Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Nortonian Greyhawk Part I: Slogging through the quagmire so you don't have to

Lichis the Golden does not give a f**k
Back when Sir Allan Grodog posted his cool old time map of Olde Tyme Greyhawk several years ago my first thought was "huh, I wonder if this is the same map that Andre Norton used as the setting for Quag Keep?" Sure, Zenopus Archives pursued the same question here, but that didn't stop me from tracking down a copy of the 'Keep and giving it the stink eye yet again; this time with my academic cap firmly clapped on the ol' noggin'.*

For those of you unaware, back in the 70s famed fantasy author Andre Norton wrote a novel--the aforementioned Quag Keep--set in the world of Greyhawk. No map was included in the book, but it was quickly obvious that the world of Greyhawk presented by Norton differed greatly from the version Gygax published a few years later and, thus, Greyhawk enthusiasts such as yours truly have ignored it as a source of campaign information or inspiration ever since.

It also didn't help that the book just isn't a very compelling read. It's never clear what, if anything, is at stake, the villains are as disparate and disorganized as your typical wandering monster table might provide, and, although the adventurers do end up in a quag, there's no actual keep involved--this was a huge disappointment to me as a youth. Generally, the book feels a lot like one of those desultory gaming sessions where the DM sets you on some vague errand and throws a bunch of random encounters at you mostly because he hasn't got a proper adventure prepared for the evening. 

Anyway, the answer to my question up in the intro is that Norton's Greyhawk is a lot closer to the old Greyhawk map than the published version, including mention of features such as The Great Bay, The Island Duchy of Maritiz, and the Holy Lords of Faraz which were not in the final published version. And she may or may not have been taking license with such locales as the Hither Hills, the Nomads of Narm, and the Free Ships of Parth; all evocative names that may or may not have existed in Gygax's own version at the time.

Things you might be surprised to learn about Nortonian Greyhawk:
  1. Rather than Xagyg, some Wizard named Kyrak operates a madness-inducing stronghold just outside of the city of Greyhawk.
  2. There is no evidence to suggest the existence of the Nyr Dyv or any other large body of water in the environs of Greyhawk
  3. Directly south of Greyhawk is the Land of Keo, an unpopulated land of dry, open plains
  4. This land played host to a horrifying event known as "the Rieving of Keo the Less" wherein a clan of amazon warriors from the Northern Bands were slaughtered... or worse.
  5. The Great Kingdom and Blackmoor have been conflated into a single entity: The Great Kingdom of Blackmoor
  6. It is not known who built the 5 cities of the Great Kingdom, suggesting a civilization existed there long before the Overlord overlorded the place.
  7. The Holy Lords of Faraz--Possibly the precursor to those Cuthbert worshiping Velunians?--use cross shaped currency. 
  8. Lichis, a giant Gold dragon, took on and defeated The Great Demon Ironnose in a legendary battle that spanned half the continent.
  9. It's not too many steps, phonetically speaking, from "Ironnose" to "Iuz" right? Just drop the two n's and your pretty much there.
  10. There was once a civilization that lived on the Sea of Dust, traversing the shifting dunes on sailing vessels. Like a cross between Road Warrior and Waterworld.
  11. There is both a Pinnacle of the Toad and a Temple of the Frog
Coming up in Part II: I try to draw a map of what Nortonian Greyhawk might look like! Stay tuned.
* I have no academic credentials other than having attended college for more time than anyone reasonably should. Also, phrasing such as "clapped on the ol' noggin" suggests that I'm still under the Wodehousian influence brought on by reading The Salt Marsh Murders.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Sinister Source Material of Saltmarsh

Back in February, Commentor Darrell provided me with some intell on a literary precedent to module U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. The work in question is a murder mystery written by British author Gladys Mitchell titled, somewhat obviously, Saltmarsh Murders and published in 1932.

Despite the prevalence of murder and sex in this story--fear not, prudish readers, all the juicy stuff happens off stage--the novel has a definite Wodehousian feel to it, so much so that every time that tea was announced I more than half expected Aunt Dahlia or Gussy Fink-Nottle to be among the guests. The narrator, a slightly daft young curate (4th level cleric) living at the local vicarage, was clearly modeled after Bertie Wooster, though he's slightly less bungling. Although not without its comic moments the book has a darker edge than one typically associates with the great P.G.W.--what with the murdering and sex mentioned earlier. But what will prove most sinister to modern readers might be the implication that suspicion of miscegenation might be considered just cause for homicide.

But you're not here for a book report, you're here to find out what bearing this novel had on the origins of the U1 module and, perhaps more importantly, can it be used as  a source for creating an actual town of Saltmarsh to fill in the one major deficiency in the original.

