Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Z is for Zemiros Sulescu

[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]

Finally! Caught up to "Z" with only a few minutes left before the end of April!

Z is for Zemiros, Lord Baron of Sulescu. And a secret nosferatu...but the people of Sulescu know the truth ("deep in their hearts," per the GAZ1 text).

"Velcome to my castle."
I've said before that I'm not a huge fan of the "Karameikos-as-fantasy-Transylvania" concept. But a lot of the tropes are already present. The dark woods full of lycanthropes. The superstitious Gypsy-like Traladarans. And, of course, all the damn vampires. Zemiros is a pretty obvious Dracula knock-off (at least in the stories where Big D isn't "all that bad"). He's a ruler (and protector) of his people...even as they are mortal cattle to feed his immortal hunger.

I suppose that even the farmer is protective of the livestock he will (eventually) slaughter, sell, and eat. This is the lie that Allston (writing for GAZ1) would have us believe: that "Zemiros Sulescu isn't really a villain - he is a neutral with great power." No, Aaron. With all due respect, he is an inhuman monster that sees humans as property and a food supply. And since we're playing a human-centric game, we should instead remember that being food for inhuman monsters isn't really the "proper station" for our particular species.

Zemiros should be a boogie man of sorts, perhaps semi-legendary, but probably a Big Bad Evil to be stomped out. I can think of several ways to revamp this character: installing a Rifts-like Vampire Kingdom in southwestern Karameikos (that would be pretty sick and wrong) of which Zemiros is just the outward manifestation of a huge alien intelligence. Replacing Zemiros with Strahd (i.e. the Dracula knock-off from adventure module I6: Ravenloft) and his castle, if not the silly, imprisoning mist (and probably axing the whole random-Gypsy-prophecy adventure...for notes on re-skinning Ravenloft, check this entry by GusL). Heck, I'd even considering making him a normal, mortal man who his people just think is a nosferatu (Zemiros might even think so himself...he's an ancient, eccentric human, prone to fits of murder and blood-drinking simply as a matter of sport)!

The REAL Zemiros
But regardless, the guy is a scourge...a repulsive, blood-sucking tick on the neck of humanity. The only thing that should keep such a creature in power IS power, and the fact of the matter is that no mere vampire can stand up to a B/X cleric of 11th level or greater. And there are a lot of level 11+ clerics in Karameikos, per their write-ups in GAZ1.

So unless we're going to say nosferatu are immune to the turning power of clerics (and why would we?) I'm going to take a page from the "extended playbook" of B/X...specifically, my own B/X Companion...and make Zemiros a Greater Vampire, one of the many monsters I wrote to challenge high level adventurers (Tim Brannan blogged a bit about this here and here; his Dracula write-up isn't a bad jumping off point for Zemiros). Yes, yes, I realize this is tooting my own horn a bit, but it's still a good concept...and there's no reason one couldn't re-write the "Greater Vampire" as a "Greater Nosferatu" in the same way the Gazetteer rewrites the original monster.

Just remember Zemiros IS a monster, not some benevolent lord.

[just like this year's A to Z challenge was a monster...and a fiendishly challenging one...to get through! But I did it (barely) with about an hour to spare]

Y is for Yolanda of Luln

[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]

Y is for Yolanda of Luln.

I’ll admit that after re-reading the description of this NPC, I’m feeling a little less critical than my initial impression. For those of you who don’t own GAZ1, here’s the gist:

Yolanda as she appears in GAZ1
Yolanda was born in the Black Eagle Barony. Not desiring for the child to grow up in such a terrible place, her parents fled with the baby; her father died during the escape. Yolanda grew up in Luln with her seamstress mother. Yolanda was blessed with great beauty and musical talent; she “trained” rigorously until the age of 18, after which she moved to the capital, where she became the most famous entertainer in Specularum. Now 22 she uses her money (after paying her expenses...including sending money to her mother in. Luln) to influence Ministers and officials at the palace to curb the degradations of Baron Black Eagle. She is described by Allston (in GAZ1) as “A Woman With A Cause,” and a possible source of adventure hooks.

The reason I was feeling critical earlier was that I had an inaccurate memory of this particular NPC. For some reason I thought (or assumed) that she was attempting to foment rebellion (or stir up trouble) against the Black Eagle Barony, using her music. Like, I don't know, Gold Moon doing her little song and dance in Dragonlance, trying to inspire folks to help her people. I mean, I realize folk musicians inspired people to activism during the latter part of the 20th century, but I'm not sure this was ever true of individual minstrels in earlier centuries. Did Yankee Doodle fire up American colonists against the British? Or was it simply a song sang as a sign of their (already) defiance? My general feeling is that the local nobility's reaction to songs of revolution would be something on par with Game of Thrones: "Would you prefer to lose your tongue or your fingers?"

But that's not what going on. Yolanda is a successful entertainer who came from humble origins who's using her newfound money (not her music) to secretly (not publicly) influence the aristocracy against a corrupt vassal. And that's just fine and dandy...except that I don't necessarily see the Black Eagle as all that "evil," and I certainly don't see Archduke Stefan as some wise and just ruler.

