Saturday, December 29, 2018

Advanced D&D Players Handbook - Introduction

From The Back

No more searching through stacks of books and magazines to find out what you need to know. The Players Handbook puts it all your fingertips, including:

All recommended character classes. Fighters, Paladins, Rangers, Magic-Users, etc.

Character Races. Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Half-Orcs, Humans, etc.

Character level statistics.

Equipment lists with costs.

Spell listings by level and descriptions of effects (including many new spells).

As a dungeon adventurer or a dungeon master, you will find the contents of this book to be what you have been waiting for. All useful material is now compiled under one cover, especially for the players!

Expectations

First, I have to say that I'm impressed with how weird and alienating that back cover is. It really sells the "if you don't know what this is, it's not for you" feel. I suppose that's all part of labeling your game "advanced," though. Doesn't make sense to be "advanced" Dungeons and Dragons, unless there's also a regular Dungeons and Dragons out there for you to be advanced from.

I'm not too worried about it going over my head, though. I'm a pretty old hand at this stuff, and I got my start with AD&D 2nd edition. In fact, the only real reason I have this book is because I wanted to fill the gaps in my collection. One day, I looked at my shelf and I said, "you know, you've got Basic D&D, AD&D 2nd edition, D&D 3rd edition, and D&D 4th edition (which, at the time, was the most recent), so why don't you have AD&D 1st edition?" And while that's not literally how it happened, it was the basic thought process behind why I wound up buying more than a half dozen books for a game I never intended to play.

The weird thing about AD&D 1st edition is that it is the oldest game in my collection. The copyright on my Players Handbook is 1978, a full four years before D&D Basic. Not going to lie. That surprised me. What were the newbies buying between 1978 and 1982? It can't be those books and magazines alluded to on the back cover, because they were the problem AD&D was created to solve. Maybe it was just AD&D. Maybe they saw it on the bookstore shelves and said, "you know, I'd feel more comfortable with just regular Dungeons and Dragons, but there isn't any here, so I'll just have to get advanced and jump in feet first. Gotta run before you can walk, right?"

Anyway, I'm expecting this to be pretty rough, as befitting its age. I'm also expecting, after reading the later BECMI D&D to have it be thoroughly inspired in the oddest of places. That's something to look forward to, at least.

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Friday, December 28, 2018

Mage: The Awakening, 2nd Edition - Reaction

Going into this, I expected that the hardest part was going to be having to read the same basic Storyteller rules for the nth time in my life. But actually, it wasn't that bad. The new version is more streamlined and does some interesting things with player agency and narrative mechanics. I'll probably have to read it a couple more times before it really clicks, but I'm certain that's inevitable. Changeling: The Lost, 2nd Edition is coming in a few days and I probably won't be able to resist getting Vampire and Werewolf indefinitely.

I think the best way to approach Mage is to pretend the rest of the World (sorry, Chronicles) of Darkness does not exist. This has always been an issue with White Wolf crossovers to some degree. Vampire is set in the World of Darkness, and then each subsequent game introduces its own unique cosmology that is pretty interesting in its own right, but doesn't really play nice with anything that has come before. The pieces sort of fit, but sooner or later, you have to make one game subordinate to the other, or at wind up mangling the metaphysics of one or more of your settings.

If I'd read the WoD games in anything resembling the semblance of the right order, this would be a trite observation by now, but because I wanted to read a new book first, I wasted it on Mage: The Awakening, 2nd Edition. It does indeed fit the pattern that goes all the way back to Werewolf: The Apocalypse. It is a very interesting modern fantasy game, but it is most definitely not a Mage supplement for the setting established in Vampire.

It's hard to tell, though, whether that is as big a deal as it should be. In the first edition of the nWoD, all the supernatural types shared the same core book. They didn't work together any better than they had in the oWoD, but there was a clear editorial intent there. It wasn't that weird if you wanted to play a vampire in the Werewolf game. In fact, the rules made it pretty easy.

With second edition going back to an all-in-one core book for each supernatural type, it's unclear whether crossover optimization is any longer a priority. There is some mention of crossover rules, but nothing as prominent as Requiem 1st Edition's "Supernatural Conflict" sidebar.

I guess that means I should proceed as if Mage: The Awakening is its own distinct thing, and not worry about it as a World of Darkness game.

I think it's pretty good, but it suffers from being a World of Darkness game.

Oh, it's nothing in particular. It's more of a general feel. Mages get their magic because they have a vision of the Supernal realm, where the true forms of all the exists casts a shadow on the Fallen world, creating the reality we know as an imperfect copy of the sublime. Once the mage has seen the truth of this other realm, they can call the Supernal laws into the real world and reshape it according to their desires. But there is a problem. The mages have enemies. A powerful group of godlike beings, known as the Exarchs, who reign in the Supernal realm and want to keep its power for themselves. Through their agents, the Seers of the Throne, they strengthen the Abyss, the vast gulf of negative spiritual power that keeps the Fallen world in darkness.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. Its a powerful conflict, with stakes that are simultaneously political, spiritual, and metaphysical. Magic isn't just a superpower, it's filled with mystery and peril. So far, so good.

Where it goes wrong is in the game's pessimism. Nonmagical people don't just lack abilities, they succumbed to The Lie. If they witness undeniable magic, they go insane and unravel it with their disbelief. The very laws of the universe conspire to keep humanity ignorant and afraid, and even if mages were interested in helping them, they have to be extremely circumspect. Again, it's not necessarily a bad setup, but something about it feels vestigial. Like, the mages are fighting a long-term war against near-impossible odds, so obviously things are going to be shitty for awhile, perhaps even the foreseeable future, but the way the game frames the conflict, victory is a foolishly idealistic dream.

And there's no real need for that. The world as it is is enough of a vale of tears, what with the inevitability of sickness and heartbreak and all. And the mage setting is demon-haunted besides. So why shut down hope?

It's not as bleak as it could be. And it's not as if the tone is written in stone. You can play the game hopefully easily enough. I just think it sometimes goes a little too far in trying to make its dark world a World of Darkness. Take its focus on mysteries and exploration and make it a bit more pulp and a bit less horror and Mage: The Awakening comes to be a great contemporary fantasy game on its own right.

Nitpick aside, I really like this book. It dramatically improves the spellcasting system from previous versions of Mage, its organizations and fantastic locations make for compelling plot hooks, and overall, it just works well as a stand-alone game. It's been so long since I read first edition that I cannot compare them accurately, but if I remember correctly, M:tAw 1st had more of the stuff I didn't like in it, so I'm pretty sure this is going to be the definitive version of Awakening for me . . .

At least until 3rd edition comes out.

UKSS Contribution - In Salamanca, Spain there is a library where books that were never written magically appear, last just long enough to inspire their readers with a bit of otherwise unattainable knowledge (from new magical spells to advances in cutting-edge science) and then disappear. I think something like that might be at home in one of UKSS's centers of learning.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Mage: The Awakening, Second Edition - Introduction

From the Back

THE WORLD IS A LIE
Humanity is cursed to a prison of sleep, ignorant of the wonder and danger all around them. Ground down into slavery, by masters they will never see, beset by a plague of cares to distract them from the Truth.

MAGIC
You were like them once, but now you are Awakened. You see the world beneath the Lie's skin, and the Mysteries beckoning you into the shadows. Every day of your life, you hear the call of the supernatural, from the leas ghost to the deepest cosmic enigmas.

You are a mage, one of the Wise. You see, know, and explore what others can't imagine, from the depths of the human soul to he hidden corners of reality. Armed with your spells, driven by an addiction to the Mysteries, you delve into the secrets of the world. Knowledge has a price, and the dangers are many.

Expectations

This is actually the first of the Onyx Path second edition corebooks I've come to own. I ordered it about six months ago and I haven't read it yet. So I feel like I'm in uncharted territory here. What is the design philosophy that animates the second edition? How is it different than the first? Why was it necessary? I know none of these things.

That's basically why I decided to read these books out of order. So I could come into Mage: The Awakening with my mind as empty as it's going to get. I want to understand the game on its own terms, without constantly comparing it to its predecessors.

And yet . . .

Mage: The Ascension was my favorite of the old World of Darkness games. Mage: the Awakening . . . I also enjoyed (though my favorite nwod game was Changeling). I do have some prior knowledge here, and I will be bringing some prejudices to this reading.

However, I am optimistic. Awakening 1e was like this Gnostic thriller, a game of suspense and uncertainty set in a world ruled by evil, where your highest aspirations are the very crimes the powers that be will use to condemn you. It was probably the most different from its owod counterpart, but nonetheless very satisfying in its own right.

If we're talking about my wishlist for 2e, the only things I really want are a bigger scale and more magic. I like it when wizards get to wiz, and the White Wolf mage games were always a little diffident about their own premise for me to be 100% on board.

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Vampire: The Requiem - Reaction

I know what you want. You're all desperately eager for me to continue my fascinating discussion of racial politics in Vampire games. Well, there is no need to keep you in suspense. I officially declare Vampire: The Requiem to be Not Racist.

