Wednesday, August 24, 2011

New Article: Kas & Vecna

Dragon #402 (or what still passes as the magazine) has a new feature by Ken Hart called History Check. In his first installment he covers the currently-running version of two of Greyhawk's if not all of D&D's most infamous villains: Kas and Vecna. Yes, you will need a D&DI subscription to read this article in full. I will try to review some of the meatier parts for you in the meantime...

The article is narrated by an unassuming Vistani dancing-girl named Menodora Zarovan who knows her forbidden lore. Her opening lines should be pleasing to any fan of the World of Greyhawk:

"Nearly two millennia ago in a land known as the Flanaess, the name of the lich Vecna was sung by bards and cursed by clerics. How did he become a lich, and why did he seek to conquer the Flanaess?You may as well ask, ‘Why is the Shadowfell dark, Menodora?'"

Alright! A direct Greyhawk reference in a 4e product! Keep it going Menodora.

"Vecna was a supremely talented wizard who became obsessed with overcoming death when his beloved mother died. He conquered villages in the Flanaess to use the townspeople as subjects for his necromantic experiments."

A reference to the alternate origins of Vecna laid down in the semi-canonical Vecna: Hand of the Revenant graphic novel. Points for using that obscure source. Now for another Greyhawk emigrant...

" of his generals—a demonic half-breed mage named Acererak—rescued Vecna from destruction by clerics of Pelor."

This association is also from Hand of the Revenant. Acererak the future demi-lich who resides in the famous Tomb of Horrors once served the Whispered One. No big deal there. Acererak has figured prominently in 4th edition material already including a whole Tomb of Horrors makeover. The keen thing about this article so far is that it includes occasional sidebars with History skill checks for PCs to know relevant information at certain points in the article. These History checks flow well with the narrative and the difficulty numbers are easily adapted to any edition. Moving right along, Acererak's "true" history as told by the Vistani takes a slight turn...

"...the truth is that Acererak arranged Vecna’s near-destruction and rescue that day, so that he could ingratiate himself with his master and put himself in a position to steal Vecna’s darkest, most powerful secrets."

That rat! Well anyhow this leads to Vecna not trusting anyone and his obsession with secrecy becomes his signature portfolio. Next to the story comes Kas:

"During the time that Acererak was deceiving Vecna, Kas was a human paladin in Vecna’s service, drawn by visions of blood and a thirst for foes who would challenge his prowess at arms. Years earlier he had pledged himself to a god of death, but Kas soon grew bored with mere death."

Hear that? Nerull, Wee Jas, maybe the Raven Queen? Kas-a paladin-got bored with all of them and joined Vecna. Hardcore. This leads to another intriguing twist on the Vecna-Kas story:

"Vecna used necromancy to extend Kas’s life, wishing to retain his trusted weapon as long as possible. When Kas’s mortal form had reached the point when even Vecna’s spells could sustain it no longer, the lich fashioned for him a fanged mask of silver, and channeled the energy of undeath into it. By wearing the silver mask and accepting its necromantic embrace, Kas willingly received the dark gift of vampirism."

This heresy of history of course conflicts with well known events in Greyhawk's Vecna Lives! and much to my delight, Ken Hart addresses this change in his narrative...

"Perhaps you don’t believe me. Possibly you have heard that Kas became a vampire after his famous betrayal, as a result of being imprisoned in Vecna’s Citadel Cavitius, on an ashcovered world so cold that it freezes the very soul. That is what Vecna cultists quoting from the Scroll of Mauthereign would have you think..."

The tale goes on, relating why Vecna created the Sword of Kas for his bloody-handed lieutenant:

"As he spoke the final enchantments over it, he carefully pulled a thread of shadow from his own consciousness and wrapped it around the sword’s black blade. From that point on, as long as Kas bore the sword Vecna would be able to listen in on Kas’s activities, and sometimes even his thoughts."

Then Vecna was betrayed. By whom? Well, you'll need to make a DC 35 History check to find that out. I can't give away the entire article folks. Vecna will hate me if I do, but I'm pretty sure you know the rest.

