Sunday, October 24, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Terror In the Skies

 The most interesting part of this adventure is that it has you exploring a Windling kaer. Windlings are tiny, fairy-like creatures that average about 18 inches tall. That means that a human or ork is going to be approximate as tall as one of their three-story buildings. That's some fun imagery - a band of adventurers wandering through a miniature city like they were some kind of mercenary kaiju.

It becomes less fun when the Windlings were slaughtered by interdimensional bugs and their tiny skeletons litter the ground underfoot, but it's still something that sticks with you. Terror In the Skies would have been a much better adventure if the bulk of its plot were just directly replaced by a list of challenges imposed by the mismatch in scale.

The problem with the Terror In the Skies is that it is a fairly straightforward example of what tvtropes calls "The Macguffin Deliery Service." Monsters are attacking the town! Wow, what luck, there's a wizard who knows exactly where we can find the Tome of Banishment so we can send them back to where they came from! Hey, wait a minute, this creepy underground ruin is not quite as the wizard described. Is anyone else weirded out that the magical lock that seals away the Tome can only be opened by "the purest of heart?" Oh, no, we got the book by solving the ancient riddle, but it turns out the wizard is bad! He's stolen the Tome and is using it to summon more creatures? That's the opposite of what we wanted to do! Okay, he's dead now, let's banish the creatures and restore peace to the town.

If you saw this plot in a video game, you'd think it was basic as hell, but you might forgive it for being made in 1994 (I know, because I forgave Final Fantasy IV for essentially the same sin). In an interactive tabletop rpg, it's just not going to work. The book straight out says, "At some point, Tyrannisis/Rasper-Nor must succeed in snatching the Tome."

Oh, must they? Railroading is bad enough, but this is railroading the PCs into a situation they're really going to hate. The same thing happens near the end of the adventure. Once you kill the wizard and banish the Horror who was controlling him, his airship starts to crash. If the PCs somehow manage to heroically save it from doing so, a local NPC will come by and thank them for donating an airship to the town. Absolutely under no circumstances must the players be allowed to retain control of this airship.

Come on, Terror In the Skies, put at least some effort into understanding player psychology. Your parent gameline puts airships in the core and it's guaranteed that the players have wanted one ever since. So your adventure puts one right in their laps and the closest thing it has to a legitimate owner is that demon-possessed ghoul who was trying to summon a horde of monsters. The right answer to "what happens if the PCs manage to save The Shadow Skulker?" is obviously "I guess your game becomes an airship-centric campaign now."

I suppose what I'm saying is that you can definitely run this adventure in a fairly straightforward way, but the odds are good that you're going to lose the plot before it's all over.

Let's end with something I really liked - the titular "Terror in the Skies" is actually a species of Horror minion called the Rakken, and they've got a pretty neat design. They're these toothy, winged creatures, but they've got arms that shoot flame. These arms swivel on flexible joints and the streams of fire can be used both as weapons and maneuvering thrusters. It's such a bold break from the D&D aesthetic. They're custom-made to be an airship's worst nightmare and as a result they have approximately no fantasy antecedents. It's almost a shame they all get banished at the end.

Ukss Contribuiton: Fuck it, Rakken. The planet Aetheria has sky whales, it could also use a natural predator. Let's keep the legend alive.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

(Planescape) The Factol's Manifesto

 Wow, alignment is really vestigial, isn't it? Once again, my main stumbling block with an AD&D book is the way they'll just arbitrarily declare a character "good" or "evil" with a meaningless label in the stat bloc. Duke Rowan Darkwood, the Randian tax farmer who ruthlessly collects debts and causes misery wherever he goes in his reckless ambition to conquer Sigil - Chaotic Good. Factol Skall of the Dustmen, the lich who doesn't do anything - Neutral Evil. The Mercykillers formed when a Lawful Good group (The Sons of Mercy) merged with a Lawful Evil group (the Sodkillers) and both agreed that following the law was more important than morality? Sure, whatever.

I think where The Factol's Manifesto differs from other AD&D products is that once you get past the pointlessness of alignment, there are more interesting things going on. It is actually kind of fascinating that the Bleak Cabal, a group centered around aggressive nihilism, is also the most charitable of the factions and devotes the bulk of its resources to providing services to the poor and the mentally ill. That's good, complex characterization. Then it goes on to say shit like, "The chaotic evil fellow will dish up broth with the same speed and determination as chaotic good partner, though his heart may not be gladdened by the deed."

Stop it. Just stop it. These reductive labels are accomplishing nothing.

But if you ignore alignment, most of the factions wind up being pretty interesting. . . except the Xaositects, who are the absolute fucking worst. Speaking in emojis is not a thing. How are you acting like it's a thing? What am I supposed to be picturing when you excerpt an interview and transcribe a sentence "Seen place is when eyes of a wonderful, 🐦through the 🌣 multiverse the chaos."

What does that mean? What does it sound like? ("it sounds like a purple", probably). OMG, the xaositects are so random! LOL, their alignment is probably "chaotic quirky" or something.

I worry I may be starting to sound like one, myself. Maybe there is something to their philosophy. If you act absolutely insufferable at all times, you may exhaust people enough that they give up on trying to tell you what to do and just push you out into a slum where they don't have to deal with you.

Other than that, this book is rock solid. Except for one thing - I still don't know what the hell a "faction" even is. There's a new bit of tantalizing canon history that's introduced here, called "The Great Upheaval," a troubled period, roughly 700 years ago, when the Lady of Pain decreed that Sigil had too many factions, and gave the residents a short window to reduce the number from 49 to 15.

