Friday, December 6, 2019

(AD&D 2e) DM's Option: High-Level Campaigns

The paradox and the mystery of this book is best typified by the way it defends demihuman racial limits.
Demihuman characters are usually forced to retire or assume secondary roles in the campaign once human player characters begin to reach high levels and the demihuman characters reach their advancement limits. That is exactly what's supposed to happen. Many DMs are tempted to ignore demihuman advancement limits, especially when players are unwilling to retire their high-level demihuman characters.

Do not ignore demihuman advancement limits; they are the price players must pay for gaining demihuman advantages at lower levels. Ignoring the advancement limits unbalances play by placing high-level power in the hands of characters who already have extra abilities, and it is grossly unfair to players who have chosen human characters and have labored long and hard to get to the point where their choices begin to pay dividends in the form of unlimited advancement.
I don't usually like to do such long quotes, but this is a real masterpiece of missing the point. Each sentence is somehow more disconnected from reality than the one that came before. It makes me wonder if there was perhaps some kind of D&D authors' clique that exclusively played games with each other using RAW and had a set of cultural conventions that could make those rules work. Because this theory of career-arc balance, where a benefit gained at first level is paid for by a cost you won't see until 10th level? The only thing it could possibly accomplish is to make both 1st and 10th level unbalanced in the moment.

And your game mechanic seems to be that an acceptable price for character abilities is that at some point you're going to have to prematurely stop playing the game. A party of adventurers stuck together through thick and thin, the equivalent of 50 dungeons in the game and more than a year in real life, and then suddenly they reach the level cap and the humans get to keep going, but their loyal elf and dwarf companions have to retire. What are the players doing during all of this? I've just lost my 14th level elf mage in a game that's destined to reach level 30 - what am I playing as the human characters reach level 15?

The thing that astounds me most is that the book acknowledges there's a problem. But then it gets really defensive and suggests that the problem is actually a function of the rules working as intended. It says "human characters . . . have labored long and hard," but it doesn't question the absurdity of that construction. Dungeons & Dragons is supposed to be a game. Why are people laboring at all?

And that's DM's Option: High-Level Campaigns in a nutshell. It's full of ideas that are probably pretty radical for this hypothetical designer-clique AD&D, but which seem to brush only lightly against anything I'd recognize as actual play experiences. There are twenty pages devoted to an elaborate spell-dueling system that as near as I can tell is destined to be purely speculative because it can at most involve two PCs at a time, will much more likely involve the entire group sitting around waiting while one PC duels an NPC, and which most likely won't be very interesting because the huge list of special spell interactions serves only to underscore the profound unlikelihood of two mages having memorized and deployed appropriate counters at any given time.

This book opens with the surreal spectacle of being shocked at its own audacity.
Utter the words "high-level character" to just about group of AD&D fans and you are certain to get a strong reaction. Veteran players often shake their heads in disgust, but the are a few whose eyes gleam with fond memories. Referees often look pained or confused. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on high-level play.
But I can't help thinking, from my vantage point where I've played Exalted and I've run Nobilis, that the book is grossly misdiagnosing the problem here. It's not high-level play. It's AD&D. It doesn't really know what it is, and any time it works or fails to work, it's completely up to chance.

Ukss Contribution: Of the book's innovations, the one with the greatest setting implications is the 10th-level spell-casting system called "True Dweomers." Unfortunately, it's uniformly bad. Do you like doing algebra every time you cast a spell? Is your favorite part of normal D&D casting the material components (or at least, would it be if only those components weren't so easy to acquire and keep track of)? Do you not mind that it takes careful min-maxing of the system to avoid coming up with something strictly worse than your regular spells?

And with all those problems, it didn't even produce one example spell memorable enough to get an honorable mention.

I was therefor forced to stretch myself a little. One of the special abilities available to high-level priests is "Detect Deception," which would be pretty neat if it weren't filled with caveats and failure points. But it's pretty easy for me to imagine an esoteric order of Priests of Truth who have a version of the ability that's worthy of being a character power.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Council of Wyrms

My feud with AD&D is starting to heat up. I don't know if I can forgive it for this book. Council of Wyrms is well-written and has a great high concept, but it is weighted down with far too many AD&D sacred cows and as a result it never quite comes into its own.

The quick pitch is this: there's this chain of islands where dragons are so common that they've built a civilization. They divide up territory among themselves and rule whole societies of dwarves, elves, and gnomes, filling the same general niche as aristocrats in an oligarchic society. Though each dragon is a law unto itself, to ensure they don't kill each other, the oldest and wisest dragons gather in a Council of Wyrms, to mediate duels, recognize territorial claims, and address threats to all dragon-kind. Council of Wyrms, the book, not only presents this setting (which would be pretty badass, even if you were just playing it from the demihuman perspective), but it also allows you to play as the dragons themselves.

