Saturday, May 25, 2024

Encyclopedia of Angels

You do any job long enough and you're practically guaranteed to see something utterly bizarre, bordering on the inexplicable, that maybe the average civilian wouldn't even think to question, because they have little intuition for the boundaries of the possible. Encyclopedia of Angels is just such a mystery. It's a series of baffling decisions, and I'm not sure how it came to be. 

Let's start at the beginning, with the cover.

This cover has nothing to do with anything. And maybe you're chiding me right now, for having an embarrassing lack of cynicism. "Oh, John, we all know why they put a pretty, half-naked lady on the cover. Why are you pretending not to understand this transparently sweaty marketing?"

And I guess the reason for my willful naivete is the fact that the book is called Encyclopedia of Angels. No one who's interested in that title is going to give two shits about a cheesecake cover. In fact, it would be an active detriment, because there's nothing happening on that cover that at all resembles what you hope will happen when you add an angel to your D&D game. And, indeed, the cover is a poor representation of the text, which, with maybe one or two exceptions, is barely sweaty at all (and to the degree that it is, that's more down to the fact that 9 out 10 of these angels are depicted as hot guys with wings).

But it's weird, right? The target audience for this supplement is going to hope that the cover is a lie. And, in fact, the cover is a lie. But it was also a choice. It makes me wonder, did the person who picked this cover have any idea at all what would be in the rest of the book?

It's a question that would occur to me many times throughout the reading.

Like, it was a choice to include monster stats for Ahura Mazda and the Gnostic Demiurge. And if you're screaming at your screen right now, accusing me of making up utter nonsense in lieu of doing real writing - congratulations, you're starting to get how surreal an experience this book has been.

My working theory is that Encyclopedia of Angels has eight credited authors and maybe they all got different memos about what they were trying to do. Some of the angels have very tight d20 stats that seem in line with the Monster Manual celestials, others feel more freeform, where they have a couple of unique traits, but none of the underlying celestial chassis. Sometimes you'd get a long list of spell-like abilities and other times you'd get "casts spells as a 16th level sorcerer." Most confusingly, some of the entries read like they're trying to adapt real angelology for a fantasy setting and some of them seem to assume that your D&D game is going to be set in the real world (Pope Honorius I gets name-dropped in Hochmel's entry). At no point is it clear how you're meant to be using these stats.

But the strangest part of the book, to me, is that it doesn't seem to be lazy, or even careless. Each individual entry shows definite signs of effort, particularly in the realm of research that would have been pretty tough to do in 2003. It's just effort that doesn't seem to be pointed towards any particular end. Like, is it possible to assemble an rpg supplement without doing any sort of designing at all? Because that's what Encyclopedia of Angels feels like - a book assembled by a group of very smart people who nonetheless did not understand the assignment.

Overall, I found this book interesting to read, but I don't think I'd get much use out of it, even if I were running a D&D 3.0 game. Everything in here is highly specific, but not in a way that feels like you could just drop an isolated angel into a random fantasy world. Even the ones that made some effort towards acknowledging the existence of D&D land felt like they were carrying the sort of theological baggage that you'd have to build your setting around. I could see a niche for a book that talked about angels in the abstract and offered advice on how to build a form of fantasy monotheism supported by an elaborate celestial hierarchy. But this book was not that. I could also see the value of a book about gaming in a fantastic version of medieval Earth, where Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism explicitly exist and players engage with their major mythological figures. But this book wasn't quite that either. In the end, it's something that you could maybe mine for ideas, but only if you already had strong ideas of your own going into it.

Ukss Contribution: Kadmiel, one of the few female angels, assists people who are giving birth. By itself, it's a little on the nose, but the way she assists is hilarious. "Kadmiel can shrink a baby to enable it to pass from the mother with more ease."

It's blowing my mind a little that I have never once imagined this application for the reduce person spell, despite the fact that it's something every village wizard could easily do and it would have an immense positive effect on a medieval-type world. I have to find some way to work this into Ukss.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Shadowrun 3rd Edition Core

The original Shadowrun was published in 1989 and was set in the year 2050. If the timeline had not advanced between editions, we'd have passed the halfway point on its timeline five years ago. Shadowrun 3rd Edition was published in 1998 and set in the year 2060. We'll pass the halfway point in its timeline in 2029. In either case, I'm in the awkward position of feeling like the timeline's endpoint is less foreign than its beginning.

