Thursday, 3 December 2020

Night of the Walking Dead in Averoigne Part 3

In this series of posts, I am adapting the AD&D 2nd Edition Ravenloft module RQ1 Night of the Walking Dead for placement in 14th century Averoigne and the Camargue region of France. The ruleset will be D&D 3rd Edition for the Neverwinter Nights videogame while the tabletop game will use either AD&D 2nd Edition. In this post I will evaluate Averoigne for probable placement in Mediæval France as well as cull some ideas to use in this adventure.

WHITHER AVEROIGNE?


Averoigne is the fictional province of France used as the setting for a number of short stories written by Clark Ashton Smith circa 1930 – 1941 plus a poem in 1951. CAS was a friend of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard and part of the original Lovecraft Circle. Lovecraft refers to the “evilly famous ruins of Château Faussesflammes, in Averoigne, France” in his short story Out of the Æons. Most D&D players are familiar with Averoigne from the Expert D&D module X2 Castle Amber by Tom Moldvay. Like Howard, Smith had an eidetic memory also known as ‘photographic memory’ which served him quite well. And also like Howard, he was a prolific poet and his stories have a poetic quality to them. Sometime prior to 1912 he was introduced to the works of Baudelaire and was moved so much by them that he then taught himself French and translated all but six of the poems in The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal).

There have many attempts to place Averoigne in real-world France. None of course have been successful, but it is a fun exercise nonetheless. Auvergne appears to be the most popular choice, followed by Aveyron but both are popular due to being in the Occitan region of Southern France as well as the similarity of the the names. I agree that it falls within the traditional region of Occitania but I place it centred on the Rhone river with Vyones being Avignon (Avinhon) and Ximes being Nimes. The Isoleil being the Rhone and the marshes below Les Hiboux being the Camargue. Granted, I am also using name similarity for the two largest cities of Averoigne but more importantly I am identifying the marshes as the Camargue. Regardless of where Averoigne fits best, the Camargue is the great river delta and wetlands of France so the best place for the Night of the Walking Dead.

The End of the Story

First published in the May 1930 edition of Weird Tales. You may read the story here. This story takes place shortly before 1798 so not all detail will apply to the Middle Ages. In the story we learn of the Forest of Averoigne and a great highway that runs through the district. The Benedictine Abbey of Perigon is found within the forest glade. The protagonist Christophe Morand is a student come from Tours on his way to his father’s estate near Moulins. Tours is in the North but there are seventeen different Moulins according to Wikipedia. However, the largest Moulins became part of Auvergne prior to 1798. Moulin-Mage is in Occitania proper and is a better fit in my opinion. Moulins, Allier is in the far Northwest part of Auverne and I have a hard time beliving that young Christophe travelled so far past it. However, given that the Moulins in Auvergne is the largest Moulins in France, it is the default Moulins. Which means that if Christophe had meant Moulin-Mage, he would have specified it. And for exactly the same reason, Smith would have specified Moulin-Mage rather than just ‘Moulin’ if he wanted his audience to recognize the name at all.

So while it would seem that the mystery of ‘where Averoinge is’ is now solved, it bugs me a bit so I want to research this a bit further.

Chateau des Faussesflammes stands on a hill across from the Abbey. Vyones is the principal town of Averoigne and there is a cathedral there. The chateau is hundreds of miles away from the sea. My theory has been that Vyones is a stand-in for Avignon, however Avignon is less than a hundred miles from the sea. Even if Fausseflammes were a day’s ride from Vyones, it would still be substantially less than “hundreds” of miles away.

The Satyr

First version completed in the early spring of 1930 and can be found here. The second version did not get published until 1948 and can be found here. Since of the bulk of this story was the second Averoigne one, I am putting it here.

Averoigne is called a ‘province.’ Raoul, Comte de la Frenaie is the protagonist and has a rapier. Rapiers came into use sometime after 1450.

A Rendezvous in Averoigne

First published in the April/May 1931 edition of Weird Tales. The story may be found here. The protagonist of this story is Gerard de l’Automne, a trouvère. What is interesting here is that a trouvère is not a troubadour per se, but rather a Northern French version. That is to say, a wandering “minstrel” who composes verse in one of the Langue d’oïl (Northern French) dialects rather than the Langue d’oc (Occitanian or Southern French) of the troubadours. Gerard is a “guest of the Comte de la Frênaie, whose high castle held dominion over half the surrounding forest.” In this story, Vyones is a “quaint cathedral town … which lies so near to the ancient wood of Averoigne.”

“Somewhere in this wood there was the ruinous and haunted Chateau des Faussesflammes; and, also, there was a double tomb, within which the Sieur Hugh du Malinbois and his chatelaine, who were notorious for sorcery in their time, had lain unconsecrated for more than two hundred years.”

In the course of the story, it is not clear if Gerard remains in the Forest of Averoigne or if he stumbles into the Realm of Faërie. Given that so many fairy stories involve folk getting lost in the deep woods, it is perhaps better to think of Averoigne Forest existing both in our world and the Fairy World simultaneously. I am not sure what the significance of the name Frênaie is, but it means ash tree orchard in French. Also, it is worth mentioning that troubadours and trouvères were at their peak in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Maker of Gargoyles

First published in the August 1932 edition of Weird Tales. Click here for the source. This story takes place in Vyones when the cathedral was newly built. Note that it is in the Gothic style with gargolyes. The two finest gargoyles were “wrought by the stone-carver Blaise Reynard, a native of Vyones, who had lately returned from a long sojourn in the cities of Provence….” Which of course tells us that Averoigne is not Provence. The current archbishop is Ambrosius which tells us that Vyones is an archbishopric at that time. The year is 1138 and Vyones is once again noted as the principal town of Averoigne. There are also two nunneries and a monastery in the town. The Averoinge Forest which is bordering the town is “ill-famed.”

The Mandrakes

First published in the February edition of Weird Tales in 1933. The source is found here.

Gilies Grenier the sorcerer and his wife Sabine, coming into lower Averoigne from parts unknown or at least unverified, had selected the location of their hut with a careful forethought.

The hut was close to those marshes through which the slackening waters of the river Isoile, after leaving the great forest, had overflowed in sluggish, reed-clogged channels and sedge-hidden pools mantled with scum like witches’ oils. It stood among osiers and alders on a low, mound-shaped elevation; and in front, toward the marshes, there was a loamy meadow-bottom where the short fat stems and tufted leaves of the mandrake grew in lush abundance, being more plentiful and of greater size than elsewhere through all that sorcery-ridden province.

This is where I first got the idea that the Isoile was the Rhône and that Averoigne in situ, straddled the Rhône unlike any historical provinces, counties, or districts. Note that there are no wetlands of any significant size in Auverne nor Aveyron. Which means that Lower Averoigne must be the Camargue which is the only wetlands of note in Southeastern France.

“Oddly enough, considering the temper of the Fifteenth Century, when magic and witchcraft were still so widely reprobated, he and his wife enjoyed a repute by no means ill or unsavory. No charges of malefice were brought against them; and because of the number of honest marriages promoted by the philtres…”

This also suggests to me a bit more tolerance towards magic in Averoigne than the rest of France.

The Beast of Averoigne

First version; June 18, 1932. This version was rejected by Weird Tales. Read it here. This takes place in the summer of 1369. The narrator was tasked with delivering a letter to priest of Ste. Zenobie which was close enough to allow him to travel and back within one summer day and also referred to as within five hours away. The “gates of La Frênaie and Ximes” is mentioned but those ‘gates’ could be castles or walled towns. There is a Benedictine convent at Ximes, so it must be a walled town rather than a castle. The beast has been hunting in the environs of Perigon, Ximes, Ste. Zenobie, La Frênaie, and to the shores of the river Isoile which means that all of those places are on the same side of the shore.


 Which means that this map from X2 is wrong! There is no way the beast would go out of its way to hunt in La Frenaie when it is busy in Ximes, Perigon, and Ste. Zenobie when in fact the story clearly has the beast hunting in all four areas. Thus the map at the top of this post best fits this story.

The third narrator, Luc le Chaudronnier posesses the:

“… ring of Eibon, which I had inherited from my fathers, who were also wizards. The ring had come down, it was said, from ancient Hyperborea; and it was made of a redder gold than any that the earth yields in latter cycles, and was set with a great purple gem, somber and smouldering, whose like is no longer to be found. And in the gem an antique demon was held captive, a spirit from pre-human worlds and ages, which would answer the interrogation of sorcerers.”

Finally in his fifth Averoinge story, Smith links it to his Hyperborean Cycle of stories.

Ximes is a bishopric and has a Benedictine convent. What is interesting is that the town marshal and a priest from the household of the Bishop of Ximes together approach Luc, a known sorcerer, and ask for his help.

“You, Messire le Chaudronnier,” they said, “are reputed to know the arcanic arts of sorcery, and the spells that summon or dismiss evil demons and other spirits. Therefore, in dealing with this devil, it may be that you shall succeed where all others have failed. Not willingly do we employ you in the matter, since it is not seemly for the church and the law to ally themselves with wizardry. But the need is desperate, lest the demon should take other victims; and in return for your aid, we can promise you a goodly reward of gold and a guarantee of lifelong immunity from all inquisition and prosecution which your doings might otherwise invite. The Bishop of Ximes, and the Archbishop of Vyones, are privy to this offer, which must remain secret.”

So now we have two stories in which the local clergy are pragmatic concerning spellcasters rather than automatically dismissing them as heretics and witches. (Chaudronnier is French for coppersmith or bronze-worker.)

The ingredients of the powder were named in the Book of Eibon, that manual written by an old Hyperborean wizard, who in his day had dealt with ultra-mundane spirits akin to the demon of the comet; and had also been the owner of the ring.

