Friday, July 12, 2024

City Works

The fascinating thing about City Works (Mike Mearls) is how completely boring it is. This here is a book written by a future Head of All D&D, with the infinite possibilities of the Open Game License, and it's just dull as hell.

That's not necessarily a huge fault in a utilitarian rpg supplement, but it makes me curious about the early 2000s' d20 ecology. Some things, like Blue Rose or Dragonstar make sense to me as passion projects. Wizards of the Coast threw open the gates of the kingdom, allowed 3rd parties to make whatever they wanted, and that was an opportunity - to address a need, to fulfill a wish, to eliminate a frustration. And oftentimes, even the "bloat" was about something (if only a gratuitous desire for MOAR OF MY FAVORITE THING).

And then you have . . . this. Not a bad book, by any means, but . . . who asked for it? What commercial or creative opportunity did Fantasy Flight Games see that justified its existence? Hell, what was I, the reader, hoping to gain when I picked this up?

In my case, at least, it was easy. Sometimes I just wander into my FLGS, walk over to the rpg shelf, and buy the most discounted thing I can find (in fact, I did exactly that thing just the other day when I got a copy of SLA Industries for 10$ . . . I look forward to finding out what I bought in another few months or so). However, that's a fucking trivial motive. It sheds no light at all onto City Works as a book. In fact, I am clearly wasting everyone's time be even bringing it up . . .

Anyways. I could at least put myself into the hypothetical shoes of a hypothetical customer, c. 2003. "Oh, look, here's City Works, by Mike Mearls . . . a name I've never heard before. . . Oh, but it's been published by Fantasy Flight Games. I know them from such titles as Dragonstar and Midnight, I wonder what fascinating genre twist they're cooking up next. I'm sure this 'definitive d20 system resource for designing and running exciting adventures and campaigns in fantasy cities' will live up to the high standards they've set for themselves. Certainly, it will be worth the 24.95 MSRP, which is just 5 dollars less than the Player's Handbook itself."

And look, I don't want to call hypothetical me a hypothetical chump, but it would have been a bad decision, and I find it hard to believe that there were enough people making enough bad decisions to justify FFG's business strategy.

I should probably unpack that, though. What I mean here is that City Works would have been a bad purchasing decision, not necessarily that City Works is a bad book. I can, from time to time, be a bit whimsical in my use of value-judgement words like "good" or "classic" or "trash" or "bad." Sometimes, when I say a book is "bad" I mean "it's fundamentally flawed, but in an interesting way" (like Planescape or Mage: the Ascension) and sometimes I mean it's just ineptly made (eh, I don't feel like calling anyone else out today, but I'm sure an archive binge would turn up a couple). City Works is neither of those things.  It is "good."

Scare quotes because I'm using that word whimsically as well. It's good in the sense that I can read it and at no point am I going "whoa, how did this clown con his way into the job at WotC?" I get it. This is an effective audition for the role of Primate of All DMs. Mr Mearls is a skilled communicator who gives relevant, actionable GMing advice, his mechanics for things like rooftop chases and the spread of plague are reasonable, and his custom classes are all comfortably tier 4 (i.e. the tier closest to what you imagine fantasy adventurers to be like). I have my nitpicks with this book - it warns us against overusing the stunt system, lest our games lose focus on attacks and spells in favor of wild use of the scenery, which strikes me as the sort of "problem" I'd love to have - but I have no major complaints. It is a perfectly fine GM book.

Which is why it would have been such a mistake to purchase at full price, and why it's so baffling it got the green light at all. I once described the 3.5 DMG as "the quintessential book you read exactly once and then intermittently reference for all the rest of time" and City Works is exactly the same way, except that you're never going to reference it. There are parts you would reference, if they were in the DMG, but you're not going to lug an extra book to your game, or even make an extra trip to the bookshelf. It's good, but it's not that good.

Which really only leaves the random city creation rules as a reason to use City Works at all. I think they'd be fun to use once or twice, just as a goofy little project, but the cities they create are just kind of there. Like, how useful is it, exactly, to have a precise count of residential blocks in your fantasy city? Maybe there's a niche for "I want a highly detailed map, but I don't want to just bullshit it," but it strikes me as a basic weakness that DMs are expected to provide the special sauce on their own. You can create potentially thousands of technically distinct city maps, but nothing about them is distinctive or memorable. And maybe it's just that "making the game memorable" is supposed to be the DM's responsibility, but then what am I buying the book for?

I think a better approach would have been to incorporate a life-path system that tied into the history and politics stuff of the previous chapter, add an additional "wild card" table full of purely fantasy nonsense (i.e. "the city was built around a magical spring whose waters cure leprosy"), and actually give your d100 tables something close to 100 entries each (a lot of these were clearly made with another die type in mind, with exactly 10 entries that each spanned 10 percentage points or 20 entries that stepped up 5 points at a time). I feel like if the streets, blocks, and districts were associated with particular historical or political events, then that would add some sorely needed life to your randomly-generated city maps.

Overall, it's a bit of a stretch to say I "liked" City Works, but I didn't exactly dislike it either. At the end of the day, it's a GM book, and as necessary as those might be for educating and informing GMs, they're always at least one step removed from the things that make a game exciting. Running a game as a GM involves talking about the game, but preparing someone to be a GM involves talking about talking about the game, and that can't help but be at least a little bit dull. This book is no more worthy of complaint than White Wolf's "Theme" and "Mood" sections . . . but hey, I'll complain about those all day long, you have no idea. 

Ukss Contribution: This book does have one major, hilarious flaw however. The last 15 pages are just a preview of Fantasy Flight Games upcoming book "Steam and Sorcery" and I can't quite figure it out. Why would you do this? End your book with an excerpt from a much better book. Why couldn't I have found that book at my FLGS instead?  Are the rpg gods testing me?

