Thursday, November 30, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Gatecrashing

In the course of researching this post (yes, sometimes I do research, though I usually take pains to make sure it doesn't show), I accidentally exposed myself to Roger Ebert's asinine opinions about video games. It really upset me and threw me off my usual rhythm. I think the thing that gets under my skin is that I otherwise hold a great deal of respect for the man. He was really good at what he did and left behind a body of work that (with certain notable exceptions) anyone should be proud of. On those days when I get tempted to think of myself as a literary critic, I am inevitably drawn back to earth by the sobering thought of comparing myself to people of his caliber. He was a lot better at this than I am, with a broad perspective borne of decades of experience, and it's a shame that his knowledge and experience gave him the ability to engage in the sort of high-grade sophistry that lesser intellects will struggle to refute.

I bring this up not because I want to pick a posthumous fight with one of the 20th century's great intellectual luminaries, but because getting these feelings off my chest helps me reset my emotional state. Now that I'm roughly back to the baseline, I can share the thought process that led me to google "are games art" in the first place:

I just read a book for a game, and I was planning to critique it as if it were art.

Okay, okay, smartass answers aside the real catalyst was Gatecrashing reminding me of a thought I had while I was still blogging about video games - that games were uniquely suited to presenting "setting-focused fiction."

It was a theory I never really developed, but the basic gist was that there's this way of thinking about fiction that boils down to "telling a story" and that puts video games in a weird place, because they can undeniably tell stories, but a lot of those stories are bad. I used to say that the only good video game stories were Borderlands 2 and Saints Row IV and that sounds like a joke, but it wasn't. I was just making the observation that most video game narratives fall apart if you include the stuff in-between the cut scenes as part of the story (cue: "bandits try to rob the Dragonborn" meme).

However, "telling a story" isn't actually a comprehensive (or even particularly enlightening) way to talk about fiction. Once you start exploring how to tell a story, you start to realize that the "story" part of telling a story is kind of optional. You ask yourself "does a psychological novel really need a plot" and the answer is "what do you mean by 'plot'?" It probably needs "events" that "happen," because humans are creatures that exist at a particular place and time, and thus are always at the mercy of happenstance, but the mere juxtaposition of events occurring sequentially in time (or separated in time, but united by a theme, possibly out of chronological order) does not, in itself, constitute a story. 

And that got me into a place where I started thinking about how I conceptualized fiction - perhaps it was more broadly a practice of curating an experience. A "story" might focus on plot, but if you could have a different type of fiction that focused on exploring a character, to the detriment of plot, maybe you could also have a third type of fiction, one that focused on exploring a setting.

(I know, I know, Tolkien and Herbert, but please stick with me here).

When I think about great video game experiences, I think of two things: 1) Tetris, and 2) the experience of being in a place. You take something like Bioshock and it has two or three great story beats, but what sticks with me, after all these years, is just the pure delight of exploring Rapture - its decaying art deco grandeur, its undersea gloominess, the oppressive miasma of unfathomable pressure without and sudden, frightful violence within. 

A couple of years ago, I went on a four day roadtrip, visiting the Painted Desert and the Getty Museum, driving up California Highway 1 from LA to San Francisco, and winding up in Sequoia National Forest. It was a life-changing experience that no fiction has ever come close to equaling, but Assassin's Creed: Odyssey has probably missed the mark the least. It's not that video games are only worthwhile for setting, or that only setting-rich games count as art, but rather that creating a setting and then giving it to an audience to explore is the thing that video games do better than any other medium.

Now, all of that was a long-winded introduction for me to eventually start talking about Gatecrashing, but there's a reason I got on this train of thought - we think of rpgs as "story games," but this book here resolutely refuses to tell complete stories. It introduces a dozen separate mysteries, but none of those mysteries have solutions. The reader has to make those up themselves. But it's still an intense artistic experience, because each of those mysteries is associated with a place.

That's something Eclipse Phase in general does very well. I talk about the game's "alotness" and make fun of things like Sunward including the Martian Time Zones, but I think you could make the argument that there's an artistic purpose to forcing me to read about the logistical preparations for exploring the far side of a stargate, or introducing four new gate-operating skills to compete for my limited points, or spending a half page each on the fiddly rules for survival equipment like the Faraday Armor or Bio Defense Unit. It's not always good game design and if I read this stuff in a novel, I'd probably send some ill-advised all-caps letter of complaint to the author, but they do contribute to the illusion of being in a place (I should also, at this point, apologize to those old-school modules for complaining about them spending so much time describing furniture - I get it now).

The only real question I'm left with after reading this book is whether the locations in Gatecrashing are, overall, a good fit for the Eclipse Phase setting as a whole. See, I love this kind of book, and I really enjoyed most of the specific things in this particular book, but I'm not entirely sold on gatecrashing (small "g") as an Eclipse Phase campaign model. The issue I have is that it takes focus away from the Solar system's transhuman politics and technology and it fails to put that focus back onto anything else. 

Rushing quicky through the context: At some point in the future, humanity builds military AIs with the capacity for exponential self-improvement. Those AIs start scanning and the Solar System and use their super-intelligence to figure out the subtle clues that lead them to an alien communication. Except, the reason the clues were so subtle in the first place was to act as a snare for super-intelligence. The communication is a multi-vector virus from an impossibly advanced species that corrupts the AIs and turns them against their creators. Those AIs kill 90-95% of all human beings and then mysteriously disappear. After that, the surviving people discover five Pandora Gates, which allow for interstellar travel, using advanced technology that violates their (and our) current understanding of the laws of physics. This book is all about using those gates, and what players might expect to find on the other side.

