Showing posts with label 80s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 80s. Show all posts

Thursday, June 27, 2024

From Imirrhos to Mystara: The Known World

 Been rather busy this week, but this one came across my feed, and I thought it was interesting. I love the Known World, also known as Mystara, so any details about it's history.

The video is about 2 hours long, so pop some popcorn and settle in.




Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Reviews: The Villains and Heroes of the Forgotten Realms

 Getting back to my Realms reviews I am still in that strange liminal times of 1988-1989 when both AD&D 1st Edition and 2nd Edition were still being supported. I have two books today from the "FR" series that ride that line. 

FR6 and FR7 Villains and Heroes of the Forgotten Realms

Both books have very similar trade dress, if not identical. I am reviewing the PoD and PDFs from DriveThruRPG. 

FR6 Dreams of the Red Wizards (1e)
FR6 Dreams of the Red Wizards (1e)

By Steve Perrin (1988)
64 pages. Full-color covers and maps, monochrome interior.

Even with my comparative lack of Realms knowledge I knew about the Red Wizards of Thay. I guess I didn't realize how quickly they had been introduced as the big bads. 

This book reminds me a lot of the old D&D BECMI Gazeteer series in that we we get some history and geography of the lands with some NPCs.

The book teases that it is compatible with the BATTLESYSTEM  rules, but you have to build all of those armies on your own. Too bad, I wanted to do a big battle with the armies of the undead from Thay. Though I still might do that.

The Introduction tells us what this book is about and who and what the Red Wizards of Thay are.

History of Thay. This section gives us a brief overview of Thay's foundation. There is a brief timeline, but it works well here. Some of this information is also found in the later Spellbound boxed set, but that is a way off yet. 

We cover the People and Society of Thay next. Perrin does give us a good explanation of how a whole country can, in fact, be evil, from the Zulkirs to the middle class to the masses of slaves. Honestly, the place sounds like a powder keg waiting to explode, and it is the will and fear of the Zulkirs that keeps everything in check.

Geography of Thay is next and it is good read, though I think it could have been combined with the History of Thay chapter since much of Thay's history has been shaped by its neighbors. This is also a good chapter for me, the newbie, to have a map handy.  I think I am going to need a big wall map of the Forgotten Realms like I do for Victorian London

We get get two chapters that cover the Current Economy and Politics of Thay, respectively. This includes a helpful glossary and a player's guide to Thay.

Magic in Thay, as expected, is one of the larger sections. It has what seems to be a Realms staple; lots of new spells. 

Religions in Thay, is actually an interesting chapter. The Red Wizards themselves seem to be areligious, but not atheists. They acknowledge the gods and do their best not to piss them off. I imagine there are big "media circuses" for when a Zulkir visits a local temple to Mystra for example. 

This has given me an idea. So, according to this book, the slaves of Thay mostly worship Ilmater, who we know from Ed Greenwood's "Down to Earth Divinity," that Ilmater is derived from Issek of the Jug. What if there were some events like "Lean Times in Lankhmar" where Ilmater, via a new follower, took on a role like that Fafhrd did for Issek, but instead of a religious conversion/resurgence, it became the basis for a full-scale slave revolt. Now that is a BATTLESYSTEM game I'd enjoy running. 

Personalities of Thay cover the expected cast of neer-do-wells. OF note here The Simbul does not have a personal name here, yet.

Adventures in Thay give the reader some ideas of things to do in and around Thay. But let us be honest. It is an evil filled with Nazi-like evil wizards who keep slaves. The ideas abound already. 

FR7 Hall of Heroes (1e/2e)
FR7 Hall of Heroes (1e/2e)

Many authors (1989)
128 pages. Full-color covers, monochrome interior.

This book looks like a 2nd Ed book on the cover, but 1st Ed inside. 

This is a "robust" rogues gallery of early Realms characters, and frankly, I am happy to have it since so many of these names are new to me. The stats are an odd mix of AD&D 2nd Ed and 1st Ed, but mostly 1st Edition. So yeah, there are Neutral Good Druids and lots of classes from Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures. 

It also has something that is not entirely a Realms-specific problem, but one I associated most often with the Realms. There are lot of characters here that straight up break the AD&D rules. Yes I get that some (many) are here because of the Forgotten Realms novels. So people like Shandril Shessair is a "Spellfire Wielder," and Dragonbait is a Lizardfolk Paladin. This used to bother me. Not anymore. I am more irritated by the fact that most of the women NPCs all have Charisma 16 or 17 (11 out of 15). Where are my hags? 

There are some personal spells and again The Simbul makes an appearance sans proper name. 

Still, this is a good resource for me to have. I like to have it on hand as I am going through other books to double-check who I am reading about. 

The POD versions are nice. The text has a bit of fuzziness, but far less than other PODs I have seen. They are not perfect for, say, collectors but perfect for what I need them for, and that is used at my game table. 

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Review: Star Frontiers, Alpha Dawn and Knight Hawks

Star Frontiers, First Edition
NOTE: This is repost from 2021. My coverage of TSR's Sci-Fi offerings would not be complete without this. Plus I want to do this before tackling Alternity later on.

--

Gamma World might have been TSR's first big entry into sci-fi gaming (Warriors of Mars and Metamorphosis Alpha non-withstanding), but it was not their biggest.  While I don't have any hard numbers in front of me, I am going to have to say that Star Frontiers edges out the later Alternity in terms of popularity.  It was certainly built at the height of TSR's fame with the first edition, simply Star Frontiers, published in 1982 with the new edition and trade-dress Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn and Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks.

Certainly, in terms of fans, Star Frontiers has Alternity beat.  But more on that soon.

For this review, I am considering the PDFs and Print on Demand versions of both Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn and Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks. I am also going to go with my recollections of playing the game when it first came out.

The Alpha Dawn book is designed by "TSR Staff Writers" but we know ow that a huge bulk of the work was done by David "Zeb" Cook and Lawrence Schick.  Knight Hawks was designed primarily by Douglas Niles.  The cover art in both cases was done by Larry Elmore with interior art by Elmore and Jim Holloway with contributions by Jeff Easley, Tim Truman, and even some Dave Trampier.  Keith Parkinson would go on to do some other covers in line as well.  

