28 Nov

Fraz-Urb’luu, the Prince of Deception, Part 1

“I eat vorpal swords for breakfast.”
True story.

This month sees my article, Demonomicon of Iggwilv: Fraz-Urb’luu, the Prince of Deception, appear in Dungeon #208. To go along with it, I’m adding some supplemental information here about the least popular demon prince of the Abyss, Fraz-Urb’luu. Obviously, this additional material is not official Wizards of the Coast canon. This “bonus content” is essentially fan material that just happens to be written by the guy who wrote the article about Fraz-Urb’luu.

With that in mind I also want to point out that I stood on the shoulders of giants to create what I did about the demon prince that was born of Gary Gygax’s personal campaign world and refined over the years. Fraz-Urb’luu is a piece of Dungeons & Dragons history and I was honored to add my own thoughts to what came before. As I’ve said previously, I have a soft spot for villains and the demons (and devils) of Dungeons & Dragons are no exception. Continue reading

3 May

Minor Divination: Reese’s Paradox

No Bulettes Allowed.
“Sci-fi only. Please take your fantasy and get out!” Artwork by Jeff Dee

I prefer science fiction. There, I’ve said it. I can provide no account of why, at least no more than I can explain my love of lobster. It would appear I’m just wired that way. I read far more science fiction than fantasy and I certainly prefer science fiction to fantasy in the few movies I go to see. I draw the line at television, however, where neither genre ever succeeds in engaging me enough to hold my attention for more than an episode or two.

On the heels of that confession, however, I should continue by saying that when it comes to roleplaying games I settle in most comfortably with fantasy. Dungeons & Dragons has remained my touchstone game since I first started playing RPG’s. When I think of gaming in general, I revert to a fantasy mindset. It might be rooted in the fact that D&D was my introduction to RPG’s and thus I’m a creature of habit. It could just as easily be as inexplicable as my love of science fiction stories.

Peanut butter in chocolate.
“Nice going! Now we both have to make Sanity checks!”

But my passion for the two genres in equal measure in separate directions would seem to lend itself to mashups of style. It doesn’t. A player in one of my groups is perpetually trying to sell me on bizarre settings. The exchange is a typically quick and brutal: 1) he accosts me with an absurd notion such as dragons in space or cowboys casting spells, 2) I roll my eyes and declare his words an abomination. (Despite the frequency of these exchanges, we remain friends.) I explain that when I was in the tiny, poorly stocked hobby shop in my old home town I saw the Spelljammer boxed set and grew physically ill at the very notion it conveyed. I want to scream with a certainty only my imagination can provide, “Magic is terrestrial!”

Of course, I am a complete and utter hypocrite. Second to D&D, Shadowrun is one of my favorite settings. And even it won me over after a glowing recommendation from someone else. Prior to that, I saw a troll carrying a gun, rolled my eyes and, per usual, declared “abomination.” Now two of my bookshelves actually bow under the weight of Shadowrun material. (In my defense, I will point out that magic remains terrestrial.)

Still, Dragonstar and Spelljammer hold no appeal for me (to my friend’s continued disappointment). And its nothing against the quality of the material. I’ve read it. I’ve genuinely enjoyed it. I just don’t want to adventure there. And, finally, I think I can offer an explanation for this particular personal taste. It goes back to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Be warned: there are (30 year old) spoilers ahead.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
It’s a spaceship. Also, Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

When I read S3 in preparation for running it, my mind was blown. I was young, relatively new to D&D, and had barely scratched the surface of what was possible. The idea that I could present the characters with something entirely unfamiliar to them, while simultaneously being tropes that are utterly familiar to the players, astounded me. It proved to be an incredible adventure. But the replay value suffered. Once you know you’re on a spaceship, know that you’re collecting keycards, and know you’re toting a laser gun the excitement fades a little. Still, we frequently played it, often as people decided it was time to forcibly retire a character.

More importantly, though, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks offered itself as the exception. Greyhawk wasn’t littered with spaceships (well, not too excessively anyway). I knew I could continue to explore a fantasy setting after that weird, (literally) experimental weekend in the Barrier Peaks. Eventually, the science fiction equipment would lose power and turn into curious metal junk and my character would go back to worrying about lost caverns and whatever the drow where up to hanging out with the giants of the Crystalmist Mountains…

My hypocrisy made landing my recent contribution to D&DI, Dungeon #201 on DTRPG that much more important to me. Nods to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks were important to me, but I wanted the integration of the adventure to function as the exception that the old AD&D module was. I loved the old adventure but I didn’t want to deliberately “corrupt” a fantasy setting with space ships and blasters in my ode to it. Instead, I wanted it to be a bizarre backdrop for the continued machinations of the existing fantasy villains.

