Monday, November 29, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Parlainth Adventures

 This book is a collection of four adventures set in and around the ruins of Parlainth, and three of the four adventures share the same fundamental flaw. I'll let the "Troubleshooting" section from an early encounter sum it up for me - "If these events do not make them investigate what happened, the adventure is over. A week later, the characters hear tales of a brave band of heroes who entered Parlainth and battled a fierce Horror, saving the lives of Jasom's entire family and earning the everlasting respect of the residents of Haven."

That cracked me up. I'm just imagining the lazy PCs:

"We've got to save that innocent boy by venturing into the monster-haunted ruins and slaying the creature that's feeding on his soul."

"Sounds like a real hassle. I say we skip it. Someone else will come along and do it, I'm sure."

(One week later)

"Wow, you were right. That situation completely resolved itself without us even having to get off the couch."

"Told you. These things have a way of working out."

I wonder how long you could sustain that level of passive-aggressive GMing. "Oh, you decided to pass on the plot hook and avoid the Tower of the Necromancer, well now your shopping trip is being interrupted by the parade the townspeople are holding for the other heroes." It's a rich comedic premise that would probably work in a video game or tv series, but I suspect your PCs would mutiny sooner rather than later.

Now, to be fair, if the PCs do get a bit more involved in the first story, the stakes evolve. Drop out or fail past encounter three and the family dies, but there is a certain stability of the status quo that pervades the other adventures as well. Help Twiceborn, the Queen of the Cadaver Men, fight off a coup attempt, and she will grant you the boon of sparing your friend after he foolishly gambled with his life. Ignore the coup, and she fights it off just fine on her own. Aid the coup, and after she beats both you and the traitors, you'll have to escape her dungeons before she executes you. Really, it's just a stroke of luck for you that there happened to be a coup at the exact same time as you needed a favor from the Queen. Otherwise, she might have said no (actually, she definitely would, the adventure explicitly shoots down every other avenue of persuasion).

Similarly, the third adventure feature a magic box that causes chaos in the town of Haven by generating a magical aura that convinces people that the fondest wish of whoever holds it is easily attainable. It doesn't actually grant the wish or anything, but a guy walks by holding it, and you're convinced his goal of becoming King of Barsaive is a foregone conclusion. The lady who wants to organize the people of Haven to work together and do one massive dungeon raid and split the loot almost takes over the town, because "we're all going to get rich" is pretty persuasive when it's backed by a "plausible" plan, but she loses control of the box rather quickly and all hell breaks loose. Luckily, after a couple of days, Chorrolis, the Passion of Desire, comes and retrieves his lost box and things go back to normal.

These first three adventures all have stakes around the edges, but they are pretty small. Save the nice, but perfectly ordinary family. Save the foolish NPC that the GM introduced several sessions back so you'd get attached before they ran the adventure. Make sure cooler heads prevail until the box situation resolves itself.

I'm not going to be Mr Cynical here and say that these small victories are not worth your time, but it does feel like a bait-and-switch. Play as the epic heroes who make things slightly better for the people caught up in high-fantasy nonsense that is far beyond your pay grade. I doubt it's what the players signed up for.

The fourth adventure probably is what they signed up for - a classic dungeon crawl with genuine stakes (the monster's mind control abilities will likely subvert Haven, if left unchecked for 3-5 months), but there's also not much to say about it. It features a room filled with magical bouncing balls that might, at worst, be slightly annoying, but which pose no threat whatsoever, and that strikes me as a pretty funny juxtaposition with a group that calls itself "The Cult of Pain."

Overall, I'd say that Parlainth Adventures is a weak companion to one of Earthdawn's best products, but there is a glimmer of something here. If the PCs stay on the rails, and never learn that certain outcomes are pre-ordained, then you'll have some pretty memorable stories, but I don't think the odds are good that this will happen organically.

Ukss Contribution: I've got this weird idea of reversing the situation from the first adventure - there's a group of lazy adventurers who travel in front of the PCs, turning down the quests that made the PCs famous, and they've thus developed an intense, one-sided rivalry, but I think that may be too much of a niche parody. Best to go with something sincere.

I actually really like the idea of a kingdom of intelligent undead, and "Twiceborn" is a great title for a monarch. I could probably find a place for that on Ukss.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

(Planescape) Planes of Conflict

 Every time I read one of these big boxed sets I always run head-first into the paradox of Planescape - it is a version of D&D that is empowered to be as big and as out there as anything you can imagine, but it is almost completely unaware of the audacity of its own scope.