Obviously, it's not perfect. It had at least one example of "no one knows what's going on in the mysterious East," which is less than ideal. Someone knows, White Wolf. The vampires that live there know. You, the authors of the whole damned universe, know. It doesn't have to be a thing. So why do you keep making it a thing?

That being said, one of the bloodlines was a Japanese offshoot of the Nosferatu. There are actual, named, black vampires. None of the clans is based off an offensive racial stereotype. A solid B+ all around.

Now that we have that unpleasantness out of the way, what about the book as a whole?

It's weird. Nearly every particular element is a notable step forward from its predecessor, but the book, taken as a whole, seems less than Masquerade. And I think I've identified the culprit - something I didn't talk about in my reaction to Vampire: The Masquerade. Something that I really should classify as an artistic and technical flaw, but which nonetheless gave the book a certain charm:

Masquerade would, occasionally, use metaplot to introduce errata.

I only noticed it a couple of times - with the Assamite clan weakness and the Malkavians having Dementation instead of Dominate - but I'm sure it happened a few more times under my radar. And the reason this matters is not (necessarily) that a few artful flaws can make a good thing better, but rather because of what this particular flaw says about how the game was made.

Namely, Vampire: The Masquerade, Revised was the product of White Wolf distilling a decade's worth of constantly-evolving game material, with an active fan-base who had a particular lived experience, and making it into a new introductory core book. Vampire: The Requiem was a product of White Wolf taking fifteen years of experience developing a vampire game and using it to create a new game from scratch.

Masquerade felt . . . weightier, like you were walking into the middle of a conversation. Requiem is probably the superior artistic achievement. It's certainly more confident in its moods and themes, and it has much less of that random weirdness that comes from your main inspiration being your own previous work. But it definitely loses something.

My recommendation is that if you're going core only, go with Requiem. If you're buying into the line as a whole, Masquerade is the way to go.

Although, now that I think about it, Requiem has a second edition. Maybe it too is late-stage vampire, drawing from an entire edition's worth of supplements to mutate into its own unique thing. Without knowing for sure, my recommendation has to be at least somewhat tentative.

Looks like I've got another candidate for my drivethrurpg wishlist. Maybe I'll order it about a month before I'm ready to read V:tM 20th anniversary edition, to repeat the comparison a decade later.

UKSS Contribution: Oh, this is a tough one. Everything good about this game is really specific, and everything stealable is really generic. I guess I'll go with the Morbus bloodline, vampires that can only feed on the sick, and who spread disease wherever they go.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Vampire: The Requiem - Introduction

From the Back

This is not
the abandoment of death,
Nor is it
the breath of life.
This is the funeral song  . . .

No, you know what, this is White Wolf putting poetry on the back of their books, because why should things be simple and helpful. Let's just skip it and go straight into what it is.

Vampire: The Requiem is the follow-up game to Vampire: The Masquerade. In the early 2000s, White Wolf decided to blow up their massively successful rpg franchise and rebuild it from first principles. Requiem should be Masquerade, shorn of its accumulated excesses and refocused on delivering a pure vampire-themed horror experience.

Expectations

You know, I honestly thought there was more of a time gap between Requiem and Masquerade, Revised. Now I'm wondering if Requiem will be nearly as socially aware as I'm hoping. I don't recall anything particularly offensive about it, but then again, I didn't remember anything specifically problematic about Masquerade either.

Which isn't to say I'm going into this looking for a political hit job. I'm okay with a little political incorrectness in my vampire games. Actually, what I'm most looking forward to are the clearer genre expectations and more refined mechanics.

What I'm least looking forward to are the fonts. White Wolf loved fonts that kind of look like handwriting. It's not something I mentioned in my reaction to Masquerade, because I actually kind of like that game and didn't want to keep piling on negativity, but I happened to glance at the introductory fiction and I saw something like four different fonts in the space of two pages.

So, clearly, it would be naive of me to expect Requiem to correct everything that was wrong with Masquerade.

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Vampire: The Masquerade, Revised Edition - Reaction

Vampire: The Masquerade is turning out to be a tough one to grapple with. I don't really want to talk about politics, because that's a black hole that swallows everything that gets near it, but the politics of this book are . . . not good.

It's nothing particularly hateful. On the balance, I'd say the book is on the right side of history. It's just closer to the center of the bell curve than I'm entirely comfortable with. Put in the starkest possible terms, the problem is this:

Vampires are really white.

And, look, it's a thing. It was the 90s. White people were whiter back then. If you stack 1999-era John Frazer up against the Vampire Revised core book, I guarantee you that I was at least 10-20% whiter, by volume. The difference is that I've since had nearly 20 years of personal growth, and this book hasn't.

It's not that the book is racist. I mean, it is, but in that mostly benign 90s way, where it's rigorously colorblind and sometimes overly pious in its tokenism, but clearly committed to the notion that the races are "equal."  And I'm pretty sure, that given its subject matter, any depictions that might have wandered uncomfortably close to real world bigotry were dismissed as "we're equal opportunity offenders."

There is some justice to that. It's not like the Ventrue, a clan whose whole shtick can basically be summed up as "we may have lost our lives, but they'll never take our white privilege," is any better, morally, than the designated PoC clans, and in fact, in true White Wolf punk fashion, is often the punching bag when characters criticize "vampire society." It's just that you have one clan whose deal is that they have traditionally recruited the scions of nobility and have adapted to modern nights by moving into the board room. And then you have another clan of Arabian religious fanatics who are waging an implacable holy war against the underpinnings of civilization (in this case, it's vampires, so it's kind of justified, but in context, it's not a good look).

Vampire: The Masquerade resolves this tension by pointing out that Clan Assamite has recently started recruiting "westerners" (their word).

That's a pattern for the book. Non-white spaces are either closed off completely (basically all of east Asia is a no-go zone, thanks to the  "mysterious" Asian vampires) or it takes pains to note that white people are included (as per the writeups for the Followers of Set or Assamites). The reverse is not true for the Clans that read as white. No mention of black Ventrue, or Native American Toreadors or anything like that. I'm 99% sure that the intent was that the Camarilla and Sabbat clans were all default inclusionary and none explicitly broke down along racial lines (in fact, the portrait on the Brujah clan page is probably meant to be a black man, but it's hard to say for certain with the art style - his skin is page-colored). However, that's the problem. White culture is invisible, and thus the white-coded clans represent broad generic archetypes, despite the fact that a nobleman from Edwardian England is even more alien to a modern American than a contemporary Japanese person from "the mysterious East."

I don't necessarily think the cure for this is more explicitly diverse Ventrue. If we're taking the clan's history at face value, then it makes perfect sense that it is lily-white. European nobility was overwhelmingly white, and modern finance hasn't exactly closed the racial gap. And it's not as if the Ventrue are going to benefit from good publicity by being inclusive. Plus, you know, given the age of the vampires and the social circles they came from, they're almost certainly hugely racist.

But if you're going to go with an all-white clan Ventrue (and the more I think about it, the more I agree that you should), you kind of have a duty to point it out. To acknowledge whiteness as a political force, and, indeed, to draw parallels between vampirism and the exploitative power of white supremacist capitalism. Indeed, if you're doing it right vampires =  white people is a metaphor that is too on the nose.

I mean, not to belabor a point (too late), but there's a whole chapter devoted to the history of the kindred, and an important theme is how vampires crossed the ocean to escape the stifling order of the European elders, and you don't even mention the transatlantic slave trade? Nothing about characters having to be shipped as cargo rang a bell? The American revolution is discussed in the paranoid context of warring vampire factions, and not one peep about the ready availability of blood in a society where it was possible to literally buy and sell human beings?

That's how white vampires are. They can afford to forget about race as a force.

And so, despite my best intentions, this post wound up being heavily political after all. But that's not all of what Vampire the Masquerade is. It's not even the bulk of it. At its heart lies the dream of bringing your Anne Rice fanfiction to life. And how does it fare at that task?

Passably. It has flaws. The system makes a hash out of probability. Having both a variable target number and a variable dice pool makes it very hard to have an intuitive sense of how likely something is, and some actions requiring multiple successes doesn't make it any easier. The end result is a system that feels like it is held together by the players' optimism.

But it also leads to a system that is at its most robust and functional in combat situations. A factor, I'm sure, that led to many games becoming extended brawls.

That ties into the system's biggest weakness - it's being pulled in too many directions. It wants to be a game of sexy vampires doing sexy things in a moodily-lit shadow world of decadence and deceit, but it also wants to be a game of personal horror, where characters have a tenuous hold on their morality and slowly become corrupted by the temptations of undeath, and also an occult conspiracy game, where long-buried secrets hold the key to an imminent apocalypse and also a game about the conflict between rival ideological factions, with different visions of how the vampiric condition should relate to society at large. All these factors can work together to tell some remarkable stories, but it's more likely that they don't.

That's probably the game's greatest strength, too. Roleplaying games are a chaotic storytelling medium at the best of times, and the players are likely to have different agendas about the direction they want the game to go (a fact that Vampire, Revised sometimes seem to be in denial about) and it's good to have something for them to do.

