Friday, June 24, 2022

(Dark Sun) Dune Trader

 Degree of difficulty should probably count for something. Dune Trader, by Anthony Pryor, is less good than the previous Dark Sun books, and I have to figure that a contributing factor is that it's attempting something more difficult. The Complete Gladiator's Handbook and Slave Tribes were largely about the victims of Athas' powers that be, and Dune Trader is largely about collaborators.

Most of the dynastic merchant houses have a positive working relationship with the sorcerer-kings. Isn't that nice. A true testament to the Merchant Code's oath of neutrality. "I would trade with the dragon itself if it wished" - that's not actually something to be proud of.

So it's kind of uncomfortable that we're talking about introducing merchant houses into a campaign, and most of them deal in slaves. And of the ones that don't, all but one use slave labor to run their business. Some of these guys are clearly antagonists - like the militarist House Stel, that openly attacks its rivals, or the sinister house Tsalaxa, which dabbles in assassination and blackmail. Player characters are probably meant to start their own enterprise, using the rules in chapter 5, or associate with House Wavir, which was founded by adventurers, refuses to associate with defilers, and absolutely hates slavery.

Yet all of the major houses have an "opportunities" section, which describes the sort of jobs someone might be able to get with the organization. 

Maybe I'm just being a prude about the slavery thing. If you remove that element, none of the Houses is really beyond the pale when it comes to playable villain behavior. Oh, no, these fantasy merchants are willing to resort to all sorts of shady schemes to get their goods to market, that doesn't sound like fun at all.

Who am I kidding? I'm already twirling a virtual mustache imagining my rival sitting across the table, forced to come to me for aid after my agents have left their business in shambles. "It was never personal. It's just business."

However, slaves are on the trade goods table. We know the relative demand for captured labor in all the major city states of the Tyr region (though, the chart has an error, because the book is set post-Road to Urik, and thus slavery is outlawed in Tyr). I wouldn't say it goes full on into endorsing slave-trading as an intended mode of play, because it doesn't give a concrete price, but it does have a footnote saying "Cost varies greatly. DM makes decisions for final price."

That is . . . not as much discouragement as I would have liked. It would have been a good idea to at least touch on the subject in the chapter about "Trader Campaigns," but it might be for the best that the book didn't try. It repeatedly calls halflings "savages" and I'm nervous to think what advice we might have gotten.

Other than this single, fraught issue, Dune Trader is a very respectable workhorse of a book. It can sometimes get a little list-heavy, like the part where it describes the dangers posed by raiders and then gives a species-by-species breakdown of typical tactics, or the obligatory 3 forts and one village that are in every major house description (they each have a situation associated with them, but those situations are pretty boilerplate: "frequent target of raids by trade rivals and elf nomads" doesn't really tell me all that much).

Still, the lists are useful for emergency ideas, if nothing else, and the stuff between the lists is good. Each of the major Houses has its own distinct identity and can support subtly different types of campaigns. The minor houses are even better, probably because they only have a few paragraphs to pitch their most compelling idea. I especially liked House Lamnos, which is a small, agile operation that is constantly pissing off the big guys by flying their flags on Lamnos caravans. The book is unclear about whether this is deliberate trademark infringement or just protective mimicry, but both possibilities intrigue me.

The chapter on elvish merchants was probably the best in the book, giving us a diverse and vibrant elvish culture that does not collaborate with the sorcerer-kings, even as they rely on the city-states for survival (by running fly-by-night black markets). I wonder about potential overlap with the upcoming Elves of Athas, but that's a future problem.

Overall, I liked this book. I think it's fair to say Dark Sun is on a streak.

Ukss Contribution: The Decanter of Endless Water. It's owned by an elf. Its inclusion is technically a mistake, because the boxed set explicitly calls it out as an item that does not exist on Athas, but I'm not choosing it to be backhanded. I just like the item. It would likely have been a candidate next time I read a DMG. It's so practical, but somehow it also feels properly mystic and symbolic, like a good magic item should. Plus, you can't help considering its possibilities as a piece of civic infrastructure, and goodness knows I'm a sucker for infrastructure.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

(Dragonstar) Heart of The Machine

 It was recently pointed out to me that I don't pay enough attention to the individual authors of these rpg books I read, and because that criticism was both completely accurate and completely fair, I rashly swore to try and correct that flaw going forward. But now that I'm at the point of writing my first post in the shadow of that vow, I'm wracked with uncertainty. What if I didn't like the book, and the author is anyone else besides Phil Brucato (who I assume is capable of defending himself with dark sorcery)? It's going to feel awkward calling them out by name? Lucky for me, then, that Heart of the Machine is pretty decent. Stefon Mears did good. We can both relax. Although, on a personal note, if Mr. Mears does someday read this - you dodged a bullet not getting hired to write the proposed sequel (A Peculiar Institution). And on a less personal note, Mystic Eye Games dodged a bullet when the line collapsed before they could publish a book about robot slavery called "A Peculiar Institution."

(Like, seriously, damn.)

