Monday, June 24, 2019

Star Wars Saga Edition - Chapters 1-8

Star Wars Saga Edition is an example of one my favorite branches of the rpg taxonomy - d20 renaissance. There are several games on this branch, that took the core D&D 3 rules and modified them for other genres and preferences. And really, I should have probably saved this book until after I reread the original D&D 3rd edition Player's Handbook, but since there's a possibility I might be playing it in the near future, I needed to break sequence and treat myself to a refresher.

The thing I love most about the d20 renaissance (and never mind that I'm the only person who calls it that - it's a thing now) is how incredibly unlikely it was. The biggest company in gaming decided to embrace the internet and release their core rules into the wild, to be used in whatever ways people could imagine. It was a magical time, when ideas flowered and every day seemed like it brought a new innovation. Sure, people complained about "bloat" (a word that has no meaning on this blog, in case you hadn't noticed) and low quality 3rd party supplements, but honestly, that's just the price of being part of a brilliant culture - even the non-elites can participate.

If we're being technical, though SWSE is at the closing chapters of that renaissance. Like True20, it is a mutation of the basic 3rd edition rules, meant to clean up some of its inconsistencies and facilitate a new style of play, but unlike virtually every other d20-family game, it eschewed the open license and the SRD. It could do that because it was a Wizards of the Coast, the authors of the original Open Game License, but the decision was a tragic one. With new editions came the reactionary embrace of a more traditional IP philosophy and the eventual death of the d20 community.

But SWSE is a pretty decent game, so I don't hold that against it. I've played it before, so I know there are a couple of math glitches, but those are easily fixed. And while it doesn't especially feel like Star Wars per se it doesn't not feel like Star Wars. With only minimal reskinning, it would work well for any sort of generic fantasy.

The main innovation of Saga Edition is the way it made classes broader and more versatile, almost to the point of being generic. You pick the Noble class to play any sort of social-focused or leader-type character. Scouts can represent any wilderness or survival archetype. The only class that breaks the pattern is the Jedi. Jedi characters have a much more specific set of abilities that puts them narrowly into the role of Jedi. You could probably get away with playing a Sith using the Jedi class, but any sort of exotic force user or mystical adept is something you'll have to kludge together with some optional feats or house rules.

Saga Edition's main strength is that it's both streamlined and comprehensive. This is not a book that wastes a lot of time getting to the point, nor does it wear out its welcome by over-explaining simple concepts. It's very well-written that way, and could easily serve as a model of economy in rpg design. The classes have a unified progression, getting talents on odd-numbered levels and feats on even numbered levels, making both multiclassing and levelling-up in general super easy. Yet there is enough diversity in what the talents and feats actually do that it's easy to build a wide variety of characters.

The game's biggest weakness is that attacks and defenses scale differently, allowing for characters of wildly divergent effectiveness. That's fixed simply enough with two quick house rules - all characters have a base attack bonus equal to their level, and whenever a skill says it targets a defense, make an attack roll, modified by the skill's key ability, rather than a normal skill check. I'm pretty sure neither of those rules significantly breaks any of the dozens of talents and feats, but even if it does, it's likely to make something overpowered into something that is merely useful.

The back half of the book is going to be much more GM-focused (combat chapter notwithstanding), so I'm looking forward to it. Saga Edition does a fairly good job incorporating the setting flavor into its explanations and examples, but it's no exaggeration to say that the art is doing the bulk of the work in making this feel like a Star Wars game.

Nonetheless, I count Star Wars Saga Edition as one of the jewels of my collection, and the only reason I am not more deeply invested in it is the ridiculous price of the supplements on Amazon.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Guide to the Anarchs

I'm going to have to take special care here not to succumb to historical hubris. Guide to the Anarchs doesn't make it easy, though. It's just so wrong about so many things.

Of course, the Internet's promise of a new economy proved in reality to be little more than a hollow swarm of buzz and useless hype . . . On the other hand, it may prove convenient to massage history and allow the conflict between new economy and old, established elders and neonates, to continue on despite historical fact.

There's this huge temptation to make the review nothing but quotes of the book putting its foot in its mouth. There are plenty of examples.

One of the first factors to look into in developing a character's mind is how smart that character is. Is he a knuckle-dragging former mouth-breather who avoids being labeled the Missing Link only because of a telling lack of body . . .

Plenty. Of. Examples. (Seriously, that section goes on for another whole page and it just gets worse. It reads like it was written by one of those online IQ cultists who has very detailed theories about the meaning of skull measurements).

But it's easy to tear things apart. Time passes. People learn. They realize in retrospect that Lagos, Nigeria is in fact the perfect setting for a vampire game, especially if it focuses on themes of structural inequality, and not just some place that should be rattled off as part of a list of African cities you are clearly cribbing from an encyclopedia. I mean, even in 2002, it was a single city with a population half the size of California, but whatever, White Wolf.

I know for a fact that if 2002 me were to write an rpg supplement, it would be even more blinkered and point-missing. That's why I'm going to try not to harp on these kinds of mistakes. It's just difficult, because without that particular breed of nitpicking, I'm forced to engage with the text of Guide to the Anarchs and it's not clear to me what the book is actually about.

Oh, vampire Anarchs, sure. But if you can come away from Guide to the Anarchs understanding what an Anarch actually is, then you're a much better reader than me and we should all be following your blog instead. As near as I can tell, the word is used in one of four different senses, with varying degrees of consistency:

1. A major faction in the Masquerade universe, on par with the Sabbat and Camarilla in importance, if not in power.
2. A movement within the Camarilla to try and make it a little more equitable
3. Any vampire with an interest in 19th or 20th century political philosophy (regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.)
4. Any young and impoverished vampire who is not explicitly part of the Sabbat.

It may be that the term is simply used mushily in the setting, but if that's the case, well, the name of the book isn't "Guide to the Miscellaneous."

I think it may be a case of too many cooks, honestly. The book has seven authors and it's not clear that they were well coordinated. There isn't really a compelling vision of what the Anarchs are supposed to be and so Anarchs wind up being whatever is most convenient at the moment.

Where it really hurts the game, though, is in the lack of the well-drawn specifics that would make this faction a memorable part of a living world. The central idea is strong - young vampires are essentially created as slaves to the old and that modern mortals, coming from a background of enlightenment ideals, do not automatically lose their political understanding when becoming vampires and may well find the old system intolerable. Yet everything about the Anarchs' cause is presented in such an abstract and (pardon the pun) bloodless way.

There are some high points. One of the examples, tossed away for illustration purposes, is of a successful stock broker who gets Embraced and forced to manage the much less sophisticated finances of an elder vampire. Something sympathetic and vividly drawn.

But then you also have stuff like this:

While the ranks of the anarchs have no few Brujah, most Brujah consider the anarchs redundant. If rebellion itself becomes an institution, what point does that rebellion serve?

Material conditions, people. Have you heard of them?

But that pointless little snippet really is the best summary of Guide to the Anarchs as a whole. It approaches politics like a set of cultural signifiers. One step above fashion, but just barely. The book repeatedly reassures us that there is more to the anarchs than the leather-jackets-and-motorcycles stereotype, but it never quite chances upon the more important question - why on Earth would vampires associate those things with rebellion? They're fucking vampires, for crying out loud!

You know what would be a really rebellious move for a vampire? Being a sincere Christian. Holding down a normal job. Having enough respect for the dignity of mortals to be honest with them.

Aristotle once described politics as "the science of the good." And that is what's missing from Guide to the Anarchs' handling of politics. Every great political aspiration is also a moral aspiration. What does that even mean for a vampire, a creature cursed to parasitically feed on the blood of their fellow man?

The other big flaw in the book's treatment of politics is in the complete hash it makes of the game's scale. Running a local assembly of vampires is, politically speaking, much closer to a church potluck than a nation state. In discussing the flaws of collectivism, the fate of the USSR is not an apt comparison. It's really just a dozen guys talking about how to divide up their food. The real reason  so few anarchs are bomb-throwing radicals is that it really only takes one well-placed bomb to completely overturn the power balance in any gathering of vampires. Once you've thrown that, you can stop.

The last appendix is good, though. It describes how vampires can survive moving from city to city and navigate the street-level conflicts they're likely to meet along the way. Doesn't have a hell of a lot to do with being an anarch, but I suppose it had to go somewhere.

UKSS Contribution: This book is a complete wasteland when it comes to interesting additions to the vampire setting. It's even more barren when you try to find material suitable to a non-Earth fantasy game. I did like the anecdote about the vampire who found shelter from the sun by diving into deep water, though.

That's something. Undead of the deep. Dead things, which fear the sun, but dwell so far beneath the waves that they need not risk its touch. I think there could be a place for that.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Complete Fighter's Handbook

I really want to like this book, and, indeed, there is a lot here to like, but there is a 30 year gulf between now and when it was written, and there are some things that might have worked in 1989 that simply don't fly today.

Like the Amazon Kit. Cool female warriors? Sign me up. Let's just take a look at their special abilities. They get a bonus to the accuracy and damage of their first attack in a battle because men underestimate them? Eh . . . Their weakness is that men are really sexist against them? Sigh.

I'm sure they meant well. At the end of the next Kit, the Barbarian, the text gently reminds us that women can be Barbarians just as much as anyone.

The mechanics of this twist the brain just a little bit. The "underestimation bonus" isn't a general rule. It's not something available to every female character. But maybe the Amazons have special training to take advantage of their enemies' sexism. Except . . . wouldn't an all-female society have the least use for techniques like that? And all those people who were giving the Amazons a hard time, they somehow didn't have a problem with female Barbarians?

Then there's the Samurai, which just brings all that weird Oriental Adventures baggage back into the game. There's this weird mental forcefield that the writers put up around Asian-inspired fantasy. "Before you create a samurai or ronin, ask your DM if such things exist on his world and if you may play one. It could be that the DM does not wish to allow samurai or ronin in his campaign (because the campaign world has no oriental setting to act as their origin, for instance.)"

It's not a warning that gets attached to Pirates or Barbarians or Myrmidons. Somehow, only the Japanese archetype gets singled out. Considering how weird Vampire: the Masquerade was about Asian vampires, I'm thinking maybe it's just a 90s thing. Global trade was increasing, the cold war was dying down, the US had a slight, but growing exposure to Japanese and Hong Kong cinema, but it was still a decade before the ubiquity of the internet, so people could draw on these cultures for inspiration, but in-depth research was difficult and direct exposure to actual, living Asians was rare.