They actually start a section with the words, "The sole greater Power to make his home on the Beastlands . . ." The sole greater Power? What does infinity even mean? How are we looking at a book with six different universes, that are themselves composed of anywhere between 2 and 6 different sub-worlds, which are each of them infinite in size (except, inexplicably, Gehenna, where the volcanoes are "merely" hundreds of thousands of miles tall) and then, when it comes to the inhabitants of these places, getting only a small set of familiar characters.

Oh, I wonder if this next god is going to be from Toril, or maybe, if they're feeling daring, Krynn? And wow, Bytopia is full of gnomes, you say? And what are the odds that this diverse trading town has bariaurs, githzerai, and tieflings? And for fuck's sake, why are there so many real world deities wandering around? You realize that you've made the actual, flesh and blood, existing in the history of our own reality, Celts into D&D canon, right? Plus the Chinese, the Greeks, and Norse, and a bunch of others, which might add some much-needed diversity in the game, except they all come from a single world.

The thing that frustrates me about all this is that I feel like either I or the game am on the verge of understanding something important here. And the question at the center of this is - "What, exactly, is fantasy?"

Sometimes I feel like I'm being excessively hard on these books for not having the advantage of my 20 years of hindsight. They're at the beginning of a process whose end I am the beneficiary of. I often find myself going "yes, aannd . . ." like I'm somehow going to be able to coax the next step out of book that was out of print while I was still a teenager. In the Beastlands, there is an area called "The Forbidden Plateau." It's a giant, flat-topped mountain with a jungle on top that is home to a self-contained ecosystem of dinosaurs.

And they are so close to getting it. It's the Beastlands, the animal-themed afterlife. Dinosaurs are animals  and so they are in the Beastlands too. That makes perfect sense. So why is the narration surprised by this?

Nobody's go the dark of why the plateau, the dinosaurs, and the beastmen are here. Once chant says that the Beastlands wanted to preserve these animals that've died out on many prime worlds. But if they're all in the dead-book, why do they exist on the Beastlands? Dinosaurs must still exist somewhere or they wouldn't need a place to call their own on the Beastlands?
Now, I'll admit, I did have some sarcastic fun with this - "dinosaurs, in the afterlife, but they're extinct?!" But I want to focus on a specific line that kind of sums up the flaws in Planescape's world-building. Dinosaurs "have died out on many prime worlds."

This is where I start to think that maybe I'm the problem. Because it's an innocuous enough line, but I keep turning it over in my mind and I can't even begin to understand what they were going for. In our real world, where dinosaurs existed, they didn't just "die out." There was a specific triggering event that led to their extinction. So, do these "many prime worlds" all have their own versions of the Chicxulub impact? Is there some cosmic force that is driving this parallelism between worlds? Is that why there are so many real world gods everywhere? There are thousands, millions, perhaps even infinite prime material worlds out there, and on most of them, there is a Greece and a China and the dinosaurs once lived, but now they're extinct.

I don't think that's what they were going for. The feeling I get is one of groping in the darkness, and taking things for granted that really should have been questioned. Dinosaurs are ordinary animals. Indeed, if you define "ordinary" through a process of picking a random animal from a random time in the history of life on Earth, dinosaurs are about twice as ordinary as almost any other type of animal living today. So it's not surprising that they're in the Beastlands. It would be more surprising if they weren't

And once you realize that, the next step is to realize that you have permission to have dinosaurs in your worlds. They can fill the same niche as contemporary animals. The author, Besop, has written his famous fable "the oviraptor and the grapes" and it's kind of proverbial in Sigil because that particular prime world is at the end of a particularly accessible portal. You don't have to assume that our world is typical. Or that your previously published campaign settings are somehow generic. Our world is the result of specific events. And Toril and Krynn are the result of specific decisions. What Planescape gives you is the opportunity to explore different decisions. Indeed, because it is infinite, it actively cries out for you to make every decision, at least once.

There are times when Planes of Conflict captures this feeling. The Gautiere are a species who built a glorious monument to their god, one so impressive and so beautiful that the other gods became jealous and moved to strike them down. When the god they loved so much abandoned them, to hide from the wrath of his fellow gods inside the very temple that drew their ire, the Gautiere cursed his betrayal, trapping him inside the glorious structure until the end of time. Now, they are a broken and forsaken people, a shadow of their former selves, condemned to the prison plane of Carceri for daring to hold the divine accountable.

