A year after putting out Waterdeep and the North, TSR published one of the most unusual boxed sets in RPG history. Usually a boxed set is a varietyA year after putting out Waterdeep and the North, TSR published one of the most unusual boxed sets in RPG history. Usually a boxed set is a variety of material, including a couple of books, and maybe a couple large maps; but in this case, it contained one thin booklet and twelve poster-size mapsheets. Technically, the booklet could help out with running a game in any city, but this was less than entirely accurate, and the real reason for the box were the twelve mapsheets, and all of these were about one city in particular; Waterdeep.
The booklet itself is 32 pages long, and has some notes about the what the rest of the contents of the box were all about, and then reiterates the basics of the city of Waterdeep from FR1, including the history and laws of the city, though this includes a timeline not present in the original. There is a reiteration of the building key as well (needed, since the included maps mark the same buildings), as well as a ‘guide to services’, which lists them by type and map/grid location, so that this time there is an easy way to answer sudden questions such as ‘where are the nearest stables?’, from the party.
After that, there is finally something that could be used with any city; ‘street scenes’. These are large random tables (d100) of things and people going by on city streets that can be used to help set the stage (flavor, witnesses, etc.) at any point in an adventure in Waterdeep. These tables are keyed to the different wards of Waterdeep, but it wouldn’t be too hard to adapt to another city. There is then a short discussion of using recurrent encounters to help drive a sense of continuity in city life, with a page of suggestions, and the book finishes up with four pages of random tables for the potential results of picking a random NPC’s pockets.
Ten of the twelve mapsheets in the box go together to form a huge 67″x108″ map of Waterdeep (arranged in a 5×2 pattern; Waterdeep is quite rectangular). It’s quite impressive—if you have the space for it. (I don’t currently.) This isn’t the best that it could be, as the buildings are color-coded by what ward they’re in (handy, but a bit heavy-handed), and each keyed building is cut out of the image, leaving a white area with the number.
Waterdeep isn’t actually as wide as two mapsheets put together, and that’s where some of the more useful parts of the product come in. Along the outer edge of each sheet are a number of floor plans of potentially important buildings. These aren’t anything truly inspired, but they are potentially handy, and probably the most useful part of the entire product with about thirty different floorplans (most with multiple levels) in a 5 feet to the square scale.
The eleventh sheet is an isometric map of Castle Waterdeep. This includes a plan view and a close-up of the castle itself, showing the long switchback ramp up to the main gate. It’s not entirely bad, but the design is a very poor looking collection of narrow round towers with no thickness to the walls (probably not enough to support the structure, much less keep out rude neighbors), lines of windows along the top galleries, and not an arrow slit, machicolation, or other sensible defensive siege feature to be seen. TSR’s chronic lack of understanding of siege engineering is on full display here.
The final sheet isn’t really a map. It’s an illustration. A view of the city as seen from the top of the fortifications of the harbor. Since the southern part of the plateau the city is on slopes down to the sea, you get a very good view of the southern parts of the city, the ridge/mountain that Castle Waterdeep is on, the castle itself, and part of the city walls, though the actual South Gate runs off the right side of the view.
Assuming that TSR was able to just blow up their existing map of Waterdeep without much re-work, this box set was probably fairly easy to produce. However, value is lower than even that fairly simple job. If you want to run a game centered (or entirely) in Waterdeep, this can give good value, as the extra color will help, and the easier to read, blown up map will help. However, it is in no way essential to that, and if you aren’t heavily involved in Waterdeep, there’s extremely little of interest. Map junkies will still enjoy it however....more
There have been three main centers of activity in Ed Greenwood’s own Forgotten Realms campaigns. Two of them, Shadowdale and Cormyr, are in the centraThere have been three main centers of activity in Ed Greenwood’s own Forgotten Realms campaigns. Two of them, Shadowdale and Cormyr, are in the central area well covered by the original boxed set. The third, the great city of Waterdeep, is a bit north of the focus area, and was the primary subject of the first setting supplement from TSR, FR1. It has appeared many times in the years since then, in adventures, such as part of the Avatar trilogy, later supplements (such as City of Splendors: Waterdeep (Forgotten Realms)) several novels, and even one of the Catacombs adventure books (Knight of the Living Dead).
It contains the usual 64-page sadle-stiched book, with a three panel separate cover, with a small map of Waterdeep on the third panel, and is backprinted with a schematic map of the wards of the city, the main sewer system, and some typical building interiors; this only takes up the two main panels, and the third is blank. Also included is a keyed poster-sized map of the city.
