Friday, January 31, 2014

[Gray Box Project] Cyclopedia of the Realms: Religion in the Realms (Part Two)

The main deities and demigods of the Realms are listed hereafter, including notes on less-major powers, Elemental Lords, Cults of the Beast, and nonhuman deities.
This is a big section, and it's going to have to be split up still further - looks like Religion in the Realms merits a three-part post! In an effort to keep things brief (ha!), I'm just going to focus on the points that jump out and capture my interest or elicit some sort of comment. As this is a First Edition-era publication, we don't get spheres of influence, but we do get an indication of each god's "portfolio" and alignment, so if one were using specialty priests in their campaign, it would be pretty easy to adapt.

Here we go...

Okay, wait, hold on a second. I'm looking over the deity entries, and aside from portfolio, alignment, home plane, and symbol, almost the entirety of most of their notes is given over to the deity's personal abilities, as if they were an NPC. Now, in the first part of this post, I did talk about how the setting is pretty straight-forward about the highly personal role its gods play in the affairs of mortals, but holy cow. The individual entries really ram home this idea of PCs going toe-to-toe with a deity. Why else would I really need to know that Auril the Frostmaiden has "personal powers [that] include double-strength cold spells such as ice storm, and Otiluke'’s freezing sphere, and an icy breath (effect of cone of cold) that kills plants on contact (saving throw if applicable), and has the effect of a successful crystalbrittle spell on all metal it touches"?

Here's the thing: personally, one of the elements I really do loathe about old school games is the practice of giving stats to deities. Call of Cthulhu gives its namesake stats; its modern-day cousin, Trail of Cthulhu, gives us a handful of theories on what the hell Cthulhu is and that's it. He's a friggin' god as far as humans are concerned, and ain't no one got time to be fighting a god toe-to-toe. The whole "if it has stats, you can kill it" thing has never appealed to me.

On the other hand, I have no issue with high-level PCs going up against an avatar of a god (viz. the "Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man"), but the impression I get from these entries is that we're talking the actual god here, not an avatar. Applying my knowledge of future's past, I know that this gets backed up with the whole "Time of Troubles" storyline (and many more storylines thence) in which gods are killed off by mortals and replaced by same ascending to godhood.

I don't know. I'm of mixed feelings on this. I guess if I was running a Gray Box campaign using the BECMI rules, there'd be no issue (and I'm now seriously thinking that the Realms would make a very interesting BECMI setting), as those rules explicitly lay out a path of progression meant to literally make PCs into gods eventually, and presenting gods as ascended Immortals. That certainly seems to be the cosmology that's being laid out here, as well. I guess it's just my Lovecraftian side that prefers my gods a bit more on the cosmically unknowable end of things. But hey, when in Rome... Maybe I can learn to love this much more personalized take on deities.

Okay, with that mini-rant out of the way, let's get back into it. I'm going to be looking at each god from a personal perspective of how they strike me now, as well as any memories I may have of them from my Realms campaigns as a youth.