That's a whole damned epic that's just tossed out in the description section of a two-page monster writeup, and it's kind of awesome. But why isn't more of the book like that?  The only thing in the actual plane descriptions that comes close is "The Abomination's Lair" in Gehenna:

The creature hails from a prime world called Aebrynis, and more specifically from the continent of Cerilia. It's one of that world's awnsheghlien, or abominations. It was once human, but in its blood runs the power of a crushed god of evil - and the abomination can increase its power by absorbing the strength of other creatures that have godly essence in their own veins.
And I just screwed up. My point was going to be that this was some amazing economy. Just tossing out a campaign world we've never heard of and giving it a plot hook, to demonstrate that there are interesting things happening everywhere and they don't have to all be so solicitous of TSR's trademarks. Except, it turns out that Aebrynis is merely a campaign world I hadn't heard of, and that this is, in fact, a reference to the Birthright™ boxed set. I had a hunch and googled it after pulling the quote and am thus quite disappointed that one on of my favorite original things wasn't actually original after all.

Still, before I found out how wrong I was, this was an example of what I'd consider the ideal Planescape writing. You sell infinity by dipping your toe into concepts that could support entire boxed sets and you do it often enough that you convey the idea that you are allowed to have wildly divergent cosmologies and ecologies and societies and they'll all fit because the amount of space available is limitless.

You are allowed to have cannibal demigods and mortals who defied their creators. You are allowed to have inns that rest in the branches of giant treant and wander around the countryside. You are allowed to have city-sized mimics that aspire to become major trading hubs due to the valuable crafts created by its person-shaped pseudopods. You are allowed to have villages where the people store their memories in elaborate magical tattoos that can detach from their bodies and fight independently against dangerous fiends (at the risk of falling in combat and being lost forever). You are allowed to have dinosaurs.

And maybe it sounds a bit churlish and condescending for me to be saying that, because all the things I just mentioned were in this book, and thus something the writers knew they were allowed to do. Except, this is also the book that will enumerate the gods in an infinite plane and then explicitly state that these are all that exist. This is also the book that keeps going back to the two (or three, apparently) worlds we've seen before. This is also the book that confidently states that "the vast majority of petitioners on Bytopia are gnomes."

Resolving this contradiction has proven to be the most challenging part of reading these Planescape books. From my perspective in 2021, I keep thinking "they obviously know it's possible to go big, so why do they so often insist on staying small," but I wonder if maybe that wasn't actually that obvious in 1995. Maybe everyone knew what fantasy was supposed to be - elves and dwarves, wizards and orcs, kingdoms and medieval technology, and a tacked-on religion loosely modeled off of Christian misunderstandings of classical polytheism. And because that's what everyone knew, then every move away from that must be justified. When you add things like dinosaurs, you aren't just doing fantasy, you are actively risking a break in the genre. So you put the dinosaurs on a high mountain in the middle of the animal afterlife and act really surprised they're there, to reassure people that most of the Planescape setting is normal fantasy.

It's sometimes hard for me to remember that Planescape is one of the things that opened my eyes to the possibilities of the fantasy genre. So much of it seems timid to me now, but in 1997-1998, when I first started getting into it, I was shocked to discover that you could play D&D in a way that wasn't just a Tolkien fanfic. The setting's conservatism didn't even register with me. This is some of the boldest, most original setting work AD&D ever did and it's not entirely clear where I get the nerve to ask for more.

Ukss Contribution: I've already mentioned most of my candidates, and I'm inclined to pick something specific and weird, but the more that I think about the book, the more I realize that the truest tribute would be to go broad and break my own habits. So I'm going with dinosaurs. It's a bit of a fad to include dinosaurs in a fantasy setting as ordinary animals, but that's exactly why I should do it. I'm usually predictably quirky with these Ukss choices and it will do me some good to get back to basics.

Monday, November 15, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Infected

 This adventure has one serious problem - the antagonists are total dicks!

Now, normally, that wouldn't be much of an issue, except it really seems like the book expects the PCs to make friends with them. As a group, they're too powerful to confront directly, and their stated motives are noble. So, I guess the takeaway is supposed to be that fighting them would be a tragedy, and probably wouldn't work, besides.

Never mind that they are authoritarian fanatics who have imprisoned an entire village and are constantly on the verge of killing an innocent girl. The ends don't justify the means, obviously, but when you get to the "quarantined" village and they politely ask you to surrender your weapons, "an unprovoked attack also puts the players at a significant disadvantage when attempting to deal amicably with the Legion later on in the adventure."

I suppose this is a good opportunity to interrogate my own psychology here. Infected is a courier mission where a merchant hires the PC to figure out why his home town has lost contact with the outside world, and when you get there you find that a group of Horror hunters (the Grim Legion) has falsely concluded that one of the villagers has gained magical powers from being tainted by a Horror, and have decided that they won't let anybody leave until the mystery is solved. 

And every time I picture myself in a PC role in this story, I can't help but imagine the bloody havoc I'll wreak when the guard at the front gate tells me I can't complete my letter-delivery mission without surrendering myself into his power and then being held prisoner for an indefinite amount of time.

