Wednesday, March 30, 2011

If Ronnie James Dio had owned a set of dice...

...they probably would have looked something like this:

I wonder if it's too late for Raggi to include a set of these beauties in his forthcoming Grindhouse Edition of LotFP?


Monday, March 28, 2011

[Solo GPC] 517: Perish in Flames

Hey, we're back! I know it's been a while, so here's a quick recap: last year, Herringdale found himself in the middle of an ugly love triangle between his lord Earl Robert of Salisbury, the Earl's intended bride Lady Katherine, and the Saxon Prince Cynric of Wessex. Ordered to retrieve Katherine after she eloped with Cynric, Herringdale instead chose to let her go, much to Earl Robert's displeasure. The year ended with Herringdale socially and politically isolated, brooding in his hall at Du Plain on the likely approach of renewed war with the Saxons...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

[Gray Box Project] The Box! The Box!

Alright, let's do this thing.

I'm hoping to update this series at a rate of three or four posts a week; we'll see how that works out. Today we're starting with what the Gray Box is precisely - its physical appearance, the art of its book covers and maps, and what implicit assumptions I can take away from such (hey, I said that this was going to be a close reading!).

Now, I don't know about you, but to me visuals matter. I can be sold or unsold on a product strictly by its cover image. And when Keith Parkinson is involved, it's pretty much a done deal right off the bat. Like with the cover of the old RIFTS main book, Parkinson's cover art for the Gray Box immediately drew me towards the product and the world contained within.

Pretty much everything about that cover image intrigued me when I first saw it, and it continues to cast a spell over me to this day. The exotic armor and weapons of the man on horseback. The strange, alien landscape (are those stone formations or weird fungal growths?). The image also betrays a bit of "late 80s fantasy chic" - looking at it, I'm reminded of the production design for Willow.

(Wait, is Willow the perfect Forgotten Realms movie? Note to self: use this project as an excuse to watch Willow again for the first time in 20 years.)

Unlike with Parkinson's RIFTS cover, to my knowledge the figure in this image was never identified or statted up. (For those not in the know, Parkinson's RIFTS cover provided the creative impetus for the design of a whole race of alien bad guys who would not have otherwise existed in the setting's canon.) It might be an interesting idea to take a page from Palladium and figure out who this fellow is, where he is, and what his significance is. I'll definitely keep that in the back of my mind as I get into reading the books proper.

The other thing I've always liked about the box cover is the Forgotten Realms logo. Again, it seems to present a sort of imagery that is reminiscent of something other than bog standard Ye Olde Medievalle Fantasie. From my preliminary skimming of the actual material in the books, this initial impression will not be borne out in the text, but that's a topic for future posts.

Opening the box, we find two 96-page booklets and four maps. The set should also come with two acetate hexagon overlays, but my eBay copy did not have them. (Anyone have any spares they're willing to send me?) Although the books do not say so explicitly, the copy on the back of the box indicates that the Cyclopedia of the Realms is meant as the "Read This First"-type book, and the DM's Sourcebook of the Realms is, of course, the proprietary, Dungeon Masta's-eyes only book. The cover of the DM's Sourcebook is the same as the box cover, but the Cyclopedia features another Parkinson illustration.

Again, very "late 80s fantasy chic." The "good guys" (wearing white, of course) are eerily reminiscent of the "good guys" in Road Warrior. The sense of White Hats versus Black Hats, GOOD versus EEEVIL is pretty much unavoidable looking at this picture. Even the EVIL humanoid's horse is EVIL! Another interesting element I'm picking up on with both of Parkinson's covers is how, well, gray the palette is. Lots of mist and shades of darkness. Looking at armor and weapons, there's a distinct feel of Late Antiquity/Dark Ages: chain mail, scale armor, unbarded horses, and so forth. Might be an interesting direction to take things in; I've posted before of my love of the Late Roman period. Waterdeep as Constantinople? Hmmm...

Another interesting implicit detail lies in the books' back covers. One features a blank Random Encounter table that's formatted in a very handy way that I could definitely see adapting to any future D&D campaign. The fact that the chart is left for individual DMs to fill in indicates an openness to customizing the setting to one's individual tastes. Of greater interest is the other chart, which is a blank Party Information table. What I find most interesting are the first two blank lines, labeled "Adventuring Company" and "Symbol." Here's a rather explicit statement on the default vision for adventurers in the Realms: that they will be members of an organized corporation devoted to Adventuring, not unlike the great explorer/merchant companies of the Age of Discovery (another possible historical inspiration).

