Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Starships of the Galaxy

I have to confess an embarrassing personal fantasy - I dream of one day having a roleplaying group that gets really into it. Like, if we're playing Vampire: the Masquerade then they will remind me when the time comes for a Humanity or Frenzy check. Or, with Shadowrun, maybe they'll really get into the Matrix rules and memorize them by heart. Or, to pick a totally random third example, we'll be playing Star Wars Saga Edition, and I'll announce that there's a massive space battle and it's time to roll out the grid, and they'll respond with an enthusiastic "hell yeah!"

It is in pursuit of this fantasy that I bought (and, indeed, continue to buy) books like Starships of the Galaxy. It's a book that is entirely about one particular subsystem of the SWSE rules, expands those rules to make them more complex and involved, and then dares people to use it. It's not the most baroque space combat system I've seen, not by a longshot, but it definitely requires a player to be mentally invested in it, and sadly, that's not something I've ever seen happen.

Of course, part of my problem might be that I'm the one that obsessively collects supplements and then systematically reads them whenever we play a game, but also I'm invested in at least a dozen different gamelines, and flit between them at a whim, so my players never really get the time necessary to become true experts in any given game. But that would imply that my problems are somehow my own fault . . .

Anyway, the bulk of this book is taken up by descriptions of the various, um, starships of the galaxy, and they're . . . fine. They're statted like monsters, and SWSE's monster design is some of the worst in the d20 family, but if you assume all the encounter-interesting stuff is going to be done by fleshed out NPCs, they work okay. It was a neat nostalgia trip seeing these familiar designs from the movies, and I've got a feeling that if I were more into the expanded universe, then that sensation would only have grown.

Overall, this was exactly the sort of super-specialized book that I come to prize as an essential GMing reference. Dry as hell, of course, but I'm not (usually) reading it for pleasure.

UKSS Contribution: Ooh, I was hoping this day would not come quite so soon. I am at a crossroads, and am forced to make a choice. But first, let me explain a certain implicit design principle that I've been using for awhile, but have not yet expressly articulated - Ukss is one world.

So, I wanted Ukss to be a kitchen sink setting, taking a little bit from every rpg book I read to produce something gloriously over-the-top. However, I've been avoiding two ideas in particular - alternate universes and interplanetary travel. And the reason for this is simply that they make the kitchen sink idea too trivial. Have something that doesn't quite fit with your previously established canon? Easy, it happened in an alternate universe, or on a distant planet. There can be a fantasy world, a steampunk world, a transhuman world, a roman world, whatever. They don't have to interact with or inform each other in any way.

It was my hope that I could do Ukss without ever introducing the idea of outer space. But this book here, it's all about exactly that. You can't read Starships of the Galaxy and not deal with the idea of space travel.

Now, there's a loophole. Certain things that could be adapted. Maybe the Millenium Falcon could be an airship (hey, it worked for Final Fantasy XII). Or, hey, Admiral Akbar is mentioned by name several times. He could be a naval admiral instead of a space admiral, but basically the same character. It wouldn't even be a totally fatuous choice. I like good ol' Akbar just fine. And he's a squid-person, so commanding a ship at sea would actually make total sense for him . . .

But I realized, while working through those ideas, that I was violating the spirit of the UKSS project. I think the fact that I spent the better part of a week updating the setting may have influenced me. I started to feel more like the setting's author than its curator. I didn't want to include any of the space stuff because it didn't match my vision of what Ukss was like.

I think I have to do the honorable thing here and kill my darling. I must follow the source material wherever it leads, even if it results in setting details that don't jibe with my imagination. Therefor - the main UKSS contribution from this book is going to be the very concept of space travel itself.

But because I learned my lesson about choosing too abstract an idea when I couldn't find a place for "swashbuckling" I'm going to reify that contribution by choosing the actual coolest thing in the book (sorry, Admiral Akbar) - The Super Star Destroyer.

That's right, Ukss is going to have a 19km long, bristling with weapons, wedge-shaped space battleship orbiting it like a second moon.

Deal with it.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Complete Wizard's Handbook

The first thing The Complete Wizard's Handbook does is discuss the nuances of the game's eight schools of magic. It was somewhere around the second page of this, when they were explaining that the Alteration school got Melf's Minute Meteors and Death Fog as their heavy-hitting offensive options that I finally allowed myself to admit something that had been building for a long time - the AD&D magic system is bullshit.

