Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 8

It’s a quiet night, and I’m feeling great, so here’s old school D&D, part 8!

Chronomancer (1995), by Loren ColemanChronomancer is one of the oddest AD&D supplements I’ve come across yet, and highlights how much TSR was willing to experiment to keep players engaged in the 1990s.

Chronomancer introduces a new wizard class, the Chronomancer, who has access to what is known in the book as “Temporal Prime,” the dimension of time. The book overly argues that earlier descriptions of a “Demiplane of Time” are incorrect.

Chronomancers are described as an elite, rare, and very secretive class of wizards who have learned how to travel in Temporal Prime and derive new magical effects from it. They have to be rare, or history would be a mess!

There are four specialist paths that a Chronomancer can take: Guide, Historian, Seer, or Traveler. A Guide tries to change history; a Historian witnesses it. A Seer tries to benefit from “predicting” the future; Travelers just kinda dick around in the timeline.

With access to the POWER OF TIME, Chronomancers have new spells and magical items (as you would expect from any D&D supplement featuring a new class). The spell shown here is a particular favorite, especially as it mixes evolution and magic.

Here’s an example of one of the more basic magical items.

Traveling in Temporal Prime in the Chronomancer book is… trippy, at best. Here’s a description of Temporal Prime itself; see if you can actually parse what is being said.

In simpler terms, Chronomancers and friends who travel to Temporal Prime see the “flow” of time. The effects of living creatures are seen as “lifelines,” which can twist with other creatures, tangle at critical points in history, and of course die out.

Time and space work differently in Temporal Prime, so one can time travel by going with or against the flow of lifelines, or effectively and crudely teleport in space by moving perpendicular to those lines. Timeslip is a 2nd level spell, so even inexperienced wizards can travel.

Honestly, I find the description of Temporal Prime to be a bit dull. But there are a few fun aspects! Inanimate projectiles freeze as soon as they leave the projector’s touch, but will move again when touched by anyone, making them possible traps.

There are monsters on Temporal Prime, too. Some are rather familiar, like Temporal Dogs, a more evolved version of a Blink Dog. Others have more traditional fantasy inspiration.

Things can get positively Doctor Who in Chronomancer, however — there are a class of superior Chronomancers, called Guardians, who have tasked themselves with protecting the timeline (and serve as a way for DMs to reign in out-of-control players).

But the most important question for Chronomancers in D&D: what sort of new adventures can you have? Here, the DM will have to put in a lot more work, as PCs can travel to the distant past of their world, or the technological future. (And yes, you could fight cavemen.)

The Chronomancer book gives a broad outline of a sample world for PCs to explore, centered on the city of Ri-Laganth. PCs can visit it in its primitive state, its medieval state, its future utopia state, and its far future “environmental disaster” state.

But all this may sound very strange for D&D to you, and… you’re right! As described on DriveThruRPG, Chronomancer started as a supplement produced by Mayfair Games for their Role Aids line of products.  In short: TSR sued Mayfair for making D&D-type products, twice. They basically lost both times, but in the second go, they outright bought the Role Aids line from Mayfair. Chronomancer was one of the products in the pipeline, and it was turned into a TSR product.

It’s worth noting that time travel had been touched upon in other D&D products before. I’ve talked about Dave Arneson’s mid-80s Blackmoor adventures in a previous post, which were set in the distant past of the main D&D world, and time-traveled to by PCs.

Overall, Chronomancer feels a bit confused and not completely thought out. Considering it had two writers at Mayfair and an additional writer at TSR, this is perhaps not surprising!

While I’m thinking of Blackmoor, let’s look at a classic adventure, written by one of the creators of D&D, in which the adventurers unknowingly explore a crashed alien spacecraft, subjecting themselves to strange tech and dangers…

… I am, of course, talking about Dave Arneson’s DA3: City of the Gods (1987)!

A little refresher on Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign won’t hurt here. Blackmoor was the first D&D campaign setting appearing in print in some form, even beating Gygax’s Greyhawk! Arneson left TSR in the early 80s, but came back a few years later to produce versions of his Blackmoor adventures, culminating in City of the Gods.

The first module, DA1, is a very strange introduction to the Blackmoor setting that takes place entirely in a single inn, but with time travel! DA2, Temple of the Frog, is a more standard dungeon adventure and in fact a revision of the first published adventure ever!

It is worth noting that Blackmoor was officially made part of the D&D Mystara world, but some 3000 years before the present! DMs can get their players to Blackmoor through that time-wimey inn I mentioned earlier, either through playing that adventure or jumping in in this one.

The latter option isn’t ideal, however! I bought this module as a teen but never really comprehended it, because it relies heavily on understanding the whole Blackmoor time travel thing! So I pretty much ignored it until recently.

