Monday, May 29, 2023

(V:tM) Clanbook: Tremere

Clanbook: Tremere (Jess Heinig) is about the most overtly fantastical of Vampire: the Masquerade's thirteen clans, and as such, it's the clanbook that feels most like a functional rpg supplement. This can be something of a mixed blessing - it has the longest powers section of any of the clanbooks I've read so far, but these new rituals are largely bland utility spells that help round out the power curve (you'd be a fool not to take "Ritual's Recognition," the spell that lets you know when your other spells succeed or fail, but you could be forgiven for forgetting it exists mere minutes after reading it for the first time).

I think this book's greatest weakness is that it doesn't have a clear handle on its intended genre. It's made for a horror game but is largely about rank and office politics. You might think that as the sorcerers of the vampire world, the Tremere could support a more urban fantasy brand of horror, but there was little of that in evidence. By wordcount, it was mostly about navigating an expectation towards obedience, and the rewards of breaking the rules without getting caught. There's a bit of a creep factor, because vampires, but this is by far the most bloodless (both a literal statement and a pun) of the vampire clanbooks so far.

But it's also among the most useful, as both a player and a GM resources. It does an effective job at communicating a culture. When you're playing as a Tremere, you're going to find yourself asking "who's ass do I have to kiss and/or who do I have to kill to get a promotion around here" and this book will help you to quickly identify them. It's also the only clanbook I've read which spares some space to explore what a one-clan-only game would have to look like, and frankly it's bizarre to me that this wasn't standard practice (it's funny, it's only been a couple of years since I read the mage traditionbooks, and I seem to recall them occasionally doing stuff like that, but aside from Traditionbook: Dreamspeakers, concrete examples elude me).

The history section was . . . fine. I appreciated that it dealt with specific events, happening recently enough in history to have some level of documentation, but I have to confess that I'm now seeing the upside of just picking a random historical figure that seems like they'd fit the clan's vibe and then giving them a ridiculous World of Darkness alt-history. Without at least one or two of those guys to make me go wtf, you wind up with precisely one line in my notebook, "narrator doesn't know what happened to medieval mages."

Which I suppose brings us to the crux of the issue. Clanbook: Tremere doesn't do horror very well, but it also doesn't do much with the clan's fantasy elements. I remember the early 2000s as a period when White Wolf was especially down on cross-overs, and perhaps the book fell victim to a new policy (I can only assume that this is the reason the events of Blood Treachery get no mention here, despite Jess Heinig being the developer of that earlier book). Certainly, they're the only one of the clans whose "external relations" section claims that mages are entirely extinct.

So, what we've got is a clan where a lot of its identity is rooted in this Order of Heremes backstory that goes all the way back to when White Wolf controlled the rights to Ars Magica, but very little of that backstory is actually used. Thus, instead of having an identity as wizards whose hubris led them to believe they could conquer the Kindred (there's some of that here, but it's dilute), they're kind of just left with the stuff that's unique to their Vampire: the Masquerade context - they're the vampires who are really into hierarchy and sometimes act like they have a stick up their ass.

I think, to be really effective, what a Tremere clanbook needed was more of a sense of transgression and outrage. The Tremere have so many enemies because they usurped the powers of better, more worthy vampires. Funnily enough, their ideal energy is probably pretty close to Samuel Haight. 

Wait . . . do you think that maybe the reason they got such a workhorse of a book is because this is right around the time White Wolf turned Samuel Haight into an ashtray?

Ukss Contribution: You know, for a book about undead sorcerers, blasphemously twisting their unholy curse into a source of occult power, I've actually got surprisingly little inspiration for an Ukss entry. The part where some vampires will breastfeed their homunculi was kind of creepy, I guess, but is that really a thing?

I think this time, I have to go with something from the art, rather than the text.

What is even going on here? There is absolutely nothing in the text to give this even the slightest bit of context. It belongs in a better, more bizarre book.

Friday, May 26, 2023

(D&D 3e) Epic Level Handbook

It's rare that the first page of a book will tell you everything you need to know about it. But the introduction to The Epic Level Handbook (Andy Collins and Bruce R. Cordell) wastes no time in revealing the book's greatest weakness. "The difference between epic magic items and artifacts is that artifacts are unique items generated by a one-of-a-kind event or forging. Many epic magic items are just as powerful as artifacts, but epic characters know how to make them."

This profoundly misses out on what makes epic tier play appealing, and it kind of sets the tone of the whole book. Artifacts are magic items with a deep connection to a setting's lore, created by powerful beings who are more myth than history, and at no point in the entire text does it seem to realize that maybe that's a niche for characters who have transcended the core book's standard level 1-20 progression.