It's funny how I've had this book for more than 20 years and yet in all the years I played Planescape as a teenager, it never occurred to me to be utterly confused by this development. Is 49 distinct belief systems really all that many in a city of more than a million people, especially if it has magical portals connecting to literally everywhere in the multiverse? Why does the Lady of Pain even care how many factions there are? And if she's culling factions, wouldn't a selective targeting of problematic belief systems be more useful than just accepting whichever groups are left standing after the scramble to reduce to an arbitrary number ("ah, at last, the factions are at a manageable 15, let me first forward my congratulations to the group who wants to destroy the entire universe.") And streetfighting casualties aside, aren't all the same people still around, just now organized into larger, more powerful groups? And if the goal was to prevent factional in-fighting, then wouldn't a hard faction cap just make the stakes higher? If the Sons of Mercy and the Sodkillers combine to fit in the limit of 15, that doesn't mean that the rival groups have put aside their differences, it just means that whichever group wins the civil war now gets to control the resources of both factions.

It's extremely weird, but the weirdest part is also the most obvious question -  how can you look at a group of people with similar beliefs and tell that they are a capital-F faction? It's apparently pretty obvious in Sigil, or else we wouldn't get a situation where there must be no more than 15 Factions, and somehow we're able to count the Independents who refuse to join other Factions and the Anarchists who want to destroy the Factions. Neither of those groups even have a Factol (official leader), which is an office that somehow ties into the governance of the city in some obscure way that is never adequately explained.

I feel like if I were in the Hall of Speakers in Sigil, I could make the case that maybe one of the precious 15 slots should go to a group like the Ring Givers of Ysgard or the Mathematicians of Mechanus, who could bring valuable services to the city, instead of the Revolutionary League, which wants nothing more than the destruction of everyone with a vote in the chamber.

As near as I can tell, the way government works in Sigil is that there's this big debate hall and access is controlled by the Sign of One, which allows random citizens to walk in off the street and propose laws, but only according to their own esoteric values. And then once those laws are proposed, the debates are spun off into smaller conference rooms, where interested parties negotiate the actual wording of the laws. Then the final laws are sent to the Council Chamber where the 15 official factions, including the Sign of One itself, which unilaterally controls every part of this process up to this point, send appointed representatives to vote on whether to enact the law. However, two of the 15 factions don't have representation because their ideology prevents it. And the rest of the factions self-select their membership based on their perceived advantages. And there is some way of officially registering paperwork to become a faction, which apparently the Xaositects were able to do, and which, again, does not filter out groups like the Doomguard or the Revolutionary League, which are inimical to the system as a whole. And then, at some point, these factions are assigned vital roles in the city's government, like being solely responsible for all law enforcement (the Harmonium), tax collecting and maintenance of property records (the Fated), or running the courts (the Fraternity of Order).

It's dumb as hell, but I can sort of see it working. The two biggest obstacles are the arbitrary limit on the number of Factions and the Faction monopolies on the organs of power.

Yeah, it might be kind of interesting to have this city at the center of the multiverse be run by a theo-democracy, where representation was based on religious affiliation, and the legislative body was made up of ecclesiastical appointees from every "valid religion" which possesses a certain number of local members. Then, different offices in the city could possibly attract employees with viewpoints that match their office culture, and those could resemble the Factions we already have. 

I think the main thing standing in the way is Planescape's weird reluctance to really embrace the concept of diversity. We're at the meeting point of an infinity of infinities, and there are exactly 15 groups that matter, instead of the hundreds or thousands of viewpoints that would logically accumulate. It's the ideological version of the the thing with the fantasy species - of all the worlds we visit, we keep seeing the same 4-8 variations. Why are there so many Bariaurs, Tieflings, and Githzerai everywhere? Why is the absence of elves on a prime world supposed to be shocking? Obviously, these Planescape books can't be a million pages long, but they should be tearing fences down instead of building them up.

I'm going to call it a technical error, though, rather than an artistic one. There is an admirable diversity of thought here. If the text said "there are a hundred factions in Sigil, here are 15 interesting examples," this book would be almost purely great (it's that alignment issue again, factions should care whether their members are good or evil, especially when there's a relatively common spell that allows you to check). And so, if I like 14 out of the 15 Factions as individual groups, it would be weird if I disliked them as a set. 

Overall, I think the main use of The Factol's Manifesto is to strip it for parts. There are a lot of great elements, like the Harmonium's backstory being that they came from a prime world where adventurers actually succeeded at their attempt to "rid the country of chaos and bring peace to the land." Which is just kind of hilarious when taken in context of their complete failure to do so in Sigil. However, as great as many of those parts are, other parts are simply too AD&D or too 90s for their own good (or both, like the part where the Harmonium achieved its goal by genociding their homeworld's elves). However, if you were to use this book as a jumping off point for building "Planescape Infinite," you'd have some fruitful seeds to work with.

Ukss Contribution: I'm inclined to go with one of the charming, small details, as is my wont (surprisingly, one of my top three choices was the Xaositect's unexplained ability to find lost objects, which is fun because it's a rare example of AD&D introducing a fantasy element without trying to rationalize it to death), but it's been a long time since I've risked a major setting shake-up, so I'm going to go with a big pick - the Mercykillers. They work great as an antagonist organization because they are absolutist and cruel, but they are also something the governments of the world might not mind having around, so you can't just declare a campaign of destruction against them without making yourself an outlaw.