Anyway, the book itself. Heart of the Machine is a simple story about a gang kidnapping people and selling them to aliens, who proceed to use blashphemous arcane magic to rip out their souls and put them into obedient robot bodies. But, really, it's only the first act. The PCs roll into this newly-conquered planet, encounter someone who is being chased by the gang, raid the gang's headquarters, and then follow the trail back to the aliens, who will probably just pack up their operation and start again somewhere else, but at least you rescued the victims now.

It's a simple structure that's perfect for a one shot - get in a fight, ask around town to learn what that fight was all about, then go to a place, then go to another place - but which could, pending a title that isn't ridiculously offensive, be the start of a whole series of thrilling adventurers as the PCs travel the galaxy seeking the mysterious secrets of the Sel-tava, a species that is both "ancient and evil" and apparently has the ability to animate the severed fingers of their dead into a kind of mad-scientist servitor species.

That last part confused. . . ? intrigued . . .? confu-truiged me. Why, specifically, fingers? Are the Sel-tava really huge and thus their fingers would become medium-sized creatures when severed and animated with necromancy? Except, if that's the case, then what's with the art depicting the Marbuzi (that's the name of these creatures) as humanoids, with eyes and mouths and their own arms and hands, ending in claw-like fingers. Does a living Sel-tava have wriggling, humanoid fingers? Do their fingers' fingers' have their own humanoid fingers? Are the Sel-tava horrifying fractal creatures, presumably with some kind of impossible layered sentience so that in the infinitesimal reaches of its farthest extremities, the appendage-that-is-the-creature can suffer with the full weight of the whole? Lovecraftian horror isn't something Dragonstar has attempted so far, but I can get on board with it.

Or maybe it's just that the Marbuzi are grown from cells cultured from Sel-tava fingers. That raises the question of why they couldn't be grown from other body parts (the book is very specific about this - Marbuzi come from fingers - it's stated, directly, twice). Maybe it's a symbolic magical thing. Marbuzi are meant to be an extension of their creators' will, and thus the hands/fingers represent a principle of acting on the world.

Or maybe the Sel-tava have genitals on their fingers! How gross would that be?! Eww!

I should stop messing around, though. This book isn't primarily (or even any more than very slightly) about the mystery of the Marbuzi's origins. It's only really half about their kidnapping plot. It's mostly about the town of Drelandan on the planet Drelga. The book describes the planet's political role in the Dragon Empire (a backwater centered around resource extraction) and the town's culture and economy (a sleepy refueling and vehicle maintenance spot, except for four times a year when the mines and fisheries rotate personnel, when it becomes a chaotic hub of interstellar migration).

It's a good adventure town, and honestly the book's plot is maybe the third or fourth most interesting pitch we see (the best is probably the one about taking a rock band out to tour among the planet's natives, in hopes of learning something about their music). The only real flaw is that the book doesn't seem to understand that town of Drelandan is a crime against humanity.

See, Drelga is a standard Outlands world, and thus pretty much an example of core-only D&D, with the slight twist that it is stone-age instead of medieval. And the Dragon Empire is coming in and mining all their rare minerals and subjecting their oceans to industrial fishing. That's pretty fucked up. 

To a certain type of person (i.e. people just like me, John Frazer) this was an invisible issue in 2003, but if you ran a game with this book today, you'd pretty much have to address it. Is the Dragon Empire plundering the natural resources out from under their rightful owners because it is ruled by the cruel Mezzenbone, who desires only wealth, regardless of the wickedness needed to get it? Then where does the Lawful Good head of the Drelandan Port Authority factor in? 

To sum up - it's kind of bittersweet to end Dragonstar with this book, because it is in many ways the archetypal Dragonstar book - a jack of all trades (setting guide, adventure, and an appendix containing new spells, robots, and spaceships, as well as a new monster type) that is only tenuously connected to the other books (perhaps more forgivable because it's licensed rather than produced directly by FFG), that nonetheless has a new piece of universal canon that's destined to never be developed (MacFolan's "The Galaxy's General Store" - i.e. Space Walmart, is introduced here for the first time). I think I would have liked to end the series with some closure, but this is likely more fitting.

Ukss Contribution: Are you ready for something ridiculous? I ask, because I want to append the disclaimer that the bulk of the book is non-ridiculous, so my choice is non-representative, but an idea wormed its way into my head and I have to let it out.

The adventure here is of the old-school "list of rooms with enemies, treasure, and furniture" variety, but with a modern twist - the buildings are laid out with an eye towards their practical function. Not necessarily the best choice for an old-school adventure, because you can navigate by inference and only have to visit a few select areas, but having the advantage of verisimilitude. So, in addition to listing laboratories and garages and barracks, you also get things like bathrooms and employee break rooms . . . three of them. Nothing happens in these break rooms. No treasures or encounters, and barely any furniture, but it struck me as amusing that Mr. Mears kept remembering to put them in. Proletarian solidarity, am I right?

