Wednesday, August 10, 2022

(Dark Sun) Earth, Air, Fire, and Water

 I suppose I asked for it. Not directly, to be sure, but in the shape of my rhetoric. I'd ask, all confounded, if the rules to AD&D really meant that the Thief class really had to be thieves, and that would create the implication that perhaps a character's class in the rules layer didn't have to map directly to their job in the fiction layer. Maybe a Thief could really be a detective, or perhaps a Fighter could steal things and thereby become a thief. Maybe a Priest doesn't need to be a priest.

And then there's Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, by Shane Lacy Hensley. It tells us all about the Priest class in the Dark Sun rules, but almost nothing about the religion of the Tyr region. In terms of lore, the Priests of Athas are actually closer to later editions' Warlocks than they are priests - they make pacts with beings from the elemental planes and in return they gain appropriate elemental powers. These elemental beings are explicitly not gods (in fact, the book scoffs at the very idea - "Many earth shamans are known to worship the 'God of the Volcano,' for instance. That deity does not exist, but entire cultures have arisen based on such false beliefs"), but the book never makes clear why that matters. Okay, so what you're worshipping isn't a "god," but somehow "ineffable spirit of the land" is less dignified.

The introduction poses the question, "In a world with no gods, what do priests serve," and that betrays to me a certain bias. As an atheist, it feels a little redundant to me, but I'm trying to mean that in a spirit of genuine inquisitiveness, rather than snark. The truncated question "what do priests serve" is an important one for building a satisfying setting. My atheist answer is "the community or the culture," but I'm not sure any version of Dungeons and Dragons, even the modern ones, is on that same page. 

Community is thin on the ground here. There's bits about Earth Priests teaching sustainable agriculture and Water Priests purifying water, but mostly the text treats priests as powerful individuals and not part of a cultural tradition. I get the feeling that the gods being real has been doing a lot of heavy lifting for D&D's depiction of religion thus far. You can infer anything you need to know about Pelor's doctrine, or his church, or his ecclesiastical organization by drawing on your knowledge of the nature of Pelor. Priests are like the god's assistants, and so they just sort of act in a way that furthers his goals.

It's an approach that definitely shows its limitations when you remove the god from the equation. The priests of Athas are still vaguely assisting their patrons' agendas, but now the patrons are primordial elemental forces, and thus the agendas are super-simple. They really just want to exist more. Fire priests go around encouraging the growth of forests and cities, because both are combustible. Water priests get mad at people wasting water. There's not a lot of room for ordinary believers (hell, there's nothing much to actually believe).

I think Athas definitely feels poorer for the elemental priests not having a coherent theology. We don't learn anything about weddings and only a little about funerals (Fire priests encourage cremation, even though the elements as a whole benefit most from burials), no holidays, festivals, moral lessons, or theories about the afterlife. Just encouraging the existence of elements, all day long.

It wouldn't be so bad, Priests being Warlocks, except that it exacerbates one of the setting's biggest problems - the existence of too many types of magic. Wizard magic is hated because it is powered by life force and greedy mages are responsible for the desolation of Athas. Fine. Fair enough. But then you have other things which might look like wizard magic, and they're not hated. You can draw a distinction between the internal power source of psionics and the external power source of magic, and that's meaningful on the level of the setting's physics, but . . . can the average person tell the difference? Maybe they can. Maybe the ubiquity of psionic powers gives people a sense for when psionics are used. Wizard magic feels unnatural, and so it is shunned. It helps that in AD&D, magic really was broadly more powerful than psionics, and thus a realistic temptation.

But actually, there are two types of wizard magic. Defilers destroy life to gain their powers, but Preservers don't. They draw life energy from the world, but in a way that leaves the natural balance intact. And in this case, you don't want the average person to be able to tell the difference. That's how you get an underground society of Preservers like The Veiled Alliance. Practically, that means you can't just have people look for the piles of ash and say, "hey, that's the kind of magic we hate." Casting of any kind is suspect.

Which brings us to Priest magic. It too is external magic, and while you could draw a distinction between Preservers "draw from the world, but no more than it can handle" and priests "draw from the elemental planes which compromise the world," the difference is likely to be lost on a layman. Add in the fact that Priest spells are cast in a very similar manner as Wizard spells (with Verbal, Somatic, and Material components, from a list memorized each day) and the natural question to ask is - why aren't Priests treated with the same suspicion as Defilers? That they're doing different things is only obvious to us because we can see their character sheets.

Earth, Air, Fire, and Water gives priests a lot more to do, and offers helpful suggestions for roleplaying them, but in the process makes them more redundant with Preservers than they've ever been.

