D&D and Timelines

As a word of warning, this article is a work of highly pedantic nerdery to a degree that I feel such a warning necessary on a role-playing game blog. It is also of questionable use.

I have always been fascinated by the idea of the living campaign world, a place where things happen independent of the player characters, where history moves on even when there’s no party of adventurers to witness it. The 90s AD&D scene feeds right into this: Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and all the other campaign settings occur in the same multiverse, connected by the Spelljammer and Planescape settings, and brought together in its own way by Ravenloft.

The potential of crossovers raises the inevitable question of timeline correspondence. Where do the timelines cross? The major settings were heavy with metaplot, none so much as Forgotten Realms, and to a certain mindset, it’s relevant to know what’s going on in Waterdeep when the party of kender steps through the portal.

One reason this is such an interesting thing to study is that as far as I can tell, the designers and developers at the time did not coordinate for this and what little data can be harvested from the gazillion sourcebooks of the AD&D era is often vague and contradictory. The work of assembling a coherent canon is an exercise in cherrypicking your sources. I, for instance, choose to ignore anything in Ravenloft that would contradict other stuff because the Demiplane of Dread plays fast and loose with time anyway. However, others have trod this ground before me, such as Paul Westermeyer, whose Spelljammer Timeline research I use as a base for my own study. There’s also a timeline converter app largely based on it, though I have one quibble with it. I’ll come back to that.

We can pretty reliably state that Dragonlance’s 358 Alt Cataclius corresponds to Forgotten Realms’ 1361 Dalereckoning through the Spelljammer novels Beyond the Moons and Into the VoidBeyond the Moons is mentioned to occur about five years after the War of the Lance, and Into the Void, according to Dragon #196 article “Novel Ideas”, is set in 1361 DR. The novels follow one another and are set within a relatively short span of time.

Greyhawk can be connected to that through the first Wizards Three article in Dragon #185, “Magic in the Evening”, which describes the meeting of Dalamar, Elminster and Mordenkainen in Ed Greenwood’s living room. It’s set right after the events of the Forgotten Realms novel The Parched Sea and before the Greyhawk adventure Vecna Lives, set in 1360 DR according to “Novel Ideas”, and Common Year 581 according to Adventure Begins, respectively.

As a side note, though there is no point of connection between the world of Warhammer and Forgotten Realms, I do seem to have notes from around 2002 about a character who crossed over from a D&D campaign I ran in Old World to another campaign that took place in the Forgotten Realms

There are also points of connection for Birthright, Dark Sun, and Planescape out there, but they’re less relevant because the metaplot is not nearly as strong in those. Same for Mystara, though the points of connection are tenuous. Eberron is floating free to my knowledge. I may someday trawl the material for that, but for the time being, it’s less interesting to me.

What is interesting to me is, of course, Golarion. Of course, as the setting of Pathfinder RPG, it’s not an official D&D setting. However, it shares an interpretation of the same cosmology and the points of connection exist and are clearer than those of many AD&D settings with one another.

This ties in with my quibble above. The converter application ties the timelines of Earth and Mystara with the note “This vague link is provided by the official TSR document “Chronomancy and the Multiverse,” which placed Diane de Moriamis’ home time in around the year 1600.” However, what the document actually says is “Averoigne could be part of a magical Europe around A.D. 1600 in HR4 A Mighty Fortress, and this wizardess could be met at various times through Earth’s history prior to her move to the world of Mystara.” That’s a lot of “could”, especially for a time traveller. We also could disregard it and take a closer look at how Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms tie together – in Ed Greenwood’s living room, clearly meant to be in the present day at the time of writing, 1992. I thus posit that the Earth equivalent year to 1361 DR is 1992 Current Era.

From here, it’s just a skip and a hop to Golarion. The Reign of Winter adventure path happens in the year 4713 AR, the year when Queen Elvanna should be stepping down from her throne in Irrisen. Its fifth adventure, Rasputin Must Die! takes place in Siberia, in 1918. This is explicitly reinforced in the foreword to the fifth adventure of Strange Aeons, What Grows Within, which was released to subscribers while I was writing this post, where James Jacobs states “After all, if you do the math that we’ve established, the implied year that Strange Aeons begins in (4716 AR) does in fact correspond to the year of 1921 here on Earth…” Therefore, Golarion’s 4713 AR = Earth’s 1918 CE = Dragonlance’s 286 AC = Forgotten Realms’ 1289 DR = Greyhawk’s CY 509.

This does set Golarion very far from the “current eras” of most of the other settings – a good sixty years before the War of the Lance kicks off, Drizzt Do’Urden isn’t going to be born for another decade, and Oerth is going through the era of relative peace just after Iuz the Evil has been imprisoned by Zagyg the Mad. Back in AD&D, they were all happening more or less at the same time.

