Tuesday, April 6, 2021

(AD&D 1e) Lankhmar: City of Adventure

 This one is tricky for me, because its shortcomings are obvious and its strengths are subtle, but I have a feeling that in the end, its strengths outweigh its shortcomings.

So let's just jump straight into the worst thing about it - the fucking lists.

Lankhmar: City of Adventure likes to build its world by listing things. There's a five page list of potential NPCs drawn from the Lankhmar books, and maybe that sounds like a pretty useful thing, except that most of the entries are like:

Gib
Thief: 6th level
Social Level: 2
Alignment: Lawful Neutral

He is one of Gray Mouser's crew on the ship Flotsam. He was once a thief in Lankhmar.

Now, to be fair, I did pick one of the blander entries, but not by an exceptional amount. There are 50+ more of these. And then, in the next chapter, it lists the Guilds:

Thieves' Guild
Entrance fee & dues: 20 GR/ 5 GR(ilds: Beggars'
Apprentice: 1st social rank
Journeyman: 2nd social rank
Master: 4th social rank
Guild Officials: 6th social rank

Unquestionably one of the most powerful guilds in Lankhmar, the Thieves' Guild has had good and bad times recently. They virtually controlled the city until the dead master thieves revived the ancient worship of themselves, at the cost of some living master thieves.

No women are allowed into the Thieves' Guild. A thief must be a guild member to work in Lankhmar. Consequently, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are constantly in trouble with the guild.

I actually chose one of the more interesting fantasy guilds there, because I wanted to convey to you how much detail was given to one of the setting's signature elements and the single most anticipated antagonist for those who come in having read the source novels. So what do you think the other 30+ Guilds are like? Thank you, Lankhmar: City of Adventure, now I know that the Jewellers' Guild buys and sells jewelry. That was worth cutting two paragraphs worth of adventure-related material.

Although, again, I have to concede that most of the Guild entries do contain at least a sentence or two of pertinent world-building. However, the point stands - this is not a campaign setting that uses its page count well. I mean, look at this thing:


I kind of like the idea of these geographical worksheets, but there are 11 of them in a 96 page book. And it's not like they needed to be there. Was AD&D really expecting me to write in my book? A single generic template near the end would have served just as well.

Overall, I'd say that Lankhmar: City of Adventure really struggled with the single most difficult aspect of making a licensed rpg - curating the source material in such a way that the world could stand alone, without the source's specific plots or characters. There's not quite enough here to make a new Lankhmar story, minus Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and there's definitely not enough to create a new Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story, despite the fact that both characters are included as preconstructed PCs.

So why do I say that the book's strengths outweigh its weaknesses? Because it is abundantly clear that Lankhmar: City of Adventure is on the right track. The book opens with a bunch of summaries of the canonical Lankhmar stories, and just about every one sounds like someone's dumbass D&D campaign . . . in a good way. Like, I read a bunch of these things in a row and  my thought was "Oh, I get it - Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were the original murderhobos."

It's not hard to see the potential here. The city of Lankhmar, with its corruption, its competing factions, and its open criminality, is a place that is the perfect base of operations for a "dungeon crawls = thinly veiled home invasions" style of game. It wouldn't quite be accurate to say that it reads like a parody of D&D, because it is a throwback to one of D&D's main inspirations, and so it's more like a distillation of something highly specific that's been inside D&D from the very start.

And it's obvious that this could work well, but Lankhmar: City of Adventure, as a specific book, really needs to be less Saints Row and more Saints Row 2 (actually, I'd prefer Saints Row: the Third, but that's just the kind of game I like to run). Or, to get away from an obscure and alienating metaphor - what this book really needed was a thesis, and not just an inspiration.

For example, you may have noticed from my picture above that one of locations deemed important enough to make it onto the map was a wig shop. And that's a very strange and specific choice that should say a lot about what you want your game to be. However, it's presented in the most straightforward way possible and it becomes clear, later on, that it was included because it was a place frequented by the Gray Mouser in his canonical adventures.

That's not the way you're supposed to do it. The map entry wastes one of its three sentences telling us that "The building is five stores tall and in reasonable condition." Who the fuck cares?

