Wednesday, April 24, 2019

S is for "Sanctuary Light"

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic for this year's #AtoZchallengeRevamping the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in a way that doesn't disregard its B/X roots. I got behind by a couple days because of the Easter weekend, but I'm trying to catch up as quickly as possible]

S is for "Sanctuary Lite," AKA Specularum, capital of Karameikos.

What do I mean, "Sanctuary Light?" Well, first you have to be familiar with Robert Asprin's old Thieves World anthology series...if you're not (and if you dig pulpy fantasy), I'd encourage you to check out the books, at least the first two volumes. Asprin had an idea to create a shared setting that multiple authors could use for their characters, a vehicle for fiction that wouldn't require individual authors to conceive of an entire organic fictional world, history, etc. but one that would grow and develop based on each person's writing contributions. Sanctuary is the name given to the rotten city at the core of the Thieves World setting, the place where the characters mingle and adventure and engage in their illicit activities.

A "hell hound" intimidates
a(nother) local.
I haven't yet gotten around to describing my relationship with the Thieves World books and how they influenced and affected my gaming style and assumptions "back in the day;" the TW books provided one of the three distinct "paths" I alluded to waaaay back in July (sorry I haven't had the chance to return to the topic). The "product" I refer to in that post is Chaosium's Thieves World box set, which is a fairly astounding resource (for a number of reasons). I will try to blog about Asprin's books specifically...and the game content based on those books...but it's going to have to wait a little while longer.

[sorry]

Anyway, having spent extensive time reading the various source texts for Specularum, I can't help but notice the many similarities between the Grand Duchy's capital and the city of Sanctuary. This is especially true of Allston's version (i.e. the version presented in GAZ1) which, strangely, bears little resemblance to the layout and presentation of the city as given in Dave Cook's earlier B6: The Veiled Society. Cook's map places Specularum directly on the coast, with the "Mirror Bay" being directly south of the city. Allston's map places the capital on the west bank of the large Volaga (Highreach) River, with the Mirror Bay an opening off the river...a set-up that, now that I look at it, doesn't really make sense for a thriving coastal capital. What the f--- ?!

[oh, wait...here's a map that shows "Specularum Harbor" with "Mirror Bay" in parentheses...but this map of Specularum proper has a separate "Mirror Bay" off the river behind a Seagate. Ugh...either I am confused or the folks making the maps for the Gazetteer failed to compare notes...]

Well, whatever. It's the content of Specularum that reminds me of Sanctuary. Sanctuary has the native Ilsig people (repressed by the distant Ranke Empire); Specularum has the native Traladrans (conquered by Thyatis). Sanctuary has the Maze, the Bazaar, and the Golden Lilly; Specularum has the Nest, the Great Market, and the Black Lilly. Sanctuary has the new (Ranke) temples and state religion competing with the old (Ilsig) temples in the temple district; Specularum has the Church of Karameikos competing with and upstaging the Church of Traladara.  True, the new governor of Sanctuary (Prince Kadakithis, the emperor's brother) is a much more recent ruler than that of Specularum (Archduke Stefan, the emperor's friend)...but the resentment of the longtime residents (and the naivete of their new overlord) is still the same. So is the flourishing (fantasy) Gypsy fortunetellers that populate the region. Heck, even the population is similar (officially 4500, estimated at more than 20,000 uncounted).

[oh, and hill folk...Sanctuary has lots of those wandering around]

But I call Specularum "Sanctuary Light" because it's not nearly as dark and dirty as the pulpy setting of the Thieves World anthology. Specularum doesn't have brothels...it has "notorious inns." Sanctuary has the Hell Hounds...Specularum has the "Elvenguard." The Veiled Society is a shadowy group that inspires fear; the Hawk Masks operate in broad daylight as muscle and mercenaries. And while Specularum is described by Allston as "a crowded, noisy, dirty place - the epitome of the medieval city," Sanctuary goes into deep detail, describing the filth and squalor, the terrible living conditions of the majority and the manner in which the "haves" happily exploit the "have nots."

To put it another way, the appearance of Emirikol the Chaotic on the streets of Specularum would certainly send up a hue and cry for the town guard...in Sanctuary, he'd be yet one more wandering sorcerer best left alone by the general populace.

This is to be expected of the difference in time and style for which both products were written. GAZ1 was written for BECMI at a time when TSR was deep in the process of making D&D more "family friendly" (especially the non-Advanced version of the game); Thieves World was created in 1979 for sword & sorcery-styled fiction writers to dink around in. Whatcha' expect?

Tell you what though: considering that MOST of the authors from the first couple Thieves World anthologies can be found on the "Inspirational Source Material" list of B/X (page B62)...including Robert Asprin, Paul Anderson, Phillip Jose Farmer, Andrew Offutt, and C.J. Cherryh...I'd say that one of the easiest ways to make Specularum more "B/X" in flavor, would be to simply turn up the dials to "full Sanctuary" rather than the light version.

You can easily substitute Sanctuary's map for Specularum (it resembles Cook's town layout more than Allston's)...simply rename the White Foal river the Volaga. The governor's palace becomes the duke's, and everything else remains as named in Sanctuary.

Pretty close to the Chaosium map;
less detail, though.
It would certainly solve the issue of PCs' "magical training" (wandering sorcerers leaving untrained dropping litters of poorly trained apprentices on the street like alley cats). I don't think you need to substitute the 19-year old "Kitty Kat" for Stefan to complete Specularum's transformation, but I think it would be cool to add the Ranke political situation to written background of Thyatis (making the Archduke's move a "self-exile in lieu of possible assassination" type of maneuver), and make his assumption of leadership a RECENT event rather than an established one. Have the Duke residing in Specularum for, say, five years or so, rather than 30, with all his family being Thyatian-born (and hating on the new digs).