Maybe it's a matter of being middle-aged. I definitely remember a time when CDs felt really futuristic, and certainly when I first read this book, all those decades ago, I never even blinked at the idea that we'd still be listening to them in 60 years, but that person - the callow, fresh-faced sixteen-year-old who had barely even heard of the internet and whose experience with capitalism was purely second-hand and abstract - seems utterly alien to me now. I still occasionally cringe at his social faux pas, and sometimes am a little bitter at the way he squandered his potential, but it's all so distant. The late-capitalist cyberpunk distopia of the year 2060, on the other hand . . . that shit feels imminent.

At various points in the text, I'd find myself asking "who is all this for?" Upon reflection, it was mostly for that know-nothing kid, and only a little bit for me. . . 

And I'm not just talking about the superficial stuff, like the fact that the equipment section had futuristic pagers and ruinously expensive computer memory (a hard drive capable of storing a single two-hour movie would, by strict reading of the rules, cost as much as two months of rent). I'm actually part of a dying breed who can still remember when scamming a free long-distance phone call from the telecom company was an impressive bit of techno-wizardry. No, I found Shadowrun 3rd Edition to be unsatisfying on aa deeper level - it's a distopian sci-fi world that somehow manages to miss most of my current anxieties about the future.

I mean, there is pollution and the privatization of public services, but not one word about global warming. There's a deadly pandemic, but they kind of gloss over it.  Fools! Twenty-five percent of the global population dies and that gets one paragraph. Did they not have any idea how utterly traumatic it would be for even one tenth of one percent of the world to die of a deadly plague? That shit changes you.  I still flinch whenever I hear someone cough in public.

Even the megacorps are . . . off. Don't get me wrong, they're still evil. They still plunder the world out of a reckless pursuit of profit. But they're also cradle-to-grave-employers who actually make products. Not one of the AAA megas is just a shell company with one employee who occasionally smacks the side of an automatic foreclosure machine while a bunch of fascists trade the stock back and forth with each other. Even the healthcare system is not quite so ruthlessly profiteering. The hospitalized lifestyle costs 500 nuyen per day, and it's not clear what that would be in dollars, exactly, but it's about a half of a month's worth of low lifestyle, which is just an unbelievable deal from where I'm sitting (I make about 30k a year and even one night in a hospital would ruin me financially).

None of that is necessarily something I'd elevate to a fault, but it does make the book feel weirdly old-fashioned. Although, I suppose that's just the curse of sci-fi. Every few years, people get a new thing to stress out over. I'm sure that 6th edition feels much more contemporary. You can even see this process at work in 3e itself. The list of megacorporations was heavily biased towards the Japanese for all of 1e and 2e, but things are shaking up. One of the Japanese corporations went bankrupt, another moved to Russia. There's a Chinese corporation now. Because in 1989, the rapidly growing Japanese economy was seen as a threat to American business, but a decade later those fears proved unfounded.

I think, as a critic, I really need to meet Shadowrun 3e where it lives - as a crime simulator with magic and elves and shit. And as a crime simulator it works okay. There were times in the last week where I was reading these densely packed rules and really hating my life, but they're probably not all that bad in practice. Most tasks can be broken down pretty simply into 4 steps - the action, the response to the action, the outcome of the response to the action, and the response to the outcome of action. Successes upstream have an effect downstream, usually at a rate of 2-to-1, and the only thing you really have to remember is what dice pool to roll and which of the hundred modifiers you're going to apply to the target number. You sometimes get something that seems complicated, like the hacking system, but most of that complexity turns out to be a dozen different dice pools you have access to and/or target numbers you can impose on other peoples' dice pools. It's a lot to remember, but it's a lot of the same sort of thing, so it's not quite as bad as it could be.

I can see, though, why all my Shadowrun games tended to devolve into pixel-hunting heist planning sessions. The game encourages that sort of thinking. Many of the challenges are easy if you bring exactly the right sort of tool and near-impossible if you don't. I think, in the future, if I ever run this system, I'm just going to lean into that aspect of the game. My previous habit - stewing behind the GM screen, grinding my teeth waiting for the players to finalize the damned plan so we could get to the action already - that was unhealthy.

Now, do I have to talk about the weird race stuff again? Because Shadowrun is weird. When it talks about all the metahuman varieties, the "human" entry is as perfectly succinct and non-judgmental an explanation of the concept of privilege as I've ever seen. But then the "troll" section has a line about how people "assume trolls are dumb because [they're] big" and then a few pages later the trolls get a -2 Int penalty (in a game where attributes are rated 1-6). 