Sorry, I don't mean to be nasty. Put the pieces of the puzzle together and you get a shop run by a sweet old lady that nonetheless manages to survive in a city of thieves by selling wigs, makeup, and costume pieces of high enough quality to make it into the regular toolkit of an adventurer-thief, and it's a completely ordinary thing. That's a great setting element. What the players (and consequently, the DM) need to know is what the experience of entering the shop is going to be like. What old lady knicknacks are on the counter? What shady customers are you likely to bump into when you visit? Does Laaryana know that her shop is a hub of criminal activity, or do the rough customers who buy her disguises play it cool? What's the social contract here? For the love of all that is good and pure in this hobby, the detail that "the second floor is used by a tailor [and] the others are rented out as apartments" could not be less relevant to the role this wig shop is going to play in a typical campaign.

It's hard for me to forgive how utterly workmanlike this book is. Its factual tone doesn't stop it from being camp, it just ensures that the result is bad camp. Someone point me to a version of this setting that knows what it's about.

Although, if we're going to not forgive this book for anything, it really should be for how unreflectively sexist it is. I hate to bring it up, because I actually have a lot of goodwill towards the book, despite my grousing, but it is not something that's in line with contemporary sensibilities. I go back and forth on whether it's even plausibly deniable enough that you could willfully ignore the sexist elements.

I think . . . probably. Certainly, there are White Wolf books that are worse. Most of Lankhmar: City of Adventure's worst offenses are merely careless. Like above, where it just casually mentions that the Thieves' Guild doesn't accept women. And I get that this is something it inherited from the source material, where it's a significant plot point, resulting in Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser teaming up with several different lady thieves in the course of their rivalry with the Guild, but the book doesn't even consider that this might be a burden for female players. I'm not sure it even entertained the idea that women might want to partake in Lankhmar adventures.

I went back to check the NPC section, and it does not do the thing where it gratuitously lists every female character's Charisma stat. I only thought it did, because it does it half the time. It also contains this doozy of a detail: "[Eesafem] was insane for a brief time until magically transported to Lankhmar where an early morning seduction by the Gray Mouser returned her mind."

What the everliving fuck?

Lankhmar: City of Adventure mostly made me yearn for a more self-aware, contemporary take on the source material. I can understand how it blew some minds in 1985, but from my perspective, we've got 35 years worth of proof that it's possible to do better.

Ukss Contribution: Man, that part where Gray Mouser cures a broken lady brain with his dick makes this a hard one to include in Ukss, but my opinion is that it's more ignorant than malicious. Its worst offenses are unfortunate old tropes. 

Anyway, the choice here is Cash Street. Lankhmar in general has these on-the-nose street names that really do deserve to be in a more anarchic book ("Atheist Avenue," "Cheap Street," "Cutthroat Alley"), but Cash Street is the most iconic and versatile. Just a total fuck-you to any pretense that you're playing a civilized game of heroic adventurers. It even makes me forgive the existence of Pimp Street, if only because I imagine that Lankhmar's gangster rap writes itself ("If you want to find me, check the corner of Pimp and Cash" - an actual Lankhmar address).

Friday, April 2, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Legends of Earthdawn, Volume 1

 This was such a cute book! I'm not sure "cute" was what they were going for, but I've pondered my word choice and I'm sticking with it.

So why "cute" and not "fascinating" or "ambitious" or any of the other usual fantasy fiction words? It's a gut feeling, but I think it's because the individual legends are so short - 30 crammed into 60 pages, often with full-page art. Because of their short length, the stories tend to end on a punchline. Like "The King Who Ruled The Passions" - a myth about a king who persecuted the Questors (priests) until the Passions (gods) themselves came down and submitted to his rule. Only they were too effective at their specialized jobs, so the Passion of Justice ran a court system that was so fair it bankrupted the kingdom and the Passion of Nature grew a garden that swallowed the king's castle, and so on. It ended with:

Passions rule Nam-givers, not the reverse;
This truth refus'd invites Vestrial's curse.

Oh, yeah, this particular legend was a poem, but more relevant is that it was a fable. It wrapped up with a tidy little moral. A lot of the legends were like that. Sometimes the moral was "if you run into a Horror, you'll die," but the point is that most were vaguely instructive, teaching us about the values and beliefs of the people of Barsaive.

So in addition to being cute, it was also a pretty good setting book. It's also interesting as an rpg supplement, because it accompanies the 30 legends with a similar number of adventure ideas, monsters, or magic items. That's not something I think I've seen before. Usually, an adventure is an adventure, and span the course of the whole book. Sometimes, there will be more than one, but they'll be linked by a theme or a location or be a series that shares the same overarching plot. This "here's 30 things about our setting, and they're accompanying adventure pitches" thing might actually be a more fruitful approach, depending on how much work you're willing to do as a GM. Certainly, using this book's plots requires a lot more preparation than running Against the Giants.

