Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: Shadow of the Demon Lord

Correction: the game's magic system works differently than I thought it did.  Basically a spellcaster's Power stat determines the number of times they can cast each spell they know before needing to rest.

So I've been talking about this book with one of my gaming buddies, and decided that my PM's informative enough to share with the world.  As of right now I read all but two one chapter of this baby, so I feel that I can give a better overview of the game (or as far as someone who's never done actual play experience).

Overall this game is very much a dark fantasy with Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer Fantasy elements.  It's not as D&Desque as a retroclone, but elements appear here and there like some suspiciously similar spells.

Dice Resolution

In short, the resolution system is D20-based.  You roll a D20 for most tasks and add relevant modifiers.  In some cases it's versus an attribute of a character (like the Target Number to hit an opponent is their Defense).  Most non-opposed checks are a Challenge Roll, which is a D20 with modifiers, and the Target Number is always 10.

One of the big things in this game are Boons and Banes.  Instead of tracking a bunch of modifiers from spells/class features/etc, most effects grant you either of these.  Each Boon/Bane is a d6, which can add to your D20 number.  However, for multiple dice only the highest result is used (so rolling a 3, 5, and 1 for 3 boons would apply +5), and boons and banes cancel each other out on a 1-1 basis.

Overall I like this.  Most modifiers tend to come from your Attributes (which are like D&D ability scores), and from what I've read Boons and Banes are far more common.  It's easier to keep track of and to grasp than forgetting if muddy ground imposes a -2 or -4 penalty on graceful maneuvers and such.

Level System

Shadow of the Demon Lord only goes up to 10th level, and PCs start as level 0 characters.  PCs level up whenever the GM tells them to.  However, the suggested advancement rate is rather fast, with the group as a whole gaining 1 level per session.  The designer intended for the arc of beginning adventurers becoming great heroes and going against civilization-ending threats at the upper echelons.  Assuming a weekly game, the average SotDL game will take 2 1/2 months to complete.

Now, every level you gain something significant.

1: Choose a Novice Path

2: Additional Novice Path benefits
3: Choose an Expert Path
4: Gain the advanced benefits of your Ancestry (your "race" in D&D terms)
5: Additional Novice Path benefits
6: Additional Expert Path benefits
7: Choose a 2nd Expert Path or a Master Path
8: Final Novice Path benefits
9: Final 1st Expert Path benefits
10: Final Master Path benefits or 2nd Expert Path benefits equivalent to Level 6 choice

SotDL's Paths are its classes.  The Novice Paths are the typical Mage/Priest/Rogue/Warrior, but the Expert and Master Paths are the equivalent of 3rd Edition D&D's Prestige Classes.  They vary widely in tone, and there's a lot of them too.  16 Expert and 64 Master Paths to choose from!  They range from things like an Artificer who creates odd devices and trinkets, a classic wilderness Ranger, a druidic Woodwose who can take plant form, and such.

Best thing of all is that none of the Expert/Master Paths have prerequisites!  You can mix and match to your heart's content for all types of character ideas.  Of course, many Paths are more suited to certain combinations, but I like the idea.


Magic in Shadow of the Demon Lord leaves me with mixed feelings, although the good parts slightly outweigh my reservations.  For one, it's sort of like Vancian magic, in that you can only cast spells a certain number of times between rests before running out of juice.  Spells are grouped by tiers (0 to 5) instead of levels as a measurement of power, and your Power attribute (raised via levels in magical Paths) determines what tiers you have access to as well as how many times you can cast every spell you know of various ranks between rests.  For example, a Magician with a Power stat of 2 can cast every 0 rank spell they know 3 times, every 1st rank spell 2 times, and every 2nd rank spell 1 time.

Magic is split up into 30 Traditions representing facets of reality or concepts.  Fire, Nature, Destruction, Necromancy, etc, with 11 spells for each.  One must learn a Tradition in order to use spells, and you start out with the 0 tier spells.  New Traditions and spells can only be learned via leveling up in a magical Path or via discarding a Level 4 Ancestry trait, and you either have the choice of learning a Tradition (and gaining its 0 level spell) or learning one spell for each Tradition you know.

Although it's encouraged to be broad early on than specialized, SotDL avoids the D&D problem of clerics switching out spells for every occasion and rich wizards using the gold to scribe dozens of spells into their spellbooks.  Funnily enough, the complete spell chapter is only around 30 pages in spite 330 spells: this is because most spell entries are very short, and most effects are fixed and not modified by one's Level or Power stat.

Also, I noticed a short supply of long-duration/permanent and save-or-lose spells.  Most spells are 1 hour duration at most, and the offensive spells tend to create horrible effects once the target reaches 0 Health (freeze beam solidifies and shatters, disintegration turns to dust, etc) in keeping with a Warhammer-esque bloody dark fantasy.

Still, magic is very versatile, and the Priest and Mage have the most customization due to the Traditions in comparison to the Warrior (who gets boons and bonuses for combat stuff) and the Rogue (who gets some nimble-based attacks and can learn magic as well via a choice of class features, albeit at a slower pace).  However, it's not as bad as D20 D&D, and since there are Expert and Master Paths dedicated to specific magic styles and traditions, making an effective gish isn't very hard.

Also, it has this spell:


The setting takes place in the lands of Rul and the Northern Reach.  Basically there are tears in reality known as the Void, the dominion of demons who leak out into the mortal realm and other worlds.  However, the Demon Lord is unable to fully breach such tears, so it works through agents and foul worshipers to wreak evil in the worlds.  The Demon Lord gains power via the consumption of souls, and seeks to envelop all of reality.

The setting chapter takes a big picture look, focusing more on broad regions and countries than individual cities and towns except for capitals and the like.  Problems and plots are explained more as broad strokes than local occurrences.  In short, the bullet point tropes are:

  • the Caecras Empire (the most powerful country in the world) is undergoing civil unrest, as the orc soldiers rebelled and now their leader sits on the throne.  Many provinces are now declaring independence for fear of an orcish invasion.
  • Faerie are a thing, including two of the PC races being such.  Elves, trolls, and even devils are fey (the last ones tasked with hunting down souls).  The more powerful ones tend to be amoral and capable of giving form to concepts (like wearing a child's laugh as a cape or some such).
  • the east has nine plutocratic city-states with their own themes: a mostly-empty city devastated by plague, a city which deals in slavery to feed its Colosseum entertainment industry, a city with freedom of religion which causes all manner of crackpots and wicked cults to operate openly, etc.
  • the two main religions are the Old Faith (druidism and pantheon of primal concepts as deities) and the Cult of the New God (fantasy Christianity with woman Jesus).  The New God's followers are everywhere, but they have a holy theocracy which has an Inquisition dedicated to hunting down evil spellcasters and servants of the Demon Lord and other foul things.
  • It's an early industrial setting, where there's still medieval tech but guns are becoming more common, and some of the more prosperous cities might have a clocktower or train.

Amusingly I've noticed that in spite of the PC races being well-suited to dark fantasy, and the elves are amoral fey, there are still halflings in the setting although not as a PC race.  They're much like typical fantasy halflings except they're related to humans and have a rather powerful "luck" ability which allows them or an ally a reroll if a die of any kind is a natural 1.  They're actually not reclusive at all and tend to be present in some human lands, which makes it all the odder that they're not a PC choice.


The final chapter comes with nearly 40 pages worth of stat blocks for monsters and NPCs, as well as simple templates to simulate Paths like a troll witch who uses curse magic.

There's a lot of both classic and original monsters to fight, and there's some generic "monster" or "undead" stat blocks to act as a framework for PC animal companions, summoned monsters, and for the GM who needs simple horde minions.