UKSS Contribution: Probably Clan Tremere. The hubris of wizards attempting to wrest the secret of eternal life from the undead, only to fail and become vampires is pretty compelling. I also like the image of a sinister cabal of vampires, gathering in secret to perform mystical rituals. Plus, they're arrogant jerks, which is always something you want to see in your vampire conspiracies.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Vampire the Masquerade, Revised Edition - Introduction

From the Back

There will come a time, when the curse of the One above will not be tolerated further, when the Lineage of Caine will end when the Blood of Caine will be weak and there will be no Embracing for these Childer for their blood will run like water and the potence in it will wither. Then, you know in this time that Gehenna will soon be upon you.

-- The Book of Nod

What is This

Well, the back wasn't very informative. It's a game about vampires. Or, more accurately, the game about Vampires. The third edition of the original, gothic-punk, superheroes-with-fangs, angsty, tortured storytelling game of personal horror.

Expectations

As a classic White Wolf game, I'm looking forward to one part compelling fiction, one part unbearable pretentiousness, and one part mechanical carelessness. As an artifact from the late 90s, particularly one that marketed itself as "adult," it's likely to blindside me with some bit of political backwardness that I didn't notice at the time. So that'll be interesting to write about, at least.

Overall, I think I'll be pretty energized by this one. White Wolf always had a knack for creating readable rpgs.

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Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia - Reaction

I have a vision of the future. I'm sitting in my nice leather chair. I've just read two editions of GURPS back to back. And my brains are leaking out through my ears.

Reading the D&D Rules Cyclopedia so soon after the individual boxed sets wasn't quite that bad, but it gives me a horrifying glimpse at what awaits me.

But putting that aside, I have to say, this book is . . . good? Bad? Goodbad?

It's one-volume D&D. Everything you need for a game - player abilities, DM advice, monster stats - in a single book that you could sit down and read over the course of a couple of afternoons. I may be missing some obscure product, but it is quite possibly the only version of the game ever released that lets you do that. So the very fact that it exists is incredible.

It's just, this version of D&D, it's . . . I don't want to say "bad," but I'm at a loss for a similarly simple word that means "inconsistent, filled with ad hoc rules, and a poor fit for emulating the heroic fiction that inspired it."

Of course, that was my key observation on the first go round of BECM D&D. So, the worst thing you could say about the Rules Cyclopedia is that it doesn't dramatically improve the material it compiled. It does streamline things a bit. It's easy to underestimate how much of a benefit it is to just have all the rules for a particular character class in one place, but it does help both comprehension and flow. And some of the more obvious missteps have been corrected. For example, it now advises thief characters to not steal from their party. And it is no longer canon that apes can become wereseals.

The parts I was most interested in are those from the Companion DM's book, which I inexplicably do not own. There were some monsters, some magic items (including the demihuman relics, which all seemed to produce some obscure method of transportation, for some reason), but the biggest contributions were the mass combat and dominion management rules.

Which, I'm glad they're included, but I'm even more glad that I won't have to use them. Mass combat basically involves sitting down with your friends and doing algebra for 20 minutes (if you're lucky) and dominion management is not dynamic or interactive enough to be worth your time (it actually suggests that staying in your dominion, ruling in person, is likely to increase your chances of a coup, so that's a pretty sick burn).

In theory, I really like taking these high level things out of the realm of DM fiat and making them objectively influenced by character stats and actions, but ultimately, what I want is something that will model the interstitial narration of a historical epic (". . . and in the year of the lion, the Ochre Horde advanced on the capital, but Lord Horence was too far away to rally his forces, or was he . . .") without getting bogged down in too many corner cases or exceptions.

Maybe it's not an attainable goal, and I certainly don't fault the Rules Cyclopedia for not pulling it off, but it does kind of exemplify both the strengths and weakness of this edition - everything is included, allowing you to tell fantasy stories of any scope or scale, all with one book . . . but the price is that it's all just a little bit crummy.

Overall, though, I think I'd take it over AD&D, which - hell, I'll let the Rules Cyclopedia's conversion section finish this thought for me - ". . . often has a more detailed rule that includes more variables, allowing it to cover situations in much greater depth."

I mean, good gods, at least we dodged that bullet.

UKSS Contribution - This pretty much had to come from the monster's section, and there were some pretty good choices, but none that quite had the charm of Sasquatches. I'm pretty sure they were in either Basic or Expert, but the Rules Cyclopedia introduces a new rule here - they can sometimes be spellcasters. Specifically, they can reach up to level 4 as druids.

Now I'm picturing a whole community of gentle, hippy Sasquatches, living in harmony with nature and hiding from the rapacious industry of the hu-man with the aid of the forest spirits.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia - Introduction


From the Back

Whether you're a player or Dungeon Master, the DUNGEONS & DRAGON Rules Cyclopedia is now the comprehensive sourcebook you need for the original fantasy role-playing game! For ages 12 and up, the Cyclopedia contains the complete game system and hundreds of features including:

  • All the rules from the D&D Boxed Set series, including Basic, Expert, Companion, and Masters.
  • Guidelines to develop and play characters from levels 1-36.
  • Comprehensive lists of weaponry and equipment.
  • Expansion rules including optional skills and talents.
  • And overview of the Known World and HOLLOW WORLD game settings, the official D&D campaign world.
  • Rules to convert D&D games and characters into AD&D 2nd edition game statistics and back again.
  • Provides all the original monsters from the earlier boxed sets.

Expectations

I'm kind of dreading this one. It seems like it should just be a rehash of the three-and-a-half books I've already read before. But maybe the Cyclopedia will put a new perspective on the material, or at least rephrase it so I'm not going through exactly the same stuff as I did before.

But let's be real. This is going to be very similar to the books I've already read. At least I'll be able to find out what I missed in the Companion DM's book. 

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Earthdawn Gamemaster's Guide - Reaction

My main takeaway from The Earthdawn Gamemaster's Guide is that the decision to split the game into two volumes was not a fruitful one. Sure, it makes sense to keep the monster stats and magic items a secret, but I see no reason to segregate the climbing rules, and certain things, like the setting information do active harm to the game by being hidden away in a GM supplement.

Okay, so it's 2018, and it's highly unlikely that anyone is coming across Earthdawn 4th Edition by accident. I mean, I discovered it by accident, when I went into the local game store and saw it on their rpg shelf, but even then, it didn't have to sell me on the game. I knew right away what it was, and how improbable it was that I'd ever see it again. Still, if I'm imagining an alternate universe where these books were destined for the hands of an utter Earthdawn naif, then I have to question the wisdom of putting the game's main selling point - its incredible setting - into a book marked for GMs.

Because the setting information here really is quite good. It combines the familiar with the novel in a way that feels fresh. Like, it's a fantasy setting with elves and dwarves and whatnot, but dwarves are the most common race, outnumbering even humans. And the dwarf kingdom is underground, but that dovetails with the setting backstory in a really fruitful way. Of course, dwarves would have certain advantages in a world where all sapient life spent six of the last seven hundred years huddled in underground bunkers. And yet, aside from its exotic location, the Kingdom of Throal is portrayed in much the same terms as any fantasy kingdom - it is driven by profit and pride, but sometimes the idealists win. Just because they're a kingdom of dwarfs doesn't mean they're pigeonholed as the "dwarf kingdom." It's a remarkable bit of world-building.

But if I had to narrow the appeal of the setting down to one single element (which I don't have to, and really shouldn't - there's a lot of great stuff there), I'd say that what makes Earthdawn great is that it really manages to capture the sense of loss that comes with its post-apocalyptic setting. Lots of fantasy stories are set in the ruins of some prior, great civilization, but they often seem to use these ruins as a sort of adventuring loot box. Rarely are they engaged with as ruins - places that were once filled with activity and life, but which have since faded away.

The way Earthdawn establishes this is subtle. Take, for example, the broken kaers. Let's be real for a second. They're dungeons. They exist to be big, dangerous boxes full of thrilling monster fights and fabulous treasure. And they succeed in that. But, the plot of going into a kaer, clearing out the monsters, and retrieving the treasure also manages to be effortlessly affecting, even without further embellishment.

And it all comes down to one choice that seems obvious in retrospect, but which eluded me for years - Kaers are not mysterious. You never have to wonder "for what purpose did the ancients construct such an elaborate underground structure." You know it was to take refuge from an implacable enemy. And you never have to wonder "what fate befell the inhabitants that such a place would be abandoned to monsters." You know. The refuge failed.

But the trick Earthdawn pulls off is actually a two-step. Because Barsaive is not a bleak world, where people are constantly wailing in grief over a past that can never be reclaimed. The thing that most sells the sense of loss is that world is really quite the opposite. It's a world filled with hope. The people of Barsaive are rebuilding. The Horrors are in retreat. The evil empire suffered a major defeat. The dwarves of Throal were sincere when they said they were going to use their influence to liberate and unify, rather than rule. It's called Earthdawn for a reason. Tomorrow is going to be brighter than yesterday (with the help of the heroes, of course). The world has faced its darkest moment and survived. Life endures.

But then, sometimes, you come across a reminder of the people who didn't make it . . .

