Tuesday, March 3, 2015

New From Wizards: When Armies Clash

When Armies Clash is the latest Unearthed Arcana article from D&D head honcho Mike Mearls. This nine page pdf document is free to download at Wizards. Having read the article a couple times over, but not actually playtested it, I get a feeling this item is still highly experimental and that's why it's been dangled out there early on for the public to peruse. Of course this is the stated goal of the UA articles and so I'm giving the designers a pass on creativity and polish. The game is intended for mass combat using the exact same 5E rules you would for normal encounters (AC, hp, attack, damage, and so on) except scaled up in groups , or"stands" of roughly ten creatures.

The scale chosen for this new "Battlesystem" is key because it incorporates skirmishing units and solo hero involvement. Why? Because it makes sense within the logic of fantasy RPGs that one fighter for example could go toe to toe with ten lesser orcs or one big monster could threaten a small army. Stands are combined into larger units but in general still keep their average stats. Movement and spells are similarly scaled to account for the size of a battlefield. Heroes are given options to lead forces and give orders.

Terrain is handled in a rather easy fashion and mission objectives are touched on as well to give opponents a scoring system in order to see how decisive a victory ends up. The most important addition to these scaled 5E rules is the Check Morale feature which can make or break a battle. Of course solo heroes can try to step in and rally those broken units. All these rules suggestions have the making for good skirmishing battles. I would also hope there's some way to better represent sieges in the rules at a future time.

My take on When Armies Clash? Compared to the old AD&D Battlesystem it's a good start (I still possess all my counters and use them endlessly) though I highly doubt I'll use it in this current form. I wonder how much magic can break this game since 5E spells seem to be frontloaded for damage at lower levels now. I'm also mainly concerned how well 5E rules hold up as you increase the size of regimented units. A small army led by play characters against the Horde of Elemental Evil is fine by these rules. However, I'm biased to large epic battles when it comes to my Greyhawk campaigns since Gygax was originally a wargamer and set up things for conflicts on a continental scale. There is easily more than a dozen battles in Greyhawk canon that involve thousands of soldiers per side. Never mind historical examples of mass combat, a typical trope in fantasy warfare is the vast enemy horde which always seems to be 10,000 strong. That translates to 1000 "stands" in this system. Now whether you use minis or counters, that's rather difficult to present and I'm sure heroes might want to stick to their regiments instead of going it solo.

For this reason my mass combat system of choice has always been the less flashy War Machine rules from the OD&D Companion Set or the card-based but cleverly organized mass combat rules from Birthright. Sure you could scale up stands to 20, 50, 100 men but then you lose the game balance for solo hero or monster combat. Basically it comes down to the story your DM is trying to tell and how much time you want to invest in a major battle. Of course what do I know? I play Warhammer 40k! If anyone tries these rules let me know!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

D&D: Is One Setting Enough?

I've been reading forum discussion regarding a recent comment by D&D brand director Nathan Stewart where he said, "The Forgotten Realms is the universe that we at Wizards of the Coast are focusing our storytelling in for the foreseeable future"

Taken at face value this quote can crush the hopes of a Greyhawk fan looking for new stories and published material in the 5E era. There are conflicting or complimentary statements from other people at Wizards of course but only time will tell if they amount to anything except minor updates. For example, as many of you already know by now, a short PDF document with 5E Eberron material was released in Wizards' Unearthed Arcana column. The blurb seems to indicate more is to come:

"The material presented in Unearthed Arcana will range from mechanics that we expect one day to publish in a supplement to house rules from our home campaigns that we want to share, from core system options such as mass combat to setting-specific material such as the Eberron update included in this article. Once it’s out there, you can expect us to check in with you to see how it’s working out and what we can do to improve it."

A compilation book built off of system articles is nothing new to Wizards, while setting specific compilations would seem quite different to me and I'd like to see one if they are serious about returning to the D&D multiverse. Naturally no compilation could do any one setting justice. In the end it'd all be crunch anyhow and not fluff, which is what Mr. Stewart refers to in his quote. The fluff or, stories are entirely focused on the Realms adventures, league play, novels, video games, etc. Outsourcing aside, and given their tendency to cut employees I don't think Wizards currently has the manpower to do two full time settings if they wanted to. Furthermore, given the status of their greatest competitor why should they?

Paizo's Pathfinder setting has been going strong for more than a few years now. Paizo does one setting in all media formats (usually ahead of the curve). There is no outcry or even suggestion for Paizo to do a whole new campaign world (yet). Obviously Wizards has been trying to play catch up since 4E to the point of replicating Paizo's model. Focusing all their energy on one setting (Forgotten Realms) makes complete sense when you put D&D side by side with Pathfinder. There may simply be no time or room to do more settings.

