Monday, October 5, 2020

The Occidental and the Oriental in Faerun, Part 1

 I'm a giant fucking nerd, so when I was reading Edward Said's Orientalism for class today my mind inevitably went to applying it to the Forgotten Realms. And there's a lot to be gained there, by applying Said's critique and analysis of Orientalism to the Forgotten Realms.

So let's do it!

First off, a couple notes. I didn't read all of Orientalism in one go, just the first third; this isn't academically rigorous but is good enough for application to elfgame settings I believe? Also READ IT YOURSELF IT IS SO GOOD AND SO INFLUENTIAL.

I'm White and born and raised in Canada, same as the creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood. Just so you know my bias here.

Importantly, Said's definition of the Oriental (the historical/cultural use in the real world) is not the same as it has typically been used in D&D. In D&D it's used as a synonym for East Asian, like with the various Oriental Adventures rulebooks and settings. Historically the real world Orient has also included the Middle East and West Asia as well.

Keep this in mind because I'm not talking about Kara-Tur here (the Oriental Adventures setting, set far to the east of Faerun as an East Asian complement), but I'm talking about Faerun itself.

And what's Faerun? Here's a map:

(Map taken and hacked up from thank you for the simple outlined map)

This is Faerun, the chief continent where the Forgotten Realms takes place as a setting. Depending upon the edition, it generally ends to the east somewhere around Semphar or Durpar.

Even if you're a very very casual fan of the setting, you've likely heard of SOME of the names on this map, like Waterdeep and Cormyr. But why those two? Why haven't you heard of any of the rest?

Here's a quick edit to that map:

I've overlaid onto the map labels for the areas that are generally considered the main focus of the Realms from 1st to 3rd Edition: the Western and Eastern Heartlands, and the North. The vast majority of printed FR content - game sourcebooks, novels, even comics - occurs in these regions.

But what's the rest of the world for? Why is it there? Why not write more about those parts? There's so many books on Waterdeep and Cormyr and the North, why can't we get something different?

Well, that's where Said's Orientalism comes in.

Foreign Diplomats: The Other at Court

A quick synopsis: in Orientalist doctrine, the world is divided into two halves. The known, civilized, sociable Occidental half, and the exotic, mysterious, fantastic Oriental half. Said questions Orientalism as a cultural project: not the actual places collected as the Orient itself, but the stories and studies and writings Europeans have done of the Orient. Orientalism tries to explain the Orient to Europeans according to European worldviews, creating its own self-perpetuating idea of what the Orient is or should be, only informed by these stories and not actual experience with Oriental peoples, cultures, or places.

On that map of Faerun, the areas referred to as the Heartlands are so named because they're where Ed Greenwood set his significant home campaigns in the Realms prior to publication. The Company of Crazed Venturers came first, in Waterdeep; the Knights of Myth Drannor was the second, in Cormyr and the Dalelands. As you can see, one group fits in the Western Heartlands, and the other in the Eastern.

Both Waterdeep and Cormyr are stable, cosmopolitan places that are centres for trade and culture. As part of creating a living, breathing, believable world (a goal Ed has worked very hard at over the years), trade and culture require other places to exchange things with. And Ed named many of the places outside of the Heartlands as locations for trade and for cultural exchange with. In particular, much of the nations to the east of the Heartlands were originally named so that exotic or mysterious foreign dignitaries could make appearances at royal court in Cormyr!

Those nations, places like Turmish and Chondath, were originally constructed as Oriental narratives in comparison to the Heartlands as the known European/Occidental space. Ed created them as mysterious, exotic Others for his players to make comparisons with. These foreign dignitaries aren't always villainous, scheming, or opposed to the players and moral action (no, Evil is the Zhentarim and capitalism is Sembia) but they are definitively created as an Other.

Race is inextricably a part of creating this Other, as well. The peoples of the Heartlands are largely White and the assumed default; the Turmish are Black, and most of these nations to the south and east of Cormyr are home to people of colour.

From the very beginning of the Forgotten Realms, even its first few publications in Dragon Magazine, there is a division between the known and the unknown, the native and the foreign, the Occidental and the Oriental.

Multimedia Project 1987

I've talked about the publication of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set elsewhere so I won't get in to too much detail here, but the important detail is that beyond the Heartlands much of the Realms wasn't detailed prior to publication. Most of Ed's work had gone into the Heartlands, and places like Turmish and Mulhorand were his foreign dignitary NPCs and names on maps, not fleshed out full states.

This was great for the TSR of 1987, because when they picked up the Forgotten Realms to be their new flagship campaign setting (to replace Greyhawk), they had a significant corpus of existing information about the setting to produce in and around the Heartlands but also lots of empty spaces on the map for them to expand and fit in new products.

The first published Forgotten Realms product wasn't even by Ed Greenwood or really even a Forgotten Realms product. Douglas Niles' Darkwalker on Moonshae novel was originally an entirely separate project but the Moonshaes were rolled into the Forgotten Realms for publication and given space on the western coast. Other writers and developers added their own pieces: Vaasa and Damara come from the Bloodstone AD&D modules (also published before the FR itself), and R.A. Salvatore described choosing Icewind Dale as "his" part to write in by jabbing his finger at the map where no one else had claimed a spot yet. (Jeff Grubb at this point was coordinating the entire line and stitching Ed's original works together with the new additions by TSR staffers.)

This also applied to Ed's Oriental nations and places. FR3 Empires of the Sands covered Amn, Tethyr, and Calimshan. Amn had been partially worked on by Ed (he used it as a small starter campaign setting he ran for kids at his job at the library); Scott Haring added the Orientalist trappings of caliphs, harems and genies to Calimshan. As written in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set Thay was a land of fell, evil magics - Steve Perrin expanded it in FR6 Dreams of the Red Wizards into a scheming place redolent of incense and with bearded, scheming wizards. (Another Orientalist archetype.)