But they are definitely villains. "Punish all law-breakers, no matter what" is a dubious enough ideology as it stands, but when punishment for minor "crimes" like "jaywalking, begging, or vagrancy" is 10 years hard labor in the lower planes (i.e. hell) and the group gives no consideration to whether the laws themselves are just or unjust, that becomes something out of a nightmare. I might actually soften them considerably just to dial them back to an appropriate level for antagonists.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Mists of Betrayal

There's an uncanny feeling to reading an introductory adventure after you've just spent months reading all the lore books. The plot of Mists of Betrayal brings the PCs to some of the setting's most iconic locations (they have to take a package from the town of Haven, near Parlainth, and deliver it to the Blood Wood), but those locations are still in an inchoate form, lacking many of the details that made them so iconic in the first place. For example, with the Blood Wood, "Though your eye tells you they are but foreign plants, you sense a subtle wrongness as you gaze at them." Vague.

It's no great fault, though. What would I even be asking for? That things be finished before they're started? "Hey, FASA, why didn't you develop the blood wood in full detail immediately after the core, but years before the publication of The Blood Wood?" It does, however, go to show the merits of reading books in order of release. If I'd seen Mists of Betrayal in its proper context, before even the release of the Barsaive boxed set, I probably wouldn't even have noticed.

The structure of Mists of Betrayal is familiar to anyone who's ever played an open world rpg - travel to a distant part of the map as part of a fetch quest, and then when you get to your destination discover that the NPC can't give you the item you've been sent to fetch until you go to a third location and slay a monster. It's pretty obviously a scripted tour of Earthdawn's setting elements (at one point you're attacked by plot-irrelevant orks and you get bonus xp if you can defuse the situation without violence, thereby learning the valuable lesson that Earthdawn orks are basically just people) and it would be churlish of me to complain that it was overly workmanlike. Nonetheless, this is a book that's doing a job, and that job isn't necessarily telling a good story.

I mean, it's not a bad story. There's this town that is held captive by a Horror who takes the form of a creepy mist, and a corrupt elven official has made a deal with the monster to feed it slaves in exchange for magical knowledge, but the source of those slaves is the Theran empire, whose spies are trying to foment unrest and chaos in the region. The most interesting thing about it is the way it blatantly sets up the board for future adventures, but if the players start asking questions and pulling at threads, they can get involved in the setting in some pretty fundamental ways.

The downside is that this story is told mainly through the device of having the players achieve a goal and then pulling the rug out from under them and giving them an entirely different goal. You wandered into a village and the leader pays you to kill a monster - great, but the monster has a magic item so now you have to go to Haven to get it identified - the wizard can do it, but he wants you to deliver a package to Blood Wood and pick up the herb he bought with the Everliving Flower - oh, they're very grateful to have this priceless relic returned, but they can't give you the herb until you figure out why this one guy is dealing with Theran slavers - oh, he's taking them to this creepy village, but now you're trapped there too because you lost the fight with the slavers . . . and so on.

It's a little railroady, is what I'm saying. There are sections that just straight out tell you that certain characters must survive, and parts of the plot hinge on PCs making very . . . specific decisions that they might not even realize are plot critical. For example, when the PCs return to the Blood Wood after freeing the creepy village, they have to take the same path back in order to be ambushed by the villain. "If the adventurers decided to enter Blood Wood at any point other than the one from which they left, feel free to launch thorn men and hostile blood elves at them until they either die in combat or wise up and take the proper bath."

Bad form, Mists of Betrayal. Bad form.

On the other hand, maybe I'm overthinking this. You go to a variety of fantasy-adventure type locations and once there, do a variety of fantasy-adventure type things, and that's probably enough. Maybe it's okay for an adventure aimed at new players to . . . streamline the decision making process that gets you from scene to scene. In any event, I'd call Mists of Betrayal "decent." I don't want to run it, but of the adventures I've read so far that I don't want to run, it ranks near the top.

Ukss Contribution: The bartender at the Midland Inn (presumably so named because it shows up roughly halfway through the adventure) is a lady troll named "Legbreaker." She also doubles as a bouncer, but the thing I love most about her is she's got a tough, gender neutral nickname and it's not even a thing. She's called "Legbreaker" because if you start more than the expected amount of trouble, she'll break your legs. That's the beginning and the end of it, and it's a tidy bit of representation, especially for 1993.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

(Planescape) In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil

The City of Doors is undoubtedly Planescape's strongest setting element, and In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil does an admirable job of bringing it to life, but I'm left with a single burning question - where in Sigil can an adventurer possibly go to get a drink?

I crack myself up with the sarcasm sometimes. There's actually quite a lot of bars, you see. Although, sometimes they're inns. And one of them is a bathhouse, and if you're a member of the Transcendent Order, you can even eat the floating oranges and lemons completely without charge (outsiders have to pay 3cp for the privilege).

Forget sarcasm, that cracks me up. You've just worked up a sweat in the Great Gymnasium. Now it's time to cool down with a soak, but you know what would really hit the spot? A refreshing bathtub lemon. Mmm, sour, but with a musky hint of unwashed centaur.