However, I think I prefer it. Legends of Earthdawn is a book that is dense with value, both as a setting guide and a GM resource. And I'm kind of embarrassed that I don't have more to say about it. It was a fast read, and entertaining, but aside from breaking down the stories one by one (I especially liked the one that demonstrated the death curse mechanic), there's not a lot for me to say. I guess, now that I've started dipping my toe into the fiction anthology game (Tales of Clickbait: Volume 1, coming soon!), I have a greater appreciation for the book's firm editorial direction. Despite 10 credited authors and the occasional bout of poetry, everything in this book feels like Earthdawn - humanist, mostly-vanilla fantasy with attention to detail and the occasional dip into horror - which is pretty impressive, given how specific that is.

Ovearll, I'd call this book a success. It's stacked a lot towards flavor, and is probably closer to gaming fiction than a lot of people would prefer, but it doesn't forget that its fiction is meant to be used, and what can I say, I'm a sucker for world-building.

Ukss Contribution: There's a story here about a greedy man who falls under the sway of a Horror and kills his whole village in order to steal its horde of silver. He is thwarted by the village's last survivor and sealed in with monster and the treasure he so recklessly lusted after, but one single coin rolled out of the vault as the door shut for the final time - a silver coin that bled whenever it was held by one who had made a bargain with the Horrors.

The actual game mechanics of this proved a bit weaker than the story implied, presumably because no responsible GM is going to hand the PCs a skeleton key to many of the setting's most important mysteries, but I like the fictional version. It felt very mythological to me, and I am far from a responsible GM.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Three More Old School Modules

 Someone save me from these damned old-school modules. 

Maybe that's a harsh thing to say, but they operate under assumptions that are utterly alien to me and every time I get mixed up with them, I find myself lost and confused. It's not a good feeling.

Two out of the these three at least made an effort to include story elements, but they're stuck in this mindset where "story" is just presented as a series of rooms. I didn't even notice my copy of Rahasia was missing its first two pages until sometime on page 5 or 6, and it occurred to me that I should know who these people are (a state of confusion that initially eluded my notice because The Isle of Dread didn't bother explaining who any of  its people were until the very end of the module).

I don't want to be too much of a crank, though. It's clear, now that I've seen a cross-section of modules through time, that people were getting better at writing them as the years went on. Isle of Dread, from 1981 takes pains to explain that it's going to be a "wilderness" adventure, as if somehow wilderness wasn't the bulk of your average fantasy world. Did you know that interesting things can happen between dungeons? It's true. And early D&D was there to demonstrate an adventure that was not confined to the controlled environment of a linear dungeon by describing the wide-open world in terms of a series of rooms.

Curse of Xanathon was from 1982, and there is actually a point to all the fighting. Its opening page warns that it is "an unusual module, in that much of the players actions will be in the form of detective work," and promises such exotic modes of play as "discovering clues" and "deciding on a proper course of action," even if, in the end, the only real course of action available to you is proceeding through a series of rooms.

Still, CoX's rooms have a context to them. The first and last rooms in a particular area are plot related, and there is some effort to explain why you can have rooms with a mummy, gargoyles, and ogres in the same area (it's a temple, with a tomb, magical statues guarding an altar, and fuck it, the priests captured a couple of ogres and locked them in jail.) It's not like Isle of Dread which has two consecutive encounters with a pteranodon and a roc, respectively (to be fair, they're like 50 miles apart on the map, but they are numbered 15 and 16 and if you follow the river that connects them, you will not have any other officially sanctioned encounters)

Rahasia is from 1984, and I'm assuming is even more story-driven. It's hard to say when I'm missing the part of the book that explains the module as a whole, but I got the sense that the proper nouns I kept seeing in its series of rooms had some overarching importance. I can't say for sure, though, because I didn't finish it. On page 3 (the first page I had), it said that I would want to kick off by reading the PCs a letter that explained the situation, but the letter itself is on one of the missing pages. I assume that if I stuck with it, I would be able to pick up the gist by context (there's something about missing maidens and a religious cult, but it's unclear whether the cult members are dangerous fanatics or being mind controlled), and honestly I don't need the hassle.

Still, Rahasia has the distinction of being written by Tracy and Laura Hickman of Dragonlance fame, so it's clear that TSR was already getting more concerned with fiction, even at that early date . . .

Or is my theory full of shit, because I looked it up on wikipedia and it turns out that D&D Rahasia, while published in 1984, was actually a reprint of a module the Hickmans self-published in 1979. So that's one timeline fucked. I could preserve my theory by quibbling that it took time for TSR to get into the narrative game, even if independents had been blazing ground for years, and it might even be true, but I would have to know a lot more about early D&D to speak with any kind of confidence.

