Q&A with Joseph Bloch: Greyhawk Grognard Rolls A Natural 20
It’s not every day that we get to enjoy seeing game designer Joseph Bloch (Greyhawk Grognard) chime in on megadungeon design theory and all things gaming, so let’s do this, with relish.
Q: What’s a fun fact about ADVENTURES DARK AND DEEP that might surprise most gamers?
JB: It’s actually based on 1st edition AD&D, not 2nd edition. Many people are still under the impression that Adventures Dark and Deep must be a sort of 2nd edition clone, because it’s based on what Gary Gygax was planning for his own next edition of the game. But in order to bring it closer to what I think he would have envisioned (based on what he wrote in Dragon magazine, and later online), it had to start with 1st edition and go from there.
Q: What are three (3) aspects of 1st edition AD&D that you enjoy most?
JB: Setting aside my own personal familiarity with the system, in terms of mechanics, the first thing that jumps out at me is the modularity. As opposed to the modern trend of completely integrated resolution mechanics, 1st Edition AD&D has a number of sub-systems that use very different mechanics for different things. Compare, for instance, the 1st edition saving throw mechanic, which is based on set categories as they relate to class, with the 5th edition one, which is simply an extension of the ability check system (both of which are mechanically related to the skill system as well). That sort of modularity allows the DM to customize 1st Edition in a way that’s inconceivable in a later, more integrated system. You could plug in the combat system from Iron Crown Enterprises‘ Arms Law/Claw Law, or the magic system from Call of Cthulhu, with minimal effort and still use the rest of the AD&D system pretty much as-is. If you tried to do that sort of change in a later edition, the whole thing would collapse.
Another thing about 1st edition AD&D that I find valuable is that the game’s roots in miniatures wargaming are still visible. Since I come from a similar background, it’s easy for me to see what they’re getting at by using inches to represent variable distances in different circumstances, for instance. The ridiculously precise (and I say that with love) descriptions of arms and armor of humanoid, demi-human, and human troops, including mercenaries is another way this shines through. But it’s really the nebulous end game, something that’s hinted at but not really completely fleshed out, that shows its roots. Fighters building castles, clerics building temples, etc., and all recruiting troops, collecting taxes, with hints and glimmers, and some oddly specific rules (for instance, the rules about peasant revolts in the DMG), all speak to a sort of unwritten understood trajectory for the game that I think went over the heads of most players who lacked the background in miniature or hex-and-counter wargames.
Lastly, there is a sense of the books still being made by a bunch of gamers in Wisconsin in 1st edition AD&D that you just don’t see nowadays. The original DMG had actual cartoons in it, with punchlines; it reflected the sense of humor of the editors. The interior art lacked a consistency that is almost mandatory in modern games; there was a huge diversity of styles from Tramp to Darlene. There’s just a feel in those early books that it’s still a labor of love rather than a polished corporate product run through a marketing department to homogenize it. I love the rough-hewn feel; it’s the difference between homogenized, pasteurized American cheese and unpasteurized Stilton. The first edition of Chivalry & Sorcery has that vibe, too, in spades.
I should add that most of those elements also apply to the LBBs and Holmes Basic, by the way.
Q: When did you create ADVENTURES DARK AND DEEP and what was that creation process like for you?
JB: Work formally started in January 2010. It was born out of a post I did at my Greyhawk Grognard blog, where I looked at a couple of articles Gary Gygax had written about his plans for the future of AD&D. He was talking about new classes, reorganizing the books, etc. Having done that, I realized that’s the game I wanted to play. Since nobody had already gone ahead and written it, I had to.
In that sense it was very much a research project. I started by finding everything I could where Gary spoke about his never-realized plans, in magazine articles, online Q&A threads, and the like. I could see the DNA of some of his intended changes in his later work, Dangerous Journeys, and started retro-engineering them back into a 1st edition model. There were also years of 1st edition errata that I wanted to get integrated into the rules, and then the whole had to be reorganized along the lines he described. Of course, there were a few limitations that writing under the OGL imposed on me, like being unable to include certain monsters by name, but I was able to do as others have done, and include functionally equivalent creatures.
And only after all that research was done could I start actually writing it.
Q: Some folks say the OGL was both a blessing and a curse. What are your thoughts on the OGL?