There a planar metropolis, called Union, that acts as the centerpiece of an epic level mini-campaign. The description of its police force gives the stats for a typical guard patrol - two level 14 fighters accompanied by a level 23 sergeant. And if those guys can't do the job, they can call in a back up team . . . 2-5 level 31 characters!

That's the sort of game this book expects you to play. You're level 21+, but you still have to worry about city guards. Never mind conquering the universe, you can't risk being caught shoplifting.

And the level 31 town guards aren't a thing in the setting, either. You might think it could be played for parody, but it isn't. Chapter One gives a list of characters that represent the benchmark for epic level: "Baba Yaga. Conan the Barbarian. Cu Chulainn. Elminster of Shadowdale. Elric of Melnibone. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Gandalf. Gilgamesh. Hiawatha. Odysseus."

Now, aside from doing a terrible injustice to levels 13-18, imagine picking 1d4 + 1 people from that list and paying them 155 gp per day (the canonical wage of a level 31 Union Sentinel) to patrol the marketplace and apprehend pickpockets. I mean, in a multiverse setting I suppose you could have an entire city that was populated by nothing but people who would be culture heroes in their worlds of origin, but something like that would be a lot weirder than the fairly conventional trading town presented in chapter 6. The closest thing I've ever seen in fiction is probably the Citadel of Ricks from Rick and Morty, and that had two whole episodes that went into detail about how unworkable the concept would be.

But that's this book all over. Sometimes, it gets close to an epic feel, but mostly it's committed to telling the same types of stories you had at levels 5-9, but with bigger numbers and with martials being even more of a sidekick to the casters.

Oh, fuck, now I'm remembering it. The Epic Level Handbook has a good idea - allow characters with high skill levels the ability to transcend the possible and perform feats out of legend. If you roll well enough with the Tumble skill, you can safely fall from any distance!

Perfect. Except that "well enough" in this case is DC 100. Just a reminder, the maximum skill rank is your level +3, so that's level 97. Except that you'll probably have some ability to take 10 on Tumble checks, so that's 87. And then maybe Epic Skill Focus, for an extra +10, so 77. Also, attribute bonuses, and other magic item bonuses. Let's say it's an even level 50. To do a feat you could replicate with a level 1 spell!

Oh, I suppose a level 1 wizard could only shorten their fall by 60 feet before Feather Fall wore off, and if I'm extrapolating correctly from the chart (which shortens a fall by 20 feet at DC 30, 30 feet at DC 45, and 40 feet at DC 60), then that would only be a DC 90 check. But a level 2 wizard doubles that to 120 feet. A level 20 wizard gets you approximately a quarter mile (assuming you wouldn't just cast fly or polymorph in that situation), So, I guess there are situations when having inhumanly perfect mastery of a skill might beat out low level magic, but maybe before I make any judgements, I should double-check the new epic spellcasting system and see what a Spellcraft roll can do at a similar DC . . .

Ah, here it is, DC 97 to cast Damnation, a spell where you "send your foe to hell."

Okay, maybe that isn't the best example because it's an inefficient use of the spell creation system (for example, with a similar DC, you could create an instant death spell with a +25 save DC), but the contrast is palpable. Casters get much nicer toys than non-casters.

Not just with skills. Feats as well. Buy a feat that reduces the level adjustment of all your metamagic feats by one or a feat that increases your weapon focus bonus from +1 to +2.

Some of this I have to attribute to inexperience with the 3rd edition rules. When characters advance past level 20, they continue to increase the strength of their class feature and get bonus epic feats. And so, the rate at which you get epic feats depends entirely on how many class features you have. Fighters continue to get a bonus feat at every even level, because that was their level 1-20 pattern. Barbarians get one bonus feat every 4 levels, because their uncanny dodge and damage reduction continue to improve (one point every three levels, staggered so that you only get one bonus at a time). Now, keep in mind, Damage reduction is an epic feat that gives you 3 extra points of damage reduction. And it's on the fighter bonus list. So if both the fighter and the barbarian were investing every available resource into damage reduction, then the fighter would have better damage reduction at level 24 (DR 10/- vs DR 12/-). Which isn't to say the Fighter is overpowered or anything. The fact is, the gap only exists because of the rapidly diminishing returns from advancing low-level abilities (what's one extra point of damage reduction, that only works against physical attacks, going to do for you at level 29? what are you going to do with 8 rages per day that you couldn't do with 7?), and the non-magic feats merely have a slightly slower rate of diminishing returns (because the three points of DR you get from the feat is scarcely better at these levels).

What makes it an absolute shitshow is that mage feats do not have these same diminishing returns. The Automatic Quicken Spell feat applies the core book's most expensive metamagic to all of your level 0-3 spells. Buy it two more times and you'll Quicken all spells on your standard advancement list, even ones that are too high level to cast with metamagic (you'd have to buy 4 levels of improved spell capacity to get the 13th level slot to Quicken a level 9 spell, and you could only do it once per day).

