Monday, September 18, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Transhuman

This one took me a long time, not out of any particular quality of the book but because I wound up getting really into playing Starfield . . . approximately 100 hours since it first came out, less than two weeks ago. I'd bring the book with me to work, fully intending to read it, but then only getting through a page or two before I remembered that my laptop was right there, and that the solitude of my night job meant there was little stopping me from playing a video game at work. Who knows how long this pattern might have continued, had I not, this very night, forgotten to pack my laptop power supply. The need to preserve precious battery power was precisely the motivation I needed to only play video games after I've done my previously scheduled reading.

Transhuman was probably the ideal book to read in this series of disconnected bursts (approximately 100 pages on September 4-5, 100 pages on September 17, and the remaining 20 pages spread out over the two weeks in between). It's a grab bag of unrelated topics, ranging from alternate rules for character creation, to tips on roleplaying an artificial intelligence to rules for using a nano-fabricator. Parts of it were extremely dry (the eleven pages devoted to all the fiddly, specific things a flexbot can do very nearly put me to sleep), but there's also a lot of interesting setting going on.

It's at this point that I kind of regret copping out with my post for the Eclipse Phase core. I was in some kind of mood when I wrote it because "I don't want to go into a 2000 word digression discussing the Ship of Theseus" is exactly the opposite of my usual deal. I'm not going to make the same mistake this time. While Transhuman is kind of a microcosm of the core book's . . . a-lot-ness, its wide-ranging interests do provide plenty of material to address some of the game's broader themes.

Let me just spin the Wheel of Criticism and see what it lands on . . . Oh, hey, would you look at that: Transhumanism and the Objectification of Nature! What are the odds? (Approximately 100%, because I am transparently doing a bit).

One of the big things this book talks about is "uplift morphs," animals like octopuses, ravens, pigs, whales, etc that have been subjected to a combination of genetic, cybernetic, and surgical modification to become "self-aware," with human-level intelligence. I believe they're discussed in more detail in another book, but this one does go through the broader strokes appropriate to a player's guide giving them unique new character traits and background packages, discussing the roleplaying challenges of depicting a non-human intelligence, talking briefly about their role in society and the difficulties that would come from trying to make their own authentic culture.

Not discussed: where did the human beings of the Eclipse Phase setting get the absolute, fucking gall to do this in the first place? At the risk of outing myself as dangerously vegan, these animals were fine just the way they were. But there's more at work here than just the ethics. One could argue that there's no real harm in creating a chimera, that a new mind is only itself, and thus creating an uplift isn't something you do to an animal, it's just making a new person using science. This would necessitate ignoring the suffering and death that took place in the intermediate steps, but as of the game's start date, this is an established technology and maybe there's no significant difference between creating a new neo-octopus and having a new human baby. Plus, most of the people most directly responsible have been brutally killed by rampaging machines, so there's a certain element of cosmic justice at work here.

However, that doesn't answer the question of why you'd make one in the first place, nor the question of why you would continue to make them even though the scarcity of living space for biological creatures is one of the major setting conflicts. This isn't a plot hole - I'm certain the characters in the setting have their own motivations - but it's hard to imagine an answer to these questions that does not fill that potential plot hole in the grimmest fashion imaginable.

The only real explanation I can see is the humans of Eclipse Phase have a rampaging sense of self-regard. You make an uplift to see if you can, to imprint the shape of the human mind on as much of the world as possible, a kind of super-science graffiti with no message more exalted than "I was here."

There's something that repeatedly pops up throughout the book, so casually and so frequently that I'm not sure it's a deliberate theme so much as an unexamined philosophical assumption - that intelligence, consciousness, and self-awareness (assumed to be largely, but not exclusively identifiable with the human experience of these things) are unmitigated goods. It is better to be smarter, better to be aware of the self, better to be a self-directed agent. The hypercorporations have to program in limiters to stop their functional AI systems from developing consciousness, and the conscious AI community (called AGIs, for "artificial general intelligence") object that this is a violation of the AI's rights. Because, of course, being an expert program that manages a habitat's life support is much worse than being a robot with a habitat body who just so happens to have a bunch of humans crawling around inside it.

So it's never really questioned (except as a fringe position amongst politically radical uplifts) that taking an animal and making it into a person is an action that rebounds to the animal's benefit. You take a pig and make them into a neo-pig, and that neo-pig has no cause to be anything other than grateful for the gift of life. . .

Incidentally, here's the character quote from the bottom of the neo-pig sample character's page: "The bacon I'm eating? No, it's not weird at all. It's human bacon. Eat up, long pig."

Which gets us right to my original point - there's a pervasive sense throughout the game that human beings can do whatever they want with nature. You can see it in both parts of the chosen quote - humans could take a pig and turn her into a talking neo-pig, but then they can also take the meat of a human being and turn it into human bacon. Because the pig is just a medium on which technology can operate and the human body, absent a controlling mind, is exactly the same. Because the neo-pig is as smart as a human, it gains the same prerogative over flesh. The human bacon isn't weird at all.

Of course, it's this primacy of the mind over the base matter of the physical universe that puts the "trans" in "transhuman," but it makes me wonder about the setting's big threats - the TITANS that went rogue and killed 95% of the human species, the Extraterrestrial Intelligence that left behind the computer virus that caused them to do it. Is their unaccountable free hand with human bodies and minds really all that different, ideologically, than what human beings are doing to the uplifts?

I would like to believe that this is intentionally thematic, that it is part and parcel with the inner system's reliance on indentured (read: slave) labor, that it is saying something fundamental about the nature of power through the genre medium of post-cyber cyberpunk.

What gives me pause is that the groups in question, the post-singularity TITAN AIs and the hypercapitalists of the Planetary Consortium are portrayed pretty consistently as villains, but it is the heroic anarchists of the automatist alliance that are most likely to treat a human body like a disposable object.

