Thursday, May 26, 2022

(Dragonstar) Guide to the Galaxy

 Guide to the Galaxy is Dragonstar's main setting book . . . except that The Starfarer's Handbook had plenty of indispensable setting material and this book had a bunch of new rules. Really, the breakdown is more like the split between the PHB and the DMG. DMs will have to be familiar with both. Players can get away with skimming portions of one. Knowing about the culture of the Dragon Empire aids in roleplaying, so it's in The Starfarer's Handbook, knowing about the history aids in crafting an adventure, so it's in the Guide to the Galaxy

Most of the rules material is pretty function, if a bit too detailed. Gravity levels can modify Jumping, Carrying Weight, Climbing Speed, Falling Damage, Flying Speed, Rate of Ascent, Rate of Descent, Movement Rate, and Weapon Ranges. Each has its own chart, so be sure to remember them all. Similarly, radiation damage is resolved with two steps. Also, there's a long series of tables that you use to generate star systems, but that's actually the good kind of detail-oriented chart navigation, so I'm only including it to round out the list.

The real draw of this book is the setting. It makes some . . . interesting choices. The big one is that thing that everyone notices about Dragonstar, the absurdity of its dynastic setup. Five thousand years of rule by the good-aligned metallic dragons followed by a handoff to the evil-aligned chromatic dragons. Surely it's  a disaster waiting to happen, which is why the book tackles it head-on . . . by saying, "It's irrational and no one who lives under its banner would voluntarily choose it as a form of government."

For those keeping score: we, the readers know the Dragon Empire was never going to work; the authors of the book knew the Dragon Empire was never going to work; and the people in the setting knew that the Dragon Empire was never going to work. At least we're all on the same page, I guess.

Though, to be fair, the actual problem here seems to be intractable - how do you create a good system of government when you need a buy-in from Team Evil? No one would ever purposefully design a system that openly saved a slot for an evil ruler to take the throne. Evil is intrinsically disqualifying. Which is usually why, in real life, people with ambitions towards political power usually deny accusations of being evil. "You're just calling me 'evil' as a way of shutting down my agenda," and all that. It's sort of a phatic term in political context - you call your opponent evil because you want them to lose and it's so routine you don't expect it to actually change anyone's mind. Nobody self-identifies as "evil."

Except in D&D land, where they do, and that presents a serious problem. You've got two similarly powerful factions and they're making peace, then it makes sense to say that neither faction is going to accept a settlement that permanently locks them out of power. But one of the factions organizes around evil, and suddenly fighting evil is a form of partisan oppression. It's even framed that way in the text, where it rues senseless violence based on nothing more than race, religion, or alignment.

It's so frustrating to me, because alignment is just an extra piece of information that I neither want nor need. You've got the various characters motives, actions, and relationships, and then you've got this editorial tag that tells us whether such things are justified, and it would be bad enough if it were just a rule, but it also exists in the setting, and so people can know infallibly whether the author of the universe is on their side. Would you ever submit to a "detect alignment" spell? Would you be confident in what it was going to say? Would you even want to know?

There's actually a pretty interesting conflict at the heart of the example star system. The Dragon Empire found valuable minerals on one of the planets, so they set up shop on the system's inhabited world. But that world was dying. It was limping through the aftermath of an epic war, where armies of orc and goblins, led by an enigmatic figure known only as The Faceless Man, went up against an alliance of humans, elves and dwarves, and almost won, but the so-called Free Nations unleashed terrible magic that knocked the planet off its axis, rendering a wide swath utterly uninhabitable and causing wide-spread death and destruction. The survivors fled to the poles, where scarce land and resources have led to generations of smoldering sectarian violence. 

And now, visitors from the stars have landed and are gradually transforming the largest settlement into a modern city, where their citizens and local collaborators can live in unimaginable luxury while rural refugees must navigate a shanty town that's divided between race-based "militias" that are little more than extortionist gangs that dole out violence based on a centuries' old grudge. And the agents of the Empire, the Imperial Secret Police, encourage this conflict, the better to distract the natives from the ongoing plundering of their valuable mineral resources. So it's a gritty game of survival and hard justice in a city where death is around every corner and the night lasts for months.

Also, it's the Army of the Faceless Man that's Evil. The Free Nations militias will kill all goblinoids ("whether militia thugs or innocent civilians") with "no questions asked," but when the leader establishes a relationship with the  black dragon governor, he "had some qualms about allying himself with such an evil creature."

Now, we don't actually get stats for the militia leader, so it's possible that he too has an evil alignment, but at the very least, it's implied that his rank and file followers don't. It's such pointless side-taking. In the sample adventure, the PCs try to track down a half orc who has been kidnapped by the Free Nations, and they talk to a bugbear cab driver who was outraged at the poor treatment of his colleague and an old orc woman who expresses concern about the victim's safety, and they're perfectly ordinary conversations. It's nice. Refreshing even. But over the course of the adventure, the only living people you fight are orcs (you do fight some ghouls, and they are intelligent enough to be counted as people, but that's a whole other thing). When you finally do catch up to the kidnappers, they bluff about wanting a ransom, but eventually give him up without a fight. The justification is that they were too weak to be in any kind of negotiating position (their squad was almost wiped out by an orc militia), but it's a curious coincidence. Alignment only appears in a full stat block, and you only need the stat block for characters you're going to fight. So we know the orcs are Chaotic Evil, but for the kidnappers, we're in the dark.

It didn't have to be that way. It's an interesting adventure. Go in to an orc neighborhood to rescue a half orc from humans. The gangs are brutal and hold the people in thrall, but you and your friends are the invaders. You're on a mission from a paladin reporter who wants to uncover evidence of the Imperial Secret police's involvement in stoking racial violence, but even so you and your whole mission are a part of imperialism's tightening grip on the planet. Is it wrong for the locals to hate you? Even if your best intentions prevail and you uncover the corruption, under imperial law, the whole planet is still owned by the black dragon house Noros (unless they decide to sell it back to the natives, which is implied to be the metallic dragons' standard way of doing things).

