Tuesday, April 16, 2024

(Shadowrun) Mob War!

Organized crime occupies a strange niche in the cyberpunk genre (and arguably real life). The megacorporations are above the law. The biggest ones have literal extraterritoriality, allowing them to write their own laws within the confines of their facilities. So why wouldn't the mafia's traditional businesses - drugs, gambling, prostitution, etc - just be another product for the megacorps to package and sell? BTLs (better than life chips, shadowrun's censor-friendly sci-fi drug stand-in) may be illegal in UCAS territory, but is there any reason you couldn't just walk into the Renraku arcology and buy them off the shelf? Maybe you have to use them on-site, but that's just another profit opportunity, really.

Although, this works the other way too. What's to stop the existing criminal cartels from designing their own letterhead, issuing stock, and becoming true megacorporations themselves? They already shroud themselves in the trappings of legitimate business, for purposes of money laundering. If the general direction of the economy is trending towards corporate lawlessness, wouldn't that mean that organized crime and international corporations would gradually converge? As the corps start hiring shadowrunners to commit crimes on their behalf, the criminals become more and more mainstream until it's impossible to tell the difference?

It might be an issue of scale. It's hard to research exact figures online, but even if you use the larger estimates, groups like the mafia and the yakuza have a fraction of the revenue of the biggest corporations. A hundred billion a year would not get you onto the top 50. . . but it might get you close enough to be a valuable acquisition for one of the big players.

Mob War! (Stephen Kenson) at one point speculates that all of the Japanese megacorporations have been infiltrated by the Yakuza, and that criminals are calling the shots at Mitsuhama, in particular, but how realistic is this? The reverse situation seems more likely. At most, they could be a highly-organized faction of shareholders, but would they even want MCT to do anything besides its usual business? If the criminals were really in charge, would you even be able to tell?

It presents a challenge for me as a potential Shadowrun GM, because the PCs are criminals for hire, in a criminal subculture, and they usually work for the megacorporations as deniable assets, but this book posits a series of adventures where they work for organized crime instead, and I can't quite figure out what the dynamic is supposed to be. What is the mafia's social and economic niche? Why does it matter that Seattle's capo was assassinated?

Near as I can tell, they're the biggest fish in a small pond. If you're a regular criminal, like the PCs, you have to tread carefully around them, because they're organized enough to ruin your day, even if you successfully kill some of their goons. But if that's the case, it's unclear why they wouldn't just monopolize the shadowrunning racket like they do with vice? Why is Mr Johnson going to a random dive bar to hire freelancers when they could instead drop a few choice words to a "business associate" in the comfort of their country club and then know that the situation will be taken care of by someone on the boss's regular payroll?

I think it's a case where sci-fi is just recapitulating the modern world without really examining it. The mafia exists and are kind of the scary apex predators of the criminal underworld because that's how it worked in the 1990s, when Mob War! was written. You've got the independents doing whatever hustles they can and above them the street gangs, who control territory and watch each others' backs, so you don't want to mess with them, and then above them are the true syndicates - the mafia, the yakuza, the triads - who are able to call upon international resources and large numbers of full-time professionals. 

But that only really makes sense in a world where crime is illegal. When the megacorps are immune to consequences, then maybe the mafia is just another mid-tier corp to take over and subsequently hollow out. You're not buying drugs from the mafia, you're buying Mafia (tm)- brand drugs, manufactured by Aztechnology, available at Stuffer Shacks across the nation! Just circle round to the back alley and "Ask for Rocco" (tm)!

I should be kinder, though. It's tough to satirize capitalism in a way that is not immediately eclipsed by the absurd reality of the contemporary world.

So let's assume that it makes sense for the mafia to exist in the world of Shadowrun and that you can know what they're like by watching literally any mafia movie. If that's the case, then Mob War! gives you the tools to make a pretty good mafia movie. The don is killed and his daughter comes back from Harvard Law School to buck tradition, take over the family business, and get revenge, all the while dodging traitorous underlings, aggrieved traditionalists, and rivals from competing syndicates. I'd watch that movie.  It also makes perfect sense that in this situation, the normally closed-off criminal organizations would want to bring in freelance criminals to fill some of the gaps. It's a satisfying premise for an adventure that is executed well . . .

From a certain point of view. Personally, I have no issues with the way Mob War! does things. It's not technically an adventure. It's just a single event and a list of various factions and NPCs who are reacting to this event. Its main use is to run a sandbox campaign in the aftermath of the mob boss' assassination, and while it has a couple dozen suggestions for specific adventures, those suggestions are incredibly bare bones (the book itself is only 64 pages long, which is why my post took a swerve straight from the start). Normally, I'd whine about having to do most of the work by myself, but in this case the suggestions are so tightly related, and tied to detailed, interesting NPCs that they really do feel very helpful for building a starting situation. It's not like those drive-by adventure hooks that leave me frustrated by highlighting a gap in the setting ("Ooh, what's at the bottom of the mysterious dungeon . . . you have the power to decide"). Most of my lingering questions are about the future - i.e. the thing that's going to be highly dependent on how the PCs deal with the starting situation.

Overall, I'd say that I really enjoyed Mob War! It hits a good sweet spot for a metaplot-driven rpg supplement, where it really shakes up the status quo, but it doesn't make you feel like you're playing a whole new game. Even if you'd been involved in a long-running Shadowrun game where the PCs worked for the mafia and developed a major personal relationship with James O'Malley, the players are going to be emotionally prepared for the possibility that he's been assassinated off-screen. That sort of thing happens to mafia bosses all the time. So it's got a weird thing going on where the more it disrupts your existing game, the more it makes your game resemble the genre it's emulating. Definitely a top-tier supplement.

Ukss Contribution: My choice today is a kind of silly detail that nonetheless tickled me greatly - the boss of the Yakuza has an estranged daughter who fled from home and became a shadowrunner. Her birth name: Keiko. Her street handle: Kiku. I get that it's "a play on her real name" but that's the opposite of what an alias is supposed to do. I can't help but think that she'd be an incredibly funny NPC for the players to try and set straight.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Champion

Dungeons & Dragons is an odd beast, because I have a lot of D&D books. It was my first game. It is, by dollar value anyway, my most-collected game. It was, for a long time, my most-played game (I've got an inkling that Exalted may have surpassed it, though I don't have precise figures). It's probably the game I'd have the best change of recreating from memory, if that was ever required of me for some reason. Hell, I chose the d20 system as the basis for Ukss Plus, the most elaborate rpg shitpost since Dungeons: the Dragoning 40k 7th Edition, and even as a joke, you don't write a quarter of a million words because you hate the subject matter. 