  • Auril the Frostmaiden: That's just a damn cool name, right out the gate. Greenwood's always had a way with names, I think. During my adolescent romps through the Realms, I can't say I really remember Auril ever featuring as a patron deity or adversary (she's neutral-evil), but, what with Age of Winters and all that serving as contemporary inspiration, I'd have to say that if I were running a campaign set in the Savage North, I'd have Auril be a major player. I could even see using Auril to do a Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones/Hellfrost rip-off campaign in which she brings a years-long winter down and initiates a new ice age...until the PCs go and kill her ass. Okay, I'm starting to see the appeal of having defeatable gods.
  • Azuth the High One: "Patron of magic-users." A demi-power, Azuth is "venerated as the most powerful of mages". Interesting. Another deity that hasn't gotten much play in my campaigns. I like the idea that arch-mages might have their own god. Again, lots of potential here from a deicide standpoint - why not have a mage character whose goal is to become powerful enough to kill Azuth and assume his place?
  • Bane the Black Lord: R.I.P. One of the reasons I could never really get with the whole Time of Troubles storyline is that it killed off the god with the coolest name. I mean, come on! You know you're tangling with some serious shit when you go up against a god named Bane. I love how over-the-top high-fantasy that name is. Really doesn't leave much to the imagination, does it? Also, this bit: "Lord Bane is never seen, although there are tales of a freezing black-taloned hand and eyes of blazing fire." Metal. As. Fuck. Interestingly, the text notes that Bane enjoys a "powerful church in the Realms".  That's a change from the usual fantasy trope of the evil god being worshiped in secret. It's sort of like having a setting where the Church of Satan is a major religion.
  • Beshaba, Maid of Misfortune: Also called "Lady Doom" - wow! "The Maid of Misfortune appears as a beautiful white-haired face, laughing hysterically. Ill fortune falls on those who behold her." Double-wow! I have got to use her in my current campaign. Also of note: no combat-related stats are described. She seems more like an impersonal force of doom and curses, which I can definitely get behind.
  • Bhaal, Lord of Murder: Okay, so you've got an openly-practicing Evil Church, so I guess Bhaal fulfills the role of covert dark cult lurking in shadows and being all Thugee-ish. "It is said that every murder done strengthens Bhaal." Definite adventure fodder right there - I'm seeing  a Waterdeep police procedural, with cultists of Bhaal as serial killers running amok in Waterdeep.
  • Chauntea the Great Mother: one of the things I love about D&D cosmology is giving different gods different styles of sacred space; the description here notes that Chauntea's "temples are often small caverns and modest chambers filled with greenery." My mom worked at a greenhouse when I was a wee lad, and I used to love wandering around inside the hothouse (and only in part because there was a Coke machine in there). I have to think that entering a temple of Chauntea would have a similar earthy, humid quality to it. Coke machine optional.
  • Deneir, Lord of All Glyphs and Images: A god of art and literature. I really like this idea, a god of glyphs. Not much else to say about this guy, though.
  • Eldath the Quiet One: A goddess of waterfalls, pools, and druid-groves, she is the deity for you if you're a pacifist: "She guards all druids'’ groves and when she is present in any grove, that place becomes a sanctuary where no blows land and no one feels angry. The elven war-hero Telva is said to have camped in such a grove and never taken up arms again afterward." Love it.
  • Gond the Wonderbringer: His holy symbol is a toothed wheel, and he represents the "power of invention." Hmmm. This sounds a little too tinker-gnomish for my tastes, but I'll defer judgment until I get to the section on Lantan, which this entry notes makes Gond-worship its state religion.
  • Helm, He of the Unsleeping Eyes: I just want to get it out of the way here and now that Helm has my favorite holy symbol among all the deities of the Realms. There's just something about that vaguely Egyptian-style eye on a metal gauntlet that's very graphically appealing to me. At any rate, Helm is one of those gods that always managed to show up in our old Realms campaigns. I think someone ran a paladin of Helm, and I recall an adventure locale from a different campaign that featured a temple to Helm that was sheathed in riveted iron. It figures the powers that be killed him off, the bastards - all my favorite gods ended up getting shanked, it seems.
  • Ilmater, God of Endurance: The Realms have a handful of deities cribbed from real-life pantheons, and I'd long assumed Ilmater was one of those, taken from Finnish mythology, but it turns out I was wrong. Ilmater was based more off of Fritz Leiber's Issek of the Jug, which makes sense. A sort of Bodhisattva- or Christ-like deity, Ilmater "has the power to manifest himself in creatures being tortured, relieving their pain, but only if such creatures are of good alignment and have not done anything to deserve such treatment." I dimly recall as a teenager wanting to work that into an adventure somewhere by having a PC get captured and gratuitously tortured, but never finding the chance to do so. Ah well. Fun fact: whenever I read the name "Ilmater" I inevitably start thinking about Paul McCartney singing "Ah Mater, want jet to always love me?" Ilmater save me from my torment!
