Wednesday, March 3, 2021

(AD&D 2e)Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium Volume 2

 These Van Richten books are a fucking emotional rollercoaster. They're good on average. Certainly, the concept is sound. They're a guide to using horror movie monsters and they're narrated by the old-timey monster hunter who would show up in the first act of a horror movie, mentor the main characters, and then promptly die. When the book is in its wheelhouse, it's pretty decent. Some of the out-of-character sections, where they talk about how to run horror stories, are even actively good. But then sometimes, without warning, it gets bad.

Where it gets challenging for me is that sometimes Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium is bad in a funny way, and that's what I really want to talk about, but every so often it's bad in a racist way and I skipped talking about that in Volume 1, so now I have to get right into it.

Van Richten has a racist backstory. I didn't realize that the first time I read this book because I first heard of the Roma people when I was in my early 20s, but Ravenloft has this group of people called the Vistani who are basically Roma stereotypes and are repeatedly referred to by a racial slur. The Vistani stole Van Richten's son and sold him to a vampire.

This is . . . I don't know. I don't even have an analogy to describe it. We're in blood libel territory here. Ravenloft took the most odious historical stereotype about the Roma and for setting's thinly-veiled Roma stand-ins, they made the stereotype true.

Then there's Van Richten repeatedly going off on them. Bringing up some nonsense like "the dreaded evil eye" and tossing around the g-word. It was worse in volume 1, but it's still going on (volume 3 has Van Richten's Guide to the Vistani, which I shudder to think about). I think it's supposed to be a genre trope (I suspect, like me, the earliest D&D authors didn't realize that the traveling fortune-tellers and rogues that show up in gothic horror were based on old-world hate speech), but it didn't age well at all.

It's a relatively small element, though. At least until the next volume. Let's pivot to the ways this book is incredibly ridiculous. Here's an alternate reality fan-fic pitch for you, based on Van Richten's Guide to Ghosts - what if, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge had hired Van Helsing to come in and slay the ghost of Jacob Marley with a platinum sword?

This, by the way, is not a hypothetical extrapolation of the game rules. It's a paraphrase, "Clearly, Marley was a miser. Perhaps it might be possible to keep his spirit from entering an area by ringing it with gold coins. Perhaps only weapons made from precious metals could harm the creature, with a platinum sword doing its normal damage to the spirit. . ."

In the book's defense, it follows this up with a much better suggestion of helping put Marley's ghost to rest by helping Scrooge, but the fact that reenacting the redemption arc was the second suggestion just goes to show how completely out-to-lunch this book can be.

Here's a fun drinking game for Van Richten's Guide to the Lich - take a shot every time a narrator describes a lich in a voice of breathless terror while the lich itself is being completely harmless. "I turned the corner and came upon a figure leaning over one of our crystal balls. . . I must have made some noise to alert it to my presence . . .What turned in answer nearly frightened me to death . . .I recognized it immediately as a lich and raised my hands to cast a warding spell. However, it employed some device and faded from view before I could complete my incantation, most likely returning from whence it came."

I don't want to go full alternate-character-interpretation here and cast the liches as innocent victims of Van Richten's extremism, but a lot of the time, he was just describing a bunch of spooky nerds. So much of what the liches are doing is just sitting quietly in their homes reading books. 

Even when they're at their most frightening, it's as often as not in the context of defending their homes from invading adventurers. OMG, the foul lich killed all but one of that adventuring party . . . and then pretended that the sole survivor managed to slay it . . . so it could lie low and cool it with the evil schemes for a couple hundred years so that all of its enemies are felled by the scourge of old age!

I think you have to meet the book half way when it comes to its implied setting.  When it says the lich transformation potion requires a heart "preferably from a sentient creature," maybe you just read that as dark rituals, human sacrifice, and the blasphemous consumption of souls. Maybe when it talks about demiliches resting quietly in ruined fortresses, exploring the higher planes, you could assume they're doing some kind of damage to the natural order. You know, when a lich reaches the highest levels of mystical development, it starts causing natural disasters and undermining the metaphysical underpinnings of existence instead of being a sedentary pile of dust that occasionally casts sinister cantrips ("Sinister Cantrip" is, incidentally, the name of one of this book's custom spells for liches).

The culprit here is just the alignment system, though. It allows you to simply label a creature "evil" in lieu of showing it doing specific evil deeds. Van Richten has a really on-the-nose example of this when he talks about Liches' power rituals (spells which grant the lich extraordinary magical strength at the cost of potentially massive backlashes - which is why liches are always careful to cast them far away from populated areas). He says, "I'm sure that a lich would take great delight in destroying a religious structure to clear an area for the ritual."

Why is this phrased as a hypothetical? Why not just say that the desecration of holy ground is a key component? Or, at the very least, give a concrete example of a lich taking delight in destroying a religious structure. It makes Van Richten sound really petty.

"I'm sure you'd love it if you got to knock down a church to cast your evil magic."

"First of all, the magic isn't evil, it's just dangerous, and secondly, when have I ever destroyed a church? Can you name even one incident of me taking pleasure in vandalism?"

"Not yet, but I just know it's the sort of thing you would do."

But the frustrating thing about alignment is not the way it sometimes substitutes for characterization. The real damage alignment does is when it starts to substitute for worldbuilding. There's a lot to like about Ravenloft, but one thing I absolutely cannot stand is the way that it takes creature types which normally have a variety of alignments and then insists that in the "Demiplane of Dread" they are always evil.

This kind of works with vampires and liches. They're corpses brought back to life with dark magic and they exist for selfish reasons. They became immortal to pursue their pleasures or obsessions and maybe that cuts them off from something essential in humanity that allows us to live benevolently. Desecrate yourself and you'll have no problem desecrating the world.