Most of my favorite things from this book are actually from that preview section (one suggestion - a campaign setting where a high-tech kingdom of werewolves use giant adamantine chains to hold the moon in place, for infinite power), but I feel like picking something from that would be cheating. It's technically something I read in this physical volume, but it's not really part of City Works, you know.

Instead, I'll go with something that caught my eye for being a refreshing breeze of weirdness in an otherwise pretty staid history section - "The armory is the frequent target of robberies, while some folk use it to dispose of murder weapons or temporarily hide magic items. Sometimes, thieves use it to transfer stolen goods. One crook deposits the item, while his customer uses a disguise to later claim it."

This revolving-door armory genuinely delights me. I keep contemplating it, and I keep coming back to the thought, "that's the opposite of how armories are supposed to work. It'd have to be a pretty strange city to have something like that."

Lucky for me, then, that "strange" is right in my wheelhouse.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

(Shadowrun) Corporate Download

Capitalism. We usually think of it as being about money. A select class of people will own the means of production, but that is only a means to an end. The goal is to get rich. To stack wealth on top of wealth so that your big number gets bigger. A self-sustaining cycle of year-over-year ROI, compounding with itself in exponential growth, forever. 

The problem with thinking of capitalism like that, though, is that it makes capitalism sound kind of silly. Is that the system we're living in? Are the people in charge really a bunch of out-of-touch weirdos that think a clever enough financialization scheme can outfox the laws of thermodynamics? Is all the environmental destruction, labor suppression, and enshitification of basic services really in the service of a goal that can be compared, unfavorably, to trying to get a video game high score? Is that why it seems like the rich can never have enough - because whatever number you've got, there's always a bigger one?

That can't be all there is to it. It feels like a leftist strawman. And it is . . . kind of. But it's an unintentional one, because the truth is worse. If massive wealth inequality were merely the absurd lovechild of too-narrow optimization and the animalistic part of the brain getting weird about rewards ("ooh, my income for last year was a billion dollars, but if I'd done X,Y, and Z it would have been 1.2 billion dollars - those damned endangered species, labor unions, and ungrateful customers stole 200 million dollars straight out of my pocket!") that's a problem that might be overcome. We could take Bezos gently aside, say, "hey, buddy, your hoarding is starting to be a real problem, you're hurting people unnecessarily - you could let your warehouse guys take breaks AND still earn 11 percent. You don't need that 13 percent if it comes at the price of human suffering."

Because if capitalism were really just about bigger numbers, then you could talk people into accepting smaller numbers. It wouldn't even be that hard. You could argue that two marshmallows is greater incentive than one marshmallow, and even that ten marshmallows is greater incentive than two. But a hundred marshmallows has a disproportionately small motivating effect, and a thousand marshmallows is practically the opposite of an incentive. When it comes to marshmallows or cars or (I learned this the hard way) roleplaying books - "more than you can ever personally use" is only a blessing when you've got friends to share them with. If the value of money were purely a matter of quantity, it would be perceived in exactly the same way.

But there is a horizon beyond which money stops being money. At some nebulous point (and it doesn't necessarily take a lot, it just takes having more), money becomes power. It is the ability to tell people what to do, to direct the collective resources of a community towards the ends you imagine. And that's what capitalism is really about. Its purpose is to shape the character of that transformation - to ensure that the power that comes from money remains hierarchical. That's why the ultra-rich seem so resistant to the power of reason. Because relative quantities are continuous - 11 percent ROI is 84 percent as good as 13 percent ROI - but position in a hierarchy is discrete. You're either at the top or you aren't. And to share the power that comes from being at the top of a hierarchy is to, in fact, undermine the very concept of a hierarchy. You can't be content with less, because there's no less to be had.

And that's why it actually makes a lot of sense when Corporate Download tells us that the megacorporations of 2060 all have private armies.

Well, okay, maybe not perfect sense, but at least a kind of sense. Certainly, enough sense that I shouldn't be wasting my time trying to crunch the numbers on the Red Samurai or the Desert Wars (yeah, of course you're going to get enough PPV income to turn a profit on deploying advanced military units to the most barren and isolated parts of the planet, the novelty of that isn't going to immediately wear off, for sure). The point of having a corporate army isn't to turn a profit, it's to wield the power you gain from having an army. It's the same calculus that changes wealth to capital, but without the deniability. 

Although it can still feel like a plot-hole. Despite my cynicism, there's a part of me that thinks the megacorporations exist to make money for their shareholders. That Elon buying Twitter was a bad business deal and not a confirmation that deca-billlions are merely a number on a balance sheet, but the ability to control an entire community, to make people conform to your desires is the entire point of the exercise. On some level, "number get bigger" makes more sense, feels more human.

And realistically, it's probably the case that neither shadowrunning nor counter-shadowrunning security precautions are all that efficient at making the number get bigger. How often is any particular location getting robbed that you can justify having a hellhound budget? How ramshackle is your in-house research that the addition of a single stolen datafile is going to noticeably goose your bottom line? Like, okay, we get it, you're rivals for the same market, now swap stock and sit on each others' boards already. This will-they/won't-they dance is getting old.

Of course, there wouldn't be much of a game if they did that, and despite Corporate Download including a "number get bigger" system ("hey guess what, every six months in-game we're going to roll a dice pool and fill in a 10 x 13 grid in order to model the fluctuations of the fictional stock market," said the setting book for a game about thrilling heist capers) what Shadowrun really wants is to depict the sort of action capitalism where the business you're robbing encourages on-site gunplay instead of a more insurance-friendly "observe and report" policy. That it, in the process, offered a well-observed mask-off depiction of the ultra-wealthy may or may not be coincidence.

I have to assume that it was at least partially intentional, though I'm reluctant to commit 100 percent to the "deliberate satire" theory because the original lineup of 8 canon megacorporations was very clearly not premeditated. Between this book and Blood in the Boardroom, the metaplot's course correction is not subtle. The original Big Eight had a stunning five Japanese corporations, and good luck picking any of them out of a lineup.