I love this idea. The only way it could possibly go wrong is if you somehow reduced the majesty and splendor of dragon-kind to an elaborate color-coded hierarchy where nearly all of their powers, temperament, and moral philosophy was rigorously determined by their ancestry as interpreted by a slavish adherence to the parameters set down in the Monstrous Manual. Oh, and make the types completely unbalanced with each other, so that there is an objectively best choice of character and it seems like you are actively punishing players for choosing dragons based on aesthetic or sympathetic factors, so much so that the recommended style of play is to pick your dragon randomly. And don't forget to expressly forbid popular types like the Red, Green, and Black dragons because your rules say that they are always evil and you don't want to encourage evil PCs (though, at least with this last one, there's basically nothing to the rule - all of the information you need to play a chromatic dragon is in the book, they just leave them out of the random generation table).

The thing that gets me, though, is how easy it would have been to do it right. Just say that every dragon is different and that the ones in the MM are just specific examples that demonstrate tendencies. Give players a blank dragon template that they can fill up with special powers, magic, and combat abilities in whatever mix they desire. Let them design the appearance of their dragons however they want. And drop alignment off a fucking cliff, because seriously, its only purpose is to simultaneously defang the politics of the metallic dragons and make the chromatic dragons into cartoonish caricatures. There is a Green Dragon clan called Evilwood. Evilwood.

I see so much potential here, I'm very nearly losing sight of the real game. If Council of Wyrms had Ars Magica-style troupe play, where each player made a dragon and characters for all their fellow-players entourages, it could really get into the politics of the setting and dragons would feel much more like the awesome solitary monsters they're supposed to be (one of the included adventures sums itself up by saying it "pits four to six adult dragons against the evil genius of a crazed dwarf" which pretty much sums up the uncanny feeling of playing a party of adventuring dragons). If it had some kind of generational or legacy system for its demihuman "kindred" characters, so that you could skim through the epic sweep of time that's defined by a dragon's lifespan (seriously - the book sometimes makes it seem like you're going to be leveling up your dragon PCs from hatchling to great wyrm, but that's 1200 years minimum - it is completely unprepared to handle that kind of scale), it could really dig in and explore the social and psychological nuances of the demihuman-dragon relationship.

Sadly, Council of Wyrms doesn't have that kind of ambition. Or maybe it just doesn't have the room. It attempts to cover a lot of ground in just three slim, 64 page booklets. Either way, it's easy to see how the campaign can be improved and I'm not sure if that means that it's bad, because its weaknesses are so obvious, or that it's good, because I find the subject matter so effortlessly inspirational.

I guess that's just what AD&D does to me.

Ukss Contribution: There's a section that discusses what happens to dragons when time catches up to them and they begin to experience senescence. One of the suggestions is that some of them might cheat death by magically merging with the landscape and becoming guardians of nature. I'm a stone-cold sucker for mystic living scenery, so this is right in my wheelhouse. I'm thinking that at least one mountain in Ukss is going to be the semi-conscious remains of a dead dragon.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Player's Option: Combat & Tactics

I can't tell you what a relief it is to no longer have Player's Option: Combat & Tactics looming in my future. It wasn't the driest of my remaining books, not when there's another edition of GURPS left to read, but it was definitely not in the sweet-spot for entertaining vs informative content. It reads a lot like game rules, which I suppose is the point of the exercise, but it's always a little offputting to be reminded of that.

Combat & Tactics does have the distinction of being the first one of these Player's Option books that is not objectively worse than the material it supplants. It might be controversial as to whether a highly-detailed, miniatures-focused tactical combat system is desirable, but if you come down on the book's side of the issue, you're mostly going to get a system that is robust and functional. It feels exactly like what it is - a prototype of D&D3's combat. There are ambiguities that are destined to get cleaned up, and there's more bookkeeping involved, but there are also more features. I'd never want to use it, but I don't hate it.

The only major flaw of this book (aside from the fact that it's 190 pages devoted to combat, the most boring part of every rpg) is that it does not overcome core AD&D's curiously limited vision. This is probably something that rankles me more right after reading Spelljammer than it would have if I'd read it when I first intended to, but the equipment section of this book is probably as pure an expression of AD&D's bizarre historiographical priorities as we're ever likely to see . . .

Let's put in 20 types of polearms and separate equipment lists for the Dark Ages, the Crusades, and the Hundred Years War, but India is basically in the Middle East, right?

It's depressingly Eurocentric. There's a section devoted to martial arts. You know, the famous Shaolin styles of A, B, C, and D. Also, you can't use improvised weapons with martial arts. I guess I've been long under the impression that Oriental Adventures was inspired by Hong Kong cinema, so how does this happen?

I have a theory. The Foreword says that Combat & Tactics' goal was not to make combat more realistic, but rather to make it more believable, and it occurs to me that believability is one of those things that is as much in the minds of the audience as it is in the context of the fiction. It only takes a little effort for a person to believe all sorts of improbable things.

