Monday, June 14, 2021

Over 1 million!

 When I was brainstorming ideas for this post, I was convinced it was going to be so funny, but now that I'm actually sitting down to write it, I've got literal tears in my eyes. I'm completely overwhelmed emotionally. Which is silly, because it's really nothing more than a career milestone I privately made up about six months ago, and which I've been semi-secretly counting down to for roughly half that time (I say semi-secretly, because if I've physically spoken to you in the last couple of weeks, I've been unable to shut up about it . . . sorry).

Maybe it would help if I explained what the hell I'm talking about, though. As of just a few minutes ago, I have officially blogged over 1 million words!

Excuse me while I ruin a kleenex over here.

Now, to get to this total, I did have to include my other blog, but that feels fair to me. The last blog ate up a lot of my life and it's almost exactly the same thing I'm doing now, so maybe I should have just kept the first one going and combined their mission statements . . .

No, I think I prefer the clarity of doing it this way.

The official breakdown is

Decadent Gamer - 1097 posts for a total of 588,594 words
It Came From the Bookshelf - 319 posts for a total of 413,419 words

My average words per post is 707, but my longest post, The World of Ukss, has more than 56,000 words.

It's what I've been telling you all from the very beginning - quantity over quality people!

No, I'm not really that self-deprecating, but I do wonder about the roads not taken. I've averaged a novel a year for the last seven years, and maybe I'd be in a better place if I'd just written the damned novels.

It's hard to say. The reason I got into blogging in the first place is that I wrote my first novel and it was . . . not well received. It completely crushed me because it took me a year to write and for like 11 and a half months of that year I genuinely thought I was making something good.  I carefully considered the prospect of learning something from the experience, treating my first outing as practice, and just moving on to the next one with a resolve to get better . . . and I just couldn't handle it. I figured I would have to write multiple practice novels just to get to where I wanted to be, and even to the degree that I could accept needing years to hone my craft, I couldn't accept the idea that each and every attempt would take months to realize.

So I chose, instead, to publicly share my unsolicited video game opinions, and I haven't looked back.

Well, mostly. Obviously, I looked back a little or I wouldn't have known I reached this milestone. Looking back a little more and rereading my first blog post, I can't say with confidence that I've improved in skill over the past seven years. I think I may have dialed into a personal style, but on a technical level, I've plateaued. . . or become complacent.

Maybe it's time to look forward for a change. After my first year of doing It Came From the Bookshelf, I toyed with the idea of writing an Ukss novel for National Novel Writing Month. At the time, I was talked out of it for some very good reasons, but I'm thinking now that I might enjoy doing it as a side-project. Maybe if bang out a fundamentally unsellable practice novel, I'll rediscover my love of writing fiction. At the very least, there's no pressure and no expectations.

The other thing I'm going to do is change my pdf policy. From now on, I will not restrict myself to reading free pdfs. Instead, I'll read anything where someone officially connected with the book sends me a review copy. I've gotten pretty comfortable reviewing things, so maybe I could occasionally review books that are actively searching for an audience instead of spending 90% of my time with hot takes on stuff that's barely available on the secondary market.

Anyway, despite never going viral and becoming the internet's most successful niche blogger, I'm actually pretty proud of my body of work. It's been a satisfying first million words, here's to one million more!

Godbound

 This book is a fucking treasure trove. It's exactly the sort of artifact you always hope to find when you pick up a new rpg book - it's a strange little thing, filled with these fascinating little odds and ends that sort of work together, but also kind of meander in every which direction. It's exactly what you're wrongly remembering the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guides to be. It's alienating in its specificity and the intensity of its interests, but it's also compelling, as it shows you pathways whose ends you cannot anticipate.

Do I love it? Am I saying I love it? I don't know. I think, at its heart, it's kind of a reckless book. It's one of those slim rpgs. I could explain its core rules in about 15 minutes. If you cut out special powers, artifact creation, and domain management, the actual rules of the game wrap up after 22 pages. And then the bulk of the rest of the 200+ pages is all about the PCs' phenomenal cosmic power.

Godbound is a freeform, narrative game disguising itself as an "old school" rpg. Or maybe it's a freeform game with an old school combat system grafted on. Most of what you're going to be doing is navigating resource costs. There's a mechanic where PCs can spend a special meta-game currency to make whatever changes they like to the setting, and the rules for this are largely guidelines to the GM for setting costs. And then the players spend the cost and the change happens. The king agrees with your impassioned moral argument - spend Dominion points. You mutate a bunch of villagers so they have wings and know kung fu. Spend Dominion points. You do have to try and justify it with your character traits and for large expenditures, the GM might require you to complete an adventure. But ultimately you've got a large latitude to make setting changes almost purely through narration.

And warrior angels have precisely 10 hit points and get a +10 bonus to attack rolls.

I think it will work. My intuition tells me there's a niche here. A game style that's basically "bullshitting, bullshitting, bullshitting . . . and now it's time for the dice to hit the table."  Run well, it may even be the best of both worlds. You've got wild plans that provoke huge shifts in the status quo, thrones tremble and the pillars of heaven shake, but then, at a critical juncture, the chaos of the dice steps in to remind you that you're not entirely in control.

But I can also see the failure state - a game system that takes away a lot of the traditional limitations that also serve as the players' hook into the world, so that they can go anywhere and do anything, but there's nowhere and nothing that they're actually invested in. A character might be motivated by wealth, but for players, money is trivially easy to get and doesn't do much for you when you have it. This whole hobby is, of course, a dressed-up game of make believe, but some rules systems are better than others at disguising this fact.

However, I've never been one who particularly needs that disguise, so I think I love Godbound

Or, at least, I've got a crush on it.

I think the source of my ambivalence (and, to be clear, I'm mostly fluctuating between "Godbound is one of the most impressive games I've seen so far" vs "Godbound is one of my favorite games, that I've seen so far") is that it's clearly operating on a very specific wavelength, and I can't be sure that it's one I share because it doesn't easily fall into one of the categories I've previously built for myself. 

It's hard to convey the precise sense of vertigo you get from the contrast between the utilitarian math of its bare-bones rules system and the absolute permissiveness of the power rules. Godbound characters have access to "Words," which are basically just broad descriptors for the sorts of divine miracles that you have access to. If you've got the Word of Earth, you can cause earthquakes or raise fortresses or just become really durable, and just generally do anything you can imagine that falls under the category of "stone, earth, strength, hardness, or durability." And you can use them all right from the beginning, as a 1st level character. The first thing you do in the first session can be to start and earthquake, and it will be just as effective as the earthquakes being thrown around by max-level characters at the end of a years-long campaign.

