Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Sundered Empire

Many moons ago, WotC published a remake of Chainmail, the venerable antecedent of D&D, as a modern miniatures wargame with several factions fighting for control of the panoply of the dead god of war. The setting for the game was called The Sundered Empire, and was deemed canonically to be placed on the far western shore of Oerik!

So naturally when I was doing my Beyond the Flanaess maps, I had to take a stab at it. Since the compilation map of Zindia a few days ago was so popular, I figured I'd try the same with some other major places on Oerth. So here we have the Sundered Empire:

Click to embiggen
Wherever the Chainmail game, its supplements, or the wonderful series of Dragon magazine articles that went into more detail about the setting, named a place or a feature, I used that. But to fill in the gaps I had to use my imagination.

According to the Beyond the Flanaess map in Dragon Annual #1, Heward remarks to Mordenkainen that the center of this region is called the Kingdoms of the Marches, "A temperate land filled with princely states. Perhaps another land colonized by seafarers from across the Solnor." "Princely states" is a way of saying small but independent lands, which is how I characterized what Chainmail would later call "the Disputed Regions;" small petty kingdoms and other free states caught between the major powers on all sides. The second part refers to a possible origin by explorers from the Flanaess, which would be on the other side of the Solnor Ocean.

DA#1's map lists that wooded peninsula as Elven Lands, and the wooded region southwest of there as "The Elvanian Forest". This tracks well with the elven Empire of Ravena in Chainmail.

Considering I did these more than five years ago (!) I think they still hold up pretty well, although I might go through and redo the lot of them to add some more stuff to fill in some empty spaces I don't particularly like. But on the whole, I'm pretty pleased.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Christmas in July sale!

OneBookShelf is running its annual "Christmas in July" sale, and naturally BRW Games is participating. That means you can get everything in the BRW catalog at deep discounts:

Click here to see the whole kit and kaboodle.

What's that? You want specifics? Well, roll these around your brain and see if it doesn't scream BUY ME!!!

The original Castle of the Mad Archmage, in print, no less, for under $45. Yes, that includes both print and pdf! Seriously, you could literally spend years with your players in this dungeon. 13+ levels, thousands of encounter areas, new monsters, new magic, the thing is effing HUGE.

Not enough? How about this...

The Adventures Dark and Deep core rulebooks and DM's screen, for under $100. Yes, again, that's both print and pdf! What is it? Why, it's 1E meets Gygax's original plans for the next version of the game. Start with the 1E rules, streamline the stuff that needs streamlining, add new classes and spells and monsters and magic, and off we go! If you liked Unearthed Arcana, you'll love Adventures Dark and Deep.

Plus there's a whole bunch of other stuff also on sale; expansion modules, adventures, my take on a fantasy China expansion rulebook (all completely compatible with most Advanced RPGs... ahem).

So head on over and check out the sale! I wrote most of it, but honestly, it's a really good deal, and stuff you'll get a ton of use out of for years.


Monday, July 17, 2017

Cthulhu Wars: Reviews and How to Play Videos

Now that the Cthulhu Wars Onslaught 3 Kickstarter is on its malevolent way (and met its goal within an hour or two of launching!), I thought it might be interesting to show off the game itself, with a few videos from various folks.

First, we have a short and sweet "how to play" video from the designer of the game himself, Sandy Peterson, sporting some very fetching suspenders:


Next up, Drive Thru Review has a nice review of the original game that doubles as a play-through video:


Here JBs Total Gaming asks the musical question, Should you buy Cthulhu Wars? (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.)



And last but not least, Blue Table Painting has taken some of the figures and given them some really awesome paint jobs, to give you a sense of what one can do with them. That's where I think this could really pay for itself, even if you don't ever end up playing the game (but I think you will; as the above videos show, it's pretty easy, quick, and fun).


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Disclosure: I was sent a bag of Cthulhu Wars figures to use in helping boost the Onslaught Three Kickstarter (you'll see them soon). I paid for the first Kickstarter and Onslaught Two myself, however, and will pay for Onslaught 3 when it launches Monday.

Cthulhu Wars Onslaught 3 Kickstarter Now Live

Hey all! I'll have a bigger CW themed post coming up later today, but I wanted to give a quick notice that the Onslaught 3 Kickstarter just went live. Please head on over there and check it out (especially check out the awesome minis!).