It is, of course, a core conceit of the genre - the mind is software that runs equally well on a computer or a brain, and so the hardware is not important - but one of the effects of this book's condensed grab-bag format is that there is a clearer juxtaposition between indentured servitude/debt peonage and something like two far-flung anarchists sharing each other's bodies in an Airbnb-style swap arrangement.

There is a glib hair-splitting going on to distinguish indentured labor from slavery. The IndEX market is not a high finance exchange where you can buy and sell people, it is a "centralized exchange market for indenture contracts" (emphasis added). Yet the thing those disembodied minds are willing to go into debt to buy is a physical body. The body represents freedom, independence and the ability to control the circumstances of your own life. Therefor, to have a body is, in essence, to live. Which raises the uncomfortable question of whether the anarchists are being any less fatuous when they claim to abandon the coercion of the state, but still have procedures in place to ration the scarce available bodies at their disposal. This is a world where, regardless of your political affiliation, it is possible to be alienated from the ownership of your own physical body.

In other words, it's an ideological ground that is fertile for the expansion of slavery. The thing that's supposed to make it better is that a person is not their body in this world. They are only their mind.

Except, "the commodification of indenture contracts led to increased interest and soon there were also speculative markets where investors could buy egos from cold storage and pro-actively farm them out for profit as individuals."

Granted, this is villain behavior, but it is also a case of buying and selling minds, as well as bodies (though I suppose, technically, they're only buying the digital storage devices where those minds are backed-up). We know, via narration, that this is something the anarchists decry, but what I don't understand is why this is not what the game is fundamentally about.

The anarchists will do what they can to help the infugees (infomorph refugees, i.e. mind-state back-ups of humans killed by the TITANs), but it is also clear that "what they can" is "not enough," and rather than treat this shortcoming as a major problem that's allowing a historic injustice to continue unchecked, the game just sort of shrugs and goes "life goes on." Realistic, perhaps, but not in a way that speaks to any great artistic ambition.

Instead, the main designated protagonist faction is Firewall, and what they do is hunt down "X-risks" (events or technology that threaten humanity's continued survival). They're cool enough, in that blandly apolitical superhero way where they're a safe group to be front and center because no one could possibly object to hunting down the bizarre creations of murderous, super-intelligent robots, but also they're vigilante spies because apparently, in-setting, some people do.

However, what they mainly do is serve to establish the thesis that an unassailable capitalist infrastructure that ruthlessly commodifies human life is not enough of a threat to anchor a story by itself. That's a bad look for a work that wears its leftist politics on its sleeve. It's like if the 2011 Justin Timberlake vehicle, In Time, had been primarily about fighting Terminators (in this hypothetical film, Skynet mysteriously disappeared 10 years ago and the hilariously on-the-nose metaphor of time as money is just a background element of the post-apocalyptic society that rose from the ashes).

Now I'm dangerously close to just being one of those smug assholes who spring a gotcha ("ha, you silly leftists, you fell right into the trap of Capitalist Realism"), but I couldn't help but notice that this setting has at least three character types described, in the objective narration, as being basically people (uplifts, AGIs, and high-quality forks) and also subject to laws that treat them as property. And even to the extent that a person's mind is the only thing they truly own, securing run-time on a system that will allow you to actually experience the world requires a monthly subscription. And the very thing that enables these horrors is the transhuman technology that the books is otherwise so gung-ho about. That paradox is the nucleus of a hundred punk stories vastly more interesting than "robots are evil."

But, of course, this is an rpg, so making those stories is not just allowed, but encouraged. I just wish the books themselves gave them more support.

Anyway, that's approximately one of the eight posts I should have made shortly after reading the core book. I never even got into the equally viable alternate interpretation of transhumanism as a metaphor for queerness - if a body is just a material object, then there's nothing at all remarkable about customizing it to your exact preferences - and I may have left the false impression that my concerns about transhumanism as a way of objectifying nature meant that I was opposed to the idea in principle (it's really a much more nuanced position of "of course the body must yield to the desires of the mind, but to view the two as separable runs the risk of turning morphological freedom into yet another avenue of capitalist consumption, also don't eat pork.") But that's what comes from reading a set of rpg books that are clearly based entirely on philosophical thought experiments. It's a sign of well-constructed sci-fi that these sorts of conversations don't feel at all off-topic. You'll just have to forgive me for not being purely specific to Transhuman on its own.

Ukss Contribution: There's a section of the book that is presented as in-setting document where a corporation tries to explain the use of Muse technology to children - "your muse is a pet that you can teach to do tricks, but it can also teach you and any questions you might have about the world around you when your parents are not around." This is one of those things where I can't be entirely sure that the book knows how creepy it's being (muses are AI assistants you store in a cybernetic implant and communicate with through augmented reality, and the books have largely portrayed them as an indispensable modern convenience), but assuming it's being creepy on purpose ("some transhumans use pruned forks of people they know . . .while a template-based muse is easy to ignore or argue with, a fork of your character's mother is harder to contradict") then it's a type of creepiness that I kind of enjoy. A sort of slow-burn psychological horror where there's this common practice that's so ubiquitous that people don't notice it's fucked up. There will be a society on Ukss where it's customary to give every child their own servitor spirt/government-sanctioned snitch.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Tome of Magic

Is Wizards of the Coast even aware of the practice of individual DMs developing their own campaign settings? There are signs that they might be. "The DM's World" is something that gets mentioned from time to time. DM-focused products usually come with worldbuilding advice. There are optional rules and setting elements that certainly seem to imply that they're meant to be used a la carte. And, of course, the writers of the game are recruited almost exclusively from the players of the game, so it would be weird if they've never encountered this common idea that is part of the cultural bedrock of the hobby.

Then I read a book like Tome of Magic (Matthew Sernet, Ari Marmell, David Noonan, and Robert J Schwalb) and it really makes me wonder. This book introduces three new varieties of magic, each with a dedicated caster class, along with appropriate prestige classes, magic items, monsters, and professional organizations. And each one brings a unique and fascinating fantasy flavor. And two out of the three are functional enough to use alongside the core classes. But the book never even entertains its most obvious use case - creating new fantasy worlds where its new magic systems are just how magic works in that world.

