Saturday, November 28, 2015

5 Reasons to Visit the Bandit Kingdoms

Welcome aficionados of the World of Greyhawk to a new regular segment I'm entitling "5 Reasons to Visit...". Most people who have played D&D for a long time will at least be probably familiar with the classic adventure locales of the game and some even the minutiae of Greyhawk's timelines and geopolitical history. With 5 Reasons I only seek to put a spotlight on five of hopefully many good plots and places in each of the nations of the Flanaess. Perhaps a new DM will be intrigued by these locations or an experienced one will be reminded or inspired to revisit these areas. As always I'm open to comments, suggestions and additions. Enjoy!

1. White Plume Mountain: Let's start with the 500 pound gorilla in the room. The classic module, S2 White Plume Mountain is among the best known adventure locales on Oerth. The magic weapons Wave, Whelm and Blackrazor are stolen and hid here by the mysterious Keraptis who then taunts heroes into trying to obtain them from his dungeons. What more set-up do you need for a dungeon crawl? White Plume was so successful it also garnered a return sequel which expanded upon the mountain's backstory. One more thing, a single mountain out in the middle of the lawless Bandit Kingdoms can also evoke the dangerous air of The Hobbit and the Lonely Mountain.

2. Rookroost: The large hill top city of Rookroost is the epitome of the Bandit Kingdoms. There is a good map and write-up on the city in the module Fate of Istus and further information is found in Iuz the Evil. The rogue city's concentric walls conjures images of a dark and gritty Minas Tirith. Indeed the remote city's boast that it has never been conquered lends to this comparison. Rookroost makes a good home base for adventurers striking out into the frontier and even the setting for an urban intrigue campaign. There's a lot going on here and yet the city is still raw enough for good DMs to create their own material.

3. Stoink: Speaking of roguish urban adventure. Stoink is another perfect bandit town to visit. Nestled on the Artonsamay River, Stoink is a boisterous, drinking, brawling, thieving town and is notable for being featured in Gygax's "Gord" novels. Stoink is ruled by a ostentatious character named Boss Renfus the Mottled, a loud, overweight bandit who I can only imagine is Greyhawk's answer to Jabba the Hutt. Stoink's position on the map makes it a great hotspot for adventures in or around major lands like Nyrond, Urnst and the Theocracy of the Pale.

4. Riftcanyon: What trip to the Bandit Lands is complete without mentioning the big rift in the middle of the landscape? Rumors say it was magically created and many awful monsters lurk on its fringes and within its depths. The rift at times has been ruled by bandit lords, agents of Iuz the Old (Cranzer the wizard) and in times past even giants (Kings of the Rift from the Age of Worms Adventure Path) or ancient Flannae civilizations (namely the cliff city of Veralos). The most dangerous place in all the Riftcanyon however, is the aptly named Wormcrawl Fissure. Mentioned in the sourcebook Iuz the Evil, and featured in the Age of Worms module Into the Wormcrawl Fissure, this is the reputed home of the infamous demigod Kyuss and his undead sons. Only the foolish tread this dark path.

5. Fleichshriver: You'll see it on some maps of the Flanaess, but word of Fleichshriver is only found in the sourcebook Iuz the Evil. This fiend-crafted citadel devoted to Iuz is quite possibly the most dangerous place in all the bandit territory, including Riftcanyon. The place is home to Iuz's upper echelon of henchmen, the Boneheart to do their experiments on new magic and monsters. To borrow yet another Tolkienism, imagine Minas Morgul (home of the Nazgul) when venturing here. Besides the usual dark sorcery and abundant humanoid guards, Fleichshriver also has a gate to the Abyss and is impenetrable to scrying. Yup, this is one of those places heroes go to and never come back. If your players think they've seen everything Greyhawk has to offer I'm willing to bet they haven't tried to clear a high-level threat like Fleichshriver.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Reactions: Chris Perkins Panel

Man am I kicking myself for not going to Gamehole Con this year! Over at ENWorld, Morrus has posted some quotes from a panel that WotC's Chris Perkins took part in and it has once again got me and a lot of people buzzing on Greyhawk. Here's my thought and reactions to selected parts of this panel, also you can listen to the rest of the panel for yourself HERE.

