story arc, and that’s all good. However, there is one big problem with this framework, which is: most RPG campaigns, even good ones, tend to be a never-ending string of fights. Whether it’s orcs or stormtroopers, the “filler” of an RPG campaign is generally going to be battles with monsters… which can make for dull reading.


Yes, the blow-by-blow of a tense action scene can be exciting. Bilbo’s encounters with trolls, goblins, spiders and dragon (and later Frodo’s encounters with ringwraiths, orcs, trolls, more orcs, more ringwraiths, more orcs, easterlings on oliphaunts, more orcs, a giant spider, still more orcs, and a giant pit of lava) are iconic. But what really makes a battle interesting is not who slashed what or cleft the other in twain– it’s what changes as a result of the battle.


And that’s where the neverending string of fights in a D&D game fall down as fodder for a novel. As a rule, they don’t change anything, other than to nibble away at resources. In a novel, the “five rooms full of orcs” at the front of the level that lead up to the “boss” at the end would lose readers after the second fight. “We’ve seen this already!” would be the cry of the frustrated reader. “Get on with it!” (And they’d be perfectly right to do so.) The first fight with orcs is interesting, because it’s new, which means it changes things. The fight with the boss at the end is interesting, for the same reason. (And presumably the boss has some kind of plot coupon or other thing to make them worth fighting in the first place on top of that.) The stuff in the middle? Gets mercilessly summarized unless and until it makes an impact.


So this is where my NaNoWriMo project actually hits an uphill climb: I have more or less completed act one, with the hero about to set off on her journey with her new companions. While I have the next big change– the “boss” of the next section so to speak– worked out, I need to figure out interesting and relevant things that will take the character from here to there. In a D&D game, this would be an overland journey with some random encounters, ending in a dungeon complex, easy peasy. For a book? It has to matter, or be cut. And that’s the tough part.


-The Gneech


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the_gneech: (Boromir battle)

Faramir and Boromir wonder WTF is that?


For all I bag on 4E, it did have some cool stuff in it, and one of the coolest things was the Warlord class… which is conspicuously absent from 5E. I mean, it’s kinda-sorta there, in the Battlemaster Fighter, or possibly in a Valor Bard, but neither of those are really as robust as the Warlord was. Some of that may be intentional as part of the “We’re not with that guy!” treatment of 4E generally, but I think a big chunk of it is just a matter of focus. The Warlord class was really tied into the “miniatures skirmishing with a roleplaying game grafted on” nature of 4E, and with 5E‘s push to return to “theater of the mind” style gaming, they have a tougher time finding a place.


In short, Warlords as presented in 4E made combat crunchier, which is anathema to the 5E style. The question of whether there is a 5E-friendly way to make a Warlord is one that’s been discussed at length in the community. I think it could be done, and I think that the Battlemaster Fighter probably fills a good 65-75% of the gap, but I’d really like to see it fleshed out.


So what is a Warlord, exactly? Well, they’re a support class, who buff, heal, and provide tactical options for the rest of their team, but without using spells to do it (and without the religious baggage of the Cleric or Paladin, or the fantasyland rockstar thing that Bards have going on). Frankly, I always thought “Captain” would be a better name; in various incarnations across other games they’ve also been called “Nobles,” “Leaders,” “Standard Bearers,” etc.


In D&D the first thing that looks kinda like a Warlord– assuming you don’t just take it as read that every fighter above 9th level is one thanks to old-school level titles– is AD&D‘s Cavalier class, which was kind of a poor man’s Paladin. (Ironically, Paladin was revised to be a subclass of Cavalier when it came out) The Cavalier was intended to be a mounted warrior first and foremost (hence the name) and had all kinds of mount-related stuff going on, but they also provided a few team buffs, such as immunity to fear.


The real antecedent to the Warlord, however, came out in the Miniatures Handbook under the name Marshal. That class had auras (an extraordinary ability in 3.x/PF terms, and therefore explicitly not magical) that added various bonuses to allies within a small radius and could grant actions to other members of the party. They couldn’t do any healing, but by buffing party AC and hit points, they effectively “pre-healed” their allies. This was followed by the Noble in Star Wars Saga Edition, who combined some of the Marshal’s buffs with the Bard’s debuffs, basically rolling all the “leader” abilities into a single (again, non-magical) class.


Why is the emphasis on not being magical important? Well, that’s pretty much the appeal of the Warlord class when you get down to it. The Warlord is an inspiring leader, a masterful tactician, or even just the grumpy drill sergeant who tells you to rub some dirt on it and get back into the fight. Basically, it’s the Captain America class for D&D. This is both its appeal and its drawback, unfortunately. D&D already has a class for that role, to wit, the Paladin.


But the Paladin has baggage. Oh so much baggage. From idiot players who gave Paladins the reputation of being Lawful Stupid, to asshole DMs who create their whole campaigns around putting Paladins into no-win situations and then gleefully stripping their powers because they couldn’t find a lawful good way to prevent the demon-possessed king from slaughtering children in the first round of combat (or whatever), Paladins have a long history of being a problem class. On top of which, they have a “knights templar” semi-religious overlay which just doesn’t suit every heroic leader. Just like Robin Hood never cast a spell, Boromir never went searching for the Holy Grail.


So yeah, as far as I’m concerned the Warlord absolutely has a place in D&D as an archetype and as a class (or sub-class), although as I say I still prefer the name “Captain.” 😉 And it needs to be a little more interesting than the “+1d6 to do a not-attack thing” model of the Battlemaster. What that might be, while still fitting in the 5E mold, I’m not sure. I’m still working on that idea.


-The Gneech


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the_gneech: (Legolas silhouette)

Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas wonder WTF is this.


Once upon a time, I wondered Whither the Rogue? [1] Today I’d like to talk about the rogue’s more fighterey-wildernessey brother, the ranger. [2]


Like the rogue, the ranger has been around since before D&D was D&D (first appearing in Strategic Review, which in gaming terms is like saying it appeared in the Upanishads). My own experience with the ranger didn’t come until AD&D, in which they were a slightly-more-interesting fighter with 2d8 hp at first level for no apparent reason, got bonuses to fight all “giant class” humanoids (which, for some peculiar reason, basically meant all humanoids including kobolds), and had vague talk of an animal companion who would wander around somewhere in the general vicinity of the party and maybe kill some monsters for you by accident.


But from the beginning, rangers have had a strange place in the game. Are they Aragorn? Are they Robin Hood? Grizzly Adams? What the heck is a bear doing wandering around the Tomb of Horrors, anyway???


