Thursday, September 14, 2017

[D&D] The Teeth of Barkash-Nour

Going into some deeply obscure Gygaxiana: back in 2006 The Believer magazine published a long profile on Gary Gygax. The whole thing is worth reading. The most interesting part to me was always this section, near the end:


Wayne and I took Gygax to lunch at an Italian restaurant on the outskirts of Lake Geneva: an expensive place, Gygax warned us. Our sandwiches cost six or seven dollars each. After lunch, we returned to his house to play some Dungeons & Dragons. Wayne and I felt curiously listless; it had already been a long day of talking; Wayne wasn’t sure he remembered how to play; I would have been happy to go back to our motel room and sleep. This happens to me often: I decide that I want something; I work and work at it; and just as the object of my quest comes into view, it suddenly comes to seem less valuable, not valuable at all. I can find no compelling reason to seize it and often I don’t. (This has never been the case, curiously, in role-playing games, where my excitement increases in a normal way as the end of the adventure approaches. Which is probably another reason why I like the games more than the life that goes on around them, and between them.) I wonder if we would have turned back, if Gygax hadn’t already gone into the house and come back with his purple velvet dice bag and a black binder, a module he wrote for a tournament in 1975. This was before the Tolkien estate threatened to sue TSR, and halflings were still called hobbits. So I got to play a hobbit thief and a magic-user and Wayne played a cleric and a fighter, and for four and a half hours we struggled through a wilderness adventure in a looking-glass world of carnivorous plants, invisible terrain, breathable water, and so on. All of which Gygax presented with a minimum of fuss. The author of Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t much care for role-playing: “If I want to do that,” he said, “I’ll join an amateur theater group.” In fact, D&D, as DM’ed by E. Gary Gygax, is not unlike a miniatures combat game. We spent a lot of time just moving around, looking for the fabled Teeth of Barkash-Nour, which were supposed to lie in a direction indicated by the “tail of the Great Bear’s pointing.” Our confusion at first was pitiable, almost Beckettian.
GYGAX: You run down northeast along the ridge, and you can see the river to your north and to your northeast. So which way do you want to go?
PAUL: The river is flowing south.
WAYNE: Which is the direction we ultimately want to go, right?
PAUL: We have to wend in the direction of the tail of the…
PAUL, WAYNE: “Great Bear’s pointing.”
PAUL: But we have no idea which way that is.
WAYNE: Tail of the Great Bear’s pointing. Maybe we should go north.
The sky clouds over; raindrops fall; the clouds part and the light turns rich yellow. The screen porch smells of cigar smoke. I want to go outside, to walk by Lake Geneva in early May, to follow the beautiful woman Wayne and I saw walking by the shore, to meet a stranger, to live. But I can’t get up. I roll the dice. I’m not tired anymore; I’m not worried about making a fool of myself in front of Gygax, who obviously couldn’t care less. And something strange is happening: Wayne and I are starting to play well. We climb a cliff by means of a magic carpet; we bargain with invisible creatures in an invisible lake. We steal eggs from a hippogriff’s nest; we chase away giant crabs by threatening them with the illusion of a giant, angry lobster.[41] The scenario was designed for a group of six or eight characters, but by dint of cooperation and sound tactics (basically, we avoid fighting any monster that isn’t directly in our path) we make it through, from one page of Gygax’s black binder to the next. So we come to the final foe, the Slimy Horror, which turns our two spellcasters into vegetables; my hobbit thief and Wayne’s fighter don’t stand a chance against it. “That was pretty good,” Gygax says. He lets us read through the scenario, noting all the monsters we didn’t kill, all the treasure that was never ours. The Teeth of Barkash-Nour are very powerful: one of them increases your character’s strength permanently; another transports you to a different plane of existence. We were so close! So close, Wayne and I tell each other. We did better than we ever expected to; in fact, we almost won.

What we're seeing here is, in fact, a fairly detailed description of a long-lost, unpublished D&D adventure by Gary Gygax, The Teeth of Barkash-Nour. Those who've read the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide will undoubtedly be aware of the Teeth of Dahlver-Nahr in the artifacts section. Presumably they're the same thing (not sure why the name was changed). I've always been intrigued by this description, because the adventure sounds really cool and weird, and not really like any of the D&D adventures TSR published, and like something that would've made a great addition to the canon.

A sad twist to what would otherwise just been an intriguing bit of trivia is that this adventure actually was supposed to be published. Around the same time the Believer profile was published, D&D superfan The Dungeon Delver was actually contracted by Gary to expand Gary's notes from the 70s into a full adventure, which was to have been published as part of the "Castle Zagyg" series - it got cover art and everything. Alas, it was never released, and after Gary's passing his widow canceled the entire Castle Zagyg series and the whole thing has been in limbo ever since, which doesn't appear likely to change anytime soon, if ever.