This post does make me feel like a kind of defeatist (if not realist) but that won't stop me from hoping to see new published stories about Greyhawk (or Dragonlance, Darksun, etc). Yes, outsourcing to 3rd parties may be the white knight we need, but if Wizards does decide to handle it in-house I have a radical idea how it could be approached. More on that another day...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Incabulos Strikes Again!

Every so often I fail my saving throw and get sick, resulting in a backlog of projects including Greyhawkery. As always I blame that devious lord of evil Incabulos, god of disease, famine and nightmares. With him in mind here is some useless information on this under-utilized deity.

A quick check in the new edition of the Players Handbook shows that Incabulos is the god of plagues and famine, he is Neutral Evil, his domain is Death and his symbol is a reptilian eye inside of a horizontal diamond. This symbol is called the "Eye of Possession" and is referred to as a green eye in other products though inferring this is reptilian isn't necessarily wrong.

For brevity's sake the PHB didn't show Incabulos' entire portfolio which according to the 1983 boxed says, Evil, Plague, Sickness, Famine, Drought, Disasters and Nightmares. Sickness and plague seems redundant but okay, and droughts and famine certainly go hand-in-hand. Disasters are a big thing to consider. Does this mean he has a way of controlling the elements by wreaking earthquakes, floods, tornadoes or mudslides on villages?

Incabulos also delights in general acts of wickedness, check it out.





Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Classic Greyhawk: What Hasn't Been Reused?

As I watch with reserved interest at the upcoming releases for D&D's Elemental Evil story line I think back on the last few years of Greyhawk adaptations. 4E era Dragon and Dungeon publications weren't bad as we saw complete adaptions of Tamoachan, Tomb of Horrors, the Giants Series and several new modules not to mention a reprint of the Slave Lord series in its original AD&D format. As always I credit Chris Perkins a lot for this recent Greyhawk love. Wizard's organized play also got into the Greyhawk cookie jar and used among other storylines Beyond the Crystal Cave and the Ghost Tower of Inverness.

Before this run of course was Paizo's longer 3rd Edition tenure with the magazines where we saw expansions of Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure and a few epic APs and more original modules set in the Flanaess than I can name at the moment. Then of course there was the Expedition series modules. I wonder now, what's left of the World of Greyhawk's extensive library of modules (pre-dating 3e) that hasn't been reused, expanded upon or outright swiped.

EX1 Dungeonland and EX2 Land Beyond the Magic Mirror: These Lewis Carroll inspired modules aren't for everybody but comics, shows and movies with the Wonderland theme are in abundance so I can't see these as a bad option.

I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City, I2 Tomb of the Lizard King, N1 Against the Cult of Reptile God, U2 Danger at Dunwater, U3 The Final Enemy: Perhaps some day there will be a renewed interest in jungle adventures and/or scaly folk as antagonists? Personally I've never ran any of these but I own them all. There has to be something worthy to use in all these adventures.

UK2 The Sentinel and UK3 The Gauntlet: These little regarded modules are set in a remote part of the Sea Princes and could make a good place to set expansions without much interference with canon.

WG6 Isle of the Ape: This may have been touched on in Paizo's Savage Tide AP but I know there hasn't been a major adaption or expansion done on this homage to King Kong. Again, jungle based modules aren't the in thing yet, however Greyhawk has gobs of them.

Crypt of Lyzandred the Mad, The Doomgrinder, the Star Cairns, WG9 Gargoyle, WG10 Child's Play, WG11 Puppets: Also known as the modules no one in their right mind would adapt. If anything they need gritty reboots with completely different plots.

Vecna Lives!, (Vecna Reborn) and Die Vecna Die: Not all technically Greyhawk modules but they all tie together. If I had to pick the next big Greyhawk thing to be exploited, Vecna would be it. He is an uber-NPC villain with a rich background, more than a few associated artifacts and multi-planar reach.

WG8: Fate of Istus: This module is in a class all its own and it's adaptation value is mostly in a city sourcebook. It could be interesting to do another Fate storyline however if we're talking something more Arabic in flavor this time.

WGA1 Falcon's Revenge, WGA2 Falconmaster, WGA3 Flames of the Falcon: This series based in Greyhawk City is undervalued and so isn't likely to ever be adapted. It still was a successful trilogy which is more than I can say for...