For rangers to work thematically, you have to have a campaign in which tromping around the wilderness is a thing. For them to work mechanically, you have to have a campaign in which whatever the ranger’s enemy-of-choice is a thing. And that opens a whole other can of worms. D&D has always had a very uncomfortable “racial enemies” thing going on, where dwarves are better at killing orcs because reasons, that kind of thing. The ranger makes that into a whole feature of a person’s profession. Originally it was simply a matter of experience: if you’re defending the frontiers of human civilization, the reasoning goes, you will fight a lot of goblins/orcs/kobolds/giants, and thus know how it’s done. Later, in an effort to deal with the “your campaign might be at sea or underground instead of the forest” problem, your choices were expanded. These days, rangers are just randomly better at killing… something. You pick.


(This is one of those rare occasions where 4E actually did something better than other editions. 4E rangers mark a target, and everyone in the fight has a chance to “cash in” on that. In other words, your “favored enemy” is whichever one you’re focusing on right now– usually the biggest and baddest thing in the room. Not that 4E rangers didn’t have other problems. Everything in 4E had problems. :P)


But this weird space that rangers inhabit in the context of D&D has made them suffer a never-ending stream of tweaks, revisions, and re-imaginings, because while everyone has a vague idea of what rangers should be like (Crocodile Dundee is totally a ranger, for instance), nailing down the specifics gets really tricky.


Do rangers have spells? Aragorn was famously a healer, but that was because Middle-earth has a divine-right monarchy thing going on. None of the other Dunedain could do that, so it hardly seems a “class feature,” and Robin Hood never so much as said “bippity boppity boo.” Crocodile Dundee can hypnotize kangaroos and has preternatural senses, does that count?


Oh, and what about fighting methods? Aragorn used a greatsword and eventually rode into battle in heavy armor. Robin was the greatest archer in England. Where did the two weapons thing come from? Legolas wielded a pair of long knives in melee, but was he a ranger, a fighter, or a rogue? Is two-weapon fighting just there to make Drizzt work?


Oh yeah, Drizzt. There’s another another can of worms. For those who don’t know (and I’m only barely aware of him myself), Drizzt is a rare (for sufficient values of rare) good drow ranger, who appeared in Forgotten Realms novels in the late ’80s and became a breakout character in the ’90s when Gothy Angst was at its height. Mechanically he was a 2E ranger who wielded two scimitars thanks to a fighter splatbook ability. Which was fine, except that with his crazy popularity, suddenly the Drizzt tail began to wag the ranger dog. In every edition since, the first thing that devs seemed to look at when making the ranger was “Does it look like Drizzt?”


Finally, we come to 5E, in which ranger wins the award for “Most Dysfunctional Right Out the Gate” from the start hands down. And really the 5E ranger is not that bad, it’s just… lackluster. And stuck in the past, in that it doesn’t model “what rangers should do,” so much as “what rangers looked like in earlier editions of D&D.” You get a smattering of fighter stuff, a smaller smattering of rogue stuff, and you’re back to trying to guess what is the right “favored terrain” and “favored enemy” for the campaign (or alternatively, forcing the DM to put whatever you’ve favored in). If you take on an animal companion, you have to use your own bonus action to make it do anything as part of the “action economy” (i.e., so that you don’t effectively get two turns per round for everyone else’s one turn). If you forego the animal companion and choose the “hunter” archetype, you essentially get to choose from a random set of combat feats.


Honestly, for almost everything that rangers are supposed to do? In 5E there’s probably a better way of doing it. Do you want to be a mobile archer, running around the field peppering your foes with arrows? Take two levels of rogue (for Cunning Action) with Survival as one of your expertise choices, and then Champion fighter with the archery style forever. Do you want to be a mystical protector of the wild? A Totem Warrior barbarian, Oath of the Ancient paladin, or any flavor of druid is probably closer to the mark. The only thing the 5E ranger can do that the other classes can’t, really, is have a pet, and they’re not real good at that.


This situation has led to WotC floating multiple fixes via its Unearthed Arcana articles, and they are better…ish, but they’re mostly patches to buff math holes rather than the serious rethink that the class really needs, and worse they still are focused on “How do we keep the companion from breaking the action economy?” and “Does it look like Drizzt?” more than “Does this look, feel, and act like a ranger should, while sticking to the ease of play and flexibility that 5E excels at?” (To which I would say the answer is “Not really.”)


So, yeah. Sorry rangers, back to the wilds for you.


-The Gneech


[1] In the time since then, Tribality has posted an in-depth series tracking the rogue’s development from proto-D&D days (Supplement I: Greyhawk, baby!) through 5E, which you can read here:


Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six


[2] You guessed it, Tribality did a series of articles about them too, and its a doozy. Vis.:


Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Part Seven

Part Eight


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the_gneech: (Legolas Aaah)

Dungeon of the BearSince I’m running a 5E adaptation of The Keep On the Borderlands, I was tempted to go EVEN MOAR OLDSCHOOL by following it up with a 5E adaptation of Dungeon of the Bear, the one really complete module (as opposed to solo adventure) released for Tunnels and Trolls. I’ve had this on my shelf for over 30 years, complete with my hand-scribbled notes in the margins from running Lee and Jamie through it in T&T a babillion years ago.


Like everything for Tunnels & Trolls, DotB not only embraces the abstract strangeness of dungeon delving, but revels in it. The dungeon is like an evil funhouse, where each room is its own strange thing that has little to do with the next room over– goblins here, vampires there, and a random trap that locks you in, floods the room, and fills it with piranha in the next.


But then, and this where it gets weird, DotB layers a backstory on top of that (written by Michael Stackpole back before he was the Michael Stackpole) and tries to pretend it makes sense. In days of yore, the backstory goes, in order to keep monsters from coming up out of the infamous Dungeon of the Bear and rampaging the countryside, a lord and his lady (who was a prodigious wizard) sealed it shut and built a castle over the entrance. But then, when they noticed that no more adventurers came down into the dungeon to get eaten, the monsters swarmed up and wiped out almost all the castle’s inhabitants. The only survivor was the wizard, who blasted them to bits and forced a retreat, then summoned demons to guard the various entrances, buried the dead (including her late lord), and left, never to return. So the first “level” of the dungeon is actually exploring the ruins of the castle and trying to figure out how to get into the Dungeon of the Bear proper.


Which, admittedly, sounds cool, and I wish I’d thought of that when running my original “Castle Strongstone” megadungeon back in the day. But when you then look at how the actual dungeon works… the story doesn’t make sense.


First of all, like I say, there’s no coherence to the monsters in the dungeon, especially on the upper levels. It’s a bunch of random traps and rooms that basically stand in stasis waiting for adventurers to arrive and be sprung. While there are larger and more organized groups of monsters in the lower levels who might go on the type of raid described in the backstory, there’s no way they could get to the dungeon entrance without setting off half the traps themselves!