Oh, okay, that did veer into sarcasm a little. However, sarcasm aside, I really do count the abundance of pubs, restaurants, and inns as one of the book's strengths. It's maybe not what you'd ask for in a setting bible meant to guide authors and artists, but it's definitely the sort of information a band of wandering adventurers is going to want to know. Even aside from the occasional bouts of R&R, half an adventurer's business comes from shadowy meetings in anonymous public spaces. You can't all meet in an inn if there isn't an inn.

So, Into the Cage is absolutely a great book for games where the PCs are just passing through Sigil. And I don't mean that in even a slightly backhanded way. It's the City of Doors. Its defining feature is that it's filled with magical portals leading to other parts of the Universe. In a long-running Planescape game, the party could pass through Sigil two or three dozen times. And with this book, they could stay in a different, distinct inn almost every time. Plus, they can have plenty of color encounters with pickpockets, corrupt guides, heavy-handed town guards, or Kadyx, the burrowing infernal carnivore/urban legend that does hilarious things with its victims' bones because it's also kind of an asshole (it once ate a vigilante who was tracking down an alcoholic, shoe-stealing criminal, and it left behind nothing but her feet).

The real question, though, is how the book functions as a guide to running Sigil-centric games. There, I have reservations. It's not that In The Cage is a bad book for Sigil games - quite the opposite, really. It may feel touristy, but even when the characters are natives, the players and the DM are tourists, so it works out. No, what's missing is a sense of the civic life of the city. We learn a bit about the laws of Sigil, but very little about how they're passed. I suspect the culprit is the factions. The very next book in the series is The Factols' Manifesto and I'm guessing that relevant material is being held back for it. But since the factions are so important to Sigil's functioning, the gaps are sometimes pretty conspicuous. The faction headquarters usually get about 1-2 paragraphs - even when they are major adventure locations like the Armory or the Civic Festhall. It honestly felt at times like I was reading half a book.

On the other hand, there is very little fat in this particular volume,  and nothing that stands out to me as an obvious candidate for removal, so maybe I'm really saying that Sigil is a big enough subject to be worth 250+ pages. It's not such a bad thing to be left wanting more. 

Short post this time, so let's go to the notes for random comments:

I'm not sure how I feel about the Lady of Pain being able to shrink or grow the size of the city. Something like "the City of Doors" does have an intrinsically fey quality to it, so uncertainty about the place's exact dimensions is thematic, but it's also a place where mortal people live, and calculating the interior surface of a torus is not all that difficult, especially at ranges short enough for parallax to be visible to the naked eye. Maybe it's just a case of the designers underestimating what's possible with medieval techniques and equipment.

There's a restaurant that serves larvae steaks. Larvae, in D&D, are the souls of evil-doers that manifest on the Lower planes as wormlike creatures. I'm not going to say a damned thing about eating a steak made from a giant bug, because really, it's not all that different than eating a cow. But eating a human soul? This is one of those areas where Planescape doesn't realize how weird it is. The Outer Planes are the afterlife, but they are also a place where mortal creatures can exist. So the residents of the afterlife can interact with the living, when they're both on the Planes. So the dead must have a substance that appears sufficiently similar to the material substance of the living. And the living can eat that substance. Or, at least, they can do all the steps of eating. They can cut away portions of the dead. They can handle those portions after they've been separated. They can heat those portions with fire and they appear to transmute from uncooked to cooked. They can put the cooked portions in their mouths. Chew. Swallow. A dead soul.

I feel like maybe that should have been a bigger deal.

The Transcendent Order charges people 2000gp to use their portal to Elysium. That's about 40 years of wages for an average worker. So the cost of this back door to heaven is approximately the output of a single human life. Aargh! I really wish that Planescape had more to say about capitalism and colonialism, because the metaphor is almost too on the nose.

Ukss Contribution: There's a bar called "The Fat Candle." Its characteristic feature - "a candle the size of a tree-trunk in the center of the room is the only source of light." I love fantasy like this, where it makes me go, "Sure. Why not?" I searched the internet and the Yankee Candle's flagship store has a 1300 lb, 6 foot tall candle that will burn for an estimated 7 and a half years (source), so it's not even something you'd need magic to do. It's just a weird, implausible bar.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd

The thing I like most about The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd is that it's one of the most politically-focused rpg supplements I've ever read, but it's also 100% about the screaming berserker guys you automatically think about when you're asked to picture orks. The Metal Hand tribe is a large band of horse-riding raiders who view agriculture as a crime against the Passion of Nature, and will brutally attack any permanent dwelling inside their territory - now, lets talk about the political marriage between the Chief's daughter and the son of his greatest rival, the Chief of the Broken Fang tribe, and how various power blocs within the tribes are likely to react to the inheritance issues and how the daughter and son plan to merge the tribes over the objections of their fathers. Oh, and both Chiefs are competing for the job of head general of the nation's armies, as the prophetic messiah who has claimed the title of High Chief is preparing to do battle with an encroaching imperialist power and is weighing the value of potential foreign alliances.

It's hard for me to pin down exactly what makes the politics in this book so satisfying, but I think it's the way that Cara Fahd's politics exist in the context of a search for orkish identity. Krathis Gron, the Chosen of the Passion and High Chief of Cara Fahd, is driven by this romantic idea of rebuilding the ancient orkish nation, which fell even before the Scourge. To do this, she advocates for the adoption of an authentic Ork culture, one not beholden to Thera or Throal, but it's clear that this culture needs to be created rather than discovered, because of huge gaps in the archaeological and ethnographic records and the centuries-long ork diaspora. Different factions have different ideas about what this culture should look like, probably because of their vastly different experiences in that aforementioned diaspora. It's nationalist separatism, but the nation does not yet exist.

