Thursday, January 31, 2013

80's TV Thursday: Street Hawk

For the foreseeable future, Thursdays on my blog will now be devoted to chatting about old 80's "genre" shows. In the past, I've talked about two of my favorites from back in the day: Voyagers and Tales of the Gold Monkey. As with my posts on New Comics Wednesday, I will strive to incorporate some bits on how elements from the programs can influence and/or inspire some tabletop (or G+, for that matter), gaming, and also I'll now include a short blurb on whether or not I think the show is appropriate for kids, for those of us who are raising geeks-in-training.

Note that my purpose in chatting about these shows is not to make fun of them - despite some of the jokes I may make, I remember all of these fondly from my youth. I'm not necessarily saying that they'd hold up today, but I do think that there's some good ideas in each of them that can be explored and expanded on, particular for use in certain styles of RPGs. 

Today's show is a fabulous example of 1980's style-over-substance: "Street Hawk." Remember this one? If not... do you remember "Knight Rider" or "Air Wolf"? If so, then you know "Street Hawk", except that the main vehicle is a motorcycle. In a similar fashion to Knight Rider, the vehicle is a better actor than the humans on the show.

The premise of the show, from what I can remember (augmented by a little Internet research I did) is that there's this secret government project run by a nerd scientist named Norman Tuttle, played by Joe Regalbuto (a very recognizable character actor, but probably best known for his role on "Murphy Brown"). The government has decided to fun this super awesome attack motorcycle that is capable of incredible speeds and has guns and missiles and stuff, and, most importantly, can be controlled by the nerd scientist guy in this awesome computer control room that's vaguely like the Batcave, except with no bats.

The project is super top-secret, and needs to go through a test-phase, so the government recruits a police officer named Jesse Mach, most likely just based on his last name alone. Mach (played by Rex Smith) was a former motorcycle cop who was injured in the line of duty and has been moved to a desk job as a PR officer for the department. Tuttle and Mach had a very "Felix and Oscar" type of relationship, which is natural given the broad brush with which their characters are drawn ("the nerd" and "the jock," essentially). However, of course, a level of mutual respect develops at the end of the Pilot and they agree to work together. Mach leads a double-life, continuing his police department PR job during the day, and then becoming the helmeted vigilante, The Street Hawk, by night.

Further complicating matters is that Mach's very own Captain at the Police Department is fixated on finding out the identify of The Street Hawk and bringing him to justice. He of course he no idea that one of his own men is the black-clad motorcycle vigilante.

This show debuted on ABC in 1985 as a mid-season replacement and ran for only 13 episodes, through May. It was not renewed for a second season.

I remember being really excited about this show when it came out. I guess I was just at the right age (14) to be able to enjoy a show like this. I had never been a huge fan of "Knight Rider" but for some reason, "Street Hawk" seemed grittier and more "real" to me than a talking car.

I think one of the reasons I really liked this show was that I had recently been really getting into a little game called "Car Wars," which is a small little "wargame" wherein players design cool customized vehicles using a point-buy system and then battle each other in a vaguely defined dystopian post-apocalyptic future. I was really into the game, by which I mean, I was into designing vehicle after vehicle of cool cars, trucks, and motorcycles that were equipped with guns and lasers and missiles and grenade launchers and turbo boosters and all that kind of stuff. We always spent way more time designing cool vehicles than we did actually playing the game.

Also, the show had an awesome intro and a theme song by Tangerine Dream. Come on!


