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:

THE TEETH OF
BARKASH-NOUR

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...

10 comments:

  1. Thanks for the succinct article, Trent. It neatly bridges the "history" of ToBN with the actual "product" I created; I tried to maintain a clinical approach with it and not fanboy-out over being able to see actual old-old-oldest school stuff while I was working. I will have to see if I can salvage the correspondence that Gary and I had about details of the module while I was working on it. That much, at least, I *can* share.

    Of interest to readers: I never had actual physical notes; rather, I had scanned images (a wise choice as there's always the tragic accident that can happen, witness poor Len Lakofka's treatment of L3, or perhaps I should say Wizards of the Coast's *mis*-treatment.)

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  2. Along with the PM he had sent to EOTB, this puts a stake through Frank's jovial image, to the point I'm starting to wonder what he was selling at his bakery. Online spats are online spats, but this is a real loss that can't be made right again. Both Delver and the fans have been robbed. Damnit.

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    1. Well, Melan, if I felt like I could ever convince Gail to allow me to publish it under whatever auspices she would permit I would do so in a heart-beat. It would take a five-minute glance + terms search with the SRD to ascertain that what I wrote and submitted contains not a single SRD violation regardless of the lies Frank Mentzer put in Gary's ear.

      I was as disheartened and disgusted by the whole affair as you might imagine if not moreso.

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  3. Another fine example of some great archeological work. I really enjoyed reading the full article in The Believer you linked too.

    My sincerest thanks for bringing this to light. Who knows, maybe some day we can all enjoy some more original material from this hobby's premier author. It teaches us all so much.

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  4. As good as it sounds, as a Troll Lord product, it might not have come out that great. Just consider Kuntz's DARK DRUIDS and the Gygax brother's LOST CITY OF GAXMOOR. These should have been awesome but they couldn't organize the material right. The CZ whole bait and switch thing they had with "ITS CASTLE GREYHAWK" was a killer too. That was like post-concept level at best then hammered out ASAP. Where was the relevance here? As a Gygax Greyhawk maniac, I felt let down. Gary liked the Trolls but as a Gygax fan I didn't have to like them and I still don't. Every time that I pick up Troll Lord products off the shelf I spend a few seconds and it goes back on the shelf for years.

    That said the whole movie sell off of Gygax property will generate nothing ever again. Well, maybe we might see a direct to NETFLIX drama....

    TEENS OF BARKASH-NOUR...
    (Pans over a lake with a house in the distance. Zoom in to lakehouse dock with model girl laying back on model boy)
    GIRL: "Did you ever believe in monsters?"
    BOY: "Only on the inside...."
    (Show never mentions fantasy again.)

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  5. Gene, I worked on it, with Gary. Everything I did I passed by him. This wasn't for TLG. This was originally written to spec for O/AD&D, any further editing would've been on them. I appreciate that you might be frustrated that you'll never get to see the original ms, but please, don't spout off about things you weren't there for and don't know of.

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  6. This is exactly why I don't go on forums anymore. There is always somebody who is completely on another planet. If you follow this blog you'll see I comment on every post almost. Its for a show of support. I didn't come here to attack you. I'm just here as usual.

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  7. Guys, let's not turn this into a personal back & forth. I'm sure you're both right: I'm sure the manuscript Delver worked on with Gary and turned in to TLG was 100% Gygaxy AD&Dy goodness, but I'm also sure from there TLG would've managed to turn it into something less than it should've been. Heck, even leaving aside the hypothetical of bad maps and worse art and inexplicably mangled text (which, based on every other product they ever release, would surely have happened) we know that they bungled their end because they're the ones who sent it to Frank Mentzer for his input which got him involved and opened the door for him to quash the release. I know Gary liked and felt personal loyalty towards the TLG guys, but their whole operation really was remarkably incompetent in pretty much every way.

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  8. Of course, Trent. It is, after all, your "house".

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  9. Yes, I apologize to everyone. The Frank Mentzer incident has made me realize that putting sole blame on entire people is probably not a good idea. That said, I still appreciate the efforts Dragonsfoot and Mentzer have done even if they have some faults. Troll Lords did seem like nice people so I should have pointed out their good points.

    The Gygaxian world book (by Gygax directly) efforts were actually B+s and they were not half bad.

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