"Gone are the days, in 3rd and 4th Edition, when we were bound by the model of having to release a book a month or two books a month, or three books a month. We have no commitment or desire to do that going forward.
And part of that is just driven by business realities, part of it is driven by our knowledge of certain facts that we've obtained through surveys, through talking to people at shows, that there is kind of a certain amount of material that people can actually absorb before the stuff that we're releasing no longer has any value and is no longer serving anybody. A lot of 3rd Edition products, I'm sure, and 4th Edition products, I'm sure, that maybe you've bought or your players have bought are sitting on shelves having never been used, or used precious little. We don't sell products so that 5% of our audience can use 5% of it. We're now trying to sell products that 100% of our audience might use, and they'll use all of it."

I appreciate this honesty because we all know splat books get ridiculous and it's even more ridiculous trying to keep up with buying them. This is a big reason I only play Pathfinder core rules. I got off the book a month club early. It would be different to me if that was a Greyhawk source book every month but a dozen bestiaries or an ultimate-ultimate character building guide is too much. I'm glad Wizards is sticking to just story related material, though that does hedge out extra setting support which us diehards clamor for.

" of the things we are going to be doing in the future is looking out at some of our other worlds. That doesn't mean we won't come back to the Realms, or have adventures that visit multiple different locations, start in one place and end in another... one of the goals with our stories is to go beyond Forgotten Realms, safe to say.
The other thing that we're driving to with our stories is to, whenever possible, draw upon the past, key elements from the history of the game that have not seen a lot of attention lately."

This is a tricky proposition. What elements haven't got any attention? What old D&D themes have not been done already by WotC (or Paizo) in recent memory? I've got a few ideas HERE. Place your bets!

"The story that follows Rage of Demons is not going to be anywhere near the Underdark, and it will have its own feel, its own flavour, its own atmosphere, its own thing. The story that follows that is going to be very different. It allows us to do things like ... Princes of the Apocalypse and the Elemental Evil story was very dungeon driven; it was a dungeon-based story... in the future we want to maybe do intrigue. What story would we have to tell in D&D that is fundamentally an intrigue story. Would it be like city based? Would it be planar based, where you're basically on some sort of planar hunt for something? And then maybe the story after that is ... [audience member suggests "horror"] ... horror, or something more light-hearted and flaky, or a little off-track, or like Eberron, a little more steampunkish, or Victorian pulpy... making sure every story has a different feel, flavour, making sure we get to visit some of our other worlds.."

This line of thought implies good chances for settings like Ravenloft or Planescape to be explored, which would feel quite different than their Realms stories. For Greyhawk to stand out, avoiding diungeons or underdark will be difficult but not impossible.

"So, yeah, vampire, classic monster, yeah, we'll do a story with vampires... [more classic monster suggestions].. yeah, we'll do a story with giants."

So Ravenloft naturally, and Against the Giants will be touched upon sooner or later. Check. Whether Greyhawk's giants are more compelling a story than those already seeded in the Realms stories we shall see. As for horror, I'd still love to see Vecna used. He is arguably Greyhawk's greatest villain and is also a planar threat to boot.

"A great bulk of those who play D&D run homebrew settings. But of those home-brew campaigns, over half of those homebrewers do pillage from other settings ... 15% or 50% of the world they've created has hawked stuff from other worlds. They're comfortable pillaging our products for ideas. That homebrew number, I can't remember the exact percentage, but I think it's like 55% homebrew. And then it's like 35% Forgotten Realms, and then everything else ... Very few people right now, turns out, running Dark Sun campaigns. A sliver of a sliver. Very few people running Hollow World campaigns. Very few people are running Mystara campaigns. It pretty much goes Homebrew, Forgotten Realms, I think Greyhawk's at 5% ands then everybody else is at 2% or 1%."