And that's not even getting into how it deals with real world ethnicities. It's probably good that I'm seeing a bunch of specific Native American tribes, but is it okay that sometimes the context is nonsense like the Salish-Sidhe Council? Like, maybe it undermines the triumph of indigenous people against the forces of colonialism just a little bit if a real nation like the Salish have to share billing with something out of Irish folklore. And it definitely feels uncool to characterize Tsimshian as racist authoritarians who destroy the environment. Sure, it's "realistic" that if you're creating a half-dozen new governments out of basically nothing, then at least one would be oppressive, but seriously, what did the Tsimshian ever do to you? I feel like, given the history between European settlers and indigenous peoples, you've got to have at least some justification more robust than "someone had to draw the short straw to be the bad guy."

It's really a shame, because the peoples of the Pacific northwest have some really interesting ideas that could work well in a cyberpunk setting - like, what does it mean to celebrate something like the Potlach in the context of a global economic system of decaying capitalism? FASA should absolutely not have explored that, but it makes me wonder what sort of Tsimshian or Tlingit or Salish sci-fi we could have gotten if the world were just a little more just.

Let's wrap-up here. This very book was my entry to the Shadowrun franchise, and twenty years ago, I absolutely adored its juxtaposition of genres and thorough game mechanics and even hoary old tropes like cybernetic implants and decking through the matrix felt new and exciting to me. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I still find that stuff kind of cool, but to really get into it I have to revert mentally to the person I was back then, and young me was . . . an ignorant jackass. It's a hard thing to convey (and an embarrassing thing to admit), but I found the Native American Nations to just be cool in concept. Looking at the familiar map of North American and seeing these unfamiliar, non-European names, that was enough, in itself, to impress me. I didn't think to ask any follow-up questions. So I can't help feeling like Shadowrun is a really cool rpg setting . . . provided I don't ask any follow-up questions.

Considering how much I'm looking forward to reading the rest of my 3e books, I am probably more comfortable with that bargain than I should be.

Ukss Contribution: It's kind of a backhanded one this time, but it's not quite ironic. The equipment section quite specifically lists both katanas and dusters (i.e. trench coats) as things you can buy. The uncontrolled burst of pure 90s nostalgia was almost too much for me to handle. Ukss has gotta have at least some trench coat and katana guys.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual 3.5

During the course of reading all these hundreds of rpg books, there's one idea that I've clung to with steadfast conviction - that it is nigh-impossible to make a bad monster book. Monster Manual 3.5 has put that assumption to the test.

It's not that it's bad per se. In many ways - organization, presentation, mechanics - it's better than the 3.0 book it's replacing. And every fault it has was present in the original. But maybe that's the problem. This is a book that got longer in the revision, but it didn't grow. It's just a list of one set of monster stats after another, with minimal flavor text (and the bulk of that just being a physical description) and little understanding of monster encounters as anything other than a physical brawl to the death. 

I partially forgave the 3.0 version for this fault, because it was a brand new edition and I felt like it was just giving a mechanical conversion for the players' assumed AD&D monster libraries, but by the time 3.5 came around, that excuse was getting pretty thin. A lot of 3.5 players were, in fact, d20 system natives, with little connection to the old lore and little access to the out of print books that would have explained (to choose a totally random example) that the Ravid was, in fact, cool as shit.

What 3.5 needed was not just an update to the original Monster Manual, but a new methodology for how D&D's monster books would be written. Unfortunately, that would only come with time.

Despite all that, I largely enjoyed this book. My notes are my usual random fare ("Behirs hate dragons - is this worldbuilding?") Looking for a pattern, I'd say that I had mixed feelings about the way this book supported "monsters as characters." I found the demihuman entries, which would essentially just reprint their PHB stats, to be terribly tedious, but I also desperately wanted to play a Vampire Monk/Shadowdancer . . . if it weren't for the punitive ECL modifier. I guess I like monster characters in theory, but MM3.5 has the quick and dirty version of Savage Species greatest fault - creatures are overstatted to make them a threat to a team of PCs, so when you reverse-engineer them to be player characters, you have to cost in all the extra boosts they get to not go down like chumps. 

Okay, the minotaur has 19 Strength, sounds good. Give me a +4 strength bonus, I'll slap it on my standard array's 15 and wind up with a cool, muscular cow-man. I'll leave the Constitution score up to chance and forgoe the racial hit die for normal class levels and we could maybe get this done with a +1 ECL.