I think, at times, Dragonstar falls more into the camp of "depicting" imperialism rather than "critiquing" it, but you could nudge it into a critique very easily by getting rid of the fucking alignment system. Gold dragon goes in, gives the primitive locals all sorts of technological and development aid, is on good terms with local elites, and very generously grants the deed to the planet back to its inhabitants. Now they just owe the same standard income taxes as any other imperial citizen (a flat ten percent, regardless of your personal circumstances). Nothing at all to read into the fact that the gold dragons are explicitly labeled "good."

Anyway, Mezzenbone is just the worst. He going to do all the things that people are afraid he's going to do, and probably worse (when he restarts the dragon war, he has no intention of sparing his fellow chromatics, so that he may rule the ashes uncontested), but his plan to exploit the power of the empire to launch a devastating first strike, is really more of a thousand-year plan, so the text also says "this dreaded event was not the catastrophe that many feared it would be . . .Mezzenbone failed to satisfy the predictions and prophecies of the doomsayers. He did not declare himself emperor for life, dissolve the Imperial Council, suspend all civil liberties accorded to imperial citizens, or impose martial law."

Maybe I'm sensitive, but this "declaring yourself out of the woods because the fascist hasn't tipped his entire plan 4% into his term of office" really gives me the willies. We know he's going to betray the empire, not just because of the out-of-character, for-DMs-eyes-only plot section, but because he explicitly identifies as chaotic evil and worships a god named "the Destroyer."

That's what alignment does to a setting. The routine machinery of empire greedily stealing everything in sight, but with the occasional nod towards the concept of consent is Good. And Evil is the well-telegraphed disaster that you can't do anything about until after it's hurt a bunch of people, lest you be labeled a "doomsayer.". Yikes.

Okay, so we're at about 1500 words and I haven't even started talking about the other weird choice that defines the Dragonstar setting, something that, in my notes, I called "the vanilla of deep time." There was a big bang that happened billions of years ago (confirmed by the gods, though those same gods are still a bit cagey about whether they approve of the Unification Church), and the Dragon Empire is a lonely cluster of about 1000 settled worlds, in an infinitesimal sphere of a million stars, with more than 99.999987% of the galaxy left unexplored. And everywhere they've found so far can be built with the 3rd edition Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and Monster Manual.

The worlds aren't all identical. Heck, the one example we get would have made for a fairly unconventional campaign. But the differences are really more of a matter of curation. The description of a "scarce biosphere" in the star system creation rules puts it thusly, "There are planets in the Empire that gave birth to only a single sentient humanoid species, planets where there are no living oozes or motile plant life forms, and even worlds where there are no magical beasts or aberrations."

No oozes, you say. Is it even possible to imagine such a world? Sarcasm aside, this definition of "scarce" puts "standard" into context. Standard is that everything in the Monster Manual is canon. In the literal sense. The explanation is that the gods only had so many ideas and so they put the same species, with roughly the same ecological and social niches, on every planet. That's how we know who to side with on the example planet. That's why early spacefaring gnomes, from a gnome-only planet, were able to found the Star League (the state that existed before the Dragon Empire), because the people from the more standard worlds were able to recognize them as gnomes from another star, and thus already knew something about their habits and temperament.

I don't know. It's a choice. The endpoint you're after is "D&D in space," and this is a path that gets you there. But what is this universe? It works here a little better than The Starfarer's Handbook, because we get specifics and the example planet isn't exactly cookie-cutter, but the end result is still a space opera setting that avoids engaging with the concept of diversity. There's probably a way to do this that's satisfying, maybe make it part of the little-discussed subgenre of theological science fiction and use the repeating nature of life to say something about the character of the gods. But Dragonstar, thus far, has not been doing the work. What does it mean that there's a "standard" type of planet? What does it mean that some planets are different? What does it mean to move from one planet to another? Is there a difference between a planet that is diverse because it attracted interstellar migrants and one that was created to be diverse from the beginning? How do the planes figure into all this (we know they exist in Dragonstar because it occasionally refers to extraplanar incursions as a kind of common planetary crisis that even the Dragon Empire must treat carefully, and I'm intrigued at the plot's potential)?

But that's just speculation on what might have been. Focusing back on the present, I can't say that I have a verdict on the series yet. Weird, considering that I'm two hardcovers in. I guess, when I bought my first Dragonstar book, back in the early 2000s, I was impressed that it was trying something different with D&D, and now that I've got an extensive, decades-spanning collection, I'm a little disappointed that it's trying something different . . . with D&D.

Ukss Contribution: With all that criticism out of the way, this is still a book that has some inspired details. I liked hearing about mithral skyscrapers, magical cybernetic implants installed with "runic surgery," and the chainsaw pit trap. However, I think I'm going to go with Star Dragons. They float through space, subsisting entirely on solar power, and as they age they glow with color of increasingly energetic stars. Unfortunately, they don't have an ultimate black hole stage of their life cycle, but I can easily add one.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

(Earthdawn 4e) Travar: The Merchant City

 I always feel like a real goon when I lead off with a flaw, but in this case, the flaw is kind of the key to cracking this thing wide open. There's a great campaign you can run out of this book, but in order to do so you have to tackle the flaw head on. . . but you can't correct it, because the flaw is also at the heart of this hypothetical campaign. There's no alternative to simply doing the work.

The flaw is this - Travar: The Merchant City makes the Scourge feel shorter than it ever has before. Even Elven Nations gave it more heft, and there are several canon elves who went into the kaers as children and survived long enough to come out as elders. Travar is a predominantly human city, so a 400 year Scourge plus 100 years since the kaers started opening means that roughly 20 generations have passed in which the major merchant families have survived as distinct entities.

Let's all care about the disposition of the Shakespeare estate. That's how it feels when the book talks about the Dumojoren family. Oh, there were two legendary brothers, one of whom was caught outside of Travar when it decided to seal itself away, and now the lineage descended from that brother is back and wants to merge with the branch of the family descended from the brother who stayed in Travar? What about literally every other human in both locations? That's how populations work. According to ancestry.com, I am mostly British. Therefor, it is highly likely that I'm descended from every single person who was alive in Great Britain in the year 1522 who has a line of descendants that survived to the modern day (though, sadly, this rules out Shakespeare). If 25,000 people go into the fallout shelter, and 400 years later slightly fewer than 25,000 people come out, those survivors are all going to be cousins.