ANYway, she's an interesting NPC to have floating around Karameikos and other than leaving her as is (a famous entertainer...thank goodness there's no "bard" class in B/X or BECMI because I'm sure she'd have 10+ levels and a bunch of random spells), there are only a couple-three ways I'd choose to resin her:

Option #1: Make her an actual Traladaran revolutionary, but financing the guerrillas in the capital in order to overthrow the corrupt and decadent invaders (i.e. Duke Stefan himself). In this scenario, Yolanda sees the Black Eagle as only a symptom of the actual problem: foreign occupation. Instead of money going to bribe ministers and officials, she could be buying swords and arrows for the true revolutionaries hiding under the nose of the Duke. Of course, there are sharper knives in the drawer who would be aware of her schemes and would oppose her activities: individuals like Anton Radu (head of the Veiled Society) who has made money hand-over-fist since the corrupt Thyatians came into the picture.

Option #2: As option #1, but now she IS the very public, folksinger activist inspiring rebellion and dissidents with her coded lyrics of her music. The Archduke is aware of the problem, but most of the actions he could take to silence her would simply make her into a martyr...and because of her overwhelming popularity amongst the people her arrest and/or execution m might actually be the spark that sets off a firestorm! Stefan may need the aid of some mercenary minded troubleshooters (i.e. the player characters) to discreetly deal with the singer...

Diana Damrau as Yolanda.
Option #3: None of the above; Yolanda is actually a centuries old Nosferatu masquerading as a normal human entertainer. She was one of the many undead wives of Lord Zemiros Sulescu, but he tired of her some decades ago, and when she she'd finally had enough of lurking around his castle and preying on the odd gypsy...er, peasant...she decided to try her hand among the living. Her fame and popularity is as much due to selective use of her vampiric charming ability as to her natural beauty and talent. No one's yet caught on, and she's considering forming her own faction in the city of Specularum: a contingent of lovers and admirers converted to vampires and under her absolute sway and domination. One of the things I always liked about the random town encounters in the original DMG (besides the extensive list of "wandering harlots," of course) was the possibility of bumping into a vampire or greater undead on the city streets. Put one there: Yolanda, Queen of the Night!
: )

X is for X10: Red Arrow, Black Shield

[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]

X is for X10: Red Arrow, Black Shield, a 1985 adventure module by Michael S. Dobson, using characters and concepts from Dave Cook's earlier modules X4 and X5. I’ve never owned or run X10; it was published long after my home campaign moved to AD&D  and its own (non-Known World) setting, and long before I ever considered going back to BECMI and (later) B/X. Having never given it a shot (as a DM or a player), I won’t comment on whether or not it’s any “good” as a module. I will only say that while I really dig the (Cook invented) “Juggernaut” monsters, I’m not a fan of bugbear forces (again! These evil Wookiee are everywhere...even Hule!), and I wish there was some faction using war elephants. I could find no such force upon a quick skim of the module.

The part that’s pertinent to this series is how the adventure interacts with the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. X10 is one of those “campaign changing” adventures, in the same way as Wrath of the Immortals or (possibly) Death Frost Doom. Depending on how the war goes, the entire Known World will be radically changed for good or ill (though it’s still  D&D...couldn’t a wish or two put it back the way it was?). As such, GAZ1 (and all subsequent Gazetteers take an interesting tack with regard to X10: they state that the events in the module take place 200 years after the “present day” of Mystara. Specifically:

"This adventure theoretically takes place 200 years in the future of this world. (It was originally written for the current day, but later pushed further ahead in the chronology because of the massive changes that the war described would create.)"

I don’t get this. Why? Because the stuff in the ideas and NPCs in the GAZ are so sacrosanct? Maybe that’s the case...after all the information of Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure has hardly changed after a decade’s distance between it and GAZ1. Anton Radu is still alive (and running the Veiled Society), despite being murdered and outed in adventure B6. Lady Magda Marilenev is still waiting to “snap.” Sacacia of Luln has yet to be knighted (or landed) despite the fall of the Black Eagle Barony and the evidence of Ludwig’s “evil villain” status.

But So What? If you don’t want want the Master of Hule wrecking your joint, just don’t run the adventure! Why make it a part of the “cannon” timeline of Mystara? It doesn’t appear any other adventure is! Is it just SO AWESOME that it needs to be included in a Mystara campaign?

Now with additional
BS required.
Personally I think the reason is a bit more nefarious. X10 was written to both showcase and market TSR’s mass combat rule set “BATTLESYSTEM,” another accessory I skipped owning. To run it, you needed to buy BS (as I will hereafter call it); telling folks that you could ignore X10...or worse, not even mentioning it in the GAZ (no such thing as bad publicity!) would be an unheard of lack of opportunity to market yet another TSR big box product, hopefully in aid of driving sales and earning ducats for the corporate coffers.