Meh. A few years ago I'd rail against this figure, but realistically ever since 4E they've been burying interest in Greyhawk beyond nostalgic reasons. Most Living Greyhawk players probably migrated to Pathfinder's Golarion long ago, then two editions of Nentir Vale and Realms have led to people either doing their own homebrew or going with what's published. So Greyhawk at 5%? I'll take that! With no RPG support, video games, or novels for years? What other brand can still keep that big a slice of the pie?

"But we are looking at bringing in consultants beyond the range, beyond the pale... people that obviously love D&D may not actually have ever worked on a D&D product. Or maybe they have! Who knows? If I could resurrect Gary Gygax I would bring him in as a consultant, certainly. But we have to stick to the living."

This is something I've been harping on for a long time and now that WotC wholeheartedly embraces their "consulting" model it seems Greyhawk does stand a chance if the right people are there at the right time. Sure Gygax is gone, but the best people on the inside right now are Perkins and Mike Mearls themselves! Outside of those two, I know more than a few people still in the industry or without it who would jump on a Greyhawk consulting gig if given the chance.

"So the question is "What is the next Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide?" Who knows? I don't know. ... But let's say we did a Greyhawk adventure, Greyhawk has been out of circulation now for how many years? Although you can still ... there's nothing stopping you from running a Greyhawk campaign because everything out there is still there and its still timely. And it remains, as far as I'm concerned it's an open question whether we would even change the timeline. Greyhawk's current timeline is perfectly cromulent. So is its original timeline. So the question then becomes "Is it a better user experience to put all the information you need to know about Greyhawk in the adventure product because it's really for the DN's information, or is it better, and it's going to be better received, if that information is parcelled, divorced from the adventure as a separate thing that you have to buy? That you have to spend money on now."

Greyhawk or more appropriately the City of Greyhawk region would fit the SCAG template perfectly. Taking all Greyhawk's existing guides, timelines and story elements you can draw a line through them all that will make a single coherent sourcebook full of useful material for DMs and players alike.

"What makes Greyhawk, Greyhawk? Is it Gary? What else about Greyhawk makes Greyhawk, Greyhawk? Is it low magic? Because you have Mordenkainen - he is not low magic. So it's that magic is more exclusive in Greyhawk? Unless you goto the Valley of the Magi, where it's not. It's got barbarians, a whole lot ... look at the Greyhawk map, there's a whole lot of barbarian territory up there. We don't know a whole lot about them except that they're tigers and... we've got Scarlet Brotherhood which are aryan monastic wanna control the world type organisation, somebody at work, I can't remember it was Mike Mearls or somebody else, described Greyhawk as almost Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser-esque, Fritz Leiber, Lankhmar-esque. That would certainly make sense based on things I heard about what Greyhawk was like when Gary was running it, sort of maybe he felt that way."

"If we were to do a Greyhawk story, one of the things I'd be sorely tempted to do is focus on Iuz. I'm not going to give you a full campaign setting. I'm going to tell you a story about Iuz and all of the **** that he's doing right now and all of the repercussions that are happening because of that... Iuz is going to be the glue that holds this story together."

Totally agree. It's a lot of things to different people. There is no way you can pigeon-hole it. Thus, given the limited time WotC devotes to promoting a story or setting I will never expect an adventure set in the Sea Princes or Ull for instance, but do I expect Greyhawk City or Iuz? Hell yes it's almost unavoidable.

Update 06/15/2021: Six years later, still no Greyhawk (unless one counts Ghosts of Saltmarsh). WotC is presently teasing two new "classic" setting books. I'm still not holding my breathe.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

Castle Greyhawk: Dragons and Dweomers

Welcome back friends of Greyhawk! I'm seriously slipping in my duties to promote the third chapter of our ongoing Castle Greyhawk graphic novel. Check out pages thirty and thirty-one plus follow some eloquent extras by the bardic 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: There has been a ton of great art work in these last two pages that I don't know where to start except panel one page 30. Drawing a dragon taking flight is a challenge on many levels from draconic anatomy to scale of composition. When Scott has me drawing a dragon it's a huge deal, but the same dragon from three different angles on one page is madness! 