One of the first chapters in the book grants it it’s ‘and the North’ title, giving a rough guide to trade and important locations in the area. The North is generally defined as the area between the Sword Coast and the great desert of Anauroch from the latitude of Waterdeep on north. The problem is, that the geography talked about is more detailed than is available in the boxed set, and there’s no map in the module to guide you, making the entire chapter very confusing reading. The North: Guide to the Savage Frontier would eventually cover the same ground (and partially quote these entries), with a pair of poster-size maps covering the region in detail.
Dragon #128 includes the article “Welcome to Waterdeep”, which had been cut from the supplement and details the area near the city. The module would have been better off to cut the entire chapter on the North, and include this material instead. It would have better aided the focus of the rest of the text, and the map of the area would have easily gone on the blank interior cover panel. I have a feeling that the decision to cut it was already long made when layout of a map of the North advanced to the point that it was realized that the entire region doesn’t quite fit in one 30 mile/inch poster map. Also, the publication of The Crystal Shard may have caused TSR to decide to do a separate module on the North, that could also include the Icewind Vale area.
The bulk of the supplement focuses squarely on Waterdeep itself, and is very well done, with a few problems. It is obvious that Ed had a bunch of material to present for this, and efforts were made to fit it all in, with the main text being a smaller font than normal (about 9 point), with some parts being an extra-small 7 points. A brief history of the city is given, wrapping up with some current news, before turning to the nature of government. The main government is sixteen lords, whose identities are kept secret behind robes and (anti-magic) masks, except for a high-level paladin who serves as the primary public face of government. This is all too idealized to be really believable, with the lords honestly working for the overall benefit of the city with clarity and foresight, and the protected identities not only protecting them from plots in general, but allowing them to be recruited from all levels of Waterdeep society, keeping the government in touch with the needs of the lower classes. However, there are political maneuverings from the nobles (not detailed) and the guilds (better detailed), so not everything is ideal all the time.
A large section of the book is a key to nearly 300 buildings, giving the name of the establishment, the general type of place, with occasional other details. This accounts for perhaps 5% of all the buildings shown in Waterdeep (probably less), and leaves plenty of latitude for the DM to establish his own residences and businesses (and perhaps borrow a few from the CityBook series…). Along with the standard taverns and inns are guild houses, noble villas and fences.
The main problem with the approach taken is that while a DM can sit down with the book and map, and really study an area, and get to know the neighborhood the party is based in, it is horrible at questions such as ‘where is the nearest inn?’ There’s no easy list of such establishments, so a party randomly asking after something in a random location (which of course they will) has to be met with either a lot of looking up possibilities or just making up a nearby one (which is perfectly fine… but the purpose of a supplement like this one should be not to need to do this).
The biggest problem is the amount of flavor that is buried away, where it can be easy to miss. If you look through the listings, you will note that there’s a bunch of tanneries located in the southeast corner of the Dock Ward. Tanneries generally stank to high heaven, so they were forced to exist in one corner of medieval cities to keep stench away from the rest of the city. But none of this is pointed out in the book, so if you don’t know this bit of trivia (and most people don’t—I certainly didn’t in 1987), nor sit down with the map and key to see the pattern, a bit of the logical flavor of the city will be lost, never to emerge in play. The fact that wooden buildings are restricted to one story by law, and anything taller (as most are now) must be made of stone is buried in the description of the Guild of Stonecutters, Masons, Potters & Tile-Makers.
The best part of Waterdeep is that it physically feels right. The city stops at the city wall, which even with edicts against building against the walls seems unlikely, and the few hints of farms and the like outside the walls seem to include a village with no marked path to the main road. But inside the walls, the streets both run straight and branch off in random directions that feel right for a living, evolving city.
In all, this really is a good springboard for urban adventures, and feels like it’s possible to DM such a large and diverse city without it feeling completely foreign to the original intent. This is a tall challenge, and one not often tackled in fantasy RPG writing. Despite the problems, there’s a lot here, and it fits together well, and I have to think this is one of the better city supplements that has been done....more
When TSR adopted the Forgotten Reams as it's new main setting in 1987, the Moonshae Islands became one of the most prominent locales in the setting, aWhen TSR adopted the Forgotten Reams as it's new main setting in 1987, the Moonshae Islands became one of the most prominent locales in the setting, absorbing along the way the Korinn Archipeligo, which had been the setting of module N4 (which had not been tied to the Forgotten Realms at the time). The first Forgotten Realms novel was Darkwalker on Moonshae, which was successful and turned into a trilogy, and the second Forgotten Realms setting supplement (FR2) released shortly afterwards was all about the islands.