Ukss Contribution: Curse of the Black Sands. It's a spell that makes the target leave behind oily black footprints whenever they step on bare earth. Useful, but also just a neat visual.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Flying Circus

 I'll admit, I was worried about the potential for Nazi subtext. Maybe it's because I've been doing so much (admittedly half-assed) literary criticism for the past couple of years, but I've found my sensitivity to these things to be getting stronger and stronger. Towards the beginning of the blog, I was like "Warhammer 40k does seem to be using a bit of fascist imagery" and now I'm like "is this free-spirited pastoral fantasy based loosely on late 19th/early 20th century Germany actually a back door for an idealized white-supremacist mythology about 'pure European' culture?"

Thankfully, Erika Chappell addresses this head-on in the "Politics" chapter. To paraphrase, "yeah, the potential is there, but please don't." I like that. It's direct, sincere, and conscientious. It makes neither excuses nor apologies, but it does try to head off the worst sorts of harm by drawing a distinction between "fantasy inspired by central Europe" and "fantasy where everyone is white." This is meant to be a game about cool airplanes and the cool people who fly them, and its choice of setting is not incidental (because Germany was a pioneer in early aviation), but neither it is an excuse to indulge in racism.

I also like that this approach is clearly visible in the worldbuilding as well. There isn't just one Himmilgard culture or people, and the idea that there is (or should be) is associated with an antagonist faction, the Goths, that's described as "the worst that people can be" (another, more on-point quote might be "they're fucking nazis.") It may undercut your point a little to include a nazi faction in your explicitly non-nazi "Central European" fantasy, but it does at least remove some ambiguity. If these guys are the nazis, then everyone else is, by implication, not.

Also, there are ethnic groups that intentionally and transparently stand-in for the Jewish and Romani people, and so I suspect that the aim was to try and present a truthful (or maybe truth-ish) translation of how Central Europe actually was, in hopes of forestalling a fascist pseudo-nostalgia. I'm not sure how apt it is to make your Romani stand-ins into airship-dwelling nomadic astronomers who have mastered the art of gliding in magical feathered wingsuits, but the central point - that Himmilgard has always been a diverse crossroads of peoples and the idea that the Himmilvolk are somehow the "true" people of the land is an imperialist project spread by people with a wicked agenda - is well-taken.

As the "Inclusivity" section puts it, "Himmilgard shares these problems with our own world as a mechanism for representation," which is a risky ploy, but a valuable bit of context. This is very much a game that's interested in the perspectives of marginalized people (the Survivor background directly says it's "a metaphor for what if feels like to be a transgender person escaping an unwelcoming or abusive situation") and in order for that to be authentic, there has to be marginalization somewhere. It makes little sense to say, "the culture of pilots in [this] universe is essentially a queer one" if the people left on the ground aren't basically straight.  However, I also think the bolded, underlined piece of advice "You shouldn't play out trauma, but you can play out recovery" is useful to keep in mind, and not just for this game in particular.

But enough about politics, what about the true draw of this game - sheer, unabashed airplane nerdery? Sadly, I'm not enough of an airplane nerd to say. This is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, but a lot of the in-flight moves seem to have more to do with physics than they do with drama, and so you can't really go into aerial combat with the same expectations of abstraction as you might have for Apocalypse World, but it's not exactly what I would call a hardcore sim, either. You use range bands and theater of the mind, but there's also precise tracking of your speed and altitude, and it matters what type of engine you're using and what fluid is in your radiator (if you use the optional advanced rules). 

My intuition here is that it will all come down to how you feel about the Instrument Panel. It's like a character sheet for your airplane, but with trackers for altitude, airspeed, and g-forces that kind of look gauges you'd see on an early airplane. It's cute an immersive, but also contains a lot of fiddly information. There's a 5x5 grid that tracks modifications to your stats based on how much cargo and fuel you have aboard and there's a designated spot for a picture of your sweetheart. This is a brand of nerdery that is right at the intersection between genre and sim, and if you're on board with it, then learning the intricacies of the combat system will be a delightful adventure.

The on-foot portions of the game are much closer to what I expected from a PbtA game (what, with my two previous examples), but the most interesting part of the system is the way it sets up episodic play with "the Routine."

The Routine is a cyclical pattern of scenes that is driven largely by resource management. When you're on a mission, you accumulate Stress, and too much of it will severely penalize your character. However, removing Stress from your character sheet is the only way to gain experience points, and so the Stress Relief portion of the cycle is vital. But it's not necessarily trivial to relieve Stress. You can indulge vices, spend quality time with loved ones, or have complex personal drama (the book suggests "ill-advised sex") with your fellow pilots, and each of these has their own failure states (becoming addicted to the vice, your loved ones finding out about the ill-advised sex, etc) that may result in you carrying Stress for longer than intended. In the end, missions and stress relief eat into your limited budget and you have to start looking for work so you can start the cycle all over again.