Dungeon Delver is an online buddy of mine, and I've occasionally pestered him for details about this adventure over the years, and he's obligingly provided a few. Yes, the Teeth of Barkash-Nour in this adventure are the same thing as the Teeth of Dahlver-Nahr in the AD&D DMG. The adventure is set on a strange demiplane, accessed through a Gate of Horn deep within Greyhawk Castle (very similar to both The Isle of the Ape and Dungeonland). The encounters are as mentioned in the article, plus a few more equally-weird and colorful ones that I'm not at liberty to describe. And the manuscript was complete and handed over to Troll Lord Games (Gary's publisher at the time) for final production and release well before the line was canceled. Alas, that never happened, because, as 'Delver tells it (in a story I'd heard privately a while ago, but which he has only just made public) he was submarined by Frank Mentzer, who convinced Gary to halt publication on specious legal grounds in order, apparently, to set himself up as the savior and take credit for "fixing" a product he had nothing to do with the creation of. Sleazy underhanded stuff, and doubly unfortunate since the delay caused by Frank's interference, coming as it did shortly prior to Gary's passing, ended up dooming publication altogether.

There are a lot of intriguing and agonizing could-have-beens in Gary Gygax's career. Heck, I compiled a whole book out of my takes on some of them. But the Teeth of Barkash-Nour are a particularly tantalizing and frustrating example, because this isn't just something Gary talked about maybe writing someday, or some set of minimal, barely-legible notes, or something rumored that may or may not have ever existed in the first place, this is an actual honest-to-goodness complete D&D module that was all-but-ready to go to press, and which is presumably still sitting around somewhere as a complete manuscript. Just like the guys in the article, we came so close to having this thing in our hands.

Maybe it's unrealistic of me, but I still hope that someday maybe Gail Gygax will change her mind and we might still be allowed to see it. But I'm not holding my breath...

Monday, September 4, 2017

[D&D] The Crook of Rao

This magical artifact was described by Gary Gygax in Isle of the Ape:
Amidst the gems and magicks we bore out from the depths of Castle Greyhawk's dungeon, was a small mace, a mere toy it seemed, albeit one fashioned of iron and silver and encrusted with carven gemstones. No geegaw, that. It is a most charmed implement of clerical power, the Crook of Rao. If that One is most peaceful and serene, nonetheless his word is not to be lightly passed off. Long and long Rao has refrained from any meddling here, but he left with us a token of his power. Devils and demons of the Lower Planes shudder at the mere mention of the object. Daemonkind flee in terror at sight of it, and we need it now!
While the adventure centers around a fetch-quest to recover this artifact for the forces of Good, the item itself is not actually detailed within the module, which feels like a major failing. Not only should it be usable in the final confrontation at the end of the adventure, but a party of 18th level characters should be considered capable of retaining it and using it themselves against the forces of Evil, rather than being expected to dutifully hand it over to their NPC bosses.

So, in an attempt to rectify that failing, here's my take on a full description of the item, so that it may actually be used and not just serve as a flagrant plot-device. [Note: I realize this item was "officially" detailed by TSR in the post-Gary era; I am intentionally completely ignoring that version.]

Crook of Rao
GP Value: 75,000

This artifact was created and left behind on the Prime Material Plane many ages ago by Rao, Flannish god of peace, reason, and serenity, who otherwise concerns himself not with the affairs of mortals. It appears to be a miniature ceremonial mace (1' long - too small for effective combat use) with a silver haft and iron head shaped as a stylized shepherd's crook. There are two star sapphires embedded in the head, and six carnelians surrounding a large topaz on the pommel. The value of the crook as jewelry alone is 25,000 g.p. As with other artifacts, it does not radiate any sort of magic. 

The crook can be used to cast a remove fear spell or cure insanity by touch. Anyone wielding the crook is immune to mental and psionic attacks and may cast a withdraw spell at 18th level effect once per day.

Any undead or Lower Planar creature (including those not normally affected by clerical Turning) struck by the crook is affected as if hit by an 18th level mace of disruption. Undead and lesser Lower Planar creatures are permanently destroyed; greater Lower Planar creatures are affected as if their material form was slain.  Once a month the wielder of crook may call upon it to summon 1-6 astral devas. 

In the hands of a lawful good cleric the disruption effect of the crook covers a cone-shaped area 6" long and 2" diameter at its base, and is usable once per round. 

Any evil cleric or creature from the Lower Planes who touches the crook suffers 5-50 points of damage. Any non-lawful good character who uses any of the crook's powers must make a saving throw vs spells on each use or become lawful good. 

Activating the summoning power of the crook subjects the user to a quest to perform some task that furthers the cause of lawful good. 

Anyone who retains possession of the crook for one month or longer loses all interest in sex, and the longer the item is possessed the more serene and imperturbable its owner becomes - after three months he or she loses interest in money, after six months loses interest in family and friends, and if the crook is possessed for a year or more the owner will have no interest in anything external and desire only to to be left alone to spend the rest of his or her life peacefully contemplating the mysteries of the cosmos.