17 May 2024

Greyhawk to appear in the 2024 Dungeon Master’s Guide

Eight months ago, I wrapped up a campaign set in Gary Gygax’s version of the World of Greyhawk (specifically, the version found in the 1983 box set).* I used the 5th edition rules for Dungeons and Dragons for the campaign (initially the rules more or less “as written” in the 2014 books; later, the Into the Unknown variant of 5e D&D, with some house rules for sake of continuity and the Greyhawk setting). Although the campaign was great fun, I realized about halfway through it that I did not care at all for the 5th edition rules, and hence concluded the campaign much earlier than I had originally planned (although it still ended in a satisfying way, I think). 

Since I don’t plan to run the current version of Dungeons and Dragons ever again, I have no interest in the “updated” 2024 editions of the core books. (According to Wizards of the Coast, this is not a “new edition,” so it’s not “6th edition” – I expect that it eventually will be called something like “edition 5.5,” but we’ll see.) In fact, I’m planning on selling off (or giving away) much of my 5e collection.

But to my surprise, the 2024 version of the Dungeon Master’s Guide will include an overview of the “World of Greyhawk” – along with a poster with maps of the Flannaes (the main region described in previous versions of the setting) and the City of Greyhawk. I had thought that we would not see any “new” version of the World of Greyhawk for the current incarnation of D&D (beyond adventures like those included in Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Tales of the Yawning Portal). However, it looks like I was wrong.

I still doubt that I’ll get the 2024 DMG. But now I’m not ruling it out entirely – it depends on how good the new Greyhawk material is. If the maps are nice, and the overview of the setting is interesting, perhaps I’ll consider picking up the book. 



* I have yet to write up the final installments of the campaign. I hope to do this over the next month or so. I also plan to write a post reflecting on the entire experience. Stay tuned!


09 May 2024

The Hunt for Gollum

When I learned last year that Warner Bros would be coming out with some new movies set in Middle-earth, I was pretty sceptical. But I am now cautiously optimistic, as the first new film, tentatively entitled The Hunt for Gollum, will star and be directed by Andy Serkis and be produced by Peter Jackson.

I was disappointed overall by season one of The Rings of Power – and, based on some purported leaks, am dreading season two. But with The War of the Rohirrim coming out later this year, and The Hunt for Gollum in 2026, perhaps all is not lost for cinematic Middle-earth.



03 May 2024

Swords and Wizardry Kickstarter: 3 days left

I’ve been swamped with work lately – hence no posts at all in April (which, I think, is the first time that I’ve missed an entire month since starting this blog almost fifteen years ago). Because of this, I almost missed the current Swords and Wizardry kickstarter. It includes optional supplemental rules for S&W, a book of new monsters, an adventure, and a referee's screen. There are only 3 days left!

Swords and Wizardry has a special place in my heart. It is what inspired me to start this blog many moons ago – specifically, I wanted to post my house rules online so that other people could check them out. (Some of those rules later were incorporated into Crypts and Things.)

So I like to support S&W whenever I can. Even though I’m not playing or running it right now, I very likely will do so again in the future. And the updated version of the rules is excellent!



25 March 2024

It’s Tolkien Reading Day

I recently started rereading The Silmarillion. I had last read it over two decades ago. I liked it then but I’m really enjoying it this time! Despite being a huge Tolkien fan, this is the first book by him that I’ve read or re-read since The Children of Hurin (which I read in 2017). 

After I finish The Silmarillion, I think I’ll keep going! I’ll read at least The Fall of Númenor and parts of Unfinished Tales. Perhaps I'll read parts of Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin before The Fall of Númenor (most likely I’ll focus on the final or most complete versions of those tales). 

Happy Fall of Barad-dûr day!

20 March 2024

Darkmaster plans for 2024

The cunning Darkmasters at Open Ended Games have some nefarious plans for 2024: 
  • Firstly, there's the physical version of Secrets of the Golden Throne, which will come to our backers first, and then in POD on DrivethruRPG. 
  • Later this year (probably this summer) we'll have the Against the Darkmaster GM's Guide, a companion to the Player's Handbook, containing all of the GM-facing material from the Core Rules, revised and updated, and then some! 
  • Through the year we'll also be releasing several new adventures: at least one of them will be a full-length scenario (about the length of the Silence of Dawnfell), while the others will be shorter, ready to run adventures, meant to be played in one or two sessions. 
  • Finally, we’re compiling something you have been asking for a long time, a great Against the Darkmaster Bestiary, packed with new creatures and opponents! No release date for this yet, but we'll talk more about it in the future.
(From the announcement at the VsD Discord site.)

I’ve been reading Secrets of the Golden Throne and am now about halfway through it. It’s excellent. Since I had an “early view” PDF a few months ago (because I backed the kickstarter), I’ve already incorporated some of the new rules and other material in my campaign, namely, the new kins (a pixie NPC and a gnome NPC have appeared in my “Court of Urdor” campaign) and spell lores. 


Additional rules, monsters, and spells aside, the campaign itself looks properly epic. I’ve reserved a place for the “Isle of Awallon” in my “Ukrasia” setting for future use. I’m really looking forward to finally getting the physical book!

