Tuesday, September 29, 2009

4E is a distraction for the board game night, not something to run campaigns with

In a great review of the 4e Player's Handbook NiTessine comments that:

"4E is a distraction for the board game night, not something to run campaigns with."

to which Marcus adds:

"I have no wish to foul my hands or my hobby with this filth."

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Lands of Ara: Brief Area Descriptions

What follows are brief descriptions of each of the 11 Lands of Ara, intended to help players decide where their characters will come from. For more detailed descriptions of these areas, see my forthcoming profiles of each region.

Noffel is by far the oldest Arandish kingdom, renowned in Ara for its excellence in fishing and swordsmanship. There is a mandatory military term for all Noffellian youths of both genders, and nearly everyone in the kingdom is exposed to sword use long before reaching adventuring age. Arcane magic use is all but outlawed in Noffel and magic-users are shunned by most Noffellians. Though the rare Noffellian has strayed from tradition and turned to the ways of magic (and always leaves Noffel to do so), most characters raised in Noffel tend to be fighters of some sort, usually swordspersons.

With twice the land area yet half the population of Noffel, the northeastern kingdom of Telengard is a vast expanse of wasted flatlands and harsh eastern mountain slopes that has never quite recovered from the ravages of the Old War. Most Telengardians are sheepherders, miners (some working for the dwarves of neighboring Gannar) or mercenaries, the latter typically venturing south into Delzar to fight on the Mizarian frontier. The major towns and villages of Telengard are walled, and most traffic in and out of the lonely kingdom moves along the northern trade routes. Telengardian characters tend to be lean, cautious and tough, respecting individual strength of character more than political power or wealth.

[Note: I am aware that the name Telengard also refers to an old-school fantasy video game created by Avalon Hill games; this Arandish kingdom is in fact named in homage to that classic game, which I used to play on my Commodore 64.]

Unlike its less fortunate eastern neighbor, the kingdom of Achelon [pronounced ACK-el-on] has seen many decades of reparation and growth since the Old War. Due to prosperous trade with its southern neighbors, Noffel and the Free City of Kaladar, Achelon is presently one of the largest and strongest kingdoms in Ara. The castle of the Queen of Achelon is located in the southern half of the realm, and this region is more politically stable than the north. Southern Achelonians, being from the more “citified” regions, have every opportunity open to them. They are traders, farmers, merchants, militiamen, magicians, thieves, politicians—you name it. In the north, looser government control combined with greater monster-related threats keep the region in upheaval. Local barons have the run of the land, and while the Endyn Trade Route (the major north-south roadway) is kept relatively safe by the landholders bordering it, beyond the road, and especially in the wildernesses of the far north, wild and dangerous beings hold sway. Northern Achelonians favor heavy projectile and melee weapons like long bows and two-handed swords, weapons that deter the kinds of large monsters that dwell in the region.

The Western Lands are a loose confederation of independently held baronies and smaller land holdings that blur into the wilds of northern Achelon to the east and stretch toward the coastal Grey Mountains to the west. These are frontier states, untamed and raggedly governed. There is no central reigning power, only individual territories overseen by barons and baronesses ruling more or less as they please. Most of the barons wish to keep it this way, though there are a few individuals who believe it would benefit the region to unify into one realm. Characters from the Western Lands can be of any adventuring class they please, depending upon the specific characteristics of the barony they come from. In forthcoming posts I will provide more detailed descriptions of some of the individual baronies of this area, and I encourage players and referees to flesh out these lands to fit into your own adventure campaigns. Feel free to make up your own baronies and territories as you see fit, for this is a wild area ripe with possibilities.

Originally populated by Telengardian refugees from the Old War, the kingdom of Delzar has flourished in the intervening generations into a region of agricultural, economic and intellectual abundance. Southern border disputes with the aggressive Mizarian people are an ever-present threat to the peace and prosperity of Delzar. Like their Telengardian forebears, southern Delzarians tend to be stolid, bitter and strong-willed, and can apply themselves to nearly any profession. Many southern Delzarians of both genders choose to enlist in the King’s Militia, joining in the defense of the southern frontier against the unified clans of Mizar. In the north, meanwhile, there thrives a strong and diverse arts community, and Delzar is famous for having some of the most skilled craftspeople in Ara. Northern Delzar is an enlightened and progressive region where dwarves, rodians, and even some civilized ogres (!) are found living amongst humans in positions of authority and respect.

