Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Retrospective: Hollow World Campaign Set

Normally, a D&D product published in 1990 would be well outside the focus of this blog, but I was cleaning my basement this past weekend and came across my copy of the Hollow World Campaign Setting by Aaron Allston. Naturally, I opened up the box and started reading it again, something I hadn't done in a very long time. Though released at the dawn of the Bronze Age, I was immediately struck by how many old school elements could still be found within its pages. Indeed, I suspect that gamers who entered the hobby well after 1990 would probably see many aspects of this product as hopelessly "old fashioned."

That's not say that the Hollow World can be called old school without qualification. The mere fact that it contains over 128 pages of descriptions of nations, cultures, and races is sufficient to dispel that notion, as are the very rail road-y scenario outlines included in the 32-page adventure book ("However you do it, once you have the PCs aboard ship, their fate is sealed."). Yet, this boxed set details not a subterranean realm filled with inhuman horrors or angst-filled dark elves but a lost world after the fashion of the pulp fantasies that inspired early D&D. This lost world is filled with anachronisms -- ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Vikings, and Aztecs share the Hollow World with lizardmen, Hollywood-style pirates, high-tech elves, and Lilliputian animal-riders. It's a gonzo fantasy setting with only the thinnest veneer of plausibility, which probably explains why I enjoyed re-reading it over the last few days.

Hollow World's atavistic old school-ness manifests in a couple of ways, most notably the sandbox nature of its setting. There are no grand plots here and the adventures, while poorly constructed in my opinion, are almost universally local in their focus. The Hollow World is thus a very open setting in which individual referees can create their own adventures without fear of being contradicted by the whims of frustrated novelists turned game designers. New game rules are minimal -- another old school hallmark -- and what rules are present are largely consonant with the Old Ways. The rules for generating Hollow World characters, for example, not only assume but demand that the players use 3d6 in order for ability scores. Of course, like all D&D setting products of this era, Hollow World includes a needless and lengthy skill system that detracts a great deal from the more minimalist approach to rules evidenced elsewhere. Equally troubling is how often the books reference AD&D, as if TSR really didn't have faith in D&D as a separate product line and would rather have killed it off entirely (something they did in fact do several years later).

The Hollow World Campaign Setting is thus an interesting artifact from the last era of TSR D&D in which the game showed any vibrancy whatsoever. It's still a product from a decadent time, but, even within that decadence, there are still echoes of the Golden Age -- faint ones, to be sure, but they are there nonetheless. Hollow World comes from a time before adventure paths and "story über alles" came to dominate the roleplaying scene. Though containing more detail than I think necessary, there's still a degree of minimalism present that I wouldn't have thought likely, given its late date. Furthermore, the literary homages present here appeal to me greatly and serve as a reminder that pockets of D&D's literary heritage survived beyond the Golden Age far longer than I sometimes care to admit. Re-reading Hollow World thus opened my eyes to the reality that even decadent ages sometimes produce works worthy of appreciation.

19 comments:

  1. The Hollow World boxed set is a good example of why I abandoned AD&D for D&D in the early 90's. Warts and all, it's just so much more ambitious and inspirational than anything that was coming out for AD&D at the time.

    The maps, much like all the Gazetteer D&D era maps, are awesome.

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  2. I still have my Hollow World box kicking around. It's a fun read, though I never got a chance to run any games with it. It might make a fun Microlite74 setting, though.

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  3. I still maintain that the Known World gazetteer products (and I include Hollow World in that) were among the best series of products TSR produced. They're one of my models for "If I ran a game company."

    As for developed worlds, I like them, myself, though I suppose it's a question of "how much detail" is too much, and we all have different boundaries. Take a world like WFRP Old World (WFRP 1E version): well-developed through its products, but with plenty of room left for the GM to expand. For me, the ideal product to help me get going on a campaign is one that provides a broad brush-strokes overview sprinkled with a few intriguing details.

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  4. Not having this product myself, I'll say that Aaron Allston did some good stuff. He fundamentally cared about his work and "got it" in a way that many authors did not.

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  5. TSR's gazetteers occupied many of the Top 10 "must-have" lists for D&D in Lawrence Shick's 1991 _Heroic Worlds_, and I think Hollow World was one of them (don't have my copy handy). Night's Dark Terror also made the list, which I've often heard praised nowadays, but none of the older classics - even those Lawrence worked on himself - were listed.

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  6. I played in a somewhat short-lived (as many of them are) play-by-post Hollow World D&D game. My character was a Cleric who followed the beliefs of the Bear Clan (Atruaghin). He wore a single-feathered headress (only had one kill/victory thus far in battle...ha!), wielded a stone-headed hammer, and treasured his Bear Claw necklace (holy symbol).

    I got waaaay into character creation/ideas, trying to imagine a Known World human fitting in with the Hollow World natives (Bear Clan), especially wearing Bronze Full Plate...hehe.

    IIRC, I had him somewhat tone the armor down with some feathers and paint, per a recommendation from the DM. I had originally thought that the armor would be a no-go, and it would be leather (if any) for him, to fit with the clan's beliefs, traditions (rules). The DM figured I would probably get my "axe" handed to me in leather, so he allowed the plate mail, as long as it was detailed as either bronze or copper. Cool with me.

    Anyway, I have the box-set, several of the modules (Milenian Scepter, Milenian Empire, Night Rage?, Night Storm, Night Wail), and a handful of the Gazetteer releases too.

    I never played these back in the day, though. I just snagged them here and there at used shops and at cons, as I gained interest in the setting from the Play-by-Post game experience.

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  7. "The mere fact that it contains over 128 pages of descriptions of nations, cultures, and races is sufficient to dispel that notion"

    Tekumel?

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  8. Tekumel?