While originally boxed sets (gotta love the early 1980s for that!) the PDFs break all the components down into separate files. Handy when you go to print the counters or the maps.  The Print on Demand versions put all the files together into an attractive soft-cover book for each game.  The maps are published in the back, but you will want to print them out for use. 

Star Frontiers, Print on Demand

Both books are easy to read and really nice.  They have been some of my favorite Print on Demand purchases ever.

Let's look into both games.

Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn
Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn

Alpha Dawn is the original Star Frontiers game.  The box game with two books, a Basic and Expanded game rules, some maps, counters, and two 10-sided dice.  The rules indicate that one is "dark" and the other "light" to help when rolling percentages, but mine were red and blue.  Go figure.

The Basic Game is a 16-page book/pdf that gives you the very basics of character creation.  There are four stat pairs, Strength/Stamina, Dexterity/Reaction Speed, Intelligence/Logic, and Personality/Leadership.  These are scored on a 0 to 100 scale, but the PCs will fall between 30 and 70.  Higher is better. These can be adjusted by species and each individual score can also be changed or shifted. 

The four species are humans, the insect-like Vrusk, the morphic Dralasites, and the ape-like Yazirian. Each species of course has its own specialties and quirks.  I rather liked the Dralasites (whom I always pronounced as "Drasalites") because they seemed the oddest and they had a weird sense of humor. 

We are also introduced to the worm-like Sathar. These guys are the enemies of the UPF (United Planetary Federation) and are not player-characters. 

The basics of combat, movement, and some equipment are given.  There is enough here to keep you going for bit honestly, but certainly, you will want to do more.  We move on then to the Expanded rules.

The Expanded Rules cover the same ground but now we get more details on our four species and the Sathar.  Simple ability checks are covered, roll d% against an ability and match it or roll under.

Characters also have a wide variety of skills that can be suited to any species, though some are better than others, Vrusk for example are a logical race and gain a bonus for that.  Skills are attached to abilities so now you roll against an ability/skill to accomplish something.  Skills are broken down into broad categories or careers; Military, Tech, and Bio/Social. 

Movement is covered and I am happy to say that even in 1982 SF had the good sense to go metric here. 

There are two combat sections, personal and vehicle.  These are not starships, not yet anyway, and were a lot of hovercars and gyro-jet guns. 

There is a section on creatures and how to make creatures. I am afraid I took that section a little too close to heart and most of my SF games ended up being "D&D in Space" with the planets being used as large dungeons.

The background material in the Frontier Society though is great stuff. I immediately got a good just of what was going on here and what this part of the galaxy was like.  While Earth was never mentioned, you could almost imagine it was out there somewhere. Either as the center of UPF (Star Trek) or far away, waiting to be found (Battlestar Galactica).  

This book also includes the adventure SF-0: Crash on Volturnus.

When it comes to sci-fi some of the rules have not aged as well. Computers still feel very limited, but the idea that as we approach the speed of light we can enter The Void has its appeal.  

Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks
Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks

Ah. Now this game.  Star Frontiers was great, but this game felt like something different. Something "not D&D" to me.

In fact I have often wondered if Knight Hawks had not been a separate game in development by Douglas Niles that they later brought into the Star Frontiers line. I also think that TSR was also suffering a little bit of what I call "Traveller Envy" since this can be used as an expansion, a standalone RPG, and as a board game!

Like Alpha Dawn, this game is split into four sections.  There is a "Basic" game, and "Advanced" or "Expansion" rules (and the bulk of the book), an adventure, "The Warriors of White Light", and all the counters and maps.

As far as maps go, that hex map of empty space is still one of my favorites and fills me with anticipation of worlds to come. 

The PDF version splits all this into four files for ease of printing or reading.  The Print on Demand book is gorgeous really.  Yes...the art is still largely black and white and the maps and counters are pretty much useless save as references, but still. I flip through the book and I want to fire up the engines of my characters' stolen Corvette, the FTL Lightspeed Lucifer. Complete with the onboard computer they named Frodo.

The Basic rules cover things like ship movement, acceleration, and turning, along with ship-to-ship combat.  By itself, you have the rules for a good ship combat board game. It works fine as long as you don't mind keeping your frame of reference limited to two-dimensional space. 

The Expanded rules tie this all a little closer to the Alpha Dawn rules, but I still get the feeling that this may have started out as a different sort of game that was later brought into the fold of Star Frontiers.  

Ships are largely built and there is a character creation feel to this.  Their 80's roots are showing, no not like that, but in that, the best engines you can get for a starship are atomic fission.  Of course, no one just gets a starship, you have to buy it and that often means taking out a loan or doing a bunch of odd jobs to raise the credits. Often both.  I don't think I ever actually bought a ship. The Lucifer was stolen.

There is also quite a bit on the planets of the UPF, Frontier Space, and the worlds of the Sathar.  It really had kind of a "Wild West" meets the "Age of Sail" feel to it. 

The last part of the POD book is the adventure "The Warriors of White Light" with its various scenarios. 

Minus two d10s everything is here for an unlimited number of adventures in Frontier Space.  Rereading it now after so many years I can't help but dream up various new adventures. I also can't help to want to use the Sathar in some of my other Sci-fi games.  They have such untapped potential.

The price for these books is perfect.  Grab the PDF and POD combo.  Get some d10s, load your gyrojet gun and get ready to make the jump to the Void. There are new planets to discover!

Parts of Star Frontiers, in particular the species, would find new life in D20 Future, part of the D20 Modern line.

Both games are fun, but suffer from and/or benefit from the design principles of the time. Newer players might find some of the game elements dated. Older players of the games will find them nostalgic.  Personally reading through them now some 40 years after first reading them I get a lot more enjoyment from the rules.  Back then I was really too D&D focused to really enjoy what I had in front of me. Today, well I can't wait to stat up a character or two and a starship.

Star Frontiers on the Web

There are many places where Star Frontiers is alive and well. There used to be more, but my understanding is a predatory grab for the trademark by another RPG company caused Hasbro/WotC to exercise their legal rights and bring the game back in-house. While that did screw over the amazing work done by the fan sites, there are still many up and providing new material for the game.  

For these fans and sites, Star Frontiers never went away.

Don't forget our campaign for Thirteen Parsecs is still going strong!