Side note - it's actually kind of funny. "If you ask a group of runners to name all ten megacorps, each one would forget about Yamatetsu." "Even the average shadowrunner knows little about Shiawase, possibly less than any other megacorporation." "Apart from near-constant rumors of its Yakuza connections . . . little has been said about Mistuhama." You can actually see the gears turning. We are right in the middle of a campaign to give these guys more of a personality than "is Japanese."

I'm going to call it a work in progress. The Big Ten featured in this book are more distinct and diverse than the original Big Eight, but a lot of the niche-carving takes the form of personal drama between canon NPCs. We can call this a point for the "capitalism is about the personal power of the ownership class" theory, but there is only so much I can care about Lucien Cross's and Leonard Aurelius's feud with Damien Knight. And Richard Villiers could be a compelling villain in the "finance bro without a conscience" vein, but Novatech is bland at every level (that's probably why it did not survive to see the current edition).

Overall, I'd say Corporate Download is perched awkwardly between being a setting book and being an enemy book. It definitely tells us more about the world of Shadowrun, c. 2060, but the story is split between a high-level overview of boardroom politics and an outsider's view of what it's like to steal from the corporations or commit crimes on their behalf. There's a large excluded middle of just the average day-to-day experiences of employees and customers. And maybe that's okay, because it's hardly exciting rpg content, but the lore nerd in me is slightly disappointed. Don't just tell me Aztechnology owns Stuffer Shack, help me imagine the experience of going into a Stuffer Shack. The outliers are going to be a lot more meaningful when I understand what they're diverging from.

Don't call that a ding, though. Shadowrun is hardly unique in its preference for high-stakes action adventure over mundane worldbuilding minutiae, and honestly the only reason I'm so interested in the first place is because it's done such a good job getting me invested.

Ukss Contribution: Zurich Orbital Gemeinschaft Bank. There's something about the world's most powerful financiers being literally disconnected from earthly concerns that strikes me as a perfect metaphor. 

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Dynasties and Demagogues

Nine times out of ten, when one of my posts gets really weird, it's because I decided to look at a naively conceived fantasy book through the lens of politics. "Hey, Exalted, nice pro-authoritarian subtext you've got there. What's that Earthdawn? You're going to be even-handed and enlightened in your presentation of fantasy races, but then pedal-to-the-floor stereotypical about real cultures? Oh, you." And as weird as it can get sometimes, I don't really regret it. In fact, I often feel the opposite. I'll lie awake in bed gently crying into my pillow, "What if I didn't roast Al-Qadim enough?" (Spoiler alert for those going back into the archives to check the post - I probably didn't).

It's this bizarre pattern of behavior that makes Dynasties and Demagogues (Chris Aylott) feel like a gauntlet thrown down at my feet. It's practically mocking me, "We've called ourselves 'The Sourcebook of Political Intrigue.' Now whatcha gonna do about it?"

And I genuinely do not know.  Argue with a ghost, I guess. Because that's what reading "Chapter One: Political Settings" felt like - like I was receiving a visitation from the ghost of political opinions past. There was nothing here that was not completely quotidian for 2003 (even the bit about orcs potentially launching a jihad was something I'd already seen in Crusades of Valor . . . I don't want to excuse it, but I'm not surprised it was a pattern), but it's only with the benefit of hindsight that I could chide them for being so casual about fascism.

I should unpack this for my younger readers - there was a time in this country where, if you were a sheltered white man, you could fool yourself into thinking fascism was safely in the past. And because it wasn't perceived as a looming threat, you could just kinda be playful with it. Not like, "ha, ha" playful, but writer's playful. You could make it the sort of villain that gets a humane and nuanced presentation. You know, the ol' "these people did harmful things, but they were possessed of certain admirable virtues and did not think of themselves as the bad guy" treatment (those are scare quotes, not quote quotes).

There was no way anyone could ever predict that 20 years down the line, the (quote quotes) sentence, "Hitler and Mussolini won power by promising to put hungry people back to work and make their countries great again" would send a fucking shiver down the reader's spine.

On the one hand, it's nice to have a reminder that there was a time in this country when a regular person, with no particular axe to grind, could casually observe that "make [country] great again" was a fascist slogan. On the other hand, "Dictatorship is about order" and "Dictators are intelligent, charismatic, and ruthless" are way too generous to the authoritarians. 

It's that writerly playfulness at work again. You're presenting dictatorship as an element of fantasy worldbuilding, so you think, "hey, they must be doing it for a reason that at least seems good to themselves. It's not like you can have an entire nation fall under the sway of howling bigots, so lost in their own alternate epistemology of 'war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength' that they build a constantly collapsing system of endemic graft and inefficiency out of a maniacal spite that would sink the entire ship of state so long as they get to be the last one above the water line." In the year 2003, the collapse of the Soviet Union was too far in the past and the resurgence of right wing nationalism too far into the future. You could be forgiven for losing track of what authoritarian regimes were really like (and I have to include younger me in this - I was, during that same period, writing the sort of absolute gibberish alt-history fiction that I would mercilessly roast if I came across it today, and I'd have even less of an excuse because I was 12 credit hours into a subsequently abandoned Political Science major).

But as I said earlier, this is like arguing with a ghost, because this book isn't notably pro-authoritarian. In fact, it's the most democracy-friendly D&D book I've ever read. It's just that all of its opinions scream, "late 20th century AP World history" to me. It's similarly generous to political anarchism, even as it's dismissing it as only practicable at a small scale. How are you supposed to interpret the inclusion of a d20 stat block for Peter Kropotkin that lists his alignment as Chaotic Good? Now, how are you supposed to interpret that information juxtaposed with the chapter's later assertion that "An empire develops when a vigorous nation absorbs several surrounding nations."

