Saturday, April 23, 2011

What This Guy Said

Remember when inspiration came from the outside world, not just the closed circuit, self-referential fan service sub-culture?
I am tired of zombies. I am tired of Joss Whedon. I am tired of steampunk. I am tired of Monty Python. I am tired of zombies. I am tired of ninjas. I am tired of Batman. I am tired of bacon. I am tired of Star Wars. I am tired of Nintendo. I am tired of zombies. I am tired of Halo. I am tired of elves. I am tired of Cthulhu. I am tired of Boba Fett. I am tired of zombies. I am tired of pirates. I am tired of Battlestar Galactica. I am tired of mecha. I am tired of superheroes. I am tired of Star Trek. I am tired of “funny” bands. Have I mentioned that I am tired of zombies?
Most of those things I liked at some point. Most of them I still like in some way. But all of them I’m tired of. I’m tired of hearing about them constantly, having them shoved at me all the time. Even — no, especially — when they’re “creatively” mashed up with each other.

A million thanks to blizack of Dungeonskull Mountain for passing this article along. The article perfectly sums up much of my thoughts tangentially related to gaming and gaming culture - especially what gaming culture has become (along with "nerd" culture in general) over the last decade or so.

Edit to Add: The first comment is pretty much my feelings in a nutshell:
But, I dunno, how about instead of watching a two-hour shot-for-shot duplicate of something you already have memorized, you go read a novel? One that doesn’t have elves in it? Or watch a movie that isn’t set in the future? Or listen to a record? There are other options. Liking something doesn’t mean ONLY liking that thing. Your life doesn’t have to be an endless series of reiterations of something you already know.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Eh waah?

Yikes, sorry for the sudden radio silence round here folks! And just when I was getting some promising series under way. Isn't that always how it is?

Like last month, real life is conspiring to institute a blogging hiatus. Unlike last month, however, it's for a good cause: a week ago last Saturday we adopted a puppy. She's an Australian Shepherd-Corgi mix and is already proving a wonderful addition to our home. However, since the last time either of us owned a puppy was when we were little pups ourselves, we'd rather forgotten how much they take over your life during the initial training and socialization period. It's like having a somewhat simpler, less complex version of a baby. I honestly don't know how you bloggers who are also new parents manage it. The last ten days have seen me taking a crash course in training methods, dog psychology, the pros and cons of pig ears, and oh so much more - and all this after I thought I was ready for a dog before we got her!

Things will, of course, soon return to normal both in my own life and on this blog, so I appreciate you all hanging tight as you froth in anticipation of the next installment in the Gray Box Project and the Solo GPC chronicle. Both posts are currently sitting in unfinished draft form in my dashboard, frozen in time the day before we brought the pup home. We'll return to our regularly scheduled ramblings as soon as little Edie gives us a moment's rest!

Seriously, how could anyone blog with that looking up at them?

Friday, April 8, 2011

[Gray Box Project] Yes, But Which 13th Century?

I'd like to take a moment before continuing with my sectional analysis of the Forgotten Realms Gray Box to share a few of the thoughts that have been bouncing around my head since I started reading the books and occasioned by other blog posts and media.

In my last post, I mentioned the Introduction of the Cyclopedia of the Realms stating that the Realms are "a world very similar to the Earth of the 13th and 14th centuries." I also mused that one could make imaginative hay with the fact that we're not told whether that's the 13th-14th century AD or BC. (Or CE vs. BCE, if you like.) I was being somewhat facetious with that point, yet the idea started to gain some traction in the days since. There were a couple thoughtful and insightful blog posts that cropped up last week on the subject of when D&D is precisely. Trollsymth's answer - "neverwhen" - suits me fine, as far as vanilla D&D goes. But then again, I can get all my "neverwhen" action playing Pendragon and Dragon Warriors. So where does that leave my approach to the Realms? Then over on ChicagoWiz's blog, the subject of his idea for setting a D&D campaign in a world inspired by Sumerian mythology came up in posts and comments around the same time. More grist for my thought mill. I started looking up the 13th and 14th centuries BC and liked what I saw.