The panel of Murlynd rubbing wool with a glass rod (old school components) is also among my favorites in this entire chapter. There is something about his expression and the magic lettering that feels like I'm channeling Dave Trampier. The lightning bolt itself (and sound effect) was fun for me since I've always been a super fan of the Mighty Thor (nearly 500 issues). Lastly, the dragon descending to the cave floor was the hardest of the page. I went over it a few times before I was content. Then the next page happened....

I must admit, I love drawing this rendition of Tenser. I've done it so many times I can now freehand him without needing much reference. That's huge when it comes to comics. What I also like about Tenser is he keeps looking rougher each room they come to. the other guys have scuffed armor at worst, but the wizard is clearly the one taking the most hit point damage so far. That is until the dragon gets close...

Three more dragon angles, and now some up close scale issues. How big are white dragons? I'm not sure, I do know they aren't as big as red dragons but this isn't exactly a baby dragon either. Terik and Serten take some hits and Tenser gets to look dramatic with his wand for the first time. But what does it do? Tune in next time!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Maure Castle Memories

Who remembers this ad? I certainly didn't until I came across it again in the pages of an old out-of-print issue of Dungeon. For some reason, no published adventure had me more stoked than Maure Castle in Dungeon #112 (in fact like a true fan-boy I own several copies). The collaboration of Robert Kuntz, Erik Mona and Paizo was certainly lightning in a bottle and they were lucky enough to follow up on the initial issue with two more levels in the later years (#124, #139). But look at the ad again, in my opinion no adventure path or seasonal event has more going for it in so few words. 
Those fans who followed Greyhawk for a long time must've been shocked and overjoyed to see Eli Tomorast, the main villain from the classic Kuntz module, Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure return from the dead for some payback. For me it was sort of like a Trekkie getting to see Ricardo Montalban in the Wrath of Khan for the first time. This ad had great art and a great title logo (with the World of Greyhawk masthead which you wouldn't see again), the only problem is they misspelled Eli's last name. Oh well, you can't have everything!

Update 06/15/2021: To this day I'm not sure I've seen a Dungeon Magazine adventure advertised in advance like this. So cool!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Tourneys In Greyhawk

For my last Greyhawk session I ran a backdrop celebration in the city of Gradsul with a tourney as one of the possible events for players to take part. One thing that the medieval-based World of Greyhawk lacks is good material on tourneys, jousts and all that jazz. When I need to run such events I go to outside sources for ideas like the RPG Pendragon or my personal fave the D&D Companion Set which has quick rules for running dominions and tourneys. Now since this is a sea-based campaign with no nobles or knights I didn't focus on jousts, instead I used other tourney lists like archery and wrestling (check this post on other Greyhawk sports). However, jousting is what most people would associate when a tourney is mentioned. So today I am musing on where and how such jousting tourneys would be held in Greyhawk.

What the Flanaess does have a lot of material on is heraldry and of course knighthoods and titles. The bulk of it is listed in the last couple pages of the boxed set guide with enough details to provide a framework for a cross-nation system of jousting tournaments:

The Knight Protectors of the Great Kingdom are called exceedingly formidable but those in Medegia are looked on with contempt because the title is for sale. Given the size and history of the Great Kingdom of Aerdy I can see their tourneys being tied down to their own provinces and cities, with all the bluster and intrigue you'd expect from an evil realm. The Great Kingdom has numerous noble houses to start with in forming tourneys, one only needs to get a download of Ivid the Undying to get a wealth of info. The religion of Hextor would also factor heavily into these competitions since the simulation of combat is what keeps the knights busy when the Greyhawk Wars aren't raging.

Someone wanting to run a campaign centered on jousts in the (pre-wars) Great Kingdom could follow a circuit like this for example: Start in Eastfair in the North Province then southward to Delaric, Jalpa, Rel Deven, Kalstrand in the South Province and back east to Nulbish, TorrichMentery (those despicable Medegian knights), and back up the coast to Rel Astra and perhaps Roland then ending in the capital of Rauxes.