It's a little problematic that this national identity centers on being an ork. Earthdawn started off as relatively good at avoiding the fantasy cliche of slotting its races into separate and distinct polities. "Here is the elf nation. There is the dwarf nation. Now let's move on to the ork nation." Instead, there was a sense I got that most places were mixed. The culture of the average location in Barsaive is one with a fair mix of the corebook races, and enclaves of one particular race were outliers - part of the reason the Blood Wood is so weird and sinister is because it is emphatically "elf only."

The supplements have often felt like they're trying to disabuse me of that notion. The Serpent River was about t'skrang culture, The Crystal Raiders of Barsaive was about troll culture, and now Cara Fahd is about ork culture, if only be the implications of its absence. And while the books have been great about showcasing diversity within the confines of the races' high concepts - for example, the various ork tribes have different rites of passage, diets, architecture, and economic aspirations - there is still the sense that some important behaviors are tied to race in a way that transcends geography or common cultural influence - for example, all the ork tribes (except one) ride a mix of horses and thundra beasts, instead of picking one animal or another based on local conditions. Similarly, lowland trolls care about honor and only t'skrang can build paddle-driven riverboats. It's a weird middle-ground between "racial monocultures" and  "every fantasy species is as diverse as humans."

I think, on balance, The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd leans in the right direction - the differences between ork immigrants from various parts of Barsaive is something that drives many of the book's conflicts. However, I also think that the decision to make it canon that 70% of Barsaive's orks have migrated to Cara Fahd winds up having the opposite effect on the bulk of the setting. One of the best parts of Earthdawn so far has been the way that sometimes a random NPC will be an ork or an elf or what have you, despite there being no particular reason why an ork or an elf would be especially suited to the NPC's role.

I blame the shortening of the Scourge. This isn't actually an explicit or intentional phenomenon - the Scourge is still canonically 400 years - but lately, the Scourge has started to feel shorter. I think it probably started with the Thera book, but Crystal Raiders has been the worst offender. Basically, we've been learning a lot about pre-Scourge history and that history has been having more and more of an effect on what's going on in the present. I think it's the result of an accumulation of canon. You start off dropping a few hints in early books, then later books wind up having a lot of established facts to draw from, and so they elaborate, and then sooner or later, half your history section winds up being about antediluvian triva. We're not quite at Exalted 2nd edition levels of irrelevance, but we are on the same track. We've got a post-apocalyptic setting that consistently underestimates the trauma of the apocalypse.  Trolls were great airship builders before the Scourge and they kept up the art for the 20 generations where they couldn't see the sky.

The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd commits to the idea that nomadic cavalry has always been a part of ork culture and not just something they decided to start doing after emerging from the fallout shelters, despite the fact that the Barsaive boxed set went out of its way to establish that rapidly changing customs were a natural side-effect of the short ork lifespan, and I do think I have to count that as an error, but I think it's more of an error of wasted potential than any great mistake. Cara Fahd itself is a very interesting and well thought-out fantasy location, with plenty of opportunities for mercenary employment and rogue archaeology (or you could take the advice of the GM chapter and pitch a campaign where players are "loggers, miners, or construction workers"), and you could easily port it to any setting that has room for an ork kingdom (Forgotten Realms players, this is basically the closest you're ever going to get to a sourcebook for The Vast). The fact that it doesn't get maximal use out of Earthdawn's backstory is just a nitpick.

Overall, I think The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd was a fine way to finish up 1st edition's setting books. It's got a nice balance of fascinating human drama and high fantasy nonsense - one of the kingdom's lost treasures is a mountain that has been shrunk down to fit in a bottle and then subsequently used as a mace, because orks gotta ork.

Ukss Contribution: The Metal Hand tribe got its name because its founder came across some fellow orks who were being put on trial for raiding and the dwarf magistrate decided to add some noxious cultural insensitivity to the proceedings by throwing the accused ork's ancestral sword into a cauldron of molten bronze. Heva Ulya was so outraged that she went berserk and stuck her hand into the metal to retrieve the priceless heirloom. Inspired by how utterly badass that was, the orks rose up and escaped, forming the core of a group of radical primitivists that robbed people for the sin of living in houses and working on farms.

Not sure I care for the primitivism ("any who do not live by the natural order of the world do not deserve to live peacefully in it"), but I do love an awesome origin story. I'll have to keep my eyes open for ways to adapt it.

Friday, October 1, 2021

(Planescape) Planes of Law

 I feel like a lot of my commentary for Planes of Law is just going to repeat what I wrote in my Planes of Chaos post - it's weird that this game is set in heaven and hell. It's weird that real-world gods are showing up in D&D (this time the Egyptians and the Chinese). It's weird that the best parts of this book could just be ported over as locations in an ordinary fantasy world and work even better than they do in their original context.

If there's a difference between the two boxed sets, I'd say that Planes of Chaos was more willing to take the big swings and commit fully to its high fantasy conceits (one of its adventures had you seeking out a book that contained every lie ever spoken by a mortal creature, which is exactly the sort of absolutist, system-transcending magic that justifies an outerplanar setting), but Planes of Law is more disciplined and thematically coherent.

And the degree to which that was an intentional choice, given the alignments involved, or simply me subconsciously projecting the alignments onto the text is a question that's just going to have to be left open. My current theory is that I've witnessed a real phenomenon, but it's a coincidence.

