Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Arms and Equipment Guide

The Arms and Equipment Guide should be an important setting book for Dungeons and Dragons - it describes most of the items from the equipment section of the Player's Handbook, often with historical context and illustrations. This is an immense help in visualizing your character and their possessions. It could also aid in getting a sense for what a medieval-esque fantasy world is like, and perhaps even allow players to develop an intuitive sense for the medieval technology level and the medieval way of doing things.

There was a moment like that, when the book stopped to explain the purpose of horseshoes. It said that sometimes a pebble would get between the horse's shoe and its hoof, and that if you wanted to take care of your horse you would have to periodically check and remove any you found. This didn't come as a surprise to me or anything, but it wasn't something I would have thought about. For a brief moment, the reality of owning a horse became a bit more real to me.

But it was just a moment. Most of that chapter dealt with the subject of barding in exhaustive detail. Do I need to know the difference between poitrels and flanchards? Are those even really words? Is this going to have any bearing on play whatsoever?

This is the sort of book that is, technically, obsolete in our modern day. I can search for any random weapon in here and most likely find a youtube video of someone testing it out (I tried this with the halberd and it went exactly as I predicted). There are so many educational resources available to us that make a simple list of medieval equipment kind of pointless. But it does have a niche. The very abundance of sources makes it hard to find information that is accurate, relevant, and accessible to the layman. Collating and paraphrasing a wide range of information into a single reference is pretty valuable.

Unfortunately, the book's accuracy is all over the place. I'm sure we all know by now that studded leather armor didn't exist. Armed with that bit of knowledge, there's a lot in this book that's pretty dubious (for example - the terms "longsword" and "bastard sword" were more or less used interchangeably until quite recently).

Also, its relevance could be hit-or-miss. To wit: Why are there so many fucking polearms? Far be it from me to criticize someone for being too obsessed with the minutiae of their hobby, but Dungeons and Dragons' attempt to convert all of us into polearm enthusiasts is deeply misguided. For crying out loud, the book's whole paradigm for understanding the weapon is flawed. In the real world, the polearm is like a snowflake. A lot of them were different for the sake of being different. You've got 18 different types here, and that's either far too many names for 3-4 different design tendencies or far too few for the literally hundreds of variations that are historically extent. Either way, AD&D's combat system is not detailed enough to actually care about them. A metal bit at the end of a stick. That's a polearm.

And that's the biggest flaw of this book. That it pancakes history into one sort of homogeneous, unrecognizable mass, substituting detail for genuine understanding. The main take away from the polearm explosion should have been that there were a lot of people, over a long period of time, and a wide region of space, doing things very differently. Maybe some of that diversity could have made it into the various D&D worlds.

I mean, for fuck's sake, they listed the medieval fashion terms alphabetically. How is that supposed to help anyone understand how medieval people actually dressed?

The weirdest thing about this book, though, was the little "in-character" narratives that accompanied the weapon descriptions. I put "in-character" in scare quotes because at least half of them directly reference the game's mechanics ("it makes sense to fire darts at their maximum rate.") It was so jarring that the stories had more or less the opposite of their intended effect, taking me out of the fantasy mindset and reminding me that I was reading a reference book.

You can't use the Arms and Equipment Guide to help you build a good fantasy setting, but you can use it to help you easily build a bad one. And that is a much more practical use. To be honest, meaningful storytelling experiences where you use the medium of rpgs to connect to real history are probably going to be pretty rare, even if that's what you're aiming for. A more realistic approach to setting is as a backdrop for improbably fantasy adventures. And for that, the Arms and Equipment Guide is good enough.

UKSS Contribution: There are a few pure fantasy conceits here (elven chain and the like), but one especially caught my eye - Coin Armor.

It's like scale armor, but instead of scales of overlapping metal, it's coins. There's no way in hell that could possibly be practical or effective, but I imagine it looks . . . spectacular.

I am imagining some sort of flamboyant, over-the-top warlord who has enough followers that they don't need to fight on the front lines, but who deliberately projects an image of crass wealth and profligate spending. The coin armor is their signature outfit, something so garish and wasteful that no one else would dare imitate it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Stellar Frontier - Upeo Wa Macho and Extrasolar Space Sourcebook

Is this the best Trinity book or is it merely my favorite? It's not noticeably better-written than the other books in the series, but it is the one that's deepest into the science fiction elements of the game. And because it doesn't deal with real-world locations, it runs a much lower chance of saying something so fraught that I need to put it under a microscope.

Lower chance, but not zero.

I'm probably reading too much into it. My brain is in a weird place after The Complete Book of Humanoids. It's just if I'm reading the book super critically, there a bit of . . .unfortunate imagery.

Like, a sci-fi plot where the psi orders become suspicious about the trouble the psionic teleporters might get into while gallivanting around the universe, so they assault their headquarters in order to capture them and put them in psionic dampeners - that's probably fine. It raises some uncomfortable characterization questions about the various Proxies, but it is in line with the "trust no one" mood of the time.

But if you reframe it as the psi orders landing a military force in west Africa to capture some of the people there and put them in collars so that the captors can exercise greater control over their labor?

I doubt there was anything at work there, even on a subconscious level, but it's kind of an oops. Making the African-American business mogul the driving force behind the plan was just a tone-deaf coda.