So maybe when we look at a fantasy history being "believable" we should look less at the detail and nuance of its world-building and more at what the reader is already primed to believe. It reminds me of something I said in my video game blog, while I was playing Europa Universalis IV:
It's like they're saying that way things played out in the real world was inevitable, but I'm sure that if you replayed human history 1000 times, starting in 1444, in 999 of those timelines, China would be the preeminent global power going into the 19th century. So why not let the game play out that way? Why pretend that the real world outcome is the likeliest or most plausible?
I was referring to EUIV's mechanics that sidestepped the rules of the simulation to nudge the game towards a "historical" outcome, but I think the question is even more salient when talking about creating a fantasy setting. It was a train of thought kicked off by Combat & Tactics' discussion of bronze age technology:
Unlike Stone Age or savage cultures, Bronze Age cultures are almost never found as contemporaries of more advanced civilizations.
First, the obligatory "Savage cultures? Really?!" Though at least Combat & Tactics has the good grace to acknowledge and condemn European colonialism
Historically, many African, Asian, and Malaysian nations were considered "savages" by Western European explorers as late as the early part of this century. These unique cultures suffered terribly at the hands of their supposedly more-civilized visitors.
Which is nice to read in one of these books for a change, but raises the uncomfortable question, "if you know that, then why are you still using the word 'savage?'" And the slightly less uncomfortable, but still difficult question, "if you know that, why haven't you let it inform your world-building."

Why is it that Stone Age technology can coexist with more advanced techniques like iron? What trait or quality do stone-using cultures have in common, that sets them apart from iron using cultures?  It's a question with a lot of racist baggage, but the answer really does seem to be nothing more complicated than geographic isolation. Small populations of people never developed the infrastructure and specialization to allow for the exploration of metallurgy, so they were still using stone when they made contact.

Which brings us back to the quote that started this all. Why can't bronze coexist with iron?

Because, historically, it didn't. That's the only reason. I mean, except for the 500+ year period where it did, because the reason it got supplanted was a continental trade network that moved goods, people, and ideas along a giant meta-civilization that allowed people to benefit from the accomplishments of people thousands of miles away . . . and that process takes time. But there's no real reason why it would have to shake out that way in a fictional world.

When you use the term "Stone Age" to refer to everyone from Homo Habilis to the Aztecs, you kind of lose the ability to talk about it as if it's a uniform technological stage (a fact acknowledged by this book, ironically, but never explored to its logical conclusion). And that opens the gate to historical counterfactuals. "What if the Mayans discovered bronze?" It's not an outrageous idea. They had a rudimentary version of the number 0, almost a millennium ahead of Europe. It makes you wonder, when the book says "Bronze Age cultures are almost never found as contemporaries of more advanced civilizations" what's the sample size?

Believability seems married, in D&D, to an unspoken racial essentialism. A "believable" world is one where you have fantasy-Europe and fantasy-Asia and fantasy-Africa, and never the twain shall meet. Your viking-inspired culture can't have blowguns because blowguns aren't European enough. It suggests a view of history where our world has taken the form it has due to the inevitable unfolding of immutable natural law.

With all due respect to Marx, though history may indeed largely be driven by material circumstances, chaos theory counts as material. "For want of a nail" isn't just a poetic truism. A first principle of fantasy worldbuilding should be to identify the nails, and what happens if they're wanting.

I mean, a "western" culture that also happens to practice martial arts as a monastic discipline or a samurai wielding a pole axe don't even come close to violating the laws of physics. So why do the rules discourage them in worlds where you can violate the laws of physics?

Of course, that's a lot to pit on an optional rpg supplement that mainly exists to make TSR's existing customers into unwitting playtesters for their new edition, but sometimes with these posts I just follow where my train of thought takes me (especially when the book itself is as resolutely generic as this one).

Ukss Contribution: Oh no, there is so little setting stuff here that it's almost impossible to choose. Maybe on some asteroid the residents practice "Martial Arts Style B" (actually, despite this being a joke, the idea of a culture with a martial arts tradition, but no imagination is beginning to intrigue me).

To save myself from getting super weird, I'll go with something that's only implied to exist by a literal reading of the book's rules. One of the new innovations was the weapon mastery system, where single-class fighters could go beyond mere weapon specialization and achieve the ranks of master or grand-master. One of the weapons listed in this book is the "combined weapon" known as the sword-pistol.

Logically, then, there must be Grand-Masters of the Sword-Pistol.

Technically, that's the coolest thing about Final Fantasy VIII, but I'll take it.

Friday, November 29, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Spelljammer Boxed Set

Holy shit, guys! I think I might own a genuine treasure!

I'm still a little unclear about how it happened. The corners of the box are a little beat-up, but the colors are still really good, and when I opened it up, the contents were in near-perfect condition. There was one small stain, but otherwise very clean pages, with no foxing or wrinkles or smudges. Covers totally pristine. All of the inserts were still in there and still in factory condition. All-in-all, I felt really awkward about reading it. Not infrequently, I would wonder to myself, "what the hell am I doing putting my sweaty paws all over something that could clearly fetch me $200 on eBay?"

It was completely unlike all of my other surviving childhood rpgs. But I think I know what happened. I played Spelljammer as a teenager, but it must have been with my friend's copy. I must have bought this particular boxed set sometime in college, out of some misguided nostalgia, long after I stopped playing AD&D. There's still a sticker on the front of the box from the hobby shop across the street from my school. Eight dollars?!