Except, of course, you have to assume that the monster stats are for a completely average specimen, so the Minotaur PC stats have to give a +8 Strength adjustment and a +4 Constitution adjustment and six racial HD, so you wind up playing a level 8 character who is somehow both less interesting and mechanically worse than an equivalent PHB character. Damnit, WotC, I just want to play a guy with big horns and big muscles. What is so hard to understand about that? I can't speak for all of humanity (but I will, just watch me), but I'm positively certain that people want to play monsters because they're intrigued with the monster's concept, not because they want an exact match for the creature's MM stats. If you're going to provide stats for monster PCs, the least you could do is make them viable PC stats.

In any event, the lack of a 3.5 vampire class is a real missed opportunity. 

Moving on, several of the monster entries came with a second stat block, to show a version that had class levels or which had undergone the monster advancement process. I guess these were moderately useful, though only one is actually going to linger in my memory - the Truly Horrid Umber Hulk.

I like that a lot. More monsters should be named by a hyperventilating Victorian. 

And I've probably come to as good a place as any to wrap up. My conclusion - the 3.5 Monster Manual does what it needs to do, but it only does what it needs to do, and maybe that's something I can respect, but it's not something that I can bring myself to love.

Ukss Contribution: A rare bit of flavor - sometimes older female dragons will not want the hassle of raising another clutch of dragon babies and give their excess eggs to "nondraconic foster parents."

I have no idea what, precisely, is being imagined here. I'm guessing the dragons are being raised by powerful creatures of the dragon's alignment, like a sphinx or a lich or something, but all I can picture is an ordinary human family who has been thrust into a hilarious domestic comedy. "My Daughter, the Dragon" or somesuch.

As per my wont, I will be implementing my own half-assed interpretation into Ukss.

Monday, May 6, 2024

(Shadowrun) Target: Smuggler Havens

After reading Target: Smuggler Havens I can't help but feel just the teensiest bit responsible for 90s FASA's absolutely chaotic supplement release strategy. The Game Information chapter, in the course of giving me rules and plot-hooks to go along with the book's smuggling-related fiction content, bid me to reference twelve different Shadowrun books (not including the core, which I have to grant as a gimme, because that's what corebooks are for). I think about this and I ponder the alternate reality where I say, "fuck my dwindling shelf space and modest budget" and proceed to collect a complete set of Shadowrun supplements and . . . it feels like seeing what happened to the other guy, after I passed on the Monkey's Paw. And maybe it doesn't make a lot of sense to feel responsible for something that happened when I was a teenager and only owned something like eight AD&D 2nd edition books, but I'm keenly aware of the fact that the target audience for this book was people almost exactly like me.

Which is probably why I enjoyed it as much as I did. I'm not entirely sold on the idea of smuggling as an alternate Shadowrun campaign model, but that's less a shortcoming of the book and more a lack, on my part, of any great experiences with "rural cyberpunk" as a genre. I can see how evading the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, and Customs Enforcement is a parallel challenge to the corporate security and privatized police forces of the game's normal heist capers, but I can't quite wrap my head around it as a team activity and Target: Smuggler Havens really didn't make a case for the illicit transport of cargo across international borders as a form of punk rebellion against satirically exaggerated capitalism. I can't help but think back to Broken Dreams and its smuggling plot-hook of outwitting the MPAA by transporting pirated movies on physical media. The contrast with this book's toothless and vague trade in telesma (spell components, basically) is palpable. That's embarrassing - being out-punked by Transhuman Space, of all things.

Target: Smuggler Havens almost gets there, when it suggests that New Orleans is a hub for zombie smuggling, but it barely scratches the surface of the concept's potential to be a 21st-century parable. Zombies "never ask for raises or strike for better working conditions?" Whoa. You may really be on to something. Take it a little farther, tie it in with the genre's overall themes of corporate lawlessness and the objectification and commodification of the human body for the sake of capitalist rent-seeking. Oh, no, we're done? Okay. I guess one paragraph is enough for this potential game-changer of a campaign arc. It just seems a shame, because this is one of the few times that Shadowrun's juxtaposition of genres actually enhances, rather than distracts from, the overall political critique that is so essential to good cyberpunk.

Another time happens a little later in this same book, when discussing Japanese whaling vessels - "Of course, the whales fight back now." Big salute to our magically-awakened cetacean comrades, organizing in community defense against imperialist aggression. Someone should make an rpg-scenario about that someday.

I'm being a little too hard on Target: Smuggler Havens, though. It's not really an adventure book, it's more of a setting expansion, taking us to corners of the Shadowrun universe hitherto unseen (I'm assuming). I can now theoretically run games based out of Vladivostok and New Orleans.