This suggests to me that Luc possesses the Book of Eibon as well as the ring. These are prehistoric artefacts, so it is quite remarkable that he has them!

I must also point out that here in 1369 there is an archbishop in Vyones but no mention of the French pope. So as much as I would like to equate Vyones to Avignon, it is not a good match. Unless of course in the Earth of Averoigne, the papacy stayed in Rome the entire time….

The Holiness of Azédarac

First published in the November 1933 edition of Weird Tales. Please click here to read the story. The story starts off with references to “the Ram with a Thousand Ewes” (Shub-Niggurath), Dagon, Derceto (Derketo), Lilit (Lilith), Iog-Sotôt (Yog-Sothoth), and Sodagui (Tsathoggua); placing it firmly within the Lovecraft universe. The reference to the Book of Eibon and its Hyperborean script refers to Smith’s Hyperborea stories. Derketo is a real-world Semitic deity and also appears in the Conan stories by Robert E. Howard.

The Inn of Bonne Jouissance is a little more than halfway the distance from Ximes to Vyones on the highway that runs through the Averoigne Forest. Vyones is identified as a ‘cathedral city’ which is to be expected since it has an archbishop. The year is 1175. Brother Ambrose goes back to 475 and then returns to 1230 where the Inn of Bonne Jouissance has become the Inn of Haute Esperance. He returns to 475 still holding onto the Book of Eibon as far as I can tell. It is not at all clear how the book ends up in the hands of Luc le Chaudronnier prior to 1369.

The Colossus of Ylourgne

First published in the June 1934 edition of Weird Tales. The source may be found here

This is the original story of the colossal zombie which later appeared in the Expert D&D Module X2 Castle Amber. The story begins thusly:

“The thrice-infamous Nathaire, alchemist, astrologer and necromancer, with his ten devil-given pupils, had departed very suddenIy and under circumstances of strict secrecy from the town of Vyones. It was widely thought, among the people of that vicinage, that his departure had been prompted by a salutary fear of ecclesiastical thumbscrews and faggots. Other wizards, less notorious than he, had already gone to the stake during a year of unusual inquisitory zeal; and it was well-known that Nathaire had incurred the reprobation of the Church.”

This is important to note because while arcane spellcasters in Averoigne have real power, they also are vulnerable to the Inquisition. In none of his stories does Smith explain how this is possible, so that is up to the GM to determine.

“People said that he [Nathaire] was fiend-begotten, like the fabled Merlin: his father being no less a personage than Alastor, demon of revenge; and his mother a deformed and dwarfish sorceress. From the former, he had taken his spitefulness and malignity; from the latter, his squat, puny physique.”

This quote suggests that Nathaire was a dwarfish Cambion — which to us means that there should be dwarfish Humans, Cambions, and dwarf Cambions available as NPC if not PC races.

“He had travelled in Orient lands, and had learned from Egyptian or Saracenic masters the unhallowed art of necromancy….”

This is as reference to Hermeticism, school of magical beliefs alleged to have been founded by the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus, expaned upon by the Ptolemaic Greeks in Egypt, lost and then revived by the Arabs.

“Once, in the third year after his coming to Vyones, he had been stoned in public because of his bruited necromancies, and had been permanently lamed by a well-directed cobble.”

This is important to note that despite Nathaire being a high-level wizard specialising in necromancy, he was unable to cure himself of his injuries nor for that matter, were there any “clerics” or “temples” around to heal them either.

“Despite his minikin stature, his deformity and ugliness, he possessed a remarkable power, a mesmeric persuasion…”

This suggests a very high charisma ability score. In D&D 3rd edition (d20) parlance, he would be a sorcerer rather than a wizard. Nathaire had ten pupils which I would treat as henchmen. In the AD&D and AD&D 2nd edition rules, Nathaire must have a charisma of 17 or greater to have that many henchmen. A mage with a 17 charisma? I think making him a charisma-based caster like the 3rd sorcerer makes a lot more sense.

This story takes place in the late spring of 1281, placing it between The Holiness of Azédarac and The Beast of Averoigne. Nathaire and his pupils vacate Vyones for:

“This destination, it somehow became rumoured, was the ruinous castle of Ylourgne, beyond the werewolf-haunted forest, in the outlying, semi-mountainous hills of Averoigne.

… and the nearest abode of living men was a small Cistercian monastery, more than a mile away on the opposite slope of the valley.”

So now we have a Cistercian monastery in addition to the Benedictine monastery at Perigon and the Benedictine convent in Ximes.

We also learn that the ruins of Ylourgne were that of a great castle abandoned centuries ago (no later than 1081). The castle once consisted of a moat, drawbridge, barbican, a high massive donjon, chapel, and great hall. This is remarkable given that the majority of castles built in France during the 11th century and earlier were made primarily of wood! Undoubtedly, Ylourgne had been built to subjugate and protect Averoigne expecting lengthy sieges given the stone construction. Given that it ultimately failed and was abandoned, there is definitely a story there!

While Nathaire directs his henchmen and their familiars to contruct the colossal zombie-golem, a couple of monks from the neighbouring monastery come to spy. When he sees them he say:

“Return to your kennel, ye whelps of Ialdabaoth, and take with you this message: They that came here as many shall go forth as one.”

This is significant because Ialdabaoth or Yaldaboath is one of the three names for the chief archon or demiurge which the Hermeticists believe created the Human race but not the rest of the world. They believed that the god of the Old Testament was Yaldaboath also known as Sama-el which means ‘blind god’ in Aramaic. Ironically, the demiurge came to be equated with Satan or Lucifer whom Nathaire is accused of serving.

Illustration of the familiars entering the nostrils of the corpses, by none other than Clark Ashton Smith himself!

Nathaire then directs two “familiars” who are desribed in terms suggesting demon-shaped shadows, to enter the bodies of two corpses through the nostrils. They do as commanded, pick up the hornbeam crosses dropped by the frightened monks and drive them off. This tells us a couple of things. First, that animate dead involves demonic spirits possessing the corpses like they do in the television series Supernatural. Second, that unlike the tradition of evil creatures afraid to go near any cross, these zombies can use crosses as weapons! As we read in many of the Averoigne stories, crosses, holy water, et cetera do not have the inherent power found so common in Christian lore.

“Gaspard, though he came of a well-to-do family, was at that time in straitened circumstances; for his devotion to a somewhat doubtful science had been disapproved by his father. His sole income was a small pittance, purveyed secretly to the youth by his mother and sister. This sufficed for his meagre food, the rent of his room, and a few books and instruments and chemicals; but it would not permit the purchase of a horse or even a humble mule for the proposed journey of more than forty miles.”

Ever wonder why your 1st level wizard is so poor? It is because your family does not approve of your vocation! Note also that Ylourgne is more than forty miles away from Vyones.

“Much of his journey lay through the great, lowering forest, which approached the very walls of Vyones on the eastern side and ran in a sombre arc through Averoigne to the mouth of the rocky valley below Ylourgne.”

This tells us that the infamous Averoigne Wood is on the eastern side of Vyones but it does not tell us if it arcs over the north or the south. This also suggests that Ylourgne is to the northwest or southwest, given that the arc of forest ends in the mouth of the rocky valley below Ylourgne. Assuming that I am interpreting that quote correctly and that the arc is 180 degrees or less, which means that all maps (including the one at the top of this post) found on the Internet are wrong!

“This valley was the fountain-head of the Isoile, which had dwindled to a mere rivulet.”

So in all likelihood, Ylourgne is in the northwest since it is the source of the Isoile. Assuming of course, that the Isoile flows south towards the Mediterrean Sea. At this stage I must point out the (rather) obvious difficulty of mapping out Averoigne given the scant information so far. It is made more difficult given the existing fan-drawn maps of Averoigne, however accurate or inaccurate they may be. What I notice that all the maps have in common is an assumption that the semi-mountainous hills are assumed to be in the east (suggesting the Alpine foothills) and the marsh in the south or southeast (suggesting the Camargue). Given that the Rhône originates in the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps (which also feeds Lake Geneva), it is very easy mentally equate Averoigne with the Rhône river valley, disregarding the scale entirely as well as the highly traveled Rhône even during the Middle Ages. So I once again, cannot help but wonder if Smith took his inspiration from there as well?

The Chateau of La Frênaie is the first named place the colossus passes by after departing Ylourgne. Then Ximes which must be on the Isoile since “the wooden Virgin that he flung into the Isoile above Ximes.” Then he attacks Perigon and then Ste. Zenobie.

“Back and forth, in an irregular, drunken, zigzag course, from end to end and side to side of the harried realm…”

This tells us that Averoigne is self-contained, surrounded by wilderness or if the colossus does not cross the Isoile, then one side. Although the text does not mention it, I doubt that Nathaire would not have directed it to cross the river. Also note that Averoigne has been referred to as a ‘district,’ a ‘province,’ and now a ‘realm.’ Perhaps Smith has simply been poetic the entire time, envisioning Averoigne as a region rather than a specific political unit. After all, there is never a mention of who the lord of Averoigne is.

“Nearing the gates of Vyones at sunset, Gaspard du Nord saw behind him, through gaps in the ancient wood, the far-off head and shoulders of the terrible colossus, who moved along the Isoile, stooping from sight at intervals in some horrid deed.”

This tells us that Vyones lies on the banks of the Isoile or very near it. Most likely on the banks, given how many Mediæval towns and cities lay on rivers.

Now, as the twitching fingers descended towards him, he emptied the contents of the pouch in the giant's face, and the fine powder, mounting in a dark-grey cloud, obscured the snarling lips and palpitating nostrils from his view.