Most significant was Scott Bennie's FR10 Old Empires, which took Mulhorand and Unther and filled them with extradimensional refugees from real-world Egypt and Babylonia, struggling in eternal wars lead by their untethered god-kings, making an explicit connection between nations and regions of the Realms and cultures of real-world Earth.

This wasn't a mistake on Bennie's part, to be clear: TSR had explicitly asked for these kinds of places to be inserted into the Realms, so that it could have "an Egypt land" for groups wanting to play in those kinds of games. Historical/mythical reenactment was something that TSR pushed hard for D&D around this time with the HR (Historical Reference) series of supplements for Second Edition AD&D. Ed notes his pre-publication Mulhorand was inspired by Robert E. Howard's Stygia, itself a pastiche of Egypt; real-world Egypt was not a crazy revision. (Especially because the name - the Forgotten Realms - itself refers to Narnia-style portals between the Realms and the real world, now forgotten by the families guarding the extradimensional portals.)

What is notable, however, is that many of the additions by TSR's staff were real life cultures or places with the names filed off. Mulhorand was Fantasy Egypt; Calimshan was Fantasy Araby. Because of this, the direct inspiration for and influential texts upon these parts of the Realms were themselves Orientalist - either Orientalist studies of the real world Orient, or Orientalist stories like Stygia in Conan and other pulps. Again, this was a common practice for many fantasy settings of the time and certainly was something in TSR's other D&D settings until that point (Greyhawk, Dragonlance and Mystara); the Orientalist fantasy as something exotic, fantastic and unknowable is incredibly fertile ground for D&D gaming! (If you're not aware of its limitations, racial, and cultural biases, that is.)

It was also very easy, and that was also appealing to this disparate group of designers and writers suddenly filling up a vast world with new creative projects. TSR saw the Realms as their Next Big Thing, and pushed lots of new products there to make it a commercial success: it was their best multimedia project, with novels and adventures and game books and comics.

Creative fatigue lead to this process not just being limited to filling out the rest of Faerun, however. What made the Forgotten Realms so appealing was Ed's relentless focus on handcrafting a believable, realistic, world that felt livable in, and the Heartlands were full of these details. Unfortunately writers beyond Ed also worked in the Heartlands, and reduced it to Occidental, not Oriental, archetypes. Particularly in the novels, you began to see treatments of Cormyr as medieval England in all but name, Amn as equivalent to Renaissance Spain, and so on. These trite reductions made the Realms feel like nothing but outdated stereotypes, and they happened just as TSR produced a number of wildly inventive unusual settings that were far more captivating and weird (Spelljammer, Dark Sun and Planescape in particular.)

But one place escaped this harm, by finding the historically exotic in something definitely Occidental.

The North; or "Where All Those Damn Drizzt Books Are"

I highlighted a third area on the map above, and now it's time to talk about it. The North, also called the Sword Coast North or the Savage Frontier, has eventually come to outstrip even the Heartlands in terms of publishing attention.

Unlike most of the other areas outside the Heartlands, the North had at least partially been worked on by Ed. His Company of Crazed Venturers game took place along its coastline and in Waterdeep; FR1 Waterdeep and the North largely consists of his materials from that game that didn't fit into the original Forgotten Realms Campaign Set. FR1 was still sketchy though, and focused primarily on Waterdeep itself, not the entire region.

Filling out the North fell to Jennell Jaquays. Her FR4 The Savage Frontier (published as Paul Jaquays) is the best of the original set of regional supplements filling out Faerun, specifically because Jennell was able to synthesize Ed's original ideas for the North with her own historical reenactment: Vikings. Jennell wrapped Ed's history of Waterdeep around an indigenous population called the Uthgardt. These Uthgardt did have a history of island pillaging and a strong warrior culture - but Jennell also placed them inland, giving them animist spirituality and deep ties to sacred sites across the entirety of the North. The "barbarians" of D&D now had a home, both informed by popular culture and made into something fresh and new.

To some degree, writing for the Realms at this point was like checking off representation requirements from existing AD&D materials. It was in this manner that R.A. Salvatore pitched his Icewind Dale trilogy to TSR brass, having identified the very top of the North as open for new projects and suggesting a novel of strange magics with a human barbarian, a dwarf fighter, and halfling rogue. There wasn't much to really make his pitch stand out, so Salvatore stammered out suddenly that there would also be a drow character! A good drow, one like that new race in Unearthed Arcana. A good drow? Now that had some potential - and soon The Crystal Shard (now book 4 in the Legend of Drizzt) was approved.

While The Crystal Shard kept in Icewind Dale, its follow up, Streams of Silver, did not. Bruenor Battlehammer, king of the dwarven Clan Battlehammer, searches for his lost realm and finds it, deep inside the North. Bruenor's Mithral Hall tied him, and Drizzt, and the other characters, inside the North, giving them a place to grow as characters. Grow they did, and Salvatore's further novels about Drizzt delved into the BDSM/Mafia mashup drow city of Menzoberranzan deep under the North. Drizzt, the drow, and the North, became exceedingly popular characters and settings, with further novels and game supplements to match. In Drizzt, the Realms had something weird and unusual to match Planescape and Dark Sun in terms of appeal, even if it wasn't visible on the surface.

The drow are still essentially Oriental, I think. They are a twisted, dark Other to the typical D&D elf, and Salvatore filling them out with female-dominant kink tropes echoes the exoticized sexual appeal that Orientalism trades in. Drizzt's process of becoming a hero is essentially reconciling himself to Occidental ethics and repudiating the darkness of his homeland, becoming a respectable "good drow," even if not everyone can see that.

