Wednesday, September 12, 2012

the black hound - what its deal was

In the course of following our countdown over at Obsidian, a lot of gamers have been discussing past IPs we've worked with. One of the common subjects is The Black Hound, a project some of us at OEI worked on at Black Isle. It's also something I worked on as a NWN2 mod in my spare time. There's a Wikipedia entry for it and a few lore sites kicking around. Some of the info on it is accurate and some isn't, but I think the details are less important than what we were trying to do with it. I can't speak for everyone who was on the project, of course, but TBH was important to me for a lot of reasons.

When I came to Black Isle, the majority of the studio was working on Planescape: Torment. I was the webmaster for that project, but I desperately wanted to work in development as a designer. I had spent a huge amount of personal time in the 90s playing 2nd Edition AD&D in the Forgotten Realms. Working on Icewind Dale was a dream come true. Yeah, the game had a smaller story focus, and yeah, it didn't have companions, and yeah, and was linear and dungeon-focused, but I was making a real AD&D video game in the Forgotten Realms.

Icewind Dale II is the first game I was credited as lead designer on, but I was the lead designer on TBH first. I felt that the Dalelands, bordering on the Moonsea, presented a cool subsection of the Realms and a crossroads of cultures that would be interesting to explore. We could build a personal story, focused on how you fatefully intersected the life of someone hell-bent on doing something crazy. Like many Realms adventures, this wasn't a world-shattering event, but something locally catastrophic, like Moander appearing near a town and devouring a huge swath of the landscape. It's just one of those crazy Realms stories where bands of adventurers and the Cult of the Dragon start throwing fireballs and leveling villages while the townsfolk run for cover.

Some people have suggested that I hate high fantasy or want to subvert high fantasy. Neither of these are really true. I just don't like how most stories handle high fantasy: both too seriously and not seriously enough. Too seriously in the sense that a lot of fantasy conventions are considered so sacred that you can't touch them (or even question them). Not seriously enough in the sense that the scenarios and the characters don't feel like they tackle the obvious questions raised by the settings they're placed in.

As an example, the Red Wizards of Thay (an FR magical organization/magocracy) underwent a transformation between 2nd Ed. and 3E. They became a "kinder, gentler" trading nation forming magical mercantile enclaves in lands that would let them in. The thing is, 2nd Ed./3E Red Wizards probably look pretty weird to Cormyreans and Dalesmen. They shave their heads (including the women), speak a different language, and have a lot of magical tattoos. They're also darker-skinned. After a few centuries of being regarded as pariahs everywhere west of the River Sur, they show up in these places and are doing business -- questionable business -- in broad daylight.

The FR designers did something interesting in shifting their MO between 2nd Ed. and 3E. The not interesting thing to do (IMO) with that shift as a scenario or story designer would be to have a pack of bad guy Thayans in an enclave with the good guy locals saying, "Those darn Thayans are up to something, please help us, heroes." I was intrigued by the idea that a Thayan enclave could contain a "new guard" of diplomatic Red Wizards and an "old guard" of fireball-hurling hardasses who aren't allowed (or are discouraged from going) outside. Some of the new guard genuinely want to mend fences. Others simply want to use it as a way to re-establish safe power centers and observation posts in lands where they previously would have been killed on sight.

The new guard use concealing/lightening makeup, don wigs, and wear "western" clothing to fit in. The old guard chafes at having to conceal their heritage and suffers under the jeers and slurs of locals if they dare to appear in public. The new guard speaks with good and proper "Common" grammar and pronunciation, not stumbling over foreign sounds and linguistic concepts. I thought it would create a more interesting and nuanced relationship between the Thayans, the Dalesman, and those who interacted with them, lending sympathy to the traditionally "villainous" and creating a more agonizing struggle between the sub-factions of the Thayans.