As Darrell pointed out, there are obvious similarities: the action takes place in a small town on the south coast of England called Saltmarsh, there's a house on a cliff overlooking a cove, a secret tunnel to the cove, a smuggling operation in the cove, even ships crew members using lanterns to signal to shore. (The narrator did not observe a shore-to-ship signal, sadly.) And that's pretty much where the similarities end. There are no ghosts, actual or suspected, threatening to haunt the house on the cliff, no lizardmen riding shotgun on the smuggler's ship, no one seeking the philosopher's stone. There aren't even any similarly named characters. Indeed, while U1 obviously borrowed some points from this tale, it is clearly not a modulization of the novel. There is a sequel--or several seeing as Ms. Mitchell wrote some 60 murder mysteries spanning the bulk of the 20th century--but I haven't read it/them and cannot confirm the existence of an impending sahuaguin invasion.

But what I did find was further evidence that both versions of Saltmarsh were inspired by the town and/or environs of the actual town of Seaton, Devon [see Sinister Location of Saltmarsh].

The real smugglers cave is a bit harder to get to than U1 enthusiasts will expect.
For instance, just down the coast from Seaton is a cave in the cliffs that was used by smugglers in the 18th and 19th century to stash contraband, as is detailed in the memoirs of famed smuggler John Rattenbury. No doubt there are loads of smugglers caves along the cliffy coast of England, as it seems that inveigling un-taxed merchandise into the realm was considered the national pastime back then.* But this particular cave leads from the cove to a nearby quarry, such as the one adjacent to the smugglers house in the Saltmarsh Murders novel.  No doubt the cliffs of England are likewise riddled with quarries, but does this not give a slight bit of credence to the notion that Seaton of Devon was the inspiration for Saltmarsh?

Also of possible note, according to Google Maps there is a small hamlet called Vicarage just west of Seaton; was this little community perhaps the inspiration for placing the narrator of the tale in such a residence? This may be the biggest stretch of all since 7 out of every 9 murder mysteries written by British authors take place in or somehow involve a vicarage. I believe this was actually mandated by law until the 1960s.

* Both the novel and what I've read about this Rattenbury character give the distinct impression that smuggling was a rather common activity on the south coast, practiced by a wide swathe of society--more than a few clergymen got in on the action as well. This portrays the smugglers in a vastly different light than the murderous bastards under the haunted house--and on the Sea Ghost--in U1.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Olde Greyhawke Mappe

Great Kingdom Map, Gary Gygax, 1971, Territories of the Great Kingdom
Check out this early version of what would eventually become Gygax's World of G'hawk. Grodog sent me a link to it because, I suspect, he wanted the wingnut perspective on this thing. As you most likely recall, I ran a piece on the origins of the Oeridian people way back--seems like only yesterday, eh?

Anyway, my initial thought: See that valley in the mountains between Perunland and Neron March? Impact crater from the Oeridian mother ship, obviously.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Another Random Character Generator!

Random fodder for your amusement
I swear I'm not looking for these things, but here's another, even cooler random character generator created by the good folks over at Purple Sorcerer Games. It creates 0-level characters for DCC RPG in bulk, but with actual character sheets instead of just a row
of stats on a spreadsheet like some other computerized character generator we all know and loathe.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Random F**king Character Generation

Getting back to the random character business, I just found this sweet site created by Ryan (just Ryan) that fills in your randomly generated character's gaping lack of a backstory in one snappy, profane sentence. And I do mean profane; the site is called "Who the fuck is my fucking D&D character?" after all.

Nice work Ryan.

Friday, April 29, 2016

N1:Sinister Secret of the Reptile God

Anyone who's followed this blog with any regularity has probably already determined that it's about time I started ranting about a new (old) module. The more obsessive devotees amongst you have probably further determined that the next object of my modular obsession is 94.8% likely to be N1 Against the Reptile God by Douglas Niles. And you'd be correct, cuz this bad boy has all the key elements of a module I love: a prominent town encounter, published before 1984, and... well, who needs more than that?

Furthermore, you've most likely heard several of my countless retellings of the apocryphal anecdote--at least I assume it's apocryphal since I made it up--on the link between this module and U1 Sinister Secret of Salt Lake. The way I tell it, back in '81 the Honchos at TSR tasked 2 groups to come up with a town-centric module to be entitled Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh; whoever turned in their draft first would get it published. The UK team won the race--not insignificantly, they left out the town component in their haste to cross the finish line--and thus walked away with the title, literally. Thankfully, the Lake Geneva braintrust saw the merit in Mr. Niles belated submittal and decided to publish it as well, though with the less inspired title Against the Cult of the Reptile God. But, as consolation, N1 got cover art from the under-utilised Timothy Truman.