And that's what makes Earthdawn so great as a setting. And it's a shame that so little of that made it into the player-facing book. I'm glad that it's still somewhere, but I can't help but feel that the Player's and Gamemaster's Guides are less two stand-alone books, each serving a particular purpose and more two complementary volumes of a single work, that can't really function without each other. In fact, my theory at this point is that printing technology isn't really well suited to making a 1000-page book at 6"x9", so they arbitrarily split it in half to make it easier to manufacture.

Oh well, it doesn't much affect me on a personal level. I own both books and I was happy to read them. I may even put out feelers in my gaming group, see if anyone's interested in starting an Earthdawn game.

Ukss Contribution - I'm going to be cautious here and go with "cats can see into the astral." Such a picayune detail, doesn't especially help anyone but a Beastmaster character, and the only reason I even know about it is that the writers made the odd decision to include normal, non-combatant animals in their bestiary alongside Griffins and Unicorns.

So, you know, if you ever need to fight a mule, Earthdawn's got you covered. They don't have any magical powers or anything, but they are pretty good at carrying gear, so they could be armed with anything.

Seriously, though. The thing about cats seeing into the astral is a detail I really like. I enjoy it when fantasy games take real world superstition and make it function within the context of their rules.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Earthdawn Game Master's Guide - Introduction

From the Back

[Snip same 3 paragraphs that appeared on the back of the Player's Guide]

The Gamemaster's Guide provides rules and advice for running the Earthdawn game and includes an exploration of the lands of Barsaive, as well as numerous fantastic creatures and magical treasures to challenge and reward your players.

Expectations

The Player's Guide disappointed me a bit with its lack of setting information. The Gamemaster's Guide devotes 80 pages to history and setting (not counting the setting info that's surely in the creatures, dragons, and horrors chapters) so I'm optimistic about that. On the other hand, this book, like the first one, is huge. It's got to fill that word count with something, and if it's not high fantasy spectacle, it will be GMing advice and dry rules that is too rarely used to be included in a player reference.

In any event, Earthdawn is a game I've always had a soft spot for, despite not owning it until about two months ago. The best case scenario is that I'm inspired to buy a whole bunch of old supplements off Amazon. (Some might call it the worst case scenario, but I'm a slow learner).

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Dungeons and Dragons Gazetteers - Reaction

The Grand Duchy of Karameikos

I went into this batch of books with a certain skepticism, and The Grand Duchy of Karameikos did not disappoint in that regard. I was expecting a by-the-numbers D&D fantasy setting, and what I got was even less fantastic than that.

Don't get wrong, the book is still useful, if you ever needed a serviceable starter kingdom, predominantly run by humans (so much so that the fantasy races could be excised neatly without changing much of anything) and low magic. It describes several medieval-style towns and gives a rundown of all the major figures of the Duke's court. And there's a historically-based ethnic tension that could serve as the driver of a lot of plots.

But . . . nope, no buts. If you were hoping for early D&D high fantasy weirdness, there isn't any. Not even any mention of water termites. Okay, it introduced two new monsters, one of which is kind of weird. The chevall is a sort of . . . were-centaur? It's a creature that mostly runs around in horse form, but can change into a centaur if it sees horses being threatened. The other new creature was the nosferatu. As near as I can tell, it exists only to be a stealth errata for the D&D vampire ("[it] strongly resembles the vampire. However, the Nosferatu does not drain energy levels. It drinks blood.")

The best things about The Grand Duchy of Karameikos are its seriousness and attention to detail. The most entertaining thing about it was Baron Ludwig von Hendriks. I'd already encountered him once before, in Lathan's Gold (which I only now realize covered the entire south coast of "The D&D World," not just Ierendi). He was the asshole who kidnapped my girlfriend for a ransom of unrefined gold. He lives in a castle called Fort Doom.

I think the author of this book might have hated the character. It depicts him very bizarrely. Like, even in-setting he is "bizarre" and "theatrical". The origin story of Fort Doom is that Ludwig von Hendriks was the Duke's cousin and was granted the title of Baron, but despite being the lawful ruler of the village of Halag, he came in with an army and conquered it anyway (actual quote - "he didn't need to conquer it . . . but he wanted to conquer something.") and then renamed it Fort Doom. The canonical reason for why he's allowed to get away with it is that his deeds are so over-the-top that the Duke assumes the reports are exaggerated.

So there you have it. A mostly down-to-earth fantasy setting, so restrained in its use of magic that you could slot it into a historical game with only minimal modification, and also it's home to a cartoonish, scenery-chewing supervillain.

UKSS Contribution: It has to be Baron von Hendriks. A guy who straight-up relishes in his own villainy and lives his life like a romantic diva? He could be equally ill-at-home in any genre.

The Emirates of Ylaruam

I was worried this book would be really racist, but it turns out that it was merely blithely sexist. Don't panic. It's not the worst case scenario. Fantasy Arabia, in the wrong hands, could have been very bad. The Emirates of Ylaruam's cardinal sin is that women are nearly completely invisible. There are zero named female characters, and while I didn't keep a running count, as near as I can tell, the only specific female character at all is a woman who buys some magic makeup after being tricked by an evil alchemist (but who doesn't actually figure into the subsequent adventure, which is about retrieving the makeup for a good alchemist). The character creation page does have example female names . . . marked by an asterisk because they're mixed in with a whole lot more male names.

It's weird. Even for the time, it's weird. Both The Grand Duchy of Karameikos and The Kingdom of Ierendi were much better about this. The Duchy had a Duchess and the Kingdom had a Queen, so even by the bare minimum standards, the Emirates fell behind, but then they each had female ambassadors and shop owners and city administrators, and even some female adventurers. All books written in 1987, but only two out of the three seemed to remember that half of the human species even exists. Counting points off for that. Bad form.

I wish I was more of an expert on Orientalism, because I'm curious about how this is influenced by the book's subject matter. Not to put too fine a point on it, but harems are conspicuous in their absence, and I wonder if that was less an oversight and more a deliberate excision. Certainly, the cover of the book is well aware of the existence of the trope. And if you're in 1987, writing about fantasy Arabia, and you're cutting out harems, than maybe there's no other mental connection you have between Arabs and women.

I've got to figure that someone, somewhere, made a call. Because when we look at Ylaruam's treatment of its male characters it's . . . okay. Not great, but okay. They invented fantasy Islam to underpin the region's culture. Which makes perfect sense. You can't have medieval Arabia without Islam. It's so influential that you leave a huge void if you just take it out. But that raises the uncomfortable question - what is fantasy Europe's analogue to Catholicism?

That's the main flaw of this book (aside from the women thing) - it makes specific things that are maybe a bit more general. Like, there's roleplaying advice that basically boils down to "characters will act rashly if challenged on their machismo, because the region's warrior-ethic is rooted in a highly performative masculinity" and my main thought was "where was all this when we were talking about Karameikos."

Guys, did you know the people of Ylaruam take their religion seriously, consider it rude if you jump straight into business without engaging in small talk first, and believe it's important to be hospitable? Wow, what a strange and mysterious people.

Okay, I've ragged on this book enough. It actually does a pretty good job of sketching out a setting and making it feel real. So maybe the problem is less that its editorial focus makes common things seem exotic and more that other books take a lot of stuff for granted.

And if you put aside the political angle, The Emirates of Ylaruam follows in the tradition of The Grand Duchy of Karameikos in being a serviceable workhorse of a book that mostly eschews magic and high fantasy for a grounded pseudo historical realism. It devotes roughly twice the word count to water management policy than it does to genies. Which, okay. It's not what I want from a roleplaying game, but I respect it. You can pick up this book and within minutes have a perfectly unremarkable Arab-inspired town, complete with beggars, barbers, and rival tribes, that's ready to be slotted into nearly any appropriate campaign. It may not make for the most compelling reading, but it does spare the DM a lot of scut work.

UKSS Contribution: The Roc. It's not used in an especially unusual way here - She attacks a village after the inhabitants steal her egg. But hey, the classics are classics for a reason.

The Kingdom of Ierendi

Moving on from fantasy Arabia to fantasy Hawaii. And people, this is bedrock D&D weirdness. It goes off the rails almost instantly and it never gets back on. I can't even figure out how this tracks with the previous two supplements, because it doesn't seem like remotely the same world. In Ylaruam you've got people sipping coffee and pointedly not discussing financial transactions, and in Karameikos you've got them stoking ethnic tensions as cover for their criminal syndicate, and meanwhile, over in Ierendi, you've got adventuring-based tourism, civic government, and religion.

This is not me being hyperbolic and reading more into the text than intended. The King and Queen of Ierendi are literally chosen by a process known as "The Royal Tournament of Adventurers." Once a year, the ministers of Ierendi set up mock dungeons, stock them with monsters, and hopeful contestants run through them, being judged by the mysterious criteria of "The Tribunal" and the highest-scoring man and woman get to be the King and Queen for the year.

And the economy of Ierendi is based on tourism. Given the numbers provided by the book, hundreds of thousands of people visit the islands each year. And one of the more popular attractions is Gastenoo's World of Adventure on Safari Island (so much so that it spawned a dozen imitators). In these parks, special magic items are used that absorb all damage directed at their wearers, while simultaneously announcing the wounds they would have received. Combined with weapons enchanted to stun, rather than kill, visitors to these parks go through carefully scripted scenarios "based on fairy tales, heroic legends, and ancient myths."