It's probably not a coincidence that every single one of the Forgotten Realms epic characters had multiple caster levels (and all but one was in the double-digits). The meme of "Linear Fighter vs Quadratic Wizard" predicts a widening gap between casters and non-casters, and this book is determined to prove the meme correct.

I guess, overall, I just found this book to be incredibly disappointing. This was an opportunity for the game to really cut loose and indulge in the impossible, but it kept wanting to wrestle the characters into the same old roles. I haven't even addressed the monster design, where they pitch a perfectly fine level 10 creature like the brachyurus, which is essentially a bigger, meaner dire wolf, and then inexplicably give it 38 hit dice. Yes, I suppose this mostly mundane beast is a CR 23 encounter, given that you made the numbers so much bigger, but it's still only a Large creature, same as an ogre or a horse. I refuse to believe that this is a more legendary fight than going up against the Terrasque.

It's funny, but I don't remember being so upset about this book in 2002. I must have had the ability to notice its terrible math (possibly the worst I've seen, only Initiates of the Art comes close) because this was the same year I was acing combinatorics (yeah, it's a brag) and I've only gotten worse at math since then, but in those days, I don't think I scrutinized my games so closely. I never asked myself how many levels my characters would need to deliver on the promise of the back cover, or what it would be like to run every class in the same party. I think it's because I was deep into Aberrant at this time (talking about terrible math) and so I wasn't really invested in having D&D that could work at this power level. I think I just bought the book because I approved of its concept. Maybe I'm lucky that I never got to use it in a real game.

Ukss Contribution: There's only one thing that could go in this space. An idea so distinct and memorable that it stuck with me for 20 years, even though I've only read this book once or twice. I knew, even as I was picking the book off the shelf - "the Ukss contribution is going to be the atropal." It's super edgy, but also one of the few things in the book that felt like it belonged in an epic story and not just a high level campaign. They're the undead fetus of a stillborn god. The idea is creepy. The art is creepy. And the description is creepy: "It constantly drools stinking ichor as it mouths obscenities."

Baby, no!

For all of my frequent complaining that I'm not a horror guy, I've got to recognize when someone does horror right.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

(V: tM) Clanbook: Toreador

I have to repeat my conflict of interest disclaimer here, because Greg Stolze worked on this one as well. I would have spaced them out better, but how was I to know?

Anyway, after reading Clanbook: Toreador (Heather Grove and Greg Stolze), I've developed a theory about Vampire: the Masquerade's clans - they can basically be divided into two types: clans based on lore and clans based on vibes. The lore clans are the reason you read the books, but the vibes clans are the reason you play the game.

Broadly speaking, of course. Occasionally, this book will offer a tidbit of canon that makes for fascinating reading (Mozart was made into a vampire! And then immediately diablerized by an Assamite named Muhannad Muzabir, whose description still circulates among clan Toreador to this day!), but mostly the Toreador are at their best when they're communicating a feeling.

Where it gets tricky is that Toreador have both a lore definition (they're the "artist" clan) and a vibes definition (they're the clan you choose if you want to be sexy at the LARP) and sometimes those definitions work well together and other times they clash.

What I think is happening is that the Toreador fell victim to the palpable theater kid energy that sometimes creeps into White Wolf products. To a theater kid, there's nothing sexier than an art nerd, and thus this, the sexiest of all the vampire clans, winds up accidentally getting portrayed as a bunch of total nerds. The opening fiction has a vampire talking about the maps he draws, saying "this one was painted on my most expensive canvas."

Is that a thing normal people care about? Is it even something art enthusiasts would care about? Like, obviously the differing types of canvas have an effect on the final piece, and the comparison of these details can put the work into a historical and cultural perspective, but it's also something that only a nerd would ever think to say. We're nodding along because you're a sexy vampire, but you're not sexy because you know a lot about art, you're sexy because you have no visible need for a job.

(Although, let me say that on a personal level, I get it. I'm enough of a nerd myself to understand the appeal of someone who will blather on about trends in modern art for four pages of a 30-page history chapter. It's the same thing that gives my blog its intense erotic energy).

However, this repeated insistence that the Toreador are really into art, and recruiting artists, and debating the meaning of "art" (Is a serial killer a form of artist? Is it true that "military strategy can be an art?") kind of misses something essential about the Clan - the art is a prop. It's a tool for hunting human prey. You draw them in by waxing eloquent about the power of beauty and intimating a deep and unspoken passion . . . and then you kill them and drink their blood. Or maybe just drink a little bit of their blood over the course of a years-long relationship. But the endpoint is the same - you are a predator and you are relentlessly objectifying that which you claim to love. The exquisite beauty of your mortal lover is reduced to the same level as grading livestock. And the art is just bait in your trap. The spider is in the worst possible position to recognize its web is beautiful.