An old evil wizard who strokes his beard and cackles as he unleashes chain lightning on random townsfolk isn't particularly sympathetic. But suppose he were a veteran Red Wizard who watched his fellows succumb over the years in service to the zulkirs and was forced to "step aside" as young diplomats smooth talked their way into trade relationships with their former enemies. He has to endure the insults of locals, hear them mock his clothing, his pronunciation, his skin, his culture. And when he expresses his frustration to his new (younger) "superiors", he's treated like an anachronism, an old artillery cannon left to rust and rot on a forgotten battlefield. That dude may still wind up casting chain lightning on townsfolk, but if we weave a compelling story around him, the player should feel that there's more to him than that.

I've been rambling here a bit but let me get back to the main point: The Black Hound wasn't really *~ sUbVeRsIvE ~* "this ain't your daddy's RPG!" fantasy. It had elven ruins and fire genasi and Ilmaterian paladins and Maztican sorcerers and crypts full of undead -- all the stuff that made the Forgotten Realms the crazy blend of hardass adventurer-heavy, gods-mess-with-things, cults-and-dracoliches-under-this-rock D&D fantasy it always has been. I, and I think we all, just tried to approach the world with open eyes, asking, "Okay, so let's suppose all of this stuff about the Realms is true. What does that really mean for how the people in it live their lives?" It made the world more dark and grim, and sometimes that consideration wound up bucking convention, but we didn't set out to invert fantasy conventions just for the sake of doing it.

I regret that the team wasn't able to complete The Black Hound, and not just because of the time and passion we all invested in it. Some of my best tabletop RPG (and CRPG) memories come out of the Forgotten Realms. Huge, crazy, "how many more Volo's Guides can there be?" Forgotten Realms. I think those scenarios were memorable because the DMs/designers made compelling scenarios and the players gave a damn about each other and what was going on. If you take fantasy for granted, yeah, no one's going to get much out of it. I don't think we took anything for granted. We had an opportunity to make something that celebrated high fantasy without being enslaved by its conventions. In retrospect, there are a bunch of personal design choices I look back on and cringe at, but I don't regret the time I spent on it at all. When you enjoy the process of making something that much, it's hard to consider it time wasted. We had a lot of fun while it lasted.


Unknown said...

Do you think it's something you'll ever revisit again? I remember the NWN2 mod you had to shelve when Aliens kicked into high gear. I feel like a lot of high-profile RPGs really lack for a compelling antagonist and TBH sounded like it took a novel approach to that problem.

If actually getting the FR license isn't an option, did you take lessons from its design that you have implemented or will implement elsewhere? Do you find it spontaneously pop up in other creative work that you do?

Very excited about this new secret project, by the way. Sounds very portentous.


Eric said...

The moment you brought up Ilmaterian paladins made a crystal-clear rendition of 'Faiths and Avatars', the Reading Rainbow edition pop into my head.

FR really is a wackadoo realm I'm not even sure why TSR/WOTC decided they needed something even odder (howdy Planescape!) to promote after developing that.

Pietre said...

TSR needed a setting that dealt with the planes and cosmology of D&D. Planescape was more about trying to fit all the D&D settings together than trying to make something "really wacky". What the setting actually become has more to do with where Dave Cook drew inspiration from and the great artists (such as Knutson and DiTerlizzi) that worked on it.

Eric said...

Fair enough Pietre,

I just remember it feeling like a nearly unplayable setting where very little of normality was able to be drawn upon to create settings or characters. The artwork was brilliant and I admit to pouring over the manuals as they were fascinating works. I just don't remember it being much fun as an area to game in.

Pietre said...

Yeah I can see that. While I love Planescape, far be it from me to fetishize it like some kind of "Holy Grail" of D&D settings (I still prefer Darksun to it as far as non-conventional fantasy settings go).

The fact that it was supposed to be some kind of center around which any other setting could gravitate made things kind of messy from time to time (especially if the Dungeon Master wasn't particularly knowledgeable); still it was also part of what made Planescape so charming and unique. Sadly sometimes having too many choices is as bad having none at all.

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