  • Lathander, Morninglord: I'm sorry, but "Morninglord" is just way too close to "Morningwood" for my taste. Nonetheless, I suppose I should be paying tribute to Lathander, as he's the "commander of creativity." There's a nice little detail here, too: "Offerings are made to him by those who worship other powers upon the occasion of beginning a new venture or forming an alliance or company." Lathander is very much a pink god: his (or I should say "its" as that's the pronoun the book uses in this instance) priests wear scarlet or pink robes, and bear a holy symbol of pink wood. In my current campaign, I placed a temple to Lathander in the party's home town, and had it built of rosy marble.
  • Leira, Lady of the Mists: A "demigoddess of deception and illusion, both natural and magical." The setting's definitely showing its first-edition roots here; we've had a god for Magic-Users, so naturally we need a god for Illusionists as well! Again, we have indications of cross-deity worship: although she has few worshipers outside of illusionists, "many pay her homage to ward her off or placate her before important decisions and judgments are made."
  • Luira, Our Lady of Joy: I should note that each deity's name in this section has a phonetic pronunciation after it. Leira is pronounced LAIR-ah and Luira is pronounced LEER-ah. As Luira is the goddess of carefree feeling, I'm not going to dwell too long on that. Interestingly, all it takes to drive away her laughing, joyful presence is an unsheathed sword. Nice bit of social commentary, there.
  • Loviatar, Maiden of Pain: In addition to being a great zine that had a nice little run, Loviatar is the first actual Earth-derived deity on the list. This adds another wrinkle to the Realms' cosmology: we've got deities as ascended people, fine, but now we've got deities coming in from our own world, too. Or do we? Is the Loviatar of Faerun the same as the Loviatar of Earth? I'm pretty sure this question has been answered in Realmslore, but as far as the Gray Box is concerned, I'm not sure if it is. (I've always found the Deities & Demigods thing a bit strange anyway, especially when you've got, say, the Greek pantheon co-existing with a made-up pantheon in a game world. It's always struck me as a bit half-assed.) At any rate, there have got to be some myth cycles in Faerun linking Loviatar and Ilmater, and I'm sure some of them are quite kinky.
  • Malar, the Beastlord: Now this is an interesting deity. He embodies nature red in tooth and claw, and is propitiated by game and sport hunters before setting out, but he's also said to manifest in berserkers and "in that type of frenzied human killer that men deem 'mad.'”" As if anticipating my question, the text points out that Bhaal is the god of cold, calculated murder, whereas "Malar is the patron of those who exult in it endlessly, sensually". I still like my Bhaal-cultist police procedural idea, though. Maybe the cultists try and throw off the investigation by making it look like they're Malar-worshipers? Ho ho! The entry finishes off by noting that Malar is "preferred by adventurers over professional warriors," which seems like a tacit admission that PCs are batshit crazy.
  • Mask, Lord of Shadows: The god of thieves, this seems another very Leiber-esque deity. "The worshippers of Mask tend to hold their services in dimly lit vaults, and the worshipers and priests all wear heavy garb and masks." Creepy!
  • Mielikki, Lady of the Forest: Another Finnish god, and patron of rangers. We're referred to Legends & Lore for more details. Pass.
  • Miul, God of Poetry: Patron god of bards, he "has been known to provide sudden inspiration to his followers, often in the form of a handy means of escape or treasure buried in the area." At last, a use for bards!
  • Myrkul, Lord of Bones: Interestingly, this is a god of death but not the undead (short of being able to animate skeletons and zombies). He's the guy what sends the grim reapers out to do their jobs, flunkies called "Deaths" which the text explicitly links to the adversary who appears in the deck of many things. Myrkul's location (the "Castle of Bones"), and his appearance (a bony top half leading to a fleshed lower body that ends in gangrenous rotting feet) and voice (a high whisper) are all spelled out, leading me to believe that Greenwood and Co. are recognizing the fact that PCs may well have a very up-close and personal run-in with this guy at one point or another. And hey, if you're going to kill a god, why not go after Death itself?
  • Mystra, the Lady of Mysteries: We've had deities specifically for Magic-Users and Illusionists, but Mystra is the goddess of magic itself, which is a pretty cool concept. She is "a manifestation of the Cosmic Balance" and "is said to have given the first teachings that unlocked the forces termed “magic” to the races of the Prime Material plane (and, some say, has forever after regretted the deed)." There's a nice bit of wizardly superstition given here, in which mages believe that Mystra determines the success or failure of spell- and scroll-creation and potion brewing. I'm definitely picturing wizards and their ilk burning votive candles in Mystra's name while they stir their cauldrons. Also, wasn't she Elminster's lover or something? A purely rhetorical question - if it's not in the Gray Box, it didn't happen in my world, and thank the gods for that!
I'm going to end Part II on that note. Tune in next time, when we'll round out the deities and take a look at Elemental Lords, Beast Cults, Non-human and "Other" Gods, and see which gods get along and which just can't seem to make it work.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Celebrating D&D's 40th With a List

