Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Kingdoms of Kalamar

While gaming last night, I also got a chance to propose my OD&D ideas to the group, and once I explained the basics of the house rules and the two premises I was considering (to be detailed in a future post), they were very receptive, especially one friend (last night's DM) who had been reading the Labyrinth Lords rules.

Interestingly, several wanted to return to the Kingdoms of Kalamar setting, maybe even reboot a campaign that we started years ago but were unable to finish. I don't really mind that idea; KoK is pretty old-school in a lot of respects, being humanocentric with plenty of wilderness to play in, and there's plenty of room for my Law vs. Chaos (Man vs. Faerie) ideas.

The Kingdoms of Kalamar setting was first published by Kenzer & Co. in 1994. I actually have the original boxed set, which I bought at DragonCon that year. In the spirit of the original World of Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms boxed sets, it contained two beautiful poster-sized maps and two thin booklets detailing the world and its nations and major geographic features. More akin to Greyhawk than FR, it gave a broad treatment of the whole continent rather than focusing on a particular area, one that contained the usual mix of elves, dwarves, and halflings, but which very much had humans in control. This was in part because the game was deliberately system-neutral (though it used AD&D conventions for simplicity's sake in some cases), containing almost no rules--just lots and lots of history and situations to spark the imagination.

With the advent of D&D3 and the OGL, Kenzer & Co. re-released Kalamar as a semi-official D&D3 world. The world guidebook, now a hardcover rather than a box (but still with those beautiful color maps glued inside) was still rules-light, but they soon released the Kalamar Player's Guide, which contained the usual mix of new classes (prestige and otherwise), skills, feats, equipment, and spells--many of which are quite good, btw, and which I've imported into other campaigns. With the changes in WotC/Hasbro's approach to third-party efforts, KoK is limiting its participation in 4th ed to a single e-book, with future suppliments using the Hackmaster rules-set.

Kalamar is far from perfect (in particular, some of the names really bother me--P'bapar just doesn't have the same ring as Greyhawk, Lankhmar, or Waterdeep, does it?), but it does embody some of the best elements of pulp fantasy: Decadent kingdoms, grainy morality, and magic that is rare and mysterious instead of a substitute for technology. The Kalamaran Empire is not The Evil Kingdom (TM), but neither is it good, and if you're on the wrong side of its borders, it may certainly seem evil and a force to be fought--or, a citizen could see it as the bastian of civilization trying to bring light to a darkened wilderness.

Its cultures could use some more development, but are given in neat, broad strokes that let the referee fill in the blanks: The Kalamarans are largely a Greco-Roman culture, but with strange Jewish touches here and there (they have a city called Bet Seder, for example). The Brandobians are your classic western Europeans (specifically, the Frankish Empire after it was divided among Charlemagne's sons). The Fhokki are your Teutonic/Celtic/Scandanavian barbarians, the Dejy your Native Americans (who have brought maize into an otherwise European setting), the Renaarians the peoples of the Mediterrainian, and last but certainly not least in KoK, the Svimolz are black Africans at the height of their civilizations (i.e. the Ethiopian empire that rivaled Egypt).

Best of all, while numerous supplimentary products have been released for KoK, none of them advance the timeline or change the setting in any significant way. After seeing FR and Krynn go through numerous cataclysms and Greyhawk rearranged by war, this is a welcome change.

There are, as I said, flaws: The world has a steep learning-curve to properly utilize; probably not on the level of EPT or Harn, but there are many connections between people, places, and events that are just hinted at in the text. For example, we are told in the descriptions of the gods that the Overlord was imprisoned and it is hinted that he is loose again, but unless you read the history of Pel Brolenon, you won't find out how or what he's up to. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--I've found great fun in charting the alliances between different gods, nations, and power-groups--but it does make it difficult to play "out of the box."

Another problem isn't just the sound of the names, but the number of them: Every single one of the setting's 43 gods has about a dozen different names, one for each culture. While this is very Tolkienesque, this will result in most people just defaulting to their titles (the Overlord, the Knight of the Gods, the Stormbringer, etc.) instead of using proper names--as indeed the KoK products themselves do.

In addition, the world may just seem too mundane for some. Of course, it can be argued that settings like FR and Eberron go so far into the fantastic that they take the enchantment out of magic, but Greyhawk, which is about on par for the magic we see in in KoK, still has such events as the Involked Devastation and the Rain of Colorless Fire and such places as the Sea of Dust and the Bright Desert to remind us that this is a world of magic. Kalamar, in its quest for versimilitude, lacks all of these. Of course, since only the last thousand years or so of history (the history of Man) are detailed, the DM is free to create cataclysms and magical places of his own.

And finally, one of the setting's greatest assets also highlights one of its greatest weaknesses. I speak of the Atlas, a wonderful resource which shows the entire world at a scale of 25 miles to the inch. The Atlas primarily shows physical elevations, but major forests are marked by dotted lines, and pretty much every village and every trail is shown. However, the Atlas lacks those details that mean the most to referees and players: names for those ridges and other geographic features, small woods and bogs in out-of-the-way places, ruins and castles, and notes on local non-human (or non-civilized) populations. You can write them in with a felt-tip pen, but you'll hate to "ruin" the book.

All of this is just me pondering whether to put Asryth aside yet again, dust off the KoK material, and take another romp. I needn't waste much of the work I've already put in, and if it gets my players excited about playing OD&D, it's probably worth it. Plus, it'll relieve some of the strain on my most inelastic resource: Time.

We'll have to see. I've still got several weeks of Scarred Lands 3.5 before it's my turn to ref again. If anyone has any thoughts on the subject, I'd love to hear them.

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