Here are some thoughts:

  • Seriously? This sounds kind of cheesy. Should I really watch it? Honestly, I think you can get all you need from this show from the introduction posted above, unless you really are into motorcycles and want to see it in action. This is definitely more of a "nostalgia" show for me - I don't claim, by any means, that it's good television. It was just a fun time as I recall, but I don't even see myself watching it if it were to come on TV in reruns any time soon.
  • Anything useful for my tabletop gaming? There are some interesting ideas in the program, depending on what kind of game you're running. If you're running a modern spy-type game, there are probably a few things you could pull out of this for inspiration. The shadowy government agency top secret program that's designing an "all-terrain attack motorcycle designed by fight urban crime" is a huge stretch, but it could lead to some questions as to why it's secret in the first place. There are some interesting bits with how the computer control center works, doing things like plotting out a route in real-time that avoids traffic and other obstacles and then programming that into an auto-pilot for use then the motorcycle goes into "hyperthrust." And of course, if your game involves having high-tech vehicles, you could get a bunch of ideas from this.
  • Is it okay for kids? Yeah, I think this one is fine. There are guns and explosions and stuff, but it's that really exaggerated over-the-top stuff that's not much different from a typical animated program that's on these days. I'd say you'd be fine with ages 5 and up, if your kids are really interested in wanting to watch this.
I'd be really interested in hearing all of your thoughts on whether you remember this show, if you watched it, and what you thought of it. And, also, if you tried to stat-up a Street Hawk type motorcycle for your "Car Wars" games. :)

STREET HAWK

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: just tap water right now
Listening: "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" by 布袋寅泰

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

New Comics Wednesday: Aquaman (New 52)

Continuing on with my new plan for each day having a "theme" on my blog, for Wednesdays I've decided to devote the day to New Comic Book Wednesday and discuss a title that I picked up that week, and why, and also have a little discussion about ideas you can mine for RPGs, whether or not it's good for kids, if it has any tie-ins to animated properties, etc.

So, we'll dive in this week with a discussion of Aquaman #16, part of DC's New 52 and a tie-in to the "Thrones of Atlantis" story-arc that's running across both this title and also Justice League.


Yes... Aquaman.

I know. I know.

I get it. I seriously used to hate Aquaman. Why do people hate him so much? Personally, I blame this:






People hated Aquaman in the old Hanna-Barbera Superfriends cartoon from the 1970s, and with good reason - he was lame, and looked like an idiot. The guy wears an orange shirt, has the absolutely totally amazingly useful superpower of being able to talk to fish, and... well, yeah. That's about it.

The thing is... MOST of the DC Super Heroes were portrayed a bit like morons on that show. Aquaman just stood out because it's like they had to go out of their way invent scenarios where he could be in the water, just so he'd look useful.

DC did some things in the mid-1990s to try to make the character "cooler" by shedding his clean-cut image in favor of long hair and beard, and having his hand eaten off by piranhas and replaced by a harpoon. And then he died and came back as a zombie Black Lantern and then was resurrected by a White Lantern (because in the DC Universe, heroes never stay dead no matter how noble their sacrifice). So, you know, your typical super hero stuff.

Let's get back to the "New 52" Version of Aquaman. Firstly, let's define "New 52" for those of you who don't know. The New 52 was DC's rebooting of their entire line of comics in the Fall of 2011 when they effectively "canceled" all of their long-running comics and the next month brought out 52 new comic books, all numbered starting with #1. This was a way of trying to bring in new fans who might be intimated by a comic numbered in the 800s and with 70+ years of historical baggage. The idea was that you could start reading these books with no prior knowledge and you wouldn't be lost, because everything that had happened before hadn't actually happened. That's a huge generalization - they did keep some stuff intact, but don't worry about that for now.

[Full disclosure for me - I stopped reading monthly issues of comics from about 1991 until about 2012, and in the in-between time only read original graphic novels and the occasional trade paperback collection, so I'm not really up-to-speed on all the stuff that happened in regular comic continuity during that time except for the "big" stuff (the various Crisis books for DC and some big events for Marvel). For DC, I was reading mostly Elseworlds stuff. ]


All right - so, Aquaman. Well, the thing is, DC did something really interesting and clever with this book. Firstly, they put one of their best writers (and one of all of comics' best) on the title, a guy who also just happens to be their Chief Creative Officer - Geoff Johns. It seemed a bit of an odd choice to put one of their best on a title that, most likely, nobody was going to care much about and that they were most likely publishing out of an "obligation" because Aquaman is one of the big name guys that people recognize, whether they like him or not.