It's a clever way to marry the aircraft stuff with the slice of life stuff and overall it feels like a satisfying structure for a game, but it also puts you pretty deep into the PbtA "play to find out what happens" ideology. If players come in expecting a grand narrative. . . that's still possible, but the system will probably work against them.

Final verdict - Flying Circus is a specific thing, and I'm saying that as a high compliment, not out of any desire to be vague. It's clearly animated by a vision, and that vision is apparent in every detail, and because of that, it could potentially be off-putting to some people. Yet it is that very willingness to alienate that made it such a thrilling thing to experience.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to go pretty abstract with this one - there's a mythic figure, Sigvird the first king of Gotha, who is an important cultural touchstone for both the Himmilvolk and the Städter peoples. What interests me is that the urban Städters regard him as a demigod, but the rural Himmilvolk see him more as a culture hero. The same person, revered in both, but with two different interpretations. It's interesting to me to see two cultures that are so close and yet so far from one another.

So that's my choice - there will be some figure who plays a prominent role in multiple mythologies, but with significant variance. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

(Dark Sun) City-State of Tyr

I must confess to feeling a sense of dread when it comes to these classic rpgs with heavy metaplot. Every time I crack open a new book, I can't help thinking, "is this it? Has the serpent finally gotten ahold of its tail? Are we on the verge of collapsing into something totally self-referential?" There's a sense I have that the longer this all goes on, the likelier it is that the other shoe is going to drop and I'll find myself drawn irrevocably into the decadence of the expanded universe, where the clear theme and/or easy mass-market appeal that drew me to the original is just a distant memory.

City-State of Tyr, by Walter M. Bass, is, fortunately, not that other shoe, but I can definitely see its shadow. There's a whole chapter, called "Personalities," that is largely just character sheets for important figures from the novels. 

King Tithian, who "it is doubtful that any PCs will ever personally encounter" gets his psionic powers listed as "current level of ability unknown." That's a big red flag. The book is supposed to be an objective reference to the City-State of Tyr. The way that facts about the city and its residents become known is by being written down in books exactly like this one. So how can his "level of ability" be "unknown" when anything you write down would, by definition, be the true and correct answer? Unless, perhaps, you're holding something back. If maybe the rpg supplements don't have the authority to establish new canon, but are merely supposed to report on it. If the novels now take priority.

It's a sobering thought, but luckily, we're not quite at the worst case scenario. It's not like Pendragon where the player characters sometimes feel like intruders into the canon. There's no scenario that's like "The PCs will attempt this and fail because Rikus and Neeva are going to come along and solve this issue in Book 4 of the series." City-State of Tyr is mostly a useful setting guide with only the occasional bit of frustrating bread-crumbs towards the ongoing metaplot. The king is missing, because he's left the city to participate in something called, "the search" (the quotes are in the original text), and it's kind of a problem because he's supposed to be a major part of the civic life of the city, but also it's not something that bears further exploration, because that's literally all we know about it.

I think, if you're going to use this book, you have to keep it low-level and away from the palace. Stick to the bars and inns. . . 

Yeah, that's right. Just like In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil, the city of Tyr has a thriving hospitality industry, with plenty of places to meet shady contacts and discuss vaguely disreputable "adventures." And while it's well-suited to be a place where the PCs are just passing through, it also has plenty of local color (like a pottery shop, a perfume store, or a jeweler with a complex backstory) that allows it to serve as a permanent base of operations.

Also, if we give it a mulligan on Tithian's mysterious bullshit, it's a unique and interesting location for some really intense political games. The old sorcerer king was recently assassinated, the slaves were freed, but the rest of the social order is largely in place. Most of the templars still have their old jobs and the nobles still own most of the land (about 20% of the farmland outside the city was redistributed to newly freed slaves as part of a whimsical homesteading scheme). So what you've got is a king who is a reluctant reformer, who had to be pressured into adopting progressive policies by his Council of Advisors (many of whom were responsible for the assassination that put him on the throne), and yet because those machinations are behind the scenes, the masses only see the results and reward him with immense popularity. Versus an educated hierarchy of bureaucrats and administrators who are emblematic of the old regime, and thus a tempting target of vigilante violence, who therefor must rely heavily on the new order for protection even as they undermine it with corruption. Versus revanchist nobles who have no particular love for the old king, but who took a major economic hit from the revolution. Versus radical progressives who want to push for even more equitable political change. Versus a lumpen proletariat of newly freed slaves that the system is ill-equipped to absorb, which doesn't so much as have an agenda as a dangerously volatile anger that may find itself directed against any number of perceived outrages.

The city is ready to burst, and PCs are poised to be at the center of it. In order for it to be a truly great campaign book, it would have to dial in a bit more on the factions, their motives, and their methods, but the broad outline is there. And the physical geography of the city itself is well-covered. And the book describes clothes! Overall, I'd say that it's a good addition to a prospective Dark Sun campaign, even if it does sometimes fill me with a metaplot-based foreboding.

