Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Rediscovering TSR's Later Settings, Part I: Dark Sun & Spelljammer

A little while ago, I was talking to +Ray Case & +Donn Stroud about some of our favorite TSR settings of the AD&D 2e era and was struck by a bout of nostalgia. Previous to 2e, all of TSR's settings seemed to be different variations on the same flavor of vanilla: Greyhawk, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms never seemed to stray too far from one another (please don't hate; it's only in my later years as a gamer that I've come to realize how actually interesting Greyhawk is). 2e started an explosion of settings that often held no resemblance to these (largely vanilla) settings, instead each taking on a strongly different character. Some of these 2e-era settings are stronger than others, some were more promise than delivery, and some were great in some places and not in others. The big thing they have in common, though, was that they didn't resemble each other at all, much less the settings that came before them.

Here are the thoughts that have been swirling around in my brain about the 2e era settings.

Dark Sun

I always thought the initial release of Dark Sun was really, really cool. The stuff that got added over time, however, was junk. The second, revised DS box looked like crap, reflected changes that the players hadn't had a direct hand in and was overall a toning-down of the extreme tenor of the original box. To be honest, I hadn't paid much attention to that box until I read the 4e DS campaign book, which surprised the hell out of me with all this prehistory that I had never been aware of before: a touchy-feely, politically-correct history that looked more or less like what our own history might look like if global warming is allowed to run rampant. All of that, however, was a weakening of what made Dark Sun awesome.

Dark Sun, during its development, was originally called "War World" at TSR, and was designed as a setting as much for TSR's BATTLESYSTEM as for AD&D, which, to me, seems to hearken back to another, earlier TSR product: their Chainmail supplement, Warriors of Mars. Because, and here's the thing that makes Dark Sun badass, Athas is Barsoom. Think about it: Thri-Kreen are Tharks. Here's the other thing that makes Dark Sun badass: Athas is Arrakis. Desert-dwelling elves are Fremen(ish). No water. Just like Arrakis and Barsoom, the prevailing morality on Athas is at best "enlightened self-interest" and "selfish greed" at worst. Now that's my kind of setting.

In the end, it's really quite sad that TSR (and later WOTC) took Dark Sun in the traditional D&D vein of players playing the good guys, working for the benefit of the world. BOOOOOOORING. And with so much potential left behind on the drawing table, a lot of the promise of Dark Sun went unfulfilled.

Spelljammer

Somehow, I missed the memo that Spelljammer wasn't cool. I missed out on why I was supposed to hate SJ. Because I missed that memo back in the early 90's, I don't think I'll ever understand what isn't awesome about Spelljammer. D&D in space? Hell yes! Is it the space part that people don't like? Maybe. Is it that it's too sci fi? Was it the incongruity of the Jeff Easly art on the box (with its "high fantasy" feel) and the grittier, sword & planet promise of the setting? Was it the Jim Holloway art in the set itself with its attendant goofiness? The world (and I) may never know.

I think that a common, Appendix N thread runs through these 2e campaign settings. In many ways, they feel like TSR was trying to move closer and closer to the literary inspirations for D&D in the first place, perhaps in an effort to combat the "vanilla-fication" endemic to 2e with some serious Appendix N flavor. Unfortunately, every time TSR tried to inject flavor back into 2e, somewhere along the line it got this awful, disrespectful treatment where any grittiness or questionable morality (and therefore real drama) got washed out and replaced with tepid Care Bear morality.

And so, as I suggested in the first paragraph of this bit, the real badassery of Spelljammer was that it promised to finally provide AD&D players with a straight up sword & planet setting. Ray guns. Rockets. Crazy flying contraptions. Bizarre humanoid aliens. JETPACKS! But, despite all that great promise, what did it provide? A lumbering, goofy setting that often contradicted itself and kept inexplicably veering back toward vanilla D&D despite the fact that it was D&D in motherfucking space! Why do we have to keep rehashing the same old D&D tropes when we're given the opportunity to do something else? Sure, it's probably a safer bet to take, given the success of TSR's "vanillafication" model, but what do you gain? Even as a fan of these funky settings, I found myself turning away from TSR's blanding up of the crazy flavorful settings in favor of newer, interesting games that didn't make that same mistake.

In the end, I wouldn't be surprised if TSR's "let's play it safe" strategy of blunting their sharpest edges was what ruined the company.

On that note, I'm out. Next time we come back to this topic, we'll look at two of 2e's other major settings of the era: Planescape and Birthright.