Saturday, April 20, 2024

#AtoZChallenge2024: R is for Ravenloft

Ravenloft
 This has been a favorite feature of my A to Z posts over the years, with two of my earliest A to Z posts covering the same topic.

One would think I didn't have any more to say, but those are just two of 56 posts I have here about Ravenloft (soon to be 57). But yet here I am with more to say.

What is Ravenloft?

Ravenloft was originally an adventure for First Edition AD&D, released back in 1983, and written by Tracy and Laura Hickman's husband and wife team. It was part of the "I" or intermediate series of adventures. Most of these were not linked and only shared that they were higher level than beginning adventures. Ravenloft, given the code I6, was for character levels 5 to 7. 

Ravenloft was a huge change from many of the adventures TSR had published to that date. For starters the adventure featured an antagonist, Count Strahd von Zarovich, who was no mere monster. Yes he was an AD&D Vampire, but he was meant to be run as an intelligent Non-player Character.  Prior to this the vampires have been the unnamed Vampire Queen of the Palace of the Vampire Queen, Drelnza the vampire daughter of Iggwilv in The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and Belgos the Drow Vampire in Vault of the Drow. By 1983 the amount written on all three of these vampires would not even be as long as this post will be. Strahd was different.

Strahd had a backstory, he had motivation, and he was intelligent and ruthless. Destroying him was the goal and that was not an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination.

The adventure also introduced some new elements as well. The dungeon crawl was gone, replaced by a huge gothic castle and a nearby village. The adventure could be replayed ab unique given the "Fortunes of Ravenloft" mechanic that allows key items, people, and motives to change based on a fortune card reading.

And there were the iso-morphic, 3D looking maps, that helped give perspective to many levels of Castle Ravenloft. 

The adventure was an immediate and resounding hit. This adventure, along with the Dragonlance Adventures also by Tracy Hickman (and Margaret Weis) led to something many old-school gamers call "The Hickman Revolution" and claim it marks the time between the Golden Age and Silver Age of AD&D, with the Silver age coming after 1983. While yes there was a change, a lot of it was for the better.

For me, it was a dream come true. Vampires had always been my favorite creatures to fight in D&D, and I was an avid Dracula fan. I bought this adventure and then threw it at my DM, saying, "Run this!" 

I grew up on a steady stream of Universal Monsters, Hammer Horror, and Dark Shadows. That's my Appendix N. So, an adventure set in pretty much the Hammer Hamlet where I get strange locals and have to fight a vampire? Yeah, that is what D&D was to me.

I find that the people who don't like this adventure don't see what makes it great. This is not Lord of the Rings, Conan, or some other Appendix N pulp fantasy. This is Hammer Horror. Strahd has to be played with a combination of charisma, scene-chewing villainy, and absolute brutality. In other words, it is exactly like Christopher Lee playing Dracula.  Even the nearby village is filled with terrified, but the pitchfork in the ready village is a Hammer Hamlet

Ravenloft three different printings
Original, 25th Anniversary Edition, Print on Demand Edition

I even got my original module from 1983 signed by Tracy Hickman.


This adventure was so popular that it spawned a sequel, Ravenloft House on Gryphon Hill and an entire campaign setting.

Ravenloft: The Setting

I mention that in college, I played AD&D 2nd Edition. The biggest selling point of AD&D 2nd ed was the campaign settings. There were a lot of them. Too many. But my favorite was Ravenloft. They took the events of the 1983 adventure and built an entire world around it with people, magic and lots of horror monsters. It was Gothic horror, to start with, but soon expanded into other realms of horror using the AD&D 2nd Ed rules. Not always a perfect fit, but I made it work.

It even expanded it to Earth in Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death

It has been so popular that it is one of the few settings to see publication across all five major editions of D&D.  4th Edition made some changes, as did 5th Edition. But that is all within the same vein (so to speak) as all Horror movies, and Dracula in particular, get reinterpreted to fit the times better. Horror is always about what people in the here and now are concerned with. Ravenloft follows suit.

Ravenloft across the editions

Ravenloft has been listed as one of the greatest adventures of all time and Strahd as one of the greatest D&D villains ever. 

I have run this adventure many times under many different rulesets, and it has been a blast every time. 

Even if I am not playing D&D, I return to this adventure and this setting. 


Tomorrow is Sunday, so a break from A to Z, but not my posting. I will cover Dungeons 7 Dragons 4th Edition.

The A to Z of Dungeons & Dragons: Celebrating 50 years of D&D.


This is also my next entry of the month for the RPG Blog Carnival, hosted by Codex Anathema on Favorite Settings.

RPG Blog Carnival


Friday, April 12, 2024

#AtoZChallenge2024: K is for the Known World

 Today I am going to talk about the Known World, or the campaign setting implied in Basic D&D.

the Known World

When the D&D Expert Set was introduced, it included a two-page map of part of a continent. This was described as "The Known World," and that was good enough for us back then. A lot of strange cultures were crammed into an area about the size of the North Eastern portion of North America. But hey, it was D&D, and we thought it was great. It was certainly enough for me. In fact my characters rarely left this area. There was plenty to adventure here.

At the time, I did not know the work already done here and where this world would go in the next few years.

The Schick-Moldvay Known World

Before working on the D&D Basic Set, Tom Moldvay had a game with future D&D heavyweight Lawrence Schick. In their games they had a campaign world they were calling "The Known World."

A while back, Lawerence Schick posted "The “Known World” D&D Setting: A Secret History" over at the Black Gate site.  A nice history of how he and Tom Moldvay came up with the Known World for their own games and then ported it over to D&D Basic/Expert.  It is a fascinating read if, like me, you are a fan of the Mystara world and/or of maps in general.



James Mishler (who also did the Mystoerth map) takes this one further and provides the above map for the Moldvay/Schick known world.

It is interesting how so many familiar names and even locations exist in different places. It is like looking at a world you know but through some sort of distorted lens. What is also quite interesting to me are the new lands—places, and names that are entirely new to me.

The Known World
The Known World Replica Map by James Mishler

There is so much here I can use and honestly I have yet to grow tired of exploring this map. BUT it is not the map we ended up with. No once the Known World left the hands of Moldvay and Schick it became a different world.  That world would eventually be called URT! (ok and then Msytara).