Anxiously he [Gaspard] watched the effect, fearing that the powder might be useless after all, against the superior arts and Satanical resources of Nathaire. But miraculously, as it seemed, the evil lambence died in the pit-deep eyes, as the monster inhaled the flying cloud. His lifted hand, narrowly missing the crouching youth in its sweep, fell lifelessly at his side. The anger was erased from the mighty, contorted mask, as if from the face of a dead man; the great cudgel fell with a crash to the empty street; and with drowsy, lurching steps, and listless, hanging arms, the giant turned his back to the cathedral and retraced his way through the devastated city.

He muttered dreamily to himself as he went; and people who heard him swore that the voice was no longer the awful, thunderswollen voice of Nathaire, but the tones and accents of a multitude of men, amid which the voices of certain of the ravished dead were recognizable. And the voice of Nathaire himself, no louder now than in life, was heard at intervals through the manifold mutterings, as if protesting angrily.

Climbing the eastern wall as it had come, the colossus went to and fro for many hours, no longer wreaking a hellish wrath and rancour, but searching, as people thought, for the various tombs and graves from which the hundreds of bodies that composed it had been so foully reft. From charnel to charnel, from cemetery to cemetery it went, through all the land; but there was no grave anywhere in which the dead colossus could lie down.

Then, towards evening, men saw it from afar on the red rim of the sky, digging with its hands in the soft, loamy plain beside the river Isoile. There, in a monstrous and self-made grave, the colossus laid itself down, and did not rise again. The ten pupils of Nathaire, it was believed, unable to descend from their basket, were crushed beneath the mighty body; for none of them was ever seen thereafter.

How cool is that?!? The colossus does not immediately collapse into a putrid pile; rather it seeks to bury the various corposes it comprises. And when it cannot, it digs its own grave and lies down on its back thereby smothering and crushing Nathaire the necromancer and his ten necromantic henchmen!

The Disinterment of Venus

First published in the July 1934 edition of Weird Tales. The story opens up at the Abbey of Perigon sometime after 1550. While a story worth reading, there is nothing of note for our purposes.

Mother of Toads

First published in the July 1938 edition of Weird Tales. The R-rated original version can be found here. The PG version which is what got published can be found here. Both are worth a read because Smith did more than just cut out the R-rated parts in the second version.

“Her witchcraft had made her feared among the peasantry of that remote province, where belief in spells and philtres was still common. The people of Averoigne called her La Mere des Crapauds, Mother of Toads, a name given for more than one reason.”

Once again Averoigne is referred to as a province and note that it is remote and backward which literally puts it off the beaten path. The witch’s hut is in a marsh within walking distance of the village of Les Hiboux (Fr. ‘The Owls’). This is undoubtedly the same wetlands as the one in The Mandrakes, being in Lower Averoigne.

The Enchantress of Sylaire

First published in the July 1941 edition of Weird Tales. The source may be found here. In this story, Anselme the second son of the Comte du Framboisier has come to live in the great wood of Averoigne to forget the demoiselle Dorothée, only daughter of the Sieur des Flèches. At first I assumed that their parents lived outside of Averoigne but when Anselme commented to himself “She was lovely as any chatelaine of the great castles of Averoigne.” So this tells us that A) there are ‘great castles’ in Averoigne, B) Anselme has been to most if not all of these great castles, and C) the Comte du Framboisier and the Sieur des Flèches hold land if not castles in Averoigne or nearby.

The enchauntress Sephora wears a “bodice of vernal green velvet” which tells us the story takes place in the 1500s or 1600s most likely. However, Anselm found her garments to be ‘oddly antigue’ so this may well put the story much later. Her dress is a clue of course as is her insistence on being carried through a cromlech. Sephora is a fairy!

Sephora tells Anselme that the Druids raised the cromlechs which of course we know now that these stone structures predate the druids.

Sephora receives some visitors who turn out to be Anselme’s old flame Dorothée des Flèches and two sergeant-at-arms armed with longbows. Longbows?!? Hang on a minute! If a bodice is ‘oddly antique’ then what are the longbows? Why are they not armed with muskets? Unless Smith made a mistake in describing Sephora’s garb, writing ‘bodice’ when he meant kirtle instead. Tight kirtles were fashionable for women in the second half of the 14th century and into the early 15th. Longbows were mostly an English weapon but they persisted into the 16th century.

The Oracle of Sadoqua [Tsathoggua]

A fragment by Smith which can be found here. Ron Hilger wrote a posthumous collaboration here.

Averonia is the Roman name for Averoigne. The Roman officer Horatius is the protagonist and he is desperately seeking the Oracle of the dread god Sadoqua [Tsathoggua]. Sadoqua is “believed to slumber eternally underground in a cavern amid the deep forests of Averonia.”


IN SUMMATION

Averoigne

Is most likely a province having been called a district, region, and a realm only once each. I have found no evidence that the province maps directly to a historical one or even a region for that matter.

Likewise there is no evidence that Averoigne is situated in Southern France for that matter (unless I missed something). All of the names are from the Northern French, the architecture is Gothic rather than Romaneque, and the Abbey of Perigon is hundreds of miles from the sea.

Averoigne is backwards, provincial, and superstitious but also romantic, glamourous, and sensual. A place where time move slowly if at all. There are castles and ruined stone castles but no gunpowder. There are definite elements of fairy, sorcery, and remnants of prehistoric Hyperborea. One might call it “Grimm’s Fairytales for Adults.”

All of the above make it is the perfect setting for Dungeons & Dragons.

Placing Night of the Walking Dead

The AD&D 2nd Edition Ravenloft module RQ1 Night of the Walking Dead takes place on the edge of a swamp with French-speaking villagers. Either it takes place in the Lousiana bayou of the United States or in the Ille de Camargue in France. I choose the latter. Does this mean that Lower Averoigne is in fact the Camargue? Not necessarily. All that is necessary is that RQ1 takes place in the same France as Averoigne and the same world as Robert E. Howard’s Cormac Mac Art, Turlogh Dubh O’Brien, and Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. However, for the time being I am going to see if I can merge the village of Les Hiboux with the Marais d’Tarascon and somehow tie in the Mother of Toads.

D&D Implications

Playing D&D in Averoigne requires some tweaks to the ruleset of all versions. I will go over these in the next post. In the meantime, here is a teaser:



Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Night of the Walking Dead in Averoigne Part 2

I absolutely love this painting by Robh Ruppel! I almost hate to admit it but this painting is the primary reason I bought the AD&D 2nd Edition Ravenloft module RQ1 Night of the Walking Dead. Up until this point in 1992, TSR had never published an illustration of zombies that looked as horrible and fearsome as this! Say what you will about the so-called “watered-down” version of D&D to placate the Satanic Panic, this picture beats everything prior to it!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am going to adapt Night of the Walking Dead to 14th century Averoigne for both my tabletop game as well as an adventure for the Neverwinter Nights videogame. In this post I am going to analyse the module as written by Bill Slavicsek to seek a thorough understanding. My philosophy is to understand the rules as written before changing them. (I didn’t start following that philosphy until the last decade of so but it serves me well today) but that does not mean I will not make note of “suggested” changes. Well… how about I make the changes tentative as I strive to understand the module…? *Sigh* I am an ‘old dog’ who learned to DM with the D&D White Box + Greyhawk rules in 1977 and have a very difficult time to learn the “new tricks” of using the Rules As Written.

INTRODUCTION

For the DM

This module is designed for 4–6 players of levels 1–3. Since my adaptation will be for a single player with three henchmen (effectively 4 players), it would seem the party should be 3rd level. That is too high level for my taste. I like to start campaigns at 1st or 2nd level. However, I do want the characters to be truly veterans and not just fresh out of “boot camp.” If they are 1st level, I will let them have maximum hit points. Regardless of whether they are 1st or 2nd level, they can have any amount of normal, non-magical equipment appropriate to 14th century Europe. If they are 2nd level, I will allow them to have access to any technology from the Old World. The one exception being gunpowder. At this point I have no desire to allow any kind of gunpowder weapons and frankly given the primitive technology of the time, I fail to see the benefit of doing so.

This adventure takes place in the Marais d'Tarascon, on the island domain of Souragne in Ravenloft. According to Google Translate, ‘marais’ is most often translated as marsh or swamp. As I mentioned in the previous post, I am placing this adventure in the historical Camargue region of France. The Camargue is the Rhone river delta that empties into the Mediterrean sea. As a river delta, it is comprised of salt marshes and brine lagoons. So rather than introducing players to Ravenloft, I will be introducing them to Averoigne.

Even though I will be placing this adventure in Averoigne, it will help us understand the design and intent of the module if we understand what Slavicsek was working from. Prior to this module, the only mention of Souragne comes from the the Realm of Terror boxed set published in 1990 by Bruce Nesmith with Andria Hayday. Here is the relevant text:

The Lord and the Law: Anton Misroi, the zombie master, is lord of this domain.

The Land: A slice of dry land covers the eastern side of Souragne, but the western two-thirds is a dark, swampy maze of waterways winding through towering cypress draped with moss. Most of the swamp region is submerged. A few solid patches of land rise out of the water, but only a handful of men know their location.

Souragne includes a sliver of ocean on its northern side. The land gives way to a band of saltwater before it meets the Ravenloft Mists a few miles offshore. A small town, Port d’Elhour, lies on the coastline east of the swamp.

The Folk: Souragnien people are very superstitious. They believe in a variety of nature gods, including the “Lord of the Dead,” who watches over the swamp. None of the villagers ventures into the swamp willingly, but it is rumored that some outcasts live in floating houses deep within it. The shaman is not afraid to enter the swamp.
Notice that Slavicsek directly lifted ‘zombie master,’ ‘floating houses,’ and ‘the shaman entering the swamp’ for this adventure.

