Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Two Things I Don't Write: Hope & Humor

I get the feeling that this is going to be one of those polarizing sorts of posts. My first several versions of it, I feel, came off as very preachy, which was not anything I ever try to do. I took a few steps back and thought about what I was trying to accomplish with this post, realizing that I was more talking about what I do and why I do it rather than why I think anyone else should do stuff.

I'll go ahead and make the polarizing remark that I do not write either hope or humor, and I think my games are better for it.


Humor and rpgs go hand in hand. We play rpgs for fun and a strong part of that fun is hanging out with your pals, bullshitting and telling jokes. We wear our comedic allegiances (sometimes literally) on our sleeves, looking for any opportunity to work in a quip from Monty Python, Strong Bad or Metalocalypse and all is right with the world. Over the months and years of a campaign, arcane and convoluted in-jokes grow organically out of play and happenstance. That's how it is, and it's how it should be. I'm not suggesting taking humor out of the game, but rather that I don't bother writing it into the game. Writing jokes into the game, I feel, is unnecessary since the players are going to introduce more (and often better!) jokes merely in the process of play! Every time I try to deliberately inject a note of humor into my writing, I feel like I'm sliding down that slippery slope that made Castle Greyhawk (the module as published by TSR, not the beloved megadungeon) possible. Is that joke good enough? Will people get it? How many jokes can I sneak in before things get all "the Star Trek crew in a bar in a dungeon" stupid? I've written one joke into a session in the past six months, and it's one that I'm particularly fond of: I named a talking Sleestak Jeremy during a playtest of material for Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad #2. (If you get the joke and can explain it and aren't one of my players in that game, hit up the comments!) 
This is not humor

I'm sure that people will point to that previous sentence as proof against my statement that I don't write humor. They might think themselves justified in disbelief by a lot of the stuff that I write in the Metal Gods zine (particularly the Secrets of the Serpent Moon adventure tool kit and its aforementioned sleestaks) but they're wrong. The elements that others might point to in my writing as humorous, I instead point to as absurd. Sure, absurd things can be funny, but they're not really designed to just be funny. If anything, I tend to the absurd less to force a laugh and far, far more to force a sense of disconnection between the player's experience and his expectations of the game. For me, absurdity isn't a feather that I'm tickling you with, but a crowbar or a wrecking sledge. The dissonance makes people think, and that thinking, I feel, makes for better and more meaningful games. 

To be fair, I think that every good DM I know has a tool that works for them the same way absurdity works for me. I use plenty of other devices as well, but I don't use humor. It's not that I don't like humor or that I think that absurdism can't be funny (or wouldn't be funny), it's just that I typically don't use absurd elements in a game for the purpose of cracking a joke. Even in RPGs that are designed to be humorous, like Paranoia (new edition currently on Kickstarter!), I find that writing in jokes tends to be something akin to a comedy jackhammer what with how hard it tends to beat the players about the head. I'd far rather encourage levity to occur naturally through the course of play. 

I get a bit hung up on humor in my games and how I'm not using it effectively. Instead of beating my head against the same rock over and over, I've found that it's far better if I just don't do it and instead play to my strengths. Enter absurdity. 


This one isn't going to be nearly as obvious. I don't write hope. That's not to say that I only ever write unending gloom, irrevocable doom and inescapable ruin. It is to say, however, that I'd rather my players find their own solutions to gloom, doom and ruin. I think this concept is more ephemeral than the humor aversion and so takes a little more explanation, but is just as full of personal bias as the humor deal. 

What I call "writing hope" actually covers quite a bit, and it's sort of hard for me to tie it down to specifics. Hope is the good king with a beautiful daughter that your character might win the hand of. Hope is the kindly wizard with a plan to save the world from the ravening hordes of awfulbadfuckery. Hope is the friendly high cleric who is tolerant of your strange and heretical religion, the good-natured master of the thieves guild who's always been like a father to your thief (until he dies) and the jaunty pirate captain who tries to only ever take hostages. 

This is not hope
Every time I read TSR stuff from the 2e era (even non-2e stuff like the later BECMI adventures and pretty much every issue of Dungeon, sadly), I'm really bummed out by the levels of "hope" that heaped up in those joints. TSR may have had a mandate that "good must always win" on the books, but these adventures make it clear that not only must good win, but that it should and that there's no real reason to think it might not. "The good" is, to me, a clear parallel to "hope" and I've found that it's inclusion in a game pretty much robs the players of agency: if they seek to pursue "the good/hope," here's what they've got to do, who they've got to listen to, the quest they need to undertake and so on. Having competing visions of "the good/hope" is one way around the problem, but, for me, a half-hearted one that feels tacked on and wishy-washy. 

What it took me far too long (and far too many railroads and near-railroads) to discover is that, at least in the games I run, if players are the originators of the solutions to the great dooms and ruins that loom the campaign's future, they are more invested in it. If the "hope" of a campaign is a secret that the players quested to uncover or a king that they put on the throne (possibly one of the PCs), a high priest that they convinced to be tolerant of heretics and so on, then the players have a lot more ownership of those different sorts of hope and therefore a much higher level of buy in to the campaign that begins and ends with the players. 

The "don't write hope" discovery was an immense one for me, personally, and, honestly, one I'm still exploring. I don't have to write the answers to the world's great woes, just the woes themselves. When the players seek to combat a terrible blight, well, let's see how they want to do it. Let them make their own hope. They'll appreciate it more. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Delving Deeper Week, Day Seven: And In The End, We Look To The Future

Thanks for joining me for this, the last day of Delving Deeper Week. It's been a fun week(-ish), and it's been neat to see so many folks get fired up about DD and OD&D-style gaming itself. There's been a lot of work done so far, and today, we'll be looking at what comes next, because today's the day where I ask +Simon Bull:

What plans do you have for the future of Delving Deeper?
My most basic plan is to continue to enjoy it. Beyond that, I'd love to see some supporting materials for DD (and indirectly for 0e!) so this is where I'll be spending more energy. Hopefully DD can inspire some imaginations and help to spread a bit of the 0e goodness around. 
More specifics? Okay, so here's a rundown of what I've currently got in progress:
Firstly, I want to finish up the Ref Rules V4 individual PDFs and get those out there.