Generally speaking, the setting echoes strongly Dark Ages England, with the islands split between the generally Celtic Ffolk, and the obviously Norse Northlanders (I will note that the Ffolk are decidedly Welsh rather than Irish, though the Norse never settled strongly in Wales as they did in Ireland and Germanic-dominated England). A truly interesting wrinkle of the setting was that the Ffolk had a strong druidic tradition worshiping the Earthmother, which was a Gaia-like goddess of the land, rather than the standard Greco-Roman style anthropomorphic deity of D&D mythos.
Sadly, the Goddess was killed off in Darkwell, the third novel of the trilogy (sorry if that's a spoiler), needlessly reducing the interest of the setting. Since that time, there has been one adventure set there (Halls of the High King), and one further set of novels set there (the Druidhome trilogy), neither of which I am familiar with, and no new supplements focused on the area.
The module itself followed the usual format of the time of a 64-page book printed in the usual Forgotten Realms brown ink with faux-parchment pattern background, with a detached cover. Since there's no printing on the interior of the cover, and this isn't an adventure where the cover is separate to act as a DM screen, this is just useless force of habit. There is also a double-sided poster map, with one side depicting the Moonshae islands in the same 30-mile per inch scale as the smaller scale maps of the original boxed set, and is meant continue those maps one panel to the west. Since the isles only take up about half the map at that scale, the reverse is a beautiful map of the Moonshaes at a 20-mile per inch scale. (It should also be noted here that TSR changed color schemes at this point, with much darker colors here and all future FR-series maps than what the boxed set had used).
About half the book is dedicated to an area-by-area description of the islands, broken up by the small kingdoms that exist in the isles. These use the same 'At a Glance', 'Elminster's Notes', and 'Game Information' format as the original Cyclopedia in the boxed set, but this time Elminster's notes are the tales of his journey through the islands about a decade previous, and take up the bulk of the section. In fact, the book is dominated by pure fiction, with Elminster's voluminous tale, and parts of Darkwalker on Moonshae used to introduce all the other sections of the book. This is fairly effective at communicating mood and feel, but is inefficient at getting anything else across, and there there is a dearth of real NPC information, or other detail. In fact, there is but one detail map in the entire volume, a small map of Synnoria, the hidden vale where the Llewyrr (Moonshae's own offshoot of the elves) live.
That said, the book starts with a decent overview of Moonshae, including availability of races and classes in the region, common conflicts and dangers, a section on trade routes through the area, and what each area produces. There is a section on weather (rainy—almost always), and discussion of the various types of terrain seen in the isles, including random encounter tables for each terrain type (I'm a bit surprised to see Ki-Rin—oriental-style unicorns—showing up in Welsh highlands though). There's some new magical items at the end of the book, which all make sense for the setting (though the Cauldron of Doom is an obvious, and apropos, shout-out to the Black Cauldron of Chronicles of Prydain fame), and a sparse page of adventure ideas.
Between the fiction and several pages with leftover space, this is the least information-dense setting supplement I can think of. There one real layout disaster, where one section lost some text (it begins in the middle of Elminster's story after a previous page finished the At a Glance cleanly; there's some empty room on the previous page that could probably have taken what's missing), but otherwise no editing problems came to my attention. George Barr does some very nice graphite illustrations for the book, though that too has a problem. A picture of what seems to be Caer Corwell does not follow the description, and is just bad siege engineering to begin with (which is a problem TSR had in general).
In all, the setting is a great idea, the book shows how it is a great idea, but doesn't do much more than give the barest of starting points for exploring it, though it is good for establishing tone and mood....more
One of the first major supplemental releases for GURPS 4th Ed was GURPS Powers. The introduction for the book states that it is a 'how to' guide, andOne of the first major supplemental releases for GURPS 4th Ed was GURPS Powers. The introduction for the book states that it is a 'how to' guide, and can be considered to be Basic Set: Powers. I disagree with this sentiment; it's really GURPS Advanced Set.
I first came to this conclusion before getting the book. I noticed while cruising around the SJG forums that any 'how do I do this' question that didn't have a fairly straightforward answer invariably ended up referring to Powers, if only in passing. In general, it is meant to be a pure tool kit replacement for Psionics and Supers from the 3rd Ed line, with wider applicability. Since that time, there have been some 'worked example' products based on the principles in Powers, most notably GURPS Psionic Powers.
