Saturday, August 24, 2019

Trinity Technology Manual

The Trinity Technology Manual is a useful supplement to the Trinity core that has the same fundamental flaw as most rpg sci-fi worldbuilding - it presents the amazing world of the 22nd century almost exclusively through the lens of the occupational needs of small-unit paramilitary operations. Which is fair enough, really. Who is going to sign up for a campaign pitch of "it is the 2220's, humanity has made amazing developments in energy production, biotechnology, and space travel. Verifiable psychic powers exist within approximately 1% of the human species and mutated space monstrosities threaten the fledgling extrasolar colonies. The former United States of America, still reeling from nearly losing a war with power-mad superhumans, has descended into a fascist corporatocracy where motorcycle gangs prowl the desolate wastes of the radiation-scourged midwest in running battles with the remnants of the US army for dwindling supplies . . . and you and your friends are the staff of a struggling bed and breakfast in rural Maine who have to deal with the deleterious effects all of the above has had on the seasonal tourist trade."

So, you know, a supplement that focused on the tools and equipment a group of 3-6 people can use to have thrilling space adventures was probably the right call. I'm just going to have to make my peace with the fact that it is not the in-depth exploration of the setting's sci-fi conceits that I was hoping for.

Although, if I'm being completely frank, I'm not sure how much sci-fi exploration is really possible in rpg form. Think about writing about our world as if it were an 1890s sci-fi novel. What would be the most pertinent detail to your 19th century audience? Was it "and there are light bulbs fucking everywhere and we keep them lit all the time." The biggest cultural gulf between the 18th and the 20th centuries lies in the way widespread mechanical clocks and electric lights fundamentally changed humanity's relationship to the concept of time, and in 1890, they were right in the middle of this process whose full implications would only be obvious in retrospect. So as much as you might want to impress the 1890s guy with nuclear bombs and trips to the moon, if you leave out the thing about the light bulbs, you're depriving them of a key part of our current cultural vocabulary, one so ubiquitous as to be nearly invisible.

But try putting that in an rpg book. People in the 1890s knew the light bulb was going to be huge, but their intuitions about how it was going to be used could be a little off. I think if you were going to ask someone in the 1890s about 2019's electric lights, they'd make some whimsical guess about how elaborate our moontowers must be. Sometimes, contemporary science fiction can feel the same way. Extrapolation from the current cutting edge, and the compromises necessary to deploy it in the real world, leads to a kind of blinkered view of the future. It's like today, but bigger and faster.

The part of the Trinity Technology Manual that leaps to mind is where they talk about high-powered people wearing holographic contact lenses and how "contact wearers can be distinguished by their speech patterns - which include quotes by famous people and a great deal of unusual trivia - and by blank, distant stares." It doesn't occur to them that they've basically reinvented the teleprompter, and that politicians, journalists, and business leaders might value creating personal connections more than showing off their mastery of obscure trivia, and that even if you've got a sci-fi computer agent doing in an instant what speechwriters previously took hours or days to accomplish, the job is still going to remain functionally the same.

If you really want to know how access to limitless information is going to change how people communicate, consider the case of an rpg blogger who once read an Atlantic article about moontowers a couple of years back, and thought it was a really apt metaphor for the way people can have trouble envisioning sweeping technological changes, and thus diverted about 15 minutes of effort double-checking that it fit correctly in the timeline he was creating to illustrate his point. He wouldn't have been able to do that in 1998, but then, nobody would have been able to imagine that he'd want to.

I'm being a little too hard on Trinity, though. It never really pretended to be the sort of thoughtful literary sci-fi that speculates about the metaphysical questioning that human civilizations are going to be confronted with. It's more about the big spectacle cinematic sci-fi. Psychics in bioengineered power armor fighting tentacle monsters on the moon instead of "how does the possibility of ubiquitous, portable fusion power change an individual's relationship to nature and their overall patterns of consumption?"

And within that framework, Trinity is actually very clever. Its backstory includes a berserk ex-superhero with technology-controlling powers blowing up the entire internet in one destructive burst of energy, and it only being rebuilt under a series of paranoid security measures that ensures it doesn't work very well . . . thus neatly explaining why the information technology of the early 22nd century has a late 90s feel to it.

The funny thing is, writing about this book 21 years after the fact, it's obvious that they could have had no way of knowing that the people of the future would be extremely interested in their thoughts on sci-fi battery technology, but would not be able to get much use out of their listed benchmarks because we now have high-efficiency light bulbs and nobody wears a watch. Twenty minutes to recharge an electric car was a pretty good guess, however.

My summary - this is a good book because it has lasers, giant death robots, and spaceships. Those things are cool and good. And I am a dork for wanting to know more about the social implications of cheap commercial fusion power. Also, it's a mistake that only psions can get full use out of bioapps, because it closes off a lot of weird sci-fi speculation, but on the other hand, I will concede that it makes the worldbuilding a lot easier.

UKSS Contribution: Reforestation Prowlers. Giant, bioengineered beetle-slugs which dig ancient DNA from deep below the soil of the Amazon and reconstitute it into synthetic seeds, which it then plants in the trail of fertilizing slime that it leaves behind it. Given current events, I can agree that this seems like the simplest and most likely solution to our current ecological short-sightedness.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Complete Psionics Handbook

For 3-4 years, when I was a teenager, this book was my most prized possession. Well, not this book. Rather, my previous copy. The one I used so often it disintegrated. The one held together with hot glue and hope. The one I replaced a couple of years ago because it was a total mess.

There's something a little frightening about coming back to something so cherished. I recently revisited something I once kind of liked (The Complete Fighter's Handbook) and found it to be a lot more inconsistent and problematic than I remembered. Perhaps my reactions here would be even more extreme, and I'd be forced to throw my cherished memories into the scrap-heap of "things that kids are too ignorant to know are bad." But hell, discovering things like that is half of what this blog is all about.

So, The Complete Psionics Handbook?

Um, it's my favorite thing in AD&D thus far, but that's much fainter praise than I'd have imagined in 1996 (This book was published in 1991, but I didn't get it until '96). Thankfully, its aged well, politically. It's not perfect. There are things I could harp about. The art in this book (with a couple of exceptions that look like they were pulled out of one of those Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown books) is absolutely amazing, illustrating various cool-looking fantasy psychics using the specific powers in the books, and near-universally captioned with some over-labored wordplay ("Animate Object: Raji turns the tables on his attackers"). But if you look carefully, you'll notice that in 15 pieces of art, there are only 4 women. That's total. Counting not just the main subjects of the art (and if the art shows a psionicist, it's a man 100% of the time), but antagonists and people in the background. And of those background women, two of them are dead and only showing up in a psychic vision. There's no one piece that I would specifically call out as problematic, but as a set, it's pretty bad.

But there's nothing in there that makes me look furtively around the room in case someone is reading over my shoulder. It's embarrassing that I didn't notice the gender imbalance, but what can I say, I was 14 and privileged.

The other thing that may have lost its shine is its mechanics, and yeah, this book has problems there too. It's not so much that some psionic powers are underwhelming, it's that they exist in a game with ridiculous magic. And it's not so much that the psionicist is a poorly-designed class, it's just that it leans very heavily on ability-checks and in AD&D, it's a dead certainty that your abilities are not going to be very good. Take a random power, like Life Detection. If you've got an 18 Intelligence, then making the Int -2 check required by the power is pretty simple. Eighty percent of the time, you're detecting life. But 18s are supposed to be pretty rare. A 1-in-216 chance if you're going by the default rules, and not much higher if you're using one of the other random stat methods. It's not something I noticed at the time, because my group wound up just using a highly unbalanced and non-canonical form of point buy, but looking over the numbers now, as a guy with a math degree, they are damned punitive. A more realistic psionicist, one who only has the bare minimum of Intelligence, would only have a 50% chance to detect life.

I think psionicists could work, even as written, as an alternate AD&D magic system, but in a game where mages can do better stuff with 100% precision, it's mostly just a class for players who like to do weird for the sake of weird (ahem, or so I've heard). I think in a game where the thief only has a 45% chance to climb walls, messing up roughly half of your psychic powers is just par for the course.

I think I still really like this book. It was the fifth one released in the PHB Supplement series, and it's sort of awkwardly straddled between the first four books, which feel more like they used the class as a jumping-off point to talk about other rpg topics, and the rest of the series, which really delved in to honest-to-goodness variants and explorations of the classes' themes. The Complete Psionics Handbook doesn't have any of that early-series cruft. We're not talking about Amazon Psionicists getting a completely unthematic attack roll bonus, or Peasant Psionicists who add basically nothing to the class. Yet we're also not talking about specific Psionicist kits which allow players to do a deep dive into pop culture psychics and tune their characters to resemble their favorites from various movies, books, or tv shows. The book is on-point, but never exceeds the merely functional. Inspiration will have to wait for Dark Sun supplements.

Honestly, though, I think it comes from having to devote so much space to building the class up from scratch. It spends 78 of its 128 pages on power descriptions, not leaving a lot of room for variants or off-topic tangents.

I'm actually pretty happy with how this read turned out. I can't say that I'll be stampeding to use AD&D psionics again any time soon. And with the exception of the art, there was very little in this book to surprise and delight. But also it wasn't ruined. I am still comfortable counting this book among my prized possessions.

UKSS Contribution: This is a pretty generic, setting-agnostic book, so there's not a lot here that can simply be repurposed. The most iconic monsters are pretty damned goofy (like the psychic parasite that looks like a platypus skeleton), but there are a couple of cool ones. However, I think I'm going to have to set a new ICFTB precedent and choose something not from the text, but from the art

Hey, TSR from 25 years ago! MAKE THAT GAME!