Ukss Contribution: There's a bar, called House of Fingers, that is a sort of neutral meeting ground for Bards. The book got a little carried away with the idea that Athasian Bards will sometimes moonlight as assassins and wound up making the Bard bar into a really grim Assassin bar, but as far as grim Assassin bars go, House of Fingers is memorably awful. "The thousands of [severed, humanoid] fingers that line the wall create a surreal and macabre atmosphere."


Saturday, July 30, 2022

Apocalypse World

 I bought this book because I was really impressed with Urban Shadows and wanted to see where it all began. That plan, unfortunately, backfired, because it's been years since I've read Urban Shadows and my memory of that book is so vague it would take a painstaking side-by-side comparison for me to really understand what the later book took from its progenitor and what it sought to change (I suppose I could go back and read it again, but I am not so overburdened with time that this strikes me as a worthwhile project).

What I can say is that Apocalypse World, by D Vincent Baker, impressed me with its originality. Which is kind of an odd sensation to have, seeing as how it really should feel like a rougher version of something I've already experienced. I expect it's precisely because of Urban Shadows' greater polish. Reading this book really does feel like being present at the beginning of something, and I imagine the feeling was just as strong back in 2010, when it was first released.

In Apocalypse World, your character stats are mostly abstract - you've got Cool, Hard, Sharp, Hot, and Weird, and these vaguely relate to aspects of your character. If you've got a high Cool rating, then that means your character is cool and calculating, but it really means that you're good at making "acting under fire" rolls, and acting under fire is just a generalized sort of pressure. It can mean sneaking past an alert guard or talking your way out of an awkward social situation or mixing chemicals while your lab is taking artillery fire, and there's nothing on your character sheet that will let you play a steady-handed chemist who is not also a smooth-talking ninja. What your stats ultimately accomplish is suggesting a certain tenor of events that surrounds your character. A Hard PC is constantly getting up into people's faces and taking what they want. A Sharp PC has a really good idea about what's going on in any particular situation. 

I think what makes it work are the interesting character options, which straddle the line between character classes and preconstructs. The Battlebabe potentially (with the right choice of Moves) gets to use Cool instead of Hard when "going aggro" and that's not just a mechanical benefit, it also says something about the nature of the character - they are going to use violence in a calm and calculated way.  Two characters with the same stats, but different playbooks, are going to feel very different in play.

The essence of the book, though, is found in a line that I first saw in Nobilis 3rd Edition. To paraphrase: "a roleplaying game is a conversation." Both books came out at around the same time, so I don't think either one was quoting the other. I suspect it was just an idea that was floating around indie design circles in the late aughts. Yet, more than any other game I've ever read (aside from Urban Shadows, for obvious reasons), Apocalypse World is intensely focused on optimizing that conversation. The game mechanics are largely about encouraging you to say things that are relevant to the story you're telling. The basic moves are as abstract as they are because they are a kind of storytelling grammar. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter if "going aggro" represents shoving a gun in someone's face and screaming or calmly explaining your superior martial arts technique, because what's really going on is that the stakes are being raised and bridges are being burned, and that's going to play out in similar ways structurally, regardless of how an individual character presents themselves. 

There's a phrase that keeps showing up in the MC (the game's term for "GM") instructions "make as hard and direct a move as you like," which sort of gets to the heart of this. Because it sounds at first like wide-open latitude, but then you realize "move" is a bit of system jargon and actually there is a list of allowable MC moves that you have to pick from. But then you realize that these moves are impossibly broad, like "announce future badness" or "put someone in a spot," and it becomes clear - the "rules" are largely suggestions about things to say and timing cues for when it's good to say them. The conversation is being managed.

Reading this book feels like being entrusted with a secret. The overall effect is like someone showing you the guts of how rpgs actually work, and it's thrilling. No wonder it inspired so many "Powered by the Apocalypse" games.

Ukss Contribution: There is almost no setting in this book. Mostly, it's content to just establish a general post-apocalyptic mood and trust that players will wind up creating their own worlds as part of play. So I think I'm going to have to go with something super basic - a character name. One of the example NPCs is called "Joe's Girl," and the thing that intrigues me is the way that it feels like a true proper noun and not an identity defined by a relationship. We never learn any other name for her, but we also never meet any character named "Joe." It's possible "Joe" doesn't even exist. The book suggests that after the apocalypse, names become divorced from their old cultural contexts, so that something like "Mother Superior" could just be an ordinary name. I choose to believe that's what's going on here. "Joe's Girl" is what her parents called her and what's going to be written on her tombstone, and there's just something delightfully weird about that.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

(Dark Sun) Valley of Dust and Fire

 Man, how about that weather, am I right? 