Even before the commencement of the recent territorial conflicts with Delzar, the horse-raising clans of Mizar [pronounced MY-zar] were fighting to maintain their borders. The second-largest Arandish nation in terms of both land area and population, Mizar is situated just north of a huge expanse of hilly plains inhabited by nomadic, predatory hill trolls, against which the southern Mizarian clans maintain a constant vigil. Trollish raids take their toll on Mizar’s population, and it is largely due to this constant loss of valuable human resources, as well as the lack of centralized leadership, that the more numerous Mizarian clan forces do not overwhelm the Delzarian army to the north. Mizarian characters are almost always fighters, and are always proficient horsemen. Northern Mizarians tend to hate Delzarians and take the conflict with Delzar to be of paramount importance. Southern Mizarian clanspeople have little interest in the battle with Delzar, denouncing it as a war without honor, and would much prefer to fight amongst themselves (a passionate interest for most Mizarians), fend off marauding hill trolls, or venture abroad to find opportunities for true glory. Characters of other nationalities are warned not to insult the name or reputation of a Mizarian’s clan, nor to challenge a Mizarian to any sort of contest or duel on horseback—the Mizarian rider is the most skilled and dangerous on Ara.

Due to its rather secluded position in a southern valley between the steep Farnian Mountains, the often-snowy reaches of Minoch [pronounced MY-nock] have remained largely unexplored by the people of the other Arandish realms. In fact, to many natives of Ara, Minoch seems nothing more than a road that winds up and over the steep mountains that separate the Free City of Kaladar from the eastern plains of Mizar and Delzar. Minoch is a harsh land, teeming with wild creatures of all descriptions (including the dreaded rock troll) and extreme weather conditions—some areas of Minoch are snowbound for over seven months of each year. Minochian characters are skilled, quiet and capable, and have a tendency toward pragmatism that can make them seem guarded and at times insensitive. Minochians may be of any adventuring class.

A great center of trade and commerce even before it became an independent city-state, The Free City of Kaladar is known throughout Ara as the place where anything can be bought, traded, hired, sold, or stolen. Characters raised here can be literally anything they want. Every accepted form of human magic has at least a small guild within the walls of the free city. Many practitioners of alternative and forbidden forms of magic are rumored to dwell here also. Kaladar has a large and well-trained City Guard, and that fact, combined with its location on an island between two great and rapid-flowing rivers, makes Kaladar essentially impenetrable and unassailable. There is a governing merchant prince who presides over the affairs of the city.

Originally a southern duchy of Noffel in the elder days, Blint is a rural kingdom largely populated by farmers, peasants and craftsmen. A native of Blint can end up doing whatever he wants as an adventurer, but the actual adventuring skills available here are likely to be more physical and nature-intensive than scholarly or urban. Blint supports no magical guilds, though as is often the case in remote areas, humans here can obtain basic magical instruction from magicians who live here. Blintians, known as proficient spearmen and archers, are fiercely proud of their militia, which ultimately owes its allegiance to the High Senate of Noffel. This creates simultaneous feelings of fellowship and rivalry between Noffellian and Blintian warriors. Culturally speaking, Noffellians have a tendency to view Blint as an uncivilized backwater of Noffel. Blintians resent this stereotype and attempt to disprove it when encountering natives of Noffel and other kingdoms.

Gannar: The dwarves of the eastern mountains are the discoverers and sole producers of the strongest metal known on Ara: dwarven steel. These mountainous dwarven lands, of which Gannar is the main city and trade center, are famous for iron mining and craftsmanship of metals and precious stones. The dwarves of Gannar are largely self-sustaining, raising sheep, mountain goats and various subterranean fungi for wool and consumables.

Suhl: It is known to most rodians that their race originated in the elder days when the Arandish sorceress Awra was travelling the known world increasing her knowledge and magical power. On a rounding of the southern tip of Rakar’s Peninsula aboard a Noffellian sailing ship, a storm struck which threatened to sink Awra’s vessel. The crew weathered the storm, but the ship was irreparably damaged, and drifted for weeks. Many died by starvation. To save herself and the ship, Awra used her powers to magically meld the surviving Noffellian sailors with onboard rats, thinking thereby to create beings that could better survive the ravages of being cast adrift at sea. Miraculously, the newly created beings made landfall on a forested island a few weeks later. Educated and enculturated into their new island life by Awra herself, the race prospered and grew, and in time the island was named Suhl. Able seamen and infamous pirates, rodians first came to Ara many generations ago, establishing colonies (and large cities) along the west coast of Ara, north of Noffel. Unfortunately, this is land that the elves of Aldoria also consider to be theirs, and a bloody conflict has raged there for some years now. Many rodians therefore hate elves, considering them to be dispassionate murderers of countless numbers of their brethren. Suhlians have also made contact with the kingdoms of Noffel, Blint, and Kaladar via the southern seaway on the Bay of Noffel, and a prosperous trade has grown between the rodians and these Arandish nations. Rodians can be almost any adventuring type they wish, though they are lovers of ships and sea travel, and usually favor the cutlass or the duelling rapier as a primary weapon.