Seriously, there is only one way to get up to the 1st level from the 2nd level, and it requires going through a room on a pivot that turns 90° when someone enters and releases a pack of hungry lions. (This might lead one to wonder, “How does a pack of lions survive in a 20′ x 30′ room for the hours/days/weeks/years between room pivotings?” The answer seems to be, “It’s just a dungeon, you should really just relax.”) So for the army of orcs down in the lower levels to swarm up into the keep, they have to pass through this damn swivel-room trap in small groups and deal with the lions, then work their way through the various catacombs without setting off any of the traps or getting attacked by vampires and so forth.


The only way it works as a narrative, short of assuming the entire dungeon is some mad god’s fever dream (which, admittedly, could be a good way to approach it), is to assume that the orcs are actually maintaining these traps… feeding the lions just enough to keep them alive, cleaning and oiling all the pivoting wall mechanisms and loaded crossbows hidden behind secret panels, and so on. But even that only just barely makes sense. If orcs only care about murder and plunder, what strange obsession is leading them to create these Rube Goldberg environments in the hopes that some adventurers will finally show up one day rather than, say, digging out another hole and raiding the countryside?


The answer, of course, is that Tunnels & Trolls is Heroic Fantasy by way of Saturday Morning Cartoon and trying to make sense of it is Doing It Wrong. But at the end of the day, this is another aspect of why the old school got old. If you’re going to expect players to use their wits to engage in the world in a way that makes sense, then the world itself has to make sense in return! The dungeon-as-a-boardgame model where each room is the next bit and the map of the location might as well be a flowchart of which puzzle comes next instead of depicting an actual place is fun for a while, but in my case at least leaves me wanting more.


Don’t get me wrong, I loved Tunnels & Trolls when I was 14 and I do think compared to the wild flights of fancy it led to that there is a certain blandness (and lack of story innovation) to much of what’s floating around the RPG scene currently. But somewhere we’ve got to find a happy medium between “throw everything at the wall to see what schticks” and “repackaging TSR’s greatest hits– again.”


-The Gneech


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ME: “You open the door and see– 200 orcs!”

JAMIE: “I shut the door!”


D&D session, c. 1983-1984


 


Working on my 5E Keep On the Borderlands conversion last night, I put in a room that’s CR 13. That is to say, it’s “a good fight” for a party of 13th level characters. Just, y’know, sitting there, where a first level party could easily just waltz into it. And this is an introductory module! Y’know, for people who’ve never played the game before.


Now I see why this module has so many tales of TPKs associated with it! If you blunder into the Caves of Chaos “room by room” style, you’re gonna get killed. But of course, that’s how ol’ Gary liked it. Master Gygax had very exacting standards of what constituted “good play” or “bad play,” and his view was that player characters, especially at low levels, were disposable, like lives in a video game. Bob the First (level one fighter) gets killed? You roll up the next one and try again. The fact that Bob the Second instinctively knows that the bugbears have placed a deadfall trap behind the door to their cave doesn’t matter. Besides, Bob was smart enough to hire NPCs (doubtless wearing red shirts) to bring along and go first, right?


So yeah, there’s a CR 13 room just sitting in the Caves of Chaos, minding its own business. The thing of it is, you’re not intended to wade into the room, any more than Bilbo pulled out his sword and assaulted Goblin Town. The Caves are not a series of set piece encounters to be “beaten,” they’re a dangerous environment in which the PCs become wild cards in the ongoing situation.


Basically, Keep On the Borderlands is Yojimbo, with orcs. A lot of Gary Gygax’s adventures particularly are like this, the most famous example being The Temple of Elemental Evil, where the monsters are powerful and numerous but broken into factions, and crafty players can use that to their advantage.


But the adventure doesn’t tell you this other than a throwaway paragraph buried in some establishing text, and certainly doesn’t tell the newbie players who have just strapped on their swords and learned their first magic missile and are eager to smite the badguys. There are no guardrails, and nothing like the modern concepts of “encounter balance” to provide a safety net. The Caves of Chaos are dangerous, and it is assumed that not everyone will be coming home.


I wonder how many modern gamers, reared on strings of perfectly-balanced-encounters, walk into this module and just get creamed. “The DM wouldn’t put something down here we weren’t intended to fight” definitely does not apply to 1E modules. Which honestly? I kinda like– but it’s a dangerous way to run the game. Lots of players don’t want to take “no” for an answer, and lots of players don’t seem to be able to sense when they’re in over their heads… and lots of players get really bummed when their character dies. And honestly, as the DM I get bummed too. I’ve killed my share of player characters over the years and I’m usually very reluctant to do so, but you just can’t always pull their fat out of the fire. (I’m looking at you, Jamie.)


The thing of it is, within the context of Keep On the Borderlands, this CR 13 room is there for a perfectly good reason, balance be damned. I’m not an OSR grognard who wants those damn ’90s kids to get off my lawn, but I will say that the 1E mindset was a lot more flexible in this regard. “Why are there 40 orcs in this cave?” “Because communal living makes sense for cave-based nomads.” “But an encounter like that will slaughter six PCs!” “So be it. Maybe the PCs shouldn’t go in there.”


A more modern adventure might still have those 40 orcs, but they’d be in eight rooms with five orcs each instead of all in one giant pit. (Well, no, now I think of it, modern design would consider that monotonous. There’d be 16 orcs in four rooms with four orcs each plus a boss with a fire drake. But I digress.) That one relatively minor shift in scenario design philosophy makes a big difference, tho! Small clusters of enemies, you can take on in bunches at your own pace, are easy pickings for players with a modicum of tactical sense. 40 orcs, all on alert that surface invaders are in their caves? You might want to run. Or at least wait until you can come back with a fireball or two at your disposal.


I can’t honestly say how I would have run this adventure “back in the day,” I never tried. I was nine when I first read Keep On the Borderlands and its subtexts and design ramifications were lost on me, but it did inform my own “Castle Strongstone” dungeon design, including Jamie’s infamous 200 orcs encounter. Running this as an adult with more sophisticated sensibilities, the dungeon looks like a very different place to me. But in a strangely Campbellian way, it’s kind of neat to have come back around to it.


-The Gneech


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the_gneech: (Legolas Nah)

The quickie teach-newbies-D&D game I was planning to start this weekend got bumped to next weekend, which actually helps because there’s a bit more work in converting The Keep on the Borderlands to (what I consider) a playable 5E adventure than you might think. Just going through and giving the NPCs names rather than THE CASTELLAN and THE CURATE is a fair amount of work. On the other hand, last night I had a sudden inspiration as to what the “Caves of Chaos” were actually all about (and why there is effectively an apartment complex with six different types of humanoids all living together), and suddenly the adventure goes from THE MOST GENERIC D&D CRAWL EVER[1] to actually having a theme and potential for cool stories.


Milk Run Or Meat Grinder?