And as sci-fi/fantasy locations, they're pretty good. You've got international intrigue and different criminal factions (though, as pointed out in Mob War! it's unclear how the Mafia continues to justify its existence) and that extra Shadowrun special sauce of weird swamp monsters and insurrectionist taiga shapeshifters. But I'm feeling that same dilemma I always feel when an rpg goes to real places - it's cool to see the world through this fantastic lens, but what sort of hash is the fantasy making of the place's real culture and history?

With Vladivostok, I don't have even a glimmer of a starting point. On any average day, I spend approximately 0 minutes thinking about it. Shadowrun's Russia is going through a bit of a hard time, thanks to sectional conflict and an authoritarian central government, and I might normally say that such a depiction is in poor taste, but seeing as how neither fictional nor real-world Russia has much respect for Ukranian sovereignty, I'm kind of okay with it. It's not like they're depicting a historically marginalized group like the Lakota as a bunch of trigger-happy xenophobes . . .

Oh, right. Although, I suppose the worst you could say about that is that it's pretty typical for the setting. If you're caught smuggling almost anywhere, border patrol will shoot you. No real reason to think the Native American Nations would be the exception.

New Orleans is trickier. Call it a victim of early Shadowrun's half-assed worldbuilding, but I'm finding it difficult to square the city's history of fraught racial politics with the notion that it considers itself the "cultural and spiritual capital" of the Confederated American States. Likewise difficult to swallow - the notion that it lost the status of political capital to Atlanta. Maybe my brain has been rotted by too much contemporary politics, but having two of America's most iconically Black cities form the core of a state whose borders exactly mirror the Confederacy gives me the heebie jeebies. I once said the lack of Black characters in the Chicago book was an oops. This shoots past that to a full-on yikes.

It doesn't help that Shadowrun also has this weird thing where the fantasy races act as a stand-in for racial prejudice, but also the real world races they're standing in for are still there, just hanging around (this shows up in the Vladivostok chapter too, where a lot of the city's population are metahuman refugees who fled persecution in Japan, but then there's a thing where the nearby oceans are unsafe because Japanese corporations will hire Chinese and Korean pirates as expendable assets). The absolute recklessness of this approach is perfectly captured in the following quote:

"Because voudoun began as the magic of the oppressed, it touches the outcasts of New Orleans, especially the poorer metahumans pushed to the outskirts of the metroplex. The tradition is strongest among orks and trolls. . ."

Ahhh!!! I am not nearly smart enough to do this work. I feel like I'm just one or two supplements away from reading about the vibrant and creatively rich tradition of orkish rap music. Like, you can't just take a Black thing and make it a goblin thing, right? Not in a world where Black people exist. Not even if you're overall positive about the culture you're borrowing. 

I think that's probably the essence of Shadowrun, though. This is a future where much of the world is decolonized . . . because indigenous people are just that more magical than the rest of us (not just in America - Russia lost a large chunk of its territory to native Siberian shamans). It's probably a pretty bad form of representation but . . . do they get point for trying? I don't fucking know.

Now I feel a little guilty for ragging this book about its missed opportunities for anti-capitalist satire, because it turns out that a big part of the game's appeal for me is a similarly shallow "but the elf has a machine gun." By that standard Target: Smuggler Havens is exactly the sort of book I'm looking for.

Ukss Contribution: I really like zombie smuggling as the premise of a mini-campaign, even though I'd prefer the PCs to be trying to shut it down. However, reading this book has made me keenly aware of the fact that Ukss does not have anything like the Free City of Kronstadt - an anarchic stateless port of call for pirates, smugglers, and rogues of every description. Every fantasy setting needs a place like that. Sorry, zombies, I don't make the rules.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide

The Dungeon Master's Guide is the quintessential book that you read exactly once and then only intermittently reference for all the rest of time. I think I may actually be at precisely three full reads - one that I finished just now, the 3.0 version I read six months ago, and the 3.0 version I read 20 years ago. At no point between those occasions have I ever felt the urge to do it purely for pleasure.

But don't let that give you the wrong idea. I'm not down on the DMG at all. I think it's a perfectly fine reference book. In many ways, I greatly admire it. It aspires to a kind of transcendent blandness, to be such a perfect non-entity in itself that you'll be tempted to use it for everything. Whether it succeeded or not is hard to say, though the history of the d20 boom suggests they made some progress in that direction. Certainly, there were long stretches where it felt like I was reading a generic gaming encyclopedia (normally, I dislike using the word "generic," but when a book spends seven straight pages describing various types of architectural features - including door hinges and tapestries - I feel like maybe it's a little bit warranted).