And then Johns did something really interesting. He took on all of the things that people hate about Aquaman head-on. He didn't ignore them, he didn't try to make Aquaman so over-the-top bad-ass cool as a way to say to the detractors, "But... see? He is cool! Honest! PLEASE?!" That wouldn't have worked.

Instead, within the first few pages of the first issue of Aquaman, we see the hero standing in the middle of a downtown street, facing down a stolen armored car that's racing toward him, followed closely by a police patrol car. You see the robbers inside the armored car scoffing at Aquaman's appearance and attempting to run over the "Tuna-man," as they call him. Meanwhile, the police officers are wondering "Aw, Hell. What's Aquaman doing here? We're not in the ocean, and I don't see any fish around..."

Aquaman stops the armored car flat, and is asked by one of the patrol officers, "You need a glass of water?" Aquaman says "no," and wanders off as the officers speak to each other:

"I can't believe we just got upstaged by Aquaman."

"The boys at the station are never gonna let us here the end of this."

The book is full of little scenes like this - people, upon seeing Aquaman in action, instead of marveling at what he does, say things like "Hey, did you see SNL last week when they did that skit of Aquaman? Freaking hilarious!" Police officers constantly push him to the side, telling him that he's not needed and that they have things under control.

One of my favorite scenes occurs when Arthur Curry (aka Aquaman) enters a restaurant near the coast, in full Aquaman regalia, sits down, and orders a plate of fish-n-chips.

"You can't get the fish and chips!"

"Why?"

"Because you talk to fish."
 Aquaman, looking frustrated and a little annoyed.

"I don't talk to fish... Fish don't talk. Their brains are too primitive to carry on a conversation." 

A nerd then attempts to interview Aquaman "for his blog," and the hero later walks out of the restaurant, casually flipping a gold doubloon onto the table as a tip for the waitress.

The "orange shirt" is dealt with as well, along with many other misconceptions about the Lord of Atlantis. All the while, we see how Arthur Curry and his wife, Mera, attempt to lead a normal life among the surface dwellers and do their best to do the right thing and protect and help people - the very same people who are making jokes at their expense.

DC also put one of their best artists on the book, Ivan Reis, who teamed previously with Geoff Johns on a number of projects, most notably Blackest Night. His pencil work is extremely detailed and somewhat reminiscent of old-school Neal Adams. Recently, Paul Pelletier has taken over to Reis on this book, starting with Issue #15. Paul does some great compositions to back-up Johns' writing, having to do a lot in terms of drawing tons of battle scenes between the Atlanteans and the surface world without things getting too crowded and hectic that you can't follow what's going on.

I've read the hard-back trade collection of the first six issues of the title, called The Trench, which involves some mysterious under-water creatures that bear more than a passing resemblance to some old-school horror movie monsters, and I mean that in a good way. In this story-arc, we also see some relatively dramatic personality changes in Mera and how Arthur deals with that while trying to figure out what the deep sea monster race is up to.

I'm currently reading the most recent monthly issues of the title as well, as it ties into a story arc with Justice League, called "Throne of Atlantis," and also written, coincidentally, by Geoff Johns. This week's issue of Aquaman, #16, is Part 4 of that storyline, which concludes next month (I think). In this issue, we get to see the formation of a "new" Justice League - a team of heroes who have been on the main Justice League's radar and who are called up into action when the "big guns" of the Justice League are incapacitated. This is all leading, I think, to the unveiling later in February of a new book, called Justice League of America, again written by Johns and containing a new team with more ties to the American government.