The Known World of Urt Mystara

Spend any time here, and you will know that the Known World of the Basic/Expert Sets (B/X) was the first world I played in.  While I would move on to AD&D and Oerth, the Known World would also move to Mystara.  It would be the world introduced to us in the Companion Set and expanded on the Gazeteer Series, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, and even into the 2nd Edition age and beyond.

But it was in the Companion and Master Sets that Mystara got its start.


The B/X Known World only occupies the East-most lower gray box, this is the same as the very first map on the top of this page.   The BECMI World, Mystara, is going to be bigger.  Even this is just the continent of Brun.

I am not sure who came up with the idea for Mystara to look the way it does but there are some obvious parallels.

From the Master DM's Book,



Here is Mystara, courtesy of http://pandius.com/





If it looks familiar, there is a good reason.


That is the Late Jurassic, the early Cretaceous period of the Earth, 150+ Million Years Ago.

Long-time readers here already know of the Paleomap Map project of Earth History.  It has many maps of the different stages of Earth history and potential future maps.  I will admit when I first saw maps of the really old Earth it was disquieting to me.  I love maps, and throughout all of human history, the Earth has been the same. Not so throughout ALL history and prehistory.

It's also kind of cool to see where the places of Mystara will line up to our world.

Mystara and the Lands Beneath the Waves by Grimklok

At first, the Known World was known by Urt or even Urth by Frank Mentzer and was designed to be similar to Gary's Oerth of the AD&D game. We also learn in the Immortals Set that Urt did not look like Earth 150 MYA it WAS Earth at that time. 

Though I think (and I have nothing to support this) that the "Urt" version of the Known World was scrapped after Frank Mentzer left TSR. His good friend Gary had already been ousted. It seems like Urt was a casualty of that regime change. So "Urt" was out, and "Mystara" was in. 

Mystara 

The Known World of Mystara was later expanded and given more detail in the wonderful Gazetteer Series, Hollow World Series, and Challenger Series.

While delving into everything Mystara would take me another month or another year, there is still a vibrant and active community on the web to support this world.  In fact, I would say it is far more active than most other worlds. Starting in the early days of the MPGN listserve lists run by TSR. The MYSTARA-L listserve was active back in the days when my access to the Internet was via a mainframe.  Many of the same people on those lists then are still active in the various Facebook groups and websites today.

Mystoerth

For me, I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mystara. It was the world of my Basic era days, and when I moved on to AD&D, I still kept the world as "my own."  It was understood that when I was a player, it was in Greyhawk/Oerth, but when I was a DM, it was in the Known World/Mystara.  Eventually, right before college, we merged our worlds into one. I got the western half, and my DM got the eastern half.  

So you know, I was thrilled when I found the James Mischler/Chatdemon Mystoerth map.  The worlds share a lot of details in common, so a merge was inevitable. I no longer have the original map my then DM made, but this one is a better rendition anyway.


Click for larger

This appears to be the original map. While researching this, I found an old post by Rich/Chatdemon that offers an alternate name: Oerstara. I kind of like that. A lot. It sounds like Ostara, the pagan holiday from which Easter comes. Oestara could have been an alternate name for the planet, like Earth and Terra.

Regardless of which version of the Known World I would use there is more than enough in any of them to last me another lifetime of gaming and exploration.

Isn't that what it is all about?

Tomorrow is L, and I will talk about Larian Studios and Baldur's Gate 3

The A to Z of Dungeons & Dragons: Celebrating 50 years of D&D.


This is also my next entry of the month for the RPG Blog Carnival, hosted by Codex Anathema on Favorite Settings.

RPG Blog Carnival


Thursday, April 11, 2024

#AtoZChallenge2024: J is for Jennell Jaquays and Judges Guild

Jennell Jaquays
A double one today, but related topics. You can't talk about the early days of Dungeons & Dragons and not mention the Judges Guild. And you can't talk about the Judges Guild or D&D and not mention Jennell Jaquays.  She was there at the start, but now sadly both have passed.

Judges Guild

The Judges Guild began in 1976 in Decatur, Illinois. Just on the other side of Springfield from where I grew up. Being situated between Chicago/Lake Geneva and Carbondale (SIU) with U of I in Urbana and Judges Guild in between put me on a pipeline of D&D materials that, honestly, I thought everyone in the country had access to. That was not the case, as I discovered later. 

I discovered the Judges Guild very early on. Back then they were one of the very few companies allowed to print D&D compatible products. Among their contributions were a set of Ready Ref Sheets to be used by Dungeon Masters (originally called Judges) and character sheets.  They began to expand out with their own journal and a series of adventures.  From the Judges Guild Journal I came across the Mystic and the Warlock classes. While I didn't like them as such, they convinced me that a Witch class was a viable option.  Though they would also do their own witches with the Psychic Witch and in the adventure Witches Court Marshes. There was also The Illhiedrin Book, which was a fun, if simple adventure. 

But what they are most well known for are two adventures. One is Dark Tower, which I will talk more about below, and the other is The City State of the Invisible Overlord. Both are considered among the best of all of the early D&D products.

I am using them in the past tense. Yeah, they are still around, but they have been dropped by everyone. You used to be able to buy their PDFs from DriveThruRPG, but they are no longer there.  Why?  Well blame it on the son and grandson of the late owner Bob Bledsaw, Sr. BBII and BBIII turned out to be rather racist and held some pretty awful beliefs. You don't have to take my word for it, but I did document it all in a couple of posts a while back.

So, yeah, they might still be around, but they are dead to me and many other gamers. Which is too bad because they once had some quality products.

Jennell Jaquays

Sadly, we lost Jennell earlier this year.  I had never met with her face to face, though we had spoken together many times online. She was a compassionate, understanding, and wonderfully funny soul. I had been looking forward to seeing her at Gary Con this year. BTW, they had a wonderful tribute to her and to Jim Ward, who had also passed this year.

Jennell was there in the beginning.  You can't go through the early days of our hobby and not see her name on something. Whether it was early Judges Guild material, articles in Dragon magazine, or her works, both as a writer and artist, for Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, The Fantasy Trip, and Runequest.  Her work in the Judges Guild Journal and the Dungeoneer pages are still some of my favorites from the dawn age of RPGs.