The main limit to your power is your reserves of "Effort." You start with two Effort, you gain one point per level, and you can buy more as a Gift ("Gifts" are specific tricks you do with your Words that you get an Effort discount on because you spent character points to learn them, but anything you can do with a Gift, you can do with a regular, full-cost Miracle, and I suppose that technically applies to buying extra Effort too, but since you have to spend Effort to replicate a Gift, you'd wind up net losing points on that deal).

So it's a little weird. Your character level is very precise about your stats - your hit bonus, your savings throws, and even the damage you do with your Words, but if you're talking about things that can't be quantified on the character sheet, the sky's the limit. You're just starting out. You've got 8 hit points and a +1 to attack rolls, and merely two wishes per day.

The result is something that seems like it should care about game balance, but is incredibly sloppy about it. You can get end-game level optimized Armor Class fairly trivially as a starting character, but attacks only improve with level. So it's perfectly possible to be nigh-invincible against enemies you have a hard time hitting. Almost every enemy has multiple attacks, and the damage is usually enough that focus-fire will kill a PC per round, but spread out it's relatively harmless. And given the unpredictable power spikes, the notion of any kind of challenge rating system is a whimsical dream.

The resolution of the paradox is supposed to be the fact that Godbound is meant to be a "Sandbox" game, and thus the GM really shouldn't concern themselves with meticulously scaling the challenges. The stats of typical mortal foes are pegged so low that they barely pose a threat to unoptimized characters, even in huge mobs, and it's kind of expected that the typical combat experience is crushing victory by the PCs. The way you encounter Angelic Tyrants, Parasite Gods, and other top-tier threats is by going to where they are. PCs can always control the balance by sticking to the lower-level parts of the setting.

Like I said earlier - it's easy to imagine this working perfectly . . . and easy to imagine it not.

Now, let's talk about the setting.

Godbound has this absolutely amazing cover art. It's an empty throne in a cathedral-like building, set upon a raised dais and the stairs leading up to it are covered with skeletons, all in a desperate climbing posture, implying that they reached the throne with the last of their strength and perished while attempting to seize it, even as they lay dying, unworthy of its power. It's a stunning image, and it quite aptly sums up the setting as a whole.

Everything in this world is marked by a sort of theology of cynicism. In the distant past, human beings solved all of their material problems, and then decided to go to war over petty ideological differences. Even when they had the magical might to storm the gates of Heaven, they arrived to find the Throne of God empty, and the Creator vanished. So they trashed the place and stole the furniture on their way out, but it turns out that some of that stuff was load-bearing furniture, and now the universe is falling apart and things are getting worse and worse as time goes on.

There's this very technological and materialist feel to divine and magical things that runs through the setting. The laws of reality are maintained by "Celestial Engines" which can be broken down and stripped for spare parts that will go on to power magic items or give PCs a magic boost to make bigger and more lasting setting changes. Characters are "godbound," but the only gods to make an appearance are "Made Gods" - constructed in the distant past with powerful lost sorcery, in order to embody the ideals of a particular society - or "Parasite Gods," who have intercepted the misdirected energies of a broken celestial engine and grow dependent upon them, even as they gain potent magical abilities as a result. Missing entirely is a sense of reverence.

I'll admit, as an atheist, there's something comfortable to me about Godbound's setting. There are different forms of life with different powers and abilities, but there is also the basic continuity - everything can be understood in biological or technological terms, and there's no gap where anything as mysterious as a god is necessary.

On the other hand, the only explicit atheist representation, the Church of True Reason, is a pretty shabby organization, a deliberately ignorant cult with an inflexible hierarchy whose unexamined doctrines inevitably lead souls to hell. You win some and you lose some, I guess. It's actually mostly all right with me to have villainous atheists in a game about gods, but "atheism is really a form of religion, and just as arbitrary as the fundamentalism they claim to oppose" is a trope that never fails to annoy me.

 The rest of the setting is pretty good. It does something that I'm obliged to point out as unrealistic, even as I admit it's my favorite type of fantasy worldbuilding - it gives each of its various nations its own high concept fantasy twist, and makes that high concept the center of fleshing out the nation's culture and politics. So you've got the Bright Republic, which is essentially just a magitech version of modern society, and its whole deal revolves around these ancient and irreplaceable magical macguffins that make its technology possible. Then you have the Ulstang Skerries, who are basically viking necromancers who terrorize coastal villages in their zombie-rowed longships. And they both just sort of coexist with each other.

In other words - almost everything about the Realm of Arcem reminded me of an Ukss entry, which frequently made me smile. For the average newcomer, I'd say that it's a world with a lot of diversity and some well-worked-out lore that only occasionally feels like it's stitched together out of spare parts.

Although, you could argue that the "stitched together" feeling was intention, given that the most influential canon event was the Shattering, where greedy mortals' plundering of heaven lead to the previously singular universe cracking apart at the seams, leaving the survivors in disconnected realms separated by a soul-consuming cosmic void.

It can sound a little grimdark at times, but the book directly explains its reasoning - "The best problems are the ones that the PCs can face directly, even if they might not win." Which I'm interpreting to mean that things have to generally be bad enough that it justifies playing heroes with phenomenal cosmic powers.

Overall, my opinion of this book is very positive. I'm not sure it will ever be my go-to high-power game, but it has some intriguing ideas that I wouldn't mind trying out. You don't have to take my word for it, though. There's a free version available. My understanding is that the only thing missing from the full version is the last chapter, a mishmash of miscellaneous topics that are nice to have, but mostly nonessential. If that's the case, I would say the only thing that you're going to really miss is the rules for creating your own realm. The mortal character rules might make for an interesting alternate campaign, but if you're using them, it's because you've already decided you need a break from playing godbound characters. My favorite part was, of course, the rules for playing Exalted in the Godbound ruleset, which are completely transparent in their intent, but also hilariously coy about what they're actually doing - "some games" have "vaguely described Exalted mechanics." I'd love to see the reaction of someone who'd never heard of these "other games." There must be at least 10 pages that seem completely and bafflingly pointless.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of good stuff here. I'm going to go with a classic, though - there's sorcery that allows a mage to drain a victim's remaining lifespan and add a portion of it to their own. This particular implementation has a neat twist, though. The more you use that spell, the more mutated and inhuman you become, even to the point of gaining "uncanny abilities." I like it when magic dabbles in transhumanism.

