Saturday, November 21, 2009

Greyhawk Adventures: Saga of the Old City

Gaming fiction: It's pretty damn terrible, huh?

That being said, it might still be worth your while to track down a copy of Gary Gygax's 1985 "novel of swordplay, thievery, and magic" Saga of the Old City.

While it's labeled as book one of the Greyhawk Adventures series, SotOC is, in fact, predated by sci-fi/fantasy vet Andre Norton's 1978 Quag Keep.

Still, SotOC is the first full-length fiction take on the World of Greyhawk by its creator, and that makes it a potential treasure trove for any DM using that setting for his or her own campaign.

But how does SotOC rate as a novel?

The story follows Gord, a runty orphan street waif who we first chance upon as he's fighting a losing battle with a common alley rat over a hunk of bread they've both chanced upon in the trash. Now that's what I call humble beginnings!

Incidentally, Gord's first line in the book ("Shiteater!", directed at the victorious rat) is pretty good indication that SotOC is a little more daring in some ways than TSR's later, more family-friendly fiction.

Before too long, Gord has managed to escape the grinding poverty and constant bullying of the Greyhawk City's Slum Quarter by joining-up with the Beggar's Guild. It's not long, however, before a violent showdown between the Guilds of the Beggers and Thieves forces Gord to hit the road and see the wider world. Soon, he's encountering river Gypsies, rampaging sea monsters, werebeasts, lovely maidens, and more as his journey takes him from one end of the Flanaess to the other.

Eventually, it's an older, wiser, and much more experienced Gord that makes his way back to Greyhawk City at the novel's close.

So, in a way, SotOC is just a bunch of stuff that happens to some guy. Granted, the "stuff" is pretty wild and the "guy" is a dashing rogue from the World of Greyhawk, but if you come to SotOC expecting a great overarching fantasy saga plot instead of a series of exciting, but often unconnected incidents, you will be disappointed.

On the other hand, sometimes it's nice not to have to worry about saving the cosmos and enjoying a string of sword duels, treasure hunts, and whirlwind romances. Also, Gygax proves to be remarkably adept at witty dialog. He was clearly influenced in this area by Vance and Leiber, and while he's not a master of their calibur by any means, his between-character banter is a cut above that of most fantasy novelists. If plotting is his greatest weakness, this has to be his greatest strength.

In the end, SotOC stands as an enjoyable, if lightweight fantasy romp for general audiences. For Greyhawk DMs and enthusiasts specifically, it's practically required reading. There's a ton of insight here on how Gygax saw day-to-day street level life in his world, which is quite a shift from the omnipotent, bird's eye view of a gaming sourcebook.

I've never read the remainder of Gord's adventures. I've been told that they later rather drastically metamorphosize into just the type of superheroic cosmos-saving that I don't particularly enjoy. If so, that's too bad.

One little tidbit that Greyhawk DMs can take from the later books is a map that was included with City of Hawks: Map (key). It's the only Gygax-approved map of the City ever published, to my knowledge.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Let's say I want to get into Arneson's Blackmoor...

I do feel kind of remiss not having any Blackmoor material on my shelves.

What resource should I start with? Is there a single good general overview of the "authentic" Blackmoor as used by Arneson, as distinct from the ones that appear in the Greyhawk and Known World/Mystara products?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

On the Forgotten Realms.

Since I just went on a compulsive buying spree to re-acquire what I consider the three best Forgotten Realms products ever made (the gray box, FR1, Ruins of Undermountain), I figured this was as good a time as any to tackle this one.

Many "old-school" D&D fans hate the Realms. Many love them. More than anything else, I believe that most are chronically torn between both extremes. I know I am.

This definitely isn't the case for other TSR campaign settings. I flat-out dislike the Dragonlance line. Period. It's refreshingly cut-and-dried.

Yet, for me, the early FR products and magazine articles violently resist this kind of easy assessment. They're so damn good that they flat-out refuse to be dismissed, no matter how much most of the Realms material released in the last quarter century makes you viscerally want to do just that.

Looking at these products, you come to one conclusion right off: The Forgotten Realms, so much as they are worth anything, are synonymous with Ed Greenwood. This identification is, to me, even stronger than the one linking the World of Greyhawk with its creator Gary Gygax. Gygax's work on Greyhawk will always be iconic, but I can think of many more individuals who made almost equally wonderful contributions in all those legendary modules: Rob Kuntz, of course, but also Len Lakofka, Allan Hammack, etc.

When it comes to the Realms, though, I can't honestly list a single must-have product that doesn't credit Greenwood as the lead writer/designer.

Surely, the man has his annoying quirks, even at his best. For one, he consistantly urges the DM to utilize super high-level NPCs to keep "rampaging", "out-of-control" PCs "in-line." In other words, to prevent them from making any significant changes to "his" world. This is profoundly wrongheaded, to say the very least, but easily ignored. And then there's Elminster. A lot of people say he didn't get "really bad" until the novels and whatnot, but I always hated the guy, with his smug attitude and cheesy Olde English.

But when he's good, he's good! Ruins of Undermountain, for example, is probably as close to a true published megadungeon as we'll ever see. Recent online debate on whether "published megadungeon" is an oxymoron or not aside, I think that if you cross-reference Undermountain with Philotomy Jurament's later popular piece on "The Dungeon as Mythical Underworld", the comparison is favorable indeed.

Fact is, if you take the three products I mentioned above and ignore some of Greenwood's less sound refereeing advice, you can easily have yourself a most excellent old-school campaign. I can only imagine (and envy!) the wealth of source material that a Greyhawk campaign DM would have to draw on if Gygax had ever released resources on Greyhawk City and Castle Greyhawk that were as well-done as FR1 and Ruins of Undermountain, respectively.

It's too bad about what happened later, but the strength of these early works will likely be enough to maintain this love/hate tug-of-war within me for a long time to come.

I'm not sure if I'd have it any other way.