Let's just say instead that if you look at D&D adventures from the 90s, they, on average, are driven by the narrative, whereas if you look at D&D adventures from the early 80s, they, on average, are driven by the location, and as you move from one period to another, there is kind of a fuzzy transition between approaches.

In the end, these kind of books are the hardest for me to read. I don't actually enjoy this style of gameplay, and thus whatever merits lie within their nuances are difficult for me to detect. Isle of Dread was kind of racist, I guess. The titular island and the routes to it are home to "native villages," which made me exclaim aloud, "aren't all villages, 'native villages?'" I guess there are colonial settlements small enough to be called "villages,"but that's not really the vibe I got from this book. Just goes to show that the colonialist mindset can crop up in the darndest places.

Also, there's a section that makes a big deal about Fano, the "talking chief," so called because the "chief" of his village was a statue that psychically advised him. Except those scare quotes were in the original, implying Fano was not accurately relaying his personal situation. And, I mean, come on D&D, what are you doing? This is a fantasy world. Statues can give people advice. If you told us that the chief of the village was a statue containing the spirits of its departed elders, and that the day-to-day leader was a holy man who interpreted them . . . that's just a thing that can happen. I would not be inclined to disbelieve you. It's actually significantly less dumb than whatever the hell is going on with the Cleric class. Stop making indigenous-coded people the only ones who don't understand how magic works.

Ooh, got hung up on the pet peeve again. If I'm going to talk about the book's racism, I should focus on the part where every village that didn't want the PCs around was filled with cannibals. Maybe the subplot about enslaving the locals and forcing them to work in a gold mine, even if the book says to "discourage this by having the slaves work very slowly and having them rebel often."

Good Lord, that's offensive. Didn't really strike me until I saw it all concentrated in one place.

Anyway, Curse of Xanathon was fine. Not sure if I'm entirely on board with the cursed duke's wacky edicts ("all taxes must be paid in beer" "no artificial light after dark" "all horses must be fed meat"), but it's hard to screw up "evil magic user plots to take over the land, find the crystal that is his secret weakness and beat the snot out of him."

I'm sure Rahasia was okay as well. It was the adventure so nice they published it twice. However, I could not get invested enough to finish it after realizing I missed the beginning (I'm the same way with movies and TV shows, if I miss even part of it, I usually wind up turning the whole thing off).

Anyway, I've still got a couple of AD&D adventures as part of my list, but I'm hoping I've seen the last of this era and style of gameplay.

Ukss Contribution: Only Curse of Xanathon gets one today. I'm sure Rahasia would have too, if I'd finished it, but we'll probably never know for sure.

For good ol' CoX, it's going to be something goofy and super-specific, sorry. 

As I might have implied, this adventure follows the familiar "furniture, monsters, treasure" format of dungeon design. And the interesting thing about this is that often the furniture is the treasure. On two separate occasions, it mentions a room's tablecloths as potentially valuable bits of treasure (worth 30gp and 100gp, respectively). Sure, you could get some good parody mileage out of adventurers who always make sure to steal the silverware on their way out, but tablecloths?! That's beyond parody.

So Ukss is going to feature at least one luxury tablecloth manufacturer. Those things are going to be damned collector's items.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

I've Got a Side-Side Hustle

 Posting may be unusually slow for the last week of March/1st week of April. I'm working on a creative project entirely unrelated to the blog - Tales of Clickbait, Volume 1

Cool title, right? It's going to be an anthology of internet-era pulp fiction (see, because the original pulp was cheap, disposable paper . . . kind of like the clickbait of today . . . I am very clever). My role in the project is financier/ editor in chief. That's what y'all are getting instead of me spending my stimulus money on six more months of books to read.

I'm actually pretty excited about it. The whole thing is going to be released under a very permissive version of the Creative Commons license, and if the writing samples I've read so far are any indication, it's going to feature the work of some fantastic writers who are seriously slumming it.

Anyway, that's why you may have to wait a few extra days before I tell you my deep, important thoughts about the City of Lankhmar.

Monday, March 22, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Magic: A Manual of Mystic Secrets

I have to take care not to blame this book for not being what I was I hoping it would be. I was hoping it would have a bunch of new spells and magic items and really focus on the big-budget special effects style fantasy that is my not so secret preference. Instead, it had a lot of fiddly rules about various niches and corner cases in its various magic systems. We learn a lot about blood oaths and spirit summoning and, good god, entirely too much about spell design, but genuinely new magic is sparse.