Anyway, I'm going to honor this by putting something important or interesting in an employee break room, so that it can be the center of an Ukss adventure.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

(Dark Sun) Slave Tribes

 First things first - it's just a coincidence that I started reading this book on Juneteenth. The Complete Gladiator's Handbook made some references to the overall Dark Sun metaplot, and I realized that these books were probably going to do the 90s thing where each one, despite being ostensibly about different subjects happening at the same point in time, would also wind up subtly (or not so subtly) advancing the timeline. So the boxed set happens in the year of Priest's Defiance and Road to Urik takes place in the year of Wind's Reverence (thanks to the DS wiki for that, though I am kind of bummed out to be reminded of the pure chaos of the series' later canon), and so on and so forth. In order to keep on track, I decided to read these in order of the series number, and the lowest one I had was 2404 - Slave Tribes.

Is this a good way for me, a white guy, to commemorate Juneteenth? Or is it especially offensive to be reading a fantasy book with this subject matter on this, of all days? I don't know. I don't even know how to begin to answer. But it was on my mind.

Also on my mind, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's an AD&D book, published in 1992, by TSR, about the subject of slavery, and throughout most of my read time, I dreaded the moment where they would try and present me with both sides. Luckily, it never came. I'm actually a little shocked. This book is less slavery-apologist than Skypoint and Vivane. It might even be, dare I say, good.

I know, I know, I've been calling Dark Sun "good" in a way that feels really backhanded, and I don't mean it like that. It's just that it really does feel sometimes like the line is getting away with something, like maybe it fell through some loophole in the TSR corporate structure where it was allowed to be creator-driven and not beholden to Gygax's various first drafts.

It's good to remember that TSR had some talented people working there in the 90s, and if Planescape was occasionally bad, maybe that wouldn't have happened if they'd just let Planescape be Planescape, instead of insisting that it also be Manual of the Planes fanfiction.

Anyway, with my critical conscience now salved, I can say that Slave Tribes' claim to goodness can be best understood by looking at its lowest point, where it came closest to crossing the line - the section with the header "Why Is Slavery Necessary?"

There was some definite clenching when I first read that title. It starts off with the pro-slavery arguments (without it "the natural superiors in society would not be free to pursue greater leisure and other endeavors" or the more reasonable, but still pretty fucked up argument that survival on Athas is so difficult "slaves remain the buffer between civilization and barbarity . . . the ends definitely justify the means"), counters with the anti-slavery argument ("civilization is held down by the weight of slaver, and it will not reach its heights until the weight is cut loose") and then the narrator says the dreaded words, "My own view, for what it is worth, falls somewhere in between."

NOOOO!!! The narrator is a . . . gag . . . centerist. The worst possible thing you can be!

Gentle political ribbing aside, he later concludes the section by saying "I long for the day when we can eliminate this immoral and evil practice of keeping slaves" and he's really only a centrist in that he prefers gradual structural reform over violent revolution, which is maybe not quite so mealy-mouthed a position on a world where intelligent life is on the verge of extinction and slaveholding societies have a monopoly on the few parts of the ecosystem that have not been blasted into ruin. Would the sorcerer kings and the templars rather lose the war and give up their privilege gracefully or call upon terrible defiling magic to spoil the prize on their way out? A conundrum that would face any mass uprising.

The real reason I'm focusing on this close call, though, is that even as it's being the most perilous part of the book, it's also a demonstration of the book's biggest strength. The section begins with the words "Some regard slavery as the natural order." The pro-slavery constituency is represented by the vague collective noun "some." Because the narrator is an ex-slave, and he's only conveying this viewpoint second-hand.

That's kind of the key to this whole thing. Slave Tribes is a book about slavery, but it's told from the slaves' perspective. Only slaves (and monarchs, and like one or two miscellaneous characters like the undead horror under the Black Sun Raiders' camp) get names or motivations. They're the main characters, the ones driving their own stories. And they all hate slavery. Even Werrick, the mercenary who gets paid to track down escaped slaves, is only doing it because she's terrified of going back and  "by working with evil and feeding it, she hopes to keep it away from her and her band."

It's not a direction I would be bold enough to explore, but it has a ring of psychological truth to it (as well as perhaps being the only time in D&D history where the "neutral evil" alignment has been portrayed in an interesting way) and most importantly - we never learn the specific names or motivations of any of her clients or former captors.

Normally, a lack of specificity might be considered a weakness, but I felt like it was a refreshing change of pace. It's the exact opposite of most slavery-focused rpg books, where you learn a lot about the different slaveholders, but the slaves themselves are treated as an undifferentiated mass (even in books that loudly and unequivocally denounce slavery as a practice). So, when the narrator says, "only the owners claim slaves are well-treated . . . twice better than terrible is still intolerable" it feels earned, instead of just being a disclaimer.

It's not a perfect book by any means. It could have stood to be more forceful about the horrors of concubinage (it's not especially romanticized, and it's probably for the best that it resorts to euphemism, but making a point of describing ex-concubines as having "few skills to make use of outside their pampered existence" is 100% an unforgivable patriarchy fail). But even with that failing, it's probably as good a discussion of this subject as it's possible to be while still being an entertaining action/adventure fantasy book (whether "entertaining action/adventure fantasy" is an appropriate venue for talking about slavery at all is an entirely separate question).