Which is as good a transition into talking about alignment as I'm ever going to get. AD&D's alignment system is the foundation of the Planescape setting. And as far as foundations go, it's just about the shakiest it's possible to imagine. Alignment purports to categorize a person's (or creature's or society's) moral worldview using two independent axes. Characters are either "Lawful" or "Chaotic" and distinguishing between the two can sometimes be tricky, but it broadly makes sense. People who care about society's rules are Lawful and people who do their own thing are Chaotic, and just don't think too hard about people whose "own thing" involves following an elaborate personal code or societies whose "laws" are extremely permissive (or even transgressive - "her only law is that the strong should survive" is an actual quote).

But while the Law vs Chaos axis can sometimes lack nuance, it is not nearly as bad as the other axis - "Good" vs "Evil." And I just hate it so much. It's the worst fucking thing. I know that I sometimes use the word "evil" in my critiques, but it's not the words I object to. I'll call a book "evil" when I think it does active harm to the people who read it, but I also think of books as an action taken by their authors. I wouldn't extend that label to the authors, because it's my firm belief that evil is something you do, not something you are. It might be possible that a person could commit so many vile acts that evil became an indelible part of their identity, but even then I'd hesitate to call the person evil. Partly because it's prejudicial, but mostly because it lets the evil-doer off the hook. If you are evil, then it's not surprising when you do evil. In fact, you could hardly be expected to do anything else.

And calling people "good" is scarcely better. There are people who habitually perform good actions, and who have developed a reputation for those habits, but how many times do we have to be betrayed by "good" people and institutions committing terrible deeds in the dark before we realize that "good" isn't a state of being you can simply achieve and then forget about. To paraphrase Solon of Athens, "count no one good until they are dead."

Or, in the case of Planescape, even that may be premature. Because AD&D's alignment system attaches the labels of "Good" and "Evil" directly to people, and it gets as weird and uncomfortable as you might expect - in both directions. 

The "evil" people are evil because they just like hurting people and take pleasure in deceit and betrayal. It makes Baator, the Plane of Ultimate Law and Evil completely incoherent. There is an elaborate system of ranks, and advancement is often through assassination. Judges and guards take bribes. Lawfulness is just as much a part of their identity as evil, but no one ever thought to make assassination or bribery illegal. What it should be is Law as a force for evil, made all the more terrible because it is perfectly incorruptible. What we got was an ostensibly lawful plane that was an exemplar of all the ways law could be subverted and corrupted. A lawful plane that was in many ways the antithesis of law.

Funnily enough, I can pinpoint the exact sentence where Baator went wrong - "Note that these spirits are not here because they're being punished."

Ooh, this is such a complex idea. On the one hand, it's something that flows inevitably from the game's premise. All of the planes are independent and coequal. You go to the Lawful Evil plane because you are Lawful Evil, and it would be weird if the Lawful Evil rulers of that plane punished people for being Lawful Evil. However, "punishment," as a concept, is right in Lawful Evil's wheelhouse.  I don't want to imply that punishment is inherently evil (because I don't have the philosophical vocabulary to even begin that discussion), but I think it's pretty undeniable that punishment may allow the scope for evil, while still working in the confines of a lawful society. You can't injure, confine, or degrade random citizens, but you can do that and more to criminals, and punishment doesn't become any less lawful for being disproportionate. 

Not that I'm saying Baator should have been the plane of punishment. The whole reason it was renamed from The Nine Hells in the first place was to downplay associations with the Christian afterlife. However, it could have been the plane of oppression or the plane of conquest or the plane of unforgiving purity. If the point of a Lawful Evil afterlife is to reward people for being Lawful Evil, then the plane itself should reflect the activities and principles that Lawful Evil people value. To them, it's a reward to be the oppressors, it's a reward to be the conquerors, it's a reward to be the elect that gets to cut away the impure. But no matter how you slice it, it is never going to be a reward to be turned into a Lemure (barely sentient blob-devils that have no individual identity and are constantly being tortured).

I think the reason Baator can't have a mission is because a mission might accidentally do some good. Or, at the very least, be aided by individual virtue. If Baator is punishing people, it might sometimes punish the guilty. If it's a conquering army, it will benefit from its soldiers' loyalty and courage. Baator isn't evil because they do evil deeds. Rather Baator is evil, and as such, whatever deeds they do, you gotta take 'em and evil-fy them at least 25%. It's wicked to take a bribe, so their guards take bribes, never mind that the thing they're guarding is usually some torture chamber or another, and that letting people out, even for money, is a kindness and letting people in, even if they're not there to rescue anybody, will disrupt the torture. The guards can't do their duty and they can't believe in their work, because they are evil. And that's why Baatezu start off as blob creatures and not grim-faced soldiers in matching uniforms. Because when you are evil, you are maximally cruel at all times, even when doing so would violate your mission statement.

Although, I suspect that "evil" in AD&D means "doing harm for no reason." As soon as you have any reason at all, that automatically bumps you up to neutral at worst (and I've been doing my best to avoid talking about the Neutral alignments, because they're a whole thing). 

Which brings us to the other half of the "Good vs Evil is a reckless idea for an alignment axis" discussion . The plane of Arcadia, which lies between Lawful Good and Lawful Neutral, has a whole plotline that is like the worst case scenario for a "good is something you are" ethic.