There's no excuse for the "Savage" kit, however. I mean, it's just really racist.

Leaving aside the books retrograde politics, I can say that it does seem to represent a growing paradigm shift in D&D as a whole. I've often heard it said that the difference between "old school" and "modern" rpgs is that modern games treat characters as the protagonists in a story, whereas old school characters are just people who events happen to. The Complete Fighter's Handbook seems to want to straddle this line, eschewing plot protection for PCs, but treating them, nonetheless as immaculate designed things, even going so far as to suggest making point buy Attributes the default character creation method, to ensure that players can have a character who matches their vision.

It's that attitude, more than anything, that makes the Complete Handbook series such a standout part of AD&D 2nd Edition for me. They spoke to a desire I did not yet have the ability to articulate - to create at the table a sort of living fantasy fiction that evoked my favorite books and movies - a desire that was poorly served by core AD&D alone.

The verdict today?

Don't get The Complete Fighter's Handbook. I think it's well-intentioned in that careless 90s way where they accidentally validate stereotypes even as they're denouncing them. But honestly, the cringe-factor was kind of a deal breaker. Most of the best stuff in this book gets reprinted elsewhere and game balance is nonexistant (for example, the Cavalier kit gets serious combat bonuses at the cost of . . . having to roleplay your character exactly as you intended to roleplay them when you chose the Cavalier kit.) So as much as it expanded the mind of a young kid who yearned for more out his roleplaying games, it's something that's largely been rendered obsolete by the tide of progress - in both society and game design.

UKSS Contribution - Swashbucklers. It's kind of an abstract kit. And it's definitely an abstract idea for a setting contribution, but UKSS is going to have swashbucklers. Some people, somewhere, in some context, are going to buckle some swash  - that's a guarantee.

Monday, June 10, 2019

AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual

Memory is a funny thing. It's been years (maybe even decades, technically) since I last read the Monstrous Manual. The intervening years have somehow managed to magnify in my mind both its virtues and its flaws.

Let's get the flaws out of the way quick - it's not a very good source of exciting rpg combat encounters. No doubt there are thousands of people out there with good memories of amazing battles with these monsters, but those were undoubtedly due to some combination of (1)having a skilled and experienced DM and (2) luck.

I am, at this very moment, looking at the Aboleth entry in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th edition books (and honestly, this side-by-side comparison of the editions and their various strengths and weaknesses would be a fascinating blog post in its own right) and 3rd edition says it's CR 7, 4th pegs it as a level 17 monster, and 2nd . . .

I don't know. It's got an AC of 4 and 8 hit dice, so a party of 6 1st level characters could likely take it out in 4 rounds. But it's got an extremely deadly damage-over-time attack and the ability to permanently dominate 3 people per day. So I want to say . . . level 6?

It's all just a guessing-game really. But then, perhaps it's unfair to put this all on 2nd edition. Part of the reason they made future editions in the first place was to codify what they've learned about the game over the years. It's a little bit churlish to look at something old and criticize it for being primitive.

But there were other shortcomings that I'd largely confabulated - that the enemies were either boring sacks of hit points or long lists of spells that needed to be cross-referenced from the PHB. Some of the monsters fit those descriptions, but mostly they had 1-3 unique tricks that would be enough to last them the 2-3 rounds they'd be expected to live. Don't get me wrong, I still think every subsequent edition of D&D (with the arguable exception of 5th) managed to improve the mechanical expression of its monsters, but it wasn't quite the wasteland I'd built it up to be in my mind.

On the other side of the coin, neither is the 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual the comprehensive encyclopedia of monsters I remembered. Oh, it tries. Each monster's entry has "habitat and society" and "ecology" sections that, at their best introduce fascinating trivia about the monsters (the Aboleth's happens to be one of the good ones, talking about huge underwater cities built by enchanted human slaves).

But by some weird coincidence most monsters are only as interesting as there was space on the page. Take a mechanically complex monster like a Death Knight, and suddenly there's a lot less room for backstory.

Although, even then, the setting sections of some monsters contain shameless padding, doing things like giving you a year-by-year progression of their offspring's HD or talking about how "there is one 5 HD leader per 30 normal monsters encountered" which seems, on the surface, like worldbuilding, but which mostly winds up being dull as hell.

However, memory fog aside, my grown up assessment is that the Monstrous Manual is a very good book that is held back from genuine greatness by its frustrating inconsistency. It has some real issues with curation. Sometimes, it swings for the fences and comes out with something both unexpected and cool, like the Myconids, a race of fungus-people who can unleash a variety of mind-altering spores when attacked.

Other times, its monsters feel almost obligatory, adding little to the game but taking up space that would be better suited to more charismatic creatures. There's a whole page devoted to sea urchins (including the deadly land sea urchin). Ghost, Haunt, Phantom, Poltergeist, Specter, and Wraith are all separate entries. The yellow dragon literally has no reason to exist:

 "Although the existence of yellow dragons has long been predicted by sages (based on theories of primary colors), the first specimen was spotted only five years ago."

Actual quote from the book. What odd setting implications. Who are these sages? Why was the yellow dragon spotted so recently? Who is going out there and documenting new types of dragons?

I mean, obviously, what's going on is that there are green, blue, and red dragons and someone thought "why not yellow," but thanks to D&D's curious conservatism, they couldn't just say "yellow dragons are a type of chromatic dragon, they've existed all along." In any event, that's a page in the book that could have gone to expanding our knowledge of the galeb duhr.

On the balance, though, there's a lot more good than bad, and the Monstrous Manual's spirit of inventiveness is just the right kind of off-putting to inspire a ton of amazing fantasy adventures.

UKSS Contribution: The Monstrous Manual has two different types of intelligent frog-people (three, if you count the Slaadi, but they're more like humanoid frog-demons). The bullywugs are fascist mook-type creatures and the grippli are aloof, long-lived, and wise. Basically frog-orcs vs frog-elves.

I was stunned enough by the inclusion of one type of frog-person, but two is a sign. The grippli and the bullywugs are going to be the same species in UKSS. Some are fascist and some are peaceful, and that's just going to have to be a factor in the world's geopolitics.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Tome of Magic

That was a fun book. And because it was a fun book, I am going to try my hardest not to critique it as if it were something it's not. It's really just a grab bag of ideas for additional D&D magic. It has a niche and it fills it effectively.

The only ambivalence I feel is my growing realization that the last thing AD&D needed at this point was more material for wizards and priests. They already got half the Player's Handbook, they really didn't need one of the line's first and most prominent supplements.

But that sort of thinking would lead me down the long and meandering path of questioning AD&D's overall editorial strategy, and that's something that is better suited to a post near the end of the line. Instead, let's just take it as given that more stuff for wizards and priests is a good thing.

Even so, the Tome of Magic is not entirely unproblematic. It introduced Wild Mages, which, you know, are a thing you're either on board with or you're not. You cast spells! But every time you do there's a 1 in 20 chance that something really wacky happens instead! It's only a matter of time before you're killed by your own folly!

I don't count Wild Mages as a flaw, though. They have an audience, and that's who they're here for. The book's flaws are more subtle than that. There's a spell. It's called "Know Time." You cast it and you know the time, rounded to the nearest minute. As magical powers go, it's unimpressive, but it has its uses. There are situations in which it might be handy to magically know the time. But then you take AD&D's magic system into account and there are no circumstances under which you would ever conceivably use this material.

At the start of the day, pray for 10 minutes to the God of Time. In exchange, once, at some point in the future, you'll know the correct time. And that's one of, at most, five spell slots that you have to give up to do it. An interesting and flavorful ability is doomed to be wasted word count because the realities of the game make it unworkable.

The other subtle flaw with this book is the way that its new spells seem to muddle the already nebulous line between "wizard" and "priest." And perhaps this is as it should be. Historically, most "magical" traditions have also been "religious" traditions and even today its difficult to engage the mystical without also exploring the spiritual. But D&D has always drawn an arbitrary line between the two, and now, with new Priest spheres like "Time," "Thought," and "Numbers" you can easily build a Priest that is straight out a historical Hermetic practitioner.

It's subtle, because that isn't even really a flaw, per se. It's just that once you start down that road, you've got to put a lot of effort into warding off the crushing existential realization that D&D's classes don't make a lot of sense. And having a few dozen extra spells is barely worth it.

The Tome of Magic also includes a bunch of new magical items. Some of them, like the amulets that replicate metamagic spells, are fairly bland, but most are pretty good and there are a few genuine gems (like the Mist Tent - it's a cloud you keep in a bottle and when you let it out, you can sleep in it like a tent). It was a little awkward when some of them turned out to be better Artifacts than the Artifacts in the Book of Artifacts (Like the Quill of Law, which makes any legislation written with it and passed through official channels magically unbreakable), but that just plays into my intuition that "Artifacts" are really just magic items with a PR department.

Overall, Tome of Magic is a good addition to an AD&D game, if you can handle the damage it does to the AD&D rules. It was one of (if not the very first) rpg supplements I came to own, and so I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for it, but I'm not actually sure the tradeoff is worth it.

UKSS Contribution: There are a couple of . . . unique spells in this book. They're sort of like . . . anti-illusions? Nega-illusions? Inverted illusions?

Whatever you want to call them, they pose serious ontological questions the book isn't prepared to answer. One is called "Solipsism." How it works is that you wish something into existence, but it isn't "real." Most people can't even see it. But if you put in the effort, you can force yourself to believe. This works just like a savings throw vs an illusion, but if you succeed, you believe in the spell and can interact with the created object just like an ordinary thing.

The other, similar spell is called "Disbelief." It allows you to take a real object and disbelieve it, just like an illusion. If you do, it disappears from your reality. You cannot interact with it in any way, nor it you. You could walk right through it, if you wanted to.

I feel like those spells are on to something. Some odd and unnerving school of magic that involves creating your own elaborate fantasy world and then making it overlap with the real one. There's potential there, at least, for a take on magic that is rooted in a very different worldview than D&D wizardry.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Book of Artifacts

The Book of Artifacts is AD&D giving itself permission to make its magic items good.