Jesse Rothacher is helping me overhaul my neglected Immersive Ink website. Ideally it will become an "easy as pie" DD portal/DD News site so there is a single go to place on the web for consolidated DD resources/news, and a bit of a central place for me to "promote" DD action. More on that as it happens. 
Meanwhile I've been working on a couple of dungeon scenarios for DD. Well, four of them. The first two are short ones derived from my winning one page dungeon entries. They've been revised for DD and somewhat extended, with professionally re-drawn maps by Tim Hartin (of Paratime Design). The next one I wrote toward the end of 2011 for the "Darkness Beneath" series to appear in Fight On! magazine but, after two or three issues slipped by without my scenario, I decided to pull it from FO in order to revise it and publish it specifically for DD. The last one is a collaborative effort which is just a draft right now, but it's off to a good start. 
I'm also collaborating with David Sullivan on a semi-historical DD supplement set in the Crusader States, circa AD 1100 (David's a real Crusades buff). This effort may well turn out the first "proper" DD supplement (in the Blackmoor or Greyhawk sense) and will likely include some alternate player classes, setting specific rules and relics, a wilderness map, a town map, encounters, and of course a detailed dungeon setting. It's a ways off yet, but I've got really high hopes for it. 
In my idle time I've been working on an illusionist class for DD with an all new (well, almost) repertoire of spells. My interpretation of the illusionist is quite different to Peter Aronson's (and thereafter EGG's), and it's basically ready for action. However, I want to bundle it with a scenario that showcases the new class and do some proper play-testing before I publish it. 
Of course there's still the hardback DD edition (Reliquary) in the pipe. So much work has already gone into this! Reliquary was really the driving force behind updating the Ref Rules to V3 and then to V4, not to mention the artwork, and all the layout effort. As of today I'm pretty confident that Reliquary would sell around 50 copies, but to break even it needs to sell around 150 copies (or more). So while I still really want to do a proper hardback it's on the shelf for now, pending that "trigger" level of confidence. I'm still hopeful DD will get there. 
As well as things already in progress, there's a whole lot more things I'd like to do that are itches just waiting to be scratched. Here's some of them... 
* Ref Rules V4 Volume 1 (Heroes & Magic) as a standalone POD booklet.
* A media pack to assist folks wanting to put together material for DD.
* A referee's screen with some nice art, all the ref's tables on one side and the players' tables on the other.
* A "new to 0e" starter's guide on How to Play DD. I've already written a player's guide, but the ref's guide is still to do. It will likely contain a lot of crunch including some large combat scenarios played out in detail.
* A collection of online tools for generating things like PCs/NPCs, magic swords, treasure troves, stronghold forces, and so on.
And then I have my own personal campaign games to share.

My "The Deep in the Hinterlands" game is becoming a sprawling epic. It was begun as a tribute to B2 The Keep on the Borderlands on the anniversary of EGG's passing but, four and a half years on, the players haven't yet touched the goblin caves I originally planned out. Instead, they've explored the setting and driven the invention of a trove of great material in, under, and around the central town of the campaign. It has been a great ride and I have a growing sense that it all needs to be written down. It's something I really want to do but it is going to take some serious doing -- most of the dungeon maps are scrawled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper, with notes jotted here there and everywhere on pages I might never find. The good news is that the player side of it, at least, is all documented online so there's hope I can reconstruct whatever might be missing. 
Then there's my Moria game, and my Eyre Tor game before that; so it's a good thing I have to work for a living else I might have time to get overly ambitious! All told I reckon there's a boatload of potentially good stuff yet to come, and that's just me! Everyone else is welcome to publish their DD/0e material too; that's a big part of what DD is for. With that in mind the future looks pretty good for DD fans.
Now that Delving Deeper is in print (with regularity), it's time to strike while the iron is hot. The media pack that Simon suggests would be a great way for would-be Delving Deeper publishers to jump into that deep end and put out some content. I'm not going to wait for that (honestly, though, I've got to finish up Metal Gods #3 before Hyperbarbaria enters the planning stage in earnest), and I think you shouldn't, either. A lot of Simon's stuff seems to be aimed at getting new folks into OD&D-style gaming. I think that's cool, but I'm already into it. The idea of a hardcover is cool, too, but I'm not over-excited by it; it'll be nice to have when it's available (you know I'll buy one... or two, depending on price), but I'm much more excited to see what Simon comes up with next. 

On that topic, I think Simon's idea of supporting DD with supplements in the style of the OD&D ones is a great idea. I want it published in the same format (half-letter, so-called "digest" sized), I want it to look consistent with the existing volumes of DD and I want Immersive Ink to not be the only company putting them out. I'm a sucker for adventures, and knowing how good DD is, I'm interested to see what Simon's adventure-writing style is. I think it's reasonable to expect that adventures will be the next thing out from Immersive Ink, and that's a good thing; they keep the brand front-and-center and let the reader/gamers know what to expect from that particular publishing house. 

And so, on a note of excitement for what the future will bring, Delving Deeper Week comes to a close. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Delving Deeper Week, Day Six: The Actual Review of the Delving Deeper Rules Compendium

A few weeks ago (well, maybe a month by now), +Simon Bull asked if I would review Immersive Ink's new Delving Deeper Rules Compendium. He would even provide me with review copies. Before I agreed, I let him know that, despite all of that stuff, I wanted my review to be thorough and that it would be based on the actual content of the book, not my preexisting predisposition in favor of the Delving Deeper rule set. Simon said he would expect any less and we got to chatting, with the end result being what you've read so far from Delving Deeper Week. Simon has a few more bits of info for you all, but I thought it was really about time that I got to the actual review of the material that Simon asked for in the first place. 

The Delving Deeper Rules Compendium is a print version of the most recent iteration of the Delving Deeper rules. Those rules were originally published in a fairly convoluted manner, with three publishers involved in the game's short lifespan so far. Here's how Simon tells the history:

While Brave Halfling Press might be a genuine company (I'm reasonably sure John either employs--or has employed--people to do BHP work in the past), Immersive Ink and Wobbly Goblin are really just the publishing labels of individuals rather than companies. Immersive Ink is me, Wobbly Goblin is Cameron Dubeers. 
The more detailed history of it is as follows (from my recollection--others may recall a slightly different angle on it): 
The Delving Deeper project as a whole predates my involvement, but insofar as I'm aware the project was a Brave Halfling initiative. John (BHP) wanted to build an 0e publishing platform for BHP and so established the original DD team including Cameron Dubeers (WG), David Macauley, Mark Allen, and others. In late 2010 John began posting samples of the (then in progress) proto-Delving Deeper on his blog.  In Feb 2011 I contacted David Macauley with concerns about the way in which Elves were being presented in this material. This, and other conversations, eventually led to David later endorsing me as DD editor. In November 2011 I responded to John's public call for DD proof readers, and put an "unanticipated" amount of red ink on what was probably then thought to be "almost print ready" version of DD. This led to John inviting me (with, I believe, David's endorsement) to join the DD team as editor in December 2011.
From there the DD team took some serious hits.
David Macauley had to minimise his participation, and then withdraw entirely, owing to health issues. John also suffered a series of personal setbacks--culminating with the loss of a child!--and was effectively AWOL from the DD project for most of the next year. During that time, I think it is fair to say that I drove the DD project forward and, in consultation with Cameron Dubeers (author of the original DD draft), we hammered out the text of DD. I couldn't really work directly on the BHP boxed set in John's absence, so I did a production of a minimal set of "Reference Rules" instead, and by October 2012 we had the DD Ref Rules V1. John returned to action around that time, and built the BHP DD boxed set off the DD Ref Rules V1. I went on to do an errata sheet (which John also included in the BHP boxed set), and then a V2 of the Ref Rules which integrated the errata into the booklets. 
Alas, John was still experiencing some issues with fulfillment of BHP's DD pre-orders, and eventually decided that DD was growing in a direction he hadn't foreseen. So in March 2013 John officially passed stewardship of DD to me.  
Since then I've done a major revision to Ref Rules V3, the Ref Rules V4 compendium, and the Ref Rules V4 hypertext versions. All "in preparation" (if you like) for the hardback edition.
I'm not going to comment on the Delving Deeper boxed set. If you have one, good for you. If you haven't gotten yours yet, know that you are in good company. Please do not let the history of what's gone before with the brand sour you on the current iteration of Delving Deeper; it's out of Brave Halfling's hands now, and firmly within the capable hands of Mr. Bull and Immersive Ink. To prove it, they put it in print. Let's take a look at what II has done with the Compendium.