And yet, despite all that, I'm permanently at war with the game's implied setting. It never fails. Every time they show me something from the blobby, half-formed recesses of inchoate D&D-land, my first thought is "well, that's something I'm going to need to fix." I think it's because, more than any other rpg setting I own (including approximately half a dozen official D&D campaign worlds), D&D-land has that "designed by committee" feeling. It's a consequence of being the first and the biggest. So many ideas, from so many sources, get dumped into the trough and in one sense, everything that makes its way into a book is D&D, but in another sense, people will write the books in an attempt to fit in with existing D&D, and the result is that you begin to treat paths of least resistance as if they were some kind of grand master plan. So the implied D&D setting, the product identity of the brand, if you will, is half made up of weird one-off ideas so memorable that they were preserved long after the death of their context and the other half is areas of smoothness, where ideas passed from hand-to-hand have been polished into a kind of flatness that betrays deep biases and cultural assumptions.

Case in point: Complete Champion. This is one of those late-period 3.5 books where they're just really good at making Dungeons & Dragons supplements. The edition changeover is just a few months away, and at last they know how to write for 3.5. You want to play a character who is a divine champion of one of D&D-land's various default gods? You're going to find a lot of useful material for doing that, some of which is even competitive with just taking extra levels in cleric or druid (on the lower end of optimization, let's not go wild here).

But it's also about the religion of D&D-land. And the religion of D&D-land is . . . well, not Christianity, exactly, but like . . . various extruded substances poured into a Christianity-shaped mold, and the final result is . . . something. It's like, religion without theology, without culture, without history, without art. A thing in the shape of a religion, but without substance.

Maybe that's fair. Maybe we aren't going into D&D for stories of great substance. Slap a cassock on that guy, give him an Aspergilum (a new vocabulary word that I'm likely to immediately forget), and have him shoot lasers at a zombie. That's enough for the game's limited ambitions.

It just feels a little off. Halflings have tent revivals. What are they reviving? The eternal and unanimous worship of Yondalla, the goddess of halfling supremacy?

No, that's unfair, all of the "racial" gods are offputtingly militant. Corellon's "church" (every god has a church, which I'm choosing to interpret as a broad term for "any religiously motivated form of social organization") has an absolutely hair-raising approach to Drow: "killing Drow is holy work, because each dark elf soul sent to the Abyss is another step towards completing the work begun by Corellon Larethian so long ago."

Yikes.

All told, Complete Champion is a competent execution of an area of the implied setting that I have particularly little use for. It comes from being an atheist, I think. My approach to fantasy religion is culture-first. This is an activity that human beings (and human-like creatures) engage in, and so it's always something the society needs, or wants to express about itself, or, in my more cynical moments, is burdened with. The truth or falsity of a particular belief is irrelevant.

Digression: this is another reason that I favor doing away with the arcane/divine split. Wizards are often theurgists who use spiritual and religious reasoning and people who work divine miracles often wind up being a lot like secular magic users, whether the theology is on their side or not. In either case, the validity (or "truth" if you prefer) of a religious belief is orthogonal to the pragmatic power of a magical practice. There's a very thin line between binding a demon to servitude by speaking its seven secret names and gaining power from a god by prayer and a pledge of service. The notion that the relationship between god and worshipper must be one of genuine reverence and not a transactional bargain for services rendered is characteristic of modern monotheism and not necessarily something you even want to translate into an rpg.

Anyway, D&D throws a serious wrench into religion-as-worldbuilding-element by insisting that each and every religion must be associated with a literal god that definitely, truly exists. So religion in D&D-land isn't primarily a cultural phenomenon and does not necessarily serve human needs.  Not only does this lead to shallow worldbuilding on the face of it, it also places an incredible amount of pressure on the gods themselves to be charismatic enough (IRL, to the readers) to make an organization staffed by their flunkies seem like a vital part of a living world. Not all of them are able to pull this off.

I was probably never going to love Complete Champion, but I do respect it. The prestige classes take some interesting chances, design-wise, such as having multiple different classes for a single NPC organization, so that characters with different classes can approach the same concept from different starting positions. As a reader, I prefer it when the Prestige classes are all distinct, but having two or three different interpretations really helps when centering a campaign around a particular organization. You don't need to be a spellcaster to benefit from membership in the Paragnostic Assembly. You can simply be an Initiate instead of an Apostle (although, the main ability of Initiates is "assist casting", which I kind of hate).

I've now read all of the Complete* books, many of 3.X's most prominent supplements, and a bunch of obsolete 3.0 material. All I have left is specific campaign settings - Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Eberron. Looking back at the edition as a whole, I think I love it, but in a really backhanded way. I enjoy what it might (and will) become, but a lot of what it actually was, doesn't really hold up. The math (and the balance issues created by that math) undermines the game's ambition to become a universal toolkit, but I absolutely adore that it had that ambition. This was an edition that did not recognize its own limitations, even when it really should have, and I think that energy is infectious. 

Ukss Contribution: Dragon Rubies. A dragon eats a gemstone. Later, it shits that gemstone out. Thanks to its harrowing journey, the gem has magic powers now. Be sure to wash your hands after handling one.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

(Shadowrun) Portfolio of a Dragon: Dunkelzahn's Secrets

I had a hard time concentrating on the fantastic conceit of Portfolio of a Dragon (Steve Kenson, Mike Colton, Todd Bolling, Jon F Zeigler). I was too distracted with thoughts of wealth inequality.

I mean, it's not as if I didn't care about the book's plot. A dragon is elected President of the United Canadian and American States! He is promptly assassinated on the night of his inauguration! Everyone's a suspect! Ooh, he left a mysterious will!