Yes, Karameikos does lack the deserts...but deep, dark forests infested with monsters can make for a pretty hazardous terrain. And I'd rather have inscrutable, dangerous elves substituting for the "aloof desert nomad" Reggah...let's break some stereotypes instead of promoting them, huh? Of course, antisocial elves do not make for uber-loyal soldiers, but I wanted to ditch the Elvenguard anyway. I'd rather have Hell Hounds any day of the week.
; )

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

R is for Religion

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic for this year's #AtoZchallengeRevamping the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in a way that doesn't disregard its B/X roots]

R is for Religion, an organized form of worship, of which Allston's GAZ1 provides us with three (two?) for Karameikos.

I got a little sidetracked this weekend, what with birthday parties, treasure hunts, baseball games, and Easter festivities. It was pretty busy all around, though fortunately everyone had a great time (the kids especially). Now...back to the grind.

B/X doesn't have any specific setting attached to it. Yes, there are some sort of gods (or goddesses); this is made clear in the B/X description of the cleric (see the quote in this earlier post); but it's left up to individual DMs to decide what the cosmology of their campaign setting looks like. Nothing is defined, faith-wise, in the Expert set's brief description of Karameikos, and the countries of the "Known World" described in X1: The Isle of Dread offers nothing extra (folks might infer from Thyatis being "similar to culture of the medieval Byzantine empire" that there is something there, but remember that no connection had yet been drawn between it and Karameikos).

None of the "B/X era" modules offer anything like a consistent cosmology...just random deities appropriate to the adventure (X1, X2, X3, and B3) or generic "lawful" chapels and "chaotic" temples (B2). The early (pre-GAZ) BECMI modules aren't much different; it's only with the advent of the "Mystara" concept that there starts to be anything like a setting cosmology (based on Immortals as pseudo-deities).

Dave Cook's B6: The Veiled Society is interesting for the picture it paints of Specularum, capital city of Karameikos. Written in 1984 (post-BECMI, pre-GAZ1) it states:

"The city has several churches, most for Lawful clerics. There are a few Neutral churches, but not many people attend. There are even Chaotic churches; these are very secret and do not advertise their existence in any way. If the characters need healing or similar help, they may obtain it if their cleric goes to his church. Of course, the player characters are required to make some type of offering (anything from flowers to magic items) and may be required to do some service for the church."

Recall that Mentzer's Basic set states that clerics are simply humans "dedicated to a great and worthy cause" and that this cause is "usually the cleric's Alignment." Furthermore, it is explicit that D&D "does not deal with [ethical and theological] beliefs, and they do not affect the game;" instead they are simply assumed "just as eating, resting, and other activities are assumed." Clerics draw their spell power from "the strength of [their] beliefs;" there are no religions or gods, no tenets of their faith, no prayers or divine rituals that need to be performed.

Cook doesn't seem to have gotten the memo...though one might have gathered as much from his 1983 module X5: Temple of Death (the whole country of Hule is steeped in religion and religious fervor). I suppose a church is an easy substitute for Alignment as a "worthy cause" of devotion (duh), but I'd hardly say this is an example of theological beliefs not being a part of or having an impact on the game...rather it is a motivator of action, even in B6 (first level characters are probably going to want healing at some point, and PC clerics receive no spells prior to 2nd level). At some point PCs will have to interact with these institutions and, presumably, whatever ethical and theological beliefs they have. Probably Cook's long association with D&D (for years prior to TSR's cutting the cross off of clerics) has something to do with his methods.

[ha! As written, there is absolutely no reason for clerics in BECMI to make use of a holy symbol, unless facing a vampire...and then the use is the same as any other player character. The description of the item is simply "A sign or symbol of a cleric's beliefs. Used in Turning undead." However, no mechanical/rules effect is provided. In B/X all clerics MUST possess a holy symbol (page X10) as it is a symbol of the deity a cleric serves. BECMI clerics can save the 25 gold]

Allston's approach in GAZ1, for the most part, is much more in keeping with the party line. As stated, Karameikos has three native faiths: The Church of Karameikos, The Church of Traladara, and The Cult of Halav. The Cult of Halav is much more a cult than a full-blown religion...it's members are true believers in Arthur-type legend of Halav, but other than waiting for his "coming again" (and believing that Archduke Stefan may be his reincarnation) they have no real laws or tenets of faith. Interestingly, Allston writes:

Despite the fact that most people consider the Halavists to be insane, it's a fact that their clerics do work magic. This means they must be receiving aid and inspiration from some Immortal.

...from which I infer that even Allston assumes gods (or whatever passes for them in BECMI D&D) are granting spells. *sigh* Makes sense, as he's the one who wrote Wrath of the Immortals.

The other two religions have codified commandments and discussions of "sin" but no mention at all of deities or how these religious doctrines interact with clerics and their magical spells. Here is Allston staying true to the definition of the BECMI cleric, even if he's not ignoring theological and ethical beliefs per Mentzer's instruction. However, between the two there is very little difference in doctrine...aside from wording and the Traladaran church's encouragement to engage in superstition and stereotype Gypsy fortunetelling, the main difference I see is that the Church of Karameikos sees couples living together outside the "sanctity of matrimony" to be a sin on par with abuse and murder, while the Church of Traladara sees the relationship between man and woman to be "a personal matter, not involving the philosophies of the church." Both otherwise break down into "be a good person," similar to the basic (Lawful) teachings of most commonly practiced (real world) religions.

Mmm. I've got Game of Thrones on the mind at the moment, and I can't help but see certain analogues between Martin's major religions of Westeros and those of Karameikos. Aside from its lack of gods, the Church of Karameikos could easily substitute for the Faith of the Seven (or vice versa), and the Old Gods of the First Men for the Church of Traladara...heck, even the militant Order of the Griffon (in GAZ1) has an analogue in the Faith Militant of the ASOIAF novels. And there's a part of me that just says, well, this side-by-side dichotomy of competing but not-so-different faiths work pretty good in Martin's fiction, why not just let it stand in Karameikos?