So right away, you've got all these plots that rely on continuous organizations putting a pause on their operations and then emerging centuries later relatively unchanged and picking up exactly where they left off. And that's rough. None of the merchant houses was founded after the Scourge, despite the post-apocalyptic power vacuum, despite the fact that 100 years is more than long enough for a small venture to blossom into a major enterprise, despite the fact that the pre-Scourge houses were merchants, i.e. people who made money by moving goods from one place to another, and thus were 400 years out of practice because of their enforced confinement in a single area.

It's a flaw. But the reason I think this flaw might be massaged into a great campaign is because one of the implications of the short Scourge is so ghastly that it could easily be spun off into satire, and the longer the Scourge, the ghastlier and more satirical it gets. It's unjust when you're talking about the estate of your grandfather, absurd when you're talking about the estate of William Shakespeare, and fascinatingly ludicrous when Shakespeare died in a fallout shelter following a global catastrophe.

One of the merchant families loaned people money to build their own kaers. On the understanding that they would be paid back, with interest, once the Scourge was over (in the form of valuable minerals mined during the Scourge), and if the kaer dwellers failed to meet the agreed-upon price, their descendants would become "indentured servants" to House Achura.

This is actually one of the adventures. A kaer is refusing to open up because they don't have the minerals (turns out digging out the floor of your underground bunker is a bad idea when the bunker is protecting you from creatures who know how to dig a hole) and the residents don't want to be dragged away to work for the descendants of the people who loaned their ancestors money (which never actually arrived because it was sent through monster-infested country at the last possible minute). How the fuck is this even enforceable? Obviously, Travar's courts are massively corrupt, but even so, this is only a hair's more legitimate than just sending in a mercenary army and enslaving random strangers.

This is something that could work as a post-apocalyptic story -"oh, right before the bombs dropped in WW3, the President of the United States sold Colorado to Citibank, and even though none of the financial systems from that period survived to the present day, one of the novitiate scribes found a copy of the deed in a pile of dusty old documents and long story short you owe them a million dollars, which we're choosing to interpret as 1000 ounces of gold (because, obviously, the dollar no longer exists), so enjoy working without pay for the next 40 years, let's hope you get it all paid off before you die so your kids don't inherit the debt."

It's a weird post-apocalyptic story, but its weirdness could make it fun. I'm a little hung up on the way it dovetails with the Thera plot ("our ancestors gave your ancestors the technology to survive the apocalypse, so we get to rule you now"). Thera is openly imperial and comes to take slaves, and they are met by the united armies of Barsaive. Travar is capitalist neo-imperial and comes with antediluvian contracts to enforce debt peonage, but the book has you playing as the enforcers of House Achura. If you were aware of the hypocrisy, you could wring a lot of good social commentary out of the parallelism, but this book does not seem to have that awareness. 

The "climax" section of the "Legal Documents" adventure says "There is no clear answer," but that's not true. The answer is very clear - the contract is void. Everyone who was party to the contract has been dead for hundreds of years, and no reasonable legal system would enforce penalties after all that time. Sorry, House Achura, but your ancestors made a bad investment, write it off as a loss, just like you did for the full century where the kaer remained undiscovered. Trying to extract payment from these people is basically indistinguishable from banditry. 

And I guess the counterargument would be that if it is intrinsically illegitimate to sign a contract on behalf of your great, great x 20 grandchildren, then why would House Achura have even loaned the money in the first place? Wouldn't they have preferred to keep it in a hole for hundreds of years until it had value in the post-apocalyptic world?

And my counter to that counter would be - yeah, capitalism on the cusp of the apocalypse sure is bizarre and reckless, someone should make a game about that.

Anyway, Travar: The Merchant City really could have used a bit more of the weight of ages, but if you grant it a mulligan on that flaw, it's a decent fantasy city, with colorful characters, unique traditions, and a healthy dose of both political intrigue and magical mysteries. Also, they choose their leaders with a tournament. It makes a little bit more sense than AD&D's Ierendi, because it's the merchant who finances and sponsors the winning team that becomes Magistrate (and thus most likely the winner has at least some organizational competence), but it's still really quaint. You can put your characters through a really cute adventure where they play fantasy sports (rules included) to get their employer a job.

Ukss Contribution: According to this book, prominent merchants will hire people to walk out in front of their entourages in order to push random pedestrians out of the way. It's probably less effective than just waiting in traffic, because the merchant has to toss a few coins to whoever they knock down, but apparently there's a lot of status involved in traveling like a complete dick. It's a very decadent custom, and I always appreciate fun new ways to slander the wealthy.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Trinity Continuum: Prometheus Unbound

 It's strange, sometimes, being an old fan. Prometheus Unbound is a perfectly serviceable book. It contains good, useful information to help with running games set around any of the eight psi orders, plus a free-form psionics system that may actually work, and new technological devices that help flesh out the sci-fi future of 2123. Yet I can't help but compare it to the first edition order books. 

I shouldn't. Those old books were strange and problematic. I dropped a lot of words ranting about the disturbing implications of the Huang-Marr plot, or the creepiness of the orders' plans to enslave the teleporters. Second edition is probably better for losing them. However, it really does feel like something is missing. I'm not sure someone coming in fresh would agree, and they almost certainly would not fill whatever gaps they felt with a conflict between the Port-au-Prince and Montressor branches of the Aesculapian Order that would sometimes border on overt racism, but like I said, I'm old now, and things being different is starting to feel like a personal attack on my youth.

Which is definitely a me problem. The closest it gets to being a book problem is with the Upeo Wa Macho chapter. It spends a lot of its time detailing the friction between those teleporters loyal to Bolade Atwan and those who resent their time in exile, implying that the order is on the verge of a major schism, but it kind of forgets to establish a reasonable motive for fleeing in the first place.

I suppose you could walk to meet them halfway. The psi orders, manipulated by the Doyen, engaged in a brutal purge of the quantakinetic order, for the crime of experimenting with aberrant DNA, and so when the Upeo found a colony of friendly novas and kept it secret, that may be a similar crime, meriting similar punishment. However, second edition has been establishing a friendlier, more humanist vibe to its protagonists, making a purge of the Upeo seem like less of a foregone conclusion. Thus Atwan was reacting to a worst case scenario that had not yet manifested. It seems much more cowardly than first edition, where they were fleeing an active attack.