Okay, this is over 2000 words so I'm going to stop here for the night, but here's my list of what I want to cover in future parts:

-The Oriental text versus reality, parallelling sourcebooks versus actual play
-how the underlying Oriental/Occidental split influences what we think is interesting about the Realms, and what gets more products in 2e and 3e
-how criticizing Oriental texts can be used to criticize the Oriental spaces in the Realms
-as always why 5e dropped the ball so goddamn hard (aka why the Sword Coast feels so fucking small and why Chult was super disappointing)
-and yeah I have to talk about malicious versus naive Orientalism, aka why Mulhorand works and why Maztica doesn't

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Real Forgotten Realms Part 2: What The Realms Isn't

Yes, it took me 20 days to get back to this. This has been quite the busy month, personally.

When people talk about the Forgotten Realms, one of the common criticisms is "having too many high-level NPCs who take all the spotlight and fix all the players' problems for them. Why do the PCs have to slay the evil Lord Malthiir of Mulmaster, why can't Elminster do that with his absurd power level?"

I say that this is common because when I talk about the Realms with people, this is one of the common criticisms that is brought up frequently, from old-school and new-school players, people with all kinds of experience with the setting. I'm not going to dispute that criticism here, because I want to admit something to you instead: it's completely founded in truth.

A short historical aside: the Forgotten Realms were originally created by Ed Greenwood as his home campaign, and were purchased by TSR when TSR needed a new campaign setting for AD&D. They asked Ed because he'd written a lot of very popular Dragon articles about the Realms. Why did TSR need a new campaign setting? Well, at the time, they had two: Greyhawk and Dragonlance. Greyhawk was tied up in legal disputes with Gary Gygax, while Dragonlance had been designed for the very specific Dragonlance modules and novels project. Dragonlance was very successful and sold like crazy, but the things that made it sell well also made it very inflexible. The Forgotten Realms, then, were a new "core" setting for AD&D, where they could put a lot of their other projects and creative properties and tie things together. This began as soon as the very first Forgotten Realms product, which wasn't by Ed Greenwood or part of the "main" Realms: Douglas Niles' Darkwalker on Moonshae was his own Irish-inspired fantasy setting for D&D that got folded into the Forgotten Realms.

Shortly after the Old Grey Box was released, 2e AD&D came out. 2e AD&D introduced a number of story and setting changes to the game, a lot of which were motivated by uneducated fearmongering about D&D (such as the removal of assassins, and the name changes for demons and devils to tanar'ri and baatezu.) Each of TSR's campaign settings, then, had to be updated to fit these changes. And for the Forgotten Realms, TSR decided to take another stab at the multimedia project model Dragonlance had shown sold so well. So, the transition from 1e to 2e for the Forgotten Realms wasn't just a new supplement, it was an Event, a big marketing push with lots of new products. (This model TSR and WotC would return to again and again; collectively these are referred to in the context of the FR as "Realms-Shaking Events", or RSEs.)

And that Event was the Avatar Crisis. The gods all get thrown down from the planes, forced to live as mortals on Toril, and duke it out, rearranging magic and which god controls what and so on. The most prominent/popular event to come from this is the Bhaalspawn of the Baldur's Gate computer games, a nice addition to Bhaal, the god of assassins, dying. Because, you see, Bhaal had to die: he had to die, so all the assassins would die, because assassins weren't appropriate content for 2e AD&D. In other words, the Avatar Crisis is metaplot as fuck. Editorial determined what changes needed to be made, and the authors and designer who wrote the corresponding trilogies of novels and adventures had to follow those changes. (Books 4 and 5 of the Avatar Crisis were published years later as a follow up RSE, hence the official name changing from the Avatar Trilogy to the Avatar Crisis. There's also tie-in comics from DC, but I haven't read those.)

And those modules: well, they're fucking abysmal.

Shadowdale. Tantras. Waterdeep. Honestly, any group that actually completed these should get a fucking medal. These are EXACTLY what people are thinking of when they talk about FR adventures where the NPCs solve all their problems for you, where you're stuck to a railroad where explosions happen and none of your choices matter. Because again, these were metaplot as hell.

These were patterned after the Dragonlance modules, which were also very railroady, but there's an important difference. In the Dragonlance modules, the players play the story-crucial characters (like Goldmoon, the new cleric proving the gods are real) from a pregenerated selection. The novels are really the retellings of the module playtesting, with the various designers and writers breathing life into these characters; the modules allow you to make you their own. The pieces still move on train tracks, but you're the pieces.

The Avatar Crisis modules DON'T have you playing the plot-crucial characters. Instead, you create your own PCs - and then get attached to the plot-crucial characters through increasingly more implausible coincidences and schemes. You find out the same plot as the novels - not by taking part in it, maybe by seeing it. A lot of it is just read out by the DM in boxed text; when the modules bother to actually fill in the PCs on the important things going on. Essentially, the PCs just babysit the actually important characters - Midnight, Cyric, Kelemvor - and have the events happen to them. Affect the outcomes? Take your own choices? Oh, no, definitely not: the metaplot must go on. The PCs get captured, kidnapped, forcibly teleported around, all to make sure they're in the right place for the right event. Worse yet, because the PCs AREN'T the main characters, they never even see or participate in many of the most exciting moments in the actual novels (such as Midnight's journey through the Fugue Plane.) The actual climax to the whole trilogy - a rooftop battle with Myrkul the god of death - is won no matter what the PCs do: if they fail, Midnight and Elminster win for them.

Why do I bring this up, you might ask? If you're trying to convince me the Forgotten Realms are good, why do you confirm all the worst stereotypes first?

If I hide it, then I have to spend a lot of time covering up how bad these are. I'd have to lie, and pretend they don't exist, or justify them in other ways. My argument would be weakened by not addressing crucial disputative evidence.

