Saturday, June 7, 2014

New at Wizards: Innovative Settings

Over at Wizards they have posted part two of Shannon Appelcline's retrospective history of D&D when it comes to creating cultures and settings. You can read art one HEREBeyond Feudalism: Innovative Settings covers a dazzling array of settings from the late 80's up till 2000. Among them he mentions From the Ashes' place in this era:

"From the Ashes (1992) offered a new take on the Greyhawk setting. It was still a feudal, medieval world, but like so many of the settings of the 2nd Edition era, it adopted one of the genres that TSR had played with in the 1970s and ’80s; Greyhawk was now a world of dark fantasy, where evil had advanced to become a dominant force. Unfortunately the change wasn’t enough to save the old setting. After a short run (1992–1993), From the Ashes was retired; when Greyhawk returned it would once more be a gonzo Medieval world."

That's an apt description of things I guess. Strangely after reading this I realized that I never talk much with friends and other gamers about FtA being a dark fantasy theme. It felt like a timeline advance to me, but not really any darker. Was Greyhawk trying to imitate the utterly dark Warhammer setting (which given the writer I could believe)? We all knew the Wars advanced things in evil's favor, but the changes were so temporary or tenuous that those DMs who concentrated on just adventures could easily ignore FtA altogether, so that by the time 2000 and the Living Greyhawk Campaign came along things were rolled back to a degree of how they were in Gygax's era. Gonzo though? I hardly think 21st century Greyhawk compares to the Greyhawk of Gygax's day. I'd love to hear others' assessment of Greyhawk's dark fantasy turn.


tom said...

On first glance at Shannon Appelcline's Beyond Feudalism, part 2, my reaction was something resembling WTF. A second read just made me confused & angry. I've been playing D&D almost since the beginning. And in 1977 when my family moved and I lost my DM and all but one fellow player as a result, I decided to start my own campaign, which was set in Greyhawk even before the release of the WoG Folio in 1980. And I've been running that campaign (and various reboots of it) more or less continuously for almost 40 years now.

Mr Appelcline seems to know a bit about Greyhawk, but dismisses it as "a gonzo Medieval world" before going on to praise other settings for introducing things that Greyhawk already had long before: "an Arabian Nights setting" (why doesn't the Baklunish west count?); "Scandinavia with Vikings" (what about the Ice, Frost & Snow Barbarians?); Mongol hordes (Wolf & Tiger Nomads?); "Native American–like people" (Rovers of the Barrens?); "Aztec and Mayan fantasy" (Amedio Jungle?).

Greyhawk also offers other non-feudal settings within the Flaneass map: several Free Cities, a couple democratically elected governments, African-like tribal cultures in Hepmonaland and/or the Olman islands. and outside the Flanaess the rest of the world is waiting for the DM to fill in anything he or she desires. It has long been known that Oriental-like cultures are located to the southwest beyond the Sea of Dust.

This article is just more tripe sponsored by a company that has been going out of its was to dismiss, destroy, ignore or forget our favorite setting for more than 30 years.

tom said...

As for "From The Ashes"...

First of all, what is his snide comment that "Unfortunately the change wasn’t enough to save the old setting" about?

Aside from TSR's & WotC's idiotic policy decisions, bad modules, and Rose Estes, exactly what the hell did Greyhawk need to be saved from?

While it's true many of the post-Gygax Greyhawk products didn't sell very well, it wasn't because players had lost interest in the setting. It was because many of those products were crap and got terrible reviews.


To say FtA turned Greyhawk into a "world of dark fantasy, where evil had advanced to become a dominant force" implies that Gary Gygax's Greyhawk was made out of puppies & rainbows.

It wasn't:
About half the land area was inhospitable wilderness stalked by fell creatures whose favorite snack was human flesh.
The lakes and seas were places where sea-monsters frolicked, and pirates and slavers were common.
The lands in the southwest were being raided and pillaged by Giants, who captured people for food.
The central coasts were ravaged by Slavers.
Both of the previous items were organized and spurred on by evil Dark Elves.
One nation was ruled by an evil demigod who built a road several hundred miles long out of human skulls.
Three more had recently been overrun by humanoids, aided by evil humans.
Others are run by pirates, brigands, evil monks, barbarians, an evil wizard, and an oppressive theocracy.
The largest and most powerful nation has been falling into decadence for over a hundred years and it's ruling house is demonically possessed.
By Medieval Earth standards the Flanaess is woefully underpopulated.
Anyone who followed Gygax's updates in Dragon magazine knew that several major wars were brewing and evil was on the rise.

