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.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Stuff of Legends, continued

Among the numerous aspects of the first D&D campaign settings and rulebooks, the sense of (fictional) history and (fantasy) legend top my list. I wish I could have been there when Greyhawk and Blackmoor were emerging from the mists of creation. I long for the opportunity to create timeless figures of myth and contribute to worlds that will endure and inspire long after I am gone.

Vecna, Tuerny the Merciless, Lum the Mad, Queen Ehlissa, Johydee, Tenser, Bigby, Kwalish, Leuk-O, Heward, Murlynd. What dedicated D&D player doesn't recognize these names? So many of them no more than PCs run by the earliest players - now elevated to at least demigod status and immortalized in the annals of their respective published campaign settings.

Well, that is some of the gist of my most recent campaign offerings. Legends. Names that early gamers knew only through the magic that bore them. Names that went on to echo through Greyhawk history - and the annals of other settings as well. Many of those names are attached to artifacts and relics - items of singular power and reputation. Mighty magics from ages lost. Unique. Mysterious. Evocative. Dangerous. Prized.

In my own campaign setting, I don't intend to throw around names like Kas or Gaxx, but I would like to invoke the same sense of history and myth as best I can. Fortunately, I am known for creating memorable NPCs and interesting items of magic. Still, the players in my game can expect some of the classic artifacts to make the occasional appearance - with somewhat altered histories and nomenclature.

While I was doing research for this campaign, I came across a lot more information about these legendary figures than I was ever aware of before. Admittedly, I've never been a big fan of Greyhawk as a setting - merely a source for memorable characters and game details. So, I never kept up with all the gazetteers and journals and such. I had been hoping to use some of these famous NPCs as the basis for figures in my own setting. I'd assumed there wasn't much information about the "minor" names like Leuk-O or Queen Ehlissa. I was mostly wrong there. Hell, I should've consulted past issues of Dungeon magazine for more details of such luminaries as Kwalish or Tuerny. In any event, I've decided to create my own legends mostly from scratch or, at the very least, put my own unmistakable stamp upon some of those I covet too much to leave behind.

Stuff of Legends

Been a while since I sat and talked with you fine people, so I will just dive right in.

I seem to be on the verge of starting up an AD&D campaign. That's 1E,  not 2E.

The campaign still takes place in my Avremier setting where just about every game I've run in the 21st century has been set. I think I chose AD&D because I'd like to borrow from and cannibalize a number of classic modules for encounter areas and outline - without having to convert the material to other rules. Call me lazy...I don't mind. Plus, I have all these lovely AD&D books and supplements that have been languishing in neglect for who knows how long.

The theme of this campaign will be planar travel. My campaign world has been somewhat isolated from the other planes for a long time and events have transpired that blows the whole thing wide open - quite literally. What follows is the player introduction for the campaign. There will be more to come.

Generations ago, one of the most celebrated groups of heroic adventurers, the Blade of Light, used an ancient artifact known as the Fulcrum to effectively eradicate planar evil on a large scale. This act dissolved entire planes such as the Abyss and the Hells, while shifting other planes in undesirable ways. Certain upper planes became rigidly Lawful, turning to tyranny in ways to rival those of the bygone Dukes of Hell. Now, the planes thunder to the clash of Law vs. Chaos and those worlds that remain are caught in the middle.

You have heard the almost mythic stories and read the fragmented histories of a time when the entirety of Creation could be catalogued and diagrammed with reassuring clarity. When worlds and planes moved to a cycle defined by celestial harmonies and the unseen machineries of cosmic purpose. Sages predicted the end at the loathsome hands of the countless demonic hordes festering and seething in the deepest pits of reality. Doomsayers cried out against the monolithic and precise evil of the Dukes of Hell. None could predict the true instrument of our destruction.


The Blade of Light was long heralded as the greatest and most devoted band of heroic adventurers in recorded history. Entire nations owed their deliverance to Roen Curientine and his mighty companions. Kings bowed in their august presence. Gods watched over their epic exploits. No quest was too arduous and no deed too great. Their lives were devoted to the defense of civilization and the eradication of evil. When they discovered the existence of a primordial artifact known as The Fulcrum, the Blade of Light vowed to be the ones with the lever.

Worlds moved.

Harmony was broken. Order overturned. Evil found itself crushed by the shifting of the wheels of infinity. Good found itself suddenly eclipsed within the penumbra of distant glory. Good and Evil diminished before the rising forces of Law and Chaos. There came a splintering and a sundering on a cosmic scale.

The Planewrack.

Today's reality is no longer definable by mortal observation or the values of cosmological science. It is all broken. No patterns. No cycles. No certainties. Gods have died and been reborn. Entire worlds have been lost spinning into the furthest void. Demons and devils have fallen while angels and saints have transcended - to become...something other. Prayers go unanswered while mortalkind shivers alone in the dark.

You are heroes.

Sworn to right the greatest of wrongs. Dedicated to securing a future for all worthy creatures. Determined to stand against the tide of entropy that threatens to consume all that you cherish. The ideals to which all the best-intentioned adventurers of your generation aspire.

Will you rise to what could be the final challenge? Or, will you fall with the rest of civilization?