Sunday, March 14, 2021

Into the Mearlsverse

 We sometimes talk about what a Gygax module is like; there are commonalities of structure and theme throughout.  And we commonly hear about Tom Moldvay's pulp inspirations in his adventures.  I'm wondering what thematic through-lines we might find in the works of other adventure-writers.

In this case, I'm thinking about Mike Mearls, who I didn't really think of as an adventure writer.  I thought of him as a rules guy primarily, and a developer.  Some time ago when raiding my collection for low-level content to rob, I came across my copy of The Lost Vault of Tsathzar Rho - by Mike Mearls.  That rediscovery led me to consider "what's a Mearls adventure like?" and consider some kind of blogpost like this one.

I'd thought it would be easy - just a handful of adventures to look through.  I was dead wrong.  Mearls has quite a list of adventures to his (full or partial) credit, including stuff for the World of Darkness and Feng Shui.  I had no idea.  But there were a ton of fantasy adventures from across the years.  I wondered, did they resemble each other like siblings?  Were there elements Mearls used over and over?  And could you staple some of these together into a single campaign or hexmap?  A Mearlsverse, if you will.

Looking at the overall output, I needed to limit myself, so I had some parameters for the experiment:

* Adventures where Mearls is 50%+ of the design team
* Fantasy only, no World of Darkness or Feng Shui
* Shied away from Iron Heroes and Arcana Evolved stuff generally

The guiding spirit was "stuff you could easily steal for a standard-ish D&D game", which is why I left out the non-fantasy and the "rather non-vanilla" fantasy. I looked at the following adventures, listed with their level ranges, and themes. (Levels are going to be a little variant in meaning by edition, but this is close enough for our leitmotif-seeking purposes). The italicized works were produced by Mearls and a co-writer - no idea who had majority lift on these, so if you're looking for the Purest of Mearlsverses, drop these selections.

Hammerfast  (1st-10th)      dwarves, orcs, undead
Aerial Adventure Guide (cities of Sellaine and Dreadfall)  elves, undead
Lost Vault of Tsathzar Rho (1st)   kobolds, ogre, evil wizard
Scalegloom Hall (1st)  kobolds
Fear the Worst (1-2)   mutants (WFRP adventure)
Keep on the Shadowfell (1-3)     kobolds, undead, Orcus
In the Belly of the Beast (2-4)  slavers, orcs, necromancers, nasty outsider
Death in the Skyfire Wastes (3rd)  undead
Darwell’s Tower (3-4)   necromancer
Daggers at Midnight (3-5)  urban, human foes
Looking-Glass Deep (4th lvl)  wizard’s abode, hobgoblins
Thunderspire Labyrinth (4-6) evil wizards
Return to the Moathouse (5th)  orcs, undead
Forge of the Dawn Titan (5th)  deviltry & hellfire
Folnar’s Dagger (5 to 7)  demon cultists
Siege of Durgam’s Folly (5-8)    ogres, clockworks, Orcus
Swords Through The Ice Gate  (6th)   bugbears, dragon
Prison City of Hell’s Reach human foes
Lost Menagerie (7-9) extreme wizardry, dinosaurs
Pyramid of Shadows (7-10)    evil wizard
Swords Against Deception  (10th) cult, undead
Demon Queen’s Enclave (14-17) demons, drow, Orcus
Beyond the Door (18th) extreme wizardry, time travel

The Mearlsverse is:
* A fairly standard ‘vanilla’ D&D realm, as you’d expect
* Big movers are wizards and their use/seeking of powerful unique artifacts
* Orcus everywhere you look.

What do we see here? Plenty of humanoids. I hesitate to say "Mearls loves kobolds" or similar, because many of those selections are kind of pre-made for an author when you're writing D&D jazz for a certain level, with vanilla-world expectations. But even controlling for that sort of baseline, I think we see some themes that tell us something about the Mearlsverse.