It's just, he leaves behind an open-ended bequest to whoever can develop communications between humans and dolphins, elephants, and/or satyrs that includes "the Cayman Island of their choice." It shouldn't really be possible for a person to own something like that, let alone give it away as a prize in an inventing contest. Even in a cyberpunk universe where the ultimate rule is that of the almighty dollar, it seems . . . excessive. I get that they were trying to go for a modern take on the gleaming dragon hoard, but damn, this guy owns Prince Edward Island (generously returned to the UCAS government), a lost da Vinci notebook, and several original Shakespeare folios? He should not have been allowed to own those things. I feel like even admitting to possessing them could very reasonably be interpreted as a mishandling of antiquities and a crime against the global heritage. And what on Earth gives him the right to bequeath Excalibur to Harlequin, of all people? It's not even in his possession. He had to offer a bounty to whoever could find it.

Then again, his will also disbursed funds to pay for an assassination, so I have to figure that the legalities here are deep into the realm of speculative fiction.

Nonetheless, it somewhat irks me that even the signature "good guy" dragon is such a hoarder. I guess that's part of the whole dragon shtick, though. They are a metaphor for greed, relentless accumulators who can never be satisfied and who barely seem to appreciate or enjoy the riches they've gathered. Dunkelzahn could have replaced the random car he destroyed at any time. He didn't have to make restitution as a bequest in his will. But apparently, he just couldn't stand to part with his 1964 -1/2 candy apple red Ford Mustang convertible while he was alive. . . 

Although, it occurs to me that maybe he replaced the car at the time of the incident and then on the occasion of his death decided that the person whose car he totaled would be a good destination for his much nicer personal car. That's not how it comes across in the text, but it's a valid interpretation. But even with the benefit of the doubt, this whole will thing comes across as someone trying to pull strings and exert control even from beyond the grave. When you consider the tiny size of his bequests, relative to the speculated size of his fortune (estimated to be around 100 trillion nuyen, with an average bequest size of a few million nuyen), well, maybe it's a bit of overdue characterization. Perhaps Dunkelzah was not as different from other dragons as he liked to pretend.

It's something that tracks if you dig into the game's Earthdawn connections (and if you're a fan of those kinds of easter eggs, this is definitely a book you want to read). Mountainshadow, the 4th age dragon most likely to be Dunkelzahn, was aristocratic and haughty, and was strange among his cohort for relying so heavily on humanoid agents, but he never really thought of them as equals. His transformation into a charming talk show guest and approachable man-of-the-people always struck me as a minor inconsistency, but I'm getting a picture here of a guy with a massive stick up his ass who nonetheless wants to convince people he's chill. He's not, as evinced by the fact that even in his will he gives away less than 1 percent of his fortune (and even this figure is skewed by one guy who got 30 billion nuyen and the assumption that things like Prince Edward Island and the megacorp stock transfers are in the 10s of billions range - I'm not sure the author of that one line quite understood how big 100 trillion actually is).

I could see it as something of an arc. Perhaps the events of the last 8000 years have humbled him and he was in the process of becoming the person he was pretending to be. It's a tough call, because the "master manipulator" archetype is usually villain-coded, but theoretically, there's nothing stopping a hero from using similar methods (in much the same way that someone who was really good at fighting and constantly solved problems by punching people in the face would be insufferable in real life, but in rpgs, they're like 90% of the characters you're ever going to play). Still, at the risk of armchair psychoanalyzing a fictional dragon based on nothing but a few scraps of lore and the contents of his (dubiously legal) will, I'd say that need for control, along with its accompanying conviction that you deserve to exercise that control, is a major character flaw that needs to be corrected. There's a fine line between "social responsibility" and "aristocratic paternalism" and it's not clear the Dunkelzahn is on the right side of it.

Of course, this is Shadowrun we're talking about and things being "not clear" is right in its wheelhouse. I can't be entirely mad at Portfolio of a Dragon for being an rpg murder mystery that leaves a bunch of unanswered questions, because answering those questions is one of the goals of playing the game. But I can say that it's one of those cases where ambiguity works at cross purposes to nuance. Is this mystery actually solvable? Is the Draco Foundation working on some kind of posthumous master plan or not? What's the deal with the Jade Dragon of Wind and Fire? I'd feel better if I had more to work off of than a series of writing prompts.

But would that leave enough room for FASA's signature style of punctuating their in-character narration with unproductive asides from the peanut gallery? Seriously, one exchange of comments was "What's the point of this bedtime story?" answered by "Read to the end of the paragraph, drekhead." Well observed. I really feel like I'm on a lightly moderated message board (Captain Chaos is definitely one of those "free speech" mods - when someone complained about a pro-Humanis post, he threatened to ban the complainer for "name-calling." Ah, the 90s.) But is reading this really helping me to better GM an adventure based on Dunkelzahn's will?

Maybe a little. I guess it helps to get into the Shadowrun mindset. I think as a reader, though, I'd prefer more of that hot goss. 

In the end, Portfolio of a Dragon performs better than average on that metric, so I can unreservedly recommend it, even if I think there was more fascinating content to be mined from Pesident Dragon.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked that the main headquarters of the Wuxing corporation were designed with a strict eye towards Feng Shui. My understanding is that this is a real practice that was less known to the American mainstream in the 90s (Shadowrun really dropped the ball when it came to predicting China's role as a major 21st century economic power), but I enjoy it in this context because it's implied that shaping the building's chi will lead to tangible monetary benefits, and that blend of magic and cyberpunk is the soul of the game.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Scoundrel

You know, maybe the true Scoundrels were the friends we made along the way. . . I say, because Complete Scoundrel (Mike McArtor and F. Wesely Schneider) never makes it entirely clear what, exactly, it thinks a "scoundrel" is. Broadly, I think a "scoundrel" (per this book) is supposed to be anyone who is quick-witted, strategic, and sometimes a little bit sneaky. But that really does just describe something like 90% of all D&D characters.