As many of you are probably already aware, yesterday was D&D's 40th birthday.

Well, not really, but it's the closest we'll come to having an actual anniversary day for the game that started it all. In commemoration of this momentous date, the always-excellent d20 Dark Ages blog has announced a 28-day blogging challenge set to start on the first of the month.

Now, there was a similar list/challenge of D&D questions that made the rounds on the blogs about six months ago that I abstained from joining, but I decided to jump on this bandwagon because I like the questions on this list a lot better. The other list had a lot of filler, and most of it 3e-specific ("Favorite Aberration", "Favorite Energy Type", etc.). This list is more focused on people's personal experiences with D&D, which I always like reading about. I suggest you head over and take a look at the list for yourself. Oh, fine, here's a copy:

And if you've got a blog, I encourage you to sign up!

As for myself, I'll be doing my part starting February 1st to clog up your feed with 28 days of content. I hope it's at least somewhat interesting, both for me, the writer, and for you, the reader!

Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Day Four
Day Five
Day Six
Day Seven
Day Eight
Day Nine

Friday, January 24, 2014

Save vs. d30!

As one of the charter members of the Order of the d30, I've perhaps been a bit remiss in my lack of pimpage for New Big Dragon Games' line of truly outstanding d30-focused products. Of course, this may be partly due to the fact that NBDG went pretty quiet in 2013, but it was a quietude well-deserved, as it was in the service of putting out the d30 Sandbox Companion.

I'd picked up the d30 DM Companion last year and found it excellent, but I have to say that the Sandbox Companion really takes things to a whole new level of inspiration and utility. It's been getting rave reviews and has been sitting at the top of the best-seller lists on DriveThruRPG and RPGNow since its release.

What you may not be aware of, however, is that the company's face in the blogosphere, Save vs. Dragon, has resumed a steady churn of free d30 one-sheets in the wake of the Sandbox Companion's release. Head on over and check 'em out.

Seriously, if you own a d30, there's no reason not to be picking up anything NBDG puts out, free or no.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Talkin' Pendragon

Art by the incomparable Alan Lee
I should probably hype my gaming podcast a bit more on this blog. At any rate, the latest episode, which dropped yesterday, is a "system spotlight" on King Arthur Pendragon. My eminent co-host and I discuss the game's many charms, dispel some myths, and try and address some of its shortcomings as well (which is kinda tough when you're a drooling fanboy like I am, but I gave it my best shot).

The posting rate I'd hoped to hit this year with my Solo GPC write-ups has turned out to be a bit optimistic, but they'll continue to trickle out at a steady pace, albeit perhaps not as steady as I (or those of you who remain loyal readers of the series) might have hoped. Keep an eye out for the next installment going up sometime between now and this time next week!

One of the reasons why my write-ups have suffered a bit is because I'm busily prepping to start running the Great Pendragon Campaign for my regular Sunday group! We'll have four players, which I think is a perfect number for such an undertaking, and Des, having played through the GPC already (see previous paragraph) is going to co-GM the campaign with me, playing the adversary. I'm tremendously excited about all of this, and will be sharing this venture via audio rather than the written word through the medium of my group's actual play podcast.

Lastly, if you're a fan of KAP and haven't checked out the FREE Dragons of Britain fanzine, do yourself a favor and hop on over to download Issue One immediately. I'll be submitting an article for Issue Two, which should be out later this year.

Monday, January 20, 2014

[Gray Box Project] Cyclopedia of the Realms: Religion in the Realms (Part One)

The "“gods"” of the Realms, also called Powers, are important beings; they grant magical spells to their worshippers, involve themselves in earthly dealings, and grow or diminish in personal power in relation to the number of mortal worshippers they possess.
Quite a bit packed into this section's introductory paragraph, isn't there?

Note how the word "gods" is put in quotes there. Right off the bat, we get a picture of gods in the Realms being a lot less, well, god-like than we perhaps associate with that word. They seem to exist much more along the lines of the earliest conceptions of gods, as powerful beings that transcend human abilities and understanding, yet are still very human in their actions and motivations, including frequent meddling in the affairs of mortals.

We also get a note that there is a "plethora of divine beings" in the Realms, and this profusion of divine beings, of whose existence there can be no real doubt, has led to a widespread attitude of tolerance among worshippers. As long as your church's liturgy doesn't call for law-breaking (human sacrifice being particularly frowned upon), you're free to go about your business.

Although this may seem another modernistic contrivance designed to mitigate certain "un-fun" distractions during role-playing, it certainly has many historical precedents. The henotheistic societies of Hellenistic Alexandria, the Roman Empire, or ancient India all spring to mind. This is pretty much bog-standard D&D, and the realm in which D&D and its derived style of fantasy deviates most strongly from "European Middle Ages" model. (And indeed, if I were still doing my Bronze Age Realms mod, this would be the part that would need the least modification. The gods as presented in the Realms are much more Gilgamesh or Herakles than Jehovah or Allah.) Again, I can't help but think of medieval India or China as perhaps more appropriate models than medieval Europe from the perspective of a cultural baseline.