There's some sword-and-sorcery influence here, chiefly in the form of What Evil Wizards Do. Mearlsian wizard-antagonists seem to always be in possession of, or on the hunt for, a unique magic item. The macguffin is the raison d'etre. There are a couple dimensional portals. Note Mearls' use of Lieber-homage titles here and there.

Mearls digs Orcus. Plain fact. Fourth edition's code-name during development was 'Orcus', and you can see why here. Even if you filter out the Official 4e Product - which had an Orcus theme to much of the overall adventure path - Orcus still sticks his horns in at several points, and there are plenty of undead around. Undead are a D&D standard of course, but we see some interesting usages (as in Hammerfast).

Most of it is generic-temperate-Europe, as you'd expect. Death in the Skyfire Wastes is a Calimshan adventure, but not overly desert-y. Forge of the Dawn Titan, being a 'Lair Assault', doesn't have much to it, and I wonder if the "fire" themes therein were something Mearls would've picked for himself or if it was just his turn to write a Lair Assault. Swords Through the Ice Gate uses a "portal to frozen world" gimmick but you could use it in your Dope Rhymes of the Ice, Ice Maiden campaign.

Not a ton of dragon presence here, which is interesting. Plenty of dungeons, of course, and above-the-surface places to explore. There's also a bit of a hole in the level 10-15 space, so Mike, if you're reading this, that's the gap in the Mearlsverse. Send me an outline about an Orcus-aligned kobold wizard, I'll finish it, we'll make tens of dollars.

Were I trying to cobble these together into a campaign or hexmap, I'd probably steal the hexmap that comes with Hammerfast, plop another city on the coast, and then start dropping seeds in hexes.

I also note that I couldn't get my hands on the Feng Shui adventures to look at them for adaptation suitability, but one of them did have a time travel gimmick, so maybe it would fit in after all. Speaking of time travel, if I were to run the Mearlsverse experiment myself, I would make sure that the long-forgotten wizard referred to at the low levels (Lost Vault of Tsathzar Rho) was the same long-forgotten wizard trapped in a time anomaly in Beyond the Door at 18th level. Symmetry, people! Furthermore, I'd look into linking the demonic presences that are sprinkled throughout so there's a through-line there.

Fear The Worst is actually a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventure featuring lots of human types and some chaos mutants, but it has a tasty pun title and a sausage festival set-piece, so I love it.

I'm still really reading through most of these beyond skim-level, so I can't/won't speak to how they might run. I haven't come across any stunningly clever bits that made me exclaim "Great Arneson's Ghost, I must Steal This Thing" yet, but they might be in there, hiding. The overall vibe is workmanlike, functional-seeming adventures, ready for customization to your game.

Gun to head today I'd choose Fear the Worst to run. Lost Menagerie looks good, as a lost world thing with dinosaurs. No idea if this exercise had any real lasting value, but my curiosity was sated. I would consider doing this again with Mentzer (I've run several of his R-series adventures) or digging out some older Chris Perkins stuff or something. Suggestions/revelations welcome.

*slaps cover of adventure*  You can fit so many kobolds in there.


  1. No suggestions, only a comment that I enjoyed reading this very much! Interesting to set the spotlight on some other than Gygax/Arneson.

  2. I am not familiar with the Feng Shui adventures Mearls wrote, but the game setting is based on time travel into specific "junctures", one of which is China in 69CE, an era full of magic, wizards, and flying swordsmen. I would imagine that something there could be adapted to D&D without much trouble.

    The junctures are linked by a place called the Netherworld, which is a sort of "otherdark" fantasy realm in which exiles from the time war live and plot to restore their timelines. It looks like there's a Netherworld adventure in the book, and that too could possibly be adapted.

  3. Mearls had several of his own adventures published in Dungeon magazine. Bryce's reviews at tenfootpole weren't particularly complimentary of his efforts, but I haven't read them myself.

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