This is hardly a fresh observation, and I'd be almost embarrassed to make it, but I think my criticism here is a bit different than the boilerplate. Most people focus on the baroque spellcasting mechanics which cause you to play a very peculiar type of resource management game that doesn't remotely resemble anything in fiction (and to be clear, there is some advice on that subject here and it does, indeed emphasize how unwieldy and awkward it is to try and play "second-guess what the DM has planned for the day" every time you memorize your spells). However, when I say "the AD&D magic system is bullshit" I'm instead focusing on the fact that there is no rhyme or reason to what spells wizards get except that it is canonically true that the wizard spell set as a whole can do almost anything, shy of healing wounds and bringing back the dead.

I mean, they devote a little more than a page to adjudicating the Wish spell, and for fuck's sake why is there a "Wish" spell in this game? What sort of half-assed "our mechanical typewriters didn't have delete keys back then" brand of game design went in to approving that monstrosity? It's not thematic. It's not flavorful. It's barely even fun. What little entertainment there is in the spell lies in when the DM tries to twist your wish to stop it from being overpowered, and you can really only do that once or twice before it gets old, so why do they keep putting it in the game, allowing it to distort the upper ends of the power curve and suck up so much DM advice real estate?

Oh, right, because this is Dungeons and Goddamned Dragons and every idea anyone ever had is canon except Warlords and the "mysterious lands of the east."

Oops, that came off across as a little angrier than I intended, but in the spirit of AD&D, I'm going to leave it in and just treat it as an unalterable fact I'm forced to contend with until the end of time. What started this rant was The Complete Wizard's Handbook's handling of Alteration specialists and the way that was like the Wish spell in miniature, revealing the game's purported taxonomy of the mystic arts to be nothing but a tissue of lies.

What does the "Alteration" school do? It alters things. As in, changes one thing to another. Or changes the location of a thing, you know, by moving it. And when I say "thing" I'm getting pretty abstract here. One of the things you can change is Time. Speed time, slow time, stop time, that sort of deal. And when I say "change" . . . eh.

Let's get a refresher on Melf's Minute Meteors - what it does is create a bunch of little fireballs that you can throw at your enemies. It doesn't require any existing fires to transmute into balls, nor any existing balls to transmute into fire. They just come from nowhere and you can throw them. The only thing being "altered" here is your state of not having fireballs to a state of indeed having fireballs.

That's what Alteration does. It's the type of magic where after you use it something has changed. And you can specialize in it. You can play a wizard specializes, specializes, in using magic to make things different than they were before.

And that, ultimately, is why the AD&D magic system is bullshit. All of your fantasy elements are spells. All of the spells can be used by one of two classes. Other classes can use some magic to a lesser degree that isn't really competitive and doesn't help them all that much (if your 9th level paladin is getting a significant power boost from their one first level spell per day, perhaps you need to reconsider your build), so much so that it almost seems tacked on. The result is just huge asymmetries in what the classes can do and how much they can participate in the world's fantasy.

It's incredibly frustrating.

Oh, yeah, also the racist shit is back. "Savage wizard" just makes me want to hurt somebody, and the Wu Jen is our most nakedly orientalist class option yet. They have strange taboos that they must observe to keep their magic. "[They] may seem trivial, or even ridiculous to other characters, [but] the Wu Jen takes them quite seriously."

How can a wizard be superstitious, TSR? How can a wizard be superstitious?

Anyway, my numerical verdict is 6/10. The thing that's broken about the book is merely that which is broken about AD&D as a whole, and The Complete Wizard's Handbook is generally perfectly serviceable within that context. And the racism isn't unique to the book. I owe the author of the Fighter's and Priest's books an apology. Because the Thief's book didn't have the more problematic kits, I thought they were his inventions, but I see now that there was some kind of editorial mandate from the top (and here, the Amazon Wizard having the exact same special ability as the Amazon Warrior not only doesn't make sense, it doesn't even help her with her primary shtick). So really, what this book is is a few extra spells and magic items, some beginner roleplaying advice, and a guide to casting spells under water.