And I think the weakness of a vibes-based Clan like the Toreador is that it's easy to mistake an aesthetic for a culture. That's how you start with a group of sexy vampires that wears nice clothes, hangs out in high class surroundings, indulges in arch conversations and high-handed gossip, and just generally spends every night of their eternity in soap-opera mode, and then wind up with a group that will chew your ear off explaining the difference between baroque and rococo. What are those rich people chortling over at their elite cocktail parties? Must be something expensive that us plebs are too poor to relate too . . . um, art?

Which isn't to say I'm down on the connection between Toreador and art, but rather that I don't think the book quite manages to convey the psychology at work here. It says that many Toreador vampires are tragic figures because they were artists when they were alive, but being made immortal robs them of their creativity in some vague way, so that they have limitless time, but not inspiration. That's a compelling story when it happens once, but it's unsatisfying as a pattern. I think, if you're going to turn a one-off plot into a whole family of vampires, you've got to understand that you're not dealing with a collection of individual preferences, you're dealing with a cycle of abuse.

A vampire doesn't lose their creativity because creativity is a mysterious and transcendent product of a living soul. They don't even lose it because they are impossibly old and jaded to the turning of history and lost to the small moments that make up a life. No, they lose their inspiration because they are constantly hurting people.

Now, goodness knows that the question of monstrous wrong-doers creating worthwhile art is a whole conversation all on its own, but what I'm really trying to get at here is more akin to the malaise that seems to afflict many creators who become rich off their art, the reason "selling-out" is such a common pejorative - the transformation of art from an end-in-itself to a means to an end. It's a microcosm of what vampires do to people. What they eventually do even to themselves. Everything is a performance. Everything is an affect. Your reward for art, for maintaining relationships, for grooming and taking care of yourself and being sexy, it's just that you get to continue your immortal life. Art is a prop. Human beings are food. And you must maintain the Masquerade.

Where the psychology comes into play is that this process is not instantaneous and never 100% complete, so you can be long tormented by the memory of authenticity. Toreador are drawn to art and artists not because they are nerds, but because they are soul-sick and compelled to poke and prod the one thing that still has the power to hurt them. They are people who have lost art, and over and over again, throughout the centuries, they cause other people to lose it too. That's how Clan Toreador perpetuates itself, just a chain of wrongs going all the way back to the goddess Ishtar.

Clanbook: Toreador is at its best when it captures that sickness. It's intermittent, but it's there. Like, if you take the narrator as being full of shit when they say, "the true horror is boredom," then it's pretty obvious that it takes a lot of horror to get someone to the point where they'll say something so off the mark (I'm pretty sure the true horror is all the death and killing). The best part of the whole book is the "Toreador of Note" section at the very end. It tells three quick horror stories in the form of vampire biographies, and art is only a peripheral theme in any of them. They are about people who came of age in terrible situations, clawed their way up through oppressive social hierarchies through violence and treachery, and then became the very monsters that once tormented them. (Or, at least, two of them are. Enver Frasheri is just this reckless and remorseless killer who gained a reputation as a composer by murdering and plagiarizing promising young musicians, 42 over the course of the centuries, ironically making him the most platonically perfect Toreador imaginable.) And I think the reason these stories work is because they are rooted in specifics. They don't need to talk about art in the abstract, or artistic trends as a historical force. They can just talk about it as if it were a vampire's hobby. Which is all it ever really needed to be.

In the end, I'm left with my original ambivalence. I really like the Clan Toreador for its overall vibe, and I think they are at the heart of what makes Vampire: the Masquerade great as a game. When I think of this game, the one persistent image is going to be that single rose against the green marble background, in lieu of the busier and more grotesque covers of its various supplements, strangely perfect in its simplicity, and what better representative of the game itself than the group known as "the clan of the rose?" However, I'm not sure this book really adds anything to that. Everything appealing about the Toreador is inherited from Vampire: the Masquerade's "urban fantasy meets personal horror" premise. The Clan ranks as one of the greats because its the one that deviates least from the game's overall themes. Additional lore only serves to complicate that.

Ukss Contribution: The soul-painting power. Go into a trance and allow your vampire aura-reading ability to guide your hand as you draw someone's portrait. When you come to, you will have a painting (or sketch or doodle, depending on your level of artistic skill) that captures the subject's true essence, revealing the strengths and flaws of their overall character (in-game, their Willpower and Virtue ratings, as well as their Nature and Demeanor).

