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Monday, June 21, 2010

"Other Worlds Than These"

This past Saturday was Free RPG day, a day near and dear to my heart. It's a day devoted to spreading the gospel to the unenlightened, and to getting the gamers' butts into the brick and mortar shops to spend some money, to keep those little dens of magical iniquity open and living and breathing and providing a place for game geeks to be among their own kind.

This year, I was delayed by traffic... but got there in time to get the LAST D&D module offered for free. It was a doozy, too... the first new Dark Sun product offered in the 21st century. It included very nice pregenerated character cards, and a two sided map with three locations, in addition to the module... which was a bit short, considering that much of its text was devoted to explaining what the "world of Dark Sun" was. So, for this lesson, I've decided to yap a bit about the various worlds Dungeons and Dragons has had to offer over the years, and what I have thought of them.

The world of Athas, world of the Dark Sun, is a bit of a johnny-come-lately, released in 1991 for the 2nd edition of the game. I looked it over... and did not much care for it. It's a vicious, brutal world, mostly desert. Magic items are far rarer than in most D&D worlds, because there are almost no mages; use of "defiler magic" is what turned the planet into a desert to begin with. You can BE a mage if you want, but be prepared to deal with periodic lynch mobs if anyone finds out. That, and mages tend to be pretty weak at low levels... and the world of Dark Sun is not for the weak. Elves are nomadic thieves, often hostile. Halflings are barbaric, xenophobic cannibals. Dwarves are usually slaves. Oh, and did I mention that metal is extremely rare? Most weapons are made of stone, bone, and wood. A steel sword is worth a fortune; most adventurers never own one. Heavy use of psionics makes up for the lack of magic.

My first thought was, "No metal weapons. No armor better than leather. Almost no magic items. Any group I've ever played with would hate this." Nevertheless, it has its diehard followers, and it's the third game world that Wizards of the Coast has brought back for Fourth Edition... coming this August, that is.

Back to basics. The World of Greyhawk is directly descended from the first RPG campaign world EVER, the realm of Blackmoor (which can be found in the far north of the Flanaess continent, in the world of Greyhawk). Named for the Free City of Greyhawk, a wild, freewheeling city in the central part of the continent, this was the first commercially available campaign setting offered for D&D. For quite a while, it was pretty much the default setting. It was the first world I ever bought, and the old seventies gazeteer boxed set came with an ENORMOUS wall map of the Flanaess continent. I've still got it somewhere, but it's been years since I had the wall space to hang it...

Lankhmar, greatest of all adventuring cities, and home of the City Adventure, and those greatest of adventurer-thieves, the barbarian Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser! The first adventuring duo who really made it irrelevant which one was the hero and which one was the sidekick! When I began playing D&D, I developed a MAJOR taste for sword and sorcery novels, and hunted up Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar novels. They were and are quite good. Apparently, someone at TSR thought so, too, because the Lankhmar setting, licensed from Leiber, soon became available for D&D, first as a setting, and then as a separate GAME, using the D&D rules. Great stuff!

Mystara was an odd little thing that caught me coming out of left field. Back in the day, we began with "Basic D&D," a boxed set that taught you a basic set of rules and carried you up to third level. At this point, you could go on to "the Expert Rules" or just take the plunge and buy the hardback books that at that time were called "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons," a similar but more complex game. What I didn't realize was that there were a LOT of people who just kept plugging along with Basic Dungeons and Dragons... and for these people, we had the world of Mystara, the default setting. Elves, dwarves, pirates, a whole nation of halflings, dwarves, kings, princes, intrigue and adventure, Mystara had it all. It first appeared as a CONTINENT MAP in one of the greatest adventures ever published, The Isle Of Dread, a mega-adventure that came boxed with the later Basic boxed sets (the "red box" series). It had fantastic art and a whole series of books published on its individual nations. Regrettably, I never much got into Mystara... I had too much invested in Advanced D&D, and Mystara didn't make anything for the more complex rulesset.

Dragonlance came out in the mid-eighties, heralded not only by a game world and adventure modules, but a series of novels chronicling the adventures of a group of adventurers whose job it was to marshal the good dragons versus the evil ones, and save the world! The world of Krynn DOMINATED second edition, at least until Forgotten Realms began to pick up speed. It lacked halflings, but had Kender, instead, a race of childlike, cheerful, loveable kleptomaniacs whose job seemed to be to irritate everyone into frothing rage. The world of Ansalon also seemed to have a LOT of dragons, so many that an evil plot could be hatched (pardon the pun) to steal dragon eggs and use foul magic to turn them into Draconians, humanoid dragon minions of evil! That, PLUS the usual dwarves, elves, orcs, goblins, and so on. I never DMed this particular setting, but I played more than a few adventures in it.

Forgotten Realms: the creation of a Canadian child as a setting for fantasy adventures, Ed Greenwood's brainchild would grow to become the 800-pound gorilla of D&D. Notable as the home of Drizz't Do'Urden, tragic Drow hero, and the archmage Elminster, and the place where the freewheeling city of Waterdeep can be found (and the dark and foreboding Underdark realm of Menzoberranzan). If Greyhawk was the hot girl I fell in love with in the back seat of my Pontiac when I was in high school, Forgotten Realms was the woman I fell for after college. It's the only campaign world to be pretty well supported in AD&D, second edition, third, three-point-five, and fourth edition. Me? I was lucky enough to find a second edition boxed set in a half price book store...