The Lands of Ara: Racial Areas of Origin

Each Arandish race has a select number of possible areas of origin; each character must choose his/her birthplace and/or growing-up place from the appropriate list.

Some racial types have an easy time selecting an area of origin: for instance, all dwarven characters come from Gannar, the principal dwarven kingdom in the north. However, players choosing characters of most other races, especially Arandish humans, have a more complex decision to make. To aid you in selecting your character’s area of origin, a brief description of each kingdom / region is provided in the next post. More of the politics and cultural characteristics of each kingdom / region will also emerge in forthcoming specific posts relating to features and denizens of each region.

Arandish Humans
Arandish humans may be from any of the following places:
Free City of Kaladar
The Western Lands (specify: see area description)

Dwarven characters generally choose Gannar for their area of origin. Dwarves who grow up in human lands are typically either from Telengard or the Free City of Kaladar.

Any rodian character may originate from the rodian home island of Suhl. Rodian characters may also come from any region available to Arandish humans, although rodians from Telengard and northern Achelon are quite rare. The majority of mainland-born rodians (i.e., those born anywhere other than Suhl) come from Kaladar, or one of the Suhlian-governed coastal cities on Ara’s far western seaboard.

The Lands of Ara: Extant PC Classes & Races

All of the seven character classes listed in the Labyrinth Lord rulebook (pp. 8-14) EXCEPT Halflings exist in Ara. In Ara, halflings are replaced by rat-like humanoids called rodians; thus, the total list of Arandish classes includes Clerics, Dwarves, Elves, Fighters, Magic-users, Thieves, and Rodians. I reserve the right to abridge and/or modify certain classes on this list in the future, and will very likely add a few custom Arandish classes to the list in time, but for now, these seven are the class options in Ara.

Now, a few words on the origins and geographical distribution of Arandish races:

In Ara, humans predominate. They are found literally everywhere on Ara, and are all thought to be descendants of the ancient humans of the area now known as Noffel.

Arandish dwarves are in fact magically modified humans created and employed as laborers (especially miners) in the long-since-passed Old War between Telengard and Achelon. Tending to prefer underground dwellings, dwarves are fairly abundant in present-day Ara, especially in the east and northeast where most of the largest mountains are found (just as rodians—see below—tend to be found in the south and southwest, near the Bay of Noffel and major seaports). Dwarves have been doing business with and living amongst humans in Ara for a long time; dwarves are well accepted in human culture, live in most major Arandish cities, and are the second-most numerous race in Ara.

There are no halflings in Ara; instead there are rodians, small, ratlike humanoids who are functionally similar to halflings – that is, with all the same basic abilities and Level Progression Table as Labyrinth Lord halflings. [This substitution is similar to James Maliszewski’s use of Goblins as a PC Race; his explanation for why halflings make him nervous agrees with my sentiments.] Rodians are seafaring folk who demonstrate a distinct tendency toward sea piracy and con-artistry.

Like Halflings, Rodians are dexterous folk who get a bonus of +1 to initiative rolls when alone or in a party composed only of rodians. They have keen coordination that grants them +1 on any missile attacks. Because they are so small, rodians have a lower armor class (-2) when attacked by creatures greater than human sized.

Rodians have the same hiding abilities as halflings, but at 3rd level, rodians gain 1st level thief skills, and from 3rd level onward the rodian has thief skills as if s/he were a thief two levels below the rodian’s actual level.

Elves (sometimes referred to as Aldorians) should almost never be PCs in Ara. They are extremely reclusive, living in near-perfect isolation in the Northwestern forests, and do not usually see any reason to fraternize with other races.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Creative Content Disclaimer

As I mentioned in the previous post, the Lands of Ara are a co-creation of mine and David Miller’s. He and I hashed out the Lands of Ara over many years of discussion and play-testing in the late 1980s and 1990s. I thus feel obliged to declare that unless noted otherwise and with very rare exception, everything you read in this blog about the Lands of Ara is the co-creation of me and Dave Miller, with the help of our many play-testers over the years but perhaps especially Scott Peoples. My publication of these materials in blog form here is intended to make a version of the Lands of Ara campaign setting available to old-school OD&D gamers (including myself), NOT to represent myself as the sole author of this material.

Note also that in the D.I.Y., fill-in-the-blanks spirit of OD&D, I am deliberately NOT offering an exhaustive account of the Lands of Ara; I will lightly skip from interesting feature to interesting feature as I please, presenting a series of more or less stand-alone topics that can be used in modular form or, taken as a whole, may hopefully be woven into some sort of interesting skeletal structure for your own game world(s). Everyone will have their own Ara. Enjoy!

