Thursday, 3 November 2016

Hello Greyhawk, My Old Friend...

My 2016 reincarnation drama NOT FADE AWAY is wrapped up, at last, and that means I'm thinking about the next campaign I want to run. I generally have a lot of games in my back pocket as possibilities for "the next thing", but at the moment there's one idea that's taking up a lot of mental real estate. I've been wanting to run an old-school fantasy game for a while, using CASTLES & CRUSADES as my rules engine. It's modern, but with enough of the flavour of ADVANCED D&D, the formative game of my generation, that it captures something special in my imagination.

I want to use it to run Greyhawk.

If you weren't playing D&D during the first edition days, you might not know much about Greyhawk. It poked its head up again briefly during 3rd Edition, but it's mostly beloved by old guys like me because it was the implied (but not heavily developed) setting of all those classic D&D adventures like Against The Giants and the Slave Lords series. Since TSR, the company that produced D&D back in the day, wanted the adventures to be portable to many home-brewed campaign worlds, the actual details of Greyhawk in those adventures were a little scant, for my tastes. I played through most of the "big" adventures back in the day, and owned a few myself, but never got much of a flavour of the world from them or from the WORLD OF GREYHAWK GAZETEER. Like most people, I owned that because of the gigantic, awesome full-colour maps of the setting. Who wouldn't love that?

For me, the setting was largely a cypher, a blank slate that creative GMs could turn into whatever they wanted. My GM back in the day put large scoops of Michael Moorcock and Thieves' World into his game, and that suited me right down to the ground.

A token effort was made, in the 3rd Edition days, to develop Greyhawk as a setting for play. A new Gazeteer came out, with a smaller (but still lovely) map of the setting to entice modern GMs the way us grognards had been jazzed by names like "The Scarlet Brotherhood" and "The Horned Society". I've been slowly picking through the book, which I picked up on sale somewhere. There is definitely some good detail in it, but it's buried under a layer of faux-historical tone that makes it difficult to really get a mood or sense of place in the setting overall. (The scant, so-so artwork in the book isn't much help.) I just finished reading about the Kingdom of Furyondy last night, a place wracked by war with the loathsome Iuz. There is definitely a mood in Furyondy that could be captured for a campaign, full of Game of Thrones-style faux medieval grit, but I'm not yet sure Greyhawk as a whole has that mood. Other pieces of it seem more in line with Gary Gygax's famous sense of whimsy, such as the ruins of Castle Greyhawk, a dangerous dungeon that is described as a kind of tourist destination for adventurers.

Having a setting that is either vague or with atmosphere that is highly localized depending on where you are in the world is actually just fine with me, though. My objective is to take one of the most famous adventures of the AD&D days and re-make it in my own image, and see what there is to be learned with an experiment in sandbox play at the same time. The adventure in question, which I won't name here so as not to spoil it for any future players that get to enjoy it, was also full of excellent details yet no sense of atmosphere. There was a compelling, even harrowing, story to be told there, but no sense of how to do that. Only a few vaguely-sketched out characters, the details of the locations, and a big dungeon. I'm sure that I can do better than that.

I'm drawing a bit on the ideas of Kevin (STARS WITHOUT NUMBER) Crawford in my preparation, specifically the passages in SILENT LEGIONS where he describes how to set up your own sandbox campaign. That book was concentrating on modern horror, but I think the advice still works. Basically, it's about picking a handful of locations and stocking them with details and story hooks, then letting the players go at it. I have the advantage of a lot of my work having already been done for me, though, so for this game it's more a process of picking the right locations and adding my own bits to make this an open-ended but purposeful campaign. I think years of character-centric play have prepared me well to take on this project, but we'll see if I've learned from the problems of past fantasy games.

There is a term that used to have currency in the RPG world: "fantasy heartbreaker". That usually applied to games that were trying to 'do D&D right', but generally only added a new idea or two, rather than actually reinventing the wheel. My campaign idea may end up being much the same, in the end -- just another D&D-like game that provides some mild thrills and then fades away. But I'm hoping I've got enough new school ideas to make the old school sing yet again.

Time will tell.

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