I . . . don't . . . even.

Wrap it up people. It turns out we've all been living in a world that reached peak irony back in 1987.

I'm not sure how this is meant to be used. Why am I taking a heroic legend and using it as the basis for a game within a game? If the players were interested in roleplaying the legend, couldn't I, you know, just make that the basis of the game? What's my pitch, here? "Hey, do you guys want to play D&D, but with a framing device where you're in the Enterprise's holodeck?"

But apparently, thousands, nay tens of thousands, of people in the D&D world do this every year.

And as for the religion . . . well, that I am reading into a bit. I'll let the book's own words describe it:

One message on the stones has not changed at all. Tomia, the Hope, wrote of a great treasure . . . [It] will be found, according to the Immortals, when the People's Temple's need is greatest. Not even the Temple officials know when this will be, so a continual search for the treasure is conducted by the Temple priests and by individual followers of the Temple.

Temple officials strongly encourage adventurers to increase their proficiencies and to someday achieve the level of Immortal. They do this in hopes that the great treasure will be revealed to them.
So, the doctrine of Ierendi's most popular religion is that you should gain levels and look for treasure. Imagine me giving a very pointed hmmmm.

I guess my takeaway from the Kingdom of Ierendi is that I have a very poor intuitive sense of what the beginning of Dungeons and Dragons must have been like. To me, 1987 is still very early D&D, too early, I'd think, to start with the whole, jaded "adventuring is kind of like extreme sports" idea. Hell, real sports hadn't even gotten to that stage yet. It feels like learning that there was a punk rock band in 1965.

I'm not saying I don't like it. I'd tweak a few things, put the islands in a setting where people actually go on expensive island vacations, maybe just up the tech level generally, but as a concept, it works. On the other hand, if I'm working at TSR in the mid-80s, I would never have approved the manuscript. Gazetteer 4 is too early in the run to start parodying your own setting.

UKSS Contribution: There is a village of albinos that believe they can attract their gods to the mortal realm by building magnificent houses for them. They do this by building mansions out of sand (the primary material available at the beach) and then using secret alchemy to harden the sand into a durable structure.

I'll take the sand-hardening potion. Leave the stuff about the cult of albinos.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Three Dungeons and Dragons Gazetteers - Introduction

What Are These

Dungeons and Dragons had a series of thin books that described various locations in its default setting. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos is used for example adventures in the Expert rulebook. The Kingdom of Ierendi showed up in Lathan's Gold. And a quick internet search shows that the Emirates of Ylarum are original to the book.

In terms of old-school supplements, these are the real shit. The covers are gorgeous in that mid-80's overwrought fantasy way. And you can bet your life that all the ladies are staring sleepily into the distance while having implausibly deep cleavage and the men are all doing heroic action poses with lovingly detailed fantastic weaponry.

The back covers of Karameikos and Ylarum both promise a "complete historical, economical, geographical, and sociological overview" of their respective areas. Whereas by Ierendi, they'd mellowed a bit and focused more on pitching the adventure. 1987 must have been a very busy year at TSR.

Expectations

I think the trickiest thing about tackling these is that they are from before the time when their brand of fantasy became boring. Like, the Grand Duchy of Karameikos looks like peak D&D fantasy. I'm expecting heroic knights, rampaging goblins, and aloof wizards. Maybe there will be some mysterious elves that live in a forest and some taciturn dwarves that live in the mountains.

Ylarum looks like it's going to be benignly racist in that old-school orientalist way, where the author is really enthusiastic about the subject matter, but engages with it through a colonialist lens. Though to be fair to the author, this impression comes mostly from the cover, which feature two men in Keffiyehs, with covered faces, a harem dancer, and a beautiful woman with a veiled face. The rest is just an educated guess.

Ierendi is harder to pin down, at least from the book's cover. It's the one I'm most optimistic about, just because it gives off a purer sword and sorcery vibe than the others (though, the phrase "psychotic natives" appears on the back cover, which is never a good sign).

Despite my cynicism, I'm prepared to be surprised by any or all of these. The advantage of predating the genre it created is that there's still room for the ideas that got dropped in the process of working out the common denominator. The D&D rulebooks themselves were filled with all sorts of bizarre ideas that were largely forgotten. Here's hoping the setting books are early enough to share that sense of experimentation.

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Earthdawn Player's Guide - Reaction

My biggest complaint about the Earthdawn Player's Guide stems from the thing I enjoy most about it. See, in Earthdawn, you play an Adept, a person who uses magic to perform phenomenal feats of skill. Warrior Adepts strike harder than a charging bull. Thief Adepts skulk through the shadows with preternatural grace. My absolute favorite is the Sky Raider talent that lets them negate their falling damage and jump from airships in a precision aerial assault. That's both a neat bit of world-building and a cool image on its own.

There are fifteen Adept "Disciplines" (ie character classes), covering a variety of heroic archetypes. And I like that a lot. My complaint is that a significant portion, 4 out of 15, of the Disciplines are spellcasters and taken together, they undermine the Adept system in ways I'm not sure it can recover from.

Don't get me wrong. Wizards and Elementalists and Illusionists and Nethermancers fit well into the Earthdawn setting, and it is both appropriate and wise to include them as character options. It's just, the portion of the book given over to spells and spellcasting is 95 pages. The portion of the book devoted to all of the other talents for all fifteen Disciplines (including those belonging to the four spellcasting Disciplines) is 64 pages. One quarter of the Disciplines gets one and half times more wordcount than the other three quarters combined.

It bugs me. On the one hand, the book is saying "magic permeates this world and is used in a variety of activities and fields, rather than being sequestered away in the dusty old tomes of specialists" and then it immediately walks that back by putting most of the flashiest special effects into the dusty old tomes of specialists.

It's not that spellcasters are necessarily more effective than other Disciplines. In fact, I'm fairly sure that given the xp sink that spells represent, nearly every Discipline is going to be better at its niche. It feels like a missed opportunity to give other fantasy archetypes a greater diversity of wondrous feats.

But that's a fairly minor complaint. Overall, I would call the Discipline system a success and my whining merely an aesthetic preference. The only thing that I'd call out as a flaw is the "step system" method of determining dice pools.

The way it works is that your attribute and talent ratings combine to give you a "step" and then various bonuses and penalties (such as equipment, magic, or the specific maneuver you're attempting) can raise or lower your step. Your final step determines what dice you roll, as indicated by a chart near the beginning of the book. At the low levels, it's fairly intuitive. Step 4 is 1d6. Step 5 is 1d8. Step 6 is 1d10. And so on. But then, once you start rolling multiple dice, it gets a little hard to follow. Step 28 is 1d20 + 1d12 + 2d8. Step 29 is 1d20 + 1d12 + 1d10 + 1d8. And step 30 is 2d20 + 2d6. There's a logic to it, but realistically, you're going to have to be checking that chart constantly.

I think you'd get used to it, though. And it would be worth it to do so. Earthdawn as a setting as a lot of great fantastic conceits that make it a one-of-a-kind experience. It is the only fantasy rpg I can think of that is explicitly post-apocalyptic. Most others have a vaguely sketched out disaster that ended a previous golden age, but in Earthdawn, that disaster is within living memory and the current society is the first and second generation descendants of people who huddled for safety in underground bunkers while ravenous Horrors scoured the surface of all life. There's even a location called Bartertown, which I have to assume is a deliberate homage.

Other things I like are Blood Elves, a group of elves whose magical protection against the Scourge failed and in desperation turned to blood magic to cause living thorns to grow inside their bodies, depriving the Horrors of the opportunity to derive sustenance from their suffering. Or the Sea of Death, which is an ocean of open lava, where specially shielded airships fly over it to harvest pure elemental fire. Or that trolls get around the fact that they are too big to ride horses by domesticating dinosaurs.

It's very cool, and honestly I wish there was more of it here in this book. The explicit setting chapter is less than 15 pages long, and much of the feel of the game has to come from examples, chapter quotes, and the odds and ends sprinkled throughout the book. I feel like 1st edition maybe did it better, but that was a long time ago, and I may be remembering the past with rose-colored glasses. (Sadly, I don't have any 1st edition Earthdawn books, probably my most regrettable collecting oversight).

UKSS Contribution - This is a tough one, but I'm going to have to go with sealed kaers. It's mentioned a couple of times throughout the book that not everyone has emerged from their magical bunkers yet. Even now, decades after the Scourge has ended. I think it would be cool to have a couple of those in the World of Ukss, even if the thing they're hiding from has to be changed.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Earthdawn Player's Guide - Introduction

From the Back Cover
An age of magic once existed in our world. Lost to history, this time is remembered in the echoes of myth and legend. Humans lived alongside the other Namegiver races: Dwarf and Elf, Troll and Ork, Windling, T'Skrang, and Obsidiman. The wild places of the world were home to griffins, shadowmants, and other fantastic beasts.