If you're familiar with the logical structures of arguments, you probably already know what I'm going to say. You can never prove a negative: I can't say that the Forgotten Realms are never bad. But I can prove a positive: I can show you how the Forgotten Realms are good, and interesting, and prove THAT. 

See, that's the secret, and it always has been, ever since the Old Grey Box in 1987: you've always been told to use what you'd like, and throw out what you don't. Make the Realms your own. I can't account for every product ever, and to be honest, there are a fair portion of terrible ones out there. I can show you the good ones, and why they're good, and teach you how to make the setting your own and make the Realms work for you.

One last thing. Remember how I said there were multiple novelists for the Avatar Crisis, but only one designer? It's true. All three of those horrible modules were written by Ed Greenwood. Next time we'll talk about what the Forgotten Realms is, by showing you how Ed really sets up games when he's not forced to write to a metaplot. And I promise it won't take as long.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

The Solo Dungeon Jam For Everybody!!!

I started an game jam to create solo dungeons in the style of Gary Gygax's original random dungeon tables: Submissions are open for two weeks (or a bit longer, you'll just need to message me to approve your submission personally), and you don't need to be familiar with solo dungeons, dungeon design, or a specific OSR system (the jam uses B/X, with links to free copies of the rules included.)

I'm looking forward to breaking out some of my favourite tables and playing through what other people come up with!

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Real Forgotten Realms, Part 1: I'll Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes

Let's face the uncomfortable truth: the Forgotten Realms, as presented in 5e by Wizards of the Coast, sucks. And it sucks hard.

It's boring and overloaded, unspecific and too much, obsessed with the history of D&D and yet somehow not considering its own canon. It's a fucking mess, and I can't blame anyone for hating it or disliking it.

However, I love the Forgotten Realms. I love the setting, I love the stories, and I love talking about it, playing in it, and sharing it with people. I keep having these conversations with people, on blogs, in chatrooms, on forums, in my own games, and they always end the same way: "Jeez, I thought the Forgotten Realms sucked, Erika. But you make it interesting and cool." (This is my paraphrasing, but I've honestly had people tell me this a lot.)

And I have this conversation a lot. And I enjoy having it? But I have it a LOT. Like probably more than I talk about my actual real life stuff.

So I'm going to try and put it all down here, every little piece I can think of. I can't show you all the secrets, I can't cut out parts of every book to show you all my favourite bits of lore. But I can explain it, and reference it, and tell you why I love this setting. Why it is so good, so fun to play in, why it's a blast to run, and why I keep coming back to it - as a roleplaying game, not a collection of novels, not a metaplot, not a fangirl convention over Drizzt.

I'm going to show you how the Forgotten Realms is good.

Consider me Morpheus. I'm going to show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. I can take you to the forgotten other world you never knew existed. You take the red pill, and I'll show you the real Forgotten Realms. You take the blue pill, and you wake up next to a pile of 5e adventures and can forget this ever happened. It's your choice, and I can't make it for you.

(Aside: Yes, the above image got tainted by alt-right idiots and frankly I don't give a shit. It's my metaphor as a trans woman, and I'm using it. So there. Also, the actual red pill is literally pregnant horse piss and it tastes like hell.)

Here's your blue pill:

And here's the red pill: 

For those of you who aren't aware, the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide is the current FR campaign setting book for 5th edition. You can buy it on Amazon, and people really like the bladesinger wizard in it.

The other book is the original Forgotten Realms Campaign Set, the first campaign setting, designed for 1st edition AD&D, back in 1987. You can buy a scan from DriveThruRPG, and people really like the old-school sandbox world it offers.

Note that you don't have to be old-school to take this journey. The 3rd edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting is my personal favourite, and that's pretty new school. Plenty of feats, class options, and tieflings right in the core rules. To understand the setting, to really understand what makes it tick, you should start back at the beginning though. I recommend reading the FR Campaign Set (also called the Old Gray Box) at some point, but you don't have to do it right now if you don't want to. (This is also why I've tagged this post as PLOG for the Possum Laws of Gaming - you can join this journey with whatever D&D you'd like.)

Life is crazy for me and everyone else right now, but I'll try to update this series once a week. I have no plans, no progression. Just ideas and a bunch of practice at showing people why the FR is cool.

NEXT: What The Forgotten Realms Isn't, And What It Really Is

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

20 Setting Questions, Reredux: OSE FR ("Grim's Knights") Answers

Anthony over at Dungeonantology put together a new list of 20 questions to answer about your campaign setting so that players have an idea of what to expect.

I'm answering them for one of my PLOGgy campaigns. Both my campaigns take place in the Forgotten Realms; this is my "Grim's Knights" campaign, which uses heavily houseruled OSE (with a lot of 1e and 2e and FR material packed in), and takes place in northern Cormyr in 1357 DR. (The beginning of the Forgotten Realms as published in the 1e Forgotten Realms Campaign Set.) We're starting with a greatly expanded version of FRQ1 The Haunted Halls of Eveningstar.

Answering these questions then isn't about answering with particularly canon FR answers, because that's kind of boring - it's discussing how I'm portraying the Realms in this particular campaign, how the players are interacting with the setting, and how that is its own unique trash. I'm tagging some of these with the appropriate sources, in case people want to do more research; but I'm showing this to my players, so I'm not telling all the exact details.

1. What is something that players can interact with that inspires wonder in your setting?

I think the most wondrous thing the players have encountered themselves yet is when they tried to smoke out the Caverns of the Claws last session, to force out the trolls dwelling there. The wind was in their favour, and the black thick smoke filled the cavern. The trolls did rush out, terrified, burning to death in the firewall at the entrance. But something huge inside came out too, with eye tentacles and claw tentacles twenty feet long each, and it smashed apart the firewall and broke open the smoke with little trouble, knocking down Dansk and almost slaying him. It thankfully took Nym's owlbear leg as an offering and retreated back into the depths of the cave. Now the players know that things ancient and magical lurk in surprising places.