I mean, I don't think I'm completely out of line for bringing this up. There's a general procedure for creating fantasy that I'm following here - you think about what you want your magic to do, both on a literal and a thematic level, and then you sort of shape the rules of how magic works to fit with those goals. Then maybe you extrapolate new things that may happen while still following those established rules and either tweak the rules to not allow things you don't like or just follow the chain of logic to create new things you didn't expect when you first set out. Because the role of magic, in fantasy, is to be a well of strangeness that takes us away from our mundane world (though the best fantasy does so in a way that has something real to say) while at the same time being coherent enough that we can feel like this new world might be a genuinely real place.

And judging by that standard, Tome of Magic might well be the second or third best magic book D&D has ever had . . . except it still keeps the core game's terrible "arcane" and "divine" magic as canon. Which means that you're not playing in a world where rare adepts of shadow can reach through the emptiness inside of themselves to draw forth the twisted prodigies of creation's dark reflection. You're playing in a world where people who do that are seen as a strange and limited variety of Wizard.

Unlike Magic of the Incarnum, which had the exact same fatal flaw, it's easy to adapt the new Tome of Magic systems to their actual proper use, but the book inexplicably does not help you to do that. It's like the idea was not even on WotC's radar. All of the classes and organizations get an "Adaptation" section and it's all folderol like "what if the class's alignment requirement were different" or "You can substitute in any generic death god if you're not using Orcus in the game." They're not entirely useless. Some of the advice sections might well suggest some fruitful tweaks. But they're all operating from a base assumption that whatever you do, you're still going to be in D&D-land.

It is an absolutely absurd proposition (bordering on the impossible) that when this book was being written, no one even entertained the notion of making a world where Truenamers fulfilled the same niche as wizards. There's a whole sidebar that begins, "The magic of names has been a theme in fantasy literature for as long as the genre has existed." And from there, it's only a short trip to the question, "hey, what exactly is going on with a spell's verbal components."  It's not going to take a diagram to draw a line from the Fireball spell to the in-character action of "speaking the secret name of fire." But the book doesn't do that. And I have to assume it was an intentional choice. There must have been some behind-the-scenes discussion about Tome of Magic's potential for inspiring homebrew settings where they made the conscious choice to just not mention it directly.

It's part of a trend I've noticed in the game, going back at least as far as the middle part of the Dark Sun metaplot, where the official products seem really reluctant to split the setting. You can't just have a self-contained world, off doing its own thing, that just so happens to use the D&D rules. No, every new thing that's introduced is part of the same world, and at most you'll have an explanation for why the different parts of the world do not interact with each other (or, at least, why they haven't up until now).

It speaks to a fundamental disconnect between myself and the game's creators about the purpose and nature of the game's content. I always viewed things like new classes and creatures as a kind of cafeteria menu. In the process of building a world, I'd take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and I wouldn't use everything all the time, but even the stuff I wasn't using had value because maybe in a future game, I'd use a different set of ingredients in a different combination. By contrast, a lot of the community (and this has been a major source of friction for me, over the years) seems to treat new content as a dish that has been ladled onto their plate whether they like it or not. If they don't like a new thing, then that's not just an unused option, it's an active problem they have to work around. 

I used to think that the second opinion was just a matter of griping by reactionary cranks, but I'm coming around to the notion that the books encouraged it. Earth Genasi paladins are indisputably canonical, but the book says they're rare, so you have to ask your DM if they're allowed. Or, to use an example more fitting to the book at hand, the churches of Hieroneous and Vecna will put aside their differences to persecute users of Pact Magic, and that's why you may not have heard of it until the DM decided to introduce it into the game.

Overall, I think Tome of Magic ranks pretty high on my list of favorite 3.5 books, precisely because the it's so much better as three new items on the cafeteria menu than it is as an expansion to the core. Like, True Name magic doesn't work because the way its DCs are calculated means that you get worse at your job as you advance in levels (and not just in the sense that high level utterances require higher rolls than low level ones - if you're an unoptimized character and you want to use the level 1 healing word on yourself, you have to roll an 8 or higher at level 1, but a 13 or higher at level 20 . . . assuming you have access to the item that gives you a +10 to your checks, otherwise it's flat-out impossible), but even to the extent that it does work, it would be absolutely unforgiveable to allow players to use spells with a Truename component. You know the thing people do where they have the true name of an enemy and they speak it as part of a terrible curse that utterly unmakes them, as if they never were? That's a Wizard ability. Truenamers can't do it. Which is maybe low hanging fruit as far D&D 3.x criticism is concerned ("oh, yeah, wizards can steal other classes schticks, but it's supposed to be balanced because they can only do it a limited number of times per day"), but it's only trite because it's true. Tome of Magic is a much stronger book when it stands on its own.

Ukss Contribution: I kind of like the truename wand that's built to work only on a specific person, but I feel like, given the importance wands have to the Ukss setting overall, that a Wand of Fuck That Guy in Particular would have a far different feel. 

I also really liked the vestiges as a group. They had that "Biblically accurate angel" thing going on, where even the relatively benign ones were strange and offputting (one is described as a wheel made of lion's limbs). If I were to pick one to single out, it would have to be Focalor, the Prince of Tears. His overall appearance is relatively tame - a handsome human man with "griffon's wings" (and no, I don't know why you'd describe a winged character by citing a creature that notoriously has the wings of an entirely different creature), but there's something about a cosmic being that's constantly crying that really speaks to me.

Monday, August 21, 2023

(Shadowrun) Threats

Threats is an example of what I've come to think of as the classic FASA format - it's got 13 credited authors spread out over 104 pages, presumably because the whole thing is divided into a series of short, system-agnostic stories that each present a villainous conspiracy (or "threat," if you will) along with some brief advice for how to use that story in an rpg. There's maybe three pages of actual rules content in the entire book, but if you're comfortable with a fiction anthology that disguises itself as an rpg-supplement, there's a lot of good stuff here for lore junkies to dig their teeth into.