Okay, that's an uncharitable way to characterize the book, but I don't know what to do with it otherwise. It's so serious about its "innovations." An Artifact is a magic item with a history. An Artifact is a magic item that plays a role in the story. And . . .

I don't know. The year is 1993. The end pages have advertisements for six different campaign settings. How are you just figuring this out now?

Make no mistake, the Book of Artifacts doesn't quite figure out magic items. Not even special Artifact-level magic items. It's filled with problems. By and large, the Artifacts themselves are all great (with notable exceptions like The Regalia of Might - no one knows what an "Orb of Neutrality" is supposed to be, and no one will ever know, because it's a hardcore D&D-ism that only makes sense if the game's rules are also its setting), but then they are immediately undermined by leaving a significant fraction of each Artifact's powers up to a random dice roll.

Congratulations, you have just found an ancient magitech battle robot - roll 14 times on three different tables to determine what its powers are.

AD&D as a whole is too enamored with randomness, and the chaos it might cause, and it is especially destructive here, in a book that is ostensibly about adding curated story elements to a campaign. There are two separate Artifacts which basically amount to "state, in-character, what you are entering into the device's elaborately coded input and then the DM will consult their custom-built cipher to determine whether you are doing something effective, overpowered, or suicidal." I'm sure they made for some memorable campaigns, but sitting here in 2019, looking back, it's like a communication from a different universe.

I'm trying to remember back to my teenaged roleplaying days, and I think I remember games like this. Where some randomness driven magic item, like the Machine of Lum the Mad or the Deck of Many Things would show up and then we'd just drive the whole campaign off the rails trying to exploit them without killing ourselves in the process.

It was a very particular kind of fun. A lot of giggles. But contemplating it today, I can't help but think of it as pretty much giving up on the initial campaign premise and just surrendering to silliness.

The other main flaw of this book is that its idea of "game balance" is based on . . . no earthly logic this reviewer is able to discern. A lot of this comes down to the items' curses. They often seem obligatory, a great many are far more punishing than the item's powers merit, and a few seem like they should be the Artifact's primary function.

Two case studies.

Case #1 - Queen Ehlissa's Marvelous Nightengale.

Its powers are useful, but situational. Mostly some low-level magic slightly more often than a PC priest can cast it and some high-level magic significantly less often than a PC priest could cast it. It plays songs that can give friendly creatures +1 to attack rolls, impose mild penalties to hostile creatures, and inspire emotions with its beautiful voice.

It's a neat, flavorful object that would be a valuable asset to an adventuring party, but ultimately isn't going to elevate them into a new weight-class, power-wise.

Its curse?

It corrupts your mind so you start to think and act like a child, running in panic from monsters, losing sleep because you're afraid of the dark, and ultimately draining your experience levels at a rate of one per month.

Case #2 - Scepter of the Sorcerer Kings

This is an item that almost lives up to the hype. Just possessing it, any magic directed at you is bounced back to its source with 10x the potency. Once per day, it can dispel magic automatically, without a check, and has a 33% of creating a permanent anti-magic zone into the bargain. Also, it has a poorly-thought-out healing/harming ability that doesn't really fit with the item thematically and winds up italicizing the words "heal" and "harm" in a way that misleadingly evokes the spells of the same name, but doesn't actually function anything like them.

But the real show-stopper is its curse. It just does a little thing like banish a randomly-chosen god from the terrestrial realm for 10 days, each and every time its used. So, you know, heal yourself for 2d12 points of damage, throw the entire world into chaos as priests everywhere lose their powers (not to mention whatever terrifying effects come from the gods not being able to do whatever it is they normally spend their time doing) and just incidentally making enemies of an immortal being with nothing better to do than plot your demise for the better part of a fortnight . . . and you can do it up to 10 times per day.

Way to bury the lede, Book of Artifacts. A magical scepter exists with the power to banish a god and you treat it as a side-effect to a magic-cancelling device. Your "campaign use" section gives plenty of bad advice about "mercilessly hounding" the PC you give it to, up to and including stripping PC priests of their powers to punish the PC you give it to.

But it never occurred you that PCs might want to find some way to harness and direct the power of the "curse" to seal away the power of a specific god. Because "heroes adventure to find an ancient artifact capable of binding a dark god" is not a stock sword-and-sorcery plot at all.

Nope, it's just another hilarious bit of AD&D randomness. The curse exists for "the possibility that the mortal owner of the Scepter might, on the 11th day of possession, receive a visit from a very irate avatar!"

What was even going on in the 90s, seriously?

Anyway, the last third of the book is devoted to magic item creation rules of which the less said the better. Six pages on how to recharge limited-use magic items. The rest mainly suffer from being blindered in that curious way AD&D tends to be when it comes to magic. The Book of Artifacts spends 100 pages on magic items with strange and flavorful origin stories and then the last 30 or so trying to chart out exactly what spells a PC must cast and in exactly what order. Maybe it could have spared just a few paragraphs on dwarf artisans forging weapons of legend deep in their mountain halls (despite not having access to the Wizard class) or perhaps master thieves making dark deals with diabolic patrons for items of cunning power.

Anyway, the Book of Artifacts is AD&D at its most typical. Half amazing fantasy flavor, half arbitrary setting and rules constraints, and half chaos-for-the-sake-of-chaos. That this adds up to three halves is my commentary on the state of the book's math.

UKSS Contribution - There's a lot of great stuff here. I'm tempted to go with The Apparatus - a device that can extract, transfer, and split souls. But that's a whole campaign premise in and of itself. You build a whole world around that technology.

So I'm going with my runner-up choice - The Rod of Teeth. Its powers are immaterial. It's an upper mid-tier weapon marred by the fact that it has a 1-in-20 chance of permanently obliterating the wielder's personality every time it connects. But, it is a magical club, studded with human teeth. Gross. Weird. Like nothing I've ever seen before. The horrifying visual imagery has got to be a good fit for something.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Scion: Hero (2nd Edition) - Chapters 3-6

There's a certain amount of relief that comes from finally having a usable version of Scion. The rest of the book is largely devoted to game mechanics and they are, at least at first glance, functional. The low-level powers look a lot heftier and more satisfying than their 1st edition counterparts, which bodes well for the future books in the series. The main thing I want out of a game about playing the offspring of the gods is the feeling that I'm going around wielding god-like power, and Scion: Hero delivers.

The biggest innovation along those lines was the introduction of Marvels. In 1st edition, when you wanted to play the son of the god of death (or what have you), you invested in the Death Purview by buying Death Boons, and your character could do whatever those Boons said you can do. Often, these things were not very good. And usually, even when they were good, they were less good at their price point than just buying a similarly ranked Epic Attribute.

Second Edition solves this problem by changing the way characters interact with Purviews. Now, you gain access to the Purview as a whole through various means (you get one innate Purview, then the rest are granted by Relics and Guides), and once you have access, you can improvise Purview-related magical effects called Marvels.

Marvels can be any sort of magical effect you can imagine, as long as they stem from your Purview's theme and don't get too grandiose in scale. The mechanical limits of how Marvels present themselves are fairly well defined. So you can use a Fire Marvel to throw fireballs, but not to summon volcanoes. To cure frostbite, but not to raise an army of flame-eyed zombie soldiers, like in Thor: Ragnarok. I'm eager to see how this system will evolve in the future books, but characters already feel more like "the god of X" than they ever did in 1st edition, even at the highest levels of power.

Boons in this system are just pre-packaged Marvels. Maybe a bit cheaper, maybe a bit more effective, but every Boon can quite explicitly be emulated by a Marvel. In fact, you can even use Boons of other Purviews as inspiration for Marvels in completely unrelated Purviews. You may have to reskin the effects, and at the very least justify it with a certain amount of rhetoric, but it adds a lot of versatility to even the simplest Scion characters.

The semi-redundancy of Boons takes a bit of the sting out of only having a fixed number of them based on your Legend level, but at the same time it kind of makes that limit feel superfluous. It's difficult to see the harm in letting players just buy whatever Boons they want with xp.

It's a bit early to say, but if Scion 2nd Edition winds up having a fatal flaw, I think this is going to be it. Not necessarily Boons, per se, but the way the xp system as a whole winds up feeling vestigial. What this really wants to be is a level-based game, with advancement happening along very precise milestones. And there's nothing wrong with that, but because it's mostly built like a point-buy game, that means that there's no guarantee that characters will have distinct niches or roles, and a lot of the balancing that could be done by discrete levels is left to chance.

Because the new Storyguide system has fewer opportunities for catastrophic failure than Scion 1e, the worst case scenario is a game where players have a noticeably different effectiveness due to the GM's focus on one type of challenge in preference to another. Yet that is a flaw so common in rpgs that it's barely worth noting.

Since this is likely the last Scion 2nd Edition book we'll be seeing for awhile, Ill take a moment to share my thoughts on the line as a whole. It's a massive step forward, and does quite a bit to fulfill the promise of the original game. I wouldn't call it an unqualified success, though.

I haven't talked a lot about the new presentation of the pantheon because I don't actually know enough about this subject to have an informed opinion. They feel better researched and more respectfully presented than first edition's, but that's just an intuition. I think the game does better re: representation because it's diverse in a very contemporary way. It's aggressively inclusive and it puts big warning signs around potential sources of Eurocentrism, but in establishing its world, it is (almost excessively) wary of creating synecretism.

It's a good concern, because white synecretism is almost always going to be colonialist, but as I mentioned in my post on Scion: Origin, this comes at a cost. In its zeal to affirm that every real-world belief is treated as true, it sometimes sacrifices opportunities to make the World feel real. I don't regard that as a flaw in the game, because I can't count it as a flaw when people have the humility to say, "you know what, I'm not going to appoint myself arbiter of what religions are more accurate than others." However, "these two mutually contradictory are both true" is a sentiment that's only tenable in the abstract. Every particular game of Scion that's actually played by real people is going to wind up declaring some religion or other to be wrong merely by virtue of featuring particular events, involving particular characters, happening in particular settings (and as much as I respect Scion: Hero's storytelling chapter's advice to be culturally sensitive and not say a religion is wrong, I'm pretty sure avoiding it is a practical impossibility).