I like this because it's mystical, and easy to imagine in the fiction, but not easily operationalized outside of game mechanics. It sounds a lot like the plot to a Twilight Zone episode (in fact, I'm imagining something very similar to The Masks, which still gives me chills just to think about).

Monday, May 15, 2023

(D&D 3e) Enemies and Allies

I'm going to try and make this brief, not just because if I finish this post in less than a half hour, I'll have managed to technically do two posts on consecutive days, but because Enemies and Allies (Bruce R. Cordell, Jeff Grubb, David Noonan, Skip Williams) is a short, 64-page booklet that is at least half-filled with dry, impenetrable stat blocks (read that 15th-level wizard's complete allotment of memorized spells, I dare you).

The most intriguing part of this book was a bit in the introduction: "In this book are some of the most helpful and notorious NPCs that we've created for our home campaigns." That's a really fun pitch, a chance to see how the pros do it. And some of the characters here really do feel like campaign in-jokes pulled from someone's home game. There's a djinn that's a "pacificist," but what that really means is that he relies on hirelings and summoned monsters to do his dirty work. Or "The Claw," a mercenary, but non-evil adventuring party made entirely of monsters (an ettercap, a phase spider, an umber hulk, a pseudodragon, and a troll who rides an elephant). There were times when I really felt the touch of a designer at work - a sense that you could use the published material for more than what was strictly written on the page (we even get a Dwarf Necromancer, in blatant defiance of The Hero Builder's Guidebook).

However, I think the overall project was undermined by being Enemies and Allies and not a chummy, informal zine where we get a peek behind the scenes to see snippets of the writers' home games. That's something that could have been a franchise. You could publish a book like that every year, and they'd all be great (though, maybe it's lucky for me that they didn't, because they'd also be a nightmare to try and collect, and you just know that there'd be one or two really wild ones that go for like a hundred dollars on the secondary market). What we got, instead, was something that was terribly constrained by a mandate to be functional. There's a chapter for criminals, a chapter for religion, a chapter for mages, and a chapter for law enforcement, and while the book is too short to have much cruft, there's also the sense that maybe some of these guys were being included purely for the sake of the theme.

Also, the rules stuff was kind of a drag. Every chapter starts with generic character stats, for people like town guards or back-alley muggers, and maybe that's helpful, but it's not particularly entertaining. And every single entry in the book is accompanied by a "Tactics" section, which sometimes offers a bit of auxiliary characterization, but mostly just tells you which spells they like to cast. The introduction explains it thus, "Enemies and Allies intentionally avoids long NPC histories and intricately detailed descriptions . . . We don't want to cramp your style."

Way to get the vibe exactly wrong, guys. This book would have been 1000% better if they'd just given each of the four authors 15 pages to obnoxiously tell us about their characters.

But the biggest disappointment was the D&D signature characters. I was so excited when I looked at the table of contents and saw an appendix titled "Iconic Characters." I thought I was finally going to see the canon histories of these guys who are always showing up in rules examples and character art. I thought I'd stumbled upon a real treasure - an overlooked supplement from early 3rd edition that would put almost every other book into a new context.

Sadly, what I got instead were three stat blocks each - at levels 5, 10, and 15. Because apparently the only thing these guys were used for was internal playtesting. No flavor text at all. I guess, if you're playing a preconstruct, you kind of want the freedom to create your own backstory and personality, but it still made me sad. I was hoping to get some material for exciting new fan-fiction.

With all that said, I still really enjoyed Enemies and Allies. Like Hero Builder's Guidebook, I only bought it because it was abnormally cheap (I actually got it for less than its year 2000 MSRP even when you factor in shipping), but unlike Hero Builder's Guidebook, when all was said and done, I felt like this was a book I might theoretically use (in the unlikely event that I ever ran a 3rd edition campaign).

Ukss Contribution: I really like The Claw, maybe more as an institution than a particular group of characters, but I think it's a concept that could definitely anchor a series of comic books or tie-in novels - a squad of monsters that decided to adopt the adventuring lifestyle, morally ambiguous, but only in the same way as a typical party of PCs. Also, anything that makes alignment less of a direct setting element is highly appreciated.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

(V: tM) Clanbook Giovanni

First off, I have to declare a conflict of interest - I worked on a project with one of the authors of this book. Greg Stolze contributed a short story to my Creative Commons anthology, Tales of Clickbait. Now, this isn't something that's going to make me a ton of money (last time I checked, it had sold a total of 3 copies - out of the 600 I need to break even), but I do technically have a financial stake in going easy on this guy. To be absolutely above-board (and because some talented people did some good work on this project, and they deserve to be seen), I am going to include a free download link to the book.

