Monday, December 10, 2018

Vampire: The Requiem - Introduction

From the Back

This is not
the abandoment of death,
Nor is it
the breath of life.
This is the funeral song  . . .

No, you know what, this is White Wolf putting poetry on the back of their books, because why should things be simple and helpful. Let's just skip it and go straight into what it is.

Vampire: The Requiem is the follow-up game to Vampire: The Masquerade. In the early 2000s, White Wolf decided to blow up their massively successful rpg franchise and rebuild it from first principles. Requiem should be Masquerade, shorn of its accumulated excesses and refocused on delivering a pure vampire-themed horror experience.

Expectations

You know, I honestly thought there was more of a time gap between Requiem and Masquerade, Revised. Now I'm wondering if Requiem will be nearly as socially aware as I'm hoping. I don't recall anything particularly offensive about it, but then again, I didn't remember anything specifically problematic about Masquerade either.

Which isn't to say I'm going into this looking for a political hit job. I'm okay with a little political incorrectness in my vampire games. Actually, what I'm most looking forward to are the clearer genre expectations and more refined mechanics.

What I'm least looking forward to are the fonts. White Wolf loved fonts that kind of look like handwriting. It's not something I mentioned in my reaction to Masquerade, because I actually kind of like that game and didn't want to keep piling on negativity, but I happened to glance at the introductory fiction and I saw something like four different fonts in the space of two pages.

So, clearly, it would be naive of me to expect Requiem to correct everything that was wrong with Masquerade.

Vampire: The Masquerade, Revised Edition - Reaction

Vampire: The Masquerade is turning out to be a tough one to grapple with. I don't really want to talk about politics, because that's a black hole that swallows everything that gets near it, but the politics of this book are . . . not good.

It's nothing particularly hateful. On the balance, I'd say the book is on the right side of history. It's just closer to the center of the bell curve than I'm entirely comfortable with. Put in the starkest possible terms, the problem is this:

Vampires are really white.

And, look, it's a thing. It was the 90s. White people were whiter back then. If you stack 1999-era John Frazer up against the Vampire Revised core book, I guarantee you that I was at least 10-20% whiter, by volume. The difference is that I've since had nearly 20 years of personal growth, and this book hasn't.

It's not that the book is racist. I mean, it is, but in that mostly benign 90s way, where it's rigorously colorblind and sometimes overly pious in its tokenism, but clearly committed to the notion that the races are "equal."  And I'm pretty sure, that given its subject matter, any depictions that might have wandered uncomfortably close to real world bigotry were dismissed as "we're equal opportunity offenders."

There is some justice to that. It's not like the Ventrue, a clan whose whole shtick can basically be summed up as "we may have lost our lives, but they'll never take our white privilege," is any better, morally, than the designated PoC clans, and in fact, in true White Wolf punk fashion, is often the punching bag when characters criticize "vampire society." It's just that you have one clan whose deal is that they have traditionally recruited the scions of nobility and have adapted to modern nights by moving into the board room. And then you have another clan of Arabian religious fanatics who are waging an implacable holy war against the underpinnings of civilization (in this case, it's vampires, so it's kind of justified, but in context, it's not a good look).

Vampire: The Masquerade resolves this tension by pointing out that Clan Assamite has recently started recruiting "westerners" (their word).

That's a pattern for the book. Non-white spaces are either closed off completely (basically all of east Asia is a no-go zone, thanks to the  "mysterious" Asian vampires) or it takes pains to note that white people are included (as per the writeups for the Followers of Set or Assamites). The reverse is not true for the Clans that read as white. No mention of black Ventrue, or Native American Toreadors or anything like that. I'm 99% sure that the intent was that the Camarilla and Sabbat clans were all default inclusionary and none explicitly broke down along racial lines (in fact, the portrait on the Brujah clan page is probably meant to be a black man, but it's hard to say for certain with the art style - his skin is page-colored). However, that's the problem. White culture is invisible, and thus the white-coded clans represent broad generic archetypes, despite the fact that a nobleman from Edwardian England is even more alien to a modern American than a contemporary Japanese person from "the mysterious East."

I don't necessarily think the cure for this is more explicitly diverse Ventrue. If we're taking the clan's history at face value, then it makes perfect sense that it is lily-white. European nobility was overwhelmingly white, and modern finance hasn't exactly closed the racial gap. And it's not as if the Ventrue are going to benefit from good publicity by being inclusive. Plus, you know, given the age of the vampires and the social circles they came from, they're almost certainly hugely racist.