While her work on Central Casting is justifiably lauded, it was her Dark Tower adventure in which she gained her highest accolades. It was so good that it not only made the list of The 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time, it is the only non-TSR/WotC entry on the list. It was also updated for D&D 3.5 and again for 5e.  Though I admit, I am also rather partial to her TSR adventure "Talons of Night." Her adventures were so non-linear in their design that the style is now known as "Jaquaysing a Dungeon." With this being the proper spelling.

Her continued work in video games, like Quake, kept her close to RPGs. 

Her wife, Rebecca "Burger Becky" Heineman, has a GoFundMe. Initially, it was to cover medical expenses, which, sadly, she still has.

she created the adventure Dark Tower which 

Goodman Games (a good company) has been producing their Original Adventures Reincarnated series, and Dark Tower is again the only one in the series that is not a TSR adventure. They are also producing a line of material that Jennell had been working on prior to her death. Materials of hers she bought back from Judges Guild.

I don't have the new Dark Tower 3-book set yet. It is the only one I am missing.

Both these topics represent a loss. One, Jennell the loss due to her death. The other, Judges Guild, the loss because the current owners decided to burn up 40 years of goodwill and fandom in a week. 


Tomorrow is K, and I will talk about the Known World

The A to Z of Dungeons & Dragons: Celebrating 50 years of D&D.


Wednesday, April 10, 2024

#AtoZChallenge2024: I is for Imagination

 It has often been said that all you really need to enjoy Dungeons & Dragons is some rules, dice, paper, pencil, friends, and Imagination!

Products of your Imagination
TSR 1983 Product Catalog

This is pretty much true.

Unlike Monopoly, Scrabble, or even war games from which it is descended, D&D largely exists as the "theater of the mind." There is no board. Your character sheet is just a collection of items and numbers. Same with the monsters being fought. The Dungeon Master, DM, describes what is going on, and you have to picture it in your mind.

This was particularly true in the early days. Yes, there were miniatures, in fact, Original D&D recommends them, but they were only being made by a few companies, and they were expensive (relatively speaking), and you had to paint them yourself. As opposed to today where those options are still available and there are cheaper plastic minis and even ones you can design on your own.

There is no board. Today, we can get maps where 1" = 5', perfect for 25mm minis. If you wanted to see what was going on, you had to imagine, and that was pretty good, really.

Back in 1983 TSR, the company that published Dungeons & Dragons, had an ad campaign with the tag line, Products of Your Imagination. It worked really since by 1983 they had moved out to other types of games and toys as the 1983 Product Catalog above reveals.  

They also had a somewhat cheesy TV spot with a very young (Pre-Farris Bueller) Alan Ruck and very young (Pre-Lost Boys) Jami Gertz. It's a bit silly, but does capture the excitement well.

If you have been reading here since B-day, you will see that the actors are playing the Moldvay Basic set, but the ad appears to be for the Mentzer Basic set. Which tracks well with 1983.

Today we have all sorts of great things we can use for D&D. But there is something to be said about the whole use of your imagination to see how your adventure unfolds.

Tomorrow is J, so I will talk about Jennel Jaquays and the Judges Guild.

The A to Z of Dungeons & Dragons: Celebrating 50 years of D&D.


Friday, April 5, 2024

#AtoZChallenge2024: E is for Expert

 There are a lot of "E"s I could have gone with today. Epic. Encounter. Heck, even Eclipse and how it relates to D&D. But there is really only one "E" I want to talk about, and that is the Expert Set.

The Expert Set is the follow up the Basic Set I covered on Tuesday. Just like there is more than one Basic there is more than one Expert.

Expert Sets

So, a bit of background.

The Expert Rules for D&D follow the Basic Rules. So these books are compatible with the Basic-era of D&D, the so-called "B/X" rules (Basic/Expert) and the "BECMI" rules. They are not, and I would later discover, part of the same line as Advanced Dungeon & Dragons.

The first Expert set was out in January of 1981. This is the one I started with.  Edited by David "Zeb" Cook with Steven Marsh it is sometimes called the Cook/Marsh Expert or B/X Expert.  I have a lengthy review of it here: D&D Expert Set.

The second Expert set was edited by Frank Mentzer, so it is sometimes called the Mentzer Expert or most often the BECMI Expert. BECMI was for the entire series of Mentzer edited/authored Basic line of Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal rules.  I reviewed this Exper set here: BECMI: Expert Set review.

I discussed these differences for my B post, B is for Basic Set Dungeons & Dragons.

The two sets are largely compatible with each other with just minor changes that I detailed in the BECMI Expert review. 

The focus here is higher level characters, levels 4 to 14, and moving out of the dungeon into "Wilderness" and, therefore, more dangerous adventures. This is the end of the B/X line but that actually is a feature, not a bug. The adventures from levels 1 to 14 represent some of the most exciting adventures you and your character can do. It was true then and still true today. Many of the official Dungeons & Dragons adventures end at level 15 (even though the limit now is 20), and the post-popular "D&D" adventure out now, Baldur's Gate 3 video game, has a limit of level 12.  While the BECMI moves on to level 36 (C & M) and beyond (I), I still think this is the sweet spot for most gamers.

"That's Not REAL D&D!"

I got my start with Holmes Basic then quickly moved on to Moldvay Basic and it's companion Cook/Marsh Expert. And I was very, very happy with that for the longest time. While it is not a perfect overlap, I always equate this edition with my gaming in Jr. High.  My then regular DM, Jon Cook, and I would play a lot of this. He also had the B/X books but he also had Advanced D&D (published in 1977) and we played a mix-mash of them both (something I later on discovered was very typical). Sure I wondered why things were different between the games. Clerics had slightly different spell progression and everyone was a bit tougher in AD&D, but I was content. I was happy. Until one night.

This would have been near the end of Jr. High, I know because the Mentzer Expert had not been released yet. I think I must have been about 12 or so. Anyway, Jon and I got invited to a "real" D&D session with some highschool kids. Now let me step back a second here and set the stage. At this time D&D was popular enough that we had a lot of local groups playing completely independent games. I can remember sitting in the lunch room in my Jr. High and listening to friends talk about their D&D games, I was in awe and wonder (of course, I later learned that many of them were just stealing from things like Dune like I was Dark Shadows!).  So we got to go to this game and we were told just bring out PHBs (Player's Handbooks), I didn't have one, I had an Expert book.