There, now that that business is out of the way, I can tell you that a large portion of my experience with Clanbook: Giovanni (Greg Stolze with John Chambers) was waiting for the other shoe to drop, re: disgusting depictions of necromancy, and it never did. I realize now that what happened was that I mentally grouped together Clanbook: Giovanni with the description of Giovanni necromancy in Blood Magic: Secrets of Thaumaturgy. So I was remembering that the Giovanni were really gross, and when I read that previous bit of extreme grossness (a detailed description of surgically-augmented necrophilia), I thought, "whoa, if it's this gross now, in a book I remember as being relatively benign, what is it going to be like when I reach the book I remember as being really gross?" And the answer to that is just that I got some wires crossed. It turns out I'd already passed the thing I was dreading.

Which is not to let Clanbook: Giovanni entirely off the hook. It had its moments of grossness. There's something like half a page (page 26, to be exact - I wrote down the page number in my notes because I really didn't want to transcribe what I was reading) where it talks about the Giovanni indulging in the decadent pleasures afforded by extreme wealth and I'm sitting here thinking, "you know that these guys are supposed to be player-characters, right?"

I could spend several paragraphs harping on that half page, and it would all be entirely earned. It's got that weird, somewhat leering portrayal of incest where it pretends to be a consensual breaking of taboo instead of a monstrous abuse of familial trust. And it rattles off a list of the fucked-up shit the family gets up to and includes (slur words) gays and lesbians alongside rape and pedophilia. Some of that can be laid at the feet of the narrator, a conservative vampire gangster, who realistically would have that kind of attitude, but it was a real human being who chose that narrator, so it's only a half pass.

Though I don't want all of you to think I'm some kind of prude. I get that there's a genre thing at work here. "Depraved aristocrats, so far divorced from consequences that they lose sight of all morality and human dignity" definitely has a niche in horror. A good niche, even. If I think of the Clan Giovanni as a story, where a naive young scion gets ensnared by the "family business" and then gradually discovers layer upon layer of unspeakable family secrets, each more unspeakable than the last, then that's something I could see myself watching. I watched Game of Thrones up to season 6, so I don't have any call to be getting up on a high horse here.

It's just that roleplaying games feel a bit different from other forms of entertainment. You're encouraged to identify with the characters to a much greater degree than you would in more passive forms of media. Cersei Lannister is a compelling villain, but how are you supposed to feel when someone hands you her character sheet and tells you she's your PC for the upcoming campaign?

Conflicted, that's how. Just like I'm conflicted about Clanbook: Giovanni possibly being the best of the clanbooks I've read so far. It's not purely down to the quality of the writing (sorry, Mr Stolze), even though the narration does have an easy conversational style and distinctive voice. Rather, I think the Clan Giovanni was just an easier assignment than the Gangrel or the Brujah. Clanbook: Giovanni is the best for the same reason Clanbook: Assamite is almost as good - it is about a specific group of people, with a specific history, who did well-documented things for knowable motives. The Giovanni don't embody abstract and primordial principles like "rebellion" or "the animal nature of the predator." Their antediluvian has a street address.

And that makes it easy to immerse yourself in their history and culture. It's kind of absurd when the narrator declares his descent from the Roman Emperor Flavius Jovianus (and, also, the most clever of White Wolf's in-canon retcons - "Giovanni" is a conspicuously bland Italian surname because it wasn't a real surname at all, just a pseudonym, chosen for its superficial similarity to a real, but infamous name - "Jovian" becomes "Giovanni" and preserves most of the phonemes), but it's absurd in a way that makes sense. It doesn't take any great leap of logic to believe that these wealthy Italian vampires are descended from ancient Italian nobility. 

The only part that really lost me was when it started talking about the Giovanni's grand plan: The Endless Night. The Clan believes that if they can gather up 100 million ghosts, they can use that stolen spiritual energy to merge the worlds of the living and the dead, making their skill at necromancy the most powerful force in the universe. As a supervillain plot . . . it's fine. And if I were reading about it for the first time in Gehenna, I would have no complaints. It's just, in the context of a typical game of Vampire: the Masquerade, it's a bit too long-term and grandiose in its scale. I was actually kind of fine with the Giovanni being gross aristocrats who use their necromancy to gain wealth and power.

Overall, I'd say that I'm relatively satisfied with Clanbook: Giovanni. Reading all these Vampire: the Masquerade books has reminded me why I stopped playing the game and why I'm not particularly interested in going back, and this book did nothing to reverse that trend, but it paints such a clear picture of who the Giovanni are and what they do that my reasons for not playing the game feel similarly well-articulated.

Ukss Contribution: The narrator says that Augustus Giovanni killed his sire because that ancient vampire wanted to "diablerize God" and that was clearly a sign of dangerous megalomania. I thought it was such a fun turn of phrase that I was tempted to try and come up with a plot where someone actually tries it. Unfortunately, neither diablerie nor God are relevant concepts in Ukss (the setting has religions, but nothing analogous to Abrahamic monotheism). 