Obviously, I'm going to have to come up with some elaborate fanfiction about Hosni and Gustafa. Who they are. What they're doing. Why there are flying eyeballs and tentacle flora in the background of their fight. But damn, this is the sort of next-level pulp sci-fi weirdness that I am hungry for.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Trinity - Part 2, System

It is at this point in my blogging career that I get the nagging feeling that I should have read my White Wolf books in something approaching a chronological order. Trinity has a refined and updated version of the basic Storyteller system, but I'll be damned if I can put it into any kind of historical context. I can tell you how it's different than, say, Vampire, Revised or Exalted 1st edition, but in terms of progress, fashions, or other general trends? I got nothing.

Overall, I'd say it's an improvement over the World of Darkness version of the system. It's certainly no worse. Fixed target numbers make probabilities easier to eyeball, though the new way of figuring difficulty doesn't have much resolution at lower levels Basically, given the dice pools involved, there is a significant difference between requiring 3 successes and requiring 4, but not much between requiring 1 success and requiring 2. (The probabilities, with a relatively modest dice pool of 6 are approx - 95%, 77%, 46%, and 18%, respectively - I could probably have proven my point more dramatically with a size 8 dice pool, but that would have been a pain to calculate). It's not something I'd say rises to the level of a problem per se, but it seems likely that someone who was both a fan of the Storyteller system and naive about probabilities might think that Difficulties 1-2 are more of a barrier than they are likely to be in practice (if only because players are, with few exceptions, unabashed character optimizers).

There are other streamlining features. Soak is no longer rolled. Demeanor is a thing of the past. The system generally moves faster. It's just a shame they left in the two biggest Storyteller system time-wasters - multiple actions and extended rolls.  Those continue to grind the game to a halt whenever they appear, and the combat system, for all its improvements, still basically requires players to at least try to split their dicepool between attack and defense. So there's a way to go.

Changes aside, Trinity definitely feels like a classic White Wolf game. It has the same basic tropes - characters who start as "normal" and then get generally better by becoming a supernatural entity. It winds up being a little offputting here. Psions get psionic powers, which, of course, totally fair, but then they also get two extra attribute points and the exclusive ability to use the best biotech? For a game that is ostensibly pushing the "psions are just humans with psychic abilities, unlike those Aberrants who allowed their superpowers to corrupt them" story, it seems an awful lot like psions are supposed to be considered a superior form of life.

Although, with the typically broken Storyteller-system character creation being the way it is, the loss of points is not necessarily as big a disadvantage for neutrals as it could be. Trinity also has the distinction of basing the psions' power stat off of a formula derived from their attribute ratings, so there is an extra point where character creation can result in wildly divergent character point totals.

The other big White-Wolf-ism I noticed was psychic attack powers being noticeably less effective than shooting someone with a gun. Granted, the guns here are futuristic sci-fi lasers, but the principle is the same - as much of an advantage as a perfectly concealable weapon is in real life, the circumstances where it's an advantage in the game are much rarer. "Oh, an Orgotek Hornet VI Pulse Laser can only be concealed in an overcoat? I guess I'm just wearing an overcoat wherever I go, then."

But I know the real technological question you've been dying to know the answer to - "what dumbass thing did have in their sci-fi future that fills the same niche as a smartphone while somehow being infinitely worse?" And I have to say, to their credit, they almost got it. A mini-comp has roughly the same dimensions as a smart-phone. I know because I measured mine with a ruler and compared it to the measurements provided. The only one they got wrong was thickness, which they listed as 3cm instead of 1cm. Its user-interface is unwieldy (foldable keyboards) and it has too many peripheral slots. Also, there's no mention of battery life, which is the sort of detail that of course would needlessly bog down an rpg, but would be the first question I'd ask when buying one. But really, they came pretty close.

My personal biggest takeaway from the equipment section was that people of the 22nd century are going to perform overwrought sadness when their blankets die, but knowing human nature, these performances are going to be a maximum of 49% ironic.

(Oh yeah, there's a blanket. It's alive. When it senses that you're cold, it can crawl over to you and wrap itself around you. If you're in extreme danger, it can act as medical life support for up to three days before it "exhausts its own resources to maintain the user's life." - Not mentioned in the book: the 2-week delay between when they're first released onto the open market and when the first one gets an anime waifu printed on it).

UKSS Contribution - I'm going to go with ISRA, the Clairsentient order. They have psychic powers of prophecy, they're hippies, and they live on the moon. I probably won't cleave too closely to their overall backstory, but I can definitely find a use for psychic moon hippies.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Trinity - Part One, Setting

Trinity is 90s White Wolf's take on the sci-fi genre and it is both exactly as interesting and exactly as fraught as that sounds. The premise is that it's ~120 years in the future and about 2-3 generations ago, the world very nearly lost a war against superheroes.

While the world has largely recovered, in the process of digging itself out of the hole, it fundamentally changed. The economic and cultural centers of the old world, located primarily in the global north, were the hardest hit in the fighting, whereas the global south was relatively untouched. That means that, along with China, South American, India, and Africa are the new leaders going into the 22nd century.

Which is a fresh, interesting setup for a sci-fi universe, almost as much in 2019 as in 1997. It's a shame, then, that White Wolf didn't quite land the execution.

I really should be panicking as much now as I did during my read of The Complete Ninja's Handbook, but I mostly got that out of my system (for now). It makes me uncomfortable when I have to do my "woker than thou" routine, because in 1997, I really wasn't. It was getting exposed to diversity through things like White Wolf books that set me on the path to seeking out more knowledge about these subjects. So now I have 20 years of hindsight and the benefit of the internet, but back when I first read Trinity?

I was like, "Wow, it's really cool that Africa is a major world power, now tell me more about the Moon." (Yeah, I was blithely racist in the same way that any sheltered white American was racist. It's embarrassing, which is why I'm always inclined to cut these books a little slack).

Now, the problem with Trinity is that its setting was conscientiously inclusive, but the actual text turned out to be really, really white. I think it's a matter of subconscious biases informing editorial priorities. Sort of how it's empirically proven that people will think a group with 20% women is majority female. It's the sort of thing that takes an active effort to overcome, even if you're aware of the problem generally.

For example, take the Psi Orders. In Trinity, a number of people have latent psionic powers. To unlock those powers, they must get dunked in a special tube called a Prometheus Chamber. There are eight such chambers in existence (for plot reasons not yet revealed in the text) and each one is controlled by an organization known as a "Psi Order."

Every Psi Order specializes in a different form of psychic power, but because they are actual organizations that require physical facilities to do their stuff, the Orders are also tied very strongly to bits of the setting's geography. The clairsentients are based on the Moon, the telepaths in China, and so on.

The psychokinetics, the largest psi order, are based out of Australia. The second largest, out of the former USA. The third, out of Switzerland.

The smallest order was based out of India. They were wiped out by the others for backstory reasons. The second smallest, out of Africa. They all mysteriously disappeared before the game begins.

Don't get me wrong, the African psychics were teleporters - the coolest discipline and one with a huge effect on the setting. But it's not a good look to preemptively remove your majority black faction. It's just a coincidence, to be sure (and keep in mind, all of the orders are explicitly global organizations that recruit from all over the world), but too many coincidences starts to look a pattern.

Like, I have the second printing of the Trinity book (not recommended, really - the binding on my copy has started to fall apart after only very gentle use) and in the back it lists the planned order/geography supplements. Most of them eventually got made, but three never saw print. South America was released as an ebook. China was written, but never got to the publishing stage. Eventually its pre-layout text was released unofficially.  The Africa book was never even written (the teleporter order did get a book, but geographically it covered the extrasolar colonies).

Again, I don't think this was part of any sinister racist agenda. I believe the writers of Trinity did indeed intended to create a unique, vibrant sci-fi setting that was anchored by a de-colonized global south, but it just so happened that the bulk of the words that actually made it to the page were about white people and their problems.

One last example - the list of major 22nd century corporations. Europe, now an irradiated hellscape because grotesquely mutated ex-superheroes deorbited a giant space station on top of it, killing millions and making most of the survivors into scavengers and refugees - 3 corporations of note. Africa, the new hope of the world, center of a thriving economy - the same.

Or North America, now a totalitarian fascist state centered on the decaying ruins of the former USA - 9 major corporations. Versus South America, vibrant, cosmopolitan, and rapidly growing, which has 5.

That doesn't prove anything, of course. Maybe the reason Africa and South America are doing so well is because they have relatively few major corporations (certainly, it's implied that North America is outright ruled by its home-grown corps and that's a big part of why it's such a shithole). In the end, there's more to intelligent criticism than tedious page-counting. It's just . . . it's another coincidence.

Like making the telepathic Ministry of Psionic Affairs into a secretive and labyrinthine bureaucracy, utterly inscrutable to outsiders and a bottomless well of paranoia . . . and then basing it in China. I mean, on the one hand, what are you going to do - have sci-fi telepaths and not make them into a terrifying conspiracy with chilling implications for privacy and personal freedom? Be real. But it's weird that they just so happen to be Asian.

Look, I don't want to be sleazy implication guy. I'm not trying to dance around an accusation of racism here. I'm being indirect because the book is directly blameless. This isn't a situation like Oriental Adventures, where the whole thing needs to be sealed away behind a mental barrier of "this is a historical artifact, and product of its time, and thus, even as a piece of art, it needs to be considered with a certain critical distance." Trinity isn't embarrassing. It's largely pretty good.