If studying something called the "Volga Battle Axe culture" was as FUCKING METAL as it sounds, there'd be a lot more archaeologists in the world, myself included
Then I went to see Your Highness today. All I can really say is that they've finally made the perfect Dungeons & Dragons movie, for good and for ill. It's as if the spirit of a thousand game tables spontaneously created this movie, complete with tons of inappropriate humor and awkward pacing. It's not perfect as a movie (as most critics seem to be pointing out), but as an encapsulation of vanilla D&D you really can't do better. The set dressing, costumes, and overall look of the movie is particularly well done. And in taking in the visuals and the implied setting and genre assumptions, I realized I'm pretty much okay with not doing vanilla D&D with the Realms. It's almost as if Your Highness nailed that whole scene so perfectly, I don't feel the need to go any further in my own imagination.

Of course, nothing's carven in stone, but I'm pretty much set on taking the following approach to all future posts in the Gray Box project: Each post will effectively be split into two parts; one part will discuss what's in the books and what's literally there, while the second part will discuss how I'll be adapting the material for my Bronze Age Realms variation. Because, seriously, the 14th to 13th centuries BC rocked.

Let's count the ways: the apex of Egyptian civilization under Rameses II and the craziness of Akhenaten and Nefertiti; the high-water mark of the Mycenean civilization and the (putative) dates of the Trojan War (at last an excuse to sit down and read Age of Bronze!); the writing (according to some traditions) of the Bhagavad Ghita; the rise of the Ancient Pueblo people; the Shang dynasty in China; the rise of the Assyrians; the arrival of the Kimmerians...it just goes on and on.

As others have pointed out in comments to the "When is D&D" posts linked above, there's actually a lot in D&D RAW that supports a Bronze/Iron Age setting. Many of the monsters are taken from that time, the political structures tend to be more of that era than of any sort of quasi-medieval setting. The polytheistic nature of D&D religion is very Bronze Age, and the Realms even features gods walking among mortals. And you really can't beat the visuals:










Any period that justifies more chariots and elephants in my D&D is okay in my book. I like the Howardian vibe of the Bronze Age, too. I'm considering reskinning goblinoids as competing hominids and "sub-men" still functioning at neolithic or paleolithic levels. I'm not going to do a full-on swords 'n' sorcery vibe, though. Might as well still be gaming in the Wilderlands if that were the case. But neither am I going for strict historical fidelity. My aim is some mythical sweet spot in between the two. I'm going to attempt a Bronze Age vibe in my adaptations rather than going for strict historical analogues ("Cormyr=Egypt," etc.). But inevitably some regions will be more reminiscent of a certain region than others (I'm picturing the Amn/Calimshan regions having a strong Indian vibe, for example, and my Dwarf citadels will likely bear a striking resemblance to cliff dwellings). Nor will I be strictly beholden to Bronze Age fidelity. I'm thinking of giving the elves at least Iron Age tech, if not higher (counterbalanced by an Imperial Roman/Melnibonean decline and decadence, of course). And what civilization referenced in the Introduction existed eons ago to leave behind all those magnificent ruins? And what was their tech level like?

As I mentioned in my post evaluating the cover art, there's a definite Bronze Age vibe to the Forgotten Realms logo itself and the mysterious rider on the cover of the box. Modeling that rider and the barbarians in the setting on the Kimmerians and proto-Teutons is really a no-brainer. So in a way I feel that taking the Realms (back) to the Bronze Age is, in a way, tapping into those initial impressions of the setting I got the first time I laid eyes on the cover over 20 years ago.

Oh, and once ChicagoWiz gets around to putting out that Sumerian megadungeon (which we all know is going rock, by the way, so get cracking on it, good sir), I'll have my own personal Waterdeep...

Saturday, April 2, 2011

[Gray Box Project] Cyclopedia of the Realms: Introduction

These things also I have observed: that knowledge of our world is to be nurtured like a precious flower, for it is the most precious thing we have. Wherefore guard the word written and heed words unwritten - and set them down ere they fade... Learn then, well, the arts of reading, writing, and listening true, and they will lead you to the greatest art of all: understanding. - Alaundo of Candlekeep
And if you're reading--as leisure--something you'd rather not read, you're not going to remember it. So if, as a GM, I actually need to remember that Squealhalla is the capital of Gullgorgica, I'm screwed. - Zak S.
The first quote above is from the very first page of the Cyclopedia of the Realms, the setting guide contained in the Forgotten Realms Gray Box. The second quote is from a post this series inspired by the inimitable Zak of Playing D&D With Porn Stars fame. As usual, Zak's whole post is very much worth a read, but that quote pretty much sums up my feelings on the material contained in the Gray Box, feelings backed up by the Box itself as, presumably, the very first thing you'll read as soon as you crack open the box's first book all but explicitly states, "there's a bunch of information in here, and you'd best be memorizin' that shit." So important is this point, in fact, that the Candlekeep quote is there all by itself, in big bold letters boxed in by an elaborate frame. You get the feeling you're supposed to cut it out and mount it on your wall above your official Dungeon Master's Desk.