It's not all that bad, except for the spell creation rules. There is some value in knowing that evil mages can cast more powerful spells using human sacrifice and what the different types of elementals look like. And the fact that legendary heroes can make magic items by using them for epic deeds was actually a damned cool mechanic (even if we got no specific examples of what this might look like).

The fantasy elements I most enjoyed were the optional Talent Knacks. They're neat little tricks that do things like allow Cavalrymen to summon a flying spirit mount, Beastmasters to grow claws that act as tools, and Archers to fire an arrow that stops right in front of a target's face. The knacks are generally a bolder form of skill-based magic, suggesting a way of approaching Adepts that is reminiscent of (or, more accurately, presaging) the most interesting parts of Exalted.

Unfortunately, I think Talent Knacks are an example of Earthdawn's mechanics writing themselves into a corner. Even the best of them have a kind of ad hoc quality to them, and even though they expand the Disciplines' abilities, these expansions are only really necessary because the default talent lists or so inflexible. This is part of a more general problem with Earthdawn's system, though. Advancing in your Discipline requires investing a lot of your xp into ranking up your core Talents, and straying from the central path will put you irrevocably behind.

I went ahead and consulted 4th edition. Raising your level is a bit more flexible and Knacks are a bit better organized, but the fundamental disconnect remains the same. A lot of core Talents are just more dice for normal skills, with Knacks being a new mechanical implementation for actions that should either be part of the powers originally or just entirely new Talents added to a Discipline's progression.

There are some great fantasy elements. People mine pure elemental fire by flying over lava in their airships and tossing in explosives. If you travel into the astral plane, you are effectively a spirit and can be summoned by someone who has one of your personal items. There is an alternate reality where the Horrors wiped out all life.

However, those spell creation rules are really rough. They're more than 20 pages long, filled with charts and modifiers and a lot of different rolls. Which is especially rough for something that PCs are only going to use rarely, and which could have been handled by simple level benchmarks besides. I was also a little disappointed that all but one of the magic item creation methods was spellcaster-centric, a bad habit that even D&D should have broken years before. 

Overall, this was more of a utility book than a setting book, which is not my ideal for a magic supplement, but I imagine that if I started playing Earthdawn 1st edition, I'd get a lot of use out of it.

Ukss Contribution: There's also a bunch of rules for miscellaneous magical phenomena like Familiars and Divination. My favorite was the Death Curse. I liked that it was just a thing that any PC could do, not attached to any Talent or spell. It's not just a great setting conceit, but a great game mechanic generally. The player loses a character, but they get one last chance to chew the scenery, do a bit of last minute dramatic editing of the world, and get a bit of revenge into the bargain. So Ukss will have death curses too.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Three Old School Modules

 Last night I read Dwellers of the Forbidden City, Against the Giants, and Descent Into the Depths of the Earth. I decided in advance to do them all as one post, because they were each pretty short (less than 30 pages), but after reading them, I realized it was a good decision because my opinion on all three was exactly the same - OMG, these things are dull. It's just one room after another, and in 90% of them the only thing they say is a list of monsters, a list of furniture, and a list of treasure - usually in that order. Sometimes we'll get a character motivation, but those are few and far between.

To a certain degree, this is unfair. These old modules weren't really meant to be read, they were meant to be played, and if you're into this exact style of roleplaying, then the books provide you with everything you need.  However, I am not into that style, and thus I felt like I was getting punished for something.

It's funny, a while back I read a big batch of BECM Adventures and I recall finding them pretty dull. Ha! It turns out I didn't know what dull was. At least 3 of the 5 books from that batch had actual plots and comprehensible stakes. You'd need a microscope to see the difference between Descent Into the Depths of the Earth and an unprovoked home invasion.

The main difference I see is that the BECM adventures were published in '84-'86, but these AD&D Adventures were from '80-'81. And Against the Giants goes back to at least '78. They are all reprints of convention Tournament games. It's something that came up in the rpg.net thread - apparently they used to play D&D in tournaments.

Dwellers of the Forbidden City actually roughly explains the rules. When it was run in a tournament, players had to use preconstructed characters, they had 3 and a half hours to get through the whole thing, and apparently there was a scoring sheet that was not included here. Narrative is optional.

