Friday, November 20, 2009

Unsolicited Advice

Suppose you're a large RPG company with a penchant for "re-imagining" beloved games and campaign settings. Suppose, too, that you happen to hold the rights to the campaign settings of not one but both the creators of the first and best-selling roleplaying game of all time. How do you best leverage your rights to those settings in a way that simultaneously doesn't deviate from your commitment to make things "fresh" and does justice to the 30+ years of history associated with those settings? Well, if the decision were mine to make, this is what I'd do: become more Roman than the Romans.

Let me explain what I mean. Both Blackmoor and Greyhawk have at least part of their origins in the Domesday Book map of the Castle & Crusade Society of the International Federation of Wargamers. Issue #13 of that periodical included an early version of Blackmoor, well before OD&D was ever published. Theoretically, both the Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns existed in the same "universe" established by the C&C Society map. Echoes of this reality can be seen in the existence of a northern realm of Blackmoor within the World of Greyhawk and of a "Great Kingdom" in each -- a formerly good and noble realm that fell to evil and despotism and against which several nations rebelled. Likewise, there's also a Duchy of Ten(h) in each setting, whose name, legend has it, derives from its existence in section 10 of the C&C map, which was parceled into "land grants" to be given to C&C members to develop on their own.

Of course, the histories of Blackmoor and Greyhawk are more complex than that -- convoluted even -- but the point remains: they share a common origin. So, if I were going to "re-invent" these settings in a way that might grab the attention of both contemporary gamers without any knowledge of the hobby's past and old timers for whom honoring the past is important, I'd go back to square one. I'd find some way to recreate the old C&C map, place both Blackmoor and Greyhawk on it, and do my damnedest to reconcile them or at least integrate elements of both, along with new material that draws inspiration from the originals.

The result would, of course, be something new and even, to a certain extent, ahistorical but its newness and ahistoricity would at least derive from a careful examination of the origins of both of these seminal campaign settings. I'd probably go ahead and get in touch with as many people who were involved in these campaigns in their formative stages and let them tell me stories about those early days. I'd mine every bit of information I could get my hands on and use it as a springboard for creating a hybrid Blackmoor/Greyhawk that would satisfy the twin demands for "freshness" and respect for the past. Grognards would still grumble, of course -- that's what we do -- but this time the grumbling would be about how I'd failed to respect later publications, not that I'd failed to respect the prehistory of these settings, the crucibles out of which our entire hobby was born.

So that's the cockamamie plan I'd undertake if I held the rights to both Blackmoor and Greyhawk and didn't just want to rehash what we've seen over the last 30 years. I'd go back to the original sources of all this stuff and make the case that I was being super-true to the past by taking my cues from stuff that's largely been forgotten, even among grognards. It might not work, but at least it'd be genuinely different.


  1. And if you were a Fairly Large Game Corporation presenting the 5th or 6th generation of a certain Beloved Game and did this, you'd be ripped to shreds by a number of self-proclaimed "old school" fans who would insist that no matter what you did you were doing it wrong. Because clearly it's different from what Gary and Dave were doing so it is wrong.

    And you'd ALSO be wrong because you're also the Fairly Large Game Corporation who is currently putting out the most recent edition of a Beloved Game that many of the fans who might be interested in seeing this stuff come out again are convinced turned to crap around edition N+1, where N is an edition within one edition of the edition they started playing the game with. There isn't a market for a product like this because the folks who are interested in seeing it want to see it for Edition N of Beloved Game System and the folks who are currently happy with Edition Most-Recent are not the target demographic at all. If either of these worlds get re-imagined they'll get re-imagined for the audience that is very happy playing Edition Most-Recent because that's the group that is going to be buying it.

    Now, OTOH, if Large Game Company could find some suitably Small Game Company to license said worlds to, and would allow Small Game Company to produce them with whatever edition of the game they felt like producing them for, you'd have a winning combination for success. It's not that the idea is a bad one - I think it's a fairly good one - it's that because of who they are Large Game Company is in no position to use it at all, and would in fact only make the people who would like such a product reject it and possibly revile the very idea just because of who is doing it.