That, however, is not a critique of Scion, 2nd edition. Rather, I think we are dancing around a larger critique of fantasy as a whole. Hero cites John Milton's recasting of Egyptian gods as Christian demons as the sort of thing not to do, and while I agree that it's a massively offensive thing for him to have done, I kind of also have to acknowledge that he was backed into a corner there. If the goal of your book is to "justify the ways of God to men" then that is a pretty clear statement that you're coming at the writing with a definite point of view. And how does Milton reconcile the existence of Osiris with his own brand of Christianity?

Making him a demon was pretty shitty, but it's no more of an invalidation of kemeticism than saying Osiris doesn't exist. Maybe it would have been better to leave them out entirely, but that's a pretty hot take to have about Paradise Lost in 2019 ("it would have been better if there was less of it.")

Look, I don't want to get wrangled into playing Milton apologist here. The point is that fantasy fiction that draws on mythological themes is always going to have a different point of view than the original sources. The story where all the Greek myths are 100% literally true has already been written - it's called "the original Greek myths" - with the caveat that a lot of what we think of as "the Greek myths" are actually just contemporary Greeks doing, 2500 years ago, what we're doing now and telling secular stories based on Greek mythology, sort of like how Milton's Paradise Lost has practically become Christian canon in the last 350 years.

Any new use of old stories is going to be intrinsically transformative. Even if you go with "the old Greek myths are 100% canonical and now it's 2500 years later," you're still changing the meaning of the old stories by placing them into a new context, "the Greek myths, but in a world where the Greeks are not the only civilization worth the name." A world where the sun is pushed across the sky by a giant dung beetle and where the sun is a flaming chariot is not a world that honors both traditions. It's a world where they're both wrong because the word "sun" is being used in some kind of off-brand Platonist sense to mean something other than "that big, fiery orb that I'm pointing to right now, up in the sky."

That's not to let everyone off the hook with a blanket "you can never be 100% true to other cultures, so you shouldn't bother trying," but rather to say that you're going to have to approach it like anything else - as something with the power to harm and the power to help. Nobody loves being told they're wrong, but there are ways to do it that are sensitive and ways to do it that are needlessly hurtful.

Bringing it back to Scion. I don't think Scion actually succeeds at its goal of creating a world where all myths are true. But I think that in failing to achieve that goal, it nonetheless makes a very fine rpg. It can't create a coherent setting, due to its own editorial constraints, but it can provide all the tools needed to make ten thousand different Scion-adjacent settings, and that's a pretty great accomplishment.

UKSS Contribution - Air traffic controllers having to route planes so they don't accidentally crash into heaven. That's the sort of detail that appeals to me, an ardent materialist. If I were writing Scion, the setting chapter would be 100% things like that. ("And, um, the entrance to Hades is a cave in southern Greece, and they've got to put up warning signs and barbed-wire fence all around it because people keep wandering in . . .")

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Scion: Hero (2nd Edition) - Chapters 1-2

Scion 2nd edition's setting material is like a box of puzzle pieces. But instead of coming from the same puzzle, the pieces are from 10 different puzzles and they're all mixed together and you don't have any picture to build off of. But also, it's good.

Okay, so maybe the metaphor quickly got away from me there. Chapters 1 and 2 of Scion: Hero are all about the game's setting, and there's a lot of good stuff here. But you can't engage with it the way you usually would an rpg setting. It's attempting to set a certain mood, to deliver a certain feel, but it wants to leave the bulk of the actual world-building to the GM. There are a lot of examples, of things like the various types of cults that are active in the World or the sort of activities incarnated gods get up to when they create scions, but the text commits to a relatively small number of particulars.

Like, the Norse god, Tyr, owns a weapons company, called Fenris Arms. It's an interesting and logical thing for Tyr to be doing in the modern day, it fills a little-considered niche by providing high-end weapons adapted for the disabled. Yet it is more or less one of a kind. There's no talk about Dionysus' nightclubs or Shango's minor league baseball team. The text uses Fenris Arms to suggest those other things might exist, but honestly, the only reason it's canon is because of the pun.

Which is fine. No, really. With ten pantheons in the book and more to come and then, on top of that, all the others which exist in the real world canonically existing in the World of Scion, there is not enough room in any one book to list all the ways the gods will influence the setting. You've pretty much got to take the broad approach.

It just requires a different mindset from the GM. The book is only the beginning. On some level, that's how it always works. No game supplement I've ever read has filled in every detail. But usually you get the broad strokes, the significant actors, and some general sense for the boundaries of the world.  Scion, so far, hasn't really provided even the broad strokes. It's more given the guidelines by which GMs can create the broad strokes for themselves.

For awhile, the word "toolkit" was fashionable to throw around in rpg marketing. Scion 2nd edition is one of the few times I've felt like the word actually fits.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

AD&D 2nd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide

I wonder what tabletop gaming was like in 1989. There's just so much in this book that doesn't track. The races chapter, in warning about allowing new race/class combinations, suggests that if you were to allow elves to be paladins, you'd have an entire party wanting to play elf paladins. And then it goes on to imply that this is a bad thing. As if the players didn't just hand you a whole campaign premise on a silver platter. As if a group of six elf paladins, traveling the land fighting evil in the name of the sylvan gods wouldn't wind up being an absolute legendary campaign. Honestly, it was so baffling an objection that it left me wondering if perhaps I was missing something.

But really, there's a lot of stuff like that going through the book. There's an assumption of an adversarial relationship between players and DM, where the players are always trying to get away with something and it's up to the DM to try and keep them in line. It's an odd dynamic that misses a lot of tricks narratively and socially.

It probably explains the abundance of cursed items in the magic items section, though. At least a dozen times you'd get an item that quite explicitly says "this looks exactly like some other benign item that your PCs are going to want, but it will kill them dead." Like, there's an enchanted broomstick that if you sit on it and command it to fly, it will just straight-up start beating the shit out of you. It's a hilarious slapstick image, but it raises some difficult worldbuilding questions. Who is making them? Why are they even still around? Wouldn't they get destroyed the first time they killed someone? Or at the very least get warning labels attached?

Ultimately, this adversarial relationship is probably at the root of the bad DMing advice this book keeps throwing at you. Present the players with misleading information, re: magic items. Elves can't get to the highest levels of the wizard class to preserve game balance, because being able to detect secret doors 1/6th of the time is worth giving up the ability to cast "wish." If the characters have too much money (by whatever nebulous definition you want to use) then you should jerk them around by targeting them with taxes, curses, or thieves.

Then again, maybe there's a paradigmatic issue at work here. When the book passive-aggressively dismisses the idea of critical hit tables (proving that even D&D itself can do "unlike other games") it does so with notion that it would be "unfair" not to use those tables against PCs. The game is almost ideologically opposed to asymmetrical mechanics, but it doesn't seem to acknowledge that the DM's role is almost by definition asymmetrical. They could just spawn hundreds of high level monsters at any time. So when the book expresses concern that allowing monsters to break bones or sever limbs will make the game too difficult for the PCs, it rings a bit hollow when a few pages later it lists a poison that can kill instantly.

I figure there must have been a culture surrounding D&D that I'm just not getting. A complex of shared assumptions that make the odd leaps seem logical. Yet looking back, it is clear that I was never actually part of that culture. I remember playing the game "wrong," but if I'm going by the rules as written, there are very few that I didn't use. So that vague memory I have, of a sensation of ignoring large portions of the text, it must have come from me glossing over the balance and advancement sections and just using the game as a story engine, rather than the weird inconsistently-tuned, chaos-embracing, trap-ridden tournament strategy game it thought itself to be.

I think I made the right choice, all those years ago, in turning my back on this game. Nothing I've read here has inspired any particular regret, and I can say with confidence that there are at least 4 versions of D&D I'd choose over this (4th, 3rd, BECM, and 5th - in that order). But that confidence is worth something to me. It means that when I read all the classic supplements I still adore, I'll be thinking in terms of conversion to a new system, rather than trying to recapture an imagined past.

UKSS Contribution: Domesticated yaks. Sure, I could have gone with one of the more amusing magical items. There are certainly plenty of colorful and evocative ones to choose from. But the book makes a point of giving special movement rules for yaks, in the middle of its discussion on riding animals for long-distance travel. I figure that means I can take a moment to remember them too.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Scion: Origin

Scion: Origin is a strange, orphan book. It has a reason to exist within the larger Scion 2nd Edition line, but that reason seems to be to allow Scion: Hero (2e) to be more niche. It's a position that meets with my approval, but I wonder how it would look coming in fresh. Some newbie is looking into Scion, sees Origin with the relatively reasonable $40 price tag, and decides not to overcommit, just dip a toe into the series and see what it's all about.

What sort of game would such a person find?

It wouldn't be bad, but it would be odd.  

Origin, as a concept, can work. It's got a good pitch. Broadly multicultural urban fantasy in which the myths and legends of yesterday get a modern makeover. You're a regular person in this fantastic world, and whether by curiosity, ambition, or fate you're drawn into a life of mystery and adventure. I'm picturing an occult procedural where the case-of-the-week revolves around satyrs or mermaids or werewolves, and the game in my head is pretty darned good.

It's a shame then, that Scion: Origin doesn't quite give you the tools to do that. It's not like Scion, 1st edition, where the tools that exist are broken. This version of Scion is a functional game in itself. It's just that unlike, say, the New World of Darkness core, Origin never quite commits to the idea that mortals-only is a viable alternate mode of play. The book expects that you will play at origins-level for awhile, but only as a prelude to hero-level games. If you're going into it expecting to play "regular" (albeit implausibly competent, in keeping with the genre) people indefinitely, you're going to find yourself butting up against the limits of the system pretty quick.

The main culprit is the Knack system. Ordinarily, when a storyteller-family game wants you to play as a mortal, it gives you some sort of game-mechanical widget to fill the same niche as the big games' supernatural powers. Scion's storypath sister game, the Trinity continuum is instructive. It too is the "normals" book, but it has a bunch of extra stuff. "Edges" are basically just Merits renamed. And "Skill Tricks" are very narrow-application boosts to your character's skills that would be relatively unimpressive stacked up against even the weakest of supernatural abilities. But the very fact that they're available at all says something about the game's intent. When you build a "normal" character, the game has your back for the long haul. You will always have a bunch of interesting stuff to spend your xp on.

