Monday, April 11, 2016

Musty Tomes

Let's just fire this one off.

I mentioned in a recent post that I find M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel setting to be an "infuriating" one; that is to say, "it makes me angry." Anger is perhaps, too strong of a word, but irritating certainly fits the bill. And why does it irritate? Because of its weird linguistic mumbo-jumbo? Because of its lack of elves? Because of its mix of science fiction and fantasy?

NO. It is irritating because it is too good; too much so that most any cool campaign setting one wants to create is going to feel trite and/or derivative after reading Tekumel.

At least, any campaign setting that aspires to the depth of quality and cultural/historical weight that Barker creates. What he does in a dozen pages of descriptive text (and then backs up with setting-based systems) is simply remarkable, a true high-water mark for high fantasy. Which means, dear readers, that anyone interested in...say...writing something similar for publication is going to have a helluva' time doing anything close to as cool.

Which is a bit depressing. I don't particularly want to run a campaign set in Tekumel (though I sure wouldn't mind visiting as a player), but to develop something with the same depth as Barker? Well, he started working on his "world" in high school, putting me about 25 years behind the curve if I was to even start today. And he already ripped off many of the best parts of Mesoamerican and (ancient) Mid East cultures...what's left for me to do? China I suppose...but (even if I had an interest in their multi-millenial history, which I don't) anything I did with that still living culture would probably end up looking like a lot of appropriation.

Aside from which, I am incredibly shallow in comparison to the esteemed Mr. Barker: I'm no linguist to develop my own unique languages! Even when doing Five Ancient Kingdoms (which, as a setting, has some concepts reminiscent of Barker's EPT...though that was unintentional) about all I could manage was anagrams and pseudo-anagrams of real word terms and places. That's about as ambitious as I get with "developing linguistic concepts."

SO...very rough going to do anything like Empire of the Petal Throne now that Empire of the Petal Throne already exists. Sure, not everyone is familiar with it...but I am. I can't "un-see" what I've seen. I can only strive to make something that is, well, as neat (or close to) without being derivative. Which is tough. But I had an idea and I started working on it...

...and then I realized it wasn't really something I really wanted to put the effort into.'s not something I would have ended up playing. Which is kind of the point, right? I mean, in addition to exercising our creativity and making a buck, actual play is the reason we're in this hobby, yeah?

Yeah. And I realized something yesterday, something that's been lacking for me for a while now (we're talking years) something that even B/X has been unable to give me, despite the ease and beauty and familiarity of its system. I miss the style, the implied setting and cosmology, of early D&D...specifically the setting depicted in the adventures and artwork of product pre-B/X...pre-1981, in other words.

Actually, "style" may not be the right word. How about "tone." There is a tone in old AD&D (and to be clear, I am talking about AD&D here) which I use in both the visual and musical sense...something that sets up a resonance in the fibers of my being. While Moldvay/Cook/Marsh were my first steps into the realm of Dungeons & Dragons, it was those musty old AD&D tomes...acquired from used bookstores or the older siblings/relatives of friends who had "grown out of the hobby"...that truly fired my imagination. Just paging through the old DMG, it is illustrations like the ones on page 24, 31, 48, and 68 that have stayed with me for years (not to mention Emirikol the Chaotic). But it really is the adventures...the old adventure modules, that is...and the potential adventures to be found using the monsters and treasures of the Monster Manual and DMG (and, yes, the Fiend Folio) that excites me in a way little else can.

I came to this realization when reading Tim's posting on the Bloodstone modules, and examining my (fairly negative) feelings towards these adventures that I've never run nor played. I've read them, I've heard about them (from players who ran and played in them), but I have no first hand knowledge of how they play...I only know that I find nothing in them that inspires me. And while Tekumel is incredibly awesome and inspiring as a piece of work (and, let's be honest, as a creative piece of art), it doesn't inspire me to run a campaign in its world.

You know what inspires me? This does:
You know what else? This passage:

"...and the two strong slaves lifted it [the Codex] from the back of the Beast. Thereupon I commanded the Brazen Portals to be brought low, and they were wrenched from their hinges and rang upon the stone. The Efreet howled in fear and fled when I caused the page to be read, and the Beast passed into the City of Brass. Now was I, Tzunk, Master of the Plane of Molten Skies. With sure hand I closed Yagrax's Tome [the Codex], dreading to -- "

- from the AD&D DMG, Codex of the Infinite Planes, page 156

This fragment that describes the final actions taken by the High Wizard-Priest of the Isle of Woe prior to his mysterious disappearance...well, do you really need to hear anything besides "High Wizard-Priest" and "Isle of Woe?" I don't.

Look, folks: I have no intention or desire to go back to playing AD&'s a rotten system in a lot of ways. And despite my recent love affair with "Holmes-ian theory," I have some serious issues with some of its mechanics (like individual initiative). But I guess I AM finally starting to get old and nostalgic...and I'm looking at "nostalgia" as an indicator of where my interest the direction I need to take that will inspire me to hang on for the long haul. That will allow me to enjoy a style or tone (or whatever) of play that appeals to my psyche. Who cares if it's "bankable?"

[that is, who cares if there's a way to make a buck off it?]

Remember this little system?
If the name of a particularly powerful demon is spoken there is a chance that he will hear and turn his attention to the speaker. A base 5% chance is recommended to the referee. Unless prepared to avoid such attention -- or to control the demon -- the demon will thereupon immediately kill, by whatever means are most expeditious, the one pronouncing his name.
- from the AD&D Monster Manual, page 16

Now there's a good way to get a demon prince into your boring little campaign...just chant his name a few times until he shows up. See, there was a time when Orcus wasn't just another Big Boss for high level characters to team-up against in some set-piece combat. There was a time when players wouldn't even dare speak his name...

My Orcus. Just feels right.
I miss stuff like that...the horror, not of an eldritch, Lovecraftian, tentacled-type (though of course that's in there, too) but of a Satanic, Saturday Night B-Movie, black-Mass-and-bloody-candle type. The kind of horror that needs to be hewn with axe and sword...

*sigh* I know, I know...I'm probably being silly and I'll probably snap out of this "nostalgia funk" and get back to work on trying to make something "new" and "innovative" in a few days rather than desperately attempting to conjure the shadows of the past (if only there was a way I could). But that's where my head's at, right this moment anyway.

More later.


  1. Paging through OD&D and AD&D1, I definitely get a sense of mystery that would naturally bleed through into the setting. In the former case, it's because everything is so damned vague; in the latter, it's because of the immense amount of detail and hints as to setting that Gygax put into the rules.

    Don't get me wrong - I have no desire to run 1st Edition AD&D, and if anything you've understated its "rotten"-ness - but there are definitely some things that I would want to use in my campaign. Shame there was never an actual TSR-made "AD&D 3rd Edition", that might have had the grittiness, horror, and DM tools of 1st Edition, with the organization and flexibility of 2nd Edition (you're also right about the "neutered" nature of 2e compared to 1e...)

  2. There is nothing wrong with nostalgia.

    I am still ruminating on your response to my comment of Orcus being a savage beast. I think I need to revisit that a bit.

    I was talking with a friend of mine over the weekend. We agreed that as an adventure H4 has a lot problems, but all in all still a fun adventure to run. My nostalgia for it is that it was a fun adventure, and deadly as hell.

    Maybe re-running now nearly 30 years later will be different.

  3. Woah, I'd forgotten all about that 'Codex of the Infinite Planes'-related quote from the DMG. Looking back on it now, that's some serious Clark Ashton-Smith gooshy dark fantasy goodness, right there...