Which is all very well and good, except it doesn't really do anything with that context. The locations, by and large, would not be out of place in Trinity Continuum: Aeon (and, in fact the giant psychic fungus organisms that are each the size of a large forest reminded me greatly of Trinity's myriasoma) or one of the filler episodes of Star Trek. The characters in the setting believe the gates are the means by which the TITANs fled the Solar System. Those who read the GM's section of the core have reason to think they were made by a hostile, galaxy-spanning Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Neither of those threats directly appears anywhere in this book (not even the out-of-character GM's section).

I think the game's creators might be overestimating the mileage they can get out of nameless dread. Transhumanity is tinkering with a mystery of deep time, one which operates on principles they can't even begin to understand, but it mostly turns out okay. Going through the Door Last Used By the Things That Almost Killed Us is proving to be the right choice . . . for now. But when the book wants to make a point about humanity's reckless hubris, it really makes that "for now" do a lot of heavy lifting.

Maybe this is just a reader's problem, though. The book is inviting me to be a co-author of the setting, and if I were to GM a game of Eclipse Phase, I could put whatever I want on the other side of the gates, so my frustration at not having definitive answers to the mysteries is in part because I'm not using the book in its intended fashion. However, I could also counter that it's putting a lot of unnecessary work onto me, and that I'm not getting enough support to run the most obvious gatecrashing stories. If I'm not learning about the ETI's other victims or the fate of the TITANs, if I am, in fact, just doing more stories about the conflict between the outer system anarchists and the inner system hypercapitalists, I'd just as soon set those stories on a more-detailed Mars.

Overall, I'm going to call this book, "maybe a good start." Maybe.

Ukss Contribution: One of the gates is controlled by the anarchists of the Love and Rage Collective. We don't learn much about them here, but it's a great name, so I'm yoinking it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of the Wild

Oh, man, 21 days since my last post. I know it's irrational, but I'm embarrassed by that. Some days I look at my overall mission and think, "approximately 400 books at an average of 2 and a half days per book, I could get done in another 3 years," and then other days I'm like, "more than 400 books at more than three weeks per book, I could get done in another never." I want to finish, but it can be hard sometimes to have faith that it's even possible.

It doesn't help that November was a hard month for me, re: depression. None of the things I normally find enjoyable were even the slightest bit tempting (if I'm embarrassed by my lack of blog progress, I'm mortified by how little work I've done on Ukss d20 . . . or at least, I would be if anyone besides me was expecting it to happen).

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not disclosing all this because I feel like I owe anyone an explanation. I'm not sitting here imagining that there's someone out there getting steadily more frustrated by the thought that I'm laying around wasting time when I could be working on cranking out another half-assed blog post about a decades-old rpg supplement. I'm telling you all this because it turns out that suffering a depressive episode really fucks with my normal process, in ways that extend beyond the obvious.

Normally, when I start writing these things by staring at a blank page while thinking about my overall experience of reading the books, paying particular attention to any lingering questions or unresolved issues. That's why I can sometimes seem to be strangely hard on the books I like the most - because the thing that makes me love a book is its potential for firing up my brain and putting it into question mode. 

I can't really do that with Races of the Wild (Skip Williams) because my predominate experience for the last three weeks has mostly been being pretty sad and my most frequent question while reading it was, "why can I not bring myself to concentrate on this for more than five damned minutes at a stretch?" And neither of those things is fair to lay at the feet of the book. If I look back at my notes and try my best to approach them through a stance of objectivity, I actually kind of have to conclude that Races of the Wild is a near-ideal rpg supplement.

I might quibble with the notion that halflings are "of the wild," but if you put a pin in the appropriateness of the overall theme and just take it as a book about elves, halflings, and raptorans (you may recognize this last one as a birdfolk species that was invented especially for this book and then subsequently never mentioned by anyone ever again), it has everything I could possibly want. Every chapter starts with "a day in the life" of a member of that species, which is a type of worldbuilding that I absolutely love. They talk about childhood education, customs surrounding love and death and war, and they even describe the clothes!

(I always put an exclamation point on the clothes thing not because I'm super into fashion, but because in the real world clothes are so culturally specific, and so indicative of things like chains of production, environmentally available materials, and patterns of trade that describing them is an extremely efficient way of saying a lot about how your world works while also giving readers something concrete to imagine. The next best thing is cuisine.)

I do wonder a little about the book's overall utility. As delightful as the worldbuilding was, it's all very much "corebook implied setting." The elves are super elfy, in that particular D&D way where they're not really fey, but they are ren-faire cosplay fey - pretty and skilled and long-lived, but not fundamentally inhuman. In an rpg, the primary use of worldbuilding is to help a player come up with a more well-rounded depiction of a character, but I'm pretty sure players were already roleplaying their characters like that.

So it seems like the book's primary use (aside from the new prestige classes, feats, etc, which are nice to have but not actually as good as the pure setting stuff) is to give D&D lore nerds something to geek out over, and this is where my depression really fucks with me because my knee-jerk reaction to more "D&D implied setting" lore is "who the hell cares?" And I can recognize that as the depression talking, but if I'm being totally honest, it's not purely the depression talking.

