Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Traveller Book

Reading old rpgs is weird. Because there is definitely a date in the past where I would have loved The Traveller Book (Marc Miller), but it's not necessarily a date in my past. If it's the year 1983, well, then John Frazer is just a wee little baby and not in much of a position to have an opinion on the relative merits of rpgs. And if I'm 15 or 16 years old, well, that's 1998 or so and rpgs have had a lot of time to get more sophisticated. Even though I can see the line of influence that leads from The Traveller Book to White Wolf's Trinity, plain as day, young me would definitely have preferred Trinity.

But there's a hypothetical scenario where I'm magically transported as my adult self back to the early 80s, absent my knowledge of roleplaying games, and if I'm coming into The Traveller Book straight off of AD&D 1st edition, my thought is "whoa, this is an amazing breath of fresh air."

The question I'm forced to grapple with in 2024 is how much of a curve am I supposed to be grading on. Forgive my harshness here, but The Traveller Book manages to achieve absolutely astonishing levels of blandness in its sci-fi worldbuilding. I'm sitting here at my computer. I've finished reading the book less than an hour ago, and here's what I can remember without consulting my notes:

  • Space feudalism: the major interstellar government is called The Imperium and it's ruled by an Emperor (not sure if he was given a specific name).
  • The current government is actually the third empire, having emerged from a period of technological regression known as The Long Night.
  • Some trading vessels are subsidized by the government.
  • The origin of the human species is murky, but prior to recorded history there were human populations on multiple planets. No one's sure how they got there.
  • There's a group called The Traveller's Aid Society. The benefits of membership are unclear, but it takes a million credits to join.
  • There are psychic powers, taught by The Psionic Institute. One of the big populations of humans, who decided not to join the empire, has a noble class that trains psionically.
  • There is no special FTL communication aside from FTL travel itself. The empire is held together by mail carriers who operate a "pony express" style relay service.
  • The Emperor and nobles invest heavily in megacorporations, interstellar businesses so large that their various divisions don't always know about each others' existence.

And that's pretty much it. It's not bad, by any means, but it acts like it has nothing to prove, and it absolutely does. It's like if you took Star Wars or Dune and filed the serial numbers off so hard that all that was left was a series of vague bumps that communicate the idea of a setting. Though maybe I'm putting too much on a slim volume whose main purpose was to consolidate and reprint the books from the original Traveller boxed set. According to the last page, even at this early date there were almost a dozen supplements, a similar number of adventures, various boardgames and a quarterly magazine that had been running for at least two years. It's likely that this is a Forgotten Realms type situation, where you've got a setting that emerged from the primordial ur-chaos of the late 70s wargamer/speculative fiction fandom overlap in which roleplaying was born. I once dinged the Alternity core for making too many unearned assumptions with its implied setting, but in retrospect, it's obvious that they ware following a path laid down by Traveller. As they say, the devil's in the details, and I'm sure there's plenty of complex, specific canon by which Traveller fans can distinguish it from the alternatives.

Although, not much actually made it into the book. Fair enough, for a reference volume that has no greater ambition than giving you the rules to play in a pre-established science fiction universe, but not an ideal entry point for someone coming into the franchise totally ignorant.

Mostly, though, I think it's a branding issue. The Traveller Book carves out a niche for itself not by being distinct from other sci-fi settings, but by being distinct from Dungeons & Dragons. I mean, yeah, one of the adventures is a keyed map where you explore an ancient ruin, but the ruin in this case is a mysterious alien pyramid with anti-aircraft lasers on a planet where the corrosive atmosphere is gradually, but inevitably eating through the characters' space suits. It would have blown my fucking mind if my only frame of reference was AD&D.

The game itself is also pretty well designed . . . relative to its age. It feels like I've unearthed a fascinating transitional fossil between two distinct species - the "wargame with a narrative overlay" of early D&D and the "story game with a tactical combat system" of more modern games. There's a lot of talk about character motivations and interacting with NPCs to drive story-style plots, but then it's all superimposed on a table-driven hexcrawl that seems like it's going to be the bulk of the actual campaign. It's like you're trying to wrangle this mechanistic procedural generation into a coherent narrative using the power of improv. 

I think a more self-aware version of this approach could yield a really interesting game, but The Traveller Book came too early in rpg history for that self-awareness to be possible. It didn't have enough to contrast itself against to know how to play to its strengths.

Take the book's most infamous mechanic - it's possible to die during character creation. It's a weird, wild idea that burned itself into rpg legend. I've heard it talked about many times over the years, always with a tone of reverent awe at the sheer audacity, but I didn't realize until I read the character creation chapter that this was that book. 

In context, it's not as daring as I was imagining. It's more like a structural artifact of its rudimentary lifepath system - the more times you roll on the table, the more powerful a character you can get, so each time you roll there is a small, but significant chance that you'll have to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. It's a fun luck-pushing mini-game that runs the risk of becoming dangerously addictive - no other rpg I've read so far has inspired me to create multiple test characters in my notes (I think my favorite was the naval officer who kept rolling really well for the degeneration rolls, but absolute crap for the promotion rolls so he wound up being a middle-aged junior officer who was unceremoniously discharged after 30+ years and given a one-way ticked for steerage-class passage to anywhere he wanted to go). However, it only really works because The Traveller Book hasn't entirely shaken off the idea that characters are disposable pawns. One of them dies, you just play the next one in line. 