The strange thing for me is that I got this book on one of my habitual collection binges (in the brief halcyon days between my post-COVID raise and inflation destroying the benefit of that raise), and so this is technically all new material for me, but a lot of it feels familiar. Maybe that's the flip-side of making a metaplot heavy game - new books shake up the status quo, but then the even newer books will say, "hey, remember that event that shook up the status quo . . . well this new thing is an even bigger deal."

Still, it's nice to get stuff in its original context. I always sort of inferred that there were immortal elves, from the way the "commentors" (another FASA trademark - narration getting interrupted by randos who insist the narration is full of shit) would allude to the rumors of immortal elves, but this book is the only time I've seen it explicitly spelled out - "Okay, let's just come out and say it. There are immortals running around the Sixth World." I like that. No teasing, just openly pitching an idea. 

Not everything I learned was to the later lore's benefit, though. I was already familiar with Winternight as a sinister organization with a goal of human extinction, but this is the first time I ever encountered its ludicrous secret agenda of bringing the Norse gods to life by jumpstarting Ragnarok. I don't know a lot about the folklore at work here, but as a plan it's theologically dubious to the point of being an active distraction. I still like the name, though. It's gloomy and spooky and suggestive of the barren world that will be left behind if they succeed. Good branding in service to a bad plan.

The only real strike I'd make against the book is the way its fantasy racism dovetails with real racism. I was on the bus when I read the Alamos 20,000 section, and it made me very uncomfortable to flip to the full-page art with the prominently featured swastika. It provoked one of those anxious internal conversations where I imagined myself explaining, "no, these are the bad guys, you see." Although, as a reading experience, the later Human Nation section was even worse.

Were it not for the temporal impossibility of such a thing, I'd suspect it of plagiarizing the Daily Caller. All of the tropes were there - x percentage of the population, responsible for greater than x percentage of the crime, rapid breeding threatening to overwhelm the superior, but less populous races, lower IQ because of skull shape, etc. I get that it was an attempt to depict what the villains believe, but damn

It's made worse by the fact that, in Shadowrun lore, orks and trolls really do get a penalty to their intelligence score. And orks really do reproduce with superhuman rapidness ("Orks give birth in litters of four to eight.") It's the book's position that all metahumans are entitled to equal dignity and that any organization that argues otherwise is a villain to be opposed, but then it juxtaposes real-world racist beliefs, presented in-setting as an ignorant racist screed, against the naked facts of the game rules, which are in line with the racists' narrative. What the fuck are you trying to do, FASA? What's the end game here?

I'd like to think that it was just carelessness, but that theory is belied by the fact that there was clearly some effort put into the verisimilitude of the fantasy racists. I suspect the real intention was to use fantasy racism as a lens to examine real racism, but the execution was simply inept.

Overall, though, Threats was a good read. There's a certain Shadowrun vibe that it just manages to hit - bleak cynicism coupled with outrageous fantasy nonsense ("Bulldrek, fenrir wolves. Nobody uses them as watchritters. You can't train the fraggers - they're too crazy. They'll rip their handlers to shreds along with everyone else in range.") It may just be a glorified fiction anthology, but I'm highly invested in seeing how this fiction plays out.

Ukss Contribution: I wasn't kidding about being impressed by Winternight's branding. It's a great name for an apocalyptic cult.

Friday, August 18, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Weapons of Legacy

A book like Weapons of Legacy (Bruce R Cordell, Kolja Liquette, Travis Stout) presents me with certain difficulties, because it's mostly really fun, but the only part that's not fun is its central mechanic. I'm left wanting to use almost all the weapons of legacy in a game, but not the legacy weapon system.

The way it works is that these magic items start out with low-level powers and by doing a series of rituals, you can unlock higher-level abilities that ensure the item grows in power alongside the character. In exchange for these magic item abilities, you wind up paying a "personal cost" - a penalty to your attack rolls, skill checks, saves, etc that permanently reduces your effectiveness.

It's a mechanic that makes the items nearly unusable. Balance in 3.5 is hard to judge, but even to the degree that the benefits of the item outweigh the costs, personal costs just feel bad. You get this thing that's supposed to be a power boost and it's making you worse at your job. You get a sweet new +4 sword, but also a permanent -3 penalty to all attack rolls. Or you're a skill-focused character and in exchange for a few low-level spells, you lose 18 skill points.

It's unclear what this mechanic is trying to accomplish. Why give with one hand and take away with the other? Why not give just a little bit less? For that matter, what are we even comparing a weapon of legacy to in the first place, that they require this extra sacrifice? Because a lot of the time, the powers you get are just strictly worse than the spells a full caster is getting at that level. In theory, the reason martial-types don't get high level spells is because they've got superior hit points and attack rolls, but these weapons reduce your hit points and attack rolls and they're still only giving you a 6th or 7th level spell that you can use once per day. The most insulting are the ones that require the sacrifice of high-level spell slots, because they can only be used by full casters, because they wind up being, at best, a lateral move for those who can use them, but would be a much-needed power boost to those who can't.

I suspect what's going on here is that, rather than being excessively powerful in their own right, weapons of legacy break the item slot economy, giving you the utility of a belt, hat, pair of boots, etc, but only requiring a single magic item slot. This can free up your other slots to give you even more magical bonuses. Theoretically, 3.5 has limitations on bonus stacking to prevent this from getting out of control, but in practice, there are so many bonus types that weapons of legacy might well break the power curve. At the very least, they make characters significantly more versatile, which is one of those things that old rpgs greatly overvalued in terms of balance estimates (in fact, one of the major flaws with 3.5 is that it seemed to think a character optimized in one field was equivalent to a character who could do two things half as well).

But picking on a 3.5 book for poorly balanced mechanics feels like a cheap shot. I wasn't coming into this expecting to be impressed. I'm a little surprised at how punitive the personal cost system feels, but mostly the random power levels and weird caster supremacy are classic 3rd edition. 