Monday, June 7, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Skypoint & Vivane

 Aw man, it's another tough one. I didn't make it any easier on myself by reading it so slowly, but in my defense, I tried my best. A coworker got covid and I've been working literally every day since my last post. And it was during the Juco tournament, one of the hotel's busiest times. My average of ~20 pages a day (and the pace on this was surprisingly regular) was actually pretty good, if I do say so myself.

So my memories of the three books in this boxed set are all over the place. I look at the first page of my notes and see the mysterious word "Vasgothians" and I'm like, "wait, do they mean Visigoths? No, they can't, this whole setting is antediluvian, taking place in an alternate magical history of central Europe, 8000 years past, so having any connection at all between the Vasgothians and the Visigoths would be as absurd as saying that the 'exotic' land of Indrisa, with its 'ferocious war elephants' and capital city of Calcutana is somehow related to modern India."

Which is kind of a roundabout way of saying that this book establishes Thera (the setting's designated Evil Empire) as a global civilization (they even crossed the Atlantic ocean to find a "mysterious land" of hot and humid jungles), but it doesn't quite make the globe interesting enough to justify it.

It's a bit of a disappointment, really. Earthdawn has consistently impressed me with its nuanced, empathetic descriptions of traditional fantasy creatures, but somehow Africans . . . sorry, the "easily enslave[d]" "dark-skinned local peoples" of Anzan . . . can't get quite the same treatment. Maybe it's just a matter of space concerns. Anzan did only get a single paragraph to both describe its features and establish its existence in the setting for the very first time, so maybe an Anzan supplement would have proceeded with the same complex humanism that I've come to expect from this series.

Or maybe not. I think, in attempting to describe Thera, that Earthdawn has discovered its Achilles heel. Following the line's usual practice of considering its characters' circumstances and points of view, Skypoint & Vivane comes dangerously close to both-sidsing slavery.

And this is an awkward subject for me to talk about, because the book is from 1995, and I have documented proof that young John Frazer was doing similarly bad takes as late as 2002 (the NWO fan supplement I wrote has a "the American founders were men of their times" passage that absolutely mortifies me and I hate that there's nothing I can do about it now), but it's still a little gross to see a passage that describes a Theran raid that "killed all the old-folk and children and enslaved the able-bodied adults" and then, literally one page later

"While the majority of non-Therans sincerely believe that the Empire represents an evil that must be eradicated, a certain percentage of more sensible folk recognize that Therans cannot be lumped together as a single entity."
Where's the contradiction, folks? But also, the next page has a passage written, in-character, from a Theran point of view that runs down the typical list . . . slavery had a salutory effect on the slaves, the Theran values of curiosity and cultural openness are worthwhile additions to the world, and besides it's not like Therans invented slavery, there are actually a lot of local forced-labor customs that could fairly be described as slavery, so it's kind of hypocritical to focus on the Therans, maybe it's because you hate science and civilization . . .

And it might occur to you to wonder where they could have found inspiration for such a realistically depraved defense of the institution of slavery, but the depressing answer is that all they had to do was ask nearly any white American.

Which is really the heart of this. Thera is the United States of America. I'm certain this wasn't an intentional parallel. I'm guessing that if the authors were asked to name the area of their setting most inspired by the USA, they would probably say the liberal capitalist dwarfs of Throal. I think it's more likely that Thera is an archetype that lurks deep in the white American subconscious and is always in danger of rising to the surface - "yeah, they practiced slavery, but they also arguably saved the world, so . . . even?" That it keeps showing up is accidentally revealing.

And I do think it's accidental. The chain of logic is pretty clear - they're attempting to humanize their villains. There's no such thing as an entire society of monsters, so you can't characterize a whole society entirely by its worst traits. They must have virtues of their own, accomplishments and beliefs that express the fundamental greatness and goodness of all human beings. At the very least, the average member of that society is probably just a regular schmuck, who does nothing worse than keep their head down and try to make it day to day.

To try and see people that way is an impulse that expresses a fundamental decency. It indicates an unwillingness to scapegoat and oversimplify. But it also runs the risk of erasing the victims. For example, we never learn the individual name of any single "pleasure slave."

I don't want to lean too far into psychoanalysis here. I could close-parse the campaign suggestions and conclude that "freedom fighter" is in scare quotes rather than title quotes, just because Barsavians are "likely to regard the Therans as wicked, enslaving imperialists." I mean, I regard the sky as blue, but it's a little weird to phrase it that way. But that would be ungenerous. Later on, the Theran perspective "Barsavian barbarian terrorists"is definitely in scare quotes.

(Although, if I were in the mood to psychoanalyze, I might be very curious about the choice of the word "terrorist" - it's such a conspicuous anachronism, perhaps they were more aware of the Thera = USA connection than I'm giving them credit for).

I suspect the big culprit here is 1995. I look at, say, White Wolf books from this period and there's that same reluctance to pick a side. Thera and the Technocracy are undergoing the same arc, just offset by a couple of years. Fighting the fascists didn't have the same sense of urgency we feel now.

Yet you look at the laws of Vrontok, the mercantile town built in the literal shadow of the book's titular Skypoint, and it has a 50sp "guest tax" that visitors have to pay, or be enslaved. And if you try and flee, you have to pay the 30sp "exit tax" or suffer the same fate. There's no way you write that and think "these are a people with a healthy society."

Except Vrontok isn't actually a Theran city. It's run by Barsavians who sell slaves to the Therans. The Therans look down on them for doing it, which struck me as a hilariously on-point observation about the human condition - since the people of Vrontok "would sell their own kin as slaves, [they] are plainly lacking in every decent moral code, and therefor their living conditions and behavior need not concern an uprighth Theran."

It's a good bit of characterization, but part of an unfortunate pattern - collaborators and non-Therans who climb the hierarchy are invariably "weak and craven" or "an over-awed little stooge." The Therans themselves mostly get to be the cool, competent sort of fascists. There's no real way you can use this book to portray the Therans as heroes (and, indeed, even the Theran-apologist "Playing Theran Characters" section doesn't do much more than say that they're not much different than regular people anywhere), but it does wind up feeling oddly like Theran propaganda. I guess there was no way to know in 1995 that fascists would take the Darth Vader comparison as a compliment.

Leaving aside all that stuff I just said Skypoint and Vivane does feature some memorable imagery and useful plot hooks. There's a fortress where the Therans commemorate the slaying of a Horror with a statue that they periodically cover with the flayed skins of condemned prisoners (because they're ultimately no worse than you or me). There's a bar that caters to the undead, The Dead Man's Hand. Some soldiers wield crystal spears filled with elemental fire.