The land was once besieged by the horrors, foul creatures from the depths of astral space that sought to feed upon and destroy all that was living and good. Their time, the time of the scourge, has passed and the people have returned to the surface, reclaiming the lands that were once their home.

Brave heroes band together to explore the land of Barsaive, fighting the horrors that remain and protecting their homes from those that would enslave them.

The Player's Guide Provides you with the rules for playing characters from first to eighth circle, with all the talents, spells, and other tools needed to forge your own legends in the Earthdawn roleplaying game.

Expectations
I have a friend who lent me the old FASA version, many years ago. I thought it was a great setting and I especially loved all the clever easter-egg connections to Shadowrun. From what I understand, those are no more, due to the severing of the licenses, but I still like the exotic fantasy races, strange magic, and undercurrent of melancholy that characterize the setting as a whole.

This particular book is an absolute brick, more than 500 pages long. I hope that means that there will be a lot of juicy setting detail, though my worry is that the system will be really finicky and complicated.

Either way, there are sure to be long, dry stretches.I've got to prepare myself emotionally to power through.

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Monday, November 19, 2018

Old School Adventures - Reaction

Let's take these bad boys one at a time.

Lathan's Gold
This module was a bit of a surprise. When I saw that it was a solo adventure, I assumed it was for one player and one DM. But it turned out to be a solo adventure. Just a single player with no DM, like a choose your own adventure book. A really dry, complicated choose your own adventure book.

It was kind of neat. It had hundreds of paragraph-long encounters that would branch into each other to lead me through the plot. It was nearly impossible to read. Imagine page after page of things like this:

V69. You are just off the shore of an island in the Minrothad Guilds. Other guild islands lie to the north and east. An island of the Kingdom of Irendi lies to the west. If you land on the island before you, read entry E13.
    north -- T20, 1 day      east -- V79, 1 day
   south -- V68, 1 day     west -- V59, 1 day

I made the decision early to just play through the adventure as intended instead of trying to read it like a book. And it went pretty smoothly. I inadvertently cheated a few times, because I accidentally skipped over the random encounter rules, but then I balanced it out by mistakenly rolling for more random encounters than necessary. (The rules are at the start of section V,  and only apply there, but I used them for sections T and C.)

Also, there was some ambiguity as to whether I succeeded at the quest or not. You're supposed to bring the evil Baron some unrefined gold, weighing 1000 coins (Dungeons and Dragons uses "coins" as a measure of weight). I had 700 coins worth from the expedition and 800 regular coins. I counted that as a win, because surely the Baron would understand that gold is gold, and if we're just going by weight, then 300 actual gold coins are better than the exact same amount in lump form.

But then again, maybe the standard gold piece is adulterated, mixed with other metals. But if the coins are at least 3/8ths gold then the Baron would come out ahead. The book didn't give me much guidance either way. I'm inclined to award myself victory, because of course, but reading the rules as written, I probably shouldn't have. It certainly doesn't make sense for the Baron to set a 1000gp ransom when your character starts with 750gp.

Overall, it was pretty decent. It was like playing a really short adventure game where I had to track my inventory with a piece of scratch paper. I'd have gotten a lot of use out of it when I was a kid, but now I can just play an adventure game whenever I want . . .

Still, a pretty cool thing to own.

UKSS Contribution - nothing in this adventure is particularly well-described or distinctive, so it's hard to choose, but I guess I'll go with Three Sisters Island, where you receive a vision of the three sisters of the sea and they teleport you to some other island.

Blade of Vengeance
This was a traditional solo adventure of the sort I was expecting when I started with this batch.  It's D&D, but with only one PC. It's also the best story out of the bunch, though that's not saying much.

You're an adventurer who returns to her hometown just in time to see it destroyed by a dragon. Swearing vengeance, you track down the final resting place of the hero that slew the dragon's grandfather so you can get his special dragon-slaying magic items.

A simple enough story, but the tone is all over the place. Halfway through, you encounter a mischievous nature spirit who steals one of your magic items, and there's a lighthearted detour from the main quest while you sort it out. All the while, the adventure is assuming you're pursuing this in a well-focused, but mercenary manner. The text goes out of its way to point out how much treasure every character (no matter if it's a wandering monster, friendly NPC or random halfling townsfolk) is carrying. The bizarre treasure focus reaches it's zenith in the dragon's lair itself, where you notice a tapestry worth 1500gp . . . depicting the dragon's grandfather destroying a village.

I misread that entry the first time through. I thought the tapestry was of the same dragon you were trying to kill. And I laughed my head off. I guess my imagination went even farther than the (misread) text and I just pictured the tapestry as showing the destruction of the main character's village. Like, while the PC was off chasing faeries and communing with the ghost of an ancient hero, the dragon had somehow commissioned and received a tapestry of itself. And that tapestry just happened to be so well done that it had already received critical acclaim and an appraised value of five years' worth of workman's wages. The image of Erystelle doing a double-take as she walks past is one that's going to stick with me for some time.

Ultimately, though, what hurts Blade of Vengeance the most is that its story doesn't have a proper arc. You've got the dragon attack at the beginning, a whole lot of filler with no particular symbolism or thematic weight, and then the confrontation at the end. Structurally, it's a mess.

Also, it seemed like every other monster in this quest had a sword +1. I noticed at least four, not counting the main characters, which honestly makes them seem less magical.

UKSS Contribution - I have to go with Wally, the Halfling elder. This is another case of me misreading the book, but this time I'm doing it on purpose. Here's how he's described:

No matter when Erystelle calls, Wally will be in his dressing gown and will have a pipe in his hand.
 Now clearly, this just means that the adventure wasn't going to go through the trouble of writing out this minor character's entire daily routine. But I'm choosing to interpret it to mean that he just goes around all day in his pajamas, possibly as a result of whatever is in his pipe. I'm certain that I could have a lot of fun pairing that personality with some other authority figure in the world of Ukss.

Mystery of the Snow Pearls
For this one, I'm going to let an image do the talking.


The whole book is like that, except for a few paragraphs of explanation. Apparently it originally came with a "magic viewer," which I'm guessing is a small piece of red plastic film that has long since been lost. I may come back to this book if I ever find something suitable, but until then, I guess this one was super easy.

Quest for the Heartstone
The simplest of the five adventures (probably). You and a team of your friends are just chasing after a Macguffin because you're being paid to do it. I remember the blurb on the back not doing an adequate job of explaining why the Queen needed the Heartstone to rule, but that turned out to have a very simple answer. The Heartstone gives its wielder the power to read minds, which she intended to use in her courtly intrigues. Which, you know, fair enough. She'll need all the help she can get, what with being the 35 year old wife of a man who died at the age of 82.

Okay, it was a different time. And surely good ol' King Ganto was a decent man. But geeze, there's no version of that relationship that leaves me feeling comfortable.

The quest itself is fairly boilerplate. You go through a trap-ridden dungeon, fighting monsters and getting a bunch of incidental treasure. The high point is the "wellevator," a magical elevator built in a well. Or perhaps the cursed scroll that turns whoever reads it into a pixie for one week. Or maybe the return of the water termites (which also showed up in Lathan's Gold - I may have underestimated the broadness of their appeal).

No, actually, the best thing is the NPC line "we are providing you with a pair of tongs." The queen's advisor doesn't want the PCs to touch the stone, presumably because they might then covet its powers for themselves, but even if the stone were actually as dangerous as implied, it would still be a ridiculous line. Tongs are, like, what, 2 cp? To present them as if they were some piece of specialized equipment generously being bestowed upon the adventurers is just ridiculous.

The worst thing about the adventure is the way it took every opportunity to advertise the official D&D line of figurines. They even based the preconstuct characters off the toys. And only 3 of the 18 were women. Which doesn't say anything good about either D&D culture or toy culture circa 1984.

UKSS Contribution - The Prism Wars. The module didn't say anything about them, just that they happened 50 years ago, under the rule of the previous king. I just think the name sounds cool.

Twilight Calling
This adventure has one critical flaw. The negative consequences of the plot only happen because the PCs get involved in the plot. The gates to the ancient prison of the Carniflex were in no danger of being opened until the PCs went to the seven magical realms to retrieve the keys. If they had just decided to say, "let's not get involved," nothing would have happened and the status quo that had endured for thousands of years would endure for thousands more.

Technically, an evil god tricks the PCs, by pretending to be a mad prophet who predicts the coming disaster, but at no point is that revealed and the PCs can't do anything about it.

The adventure itself is adequate. You go to seven different mini-dungeons, each of which has its own theme. Some of them are overly precious, like guardian who challenges you with three-card monte and then gives you a hint in the form of a pun. And the adventure as a whole suffers from that old D&D thing where there is a lot more combat than is necessary. Like, narratively, it doesn't contribute the story to be attacked by a dragon out of nowhere, but it does pad out the length.

Although, the part of the adventure where you go through the Carniflex kitchens and have to avoid falling into a pit of poisonous barbecue sauce was pretty amusing.

UKSS Contribution - Rainbow Knights. They don't have any deep description. They're just a monster you might fight if you flub the riddles on the rainbow bridge, but I think they might have fought in the Prism Wars.