Having gods who take an active interest in the affairs of mortals, who very well may have been mortals at one time, and whose power is very much reliant on how many worshippers they can accrue, has some pretty significant implications for the setting. I'm well aware, of course, of how these implications played out almost immediately after the Gray Box was released, but as I'm limiting my reading to just the contents of the box, it will be interesting to see how it's addressed in the source material, as it were.

Our first indication of these implications at play is the exception noted right here in the text regarding religious tolerance: "Individuals, particularly clerics, may not be all tolerant of the beliefs of others...take care; it is often an affront of the highest order to ask [after which gods a person worships] openly. Some people have been known to attack individuals inquiring as to their faith." This, then, is a world of secret cults, cryptic passwords and handshakes, and sometimes tense sectarian interactions.

Hey, it may not be particularly cod-medieval Europe, but it is pretty cool. What D&D campaign doesn't benefit from some secret cult action?

Next time we'll get into the listing of the "main deities and demigods of the Realms".

Monday, January 13, 2014

[Gray Box Project] Cyclopedia of the Realms: Currency in the Realms

Barter and coinage of all sorts are common in the Realms.
When was the last time you featured barter in one of your D&D games? It's an interesting idea, and one I'd handle purely through role-playing with an older, skill-less system. I'll have to remember to inject some opportunities for haggling at appropriate times.

This section, though, is primarily about the bread and butter of D&D: glittering coinage! Here, again, we have a generalized system presented, although regional differences are more emphasized than they were with time-keeping or languages. In fact, we're only given the monetary system of the kingdom of Cormyr, although we're assured that it "is typical of the other organized nations."

The exchange rate presented is one of 200 cp=20 sp=1 gp. Was this standard with AD&D 1e? I came of age with the 2e system of 100=10=1, and might have thought that the former rate was unique to the Realms had I not noticed the same rate presented in my Adventures Dark & Deep rulebook, which is what I'm using to run my Realms campaign. It should be interesting to see what my players (who also grew up on the 2e system) will make of the devaluing of the copper and silver piece.

At any rate, we have a nice little bit of world-building next. Honestly, this is one of the simplest tricks you can do to give your fantasy world a bit more flavor: reskin your currency by region, as is done here. Sure, it might all be "gold pieces" in terms of absolute value, but if it's called a florin in one country and a guilder in another, and they're minted differently with different stamps and iconography on the coins, your players will definitely notice and appreciate the attention to detail.

The Cyclopedia informs us that in Cormyr copper pieces are called thumbs, silver pieces are called falcons, electrum pieces are blue eyes, gold pieces golden lions, and platinums are tricrowns, and that coins bear the mark of a dragon on one side, and the treasury minting stamp and date on the other. In keeping with the more open nature of the Gray Box, we're not given any other examples, but I'm already wanting to come up with some further names from neighboring areas like Sembia and Westgate, maybe some of the Dales. (The book notes that even in Cormyr there are local mints in addition to the Royal Mint churning out coins.) However, only major cities and royal mints tend to stamp electrum or platinum pieces. This, I imagine, means that one is more likely to find foreign coins of those types in circulation. It would be pretty cool to have a mysterious NPC paying for something in electrum pieces minted, say, in far-off Calimshan. There's tons of adventure hooks contained within the world of coins both new and old.

There's also a great bit about how the only type of paper money is an I.O.U. called a "blood note", which earns its name from the fact that both parties must sign their names in blood on the note before taking it to get a royal seal.

Dio approves of this form of currency.
So, not going to find a whole lot of paper money floating around. There is one other type of currency, though, in the form of ingots called "trade-bars," minted in either silver or electrum in denominations of 10, 25, or 50 gold pieces. Trade-bars have obvious utility in treasure hordes, especially those of bandits, orcs, and other "looty" types. I like the idea of giving players a form of treasure that's easy to transport but not so easy to spend.

"Umm...can you break a 50 gp trade-bar?"

This was a decidedly short section, particularly in light of the next one: "Religion in the Realms". I'll probably end up splitting that section into parts.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

[Gray Box Project] Cyclopedia of the Realms: Names in the Realms and Languages of the Realms

Where were we? Ah yes: the random info dump in the Cyclopedia that precedes the alphabetical entries proper. We get a two-fer today, as they're fairly related and we've got a lot of ground to catch up on!