  2. Let's just produce it ourselves, call it The World of Blackhawk Castle and Campaign. The supported ruleset? The First Edition of the World's Oldest Role Playing Game System Originating in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin on 12th December, 1974, Written by Nosnra and Zagyg, and It's Modern Simulacra, Retrosimulacra, Copies, Clones, Semi-clones, Hemi-clones, Demi-Clones, Retro-clones, and Kissing Cousins. Good grief.

    Word verification: "nomas". Says it all. In Spanish, no less.

  3. But where would the Dragonborn fit in?

  4. I don't know, I'd probably buy it. Then again, I think I'd be the target audience for such a product--aware of the history of the settings, but with no real sentimental attachments to them (owned the 1983 Greyhawk boxed set and ran a short campaign in the world about, oh, 15 years ago).

    I'd be interested in seeing a fresh new take that was also respectful of what came before.

  5. I think that's brilliant, James, and I think that's the sort of thinking that's at the very heart of OSR gaming. That's roots gaming philosphy.
    I'd be very interested in looking into a product like that. It would have to be presented in a non-glossy format, with quality illustration, (no spikes, manga eyes, etc..), in keeping with original Greyhawk and Blackmoor material.

    I think this would have to be a fan-produced labor of love though. As far as the Large Game Company is concerned, you're casting pearls before swine here.

  6. Well that what I did mapwise with Blackmarsh

    I plan to flesh it out with a setting based on my impression of First Fantasy Campaign and reading recollections on the internet.

    If somebody can point me to even an half assed description of what the C&C map looked like I could do a similar treatment and fold in Blackmarsh for the combo.

    The result would be a setting true to the origins of the hobby. Of course having the right means that you can borrow elements wholesale.

    Another thought is that Who owns the copyright to the Castles & Crusades map. That map and the associated setting is several steps removed from TSR.

    If you could secure the rights to that then you can make your own version.

  7. What? No manga-eyed Dragonborn? Now you are just being cruel.

    Actually, I agree with Jer on this one.

    Rob--somehow I missed your "Introducing Blackmarsh" when it was posted. Very groovy.

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  9. Just like films and comic books, The RPG Industry is more then happy to take someone's original ideas and remake them whatever way they please without a second thought-all of which gives me more reasons to embrace the ideas of OSR.

    The Kings are dead. Long Live Greyhawk! Long Live Blackmoor

  10. I participated in something like this in the early 1990's that never took off. On a newsgroup a person parceled out a map that people volunteered to populate and we mailed photo copies of our work to that person who then forwarded everyone's sections onto other people that were working on the project. It only had maybe a handful of us send stuff in before folding, but it sounds a lot like what Dave and Gary did with the C&C society. What's interesting is that I'd never heard of such a thing before. It seems like the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. :-)

  11. I'd probably contact as many of the original players as I could and collect their stories into a coffee table book similar to the D&D 30 year book. I'd fill it with maps and artwork (new and old) of the places and characters that were featured in the stories. I'd also stress as many of the shared aspects with our current game as I could. Then I would either let the properties mostly lie dormant or license them out. They might not be popular enough to justify developing them anymore at my production standards.

    Real me doesn't care if they do that as long as those Greyhawk/Blackmoor stories keep showing up on forums and in Fight On!/Knockspell.

  12. I don't think an official revival like this could or would ever happen. Bottom line: it wouldn't make a certain game company any money. The culture of rpgs has changed too much; there is almost no chance of a reconciliation between the new and the old.

    On the other hand, an "old-school renaissance" wouldn't even be possible without a new school to play off of. IMHO it's fascinating that the old and grumpy grognards are the "rebels" against the newest generation of games and gamers. It's complete role reversal. And considering we're dealing with rpgs, that seems perfectly fitting.

