My Mystara Wishlist

The news that Classic D&D material was going to be reissued as PoD were one of my high points of the last year or two in the hobby. But the release schedule seems to be slow-ish. So I thought it might be worth for me to keep track of where we are at any given point.

Other people are monitoring the whole list (either Mystara titles or all titles), so I will limit myself to those titles I was planning to buy. The first section is all about the GAZ series, which is by far the highest priority for me. The second section are adventure modules that I am pretty sure to buy, and the third section is adventure modules that I am interested in and might buy just because they are classic and cool. In square brackets, I will add comments on why I want this stuff.

I will list them all, and then hyperlink them as soon as they become available. (Check this out for a general BECMI catalogue)

The GAZetteers Series

GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos 1987 9193
GAZ2 The Emirates of Ylaruam 1987 9194
GAZ3 The Principalities of Glantri 1987 9208
GAZ4 The Kingdom of Ierendi 1987 9215
GAZ5 The Elves of Alfheim 1988 9223
GAZ6 The Dwarves of Rockhome 1988 9227
GAZ7 The Northern Reaches 1988 9230
GAZ8 The Five Shires 1988 9232
GAZ9 The Minrothad Guilds 1989 9236
GAZ10 The Orcs of Thar 1989 9241
GAZ11 The Republic of Darokin 1989 9250
GAZ12 The Golden Khan of Ethengar 1989 9246
GAZ13 The Shadow Elves 1990 9287
GAZ14 The Atruaghin Clans 1991 9306

Sure Buys

B2 The Keep on the Borderlands 1980 9034 [‘Nuff said!]

B10 Night’s Dark Terror 1986 9149 [The coolest take on Karameikos]

Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia 1989 1037 [Complements GAZ titles]

Cool Stuff

RC Rules Cyclopedia 1991 1071 [I have one old battered copy already]

O2 (solo) Blade of Vengeance 1984 9108 [Love Jim Bambra]

X2 Castle Amber (Château d’ Amberville) 1981 9051 [First module I ran, love Glantri]

X3 Curse of Xanathon 1982 9056 [I know… but I like it]

X4 Master of the Desert Nomads 1983 9068

X5 Temple of Death 1983 9069 [Classic pulpy two-part campaign]

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Sometimes They Come Back

As I have told you at the time, I once missed the opportunity to snatch a complete collection of the BECMI GAZ series for basically peanuts. As a consequence, I am pretty excited at these news: the Wizards are selling Print on Demand reissues of old titles via DriveThru RPG/RPG Now.

Obviously, the campaign was launched only a couple of weeks ago, and there is no guarantee that they ever get to reissue any titles belonging to the GAZ. I can also envision some practical difficulties in doing such a thing: those booklets came with poster sized maps, and some of them included stuff like wargame pawns, paper models of buildings etc. Frankly, I strongly hope that they get around these problems in the most radical way: just cut the maps in pieces, and ditch the extra gimmicks. If they do it well (i.e., do not butcher the maps) the end result would be marginally less pretty, but considerably cheaper and more practical than the originals themselves.

Presently, the prices seem very interesting and the quality (at the very least) acceptable, so any GAZ title that comes up is pretty much a no brainer for me. Dammit, this I really owe to my youth and the history of the hobby!

The Red Cloud Brothership, Mystics of Krondahar

tiger nest monastery

[This calls for an explanation. Among other RPG related things I have been doing in my long abstinence from the blog, I have done some reading of the beautiful retroclone Dark Dungeons, by Blacky the Blackball, which I like a ton and I am likely to review here soon. At the same time, I am browsing through my official WotC PDFs of the old GAZ series, and an idle thought crossed my mind. If you wanted to find some use for the Mystic class that sort-of fitted in the already eclectic Known World setting, where could you place them? So here it is, my little homage to BECMI, Dark Dungeons and campy Asian fantasy.]

Glantri’s law condemns the worship of Immortals in any form. Ethengarian immigrants, thus, had to renounce the ancient cult of spirits and ancestors as practiced in Ethengar. Under the influence of the powerful magic practiced by the Virayana family and other secular lore, a tradition of mysticism developed that emphasised the power of mind over matter and the transcendence of human limitations by relying solely on mental discipline. Besides more contemplative activities, a group of such scholars oriented more strongly towards the martial arts. Their training takes place prevalently in one of a small number of secular monasteries in the principality. Mystics who wander around in search of challenges can carry on their instruction autonomously or under other brothers that they meet in the world. These Red Cloud Brothers, as they came to be called, are now a precious resource for the small principality of Krondahar, in that they make excellent elite troops and unrivalled body guards and security officers. Like the textbook mystics of DD, Krondahar mystics swear a vow of poverty, so mystics who work in the capital or elsewhere in the above mentioned capacities transfer most of their income to their monasteries.