And yet it's important to remember that for all its good intentions, it was indeed written with a certain point of view. And though it was progressive for its time, it also tends to mirror the peculiar concerns and prejudices of the time and place of its origin.

Take Trinity's South America. There's no doubt that the text is bullish on the continent. The text, while noting that things aren't perfect, nonetheless strikes a hopeful tone. There's no doubt that it is a region on the rise, full of charming, intrepid people who will become the economic, technological, and cultural leaders of the 22nd century . . . by saving the rain forest and legalizing the drug trade.

I think if you're a young liberal working for White Wolf in the late 90s, there's nothing cooler than imagining a future where people discover a path to prosperity through ecologically sustainable green technology. And, of course, ending the destructive drug war with an expansive amnesty that brings the cartels into the fold of the international capitalist consensus is just a sensible and enlightened idea all around.

But just maybe, there are deeper and more contentious entanglements between the drug trade and the USA's history of high-handed economic and cultural meddling in the region. And maybe the locals are less than eager to forgive the cartels for their brutality and the way they corrupted the region's civic institutions. Maybe they are not viewed as modern-day robin hoods and prospective pillars of the community at all, but vicious criminal gangs, created by a hypocritical global north's endless appetite for dangerous substances they are unwilling to produce themselves.

Just speculating here. Actually, I think the issues with Trinity's setting can mostly be boiled down to the relative ease, in 1997, of doing original research.

The best evidence for that is Trinity's Africa. The book doesn't have a bad thing to say about it, not even in that backhanded way where the positivity is rooted in normally unflattering stereotypes. But it does lean just a little too heavily on the word "tribal."

I don't want to pretend to be an expert here. I've read like two books on the subject. My understanding is that "tribes" are kind of a thing, but even to the extent that they are a thing, a lot of of the time, "tribal" is just a black-coded way of saying "rural." We don't talk about the tribes of Bavaria, Prussia, Baden, et al coming together in the 19th century to negotiate the creation of a pan-German state. But if we were being consistent, we would. Nearly any use of the word "tribe" would improve clarity if it were replaced by "nation," "language," "culture," "village," or "family" (the fact that "tribe" is used alternately to refer to any of these things and more is the root of the problem).

So when Trinity describes the United African Nations (an organization that stretches from Cairo to Johanesburg in a particularly . . . expansive version of pan-Africanism) as an "intertribal forum" that is perhaps not as helpful as they might imagine. In fact, it's really fucking vague.

The most realistic vision here is a sort of African-focused UN or (less-realistically) EU - something without true sovereignty, subordinate to national governments. You couldn't even really call it a regional alliance, because the actual area covered is too damned huge. The only problem with this is that none of the nations of Africa get individual write-ups.  Kenya and Nigeria get name-checked as part of the UAN's space program, but it's unclear how much regional autonomy they have.

This is where that research thing comes in. No delicate way of putting this, but in the USA, at least when I was a kid (and presumably earlier, when the White Wolf writers were kids), they teach you all of jack shit about Africa. It's a huge oversight, given the number of African-descended people who live in our country, but . . . no, there's no excuse. It is one of the uglier expressions of American white supremacy.

So, you're writing about Africa in 1997, roughly 5 years before Guide To The Anarchs claims with a straight face that the Internet was nothing but hype, how do you go about it? Go down to the library, get the "A" volume of the encyclopedia, maybe look up some stats in the CIA Factbook. If you're lucky, they might even have a specialized book on the subject of African History. Under those circumstances, it seems almost understandable that you'd completely fail to note the existence of Lagos, Nigeria, a city of 7-15 million people (depending on how you define the borders of the city).

And I know I harped on the exact same point in GTTA, but it really is emblematic. It's such a big thing not to know about. The regional breakdowns in this book are actually pretty short, and except for perhaps the moon, none are comprehensive. But if Europe can mention Rome. If Australia can mention Sydney. If South America can mention Rio de Janeiro. Then maybe Africa could spare a word or two for its largest city.

Now that you've stuck with me through all of these detailed, specific complaints let me completely undermine any general point I was trying to make by characterizing Trinity's setting section as a whole as "good, bordering on great." A lot of the shortcomings of this section come down to the fact that they gave themselves 150 pages to cover the entire Earth, complete with a century of alternate history that involved fighting evil mutant ex-superheroes, the whole solar system, a half dozen alien worlds with three well-drawn alien civilizations (one of them was uncomfortably rapey in that edgy 90s White Wolf way, but even so, only about 5% as bad as that passage in Guide to the Sabbat), eight whole organizations of futuristic psychics, and a bit of social and political commentary (and a really bad plot about saving the world economy by switching currency to the platinum standard) all with evocative full-color art and for some reason published in an eccentric digest size.

In other words, I really did nitpick every flaw in the text.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Complete Ninja's Handbook

It's finally happened. I'm completely out of my depth. I built my personal brand on telling people which old roleplaying books are racist and I've finally exhausted my 101-level Cultural Sensitivity knowledge right when I'm set to read a book with the potential to be hugely problematic, but also really cool.

Don't get me wrong. There were a couple of moments when I was like, "whoa there, Complete Ninja's Handbook, that's totally not cool." Like, even I know that you can't say, "Western culture promotes self-advancement and individuality over conformity, so the introduction of [class and family loyalties] will strongly reinforce to the players that this is a very different setting." I'm pretty sure that even in 1995, that was over the line.

But full disclosure: Once upon a time, I loved this book. I was exactly in its target audience of nerdy, action-movie-loving 13-year-olds who nonetheless fancied themselves interested in the historical details of foreign cultures. Seriously, my copy of this book is kind of gross, with the page-edges stained yellow-grey with skin oils and the occasional 25-year-old food stain from when I re-read this book for the dozenth time through hastily-eaten dinners. So the urge to be gentle in my criticism is nearly overpowering.

There's a part of me that wonders if maybe I'm not out of my depth after all, but rather that I'm simply reluctant to admit that this book is mired in Orientalism and is nearly unsalvageable. I know that there's a temptation to imagine that my teenaged self, who loved this book so unreservedly, was not a racist little shit, but actually saw genuine virtues in this text. But I'm not going to play that game. I'll just admit right up front - I'm a middle-aged white guy who still thinks ninjas are kind of cool.

And I don't mean to frame this as a deep, dark confession. It's both good and proper to enjoy the products of a wide variety of cultures. It makes the world a richer place for everyone. But let's not kid ourselves. The Complete Ninja's Handbook is nearly textbook cultural appropriation - a book about Japan, written by a white guy, for a white audience. That doesn't make it automatically evil or anything, but it does mean that we (well, I) need to be cautious, and not forget the colonialist and imperialist context behind this book as an artifact.

(Yes, I am aware of the irony of me, the whitest guy you're ever going to meet, inexpertly using this academic language developed by PoC for the sake of his own vanity project, and how me talking about cultural appropriation could be construed - with some justice - as a form of cultural appropriation. And I don't know what to tell you. I'm out of my depth. If any of my readers know of a Japanese critique of this book, let me know and I'll link to it. In the meantime, I'm just going to muddle through).

So with my biases out in the open and the general knowledge that it's possible I'm going easy on this book in a subconscious attempt to absolve my own past self, I have to say, it's not that bad. An improvement over 1e's Oriental Adventures, at the very least. The book is about a Japanese-inspired character type, and the setting is clearly fantasy-Japan, rather than some ultra-generic "Orient." There's still references to "oriental blades" and "oriental cultures," and, god-forbid, "oriental people," and it's still pretty embarrassing, but at least it feels here like they're trying to avoid saying "Japanese" all the time. That's almost forgivable, given how rare other real-world adjectives, like "Celtic" or "Roman" are in D&D's fantasy worlds.

Still, it's very aware of race in kind of an offputting way. You know that thing I said about the original OA? Where with just a bit of reskinning, the book would work amazingly as an alternate core for European-inspired fantasy? Well, The Complete Ninja's Handbook doesn't make me work for it this time. There's a whole section about changing the class's name to "Spy" . . . and altering it in no other ways, because Ninjas are just spies. They do espionage things in Japan. You'd think maybe the "Spirit Warrior" kit, which lets you play more cinematic magical ninjas would at least change, but no, they're "often used as a mission specialist, seldom as a mission leader."

Which is good. Really. Except that the book then immediately forgets this until the last 2-3 pages. At one point, it says they "would seem very much out of place if they arose in a fantasy campaign that resembled Viking Sweden or Moorish Spain."

And look, I'll grant the Viking thing, but was there nothing going on in Spain during the Moorish rule that might call for characters with skills in intrigue and stealth warfare? There's no medieval Muslim archetype at all that springs to mind as fitting in with the ninja class? When the book was talking about spies only coming from societies "considered culturally advanced and sophisticated compared to the cultural average of the world," somehow Moorish Spain didn't ring a bell?

Really, though, the book's "in order to make a Ninja, you must first invent Japan" approach is a case of too much of a good thing. Remember, this is a system where the thief class is composed of literal thieves (though, regrettably, thieves by the rules make better ninjas than ninjas do - they've got more skill points and though their weapon selection is limited, that doesn't matter because they have access to the best weapon in the game) and the druid class is composed of a literal ecclesiastical body of nature worshipers. So despite what The Complete Ninja's Handbook says, you can't just have ninjas who are simply characters with a diverse range of weapon and infiltration skills. They have to actually have the trappings of fictional ninjas.

Thus, fantasy Japan.