(Said monster IS right out of the Forgotten Realms setting-specific monster books, but I'm not telling. Yet.)

2. How does one religion in the world work? What rituals and observances are involved, and how does this religion play with other religions out there? Are gods real?

The gods of the Realms are definitely real, and the ones in Northern Cormyr are all part of a single loose pantheon. Eveningstar has only one temple, the House of the Morning, dedicated to the sun god Lathander; but they accept many other faiths. In the Realms, people choose a single patron deity to devote themselves to, but often offer prayers, sacrifices, or work to placate other deities. The PCs returned a dead hireling to the sanctified graveyard at the House of the Morning, and offered simple prayers to her patron deity, Tempus. Randal whispered his own private prayer to his goddess, Chauntea, at the gravesite, and Chauntea showed her favour with a flower blooming on the hireling's grave. Other such manifestations have been visible.

(Basically all the FR campaign setting books/Faiths and Avatars.)

3. How does one get access to goods and services in the setting? Items, magic items, hirelings.

Eveningstar makes good trade selling to adventurers, so standard goods are very much available for sale in the shops of the town. (One of the shopkeepers is a dick who takes glee in humiliating the adventurers who come to buy from him, but he still sells to them.) Magic items are not generally available for sale, although the House of the Morning sells limited amounts of potions of healing for exorbitant prices. (Again, profiting off adventurers.) Hirelings are common, with plenty of people coming to prove their mettle in the Haunted Halls.

(FRQ1 Haunted Halls of Eveningstar, Volo's Guide to Cormyr)

4. What are some examples of people and creatures a commoner would be wary of in-setting? What are some examples of people and creatures a commoner could trounce without worry? What are some examples of people and creatures a commoner would trust?

Unusually for the Forgotten Realms, Cormyr is generally a strong, stable kingdom. Commoners generally trust their noble, good King Azoun IV, his military (known as the Purple Dragons), the various government officials, and the War Wizards, the national force of magic-users under Royal Magician Vangerdahast.

Eveningstar's position just below the Stonelands means goblin, kobold, and orc raids are not unheard of. Commoners would be wary of monstrous humanoids or significant bestial monsters (worgs, owlbears), and likely try to call on the local Purple Dragon detachment for help.

The most common creature a commoner in Eveningstar would trounce is a tressym, the winged flying elven cats. For some reason, a large semi-feral colony of them exists in Eveningstar.

(Revised Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, Volo's Guide to Cormyr)

5. Name a heroically slain dragon, or something comparable in threat. How was the creature slain, according to stories? How was it actually done? Was it a fluke or a well-executed slaying of a monster?

The most recent dragons slain were a year past, when a Flight of near a hundred dragons boiled forth from the Cold Lands to the north and east, destroying much of the cities before them. Lady Lord Myrmeen Lhal proved herself an able ruler when one such dragon attacked Arabel in northern Cormyr. Under her coordination, Arabel's large garrison of Purple Dragons took the dragons down with catapults and archery, the creature crashing to the east. Purple Dragons are not generally outfitted to fight dragons (Arabel is garrisoned against humanoids, such as orc bands or rebels), but with the assistance of the War Wizards, they succeeded.

(Forgotten Realms Campaign Set, Forgotten Realms Adventures)

6. How do people who adventure (if there are even such people) get jobs and contracts in this setting?

Adventurers in Cormyr require an official adventuring charter from the Crown in order to adventure legally. Chartered adventurers may take jobs or contracts from anyone, as long as such actions do not injure or damage Cormyr, its government, or its people.

(Volo's Guide to Cormyr)

7. How do people convey their station/caste if such things exist? In particular, what intersections do station/caste have with the adventuring lifestyle (whatever the players are in the setting...guards, tomb raiders, bounty hunters, etc.)?

Clothing and privilege matter a fair amount in Cormyr, which has significant noble and merchant classes. Nobles have rights that members of lower classes do not (for example, they can stop their carriages in the middle of busy streets, impeding traffic), wear their own protected heraldry, and so on. Members of all classes adventure in Cormyr, although it is not generally thought of as a wise or socially acceptable profession; third-or-so in line noble children may adventure for lack of anything better to do to prove themselves.

(Elminster's Forgotten Realms, Revised Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting)

8. What privileges and prejudices exist in your world, if any do at all? For example: How does the world view LGBTQ identities, ethnic identities within each fantasy “race”, and race relations?

In general, Cormyr's cities are quite tolerant, while prejudicial, close-minded views are more common in smaller communities. A prominent rumour in much of Cormyr's villages is that the odd "lass-lovers" flock to each other in some sort of commune out towards the Stonelands; in reality, many queer people find happy, accepting lives in Arabel, Suzail, and the other cities.

Nation of origin can be met with some skepticism; the neighbouring country of Sembia is often regarded with disdain, as its "gold-first, scheme at all costs" views are often thought of as misguided and something to be avoided.

People of other ethnicities are sometimes exoticized, such as the Mulhorandi and the Turmish far to the south and east across the Sea of Fallen Stars.

Elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes are accepted in Cormyr; orcs and goblins are not. Half-orcs are met with suspicion.

(Swords of Eveningstar, Forgotten Realms Campaign Set)

9. What is the distal view of the political system? Is it feudal, is there a suzerainty, do we have a triumvirate, etc.

Cormyr is a hereditary monarchy, with House Obarskyr the continual ruling house since the country's founding, when Ondeth Obarskyr claimed the right to settle the Forest Kingdom's lands from the elf-lords who held dominion over it. Succession goes to the first-born first, regardless of gender (currently this is Crown Princess Tanalasta), as long as they have an accepted claim to the throne. (Bastard children have been an issue in the past; regents ruling on behalf of underaged rulers is not unheard of.)