Oh, how I wish I was young again. That's what my aversion to vanilla D&D is really about. I get bored with it because I've seen it a million times before, but that wasn't always the case. There was a time when it was all new to me and I fell into it in a big way. Nostalgia time:

I actually wrote my first rpg before I read my first rpg. Strange, but true. When I was about 10 years old, I was allowed to sit in on a session of D&D being run by one of my stepfather's friends. I played a half-elf wizard, despite not really understanding the rules or the setting, and I was immediately enchanted. We were pretty poor in those days, enough that spending the money on a corebook of my own was unthinkable, so I tried to reverse engineer the experience, based on what I remembered from that one session, the rules of the Hero Quest board game, and what I gathered from fantasy books like The Hobbit.

It was, obviously, awful, but it was a creative outlet and over time I had a dozen spiral notebooks filled with maps, character types, monsters, and statistically dubious random encounter tables. Sadly, those notebooks have been lost to time, and are probably rotting away in a landfill somewhere, but they were definitely the start of something. As time went on, our circumstances improved, I finally got my own Player's Handbook, and over the years I assembled a collection one birthday and Christmas at a time. 

The point of this digression is that, in the beginning, I was super into vanilla D&D. I absolutely devoured everything that even remotely resembled the implied setting lore. I read the Dragonlance Chronicles multiple times (there is nothing on this earth better than a library). If you had sent Races of the Wild through a time portal back to 12-year-old me, it would have blown my fucking mind. But I got older, my perspective broadened, I learned new things, and vanilla D&D started to feel like it was frozen in time. It didn't really grow alongside me. For awhile, I got into Dark Sun and Planescape and those each seemed like a breath of fresh air, but I didn't start with those until 1997 or 1998, and by that time TSR was already a moribund company.

So I ask myself again, in reference to Races of the Wild, "who the hell cares," and I have to realize that lots of people are going to care. Young me would have cared. People coming in to D&D fresh in 2005 would have cared. I may cast my jaded eye at this book and think, "oh, wow, those elves sure do seem like elves" or "I guess the halflings' transition from hobbit to kender is now mostly complete," but people don't start off knowing this sort of thing. The way you learn that a particular elf is notably elf-like is by reading about elves, by reading books like this. And if I think about Races of the Wild in terms of "books like this," then it is, in fact, a really good "book like this." Someone new to the world of vanilla D&D would be lucky to have it as a starting point.

Ukss Contribution: My favorite line in the book is at the start of the monster section. The introductory paragraph describes the upcoming creatures as "potential friends." It's a little bit undercut by the first such potential friend being described as a creature the halflings slaughter for meat (I guess it was potentially a friend or potentially a meal), but I kind of love that as a framing for an rpg bestiary. You hear me WotC? Do a whole book of "potential friends," you cowards!

But that's not really a setting element. I only bring it up because the primary purpose of this section is to single out specific things I admire about the book, and that's the thing I admire most. As far as setting elements are concerned, my favorite was probably the halflings' passive aggressive prayers to Yondalla. "A prayer for healing might begin 'I am in such fine health, yet . . ." and a prayer for intercession might begin 'a minor annoyance has been visited upon me. . . '"

It's super funny, it makes me want a whole book about Yondalla-ism, and I think it would be a really fun bit of texture for some as yet to be fleshed-out fantasy religion.

Monday, November 6, 2023

(Shadowrun) Harlequin's Back

I definitely have feelings about Harlequin's Back. I wrote multiple beginnings to this post, all sarcastically proclaiming my enthusiasm for the return of Harlequin, and after each one, I'd look back and think to myself - wait, am I really not excited at all to see Harlequin again? And in each case, the answer would be the same: "uuummmmmmmmmm . . . "

I guess I kind of like Harlequin . . . in theory. Which is aggressively faint praise, I know. But I am feeling strong emotions here. It's not one of those cases where I've got neutral feelings about something bland or outside of my experience. I'm not out here opining about baseball's designated hitter rule. I am not just ambivalent, I am powerfully ambivalent.

The issue with Harlequin is that he's potentially a very good character, but from a GMing perspective, he's got a high degree of difficulty. The players going, "I hate that fucking guy" is not just a failure state, it's the likeliest possible outcome. The second-likeliest outcome? Unfathomable levels of sheer cringe.

Here's how the book recommends I depict him: "A high-strung, sarcastic comedian on a verbal tear." Not included: even the slightest recommendation for how to actually fucking do that. 

I get the appeal from a writerly perspective. It's the beginning of an epic quest, the fate of the world is at stake, and you've got a mentor/questgiver-type character who's the closest anyone in the story ever gets to seeing the whole picture. Normally, these sorts of scenes are ponderous and staid, with big, important speeches and admonitions about the absolute seriousness of the task at hand.  So it's theoretically pretty fun to have a character who takes the opposite approach. This whole thing is deadly serious, but the person who's telling you about it doesn't seem to be taking it seriously. It's not just whimsy for the sake of whimsy, it's a deliberate subversion of a stock fantasy character.

And I do have to cut FASA some slack here. 1994 was a long time ago. The fact that this particular kind of subversion has, itself, become old hat is not something that I can lay at the feet of the book. I don't have enough of a pop-culture memory to say for sure whether it felt fresh at the time, but I can certainly grant it the grace of accepting it on its own terms.

