Thursday, November 10, 2016

Autumn at the Moathouse

View from the moathouse.

Back in October I spent a weekend in Hommlet with my family and took the time to hike out to the moathouse. It's not in good shape, just a weed-strewn pile of rubble at this point; even the giant frogs have abandoned the place. But the larch trees are still prevalent and were in full fall splendor so I snapped this photo from the crumbling remnants. I was standing on what would have been the bastion in the northeast corner looking out over the swamp.

Since a lot of you have been wondering about Gygax's affinity for larch trees--aka tamaracks--I thought I'd share this photo; the larches are the orange-ish trees beyond the cattails and reeds. Their fall color is typically more yellow than this in my experience, but I suspect that there's still a fair amount of elemental evil in the soil around there that's causing this coloration.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Loquaciosness of Hommlet

"Hey Coverdale, 'loved you in Whitesnake."

Last week my longtime nemesis Patrick of Renovating the Temple fame dared slander Hommlet, and called me out in so doing. You don't need me to tell me that the poor fellow is delusional, but he does raise a point about the verbosity of Gygaxian prose; or at least I think that was the point he was making. The dude can certainly veer to the prolix. As evidence check out the first three sentences from the background of T1:
"The Village of Hommlet--Hommlet as it is commonly called--is situated in the central part of the Flanaess, that portion of Eastern Oerik which is known and "civilized." The village (actually hamlet-sized, though local parlance distinguishes it with the term "village") is located some 10 or so leagues southeast of the town of Verbobonc. It is at a crossroads." --Gary Gygax, T1 Village of Hommlet
That's a whole lot of words--60 to be exact--for very little information.Compare it to the following sentence:
"The village of Hommlet is located at a crossroads some 10 leagues southeast of the town of Verbobonc in the central Flanaess."*  --Dicerod the NunChucker, This here blog.

Pretty much the same amount of information in 67% less words. And we pass the savings on to you, dear reader.
*Is Flanaess really spelled with two esses**? I've always spelled it with just one. 

**And how do you write out the plural of "s"?

That said, there is a certain genius in the way he divulges information in his dungeon write ups--or at least in V of H. Though he takes the time to describe the homes and occupations of everyone in the village, except on rare occasions he doesn't bother telling us the interconnections of the villagers though certainly such a small, isolated populace must be rife with cliques and extended families and the various rivalries and feuds that these sorts of groups tend to engender.

As I've mentioned before, he also fails to indicate any sort of social rift that might occur between the native, tree-hugging farmers and the yuppie, hat-wearing newcomers. Indeed, one gets the impression that the locals are glad to have their company. Sure, having a tailor in town is a boon--though his obsession with knives and crossbows is a little creepy (see below). And sure people probably feel safer with that castle going up on the hill than they did couped up in the Elder's pigsty. But you start to throw newfangled religions into the mix, noses are going to get bent out of shape. For evidence, see the Old Testament, Northern Ireland, the partition of India, Palestine, the Spanish Inquisition, etc.

As evidence of EGG's disdain for tying down the narrative of the village, he doesn't even bother telling us what the various evil cultists are up to beyond they're desire to monitor and disrupt the PC's endeavors. Rannos and crew are tasked with aiding "any and all evil creatures who come in Temple service," not too specific, eh? Furthermore, it's not made explicit whether any of the town-based cultists has any knowledge of Lareth or vice versa.

Likewise, we learn that Zert, 2nd level fighter who resides at the 'Wench, is "actually a spy for the temple" but has no agenda other than screwing with the PCs, regardless of whether they go to the moathouse or not. He doesn't know about the traders so obviously he isn't taking orders from them; at least not directly anyway--we are informed that they know about him. Presumably he doesn't know about the spy working on the castle either, as that dude reports to the Rannos crew. Is Zert aware of Lareth and his cronies under the moathouse? Is he aware of the moathouse at all? Or is he just a free radical tasked with sowing chaos wherever he deems it worthy of sowing?

Similarly, we don't know what the relationship is between the bandits up in the moathouse and Lareth's shock troops down in the basement. It seems catastrophically unlikely that Lareth would be unaware of the bandits's presence even if he (or she) isn't the smartest "dark hope" that Chaotic Evil could hope for. Do they work for him? Did they just wander on the scene or did he set them up in their sweet digs? Gary is mum on the topic.

Despite all that we don't know, we do know a lot of unique details that allow us to sew a tapestry of intrigue all our own. For instance,
  • The tailor, a frail man worthy of only 2 hit points, attacks as a 7th level fighter when firing a crossbow or throwing a knife. We can reasonably assume, therefore, that the door of his outhouse is riddled with knife-holes and that he can frequently be seen carrying his crossbow out to the woods for a little practice.
  • Calmert, officiant at the Temple of St. Cuthbert  "... is anxious to give a sum to the builders of the fortress under construction, and although it would seem otherwise, most of the miscellaneous money he collects for 'the church' from characters will go to wards building the castle." Does he have some secret knowledge of the ToEE's return that is spurring on this need to fund the castle? Or has Burne put some sort of geas or charm on him? Does he believe that Terjon and/or Y'dey might not approve of supporting the castle construction? What might that reason be?
  • Rannos Davl has a scarab with the letters "TZGY" inscribed on it which 1 in 5 sages will recognize as a "pass" of some kind used in the Temple of ED. What do the letters refer to? Remember, when this module came out in '79 no one had ever heard of Tsuggtmoy, and even if they had, there's no reason to assume that the two are connected. I mean, is it really all that wise to have an abbreviation of a demoness's name written on your secret hall pass?
  • Also, are we to believe that it is just a coincidence that Rufus also has a scarab?
  • When Rufus reaches 8th level (he's currently a 6th level Fighter) he has instructions to "return to Verbobonc for special service in the Viscount's behalf." What sort of service are we talking about here?
All these tidbits, and a few others, can be easily ignored or glossed over with banal explanations without influencing the outcome of the adventure in the least... or they can be used as the stepping off point of bizarre and elaborate conspiracies. That openness to interpretation is the genius of Hommlet, allowing the DM and players to use the details of the module more as signposts indicating where adventure may lie, but ultimately the players can cut across the landscape in whatever direction their imaginations took them. By the mid 80s, TSR's authors had learned to close these sorts of loopholes into tidy narratives that encouraged the PCs and DMs alike to stick to a narrowly defined course of adventure. Almost like a railroad.

I suspect that some of these loose ends and tidbits are the product of Hommlet's unique development as a module; as you'll recall, Gygax modulized Hommlet based on his experience running his chums through the adventure. This gives the module a degree of richness, as the NPCs have actually interacted with PCs; there's a history on which to base their personae. It makes for a very lush setting without handcuffing the DM or boring the reader with a static story line that they are expected to follow. Obviously, every group of players is going to make the module their own in some way, but no module encourages this sort of free-range action as well as Hommlet. With the possible exception of Restenford.