I’m a little concerned about the difficulty scale. KotB was designed to take characters from roughly 1-3 in the original “basic” D&D, in which thieves levelled up fairly fast and wizards levelled up glacially slow etc. You could expect the overall level of the party to remain stable at a given level through several sessions. Modern games pretty much have everyone progress at the same pace, and that pace is mighty fast at low level. If I put in encounters that are balanced for 1st level characters, they’ll be like tissue paper just a few sessions in when the characters have all jumped to 3rd.


That’s not a problem per se– with a good mix of encounters it’s not a problem if the party blows through some of them– but it is something I have to be aware of. In a sandbox environment (which KotB mostly is, albeit a small one), there’s a real danger of the players getting in way over their heads. Play reports from KotB across all editions are rife with stories of TPKs or near-TPKs, because the party killed a couple of goblins, got cocky, and suddenly found themselves facing 20 more when the alarm went up.



(Yeah, pretty sure everyone in the party was at least 3rd level by that point.)


I recently read a blog post in which the author opined that D&D can basically be played two ways: first is a group of stalwart adventurers slaughtering monsters and reaping great rewards, while the second is a black comedy in which a bunch of ne’er do wells throw themselves into deathtraps, get slaughtered in horrifying ways, and occasionally escape with a few bits of gold to show for it. Modern D&D, the theory goes, aims more for the former, while old-school D&D was more of the latter.


I don’t entirely buy this– I played old-school D&D when it was still pretty young school and while we did have some entertainingly horrific character deaths (“eaten alive by mutant cannibal smurfs” is one that made a lasting impression), it wasn’t quite the meat grinder it’s sometimes made out to be. Maybe it was just our group, but I remember the general consensus was that if you were in a game where the DM was eager to kill the characters, it meant the DM was an ass and you just didn’t play in that game again. [2]


Finding Traps: Pick a Skill Already! And Other Concerns


I love 5E. Like, really love it. It plays fast, furious, and fun in a way I haven’t really seen since Tunnels and Trolls, but is rigorous enough that it has meat to latch onto for building unique and interesting characters, scenarios, and challenges.


However, as with all new editions, it has its rough spots. It still doesn’t quite know what to do with rogues, for instance. I’ve talked before about the rogue problem, and while 5E does bring back Thieves’ Cant, it has decoupled burglary from the rogue class entirely, putting that stuff mostly in the realm of “thieves’ tools proficiency,” and keeping the rogue class as a situational damage dealer. (What that means is that anyone who wants to learn the tool proficiency can be the party trap-disarmer and chest-unlocker, which is part of 5E’s “party role not required class” philosophy, and that part is actually fine, thumbs up!)


In their apparent rush to put something in for thieves to do, without really having much in the way of a solution to the rogue problem, they have left a lot of the whole traps and locked doors bit with very sketchy implementation at best. Random dungeon hazards have a Perception DC that compares not to the characters’ check, but to their passive Perception check. So… the characters either always pass or always fail? What’s the point of that? As a DM, creating adventures for your own party, you know what the characters’ passive Perception is. If you assign a DC, you already know if the characters will pass or fail. It’s silly.


Then there’s the Perception vs. Investigation thing. On p. 178 of the Players Handbook, under Investigation, it says “When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, you make an Intelligence (Investigation) check. You might deduce the location of a hidden object, discern from the appearance of a wound what kind of weapon dealt it, or determine the weakest point in a tunnel that could cause it to collapse.” That, combined with the fact that the Starter Set pregen rogue had proficiency with Investigation and not Perception, suggests that Investigation is the intended skill for searching for traps, right?


Except right next to that is a sidebar called “Finding a Hidden Object,” in which it clearly says, “When your character searches for a hidden object such as a secret door or a trap, the DM typically asks you to make a Wisdom (Perception) check. Such a check can be used to find hidden details or other information and clues that you might otherwise overlook.”


So… you make a Perception check to spot details, and then an Investigation check to interpret them? I can see that being worth the effort for some “the entire room is a giant deathtrap” puzzle, but for every locked door and chest?


In my games I tend to split the difference– if there is a spottable trap (e.g., a trapdoor or a pressure plate), I set the DC and tell the players “You’ve walked into a trap. Make a Perception check to see if you spotted it in time!” If the trap is hidden in a mechanism (such as a locked chest) or if the characters are actively on the lookout for it rather than “passively perceiving,” so to speak, I call for an Investigation check. It annoys me that a system that was famously publicly playtested for two years still requires house-ruling like that, but nothing’s perfect.


Magic Item Construction Rules– As In, There Aren’t Any


This is an interesting divide. One of my players has been very disappointed in the way 5E not only “doesn’t really have” magic item construction guidelines, but at how it was deliberately removed from the game as a going concern.


What interests me most about this is that when 5E came out, this was something that a lot of people in the discussions I followed stood up and cheered about. “Goodbye to the Magic Shop Economy, and good riddance!” about summed it up. Reasons for this varied from “It sucks all the mystery out of magic items!” to “Conan never went to a magic shop!” to “Hooray, I don’t have to math-check another twinked out game-breaking magic item again!”


For myself, I didn’t have such strong feelings on the matter. I did think the whole magic item economy contributed to the ever-increasing rules overhead of the 3.x/PF era, but I also understood the reasoning that went into it. If your campaign didn’t assume “build a keep and retire” as the characters’ endgame, and didn’t have built-in money sinks like paying for training to raise levels (both of which were pretty much gone by the end of 2E), well you had to have something to spend all that gold on, and effectively having magic items as their own progression/character customization track would seem to kill two birds with one stone.


On the other hand, once upon a time DMs stocked dungeons with magic fountains that made weapons do double damage, or randomly turned characters into bugbears, and “game balance” wasn’t even an issue. When did we all get so obsessed with finely-tuned math within a game that’s theoretically all about letting your imagination run wild?


In any case, Josh (the player in question) not only did not stand up and cheer, he considers the lack of a robust magic item creation system to be a major failing on the part of 5E, and his reasoning is sound. Having a system spelled out in black-and-white removes a lot of the vagaries of system mastery. “Is ‘vorpal’ a game-breaking property at 3rd level? Well it adds +10,000 gp to the price, and that’s more money than the entire party has put together at the moment, so yeah, it must be. On the other hand, ‘shock’ only adds +3,000, so it must be legit.”


It also means the player has more control over how their character develops. If your whole character concept is based around having a Captain America-style shield that you can throw around and bang off mooks’ heads, you don’t have to hope you get lucky and the DM stocks one in the dungeon somewhere, you just save up your gold until you can afford to buy the thing.


And finally, as already alluded to, it gives the characters something to do with all that treasure they cart home from the dungeon! Josh particularly spoke in glowing terms of that moment of striding into town with bags full of gold itching to be spent and seeing what could be done with it, something I refer to as the Candy Store moment. And honestly, I can totally see that, although it also has the darker side of the “high level item tease,” where vorpal swords are there on the theoretical shelf, but you’ll never be able to afford one.