And maybe with werebeasts and golems, there's a needle you can thread. Like, I can't remember the last time I was afraid of a werewolf, I've gotten so used to thinking of them as just another form of animal life. A fantasy setting's got elves and goblins and wolf-people and they're all just demihumans. To suddenly have their characterization so limited felt jarring to me. And Ravenloft's approach to flesh golems is just ass-backwards. The whole reason golems are dangerous is because they rise to the level of evil with which they're treated. Humanity can't coexist with the created because of its own judgemental cruelty.

I'd go so far as to say that, given how Ravenloft bills itself, it's actually the setting least suited to strict alignment, because the alignment system can't distinguish between something that's evil and something that's harmful. And that distinction is at the crux of the problem with the ghost section.

In nearly every ghost story worth telling, the ghost is the character most in need of help. Sometimes it'll be the ghost of a murderer who just wants to continue murdering after their death, but mostly a ghost is a soul in torment. Your default stance is supposed to be compassion - "we must bring peace to this spirit and allow it to rest," that sort of thing. The challenge of the ghost story is one of communication. The ghost is in such pain that it can't really see the world of the living. The harm it does is not done with intent, but is rather tied to a fixation. They reenact the trauma that trapped them in the shadow-world, and their flailing poses a threat to the living. The way you "defeat" a ghost is to let it know that it is understood and to correct the imbalance that keeps them from moving on.

Or you could, I guess, just slap a label of "evil" on them and talk about how they're vulnerable to certain spells and magic items or being confronted with the thing that killed them (there's an example of a ghost who died after being tortured and is subsequently destroyed with a flaming blade . . . it's pretty fucked up)

It's kind of wild to think about, though. A ghost hunting team that gets rid of ghosts by exploiting their trauma to terrorize them. ("You were betrayed by a man who sent you roses . . . then we'll shove bouquets in your face until you flee the area"). It kind of breaks the dramatic rules of haunting stories - reminding a ghost of its drama is the one thing most guaranteed to get you mixed up in it - and it's ridiculously cruel, but you might be able to mine the concept for humor. It's also AD&D's default mode of play, so grab your platinum sword and keep those ghosts away from Scrooge!

Finally I guess I have to talk about mummies. They're kind of the odd one out when it comes to classic movie monsters, because the word "mummy" sounds kind of funny (which is probably why they go with "Ancient Dead" in the title), and they're only really threatening to archaeologists and grave robbers. They're the only monster that only attacks if you ignore the prominently posted warnings and dodge the gauntlet of deadly traps specifically put in place to keep you as far away as possible.

I guess you could say that in D&D world, you sometimes get mummies who decide to leave the tomb of their own volition and then kill people for no adequately explained reason, but it really feels like the authors are reaching when they do that. It's a rare mummy who manages to both feel properly villainous and also be reasonably like a mummy. Usually, the villainous mummy winds up just being a lich by another name. The only ones who really manage to hit the sweet spot are ancient kings who come back from the dead to pick up where they left off.

Which skirts right up against the most awkward part about using mummies as a fantasy monster - technically, mummification is an honor. They don't do it for villains, or at least, not for the sort of villains who are out of sync with the values of their society. It's possible, even probable, that a well-regarded tyrant could be made into a mummy.

Van Richten's Guide to the Ancient Dead tries to have it both ways by pointing out that elaborate embalming rituals are a respected cultural practice, but only lawful evil priests will turn an embalmed corpse into an undead creature. This calls into question the very notion of mummies as an undead category - why aren't they just a well-preserved strain of zombies - while also being a total cop-out. If it weren't for naturally-mummified anomalies and the occasional reborn king, almost every mummy in existence would be doing a religious duty - defending temples, tracking down and punishing grave robbers, etc. The most evil thing about them is that their punishments are often disproportionate to the crime. 

Overall, I'm enjoying these Van Richten books, but these swerves can be disorienting. One minute, you've got some solid AD&D writing that is among the best in the line, and then the next minute you've got something completely laughable, and there's never any warning. I can't even separate it out into sections. Every book, every chapter, every subsection of every chapter - they all have both.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to pick some of the mummies who really had no business being mummies. They call themselves the Ghost Clan. They were a family of bandits and now they're all dead and hanging out as mummies together, still occasionally doing the banditry. One of them was defeated by bagpipes.

I'll probably leave that part out, but then again, maybe not. Maybe this is a two-for-one and Ukss has bagpipes now too.

Monday, February 22, 2021

(Earthdawn) Denizens of Earthdawn Volume 1

Quick, describe humanity!

Don't worry, I'll wait . . .

"We are unfortunately prone to see ourselves as ordinary."

Um, okay. Nice try. You'll get it next time, I'm sure.

No, no. Let's be fair. Earthdawn wrote itself into a corner here. It made the bold setting choice to have the most common fantasy race be dwarfs, and it's something that fits perfectly into the setting's backstory while also giving the game a unique feel. A great choice, in my opinion, but one that winds up leaving the good old human race feeling somewhat vestigial. Humans in Earthdawn are pointedly not ordinary. Dwarfs are ordinary. The only people who would be in any position to think that humans are ordinary are us, the readers. In the context of the setting, humans should be just one more exotic fantasy species with weird physiology and powers.