An interesting thing I've noticed is that in regards to damage/health scale, things don't seem too out of whack.  For comparison, a starting-level or low-level PC or monster may have around 13 to 25 Health.  It's very rare for an NPC or monster to have 100 or more health barring some "end-game" boss enemies.  Given the class features of Paths and some beneficial spells, I've seen damage bonuses to attacks and spells range from 1d6 to 4d6, with some of the more powerful spells doing something like 7d6+10 damage.  Base mundane weapon damage tends to range from 1d3 for light stuff like daggers to 2d6 for warhammers.

I admit that I have not crunched the numbers, but from a guesstimate I can see combat not taking a tortuously long time unless you have a lot of characters to control through the round or something.


Shadow of the Demon Lord is pretty cool and I'd be up for running or playing in it.  It does enough things different than other fantasy RPGs with D&Desque elements to get my interest, and the caster/noncaster divide doesn't seem too crazy.  I really like how the Path system opens up a lot of customization choices, as well as the Boon/Banes idea.  The fact that the "rules of the game/dice resolution" chapter is is the second one near the front of the book and not buried somewhere in the middle after character creation is another plus, one which I didn't realize so many RPGs did until this was brought to my attention.

While it's rather long (278 pages) it's short in comparison to other non-rules lite RPGs (Dragon Age and Numenera are about 400 pages each, Mouse Guard is 320, Vampire the Requiem 2E is 321).  It comes with a bestiary of dozens of foes, a setting overview, dozens of character customization choices, and 300+ spells in spite of that.  Where many other books which do the same would have 200+ more pages.

What I don't like is that the magic system still has some Vancian influence, and how you can't do minor things all day long like in many other RPGs or Pathfinder/4E/5E.  The options for mages are still greater than solely non-magic paths, although multi-classing/gishing in this game's easy so that takes a bit of the bite off.  I think that having halflings at all was a poor choice, and there's no free quick-start or SRD: the quick-start costs $6.66 and includes the first two chapters, enough to start at 0 level but misses out on the Paths and Magic, which I think are the major sellers for showing off the game.

In short, I'd recommend it.  I think it does enough things different to set it apart from other fantasy RPGs, and there's still cool choices for all types of character concepts for a dark fantasy feel and then some.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Black Friday Deals for OSR, Pathfinder, and table-top RPGs lasting all weekend

Although my wallet's already well-spent, OneBookShelf is having a Black Friday sale for various RPG books lasting all weekend.  I figured that compiling a list of the ones I found the most interesting would be a nice thing to share for you all.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, so I did a main link for both OSR and Pathfinder books which are on sale.  For specific entries, I decided to focus on books I already own and like, as well as the more notable ones which stand out to me.

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A 1st Edition AD&D retroclone taking place in a setting heavily inspired by Robert E Howardesque stories.

Red Tide Campaign Setting & Sandbox Toolkit: A Kevin Crawford work, Red Tide is a setting inspired by Asian lands with a touch of other civilizations.  A creeping red mist taking over the land forced the last remnants of civilization to the Sunset Isles, inhabited by the vicious Shou.

Sunken City Omnibus: A series of Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures compiled in one book by Purple Sorcerer Games.

Midgard Campaign Setting: A rather nifty setting based on European folklore with some more mythical elements thrown in for good measure.  Several other Midgard sourcebooks are on sale as well.

Ponyfinder: A popular book which brought many Bronies into the fandom, Ponyfinder makes some clear homages to the Friendship is Magic franchise.  Several other Ponyfinder products are on sale as well.

Southlands Campaign Setting: With one of the writers of Al-Qadim as a contributor, Southlands is a setting is a blend of Ancient Egypt and Medieval Africa and Arabia.

Tales of the Old Margreve: A Midgard series of adventures for PCs levels 1 through 10.  They're all set in a primeval forest which seems to have a mind of its own.  Features focuses on fey and dark fairy tale-esque themes.

Ultimate Psionics: The definitive Pathfinder upgrade to the 3rd Edition rules, Dreamscarred Press compiles both updated and new material into one megabook.

Miscellaneous Books:

Numenera & the Strange: Numenera's core rulebook and many other Cypher System products are on sale.

The One Ring: Three setting sourcebooks are on sale.  Many fans say that the RPG feels the closest to Tolkien's work in terms of conventions and themes in comparison to the ones that came before.

Parsantium: City at the Crossroads: A system-neutral sourcebook detailing a fantasy counterpart Constantinople.  This book provided some major inspiration for my Arcana High campaign, and kickstarted my interest in the Byzantine Empire.

Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire: A city-focused setting which has a huge influx of adventurers, Ptolus is Monte Cook's magnum opus and rare for the fact that the setting and system integrate together.  It fits 3.5 like a glove, and there's little in the way of messy attempts to cram a square peg in a round hole.  Ptolus also features the eponymous Spire and many underground dungeons which see so many delvers entering the city.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Casual Update: Games, posts, and writing, oh my!

Hello folks.  November has been more or less an inactive blogging time for me.  But after some personal encouragement from +ErikTenkar and an invigoration of new ideas, I decided to do a more casual post than what is standard for the blog.

The Search for New Games

After 2 to 3 months of GMing Pathfinder, various factors contributed to a burnout.  I'm still game for participating as a player, but when it comes to actually running the game I don't think I can continue for the near future.  Also, as I'm getting more into writing projects as a self-publisher I wish to expand my horizons beyond just D&D-derived systems and D20 ones.  I once played a bit of Shadowrun, and did a Vampire game for a little over a month, and played a single session of Savage Worlds, so I'm happy about that.

As of now I'm thinking of participating as a player in a few unfamiliar RPG games once a week ideally.  If it turns out I really like them we can do further sessions.

I recently tried to join a Dungeon Crawl Classics one-shot, but things conspired to prevent myself dedicating to a full game.  As of this posting I'm prepping to run a one-shot for 13th Age.

As of now I've been thinking that limiting my choices to a "Top 5 Wanted RPGs" is best for now, partly because there's so many choices and partly because some of them might not be as good for one-shots.

1.) Dungeon World
2.) Eclipse Phase
3.) FATE
4.) Numenera
5.) Shadow of the Demon Lord

Two other games which caught my eye lately are Dragon Age RPG and Shadow of the Demon Lord.

Dragon Age recently got a complete compilation, now that Inquisition is out.  Personally it seems fun, but in comparison to already-existing RPGs I don't know what it can give me that others can't aside from some series staples like qunari PCs and joining the Grey Wardens.  I sort of feel that character creation is a bit restrictive in that one's background shapes the skills or ability choices you can get.  For example, the otherwise-diverse Apostate Mage background doesn't take into account local languages in case you want to play a Rivaini seer, in that you only begin play with the Trade Tongue but not Rivaini which you would get as a Rivaini Merchant.  Still, I heard good things about the Stunt system, and I have one player in my regular group who really likes it, so I shouldn't have as much trouble rounding up interested parties.

Shadow of the Demon Lord's premise is that it's set in the last days of a fantasy world which is overrun by an incursion of unholy horrors.  I'm still in the process of reading it, but it has some Warhammer Fantasy inspiration in its grittiness (I don't do Warhammer, this is what I hear).  The game is level-based from 1 to 10, with Paths serving the role of classes.  You start off with one of four typical fantasy Paths (warrior, rogue, priest, mage), but at later levels you can choose Expert and Master Paths which are more specialized versions of the core four, such as artificer, paladin, gunslinger, and the like.  I like this idea on the surface so far, in that it allows for a degree of customization.

As for races, you have humans, dwarves, and orcs, but you also have goblins (who are refugees from faerie), changelings, and clockwork (who are akin to intelligent golems).  I particularly like the clockwork in that they don't necessarily have to be human-shaped.