But like I said, I don't think there's any intent. And as near as I can tell, I'm the only person who ever even noticed. In fact, I'm fairly sure the culprit here is well-meaning color-blindness. The decision to have the teleporters flee the psi orders out of fear of being restrained and the decision to base the teleporter order out of Africa were made completely independently. As was the decision to make the setting's most prominent black character the mastermind.

And that, dear readers, is why color-blindness is inadequate as a solution to racism.

Then again, maybe the connection is all in my head. I feel a little self-conscious even bringing it up. It certainly wasn't enough to negatively impact my enjoyment of the book.

Stellar Frontiers places Trinity into kind of an awkward place in the sci-fi genre. Let's call it "proto space opera." There are FTL spaceships and weird aliens and strange worlds, but there's only, like, 5 of them. Everything you're given is very interesting, but for a game set in space, it feels oddly confining.

I wouldn't necessarily call it a worse approach than Star Wars, though. Star Wars planets can often just feel like re-skinned adventure towns. Trinity's planets tend to be much more well-drawn and distinct. Each of the worlds feels different and there's more thought put into things like climate and ecosystems.

That said, there is still sometimes the problem of bad sci-fi scale. One of the planet's plot revolves around a labor dispute between a mining colony and its Brazilian government sponsors. It's an interesting human drama set against a fantastic sci-fi backdrop, but there's just no reasonable understanding of the law of nations that would allow Brazil to claim a whole planet. Not even one that's doomed to be swallowed by a supernova in the next 2000 years. Maybe if inhabitable planets were a lot more common in the Trinity setting, but it stretches the bounds of disbelief a little that the workers have no options when literally 10s of millions of square miles are going uninhabited.

Still, I really like detailed sci-fi worldbuilding, so this was a pretty easy read for me. It could have been a lot more boring and still caught my attention ("now, tell me what the low-gravity algae is like").

The most exciting thing to happen in this book was the introduction of non-malevolent Aberrants, who call themselves Novas. This didn't come as a surprise to me, because my first Aeonverse game was actually Aberrant, and I played it for years before I ever explored Trinity, but, well, there's an advertisement in the back that features the lead Aberrant, Divis Mal posing in a sinister way, but captioned with the tag-line "It's not what you think it is." So clearly this book was a teaser for White Wolf's upcoming new game and just as clearly they expected the reveal that the Upeo wa Macho were on friendly terms with some Aberrants to come as a shock to long-time Trinity fans.

I wonder what it must have been like to have been a part of the fandom at that time. When White Wolf felt emboldened to just publish massively game-changing metaplot in its supplements and then expect you to keep up. I remember getting into the internet world of darkness fandom a couple of years after that, 2001, I think, and that was pretty wild. A lot of flamewars about Mage: the Ascension. It took me awhile to get clued in to what the arguments were actually about, but eventually I started getting a bit heated myself (and I can say that any average post here at ICFTB would probably have gotten me torn apart by rabid wolves back then).

Still, to have been plugged in to peak White Wolf, when it seemed like they were actively encouraging that kind of dissent . . . I can't say I'm sorry I missed it, but I must admit I'm a little bit intrigued.

UKSS Contribution: This book has yet another sample NPC that's too fabulous for gender and it's making me a little self-conscious that Ukss' first (and so far only) nonbinary character is in a similar mold. Ideally, I'd like to take this as the wake up call it is and put in a frumpy work-a-day NB character as a gesture of true inclusiveness. However, it is somewhat stretching the spirit of this challenge for me to read something in a book and get inspired to do the opposite. So I'll just have to keep my eyes open for a better opportunity.

Instead, I'll go with my second choice - the myriasoma. Strange alien creatures that are entire ecosystems. A sort of eusocial hive creature, except that some of the individuals look like plants, some look like animals, and they all sort of cooperate to maintain the whole. I don't yet know whether this is going to be an enchanted forest, a bizarre lunar landscape, or the defining characteristic of some new celestial body, but I do think it's pretty cool.

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Complete Book of Humanoids

Oh, AD&D, why are you the way you are? What happened to you that inspired you to release a book like The Complete Book of Humanoids? It's a good idea in conception - a book that acts as a quick-and-easy guide to playing a grab-bag of interesting fantasy species - but then you had to go and make it weird.

And not the good kind of weird. The kind of weird where you keep tossing around the word "humanoid" as if it meant something, and wasn't just a way of saying "miscellaneous." The kind of weird where Ogre Mages can't actually advance that far in the mage class and have an affinity for "oriental weapons." The kind of weird where you recycle the gross racist stuff from The Complete Barbarian's Handbook, but since you're applying it to literal subhuman monsters, that makes it . . . okay?

This book is so close to being great. The only thing standing in its way is every terrible thing about AD&D 2nd edition. I really don't understand it. I know they were capable of inventive, compelling fantasy. This book landed right in the middle of a time when TSR was releasing one classic rpg setting after another. Yet, given the opportunity to dig deep into their back benches and release playable versions of some of their most iconic creatures, they wound up backing as far away from strange fantasy as is conceivably possible in a book that contains Wemics (they're like Centaurs, but half-lion instead of half-horse).