As I said, the adventure focuses on a crashed alien spacecraft, which the players must go investigate and explore and bring back fabulous technology, much like Gygax’s classic 1980 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

There’s one huge difference, though! Gygax’s craft is a ruin, the crew long killed by a plague. Arneson’s spaceship crashed recently, and much of the crew survived, and are dealing with the “froggies” from DA2! The PCs must contend with very active defense mechanisms.

The captain of the city ship isn’t psychologically well, though, and has become a paranoid lunatic due to a failed mutiny attempt by crew members that then left to take over the cult of the frog. The adventure begins when a loyal crew member is forced to flee the Captain’s paranoid wrath in a shuttlecraft, and crashes the shuttle in a local farm. The PCs are brought in to help investigate.

Arneson isn’t screwing around with this high-level adventure, however. Soon after arriving, the PCs are attacked by robots that followed the shuttle’s homing beacon. Check out these stats! They effectively can shoot fireballs and lightning bolts at will.

One of the players’ allies is captured by the robots, forcing them to pursue. An overland trek takes them to the so-called City of the Gods, where they must explore, perform a rescue, grab mysterious tech, and just survive!

The spaceship itself is only detailed in broad strokes. It is supposed to be massive – the size of an actual city – so the DM must improvise a bit to fill in details of regions. The map is lovely, though!

The weirdest thing about the adventure is that it just… ends! It is over when the PCs decide they’ve had enough and flee with all the loot they can carry. There is no clear villain to defeat or climactic battle, just “enough is enough.” Arneson left it open-ended: the PCs can make a trade deal with the city, break the froggy influence on it, or just grab all the crap they can and run. There is no “preferred” outcome, though any choices can have big campaign significance.

One more Blackmoor module came out, DA4: The Duchy of Ten… without Arneson. At that point, the management that had driven Gygax out were unbearable to Arneson, and he left as well, leaving DA4 to his coauthor. Sadly, we’ll never see Arneson’s complete vision.

GM4: The Awakening (1986), by Simon Forrest. Our next old school selection is so obscure that I didn’t know it existed until I bought it!  It is Issue 4 of Game Master Publications, which featured a full-length adventure in each edition!

A little background: lots of folks know about Dragon Magazine, the official TSR magazine that ran for 359 printed issues from 1976 to 2007. But less known (including by me) was TSR UK’s Imagine, which ran for a much shorter run between April 1983 and October 1985.

Imagine may not have run for long, but it is noteworthy in including the first published Neil Gaiman story, “Featherquest,” which appeared in May 1984! It also featured a number of Gaiman movie reviews.

When Imagine was canceled, a number of laid off staffers, including assistant editor Paul Cockburn, started publishing Game Master to continue the ideas and format of their previous magazine. They also seemed to have a bit of a grudge, as we will see. Game Master Publications was distributed by Games Workshop, which was already having great success with Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Paul Cockburn would later move on to work at White Dwarf, GW’s own magazine.

But what was an issue of Game Master Publications like? It really was essentially a mixture of a magazine and a module, with letters, reviews, and articles, with an adventure as a centerpiece. For example: The Awakening, featured in GW4, is an adventure in the caves and delves of the dwarves. It also includes an article on developing mythology for dwarven society.

The adventure itself is impressively ambitious. It starts with the PCs left on guard duty at a dwarven delve while the army is away. When a raiding party of evil dwarves (duergar) takes dwarven prisoners, the PCs go in pursuit… only to find the duergar have amassed a small army in a lost and abandoned dwarven city! There is no time for the PCs to go get help, and no way to fight them directly; the players must use clever tricks and stealth to stop the duergar from launching a major attack.

Here is where things get clever. The duergar are looking for the secret to summoning an ancient supernatural being to help them, and are doing an archaeological exploration of the city to find the summoning spell. The players learn that the powerful being is extremely dangerous, and they can try and summon it themselves in order to destroy the duergar, or arrange things so the duergar summon it first AND DESTROY THEMSELVES. (The duergar will go off to war without successfully summoning the supernatural being if the players don’t help them.)

The being, known as Ustroda-Eloth, is incredibly powerful and it requires a very careful summoning ritual to call it without the summoner being destroyed. The players must therefore do archaeology themselves. Or they can try and manipulate the rival duergar leaders to destroy themselves.  So the PCs must play a cat-and-mouse game with a large duergar army, using the old dwarven tunnels to move about unseen. The maps are impressively huge; the two here represent only a fraction of the encounter areas.

The scenario is unforgiving of stupid players. Though designed for characters of up to 8th level, there is one point when the players can activate 6 20-HIT-DICE giant stone statues that will attempt to crush them to a pulp.

As publishers of such a clever adventure, what did Game Master Productions think of official TSR products? Well, as it turns out… not too much. Check out the tone of this review of a recently published Dragonlance installment.

And they weren’t any nicer to TSR UK publications. In fact, of the 5 modules reviewed in GW4, NONE of them were given a particularly nice review!