Magic School Hexcrawl

So one of the side projects I'm working on currently is a sandbox setting idea for Swords & Wizardry and other compatible OSR games.  After writing plenty of blog posts on the subject, I figure it's time I devote my energies to making my ideas into a usable sourcebook.  I'm calling it Larius Firetongue's School of Sorcery.

The premise is that the PCs are students at a magic academy in a sparsely populated pseudo-British Europe region which is a nexus for all matter of strange phenomena.  Basically LFSoS will be divided into two major sections: a new rules/advice part for all-spellcaster parties, and a hexcrawl setting detailing the school itself and surrounding environs.

The school would serve as a sort of home base, and there are various challenges to do and characters to interact with to increase one's arcane lore and power.  Sneaking into the library's forbidden section or taking an Initiation Delve to join an order of the school's elite mages are some proposed possibilities, while fellow staff and students the PCs befriend might be willing to teach them new spells and/or accompany them on adventures as hirelings of sorts.

As for the hexcrawl environs, there might be times when the PCs need to head out into the wilderness or the underground to gather some rare material.  Perhaps a dungeon's said to hold a mirror portal from a long-dead empire, or the current month's the season when a rare species of flower used for summoning spells grows in the Moonshade Forest.  Expanding on the Arcane Lore idea from an earlier post, hunting for treasure will still be a feature of this adventure, but it will be more specialized towards things of interest to spellcasting PCs.

For setting scope, I got some advice that keeping most things within one to two days' travel is a good idea.  Even accounting for a 3 miles per hour, 8 hours of travel can put this at 24 to 48 miles assuming a straight line, 72 miles at the farthest reaches.  Even within this radius you can still have enough room to populate the area with villages, dungeons, and other landmarks.  This can keep things more localized as well as allowing the PCs to return to school in a reasonable time frame as opposed to traversing the breadth of a small country just to get to a city or dungeon.

Beyond the above I also plan on incorporating some new spells and rules variants for a party composed entirely of spellcasters.  I don't want to be limiting and say Magic-Users only, in that Clerics and Druids also practice magic and might be of value to a school environment, but without the more common warrior and thief classes there will be some weakness in such a party composition barring multi-classing.

These are the ideas I have so far which I feel are presentable to readers at this point in time.  The book's still in its first draft stages, although If there's enough interest I might devote further posts to my hexcrawl idea once I get more workable stuff.

Only Kevin Crawford could've made the trip to China

Some time ago, Kevin Crawford published a new class for Scarlet Heroes and B/X compatible retro-clones in his Sandbox magazine, the Blademaster.  It was rather uncharacteristic for him and for the ruleset, in that it took clear inspirations from the maneuver system of Tome of Battle, a 3rd Edition sourcebook controversial for its time in using a pseudo-Vancian system for martial moves and techniques (several of which were clearly supernatural in origin).  Even many D20 fans didn't like it, believing it to be broken and overpowered.  The truth is that this is a common misconception, at least not in comparison to the options already present in the corebooks, but that's another discussion for another time.

In regards to the OSR, ToB's maneuver system isn't exactly what I would imagine being in line with many of its aesthetics, considering that its fanbase tends to want different things out of a D&D game than what old-school retroclones do.  For one, ToB's fanbase tends to prize class balance as a virtue and have a preference for higher-powered playstyles in comparison to the down-in-the-muck lethality of many retroclone adventures.

Still, Crawford managed to do a good job with the Blademaster, and if I had to pick an author to present a potentially unpopular idea to the usual demographic, he'd be my first choice.  Honestly, I feel that if an OSR author with little name recognition or did not have a stellar track record tried the same thing, he probably wouldn't have gotten many grabbers.

Who Would You Pick to...?

So, if you had to implement a choice in the table-top fandom which has a chance to be unpopular, which game designer/personality would you view as the best option for wooing over the other side?  Let's assume you're publishing a third-party sourcebook for the opposing demographic, and can choose said designer as the main writer.

Just to start off with some examples, who would you pick to...

1.) implement an alternate spellcasting system to Vancian magic for Gygaxian purists?

2.) create a "dark superheroes" Vampire game for World of Darkness "crapsack world" fans?

3.) write an old-school style "DM empowerment" rules variant for 3.X/Pathfinder fans?

4.) to write a setting with anime art and aesthetics for OSR gamers?

As for my choices...well, I'd like to hear yours first, and I don't know whether or not my own would influence your decision, so highlight the below to get the answers.


1.) Frank Mentzer.  His close work association with Gary Gygax and ability to revise rules on the Dungeons & Dragons line resulted in many popular and iconic pieces, and worked on The Book of Marvelous Magic.

2.) Steve Kenson.  In addition to working on material for Mutants & Masterminds, he also did some writing for Aberrant back in the day.

3.) Bill Webb of Frog God Games.  He and his team have enough experience in OSR and Pathfinder rulesets to translate well between the nuances.

4.) Again, Kevin Crawford, hope that's not "cheating."  Exemplars and Eidolons does a good job of replicating some of the higher-powered moves as seen in some of the shows, and his Red Tide setting does a good job of combining both Western and Eastern setting tropes together.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Thoughts on why the Forgotten Realms are popular

So early this November the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide is slated for release.  Although the land of Faerûn has been a priority setting-wise in 5th Edition releases so far, it reminded me of various conversations I've been seeing in some gaming circles on why it seems so dominant, a debate as old as time itself by Dungeons & Dragons standards.

I'm quite certain a lot of the points I'm making have been said before, but I'd like to try and go beyond the "kitchen sink appeal" statement I see as the most prominent of explanations.

Reason #1: Forgotten Realms is the closest thing we have to a superhero setting

Elminster Must Die by Kekai Kotaki

World-changing magic.  Multi-talented archmages who can stand up to demigods, dark elf rangers who can cut a swathe of destruction through an army of a thousand orcs, an evil wizard leader of an international business conglomerate with an array of Doombot-style clones.  Gifted children born with the ability to channel spellfire which is a great power, but causes others to fear them and in some cases hunt them down for their own ends.  Genuinely good-aligned nations and cities such as Silverymoon are worthy of defending from evil, safe and secure places to live without the looming spectre of totalitarianism to spoil things.

The personalities of the Realms are a draw for many, as evidenced by best-selling novel series chronicling their adventures, akin to how the Marvel and DC Universes revolve around the plots and conflicts of powerful men and women in a world of mortals.  In spite of its high-magic, high-powered reputation, most folk of Faerûn are still in normal medievalesque professions, without a hint of magical talent.  Even the legacies of Netheril and the elves tend to be relics of the past and MacGuffins to drive adventure than common-as-dirt trinkets.  Even things such as Thay's omnipresent scrying network is a cause for fear, a tool for oppression, than magic which benefits all.

Even if it doesn't have explicit or even well-thought out rules for high/epic level play, Forgotten Realms is one of the few settings which is not afraid to take the kid gloves off and show what a world filled with gods and wild, powerful magic would really be like when things get dangerous.  A lot of settings, both official and third-party, attempt to put a limit or veneer of low-powered "realism" or an end to the campaign when folks approach the upper levels, but Forgotten Realms rushes headlong into it without fear.

Reason #2: Dark Elves

Cover for Advanced Race Codex: Drow by Todd Lockwood

A popular enough "monstrous" race that they ended up as a core option in 5th Edition.  Sure, there are many GMs sick of players with Drizz't clones or who feel that Salvatore removed the unknown mystique from ye olde days, but the fact of the matter is that a lot of players love them, whether as a PC option or as a plot element from the GMing side.  No other "evil option" gets as much support or written material as they do, and I talked about this phenomenon in an earlier blog post.