Well. I got told in no uncertain terms that what I was I playing was NOT REAL D&D. I was like, "what are you talking about?" Gygax's name was on the insider cover. It was published by TSR. I had very nearly the same rules you did. 

My friends, I had entered into my first battle of "The Edition Wars," and I did not come out unscathed. "Edition Warring" in D&D is the misguided (and stupid, yeah I said it) notion that one edition is better than the other. There were only two editions (maybe four) editions of D&D out at this point and I am already getting shit for it? The effect it had on me was enough that I can still remember it over 44 years later, AND it kept me from playing the BECMI version of D&D for nearly half that time. 

Which is, of course, stupid. It also was not the last time I'd make a bad choice based on editions, but at least the next time was all my own doing. I'll detail that on Sunday.

Today, if I am going to go back and play some "Classic D&D" chances are real good I mean the B/X versions of Basic and Expert.  

It is also my favorite to write and publish for with four of my books designed specifically for the B/X rules in mind, via the Old School Essentials clone game.

Much like what I said for the Basic Set any future "Basic" or Introductory set of D&D needs to do what these sets did. Introduce me to the game, give me some options, an adventure to play, and if possible, some dice! I still have my original Basic and Expert sets of dice.

Tomorrow I talk about a topic that has dominated my posting all year long, The Forgotten Realms.


The A to Z of Dungeons & Dragons: Celebrating 50 years of D&D.


Thursday, February 29, 2024

Review: N5 Under Illefarn

N5 Under Illefarn
 My exploration of the Forgotten Realms continues with the next adventure on my list, N5 Under Illefarn by Steve Perrin.  I actually ran this adventure a while back at the start of my 5e Second Campaign long ago. My first real attempt at getting a Realms game going. While that game would end up in different directions, the adventure is still a solid one. 

N5 Under Illefarn

by Steve Perin. 1987. 50 pages, color covers (Jeff Easley) and maps (Stephen Sullivan), black & white art (Luise Perenne). 

I am reviewing the PDF and Print on Demand versions from DriveThruRPG. 

This is a "Novice Level" adventure and, likely due to timing, became connected to the Forgotten Realms.  It is also the first of the N series to feature the Forgotten Realms banner. Something similar happened to the H series on the other end of the level spectrum.

When I talked about Module N4 Treasure Hunt, I mentioned that it was a great starting adventure that missed a little of what also made B2 Keep on the Borderland so great. This is fine since we already had Keep on the Borderlands. N5 strikes a middle ground. There is a base of operations, plenty of "wild" areas to explore, and a hook. It also works as a direct sequel to N4. You can play it stand-alone (as I did in 2017) or as a follow-up.  Both have advantages.

Like N4, we are given an overview of the AD&D 1st Ed game, in particular the races and classes. Now, back in 2017, I said: "I am going to run it through like an AD&D game. So no tieflings or dragonborn. More gnomes, though, never have enough of those." That was a mistake in retrospect. If anywhere is open to Dragonborn, Tieflings, and all the new post-AD&D 1st-ed races (remember, tieflings are AD&D 2nd-ed), then it will be Faerûn.  There is a bit on how you all get to Daggerford and what happens once you are there. I admit I did not like the idea of the characters needing to be in the Town Militia until I started thinking of this adventure as akin to an episode of "Cops" or, more to the point, the parody "Troops."

The base of operations for the characters is the small frontier town of Daggerford. So, like the Keep. From here the characters can go on quick adventures and then come back. An idea implicit for B2 KotBL, but here it is baked in. 

Forgotten Realms, Starter Sets

The DM's section gives some background on the village of about 300 people and some 1,000 total living in the surrounding area. Sounds like where my wife grew up. The area and the city make are given. This includes many of the shops and building and what surrounds the village. There is even a bit on the "Big City" Chicago,  I mean Waterdeep. 

The main personalities of the town are also detailed. One of the things I had to used to (and get over) was that the Realms is about people. I can choose to use who I want. In 1987 this annoyed me, but in truth I was already switching my point of view then. Now? Now it is great. I mean, do I need to use Duke Pwyll Greatshout Daggerford? No. But why would I not want to? 

This covers about the first half of the book. After this are adventures.

What kind of adventures? Lots! The first page has the AD&D staple, the Random Encounter Tables. One of the outcomes is a Ceratosaur! Imagine this. You are a still a newbie adventurer. You just recently learned which is the pointy end of the spear and which is the end you hold. Now you are on milita duty, and someone finds dinosaur tracks on your very first day on what you were told was going to be dull work making sure kids don't steal apples in the marketplace.

Kudos to Steve Perrin for getting going. And that is just one random encounter. I mean there is also a hermit. Yes, I said he is the same one from the KotBL. Why not. There are also werewolves, which I am using later on. 

Among the detailed adventurers are a raid by Lizard Men (why I grabbed this in 2017 to be honest), basic Caravan duty, a kidnapped daughter of the Duke, and the titular Illefarn in the Laughing Hallow. The adventures range from a couple of pages to several. 

The best thing about this adventure. Well, one of the best things. You can run it in many short adventures to get new players into the game. Need to spend an extra hour explaining rules? No worries, do that and send them on Militia duty to guard a caravan against orc raiders. That's a solid session.

Note About the Pring on Demand Print

The PDF from DriveThruRPG looks great and served me well in 2017. Recently I also grabbed the Print on Demand copy from DriveThru. There is some dithering from lower resolution art being brought up to print quality, but the text looks like it has been redone so it is nice and sharp and easy to read. I should note that it is not all the art. Some look rather crisp and clear as well. They may have had some of the higher resolution versions still on hand.

Under Illefarn text

Under Illfarn, Print on Demand cover

Again, we have a great introductory adventure. Not just good to introduce people to the AD&D 1st Edition game but also a great way to ease into the Forgotten Realms. Waterdeep is too big of a bite for new players (and characters) and many of the "big names" are still too big. This is nice little village with some fun problems to solve. A taste of adventure. An appetizer in small portions OR more akin to Tapas or Dim Sum. Small plates that can add up to a nice full meal.

Sinéad's Perspective

"Just a small-town girl. Livin' in a lonely world..."