Recommendations:
  • Should I buy this issue? That's a little hard to say. If you haven't been reading comics at all recently, and aren't reading Justice League, this would be difficult issue to jump into as it's part of a cross-book story arc. Since this issue also involves the formation of a "back-up" Justice League, in a way, you don't get as much focus on Aquaman as in some of the previous issues.
  • What about the title in general? I would full-heartedly recommend picking up the first trade collection of "The New 52 - Aquaman Volume 1: The Trench" either at your local comic book store, or online via an app like Comixology on your iPad or smartphone. It's a great re-introduction to a character you probably thought you knew. You'll be pleasantly surprised. 
  • I read your blog more for your posts on games versus on comics. What's in it for me? As mentioned, there's a really cool deep-sea monster race that surfaces in this story-arc to wreak havoc, and they're almost a tiny bit pseudo-Cthulhu-like in a way. The way they are treated in this book could make a good model for how you portray Kuo-Tua, for example, in a D&D game, or just used exactly as they appear in the comic as a maritime foe. The book also provides good examples of how to work back-and-forth between sea-based and land-based adventures. I tend to overlook sea-based adventures in my games when I DM, instead just looking at sea travel as a way to get from Point A to Point B. This storyline has given me ideas on how I might actually focus on the journey and turn it into an adventure.
  • Is it good for kids? Based on the amount of violence, I'd say no, but of course that's up to each individual parent to judge. There's very limited swearing (Hell, damn, that kind of thing), and no sex, but you do see sea monster bad guys being skewered by Aquaman's trident. There are also some mild scary parts with Mera toward the end of the book that could frighten smaller kids who don't understand what's going on. I'd say that, at the earliest, that a smart seven year-old could handle it, but that's kind of stretching it. A tween or teen would be better suited. 
 As this is my first post for the New Comics Wednesday theme, I'd love to hear your thoughts - do you like seeing different subjects covered here, or would you prefer that I stick more toward RPG-related stuff? For the post itself - too much detail, not enough? Did it make you interested in wanting to read the new Aquaman title?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Decision Decisions Tuesday: "Bad Guys"

As mentioned in yesterday's post, I'm going to try to assign a particular topic to each day of the week (excluding weekends) in an effort to get me a bit more focused and hopefully more on track with posting more frequently.

I had originally scheduled for Tuesdays to cover the topic of animation, specifically the genre of Super Hero programs from my youth all the way up to today's shows like "Young Justice" on Cartoon Network (which is totally awesome and yet Cartoon Network didn't renew it for next season). 

I still plan to cover animated programs, but they, as of right now, won't be a regular weekly feature. As I looked at my list of topics, I realized that not enough of them were "game-related" and yet the majority of my followers of part of the Old School Renaissance of role-playing games.

So, with that introduction, for the next little while, Tuesdays will be devoted to what I call "Design Decisions," where I write about why I like things a certain way in my role-playing games, with specific attention to how I developed my current campaign setting of the World of Samoth.

I've actually written some "Design Decisions" posts before, covering Gnomes & Halflings, Dark Elves, and Races in general (and on that topic, shouldn't we really be calling them "species" at this point?). You can also do a tag search for "Design Decisions" which will pull up other posts with themes like Religion in RPGs, Racial Classes, and more.

For today's Design Decisions, I want to talk about Bad Guys in fantasy RGPs and how you go about selecting which ones to include.

As some background, when I started creating campaign settings for RGPs shortly after I started playing D&D in 1983 or so, my fantasy foundation consisted of The Hobbit, the Chronicles of Narnia, and a bunch of "pulp" adventure stories like Conan and Tarzan, and mythology, specifically Greek, Norse, and Arthurian. So, obviously, my "bad guy" influences were more along the lines of the standard "orcs-goblins-trolls" variety from the Hobbit, un-named, otherwordly individual one-off demon-types, evil sorcerers, and cultists from Conan, wild animals and tribesmen from Tarzan, giants from Norse mythology, and evil (or mis-guided) knights and seductive witches from the tales of King Arthur.

As my RPG career continued, I eventually gained access to the 1st Edition Monster Manual, Fiend Folio, and Monster Manual II, and saw just tons and tons of monsters... that I would never use.