The Complete Book of Humanoids is very clear about the titular humanoids' role in the campaign - as one-off characters, conspicuous in their oddness, adventuring with a party of "normal" PCs. It gives four suggestions for how to integrate a humanoid character into your game (and is very clear that there should be only one at a time) - humans saved their life, they saved a human's, unlucky roll with the Reincarnation spell, and the party is paying them.

But the most obvious scenario never seemed to occur to them - that maybe you're in a fantasy world where they fill the niche of demihumans (and if you can come up with definitions of "demihuman" and "humanoid" that make a damned bit of sense, you are officially an AD&D genius). Maybe you're in a world that has swanmays instead of elves and minotaurs instead of dwarves. Maybe the lizard-folk are the remnants of an ancient civilization of necromancers (although where could I have gotten that idea).

Yet The Complete Book of Humanoids seems fixated on the idea that most humanoids live in "tribes." It then proceeds to paint a picture of tribal life that is uncomfortably colonialist. Humanoid cultures are a blank slate . . . except for their horrifying habits, which justify the widespread Intelligence and Charisma penalties and the evil alignments. They are mostly good for killing and driving out of the land . . . but not the PCs, of course, they're some of the the good ones.

Literally. There's a space on your character sheet where you can write "Good." And if you do, you're officially good. That means that your evil deeds don't count if you direct them towards people who have "Evil" written on their character sheets.

I only slightly exaggerate. There's a section near the end of the book called "Campaign Complications," that's all about the various mishaps a humanoid can suffer in human and/or demihuman society. Many of these are variations on "society fears and hates the character because of their race," and one of them even ends with "a good cleric decides to eradicate the monster."

Presumably, a truly good cleric will relent when they find out the character means no harm. And nobody explicitly said society itself was good. But it's of a theme.

The low point is in the Mongrelmen write-up. Mongrelmen are the result of magical experiments and are basically every type of creature stitched together in a vaguely humanoid form. Canonically, they're incredibly ugly (they have an effective Charisma of 1 for all non-mongrelmen), though half the art ever drawn of them come out looking cute in a "so-pathetic-I-want-to-nurture-it" sort of way (the illustration in this book falls in that category). Here's what the book says about them:
Mongrelmen find no welcome in lawful and good societies. Among evil and chaotic groups, they meet with enslavement and abuse. Most of these reactions are in response to mongrelmen appearances - they look like deformed monsters and are treated as such by society at large.
 Good - what does it even mean? I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again - alignment is a bad mechanic that obfuscates more than it reveals.

If you accept that "good" and "evil" are words with real meaning, though, then mostly what The Complete Book of Humanoids seems to be aiming for is a level of description that is sufficient to allow players to play as members of "primitive" societies, but not actually so empathetic that the more photogenic races have to stop stealing their land.

If you think that's a hot take, I dare you to read this book and The Complete Barbarian's Handbook back-to-back and then say that there's no connection between D&D's central plot of "wilderness monsters attacking the frontiers of civilization" and imperialist attitudes towards aboriginal people. I mean, there's a kit in this book called The Witch Doctor. Do I need to spell it out? So much of D&D's presentation of "monstrous humanoids" is directly traceable to "African natives" in old racist adventure fiction. The only real question is how much of that inspiration is it appropriate to overlook.

The thing that bugs me most (so much so that this is my third time pointing it out in one of these reviews) is the way humanoids are treated as "superstitious." How does that even work? Did the book forget that many of these creatures are what real people are superstitious about?  Outside of the D&D bubble, "bugbear" is literally an English word that describes an irrational fear. The most ridiculous is the way Firbolg (giant-kin) "have an innate fear of human and demihuman mobs."

"Gee, Carl, I'm starting to think running into that mob of pitchfork-wielding villagers was bad luck."

Of course, what's really going on is a noxious trope. "Primitive" people are only barely allowed to have a religion, and not at all expected to possess true knowledge. So their very human fears and anxieties are exoticized into "silly superstitions." Explorers may laugh at the shaman for believing a statue contains a link to his ancestors, but the party missionary is sure in no hurry to use the pages of the Bible as kindling.

I guess with all that, you may be under the impression that I disliked this book. In truth, I'm more ambivalent. Yes, the worldbuilding advice is severely misguided, but I can't tell you how hungry I was for something like this book as a young man. So much of what's flawed about AD&D is its failure of imagination. This probably applies more to 2nd edition than 1st. It just feels to me that early D&D was recklessly inventive, basically inventing the modern fantasy genre with every new book, magazine article, and year-long letters-page debate.

By the time AD&D 2nd edition came around, maybe the mission shifts, and the new goal is to curate and refine what came before. People come in with expectations of what "standard" fantasy is, and it's the duty of core books like the Player's Handbook Supplement series to establish the baseline in print. Bold experiments in pushing the boundaries of fantasy are for campaign box sets.

It's no coincidence that all of my AD&D 2e campaign settings are the "weird" ones - Planescape, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and Council of Wyrms. Since almost the beginning of my time roleplaying, I've wanted to go somehow beyond the books, into worlds that looked nothing like anything I've ever seen or read before. The Complete Book of Humanoids, however flawed it might be, gave me a glimpse of what that could be like.

UKSS Contribution: If you mentally set aside the "evil societies of primitive tribes" element, this book has a lot of neat stuff in it. I'm really spoiled for choice. So of course, I'm going to go with something completely ridiculous.