If you set the mechanical issues aside, what you're left with is a collection of distinctive magic items that range from "good" to "very good." Without consulting my notes, there are none that stand out as particularly memorable . . . maybe Merikel, the formerly angelic blade that gained dark powers when its wielder fell to hubris, but that works both ways. There's not a single dud in the entire book. I didn't care much for the spelling of Dymondheart, but the actual blade itself is kind of rad - a longsword made of living wood that has significant defensive abilities (it's strangely not as nature-themed as its background lore suggests). 

I guess the Hammer of Witches had some dubious setting implications. There's this sect within the church of Pelor that is all about persecuting arcane spellcasters. Officially, they're heretics, but they still get their priestly spellcasting. It's a little hard to parse, because the shape of the plot only really makes sense if you really lean into the church of Pelor being a transparent copy of medieval Christianity, and then also grant that D&D's arcane magic fills the same cultural niche as European witchcraft. This winds up feeling weird, because in the game's default implied setting, a wizard is basically just a specialized professional, like a blacksmith or a cobbler and the weapon's description backs that up by saying that these guys have absolutely no doctrinal support. So it wind up being hard to even slot the Hammer of Witches into a plot. Plus the name of the item, evoking as it does a real-world atrocity, is a bit too problematic to actually use.

Maybe one dud, then. But the rest fall right into vanilla D&D's wheelhouse of "interesting, but not audacious." You could take any item in the book and build a character or an adventure around it, but none of them would feel out of place with the core.

Strangely enough, while I feel like that last paragraph was a backhanded compliment, that actually reflects more on me than the book. "My problem with this D&D book is that it was too D&D."  Let's call it a personal paradox. By my actions, I am undeniably a D&D superfan, but it exists in my head almost purely as a starting point, something to be moved away from. My instinct, when presented with a bunch of perfectly serviceable D&D ideas, is to ask how they can be bigger or spookier or stranger. You give me a magic ring whose ultimate ability is called "pull down a star" and I start thinking in very literal terms. Conjuring an elder fire elemental once every two days isn't going to do it for me (now, stellar elementals, with strange powers beyond the scope of merely terrestrial fires, who are themselves august and sacrosanct in the elemental courts. . . )

If I used this material in a game, I think I'd just completely rip out the personal costs and eliminate all the fixed-use magic items from the core (possibly taking the best of them and using this book's "upgrade a standard item to a legacy item" rules, like they did with the Holy Avenger and Staff of Power). This gives every item in the book a significant power boost, but that should be fine because there are no longer any standard items for them to be balanced against. As an alternate model of how magic items work, the legacy weapons really shine. Each item has a story, and they are all reasonable to hold onto for a character's entire career. Instead of just being random treasure, they are a version of magic items that enrich the fictional world, making it more complex and nuanced, and giving the player characters a tangible connection to its past.

Which, of course, is exactly why this book was made in the first place. Like I said at the beginning, this presents me with certain difficulties. Is Weapons of Legacy a successful book because it provides me with new inspiration on practically every page? Or is it unsuccessful because the first thing I need to do with that inspiration is come up with a new system for how the magic items are supposed to work? Most likely, "success" and "failure" are the wrong terms to use. Weapons of Legacy gives me something no other D&D books, and few other rpg books (even, to a degree, Earthdawn, which had a similar system 30 years ago) can reasonably match. If it's doomed to be just a starting point, at least it has the benefit of being a good starting point.

Ukss Contribution: My favorite part of almost every individual item description was, with few exceptions, the item's "omen." An omen is just a weird magical quirk that indicates the weapon of legacy is no mere +1 sword. Standouts include a sword that roars when drawn from its scabbard, a pair of gauntlets that lets you look into someone's eyes and learn their name, and a polearm that instantly dries you off whenever you emerge from a body of water. My favorite, though, was the Planeshifter's Knife. Set it down on a table and it will flip up to balance on its point. It will spin in the presence of extraplanar creatures, but that function is merely incidental to why I like it. It's just an item that sells its innate uncanniness by casually defying your physical intuitions.

Planeshifting doesn't really exist on Ukss, per se, but I think it will still be an interesting omen, even if the item in question has a different function.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase is . . . a lot. It's one of those books where I really should have devoted 6-10 separate posts to unraveling all my thoughts about it. Certainly, there were many times while reading where I sort of drifted off thinking about which real-world philosophical thought experiment I was going to make the centerpiece of my trademark "not actually talking about the book" section (I have opinions about the Color Room Experiment), and, honestly, they would all have been great, thought-provoking posts (don't laugh).

But they, too, would have been . . . a lot.

So I'm thinking of taking a step away from the myriad of abstract discussions we could be having about this book, despite the obvious fun we could be having at this very moment if I revived the interminable Ship of Theseus/continuity of consciousness debate.

It's a shame, though, because I had some really great rhetorical questions lined up. I think Eclipse Phase brings that out in people because it's one of those rare games with a really intense and specific point of view. When I search for the most appropriate comparison, it's not something like GURPS: Transhuman Space, which deals with similar subjects and themes, but actually Mage: the Ascension, which also incorporates its ideology deep into the game's design. This is a book that's unapologetically physicalist and unapologetically anarchist and it's kind of great that it exists, but also, it's going to invite you to have . . . opinions.

The challenge in front of me right now is how to talk about this book if I am (theoretically) unwilling to divert for two thousand words to ponder the nature of qualia. At its heart, Eclipse Phase is a richly detailed science-fiction universe that is bold in its speculative ambitions, but noticeably held back in some ways by its point of view. In retrospect, its unflattering portrayal of the capitalist goonery of the inner-system Planetary Consortium and open fascism of the Jovian Junta were, if anything, underselling the case, but by the same token, its optimism about social media and the reputation economy didn't age well at all. And its handling of the cultural fallout of its apocalyptic backstory is borderline offensive.