Fervor is no substitute for
healing magic.
But then I remember that Martin's churches don't have spell-casting clerics. Only the fire cultists of Essos (followers of the "Lord of Light")...and they're the ones viewed as crazy persons in Westeros. D&D is not about rival churches competing for souls; its cosmology is based on sword & sorcery pulp not medieval Europe. The religions of the region should reflect that, in my opinion.

Despite Allston's care and thoughtfulness, I find his work on these churches to be a "miss." I'd re-skin the Church of Traladara as an ancient (and suppressed) religion of the goddess Petra, and the Church of Karameikos as something of a mishmash between the Faith of the Seven and the old Roman cult of Mithras. The Cult of Halav would indeed be a bunch of crazy folk (no clerics, as Halav is no god...nor even a demigod)...but perhaps something with the potential to become a new militant order of knighthood, like the Order of the Griffon, but for the worshippers of Petra.

Still, that's not really enough for a "typical" B/X campaign (if there is such a thing), which is generally filthy with random deities, cults, and strange faiths both ancient and new. A better model than Game of Thrones might be 1st century Jerusalem with its combined political and religious tensions. The "Church of Karameikos" is replaced with the polytheistic Roman pantheon imported from the Thyatian Empire by "true believers" who need a land outside the scandalous, political cesspool of the home nation to cultivate a "purer" form of worship. Heck, maybe they've brought an enclave of Vestal Virgins (because Vestal Virgins are awesome).

[of course, with multiple gods and multiple priesthoods, religious infighting and jockeying for political power (and influence with the Archduke) provides all sorts of nice little adventure hooks as churches hire adventurers to raid each others' temples]

Rather than a traditional thieves guild, the Traladarans have religious Zealots and "dagger men" working to overthrow their Imperial masters in the name of their goddess. Meanwhile the "shadow man of the woods" (the chaotic deity of Traladaran forests) woos malcontents and sociopaths from both cultures to his cause: the overthrow of Law and civilization. Evil druid-types, seeking a return to the wilderness and a more primal state of humanity...yeah, that's kind of cool.

Also some sort of toad god. Of course.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Reflections

I'm writing this on Easter Sunday, the day Christians around the world celebrate for the Resurrection of Jesus. Later this morning, I'll be attending church with my family as we, too, are Christians (Roman Catholics). Next month, my son will be making his First Communion...as you might guess, I come from a long line of Easter celebrators, and I'm raising my own children in the same belief system.

I consider myself to be a fairly rational, reasonable person. I believe in the science of climate change. I believe that the creation story found in the Bible is allegory, not historic fact. I believe that FOX News is something very different from "objective journalism" and that it's important to seek information on current events from other sources. All reasonable, rational things.

And yet I believe that a human born of another human (we can discuss the issue of His Father elsewhere) literally came back to life after being dead for a couple days. That's a trick you can't even pull off in the fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons...it's just impossible to wish or speak the words of a resurrection spell when there's no longer breath in your character's body. In the face of something so fantastical, so unheard of (at least, I haven't heard of anyone else pulling it off in the last couple thousand years), one might ask why I...a rational, reasonable human being would believe such a thing. Even folks who acknowledge there's "something out there" that created and/or is the basis for everything ("God" or whatever) aren't going to buy into the idea of Christ's Resurrection. It's a difficult thing to believe...even for many Christians.

For me, I choose to believe it. There are a lot of things in the Nicene Creed that I interpret in a different way than some of my fellow Catholics, but the Resurrection of Jesus, for me, is a literal truth, i.e. Yes, He died. Yes, He was dead. Yes, He came back to life, miraculously, by the power of God (as He said) and then walked around, chatting up his buddies, eating and drinking, etc. I consciously choose to believe this, in spite of incredulity of others. Why do I? Hmm...that's a tough answer. The honest answer is: I just do. Barely. But making the choice to do so gives me firm ground to stand on with respect to my spiritual beliefs, a feeling of rightness (not righteousness, more like "centeredness"), and an "okay, things are going to be all right" feeling.

Some might say it's because of my Catholic upbringing that it makes me feel comfortable (I wouldn't...I'm a lot more comfortable sitting on my ass Sundays then going to church). Some might say I'm a dude who longs for a bit of the miraculous in my life (look at how I've continued to play this "fantasy game for children" for 35+ years). Some (Catholics) would say I've just been blessed with faith by the Grace of God...but that's heaping a whole ‘nother strange/weird belief on top of the first one.  I choose. That's the why.

Likewise, I choose to be Roman Catholic. That one's a much easier choice (at least, once I've made the first choice). Being a part of a community has lots of benefits, and this is the one I'm most familiar with. Plus, there's a power to the institution...based on its age, its ritual, its tradition...that I'm partial to. I want my religion to be something larger and grander than myself; I want it to have centuries of development to iron out the kinks (yes, it's an ongoing process with a "living" church; still it’s a process to which I can relate).

But that's me; not everyone feels that way. I've known many former-Catholics who have chosen different paths (different churches, different faiths, different paths of spirituality, or nothing). I don't begrudge them their choices at all.

Which is a little weird, considering how much grief I give to different editions of D&D. Why should it bug me (that someone prefers 3rd or 5th edition), when I care so little for whether someone is a Catholic or Protestant or Muslim or whatever. Heck, I’ve had acquaintances that were Satanists, witches (not Wiccans...straight witches) and neo-pagans...and THAT didn’t bother me like someone who esteems 3E/Pathfinder as the “pinnacle” of D&D. Why? Because religion is a personal thing and  everyone should have the freedom to pursue their own beliefs? Isn’t one’s choice of D&D personal, too?