It's actually kind of inspired, but it doesn't seem to realize it's dancing on the edge of a paradox - the lifepath system creates disposable pawns with a complex backstory. What I really want to see is more exploration of that idea. There are a couple of different ways you can go with it. You could dramatically increase the specificity and size of the tables, leading to a maze of character creation options that give you an entire history to try and make sense of. Alternatively, you could lean into the abstraction and give the table entries broad and thematic, requiring the player to provide the specifics. There's a whole range of possible synergies between the mechanistic randomness of the dice and the limitless possibilities of player creativity and The Traveller Book barely scratches the surface.

And that's where the weight of history comes into it. There was a time when that surface was totally unscratched. That we can have such bizarre mutations as Dungeon Crawl Classics' system of creating a half dozen random characters and playing the one that survives the first adventure or Nobilis 3rd Edition's challenging and abstract lifepath based on the language of flowers, that can all be attributed to the fact that someone else went there first, blazed the path that split into so many interesting directions. Looking back more than 40 years, without any particular nostalgia for the series, do I give it credit for all the things that it inspired or do I set it aside for being impossibly basic?

Cop out: I'm going to do both. It's the best tribute I can possibly pay to the game's own deep contradictions.

Ukss Contribution: There's really only one possible choice: the mysterious sci-fi pyramid. It's one of those classics that never go out of style. It probably felt really obvious, even in 1982, but also, like, you gotta have one of those things or can you even call it space opera? Don't call it a cliche, call it a staple.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

(Eclipse Phase) Firewall

 I really have to stop dilly-dallying with some of these books. I read Firewall at a pretty steady pace of about 10 pages a day and looking back, my impression of it feels totally consistent, but also terribly vague - I understand what it's trying to do, and theoretically it's the sort of thing I should enjoy, but in practice, I don't.

The elevator pitch is nigh-flawless. It's a richly-detailed sci-fi future where they have body-swapping, memory-editing, and nearly undetectable nanotech surveillance gadgets and you're going to do espionage stuff in space. You can have all the tropes and beats of a spy story, but they're amplified by the technology. 

Back in the 60s, the Mission Impossible tv show would have plots that relied on ultra-realistic latex masks, because in a world where everyone is trying to ferret out each other's secrets while keeping a tight lid on their own, if you introduce even a little bit of plausible confusion about an agent's identity, you can play all sorts of games. It's great.

So, when you've got a spy story set in a future where you can just go down to the face-swapping store and just change your actual face to whatever you want it to be, that's just the same thing, but more. And honestly, when Firewall is being "more spy than actual spies" it's pretty effective as a sci-fi espionage thriller. 

Spies are constantly getting amnesia in regular espionage thrillers, but here, there's a whole host of explanations for why that might be routine. Maybe the amnesia was voluntary, either for the sake of the mission or because "need to know" is really exact, and as a true believer, you understood you really didn't need to know. Or maybe the amnesia is enemy action. If you've got a person's body under your power, you can add or subtract whatever you want from their memories. You wake up in an alley not knowing your own name or how you got there and that's something you knew might happen when you signed up for this. Hell, maybe the reason you don't remember being a spy is because you never were. You're a backup from just before you signed up and the original you is dead. There are layers and layers of mind-screw that Eclipse Phase's technology makes possible.

Where I think Firewall loses me is with Firewall itself. As an organization, it's all over the place. It's an anarchist spy agency run on democratic principles, except information is highly compartmentalized and there's a divide between Sentinels (field agents who are usually called up on an ad hoc basis) and Proxies (behind the scenes people who work for Firewall full time), so everyone is insisting that there's no hierarchy here, but also your boss can totally kill you for knowing too much (don't worry, their whole clique voted on it behind your back). That's frustrating, but it could also be an interesting commentary on the practicability of anarchist ideals, especially in the face of a highly organized authoritarian opposition. Can you defend anarchism while still being an anarchist? Here's a highly ideological spy story to explore the issue.

Except I'm deliberately misrepresenting Firewall and its whole deal. It's a spy agency inspired by anarchism to have a generally flatter hierarchy, but it's not actually the intelligence arm of the setting's anarchists. Firewall is actually the cross-over faction, the group where you can plausibly have a team composing of a Martian capitalist, a Jovian theocrat, a fascist from the Oort cloud, and also an anarchist, and they're all putting aside their differences for the sake of the greater mission - the prevention of human extinction.

And I guess there's a sense where out-of-control killer robots and sentient alien viruses are plausibly apolitical . . . from the perspective of us reading the book as a work of fiction. "Put your differences aside and fight the TITANs" is easy for us to say, and since a roleplaying game consists almost entirely of people saying things to each other, that can be the basis of the player characters' relationship. You can use whatever core book background most appeals to you and still have a place in Firewall. The ideological differences between the characters will inspire some fun banter and lively philosophical debates between the players, and in the end, isn't that what we're here for?