At First Glance

The Delving Deeper Rules Compendium is a 5.5" x 8.5" (half-letter) sized perfect bound softcover book that weighs in at 130 interior pages. The cover features new art by Timothy Ide, which shows off a pretty darn cool fight between retreating adventurers, laiden with treasures, and the lizard men tribe that's pursuing them, backed up by a hydra. Ide's art is very evocative, feeling close in spirit to the best that the oldest of schools had to offer. It tells a good story, and that story is the story OD&D has been telling since 1974. 

After the show-stopper of a front cover, I was really surprised to discover that the back of the book was blank aside from a bar code. The back of the books is prime real estate for the author/publisher to tell us a thing or two about what we can find between the pages, a "bullet points" collection of what the book contains. As it stands now, there's not really much to differentiate the Delving Deeper Compendium from any other book that might be on the bookshelf of your FLGS. (Yes, I know that this book is only available from, but this thing deserves to be on the shelf of FLGSes everywhere, so I'll hold out hope.) 

Inside, the book is really similar to the V3 pdfs, with their noteworthy departures from the V1 & V2 Reference Rules. Mark Allen's great art remains, but the Reference Rules covers have here been repurposed as interior art, which works well. I really enjoyed the fonts used in the V1 & V2 and I was sad to see them left behind here for more standard fare. There are some problems with rendering the "1/2" character correctly, and other people have made a big deal about this, but it's not that big of a deal to me. I've seen Lulu screw up other stuff far worse (I'm still salty about Lulu blaming printing problems on the pdf formatting of its authors, such as with +Richard LeBlanc's excellent d30 Sandbox Companion). 

Between The Covers

Regular readers of Dispatches know that I've been sold on Delving Deeper for some time. I started my Quasquetherion/Hyperbarbaria campaign using the V2 version of the rules because I liked their simplicity. While the Rules Compendium brings Delving Deeper to it's V4 iteration of the rules, all of the things I loved about the original are still here, with some notable changes that only improve the game. Some of these took me a while to notice, but it felt like they should have been there all along. 

Delving Deeper wisely avoids much of the "this is roleplaying" stuff that starts off most RPGs. Instead, the text discusses the history of D&D and how Delving Deeper fits into that history, before moving straight into a glossary, a section that previous versions of the text were sorely missing. This glossary helps us parse out such OD&D- & Chainmail-isms as "normal type," "heroic type," and so on. This section and the explicit Normal/Heroic/Super-Heroic tier system in play in Delving Deeper are probably the biggest changes in the V3/V4 iteration of the rules and has repercussions throughout the rest of the book.

What we end up with in Delving Deeper is a game that closely models itself after not merely OD&D, but also after Chainmail and, as Simon has demonstrated, the basic game math that informed both. It's OD&D stripped back to its roots and made clear without unnecessarily altering those early rules. Every edition of D&D that was designed for clarity's sake (starting with the work of Dr. Holmes) incorporated at least some of the changes made by later supplements, whether it was Greyhawk's alternate hit dice or damage dice by weapon type or what have you. Delving Deeper stays truer to the original 3 LBBs of the 1974 white box than any of them and is written for straightforward intelligibility. Yes, it's streamlined. Yes, it's easy to use. And yes, it leaves all of the room for interpretation that launched a thousand house rules, game supplements, adventures and imitators back in the 70's,

The spell selections, as Simon commented the other day, flesh out the ordinary white box offerings with  stuff from The Strategic Review, or at least their simulacra. Monsters get a similar treatment, supplementing the original material with the sort of Appendix N-inspired foes as robots, androids and a smattering of mythological beasts ignored by the white box. If anything, it feels like, when in doubt, Simon asked himself "What would Appendix N do?" For example, over half (probabilistically) of the magic swords out there are intelligent to one degree or another, which is all shades of Elric-y. 

After all is said and done, the Delving Deeper Rules Compendium is a great guide to white box-style gaming that is exhaustive without being exhausting. The rules are clear, easy to understand and, frankly, interesting, which can often be difficult when your goal is rules clarity. Delving Deeper is eminently playable, expandable, hackable, reconfigurable, house-rulable. It's not the answer to every problem your group will encounter, but it does provide a great framework that you can build your answers out of. 

What makes the whole thing even better is that Immersive Ink isn't going to try to bankrupt you to get you to play their game. The V3 pdfs are available for free from the Immersive Ink website, while the V4 Rules Compendium is available at for the remarkably low price of $4.95. Immersive Ink doesn't really make any money to speak of from the print version; he's gotten it as close to free as he could. 

Final Word

For as much as you're getting for the $4.95, I feel like we're all ripping Simon off. Realistically, I could see this volume going for $10 and still thinking it's a value. By comparison, the Swords & Wizardry White Box -- which is shorter than Delving Deeper -- goes for $9.95 on Lulu. The game's layout is straightforward and flows easily from one topic to the next, with rules finding themselves in reasonable places that are easy to find. Not that there are a lot of rules. Which is a strength here, just like it was for OD&D in the first place. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Delving Deeper Week, Day Five: Third-Party Like It's 1999 ... or 1974. Your Choice.

Hey, it's Friday! That apparently means something to some people! For me, it means that it's Day Five of Delving Deeper Week and time to ask +Simon Bull about where third parties fit into his plans for DD.

Do you plan on offering any sort of support for third-party publishers interested in publishing for DD?

This is something I really do want to do to help DD along; I have a few ideas but I'm open to suggestions too. 
Last year I ran a "short dungeon" writing contest to try to stimulate some interest in DD, but -- despite offering an OD&D whitebox set as a prize -- I only got a handful of entries (fewer than the minimum ten I need to giveaway my whitebox).
From this I realised that I need to make it easier, so I really want bto prepare a nice dungeon "template" for folks to put together DD dungeons in a more or less "standard" DD format.
However, a dungeon template is really just one part of a broader DD resources package that I'd like to offer. This would include bunch of DD resources that fans could re-use "as is", or else hack into other forms, and would include all of the DD text and tables in open formats, the DD title text graphic, and of course the OGL license. All this is still "work to do" but I'll get there eventually.
And, supposing the DD community was creating stuff, I'd always be happy to host and/or link to their creations from the Immersive Ink file share, so there'd be a simple mechanism for free distribution/visibility for the authors, and a relatively complete "go to" place for a list of DD resources for the players.