Towards the end of the book, there is a list of proficiencies with special relevance to humanoid characters. Most of these are what you'd expect, like Intimidation and Wild Fighting, but two in particular stood out to me - Winemaking and Cheesemaking.

I don't know why they'd wait until this book in particular to introduce those skills, but it made me think of goblins stomping grapes or minotaurs making cheese. That made me smile.

So in Ukss, the very best wine and cheese are going to come from Goblins. Not sure how I'm going to work that in, but it's a fact.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Field Report: Alien Races

The difficult part of writing this review is going to be making sure that it's not longer than the source material. Field Report: Alien Races can't really be called a book. It's more like a pamphlet. It's roughly 20 pages of fiction about three of the game's alien species.

The most notable thing about this book is what's absent - any new information about the fourth alien species. The shadowy psionic entities, lurking in the background of the setting's major events, pulling strings and manipulating the psi orders for their own ends. I know they exist because I read the "Setting Secrets" section they added to the back of the 2nd printing core book. With that piece of information in mind, they are conspicuously absent from the descriptions of the species they were exploiting.

That's just how Trinity did things, though. Release a slow drip of information, from book to book, so that if you read all the supplements, in the order of their release, you'd get a dramatic build, as the full scope of the setting reveals itself, hidden agendas are revealed, and shocking events threaten to forever change the world you thought you knew.

It's mostly kind of a bummer. I don't have direct confirmation, because I never read the adventures, but I suspect this book serves mainly to summarize and curate the alien-specific information in the Darkness Revealed and Alien Encounters series. It does this through short, in-character narratives about Aeon operatives running afoul of the setting's aliens.

Taken on it's own terms, it's pretty entertaining, but as a strategy for the line as a whole, it's a disaster. There's a Qin embassy on the Moon. But information about the Qin is scattered through a half-dozen books, so you can't just add Qin to a game that uses Luna Rising. You've got to have them all, in order to piece things together. Then you have later books taking for granted that you're all caught up and if you read them out of order, you'll be baffled by the gaps.

Ultimately, this was a nifty bit of fiction, presented in an appealing glossy pamphlet form, but it doesn't tell us enough to be particularly useful as an rpg resource. Too much is being held back for future Trinity books that never got written. There are plot hooks here, but none of the worldbuilding necessary to flesh those plot hooks out. It's more of an invitation for GMs to write their own version of the Trinity setting than an attempt to explain what that setting actually is.

Also, the rape aliens are back and they don't really work better here than they did in the core. I guess they're meant to be these sci-fi horror creaures, creating monstrous hybrids of human-alien DNA to control our minds and enslave our society. And I guess it's pretty effective. If I saw a movie about the Coalition, I'd be scared.

It's just . . . sometimes I wonder if White Wolf forgot that it was making rpgs. If I'm the storyteller, I've got to look my friends in the eye and tell them what happens if the aliens catch up to them. And while I probably would have done it without hesitation back in 1998, in the year 2019, it's pretty fucking awkward.

UKSS Contribution: Hoo boy, I've not got a lot to work with. For all that this was an interesting look at Trinity's aliens, there's not a lot of depth or nuance here. None of the incidental details that I usually like to latch onto. I'm pretty much left with no choice but to include one of the alien species themselves.

I'll go with the Chromatics. They're lizard-like creatures with the ability to psychically manipulate light. They're a stone age culture, but the missing aliens, the Doyen, technologically uplifted them and drafted them into a fight against humanity.

I'll probably leave that last part out, but glow-in-the-dark lizard illusionists is something that I can definitely use.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Complete Book of Gnomes and Halflings

This may be the best of the AD&D red books so far, and, ironically, the most unnecessary. The final chapter says, "It is important to remember when playing a gnome or halfling, that halflings are not short humans, nor are gnomes scrawny dwarves." And that is a complete and utter lie.

It was probably because it was a lie that they even felt the need to say it. There wasn't a comparable warning in the Dwarf book, nor the Elf. But I'm sure, after writing 125 pages of this book where you describe gnomes as dwarves who like to party and halflings as humans - full stop, that maybe you need to point out that all of that preceding material was meant to contain a bit more nuance. I shouldn't frame this as a complaint, though, because I'm sure the author was doing the best he could with the source material. It's just . . .

Halfling have the exotic race-specific character kits of Archer fighter, Burglar thief, and Healer priest. The Tunnelrat kit relies on halflings being small and the leaftender kit relies on them not being able to take the druid class under AD&D rules, but ultimately there's very little in the entire halfling presentation that couldn't apply to a small-town everyman character.

That's almost certainly down to the fact that halflings exist primarily to placate Tolkien fans. Did you know that wizards often have a fondness for halflings? Because that one wizard in that one book said as much. So much of the halflings' presentation in this book is a naked attempt to reverse engineer hobbits.

But hobbits themselves were just an idealized caricature of English yeomanry. They are the British pre-industrial countryside viewed through a lens of willful naivety. They are a human culture that is alien only insofar as its citizens are incapable of human vice.

