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!
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