One of Sigil's factions, the Harmonium, has set up shop in the Land of Perfect Good and they're running a little experiment - they're trying to see if they can convert Chaotic characters to the Lawful alignment by heavily regimenting their daily schedules . . . involuntarily . . . and punishing noncompliance with brutal beatings . . . that sometimes lead to death. As a consequence of this experiment, one of the layers of Arcadia (and I can't tell you what a "layer" is or why they exist, because every one I've seen so far has seemed completely pointless and could easily be interpreted as just being a location within a plane) has fallen off into Mechanus, the Lawful Neutral plane.

As a plot, it's aggravating because it has so little to say for itself. I'm not sure it even really understands that kidnapping people, keeping them prisoner, and beating them with clubs is an evil act - "Their methods of securing this good are so draconian that the land was pulled away from the plane of good toward a more evil tone (in that neutrality contains more evil than good)." The word "evil" is used, but it's hedged. It's not "a more evil tone," it's just evil. It's not neutrality that is evil by comparison. It's just evil. "They watch these good creatures wither and die away from their homes, and simply go out to get more." Aaagh!

Maybe it's a triangulation thing. The plane of Arcadia is good and the Harmonium is evil, so the average of those two is neutral. Except we can say with confidence that the Harmonium is not capital-E Evil, because the petitioners of Arcadia have the innate ability to detect alignment at will and they attack evil creatures on sight. Setting aside the question of whether it's ethical to launch unprovoked attacks on someone based on their alignment (maybe it's impossible to be evil-aligned without committing at least one deed worthy of the death penalty . . . except that's never been how alignments have been presented), we can at least establish that members of the Harmonium are canonically Lawful Neutral at worst.

It's a weird thing about alignment. It purports to be an objective measure of morality, but it doesn't ascribe moral weight to specific actions. The morality of an act is highly contextual, based on who's doing it and why. In Mount Celestia, the Lawful Good plane, there's a group of people called the Order of the Planes Militant, and their goal is to capture territory from Arcadia and the Outlands and shift it into Mount Celestia. And I guess this is something they're allowed to do, despite the fact that losing planar territory is apparently distressing to people. The Harmonium was more concerned with concealing they lost a layer than they were with hiding the literal atrocities that led to that loss. Mechanus is working hard to keep the layer, despite the fact that Mechanus is made up of giant gears and Nemausus is a forest. The planes are infinite, but also land has value, and as little sense as that makes, it still means that taking something of value is, by definition, stealing. And that's not even mentioning the Order of the Planes Militant's habit of launching "raids" on the Lower Planes. You can draw a distinction between aggressive violence and violence in defense of others, but trying to distinguish between aggressive violence and preemptive punitive violence strikes me as splitting hairs.

The hardest part about reading these old Planescape books is that alignment is the only thing that's really wrong with the setting (well, aside from the difficulty it sometimes has wrapping its head around the idea of infinity - there are exactly 8 mobile castles on all the numberless cube-worlds of Acheron), but it is also the setting's foundational idea. The only thing wrong with the setting is its foundation. Almost everything else about it is great.

Clockwork universe where machine spirits regulate the motion of continent sized gears - Great!

A pastoral paradise where the rivers turn at right angles and the native plants are arranged with geometric precision - Great!

A galaxy of floating iron cubes that are constantly clanging into each other and where the inhabitants adapt by building underground bunkers from which to wage a never-ending war - Great!

Having to fit these worlds in a 3x3 ideological grid, when 2/3rds of the options are variants of "we think good things are good" and "we think bad things are good" - a nightmare.

I don't even know what the take-away should be here. I really enjoyed reading this boxed set . . . aside from the parts that gave me extreme soteriological vertigo. So maybe just enjoy it without thinking too hard about it - adventure in worlds that break the "standard fantasy" mold, heroically raid the hell-realm where nobody's being punished and everyone wants to be there . . .

Aw, fuck, I'm doing it in the recap. I guess I can't deny the urge to dig deep into Planesecape's guts and assemble a more coherent setting. My enjoyment of the books has to be viewed in that context. I like a lot of what I'm seeing, but the one thing I'd change about it is the foundation.

Ukss Contribution: I liked the Storm Kings of Arcadia. They're just these four regular people (two are women, but all bear the title of "King") who live in the sky and control the weather. Since each one only contorls one aspect (Wind, Clouds, Lightning, or Rain), they have to negotiate and work together. This probably won't be how all of Ukss' weather works, but I can see it being an interesting hook for a single region.

Monday, September 27, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Crystal Raiders of Barsaive

Did you ever notice how weird it is that pirates are a popular heroic archetype, despite the fact that their whole job is robbing people under threat of terrible violence? It must be one of those highly-specific cultural folkways - at some point we decided that high seas robbery was okay as long as the perpetrators are sufficiently jaunty and the victims have vague, old-timey jobs like "spice merchant." Sure, stealing is wrong, but we all agree that sometimes a guy just has too much spice.

Maybe it's a subconscious (or fully conscious, what the fuck do I know) rebellion against the sins of colonialism. Yeah, those treasure ships on the Spanish main were definitely hauling the ill-gotten loot of a century of rapacious imperial plunder, and maybe it's not ideal that the ones who capture them are European adventurers instead of Native American freedom fighters, but at least that wealth isn't going to the fucking king.

The vigilante angle is definitely part of the crime genre. A lot of victims are rich assholes, and the story becomes one about criminals outside the law vs the criminals who write the law. Robin Hood, et al. It's a little weird if you dig too deep, but it kind of makes sense as a fantasy. Rules can be stifling and it might be fun to be a lovable rogue and sail on a boat.