I mean, I guess I get it. I'm not sure it's a format that promotes very good adventures, but there's a challenge there. Plus, if we didn't have the tournaments, we would never have gotten such classic Gygaxian character names as Flerd Trantle, Beek Gwenders, Frush O'Suggil, or Gleep Wurp, and those weren't even the highlights - they're all that ridiculous. If Chuck Tingle himself designed an AD&D module, it could not seem any stranger (though I do think Chuck would have a bit more fun with the "Great Tentacle Rod" that was wielded by one of the NPCs)

Now, let's do a quick breakdown of each adventure:

Dwellers of the Forbidden City is the most imaginative of the three. It is apparently the origin for classic D&D monsters like the Yuan-ti (snake people), Bullywugs (Frog people), and Aboleths (psychic horrors from an age before humanity, but they kind of look like fish). And there's a lot to like about the setting that's presented here. However, it hits a major pet peeve of mine, and I'm not sure I can forgive it for that.

At the beginning of the adventure, you're in a village nearby the titular Forbidden City, and the local shaman is giving you the lay of the land. At the end of the conversation, the DM is warned "Naturally, the shaman will not tolerate any questioning or mocking of his ideas and will refuse to cooperate with any who do."

Okay, so the shaman is a proud man. A bit prickly. That's a valid character trait. But what are his ideas that he's so protective of?

To summarize - The Forbidden City is haunted by the ghosts of the tribe's enemies, who will viciously attack any member of the tribe who dares set foot inside it. The shaman can keep them contained by setting up magical spirit poles, but forces inside the city itself are constantly tearing them down.

Are you laughing yet? Do you see the joke? No? All you see is a perfectly plausible scenario for a fantasy world, a potential springboard for some interesting worldbuilding to explain why this rural culture has enemies in a long-ruined city, and a great excuse for the tribal leadership to involve outsiders in their business?

Don't you get it? The shaman is 100% wrong about what's going on! Ha. Ha. Ha. You're not going to bravely venture into a ghost-wracked ruin of an ancient and decadent civilization to grapple with the sinister forces of the underworld who would enact their baleful blood curse on the living descendants of their traditional enemies. What a silly thing to believe. No, the real Forbidden City is nothing more than the home to a bunch of C-list AD&D humanoids. 

Can you even imagine, an adventure about fighting vengeful ghosts and demon-men instead of Bugbears and Tasloi (I guess they're kind of like jungle goblins - they ride giant wasps and talk to apes and are actually pretty cool, even if they're never heard from again)?

Sorry for my sarcasm, but that sort of shit bugs the hell out of me. I can't help wondering, though, what sort of cues were present in the original game to warn the PCs that their best source of local information was completely full of shit. Right, like I'm an adventurer in D&D world and the local wise man tells me that the ruin is full of ghosts, that's valid tactical information. Okay, let's make sure we bring a cleric. Maybe stock up on holy water and platinum swords. There's no part of me that's going to think "hey, when this dipshit says 'ghosts,' he probably means, like, frog-people and shit."

There's a dark part of me that suspects the big clue is the word "shaman." Maybe that one word is the signal for the DM to roleplay a lazy indigenous stereotype, possibly with an offensive accent and diction. Maybe, if we were calling him a wizard, this whole digression would never have come up. 

I don't know. The book doesn't come right out and say what's going on, so I'm left with a lot of maybes. Is that enough to condemn the adventure as a whole? Probably not, but it can consider itself scolded.

Next up is Against the Giants. It's got the closest thing any of these modules have to a plot - Giants are attacking, go and teach them a lesson! But as far as plots go, it's basic. You could argue that it's another example of the problematic colonialist plot at the heart of D&D, but honestly giants read more like Vikings than natives to me. They've got steadings and Jarls and a bunch of other European cultural signifiers, so I think it's pretty safe to treat them as big, man-eating monsters instead of as a cuttout of imperialist propaganda.

I need to make a special note of that because in this adventure, you kill their children. This is probably not merely incidental. Gygax himself breaks the fourth wall to tell us that his playtest group did exactly that. "The rationale of this whole series of adventures is a fight to the finish."

It's gross. Incredibly gross. But it's probably a "what the fuck's wrong with you"-level gross, rather than a full-on hate crime.

My two takeaways from this adventure are 1)Don't kill the giant bebes and 2)Yeti with a sword. Also, describing a lady giant as "comely to those of her ilk" is just a stone cold burn. Why are you threatened by powerful women, Gygax?

Descent Into the Depths of the Earth was also there. It might have been a bit of an error to leave the "Kuo-Toa sacrifice captives to their aquatic goddess" bit of lore until after you described their whole town (I was mostly reading that adventure thinking - "why can the PCs not simply walk through the area without killing anybody.") However, if this is your style of adventure - explore map, fight stuff you find, then the book works fine. "Beautiful woman with the head of a lobster" is going to keep me up, though.