Other noble houses exist, with their nobility granted for service to the Dragon Throne; intermarriage with House Obarskyr has strengthened many of their ties, especially among the so-called "royal houses."

(Revised Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, Grand History of the Realms, Swords of Eveningstar.)

10. What is a more proximal view of the political system? Who are local nobles or leaders that should be known about, and what are their reputations?

Eveningstar is well-lead by Lady Lord Tessaril Winter. Her assistants are the local Herald Tzin Tzummer (responsible for all naming legalities, taxes, births and deaths) and the town clerk Aldo Morim. Tessaril was appointed by Azoun IV; she is thought to be fair but stern, and works to keep Eveningstar safe from its many dangers.

Lady Lord Myrmeen Lhal's hold on Arabel is more tenuous. The city has a reputation for past rebellion, epitomized by the month-long reign of Gondegal, the Lost King, who rose up to take Arabel and could only hold it by force. When Azoun IV and his men retook Arabel, Gondegal had escaped, presumably to the north and east. Rumours hold that he plots to regain his kingdom once again, some six years later.

(FRQ1 Haunted Halls of Eveningstar, Revised Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, Forgotten Realms Campaign Set)

11. Do your players even need their rations and torches?

Yes. Torch longevity has mattered for trips into the Haunted Halls, and rations will become more meaningful as the party travels farther beyond the comfort of Eveningstar's inns.

12. How do you become a ruler of many?

Thumbing your nose at the Crown, as Gondegal did, would make you a ruler of many - until your sword arm tires, and you cannot hold the lands you've stolen.

Better to prove yourself to the Crown and receive title to some land or position. In particular, King Azoun IV has promised a title to experienced adventurers who can clear and hold territory in the Stonelands to the north of Cormyr.

(Forgotten Realms Campaign Set, Revised Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting.)

13. Are there social consequences for necromancy or other forms of forbidden magic? Do these consequences differ in the view of the common man vs. other people?

Necromancers are associated with Myrkul, the god of death, and are quite feared. The common man fears the necromancer, but fears Myrkul's wrath more: the god of death and his priests sometimes cross the land, raising those dead in unsanctified ground and sending the newly risen to attack nearby settlements. A commoner is likely to offer tribute to a necromancer and plead mercy.

The War Wizards, in contrast, will expend great effort to find that necromancer and shackle him, exile him, or slay him. Magic-users who are not registered with the Royal Magician, and evil magic-users at that, are great concerns.

(Cormyr, Revised Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting)

14. What is the common man's capability to distinguish the following things: a werewolf's tracks vs. wolf tracks, a manticore attack vs. a lion attack, a demon attack vs. a gargoyle attack?

A common man might be able to separate out common animal tracks (the wolf and the lion) from those of monsters, but no more. They could certainly not distinguish between various kinds of monsters.

(Elminster's Ecologies: The Settled Lands)

15. What is the social position of rogues?

Rogues and thieves are distrusted, watched carefully by city watches and the Purple Dragons, and generally thought of as unsavory. Thieves' guilds do exist in Cormyr, but they are often at odds with the Crown. In contrast, rogues signed to adventuring charters ("the honest trade") are slightly more trustworthy, as the charter means others vouch for their conduct - and can be brought to justice should the rogue commit some crime.

(Forgotten Realms Campaign Set)

16. What is the role of dungeons within the world?

Dungeons are structures built or found by secretive groups or populations, to live or perform secret aims away from common view. Notably, dungeons are almost never empty or unoccupied for long - a dungeon has frequently passed through several occupants, all of whom have left their own legacies and impacts in the place. The Haunted Halls were originally created by dwarves for the bandit lord Rivior; they are rumoured to have other secret occupants to this day.

(Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting)

17. How common are dungeons, how deep or large are they, and how much treasure might be expected within their depths?

Dungeons and ruins are extremely common; settlements are frequently rebuilt atop the ruins of previous settlements due to geographic features. Dungeons can be very deep or large, often linking to the great Underdark below in their darkest reaches. The presence and value of treasure frequently depends upon how accessible and dangerous the dungeon is; adventuring groups frequently clear out shallow ruins, only for them to be repopulated by humanoid races in need of shelter, used for some wizard's experiments, or similar.

(Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting)

18. Explain, if you could, the differences between magic-users in the world. For instance, how would wizards, sorcerers, miracle-workers, warlocks, witches, medicine-men, stage magicians, and the like differ from each other? Do all of those categories even exist?

Those who have true magical power are called wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, thaumaturgists or similar, and all draw force from the Weave which connects all things, shaping it to create their will in the world. Illusionists are their most prominent subgroup, a secret society sworn to the goddess Leira. Other even more unusual, rare types are rumoured, but not confirmed.

Witches are rare, powerful, and worship forbidden gods unknown to humanity.

Hedge witches, frequently women who practice herbalism and act as midwives, do exist, but hold no specific magical power in general.

Charlatans, pretenders, and stage magicians are frequent performers.

(Forgotten Realms Campaign Set, Elminster's Forgotten Realms, Dragon #54: Down To Earth Divinity) 

19. What are two examples of food culture in the world? Even if food isn't a part of play, what dishes are people consuming in the world around the players, and what messages can be conveyed through food and drink?

Coffee (kaeth) is slowly spreading throughout Cormyr as a new and trendy drink, its beans grown in far-off Durpar, branded as "Thondur's." It hasn't replaced the herbal, grass, or local teas commonly drunk, is very expensive, and is usually served in tankards, hot and unadulterated.

Ciders, hard and soft, are commonly drunk in Eveningstar; the town and much of Cormyr are in prime apple-growing climates. The presence of the Starwater River gives Eveningstar good local fishing, such as bass and eels; the local farmers sell sheep, goats, long-horned beef cattle known as sharrada, and poultry.