Story Background

Tarascon: It is very interesting that Slavicsek chose Tarascon as the family name for the rulers of the small village. Tarascon is a historical city in southern France located on the east bank of the Rhone river south of Avignon and north of Arles. Since I am placing Averoigne in the Southern portion of the Rhone river valley, Tarascon automatically becomes included. How convenient! Also of note is that the Tarasque (Latin Tarasconus) gets its name from Tarascon becuase that is where St. Martha subdued the tarasque in turn allowing people to safely kill it. Perhaps Pierre Tarascon, the progenitor of this family fled Tarascon?

Plantation: There are frequent references to the Tarascon “plantation.” First off, plantation is an anchronism. In this module, it is being used as an allusion to the plantations of the American South which combined with the name ‘marais’ evokes the 18th and 19th century plantations of Louisiana. I will change it to manour or village as necessary. This farming community is “fairly prosperous” but what are its products? As it turns out, the wetlands of the Camargue are conducive to rice and a red variety of rice (riz rouge) is native. Now what if we go one step further, and call it riz sang or blood rice? There could be an entire story of how the rice from this particular manour has the colour of blood and is rich in iron!

Timeline: The module does not specifiy which season or month of the year this story takes place. For my purposes, it will take place in October of 1347 which is when the Black Death arrived in Europe. When I ran this adventure in 1994, I used it as the launching for the Zombie Apocalypse replacing the historical Bubonic Plague of the 14th century. I am a bit torn between following this adventure faithfully versus using it for the start of the Zombie Apocalypse. So this is something I need to figure out. Also, it would be pretty cool if I can also link this to Hallowe'en. At any rate, the cause of this adventure begins three weeks prior to the arrival of the PCs.

Summary: Tarascon Manour is owned by the Tarascon family consiting of twins Jean & Marcel and younger brother Luc. It appears that the brothers are all unmarried because there is no mention of any wives nor betrothed for that matter, which is quite odd since wealthy families have been arranging marriages since the dawn of time. Jean plays the role of steward to the estate and thus is the de facto lord of the manour. Marcel has no interest whatsoever in practical matters, rather his interest lie in his family’s past. Wait, what?!? He spends his time doing genealogical research? And Jean is fine with that? The idea of the idle rich is also an anachronism. Traditionally, wealthy families would get the eldest son knighted and the second son into the Church. So how did Marcel end up a layabout? My thinking is that the family sent Marcel to the University of Montpellier because that is the closest one. It is also quite possible that he discovered black magic (nigromauncie) while he was there. I thought about Eustace the Monk who learned black magic in Toledo but could not justify a middle-class family sending a son there when Montpellier is so close. The bottom line is that Marcel most likely acquired a level in wizard/mage/magic-user while there and indulged his interest in the dark arts when he returned. Why else would he be facinated by his family's past?

Shortly after returning home, Marcel discovers Pierre the founder’s journal. The journal describes the early days of the farmstead which is left to the GM to define. It also mentions the arrival of Hyskosa, a famous Vistani seer. Interestingly, Slavicsek uses the term “gypsy seers” as a synonym for the Vistani. I note this because TSR had been very careful to use gypsy imagery but to never use the word ‘gypsy.’ I guess this one slipped past Andria Hayday. To continue, the journal goes on to say that the gentleman Hyskosa told Pierre the powerful revelation of the Six Signs. Apparently Pierre sumarized the prescience but we are not told what that is. Marcel is far more interested in the notation that a scroll containing the Revelation of the Six Signs was left behind and hidded by Pierre more than two centuries ago. For some unexplained reason, Marcel came to believe that the scroll contained the secrets of power and immortality. We are told that the Demiplane of Ravenloft fueled Marcel’s obsession with finding the scroll. Of course, I am unconcerned about the rôle of Ravenloft but it is interesting to note that by this time Ravenloft has swallowed up Souragne. Neither the module nor the boxed set tells us exactly when Souragne joined Ravenloft nor why. I do not think we need any dark powers to fuel Marcel’s obsession wth the scroll given that he somehow came to believe it contains the “secrets of power & immortality.”

Meanwhile we are told that the twins have a younger brother, Luc and that their mother Claudine died giving birth. [Oddly, we don’t learn her name until we get to the discovery of the Tarascon mausoleum in the new cemetery. Another editing oversight.] Luc grew up idolizing Marcel for some reason, which suggests to me that Marcel is significantly more charismatic than his twin, Jean.

Three weeks ago Luc spies a Vistani wagon and pays a young gypsy girl named Valana to tell his fortune. [Perhaps the Vistanic are a type of Gypsy?] Luc’s fortune as it turns out, are “cryptic” directions to the “Crypt of Stars” in the old cemetery. Yeah, it really says that. (Eyeroll) Luc grabs Marcel and together the push aside the stone slab with six stars, crawl through the tunnel, push the statue out of the way, wander around the old cemetery until they spot a tomb with six stars on the door, get it? All these years of Marcel searching for a scroll of six verses but he never checked the Old Cemetery. Now the brothers break into the tomb and find the scroll. But it is Luc who reads it and not Marcel, which is bizarre given how obsessed Marcel is with reading it. During the reading, they are attacked by a “ju-ju zombie” and some other zombies. For those of you who do not recall, “juju zombies” first appeared in the AD&D Monster Manual II (1983). They are created when a magic-user drains all the life out of a victim by using the energy drain spell and can only be hit by a +1 or greater magic weapon. In the AD&D Players Handbook (1978), energy drain is the reverse of the 7th level clerical spell restoration. In Unearthed Arcana (1985), it appears as a 9th level magic-user spell and mentions the creation of juju zombies. This is important to note because this ju-ju zombie who kills Marcel was created by a mage of at least 17th level! Why was there an arch-mage in the Marais d’Tarascon? Who became the ju-ju zombie? Whoever it was became the guardian of the old cemetery in general and of the Hyskosa scroll in particular.

So what do we do with the ju-ju zombie? Given that they are created by arch-mages, there is always a story behind each one. However, I cannot help but suspect that Slavicsek choose to include a ju-ju zombie because this is supposed to be a ‘zombie’ module and did not think anything more beyond that. The reason being, is that introducing a result of a 17th level mage energy draining a person is huge! Campaign defining huge! 17th+ level are legendary archmages and everything they do impacts the world! We are talking the most powerful wizards in legend such as Merlin, Morgana le Fey, and Maugris. Did Maugris (or Merlin or Morgana) stroll into the Marais d’Tarascon and energy drain someone into a ju-ju zombie, leaving them in the Old Cemetery to guard it? I very, very seriously doubt it. So in this particular case, rather than expanding the story to fit the module, I think it is best to replace the juju zombie with an ordinary zombie (or one of my Grym zombies I'll detail later). It also takes care of the issue that 1st level characters will not have a +1 weapon between them and juju zombies require that!

Getting back to the history, Marcel is killed by the ju-ju zombie but Luc is untouched. Conviently Jean was following them from a safe distance and comes to Luc’s rescue. Jean somehow wrests Marcel’s corpse from the ju-ju zombie and leads Luc out of the Old Cemetery. Amazingly, Jean and Luc can outrun the ju-ju zombie despite being burdened with Luc’s corpse and the ju-ju zombie moving at 9." Now Luc would be unencumbered at 12" but Jean with a corpse?!? I think 6" at best! And yet somehow they escape. Does Jean have a magic weapon? Not according to the text. Also, ju-ju zombies can shoot bows as well as climb walls like a thief (92%). So why did the ju-ju not shoot Jean or follow in the tunnel? Et cetera, et cetera. But if we replace the ju-ju zombie with normal zombies, then Jean can lead them away to the far corner, double back and take Marcel’s corpse. Yeah, I think replacing the ju-ju zombie is a really good idea!

Jean takes Marcel’s corpse to Brucian, the village shaman…. Hang on a minute, shaman? Is Brucian an AD&D 2nd Edition priest [cleric] with the savage priest kit? According to the AD&D 2nd Edition PHBR3 The Complete Priest’s Handbook (1990):

“This is a shaman of a savage tribe. This character is a member of the tribe. The tribe itself is a technoligically and culturally primitive one (by the standards & in the opinions of more “civilised” cultures), but is also one which is attuned to the natural forces of the world. The Savage Priest interprets the will of his god and acts as an advisor or leader to the members of his tribe.”

This strikes me as a bit odd, so I will peel back the layers of this onion so to speak. First off, in the Realm of Terror, recall that “the shaman is not afraid to enter the swamp.”

We have every reason to believe that Brucian is in fact the very shaman who is not afraid to enter the swamp. Slavicsek made the village priest a “shaman” precisely because he was working off the summary of Souragne found in the Realm of Terror. And remember that Andria Hayday co-created the Realm of Terror and also edited the Night of the Walking Dead. So she would have been fully aware of the connection. As an astute reader, you are probably wondering if Nesmith and Hayday were thinking of the priest kit or the AD&D shaman, given that the CPH was published the same year as the Ravenloft boxed set. Well, it really does not matter. According to the AD&D DMG, shaman are just clerics with a limited spell selection and cavemen (the only humans with shaman) shaman are not limited to 7th level unlike the humanoid shaman.

But why the choice of “shaman” instead of village priest or druid, for that matter? Surely Nesmith & Hayday and later Slavicsek intended that this priest be a Ravenloft stand-in for a voodoo priest. The imagery they evoked with Sourage is a mix of antebellum Lousiana and Haiti with bayous, zombies, and French masters.