JB: Well for the OSR in general, and myself in particular, it’s been a blessing, since it allowed a huge flowering of products to recreate (to a greater or lesser degree) games based on the original mechanics. I think, in the wake of the TSR v Mayfair Games ruling in 1993, one could have done an OSRIC-like restatement of the 1st Edition AD&D rules, but the risk of a deep-pocketed TSR or Wizards of the Coast squashing such an effort with a frivolous but costly to fight lawsuit would have been very real. With the explicit blessing of Wizards, the OGL opened up a huge vista for the OSR and others, and most importantly gave the assurance that they were on solid legal ground.
I can see why the proliferation of splat books and poorly thought out supplements by 3rd parties, especially towards the end of the 3.x D&D era, might be thought of as a curse. But since I never went to third edition (or fourth, for that matter), I was blissfully unaffected by it.
Q: What do you enjoy most about analog tabletop gaming?
JB: The social aspects. Like so many of us that were drawn to the hobby in the 70’s and 80’s, I had trouble socializing in school. Having the game as a framework to establish friendships was key for me.
Q: What does the World of Greyhawk mean to you?
JB: I’ve been a fan of the World of Greyhawk since before it was published. I would search out the little scraps that were published in The Dragon (as it was known at the time), the descriptions of artifacts in the LBBs and later the DMG, and so forth. When the Folio was released I devoured it at once, and the same with the gold box set. I think what appeals to me most about the setting is its versatility; the sparseness of the details, combined with the little nuggets of suggestive detail throughout the text (what today would be called adventure hooks), was to me a perfect combination. Even the adventure modules, like Village of Hommlet or Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, seemed to be aimed at showing the setting in motion, rather than having enormous blocks of text that told you what was going on. In retrospect, that approach was the opposite of that taken by the Forgotten Realms.
Q: Which of the TSR adventure modules from that time period have you enjoyed most, and why?
JB: My number one favorite has to be T1 – The Village of Hommlet (which I am very careful to separate out from T1-4 – The Temple of Elemental Evil). It’s a masterpiece of brevity and the quintessential environment for starting an AD&D campaign. The set-up reads like a living example of the advice given in the DMG for starting a campaign; the player characters are strangers to the area (a handy device for explaining player ignorance of the locale), drawn there in search of adventure, with some knowledge of why they’re going there, but nothing too specific.
The way the adventure is integrated into the history and politics of the larger World of Greyhawk setting, yet remains self-contained, is terrific. I’ve run it a bunch of times on its own, with just the Moat House as the capstone, rather than Nulb and the Temple (because for years that’s all we had; your options were to stop at the Moat House or make your own Temple). I’ve had several groups stay in Hommlet and use it as a base from which to explore the Kron Hills, Gnarley Forest, and so forth, watching as the castle slowly gets built.
Q: Share with us some of your thoughts on megadungeon design theory?
JB: To me, the defining element of a megadungeon is the fact that it cannot ever be “done.” There’s a combination of a lack of a single overarching plot and an expansive and ever-growing physical geography, that means PCs can keep adventuring there or their entire careers and never finish it off. There are always new levels opening up, new monsters colonizing previously-emptied sections, and no single MacGuffin, Big Boss, or other single mission that can be completed. That’s not to say a megadungeon lacks plot; it can definitely have several (and to make things interesting, probably should), but there’s not one singular plot that can be resolved. There’s always something else going on for the PCs to investigate or get involved in.
It’s also interesting to note that some of the 1st edition AD&D mechanics were deliberately aimed at megadungeon play, such as being able to detect sloping passages, determine depth below the ground (helpful when dealing with elevator rooms), etc. But the irony is that in the early days there really weren’t any examples of megadungeons for young DMs who didn’t learn at the feet of someone who had played in one. All there were, were smaller tournament-style modules. Understandable, but in a dungeon that consists of two levels and fifty rooms, tops, there’s little use for being able to notice new construction. In a traditional megadungeon, however, with that enormous geography, multiple levels, and some version of the “Greyhawk Construction Company” adding new side-levels all the time, such things make sense.