The Knacks in Scion: Origin seem like they'd serve a similar function, but there's a catch. You can only have one. Oh, the game lets you buy as many Knacks as you like, but it's constrained by a frustrating rule. At the beginning of each gaming session, you choose one of your knacks to be "active." Your active knack is the only one you can use. If you want to use a different one, you have to wait until the start of your next session and swap it out.

This rule isn't quite as draconian as you might think . . . if you are planning on quickly moving on to hero-level games, where your number of active knacks increases dramatically. However, for a pure origin-level game, the mechanic takes all the worst parts of D&D's vancian spellcasting.

Oh, were you expecting an "and?"

I'm going to break the illusion of the blog a little bit and talk about something similar from Scion: Hero (I read the pdf about six months ago - for the blog I'm going to read the book). In Scion: Hero, your number of Boons (magical powers) is strictly limited by your Legend score. The only way to get more is to advance your character's whole power level (Legend determines your available magic points, resistance to certain powers, strength of certain effects, and is just generally your "how magical am I" stat). It's a little more forgiving, because you can improvise boon-like effects, based on your available Purviews, but the mechanics feel very similar to what's going on here.

And I think the reason is obvious. They're overcompensating. Scion, 1st edition had so many ways you could make wildly unbalanced characters at the same Legend level that they've gone in the other direction, putting characters on a very narrow and measured track of power.

It's an admirable goal, but I feel like this approach throws the baby out with the bathwater. Characters can now only grow up and not out, which makes climbing the Legend ladder much more important. Scion: Hero is going to have much more longevity than Scion: Origin, if only because it covers four Legend levels instead of one, but it too is going to wind up feeling like a prelude to Demigod, and that in turn a prelude to God (probably). In the long run, the limits on Knacks and Boons is probably going to be one of the things I eventually houserule (though I'd like to play a few more games with the rules as written just to be sure - my intuition could be totally wrong).

Aside from that one issue, 2nd edition looks solid. I can't say for sure how well the system will scale, but I can see the groundwork being laid for the future books and it looks robust. Only time will tell, though.

The last thing to talk about is the setting. Scion: Origin probably has more raw setting material than all of 1st edition combined, and the outlines are pretty great. Scion, 2nd edition's World finds a unique tone that is rarely seen in urban fantasy of any kind. The World works much like our own, but all the various ancient gods openly and verifiably exist. There's no sort of masquerade-equivalent. In one of the fiction segments, a character's encounter with divine magic is captured on video, uploaded to youtube, and it's only a minor plot point. It effects her relationship with her girlfriend, but it doesn't change the World. It's just the sort of thing that happens.

The Setting chapter has a bunch of cool stuff like that. Norway has troll preserves. The police will sometimes call in scions to consult for them. Movies about mythological figures are a lot more popular. It's great. Its only flaw is that the magic in this setting is based off of peoples' religions, and that invites a certain degree of metaphysical mushiness that (at least at this level of view) doesn't really work to the game's benefit.

A lot of the Setting chapter is given over to a very abstract discussion about how in the World of scion, every religion can be correct, despite mutually contradictory doctrines (about, say, how the sun moves across the sky), and how this doesn't necessarily lead to a world that looks all that different to our own.

Don't get me wrong. It's good to be respectful. And because Scion 2nd edition's lumpy metaphysical soup appears to exist solely to avoid having to canonically declare any real religion "right" or "wrong," I am not going to complain about it. But there's a tradeoff. The setting would be easier to use if it were grounded in the concrete. If you could draw a timeline and say "God X was responsible for event Y on date Z." If the varying rules of the conflicting pantheons were confined to particular places. If entities deemed universal by their followers were nonetheless limited and particular here.

But that would require rounding off the sharper corners of various doctrines. Of making definitive theological statements to serve the needs of the game. And there's no way to stop something like that from sounding at least a little bit colonialist.

So the designers made a call. It's not the call that I, an iconoclastic atheist, would have made, but I respect it. And while it's more apparent in Scion: Hero, 2nd edition in general just feels more thoroughly researched, less Eurocentric, and more inclusive than 1st edition. And if making hash of the cosmology is the price of all that, then I completely on board.

UKSS Contribution: This is a tough one, because all the best stuff in Scion comes from real world mythology. I guess I'll go with the Kitsune, though. Mischievous fox spirits who want nothing more than to live the high life on someone else's dime? Extremely versatile.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

AD&D 2nd Edition - Player's Handbook

Just handling this book was a serious nostalgia trip for me. AD&D 2nd Edition was my very first roleplaying game. For a long while, it was the only one I even knew existed (I guess I probably inferred the existence of an AD&D first edition, but honestly it's not a thought that came up all too often). My original Player's Handbook saw a lot of rough use. I still have it, but it is sunbleached and disintegrating, held together with at least three different types of tape. I wound up buying a replacement copy several months ago, and the brightness of the cover and the cleanness of the pages was a sensual shock. At least for a moment, I remembered what it felt like when I was young, and the rpg hobby was new.

However, my parting from AD&D 2nd edition was not an amicable one. Once I became exposed to other games, a great many frustrations and complaints immediately crystalized, as if from nowhere. I realized that I didn't like the way the rules seemed ad-hoc and arbitrary, the way its fantastic elements were siloed off into the spellcasting classes, the stultifying narrowness of its implicit setting assumptions, and THAC0 was bad, too. I didn't just become an overnight convert to other rpg systems, I became a passionate apostate. AD&D 2nd edition, once my favorite activity in the whole world, became the antithesis of everything I enjoyed about the hobby.

Generally, I've found that when I go back to media that pissed me off as a child, I'll have mellowed considerably towards it as an adult, seeing virtues I was too proud to acknowledge, in that absolutist way that children have. Why, I can even almost kinda see the point in college football. I'd have never admitted that at 14.

So were there any similar revelations after going back through my old Player's Handbook?

Sort of?

All my old complaints are still as valid as always. AD&D 2nd edition reads like a stitched-together Frankenstein's monster of house rules and tournament nitpicking, but that's not quite as bad a thing as I made it out to be. For one thing, there's not as much of it as I remember.

I don't know. Two-hundred and thirty-six A4 pages felt like a lot back then. The Player's Handbook wasn't just a book, it was a tome. There were so many rules, and they were different enough from each other that there were no shortcuts to memorizing. It was such a burden.

And don't get me wrong, AD&D 2nd edition has rules where it doesn't need rules. The swimming section takes up a whole page, with its various corner cases and situational modifiers. It doesn't need to be that long. Vision and Light did not need to be its own, separate chapter. There is cruft.

But, when you consider that spells, once again, take up half the book (sigh), it turns out that the AD&D rules come in at 124 pages. That's really not all that much, all things considered. I'm blessed with the knowledge that a well-written game could have covered the same ground in 60 pages and still captured the same feel, but I'm also cursed with the knowledge that younger me was overreacting something fierce. I mean, GURPS exists.

What then, is my verdict on the AD&D 2nd Edition Player's handbook, given the perspective of history? Well, AD&D is still not a very good game, and you should probably look up an OSR alternative if you want to play its style of game, but 2nd edition is a noticeable and welcome step up from 1st. I miss half-orcs. I miss assassins. But those losses aside, second edition is clearer, friendlier to both newbies and experts, easier to reference, and both more complete and (slightly) more consistent. It is the game AD&D 1st edition was trying to be.

UKSS Contribution: Dungeons and Dragons does this weird thing where some of its magical spells will have reverse versions, condensed in the same text. The Light spell has a companion, Darkness. Cure Serious Wounds reverses to Inflict Serious Wounds. And so on. If you learn the spell, you automatically learn its reverse, but they count as separate spells for purposes of memorization and whatnot.

I'm not taking the reversal mechanic as a whole, but I bring it up because sometimes reversing a spell results in something that would be a pretty weird spell on its own, and it's one of those weird spells that I'm interested in.

So, you know how it's a pretty boilerplate fantasy thing for a magician to turn their enemies to stone? The White Witch did it in Narnia. It's a spell in Final Fantasy. And so on. It should come as no surprise then, that you can do it in AD&D as well.

What is surprising is how you do it. See, "Flesh to Stone" is not a spell in AD&D. It is rather the reversal to a spell. The standard (and I want you to imagine this "standard" with about a dozen square quotes around it, because italics for emphasis is really not conveying how much work the word "standard" is doing here) spell is actually "Stone to Flesh."

Petrifying your enemies like Medusa is a side effect of the AD&D wizard's regular curriculum. When they are receiving tuition in the dark arts, what they initially study is how to turn rocks into meat.

And I know what you're thinking, "oh, you mean the harmful version of the spell is a perversion of the restorative spell that cures petrification? You know, it's kind of dismissive to call that 'turning rocks into meat.'" But while you would be right to think that healing basilisk victims is a major application of Stone to Flesh, you'd be missing what I'm trying to tell you. You can use this spell on ordinary rocks!

(Imagine me running around for several minutes with my arms flailing in the air like a muppet in panic mode)

How? Why? The spell description suggests it might useful for tunneling. Excuse me while I vomit forever.

So I figure that this must be connected to some big metaphysical thing. Like how in Norse mythology the world was built out of the remains of the frost giant Ymir. In UKSS world, all stone is part of the body of some ancient god. Some order of wizards, studying magic like particle physicists study atoms, found out that you could use a certain spell to flip the switch back and forth. Later, this knowledge was weaponized into a petrification spell, but that's just incidental. Every magician and  natural philosopher knows that rocks contain the magical signature of unspecified primordial meat.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Scion: Ragnarok - Chapters 4-8

The last half of this book was devoted to a long adventure that purported to make the player characters central figures in the Ragnarok prophecy. It mostly didn't work.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of good stuff here. A meteor strikes Earth, kicking a dust cloud that darkens the skies and ushers in three years of winter, meanwhile an ancient curse darkens the hearts of humanity, replacing kindness with cruelty, trust with suspicion. Nations that have been allies for generations stand at the brink of nuclear war, not just over scarce resources, but out of a dark fate, spoken before the beginning of history.

Into this chaotic and decaying world, the creatures of legend make themselves known once more. Dark elves hold entire communities in their thrall with their sinister beauty and charisma, becoming bandits and warlords. Ice giants, operating out of seized North Sea oil rigs, use the twin powers of illusion and weather control to threaten modern navies with their oversized viking longships. Dragons rule the skies, and magic is an open power, one more resource for the struggling masses of humanity to squabble over.