I think some of my hostility just comes from the sense of being thwarted. Obviously, in real life things thwart me all the time and I don't go on a berserk rampage. But extend that thwarting into my entertainment, into a game where I am a dashing adventurer and suddenly I feel like some essential social contract has been violated.

Though that's not entirely what's going on. Normal PCs wouldn't have this information without doing unintuitive investigation, but apparently in the Earthdawn lore, zombies ("cadaver men") retain some of their consciousness and usually hate and resent the magicians who animate them. They can even communicate this displeasure with other people, in the short window between being killed and their throat decaying too much to allow for speech. Which kind of seems like a fate worse than death, especially when the only reason this person is a zombie in the first place is because you're the one who killed them.

So I'm really primed and ready for these guys to get their comeuppance. But that's unlikely to happen. It's one possible ending, certainly, but given the adventure's level recommendation, it's a sub-optimal path. The best way to resolve the plot is to exonerate the supposedly Horror-tainted girl by finding the enchanted book that is the real source of her unexplained powers. The easiest way to resolve the plot is exploit the rift between the opportunists and the true believers in the Grim Legion and get them to fall to infighting.

And maybe this last one seems a little like justice, but if the wrong person wins that battle, he'll just stay at the village permanently, turning it into his personal fiefdom.

I guess you could praise Infected for presenting a complex and nuanced situation with no easy answers, especially when contrasted with Terror in the Skies video-game cliches, but reading them so close together, I guess what I want is a balance between the two.

I mean, I swear, if I run into that child-threatening necromancer again and she "save[s] the adventurers' bacon when they face certain death at the hands of a ravening pack of Horrors," I can't be held responsible for what I may do.

What, then, is my verdict for Infected as a potential adventure? That's tough. I think it might be good, but if so, it is good in a slightly off-genre way. It's the sort of adventure where the epic heroes rely on their talent for measured compromise and not rushing to judgement (in fact, there's a whole subplot where, on the trip to the village, one of the towns along the away offers the PCs hospitality as a scheme to put them directly in the path of an anticipated raid from a rival village, and you only get the full xp award if you negotiate a peace between these traditional enemies), and maybe that's okay, but in all likelihood, the points on my character sheet are going to reflect a high-action sensibility that simply has no place here, except as a failure state.

Ukss Contribution: I actually really like that Earthdawn zombies retain a significant portion of their humanity, and it just happens to be repressed by the magic that controls them. It's creepy and tragic and horrifying, and I'm going to make it a rule of Ukss necromancy too.

Monday, November 8, 2021

(Exalted 3e) Heirs to the Shogunate

Heirs to the Shogunate is the longest overflow book I've ever seen. It's more than 250 pages! It's longer than some full core books. Maybe that's just Exalted 3rd edition's signature style - it's the really long roleplaying game. Or maybe it's a consequence of being a kickstarter reward book. People gave Onyx Path a lot of money to make this thing, and so Onyx Path made sure they got their money's worth.

The most intuitive use for all this material is just to think of it as more pages added to Dragon-Blooded: What Fire Has Wrought. That does mean that, in this construction, the 3rd edition Dragon-Blooded book is a 600 page monstrosity, but honestly, that's what reading this felt like. There were multiple times when I had to stop reading and go back and consult What Fire Has Wrought to remind me of some necessary context. This was especially necessary when it came to expansions on some of 3e's new material - like the Cult of the Violet Fang, an Outcaste group of Exalted who have unholy and incestuous ties to the Fair Folk, a pretty darned cool group of rpg characters I'd entirely forgotten about because their canon thus far has been one paragraph in a book I last read 2 years ago.

As much as I enjoyed it, large portions of this book feel like picking up in the middle of a conversation, and ironically, the more space devoted to a subject in What Fire Has Wrought, the less well it works here. I think probably because the stuff that got a lot of wordcount has already had its strongest material see print. Lookshy got the bulk of a chapter and so when they pick up talking about it here, it feels like we're seeing stuff that was expendable enough to get cut from the chapter. This is less of an issue for Prasad, a new region that has gotten little development, almost a non-issue for Heaven's Dragons, a group that was little more than a pitch, and a complete non-issue for modular setting elements like NPCs, Artifacts, and Charms.

It's that last bit that most gets me. One of the best parts of an Exalted 3rd Edition book is the charms! Wild. I credit the Kickstarter backers. A lot of these were specifically requested as part of a reward tier (and then, presumably, the others were added to fill out the charm trees) and it wouldn't be a much of a reward if it wasn't a cool signature move. I especially liked the charm that allowed you to enchant magical masks, the one that let you create cool clothes out of elemental energy, and the one that let you drag your enemies into the earth. The non-backer charms are pretty good too, and I'm just going to assume that the authors were inspired to raise their game. Plus, there was no need to resort to the apocryphal keyword, which is a nice change of pace from 3rd edition's other book of kickstarter reward charms.