However, as much as "the heroes are told about the imminent apocalypse by a weird clown" might be an audacious choice for a book or a movie, the medium in question here is a roleplaying game and so it's not just a genre parody - it's an improv challenge.

Here's the test to see if you can successfully portray Harlequin. Say the following quote out loud:

"When Fate taps you on the shoulder, you'd best pay attention. Unfortunately, she has the blasted habit of tapping you on the opposite shoulder, so that when you turn around she's actually on your other side, giggling like a deranged schoolgirl. I hate that."

How did that feel? Natural? Like you're just being the funny trickster mentor, imparting your hard-won life experience in the form of a humorously over-extended metaphor?

Personally, I think it's a writer's line. We get that way sometimes, valuing cleverness over a strict adherence to realistically depicting speech. It's emblematic of Harlequin, though. He's definitely a writer's character.

The question I'm left with, regarding Harlequin's Back is whether that counts as a fatal weakness. It's hard to say, because for all that he can sometimes be an insufferable character, he's also the most interesting thing about the story.

The basic plot of the adventure is that it teases a potential Earthdawn crossover. Because of metaplot nonsense, the Horrors are threatening to breach our reality many hundreds of years ahead of schedule, resulting in widespread death and destruction as an unprepared Earth is invaded by millions of terrifying magical beings. Some poorly-explained cosmic force has assembled a team consisting of Harlequin, his kidnapping-victim-turned protege, Jane Foster, and the player characters for a quest into the deepest reaches of the astral plane, to gather the several ingredients necessary to close the pathway into our world.

On a practical level, this takes the form of a series of short alternate-universe adventures, where the PCs must solve a problem in a different genre of game (post-apocalyptic, western, Arthurian romance, etc) in order to be rewarded with the thing they need to advance the plot. Technically, Harlequin only shows up at the bookends, to tell the PCs what's going on and to cast the magic ritual they gathered the parts for, but in each of the alternate universes, there just happens to be a guy who looks a lot like Harlequin, undergoing a challenge that is representative of the real Harlequin's past and of the conflicts inside him.

As the introduction puts it, "the overall Astral quest is in many ways Harlequin's journey . . . players can do little except observe the battle in Harlequin's psyche." 

The two halves of that quote are separated by, like, 3 pages, but I put them together in a single thought because they really do capture something essential about the adventure - it really does work better as a story when the world-saving stuff is in the background and your attention is focused on getting to better know this weird clown. He's an immortal sorcerer, who used to be a knight and a hero, until the grief of accumulated tragedy and failure, and the sheer weight of years brought him low. His cynical goofball persona hides a deep sadness and tarnished honor, and there may yet be one last noble quest inside him.

The tension inside Harlequin's Back is between the desire to effectively use its title character and the basic rpg reality that the players are the story's true protagonists. As a result, it really seems to meander at times, and it never really lands the moments it needs to land, giving it a weird theme-park vibe when it clearly has the ambition to be something more.

Funnily enough, I think the real culprit behind the weaknesses of Harlequin's Back is not Harlequin, but rather the fact that he's back. The adventure would probably work best if Harlequin has been a part of the game for a long time. If he's a recurring mentor or employer (or even an antagonist), then the dynamic changes from the PCs tagging along on someone else's quest to the PCs doing a quest and being rewarded with lore as a form of loot. You really want to wait to run Harlequin's Back until the PCs start asking, unprompted, "what's the deal with that weird clown."

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to go abstract with this one. I'm not super fond of Harlequin, but I did like his overall arc - a burnt-out immortal who has forgotten how much he has to offer or even how to care about how far he's fallen. I think I could make a compelling NPC with a similar story.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of the Dragon

Now, at last, I get to utter the phrase that's been at the back of my mind, as a dream of pure hubris, since I started reading Dragon Magic: "I want MOAR DRAGON!"

It's not that Races of the Dragon (Gwendolyn FM Kestrel, Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, Kolja Raven Liquette) is really lacking in that regard, just that, by its very nature, it's a book about creatures that are definitely not dragons. I mean, technically, so is the rest of the Races of . . . series, but this book especially takes pains to remind you. Kobolds claim to be descended from dragons, and maybe they are, but that's not what's interesting about them, what's interesting about them is their Koboldness.

And granted, one particularly interesting part of their Koboldness is that they are apparently responsible for filling the hoards of random dragons by compulsively mining precious metals and then casting them into special commemorative coins that are not legal tender in any sovereign state, but which bear the likeness of the specific dragon the kobolds are trying to ingratiate themselves to, but even with that bit of trivia, there's more to the species than that.

Which maybe makes it sound like I'm asking for less dragon, but honestly it's more that I wish the kobolds were in a book that had a different overarching theme. The kobolds have to be made more dragon, to justify their inclusion in this book, but aside from the hoard thing, they aren't actually made dragon enough. They hold grudges, they like traps and alchemy, and they are all-around better mascot characters than their arch-rivals, the gnomes and they kind of deserve to be in a game that doesn't have racial alignments (although, if the chart in the "Campaigns" chapter is to be believed, one in ten kobold settlements has a "good" alignment). The contrast between the grandeur of the dragons and the scrappy underdog nature of the kobolds is a joke with a really short half-life.