I’m delighted that a Game Master’s Guide will be available in the near future. The book with the complete rules is glorious – but unfortunately it cannot be made available via print-on-demand. (I assume that this is because of its massive size.) For reasons not entirely clear to me, it is no longer possible to order physical copies of the core rulebook outside of the US. Since a Player’s Handbook has been available in POD and PDF for a couple of years now (at DTRPG), once the GM’s Guide is available as well, the complete rules will be readily available in physical form to gamers throughout the world. 

The announcement of the Bestiary was a pleasant surprise. I am very excited to see what is ultimately included in it. Eventually, the “classic trio” – (i) a player’s book, (ii) a GM’s book, and (iii) a monster book – will be available for VsD!



19 March 2024

James M. Ward, RIP

TSR legend Jim Ward has passed away

I have many fond memories of poring over the entries in Deities & Demigods as a young teenager. The overviews of the "AD&D-ified" pantheons helped to get me interested in learning more about real world mythologies. Deities & Demigods also prompted me to check out the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock.

Thanks for everything, mighty wizard Drawmij!

RIP



16 March 2024

OSRIC Player's Guide


There is a new Player’s Handbook -- er, Player's Guide -- for OSRIC (the “retro-clone” for first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) available. The PDF is available for free here; paper versions are available on Amazon (Canada/US). 

OSRIC, of course, was the original retro-clone. Along with Basic Fantasy (which appeared around the same time), OSRIC helped to launch the “Old School Renaissance” almost two decades ago. 

The original OSRIC was not a proper ruleset; rather, it simply included the necessary information (tables and the like) to permit the publication of material (primarily modules) for 1e AD&D. Shortly after it originally appeared, however, OSRIC was fleshed out into a complete game. Since then, though, it has not been substantially updated. 

But there are now plans to revise it so that it (a) includes more material from the original Dungeon Master’s Guide (in particular, I think, material having to do with campaign-building and running) and (b) more closely resembles the 1st edition AD&D rules. (Since it was the original attempt at a retro-clone, OSRIC was cautious in replicating the original ruleset. Subsequent retro-clones, like Old School Essentials, have demonstrated that near complete fidelity to the originals is unproblematic. So hopefully half-elves will not be so horrible in the revised version of OSRIC.) 

I believe that there will be a kickstarter for the revised edition of OSRIC sometime next autumn. In the meantime, it’s great that there now is a very attractive player's book available. 

28 February 2024

Against the Witch-King: Chapter 1

From Fornost to Ro-Malborn and Back Again

[Central Arthedain]

Out tale begins in the city of Fornost, capital of the besieged Kingdom of Arthedain, in the year 1964 of the Third Age, on the 15th day of Narbeleth (“Wintring” according to the calendar of Bree; “October” in Westron). 

It is the first year of the reign of King Arvedui. The Dúnadan Seer Malbeth foretold that Arvedui would be the last ruler of Arthedain. But does this mean that Arthedain ultimately will fall to the Witch-King’s hordes, or instead that Arvedui will defeat Angmar and resurrect the greater realm of Arnor? And what role – if any – will our heroes play in this prophesy?

[City of Fornost]

15 Narbeleth 1964

Four travellers gather in the manor of the Dúnadan sage Thindparv. They are: Arpet, a Lossadan shaman from the northern village of Mulkan; Arpet’s brother Doffa, a crafty scout; Celebrin, a Sinda Elf of Lindon; and Almarian, a Dúnadan champion and niece of Thindparv. They all wish to speak with the sage for their own reasons… 

Arpet and Doffa seek knowledge of a great tree inhabited by tiny folk with strange hairy feet. According to a dream that Arpet had weeks ago, a holy artifact of their people – the Horn of Mulkan – can be found there. The ancient narwhale horn had been stolen a year ago, and the Lossoth brothers are determined to recover it. A Dúnadan trader who frequently visits their village, Beleg, told the brothers that his friend Thindparv may be able to help them; he wrote something called a “Letter of Introduction” for the brothers to facilitate a meeting. Arpet and Doffa have spent the past two weeks travelling across northern Eriador to reach the bewilderingly large city of Fornost. Doffa has found the new sights to be wonderful and exciting. Arpet, on the other hand, finds his thoughts drifting back to someone he left behind in the village.

For the past year, Celebrin has been plagued with a vision during his reveries. He sees a great blond elf warrior wandering through a thick mist, possibly underwater. The warrior calls out for help in both Quenya and Sindarin, but to no avail. After a few moments the vision disappears. No one in Lindon can understand what this vision means. Following Círdan’s advice, Celebrin has travelled to Arthedain in hopes of solving this mystery, or at least learning more about how best to proceed.

Thindparv is Almarian’s mother’s brother. Nenereth and Thindparv were once close, but have drifted apart over the years – perhaps due to Thindparv’s studies. Almarian hopes to heal the rift somehow – hence her return to Fornost. She also hopes that Thindparv can tell her some of the abilities of her family heirloom, the ancient spear Orcspite, as her father was slain by Angmarim before he could pass this information to her.

[Aranarth]

Thindparv’s assistant Hador brings exquisite wine from Belfalas to the four as they sit within the richly adorned waiting room. As they finish introducing themselves to each other, a door opens and in walks Thindparv the Aranarth, the crown prince of Arthedain. The two are deep in conversation and are on friendly terms; it would appear that they have known each other for many years. After a few moments, they notice the others within the room and end their talk. Smiling broadly, the prince warmly introduces himself to the four travellers before departing.