It's probably better that way. Instead of having six sinister psi orders, we now have one that was just a bit too flighty, but the Upeo were my favorite order in first edition, and I kind of wish we got a bit more sympathetic a take here.

My favorite part of the book was the Chitra Bhanu chapter, probably because it is an organization that did not get significant coverage in first edition, and therefor doesn't impinge on my nostalgia for the old lore. I especially like the introduction of SK Bhurano as the Aeonverse's third overpowered immortal NPC. I know it's a controversial character type, but I enjoy the symmetry. Three sources of superhuman abilities, three canon mentors to sponsor young groups of adventurers.

It helps that she's used effectively here, with her trauma at being possessed by an alien telepath and forced to watch as her former friends slaughtered her students is made the driving motive behind her organizational choices with the reborn Chitra Bhanu order. The cell structure isn't just a security measure, it's a repudiation of the Doyen's philosophy of top-down control. 

I do wonder if we'll ever see the psi orders face a reckoning for their actions surrounding the purge. Seeing it from the perspective of the survivors makes it a lot less abstract than it has been in ages past. It's always seemed like a bit of a spat, with the heroic psions "cleaning up" after their naughty coworkers. And even when the presentation leaned away from pretending it was a bloodless affair, it never quite rose to the level of reminding us that the quantakinetics were real people with real relationships . . . until now.

The book seems to be setting up a human vs doyen conflict, but it was human beings who actually carried it out, and with only a few exceptions, they don't appear to be suffering any great deal of dissonance about these events. It's like, "yes, I took a paramilitary force to summarily execute a bunch of my colleagues based on preliminary evidence of vague misdeeds, but that feels exactly like something I would do, so there's no need to go looking for sinister outside influences." Maybe the doyen were micromanaging the events of that day, controlling or deceiving every single individual in the area, but as far as the perpetrators are concerned, they voluntarily committed an atrocity, and at some point they're going to have to confront that.

Also, it's unclear how human beings are supposed to fight the Doyen anyway. Each one is a potent psychic and collectively, they can (and will) destroy entire planets. You can get an interesting campaign out of playing an intricate game of cat and mouse, where you try to probe the aliens' weaknesses while remaining too insignificant to pose a threat, but it's unclear that the mouse actually has any real way of turning the tables on the cat. I'd have liked to see the dilemma addressed more specifically, because "you have definitively established that this foe is far out of your league" seems like a bummer of a way to end a story.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It's more of a workhorse than some of the other Trinity Continuum: Aeon offerings, and it's mostly useful as a means of rounding out other, more dramatic plots with a bunch of order-specific locations and characters, but the Trinity Continuum continues to be one my favorite settings, so more is always appreciated.

Ukss Contribution: Owl Necrostimulant. It's a drug that you inject into a corpse, thereby making it a valid target for telepathy. Aeon's sci-fi has often relied on soft-SF implementation of hard-SF ideas and this is a great example of that tendency done right. You've got the space fantasy trope of psychic powers, but it's engaging with a transhumanist idea of death as a cessation of a material process. So, naturally, you can add something material to that dead body to allow it to link up with your perfectly scientific telepathic abilities. It's creepy, it's weird, and it perfectly captures the best of the Trinity Continuum's voice.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

(Earthdawn 4e)Elven Nations

 So, Elven Nations took me 11 days to read. Now, about 75 percent of this delay can be blamed on Warframe. I recently got sucked back into it, and O . . . M . . . G, so much grind. And I mean that as a good thing (believe it or not, but I, the man who is systematically reading a giant list of books, meticulously assembled over the span of decades, am fairly susceptible to grind-based gameplay loops).

However, despite spending close to 90 (! - I shouldn't have looked it up!) hours in the past two weeks playing a video game, I do think a full 25% of the blame for me dragging my feet can be attributed to the fact that the first half of this book is more or less a reprint of 1st edition's Blood Wood. I went back and checked. The organization is different. Some sections got trimmed down while others were expanded. But substantial portions of the text were identical.

I don't really have a problem with this, in the abstract. What am I going to do, yell at the youngsters, "hey, if you want to know about the Blood Wood in your fancy, modern edition of Earthdawn, you should do what I did and find a copy of a book that's been out of print for 25 years." No, a new era requires a new supplement, fair enough. And if 4th edition has been so conservative with the existing lore that the old sourcebook can be used with few changes, then that's no great fault either.

However, it did make the question of whether I wanted to work on the blog or play more Warframe a bit more fraught than it otherwise might have been. Seriously, nine of the past eleven days were spent "reading" the first half of this book and then I read the second half in two days (while still playing an admittedly unhealthy amount of Warframe). Is it really too much to ask that every rpg supplement be written to satisfy my jaded craving for endless amounts of novelty? Apparently.

Okay, okay, enough about me. What about the book? I do think that the Blood Wood section benefits from being shorter. I didn't do a page-by-page comparison or anything, but it feels like less of a fortress now. Still isolationist. Still dangerous. But I suspect that a lot of the cut material was the stuff that made it feel impenetrable to outsiders. Plus, the adventurer-friendly section about the Heart of the Forest (the group who wants to cure the Blood Wood of its whole . . . situation) had been expanded. It's overall a better introduction to the area than the 1st edition supplement.

And then we get the expanded lore. Two new locations that were merely mentioned in the old books - the Western Kingdoms and Shoshara. They are well-drawn locations, with some great personalities, intriguing occult mysteries, and a fascinating political dynamic where they try to navigate the fallout from the growing schism in the elvish religion. However, they also suffer from the downside of Earthdawn's humanistic worldbuilding - the new societies feel a lot like humans. I mean, they're bickering about a culturally and religiously significant tree and forming factions based both on theology and on economic and political considerations, where it's hard to say which priority undermines the other, and it's all very mature and thoughtful, but also nothing that you couldn't do with a nature-based religion in an all-human setting.

Which brings us to the sticky question of . . .elves? Why are they? This is actually something Earthdawn has struggled with. It inherits from Shadowrun the idea that dwarfs and elves and trolls, et al, are simply humans who have transformed into fantasy creatures due to a high background magic level, and as a result its go-to move has been to give their demihumans the full range of human motivations and foibles. It's resulted in some electric worldbuilding, but, well, Earthdawn is not Shadowrun, and lacunae that are playful or mysterious in a futuristic cyberpunk setting can feel like simple gaps in a traditional fantasy world.