. . . sigh. yeah. I guess it's easy when you have so many unplayed games to let yourself forget the point of all this. Firewall is the wizard you all meet in an inn and sometimes that will compromise its thematic coherence. And that's okay.

Aw, fuck it, I'm in full immersion mode right now, so I'm going to keep complaining. The issue with Firewall is that its whole "mandate" (scare quotes) of "x-risk containment" (quote quotes) is intensely political and as an organization, Firewall's politics are kind of terrible. See, one framing of the issue is "the threat of total human extinction should inspire us to put aside our differences and work together," but another possible framing is "the threat of total human extinction is so much worse than anything else that could happen that it justifies doing anything to prevent it."

And yeah, the book really does mean anything. Firewall gets a portion of its income from human trafficking. Sure, technically, it's money stolen from human trafficking operations, but the agents they put in those organizations do a fair bit of human trafficking for the sake of their cover, and, of course, the mission isn't actually to stop the human trafficking, it's just to skim a bit of the profits.

Acknowledging, in the text, that it's fucked up can only take you so far. At some point, you have to deal head-on with the question of whether they're keeping secrets because they're doing espionage or if they're keeping secrets because they legitimately belong in jail.

Once that penny dropped for me, I couldn't help noticing the thinness of the line between "we are bravely willing to do anything in order to prevent human extinction" and "our self-assigned role of preventing human extinction gives us license to do anything." The inevitable result is that the claim that you're the one taking x-risks most seriously becomes another weapon in factional infighting, with the license to do anything as the prize. "X-risks are so important that we need to put aside our differences and work together . . . so shut your mouth and fall in line."

On some level, the book gets it, because there are a lot of rival groups that do some of the same things as Firewall, and you get to see a whole spectrum of conflictedness in their relationships, but why hasn't Firewall flown apart at the seams. Nations and religions can exist for a very long time with the burden of factionalism because they are immortal entities that are a major part of their constituents' identities. Even if you hate the other guy's guts, you're not going to let them lay their grubby mitts on the polity's central legitimacy. The name is worth fighting for because it's not just a label, it's a history. 

It doesn't seem like a loose confederation of message boards that rate each other on a social network ("How the hell does a clandestine conspiracy get away with its own social network? That's a damn good question." - real quote from the book. The answer is probably "super-intelligent computers.") would have the same cohesion. You disagree with the group that wants to fight fire with fire and scavenge TITAN technology to use in the case of another attack? You don't have to grit your teeth and abide by the vote. You can just rebrand. It's easy when no one knows who the fuck you are.

And I realize that I've just recreated the "Judean People's Front" gag from Life of Brian, but I'm also genuinely having a personal revelation here - it's not something that just happens because lol, leftists like to fight with each other. It happens because a shared goal is not, by itself, enough to keep people together. We may both want to go to MacDonalds, but I'm not going to follow you through a burning building to get there. It's only when walking away has a price (whether in terms of identity, personal relationships, or the control of shared resources) that people will stick it out. It always seems ironic when huge interpersonal rifts form around incredibly small stakes, but perhaps that's the cause - there's only so much a person is willing to write off by walking away.

In any event, Firewall, as a fictional organization, sort of sits in this awkward place where it's written like a strong organization that has enough of a carrot to wrangle its factional in-fighting - there's an infrastructure there that would be painful to lose, its AI allies are the solar system's best cryptographers by a wide margin, etc - but at the same time, as an employer, it's kind of shitty. Sentinels canonically don't get paid. They've got super secure ego backup services, which they use to justify killing their own agents to better contain information. And yeah, if you're a particularly good agent, they'll "recruit" a copy of you after you've retired. 

It's something that circles back around to the genre thing I was talking about earlier - Firewall is "more spy than actual spies" so they do all the Bad Boss stuff you see in espionage fiction - assassinating informants, framing ethnic minorities with false flag operations, burning loyal agents, committing war crimes and terrorism if it's expedient for the mission - but it's more intense, because they've got technology that allows for a much broader scope for abuse. And if you're playing a spy in an espionage game, those moments of "wait, am I working for a Bad Boss" are essential story element. But also, Firewall still wants to be the scrappy underdog who only employs volunteers and puts everything to a vote because they're a democratic covert conspiracy. The general feeling I got is that nobody ever figured out what they wanted Firewall to actually be, and so we're getting a series of moods rather than a coherent fictional organization.

My suggested fix would be to bite the bullet and make Firewall a full-on anarchist project. The outer solar system is inhabited by a loosely organized group called the Autonomist Alliance and they need to know what's happening everywhere else, so they sort of agree to chip resources into Firewall cells, but Firewall isn't an organization, it's a manifesto. Like, literally, an influential pamphlet that circulated shortly after the Fall, and in the wake of that pamphlet a bunch of little clubs sprang up calling themselves Firewall Servers, and there's no regulation at all on who gets to use that label. If your cell has a good reputation an anarchist habitat may give you a portion of the asteroid they're mining, or let you use their cloning machine, and, of course, the unregulated AI provides superhuman SIGINT but that's the extent of the organization. The only reason it works at all is because the anarchists, with their unrestricted fabrication machines, low populations, and easy access to common elements are generally pretty rich (or would be, if they had a system that let them put a price on such things), so you're a secret agent who can't afford to be all that secret, because your anti-x-risk ops need to play to a crowd. Is that absurd? Would it cause all sorts of problems that a more traditionally-organized espionage group could avoid? Yep. Welcome to the future. It just gets weirder from here.