I totally get why those books were made the way they were made, and how they had to appeal to a very open and broad definition of what "fantasy" was, but I could just never see myself using all of those monsters. Lots of them are just plain silly (Owl Bears? Really?) and the idea that you should find a place for all of those monsters in your campaign world is just ludicrous. Even as a kid, I always chuckled a bit at the marketing that took place at TSR when a new monster book was released and it coincided with a new adventure module that featured the monsters from the new book.

Now, looking back, I get that one shouldn't try to fit all of those different monsters into one single campaign setting, but of course that wasn't made clear to me as a young 13 or 14 year-old kid.

In any event, when I went on, much later, to create my World of Samoth setting, I chose to handle my "bad guys" a bit differently. I broke them into only a few different categories:

  • Humanoids
    • These were your typical orcs, goblins, etc. They would be somewhat prevalent, but handled very differently, as noted in the post on "Races." In general, I wanted my humanoids to be seen "suffering" in the face of overwhelming human superiority of numbers, and having to make a choice: adapt to human ways ("assimilate") or become hunted outcasts ("traditional"). For each type of humanoids, there are examples of both types. For an example, see the write-up on "Goblins of Samoth" on my campaign website.
  • Undead
    • I wanted to include a lot of undead in my campaign world, because to me they made "more sense," and were scarier than, stuff like Vegepygmies, brain moles, or Neo-Otyughs. I just didn't "get" those other monsters, and couldn't figure out a place for them in my world. 
    • The way I envisioned undead, to make them even more scary, was that each one was created as an individual - there were no "races" of vampires, for example, so people wouldn't know what they were or how to defeat them. Over time, this concept got watered down, but every time I've used undead, I've tried to use slightly different forms or change them up a bit so that they don't seem too generic.
  • Demons and Devils
    • These were going to be used to represent the various types of crazy, powerful otherwordly creatures that Conan fought a lot of, many of which were summoned by evil sorcerers
    • Similar to the way I handled undead, they weren't going to be categorized, but rather used individually in very specific circumstances, so no two were ever alike
  • Giant-Types
    •  Giants and ogres were going to be used pretty much just like the standard depiction in the Monster Manual, but just used very sparingly. The idea was that, the average person has probably never seen one, and most think that they're fairy tales and don't exist.
  • Dragons
    • Dragons were going to eventually play a big part in the campaign, but at the beginning, nobody alive believes in them any more - they are fairy tales used to scare small children
    • The players in my campaign eventually discovered that they were real, but every dragon they've met so far has been evil - even a so-called "Silver" Dragon has a bluish-tint to its scales...
  • One-off Monsters (abberations, fairy types, etc.)
    • I did have a place for single-use creatures, like a beholder or nymph, but I just wanted to get away from the idea that there were "races" of these things running around. I wanted to keep them special and unique, so I've kept the different types to a minimum and reduced them to single individual specimens that were probably summoned here ages ago by a crazy wizard or something 
  • Humans and their Allies
    • This is probably my biggest group of "monsters" in the game - humans with class levels that represent opposing political groups, religious zealots, crazed cultists, soldiers who are "just following orders," raiders, etc. 
    • This keeps things much closer to the Conan and King Arthur stories that were part of my fantasy educational foundation
In this way, I hope to have created a milieu that was somewhat consistent and created a "feel" for my world that my players can instantly recognize, and immediately know when something feels out of place.

However, this approach did leave literally hundreds of monsters from the official Monster books that I didn't use. To this day, I think "Monster-books" are one of my least-favorite supplemental materials (next to books of new spells).

I often wonder what it would be like to start a new world, or use a published setting like, say, Greyhawk, that uses all (or almost all) of the monsters in the Monster Manual.

How do you all handle monsters in your campaign worlds? Which ones did you include, or not include?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Pulp Noir Monday: Heroes of Rura-Tonga (Review)

In an effort to be a little more consistent with how often I blog, and also to give my readers a better sense of what to expect, I'm going to try a new organizational element where each day of the week (except weekends, when I don't tend to blog much, if at all) is dedicated to a different subject.