After that, all of the book's strongest impressions are things that I have no interest in replicating. So I think I have to go with something silly. The Shadow Walker flaw. Take it and you physically exist in both the living world and the Shadowlands, meaning random ghosts can attack you and you're constantly in danger of running into the ghost of a wall that was torn down years ago. Awkward, especially since the flaw gives you no way of seeing into the Shadowlands. A vampire that has to carefully tiptoe around their environment, lest they smack their face on an invisible obstacle is kind of a hilarious image . . .

Which is why, for the sake of tone, I'll probably just give Ukss' shadow walkers the ability to see the dead as well as interact with them. That's spooky, this strange group of mystics with one foot in the land of the living and one foot in the land of the dead.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

(D&D 3e) Hero Builder's Guidebook

It's good every once in a while to be reminded of my potential for hubris. Why did I buy Hero Builder's Guidebook (Ryan Dancey, David Noonan, John D Ratecliff)? What was I hoping to get out of it?

I'm not sure. There was something like a week and a half where the D&D 3rd Edition books on my Amazon wishlist were a little lower priced than usual and I had the wild idea that I could potentially collect the whole set. So I started with the cheapest ones and then by the time my next paycheck came around I realized that I was not willing to commit the time, money, and shelf space to this particular collection.

I think on some level, I must have known that I was not the target audience for this book. If I was, then it would have been much more expensive, because it would have been the sort of book that people like me (i.e. collectors who are willing to pay a premium for out of print roleplaying books, provided they have interesting rules or lore implications) would have bought and held on to. However, it's one thing to suspect something intellectually, and another to have those suspicions verified.

As near as I can tell, the purpose of the Hero Builder's Guidebook is to indoctrinate new players into the "mainstream" D&D mindset. I mean, I'm sure the authors and developers wouldn't have put it in such stark terms, but it's the only thing I can think of that would explain why this book straight up lied about Dwarf Wizards.

You see, the book as a whole is supposed to walk you through the character creation process, offering setting details and roleplaying advice that aims to turn the bland stats on your character sheet into a vibrant and interesting character. And half the book (30 out of 64 pages) is taken up by a long chapter that systematically goes through every combination of race and class, giving advice about traits, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Some of that advice is good. Some of it is bad. And a few examples, most notably the Dwarf Wizard, but also the Halfling Monk and Elf Rogue, are so bad that it's unclear whether the author actually read the core book.

The Dwarf Wizard lists its racial advantages as "none," which of course is simply not true. The Dwarf Constitution bonus gives a significant increase to the Wizard's d4 hit dice, their bonuses to craft and appraise are good for both assessing spell components and magic item creation, and their save bonuses give the class some much needed defense. Plus, from a roleplaying perspective, their long lives give them plenty of time to study.

And the other half of it, the racial disadvantage, is completely confabulated. The book says, "Loss of the +2 saving throw bonus against spells is just the beginning of the drawbacks for dwarven wizards." Except you don't lose your save bonus for being a wizard. I have no idea where they're getting this from. Maybe a previous version of the rules, one with a bunch of annoying fiddly bits.

The key probably lies in the entry's wrap-up. Instead of the usual "variant" class (for example, the Human Rogue has a "Spy" variant), the end section is labeled "uniqueness." And it tells us, "Your choice to be a dwarven wizard is a choice to violate some of the most deep-seated assumptions in the game."

That rings true to me. That there are some deep-seated assumptions at work here. So deep-seated, in fact, that they couldn't see the actual rules of the game. If you're coming in from AD&D 2nd Edition, then obviously dwarves are an anti-wizard race. They can't even take the Wizard class at all. And Elves are a pro-wizard race, because they've got a high racial level limit for the Wizard class. And when those arbitrary rules were removed, no one really bothered to check if the rest of the races' mechanics supported the old lore.

It's a particularly poor mark for Hero Builder's Guidebook, because without someone coming out and reiterating that bit of lore, no one would have inferred it purely from the PHB. 

That's really just me picking out an example and then harping on it though. This book will often run into trouble when it tries to get mechanical (it suggested that a good way to build a swashbuckler character would be a fighter/monk multiclass!), but when it's not, there's some useful stuff. There's a whole chapter's worth of useful tables to help you flesh out your character's backstory (though, since the tables do not influence each other, it's not properly a life-path) and a cute little quiz to determine your character's alignment. 

I'm pretty torn. Hero Builder's Guidebook has a lot to offer brand new roleplayers, who may have trouble connecting the rules to the fiction, but it's bundled with plenty of bad mechanical advice, which is likely to hamper the process of building a really effective hero.