Finally we have the maps. From skimming ahead, I know that two are large scale maps showing the entirety of the campaign world, and two are zoomed in on the more developed regions. Even on the zoomed-in maps, I can't help but notice how empty they are. This brings up one of the central setting customization questions that will be occupying my thoughts as I get into examining the Realms: are the maps "as-is" or are they going to be filled in further by me? In other words, am I treating my version of the Realms as a true "points of light" setting, with human settlements few and far between, or will I be taking a page from Medieval Demographics Made Easy and fleshing out the settled lands with towns, villages, cultivated lands, and so forth, along with new countries and other areas? At the moment I'm leaning in the latter direction, but I'll save final judgment for later on in the project.

Next up in the series, I'll be diving in to the Cyclopedia of the Realms. Unlike with the box and its contents' visual presentation, we'll now be looking at much more of what's explicitly stated and integrating that with the implicit impressions gleaned from the box art and maps. Until then!

Monday, March 21, 2011

[Gray Box Project] Ground Rules

Before I get in to my first posts on reading the Gray Box, I should lay out some ground rules for the project.
  • As mentioned in my inaugural post, I am limiting myself to Forgotten Realms canon strictly as presented in the 1987 Gray Box. I might consider taking a look at Realms-related articles written by Ed Greenwood and published in Dragon Magazine prior to the Gray Box's release - haven't made up my mind on that one yet. Won't be going near any of the novels, for sure.
  • Although I will not be bringing in any Realms-specific publications, I do plan on making use of generic or third-party publications to help flesh things out or provide inspiration. For example, I could definitely see using 0one's excellent Great City map for my Waterdeep or their Under the Mountain maps for my, well, Undermountain. Or turning to my copy of the 2e-era Complete Priest's Handbook to flesh out some of the religions. My emphasis will remain on bringing in raw materials, though - I don't want to pick up any 200-page city sourcebooks or pantheon books, as that somewhat defeats the purpose of this project.
  • Also as stated in the previous post, nothing in the setting is sacred. I will be focused on the implicit as well as the explicit, and will happily pick up a barely hinted-at thread or theme and run with it. I furthermore reserve to right, having completed my close reading of the Gray Box, to take a big ol' magic marker and start making sweeping changes to the map and the contents of the books. Not saying that's what I'm planning on, but you never know. What is certain is that, in the end, my version of the Realms will reflect my peculiar biases and those of the players I've gamed with regularly over the years. As it should!
  • For those of you who don't know, my go-to iteration of D&D is Castles & Crusades (particularly in light of the long-awaited release of the Castle Keepers Guide) and any NPCs, monsters, or other game-specific stats I develop and post in conjunction with this project will be written for C&C (which is, of course, both backwards and forwards convertible up to and including 3.x).

Artistically inclined? Don't forget to check out my banner contest!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

[Gray Box Project] Returning to the Realms

When it comes to (A)D&D game worlds, few are as guaranteed to elicit extreme opinions as the Forgotten Realms. I myself have a typically ambivalent relationship with the setting. I'd say the majority of my D&D gaming as both player and DM has been in the Realms, but it was never a favorite of mine. For a variety of reasons, the Realms never made their way into my heart, and I've spent a lot of time working on personal game worlds that would address my interests more directly. And yet...

The Realms presented in the first Gray Box, released in 1987, are radically different from the Realms of the 2e to 3e era (to say nothing of what's happened to the setting since 4e came out...). Now that I have Pendragon and Dragon Warriors to tap my long-held desire for a fantasy setting that hews closer to folklore and faerie tales, and in light of my realization last year that I'll always be a Silver/Bronze Age DM despite my dabbling in OSR tropes over the past couple years, I've been giving some thought to establishing a de-facto game world for vanilla D&D.

For some years, I was hoping the Wilderlands would be that setting, but alas it is not to be. As much as I love the setting, I've found myself unable to fully engage with it as a DM. Nor has it been a great success with my players, who likewise find the setting a bit too old school in their sensibilities. I've tinkered with the idea of remaking the Wilderlands into something that works better for our collective interests, but I realized I'd end up rewriting most of the setting if I did so.

It was at this point that my mind starting turning back to the Realms. I haven't done any gaming in that setting in well over 10 years, but if I was going to be tinkering with and rewriting a setting, maybe they would suit my needs more closely. Perhaps it was time to give it a fresh look? One eBay auction later, I was in possession of the Gray Box, the first public version of the Realms. It was the first version of the Realms I experienced as well, and it seemed a good place to return. Yet I'm under no illusions that my old issues with the Realms have magically gone away. There will be much tinkering, oh yes...

And so was born this new series: the Gray Box Project. In the mold of Sham's D&D Cover to Cover or Jeff's similar Arduin Grimoire project, I intend to devote a series of posts to a very close and literal reading of the Forgotten Realms Gray Box. In so doing, my intention is to unlearn all of the non-Gray Box setting detail that's accumulated since its release, thereby forming a baseline for my own interpretation of the Realms. I will be looking for what is unsaid or implied as much as what is stated directly.