I think where I'm at is that this book of odds and ends is at its best when it's sticking to odds and ends. I loved the entire artifacts chapter. The NPC chapter was a source of much-appreciated gossip. The expansion of miscellaneous outcaste groups worked pretty well. The chapters devoted to larger groups . . .

I don't know. I guess the thing that bugs me about them is that they all seem to dive right in and start talking about large extended families, and somewhere around the fifth or sixth overly-controlling aristocratic family with an elaborate web of alliances and rivalries it starts to feel a bit repetitive. I may, at one point have exclaimed, "Lookshy's Gentes are just the Realm's Dynastic Houses with weaker branding!" (And if I didn't exclaim it, I was certainly thinking it very loudly).

It makes sense. The Dragon-Blooded are the type of Exalted that have hereditary magical powers, and so they've automatically got all these siblings and ancestors and cousins and whatnot who have similar magical powers and you're going to want to know about their goings-on. I don't want to be a grump and complain about yet another well-worked-out fantasy genealogy, but I wouldn't mind seeing more structural variation in the different groups. Lookshy is a militaristic bureaucratic state with a very modern presentation (it's ruled by "The General Staff" and has an "Operations Directorate"), so maybe it could place less emphasis on lineage.

Or maybe not. "Magical Aristocrats" is practically a genre all its own, and so why not have more than one way to do it? I think I'm just cranky because apparently I have a hitherto unexamined "maximum density of aristocrats" that has been reached for the first time ever (someone remind me of this joke when I read the Game of Thrones rpg, though).

Actually, I think if you use this book in its most relevant context - as reference for building a game around one of the example groups, it will largely be fine. No real need to read them all back-to-back unless you're writing a blog post about the book.

The only thing I'd really count as a flaw is more of a meta-issue. The Lookshy chapter talks about their relationship with the Forest Witches. The Prasad chapter talks about their ambitions for the Dreaming Sea and antagonistic relationship with Ysr and Volivat. The example scenario "The War in the West" features a naval campaign where House Peleps goes up against Azure, Skullstone, and the Wavecrest Archipelago. 

Those locations are all thousands of miles apart. It's one of those things that's a common understanding in the community - that the Exalted map's scale is so huge that there is room in the blank spaces for entire regions of multiple countries, each as important as anything in canon. And yet, when the game gets concrete and talks about things like international relations or Big Plots, the same set of canon locations keeps coming up. This is regarded by many as one of the great failings of second edition, and it's a little weird to see it crop up again here.

Then again, what are they going to do, invent a whole bunch of new places we have zero investment in, just to fill out space in some fairly conventional setting and campaign descriptions? It's unclear how much of its own thing Heirs to the Shogunate is supposed to be, so it may not be worth the effort to put in novel information that could better fit inside its own dedicated product. An upcoming Dreaming Sea supplement may well have a dozen new locations for Prasad to antagonize.

Overall, I liked this book. I like Exalted, and this is more Exalted. It's not complicated. I actually have no problem with the Dragon-Blooded book being 600 pages long.

Ukss Contribution: I really love the whole vibe of the Forest Witches - here are a bunch of magical mysteries all stacked on top of each other and there's a cult of arrogant hedonists who are camped out nearby to take advantage of them. But a "vibe" is a vague thing to try and appropriate (plus I'm going to get another bite at this particular apple when I read 1st edition's Outcastes book).

I could also choose one of the new artifacts. I loved all of them, especially the way that each one came with its own built-in story. The magic whip that thwarts cattle rustlers and the mysterious orb that teaches sorcery and leads its wielder to lost treasures were particular standouts.

However, I think the thing that's going to linger longest is just an incidental scrap of information - one of the various heroes who owned the magical courthouse boat defeated a pirate named "Jill-of-the-Nine-Lives" and even though we know very little else about this battle (Jill apparently captained a living ship and captured slaves), I just happen to think that's an awesome pirate name.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

(Planescape 1e) Harbinger House

The first thing that leapt out at me about this adventure is the fact that the main villain's plan is destined to fail. A succubus has infiltrated Sigil and she has two goals - steal the titular Harbinger House by causing it to shift into the Abyss and complete an elaborate murder ritual in the presence of the House's planar anomaly which will cause her to ascend to godhood. The first goal won't happen because the Lady of Pain has the absolute power to decide what enters or leaves Sigil and that includes mysterious creepy houses. The second goal is impossible because the succubus is missing a key component of the ritual - she's not a whimsically described "crazy" person who possesses a poorly-explained "spark of divinity" (an odd thing to say about a literal demon, but whatever).