A quick summary - it's some indefinite time in the future. In the realms of artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and nanotechnology, humanity's knowledge has more or less become "sufficiently advanced." They've got devices that are not quite Star Trek-style replicators. They can make arbitrarily precise images of human brains and digitally simulate those images with an arbitrary degree of accuracy (I'm carefully choosing my words here, because this is the number one thing people have opinions about). They've got AIs that can recursively and exponentially increase their own intelligence.

Ten years before the game's start date, a group of military AIs, collectively known as the TITANS (obvious backronym) cross some critical threshold and begin an out-of-control process of growth, overwhelming the planet Earth and killing between 87.5 and 95% of all human beings (different parts of the book give competing numbers) before mysteriously disappearing through an interstellar FTL gateway. Now, the survivors live in scattered space habitats, fearing to return to Earth lest they be hunted by the remaining TITAN servitors, and the main cultural conflict is between the well-organized capitalists of Venus, Luna, and Mars and the scattered anarchists of the asteroid belt and beyond (also, there are some neocons in the moons of Jupiter and they just generally suck).

Structurally, this is fine. It's just an apocalypse story. "What if the infrastructure and environment supporting our current society were to vanish, to be replaced with something new, built practically from scratch?" It's a classic area of speculation. We've got all these weird sci-fi societies because most of the people in the old ones died. Fair enough.

Where Eclipse Phase gets itself in trouble is that it breaks two informal rules of the apocalypse genre - the story it tells is not a local story and there is no historical gap sufficient to explain a clean break with the past. 

These are "informal rules" because they are not strictly necessary to tell an apocalypse story, but if you're going to violate them, you've got to really raise the bar on your worldbuilding. Normally, you keep the story local in order to avoid implying your survivors represent the whole of humanity, and you make it far enough in the past that you don't have to answer questions about why a particular custom or bit of knowledge failed to endure. If you presume to talk exhaustively about every large group of survivors and establish that the event left near-complete back-ups of the entire pre-event internet, then you put yourself on the hook for talking specifically about who survived and how.

The result, in Eclipse Phase's case, is an anarchist sci-fi setting where people openly talk about eugenics and there are almost no Jewish people or Africans. Yikes.

I'm certain that there was no malice intended, and that it's just a classic case of STEM blinders failing to account for the humanities. But it forces me to grit my teeth and acknowledge that the theists have a point when they object to this atheist sci-fi setting failing to properly account for religion and I hate having to do that. This setting really needed to be more careful about the way it depicted real-world identities, and despite its fascinating worldbuilding, it has a bit of a -bro stink on it as a result.

Nonetheless, I really love this setting. It's not afraid to really push the boundaries of its technologies. In this version of the solar system, the Sun is inhabited. It's kind of brain-bending to think about. Digital intelligences download themselves into space whales that protect themselves from the Sun's corona with powerful magnets and my gut reaction is "there is no part of this plan that's a good idea," but my second, more considered thought is, "oh, so when you say that the singularity is going to change humanity in ways that are impossible to imagine, you really mean impossible to imagine. I'm on board."

I can think of a dozen ways I'd do things differently (for example, I'm wondering about a version of the setting where the biological death toll was 100%, leaving AIs and infomorph brain backups as the only survivors), but I can't help but regard this as one of the game's strengths. I rarely feel the urge to tinker with things that don't impress me.

Ukss Contribution: Turn Yourself Into a Giant Mass of Space Meat for Art! (Exclamation point in the original, but yeah, it's a mood). It's a space station in orbit around Saturn and it's made out of bacon. On the surface, it's goofy for the sake of goofy, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it's not one of the setting's harder sci-fi ideas. Like, biological cells are the original grey goo nanotech, so maybe you'd just need some core technology to encourage their growth, and then the dead cells on the exterior can insulate the live ones on the inside, and you've got a highly efficient machine for turning calories and carbon into a highly-organized structure . . . still goofy as hell, of course, but it certainly helps to establish a universe where the only brakes put on technology are self-imposed.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Magic of the Incarnum

I'm going to start this reaction with the second-cattiest comment from my notes (the first cattiest, "the class of dubious fashion choices" was a bit reductive). It's just a quote from the book, but it's a quote I chose to document out of an extremely arch sense of detachment: "characters who can shape soulmelds are known as meldshapers."

Some of you may already understand what I'm getting at, but to clarify, lest you think I'm just being weird and mean - Magic of the Incarnum (James Wyatt, Richard Baker, Frank Brunner, Stephen Schubert) is an extremely interesting book that presents an entirely new magic system for use with D&D 3.5, one that has unique aesthetics and setting implications, but also . . . that fucking jargon, man.

A "soulmeld" is a magical object made of solidified soul energy. The person who created it can wear it as a piece of equipment and gain a minor magical power. That power can be boosted through the infusion of extra soul energy (known as "essentia") to create more consequential effects. And every soulmeld has at least one (and as many as 3-4) upgraded forms where it is "bound to a chakra," unlocking even more potent magic. 

For example, the Lammasu Mantle gives you a +2 bonus to AC against attacks from evil creatures. And if you invest essentia, you also get a +1 bonus to saves per point invested.  But if you bind it to your arms, you extend those bonuses to your nearby allies. Or you could bind it to your shoulders, in which case you gain an aura that prevents non-good creatures from getting closer than 10 feet. Or you could bind it to your totem and gain the ability to breathe fire. And what this looks like in practice is you start with a cloak of fur and feathers and then, you can either cause your arms to grow fur (arms-chakra variant), cause the cloak to merge with your back (shoulders-chakra variant), or you can gain a think, lion-like mane (totem-chakra variant). 

Every soulmeld has its own abilities and appearance, and you can mix and match them at the beginning of each day, in anticipation of the likely threats and challenges you're going to face. During the course of the day, you can shift your essentia investment (but not chakra allocation) from soulmeld to soulmeld, tweaking the strength of your abilities to the needs of a particular encounter.

Like I said, interesting. But . . . soulmelds? It's an unpleasant word to say ("meldshaper" is even worse). Aside from just, you know, not being as melodious as "cellar door," it's also a term with no mythological provenance, no genre connotations, and just no . . . anything. It's an artless portmanteau made up to refer to this specific thing and nothing else. And even towards the end of the book, when I'd started to vibe with its whole deal, that word never lost its nails-on-a-blackboard feeling. 