In some ways, it's a terrible burden to have gotten such a deal. To know that I possess a rare and valued thing that I obtained purely by chance. I really didn't want this sort of responsibility. I'm of the "possessions are meant to be loved" school of collecting. Protect the books. Treat them gently. But don't just leave them on a shelf. To me, there's nothing more pointless than an action figure left in its original packaging.

Nonetheless, as a collector, I can't help feel ambivalence. Maybe this is something wonderful for my heirs to discover. They'll grab Spelljammer instead of The Complete Barbarian's Handbook and they'll think, "wow, uncle John had some cool vintage games," and that will put my more problematic volumes into context.

Morbid thoughts aside, it's an interesting insight into the effects of the internet. I remember that hobby shop very well. It wasn't a very welcoming place. It was mostly devoted to model kits and serious train collecting, but it had a little corner with a random hodge-podge of old rpg books. I always got the sense that the old man who owned the place resented having to sell me Magic: the Gathering cards, so much so that I eventually wound up walking farther away to buy them. However, there was also something magical about the place. Things came through his door and he clearly didn't know what they were, but he'd put a price on 'em and put them on a shelf.

Things are different now. The internet makes obscure things easier to find, but also equalizes prices. There's a different local store I go to now, when I'm in the mood to try my luck with people's castoffs. I've found some good things there, but the prices have generally been much more accurate. If something comes into your shop and you don't know what it is, you can just check.

I suppose it's more fair this way, but I'm still a little wistful. If it weren't for the veil of ignorance that existed in 2003, there's no way in hell I'd be able to own something like Spelljammer.

So, after spilling so much digital ink on the story behind my copy, how is the game itself?

It's good, but good in a way that's impossible to do anymore.

How to put it? There's a certain vital energy when someone tries something dumb for the first time and it somehow works, despite itself. There are choices here that demonstrate the kind of untutored brilliance where you can't be 100% sure if they just got lucky or if you're looking at genuine inspiration, unencumbered by the weight of pre-existing expectations.

Like, the way this game handles gravity is amazing - it's either on or it's off. If you're in a place with gravity, it's always the same strength. The only other option is zero gravity. Nothing greater and nothing in-between. In practice, a lot of science fiction winds up around this point eventually, but to just cut the Gordian knot this way and make it explicit, I feel like it's something that even better games would hesitate to do.

But it's not entirely hand-waved. There are rules about the orientation of gravity. Objects in space have a "gravity plane." And if it's not entirely clear where the gravity plane is supposed to be (it's actually almost 100% along the floor of the ship, but canonically, this is because people build their ships so that it works out this way), then at least it has its own weird fantasy physics to explore. Objects "below" the gravity plane fall "up" towards it. Ships could theoretically be two-sided, having flipped-over chambers on opposite sides of the plane, but since entering a larger-ship's gravity field aligns a smaller ship towards the larger one's plane, this is considered a good way to get half your shit scattered across your ceilings. The fact that, in addition to being a neat bit of fantasy, this also effortlessly justifies the sci-fi convention of two ships approaching each other in the same orientation, like they were sailing on an ocean together, is just a cherry on top (I also love that approaching a ship "upside down" is both a thing you can logically do and an in-setting faux pas.)

Spelljammer has a lot of stuff like that. It defines its planets in terms of elemental correspondences, so that you can't rely on real-world planetology. In game terms, our Sun would be a fire-type spherical planet, meaning that instead of fusing elemental hydrogen, it was actually formed from an inclusion in our universe of the Elemental Plane of Fire. And the reason earth-type planets like, um, Earth have things like oceans is because the dominant elemental type might have impurities. Air-type gas giants can have floating continents with entire civilizations. The sun in Greyhawk has lakes! And no matter where you go, most planets have atmospheres and all have 1G of gravity!

This is space fantasy that is more Flash Gordon than Star Wars and it's kind of amazing.

But the best thing about Spelljammer is that, by its very nature of its subject matter, it manages to wiggle out from under AD&D 2nd Editions sometimes stifling atmosphere (no pun intended) of One-True-Wayism. Just with planets alone, you can have spheres, discs, cubes or elliptical shapes - and those are just the ones that have their own symbols in the legend. It also suggests planets that are carried on the back of giant star-beasts, stars that are cities on the interior surface of light-year-wide crystal spheres, and massive citadels powered by the creative energies releases when their inhabitants practice the arts. The text encourages you to break the rules in ways AD&D rarely did.

Although, even in space, you can never stop being Asian. Seriously, it's weird and gross. One of the factions in Spelljammer is sponsored by the "oriental" lands of Forgotten Realms. But in the description of their Dragonships it says "Shou Lung's approach to space exploration is typical of oriental nations throughout space. While 'western' nations dismiss space travel or turn their attention to more militaristic ends, the oriental nation pushes its experimentation with fantasy space forward."

What does that even mean?!

It's especially baffling when, later on, they talk about how Shou Lung has a fifth elemental classification for planets, the Lifeworlds, that's based on their own cosmology, but then become totally dismissive of it in the sidebar where they explain the concept.
The most western-oriented sages of space marvel at the fact that the otherwise sane and rational easteners will take such a flight of fancy just to make their own cosmology fit the real universe.
Sounds to me like the "westerners" (whatever that means in space) are full of shit, because there's a canon world that's a giant fucking tree.

