Friday, June 14, 2024

Exalted: 2nd Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My 500th book!

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

Whoa!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 6, 2024

(Shadowrun) Predator and Prey and Critters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

(d20) Mindshadows

First things first, I gotta roast the title. Mindshadows? That's nothing. It references literally none of the book's (written by: Kevin Brennan and James Maliszewski) lore or mechanics. I guess, if I'm being generous, there is a religion based on the study of psionics. That could be the "mind" part of Mindshadows, but that would leave the "shadows" part unaccounted for. Also, the religion doesn't really frame psionics as "the power of the mind." It's more about "strengthening the will and purifying the soul through the study of psionics." The mind is involved, obviously, but the founder of the religion actually thought her followers focused too much on the mind, at the expense of the body.

Oh, wow, I just caught myself spiraling. I was thinking, "maybe it's that improper emphasis on the mind that casts a shadow on the religion's spiritual teachings . . . how deep does this rabbit hole go?" But that's ridiculous. The rabbit hole goes nowhere. It's not that deep. Green Ronin put out a lot of d20 books, enough that they were probably just pulling titles out of a hat. "Mind" = psionics. "Shadows" = "We already used Mindscapes for a different book."

I swear, though, that this digression (yes, I am preemptively digressing from things even before I begin them - deal with it) has a point - Mindshadows deserves a better title, because it is a full, original campaign setting and not, as the title might imply, a quick and dirty 3rd party psionics supplement. The trick is coming up with a good one.

I think the most direct title would be "Naranjan." That's what the book is about. The only problem with that is that the bulk of the early 2000s d20 fandom don't know what a "Naranjan" is. Even with the internet, I'm not entirely sure. It looks like an alternate spelling of the Sanskrit name "Niranjan," (meaning, roughly, "pure" or "spotless") which actually makes a certain degree of sense, considering that in this context it's the name for a fantasy setting inspired (mostly) by India.

But would that have been enough to draw the interest of its target audience? You'd probably need a subtitle. My gut instinct would be to pitch something pulp-inspired like "The Spice Coast and Beyond" or "In the Jungles of the Serpent God," but those might have some unfortunate Orientalist subtext. . .

Which brings us to the elephant in the room (strangely, despite being inspired by India, elephants are nowhere to be seen ::sadface::) - this book might actually be Not Okay. Personally, I liked it (and if I'd been exposed to it closer to its original publication date, I'd have probably loved it), but that means precisely fuck all. It really just goes to show my own ignorance of Indian culture and history. What I do have is the author's account of how the setting was put together:

While the Mindshadows setting is inspired by the history and legends of southeast Asia (primarily those of the Indian subcontinent), it is nonetheless a work of fiction. The authors also drew inspiration from the wuxia films of Hong Kong cinema, from anime, and from a variety of standard fantasy venues. In other words, Mindshadows bears about as much a resemblance to actual Indian history, society, and religion as most fantasy settings bear to medieval Europe - which is to say, not much. If you're familiar with India's history and language, you may recognize that various words and concepts are not used in an entirely accurate fashion here. The alterations are intentional and made in the interests of a good story. No disrespect is intended.

And my initial thought is, "yep, that's what passed for covering your ass back in 2003." But then, I think, mainline D&D, just a little earlier, released a book whose name I don't even want to say, and their ass-covering was much worse. And who am I to talk really? I love that polyglot, anachronistic style of fantasy worldbuilding that just tosses stuff in because it's cool and I've never really been able to reconcile the tension between avoiding egregious cultural appropriation and being such an over-cautious fuddy-duddy that I inadvertently say, "non-Europeans aren't allowed to play in this sandbox."

The position I have settled on is basically, "execution counts for a lot." That you can't actually trust to a particular process or set of principles - you have to just make the actual thing and course correct as necessary when you inevitably get some things wrong. This is probably a good thing for Mindshadows, because its process, as described, is pretty much a guide of what not to do, but I don't know enough about the subject matter to say what it might have gotten wrong.