So what we have then is that Jean took Marcel’s corpse to the local voodoo priest and that priest attempted to raise Marcel from the dead but the operation failed. Raise Dead?!? That is a 5th level priest spell! Is Brucian 9th level or higher? He is after all, the shaman of Souragne…. Yet we learn later on in the module that Brucian is only 2nd level and has a scroll with two raise dead spells remaining. So the famous shaman of Souragne is only 2nd level. Okay, I can work with that. (On a separate note, if Nesmith & Hayday envisaged the shaman as an AD&D witch doctor then Brucian should also be a 1st or 2nd level mage as well.) So Jean cries out in anguish when his twin fails to revive because he somehow knows that Marcel is now the undead and not just any undead but a Zombie Lord! Meanwhile Brucian probably thinks that Marcel failed his Resurrection % check (A CON of 10 has a 25% chance of failure). Jean goes mad, thinking that he must protect Marcel from his obsession and so he snatches the Hyskosa scroll from Luc and hides it. When Jean notices that Luc mutters mixed-up sections from the scroll, he banishes Luc to the swamp. But then…

“Jean promised to locate the scroll for Marcel, swearing to search for it as long as he drew breath. Never did he reveal to Marcel that he had hidden it, nor did he reveal to anyone what his brother Marcel had become.”

Wait, what? Jean hides the Hyskosa scroll but swears to search for it?!? I suppose what Slavicsek meant to say is that Jean made a false promise to his (un)dead twin brother to search for the scroll thinking that Marcel would believe him.

“Marcel now resides in the old cemetery, intent on creating undead servants while Jean continues to search for the scroll. For three weeks Marcel has used his powers to kill villagers; when they rise, they become zombies under his control. Though Marcel does not have the scroll, he believes that an army of undead will help him taker over this island of terror. (To date, the true lord of Souragne [Anton Misroi] has not intervened.”

How can Jean continue to search for the scroll when he knows where he hid it. Why did Hayday as the editor not change this to ‘continued to promise Marcel that he was searching for it’ or somesuch? And how did Marcel end up in the Old Cemetery? Was there a funereal? There must not have been since nobody has the key to the Old Cemetery. Did Jean drag his brother’s corpse through the tunnel or wait for Marcel to rise as the Zombie Lord and stagger there himself? Why is Jean letting Marcel kill off the villagers? I get that the shock and trauma of his twin dying and rising as an undead has caused him to go mad. I could accept that Jean locks himself up in his sanctuary and does nothing while Marcel murders the village.

“The village has to content with more than just Marcel, however. Jean has become a murderer as well as a madman. He takes victims to the zombie lord as both an offering and a sign of his growing affection for the undead.”

So Jean’s coping strategy is to become ‘Jacque le Ripper’?!? And he now has a growing affection for the undead? When I ran this adventure back in 1994, my players and I found this premise ridiculous. Twenty-six years later, I still find it ridiculous. Perhaps if the writing and editing were different, I could appreciate but…. Later on we learn that Jean forces his servants to eat the flesh of some of the victims which turn them into ghouls. That is a very interesting theme but….

This is the crux of the matter — my primary criticism of this module. There are three themes that fight to be the central theme. First we have a zombie master who goes about the village at night whose breath and/or farts are so noxious that people keel over and die on the spot only to revive moments later as a zombie slave, although sometimes their rising happens much later. Second we have Jean le Ripper murdering people also night. Third, sometimes Jean gives the corpses to his brother Marcel but sometimes he feeds them to his servants, thus forcing them to become ghouls but he is too cowardly to eat the corpses himself despite his growing affection for the undead. I think this module would be a lot less confusing and hence more enjoyable if there was a single central theme instead. Zombie Lord is a great theme for an adventure. Jack the Ripper is a great story. Crazy guy feeding corpses to his servants thus creating ghouls is a great story. Why create a mash-up? Given the limited pagecount of modules, these competing central themes prevents the exploration of the supporting cast. In every Gothic story, everyone has dark secrets. In this adventure, we have… Jean? This is Ravenloft, for crying out loud! There should have been a single central theme, e.g. Marcel as a Zombie Lord with the named NPCs all having dark secrets.

So I think this is my mission here. To take a single theme (i.e. Marcel as a zombie lord) and to flesh out the NPCs to turn this into a true Gothic story. I also wish to place the adventure in Averoigne and interject some of Clark Ashton Smith’s sardonic and ironic humour into it as well.

The Hyskosa Scroll

The proverbial MacGuffin. More than two centuries ago (late 1000s to early 1100s) a Vistani (Gypsy) seer named Hyskosa had a revelation about six events that were to take place in the distant future. He wrote down this revelation in a scroll and left at least one copy in each of the Ravenloft Domains he visited (Vistani are the only ones who can freely travel between the domains). The actual scrolls are powerless nevertheless there are some like Marcel who believe that they do contain real power.

Who are the Vistani? In this module, Slavicsek uses Vistani and Gypsy interchangeably. Throughout the Ravenloft publications, the Vistani are a stylized and sterotypical depiction of late 19th century Romani (1850–1920) given their use of the vardo (wagon). This is the image we have seen in The Wolf Man and Dark Shadows, so it should not at all be surprising to find them in Ravenloft. There are no gypsies or Romani mentioned in any of Smith’s stories set in Averoigne so we have to look to the etymology of the word ‘gypsy’ and the history behind it. According to Etymology Online it first appeared in English as a noun in 1600 and an adjective in 1620 and spelled ‘gipsy’. Interestingly it also says that in Middle French they were called ‘Bohémien’ and in Italian & German ‘zingari’ (cf. Zingara in Hyboria). Apparently in the 1400s the French either thought the gypsies came from Bohemia or confused them with the Hussite refugees (c.1419–1434). The genetics show that the Romani originated in South Asia and linguistics point to Northeast India. In 1323 they were observed in Crete and in 1360 there were Romani serfs in Corfu. According to Wikipedia they reached Bohemia by the 14th century but most likely as slaves. So it is possible, if a bit of a stretch to have Vistani as gypsies.

19th C. Vardos

Wikipedia further claims that ‘gypsy’ can refer to Tinkers and Travellers, in other words all sorts of itinerate folk. However the genetic, linguistic, and historical data on the English, Irish, Scottish, & Welsh travellers shows that these groups did not form until the 1500s at the earliest. So that leaves Tinkers of which the occupation dates to the late 14th c. according to Etymology Online. I find it highly suggestive that the arrival of the tinker occupation and the gypsies to be a very similar timeframe given that historically many tinkers were thought to be gypsies. At any rate, whether they are called ‘gipsies’ or ‘tinkers’ it is a bit of a stretch but not anachronistic to describe the Vistani as a sort of tinker-gypsy so long as we leave out the vardos.

What if the Vistani were fairies? Given the rôle that the Vistani play in this module (as we shall see), they act very much like fairies. The magically appear in the swamp, offer hospitality if treated respectfully, tell the party’s fortune, and then disappear at dawn. I think that your typical person  in the Middle Ages would call them as fairies rather than tinkers!

Adventure Synopsis

In this section of the module, Slavicsek would summarise the most likely path the PCs will take, the most likely PC actions, and the appropriate outcome. Except that he does not quite do that. In fact, what he does is tell the story of what is supposed to happen. *Sigh* As others have pointed out, this adventure leans very heavily towards the “railroad” style of RPG design. The biggest nit I have with this “synopsis” is that it presumes that the PCs can break into Jean’s townhouse. Except that the locks “are of masterful quality (-60 open locks modifier).” A 1st level thief with an 18 DEX who put the maximum 30 points into open locks has a base success of 55% but versus these locks has a -5% chance of success — in other words impossible! The party is forced to break down the door or a window with a base 50% chance of being spotted or heard with bonuses for “caution and quite” as the DM sees fit. The constable will arrive in 1d6 rounds (1–6 minutes) to arrest the PCs. I can imagine that Slavicsek wanted to raise the tension of the situation by having the constable arrive and search for the PCs in the townhouse. But why not allow the thief to unlock the door? Why bother playing a thief if you cannot show off your buglar skills? After all, he will not get to backstab any zombies….

IN SUMMATION

To recap the adaptation so far, this adventure takes place during October of 1347 AD in the Camargue region of Averoigne rather than the domain of Souragne in Ravenloft. It will be for four PCs (player + 3 retainers) of 1st or 2nd level. The manour (not plantation) will be famed for its riz sang or ‘blood rice.’ Marcel was educated at Montpellier but did not enter the seminary and instead has taken up nigomauncie. Jean is the Sieur or Mesne Lord in that he is a gentleman who holds the land in tenantcy from a greater lord most likely the Abbey of Psalmody (Abbaye de Psalmody). The Vistani are actually fairies. The ju-ju zombie will be either a be a Rotting Dead or some type of skeleton (I will detail my Grym zombies & skeletons in a future post). Brucian will be a village priest or vicar rather than a “shaman” or a witch-doctor for that matter. For the time being, I am going to put the Jean le Ripper theme on the “back-burner” until I am convinced that it is integral to the success of the module. And finally, I resolve to make the NPCs more fitting for a Gothic novel or Averoigne story by introducing motivations, dark secrets, and conflicts with the other NPCs.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Night of the Walking Dead in Averoigne Part 1


I cast raise dead on Night of the Walking Dead in Averoigne for the second time! This is my third attempt at adapting this Ravenloft module for the Neverwinter Nights videogame. Back in 1994, I ran this module for my AD&D 2nd Edition post-Crusades pseudo-historical setting using the Historical Reference Campaign Sourcebook of the same name.

RQ1 is set in the Ravenloft domain of Souragne, in the village of Marais de Tarascon. Sounds French, right? Since Grymwurld is not Ravenloft, I set this adventure in the Averoigne province of Occitania. Here is where it all ties together geographically: Marais de Tarascon is set on the edge of a swamp and everyone speaks French. The description in the module makes it sound very much like a Ravenloft version of 19th century Louisiana without the gunpowder (more on this later). On the southern coast of France is the Camargue (Carmaga in Occitanian) region which is a huge delta where the Rhône river meets the Mediterrean sea. Aha! Now I can set the module in historical France. Clark Ashton Smith (1893–1961) a friend of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard as well as a founding member of the Lovecraft Circle was a prolific writer and poet. For D&D fans, he is know as the author of what came to be known as the Averoigne Cycle. A set of weird fiction/sword & sorcery short stories set in the South of France during the High Middle Ages. List most of us, I was first introduced to CAS in the Expert D&D module X2 Castle Amber (which I ran using the AD&D rules). Tom Moldvay is a huge CAS fan, and incorporated many of the elements from Smith's Averoigne stories in the module as well as Averoinge itself.