The book must be aware of this, though, because the inspirational media section is all over the place. Like, okay, I'll give you Indiana Jones, but Captain Kirk is a stretch, and Aragorn is a fundamental misread of the character. Then I got into the first chapter and the book starts pitching scoundrels of every alignment and every class and for a second, it annoyed me. I mean, I'm actually kind of intrigued by the idea of a Paladin with scoundrel-ish elements, but, also, there is a definite thematic tension there. Is the Paladin overcoming a scoundrel-y past? Are they using their scoundrel skill to compensate for a deficit of martial strength? Are they slowly losing the plot, re: their holy oath, performing underhanded deeds for the sake of "the greater good?" These are interesting questions, but perhaps they are too interesting for this drive-by treatment and even the Gray Guard prestige class (concept: a Paladin that's allowed to . . . generously interpret their oath for purposes of special operations) seems more like it's trying to substitute class mechanics for a literary theme. In any event, when it started talking about "Lawful Good scoundrels" my knee-jerk reaction was "is it even possible for a character not to be a scoundrel, under this book's definition?"

Eventually, however, I chilled the fuck out and just got on board with the book's jargon. And I'm glad I did, because it's a solid late addition to the game. It's a weird quirk of D&D 3.x that, despite having the most useless niche in the game, the rogue-focused books tend to have the strongest fantasy flavor. I think it comes down to the fact that "highly skilled, but basically mundane, with maybe one or two specific magical abilities" is more or less the quintessential fantasy fiction protagonist. So when you deviate from that ever so slightly, as one might do when designing a prestige class, you wind up with characters and organizations that are ideally suited for complex worldbuilding. The Psibond Agents aren't nearly as powerful as a Telepath Psion, but "what if there were people who could hijack your senses and the strongest of them could subtly nudge you with telepathic suggestions" is a premise that you could base a novel around. And sure, in the balance of the game as a whole, it's kind of a rip-off that skill-based characters have to expend valuable resources to become good at highly specific niche abilities whereas full casters can learn a variety of spells that each have comparable or superior utility (for example, a Psibond Agent needs to be an 11th level character to get Suggestion, but a telepath can get it at level 3 and a bard or wizard can get it at level 5), but when it comes to making good fiction, I really want these more focused magical elements. Give me a neat core ability that explores deeper into its implications as the character grows in power, rather than a grab-bag list of powers that aren't necessarily (or even likely to be) related to each other thematically.

When it comes down to evaluating the book as a whole, I'm torn. The best possible way to play D&D 3.5 is with a party made up of nothing but C-tier classes and if you're doing that, Complete Scoundrel adds a lot. But are you really going to do that? Because if you aren't, then Complete Scoundrel is just a bunch of new C-tier material. The Rod of Ropes is a super cool magic item that shoots grappling hooks and zip lines, but it's never going to compete with the ability to fly. Likewise, skill tricks fill a long-overlooked niche in D&D fantasy by allowing characters with sufficient ranks in a particular skill to access more efficient or effective actions (such as leaping off a horse and attacking an enemy on the way down), but the chosen power level - slightly weaker than feats with similar prerequisites - is the opposite of what it should be. There really needs to be more support for martial characters evolving into "peak human" superheroes at high levels, and Complete Scoundrel never quite gets there.

I guess my approach to these kinds of books is to view them as transitional fossils. We're less than a year and a half away from 4th edition at this point, the new mechanics are probably in a late stage of development, 3.5 is reaching the end of its lifespan, and that is the context for Complete Scoundrel. In that context, what's most interesting to me is how little 4e actually wound up in this book. I know it's theoretically possible, because Book of Nine Swords has been out for awhile, but it looks like maybe that was a one-off. We get references to the Spellthief and the Beguiler, but not the Swordsage. A real pity. What that says to me, though, is that this is a dying branch of the game. More 3.5 after 3.5 as a whole became moribund.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite read that way. There's no real sense of throwing caution to the wind. If I didn't know better, I'd say they were planning on continuing 3.x support for another decade, at least. But if we don't get the wild experimentation of people with nothing left to lose, at least we don't also get a half-assed effort from people who've given up hope. I think the Cloaked Dancer, Master of Masks, Mountebank, and Malconvoker (a demon summoner who's deluded into thinking they can be harnessed to serve the cause of good) are great additions to the game. Likewise, many of the magic items and legendary locations would make for great loot (though maybe only the Frog God's Fane and Iron Wyrm Vault could anchor an adventure by themselves . . . and possibly also the Highest Spire, if you fleshed out the pre-competition intrigue and trash talking). 

Overall, I'd say that Complete Scoundrel is a mature D&D 3.5 supplement, with setting flavor and game mechanics done as well as 3.5 ever did. I'll leave it to you to decide whether that's a recommendation or not.

Which just leaves us with one last order of business - surprise Planescape content!

Yep, one of Sigil's factions makes it into the book as a "scoundrel organization." It's kind of a shock, because as far as I know, this is an isolated incident. None of the other "Complete" books have gone into Planescape lore. And certainly, of the scattered references that pop up from time to time, I've not yet seen a recap of Faction War. So it's very clearly an intentional and loving callback to a classic campaign setting.

And yet, the faction they chose to bring back was The Free League, aka the Indeps aka the "none of the above" faction. Their leadership has been banished to an extradimensional maze, they have fled the city of Sigil, and now they are headquartered in the Outlands where they advance the cause of freedom by . . . not doing much at all, really. They are such big believers in freedom that they have no dues, no resources, no operations, no leadership, and no responsibilities. To join, you simply start wearing their symbol and maybe you, I don't know, oppose tyranny or something, when the opportunity presents itself, and maybe some shopkeepers will see your symbol and give you a discount or feed you rumors. 

I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, here. I'm really, genuinely glad that someone is keeping the torch burning on one my favorite rpg settings (seriously, all the shit-talking I've done about it comes from a place of love), but why these guys, in particular? The only thing that ever kept them together was their self-appointed role as Sigil's defiant political outsiders. It was a running joke. They were the faction that was in denial about being a faction. Take Sigil and the other factions away from them and what's left?

Not much, as it turns out. I guess it was good to see them, but it was the rpg equivalent to running into one of your brother's high-school friends at the supermarket. You vaguely remember having roughly positive interactions with them, and then at some point you'll squint and say, "hey, didn't I play D&D with you that one time?"