Even though drow have a presence in Greyhawk and other settings, the common mental image many gamers have of them aligns closely to how they're portrayed in the Forgotten Realms.  Orcs are more or less a one-note "faceless horde," goblins and kobolds low-level cannon fodder adventurers are supposed to outgrow minus some famous exceptions.  Drow are appropriate for all levels, and can be a plausible threat for all kinds of schemes.

And of course, Drizz't do'Urdlen spearheaded one of the best-selling D&D novels who's still popular to this day by gamers both old and new.

Reason #3: Still room for standard fantasy

In spite of Reason #1, there's quite a bit of material dedicated to the more iconic adventure tropes.  Places like the Dalelands and the Silver Marches are great starting points for low-level adventurers, with small villages in need of saving and dungeons and ruins filled with treasure for the taking!  Metropolitan cities like Waterdeep had a literal underworld to explore with the megadungeon of Undermountain or the hive of scum and villainy known as Skullport.

Faerûn balances the familiarity of standard fantasy tropes which appeal to many gamers.  There's quite a few adventures for low and mid-level parties published over the past decades so that things don't feel constrained to the high end of the power spectrum.  Although it may not always do so well or give valid reasons why the setting's super-NPCs aren't dealing with the problem, the world does its best to accommodate adventurers who are still holding their own against common monsters on a local level as well as parties thwarting Shar's machinations to destroy the Weave itself.

Reason #4: D&D's most well-known video games are Realms-centric

Neverwinter Nights Wallpaper

Ask someone about a Dungeons & Dragons video game, and the likeliest responses you'll get back are Balder's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Pool of Radiance, and Planescape: Torment.  They may be the best known, but they're far from the only ones.  In fact, there have been many D&D video games over the years, but a lot aren't well-known or aged well.  Heroes of the Lance had a non-intuitive interface, Dark Sun Shattered Lands was released too late, and attempts into non-RPG playstles such as Iron & Blood: Warriors of Ravenloft met with poor reception.

With the exception of Planescape: Torment, the ones which stick out in the public consciousness are the games which use an RPG format similar to the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset and detail the people and places of Faerûn.  This may not be a fact that many in the fandom want to admit, but video game RPGs overshadowed their table-top counterparts for about twenty years now.  When it comes to greater nerd culture, the average geek at GameStop picking up a cartridge with the Dungeons & Dragons logo is more likely to hear the tales of Waterdeep and the machinations of Cyric than the War of the Lance or rough-and-tumble city of Lankhmar.

Reason #5: Many sourcebooks are useful, regardless of edition

Even though 3rd Edition was once remarked as "Dungeons & Dragons for bureaucrats" on an OSR forum along with similar sentiments elsewhere, the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting for that very edition had its praises sung by old-school and contemporary gamers alike.  It was a comprehensive and detailed account of the land and its people, covering races to deities and common cultural traditions as well as mechanical benefits.  Even if you do not care for the D20 System and new feats and prestige classes, the wealth of system-free material was enough to justify its purchase alone.

In Conclusion: I don't think that there's any one thing which draws so many gamers to Ed Greenwood's world.  I think its iconic characters, accessibility, and popular video games and novel series bolstering the table-top sourcebooks allow for an easier point of entry and engagement to share in for D&D players.

Quasar Knight's One-Year Blog Anniversary

It's been one year and two days since I started this blog.  It began as a general depository of various gaming ideas, and still serves that function quite nicely.  I was taken aback at the amount of interest generated.

As of this posting I have nearly 22,000 page views and 107 followers on Google Plus.  I'd like to thank all my readers for staying with me since then.  Here's to another year!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

OSR Tropes and Implied Settings

So there's a mutual player and friend of mine who played 2nd Edition back in the day who's seen the OSR and doesn't really connect with it.  Basically the subgroup fandom shows an appreciation for older versions of Dungeons & Dragons, but to his view focuses on rose-tinted glasses or takes specific play-styles as emblematic of the TSR-era games in general.  I do think that he has several good points, in that several distinct trends have emerged among popular OSR publishers and gaming groups.  This isn't by definition a bad thing, but what OSR gamers like and hold as ideal doesn't mesh with what people like my friend knew and experienced back in the day.

This isn't the first conversation we had about the subject, but afterwards this got me thinking about things.  The fandom originated as faithful OGL conversions of prior Editions with Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, and the like, but over time branched out into new paths with things like Lamentations of the Flame Princess and White Star.

There's the Primer for Old-School Gaming and preferred Editions, but beyond the mechanics and GMing attitudes what other trends are present?  For starters I focused on overarching themes and setting tropes:

Body Horror: Adventuring is not a clean job.  The dungeons of the world contain monsters, magic, and traps which puree, masticate, go beyond the adequately necessary to leave adventurers a gooey, soulless mess.  Lamentations of the Flame Princess may be the best-known example due to its artwork, but this trope shows up in other places like the Slaughtergrid dungeon by Neoplastic Press. The Vivimancer spellcasting class specializes in "life magic" but it takes strange forms, like lab-grown homunculi, acidic fungal blooms, and debilitating creations which can be even more disturbing than the undead creations of necromancers.

Examples: Lamentations of the Flame Princess (same publisher), Slaughtergrid (Neoplastic Press), Teratic Tome (Neoplastic Press), The Complete Vivimancer (Lesser Gnome Productions)

The Flailsnail

Gonzo Factor: Unorthodox combination of genre expectations makes the adventure or setting feel beyond a typical Tolkienish fantasy, or more of an emphasis on weirdness and throwing out expectations than overarching themes.  In some cases this may take the form of science fiction elements in fantasy, like a dungeon being a crashed alien space ship, or the injection of humorous elements into an adventure like a troll trying to sell the PCs timeshares or scrawled graffiti on an ancient obelisk proclaiming that the prophetic runes are wrong and that the halflings are the favored race of the gods.

Examples: Crimson Dragon Slayer (Kort'halis Publishing), Dungeon Crawl Classics (Goodman Games), Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (TSR), Lamentations of the Flame Princess (same publisher), Realm of the Technomancer (Faster Monkey Games), Sword of Air (Frog God Games), Vornheim: the Complete City Kit (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)

Cover Art of Lost Lands: Tales from the Borderland Provinces by Frog God Games

Low Fantasy: This originated as a literary subgenre, detailing worlds which can have fantastic elements but tend to focus on a more down to earth and less mythic scale, where things such as magic and monstrous races are less present in normal society and instead cloistered away as the things of fear and legends.

On a similar note, many OSR adventures tend to presume that the PCs are more along the lines of opportunistic folks than people out to save the world, and the vast majority of civilizations tend to be humanocentric and are unfamiliar with the workings of magic on everyday life.  The exceptions that do exist tend to be within the confines of dungeons and places for the PCs to explore as part of their adventures.

Examples: Chronicles of Amherth (Small Niche Press),  Lesserton & Mor (Faster Monkey Games), The Lost Lands (Frog God Games)

Entrance to the Famed Rappan Athuk by Frog God Games

Megadungeons & Sandboxes: These two campaign styles are by no means limited to old-school modules and sourcebooks, but they are a very popular style.  Both of them take a non-linear path to player exploration, where the adventure focuses more around where the party decides to go and what they want to do than a pre-determined path.  Megadungeons are very large dungeons that can last for an entire campaign, whereas sandboxes are open-ended worlds where the PCs have more or less freedom to journey where they want.  For a video game example, consider the open world of Skyrim.