This may be a bit understandable — GM Publications were making really offbeat, quirky adventures, and TSR was already a massive corporation trying to have the broadest appeal. But it also seems likely that there was a bit of irritation at TSR for the end of Imagine!

GW4 includes an additional mini-adventure for the Oriental Adventures setting, and I can’t help but mention it because it includes a new monster that I LOVE.

It also includes advertisements of historical interest, including this one for the upcoming Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, which includes a cover design which changed dramatically for the final product.

(That preliminary cover art, a painting by Jeff Easley, was eventually used in 1988 for Tales of the Outer Planes.)

So why did Game Master Publications go under? I’m not sure, but I can’t help but wonder if their habit of bashing TSR products, WHEN TSR WAS THEIR MAJOR ADVERTISER, might have had something to do with it. But a fascinating and fun publication while it lasted!

PS I’m kinda equally amazed and appalled that I can immediately recognize the cover artwork for all sorts of old D&D products!

GAZ3, The Principalities of Glantri (1987), by Bruce Heard.  I knew about all the Gazetteers when they first came out, but I only decided to read one recently, when I started these explorations of classic D&D!

GAZ3 is one of 15 “Gazetteers” written to flesh out the campaign world of Mystara, created by Lawrence Schick and Tom Moldvay for their D&D campaign from 1974 to 1976.

Mystara made its first “official” appearance in products in TSR’s 1980 module X1: The Isle of Dread, that we’ve talked about before!

Mystara, shown below in X1’s map, became the default campaign setting for D&D, as opposed to Greyhawk and later Forgotten Realms, which were used for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. You can see Glantri in the upper left.

I’ve been meaning to write about Gazetteers for a while, and Glantri was a good place to start: its government is a mageocracy, run by mages! And only mages can become nobility in Glantri. Mages, as they advance in power and skill, can move up to stronger princedoms in Glantri, closer to the capital of Glantri City. The City itself fills most of the book’s description: its politics, culture, magic, and important figures.

And GAZ3 comes with a beautiful full color map of Glantri City, which is inspired by Venice in its design, with canals the major thoroughfares.

There are some really fun older D&D connections built into Glantri: for instance, one of the noble families may sound familiar to old D&D fans, d’Ambreville…

This is a reference to module X2: Castle Amberville, in which players explore an extradimensional castle filled with the members of the Amber family. The actions of that module lead to the Amber family being freed to move to Glantri!

(Castle Amberville itself is set in the fictitious medieval French land of Averoigne, which was the setting created by Lovecraft colleague Clark Ashton Smith.)

Did you see how the description of the Amber family was preceded by story-like boxed text? The Gazetteer chapters are set up as mini stories, to make them more readable and lively. Even geography is presented as a student’s lesson.

Horror is a big part of the story of Glantri — the noble families secretly include liches, vampires, and werewolves in their scheming ranks, and are often connected to secret societies.

Speaking of forbidden things: in Glantri, priests and clerics are outlawed! Such characters caught practicing religion in the land can be put to death. The worship of “Rad,” seemingly a sort of magical spiritualism, is the only allowed activity of the sort.

But “Rad” is short for “Radiance,” and Glantri City holds a powerful secret: an ancient source of magical-technological power that can be tapped by those in the inner circle to boost their spell power tremendously!

The “Radiance” is another callback to a classic D&D campaign setting, this time Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor, which we noted earlier was officially set 1000s of years before Mystara! In City of the Gods, discussed above, players can explore a crashed spaceship; the reactors of this ship, which get magically tinkered with by bored Immortals over the millennia, becomes the source of the Radiance!

One of the wildest things: other Immortals, annoyed with the handing of power to mortals, put a trap in the Radiance. The more it is used, the more magic is PERMANENTLY removed from the world. There are rules in Glantri for determining how long it takes for magic to fail!

In the meantime, though, there’s plenty of magic to go around. As one would expect for a magic-based society, Glantri includes new rules for creating magic items and spells.

My favorite bit, though, is the children! Since magic determines nobility, children are trained from a much-too-early age! Young children using magic can create… unpredictable effects.

GAZ3 suggests that one could run a quirky campaign where all the characters are teen wizards in the school of magic, getting into the usual kid-type mischief… but with misfiring magic, as well!  It’s probably worth noting that this supplement came out a decade before the first of the Harry Potter books.

Overall, The Principalities of Glantri is an unusual and novel campaign setting! I can imagine a lot of strange possibilities for running adventures there.

Okay, this post got really long even while covering only a few old school D&D products! I’ll stop here and continue in another post.

 

 

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3 Responses to Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 8

  1. I liked that bit about the DSG pre-publication art going to Tales of the Outer Planes. Good choice on their part. A bunch of Githyanki(?) don’t really strike me as symbolizing dungeons, makes much more sense on TOP.

    -Wayne

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