I'm not going to sit here and second-guess the literary necessities in Tolkien's writing ("the Lord of the Rings would have been better if the hobbits like to fuck!"). He's the classic author whose works have an eternal place in the canon of English literature. I'm just a jerk who (technically) writes a blog. But I can tell you, in D&D worlds halflings are redundant. There's not a damned thing about them in this book that couldn't just be relabeled as a description of a "good-aligned village."

Which isn't to say it's bad. It's actually very helpful to have an appealing description of the sort of pastoral idyll that is the starting point of storybook fantasy and an early casualty in darker heroic fantasy. You know that eager farm boy who left his life behind to search for adventure? He absolutely could have come from the sample village of Lindenbrook, and you would barely have to change anything about it.

Gnomes are even less necessary. Everything about them is just "dwarves from the mirror dimension where Disney is a bigger influence on early D&D than Tolkien." Dwarves are good at working metal, Gnomes are good at carving gems. Dwarves wear their beards long and scraggly, Gnomes prefer their beards trimmed and well-groomed. Dwarves mine by aggressively pursuing the richest veins, Gnomes mine by meticulously scraping up every trace of a vein before moving on.

Hey, Dungeons and Dragons, you know that just because someone once had an idea for a dwarf with a sense of humor, that doesn't mean you have to spin them off into a whole new fantasy race? Gnomes barely qualify as an alternate dwarvish culture. They're more like an alternate dwarvish personality.

But again, this book here is pretty good. If you could somehow meld this book directly into The Complete Book of Dwarves, sacrificing only the parts that are the most glaringly inconsistent (mostly the stuff about gnomes loving practical jokes), you'd get a richer dwarven culture that feels much more alive than either of its constituent parts.

If you are to take as a given that gnomes and halflings should exist and have important distinctions from the species they spun off from? Then The Complete Book of Gnomes and Halflings is a near-flawless player's resource. Its only fault is that it includes material from Dragonlance.

Fucking Dragonlance. Base D&D already has an unfortunate tendency to treat its small races as comic relief, but somehow Dragonlance manages to crank that up to 11. It bugs me how little dignity Tinker Gnomes get. They have a tendency towards needlessly baroque and recklessly unsafe technology? Sure. That's a fun fantasy niche. But at least allow much of it to work. Let the dedicated seekers into truth occasionally find some fucking truth.

Somehow, though, Kender are even worse. Hilariously, the book warns you about allowing them into your game. Twice. Their presentation here is considerably toned-down from mainline Dragonlance, noting that they are completely fearless, but neglecting to mention that they will steal everything not nailed down and the act theatrically innocent when confronted. No justifications here of how completely ignoring the boundaries of everyone you meet is just "having childlike wonder."

But some of us remember. The author was apparently one of them.

Overall, though, I seriously enjoyed this book. Despite being split between two races, it didn't feel rushed. Information was very efficiently presented, and the fantasy races were well-drawn. In fact, the shorter wordcounts may have been to the races' benefit. Less space to include something bewildering or ill-conceived.

UKSS Contribution: The last couple pages of this book contain adventure hooks for all-gnome or all-halfling games. They are all pretty good (though only the one where human children are kidnapped by small-sized creatures who live in dens too narrow for adult humans to enter really seems all that race-specific), but one stood out as being downright bizarre: The City of Illusions.

The idea behind this adventure is that illusion spells stop working because the various illusionary creatures created with Phantasmal Force, Shadow Creatures, et al have gained sapience and escaped the control of their spellcasters. They've gathered in a city of their own and are agitating for Illusion Rights.

As a D&D adventure, this is so far outside the bounds of what the rules say are possible (and, indeed, makes a hash of the metaphysical underpinnings of the spellcasting classes) that if you were to try and run it, your player would revolt. But as a stand-alone fantasy conceit? I kind of love it.

I'll probably tinker with the causality here. Make it so the spellcasters responsible for the City of Illusion only thought they were creating illusionary creatures. But a whole city where nothing is real and its residents are but images with thoughts? That has potential.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Tingleverse - The Official Chuck Tingle Roleplaying Game

Adding this book to my list was probably a mistake. Oh, I don't regret buying it, and I certainly don't regret reading it. In a lot of ways, it's an absolute delight. But it is also the sort of thing that is nearly impossible to critique. If it is what it presents itself as (indeed, what I most want it to be), then it is beyond our petty categories of "good" and "bad."

And now I guess I have to explain who Chuck Tingle is. I knew it was coming. You can't work in this particular internet niche forever without having to explain Chuck Tingle. Oh, none of us know the day or hour of its coming. It's just something you accept as one of those facts of life.

Here's what you need to know about the inestimable Dr Tingle - He published Pounded by the Pound - Turned Gay by the Socioeconomic Implications of Britain Leaving the European Union and he did it one day after the brexit vote. His online persona is even weirder than that bit of trivia makes him sound, and his upbeat positivity and mischievous opposition to certain right-wing trolls have made him a bit of a patron saint/in-joke among socially progressive and extremely online science fiction fans.

Chuck is an ever- unfolding mystery. It kind of hurts to think about him for too long. Is he good? Is he bad? Is he good, pretending to be bad? Is he living proof that, in the arts, you can be bad at the technical craft while still also having a uniquely inspired imagination? Is he a working professional with a goofy alter-ego or an amateur who happened to be at the center of a certain historical moment? Are we, ourselves, simply characters in a Chuck Tingle novel, unaware, except in the darkest moments of the night, that the highest level of the Tingleverse is far, far above us?