[Thindparv]

Thindparv remarks – in an absent-minded way, seemingly to no one in particular – that Aranarth was once his student. The Dúnadan then turns his attention to his guests. The travellers explain their reasons for seeking the sage’s counsel. 

Using some charcoal, Arpet etches the image of the great tree on a piece of parchment. Thindparv identifies it as a great oak and informs him that the little people are no doubt “Hobbits.” He offers to conduct additional research into the tree for the Lossoth brothers, but regrets that it will take him a few days to do so. 

Celebrin delivers a book from Lindon, a copy of an ancient tome from lost Eregion, to the sage. Thindparv thanks the elf and tells him that he should consult with the seer Telemnar, who dwells within an ancient observatory, Ro-Malborn, to the north of Fornost. The reclusive seer should be better able than he to help the elf decipher his disturbing dream. Thindparv remarks that he interacts regularly with the seer, and is sending some supplies – ink, parchment, and dried goods – to Ro-Malborn the next day with his assistant, the Riverman Wulfgli. He explains that it should be no trouble for the elf to accompany Wulfgli on his mission.

Almarian implores Thindparv to see her mother, Nenereth. After a moment’s reflection the sage agrees to meet with his sister for dinner in a few days. Relieved, Almarian asks about Orcspite. Thindparv advises his niece to accompany Celebrin and Wulfgli on their journey and to consult with Telemnar about it. 

Realizing that they have nothing to do over the next few days, Arpet and Doffa offer to join Celebrin and Almarian on their trip. 

16 Narbeleth 1964

The quintet – Arpet, Doffa, Celebrin, Almarian, and the scruffy Riverman Wulfgli – travel north to Ro-Malborn. En route, Almarian recalls what she knows about the place. The observatory was once the dwelling place of a treacherous seer, Malborn, who secretly allied with the Witch-King during the Second Northern War (1408-1410). The seer was executed after the war and the observatory was given to Telemnar’s ancestor. Despite its dark history, the observatory retains the name of its original owner. In recent centuries, however, it has provided valuable information for the kingdom. Telemnar is known to be brilliant but erratic and eccentric. 

During their journey the party encounters a Dúnadain family – led by the warrior Ohtar – travelling to Fornost. The family’s farmstead was recently destroyed by raiders from Angmar. Amarian graciously writes a note for Ohtar, to introduce him to her mother in the city. She assures the family that they will be given succor at her household.

As evening approaches the group reaches the observatory of Ro-Malborn. They are greeted by the seer’s servant Elphir and brought to the sitting room, except for Wulfgli who delivers his supplies to the storage area.

[Ro-Malborn]

Telemnar eventually appears and greets the party with slightly unhinged enthusiasm. The party informs the seer of their various reasons for visiting him. Telemnar promises his help and the travellers retire for the night.

[Telemnar]

17 Narbeleth 1964

As Telemnar engages in research to help the party with their various endeavours, Arpet decides to investigate the flora, and especially the herbs, of the region around the observatory. He finds a wild plant with curious leaves. Later, the animist learns from Telemnar that the plant is “Arlan,” and that its leaves can heal wounds when prepared as a poultice, while its roots can act as a decongestant when consumed.

Almarian – with her loyal goshawk Seerwing – and Doffa go hunting. While the Dúnadan and her goshawk are unsuccessful, the Lossadan returns with a deer, which provides a delicious dinner for everyone at Ro-Malborn that evening.

At night, Celebrin uses the telescope to see what the stars might reveal about his recurring dream.

18 Narbeleth 1964

Arpet and Doffa sense that Wulfgli is hiding something, as he seems strangely nervous. The two pressure the Riverman to go hunting with them in the morning. After a few hours, Wulfgli tries to sneak away; Doffa stealthily follows him and watches Wulfgli do something with a giant crow. The crow then flies away to the east. The Riverman seems unaware that he has been observed. 

Almarian recalls that the Angmarim are known to sometimes use malevolent crows as spies and messengers. She confronts Wulfgli. Drawing upon the ancient arts of persuasion of the Dúnadain, she gets the Riverman to reveal that he wrote a message to a bandit leader named “Gruff” about her spear Orcspite. It appears that the Witch-King seeks the weapon! Wulfgli reveals that the bandits plan to waylay the party and obtain the spear during their trip back to Fornost.

The Dúnadan warrior reveals this information to Telemnar and the rest of the party. In turn, the seer reveals what he has learned about Orcspite. An artifact from ancient Númenor, it was brought by the Faithful to northern Middle-earth centuries before the sinking of the great isle and has been in Almarian’s family for over twenty-five centuries. It was used during the War of the Last Alliance against Sauron two-thousand years ago. The reason why the Witch-King seeks it, Telemnar infers, is that the spear is unusually deadly against orcish warriors – as its name suggests. No doubt the leaders of Angmar wish to remove such a terrible weapon from their enemies as they prepare their final assault against the Northern Kingdom.

Telemnar also tells the Lossoth brothers that the hobbit sage Tobric of Bree may know where the giant oak that Arpet saw in his dream is located.

19 Narbeleth 1964

It is a grey day. 

In the morning, Almarian uses the telescope to look east to see if she can spot the brigands. Alas, she finds nothing. She then instructs Seerwing to scout to the east.