So, I'm in this awkward position where the kobolds are the best part of the book, I enjoyed reading about them, but I do not agree that they should count as a "race of the dragon." Which just leaves us with the dragonborn, the spellscales, and the dragon-descended, which are plausibly "races of the dragon," but which aren't as interesting as dragons themselves.

In fact, they're universally kind of . . . sigh. It's like they're trying to borrow the glamor and majesty of dragons, but completely miss the point. Take the dragonborn. They're fanatics who worship Bahamut and are waging an eternal war against evil dragons, which might be an interesting hook for a species of dragon-people . . . except they're not a species. The dragonborn are just humanoids who undergo a magical ritual to become dragon-like in a way that translates to a lateral move in power. Being dragonborn has certain advantages, but they're balanced against the typical PC race advantages and in order to become a dragonborn, you have to give up your racial advantages. So they're basically just a bunch of people who put on dragon costumes in order to fight dragons. It's weird.

And spellscales? They're nothing. Just literally no point to the entire character type. There's this bad habit that used to be endemic to d20 race descriptions where they'd just tell you about one really specific character and be like, "imagine a whole society filled with that guy," and then you'd have to rely on 20 years worth of deconstructions, remixes, parodies, and forum arguments to establish that no, there actually is a second dwarf personality, but you can read through the spellscale sections in complete confidence that no one is ever going to do that because the one guy they chose to depict isn't cool enough to anchor a brand. That's spellscales. Sorcerers, in D&D lore, claim descent from dragons, so imagine a guy whose parents were such big sorcerers that he was born with dragon scales. He really plays up the hurtful "trust fund magic" stereotype that sometimes clings to sorcerers, but this time with an over-the-top wardrobe (a cloak made of pegasus feathers) and the worst kind of chaotic neutral "let's spin the wheel to determine my loyalties for the day" personality. 

Literal roleplaying advice for this character: "Most of the time, don’t offer apologies. If one is demanded of you, be very specific about what you’re sorry about. Don’t apologize for what you did; apologize for unforeseen or unwanted consequences."

Show of hands who wants this guy at their table? Anyone?

The dragon-descended also fail to find a niche. They're plagued by two problems. The first is that 3.5's level adjustment rules make them nearly unplayable (something that is discussed at length in the text, so it's not like they didn't know). The second is that half-dragons have this really grim "abandoned by their dragon parent, outcast from their other parent's society" narrative that attaches to them, which really goes to undercut the fact that most people want to play them because they are metal as fuck. I just want to play a cool dragon man with sick-ass wings and the ability to breathe fire, he doesn't need a tragic backstory, WotC.

That goal is reachable with the right feats and prestige classes, so it's not as if this book is entirely out of pocket, but it was also kind of achievable in Draconomicon, so what am I even doing here?

A lot of these 3.5 books task me, because the great thing about them is the way they can act as a clearinghouse for ideas, and I don't need a 100% hit rate for that to be worthwhile to me. And yet, sometimes it can be frustrating to read ideas that I know aren't going to pan out. My main take away from Races of the Dragon is that I'm really interested in reading a kobold-focused supplement that treats them as protagonist-ready demihumans.

Ukss Contribution: The Dragon Devotee prestige class had a line that really leapt out at me: "You love to speak Draconic and to talk about dragons with others who likewise admire this most noble of creatures." And on the one hand, this is just WotC doing the "overly-specific character" thing again, but on the other hand, I get it. Unlike the Single Spellscale Character, I could picture using this person in a game - someone who is just super-obsessed with how cool dragons are and takes any opportunity to rattle off dragon facts, even in socially inappropriate contexts. I'd be tempted to learn the names of the dragons' bones, just so I could properly roleplay this character (I may, in fact, already be this character, but with rpgs). So Ukss will have a dragon devotee.

Friday, October 20, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Sunward

Oh, man . . . intricate, meticulous worldbuilding . . . that's the good stuff. The authors of Sunward even thought about the Martian time zones. I didn't want to read about the Martian time zones. I am (resolutely, defiantly) never going to use the stuff about the Martian time zones. But I like that they thought about it. That's the dream of rpgs - that you can disappear into another world. If I visited Mars, I'd definitely be like, "um, how do I set my clock?"

Of course, I can never quite achieve this vaunted state of immersion, even when I know things like the Martian times zones or the name of a dragon's bones. If anything, I find that kind of detail distracting in practice. Lucky for me, Sunward also has a bunch of the sort of details I can use - balloon cities in the upper atmosphere of Venus, dusty railroads connecting the isolated homesteads of Martian terraformers, just absolutely and utterly improbable magnetic whales living in the Sun's Chromosphere.

Then there are the details I don't think I should use. The book has two separate female characters who were high status professionals before the apocalypse, lost their bodies to killer robots, and then had AI emulations of their consciousness forced into sex slavery. Coincidence? I mean, yeah, probably. The likely explanation is that this book has eight credited authors and whoever wrote that one part of the Mars chapter didn't know what was going to be in the opening fiction. But if this were a coherent work by a single individual, I'd strongly suspect that someone had issues with powerful women.

And, honestly, that's kind of on the shallow end when it comes to the parts of this book that make me uncomfortable. There's a city on Venus, Parvati, that is somehow all about sex work and it has a notorious black market where people can arrange sex crimes for hire. 

It's an issue I've danced around before. You want a villain? Villains do bad things. You want a world that needs to be saved? It's probably going to be pretty dark. Eclipse Phase is remarkable for just nakedly presenting the sci-fi anarchists as heroes, and their natural foil is a capitalist hellscape.