Now we come to the part where I comment on my more specific observations. Just for fun, I went back to my post on the 3.0 DMG, to see if I already covered anything from my current round of notes. Amusingly, I jotted down the exact same quote both times through - "high-level fighters always hit with their primary attacks and other characters rarely do." I guess there's to pretending that wasn't an intentional design feature, despite the fact that it makes no fucking sense.

But aside from the stunning revelation that I have the exact same opinions about two books that are 75% identical (the 3.5 DMG is approximately 50 pages longer than the 3.0 DMG, but most of those extra pages are devoted to butchering Planescape or making a less functional version of the Epic Level Handbook), most of my observations are tiny, almost annoying, nitpicks. Like, I understand the game balance logic behind putting divine spells onto scrolls, but theologically, it's absolutely wild to think about. You've basically got an IOU from God for one future miracle, redeemable by whoever happens to hold the scrap of paper it's written on. I would say "make it make sense," but I don't actually want it to make sense. I want to port the idea into Nobilis or Unknown Armies or Mage: the Ascension and make it the centerpiece for the world's dumbest heist story.

Is that really a D&D 3.5 thing, though? It might just be a bit of general D&D weirdness. . . time to consult the archives!

It's actually in every version of D&D (and both editions of Pathfinder) except D&D 4th edition. So I can't blame 3.5 for how weird an idea it is (if a Cleric of Erythul grabbed a Resurrection scroll scribed by a Cleric of Pelor, they could just, what, bring the world's most depraved necromancer back from the dead using Pelor's divine energy and there's no mechanism anywhere in the planes to stop that kind of shit from happening). But the lone counterexample also means that I can't just give it a pass either. The game doesn't have to be that way. 

Let's see, what else?

Complaints about the alignment system? Yawn.

They nerfed the Ring of Jumping for no real apparent reason. A bonus of +30 feels like a genuinely cool magic power, but what is this new +5 version supposed to do? Is it one of those things where the level 2 characters need a bit of trash treasure to make them appreciate the cool stuff they'll get later on? Or is it just a matter of finding big numbers to be scary? Perhaps a bit of tactical rebalancing? If you give a martial character the ability to extend their horizontal leaps by 30 feet, that might make them too effective at positioning themselves. I don't know. All I can say is that it's a bit of a personal bugbear. I love making characters who can do massive jumps and the old Ring of Jumping was one of my most wishlisted items.

Do I have more? Yes. Is it all similarly inane bullshit? You'd better believe it. 

I suppose it speaks well for my mood. I was a little worried that having to read a second set of 3rd edition core books was going to be an unbearable chore, but it turned out to just be a regular chore. Core books, by their very nature, spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about boring stuff (or else they are so abstract that don't feel like they're talking about much at all), and the 3.5 DMG was no exception. My overall opinion - on the balance an improvement over the first version (anti-jumping bullshit notwithstanding), but maybe not by enough to justify its existence. Even looking into the future and giving it credit for all the great supplements it supported, that's balanced out by all the stuff it suddenly invalidated. 

Even with all that ambivalence, though, it's sobering to think that this is almost certainly the last time I'm ever going to read this particular book (but then again, I thought the same thing back in 2001, so who knows what the future will hold . . . )

Ukss Contribution: I'm thinking of something that's been in every version of the DMG I've read thus far, but is silly enough that I strongly suspect it's my last change to pick it - The Broom of Animated Attack.

It's something that only exists because of early D&D's weird antagonistic relationship between the players and the DM, but it's never failed to make me smile. The players think they've found an enchanted flying broomstick, hop on, and try to make it go, but then BOOM! It starts beating the shit out of them. 

From a world-building perspective, it's a bit of a challenge. Flying on brooms has to be common enough that people will see a broom and think, "wow, that's one of those flying brooms," but then there has to be some quirk of the enchantment that leaves open a possibility that one of those brooms is going to be a complete asshole. I think I'm up for it, though.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

(Shadowrun) Rigger 2

Hoo boy. This was tough. My level of investment started low and then it just stayed low, the entire time. I would turn a page and congratulate myself for enduring the trial of the Electronic Countermeasure rules, only to find myself facing the Electronic Counter Countermeasure rules. Is this punishment for my hubris? Is it a test of my faith in the beauty of rules-heavy systems? Or is it just that I decided I was going to try and read my Shadowrun books in something approaching order of publication, and because I didn't really understand the edition change when I bought Rigger 2 (Jonathan Szeto) and thus am burdened to read a rules-focused book before I read the game that I bought it for?