Also, the Brotherhood of the Bone. 

No, you don't get any other context to that one.

And, of course, Skypoint itself is kind of a neat fantasy location. It's a fortress/airship landing area built atop these 800-foot-tall pillars. There's a cool picture of it. It looks like a sky-scraper-sized kitchen table that straddles a small medieval city, and it's got a bunch of little castles orbiting it (Theran airships look like castles instead of sailboats). It's something that is unique even among this borderline-science-fiction magitech fantasy subgenre and I would have liked to see more stuff like that and less advice to "take a neutral stand on slavery and portray the Therans as simply misguided." I mean, call me old-fashioned, but I say that if you're going to make your setting have a group of magitech fascists, you should just own that shit.

Ukss Contribution: I wouldn't say this book actually crosses the line into slavery apologism. It gets rough at points, and I think it's fair to say that it's the weakest Earthdawn book yet, but it's really more awkward than wicked.

So my choice is the Brotherhood of the Bone . . .

No, just kidding. They're not that interesting. They're just a group of military comrades who all wear the same type of magical brooch that's fashioned out of a bone. I just like saying the name.

I'm actually going to go with the Petals of the Lily. They revere a certain hallucinogenic flower and want to spread it everywhere. The book describes them as "eccentric," but I think they could be a properly sinister cult. Maybe something closer to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers than Cheech and Chong. (Or hell, maybe halfway between both).

Friday, May 28, 2021

ARC Quickstart

 Where to get it: Dedicated website

I know the whole purpose of a Quickstart is to act as a preview for a full rpg, but it nonetheless irritated me to see gaps in the text that more or less said "for the full details about this thing, consult the main text." I feel like I could, at least, have been trusted with the cooperation rules. I guess I'll just have to back the upcoming kickstarter.

And maybe it seems overly combative to set the tone of the post with a complaint, but honestly, it's my only complaint - this Quickstart is only useful for a relatively simple game and if I want to do more than that I need the full product. Which suggests that maybe I don't quite understand the point of Quickstarts after all.

However, with the caveat that I'm going to keep perversely thinking of this as a complete game, despite the text's admonishment that I don't do that, how does it stack up?

I kind of like it.

It does that rules-light thing where the only real mechanic for task resolution is a die roll that points to an outcome matrix, leaving it up to you to decide the difference between a "success" vs "a success with consequence" or "failure" vs "failure with opportunity." And that's really all you need, despite the literally dozens of thick corebooks I own that say otherwise.

I do like that its stripped down roll-under system uses Approaches rather than Attributes (traits range from 1-3 and you add together your Approach rating and your Skill rating to roll under on a d6, task difficulty can modify the final target number). Characters can specialize in being Creative, Careful, or Concerted, though it's unclear to me how penalized over-specialization is supposed to be. The GM can, for example, call for a Creative roll if a character is trying to write a poem, but most of the time, the players choose their approach and narrate appropriately.

It's a neat way to get players thinking about how their characters interact with the world, but so far, it's pretty standard "19-page rules light-internet rpg" stuff. ARC's real innovation, and the reason you might actually be tempted to back the kickstarter, is its use of real-time as a mechanic. 

Tying your short and long rests to actual, real-world breaks in the game strikes me as impractical. Rests are used to heal up and resupply your characters and seem to me as likely to come when your players are deeply invested in advancing the story as when they need to take five for snacks and the bathroom.

However, the other use of real-time, the one at the core of the game, makes up for this by being positively brilliant. Basically, ARC games have a theme - it's not just a generic rules-light rpg, it's a rules-light rpg specifically about the coming apocalypse.  There's a mechanic called "the Doomsday Counter" which has between 6-12 slots, and when all the slots are filled, the world ends. The way it fills up is that every so often, you make a roll based on the number of currently unresolved Omens (sidequests, basically) and add 1 or more marks based on the result of the roll. The great part of this mechanic is that for short (one-shot) and medium-length (2-3 session) games, this roll happens after a set period of real time. It's been a half-hour and you still haven't defeated that cult? Add an extra die to the roll so see if Cthulhu awakens.

I wouldn't actually recommend using the rules for long (4+ sessions) games, because that changes the Doomsday roll to a per-session event, which just seems to me to bypass the best part of the game - the chaotic scramble as you get close to the deadline and realize that there's been entirely too much fucking around.

It strikes me for the first time that maybe the real-time rest rules are meant to wind down the tension. If the Doomsday clock stops during rests, then that would be a much-needed break for the players. However, the text does not make this clear.

The last thing to note is that this Quickstart has some slick production values. It is easy on the eyes, though I'm not sure why they went with the landscape format. The illustration of the Noblin, a cute, spear-wielding bunny person, made me smile.

I can't say whether I'll back the kickstarter or not, but that's most because I just recently spent entirely too much money on old Dark Sun supplements (I finally accepted that the Tr-Kreen book was never coming down in price). Still, assuming that the full core expands the rules in some fruitful directions, I could see ARC becoming a "between campaigns" staple.

Ukss Contribution: Not a lot of setting here, probably because ARC wants to be a setting-agnostic apocalypse game, but I did like the example pitch of "world-ending earthquake brought by a goddess' approaching death." I think I could work that into one Ukss' less -developed regions (I've been looking for plots for the Dragontail Mountains for awhile now - phytomining wasn't cutting it.)

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Trinity Continuum: Aberrant (2nd edition)

 Ah, a new edition of one of my favorite games, using a rule system I'd previously praised. This is sure to be a light and easy post, full of nothing but positivity. Let me just consult my notes . . .

Sixteen pages? Good grief.

No, I kid. My overall impression is actually very positive. Most of my notes are of the genre "notice a difference from 1st edition and speculate about whether it's significant." The Fireman's first act is now saving an apartment building instead of saving a schoolbus - probably doesn't mean anything. The Fireman is now declining an offer to run for US President - probably indicative of a change in the game's focus and themes. Plus, "America has had enough of 'celebrity politicians'" is an obvious, if extremely mild, rebuke of Trump.

It's actually a pretty weird line, because it implies that the Trump presidency is canon in the Aberrant universe, but it sort of glosses over it. I might accuse it of being overly timorous, possibly speculating that Onyx Path didn't want to alienate its Trumpist customers, but that doesn't seem likely. The USA's characterized as struggling to recover from a major loss in international credibility (another obvious Trump reference) and I doubt very much that a book meant to placate the American right wing would have quite so many nonbinary characters.