But hope is not lost. Those whose fate becomes bound with the Scions find the curse lifting from their hearts. By the example of their heroism, they may inspire the masses to band together against the darkness, and stand united in their hour of greatest need. It is not an easy or rapid process, but if the heroes keep faith, they can become the core of a new, more just civilization to emerge from the ruins of the old.

It's an amazing setting, and as near-perfect a campaign pitch as you're ever likely to see, but unfortunately, this is Scion 1st edition, and thus it had to hide all of its great setting ideas inside merely passable adventures.

This is explicit here, just as it was in the core books - you're supposed to be having all these side adventures in Ragnarok world. The book's three adventures are meant to act as bookends. The first is a starting adventure. The second happens when you're ready to transition from demigod to god. And the third wraps it all up. They're all part of the same story, but they're not meant to be played back-to-back. You're supposed to take some time to grind xp, explore your powers and the world, and just generally build your individual legend.

But you're also meant to just sort of infer what that might look like, based on the background details provided by the adventures themselves. Which sort of just winds up directly inverting the proportion of useful information to one-time-use adventure stuff the book should contain.

The big problem with the Ragnarok adventures is probably thematic, though. There are things that are supposed to happen, and thus the adventure puts its thumb on the scales, mostly by encouraging the GM to withhold information until too late. As a result, a lot of it comes across as merely allowing the players to be present for important scene-setting.

Take the first adventure. The characters are roused by their divine parents. An important relic has been rediscovered. With it, the giants could trigger Fimbulwinter, the prelude to Ragnarok. You rush to the site, do some detective work, meet some colorful characters, and learn that the giants got their hands on it three days before you arrived.

More detective work and you track down the giant in charge. He's protected by powerful forces you dare not anger, but he's hospitable. If you can best him in three challenges of cunning, might, and skill, he will grant you any boon you care to name. Win, and you can demand the relic as your rightful prize. And when you do, he's like "sure, whatever. We don't need that thing any more. We triggered Fimbulwinter three days ago. It was literally the first thing we did with it. I'm just holding onto it for sentimental reasons."

A short time later, a meteor strikes the Earth.

I don't want to get too high-handed here. The premise of the game is that it's about Ragnarok. So you can't stop Ragnarok before it happens. I don't think anyone would want that. Nonetheless, it's a little weird to make that the focus of the adventure. The whole thing seems pointless, at least from a perspective of achieving your stated goals. The real stakes of the conflict, though it's never directly states, are the potential allies you can secure by helping the giants' victims. Perhaps that's okay, though. Perhaps the real preventing the apocalypse is the friends we made along the way.

There's a lot of that over the course of the campaign. Things happening offscreen that are predetermined. Or the adventure assumes things that are unlikely to happen according to the rules (during the demigod portion of the adventure, you are captured by soldiers under threat of being shot with their completely mundane rifles, despite the fact that any well-built demigod is going to be practically bulletproof.) Or you succeed at your stated goal, only to find out that you wanted the wrong thing.

It all leads quite inevitably to the final battle, the doom of the gods. Despite spending the whole campaign trying to avert it, you never actually succeed. The best you can hope for is that some NPC you dealt with 10 sessions ago shows back up to help you mitigate the damage. If you gather enough of these allies, you can even save one or more of the gods that canonically die in Ragnarok (basically, however many ways you want to split the party determines your upper limit for these stunts). In theory, if you are combat-specced enough to defeat Surtr, the king of the fire giants, you can even avert the final, fiery death of Midgard itself.

Then all you have to do is rebuild a world that has been ravaged by meteors, storms, and monsters, where half the population has died from famine and war. Easy.

Overall Scion: Ragnarok is a frustrating in much the same way that Scion 1st edition as a whole proved to be. It describes interesting events happening, and dares you to work out the implied setting where those things are possible. It's filled with fascinating mythological concepts, but the mechanics are all over the place. Its tighter focus makes it unique in a way few other games can match, and I can only hope that 2nd edition can do it justice.

UKSS Contribution - I was really moved by the story of the Fenris wolf. The gods kept chaining him under the pretext of getting him to show off his strength, and he kept going along with it. The unfairness of this must have gotten to the writers too, because he got a redemption scene in the final act.

I'll admit, though, that my brain must have been infected by internet dog memes, because even though I know he's as intelligent as anyone, I kept picturing him saying, "Why you doin' me a heckin' bamboozle, frens?" when he was being bound by Tyr.

So, that's my contribution, Meme Fenrir. If I had to think of it, you have to think it now too.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Scion: Ragnarok - Chapters 1-3

My enjoyment of Scion: Ragnarok was slightly muted by my enjoyment of Thor: Ragnarok. Not by a lot, but by enough to be noticeable. The book would show a picture of Heimdall and I'd be like "hey, that looks nothing like Idris Elba." You know, silly stuff like that.

Leaving aside pop-culture cross pollution, Scion: Ragnarok (or at least the 1st half) is absolutely the sort of book the Scion line needed more of while simultaneously being just a little bit pointless.

The best and most useful part of the book was Chapter 1, which summarized some of the major stories of Norse mythology. Like none of the other material seen in Scion so far, it gave a real feel for the Aesir as a living pantheon and cultural tradition, sketching out core relationships and delivering deeper, more nuanced characterization for some of the game's most important NPCs. And yet . . .

Very little of it was actually specific to the game. A book on Norse mythology would likely have worked even better, and may have even had time to go into details about the secondary characters that only briefly got introduced. As much as I thought "this is great, I need this for all of Scion's signature PC pantheons," it was inevitably followed up by "wait, I could have it, were I willing to hit the internet and do my own research."

But that sounds like a total drag. The problem with doing your own research for a Scion game is that a lot of the directly useful information is going to be broken up into a dozen sources, some of which are going to be fragmentary (say because a society did not have widespread literacy before the Christians came and forced the stories to go underground) and most of which is going to be wrapped up in the ponderously flowery language favored by the generations that first translated them into English (when they've been translated at all). And that's not even getting into the multiple versions that stem from theological conflicts, historical evolution over time, and plain old translation decay.

In other words, it was very useful to have someone do the work for me, but ultimately, if they're doing the work anyway, why wouldn't they just write a mythology book for a general audience?

So, I wish there were an equivalent book for all of Scion's default pantheons, but I recognize that such a wish is ridiculous in the extreme.

Chapter 2 was another mechanical chapter, and I have nothing new to say about Scion's mechanics here. Ragnarok did not correct the game's mechanical problems, but for the most part it also didn't make them worse. Some of the spells were a bit more functional than we're accustomed to seeing in Scion's magic system, but there aren't enough of them that we can start talking about it as a flaw.

Chapter 3 was pretty bad, though. It's stats for the gods of the Norse pantheon. So already you know they're junk. But the weird thing is that with only two exceptions, all of the gods were Legend 12. It's not a detail we've covered before, but in Scion, you've got a stat, called Legend, that measure's your character's overall power. It ranges from 1 to 12. In theory, everyone with a Legend rating of 9-12 is a god, but in practice, those lower ratings never get used. If your name made it into the history books, you've got a maximum Legend rating, and that's just how the overworld works.

The reason for this is pretty clear - the rules in Scion: God say that you can't pass down favored purviews unless you can use the purview's avatar power. Avatar powers are only available at Legend 12. All of the divine parents listed in the books pass along favored purviews. Ergo, Legend ratings 9,10, and 11 are for PCs working their way up to full godhood and certain mythological monsters with godlike characteristics. It's ridiculous, because the Legend system is supposed to give you the ability to express the nuances and hierarchies of divine power, but the stats in this book's 3rd chapter tell a different story. Bragi, the God of Poetry and Odin, the All-Father, have the exact same mystical potency and that's the system working as intended.

Oh, Scion. I have such high hopes for second edition.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Dragon-Blooded: What Fire Has Wrought - Chapters 7-10

The back half of the book was mostly mechanical. New charms, martial arts, spells, magic items. The stories and flavor of these things were all really good, but I'm afraid the set as a whole suffers from the same basic problems as the core book. The central idea of minor charms that can be stacked together to dial in the power of your central tricks is one that is fundamentally flawed. Even if it weren't too much work at the table, it front-loads a lot of complexity into character creation.

However, Dragon-Blooded: What Fire Has Wrought is probably better in this regard than the core. The charm trees, while still loaded down with questionable charms, feel less sprawling overall. I expect we are at the beginning of a process we also saw play out in 1st and 2nd edition - where as time goes on and the writers and editors have more practical play experience, they will start designing for the game as it actually exists, rather than what they imagined it would turn out to be in development.

It's just a shame that the factions that come first in the game's life-cycle, the Solars and the Dragon-Blooded, are always the ones to miss out on the increase in design expertise. I'm calling it now - 4th edition will have Infernals be core.

My main feeling about this book, when all is said and done, is that it is long overdue. The Dragon-Blooded/Solar conflict is the driving force of the setting and many of my early 3rd edition games fell apart because of a lack of Dragon-Blooded antagonists.

Of course, this book doesn't really solve that problem, because it mainly just adds ways to build antagonists as if they were full characters, which is less than ideal. Quick characters require just as much bullshitting as they've always done. Still, I've got better benchmarks for what the heights of Dragon-Blooded power look like in 3rd edition, and that's not entirely useless. Though with no way to gauge overall character strength, I'm guessing it will take a lot of trial and error before I manage to dial in to the proper challenge level. I'll probably wind up having to eyeball it, in which case that's something I could have been doing all along.

Still, this book has a lot going for it. It looks great, with plenty of gorgeous full-color artwork. It introduces new characters and locations. It broadens and expands the Dragon-Blooded power set in satisfying and interesting ways (when it's not doing foolish things like telling you to reroll your 6s).

I'm left feeling bullish about the future of Exalted 3rd edition hardcovers. I think they're going to keep getting better, and as the edition becomes more lived-in, the power sets will evolve into something a bit more useable. I can already see it starting here, and I hope the trend will continue.

UKSS Contribution: I'm going to go with one of my favorite of Exalted's canon characters - Ledaal Kes, the flamboyantly gay chessmaster/forensic accountant/super spy/inventor/pretty boy. He may even be too much of a good thing, but when has that ever dissuaded me?