So where's my line? Indentured servitude is basically indistinguishable from slavery. That makes sense. And it's not surprising that a society that's okay with slavery would move on to the sexual exploitation of its victims. And the fact that this is not enough to satisfy the most depraved appetites of the ruling classes is well observed. There's an undeniable logic. But do I actually want to tell that kind of story?

I honestly think there's a kind of bias at work here. All eight of the authors have white-male-sounding names, and for all the radicalism of the book's politics, it's got kind of a detached voice when it comes to some of the most serious issues. Like, they're concerned with the intellectual puzzle of atrocity as a world-building element, but it doesn't occur to them that they're telling a story that should disgust people or piss them off. You've set up a group of people with particular motives and particular resources and realistically they should be stone-cold terrible. . . thus Parvati.

But it's not an approach that necessarily works very well. Early on, there's a line, discussing the desperate evacuation of Earth as it came under attack by killer robots: 

"Some countries were too poor or too low on the totem pole to get their people to safety - just take a look at the criminally small percentage of African nationals who made it off Earth, compared to their percentage of the pre-Fall population. Some would call that defacto ethnic cleansing."

Oh, come on. The only people who would call it that are those who know what "defacto" and "ethnic cleansing" mean. And, honestly, the only real contentious part of that description is the "defacto." This is a setting with multiple space elevators. You know, the things that have to be built near the equator and are a centerpiece of the proto-post-scarcity economic infrastructure. And with that in mind, tell me again how few Africans were able to get into space.

As an intellectual puzzle, it's distressingly easy to solve - the inflexible engineering requirement that space elevators be equatorial did not result in a new wave of African prosperity and African refugees being in an optimum position to escape Earth because the colonialist nature of the global order did not fundamentally change between the real world's present and the game's vaguely-positioned future. The Europeans stole Africa's centripetal force just like they stole its mineral resources.

Again, there's no rule saying you can't make a dark world where fucked-up shit happens, but there is kind of a rule that if dark, fucked-up shit happens in your work of fiction, you need to take pains to communicate that you understand how dark and fucked-up it is. Not necessarily in a heavy-handed disclaimer or direct, moralizing speech by the protagonist, but at least in the way that characters react to it. Maybe the word "criminal" in your description isn't a platitude. Maybe there are some African characters who are mad as hell about it. Maybe they have some goal or agenda that would make for an interesting adventure or location.

Spoiler alert: these Africans never show up. Indeed, the whole situation is not mentioned again. So, what we've got is a backstory where the people of Africa were defacto ethnically cleansed, and that's why there are so few of them around, leading to the actual, literal game Eclipse Phase being defacto ethnically cleansed of African characters.

Writing tip: if you establish "these people were almost wiped out," then that's something that calls for more of those people to be in your story, not less. Because you're not going to conceive of any use for that information more interesting than exploring the people's reaction to almost being wiped out.

I'm certain that it's just carelessness, rather than malice. but that's the nasty thing about bias. It sneaks up on you. The reason we don't get an African legacy reclamation faction is because grappling with cultural identity in a post-apocalyptic context, where the physical destruction of your homeland means your culture can never truly be what it was before is not what the game is interested in. What the game is interested in is . . . Martian time zones?

Or, more broadly, the physical and social challenges created by having transhuman post-scarcity technology and living in space. We learn about the Martian time zones because the specific sort of fun we're aiming for is the kind that comes from imagining what it would be like to live on another planet. We need to save our brain space for the knowledge that oxygen is a buoyant gas on Venus and so it might be possible to live safely inside a giant sapphire balloon. In contrast, "The Venusian balloon people still have an entirely justifiable grudge against the European Union, for its deplorable conduct in seizing military control over Kenya's space elevator and denying access to the locals even as fleeing the planet came to be a matter of life and death . . ." is actually a pretty good idea for a story. I have no idea where I was going with that.

Ultimately, I blame the TITANs. They are consistently the game's weakest element. They're the explanation for why the game is set in space and not on Earth, but having completed that job, they don't do much more than suck the oxygen out of the room (metaphorically). They are too urgent and intractable a threat, and thus they're The Guys You're Obviously Meant to Fight, even when you've already got other antagonist factions that are clearly in desperate need of a punch to the face.

The corporations on Mars deliberately introduced flaws into the genetic code of the bioengineered bodies of their workers, so that the workers would have to continuously pay a subscription fee for the privilege of not getting needlessly sick. And there's a fucking Titan Quarantine Zone on the very same planet. So when we take a tour of the various Martian settlements and learn about their security forces, what we mostly see is an assessment of their ability to handle an outbreak from the TQZ, and only intermittently do we learn what they'd be like as opponents in a cyberpunk story.

Overall, I'd say that Sunward was a pretty good read. I have my nitpicks and concerns, but it is a richly-detailed science-fiction universe, one that I am pretty happy to explore.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked the Venusian balloon cities, but that concept has too much overlap with the Aetherian floating continents. I'm not sure I could make it work. I will go with the idea of a ruling class that exploits its workers by deliberately giving them a treatable, but incurable disease.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Draconomicon

One of the hazards I should have come to expect in the course of this project of mine is frequent lessons in the nature of hubris. Yet somehow, it always catches me by surprise. I'll finish a book like Dragon Magic and think, "that had slightly too much dragon, but maybe it's not so bad to want ALL THE DRAGON!" And that idea will sit and stew in my head for a few days, and I'll gradually come around to agreement. "Yes," I say, "please give me all the dragon." Then, I'll pick up Draconomicon (Andy Collins, Skip Williams, James Wyatt) and it will say "Oh, you want all the dragon, do you? Prepare to learn the names of their fictional bones!!!"