Like, in the year 2065, it's not surprising when a dwarf doesn't act like a Dwarf. In fact, you'd probably get punched in the mouth for even mentioning it. That's because they're humans who have been transformed. That's the history of their people. Likewise, when the elves start acting like Elves, that's weird. There's probably a mystery there. Where are they getting all this from? Who said Elves were a thing?

However, in 8000 BCE, these are not questions that are going to come up. Nobody even remembers the time when the metahumans were just humans. There is such a thing as "Elf culture" and people take for granted that this makes sense. But in Earthdawn, the words "elf" and "dwarf" are doing a lot of heavy lifting. The books never actually establish that it means something to be an elf or a dwarf (even 1e's Denizens of Earthdawn really just described things in terms of Throalic or Wyrm Wood cultures, rather than some truly non-human mentality), but instead rely on 20 years of vanilla fantasy baggage to set people's expectations. Dwarves live underground and elves live in the woods, and there's no need to question it.

Except, Elven Nations describes a new society of seafaring elves and now the questions we didn't ask start to come back to bite us in the ass. What is it about seafaring that alienates the Shosharans from the community of elvishness? What is it about being an elf that sets Shoshara apart from the nearby human seafarers of Khistova?

The book struggles to find an answer and to the extent that there is one at all, it seems to be "racism." As in, the thing that ties elves together is that they are racist against non-elves. The reason Shoshara was Separated by decree of the Queen in Wyrm Wood is because they weren't quite racist enough. They actually learned something (the art of building seaworthy ships) from non-elves, and it is completely unacceptable to even admit that non-elves might have something to teach.

It might work if you cast that as flaw of the Wyrm Wood culture. Some elf once found a magic tree and built a whole society around it and authentic elvish living came to mean "rigorous imitation of the lifestyle of those closest to the tree." But . . . is Barsaive meant to be the center of the universe? Wyrm Wood culture should start at the Oak Heart and then spread out from there, which means that it must have been constantly coming into contact with elves who were not part of it, outsiders who had their own ways and who had to be converted to the Elf Queen's service. And if we're talking about outsiders changing their ways, then there's no intrinsic reason why only elves can follow the ways of the Wood, so the fact that Wyrm Wood was the spiritual heart of the elvish people is actually a deliberate artifact. They recruited only elves in order to build an Elvish Identity and that's why racism is so baked into everything they do.

I'm pretty sure this was unintentional, though. You don't just put something so fucked up into your setting and then treat it as another background element. If "the purity of the elvish culture" were meant to be a dogwhistle, then we'd probably see more dogs. There is an element of this in Shoshara, where non-elves are starting to agitate for greater political rights, and that kind of looks like the book playing to a theme, but then you're forced to consider that the Western Kingdoms and Blood Wood "avoid" this issue by refusing to allow non-elves to even live inside their territory, and Shoshara starts to look unironically progressive even as it has a race-based political hierarchy.

What I think is going on is an accidental equivocation between "racist" and "fae." Elves are associated by a feeling of apartness, and that winds up defining them even in settings where that doesn't make a lot of sense. That's because the mythological antecedents of the elves, the Fair Folk and the Alfar, were these divine beings who only intermittently dealt with our world. Even Tolkien's elves are immortals who are only temporarily (by their own long-lived standards) visiting the mortal world and who, as of the events of The Lord of the Rings are starting to retreat back to their mystical homeland. So, for a mythic elf, apartness isn't a choice. Their home, their natural state of existence, is in a world where humans can't go, and thus for them to actually connect with a human, or admire the things of the human world, is to set up a tragedy. It is a kindness for them to act aloof, or, at least, it's understandable, because it represents an attempt to safely navigate an inherently dangerous relationship.

But if elves aren't otherworldly immortals, but rather just regular people with pointy ears, then the protective aloofness just makes them look like total jerks. The Blood Wood is an interesting twist, because it is sort of fae. It started out as an ordinary place inhabited by ordinary people, but through blood magic, it became otherworldly, and the people adapted to that would have trouble existing anywhere else. You've got this imagery of a rose with its thorns, beauty undergirded by danger, a whole society that is goth by birth and not by choice, and it makes sense for these people to be aloof. They may not be divine spirits in human form, but they have their own experiences that could justifiably be described as "inhuman." Their world is not ours (this is probably why the Blood Wood was so impenetrable in 1st edition, too).

Yet, Earthdawn's elves didn't start out that way. The elves of the Western Kingdoms act like they did. And the Shosharans are half-heartedly recovering from that viewpoint. But it was never earned, just like it was unearned when the Wyrm Wood started the tradition. And I'm not entirely sure what to do with that.

Ultimately, I guess I'd want to see one of two things happen - either elves become a lot stranger, enough to justify an entirely different mode of existence (perhaps, by finally putting the mystery of the "Great Elves" to bed and just making the entire species potentially immortal), or by showing us a second autochthonous elf culture, one with no ties to Barsavie or Wyrm Wood, which could then show us what elves might look like when they are being normal. Yes, the three Barsaive-centered elf cultures all revolve around different reactions to the collapse of their old religion of acting exactly like the Queen of Wyrm Wood and avoiding "cultural contamination" from all those filthy non-elves, but that's a specific dysfunction of a particular cultural tradition, and not something that is intrinsic to being an elf.

My final verdict of the book is thus - it gives us some neat locations and cultures, with enough details to significantly aid the GM's prep work, but it needs to be more precise with the use of its tropes. I especially found the beastmen attacking Shoshara's prospecting camps to be borderline Not Okay.  "Savage attacks" by creatures with "almost-Namegiver-level intelligence," seriously? If they can build a ship (and they can), they can have a culture. And if they have a culture, they have motives worth knowing. I get why it's there, but like "elves are otherworldly" being used despite the fact that Earthdawn elves are mutated humans, this "the borderlands of our fantasy realm are under assault by creatures who have no ability to negotiate" is something that was inherited and then not subject to enough scrutiny.

Overall, a decent enough book, but it could benefit from a new round of development.

Ukss Contribution: The Amethyst Spire. I just think it sounds pretty.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

(Dragonstar) Starfarer's Handbook

 Dragonstar is not weird enough to be this weird.