And fantasy Japan is actually pretty cool. It's just, when the book puts this much effort into fantasy Japan, you really start to notice how half-assed base AD&D gets with fantasy Europe. Like, did you know that fantasy Japan has a class system? Not the fun rpg-class system, but like a hereditary hierarchy where your birth determines your job. Could you imagine a version of fantasy Europe where some people are awarded privilege and authority due to a mere accident of birth? But, of course, no one would believe it, because unlike fantasy Japan, submission to authority is not a cultural value - all those books and treatises in medieval Japan extolling the warrior class to forgo ambition and practice absolute obedience, they existed because the aristocrats who commissioned them saw how obedient and fearless their subordinates already were and decided to memorialize that in print.

Oh, sorry, I got sidetracked by sarcasm there. The point I'm meandering towards it that The Complete Ninja's Handbook presents a pretty fun setting, but its latent Orientalism misses the biggest trick of all - that "familiar" European-inspired fantasy should be just as exotic and weird, because medieval Europe was like another goddamned planet compared to modern society. This book treats ninjas strapping themselves to giant kites so they can glide over castle walls as a serious proposition, and I love it for that, but it makes me wonder why the only obviously-fabricated tall tales and boasts to get this sort of treatment are the ones originating in Asia. I want, more than ever, a setting where that silly "End Him Rightly" move gets built up as a majorly effective combat technique, where Historical European Martial Arts get listed alongside Akido and Karate, and the level 3 tech for the Broadsword is "pommel throw."

But we don't live in the sort of world. Not now, and certainly not in 1995. In the end, The Complete Ninja's Handbook provides some interesting ideas, but fails to develop them in a fruitful way thanks to the oft-observed mental forcefield 90s writers had around anything Asian. Ninjas put all sorts of hidden modifications and gadgets on their equipment? Cool. But why is that not something all rogues can do? Why do ninjas have to be in fantasy Japan, but The Complete Druid's Handbook is able to conceptualize spelljamming space druids? Espionage specialists with implausibly effective techniques is quintessentially Japanese, but somehow the priests of the Celtic religion aren't characteristically Celtic? Why can't we have spelljamming space ninjas?

(Aside from the obvious - because it would have overloaded the poor, fragile heart of my 13-year-old self and I'd have died from awesomeness-induced hyperventilation).

What's the takeaway, then? To the degree that you can ignore the Orientalism, this book is actually pretty interesting? The ninja is kind of a disappointing class, redeemed only by the genre tropes they bring with them? That I know only the first thing about racism and I'm really overtaxing my limited knowledge base by inelegantly applying it to every situation?

Um, yes?

In conclusion, fantasy Japan is a land of contrasts.

UKSS Contributions - I really want to pick giant, human-sized kites, but Ukss already has giant mantises and biplanes, so that's not really going to add anything.

I think I'm going to have to go abstract again and say "the concept of specialized defense contracting." They won't necessarily be ninja clans, per se, but there will be groups in Ukss where you can hire privately owned special forces and espionage units. And because this never works without a specific example, I will personify this in the form of the "Serpent Ninjas," though I'll probably call it something more modern like "The Serpent Company" or "Serpentis Corporation."

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Complete Druid's Handbook

Spelljamming space druids! Spelljamming space druids! Spelljamming space druids!

I feel like my entire review could just be this phrase, spammed 300 times. It wasn't a major theme of the book, and indeed, appeared only once (well, twice if you count the part where they described spelljamming space druids, but didn't directly call them that). However, it's something that instantly burrowed its way into my head. On my deathbed, someone is going to ask me whether I have any regrets, and I'm going to rattle out, "spelljamming . . . space . . . druids," and everyone will just politely agree to make up some more dignified last words for me.

Which isn't to say that The Complete Druid's Handbook doesn't have some fun with the concept. It introduces druids from various habitats, which is nice in that it makes an already-cool class even more versatile. But then it does a weird thing where it undermines the new druids by putting in unnecessary new restrictions. The default "forest" druid can shapeshift into any reptile, bird, or mammal, but the desert druid can only turn into desert creatures. Why the hate, guys?

Oddly misplaced geo-chauvinism aside, there's some cool stuff here. There's an underground druid with the ability to mentally control various types of slime (and if this doesn't sound that impressive, remember, an AD&D slime will fuck you up). There's an insect druid. There's a conspiracy of evil druids (although not evil™ because in AD&D, there's a difference between being an "extremist" who wants to destroy all civilization and having an evil™ alignment - druids are by definition neutral, even when they are doing things that seem to our ordinary language like good and evil). There's the Savage Druid . . .

Oh, God. We're doing this again, aren't we? Okay, so there's this racist kit. And I don't know what to tell you. All of the stuff that's really racist about it dovetails nicely with the class as a whole. Nobody's going to be that surprised when you say, "my druid character is at home in the wilderness and finds cities to be alienating and confusing." But does that make it better or worse? You're playing a character from a hunter-gatherer type society, but you chose the one character class where all the stereotypes just coincidentally happen to be true? Let's call it gross and unnecessary.

Let's see. What else? I guess it's weird that Druid is a job. It's part of a trend in AD&D, though. Classes are reified in the campaign world when they really should just represent character archetypes. Thieves aren't just dexterous clever guys, they're thieves. And druids aren't just obsessive nature-mages with shapechanging powers, they are actually practicing priests in a living religion. And at 11th level they fight each other for the privilege of advancing to 12th level. And this bit of highly specific worldbuilding is just baked right into the class.

Dungeons and Dragons can get like that sometimes. At one point, this book confidently claimed that "in most fantasy worlds, the forest druids exercise the most influence," and it's like - no D&D, no. In most fantasy worlds, druids aren't even a thing, because at some point in the past, you decided to just pluck a caste Celtic scholar-priests out of their historical context and use them as the vague inspiration for your nature-mage class, and while lots of people found that compelling, it's still only a drop in the ocean of the fantasy genre. I mean, I like druids, but pfft, come on.

I already touched on this when I mentioned the evil, civilization-destroying druids, but the only real flaw in this book is once again AD&D's alignment system. "True Neutral" is bullshit. With the exception of spelljamming space druids, who were "exiles from a world that would not accept their neutrality," most "neutral" druids spend a lot of their time things we'd think of as "good" - preserving the environment, helping communities that have fallen on hard times, working to find peaceful solutions to conflicts over natural resources. It often seems like it's only the fact that D&D has decided to label most of its wilderness-dwelling humanoids as "evil" that allows druids to claim neutrality at all. The "good" humans want to farm this land. The "evil" orcs want to hunt in this land. The "neutral" druid is an honest broker between these two groups, and is so weird for not having a preference between "good" and "evil."

But honestly, if I let a book get ruined every time the alignment system forced me to contemplate something ridiculous, I would never be able to enjoy Dungeons and Dragons. Remember people - alignment is bad, and it makes everything worse.

UKSS Contribution: You might think it's going to be spelljamming space druids. Won't lie. That's tempting. But then I'd have to explain "spelljamming" and that's just a hassle.

No, I'll go with something a little be more . . . down to earth . . .

Hee, hee. That was a pun, but only I know it because I haven't told you what I'm thinking about yet.

Anyway, there's a section about megaliths, because druids, therefor Stonehenge, and one of the suggested uses for magical megaliths is to place them in earthquake-prone areas and enchant them to stabilize the earth. I like that. I think it's a neat fantasy detail that introduces some serious working magic.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Complete Ranger's Handbook

A question I find myself grappling with as I read these old books is "Did AD&D know it was weird?"

I don't want to use my blog as a platform to score points in long-dead internet flame wars (oh, who am I kidding), but I distinctly remember conversations with people who adamantly insisted that new versions of Dungeons and Dragons should stick to "standard" fantasy. Meaning, presumably, the fantasy established in old AD&D books.

And, okay, those people have a point of view. When we're talking 15 years after the fact (well, 26 now), maybe there's a type of fantasy that you grew up with, and you take it for granted that it's "normal."

But I wonder. At the time, when the books were first being written, did they know they were being weird?

There's the Greenwood Ranger, who has such a profound religious devotion to nature that they become a human-plant hybrid, capable of photosynthesis and of growing a third arm from their chest which they could use to attack with blinding speed. They must have known that was weird.

But then there's the section where the book gives you advice on what to do with an unwanted animal follower. To be clear, I'm not talking about game-modification advice, where players who like the ranger class, but don't care for the animal companion feature can remove it and replace it with something else. By "unwanted animal follower," I mean literally an animal that starts following the character around and is so obnoxious that the player wants it gone.

Because the ranger doesn't have any control over their animal companion class feature, either in-character or out-of-character. In fact, at the beginning of the relationship, the ranger might not realize that's what's going on. An animal starts following them, and it's ambiguous. Is this animal a follower, i.e. a long-term friend and ally, or is it just a "follower," i.e. a creature that's shadowing the ranger's movements for inscrutable animal reasons of its own? You're meant to roleplay this uncertainty. It's not a mystical process. Sometimes an animal will keep showing up and then gradually, without fanfare, it's part of the ranger's posse.

And sometimes, that animal "with negligible trainability may prove to be more annoying than helpful" or smell so bad it makes the party uncomfortable or just be expensive and difficult to keep fed. So, helpfully, the book provides you with options ranging from "abandoning it in the wilderness" to "securing it a place in a zoo." Whichever way you go, it counts against your 2d6 lifetime limit of followers, though.

What the hell was going on at TSR during the 90s? This book is overall pretty firmly on the "rpg characters are the players' fictional avatars" side of the game vs story divide, but it somehow did not pick up on the idea that an animal companion is more of a fashion accessory than a fully independent entity in its own right. Imagine, playing AD&D back in '93, picking the Mountain Man kit, and all you want is a grizzly bear as your best friend, but instead you keep rolling under 20% on a d100, so you get a succession of humans, dwarves, and gnomes just following you around as you tromp through the wilderness, never quite as robustly manly as you imagined yourself to be when you chose your class.