But if you're going to go with an all-white clan Ventrue (and the more I think about it, the more I agree that you should), you kind of have a duty to point it out. To acknowledge whiteness as a political force, and, indeed, to draw parallels between vampirism and the exploitative power of white supremacist capitalism. Indeed, if you're doing it right vampires =  white people is a metaphor that is too on the nose.

I mean, not to belabor a point (too late), but there's a whole chapter devoted to the history of the kindred, and an important theme is how vampires crossed the ocean to escape the stifling order of the European elders, and you don't even mention the transatlantic slave trade? Nothing about characters having to be shipped as cargo rang a bell? The American revolution is discussed in the paranoid context of warring vampire factions, and not one peep about the ready availability of blood in a society where it was possible to literally buy and sell human beings?

That's how white vampires are. They can afford to forget about race as a force.

And so, despite my best intentions, this post wound up being heavily political after all. But that's not all of what Vampire the Masquerade is. It's not even the bulk of it. At its heart lies the dream of bringing your Anne Rice fanfiction to life. And how does it fare at that task?

Passably. It has flaws. The system makes a hash out of probability. Having both a variable target number and a variable dice pool makes it very hard to have an intuitive sense of how likely something is, and some actions requiring multiple successes doesn't make it any easier. The end result is a system that feels like it is held together by the players' optimism.

But it also leads to a system that is at its most robust and functional in combat situations. A factor, I'm sure, that led to many games becoming extended brawls.

That ties into the system's biggest weakness - it's being pulled in too many directions. It wants to be a game of sexy vampires doing sexy things in a moodily-lit shadow world of decadence and deceit, but it also wants to be a game of personal horror, where characters have a tenuous hold on their morality and slowly become corrupted by the temptations of undeath, and also an occult conspiracy game, where long-buried secrets hold the key to an imminent apocalypse and also a game about the conflict between rival ideological factions, with different visions of how the vampiric condition should relate to society at large. All these factors can work together to tell some remarkable stories, but it's more likely that they don't.

That's probably the game's greatest strength, too. Roleplaying games are a chaotic storytelling medium at the best of times, and the players are likely to have different agendas about the direction they want the game to go (a fact that Vampire, Revised sometimes seem to be in denial about) and it's good to have something for them to do.

UKSS Contribution: Probably Clan Tremere. The hubris of wizards attempting to wrest the secret of eternal life from the undead, only to fail and become vampires is pretty compelling. I also like the image of a sinister cabal of vampires, gathering in secret to perform mystical rituals. Plus, they're arrogant jerks, which is always something you want to see in your vampire conspiracies.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Vampire the Masquerade, Revised Edition - Introduction

From the Back

There will come a time, when the curse of the One above will not be tolerated further, when the Lineage of Caine will end when the Blood of Caine will be weak and there will be no Embracing for these Childer for their blood will run like water and the potence in it will wither. Then, you know in this time that Gehenna will soon be upon you.

-- The Book of Nod

What is This

Well, the back wasn't very informative. It's a game about vampires. Or, more accurately, the game about Vampires. The third edition of the original, gothic-punk, superheroes-with-fangs, angsty, tortured storytelling game of personal horror.

Expectations

As a classic White Wolf game, I'm looking forward to one part compelling fiction, one part unbearable pretentiousness, and one part mechanical carelessness. As an artifact from the late 90s, particularly one that marketed itself as "adult," it's likely to blindside me with some bit of political backwardness that I didn't notice at the time. So that'll be interesting to write about, at least.

Overall, I think I'll be pretty energized by this one. White Wolf always had a knack for creating readable rpgs.

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Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia - Reaction

I have a vision of the future. I'm sitting in my nice leather chair. I've just read two editions of GURPS back to back. And my brains are leaking out through my ears.

Reading the D&D Rules Cyclopedia so soon after the individual boxed sets wasn't quite that bad, but it gives me a horrifying glimpse at what awaits me.

But putting that aside, I have to say, this book is . . . good? Bad? Goodbad?

It's one-volume D&D. Everything you need for a game - player abilities, DM advice, monster stats - in a single book that you could sit down and read over the course of a couple of afternoons. I may be missing some obscure product, but it is quite possibly the only version of the game ever released that lets you do that. So the very fact that it exists is incredible.

It's just, this version of D&D, it's . . . I don't want to say "bad," but I'm at a loss for a similarly simple word that means "inconsistent, filled with ad hoc rules, and a poor fit for emulating the heroic fiction that inspired it."