As an elder millennial, I can feel the sympathetic cringe from relying on 20th century historiography, but even in 2003, there had to be a better word than "vigorous." I should nonetheless extend it the same grace I'd hope would be extended to me, were I in a similar situation.

Besides, it's not really a difficult thing to do. When Dynasties and Demagogues is not busy being old-fashioned, it's actually a pretty thorough and accessible guide to fantasy worldbuilding. I imagine that all its talk about bureaucracy, empire, and the various forms of democracy would be quite an eye-opener if your previous understanding of politics in D&D-style fantasy was, "I don't know, I guess there's like kings and dukes and knights and shit." (Incidentally, this is not a poke at the political sophistication of fantasy fans, it's more a scathing indictment of the way the D&D implied setting kind of vaguely gestures in the direction of European political titles, but only rarely bothers fleshing out even a quasi-historical feudalism-light).

The best possible use of this material is as a stepping stone to broaden the horizons of new DMs.  There are times when it really tries to sell "political intrigue" as an entirely new type of campaign. Like its target audience is purely people who've only ever run dungeon crawls (the final pre-appendix page has a flow chart that's designed to look like a dungeon map to accompany a wrap-up that uses the dungeon as a metaphor for politics - "Unlike real dungeons, the political dungeon will probably never be 'cleaned out'.") It can sometimes cozy up to the line between "helpful" and "condescending," but I think that if you're in a position to need this information, you'll be grateful that it's presented so cleanly and succinctly.

The second-best use of this material is to help old hat GMs expand and rationalize their plotting abilities. The "Adventures in Politics" and "Political Campaigns" chapters contain a lot of really good GM advice. It claims to be a lot more politics-specific than it actually is, but it can broadly apply to any game that's centered around either "the PCs drive the plot" or "the villain has an agenda that is constantly advancing." I found its schema for classifying adventure types - Character Pieces, Consequences, Rival Plots, Setbacks, Golden Opportunity, Investigation, Move/Countermove, Red Herrings, and Climax - to be illuminating. I genuinely feel like I'm a better GM now than I was a couple of days ago (though let's see if it sticks).

The "worst" (scare quoted because it's not at all bad, just not as strong as the other uses) use for this book is for expanded mechanical options. There are systems for using skill checks to resolve elections and political debates, but they can be a bit fiddly (the debate system gives you a "political defense" score that's calculated by averaging your modifiers in four different skills). There are new spells and magic items, many of which are interesting and fill a new social niche, but they aim for "useable in any setting," which is not a style that particularly appeals to me.  

I will say that the new prestige classes are exciting from a game-design perspective. The "Discreet Companion" class gives the ability to use charm person as an extraordinary ability, which is a seismic shift in the way d20 classes handle special abilities. Basically, it's saying that the class's mundane charm is so effective that it can best be modeled by a spell effect. It's such a sensible and powerful idea that it's kind of shocking how little it was used in official D&D products. You've got these huge lists of discrete rules exceptions in the form of the standard spell lists, why not squeeze some more value out of them by using them as class features for non-caster classes? I greatly admire the way the book is willing to give its politicians some genuinely drool-worthy abilities (even if both the caster classes have a full 10 spellcasting levels, on top of their new social abilities) and if I were still designing custom d20 content, I'd definitely be borrowing some of its technology.

Overall, I'd say that Dynasties and Demagogues is a book I should have read 20 years ago, but I didn't have the internet 20 years ago, so I inexplicably waited until 2020 to pick it up, and in that context I'm at a bit of a loss as to what to do with it. I think it aged well, as far as these things go, and it definitely still has some utility, but it's in this weird position where if you want to play the type of game it suggests, you've got plenty of better options, but its main strength - encouraging a new playstyle inside the D&D ruleset - is made impossible by the obsolescence of its rules. The people who need it most have the least use for it and the people who need it least are the ones who can use it best. I guess that's just part of growing old, though. Your wisdom is wasted on the young and is yesterday's news to your peers. 

Thank goodness blogging is an immortal art form.

Ukss Contribution: The thing I liked most was an entire campaign pitch - the Empire of Owls. Brief summary - the world's elves grew concerned at humanities rapid technological advancement and territorial expansion. They were (from their nigh-immortal perspective) quickly herded into ever-shrinking forest reserves and on the brink of extinction. So they engineered a centuries-long conspiracy to cause the collapse of human civilization. And it worked. More than fifty human generations have lived in small rustic villages as the forest reclaimed the land, all the while unaware that they sit atop the ruins of their ancestors' great empire. The elves act as a kind of noble class/game wardens who purposefully keep their human charges isolated, dependent, and weak while they themselves enjoy a perfected elven lifestyle.

It's a fascinating variant of the faerie myth. Humans are a small and huddled species, surrounded by these otherworldly, immortal beings and their dangerous sylvan idyll, but there's this dramatic irony - they used to be more. The elves' eco-feudalism is itself an unnatural lie. I could base a whole fantasy setting off this idea.

Which is, unfortunately, why I am not choosing it as my Ukss contribution. It doesn't really work if there are still regular human kingdoms outside the Empire of Owls' borders. Maybe in an isolated valley or on a lost continent, but I think it really needs a certain level of post-apocalyptic melancholy.

So I'm going with my second choice - Brycwyrcan, the god of glorious toil. I love me a god where you can't tell with certainty whether he's on humanity's side or not.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

(Shadowrun 3rd Edition) Renraku Arcology Shutdown

A lot of Shadowrun supplements are fiction-focused, presenting a story and then daring you to roleplay an adventure inspired by that story, but even among that august company Renraku Arcology Shutdown (David Hyatt and Brian Schoner) stands out as being particularly story-focused. Nowhere in the first 70 pages of this 88 page book is there anything that even remotely resembles a playable shadowrun. It is 100% NPCs doing NPC things and the most you can really say is "hey, it would be cool to use some of those antagonists, hazards, and locations in an rpg."

