Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Dwimmermount's Setting as Old School Tribute

As I continue to run a series of pick-up games in Dwimmermount, I'm going to explore aspects of the setting and dungeon and defend why it's a key OSR creation and model.

The elements that fixed my commitment to reading the voluminous Dwimmermount were the clear lines of inspiration between the setting, Appendix  N literature, and D&D's earliest settings.  Regarding Appendix N, I started this blog years ago with a journey through the list of Appendix N literature.  (If you're a younger gamer, Appendix N refers to a list of inspirational reading, 1979 and earlier, presented by Gary Gygax in the original AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide).  Fantasy shifted in the 1980's with the resurgence of Tolkien's popularity - the genre became dominated by multi-part epic quests, "The Sword of Shannara" effect, incarnated in series like Shannara, Thomas Covenant, Wheel of Time, and so on.  It wasn't until I started devouring earlier fantasy that I understood how the picaresque quality of D&D reflected earlier literary sentiments.

So while TSR and WOTC D&D moved on to principally focus on "adventure path" style gaming that mirrored the shifts in film and literature, the OSR movement developed retro clones and looked to the past, to recreate the energy and wonder that leaps off the page when you read old accounts of the hobby from the 1970's.  It's not all about nostalgia, however; the earlier approaches to running and presenting the game are stylistically different.  Dwimmermount is a modern attempt at recreating a 1970's style setting, dungeon, and play experience.

For now, we are focused on setting.  There are many elements that jump out as throw-back fantasy.  The planetary cosmology, with emphasis on space as a gaseous aether, and the access to nearby planetary realms, is a theme that flows through authors like Lovecraft, Dunsany, and Burroughs.  The green-skinned Amazonian women of Kythirea and red-skinned Eld of Aeron are reminiscent of Jon Carter, while the moon-beasts feature in Lovecraft and Dunsany.  (And of course, I can't help but think of that green-skinned woman from 1960's Stark Trek, you know the one).  The strong Law versus Chaos axis that echoes throughout the dungeon is heavily inspired by Moorcock and Poul Anderson, while the demon lords (particularly Arach-Nacha and the toad-like Tsath-Dagon) are direct homages to Clark Ashton Smith.

Although there were great empires in the past, the men of the present-day setting of Dwimmermount rule isolated City-States.  They hold exotic titles like Despot, or Exarchate, rather than Medieval Kings or Duke, immediately evoking a sense of the decadent and autocratic rulers in the Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series, or the petty rulers that populate the background of Howard's Hyborian stories.  It's also a clear tribute to one of the earliest and beloved settings for D&D in the 1970's, The Wilderlands of High Fantasy, which was ruled by various City-States and their Overlords, which in turn was hearkening back to earlier styles of fantasy.

Finally, the setting blends a significant amount of 'science fantasy' into the mix.  As characters plumb the depths of Dwimmermount, and unearth more and more of the setting's backstory at the same time, they are put into contact with machines and scientific wonders of the earlier ages (including the gods themselves).  Early D&D settings like the Wilderlands gladly mixed science fantasy into the D&D genre, drawing inspiration from the pulp fantasy authors of the 1930's that freely blended themes themselves.  The principal author I'm thinking of here is Abraham Merrit; the two pieces I've read are "The Face in the Abyss" and "The Moon Pool" (And for film analogs, check out some evocative 1930's movies like "She" or "Lost Horizon").  James calls out his appreciation for AE Merritt in the introduction, even putting a "moon pool" on the first level of Dwimmermount as a direct reference.  Merritt's themes involve people of the present time discovering more advanced lost races, either in forgotten ruins or a hidden society beneath the earth, and getting embroiled in an ages-old conflict.  Dwimmermount incorporates these themes flawlessly with the Terrim and the City of the Ancients deep beneath the dungeons.

I'm sure there are literary references I'm omitting or flat-out missed.  James was extremely well-read on the pulps and incorporated many of the themes into his work; it's hard not to admire the degree to which he emulates, borrows, steals, and recreates themes from early fantasy and the pulps in providing a backdrop for Dwimmermount - almost to the point of affectation!  If you view Dwimmermount as just a big dumb dungeon, you're missing out on it as a vehicle to transport you and your players to D&D's earliest settings, literary roots, and styles of play.

I loved the Wilderlands; my one wish for Dwimmermount's setting is that it included a larger sketch of the world, showing the homelands of the Thulians, the Volmarians, or the mysterious east and its Kingdom of the Priest-King.