No, actually, I am not, in fact, right. It's probably okay for Valley of Dust and Fire, by L Richard Baker III, to talk so much about the weather. The world of Athas has a very different climate than Earth, and part of describing that world is telling us what the sky is doing. I gush whenever a book tells me what the clothes are like (this book does it too!), so it would be weird if I didn't want to know about the conditions in which those clothes are worn. It's just that there's a lot of it. It's pretty interesting - giant, miles-high dust storms, deadly tornadoes of flame, etc - but it's not until page 50 (out of 90) that the book starts talking about the City of Ur Draxa, which is the whole reason you're out here in the first place.

It's not as if the first half of the book is useless. The first chapter, about the Sea of Silt in general, could help DMs with any number of games where the PCs must brave this major environmental obstacle at the edges of the Tyr region. The middle two chapters, while far more specific, could probably be stripped for parts. Maybe there are Dead Forests and Shard Flats in places other than the Valley of Dust and Fire, or open stretches of lava unconnected to The Ring of Fire. Nonetheless, these places are not destination. You'll only ever be passing through.

I mean, you could probably set a whole campaign in the Silt Archipelago, a series of mud-flats that sprang up like islands in the silt, and which hold numerous villages which have never known the tyranny of the Sorcerer Kings. Although, if you did run that campaign, this book would only give you the broadest of outlines.

You could also probably do something with the Mountains of the Sun, if you're willing to rip out the racist presentation of the local dwarves (they "may be ignorant savages, but they possess a lot of unusual oral legends concerning the days before the Dragon.")  They share the island with deadly giant spiders, and it's kind of intriguing me to imagine a dwarf economy based entirely on harvesting spiders and spider products.

Yet the real meat of this book is chapter 4 (so much so that it is the only part of the book referenced in "Chapter 5: Campaigning in the Valley"). It describes a new city-state and promises "detailed description of the greatest and deadliest secrets."

That last bit is a little oversold. We learn where the Dragon goes when not terrorizing the city-states of the Tyr Region (A fortress known as "the Dragon's Sanctum," which is most interesting for having a whole forest of Trees of Life, but no animal life "not even insects") and it's teased that there's something more mysterious going on, with The Black Sphere at the center of the Sanctum (I understand a vague outline of what's going on, between reading my friend's copy of Defilers and Preservers: Wizards of Athas and seeing online conversations about this very subject, but I can't say I'm impressed with what I've heard - that the Black Sphere contains an imprisoned wizard who is even bigger and badder than the Sorcerer Kings and the Dragon), but ultimately answers are few and far between.

The new city-state is pretty good, though. It's a grim, unpleasant place, suitable mainly for running games that are pessimistic even by the standards of the setting as a whole, but there are some unique social dynamics at work that could make for a memorable fantasy campaign. The Ur Draxans are a fanatical warrior culture with no one to fight but their slaves and their own outcasts. 

Seriously, they are the most completely useless army you've ever seen, fantasy or otherwise. Their homelands are surrounded by a terrifying moat of lava and a permanent storm of ash that makes flight in or out nearly impossible. The whole thing is enchanted with dragon magic to make teleporting in or out impossible, except through the one dedicated magic gateway, the far end of which is in a blasted valley, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of miles of trackless silt that will swallow up and suffocate anyone who puts their weight on the surface.

I kind of like the pointlessness of the Ur Draxans. They are all nobility. Everyone who is not a slave is a landowner and a warrior-aristocrat in their complex feudal system. They are the army of the Dragon, but the Dragon doesn't need an army. In fact, the Dragon supports them, bringing back metals and new slaves that the city-states of Tyr give it in tribute. It's unclear why the Dragon does this (though I suspect it's an emergency precaution in case new metaplot makes its way to the Valley), but the overall effect is that it's impossible to even pretextually justify this society. They're just these nasty authoritarians that hang out in the middle of a dried-up ocean and believe themselves to be the last "civilized" people to survive in all the world, and despite having all the time in the world, they're too macho to crack open a book (this is actually a major area of friction in this society - they have templars and administrators, to keep the place running and do the Dragon's bidding, but choosing learning or the arts over warrior training leads to loss of status in their society). 

Ur Draxa strikes me as a nice change of pace from the vague "always evil" societies we usually see in D&D (probably because the Ur Draxans are PC-allowable fantasy creatures - humans, half-elves, dwarves, and muls). As dysfunctional and cruel as their society can be, it doesn't seem outside the realm of realistic human behavior. They engage in the daily dehumanization necessary to be an aristocratic minority in a slave state and they're pumped up on legends of their own greatness ("the belief that he or she is a hero of a race of heroes.")