Names in the Realms
Player characters may carry one- or two-part names, nicknames, titles, or pseudonyms in their career.
This section is divided up into several sub-headings by race and class. I like the idea that certain classes tend to share a commonality of naming conventions. First up, though, we have "Common Humanity" - naming conventions that transcend character class, presumably. In keeping with the setting's stated "high medieval" reference point, we're informed that most humans only go by one name, adding a second name only if required to differentiate between a similarly-named person in their community - or a famous person who shares their name! ("No, no. I'm Elminster the Barber.")

The text notes that surnames can and do change frequently over the course of one's life. There's also this funny parenthetical: "There are a large number of '“Trollkillers'” in the Realms, more a credit to the numbers of the monsters rather than the prowess of their slayers."

(Note to self when stocking random encounter tables: Trolls. Lots of trolls.)

Human nobles and gentry, likewise, follow medieval naming conventions for their social stratum, adopting a family name based on a famous forebear and sticking with it though their fortunes may later wane. (There's mention of a Wyvernspur family of Cormyr who have fallen greatly in esteem, though they are still quite well-off.) Nobles can also adopt "personal" second names just like the simple folk, likewise based on appearance or notable deeds.

Magic-users, the text then says, eschew long names or fancy titles, feeling that their reputations are sufficient. Ergo, our hapless Elminster Barber must go about using his second name at all times, whereas the Elminster need only sign one name when he cashes his checks. I had to think about this one for a minute. My instinct is to prefer wizards who go by overblown titles, somewhat in a Jack Vance-ian vein. But I think I dig this approach, too. It says a lot about the role of wizards in the Realms, or at least how wizards think of themselves in the Realms.

Human clerics, too, get a section of their own. This simply notes that a cleric's deity supplants any family or other secondary name, even in the case of a noble house. So if a Wyvernspur kid went off and became a cleric of Tymora, he'd no longer be Ralph Wyvernspur, but rather Ralph of Tymora.

(One thing missing from this section is a decent list of actual names. Examples are dropped here and there: Doust, Mourngrym, Amaster. And there are certainly plenty of NPCs listed in the DM's Sourcebook to draw further examples. Still, a nice sidebar list would've been much appreciated, even if it was only for typical human names of, say, the Dalelands.)

That's it for humans; it's on to demi-humans. First up are Elves, and here we get our first indication that Elves refer to themselves as "the People". Oh please spare me this Dances with Wolves "elves as the noble Indian" analog. Then again, it is incredibly of its time, so maybe I should just embrace it, along with the illustrations of the women with the poofy hair? I dunno. The poofy hair I can hang with. The other bit I'll mull over on our way to the "Elves" entry proper in the Cyclopedia.

Anyhoo, there's a note that Elves all have surnames, but that these tend to translate back into nicknames in the Common tongue; stuff like "Strongbow" and "Starglow" and what-have-you. The text notes, reasonably, that surnames are a necessity for a race that can have family members even in the same generation who are hundreds of years apart in age. No examples of Elf first names are given.

Dwarves, too, use surnames, albeit ancestor-related. Your surname is either the clan you hail from (if you're really low-born), or your famous forebears' name ("son of...", "grandson of...", "blood of..."). Again, we'll see what the actual entry on Dwarves has to say, but this is indicating to me not so much a "Norse" Dwarf culture but rather a rigidly caste-based culture. That might be a fun concept to play around with. Again, no examples of given names are, well, given.

Gnomes, it is then noted, not only carry second names, but even third names based on point of origin, in manner reminiscent of Victorian gentry.

"Wysdor Sandminer? Of the Scornubel Sandminers?"

"'Fraid not, old chap. I'm from the Arabel Sandminers."

Apart from that single name, we get no other examples.

Here's a good point to pause and say that, in my version of the Realms, I've already decided to mess around with demi-humans a bit. One of my players is a huge fan of the race, and I'm only too happy to elevate them somewhat. Also, Halflings do nothing for me outside of a Middle Earth context, so they're getting demoted.

I'm also playing around with names. As I'm preparing to start running my Realms campaign, I've settled on Eveningstar in Cormyr as a good initial home base. As we'll see when we get to the Cyclopedia entry, the write-ups on these towns are refreshingly sparse. There's a note that Eveningstar's herald is named Tzin Tzummer. No mention is made of his race, so I'm making him a gnome. Furthermore, his name is giving me ideas for gnomish names in general. I like that "tz" sound in there. I'll have to look for some linguistic precedents to help construct a short list of typical gnome names. (I do plan on retaining the "third name" thing, too, as it's charmingly amusing.)