[of course it is]

Anyway, those are my thoughts of the day. Originally this was going to be my A-To-Z post for the day, but it’s gone a bit off the rails. I’ll try to get to the letter “R” later today.

Happy Easter everyone (and Happy Sunday to those who make different choices from me). Have a good one.
: )

Friday, April 19, 2019

Q is for Quasqueton

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic for this year's #AtoZchallengeRevamping the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in a way that doesn't disregard its B/X roots]

Q is for Quasqueton, the mysterious fortress featured in Mike Carr's adventure module B1: In Search of the Unknown.

Many folks have cherished memories of B1; a lot of first-time D&D players cut their teeth on the module. Personally, I've only run it once: with my brother back in 2010 after modifying the content substantially for mid-level play. I'll probably get around to running it again some day, and properly (maybe for my kids), but it's tough when the adventure needs so much prep from the DM to work (as a teaching module, B1 leaves many encounter areas to be stocked by the new DM).

The reason I don't have much experience with the module is because I never owned the thing until recently. B2 was my "introductory adventure;" B1 was written for (and included with) the ORIGINAL D&D Basic set, the edition we Bloggers refer to as "Holmes Basic." My copy of B1 was acquired back in 2009 when I came across a (used) box set of Holmes (no chits) that contained the adventure (my initial thoughts are here, for the curious). As a Holmesian relic, the module is not entirely suited for B/X play (though it's easy enough to convert), and some readers might be wondering why I even bring it up for this particular series, as it antedates the publication of Karameikos and the Known World by half a decade (a lifetime in terms of the hobby's primordial origins).

Once again, we can hold Mentzer responsible: his re-printed wilderness map of the Known World in BECMI's Expert set included the location of (what I assume are) all the then-published "B" and "X" adventure modules. B1 is located deep in the northern foothills of western Karameikos, near the mountain origin of the Achelos River, which flows to the coast (eventually emptying into the Bay of Halav by way of Blight Swamp).  Fortress Q is not shown on the GAZ1 map, nor is it mentioned in the text of the Gazetteer, but it's clear from the landmarks on the Expert map where the "hidden" stronghold is located.

"Hidden" is a pretty relative term, in this case. The text of the adventure states the hidden fortress of Roghan the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown was located "far from the nearest settlement, away from traveled routes, and high upon a craggy cliff" specifically because they were not interested in unwanted visitors. However, it's clear from encounter areas strewn with recently deceased bodies and the relatively picked over nature of the site that there are at least a few adventuring souls that have found their way to the fortress. Heck, the adventure starts with the PCs acquisition of a map to the complex!

Not sinister enough for
Zelligar and Roghan?
Which is fine...it helps make some sense of the adventure (and gives plenty of justification for the "low level" nature of the site...the biggest treasures and monsters have already been taken out, both literally and figuratively). As usual, I advise folks to check out GusL's excellent review/analysis/ideas for this module. Despite his critique, he provides a great blueprint for how to run the adventure in a way that's both sensible and properly challenging/rewarding.

So let's talk about the adaptation of B1 to the Karameikos setting. The first thing one needs to grok is that In Search of the Unknown is NOT a "generic" site for exploration...it contains a lot of background material and setting information in its pages, some of which doesn't jibe with the history of the region as presented in GAZ1:

- Roghan and Zelligar only ceased 30 years prior to the start of the adventure. That means they disappeared to fight "northern barbarians" around the time Duke Stefan, Baron Ludwig and all the rest were moving in.
- Prior to this (and within living memory...certainly for elves and dwarves) they had been "heroes of the people" having fought off a large barbarian horde that attacked the region.
- The construction of their fortress, even before their fight with barbarians took over a decade "and the work of hundreds of slaves and laborers." After the defeat of the horde, they worked for several years more, adding to the fortress, and presumably continuing to use additional workers. Many of these would still be alive, or have drifted into communities.
- While the pair took "most of their henchmen and associates" with them into the wilderness (when they disappeared), many they did not, including Roghan's mistress, their advisor, the captain of the guard for the fortress, etc. It's clear from the text that these individuals and other servant types (I doubt they used their menial orc servants for cooking, but who knows?) eventually left when R and Z failed to return. There aren't a whole lot of places they could have gone, especially not without an armed escort.

One more thing to realize: this adventure was NOT originally written to fit with the Known World ("Mystara"). At least in MY copy (the monochrome cover) there is a note on page 6 stating:

"In the mythical WORLD OF GREYHAWK (available from TSR) the stronghold can be considered within any one of the following lands -- the Barony of Ratik, the Duchy of Tenh, or the Theocracy of the Pale."

This note is removed from the later, "brown cover copy." Reviewing mine, I can see it clearly appears written to work in the AD&D system, based on the NPCs of different race-class combinations (dwarf thieves, elven fighters, etc.) that were later edited out of the "straight Basic" version. Also, certain titles in the NPC names ("Servant of Saint Cuthbert," etc.) implies use in the Greyhawk setting. Concepts like "The Great Church," "The Secret Church," and "The City Afar," sound cool, but don't really work with Mystara as written, except perhaps as euphemisms.

So I'd probably change that, and let the "fluff" of the module fill out game world.

[here's a different question that really nags at my brain: Who are all these berserker guards that are in charge of the place? If they've been waiting 30 years (because they're fantastically loyal to their masters or something) doesn't that mean they're all well past their prime?]

There are plenty more unanswered setting questions that arise from this pair of adventurers who were "dedicated to perfecting their craft." From whence did they come? Where did Zelligar receive his magical training? Who is this demon idol that they casually worship (it's not an extravagant temple...more of a personal shrine)? Roghan has a brass dragon skin on the wall (brass dragons were a part of Holmes, not B/X or BECMI)...where did this come from and what does it imply? Magic mouths? Not a spell in ANY form of Basic.