Overall, I think The Valley of Dust and Fire could make for a very credible end-game location for a Dark Sun campaign. Unfortunately, it's unclear whether the people in charge of the setting are still willing to commit to end-game campaign models. The part of the book that talks about PCs fighting the Dragon says, "If properly run, the Dragon is able to defeat even a party of the highest level adventurers," which is maybe a tad ambiguous ("oh, I get it, able to defeat, because it's a fair fight for a party using Dragon Kings material"), but later cleared up in the worst possible way, "If they're here to kill the Dragon, they are doomed." I suspect that what's happening is an attempt to hold the door open for the plot of the novels, and if so, that's really disappointing from a setting that has thus far been willing to cast the PCs as major historical figures. However, I'm not willing to declare myself betrayed just yet. It's only one optional sourcebook, not even about a major subject of interest (at least, going by the title). Plus the section does end with the hypothetical "What if they win," so it hasn't entirely lost the spirit.

Ukss Contribution: The Silt Drake is a giant serpent that lives in the Sea of Silt and devours any sufficiently large prey that crosses its path (it prefers silt horrors and giants, but will settle for a group of PCs). Like many semi-intelligent monsters on Athas, it has psionic powers. Weirdly enough, those powers include Clairvoyance and Precognition.

According to the description, it "uses its rudimentary psionic abilities to locate prey, above or below the silt," but it's never made clear why they couldn't just handwave the use of their physical senses. If the description said they tracked prey through smell, hearing, and tremorsense, no one would be interrogating that explanation. So we have to assume that being psychic is an important part of their whole deal, but like much of old AD&D, it's presented in a very matter-of-fact way that doesn't seem to realize that the weird thing is weird (I don't believe it's an intentional Dune reference, but I could be wrong).

I think I'll put them on Ukss' moon and give them a complicated religious relationship to the human seers that make the place their home (that will be an intentional Dune reference, though).

Saturday, July 23, 2022


I wound up backing this after all. I already posted about this game's Quickstart rules and during that post, I dithered a bit about whether I was going to back it on kickstarter. Turns out, I did. I can't remember exactly why I decided to spend 30 bucks on a physical copy, though I do have a vague memory of being impressed by the design and creativity and somewhat conflicted about the large portion of my gaming budget that was going to used copies of out-of-print books. I think I had some quixotic idea that I was going to start shopping mindfully and use my dollars to support indie creators. My subsequent commitment to that resolution has been . . . inconsistent. I'd say, in the past year, I've bought or backed about 10 truly "indie" rpgs, though that number increases if you include companies like FASA or Onyx Path. The rest of my recent purchase history has been used copies of supplements for Earthdawn, In Nomine, and various d20 systems.

I don't mean this as any sort of deep, dark confessional, though. Really, I'm just wasting time to distract from the fact that the bulk of what I want to say has already been covered in my post about the Quickstart. In retrospect, it was a really good Quickstart, that streamlined the rules of an already streamlined game, while still maintaining the essence of what made that game compelling. The stuff that was cut out - cooperation rules, randomized character creation, and additional spells, monsters, and equipment - was nice to have, but I'd say only the cooperation rules really strike me as an oversight.

So am I advising you to skip the full version and make do with a free version that's one of the most creative mini-rpgs I've ever read? Well, it would be pretty shitty of me if I was, especially considering my stated motive for backing this thing in the first place. Upgrading was definitely worth it, even if I preferred the Quicksstart's condensed, straight-to-the-point presentation of the actual rules. What you get in the full version isn't necessarily a superior game, but is a beautiful reference book filled with charm and creativity that you only see pieces of in the Quickstart.

For example, the Gear section of the Quickstart is stripped down and functional, whereas the full core has an entire category of "Oddities and Valuables" that includes stuff like shrunken monkey heads or a vial of a divine being's blood. What are you supposed to do with them?  Thes charts where you can randomly determine your starting equipment were a lot of fun, though I wonder if maybe their limited size (you roll 3d6, giving each category 16 entries, center biased) may lead to repetition over the long term.

The biggest benefit of the core, to me, was the expanded bestiary. It's well-curated, even for being short, containing a mix of D&D staples (like mimics, lamias, and sirens), strange inventions (like the noblins - rabbit-folk - and petal ambassadors - manipulative illusionists whose head is a single giant eyeball surrounded by flower petals), and Filipino folkloric monsters (like the manananggal - a vampire-like creature that detaches its upper half to fly around by night, preying on those foolish enough to be outside). Like comparable sections in other books, my only complaint is that I wish it was much longer.

Also, the book itself is beautiful. Momatoes, the designer/artist/writer/layout artist really went all-out. Every page is visually interesting, with fonts and headers chosen to draw the eye towards important system terms. On a personal level, I could find it distracting at times (which may be why I thought the simpler layout of the Quickstart was easier to follow), but maybe that's just because I'm the sort of hyper-focusing fuddy-duddy that prefers blank walls to decorated ones. 