As a general rule, the level of mystic NPCs must be set as follows:

Apprentices (lvl 1): Young students at the monastery, occasionally on guard duty.

Disciples (lvl 2-6): Common members of the brothership, often employed as irregular troops or mercenaries all around the country.

Champions (lvl 7): Mature disciples, with exceptional abilities, they can often be met as they wander looking for a challenge.

Sifu (lvl 9): True masters, they can take disciples of their own.

Grand Sifu (lvl 16): Keepers of the most secret techniques.

Mystics have no official titles, and regardless of their level they address each other as Brother/Sister. Only at level 9 they earn the title Sifu (Master), and can officially take apprentices of their own: before, they can only offer informal assistence in another’s instruction. A Sifu has mastered all the more “mundane” abilities their mystic tradition has to offer, but the path to the most esoteric techniques is long. The only known Grand Sifu (expert, among other things, of the legendary Dim Mak technique) is the Grand Sifu of the High Monastery of the Red Cloud in Lhamsa (see below). Higher level mystics are rumoured to exist, but it is generally assumed that they start wandering in far away lands and savage places in search of higher challenges and enlightenment.

Combat-wise, the greatest emphasis of the training is on unarmed strikes, but armed fighting is taught as well. The first weapon taught is invariably the staff, but the one-handed (“normal”) sword, the spear and the dagger are also commonly taught.

The alignment of young mystics is usually Lawful, and they are generally assumed to be loyal and deferent servants of the Prince of Krondahar (in spite of his many quirks!). Wandering mystics, especially the most powerful, often change their alignment to Neutral, as a result of their ever increasing detachment from the material life. A Chaotic alignment is incompatible with the mental discipline of the Red Cloud mystics: mystics who happen to change their alignment to Chaotic immediately lose their abilities. With GM permission, these characters might be converted to Thieves of equivalent XPs.

Grand Sifu Thokmay (Mystic 16, AL:L). STR 12, DEX 16, CON 10, INT 10, WIS 16, CHA 13. HP 42. AC -8. Weapon Feats: Staff (Master), Sword, Normal (Expert). Special Abilities: Strike to Kill (Unarmed): 3d12 x 4 Attacks; Alertness; Self Healing; Speak with Animals; Resistence to Spells and Breath; Smash/Parry; Speak with Anyone; Mind Blank; Fade; Dim Mak. Thief Abilities: Find Traps 76%, Remove Traps 70%, Climb Walls 102%, Move Silently 72%, Hide in Shadows 60%. Special Items: Staff of Dispelling. A mature-but-not-exactly-old-looking gentleman of Ethengarian descent, Grand Sifu Thokmay  has unassuming manners and demeanor. He always carries his staff, but in the rare occasions in which he has to defend himself in a fight he opts for his dazzingly fast and powerful punches and kicks, which can harm even the toughest magical opponents the Princes can send after him. Like others before him, Thokmay is tempted to pass the monastery onto another Sifu and retire himself somewhere in the wild, but he is under the impression that the Machiavellian politics of Glantri are constantly endangering Krondahar and its people, so he tries to hold on and do his best to maintain peace and order in the principality. The Grand Sifu is respected and feared by the magic-users, not only because of his fighting prowess and spiritual force, but because of the Staff of Dispelling that is inherited by the Grand Sifus of the High Monastery. This object, bestowed to the founder by the then-rulers of Krodanhar, makes it very hard for a magic-user to harm the Master with spells or magic items.

On adaptations

I did not play Call of Cthulhu, back in the day. I knew it, though, and greatly respected both its game system (the likable Basic) and its setting. Recently, I have noticed people who lament that CoC was not very keen (or very effective, at that) at recreating Lovecraftian cosmic horror, and typically resulted in more action-oriented pulp fiction. The rule system itself was not explicitly tailored for the purpose (it was a solid, generic skill-based system). This is closely parallel to MERP with respect to Tolkien: Rolemaster (Spell Law especially) did not suit particularly well the source material, and the adventures (while very well documented) had a distinctly sandboxy, wilderness adventuring feeling.