Factions are also a key element, but many DMs really haven’t thought through how to use them effectively. A lot of published modules have this problem, like Temple of Elemental Evil and the Drow series. It’s one thing for the DM to create a bunch of factions and give them interesting relationships to one another. But unless the DM goes out of his way to demonstrate to the players that those factions exist, and gives them a chance to interact with those factions in a way other than never-ending grinding combat, then all the work is for naught. Too many DMs in my experience will simply have the troops of the Water Temple attack the PCs the same as do the troops of the Earth Temple or the Fire Temple. When it’s impossible for the PCs to differentiate the factions based on behavior, then they cease to have individual identities. They’re just another bunch of guards who happen to be wearing a different symbol on their tunic. Kill ‘em and move on.
My Castle of the Mad Archmage megadungeon was designed with exactly those ideas in mind.
Q: The recurring construction site in CotMA is great fun. What was your inspiration for that?
JB: There are two specific inspirations for that. The first was a humorous story in the very early days of The Dragon (issues 1 and 2), “The Search for the Forbidden Chamber” by Jake Jaquet (reprinted in Best of The Dragon Magazine #1), which has an off-hand mention of a dungeon changing, and construction signs bearing the name being given as a clue. The second was a childhood spent watching cartoons. Construction sites were, for some reason, a staple of cartoons from the 40’s through the 60’s, and that’s what was on television in reruns when I was growing up. Bugs Bunny, Heckle and Jeckle, Popeye; they all led to the specifics of the place.
The person ultimately responsible for its inclusion in the Castle of the Mad Archmage was Scott Casper. He read my review of Castle Zagyg Volume II: The Upper Works, saw my less-than-thrilled reaction to the “Curse of Fog and Frogs” used to keep players out of unfinished (i.e., unpublished) areas of the dungeon, and reminded me of the Greyhawk Construction Company from the story in The Dragon. And thus it found its way into my own castle (slightly renamed, in the final published form, of course).
Q: Which tabletop games have you had the good fortune to enjoy in recent years, and what did you enjoy about them?
JB: I’m actually quite a fan of 5th Edition D&D. It’s mechanically both elegant and simple (advantage/disadvantage is a particular favorite of mine, and you can actually see it in action in some of the 1st edition spells, although not by that name), and they seem to have captured some of the ineffable “feel” of the older versions of the game. There isn’t as much opportunity to tinker with core mechanics (it would be hard to swap out, say, the combat system), but there is a lot of room for creative variation within the bounds that are prescribed. It plays very smoothly, especially with a DM who is well-versed in the mechanics. It’s not perfect, but it’s very good.
Q: We’ve seen an anti-gravity trap in your Castle of the Mad Archmage megadungeon. That’s a rather nasty trap if ever there was one. Tell us a little about some of your favorite traps from that adventure?
JB: I quite like the pit trap in front of the false door (so even if you get past the pit, you’ve wasted all that time and effort). One corridor has two successive covered pit traps on the same level (jump over one and land in the other). There’s also a false door trap; try to knock it in and you crash right through onto a wall of spikes. My favorite must be one of the crypts, with the inscription “Larimda Rabka” over the entrance. If that’s not a giveaway that there’s something amiss, you’re not trying. Nothing too earth-shattering, but we can’t all be Grimtooth. J
Q: “Larimda Rabka”? Nice! Whoever said “Watching RETURN OF THE JEDI will never amount to anything” clearly hasn’t entered CotMA. Are you more of a STAR WARS guy or a STAR TREK guy?
JB: I grew up with Star Trek as a kid, watching the first round of re-runs, and the animated series in first-run, so it will always have a special place in my nostalgia-drenched heart. Of course, I also saw the original Star Wars (back when it was just “Star Wars” 36 times in the theater. So, I don’t see it as an either-or thing. I am a gourmand when it comes to either (and sci-fi/fantasy in general, for that matter), and can honestly say I love ‘em both. Plus Doctor Who, and Planet of the Apes, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and on and on and on.
Q: You mentioned Planet of the Apes. In the 1963 novel (by Pierre Boulle) the apes do not speak English (they speak their own ape language instead, as opposed to what goes on in the 1968 film adaptation that stars Charlton Heston.) Do you think English-speaking apes helped or hurt the film adaptation?