Ukss Contribution: This one is tough for me, because if I'm being intellectually honest, I'm going to have to pick something to do with slavery. That's what's the book's about, and I don't really have any of my usual excuses. Sometimes, I'll shy away from including an element because it requires an entire context to make sense, but unlike Starships of the Galaxy, where following the book required me to invent a whole new fantasy environment, it's actually extremely plausible that Ukss has slavery. In fact, I directly reference it in two previous entries - King of Commerce Island has a libertarian euphemism for its slaves and Lady Harden is described as occasionally fighting slavers (because that's part of what she did in her original book). 

Plus, you know, it's one of the eternal human evils, that is continually manifesting in a thousand different forms, so it would be weird if I explicitly said that Ukss didn't have it (although, this is coming perilously close to Exalted: the Lunars territory, where I whine "but it's not realistic to not include this horrible thing" - a pitfall I had hoped to avoid by not bringing it up).

Unfortunately, my second go-to excuse ("there was some small thing I liked better") doesn't work either, because honestly, my favorite thing here was one of the titular Slave Tribes, and for it to preserve the thing I like about it absolutely requires a slaveholding society for context.

Sortar's Army is a group of ex-slaves who has decided that they are going to war with the city states, and they are completely badass. I almost had an out about including them, because the narrator was being a fuddy-duddy about the whole thing, describing them as being completely in the right, but framing it in this chiding way. "Make no mistake - Sortar's Army is a bloodthirsty band of berserkers."

And I thought, okay, this is TSR's brand of midwestern conservatism coming out. They put in a passage like "Sortar believes that everything within a city-state caravan was bought or built with the sweat and blood of slaves. As such, it is only right that Sortar and his army of ex-slaves be the ones to liberate those goods from the clutches of the templars," but the reason they softened it with a word like "believes" is because they're going to swing around and say that respect for property rights is a key tenet of "good" and we'll get to a stat block that tries to make Sortar a nuanced chaotic evil.

And if they had done that, I could have, with good conscience, gone with my second choice (the slaves-turned-bandits who were really into theater.), but they threw me the swerve. Sortar is Lawful Neutral. His lieutenants are Chaotic Good and Chaotic Neutral. The only member of the group explicitly called out as "evil" it his ex-templar love interest (also, she's a pretty strong character in her own right, who became a slave due to internal politics, is helping the group out of a desire for revenge, and is plotting her glorious return to power).

Normally, I don't care so much about alignment, because it adds nothing to the game but an out-of-character tag that indicates what the author thought about the characters' motives, but here, it matters because it means that the narrator's tut-tutting wasn't meant to be definitive. Whatever else we can say about Sortar's brutal war of vengeance against the city states, it isn't evil.

So, that's my choice. The principled slave rebellion that "does not limit its targets to only the weak." I will, unfortunately, have to make a slaveholding society for them to rise up against, but I suppose every hero needs a villain.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

(Dragonstar) Smuggler's Run

I wonder if maybe Dragonstar was meant to last forever. Because going through the supplements in order, there's a certain swiss-cheese quality to the line. Each book will introduce new rules and new lore and you can see parts of the setting, but there are all these gaps. And as new books come out, they don't really fill those gaps, they just add more. There's nothing comprehensive about it. The Starfarer's Handbook and Guide to the Galaxy kind of work together, in the sense that TSH gives you a broad overview, and GttG talks about specific places and events, but then the next book comes along and introduces new places which have never been mentioned before and will never be seen again, and the next book does the same, and so on. Until we get to this book that gives us new prestige classes and their associated organizations, and they're just coming completely out of nowhere.

Okay, so there's this Imperial Courier's League and their deal is that they were once a prestigious part of the Empire's communication infrastructure, delivering packages for the Emperor, but then Mezzenbone took the throne and gutted the organization and now it still formally exists on paper, but its dwindling resources are being squandered by its corrupt leadership who scam some money on the side by using it as a cover for smuggling operation.

And that's cool, but why are we just hearing about it now? Because the book is Smuggler's Run? I mean, I guess, except that they're the only smuggling organization we hear about. Just like the Gevise Family is the only merchant house we hear about. We know there are others, because the description of the House Trader prestige class says as much, but Gevise is the only one who gets a specific name. Ever. 

I can't help but think about supplements for other games. I just got done reading Earthdawn and almost every book in the series was about something I already had reason to be interested in. The core book mentions Parlainth and then the Parlainth Boxed Set describes the location in detail. Even the ones about an abstract subject, like magic or wilderness survival, will give a broad overview of their subject. The Adept's Journey: Mystic Paths introduced an entirely new game mechanic, and though most of the organizations were new to 4th edition, the fact that there were a bunch of them and each got a dozen or so pages of context went a long way towards making them seem like an organic part of the world.

(Also, the Messengers would be seen again, in the Iopos book. I hadn't realized that I read them out of order, and didn't understand the significance of the reference until I looked back in retrospect).