Simon's answer here is pretty short and sweet. He doesn't really say anything about licensing, so whether he'd be open to allowing folks to use the Delving Deeper logo/trade dress on their products isn't a done deal. Maybe he will, maybe he won't. Simon seems focused more on providing resources to fans than publishers, which at this stage makes sense; Immersive Ink itself hasn't published anything in print other than the DD Reference Compendium. Shouldn't Simon work to extend the line of Immersive Ink published materials before he starts thinking too hard about other folks publishing stuff for Delving Deeper?

That having been said, I think that it's a good thing if Mr. Bull and Immersive Ink look forward to the possibility of someone wanting to publish things for DD under license and what sort of circumstances that will be kosher under. For example, Labyrinth Lord offers a really solid and simple publishing license that many folks use to publish adventures and supplements for LL. Goodman Games offers something similar for DCC (although the Goodman DCC license does require a signed form and pre-publishing approval from Joe Goodman). What I'd like to see from Delving Deeper is a third party license that maximizes the published work's visible compatibility across the OD&D platform to other OD&D retroclones like Swords & Wizardry. Were I to publish a thing for DD, I'd like to also claim that it was compatible with S&W (because it pretty much would be), OD&D and other stuff like that without it infringing upon my license to use the DD name & logo.

You said you're open to third party publishers getting support from you & Immersive Ink. What sort of third-party project would get you really excited? 

That a good one. It's ironic that providing an 0e publishing platform is one of the central goals of the DD project, yet I've hardly had a moment to think about what other folks might already be publishing with it!  Recently I've seen a few discussions of personal DD projects, and a few folks have contacted me seeking advice, so it's happening. It's a real buzz to know that all the hard work has brought about a game that people are actually playing, and not only playing, but building on. So yeah, with DD still embryonic in terms of supporting products, I'm pretty excited to hear about any kind of supplements from folks out there.   
What would be the biggest hit? That's really hard to to say since so much depends on the delivery and perception.  I think, in general terms, DD could really benefit from a few broadly applicable, drop-in-campaign-part style supplements; something with a few punchy dungeon levels attached to a village, town, or stretch of wilderness could go a real long way for a lot of people. So that kind of material would be most welcome, for sure. 
By completely selfishly, what would I like to see?  Already having a shelf full of "standard" medieval/fantasy material, I think I'm just about ready for something a bit different. Maybe something Sword & Planet, or Zepplin World,-esque that builds on the aerial combat rules, or something Atlantis-y or Pirate-y that builds on the sea-faring/underwater rules? Or perhaps someone will come up with something wholly inspired right out of left field? Anything creative and well put together would be a huge boon to DD and also the 0e family of games. Bring it on folks.

And so, ahead of any sort of license for such a thing, I'd like to announce that the Kickassistan Ministry of Tourism's next zine will be an OD&D-compatible zine called Hyperbarbaria, modeled at least in part after my Hyperbarbaria/Quasquetherion campaign. Inspired by Blackmoor & Carcosa, Thundarr the Barbarian & Korgoth of Barbaria, Twin Peaks & Cities of the Red Night, Metal Hurlant & EPIC, Barsoom & Venus, Hyperborea & hyperbole, Hyperbarbaria lies near the top of the world, far from shining Ur-Hadad, in the lands that buffer civilization from the corrupting, violating influences of the Mountain That Fell. A land that has been the grave for millennia of heroes and conquerors, Hyperbarbaria is a land cursed to repeat the same cycles of mindless violence and heedless pursuit of power that have doomed it to ruin and decay. A hard-scrabble, mirthless borderland, Hyperbarbaria yet contains enough secrets and hidden wealth to draw adventurers still to this day, each eager to claw enough lucre out of the forgotten tombs and lost temples of generations past to enjoy what little remains of their lives. The few flint-hearted nobles desperate enough to claim domains here gather treasures they may from the itinerant looters, hoping that they will have enough warning before the next disaster -- cults, rampaging beast men, barbarians from the bleak North or even a nigh-apocalyptic return of the Skalls -- strikes. Less of a campaign setting and more of a toolbox to make Hyperbarbaric adventures, I intend this zine to represent the DIY attitude that makes OD&D and her clones truly great.

With that announcement, I'll also state that I'm happy to accept submissions for Hyperbarbaria, particularly house rules, art and adventures. Interested parties should email me at with some ideas.

Also, since I'll be out of town for the weekend, days Six & Seven of Delving Deeper Week might actually be delayed until Monday & Tuesday.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Delving Deeper Week, Day Four: House Rules and New Spells

As I see it, one of the chief benefits of an OD&D-style game is how easy it is to add or modify components to it. Sure, all OSR gamers house rule, but OD&D is such a bare bones system that it just makes sense to put some meat on those bones. This compulsion to build and make led to all of the original crop of "D&D-alikes" like Arduin and Warlock and led to so many developments at TSR itself that Gygax had to make a whole new game -- AD&D -- just to incorporate all of them. Having space to house rule is important to the feel of an OD&D game, so it only seemed natural that my discussion with +Simon Bull would inevitably turn to house ruling.

As you mention, DD, like OD&D before it, is eminently house rule-able. What, if any, house rules do you use when you run it?

Yep, I'm an irreconcilable house-rules junkie; I'm forever trying new mechanics just to see how they work out. 
I guess it all depends how much detail you want in your game but, for me, I find the house rules around combat tend to stick less, while the house rules around character character and out of combat stuff tend to stick more. 
On the combat mechanics side, house rules that may look like "improvements" on paper can end up being a drag on game pace, so I find myself peeling back the added layers and often arriving back where I started. What I've learned (albeit slowly) from all this is that game pace is King --particularly for large groups of players and combats potentially involving dozens of enemies -- and that the original rules are already pitched at pretty near to some kind of "optimal" balance for fast-paced play.
Some of the specific areas where I do use house rules in my own games frequently include:
* Rolling hp; I find that really low hp (say 1-3 hp) hurts more than it helps, so I usually give 1st level players the best of two or even three throws for hp, or give all players a +2 adjustment, or something of that sort.
* Player classes; Thieves; yep, I allow them. I generally allow the players choose whatever class they want. Many times a player desire can be met with role-play over one of the core classes, or other times I might be motivated to write up a whole new class (or re-use/modify an existing one).
* Dual-classing; at the moment I'm using a combination of the by-the-book approach (in that non-humans can elect to become dual-classed at any time, between adventures) and the Greyhawk approach (in that dual-classed characters split their earned XP evenly between their classes thereafter).  I also enjoy the "amalgam class" approach where each possible dual-classed combination is defined as a specific new class, partly because I enjoy creating new player classes. 
* Non-magical healing. By the book, non-magical healing is minimal and only happens outside of dungeon time. This isn't necessarily in line with the idea of abstract hit points, and can limit the players' ability to "get on with it", so I usually allow 1-6 hp regained after a fight, sometimes requiring refreshments like water or wine.
* Helmets and shields. These ubiquitous pieces of protection are, in my mind, underrated by the book. So I play shields as worth 2 pips of AC (which is, in fact, about what a shield is worth in Chainmail's Man-to-Man rules), and helmets worth 1 pip of AC.  Sometimes I allow a helmet to ablate one damage die of 6 (and simultaneously be dashed off in the process--so it's a once per fight thing) but this can be an unnecessary complexity.
* Missile fire.  By-the-book a "combat turn" is a one minute Chainmail turn with the Alternate Combat System (the combat system insofar as DD is concerned) subsuming the potential for multiple rounds of blows into a single attack roll.  This works fine for melee combat, but is not such a good fit for missile fire. The usual solutions to this are either to dive down to 10 (or 6) second combat rounds or else to assume missile fire in volleys. I've tried both, but ultimately I prefer going with one missile attack roll representing a volley of missile fire because I find this keeps the game at the "right" level of abstraction and keeps the pace up.
* Monster attack matrix; I like things to be easy. Which is the main reason I've taken to using the coarse-grained attack matrix for players; there's one "steady" to-hit line for all the normal-tier players (okay, fighters have a +1 advantage over the non-fighters), and another "steady" to-hit line for all the heroic-tier players. It's easy. But for monsters--by the book--there are different numbers everywhere!  This can get fiddly, especially with mixed HD groups, so I end up using a coarse-grained matrix for the monsters too.
* Identifying Magic Items. The original game is largely tacit on this subject, so I allow all players a chance of "recognising" famous enchanted items usable by their class, plus I allow M-Us to identify items (other than those specifically intended to deceive) with a combination of Read Magic and Detect Magic. Only a clerical Detect Evil will identify a malicious/cursed item.