It's not a task I envy. Fantasy rpgs have humans because the players are human, and because humans are the sum total of everyone who has ever existed, fantasy-rpg humans have to accommodate every conceivable character quirk. You can't say "humans don't like to eat worms and stick things up their nose" because somewhere there's a human that likes to do both. It might be possible to make humans the non-magical or anti-magic species, but there are a ton of stories about human wizards so even that's a little dicey. The path of least resistance is to give humans some sort of BS hook like "versatility," despite the fact that individual humans are not notably versatile. If we were all that good at multiclassing, we wouldn't have been so skeptical about Michael Jordan's baseball career.

It's one of the few missteps in Earthdawn so far. Thankfully it's pretty short. The rest of the human chapter gets specific and it's decent. There are five different human cultures and only one of them is notably racist. It's tricky, because it's a villain character who describes the jungle-dwelling Cathan people as "savages," but the more benign narration counters with condescending praise for how "simple" they are. My intuition is that they were ahead of the curve, for 1994, but not by enough that it merits praise.

Also, there are three other races to cover. The main pitfall in a supplement like this is making your fantasy creatures into monocultures. I'm not sure this was an issue on anyone's mind back in 1994, but if it wasn't Denizens of Earthdawn does an adequate job of dodging it.

The T'skrang have four total cultures, but lose points for two of them being distinguished by physiology (the k'stulla are mutants who can glide on leathery wing-flaps and the Pale Ones have luminescence, silvery, fish-like scales, and forked tongues), but I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt because Barsaive is not that big a place and a significant fraction of T'skrang are Throalish (dwarf kingdom) by culture, even if their amphibious nature and delicate reproductive cycle (T'skrang lay eggs, but only 1% mature into baby T'skrang, the rest are unfertilized and subsequently eaten . . . yikes) require distinctive architectural concessions in terrestrial cities.

Elves are a trickier case, because they deliberately try to be a monoculture. Before the Scourge, the Elf Queen of Wyrmwood acted as a kind of elfish pope - living a life of exemplary elfishness that all other elves patterned their own lives after, lest they be "Separated" and cast out of elf culture forever. However, what this singular spiritual and temporal authority mainly accomplished was to highlight the fracture points in this would-be unity.

An Elf Queen declared the entire nation of Shoshara to be Separated when they adapted their ways to a chillier northern climate. The arbitrariness of her decision so undermined the crown's moral authority that when her granddaughter made the decision to reject the Theran Empire's exploitative terms for the knowledge of kaers (basically "we'll teach you how to survive the Scourge if you all become our slaves"), only the elves of Wyrmwood itself followed her. The rest decided to take their chances with the Therans. That eventually led to another fracture of the elfish people when the Queen made the fateful decision to abandon her failed kaer and rely on blood magic (the genius-brain idea of "the Horrors can't torture us if we're in constant self-inflicted agony" worked exactly as planned, but the elfish diaspora reacted with predictable outrage).

So the elves are a monoculture, but one that is in the process of disintegrating, and sometimes in denial about the fact. That's interesting enough to very nearly make up for the fact that Earthdawn elves still owe quite a lot to D&D elves (so much so that the "Roleplaying Hints" section reminds players to be more subtle about the traditional elfish sense of superiority).

And then there's windlings. They're cute little fairy creatures, and I like them as a sort of fantasy backdrop, but as a PC option, they seem to be the token "annoying" species. Their whole deal is how they love to insult and prank people, but they're so pure of heart that we're supposed to find it charming.

"A windling sees teasing and joking not as a hurtful thing, but as a sign of affection." Sure, but how do the people they're teasing feel about it? I see what they were going for - "the harmless little guy who spouts off like he's trying to start something" is a classic comic archetype, but players don't need that kind of encouragement. The windling would likely be your favorite character in an Earthdawn novel, but an exhausting one to deal with at the table (or maybe I'm just a big grump . . . that's definitely possible).

Although the windlings do have texture. They're also the guys who will relentlessly seek vengeance if you offend them, and they have a 4-1 male-female ratio so their young men engage in brutal gladiatorial contests for the honor of mating. It's not a texture I particularly love, but it was there. And I did love the art featuring the Theran windling being carried around on a mini sedan chair, lounging like a decadent Roman aristocrat, so I guess cuteness does count for something after all.

Overall, I'd say Denizens of Earthdawn Volume 1 was a pretty successful setting book. I question the wisdom of relegating dwarfs, the most common species in Barsaive, to Volume 2, and it's a little ridiculous to have a section about roleplaying hints for human characters, but I liked the overall format. Each of the different Name-Giver types was described not just in fantasy physiology, but also in terms of their arts and crafts, their trade relationships, and their myths and legends. I often find that "mundane" details like that are an effective way of making the fantasy elements feel real and alive.

Ukss Contribution: The T'skrang really got a huge boost from this book. Their section is the longest and most intricate of the four. And while we learn many surprising and fascinating things about their lifestyle and biology (the males produce milk, they don't manifest any sexual characteristics until puberty, they use their tails to make obscene gestures [there's a picture; it's hilarious]), I'm not sure I want to go through the effort of introducing a second lizard-folk species.

Instead, I'm going to steal something from their culture and give it to humans - the tradition of the Lahala. These wise-women undergo a special ritual that gives them access to the ancestral memories of every Lahala that has preceded them since the beginning of the T'skrang people. I really enjoy magic that's kind of low-key, but emotionally and philosophically fraught.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

(AD&D 2e)Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium Volume 1

 What is Ravenloft, even?

No, really. I enjoyed Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium, but every so often the narrator, Van Helsing Richten would veer off-topic to speculate about his world's metaphysics, and it would always be some kind of bullshit. These little asides usually took the form of "travelers from distant lands tell me that" [this thing we're talking about exists in a form that isn't the most pessimistic possible interpretation of the phenomenon] "but personally, I don't believe it." And taken together, they just make Ravenloft seem like a massive bummer.