Then, the current year in Forgotten Realms is sometime in the late 1400’s by now, the newest timeline for Dragonlance I have ends at 419 AC, and Greyhawk only goes up to CY 598, when the Living Greyhawk campaign ended. Oh well.

Meanwhile, I do see the rationale for making the corresponding point in Earth’s timeline in 1600. Early Modern Era is roughly the level of the most advanced technology in Forgotten Realms. However, the game also has a history of bringing characters from strange places to the then-modern Earth. In Dragon #100, we can find the adventure “The City Beyond the Gate”, which takes a party of adventurers from Oerth to London circa 1985 to hunt down the Mace of St. Cuthbert. The D&D adventure Immortal Storm is set in 1980’s New York City. The Wizards Three meet not in a medieval castle but a Canadian librarian’s living room. It’s the crossover where D&D meets urban fantasy, where the high-level adventurer gets to be a fish out of water in the face of firearms. It’s where things get weird. London in 1600 is just a smaller Waterdeep, but London in 1985 is unfathomable.

Also, you know what is in 1918? The first entry in the timeline for Masks of Nyarlathotep, that’s what.

masksrajattu

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RPG Blog Carnival: Things to Love, Things to Hate – Giant Space Hamsters and Eclipse Phase

There’s a blog carnival going on at Nevermet Press, on the topic of things that we love and hate. They’ve even conveniently limited it to RPG products, which works well for me.

As long-time readers know, I’m very good at hating things, especially 4E. I decided that this time, I’d direct my considerable powers of derision towards something else, especially since nobody has sent me any new 4E books to detest. I hear they’ll be going for cheap soon, though.

But then, I’m not in this hobby because I hate everything in it. There are great things in it, beautiful things, things that I love and things that inspire me to create, and to rave about how awesome this thing here is. There are many books and product lines in the hobby that I absolutely adore. I’ve written on a number of them, but there’s a conspicuous omission in my oeuvre, especially considering the subheading of my blog.

Hamster, Giant Space

D&D’s been around for a long time, and been blessed with circumstances that have allowed prodigious amounts of content to be produced. When you have a corpus of over a thousand volumes, there’s room for some pretty weird stuff. A lot of this weird stuff accumulated into theSpelljammer setting, which essentially gives astrophysics the finger and goes with a grab-bag of the coolest misconceptions we’ve had of the makeup of the universe to take D&D to the stars.

(That’s probably the subject of a blog post all on its own – the astronomy of Spelljammer, much like the Cant of Planescape, isn’t just random stuff that they made up. They based it all on something. But I digress.)

Anyway, like all AD&D settings back then, Spelljammer received its own entries in the Monstrous Compendium series. It was still the early years after the release of Monstrous Compendium I, which was packed into a three-ring binder. The idea was that you could use the binder to put in all the other Monstrous Compendium entries and sort them alphabetically, for one, ginormous binder full of things to challenge your players. There are also some loose monster pages in boxed sets from this era. I really have no idea how it worked in practice – I came to the game just a few years too late for it and own only a few of loose-leaf Monstrous Compendiums. There were two of these collections for Spelljammer, both annoyingly titles Monstrous Compendium: Spelljammer Appendix. They’re MC7 and MC9 (MC8, in case you’re interested, is the Outer Planes Appendix).

The first one of these includes stats for one of my favourite creatures in all of D&D, the giant space hamster.

It’s pretty much what the name says, a really, really big hamster. Unlike your average D&D giant rodent, which is gonna be the size of a big dog at best (such as the dire rat), the giant space hamster isn’t called “giant” for nothing – the common breed grows to the size of a brown bear. Of course, they were originally bred by the tinker gnomes of the Dragonlance setting, and lemme tell ya, their biological creations work no better than their technological ones. I quote, from MC7 Monstrous Compendium Spelljammer Appendix, released by TSR in 1990:

Possibly the worst aspect of the giant space hamster (aside from its ludicrous existence) is that enchanted substances from numerous other sorts of nonhuman monsters can be introduced into its reproductive processes, producing unbelievable (except to a gnome) new sorts of giant space hamsters. Some gnomish communities deliberately breed unique subspecies in competition with other communities to produce the most interesting varieties. Usually, the results are more or less like the normal sort of giant space hamster, such as the wooly, mottled, ochre, Oriental, Occidental, chartreuse, spotted, not-quite-so-spotted, only-a-little-spotted, plaid, cave-dwelling, three-toed, lesser, greater, greater lesser, lesser greater, albino, and flightless giant space hamsters.