I don’t think this is an issue with a “right” or “wrong” answer, just preferences. MMOs and similar games particularly have made the gear-as-progression model a style that people are used to and expect, whereas someone coming from an era in which finding a +1 sword was notable, but you could also randomly become immune to all poisons because you kissed the statue of a goddess, is going to be a lot more comfortable with (or at least resigned to) DM fiat.


I’m working on ways to split the difference– I want to give Josh his Candy Store moments, but I also don’t want to have to retro-fit the magic item economy back into the game. I’ve set up a potential “magic shop” situation in my Keep On the Borderlands adaptation, but it’s hidden and will take some digging to find it, even assuming the characters manage to amass enough loot to make buying magic items a feasible concern.


In any case, hoping for some fun. If the game takes off, maybe I’ll pull out The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and let the players argue over how that’s supposed to be pronounced. 😉


-The Gneech


[1] This is not a criticism, it was written in 1978? 79? to be an introductory module teaching would-be DMs the basics of adventure structure, and giving would-be players a taste of how the game was supposed to go. Its very existence pushed the envelope of D&D, the design within didn’t have to. Today’s equivalent is the Lost Mine of Phandelver, from the 5E Starter Set. But half the group just went through that in my game, I can’t just run that one again!


[2] Unless the adventure in question was The Tomb of Horrors, but even back in the day that was pretty clearly its own distinct experience compared to regular campaign gaming. I met a few DMs who seemed to think ToH was what every adventure should be all the time. I didn’t stay in their games.


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the_gneech: (Writing)

It has often been observed that writing is a tough racket. Like, suspiciously so– people have been predicting the death of the written word pretty much as long as there have been written words, but particularly the death of the modern publishing industry as long as there has been a modern publishing industry, despite the fact bookstores tend to be full of people happily shelling out their hard-earned dollars for books even in this post-internet age and that book sales are actually up rather than down. The rates for writers are largely un-moved in decades, and editorial budgets are slashed, but book prices keep going up, so… that money has to be going somewhere.


However, for the time being at least, I am not interested in figuring out that mystery. Publishing for me is largely a giant black box where I put words in one end and, theoretically, money comes out the other. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.


Granted, I have not submitted that much for publication in the grand scale of things, being largely self-published or having worked mostly with editors who were also friends and colleagues already. But over the course of my writing career, I’ve had far more successes than rejections. In fact, I can only think of three rejections off the top of my head:



  • A creature write-up sent to White Wolf for a Werewolf line “monster book” in 1989 or so. This was done hastily, because Bill (the line editor at the time) was in a pinch, and I basically threw together something that belonged in Call of Cthulhu instead. I’m not surprised he didn’t use it– in fact, I would have been more surprised if he had.

  • Out In the Cold, my first full-length(ish) novel, sent to an agent c. 1996 in a fit of youthful enthusiasm. This was a cozy mystery, and it didn’t totally suck but it wasn’t great, either. It did at least garner me a very nice handwritten reply praising the narrative voice and depiction of the characters. I eventually decided that mystery writing was probably not where my strengths were and shelved it after that. And finally…

  • Sky Pirates of Calypsitania, which as of yesterday has been rejected by one publisher and seven agents, and “soft rejected” by a handful more agents who simply did not respond (“If you do not hear in 4-8 weeks we aren’t interested.”). Of all these, yesterday’s rejection was the hardest.


The reasons why yesterday’s hit me so hard are twofold. First, this agent was specifically seeking steampunk novels– a genre which is notoriously tricky to get people interested in. I was very jazzed to see someone actually wanting steampunk, instead of having a subtext of “Okay, I guess I’ll look at it, but don’t you have any doorstopper fantasy or military SF we could check out instead?”


Second, after the initial query, the agent wrote back to me and asked for a larger sample, which was the first response of any kind on this book beyond a polite form rejection. I knew it wasn’t guaranteed that she would want to move forward after that, but I did think it was quite likely. She wanted steampunk, she liked the first chapter, and her agenting portfolio seemed like just the right fit for this particular book’s eccentricities. Alas, “After a careful reading, I am sorry to say that I don’t believe this project is right for me.” I sent her a thank-you note, and who knows, maybe something else will work later.


But in the meantime, we carry on. I really like this book– even if it weren’t my own it would be one of my favorites– and I honestly think it’s as good as anything out there. I know that steampunk is a long shot, and I know that first-time novelists always have a tough hill to climb. Yes, I’m disappointed, but I’m going to put it away for the weekend and then, come Monday, pull up the next three agents on my list and send it out again.


It is, as has been observed, a tough racket.


-The Gneech


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the_gneech: (Writing)

So far my efforts to get Sky Pirates of Calypsitania to market have not met with success. The rejections have ranged to form “not at this time” letters to more personal “not at this time” letters, but the net result is the same, i.e., “not at this time.”


I’ve been pretty carefully targeting my pitches to maximize their chances, but alas I am starting to run out of “top tier” possibilities and I have to consider what to do next. As this is my strongest book to date and what I hope will be the beginning of a personal “franchise” (to coin a marketing term), I don’t want to make any giant newbie mistakes that will come back to bite me later, but at the same time, I do need to start making some headway.


So I am now considering self-publication. It’s not really where I wanted to go with this book– my long-term goal for this one is “See it on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.” However, I also need to actually get books out there being read and making money, which they can’t do just sitting on my hard drive receiving rejection letters.


I think I’ve also started making headway on the next book, although it’s still quite vague in my mind, to wit: another book in the same setting as Sky Pirates. As much as I love Verity and Tanya and I want to know more of their story, they’re only two people in a much wider world, and they’ve earned a rest from adventure for a while, the poor dears. Plus, they’re getting out of the airships business (or at least trying to), but I’m still interested in following that thread. So that means finding someone else to write about!


So while what is probably the last round of agent pitches goes out, I’m going to hit the Scrivener corkboard and start plotting. If any of my writing industry friends have suggestions for getting the current book rolling, however, I’d love to hear them!


-The Gneech


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the_gneech: (Writing)

Okay, now the moving is pretty much dealt with (again and hopefully for the last time any time soon) and my AnthroCon prep is about as far as it can go until it comes time to actually put stuff into the car, it’s time to get back into the writing groove.


And, I think, time to come up with something new. I’ve got chunks of Brigid and Greg, I’ve got a giant blorp of Michael Macbeth, but honestly my brain wants a break from those. I want something new and different to think about.


What that is, I’m not sure yet. I periodically consider writing a fairly standard genre fantasy book, i.e. elves and wizards and things, but I would like to find a way to put a fresh spin on the idea so it’s not just “Howard McTolkienface and the Etcetera of Ditto.” I also want whatever it is to be a project I can have fun with. One of the things that I relished about Sky Pirates of Calypsitania was that Verity and Tanya were fun characters to write about, because of the chemistry between them. The fun was a bit hampered by the harrowing circumstances they lived through, of course… those poor gals are going to have some PTSD to deal with in the next book I suspect, assuming there is one.