I know, I know, I'm rambling, but I just finished the Starfarer's Handbook, and I'm struck with a dilemma - is this setting actually good? I could definitely roast it. Its take one the alignment system is absolutely bizarre. The laws of the Dragon Empire operate on "The Principle of Active Morality" (and yes, it deserves the capitals, because it is literally the name of a literal legal doctrine), which states that you can't discriminate based on alignment, only on what people do.

Because core book alignment detecting spells are canon in this setting. And they're accurate. And paladins work for the government. And the alignment spells are "used all the time" (an in-character quote, from an ostensibly "good" character who urges we follow the example of tolerance he sets with his practiced indifference to the fact that he serves in a military unit with evil soldiers, under the command of an evil emperor who "piously" worships the Destroyer). But despite all this, you aren't actually allowed to discriminate against people who self-identify as "evil."

It's all part of the truce that established the Dragon Empire. The evil dragons were afraid that they'd be persecuted for "natures given to them by the gods," so they demanded a constitutional right to be evil. This may seem absurd, but the narrator assures us that it is a vital protection for good characters, now that the throne has finally gone to an evil dragon, after 5000 years of being ruled by good dragons.

And the thing that really sets me off about this is that, minus the alignment nonsense, this is a great backstory. Different clans of dragons had a war among the stars, one that threatened to escalate until all life was destroyed, so they came together for a power-sharing arrangement. Each clan would rule for 1000 years, and at the end of that time, they'd pass the empire to the next clan in precedence. It was a system that worked for 5000 years, creating a peaceful, stable galactic civilization that valued diversity and tolerance. But dragons have long memories, and now a day long-dreaded has come. One of the most brutally antagonistic clans, whose leader carved a swath of terror across the galaxy during the war, has finally gotten their turn at the throne. The once benign Dragon Empire has began a policy of rapid and aggressive expansion, while internally crushing dissent. It is a time ripe for heroes . . .

Except the dragons are color-coded, in accordance with D&D lore, so the entire thing has a weirdly deterministic feel to it. As soon as anyone suggested that Red Dragons would get a chance to rule the galaxy, everyone knew it wasn't going to work out. They're evil beings who embrace an evil identity and will wield their power to do evil things, and that's not propaganda from their enemies, that's their campaign promise. "Put me on the throne and I guarantee 1000 years of evil." And the empire's pro-evil constituency cheered.

And yeah, maybe that's preferable to guaranteed total destruction, but it just feels fundamentally different than agreeing to a constitutional order where your ideological enemies will occasionally wield power. Like, you may think that they're corrupt and cruel and authoritarian, and you may even be right, but you at least know that they won't explicitly and unapologetically start worshiping a deity whose primary doctrine calls for the destruction of all life.

But the strangest thing is that this isn't just a concern for good characters. People with an evil alignment would also prefer to be ruled by a good emperor. You think Mezzenbone's relatives are sitting around thinking, "now, at last, one of our own rules the empire. It's only a matter of time before he sees the wisdom of sharing the spoils?" And yes, in real life, people really are that gullible, but in real life they don't have a magic spell that calls upon the primordial forces of creation to unambiguously and truthfully identify people as chaotic evil.

Exploring how a society could possibly function under these constraints may actually make for some compelling speculative fiction (in fact, Blue Rose plays with this idea in some fascinating ways), but that is not what Dragonstar is trying to do. The Principle of Active Morality exists so that characters in the setting can politely pretend that alignment doesn't. Because as bad as alignment is in regular D&D, it is completely unworkable in a setting with mass media and a modern bureaucratic state. However, for some reason, the creators of Dragonstar overlooked the much simpler and more satisfying solution of simply removing alignment from the game.

Oh, right, all of the above was meant as a prelude to me not roasting The Starfarer's Handbook. But it does serve as an example of my main criticism of the book - what Dragonstar is doing is taking the 3rd edition Player's Handbook and putting it in space. . . with only the bare minimum of changes (fighters can choose firearms feats as part of their class bonus, wizards can keep their spellbooks on a portable computer, etc). 

It's very weird, but it's not always weird in the right kind of way. There's a juxtaposition of genres, but not a blending of genres. It's vanilla D&D in space, but with only a few exceptions, the D&D elements are not given space opera tropes and the space elements are not given fantasy tropes. Which is a shame, because those exceptions are real highlights. Take Dune-esque Houses of space aristocrats and make them dragons . . . yeah, that's cool. There's an order of paladins, but they have power armor, exclusive bionic implants, and are known by the unexplained backronym "SOLAR?" Okay, you have my attention.

Unfortunately, that attention is squandered by things like a Barbarian class that is just sort of there. They decided, apparently, that the compelling thing about the class was its implied cultural background, and thus they come from "primitive" worlds and don't understand technology by default and this is in lieu of reimagining them as sci-fi warriors with berserk fury and uncanny physical resilience. Likewise, there is no thought given to the common space fantasy conceit of "melee combat inexplicably in the future." Shields are "obsolete," and there is no light-saber equivalent. 

So is Dragonstar good? I honestly don't know. I'd say that it's on the cusp of goodness. It's got ahold of something good. It is good when it is doing something distinct to itself. But it's half-baked. It doesn't always have the conviction of its premise. It sometimes feels to me like Fantasy Flight Games was rushing to get the first ever d20 firearms and spaceship rules into print. The OGL led to a great flowering of creativity in the rpg scene, and Dragonstar is on the leading edge of that, but it's like they didn't know what to do with the freedom.

Also, it doesn't help that the book falls into some of the design traps that later d20 products learned to avoid. The Technomancer prestige class has multiclass requirements and its own, weak spell progression, which could lead, in theory, to a 14th level character with a Base Attack Bonus of +6 and access to a single 4th level spell (this is probably the strongest Technomancer build too, you could get 7th level spells by waiting until wizard 13 and meeting the 8 Use Device requirement with a cross-class skill, but then you're trading your 8th and 9th level spells for a single 3rd level spell.) Likewise, the Pilot class has nine dead levels, middling BAB and HP, and gains only a few small bonuses to a niche activity. These are not mistakes the designers would have made even two or three years later.