But you know, I'm not mad about it because Renraku Arcology Shutdown is actually a pretty good story. It's a chilling bit of horror about a massive building (holds roughly 90,000 permanent occupants who live, shop, and work entirely within its walls) with a security system capable of holding off the UCAS military for months at a time, that gets cut off from the outside world by a merciless AI who subjects the trapped survivors to gruesome scientific experiments.

So despite the fact that there's nothing the PCs can contribute to any of the book's short-story plots, it provides you with plenty of ideas for new stories - helping the resistance rescue the AI's victims, recover lost Renraku assets, attempt to steal the AI's cutting-edge drone designs, etc. I'd say that's a pretty good bargain, especially considering the book was fun to read on its own merits . . . 

Well, maybe "fun" isn't the word I'd use. It's horror. Frequently, I'd see something that made me say, "oh no, that's not right." One of the chapters presents itself as a 10-year-old's diary and . . . it does not have an uplifting ending. There are portions that seem to revel in the degradation of the human spirit. And as always when I confront horror, I have to put my feelings under the microscope and ask myself if the reason I feel so uncomfortable is because it's particularly effective horror. It's the one genre where you can't just take for granted that "nope, don't want none of that, thank you" is a bad reaction.

And with that awareness, I think Renraku Arcology Shutdown is actually pretty good. I can easily imagine arcology-based Shadowrun games that really dial up the desperate survival elements, the psychological terror of the AI's mind control experiments (it basically got its start as the arcology's Alexa, so it knows enough about human foibles to have a really high success rate when it comes to brainwashing captives), and the disgusting indifference it shows to basic human dignity. You can face strangely biological robots, drugged-up fanatics with glowing cybereyes, and children-turned-sleeper-agents who carry exploding dolls capable of taking out a whole team of would-be rescuers. It's super fucked-up.

Never mind how weird it is to be in a situation where "it's super fucked-up" is probably a compliment.

Ukss Contribution: I'm afraid I'm going to have to go full "mild-salsa" with this gripping horror yarn and avoid all the scary stuff in favor of just the general concept of an arcology. As a certified Indoor Boy, there's just something about them that appeals to me.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Exalted: 2nd Edition

All things considered, there was probably no better choice for my 500th book than Exalted, 2nd Edition. It defined my longest and most intense rpg epoch. It inspired me to write my first complete corebook. So many acrimonious internet arguments, snowdrifts of homebrew, and beautiful face-to-face gaming memories emerged from this exact book. Is it the best rpg in my collection? No. Is it my favorite rpg? No. Is it even my favorite version of Exalted? Sadly not. However, it is a strong contender for the most loved book in my collection.

At the risk of revealing too much of my personal psychology, love is a complicated thing.  The second edition of Exalted has a number of universally recognized flaws, and I can't really dispute them. The optimizers have solved the meta, and once you have that knowledge, you can never truly go back. The line's focus on completeness led to the setting as a whole feeling smaller than it did in 1st or 3rd edition. Some of the systems are fiddly for no obvious reason and others are half-baked. Social combat, in particular, never worked. Late 2nd edition was a game that was completely up its own ass, with both setting and mechanics that were tailored exclusively for the hardcore fans.

I can acknowledge all those things, I can even agree with them, but then there's this feeling that remains . . . It's a warm feeling, of comfort, of familiarity, and perhaps even a bit of hot possessiveness. It's a homesick feeling, of a lost and scattered fandom, made moribund, admittedly, by its own fractiousness, that nonetheless provided younger me with a sense of belonging. It's this feeling, this sense that Exalted 2nd Edition is in some way my rpg, that I'm choosing to call "love."

It is more or less exactly 9 years and six months since I last read this particular book. Before that, I probably read it in full at least once a year between 2006 and 2010, and in piecemeal another dozen times in that same period. Unlike, say, Exalted 1st Edition, there was nothing in this reread that surprised me.

Which makes my notes almost entirely useless. I reviewed them just now and with maybe one or two exceptions, each and every one was an observation I've previously discussed online. Some of them (like the book's relentless and offputting male gaze) I've complained about at length. We talk, sometimes, about things getting "burned into your memory," but it's a little strange to see it in action, to immediately fall back into an old pattern after years of interruption. The grooves this game left on my brain run deep.

The question I'm left with is how much I want to revive old flame wars. It almost feels safe to do so, now that most of the other most notorious combatants have dropped out of the fandom, but do I really want to reopen old wounds?

Let's do this tentatively, in service to an observation about my own personal growth. 

In years past, I had an intense dislike for the character of the Scarlet Empress, to a degree that would feel downright suspicious in today's media environment. The core of that dislike was a feeling that she was the focus of too much protagonist energy.

Looking back, I think that was a textually defensible reading of the character - just on a grammatical level, she is usually the actor or the subject whenever she appears and other people, nations, insititutions, etc are the acted upon or the objects, even when the text is trying to be critical of the character - but the level of venom I had in those old discussions was legitimately embarrassing.

It was out of that embarrassment that I took some time to reflect and made the conscious decision to chill the fuck out. I'd be like, "oh, I've mellowed on the character. Why shouldn't Exalted have a celebrity NPC? It will give the players a thrill to interact with her in the game."

However, upon reading the book for the first time post-Trump (he really did a fucking number on my political intuition, I'm telling you), I realize that chill me was also wrong.

See, one of the things that bugged 2010 me, that 2014 decided to graciously ignore, was that, in order for the character of the Empress to work, everyone else in her immediate orbit would have to be utterly craven shitweasels. Like, there would be some situations where she'd do something transparently manipulative, corrupt, and unjust and I'd look at the people disadvantaged or threatened by that action and say, "oh, come on, no one loves the taste of boot that much".

It turns out my experience with authoritarian followers was blessedly limited, because no, it does turn out that a cult of personality has no fucking rock bottom.  