You've obviously expanded both the cleric and magic user spell lists beyond what's present in the LBBs, yet some classics (like Magic missile) are conspicuously absent. What can you say about your choices and decision-making process when it comes to these lists?

It was always a design goal that DD should include "something extra" beyond just the source material presented in Chainmail, Outdoor Survival, and the 3LBBs. This decision was, in part, so that DD could include a token representation of the many creative outputs that OD&D inspired in the community way back when, and also in part as way of differentiating DD from other 0e games.
It's an interesting thing that although the various 0e games are probably 80-90% alike, it's the 10-20% differences between them that get all the press and are seen as being their individual identities. So it was important that DD have a little set of foibles that would be "uniquely DD". The result is (I believe) an authentic 0e-style game that includes an optional thief, extended sea-faring and aerial exploration rules, and somewhat curious spell lists.
The DD spell list is firstly the result of a reconciliation between Men & Magic and the SRD; around 34 spells from Men & Magic had to be renamed to be OGL compliant. Then a handful of spells were moved or else added to pad the lists out to six spells per clerical spell-level, and 12 spells per M-U spell-level.
Padding the spell lists out was, perhaps, an arbitrary call but it was consciously made in order to have one of those uniquely-DD foibles. As it turned out DD includes -- I think -- a total of four new clerical spells and six new M-U spells in a list of 102 spells.
The additional spells were sourced mainly from The Strategic Review and early The Dragon 'zines in preference to some of the better known spell options that appeared around the same time (or even earlier) in Greyhawk. Only one spell from Greyhawk is included in DD (that being Speak with Dead). This preference for more obscure spells was partly in appreciation of the great material by other authors that is often overlooked; partly as a way for DD to be a just little bit different from other 0e games, and partly because--at some point during the project--I was reading some Vance and how could Color Spray not be included??

Many of the house rules that Simon mentions are ones that I use, or that are similar to ones I use. My own version of the "liquid courage" rule gives PCs the opportunity to heal naturally once per session through imbibing stiff drink, gaining back 1d6 minus their level in hit points (at level 6 and beyond, this is obviously useless). Very different from the way Simon does it is how I handle missile fire: if you had a missile weapon at the ready at the beginning of a round, you get to shoot then; there is a second missile fire phase at the end of the round after movement and such, so folks who were ready at the top of the round can get off two missile attacks if they don't move. I'm pretty sure that every Referee worth his salt has his own house rules. Personally , I'd love to see them. What do you think of Simon's house rules? What do you think of mine? What house rules do you use when playing Delving Deeper at your own gaming table? 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Delving Deeper Week, Day Three: Fighters & Thieves

For today's post, I decided to look at a few very specific questions I asked +Simon Bull about the Delving Deeper rules, particularly in the case of two classes who function a little differently than their standard analogs in other OD&D retroclones like Swords & Wizardry. Fighters in Delving Deeper gain the advantage of the fastest HD progression, which gives them an advantage quicker than other characters, as we'll see below. Thieves as well function a bit differently from other iterations of thieves and Simon explains the whys and wherefores. Let's get straight to it.

In Delving Deeper, fighters have a number of attacks against "normal-types" (of 3HD or fewer) equal to their own HD. I don't recall reading anything like this in OD&D, so would you please describe where it comes from?

I should start by clarifying a couple of things: 
Firstly, DD defines "normal-types" as having fewer than 3 HD. So a 3 HD wight is heroic, as is a 3rd level (3 HD) fighter -- and this early entry into the heroic tier is a real advantage of the fighting class as heroic-types are no longer subject to multiple attacks vs. normals. 
And secondly, DD talks in terms of numbers of attack rolls rather than numbers of attacks because, when we're dealing with one minute combat turns, an attack roll can be representative of more than just one attack; even when you're rolling more than one attack roll per turn. 
Getting back to the question, the multiple attack rolls rule is described in three OD&D sources; Chainmail (especially page 30), Monsters & Treasure (page 5), and The Strategic Review vol 1.2 (page 3). 
Monsters & Treasure talks specifically about monsters having one roll as a normal-type per hit die, and cites a 6 HD Troll as having six rolls versus normals. 
That's monsters, but what about the players? For the fighter-types we know that Chainmail ascribes multiple attack rolls versus normals to heroes and superheroes, and that OD&D is built right over this. Chainmail heroes have four attack rolls and OD&D heroes have 4 HD. Chainmail superheroes have eight attack rolls, and OD&D superheroes have 8 HD. It seems to fit very neatly with the rule in M&T. 
Then we have EGG's article "Questions Most Frequently Asked About Dungeons & Dragons Rules" (appearing in The Strategic Review vol 1.2, page 3) which explains in detail that an OD&D hero has four attack rolls versus normal-types. It's notable that EGG overrides his earlier rules in the FAQ example by having the hero throw four attack rolls as a hero rather than as a normal-type, but DD ignores this in favour of the earlier rules which, in my mind, work a lot better.
Regarding the possibility of multiple attack rolls for the non-fighter classes, a Chainmail wizard has two attack rolls versus normals but an OD&D wizard has 8 HD, so it isn't quite so clear cut for wizards as it is for fighters. The FAQ article doesn't discuss multiple attack rolls for non-fighters, so all we really have is speculation that an enemy cleric or magic-user might be treated as a monster, and might therefore have one attack roll per hit die versus normals. DD leaves this option open to interpretation, just like the original.

Personally, I love the Delving Deeper thief and its use of d6s rather than percentile dice. What was the inspiration to use the 4-in-6 d6 rolls that stay flat across all levels? Did you anticipate any pushback from players not used to their characters not improving in those things?

