Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Great Minds


An idea I've had for a long time and that I've never yet had the chance to fully implement is the creation of an "interplanetary" D&D setting, by which I mean one in which there are multiple inhabited worlds, each of which is (or has been) in contact with the others. This strikes me as true to the pulp fantasy inspirations of OD&D, with its regular invocations of Burroughs, and also with Vance's The Dying Earth, where there are frequent references to powerful wizards traveling to other moons and planets. I've also felt that the existence of congress with other worlds made it easier to justify the smörgåsbord of weird creatures that inhabit most D&D worlds. If I can say, for example, that lizard men are natives of the Green Planet and that those on the main campaign world are degenerate descendants of interplanetary travelers from the past, in my mind it's all a lot more "believable," if that makes any sense.

In my mind, I always imagined that the main campaign world had two sister planets, which I called simply the Green Planet and the Red Planet. I might give them actual names, but, as I envisioned it, regular travel between worlds was no longer common, having been curtailed by some cataclysmic event in the past (because all good fantasy worlds need a cataclysm in the past), so those names were known primarily to sages and savants and the rare wizard who still traveled there by arcane means.

The Green Planet is pulp Venus -- a lush, steaming jungle world filled with intelligent apes, all manner of reptiles (including dinosaurs), and weird amphibians. Imagine the Isle of Dread as an entire planet and you'll get the idea. The Red Planet, on the other hand, is pulp Mars -- a parched desert world whose decadent civilization teeters on the brink of collapse after untold millennia of practicing black magic and demon worship. Imagine if H.P. Lovecraft had written A Princess of Mars and you'll have the right of it.

What's fascinating is that Paizo's Pathfinder RPG setting, Golarion, seems to be trying to mine the same vein of pulp science fiction. It even uses the terms Green Planet and Red Planet much as I do. It's stuff like this that makes it hard for me not to wish the guys and gals at Paizo well, even if their taste in game mechanics are decidedly more new school than I like. If I ever get to use this in a campaign, you can be sure I'll be swiping a couple of ideas from Pathfinder.

24 comments:

  1. If this post was a plot to get me to look at buying Golarion it worked.

    Barsoom and Amtor as campaign worlds...or Brackett's Mars and Venus.

    Given Burroughs and Brackett were two of my seven entries in the "list your influences" meme back in late July this is perfect.

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  2. Golarion really is a nifty campaign setting. I have quibbles with certain design decisions and am none too keen on the level of detail it's getting (and will continue to get as time wears on), but I can't deny that Erik Mona and company get it when it comes to the pulp fantasy origins of D&D. I'm keen to see what they do with the other worlds of their setting.

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  3. These are _slightly_ more recently written examples, but it strikes me that Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and Book of the Short Sun fit this idea as well.

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  4. my own favourite setting for pulp fantasy is the floating realms of de Laurentiis' 1980 Flash Gordon (a far cry from Mungo's interplanetary b/w origins). If you don't get carried away with the notion in the first few sessions it can be a handy way of keeping environments close-but-separate, and introducing as much alien exploration as you could ever want. Oddly, I never saw an old-school product really run with this setting, even though it was a recurring and popular trope. Even Skyrealms of Jorune (which was about as old school as EPT, if not as old) was weirdly restrained about it.

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  5. Was it here that I read Gygax envisioned many of his monsters as having come from other worlds and dimensions? I forget, but the Barrier Peaks adventure speaks to that concept.

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  6. These are _slightly_ more recently written examples, but it strikes me that Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and Book of the Short Sun fit this idea as well.

    Yes, they do. I didn't mention them only because they certainly didn't have any influence over OD&D. I agree, though, they make for some great inspiration.

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  7. Oddly, I never saw an old-school product really run with this setting, even though it was a recurring and popular trope.

    I agree that it's odd. There have been a handful of adventures here and there that touched on the idea, but no full-scale settings of which I am aware.

    (Jorune is old, but not as old as EPT. The original version of the game began as a Metamorphosis Alpha campaign, believe it or not)

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  8. Was it here that I read Gygax envisioned many of his monsters as having come from other worlds and dimensions? I forget, but the Barrier Peaks adventure speaks to that concept.

    In later life, Gygax did make this argument. It's part of the cosmology of Lejendary Adventure, if I recall.

    And, yes, Barrier Peaks did imply that many monsters were originally native to other worlds, including the mind flayer, which I thought just fit beautifully.

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  9. Although I like the multiple worlds approach outlined here, I have a cavil with the relentless gumbo approach that AD&D adopted: once you have interplanar travel, a big and diverse campaign map and the strange dimensional tinkerings of ultra-high-level wizards, how many more Special and Emblematic locations do you need? Does "the D&D universe" (and I can see James' blood pressure rising even now) contain all of them, and if so, what does that do to the value of each?

    I personally never DM'd anything out in the other planes because it all seemed too abstract and unmappable, but knowing they were there (in the early creepings of canonisation) altered the world the PCs operated in. In some way it flattened the Prime Material. I would (presumptuously) urge anyone involved in making a new pulp fantasy D&D-based universe to consider restraint in using just one multiverse ;)

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  10. Didn't Andy Collins update of Spelljammer (Shadow of the Spider Moon) do something similar? Single biome worlds, each with their own lost civilisations and characteristic races.

    http://www.andycollins.net/Projects/Spelljammer/Spelljammer.htm

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  11. Yes, he did. While it wasn't very popular with the "we already like the way it smells" Spelljammer fan crowd, this is the exact approach Collins took in his Polyhedron mini-game.