Of course, that was my key observation on the first go round of BECM D&D. So, the worst thing you could say about the Rules Cyclopedia is that it doesn't dramatically improve the material it compiled. It does streamline things a bit. It's easy to underestimate how much of a benefit it is to just have all the rules for a particular character class in one place, but it does help both comprehension and flow. And some of the more obvious missteps have been corrected. For example, it now advises thief characters to not steal from their party. And it is no longer canon that apes can become wereseals.

The parts I was most interested in are those from the Companion DM's book, which I inexplicably do not own. There were some monsters, some magic items (including the demihuman relics, which all seemed to produce some obscure method of transportation, for some reason), but the biggest contributions were the mass combat and dominion management rules.

Which, I'm glad they're included, but I'm even more glad that I won't have to use them. Mass combat basically involves sitting down with your friends and doing algebra for 20 minutes (if you're lucky) and dominion management is not dynamic or interactive enough to be worth your time (it actually suggests that staying in your dominion, ruling in person, is likely to increase your chances of a coup, so that's a pretty sick burn).

In theory, I really like taking these high level things out of the realm of DM fiat and making them objectively influenced by character stats and actions, but ultimately, what I want is something that will model the interstitial narration of a historical epic (". . . and in the year of the lion, the Ochre Horde advanced on the capital, but Lord Horence was too far away to rally his forces, or was he . . .") without getting bogged down in too many corner cases or exceptions.

Maybe it's not an attainable goal, and I certainly don't fault the Rules Cyclopedia for not pulling it off, but it does kind of exemplify both the strengths and weakness of this edition - everything is included, allowing you to tell fantasy stories of any scope or scale, all with one book . . . but the price is that it's all just a little bit crummy.

Overall, though, I think I'd take it over AD&D, which - hell, I'll let the Rules Cyclopedia's conversion section finish this thought for me - ". . . often has a more detailed rule that includes more variables, allowing it to cover situations in much greater depth."

I mean, good gods, at least we dodged that bullet.

UKSS Contribution - This pretty much had to come from the monster's section, and there were some pretty good choices, but none that quite had the charm of Sasquatches. I'm pretty sure they were in either Basic or Expert, but the Rules Cyclopedia introduces a new rule here - they can sometimes be spellcasters. Specifically, they can reach up to level 4 as druids.

Now I'm picturing a whole community of gentle, hippy Sasquatches, living in harmony with nature and hiding from the rapacious industry of the hu-man with the aid of the forest spirits.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia - Introduction


From the Back

Whether you're a player or Dungeon Master, the DUNGEONS & DRAGON Rules Cyclopedia is now the comprehensive sourcebook you need for the original fantasy role-playing game! For ages 12 and up, the Cyclopedia contains the complete game system and hundreds of features including:

  • All the rules from the D&D Boxed Set series, including Basic, Expert, Companion, and Masters.
  • Guidelines to develop and play characters from levels 1-36.
  • Comprehensive lists of weaponry and equipment.
  • Expansion rules including optional skills and talents.
  • And overview of the Known World and HOLLOW WORLD game settings, the official D&D campaign world.
  • Rules to convert D&D games and characters into AD&D 2nd edition game statistics and back again.
  • Provides all the original monsters from the earlier boxed sets.

Expectations

I'm kind of dreading this one. It seems like it should just be a rehash of the three-and-a-half books I've already read before. But maybe the Cyclopedia will put a new perspective on the material, or at least rephrase it so I'm not going through exactly the same stuff as I did before.

But let's be real. This is going to be very similar to the books I've already read. At least I'll be able to find out what I missed in the Companion DM's book. 

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Earthdawn Gamemaster's Guide - Reaction

My main takeaway from The Earthdawn Gamemaster's Guide is that the decision to split the game into two volumes was not a fruitful one. Sure, it makes sense to keep the monster stats and magic items a secret, but I see no reason to segregate the climbing rules, and certain things, like the setting information do active harm to the game by being hidden away in a GM supplement.

Okay, so it's 2018, and it's highly unlikely that anyone is coming across Earthdawn 4th Edition by accident. I mean, I discovered it by accident, when I went into the local game store and saw it on their rpg shelf, but even then, it didn't have to sell me on the game. I knew right away what it was, and how improbable it was that I'd ever see it again. Still, if I'm imagining an alternate universe where these books were destined for the hands of an utter Earthdawn naif, then I have to question the wisdom of putting the game's main selling point - its incredible setting - into a book marked for GMs.