If the setting speaks to the players, they can continue to pursue that version of the world. The other Dungeon and Dragon articles of the month all support that idea of integrating and exploring that strange new world. And they present it piecemeal so the DM can approach it from a variety of directions and set hooks that the PCs either bite for or pass up. I recommend giving all of them a read, because whether they fit your setting or not, they are all incredibly well done:

For me, the gradual approach is also the best approach. I like exploration in my fantasy games, but I like charting my own course. If I don’t want to begin a five year mission to explore strange new worlds, I don’t have to. I can take the fight to the illithids in the Underdark (where they belong) but, after a few too many rounds in the tavern, maybe I’ll mention how I’m pretty sure I fought their ilk on the moon. Patrons will laugh nervously and excuse themselves. But who knows? Maybe I’ll start to wonder what else is out there…

19 Apr

Minor Divination: Brace for Impact

Spoiler Alert: The world is devoid of meaning.

I await publication dates with a certain amount of trepidation. Of course I’m always excited at the prospect of being in print (or “in pixels,” as is often the case nowadays). There’s a certain stamp of approval that accompanies a notice of acceptance. There’s also a certain amount of assuaged hunger that accompanies a cashed check. But a second round of judgment is waiting in the wings: there’s an audience lurking out there.

Being judged on the merits of my work is not particularly troublesome anymore. One of the most important lessons I took away from my college’s writing program was accepting, and learning to thrive on, criticism. Criticism can home in on mistakes such as jumps in the story that the writer never questioned because he or she already knows an answer (and mistakenly assumes the reader does, too). Criticism can spot plot holes, weak characters, and, of course, good old-fashioned grammar mistakes. Criticism is also the “view from the outside” that can be difficult, but not impossible, to replicate on your own.

It’s important to put that criticism to good use but to know when too much of it is compromising what you intended to create. A good critic tries to make the author’s effort sound more like the author’s effort, not his or her own. A lot of people can overlook this simple truth. By the time some people finish their this-is-what-you-should’ve-done list I’m often asking, “Well then why didn’t you come up with the idea and write it?” But these are the exceptions.

Writing for games, particularly shared settings, invites another level of criticism though. A precise analysis of canon and the much more nebulous “authenticity” generates its own form of criticism. Jared von Hindman and Shawn Merwin wrote some great articles (here and here) on the topic with regards to Dungeons & Dragons canon. And both articles came along at just the right time as I was bound for where angels fear to tread, straight into potential canon-fire, when I had the opportunity to read them.

Shared worlds are dangerous places. People have an affection and attachment to them because they have tethered so many of their gaming memories to their gnarled, nuanced surfaces. When I have the opportunity to carve something into the surface of that world I implicitly believe that the tools I’m using came with a note reading: “Handle with care.” But I’m still going to use those tools to create something I find pleasing and hope that at least some others will as well. The conventional wisdom insists you can’t make all the people happy all the time and the internet has finally proven that wisdom beyond the shadow of a doubt.

In the interest of full disclosure, Drelnza is dead; I destroyed her when I was twelve years old. Please adjust your campaign accordingly.

I’ve never played in any of the “living” settings although I’ll admit to being fascinated by them to a degree. For me, canon is delivered in a boxed set, supplement, or PDF and its previous “shared” state of matter degrades as I put it on the table for consumption by my players. A different set of people are sharing it now. (There’s a Google+ analogy in here somewhere…) The world only remains shared if everyone else who bought the product emails me to let me know what major figure got murdered in their world. I don’t want that. My inbox doesn’t want that.

I’ve always been a fan of Shadowrun’s extremely well-developed canon and its method of exploring an ongoing history. Everything you read might be a lie. Or it might not. Who knows? Well, maybe the developers have some ideas but that doesn’t help the GM and the player’s day-to-day as they game. Instead, the GM is deciding what’s true, which is a fundamental aspect of roleplaying games in my opinion. And, beyond deciding what’s true, the GM or DM can decide what there is and isn’t a place for in his world, even if his world is Greyhawk, the Realms, Krynn, or Eberron.

When it comes to “less forgiving” histories, I try to hold close to canon whenever possible but I’ll never let it stand in the way of telling a good story. I certainly won’t use alterations in canon to blindside a player. After all, what he thinks is true is player knowledge while what his character knows to be true is character knowledge. His character won’t be shocked to learn that Pelor is dead if that’s a change I’ve made in my campaign world, but more than likely, the player will be! (Also in the interest of full disclosure: Pelor is still alive and well.)

That’s me at my own table, though. My input into the larger scheme of things, writing down ideas that receive some kind of official-looking wax seal in some far away office, takes into consideration the idea that I have to share. And I want to do right by the other people who have a vested interest in what I’m doing even as I’m trying to tell a good story. I’m never out to ruin anyone’s game, just to offer an option or two to make it different. It might look suspiciously like canon, but it’s all just possibilities.

Failing that, I can create an NPC villain for your campaign. His name can be Ross. You can apply the Scapegoat template/keyword to his stat block and have your players pursue him to the exceptionally well-defined ends of your canonical world to punish for his efforts to damage all creation…