Okay, Draconomicon, well played. The next D&D book on my list is Races of the Dragon, and when I go into that, I'll be hoping that it doesn't have too much dragon. I have been humbled.

(For now, mwa, ha, ha. . . )

Anyway, absurd complaints about there being too much dragon information in the dragon book aside, Draconomicon was a really fun read. I did sometimes get the feeling that WotC's behind the scenes must have resembled the Key and Peele Gremlins 2 sketch ("let's go around the table and have everyone design a dragon"), but since that sketch is absolutely adorable, that's not really a downside. Whatever the real process was, it gave us the punk-rock-looking Howling Dragon:

So, obviously, they're doing something right. The main strike against the book, other than the fact that they didn't follow up on the Howling Dragon's amazing art by ditching the original concept and just devoting a whole book to making one unique dragon for each sub-genre of rock and roll, is that dragons themselves are not mechanically diverse enough to warrant dozens of separate monster entries. At some point, someone should have realized that the twelve age categories with their increasing stats, long lists of spell-like abilities, and standard draconic chassis could have just been abstracted into a modular "create a dragon" system. 

The temptation is to call out the dozens of dragon types for being unimaginative reskins of the same basic creature, but I think the essential problem is quite the opposite. Dragons are the quintessential "this monster actually has a personality and backstory" creature type, and that's something that's best served by making each and every one unique. There are a lot of designs in this book that I really love (the howling dragon, the cloud-like storm drake, the craggy mountain landwyrm, the goth-industrial Tarterian dragon), but there's not a one of those that I'd want to put two of into the same campaign.

It's a dilemma that's eloquently demonstrated in the book's final chapter. It gives us one specific dragon in each of the twelve age categories for each of the ten basic types and the hit rate is high enough that we get a lot of decent new NPCs, but there is an undeniable redundancy going on. For crying out loud, there's a gold dragon and a red dragon that share about 90% of the same backstory (orphaned after their parents were killed by ideological foes, now dedicated to taking down their parents' enemies, though obviously this is framed differently in terms of alignment).

But it's unfair to act like this is specifically a problem with Draconomicon. It's actually baked directly into Dungeons and Dragons' overall monster design philosophy. Everything is a member of a species. You don't fight Medusa or the Minotaur, you fight a medusa or a minotaur. There are, occasionally, unique enemies - Orcus gets his own stat block - but by and large, monsters are treated as just another kind of animal.

Even when they shouldn't be. Something I will lay at the feet of Draconomicon is its continuation of WotC's deeply misguided "dragon encounters at every challenge rating" philosophy. The Introduction waxes poetic about "the tiny wyrmling at the bottom of an adventurer's very first dungeon," so let's just flip ahead to the anatomy and life-cycle chapter (skimming lightly, lest we accidentally learn the names of the dragons' fictional bones) to see exactly how a "wyrmling" is defined. . .

0-5 years?! As in a fucking literal infant?!

Dragons are intelligent creatures, capable of articulate speech. Which means they are, by definition, people. And their babies are, by extension, baby people. Sure, they've got claws and scales and deadly breath weapons, so they're not exactly as helpless as a baby human, but c'mon, they're at most five years old. No matter how you frame it, killing one is morally reprehensible.

Party Paladin: "Oh, no, that baby got their hands on a military-grade flame-thrower! Do you know what that means?"

Rest of the Party (in unison): "At-level XP!"

It's deeply unsettling, even before we get to the part about raising a dragon as a mount, where it crosses the line into just plain creepy (tip: if, at some point, you are going to have to teach them to read, you have crossed the line from "taming a steed" to "adopting a child" - that's not your pet, it's your son.)

It's a relatively small part of the book, but I just can't get over it. The Dracolyte prestige class (credit where credit's due: great name) gets a class feature at level 5 called "Foster Dragon." In the words of the book, they are "entrusted with the care of a wyrmling dragon."

And look, it's a full-caster class, so maybe it does need that kind of nerf . . . wait, is it intended as a power boost? ("the wyrmling dragon follows the dracolyte loyally, and will even accompany him on adventures")

So help me, if anything happens to that poor, innocent creature, finding an atonement spell is going to be the least of your worries. 

Also, let's take a beat to savor how fucked up it is that D&D has an atonement spell.

Although, all this talk about the atonement spell and dragon babies does threaten to get me onto the subject of one of my perennial D&D complaints: the awfulness of the alignment system and, in this particular context, the way it flattens the dragon types and makes them less interesting, but I don't really have anything new to say about that. I can't really blame this book for not solving the problem, but also, it's really weird that we were still dealing with it as late as 2003.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Maybe it had a little too much dragon, but I have no doubt that I will once more be overcome with the hubris to ask for more.