At least, that's my idle first pitch. I don't think you need to get too far from the default presentation to arrive at a compelling bit of science fiction. I just think the concept needs a little bit more moral and political imagination. I'm sick to death of Hard Men Making Hard Choices. I want to see Soft People of Indeterminate Gender Putting Off Hard Choices For As Long As Possible. Maybe that's something that I'm unfairly projecting onto Firewall, but hey, that's the other part of being a roleplaying game. If you're not going to tell me what really happened to the TITANs, then I'm not going to believe that your presentation of Firewall is the last word on the subject.

Ukss Contribution: Operation Kudzu. Put a bunch of cloning machines and genetic and ego information into time capsules, bury those capsules on every planet you can find, and then set the timer for 10,000 years. If something wipes out humanity in the meantime, the capsules will open and start replicating humanity wherever the conditions are tolerable enough for them to exist (which is actually pretty broad, given the available technology). 

I always feel weird when a game tosses out an idea for a much better game inside itself. That's a hell of a pilot episode - you wake up on an alien world in a heavily bioengineered body. The last thing you remember is getting your brain scanned for a long-shot survivalist project. But that wasn't supposed to activate for ten thousand years . . . 


Tuesday, February 6, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Warrior

There's a thing that sometimes happens in television where you'll have a series that's pitched as being about a particular main character - often the star whose name is in the title, but maybe just a narrator or viewpoint character - and that character is fine, as far as it goes, but they need people to interact with, foils to play against, and in the course of making as interesting a show as possible, the supporting cast is filled with colorful, distinctive characters, each with their own memorable gimmick. And gradually, without anyone being aware that it's happening, the main character starts to get overshadowed by their relatives and neighbors and sidekicks, and what was once a star vehicle turns into an ensemble show. 

In the best ensemble shows, the original main character evolves to be as weird as the rest of the cast (like Michael in Arrested Development). In less . . . felicitous circumstances, the vestigial main character still hangs around for awhile, getting the occasional plot, but just generally being a drag (let's call it the Peter Petrelli effect).

Anyway, The Complete Warrior (Andy Collins, David Noonan, Ed Stark) is about martial characters in Dungeons and Dragons.

The thing is, I really do think warriors make for great main characters . . . in fantasy fiction. There's a knight who has an epic quest or a callow young farmer setting out on a bildungsroman and they've got a down to earth perspective. They are constrained by concrete issues of logistics and human-scale limitations. "Oh no, the bridge is out, so I guess I'm going to have to ford the river at great personal peril" vs "Oh, hey, look at that bridge down there. It's collapsed. Good thing we're flying on our broomsticks or that would be a real inconvenience. Wait! Up ahead, is that a pink, sparkly cloud of anti-flying dust?! We're doomed!"

If I'm reading a novel, maybe the exact right amount of wizard is just as a wacky one-off encounter - "Here, take this Macguffin. It will come to your aid in your moment of greatest need." The magic user is someone who supports the hero's journey, but can't actually be a major part of it, because then the group's capabilities are basically random.

And the thing about D&D is that it knows this, deep down in its bones. The entire game is subtly structured around it. It is an assumption that drives much of its worldbuilding and plotting. A dragon is attacking the town? That's a job for a knight in shining armor. A cursed item needs to be destroyed in a distant volcano? Better assemble a team of completely ordinary people and one wizard to hike cross-country. There is an unspoken code that governs the maximum amount of magic you can have and still have it feel like D&D-style fantasy.

But then, the structure of the game encourages team-style play, and the Fighter and Wizard are assumed to be coequal roles. But there's no way that was ever going to work. You can't make a team out of a person who risks life and limb to swim across a river and a person who can take a nap and then fly over the river when they wake up. Even if they are relatively equal in effectiveness ("ah, but what if the party is on a time constraint and the wizard doesn't have time to take a nap"), they are living in two different worlds. They are, essentially, playing two different games.

You can see that tendency in full display in the Complete Warrior. Almost everything in this book is great for the sort of game where warriors take front and center, but the driving philosophy behind the mechanics is a bad fit for Dungeons and Dragons as it exists in practice. Basically, warriors are allowed to be impressive, but in order to reach that potential, they must overcome obstacles. They don't generally have abilities that just work, they instead get bonuses that apply under certain circumstances, and their "abilities" are a tendency to succeed more frequently when those circumstances apply.

Take the Gnome Giantslayer as an example. They've got some very impressive bonuses against giants. 

You reach level five (making you a 10th level character, at least) and you get the Close Shot ability. You don't suffer an opportunity attack when using a ranged attack adjacent to a giant. And that's pretty useful. Maybe not as useful as being able to cast Hold Monster (which a Hill Giant would need a 15 or higher to resist at minimum), but a very evocative ability. You're a trickly little gnome and you can weave around your foe, pelting them with crossbow bolts. A nice heroic fantasy.