Honestly, though, Rangers themselves don't make a lot of sense. Why are they even a class? I think D&D may have invented them. Historically, you've got characters like Grizzly Adams who live a kind of idealized wilderness lifestyle. But then Robin Hood is kind of implied to be a ranger with the Forest Runner kit, and he's just a warrior who happened to live in the woods. And there's the original ranger himself, Aragorn, who's an all-around competent guy that we only see for the year or so that he spends traveling through the wilderness.

There's something there, to be sure. "Wilderness expert," is an appealing archetype. But they get two weapon fighting because Aragorn fought with two weapons that one time? And they cast clerical spells because AD&D 1e did not have a skill system and so magic was the only way to represent their facility with plants and animals. But now rangers are religious folks who don't just live in the wilderness, but worship it. And then you throw in a bunch of early 90s scientific ecology into their worldview, so they're doing things like maintaining the balance between predator and prey in the face of over-hunting and pollution.

There are games where some version of the Ranger would make sense. But in AD&D 2e, where you've got the "Fighter" class, that is meant to cover everything from martial artists to swashbuckling fencers to armored knights to wilderness scouts who are not explicitly good-aligned and mystically connected to the forces of nature? It's too specific, too much of a niche.

They had to have known they were creating something weird. But if so, the book doesn't give any indication. It's played completely straight. Of course rangers are a thing that exists. We know their complete demographics too (half male and half female, which was nice for 1993, even if 2019 demands a non-binary ranger squad, like yesterday). It makes perfect sense that they cast divine magic, we even included a section about what it's like when one apprentices with a cleric.

Anyway, this is a top-tier PHB Rules Supplement. Not as philosophically fraught as Paladins, nor as reluctantly subversive as Bards while still having the second half of the series' high standard of quality. There's not even any racism worth mentioning (a couple of mentions of "primitive societies," but that seems positively benign in context). It may well be the best one yet (even if my heart yearns for the camp hinted at in The Complete Bard's Handbook).

UKSS Contribution: It was just a brief thing, but it's stuck in my head. At the end of the Kit chapter, they suggest additional kits you might want to homebrew, and one of the options they list is "Crypt Ranger." They only spare two sentences to the concept, but the mind reels at what they imply.

Their favored terrain is graveyards and tombs? Like how the default "forest" ranger knows everything about the forest and can discern meaning in disturbances to the underbrush and the movement of animals, but, you know, for graves? How . . .? Why? What?!

And then they get non-evil undead as followers. Um. Non-evil? Am I following? Non-evil undead? That's a thing now? And they're following these guys around?

What is this guy's life? And how do we get it into a book?

Something to think about, at least.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Scum and Villainy

Jawas are scum!

At least, that's my dominant thought about Scum and Villainy. I guess because it came so early in reading the book. The first chapter is "character options" and begins with a bunch of new alien species to play, most of which are unfamiliar (I guess the Clawdites did technically show up in Episode II, but they're shapeshifters, so it's easy to forget that they're a separate species) and then BAM! On page 9, the Jawas.

And that seems a little unfair, you know? I mean, what do the Jawas do that's so scummy? They find some droids in the desert and resell them. I guess I don't know a lot about property laws in the Star Wars universe, because maybe there's some sort of official salvage process that you have to go through that the Jawas don't care about. Maybe with still-functional droids like R2-D2 and C-3PO, you have to make some documented effort to contact their original owners and there's a waiting period before they can rightly be considered salvage. Maybe the Jawas just didn't pay the proper taxes to the Tatooine government.

I guess it makes sense that people have lingering ill-feelings towards the Jawas, because the droids are the heroes of Star Wars' first act, and getting captured poses a serious obstacle to their mission (though not really, because they wind up exactly where they need to be by the power of plot conven-, um er, the Force), but as near as I can tell, the Jawas' only crime was treating the droids as property. Which, technically, they were. The Jawas are scum? Was uncle Owen scum for buying them? Is galactic society as a whole scum for treating these clearly sapient beings as disposable property?

Maybe. But if the Jawas are scum, then I say it's high time we put the whole damned system on trial!

Or maybe I'm reading too much into a book's title and it just happens that the Jawas had to go somewhere. But what are the odds of that?

It actually ties into my main criticism of Star Wars worldbuilding in general. The Jawas we see in the movies are a little shady, so all Jawas, according to the book "are regarded as thieves at best, vermin at worst." The movies have a weird and fanciful alien show up as a one-off character and then the supplementary material assumes the character comes from a whole species that resembles the character. Watto was kind of a jerk, so the Toydarians "have an unsavory reputation." Jabba the Hutt was a crime boss, so all the Hutts we see in the game are crime lords too (and what is with all of them being called "the Hutt?" In this book alone we've got two separate crime bosses - Zietta the Hutt and Prello the Hutt - but it kind of defeats the point of having a nickname if everyone of your entire species shares the same one). It's just ridiculous and lazy and it bugs the hell out of me.

But that's par for the course for Star Wars. If I was able to let it go with no more than a snippy aside in previous Star Wars books, why even bring it up here?

It's because I think I may have seen the ultimate in half-assed extrapolation from a single movie scene. I am referring, of course, to Boushh.

You know that part in Return of the Jedi, where Leia was trying to infiltrate Jabba's palace and she was disguised as an alien bounty hunter? Well, it turns out that she was impersonating a specific person, Boushh.

Which, okay. Fair enough. Maybe you don't get into Jabba's palace just because you've caught Chewbacca. Maybe you've got to have a certain reputation. The crime lord needs to know who you are, know that you're established in the underworld and can credibly operate at this level. So sure, Leia wasn't just disguising her appearance, she was using this guy's reputation.

But the more you learn about Boushh, the stranger he becomes. Turns out Boushh loves using grenades. Leia had a grenade that one time, so Boushh uses them in preference to other weapons. But wait, Boushh "was known for being somewhat suicidal." So that thing Leia does where she uses the Thermal Detonator to threaten the whole room as a negotiation tactic, that's like, Boushh's signature move. Leia wasn't doing something bold and risky to allay Jabba's suspicions and bolster her disguise, she was actually doing what she thought the real Boushh would do . . .

How does this get past the editor? I get that the entry here is just recapping something from some EU novel or other, but how do you write that backstory and not get the feeling that something is seriously wrong?

Anyway, Scum and Villainy is a reliable workhorse of a book. Like most Star Wars Saga Edition books, it attempts to be both a supplement for PCs and a GM resource and it more or less works. It references The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide more than is entirely healthy, but its character options are attractive and its GM advice is decent. There's a forgettable adventure at the end, but it works. Overall - serviceable.

UKSS Contribution - This was a tough one, because most of the setting material in this book is fairly bland. I was tempted to pick Boushh, but I just did an entry about the thing in the book that made me roll my eyes the most.

So I think I'm going to go with the Jawas. I don't usually like picking something so iconic, but the book called them scum and I think they deserve better than that. They are also described as "slight rodent creatures," which makes me think of the Awakened Rats I stole from Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine. If I am to avoid falling into the same "racial stereotypes derived from the first on-screen character" trap as the EU, I should perhaps work to diversify my nonhuman cultures.

Jawas can be Awakened Rats who live in the desert and reject the chivalry of their more urbanized relatives. Not scum, per se, but definitely tenacious survivors who don't feel the need to play-act a resource-draining "nobility."

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Complete Bard's Handbook

This book is so close to being what it should have been. There were a couple of times where I caught a glimpse of the amazing rpg experience that we might have had if AD&D had been bolder, more audacious, and more culturally fluent.

There's a new spell in this book. No reasonable person would ever use it. Its metaphysical and setting implications are dizzying to contemplate. For a typical AD&D game, it's a bad spell, but there is a hypothetical game for which it is a bit of inspired brilliance. It fascinates me to think about what might have been, had the author allowed himself to forget he was writing for AD&D and just tug at the thread, following it to the bizarre glam-rock, high-camp musical fantasy rpg that is lying in potentia behind this spell.

It's called Summon Audience. . .

Summon Audience. . .

Summon Audience . . .

I can barely wrap my head around it. A bard casts this spell before giving a performance, then over the next few minutes, people start filtering into the venue, 1d4 per level. They watch the bard perform, and then they leave.

And maybe you might be thinking that this is me putting a hyperbolic spin on narrow, but sensible niche magic. That maybe Summon Audience works by sending a psychic signal, drawing in nearby people, half through telepathic compulsion, half through fate, who might be willing to sacrifice up to 4 hours of their lives to watch a musical performance.

The school of the spell is Conjuration. Not Enchantment. Not Illusion. Conjuration. These are real, flesh and blood creatures brought into existence for the sole purpose of watching the bard perform. They eat snacks and mill around during intermission. You can engage them in conversation, but they are evasive about their personal backgrounds. They take care to only appear and reappear when people aren't looking.

So just to be clear, this 3rd level spell creates ex nihilo both matter and consciousness and then obliterates it a few hours later just so the bard can have an audience for their performance.

I'm thinking of the musical episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. I'm thinking of Brutal Legend. I'm thinking of nonexistent abilities, like snapping your fingers to summon a spotlight. And I'm thinking of real abilities, like the Gallant Kit's special power to delay death just long enough to give a dying soliloquy about his own premature mortality.