(Elminster's Forgotten Realms, Volo's Guide to Cormyr)

20. What is the internal logic of the game world you are running, as far as players are concerned? When the players act and the world reacts, what principles do you hold to?

The world is internally logical and exists beyond the players, with struggles between powers known and unknown. The world does not wait for the players, and events may occur beyond their reach. The world reacts to the PCs according to the aims and powers of the other factions; it is up to the players to decide what they can handle and how they will deal with the consequences. Fatal consequences are dealt squarely and honestly, but may occur for initially unknown reasons.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Possum Laws of Gaming

I love D&D. Like, I really love specifically D&D. Dragons and dungeons and the wargaming-experience-treasure loop and everything. I own lots of D&D and run lots of D&D because I really, really enjoy the game, in and of itself, in most of its editions, with lots of its warts.

And I love talking about D&D, and I love sharing D&D, and I love running it and playing it with people. Most of the D&Ds. Hence, the title of this post.

First, a preamble:

1) There's a school of thought about the OSR I've run into a couple times that rings very true to me. The idea is that there's a division in purpose between old-school revolutionaries and old-school revivalists. The revivalists came first, and their main output was retroclones: they loved old editions of D&D, and wanted to bring those back, and make new content for them. The revolutionaries love the DIY spirit of old-school gaming, and want to create their own new rules and content and ideas using what came before as a base.

2) Arnold K's GLOG (Goblin Rules of Gaming) is a great expression of the old-school revolutionaries. It's an incredibly impressive, incredibly creative community generating tons of cool ideas. The GLOG has built its own language, its own adventures, and lots of cool content. Here's a GLOG class for a corpse someone did yesterday!!!

The thing is, the GLOG is not very D&D any more. It has become its own thing, in its own ways, and that is awesome. As someone who loves D&D, who is currently running Old-School Essentials to get an old-school Forgotten Realms experience, I want to bring the revivalist side of things into the light as well.

The OSR has had an identity crisis, now and forever will. I'm claiming a space for the positive, inclusive, accessible, constructive process of collecting, collating, creating, and celebrating everything cool about D&D, across all of it.

And I'm not standing alone. This came out of a bunch of conversations with Zach Harper where we found out we really feel the same way about D&D: that we love it, and want to celebrate it, and mash it all together to create new fun games and stuff!

So, the Possum Laws of Gaming (or PLOG).

Slogan: here is my trash, share it with your trash
We called it the Possum Laws of Gaming after a bunch of influences. Obviously it's a counterpart to the GLOG, but the GLOG's goblins are making their own improvised, DIY material on their own terms. On the other hand, the possums are scavengers, grabbing everything they find that's cool or fun or pretty and putting it together to make something new. Also, possums are cute. And both Zach and I are big fans of the Red Green Show, so referencing that was also a lot of fun!


Slogan “here is my trash, share it with your trash”
The Possum Laws of Gaming are a broad-minded, anti-dogmatic lens for collecting, collating, and creating new and old things about the game of D&D in all its editions from 1974 until today.


  1. find your trash. your trash is D&D stuff you like, from whenever, however. just find cool D&D shit!!!
  2. put your trash together! the goal of the PLOG is to combine the parts of D&D you like into a cool D&D
  3. your trash can be anything! it doesn't have to be D&D itself, but the PLOG is geared towards making your own D&D. pull in cool stuff from other games, other media, things you're excited about
  4. love your trash. the things that you enjoy are great, and talk about why you like them!
  5. ...but toss it when it gets stinky. Some of D&D is bad and hateful. don't keep bad stereotypes or ideas about marginalized people. we want to share our trash with everyone!
  6. share your trash!!! show people the cool things you've found, the things you're excited about, the hidden gem you're going to use in your games.
  7. play nice when you share your trash. Part of PLOG is explaining why we like the parts of D&D that we do, and we don't all like the same parts. Have good conversations, don't hate each other for liking different things.
  8. let the trash grow!!! finding new trash and adding new trash and reexamining your old trash makes for more fun and even more cool ideas!
  9. just because it's someone else's trash doesn't mean it has to be yours. it's okay to say you don't want something someone else suggests, just be polite about it!
Most of this should be pretty clear, but I want to make one thing very explicit: the possum laws of gaming have no room for hatred, bigotry, oppression, or harassment. The PLOG is inclusive and accessible as an essential requirement, and exists to be a safe space for all kinds of people to explore D&D and how cool it can be. Otherwise, FIND YOUR TRASH!!!!

Zach also has a complementary post announcing the Possum Laws of Gaming on his own blog, you should read it here!


Monday, May 11, 2020

Those Who Harp: May 11, 2020

Books and screen on a side table for my online games.
On Mondays I run a Pathfinder 2e game set in the Forgotten Realms (3rd edition time).

PCs In Attendance (all level 2):

  • Saebrial Cormaeril, human demonic sorcerer
  • Traxx Luna, goblin ranger (with dog animal companion)
  • Viveka, leshy leaf druid
  • Korth Kunzar, lizardfolk titan barbarian
The party picked up where we left off two weeks previously, in the ruined temple of Garagos the Reaver under one of the Hills of the Seven Lost Gods outside their home city of Westgate. In the previous session, the party had broken into the temple to disrupt a ritual to reconsecrate it and save the innocent people being used as sacrifices for that ritual. They infiltrated the temple and fought the priestess in the central hall, slaying her (and her tiefling companion), successfully ending the ritual. They fended off a desperate charge by acolytes trying to avenge the fallen priestess, and now were left to explore the rest of the temple ruins and lead the innocent captives to safety.