Mondays are going to be reserved for subjects on Pulp-era games, comics, movies, etc. This isn't to say that I might not also blog about other things on a given day, such as recaps from the various RPGs I'm playing or reviews of a book I just read or show I just watched. This is really just an effort to help give me a little more incentive to get back to more regular blogging.

With that introduction, let's get on to today's post.

The pulp era is one that I've been fascinated with for almost as long as I've been a fan of role-playing games and other "geek" media like science-fiction and fantasy, comic books, etc. It probably started, if I had to guess, with "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which came out in 1981. I really loved that movie, as it combined elements of so many different things I was really interested in at the time, including ancient Egyptian history (spurred by the traveling exhibition of the Treasures of Tutankhamun, which created a small media frenzy in the late 1970s) and World War II (helped by a healthy diet of Saturday matinee movies like "The Dirty Dozen" as well as the not-so-subtle resemblance of Star Wars' Imperial Officers' uniforms to those of the Nazis). I loved "Raiders" as a kid, and as I got older, that era really started to appeal to me.

I think part of it is the aesthetics - I love art deco designs, and they started to come into more prominence during this time. It's during this time that you see the constructions of buildings like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, as well as cool-looking stuff like steel locomotives, "brownie" cameras, those old-school radios, huge, fancy, sleek-looking cars... I love that stuff.

Part of it is the sense of discovery and the unknown - this is the era right before our modern age of computers and technology, before nuclear bombs and spacecraft and the Internet. The world was a much "bigger" place, and there were a lot more areas that were considered mysterious. There's a feeling to this era that there probably really were still some cultures that hadn't been "discovered" by modern people, going along doing things the way they'd been doing them for hundreds, or thousands, of years.

There are lots of other reasons that I love this era, and I will discuss them in future Pulp Noir Monday posts.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post of a television program back in the 1980s called "Tales of the Gold Monkey," which was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of "Raiders of the the Lost Ark." It took place in the South Pacific in the late 1930s, and lasted for one season before being canceled due to low ratings.

Shortly after I made that post, I received an email from Peter Schweighofer, a prolific game designer and owner of Griffon Publishing Studio, who informed me that he, too, liked the show as a youngster and had, in fact, used it as inspiration to create a pulp-era RPG sourcebook called Heroes of Rura-Tonga: Pulp Adventures in the South Pacific. He was kind enough to send me a copy, and I sadly haven't gotten around to reviewing it until now.

What It Is:
Heroes of Rura-Tonga is a 106-page PDF sourcebook for creating pulp-era role-playing game adventures in the South Pacific, using the system of your choice. Peter uses his "Any-System Key" to present stats in the book, which present character skills and task difficulties in terms that easily translate into different game systems. You can read more about the Any-System Key on his site. 

In the 106 pages, you get a description of the fictional island of Rura-Tonga, including its history and inhabitants, how the island and its residents fit into the overall political landscape of the world at the time (right before the outbreak of World War II), detailed information on pulp-era seaplanes, the Japanese military forces in the area, templates for creating characters, and five fully-developed adventure scenarios that take place on the island. The PDF also includes maps and, in a nice touch, black-and-white photographs illustrating the various inhabitants, equipment, locales, etc. 

Cool Bits:
The book includes lots of information that will help to run a game in this type of setting without getting bogged down in too many historical details that would get in the way of just picking it up and running with it. There are brief, but helpful, discussions on subjects like Communications, Politics, the different political entities at work in the area (Japanese, British, German, American, etc.), discussion on the indigenous population of the island and how they fit into the political landscape, several different NPCS (some of whom are not what they seem, of course) and their motivations... it's just chock-full of ideas for running a game here. Within the short of space of just the first 17 pages or so, I was fully engaged in reading and wanted to learn more.

Throughout the book are little "side-notes" covering things like "What Could Go Wrong?" when owning and operating a seaplane (with a handy table of effects), period RADAR and how it worked, and ideas on how to work Amelia Earheart into the story, if you so choose. Those are just a few examples, but these are strung througout the book and are super helpful and creative ideas to help a Game Master run a game in this setting. 