I think a big part of Smuggler's Run's problem is that it's just a thin little pamphlet. It only has 64 pages, and those are divided into 5 chapters, so after you factor in the new cargo rules, new feats and spells, and new rules for skill use (we get a chart with penalties for making a Spot check through a video camera!), there really isn't room for much detail on a potential antagonist.

That's why I wonder if Dragonstar might have worked if it were evergreen, with a hundred supplements, because then new merchant houses or infamous pirates or defunct imperial organizations could have been introduced piecemeal, as needed. A traditionalist might prefer a more rigorous adherence to subject matter - like maybe a dedicated Merchant House book or something - but we'd have gotten a full setting eventually.

One thing I will say for this approach, though, is that it does make the supplements completely modular. You don't need anything besides the two cores to make sense of Smuggler's Run . . . but also, none of the supplements released so far would be of any help.

I guess this book is okay. It has a couple of iffy moments ("The machine of war consumes a lot of fuel, and someone has to be hired to deliver it" - okay, book from shortly after 9/11), but it's really just a broad cross-section of stuff that's useful in running a particular type of campaign. Maybe too broad, because very little of it is given the wordcount it deserves, but nonetheless useful. I like that there's a class of cargo ship that was designed by copying a mysterious derelict space hulk made by an unknown species. That the example star system has a corrupt noble who's trying to keep the Dragon Empire secret from his people until he can broker a deal with the dragons to put him in charge of his whole world. That one of the robots is just a safe with legs that runs away when people try to break into it (and it's a real shame that Dragonstar robots don't have sentience, because I want to explore that guy's whole life - it and the Contract Drone, who can only communicate by printing legal documents).

However, for all the individual good stuff, the book as a whole left me wanting more . . . and not in a good way.

Ukss Contribution: The book is littered with these "help wanted" ads that are mini pitches for full adventures. That's a fun format that I think a lot of books could use to their advantage.

The ad I liked the most was looking for a qualified ship to deliver a "funerary vessel" with the caveat "Deceased spirit is linked to vessel, please do not lose. Will not pay for vessel without attached spirit."

I love that adventure pitch. Hiring a courier to ship a ghost. Really good integration of magic and technology. Dragonstar living up to its full potential. I'll try to do something similar in Ukss.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

(Dark Sun) The Complete Gladiator's Handbook

 The Complete Gladiator's Handbook presents me with a certain difficulty. Its subject matter is half "unforgivable atrocity of the ancient world" and half "professional sports." And maybe, from the perspective of modern morality, it's easy to say, "we don't need to fuck with a sport where participation is involuntary and losing means severe injury or death," but . . . it's Dungeons and Dragons, and the paradox of "this would be horrifying in reality, but it's fun because it's pretend" is where the game lives.

 "Oh, there are bandits targeting ore shipments from the mines, I guess we need to gather up a gang of mercenaries to enact lethal violence on them. It's our first, and only, recourse."

So look, you're going to fight in the arena. You'll use unique Dark Sun weapons like the Trikal (a polearm with three ax-heads at the end). You'll fight strange creatures like the deadly Athasian Sloth (which kills with "incredible speed"). You'll have to navigate special arena challenges like Queen's Puzzle (a cage match, basically) or brutal Urik-variant football, played in a repurposed obsidian quarry where the sides of the field are walls of scorching-hot glass. If you win, it means sponsorships, luxurious treatment, and the crowd screaming your name! Your character doesn't want to be there, but you'll want your character to be there, because that's where the excitement's happening.

And I guess it's okay. I get nervous when it feels like we're supposed to play with slavery, but this is something with a lot of mythology built around it and it feels unreal. That's not necessarily a good instinct to have, because obviously the mystique is born from the excuses the Romans used to allow themselves to keep doing it, but also, it's not (as far as I know) a practice that was taken up by other slave-holding cultures. So "gladiator" is kind of just a job, you know. It's pro-wrestling (complete with faces and heels, which you can create with the included fame/infamy rules), but you're not allowed to quit.

Because you pretty much have to play as a slave gladiator. The Complete Gladiator's Handbook offers alternatives - you could be a noble, slumming it, or a freeman from the countryside, enchanted with the big-city spectacle, but those are not fun stories. Not when you put a little bit of thought into it and realize they are both stories of a (relatively) privileged person fighting and killing slaves. It's kind of a paradox. The gladiators not wanting to be there is part of the atrocity of the game, so you might think that two people who don't want to be there is worse than one person who doesn't want to be there and one person who does, but the story only works when the killing is involuntary. Voluntarily killing another human being is just murder, no matter how you dress it up in the trappings of sport.

But if the PCs are slave-gladiators, that's on-theme. The world is ruled by evil, and thus to live inside the system is to become complicit in that evil. The fighting's a metaphor. Kill to survive. You don't have a choice. Unless you set yourself against the system and brave the immense power it can bring to bear. It's a whole arc.