Examples: Anomalous Subsurface Environment (Patrick Wetmore), Barrowmaze (Greg Gillespie), Castle of the Mad Archmage (BRW Games), D30 Sandbox Companion (New Big Dragon Games Unlimited), Dwimmermount (Autarch), Red Tide (Sine Nomine Publishing), Rappan Athuk (Frog God Games), Stonehell (Michael Curtis), Sword of Air (Frog God Games)

No Gods, Only Men: Although many retro-clones provide support for going up to 20th level, doing this by the book is a long and arduous task which can take many months, if not years, of weekly gaming.  Many adventures take place between 1st to 9th level, and some of the more popular rulesets such as Scarlet Heroes and Dungeon Crawl Classics only go up to 10th level.  Even though a 10th level Magic-User is still a wonder to behold, and a Thief of equivalent level can effectively disappear or undo locks and traps on tier with the Gordian Knot, some of the more high-powered elements of D&D aren't present.  Wish spells, fighting gods, and enough hit points to power through molten magma and stave off all the bites of a 12-headed hydra aren't in the purview of this level range.

Examples: Dungeon Crawl Classics (Goodman Games), Scarlet Heroes (Sine Nomine Publishing), Too Many Adventures to Count

Official Artwork of Phantasy Star video game series

Science Fiction/Science Fantasy: Owing some credit to Sword & Sorcery and gonzo influences, the mixture of futuristic and space elements in a more typical fantasy world is not unknown.  In some cases OSR rulesets are taken out of the fantasy genre entirely and transposed into a sci-fi setting, most notably Sine Nomine's acclaimed Stars Without Number RPG.

Examples: Anomalous Subsurface Environment (Patrick Wetmore), Dungeon Crawl Classics (Goodman Games), Dwimmermount (Autarch), Hulks & Horrors (Bedroom Wall Press), Isles of Purple-Haunted Putrescence (Kort'halis Publishing), Stars Without Number (Sine Nomine Publishing), White Star (Barrel Rider Games

Sword & Sorcery: Before the Tolkien influences of dwarves, elves, orcs and the like set the standard for Dungeons & Dragons, elements from early pulp magazines had a clear inspiration in the game.  This still continues in several areas, and more than a few retro-clones sought to emulate worlds closer to Conan the Barbarian and the Gray Mouser, where mages enact pacts with alien entities and fallen empires of Atlanteans and serpent folk dwarf the feeble accomplishments of humanity.  Civilization can be divided between tyrannical city-states and nomadic barbarians who recognize strength and warfare as the greatest virtues.

Examples: Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (North Wind Press), Crypts & Things (D101 Games), Dungeon Crawl Classics (Goodman Games), Tales of the Fallen Empire (Chapter 13 Press), Works of Kort'halis Publishing

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Reblog: Understanding Your Breakeven Point by Creighton Broadhurst

Raging Swan Press is a third party publishing company which specializes in GM aids for players of Pathfinder and other fantasy role-playing games of a similar bent.  They have a good reputation in the fandom, and are known to hire many freelancers for their projects.

Creighton Broadhurst had an interesting article for fellow self-publishers on how to calculate your "breakeven point," or the point in revenue when a product's sales are enough to cover the cost of making it.  Considering that table-top games aren't the most financially lucrative industry, this is a very important subject, and I found it an enlightening read for newcomers.

PS Apologies if my blog updates have been sporadic this month, but I promise to have something substantial out when I get the ability to do so.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Video Game Review: Undertale

Screenshot taken from the game

It is not often I talk about video game RPGs on this blog, but over the past week I discovered a rare gem thanks to one of Jim Sterling's videos.  Undertale is a PC game done in the style of 90s-era RPGs, but it turns the genre on its head in a pretty big way.  Basically the main crux is that it's an RPG game where you don't have to kill anyone, where each battle can be resolved without violence...that is, if you choose to do so.

The story starts out with a child of ambiguous gender climbing Mt. Ebott and falling through a hole.  Said hole leads into some underground ruins part of the world of monsters, a civilization of people banished below the earth after losing a war against the humans long ago.  While there you meet a woman named Toriel who adopts a motherly attitude towards our hero and explains the many dangers of this new world.  At first it seems like a typical "explore exotic locales, fight bad guys and return home" type of plot, but early on in the game you encounter some monsters in battle who seem...different.  Ones who seem afraid of you, or apprehensive of your presence.  Beyond the commands for 'Fighting' in battle, you have the option of 'Sparing' weakened monsters or interacting with them via the versatile 'Act' command to come to a more peaceful solution.  But not all monsters you meet are so reluctant to leave a human unharmed?  It's one thing to say you won't fight and will show mercy: can you still do as much when in the face of certain death?

Attempts at subversion of common tropes don't always end well, but the way Undertale pulls it off makes it much more interesting than just a postmodern commentary on the violence-centered aspect of RPGs.  You can definitely play it hack and slash style, or try your best to be a pacifist in spite of the many dangers laid in front of you.  The best thing is that Undertale has great replay value and lots of hidden secrets, with even minor choices having resonating effects throughout the plot.  The characters are all well-detailed, and it's one of the few games which had moments where I burst out laughing or a sense of remorse at seeing a character I grew to like over time come to a bad end.  When I first bought it I found myself playing it for 6 hours in a single day, so engaged was I with everything about it that I couldn't wait until tomorrow to see what happens next.

The game has good replay value; as of this post I'm on my second run, and the story isn't linear even if a lot of the locations you visit are the same.  The events and characters change in major ways depending on your actions.  A monster who you spare in a random encounter might show up later as a person to talk to, whereas ones you kill might come back to haunt you as their friends show remorse on losing a loved one.  But it's not quite a simple "black and white" moral choice like in most mainstream games such as Dragon Age.  It takes major effort to go the route of either a pacifist or remorseless killer, and Undertale's atmosphere and plot changes where it often feels like you're playing a different game entirely: there's a rather significant number of players who simply can't find themselves the willpower to go through the 'evil path,' or "No Mercy" run.  I'm starting to find myself in their camp as well as time goes on.

In conclusion, Undertale is a great game which made me care for the people of its world far more than many other RPGs on the market.  It has a free demo, and can be purchased for ten dollars on Steam's online store.  It has the potential for being one of 2015's top games in spite of being an indie-published.  I highly recommend you at least give it a shot.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Update: OSR tag is back up on OneBookShelf


That's some good news.  However, a few OSR products which previously had the tag still do not, such as Sword of Air.  Still, the number of OSR labelled products as of today is 1,397, meaning that the majority of them got it back (the last number I recall a week ago was around 1,500).

This is good news, but if you're an OSR publisher, it might do you good to double-check back to see if your products got their tags back.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The OSR label is no longer an searchable option on OneBookShelf

Hello folks.  Apparently Drive-Thru RPG underwent some organization changes, namely in the D&D/D20 department.

Now they have a primary Rules System tag: D&D/D20.

And these are the sub-category tags:

Dungeons & Dragons (Third-Party) and Dungeons & Dragons (Official).  The categories below are more or less identical save for the option in parenthesis:

3x D&D/d20/OGL (Third-Party/Official)

5e/D&D Next (Third-Party/Official)

4e D&D/GSL (Third-Party/Official)

Basic/BECMI and OD&D (Third-Party/Official)

2e AD&D (Third-Party/Official)

1e AD&D (Third-Party/Official)

So I decided to browse some popular products which used to be part of the OSR:

Sword of Air is now D&D/D20

Silent Legions is now D&D/D20

Spears of the Dawn is not organized under any tags at all

White Star is just OSRIC and D&D/D20

Ambition & Avarice has no category or tags

Barrowmaze Complete is OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord, but not D&D/D20

If you read this post, please spread the word.  Whether you be a fan or publisher, it's possible that products you published or had your eye on are now categorized differently.  OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord still have their own categories, but given that there are many games which fall outside this purview this leaves many others in the dust or under the generic D&D/D20 label.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dragons of Renewal: Overarching Themes

Laurana the Golden General by Larry Elmore

Before a campaign starts one must address the typical issues with the players: whether or not they find the proposed idea engaging, whether it's going to be a short arc or a long-runner, whether they already read said module, etc.  This post is all about this, albeit with things specific to the Dragonlance Chronicles.