    I was the editor of that game, and I am the one responsible for the Red and Green planets on Golarion (surprise!), which work pretty much exactly as you outline in your post.

    The reason we cover so much of the same ground is this: We both have excellent taste.

    --Erik Mona

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  12. If you like planetary romance, you should read S. M. Stirling's The Sky People and In the Courts of the Crimson Kings (I liked The Sky People better, FWIW): good pulpy fun there :D

    Allan.

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  13. Ack. Richard mentioned Jorune. Another place I dearly love to visit some day.

    *sniff*

    Damn you Richard. And damn you too, James, priming me with Northwest of Earth.

    Now I want to visit the Red Planet and Green Planet, too.

    *sigh*

    Thus far I've escaped Golarion. I fear I'll be dreaming of it soon.

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  14. I like your idea of running D&D like a planetary romance. I have always played Gamma World in such a way (a man wakes up to a new world altered by war or disaster, a mutant makes liberal use of dimensional/temporal traversing powers, and so on), and I like to incorporate elements of a number of planetary romance fiction as often as I can. I have been expanding such concepts by using Mutant Future and some houserules to allow for Swords, Sorcery, and Super-science settings.

    One of the methods I'm working on is to have a base MF character count as a 0-level man, and you can add class levels from there. It still a work in progress, but this is the link:
    http://www.freeyabb.com/phpbb/viewtopic.php?p=4924&mforum=goblinoidgames#4924

    My efforts are mostly driven by watching a lot of 80s cartoons as a kid. Demon dogs! I just love the idea of playing a setting with a Human Barbarian, a Mutant Sorceress, and a hairy Mutant Beastman fighting an evil cyborg Warlord-sorcerer and his evil army of mutants and robots! =P

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  15. Does "the D&D universe" (and I can see James' blood pressure rising even now) contain all of them, and if so, what does that do to the value of each?

    See, this is a question that would never have arisen before the brandification of D&D. There was no expectation in the old days that everyone's campaign allowed for ever possibility. There was no "D&D universe;" there were just individual campaigns and referees picked and chose what they liked and wanted to use.

    I understand your point completely and think it's a fair one. I'm just not sure it has a lot of relevance to the OD&D era, which was decidedly more cavalier about notions of canon and cross-campaign compatibility.

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  16. The reason we cover so much of the same ground is this: We both have excellent taste.

    For some reason, I find it hard to disagree with this.

    As always, it's great to have you stop by. I'll paying careful attention to Pathfinder as it develops. I'll certainly be picking up anything having to do with the Green and Red Planets. I'm sure you guys have lots of great stuff in store.

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  17. My efforts are mostly driven by watching a lot of 80s cartoons as a kid. Demon dogs! I just love the idea of playing a setting with a Human Barbarian, a Mutant Sorceress, and a hairy Mutant Beastman fighting an evil cyborg Warlord-sorcerer and his evil army of mutants and robots! =P

    That sounds awesome.

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  18. Heh, I was watching Thundarr as a teen.

    I feel that Talislanta deserves mention here. Although the eponymous setting is a single continent (with some possibility of travelling to the sketchily-drawn other continents), there are some elements which are explicitly leftovers of interplanetary or interdimensional travel. While I haven't read Vance's Planet of Adventure series yet, it's been suggested over at theRPGSite that Tal is as much in the vein of those books as Dying Earth. Someone even wrote up "Stranded Astronaut" in game terms as a PC type.

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  19. Hmmm...

    I thought if you crossed Burroughs' Barsoom with H.P. Lovecraft, you wound up with A.C. Smith's Xothique. ;)

    - Brian

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  20. I feel that Talislanta deserves mention here.

    You know, I have zero experience with Talislanta, other than being told for a good portion of my gaming career that I ought to read it.

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  21. I thought if you crossed Burroughs' Barsoom with H.P. Lovecraft, you wound up with A.C. Smith's Xothique. ;)

    There's some truth to that, but Zothique has more in common with Vance (or rather: vice versa), in that it's more about decadence and ennui than a/immorality. Clark Ashton Smith was too much of a big-R Romantic for the kind of thing I want to do with the Red Planet, even though he's one of my favorite authors.

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  22. Oddly, I never saw an old-school product really run with this setting, even though it was a recurring and popular trope.

    They were not quite in the same vein as the Green Planet and Red Planet you have discussed but Judges Guild had their Portals-series which were quite pulpy and involved visiting other planets. I recently picked up their Portals of Twilight and really liked it.

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  23. Pdiddy,

    I'm ashamed to admit it, but I never even heard of the Portals series until now. I must investigate ...

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  24. James,

    I'm partial the pre-4e treatment of Tal. While the mechanics covered in the 2e or 3e handbook are themselves quite flavorful (and you'll find world bits in there, too), if you want a good world overview I'd look to the Talislanta Worldbook and the Archaen Codex.

    More info: http://www.hurloon.net/talislanta/books.html

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