Overall - if I had a choice, I would have preferred to pass on these. They were found in a crate in my most recent move and I have no idea where they came from. They're an artifact of primordial D&D, though, so even though I'll never play them, it was good to learn what they were like.

Ukss Contribuiton: Okay, three books, three picks. From Forbidden City, the god egg. The Bullywugs are incubating it, with the help of a human wizard, and that's what's keeping them loyal to the Yuan-ti's goals. It's actually a dragon egg, because old D&D were a bunch of cowards, but in Ukss . . . who knows.

Against the Giants: I mean, I gotta go with the Great Tentacle Rod, right? There were other well-chosen details here (a giant princess has a pet cave bear, there's a dashing female thief locked up in the basement who doesn't get a name because Gygax was afraid of strong women, frost giants use fire beetles to light their homes), but in the end, a magic item like the Great Tentacle Rod simply doesn't come along every day.

As for Descent . . . ehhhh . . . this is probably one of those cases where something old wound up becoming so iconic that the future can't help but see it as hopelessly basic, but this adventure was as hopelessly basic as anything featuring an underground society of reverse mermaids could possibly be. But if I have to choose . . . the leader of the Kuo-Toa was a cleric/assassin. That's an interesting class combo. I'm not going to use his ridiculous name, Va-Guulgh, but there could be a merfolk assassin-priest who acts as an antagonist to the undersea kingdoms.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Glitch

 There's been a longish gap between posts, but, unusually, this time I've been reading almost every day. When I saw that Glitch was 400+ pages, my first thought was that I would break it into parts like I've done with other large corebooks. Then I got about 100 pages in and I realized that there was going to be no part of this book that I felt comfortable taking out and looking at in isolation.

I think most people, if asked to boil Jenna Moran's work down to a single word would describe it as "whimsical." There's a lot of that here. There's a character in this book who is "dying of trademark infringement" - fate conspires that her actions just happen to strongly resemble those of a "famous idol" with a similar name, and the universe punishes her for her unintentional plagiarism. There's another character whose title is "The Prince of the French Fry that Fell in the Corner." At one point he saves the universe (though the canonicity of this is dubious -  it was in one of the always delightful microfictions that are a Jenna Moran signature). If you're coming to this for the whimsy, you're going to find it.

However, Glitch made me think, and I'm persuaded that a better word for Ms Moran's body of work is "intricate." The good kind of intricate, mostly. The kind of intricate that demonstrates craftsmanship and care, that you largely marvel at because of the elegance of its many interlocking parts. But also the kind of intricate where material you're reading on page 320 would have come in really handy for understanding concepts introduced on page 30. Also, sometimes, if it's late and you're a little zonked from the time change, you'll have no fucking clue what's going on.

As a follow-up to Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine it's fascinating. Chuubo's was a singular accomplishment that will likely never be repeated, but I think it's fair to say that the thing it accomplished was to expose the superstructure of rpgs as a storytelling medium and point the way towards designing new games that took its insights to heart. Glitch is exactly that sort of game. It owes a lot to Chuubo's, but it's not Chuubo's. 

In many ways, it's a strictly superior game. When it directly inherits a concept, that concept is usually subtly improved. For example, "genre actions" have been replaced by "spotlighting." If you read closely, spotlights replicate a lot of what genre actions actually did, but they're presented as more abstract and more like a character power than a player obligation. You use a spotlight to make the GM or another player stop and elaborate on whatever they were just talking about. The specifics of what they're supposed to do with the spotlight are often similar (for example, Chubbo's epic fantasy genre had the "Decisive Action" where you're supposed to give a speech about what you're going to do, and then do it and Glitch allows you to "spotlight a test" and buy an automatic success if the character gives a speech about what they're about to do), but the difference in framing, and, heck, the new, more evocative name, make the concept a lot more attractive.

Similarly, there's a change to the quest system that is, quite frankly, inspired. Now, players take turns being the "focus" of a session. You can only advance your storyline quests while your character is the focus, but for the duration of the session, so can the other players. They can trigger your quest flavor options and earn one xp for you and one xp for themselves. The implications for player investment in each others' stories is staggering to contemplate. I am positively salivating for the next edition of Nobilis.