Central temple hall
Garagos' consecration ritual was particularly brutal: the innocents were served up on the altar for cannibalistic slaughter, their blood draining into the pit nearby. The party poked through the gristly remains. Saebrial was able to identify the presence of magic, but is not yet skilled enough to pick out individual effects or strengths. The pool of blood drains into a deep, black hole, farther down than any of them could see. Traxx made sure to graffiti the bloody altar and any other ritual artifacts with the crescent moon symbol of his goddess, Selune. Looting the bodies from their last session turned up a shortbow, arrows and new spellbook for Saebrial, a suit of half-plate that Korth lugged out to sell, and a mace for Viveka.

Traxx examined the bedroom to the south of the ritual chamber and found a letter from the presumed superior of these cultists, Favored High Reaver Chaless the Cruel of the House of Steel. Chaless wrote to her immediate inferiors of the importance of their mission to the Reaver, and promised painful punishment should they fail. Traxx also recovered a small steel coffer from the bedroom. Viveka attempted to identify the paper the letter was written on for hints to its origin; an absent PC with scribing skills told them it was common but quality stock frequently sold in Westgate.

Saebrial checked with the prisoners as to what the guards had been frequently discussing, and found out they frequently discussed Westgate's sewers. The party concluded that the House of Steel was likely the real temple to Garagos in Westgate, likely located somewhere below the city streets. (A lot of failed Recall Knowledge checks here too.) 

After some discussion of what to do next, the party decided to lead the prisoners to safety, and then return to explore the rest of the temple. At the stairs exiting the temple, the party could hear the faint sound of handpipes being played badly; sneaking up, Traxx saw a squad of city guards had surrounded the rough entrance, and a childlike halfling was playing the pipes with her back to the entrance!

Uncertain whether the city guards would help or hurt them, the party decided to try and charm their way out. Saebrial's noble family name of Cormaeril brings her some influence, and the sorceress used her hat of disguise to improve her appearance. Leading the party up and out, the prisoners in tow, Saebrial hailed the guards.

Olive Ruskettle, before she settled down

The halfling stopped playing her pipes and turned around, smirking at Saebrial's approach. "A fine noblewoman, eh? And what are you doing down here?" As Saebrial attempted to parley, Viveka tried to land a charm on the halfling guard-captain as she identified herself as Olive Ruskettle, captain of the city guard. [1]

Unfortunately for Viveka, Olive has plenty of past adventuring experience, and easily resisted the enchantment. (A critical success, which meant she also knew the druid had tried to charm her - "and trying to magically influence a city guardsman is a crime in and of itself!") Olive let the party off with the warning, and levelled with them: she was here to rescue the innocent captives, and didn't really care what happened otherwise. Westgate is a dark, cursed city, and Olive is trying her best to do well by the common people with extremely limited resources. She winked at them and mentioned that she'd heard about them before, from someone who had to write down their names, as she couldn't speak them. (This was a clear reference to Jamal the Thespian, the party's handler/organizer, who had given up her voice in a bargain with a sea hag in a previous session.)

The party pleaded with Olive to help them come and destroy the ghost that lurked in the temple (which the cultists of Garagos seemed to fear), but Olive rebuffed their requests, stating that she had to return the captives to their families as soon as possible. She did lend Traxx a silver dagger, requesting it be returned to their common friend. Olive and the rest of the guards departed with the innocents, and the party descended back into the temple.

They began at the prison room where the captives were kept; they had a suspicion that an oddly empty section of wall must hide a secret door. [2] A period of thorough searching revealed a hidden button that made the wall rotate, revealing a narrow cave tunnel behind. Traxx lead the way with his darkvision; the blood-red crystals that provided light to the rest of the temple were missing here. He saw a skeleton splayed on the floor with rusty sword and key clasped in its hands, and reached for the key. That caused the ancient guardian, a dread, to animate and attack, its own bony arms breaking free of the earth and slicing wildly with the rusty sword!

Dreads are possibly my favourite low-level Forgotten Realms monster. It's a pair of arms with a sword!
The party was surprised and terrified by these bones scraping across the ground, the rusty sword clashing against the sword walls - the dread went first, and began assaulting Traxx! Not having a light source slowed down the party's response dramatically, and resulted in most of Saebrial and Viveka's first few turns being effectively wasted. The frightening presence of the dread also made it harder to fight off, and the dread significantly wounded Traxx twice, eventually downing him. The tight confines of the tunnel were a poor circumstance for Korth's titanic maul, and the barbarian had to fight with his claws only. Saebrial's bane spell was ineffective, the mental effect doing nothing to the mindless dread, but she still shattered it to pieces with her divine lance (being a worshiper of Lliira, the FR goddess of joy, dancing, and queer people, her lance is a shining rainbow force.) Traxx's Doggo grabbed an arm bone as a chew toy, and the party decided to retreat and rest; the long day of fighting had taken its toll, and their spells were expended, Traxx reduced to 3 hp.

With the party gone from the temple and no more city guards outside, two waiting acolytes who had been hiding in an unexplored room made a run for Westgate, to tell their superiors at the House of Steel about their new enemies... 

[1] I don't know WHERE I got the idea of Olive becoming a city guardsman after the events of Masquerades, and I couldn't find it in my notes. If anyone knows where the source for this is, let me know please!
[2] Pathfinder 2e has no equivalent to a take 20 action from 3.5/PF1; previously the party had searched this wall with manual Seek actions and none of them had made the DC to find the door. This felt unsatisfying for both myself and the players. After the previous session I checked the rules more thoroughly; without time constraints and with appropriate proficiency, the PCs should automatically find anything appropriate (or the GM should definitively use fail-forward structures.) As this was an optional secret area, fail-forward wasn't necessary, but I informed the players previous to this session that searching without time constraints meant they would automatically find anything important, and they had no meaningful time constraints now that they had disrupted the unholy ritual.