So now we have a pseudo-historical weird fiction/sword & sorcery setting of Averoigne taking place in Medieval Southern France, equating the southern tip of Averoigne with the Camarque region of France, combined with Night of the Walking Dead. So far so good, right? (In a future post, I will go into details as to why I believe Averoigne fits well in the Southern Rhône river valley.) Technically speaking, the people of Southern France do not speak French, they speak Occitanian. This was especially true during the late Middle Ages but for now I am going to gloss over that detail considering that the Night of the Walking Dead module itself has numerous non-French NPC names.

So back in 1994, I ran a group of three players through the module and the result was … underwhelming. Overall the group and I found the imagery in the module evocative but the actual adventure to be a railroad with a lot of 'What the heck?!?' moments. I am going to run this adventure for my son over the Christmas break since thanks to the pandemic, he is a captive audience… and I am also developing a Neverwinter Nights version of this. So in preparation for the tabletop and videogame versions, I am going to do the following: Analyse this module to ensure I understand it the way the author Bill Slavicsek intended, figure out how to reduce the “railroadness” of the experience, and how to better incorporate the Averoigne and Historical Southern France setting. If this all works out well, I will develop an entire Mediæval Sword & Sorcery campaign. Next up is the analysis of RQ1 Night of the Walking Dead.

Thursday, 5 November 2020

D&D is NOT Sword & Sorcery

Conan triumphant

 A lot of OSR game companies and their legion of GMs like to tell the world how their game is based on Appendix N of the AD&D DMG. Likewise there are a lot of Old Schoolers who yell that (insert favourite version of D&D) is true Sword & Sorcery unlike (insert disliked version of D&D) which is Epic Fantasy. In most cases, they are WRONG and LYING to everyone. But not intentionally, at least I hope! Herein this post I explain what Sword & Sorcery really is, why D&D never was and never will be, and how to make your game closer to the S&S genre, if you choose.

Now that you have read the ‘clickbait,’ I wish to note that prior to the release of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, I was not concerned with being faithful to the Sword & Sorcery genre. In fact back in the ‘90s I ran a very successful campaign that simulated a Heavy Metal perspective of the Late Middle Ages. The AD&D 2nd Edition game provided a very flexible method of handling priests with their spheres, the Historical Campaigns added good advice on historical, epic, and legendary campaigns, and the Player’s Option books also provided some very interesting customisation options. More on that era in a future post. Suffice to say that since 2002, I have been compelled to find a way to be as faithful to the Sword & Sorcery as possible.

In a future post, I shall detail the ways in which D&D can hew closer to Sword & Sorcery.

What is Sword & Sorcery?

In 1961 Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser) in a response to Michael Moorcock (Elric) in the Conan fanzine Amra, wrote:

“I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story — and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too!”

Thus, Robert E. Howard is credited with inventing the genre with his stories of Bran Mac Morn, Conan, Kull, Cormac Mac Airt, Solomon Kane, and Turlogh Dubh O'Brien. His work stands as the gold standard for which all others are judged. However, he did not invent it out of whole cloth. Rather, he built it upon a very long history of the ballads, sagas, and legends of Europe and the Greater Middle East. In effect, Sword & Sorcery is about swords versus sorcery. In “Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: the Makers of Heroic Fantasy” published in 1976, editor Lin Carter came much to the same conclusion.

Sword & Sorcery Characteristics

What then are the particular characteristics that we should be concerned about? For purposes of this essay, I am not going to discuss the literary style of picaresque, swashbuckling, or episodic versus long-form storytelling. Those elements are germane to the type of adventures which I believe should be left entirely in the hands of the individual Game Masters. Instead, we must look at the characteristics that directly contradict D&D.

Sorcerers, Not Clerics, Druids, or Paladins

The D&D cleric class is the proverbial dead elephant in the room. Prior to the Blackmoor campaign, there have been no stories of armoured clergy invoking miracles. None, nada, zilch. Go ahead and look at the pulp stories of the 20th century, Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, gothic literature, mediæval literature, hagiographies, legends, ballads, myths, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And do not forget to search Non-Western sources as well.

Previously when I raised this issue on the Internet, some of the objections were the following:

“But surely Archbishop Turpin, one of the paladins of Charlemagne….” Not according to the actual stories. He may or may not have been armoured when he conducted mass before the troops but he most certainly never invoked any miracles in any of the stories.

“Knights Templar?” Nope. Not a single crusading saint in armour.

“But what about Bishop Odo of Beyeux?” First off, Odo was a historical figure but none of the fiction written about him ever depicted him working miracles while armoured.

“Any saints at all?” Nope. There were some former soldiers who later became saints, but they forswore arms and armour before working miracles.

“Priests of Mars or Ares?” Nope. They stayed far, far away from battle.

“Vikings?” Not even the Vikings. The closest would be chieftains officiating at a religious ceremony before battle, but none of the stories have them invoking miracles during battle.

“Chinese, Indian, Mesoamerican, Islamic, Judaic, et cetera?” Nope.

In fact the only depiction, fictional or otherwise, of an armoured spell-caster was Elric of Melnibone and he was not religious in any way at all.

But please do your own research. I would be thrilled to be proven wrong. Until then, we must deal with the fact that in ANY literary genre prior to 1970, divine spellcasters never wore armour while working their miracles. Clerics, Druids, and Paladins as we know them are inventions of Dungeons and Dragons.

Tombs, Not Dungeons

Dungeons as defined by D&D likewise do not exist in the Sword & Sorcery genre. Certainly there are stories of Conan and other S&S heroes looting tombs and encountering supernatural horrors but nowhere near the scale of the typical D&D dungeon. The “dungeon clean-up crew,” disintegrating corridors, the all other mega-dungeon weirdness is an invention of D&D

No Demi-Humans & Humanoids

Were there any dwarves, elves, gnomes, goblins, halflings, hobgoblins, or orcs in any of Howard’s work? What about Leiber or Moorcock? Looking at the world’s literature, there have certainly been stories about fairies but with the exception of a handful of half-elves, none of the protagonists have been non-Human. Moorcock’s Elric was a Melnibonean who was certainly not human but he stands as a famous exception. Except for Elric, all of the protagonists of S&S have been humans who moved through human societies. Secret societies of hidden folk such as serpent people were by definition secret and no effect on the day to day goings on.

Remember that in 1974, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit both by J.R.R. Tolkein were extraordinarily popular. And just about every D&Der I met back in the ‘70s assumed that all of the dwarves, elves, halflings, orcs, wights, Type VI demons (balrogs), and Treeants (ents) were exactly as Tolkein described them. Not only that, but there were arguments about how Trolls were supposed to be ogres and not rubbery regenerating monstrosities because the Oxford professor said so. So it should be no surprise at all that Gygax & Arneson included a strong Middle Earth element in the ruleset. After all, D&D was designed to be broad enough to encompass Sword & Planet (John Carter of Mars) and Gothic Horror (Hammer Films, et al.).

Now a case could be made that the LotR is indeed Sword & Sorcery since it is swords versus sorcery, but the general consensus in literary circles is that it is Heroic Fiction rather than S&S for a number of literary reasons. My argument is that Middle Earth is not S&S precisely because of the non-Humans nations living side-by-side with Human nations, trading and warring, et cetera. Prior to Tolkein, such depictions were relegated to children’s stories and not tales of derring-do.

Only incorporeal need magic to hit

In all of Robert E. Howard’s stories, the only creatures unaffected by non-magical weapons were incorporeal. The Wolf-Man movie does not belong in the Sword & Sorcery genre because there were neither swords nor sorcery. But as I noted above, the popular conceptions of werewolves was that they could only be hit by silver.

As an aside, in the Dark Shadows TV series, vampires could also be killed by silver bullets. Did Lake Geneva and the Twin Cities’ campaigns allow that also? I do not recall any of my players attempting that.

Minimal Magic Items

Why does D&D have so many magic items and why do DMs feel the need to sprinkle them liberally throughout their dungeons? Prior to D&D, have there been any characters in any form of media, carrying as much magic items as your typical mid-level D&D adventurer? No there has not.

And while the pre-D&D 3e rules discouraged the placement of Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, a lot of campaigns have them. Needless to say, Sword & Sorcery protagonists do not go shopping for magic items!

But Does D&D have to be S & S?

Given that it is now obvious that D&D is NOT Sword and Sorcery, is that okay? Of course it is!!! It is still YOUR game! YOU get to decide what kind of campaign you are going to run. Your players and you will agree on the genre(s), tropes, et cetera. That is the true beauty of Dungeons & Dragons unlike all other games in the world — you are encouraged to make it your own.

“As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign.”

— Dungeons & Dragons Book 1 Men & Magic, Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson

Next up: How to make your D&D game better fit the Sword & Sorcery genre.

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Pendragon Video Boardgame Review

Abstract: A cross between chess and write your own adventure with beautiful art and sound and entirely bug free. I recommend this game.

Review

Disclosure: I was given a copy of this game to review.

Pendragon is a video roleplaying-boardgame developed by Inkle Studios. It is a roleplaying game in the sense that you take on the role of Guinevere or Launcelot (more characters are unlocked later) and make choices ostensibly in line with their character. For example one of the first choices Guinevere must make is whether or not she still loves Arthur.

It is a boardgame in that the presentation is that of paper dolls moving across a two-dimensional landscape in strategic movement and across an almost chessboard in tactical movement.