What a bunch of rubes they took us for, huh?

If you want to blow up your campaign setting (with it without BS), I say just go ahead and do it. A well-run campaign should be constantly evolving anyway due to the action of the PC adventurers wrecking the joint and blowing up the local economies and power structures. If you don’t want a massive invasion (especially one that includes bugbears and no elephants), then don’t. Personally I like the idea of crushing the Five Shires under the massive stone wheels of rolling juggernauts and making western Karameikos a haven for halfling refugees (flood those Iron Ring slave pens with hairy footed wretches!).

Heck, maybe you’d like to make Hule a nation that worships death and convert the entire invasion force into a massive “army of the dead.” That would be kind of neat, too...if not terribly original.
; )

Monday, April 29, 2019

W is for White Dragons

[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]

W is for White Dragons. Well, white drakes, actually.

Okay, I'm just going to have to blaze through these last four. Apologies in advance.

I've written a bit about adventure module B3: Palace of the Silver Princess in a prior post, most of which was less than complimentary. Fine, sorry. While the adventure's not great, there's some background stuff in Moldvay's rewrite of the Jean Wells original version, that's rather interesting, such as:

Arik of the Hundred Eyes: an ancient, evil being worshipped as a god (there's a chaotic cleric in the module trying to break him out of his mystic prison).

Eyes of Arik: giant, magic rubies of uncertain powers, said to be the eyes of Arik.

Faerie: a "highly magical realm" inside which "time has little meaning." Faerie is a land of peace, harmony, and eternal happiness, populated by The Protectors (translucent green elf-like beings) and "certain High Elves" (whatever that means).

Knights of the White Drakes: a group of fighters that ride white dragons; both riders and mounts are dedicated to the destruction of evil.

"The Protectors"
Moldvay was writing (rather, re-writing) in 1981 and his adventure has a lot of what I'd call "B/X flavor;" it has a bunch of coloring outside the lines, draws heavily from pulp, and fictional sources, and doesn't attempt to make a whole lot of sense in terms of rules and regulations. Moldvay (author of the B/X Basic book) isn't afraid to take things "off the rails," and even though it's got a higher level of morality and "force" against players than I prefer, it's still neither a railroad, nor the codified vanilla fantasy of later publications.

Moldvay doesn't say anything about where the Valley of Haven is (other than it being a kingdom surrounded by "the Thunder Mountains") but Frank Mentzer's Expert set places it smack-dab in the middle of eastern Karameikos, at the southern end of the Altan Tepes mountains, just north of the eastern forests (home of the Vyalia elves). This he does without explanation and context, which is (I suppose) par for the course in some ways...but even without the geographical inconsistency (no valley, no Thunder Mountains), it's yet another slap in the face of Wells, who included a full map (illustrated by the author) of the region, clearly located northwest of the Principalities of Glantri and, yes, even including the Thunder Mountains. The map is one of several illustrations cut mysteriously from the rewrite, despite a total lack of anything that might be deemed "offensive;" maybe the town of "Dead Mule?"

Anyway, as I said in the earlier post on the subject of B3, I lack the time or inclination to re-write either module at the moment, but if I did, I'd probably remove it entirely from Karameikos, and put it where it's supposed to be (as its background...with a recent faerie disaster...makes absolutely no sense in the timeline of the Grand Duchy). However, I wouldn't mind re-purposing the "Castellan Keep" icon on the map (remember, I want to move the actual Keep on the Borderlands to the Duke's Road Keep) as the stronghold of the Knights of the White Drakes. Because fighters mounted on white dragons is kind of cool (and makes more sense in an area infested by Frost Giants).

Something like this.
Here's the thing about white dragons: in B/X they are NEUTRAL in alignment, neither chaotic, nor evil (as they are in AD&D and subsequent editions). That gives a lot of opportunity for interesting stuff, especially if Knights have zero allegiance to Duke Stefan, the conquering Thyatians, or the indigenous Traladarans. I see them more of an ancient, Druid-like order...and their idea of what constitutes "evil" may be very different from that of "civilized" Archduke. Dressed in antique white scale mail (forged from the carapace of their fallen brethren), the White Drake Brotherhood is half legendary, only venturing forth from their mountain lair when drawn by strange portents and celestial events. Sometimes they bring needed aid to communities threatened by monsters and ravenous humanoids, sometime they bring icy death and destruction to innocent villages who have somehow "upset the natural order."

Interesting that Sir Ellis the Strong (the one Knight detailed in B3) is only a 3rd level fighter...clearly there is something more than Name level status or prowess of arms that are necessary for indoctrination into their Order. Perhaps one must simply brave the giant-infested mountains and find the Knights' secret fortress. Perhaps it is a brotherhood bound by blood ties (and only a relative may heed the call). Perhaps only individuals of the correct psychic thought patterns may bond with their dragon mounts. Who knows...certainly the DM will need to decide on what, if any, road to initiation is available to player characters. However, Sir Ellis himself may be something of an apostate, leaving his fellow knights to marry a fairy princes, ritually blackening his armor to show his self-exile from their glacial stronghold.

