Monday, September 1, 2014

The Setting of Seven Voyages of Zylarthen

A "colorized" version of the full-page Batten drawing in Vol. 1, p. 27

First, a digression:

In the Foreword to Seven Voyages of Zylarthen I called the game a "re-imagining" of the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

I want to first explain what I didn't mean by that. It's not OD&D updated with more modern rules or supplemented with my own house rules (though it does undeniably contain some of those). Nor is it a precise clone intended to mimic, say, the rules mechanics of the three little brown books or some other early edition of the game (that wouldn't really be a re-imagining). Nor is it an attempt to place the game in an alternative or more specific campaign setting.

In denying those approaches I don't mean to be critical of them. Indeed, part of why I ultimately rejected them is because they had all been done and done well before. And of course, the current existence of a diversity of great OSR efforts now coincides with the republication by Wizards of the Coast of most of the original rules sets--either in "deluxe" hard copy editions or PDFs.

So I decided to look at things from the inside out, so to speak. It's now forty years since the original "woodgrain box" became available, and we now have a great deal of hindsight. New school people would say we have learned how to do things better. Old school people would say we have learned how trying to do things better can often lead (unintentionally) to doing things worse. For my part, instead of identifying what was wrong with the original game, I wanted to identify what was right about it, and then, so to speak, double down (or even triple down!) on what was right about it in a way that, without the benefit of any hindsight, the original game didn't and of course couldn't do.

I admit that in the process I did want to fix a few things. As much as I love the three little brown books, there are a few rules or parts of them that are odd or perhaps even broken. But the idea was not to jettison those things, but rather to make them work, if possible by harnessing the numerous design principles of the original game that did work.

Caveats and comments before proceeding further:

1. It might be objected that in replacing Clerics with Thieves, I did indeed jettison one of the fundamental parts of the original  game. I don't see it quite that way, but the "no-Clerics" thing is best left for another post.

2. What I think works (or doesn't work) is informed very much by an old school perspective. So, for example, I like random non-naturalistic tables. I think they work. Indeed I think they they work in a big way. So I included more of them. As an example of how I used them to fix what was to me a somewhat broken mechanic--the issue of languages--what languages characters or monsters might speak was given a determination mechanism that parallels the OD&D Treasure Table with its various lettered "Treasure Types".

3. Do I think Zylarthen is better than the original game? Well, in part or in some ways I like certain things better. That's true almost by definition, as there would have been no point in writing it otherwise. But overall I'm not so egotistical (or stupid or silly) as to say that it's a better game. Of course it's not. The original edition of Dungeons & Dragons must remain the unchallenged King of all such games  More importantly, if there is anything in Zylarthen that is good, it is good derivatively--good precisely because of what Gygax and Arneson originally created. 

Now, to turn finally to the subject of the post--the setting of the game. In the Foreword I identified what I took to be one of the wisest aspects of the original Dungeons & Dragons:

It invoked many sources—King Arthur, the Crusades, Middle-earth, the Arabian Nights, pulp fantasy, fairy tales, even science fiction. Its breadth of tone was a virtue, offering to the players a multiplicity of delights.

Spell Casters in Men & Magic--European, Indian and Egyptian (?)
The game explicitly claimed to be "medieval". But of course it wasn't. Critics might say that Gygax and Arneson threw in everything but the kitchen sink into the setting. Some are annoyed by that. And indeed one direction taken by contemporary OSR efforts as well as of course by the progression of the various official editions and expansions, is to try to place things in a more "consistent" or "authentic" setting. So, for example, we have seen 16th Century, quasi-historical Middle-Ages and Middle-Eastern themed efforts, each selecting one or two strands of the original and expanding on it, while jettisoning or reducing in importance the other strands. Again, I'm not being critical of those attempts. There is a place for them. And again, one of the reasons I chose not to go down that path is because, paradoxically perhaps, there wasn't that much room to be original. So many things had already been done and done well.

Most importantly, however, if I were to "re-imagine" the original game in a way that took account of all of its strengths, I couldn't go down that path.

Interestingly, that's not how I originally thought of things. Indeed, I only came to that view fairly late in the game. But I was lucky I did. My writing of Zylarthen, or the game that would become Zylarthen, meandered for perhaps two years before that insight made it suddenly take off.

"...16th Century, quasi-historical Middle-Ages and Middle-Eastern themed efforts…"

I chose those examples because they express the actual evolution of the setting for my own game. First it was More Things in Heaven and Earth, with an Elizabethan or late Tudor setting. It had a pseudo-Catholic tinge, so I suppose it would have been somewhat different. But creating an entire OD&D neo-clone around it would have been, well, boring (though I still reserve the right to put it into a short Zylarthen supplement).

Then, in considering art for the game I came across the wonderful children's illustrations that Howard Pyle did for Otto of the Silver Hand, Robin Hood and other works. The drawings were fun but also sort of dark and gritty. For a short period, I thought of titling the game Coat of Mail.

A wonderful illustration by Howard Pyle-not used in Zylarthen
Finally, after much of Zylarthen had been written and the final title (with its obvious allusion to Sinbad) had been chosen, I thought of making the game more explicitly Middle-Eastern. So, for example, many of the weapons on the list were given Persian names such as "Tabarzin" for battle-axe. Again, luckily, I soon realized that this would have been a mistake.

For the final effort, rather than emphasizing one of the strands at the expense of the others, I decided to add to all of them!

This is I think most apparent in the "new"* monsters: King Arthur, the Crusades and actual history get a nod with the addition of Vikings and Turcopoles. Middle-Earth is referenced with the re-introduction of True Wraiths. Classical myth and history is represented by the named Titans (and Titanesses) as well as barbarians and soldier types (including Amazons) based on Classical, Byzantine and early Persian categories. The Arabian Nights flavor is represented in the title and much (though not all by any means) of the art. The Witch is based on the standard fairy-tale version. Burroughs' Martians make an appearance in force, and most of the "alternate" (for legal reasons) monster takes are science fictional entities.

*Of course, none of the "new" monsters were truly new, but appeared in one form or another in either the three little brown books or early official supplementary materials.

I suppose one could reasonably say that the overall setting of Zylarthen might be slightly more middle-eastern or at least "southern" than that of the three little brown books, though I'm not sure I'd agree even with that. Again, I think the inclusion of "medieval" in the subtitle of the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons throws people off.

In Zylarthen, proper names for places and persons, and explicit history were generally avoided, with a few exceptions. Earth, Mars, Jupiter and the Sun are named. "The Ancient Wars between Law and Chaos", apparently instigated by a trouble-maker named Mendax (aka The Liberator) is described. And there are a few Christian references, something as a Christian I felt important to include in what was after all a game set in an otherwise very Pagan world. But in my view none of these are essentially determinative of any particular time and place.

Finally, in regards to setting, I should mention the artwork of Zylarthen. There are close to a hundred pieces, all by the same artist--the turn of the century illustrator John Dickson Batten. I said elsewhere that once I had chosen the works of Batten, the art actually began to inform the setting and even the writing. Batten's works appeared in children's fairy-tale books. But appropriately enough they were also from a diversity of sources--English, Celtic, general European, Middle-Eastern and Indian. In my humble view, the art was not merely the best art I could find for free, but was in fact precisely right for what I was trying to do. I couldn't have paid for anything better. To the extent that Zylarthen as a visual or physical product succeeds it does so due to Batten. But equally importantly, to the extent the setting and tone are interesting or attractive is also I think due to Batten. Indeed, he deserves an entire post, and will get one soon.

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