In one of the more explicit out-of-character examples, a sidebar explains that the chance of contracting lycanthropy in Ravenloft is 2% per hit point of damage dealt to you by a werebeast's natural weapons, in contrast to the normal 1% chance per hit point. And I guess that the horror is supposed to come from that extra 1%, but honestly, the whole thing seems a little forced to me. I've just gotten done fighting a werewolf and the DM tells me to roll a percentile die against 32%, but I'm supposed to be shocked because I only took 16 points of damage. "Whoa 'Domain of Dread' is right."

I don't want to be too hard on Ravenloft here. Actually, most of what I've seen of its general mood and atmosphere, I've enjoyed. It's just that it has a certain tendency towards absolutism that undermines horror just as often as it supports it. I think I get what they were going for "there is no escaping your fate," but in practice, it comes off as lacking nuance. If you stumble, you're doomed, so the dread only lasts until you make your first mistake. I think if you want to encourage people to dwell in the shadows, you have to demonstrate that it's easier to survive in the margins than it is in either the light or the dark.

Take flesh golems, for example. They always turn evil and kill their creators. And that's a little weird. According to "The Created" section, Ravenloft is a world where sufficiently obsessed and driven people can stitch together dead bodies to bring them a semblance of life. This is one of those ad hoc mechanics that exist only because AD&D is very . . . precise about its spell-casting and magic item creation systems, and thus there needs to be a new rule to allow for magical setting elements outside that framework, but the practical upshot is that the plot of Frankenstein is constantly playing out throughout the world of Ravenloft.

Except that it's always the plot of Frankenstein. Van Richten even breaks it down for us. The Created have five developmental milestones - Dependence, Confusion, Betrayal, Contempt, and Hatred. They always happen in that precise order, because every flesh golem has the same personality and the same dynamic with its creator. The only thing that varies is the pace.

The question I have to ask is "why bother with the repetition?" Flesh golem is an entry in the Monstrous Manual, but that doesn't mean it has to be a whole class of creatures. You could just use it as a unique, one-off adventure and then rely on the rest of the book to provide diversity.

Or, I suppose, you could just use the flesh golem in a variety of different ways.  Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium is actually pretty good at providing a bunch of mechanical options for variant golem. You can build golems that channel dark spirits or the ghosts of the dead, that incorporate monster parts or have strange magical powers. It's a shame, then, that the book doesn't offer support for using the creatures in a similar variety of story or setting roles.

You've got this world full of frankensteins, but you don't have one who is an innocent exploited by their creator, or who sincerely loves their creator, but lacks the emotional and social context to express that love appropriately, or who forges a genuine connection with a community, only to be persecuted by a fanatical monster hunter. The flesh golem may be a recreation of your neglectful father or the hypothetical daughter you could never have thanks to your wife's infertility, but they will always be rejected by society for their ugliness and eventually turn on you for not being perfectly supportive.

I think the worst thing you could say about Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium is that it fails to transcend the assumptions it's inherited from AD&D. It is a compendium for "monster hunters" and thus when it talks about vampires or werewolves or golems, it is as monsters - i.e. creatures for the PCs to track down and kill. Maybe you're going to cure a werewolf or transplant a golem's brain back into its original body, but even those situations are, like, 75% monster hunting and 25% hoping an NPC makes its savings throws.

However, within those limitations, it's a pretty awesome book. Its conceit of being a series of excerpts from Van Richten's journal helps set a mood, and the good doctor's various anecdotes offer plenty of inspiration for dickish new ways to use these creatures against the PCs. Sometimes, it leans a little too far into the metagamey - it will often suggest mixing up a creature's weaknesses to keep the players on their toes - but it is generally persuasive when it talks up its monsters as terrifying threats. And, if it can occasionally be guilty of AD&D's general biological essentialism (fucking alignments are the worst), it also encourages both players and DMs to think of monsters as individuals.

Oh, wait, there's one more thing I wanted to roast this book about:

"There are a small number of vampires that have an entirely unquenchable thirst for blood."
It does that thing again. The one that goes back at least as far as Grand Duchy of Karameikos where it takes the single most defining trait of vampires as a creature type and treats it as a modification to D&D's inexplicable decision to make "vampires" into creatures that punch away your experience levels.

That's sort of the paradox of this series, though. It is trying something new and genuinely interesting with its monster presentation, but it also has this hidebound fidelity to two decades worth of ad hoc rules decisions from its parent game. It's why we've got pages worth of discourse about dealing with the gaseous form power, strict numerical rules for werewolf contagion, and a needless distinction between golems created by mad scientists and golems created by spells.

And yet, far all that, I really enjoyed reading this book. There's two more in the series and I'm looking forward to them, even if I think volume 1 front-loaded the headline monsters (vampires and werewolves in one book? with a very strong 3rd slot - none of the other lineups even comes close to this level of iconic).

Ukss Contribution: One of the more frustrating aspects of this book was the werebeast section. It was clearly going for a genre thing, and I respect that, but it listed a staggering number of potential were-animals (18! including badgers, coyotes, and walruses) and then made the aggravating choice to depict them all as horror-movie werewolves - vicious anthrophages who spread their curse through the wounds they leave behind.

Maybe it's just a matter of 20+ years passing since the book was written, and tastes in fantasy changing, but it broke my heart to see all the different types of werebeasts consigned to the role of villains. Like, werewolves I get, because that's a trope, but for Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium to slander my poor, beautiful werebears in such a way - unforgivable.