At the outset of these reviews, I said I wanted to explore the Realms through the eyes of a native, but one that was just as naïve as me. Sinéad is that character. 

She finally made it to the main land after surviving her own kidnapping and adventures in the Moonshaes and the Korrin Archipelago. And was absolutely broke. Like I said, at first I balked at the idea of forcing the characters into the Daggerford Militia, but in truth it works very well. Sinéad, given she knows how to play an instrument was given the job of trumpeter. She at least gets a spear too. 

This actually works. I went back to look over her Baldur's Gate 3 setup and her background there was Militia as well. This was before I knew I could change it. So, yeah. I guess that is what I am doing.

When my oldest son gets off of work from his bakery job (he is a pastry chef and a damn good one) we work out what these characters are doing and roll some dice. It has been great really.

So. Sinéad is in the Militia. She has a shiny new trumpet, a not-as-shiny new spear, and a blue tabard proclaiming she is part of the militia. If she is going to survive the Realms, she will need some friends.

My Realms Crew

So, who do we have here?

Nothing Like the Sun...

Up first is Rhiannon. Yeah, I am embracing the clichés here. But in my defense, I did start her up with that in mind.  She is a Dragon Magazine #114 witch. There is some evidence that Ed used the Dragon Magazine witches in his own game. She is a member of the "Sisters of the Moon" coven, something that will become important later on. If Sinéad is my Realms exploration character, and Larina is my witch exploration character, then Rhiannon is where they meet. Again. Expect clichés here. This my chance to go all out.  

I already decided that Sinéad honors Sehanine Moonbow as her personal Goddess, even above that of The Earthmother of the Moonshaes. Maybe this is one of the reasons she wanted to leave. Rhiannon knows about Sehanine. She also knows about Selûne and, oddly enough, Shar.  At this point, Sinéad doesn't know enough about Shar to find this odd. 

Rhiannon is not in the militia, but she is the friend of someone who is. 

Bad Moon Rising

The next character is an in-joke with my son and me, but I really liked where the character is going.  Arnell Hallowleaf is a male moon elf cleric of Selûne. He is in the militia as a healer. There are obvious reasons why Sinéad would seek him out. He is a cleric for starters, also he is the first full-blooded moon elf she has met other than her own mother. So, this has given her a chance to find out more about the moon elves.  Players of Baldur's Gate 3 might recognize this name. He is the father of Jenevelle Hallowleaf, aka Shadowheart, in the game. But that is not until DR 1492. Jenevelle is not born until DR 1447 and this is still DR 1358.  Arnell is a young elf. His future human wife, Emmeline, has not even been born yet. So maybe (taking a page from Sarek of Vulcan's book) Rhiannon (a human) is his current girlfriend/wife. Which? I don't know, I have not gotten there yet. 

I do know that at some point in this adventure, he is bitten by a werewolf and becomes one. His devotion to Selûne is what keeps his lycanthropy in check. 

Arnell HallowleafRhiannon

Both characters are here to let me explore some different ideas. Talking it over with my oldest, he suggested that if Johan were from the Realms, he would have been a cleric of Selûne. Arnell is not a Johan stand-in, but he will let me explore playing a cleric in the Realms. Rhiannon is my "don't just embrace the cliché, live it character." I'd love to see how far I can get with her as a "Dragon #114" witch. 

Sinéad and Arnell finish their tour of duty and, along with Rhiannon, venture out into the wide world.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Review: Forgotten Realms Campaign Set

The Forgotten Realms Campaign Set
 I have asked this before, but it bears repeating here and now. How does one review a classic? Better question. How does one review a genre-defining classic?  Because that is what I have sitting in front of me now. A genre-defining classic. Eighteen-year-old me back in 1987, ready for his first year at university, would not have thought so at the time, but that is what much older me thinks now. 

The Forgotten Realms was the foundation of the "new" TSR, the one without Gary Gygax and many of the other founders on which they would build their new home. We can debate the merits of this and financials ad nauseam, but by any stretch of the imagination, the Forgotten Realms were very successful. So successful that the biggest video game of 2023 is set there.

This review will cover the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set, the Boxed set from 1987. Written by Ed Greenwood and Jeff Grubb and edited by Karen S. Boomgarden. But any insight to this product knows that the genesis was with Ed, and he first brought it all to life in the pages of Dragon magazine. At least that is alive to us. Many other authors have contributed to Realms over the decades, but here is where it begins.  

How do we begin? Let's take Ed's own words, which he scribbled into my Cyclopedia of the Realms as our opening.

Welcome to the Forgotten Realms

"Welcome to the Forgotten Realms!" - Ed Greenwood

Forgotten Realms Campaign Set

by Ed Greenwood, Jeff Grubb and edited by Karen S. Boomgarden. 1987. Boxed set. Full-color covers and maps. Cyclopedia of the Realms 96 pages. DMs Sourcebook of the Realms 96 pages. Maps and clear hex overlays.

Forgotten Realms box contents

For this review, I am considering the physical boxed set from 1987 and the PDFs from DriveThruRPG. There has yet to be a Print on Demand version.

The DriveThruRPG PDF combines all this information into a 230-page book. Maps are broken up and scanned in at letter size.

Cyclopedia of the Realms
Cyclopedia of the Realms

96 pages. Color covers. Sepia-tone pages and art.

"Let's start at the very beginning. A very good place to start." - Maria von Trapp nee Kuczera, Bard/Cleric

This book is an introduction to the Forgotten Realms, and maybe the most important bit here is the introduction by Ed Greenwood/Elminster and the About this Product.  We start immediately with the "voice" of the Realms, Elminster. He is no ersatz Gandalf, nor is he a more approachable Mordenkainen, and certainly, he is more interesting than Ringlerun. He is our guide, but sometimes I still like to think of him as an unreliable narrator. These are the Realms in his eyes. More (if the not the most) knowledgable, but there are still "small stories" to tell that are beneath his notice. Those are the stories (aka games) I want to know about.