Which you might think means I've turned a corner and am now prepared to admit that I was wrong to dislike the character because she's not nearly as unrealistic as I thought. But I'm actually much more ambivalent. It's become clear to me now that the specifics of the character don't really matter, what bothers me (and probably bothered me, subconsciously, all those years ago) is the way she was written.

And I have to tread carefully here, because that particular dodge is not unknown to the misogynists who just so happen to dislike a powerful female character, but I'm actually going to try and talk about the Empress as little as possible because I've noticed in my latest readthrough that my issue isn't really confined to her. It's just, because she shows up so often, in a very similar role each time, that this pattern of Exalted writing is most apparent with her character. But once you see it, you start to see it everywhere - Exalted is enamored with authoritarian grandeur.

That's really what's up with the Empress and the way the books present her as a masterful politician who created the Thousand Mazy Paths, never mind that "pitting your underlings against each other to win your favor" is, like, the first thing that every dictator thinks of doing.  The throne, the thoroughly cowed family, the weapons of mass destruction, the "expertly balanced bureaucratic factions," these are all part of the power fantasy. You don't see the Realm as falling victim to the same malady that bankrupted Sears, you see it as a product of a brilliant design. And in order for you to have that point of view, the people at the bottom (or even the middle) of the hierarchy need to be objectified by the people at the top. The story of the Realm is the story of the Architect of the Realm. . .

And that pattern is repeated in every other part of the game. Every time there is a significant difference in power between two characters, the more powerful character is the actor and the less powerful character is the acted upon. Exalted bureaucrats and socialites can reshape whole societies, exalted warriors are strategic level threats, exalted inventors are the only ones who can create the most powerful technologies. And this extends within the hierarchy of exalted types - solars > celestials > dragon-blooded > every other miscellaneous supernatural, with the caveat that age can trump type and certain notable exceptions (like the Empress) break the pattern. To some degree, that's just the mechanics of the game, but there is an ideological element - the ability to exercise power is what makes you a protagonist. Our viewpoint is always from the perspective of the oppressor.*

(*On a local level. Like, one of the chapter comics focuses on the Lunar Exalted, Strength of Many, and his ultimate goal is liberatory - he wants to end Creation's slave trade - but in the confines of the comic itself, he is a horror movie monster, tearing through the slave trader's guards with no noticeable resistance. Though he is using it for good ends, his power is inherently oppressive. Those guards would no more be able to resist him if he were robbing the caravan instead. He answers only to himself, always.)

I don't necessarily want to make out like this is something exclusive to Exalted. It's endemic to genre fiction. Paul Atreides ruthlessly objectifies the Fremen. Likewise the noble characters from Game of Thrones. And so on. But Exalted is unusual for the degree that it revels in the spectacle of power. The oppressors are generally cunning, unless they are honorable souls who sometimes feel conflicted about it all (Don't listen to your wife, Cynis Avaku, you should feel bad about killing that child to protect your family's opium profits). The disfunction of the Realm is only apparent after the Empress disappears.

It's actually going to get worse before it gets better (2nd edition's depictions of Lookshy and Paragon veer into the openly authoritarian-apologist), but even at its best there's no denying that Exalted is basically "Authoritarian Grandeur: the RPG." 

The standard defense is that it's actually deconstructing the genre's more typical power fantasy, but I think that defense is actually pretty weak. The central satirical element is supposed to be the fact that "the power of the gods" has no moral component, so your "shining champions of the Unconquered Sun" can be utter bastards, but as a critique it's relatively toothless because "give godlike power to any random goon, 'so long as the chosen one is of consequence to history and will put its might to use'" is not something you'd even expect to have a good outcome. The reason so many exalted suck is because the exaltation has no means of filtering out people who suck . . . an incisive commentary on power fantasies, I guess.

I'm not sure there's any cure for it, though. The very premise of the game is "filtering out special people from among the rabble and giving them superpowers" and that is aristocratic to the core. My general thinking on the issue is that the patrons should be more personally involved so you can explore the various ways that well-meaning people can misuse power. Like maybe in the First Age, the Unconquered Sun gave his blessing exclusively to the great - mighty warriors, successful generals, brilliant scholars, etc - and the fall of the age was the result of the curdling of greatness. People who had been praised and affirmed for their "brilliant accomplishments" have all of their brakes taken off . . . and nearly destroy the world as a consequence. So the Sun turns his face from the world in disgust . . . and the world very nearly ends because it had no great champions to defend it. And in the Third Age, the Unconquered Sun tries something new, selecting champions from among the oppressed, the neglected, the forgotten who know from first-hand experience what it's like to live under the boot of power . . . and that eventually sets up the prequel to the World of Darkness.

I mean, if you're going to go bleak with it, you might as well go all the way bleak, right?

Of course, this digression where I focus on the game's worst quality is mainly a distraction from the fact that I completely fell for its aristocratic glamour (if not the full-on authoritarian grandeur). You're shiny superheroes wielding giant swords and calling out the names of your secret techniques. There are a hundred canon locations, each with its own unique fantasy hook. Giant power armor. Airships. Explosions. Perfect defenses. Pure spectacle all the fucking time!

It got its hooks deep into me, and while this specific book only has a fraction of all the stuff I mentioned, it has enough to remind me why Exalted remains my most essential game line, the one I would part with last if, god forbid, I had to sell off or give away my collection. However problematic it can be at times, it also manages to dial into my exact frequency, in all of its editions.

And if it seems weird to you that I can profess such an open and unreserved love for the series in the same post where I call out its central premise as being hopelessly flawed . . . well, welcome to the Exalted discourse, c2006-2010. It only gets weirder from here.

Ukss Contribution: The city of Gem. Forget the meme of it being doomed (oh, yeah, that was a big in-joke in the fandom), the initial pitch - a city inside a dormant volcano where you can buy all sorts of rare minerals in underground markets carved out of the mountain's many lava tubes - is just such an interesting and memorable location.

My 500th book!