So the actual goal of this adventure is a bit different than what the PCs will think the goal is supposed to be. They think they're rushing around to stop this Dark Ascension and the subsequent turmoil it will introduce into the Great Wheel's balance of power, but really the villain's plan is going to implode on its own, so all the PCs are really doing is mitigating the damage it does along the way.

This isn't necessarily a bad idea for an adventure. There's a Law vs Chaos theme at work here and you could make something out of that. This demon is stirring up shit that you're constantly having to clean up, and it's all completely pointless. That the demon's goal is doomed actually adds to the threat, because it means that everything that happens is totally absurd. I can see how it might provoke a motivating outrage among PCs with the right mentality.

But if you're going to do that, I think you need to be upfront about it. You don't want the players believe the game has a certain level of stakes, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. "Great job, guys. The main plot would have turned out exactly the same if you hadn't been there, but there are some minor NPCs who are still alive, thanks to you." Kind of takes all the steam out of the climax.

Plus, if you made it clear from the beginning that the succubus was destined to fail, you could play the revelation that the secondary villain does have the "spark of divinity" as a twist. See, she let a serial killer out of an asylum in order to cause a distraction while she prepares for the ascension ritual, but the killer has decided that he should be the one to become a god, so he's been incorporating the ritual into his murders. When the time comes for the final sacrifice, the succubus and her pawn fight over who gets to impale themselves on the blade infused with planar energy and become a god. If the succubus does it, she just dies. If the killer does it, he becomes a new god of murder.

That would be a fascinating scene for the PCs to get involved with, except the only way they ever learn any of this is the hard way.  They don't become aware of the true stakes of the adventure until it's too late to make decisions based on that knowledge.

The other structural problem with this adventure is the way it has the PCs tag along behind the main plot. They start investigating this rash of strange murders and are always one step behind the killer as he continues his deadly work. This is preordained by the book itself directly addressing the DM - "However, while the PCs should be made to feel as though they had a chance to stop the murderer, under no circumstances should they be allowed to kill him or prevent him from escaping through the portal." This is in addition to all the times in the adventure where it says that if the PCs manage to save one of his victims, he just kills another person later on.

The funny thing is that, between the killer's savings throw and spell resistance, a Hold Person spell has about a 25% chance of working, and there is absolutely no DM handwaving that's going to get him out of that jam.

So I guess I'm saying that I didn't really enjoy it. The actual Harbinger House is a pretty neat location. It's filled with mysterious doors and some extremely odd people that the Believers of the Source think are close to becoming gods. It also includes magical phenomena that don't precisely fit the AD&D rules, presenting a slightly wilder brand of fantasy than is typical for the line. At one point, a corpse starts talking to the PCs, completely unprompted, to warn the PCs about the perils of the gate town, Curst. "Things happen in the multiverse that nobody can explain." Nice. And, of course, there are the god candidates themselves, who all have strange powers that exist outside the class system. It broke my heart when Factol Ambar referred to them as "spell-like abilities" in an ostensibly in-character passage, but it's still nice that there's a guy who can control the weather without having to be a level 8 weather-mancer or something.

The best part of the adventure was probably the sub-plot that revolves around Trolan, the other person the succubus released as a distraction. He had a weird romantic obsession with the Lady of Pain, and it's a mystery why he's still alive. Apparently, instead of killing him, she had the Dabus escort him to Harbinger House, where he could be safely tucked away with all the other potential gods. The succubus impersonates the Lady of Pain and tells him that she wants to build her a cult, but of course the real Lady of Pain hates being worshiped and a bunch of cultists die as a result. Trolan emerges from this plot none the worse for wear, and that's pretty weird.

I feel like an entire adventure could have been built around trying to discover this guy's whole deal. Maybe learn some new info about the Lady of Pain and the inner workings of Sigil along the way. 

The last thing I need to talk about is something that's been a long time coming. Planescape, as a whole, is really weird about mental illness, and it kind of bums me out. Some people are just "barmies," and that's that. You can tell when someone is barmy just by looking at them, and there's a certain interchangeableness to the characters that indicate they share a common affliction - they all act pointlessly wacky, and some of them are unpredictably violent. It's just a bunch of gross, ableist tropes and I guess that's just what the 90s were like. I've made my peace with it, but it was especially dense in this book, and it didn't need to be. The guy who can control the weather with his mind is clearly operating on a different level than the rest of us, and it would have been a lot more interesting to treat his viewpoint with respect than it was to say he "worships an unnamed god of evil who he refers to as 'the Mad One.' The barmy priest believes that the best way to convert a sod is to bash his head in."