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Disclosure: I was sent a bag of Cthulhu Wars figures to use in helping boost the Onslaught Three Kickstarter (you'll see them soon). I paid for the first Kickstarter and Onslaught Two myself, however, and will pay for Onslaught 3 when it launches Monday.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Game Industry Interview: Arthur Petersen

Following up on my interview with Ed Healy, I am pleased to present another behind-the-scenes interview with someone responsible for bringing Cthulhu Wars to life; Arthur Petersen, Project Director for Petersen Games.

As the previous interview, I wanted to get some behind-the-curtain sort of stuff, this time focusing on production itself.

Reminder that Onslaught 3 for Cthulhu Wars will go live on Monday morning; this weekend I'll be doing a series of posts to whet everyone's appetites for this wonderful game and it's unworldly terrific miniatures.

Q: Can you give a quick definition of what a Project Director does?

A: Sure. At Petersen Games it mostly means making sure Sandy’s ideas for a game become reality. Making a tabletop game includes so many parts – from design and playtesting, to art and miniature sculpting, game layout and marketing, all the way to manufacturing and shipping. I coordinate the diverse parts and oversee the teams who put it all together. Of course, because we are fairly small (only 6 total, including employees/owners), it also means for me being heavily involved in some of those parts. For example, I double as the entire “manufacturing” team at Petersen Games – directly working with our factories and handling everything that has to do with the physical creation of the game itself.

Q: What sort of logistical challenges do you think are unique to a large board game type KS campaign like Cthulhu Wars, as opposed to a smaller board game or RPG?

A: Logistical complication is mostly determined by the array of products and product combinations sold. For example, we sort of shot ourselves in the foot with our previous Cthulhu Wars campaign (Onslaught Two) by offering over 50 unique products, and then going further and allowing a full a la carte selection. Out of around 5,000 backers there were over 2,500 unique combinations of rewards! That meant the “pick and pack” job – the sorting of each reward in our fulfillment warehouses took longer than it would have if most backers got the same bundle of products. Another issue with logistics for the sorts of games we do is the weight – no one likes to pay a lot for shipping. But when you are sending rewards that way over 50 lbs., well, someone has to pay it!

Q: Other than the well-known issue of Chinese New Year (which I see you actually included in your project plan timeline), what sort of special considerations do you have to make when dealing with China-based manufacturing?

A: One of the biggest hurdles is communication. While most factories (and all factory brokers) employ someone who can speak English, it’s rarely perfect. Sometime I just have to ask our art director to make a quick image or diagram of what I need to communicate about some manufacturing issue. Their response for something will tell me they didn’t understand me, so I use pictures, basically. And sometimes they have to respond with pictures. Much of the time, however, with a detailed spec sheet it’s clear to both sides what’s going on. Other than communication, my main advice to anyone getting into Chinese manufacturing is to provide PERFECT specs when you want a quote for pricing.

Arthur Petersen (left)
Q: What's the biggest challenge when it comes to producing larger projects like Cthulhu Wars?

A: That’s hard to answer. If you ask Sandy, he’ll probably say the playtest time or getting the sculpts done faster. If you ask our business manager, he’ll say trying to get the cost down, since our big figures and products mean our margins can suck, even when we charge seemingly high prices. As for me, it’s changed over the years. What was most difficult for the first Cthulhu Wars KS was not the most challenging for O2, and I bet it will be different for this new one. Frankly, any answer I give will probably be a reflection of where I am as I learn to manage our teams, as opposed to something specific for Cthulhu Wars.

Q: How has the production process changed from the original game to today, where you're about to start the third Kickstarter campaign in the series?

A: Let me answer with a story. Cthulhu Wars has, as you may know, 6 Acolyte Cultists figures per faction, as well as 2 little markers (for Doom and Power respectively) per faction. Well, when you create steel molds for the plastic pieces (via a process called tooling), you can make several identical cavities to make more than one of the same piece at a time. Because we had never made a game before, we didn’t really micro-manage the tooling process like we do today. The factory unfortunately made a steel mold that contained 2 cavities for the cultists, and 2 cavities for the doom/power markers. This meant that with each pressing of the mold in a given color of plastic, 2 cultists AND 2 doom/power markers popped out. But, if you recall that you need 6 cultists and 2 markers, which is a ratio of 3 to 1, this meant that we had 3 times as many markers as we needed. They’re still in China somewhere, probably in a land fill at this point. It was a waste of plastic that WE had to pay for via the factory charging us 3x the cost to make the markers than we should have. We only learned this when I flew to China and then shortly switched factories (who modified the steel molds at great cost to us). Now, we make them all in appropriate quantities for better cost efficiency. That was a little longer than I meant to take, but the bottom line is that now we manage our production on all fronts much more carefully. Now I wish I had told a sculpting story – we’ve learned a lot in terms of sculpting too!