UKSS Contribution - The Sage Tree. It's a tree, haunted by the ghosts of hundreds of sages. It can answer questions, but only after it's argued with itself about it first. It's a pretty neat image, and one which has some versatile uses.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Complete Priest's Handbook

I think I may be too long out of the AD&D bubble, because I can't for the life of me discern what the point of this book is supposed to be. For what it's worth, it seems to be trying to be comprehensive, giving rules for 60-odd types of specialty Priest, but there's a treacherous part of me that suspects that all this wouldn't have been necessary were it not for AD&D's half-assed character customization.

Certainly, I have failed to appreciate the necessity of giving nuanced descriptions of the followers the Priest receives based on their choice of religion. A priest of Lightning gets "three third-level priests and six first-level priests of the same priesthood and one fifth-level warrior, two third-level warriors, and four first-level warriors." Whereas a priest of Thunder gets "three third-level priests and six first-level priests of the same order, plus three third level fighters and six first-level fighters to act as guards."

Why are you doing this, Complete Priest's Handbook, especially when you already established that the followers a priest got depended on the player's preferences, the circumstances surrounding their stronghold, and what made sense for the game? The book is only 128 pages. Why waste two paragraphs per entry making the game less flexible? You surely weren't in need of extra padding.

(Then again . . . Lightning AND Thunder . . . maybe ideas were running low)

Nonetheless, I guess there might be some utility here. It's a ready-made guide that allows players to jump into any of a number of fantasy religions without anything being more than incidentally unbalanced (as opposed to letting the player deliberately game the system by choosing the right combination of abilities a la carte).

And the surrounding advice about creating a religion and working out a priest's role in the campaign world was . . . okay. It lacked anthropological insight and seemed, at times, to draw too heavily on medieval Catholicism, but if you're starting from square one, it's a decent enough place to start.

The only thing left worth mentioning is that this book has all the same gender and racial problems as The Complete Fighter's Handbook, but that's not a surprise since it's the exact same author. A lot of the kits are one-to-one correspondences with the Fighter kits (such as Amazon Priestess, Barbarian Priest, Outlaw Priest, Noble Priest, Peasant Priest and, sigh, Savage Priest) and the Amazon has the exact same baffling "men underestimate me" weakness. The Savage Priest is . . . slightly less racist, possibly because being in touch with mystical forces and cleaving to an otherworldly morality is what Priests are supposed to do anyway.

I'm convinced the author meant well, but missed the execution. In the section with the Specialty Priest builds, gods would fall into one of four categories - usually male, either male or female, usually female or . . . always male. (To be fair, there is also exactly one "always female" god - the goddess of wisdom, but it certainly didn't fit a trend). I couldn't begin to tell you the logic of how these work, but for this enlightened 21st century reviewer, they seemed to be mostly arbitrary, with just a bit of gender essentialism put in ("The strength-god is male." Okay, tough guy, whatever you say.)

The funny thing about this series so far is that I have such positive memories of the red books as a group. That's why I went through so much effort to get a nearly complete set (that damned $35 Complete Barbarian's Handbook) But to varying degrees they've all been disappointments so far. Not entirely useless, but not the indispensable game-changing reference guides I've been remembering. I guess it's true that you can't go home again.

UKSS Contribution: There are a few cute details in this book. Like the suggestion that priests of the God of Metalwork oversee the minting of coins. Or that priests of ELEMENTAL FORCE have a duty to officiate weddings. But I'm going to go with something brought up in a discussion of how Priests might have to participate in holidays and festivals - Vine Day.

Vine Day is scheduled after the last of the grape harvest comes in and is a celebration of all things wine. It's basically fantasy Mardi Gras. Since Mardi Gras itself has a lot of gaming potential, I figure off-brand knock-off Mardi Gras should be almost as good.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

I promise, I've been working! (Ukss update)

Those of you who have been following along with the blog may have noticed that I've been shamefully lax in keeping the Universal Kitchen Sink Setting up to date. It's been stressing me out for months, becoming a bigger and bigger project with each day that I procrastinated. But there's good news - I bit the bullet and just sat down over the last few days and pounded it out. I am now completely current . . .

With the exception of "Swashbuckling" from The Complete Fighter's Handbook. It seemed like a good inclusion at the time, because swashbuckling is super fun, but it's sooo abstract. I don't know what I'm supposed to do with it. There's some implied swashbuckling in the Wardens of the Sky section, but that's pretty vague. I thought about arranging a duel between Baron Von Hendricks and Ledaal Kes, but that would be an rpg-crossover fanfic deep cut that would resonate with approximately 3 people in the whole world. Let's just call this an open ticket, okay.