GURPS 4th Ed can boil down to a very simple game, but is very much a system where the more effort you put in, the more you get out of it. This is the core of GURPS Powers. The central concept of the book is providing a logical framework to plug 'powers' into. In this case, 'powers' are abilities (which may be represented by several different advantages) that stem from some special power source (magic, chi, etc).
Instead of just letting a character take a number of different abilities, and tie them together with 'special effects' (if that), Powers proposes a structure that explicitly ties them together as a package. This then allows the introduction of concepts like shutting down the entire package with an 'anti' power, or defenses that only work against another type of power (like a fire power melting ice attacks), allowing complicated interactions between abilities to be defined ahead of time instead of ignored (because there's nothing in the mechanics to support it), or done purely on ad hoc basis.
With some time spent working things out (or even revising powers later, and adjusting point totals when good ideas come up), it seems to me that GURPS can now do better genre-emulation of superheroes than Champions in character creation. (At least Champions 4th, I don't know if the later editions have added anything to help guide the interplay of powers/special effects.) And this is even better for universes with a more limited set of wide-ranging powers (say, The Last Airbender universe).
There is, of course, a cost. To do this properly, the GM needs to spend the time and effort to define the 'sources' and 'foci' of the powers in the game, and quite likely, the overall structure of the abilities in the powers. This is extra time, effort, and math. But, after putting in the effort, you have much better support for all the interactions.
Some 60+ pages are spent on advanced discussion of existing advantages and modifiers in the context of powers, and a couple of new, potentially very abuseable advantages are introduced. (The existing ones also get some interesting extensions, such as the version of injury tolerance that replicates the type of zombie that keeps going after being dismembered, including outlining the abilities of the various separated body parts.)
Other parts of this book include a wide range of pre-worked-out examples. This ranges from the modifiers that many powers would use (and since these often make them less useful by defining situations where they won't work, they are usually modest cost breaks), the types of abilities many popular power types should have associated with them, to detailed abilities built out of the base advantages and disadvantages of GURPS to better suit things often seen in fiction. And then there is the usual very well done discussion of how to handle things in a campaign (including a rundown of abilities that can interfere with, or short-circuit, an adventure, and how to prevent it becoming a major problem). And there is a chapter of optional rules for use with powers, such as the possibility of a power being crippled (say, by over-use). And a chapter discussing the nature of genres that typically have powers as a major focus (from mythic fantasy to superheroes).
Overall, this is a 'crunch' book, mostly useful for GURPS 4th Ed, and a very well done one at that. But... I can't help thinking that the power structure ideas here could be taken and adapted to other general point-based systems. It would take even more work, but this may be nearly unique as a crunch book that could actually serve more than one system....more
This is a boxed set containing two 96-page perfect-bound booklets and four poster-sized maps.
This served as the introduction to a new setting for theThis is a boxed set containing two 96-page perfect-bound booklets and four poster-sized maps.
This served as the introduction to a new setting for the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game. One booklet held general geographical and cultural information on the Realms, and the other was oriented to use by Dungeon Masters. Two of the maps joined together to give an overview of the setting as a whole (an area about twice as large as the United States), while the other two joined together to give a more detailed look at the main area of the setting. Many further 'FR' series modules included more maps as the reduced scale that would fit with the pair here.
Forgotten Realms was far from the first RPG setting produced, and not even the first from TSR, but it set a new bar in presentation. The two-booklet, multiple-map box set would be re-used several times by TSR. This is marred by some poor editing with typoes and mistaken word choices abounding and some missing illustrations in the second booklet. One gets the sense that this was rushed through editing and proofing in a big hurry.
But the real value comes from the Cyclopedia of the Realms (the first booklet), which lists scores of places in the Realms and gives some description of them. Unlike the earlier Greyhawk set, which tended to be dryly biographical, the Cyclopedia helped instill a sense of the lore and history of the Realms with descriptions that often give a bit of history and some of the important people. While some of the book can go into a bit more detail than a player should probably know, it is still pretty safe for a player to read through, and will not spoil any big secrets that the DM may wish to keep.
The DM's Sourcebook of the Realms (the second booklet) is a little more disappointing, with about half the book taken up by descriptions of various spellbooks known to be wandering around the Realms where adventurers might come across them (this is actually a good idea, and helps add some more flavor, especially with the histories provided, but a quarter of the available page count in the introductory product is a bit much). Important sections include two years of 'rumors and events' (tavern talk), which help give a sense of recent events and the Realms as a place where things are happening, and fuller descriptions of several NPCs already met in the first book. Rounding it out are some DM advice, and a couple small sample adventures (one merely okay, and one with some real possibilities....more
When I was growing up, my dad had a small business in the wargaming industry, acting as a wholesaler for other companies, selling games retail by mailWhen I was growing up, my dad had a small business in the wargaming industry, acting as a wholesaler for other companies, selling games retail by mail, and publishing a magazine. So, I grew up amidst a collection disparate products from Avalon Hill, SPI, and an insane number of tiny publishers in the wargaming and burgeoning RPG market.