But what happens when you're fighting literally anything else besides a giant? Apparently, you just go right back to being a normal character, relying purely on the numbers from your fighter chassis, because just having the general ability to ignore opportunity attacks triggered by your ranged attacks is "Combat Archery" an Epic Level feat that becomes available at level 21. Canonically, that makes it more powerful than the Wish spell.

You can't just have a class that gets a bunch of generally useful abilities that giants have a particularly hard time dealing with. You have to be a specialist. Because the techniques you develop to fight giants are grounded in a very strict model of learning, where they don't just automatically translate. But a wizard can just copy new superpowers into their book and not even pay an opportunity cost.

I guess it's been kind of a running theme with this edition. I find myself unable to enjoy cool fantasy stuff like warriors turning into bears or holy knights who wage war against demons, because I'm persistently aware of this inequality and it drives me to distraction.

Though in my defense, it's not just me being weird. There's a section about running all-warrior campaigns, and here are some snippets of its advice:

"In a typical party, a fighter can avoid dealing with the enemy's minions because the wizard takes them out with spells such as sleep and fireball."

"Thought a sorcerer may complain about only having two bugbears to incinerate with his fireball, the fewer opponents faced by a fighter simultaneously, the better."

"An often-overlooked option for rangers and paladins is to stock up on wands of cure spells."

"Multiclass fighter/clerics, barbarian/druids, and the like gain access to spellcasting, scrolls, and wands, just as rangers and paladins do."

Like, c'mon Complete Warrior, I'm on your side here, but you have to try just a little harder.

Anyway, my final opinion - this is a perfectly fine book on its own, but D&D 3.5, as a whole, was very often not fine.

Ukss Contribution: This one nearly slipped by me. When I first read about the Gauntlet Guardian, I was mildly amused by the idea of a robot designed to "punch anyone who gets in their master's way." I noted the delightful turn of phrase, but didn't think it was a memorably strong setting element on its own. Then, in defiance of my usual habit, I skimmed the creature's stat block and noticed that, by default they are Small-sized.

Here I was, picturing a human-sized robo-boxer who tagged along with the wizard or sorcerer who created it (because D&D, obviously), but I was meant to be imagining a child-sized robot with oversized fists who will absolutely unleash disproportionate aggression when let off the leash. That's an image that's going to stick with me for awhile.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

(Eclipse Phase) X-Risks

X-Risks is an incredibly useful book for Eclipse Phase games - a sort of monster manual that gives you a bunch of weird creatures to shoot - that has the unfortunate side effect of landing right in the dead center of my ambivalence about the line so far.

Before we begin, let me be totally upfront about one thing - I'm the asshole here. The entire time I've owned these Eclipse Phase books, I've been using them wrong. I've been reading them as if they were, in themselves, a form of entertainment. "Ooh, Sunward is so interesting, it's taking me on a tour of the inner Solar System after the apocalypse."

But that's not what the books are actually meant for. They're really meant as a framework for me and a few friends to get together and entertain each other, by telling our own home-grown Eclipse Phase stories. And it is the disconnect between the intended function of the books and my personal use of the books that has caused me to occasionally entertain some astonishingly bad takes - "Hey, wait, this tour of the solar system has some very notable gaps . . . no, I'm not inspired to make something up to fill in those gaps, I want you to do it for me . . . well, I guess this has just been a really bad tour, then."

Of course, it's hardly a flaw for a book to give a bad tour, if its intent is to be a good rpg. And yet . . . I nonetheless find myself frustrated when a book like X-Risks gives me all setup and no punchline. The in-character section at the front of the book advanced a half dozen theories for what Project Ozma might really be. The out-of-character section at the back of the book says, "In game terms, Project Ozma is whatever antagonist the GM needs it to be."

Okay, I get it. You'll explain to me in excruciating detail how an air-lock works, but the planet-hopping espionage conspiracy organization is just something I'm going to have to figure out for myself. That's what you estimate my capabilities to be.

Although, it's a little unfair for me to pick on Eclipse Phase for doing that. What's the alternative? White Wolf-style decades-spanning metaplot that requires a studious dedication to keeping current with the supplement treadmill? That brings a whole other set of problems to the table. Besides, maybe the only reason I find the lack of answers so frustrating is because I find the questions so intriguing. Call it the Lost dilemma - season 1 is impossible to follow.

(Although, if I'm really comparing this to Lost, I do have to wonder what makes these rpg writers think I can come up with a better season 6 than what we actually got . . . maybe the theory is that nobody can, but if I'm the one doing the work, I'll at least be invested in my half-assed resolution.)

And honestly, for most of the series so far, I've been content (or, at worst, playfully discontent) with that. I got a little antsy with Gatecrashing, because the Pandora Gates had been sold as the tip of this massive iceberg and the book itself stays well above the water-line, but in general, I've been at peace with the idea that learning about the world of Eclipse Phase was going to burden me with the responsibility of filling in the gaps. 

Then X-Risks comes along and upsets the balance. Because it has all those same lacunae, but by its very nature as an antagonist book, it puts a very particular frame on these gaps - they are something to be afraid of.