Group Summary
I've never really used pre-made adventures and this group of five shows me why. Their pacing was weak and they don't really mesh with my interests or humor. Creating something from scratch is the only way to make sure it fits me perfectly.  Maybe if I'd had more experience in using them, I'd also have a better intuition for how to adapt them to my style, but that's just speculation at this point.

Unfortunately, nothing in this batch of adventures sold me on the concept. That was pretty predictable. I got all of these in a big bundle from a stranger I never met, but I would never have bought them for myself. They are from a genre of fantasy I don't particularly care for from a period of time that I can't really relate to. I'm glad to have read them, but I'm also glad I don't have to read them again.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The World of Ukss

Introduction


This setting contains one item inspired by each of the books I read. It will be updated regularly, as I gather more material from a variety of roleplaying books. It is free to use, free to alter, and free to share. Just a little in-joke between fellow hobbyists. Comment if you actually use it, though. I'd be very interested in knowing how that plays out.


The World of UKSS

Places
The Dragon Market
If you leave TBD-city and head inland, riding for six days through the TBD-wastes, you will come across a massive meteor crater, nearly a mile across and more than 2000 feet deep. But the ancient signs of carnage pale before the modern ones. Carved into the sides of the crater, to take advantage of the magic-dampening properties of meteoric iron, are the only cages in Ukss capable of holding an enraged dragon.

The Dragon Market is an assault on the senses. Explosions of dragon breath, unleashed in useless rage, light up the sky. Noxious odors of unwashed bodies waft down from the cages and up from the mercenary armies that regularly rotate in and out of the crater. And above all, the noise. Roars and curses, insinuating whispers, offers of bribes, and screams of pain that seem almost human.

And in the center of it all is the Trading Floor, a modest three-story townhouse, made in a popular TBD-city style, that nonetheless seems to dominate its surroundings from the audacity of its smallness. It is here that merchants, potentates, and speculators gather to trade dragons.

It is rare for a dragon, once captured, to actually leave its cage. The ownership is almost entirely on paper, and exists purely to facilitate games of statecraft and realpolitik. But their value is not entirely by fiat. Most dragons, even the nastily evil ones, will honor a bargain made to secure their freedom, making them the ultimate weapon of last resort (The fact that the Market quite provably knows how to contact the really effective Dragon-Hunters also serves to secure the prisoners' honesty).

The proprietors of the Dragon Market are shrouded in secrecy. Any number of heroes, rulers, and apocalyptic cultists would love to move against the people who hold the keys to dragon cages, and not all of them would be dissuaded by the chaos that would ensue if those cages were thrown open all at once.

The Boiling Sea
To get to the Boiling Sea, you must travel to the far north, deep into the interior of the polar ice shelf. If you approach from the east, upwind, you'll have only a day's warning, as the permafrost gives way and scalding hot geysers spring from the earth. Downwind, to the west, the warm air thaws a thousand square miles, making it an improbable temperate region in the middle of the arctic.

The warmlands are home to a small, but thriving civilization. They almost never see outsiders and are curious and friendly, but they can be ruthlessly pragmatic when the winds change and resources become scarce.

The Boiling Sea itself is exactly what it sounds like. A small sea, around 100 miles across, that boils like a kettle running over. It is wreathed in a huge pillar of steam that acts as a beacon from horizon to horizon. The warmlanders have learned to harness the steam to power simple industry (only their small numbers prevent the adoption of more sophisticated techniques), but it is dangerous work. No one has ever ventured into the center of the sea and its cause is currently unknown.

The Blackfire Cauldron
In the peaceful TBD woods, just off the main road, lies a small cave, tended by an order of monks, sworn to poverty and nonviolence. The cave is the resting place of the Blackfire Cauldron. A sacred relic of the god TBD, it is a simple bronze pot that contains a flickering darkness. If ashes are fed into it, they will un-burn, restoring the original object.

This always seems to work out fairly smoothly, not being confused by partial or mixed ashes, but the exact mechanism is a mystery – the monks gently forbid experimentation. As near as anyone can tell, the Blackfire works by answering a sincere prayer for restoration. Casually tossing in a handful of random ash probably won't do anything.

The Blackfire cannot bring the dead back to life, but it can restore a burned corpse for purposes of identification or dignified burial.

The Order of the Cauldron has an itinerant branch that wanders from city to city, gathering the ashes from the fires that periodically spring up in such places. They return these ashes to the Cauldron as an act of devotion. The walls of the cave are lined with hundreds of items recovered in this manner. Pilgrims, provided they did not bring ashes of their own, are allowed to remove a single such item, as a keepsake of their visit and an icon of the god TBD.

People
The Seekers of the Hour
Concentrated within the technologically advanced areas of TBD, but with followers worldwide, the Seekers of the Hour are a mystery cult whose rituals revolve around clocks and timekeeping. The deepest initiates, those who have studied and meditated for years, gain the minor magical ability to manipulate clocks, causing them to run faster or slower, stop or start, all with a thought.

The Seekers demonstrate no other telekinetic of time-manipulating abilities, and they have never claimed to offer such. To their thinking, the clock is humanity's purest invention. A concrete manifestation of Intellect, undiluted by personality, or even knowledge. They believe that their control of clocks comes from a spiritual connection to that pure intellect, and that while they may not be able to control anything as crude as terrestrial time, their practices allow them to influence their own celestial clock – advancing their progress along the wheel of reincarnation or extending their time in a favorable form.

The Seekers of the Hour tend to recruit from well-to-do people, the natural philosophers of the gentry, who use their leisure time to ponder the mysteries of the universe. Connections within the cult can open a lot of doors in high society, and their more or less unique magic allows them to easily identify each other across national lines.

Friday, November 16, 2018

These Five Old-School Adventures - Introduction

(Placeholder for picture until I get new batteries for my camera)

What is This

Many years ago, someone left me a whole box of Dungeons and Dragons stuff. It's been long enough that I don't remember exactly who, but I'm pretty sure it was one of the clients of my stepfather's moving company. I subsequently put them on my shelf and forgot about them . . . until now.

They are five adventures, ranging from levels 4 to 35. Judging by the covers, they are all fairly standard fantasy fare:

Lathan's Gold - you must find a treasure to release your betrothed from the evil Baron that's holding them hostage.

Quest for the Heartstone - A queen has tasked you to find a gem, and it seems important, but it's not clear from the back of the book why that is.

Blade of Vengeance - You play a specific character, Erystelle of Dorneryll who has just returned to their childhood home only to find it under attack by some sinister forces.

Mystery of the Snow Pearls - A magical pearl has been stolen, somehow putting an elvish village into peril. Maybe because an evil wizard has challenged you to recover it.

Twilight Calling - An ancient evil wants to unseal the seven gates that hold it prisoner. You know the drill.

Expectations

The thing that strikes me most is that three of these adventures are solo adventures. This affects me on a profound personal level. I was a lonely child, without many friends, and knowing that the random anonymous person with the extra D&D stuff was probably the same way fills me with a sense of . . . something. I guess if I'd known, I'd have read them earlier.

I'm not a huge fan of "traditional" fantasy, and none of these things look like they take many risks, but it looks like a decent variety within those confines. I'm sure it will be moderately entertaining, and in all likelihood there will probably be at least one or two completely bonkers things per module.

Here's hoping, anyway.

Reaction

Heroes Unlimited - Reaction

I'm not going to lie. This was a tough one for me. It was 350 pages, all very dense, and all written in a . . . difficult style. Half technical and half stream of consciousness. Dry, but not systematic. And it did the one thing that above all else marks rpg writing as amateurish - it told me what the game was not.

There's a whole section, about so-called "Mega-Heroes," where the author seemed to resent having to write it.  Once again, the quote says it better than I ever could:

"Personally, I feel this type of "Mega-Hero" can get awfully stale very quickly and tends to submerge roleplaying. A pitfall I had hoped to avoid."
 Dude.  It's your book. You can do whatever you want with it. In fact, as near as I can tell, you coined the term "Mega-Hero." If you don't want to include them, you don't have to. But if you do decide to include them, for fuck's sake, have fun with the idea. I mean, they're called mega-heroes. Like, they're beyond even superheroes. So far beyond, that the word "super" doesn't suffice to describe them. They're mega.

If you're not going to use that as an excuse to indulge in an orgy of excess, then what's the point?

Then again, Heroes Unlimited did seem to make the same mistake a lot of older rpgs do in confusing balance with scale. With mega-heroes, specifically, the complaint seems to be that the only way to make them challenging is to put them up against similarly powerful mega-villains, and to that my answer is "yes, of course, what's the problem?"

For example, if you had a game about mice, ordinary mice, not super-powered or magical or technologically enhanced, just regular mice, then within that scale a cat would seem ludicrously overpowered. "What, you want to play a character who can kill any mouse in a single blow, who is nearly invulnerable to all mouse attacks, and whose stealth and sensory abilities practically guarantee them victory under almost any circumstances?"

And yet, if you wanted to roll up an ordinary housecat as your D&D character, people would think you were messing around. Because something that is too powerful on one scale, becomes too weak on another. So terms like "power-gaming" and "hack and slash" (both used in the Mega-Heroes section) only make sense relatively. And to take that asymmetry for granted in the text itself, the very thing responsible for establishing the scale of the game and the context in which things can be balanced or unbalanced, is sloppy. At best. At worst it's absurd.