In a BECMI setting, with its "everything is codified" sensibilities, this weirdness doesn't work great. In B/X, it works but just becomes "weirdness," which may not be what you want.

"Raaargh!"
And dammit, who are these "barbarians" supposed to be? The Republic of Darokin with its disciplined, Swiss Pikemen-like army is hardly what I call a "savage horde" (and neither does frothing halflings from the Five Shires). Another invasion of humanoids? That doesn't really work with the whole Song of Halav legend (it's not like King Halav returned as foretold). *sigh*

So here's the idea that comes to my head for revamping B1 for use in a B/X Karameikos:

Fifty-some odd years ago, the wizard Zelligar "the Unknown" arrived in the region of what would someday be called Karameikos. Perhaps he was encouraged to adventure in the land by his patron demon; perhaps he was expelled from his country of origin (Darokin? Glantri?) because of his necromantic practices. Perhaps it was simply a teleportation mishap.

Regardless, he found himself in foothills of western Karameikos. Turns out there was an indigenous population prior to the coming of Stefan and his Thyatia cronies...a hardened, iron age culture living in small agrarian communities...more tribal clans based extended families than anything that would be called villages. Here was a superstitious lot, easily cowed with displays of magic, easily manipulated...and Zelligar found it the ideal space to create a base of operations.

But one "barbarian" showed no apprehension of the strange wizard. Roghan (later called "the Fearless") was more intrigued by the stranger than worshipful. Desiring companionship and needing an interpreter (not to mention a strong right arm), Zelligar adopted the young Roghan as a protege, gifting him with enchanted armaments the likes of which had never been seen by the primitive hillmen. So equipped, the two began to explore the wilderness, especially the northern mountains, that were full of both fell beasts (like dragons) and treasure hoards built from mineral wealth of area. Successful in their undertakings, they eventually came to build Quasqueton as described in the module background.

Unfortunately, their relationship with the hillmen of the area were far from amiable. To the hillmen, the pair's worship of strange and foul gods was despicable, as was their taking of slaves from the hill tribes, forcing Roghan's own people to work alongside orcs taken in raids. What was worse, Roghan's and Zelligar's own henchmen and soldiers were drawn from the most vicious and violent of the mountain tribes, people who were known to practice human sacrifice and cannibalism. Eventually, the hillmen rose up, united, and marched on Quasqueton, only to be brought low by the martial might of Roghan and the sorcery of Zelligar. Much tribute was taken from the defeated tribesmen, not the least of which was the beautiful Melissa, eldest daughter of a great chieftain of the hillmen. Roghan was smitten at first sight and, bringing her to his stronghold used much of his wealth to construct suitable accommodations for his most cherished prize.

Fair Melissa, on the other hand, saw Roghan as a traitor to his own people and looked for a way to revenge herself on the adventurers. Knowing that murdering the warrior would do nothing to remove the pair's tyranny (would not Zelligar simply find another man of greed and ambition amongst the hill tribes?), she instead endeavored to seduce the wizard himself, with Roghan none the wiser. Thus manipulating both men, she arranged for the pair to embark on a dangerous venture from which they would never return, due in no small part to her sabotaging of their gear and poisoning of their supplies.

It was shortly thereafter that Stefan and his ilk arrived in the region. Searching out potential rivals for his control of the land, the archduke's henchmen made forays into the north, following rumors of a "secret fortress." However, none who found it actually lived to tell the tale, as the hillmen still secretly guard Quasqueton, regularly posting their strongest warriors (the berserkers) to prevent other adventurers from discovering and "setting up shop" in the fortress. The hillmen remember the past, and while they are content to let the "Archduke" and his pet barons rule in the south, they want no more foreign lords exercising their will over their lands.

Been watching too much GoT...
[by the way...Happy Triduum to folks that celebrate the Easter holiday! I shall be pretty busy the next couple days (aren't I always?) especially as it's my daughter's 5th birthday. I might not get around to my "R" post till Sunday night]

Thursday, April 18, 2019

P is for Petra

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic for this year's #AtoZchallengeRevamping the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in a way that doesn't disregard its B/X roots]

P is for Petra. No, not that Petra...I'm talking the Immortal "patron" of Karameikos, Queen Petra of Krakatos.

[I was going to write about Penhaligon, but in the end decided since the city doesn't even appear on the B/X map, it wasn't all that important. Besides, folks who really want to adhere to GAZ1 can find a lot of info on that town in B11: King's Festival and (especially) B12: Queen's Harvest. There's actually quite a bit of interesting juiciness in the latter adventure, though buried under flawed execution]

Allow me to revisit the "Song of Halav" one more time: the story of Traladara's misty past (as their legends paint it), is one of invasion by "beast-men" (gnolls; not the Warhammer variety). Three great heroes arise to meet the threat: King Halav, Queen Petra, and the mysterious Zirchev. At the final battle, King Halav managed to slay the Beast King in single combat but was slain himself. His companions (Petra and Zirchev) returned to Halav's home city of Lavv (whose ruins lie hidden beneath present day Kelvin) and ritually burned his body, whereupon all three heroes were spirited away by the Immortals...they will return again in Karameikos's greatest hour of need.

Some fan's Petra
Okay, that's all clear right? Here's the GAZ1 "true history." Petra was a high level cleric and queen of (ancient) Krakatos, south of Lavv. Widowed early during the gnoll wars, she joined with Halav and Zirchev to aid in repelling the monsters. Halav was slain by the gnoll war chief, but Petra later cast raise dead fully (the BECMI equivalent of the resurrection spell), and the three companions set off on separate Paths to Immortality (as per the BECMI Master set), eventually achieving their goals and becoming individual Immortals...and presumably venturing off to have 5th dimension adventures of the type described in Mentzer's Immortal rules.

