Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Fortitude: Glass Maker's Dragon - Chapters 3-5

Literally 5 minutes before I sat down to write this post, I noticed for the first time that the print version of the book forgoes the word "Fortitude" in its title. I was just reflexively working off my memory of the kickstarter when I added it to my list. I suppose I could change the post titles to be more accurate, but I'm just going to let the mistake stand. Call it a monument to my carelessness as a critic.

With that said, let's get into the meat of The Glass Maker's Dragon.

The trickiest part of the book, or at least the part that took me longest to understand, is that you're meant to reuse the quest cycles. Part of this came down to a failure to grasp the system jargon - that the third quest on an arc is something different than a character's third arc. But the bulk of it is simply that I started off thinking of quests as something much more specific than they turned out to be.

Like, take Chuubo's quest set:

Wishing for Ease/Power
Wicked Creatures
Asserting Your Existence
Wishing For Healing

I thought that was meant to cover Chuubo's whole story - going to Fortitude to investigate his strange dreams, finding the Dream Witch in person, reaching some kind of rapprochement with her, and going back to being an ordinary kid (or perhaps turning into a new tree of worlds, in some future story). Chapter 5, which described the various characters' arcs, confused the hell out of me.

What I failed to realize (and there's no real excuse for this but poor reading comprehension on my part - see: my other blog where I'm constantly flubbing my way through video game plots for further context) was that chapter 5 was telling me that Chuubo had four stories in the overall campaign - Investigating/managing his dreams, Being tempted to use his wishing power for evil, A mystical vision quest tied up with that whole tree of worlds thing, and, finally, Dealing with the shard of the glass dragon that started this whole thing in the first place.

And because of who Chuubo is, his role as a character, all four of his stories share the same basic structure - he begins by being haunted by some outside force, he then uses his powers in a kind of reckless or irresponsible way, then he makes friends with the original dark forces - and that may be the end of it, but if it's not, then maybe the end is where he temporarily loses himself to the corruption/confusion of those dark forces before finding himself in the end. And if that fails, he'll wind up wishing himself back to normalcy.

The pattern repeats, but you're supposed to vary the particulars. At the start, it's Miramie that's haunting Chuubo. But the second time around, it's probably the Headmaster of the Bleak Academy. Third time, the tree on the Island of King Death. Fourth, the abstract burden of his own growing power. Same structure, but different stories

But then, there's also this whole parallel track, where you could tell these same stories with Miramie as a viewpoint character. That would use her quest pattern. Beautiful and Far Away - Fascination - This is So Surreal (or Such a Bad Idea) - You've Lost Them - Something Heals. Same story, but different structure. Because of this different structure, you're probably going to explore the story from a different perspective, and have access to different information, but the basic plot is the same.

And that's just using the material as it's presented. You can also vary the order of a quest set, depending on the color of your character's arc. And by searching out alternative options for Chuubo's main colors, you could adapt him to any of the other character's stories. It's wild how versatile this system is.

Which leads me into the second really obvious thing that I didn't quite understand - most of this book (arguably all of it) is PC-facing. In my defense, this took a long time to realize because it's the exact opposite of the way most "campaign" books operate. Usually, as the GM, you're supposed to be the one who has all the information about the story, and then orchestrate events to slow-drip that information to the players, over the course of the game. 

Here, if you are playing Chuubo (to stick with the example), you're supposed to read the whole of the summary of "Chuubo Makes a Terrible God-King" and allow it to inform your play. Which just seems bonkers, from a traditional roleplaying perspective. You're essentially asking the players to spoil themselves on the whole story before it begins.

But that's a matter for the third thing I didn't quite understand about The Glass Maker's Dragon, and the one that I'm least embarrassed by, because it doesn't quite spell itself out in the text. From my description above, you might get the impression that these various moving parts lend themselves to a very deterministic game, where all the players know their stories in advance and are more or less just arm-wrestling each other for the screentime to establish the facts in play.