Auto-Ethnography of a RPG'er

I have been a role-playing gamer since 1981 or ‘82 when I got my first "Dungeons and Dragons" boxed set as a fifth grader. That was the very popular 1977 Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set with the blue tinted cover depicting a magic-user and a fighter confronting a red dragon—I had one of the later (post-1979) printings that included module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands. As wikipedia.org says of that Basic D&D rules set, it “focused on only the first three levels of play, and was intended as a bridge between the original D&D and the AD&D rules rather than a simple introductory version of the game. Although this Basic Set was not compatible with AD&D, players were expected to continue play beyond third level by moving to the AD&D version, [. . .] even though the basic game included many rules and concepts which contradicted comparable ones in the advanced game.” As this passage suggests, it would not be long before I would be exposed to Advanced D&D.

Indeed, after playing Basic D&D for six months or so, in the sixth grade I met friends who were already playing AD&D, so due to their influence and at the aforementioned urging of the Basic D&D rules manual itself, I began to play AD&D almost exclusively and bought my own copies of the three core hardcover rulebooks. Interestingly, that same sixth-grade year, a friend introduced me to Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels and Trolls: a few of us would reserve a conference room in our elementary school library and play T&T at lunch and recess. My interest in T&T did not last long – I was still pretty big into AD&D then – but T&T's less-is-more, “rules-light” ethos (not to mention its sense of humor, something I enjoy a lot in my RPGs) would come back with dramatically increased appeal and impact for me within a few years.

Sometime around the time AD&D 2e came out in 1989, I realized there was no way I was going to keep up with the world of published AD&D products, not in a whole new edition anyway. I was still a high school / college kid with very little money, so buying a whole new set of hardcover rulebooks felt out of reach to me. Plus, I had no real interest in updating or changing the rules I was playing by. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I thought, and so my friends and I continued to play by the first-edition rules of AD&D, for awhile. . .

Throughout late high school and college, I started drifting away from AD&D altogether, instead playing other RPGs in different genres: Traveller, Gamma World, Marvel Super Heroes, Paranoia, and Shadowrun, to name a few. I also got pretty heavily into Steve Jackson’s Car Wars for a few years in there. Finally, unable to find a game that I wanted to stick with long-term, I co-designed a homegrown fantasy RPG called “Crimson Blades of Ara” (hereafter CBOA) with a friend, David Miller. Dave and I worked on CBOA starting in summer 1988, when we were on a camping trip together discussing all the things that disgruntled us about AD&D and other RPG rule systems currently on the market. We thought we could design our own game with a skill-based rule system and a well-thought-out campaign setting (called Ara) that would be much more fun for us to play with our friends than any game we could buy. So we designed CBOA and played it pretty much exclusively from about 1990 through 1998.

Then I stopped playing RPGs altogether from roughly 1998 until 2004, mainly because I moved around and led a nomadic lifestyle during those years that made it difficult to find a group with whom to play RPGs. After moving to Eugene, Oregon in 2002, I found and joined a group in 2004 that played D&D 3.5e. I have had some great times playing with that group, and it has been fun to return to my roots in D&D, but I admit that the 3.5e rules feel awfully cumbersome to me: for example, I still don’t really grok why there are both skills and feats in the game. I don’t say this because I require an explanation; it is more of a rhetorical statement meant to convey that at a certain core level I feel alienated by the WotC take on D&D, since it does not evoke or emulate the beloved TSR versions of AD&D and Basic D&D that I remember and love so well from the 80’s.

In fact, in light of recent events — i.e., my discovery of the “old-school” gaming community — it is clear to me that the answer had always been right there in front of me, provided by TSR in that 1977 boxed Basic D&D set: my flight from AD&D, and my participation in co-writing a homegrown rules system, were all inspired by a need to escape cumbersome rules, to instead play within a system that was “rules-light” and allowed for the most player-referee flexibility. Obviously, once my friend Carl turned me on to Mutant Future a few months ago, I realized that Old-School Gaming is for me! Now I will begin development of my own OD&D campaign using the Labyrinth Lord rules. My campaign will take place in the setting my friend and I developed for our homegrown game: The Lands of Ara. I now commence the work of converting that campaign setting and its denizens into OD&D terms; this blog is where I will share the fruits of my labors!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hello, my name is. . .

This blog, still under construction, will be my forum for discussing my recent triumphant return to "old-school" role-playing gaming. I have been a player in a GREAT Mutant Future campaign (which has its own blog) for a few months and am now completely hooked on retro-clone old-school gaming! I will use this blog to discuss the reasons for my return to classic gaming, and to outline a campaign setting, THE LANDS OF ARA, that I will be using to referee my own Labyrinth Lord campaign in the near future. Stay tuned!