The reason I bring it up first, before anything else, is because when I think about my preferred alternatives to the terms "soulmelds" and "meldshapers" my kneejerk answer is "spells" and "wizards." And I swear, that's not just me being a cranky-pants (well, maybe a little). I actually think it's the key to unlocking the book's full potential. It's a new magic system for Dungeons & Dragons, a game that already has a (famously contentious) magic system. All of the mental real-estate it needs to occupy is, in fact, already occupied. Try to layer it on top of what's already come before and of course it's going to be ugly (it doesn't help that all of the good synonyms - sorcerer, warlock, witch, arcanist, enchanter, thaumaturge, etc. - have all been used for other things), but that doesn't mean the idea is bad. You just have to clear the way for it.

I really think it's the book's format that's holding it back. Magic of the Incarnum is treated as a source of new classes to add to the core's implied setting and it's ill-suited to that role. You need only look at the "Incarnum Campaigns" chapter to see that. The first half is just variations on "how do you introduce this thing to your game when no one's ever heard of it before." Maybe some ancient seal has been broken. Maybe it's been around this whole time, but it was kept a secret. Maybe it's how magic works in some distant land, and it's just now coming to the place where the PCs are. And these are all good plots . . . in a world where magic doesn't already exist. Oh, the last survivor of an ancient progenitor culture has been located and now various factions are racing to find him and hopefully unlock the mytic secrets of the old civilization, leading to an invasion of the characters' homeland by a hitherto unsuspected imperial power from beyond the sea . . . let's ask Elminster what we should do about this. The plot can't land because the default game already has something that occupies the same niche, but better (or, at least, more powerfully).

The question of "how does magic work" is at the heart of any fantasy worldbuilding project. You don't necessarily want to get too nitty-gritty about the details, but you have to address it because the knock-on effects are huge. What does this mean for the world's culture? For its metaphysics? For its religions? Its economy? And Incarnum works really well as a starting point because it unavoidably touches on these sorts of questions. You gain magical power by manipulating souls! A wizard will grab a loose soul, transform it into a pre-determined shape, and use that soul to perform miraculous, superhuman feats. Amazing. What does it mean that there are all these loose souls floating around? How does this factor in to the cycle of life and death? If a loose soul can power a magic spell, why can't a soul that's already inside a body? What would have happened if that one dark wizard had succeeded at "storming the Bastion of Unborn Souls?"

Magic of the Incarnum can't really answer these questions, because D&D already has a minimum of three different types of magic (arcane, divine, and psionics) and any attempt to really lock the Incarnum power source to the world's lore is going step on some toes. As a book, it's kind of stuck in this limbo. The only way to engage with it is as a novel set of mechanics, which necessitates it having jargon in lieu of flavor, and that's to the benefit of neither the player, the setting, nor the game. 

Also, while I'm being negative, I have to scold it about its far too frequent use of the word "savage," and in the bad context as well. The Totemist class is the best part of the book, but its core idea (what if: a shapeshifter class that could fill a spellcaster niche by changing into the form of D&D's iconic magical beasts and using their spell-like abilities) is undermined by the fact that it's wrapped in the worst of D&D's racist nonsense. Things we know about the Totemist: they're illiterate like Barbarians and they're the favored class of "savage humanoids." Plus, I'm pretty sure it's inappropriate to use the word "totem" the way this book does.

Overall, I'd say that Magic of the Incarnum is a good enough book to anchor a whole campaign setting. . . which makes it a shame that it doesn't. I enjoyed reading it, but mostly as a historical oddity. This was an experiment in the limits of D&D mechanics and while it could occasionally be fascinating, I never forgot that I was reading an experiment.

Ukss Contribution: I liked the Threefold Mask of the Chimera. It has three faces and three sets of eyes and while wearing it you can see out any of them, with each face filtering the world in a different perspective. It's not quite as mystical as it could be, but I could easily give it a broader set of powers.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Shadowrun (1st Edition)

Content Warning: Genocide

Confession time: sometimes I succumb to hubris. I develop a plan in my head and it seems so cool, and hey, the effort and expense can't be that much, right? Occasionally, this leads to great things - buying the full Mage: the Ascension set worked out pretty well, even if I'm now 2-3 books behind the curve. But sometimes. . . more often, if I'm being honest . . . I get in over my head. I get a good night's sleep and when I wake up, I realize that, despite the grandiosity I felt when I went on an all-night wishlisting binge, the game I'm thinking of collecting has a giant back catalogue, a dedicated fan-base that keeps the prices pretty stable, and a lot of edition redundancy that would most likely wind up being pretty dry. Sometimes, I catch myself in time, as I did with Earthdawn 3rd edition, and I make the reasonable decision to not buy a bunch of books I'm never going to use. Other times, it takes an unwise purchase before I catch on. . . as happened with Shadowrun 1st edition.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not feeling any sort of terrible buyer's remorse right now. It's just that I've realized that I have absolutely no use for this thing. It's a lot like the Shadowrun 3rd edition that I fell in love with, but there's less of it. This isn't like Mage, which dramatically changed focus between editions. Nor is it like Dungeons and Dragons or Exalted, where there's a great deal of mechanical experimentation. The rules seem largely the same, with 3e having greater clarity and rigor, but still using the same type of dice to make the same type of rolls. I noticed a few bits and bobs that improved between editions (removing the automatic allergies from metahuman characters was a good move, for example), but nothing that compelled to do a side-by-side breakdown.

Likewise, with the setting. It's less detailed, more implied, but all the major beats are there. It was kind of funny when the history section talked about the Soviet Union's reaction to the events of the early 21st century, but not like ha, ha funny. They still didn't survive to the starting year of 2050, even if the reasons for their break-up were different than the real world's, so it's not even like the bulk of Cold War-era sci-fi where you wind up with Soviets on the moon or some shit. I imagine that, of all the sci-fi franchises that bridged the pre- and post- Soviet eras, the adjustment to match real-world events was among the smoothest. 