This book covers the timeline (I do love timelines!) and ways of keeping time in the Realms. The date for this set is the end of 1357 DR (that's Dale Reckoning or Dalereckoning). For full context, the Baldur's Gate III video game takes place in 1494 DR, with the current year of the D&D 5e titles at 1496 DR. There is a bit of discussion about holidays and how the "weeks" are grouped as Tendays (3 a month). It feels different and I like it.  The money system is rather AD&D standard, with some proper names to the coins. This is fine because this IS supposed to be an AD&D world, and the authors want people to feel familiar with it all, if not right at home.

Languages and scripts are up. Some of these are still being used in current versions of D&D. 

The Gods are next. These were already familiar to me, not just because this is an old product, but because Ed talked about them in Dragon magazine back in 1985.  See "The Dragon Connection" below. While these gods have "Earthly" sources, it actually works out great and ties into the mythology of the Realms as one being connected to Earth. Something it shares with Greyhawk's Oerth. The connection between Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms is strong. They share almost all the same demi-human gods. By extension of the rule-set they also share all the same demons and devils. This makes moving between worlds a little smoother. The gods and their relationships are detailed well here and there is just enough unknow to keep them interesting.

Next section is about Adventuring Companies. So here is one thing that the Realms does better than Greyhawk (well there are more, but the first thing in this book). Adventurers are baked into the system. The world doesn't just need adventuring parties, it demands them. These parties can be used as models for your own adventuring parties. All these parties have names as well. I'll have to think about how Sinéad and Co would fit this format. Plus, the back cover of this book has a grid for the adventuring party! Room for 10 characters even.

Adventuring Party Roster

We get into the "Cyclopedia" part of the book now. This is an alphabetical listing of major topics within the Realms. These include things like the various character classes, races, countries, towns, areas of interest and other topics. There is a narrative piece describing it, Elminster's Notes for the point of view of the most knowledgeable native (even when he admits to not knowing much), and Game Information.

I rather like it, to be honest. Hit me with facts, and let me build some adventures around it!

DMs Sourcebook of the Realms
DMs Sourcebook of the Realms

96 pages. Color covers. Sepia-tone pages and art.

One of the best things in this book is the Introduction. We get words from Ed (as Ed) talking about the World of the Forgotten Realms and how it is now our world too. Yeah it is trademarked by TSR and now WotC/Hasbro, but this is an open invitation to do what you want with this world now. This is a foreshadowing to all the great Ed Greenwood content we would get over the next almost 4 decades. Honestly reading Ed's own words make me excited for all the exploration ahead of me. This is followed by words from Jeff Grubb, who also had a hand in shaping the AD&D version of the Realms. And more by editor Karen S. Martin who adds her experience and excitement to this world.

So much better than any puff-piece bit of gamer fiction!

We get right into it. Information on how to use this as an AD&D campaign world is started from the word go. Overview again of the boxed set. How to set up campaigns for new players, new campaigns for experienced players, and bringing in characters from other campaigns. Hmm...I should try all of these to be honest. Maybe a character from one of my Greyhawk or Mystara campaigns could come on over. I DO like the idea that Elvish and Dwarvish and some others are mostly the same languages. Would really help bring the worlds closer together. 

A bit of coverage on the maps and how to use them. Nice comparison of the map of Faerûn compared to the continental United States. And a section of various wandering monsters. The Forgotten Realms may be Forgotten, but they are very much alive!

The next 20 pages detail NPCs of note. Any to drop in as background, enemy, or ally. 

Speaking of living. A really nice section on recent news and various rumors starting in DR 1356 to 1357 are presented. With or without your characters, the Relams live on. 

Another plus for this boxed set is the ready-run adventures for low-level characters. The first, The Halls of the Beast Tamers, is a nice dungeon crawl. Next is Lashan's Fall, which appeared in Dragon #95 as "Into the Forgotten Realms," and even the maps are the same! Mind you I think this is a bonus since that is the adventure I always wanted to use as an intro to the Realms. I still can come to think of it. 

Into the Forgotten Realms

The next section is a "Pages from the Mages" style entry.  Lots of spells books to be found with plenty of new spells. I think some of these were in "Pages form the Mages" to be honest. That's fine, they work well here.

Honestly, the ONLY thing missing here are some new monsters, and this would be complete.

Maps & Plastic Hex Overlays

There are four gorgeous maps of the content of Faerûn. While it doesn't quite live up to the artistry of the Darlene World of Greyhawk maps, they are more practical. The plastic hex overlays also make it easier to read the maps and then do your hex crawls in whatever area you like.

The Dragon Connection

One of the great things about doing my This Old Dragon feature and concentrating on the period between 1980 and 1987 is watching the Forgotten Realms develop and grow as an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons world. From Ed's musings on gods in Down to Earth Divinity to magical tomes and spells of the Pages from the Mages and The Wizards Three features to adventure Into the Forgotten Realms, all of which would find homes in an official Forgotten Realms product in some shape or form.

I mentioned already that Dragon #95's Into the Forgotten Realms makes an appearance here as an introductory adventure.

As I mentioned, all we were missing were monsters. Well, Ed penned enough monsters in the pages of Dragon Magazine that were explicitly for the Realms, so collecting them all is worthwhile. In addition to monsters, there are magic items, more spells, blades, shields, and even musical instruments, and I know I am nowhere near collecting it all. I do know I will run out of room in my box for them all.

Realms in Dragon Magazine

My Thoughts

There is a lot packed in this box. It's like a TARDIS really; bigger on the inside. In truth, nothing of what I thought was going to be here was here. Yes, there are NPCs, but they are background, and your characters may never ever run into them. They are the background noise of the Realms until the characters are the big noise. I certainly unfairly judged the Forgotten Realms. 

A lot of this stemmed from me thinking that Gygax had been done wrong. Yes, that was true, but the Realms really had nothing to do with that. The New TSR was working to relgate Gygx to the past and Ed was just the guy in the right place in the right time with the right idea. I was also unfair of me to judge the Realms on that.  If reading Ed's "The Wizard's Three" has taught me anything that Abier-Toril and Oerth have more in common than not.

Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms

This is, of course, just the start. A big start, to be sure, but a start all the same. This is a canvas to paint on. This is a great set, not just for its time but also for now. Minus some of the stat blocks and spells, everything here can be used with any version of D&D or similar game with little or no effort. 

While I am somewhat overwhelmed by the task before me, I am also excited about it.

Honestly, I am going to pull out some dice and roll up some characters now.