Much of Jon Peterson's Playing at the World therefore is familiar ground. Familiar, but not extensively known, since I was never all that directly plugged into the events he talks about. However, I have contemplated trying to produce such a book myself. While this isn't the book I'd write, it is close, and it shows just how insane an undertaking it would be to do my half-formed thoughts right. Jon is obviously a fellow fan, and his viewpoint is shown on the cover, which features a hand-drawn dungeon map on graph paper, a couple of hand-made wargame counters, and a well-worn old-style d10, and on the title page, which is done to look like a copy of an old fanzine cover, complete with staple in the corner, and a rust mark from an old paperclip. In his acknowledgements, he mentions "In keeping with the tradition of self-publishing exemplified by gaming fandom, this work was written, edited, typeset, illustrated and published by the author with the help of some friends." The lack of professional editing shows on occasion, but given the nature of the project, it's very well done. It also points up a criminal lack of academic interest in subjects that have had a profound influence on popular culture, and therefore modern culture as a whole; one of the author's assertions is that early RPGs pioneered systems that can be seen in the vast bulk of current video games, and he later points out that the only histories of the SF&F genre are similarly self-generated without any real scholarly interest.
The bibliography of this massive work is twenty-five pages long, most of it dedicated to various tiny-run fanzines of the period. Jon Peterson went to an amazing amount of effort scouring eBay, and getting access to private collections to be able to reference 'zines that often had a run of less than a hundred copies per issue. All of this is in pursuit tracking down what people said at the time, rather than relying on what they said about it later. The scope and breadth of his research shows both in the main text, and in copious footnotes that give asides, point out connections, develop an argument further, etc.
There's two themes in this book. The first, and heavily dominant one, is the history of the birth of Dungeons & Dragons. The first chapter (of five, they're all massive chapters) covers from the birth of commercial wargaming in the late fifties to the publication of the original box set at the beginning of 1974. The next three chapters are massive essays on just what history and concepts fed into that, before the last chapter picks up the main story again, and covers the next few years, effectively leaving off with the publication of the AD&D Player's Handbook, by which time the concept of the 'role-playing game' had taken root, and other competing systems were coming out at an increasingly furious pace. So furious, in fact, that even Playing at the World's normally exhaustive coverage starts breaking down, such as when the company Wee Warriors gets mentioned in a footnote with no explanation of who they were, or what they had been doing, other than picking up the publishing of the product that was the subject of the footnote.
The middle three chapters are deep dives into what Jon Peterson feels are related subjects. The second chapter looks at the origin and history of the fantasy genre, to show how the genre was understood at the time of D&D. He also points out the recurring theme of the 'visitation story', where a person from the real world is transported to a fantastic land, and then returns to the real world at the end, which he posits played a part in why the first RPG was a fantasy RPG. The third chapter takes a look at the history trying to simulate events in games, effectively a history of wargaming from early chess variants into dedicated kriegspiel systems, then through more civilian efforts, the rise of miniatures wargamers inside of toy soldier collectors, and thence into commercial wargaming explored at the beginning. This part comes with extra warnings from the author that it really is for the more dedicated reader, though I found it all fascinating. The fourth chapter looks at the idea of 'role playing', and notes several powerful instances of shared collaboration in a fictional world. This one is rougher, and doesn't flow as well, but there's some interesting groping towards the shape of an instinctual type of 'group think' that can have a very powerful impact on people.
The second theme of the book is just how far the concepts pioneered in D&D have carried outside of traditional RPGs. It doesn't get a lot of space in the book, being mostly confined to the introduction and epilogue, but again, he has some interesting things to say.
It's a truly massive book (no, really, I was very surprised by the weight of my Christmas present when it showed up), and the result of an undertaking no less massive. But it reads very well, I had problems putting it down every time I picked it up. I can quibble about a few facts, but they'd be at most clarifications of points he raises, can doubt some of his assertions, but they are massively snowed under by the amount of other arguments that are rock-solid. It's a great, enjoyable book, about a small, critical happening, and why it happened when and how it did, and anyone with an interest in gaming really needs to pick this up....more