So on to the Halflings that I won't be using (as intended) in my campaign. They're a sort of combination of the other demi-humans, bearing a first and second name, and Humans, in that they go through multiple name changes over the course of their lives. The example of naming conventions given here paints Halflings as frankly rather dickish and opportunistic, adopting a wide range of names and pseudonyms to suit their needs and cons. I was already thinking of replacing Halflings with Goblins, so this example actually rather fits that change at any rate.

Speaking of Goblins, there's a short section on Other Races, which notes that most make do with a single name with some sort of qualitative modifier as needed. Amusingly, the text also notes that Orcs usually just refer to each other by a word that translates roughly as "Hey you!", but can be inflected with a variety of different tonal meanings. If you've ever heard two people having an argument in a tonal language (like, say, Mandarin), you can appreciate the rich potential for communication this must afford.

Languages of the Realms
Most people north and east of the Sea of Fallen Stars are literate, at least to some degree. This is not the case, travelers and tutors have intimated, throughout the Realms. Westgate, southern Sembia, and perhaps Hillsfar are the predominantly literate areas in the vicinity, and Waterdeep on the Sword Coast; elsewhere "trust to your tongue," as wayfarers say.
Here we see a slight departure from the "13th century" analogy for the sake of convenience. According to Wikipedia, Italy in the 13th century had the highest literacy rate in Europe since the fall of the Western Empire, at a staggering 30 percent. Hardly "most people," though. Then again, we have broad swaths of the Realms that are still largely illiterate, much like in the 13th century. Although now I'm wondering about literacy rates in the Arab world at the time - anyone have any idea of that?

Speaking of matters of convenience, we then get this passage (emphasis added):
Almost all intelligent creatures you might encounter can understand and speak "common" (the trade-tongue of men, spoken with little variance all across the known Realms) . . . . From region to region of the Realms, Common may have different accents and slightly different vocabularies, influenced by other local human and nonhuman tongues. While a native of Thay will be able to communicate with a denizen of Baldur's Gate, each will be aware of the other's ridiculous accent.
My initial reaction to this is to call bullshit, of course. The general rule across all human cultures and all human history has been an extreme balkanization of language, to the point where sometimes people who live in adjacent valleys can't even understand each other.

This all, of course, gets back to the points I raised in discussing the Realms' simplified calendrical system. Sure, it might be more realistic to have a jumble of languages, dialects, etc., but is it worth the headache? I'm reminded of the first edition of King Arthur Pendragon, which featured skills for foreign languages; if your knight met someone from France or Germany or Ireland, you needed points in the relevant language to be able to communicate. This part of the game was dropped by subsequent editions because not only was it not fun, it wasn't really part of Arthurian canon. In a similar sense, universal communication has been pretty much a constant in the D&D genre since the beginning.

Not only does it make for more convenient gaming, I believe it also reflects the cultural origins of the game. America in the 1970s was still a time when the mainstream cultural assumption was that you could travel anywhere in the country and not worry about communication any more than in terms of having to listen to someone's "ridiculous accent," as the Cyclopedia puts it.

Curiously enough, the DM's Sourcebook has a map the compares the size of Faerûn to the United States. They match up pretty closely. Just eyeballing the page, I'd say that if Waterdeep is Portland, Oregon, then Portland, Maine is maybe around Heliogabalus in Damara. Certainly in our world there is a "common tongue" spoken at all points between those two fair cities. But that's because they share a common history of cultural expansion and domination, isn't it? So what does that imply for the Human kingdoms of the Realms? As much as I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of gaming convenience, a rationale for the Common tongue rooted in the setting's history would add a nice extra dimension to the convention. I'll keep this in the back of my mind as I go through the history of the Realms revealed in the text.

(Incidentally, S. John Ross has a hilarious take on Common speech in his Uresia: Grave of Heaven setting: it's a true trade pidgin, and considered hopelessly crude and déclassé by polite society; it's the tongue of merchants, pirates, and adventurers only. Better bone up on the local language before you present yourself before the Duke!)