    EPT doesn't contain that much information about its setting. Heck, the entire rulebook, which includes both game mechanics and setting details, is only 114 pages long.

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  9. I missed all the settings of that time, since I had quit gaming. When I heard about HW, I was intrigued, given that Allston had written the definitive Lost World gaming supplement (Lands of Mystery).

    I enjoyed reading HW, but was struck by an insurmountable problem (for me): the Lost World romance works when the protagonists get to say, "Roman centurions? But there haven't been any centurions in two thousand years!" It's hard for me to see how that works in Ye Auld Game.

    "Milenian soldiers! But...um...who are these guys again?"

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  10. One of my favourites, and one of the last things I bought and used before largely going off D&D in the '90s. Allston was definitely my favourite D&D author, his Dawn of the Emperors was a gem and the foundation of an epic 45-year campaign.

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  11. "EPT doesn't contain that much information about its setting. Heck, the entire rulebook, which includes both game mechanics and setting details, is only 114 pages long."

    I meant not the original EotPT product specifically, but the sheer depth of Baker's creation as a whole. Surely there's much less to the Hollow World product line?

    I guess I just don't buy this "old school world design = minimal detail" meme. It's sometimes the case and sometimes not.

    The cultures, gods, etc of the Wilderlands were pretty deeply-developed, too.

    For me, it's more a question of what aspects you're developing. Much of the old-school backlash against detailed worlds is more due to the excessive focus on NPCs and metaplots in lines like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms than some abstract thing like the page count of the source material.

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  12. Warts and all, it's just so much more ambitious and inspirational than anything that was coming out for AD&D at the time.

    I agree. I actually think that, because D&D was the red-headed stepchild of TSR at the time, its writers and developers were often given a lot more free rein to be genuinely imaginative in their products.

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  13. TSR's gazetteers occupied many of the Top 10 "must-have" lists for D&D in Lawrence Shick's 1991 _Heroic Worlds_, and I think Hollow World was one of them (don't have my copy handy).

    The Gazetteer series was quite good for the most part. I have some issues with certain elements of them, but, by and large, they're excellent products.

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  14. For me, it's more a question of what aspects you're developing. Much of the old-school backlash against detailed worlds is more due to the excessive focus on NPCs and metaplots in lines like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms than some abstract thing like the page count of the source material.

    That's certainly true to a great extent, but, speaking for myself, I still prefer my pre-packaged settings, like other products, to be shorter rather than longer -- just enough to give me broad brush strokes that spur my own creativity. That's why I prefer the 1980 World of Greyhawk folio to the 1983 boxed set version, for example.

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  15. "I actually think that, because D&D was the red-headed stepchild of TSR at the time, its writers and developers were often given a lot more free rein to be genuinely imaginative in their products."

    I think that this is probably correct. The D&D line from 1985 until the early 1990s was much more interesting than the AD&D line. I've sought out many D&D products from that time -- and would like to obtain more (but find it difficult, because of the cost and rareness of some of those products). In contrast, I can't think of any post-1985 AD&D product with which I'm enamoured in any way. (I skipped the 2e era entirely.)

    Folks like Aaron Allston and Bruce Heard kept the flame alive!

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  16. I find that the best Gazetteers get exactly the right mix of historicism and playability. I still use them for culture-references for my own game world. Particularly good ones include:

    The Northern Reaches by Ken Rolston - great Viking stuff.
    The Dawn of the Emperors by Aaron Allston - fantasy Rome vs Atlantis.
    Hollow World by Aaron Allston - Edgar Rice Burroughs meets D&D.

    Honourable mentions to:

    The Ethengar Khanate - Mongols
    The Minrothad Guilds - seafaring traders
    Principalities of Glantri - weird magocratic mash-up
    Grand Duchy of Karameikos - low-level base area; good, but not as good as B10 Night's Dark Terror.
    Dwarves of Rockhome

    Less good:
    Kingdom of Ierendi - way too silly
    Emirates of Ylaruam - an early, patchy effort
    Atruaghin Clans
    Republic of Darokin - did not grab me

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  17. Hollow World continues what seems a basic principle of the Gazetteer series: Any Earthly culture, and anything from fantastic fiction, is bound to be turn up somewhere. It's a Silverlock kind of gonzo.

    That makes the volume of material in most entries in the line no bad thing, to my mind. "Canon lawyers" seem to be drawn like moths to Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms, and it's not exactly the most carefully rationalized world in the first place, so it's easy to change or discard whatever one does not like.

    With so much, of such various nature, one is bound to find some gems (which might be someone else's dross).

    Not taking stuff too damned seriously is a virtue here! The writers could get away with throwing out brainstorms just in case the sparks might fire someone else's creativity.

    It would have been another game entirely if they'd been constrained by (e.g.) a license to do E.R.B.'s Pellucidar.

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  18. What I've wanted to do for a long time is to start a campaign with all the PCs being Victorian or Pulp-era heroes - most probably handled as a universal Fighter class - and then get them stranded in the Hollow World. Trollsmyth's "Death & Dismemberment" table will help them survive near-fatal wounds (at least long enough to make some local friends from whom to recruit new PCs), and Chainmail's rules for ballistics will make their guns & ammunition even more precious than those "magic" weapons the natives treasure so much.

    As for the native cultures, just re-file the serial numbers back to the cultures that obviously inspired them, and all the emotional resonance you could ask for is built right in.

    Of course, the trouble with this little plan is that my players are really thoroughly enjoying Stonehell right now. What a tragic conundrum, eh?

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  19. I consider this product one of the best boxed set settings TSR ever produced. We had some discussions of this entry over at the Piazza: http://www.thepiazza.org.uk/bb/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=2349

    Havard

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