All right. X is next.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

V is for Veiled Society

[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]

V is for Veiled Society, "the most powerful criminal organization in Specularum." GAZ1 states that thief characters can choose to belong to one of three thieves' guilds in Karameikos, and identifies The Veiled Society as one of these (the other two being "The Kingdom of the Thieves" headed by Flameflicker, and "The Iron Ring" slaver organization).

I was trying to remember when I first heard of such a concept as a "guild" of thieves. I didn't read any Leiber "Lankhmar" tales till (probably) high school, certainly not before I was years' deep in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (back in those "pre-internet days," if you were looking for some long out-of-print pulp fiction, you'd only find it at a library with a decent selection...pretty sure my first Leiber, Moorcock, and Zelazny books were pulled off the Seattle Prep SciFi shelf). I probably had some idea of guilds (from history class, encyclopedias, and/or watching Dickens' Christmas Carol on a yearly basis), and there IS mention of "thieves guilds" in the Cook/Marsh Expert set, in exactly two places:

"At this point, a player character thief may want to consider setting up a Thieves Guild (the details of this are left to the DM)."  [page X8, discussing high level thieves building hideouts and attracting apprentice thieves]

"The base town should be large enough to support the services the players will need these include:

  • Inns and townhouses where the players stay between adventures, where notices are posted, and where rumors are found.
  • Churches, shrines or temples for the clerical orders, including at least one NPC cleric powerful enough to cast a raise dead spell.
  • A Thieves' Guild for thief class characters that can provide information, markets for treasure, smuggling, spies, and hireling thieves -- for a price.
  • Town militia to keep an eye on the town -- and the players!

"The DM should also decide who is running the town..." [page X54, on building a base town for the campaign, emphasis added (regarding the thieves guild) by Yours Truly]

[man, just to digress for a moment...so much to digest and infer from that little bit of world building. What a great place for a new DM to start! Everything that's really pertinent...including a cleric that can raise dead!...is on that list, save perhaps the blacksmith and "general store" that any town large enough to support the rest should be able to provide. Note, this is the outline for a "home base" for adventurers, not any old village, which could be lacking most, if not all of these components. But for a place that adventurers (i.e. the player characters) come from, YES, it should have all these things...not only for their services but (probably) for the PCs' origins as well: fighters were trained in the militia, clerics at one of the churches, etc. And, NO, it does not NEED to have a wizard or "magicians guild" because, of course, PC magic-users can learn their own spells through spell research (helping to suck off excess treasure in the process)...magic need not be commonplace!]

[ha! Raise dead! Always available at the home base, so why O why was there ever whining about getting killed on an adventure? Sheesh!]

*AHEM* The presence of a thieves guild, given the description in the Expert set provides a number of practical services for player characters (a place to sell treasure! a place to procure thief hirelings!) as well as giving the thief a way to shine that may be welcome indeed (keeping in mind that the low-level thief in B/X is a pretty paltry character, both skill-wise and combat-wise!)...since, presumably, one must BE a thief (and one in good guild standing) in order to interact with the "thieves guild."

[the alternative I suppose would be difficulty in finding places to fence loot, poor exchange rates on treasure, and wild chance if an adventuring thief was available for hire at the local tavern...assuming a thief would be willing to publicly announce her profession in the first place!]

Members in the Veiled Society (briefly mentioned in this previous post) is described in GAZ1 as follows:

"The Veiled Society is appropriate to characters with a grim, Mafia-like outlook on their criminal activities. If this character likes hurting people as much as he likes robbing them, the Veiled Society is for him.
"The Veiled Society demands 15% of all the character's earnings (other than those earnings for Veiled Society activities). It does provide a reliable fence for that fee. It helps the character by trying to spring him from jail or beating or killing those who've done him wrong -- the Society is loyal to its members.
"However, it often makes demands of the characters -- such as "Go to the House of Silks near the Street of Dreams. Break in. Kill the old man and his daughter and then set the place afire." This isn'e a thieves' guild for characters with morals."

Allston states that only Neutrals and Chaotics may join the Veiled Society, but PCs of any alignment...and of any class!...can be asked to join during the course of adventure module where they first appear: Dave Cook's B6: The Veiled Society. In fact, very few of the Veiled Society men (yes, they are all men) in the adventure are thieves...a total of three out of 51 NPCs. For a "thieves guild," they're pretty light on thieves! Cook also includes this little "initiation" ritual:

"You are now on of us," says the man. "If they catch you, they kill you. If you betray us, we kill you. Act in our name but without our blessing, we kill you. Work hard for us and you will prosper. Once with us you cannot leave us."

This is said after donning the Veiled Society hood, which both protects their identities and is the symbol of their allegiance. It should be obvious that the Society does not suffer betrayal lightly (or at all).