I can say that parts of it are pretty cool, though. There are competing martial arts schools where you can learn psychic techniques that blur the line between physical discipline and spiritually enlightened magic. The tottering empire at the heart of the setting establishes its dominance by deploying Juggernauts - magical mechs that can be up to colossal size. The theology of the local religions (fantasy Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, basically) is better thought out than the nonsense we see in "standard" D&D. The history is dynamic, with plenty of potential for adventurer-driven changes in the immediate future.

But if I'm looking for things to be offended by, well . . . There are cannibalistic jungle-dwelling elves. The Yuan-ti (snake people) reproduce by magically impregnating their humanoid slaves. And, of course, there's the oppressive caste system that various factions will either protect or rebel against.

The last one is especially hard for me, because I don't want to come down automatically on the side of "depicting a regressive custom is intrinsically problematic," but on the other hand this is a sensitive issue and European cultures have a history of using this exact thing to other the people of Southeast Asia. From my perspective, Mindshadows seems pretty evenhanded - it's portrayed as a bad thing, generally, but the people of Naranjan are no better or worse than anyone else. The movement to oppose the system is autochthonic, driven entirely by the people most affected by it. If anything, it's too neutral and fact-focused. It's not particularly classist, and there's no indication that the lower castes live down to the stereotypes about them, but it's also lacking in class consciousness. The rebels against the system are not especially coded as protagonists. The system simply is what it is.

I think it's one of those things where I, as a white person, would be extremely reluctant to tell this particular story. To do it correctly, you have to thread the needle between honest depiction of the practice, the colonialist hypocrisy that attaches to many English-language accounts, and the ongoing political challenges of real-world India. I think it would require a level of nuanced cultural understanding that I could not realistically attain. 

But then again, Messrs. Brennan and Maliszewski already did it 20 years ago, so I'm being a bit of a Monday-morning quarterback here.

Overall, I'd say Mindshadows is exactly the sort of thing that I'm always eager to read and this specific book is an efficient and well-executed compact campaign setting that could easily have been a well-received AD&D 2nd edition boxed set. Which makes it kind of miraculous that I just randomly snagged it for five bucks at one of my irregular visits to the local gaming store c. 2023. I think I'd feel a lot better about it if I'd read an updated version that had been reviewed by a compensated sensitivity reader. As it is, I've got the surreal sensation of having read something that would have been grandfathered in as "a problematic favorite of my youth" only after the grandfathering period has long passed.

Ukss Contribution: The Juggernauts in general are pretty great, but looking at the Juggernaut creation tables, the combination of material and size that most intrigues me is Colossal and Stone. The idea of using a 75-foot animated statue as an engine of war is exactly my aesthetic. 

Monday, June 3, 2024

(Shadowrun) Blood in the Boardroom

Blood in the Boardroom (Brian Schoner) is a book that falls into the infamous "we made our edition-change into a metaplot adventure so we could charge you extra for it" subgenre of rpg adventures. Structurally, it's very similar to Mob War! - you've got a series of events that you're meant to respond to, likely by committing crimes for pay. The main difference between the two is that Mob War! features NPCs and situations the players are likely to become involved with and Blood in the Boardroom does . . . the opposite of that.

I mean, okay, in the world of Shadowrun it's been established, from the 1st edition core, that the rich and powerful are in the habit of hiring expendable mercenaries from the dregs of society. So when Buttercup, the mysterious spiritual entity and de facto head of the Yamatetsu corporation needs to safeguard the secret of her true name from her rivals on the board of directors or Leonard Aurelius wants to recover the antique chess piece he received in Dunkelzahn's will, well they're going to hire someone and those someones may as well be the PCs.

It's just . . . it really doesn't feel like that's the point, you know. Half the NPCs in this book are Big Names in Canon and it never really feels like you're really being given the go-ahead to change the destiny of Damien Knight or Richard Villiers. It feels more like you're meant to Forest Gump your way through the Sixth World's tabloid pages.

Which isn't a terrible thing, per se. You get a chance to rob a space station, which is not the sort of heist you can do unless you're working for someone on the scale of Leonard Aurelius. And I suppose, if you're a late 2nd edition player, there's a certain thrill that comes from reading the setting section of the 3rd edition core and seeing a series of events your character had a peripheral hand in bringing about. But make no mistake, at no point did this book make me forget that its primary purpose is to advance the game's timeline from 2057 to 2060.