And the intended mode of play. The Complete Gladiator's Handbook still exists in the rarefied company of "AD&D, but good" and so it doesn't mince words - "The DM should always portray slavery as a cruel and inhuman institution." And the "Gladiator Campaign" chapter is pretty clear about how it's going to end up - " When the PCs tire of being slave gladiators, their escape from the chains of slavery can provide nights of exciting adventure."

There's a certain hypocrisy here. "We start with something horrible, and we acknowledge that, so of course it's going to end with the characters escaping that horror, but in the middle part, there's no reason not to wallow in the decadent spectacle and use it as a backdrop for some sick-ass fights." It's easy to see how something like that could devolve into the grotesque - privileged white men deciding that slavery and exploitation will add a little spice to their beer-and-pretzels game.

But at least it's not colonialism? No, seriously, the question mark was on purpose. Dungeons and Dragons at its worst could seem like propaganda for colonialism. So far, Dark Sun has been good about not doing that. Slavery exists, but it's not justified. City States will war over resources, but it's framed as nothing more noble than armed robbery. Not saying it's super woke or anything (it's not - this book needlessly clarifies that the people of Athas can use "Oriental-style martial arts"), but the framework of the adventures has been more "you're in a bad situation, try to make the most of it" and less "here's some land that nobody's snatched yet, drive away the inhabitants." Is this an advantage of gaming in a world ruled by evil? Heroes don't align themselves with power?

Villains have to do villainous things, and when the whole system is the villain, then that creates a niche for institutional villainy like slavery. And if heroes are opposing it, then maybe it's okay that they are the victims, rising up to rebel. And if the story they tell in the process is a fun story, with lots of action and weird creatures, and funny/awkward things like being a slave with a fan club, then is that such a bad thing?

Not a rhetorical question. I really don't know. It's a better question than I'm accustomed to taking away from an AD&D book, though.

Ukss Contribution: Also, this book describes the fucking clothes! And cuisine. It's great. Find a particular red cactus, cut it open to extract the grubs that live nowhere else, they're a great stadium snack.

However, my favorite bit of background culture was the Hurrum, a flightless pet beetle that the nobles take with them into the stands because the beat of its wings produces a gentle breeze. I like the image. It's both luxurious and alien.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

(Dragonstar) Galactic Races

I had trouble sleeping today, which gave me a prime opportunity to get some extra reading done, but at the expense of making my memories seem like a wobbly dream. Which is a shame, because I suspect that even were I 100% awake, reading Galactic Races would have seemed like a wobbly dream.

It's the damned "relations" section that happens near the start of every new creature entry. "Orcs, half-orcs, and their kin are considered unclean filth and the pershala avoid contact with their kind whenever possible." Or, in the lizard-folk entry "Non-drow elves find them uncultured and crude, and gnomes find their near-total lack of a sense of humor to be a near-fatal racial flaw."

Okay, Mr. Gnome, ranking all the races on a tier-list, let's hear your opinions about kobolds next. (Actually, there's nothing specific there, which is surprising given their traditional enmity in base D&D lore).

There's just this huge bioessentialism happening in every. single. entry. and it gets weird. Like, okay, you graciously concede that some Derro might not be evil, but why would the majority be "filled with hate towards a universe that shunned them and drove them underground." That may be the standard D&D backstory for these guys, but this game is set in space. How can they be underground and in spaceships at the same time? Why do they have the same backstory on, apparently, hundreds of worlds? What the fuck are you even trying to do, Dragonstar?

There's a sinister space empire that's run by the Mind Flayers. They have advanced biotechnology (creating an entire playable race of psionic warriors, the Ith-Kon) and are the main external threat to the Dragon Empire. And also, there are the regular subterranean populations of fantasy Mind Flayers who are unconnected to the Dark Zone (as revealed in the Ith-Kon entry).

Everything has a place. Centaurs always love nature and are friendly with elves. Kobolds are cowardly and when they tinker with high technology, they don't really understand it (the book uses a term which I believe has come to be seen as an ableist slur). Doppels (short for Doppleganger-kin) are compulsive liars.

I'm not necessarily a hardliner against this sort of thing. One of my favorite areas of philosophical speculation is the convergent evolution of intelligence. What would it even mean to encounter a truly non-human consciousness, one not inherited from a common ancestor? I'm fascinated by elephants and dolphins and corvids. 

So I really like it when fantasy species have a . . . thing. Not necessarily a whole alien outlook, but a physiological or psychological quirk that has ripple effects out through their cultures and lifestyles and philosophies. I actually like that Doppels have this fraught relationship with the concept of identity. They're shapeshifters, they are most comfortable relating to the world through the personas they create, and they will often lie when they don't need (or want) to because the unvarnished truth makes them feel nervous and exposed.This appeals to my philosophical curiosity. I want to create a character that comes with themes.

Where it starts to break down for me is when the book gives me a whole "personality" section. "Doppels tend to be reserved individuals" or "someone who exposes a doppel without permission will certainly be marked for retribution." Why are you telling me this? How am I supposed to use it? There should be enough room for a whole party of Doppels, for whole societies' worth, with all the strange and magnificent variety of a similarly large number of humans.