The Society's hideout appears to be an ancient, subterranean complex (I'm making it sound more exciting than it is: it consists of all of three chambers and a handful of straight passages). There's something very mystical about the place, and the Society in general. Their meeting hall feels like an ancient pagan temple (though there is no idol, only a gong...which I can't see them using since the members only meet at appointed time and there are no rooms from which to call folks to gather). There are as many high level spell-casters as "thieves" among their members (two clerics, one magic-user) all of which are in leadership positions (unlike the thieves). There are their masking rituals and their oaths of secrecy and commitment, the headdress of their hidden leader. More than a fantasy Cosa Nostra, the trappings of the Society feels like that of a secret society, one with religious overtones, and one that's been operating in the depths beneath Specularum for generations...certainly before the Thyatia conquest.

Personally, I dig it. I've loved the feel of this module ever since I saw it's Roslof-illustrated cover, many years ago...and despite the overall weakness of the adventure design I've held onto it.  A hooded, murderous secret society knifing people in the dark alleys of Specularum after sundown? That's cool...probably should be kidnapping the odd virgin to sacrifice to some shadowy goddess every new moon as well (a ritual leftover from ancient times, blood of the innocent used to "resurrect" the moon). It doesn't have to be ultra-weird and Cthulhu-y...murderous fanaticism hidden behind the facade of "normal" friends and neighbors can be just as creepy.

Okay...I'll end the post here. Man, I am far behind this month. I had wanted to talk about the other thieves guilds as well (including the one located in Threshold...a town of 500...and how preposterous that is), and especially the Iron Ring slavers. But that'll have to wait till another day.

Friday, April 26, 2019

U is for Uprising

[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]

U is for Uprising, specifically the Marilenev Uprising, a suggested adventure for a campaign set in the Grand Duchy, and one of many included in GAZ1. The description reads like this:

The Lady Magda finally snaps. She and her subordinates begin fomenting revolution in the streets. The adventure is the riot that ensues in the Grand Market when Lady Magda is making the greatest speech of career; all her own soldiers are in the crowd, pretending to be passerby and whipping the crowd into a cheering frenzy. Then the city guard shows up and the riot ensues -- between the city guard and the Marilenev guardsmen, with more arriving to help both sides every minute. The characters can be on one side or another, or trying to keep innocent people from being hurt. (After this adventure is over the Estate of Marilenev will probably have another master and another name...)

Bleah. Just...bleah.

The background for this adventure takes place thirty years ago with an earlier uprising led by the Marlilenev clan. Well, actually, I suppose its origin starts 100 years prior with the Thyatia conquest. Marilenev, named (presumably) for its ruling family, was a flourishing trade city and the chief port of the Traladara region. After its conquest, the Thyatians renamed it Specularum, built walls, and stationed a contingent of Thyatian soldiers to ensure (nominal) taxes were paid and everyone knew who the new boss was. As the wealthy families retained their properties (if not self-rulership) business and life went on, more-or-less, as usual.

Some folks, however, appear to have been less than satisfied with the new situation. When Stefan took over (70 years after the conquest), "the powerful Traladaran families in Specularum saw the political change as an opportunity to reestablish Traladaran independence" and plotted to kill the Duke while still in the early stages of his settling in. The thought was that if they could take the town and erect a strong enough defense, they might make it economically unfeasible for Thyatis to launch a second conquest attempt. Unfortunately:

"...the Marilenev clan prematurely led an armed revolt against the Duke and was decisively beaten by the Duke and the garrison. Most of the Marilenev men died in the attack. Naturally, from that point on the Duke had his eyes on the other powerful families, especially the Radu and Torenescu clans."

The Estate of Marilenev remains, just outside of Specularum: a small farming village of 900 souls watched over by Castle Marilenev, "a Gothic monstrosity of depressing walls and crumbling towers." Lady Magda Marilenev is its ruler. "Magda was the young wife of Lord Marilenev 30 years ago, when the Marilenev Rebellion was put down." Now a bitter, resentful widow in her 50s, she is described as "a barrel of resentment:" resentful of the Duke, resentful of the other clans whose help she required after the Rebellion, resentful of her state of affairs in comparison to that of the city...she is primed with hatred and ready to "snap," as she does in the suggested adventure. Allston (thankfully) stats her as a Normal Human, rather than a classed character; a surprisingly average woman with an Intelligence of 10, Wisdom of 10, and Charisma of 13. Hardly, a scheming revolutionary or inspiring rabble-rouser, she's just a bitter old woman and (as I infer from the final line of the Marilenev Uprising adventure) an obstacle to the "heroic" player characters being given a castle and township just outside the capital city.

This is Lady Magda and her background as presented by Allston in GAZ1 (the first appearance of the Marilenev clan and its history). There's a little more embellishment in the later Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure. I haven't written much about K:KoA, an AD&D 2E campaign setting credited to Allston and Jeff Grubb, published in 1994 (seven years after the Gazetteer). While it takes into account the events of 1992's Wrath of the Immortals, advancing the GAZ1 timeline ten years and changing Archduke Stefan to King Stefan I, nearly all of the text is a reprint of the material in GAZ1...word-for-word content, with stats slightly altered for the AD&D rule system (BECMI was very close to 2nd edition AD&D at this point, so not much was needed).  If I had to guess, I'd suspect Allston receives co-credit because so much of the text is taken from GAZ1...Grubb's name is listed first in the byline and I imagine he's responsible for what little new material is found in K:KoA.