That's not how it is at all, though. Because the individual story descriptions don't provide enough detail to actually do that. It's something that frustrated me the first couple of times I read the book, back when it was an unformatted pdf. You start with the heading "Chuubo Makes a Terrible God-King" and that's clearly a story, but when you look at the text, it's all about how various example NPCs might fit into the structure of your quests. It doesn't go into any detail about what happens.

It's kind of awful to read, actually. But the thunderbolt that came to me on this, my 3rd or 4th read of the text, was that the details of "what happens" are what happens in play. Which, okay, now that I write it down, seems like another super-obvious thing I should have picked up on before, but listen, it's the Rosetta Stone for unlocking what Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine is as a game.

The thing with the quests and the arcs and with players understanding and taking responsibility for the structure of their own stores can sometimes seem like the characters' stories are written down on their character sheets, before the game actually begins. But this ties in to my first point about reusing the quests.

"Haunted," the quest, isn't "the story of how Chuubo dealt with Miramie invading his dreams." No, it's more like the text of the story is what happens at the table, and the bullet points on your quest card are your English teacher's questions about the text.

I.e. "Chuubo Makes for a Terrible God-King's first act had a recurring motif of characters talking about dreams and comparing them to reality. Name three times this happened."

Except you're the author of the story, so you can cheat by writing a scene that fits the answer (except for Major Goals, which require the cooperation of the GM and/or other players). The English test questions aren't the whole (or even the bulk) of the story, but you can't get new answers unless the story is moving forward.

This is the source of the overwrought analogy in my original CMWGE post - I feel like my rpg universe is crumbling around me and that I'm finally seeing its true scope for the first time. It's kind of frustrating, because even after all the times I've read this book, I still can't be sure that I fully understand it, but I'm excited for a day when I can get a group with the same enthusiasm I have. I'm expecting something magical.

UKSS Contribution - Okay, this is even more specific than CMWGE, and thus I feel even more unease in plagiarizing something, but tradition is tradition, so I'll just take the dream beetles, that spawn in people's dreams and burrow into the real world. They're probably going to be a lot more horrifying in my reality, though.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Fortitude: Glass Maker's Dragon - Chapters 1 and 2

This book is an absolute brick. More than 550 pages. The same was true of the core book, but that felt more natural. Core books are supposed to cover every topic in the game. A campaign, on the other hand, seems like it should be a bit more compact. As of this morning, I was 300 pages into the book and I only just now finished reading all the preconstructed characters.

As much as I love this book, I have to admit it's a weakness. After 300 pages, you really get to know the Glass Maker's Dragon cast - their history, their inner life, their relationships - and they're all great, both individually and as an ensemble. But who's going to read 300 pages?

Well, me, obviously. And a lot of other fans. Which I'm sure is part of what contributes to a sense I've gotten around the internet that Chuubo's is perceived as too lore-heavy, and the fanbase too insular, for the game to really be accessible to newbies.

On the other hand, if you can find some way to communicate the basic concept of the characters well enough to let your players pick one, then that cuts down the reading significantly. Twenty to thirty pages and you've got everything you need to know to play a character, including variants, options, and generalized roleplaying advice.

The question, then, is "are the characters good enough to warrant even that much work?" And that's tricky. Of course the characters are good. Jenna Moran is one of the best writers in the rpg business today. If you pick up Glass Maker's Dragon (and judiciously skip over the drier mechanical bits) you will be entertained by these first two chapters.

However, I worry that maybe the characters are too good. Too distinct. There's a sense there that they've already been written. That you're not so much playing the preconstructs as trying to guess how they'd react to the game's situations. It's a weird feeling, like writing fanfiction to a story that's never been published.

Personally, I kind of like it, especially since I know that the characters tend to get reused and remixed in other CMWGE products, making them a cast of stock characters, a sort of anime-inspired commedia dell' arte. I wish it was an approach more games took with their signature characters.

But I can also understand how some might find it alienating.

Overall, I'm having a pretty good time with Glass Maker's Dragon so far. The real test is going to come in the last half of the book, though. I could never quite pin down how it's supposed to work as a campaign.