Ukss Contribution: This book does one thing that I absolutely adore and wish more rpg supplements would do - it illustrates its concepts and mechanics through these delightful minifictions. Hey, they're talking about a thieves' guild, let's take a peek at one of the guild's secret correspondences. My favorite appears early on. A king is being manipulated by his (dare I say) scoundrel of an advisor - "a cat-sized dragonling."

ZOMG! Sooo cuute! I want one so bad!

Ahem. In any event, there will be some nation of Ukss where the power behind the throne is an unnaturally cunning baby dragon.

Monday, March 25, 2024

(Shadowrun) Super Tuesday

Guys, I need to be real for a moment. It is sooo haard for me to read old bits of politically-themed genre fiction and not immediately try to put it into the context of the 2016 US Presidential election. It's one of those things where, on an intellectual level, I realize that the world was probably always like this, but I still have a vivid memory of my illusions crashing down around me. The only comparable experience I've ever had was back in 2010, when George W Bush published his memoirs and openly admitted to authorizing the US torture program and it became clear that he would face absolutely no consequences from doing so.

Oh, man, just thinking about it is stirring some shit up inside me. I think it might have been genuinely traumatic. I was, what, 28 at the time. I wasn't a rube. I knew the elite had a separate system of justice. But there was a part of me that still, somehow, believed in America. That thought that equality before the law was more than just a pretty slogan. I knew the government did illegal things, but I suppose I took comfort in knowing that those crimes were at least nominally furtive. I figured that if a man would openly confess to committing crimes against humanity, that would be enough to provoke a response, even if he was a President. We have a law. He broke the law. And we don't need hearsay or witnesses or search warrants because he fucking published a book bragging about it! If that wasn't enough to merit an indictment, then the USA's much vaunted rule of law would be an absolute fucking joke.

Spoiler alert: there was no indictment.

But the shocking thing to me is that, despite all that. Despite my absolute disgust at the self-serving cravenness of the Democratic party leadership in failing to hold Bush accountable, there was still a small scrap of faith left to extinguish, because the election of Donald Trump shocked the hell out of me. I'd come to terms with the notion that all my elected officials, as contentious as their public disagreements could be, were essentially part of the same social circle and had a broad consensus on issues like like elite legal impunity. But I also, apparently, assumed that they were smart, self-aware people who at least valued the appearance of competence, respectability, and just a general connection to our basic physical reality. 

And, yeah . . .

Which is maybe too heavy a thought to bring into a silly 1996 book about a hypothetical 2057 election where one of the candidates is a literal dragon, but my reactions are my reactions and when I read Super Tuesday (Stephen Kenson with background material by Tom Dowd) and it says "Brackhaven is a racist with secret ties to the Humanis Policlub. He knows that he cannot express many of his more radical racial opinions if he wants to succeed in his quest for public office, so he has become very skilled in hiding the depths of his bigotry while subtly promoting racism and discrimination in his sphere of influence." Well, I just want to scream:

YOU KNOW JACK SHIT ABOUT POLITICS. US ELECTIONS ARE SCREAMING MAWS OF CHAOS, A CARNIVAL OF THE ID, A NATIONAL PSYCHODRAMA WRIT LARGE WHERE THE STAKES ARE HUMAN LIVES. RESPECTABILITY IS ACTUALLY A DISADVANTAGE BECAUSE IT IMPLIES THAT YOU LACK THE STRENGTH OF WILL TO FORCE THE ELECTORATE TO EMBRACE THE ABSURD!

But that's not really fair. I'm not really mad at FASA. I'm mad at my younger self.  I should probably be more forgiving, though. I can't imagine that I would ever have a political conviction strong enough to line up and execute 100,000 of the opposition's grandmas, so how could I (or anyone, really) have predicted that the 2020 Republicans would regard it as disqualifying for a candidate to not do it to their own grandmas?

It does, however, make reading a book like this into a surreal experience. It's obvious that Dunkelzahn, with his breathlessly pious yet technocratic 90s liberalism, was being set up as the "good ending" candidate. And why not? This is a fantasy game after all. It's fun to imagine a dragon president. And back in the Before Times, I loved this plot point (even if I was only familiar with it from the 3e setting recap). But now, in the year 2024?

I read his announcement speech, and when it came to the stirring message of hope and unity, "over the past three hundred-odd years, you have managed to create and sustain a civilization based not on shared blood or cultural conformity, but on shared ideals" my thought was not "wow, what a wise and perceptive dragon" or even "wow, what a cunningly manipulative dragon." It was, "wow, this clown would have absolutely adored Hamilton."

And look, I loved Hamilton too. I still think LMM is a national treasure. But looking back with the benefit of hindsight, we should have all read the fucking room. 

It's embarrassing to admit, but I spent a significant portion of my time here scrutinizing the text for parallels between Brackhaven and Trump. There were some, even aside from both being racists. They were both the scions of privilege who grew up as borderline-failing students only to graduate into a career of lucratively unethical business dealings and both had fraught relationships with their more traditionally successful (and super racist) fathers. But it's likely that those were not consciously established parallels. My memory of this time was dim, but I'm pretty sure Trump was still in his "tabloid fixture national punchline" phase and Brackhaven is meant to be a more serious, credible villain than that. The similarities likely come down to the fact that this particular kind of character has been a persistent blight on the body politic since the founding of the country. Super Tuesday might, therefor, have some insight into a dangerous tendency in American politics, were it not for the fact that it wholesale replaces the country's racial baggage with metahuman nonsense.

It's something I've come to recognize as a FASA trademark. Someone down at HQ must have been fairly well-educated about these matters, relative to the standards of the time, because they keep using progressive ideas to interrogate fantasy tropes, but because they focus on making such nuanced fantasy, they keep giving us these ice-cold takes on real world political issues. One of the commentors actually points out that America is built on stolen land and this provokes an unhinged rebuttal from the white guy - but Captain Chaos, moderator of the Shadowland BBS, brutally shuts that down, deleting 1mp worth of racist ranting . . . leaving only the racial slur the guy used to open the post.

They're sort of the anti-White Wolf in this regard. White Wolf wore its real-world politics on its sleeve, and in my opinion was sincerely and enthusuastically opposed to the various -isms, but would just consistently whiff on being good representation, thanks in large part to its unreflective use of problematic genre tropes. 