The way it should work is you give the species their thing and then you encourage the PCs to riff. "For a Doppel, identity is inherently volatile. Whatever their temperament or beliefs, they will always see it as a tool to be used." An outgoing Doppel might adopt personas to rapidly bond with new acquaintances, always trying to be the perfect member of their peer group. A reserved Doppel might craft an inconspicuous persona to discourage other peoples' interest. A Doppel bard may explore new artistic frontiers by truly inhabiting the characters they play on stage, taking a variety of their most prominent roles onto wild adventures. A Doppel paladin may have chosen their path when they realized that the ability to become anyone they wanted to be implied a responsibility to try and become the best thing imaginable.

They're not humans. They will be faced with choices that we'd never have to contemplate. So what happens when two of them choose differently? When their unique circumstances and upbringings and personalities take them down different paths? What are their big questions? What are their fashions, their entertainments, and their political conflicts? How do they complement each other to form a functional society? How do they fail to do so?

It's a line you have to walk, to be sure. You can make them basically humans, which is okay, if a bit of a waste. Or you can go too far, define too much in advance, and make an entire species into a single stereotype. At best, it's boring, at worst it's potentially offensive.

I don't think Galactic Races successfully walks the line. It has some inspired ideas, but most of the entries feel like they're describing the One Character You Can Play of This Species (except for the Elem - knock-off Genasi - who feel like the The Four Characters You Can Play of This Species). I went in to this book thinking it might be a good opportunity to do some deep incidental world-building, but unfortunately the world it built didn't make a damned bit of sense.

Ukss Contribution: There were high points though. I liked the Eleti, intelligent free-willed undead who require so little in way of life support that their spaceships have open windows. That's a really neat dovetailing of fantasy and sci-fi that I hadn't considered before - space is an environment that is incredibly hostile to living things, but necromancy lets you put human-level intelligence into a non-living package. They're like the creepy fantasy version of Star Wars' droids.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

(AD&D 2e)Dark Sun Boxed Set

I have something of a . . . complex relationship with AD&D 2nd Edition. It was my first rpg, and as a result, it is my most collected rpg (even today, decades after I stopped playing it, I'm tempted to pick up books I wanted as a teenager, but couldn't find/afford at the time), but I don't actually like it all that much. 

So I was going into the Dark Sun Boxed Set with the expectation that it would disappoint me. It was my favorite rpg book in the days before I was exposed to non-D&D rpgs, but that was probably just because it was self-consciously different. I'd read it again for the first time in 20 years and I'd realize that it was like Planescape or Dragonstar - superficially trying something new, but relentlessly wedded to mainline D&D in ways that proved ultimately self-destructive.

But that's not what happened. Instead, I read it with the jaded eyes of a middle-aged collector/critic and I realized . . . It might actually be good. And I don't mean in any of those condescending, qualified senses. Not just "good for nostalgia" or "good by AD&D standards" or "potentially good after a deconstruction and rewrite." I mean that it may actually count as a bona fide classic of the genre that holds up even today. All the big stuff that rpgs have been learning about in the past 20 years of internet-driven cultural hyperawareness - the complex relationship between genre and mechanics and presentation and theme - it's already here. Obviously not addressed with the same forthrightness as a modern indie game (today, the half-dwarven Muls would require a whole safety conversation all their own, and the halfling tribal culture is going to need a paragraph or two later on in the post), but the groundwork is there. This is a game that is trying to be a specific thing, and though it may sometimes be held back by the AD&D rules, it largely succeeds at communicating that vision.

It mostly happens in small ways, like how a high-level fighter's followers are incorporated into the mass-combat rules, instead of just hanging around (and yes, this is a BATTLESYSTEMtie-in, but it speaks to an ambition - your characters are going to get caught up in the epic sweep of history and - the book says it best - "removes the outcomes of important battles from the hands of the Dungeon Master  and puts them on the tabletop where they belong"). Or the fact that Dark Sun characters start at level 3, which is sold as a reaction to the extreme danger of Athas, but really winds up bypassing the comically fragile lower levels to allow you to play fantasy fiction protagonists straight out the gate. 

The magic system has a role in the setting. It presents an ethical dilemma and has shaped the evolution of Athas' societies. Sorcerers draw life energy from the land to power their spells, and it is only through careful discipline that the balance can be maintained. Which explains why the present day is such a shit-hole. Characters are the inheritors of their ancestor's reckless legacy, their world dying thanks to the greed and impatience of generations past.

And that's why metal is so rare. "Our ancestors devoured our ore supply, leaving to us little but their scrap." It's a genre aesthetic - weapons of bone and glass and stone and wood, taking us away from the gleaming metal of pseudo medieval high fantasy - but it's also effortlessly justified and entirely on-theme.

Like the ruins - yeah, some are filled with treasure and monsters, but they're also an essential part of the game's overall vibe. The stuff that actually gets described is purely decorative - an old bridge over a dried up river bed, a cobblestone path leading to nowhere - but it drives home the point. The world is dying. Its best days have passed.  Even if you find the treasure, it's nothing more than the resolution of a loose end.