FtA didn't add any darkness, it just moved a few borders on the map and provided some timeline updates that mostly didn't even make sense to me.

When FtA came out I took one look and decided that it was a useless product and a waste of $20. I did however acquire it a few years later along with a box of other used D&D stuff at a yard sale.

I considered it unusable mainly because my campaign had been running for 15 years at that point and 3 out of 4 of my groups of players were well beyond CY 584 and
history had played out quite differently in my world.

But even had that not been the case, I already had WoG, GA, and CoG. FtA didn't offer much new material--a few new NPCs, some adventure cards and a slightly altered rehash of stuff most Greyhawk DMs already had. And the changes were silly at best...

In the new history they ignored the CY 587-589 updates from Dragon magazine.
Even though the Drow's plans for a Giant invasion had been foiled in most Greyhawk campaigns and several bands of giants were wiped out, they ignore the outcome of the G & D series modules and have the Giants invade anyway.
The Wild Coast changes - read the WoG description of the Wild Coast and ask yourself if those people will meekly submit to being taken over by orcs, or by the City of Greyhawk. the WC is functionally an anarchy--they can't surrender to an invading enemy, there is no one with the authority to to do so. there is no central government for the invaders to use to maintain order. At worst invaders can capture, pillage & burn towns while the people withdraw into the countryside to harry the invaders & disrupt their supply lines until they move on. also consider that the WC has more mercenaries & high level NPCs than average and little in the way of resources desirable to orcs.
They had to retcon in several new deities to justify some of the changes.
Iuz cannot act directly outside his own borders or St Cuthbert, and/or any Prime Material based deity is free to oppose him. How was he able to expand his empire so dramatically.

mortellan said...

tom as always your rant/commentary is gold! I agree with you on the assessment of FtA. I liked it probably more than you, but I do concur my campaigns tended to outpace official canon and I got tired of retrofitting events. Anyways...

To reply on the first point, GH did introduce those cultural analogs yes, but it can be said they never went anywhere with them after the initial setting book. If Al QADIM had been set in the Baklunish west, that could've changed things. In essence, those areas were deliberately left vague by designers who wanted to rehash the Flanaess over and over.
Like I've mused I can only guess the 'dark' fantasy stab was a 90's thing that Greyhawk was thrust into by Sargent. Yes, the changes were nothing if not inevitable and didn't constitute a thematic change. It could've been worse, Greyhawk might have got the Spellplague treatment.

tom said...

"Spellplague", had to Google that one. I haven't really paid much attention to Forgotten Realms or other settings over the years.

And wow am I impressed! That pretty much out-stupids anything they've ever done to Greyhawk.

tom said...

And while he got the timing and the responsible party wrong in this essay in 2000, it looks like a well known authority on fantasy world design concurs with me on the advisability of shoehorning massive changes into an existing setting:

"Recently, Wizards of the Coast, the company that purchased TSR in 1998, decided to revitalize Dungeons and Dragons and specifically Greyhawk, for the setting had languished for a considerable number of years as new and different world settings were released. Then it was decided that a "war" that virtually wiped out all of the former states and wiped the political slate clean would be beneficial. As the original creator of the world, I surely would have advised against such a thing. The initial reaction to the changed world setting was quite unfavorable. Soon after the release of the revised material, the setting was essentially shelved, supported only by devoted, diehard fans that remained active in their support of the milieu, vocal in their demands for the return of the setting. The solid bases behind the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting did not fail, certainly, and the adherents of it were at last heard! Now it is the "default" setting for the new Third Edition DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Roleplaying Game. With the work I had put in over so many years, this action was quite gratifying as my labor of love would again be brought forward for gamers everywhere."

Or at least, a) carefully review all of the previously published material and make sure the changes are compatible w/ it; and b)split them up so that any given bit is modular and optional and players can pick and choose what fits or doesn't fit in their game.

mortellan said...

LOL. I'm glad you are in on the Spellplaguing now, Tom.

Nice quote there. Greyhawk is indeed sturdy and can take a beating. It'll be back. I'm one of those devoted diehard fans.

tom said...

What I'd love to see would be for WotC to admit that Greyhawk is essentially "abandonware" and place the setting under OGL or release it into the public domain. They continue to profit from the sale of any material they hold the copyright to, but stop enforcing any trademarks other than their product names and logos, and let people like us produce and share or sell new material w/o fear of reprisal.

mortellan said...

Tom: Amen there brother!