I guess I enjoyed it though. I'm pretty invested in the Shadowrun timeline at this point, so I can sincerely stroke my beard and say, "hmm, that Richard Villiers is pretty lucky the way his corporate rivals keep dying under mysterious circumstances." Likewise, I may have experienced a genuine emotional reaction when I learned that Arthur Vogel, formerly the world's coolest lawyer, is now the largest single shareholder in Ares Macrotechnology. Aw, c'mon man, I voted for you in the 2057 UCAS Presidential election, please tell me you haven't gone corporate!

Is this enough to carry the whole book, though? It was worth it for me because I'm in a "read the books for entertainment without ever following through with a real game" mindset, but I think if I were GMing Shadowrun, I'd be reluctant to use this book's adventure ideas just because they require the PCs to be ridiculously well-connected (and the aftermath sections of the adventures suggest that if they weren't connected at the beginning of the adventure, they will be at the end). On the other hand, do I really want a game setting where the players can't get involved in the big-time events? 

I think Blood in the Boardroom could work if it were more explicitly a high-level supplement for experienced Shadowrun characters. It's a good source of meaty assignments for top-tier mercenaries. Unfortunately, it never really presents itself that way, so there's little warning that there is not much to interest low-level gutter punks.

Unless . . . the title itself is the warning? Like maybe someone who was sufficiently familiar with the Shadowrun ethos would automatically realize that the boardroom is no place for newbs. . .

Aw well, it's got more canon, and that's enough for me.

Ukss Contribution: One of the adventures features of form of Black IC (dangerous Intrusion Countermeasure software for secure computers) that causes a decker (hacker) to start indiscriminately blabbing all their secrets. I had no idea the setting's brain-hacking technology was that advanced, but more than that, it is probably one of the most hilarious things you could do to someone who tried to steal your shit.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

(d20) Crusades of Valor

So here's the thing about fantasy roleplaying - it's kind of ridiculous. We can say all we want that we're participating in a modern-day version of the ancient tradition of communal storytelling. That we are carrying a torch passed from ancestor to ancestor since the earliest homo sapiens first learned to imagine the world not as it was, but as it could be. That it is a shared experience - of friendship, of creativity, of culture in its purest form.

And it can be that, sometimes. In fact, I'd say that on balance it's more enrching and fulfilling than about 90% of the stuff I do on any given day. But also, we are goofy little nerds who make up silly little bits of fluff and gossamer, stream-of-consciousness-style, with nothing even approaching a polished artistic style (it's why I took to blogging so easily).

Nowhere have I seen this dichotomy more eloquently laid out than in Crusades of Valor (Paul Cockburn). This is a goofy, goofy book inspired by a terrible historical atrocity. The "crusades" mentioned in the title may be off-brand fantasy knockoffs, but the shadow of the real Crusades looms large, both in the writing and in the aesthetics of the art. The cover has armored men on horseback, flying the Polish flag. The afterword rues the victims of September 11th. We are meant to think about the Crusades.

But what the book is about is fantasy religious wars in general. Like maybe one side follows the god of the sun and another follows the goddess of spiders (proper nouns from standard D&D canon are nowhere to be seen, but it wasn't hard to pick up on the winking) and you sort of arbitrarily assign one the role of Christianity and the other the role of Islam.

(Or, at least, I'm willing to meet the book halfway and assume it's arbitrary. Among the sample knightly orders there is a group of evil orc, goblin, and hobgoblin knights who call themselves "the Jihad" and that's not a great look.)

The end result is that you can see both halves of the essential RPGer paradox - the book takes itself extremely seriously, as befits its extremely serious subject matter, but also there are gnomes and shit.

Awhile back I read the AD&D Crusades sourcebook, about the literal historical crusades, and my reaction was essentially, "It's really uncomfortable to roleplay in this particular bit of history, I'd rather not do it, but I appreciate that they went through the trouble of shutting down the 'Deus Vult' crap." By contrast, this book is about nothing real, but its "Deus Vult" energy is off the fucking charts.