I hope I may be forgiven if I take a brief moment to do a self-congratulatory victory lap - as of just a few minutes ago, I've read 500 books from my collection!

Whoa!

Granted, I'm counting by individual title and some of those books were pretty short, but it still feels like an accomplishment. It's also a stark reminder that my collecting habit is probably out of control. I've been averaging 7 books a month for the past 68 months and I still have approximately 400 to go (although, on the bright side, if you've been enjoying these posts, I can estimate another 5 years worth at least!)

There's a part of me that deplores this wastefulness. It's too much for one person. I mean, I've been setting a pretty aggressive pace and it's still a decade-long project, so what was my original intent here? Am I just hoarding for the sake of hoarding?

However, I don't think that's it. Maybe it's a bit self serving to think of it this way, but I kind of view my collection as a sort of historical archive. So far, I've managed to assemble complete collections of Exalted, Mage: the Ascension, Changeling: the Lost, the Trinity Continuum, Earthdawn 1st and 4th editions, Shadowrun 3rd edition, Hunter: Reckoning, Demon: the Fallen, Kindred of the East, Dragonstar, Eclipse Phase 1st edition, In Nomine, GURPS: Transhuman Space and Orpheus, plus near-complete collections for Planescape, Dark Sun, D&D 3rd, 4th, and 5th editions, d20 Modern, True20, Eberron, Star Wars Saga Edition, and Rogue Trader. Plus a lot of historically and culturally interesting odds and ends. 

Even now, as deep in the hole as I am in terms of reading all these damned things, I still have the urge to collect more, to finish more series. Because there's just something immensely satisfying about seeing a whole thing, of knowing you have all the context, all the history together in one place. That's what I love about this Sisyphean task I've set for myself, the moments when I can approach these complex and sprawling fictional worlds, many of which exist as a collaboration between dozens or hundreds of individual creators, and appreciate them in their fullness, as whole things

Pretty much the only things stopping me from chasing after new sets are my limited shelf space and the expense of some of the rarer volumes. And of those two, only the shelf space is an intractable problem. It's probably for the best that I have this hard limit, because I just know that without it, I'd be doing this forever, but . . . I kind of want to keep doing this forever. 

As silly as it sounds, "having the broadest possible perspective on as many tabletop rpgs as possible" strikes me as my life's true calling. Not saying I'm even close to being there, but in another ten or twenty years, who knows? What I would do with that knowledge (aside from create the world's most baroque rpg, which I've already done) I can't really say, but I'd hardly be the first person to spend his life gaining a ton of useless knowledge on an extraordinarily niche subject. 

In service to that end, and in honor of my 500th book, I am now entertaining pitches on how I should use my remaining foot and a half of shelf space. What essential titles am I missing? What should I focus on if I want to get a true overview of rpgs as a whole? Have I missed any notably unique mechanics or settings? Landmarks in rpg history? Popular or influential books that have had an impact on the hobby as a whole (or even managed to escape the rpg bubble entirely)? Let me hear 'em folks. This hoard has room to get just a little bit hoardier.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

(Shadowrun) Predator and Prey and Critters

I decided to do these two books as one post because Critters was mostly just a compilation of previously published material and half that material was previously published, word-for-word, in Predator and Prey (Brian Schoner, Jennifer Brandes, Chris Helper, and Bill Aguiar). Plus, both books combined are 144 pages, which is almost certainly less than whatever it is I'm going to read next. It just seemed a more economical use of my time.

The best way to describe Critters is "what if someone speed-runned a monster book." After a brief introduction describing a few dozen standard "Powers of the Awakened," it rattles through a list of strange creatures, presented in a condensed stat block. It's not terrible. There's admirable variety, some of them are pretty fun (like the Juggernaut, a 14-meter-tall armadillo whose armor can shrug off most forms of small-arms fire), and the paragraph or so that most of them get is . . . sufficient to give a rough sketch. It's a little disappointing, because FASA did some great monster books for Earthdawn and none of that thoughtfulness is apparent here, but, well, this is a pamphlet that was bundled with the Game Master's Screen and despite the prevalence of weird creatures in the fantasy genre, Shadowrun is also a cyberpunk game and it's not really about fighting monsters.

Moving on to Predator and Prey - it is a compilation of three short adventures that each focus on fighting monsters in a cyberpunk world. You can definitely feel the weirdness of the premise (at one point, it even gets satirical: "Push the familiarity of it. Pretend to roll for random encounters. Ask the players if they want to map out where they're going. Make a point of writing down their marching order." - it's a good bit, though it borders on being a little too smug). But even so, two of the three adventures feel like fun digressions from the game's usual heist capers.

The most notable part of the first adventure, "Forbidden Fruit," is my weird emotional reaction to its central goal. You're supposed to venture into the Amazon rainforest and poach a rare plant, so some rando corporation can attempt to cultivate it outside its native environment. For some reason, I was initially shocked - what, no, the shadowrunners can't be poachers, they're supposed to be breaking into corporate laboratories and stealing the data that's generated by other people poaching. Breaking and entering, felony homicide, resisting arrest - those are the sort of crimes I signed up for. Smuggling endangered species? Count me out.

I can't really say why I'd feel that way, except that I can be something of a silly-billy. It's probably the same basic sentiment that ensures the dog always survives the disaster movie. 

My random hang-ups aside "Forbidden Fruit" is a classic genre story - a team of corporate scientists goes into the jungle and one-by-one the members of the expedition are picked off by the parasitical creature that lives inside the endangered species they were planning on poaching. It's up to the heroic mercenaries to kill the creatures before they spread out of their habitat and into a new environment that is not prepared to handle them. You're actually penalized an experience point for poor biosecurity. Nice.

I also liked the third adventure, "Baser Instincts." It introduces the single greatest bit of local bureaucracy I've ever encountered in a piece of genre fiction - Paranormal Animal Control. That's not just a whole campaign premise, it's a potential tv series. "Aw, man, there's a hell hound in our yard, I'd better call the county and have someone take it away." That's absolutely something that could happen in the Shadowrun universe and it's amazing.