I only bring it up because I think maybe Crystal Raiders of Barsaive forgot to establish that its titular characters were supposed to be the fun type of pirates. I'm pretty sure that's what they were going for, because the suggested campaign models all revolve around playing Crystal Raider characters, but the parts where they tried to morally justify large, violent men dropping from the sky and seizing peoples' crops could maybe have used some more obvious genre trappings in order to seem less . . . assholish.

The Crystal Raiders believe it is dishonorable to take goods by stealth, so they make sure to attack people first before stealing their shit. And you can't just surrender to them and pay them tribute, you gotta fight 'em. Their view is that you earn the right to keep your stuff by being strong . . . in the very specific way that they're stronger than everybody else in the world. Their philosophy of "struggle gives life meaning" doesn't acknowledge "working for decades to build up a prosperous town" as a valid form of struggle. No, it means "hitting stuff with swords" and "hitting stuff with swords" only (oh, okay, also enduring extreme elements and giving birth to children, but certainly nothing outside of their provincial experience of living up in the barren Twilight Mountains).

Obviously, it's a self-serving point of view, and if the Crystal Raiders were meant to be villains, then it would be useful for establishing that they are nearly impossible to bargain with and they are never. going. to. stop. But they're not villains. They're just a group that is sometimes at odds with the other established cultures, who have some unpleasant beliefs and practices, but are generally part of the tapestry of Barsaivian life. Much is made of how their raids are spread-out and sporadic enough that they are little more than a nuisance to the great rulers of the land and thus the immediate situation is indefinitely sustainable.

The vibe I got from them was very strongly "post-DS9 Klingons" (a sensation made more acute by the fact that one of their leaders is called Mar'tok). They're these tough warrior guys who are always talking about "honor," and they like fighting to an unseemly degree, but they are dedicated enemies of the evil empire (in DS9 - the Dominion, here - Thera) and thus potentially powerful, if problematic, allies for the designated protagonist civilization.

Or, for those of you who aren't both Earthdawn nerds and Star Trek nerds - they're vikings, basically. It's not subtle. Their airships are called "drakkars" and they're powered by rowing (rowing through the air works on the principle of sympathetic magic - the rowers' willpower is sorcerously converted to motive force through the ritualistic act). And there's the raiding thing, of course.

Which is maybe something that could help us dial in on what makes them such a bummer. Pirates are usually softened to make them roguish antiheroes, but vikings are generally more ambiguous. Still protagonists, sure, but they're not automatically any better than their rivals. You can do a "vigorously alive manly men vs corrupt and decadent nobles" story or a "viking politics are unbelievable petty" story, but the main characters are still likely to be complete assholes to nearly everyone they meet. They're usually only "heroes" in works that cast their assholishness as a particular virtue.

I'm not sure that's what's going on here, though. Like, I'm 90% sure that FASA understood that the newot system was very definitely slavery. Trolls capture people in their unprovoked raids (you see, they raid because of the barrenness of their native land - they only steal because other people have things that they want), drag them back to their villages, and force them to work under pain of death, but it's not technically slavery, because newots can potentially earn their freedom . . . if they prove their worthiness to their captors. Oh, and the status is hereditary, on the off chance that a captive couldn't manage to "prove their worth." But, also, there's a troll abolitionist group, and they are quite definitely heroes. Certainly, it seems impossible to write the sentence "Broken Chain devotees see enforced servitude of any kind as slavery" without experiencing a profound sense of irony.

My conclusion is that the Crystal Raiders are meant to be . . . complicated. Their actions, both towards outsiders and each other, are often pretty terrible, but they follow a code, and there is a beauty and grandeur to their culture. They are not mere brutes, but masters of many impressive crafts and for all their violence, their motives and drives are very human. Plus, their politics are incredibly petty and they are canonically already enemies with the setting's most corrupt and decadent nobles. So, if you're on board with a viking story, this book definitely has you covered.

My only complaint about this book is that it doesn't do more to address "getting on board with playing a viking" as a topic. It just sort of takes for granted that you're going to want to do that. And that is literally my only complaint. Not that it's a perfect book or anything, but it does live up to Earthdawn's generally high level of quality. Each of the Crystal Raider moots was distinct and interesting, with at least one, and often several, attractive plot hooks and enough individual quirks that  portraying them in-game would likely be pretty satisfying. There was clearly a lot of thought that went into the worldbuilding and it was incredibly fun to read.

I just wish it wasn't so prone to taking the trolls' account of their actions so close to face value.

Ukss Contribution: There are a lot of things in this book that hit my specific buttons. I liked the Gray Forest, an ordinary woodland implausibly adapted to the slopes of a volcano - because I like weird trees. And I liked the Crystal Span, a prismatic arch that split the light of the setting sun to make Great Sword Valley look rainbow colored - because I like rainbows.

And I loved the part where explorers can enter Death's domain by "diving into a boiling pool of magma," because Earthdawn very consistently has the best ways of bringing heroes back from the dead (step 1, commit suicide in the most hilariously painful fashion imaginable; step 2, hope Death is feeling generous enough that day to give you a 2-for-1 refund).

It's actually a pretty tough choice this time, so I'm going to go with something I can use - Ago'astia, the crystalline Horror known as "the stone of doom." In addition to trying to rule the world, it creates "fantastic structures of multicolored crystal."

Because I like rainbows.