Fortunately, this is the one and only time the ooc-rules text makes a point to directly contradict Van Richten's narration ("Dr Van Richten's zealotry to rid his world of evil is laudable, but his bias against lycanthropes is colored"). Werebears in Ravenloft can, in fact, have a good alignment, though hilariously the mechanics sidebar goes on to state that those wereboars might be corrupted to evil if they consume human flesh.

This has to be a thing, right? Like somewhere in the rules for alignment there's an exception for lycanthropes engaging in normal predatory behavior. Otherwise "your character cannot remain good-aligned if they hunt, kill, and devour intelligent creatures" is one of those "no shit" statements. Your DM lays the restriction on you and you sigh, "okay, I'll try to remember that arbitrary rule, but I want the record to show that my werebear should be able to snack on all the schoolchildren he wants and still be thought of as basically a decent guy."

Anyway, the Ukss choice is the noble, non-cannibal werebear.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Barsaive

 Earthdawn is set in the land of Barsaive. They released a supplement about the whole setting. The whole setting. And this isn't like D&D where alternate campaign worlds is considered a norm. There's not, as far as I know, an optional setting that uses the Earthdawn rules, but takes place in like, ancient Greece or something. Barsaive is the world of Earthdawn. Or, at least, it's the only part of Earthdawn's world we're ever going to see.

Which means that for all that Barsaive is a good book filled with interesting information, it's also the case that its subject matter is the entire game.

Beyond being, you know, a little weird, it also winds up being pretty darned shallow. To take a random city as an example, Jerris gets 2 paragraphs in the core book and about 10 paragraphs in Barsaive. Sure, it's five times the information, but it's still only-three quarters of a page. 

And it's not as if I want to complain about this. It's more of a thing I like, and in becoming more, it retains the qualities I liked about the original thing, so in terms of value, it's pure upside. It's just that I'm thinking of self-indulgent core books like Exalted 3rd edition or Mage20, and I think that this whole boxed set, less a few redundancies, could be added to the Earthdawn core, and it would still clock in at less than 500 pages. And then I wonder what Earthdawn 4th edition gave up so it could fit into those digest-sized books.

Although, I suspect I am once again letting my very specific circumstances bias my judgement. I'm reading my way through Barsaive and I get to the section about the Crystal Raiders and I think, "hey, I've got a whole supplement called The Crystal Raiders of Barsaive." Then I get to the Serpent River and it's, "whoa, just like the book Serpent River." And then it's on to the dwarf kingdom of Throal and . . . well, you get the point. It's probably not a typical use case for someone to buy all the supplements and only then decide to read them.

So can I put the knowledge of Barsaive's imminent obsolescence out of my mind and just focus on it as a singular work of worldbuilding? No, probably not. But I can try to pretend (or, more likely, pretend to try).

All right, I'm getting into the mindset of my younger self. I've just come off of playing AD&D 2nd edition all through my adolescence and I'm still a dumb little shit who doesn't understand the difference between game systems. I've picked up what I think is a new campaign setting, a la Dark Sun or Planescape. What do I think of it?

I think I might like it, but my younger self has a hard time articulating why. See, if we start with the high concept and talk only in the broadest of summaries, Earthdawn has a lot of things that teenage me spent a lot of time loudly and theatrically bemoaning. It's a world of elves and dwarves, with orks and dragons and you spend most of your time exploring underground ruins in search of treasure to help the scrappy underdog kingdom fight off the evil empire. There's some interesting imagery, like dinosaur cavalry and elemental magitech, but there's also a lot of stuff that's very much "standard D&D fantasy."

It's strange that I never noticed this until I read it back to back with Forgotten Realms. Maybe it's because I first came to the setting via the easter eggs in Shadowrun, so I slotted it into my "weird fantasy" category and thereby dodged my old "ugh, not another generic fantasy setting" filter. However, with some new perspective, I can say with confidence that Earthdawn is incredibly vanilla.

But it's not bland. That may be why I never connected it with the Realms before. It's the difference between using vanilla because you happen to have some laying around and using vanilla as the signature ingredient in a well-thought out recipe.

I've already talked about a few of the elements that make Earthdawn's setting so refreshing - like the fact that dungeon-delving and monster-fighting are well-justified by the backstory, so much so that something as quotidian as exploring the ruins of a magical city while fending off attacks from extradimensional Horrors feels like it has a built-in drama and pathos - so let me narrow in on a subject specific to this book and use it to illustrate my point. Let's talk orks.

If I wanted to be cynical about this, I could say that Barsaive uses orks in a pretty conventional way. We see a variety of ork NPCs and orkish settlements, and they're all some sort of rough customer. This isn't a canonical truth about the species. They don't have an alignment, let alone "always chaotic evil." There are quite specifically ork shopkeepers and farmers and architects. It just so happens that all the orks who get names and specific descriptions are bandits, soldiers, or thieves.

However, there's a confounding factor at work here. Despite being used in a relatively predictable way, Barsaive's orks feel surprising. I painted with a pretty broad brush when I said "all named orks were some variety of tough-guy," but the operative word in that sentence was, in fact, "variety."

Take the main ork culture - the one that's by and for orks, as opposed to the ones where orks just happen to be mixed in among the populace (a distinction that by itself would be wild to make in the Forgotten Realms). The ork culture is one of horse-riding warriors . . . except that it's not a monoculture. Some of the orks ride dinosaurs, oxen, or bears (modulo fantasy nonsense). And even aside from the aesthetics, different groups of orks have different values and priorities. Some of them are bandits and some are mercenaries, and there's one group of bandits whose leader is trying to shape them into mercenaries and another group of mercenaries that is notorious for its brutality and insists on being allowed to capture as much loot as they can.