I think, at this time, I am going to refrain from rendering a final verdict. I've still got five more of these books to go, and the way I see it, there's a lot of room for growth. If the setting gets stranger and more specific as it's further developed, if the rules get tighter as the developers gain more experience, if the vestigial D&D elements fall away as it becomes more of its own thing, then Dragonstar could go beyond merely good into actively great . . . or it could stumble and never find its voice. Since this is the only book in the series I've ever actually read, I'll be excited to find out which way it goes.

Ukss Contribution: I don't know how I'll use it, but I liked the fact that imperial soldiers nicknamed the medical robots "reapers." It's something meant to help them, but it doesn't work very well, so they call it something insulting. A very human bit of worldbuilding.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

(Earthdawn 4e) Questors

I don't know about these unreliable narrators. Questors gives us more information than we've ever had about the titular questors and their patron spirits, The Passions, but in classic Earthdawn style, it expands the lore by having the new lore come out of the mouths of people who have reason (either conscious or unconscious), to misrepresent the lore.

I can see the upside of doing it this way - you're basically getting a 2-for-1, telling us about a new thing in your fantasy setting while also building up the surrounding culture by telling us what people think of the new thin in your fantasy setting. How do followers of the Mad Passion Vestrial justify themselves? Not well, as it turns out - "Without terrible crimes, there is no purpose to law."

But it kind of leads to more questions than answers. Vestriel wasn't always a Mad Passion, and the stories from the more benevolent time still exist in Barsaive's collective mythology. So what are they? How much of that old nature still exists inside the Passion? How is it that everyone seems to know that the former Passion of good-natured trickery has now become the Passion of cruel and hateful trickery (you'd think Vestriel's skill at trickery would help keep that under wraps)? What happens if someone who was raised in isolated kaer was inspired by the pre-Scourge stories and decides to become a questor of the good version of Vestriel? After reading this book, I'm as in the dark as I ever was.

Of course, the obvious rebuttal is that questions are a good thing to have, because each question is a potential adventure. And I guess I have to concede that that's 100% correct, but I'm still going to sigh heavily because it's unlikely that I'll get to play those adventures, and thus my questions must remain forever unanswered.

Some of them are kind of interesting, though. Like, it's obvious that the questor of Dis (Passion of Bureaucracy and Slavery) is making a fatuous argument when he says that Dis likes slavery because she wants to encourage a mental and spiritual numbness that will make most people invisible to the Horrors, but also . . . What was the trauma of the Scourge? So much of what we see from this period is about the Horrors corrupting people as an attack, but what about when people corrupt themselves as a defense?

We do already have the Blood Wood for that particular question, but there is a lot of room in the setting for different variations of apocalyptic trauma. I feel like a more objective viewpoint could have explored the subject in greater depth.

At times it seemed to me like the book was trying to create the impression of depth by flipping the script on most of the Passions. Thystonius isn't just the Passion of War, he represent all struggle. Why, sometimes just getting out bed is a struggle, and when it is, Thystonius is by your side (encouraging both you and your mortal enemy to never back down from a fight). 

When this worked, it worked pretty well. When it didn't, we got the Lochost chapter. I guess the theme was "excesses of the revolution," and yeah . . . You shouldn't torture people, even if they're slave traders, so what point, exactly, is the book trying to make when it tells us that a fanatic who tortures people has gained the favor of the Passion of liberation? Oh, that abolitionist god whose followers have hitherto been shown as heroically risking their lives to oppose the slave-taking Theran empire . . . what if he had a dark side?

It's all very 1990s interesting, and I can see how you're trying to shine more light on the inhuman nature of these entities (an approach that worked well when it was revealed that the Passion of joy literally cannot understand the existence of sadness), but I guess recent years have shaken me, because this is a story I have little interest in trying to tell.

Overall, though, this is a good lore book. I'm not sure I agree with the Game Information chapter when it says "Passion worship is not really a religion," because aside from there being "no sacred texts" literally every other aspect of this activity is described in religious terms. "I'm going to stop for the night in this roadside shrine and ask for a blessing while the guy who performs miracles for the faithful tells me a traditional story with a moral lesson, but no, I don't have a religion." Maybe it's just unconscious Christian bias. A cluster of deeply ingrained cultural practices that revolve around superhuman entities that take a personal interest in the human condition isn't a religion because nobody compiled those practices into a book.

Eh, that sounded saltier than I intended. I think there's definitely room to explore the difference between secular culture and religion, in a world where the gods verifiably exist and are not always conveniently well-behaved . . . or at least there would be if so much of the book wasn't given over to unreliable narrators.

Ukss Contribution: Not all of this book was deliberately perverse. There's at least one part of the book that is incredibly on the nose. Take the story of the Keeper of the First Seed. I am going to do a 100% not sarcastic paraphrase.

Jaspree, the passion of nature had this valuable thing called the First Seed, that had something to do with protecting nature. He wanted someone to watch over it, so he looked around for a guy who was already protecting nature and asked him, "do you want to watch this thing for me, it protects nature?" And the guy was like, "yes." And so Jaspree gave him the thing and it worked out perfectly. That is the story of the first ever questor.

I had to reread the story to make sure there wasn't some hidden irony or riddle or spiritual lesson, and nope, it was just an incredibly amicable job interview. The reason it's in this section is the follow-up, when the guy was ready to die. He handed off his First-Seed-watching duties to an absolute novice, on the theory that the inexperienced questor was like a seed, and would grow into the role, given time.

I like that. I don't feel like the allegory was entirely earned by the story leading up to that point, but it's an interesting religious practice. Give an extremely important and prestigious lifetime appointment to a complete newbie as an act of faith. No reasonable person could possibly think that's a good idea, but with the god's blessing, it's always worked out so far.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Trinity Continuum: Four Tasty Bits

 Just going to get this out of the way real quick - I went into this skeptical about Onyx Path's "Tasty Bits" format and after reading four them, I remain unconvinced. It's largely an irrational feeling, because I enjoyed everything I read, and if I'd spent 25 dollars on the print version of a 100 page tasty bits compilation, I'd likely think it money well-spent, but I feel what I feel. I don't care for PDFs and I don't care for micro-supplements, and as good as this stuff was (and it's top-tier work, highly recommended if you don't have my hang-ups), I'm just too set in my ways.