But as I said, there's not much (for Magda, especially)...but what there is, is very interesting. She's still the average ability, 0-level character, though aged a decade (she's now in her 60s); she's still the bitter, "barrel of resentment" waiting to "snap" (no Uprising has yet taken place in the advanced timeline). However, now we learn that Magda's own children, Britan and Caspar,

"...were captured by Stefan's forces, who were in turn ambushed by orcs, killing all."

Yowza! This is a much darker portrait of the Marilenev Rebellion (quick historical note: if it fails, it's a a "rebellion;" if it succeeds, it's a "revolution"). K:KoA provides genealogical ancestry for noble houses (each going back three to four generations), and Magda was the only known survivor of the Rebellion, with Magda's husband and his three brothers perishing, and her sister-in-law (Melanie Marilenev) disappearing and never again being seen (in 40 years!). Now "widowed, childless, and stripped of much of her power" no wonder Magda's ready to snap. I'd think she'd be closer to the edge of madness...after all, how old could her sons have been at the time of the Rebellion? Magda herself was only in her early to mid-20s at the time.

Lady Magda now...but
not at the time of the Rebellion.
Of course, now I have to wonder: why. Why has this woman been left to fester for four decades? A young widow, a landed, titled noble, still of childbearing age (and proven as such having had two healthy children), and yet possessing no heirs to her estates...WHY wouldn't she have married into some other wealthy or noble family (Traladaran or Thyatian)? This was no Lady Olenna Tyrell (yes, another Game of Thrones reference), long past her childbearing years who, upon seeing the death of her son, grandchildren, and heirs by the hand of Cersei Lannister, had nothing left to live for but "fire and blood." Lady Magda had EVERYTHING left to live for...including sweet, sweet revenge on Duke Stefan. She should have gotten herself married to someone ("Hey! I've got a castle! And lands!"), and got about the business of breeding new kids too carry on a legacy of hatred and vengeance against the Thyatian invaders. 30 years wasted (40 by K:KoA)?! Aleena was a 12th level cleric by the age of 22! Come on!

But, hey, let's talk about these dead children for a moment. Clearly, the authors want to steer away from the idea of any cruel impropriety by our "good" Duke Stefan. "Oh, yeah, sorry...orc ambush. Been known to happen." Yeah, sure, pal. How about having one of your MANY clerical cronies cast raise dead on my kids?! Both Sherlane Halaran and Oliver Jowett accompanied Stefan to Karameikos, and both were prominent Thyatian patriarchs (and, thus, high enough level to raise dead) prior to embarking on their Karameikan adventure. I can understand not raising the adult members of the Rebellion as a suitable punishment to their treason, but the kids? What was their particular crime, Mr. Lawful Good Archduke, sir? Just worm food (or orc food), huh?

A better Lady Magda
Sorry, I'm not buying any of this. If we make the Duke a more recent entrant on the scene (as I suggested a couple posts back), the Marilenev Rebellion can be a more recent affair as well, with the fallout still being sorted. Instead of a bitter, spiteful old woman, Lady Magda can be a vengeful, fiery young woman, ready to put the wheels of revenge in motion. This isn't Lady Tyrell; this is Cersei Lannister, trying to rebuild an empire on the smoldering remains of her family. She has absolutely no faith in the Duke's "orc ambush" story (and, of course, this is a barefaced lie...Stefan wants no young Traladaran nobles growing up with resentment over the deaths of their fathers), and she's willing to make whatever deals with the devil necessary to enact justice on the murderous usurpers. A good model would be the (fictionalized) Kwenthrith of Mercia from the Vikings television series. She's a complex character: manipulative, vengeful, and ambitious as hell, but still possessing some love and compassion that she supresses with ruthless practicality. The only thing she's truly "resentful" of is being born a woman in a society that makes her sex less worthy to rule than...well, than any number of flawed, terrible, male human beings. And, yet, she doesn't resent being a woman, she resents the patriarchy that would denigrate and devalue her for the fact of her birth.

Give Magda/Kwenthrith a real uprising, not some paltry riot quickly supressed by the Duke's Elvenguard. Give her a real chance at revenge, maybe some child-for-a-child payback (make sure you feed the bodies to orcs so they can't be raised...that's a Kwenthrith kind of thing to do). And make sure there are opportunities for the player characters to get involved, and not just "keeping innocent people from getting hurt." I just don't see that many innocent people in Karameikos.
: )

T is for Threshold

[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]

T is for Threshold, the "sample home town" found in Mentzer's 1983 (BECMI) Expert set. I'll be including Patriarch Sherlane (Baron Halaran) and his niece Aleena in the discussion.