I don't like it.

[what else is new?]

The Immortal set was (hell, it is) an extremely interesting rule set, and a very different way of looking at high level play. I'm not against high level D&D characters seeking a path to immortality...my own AD&D character did the same "back in the day" (using the system provided in Deities & Demigods)...and isn't that kind of what lichdom is all about? But I think any player character that manages to achieve immortality (in any way, shape, or form) should probably be retired from play. The adventures of an immortal character (especially a demigod!) is really outside the scope of the D&D game as originally conceived. Really.

So, interesting or not, I'm really NOT a fan of BECMI's Immortal rules as an extension of D&D play (and this is true of the 1992 re-boot system Wrath of the Immortals). When I see its systems written into gazetteer backgrounds/history, my immediate reaction tends to be negative.

That being said, I'm not a huge fan of Petra as a secondary, female hero in the national epic. Why is she there, really? I'm not saying heroes don't have supporting casts, but the secondary characters tend to get written out of histories (or forgotten) when they don't do anything noteworthy. I suppose she's present to accept some of the "secrets of the Immortals" (*gag*) but other than that, she doesn't do much in the Song of Halav. Helps carry Halav's body back to Lavv for ritual burning is all. Surely, a high level cleric (high enough to cast raise dead fully, and a queen in her own right) would have merited more than an honorable mention.

Personally, since I've already decided I kind of hate everything Hutaaka, I'd re-write the Song...and the "true history" of Karameikos...quite a bit, in order to make it more B/X friendly. Here's how:

First cut all the capital-I Immortal stuff from the GAZ. I sincerely doubt that anyone is still using the WotI system (let alone the original Immortal box set) as a standard part of their D&D mechanics. If you are...um...I guess, you can stop reading and move on to tomorrow's (B/X) post.

Next, assuming I want to retain an indigenous Traladaran people (who will not be devolved Nithians), I would remake Petra as the Traladaran goddess-mother from whom all good things come. A kind of Athena-like figure, she shows up with a bronze helmet, spear, and shield. It was Petra, through her divine oracle Lucor, who provided King Halav with the tidings of the coming beast man horde, and who counseled the Bronze Age warrior to take up his sword and organize/unite the Traladaran people.

Oh, wait...who's Lucor you ask? Well, per Dave Cook's module B6, Lucor was "a legendary local cleric" whose annual Festival takes the form of a Procession in his honor through the streets of Specularum, culminating in the cleric's statue being "floated out to sea." Each year the Procession of Lucor is led by "a woman of notable rank and importance," who I would suggest acts as a stand-in for the goddess Petra herself, symbolically showing the way for her ancient priest.

[GAZ1 mentions Lucor and the Festival of Lucor only once, by the way: in saying that you can find more detail of both in module B6. Um, okay]

My version of Petra
Using Petra as the indigenous figure of worship gives a little more "bite" to the religious struggle between the Church of Thyatis and Church of Traladara, which are otherwise...um...kind of the same thing? It gives an opportunity to perhaps discover and recover (or loot) ancient shrines to this Bronze Age deity...as an "earth mother" type goddess, perhaps her oldest temples were subterranean caverns (i.e. dungeons) whose entrances in the deepest, darkest forests of the region were forgotten centuries before, when her shamans/druids/priests were run off and slain by marauding invaders (gnolls and, later, Thyatians). Of course, it goes without saying that Petra makes a potential goddess for clerics of Traladaran ancestry...or even Thyatians who have been "dream touched" by the goddess while living in her murky forests.

Perhaps, too, Petra has a shadowy and/or diabolic counterpart, traditionally worshipped by outcasts, miscreants, and sociopaths...a kind of "dark woodsman" lurking in places where unspeakable acts of murder, torture, and cannibalism took place. Something like a manitou or wendigo, but far more powerful. A vampire of the natural world? Possibly.

But regardless, do Petra justice and make her a larger character in this drama. Make her a real "immortal;" make her a deity. Have her be the Lady of Avalon to Halav's Arthur. Besides, it's not like Bronze Age clerics could raise dead, anyway.
; )

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

O is for Oligarch

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic for this year's #AtoZchallengeRevamping the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in a way that doesn't disregard its B/X roots]

O is for Oligarch. I had a few other thoughts on what "O" might stand for...things like Order of the Griffon or Offensive Stereotypes. But this one seemed like a better fit for a "revamp," thus keeping with my theme.

[going to try to make this a short post, as I've got a lot on my plate today]

In the city of Specularum, capitol of Karameikos, three Great Families struggle for power, wealth, and influence. Identified by their family name, they are Radu, Torenescu, and Vorloi.

These families, and the basic concept of their conflict, was first introduced in adventure module B6: The Veiled Society. I've owned my copy of this adventure since it was first published in 1984; it may have been the last published adventure module I ever purchased new, until 2nd edition's Return to White Plume Mountain (which is the absolute LAST Dungeons & Dragons adventure module I ever purchased new, off-the-shelf). I have an absolutely enormous collection of modules these days, but most have been picked up from used bookstores and bins, and at least a couple from eBay or similar.

B6: The Veiled Society was written by Dave Cook, co-author of the B/X Expert set and an adventure writer of whom I've spoken highly in the past. Unfortunately, B6 is not his best work; I haven't gotten nearly the mileage out of it that I have of works like Isle of Dread, Forbidden City, or even Blizzard Pass (whose small, non-solo dungeon I've used as an introductory adventure on numerous occasions).  GusL's review is pretty spot on, but as written the module may be even worse than that: take out the gimmicky cut-outs (which I've never bothered to assemble/use) and you're left with a 12 page adventure, most of which is box text or snippets of fiction. The adventure itself is next to worthless...it requires new adventurers to care about a murder mystery without providing anything in the way of motivation (neither carrot or stick). Should their consciences fail to incite them to action, the adventure is all of two-three encounters (none of which involve treasure) and a tiny stretch of underground...five combat encounters, no traps, and the only monster possessing treasure is a nonsensical, and gratuitous zombie fight. That's it...nada mas.