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Dragon-Blooded: What Fire Has Wrought, Chapter 1 - 6

Minor confession: I have another place where I talk about Exalted books. I know, I know, it's a betrayal, but I started that thread in 2014 and I feel like maybe it's earned the right to first dibs on all my new Exalted books from here on out. Call it sentimentality. Call it a commitment to order. Either way, once or twice a year, the blog is going to get the scraps.

But they're going to be good scraps! I promise. Don't think of it as me giving my best material to another venue, think of it as a dedicated thread allowing me to offload my petty and concrete observations in order to free me to think about more abstract matters.

Yeah. That's the ticket.

Today I'm going to talk about something strange I noticed while reading this book, and how I think it raises some important questions unique to tabletop rpg design.

First, though, a bit of background. This book is about a faction in Exalted called The Dragon-Blooded. There's several unique things about them, but the most important is that, alone of all the major Exalted types, they can pass their magical powers down to their children. The largest and most powerful group of Dragon-Blooded in the setting is an extended family, descended with varying degrees of legitimacy, from the Scarlet Empress. They're called The Dynasty and since the Empress' disappearance, they have been competing with each other to see who gets to rule the Realm.

The thing about the Dynasty is that they're ruthless imperialists, plundering the nations of the world to bring back massive amounts of tribute to support their bloated, parasitical lifestyles. The other thing about the Dynasty is that they are an authoritarian matriarchy, where women, especially mothers, have institutional, legal, and social privileges. The third thing about the Dynasty is that, due to new children being potentially new Dragon-Blooded (and thus wielders of incredible magical powers), they are obsessed with fertility and marriage. There's a sort of minimum quota of children that each couple should have if they want to stay in the good graces of their noble house.

The final thing about the Dynasty is that they're remarkably LGBTQ friendly.

That's weird.

They made an obnoxiously right wing society and then made them super casual about the one thing the right wing obsesses about above all others. It doesn't track.

But it makes perfect sense why they did it. They Dynasty is a player-character group. They're sort of the default group for you to be a part of when you make a Dragon-Blooded character. Even the other potential options are largely defined by their relationship with the Dynasty. So if you're an LGBTQ player and you want to create a character like yourself, you can, and be comfortable in the knowledge that nothing in the text justifies random NPCs acting like an ass towards you because of your identity.

I like that. It's a very humane way of handling the issue. Tabletop rpgs are a very immersive form of entertainment, and the fictional bigotry of the characters in the story can feel a lot more like real bigotry than it would in a novel (or, worse, be used as a cover for real bigotry from your fellow players - that's got to be the worst feeling there is). So to have the text give no excuses and no occasion for it, that's a useful thing to help marginalized people enjoy the game.

How much, then, does it matter that it's done in a transparently post hoc way? You'd never give the Realm that sort of easy-going approach to gender and sexuality if you were writing them into a novel, or a movie, or even a video game. Not only does it feel inconsistent with the society's other values, you'd also lose a whole bunch of potential drama, conflict, and social and philosophical speculation.

I think those are captivating conflicts and fascinating questions. What if you're trans or gay in a culture where heterosexuality is rewarded with super-powered babies and thus is mandated by state, society, and god? You could make a very interesting fantasy antagonist out of the consistently right-wing Realm.

But maybe, when we're talking about a game, there are more important things than being interesting. Maybe drama, conflict, and social and philosophical speculation should take a back seat to everyone feeling welcome and comfortable and able to indulge in high-budget fantasy mayhem without having to explore the limits of their identity all the time.

So there you have it. If you play Exalted and you wind up being chased by implacable religious fanatics who want to kill you over something you don't control, it will be because you have the wrong kind of superpowers, not because of who you love. There's something beautiful in that.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Exalted, 3rd Edition Core - Chapters 7-9

The delay on this post wasn't due to anything book related. The hotel was simply obscenely busy for the last couple of days. I actually had to work! At my job! Can you believe it?

But, having finally finished this monster of a book (more than 600 pages!), I've decided I'm going to say nothing critical of the final three chapters.

Oh, there are things I could quibble with. Editorial choices I don't agree with. Mechanics that don't work quite as well as they ought. That sort of thing. However, that would be excessive. The back third of Exalted 3rd Edition is pretty much as good as it gets for the mechanical side of the game. There are some missteps, but overall, it's inventive, flavorful, and diverse. You can learn a martial art that weaponizes your prettiness. You can fight a dinosaur. You can wield a sword that shoots volcanoes. It's high-powered, high-fantasy weirdness and it's exactly what I come to Exalted to experience.

So let's talk about the book as a whole. How does it function as an introduction to the game?

It's a question that's been heavily on my mind lately. When I first started playing Exalted 3rd Edition, it was with a group that was already heavily invested in playing Exalted. They'd played Exalted 1st Edition. They'd played a lot of Exalted 2nd Edition. They even humored me by playing my homebrew rewrite of Exalted 2nd Edition. This was not a group that was going to be daunted (much) by picking a Brawl Supernal and having to search through 40 charms.

I think for a group like that, the Exalted 3rd Edition core offers a lot of longevity. Even if you play for years, there's always going to be a new build to try out, a new martial art you've never really explored, or a new canon part of Creation to explore. It's very well-thought-out that way.

But my old group fell apart, and while it's my fondest wish to find some new local people to play Exalted with, the idea of having to teach someone new to the game using the 3rd Edition core scares the hell out of me. "Let's make standard-issue starting characters . . . step 5 is sorting through this 300 page block of mechanics for the next 3-4 hours. Oh, you have no context for what's good and what's not? Don't worry, the character creation process itself is so busted you can easily make wildly unbalanced characters by accident!"

It's probably a bit of a wash, really.

I can say with confidence, however, that this really is my favorite (official) version of the game. It's frustrating at times, and part of the delay in finishing it was due to me scribbling furious notes about things I could houserule, excise, or rewrite in their entirety, but I think any sufficiently complex game is going to have similar issues. For all its faults, Exalted 3rd Edition breathed new life into a franchise that was starting to get more than a little stale, and no matter what happens, I'll be grateful for that.

UKSS: The Yennin. They use alchemy to create children with ten fathers. Those children become mighty champions, capable of standing against mighty sorcerers and the potent elemental magics of the Dragon-Blooded.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Exalted, 3rd Edition Core - Chapter 6

Whew, this was a tough one to get through. Not because it was tedious (it was, but that doesn't bother me in and of itself), but because this is the part of the book I have the biggest disagreement with. The fundamental design philosophy behind this part of the game is one that I think is severely misguided, and it was difficult for me to read through even a dozen pages at a time without grumbling about how I could do it better and then getting sidetracked for 20 minutes while I daydreamed about how exactly I would execute my vision.

It feels a little weird that I spend so much of my time reading my favorite version of my favorite game in ripping it apart and pointing out its flaws. It makes it seem like I think the game is bad, and by and large, I don't (though don't ask my opinion while I'm reading the Craft tree). I think it's more that I am both highly familiar with the ins-and-outs of Exalted and highly motivated to "improve" it. I think back to a game like Heroes Unlimited, which was worse in just about every way, and I didn't spend even a tenth the time in trying to come up with fixes.

So how would I "fix" Exalted 3rd Edition's charm chapter? Is burning it all down and starting over an option? No? Sigh.

Okay, so there's a lot of good stuff here. Some charms that have really fun ideas behind them, especially in the combat abilities, where the designers manage to squeeze some interesting tricks out of the nuances of the system (like the Brawl charm Solar Cross Counter, which breaks the normal Initiative economy to let you counter a withering attack with a decisive attack whose power is based on the amount of Initiative you just lost).

Where the chapter goes wrong is in the curation of the set as a whole. Because for every fun charm that lets you assess a chef's emotional state by tasting their cooking, you've got another that is actively anti-fun, like any one of the fifteen that give you "double 9s" on some task of varying interest.

Like, I get what double 9s are going for as a mechanic. It's easily described - all of the 9s you roll count as two successes instead of one, automatically scales with your dice pools, and has a high potential variance. Adding double 9s to your roll is roughly equivalent to increasing your dice pool's size by 20%, but maybe something weird happens and you roll six 9s. Suddenly that 1 mote you spent is responsible for changing a good roll into a legendary one.

And I really have no problem with double 9s as a mechanic. It's a nifty little bonus that you can add to a roll that will probably not do much of anything except in the rare instances when it dramatically blows up and creates a memorable event. That's fun. What's not fun is that every double 9s charm has its own poetic exalted-style name. Squint at your character sheet. What do Impassioned Orator Technique, Perfect Harmony Technique, and Graceful Reed Dancing do? Trick question, they all add double 9s to a different subset of your Performance rolls. All three charms are from the same Ability! They all do the same, not very powerful and only intermittently interesting thing, but you have to buy them separately unless you only want to focus on one particular Performance specialty. They exist less to make your character more powerful and more to force you to invest more resources if you want to exploit different facets of an overly broad Ability (actually, Performance is probably fine as it is, and it's more like the designers are passive-aggressively complaining about verisimilitude "having a high Performance automatically makes you a great singer, dancer, and actor?! What if you want to play a performer who's not a triple-threat?!")

And another thing about double 9s - every time you use one of these barely-a-charm charms, it costs you a mote. That's a mark on your character sheet. And a thing you have to remember to do in the first place. And an additional thing you have to factor into your overall strategic considerations ("is a most-likely 20% boost to my dice pool worth potentially being 1 mote short of using a stronger move later in the scene?"). The idea is that you can pull together all these little charms around your bomb moves and unleash an out-of-control Voltron of Solar magic, or just use them separately for the occasional nudge in the right direction, and that is the essential strategy of the game. But it's just too much.

Far be it for me to begrudge tedious number crunching and obsessive optimization. Those are central pillars to some of my favorite video games. But this isn't a video game. It's a tabletop roleplaying game, and it's not just your time you're wasting.

Maybe it's just residual trauma from being the GM of a dozen or so different games where I was the only one at the table who knew the rules, but I really resent when a game's basic mechanics send you running for the rulebook every time a player takes a turn.