Lack of Magic Item Shops (Pathfinder)

This is not as debilitating as it is in Swords & Wizardry, but in Pathfinder the wealth by level guidelines assume a minimum amount of items in the PCs' possession at certain levels.  Although I addressed this in last post the idea of scaling magic items for Swords & Wizardry, here I find an alternate ruleset in Pathfinder Unchained to be optimal for the newer ruleset.  Automatic Bonus Progression does away with the Big Six requirements of things such as trading in +1 swords for +3 swords, the necessity of Cloaks of Resistance, and the like by making bonuses inherently scaling with level.  That way PCs don't have to load themselves down with magic items like walking Christmas tree ornaments.  This still leaves room for the more unorthodox magic items such as flying carpets, bags of tricks, and the like which still have value.

The 3rd Edition Dragonlance sourcebooks suggest a pool of bonus experience points for spellcasters to create magic items.  As Pathfinder does away with exp costs, I instead recommend a pool of spell points equal to gold pieces on a 1-1 basis representing resources and research notes for PCs to build their own items.  I recommend keeping them equal 1/5th the wealth by level guidelines, or halving them if using the Automatic Bonus Progression house rule.  The Points below are the total for each level and not refreshed.  Meaning that a PC who goes from 5th to 6th level gains 1,100 Spell Points.

Level  Spell Points
5          2,100
6          3,200
7          4,700
8          6,600
9          9,200
10        12,400
11        16,400
12        21,600
13        28,000
14        37,000

Kender, Gully Dwarves, and Gnomes: The Comic Relief Trio

A sizable amount of gamers, even those who do not regularly play Dragonlance, have a burning hatred of these races, kender especially.  In many cases this is due to players using kender as an opportunity to engage in disruptive shenanigans which are a headache for everyone else.  Gully dwarves get a bad rap because of extreme stupidity being a defining character trait.  As for the gnomes, many folk don't like their absent-minded professor archetype and unreliable advanced technology, but personally I don't see them or gully dwarves as problematic as kender.

Aside from dislike, the three are meant to be comic relief races, and the thing with humor is that it's subjective.  There's a difference between how humor is conveyed written versus verbally, and the same for humor that appears while reading a book versus playing a game session.  There might be one gamer who loves the comic relief trio's personality quirks, and another who finds them more annoying and wants that part of the session to end and get on with the rest of the adventure.

So, what should we do?  I have a few proposed fixes below, which I wrote some time ago on The RPG Site:

1. Kender Redux: Keep the Kender penchant for curiosity, fearlessness, and generally optimistic outlook on life. But have them capable of understanding the concept of property and don't have the incessant need to "borrow" stuff.

Especially in eras like the Age of Despair, taking even a minor object such as a woodcutter's axe makes a noticeable drain on small communities. Without the axe, the woodcutter can't chop wood, and he won't be able to do his job if he can't find a replacement tool. That's just one Kender; imagine the havoc an entire community of them will wreak on nearby settlements!

Revised Kender should understand that taking objects without permission can result in hardship and misery for others; given that Kender are optimistic and want to be everyone's friend, they wouldn't want to deprive others of things without good reason.

Instead of "borrowing" play up the other aspects of Kender.  They might hear of an art gallery opening in town, and be utterly determined to become the best painter ever in spite of having no training.  They might offer to trade or part with items in exchange for an interesting tale.  They might over-prepare for long journeys and spend their money on objects only useful in highly-implausible circumstances ("ten pounds of salt just in case we end up fighting monster slugs").  Such things are less likely to lead to the breakdown of trust which usually results in PCs stealing from the party or getting the entire group into trouble for taking something they shouldn't.

2. Gully Dwarf Redux: The origin of the Aghar, or Gully Dwarves, is unclear. Many people say that they're the result of dwarves and tinker gnomes mating, but many of the theory's proponents bandy it about as justification for the Aghar's poor treatment.

The Aghar lived in the prosperous mountain kingdom of Thorbadin. They were the lowest rung on the caste of Dwarven society. Their ancestors were the dishonered, criminals, outcasts, the insane, and other folk looked down upon by society. The Aghar were relegated to the slums and forced into the most menial and dangerous of jobs. Since the "high" dwarves believed that their system was favored by Reorx, they taught their children that the status quo was just and that the Aghar deserved their fate.

The Aghar did not care much for this way of thinking, and turned their backs on the traditional pantheon of deities for their perceived abandonment. The Aghar strove to become better people in this life to prove to Thorbadin that they were worthy of dignity.

Thorbadin's Aghar eagerly joined the military in the Dwarfgate Wars on both sides. Those fighting against the hill dwarves hoped that their service would grant them the status of "high" dwarf, while those who fought with the hill dwarves sought to overthrow their nation's oppressive system.

After the Hill Dwarves lost, the Aghar loyal to Thorbadin were denied entry back into their mountain home. Enraged, the formerly loyal Aghar swore that they would never be loyal to any non-Aghar from this day forward. The Aghar who served on the other side of the war forged a pact with them, telling them that they will always find a home among their fellow Aghar.

And so the Aghar lived throughout the Age of Despair, roaming Ansalon in nomadic bands. They would camp near towns and offer their services as sellswords and laborers. Like their Dwarven hold of old, they lived on the fringes of society; except now, they were free men and women, pledged to no city-state, nation, or deity.

I don't feel that a Gnome Redux is necessary because personally, it shouldn't take much to make them non-humorous.  Gnomish advanced technology can still be unreliable, and given how much nations act in the Age of Despair they may not be so keen on introducing more potentially dangerous knowledge into the hands of the humans, dwarves, elves, and other races in the Age of Despair.

The Kitiara Replacement

Kitiara and the Dragon Army by DarkAkelarre of deviantart

Kitiara is one of the major villains of the Dragonlance Chronicles.  Formerly one of the heroes' adventuring companions, sister to the Majere twins and lover of Tanis, her status is more personal and connected than the remoteness of Emperor Ariakas or Takhisis the Dark Queen.  Unlike other villains such as Verminaard, her background allows her to exploit the party's weaknesses such as the love Tanis and Laurana have for each other (and the love Tanis still harbors for Kitiara).

The base adventure features her as a recurring villain during the Dragons of Spring arc, although with a custom-created party with no ties to the original characters Kitiara loses her uniqueness.  She just becomes yet another major enemy general of the Dragonarmies to vanquish, like Verminaard or Feal-Thas.  Still, I think that the idea of a major villain with a personal connection to the party is a great idea, and replacing her with an NPC tailor-made to your group is a worthy endeavor.  If one or more of the players read the book series, consider asking them privately for ideas in case you want to keep things a surprise for the rest of the group when the reveal comes.

Appearances: Kitiara herself does not appear until the early Dragons of Spring arc when the eastern team of the party goes to the town of Flotsam.  From then on she appears several more times: twice during Dragons of Faith, the first during an assault in the Blood Sea to retrieve Berem the Green Gemstone Man on the PC's ship, another time on the shipwrecked islands of Karthay for the same task.  The final time is in Dragons of Triumph when the Dragon Highlords reunite at the city of Neraka to prepare for their goddess' re-entry into the world to turn the tide of the war once and for all.

There are two false appearances, one during Dragons of Shadows when a Dreamshadow illusion appears to the PCs, and another time during Dragons of Faith when the aurak draconian Gildentongue disguised as her fights the PCs in the underwater ruins of Istar.