The Tingleverse - The Official Chuck Tingle Roleplaying Game answers precisely none of these questions. Normally, I'd be content with that. Anyone who has followed Chuck Tingle for any length of time has long-since learned to just take him at face value - as The World's Greatest Author, with his own unique way.

But I've got a job to do here. Sigh.

Should I point out that this book is shoddy? I feel like it's my responsibility, as a reviewer. This is a book that has clearly been subjected to no editing process more rigorous than spellcheck. There are frequent typos, of the sort that can't yet be detected by automated software (things like substituting "now" for "not" or "tits" for "its"). There are mislabeled and missing tables (for example, it's completely unclear to me how many cool moves characters are supposed to know). The layout is sub-amateur. Headings are on separate pages from their sections, there are pages with half a paragraph on them, and cool move descriptions are consistently cut in half. It literally looks like a first draft word processor file was sent directly to a printer and published as-is.

I have a suspicion that Dr Tingle and I have a very similar writing process - sit down in front of a computer, hack away until you get something vaguely the right length, self-edit, and then hit "publish." And if that's the case, then I can say from experience that the only way you get something as sloppy as The Tingleverse is extreme carelessness. Even just a little bit of pride in your craft would result in something much nicer-looking than this book turned out to be.

Which is weird, because this book does not read like something that was cynically dashed-out in order to exploit an economic niche. I've been roleplaying for a long time. You might even say I'm pretty serious about the hobby (don't laugh). I've learned the signs that indicate when the author of a homebrew rpg system Has Opinions about its obvious inspiration.

The Tingleverse is largely a reskin of AD&D, but it is not a slapdash reskin. It's not a book that simply takes the Fighter class, renames it the Bad Boy, and goes about its day. There has clearly been some thought put into it. The movement rules are exactly what every aspiring rpg designer for the last 40 years have been looking for, but have thus far been too cowardly to actually publish:
Allow your TM to decide how to treat these situations as they come. Measuring out exact movement rates would simply slow the game down, and without a physical game board, would still leave much to be desired, regardless of how intricate the rules.
This is clearly the work of someone who's been roleplaying for awhile. It takes time for a novice to learn these lessons. I can't just treat this as a joke book.

And taking it seriously, I have to say that the most remarkable thing it does as an AD&D clone is completely solve the most fundamental flaw in AD&D's design philosophy. Namely, that the bulk of the game's mechanical widgets and fantastic conceits are confined to the wizard and priest classes, which, as a result, become so broad in their potential capabilities that they have no real flavor of their own.

The Tingleverse accomplishes this by giving every character class "cool moves," which function identically to wizard spells from standard AD&D, but which are not necessarily magical, except in a meta "in-touch-with-the-different-layers-of-the-tingleverse" sort of way.

It is here that the care that went into the game is most evident. The trots' (classes) cool move lists are very well-curated. You can often see where an AD&D wizard spell was repurposed to be a more mundane trot's heroic feat. Bad Boys get Power Word, Stun. Charmers get Power Word, Kill (but renamed "Heart Command," making it instantly about 200% more flavorful). True Buckaroos get surprisingly functional versions of Wish and Limited Wish. There are five trots in the game, and any one of them is better-designed than anything in baseline AD&D.

The funny thing, though, is that The Tingleverse's solution to class disparity is exactly the same as D&D 4e's most contentious innovation - making the classes very similar in their mechanical implementation and the relying on the specific powers descriptions to make them feel different in play. But then The Tingleverse makes the odd decision to realize that solution in what may be the worst way imaginable - by making every trot's cool moves function almost exactly like an AD&D wizard's spells, with limited slots per day pre-assigned every time the character sleeps.

As far as I can tell, there are only two possible explanations. Either Chuck Tingle is exactly the sort of genius savant he's always claimed to be. Or he is mercilessly trolling a broad swath of D&D edition warriors in an astoundingly on-point way. Or possibly both.

What is certain, though, is that The Tingleverse is not a cash-in. It was definitely written by someone who is fully engaged with rpgs as a medium.

Which makes the game's biggest flaw all the more inexplicable. In the strictest technical sense, The Tingleverse is unplayable as written. There is a huge math error in the heart of the combat system - every listed armor value in the entire game is given a negative defense adjustment, making armored characters dramatically easier to hit.

It's a trivial thing to fix, especially since every other mention of defense in the game has it the right way round - class defense bonuses get higher as they increase in level. Dexterity gives a bonus by increasing Defensive Score. Same with Cool Moves like Buckaroo armor and Weak Point, Major - they all operate on the assumption that a higher score is better. It is armor and only armor that treats a lower Defense Score as superior.

It's not the sort of mistake an AI running on a server farm in Nevada would make . . . by accident.

Not for the first time, I suspect that Dr Tingle is fucking with us. Including a deliberate flaw too big to possibly be missed, but also so easily fixed that it doesn't really interfere with the game much at all.

That gets us to the heart of what's most frustrating about being a Tingle fan. He claims that his persona is a way for him to cope with public attention given his mental illnesses. Am I the asshole for assuming that mentally ill people can't do intricate meta humor and subtle, sly jokes? Or is he the asshole for pretending to be mentally ill by playing to ableist stereotypes about mentally ill people being less disciplined and competent than everyone else.