Or, to put it another way, compare the fates of the early-appearing queer characters in each franchise. The bisexual heir to a corporate fortune, first introduced in Bug City, meets his canonical end in one of Super Tuesday's adventures - he is quite predictably eaten by one of the giant mantises that was keeping him captive. Whereas the modern-day bard from Tradition Book: Verbena underoges a veritable checklist of gay trauma, to an absolutely upsetting degree, but does at least manage to survive until Revised edition. Those were our options, apparently.  A guy whose sexuality is treated with same sort of casual matter-of-factness as any straight persons, but who is unceremoniously killed off between adventures or a guy who sticks around and is a major part of the story, but the story is an anvilicious tale of highly stereotypical suffering.

I don't know how much organizational continuity exists between old FASA and new FASA, but if anyone wants to make it up to me, I am willing to accept repayment in the form of more Rozko the Unruly content.

But I'm rambling now. I'm more than a thousand words into a post about a silly, 30-year-old rpg supplement and I've made it weird and political and alienating and I've only covered, like a fifth of the actual book. And maybe, if I were a more sensible person, I'd allow this moment of self-reflection to inspire me to go back and start over from scratch. 

I'm not going to do that, however, because Super Tuesday is, in fact, weird and political and alienating. Those are its best features. I mean, it's a book that features a dragon running for president and the dragon is the least interesting thing about it. I haven't even told you Kenneth Brackhaven's big secret yet.

I should. Because it's fucked up. But I'm afraid, because it's the kind of fucked up where I'm not sure I could untangle it even as a pure fantasy conceit and if, during the course of explaining it, I allow myself for even a moment to remember that Shadowrun uses bigotry against metahumans as a stand-in for real-world racism, I will literally fucking implode from pure critical inadequacy.

But because I love what I do, here it goes - the Kenneth Brackhaven who is running for president as a crypto-fascist is not the real Kenneth Brakhaven. Charles Brakhaven's original sun transformed into an ork in the 2021 goblination event. Papa Brakhaven murdered his new ork son in his hospital bed and then some how . . . procured a new child of approximately the same age, who he brainwashed into believing he was the real Kenneth. And then that child grew up to be a huge, fucking racist.

What do I even say to something like that? There's an intuition I've developed as an amatuer critic that tells me there's a lot to say here. Someone who was good at unpacking bullshit would have plenty of material to work with. Words dance in my head. Words like "white rage" and "the intersection between the objectification of children and the objectification of subaltern classes." Maybe even, eventually, "generational trauma" and "is deploying ableist tropes in service to a story about racism more abelist or more racist."

Mostly, though, it's a ringing klaxon: "Do not UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES de-metaphorize this!!!"

There were times when my mind drifted in that direction. Where I remembered the strange quirk of genetics that could cause white parents with African ancestry to have a dark-skinned child. And what might happen if such an event occurred to a prominent member of the KKK. But then, blessedly, my brain shut down in self defense. If you find yourself drawn to continue the thought, I understand, but please do me a favor - after you win history's most inevitable Oscar, kindly leave me out of your acceptance speech.

The adventure itself was pretty good. It was a truncated noir thriller where you discover a dangerous secret about a powerful man and there are meetings and hit-men and payoffs and dead man's drops and ultimately you have to make a choice - do youreveal the truth, knowing that you'll make terrible enemies and ultimately very little will change or do you bury this secret and pretend you never heard it, knowing that once more wicked men will prosper due to your inaction? The only real flaw with the adventure is the ghost of the real Kenneth Brackhaven, who pesters the characters for justice whenever it looks like they'll be too pragmatic. Having him kick things off with a chance haunting that inspires the characters to dig deeper is a nice nod to Shadowrun's fantasy elements. But if you need him to stick around to keep the adventure on track, you shouldn't be running the adventure.

Finally, we come to the real, burning question: which of the six candidates (it's unclear how much of Canada is in the United Canadian and American States, but apparently the US's current incentives towards a two party system are not relevant) I would vote for?

The official endorsement of the editorial board of this blog for the 2057 UCAS presidential election must go to the Democratic party candidate, Arthur Vogel. An unusually effective and committed environmental lawyer, who has secured big settlements for many high profile cases, he has that rare combination of personal principles and ruthless pragmatism that makes for a truly great political reformer. He may lack Dunkelzahn's superhuman intellect, but he also lacks the dragon's aristocratic paternalism.  No candidate is more qualified to go toe-to-toe with the megacorporations on behalf of the UCAS public. 

Of course, I have the advantage of knowing Vogel's dirty little secret,  and while I'm not entirely sure how it played in 1996 (the words "protection racket" may have been used), in 2024, in the context of a crime caper rpg, it makes him look cool as shit.

Like, in the real world, I would not approve of a high powered lawyer who sued corporate polluters and then, when it looked like negotiations would stall, he'd tap his contacts in the radical environmentalist movement to engage in targeted ecoterrorism designed to bring the corporation back to the table.  However, the name of the game is "Shadowrun" and all the megacorporations he's squeezing also use deniable black ops to get their way. If people are already out there hiring criminals for the sake of shareholder profits, then it's nice to know that someone is out there doing it for the good guys too.

The way the book framed the adventure was a little weird, though. It's treated like a revenge thriller, but it's never quite clear what this guy wants revenge for. Sure, he is the sole survivor of an op that went sideways, horribly maiming him in the process, but the overall mission was a success. Vogel won the case, the chemical in question was banned, and the corporation never recovered financially from the hit.

I could see someone resenting the fact that being a deniable asset means poor post-op support or that while everyone has their part to play in the revolution, some people's part is to nearly get killed in terrorist attacks and other people's part is three martini lunches and six figure salaries. But honestly, if I'm an ecoterrorist, willing to lay down my life for Mother Gaia, then I really want someone like Vogel on my side - an educated professional with the knowledge, resources, and connections to turn my radical direct action into lasting legal victories.

So I  kind of have to assume that the antagonist is so overwhelmed by grief and pain that he's no longer thinking clearly. Otherwise, the adventure would be very weird with its "how fitting, the environmental activist, killed by the very chemical he fought to have banned, on account of its unnecessary deadliness. Ironic."