Now for the "true knighthoods" according to the Greyhawk Guide, there is the Knights of the Watch in the Kingdom of Keoland area, the Knights of the Shield in the Shield Lands and the Knights of the Hart in Furyondy, Veluna and Highfolk. How these orders get along is mentioned in the last paragraph of the book. 

"Knight of the Hart are hated and despised by Iuz, the Horned Society, and even by the folk of Dyvers, it is said. There is no love lost between them and the Watchers, the rulers of Perrenland, and certain of the Nyrondel noblesse. Considerable rivalry exists between the orders of Hart and the Shield."

So the three branches of Hart and the Holy Shield knights, in their downtime from fighting the evil of Iuz could easily tour the good lands of the north, possibly including the Kingdom of Nyrond (whose cavalry is legendary for defeating the Aerdy at the Battle of a Fortnight's Length) and Perrenland (who seem rather upset at the knights for having more prowess at arms than them?). The knights of the Shield and Hart probably butt heads a lot during war, but during the tourneys their rivalry is friendly and honorable. I'd also say the two orders would be equal in skill if not size. I've personally ran a tournament campaign in this region before and it worked out incredibly well.

Lastly, to the south you have the Knights of the Watch who have a bad history with the Ferrond-Veluna nobles and knighthoods so they'd be rather reluctant to take part in cross-nation tourneys (though I could see demi-human realms like Highfolk and the  Uleks as being moderators between human orders). These Watchers are much more numerous (ten times roughly) so it would follow that their jousting skills wouldn't be as good as the elite teams of Hart and Shield knights. Then again, with a larger population of fighters to draw from perhaps the Lion Throne would dominate a tourney circuit or host theirs own entirely like the Great Kingdom. Such a circuit could cover several states in a year going from Yeomanry, Sterich, Geoff, Keoland, to the three Uleks and Gran March

A grand jousting campaign would combine all the major kingdoms into one long circuit where you could start in the west with Niole Dra and arc your way across the Flanaess hitting all the capitals like Mitrik, Chendl, Amundfort, Rel Mord, and finally Rauxes (where a war then erupts when the Aerdy loses). This area encompasses a breadth of almost 2000 miles east-west unfortunately, so it doesn't seem probable that knights would tour that far from home unless they are individually questing knights or paladins.

One more tidbit, I like this Tournament Ranking chart from the Companion Rules; make use of it to entice your players into trying out jousting:

Number of 
Tournaments Won          Title
5                                  Champion
10                                Chevalier
15                                Silver Champion
20                                Premier Chevalier
25                                Grand Champion

Friday, November 6, 2015

Sea Princes: Azure Bound and Down

ADVENTURE! So last Monday I ran the continuation of my Sea Princes campaign. This one was extra special since it was played around Halloween time so as an added bonus to my players, I DMed the session dressed as a scurvy pirate! I used to be against cosplay at the game table, but I think years of seeing costumes at GenCon has softened me to the notion. I believe the session was a success since we managed to finish my latest storyline based on Smokey and the Bandit. All in all it was a goofy, fun, romp across the Azure Sea like you'd expect.

Here is some plot points and thoughts I took away from running this adapted plot in Greyhawk:

1. The Provincial Navy makes a great villain or power group. Naturally, given the plot my main antagonist was a rear admiral based on Buford T. Justice.  he is a variant paladin of Hextor whose evil brand of maritime law is perfect for chasing offenders way out of his jurisdiction. There is many seafaring nations on the Azure and the South Province is arguably the most tyrannical of the lot, yet they are still a stable, lawful nation so I built them up as an economic force in addition to a military might by blockading Irongate from exporting beer to Keoland. Their fleets' presence on the sea is a threat to pirates and merchants alike. However, Hextorians aren't known for sea based warfare, so I played them as terribly inept compared to an experienced Sea Princes crew. The sight of a yellow flag with a crowned boar's head is now forever ingrained in my players mind as a bad guy. They will appear again.