No, the likeliest explanation is that Trump is not mentioned by name because he has a way of sucking all the oxygen out of the room and completely derailing otherwise productive conversations (point of evidence - consider how extremely entertained you've been so far by this line of inquiry), and they probably didn't want the distraction.

It does, however, have the incidental effect of giving Randel Portman some strange characterization. He is, apparently, almost self-destructively tactful. Oh, can you imagine the field day Fox News would have with that "celebrity politician" line. A well-regarded public figure who had somehow managed to maintain popularity with both sides of the political divide comes out with a statement that is less than worshipful of Donald Trump. The right wing press would chew that bone for years. And it doesn't even earn him points on the left, because it's clearly a bit of calculated diplomacy towards the American fascist movement. Just the worst of both worlds all around. Never mind being president, take away this man's Twitter account before he gets himself in serious trouble.

Anyway, that's one sentence down, only 296.9 pages left to go. Except that digression wasn't just whimsical nitpicking on my part, it's actually related to something broader I noticed about this book that might be worthy of comment - this text was written in 2018 and it shows. I once wrote, of some White Wolf book or another, that there was no way they could know in the 90s that one day sincerity would seem radical. And now I'm looking back at both Onyx Path and my younger self to say that there was no way we could have known in 2018 that this would only last for, like, two years, tops.

We now know that our current institutions are extremely ill-suited to deal with a global crisis. There's a delay of three months between the first appearance of novas (superhumans) and the UN passing the Zurich Accords, a resolution recognizing their human rights. It took the real world longer than that to agree that people dying of a virus was bad (someone let me know when the clock runs out on that one, by the way).

Which is to say that the old White Wolf would have absolutely had a (vaguely leftist but highly problematic) blast at the chance to write "President Donald Trump vs the Mexican superheroes," but Onyx Path went another way with it.

And make no mistake, Trinity Continuum: Aberrant is a good game, and its less-cynical take on the setting has its merits, but it's one of those things that was destined to feel like a period piece almost as soon as it was written. An example would be the Aberrants.

There was a group with that name in 1st edition, and I probably do need to say something about the strange fate of its signature characters (Corbin and Sophia Rousseau work with Utopia's covert operations now, which is an odd reversal from their 1e versions, who had a principled commitment to exposing Utopia's covert operations), but the 1e Aberrants don't actually have anything to do with the 2e Aberrants, aside from sharing a name.

In second edition, the Aberrants are now the radical arm of the Teragen, and they embody all the same uncomfortable contradictions as their parent organization, but more EXTREME. There's a sidebar in the systems chapter that is not specifically about them, but which sums it up pretty well, "Here's the problem with using superheroes to represent marginalized people . . . Superpowers - key word 'power' - represent agency that systems of oppression actively exclude marginalized people from."

So the Aberrants are a group that sometimes takes radical direct action in defense of nova rights - when the mayor of Tampa bans Teragen members from the city (an event that also happened in 1e, though 2e makes the curious choice of softening his position from "no novas, period" to "no novas with a specific political association that we have no way of verifying"), Geryon assassinates him. But they're also a group that terrorizes baselines (unpowered humans) for no discernible reason - "Members of the Aberrant faction attack downtown Los Angeles, killing hundreds. It's unclear what the motive was for the attack . . ."

I think this is just a common trope in superhero media, villain groups that ride that ambiguity. They kind of have a point, but their methods and ideology are so extreme that they have to be stopped. And while this is something that often draws criticism from the left - Killmonger did nothing wrong and all that - in this case (and probably X-Men) it's probably less an attempt to discredit revolutionary politics and more a natural consequence of trying to navigate an awkward truth of the superhero genre - they are both a vulnerable minority, too small to politically resist any degrading conditions imposed by humanity's overwhelming numbers, and an aristocratic minority, whose small numbers only serve to highlight the extreme inequity of their massive power.

It's therefor pretty natural that the Aberrants, as a "nova rights" group would occupy the unnavigable no-man's-land between "black power" and "white power." I just feel like, if the text were written today, Onyx Path might have felt more pressure to pick a lane.

And in something completely unrelated, but which I'm going to bring up now while I'm still riled up - why the hell is Saxon still a canon character? Just casually mentioned in the Team Tomorrow Europe write-up as another member of the group.

So, in second edition, Slider is still alive because "While the Proteus modus operandi includes sabotage, theft, violence, manipulation, and the destruction of a career or two, assassination is not on the menu." And the sterilization conspiracy is no more, not even as an alternate campaign model. And Cestus Pax is now Sam Williams, driven to distraction by his awesome sense of responsibility, instead of Shelby Eisenfaust, prickly asshole who's obsessed with his own image. And all this is in service to a vision of the setting that wears its unironic love of the superhero genre on its sleeve. Aberrant, second edition could be Superfriends, and so it had to dial back on the parts of the setting that were clearly White Wolf doing awful for the sake of awful. Fair enough.

But then they bring back fucking Saxon as a canon character. Covering up his crimes is arguably the worst thing Proteus ever did (and yes, I'm aware I'm saying this about an organization that secretly sterilized people) and he's just chilling here, as if he wasn't a complete piece of shit.

Although it's entirely possible that, like Cestus Pax, the 2e version Saxon is meant to be a completely different character than the 1e version. It seems unlikely to me that a game as optimistic and inclusive as Aberrant 2e is going to want a character who CONTENT WARNING killed several women by using his giant growth power mid-coitus. I'd be very surprised if that was still canon, even as a potential villain plot. But if that wasn't the intention, why keep him around? Nerds like me are going to freak the fuck out and the name isn't going to mean anything at all to anyone else. What is to be gained? It's not as if "generic heavy named after a northern European tribe" is such a dynamite pitch that you'd be negligent for not attempting to redeem it. It's just a mysterious decision all around.

Also mysterious - the noticeable lack of Mefistofaleez. Surely, if Julian Waters, Utopia's head accountant, can get a name drop . . .

Nah, that way lies madness. I don't want to start nitpicking every editorial decision here. Where's Sloppy Joe? Why is Caroline Fong still walking out and about? Who has the streaming rights to Hardballs? All questions that could potentially have significant answers that reveal insights into 2e's design philosophy, but which more likely are of interest only to fans of 1e who also happen to have no proper sense of perspective.

So my guy Mefistofaleez could just be waiting in the wings for another product. Or he could have been quietly removed for the sensible reason that a lot of what he did was pander to Black stereotypes. 