Despite this fabricated association with U1, I can't help but look at this module as a reinterpretation of the venerable T1 Hamlet of Villoge, a module which has been canonized on this very blog. Both modules involve evil cults infiltrating a small town as well as some nefarious doings in a nearby swamp. The prime difference between the two settings being how their respective evil cults manifest. While in T1 the cult is fairly inert within the Village--there are a few spies gathering info but to no known purpose other than protecting the secrecy of the cult--in N1 the cult has a clear cut agenda: forcibly recruit new "members" and collect "donations" to the cause. Likewise, the transformation of agrarian, druidic Hommlet via the influx of Cuthbert-worshipping tradesmen is brought to much more baleful focus in N1's village of Orlanes where the crop-goddess worshiping natives are being invasively replaced with malevolent reptile worshiping cultists.

One of the prevalent symptoms of conversion to the cult--besides disappearing for a fortnight and, upon your return, pretending that you never left and never mind that you used to have a wife and a few more kids, what are you getting at?--is that new cult members are typically no longer any good at their professions. Farmers who once ran tidy, prosperous farms now disinterestedly toil in overgrown fields while their barns and chicken coops fall into a state of decrepitude; the carpenter's inept handiwork is a mockery of his former artistry, etc. There are exceptions: the blacksmith is still able to skillfully work his forge, but he's a man deranged now; his temper so violent that the primary occupation of his grown sons is restraining him from sodomizing everyone who wanders onto his yard. Even so, there are red herrings here; some of the tradesmen in town who preside over dilapidated establishments are just inherently ill-kempt people who've yet to visit the swamp lair of the eponymous reptile god.

Which brings us to what might be the one weak spot of the module. While it's obvious that Senor Niles was going for an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers vibe here, it seems that he scoured the Monster Manuel for some appropriate being to induce the pod personae and settled on the Spirit naga. Not inherently a bad idea--especially when the naga has such a deliciously descriptive name as "Explictica Defilus"--except that this is supposed to be an intro dungeon for n00b PCs. The naga, coupled with the prevalence of troglodytes in the lair (2 HD, 3 attacks/round, revulsion odor causes weakness, chameleon like powers) are tough customers for a 1st level party. Unless your DM is a big ol' softy, you're gonna suffer serous casualties. But given the trust no one vibe of this module--and the post-golden age pub date--the village is not going to be the recruiting ground for reinforcements/replacement characters in the way Hommlet or Restenford are. Even the two characters who seem like they could be the most useful--a pair of elves hired by the mayor to investigate the goings-on in town--are prohibited by Module-Writer's Fiat from assisting the PCs.

Instead, to balance the naga's power, there's an old man named Ramne hangin' out in town who happens to be a 7th level MU and exists solely for the purpose of helping the par-tee. Not only will he put his arcane spell-power to use for them but he also offers up the services of his weasel familiar which can automatically lead the investigation to the cult's lair in the swamp. Although the author admonishes the DM to not let this become a case of Ramne and the Seven Dwarves, it seems like there coulda' been a better way.

Like maybe do away with the naga--and not just because it's too powerful for a first level party. The naga also doesn't fit the bill very well because its power is a permanent charm, not a soul-sucking mind controlling force. It's just too codified and bland for the creepiness that the cult emanates in Orlane. There's nothing about a charm, as defined in AD&D, that would cause the "converted" to lose interest in maintaining their farms, drive them to desecrate the holy texts of the divine being that they've dedicated their lives to worshiping, or several of the other things that happen in the module. I'm not criticizing the author for taking license with the charm, rather, I wish he'd taken it several steps further. Call the thing a "curse" rather than a charm and have some sort of customized creature or artifact doling out the madness from the marsh. Instead, we get a statted-out critter from the Monster Manny that every AD&D player worth his or her salt has already committed to memory. After the creepiness of the village, the dungeon really needs a special, heretofore unkown horror at the root of all this evil.

The Cult is actually kinda' tired.
Furthermore, the purpose of the cult is basically the same prosaic objective of every other cult in the history of cultiness: to take money from the blindly devoted. But since a side effect of the charm seems to be that the afflicted tend to lose interest in maintaining their previous livelihood, once you've been ensnared by the cult you're not really worth much as a source of funds anymore. So in order to make your monthly contribution you have to go out and recruit more cultists. Can you spell Pyramid Scheme? And there you have it: Explictica Defilus is nothing more than an Amway sales rep.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Random Character's Guild

I was wandering around over at the ol' Judge's Guild the other day when I discovered that they have  their own version of a random character generator (download it here), which also includes the one thing I really wanted to add to mine but didn't have the mojo for: a random name generator. The Judge's Guild version is made "For Use with the Universal Role Playing System" (URPS?) and contains character races such as ghuls, lunari, bardik, and confeds, but still, it's pretty cool.