2. True Strike plus siege weapons is bad news. When it comes to ship to ship combat, I tend to keep it vague and cinematic, I don't like to get bogged down in ship stats and would rather get on to a boarding action or evade a pursuer entirely. However players will throw you curves and the first level True Strike is one of those 3.5/Pathfinder era spells that just needs to go away. True Strike when applied to a siege weapon I think is OP and I'm sure I'll find out later that it doesn't work on these devices, but for now it's cutting into my thrill of ship combat.

3. Always try to say yes to players' actions. When running a swashbuckling adventure, players tend to try things and take risks that they normally wouldn't in a static dungeon setting. I used to be a hard-nosed DM who tried to keep things grounded, but on the open sea with that much rope hanging around why not let the players do some crazy acrobatic things.

Curses! I didn't crit anyone. Arr!
4. If you use critical results use fumbles too. For a long time now I've been all about Pathfinder Critical and Fumble cards. The variety of things that can happen in a 52 card deck is so much better than most charts I've seen or boring damage multipliers. But I can't stress enough that if you allow crit effects you need to balance it with fumbles. Fumbles keep things tense and unpredictable unlike crits which are assumed in most games. And since this is a high seas adventure, any little hiccup in the middle of a fight only adds to the danger. Try it.

5. Maps are essential, especially if you're going to run a sea-based campaign. This may seem like a no-brainer, but its easy to forget that visual aids help in player immersion. I could have easily led the players on a rail-road journey from Irongate to Gradsul without use of one, but knowing that they needed to get there in 13 days; being able to see their progress charted out in front of them kept them on edge to the very last day of the mission. For DMs it's also a quick way to teach the setting to new players. I learned Greyhawk by Darlene's map and exploring it with my eyes before I ever played in it.

6. Communication at sea is helpful in moving the story. In the real world there is ways to communicate at sea; signal flags, lights at night or even yelling. In a world of magic there is even more possibilities like the spells Whispering Wind, Sending and so on. For this campaign certain ships were equipped with magic figureheads that could cast Sending to any other figurehead once a day. What this simulated was the CB communications from Smokey and the Bandit. Not every ship had these, but I made sure the main ships did.  

That's all for now!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Tomb of Horrors Minis Unboxed

It's been two Gen Cons ago, but I've finally got the inclination to put together my Tomb of Horrors mini set by Gale Force Nine. What I should be doing of course is painting my Lolth mini I got from three Gen Cons ago, but we all know that isn't going to happen. I digress.

This set is pretty cool, it's a miniature reproduction of the green cover of S1 The Tomb of Horrors which shows full bodied Acererak facing a cleric with his holy symbol and a fighter the set includes, the "mummy" Acererak, a "true form" Acererak as a floating demi-lich skull, the Fighter, the Cleric and wait...another mummy mini?

Well great, it's supposed to be a female Paladin mini (not depicted on the original ToH cover, but neither is the demi-lich). This mini is pretty cool and I'm positive my friends would love to use that in actual play, so I'll be contacting GF9 about a replacement. Anyhoo, back to the minis.

Assembling these were quite easier than ol' spindly legged Lolth. The demi-lich is skull and base; the cleric is base, body and arms/holy symbol; and the fighter is base, body, sword and a nifty helmet like the Mighty Thor. All easily glued in their designated places. The sculpts are incredible as always and there is little flashing that needs cut off in preparation-though you do need to be careful removing them from the sprue since these resin minis are fragile.

The mummy mini however gave me a bit of trouble, the body is in two pieces for some reason (at the hips) but I got that down on the base no problem then the arms for some reason wouldn't stay in place, but that was probably me. Overall it looks menacingly cool (I wonder if this mini could have a second career in Blood Bowl?).

I still highly recommend this line of classic minis. Their latest run is demon lords coinciding with D&D's Rage of Demons story line. I've got my Graz'zt and Zuggtmoy already so be ready for another mini unboxing probably year from now!

Update 06/15/2021: I still have not opened Graz'zt and Zuggtmoy. That is all.