As I engage in the close reading, I will also use the posts as a sounding board for ideas on how to make the Realms my own. Nothing about the setting will be held sacred or canonical and everything's on the table for potential changes. By the end of the series, I hope to have both a more in-depth understanding of and appreciation for the Forgotten Realms as originally envisioned as well as a highly personalized version of the Realms for me to use as my D&D sandbox setting.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Banner Contest!

As of sometime in the last 24 hours I've picked up my 158th follower (and a big tip o' the hat to everyone who has come on board during my hiatus!). I'm not normally one to post about followers or anniversaries or what have you, but I notice this puts me right on the verge of leveling up to the exalted status of Pundit. With such an august title so close I can taste it, I figure it's time to make my triumphant return to regular posting and "bring it to the waltz," as it were.

I'll be kicking off a new series this weekend and I'm also planning to start up an irregular review column (mostly focusing on BRP products at least initially). And yes, GPC posts will return shortly, as will my promised mini-return to Rifts:2112.

So with all this activity, I reckon it's time to put up a new banner for the ol' blog. Normally I'd bung something together in Photoshop, but I'm having a hard time deciding on a direction. So I figured I'd open the floor up to submissions. If anyone out there wants to contribute something, just hit me up at the email address in my About Me profile with your submission. Sky's the limit as far as content/appearance, although I do tend to dislike banners that take up too much space (no shade on Shane's otherwise fantastic blog, but that banner is the Lil Wayne bling of the blogosphere). If I get multiple submissions and can't decide which one to go with, I'll put the matter up to a vote here on the blog. The winning entry will receive some sort of nifty super secret (read: I haven't thought of what yet) prize.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hot Dwarf Chicks

(Artist lamentably unknown)
Wait, I think I'm doing this wrong...

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Old School Roleplaying

Heh, no sooner do I announce a hiatus than I make a post!

(To be fair, Des encouraged me to take some time for blogging to let off some steam.)

And it's just a brief one. It's a quiet evening and I'm catching up on blog posts. I just read a very intriguing post over at Jeff's Gameblog. There's a lot of food for thought in the post and in the comments, but what I personally found most intriguing was Jeff's re-branding of the acronym "OSR" as standing for "Old School Rules" rather than "Revolution" or "Renaissance". (A commenter suggested alternately "Old School Roleplaying", which also has a nice ring to it.) I like this a lot because, to me, it broadens the old school movement to include more than just D&D. I started blogging right as the OSR was getting off the ground, so I've been along for the ride more or less from the beginning and frankly I'm kind of sick of it. It's been almost exclusively D&D focussed and, I mean, how many times can one wax philosophically about dungeon crawls, West Marches campaigns, and retro clones? Despite the fact that, even back in the day I never really played D&D "old school" style, it was all pretty interesting a couple years ago, but now not so much.

However, I'm still solidly in the "old school" camp because, frankly, I can't stand modern RPGs. Four-hundred page rulebooks, litanies of feats, powers, items, sooper classes, and gimmicky mechanics. Blech! (Yes, I know Old School doesn't necessarily equate to rules light, but even the most complex Old School games could barely hold a candle to the more complex systems of today.) At any rate, the re-branding of OSR to stand for Old School Rules works a charm for me. My system of choice is Basic Roleplaying and its derivitives (chiefly Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon), which is a very old school system indeed. If I were ever to play GURPS again, I'd most likely go the route of S. John Ross "Classic-Era GURPS" (scroll to the bottom for a definition), restricting myself to the 1988 3rd Edition Basic Set. And I'll always have a soft spot for Palladium, the most successful set of 1e AD&D house rules ever published. So even though dungeon crawls and Old School D&D was never really my style, I can firmly get behind the "Old School Rules" movement. Here's to the "new" OSR!

Short Hiatus

In case it hasn't been obvious from my lack of posts, I've been on a bit of a hiatus that promises to stretch on for a little while longer. This is mostly due to the fact that last week Des went in for emergency abdominal surgery. She's home from the hospital now, doing well, and recuperating, but needless to say I'm in full-time caretaker mode right now and finding myself with precious little time for much else besides work. So the blog posts will be scant to non-existent for a while, as will associated projects like the Order of the d30 Concordance.

Having said that, I've got a handful of exciting post ideas percolating in the back of my addled brain, and I'm very much looking forward to getting back in the blogging saddle once things calm down. We're also both looking forward to a return to the GPC as well, once Des is off the pain meds and feeling clear-headed enough to play, so fans of that series can look forward to a resumption of regular updates soon.

And to all my readers: Thanks, as always. I started this blog mainly as a place to organize my thoughts and write about things that I figured maybe a handful of friends and associates might enjoy reading. Nearly three years on, I'm continually gratified that those thoughts have touched the lives of strangers and fellow gamers from around the world.
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