Actually, it's none of those things. It's more that I'd gotten used to thinking of Shadowrun books as metaplot driven pseudo-fiction and I forgot that some of them are actually here to work. The only way I was ever going to be invested emotionally in this book is if I were planning on playing a Rigger (or GMing for a rigger player) in a game of Shadowrun. Luckily, I don't need to be emotionally invested to have an opinion.

Now I just need to decide what my opinion actually is. The problem here is that to truly evaluate Rigger 2 you need to wade into one of the longest and most contentious controversies in the rpg discourse - rulings vs rules.

Eh, I feel a little dirty even writing that. Imagine me on the edge of a cliff, with arms outstretched, waiting for the incipient flames to take me. . . 

And now that the drama is out of my system, I can back this up with a quote: "The existing Shadowrun rules relegated the rigger to the status of a non-player character; not because his role was insufficiently thought-out, but because the rigger was not given enough rules within the system to spread his wings. . ."

That's probably as eloquent a summation of the pro-rules side as we're ever likely to see. The idea being that objective, pre-established rules are a way of enhancing player agency. If there's something you want your character to do, you can figure out how to do it and you don't have to ask permission. The book tells you directly what conditions you need to meet and what the outcome is likely to be. You can then trust yourself to the purity of the dice.

Rigger 2 also has the distinction of eloquently demonstrating the strongest counterargument to that approach. To wit, the bulk of the actual text. A particularly notable example: "Because of the special nature of the MSST (mobile subscriber simsense technology) system for remote control networks (the protocol remote-control decks use to communicate with their drones), the rules for electronic warfare against remote control networks differ from the rules for electronic warfare against standard radios (p 184, SRII) and the Electronic Countermeasures rules for Sensor Systems (see Electronic Countermeasures, p.31)."

I left the page references in not out of any passive aggressive urge to pad the quotation's length, but because they convey an essential piece of information - these three very similar activities, that are likely to be performed by a single character, under very similar sets of circumstances, are found in three different locations spanning two different books. And you have to know them all. That's the price you pay for purity.

The question then, is whether or not it's worth it. I think, in the case of Rigger 2, specifically, it probably is. Though my reason for thinking that is nothing more exalted than some intuitive behavioral profiling. I'm making some pretty big assumptions about the sort of player who really wants to play the getaway driver/techhead in a futuristic sci-fi/fantasy rpg. Like me, personally, maybe I would cry if my character was about to fly away in an airplane and the GM fired back with "all the airport has is low-grade fuel, and once you add the loot to the cargo bay, you're going to be overweight, so consult the tables on pages 82 and 83 to determine your overall fuel efficiency and then we'll cross-reference it with this topographical map to see if you can find a safe landing space within your flight range. But a person who really likes airplanes, on the other hand . . .

Wait, I think I might be finding my inspiration after all. Not as a gearhead, per se, but setting it out like that does speak to a longing I've experienced before. The strange urge to go full sim. I make fun of things like Sunward's Martian Time Zones, The Wilderness Survival Guide's fish protein percentage table, and Flying Circus's . . . um, variable weight airplane fuel efficiency calculations, but there's a part of me that gets it. No, more than gets it. Yearns for it. 

But there's always something that holds me back. I think it's the dread that I may one day have to look my friends in the eye, mid car chase, and ask "so who was wearing their seat belt?"

Because there are rules in Rigger 2 for wearing a seat belt. In order for those rules to be worth anything all, there has to be a circumstance in which it's beneficial to wear a seat belt. In order to apply those benefit, you have to establish whether the seat belt was being worn. And since this is a game largely driven by talking, you can only really establish that kind of preparedness by asking the players. But who would say "no" to that question? Most RPG players understand context. They're going to be able to figure out that the GM wouldn't be asking unless the seat belts were going to imminently become very important. There's no upside to not wearing one.

But it can't just be automatic, can it? The whole point of having this level of granularity is to provide options and tactical challenges. Maybe you do put in some benefit to not wearing a seat belt - (it's harder to shoot out the window, perhaps). But then, is the GM left to enforce that

If I recall, the last time I used these rules, the way I handled it was "roll an INT check to see if you remembered to buckle your seat belt," which always got a laugh at the table, but is probably bad game design. I probably should have just gotten into the habit of asking every time. It would have been a lot to keep track of, but that's part of the appeal of playing a deep-sim-type game, is it not?