And why should the adventurers care about the murdered niece of a wealthy nobleman? Can't he afford to pay one of the city's (multiple) patriarchs to burn a raise dead on her? The spell is available to any 7th level cleric, and there are at least three clerics of 9th+ level residing in Specularum. Small change "murder mysteries" just don't work (or make sense) in a game where any found cadaver can be quickly (and easily) returned to life.

But I digress...despite the not-so-great adventure, the idea of competing rival factions, none of which are particularly "good" (and only one of which is outright villainous) is a good one. Three groups keeps it from being a black-white dichotomy...and the fact that all of them are (more or less) independent of the Duke gives plenty of opportunity for players to align with one or another (or none) and still get up to all sorts of hijinks and adventures.

Allston found the factions good enough to retain and embellish in GAZ1 (and gave kudos and thanks to Dave Cook for B6 in his introduction). If you want to use Karameikos (close to) as written in the gazetteer, I'd recommend keeping these Great Families. Upping Specularum's population from 5,000 (as per both B/X and module B6) to 50,000 (per GAZ1) just means more power, wealth, and influence in the hands of these ruthless rivals.

They are a tad boring though. Here are some possible ideas to "spice them up:"

Radu: I'm fairly good with the Radu as the kind of medieval Cosa Nostra. If anything, I think I'd  want to "Medici them up," getting them all involved in banking and patronizing the arts, etc. Even though the Grand Duchy of Karameikos has only existed for 30 years, it's important to remember that Marilenev was a thriving trading port even 100 years ago when Thyatis took it over, and the Radu clan (a Tralaldaran family) was probably operating even before then. The Veiled Society should be even more weird and cult-y, less like KKK clansmen and more like "The Hand" or similar fantasy ninjas/assassins. These guys should have their own weird temples, some sort of weird ancestor worship, maybe a pact with a Deep One like species made long ago, back when their ancestors were just pirates raiding coastal Traladara villages.

Gao as Anton (12th level thief);
"Come at me, Flameflicker!"
The main thing that bothers me about the Radu is the lack of female representation. Anton & Co. (his brother, his sons) and all the Veiled Society thugs are male. It would be nice to have at least some women in the mix...maybe a strong matriarch (since I brought up The Hand I now have an image of Madame Gao in my mind taking the place of Anton Radu). It's not just that I'm screaming for diversity here...part of B6 involves the attempted recruitment of player characters into the Veiled Society, and it would just be a little strange if the propositioned character(s) were female and then brought into this group of all male thugs. It would be a lot less random to depict them as equal opportunity villains from the outset.

Torenescu: So, stop me if you've heard this one before: head of family is murdered by uncle, too young son is forced to assume the mantle of leadership and figure stuff out even as evil uncle tries to wrest control of clan away from kid. Yeah? Me, too...many times.

The really dumb bit, of course, is that this isn't Narnia's Prince Caspian or Disney's The Lion King or whatever...it's D&D people! It's really hard for people to stay dead! At least if they're anyone that matters (i.e. anyone with a bit of coin in their pocket). You just can't assassinate a nobleman or woman and leave the body lying around...not if there's a even vaguely competent cleric in the vicinity. So why is it 26-year old Aleksander Torenescu is the head of the family and not his father, Christoph? Hmmm...

Making Torenescu interesting hinges on answering this question. While my Game of Thrones addled brain goes immediately to some sort of incest problem (the son with the father, the son with the uncle, the uncle with the father...your choice) that led to the clan not wanting Christoph raised from the dead, that's maybe too cut-and-dry. What if, instead of poison (also easily neutralized about raising...if not before), Christoph had been murdered in "the usual fashion" (garrote or a Charley Manson Special) and it took the loyal clan members a fortnite to find where his body had been dumped? And what if, upon finding Patriarch Aleksyev (leader of the Church of Traladara) was unable to raise Christoph (having passed the max number of days as limited by his level) they had taken the body to Patriarch Jowett, the 18th level head of the Church of Karameikos? And what if he had refused to perform the deed, on the grounds that they were outside the True Faith (being native Traladarans, natch) and had been rumored to be behind several religiously motivated attacks on the church (or at least the culprits had been members of the Torenescu controlled guilds)?

Heck, if you want to retain Jowett as the goody-good guy he's portrayed as (we'll get to him in a later post), you could say he was indisposed at the time and only his fanatical #2 (the 14th level, Traladara-hating Aldric Oderbey) had been available...and no way he was going to raise a tithing member of the rival church! Do you think maybe the Torenescu clan might (because of this) bear a bit of a grudge against the Church? Even as they already bear a grudge against the Duke for his "invasion" of 30 years prior that cost the family so much of their power? Make Torenescu the REAL Machiavallian schemers behind the scenes, not Radu.

Aleksander Torenescu:
"Vengeance is mine."
And make young Aleksander the new Lareth the Beautiful...just for fun.

Vorloi: And speaking of "forbidden worship," let's talk about the Sea Kings. Because that's what these guys are, right? Baron Vorloi as a "successful merchant prince" by the age of 30 (and in Thyatis no less). He has made his fortune (and continues to undercut his competition) by having the biggest and best fleet of merchant vessels operating out of Karameikos. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the Karameikan navy is financially beholden to his house. From whence comes this maritime power?