JB: From the standpoint of the film, it undoubtedly helps. Setting aside the question of audience immersion, when they have to read subtitles to figure out what the apes are saying, from a storytelling standpoint it’s almost necessary, unless one wants to contrive for Taylor to somehow learn the apes’ language (or vice versa). Otherwise it’s almost impossible to drive meaningful interaction between the characters. Star Trek faced that same problem, and invented the contrivance of the universal translator (that was later said to be implanted into everyone). Of course, there were problems in the details with that, too, but it allowed the writers to get on with the story rather than having to agonize about the problem of language in every single episode.
Although it’s interesting to note that the apes spoke an English with some very odd lacunae. For instance, the name “English” itself was lost somehow, as we saw when Cornelius was being questioned in Escape from the Planet of the Apes. They didn’t even have an alternative name for it (“Apeish”?). I suppose it speaks to the isolated and provincial nature of Ape City that they didn’t need a name for their language, because they never encountered any others, even a different language spoken by a neighboring ape culture.
Q: What have you noticed about trends in the OSR?
JB: Back in its early days of the OSR as a whole, there was a lot of deep investigation and philosophizing about what made the old school games old school, a lot of defining, categorizing, and general deconstruction to figure out what made the games we like, tick. Having that groundwork in place allowed more practical work, with a flurry of retroclone or near-clone games like OSRIC, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, and so forth. That in combination with the emergence of the OBS websites (RPGNow and DriveThruRPG) in turn sparked what I’d call the semi-professionalization of the OSR; lots of companies and individuals springing up publishing rules, adventures, and supplements; and people setting up Patreon accounts and doing Kickstarters to raise funds for projects.
That trend has led to a certain drying up of free content (not a complete one, to be sure); if you can sell a pdf online with almost no up-front cost, or raise a few thousand dollars up-front to buy art, or have a steady stream of money coming in to give people gaming content, compared to making a pdf free on your blog or at Dragonsfoot, there’s almost no contest. Some will do so as a matter of principle, but there are tons of things on RPGNow.com that would have been free if the platform hadn’t made it so easy to sell them instead.
There’s also been a continual and gradual shift in where the “action” is in the OSR, so to speak. Originally it was in the big online forums, like Knights & Knaves Alehouse, the Acaeum, and Dragonsfoot. Then it moved into blogs (like my own Greyhawk Grognard blog), and now the trend seems to be going away from blogs and to social media platforms like Facebook and Google+. Again, we’re talking broad trends, and just because more people are using G+ today than they were five years ago doesn’t mean that people aren’t still going to Dragonsfoot.
Q: A recent post at your Greyhawk Grognard blog gives folks an update on the progress of your Greyhawk 576. What can you share with us here about that particular project?
JB: Greyhawk 576 is something I’m writing purely on the assumption that Wizards of the Coast will eventually open up their DMs Guild site to Greyhawk, as they did to the Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft, thus allowing third-parties to write and sell material there. It’s a series of books that bring the World of Greyhawk into 5th Edition D&D, with converted monsters, spells, and magic items, new character options (backgrounds, class options, feats, sub-races, etc.), updates on the various gods in 5E format, and an overview of the setting itself. Right now there’s a Player’s Guide and a DM’s Guide.
One thing I’m particularly excited about are the gods, as I’m not just collecting information on the priesthoods and deities themselves, but I’m also creating a new divine domain for each deity with clerics. I thought that was in keeping with the early notion that each god gave their clerics special spells and abilities. The concept was applied haphazardly over the years and across editions, but I’m bringing it all together and comprehensively for 5th Edition. The fact that there’s a mechanic already built into the system is a nice benefit of 5E. Even if I’m using it in a way I’m pretty sure the designers never intended, I think it works out really well.
I chose the 576 era (that of the “gold box”) because it’s the one I feel best represents the setting as a whole, and which would allow the DM the best opportunity to customize it for his or her own needs, which would include advancing the timeline to the post-Wars era, or beyond. I hope to use it as a springboard to explore some regions of Greyhawk that lie outside the Flanaess, with maps, gazetteers, and relevant customization options for each. I’ve also got ideas for conversions/expansions of some classic modules as well as new adventures and so forth. But first I need to finish the two guides.
Q: The concept of a new divine domain for clerics sounds very interesting. What’s one example of such a divine domain that you can share with us?