However, I suspect that the main reason Mefistofaleez went from major spotlight character to complete non-entity is a shift in the game's overall focus. He's kind of a ridiculous character (that's what's great about him) whose niche was to help illustrate the game's media satire - i.e. "a character this ridiculous exists because novas are celebrities and some celebrities are ridiculous." In the more sincerely superheroic milieu of 2nd edition, he doesn't fit in. He's too crude to be a hero and too silly to be a villain, but he's exactly in the sweet spot to be an influencer and 2e so far hasn't made a lot of room for that sort of character.

There's some. Slider (the charismatic teleporter whose shocking murder by Proteus drove so much of 1e's metaplot) is alive and she's a total influencer. She uses her teleportation abilities to make a series of low-effort travel videos and is quite believably popular. And some local superheroes are crowdfunded, which implies a social media infrastructure, but it's not as upfront as a theme as the tabloid stuff was in 1st edition (though "celebrity" is one of the game's suggested subgenres).

I once made the snarky comment that Aberrant's greatest asset was that "White Wolf was clearly under the mistaken impression that they were too cool to write a superhero game." When 1st edition was running on all cylinders, that attitude gave it just the right amount of jaded distance to establish a unique voice - superheroes as pro wrestlers, superheroes as gossip fodder, superheroes as amoral mercenaries (keep in mind, I don't think Aberrant would have been better if WW was correct about being too cool for superheroes). It just came with a big downside when they went too far - the superhero who was a perfectly ordinary office worker who teleported to avoid traffic, whatever fucked-up decision making process led to green-lighting Saxon's plot in Teragen.

Second edition avoids the worst of 1e's excesses, and is probably the better for it (assuming the Saxon thing is no longer canon), but I will confess to missing at least some of the bitter notes that came with it. The N! cable network has been replaced by N!Sight, the social media portal/streaming service by novas for novas - a fair update, but there's no exploration of the effect of superhumans on post-truth politics (and, more frighteningly, vice versa). Some city defenders are crowdfunded, and OMG, your setting needs to parodically cover the nova hustle culture and superhero gig economy. That feels like classic Aberrant to me.

Hey, if anyone from Onyx Path is reading this, here's a product pitch for you - Aberrant: 24/7 - "People think that when you're a nova, the world just lines up to give you fame, fortune, and respect. What they don't see is the work that makes it happen, the pressure to always be 'on,' even when you're not getting paid. You want to be a superhero? It's not just about busting bad guys and saving civilians, it's about living the lifestyle. All day. Every day. Even when it eats you up inside.

Narrated by Mefistofaleez, Slider's dark reflection and only true rival for number 1 social media clout."

Although, again, I do want to be clear that you should not interpret my grognardish longing for "the way they used to do it" as saying "it sucks now." Trinity Continuum: Aberrant is a decent superhero settings with a lot of individual strengths. It's even better than 1st edition at being a global superhero setting, and even directly addresses the elephant in the room re: Utopia's programs and philanthropic colonialism. And I would say that it is as good as any other superhero setting out there at creating memorable, distinctive characters that are not obvious clones of someone from the big two. Homelander is clearly Superman, but Cestus Pax isn't. And the Trinity Continuum's overall historical arc continues to be fascinating. I think it's up to individual tastes whether it's a strength or a weakness that it's all wrapped up in a package that feels like it could seamlessly cross over with the MCU.

There's plenty more I could say about the setting (like how in the hell does Maxwell Mercer have a granddaughter - wouldn't that imply that he's had sex at least once, pretty unlikely from where I'm sitting), but we're past 2000 words and I still haven't talked about the system.

It's better than 1st edition's by a huge margin, but that's not saying a lot. I don't think it quite has a handle on the upper ends of the power range, especially with regards to the scale system. It's possible for a starting character to get access to Scale 10 strength effects like moving a planet out of orbit or punching so hard you rip the fabric of space and time. It's not even that hard. It's actually a pretty obvious build (64xp for Quantum 5 + 60xp for Mega Strength 5 + 12xp for Mega-Lifting + 12 xp for Mega-Crush = 148xp out of a total of 150). It's better than Wild Talents, which allows starting characters to obliterate all matter and energy in the visible universe, but in a way it's worse because you still might stumble on this nonsense accidentally (it doesn't take a total power-gamer to come up with the character concept "me strong").

My suggested errata - Mega Crush gives you +1 scale for attacks, maximum. Mega Lift doubles your lifting capacity, relative to your scale, so that the scale 5 character is as strong as two wrecking balls, instead of an earthquake.

I think this is merely the result of a well-intentioned attempt to simplify the math, but simpler math doesn't count for much if you're not clear about what the numbers are supposed to mean. Mega-Strength 7 allows you to move major land-masses. Quantum Agent with the 7x Horde tag allows you to summon 250 disposable mooks with a dicepool of 2, both require Quantum 7, but that version of Quantum Agent costs 12 more xp.

Although, to be fair, if you ignored the Horde tag and just went with a single agent, you could summon a champion with Mega-Strength 7 at the same xp cost as getting Mega-Strength 7 yourself, with room to later buy the Horde tag, so that at the cost of two maxed-out Mega-Attributes you could summon up to 250 MS-7 brawlers . . . which is properly frightening. 

Although to be even more fair, it's distressing that there's this much potential for char-op, even from a cursory read of the text. It's probably unavoidable in an effects-based system.

Speaking of which, Techniques are weird. Techniques are a mega-edge that allows you to buy new powers at an extreme discount, provided you tie them to one of your existing powers. So, for example, if you have Quantum Anima (basically telekinesis) at level 5, that costs you 60xp. Then you can spend 12 xp to buy a Technique for Quantum Anima and that can be any power with an xp cost of 60 or less. So now you have, say Flight 5 and Quantum Anima 5 for a total of 72xp instead of 120xp. 

I don't hate it as a mechanic, but it's a weird bit of system mastery because it's tucked into the Mega-Edge section, where you might gloss over it, instead of just being rolled into the way you normally buy powers, like it should be. It's also unclear what happens when you spend xp to improve the base power. And the Technique Mega-Edge is limited to 5 ranks (although you can buy it separately for each of your base powers), so I'm not sure what happens when, say, Storm discovers a sixth thing she can do with weather manipulation.

I think if you avoid stress-testing the extremes, Trinity Continuum: Aberrant's system works as well as any other supers system I've encountered, and even its faults are hardly unique. It's easy to get degenerate builds in Mutants and Masterminds too. The main reason to pick it over any other is its rational way of approaching scale (even if scale shifts of more than 2 ranks or so wind up completely derailing your character), and the fact that you can easily incorporate Talents from the Trinity Continuum core.