"Goddammit, where the hell is Scornubel?"
In many ways, the Gray Box seems like the archetypal Campaign Setting Boxed Set (TM) that Zak's talking about. Previous iterations of published campaigns came in varying degrees of sketchiness, from near-incomprehensible to broad-brush outlines. Of note, though, is the fact that right at the outset of the Cyclopedia's one-page Introduction, in the first paragraph, we see this:
This tome and the cyclopedia it contains...should allow the creation of an individual campaign setting using this world. (emphasis added)
 So at this point at least there's still some lip service being paid to the idea that this is ultimately a toolkit for creating your own homebrew rather than someone else's sandbox to play in. "We'll give you a bunch of place names and NPCs to make use of, but ultimately it's still your campaign, amigo. Take what you will and ignore or make up the rest." Very well, I'm taking that to heart.

Of course, the very next paragraph starts narrowing our horizons somewhat:
The Forgotten Realms are a world very similar to the Earth of the 13th and 14th centuries.
A little further down the page, this is further elucidated:
The people of these realms (including man, dwarf, elf, gnome, and halfling) are similar in mindset and advancement to the men of the 13th century.
Someone might want to tell Elminster (purported author of this Introduction, as I'll get to momentarily) that the population of Earth in the 13th century was somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 million and they certainly all didn't share the same mindset or advancements. Of course, what Elminster Greenwood meant to say was "13th-century Europe." That's a pretty sweeping generalization as it is; but the omission of "Europe" from the above passages has got my mind thinking in subversive ways. Time to hit up Wikipedia and my historical atlases and see what Asia, Africa, and other locales were looking like the 13th century in terms of mindset and advancement. I'd love to do something with "my" Realms that wasn't just standard pseudo-medieval European fare, or said fare but with a bit of a twist.

Further inspiration can be gleaned from the Introduction's discussion of the state of the world: city states are the most common polity; civilization in general is relatively new, and yet there is ample evidence of past civilizations long vanished and forgotten; literacy is "on the rise" and there's even a nascent printing industry in Waterdeep ("the greatest City of the North"). Also, "[f]aith, while not as dominant as in Europe of this period, is a major force in the lives of the people."

This is sounding more and more like certain parts of medieval Asia rather than Europe. Interesting.

The Introduciton goes on to spill quite a bit of ink on the presence of magic in the world. In essence, the biggest impact magic has is its affect on the environment.
A great sandy waste has been moving further south in the heart of the Realms, matched by a sheet of ice, equally relentless, to its east. Neither of these may be the fault of nature alone, but the meddling of spell-casters, human or otherwise.
That's a nifty setting hook, to be sure. Perhaps the respective wastes surround gates leading to the Elemental Planes of Fire and Air? Maybe one (or both?) are the result of some strange curse or metaphysical disease, like The Nothing in The Neverending Story?

There's a paragraph on the assumed role of PCs in the campaign setting as well:
It is a time of heroes, when one man of pure heart (or with a powerful artifact) may hold his own against enemy hordes, where legions of evil forces may muster and by destroyed by the actions of a few, where the nations rise and fall on magical tides which mere men control.
Epic stuff indeed. Like something out of the Mahabharata. I seem to remember a Dragon article on Indian arms and armor - maybe I should check that out too...

Oh yes, this feels very right indeed.
The final bit of the Introduction introduces everyone's favorite Gandalf ripoff, Elminster of Shadowdale, purported author of this Introduction, as mentioned above. Here is trotted out the standard "nothing within these pages is false, but not all of it may be true" canard that seems to be so popular among authors who choose to present their worlds through the voice of a character in that world. I've never fully grasped the point of this dodge. On the one hand, it's a nice built-in defense against canon lawyers. But it also seems more than a bit disingenuous - I mean, it's your world, Ed, so isn't everything you say about it inherently true? Who's to say otherwise? Oh, right: me.

Next up in the series: a look at how the Cyclopedia is split up and diving into the nitty-gritty of the setting's calendar, languages, and currency (aka the things your PCs are most likely to care about).
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