Overall, I'd say that Super Tuesday would be a very effective adventure series.  . . were it not a relic of our lost national innocence. I can only hope that coming years will leave us with a democracy for it to fail to represent. Nothing would depress me more than looking at old cyberpunk and wistfully mourning it's unrealistic optimism.

Ukss Contribution: The second adventure has the PCs dosed with a substance that erases their recent memories. Later when the people that dosed them are trying to recover a stolen item the PCs were trying to traffic, the investigation is stymied by their total and sincere lack of memory about the time period when the crime took place. Bit of an own goal by Tir Tangir. But the potential for such hilarity makes Laes, the memory erasing drug, a nice inclusion for the world of Ukss. There will probably also be a polity that uses it for routine border enforcement, just like the Tir, because I like to see the abuse of power backfire.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Psionic

Complete Psionic (Bruce R Cordell and Christopher Lindsay) is a deeply weird book. The mean way to put it is "it feels like a psionics book for people who don't like psionics." The nice way to put it is . . . "hey, man, I get it. Psionics are an acquired taste and don't exactly fit in with D&D's overall vibe."

Taken on its own merits, Complete Psionic is a fine book, but, well . . . it fits in with D&D's overall vibe. That's why you're going to want to use it. You like the Expanded Psionics Handbook's spell point system, but you want to play a cleric or a paladin.

I'm not exaggerating. One of the prestige classes is called the "Illumine Blade" and they build off EPH's Soulknife class to create a psychic blade infused with positive energy that is especially inimical to undead. They're a cool class with an attractive niche - you're exploding skeletons with a holy light sabre - but there's nothing even the slightest bit new age or weird-tales-esque about them. Call me a grump if you must, but in my day, psionics was either crystals and meditation or biopunk aliens from beyond the realms of human understanding, and paladins were something else entirely.

I mean, the book isn't totally unhip. Illithids are here, and PCs can buy a series of heritage feats to gradually transform into one. Many of the magic items incorporate crystals. There are two distinct powers that let you explode someone's head like in Scanners. And the new Synad race - human-looking aliens that have a three-part composite mind and manifest ghostly extra heads when their psychic energy is low - is properly weird. But it never quite reaches the two previous psionic books' levels of genre-bending.

Which leaves me wondering - why bother bringing psionics into this at all? Why not just give more stuff to regular spellcasters (for example, there is nothing at all that would break about the Storm Disciple class if you replaced its manifester levels with spellcaster levels)? I'm not complaining. I like psionics both as a genre and as a system. I could easily see myself running a game where the psion class is reskinned to represent the setting's wizards. But there is something inherently unsettling about seeing a fault line, even if it's in no danger of being an immediate problem.

Honestly, though, my notes for this one were pretty sparse. Mostly just nitpicking rules decisions - like why can't the granted power from a psionic location be renewed after it wears off? You go to the Crystal Node, attune with it, and gain 5 extra power points for the next year, but then once that year is up, you gain nothing by going back. And it's unclear exactly what the balance consideration is really supposed to be? If 5 extra power points are too strong to give someone indefinitely, then they are too strong to for a year's worth of adventures (which may well be an entire campaign, rendering the limitation truly moot). Similarly, if you can trust a PC to have them for a whole year, it's unlikely that something new is going to break in year 2. But really? It would be a pissant move for me to make that the book's problem. It's the easiest thing in the world to houserule.

Setting those aside, the other theme of my notes is "things I liked" - the aforementioned synads, the implication that there's a mountain range whose frequent storms are caused by frolicking blue dragons (I choose to believe that they're frolicking because the color-coded dragon alignments can kiss my ass), or the feat that lets you wear an astral construct as armor. Why are there not more ectoplasmic mechs in fiction? The world demands an answer!

Overall, I'd say that Complete Psionic will linger in my mind as "more D&D" and that's okay. I may be happiest when I pick up a new D&D book and it shows me something that's not quite D&D, but I'm also perfectly content with excess. We are a "more is more" blog around these parts, and on that score Complete Psionic delivers.

Ukss Contribution: Synads. They're strange and unprecedented enough to pose a real challenge to incorporate, but I think I'm up for it. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

(Shadowrun) Bug City

One thing I really appreciate about these old FASA books is their unabashed fiction-first approach. It makes them easy to read. Instead of feeling like I'm pushing my way through a series of encyclopedia entries, I feel like I'm listening in on a conversation, where characters with different personalities and points of view react to interesting fantasy/sci-fi happenings in a realistic way.

The downside of this is that sometimes, as happens in Bug City, you'll get a situation where you spend 2-3 pages of valuable rpg supplement real estate on technobabble error messages, characters shouting each other's names in a panicked role-call, and just generally being confused. Yeah, congratulations FASA, you effectively communicated the confusing nature of the early days of the Chicago quarantine by being legitimately confusing to me, as a reader. What's going on? Bedlam. I get it. A more responsible rpg supplement would have condensed that down to a single sentence, "The underground shadowrunner message boards were in a panic as access to the outside grid was shut down," but you do you.

And, if I'm being honest, I'd have found my suggested approach to be terribly dry, so there are advantages to doing it your way. It's just not very efficient.

Granted, efficiency isn't necessarily what you want when you're trying to tell a fantasy/sci-fi/horror story about a city being locked down and abandoned after an extradimensional invasion by body-snatching bug spirits, but just a little bit more efficiency might have helped me focus more on potential shadowrunning activities. As it was, I spent most of the book thinking, "whoa, these guys are really screwed, aren't they?"

As an adventuring environment, bug-ridden Chicago has a lot going for it. You're trapped behind these makeshift walls, and if you get too close to the barrier, the UCAS military will gun you down. There's an oppressive claustrophobia to it that really heightens the bleakness of the breakdown of public order, the roving gangs and warlords (though the book doesn't actually make clear what the difference is), and the brutal survival elements (money is basically worthless, so you have to barter and ration your essential equipment if you're going to get anything done). Then you have the insect spirits themselves as a persistent inhuman threat, combining body horror with the reflexive disgust that comes from seeing a really gross bug. 