The section covering seaplanes from the era is pretty exhaustive and includes lots of photographs. There are also stats and information on aircraft carriers, cruisers, submarines, etc. 

One thing I found very interesting regards Vincent Astor, the son of John Jacob Astor (who died when the Titanic sank), and how connected he was to politicians of the day (including President Roosevelt) and how he was able to use his position and wealth to essentially carry out a "vacation cruise" in the area that was actually a covert mission to gather intelligence on the Japanese military. 

The five adventures included in the book truly portray the pulp era well, and include a lot of cool pulp staples, including crashed airplanes, zombies, ghost ships, mysterious diseases, animal-human hybrids, tribal medicine, ancient treasures and lost civilizations... this is great stuff, sure to spark your imagination.

Who Will Like It:
Obviously if you're a fan of the pulp era, then this book is right up your alley. Even if you're not actively involved in a campaign right now, there is plenty here that just makes good, fun, light reading for those interested in the subject matter. Fans of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," World War II history, and "Tales of the Gold Monkey," just as examples, would probably all enjoy this book. 

In terms of running a game with this book, I think the Savage Worlds system totally fits the bill. I think it could also work with the Forbidden Kingdom setting written for d20 Modern. Lastly, given the time period, I think a pulp-era Call of Cthulhu game (using your system of choice) would totally work here. The adventures in Heroes of Rura-Tonga include plenty of scenes and other-worldly creatures that would call for some Sanity Checks.

HEROES OF RURA-TONGA


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Firestone Walker Double Jack
Listening: "Stella by Starlight" by Miles Davis 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Game World Inspirations: World of Greyhawk

Image Courtesy of The Acaeum.com
Up to this point, I've talked about a few of the inspirations for my home campaign, the World of Samoth - specifically mentioning The Known World, The World of Conan, and real-world History. Clicking on the "Inspirations" will also pull up a host of other blog posts related to things that inspired the shape of my campaign world.

All of those, and more, had a big impact on the "flavor" of my campaign world, but one thing in particular had very specific impact on the way that I organized my world, the type of information I chose to develop and portray, and the aesthetics of how the information was presented: the 1983 World of Greyhawk boxed set from TSR. Yes, I know that the earlier 1980 "folio" version of the setting is the darling of the OSR community, but I never had that version, and I've still never seen it. The boxed set is the one I grew up with, and the one that I used as a model for my campaign world's earliest iterations. The reason I call my campaign the World of Samoth, and not just Samoth, is because of the World of Greyhawk.

I won't get too much into the actual contents of the World of Greyhawk boxed set - there are other sites that do that, and sooner or later I suspect that it will be available as a PDF from WotC now that they're beginning to sell PDFs of all of their old out-of-print products again.

What I will say is that Gary Gygax had very specific ideas on what constituted "world-building," for including way more detail that was needed, and also for hanging on to his war gaming roots by including information that would be helpful if one were running a miniatures war game but which would likely not be necessary at all for one playing a role-playing game.

A scanned page from my World of Samoth campaign
notebook, with calligraphy and hand-written notes.
The name "Sudor" was eventually changed to
"Samoth." Circa 1986.
To illustrate these points, I'll first cover the concept of solar systems, planets, and so forth. This information was included, with some level of detail, in the boxed set, and this was really the first time I'd ever seen anything like this presented in this manner before. I'd read books about Narnia, Middle Earth, Conan's Hyboria, etc., but it never occurred to me in all of those readings to think about other planets in the solar system, or how often those particular worlds orbitted around their sun, or how many moons they had. Even having seen Star Wars and its multitude of planets never caused me to rethink how the fantasy lands I'd read about as a kid dealt with these subjects.

Anyway, I dutifully took notes and included this information in my own campaign world, even copying the presentation style, and verbiage, of Gygax. I've included scans of some of these old notes, written in graph paper in a combination of calligraphy and regular ballpoint pen.