But out-of-left-field racism aside, Spelljammer is a landmark setting with imagination to spare. Its main flaw is the era in which it was made. There's a roughness to it that would hardly be tolerated today. Information gets repeated between the two books. There's not enough new character options. For all the charming brevity of its gravity system, the space combat rules are too long. It is well within the AD&D tradition of tying all its fantasy elements to he spellcasting classes (fighters and thieves really should be able to handle a spelljammer if the wizard or priest dies). Gnomes get no respect.

It's astonishing that this setting has never gotten a second edition. A hardcover with the same production values as some of the 3rd or 4th edition settings would have been spectacular. As it is, it's a good source of ideas for games, but primitive enough that doing so would require significant adaptation.

Ukss Contribution: There's a lot of good stuff here. Only one accidental revelation. When talking about vampires in space, it did a weird 80s gender-normative thing that, as a side effect, gave us some great imagery. Apparently female vampires can protect themselves from the sun with long gloves and parasols.

It was a real temptation for me to go with southern gothic vampire ladies floating through space on a magically-rigged riverboat. And an even greater temptation to go with the same idea, but replacing the ladies with men in drag. But the whole idea is potentially quite problematic, so it's probably best to steer clear.

I think instead that the Cosmic Sphere is overdue to get its second planet. A gas giant with floating continents. My only worry is that this is such a great setting that it will eclipse Ukss entirely.

Monday, November 25, 2019

GURPS: Illuminati University

It's a little mortifying to look back and realize what terrible taste my younger self had. I mean, I must have been an absolute rube, because I remembered this book as being somewhat amusing. . .

And it's not . . . at all.

So much of this game was just that nails-on-a-blackboard sensation of watching some impossibly earnest person trying desperately to be funny while knowing from bitter experience that they just can't. It was, at times, excruciating to read.

There's a running joke. The school is called "Illuminati University." That is always abbreviated IOU. What does the "O" stand for? You're not cleared for that.

Every time it showed up, I immediately wanted to put my fist through a fucking wall. It is quite patently obvious that the "O" doesn't stand for anything. It's just an obnoxious bit of sub-kindergarten-level "wordplay." An IOU is a thing. You didn't have a good joke to get there from the university's natural abbreviation of IU, so you just went ahead and did it anyway, and decided to cover it with the laziest sort of lampshade "oh, tee he, nobody knows why they abbreviate it 'IOU,'" but you're wrong. We know. We all fucking know exactly why you did it!


Sigh. Maybe the joke's on me. Maybe it is funny to have your cafeteria run by Madame ("not Mrs., not Ms.") Curry.

I mean, that's a joke, right? I've known myself to smile at a pun once or twice, the more labored the better. But I've always flattered myself that the best puns have a sort of artistry to them, that it's not sufficient to just match sounds, they also have to incorporate some level of double entendre. Like maybe Madame Curry is not just a lunch-lady, but also a food scientist, pushing the boundaries of culinary knowledge by experimenting with substances of hitherto-unknown spiciness. . .

It's something of a literary mystery, whether or not there is salvageable merit here, for the GM who is willing to do the work needed to dig it out  of the muck.

I did like the "School of Anti-Social Science." That was some pretty solid wordplay. Together with their rivals, the "School of Social Anti-Science," you could have the start of something genuinely funny. It's not a joke on its own, but it's a fertile soil in which jokes can grow. Unfortunately, like everything else in this book, it's only surface deep - any attempt to treat these schools as a true comic conceit would be stymied by the fact that neither is much more than a name.

Names are this book's greatest weakness. It just can't help itself. One of the schools is devoted to teaching students how to time travel. And the very idea is ripe with the potential for hilarity. Student time travelers. They've got access to time machines, but no clue on any of the practicalities of visiting the past. They don't know anything about avoiding paradoxes or blending in with the locals or any of that stuff. That's why they're in school. This isn't even a comedy pitch. It's comedy tee-ball.

So what is the name of this time travel college? It's the College of Temporal Happenstance, Ultimate Lies, and Historical Undertakings. You know, C.T.H.U.L.H.U.. Note: the college has absolutely nothing to do with the Great Old Ones in any way, not even thematically. It's just a funny acronym. . .

Correction. It's one of those absurdly tortured backronyms, of the sort that are often quite funny when the final acronym has anything to do whatsoever with the matter at hand. The book does unholy violence to the English language to arrive at C.T.H.U.L.H.U., and as far as I can tell, it would have done the same damned thing, regardless of what the college was trying to be.

This shallow approach wound up exhausting me. Did you know that the Dean of C.T.H.U.L.H.U. is Dr What? He operates out of a mysterious vehicle that is much larger on the inside than the outside. It's called the TOILET. . .

Excuse me while I storm angrily up and down the carpet for a few minutes. . .

I'm sorry, I just can't. Your campaign concept is that a thinly-veiled expy of the Doctor runs an academy for novice time travelers, and that's the joke you make?!

If you told me someone slipped this book into my collection in an attempt to assassinate me with high blood pressure, well, that wouldn't be very plausible because I've had this book since the early 2000s. But it would communicate an emotional truth.