Nonetheless, I can't help but think of the narrative I'd be creating. Even assuming I could muster the focus to remember to ask the question in advance and to remember the answers at the appropriate time and even assuming this was the sort of game my players wanted to play, and they weren't fixing to throttle me for my nitpicking - a truly faithful execution of the seat belt mechanic would require me to ask every time the players got in their vehicle and then for nothing to come of that question nine times out of ten. It completely undermines a simulation if there is a causal relationship between asking about seat belts and the car getting into an accident. Those events must be unconnected. Yet doing it that way flaunts the deepest and most fundamental storytelling rules. It's adding entirely superfluous information. In any halfway competent story "who's wearing their seat belt" is foreshadowing a crash. Because people only have so much bandwidth and so you have to respect that with an economy of detail.

The result is that however much I may fantasize about doing a nitty-gritty game with a million different subsystems, the thought of actually doing it for real scares the hell out of me. Shadowrun 3rd Edition is probably not going to be the game to cure me of this ambivalence, but I'm looking forward to seeing how the past 20 years have changed my perspective.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of perfectly fine vehicles in this book that completely fail to fit in with the aesthetics of Ukss thus far. I'm also at a loss for things like characters, locations, or political concepts that I could adapt (there are a couple of fiction pieces, but they're mostly a showcase for vehicles). Which means I'm going to have to do the thing where I reluctantly expand my vision of Ukss to fit something new.

I guess my favorite thing was a borderline slapstick image - using the Mana Wall spell to knock someone off the back of a motorcycle. See, in Shadowrun, mana spells only affect living creatures and completely ignore technological devices. So the motorcycle passes harmlessly through the barrier, but the rider runs smack into a wall. If something like that happened organically in one of your games, you'd talk about it more or less forever. (The way it interacts with enclosed vehicles is strange - so long as the mage can't see the passengers, the Mana Wall will not affect them, which is why it's vitally important in the Shadowrun universe to always have tinted windows).

I'm not sure how to turn this into a setting element, though. Therefore, I will instead just be adding motorcycles to Ukss. I owe them that much for their role in making me laugh in a book otherwise filled with dry vehicle statistics.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Player's Handbook

 Well, that wasn't as much of an ordeal as I originally feared. Though the Player's Handbook is a dry read, even under the best of circumstances, the impact was blunted by the knowledge of my imminent completion of another blog milestone.

I can't say for sure what exactly I was expecting to gain from the experience of reading this book, so soon (a mere 16 months!) after the 3.0 PHB, but I can say that I feel fully prepared to run a D&D 3.5 campaign. The rules, already familiar due to decades worth of adaptations, revisions, and deconstructions, are now etched ever so slightly deeper into my brain. It's a shame, then, that I only have, like, 20% of a desire to actually play the game.

I suppose I could take the opportunity here to just shut my yap for once, limit my remarks to "okay, so this is approximately 90% similar to a book I already read, and though there are noticeable improvements to various niche issues (rangers get 6 skill points per level now, crit-fishing builds have been nerfed by making keen effects non-stackable, spells are better organized and easier to reference) the fundamental flaws of the edition as a whole remain." 

And you know what? I think I will do that (this paragraph acknowledging my plan for uncharacteristic brevity notwithstanding). The 3.5 Players Handbook did actually inspire me to take notes and write commentary, but almost all of that commentary could have applied to the original PHB as well (like, why is the monk's Slow Fall ability so fucking useless - they're deliberately making it worse than an extremely niche 1st level spell). If I didn't say it the first time round, is it really necessary to say it on my second chance? Am I really so in love with the sound of my own voice that I need to write nearly identical commentary on nearly identical books?

Um, let's not think too hard about the answer to that question. I've still got two more of these core books to go.

Ukss Contribution: Monks get an ability called Tongue of the Sun and Moon that has an unusually simple natural language description - "A monk of 17th level or higher can speak with any living creature." 

That's literally all of the rules guidance we're given. For an ability with absolutely staggering philosophical implications. Apparently, there's just a random Nobilis-style power tucked away where no one will ever encounter it, as a high level class feature of a single-class monk. It's such an un-3.5 detail to include, particularly in a class that very conspicuously doesn't get access to Feather Fall.

As a fantasy element, I love it. Refined mystics who can communicate with animals and plants and every human or nonhuman culture. They won't necessarily be martial artists in Ukss, but they will have a monastery.