Spelljammer came out in '89, a time where I wasn't playing much D&D -- GURPS was my game of choice in that time frame -- but I heard about it in some detail. "If a D&D world built magic starships and made Star Trek, it would be Spelljammer, see?" Admittedly, this strange description did little to make me want to investigate it at the time. Later, when I had time and interest, I read up on it, and was rather charmed by the ideas it had. It introduced Ptolemaic astronomy to D&D as a physical reality -- each star system was in fact enclosed in a crystal sphere, and it was possible to sail the Phlogiston Streams to other worlds. Spelljammer actually linked three existing worlds this way -- Forgotten Realms (Realmspace), Greyhawk (Greyspace) and Dragonlance (Krynnspace), with tools for the DM to add more if he wanted. I never played or DM'd this variation, but I used the hell out of the flying ships...

There is a tale: Back in the eighties, Gary Gygax, creator of D&D and head of TSR, the company that published it, went to California to try and get a D&D movie off the ground. When he came back, the company was in deep trouble financially due to mismanagement by Gygax's partners. Gygax saved the day by firing anyone who didn't actually DO anything, selling off a lot of unnecessaries, and writing a bunch of D&D books that came out bam-bam-bam in the mid eighties. One of them was Oriental Adventures, which introduced Asian character classes (mostly lifted from Japanese and Chinese mythology, with a little lifted from various chopsocky films) and was set in the realm of Kara-Tur and its neighbor, Kozakura. We played the HELL out of this in a side campaign for quite a while; it lasted into second and third edition, and when Wizards of the Coast bought out Five Rings Entertainment, they casually switched out the old TSR settings for the new Five Rings setting and society (which was, in all honesty, considerably richer and crunchier.) We haven't seen a resurgence yet for fourth edition, but I am hopeful -- this was a realm that could be dropped into any existing campaign world by virtue of simply being on the far side of the planet! (and WAS, actually -- first, Kara-Tur, and then, the Five Rings stuff, is officially part of the Forgotten Realms, if you have the Atlas book...)

Another realm that could be dropped into any existing campaign, Al-Qadim is based largely on Middle Eastern mythology and the Thousand And One Nights in particular. Popular in second edition, given current anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in the US, I can't see this one being rereleased any time soon.

One of the last TSR products before the Wizards of the Coast takeover, Birthright was an attempt to introduce a new idea: the concept of Regency. Players began in charge of a fief -- barony or whatever -- and participated not only in ordinary adventuring, but in politics and intrigue as well, and sometimes even war. I never knew anyone who even tried this out; considering the strictures it put in place on PCs, and the limits it put on character races (nonhumans could not participate in local politics, and were somewhat antagonistic towards the humans), you had to WANT to play this one, I guess.

Ravenloft is another example of an idea that "just grew." Starting out as a simple AD&D adventure in 1983, featuring a Dracula-like vampire (with a surprisingly deep backstory, a sense of honor, and even a sense of humor!) it was popular enough to spawn a sequel, and finally, in 1990, a full blown world of its own -- a dark and spooky world, populated by (and in many cases, RULED by) analogs of popular gothic monsters -- Dr. Victor Mordenheim and his creation, Adam, who turned against him, Sir Tristen Hiregaard, who drinks his potion and turns into the evil Malken, and many more. While Ravenloft was a world of its own, allowances were made to drop PCs into it from their usual campaign worlds by way of "the mists of Ravenloft," which could put them back when a given adventure was concluded, allowing DMs to inject a little gothic horror into an otherwise normal D&D campaign as a change of pace. Wickedly popular in second edition, it was licensed to White Wolf for Third Edition and did well enough to sell a slew of books. Word has it that it will be reactivated by WotC for fourth edition... starting with a boardgame, of all things, and followed by D&D materials...

I was never sure what to make of Eberron. A contest was held in 2002 by WotC to establish a new D&D world (presumably, WotC couldn't stand the idea that all the existing ones had been created before they took over D&D.) Eberron won, largely because of the idea of "if it exists in D&D, it exists in Eberron." Yow. My first thought was "that's going to make it mighty crowded." If that wasn't bad enough, they also introduced a new player character race: the Warforged, leftover battle-golems from a generations long war, now long over, these magical robots have sprouted personalities and now seek to find roles and futures for themselves... WotC released a ton of stuff for Eberron in third edition, and for fourth, a campaign guide an adventure, and a player's guide... and then announced there would be no more Eberron stuff. This is, near as I can tell, what happens when you put a card game company in charge of the world's biggest and best RPG.

Kalamar isn't really a WotC product, but it's licensed, legal, has its own hardback, and has its followers. It's actually a KenzerCo product, the outfit best known for the "Knights of the Dinner Table" comic. As to Kalamar, I read through it, and saw absolutely nothing not available in the other worlds listed here. Still, it has its adherents.

So what's left? When WotC took over TSR, many gamers were sure that the settings and creatures of Magic: The Gathering would begin to appear in D&D. After watching both games play, grow, and develop, maybe it's not a bad idea. Ghod knows they've got enough art stockpiled, and the worlds of Magic: The Gathering stretch mighty far and wide...

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