The main inspiration for the d6 based thief skills was the 3LBBs' general treatment of similar dungeoneering feats. The manner in which elves are good at locating secret doors, in particular, was the model for the DD thief's skills. 
The addition of the official percentile-based skills mechanic is frequently quoted as a pivotal shift in game design -- a shift away from the simpler mechanics of the 3LBBs, and toward a more complicated system (one where knowledge of a thief's odds begin to reside more with the player, and less with the referee).
So all I did with the DD thief was to suppose that this pivotal design decision was yet to be made. So, in lieu of a percentile-based skills system "yet to be invented," DD simply employs OD&D's pre-existing mechanism. 
Regarding push back from players, I don't think I've heard anything unexpected. It was a design goal that the DD thief should be easy to be house ruled, so I was actually pretty pleased when, right away, I saw a bunch of guys discussing how they were planning to house rule their thief class. If nothing else, DD had encouraged people to start hacking out their own thieves. I thought that was pretty cool.

Sure, a number of folks suggested mechanisms for a DD thief's skills to advance with experience -- and that's all great discussion. My observation is that systems of advancing mastery generally go hand-in-hand with increasing difficulty, so the dilemma is then whether the additional load of another system really adds much to play. Maybe it does for some. 
But even as simple as it is right out of the box, I reckon the DD thief addresses a couple of issues with the Greyhawk thief. Namely, the DD thief doesn't have terrible odds of performing his primary function at low levels (so he can "thief" right away), he doesn't achieve infallible skills at high levels (so he remains interesting to play), and you don't need to muck around with all those fiddly "skills" on your character sheet. I'm not saying it's perfect, but it works okay for me.
I'm already on record as being a huge fan of DD's thief. Thieves are one of those contentious issues in the OD&D community. For example, Simon himself suggested that my inquiry here might be begging the question "Why include thieves at all?" I'm not going to take things quite that far, but I do think that DD tackles the "self-justifying thief" concept quite well with the thief's level of ability from the outset and lack of improvement. While calling out some examples of the sorts of tasks that thieves might be good at, the text shies away from explicitly saying "these are the thief skills." To me, this side-steps the "self-justifying thief" problem (if you don't know how this argument goes, here's a bunch of Google hits on the search "self-justifying thief rpg" including one on this site) by not specifically calling out "thief skills" and not having such a steep improvement curve. I'd like to suggest that the improvement curve implies the natural problem with the "self-justifying thief" in that thieves should never be worse than a non-thief at thiefy stuff, and if thief skills are crazy low and get much better over time, then your ordinary person would have to be even less likely to accomplish these tasks. Delving Deeper tackles the problem from a different angle. Instead, attention is given to the chance a normal person might have to accomplish the thing (based on the existing probabilities from the OD&D RAW) and then extrapolates the thief's probability of doing the same thing given his superior training in that field. The lack of improvement here is sort of icing on the cake: the thief is really good at this stuff from the outset (making up for many of his shortcomings in things like attack progression and HD) and gradually improves elsewhere, so why do the thief skills need to improve?

While I'm here, I might as well say a thing or two about Simon's reasoning behind the fighter, right? The thing that strikes me as neat is that, by using the OD&D/Chainmail rubric of when characters get multiple attack rolls and how many they get, Simon has eliminated the need for the clunky, wonky tables of other editions and made everything follow one streamlined system. In earlier editions of DD, fighters buck this trend, being able to "[throw] one attack roll per round for each of his own hit dice," which conceivably could begin as early as level 2. When I asked Simon this question, I hadn't really noticed the exclusion of this line from the fighter class write up, or even really the changes in language ("normal type," "heroic type," etc.) that Simon made in an effort to clear up more than a few things. I really liked the original rule, and keep that alive as a house rule in my Hyperbarbaria game as an option for fighters only.

Speaking of house ruling, next time, we'll take a look at house rules in DD and the house rules that Simon himself uses in his game(s).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Delving Deeper Week, Day Two: The One Where Simon's Attack Matrices Blow Your Mind

Welcome back to Day Two of Delving Deeper week. Like yesterday's post, today's comes in the form of a question I posed to Delving Deeper designer +Simon Bull via email and his (slightly reformatted) answer to said question. Today, the question I asked was nearly a case of biting off more than I could chew. One of the things that had initially sparked my interest in DD was the simple yet sophisticated attack progression. Little did I expect the depths of Simon's madness dogged pursuit of nailing this thing down so firmly, there was no chance of it ever getting away.  

Recently, on his blog Save Vs. All Wands, Seven Voyages of Zylarthen author +Oakes Spalding did a comparison of attack tables from OD&D and various retro-clones. In his second post on the topic, he says that "the author of Delving Deeper has a complex but logical, fascinating and satisfying rationale for why the Delving Deeper progressions are in a certain sense faithful (perhaps even more faithful than the original numbers) to the mathematical theory behind the 0e progressions, based partly on what they owe to Chainmail." (Find that post here.) Would you mind walking me through that rationale?

The first thing is that DD takes pains to be legal so doesn't copy the original attack matrices verbatim. It presents an alternate attack matrix that is similar to the original, but different enough to be its own thing. 
How did I arrive at it? I began by looking at how the original attack matrices "work" in terms of fighting capability, numbers of hit dice, and numbers of experience points (for player levels 1-12). 
From these charts we see right away that there are essentially three attack "tiers" represented (for player levels 1-12), with fighters alone achieving a fourth tier at top levels. 
Looking at the Fighting Capability chart (which shows only the minimum FC necessary to enter each tier) we observe that:
. The first tier equates to fighting capabilities in the "man" range,
. The second tier equates to fighting capabilities in the "hero" range,
. The third tier (and forth tier, for fighters) equates to fighting capabilities in the "superhero" (or "wizard") range. 
With this in mind, we can look at the Hit Dice Chart (which shows only the minimum HD necessary to enter each tier) and observe that: Players require 3-4 HD to obtain the second (heroic) tier, Players require 7-8 HD to obtain the third (superheroic) tier--excepting EGG's original thief which breaks the pattern by requiring only 5 HD.

The XP Chart then shows us how soon each class can expect to obtain the second and third attack tiers, and that fighters are clearly out in front of the other classes.
We also see here that the progression of EGG's original thief is, probably, disjointed from the original classes insofar as they are supposed to attack as do clerics, but their smaller XP requirement actually puts them way ahead of clerics in real terms, and only marginally behind fighters! This for a class EGG describes as being
"not meant to fight".
From all this I extrapolated several "facts" upon which I based the DD progressions:
1. The three attack tiers represent the Normal, Heroic, and Superheroic attack tiers,
2. The heroic attack tier begins at 3 HD,
3. The superheroic attack tier begins at 7 HD. 
Additionally, I concluded that EGG's original thief's HD progression bucks the trend as it doesn't neatly fit the pattern observed for the original three classes. (This is why the DD thief's HD progression appears to be completely fabricated; it is. It is fabricated so as to align with the pattern of progression observed in the original three classes.) 
So now we come to the DD attack matrices. 
We can observe that:
. All players require minimum 3 HD to obtain the heroic attack tier,
. All players require minimum 7 HD to obtain the superheroic attack tier,
. Thieves follow the same pattern as the original three classes,
. Thieves now advance in attack capability slightly behind clerics (a better fit--in my mind--for a class which is "not meant to fight"). 
DD also provides a finer grained attack matrix for those who prefer it.