JB: Take, for example, Heironeous, who is one of the most well-documented deities in the setting. In his case, I actually needed to trim away some of the previously-established canon, since the format of the 5th Edition divine domains requires ten domain spells (2 each for levels 1-5), two 1st level abilities, a channel divinity ability at 2nd level (or two of them; some Greyhawk specialty clerics don’t turn undead, so they replace the “standard” channel divinity power with a second one), then one at 6th level, 8th level (usually, but not always, a form of divine strike), and 17th level. Specialty clerics of Heironeous had way more powers and new spells than that over the years, and so I had to carefully pick and choose what to include to fit the format. Here’s what I came up with:
|1st||detect breath*, shining blade of Heironeous*|
|3rd||shield of Heironeous*, vigilance*,|
|5th||bless missile*, glyph of warding|
|7th||abstention*, staggering smite|
|9th||banishing smite, destructive wave|
* Indicates new spell.
When they choose this domain at 1st level, clerics of Heironeous are proficient in all armor and simple and martial weapons.
Also at 1st level, you get a +2 bonus to all saving throws and ability checks vs. fear.
Channel Divinity: Turn Undead
At 2nd level, you gain the ability to turn undead, but Clerics of Heironeous do not turn undead as effectively as other priests might. From level 2-3, undead making saving throws against attempts to turn them have advantage. The ability to destroy undead doesn’t begin until 7th level, and then progresses as if the cleric were 2 levels lower than his actual level.
Channel Divinity: Righteous Strength
Starting at 2nd level, you can use your Channel Divinity to increase your strength score by a number of points equal to your proficiency bonus. This will last for one hour.
Starting at 6th level, you are immune to all magical and other effects which drain or otherwise lower your strength score, whether permanently or temporarily.
Channel Divinity: Bolt of Glory
Starting at 8th level, you are able to summon a bolt of divine energy to smite your enemies. It has a range of 60 feet, and can affect one creature, which is entitled to a Dexterity saving throw; if successful it will only take half damage. The bolt does not count as magical for purposes of being dispelled, crossing anti-magic barriers, etc. The amount of damage depends on the home place of the target creature:
- Upper planes, Positive energy plane: None
- Astral plane, Ethereal plane: 6 (2d6) hit points damage
- Elemental planes, Plane of Shadow, Concordant Opposition, Mechanus, Limbo: 9 (3d6) hit points damage
- Material plane: 12 (4d6) hit points damage
- Lower planes and all undead: 24 (8d6) hit points damage
- Negative material plane: 42 (14d6) hit points damage
Starting at 17th level, you can use the spell holy word once per long rest, without using a spell slot. The spell does not need to be prepared beforehand.
Q: Dragonsfoot Forums are still going strong today. What do you suppose has been the secret to its longevity?
JB: Truth to tell, I don’t frequent any of the online RPG fora any more, except Canonfire (the Greyhawk-specific website), and even there I don’t visit as often as I used to. Nowadays I’ll only visit Dragonsfoot, Knights & Knaves Alehouse, EnWorld, or RPG.net if I am specifically pointed to a particular thread.
Q: What are three (3) qualities that a memorable tabletop game should have?
JB: Approachability, replayability, and desirability. Approachability means I have to be able to learn it relatively quickly. That can mean a set of rules that are either completely “rules lite” or whose core rules can be learned quickly but whose ancillary systems might take some work (but they’re not needed to get started). It can also apply to setting. If you’ve come up with a wildly imaginative setting that bears absolutely no resemblance to anything remotely like what I’m used to, or if it’s so packed with detail that I’m at risk of violating canon on a minute-to-minute basis because I didn’t read some novel that came out in 1997 which states quite clearly that the NPC I’m using died a year earlier, then I’m probably going to pass. It’s just too much trouble to buy in.
Replayability is obvious. I need to be able to come back for more. If your game is aimed at a single very, very specific thing, then once I’ve played it, I probably don’t need to come back to re-explore how it is to be the assistant to a mad scientist or a maid in an Anime school for girls, or whatever.