Overall, I'd say this is entirely skippable. There are worthwhile elements, but the whole thing is a big shaggy dog story. Even if you totally whiff it and create a new god inside of Sigil, the Lady of Pain shows up at the last moment to banish him. The villains' plans are nothing compared to the overwhelming power of canon.

Ukss Contribution:  Despite my disinterest in the plot, I'm actually digging many of the adventure's fantastic conceits. There's a universal gate key in the possession of Factol Ambar, and it kind of hit the right balance between spooky (it's made of an unknown blue stone and it's constantly changing shape and sprouting spiky protrusions) and greed-worthy (with it, you can go anywhere!). But then the book decides to give it the inexplicable secondary power of constantly recording images of its surroundings, and it becomes entirely too obvious a plot coupon.

I also really like the idea of a boarding school for would-be deities, but I feel like that's an entire campaign pitch on its own (either that or the premise of a series of YA novels).

So my choice here is Galkin, the guy who can turn himself into a lightning bolt. This isn't super useful to him, except when he wants to clear out some meddlesome PCs, but I like non-biological shapeshifting, and I love that this guy doesn't even transform into normal matter. Maybe I'll make a whole species of lightning people.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Gamemaster's Pack

 I'm trying to figure out a way to make this post less obligatory and absolutely nothing is coming to me. This is a core overflow book that has a few new rules, a few new magic items, and a bit of gamemaster advice and I guess there was a reason the core couldn't be 50 pages longer, but I'm not sure what it is. Presumably, it was down to the realities of the early 90s publishing industry. These days it would be a kickstarter stretch goal.

It came with a GM's screen, which is kind of nice. The art on it depicts a stepped pyramid that, to my untutored eye, looks vaguely Mesoamerican, but that's not something that really made it into the line later on. 

My notes for this are pretty short, only two pages. I guess I found it . . . interesting to see bits of the game's intended design philosophy - this book talks a big game about FASA's upcoming metaplot. It's also a strong supporter of GM authority. At one point they are supposed to offer the PCs in-game rewards like money and xp in exchange for the players keeping a real-life journal of their adventures. It's not a terrible idea or anything, but I've never met a player that was that invested in their character's advancement.

I really wish there were some nice, juicy lore bits for me to sink my teeth into, but the closest is the Blood Magic stuff, which I've largely seen before. It draws a distinction between self-sacrificing your hit points to swear an oath and full-on human sacrifice and categorically forbids the latter to PCs. And that's an interesting choice. Earthdawn doesn't have an alignment system, but it does directly address the player and say it expects them to be heroes (and thus to have lines that they absolutely will not cross), which is somehow both stronger and weaker than the way D&D usually does it. I think I like it.

And I guess that's it. They can't all be digital doorstops. Overall, I'd say I enjoyed this book. Certainly, it did not outstay its welcome, and that's refreshing.

Ukss Contribution: Almost all of the setting info comes from the magic item section, but it's fantastically lucky for me that one of those items just happens to be exactly the sort of magic that I unabashedly love - the Puppet Familiar. It's a wooden animal puppet that can store extra spells for you. But after you get it up to rank 4, it comes alive and acts as your familiar. It's the perfect balance of charming and creepy.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

(Planescape) Monstrous Compendium Appendix II

 Aw man, can't I just skip to the Ukss contribution already? I guess that's one of the perils of reading these books whose whole deal is just being a list of ostensibly interesting things, presented without commentary - sometimes they're right about being interesting, and that makes commentary much more difficult.

Giant owl-folk? Intelligent clouds who know deep lore about the multiverse, but are tough to communicate with, because they are actual, up-in-the-sky, miles long mountains of mist? Cursed crows that follow you around, afflicting you with a mysterious illness as they feed off your life force? Whatever the fuck a Hollyphant is (some kind of miniature, winged woolly mammoth whose trumpet can exorcise demons)?

Yes, thank you. These are all relevant to my interests. I could go on. . . so I will.

The guardinals are pretty cool. Though it's  little weird that the ultimate champions of pure good are also AD&D's most straightforward furry races. Not to impugn the moral rectitude of the furry community or anything, it just seems to me like Leonals (lion folk), Equinals (horse folk), Lupinals (wolf folk), et al would be great candidates for an anthro-fantasy-centered campaign setting, and it's weird that we're seeing this concept for the first time by making them the social equivalent of the angels.

But then, genre was always D&D's Achilles Heel. It flirts with it, and sometimes even manages to do some pretty interesting things (it's no coincidence that most of my favorite entries from this particular book are the ones that evoke fairy tales or borderline-sci-fi weird fantasy, like the straigt-outta-Dark City race known as the Keepers). However, it always tries to keep at least one foot in its comfort zone. Even Dark Sun still has elves and dwarfs.