There's probably the seed of a good campaign buried somewhere in this book. The Illuminati University (I refuse to call it "IOU") Board of Trustees consists of "Benedict Arnold, Genghis Khan, Mephistopheles, Judas Iscariot, Jimmy Hoffa, Richard Nixon, Hermes Trismegistus, Al Capone, and Professor Moriarty." Which is a pretty good list, though I'd replace Benedict Arnold with Thomas Edison (but I don't hold it against the book, because it predates the memeification of the Tesla/Edison feud). Where it falls down is a little bit before the list, where it says.
Technically, the ArchDean isn't the final authority on campus - the University is ultimately ruled by the Board of Trustees. As a practical matter, however, the fact that the ArchDean owns 87% of the University stock lets her overrule them if necessary . . .
Sigh. So unfocused. You've established your over-the-top Council of Evil, but then you pull its teeth before it's even used. That's the book's problem in a nutshell - it never thinks things through. I honestly kind of hate it for that.

Ukss Contribution: Aw. Do I have to? Everything in this book is so aggressively dumb. . . but the book isn't actively evil like The Complete Barbarian's Handbook, so I guess I'll just have to broaden my view of Ukss once more.

Since it would greatly misrepresent the book to choose something relatively unembarrassing, like the botany school that meets inside of a giant tree, I think I'm going to have to go with a pun. Just, please, imagine me hanging my head in shame as I do this.

The cat suit. It's a suit. You put it on, you turn in to a cat. If I squint, I can almost see my dignity from here.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Player's Option: Spells & Magic

I remember very clearly this book being a well-loved treasure of my youth, but it turns out in retrospect that I only really ever used about 25% of it. My mind had been blocking out long, dry sections where it went into minute details about spell components or reprinted the magic item creation rules, yet again.

Its outsized importance in my memories probably comes from entering my life at a very sensitive time. I'd started to feel stirrings of dissatisfaction with AD&D, but I had not yet been exposed to any alternatives. So a supplement that promised to give me alternate magic systems was something I hungered for. Even if I didn't quite understand the Skills & Powers character creation process (funnily enough, this book and Combat & Tactics were the only two Player's Option books I had while I was still actively playing AD&D - Skills & Powers and DM's Option: High Level Campaigns I picked up at used book stores many years after the fact, mostly because I remembered them being cited in these books I really loved).

My teenage campaign settings were heavily inspired by this book. I'd quite consistently chuck PHB standard mages for Artificers or Channelers or Dimensionalists. I was searching for . . . something, though I had no way of knowing that the Spells & Magic alternate magic systems were even worse than the AD&D default.

Oh, they're tricky, because there are some interesting ideas here. If you play a witch, then your character is on a campaign-long arc, where the more they use their magic, the greater the risk of drawing the attention of their dark patrons. Over time, they gain mutations that simultaneously grant them useful abilities and alienate them from human society.

This is accomplished with a percentage roll that you make every time you cast a spell. It starts off pretty modest, but by the time you're in the mid level range, it starts to get to 5-10% every time you cast one of your highest level spells. Since you can only fail 4 times before your character becomes an unplayable NPC, the degeneration is likely both inevitable and rapid. So it's an annoying mechanic that adds an extra step to every spell and eventually trashes your character. But if you could choose the pace and make the degeneration subordinate to your roleplaying it might actually be pretty cool.

Although the biggest problem with the Witch class is actually also the biggest problem with all the new spellcasting models - the new spell points system is a hot mess.

Brief tutorial on D&D's magic system. Spells are divided into 9 levels, ranging from basic level 1 magic like Light all the way up to game-breaking show-stoppers like Time Stop. As your character advances, they get spell slots. Each slot is associated with a particular spell level. So a 3rd level wizard would have two 1st level spells and one 2nd level spell. They fill those spell slots by "memorizing" spells, picking particular spells from their list of spells known to be able to cast. You can memorize spells at most once per day, but if you don't use your spells, they stay memorized. If you want to be able to use the same spell more than once per day, you have to memorize it twice or more.

It's exactly as exhausting as it sounds. It's not so much the resource management that's the problem as it is the constant necessity to second-guess the next day's adventure. In practice, you mostly wind up loading up on your most generically useful spells and hoping for the best.

So, if I told you that Spells & Magic introduced a spell point system to replace the standard way of memorizing spells, you might have certain expectations about that. The obvious idea - spells of different levels have a varying point cost and you spend points from your pool to cast them. The pool refreshes at a set rate, probably around once per day. Simple, easy, elegant. You know, not the Player's Option way at all.

The way Spells & Magic's spell point system works is that you spend points to memorize spells. This gives you more versatility, in that you can basically exchange slots at undesirable spell levels for more slots at your optimum spell levels. But that was never really the problem with the spell memorization system. You've still got to basically try and predict the course of your whole day.

As an option, you can devote some of your spell points to "free" slots, at double the usual point cost, allowing you to cast any spell you know instead of memorizing it. This does address the main problem with D&D's magic system, but sacrificing half your spell inventory is a bitter pill to swallow.