Like The Dragon. It doesn't have a name. It's not part of a species. It's just The Dragon (or, sometimes, The Dragon of Tyr). So. Fucking. Elegant. As laser-focused a biblical allusion as we've ever seen in D&D, and you don't even notice because it fits so well. It's the monster that exists after the end of the world, a living embodiment of the voracious consumption that choked the green lands and turned the sea to silt. It's a defiler's defiler, a nightmare for nightmares, draining life not just from plants, but from every living thing. An endless hunger. An endless greed. Seemingly eternal, a personification of the planet's decay. A fucking capitalism elemental. And it's clearly positioned as a campaign end-boss (its action economy - 4 attacks + 1 spell + 1 psionic power - is ludicrous in any other role).

The King of This World. The Dragon. You're in the apocalypse. That's the theme.

But it's not exactly bleak. The nuance is hard to capture, and there may be some who will accuse me of inventing it whole-cloth, but while the world is shaped by this cynical brutality (raiding is a way of life, slavery exists everywhere, the masses love the blood-sport of the gladiatorial arena), I think that brutality exists to allow for adaptation and survival. You are in the apocalypse. The world is ruled by evil. But you're alive. To quote The Wanderer's Journal:

"Though the picture I have painted so far is of a stark and rugged land, I do not mean to say that Athas is dreary or monotonous. To the contrary, it has a majestic and stark beauty. When the first light casts its emerald hues over the Sea of Silt, or when sunset spreads its bloody stain over the Ringing Mountains, there is a certain feral beauty that stirs the untamed heart in all of us."
So the other half of all this is that you have to look at the way the people of Athas fit in to their local conditions. To preserve their tyrannical rule, the Templars and the nobles forbid all others from learning to read and write, but the merchant houses have a highly elaborate way of "keeping accounts" that more or less amounts to full literacy. If you step in the wrong spot near the Sea of Silt, you'll fall into 15 feet of dust and suffocate within minutes, but the dwarves are building these vehicles with giant wheels that can roll across the compressed layer. It's the apocalypse, but people still have agency. They can still solve problems. They can still be heroes.

It's a tempting formula - a crapsack world for the PCs to fix - and it works as well here as I've ever seen it, but also, this is definitely an rpg that needs safety tools. It can be so matter of fact about its terrible elements. Like, there's widespread slavery, and Dark Sun is very consistent about framing it as a cruel and unjust practice. There are no sympathetic slave owners. There's no attempt to justify it by claiming that the slaves are better off (in fact, it seems to be the position of this book that the main advantage to being a "well-treated" slave is that it puts you in a better position to escape). Slave rebellions are presented positively. However, you can also play as a character class that may summarily execute slaves as a 1st level ability.

It's not something the book endorses. The Templar class description calls them "an organization of wicked men looking out for their own wealth and power" and summarizes their mission as ensuring that "terror is maintained among their subject populations." But if that description doesn't put you off, then you can be one. The book is clear "there are no good templars," but you don't have to make a "good" PC.

And it's like, it's fairly clear that the book expects you to play epic heroes who pit themselves against the evils of the world, gathering armies under their banner, and mastering magic through the Preserver's path. But also, thanks to the way cleric spells were reworked, only Templars have access to the really effective healing spells.

You're going to need to talk it out, is what I'm saying.

Which brings us, at last, to what I consider the book's only real flaw - Halflings. There's a quote that sums it up: "Their concept of right and wrong is so different from ours that it is absurd to hold them to the same moral standards."

That line is in reference to cannibalism. The Halflings are a wise, spiritual people, with complex and beautiful traditions. They live in harmony with both nature and each other, knowing nothing of war and settling disputes through competitive gift-giving. Also, they consider all other forms of life, including intelligent halfling-like creatures (such as human beings) to be a valid source of food. You go into their lands and you run the risk of being hunted and killed. You've been warned . . . literally every time halflings were mentioned.

On the one hand, this is just funny. I'm positive that's why it's here. Halflings are cute, harmless-looking mascot characters. They are also known for their epicurean tendencies. "What's for second breakfast? I think it's Boromir." It's a solid gag.

However, Athasian Halflings are jungle-dwelling tribespeople. The word "witch doctor" is mentioned. Part of their gift-giving custom is bringing prisoners back to their village to be eaten by their chief. There are tropes at work here. 

So I don't know, maybe don't use that element. The rest of the book is rock solid, though.

Ukss Contribution:  Bards get a bit of a rules rework that makes them largely redundant with Thieves - losing their magic, but gaining access to all of the thief skills - but there was a bit of new lore that tickled my fancy. Nobles will send each other Bards as a customary gift. Because it's nice to hear some music in your fabulous estate. Of course, these Bards are definitely spies, and probably thieves, and maybe even assassins. You know that. They know that you know that. But socially, you can only turn down the "gift" from an openly declared enemy. And, of course, we're all friends here . . .

So catty. So much drama potential. I love it.