This simply divides each of the coarse attack tiers into finer parts, ensuring--as possible--that fighters advance ahead of clerics, who advance ahead of thieves, who advance ahead of magic-users.
This is the kind of hard work and dedication to "getting it right" that really rocks my gaming world. Long time Dispatches readers will remember how I've obsessed over dice math, so it really shouldn't be a surprise that I dug the thoroughness here. Rules that do precisely what the designer wants them to do and create exactly the game experience the designer wanted them to are rarities in today's gaming industry (if was ever not rare). Sure, games don't have to be about what they have rules for, but it's pretty damned cool if, when the rules are implemented, they have the impact that the designer intended them to have.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Delving Deeper Week, Day One: Wtf Is Delving Deeper?

Howdy folks and welcome to the Dispatches from Kickassistan special coverage of the Delving Deeper RPG. Imagine me saying that in my best news announcer voice. My news announcer voice is pretty good, too. Here's the deal: +Simon Bull, the guy who's really the driving force behind Delving Deeper, offered me a review copy of the new version four revision of the rules that are available in print from or, as always, as a free pdf from the Immersive Ink forums for the sake of, naturally, review. Simon made the mistake of saying that if I had any questions, he'd be happy to answer them. That turned into me (roughly) interviewing him for a few weeks. This post collects a few of those questions and answers, as will several of my next few posts.

Before we go any further, I do want it to be recognized that (a) this is a game I currently play and enjoy. (B) I was given a review copy of the POD version of the rules (thanks again, Simon!). And (C) the primary reason I agreed to do this is to give a little love to OD&D-style gaming, Delving Deeper and the creator of a game that I really, really enjoy.

And so, let us begin our exploration of Delving Deeper by asking "Wtf is Delving Deeper?"

[My questions are in bold, Simon's responses are indented.]

Delving Deeper is, effectively, a '74 white box retroclone (with the addition of thieves as an option). And yet, there are other white box retroclones available or even the "OD&D Single Volume Edition." What inspired the creation of this particular rule set? What was missing from these others that Delving Deeper is uniquely suited to do? 

I think I've spoken to most of your question 1 in a recent G+ post here:

The key motivation for DD was originally, I believe, as a legal 0e publishing platform for BHP. While BHP is no longer driving it, this central motivation still remains. 
Of the other 0e emulations that were "out there" at the time of DD's inception:
. S&W was seen as covering 3LBBs+Supplements,
. S&W whitebox was seen as covering volumes one and two of the 3LBBs,
. The single volume OD&D PDF was of course illegal so couldn't serve as a legal publishing platform.
. Torch and Sword also appeared around mid 2011, and probably (in my view) ticked most of the boxes very neatly--except that by that time the DD project was already "in flight."
Imagine for a moment that I'm not already positively predisposed toward OD&D gaming. How would you, the person most intimately familiar with the game, convince me to try Delving Deeper?

This question is tricky because it seems to cover some similar ground to question 1, albeit from a different angle. Also it really seems to be two questions, requiring two different answers: (Part A) What do 0e-style games in general (including the original 0e game itself) have to offer? And (Part B) what does DD, a specific 0e-style game, have to offer? 
Part A is frequently debated in the gaming community. "Why would anyone bother with those antiquated, 0e-style games?" Here are some thoughts... 
* 0e games are accessible. There are few rules a new player needs to know, so even a novice can get involved and have a character in game in a few minutes. And for the experienced guys, all they need for decades of gaming is in three little brown booklets (or if you don't have them, then the one DD booklet will do). It's a whole different level of accessibility compared to, say, the one thousand pages of core rules you get with 5e. 
* 0e rules tend to be pretty coarse-grained and don't have lots of modifiers. This makes the mechanics easy to memorise and fast to run. For all the myriad subtleties of "more advanced" rules, they are rarely better simulations and frequently more cumbersome to use.  
* 0e games tend to be pitched at just the right level of abstraction to enable a game spanning dungeon, town, and wilderness exploration, and one-on-one duels to battles involving scores (or even hundreds!) of belligerents. 
* 0e games are fast paced. Combats run briskly; even major fights that can take hours in other systems can be all over in just minutes. You can get a whole lot done in a typical 0e game session. 
* OD&D is deadly (as are 0e games in general) in a way that few other RPGs are. Challenges and rewards are not scaled to be "appropriate." The game can be deadly, but so too the rewards can be tantalizing. Deadly risk plus the possibility of Very Real Reward is a pretty good recipe. 
* OD&D is ultimately a rules framework rather than an exhaustively complete and polished system of game rules. It's the toolkit rather than whatever you might build with the toolkit. It can be used "as is," or built on, or adapted into just about anything you want it to be. OD&D is a RPG tinkerer's dream; so much can be done with it so easily! 
So what then does DD, specifically, have to offer? 
Let me start by saying that the original game itself is still "the real deal". It's only because the original materials are becoming hard to get, and because the various sources aren't "easy" to piece together, and because the IP is being kept under wraps, that the 0e-style retro-games need to exist at all. 
Given that scenario, DD is one of a number of 0e-style games "out there." So why choose DD? 
Probably most importantly (and in contrast to the original) DD is current and available. It's easy to find and price is no barrier to entry--the reference rules and hypertext editions are free, and even the POD soft copy is dirt cheap. So there's really nothing stopping anyone from checking out what all the 0e "fuss" is about. 
That aside DD is, to my knowledge, at least as representative of the original material as is any other 0e game. I would say "more so" but of course I'm biased ;) Even allowing for bias, it's my view that DD stands alone among the 0e-style games in terms of its faithfulness to the language and unique features of the original game. If you haven't played the original game, I'd say DD is a pretty good representation of it. 
DD is also a "reasonably" mature product in micro publishing terms. There have now been four versions of the DD Reference Rules with each version being tighter and "better" than the last. Quality-wise (in terms of writing, editing, production, attention to detail) I reckon DD is as good as anything else out there--certainly in the "freeware" space. 
So, if you're curious about Original D&D but don't have $200 for a collector's white box set, why wouldn't you check out DD for free?