And on an individual level, orks have personalities, motives, and agendas! Can you even imagine such a thing. One of the leaders is named "Terath the Contemplative" and his nickname isn't even ironic or anything. His top lieutenants are his son and his daughter, and they are gradually becoming deadly rivals. The son has been on defense duty and has started forming an attachment to Throal, whereas the daughter is convinced (not without reason) that the son is going to defect with half the company and irreparably wreck their inheritance. You know, drama. But with orks!

It gets the exclamation point when you compare it to The Vast, from the Forgotten Realms boxed set, published the exact same year. It's the ancient orcish homeland, long colonized by dwarfs and humans, where orcs have not yet been completely driven out. . . and there's not a single named orc in the entire section. There's not even an orcish culture, at least not above the level of a single corrupted word. And then we have Barsaive, which spoils us with a half-dozen variant ork cultures and their supporting NPCs.

I think, on the level of the pitch, Earthdawn doesn't sound very radical ("they're orks, but . . . wait for it . . . they ride horses"), but when the rubber hits the road and you're actually reading the words on the page, the change in attitude makes a huge difference ("they're orks, but . . . we're going to put in some effort to make them feel like characters in a fantasy setting.")

Now, I don't mean to come so hard at D&D here (. . . or do I . . . no, no, let's keep it civil). It would be easy to snark and say that Earthdawn is like if D&D were a well-put-together piece of fiction, but it's important to acknowledge their differing set of circumstances.  Nobody expected D&D to exist, and it came together gradually from the contributions of hundreds of different people. Even the Forgotten Realms, which exists largely because Ed Greenwood was a pre-D&D fantasy nerd and 1st edition early adopter, is not so much the product of singular vision as it was a seed planted in fertile soil.

"Standard" D&D fantasy is basically a meme. Its outlines are the ideas that, for one reason or another, gained traction and eventually the whole thing accumulated enough momentum that it started propagating amongst people who had never experienced its original inspirations. Earthdawn is standard fantasy done with intentionality. As a result, I'm probably not going to be able to quote anything from Barsaive that will surprise you (the T'skrang pilot paddle-driven riverboats whose anachronistic design probably came directly from a god - is that something), but if you read it, I think you'd find its thoughtful and humanistic tone to be a breath of fresh air.

Ukss Contribution: I liked the Everliving Flower, a rose that's been enchanted to never die. It doesn't have any other powers, so it's a bit of a Macguffin, but not every piece of magic needs to be useful to wandering adventurers.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

(AD&D 1e) Forgotten Realms - Moonshae

 Moonshae presents me with a difficult problem. It is not, technically speaking, good, but the only thing that's holding it back from being good is the concessions it makes to being a D&D setting.

Like, why are there beholders on the random encounter tables? It's the only place they show up. They don't have any reason to be there, and they have no effect on the setting otherwise, so what the hell? And I like beholders, generally. They're these incomprehensible abominations, floating orbs of flesh, an alien intelligence animated by boundless hate and far too much magic. I'd normally reserve them for cosmic horror and dark fantasy, but they serve well as boss monsters or ancient guardians.

Which makes it weird that they're appearing randomly. A setting element that should have a lot to say for itself, but used with so little context that it's unclear why they've even bothered.

Although I'm being a bit unfair here, picking on random encounter tables. They're only intermittently a world-building tool and more often a pure game mechanic, something that allows the DM to say "if you head out into that swamp, you've got a 5% chance of running into something that will really fuck you up."

A better example of D&D-isms undermining worldbuilding would be the presence of orcs and goblins. There are a couple of locations in Moonshae that mention the threat posed to human settlements by orc or goblin raiding parties, but there's very little space in the setting for these creatures to exist. They don't really have any connection to the culture or history of the Moonshae islands, and almost as little effect on their physical or political geography. There's an Orcskull Mountain, that serves as a base on one of the islands, but aside from lairing in an abandoned mine (abandoned by who, when and how did the orcs gain control - none can say), their way of life gets no detail. They might as well be the North Wind for how much the text cares about their motives.

Which is a problem because, as I said, Moonshae is partially good. The islands have a history that's interwoven with mythology. It tracks the migration of peoples, the wars and the subsequent rapprochements that create ethnic identities. The islands are a place of cultural conflict and tribal politics, a backwater region that must cope with new international trade and the colonizing ideas that come along with it, where new religions add fire to old grudges and where defunct national identities still hold immense cultural power.

And then onto that, you graft a bunch of people who have no culture of their own and exist only to fuck shit up.

Like, the Moonshae islands are a thinly-veiled stand-in for mythic Brittan. You've got Druids and a decaying post-Arthur Camelot and a political dissident/forest outlaw who is basically Robin Hood without the socialist subtext, and plenty of Welsh and Irish-inspired place names, and the whole area is constantly under threat from the Northmen, who raid cities and colonize the coastal areas to better launch their longships filled with berserkers. It's not subtle, but it also means that if you're playing as one of the Ffolk (yes, there are two fs), you don't need a second group of people who are coming out of nowhere to wreck your shit.

So the weird thing about Moonshae is that its specificity always works to its benefit, but it lacks the conviction of its specificity, so sometimes it will just toss in dumb shit for no reason.You've got this non-anthropomorphic earth goddess and her spirit will manifest in the great whale and the Unicorn and the massive wolf-packs that sometimes roam the land, and she is neither entirely good nor entirely evil, but wild and pure, patron to both the hunter and the prey, and her greatest enemy is the Beast, a malevolent shapeshifter born from her own corruption, and all of this is entirely great. There were times I had chills. But then, in addition to that, whenever the locations section would mention a mine or a forge or something of that nature, it would also include, almost as an afterthought, a brief aside that the local lord had invited dwarves to move into the location in order to help out. It never adds anything to the location's character, and these dwarves' homelands are so unimportant that they don't even get a writeup, but they keep happening, presumably so players are reassured that their dwarf PCs are still legal.