And I wonder - "what if AD&D had the guts to actually go for it." To make magical abilities that weren't framed as spells. And to give off-model class abilities actual teeth. There's an illustration that accompanies the Jongleur kit, of a motley-clad acrobat, balancing on a tightrope and somehow dodging a hail of knives, but one of the knives is aimed directly for his midsection and he deflects it with a gem held gingerly between his thumb and forefinger. It's the wildest, dumbest thing you've ever seen and it's awesome.

But the Jongleur's ability to dodge perils with a successful save vs paralyzation quite explicitly does not apply to missile attacks and so the art is a lie.

I think the book as a whole is summed up nicely by a quote early on
Carrying a lute around in the dungeon is hard enough without worrying about a large metal shield banging around and getting in the way.
Which is to say, the book is aware that being a bard is kind of weird, but rather than embrace that weirdness, it attempts to to keep it grounded, balancing the fact that the class is unusual with mechanics that ensure it's not very good.

That being said, The Complete Bard's Handbook is pretty good for people who are not in the habit of demanding that AD&D overthrow itself and abandon its sacred cows to embrace other, stranger genres of fantasy. The fact that bards get so many unconventional special abilities means that the kits are a lot more diverse in how they play, and unlike, say, The Complete Thief's Handbook, your choices here are more than superficial. It never quite escapes the feeling of holding back a better, weirder fantasy game that's struggling to get out, but even a little bit of that can go a long way in spicing up an AD&D game that's otherwise committed to staying in its lane.

Racism Watch: Only a little bit, but what's there is peak 90s. It's nice that there isn't a special Asian Bard kit, but it's only a small step forward in the spirit of global understanding when you point out that the Blade kit is especially impressive when "Oriental Blades [use] weapons such as the three-part-rod, the nunchaku, or the katana." Only one of those is even a blade, people.

The other big thing is the . . . sigh, Gypsy-bard kit. I didn't get the impression that it was moved by any particular anti-Roma animus, but man is it embarrassing. Like, gah! It's bad. It does the thing where it takes old racial stereotypes and turns them on its head by breathlessly proclaiming them to be signs of some higher enlightenment and . . . I guess this is just one of those historical artifacts where you have to have a frank and judgement-free conversation about changing attitudes and the nature of art before you engage with it on its own terms, because damn. Just damn.

Only one use of the word "savage" and it's not even a kit! It's just a suggestion for a hypothetical kit you might want to homebrew. Progress!

And one last thing that isn't really racism, but something that fits here because structurally it's very similar to a problematic element from a previous book:
If your campaign does not have a Viking culture, but a player still wishes to play a Skald, assume that the character left his distant homeland and has journeyed to the existing campaign setting.
 To refresh your memory, this is basically the Samurai's dilemma from The Complete Fighter's Handbook, but here it has a different punchline. I'd like to assume that this represents a shift, over the course of 3 years, in expectations about player agency and their ownership in the campaign and is not, say, a case where players can override the DM for a Viking Skald because it makes sense for white people to exist, but they need the DM's permission for a Japanese Samurai because Asian people are "out of genre."

To be clear, it's two different authors, writing in two different years, so it's not surprising that they got two different results. It's just something that gave me pause.

UKSS Contribution: Now, I don't want to be an asshole here. I don't want to get in the habit of choosing the worst thing from each book and going "Ha, ha, ha! Ukss is a world built from the mediocre detritus of 40 years of rpg history." But, but . . .
"My name's Dark and I'm a Blade. I take my name from the black garb that I wear at all times. I'm actually not exceptional in this, as all Blades wear dark clothing. But the name has stuck and I like it."
 I mean, fucking 1992, right? It was one of those weird coincidences. The in-character introduction to the Blade kit kept going and it was filled with gross assassination stuff that read for all the world like an over-the-top parody of the grim 90s antihero, but it was the genuine article, here in its original context. I literally laughed until I cried.

So, I'm proud to introduce the sworn enemy of Baron Von Hendricks, Dark the Blade. He will do anything to get revenge, and until that day his turbulent heart will never know peace.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Realm

It's a bold move to give a book such a bland title. "Trust us, everyone who needs to know what this is, already knows what this is." You've got to have a lot of confidence to try and sell a book called The Realm.

And you know what, that confidence really does show up on the page. It's not the Peoples' History of the Dragon-Blooded Empire that I was hoping for in my most unrealistic dreams, but it is a bit of mature Exalted world-building, fleshing out an area of Creation that has mostly been off-limits in your typical game (because only the Dragon-Blooded could walk there openly, and they would but rarely have need to leave their palaces and estates).

I really liked this book. I've made a private (and utterly inconsequential) decision that Exalted is my Final Fandom (a new thing I invented, where I imagine a hypothetical situation I'm systematically locked out of all the things I enjoy until I have but one possible hobby or interest left, and though such a thing would break my heart, Exalted is the one that would hurt the least) and so I'm ever-hungry for new material for this game.

Which you would think would lead me to having a ton to say about it, but . . . I already said most of it on my thread. Sorry. That's just how it is. The fandom comes first. It's invigorating to be a part of it again, though I have to confess, my appetite for arguments is a little less endless than it's been in the past (maybe I'm too used to declaiming on high, from my unquestionable position as a blogger).

The Realm is actually pretty good in that regard, in that its potential for generating arguments is no greater than any other new bit of canon for a property that's existed for nearly 20 years and has a devoted fan-base. It was mostly consistent with the shape of old arguments and its new material is not yet developed enough to inspire contentious schisms.

It does continue 3rd Edition's pattern of adding new life and new possibility to the setting, and it will probably enter my personal list of top-tier exalted books for its comprehensiveness and timeless approach.

UKSS Contribution: This is easy. In Exalted, there are magical buildings called manses. Manses are often headquarters for major characters, storehouses for valuable items, and general dungeons and adventure areas. Manses in general are cool, but I've got a specific one in mind. It's called "The House of Not Yet Midnight" and I just love that name. The book doesn't do more than name-drop the manse and mention it has time-bending powers, but I was sold on the name alone. I want to read a book with that title. I imagine it would be a weird fairy-tale-esque YA fantasy where some sensitive teenager learns to question the nature of their reality.

I don't know what Ukss' House of Not Yet Midnight is going to look like, but I don't need to know to promote it on a name alone.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide

Waagh! Work is hard! Believe it or not, I read this book as fast as I could (days off playing video games notwithstanding). But for some reason, people decided to stay at my hotel on weekdays for a change. Six of the the last eight days have been my busiest in close to a decade.

I only bring it up because having my reading split up like that really messes with my process. Usually, while I'm reading a book, I'll develop a thesis, and then I'll keep my eyes open for passages that support that thesis (I'd like to say I have the intellectual integrity to also keep my eyes open for contradictory passages, but we all know my initial gut reaction is never wrong). This time, though, any building theories I've had about the book have been swept from my head by a constant stream of interruptions.

Therefor, my impressions of this book are of something stitched together from disparate pieces, united only by their presence in this particular book, and given a theme only in so far as the book's setting is a direct inference from the movie canon. Something must have happened to bridge the gap between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy. This book is that something.

On the one hand, this impression is total bullshit. I don't think I need to draw a diagram between how I read The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide and my emotional reaction to the experience. And yet, there's a little bit of that feeling whenever I read any Star Wars rpg material.

I think it comes from the Star Wars universe being so diversely sourced. There's a lot of Star Wars media out there, of various degrees of canonicity and the rpgs have never been shy about mining it all. So there's always this mosaic of the familiar, the novel, and the naggingly half-remembered. Like, Thrawn is here. All I know about him is that he's king shit of the EU, so I guess he played a role in the transition between Republic and Empire? Similarly, the Dark Side Prophets - were they those guys hanging out with the Emperor in Return of the Jedi? Or are they entirely an invention of the books? Does it matter?

What's interesting is that The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide ostensibly draws inspiration not just from generic inter-movie gap-filling, but from a specific piece of Star Wars media. One I am intimately familiar with because I recently played it twice in a row for reasons that now seem obscure and confusing.

(Un?)fortunately, this book doesn't do anything super interesting with The Force Unleashed background. We learn a bit about Juno Eclipse's atrocities and that Proxy is a robot with the skills of an experienced Jedi knight (literally, a level 9 Jedi - normally it takes until level 7 to qualify for the Jedi Knight prestige class), but nothing that would make Starkiller even the slightest bit more charismatic or the plot of the games any less eye-rolling. I guess in 2008, it was a boon to the rpg to tie into an exciting new video game, but in retrospect, it adds less than nothing here. The book has a remarkable "Campaign Guidelines" chapter that gives a ton of useful advice for creating suspenseful political-thriller-type games, and if you added any of The Force Unleashed crew to that, you'd almost instantly ruin it.

Overall, this is a book in search of a mission. Because it's based on filling in an empty part of the timeline, it lacks the movie-ready aesthetic of other, more popular time periods. Maybe if it were made after Rogue One, but I think the book probably makes the movie weaker, even in retrospect. I've seen this time period covered three times - Kyle Katarn's adventures, which felt like they tried entirely too hard to be marketable. Starkiller's adventures, which had that same market-pleasing sensibility, but aimed towards a different demographic. And then the story of Jyn Erso, which definitely had a stronger presentation, but also felt, in its own way, like it was riding the current historical moment.

Maybe this time period is just cursed. Maybe we were never meant to know what happened between the prequels and the original trilogy. Maybe this rpg is the best we're ever going to get.

I actually wouldn't go that far. But The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide is at worst bland. At times it really gets into its material, but then, a chapter later, it will just present generically useful stuff, like it's as good a place as any to put the Independent Droid prestige class or the power hammer melee weapon.