Or maybe neither of us is the asshole, and he's genuinely ill, but very clever and is deliberately working with certain tropes to satirize ableist prejudices and I'm just picking up, correctly, on the work's artifice, but misattributing the motive out of a well-earned cynicism. That's what I like to believe, because the Chuck Tingle persona is so accepting and positive that he's almost like a wholesomely pervy Mr Rogers, and it would be a shame to lose something so wonderful. Or maybe, he's exactly what he's always claimed to be and he's just created a game that is occasionally inspired, but also has a huge math mistake.

It is impossible to follow Chuck Tingle for any significant length of time and not confront the very uncomfortable question - Am I laughing with him or am I laughing at him?

It's either the greatest didactic performance in the history of the internet, or something kind of shitty and mean, but there's no real room in-between.

The most disappointing thing about The Tingleverse is what it's not - a comprehensive guide to Chuck Tingle's Billings. Chuck Tingle's Twitter account is a thing of beauty, and over the years, it has built up a certain mythology surrounding the good doctor's life. His son, Jon, he of the amazing calves. His nemesis, Ted Cobbler, who may be incredibly evil or may just be an ordinary guy. Mysterious creatures like Truckman's Ghost or The Man With No Eyes and Wieners for Hair.

It's like a candy-coated Unknown Armies that is also intermittently x-rated. Or, to use a less rpg-specific reference - like The Island on Lost at its surreal best, but with a more coherent metaphysics. The rpg potential is immense.

And when you first pick up the book, there's a sense of hope. It's respectably hefty, coming in at 268 pages. But it turns out to be the shortest 268 pages you'll ever read, mostly thanks to its bare-bones formatting. The book contains most of the highlights of fantasy Billings, playable bigfoots, chocolate milk in every store, abstract concepts manifested physically (although I doubt it would be healthy to pound either of the ones included here). But there's not enough of it. It never really comes alive.

And to be fair, long-form fiction is never something Chuck has demonstrated any skill or interest in. The typical tingler is about 4000 words (just for reference, I'm already up to ~1900 on this post alone) and the twitter snippets that make up the bulk of the Tingleverse are even shorter. It's not surprising, then, that this book is missing a lot of necessary worldbuilding. To do something comparable to a typical rpg setting book is outside Chuck's typical style.

But it would have been glorious. Possibly even one of the all-time greats. And I think I was coming into this book expecting it. What I got was a damned decent (assuming the math error was deliberate and/or forgivable) AD&D clone that, taken on its own terms would be wildly inventive in a way that hearkens back to the days of D&D Basic. And that should be enough. I guess it's just a typical Tingle-fandom paradox that The Tingleverse - The Official Chuck Tingle Roleplaying Game would be of more interest to Tingle novices than long-time followers.

UKSS Contribution: I should probably pick something really, really filthy, but shockingly, this book is very close to PG-13. Only The Man With No Eyes And Wieners For Hair would be content-blocked from a typical D&D book. There's basically no erotica whatsoever (except the tv monster who paralyzes its victims with tantalizing glimpses of late-night Cinemax nudity).

I guess I'm going to have to go with something genuinely cool, instead.

When characters die in The Tingleverse, they find themselves at a mysterious, abandoned train station, where they await the arrival of the Lonesome Train, to carry them to realms unknown. (Incidentally, this leads to one of the book's best jokes, the Train Trap cool move for the Sneak trot, which allows them to forge a ticket to the Lonesome Train and slip into someone's pocket, thereby killing them).

I might tweak the idea a little bit, to allow characters who die to meet other newly deceased a the train station. Or maybe I'll leave it as it is, because it's a pretty haunting image and a good reminder of the loneliness of our own eventual mortality.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Shattered Europe: Psi Order Aesculapian & Europe Sourcebook

Shattered Europe is another Trinity sourcebook about an area that is prosperous in our (well, their) time and in serious trouble in the game's hypothetical future. The war with the early 21st century superhumans left the continent devastated, with large sections of major cities completely ruined and staggering numbers of casualties, comparable to WW2 at its worst. But in the subsequent decades, much of that had been rebuilt . . . until about 6 years before the canon start date, when the superhumans came back and dropped a huge space station on France, rendering most of northern and western Europe uninhabitable. It's the Trinity-verse's central location for post-apocalyptic style games.

On the whole, it works better for me than America Offline did. Probably because I'm less intimately familiar with the subject matter. I'm sure that there are a bunch of little details that would not ring true to the people of Europe, but I, personally, only caught a couple (referring to Ukraine as The Ukraine was merely the most obvious.)

With this added critical distance, I can see that Trinity's earth-side worldbuilding is . . . not good, exactly, but something adjacent to good. Let's call it pulp-interesting. Saying that Bohemia is a center for the arts, so much so that its Presidential nomination process skips all this business with the primaries and just automatically selects candidates from a list of the previous decade's most critically celebrated artists - that's not something I believe. In fact, it's kind of a black hole, where the more I think about it, the weirder and more untenable it becomes. However, it is something I can use.