I don't want to be a grump about this, though. On some level, I've just got to accept that D&D is going to D&D, but Moonshae is so close. With just a little bit more editorial discipline, it could be a unique and beautiful thing - a decaying post-Arthur Camelot where feuding lords bolster their legitimacy by hearkening back to the glory days of the High King, and where the god-haunted wilderness has an agenda of its own as the old faith clashes with the new and the people are too scattered to respond effectively to an invasion from the north - but in the end it just has to be part of the Forgotten Realms, and so Elminster can come visit from Waterdeep and perv on the young ladies.

(This is a thing that literally happens: "These women were scarce more than girls in appearance . . . and a pair of them danced in such a way that this old heart's rhythm was dangerously accelerated." And I'm not even going to try and decode the sexual politics of 1987. Let's just banish Elminster to sit in the same corner as Porthos and they can both think about what they did.)

Overall, I'd say that Moonshae is the best Forgotten Realms material I've read so far, and I just wish I could honestly say that wasn't damning with faint praise.

Ukss Contribution: Despite containing the worst part of the setting - random and pointless beholders - the random encounter tables also included the best part of the setting - giant animals that the PCs would have no conceivable reason to fight. Giant Otters, Giant Porcupines, Giant Beavers. Maybe they're a threat, maybe they're not, but I'd love a campaign setting that seriously considered the implications these creatures have for the local ecology.

I'm not sure how I can pick this element up without just opening the door for giant animals in general, so maybe I need to narrow it down a bit. Pick just one. . .

Giant porcupines it is. There's just something about them that becomes less threatening when they're huge.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Earthdawn Companion - 1st Edition

 The Earthdawn Companion is a workhorse book that mostly serves to add stuff that could or should have gone into the core. There are new rules for things like followers or airship combat, guidelines for creating new monsters and Disciplines (character classes), and long lists of new spells and talents. It's all welcome material, but it is precisely as useful and interesting as more pages of the core (which is to say, "somewhat.")

A decision I somewhat disagree with is separating out the high-level Disciplines. The core covered levels 1-8, and the Companion extends the level range from 9-15. I guess it shaves off a page per Discipline and lets you trim down the talent chapter, but at the price of making high-level play seem like an afterthought.

Although, I  would be remiss if I didn't confess that a major factor contributing to this feeling is the fact that I have only the vaguest idea about how the classes are balanced. I compared a few of the capstone talents the Disciplines get at level 15, but is the Beastmaster's "Venom" ability better or worse than the Thief's "Gain Surprise?" Even if they could be compared directly, what am I to make of the fact that Cavalrymen get "Life Check" at level 15, but Warriors gain it at Level 6? Thanks to the way xp costs work, not only are the Cavalrymen losing out on the benefit of the talent for 9 levels, they are also paying more than twice the xp per rank.

The whimsical balance between the Disciplines suggests to me that there's no real plan for high-level play. In order to advance to the highest ranks of a Discipline, you've got to have significant investment in approximately half your available talents, so maybe there's the hope that the rules force you into a viable build, but my instinct is that character-optimization is a major concern.

The other big thing this supplement does is introduce two new character models - Questors, who gain magical powers from the Passions (i.e. "gods") and Lightbearers, who are a secret occult society organized around one of the main premises of the game (fighting the Horrors). They're both pretty interesting, from a setting-perspective, but my main concern is that each option is powered by a single talent, giving you an irresistible bang for your buck (3 powers, typically comparable to a high-level spell for the Questor Talent and 1 power per rank, all keyed off the same talent, for the Lightbearer talent).

There are downsides - Questors must perform notable deeds in their Passion's name, in addition to spending xp (at least 987 life-threatening deeds to max-out your Passion talent), and some of the Lightbearer's best abilities don't trigger until they're dead - but as a dip, both are an incredible bargain, which kind of seems like the opposite of what you'd want for character concepts representing extreme dedication and faithfulness.

Overall, I'd say that the Earthdawn Companion is nearly obligatory, given how basic its extra rules are, but that its very utility means that I don't think highly of sectioning off this information into a supplement.

Ukss Contribution: The Gold Sense talent - some people just have a knack for finding gold. That creates an interesting economic niche.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

(AD&D 2e)Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting - Shadowdale and Running the Realms (Part 2)

Part 1

 Reading this boxed set got me contemplating a strange (and strangely difficult) question: why not Forgotten Realms? So much of my time with these books, I've been incredibly bored, but there's nothing about the subject matter that I'd single out as especially boring.

Like, there's this section in Shadowdale that's just three pages of describing local farms. There's not a single plothook among them, a typical example being:

Elma Bestil's Farm
Borst Bestil, Elma's husband, died in the Second Battle of Shadowdale, leaving her alone in the world. Refusing the offer of her brother-in-law Hyne to move in with her, she manages the farm on her own. Self-reliant and capable, she has made the farm much more profitable than Borst ever did on his own. She is helped by three full-time hired hands - Moran, Guentar, and Breegar - but also hires on additional women and men for the harvest.
And that seems like a good candidate for a boring part of the book, because there are sixteen more of these entries, all similarly inconsequential. But they didn't bother me. If anything, they made me wish for more and pettier local gossip. It's a small town, and if you tell me who's fucking who (both literally and metaphorically), I'll go ahead and make that the basis of my campaign.