Here, it's kind of absurd. Mainly because so much of the rest of the game is carelessly balanced. For example, a level 7 magic spell will allow you to transform yourself into any animal for 20 minutes per experience level. A level 8 magic spell will, for 8 minutes per experience level, give you 20/20 black and white vision, 100 feet darkvision, and a host of other minor sensory abilities, the most impressive of which is a 75% chance to see the invisible, the least of which is a 70% chance to identify plants and fruits.

This is exacerbated by the truly baffling number of things this game leaves to chance. For all of the mega-heroes section's griping at overpowered characters, it's perfectly possible for a mega-hero to roll 4 minor super powers (say, enhanced sense of taste, adhesion, extraordinary physical beauty, and clock manipulation . . . which is exactly what it sounds like) and a regular old non-mega-hero to get two major powers, like say immortality and the ability to transform oneself into a living ball of plasma, impervious to most forms of matter and energy and capable of melting your way through solid steel.

For all my complaints, though, my impressions of Heroes Unlimited were not entirely negative. I liked the way it provided character creation rules for nearly every type of comic book superhero imaginable, from aliens to mech-suit pilots to genetic mutants to well-trained superspies to stage magicians-cum-vigilanties (yes, that got a sub-heading all to itself). And despite the near-guaranteed absurdity of the results, there is something thrilling about random generation. I imagine it's a lot of fun when the dice hit the table and you frantically consult the appropriate tables to see what fate has in store for you.

Overall, I'd say Heroes Unlimited is, by the book, so sloppy as to be unplayable, but that it has the elements necessary to make for a perfectly adequate super hero game, with a system that is simple enough to learn quickly, but which has so many arcane exceptions and corner-cases that you never quite lose the romance of discovery.

Call it backhanded praise, if you like, but 20 years ago I would have loved it.

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PS - Okay, the Universal Kitchen Sink setting is definitely happening, but I'll probably need a couple of days to create the document.

The contribution from Heroes Unlimited could be nothing else but Clock Manipulation. When I first saw the name of the power, I laughed, because I thought it would be lame. Then I thought about it for 3 seconds and came to the conclusion that obviously it was not what I thought it was going to be, because who would include that. Clearly, the word "clock" here had to be some metonymy for time more generally. But then I actually read the power description and . . .

Nope. It was exactly what it sounded like. Control over clocks. Not entirely useless, granted, but still a pretty disappointing result if you rolled it up on the random table.

And yet, I kind of like it. Not as a superpower, obviously. Probably not even as a player-character option. Like, if one my PCs  asked for the ability to manipulate clocks, I probably wouldn't even charge them character points.

However, if we take it as a mystic practice. As the basis for an NPC religion. I think it has potential. Clocks are a very potent symbol, and even if manipulating them doesn't lead to a lot of useful adventurer-scale abilities, it might yield some fascinating meaning as a form of meditation.

So that's in, now. A cult which holds the secret of Clock Manipulation. They believe that their ability to influence terrestrial mechanical clocks offers insight into transcending the greatest clock of all - the celestial wheel of karma. As above so below!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Heroes Unlimited - Introduction


Back Cover


Virtually every type of hero imaginable, whether inspired by comic books, pulps, novels, film or television, is waiting to be created and played. The stuff of action-packed adventure.
Expectations

A superhero game from the people behind Rifts. It doesn't appear to be licensed to any particular superhero property, so I'm thinking it will mostly be generic, possibly with some thinly-disguised knockoffs of popular characters. At least, I'm hoping there will be thinly-disguised knockoffs of popular characters, because I'm always amused by the contortions people go through to say something without saying anything.

It's a pretty thick book, and that has me slightly worried. I have this fear that it will do that mid-90s thing where it tries to be a "complete" system by modelling every picayune detail, but then the scale of it is such that most of it doesn't matter.

That's likely just cynicism, though. It's just as possible that it's 352 pages because they had so many ideas they needed all that space to fit them in.

Reaction

Dungeons and Dragons - Companion Player's Book and Master Books - Reaction

There's a lot of good, weird stuff here, but it's presented oddly. It's like the most creative person you know is pacing the floor, brainstorming, and they're just tossing out idea after idea to see what sticks and they're not filtering themselves because they don't realize they're not alone.

Guys, I don't think Dungeons and Dragons knew that it was weird. But it was. Very. Weird.

Even as early as Basic, where "Elf" and "Dwarf" are professions, directly analogous to "Cleric" or "Thief." That's weird. Or the thing in the Master DM's Book, where it walks you step-by-step through how to calculate the experience point award for killing a baby neanderthal. That's weird. Or, earlier, in the Companion book, where it's going through the unarmed combat rules and entertains the edge case where you're boxing a hydra and it makes sure to remind you that it doesn't count as a knockout until you punch out all the heads. That's. Weird. Or the part where it's describing generalized lycanthropy and it says that elves, dwarves, and halflings can't become werewolves, but nonhuman primates can . . . and . . . and . . . you get the point.

I mean, you get it, right? It's not just me. I didn't just read a book that acted like it was the most natural thing in the world for a group of heroic adventurers to encounter an orangutan that transforms into a seal under the light of the full moon only to be the only person on the internet to notice that it's tonally at odds with the otherwise straight-faced contention that it would be unrealistic for a Dwarf to reach level 13?

That is, of course, the strength of Dungeons and Dragons, but it's also the thing that makes it frustrating as hell. As the originator of a genre, it quite literally had the last word in what it meant to engage in hobbyist fantasy worldbuilding, but it uses that privileged position to just assume that whatever it does is both natural and inevitable. Own your choices, people!

For example, why on earth are there 15 different polearms (including three variations on the halberd) and only three types of swords? It will be a mystery until the end of time. As will the decision to include "wish" as a spell. Hint: if you have to put in so many caveats, maybe it would just be better not to have it as a player power (although, to be fair, wizards did need a buff to help them compete with high-level fighters' "stay at any castle for free" ability).

Ah, okay, that's enough for now. I rag on D&D, but only out of love. The companion and master sets are kind of spinning their wheels a bit and seem to exist mostly to stretch out the time before you have to retire your character (unless, of course, you're playing a spellcaster and you get fantastic new powers that shake the pillars of heaven), but this seems mostly tied up in early D&D's semi-articulated conceit that ownership of a high level character was both an accomplishment and a goal, instead of just another mode of play (which actually wound up making the optional "start at high level" rules feel kind of transgressive). In the end, I think the game is probably better with just Basic and Expert. Once the human classes start outpacing the demihuman classes, and the magic classes start completely obliterating the nonmagic classes, the game just starts to show its cracks. Best to die young and leave a beautiful corpse.

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PS - It's not my intent to tease the Ultimate Kitchen Sink Setting so relentlessly, I'm just having a hard time coming up with a good method of distribution and updating. This time the entry is the Blackfire Cauldron - a magical item that is sort of like a reverse fire. You put in ashes and then whatever the thing was originally comes out.

That's the sort of magic I really love. Unique, memorable, vaguely mythic, and not easily reducible to a sort of mechanics-driven adventuring equipment. You go to the Blackfire to restore something that was consumed by fire, but only if the thing was so precious to you that you gathered up the ashes. It would make an amazing temple, or ancient ruin, or sacred grove or whatever.

Which makes it kind of disappointing that the book implied that there was one in every major halfling settlement and that it was primarily used for the crafting of stealth potions. Not that there isn't a certain charm to thinking that in default D&D the halfling religion revolves around the worship of shadow and the powers of night, but I'm fairly sure they didn't mean to seed those sorts of implications. Though it's kind of funny imagining that Bilbo Baggins was a part-time necromancer - just on Sundays and holidays, of course, nothing disreputable.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Dungeons and Dragons - Companion Player's Book and Master Books - Introduction



What Is This

These are, in theory, the other half of BECM Dungeons and Dragons (also, there's an "I" in there somewhere, but I don't have it). At first, I didn't even realize I had the Companion book, because it's only half the box set and labelled "Player's Companion: Book One." Which is different than the Master books, which are called "Master Players' Book" and "Master DM's Book." I only found out they were all part of the same series when I searched online for the provenance of my Player's Companion.

Sadly, I am missing half the Companion box set. In my defense, these were not books I purchased myself, but rather an old collection I inherited (once you become known as "the D&D guy" people can't wait to unload their old shit onto you - not that I ever complained). And even though I was not even aware of this book's existence until earlier today, it's now taking all of my willpower to resist going on Amazon and finding the rest of the set.

Expectations

I am certain that these books are going to alternate between incredibly dry and impossibly baffling, probably even within the span of a single page. They have the virtue of being short, though, so I'll probably get through them pretty fast.

Between the three of them, they represent high-level play in the semi-original Dungeons and Dragons, and thus it will be interesting to contrast the tone with that of the Basic and Expert books. I have a feeling that the Master's DM book, especially, will have a very alien perspective on D&D's power curve.

Reaction