A new thing would also come without baggage, or at least with different baggage. B&G and Michael Macbeth both suffer a bit from having a “what they should be like” thing I’m trying to stick to… a new project I could just open up and let it be its own thing. A lot of the stuff that’s been bothering me about my older ideas, can inform the direction I go with new ideas right from the start. I can also outline with a view towards writing 100,000 words, instead of coming up with yet another 60,000 word idea and then being stuck for another half a book to tack onto it. 😛


So I think for the next week or so, depending on how long the process takes, I’m going to simply play around with new ideas and brainstorm, figuring out what I want out of a book, what I would enjoy writing, and what I think would suit the market, and find something that covers that part of the venn diagram that intersects all three. As much as I like Sky Pirates, my discussions with professionals on the topic all suggest that it’s going to be a hard sell for a first novel. So I might have to tuck it into a drawer to pull out later once I’m already a name, so to speak.


-The Gneech


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the_gneech: (Mysterious Beard)

Two Harpers Harping


Here, listen to the dulcet tones of the Harp Twins, as they stand on the "ransom hand-off" beach of Meeting Rock in my book. (How did you even get there???)



Four Kittens Squirming


Once you're done with that, check out this video of InkyGirl and her brothers, on the first or second night they stayed with us, almost exactly two years ago, now. Guest cameo by Buddha and Dasher.



OMG I was fat. O.o I didn't realize how much weight I had gained at that point. I am considerably more svelte these days.

A Bazillion Journallers Journalling


For all you people who want to write more in your LiveJournal but have no idea what to write about, here's a handy list!

http://the-gneech.tumblr.com/post/131926845953/things-to-write-about-and-fill-your-journal-with

A Fondle of Unicorns


Finally, for those of you who may need a collective noun for some form of cryptozoological or paranormal creature, here is the definitive list.

http://the-gneech.tumblr.com/post/131924406788/athelind-niphuial-feelsmoor-wondermark

Enjoy!

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Mysterious Beard)
So in the rare moments I haven't been writing my brains out (~64,000 words and in the middle of the final big action sequence) I've been binge-watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. This is a series I heard praised to the stars and back again, but in my mind it has always more-or-less served as a prequel for Legend of Korra rather than an end to itself.

In the case of LoK I got mired in the crunky part of early season two and never finished, so I wanted to go back and power through that to get to what I'm told is an awesome rest of the series, but I decided that this time instead of just hopping on at the beginning of that series I'd go back and watch A:tLA first.

I'm pleased to say, A:tLA lives up to its hype! I'm roughly 2/3 of the way through the second season (which puts me just about halfway through the entire series), and I'm digging it. Strong and fun characters, interesting setting, engaging story, lovely art, what's not to dig? It reminds me of all the best parts of Pirates of Dark Water, but with better animation and more cohesive writing. There are a few clunky bits here and there and I have a few pet peeves, but this series does so much very right, that it's hard to complain about the few bits that irk me. My main peeve is the villains, who are either Obvious Redemption Bait (e.g., Zuko) or Shut Up and Go Away (e.g., Jet, Princess Azula and her flunkies). The only serial baddie who's really worked for me so far has been Admiral Zhao, who was a complete nonentity, but was a threatening and dangerous nonentity whom I was glad to see get it in the neck.

With that in mind, here is a boatload of random observations, more-or-less as they came to me while watching.

  • Avatar: Master of the four elements, and chosen one! ...Is into extreme sports. That... actually makes sense now that I think about it.

  • Hey, it's that guy! And that guy! And that guy! So far I've identified Mako, George Takei, James Hong, and Mark Hamill. I wonder if Pat Morita or Victor Wong are in here?

  • I am going to like General Iroh. I can tell.

  • "All your friends and family were wiped out, Aang! And here is the desiccated corpse of your surrogate dad, surrounded by the bones of his enemies. We thought about having a note next to him that said, 'If only Aang hadn't run off...' but we couldn't work out the logistics of it." Harsh, show, harsh. At least Aang's parents weren't shot in Crime Alley walking home from The Mark of Zorro.

  • I like that they firmly establish that the avatars are all reincarnations of the same spirit. I also love that the spirit flips genders between incarnations seemingly at random and it's no big deal. "Oh yeah, I was a girl in that life. I totally kicked ass." The implications of that are staggering if you follow them to the natural conclusions.

  • Sokka the Butt Monkey. I hope he gets to do something sometime.

  • Humor is very hit-or-miss. Usually the jokes feel like the script said "Insert joke here." But when this series nails a joke, it nails it. "If you get me out of this, spirits, I'll give up meat and sarcasm."

  • "I am a warrior, but I'm a girl too." Yes, that's cool, but y'know what? Even if she weren't a warrior, that's no way to treat a girl either, Sokka! Argh.

  • This Just In: Zuko is obviously going to be the new Fire Lord by the end of this series.

  • Hello, spirit world! I see someone's been watching Studio Ghibli. I approve of this.

  • General Iroh saw Aang in the spirit world! O.o That's gotta be important.

  • ...The identity of the Blue Spirit took me by surprise.

  • Evil Firebender Princess Twilight! Nuuuuuuu! Along with Harley Quinn the Bending Blocker, and Bored Sociopath Chick. Bleah. I'm not going to like these three, I can tell already. There are villains you love to hate, and villains you wish would just go away. These are the latter.

  • Ba Sing Se, name-checked again and again. I smell foreshadowing.

  • Honestly? Aang should have been all over learning healing from Bender Cleric while Katara was trying to get Master Dickweed to teach her to fight. He's the friggin' Avatar! Bridge between worlds, uniter of the divided, and all that jazz? Healing should be right in his portfolio.

  • On the subject of Master Dickweed, do we really need a "He-Man Woman Haterz Club" story in this day and age? And do we really need a "boys get to kick ass, which is awesome, girls are only good for patching holes, which is boring" cultural assumption? Give me healer heroes any day!

  • Now I get where all the "I once dated the moon" jokes come from. Second most abrupt romance I've ever seen! At least Sokka wasn't a douchebag this time around.

  • Earthbender McNutso attempting to force the avatar state: the Mother of All Bad Ideas.

  • Yo, Earth Nation hippies dude! Like, wow. I guess Lorenzo Music wasn't available, eh?

  • So this is the infamous Toph. Basically "Lucy Van Pelt, the Earthbender." I can see why she's popular, even if she's not likely to be my favorite. (Pretty sure General Iroh wins that.) "Look! There it is!" says the blind girl, pointing at random, just to stick it to the rest of the group.

  • Jet, you're just a dick. Go away.

  • I just imagine a picture of Zuko with the caption, "My life has been a series of bad decisions."