In the future, I hope to keep up with it by adding entries as I read the books, but that's just an aspiration. I don't want to commit myself to anything too rigorous at this point.

Going forward, there is a danger that Ukss might too quickly mutate into its own thing. I found myself tempted, several times, to smooth out details in order to make the entries work better with each other. Ideally, that's where we'll end up, but for now I've still got a couple hundred books left to read and I want to leave the door open to more core ideas.

Anyway, check it out - it was a lot more work than I initially suspected when I proposed this silly idea.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Jedi Academy Training Manual

I've always been a bit ambivalent about the Star Wars Extended Universe. I approve of it in principle. I'm glad it exists. I definitely think that everyone who wants to should be allowed to write their own Star Wars stories. Yet I've never really been able to connect with it. Sometimes I'll hear about something that sounds kind of cool, like, say the Fallanassi, which is a Force-based religion that believes its adepts should submit to the Force rather than try to control it. It fills more or less the same niche as the Jedi, but it's got a totally different feel to it. That's the sort of thing I like - consistent with the established lore, but giving it new nuance and context.

But just as often, when I hear about something from the Expanded Universe, it's more like Irek Ismaren, who has lightsabers "implanted in his wrists, elbows, and knees." Sure, lightsabers are cool, but that's too many lightsabers.

I think what it comes down to is that Star Wars, to me, is a series of movies. The prequels and the sequels and spin-off tv shows can introduce whatever half-baked nonsense they want, and because it's on the screen, accompanied by pretty exploding lights. The written word has a steeper hill to climb. No novel is ever going to "feel like" Star Wars to me (though video games or comics might) and a summary of a novel in an otherwise unrelated rpg book has even less of a chance.

That being said, there are a lot of good rpg ideas in this book and it is obvious that we owe that almost entirely to the expanded universe. Like I said, ambivalence.

The main reason I bought Jedi Academy Training Manual in the first place was the expanded Force options. They seem okay. A few start to get a little outside the boundaries of what's been established in the movies (like the one that lets you touch things and set them on fire), but that's okay. If you're going to do the thing where you reskin Saga edition to be a different sort of fantasy game, this book is a good resource for giving your mages more things to do.

Overall, I liked it. It's a fairly comprehensive take on its subject matter, for being only ~160 pages, and if some of the ideas it ported over from the EU were goofy as hell (and also there are too many Skywalkers, plus Kyle Katarn was there and he and I have a history) then at least another, better idea is usually just a page or two away.

UKSS Contribution: Tricky, because UKSS is only a little bit Star Wars, but I kind of like the Wardens of the Sky. They're a Force-using tradition that has taken it upon themselves to watch for trouble in the interstellar-travel industry.

And while both the Force and space travel are unlikely to make it into UKSS, I do like the idea of a vigilante conspiracy that hangs around ports of call and has thrilling martial arts battles with pirates. So, possibly mutated, the Wardens of the Sky will have their niche.

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Complete Thief's Handbook

It's kind of weird that "thief" is one of the major AD&D classes. It's something I've always glossed over. Like, I've just taken it for granted that "clever, sneaky guy with a variety of useful skills and an endless reservoir of dirty tricks" is a classic fantasy adventure archetype, and I figured that if you're basing a class around it, you have to call it something, so I never really questioned why AD&D should feature "thieves" so prominently.

But holy shit, guys, AD&D thieves are supposed to be thieves.

Long-time readers of the blog are undoubtedly shaking their heads and saying something catty like "there's those famous John Frazer powers of observation at work again," but honestly I don't think I'm the asshole here (also, screw you, people I just made up!) Your character class isn't really your job, right? You may have "thief" written down on your sheet, but that's not what you do for a living. Your job is "fantasy adventurer." You don't make money by robbing rich merchants and mugging people in dark alleys, but instead by exploring ancient ruins, slaying fearsome monsters, and confronting strange magics.

So it would be weird if you took a group of people who only practice lock picking when they encounter a dread portal or oddly over-sized treasure chest and treated them like they were career criminals - mob safecrackers who only do that dragon-fighting shit as a hobby. Right?


Anyway, a couple of mediocre kits aside (Q: what do Adventurers, Investigators, and Spies have in common? A: "no special abilities or hindrances") this book is all about playing urban criminals in heist- and intrigue- focused games. It has a niche, then. In the right circumstances, it could be very useful. But it also puts that terrible line from D&D Basic into context. It would be in-character for PC thieves to steal from their party because stealing stuff is just what they do. It's not just a name for a class.