Now that you know in what instances she appears in the adventure and her relationship to the party, you can get a sense of what to prepare for while designing your Kitiara Replacement.  Below are a few suggestions.

The Friendship Betrayed: In this scenario, Kitiara's replacement is much like the standard Chronicles.  When the Companions meet for the second time at the Inn of the Last Home in the village of Solace, Tanis reveals that Kitiara could not make it due to employment by a new lord.  In your custom Chronicle, once the PCs reunite together they notice that one of their own is missing.  The truth is that she's joined the Dragonarmies.  Some of the group may have heard this but unwilling to believe it, or all might be kept in the dark.

The Fallen Knight: This scenario works best if one or more PCs belong to the Knights of Solamnia.  Kitiara's replacement turned on her order and her country to join the Dragonarmies.  Perhaps she grew tired of the knighthood's failures as one too many members forgot the spirit of the Oath and Measure and instead sees something in Takhisis' new order.  Maybe she fell for the Emperor's honeyed words of how his reign brought order, unity, and magic back to a devastated continent, and Solamnia can one day know this glory as well.

For another idea, perhaps she's a Wizard of High Sorcery instead, and was a good friend and classmate to a wizard PC.  Before they set off into the world, she joined the Order of Black Robes and got recruited into the Dragonarmies like many others of her number.

The Vengeful Scholar: This backstory may work best if you use an alternative explanation for the Cataclysm detailed below.  In the original Chronicles, the Companions went their own ways to discover whether or not the True Gods returned to Krynn before reuniting at the Inn of the Last Home.  Kitiara's replacement might have journeyed alone, to the undersea ruins of Istar, the Glitterpalace, the restored Temple of Istar in Neraka, or some other location connected to the gods or the Cataclysm.  While there she discovered the role the Gods of Light (Paladine most notably) played in the Cataclysm and the 300 years of darkness and devastation which happened in its wake.

Upon learning that Takhisis restored the old temple and brought back clerical magic to the gathered pilgrims in Neraka, she listened to Ariakas' speeches.  Of how the Gods of Light abandoned the world and how Takhisis seeks to bring about the prior golden age of Istar back to Krynn.  Motivated by hatred of Paladine's senseless slaughter, witnessing the magic of clerics binding grievous wounds and eradicating disease, she saw the Dragon Empire as the last, best hope Ansaslon has to climb out of the Age of Despair and into a New Age of Might.

Playing up Emperor Ariakas

Emperor of Ansalon by Jess Easley

Dullcet Ariakas was chosen as the Dark Queen's personal emissary on Krynn.  It was he who commanded the Dragonarmies, recreated the Flying Citadel, and whose military victories were vital to the Empire's expansion across Krynn.  All five Dragon Highlords owe fealty to him, at least on the surface, and by extension Takhisis.

However, his screen-time in both the books and adventures is minimal.  He shows up during the final chapter of Dragons of Winter arc, Dragons of Deceit, and even then he's more of a background element or optional encounter.  The PCs have a chance to directly confront him in Dragons of Triumph with one of the three selected endings in a climactic battle.  But when it comes to the face of the enemy in the Chronicles, that role falls to Verminaard during the Dragons of Autumn arc and mostly Kitiara during Dragons of Spring.

As described in this RPGnet thread, Ariakas was a "critically important bit character," a person who doesn't even have much in the way of official artwork (the only other official piece I found of him had him in a rather undignified pose pinned down by Tanis' foot).

Although there are several popular works of fiction where the evil emperor is overshadowed by other villains (Star Wars, Final Fantasy VI), it still feels odd that Ariakas doesn't even get so much as a mention earlier on in the adventure series, and depending on the characterization of the Kitiara replacement he may very well end up being the major bad guy of the campaign.  Such a figure deserves more of a build-up over time.

Cut Scenes: Consider the use of cut-scenes, where the action jumps away from the PCs to the heart of the Empire.  For better interactivity, you might consider having one of the players control the Kitiara Replacement in their dealings with the Empire's leaders.  This allows the players at the table to get a better look at the main villain even if their PCs do not.

Rumors: Have Ariakas' name pop up several times over the course of the Chronicles.  Even better, assign him titles and rumors in line with his vaunted nature: have the Solamnic Knights and Elves call him the Hammer of Krynn, an epithet comparing him to the Cataclysm in the destruction he wrought.  Have people in occupied territories speak of how he turned an assassin in Sanction to dust with but a pointing gesture.  Dragonarmy officers and dark pilgrims of Takhisis speak fondly of his speeches in Neraka's old Colosseum.  Consider scattering autobiographical propaganda books written by the Emperor among the treasures of Dragonarmy soldiers, telling his ascent from a poor boy with an abusive father to his pilgrimage to the old temple of Neraka, and how it's due to the Dark Queen's gift that he can wield magic.

The Cataclysm

Interior artwork from Holy Orders of the Stars

The Cataclysm is the elephant in the room of Dragonlance morality.  Although the themes of good and evil are an element in Dungeons & Dragons, in Dragonlance Chronicles they are huge themes.  As the alignment system is intermixed with morality, and often changes definitions over the decades as new Editions come about, Dragonlance is often subject to the common problems and arguments.  But in several cases they are exemplified, most notably in the case of the Cataclysm.

For those not in the know, one of the largest empires of the setting was Istar, an increasingly repressive theocracy whose Kingpriest wished to wipe the world of evil.  This ended up turning the empire into a tyranny: races deemed "evil" or incompatible with Istaran norms were exterminated or enslaved (including a bounty on kender), and even neutral-aligned religions were deemed to bear the shadow of darkness and outlawed.

The Kingpriest felt that he could challenge Paladine himself, who he viewed as weak in "permitting evil to thrive."

There's no doubt that Istar was repressive and the result of much suffering, and the Legends of the Twins sourcebook indicates an alternate reality where the Kingpriest was successful in his bid for godhood.  This has terrible implications: one out of three living beings upon Krynn would die from the onslaught of magical energy upon his ascension, and Paladine would be bound in a spiritual cage as the Kingpriest became a living avatar of divine power.

But in the main timeline, after several failed warnings and assassination attempts, the gods decided to send a "fiery mountain" crashing down upon Istar's capital.  This resulted in a significant portion of the eastern continent to fall under the waves as the land was rent asunder.  The gods then left the world for 350 years, as mortals put their faith in a flawed and tyrannical mortal instead of them, and so began the Age of Despair as the land of Ansalon fell into suffering and woe.

The Cataclysm in Canon: So that's the official explanation.  Naturally it doesn't sit well with many gamers, and there's some internal inconsistencies.

One, is the dilemma of widespread destruction.  One of my players once described the Cataclysm as "understandable, but still evil in the grand scheme of things."  Yes Istar's rule was terrible and the gods may very well had no choice but to resort to something so drastic, but the fact of the matter is that it's consigning millions of people to death and suffering, and not just the land who fell under the waves from the meteor.  The Cataclysm affected geography and weather patterns all across the planet of Krynn, including Ergoth which was split in two.

Two, one of the underlying plot arcs of the original Chronicles is that the gods did not leave the world, that mortals left them instead.  This may very well be true for Istar, yet the setting makes reference to races and communities still loyal, who even in absence still wait for their return.  The dwarves kept the temple forges glowing even in the absence of their patron creator.  As it's expected that one of the PCs will be the Prophet who reveals the return of the non-evil gods to Ansalon's people, this is undoubtedly an issue which will come up.