Is that okay? There's a part of me that feels like I should be a scold about this and say that it's wrong to cast a silly fantasy story in the shape of a real horror, but there's another part of me that's like, "hey, that's what roleplaying is, isn't it?" Thwarting villainous deeds will inevitably harken back to real crimes because our notions of what is and is not villainous are formed in reality. Even the super-made-up stuff like a necromancer stealing souls and animating the dead can evoke the imagery of serial killers and abusers.

Yet there is a spectrum of uncomfortableness here. Having the PCs fight a dozen goblins who have taken to banitry along the King's Road feels a lot less icky than fighting a dozen goblins marching up the King's Road under the banner of Jihad. I think it's because the former case allows you to gloss over the implicit racial coding. It's not a clash of civilizations, you're just responding to a particular set of circumstances. Except that just about every iteration of D&D has really leaned into the "clash of civilizations" mindset and used that as an explanation for why the unfortunate circumstances with the goblins just keep on happening.

So, in a way, I'd be something of a hypocrite if I didn't like Crusades of Valor.

Hmm. . .

Anyway, there were parts of the book I liked. It's engagingly written and has a good breakdown of how these sorts of identitarian conflicts can gradually escalate. There's some good advice on how to treat the pre-war period as a time of looming dread. The apocalyptic imagery of gods clashing as their respective human followers wage war down below is quite evocative. I'm really impresed with the idea that a fantasy crusade can presage a breakdown of the natural order.

The book's biggest flaw, apart from perhaps its central premise, is that a couple of pages feature these gratuitous and out-of-place pictures of naked women. They weren't particularly offensive, but they did wind up changing the book's whole vibe, and not for the better. 

Overall, I thought this book was overly niche. Despite its attempts at abstraction, it really doubles down on treating every D&D religion like it was medieval Catholicism, like, in a way that goes way beyond the usual careless subtext. I can't imagine it would have very much to offer a setting that went out of its way to avoid that trope. You might get some mileage out of the include mass combat system (and the GM advice for running a wartime game is pretty solid), but it's barebones. I think, if you have need of something like this, you could do worse, but I can't imagine myself every having that particular need.

Ukss Contribution: The Order of Glass. They're the knighly crusader order who are sworn to protect the honor of the God of Thieves, which doesn't actually make a lot of sense, but I do like the name.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Coyote & Crow

 Coyote & Crow put me in the difficult position of having to compartmentalize my usual nitpicking. I have a long and well-documented habit of reading a sci-fi or fantasy rpg, laser-focusing on one little bit of setting minutae (like lunar waste management or whether or not gnomes can fuck now) and turning it into a whole thing. And if I did that with this book, it would have been perfectly consistent with my established character, but it would also have been highly problematic. 

Because more than just about any other book I've read, Coyote & Crow reads as a deeply personal labor of love. This isn't just a science-fantasy rpg about an alternate history where the European colonization of the Americas never happened. It's also an attempt to rebut the ideology of colonialism, both as a general historical and cultural force and as one of the unspoken pillars of the modern fantasy genre.

So I could have my usual fun of getting into the weeds of something like the setting's canonical lack of artillery or weaponized high explosives and the serious implications that would have had for the role of defensive fortifications in the All Tribes War. But that would run the risk of me spinning off into a neck-bearded rant about how, actually, the European way of doing things was inevitable. And I don't want to do that.

Besides, Coyote & Crow isn't really that type of alternate world sci-fi. Properly speaking, a lot of the miraculous technology is powered by unobtanium. Seven hundred years prior to the game's starting date, an event known as The Awis (Darkest Night) occurred. It was a massive meteor strike that led to a disruption of global climate patterns and a dramatic advance of the arctic permafrost. One of the side-effects of this is that all over the world, plants and animals gained purple markings called the Adanadi. With the proper application of advanced biotechnology, the Adanadi can be manipulated to create wondrous effects - superhuman abilities in humans and the antigravity fields that power hovering vehicles. 

The result is something that strays pretty far afield from a hard sf premise of "an advanced society that explored a different branch of the tech tree" and into the science fantasy territory of "this macguffin has the exact properties necessary to advance the plot." The hovering yutsu barges carry corn-derived biological feed stock for solar-powered 3D printers over meticulously managed wilderness, and at no point is anything like a road, mine, or factory necessary to this process. 