[Turuk Larr]

Around noon the dwarf Turuk Larr arrives at the observatory. Telemnar marvels at all the guests he now has staying with him – more than he has ever hosted in his many decades at Ro-Malborn! He welcomes the dwarf, as the two have exchanged letters over the previous year. Turuk seeks information about the mysterious human settlement known as “Nothva Rhaglaw”; he wishes to learn how the small region has avoided conquest by the forces of Angmar for so many centuries. According to legend, the place was also largely untouched by the terrible War of Elves and Sauron eons ago in the Second Age. Telemnar provides the dwarf with a map of the region around Nothva Rhaglaw and a brief treatise, written in Adûnaic, about the settlement and its legends. 

Almarian and the others tell the dwarf about what has happened recently, especially Wulfgli’s treachery. Turuk notes that he, the Lossoth brothers, and Celebrin may all be heading in roughly the same direction: to eastern Eriador (after first stopping at Fornost, and possibly Bree as well). 

Drawing upon his dwarfish lore, Turuk senses “darkness” in the Riverman – he is a servant, whether knowingly or not, of the Witch-KingArpet employs some colourful Lossoth interrogation methods on Wulfgli, but the Riverman insists that he has told the party everything he knows. Almarian senses that Wulfgli is hiding something about Fornost. Eventually, the Riverman explains that after he and his bandit conspirators recover Orcspite, they are to turn it over to a contact in the city. Telemnar agrees to keep Wulfgli prisoner until he can be turned over to the forces of Arthedain.

As evening falls Seerwing returns. While communicating with the goshawk is not easy, Almarian manages to learn that five black-clad figures (presumably either men or orcs) are travelling southwest to the crossroads north of Fornost. The Dúnadan communicates this information to the others and the party forms a plan to counter-ambush the bandits. Celebrin excuses himself from this endeavour, however, as he has yet to complete his astrological investigations.

At midnight the party reaches the crossroads. There, Turuk and Arpet notice a large crow on the shoulder of a black clad figure who is moving large rocks onto the road. Doffa sneaks up to the crossroads, aims at the crow with his hunting bow, and slays the bird with a single shot. Almarian investigates the dead crow and discovers that it has a silver band around its leg. She takes the band.


20 Narbeleth 1964

The party captures the black clad figure. He is a Riverman named Trav. The brigand explains that he and his fellow ne’er-do-wells communicate with their employer via the great crows. 

In the middle of the night the other brigands arrive, expecting to set up an ambush. The tables, however, are turned on them! Two bandits are slain, while the other four – including the leader Gruff – are captured. The prisoners are then brought to a nearby Arthedain tower, commanded by Captain Haleth.

At the tower, as dawn breaks, Doffa notices that Gruff is squirming uncomfortably as the party speaks with Captain Haleth about what has happened. Arpet employs his unique interrogation methods again – this time he uses a black opal that he calls the “Eye of Aunt Anda.” The bandit captain is deeply disturbed by this and confesses everything that he knows. He explains that they were instructed to deliver Orcspite to their contact in the Grey Moor tavern within Fornost. Their contact, according to Gruff, would be an albino Dúnadan nobleman. The deliverer of Orcspite is supposed to wear a bright blue hat with a black feather – which, sure enough, the party finds among Gruff’s equipment.
 
Almarian proposes that the party members dress themselves up as the bandits and deliver a false Orcspite to the agent of Angmar in Fornost. The others agree to go along with this plan. The party changes into the black clothing of the bandits. Captain Haleth gives the group a cart and a pony; into the cart is loaded the real Orcspite, along with the many furs of the Lossoth and other sundries. Turuk employs his advanced weapon-crafting skills to modify a spear from the tower so that it closely resembles Orcspite. The party then heads to Fornost.

Arriving in the early evening, the party heads to the Grey Moor tavern (while Seerwing is sent to the manor of Thindparv). The place is quite lively and filled with people from many parts of Middle-earth: merchants and travellers from Bree, Tharbad, and even Gondor. Turuk speaks briefly with some dwarves from Khazad-Dûm. They gently mock Turuk for being from the Nan-i-Naugrim, which is a tiny insignificant settlement compared to their own glorious, wealthy halls beneath the Misty Mountains. They drunkenly boast that Khazad-Dûm is invincible and will endure until the end of time. 

Eventually the albino Dúnadan arrives with a Riverman warrior accompanying him. Doffa puts on the blue hat and places the fake Orcspite on the table at which he is sitting. The Riverman approaches the Lossadan scout. Doffa doffs his blue hat. The Riverman gives Doffa a pouch of coins and takes the spear. The fake Orcspite then is given to the pale nobleman, who departs immediately. Almarian waits for a few minutes and then leaves. Outside she sees no sign of the albino. She describes the agent of Angmar to the guards at the city gate and they tell her that such an individual departed Fornost at great haste upon a mighty steed minutes ago. Meanwhile, the Riverman remains in the tavern and proceeds to get quite drunk. Eventually he stumbles to the Green Fields Inn, which is across the square from the tavern.

Almarian and the others return to the manor of Thindparv. She instructs Seerwing to scout around the city in order to spot the albino nobleman. The goshawk returns an hour later and reports that the nobleman is riding south; the party infers that he most likely is heading towards Bree. Almarian then asks Thindparv if he knows anything about an albino Dúnadan nobleman. The seer recalls that he once met such a person; while cannot recall his name, Thindparv believes that he was once a lord of Cardolan, and expressed some hope in resurrecting his realm there one day.