The thing is... it's never come up in my game. Ever. I've been running this campaign for about 12 years now, and never once have the various other planets come into play, nor the question of which of Samoth's two moons is waxing or waning, etc. At one point, I attempted to force-graft a very elaborate astrology system into my game, and allow spellcasters to take feats (this was in 3.5 days) that would allow their magic to increase in power when certain astrological things were happening, but also negatively affecting them at other times. I ultimately discarded this because I realized that it was way too much record keeping, and ultimately, I could tell that my players just wouldn't care. That's not a bad thing - I'm not "blaming them." It's just really too much detail than what is needed for the game.

(As a side note, just for fun, I named all of the other planets after the names of girls in my high school classes that I liked at the time, but just rearranged the letters. Ah, youth...)

Calligraphy and hand-written notes on the Calendar
for the World of Samoth. Circa 1986.
Another example is a pretty elaborate calendar system I developed, again patterned on the one Gary put in World in Greyhawk. And, just like Gary, since he included the names of different months for various different cultures, I did the same. And, again, this has never come up in play. The only time the days of the week get mentioned, at all, is when I get around to writing the recaps of our various sessions and I go back and see what day of the week it would've been and note the date on the recap. I do track seasons and things like that, so that I can appropriately describe the weather, but other than that, it's something that seems cool at the time, and seems to really add a level of detail to a world setting, but ultimately does not have a huge impact during game play.

Speaking of weather, this is an area of "adding more detail than is needed." Gary had ported over a "Weather Generation System" that someone had submitted to Dragon magazine and dropped it into the World of Greyhawk boxed set. Once I saw this in the guide, I started to panic slightly. My young 16-year old self thought, "Holy crap... he's talking about weather and average monthly temperatures and amount of rainfall... this stuff has to be real. If I try to fake this, someone's going to call me out and everybody is going to hate my world and think I don't know what I'm doing." At this point, since I wasn't actively playing D&D at the time, world-building for me was really done with an eye toward eventual publication, so I wanted everything to be "just right." I started digging through my parents' set of old World Book Encyclopedias from 1962 and trying to figure out the average temperature and weather patterns of various areas of the world, and then applying that to my campaign setting. The result was a weather table that looked almost identical to the one from the World of Greyhawk.

More importantly, it's never seen use in any of my games. Ever.

Regarding the point on Gary's war gaming roots, when he wrote up the short synopses on each country in the World, there were two main things that he covered: the name, class, and level of the ruler (so you could stat them out, in case you wanted to fight them, I guess), and also a very detailed analysis of the country's military forces (the number of "heavy foot" and the weapons they carried, etc.). Again, I figured "this is how you build a fantasy campaign world" and I went on to detail the numbers, armor, weapons, and type of the military forces of each country in my world, and went so far as to "mix things up" by giving certain countries soldiers that specialized in wielding the glaive-guisarme, for example, or the voulge, rather than just a plain old halberd or spear or whatever. This kind of stuff was important to me. Gary included it, so it's got to be in there.

Guess how often it's come up in my games?

There is just so much stuff in these two little booklets in the World of Greyhawk setting, and every detail of it was absorbed by me and then included in my campaign world. I have notes on the types of clothing worn by the various different human races, the types of instruments most common among the dwarves of different parts of my world, elaborate descriptions of the "death rituals" of four main races in just one specific country, the migration patterns of different races of humans across the main continents... all of this stuff just seemed to be necessary and integral to the building of a cohesive fantasy world. No detail could be skipped over, or the world wouldn't feel "real."

And, you know what? Despite 99% of this stuff never actually seeing use in game play, I do think it has affected how much I know about my campaign world. That might seem like an odd statement, since I just made the world up, so obviously I know everything about it. What I mean, though, is that because I spent so much time developing these details over the past 25+ years, they creep in at times what I probably don't expect it, and maybe don't even realize it, and I hope make the world a richer place to adventure in for my players.

And, for that, I will always be grateful that I snagged a used copy of the World of Greyhawk boxed setting from one of my buddies when I was a kid.
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