The art is great, though. Each piece sets a mood, from creepy to mysterious to cute and though the tone varies, the style is consistently gorgeous. Nothing feels out of place and though the individual pieces are sometime unconnected to anything in the text, the cartoony, impressionist style feels just the right amount of unreal for the game's apocalyptic fantasy. My favorite piece, though, was the chicken in the equipment section.

Look at that cute little lady. Totally justifies her inexplicable inclusion.

Overall, I'd say that this is a game with a lot of potential. It's an easy-to-master rules-light system with a unique real-time mechanic and a whole hell of a lot of character. It definitely has a niche as a go-to system for unexpected one-shots and introducing newbies into the hobby. Pretty much the ideal case study for why it's a good idea to take a chance on indie designers.

Ukss Contribution: There's a lot of fun stuff in this book, but my favorite thing was one of the sample PCs. Sartis the Black Tentacle is "chipper, friendly, gregarious, and extravagant," but also "serving an unknown cult." She likes telling fortunes and is strangely comfortable with violence, and she's an octopus. She'd make a great lieutenant for the Assassin Priest.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

(Dark Sun) The Veiled Alliance

 I'm starting to form a theory about these Dark Sun books - they are good precisely to the degree that they are about the Athasian counter-culture. Dragon Kings was about the most powerful people in the setting, and it was the weakest book. Slave Tribes was about slaves, and it was really good. Dune Trader and The Complete Gladiator's Handbook were somewhere in between. And Veiled Alliance, by Allen Varney, is about a group that is openly in rebellion against the political order, and it's the best one yet.

It could just be that I'm biased. I like stories about heroes fighting the system and resisting its overwhelming power. It's something that resonates with me, far more than cynical "evil" campaigns. Yeah, you can be a Templar or a Defiler or an assassin/Bard and have a Dark Sun game that's basically Vampire: the Masquerade, and it might even be fun, but why put the wickedness front and center if you don't have to? Tyrants exist to be overthrown!

That's only part of the story, though. Veiled Alliance is also just a really good book. It's hard to put into words, but it has a really nice balance in its material. Nothing really outstays its welcome. There is a satisfying mix of high- and low-concept setting details. It describes the multi-generation schemes of a conspiracy of revolutionary wizards . . . and also the clothes they are wearing. It is broad in its scope, talking about the seven major chapters of the Veiled Alliance and their significant local difference, but it manages to avoid both repetitive mundane boilerplate and being excessively goofy in an effort to be unique.

It's also, for some reason, a general guide to the cities of the Tyr region. Each Veiled Alliance chapter is preceded by a broader description of its home city's culture and customs. It doesn't really tell us anything about the Veiled Alliance in Nibenay to learn that "some older people have blue-stained teeth from chewing betel nuts," but it does help in running virtually any Dark Sun campaign set in the city. And this doesn't appear to be an incidental function. Each of the city descriptions begins with a demographic breakdown, list of important local industries, list of significant NPCs and locations, and at least a few local quirks like Gulg's Red Moon Night, where criminals are released into the forest and hunted down for sport, or Balic's traditional respect for "rhapsodes" (bards, basically, but with a lower-case "b." The Bard class is something different).

The fascinating thing about these mini-gazetteer sections is that I'm looking ahead at the future titles on my list, basically everything published for the line, minus the novels and adventures, and I'm not seeing anywhere else they could reasonably go. Of course, it can't reasonably go in Veiled Alliance either, so maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised. 

I can only guess at the behind-the-scenes machinations that went into releasing a book that was half core-overflow and half specialized supplement, but it largely works. Each of the cities is a unique place and that very convincingly sells the idea that its Veiled Alliance chapter needs to be unique to adapt. You really could run seven distinct campaigns out of this 96 page book, and that's a genuine accomplishment.

It also helps that the Veiled Alliance is an intriguing fantasy organization in its own right. It stakes out a very particular niche - "Though not in itself heroic, the Alliance's goals often match those of heroic player characters." They fight defilers and oppose the sorcerer kings out of self-preservation, but there's no backing out of the struggle for them. It's life and death and the planet is just along for the ride. 

That's the kind of cynicism I can get behind. You can run anything between a shadowy espionage game and a full-fledged heroic epic (or, more likely, the first will gradually transition to the second) and the Veiled Alliance has a useful role, either as patrons and employers or as unreliable advisors and allies. They'll probably need the PCs as much as the PCs need them, and that creates opportunities for political drama where everyone is focused on the good, but no one can agree on what that means.

Now there's just one more big issue to discuss, and I don't know how to broach it because I'm not sure what may final take should be. Let's just work it out stream-of-consciousness-style and hope that I get some clarity by the end of it. 

Some of the world building . . . borrows from the real world in ways that can be a bit . . . sloppy. And I'm not sure how much this matters. Maybe it's even good? I don't know. It lands on a very awkward fault line in the subject of cultural appropriation and my knowledge here is super shallow (plus, if this book is guilty, then I, personally, am only slightly less guilty for things I was writing back in March of this year, and that's not a good feeling).

