Monday, May 23, 2011

Kings Landing vs. Gloomwrought

I've been enjoying the hell out of HBO's Game of Thrones, and predictably, it makes me want to run a game in that style. Put a pin in that.

I also just got the Shadowfell boxed set, primarily because it promised to have a lot more details about Gloomwrought, a city in the Shadowfell. For non 4e Folks, the Shadowfell is the dark shadow of the world, another dimension that lies close to death. It's not necessarily evil so much as a place that lots of bad things call home. Anyway, the little bit of information we got about Gloomwrought in the Manual of the Planes had intrigued me enough to consider using it as a base for a game, and I am always a sucker for city books, so I was pretty much a guaranteed sale.

It's pretty good. The box itself is a little disappointing since it's not really designed for storage (and especially suffers in contrast to the fantastic boxes used for the Essentials line) but I recognize that there was almost certainly a cost component to that. It's not amazing, and if you're not already interested in some Shadowfell play, I'm not sure I could really recommend it, but if you're gung ho to get some shadowy heroics on (almost as if there were a book about that) then it's a good resource.

The biggest thing I can say about it is that it's very much a 4e product, almost to an extreme. This isn't a criticism - it's is a 4e products after all - but it's an observation that was useful to me in putting my finger on what I felt was missing. To boil it down to a single point, it's the food.

Gloomwrought is on a dark plane of near-death, surrounded by miles of deadly swamp, on the coast of a dark and dangerous sea. From a purely practical perspective, it has no means of sustaining a population, yet it does. Now, an observation like this tends to elicit two big responses, so let me get ahead of those.

1. That's boring.
Yes, I suppose it is. Logistics is dull stuff, especially when we're talking about what is essentially a magical city in a magical world in a magical game. It is not exactly cheating to say "It's magic" and leave it at that. The purpose of the city is, after all, just to provide a flavorful backdrop to the set pieces that make for fun and engaging 4e play. To this I say, yes, completely, and that's why I say it's a very 4e sort of product. It is a product of game logic, and that's really cool so long as that's your priority.

2. You just need to be creative.

That is to say, the fact that it's not mentioned does not mean it can't be done. And yes, any GM worth her salt can fill this gap if she decides that it's important. Gloomwrought has a lot of interdimensional traffic, so that allows a certain amount of handwavium. I admit that's the most boring answer, and in my mind I totally demand that Gloomwrought have a robust whaling (sort of) industry. The idea of the crews of small boats to capture, kill and render the kinds of things that live at the bottom of the seas of the Shadowfell is compelling as hell to me. And I'm sure other folks have other ideas that excite them. I am not asserting that it can't be done, I'm just saying it's not a priority in the product.

Purely as a matter of taste, I like to know where the food comes from. This is where the Game of Thrones thing comes back, and which may be the most essential difference between episodic/setpiece play and contextual play is where the problems of play come from. In a contextual game (which may or may not be a sandbox), the way the world works is the engine of events. This requires a lot of work and a lot of stuff that's just never going to come up at the table, and it can often get quite terrible when the game is all about showing off the GM's creation. 4e (and episodic play in general) avoids a lot of these potential problems by skipping over them entirely, and that's a good and clever design. But if you actually want to risk those problems because, to your mind, the payout is Game of Thrones, then you need to get down in the mud.

Now, as an aside, this has nothing to do with the level of fantasy. Sigil (the central city of Planescape) was far more wahoo than Gloomwrought, but it _also_ had very specific constraints on where things like food and water came from, constraints that could impact play and even became important to published material. Exalted is chock ful of super magical stuff in a world where sewage still needs to go somewhere. At the same time, Lankhmar (one of my favorite cities of fantasy) had only what politics, geography and infrastructure were needed for the current adventure of Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser. The issue is not one of magic, it's one of narrative.

Which is why, btw, if you hear this as a condemnation of Gloomwrought, you're focusing on the wrong thing. That I would not play it as written is a function of _my_ taste, and the distinction between contextual play and setpieces is not about one being better than the other, it's about recognizing which you, as a player and a GM, might enjoy more or less. If you want one and get the other, you're going to get frustrated. And yes, it ties into your game choice. Any game can be played any way, but 4e's strengths are all about how well it handles episodic play. In a 4e game, it doesn't need to matter where the food comes from, and that's good because a lot of players don't care either.

All of which is to say, the better you understand what you want, the more useful products like Gloomwrought will be to you. Knowing what it _doesn't_ do for me is incredibly useful if I decide to use it, because I know where to start cutting (or adding).


  1. Great post Rob. It can often be a hard job to make a game world be more "realistic." After all, we are playing D&D or Savage Worlds or S7S to NOT be in the real world. On the other hand, when those logistical details are not considered relevant, you cut off whole lines of adventures and make a product or setting less rounded and appealing. Obiously, no product or setting will be 100% appealing, and more likely than not, most gamers add and subtract things anyway. Still, I prefer to have those tools available even in a fantasy or science fiction product. Heroically securing a grain shipment that saves the populace from starving and saves the ruling counsel from bloody revolution can be a pretty compelling game.

    Just thinking about adventures having to do with mundane logistics makes me think of where such things have played effectively in fiction, from grain contracts in Rise of a Mechant Prince, to the way that the colegios were used to control the city in later episodes of the series Rome, whith the politicians and the gangsters in bed together and depending on Egyptian wheat. Lots of adventure possibilities that don't involve artifacts, spells or magic swords, but do deal with power and have some room for heroism.

    Thanks for another thoughtful blogging. I always get a lot out of what you write.

  2. For me, this is a macro scale version of the old chestnut of "how did that enormous dragon get into this dungeon" which plagued me as a kid.

  3. Where food comes from can be boring but the idea of brave merchants bringing food from various prime material plans across the Shadowfell to the Midnight City is pretty damned exciting.

  4. To me, the fact that Gloomwrought was created out of game logic has a different repercussion. For me, it feels artificial and doesn't resonate with any fiction I've read or just feel compelling in any other way.

    Some of the Shadowfell stuff is great, and reflects a lot of mythology and fiction. But some of it, like creating heaping hordes of mortal races that kick around inexplicably alongside the shadowy reflections of the normal world, just doesn't work for me.

    On the other hand, the Feywild very much needs living beings that are unique to it in order to reflect the source fiction. And I can't say I'm all too concerned with what the Fey eat. So in summary: My concerns are related, but different.

  5. I'm firmly in the "It's boring" camp, but this is a missed opportunity.

    Rather than leaving it out entirely, the could make it, as others have pointed out, an opportunity to spark action.

    Personally I think it'd be a perfect 1-line entry in a section of potential adventure hooks.


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