Even so, that would merely be an unnecessarily convoluted refinement to an AD&D system that somehow, inexplicably, winds up retaining the original rules' worst flaws - typical Player's Option stuff - were it not for the fact that the new special spellcasting paradigms then proceed to mutilate those rules almost beyond comprehension.

Take the Channeler, the magic class that draws upon the caster's health and stamina to power spells.
While the character may have some spell points "allocated" or "tied up" in various fixed and free magicks, this actually makes no difference for a channeler. The initial selection of spells is simply used to create a slate of spell powers that the character can access and to define the cost in spell points for making use of these powers. The character may cast any spell that he has available through either a fixed or free magick, except that the the magick does not vanish from his memory once he's cast the spell. Instead, the character deducts the number of spell points required to energize the spell from his spell point total. For example, if a mage with 40 spell points has a magic missile memorized, he can cast that magic missile four times if he wants to! (Editor's Note - Magic Missile costs 4 spell points, making that example completely arbitrary and only slightly illuminating).
The system kind of works, once you've wrapped your head around it. The Channeler almost matches the naive assumptions about how a spell point system should go, but then it also adds the overly-complex spell memorization system on top of that. And it very confusingly uses the same terminology for both. I guess the Channeler is "balanced" by not having access to their whole spell repertoire at any given time . . . except that they are given the option to devote some of their limited slots to free magic, and while the double point cost still stings, it's a bit less of a burden when you regain spell points by the hour. Ultimately, since spell point costs scale geometrically, only your highest level spell really needs to be put in a fixed slot.

Or, you know, you could just pick a carefully curated list of powerful and thematic spells and "memorize" those to give your character a fixed magical persona, which probably should have just been baked-in to the class from the start, instead of requiring you to do fucking algebra to figure out your character abilities . . . but what do I know?

Anyway, you can see the prototype of 3rd edition's sorcerer in these rules, and that's pretty neat, though Dungeons and Dragons is probably cursed to never have a truly good spellcasting system.

The only other part of this book I ever used was the new spells at the back. They're fine. Nothing stands out as "must have." And very little even seems worth toting around an extra book for, but there are a few gems, like Heart of Stone, which allows a wizard to ritually remove their own heart, thereby making them nearly invincible.

Most of the rest of the book is stuff that's . . . not useless, really, but mostly incredibly dry or needlessly complex. There's a system where you can use your proficiency slots to buy "signature spells," which you never don't want to do, because they give you extra castings as well as making those spells more effective. And there are rules for spell critical hits, which like all rpg critical hit tables, make the game dangerously unpredictable while reveling in the grotesque.

The best parts of the rest of the book are the DM advice, which comes this close to getting it. When it talks about creating new schools of magic for wizards, it almost comes to the realization that the core 8 are kind of awful, and that thematic schools like elementalism, dimension magic, and shadow magic, are much better, but it never quite delivers a value judgement. Instead it just goes for a kitchen sink approach, and suggests that whatever you want to do, it's cool. Not a bad position for a book meant to be universal, but frustrating nonetheless.

Spells & Magic did not turn out to be a very good book. It's a devastating revelation so far as my adolescent nostalgia is concerned, but ultimately kind of a relief. It means that once I finish up with these AD&D 2nd edition core books, I can be done with them forever.

Ukss Contribution: This one is going to be semi-cheating. I am picking something from this book, but the reason this particular entry is interesting to me is because of context from earlier books in the AD&D 2nd edition line.

Spells & Magic introduces a new spell called Leomund's Hidden Lodge. What it does is create for you a sort of temporary house that is disguised as part of the local terrain - a giant boulder, a copse of trees, etc.

What I find so amusing about this spell is how completely unnecessary it is. It's useful, but it's part of a chain that starts with Leomund's Tiny Hut at 3rd level, goes to Leomund's Secure Shelter at 4th, and ends with Mordenkainen's Magnificent Mansion at 7th level (I guess ol' Leomund crapped out before he could get to the deluxe level). Each iteration adds functionality, sure, but given the way D&D magic works, who is going to bother learning them all?

Well, Leomund, obviously. I'm not going to transfer the character directly, though, hilariously, when I looked him up on wikipedia, I discovered that he canonically co-authored a book called Architecture with his friend Mordenkainen, which sounds exactly like a joke I would have made. However, he also did a bunch of stuff that is of no interest to me whatsoever, so I'm just going to steal the concept of house-omancy.

I'm always on the lookout for concepts for new magic wands, and I think a Wand of Shelters might be pretty cool.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

GURPS: Technomancer

Technomancer is a wildly inventive campaign setting that manages to both feel very fresh and charmingly dated. The premise is that, up until 1945, the world is exactly the same as our own, but while testing the first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer inadvertently completed a necromantic ritual with his famous "now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" line. This opened a rift into another dimension that released a shit ton of mana into the world and made it possible for people to use magic. The Soviets later tested their own atomic bomb in Antarctica and that opened an even bigger rift, though the bulk of the magic was wasted on Antarctica and the open ocean.