Castle Brandegore

The choices one makes on the character’s behalf, unlocks a new ability (much like a D&D 3e feat). However, each character can only have a single ability so one must take care when deciding to replace an ability or not. The choices also drive the story to some extent. For example, careful roleplaying can diffuse tense situations with potential opponents and even convince an opponent to travel with you.

Story Changed

The overarching story is that the Player Character must travel to Camlann to aid Arthur in his final battle with Mordred’s army. Along the way, there are opportunities to acquire companions and improve one’s special move which could be offensive or defensive in nature.

The Good

The artwork for the most part is beautiful. The style is reminescent of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959), Fractured Fairytales (early ‘60s), and the original covers for the Balltine Books printing of the Lord of the Rings.

Lord of the Rings Painting

With the execption of Sir Kay and one opponent, all of the characters and opponents are depicted in a stylised fashion that fits in with the background art. Noteworthy is in the depiction of Lady Ealasaid with her dark complexion, Lady Elaine depicted as an old woman, and Guinevere as a mature woman with an ample figure. Inkle is to be applauded for the variety of positive depictions of women.

Guinevere standing

One special effect that impressed me is seeing the character’s breath on cold nights. At first it looked a bit weird as if the paper cut-outs were smoking but I soon came to appreciate it.

The sound effects and music are top knotch and fit the story and art nicely.

The Okay

I found the game to be a bit short. Not only is the player encouraged to reach Camlann quickly, the PC’s morale drops if a battle takes too long. Consequently the story felt a bit rushed and superficial. Since there is a bit of randomisation to the encounters, I suppose that Inkle intented for a great deal of replay to bring out all the potential elements of the story.

The Not-So-Good

Camlann Battle

There is no manual and the help system is quite limited. The tutorial is very brief and so the player is thrown to the wolves — in some cases literally. As such, the learning curve is a bit steep. As mentioned above, if the combat goes on too long the PCs lose their morale and run away. Although later, (perhaps after a patch, I'm not sure) there is an option to fight to the death or run away. Fighting the death can be quite satifying as in that mode, the music switches to a tribal beat and the PC goes beserk but at the price of a permanent loss of one life point. I got a kick out of the retainers getting scared when Guinevere went beserk. What was also odd, is that I was unable to defeat Mordred and “win” the game until I played as Sir Launcelot. I do not think that it had anything to do with Sir Launcelot per se, but rather the not-as-random-as-it-should-be nature of the game. In that run, I easily acquired a slew of companions and defeated Sir Mordred without too much difficulty. In the very next run as Guinevere, I had to flee from two or three fights but still managed to defeat Mordred. It should not have taken me nine hours to win the game on the very easiest diffictuly level with the two different PCs. A manual, walk-through, or better tutorial would have made a big difference.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I found the depiction of Sir Kay offensive. There is an opponent with a similar shape to Sir Kay so I found him almost as offensive. Why does Inkle think that it is acceptable to depict obese men in a comical fashion? As the Bard so eloquently put it, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

Bottom Line

Is this game worth one's time and money? Yes, I do believe so especially if one enjoys Arthuriana. Both GOG and Steam have the game for less than USD $20.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Depictions of Plus Sized People in RPGs Part I

In this series, I look at the depiction of plus-sized (large and/or overweight men & women) in role-playing games (RPG), both video and tabletop as well as consider their depiction in literary influences.

1933

“You are no soldier,” hissed the stranger at last. “You are a thief like myself.”

“And who are you?” asked the Cimmerian in a suspicious whisper.

“Taurus of Nemedia.”

The Cimmerian lowered his sword.

“I’ve heard of you. Men call you a prince of thieves.”

A low laugh answered him. Taurus was as tall as the Cimmerian, and heavier; he was big-bellied and fat, but his every movement betokened a subtle dynamic magnetism, which was reflected in the keen eyes that glinted vitally, even in the starlight. He was barefooted and carried a coil of what looked like a thin, strong rope, knotted at regular intervals. “Who are you?” he whispered.

“Conan, a Cimmerian,” answered the other. “I came seeking a way to steal Yara’s jewel, that men call the Elephant’s Heart.”

Conan sensed the man’s great belly shaking in laughter, but it was not derisive.

“By Bel, god of thieves!” hissed Taurus. “I had thought only myself had courage to attempt that poaching. These Zamorians call themselves thieves — bah! Conan, I like your grit. I never shared an adventure with anyone, but by Bel, we’ll attempt this together if you’re willing.”

From “The Tower of the Elephant” by Robert E. Howard, first published in Weird Tales, March 1933.

Roleplaying Games (RPGs) both videogame and tabletop, are all ultimately derived from Dungeons & Dragons. (For the sake of argument, let’s not dispute this right now.) The design of Dungeons & Dragons was heavily influenced by the Sword & Sorcery and Weird Fiction literature genres (see Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, Appendix N). It is well established (various sources too numerous to list here) that the co-creators of D&D, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax in particular were huge fans of the Conan the Barbarian stories written by Robert E. Howard. Given all this, one would expect to see the depiction of plus-sized men and women in RPGs to be in line with this quote from the Tower of the Elephant. That is to say, “big-bellied and fat, but his every movement betokened a subtle dynamic magnetism…” — a generally positive depiction. That is to say, an acknowledgement of both Taurus’ shape as well as his capabilities as a thief. Has this been the case? Not it has not, at least not until fairly recently. Large people traditionally have not been depicted in fantasy art or RPGs except rarely and usually in a comic fashion.

1969 – 1970

Consider the picture below of the above mentioned Taurus in the Marvel Comics adaptation of the “Tower of the Elephant” illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith in 1970:

Taurus of Nemedia by Barry Windsor Smith

Does this Taurus look “big-bellied and fat” to you? Why did Marvel Comics choose to change the depiction of Taurus? Were they afraid of their readers laughing at him? After all, by that time there was a long history in comics of depicting overweight people in a comical fashion. But then why did Robert E. Howard depict Taurus that way? He did not do so for comic effect. One clue is to remember that Howard based Conan and the supporting characters on the people he met in the oil fields and boomtowns of West Texas in the 1920s and very early ‘30s. Surely there was a man who Howard may have initially dismissed due to his bulk but then was surprised when he saw him in action.

On a personal aside, years ago a colleague of mine fit the description of Taurus, being ‘big-bellied and fat.’ But he was also an avid mountain biker… in Colorado! Judge not a book by its cover…!

So there we have in 1970, Marvel Comics downplays Taurus’ bulk and likewise the RPG industry in the 1970s fails to depict men or women as anything other than fashion models or weightlifters.

Except the extraordinary Frank Frazetta whose paintings graced the cover of fantasy books the 1960s and ‘70s which influenced Arneson & Gygax as well as countless gamers and game designers. Now, Frazetta is famous for his depiction of Conan and I have failed to find any positive depiction of overweight men. But as for women, consider the Egyptian Queen from 1969:

Egyptian Queen by Frank Frazetta

She looks like she has lived a soft and pampered life, right? Which is what we would expect of a princess or queen. Is she plus-sized, large, or fat? We all know fat-phobic people who insist that anything larger than a size 0 is “fat” but I believe the appropriate description here would be “plump.” So now the question that is begging to be asked is ‘given how the famous Frazetta was not afraid of depicting plump women, did we ever see that in the games of the ‘70s?’

The answer unfortunately is no. Despite the source material of Robert E. Howard and Frank Frazetta having an outsized influence on Dungeons & Dragons, I have found no examples of larger-than-average bodies. Except for this:

1976


In 1976, TSR published the “Eldritch Wizardry” rules for Dungeons & Dragons wherein they introduced demons and demon princes. Once such prince is Orcus, who is described as “… a grossly fat demon lord, some 15’ tall.” [This particular illustration doesn’t come from Eldritch Wizardry but does come from the late ‘70s and does a better job depicting Orcus.]

Is this a positive depiction? Well, it is not comical, that is for sure. I never met anyone who laughed at Orcus’ depiction. Prince Orcus is a particularly nasty demon lord and was never played for laughs as far as I know.

Personal aside: Back when I attended Science Fiction and Gaming conventions as a youth in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I was struck at how many attendees, male and female, had physiques similar to Orcus’. I am a big guy myself, and have always been big, but as a teenager I was downright surprised at all the folks that were much bigger than me. Even back then I thought, “they should at least depict witches & wizards the same size as the gamers!”

1988

As it turns out, in 1988 TSR published The Throne of Bloodstone modules for D&D. In this adventure there is a Saint Sollars the Twice-Martyred depicted as follows:

Saint Sollars the Twice Martyred

Note that Saint Sollars is based on TSR game designer Ed Sollers. While there is a certain amount of comic relief performed by the character of St. Sollars, it is because of the anachronisms (Yellow Rose, Castle Al-Amo, Beer & Cigar) rather than his size. In fact there is no mention of his size or shape anywhere in the adventure, as it should be.

And what of the women? For that, we have to move forward to 2002 and into the realm of video games, namely Neverwinter Nights.

But a bit of background first. Prior to 2002, video games were two-dimensional although a number of First Person Shooters were 3D (QUAKE). The player character (PC) creation choices were very limited, if there was any choice at all. Lara Croft in 1996 caught a lot of attention because the PC was a woman which was revolutionary at the time.

2002

In 2002 game NeverWinter Nights (NWN). NWN was revolutionary not only providing a toolset for users to create their own adventures but for allowing the player to choose a large shape (phenotype). Finally a game, where I could play a wizard that looked like me! Or if I wanted to play a woman built like an Olympic shotputter, I could.

NeverWinter Nights Enhanced Edition

Did Wizards of the Coast (then & current owners of D&D) sit up and take notice? No. To them, female warriors were (& still are) supermodels with swords and the men look like bodybuilders.
Oh and here is what they did to Prince Orcus in 2002:

Orcus from the Book of Vile Darkness

Not only did WotC not embrace the diversity of body sizes that NeverWinter Nights did, they also completely changed Orcus’ body so that he no longer looked like a gamer (or the embodiment of gluttony). 