  • And boom, here's where "Team Avatar" comes from. It works. And hey, they all turn to Sokka as the idea guy! Given that he is the only non-bender, I love that they actually depend on him for something!

  • Um, Katara? Toph already knows how to be girly. "That's it, we're going to the spa!" is not a transformative experience for her, it's putting the same fake skin on she grew up with.

  • ...Except it isn't, apparently. Le sigh.

  • The Story of General Iroh. Right in the feels. "Dedicated to Mako." Right in the feels again!

  • Blegh. I know there's supposed to be conflict and all, but I really didn't want Ba Sing Se to be The Village. Could you just not, show?


That's it so far. :) More observations as the watching continues. Currently I'm hoping that the Ba Sing Se Is the Village stuff gets resolved quickly. I'm also hoping that the defeat of Azula is the big climax of season two, and that she and her flunkies don't return for season three, but I suspect we're stuck with them for the rest of the series.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Default)

Okay, okay, it’s not a monster writeup. But it has a monster in it, and it’s Monday. So deal with it!



My Little Monster Studies: Displacer Beast by the-gneech on DeviantArt


Commission for Miertam, possibly the start of a new series, of Twilight learning all about monsters… the hard way. This episode’s entry is that adorable little six-legged tentacular light-warping critter, the displacer beast. Fluttershy, of course, thinks it’s adorable… and clearly Twilight is speechless with admiration!


Such a weird-honkin’ monster and one of my favorites, even if I rarely actually use them. 😀 Inspired originally by “Voyage of the Space Beagle” by A. E. van Vogt if my memory serves correctly, modified slightly and now immortalized by Dungeons and Dragons. Aside from its devious nature, the displacer beast has a permanent illusion of being some distance from its actual body. I never really thought that would actually be that confusing until I started drawing this, but now I can totally see it.


On an artistic note, for this pic I decided to do a piece that used the pony character models but drawn in my own style rather than trying to simply mimic the MLPFIM style. Whattya think?


-The Gneech

the_gneech: (Bilbo Gandalf Ring)

I may be projecting, but I’m fairly sure I see some Savage Worlds influence in 5E, particularly around inspiration (which acts something like SW bennies) and around the organization of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure in the Starter Set, which has an uncanny resemblance to a smallish Plot Point Campaign.

Plot Point Campaigns (or PPCs), for those not familiar, are essentially “campaign-in-a-book” supplements for Savage Worlds in which there is a major story arc (the “plot points,” so to speak), but there are also tons and tons of smaller adventure hooks. Generally speaking no single scenario (including the “big finish”) is longer than a page or two, and everything is very sketchy and loosely-connected. The main thrust of the campaign is usually scattered across the map and delves deeply into the setting’s backstory: in 50 Fathoms, the archetypal PPC, the main campaign is all about discovering the story of the three witches who are drowning the world, and thwarting their apocalyptic plans. But there are so many side stories that it could take years for the players to get there, if ever. The PPC gives you an opening scenario that immediately puts your players into the middle of the action, but where they go from there is pretty much up to them.

Usually in a PPC, later scenarios have “prerequisites” before they can happen: “none of the Colonize Monster Island quests can happen until the players have completed the Discover Monster Island quest,” that kind of thing. But beyond that, there’s very little structure. Don’t give a damn about Monster Island? That’s fine, there’s plenty to do over in Adventurelandia. Some quests are stand-alones, some come in chains, some of them are cross-referencing, and so on. But all are short and usually only developed in the sketchiest way, allowing lots of room for GM interpretation and fleshing out.

The best PPCs also include a method for procedurally-generating content, when the GM needs a “filler adventure” or the players decide to wander off the map. It can be as simple as a handful of “insert here” encounters, or it can be as complex as a matrix of rolling on columns A, B, C, and D to get “The Prince wants you to kidnap/steal the sacred gem of Ul from the tomb of a cursed priest.” 50 Fathoms also has a Traveller-esque trading system, designed to get your characters schlepping stuff from place to place so you can find the interesting patrons in each location. [1]

It occurred to me, as I was going through Phandelver, that it appears to have been written in a similar way. As a PPC, the Rockseeker Brothers, their attempts to excavate Wave Echo Cave, and the machinations of The Black Spider would be the main plot points, with the Redbrands, Thundertree, Old Owl Well, Wyvern Tor, and Conyberry all being side-stories, and the wandering monster table being the filler “adventure generator.” The main difference is scale. In a PPC, you have a large-scale campaign presented in tiny, sketchy chunks; in Phandelver, you have a small-scale campaign presented in big, detailed pieces.

This, I think, is pretty nifty, and I’d really like to see WotC continue this approach in the future. How cool would a 5E Eberron Plot Point Campaign be, for instance? Not a single mega-adventure like Seekers of Ashen Crown, which only works if your players are willing to follow a single spoon-fed storyline, but a tapestry of scenario hooks so that if your players hop on an airship to Karrnath on short notice, you could just turn to the Karrnath section of the book and have five paragraphs of potential things ready to go when they got there? With bounded accuracy and the flatter power curve, I can imagine a supplement like this really working in a way that it couldn’t have done in 3.x/PF or 4E, and I would actually very much love to see it.

-The Gneech

[1] There’s probably a very interesting blog post to be written about how 50 Fathoms is basically a Traveller campaign with a fantasy skin… but that’s for another time. Or perhaps another blogger.

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (Bilbo Gandalf Ring)
One of my big complaints about the Peter Jackson Middle-earth films is that the elves never sing. Elvish singing is not just in the books because Tolkien likes to write poetry (although that's certainly true), it's a major worldbuilding element. Eru "sang" the universe into creation: by singing, elves are effectively continuing the work of "making the world." That's kinda what elves are for!

Thus, if you're a Tolkien nerd, elves should sing, regardless of how modern teenage boys (or arrested man-children) may rank it on the dorkiness scale.

Orcs and goblins, being corrupted elves (at least during part of Tolkien's theorizing, he waffled on this issue a bit), also sing. They probably don't actually sing "Where there's a whip, there's a way," but they do sing nasty little made-up rhymes, and in The Hobbit, when the dwarves are captured and dragged down, down to Goblin Town, the fact that the goblins are singing "Whip crack, bones snap!" all the way is a major addition to the creep factor of the scene.

All of which leads me to be reasonably chuffed by my discovery of this, which apparently appears in the "Director's Cut" DVD version, even though it was sadly omitted from the theatrical release:



Now, this is not without issues, not the least of which is "Where is the freakin' orchestra?" This would be ten times better if it was an a capella chant, with the Goblin King's cronies providing the "music" by chanting and effectively beat-boxing their way through it. Instead what we've got is a parody of a broadway musical number, and while that's actually kinda cool in its own way (goblins being a mockery, and all), it doesn't make a lick of sense in context.