Overall, I'd say that this book is definitely pretty good. It's a decent system and a decent setting, and as an introduction to the Aberrant world, it's clean, clear, and friendly. My only real caveat is for old, returning fans like me - this is a book that speaks best in the new Trinity Continuum voice and less well in the old Aberrant voice we came to both love and fear.

Ukss Contribution: I liked Violet "Tank" Chao - an invulnerable pacifist who uses her probability manipulation powers to minimize the collateral damage that comes with high-powered super fights. Just a neat idea.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Horrors

 The "monster-book, but told from an in-character perspective" gimmick from Creatures of Barsaive is back, but it works better here, and I think the reason is a matter of genre. Horrors is, unsurprisingly, a horror-fantasy book and thus when it talks about its titular monsters, there is something furtive and uncertain about it. Like maybe we simply shouldn't be talking about the mysterious spiritual orb that erupts its unblinking eyes into the physical world. Maybe talking about it draws its attention. Maybe most of the people who would be in a position to talk about it are dead, and the only clue we have to what killed them is a fragmented diary that gradually descends into incoherent ranting about how the author is constantly being watched

And then it cuts off, and we're left to fill in the blanks.

Horrors is a tricky book because it's actually a lot of fun, but it may be too difficult to use. The bulk of the pagecount is devoted to 15 named Horrors, each of which has its own iconic horror plot, from Giftbringer, who plays elaborate mindgames meant to foster deadly paranoia and jealousy, to Ubyr, who's just a big fucking worm that will smash your town. Any one of the entries here could serve as the central premise of a campaign. However, you kind of need to use them that way, because they are also so powerful that if you just toss them at PCs like a regular monster encounter, you will most likely kill them dead.

And I suppose there's nothing wrong with that as a premise for a supplement. Probably better than the regular practice of trying to cover the whole gamut of character power in every monster book. These are the guys who forced the whole world to cower in underground bunkers for the bulk of the last 500 years, and they are beefy enough to make that reaction justified. . . at least, according to the introduction (oh, sorry "Game Information" section), which inexplicably comes at the end of the book. Yes, tell us the design assumptions and optimal use case of the book on page 106 out of 110, that's not weird at all.

Actually, I think that's just FASA's house-style. I recall a lot of Shadowrun books that were the same way - front-load the exciting fiction elements, and then have a thin bit of rpg-crunch to try and make the fiction into a game. It makes for entertaining books, granted, but I'm not sure about the wisdom of explaining the format of a stat block after I've already read 15 stat blocks. My recommendation here is to simply read the book out of order. Game Info first, then the Horror entries.

Overall, this book is a keeper. It's a bit end-game to be immediately useful to any given game, but with a little bit of adaptation, you could use its various entities as arc villains for Earthdawn games that emphasized the setting's horror-genre elements. Start the PCs off slow, facing minions and constructs, and only gradually move them towards one of the big Named Horrors. Or just start a high-level campaign and have them brawl directly with Verjigorm, the Great Hunter of dragons, who is so powerful that he features prominently in a draconic creation myth. It would be interesting to see if the system could handle it.

Since this was a short post, I'm now going to talk about some odds and ends from my notes.

The first story featured something that hearkened back to the very first book I read for the blog, D&D Basic. Back then, I thought it was odd that adventurers were having their bodies and possessions delivered to their surviving relatives (less the "death tax"), but here it's a major plot point. The narrator eventually wanders down the exact same road as his deceased adventurer brother and it's so on the nose that I can't help feel like this is based on an actual game ("my character died, but his brother with identical stats is ready to carry on his legacy.")

The entry for Druistadt has the narrator repeat a story they heard second-hand, putting a framing device inside their framing device. Two layers deep is pushing it, guys.

Ristul is a Horror who represents the torment of eternal corruption, and is almost entirely an abstract concept. So much so that the bulk of its stats (including its hit points) are "NA." Immediately following that was Taint, the Horror without a physical body that twisted magic (but which had stats and could be fought on the astral plane). Either of those Horrors would have been fine on their own (though does Earthdawn really want to be the sort of game that has villainous abstract concepts), but being so close together did neither of them any favors. The book really needed to settle on a mechanic for its non-physical enemies.

 Gnashers are mindless Horror minions that just eat everything around them. Their entry says players can fight them "guilt-free," which suggest to me that the problem of "always evil" races was a conscious concern. The intelligent undead community in Parlainth probably wasn't a fluke.

Finally, the Flydrop Coat is one of the most evocative cursed items I've seen so far. It gradually turns you into a spider monster, but it starts off just being a useful magic item that kills pests, until about a week in when "the thought enters the wearer's mind that the flies killed by the coat probably taste good." Gross, but in an awesome way.

Ukss Contribution: I had a lot of choices here. Most of this book is filled with cool stuff. The Flydrop Coat almost made it. As did the Giftbringer, whose initial description made me think "hot, young Santa" or Tempter, the psychic Horror in the form of a seed. However the final choice goes to the Dread Iota. They're a microscopic species of Horror minions. They look like tiny humanoids and they infect people like a disease.

Literally. You get what you think is a wasting disease and then some sage looks at your tissues under a microscope and sees that there's these scaly little people dancing around your cells, wrecking shit. Eventually, they master high ritual magic and use necromancy to control your body (alive or dead, it doesn't matter), until they trick or coerce you into passing on some infected food or water to another victim.

I figure Ukss' disease-people will probably be less nakedly demonic, and merely be a threat because they treat their home with the same respect and care that humans treat ours, but I do like the idea of getting sick because a miniature society is homesteading your body.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

(AD&D 2e)The Complete Sha'ir's Handbook

 I was worried about this one. After Arabian Adventures, I feared that anything born of the Al-Qadim setting would have all the same faults. But from my, admittedly almost entirely ignorant, viewpoint, The Complete Sha'ir's Handbook looks . . . kind of okay.

Don't take that as a final judgement. I suspect that a part of this is simply that I no longer have someone else's notes to crib from. However, if you're willing to accept that I'm attempting to apply what I learned from the Asians Represent livestream, then this book is not entirely blameless, but also manages to avoid the worst of its progenitor's excesses. 

I think it's because of the subject matter. Zakhara is a fantasy setting that's ostensibly based off a real place, and thus when you talk about it in general, you're in some sense talking about a reflection of real Arabs. Any stereotypes you have floating around in your head wind up making their way in. Whereas this book talks the most explicitly fantastical people in the setting, so there's no temptation to try and make them "realistic."  You're not getting anything like "oh, that's not the historical genie summoners did things."