Reading between the lines, Vorloi is a jerk, but I don't want him to be a chaos worshipper...at least not of the mutating, Warhammer variety. But I would like him (and his family) to be secret cultists of some forbidden, "pagan" sea god (or goddess or demon...your choice). "Neutral," not chaotic, but utterly inhuman and lacking human compassion, empathy, or morality. A force of nature whose worship has long been prohibited in Thyatis (and would be in Karameikos, too, if Stefan had any inkling that the Vorloi clan were perpetuating its vile worship). The "idiot, feebleminded" son of Baron Vorloi? A necessary sacrifice to their deity, even as Phillip's older sister Michaela was similarly offered up and replaced with fey creature. Every generation's firstborn is given to their patron, receiving a strange changeling in the child's place...the weird offspring of the sea god.

Puny mortal
Thus does the Vorloi clan ensure their ships' fortune. The Baron's daughter Marianna knows that she, too, will someday need to give her own child to the Sea, if she wishes to continue the success of her clan. Will she be willing to do so? And will the father of her child acquiesce to such a tradition?

All right...that's enough for tonight.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

N is for Nosferatu

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic for this year's #AtoZchallengeRevamping the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in a way that doesn't disregard its B/X roots]

N is for Nosferatu, and assorted monster "nonsense."

One nice thing about GAZ1 is that it contains a list of the various "monstrous, magical, and unusual creatures" that inhabit Karameikos, as drawn from the first four BECMI rule sets (Basic, Expert, Companion, and Master books). While the lack of some monsters (and the presence of others) can prompt some WTF moments, it's a pretty standard assortment, and appropriate considering the "flavor" of the Grand Duchy...very streamlined compared to a standard "kitchen sink" campaign setting.

[of course, folks who prefer something more gonzo for their game setting can...and will need to...do with Karameikos as they will. It's not really Operation Unfathomable material as written]

GAZ1 also includes two new monsters: nosferatu and chevalls. I'll deal with the chevall first, because (I think) what I have to say will be shorter.

The chevall is a beefy (7HD) magic creature that can "change at will" between two forms: that of a horse and that of a centaur. My initial thoughts on the creature are not complementary. It originated with B10: Night's Dark Terror, a module I own but have never run/played.  It cannot be harmed except by silver and magic weapons, it communicates freely with horses (regardless of form), and it exists to "strive for the good of all horses"...checking up on domesticated equine to make sure humans (and demihumans) aren't abusing them. Oh, and it can summon war horses that magically arrive in 1d4 rounds, once per day.  GAZ1 updates this description only slightly: it doubles the number of war horses that can be summoned (from d3 to d6) and states that chevalls were "created by the Immortal Zirchev to be the protector of Horses in Traladara lands."

My opinion: this monster is dumb and completely unnecessary. Yeah, yeah, I suck. Listen up: I am fine with some kind of magical "protector of horses" if you want a more fairy tale-esque type of Karameikos. But then simply make it a centaur...heck, re-skin all centaurs with this type of background if you don't want it to be a handful of concerned eco-guerrilla types. OR (if you prefer your centaurs to be of the Grecian "wine up and rape" variety) simply make the "chevall" a magical faerie horse, something like the Celtic pooka. Mixing your already-weird animal hybrid with a magical animal shapeshifter is just adding syrup on sweet, you know? Yuck.

And anyway, the original creature (from B10) seems to have been yet another moralistic bludgeon to force players to act heroically: "Oh be good or the seven hit dice, un-hitable centaur will sneak up on you (disguised as a horse) and free all your livestock." Hey, DM: F that noise. Seriously. This is just plain stupid.

OKAY...now that's out of the way, I can move onto the "main event."

Another good role for
Willem Dafoe.
In Karameikos, a nosferatu is "a powerful indeed creature that strongly resembles the vampire." The word, of course, comes from the term made popular by the Bram Stoker's novel Dracula and the German (unauthorized) film adaptation of Stoker's book, which took the word for its name. Stoker (and others before him) alleged that "nosferatu" was the Romanian word for "vampire" (it is not), and the etymology and origin the term is open to debate. Still, for a fantasy monster in a fantasy setting resembling a fantasy Romania...well, why not?

The creature resembles a vampire in most aspects, including powers and "most weaknesses" (one assumes clerical turning, too, though this is not explicit). However, unlike other B/X undead the nosferatu retains the class abilities it had in life (including spell use, etc.); they can be of any alignment (lawful cleric nosferatu? Interesting), and very old Nosferatu are unaffected by the light of the sun. Fortunately, a stake through the heart of a B/X vampire finishes the creature (without the need for decapitation and holy wafers), otherwise destroying an aged nosferatu would be tremendously difficult.

The other difference (most would probably say the main difference) is that nosferatu do not drain energy levels for sustenance; instead, they drink blood. They have a bite attack that does 1d4 damage, but will otherwise use standard weapons/spells in combat...they don't even gain the 1d10 melee attack from their "powerful blows" that has been present since Supplement I (Greyhawk).

Gosh Bradstreet had
great art in VtM.
As a vampire mod for DMs that want a little more Stoker/cinema and a lot less energy drain (and players complaining about energy drain), the nosferatu is fine, perhaps retaining the vampire's regular (strong) melee attacks, perhaps adding some of the traditional eastern European folklore (like the creature being the illegitimate offspring of two illegitimate persons). It's tempting to make the monster as hideous as the World of Darkness clan of the same name...but I prefer not to heap curse upon curse (as vampirism is its own curse without the extra mutation).

Only one question remains that continues to irritate me: why retain the normal vampire as well as the nosferatu? Why have both a Lord Zemiros Sulescu (nosferatu) AND a Baron Koriszegy (vampire)? Why retain both monsters in the same culture?

Eh. It's late and I'm nit-picking. It's a very easy thing to pick one form of immortal bloodsucker over another. Just as the creators of the Chevall should have chosen one form of magical horse protector.