Q: In regards to Kickstarter, does using KS to launch a game or group of supplements change the production process? If so, how?

A: I’m not sure how to answer this – I’ve only ever worked on games that were funded by Kickstarter, but I’ll do my best. The main consideration I’d suspect, as compared to direct to market products, is that we are beholden to our backers. When dealing with a massive game product line like Cthulhu Wars, so many things can be delayed. And what usually happens is that a bunch of little delays (in playtesting, editing, art, sculpting, tooling, manufacturing, shipping), etc. all add up together to create what seems to the backers as one BIG delay. We experienced this with our Orcs Must Die! boardgame in which every part seemed to take longer than we hoped, but none of the segments of the development cycle, on its own, was really delayed. Yet, their sum total pushed us back nearly a year! Backers obviously hate waiting one day longer than when we promised the delivery would be!

Q: How does the figure sculpting process work? How far in advance do you need to begin before you have a finished figure in hand?

A: First, Sandy develops a style guide for the model, with descriptions, explanations and reference art (from the internet or wherever), and provides this guide to the concept artist. Second, the concept artist draws a front and back, black and white illustration to Sandy’s specification. This is often a back and forth process with Sandy and the artist to make sure it’s exactly as Sandy envisioned; it takes about a week or two to lock down per concept. Once we have the final concept, I provide it to the sculptor. We now use 3D sculpting, which means revisions and review can be done with a quicker turnaround  (although the full time to sculpt is about the same – roughly 4-5 weeks for most sculptors, unless the figure is REALLY big; Dire Cthulhu took 8 weeks, and the Bloated Woman took a full 9 weeks to make!). Our average sculpt on Cthulhu Wars O3 took 5.2 weeks to do, including feedback and revisions. Once we have the final sculpt, we need to confirm its size is correct, and then it’s done! Make some turntables and show it off on our Kickstarter and social media!

Q: To what extent does the game design itself influence the physical design and production aspects of bringing the game to life?

A: This isn’t a direct answer to your question, but we always like our sculpts to seem in motion – action poses for the most part. Not every time, but you’ll notice that our models seem to mostly be doing something, or about to do something, rather than just sitting there. The Dark Young’s tentacles are moving around with mouth agape, in a howl, for example. This, I think, is an extension of Sandy making dynamic games – he never would want the pieces to seem static when the game will be fast moving.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring game designers, from a production design perspective?

A: In a few words, I would say to understand that there are a great many ways to reproduce a similar game mechanic or experience with different physical pieces. Play around with what is possible physically – switch tokens for dice, and miniatures for cards. Be creative with what you want your components to be. It may seem counter intuitive, but if you look at Cthulhu Wars, one thing you’ll notice is a relative dearth of non-plastic pieces. Sure, the map is big, and you have Faction Cards and Spellbooks, but that’s about it. It’s almost the exact opposite of many games that just have oodles and oodles of little tokens to represent various gamestates. Cthulhu Wars, for example, achieves an amazing amount of depth and unique ability interaction without resorting to “poison” counters, or whatnot. Of course, game styles vary considerably, but my point is that you could imagine Cthulhu Wars done entirely different with a zillion other pieces. Instead, Sandy wanted the focus to be on the miniatures, so there’s PLENTY of those, with a minimum of other things. Fit YOUR game’s physical pieces to how you want the game experience to be!

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Disclosure: I was sent a bag of Cthulhu Wars figures to use in helping boost the Onslaught Three Kickstarter (you'll see them soon). I paid for the first Kickstarter and Onslaught Two myself, however, and will pay for Onslaught 3 when it launches Monday.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Game Industry Interview: Ed Healy

When Cthulhu Wars from Peterson Games first Kickstarted a few years ago, I was all over it. Not only is it a fun strategy board game in and of itself, but it's got a theme I really enjoy (Lovecraft), and the figures are absolutely amazing (and conveniently work with 25/28mm scale figures - more on that later). There was a subsequent Onslaught Two Kickstarter that just delivered a ton of new factions and add-ons for the original game (on which I was all over as well), and the latest, Onslaught Three, is about to go live on Monday morning.

So when the good folks behind Cthulhu Wars sent out a call for folks who might be interested in helping promote the latest Kickstarter, I threw my hat into the ring. So, following on the heels of my Lovecraft in Greyhawk post the other day, we're going to start off with an interview with Ed Healy of Gamerati, who is managing the Kickstarter. 

I thought it would be interesting to take the opportunity to drill into some of the mechanics of the game industry behind the curtain, and Mr. Healy was more than accommodating. This particular interview was heavy on the Kickstarter aspect of the project, but tomorrow we'll see another with some insights about the production side. Enjoy!

Ed Healy
Q: How many Kickstarters have you successfully managed so far?

A: I stopped counting about a year ago, so my numbers aren't going to be 100% accurate. That said, as of July 2016, we'd helped publishers raise over $51 million dollars across over 300 projects. This includes varying amounts of advertising, PR, content marketing, strategic planning and tactical management - some more than others. We run, soup to nuts, 29 campaigns.

Q: What was your first Kickstarter? What sorts of lessons did you learn in that experience that you have applied in later campaigns?

A: We helped Erik Bauer from Gaming Paper with the Gaming Paper Adventure project back in 2010, providing advertising, PR and content marketing:

In those days, crowdfunding was very different, so I'm not sure the lessons directly apply. It was more like the Open Design projects Wolfgang Baur ran in the 2000s, where the community was helping a creator get an idea off the ground. The first big lesson I learned was on the Lamentation of the Flame Princess Hardcover and Adventures IndieGoGo Project. Namely, that it helps when the people working on your product also have communities of their own to help increase your exposure. This is still true. I love it when an artist has 20,000 followers on Instagram or a game designer has fans on BGG. It shows they probably know how to self-promote, and you can never have too much help promoting a project.

Q: What sort of logistical challenges do you think are unique to a large board game type KS campaign like Cthulhu Wars?

A: Shipping. Hands down. It's the most complex and terrifying aspect of crowdfunding projects. If you are only serving the USA, there are still dozens of potential shipping solutions. Add in the rest of the world and you have Customs, import duties, VAT... Shipping was one of the main reasons I killed our Loot program a number of years ago. Now, of course, we have a warehouse and 5 more years of experience. I can't imagine launching a project that explodes without having someone on my team that understands shipping. You may recall, the original Cthulhu Wars project launched that way and Sandy Petersen mortgaged his home in order to pay all the costs they didn't plan for.

Q: Other than the well-known issue of Chinese New Year (which I see you actually included in your project plan timeline), what sort of special considerations do you have to make when dealing with China-based manufacturing?

A: Language. Most decent manufacturers have some English-language representation. However, just because someone speaks conversational English doesn't mean you are completely understanding each other. Americans, in particular, have different assumptions about accuracy and timelines. Don't accept "no problem" or "okay" as answers. Yes and No are really the only thing I bank on. In writing.

Accuracy. I know I mentioned it, above, but check your math. Check your math on costs, on box dimensions and on product weights. Then check again. I have yet to work on a campaign for a game manufactured in China where there wan't at last a half-dozen errors.

Customs. It's not always an issue, but Customs can hold up delivery of your project by weeks. When we fulfilled the Cthulhu Wars Onslaught 2 project, much of the product was stuck in American and German Customs for more than a month.

Q: Approximately how long is your planning phase when doing a KS campaign on the same scale of a Cthulhu Wars? What goes into that planning phase?

A: If I had my way, I would have a finished "China Ready" prototype 18 months before launching a project. Sadly, I rarely do. 

Most planning phases are short - days or weeks, long. For Cthulhu Wars Onslaught 3, the whole team flew to Texas and we hammered out all the main details in two days - product mix (SKUs), backer rewards and stretch goals.

After that, though, comes preparation - getting demo copies to press and maintaining media relationships, getting any additional art commissions in that are missing, working with the graphic designer to get the campaign graphics and marketing materials (ads, etc) ready.

That's really the hard part - because, no matter what you do, someone always wants to change something during the planning phase. Usually 3 minutes before the project goes live!

Q: How do you determine stretch goals and pledge levels?

A: There's a bit of art in there, but generally speaking:

(1) If it's part of the core experience for the game, it's not a Stretch Goal. It belongs in the initial offering.

(2) As much as possible, have goals that everyone can benefit from.

(3) Adding new game play content (RPG encounters or NPCs / new strategy game units or models) is always superior to 'bling' when it comes to Stretch Goals.

(4) Stretch Goal Pricing: Cost to product one unit of 'the thing' x 10 x number of expected backers = Minimum Stretch Goal ask.

(5) It's better to run out of Stretch Goals and drop the mic at the end than to have a dozen left over that people know you didn't make it to.

(6) Higher pledge levels should build off lower levels in some way. For instance, if they are at some premium $400 level, make sure they get everything the 'normal backers' get.

(7) Digital rewards, if possible, rock. They cost nothing to ship!

(8) If you have multiple similar products (RPG modules or faction expansions), have backers at one of your lower pledge levels get only one, so people can debate which one(s) the like best. Of course, use your Stretch Goals to encourage them to upgrade to those higher tiers where they get 'all the things'.

(9) Tshirts are a bad idea. Never do tshirts.

(10) Variants make great Stretch Goals - foil cards, promos with variant art, Glow in the Dark Cthulhu!

Q: Do you think having stretch goals actually encourages people to increase their pledges, or to pledge when they might not ordinarily do so? Or are stretch goals something that are almost expected in a KS campaign nowadays?

A: Stretch Goals give you something to talk about. You get the benefit of highlighting some aspect of the game in your update about the Stretch Goal, and you have something new to post to social media - something your community can reshare to boost your signal.

When Stretch Goals are done right, they absolutely put pressure on some backers to increase their pledges. Let's say, at the beginning of a campaign, you can get the SMECHS RPG Core Rules for $50 or you can pay $100 for everything - everything, at the start, being the core rules and the monster manual. Now lets say that you have 15 Stretch Goals that include new types of Smurfs and new types of Mechs - and every $100 backer gets those PDFs ($5.00 MSRP each) for free. For someone that really likes the idea of a Smurfs / Mechs mashup RPG, they'll quickly feel the pressure to upgrade from $50 to $100 to get all the extra content.

Q: Do you have any advice for someone just starting on their first KS campaign?

A: Rule #1: Nothing beats making a good product. You can sell crap in a nice package once, but then you're done. Do it right, from the start.

Rule #2: Be patient. Playtest. Edit. Then playtest 100 more times.Then edit a couple more times. You're making a samurai sword, not a billy club.

Rule #3: Start building your community _while_ you're making the game.

Rule #4: Advertising = Marketing ≠ Advertising (You can't just buy some ads and think you've done marketing.)

Rule #5: It's easier to sell a product when you're telling a story, instead of selling a product.

Rule #6: Everything will be twice as expensive and take three times longer than you think it will.

Rule #7: It's Good to be a Gamer

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Disclosure: I was sent a bag of Cthulhu Wars figures to use in helping boost the Onslaught Three Kickstarter (you'll see them soon). I paid for the first Kickstarter and Onslaught Two myself, however, and will pay for Onslaught 3 when it launches Monday.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Lolth in "Vault of the Drow"

Over on the G+ Greyhawk group, William Tiller asked a great question. I was going to answer there, but it got a little long, so I figured I'd post it here. He asked:
Why are the PCs going after Lolth? I know why they go after Eclavdra- she is trying to take over the surface world. But as far I can tell from reading it there is no reason to attack the Fane of Lolth and go after Lolth herself on the Abyss. Or did I miss something?
And he's exactly right. I discussed this module many years ago (Hextor's Balls! Nine years ago - have I really been doing this blog that long?!), but I didn't stress this particular point enough, and I think it's worth calling attention to.

First off, Tiller is entirely right to say that the PCs' goal should be the destruction of Eclavdra and House Eilservs, who abandoned the worship of the spider-demon Lolth for the Elder Elemental God when their aspirations to rule all the drow were thwarted. They're the ones who have been behind the hill, frost, and fire giant raids, but it's interesting to see that the motive isn't really spelled out until this module, and even then it's just sort of buried on page 18 (emphasis added):
The Eilservs have long seen a need for an absolute monarch to rule the Vault, and as the noble house of first precedence, they have reasoned that their mistress should be Queen of All Drow. When this was proposed, the priestesses of Lolth supported the other noble families aligned against the Eilservs, fearing that such a change would abolish their position as the final authority over all disputes and actions of the Dark Elves. Thereafter, the Eilservs and their followers turned away from the demoness and proclaimed their deity to be an Elder Elemental God (see MODULE G1-2-3). Although there is no open warfare, there is much hatred, and both factions seek to destroy each other.  An attempt to move worship of their deity into the upper world, establish a puppet kingdom there, and grow so powerful from this success that their demands for absolute rulership no longer be thwarted, was ruined of late, and the family is now retrenching.
That's one thing about this whole series of modules (G1-Q1); the whole plot and setup is never spelled out for the DM, requiring an exceedingly close reading to suss out all the details and bring the whole to life.

Now here's where Tiller's question comes in. If the real enemy is the Eilservs house, and they worship the Elder Elemental God who is a rival to Lolth, why the heck are the PCs seemingly expected to attack the Fane of Lolth? Shouldn't they be on the side of the anti-Eilservs?

There are three possible answers.
  1. The PCs aren't aware of the split between the Lolth-worshiping drow and the EEG-worshiping drow, and just assume Lolth is behind everything. Honestly, this is probably the case for at least some parties playing through the adventure series.
  2. The PCs are aware of the split, and approach the Lolth-worshipers in an attempt to ally themselves with them to take out the Eilservs and the other EEG-worshiping factions that are causing trouble on the surface. That would definitely take some mithril balls on the part of the PCs, but I could definitely see it happening.
  3. The PCs somehow become aware that Lolth's egg has the keys to the prison of the EEG, and go out of their way to kill her material form in order to grab it and travel to the Abyss to shut the interdimensional crack that has allowed it to manifest on Oerth.
Truth to tell, I think the answer is "all of the above," and the details about Lolth and the Fane were included for the sake of completeness, but I think the most intriguing possibility lies in the Q1-that-never-was.

I've discussed the connection between the Elder Elemental God and the Temple of Elemental Evil at length in the past (particularly here and here), and it seems relevant here as well. In the original conception for Q1, according to Gygax:
Q: At the end of D3, the party can end up with the "egg". "In the egg are an iron pyramid, a silver sphere, a bronze star of eight points, and a cube of pale blue crystal." [Great Fane of Lolth, Dungeon Level, Room 5.] The pyramid, sphere, eight-pointed star, and cube evolved into the triangle, circle, eight-pointed star, and square from the ToEE correct [see p.108 of ToEE]? Did you intend the items in the egg to be associated with the elements as they turned out being in the ToEE?
A: When I wrote an adventure I always tried to put in a few disguised hooks for later exploitation, or not, as the creative muse moved me.
As you note, the shapes were repeated in the ToEE as I did intend to tie the latter into the series. Lolth was to be connected to the temple, she the key to activation of that which would remove the imprisoning bonds from the Elder Elemental God. Of course that would have been by unintended consequences of her actions when the PCs discovered her.
How it was all to operate was something I never did get fleshed out. This was to happen in the lower levels of the temple, the development of which I never got around to because of my work out on the West Coast. (EnWorld Q&A part III)
In the Queen of the Demonweb Pits module as it ended up being written, the weird objects in the egg ended up being nothing more than a means to teleport from one level of the web to another (and a superfluous one at that). Ah, but in the original concept, those items in the egg were going to be keys to the prison of the Elder Elemental God, which the PCs could either release by accident or close off the breach in its prison that allowed it to aid the Eilservs:
I had what I consider a much more interesting plan for the conclusion of the G-D series, one in which the PC party could loose the Elder Elemental god or send him into deeper isolation, thus assisting Lolth to become more powerful. By very astute play, they could have thwarted the designs of both evil entities. The Demonweb Pits were indeed envisioned as maze like, but there were to be no machines therein. (EnWorld Q&A part I)
I can't say for sure, but I strongly suspect that's the reason for the inclusion of all the details about the Fane of Lolth and the Demon Queen of Spiders herself. If the PCs really wanted to take out the threat behind the giant uprisings forever, they could use the keys hidden in the egg to finally end the Elder Elemental God's influence once and for all. If these are the same PCs that went through the Temple of Elemental Evil (as I am convinced it was originally intended to be run, which includes a link to the EEG), and thus had previous experience with it, that would make all kinds of sense.

Just as we (including the DM!) don't learn the true motivation behind the giant uprising until Vault of the Drow, so too would we not learn the real means to end the threat until Queen of the Demonweb Pits. Unfortunately, that version of the module never got published, and so all those lovely hints that were scattered throughout Vault of the Drow were never realized in their fullest form.

But let's rewind just a second and consider the implications of what I wrote above:
The PCs somehow become aware that Lolth's egg has the keys to the prison of the EEG, and go out of their way to kill her material form in order to grab it and travel to the Abyss to shut the interdimensional crack that has allowed it to manifest on Oerth.
Just effing imagine the implications of that!

Not only would the PCs have to have some sort of way of learning all that backstory about the EEG, but they'd also have to learn that Lolth has the keys hidden in the egg that only manifests if she is slain. And then figure out a way to make it happen, before they ever make it to the Demonweb Pits themselves.

Ehlonna's tits! What an adventure that would make, just in and of itself! I can envision a whole new module, perhaps a D4, set up as an urban adventure in Erelhei-Cinlu, where the PCs need to navigate through the treacherous city to track down all the pieces to the puzzle. First they'd have to find and engage with the enemies of the EEG to find out what its weakness is, and then find and engage with the enemies of Lolth to figure out how to get to the egg. There's a balancing act that would require world-class play, right there, going through dives and dens of iniquity to find contacts, then maybe dealing with drow sages and renegades, all the while trying to evade the forces of both Lolth and Eclavdra and keep them both from figuring out what's going on. And then go on to the Abyss itself to bring the plan to fruition, having just alerted Lolth to the scheme by killing her!

Crap. I might just have to write this.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Lovecraft in Greyhawk

The very early history of Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting had more than a few mentions of H.P. Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos." Michael Falconer put the problem neatly on the (now-defunct) Pied Piper Publishing message boards:
Surely some influences [of fantasy literature] are greater than others. Barsoom, for example, is not integrated into Greyhawk; one must actually leave Greyhawk and travel to Barsoom for a Barsoom-like experience. A 'Cthulhu', on the other hand, can (and does) easily exist in Greyhawk, quite comfortably using as his pawns Giants straight out of Pratt's The Roaring Trumpet, who use as their lackeys some of Tolkien's Orcs. And so on. An understanding of Greyhawk therefore depends on a familiarity with the most famous fantasy works of at least Poul Anderson, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, H.P. Lovecraft, A. Merritt, Michael Moorcock, Fletcher Pratt, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Jack Vance. Then, of course, there's Greek, Norse, Finnish, and Celtic mythology; The Bible and extra-biblical Christian legendry; and fairy tales... (emphasis added)
Robert J. Kuntz, who was to be Gygax's co-DM in the original Greyhawk campaign, confirms this and adds (again from the late lamented PPP message boards):
Greyhawk had specialty priests. The Elder Priests (for the Cthulhu gods) I designed; EGG worked on those for the pantheons, and we had Pholtus early on, with extra blinding light spells and their particular trappings. Again, as many, many facets of the game were advancing all at once, each component received "boosts" when we thought of these, but there was little time at that point to get too specialized with parts, as this was a broad approach and very time consuming. 
RJK even mentioned a specific locale associated with such things, although apparently it was only barely explored by the players in the original campaign:
The castle was but a few miles NE of the City as we pictured it, though we never then drew an environs map for it, but we knew where it was, as we knew where the Temple to the Latter Day Old Ones was, about half way to the Castle along the same path from the city, and beneath ground, also accessible by the sewers, which I later drew. ... Jim Ward's and my bro's PCs both entered the secret Temple, but by the stump, not the sewers. Eric Shook's PC entered the sewers but never made it to the Temple. 
Of course the first edition of the 1st Edition AD&D book Deities and Demigods famously included both the Cthulhu and Melnibonean mythoi, but they were preemptively withdrawn in subsequent printings because of fears that Chaosium (which at the time had acquired the rights to both, and turned them into RPGs) might raise a legal fuss.

But there were, of course, more Lovecraftian Things scuttling about in the wilds of Greyhawk.

First, there is the obscure god Dalt, "The forgotten lesser god of portals and enclosures" who gave the archmage Mordenkainen the Silver Key of Portals, as Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure tells us. However, RJK gives us a bit of additional flavor that puts the lost god in a Lovecraftian perspective (from Dragonsfoot):
On Fomahault, an OD&D style Greyhawk addie I wrote back in 1975 for the campaign--and this is where the Lovecraftian Mythos stuff was mainly infiltrating from into the campaign-- the Priest of Leng held "The Silver Key". Dalt is a real god, but renamed and in disguise, and it is these two threads which I brought together to supply Mordenkainen with the Key. 
So, no, he never found it in the campaign, as it was already written into parts we were DMing, but it did exist, as did Dalt.
Once the Lovecraftian connection is made with the "god of portals", one thing immediately jumps to my mind; Nyarlathotep, the messenger of the Outer Gods with a thousand forms. Acting as a sort of herald for the Outer Gods really seems to fit with what little we know about Dalt (excepting his later retconning as being Vatun's brother or something, which seems really to be plucked out of thin air to make connections for connections' sake).

Yog-Sothoth might work as an inspiration for Dalt, too. It is known as "the opener of the way" after all...

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't point out the Lovecraftian nature of the Elder Elemental God, who has taken up a fair share of posts here on the blog over the years. Again, setting aside the retconning that tries to make the EEG just a part of Tharizdun, the fact that the Elder Elemental God was described by Gygax as "being imprisoned on a distant star" lays its Lovecraftian origin clear from the outset. The association with madness and tentacles (tentacle rods held by the priests, tentacle curtains in the temples, etc.) I think makes the Lovecraftian nature of the EEG plain.

Tharizdun himself does have some Lovecraftian elements, to be sure (big evil god sleeping/imprisoned) but it's fair to say that's a fairly common trope within Greyhawk, and we see it in several different places (Tharizdun, Zuggtmoy, Elder Elemental God, the pit fiend in the Drachensgrab mountains, etc.).

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Review: Spider-Man Homecoming (spoiler free)

I just got back from seeing Spider-Man Homecoming. The theater was almost full, and I saw the regular digital version (no 3D, no IMAX). Short version; this is one of the best MCU films to date. It's perfect.

The new MCU version of Spider-Man was introduced in last year's Captain America Civil War, and this film takes place almost immediately thereafter, with Peter Parker (played perfectly by Tom Holland) trying to process the events that happened to him, a mere 15 year old, in Germany fighting against Captain America and crew.

To be suddenly brought back to Queens and have to deal with ordinary, "street level" criminals is an adjustment that's painful for him to make, and that forms the basis of the first third of the film, very effectively. The juxtaposition of the everyday trials and tribulations of being a high school sophomore against those of being a "friendly neighborhood spider-man" is very well done.

One of the things that stood out to me in this film was the villain. Michael Keaton's Vulture (aka Adrian Toomes) is a rarity in the MCU; he's a well-rounded villain with a real motivation, rather than just villainy for its own sake. You can relate to his motives, and it adds a layer of realism and pathos to the character that most MCU villains frankly lack. (Honestly, other than Loki and the Red Skull, can you even name three MCU villains? What was Doctor Strange villain Kaecilius' motive for doing what he did?) This alone makes Spider-Man Homecoming stand out.

The decision to cast a really young actor as Peter Parker is another wise choice, and Tom Holland is up to the task. It marks a distinct change from the last five Spider-Man movies, which showed first a college-age Peter, and then a high-school Peter who looked like he should have been in college. Or grad school.

The choice to give Spider-Man a mentor in Tony Stark, while seemingly odd on its face, really works here. The dichotomy between Tony Stark and Adrian Toomes is very well handled; they are in many ways complete mirror images of one another on more than one level (I won't go into details, but once you've seen the film, at least some of them will be readily apparent). But if you're one of those who is concerned that Iron Man overwhelms the film (a perfectly legitimate concern given some of the marketing) worry not; his presence is felt more in the breach than on the screen, and there's another character in the mix that honestly works better in the role than an equal amount of Tony Stark on-screen would have.

The call-outs to previous MCU films are many, some subtle and some not-so-subtle. There are also a number of call-backs to the comic-books, and they set up (or at least hint at) at least three traditional Spidey villains for future films. Although honestly I think this would be a terrific opportunity to finally make a solid tie-in between the Netflix MCU properties and the films, and put in Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin from the Daredevil series as the main villain. He could certainly pull off a movie, and it would be a perfect move. The contrast between his dark and violent Kingpin would play off beautifully against the light, breezy, wise-cracking Spider-Man, in much the way Keaton's Vulture did.

It's also quite hilarious, as befits Spider-Man. This is the joke-making Spidey from the comics, who annoys his enemies with his wit as much as he does with his webs, and the decision to focus a lot of the film on the real and ordinary annoyances of high school really bring that out.

All in all, this is a perfect MCU film. Not quite better than Avengers (but that's not saying much), and perhaps I might put Winter Soldier a notch above it, but that's about it. And #3 in such a crowd is still an achievement to crow about. See this film! Five out of five stars.

Oh, and there are two helpings of schawarma. Stay through the end of the credits.