Still, I'm amused, and if they'd included in the theatrical release I would have thought a lot more highly of the film.

EDIT: I see on re-watching that there is a goblin orchestra, shown early on. I missed it in the sea of taupe.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Rastan Kill Monsters)
Do you suppose Lo Pan's eye-guardian creature was his familiar? Telepathic link etc., and when Wang Chi kills it, Lo Pan sure acts like he just lost a level on the spot.

Just something that popped into my head this morning.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Legolas silhouette)
The setting of my new campaign, as an easy reference for my players, as well as just for the enjoyment of anyone else who may be interested. It's pretty derivative, I know, but it's not meant to win any awards, just be a viable setting for my campaign. ;)

Everything here is common knowledge, although your character may or may not know any particular bit of it depending on their interest. I am considering using this setting as the basis for a series of third-party adventures published in PDF format, depending on what the new licensing schema turns out to be (due in early 2015, according to current reports). More updates on that as events warrant. :) DMs are free to yoink any or all of this for private use if they wish; otherwise everything is ©2014 by John "The Gneech" Robey.

Cut for map graphic and general nerditude. )

Five hundred years ago, the North Kingdom, a prosperous and cosmopolitan empire made up mostly of humans, elves, and dwarves, was overrun by an orcish invasion, aided by giants of the Silver Ridge Mountains and several dragons, greedy for the rich silver that visibly gleamed from the mountainsides. However, the fledgeling orcish empire could not hold itself together after the charismatic general who had organized the conquest perished, and the factions of orcs, giants, and dragons began fighting among themselves, and humans from neighboring nations were able to take advantage of this. One by one the dragons were slain or driven off, and with that threat out of the way, the human armies were able to march up the coast or attack from the sea and reclaim the region. The giants were driven back to the mountains; the orcs were mostly slaughtered, fleeing into the wilderness.

Of course, the humans were barely more unified than the orcs and giants had been, and for the next two centuries there was a great deal of conflict, which eventually ended with the establishment of two main kingdoms in the region, Argent and Ertikan. The Calladganger people of the north, semi-nomadic people organized mostly around clanholds, did not participate in this for the most part, having little to offer either side, and little to gain from joining the fight.

The past hundred and fifty years were relatively peaceful and remarkably prosperous, until the sudden explosion and eruption of Mt. Thunderdelve, which blasted off the entire north face of the mountain, spewing dust, ash, and poisonous fumes across the region, wiping out the city of Avileigne and leaving much of the Kingdom of Argent a barren wasteland for decades. The eruption also turned the land strange and uncanny, as strange creatures crawled up below, and the people who died in the waste refused to lay quietly in their graves.

The forests have returned to the Silver Coast over time, and most of the devastation caused by the volcano is now hidden under a carpet of leafy ferns and evergreen trees. The King and Queen of Argent have ordered the rebuilding of Welltide to help re-establish the trade route south, and declared that one of their daughters will act as their regent in that area, but her keep has not yet been built and until it is she has not taken up residence in the town.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Bilbo Gandalf Ring)
Just a note: if you are fond of the various dwarves of Thorin's company, you may want to skip film #3. Just sayin'.



-The Gneech

PS: Also skip Fellowship of the Ring, considering what happened to Balin.
the_gneech: (Default)

So the general opinion is that the “necro” in “necromancer” refers to death– traditionally necromancy is the ability to speak with dead spirits, for the purpose of lifting curses, busting ghosts, whatever. This has led to the image in popular fantasy of necromancers being gothy types who hang around in cemetaries raising zombies and the like. Which works as a trope, but… it could go another way.

Another meaning of the original root “necro” is “dark.” Not dark as in “evil,” dark as in “obscure or hard to see.” i.e., hidden, secret. Necromancy by that meaning is therefore not “the deathly arts,” but rather “the secret arts.” Which could be anything! The secret art of turning lead into gold? Sure. The secret art of getting that fifth dentist to recommend sugar-free gum? Anything!

This of course leads me to ruminate on the word “secret.” What are secrets, exactly? They are things you carry with you. Your secretary carries your correspondence (and your secrets). A secretion is something that has been deposited on you. The Secret Service is not “secret” in the sense that people don’t know they’re there– far from it– they report to the Secretary of the Treasury, and they “carry” the President safely.

(Historical note: The Secret Service was actually founded to combat forgery after the Civil War; it wasn’t until the assassination of Pres. McKinley that they were given the task of protecting the President.)

This leads me to a vision of a fantasy setting in which an important personage (Queen, Emperor, Prime Minister, whatever tickles your fancy) is protected and served by a small cadre of elite necromancers (in the sense that they study secret arts), sort of James Bond meets Harry Dresden if you like. I can see this working particularly well as a steam-fantasy setting a la Gail Carriger.

However, I don’t have the time to write this at the moment, so I’m setting the idea free by writing it up here and putting it into your head. I might come back to it later, we’ll see.

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

the_gneech: (One True Trek)
[livejournal.com profile] laurie_robey and I just spent the morning combing through and putting aside for disposal years worth of Starlog and similar magazines, dating as far back as the late 1970s. It was a surreal trip through time, watching everything become slicker, more sophisticated-- and more popular.

I realize it makes me sound like a crotchety old grandpa to say "Kids these days just don't understand!" but in this case at least, it is literally true-- if all of your fandom experiences have come since the advent of the internet as a force of popular culture, you literally can't know what it was like to be a fan in those days, because you've always been able to find a website, or a chat room, or a message board about your particular passions. Even the ones that aren't necessarily busy, at least exist.

In 1981, something like Starlog was a lifeline, a message in a bottle from somewhere in the vast unknown that out there, even if you never saw them in person, there was somebody out there who liked the stuff you liked, somebody who might, in theory, get you, in a way that people around you just plain didn't.

In that world of scarcity, is it any wonder that fandom was, well, so damn fannish? Whenever we got the tiniest morsel, that rare gem, something that didn't suck, it was like unto manna from heaven!

Now, for fandom purposes anyway, we live in a post-scarcity world. SFX shows have exactly the same budget as a regular cop drama, because all of the sets and locations are CGI anyhow. Costumes and development aside, it doesn't cost any more to put a Law and Order actor in "a New York alley" than it does to put Matt Smith on Gallifrey-- so fantasy/supernatural and/or SF shows are proliferating to the point of oversaturation. Hollywood keeps throwing badly-written fantasy spectacle after badly-written fantasy spectacle at us, scratching their heads as to why they don't all go Star Wars-level frenzy, and so on.

Having been on both sides of that particular dividing line, I constantly find myself boggling at the strange new world we live in. And, I gotta admit, I'm excited to see what comes up next-- but I don't want to forget that emotional desert island I once lived on, because I don't want to take the current embarrassment of riches for granted.

-The Gneech

June 2017

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