Before I start "getting into it" I'd like to clear up something that may be less than clear. I've got quite a bit of positive feedback on this series (which is good, thanks) but I know some folks may have a very different view of what I'm doing. I know there's a LOT of love for the BECMI game and the Mystara campaign setting as written...and not just because of the "nostalgia of youth;" plenty of folks still keep BECMI (and the RC) as their edition of choice and continue to use Mystara as their home campaign. I understand that my critique and criticism (often expressed in a harsh or inflammatory way) can seem like a rather personal attack on something certain people hold dear and valuable. Hell, Aaron Alston is dead...I can see how criticizing his work now can be viewed as unkind (to say the least).

So, although I believe I've said this in the past, allow me to once again reiterate that I have great respect for the sheer amount of work and care that went into the creation of this material by Allston, Mentzer, and others (Jeff Grubb did a lot with the later Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure). More than that I have admiration for both the authors and their work, and not a little bit of love and nostalgia of my own. The fact of the matter is, if I didn't care about Karameikos, I would not put in the time and effort to do a series like this. I don't write about things I don't care about (and I generally refuse to write about things I want to leave dead and buried...there's no such thing as "bad publicity," after all). The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, as presented in the B/X Expert set, had very little to it...hardly enough to inspire much admiration, respect, or thought. It's the later works: Mentzer's BECMI, Allston's Gazetteers, modules like B6 and B10-12 (by Cook, Sargent, and others) that have contributed to the lore of the setting material, providing the grist that fires up my "think-box."

No matter how harsh I may appear, I write about this stuff because I care. I could write about other things that are important to me: my daughter starting piano lessons last week, my boy getting three hits on four swings of the bat (don't know where he gets it), or my 18th wedding anniversary with my wife. But my readers are coming here for the "game stuff." And what's more, I like writing about the game stuff...this is my place to do so. I can throw all that other stuff on Facebook, if I want.

SO...Threshold. Threshold first appears as a sample home town in Mentzer's Expert set, a replacement of the dirty, lawless town of Luln that is much more conducive to the "family friendly" style of fantasy that TSR began to produce in the mid-80s (Mentzer's Basic set contains no "inspirational reading list" packed with Thieves World authors and pulp sword & sorcery). And let me here and for the permanent record admit I really like the Expert set, AND Threshold...despite its BECMI-isms (like godless Clerics) it's my favorite book of the BECMI series, and I find it pretty darn good. Yes, a good part of this is Larry Elmore's illustrations which, I feel, really conveys what "expert level" characters should look like (I'm less fond of his monsters illos). But the layout and information conveyed is a great rehash of the Cook/Marsh books, and the setting building material is quite a bit better...and I LIKE the Threshold write-up immensely; it is space much-better-used than the terse gnome warren write-up in the original (B/X) Expert book.

Mentzer describes Threshold as "a thriving frontier village of 400 permanent residents plus over 100 other regular visitors. The main business of Threshold is to supply timber to the Capital." Later, he adds that the town contains about 50 demihumans in addition to the 500 human residents, the whole being ruled from nearby Tarnskeep by the Baron Sherlane Halaran. Patriarch Sherlane is a Lawful cleric, and a no-nonsense, incorruptible good guy leader-type, who looks over his barony as close as a priest would care for his "flock," yet still finds the time to go on serious and secret missions for the Duke (see adventures like B12: Queen's Harvest as an example). Per GAZ1 he is helped in his administration (really just running errands and messages to the town master, guard houses) is his niece/adopted daughter Aleena Halaran...the same cleric slain by Bargle with a magic missile back in the BECMI solo adventure of the 1983 Basic set. Apparently, her uncle brought her back to life (not surprising given that he's 14th level) and she has since managed to thrive, achieving 12th (!!) level and becoming part of the Order of the Griffon despite being only 22 years old and not seeming all that interested in adventuring (per the GAZ1 description). WTF.

Allston increases the size of Threshold to 5000 and paints an idyllic picture of the waterfront logging town:

"...it's not a tight-packed, dirty, squalid town; by Baron Halaran's decree, no house may be built within 50 feet of another, and so Threshold is spread over a large area, filled with nice homes usually surrounded by vegetable gardens and livestock pens." (GAZ1, page 39)

Where's my baguette?
Considering Threshold in light of its description, and the rather quaint/pastoral adventure scenarios presented in Mentzer's Expert set (stuff with rafting, gardeners, damsels in distress, gold dragons in disguise, etc.) one might gather this is a nice little fairytale town...something like the "poor provincial town" depicted in Disney's (animated) film, Beauty and the Beast. That is, in fact, the kind of thing I tend to picture.