Three, Dragonlance has a concept known as the Balance where too much Good or Evil is equally harmful.  To show this, the side of Good isn't so "good."  The Empire of Istar, in spite of its many purges and forms of oppression, was in fact a good-aligned regime, and the Kingpriest's canon alignment is Lawful Good.  A similar trend can be seen among the Qualinesti and Silvanesti elves, who if they were anything other than elves would most likely get saddled with the Evil alignment.  This ends up in a case where the neutral deities are the most admirable, whose tenets of free will is something a lot of gamers might find compelling other than the oppressive authoritarianism of Light and Darkness.

An Alternative Cataclysm: the Retreat

So right now I've been working on a variant.  This one presents the Cataclysm as more muddied and presents the changing point in Krynn's history not as a unanimous decision among the divine, but a fraught and troubled action which ultimately questioned their role in the world.  I still want to keep as much of the themes of the adventure path intact, and provide an incentive to view the return of the Gods of Light as ultimately a good thing.  This alternate is meant to inject a murkier sense of justice in the gods' decisions, as well as providing impetus for the Dragon Empire's popularity in resentment against the old gods for the Age of Despair.  At the same time, I wanted to give an explanation for why the Gods of Light and Balance aren't taking a more active hand in combating Takhisis' Empire.  There is strong indication that the Nerakans of the Taman Busuk region are the descendants of old Istar due to a shared alphabet, and swooping in as powerful avatars to stop the Dragonarmy would bear too much similarity to what they did with the Kingpriest.

Without further ado, the Cataclysm and the Retreat.

The Kingpriest of Istar at the height of its power had a government, clergy, and populace who felt that they what they were doing was right and just.  The doubters and opportunists existed, but they quelled their hypocrisies with rationalizations and double-think.  What was once a bastion of Good set by Paladine’s examples strayed into the path of Evil.  Slaves working the fields and condemned to blood sport in the Colosseum, ethnic cleansing of races and cultures deemed to be ‘inherently evil,’ religious persecution of benevolent religious orders, and the attempted ascension to godhood himself, the Kingpriest’s regime could not be Good except under the most warped of moral thinking.

Zivilyn, God of Wisdom, saw that if this continued, Paladine himself would be enslaved by an elaborate magical ritual with the Kingpriest as the most powerful being in the cosmos.  This catastrophe will result in one out of three living beings on Krynn to die, from the smallest blade of grass to the longest-lived dragon.  Ansalon would look like a graveyard world, entire sections of once-fertile plains turned into dusty fields made from the dead flesh of the once-lived.

The Gods of Light sent down many signs, but the damage was too far gone.  Even when Paladine himself manifested as the Platinum Dragon in the empire’s capital and denounced the many crimes of the Kingpriest, the clergy convinced the citizens that this was trickery by the forces of evil.  Divine portents went ignored, the true good-aligned remaining clerics hunted down and jailed, and Istar entered into an inescapable descent into depravity.  Even the death of the Kingpriest would only allow for another corrupt lord to ascend his throne, and there came a time that in order to prevent an apocalypse, the deities of Krynn had to take action in a way which sent a message that the people had no choice to ignore.

A meteor in the shape of a divine hammer crashed down onto Istar’s capital, sending entire regions of eastern Ansalon plunging into the sea as millions died.  This was far less than the loss of life and suffering than if the Kingpriest ascended, but even then the reverberations of Paladine’s brand of justice did not go unquestioned, even by his fellow Gods of Light.

The Cataclysm and its impending actions were debated and argued before, during, and after the devastation it wrought, with each deity having their own reasons and ethos for its justice or injustice.  Even those who felt it was necessary still reeled at its implications.

“The role of a deity is to be a teacher, not a tyrant,” said Mishakal, Goddess of Community and Love.  “Our edicts are so that mortals can see how our wisdom can make them help themselves and others.  Should mortals follow our laws out of fear of punishment and not genuine devotion, then we have failed them.”

"If we continue to rule Krynn’s spiritual sphere after the Cataclysm, we would be worshiped out of fear," added Zivilyn, God of Wisdom.  "Our dogma followed out of placating overwhelming powers with the specter of a second Cataclysm hanging over them forevermore.  Better to retreat from the world and make the deities of Darkness do the same; better to be cursed and vindicated by mortals who feel abandoned than supposedly devoted ones screaming prayers to the heavens no different than pleas for mercy to vengeful gods. Otherwise we’d be no different than the Kingpriest, or Takhisis."

And so the Age of Despair began as the Gods voluntarily left the world.

Takhisis and the other Gods of Darkness were staunch supporters of the Cataclysm, long hating how Istar's reign saw their minions and plots destroyed time and time again.  Even though Takhisis wormed her way into the hearts of foul-hearted priests clothed in the vestments of Paladine during the reign, she much preferred to rule openly and saw the devastation wrought as a fertile ground for power.

The people of Krynn cried out for the Gods' help, doing all sorts of things to try and earn their favor.  Religious turmoil was at an all-time high as people tried praying to new gods, including ones they made up to give new meaning to their lives and reinterpretations of the old pantheon without clerics to commune with the divine.  And many people cursed the gods, who felt that they did not deserve this fate, from Istaran survivors who felt betrayed for their devotion and former enemies of the Empire who could not understand why they suffered as well.

And so the gods watched.  Takhisis found a way to reenter Krynn without the watchful gaze of the Gods of Light and Balance noticing.  She transported the old temple of Istar from beneath the Blood Sea and transported it to Neraka.  The people here were the descendants of the Istarans who fled to the mountains for safety as the torrential waters rose over their old lands; this new temple drew many pilgrims to it, and some of the more learned recognized the design as the old empire of their forebears.  From goblins to dragons to humans, more and more people flocked to Neraka, some of them hearing the voice of the Five-Headed Dragon herself.  They knew that there was a goddess who could answer their prayers, a goddess who sought renewal and order, a goddess who could help end the Age of Despair and bring a new Age of Might to the land.

The Dragon Empire made massive inroads in its first twenty years of existence.  Aided by dragonfire and clerical magic they invested their power and resources into consolidating control of the mountains and earning the loyalty of outlying provinces.  Most nations who came into contact with them quickly learned to fear them, and the metallic dragons could not intervene due to unknown reasons.  The Black Robes of High Sorcery quickly cast their lot in with the Empire once they saw its nascent rise.  The Red Robes cared little for an outside world which hated their kind, preferring to study magic for the sake of it.  As for the White Robes, their ability to do good was limited by distrust in most lands of Ansalon.

Every year in the Age of Despair took its toll, and although bound by agreement Mishakal felt a sense of failure.  She failed every time she refused to whisper to a crying child at the bedside of her dying parents; she could use her soothing words to know that death is only a greater step in the journey along the River of Souls.  She failed every time she let a promising doctor whose heart was full of compassion get overwhelmed by the cruelties of the world.  She failed every time she did not bestow divine grace upon the worthy, so that fewer souls might suffer in Despair.

Mishakal never forgot the Cataclysm, never forgot the words of Zivilyn and how with but a single action they could inadvertently send mortals down the wrong path, like what happened with Istar.  But as she saw the hand of Takhisis moving, the battlefields of slaughtered dead, and the Empire's calling upon the glory days of Istar led by a sorcerous ruler who wore the same crown as the Kingpriest, she could sit by no more.

Paladine used overwhelming divine power to end Istar's evil, only to bring more of it into the world.  She would follow another path in line with her role as healer and provider.  Her influence on Krynn would be subtle, yet beneficial.  And so she entered the dreams of a mortal in Abanasinia, showing them the location of the Blue Crystal Staff and Disks of Mishakal in Xak Tsaroth, so that her word may spread once again to the peoples of Krynn.

Next time we'll be covering Dragons of Autumn proper, specifically Dragons of Despair and Flame.