So there's some mentions of "honor" and some mentions of "station," and one really bad sentence that I'm sure was only as bad as it was because the author didn't know the definition of the word "concubine," but largely this is a book that's more concerned about astrological conjunctions, cunningly crafted sword-wielding crab robots, and the politics of the genie realm. It's mostly too busy to be racist.

I think. This is a tricky question. Orientalism, as a form of racism, is all about othering people, treating them as "mysterious" and "exotic." For a regular person, this is demeaning. But wizards are supposed to be mysterious and exotic. It's practically part of the job description. At the very least, they're weird people with weird interests who are constantly on the lookout for weird things like eye of newt or the severed hand of a condemned man. Their methods and habits are supposed to clash with your everyday common sense, because what they do is magic. If there was a clear, explicable connection between cause and effect, anyone could do it.

And it's this willingness to make mages strange that makes this book and The Complete Necromancer's Handbook the only two objectively good magic books I've read for AD&D so far.  The Complete Wizard's Handbook seemed determined to make them ordinary trades-people (half the kits were simply reskins from the Complete Fighter's Handbook, for crying out loud), about as mysterious as your local blacksmith.

It's actually kind of instructive to look back at TCWH's Wu Jen Kit to demonstrate why I think this book here avoids the worst case scenario. The Wu Jen were 1990 AD&D's attempt at an "oriental" wizard, and it was racist as hell. The existed to "add a touch of oriental intrigue and exotic culture to a western-based party" and their special hindrance was ritual behavior that "may seem trivial or even ridiculous to other characters." 

That was the wrong way to do it. The Wu Jen are only mysterious as a function of where they're from. They're the stoic, inscrutable Asian man - "It is unlikely that the Wu Jen shares the party's goals or moral code; if he agrees to join the party, it is probably due to his intellectual curiosity." Sure, because no Asian person was ever motivated by gold, glory, and adventure. And their "strange taboos" are so hard to understand, like a regular "western" wizard isn't carrying a bag of bat shit around with them in case they need to light something on fire.

The Complete Sha''ir's Handbook doesn't do that. There's one use of the word "exotic" on the back cover, and I think it shows up once in the first chapter, but even though it introduces a half-dozen unique mystical practices, the main reason for its characters to do something strange is because they know something regular people don't.

This is a book that very clearly takes inspiration from the golden age of Islam. Things we learn about Zakhara in this book - "The people of Zakhara have a relatively sophisticated system of numbers, including a mathematical system that is second to none," their astronomical knowledge is similarly advanced, and a few of their more daring mages have begun experimenting with steam engines. That's why they have access to the Digitologist, the Astrologer, and the Mechanician kits. 

It's kind of a shame that the mechanics are as half-baked as they are, because there's a lot of fantasy potential here. You've got things like the kit that weaves spells into magical pieces of cloth or the ghul lords whose spells are accompanied by spooky special effects (ghostly lights, sinister whispering, temporarily adopting a skeletal visage, etc). This is what magic users should have been the whole time - people with highly specific, highly flavorful magical abilities that fill a distinct niche. In fact, the biggest flaw with most of the kits in this book is that they're "Wizards."

There's always been a somewhat nebulous boundary between a Kit and a Class. Kits modify classes, adding a special bonus in exchange for a special hindrance. However, the limits on what counts as a "special bonus" are never defined. So, in theory, you could have a "special bonus" that was an elaborate new game mechanic or level-by-level menu of special abilities, and a "special hindrance" that amounted to losing your base class' signature ability, and that would be a Kit, despite being a new class in all but name. 

Which is largely what's going on in this book. The Ghul Lords don't cast spells so much as use "manipulations" of negative energy to attack, defend, or travel. Their magic is fueled by their own life energy and while they can mimic certain effects, it's always tainted by their dread power. The Mechanicians build robots, and these robots can use spell-like effects based on which wizard spells the Mechanician knows, but the character themselves can't cast spells.

And the Spellslayers . . . well, they're an example of TSR almost accidentally discovering good class design. They don't cast spells at all, but they do gain thematically appropriate spell-like abilities at every level that are narrowly tailored to allow them to fulfill a gameplay niche (anti-wizard assassin) and they really should have been a Warrior or Rogue subclass.

I guess what I'm saying is that the magic in The Complete Sha'ir's Handbook is very clearly being different for the sake of being different, but the sense I got was more one of exploration than of attempting to make their setting seem strange and foreign.

Or maybe that's wishful thinking on my part. Because I really do think this book is doing what wizard books in general should be doing, and I'm not sure if that's a coincidence or not. Like, maybe the whole thing is Orientalist in its very conception. There's this exotic foreign land and your mandate is to make it as unrecognizable as possible in order to sell the foreignness and exoticism, and in the process you accidentally invent High Islamic Steampunk.

Or maybe I'm being paranoid here, and the real explanation is that someone was given an assignment and they knocked it out of the fucking park. "The Book of Ingenious Devices was cool as shit, let's make a class out of that."

It's probably some combination of both. Let's talk about secret societies.

This is another one of the book's ambiguities. Wizards and secret societies just go together. If we were talking about Mage: the Awakening, we wouldn't even be having this conversation right now. However, one of the secret societies introduced in this book is called "The Viziers," and their whole deal is that they are an all-female order who are "masters of seduction, interrogation, and intelligence, often able to gain information from targets who will never know they let their secrets slide."

That feels like a trope to me. The art that accompanied this group made me kind of uncomfortable too:

There's a difference between using medieval Arabia as the jumping off point for designing a new fantasy world and in basing your fantasy world off the "Hollywood Arabia" genre. The Complete Sha'ir's Handbook walks it a bit better than Arabian Adventures, but it's far from perfect, and honestly, I could not tell you precisely where it crosses over, but the art in general, and that picture in particular, are definitely on the wrong side of it.

Overall, I can't tell you exactly where I land on this one. I'm never going to play AD&D again, so I could just virtuously foreswear the book and that would be easy good-boy points with no downside for me. However, if I'm being honest, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. There are ideas here that I would love to see fleshed out in better games. More genie politics! More crab-bots! More spooky semi-undead wizards! And so my relationship to this book must remain complicated. 

Ukss Contribution: It has its inappropriate moments, but it's not by a longshot the worst book I've read (hell, it's not even all that comparable to the other Al-Qadim book I've read). So I will go with an Ukss contribution this time, and there's only one thing it could possibly be - crab bot!

 

I mean, look at him. He's got a sword.