And maybe that sounds like a worldbuilding complaint, but it really isn't. It's more a recognition that the important stuff here is the aesthetic and the ideological. This is a world designed to be conspicuously non-European, to operate on an idealized indigenous mindset. For all its weakness at being alt-history sci-fi, it's actually pretty great utopian sci-fi.

I should probably unpack this a little, because Coyote & Crow takes deliberate pains to point out that its world is not utopian. And that's true if you're using "utopia" to mean "perfect paradise," but it's right in the wheelhouse of utopian sci-fi as a literary genre. The afterward, where Connor Alexander denies creating a utopia, actually does a pretty good job of summing up the difference:

If it feels like a utopia to you, maybe because Cahokia has no homeless, no involuntary unemployment, no people in debt over health care, no minorities being marginalized for their sexuality, no people going hungry, it may be because you’re not asking the right “what if” question. Try this one. What if we didn’t live under centuries of racist colonial capitalism? It doesn’t mean we’d live in a utopia. But it might mean that humans would be free to tackle bigger, more meaningful questions during our brief time on this planet.

Utopian fiction, as a genre, is an exercise in moral imagination. It doesn't have to be a world where all humanity's problems are solved, it just needs to posit a world where a different form of social organization, and its accompanying ideology, allow humanity to avoid problems that, to us, seem intractable. Despite the developer's protestations, the city-state of Cahokia, in particular, is idyllic to the point of outright romanticism.

The source of this idyll just so happens to be the fact that Cahokia is organized along a sort of idealized indigenous social schema - self-sufficient multi-generational households that practice traditional crafts (the 3D printers can create generic parts for most common technologies, but they still must be assembled and customized by the end user) and whose cultural expression favors community engagement over solitary activities. There's no real place for the anonymization of urban life, nor for capitalist alienation and the exploitation of labor. Nowhere is this system critiqued or interrogated. At one point the book says, "a vocal minority claims that The Council and the judges play favorites at best, and are deeply corrupt at worst," but there's nothing to indicate whether or not the minority actually has a point.

That's not a fault, by the way. I'd actually say that on the idealism/cynicism scale, Cahokia probably ranks roughly equivalent to Aldea from Blue Rose - it's a place that's got its shit together, so games are mostly going to focus on preserving and defending the status quo, but it's not actually a problem that threats are largely external and/or rare antisocial aberrations. Not everything has to be punk.

The comparison to Blue Rose does put me in mind of Coyote & Crow's one true weakness, however. I kind of got the feeling that the creators were operating on a shallow reference pool, re: other extant rpgs. It's just a hunch. A couple of times, they'd say something along the lines of "unlike other roleplaying games," while talking about something relatively common and it would feel like they were really saying, "unlike this one specific rpg, you know the one." I appreciate a story-focused game that eschews combat for social interaction, clever solutions, and compromise, but that's not actually as rare as the Storyguide advice seems to think.

Overall, I'd say that Coyote & Crow's system is . . . decent. It's like a streamlined version of the classic storyteller system with dramatically pared-down combat. The most novel part of it is that it uses d12s for its dice pools and the extra dice you get from rolling 12s have their successes scored in kind of a quirky way. I'm not a great fan of rolling variable dice pools against variable target numbers and subtracting one success for every die that shows a 1, but it's functional in practice. Most of the problems with that set-up come from edge cases anyways. It will probably be fine.

My final thoughts - I'm glad that Coyote & Crow exists and I'm happy to have read it. It's rare for me to finish a 450 page core book in 2 days (even accounting for the book's larger-than-usual print size) and that's almost entirely down to the novelty of the world and the boldness of its central idea. It's good to be exposed to a genuinely new perspective and the world of Makasing presents some unique roleplaying opportunities. I could definitely see myself running a game, though I'll admit that I found myself much more drawn to places like Ti'Swaq or the Ezcan Empire, which had more familiar forms of class conflict or imperial aggression. 

Ukss Contribution: Little known fact about me - I love elephants. I just find them absolutely fascinating animals that have a lot to teach us about the convergent evolution of intelligence. Which is why there's only one thing that I could possibly choose from Coyote & Crow - Moobi Mosii - i.e. "Grasps With Nose." Intelligent wooly mammoths.

My notes literally say, "ZOMG!"