WGS1 Five Shall Be One, WGS2 Howl From the North: I loved the premise and set up of these modules but they were awfully written. It was so bad that evidently the third in the series was cut short and folded into the follow up Greyhawk Wars board game. People like Viking flavor, so this would be my personal choice for an adaptation or expansion module. The five swords could easily be scattered again and the quest renewed, but this time with a real goal in mind.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Castle Greyhawk: Symbols and Suspicions

Welcome back stalwart Greyhawk fans! I'm rrady to promote another page in the third chapter of our ongoing Castle Greyhawk graphic novel. Check out page twelve and read some integral inscriptions by savvy scribe Scott Casper. On our site you can also check the archives and follow the entire Castle Greyhawk story from the very beginning.

Artist's Commentary: This page marks an interesting twist. With a group of that make up and ego, there's bound to be some whispers and mistrust. That stuff happens all the time with my friends at the game table. After the intensively cool eiger battle pages this page was more relaxing to me in that Tenser, Rob and Yrag are all characters I've grown used to drawing. The communication between brain and hand are never better in scenes like this, whereas with newcomers like Mordy, Serten and Murlynd I need constant reference. I'm sure by the time I get used to drawing the whole cast Scott will switch gears again. I can't wait to see what comes next!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"What If" Greyhawk Wars Ending

One of the best ongoing Marvel comics is the What If series. If you haven't heard of it, they are one-shot issues that tell a story of how history would be different if certain situations were changed. This type of brainstorming is thus a Greyhawk fan's favorite past-time because there's a lot of canon people would change if they put their mind to it. Some alterations of course are monumental and change the entire scope of canon that follows. One interesting item came up in Thursday chat last week and I decided to elaborate on it here:

What if...the Scarlet Brotherhood didn't come out of the shadows at the start of the Greyhawk Wars?

First some background. Greyhawk Wars boxed set was a tactical board game which used the map of the Flanaess and its various nations as territories to battle over. In a sense it is the Axis & Allies of Greyhawk. The backstory for the game used story elements left over from an unproduced third module in the swords series, Five Shall Be One and Howl From the North (both set in the barbarian north). To put in short terms, Iuz starts trouble in the north and it kind of snow balls into a continent wide war as opportunistic rulers launch war against their rivals. The Scarlet Brotherhood were one of the factions vying to rule the world in this module-becomes-board game.

My suspicion is that the designers added the mysterious, unseen Brotherhood for board game balance and not out of a need necessarily based on canon. Iuz hates Furyondy. Nyrond and the Iron League hates the Great Kingdom. But who is there to fight Keoland? Two direct mainland threats to Keoland, the Pomarj is listed as a neutral site and the much more formidable Baklunish nations (sans Ull damnit) are listed as "evil" but aren't a player faction at the start either. So curious enough, instead of these two real martial powers, it's the Scarlet Brotherhood who has come out of the shadows and killed most of the rulers of the Sea Princes and took over with a swift coup. Instantly, the Brotherhood after a long wait evidently, has gone from a monastic spy network to a conquering  naval power with unlimited troops from the jungles, ready to fight whoever they will. Game on!

Well as the setting canon plays out (not your board game results mind you) because of GHW the Brotherhood ends up owning most of Onwall, Idee, the Lordship of the Isles, Sea Princes and has secret ties to the Pomarj. Furthermore, these relative newcomers are allowed in on the great gathering of nations in the City of Greyhawk to end the wars. If you're still with me, here is how I would've set up Greyhawk Wars from a canon and board game perspective:

The Brotherhood has their network of spies and assassins in place already, that is a given. I would have all the Baklunish nations (as a playable faction in the game ) unite and pour through Ket to create a new front in the Iuz-Furyondy conflict (Ket was in the wars anyhow albeit as an ally of Iuz). Keoland would be drawn into this immediately because of ancient rivalry. The Sea Princes could then be free to aid or hinder any side much like the Lordship of the Isles in the game. The wars rage on as normal in the storyline with little difference except Keoland now has a foe to match their size. This is when the Brotherhood springs out of obscurity at the end instead of the beginning of the wars. Using their spies, assassins and even diplomats in every capital, they are the ones to call all nations together (yes to neutral Greyhawk City) and end the conflicts. Smaller players like the Sea Princes, Lordship or Idee could still be used as stark examples as their rulers are all snuffed overnight; or in an even bolder change of direction, the wars could grind to an instant halt as every faction's ruler is murdered on the same day. Kings Archbold, Skotti and Belvor - dead. Ivid the Undying - Dead. Iuz the Evil - Dead or banished.

It's a deus ex machina for sure, but it sets up the later Scarlet Brotherhood sourcebook and From the Ashes boxed set as a much more tense Greyhawk setting. Much like in the actual post-wars storyline, every kingdom is reeling and broken; Nyrond and Furyondy is depleted, Iuz is gone but his power vacuum can create all kinds of future trouble with new villains and the Great Kingdom was going to break up anyhow. All this works, except now the Brotherhood is the only nation who is fresh and they have their tendrils everywhere.



Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Giantslayer and Elemental Evil

It only takes me a casual glance at recent and upcoming adventure paths (or what passes as APs for WotC) to notice that Greyhawk's influence is still strong with writers and designers of RPG leaders Pathfinder and D&D respectively. An enterprising Greyhawk DM could thus easily use the various AP modules below to their own advantage.

First I'll touch on the most obvious, this spring's Elemental Evil is set in the Forgotten Realms, but I'm sure its theme of ancient elemental cults and the Elder Elemental Eye is epic enough to work in the Greyhawk setting with little revision. If the tables had been turned I'm sure the same would be true for Faerun. It's the near compatibility of both medieval worlds that make these type of storylines enticing for WotC's creative team.

Coming soon from Paizo is the AP Giantslayer. The theme here is evident from the title, but here is the story synopsis anyhow:

"Deep in the Mindspin Mountains, a storm giant warlord known as the Storm Tyrant has seized control of a cloud castle and an Orb of Dragonkind, and is gathering an army of giants from across western Avistan—first to bring the orc hordes of Belkzen under his banner, then to conquer the neighboring realms. Heroes defending the human town of Trunau from an orc raid discover that the attack is just a precursor to the Storm Tyrant’s larger plans. Working their way through an abandoned border fort, an ancient giant temple, the tomb of an undead frost giant, and an elite fire giant training facility beneath a dormant volcano, the heroes eventually take the fight to the Storm Tyrant himself inside his flying fortress. Can the giant army be defeated before it can conquer the human lands of the Inner Sea, or will all of Avistan bow down in fealty to the Storm Tyrant?"
Paizo has done many original Pathfinder APs since their departure from doing Greyhawk in Dungeon Magazine, yet once in a while I see a storyline set in Golarion that could fit perfectly in Greyhawk and this has to be one of them. Even though giants are standard fantasy tropes, you can't read that and not think of the classic Against the Giants series, which is surely the inspiration for this story. Paizo's newest AP is well timed because in my opinion Wizards could just as well done the same storyline instead of Elemental Evil.

What other adventure paths could make good material for the World of Greyhawk? Paizo's last one, Iron Gods is a good candidate:

"Numeria has a long history of mystery and wonder buried under its rugged landscape, for on that one fateful night thousands of years ago, the Rain of Stars scarred the land. The fragmented remnants of a ship from beyond the stars fell from the sky, scattering strange technological ruins and deadly perils across the land. Today, these sites are feared by the barbaric tribes and coveted by the sinister spellcasters of the Technic League. Yet something worse than brutish berserker or super-science wizard has risen to power in these hidden technological halls. The Iron Gods are ready to make their presence known, and if they are not opposed by the region’s newest heroes, a scourge unlike any the Inner Sea has seen will arise! From small Numerian towns to strange technological ruins to the region’s infamous capital of Starfall—and perhaps beyond"

Though this one is probably over the top for your average Greyhawk campaign, you can't deny modules like Expedition to the Barrier peaks and places like the City of the Gods or Blackmoor aren't in a perfect position to introduce material from these Pathfinder modules. If anyone has more info on Iron Gods I'd be keen to hear about it.

Lastly, 2013's Reign of Winter always struck me as a good fit for Greyhawk and for good reason.

"It has been a century since the immortal witch Baba Yaga last visited the world, and the hour draws nigh for her return. But when she fails to appear in the frozen realm of Irrisen to usher in its newest ruler, pockets of winter begin to grow throughout the Inner Sea region. After 1,400 years of perpetual winter, the icy curse of Irrisen is spreading! What links do these strange blizzards and swaths of wintry landscapes have with Irrisen, and is there any truth to the growing rumors that the Witch Queen Elvanna has taken full control of the realm? Can her plans for the Inner Sea be thwarted, or will the Reign of Winter engulf the world?"

This one ties indirectly to Greyhawk already since we learned from Greyhawk canon that Baba Yaga is the mother of witches on multiple worlds, after dropping Iggwilv off on Oerth. Her reign in Perrenland wasn't as long as Elvanna's in Irrisen however, and she went off to dabble in the Abyss. However, with Reign you could either run it as is in Greyhawk or perhaps in a grand campaign that crosses worlds with Iggwilv and Elvanna involved in some scheme. Again, if anyone who has ran Reign, I'd love to hear about it's story elements.

I'm anxious to see Wizards' storyline will be after Elemental Evil. You know game designers plan those in advance. Forgotten Realms has a wealth of novels and sourcebooks to draw upon, but will the next threat to Faerun be from the Zhentarim, the Red Wizards of Thay or perhaps it will be a previously unheard of group of "slavers" who pop up near Waterdeep? ;)