Which brings us to . . . not exactly the downside of Glitch, but let's call it a "caveat." Glitch is weird. Even for a Jenna Moran game it's weird. You may have noticed that I've not yet explained what Glitch is about. That's because what it's about is roughly 3-layers deep of Moran-verse self-referential. People think Glass Maker's Dragon is insular, but there's only one thing you need to know about Glass Maker's Dragon - and that's that we'd all gladly die to protect our Best Boi Leonardo de Montreal (or Seizhi Schwan or Jasper Irinka or, hell Chuubo himself - that is one damned charming campaign).

However, for Glitch I have to take several steps back. So, there's this game called Nobilis, and in that game you play people with the power of universal concepts. A character is something like "The Power of Fire" and you've got a broad ability to define what that means, getting as weird and as epic as you want. Set whole worlds on fire? Yes. Light a fire in someone's heart and convince them to pursue their dreams? Sure. Grant humanity the Promethean fire and boostrap it into a new age of technological plenty? If that's what "fire" means to you and the rest of the group doesn't rebel at you hijacking the setting, knock yourself out.

Now, the Nobilis have enemies. They're not just out there in the cosmos doing cool shit, there's a war going on. There's a faction called "The Excrucians." Their goal is to destroy the universe and their powers are beefy enough that they're uncowed by the frankly ludicrous strength of Creation's defenders.

With me so far? Good, because there are actually four types of Excrucians, and they all approach things a little differently. Deceivers have these infectious self-referential paradoxes that they use to corrupt the things of Creation. Mimics wield roughly the same powers as the beings that empowered the Nobilis, but in doing so they make a mockery of the laws of the universe. Warmains will just directly fuck your shit up. And then there's Strategists, with their signature power of The Worldbreaker's Hand, which can make things, even the abstract properties of ordinary objects, just not exist anymore, and because of this dread power they enter Creation doomed to die, usually pretty quickly, only to come back again and again in an endless cycle of resurrection.

Glitch is about the Strategists. But not the Excrucians. It's about the Strategists who decide to drop out of the war and live their doomed lives as best they can. They're still dying. They still share the Excrucian's fundamental conviction that Creation is a crime against the Void. But instead of attempting to slaughter the Powers that defend the universe, they solve mysteries.

That doesn't even begin to really describe the game. That's just what you need to know before you can say whether you're interested in what the massive expansion in canon will explain.

And honestly, you should be interested. It's very interesting. It's alternately funny and scary and thought-provoking, and Jenna's "wise, with a smirk" voice is used as artfully as it's ever been. But . . .

In Jenna Moran's own words, "You can think of Glitch as a kind of improv ethical philosophy and comedy jam session."

And that's . . . It's . . . Are you trying to sell the game or presage the exact parody your detractors are going to use to dismiss it as being made for absolute wankers?

There are several examples of play, and they're quite useful for understanding the game, but they are so arch and verbose that even I, no stranger to discursive quips and self-indulgent meandering, had to roll my eyes a couple of times. Even as I was being absolutely charmed by the wit, I was rolling my eyes.

Two out of the five attributes are called "Eide" and "Flore" and good luck guessing what they do (the other attributes are "Ability," "Lore," and "Wyrd," and they're not exactly straightforward, but at least they have existing fantasy provenance).

And look, I like this game. Quite a lot, actually. But if someone called it pretentious and impenetrable, I would not be able to deny the justice of those accusations. It's a niche within a niche and I'm actually kind of astonished that it exists at all.

But you shouldn't necessarily let the book's worst qualities scare you off. It will also take you to places that you've never dreamed of and show you things you'll see nowhere else. It's the double-shot espresso of fantasy. The things there are to love about the genre, Glitch has, more extreme and more specific than just about any alternative.

Ukss Contribution: Did you write down your predictions for Eide already? If not, I can wait . . .

It's the power of being your most iconic self, exploiting your self-created personal mythology to do mythological-type things. It gets pretty weird, because the Strategists have this super-specific relationship to the metaphysics of the setting, but, for example, if being a baker is your signature Technique, you can use Eide to win at even ludicrously-rigged baking contests (only the judges absolutely refusing to taste your food and just corruptly tossing the contest to your opponent even has a chance of beating you, and that itself is unnaturally difficult to arrange)

One of the lesser powers of Eide is "Costuming" and it's exactly what it sounds like. Your legend is bound up in a particular identity and you can always find the props necessary to signal that identity. If you're a doctor, you can get scrubs on the moon. If you're a princess, you'll have your tiara, no matter how many times the revolutionaries take it away.

It's absolute nonsense, but it's the sort of inspired nonsense that keeps me coming back.