Ukss Contribution: The psychology of silver dragons really fascinates me. They're dragons, but they prefer to take humanoid form. In these forms, they fight evil, generally with zeal, but also less effectively than they would as a badass dragon. I'm not really keen on "dragon types," so I probably won't go with a whole species of silver dragons, but I think a single paladin-like character with a typical silver dragon background would make for a very interesting NPC.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

(Shadowrun) Harlequin

My path to the ownership of Harlequin is kind of a twisty one. It was the early 2000s, my only real experience with rpgs was AD&D, and though I'd been enthusiastic about the transition between 2nd edition and 3rd edition, it hadn't really broken through my head yet that other rpgs would have editions as well (it's how I wound up buying the Book of Shadows for Mage: the Ascension, despite owning the revised core). So I'd just started getting into Shadowrun, owned the 3rd edition core, and was looking to expand my collection. Cue the not-so-friendly local hobby shop near my college, the one where I got my ridiculously discounted copy of the Spelljammer boxed set. They'd always have an eclectic, if underwhelming selection of random rpg material, priced cheaply but with a clear indifference to curating any sort of coherent rpg inventory. One day, I go in and I see a Shadowrun supplement - Harlequin's Back. Who's Harlequin? Why is he back? Where did he go that he needed to come back from?  What is this Shadowrun thing all about anyway? Neither I nor the shop owner could say, but the book was only a couple of bucks so I bought it.

Fast forward a couple of decades. I'd just finished getting a complete Mage: the Ascension collection and it gave me all sorts of wild and untenable ideas - what would be next? It turned out to be the Aeonverse, but there was a point where I was making good progress towards Earthdawn and I thought, "why not Shadowrun after that?" And though, subsequently, good sense prevailed and I stopped myself from chasing after a complete Shadowrun collection, it was only after I snagged a few volumes that I hoped might answer some lingering metaplot questions. Numbering among those questions "Harlequin?" And thus I bought the book Harlequin, almost twenty years after I last read Harlequin's Back.

I'll let the "Running Harlequin" section at the end of the book summarize what I gained from the experience, "Even the gamemaster does not see or know the big picture. Ehran and Harlequin's dance of blood and vengeance is the secret, master story while the storyline involving the runners is only an offshoot of that deeper plot. The gamemaster knows only enough of the storyline to interweave a number of adventures, gradually letting their surface plot become revealed. About all that he [sic] and the player characters can do is make educated guesses about the master story, based on the little information they can obtain . . ."

DAMN YOU FASA!!! ::shaking fist::

Oh, and I guess I also learned that the Harlequin who died in an example on page 87 of the 1st edition corebook is a different guy from the Harlequin, which I kind of figured already, though it's funny that they went through the trouble to confirm this canonically. Was the character of Harlequin inspired by that example, and subsequently made distinct or was he independently invented and then, before the book was finalized, someone pointed out that there was already a guy almost exactly like that, but he died, and so they had to clarify that it wasn't the same person.  The other possibility is that they are in fact the same guy, but that Harlequin is such a tricky fellow that sometimes he appears to be dead when he's not. Presumably, this option was discussed behind the scenes and dismissed, in favor of preserving the objective voice of the mechanical example sidebars.

Which leaves only one last lingering question: did corebook Harlequin really die from a run-of-the-mill summoning accident or was he murdered? Because one thing we've definitely learned about the famous Harlequin, from the Harlequin adventure, is that he is entirely petty enough to arrange for a trademark-infringing wannabe to suffer an "accident." 

Justice for Harlequin 2! The people demand answers!

Anyway, I should probably focus on this book here. It's . . . 

It's . . . 


I guess Shadowrun, overall, likes to tell a particular story - professional criminals accept money to commit crimes for mysterious employers - and that's basically what this book is. The players are offered money to commit a series of crimes, and these crimes are connected by the fact that they're all for the same mysterious employer.

Fair enough. Where Harlequin stumbles is that its titular character isn't really that likeable a guy, and even to the degree that likeability isn't a necessary trait in a shadowy underworld contact, he's also too powerful to turn the tables on, and his overall agenda is petty to the point of inscrutability (Ehran the Scribe wounded him in a mock duel hundreds of years ago and now is the time to get revenge through a series of burglaries designed to humiliate him in the eyes of ???).

In other words, the plot is as shallow as advertised in the GM advice section. It's fine if the PCs are the sort to just accept an envelope full of cash to kidnap an innocent woman, but I don't really want to read a story about that kind of person, you know. 

Also, there were parts that didn't age so well, like the nearly-unavoidable sidequest where the PCs are mercilessly tortured. Or the poor treatment of the people indigenous to the Amazon (I guess it's not technically a colonialist stereotype that the Jivaros will cut off their enemies' heads and shrink them, because they are a real people who really used to do that, but it's all kinds of colonialist fucked up to take those real people and use them as expendable mooks in a random jungle encounter).

Overall, I'd say Harlequin was pretty skippable. Maybe in 1990 "weird guy who is inexplicably a literal clown in a crime-caper setting" was a fresh enough idea to anchor a book, but now, I need something a little more substantial. I expect that if you name an adventure book after a specific character, that character is going to be just as compelling as the adventure itself. That's not a bar that Harlequin reaches, and it probably wouldn't even if you spotted it his later appearances (for example, he appears in Earthdawn under the alias "Har'lea'quinn" which is just ::chef's kiss::).

Ukss Contribution: The thing with the Jivaros made me uncomfortable enough that I'm just going to skip this book. It's probably not as bad, objectively, as some of the others I've skipped, but it literally calls an actual, extant culture "savages" and that's not cool.