I can't say whether or not it's worth it. I haven't needed a book like this since 1996.

Ukss Contribution: Gnome barbarians follow the Way of the Badger. Cute.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

(V: tM) Clanbook: Gangrel

I enjoyed reading Clanbook: Gangrel (James and Ellen Kiley), but even though I just finished, without looking at my notes, I'm not sure I could tell you anything about it.

The Gangrel Clan is really more of a general feeling than it is a series of compelling events and characters. Every single one of them could be anonymous, and I'm not sure anything would be lost. These are the wilderness vampires, the ones that can shapeshift into animals and are maybe just a little less bad for eating human flesh, if only because they embody the natural principle of predator and prey.

They're probably one of the game's best clans when it comes to their overall pitch. I'd go maybe - Ventrue, Tremere, Gangrel, Nosferatu, if ranking clans by their high-concept or Toreador, Lasombra, Nosferatu, Gangrel if ranking by their general vibe, but then if I were ranking on the strength of their associated lore, I'm not sure the Gangrel would even make the top ten. Which makes Clanbook: Gangrel the least essential of the three Clanbooks I've read so far (although put an asterisk on that because Clanbook: Brujah was highly necessary, but in the end failed at what it needed to do).

There is a thing that happens, though. The Gangrel have left the Camarilla and become an independent clan!

This is not the first I'm hearing of it, because it also showed up in Guide to the Camarilla. But while we get a little more context here (a high-ranking Camarilla Gangrel may have been spooked by an antediluvian vampire), it's still one of those plots that feels like motion for the sake of motion. We now know that this is part of setting the stage for Gehenna, but not much more about what Gehenna will actually be. I don't dislike it, because "why are these crude, animal-like vampires hanging out with the fancy conspiracy vampires" was always one of those things that was not quite a plot hole, so the change feels very natural (or, at least, only feels unnatural in the sense that it was long overdue). However, I'm not sure I'm invested enough in the Vampire: the Masquerade metaplot to have an appropriate reaction. I guess this could have made things awkward in long-running Vampire games, but from my perspective, it's long been the status quo. There's been very little Storyteller advice in this series of splatbooks, but I think I would have appreciated guidance on how to run the Gangrel defection as an adventure.

Other than that, there's not much more about this book that I feel compelled to comment on. Most of my notes were about the history chapter, but like I said, "Gangrel" feels more like a general vampiric archetype than a specific family of creatures, so a lot of the history was like "this is a famous Viking vampire, that is a famous Scythian vampire, also, there used to be a bunch of Mongolian vampires, but they were killed by the Chinese vampires we're inexplicably choosing to call 'the alien Asian vampires'." 

I will give it credit for being the first WW book I've read to acknowledge that antebellum America was pretty much an ideal society for vampires (and please, understand, I say this because "you've created a society best fit for vampires" is pretty much the worst political insult I can imagine), but it loses points for me when the narrator then says, "I find the practice of slavery repugnant and the practice of feeding on slaves or prisoners downright repulsive."

It's not that I particularly want to read about a vampire's nostalgia for the old South, but coming from a literal anthropophagic predator, the sentiment rings a bit hollow. And that sends me spiraling on all sorts of world-building and philosophical tangents, trying to figure out how this abolitionist vampire fits into an ethical framework centered on human dignity, and the very weirdness of the question manages to focus me on how gross I was expecting the vampire to be about it, and I'm not sure I was actually spared enough grossness to make it all seem worthwhile. On the other hand, you may also have people reading this book who would be made uncomfortable by the objectification of their ancestors, and that's a valid thing to try and avoid. I guess the way to do it is to tackle the issue head-on and make it a central theme, with the aim of just brutally satirizing white people ("OMG! The Confederacy has been infiltrated by vampires!" "How can you tell?"), but this is not the place for that sort of thing, and WW was not the sort of company you'd want to do it (I have to figure the use of "the war between the states" was an intentional stylistic choice that merely wound up contributing nothing).

Overall, this book was not quite surprising or challenging enough to capture my imagination, nor was it filled with the kind of Gangrel-specific nerdery that would help me create diverse Gangrel characters. But it was pleasant enough to read, and that's enough to bank at least a little goodwill for the upcoming Clanbook: Giovanni.

Ukss Contribution: Gangrel get a custom power that allows them to store their vampiric essence inside a living animal, slumbering through the day as this creature goes about its business. While they're inside, the animal gains sinister features like glowing eyes or iron horns. Furthermore, the animal does not age while it's possessed by a vampire. Wounded vampires may rest inside a single creature for decades or centuries, awaiting the human blood necessary to revive them. Such creatures can enter into local legend.

That's my kind of sinister. My version will probably be a unique antagonist rather than a power possessed by many vampires, but I really like the narrative.