And I'm not really a big fan of fear-based sci-fi. Like, obviously I'm being a bit of a brat, because Eclipse Phase has billed itself as a horror game from the original core, but I've so far been able to seamlessly apply an ideological/genre filter - the unknown can be dangerous, but that doesn't automatically make it a threat. Unfortunately, X-Risks is very clear on this matter - the unknown is definitely a threat.

It's probably the right choice for a monster manual, but maybe what I'm learning about myself is that I really didn't want an Eclipse Phase monster manual. I'm much more interested in learning about the Factors (amoeba-like aliens who disapprove of AI and Pandora Gates) as people and as a culture with a particular point of view and understandable motives, and not as a Sinister Alien Threat From Beyond. 

Likewise, if I'm the one who's writing stories about the TITANS or the ETI, then as time goes on, these villains are getting more complex, more nuanced. Maybe just as dangerous, but in a way that invites further exploration. And, at least with the TITANS, we get some of that here - learning that they have distinct code-lines, identities, and interpersonal conflicts - but I'm not sure it goes far enough. They're still fairly limited in the roles they can play in a particular story - instead of just being the superhuman threat that overwhelms humanity with unstoppable fire power, they can now also be the subtle threat that manipulates humanity for its own agenda . . . which we're not going to learn about because that's too close to actually solving a mystery.

In the end, X-Risks is more Eclipse Phase and I still really love Eclipse Phase, but this is probably the first time I've been presented with gaps I didn't want to fill in. Still, regardless of what genre or mood of story you're telling in this universe, there's probably going to come a time when you'll want to throw down with a creature and for all my disagreements with the book's theme, I can't deny that even I will probably find it useful . . . if I ever get around to experiencing this rpg correctly.

Ukss Contribution: Some people keep bioengineered mini-dinosaurs as pets. One of the examples they give is a stegosaurus. Pet mini-stegosauruses. OMG, that is a fucking dream, and a perfect example of why I could never quit this game, despite taking issue with the horror stuff.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Arcane

One big function of Complete Arcane (Richard Baker) is to update the material from Tome and Blood for the 3.5 ruleset. It's handy, to be sure, but I may have gone a little overboard in my notes, comparing the caster levels of the two books' shared prestige classes. The Blood Magus goes from 5 caster levels to 9 . . . probably merited. The Elemental Savant from 9 to 8 . . . okay, fair, though the class is now hovering on the edge of viability. But then, the Acolyte of the Skin still has only 5 caster levels. Yikes. It's a neat class. The idea of flaying a demon and wearing its skin for magical power is evocative and creepy and it's got a tenuous connection to the concept of cause and effect (it's the best kind of fantasy, in other words). But nothing it gets is even worth one caster level by itself, and all of its abilities put together are worth maybe two. Ooh, it can use the spell poison 2 times per day? So can a 6th level druid. (Actually, they can do it at 5th level, if they have a wisdom of 16 or higher, which they really should). 

But honestly, that's just an old problem. Spellcasters in 3.5 are so good that they make everything else worse by comparison. I kind of just need to accept that and move on. If I imagine that 3.5 is actually a game like Ars Magica or Mage: the Ascension, where everyone is intended to play a magic user, then Complete Arcane is a pretty great supplement. It gives your mages a whole bunch of new stuff to do, most of which is pretty cool.

But while I'm nitpicking differences between Complete Arcane and Tome and Blood, I should point out one really egregious one - the head of the Arcane Order has had his name shortened from "Japheth Arcane" to just "Japheth." New players will have no idea why it's called "The Arcane Order" now.

Okay, joking aside, if I'm not going to complain about the imbalance between casters and non-casters, I'm not sure I have much of a thesis for this post. Just a bunch of disconnected observations.

I really liked the new full classes. The warmage was a little weak, relative to the wizard, thanks to their slower spell progression and limited spell list (mostly just blasting spells, really). On the other hand, this is exactly what I want a spellcasting class to look like. Their magic is centered around a strong theme and they do it well. Blast away, guys, wizards are a joke.

The warlock was another good one. My only issue with them was a minor flavor issue - they are said to get their magic from being descended from fiends, and this steps on the toes of the sorcerer. The later refinement of wizards = study, sorcerers = inborn talent, warlocks = otherworldly pacts is actually a pretty good breakdown. The only change I'd make is to tightly curate the subclasses spell lists based on scholastic tradition/magical heritage/the nature of the patron. And while we're wishlisting here, get rid of clerics and druids and instead roll them into this rubric - if your religion is big on studying a canon and your prayers are actually a kind of hermetic theurgy, you're a wizard, if you're transformed into an inhuman celestial servant, you're a sorcerer, and if you've got an intimate personal relationship with your deity, you're a warlock. In the real world, every magical tradition is also a religious tradition. No reason that should be any different in D&D.

Finally, the wu jen. Decent class, questionable flavor. The tricky thing here is that I actually think their arbitrary "follow this taboo or lose access to your spells" mechanic is a good idea as a general limitation on spellcasters. . . but other spellcasters are just as strong, and don't have that limitation, so what purpose is it serving here? Also, "Wu Jen are the spellcasters of the far east."