(And to be 100% fair, this is not a problem I particularly solved with my version of Exalted 2nd edition, but you have to keep in mind that that version of the game was personally optimized for my brain, and so its various complexities were no problem for its audience of one).

A lot of ink has been spilled in the rpg community over the difference between "rules light"and "rules heavy" rpgs. There are important philosophical differences between the approaches, and the classical gaming canon has plenty of examples of both types of game. However, I think when you compare rules-light to rules-heavy, you're mostly making an aesthetic argument. Neither approach is intrinsically superior to the other. I think if you're going to have a discussion about good design vs bad design, then what you should really be focusing on is cognitive load.

(This is actually A Thing in psychology, and my apologies in advance to people who are familiar with it from there, but I'm going to use the term in my own idiosyncratic way).

What I mean by "cognitive load" is "the number of individual things you have to remember at any given moment before you're able to move on with the game."

Rules-light games have an intrinsic advantage here, having fewer rules overall, but there are nuances. You can have a small number of rules total, but even a few rules interactions can lead to out-of-control complexity. "Use rule 1 all the time, but add rule 2 in situations A,B,and C and rule 3 in situations B, C, and D, and though for most B and C situations rules 2 and 3 are compatible, sometimes they contradict, in which case use rule 4 instead." Suddenly, you're going through a whole flow chart every time anyone wants to do anything.

Or maybe it's like the old Storyteller system's multiple action rule - simple enough to remember, but requiring significant math every time it's invoked (and it was invoked all the time, because taking only one action per turn was suicidal).

Similary, there are tricks you can use to reduce the cognitive load in rules-heavy systems. Mnemonic devices like keywords and tags. Or being super consistent with your roll modifiers (this was one big flaw with the d20 system - plenty of modifiers to your basic attributes, which would have cascading effects on derived statistics) Or siloing your subsystems so that you only have to reference a small portion of the book at any given time. Also, and this isn't going to apply very often, I admit, but I can tell you from experience that writing the whole book yourself gives you a huge discount on cognitive load (despite appearances, that's more of a warning than a brag - always get a stranger to playtest your work, people, and remember that your playtesters will become acclimated to your complexity in time).

Personally, I enjoy rules-heavy games, but because I've played quite a few of them, I can tell you that managing cognitive load is more of an art than a science. There's a huge mental difference between a game that has 100 different rules for 100 different things and a game that only has rules for 10 things, but requires you to memorize 10 sets of 10 rules to do them. In practice the second set-up tends to feel a lot more onerous than the first. Or, at least, it does to someone who's brain works like mine.

If you disregard the charms section, Exalted 3rd edition is more like the good kind of rules-heavy than the bad. But, look, when I was complaining about double 9s, that was only the tip of the iceberg. There are charms that require you to reroll 5s and 6s until 5s and 6s no longer appear. Charms that take the 1s and 2s on an opponent's roll and add them as 10s onto yours. Charms that add dice based on how many penalties your roll is facing, and which require division to use. And in a lot of cases, these charms can be used together. (This is the main driver of my distaste for the craft tree, which has both more unique dice tricks and more opportunities to use multiple tricks on the same roll than any other Ability, and when you add on top of that the three extra resources it adds on top of an already fiddly resource management system, it quickly becomes an exemplar of everything I hate about rules-heavy design).

There's always going to be a tradeoff. You can't give people more options and more strategic depth without also increasing their cognitive load, and no version of Exalted is ever going to be breezier than the best rules-light games. That's fine. That complexity is part of the whole reason people play Exalted in the first place. But you have to think in terms of a complexity budget, and spend that budget effectively. And the charms chapter simply doesn't do that. It gives you a lot of stuff to write on your character sheet, but most of those things make the game experience worse.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Exalted, 3rd Edition Core - Chapters 3-5

Must . . . resist . . . urge . . . to rewrite . . . Exalted.

It's not that Exalted 3rd edition is bad. In fact, it may well be the second-best version of the game ever written (admittedly, this sentiment may be the product of a personal bias). It's just that there are so many flaws.

Some of these flaws are legacies of the Storyteller system, like the half-assed approach to the skill list, which has ~25 skills, of which ~15 have rigorous mechanics attached, or the fact that extended rolls have dubious utility, for all the extra rolling they require, or that Appearance is basically an attribute in search of a niche, or the xp/bonus point split which can lead to dramatically unbalanced characters if the players don't spend their points in exactly the right order.

Other flaws are things that look like they might have been promising ideas that were underdeveloped. For example, the Project system is less a system for statecraft and bureaucracy, and more GMing advice for longer-term plots. And the Lore system takes a very ambitious approach to knowledgeable characters, giving their players some incidental dramatic-editing abilities and explicit co-ownership of the setting, but in the process introduces a new, fuzzily-defined category of trait that doesn't map to anything on a regular character sheet while simultaneously stepping on the already existing niche of Specialties, and having no counterpart in other knowledge focused abilities like Occult and Bureaucracy.

And the crafting system . . . I could write a whole post about Exalted 3rd Edition's crafting system alone. It fails in such interesting ways. It ties crafting to a meta-resource that has no clear analogue in the narrative, and is clearly meant as a pacing device for artifact creation, but then gathering this resource requires foregrounding crafting activities in such an obvious and intrusive way, but also, often in a manner that conflicts with the game's general heroic tone . . .

It's not totally unsalvageable. In fact, it kind of resembles the Quest system from Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, a mechanic on which I am prepared to heap limitless praise. It's just that Ex3's crafting is sort of like a Chuubo's quest done badly. Crafting projects are divided into tiers and for every tier past the first, you require increasingly-rarefied crafting xp in order to be allowed the privilege of making one roll in a high-threshold extended roll. You get these xp when a lower-level crafting project is plot-significant in one of three strictly defined ways.

It could work, but there are several problems. The first is that there's one too many tiers. Basic projects are free and earn you silver xp. Major projects require silver xp and earn you gold xp. Superior projects require gold xp and earn white xp. Legendary projects require white xp.

Yet the distinction between basic and major projects is poorly defined, and to the degree that it's intelligible at all, it's aggressively anti-fun. The easiest way to explain it - basic projects are ordinary, mundane items. Major projects are ordinary, mundane, and useful items. Want to forge a sword for your friend to carry into battle? Better hope you made 3-5 plot-significant horse shoes in the last month, minimum.

Which brings us to the second problem with the system. Crafting XP costs to complete projects are far too high, compared to the reward for completing crafting projects. Each advanced crafting roll requires 10 xp. Each successful project rewards a maximum of 9 xp (and the most likely result is closer to 2 xp). This is especially exacerbated by high-level projects that are certain to require multiple rolls. Building an artifact may well need 40-60 gold xp, every 5 of which will need 10 silver xp to earn (at least).

And that's as good a segue as any into the third main problem with the crafting system: the ways in which you earn crafting xp are excessively strict. You gain crafting xp if the project created or strengthened an intimacy towards you, the project produced a clear in-game benefit like a payment or Merit, or the project advanced or upheld one of the crafter's intimacies. For those who are not familiar with the Exalted rules, all three of those are kind of Big Deals. They don't necessarily have to be. Your GM can be generous with what counts as a "benefit" and you could pick an intimacy for yourself that would almost always be upheld by nearly any crafting project. But by default, each of those conditions is something you have to put some effort into.

If I were to "fix" the crafting system, I'd probably consolidate basic and major projects into a single tier, halve the xp costs of making high-tier crafting rolls, and change the xp reward requirement to "whenever something the character crafts is used as part of a stunt, they gain appropriate tier crafting xp equal to the stunt level, no cap, but max 1 reward per scene."

(Also, I'd chuck most of the Craft charms into the garbage, but I'm not supposed to know about those yet).

Although, the thing about fixing the crafting system is that it elides how weird it is that crafting is the only part of Exalted 3rd edition that works that way. It's a very meta mechanic in a system that ultimately is pretty concrete. No other Ability has its own special xp track that you fill by socially influencing people in tenuously connected ways. Nothing else requires you to dedicate a significant portion of your character's spotlight time to unrelated projects in order to earn narrative permission to do what you really want to do. It's not necessarily bad that Ex3 does this. Maybe the game as a whole would be better if it were more like Chuubo's. But it is . . . notable.

So why, if I've spent so much time complaining and nitpicking about Exalted 3rd Edition's system, am I willing to say that it's the best edition yet (setting aside my personal vanity)?

It's because, despite its shortcomings in other areas, it absolutely nails the two most important arenas of any Exalted game - social influence and combat.

The social influence system doesn't really do anything ground-breaking or surprising, but it is robust, functional, and complex enough to allow for multiple strategies. I have nothing bad to say about it.

Exalted 3rd edition's combat system, however, is a genuine accomplishment. I do have bad things I could say about it, but honestly, those complaints are only possible because the system itself is so uniquely inspired.

The way combat works is that every participant has an Initiative track that acts as a sort of abstract representation of the character's overall combat advantage. Most attacks you make will reduce an enemy's Initiative and increase your own. When you've accumulated enough Initiative, you can gamble it on a Decisive Attack, which uses your Initiative as its damage rating and potentially end the fight in a single stroke.

Overall, it very beautifully emulates the back-and-forth of a cinematic duel. No other combat system works as well at recreating the Westley-Inigo duel from Princess Bride, for example. And it's a very fruitful system for providing lots of different hooks for a ton of distinctive martial arts. And Gambits (decisive attacks that do things other than straight damage, like disarming your opponent) open up a ton of fun possibilities.

In fact, the system works so well for modeling dramatic back-and-forth between two opposing sides that I've been tempted to hack it into a generic scene-resolution system for things like heists, chases, and high-level business maneuvers.

I like the system so much that it feels almost churlish to point out that it doesn't really work for group-vs-group brawls, especially when there is a significant difference in combat ability between teammates. Or that the specific implementation in Ex3 does not mesh elegantly with the mass-combat system, leading to bizarre situations where even quite large armies are strictly inferior to 2-3 opponents, run as individuals. Or that the balance of weapon stats is out of whack due to the dramatically higher utility of accuracy as compared to damage.

That's probably why it's so tempting for me to rewrite Exalted 3rd edition. It has so many flaws, but each of those flaws, individually, is so small that it would be easy for me to correct them. It's an amazing game that is so close to being spectacular that the urge to tinker is never far from my mind.