I feel like an ungrateful oaf for saying that, because I was very generously given these documents for free, so let me shamelessly shill for a moment - these tasty bits expand the Trinity Continuum, two for the core setting, one for Aberrant, and one for Aeon, and if you haven't experienced it yet, you should correct that immediately. They are smart, genre-savvy games with a fun, flexible system, satisfying power trees, and a beautiful presentation, and these tasty bits are right in line with that.

Now, let's break them down one by one.

Amalgamated Idea Dynamics

This might be the weakest of the four, but only because it's trying to do too much. It's a sci-fi corporation that sponsors a diverse team of superheroes and explores dimension-hopping technology. But sixteen pages is too few to really develop any of these threads, especially when eight of the pages are character sheets. Like, Dr Yuki Yanagi is a super-scientist who wants to be the first person to ever make contact with an alternate universe, but also she's statted like a a starting character and thus that's something of a long-range goal. There's not much sense of what she's going to need to get there, so mostly what she does is day-to-day benevolent comic book corporation activities - disaster relief, crime fighting, and inventing stuff. You can use her as a rival or a patron, but the main thing she brings to the table is the notion that interdimensional travel is possible. You've got to build pretty much an entire campaign from there.

The best use for this material that comes to mind is to steal liberally from the "Capers Incorporated" chapter of In Media Res. The novas included here would make an appealing set of preconstructs for a higher-powered version of that adventure, one that focused more on the interdimensional conflict than the stolen technology. Between the two, I sense the potential of an entire dimension-hopping supplement (or even full game-line . . . "Apostasis," maybe), but so far, all we've got is a start.

Ukss Contribution: It's a pretty charismatic crew, all told. I especially liked that Ginni "Firelight" Castigliano, a glowing green woman with pyrokinetic powers, got a hefty payday by acting as the spokesperson for the gas company. I'm not sure what that advertising campaign even is, but I'm picturing something charmingly cheesy.

Pets

This reminds me a lot of some of those 1st edition microsupplements, like Field Report: Psi Laws or Field Report: Media. It's more or less pure setting flavor. It technically adds a new mechanic (you know, owning a pet), but mostly it's just describing a little-considered aspect of 22nd culture. In addition to cats and dogs, you could own a robot or a psionic biotech monstrosity. It's all very interesting, even if it doesn't immediately suggest an adventure . . .

Actually, I can think of two. Both, ironically, were suggested by some of the supplement's incomplete thought. The first was inspired by the discussion of terrestrial pets on alien worlds: "Natural-born and gengineered animals from Earth are often restricted, or at least highly regulated, as they’re most easily prey to the alien conditions and organisms." It occurs to me is that this is a door that swings both ways. There are undoubtedly a huge number of Earth animals that would wreak absolute havoc on an alien ecosystem, some of which humans keep as pets.

So, idea the first is set on the human embassy Qinshu. Little Billy, the diplomat's son, has lost his pregnant cat, who has gotten loose into the planet's wilderness and is now threatening to cause an interstellar diplomatic incident by preying on any number of small biotech organisms.

My second idea comes from the revelation that alien pets are forbidden "for biosecurity reasons." Not discussed is the fact that wherever there's a restriction, there are criminals who seek to make a profit violating that restriction. There's definitely some adventure potential in the interstellar trade of exotic animals, both as criminal smugglers and as the Aeon task force assembled to stop them.

Maybe I'll make it a trilogy with my illegal Lunar garbage dumping adventure. That makes me laugh, getting the players hyped up to play futuristic superheroes and then sending them on a series of increasingly niche environmentalist missions.

Ukss Contribution: Biotech pets can be engineered with psionic powers. The desirability of such a thing in real life is debatable ("my cat can now knock things off the mantle from across the room"), but it is an amusing image.

Polyphemus

This was probably my favorite of the four. It's a high concept pitch that fills in some gaps in the Continuum's timeline. Thanks to the game's special brand of  sci-fi nonsense, people can gain powers, becoming psychics, novas, and talents, but also sometimes animals and plants or entire places can become similarly "inspired." The same process can even effect inanimate objects, giving them strange and unusual powers.

What do you do about these potentially dangerous sources of moveable supernatural power? Maybe start a secret conspiracy to gather, catalogue, and study such items eventually storing them in a mysterious underground facility known only as "The Vault." Yes, it sounds a lot like Control or Warehouse 13, but the Inspiration Media sidebar has a simple explanation for that - it's an rpg supplement that's meant to evoke Control and Warehouse 13.

For only being 8 pages, it manages to cram in a lot of good campaign preparation, discussing Polyphemus' organization and major personnel, hinting at The Vault's occult secrets, and providing a thin justification for the building's 1960s decour. In a better world, this would be a whole book all on its own, but even so, it was pure fun from beginning to end.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked the flux-infused weapons and armor. Weapons and Armor in the Trinity Continuum are defined by tags, which give the items particular combat options. When a weapon is Flux infused, you pick a bunch of tags (up to 6 for a 3-point weapon) and and occasionally (once per session) swap them out based on your anticipated needs (using between 1 and 3 at a time, depending on the item's point value). Having a gradually shapeshifting weapon sounds pretty neat.

Les Fantômes

I had no worries about this one, and I was right to feel that way, because it was delightful. Les Fantômes were my favorite part of the Trinity Continuum Core and while Polyphemus may have recently supplanted them in my affections, they're still pretty great. What's not to love about a gang of high class burglars who exclusively target the ultra rich? There are any number of movies based on this exact premise, and they're almost always fun.

I will say that they are presented here as more altruistic than I had them pegged for in the core. They deliberately target corrupt rich people for vigilante justice, instead of simply ratting out people they were going to rob anyways. It probably works better for a protagonist organization, but I think I prefer them to be a little more roguish. Thieves with a code instead of vigilantes who steal, if that makes sense. However, you're still pulling elaborate heists, living the high life, and being in all ways impeccable, so it's kind of a narrow distinction.

This supplement also has the distinction of being the most useful, mechanically. The Dramatic Editing mechanic was built for heist reveals, and we get some discussion on how to make it work, along with a whole bunch of new stunts to represent the twists and turns of the genre. Its also general enough to be useful in most any Talent-based game, so I can thank it for expanding my understanding of what the game can do.

Ukss Contribution: There's a new Gift (Talent power) that lets you vanish like Batman. It's more of a mechanic than a setting thing, but since I already put the entire organization into Ukss, I'll just try and find a way of making it work.