Meanwhile, back in Ro-Malborn, Celebrin completes his studies of the stars using the great telescope. He discerns that his dream emanates from something or someone near the headwaters of the great Gwathló river. After meditating for a few hours, the elf thanks Telemnar and departs from the observatory to find his friends in Fornost.

[Celebrin]

Notes:

For more information about this campaign, go to its Master Page.

The area map is by Pete Fenlon, from the ICE modules Rangers of the North and Arnor. The picture of Ro-Malborn also is from Rangers of the North

The picture of Prince Aranarth is by Elena Kukanova. The pictures of Thindparv and Telemnar are from the Icewind Dale Enchanced Edition CRPG. The pictures of Turuk Larr and Celebrin are from “mods” for the Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition CRPG. 

The map of the crossroads was scrawled by yours truly.

23 February 2024

Against the Court of Urdor Campaign – Part 2

The Company of the Morningstar, Korlax’s Haven, and Blarth’s Harp

[The Cursed Lands]

February 1000 2AH (Second Age of Humanity): 1st – 4th 
(A summary of the adventure so far.)  

Our protagonistsEinar Quicksilver, the Green Elf scout of Koronande, and Kiren Hammerstone, the Dwarf animist of Grimhold (one of the Halls of Pale Steel) – meet in the great Elvish city of Tauronde. There they learn that they have overlapping goals. Einar must travel to the Taaliraani city of Tilvirin; he plans to ask the city’s sages to analyze a sample of his late aunt Yvenna’s blood and identify the poison that killed her. Kiren also must travel to Tilvirin, where he hopes to learn more about the ancient Night Elf organization, “The Court of Urdor.” Before they travel to Taaliraan, though, Einar must deliver his slain aunt’s enchanted necklace to his cousin Nuriel. She is said to be the leader of a band of Green Elves – the “Emerald Guardians” – within the region known as the Cursed Lands, which lies west of Koronande and north of Taaliraan.

En route to the Cursed Lands, the duo is captured by the Tantûraki wizard Zepheus. Einar and Kiren are coerced – by means of magical bracelets – to infiltrate the barrow of the ancient Green Elf Prince Berethil. The Prince was the traitorous younger brother of Queen Blàithnaid, the last ruler of the Green Elves of northern Taaliraan (now the Cursed Lands). Zepheus seeks the preserved brain and heart of the dead Prince, believing that magically preparing and consuming the organs will confer upon him Elvish immortality. During their investigation, though, the duo encounters the ghost of Prince Berethil. In return to helping the young elf and dwarf rid themselves of their cursed bracelets, the Prince asks the duo to return the crown of Queen Blàithnaid to her. He senses that his sister dwells somewhere in the northern region of the Cursed Lands. The ghost believes that returning the stolen crown will release him from his curse and allow him to leave the mortal realm for Faerie after almost a thousand years of undeath.

Freed from Zepheus’s control, the two adventurers leave the barrow after some further exploration, eventually returning to the trail that they previously had been following. Our tale resumes after they rest for the night.

February 1000 2AH: the 5th day

Rain starts to fall as the two adventurers break camp before dawn. The Weblands’ jungle canopy channels the rain into concentrated streams. After a few hours the downpour stops.

Around noon, Kiren senses that something is following the duo in the trees. They head off of the trail. This proves to be an imprudent move, however, as the adventurers subsequently are attacked by two giant spiders. Einar is wounded but eventually both spiders are slain. 

Shaken, the duo returns to the path. They notice that a falcon is following them from high among the trees. As the afternoon turns into the evening, the adventurers leave the jungle, finally entering the Cursed Lands. There they encounter the falcon’s master, the Kirani ranger Karos.  

[Karos]

The ranger greets Einar and Kiren in a friendly manner, introduces his falcon as “Bolt,” and guides them to a nearby relic from the Era of the Elves. It is a pentagonal platform of bluish granite, about thirty feet across, rising about three feet above the surrounding land. Strangely untouched by time, the platform has inlaid upon its smooth surface a five-pointed star, consisting of six pieces of a strange opaque glassy substance. The surface of the platform radiates a soft warmth and emanates a faint hum. Karos explains that the platform is warded against evil, and hence is a safe haven for all folk of good heart. 

On the platform they are met by two others: the Hathorian wizard Evrix and the Tantûraki scout Zephyr. Evrix wields a staff of white Elbrinth wood, which suggests that he is an “elf friend.” This status is confirmed by an elvish tattoo on his left hand. All three possess identical rings of remarkable design. They are five-sided, with each side a glass rectangle of a different colour: red, light blue, dark blue, green, and white. The glass sides of the rings glow dimly in the grey dusk.

[Evrix]                 [Zephyr]

The wizard explains that the three are members of the Company of the Morningstar. They are an organization based in the Tower of the Morningstar in the northern region of the Cursed Lands. The mission of the Company is to protect the various independent settlements of the Cursed Lands from significant threats, especially the forces of darkness. Currently they are seeking none other than the malevolent mage Zepheus!

Kiren and Einar tell the Company about their recent ordeal involving Zepheus, and – to the best of their recollection – the location of the mage’s encampment. They decline to join the Company in their mission, however, as they suspect that they lack the experience to be anything more than a hindrance. The Company understands their decision and is grateful for the information.

