Friday, April 26, 2019

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:

"'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 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) 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment