New on Desk #23 — Coup de Main in Greyhawk

OK, so last week when I was planning to take a couple of weeks of break from gaming? Next day a few friends cornered me about some idle OSR musings, and I am evidently much too great of a man to shy away from provocation, so here we are: I’m starting a long old school D&D campaign on Monday.

Coup de Main pitch

As regular readers know, I’ve been considering maybe writing an old school DMG of some sort, whence the idea of maybe starting up a new campaign to shake off the rust and get more inspired with wargamey old school D&D. It’s been a couple of years since our last regular campaign by now, after all.

I started pondering Greyhawk as a campaign subject mainly because I wanted something relatively even-keeled and not extremely experimental, as the game would involve adapting to the online medium and teaching new players. Many of the things I have in my desk drawer regarding this kind of D&D are rather let’s say weird. Greyhawk seemed like something to investigate due to my own issues with it, and the general institution of TSR D&D in general. Maybe I could make something of it, and it’d be an opportunity to review all the stuff in D&D that my own play has specifically shed over the years.

What I found out by delving into Gygax’s original Greyhawk material was a surprisingly cogent game setting; easily the best TSR-published D&D setting I’ve seen, very practically usable. So now I’m interested in doing something with this stuff. Here are some initial creative goals for the Coup de Main campaign:

  • Get a handle on mid-level play. My immediate “scene” of like-minded GMs has collectively played about thousand sessions of this game over the last decade, and just about all of it has been low-level. I want to get to mid-level (this has become something of a technical term, the answer’s really not “just bump the characters up”) and see what’s that like. Maybe we’re good enough to make it now?
  • Exercise mastery of the form. Specifically, engage my latest procedures for dungeoneering and hexcrawling, maintain an elegant, actionable and dynamic setting, and develop through play a fresh set of rules mechanics that reflect the campaign themes. In a word, play well — preferably better than ever before!
  • Master the urban adventure modality. We know how to do dungeons, and we know how to do wilderness hex crawls. What we lack is similarly standardized procedures of play for urban adventures. Maybe it is time to make some real progress on this?

If you’ve been following along, it’s needless to say that this is going to be totally hygienic refereed sandbox stuff: no GM plot whatsoever, merely adventuring opportunities and the expectation that the players make the choices that lead them to doom or fortune. The rules chassis is a pretty progressive homebrew based on Basic D&D — a new set of mechanics as yet untested.

What the Greyhawk?

In case you don’t know, Greyhawk is the first official D&D setting. It’s loosely based on Gary Gygax’s ’70s home campaign. Gygax wrote a relatively compact setting guide to it in the early ’80s, before losing control over TSR. The setting became something of an unwanted child for TSR for the next decade, suffered through an artistically questionable revival in the late 2e era, and would have been mercifully forgotten if not for being chosen to be the flagship “vanilla setting” for 3rd edition D&D around the millennium. Greyhawk is generally known for being so vanilla it’s nearly impossible to say anything interesting about it, except that it was the first, so everything you like or hate about D&D was already in there — if you’re thinking of a porridge with generous helpings of elfs and dwarfs and wizards and clerics and dragons and whatnot, then you’re already familiar with the general premise.

(A short bibliography here: the relevant Greyhawk products, based on quick skimming, seem to be Gygax’s early stuff, the 2e box City of Greyhawk, and whatever material you’re using for the Greyhawk Castle — either Castle Zagyg or Castle of the Mad Archmage in practice. I’ve yet to find a compelling reason to care about any other Greyhawk books, but of course I’ve just studied this material seriously for a couple of days so far.)

What I discovered when carefully reading the Gygax Greyhawk stuff from the early ’80s (there’s an original setting book and a boxed set that mostly overlaps, not important here) was that this stuff’s actually pretty good! Doing Greyhawk at the game table is not some sort of historical nostalgia project, it’s actually a legit campaign setting for this kind of D&D. Imagine my surprise, as TSR settings from the ’80s generally don’t qualify for me. Greyhawk becomes completely generic pablum in later TSR and WotC materials, which explains my confusion here. It would be wise to not confuse the original Gygax booklet/box with what TSR came to stand for artistically later on; this thing is a different order of beast altogether compared to e.g. the Forgotten Realms or whatnot.

What makes Gygax’s Greyhawk so great is something that was apparently entirely misunderstood, miscommunicated or perhaps simply relinquished artistically in the later developments: namely that it is a wargame setting. This is Greyhawk’s unique thing, the thing that should have been at the forefront in its marketing. Birthright (a middle school D&D campaign setting ostensibly about rulership and power politics) should have been a new edition of Greyhawk. Unlike the Forgotten Realms (which famously is not about anything at all), Gygax’s Greyhawk actually has an identity. Let me draw you the picture:

  • The Greyhawk book/box consists of a delightful map of a continent filled by a patchwork of barbaric and feudal polities. Basically 80% of the setting material is about historical identity and current goals of these kingdoms. If I were writing this stuff I’d also provide the socio-political cast of characters involved in the courtly intrigues, but even with this part being somewhat rudimentary it’s blindingly obvious to me what this setting’s good for: it’s Game of Thrones, you nitwits! Or The Three Musketeers: a natural setting for adventures with political stakes and politics with adventurous means.
  • The end-game of adventuring is winning your own domain, as the rules describe: at Name Level you become a player in the map game yourself. Where on the map, embroiled in which local circumstances, is entirely important and entirely supported by this material.
  • The world described by Gygax is obviously entering an era of great conflict; I’d compare it to Europe in the early 20th century in that everybody knows that there’s gonna be some blood soon, even if it’s not entirely clear yet who the pugilists are going to be, and for what stakes. It’s just what the great game of nations implies in the ideological environment of the game (whether the Modernism of Europe or Moral Alignmenticism of Flanaess). This is a great premise, and while I have no use for the metaplot as such, the one thing that TSR was entirely correct about was that there’s gonna be Greyhawk Wars of some sort or other.
  • Given that the premise of D&D sandbox campaigning is to survive and prosper in a harsh, merciless world, and that Greyhawk’s premise as a setting is the game of kings, we have a rather unique and exciting campaign prospect. I don’t know if this was what Gygax intended, but to me it is clear: the challenge is to understand the political dynamics of the proposed scenario and best utilize your own meager resources to influence the power politics so as to rise to prominence. The dungeoneering bullshit is a sideshow, a means of bootstrapping your rise to power.
  • The material is so focused and minimalistic that I don’t have to suffer through reams and reams of badly-written D&D fiction about what happened when an elf and a dwarf went into a bar and met a mysterious stranger. Aside from being defined by the map and the political situation, I can do pretty much what I want with this. I don’t even need to have elves and dwarves and such as playable characters; this could be very pulp, very historical, very grim if I want it to be.

If you know this stuff, you’ll notice that some of those bullet points aren’t from the Greyhawk box — they’re from the AD&D core rule books. This is part of the tragedy of Greyhawk, I feel: some very Greyhawk-specific ideas and concepts were mispublished as generic rules, which seems to me like it injured the future development of both Greyhawk and other TSR settings. Getting your own castle at Name Level makes perfect sense in relation to the Greyhawk setting material, which just isn’t true for many other D&D campaigns.

I’ll also need to say here that my interpretation is heavily counter-current in terms of how Greyhawk came to be understood historically: the early TSR adventure modules were thoroughly dungeon stuff, and, apparently based on the creative leanings of Gygax’s home campaign, celebrated a vision of adventurer-hood that was politically neutered: instead of having mid-level characters get involved in power politics as the Greyhawk box suggests to me, the ideal of D&D became one of adventurers spending their lives murdering orcs in a hole in the ground. It’s interesting how very completely the Greyhawk setting material ignores the dungeon thing; it’s just not that important to the big picture.

So yeah, feudal politicking is a big theme to my mind. There are others, though. Here’s Greyhawk in a nutshell:
Feudal politics and war
The Greyhawk megadungeon
A sweet map for hexcrawling
A bunch of classic adventure modules
Race war as far as the eye can see

That last bit’s not very pleasant, but it’s so clearly there that I don’t quite know what to do with it except take it seriously as part of the campaign world: this is, like most later D&D worlds, a world defined by the seemingly-eternal war between peoples born to fight each other incessantly. There are multiple intelligent, soulful species in the world aside from humanity, and it’s exactly as a pessimist might fear: the Other is dehumanized and thoroughly exterminated, often for good and practical reasons. Who you are is defined by what you are, as apt a description of racialism as any. Good humans have largely driven evil humanoids to the fringes, and there is a state of natural war between the species: orcs are not protected by law; lynching the monster-man is an act worthy of praise. Adventurers, of course, are assumed to make their living by raiding humanoid homesteads for loot. It’s a sort of filibustering or privateering activity, perfectly honorable as long as you don’t shit where you live. (Which is easy because of the color-coding: as long as you stick to killing humanoids, you’re by definition within the bounds of the law.)

This is, of course, the same issue I’ve always had with D&D — in this, too, Greyhawk set the mold for the entire game. The issue is that the organic race war theme, non-questioned and un-deconstructed, amounts to a wilful choice to fantasize about a world that neatly aligns with the ideas of most extreme racism. And the more you celebrate the heroism of your Good character’s pogrom activities, the more it makes me think that the game’s message is that murder is great, it’s just the practical problem of picking out the Evil ones to kill that’s preventing us from engaging in it every day. The yearning for simple solutions, black and white morality and merciless avenger blood fantasy may be natural, but it could also be something to question in yourself, too.

I’m probably going to deal with that by laying everything out very carefully for the players as the campaign progresses, and let them draw their own conclusions about the morality of the institutions and characters involved in the campaign. The NPCs certainly will feature a variety of viewpoints on the world they live in. For instance, I find the ancient Flan and their religion of Druidism to be intensely interesting exactly because they might have construed the race war rather differently from how modern Flanaess views it.

How to get in

If you’d like to try my style of wargamey, challengeful old school D&D in online video play, in English, feel free to stop by on the Discord server (ask for an invite if you don’t know what’s what) for the up-to-date particulars on scheduling and such. The plan at this writing is to convene for a first session tomorrow, on Monday, around 15:00 UTC. This is early days for the campaign, so it’ll be mostly building practicing playing together at first — maybe some light dungeoneering to start, as is traditional.

More generally, we’ll be aiming for a weekly schedule, and campaigning in the grand structural sandbox tradition, so it’s all pick-up through and through, playing with whomever shows interest, having player initiative shape the content of play. The initial crew already includes some referees with serious chops, so we might see some co-GMing hijinks and such later depending on how things develop. The campaign start will be quick, lean and mean, without excessive productization, but achieving the overall creative goals implies being in this for the long haul. Or, we could crash and burn tomorrow immediately. We’ll see how it goes.

Margin Commentary: Sami’s week in blogging

So I don’t really know what’s going on with my friend Sami, but he’s been crazy productive in blogging this week. I liked his three articles for various reasons and set them aside to consider further, and only realized tonight that there are so many of these. Check it out (or don’t if you don’t read Finnish, I guess):

Trimming Dungeons is the sum of Sami’s down-to-Earth advice for how to fix variously-garnered, more-or-less procedurally legitimate old school dungeon material to make it consistent for an old school campaign. Sami’s motivated by a particular Moldvay Basic campaign he’s co-GMing, but the advice is pretty profound in general: he advices on calibrating treasure in the dungeons to appropriate levels (I think I suggested the “10k GP rule” to him years ago), on revising excessive linearity in dungeon layouts, on reviewing the motivations of the opposition, and recalibrating the mechanical stats involved in the adventure to be more in line with the campaign. This four-point program is actually pretty solid; these are indeed the main issues you can improve on to make a borderline-legit adventure into a good one. One point I’d add myself is removing set-piece encounters and plotlines: many nigh-legitimate old school adventures feature minor railroading, sometimes in important places, which needs to be accounted for. Temple of the Ghoul is an early and extreme example of this for me personally, I only noticed the crazy setpiece in the last scene in the middle of play.

Descriptive narration in rpgs is more of a theory article, the gist of which is that while GM storytelling is traditionally considered a central value proposition for roleplaying, in actuality there are many different playstyles where it has no inherent value. Rather, games where GM storytelling skill is a bottleneck in the quality of play form a minority of the overall field of roleplaying, and thus the pretense of elevating storytelling as an universal good is often misleading advice that encourages paying attention to the wrong thing in improving play.

Finally, Sami also had time to review Seikkailijoiden kilta (“Guild of Adventurers”), a Finnish fantasy rpg published a couple years back. I’ve been a bit out of the scene myself this last decade, and haven’t actually handled the book yet; I pretty much just knew that the game exists and that it’s a fantasy adventure thing. What I learned from Sami’s review was that while Sami considers the game something of a fantasy heartbreaker, it’s got intriguing color bits which he helpfully listed out; the bits are indeed intriguing, some nice world-building and poetics in there. The review got me interested in enough to look into the game’s website, and I have to say that I like much of what I’m seeing there: the game reminds me a lot of my own starter fantasy adventure game from the ’90s, Elhendi, except it’s even more cutesy, illustrated in a fin-manga style and generally screaming optimistic fun. Sort of similar in tone to The Princes’ Kingdom, if I had to pick an American comparison. I have some interest in beginner-friendly rpgs, so I’ll need to look into this one at some suitable juncture.

Club Hannilus Minutes

The online rpg club that we started last winter with Petteri and Paul has been becoming gratifyingly active. While the actual play often involves this core trio of players, we also pressure others to play, and people have also been content to tarry on the Discord server. Discourses have been had. For instance, consider these tidbits:

  • As I mentioned a few weeks back, a contributor has been playing 5th edition D&D in Forgotten Realms, their first ever D&D campaign. The Dragon Heist urban adventure module, I understand. The newcomer angle is always refreshing in these actual play reports. The sense I get from the reportage is that the group’s relatively competent and confident in what they’re doing, but the jury’s still out on whether an experienced non-D&D gamer can get used to the combat focus of the game.
  • What is the best way to assign ability scores in modern D&D? The innocent question posed by a contributor led to an interesting comparison of assumptions. Most would grant their favor to the point-buy method the game uses, while I, perversely, argued for the virtues of just letting the players set the scores so they accurately represent the character the player wants to play. (My stance on this has its basis in the Sim theory familiar from the recent essay; I think that modern D&D is most happily played as a princess play game, and refusing the character the player wants to play for no good reason is counter-productive to that.)
  • Related to the ability scores, I managed to start an excited discussion of the concept of balance in rpgs by declaring that I don’t believe the concept to be coherent enough to be worthy of consideration in game design; as far as I’m concerned the idea of balancing characters against each other or encounters against parties in modern D&D means just about nothing despite the central place it has in the game’s procedures. We attacked the issue from various angles, but I think enlightenment eluded us for now; clearly, for some people, game balance is so essential that it becomes an issue of fundamental social fairness among the players.
  • Some Finnish OSR gamers have taken to discussing their actual play on the Hannilus server. I learned that an old gamer buddy has been playing a long one-on-one game with his wife over the last few years. The game sounds surprisingly legit, too. (I mean, would you kill off your wife’s character in a one-on-one game?) The single player generally runs a large party of henchmen to dungeoneer.

Also, an interesting new development occurred in my cultural saloons recently, as the excessive theory discussions at Club Hannilus led to starting up (or rather, re-invigorating) a separate “RPG Theory” Discord server. The interesting bit is that while the new server was directly activated in response to events at club Hannilus, it actually takes it inspiration from my other regular haunt, the Agora of the gentlemen’s fame — the RPG Theory server was envisioned as sort of an English-language Agora, if you will. The feature I’m particularly fond of is a IRC/Discord bridge implemented by the gracious host between the Agora in IRC and this new server in Discord; we’ve already seen new entrants participate in the discussions at the Agora simply because there’s less of a threshold in using Discord for many people.

Time will tell what becomes of this new server; hypotheses range from “the rpg theory ghetto of Club Hannilus” to “put the OSR people on their own server”. Here are a few highlights from the first weeks:

  • A long-winded GNS theory conference has mostly moved from Hannilus to the new server. It’s been sort of a latter-days johnny-come-lately review of some dusty rpg theory from 15 years back, but I like the mature tone, and if it’s felt to be interesting and useful, who am I to gainsay — I find Forgite rpg theory useful myself, so there’s a limit to how skeptical I can be about others expressing interest in it. I might sometimes think that a given gamer would benefit more by practical exercise, but I’m not exactly the best authority on what’s going on in other people’s gaming lives, so best to respect the interest.
  • A contributor to the high-brow rpg theory stuff reminded me of the existence of M.A.R. Barker. Man, I need to get back to the Empire of the Petal Throne; it’s been difficult to find time for studying it, but the little I’ve gotten to has certainly confirmed that it’s the legit shit; comparable to e.g. Stafford’s Glorantha stuff in world-building sophistication.
  • And, of course, the Coup de Main in Greyhawk is intending to make its home at the RPG Theory server, because it’s so very logical to do it there instead of at the Club Hannilus server. Luckily they’re just one click away if you know the right wardrobe to peek into. Our initial discussions about the campaign have occurred on both servers nilly-willy (not to speak of the Agora and the poor gentlemen therein), but perhaps we’ll manage to contain the babble to the campaign’s own channels in the future.

State of the Productive Facilities

I was supposed to be writing that CRedux essay this week, the one that’d be bringing in the first 10 € of Patreon money into the ailing organization that is my creative business. Alas, the cruel fates conspired and I ended up prepping the Coup campaign instead. Hopefully next week will be more directly productive in affairs I’m supposed to be working on.

Meantime, because [this] man knows no modesty nor reason, I’m polling for more things to write in the new monthly essay poll. Considering how fast I’m writing, we could be voting about next Christmas’s topics here. The polling has started well, and I’m to report that the blog audience is still holding onto their unreasonable desires towards rpg theory. I interviewed the three leading nominees, might be useful to find out what they’re bringing to the table:

The Sacrament of Death is a theory article famous for the dramatic head-to-head it had with last month’s winner, “Historiography of D&D”. It’s still the same essay topic: a formulation of my theory-slash-gaming-advice regarding trad games with deadly systems. Instead of leaning away from death (by fudging), perhaps there is another way in preparing your character to die, instead?

If there was any doubt, the fact that The semiotic significance of game mechanics in rpgs is currently second-place pretty conclusively proves that a rpg theory essay literally cannot have a boring enough name to make you not vote for it. The topic behind the name is pretty dense as well; I’m planning an overview of how what is called “mechanics” in gaming involves a distinct communication aspect surprisingly detached from the game System — and this dual nature of mechanics has actually been put to powerful use since the very beginning of the form. This is an attempt at verbalizing something that I myself consider a deep insight into the medium of roleplaying, but it’s even odds that it’ll just be gobbledygook to other people.

I’m so happy that third-place is More CRedux, I’ll never complain about having to write that again. (Fourth place is a third theory article.) I’m currently developing the essay in CRedux character creation, so if this one gets into the pipeline, it should be the one about the slice-of-life week cycle SimPunk play mode that I envision as a sort of default for the game in action. It’s a system where characters balance work and life commitments in an effort to survive a grueling economic equation that can only end up in a circle of pauperization.

There’s still three weeks of voting left, so plenty of time to choose differently.

[June 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • [theory] The Sacrament of Death (19%, 66 Votes)
  • [theory] A Big Model overview (15%, 54 Votes)
  • [theory] The semiotic significance of game mechanics in rpgs (14%, 51 Votes)
  • [design] Notes on my Basic D&D homebrew (13%, 46 Votes)
  • [design] more C2020 Redux (10%, 36 Votes)
  • [design] Concepting the post-D&D adventure game (8%, 27 Votes)
  • [design] TSoY and SS update (6%, 21 Votes)
  • [design] Drafting an old school primer (5%, 18 Votes)
  • [design] a Chronicles of Prydain wargame (4%, 14 Votes)
  • [design] Coup de Main in Greyhawk campaign protocol (3%, 11 Votes)
  • [design?] Put together some He-Man shit, for reals (2%, 8 Votes)

Total Voters: 145

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