In our correspondence, Simon commented that these two questions might be too similar to have meaningfully different answers. Of course, then he writes a damn good "this is why you should play Delving Deeper" post. To be fair, the first question was mostly "why write Delving Deeper/how is it different?" and the second one is "why play Delving Deeper?" 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Rediscovering TSR's Later Settings: Part IV, Mystara & Her Sub-Settings

Before you cry foul, let me express that, personally, I don't think of it as "Mystara." To me, she'll always be the Known World, and she'll always belong firmly within the domain of D&D rather than AD&D (much less 2e). My first exposure to her were through early modules like X1: The Isle of Dread and articles in Dragon and Dungeon magazine (particularly the Princess Ark stuff). However, due to the idiotic biases of the time, the lack of an "A" on the rules kept me from full exposure to the Known World. After 1994, this would no longer have been a problem for me, since that's the year TSR more or less dropped support for D&D altogether and migrated the Known World to 2e by repackaging it as Mystara. The sad personal fact of the matter was that it was at this point that I experienced my greatest exposure to the setting, although my own individual interest in 2e itself was waning swiftly, as it was replaced with other games. What I think is most notable about the 2e treatment of Mystara is that, aside from the 2e adaptation of BECMI material, it spawned two independent and distinct sub-settings, one before the 2e-takeover (but was included in the 2e-revamp) and one made for 2e from the bones of an old Known World adventure.

[For the sake of making sense, I'll be using the term "Mystara" to denote the 2e setting, whereas I'll use "Known World" to talk about it in its prior BX and BECMI incarnations. I hope that's clear enough.]

Mystara Herself

I honestly have no idea where to get started talking about Mystara; I'm ultimately horribly unqualified to discuss it at any length. I could go on about the Gazetteer series, the classic BX and BECMI adventures that drove the setting's early days and formation, but there are plenty of folks who could do a more complete, and better, job. But I've got to say something. And so, here goes.

Largely, Mystara reflects real world cultures at various points in history, mashed together. Sometimes, these are done by changing some names, but keeping the overall historical context consistent (like Thyatis), while others, a real-world culture seems to be fitted backwards upon a previously existing idea (like the Principalities of Glantri). It almost feels as if the intent was to be a real "kitchen sink" approach to setting design which left a lot of room for cultural relativism without recourse to a defined, objective "good." Given that the Known World was originally detailed in the BX rule set, it was made with the threefold alignment model in mind, which affords a lot st  broader latitude to interpreting cultures and there mores. No nation is "Neutral Good," because there is no good, just neutral.

In 2e Mystara, the application of the 2e ninefold alignment system, to my mind, really screws with an initial strength of the setting: that while it represents echoes of real world cultures, it doesn't present any one of them as "right" or "the good guys," but the 2e-ification starts to apply these labels, which to me is a very bad thing. Sure, there might have been some obvious 'bad guys" before (the Black Eagle Barony), but now we have moral judgments applied about who is evil and who is good, where before these distinctions weren't nearly as clear, disarming both DMs and players alike of their own interpretations.

The "kitchen sink" approach of the Known World, I'll claim, works primarily because no single thing placed in that sink ends up being "the best" or "the good guys." As a result, stuff that really shouldn't fit together fits together exceptionally well with far less explaining away necessary. Each setting component has exactly as much right to be there as any other. That changes for the worse when TSR applies "good" and "evil" as objective, universal, metaphysical constants, making judgments about culture so common to the 2e era. Boring.

Here's the killer: that is my biggest gripe about Mystara. Other than that, I friggin' love it.

Hollow World

When I was researching Spelljammer, I became aware of a term that Jeff Grubb likes to bandy about in what seem like self-aggrandizing ways: "Grubbian physics." I think far more interesting than Grubb's self-congratulatory number-jockeying is that which drove the Known World: the physics of Bruce Heard and Aaron Allston. These two gents jiggered and rejiggered the physics of the Known World to the point where not only are airships possible, but neither does a planet need its poles or interiors. These are the guys who made Hollow World possible.

Well, not so fast, Adam. The guy who really made the Hollow World possible was Edgar Rice Burroughs because he'd already done it back in 1922 when he called it Pellucidar. And yes, Pellucidar is the mark by which a "hollow earth" setting should be judged, not because Burroughs did it first, but because he did it so damn well!

The amazing thing is that, despite holding on to so many of the "genre D&D" tropes I typically despise, the Hollow World looks at these tropes in one that does justice to its Pelucidar roots. Here, we do not see the high fantasy of the Known World tooled down to match Pelucidar's prehistoricity; instead, we see the high fantasy tropes dialed backward in time to a point before the tropes developed quite so fully. Sure, we have dwarves, but they're not the same vault-dwellers we see in the world above but are surface-dwelling goatherds. Elves aren't the coolest, best thing on two legs. THERE AREN'T ANY GNOMES! Human cultures are interesting and rich. Magic is present but isn't pervasive. The whole thing jibes with my sense of what Appendix N literature is all about.

But wait, I cheated. This setting was produced for BECMI/RC D&D, not 2e. However (a) it was produced during the heyday of the 2e era and (b) later Mystara releases included Hollow World info and conversion notes, so it's only kind of cheating. All in all, I think that Hollow World is one of the strongest settings that TSR ever produced and stands on its own exceptionally well.

Red Steel

One of the stranger and more interesting adventures of the BX/BECMI era was the Expert-level (between 4-14th level) module called X9: The Savage Coast. I say strange because it really was full of some strange stuff. Turtle people, cat people, dog people; it's chock-full of shapeshifting spider sorcerers. Fun shit like that. I say interesting because it's a pretty darn large hexcrawl sandbox that does a good job of giving players a reason to explore and some goals along with plenty of guidelines for what could happen to them out there in the wilderness.

And so, given the opportunity to revisit this strange and interesting micro-setting, TSR did something weirder. Looking back at it now, there are some really strong late-80's, early-to-mid-90's trends that show up in the Red Steel treatment of the Savage Coast. First, consider the anthropomorphic animal races: the Tortles, the Rakasta and the Lupines. Do they come from the place as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Cowboys of Moo Mesa and the rest of the anthropomorphic animal trend of the time? Also, the "Red Curse" of the setting - a magical power essence that super-charges magic, powers magic items and such - comes from the same place as the Kalevala's "sampo," manna from Heaven, imaginary superfuels of the future or, more contemporaneously with the influences of Red Steel, radioactive materials (which are often depicted at the time of having mutagenic properties that give rise to the aforementioned anthropomorphic beings). All PCs gain power from the Red Curse, but at the same time must constantly guard against its mutagenic properties. Hmm. Zeitgeist?

Red Steel is a fair-to-good setting. On its own, it would be okay. As a sub-setting within Mystara, it's not bad. As an inheritor to X9, I begin to come close to calling bullshit. I only come close because it might add a thing or two to the original (and giving Red Steel a vaguely South American vibe was an interesting choice), but it gives only half of the original mix of strange & interesting that I was attracted to in X9; it kept the strange but got rid of the interesting (hexcrawls had fallen out of favor by the time the 90's rolled around, as had sandboxes, in favor of heavy-handed railroad plots, a tradition which still drives mainstream gaming today).

Oh, and even TSR's reviewers in Dragon magazine said that the CD that came with Red Steel was a dumb idea.

There is at least one 2e-era setting I will not be talking about: Al-Qadim. I understand that many folks love it. I never read it myself, despite having several interests that line up with its flavor. Rather than half-ass some thoughts here, I'll leave you to yours. If someone wants to do a guest post analysis of Al-Qadim like I've done for these other settings, I'd be happy to host it.

When next I return to these settings, I'll look at what changes I'd put them through so I'd want to use them.