Friday, October 21, 2011

Occupy Greyhawk

“The oppressed folk will most certainly attempt an uprising once every five years, minimum. If there is weakness noted, there will be an uprising immediately. Peasants will demand more freedom, rights, and lesser taxes; serfs will be attempting to gain peasant status; slaves will simply desire to slay their former masters and escape to somewhere where they can be free.”
-Dungeon Master's Guide (first ed.)

1986 was a tipping point in my gaming life. The trickle of pop-edged punk rawk LPs I had been listening to the year before gave way to a steady stream of faster, louder, and angrier mid-80s hardcore singles. Within a few month's time Black Flag will have completely edged out Blackmoor and Minor Threat the world-shattering threats of drow and other critters.

But in that last year before the big break I was still playing rpgs strong. In fact the AD&D that I had largely replaced with a succession of short-lived Traveller, Runequest, Gamma World, and Justice Inc. campaigns had even been reinstated.

That escapism didn't escape the larger personal sea change. The anger welling up in me about being stuck in bible-thumpin' redneck suburbia bled over into the campaign in a way about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Sure I picked back up that old familiar ratty Greyhawk folio again, but somehow gameplay that year was painted with much darker, edgier, and more sinister colors.

Take the Archclericy of Veluna, that saintly land of law and good, shield from the excesses of the demon-led hordes to the North and the Elemental Evil enemies within. For years it had been a bland, feel-good place to stock up between forays and maybe collect a heaping pile of reward money or two.

In 1986 though Veluna was a dreary oppressive place ruled by a newly-installed theocrat, a secret sadist and lover of a (well-spelled out) laundry list of hypocritical luxuries. A host of escalating cruelties and injustices were fostered on the suffering populace—and I made sure to goad the players at every opportunity with the same lot.

Bored with dungeons, I wanted them to wrap themselves into the mantles of village rabble-rousers. After having obnoxious, southern-drawling town guards confiscate their last loot haul—and a finger from one of the party thieves—they were full-bore jumping on to the tracks of that railroad.

Despite all that anarchic teen rebellion welling up in me, I still had at least one foot stuck in the nerdy “simulationism” of my early teens. I started working on the exact amount of forces based on squeezing whatever I could out of listed population figures and extrapolating from the rest of that great section from the DMG:
“The oppressed populace will give rise to about 1 fighter for every 5 total, as men, women, and just about anybody able to carry a club or a knife will join in. Arms and armor (if any) will be scant and crude. Troops will be 0 level, peasant class. Tactical ability will usually tend to be nil. The exception is if some mercenary group aids peasants, or if some slaves have had military experience.”
I struggle to recall in full detail the exact events, but I remember them whipping up one small village, marching on the local baron's castle, getting whipped, and then them retreating for a while into a long Robin Hood-like guerrilla campaign (surround the cities).

Though I had twisted their arms to get into this path—I also remember letting them go hog-wild in open-ended play after leaving the chute. There was stealing of griffons and raids into the S&M dungeons under the Archbishop's palace, there was using a rock to mud spell on a bridge as the theocrat's knights came charging across. There were skirmishes, big battles and mad capers.

I drifted out of gaming before we clinched the climax. There was no player-led, pitchfork-and-torch mob marching triumphantly down the main boulevard of Veluna City. And I blanch now at my own heavy-handedness: both in the heavy layering of my own political/personal issues into the campaign and the hard pushing of the players down a campaign vector that was all mine.

But damn was it satisfying.


  1. I bet. :) Yeah, it's easy to look back at these bits of "overdoing it" ruefullly, but one can't fault the passion and zeal that went it to it.

  2. Blanch not, it sounds fantastic! :)

    word verif.: abless

  3. heh .. i had it both, playing RPGs with my hardcore punk friends.

  4. Wonderful post. Think what a tool D&D is.

  5. This sounds like Warhammer Fantasy but in a good way. Nice post! Good stuff!

  6. Extremely thought provoking post!

    The Greyhawk you present seems much more realistic to me.

    Why couldn't we have bought these kind of materials back then? To hell with Greyhawk Wars, I would've paid top dollar for Greyhawk Revolutions!

    Hell, my father was reading Tuchman's A Distant Mirror in the eighties... he would've been thrilled at me buying something more 'historical'.

    Could TSR have sold us such a thing back then? Certainly not in toy stores, but the small book/game stores might've taken the chance, and grown ups playing at the time would've had no issue ordering it by mail...

  7. @Porky
    In one of his better moments, Rob Kuntz had some great commentary on how open-ended D&D was as conceived. It was at its inception a big-tent conception of "fantasy", a wide open term meant to cover a huge ludic exploration of the human imagination.

    I so would have preferred Greyhawk Revolutions to Wars, though I liked the wargame at the time. The rotten edifice that was the Great Kingdom cried out for some kind of serious social dislocation.

    It's funny that you raise Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, a book that I re-read every 5-6 years it seems. When I first cracked it open somewhere in the middle of my undergrad days, I distinctly remember getting very excited about the chapters on the Jacquerie--because of that previously ignited interest (pun not intended).

  8. You mentioned your short-lived Traveller campaign... in the early 80's I vented my teen angst and political concerns in a similar revolution against the Imperium in some back-world area. Sadly, just like in real life, The Man triumphed over the uprising in the end ;)

    Great post... I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  9. I learned, painfully, to avoid any political discussion in a game at all in my early years of gaming. In too many groups out of character political arguments become in character feuds and PvP situations.

  10. I still want to tear down the whole law/chaos edifice: can't you see you're being told to think what some ruler wants you to think? We are all goblins!

  11. @slvie
    I fudged the narrative frame some, Traveller had some long legs in our group being the second most played game for several years and we had even dipped our hands in some insurrectional play as Solomani on occupied Terra. But that a lot more Red Dawn than Red Banner and very short-lived before we got back to tramping across the Spinward Marches again in a far trader.

  12. Left political content comes up in most games that I run and play in, since I tend to run with Leftie gamers. We have played a scenario similar to the sugar plantation slave uprising from the movie "Quilombo", and most recently played eco-socialist Dogs in a post-apocalyptic "Dogs in the Vinyard" campaign. Occupy the Game Table, I say!

  13. Since no one else has done it, I guess I'll have to:

    "Sire, the peasants are revolting!"

    "Well tell them to take baths!"

  14. Veluna Talk Radio Host: "I'll tell you what I think... if those peasants are poor, it's their own damn fault! If they didn't want to be poor, they should have been born a noble, like me!"

    What a great sounding game... what a load of fun. I always dreamed of a game in which kingdoms were made and unmade and the map would change but never quite managed to bring it off. Yours sounds fantastic.