UKSS Contribution: From the second I picked up this book, I knew Ukss was going to be home to some version of Juno Eclipse. She has the most on-the-nose Star Wars name imaginable and was wasted in The Force Unleashed series as one half of the least convincing romantic relationship in all of fiction. I very virtuously told myself that I was going to rescue Juno Eclipse from the scrap heap of forgettable Star Wars EU characters and make her into something cool . . .

And then I learned that she was responsible for genociding an entire planet. Before she was assigned to ferry Starkiller around the universe, she had another job as the leader of Darth Vader's crack genocide squad and got her "promotion" to top-secret shuttle pilot as a "reward" for bombing the planet Callos into a radioactive wasteland.

Which . . . uh, ew. I never thought I'd say this, but she and Starkiller deserve each other.

So the Ukss contribution is still going to have Juno Eclipse, but she's going to be a fascist villain instead of a fun and rebellious antihero. Technically, that's me respecting her agency.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Complete Paladin's Handbook

Now this is what I'm talking about. The Complete Paladin's Handbook is what I remember the PHB supplement series to be - a comprehensive guide to playing a particular class with a bunch of well-thought-out, flavorful kits and roleplaying advice that is largely solid, if overly constrained by inexplicable D&Disms, and as unracist and unsexist as any product of 90s American culture can reasonably claim to be. It has its flaws, but it is on a whole other tier of quality than the first four Complete* books. That's almost certainly down to being written 4 years after The Complete Wizard's Handbook, when AD&D 2nd edition was more established and the writers were more confident about what the game was and what players actually wanted.

Now, to rip it apart.

No, just kidding. The only real "flaw" of this book is that it reads like an accidental Pendragon supplement. Which comes as no surprise, since D&D paladins are basically Arthurian knights with the serial numbers filed off. It just makes it a little awkward when the setting they are clearly talking about is the County of Cornwall in Mythic Britain, but they have to pretend that they are being generic.

At times I wanted to scream "CHRISTIANITY! The think you're talking about is Christianity. That's the element that ties this all together." Honestly, the book is a little incoherent without it, and as a result can sometimes find itself flailing with the idea the Paladins are feudal knights, but not really because they are, by definition, servants of "Lawful Good," and so their main source of inspiration only lines up with AD&D's anachronistic cosmopolitan polytheist fantasy but coincidentally.

However, I want to make clear that The Complete Paladin's Handbook is the first book of this series that I would unreservedly describe as "good." Like The Complete Wizard's Handbook, it's undermined by the implicit setting assumptions that stem from AD&D's patched-together mechanics, but the Wizard book was also, on top of that, kind of a crummy book. With the possible exception of the Witch kit, it didn't really seem to know what people liked about wizards or understand the variety of mystic archetypes the class was capable of.

This book doesn't have that problem. It knows what it's on about, and it sells the Paladin class very effectively. So effectively, in fact, that you can see where it strains against the limits of AD&D's rules.

There are two main culprits here. The first is AD&D's unnecessarily specific strictures about the Paladin's wealth and associates. I've talked before about how AD&D 2nd edition awkwardly straddles a shift in the way rpgs are played (not my idea, but one I find convincing). This is especially apparent here. The Complete Paladin's Handbook wants to talk about things like character motivation and the way their relationship with their faith shapes the world around them, but sometimes it gets stuck having to reconcile itself with early AD&D's paranoid style of antagonistic gamesmanship.

For example, this is a thing:
To ensure that a paladin stays within his limit, it's important to clarify who owns each of the party's magical items. In general, a paladin won't use a magical item unless it is his [. . .]

Conversely, if a paladin has 10 items, he won't borrow items from other characters. A paladin won't look for ambiguities to exploit; he remains true to the spirit as well as the letter of these rules.
Um, actually, the spirit of these rules is that a paladin has a mind elevated above base concerns like the pursuit of worldly wealth and thus does not horde treasure beyond what's necessary to see to their needs and the effective pursuit of their mission. The idea that this translates into exactly 10 magical items at all times and under all circumstances is . . . well, it's nothing. It's an artifact of a system that assumes that players are only choosing the Paladin class as a pretext for cool, holy-themed powers and that they can't be trusted to roleplay their characters in a consistent way, so you've got to put an exact number on it.

If, say, a Paladin was in the middle of clearing out a monster-infested dungeon and found a cache of 11 healing potions, it would be in the spirit of their oath to pack them all up and use them as needed, donating the remaining potions to a worthy charity once the monsters were driven off and the town was out of danger. However, that would violate the letter of their oath because each potion counts separately as one magic item, and so even if the Paladin started with only mundane equipment, they would have to preemptively designate one of those potions off-limits and not use it even if drinking the potion meant the difference between victory and defeat.

Which brings us nicely to the second of the two culprits - D&D's alignment system. It's bad. That is all.

No? Sigh. Okay.

The thing that makes Paladins such a great character class is that they are knights who walk the walk. All that stuff about truth, justice, valor, mercy, and charity? They actually believe it. A Paladin's natural foil, then, is a hierarchy that does not (and, in your more thoughtful works, cannot) live up to their standard. And yet so much of this book revolves around policing the Lawful Good alignment, as if that were an objective thing that could be measured and taken into account. As if feudal governance itself weren't a deeply flawed system that perpetuates routine cruelties to sustain itself. As if "all of your hirelings must be of Lawful Good alignment" doesn't become absurd when you're talking about setting up morality traps for the guy you've hired to do the tile in your castle.

The book is pretty clear. A Paladin must renounce their allegiance if the organization they serve ever stops being Lawful Good, but it elides the most interesting questions of the Paladin's condition - like, how would they even know? Maybe the deep corruption of the organization is offset by good members, like the Paladin. Maybe the organization is corrupt, but still generally does good work, or at least allows the Paladin to do better work than they could do alone. Maybe it still ostensibly stands for Lawful Good ideals, and could be reformed. Maybe a public break with a trusted organization, even if it has become corrupt, could undermine the public's trust in Lawful Good ideals. Maybe destroying the organization would cause more harm than letting its corruption continue? Maybe it's all those things at once.

A pretty interesting situation for a Paladin to be in, no? Unfortunately, Lawful Good is a thing with very clear and precise boundaries which can be detected with Paladin magic, so, eh?

The book never quite squares the desire to place a Paladin into a realistic feudal context with the fact that the D&D rules mean that a truly feudal Paladin should lose their powers almost instantly. Like, for all that it talks about Paladins shunning excess wealth, it also talks about them maintaining the accoutrements of the gentry and attending aristocratic galas. Which would be fine if AD&D were the sort of game that could let boundaries blur, but it isn't, and the book never quite forgets that it isn't.

The result is a book that is mostly very good, with only the occasional total absurdity.

UKSS Contribution: This one was a nail-biter, because its genre was barely D&D, and even less Ukss. I was worried I'd have to make another major compromise. Luckily, something came along that did not simply allow me to avoid incorporating chivalrous romance, but which I would probably have unironically chosen regardless of any genre concerns.

The Barding of Aerial Excellence. You put this armor on your horse, say the command word, and suddenly your destrier has sprouted 20-foot span metal wings! Take to the skies on a techno-organic fusion of horse and technology you wonderful religious fanatic, you!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Starships of the Galaxy

I have to confess an embarrassing personal fantasy - I dream of one day having a roleplaying group that gets really into it. Like, if we're playing Vampire: the Masquerade then they will remind me when the time comes for a Humanity or Frenzy check. Or, with Shadowrun, maybe they'll really get into the Matrix rules and memorize them by heart. Or, to pick a totally random third example, we'll be playing Star Wars Saga Edition, and I'll announce that there's a massive space battle and it's time to roll out the grid, and they'll respond with an enthusiastic "hell yeah!"

It is in pursuit of this fantasy that I bought (and, indeed, continue to buy) books like Starships of the Galaxy. It's a book that is entirely about one particular subsystem of the SWSE rules, expands those rules to make them more complex and involved, and then dares people to use it. It's not the most baroque space combat system I've seen, not by a longshot, but it definitely requires a player to be mentally invested in it, and sadly, that's not something I've ever seen happen.

Of course, part of my problem might be that I'm the one that obsessively collects supplements and then systematically reads them whenever we play a game, but also I'm invested in at least a dozen different gamelines, and flit between them at a whim, so my players never really get the time necessary to become true experts in any given game. But that would imply that my problems are somehow my own fault . . .

Anyway, the bulk of this book is taken up by descriptions of the various, um, starships of the galaxy, and they're . . . fine. They're statted like monsters, and SWSE's monster design is some of the worst in the d20 family, but if you assume all the encounter-interesting stuff is going to be done by fleshed out NPCs, they work okay. It was a neat nostalgia trip seeing these familiar designs from the movies, and I've got a feeling that if I were more into the expanded universe, then that sensation would only have grown.

Overall, this was exactly the sort of super-specialized book that I come to prize as an essential GMing reference. Dry as hell, of course, but I'm not (usually) reading it for pleasure.

UKSS Contribution: Ooh, I was hoping this day would not come quite so soon. I am at a crossroads, and am forced to make a choice. But first, let me explain a certain implicit design principle that I've been using for awhile, but have not yet expressly articulated - Ukss is one world.

So, I wanted Ukss to be a kitchen sink setting, taking a little bit from every rpg book I read to produce something gloriously over-the-top. However, I've been avoiding two ideas in particular - alternate universes and interplanetary travel. And the reason for this is simply that they make the kitchen sink idea too trivial. Have something that doesn't quite fit with your previously established canon? Easy, it happened in an alternate universe, or on a distant planet. There can be a fantasy world, a steampunk world, a transhuman world, a roman world, whatever. They don't have to interact with or inform each other in any way.