Upon hearing about the duo’s quest to return the crown of white branches to its rightful owner, Evrix recalls what he knows of Queen Blàithnaid. Just over a thousand years ago, there was the final Great Battle in the northern region of what is now the Cursed Lands, between the Rylindar Imperium – as represented in Urdor by its colony Tantûrak – and the allied forces of Taaliraan, Koronande, Tuktan, and Hathor. The situation looked bleak for the allies. In desperation, Queen Blàithnaid is said to have opened a gate to Faerie. Eldritch waters from that plane flooded the Tantûraki forces, obliterating most of them. However, many soldiers of the allied forces also were destroyed in the deluge. The waters from Faerie created the Misty Lake, which remains to this day.

In sorrow over the deaths she caused, the Queen disappeared. Many of those slain in the Great Battle, especially among the Tantûraki, became ghouls, giving the region its new name: the Cursed Lands. The Green Elves of northern Taaliraan largely abandoned the realm after the Great Battle, leaving for either Koronande or Taaliraan. Only a few small independent settlements remained afterwards. Evrix concludes that if Queen Blàithnaid still lives, her location is unknown.

Kiren also informs the Company of his people’s encounter with a Night Elf mage and his quest to learn more about the ancient Court of Urdor in Tilvirin.  Troubled by this news, Evrix tells them that an associate of theirs – the ancient Blue Elf Laurre Menelrana of Taaliraan – would certainly wish to receive any information concerning the reappearance of any members of the Court. The Hathorian writes a “Letter of Introduction” for the duo, to ensure that they can obtain an audience with the Elf Lord at his manor. He also writes a “Letter of Hospitality” so that the duo will be welcome at the Tower of the Morningstar should their travels ever bring them there. 

Einar mentions his mission to return his aunt’s necklace to his cousin Nuriel in the Crystal Glade. Karos warns him that relations between the Crystal Glade and the human settlement located close to it, Dawnfell, have been very poor in recent decades. As a Green Elf, Einar may find himself unwelcome in Dawnfell. The ranger also mentions that an old friend of his, “Old” Wakkim, runs the Storm’s End Inn in Korlax’s Haven.

Karos then provides the duo with a detailed map of the Cursed Lands and information about the various settlements that are located within it. 

After their discussion, and some food and drink, the five retire for the night.

February 1000 2AH: the 6th day

The Company of the Morningstar departs eastward from the ancient elvish pentagonal platform to hunt for Zepheus. Einar and Kiren head west for Korlax’s Haven. During their journey, they perceive some wolves tracking them. Fortunately, an arrow shot by Einar scares them off.

By late afternoon the duo reaches the small settlement of Korlax’s Haven. The outpost is primarily populated by various humans but, curiously, is run by the dwarf Korlax and his band of stout followers from the Halls of Pale Steel.

The adventurers go to the Storm End’s Inn where they speak with Old Wakkim. The elderly Kirani innkeeper welcomes them warmly once he learns that they are friends of Karos. The travellers also chat with the Hathorian bard Blarth. Perceiving that Kiren and Einar are adventurers, the bard implores them to helm him recover his lost silver harp. Blarth explains that he was captured by a band of vile redcaps a week ago. Taken to their hideout in order to be consumed later, the bard discovered a secret exit from his prison, and subsequently fled to Korlax’s Haven. However, his “famous” silver harp – a family heirloom – remains in the possession of the redcaps. If the duo helps him recover his harp, Blarth promises to reward them with a magical pouch that produces a small loaf of nourishing bread every day. Unfortunately, the pouch also is in the possession of the redcaps! Worried about being delayed further on their various missions, Kiren and Einar tell the bard that they will consider his request and give him an answer the next day.

[Blarth the Bard]

The duo then takes their custom to various establishments in the village: Verro’s Trading Post – where Kiren purchases some parchment with which to record his notes concerning herbs, as well as a superior light mace – and Aethelia’s Herbarium. The latter establishment is run by the beautiful Blue Elf animist Lady Aethelia

[Aethelia]

Aethelia is quite impressed by Kiren’s herblore and helps the dwarf prepare some “Amerke” paste (in this form, when applied to any wound, the shrub roots can stop bleeding). She then listens to the duo’s tale. She tells them that she knows of Zepheus and the Company of the Morning Star – and confirms the villainy of the former and the honour of the latter. She also conveys some additional information about redcaps. Apparently, they are degenerate fey – creatures cursed and exiled from Faerie countless eons ago – and are vile, treacherous creatures. Aethelia feels sorry for Blarth and urges the duo to accept the bard’s request. She mentions that ridding the region of redcap raiders also would help improve everyone’s safety.

Kiren and Einar return to the Storm’s End Inn. There the find a number of Korlax’s dwarf followers grumbling over pints of ale. The dwarves eye Kiren with suspicion and have a tense interaction with him. The animist is puzzled by this but decides to brush off his kinsfolk’s antagonism.

February 1000 2AH: the 7th day

Following some deliberation over breakfast, the duo agrees to help Blarth. The trio journeys southeast from Korlax’s Haven into the hills of the Cursed Lands. After eight hours travelling through difficult, wild terrain, they reach the hideout of the redcaps. Blarth shows Kiren and Einar where the secret exit is located. The bard stands guard at the exit while the elf and dwarf delve into the damp underground complex.