And really, what can I say about that except that even leaving aside the orientalist subtext, it doesn't even make sense in the context of the game. The far east of what exactly? Where are the wu jen coming from that's to the east of the game's setting? I guess, if your world is spherical (not actually all that safe an assumption in the fantasy genre), then everything is to the east of somewhere. But even to the extent that you want to say that corebook D&D is fantasy Europe and the wu jen come from fantasy China, there's no actual guarantee that these two areas are going to have the same geographical relationship to each other as their inspirations did in the real world.

Though this does remind me of an idea I had for a fantasy setting where fantasy Rome and fantasy China had a very close physical proximity but were separated by a difficult to traverse physical barrier, like maybe China is in transalpine Gaul or Rome is right on the other side of the Gobi Desert. The idea would be that you could play the main mass of each empire totally straight but have the border region be a polyglot blend of the tropes - a location where Gladiators and Monks could quite reasonably interact with each other.

That only tenuously has anything to do with the wu jen class, however. Except that it exemplifies one of my biggest frustrations with D&D historically - it's fantasy, you can do literally anything, so why does it keep doing the same basic thing over and over again?

Anyway, if I apply that standard to Complete Arcane as a whole, it does . . . okay. Warlocks are certainly a mythological well they've been reluctant to go to in the past. And while it doesn't do anything radical with the genre, it offers some suggestions about how you can mix things up - like using breakable ceramic tiles instead of potions or encoding spells inside architecture instead of spellbooks. D&D has released more daring magic supplements, but this one left me with very few complaints (aside from all the bullshit nitpicking I did in this post, of course).

Ukss Contribution: The Spiteful Imp, a magic shield that will "twitter in evil mirth whenever it deflects an opponent's weapon." Absolutely inspired, I love it.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

(Eclipse Phase) Morph Recognition Guide

I keep going back and forth on how much I should write about Morph Recognition Guide. On the one hand, it's a very slight book - all of the various morphs (i.e. empty bodies that players can upload their minds into) from the Eclipse Phase books published by this point each get a full page of art, a text box recapping their basic pitch and mechanical effects, and two or three lines of commentary from a fictional internet discussion group. The average wordcount per page is probably the lowest of any book I own, rpg or otherwise and a lot of it is stuff I've seen before.

On the other hand, the repeated information is universally interesting, and some of it I've never commented on before. Like, the neo-avians (uplifted crows, ravens, and grey parrots) have a "dinosaur identity subculture." It's a phrase so striking that I actually included it in my notes for Transhuman, where it first appeared. There's a lot of incipient worldbuilding underneath that description that I'm just aching to see realized. Is it like the "sigma grindset" for uplifted birds or is it more like a politicized attempt to create a cultural identity for neo-avians? Or is just a meme for bird-bros in the know. Me and the neocorvids are going to get together this weekend, watch Jurassic Park and cheer whenever a human gets eaten. The people (me, I'm the people) demand to know.

There's also some fascinating new tid-bits. The Bruiser morph is big and muscular, which we already knew, but in the comments, it's revealed that there are also "limited edition bruisers based on the genetics of pre-Fall wrestlers and athletes." And this has way too many threads to pull - about identity, about celebrity culture, about capitalism, about fandom, about bioethics - to just get one sentence. There should be a whole adventure about this subject. But then who's going to create it? Me?

Is the book good because it keeps throwing these inspiring sentences at me? Or is it bad because every time it manages to inspire me, the feeling fades by the end of the page?

Trick question, it's bad because of Neotenics. Like, one of the options available to you is a Surya - a biological life form that is engineered to live on the chromasphere of the sun. That is the level of biotechnology that's available here. An immortal body that retains a child-like appearance its entire life is trivial by comparison. And given human nature, it is entirely inevitable that people would get extremely creepy with it. We can infer all this from the general facts of the setting. So why go out of your way to say it? Why establish canonically that there are beings who look like children but are in fact fully adult transhumans, some of whom go into the sex trade?

Pitch me an adventure based on that information, Posthuman Studios, I fucking dare you!

Actually, don't. I wouldn't want to read it. Just like I didn't want to read about Neotenics in the core book and I didn't want to read about them again in the Morph Recognition Guide.

But really, that's only one page. The rest of this book is both enjoyable and useful. I found it very helpful to be able to put a face with a name, so to speak. It wouldn't have been necessary if the original morph entries were accompanied by art (even just a simple sketch, rather than a full-page, full-color illustration), but I can see how it might be more cost effective to do it this way. Overall, I'd call this a nice, relaxing change of pace. I wouldn't want every book to be like this, but it's okay, once in awhile, as a treat.

Ukss Contribution: The Sylph morph can basically be boiled down to "a thin and pretty body, suitable for celebrities and models." I'm not even going to touch on the politics of this, because the intersection between body politics and transhumanism is way too complex an issue for me. Do fat people even exist in the Eclipse Phase universe? None of the art in this book seemed to suggest as much.

Which, as I said, is a lot. However, one interesting fact about Sylphs is that this is just a generic name. If you're out buying a Sylph, you're going to have to choose between several name-brands, all doing the same basic thing. One of those brands is called "Sedusa."