And that was the biggest dissonance. Everything else felt very familiar, with setting elements notable only by their absence."Mr Johnson" doesn't even show up until the glossary. And the megacorps are name-dropped, but not explicitly listed. I can say with confidence that Saeder-Krupp (from Lofwyr's "critter" entry), Renraku (from its Seattle Arcology), Aztechnology (the same), Mitsuhama (from the opening fiction), Shiawase (from a Supreme Court decision), and Ares (from the equipment chapter) exist, but if I didn't already know the significance of the names, I'd assume they were just random background elements.

That could be a significant difference. I've been thinking about this book as having a lot of stuff in place, even from the very beginning of the game, but I could be getting the causality wrong. It could just be that when later adventures needed a new corporation, they just used one of the names from the core book, and over time canon solidified around a few popular choices. Maybe the thing about the dragon who owned a corporation was originally a throw-away line, but people found it so interesting that it resulted in Saeder-Krupp becoming a major setting element.

Time is funny that way. The only way I can know for sure is to track the progression of the metaplot in real time, perhaps by assembling a complete collection of 1st and 2nd edition material and reading it in order of release . . .

No, no. Gotta talk myself down here. I've already dismissed that idea. I can't afford it and I don't have the room, even if I could . . . Besides, my 3e stuff gives a pretty complete overview of the Shadowrun world c. 2060, no need to go looking for more. . .

Okay, close call averted. I guess, for all that I complain about it, FASA's metaplot strategy worked on me. First edition starts in 2050, each new book advances the timeline just a bit, and so it's not just a matter of new books contradicting the old. The first edition core felt familiar to me in part because it was the third edition's past. It feels like the most natural thing in the world to be curious about what happened in between.

Still, I'm not going to do that, so there's no point dwelling on it. Let's wrap this up by talking about the big issue with this book, the one I've been conspicuously avoiding so far - its absolutely Not Okay portrayal of Native Americans.

And fuck if I know what I'm supposed to say about this. My natural instinct is to give it points for at least being politically radical. It's sometimes hard to tell, because of the history section's neutral voice, but I'm pretty sure that in the first section, about the "Resource Rush" and renewed conflict between the American government and American Indians, we're supposed to side with the Indians. 

Right? It seems very obvious to me now. The government steals the last of the Native Americans' land, rounds them up to go into "re-education camps" and there is talk of "The Indian Question" that seems like a very deliberate word choice.

But then, when it does bust-out the g-word, it's as part of a rhetorical question, "Was this a deliberate plan of genocide, as Coleman would one day claim?"

I mean, yeah, probably, but why are you asking me? It's an issue that comes up from time to time with older works. John Milton really didn't intend to make Satan so charismatic, even subconsciously. He really did have such a dour and soul-crushing theology that he couldn't tell "better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven" was one of history's rawest lines. To him, the line was a flashing neon sign pointing to this guy being totally and irredeemably corrupt. It was unthinkable that someone could ever think that there was anything better than serving God. That a character would boldly claim otherwise was a sure sign that they were evil incarnate.

So, it's possible that the answer to the rhetorical question was meant to be "no, the United States would never enact a deliberate plan of genocide." Certainly, the "Street Cop" description ("A few cops have, as always, succumbed to the temptation of their positions and become 'bad cops,' but most remain true to their honor") suggests some unexamined conservatism on the parts of the authors (almost as if they're reluctant to really embrace the "punk" part of the genre), but I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt here for two reasons. The first is that I'm familiar with FASA's larger body of work and while they didn't always do it well, it's clear to me that they at least thought about these matters. The second reason is that this book was written relatively recently, and I'm pretty sure 1989 was on the cusp of the 90s trend of reevaluating the historiography surrounding colonialism. Dances With Wolves would win Best Picture for 90-91 and Shadowrun has a very similar vibe.

Also, like Dances With Wolves, this book winds up hitting almost every item on a "how not to write Native Americans" checklist. And that, too, feels authentic to me. I called it "politically radical" not just because it portrayed the USA as a villain, but because of the way that villainy was resolved - the emergence of magic is an equalizing force that allows an alliance of Native Americans to defeat the US military and decolonize much of the western United States. However, while the premise has genuine punk potential, the execution . . . let's call it "idealized to the point of being condescending." The reason the Indians were able to win is because they were more in touch with nature, and thus their innate spirituality let them get the jump on everyone else once magic re-emerged.

The end result is a cyberpunk setting that does almost nothing to explore the punk potential in an oppressed group turning the tables on the capitalist-imperialist hegemony that rules the world. Instead, the Native Americans are used as a stand-in for an environmentalist critique of capitalism (and even then, it's mostly using "technology" as a stand-in for capitalism - in particular, soy takes a real beating here, despite being environmentally much friendlier than most of the foods it replaced). It's not nothing, but also, it's not good.

All that being said, I still really like Shadowrun. It's got a unique voice that's apparent even at this early date, and when it's not being racist, it does a lot of interesting fantasy world-building. There's a lot of room for improvement, but I'm looking forward to seeing if they can pull it off.

Ukss Contribution: I'll admit, the racial issues surrounding this game's depiction of Native Americans are beyond my ability to completely parse. The feeling I got was "well-meaning, but clumsy to the point of offensiveness." It also had some issues with anti-Asian bias (including one appearance of "the Orient") that it clearly inherited from 80s cyberpunk. It didn't make me too terribly uncomfortable, but why would it? I'm as white as they come. It's not as bad as Destiny's Price, which I gave a pass to, but I'm thinking I made a mistake with Destiny's Price. I'm going to pick something, though if you were to come to me and say that Shadowrun was beyond the pale, I wouldn't be inclined to argue against you.

My choice here - a dragon owning a major corporation. Not Lofwyr, specifically, because he's too iconic to Shadowrun, but essentially the same archetype.