While investigating the redcaps’ hideout, the duo free two prisoners: the half-orc Krumm and a small elvish-looking girl named Neriss. The latter has been suffering from the iron manacles in which she was imprisoned. Einar recognizes her as a pixie – a rare faerie people who look like diminutive elves, have an aversion to iron, and can sprout ephemeral wings for short periods of time. In gratitude for being freed, both Krumm and Neriss help the adventurers recover Blarth’s silver harp and magical pouch from the redcaps. Also recovered are some ancient gold Tantûraki helmets, a pouch of intriguing mushrooms, a pouch of jade coins, and various other minor items.
 
[Krumm]                [Neriss]

Over the course of their infiltration, the group manages to kill seven redcaps, one of whom seemed to be capable of casting spells – albeit largely unsuccessfully, to the benefit of the heroes. Tragically, while standing guard alone outside of the warren, Blarth is slain – and partially consumed – by a ghoul. With some critical help from Krumm, though, the ghoul is destroyed. The group constructs a crude cairn for the poor bard.

The party recovers some beer and food from the redcaps’ lair, which Kiren cleanses of any taint using his animist magic. Alas, this use of magic seems to send out a tremor into the ethereal winds, and the dwarf worries that he may have notified the forces of the Darkmaster of his presence. That unfortunate development aside, the four eat and talk. Krumm explains that he is from the village of Thraz and was ambushed by the redcaps while travelling to Korlax’s Haven. Neriss reveals that she was curious about the mortal lands and wanted to see what they were like – only to be captured by the redcaps while she was resting in the hills. She now wishes to return to her hidden fey enclave, which is located – by happy coincidence – quite close to the Crystal Glade. She insists on travelling with the two adventurers to the Crystal Glade and plans to pass herself off as a young elf when in human lands in order to avoid suspicion. 


Notes

For more information about this campaign (the setting, characters, etc.), check out the Master Page.

The map of the Cursed Lands is a modified version of Pete Fenlon's map of Ardor from the ICE module, The Court of Ardor (by Terry Amthor).

The pictures of Karos and Zephyr are from the CRPG Baldur's Gate II Enhanced Edition

The picture of Aethelia is by Stephanie Brown (found on the web).

The other pictures are from the Baldur's Gate EE mod "Portraits, Portraits, Everywhere."

16 February 2024

My RPG Foci: Fantasy and Eldritch Horror

Recently someone over at the RPG Pub asked what genres people preferred in their gaming. Reflecting on this question, I realized that over the past twenty-five years or so, almost all of my role-playing activity has been focused in two genres: fantasy and horror. 

Fantasy

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of my gaming has involved various flavours of fantasy, especially the following sub-genres.

High Fantasy

By “high fantasy” I mean the kind of fantasy that you find in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and the like. High fantasy worlds have a clear distinction between “good” and “evil” – even if there are morally ambiguous characters and difficult situations between the two extremes. 

I’ve mentioned before here that I was an avid player of Middle-earth Roleplaying back during the 1980s. Indeed, I probably played as much MERP as I did AD&D during my high-school days (it eventually became my group’s “main game”). And when I first started playing RPGs semi-regularly again, around 1999, I naturally started with MERP (before, unfortunately, moving to the Rolemaster Standard System, which despite its obvious mechanical relation to MERP [MERP was derived from an earlier version of Rolemaster], was not nearly as smooth or fun to use in practice).

A lot of the games that I’ve run over the years have been in this subgenre, including past and present Middle-earth games. My current “Court of Urdor” also falls within this category. 

The brilliant Against the Darkmaster FRPG – which is heavily inspired by MERP – is designed for precisely this kind of fantasy campaign. Indeed, it builds the “Darkmaster” conceit into some of its core mechanics. As the name indicates, the struggle against the Darkmaster is assumed to be a central feature of any campaign, even if only in the background. 

Swords and Sorcery 

Another familiar sub-genre. Robert E Howard’s Hyborea and Atlantis, Michael Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms (and “multiverse” more generally), Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon, Karl Edward Wagner’s “Kane,” and the like, are all exemplars of this sub-genre. I would include Jack Vance’s Dying Earth corpus, and many of Clark Ashton Smith’s stories (especially those set in Zothique, Averoigne, and Hyperborea), as members of this family as well.

After rereading REH’s Conan stories – and reading for the first time his Kull and Bran Mac Morn tales – fifteen years ago (when they were republished in nice volumes by Ballantine), I came up with a number of house rules for Swords & Wizardy in order to run some “swords and sorcery” flavoured games. Those house rules are still available here – and seem to attract regular visits to this day. Many of them were later integrated into D101 Games’ Crypts & Things role-playing game, which I highly recommend. 


In addition to running my modified version of S&W (and later C&T), I also was a player in a wonderful campaign set in the Young Kingdoms (of Moorcock’s Elric tales), using the Mongoose Runequest II system (the grandfather of the excellent Mythras RPG). 

Dungeons & Dragons

Blend the above two sub-genres together – and add some quirky monsters (e.g., beholders, mind flayers), novel twists on old ideas (e.g., drow elves, planar cosmology), and some innovations (e.g., dungeon-delving, wandering monsters) – for the singular “Dungeons and Dragons” sub-genre. I regard “D&D fantasy” as its own thing, even though it obviously draws heavily on a wide range of sources (not just fantasy). 