I have to admit, given the extensive histories already written about Vecna and Kas (I'm looking at you Sam and Sean), there was every chance this article could have let me down by trying too hard to reinvent these well-known characters for 4th edition. But Ken Hart's History Check impressed me unlike most other 4e articles I've seen by at least trying to fit it with prior Greyhawk history. What is more amazing is that it's nearly all fluff other than a handfull of sidebars and adventure hooks at the end. If you have a D&DI subscription give this article a look. If you dare. 

Update 4/18/2021: Of course the D&D Insider subscription service and eDragon is no longer available. The links to the article have been removed, but I'm glad I quoted so many parts from this piece.


Aaron E. Steele said...

I hate history checks. Just give the information to the players, or don't. Better yet, make them demonstrate some player skill in order to earn the information.

Thanks for sharing the article. Those original D&D villains are still the best.

Anonymous said...

I would never have thought that 4e would come so close. Not bad.

Thanks Mort.

Mystic Scholar

Anthony N. Emmel said...

That is most impressive. History checks? In 4e?!! So they are getting away from pure tactical mini game I take it?

Sam said...

I'm thoroughly unimpressed.

Seriously, Vecna gets obsessed with death because mommy dies then loses body parts?
Darth Ecna!
No wait, let's switch those vowels around . . .
Darth Acne!

I like my version of Kas better. (Which included a part of Vecna being in the Sword of Kas years before this.)
I like Eric Menge's origin of Vecna better.
I like my version of Vecna's ascent better. (Including the nature of his body parts.)

4E can have this.

Mike Bridges said...

anthony: 4e has always had history skill I think, but I my guess is WotC is starting to realize that Pathfinder is beating them so here lately they've been in retromode trying to add touches that might lure old gamers back. I ain't saying its working but I do appreciate the all-fluff article for once even if the canon is all slipshod new. Speaking of which...

Mike Bridges said...

sam: I'm glad you weighed in on this version. Poor ol Vecna will never be left alone. I agree with you that older historical events work better in the GH context, but retcon aside, one of my main likes about the article was that conscious in-narrative acknolwedgement of what history came before. You have to admit, it's quite convenient that Vecna & Kas has from the beginning been vague characters from prehistory. Few other D&D characters of any setting could withstand such revisions.

Anonymous said...

"true" history as told by the Vistani

Ah, is it true is it not? It's always best to give "questionable" sources for history. Let the players figure out which is true or not. Plus, it saves retconning for many DMs.

I'll have to check out the rest of the article. Haven't used my subscription lately. :(

Great post!

Ken Hart said...

Hi there! A friend steered me over to this post. This is Ken, the writer of the article. Thanks for the compliments! This was a very enjoyable project, as it gave me a working excuse to dive into D&D's rich history.

While I can't speak for the Dragon/Dungeon editors, I can say that they encouraged me to use Greyhawk references and not "retcon" them, which was very welcome. I wanted to include material that could be used in any edition of D&D with little effort, so I'm happy that you mentioned that above. (As always, DMs should feel free to choose what works best for their campaigns and put aside the rest.)

Kas and Vecna are great, timeless bad guys, and it was a pleasure to sort through the wild and sometimes contradictory details of their past. And for what it's worth, references to Vecna's vengeful anger over the death of his mother predate Attack of the Clones by a long shot. :-) (Drat, I had gone nearly a month without thinking about the prequels...!)

Mike Bridges said...

Ken: Thanks for replying to the post, it's been a long time since an author who did something for Wizards did that. In the heyday of Dragon and Dungeon I was always excited when authors got a greenlight to write something Greyhawk related, however small or big the reference. I'm glad you were given freedom to use the past as you move forward. I look forward to your next project.

Argon said...

Wow,Ken glad you dropped by. Yes if not for Mort many of us would not have gotten to view a sample of your work. Glad it kept the Greyhawk references in the article.

I hope to see more of this in the future.