The moral? Maybe I should not say so, being as fond as I am of “genre”, but the fact is that it is not by any means obvious that everything that works in fiction should work in roleplaying. So maybe one should content himself with having RPGs that participate to some extent in the atmosphere of his favourite fiction, and enjoy games in and for themselves. It is a fact that some of the most iconic and influential tropes of RPGs were not inspired by any specific genre of fiction (at least, not directly and recognizably). It is the case with much of what we call “classic fantasy”. It is D&D that made today’s fantasy genre, not vice versa. And this is also why D&D still retains its appeal, even to people that could not care less about Old School Renaissance: D&D is attractive because it is its own thing, it made the rules rather than following them. So who cares if the game system does not make much sense? Same with the World of Darkness: it did not try and recreate one specific genre or the other, but it invented a new blend of dark fantasy/horror/mysticism which is uniquely its own (and largely sucks, IMHO: more on this in future posts).

Why I like the Rules Cyclopedia

[Sorry people, I know the blog is slowing down quite a bit. I have in preparation a good bunch of posts on LotR (both novel and movies) and quite a few on Fate and GURPS. In the meanwhile, a little old D&D.]

Historically, D&D manuals seem to have suffered from bad writing. I am not talking content here: of course, one could have countless bones to pick with this or that D&D edition, or even with all of them. I mean the plan of the work, and its style. I remember lending all of my AD&D2e manuals as soon as I stopped DMing (and never recovering them to this day), precisely because they made such a poor reading: having them for reference when you played was one thing, but otherwise they seemed a waste of space.

The Rules Cyclopedia, on the other hand, has none of these flaws. It is concise, well organized, and lively written. It does not indulge in preliminaries, nor it displays self-importance. There was no room for such things: RC was born to be the first and only comprehensive one-volume D&D rulebook. It includes everything one needs to run not only an adventure, but in fact a campaign that could last years or even decades. Of course, the crunch was the same as the BECMI boxed sets, so many things were simplified with respect to AD&D or later D&D editions: fewer classes, races-as-classes, fewer spells, fewer monsters and so on. And yet, it also included much that would never been included in core rulebooks again: rules for acquiring and governing a domain, rules for mass combat and sieges, not to mention the (however sketchy) guidelines for characters to attain immortality. So, while RC had everything somewhat simpler, it also has the grandest scale ever in forty years of D&D manuals.

And, to be precise, not everything was actually simpler than in AD&D2e: the weapon mastery rules (presented as optional) are actually much more detailed than the weapon proficencies in AD&D2e. Whether this is for better or worse, it is up to the reader to decide. Suffice it to say that while the rules complicate the (extremely, almost irritatingly) elementary nature of BECMI combat, they have at least two strong points. First, they greatly increase the offensive capacity of PCs: while this might posit some problems at medium to high levels, it is a welcome change at the lowest levels (PCs have now better chances to survive encounters with low level monsters, and we know that nobody likes to be stabbed to death by a kobold). Think of a poor first level magic user: now, if he spends both his weapon mastery slots on the staff, he becomes a skilled staff fighter, who can attack and defend effectively and inflict considerable damage. Second, it makes it possible to differentiate greatly between individual PCs, which is precious in a game that has always had the tendency to look at PCs as stock members of the respective classes. Two warriors can be finely differentiated not only in terms of their “liking one weapon over another”, but of having entirely different tactical roles and special features: in this sense, RC does not pale in comparison to D&D3.X. Even at first level, you can now create heavy cavalrymen, crossbowmen, archers, skilled halberdsmen or whatever you feel like. Not that the system is without its quirks: the very smart, and valuable, intuition that experts of a weapon are more effective against some opponents than against others ends up giving counterintuitive results, since users of missile weapons have been conflated with monsters with natural weapons (i.e., a swordsman has the same bonuses when fighting an archer as when fighting a dragon, but better bonuses when fighting another swordsman). Does it sound right? I am not sure.

Since we are very much talking Old(-ish) School here, I will go for something nerdy now. RC (like BECMI before it) has, as far as I know, by far the most powerful version of the Meteor Swarm spell: it inflicts an astronomical 32d6 damage on impact plus 32d6 of blast damage, against which a saving throw for half damage is allowed. A high level magic user has thus the potential to inflict up to 384 damage, which would be enough to wipe out the vast majority of opponents in one blow. In Pathfinder, for comparison, Meteor Swarm does not exceed a maximum of 192 damage. One might say that the RC version is “unbalanced” but hey, when DMs let 21st level wizards in their game world, what did they expect…?

[EDIT – 28/06/2016: I was wrong on Weapon Mastery rules. First-level characters cannot allocate more than one mastery slot to the same weapon, so a magic-user would have to wait to do her kung-fu. By the way, the RC as written is not super clear about this, unlike Dark Dungeons, which I strongly recommend for other reasons as well.]