There's a tenor of apocalyptic desperation where Bug City would work really well - you're fighting monsters with one hand and defending yourself from human threats with the other, all the while the world is falling down around you and there's a sense that it doesn't need to be that way. If the UCAS were a better government, if it actually cared about its people, it wouldn't have abandoned them. It's a pointless waste of human life and potential, driven by a timorous and indifferent response to a genuine outside context problem. You can definitely make that into a memorable game.

The only thing that really holds Bug City back is the titular bugs. So much about the insect spirits is needlessly . . .  Shadowrun-y. The fact that they're spirits, for one. It's a decision that's very logically rooted in the setting metaphysics - they're invaders from the metaplanes, those uncharted spirit worlds beyond the astral that no one's quite sure whether they literally exist or are created whenever a person thinks about them too hard - but their origin overwhelms every other interesting thing about them. The reason the locals are having such a hard time dealing with the invasion has more to do with the fact that the invaders are spirits than the fact that they are bugs. Some of the creatures spend most of their time manifested, and nobody's sure why they do that because in astral space they are immune to most conventional weapons. They need to infect physical bodies in order to reproduce, but a successful reproduction results in a new spirit and the half-bug physical creatures known as "flesh forms" are just weak merges. Someone tried to blow up a hive with a nuclear bomb, and that didn't really kill them, but it did cause inspect spirits throughout the containment zone to go into a kind of torpor where they rest inactively in the astral realm until strong magic passes too close and they wake up again. And this last thing is a big mystery because magical theory suggests a nuclear bomb shouldn't have done anything at all.

That's not how you do zerg, guys. The way I see it, the insect spirits need three traits to be an effective apocalypse/horror threat. First, they need to be primarily physical and act mostly in the physical world. You need to be under the impression that this is a threat you can answer primarily with bullets. Second, they need to reproduce and expand at an exponential rate, so that it becomes clear that containment was never a viable long-term plan. Finally, they need to be just strange enough that your most obvious ideas won't necessarily work. Nuking the hive buys you some time, but it doesn't actually decisively solve the problem.

The way I'd do it is reverse the relationship between true forms and flesh forms. As it is, only the most powerful insect spirits can exist as pure spirits, which ultimately means that their attempt to establish a beachhead in the physical world is more of a side-effect of the queens' presence in the astral than it is a direct goal. If they were weak and tenuous in astral form and only really gained their full powers in physical form, then that makes the physical world the ultimate prize in the conflict. Destroying their physical bodies would be a significant victory, but it's not decisive, because they can bounce back from spirit form.

Or to put it another way, fighting a queen is supposed to be the boss battle, but if the queens are strongest as true form spirits, then only the magical characters can truly contribute. If their power comes instead from their physical forms, then the climax of the adventure happens when the whole party is beating the shit out of them, and the part about getting rid of them once and for all by banishing their spirits back to the metaplanes can be part of the denouement. Or, maybe, the queens are just helpless baby factories that would be easily dispatched . . . if you didn't have all these flesh form workers and soldiers in the way. 

It's a minor complaint, though. I wonder if it just comes from having high-level access to the mechanics of the game. Maybe players who were encountering flesh forms as terrain hazards in unrelated heist or human v human conflict games would just view them as creepy bug monsters (i.e. all they ever had to be). 

This is also, indirectly, a sourcebook about using the city of Chicago in the Shadowrun universe. The setting chapter is very helpfully written as an "out of date" guide to Chicago as it was, with insect-invasion-related changes added on as annotations to the text. It's a useful bit of cyberpunk worldbuilding, with corporate conflict, a corrupt relationship between city hall and organized crime, and the occasional weird fantasy stuff.

I'm not sure how I feel about "ghoul rights" being framed as a civil rights issue. Yes, they are fully intelligent people, suffering from a disease that they didn't ask for (there's even talk of second-generation ghouls, who were born infected), but some of them also really sound like they want to kill and eat people. I guess I'd need a little bit more context to know for sure which side I'm on (it's unclear exactly how radical "murder for purposes of anthropophagy" is among Chicago's ghouls). Post-invasion, they make an interesting third faction - able to defend themselves against the insect spirits, thanks to their ghoul powers, but with no love lost for uninfected metahumans, who herded them into an open-air prison and threatened to wipe them out before all this shit went down. I do feel like Ghoultown's post-apocalyptic practice of hiring street gangs to bring them "food" (i.e. living humans who they will subsequently kill and eat) makes them considerably less sympathetic. But I do kind of like the idea the containment zone is trapped between an incipient bug apocalypse and an incipient zombie apocalypse, and the zombies just happen to be the doom that can be reasoned with.

Finally, I've got to say something a bit uncomfortable - this is a book about futuristic sci-fi Chicago that does not have a single identifiably Black character. A couple of the art pieces could be interpreted to have Black subjects, but it's ambiguous (because it's a black-and-white drawing with moody lighting and post-apocalyptic levels of dirt and ash). Certainly, none of the named characters in the "movers and shakers" section were identified that way (though not all are white - one of them is Sioux). I'm pretty sure this is just a 1994 oops, but it's particularly noticeable here because there is a bit of fly-by bisexual representation (the son of a powerful corporate executive who has not yet been eaten his mantis spirt domme because he's too cute). So we know for a fact that FASA was capable of remembering this sort of thing, but they inexplicably didn't

Overall, I thought this was a pretty fun book that pitches a campaign I'd actually want to play (with only a little bit of tweaking), but it doesn't really reach the heights of FASA at its best, so I'm inclined to judge it more harshly than if I were reading the exact same book from some of its contemporaries. Still, I bought it because it filled a metaplot gap that I'd long been curious about, and I was largely satisfied with its performance in that regard. I guess, technically, it's the second-best Shadowrun book I've read so far (Threats was more interesting and more gameable), but I have a feeling that's because I'm just getting started.

Ukss Contribution: In the old, pre-invasion Chicago, there was a series of conflicts known popularly as "the Alderman Wars." As a concept, it's not that amusing: different districts of the city competed for resources and tax dollars, so their local representatives hired criminals to wage proxy wars on each other in a mad scramble for civic graft. But I do find the name to be absolutely precious. I think it's because "alderman" is such a specific and old-timey sounding title. It adds a certain charming fin de siecle quality to your wide-ranging gang wars. There will be a city in Ukss with a similar governmental structure that is similarly corrupt.