In a setting with telepathic Maoist penguins and human-spider hybrids with human genitalia (the book was very specific on that point), this is probably the weirdest choice. Most of the world, people have a 1 in 10,000 chance of being born a mage. In the USA, Mexico, and southern Canada, the chance is 1 in 100. And that's fair enough. Magic has a geographical component. But then you say that there was a second origin point, this one twice as large, and you center it in Antarctica.

Narratively, I like the escalation. Each bomb does geometrically more damage to the Earth's manasphere. A third will probably destroy the human race. However, I can't get the idea out of my head that if Technomancer's Soviets tested their bomb in the same place as the historical Soviets tested their bomb, and if the magic had double the geographic distribution as "Trinity's Shadow," the 2000 mile radius around the US's first test site, then the mage population boom covers all of Eurasia, much of North Africa, and about 80% of the world's population c. 1949.

But the way events played out in the book, it seems a lot like they were trying to set up a world where magic was an American thing. They put the second rift in a place where almost no human beings would gain magic, then implied that it was far too dangerous to risk opening a third, so much so that not even the USA's greatest geopolitical rivals would dare attempt it.

I'm turning this idea around in my head, and I just can't figure out why anyone would want that. On the very first page of the very first chapter, there's a brief bit of fiction that incidentally mentions a battle between Russian Army fire elementals and Stalinist Necromancers. And I think about how much more interesting the magical cold war would have been if the USSR had 3 million mages instead of 30,000.

The only conclusion I can come to is that it was a mistake. I can't be sure they didn't write exactly the setting they wanted to, but "High-Magic Earth with Super-High-Magic North America" was kind of a bad thing to want.

That being said, Technomancer is mostly pretty okay. It does that thing that every fantasy game threatens to do at one point or another and just straight-up industrializes magic item production. Boeing produces a consumer-grade magic broomstick. And DuPont has a whole line of magic carpets, though in a typical bit of GURPS mechanics/setting disconnect, they are marketed as much more middle-class than their price suggests - $241,000 for a "family carpet," means that they probably belong exclusively to the 1%.

There's something here. Technomancer sometimes approaches the feel of a retro future, where technology-driven consumerism leads to ever more baroque luxuries. You can outfit your home with self-cleaning windows, buy an oven enchanted with the Cook spell, and teleport to your favorite vacation destination! Lines of credit are available!

If it had leaned into this just a little bit more, it could almost have justified its focus on America, but Technomancer doesn't have a satirical bone its body. It's not overly self-serious or anything, but its humor mostly comes in sly little jokes, like how applying necromancy and divination to archaeology and history led Alvin Toffler to write his famous book Past Shock or the way "red dragons" are just dragons who worked for the Soviets. They're pretty cute, except when they seem in poor taste, like the implication that "The Son of Sam" really was possessed by a demon named Sam.

I think there's probably a tighter, more polished version of Technomancer that could be made. Instead of having Nazi occultists take over Argentina and found the sinister international corporation, The Condor Group, you could have Operation Paperclip target the Thule Society for recruitment. Instead of wasting their bomb in Antarctica, the USSR could exercise its characteristic hubris and try to create a high magic zone near Moscow, leading to a cold war arms race that was as much about spells as it was about space. The fact that Albuquerque is "The City of Wizards," where anybody, even non-mages, can use spells could be played up a bit more.

However, I don't think it necessarily counts as a fault that some of this game's magic has broader implications that would realistically turn the world completely on its head, were it not carefully ignored. There's a spell, called "Preserve Fuel" that quite explicitly says it works even on nuclear fuels, halting their radioactive decay. I'm no physicist, but I'm pretty sure that's an-eyes-bug-out-the-head-grade miracle, every bit as physically improbable as teleporting into orbit (a cool bit of world-building that has been ruined for me by Kerbal Space Program) or creating matter out of nothing, and people are just toting it around as a second-tier utility spell. Yet there is no meltdown of the physical sciences as both our primitive intuitions and most sophisticated mathematical descriptions completely fail to account for reality. There is no major turmoil from the fact that the Youth spell exists, allowing the rich (and potentially everyone who lives within 200 miles of the Trinity test site) to live essentially forever.

If we're being super methodical about our worldbuilding, the Technomancer world should be completely unrecognizable after 50 years of divergence from our own. The notion that the 1st Iraq war could happen at exactly the same time, and for approximately the same reasons, is absurd. We should really be talking about a human race that is in the midst of an unpredictable shift in the very nature of its being.

But really, what's promised and what's delivered is a funhouse mirror 90s, where mages are using spells to make their tvs show cancelled programs. And that's really all I wanted out of this book to begin with.

Ukss Contribution - Spirit Skull warheads. Take a missile. Put in a human skull, enchanted with a spiritual echo of the horror of its owner's death. Launch it at the enemy. In addition to the damage dealt by the missile as part of its normal operation, the impact site becomes ground zero for a rampaging, bloodthirsty specter, who spends the next 24 hours hunting down and slaying every living thing it can find. A large missile might contain hundreds of Spirit Skulls as its primary payload.

This is exactly the sort of overly-elaborate fantasy weapon that I always hope to see more of. People using what they have and adapting it to make it as nasty as possible.