Despite the shocking narrowness of its subject matter, I thought The Complete Thief's Handbook was a very solid entry in the series. It has much fewer race/gender gaffes than The Complete Fighter's Handbook. One example of referring to people as "savages" and a hilarious section that gives stealth advice that basically amounts to "wear blackface." Forgivable, because it really was just night camouflage with no ulterior implications, but also kind of shitty in that the book is openly assuming all of your characters are going to be white.

Still, it's progress of a sorts, and I'm confident that by the time I get to the end of this series, I may even encounter a book with nothing embarrassing in it at all.

UKSS Contribution: The book devotes quite a lot of territory to various kinds of thieves' guilds, so I'm probably going to go with some form of organized crime, but I think I can narrow it down at least a little bit. I liked the suggestion of a criminal circus, even if the book did go a bit over-the-top in dragging it as a hoary old cliche ("Players with any degree of gaming experience will have learned to keep well away from circuses.")

I also really liked the suggestion that the head of the thieves guild could be some sort of supernatural creature. So maybe a sinister carnival that's secretly run by a demon?

Or should I save that for when I get around to reading the Carnivale rpg?

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Star Wars Saga Edition - Chapters 9-16

I'm on the fence about whether SWSE's comprehensiveness counts as a strength or a weakness. On the one hand, it's a one-volume Star Wars rpg. The core book has everything you need. Not just heroes, but creatures, droids, vehicles, setting, campaign suggestions, and GMing advice. It's a hell of a bargain, and you'd be hard pressed to find a more thorough book at 240 pages.

And yet, the downside to that thoroughness is that a lot of the GM stuff feels half-baked. The setting chapter is 10 pages, with 19 planets getting about a half-page each (and these are SWSE's oddly-sized square pages, at that). It's not really enough. The locations get a quick outline at a very high level of abstraction. Enough to start the work of world-building, but literally only the first step.

The creatures are even worse. The Star Wars universe has a bunch of wild and improbable space monsters, but the book just sort of throws up its hands and gives you a barely-functional class system with which to build them yourself.

There are examples of how it will work, covering some of the series' most iconic creatures, but if you used the Rancor's stats as written, you'd be setting your party up for one of the worst fights not only in d20, but possibly in all of D&D-family gaming. It's basically D&D Basic-level monster technology, but with none of that system's virtues of simplicity. Luckily, D&D 4e monsters are fairly easy to adapt to SWSE, so the universe of the game need not be barren, but using the core only, you'd have to seriously consider using humanoid enemies exclusively.

However, I am not sure I really need to ding SWSE for this. We all know what Star Wars is, and what a Star Wars story should look like.  Because of that, the book's paucity of setting information isn't really that much of a problem. I'm not sure what the overlap is between "people who want to play a Star Wars rpg" and "people who need the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire meticulously explained to them," but I'm certain it isn't large.

In the end, my verdict on this game is colored by my experiences with it. I ran a SWSE game that was basically core-only (the supplements were available to use, but I'm the only person who ever read them) and it ranks as one of my better rpg experiences. The players all had a lot of fun, and my baseline familiarity with the material let me do a lot of worldbuilding without consulting the books. So, for the sake of notalgia, if nothing else (certainly, it's improbable that a lot of new players are going to swallow the $70 price tag a used book fetches on Amazon) I have to give this a thumbs up.

(Enough that I'm looking forward to running a new game with it, at least).

UKSS Contribution: I think this is a milestone. The first primarily sci-fi game to go into UKSS (Heroes Unlimited had sci-fi elements, but superpowers are easy to reskin as magic). I'm excited to see what reading these books is going to do to UKSS' genre.

Still, I had to work a little with this one, so as to avoid borrowing anything too iconic to the movies. I wound up correlating something from the Species chapter with a blurb about one of the planets in the setting chapter - Ithorian floating eco-cities.

These Ithorians are weird snail-creatures that love environmentalism and specialize in rehabilitating ecologically devastated worlds. They are so committed to ecology that on their home world, they don't even live on the ground anymore. Their cities fly above the earth, presumably using some sort of low-emissions sci-fi-type engines.

That little detail might be cool for a druid-inspired faction in UKSS.