Trinity wears its comic-book inspirations on its sleeve, and if you accept the premise that European games are supposed to draw upon post-apocalyptic tropes and themes, then artist Bohemia starts to make a certain amount of emotional sense. Europe is a place where continuity with the past was broken by disaster after disaster, but which, as a result, seeks a new connection to its past. In the Trinity era, Europe is on an opposite course from most of the rest of the world. Instead of working towards greater international cooperation and regional alliances, it is becoming fractured, with even the nation-state beginning to lose its meaning. Instead of embracing a future where humanity is without borders, it clings to a xenophobic past.

The biggest flaw in this book (from the perspective of someone who doesn't know all that much about Europe) is that its themes are a bit too far in the background. There's a lot that's implied, and it isn't presented as a coincidence that Germany is now a collection of city states, Spain is breaking up into its constituent regions, and France has no government at all. Yet it never really gets into the weeds, psychologically, and attempt to explore the realities of deprivation and continental trauma. Nor does it do a very persuasive job of tying Europe's narrative of decline to its retreat from the internationalist liberalism that is so central to the broader line's conception of "hope, sacrifice, and unity."

Ultimately, though, that's for the best. I know I keep saying this so much that it's starting to feel really backhanded, but it keeps being true. "Shattered Europe does not delve into the true horror of history's greatest atrocity" is an incredibly asinine take. It's like saying "Independence Day would have been a much better movie if, instead of going up to the alien ship, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum stayed at the base, hugging each other and crying." The point of this game is to fight mutants in the shadow of a ruined Eiffel Tower - any potential social commentary is more of a side effect than a main goal.

Why do I keep falling into this trap? I blame White Wolf. I think there must have been something in the company culture around this period, because it keeps cropping up in game after game. As a rule, White Wolf products from this era are half dumb and half smart. Vampire: the Masquerade is a thoughtful, daring exploration of the limits of human compassion, and the day-to-day compromises that make men into monsters. It has also, with some justice, been called "superheroes with fangs."

Trinity is the same way. There are a lot of bold, unique choices that make this game a refreshing new take on the science fiction genre. But at the end of the day, they're in service to some fairly straightforward action-adventure narratives. There's a constant temptation to focus purely on the first, and just take the second for granted.

It's probably all part of old White Wolf's marketing strategy, to position its games as more sophisticated, adult alternatives to D&D. Yet as far as I know, the only people who ever bought into that were teenagers. We're probably going to see a few more cringe-inducing examples of that in books to come, but I like to think they turned a corner after The Aberrant Players' Guide and came to realize how unflattering a look it was. At the very least, they must have realized at some point that what their half-smart approach mostly accomplished was to prevent them from doing "dumb" in a smart way.

The other part of this book deals with the Aesculapian Order. The thing that most stood out to me about their presentation here was the way that a previously-released adventure path managed to advance their metaplot. The Aesculapians are now mired in controversy, thanks to the revelation of a sinister conspiracy inside the order to perform unethical medical experiments on human subjects. You can read all about those events in the Darkness Revealed trilogy!

I can't say this is a habit I love, but I made my peace with it 15 years ago. The real reason I bring it up is that this metaplot is about a powerful, respected organization that concealed abuse at the highest levels until it was dramatically revealed to the public, and then . . . nothing much of anything happened. This, I feel was well-observed sociologically.

The book tries to exonerate the lead psychic, Zweidler, by saying that he wasn't much interested in the administration of the psi order and preferred to just focus on pure research, and that's why everything was able to go on right under his nose while he was completely oblivious . . . but it kind of made him look worse to me. That sort of ignorance can only be willful, and it makes me think that maybe there's a better way to choose the leader of your international medical relief organization than just letting alien telepaths grab the most psychic guy they could find.

Overall, Trinity has yet to hit a home run with any of these setting books, but they have, nonetheless maintained a very consistent level of quality. Shattered Europe continues that pattern. It is a very useful book if you want to set Trinity games in Europe, and it's got a ton of fun, sci-fi conceits inside it. But I will admit, I'd love to see what the same writers could do with the subject matter now that they've got 20 more years of experience under their belts.

UKSS Contribution: Much of Shattered Europe featured real-world locations and peoples, and sometimes I wonder if I'm ever going to be backed into a corner where I have to pick something real. Ukss is a pulp fantasy world with magic and dragons and talking animals, and also Chicago is there. It's on the continent of Australia and its mayor is King Arthur. . . I'm kind of dreading it, but I want to reassure you all, that if the time comes, I won't back down. I'll do what needs to be done.

Luckily, this is not technically Europe, but sci-fi Europe, so I can choose something that doesn't (and probably can't) exist in the real world - The Progressive Psycho-Social Commune. It's one of those implausible speculative governments that takes its inspiration from a thought experiment that would be terribly fraught to try and implement in real life.

The idea is that everyone in the PPK undergoes periodic psychological testing, and they're placed in the job that would make them happiest. The book gets some mileage out of the impracticalities of such a system, but honestly even their most on-point jabs seem more a critique of capitalism than flaws in the system (everybody wants to work in satisfying, intellectually challenging careers - but allowing them to do so crashes the price those jobs command in the market). It's the sort of thing that could only really work if sci-fi technology smoothed out the edges, but is so appealing that it makes you wonder why we aren't currently developing the sci-fi-inspired technology to make it work in real life.