Sedusa. I could live for a thousand years, and I could never come up with a more perfectly horny name for a fantasy or sci-fi creature. It's sublime. Ukss' Sedusa will not be a brand of replacement bodies (probably), but there will definitely be some kind of innuendo-laden creature with that exact name.

"Beware the Sedusa's cave. Those who enter it are never heard from again." Or something. I'll work on it. Try and come up with something that is the funny kind of smutty, instead of the sad kind of smutty.

(D&D 3.5) Complete Adventurer

Reading a book like Complete Adventurer (Jesse Decker) always puts me in a bit of a bind. It presents a lot of solid, interesting fantasy, including some of the game's most narratively satisfying prestige classes, but it's all sort of destined not to be used because in the broader context of D&D 3.5's rules, none of it matches +1 spellcaster level (except, perhaps, the prestige classes that give you 8 or more spellcasting levels).

Take the ninja, for example. In isolation, this is a fun class. In combat, you can run around the battlefield, striking from the shadows. Out of combat, you're this super-sneaky infiltrator with magically enhanced stealth abilities. One of the classic fantasy archetypes, brought to the game as a 20-level standard class at last.

Their capstone ability, gained after 20 levels of single-class progression, is called "Ghost Walk." It allows you to spend some of your ki points to cast the spell Ethereal Jaunt. Ethereal Jaunt is a 7th level spell. Wizards and Clerics get access to it at 13th level. Now, granted, a wizard or cleric isn't guaranteed to have Ethereal Jaunt accessible, because they've got a limited number of 7th level spell slots - a minimum of 4 at 20th level - but that's hardly a recommendation for the Ninja class. If a spellcaster did not have Ethereal Jaunt available, it's because they're using that resource for other things of comparable value. The Ninja will most likely always have Ethereal Jaunt available (I figure at level 20, you've got enough ki points to use it 7-8 times per day, assuming you do nothing else with your points) because they have nothing of comparable value.

And that's not even the most insulting of the Ninja abilities. That would be "Ghost Step" which allows you to spend 1 ki point to become invisible for 1 round. Given the timing rules, it has certain situational advantages over casting the Invisibility spell, but you get a lot fewer daily rounds of invisibility as time goes on, and no increase in functionality comparable to Greater Invisibility (well, it does upgrade to make you ethereal as well as invisible for 1 round, but 1 round of etherealness is . . . extremely situational).

Now, the tenor of my complaints may lead you to think that I dislike the Ninja class and think it's terribly underpowered, but actually the opposite is true. Wizards and Clerics are some of the worst-designed classes in the game. But their faults run towards being bland and overpowered. Ninjas are the magical stealth guys, but spellcasters are better at being invisible, better at being ethereal, and even better at jumping (the jump spell at level 1 gives a +10 bonus to jumping rolls, a ninja's Great Leap and Acrobatics abilities give a combined +10 bonus jumping rolls at level 18, by which time the jump spell has improved to providing a +30 bonus). You could argue that, theoretically, a wizard isn't going to be specced to obsolete a ninja, and really, a +30 bonus to jumping looks impressive, but it winds up being a smaller modifier than the 18th level Ninja's 21 ranks in jumping + 10 bonus. And on a full adventuring day, maybe that wizard is going to run out of jumps, whereas the ninja can just jump constantly.

And all of that is even more or less true. But it is a curse knowing that this interesting class is not the best possible build (or even, really, part of the best possible build) for its signature tricks. 

Also, WotC, what's going on with the weaksauce +2/+4/+6 Acrobatics class feature? Was there something wrong with the Bladedancer's +10/+20/+30? Are you really being stingy with niche traversal abilities in a game where Fly and Teleport are options?

But that's kind of Complete Adventurer all over. I really dig its vibe, I like pretty much everything I see, the Main Character Energy is off the charts, but you're a fool if you use this book to build a character.* 

*Some of the spellcaster-focused Prestige Classes will work all right.

Ukss Contribution: Oh man, you have no idea how spoiled for choice I am. There's a prestige class that lets you use stealth with your horse. A conspiracy of freelance spies whose goal manipulating various nations into peace. The Ghost-Faced Killer prestige class, which made me do a deep dive to figure out why they named a class after a rapper, which led me to learning of the existence of a 1979 kung fu movie called The Mystery of Chess Boxing. The suggestion that I could adapt a good-aligned prestige class that focused on hunting evil by changing its alignment and coming up with a more sinister name than "Shadowbane Inquisitors." The Vigilante prestige class having a signature character called "Beasly 'the Nightstalker' Bigums." Minotaurs making musical instruments out of the horns of minotaur heroes.

I just absolutely love so much of what this book has to offer.

In the end, though, I have to go with ninjas. I really like that Complete Adventurer was willing to go there, I just kind of wish that D&D 3.5 was the sort of system that allowed it to really go there. And don't get me wrong, I don't blame the author for not making ninjas fantastical enough - it is entirely the fault of D&D's weird idea that breaking verisimilitude, even in a small way, is a high-tier power (but also, somehow, spellcasting does not break verisimilitude) - but I yearn to see them in a setting where they can be allowed to flourish.