2009

In 2009, Fat Princess for the PlayStation came out. A variation on capture the flag, players pick up food to feed the princess, making her heavier and thus more difficult for the opposite team to capture her.

Fat Princess Growth Stages

The game traded on the cuteness factor of the princess becoming more and more babylike as she grew. There were criticisms from some feminist groups decrying what they felt were stigmatizing stereotypes. James Green, the art director of Titan Studios replied “Does it make it better or worse that the concept artist (who designed the look, characters, everything) is a girl?”

Also of note is that Angelina Duplisea, the plus-sized actress, model, and fat activist portrayed the Fat Princess for a promotional event:

Angelina Duplisea as the Fat Princess

Should the fact that the artist who created the image of the Fat Princess is a woman have any bearing on our reaction? Of course not! Our emotional reaction is our own and should never be influenced by, let alone dictated by someone else. Regardless of the creator’s sex, race, size, political leanings, et cetera.
That being the case, I see the depiction of the Fat Princess as akin to a baby rather than a derogatory or comical depiction of a hyper-obese woman. But do not let me decided for you. Decide for yourself.

2014

In 2014, The Sims 4 included a body size slider:


Sims 4 Underweight Male

Sims 4 Overweight Male

Sims 4 Underweight Female

Sims 4 Overweight Female

I have no information on the popularity of these sliders but I wholeheartedly congratulate Electronic Arts for doing so! Just like NeverWinter Nights in 2002, the game gives the player the choice of how to depict their player character (PC).

Also in 2014 a mod for Skyrim was released called “Myrgiol the Sturdy” by Razorwire:

Myrgiol the Sturdy 3/4 facing

Myrgiol the Sturdy profile

There have been 3,127 unique downloads and 102,404 views of this mod. The most telling comment came from MikeTheRatGuy:

“Or people who like some realistic variety in their game. I don’t quite understand the suggestion that someone has to have a fetish for chubby girls in order to respect their existence.”

Well said Mike, well said!

2020

What about 2020? I examined D&D 5th edition from Wizards of the Coast and cannot find any positive depictions of plus-sized women. I did find some example of plus-sized non-player characters (NPCs) in a positive light but no PCs. Sorry I have no pictures to share. Of course over on Deviant Art, there are lots of pictures of plus-sized women who would fint in a D&D world, but nothing from WoTC.

On the videogame side, let us take a look at Pendragon which just came out this past September:



The depictions of Sir Kay are Queen Guinevere are interesting contradictions. On the one hand, Guinevere is lovingly depicted with a pear shape. Back in the days of my inner-city youth, my African-American friends called this “Black woman’s thighs” — a compliment paid to white women with well-rounded hips and thighs.

In contrast, Sir Kay looks like a character from an ostensibly children’s cartoon who accidentally swallowed a balloon and should stay far away from swords and spears. Speaking as a man of some girth, I find this depiction of Sir Kay highly offensive, insulting, and disrespecting. It would be one thing if all the characters had odd shapes but they do not. Only Sir Kay is malformed. Apparently, Inkle Studios believes that plus-sized women should be depicted attractively while large men comically. If that is true, they certainly succeeded on both fronts.

Now before judging Inkle Studios too harshly, as tempting as it is, it would be prudent to consider our society in 2020. Let us also review the past as well to keep everything in perspective. And to understand how society and popular culture has depicted larger people, we must first understand the concept of “the other.”

The Other

Our ancestors evolved to survive. One of the ways to survive is to fear anything which is different from what we know and who we are. Thus we are biologically programmed to treat people who smell, sound, look, and even believe different from ourselves as being outsiders or as psychologists call it, “the other.” [See this Wikipedia article.] This hard-wiring of our brain has naturally led us to pre-judge other people resulting in all kinds of “-isms” (e.g. racism, sexism, sizeism, &c.). None of us are immune to it because it is literally part of our biological hard-wiring. The good news is that as humans, we have the potential to be greater than our biology and to consciously overcome our prejudices. In other words, we are not bound by our biology or our culture for that matter. We always have the choice.

One of the challenges in overcoming our treatment of ‘people who are not like us’ is that differences make us uncomfortable and humor is a way of coping with that discomfort. This is why in my country (U.S.A.), it used to be popular for whites to tell jokes about blacks, protestants to tell jokes about Catholics, English descendants to tell jokes about Irish immigrants, et cetera. In the 1980s there was an uptake in Gay jokes precisely because this country was dealing with the AIDS epidemic and homosexual rights. Today in 2020, gay marriage is not a big deal for most people. Interracial marriage is also not a big deal today despite the fact that it was not until 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

What then about fat discrimination? Today in most places in the U.S., discriminating against overweight people is legal. They can be denied promotions, raises, and even seats on airplanes. Our society for the most part, will not discriminate against Blacks or Irish (as in the past). But obesity is a fair target for mocking and prejudice. I could tell you many accounts from my acquaintances of “fat discrimination,” both female and male as well as my personal stories. The irony is that the greatest amount of discrimination comes from the white collar jobs populated by college-educated (mostly) liberals and leftists. The reason for that, I believe is that because obesity among working class people is substantially higher and therefore more accepted. Just like how whites and Asians are more likely to discriminate against the overweight rather than blacks and Hispanics. It all goes back to our hard-wiring bias against The Other.

Is there any hope that it will change? Yes there is. The evidence can be found in Internet image search results. I have been very active on the Internet since 1994 and supportive of fat activism since 1992. Over the last 26 years, I am very happy to report that the percentage of pictures positively depicting overweight women has grown tremendously. In doing my research for this article, I am quite pleasantly surprised to see just how much. In the mid-1990s, most images of plus-sized women were comical but in 2020 is now a small percentage. What is even more surprising is the amount of “fat porn” that has sprung up. Not only that, but fat pornography has redefined the terms ‘BBW’ and ‘SSBBW.’ The term BBW meaning ‘Big Beautiful Woman’ was first popularized by BBW Magazine which was first published in 1979 and SSBBW meaning ‘Super-Sized Beautiful Woman’ was coined by Dimensions Magazine sometime in the late ‘80s. However in the last decade, the search results for BBW and SSBBW changed. Previously those terms used to bring up websites and pictures of clothing and fashion models but now the top results are porn. Why would this be so unless hundreds of thousands of men and lesbians came out of the “fat closet?” If you change your search filter to ‘moderate’ than the top images are of paysite softcore models (PG-13 & R-Rated). Even more telling is to set your filter to strict (no adult content) and then there is no result for BBW or SSBBW at all!. What a sea change! I wonder what NAAFA (National Association for Fat Acceptance) thinks of that? What about searching for ‘fat girl’ or ‘fat woman’? The results also surprise me. Regardless of whether the filter is set to off, moderate, or strict, the results are almost all positive depictions of fully clothed overweight women. When the filter is turned off, a couple of porn shots appear but that is all. So while BBW and SSBBW has been co-opted by the porn culture, Fat Girl and Fat Woman took over for them. Amazing! Back in the ‘90s, “fat” was a four–letter–word and so we used BHM (Big Handsome Men) and BBW (Big Beautiful Women) instead. But now? What a difference!

What about BHM (Big Handsome Men)? That result gives us shoes. Wait, what? Yes, it returns shoes even with all filters turned off. A search for ‘fat man’ or ‘fat men’ returns images concerned with weight loss or mocking pictures, almost exclusively. A search for ‘big man,’ ‘big men,’ ‘large man,’ or ‘large men’ returns results of almost always positive images. Those positive images are mostly clothing models (Big & Tall catalogs) or cut weight lifters.

This tells me that in the last 26 years of surfing the ‘net, attitudes towards plus-sized women have shifted very strongly to the positive whereas for men, not so much. Well, great for women but it still sucks to be a big guy.

Back to Depictions in Games

Pendragon then, is a product of its time. Queen Guinevere is depicted lovingly as an attractive pear-shape mature woman while Sir Kay as a comic fat man — both of which are the typical Internet results. But “product of its time” does not mean that we have to accept it. Just like understanding the artist gives some context, so does understanding the culture of the artist. But that still does not mean we have to change our own feelings. Our feelings are still our own. Do not let anyone take that from us! But just as we must own our own emotions, we must also understand where the artist is coming from. Let us not judge others too harshly but at the same time we must own our emotions and not dismiss or even downplay them.

So three cheers for Inkle Studios for its depiction of Guinevere but three jeers for Kay.

What about Wizards of the Coast (WotC) and 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons? Other than gluttonous monsters and rare overweight male NPCs, you have to go to Deviant Art to find any positive images of plus-sized women at all. D&D still seems to think that all women spend their days at the gym and that all male players never want to see themselves depicted in an “unflatteringly” way.

Where to next?

Do I need to point out that game companies (video & tabletop) need to do a better job representing its customers? That it should never mock anyone for being different in any way? I understand that a lot of people want the fantasy in their escapism. They do not want to see ordinary people; they want superheroes and super models. But is that everyone today?

It should be really, really obvious — the marketplace is global and therefore it is in the best economic interests of game companies to provide options to appeal to a very wide variety of tastes. Most companies already provide a choice of sex and the color of skin, hair, & eyes. Very few provide a choice of size (NeverWinter Nights & The Sims). An argument can certainly be made that for some games, choosing a muscular blue-eyed blonde white male is the only option for story and/or for technical reasons. But what about the NPCs? Do heavier people have to be erased, depicted comically, or only as antagonists?!? Of course not. For the same reason there can and should be various NPCs of color, culture, accent, and gender.

We need a lot more Queen Guineveres and no more Sir Kays.

I hope to gather some industry responses in the next parts of this series. Stay tuned!