So you look at this conservatism, and it's sometimes a little confusing. "Fantasy world where all the intelligent species are human-animal hybrids" is a dead simple pitch with obvious appeal, and your multiverse-spanning portal fantasy is the perfect place to test the waters and maybe sneak it in through the back door, but AD&D decides that the animal folk will be the celestial manifestations of Neutral Good, to match the Lawful Evil Baatezu, the Chaotic Evil Tanar'ri, the Neutral Evil Yugoloths, the Lawful Good Archons, the Lawful Neutral Modrons, the Chaotic Neutral Slaad, and the newly introduced Chaotic Good Eladrin and True Neutral Rilmani.

I'll admit, there's a certain charm in the grid filling, but sometimes I wish AD&D could just use its ideas as ideas. There's some good stuff here, but it's weakened by trying to fit it into such a rigid structure.

Like, seriously, what is up with the Rilmani. They definitely needed another pass, because it's clear that they were designed towards the needs of the structure and don't have much identity beyond it (actually, the guardinals are the same way - of the three new celestial supercategories, only eladrin can really stand on their own). They are a collection of True Neutral species, with each phenotype filling its own mechanical and narrative niche, just like the numerous types of demons, devils, and angels. But the niches they serve are all variations of D&D's worst alignment.

The thing is, they're not, on the surface, a poorly designed group of creatures. They have a very interesting visual style (mostly thanks to DiTerlizzi, who also did 100% of this book's artwork and continues to be the setting's MVP). And their role in the story isn't too bad either - they've got this weird alien imperialism thing going on where they travel to different worlds and impose their ideology on the locals with means that vary between military force (the ferrumachs), assassination (the cuprimachs), to sending advisors/agitators (the argenachs).

The general impression I got was of an imported space opera trope - the serene elder aliens who take it for granted that their superior technology gives them the right to meddle and whose abstruse philosophical creed is so mysterious to the younger peoples that it can barely be parsed as morality. This is an impression that is furthered by the fact that their various sub-species really feel more like character classes or social strata than they do like distinct physiological adaptations (there's no mistaking a succubus for a balor, but the plumachs and the aurumachs definitely look like cousins). They're a group of people who may be tough for the PCs to relate to, but they are also a civilization with its own unique values.

And from a high enough level of abstraction, it works great. "Diplomatic observer in the inner planes, empowered by their home government to make policy on the spot" is an amazing idea for either an antagonist or an ally (or both!). Except that the rilmani are not mysterious elder aliens. We actually can understand their civilization's values . . . and they're fucking ridiculous. Make sure there's an equal amount of good and evil in the universe? Okay, buddy, whatever you say.

Believe it or not, though, the last four paragraphs were praise. Everything that's uniquely Planescape about the rilmani is good. The one thing about them that they inherited from mainline AD&D is not. If I seem especially hard on them, it's because they're C+/B- work and the rest of the book proves beyond a doubt that this team is capable of making A's.

I'd go so far as to say that Monstrous Compendium Appendix II is the very best Planescape setting book to date, and I'm including the boxed sets in this assessment. I think it's because it shares a certain quality with the Sigil and Faction books (hitherto the best Planescape books) - it feels like it was written for Planescape. The first Monstrous Compendium had some good stuff, but it was a compilation. The boxed sets had a certain boldness to the design, but could never quite stop being the Forgotten Realms' afterlife. The entries in this book were dense with lore and demonstrated real thought being put into things like the food chains of the lower planes, the migration of intelligent species from non-PHB-compatible fantasy worlds, and the logistics of interplanar travel. It's a book that's specific enough to potentially be alienating, and it makes the world feel more lived-in as a result. My hope is that this represents the series turning a corner, and that it will become more its own thing as time goes on.

Ukss Contribution: Finally, we made it, and I used only two of my top three picks as examples in the main body of the post. My final choice is actually an example of a tendency in the book that slightly annoyed me - making creatures that are little more than "planar" versions of already existing Prime Material species. There's absolutely no call for drawing a distinction between Neogi (the anthropophagic, slave-keeping spider pirates of Spelljammer) and the Tso (anthropophagic, slave-keeping spider pirates, but on the planes). Neogi are good villains and it's a fruitful idea to have a population of them in the outer planes, but it's like having separate entries for Prime humans and Planar humans. It arguably detracts from the appeal of the game to say that they're too different.

However, my Ukss choice is another example of this - the khaasta. They're lizard people, but on the planes. I think they wind up justifying their existence by having a distinct culture (cutthroat mercenaries and raiders who wander from score to score) and some great art (naturally), but my reason for picking them is much sillier than that. . .

They ride giant lizards. Lizard-folk who ride lizards! Something about this idea appeals to me on a fundamental level.