Desirability basically means the game has to be fun. Some people obviously find a great deal of fun in minute tactical exercises, and battles that literally take up an entire game session to complete. (True story; a few years ago I was running a game of Adventures Dark and Deep at a local FLGS, and the table next to mine was playing 4th Edition D&D. Over the course of four hours in my game, the players had explored a score of rooms, had several battles, and had a couple of lengthy role-playing interactions with several NPCs. The 4E players spent that same amount of time fighting a couple of polar bears. Literally.)
Q: Which tabletop RPGs would you recommend for parents looking to introduce their young children to the tabletop RPG hobby?
JB: You’re probably better off with something light on rules mechanics when dealing with young kids. There are a couple of RPGs aimed deliberately at children, like Adventures in Oz and Hero Kids (among many others). I was introduced to D&D at age 11 with the LBB’s, but really learned how to play with the Holmes boxed set. I would imagine something like Swords & Wizardry Light would be similarly kid-friendly in terms of the learning curve.
Q: An interesting aspect of Swords & Wizardry Light is that the PCs have no alignments. What’s your take on that?
JB: Alignments have always been an oddity. They’re very obviously inspired by Michael Moorcock’s work, with its Lords of Law and Lords of Chaos, and it implies that the alignments in use (whether they be the 3 alignments of 0E/Basic, or the 9 alignments of other editions) are not just philosophical attitudes, but actually have metaphysical significance. They’re built into the very fabric of the multiverse; the fact that there are entire planes of existence dedicated to a particular alignment demonstrates that. In such a view, alignment is less a constraint on player action than it is a launching pad for conflict on a cosmic scale.
When that is removed, it has very obvious implications for how the game world is conceived. In the specific case of S&W Light, they imply the existence of such things, however, especially when you look at how the cleric class is described; “an armored priest who serves Good/Law or Evil/Chaos.” That implies that at least those two alignments exist in a metaphysical sense, even if the player characters aren’t required to declare their allegiance (other than the cleric, of course). There’s also the cleric’s “Detect Evil (Good)” spell, which says explicitly that there are “creatures of Evil” and “creatures of Good”. So there’s an alignment system in there somewhere, even if it might be somewhat under-developed and not universally applied.
Q: Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is available now too, for PC levels 4 thru 6. Have you seen it yet? If so, what are your thoughts on it?
JB: I have it, but haven’t read it in detail, so can’t comment in any detail on the mechanics it introduces. I do admire the whole S&W idea of restating OD&D, though I confess I get confused by the large number of editions, versions, and so forth. Just personal preference, but I’d rather see supplements building on a single foundation, rather than putting out a new self-contained edition that happens to include some extra bits that the last self-contained edition didn’t have. Sort of like what Labyrinth Lord did with their Advanced Edition Companion.
Q: If you were leaving tomorrow, on a cruise to Belize, and you could bring three novels along with you for the voyage, which three novels would accompany you?
JB: Dune by Frank Herbert, Tuf Voyaging by George RR Martin (I’m cheating here; it’s a collection of short stories), and whatever the latest Honorverse novel happens to come out. I’m a sucker for world-building.
Q: What is it about Herbert’s Dune that floats your boat?
JB: Herbert does a wonderful job of universe-building. In particular I love the idea that it is possible to train individuals to peaks of performance that we can’t even imagine today; his Bene Gesserit and Mentats aren’t the products of weird sci-fi devices or substances. They have their powers due to a lifetime of intense training (and in the case of the Bene Gesserit, breeding). I think that’s a very compelling notion.
Q: You also mentioned Tuf Voyaging by GRRM. What have you found to be most enjoyable about that anthology of short stories?
JB: It’s almost like reading a mystery novel; you’re waiting to see what the key to the puzzle is that Haviland Tuf has to solve with his knowledge of ecological engineering, or even better what sort of trap that Tuf has laid for wrongdoers. Every story has a twist or a punchline. So re-reading those stories is like re-reading a Lord Darcy story. I know what the twist is going to be, but it’s still so satisfying to see how well-constructed the story is to get there.
Q: Doing anything special for Halloween this year?
JB: Oh yeah, it’s our favorite holiday. The house is so decorated it looks like Jack Skellington threw up all over it, we’ve got a big party this weekend, and for Halloween itself my wife and her friends do an all-night outdoor vigil around the fire after a day of visiting graveyards and carving pumpkins. We have a grand old time.