"Baser Instincts" didn't quite have that level conviction, so it livens things up with a mystery plot - some magical force is causing the local paranormal animals (which mostly guard corporate facilities or reside in a military zoo for captive breeding purposes) to become aggressive and attack humans. An agent of Lonestar (the company that provides privatized police service for Seattle) has gone rogue and commissioned a group of shadowrunners to look into it, possibly administering street justice in the process. It's a perfectly fine side-quest, but an absolutely amazing pilot episode.

Which just leaves the second adventure, "Wild Kingdom." Sigh. Did I piss off a warlock or something? I'm starting to feel like I'm cursed to have to parse the weirdest fucking racial stuff.

It's an adventure where the players visit west Africa and are tasked with tracking down and recapturing an escaped slave. Because the slave trade is alive and well in the Shadowrun universe and for some reason Africa is where the megacorporations have the easiest time practicing it. 

I tried to work out exactly how far you could get in this adventure without becoming willfully complicit and I think, if you're good at not asking questions, you could probably get about 2/3rds of the way through and still have plausible deniability. You start off guarding a cargo ship as it travels from Miami to the free city of Sekondi (in the real world, the twin cities of Sekondi-Takoradi are a prominent port in Ghana). Your employer neglects to inform you that some of the cargo is an imprisoned scientist who is bound to a lifetime of forced labor in one of Phoenix Biotechnology's African research facilities). En route, your ship is attacked and the scientist is kidnapped by a rival corporation. Your Phoenix Biotechnology handler gives you an ultimatum - retrieve the scientist or forfeit your pay and be stranded in Sekondi with no easy way home. 

And I suppose, if you were determined, you could remain ignorant. Dr Dicristofaro was already a slave and he was taken in order to become a slave for a different corporation. But you might assume he was working for Phoenix voluntarily and see what you're doing as a rescue mission. So you infiltrate this new compound, dodge or fight the paranormal guard animals (as per the theme of the book) and only after you find his empty cell would you learn that he's already been liberated by anti-slavery activists.

When that happens "Dicristofaro begs for his freedom and the runners have a moral decision to make."

But do they, though? Is that seriously the direction this adventure wants to explore? You're expecting me to GM a game where the players are tasked with recapturing a fugitive slave?

And I have to digress for just a moment here to acknowledge that Shadowrun has always had "extraction" missions where you kidnap a corporate employee (sometimes with their consent and assistance, sometimes not) and that certainly implies that corporate employment is not strictly voluntary.

But if extraction is already such a big part of the Shadowrun ethos, then why did we need to go to west Africa to have an extraction plot? From where I'm sitting, it looks like it's a slavery plot because you're going to Africa. The players have gone to Africa and the first thing they do after setting foot on dry land is to rescue a white American from Black African slave traders. 

To the book's credit, the anti-slavery activists you (maybe) eventually have to kill are themselves Africans, but then they're described as "Three Afrcan orks in their late twenties, they look like extras from Euphoria's Jungle Huntress: serene yet wary, at home in the humid jungle." I have no idea what that description was actually meant to convey, and the fact that they're all orks strikes me as FASA being weird about race again, but. . . at least it's not a White Savior narrative?

I don't fucking know. All I do know is that unlike the biosecurity penalty from the first adventure, you earn the same amount of xp regardless of whether you capture the guy or let him go and the final encounter is a giant set-piece battle that doesn't make any sense unless you're transporting a captive the antagonists want to enslave. It's a grimy, unpleasant story, and I kind of hate it for that, but I am forced to (very reluctantly) admit that it fits in well with the more noir-ish portions of the cyberpunk genre. I could almost see it working if the players refused to carry out the job on principle, I followed the book's advice and had the Mr Johnson punish the PCs by withholding payment, and the now-stranded characters were just playing an African campaign now. I'd have to be careful to make the distinction that the players were not being punished for their good deed, but were in fact being rewarded with a cool new African setting for their cyberpunk adventures, but it's a decent narrative.

Unfortunately, it's the only decent narrative to come out of that adventure. Like, sure, maybe it's true to the genre - the PCs are criminals, morally compromised because a corrupt system demands corruption to survive. And maybe it's not out of line with other adventure types (not all "extraction" missions revolve around a voluntary change in employment). But I am not comfortable with a west African Shadowrun that involves capturing an escaped slave. And I'm not entirely sure I'd even be comfortable with a fellow player who was comfortable with this plot. 

It's not entirely beyond the scope of something that could be worked out with a session 0 discussion, so you shouldn't necessarily imagine me as being outraged that such a thing could even exist, but I will say that I'm struggling to imagine a more difficult session 0 disscussion. 

Who knows, maybe it's good to reflect and be thoughtful about the intersection between capitalism, racism, and colonialist exploitation, but "reflective" and "thoughtful" were not the vibes I was picking up from the "Wild Kingdom" adventure.

Let's wrap this thing up, shall we. To summarize - Critters was a dry, but functional book. Good value as a reference bundled with the GM Screen, but not substantial enough to stand on its own as a supplement. Predator and Prey . . . was a lot of fun when it was being goofy, but the serious part gives me pause. I can't decide whether it was meant to be challenging or if it just didn't realize how serious it wound up being.

Ukss Contributions: For Critters I'm going to keep it simple, as befits a simple book. The critter I liked most was the saber-toothed cat. They just got a cool style, you know.

Predator and Prey is trickier. If I go with my most ungenerous interpretation of "Wild Kingdom" (and there were times when I was tempted to) that ruins the whole supplement for me. But if I go with "this book has four authors, credited by chapter, so there are two who are identifiably not on my shit list," then I could justify picking something from one of the less . . . challenging adventures.

And that has to be Paranormal Animal Control. It's just so perfectly rpg, I love it.