It was my hope that I could do Ukss without ever introducing the idea of outer space. But this book here, it's all about exactly that. You can't read Starships of the Galaxy and not deal with the idea of space travel.

Now, there's a loophole. Certain things that could be adapted. Maybe the Millenium Falcon could be an airship (hey, it worked for Final Fantasy XII). Or, hey, Admiral Akbar is mentioned by name several times. He could be a naval admiral instead of a space admiral, but basically the same character. It wouldn't even be a totally fatuous choice. I like good ol' Akbar just fine. And he's a squid-person, so commanding a ship at sea would actually make total sense for him . . .

But I realized, while working through those ideas, that I was violating the spirit of the UKSS project. I think the fact that I spent the better part of a week updating the setting may have influenced me. I started to feel more like the setting's author than its curator. I didn't want to include any of the space stuff because it didn't match my vision of what Ukss was like.

I think I have to do the honorable thing here and kill my darling. I must follow the source material wherever it leads, even if it results in setting details that don't jibe with my imagination. Therefor - the main UKSS contribution from this book is going to be the very concept of space travel itself.

But because I learned my lesson about choosing too abstract an idea when I couldn't find a place for "swashbuckling" I'm going to reify that contribution by choosing the actual coolest thing in the book (sorry, Admiral Akbar) - The Super Star Destroyer.

That's right, Ukss is going to have a 19km long, bristling with weapons, wedge-shaped space battleship orbiting it like a second moon.

Deal with it.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Complete Wizard's Handbook

The first thing The Complete Wizard's Handbook does is discuss the nuances of the game's eight schools of magic. It was somewhere around the second page of this, when they were explaining that the Alteration school got Melf's Minute Meteors and Death Fog as their heavy-hitting offensive options that I finally allowed myself to admit something that had been building for a long time - the AD&D magic system is bullshit.

This is hardly a fresh observation, and I'd be almost embarrassed to make it, but I think my criticism here is a bit different than the boilerplate. Most people focus on the baroque spellcasting mechanics which cause you to play a very peculiar type of resource management game that doesn't remotely resemble anything in fiction (and to be clear, there is some advice on that subject here and it does, indeed emphasize how unwieldy and awkward it is to try and play "second-guess what the DM has planned for the day" every time you memorize your spells). However, when I say "the AD&D magic system is bullshit" I'm instead focusing on the fact that there is no rhyme or reason to what spells wizards get except that it is canonically true that the wizard spell set as a whole can do almost anything, shy of healing wounds and bringing back the dead.

I mean, they devote a little more than a page to adjudicating the Wish spell, and for fuck's sake why is there a "Wish" spell in this game? What sort of half-assed "our mechanical typewriters didn't have delete keys back then" brand of game design went in to approving that monstrosity? It's not thematic. It's not flavorful. It's barely even fun. What little entertainment there is in the spell lies in when the DM tries to twist your wish to stop it from being overpowered, and you can really only do that once or twice before it gets old, so why do they keep putting it in the game, allowing it to distort the upper ends of the power curve and suck up so much DM advice real estate?

Oh, right, because this is Dungeons and Goddamned Dragons and every idea anyone ever had is canon except Warlords and the "mysterious lands of the east."

Oops, that came off across as a little angrier than I intended, but in the spirit of AD&D, I'm going to leave it in and just treat it as an unalterable fact I'm forced to contend with until the end of time. What started this rant was The Complete Wizard's Handbook's handling of Alteration specialists and the way that was like the Wish spell in miniature, revealing the game's purported taxonomy of the mystic arts to be nothing but a tissue of lies.

What does the "Alteration" school do? It alters things. As in, changes one thing to another. Or changes the location of a thing, you know, by moving it. And when I say "thing" I'm getting pretty abstract here. One of the things you can change is Time. Speed time, slow time, stop time, that sort of deal. And when I say "change" . . . eh.

Let's get a refresher on Melf's Minute Meteors - what it does is create a bunch of little fireballs that you can throw at your enemies. It doesn't require any existing fires to transmute into balls, nor any existing balls to transmute into fire. They just come from nowhere and you can throw them. The only thing being "altered" here is your state of not having fireballs to a state of indeed having fireballs.

That's what Alteration does. It's the type of magic where after you use it something has changed. And you can specialize in it. You can play a wizard specializes, specializes, in using magic to make things different than they were before.

And that, ultimately, is why the AD&D magic system is bullshit. All of your fantasy elements are spells. All of the spells can be used by one of two classes. Other classes can use some magic to a lesser degree that isn't really competitive and doesn't help them all that much (if your 9th level paladin is getting a significant power boost from their one first level spell per day, perhaps you need to reconsider your build), so much so that it almost seems tacked on. The result is just huge asymmetries in what the classes can do and how much they can participate in the world's fantasy.

It's incredibly frustrating.

Oh, yeah, also the racist shit is back. "Savage wizard" just makes me want to hurt somebody, and the Wu Jen is our most nakedly orientalist class option yet. They have strange taboos that they must observe to keep their magic. "[They] may seem trivial, or even ridiculous to other characters, [but] the Wu Jen takes them quite seriously."

How can a wizard be superstitious, TSR? How can a wizard be superstitious?

Anyway, my numerical verdict is 6/10. The thing that's broken about the book is merely that which is broken about AD&D as a whole, and The Complete Wizard's Handbook is generally perfectly serviceable within that context. And the racism isn't unique to the book. I owe the author of the Fighter's and Priest's books an apology. Because the Thief's book didn't have the more problematic kits, I thought they were his inventions, but I see now that there was some kind of editorial mandate from the top (and here, the Amazon Wizard having the exact same special ability as the Amazon Warrior not only doesn't make sense, it doesn't even help her with her primary shtick). So really, what this book is is a few extra spells and magic items, some beginner roleplaying advice, and a guide to casting spells under water.

UKSS Contribution - The Sage Tree. It's a tree, haunted by the ghosts of hundreds of sages. It can answer questions, but only after it's argued with itself about it first. It's a pretty neat image, and one which has some versatile uses.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Complete Priest's Handbook

I think I may be too long out of the AD&D bubble, because I can't for the life of me discern what the point of this book is supposed to be. For what it's worth, it seems to be trying to be comprehensive, giving rules for 60-odd types of specialty Priest, but there's a treacherous part of me that suspects that all this wouldn't have been necessary were it not for AD&D's half-assed character customization.

Certainly, I have failed to appreciate the necessity of giving nuanced descriptions of the followers the Priest receives based on their choice of religion. A priest of Lightning gets "three third-level priests and six first-level priests of the same priesthood and one fifth-level warrior, two third-level warriors, and four first-level warriors." Whereas a priest of Thunder gets "three third-level priests and six first-level priests of the same order, plus three third level fighters and six first-level fighters to act as guards."

Why are you doing this, Complete Priest's Handbook, especially when you already established that the followers a priest got depended on the player's preferences, the circumstances surrounding their stronghold, and what made sense for the game? The book is only 128 pages. Why waste two paragraphs per entry making the game less flexible? You surely weren't in need of extra padding.

(Then again . . . Lightning AND Thunder . . . maybe ideas were running low)

Nonetheless, I guess there might be some utility here. It's a ready-made guide that allows players to jump into any of a number of fantasy religions without anything being more than incidentally unbalanced (as opposed to letting the player deliberately game the system by choosing the right combination of abilities a la carte).

And the surrounding advice about creating a religion and working out a priest's role in the campaign world was . . . okay. It lacked anthropological insight and seemed, at times, to draw too heavily on medieval Catholicism, but if you're starting from square one, it's a decent enough place to start.

The only thing left worth mentioning is that this book has all the same gender and racial problems as The Complete Fighter's Handbook, but that's not a surprise since it's the exact same author. A lot of the kits are one-to-one correspondences with the Fighter kits (such as Amazon Priestess, Barbarian Priest, Outlaw Priest, Noble Priest, Peasant Priest and, sigh, Savage Priest) and the Amazon has the exact same baffling "men underestimate me" weakness. The Savage Priest is . . . slightly less racist, possibly because being in touch with mystical forces and cleaving to an otherworldly morality is what Priests are supposed to do anyway.

I'm convinced the author meant well, but missed the execution. In the section with the Specialty Priest builds, gods would fall into one of four categories - usually male, either male or female, usually female or . . . always male. (To be fair, there is also exactly one "always female" god - the goddess of wisdom, but it certainly didn't fit a trend). I couldn't begin to tell you the logic of how these work, but for this enlightened 21st century reviewer, they seemed to be mostly arbitrary, with just a bit of gender essentialism put in ("The strength-god is male." Okay, tough guy, whatever you say.)

The funny thing about this series so far is that I have such positive memories of the red books as a group. That's why I went through so much effort to get a nearly complete set (that damned $35 Complete Barbarian's Handbook) But to varying degrees they've all been disappointments so far. Not entirely useless, but not the indispensable game-changing reference guides I've been remembering. I guess it's true that you can't go home again.

UKSS Contribution: There are a few cute details in this book. Like the suggestion that priests of the God of Metalwork oversee the minting of coins. Or that priests of ELEMENTAL FORCE have a duty to officiate weddings. But I'm going to go with something brought up in a discussion of how Priests might have to participate in holidays and festivals - Vine Day.

Vine Day is scheduled after the last of the grape harvest comes in and is a celebration of all things wine. It's basically fantasy Mardi Gras. Since Mardi Gras itself has a lot of gaming potential, I figure off-brand knock-off Mardi Gras should be almost as good.