However, my experience running and playing post-TSR D&D has not been that great. I ran two 3rd edition games – one 3.0e and one 3.5e – just over two decades ago. The system was new and shiny, and seemed to “fix” all the purported “problems” with the earlier versions of the game. Both campaigns lasted about a year but became quite tedious to run once the characters reached 3rd or 4th level. I came to find that being a DM for 3rd edition D&D was simply a chore. After the second campaign, I vowed to never run the game again. I subsequently ran a few sessions of Castles & Crusades, AD&D, and played a bit of the Warhammer RPG (2nd edition). All of those games I enjoyed far more than 3rd edition D&D (although I probably would only bother with AD&D again today).

I skipped 4th edition D&D altogether. After reading halfway through the Player’s Handbook in fall 2008, I realized that it was just not for me. 

Years later, I ran a few one-shots of 5th edition. At first, I thought rather highly of it – at the very least, it seemed to be a vast improvement over 3rd edition. I quite liked some of the books that were published for it (namely, Tales from the Yawning Portal, Ghosts of Saltmarsh, and Goodman Games’ updated versions of classic TSR modules – not coincidentally, books that all contained a lot of “Gygaxian" Greyhawk material). 

More recently, I ran a campaign set in the World of Greyhawk, much of which took place in the legendary area around the village of Hommlet. It was great fun! But it was fun despite the system (at least for me as the Dungeon Master). The ubiquitous, often “free” magic, and almost absurd “superhero” quality of the characters, came to grate on my nerves. I’ve explained some of my problems with 5th edition D&D before (see here and here) so I won’t say any more about that here.  

After these experiences, I conclude that I definitely prefer “old school” D&D within this genre – specifically, the more challenging and flavourful 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons (and related “clone” systems, like OSRIC and S&W). I like magic to be at least somewhat rare and at least somewhat costly to use. (Endless cantrips and ritual spells? No thanks!) It’s clear to me that the post-TSR versions of the game just are not my thing. I certainly have no interest in the recent offerings from the Wizards of the Coast.

There is one honourable exception regarding 5th edition D&D: the Middle-earth adaptations of the 5e system, as presented in Adventures in Middle-earth and The Lord of the Rings RPG. I thoroughly enjoyed the AiME campaign that I ran a number of years ago. But those games don’t feel like “D&D” at all – the magic system is entirely different, the classes are entirely different, etcetera. They also import a number of mechanics from The One Ring RPG. And of course, those games belong to the “high fantasy” genre discussed earlier.

Historical Fantasy

As a player, the bulk of my gaming over the past decade has been in historical fantasy settings. I suppose that this is unsurprising, given that I’ve played a lot of Mythras (and its predecessors, RuneQuest 6 and MRQII) during this time.  So, I’ve played in long-running Mythic Britain and Mythic Babylon campaigns, as well as some one-shot sessions in other settings. 

Both Mythic Britain and Mythic Babylon are excellent and highly recommended!

Horror

After fantasy, I’ve mainly run and played in “Horror” games. But in this category, it’s been exclusively “Lovecraftian” horror, that is, “Cthulhu Mythos” stuff. 

I’ve run a couple of short Call of Cthulhu campaigns set during the “classic” period, in Toronto and Massachusetts, as well as a number of one-shots. I have material for other eras (e.g., Rome, medieval, and modern, including “The Laundry”) but have never run a campaign or even a one-shot outside of the default 1920s-30s period.  

As a player, I recently took part in a long-running Mythras campaign, using the classic Beyond the Mountains of Madness sourcebook. (Our last session was today. My character survived – and was even more-or-less sane!) I’ve also taken part in one-shots of Trail of Cthulhu, Delta Green, and other related games over the years. 


Other genres?
 
I took part in a few Mythras sessions years ago set in the Luther Arkwright universe. I’m not sure how to categorize that setting (“science fantasy”?). They were fine but not the kind of thing I’d likely run myself. I also have played a few other one-shots here and there, but nothing really worthy of mention.

I haven't been remotely interested in playing in a “superheroes” game in recent decades (unless you count 5th edition D&D – I joke). It’s a genre that simply doesn't appeal to me. I’d be open to a “modern” game (say, espionage) but I have no idea how to run one myself. Likewise for science-fiction.

Back in high-school, my group tried all kinds of different games – including superheroes (Villains & Vigilantes, Marvel Superheroes), historical (Gangbusters, Bushido), and especially science fiction (Traveller, Star Frontiers, and even Space Opera – or at least I bought and tried to read Space Opera). We had a lot of time and energy back then!

Wrapping up...

These days, now that I’m an old man, I generally try to stick to what I know I like. So, I guess I’m a pretty limited gamer: I play and run almost exclusively fantasy and horror games. Maybe I’ll broaden my horizons when I retire. 

Looking back, I regret all the time I spent trying to get myself to like 3rd and 5th edition D&D. I should’ve just spent that time playing MERP or Stormbringer or Crypts and Things or whatever. At least I’ve learned my lesson: life is too short to try to force myself to like a game when there are other games available that I much prefer. So these days I’m happy to focus on Mythras and Against the Darkmaster – although, of course, I still pick up the occasional new system that catches my eye. 


 
Art credits (from top to bottom): Angus McBride, Andrea Piparo, Michael Whelan, Dave Trampier, David Benzal, Erol Otus, Angus McBride (again).

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).