And the sidebar where you explain the state of Faerun's grain milling technology, the common pricing for milling services, and the fact that, ever since Shadowdale's old miller was revealed to be a spy for an international criminal syndicate, the local Lord has been saddled with keeping the mill running while trying to find a replacement (something the farmers are not eager to have happen, because the old miller had a monopoly, ever since that hipster Elminster moved into the old windmill), and that's just . . . perfection. Tell me more of the marginal economic livelihood of small-holding farmers and the politics of their supply chains. Absolutely nothing you've got going on in the dungeon is going to be more interesting than that. . .

But, of course, with that kind of attitude, how on Earth can I complain about descriptions of gods and monsters, heroes and adventurers, and the deadly trials that confront them? You want to tell me of the mysterious cult of sorcerers who worship dragons and use obscene rituals to bring them back from the dead with the fell powers of the underworld in order to effect a conquest of all the nations of Faerun . . . yawn, let's get back to talking about whether the proper rate for grain milling is twelve-and-a-half or fourteen-and-a-quarter percent. Let's not kid ourselves here.

I have to at least entertain the idea that I'm the problem. I'm in the last stages of a move that's been going on for a month now, and it's entirely possible that I've been nodding off mid-sentence for entirely unrelated reasons and am merely confabulating the "boringness" of Forgotten Realms to explain it.

On the other hand, I'm not the one who decided to publish a timeline of my game setting and have half the entries be some variant of "1199 The Year of the Baldric."

I think the key insight comes from the Introduction by Ed Greenwood - The Forgotten Realms setting got its start in 1967, a decade before the release of Dungeons and Dragons. It was turned into a D&D campaign setting even before campaign settings were solidified as a concept. So much of what's going on in these books seems . . . obvious, and the reason for that is because this is literally one of the first things people thought to do with the D&D rules.

AD&D 2nd edition was my first roleplaying game. It's also the edition that made Forgotten Realms into its default setting. In a way, I've been mixed up with the Realms for as long as I've been gaming. Though another way of looking at it is that Forgotten Realms is the first setting I ran away from. It was my dissatisfaction with this particular brand of fantasy that drove me to Dark Sun, and eventually The World of Darkness and beyond.

These books have a lot to recommend them. The adventure that makes up the last half of Shadowdale is about a Drow conspiracy to kidnap dwarfs and magically transform them into rampaging monsters, and there's a moment near the end that forces you to directly confront the truth about where these treasure hordes are coming from (basically, you have a bunch of captive dwarfs you recently freed and a big pile of coins and equipment collected by their captors, and if you hit all the right adventure milestones, the connection between the two is 100% obvious). It's a solid story, but . . .

. . . It takes itself for granted. Does that make sense? Like, if I'm trying to pitch you a plot that consists of a sinister cabal that kidnaps people, takes them to an underground laboratory, and forces them to undergo a horrifying transformation, then that's a pretty strong start. As far as villain plans go, it's got a lot of potential. If I were to flesh it out, I could go a lot of different ways with it - the body horror that comes with being remade by magic; the personal horror of committing terrible deeds at another's command; the arrogance of a villain who completely objectifies and degrades his victims; the economic, political, and cultural motives that could drive such an atrocity. There's a lot to work with.

What you probably wouldn't do is bury it all in a big hole and then have the main characters just stumble onto it five minutes before it's resolved. That's only slightly an exaggeration. The adventure has 10 parts, including an introduction and an epilogue, and you first encounter the main plot in part 9. You find the dwarfs in encounter 9B and you first meet and then beat the perpetrator in encounter 9E. The whole story happens in the space of 4 encounters. That's not enough time.

What's going on is that you're exploring a dungeon, because you're adventurers and that's what you do, and as a nice little bonus, right before you're ready to leave you learn that the dungeon had a reason to exist.

I suspect that it's a side effect of Forgotten Realms being one of the first on the scene. It never feels the need to stake out a niche, it just kind of assumes that it's enough to simply show up. Why should we play in the Forgotten Realms? What do you mean? It's a fantasy setting where you can explore dungeons and fight dragons? What more of an inducement are you looking for?

I also think the fact that this is the second edition might have something to do with it. This is not a campaign setting that wastes a lot of time angsting over whether people are going to care about a fantasy world with magic and monsters and heroes. And since it has the impeccable pedigree, it also doesn't worry about whether people are going to care about yet another fantasy world with magic and monsters and heroes. It's the most perfectly self-assured game setting I've ever read. It's up to all those other fantasy worlds to justify their existence, given the fact that Forgotten Realms already exists.

I don't know. Maybe I should just respect that. Maybe it's weird that I'm just reading this book for the first time after being in the hobby for 20 years. Maybe the reason it's the most popular setting in all of roleplaying is because being "the world where Dungeons and Dragons happens" is enough for most people. Not everyone is so jaded that "a magical land of ethereal elves and doughty dwarves and mysterious mages against the backdrop of a vaguely medieval-European culture" is somehow insufficient.

I guess my conclusion is that this is bedrock D&D, and as a resource for playing bedrock D&D, it gives you a lot to work with. The main selling point of the Realms is that they are big and detailed, and this is a boxed set that feels big and detailed. It's not going to expand your ideas about what the fantasy genre can accomplish, but you're also in no danger of stumbling across a rogue idea that "doesn't feel like traditional fantasy." I can't say that I'm personally thrilled by a setting that plays it so safe, but maybe "thrilling to the guy who reads 100 rpg books a year" isn't a universal selling point.

Ukss Contribution: It's all about the local mills, baby. The water-driven mill in Shadowdale is powered by a stream called "The Duck Race." Adorable as hell.