  13. Why fight said large RPG company over two world developments with confusing histories/developments (even with RL parallels) and gaping holes therein when you could have a "designed from scratch" world such as Kalibruhn instead, which also predates D&D's release?

    Seems to me, for example, that "EGG as player" is no less important than "EGG as DM" in the development of D&D and yet there's an almost monomaniacal focus on the latter.

    (ERK can flex easily enough between worlds, too, as Mike Mornard is also well aware ;)

  14. Given that the description of Blackmoor in the WoG folio is skeletal, even for that brief work, I don't see why you can't just plug DA's material in there now with no real problems.

  15. Why make it so complicated? You know what we want--we just want them to reprint to original stuff. That's all.

  16. Oh, and for those of you who would say it's too expensive, or not worth reprinting old stuff. Not true: they already have all the material, and they just need to do some on-demand publishing like lulu does.

  17. They could do Lulu but I don't see that working for them. I don't see WotC doing anything unless it is at the production values people expect from them. This means full color, glossy hardcover with lots of art and much better editing than was present in things like First Fantasy Campaign.

    I think it is one thing for people who have an interest in that kind of stuff, and an understanding of how the hobby has changed, to go back and look at that stuff as is. Honestly, if I made something back then I wouldn't want it released now to be compared with the current production values. If WotC released it, that would be the comparison, and it would be unfair to the authors because the market in general isn't going to understand. Honestly, First Fantasy Campaign is a pretty tough book to work through.

    I am much more interested in hearing about those old campaigns from the participants. I want to hear their stories. I don't really care to run the exact same one. I don't need their maps. I figured that out when I was laying out my game for Castle Blackmoor. All I really want is the feel and some cool details. I am going to make the actual dungeon mine anyway.

  18. I would love to see such a hybrid Blackmoor/Greyhawk setting. I have been toying with the idea on a fan level myself for a while now. I think you are on the right track, going back to the original sources. How much is known about how different Gygax' campaign was from what has been published for Greyhawk?

  19. WotC is firing, not hiring, and three years from now the OSR will be old hat and they'll have done Dark Sun and probably (alas) Dragonlance in 4e. So along with all the other reasons this sort of thing isn't commercially feasible, there's that.

    But there's something else too: There's never been a single official D&D campaign world that's as different from e.g. Greyhawk as, say, the world of GURPS Goblins is from every single other GURPS world. Never! The reason 3e Greyhawk is lame isn't that it's 3e, it's that it's a nostalgia product, and nostalgia definitely isn't a good primary motivation for artmaking and game-design. Good games offer new experiences, not just familiar ones. (Beloved games offer new familiar experiences - hence first-gen RPGs played like tabletop minis wargames, etc.)

    Doing a campaign world book requires huge resources on WotC's part, because they make gorgeous, mechanically sound gamebooks. No one's interested in a Greyhawk/Blackmoor rectification except you guys. It's not a bad idea, but you should just say 'to hell with copyright' and do it yourself. It's not like you're going to get thrown in jail; no one cares enough to bother.

  20. No, Wally, I'm fairly sure Dragonlance is dead to WOTC. Especially since the disaster that was the movie.

  21. No, Wally, I'm fairly sure Dragonlance is dead to WOTC. Especially since the disaster that was the movie.

    Really? There's been consistent talk that Dragonlance will turn up shortly from WotC. Not that RPG rumormongers are more trustworthy than any other...

  22. Hmm... OK, maybe "monomaniacal focus" was understating the situation somewhat.

    Not sure if I should be surprised to read that anyone here thinks WotC either has, or cares about, any of the "original material" in question. ;)

  23. I think your gioving them unsolicited bad advice. Not because the advice in and of itself is bad per say, but rather I cant see them "going back to the source" when they've done everything to divorce itself from its roots in.

    So whatever they do to go back to be super true to its past.....will probably end up so mangled beyond belief.

  24. Very interesting! I am working on a similar project:

    I would love to get my hands on the original C&C World map, if there ever was such a thing...