It makes no sense. It’s absurd humour, out of nowhere, and it’s hilarious. According to 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons, the coffee-table book WotC released in 2004, it originated when Jim Holloway was drawing spelljamming vessels, and came up with the gnomish sidewheeler, which has these huge paddlewheels on the sides. Jeff Grubb, noting that there’s nothing for them to churn in the void of space, declared loudly that they must be giant hamsterwheels. Roger E. Moore overheard this, and the rest is history.

MC7 supplies us with stats for other funky variations of the giant space hamster, such as the carnivorous flying giant space hamster (“a regrettable if understandable line of inquiry”), the two-headed lernaean bombardier giant space hamster, the fire-breathing phase doppleganger giant space hamster, the great horned giant space hamster, the abominable giant space hamster, tyrannohamsterus rex, and the fearsome giant space hamster of ill omen, also called Woolly Rupert.

The giant space hamster has since made appearances elsewhere, and most gamers of today will most likely remember it from the Baldur’s Gate games, where the berserker Minsc has a miniature giant space hamster called Boo as a pet. It was also recently updated to Pathfinder RPG in Frog God Games’ Tome of Horrors Complete, a work of such weight that while its contents will kill your character, the book itself can be very easily used to kill you.

To me, the giant space hamster is a reminder that there’s room for humour in everything. While I do take games very seriously indeed, it’s good to remember that nothing should be taken allthat seriously.

And now, for something to hate… hard one, especially if I lay off 4E. Let’s try something, though.

Eclipse Phase

There’s a surprise for you. Actually, I don’t hate Eclipse Phase. I kinda like it. Its setting is a beautiful distillation of all the greatest works of transhumanist science fiction. Its recommended reading page alone has yielded me countless of hours of enjoyment in the discovery of new authors. The art is magnificent, the PDF copies take advantage of the format in ways I’ve only seen Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s last two releases do, and the Creative Commons licence and innovative, courageous distribution model is make it a thing of the future in not just content but in fact. I want to love the game. I just can’t.

It’s the system. Though on the surface, the game appears slick, cool, and modern, under the hood it’s straight out the 1980’s. There are percentiles and endless tables and charts and they are making my eyes bleed. The character generation system has you allocating a hundred points in a hundred different places on a sheet that looks like it was vomited forth by Excel after a night of heavy drinking. It’s MERP all over again, the game I started with but could never learn. There are just too many fiddly bits and moving parts, and subsystems. The character generation looks especially daunting. They’ve put up a heroic effort to try and explain the system in the quickstart adventure Don’t Mind the WMD, but I just can’t bring myself to study the system with the dedication it would require.

So, that’s me and Eclipse Phase. I want to love it, but I can’t. Sorry, not much hate here. The last post took it all out of me, and it’ll take some time to build up the reservoir.

D&D 5E Announced

So, Wizards of the Coast has done the entirely expected and announced the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a mere three and a half years after the release of the fourth edition. (Okay, 5E isn’t what they’re calling it – not yet, at least – but until they give us a real name, we’re gonna do the logical thing and call it the edition that comes after the fourth.)

Okay, admittedly, I didn’t believe it was going to be 5E until I saw the announcement. I thought the “big announcement” would be bringing back PDFs or hype for Dungeons & Dragons: Book of Vile Darkness, or something. Turned out that instead, it was vindication.

Because, well, if there’s something we can get out of this, it’s that 4E wasn’t doing very well. It means there was something to those Icv2 reports that Pathfinder RPG was outselling it, after all. Basically, it means I was right or mostly right all along.

Also, the best quote that’s come out of this, thus far:

“4e is broken as a game and business and it needs to go away.” – Scott Rouse, former D&D Brand Manager

It’s not as harsh as it looks when you read it in context, but man, I just want to frame that and put it up on a wall.

But enough of that. There will be time enough for schadenfreude and gravedancing later.

We don’t really have much to go on at this point. What is known is summed up on EN World’s 5e news page. The most interesting and concrete things we have this close to the announcement are that they’ll be taking a page out of the market leader’s book and doing an open playtest, and the statement “The Forgotten Realms has a rich history and we will support all of it. It is for the gamers to decide which time they would enjoy playing in”, which has generally been interpreted to mean that they’ll do a timeline-independent Forgotten Realms. The new game is being designed, among others, by Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell, who aren’t known for half-assing things.

So, it looks like they’re not setting out to fail right out of the game this time around. Will it be enough? Time will tell. For my part, I’m willing to give the game a shot as a player. WotC still has a long way to go before I’ll actually buy anything from them. Besides, I already have Pathfinder RPG and some 200 different D20 books to fulfill all my crunchy D&D needs and Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the D&D Rules Cyclopedia for the old school.

Well, good luck to them. They’re going to need it.