Monday, September 17, 2012

Legends and Stuff

Believe it or not, I've had people ask what my inspirations are for the campaign I've been running in one form or another for about thirty years. For the most part, I tend to avoid giving firm answers to this. Not out of any sense of secrecy or ego, but mostly because I have read and absorbed so much inspiring and useful material during my lifetime that it is difficult to attach significant weight to one, or even a dozen, such sources. And, even after such experience, I prefer to create in such a way that the results feel fresher and more original to my own mind.

I've never been shy about my preference of Blackmoor over Greyhawk as a classic campaign setting. I have no care for the politics and practices of the early days of TSR and I have no particular love or hate for Gygax or Arneson over another - because I never got to know them. I judge their creations for the sake of my own gaming preferences. And...people ask me how I could possibly prefer Blackmoor over Greyhawk. It is a difficult question. I will try to shed some wan and flickering light.

Blackmoor was the first D&D game setting - so I've read. This does not explain my preference, it is simply a matter of chronology. There are aspects to the way Blackmoor was presented that shape the perceptions of others because Arneson was running his game largely without the benefit of cohesive rules and shiny books. I admire that.

Blackmoor always felt like a more intimate setting to me. Presented as merely a tiny portion of the Great Kingdom, Blackmoor was hardly worthy of notice in the World of Greyhawk. Like the Shire and Eriador compared to all of Middle Earth. While I am a big fan of sweeping, comprehensive fantasy worlds (I've created one of my own), there is a certain appeal to a cozier, more fairy tale-esque setting that warms my heart. As if the heroes will impact their surroundings more. As if the dangers and threats are all the more urgent for looming up on one's very doorstep. Just my own preference.

Then, I read Karl Edward Wagner's novel, Bloodstone - a sword & sorcery tale of the barbaric and eldritch dark hero known as Kane. I've made no secret of my admiration for the creation of Kane. He is my favorite S&S...what - hero? Kane is no hero. Kane is barely less wicked than the monsters and villains of the stories. In fact, he often aspires to greater heights of evil. A man of great physical prowess, he is also gifted with a keen intellect and a hunger for lost and forbidden knowledge of the ages and civilizations before Man. He dabbles in dark and alien sorceries while fighting and wenching his way through the kingdoms and cities of a fantasy setting every bit as Gothic and pulp-y as those created by Howard or Moorcock.

Bloodstone was the second Kane novel I owned and read. It was a revelation at the time. A dark hero risking everything to discover and master a piece of alien technology created by an alien race in a time before human civilization. This artifact took the form of an immense bloodstone gem set in the heart of an alien city lost within a deadly, festering swamp inhabited by degenerate frog-like humanoids that served the horrible stone. Because...Bloodstone was sentient, and it wanted to return to the stars from whence it came.

Does anyone see where I am going with this? I doubt many people will.

The Egg of Coot

Rising from the northern fens is a strange, dome-shaped edifice, whose ancient, verdigrised surface is formed of some unknown metal. It has but one visible entrance, a round gate on its eastern side. Through this gate pass an odd assortment of creatures serving a reclusive and unnatural master: the Egg of Coot. Most of these beings are either summoned creatures, or those he has bred or invented, such as his various strains of diseased gibberlings, several varieties of homunculi, and most recently the chaos race of Qullan. Few other than the Egg's servants have visited his palace-city beneath the great shell and lived to tell of it. Rumors bespeak an unsettling combination of mechanical and organic construction centered around the glowing Coot-idol through which the Egg issues his proclamations.
The humans and humanoids that serve him have usually been conditioned to obedience, but occasionally he will adopt an apprentice as heir apparent. Ranial the Gaunt was one of the first of these, though he quickly abandoned his master. Tales say that even Iuz, when he was but a cambion, served an apprenticeship to the Egg. It was during these lost years that the Old One fashioned such magics as the Sword of Black Ice, and began to have contact with creatures of elemental evil.
The Egg himself is a being of unknown form, but legend says that he is not of Oerth, having fled from his own world when it was smitten by some sort of fiery or radiant death. Somehow he crossed the dimensions between his world and Oerth millennia ago, influencing the history of Blackmoor until it resembles the homeland of his origin. Regardless, he has always been the enemy of Blackmoor's rulers, seeking to dominate their lands and subjects. Yet it seems he has no actual desire to rule as a sovereign, but prefers to use lands and peoples as his playthings. For the Egg has but one great passion, and that is gaming. He is fascinated by the pursuit of ephemeral victories, and in the development of arcane rules and rituals. The Egg has long made a practice of drawing unwitting "players" into his games, whether from nearby or from the far corners of the Oerth -- or even from other worlds and times. 

DING! The bell went off in my brain. Blackmoor had always been a blatant mix of medieval fantasy and pulp science fiction elements. This was an aspect of Wagner's Kane stories that also appealed to me. Classic sword & sorcery action spiced with elusive elements of alien technology and otherworldly horror. The setting even included dark Elder Gods that recalled the most horrific elements of the Cthulhu Mythos. How could I not love this? Also, how could I not assume the Egg of Coot was inspired at least in part by Bloodstone?

The Egg of Coot, despite the whimsical-sounding name, always fascinated me. No one knew exactly what it was or even what form it took. It seemed little more than a force of chaos in its fathomless plots and actions. It acted through thralls and servitors. It had what seemed like a complex and long-reaching master plan...but damned if anyone could figure it out. I enjoyed the mystery. The unorthodox approach to a great evil. The esoteric maneuvering and scheming. Sometimes, just sometimes, I wish Dave Arneson had defined and explained the Egg. I want to know - and I don't want to know. But, after all this time...I think the wanting to know wins out. I think I'm onto something with my comparison of the Egg of Coot to Bloodstone. I wish I knew if Dave had been a fan of Karl Edward Wagner. I wish Dave hadn't left us so soon. I wish I could recapture some of that wonder and excitement that I recall from those days of reading Blackmoor and Kane.  

In the meantime, I will continue to reach for inspiration and try my very best to pass it on to my players.


  1. I went through a phase in... oh, late 80s through most of the 90's... where I became a fantasy purist. Fantasy was fantasy and sci-fi was sci-fi, and never the twain shall meet. I guess I was reacting to the easy way in which they were mixed in the early days of D&D. And the genre in general. I remember being dismissive of certain games, like the computer game Wizardry 7, for mixing magic, monsters, spacecraft, and robots.

    I'm glad I got over that. I had to get back to my roots (like Howard, Burroughs, etc... I guess Wendy Pini would count, too...). Fantasy has had plenty of time to stand on its own - and in fact, now overshadows its elder brother, SF, so that I enjoy the mix now.

    Another interesting point - the old Judges' Guild materials really seemed to follow more of the example set by Arneson with their Wilderlands setting. Very few explanations, but lots of SF elements woven into their stuff.

  2. Well spoken, sir. In fact, you touch upon the topic of a future entry.

  3. Blackmoor <3

    The comparison between the Egg of Coot and The Bloodstone is pretty interesting.


  4. It is something I've had rattling around in my head for years. I don't know where my obsession with the EoC comes from - but it is pesky.