Because the setting information here really is quite good. It combines the familiar with the novel in a way that feels fresh. Like, it's a fantasy setting with elves and dwarves and whatnot, but dwarves are the most common race, outnumbering even humans. And the dwarf kingdom is underground, but that dovetails with the setting backstory in a really fruitful way. Of course, dwarves would have certain advantages in a world where all sapient life spent six of the last seven hundred years huddled in underground bunkers. And yet, aside from its exotic location, the Kingdom of Throal is portrayed in much the same terms as any fantasy kingdom - it is driven by profit and pride, but sometimes the idealists win. Just because they're a kingdom of dwarfs doesn't mean they're pigeonholed as the "dwarf kingdom." It's a remarkable bit of world-building.

But if I had to narrow the appeal of the setting down to one single element (which I don't have to, and really shouldn't - there's a lot of great stuff there), I'd say that what makes Earthdawn great is that it really manages to capture the sense of loss that comes with its post-apocalyptic setting. Lots of fantasy stories are set in the ruins of some prior, great civilization, but they often seem to use these ruins as a sort of adventuring loot box. Rarely are they engaged with as ruins - places that were once filled with activity and life, but which have since faded away.

The way Earthdawn establishes this is subtle. Take, for example, the broken kaers. Let's be real for a second. They're dungeons. They exist to be big, dangerous boxes full of thrilling monster fights and fabulous treasure. And they succeed in that. But, the plot of going into a kaer, clearing out the monsters, and retrieving the treasure also manages to be effortlessly affecting, even without further embellishment.

And it all comes down to one choice that seems obvious in retrospect, but which eluded me for years - Kaers are not mysterious. You never have to wonder "for what purpose did the ancients construct such an elaborate underground structure." You know it was to take refuge from an implacable enemy. And you never have to wonder "what fate befell the inhabitants that such a place would be abandoned to monsters." You know. The refuge failed.

But the trick Earthdawn pulls off is actually a two-step. Because Barsaive is not a bleak world, where people are constantly wailing in grief over a past that can never be reclaimed. The thing that most sells the sense of loss is that world is really quite the opposite. It's a world filled with hope. The people of Barsaive are rebuilding. The Horrors are in retreat. The evil empire suffered a major defeat. The dwarves of Throal were sincere when they said they were going to use their influence to liberate and unify, rather than rule. It's called Earthdawn for a reason. Tomorrow is going to be brighter than yesterday (with the help of the heroes, of course). The world has faced its darkest moment and survived. Life endures.

But then, sometimes, you come across a reminder of the people who didn't make it . . .

And that's what makes Earthdawn so great as a setting. And it's a shame that so little of that made it into the player-facing book. I'm glad that it's still somewhere, but I can't help but feel that the Player's and Gamemaster's Guides are less two stand-alone books, each serving a particular purpose and more two complementary volumes of a single work, that can't really function without each other. In fact, my theory at this point is that printing technology isn't really well suited to making a 1000-page book at 6"x9", so they arbitrarily split it in half to make it easier to manufacture.

Oh well, it doesn't much affect me on a personal level. I own both books and I was happy to read them. I may even put out feelers in my gaming group, see if anyone's interested in starting an Earthdawn game.

Ukss Contribution - I'm going to be cautious here and go with "cats can see into the astral." Such a picayune detail, doesn't especially help anyone but a Beastmaster character, and the only reason I even know about it is that the writers made the odd decision to include normal, non-combatant animals in their bestiary alongside Griffins and Unicorns.

So, you know, if you ever need to fight a mule, Earthdawn's got you covered. They don't have any magical powers or anything, but they are pretty good at carrying gear, so they could be armed with anything.

Seriously, though. The thing about cats seeing into the astral is a detail I really like. I enjoy it when fantasy games take real world superstition and make it function within the context of their rules.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Earthdawn Game Master's Guide - Introduction

From the Back

[Snip same 3 paragraphs that appeared on the back of the Player's Guide]

The Gamemaster's Guide provides rules and advice for running the Earthdawn game and includes an exploration of the lands of Barsaive, as well as numerous fantastic creatures and magical treasures to challenge and reward your players.

Expectations

The Player's Guide disappointed me a bit with its lack of setting information. The Gamemaster's Guide devotes 80 pages to history and setting (not counting the setting info that's surely in the creatures, dragons, and horrors chapters) so I'm optimistic about that. On the other hand, this book, like the first one, is huge. It's got to fill that word count with something, and if it's not high fantasy spectacle, it will be GMing advice and dry rules that is too rarely used to be included in a player reference.

In any event, Earthdawn is a game I've always had a soft spot for, despite not owning it until about two months ago. The best case scenario is that I'm inspired to buy a whole bunch of old supplements off Amazon. (Some might call it the worst case scenario, but I'm a slow learner).

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