At any rate, demi-human speech gets a similar treatment, saying that there are "common" tongues for each major race that vary only by regionalisms and strange accents, too. Fair enough - in for a penny, in for a pound. There's also some First Edition-specific talk about alignment tongues and the secret languages of druids, thieves, and illusionists. I'm running my game with an AD&D-style ruleset (Joseph Bloch's Adventures Dark and Deep, specifically), and for some reason I'm totally okay with certain classes having their own languages, but I'll be damned if I'll be using alignment tongues. I don't care how "old school" it may be. I've looked at various ways to justify it, and I just can't. So I'm ignoring that section.

There then follows a section on written texts. Interestingly, the text notes that the most common form of literacy is the runic script of the Dwarves. There is a written form of Common, but it must be taken as a separate language, "as most individuals use runes for conveying information." There's an archaic form of Common (called Thorass - "the universal language of the long-ago Realms" - that certainly sounds like that common cultural link I was talking about above) which adventurers might expect to find in moldering tomes and dungeon monuments, a secret script (Ruathlek) used only by illusionists, and an Elven script (Espruar), as well. The Dwarven runes, called Dethek, are most commonly carved on stone, although there is an intriguing note about dwarves binding thin sheets of metal together to form books. I'll definitely have to include a metal tome of Dwarven make in my campaign.

The Norse overtones of Dwarf culture become more overt here, as the "runestones" that Dwarves most commonly write on are taken straight from Viking culture. No mention is made of non-Dwarven writing systems, although I'd assume humans and others who scribe runes as often as not use ink and paper.

There's a neat graphic showing the different alphabets of Thorass, Espruar, and Dethek. It's not Tolkien by any means, the different alphabets just being a straight cypher system, but it's a nice tool for putting together a handout for the players to decode.

The section ends with a fun little sidebar giving examples of common salutations and farewells among the different races and cultures. "Well met" has become a classic, but I also like the warriors' favored farewell of "Until swords part!" (which reminds me of Greenwood's tale of his first DM and her farewell of "Swords bright!") or the hobgoblin "If you die while I'm gone, do it quietly." Then there's the Halfling: "Good morning, and good day after that! Don't let anything curl your hair!" (to which is sometimes added) "'Ware that Big Folk, and mind the goblins too!"

Yeah, no regrets about dropping them from my campaign.

Next up: Currency in the Realms!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

[Gray Box Project] Cracking the Box Open Again

Almost three years ago, I started a project. The idea was to take the classic 1987 "Gray Box" edition of the Forgotten Realms - the first product to describe the setting in any detail - and do a close reading of it. Close readings were kind of a thing on the OSR blogosphere at the time. The idea is to forget everything you know or think you know about a particular published product and look at it purely from what that's product's source document has to say. It's often surprising what insights come out of these close readings, and I wanted to do one for the Realms, a setting towards which I have long nurtured an extremely ambivalent attitude.

The series was already beginning to yield dividends when I let it go into hibernation. Not to get into excuses, but 2011 was a pretty hectic year both on a personal level and in terms of my gaming hobby, and I found I didn't have as much time and energy to devote to the project as I'd anticipated. But more importantly, I simply wasn't running any D&D at the time, much less anything set in the Realms. Without that practical foundation, I found my close reading was drifting into realms of theoretical wankery, most manifest in my decision to adapt the Realms as I went along to a Bronze Age tech level.

Now, I'm not saying that that's necessarily a bad idea, and if someone wants to take up that torch and run with it, then by all means be my guest. But it was quickly getting away from the original concept of doing a close reading. I needed to be evaluating the setting on its own merits.

Since 2011, I've been able to reconnect via Google+ Hangouts with my old friends/gaming group from high school and college, the guys with whom I adventured in the Realms the most. This past week, being in between campaigns and as we were tossing around ideas of what to play next, I suggested we do a Realms campaign using the Gray Box setting. The idea was adopted, and so, armed with a practical foundation for my ventures, I figured I'd resurrect this long-dormant project.

All the posts thus far have been collated in their own page here. For new-comers and those needing a refresher, I'm reproducing the first post below. Expect more posts to follow on what I hope will be at least a semi-regular basis starting this week.


"Returning to the Realms"
Originally posted March 20, 2011

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, January 3, 2014

Assembling an Appendix N for Rifts

Why didn't this occur to me before?

Blizack of Dungeonskull Mountain fame has posted some preliminary thoughts on what an Appendix N for Rifts would look like. (And if you're unfamiliar with term, he explains it succinctly in his post.)

I encourage any Rifts fans reading this to head over and contribute!

"One Splugorth Retina" logo by Cole Long.

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