Before DCC Lankhmar, There Was…Punjar!
By Daniel J. Bishop
The DCC Lankhmar boxed set is at the printer and on its way to becoming a physical reality. For years, DCC RPG fans have talked about Lankhmar. But before the Goodman Gang set their sights on Lankhmar, there was another fantasy city we worked on: Punjar. Brainchild of Harley Stroh, Punjar could almost be “Lankhmar before we had Lankhmar.” We bring this history to your attention now because as DCC Lankhmar approaches, there is great urban adventure waiting to join your game in the form of previous Punjar releases. Read on to learn more…
“Throughout the Known World, no city is more notorious, decadent, or deadly. A sandy collection of spiderwebbed tenements, chaotic alleys, crumbling walls, and rat-ridden bazaars – the city’s crowded wards have produced some of the worst rogues and villains to ever stalk the storied thrones of the north. Blackened by fire, soiled by pestilence, and scarred by war, Punjar’s history is like a grim scar drawn by the hands of the gods across its chaotic streets and specter-haunted ruins.”
– Introduction, Punjar: The Tarnished Jewel
Dungeon Crawl Classics got started as a line of adventures supporting the 3rd (and 3.5) edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Now the 4th Edition is coming out, Free RPG Day is coming up, and you don’t have the new rules. Imagine that you part of the Goodman Games crew in the winter of 2007, getting together and trying to figure out what to do to fill the gap. Imagine Doug Kovacs has been pestering Joseph Goodman about not having read the essentials of Appendix N. Imagine that Harley Stroh has brought this map he’d been working on in his free time.
Sometimes, things just click.
Harley Stroh had made the map “with the goal of making something with a workable scale that felt big, but was functionally small enough to be knowable by the players. He knew that he wanted to write something that escaped the self-referential legacy of Dungeons & Dragons. He knew that a Lankhmar-like setting urban setting was exactly what he wanted to be writing.
Harley says, “Based on the map, Doug’s persistence, and the pitch of an urban campaign arc, Goodman Games opted to go ahead with Punjar as half of the proposed 4e line. Still short the rules, we released the edition-neutral Punjar sourcebook for Free RPG Day, and then went ahead with Sellswords of Punjar (DCC 53).”
Goodman Games released four products focused on Punjar:
Punjar: The Tarnished Jewel: Subtitled “A Gazetteer of the Wicked City of Punjar”, this is the system-neutral product written by Harley Stroh for Free RPG Day 2008, with additional writing by Chris Doyle, Jeff LaSala, and Rick Maffei. While D&Disms, such as dragonborn and teiflings, are mentioned in the text, this is mostly pure Appendix N. If a DCC RPG conversion of Punjar ever appeared, 90% of the Gazetteer could remain untouched.
DCC #53: Sellswords of Punjar: Written by Harley Stroh (with additional writing by Aeryn “Blackdirge” Rudel), this low-level adventure sees PCs moving from the alleys to the sewers of Punjar. Harley writes: “The adventure was set to be run in three dimensions, with multiple maps that stacked on top of one another, allowing PCs to move between the alley + multiple floors + roof top. The execution wasn’t perfect, and highlighted a lot of my flaws as a designer, accentuated by the difficulty of writing for a game we hadn’t seen.”
DCC #56: Scions of Punjar: The middle part of the “Punjar trilogy” was written by Chris Doyle. The PCs become embroiled in the sordid past of the noble Dev’shir family, and an un-dead army about to attack their estate.
DCC #60: Thrones of Punjar: The “Punjar trilogy” ends with a mystery needing a solution, written by Rick Maffei. People have been disappearing in the Devil’s Thumb – the most recent an ambassador of some importance. Investigation takes the PCs into the depths of Punjar’s sewers to confront the abomination lurking below.
These are strong adventures, which would work well converted to the Dungeon Crawl Classics system.
The Modern Era
The Wicked City of Punjar continues into the current, DCC RPG, era of game products. Three adventures cite Punjar specifically as their location (in whole or in part), and Punjar has even appeared in third-party products.
DCC #70: Jewels of the Carnifex: This 3rd level adventure by Harley Stroh brings back the Tarnished Jewel, as PCs seek to recover the titular jewels from the ruins of a fallen cult.
DCC #74: Blades Against Death: A 4th level Harley Stroh adventure, this one sets the PCs against one of Punjar’s many cults, and then Death himself, in an attempt to restore a fallen comrade to the lands of the living.
DCC #90: The Dread God Al-Khazadar: This 4th level adventure, by Daniel J. Bishop, starts in Punjar (with the kind permission of Harley Stroh). It explores the city’s distant past, and perhaps its immanent doom.
Terry Olson keeps Punjar alive with The Orm Lies Down on Punjar in the 4th volume of the 2016 Gongfarmer’s Almanac and Big Trouble in Little Punjar in the 5th volume. A short piece of Punjar fiction even appeared in a Sanctum Secorum Episode Companion!
The Devil’s Chapbook: A Game Designer’s Notebook and The Drain Chamber 2: Doug Kovacs Sketchbook 2017 also contain additional Punjar material by Harley Stroh. In the case of The Devil’s Chapbook, this is a mockup intro for DCC RPG Punjar City Set (2014)!
Into the Future
Doug Kovacs has been keeping Punjar alive in his after-hours games, and Harley Stroh has suggested that this is the only reason anyone remembers it. “Otherwise it would have been long since tossed into the bins of RPG cities.” Although Harley’s modesty may be commendable, the way Punjar keeps cropping up in DCC materials makes me think he is not giving himself enough credit here!
Doug Kovacs has certainly been keeping Punjar alive, though, including “Escape from Planet Punjar” in The Hobonomicon #0. He’s run numerous convention games called Let’s Do Crimes in Punjar, which rework the legend of the city each time. Doug says, “Rumor has it there might be a retro television show on Planet Punjar called Punjar 76 which may have conjured an actual alternate Punjar of the 1970’s in which there is conversely another sci-fi television show called Punjar 50k. That may even be the same world as Catastrophe Island. Anyway the Hobonomicon is hinting at this and we can’t deny the Hobonomicon.”
While we don’t know where the future of Punjar lies, we can always hope. As Harley notes, “Doug’s art [from the 4e adventures]…hasn’t aged a day. If you go through his Punjar scenes, they are beautiful.”
For his part, Doug says “I am absolutely intentionally keeping the name alive for Harley to eventually do his thing.”
We look forward to it!