Let's start with the easy one - the city-state of Balic is heavily inspired by greco-roman civilization. The upper class is called "Patricians." It has its own highly classist version of democracy (only patricians, approx 5% of the population, get to vote). The fashion and names are a mish-mash of pop-culture classicism (the sorcerer-king is named "Andropinis"). Of course, there are olives. 

It's a little bit cringe, but it does immediately paint a picture. What then, are we to make of Draj's "Flowery Wars" or Nibenay's monks who seek Nirvana or Raam's caste system and women who wear saris? 

And I don't know. It's an issue that has weighed on my mind for a while - how to do representation in secondary world fantasy. You want to say, "this world is not whites-only" and that's easy enough to do. This book handles the task about as elegantly as possible - "no two families on Athas seem to have quite the same skin color." Which is maybe problematic because it ignores race as a cultural force in the reality where the book was written, but does have the advantage of giving players explicit canon permission to always make a character who looks like them, regardless of where the game is set (and ensures that there's no in-setting excuse for obnoxious real-world racism). However, the flip side of this is that maybe you're just putting an all-color gloss on the ten square miles around Oxford University. Maybe a diverse version of fantasy medieval Europe isn't all that diverse in practice. You can play as a Viking with black skin, but not a Black Viking.

One solution to this is the Standard Fantasy Atlas - you've got Fantasy Europe (that's in the core) and then Fantasy Arabia and North Africa to the south and Fantasy Asia to the east and Fantasy America across the sea (those are all in supplements, many of which are long out of print) and those are done with varying degrees of grace. Historically, it's been white writers doing it and the results have been pretty bad, but lately writing teams have been getting more diverse and it may one day result in a Standard Fantasy Atlas that's actually good. Certainly, stranger things have happened.

The big problem with the Standard Fantasy Atlas is that it kind of locks you into a singular historical vision. You can start talking about "anachronisms" and "inaccuracies" and it's essentially a bad-faith argument to say "this isn't technically Earth." This approach solves the problem of representation by making an analogue for every particular culture that exists in real life, ideally translated by that culture's internal concept of fun fantasy stories.

But sometimes you can't do that. You don't want to point at things in your setting and say "this is Fantasy [Blank]." You're trying to create something wholly imaginative, and real-world references are only for verisimilitude. "These clothes are realistically something people could wear." Or "This religion is realistically something people could practice." And if, in doing this, you don't want to create an all-white world, you can't limit yourself to European cultures for inspiration.

But let's be honest - this is the dictionary definition of cultural appropriation. You're not considering the culture in its entirety, but looking for cool little baubles you can cherry-pick and pull out of their context. 

And I don't know if there's any good answer for when it's acceptable or how much you're allowed to get away with. The whole point of the exercise is to recontextualize things, to play with anachronism and try and invent fictional cultures that feel like they can be real. And I suspect the real answer is an unsatisfying "it depends." Every culture has things that are sacred and which cannot be lightly used and things which natives are tickled to watch outsiders discover and you just have to do your research and take responsibility for your risky choices. Respond with grace and humility when someone corrects you and don't try to defend an aesthetic choice that was made on a whim.

So, Balic is not Rome (it doesn't have Legions or Senators or aqueducts) and Raam is not India (I'm not even going to say what it doesn't have, because that would betray my completely superficial understanding of classical India), but when it comes to inspiration, the clothes are probably all right, but the caste system is probably too politically fraught to be invoked so carelessly (this is complicated by the fact that "caste systems" in rpgs have often had an unfortunately orientalist contrast with the "more open" societies of Fantasy Europe, but maybe that doesn't apply to Dark Sun because the social order throughout the Tyr region is more or less uniformly unjust - what I'm deciding to call "The World of Darkness" problem).

Anyway, Ukss is probably problematic in exactly the same way (even moreso when you factor in the blatant trademark infringement), so this is not a rebuke, but merely a rhetorical question. It's not actually any clearer to me for all this reflection.

Overall, I really liked this book. It's a little too essential for its pitch (it really should be called "The Veiled Alliance and The Seven City-States"), but am I really complaining that an rpg book is too densely packed with value?

Ukss Contribution: It feels really awkward doing this when I just wrote 500 words about why it was reckless, but since the real purpose of this section is to single out something concrete and specific I liked about the book, I'm just going to take my future cancelation in stride.

The choice this time is the Shadow Tree in Gulg. What can I say, I'm a sucker for weird trees. This one is possessed by the ghost of a defiler and is manipulating the head of the local Veiled Alliance, filling his head with visions of a restored Athas, but skimming life energy off the top of all his terraforming projects. Ukss doesn't have defilers, but it does have a land in desperate need of terraforming and I can probably find some equivalently wicked spirit to take advantage of that.