However, looking at the map Mentzer has drawn for Threshold, one sees a set-up more typical of the medieval town, complete with a double wall (probably guarding the inner "old town" and later "new town"), one of the main reasons for the rather cramped and squalid nature of such places. When walls offer the main protection for a community of people, SPACE for building is at a premium...no one wants to live outside the wall (unprotected!) and buildings are by necessity built so close as to be right on top of each other, leading to all the usual unpleasantness: filth, disease, and fire hazard.  Interestingly, this is exactly how Threshold is portrayed in the (British written) adventure module B10: Night's Dark Terror. Published a year before  Allston's GAZ1, B10 has a substantial section on Threshold and describes it as:

"...a typical town: crowded, smelly and dirty. Except for the buildings by the river, all waste is emptied into the streets, and pigs and dogs can often be seen scavenging through it."

[two of the three designers of B10...Jim Bambra and Phil Gallagher...have credits with the gritty Warhammer Fantasy game and that particular aesthetic is on display in several parts of the module]

And B10 was still working with an assumed population of 500. Imagine increasing it by ten fold...more crowd, more smell, more filth. And that's not even counting the attached Fogor Island, which is "unofficially" under the control of the local thieves' guild, and shunned by law-abiding citizens (per B10). While Allston took Mentzer's work and ran with it in one direction, Gallagher and company did the complete opposite as far as tone, theme, and color. It ends up being a weird and strange mixture...a place less of a hometown, and (perhaps) not even one you'd like to visit. Sherlane's edict forbidding magic-user magic seems somewhat silly in Mentzer (though understandable considering an "expert level" spell-caster will have access to destructive spells like fireball)...in B10, the designers provide a Clerical Court of five clerics (appointed by Sherlane) who put convicted spell-casters on trial and bestow curses like insomnia (no ability to regain spells) and dumbness (no ability to cast spells without words), effectively crippling wizards completely. It's vicious and mean and says quite a bit about how the Patriarch runs his town. There's no shortage of inns (most streets having "at least one") serving wine, and no prohibition on characters carrying swords (unlike Specularum where any weapon larger than a dagger must be tied/bound), so I can see a lot of back alley duels being fought and general bloodletting (while B10 states townsfolk attempt to avoid combat, they're also quick to defend themselves with daggers, chairs, bottles, etc.).

It's an "interesting" place for the Duke to choose as a place for a secret coin mint, especially considering Kelvin is closer to both Specularum and High Forge, and is likewise located on the river. Perhaps the Duke has more trust in the good Patriarch Sherlane whom he knew from his days in Thyatis (Halaran was originally a priest of the Church of Thyatis). Or perhaps it's just that Kelvin was never established as anything more than a name on a map, prior to GAZ1.

All right it's late, and I'm still two days behind on this thing; best get to my thoughts on how I'd alter this thing. First off, I'd probably ignore the quaint little English village thing going on in GAZ1, and stick to the squalid medieval town found in B10, while still upping the population. While Luln is a fairly nasty little hole of a town to come from, I'd like players visiting Threshold to come away with a greater appreciation for their home of origin...far better to grow up there than under the rigid, religious patriarchy of Baron Halaran.

"Bow down,
ye of little faith!"
Halaran, to me, sounds like a fanatic with a bit of a god complex. I mean, he can raise the dead, cure the sick, etc...why shouldn't he have an ego the size of Texas? He has the power to keep the cholera epidemics under control! His people love him! Or they fear him...but better to live inside his walls (no doubt decorated with holy texts and religious screeds and sermons) than in the wilds of Karameikos where one might be attacked by goblin slavers or a vengeful chevall!

Allston writes (in GAZ1) that "the idea of the clerical stronghold is a strange one to most Karameikans. In the Grand Duchy, clerics don't generally band together and build mighty fortresses just so they can be jolly armed clerics together." However, that is just what Hallaran has done! In making Threshold "more B/X" I would certainly have be Tarnskeep a typical cleric castle, garrisoned with a small army of fanatically loyal troops, just as any Name level cleric would have.  These "faithful" militants would not only patrol the barony (keeping the peasants in line, repelling marauding humanoids) but would reinforce the town militia, ensuring all clerical edicts were obeyed without question, and enforcing "justice" as necessary.

"I have a message
to deliver."
Hallaran's niece, the lovely Aleena, would be the patriarch's personal protege, equivalent to a loyal retainer, and probably no higher than 3rd or 4th level. Being young and inexperienced, Hallaran would certainly encourage her to adventure in the wilds, albeit always with a small cadre of bodyguard zealots to ensure her safety. I'd probably keep the Cleric Council, making them a group of 6th and 7th level clerics, each dedicated to a particular god/goddess of the Imperial pantheon, all bent on converting the indigenous Traladarans to a more "civilized," pliable people. Sherlane himself I'd drop to 12th level or so, making him powerful but still beholden to his superior counterpart in the capital.

I'd probably ignore the entire "secret mint" subplot, moving the thing to Kelvin instead (and giving another reason for that city's importance). Threshold's strategic value as a loyal (if fanatical/crazy) military stronghold on the Duchy's northern border offers reason enough to allow the Patriarch the autonomy he craves to form a minor theocracy on the edge of the wilds.

Oh, yeah...and I'd axe Cardia's Carpet Service completely.

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.


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.

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]