But that's a discussion for my next post.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Wilderness Survival Guide

This book is deeply weird. Not necessarily in its content, but in its conception. It was a not infrequent occurrence for me to stop reading and exclaim, to no one in particular, "why did they decide to publish this, who is it for?" The main variation in this ritual was my fluctuating levels of exacerbation and despair.

The Wilderness Survival Guide is an omnibus of rules about what happens when your characters are outdoors. But not, like, cool fantasy adventure type stuff. It's whatever the opposite of that is. If you ever wanted to calculate much wear-and-tear your tent suffers under various prevailing wind and precipitation levels or the relative encumbrance values of your travel rations based on their total protein composition, this is the book for you. Open this book to any random page and you're practically guaranteed to come across a rule you'd claw your DM's eyes out over, were it consistently enforced.

Ah, to wit - page 57, fishing:

 Each entry on the table represents a number generated by a dice roll, and in most cases a modifier that is applied to that roll. The resulting number represents how many fish are caught in one hour by one character with a baited hook and line. The use of a net will increase the take to 50% more than the modified dice roll. If a negative modifier brings the die roll result to zero or lower, no fish are caught, regardless of the gear being used.
The table being referred to is one of the book's smaller, less obtrusive affairs. Only three rows and three columns, listing the quality of the fishing spot and the time of day at which the attempt was made.

The fishing section continues for another 6 paragraphs.

Far be it for me to complain about this level of picayune detail. I, for one, love survival video games, and, indeed, am currently in the middle of playing a Starbound mod that adds dozens of new resources and planet types and almost as many new crafting stations and their associated subsystems. So I get the appeal.

But my god, the bookkeeping. Did people actually play in this style? With the DM asking "what time of day do you go down to the fishing hole, and did you remember to buy a net while you were in town - because if it's not on your sheet, it doesn't count." And then keeping track of each individual fish, and whether that was sufficient to nourish the whole party, counting down the time until the PCs suffer staged status effects from hunger, in the event that it wasn't.

There's a section-header called "Relative Humidity." It's got a chart. It's an "optional rule." Implying that everything preceding it in the chapter wasn't.

Like I said. Deeply weird.

But the weirdest part of this book is in what it's not. It is most assuredly not a guide to things you might find in a magical fantasy wilderness. No, this book is purely about survival under earth-like conditions. It acknowledges the potential for DMs to put fantastical elements into their rpg wilderness, but then almost immediately forswearing its responsibility by claiming that fantasy was beyond the scope of the book. There aren't even any guidelines for random encounters, something that took up quite a lot of real estate in the DMG.

I can't imagine that I'll ever actually use this book. There's a part of me that's tempted. Just find 6-8 players and pitch them on a nightmarish, pixel-bitching deathmarch of a hexcrawl. Mwah ha ha! Total party kill and they never even see a monster! But then I come back down to earth and remember that I'd ideally like to keep my friends.

I expect that even in AD&D's heyday, this was the sort of book that was only spot referenced to add some spice to the occasional encounter, but maybe even that is giving it too much. My copy is in totally pristine, like-new condition, and I bought it from a local used book store. Either its previous owner was incredibly responsible with their possessions, or people in 1986 had the same gut reaction I did.

UKSS Contribution: Oh, this is a tough one. Distressingly large portions of this book are devoted to explaining the concept of weather. And the ones that aren't tend to be even less evocative. Luckily, there is one table where the book let its freak flag fly - the one explaining the encumbrance levels and long-term endurance of flying mounts. How long can you ride a dragon or a pegasus before it needs to stop for rest and whatnot.

So I could just steal a monster from the list, say it exists in Ukss and be done with it. But one particular entry caught my eye - the giant mantis.

Giant mantis.

In a list of flying mounts.

Obviously, I must extrapolate from this an entire knightly order of mantis-riders, who take to the skies to keep the world safe from various airborne threats.

It's the only logical thing to do.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine - Chapters 10-14

This latest stretch was perhaps the driest part of the book, with whole chapters filled with nothing but example quests and suggestions for perks. It's all useful information, central to the nitty-gritty of actually playing the game and (for the last chapter especially) establishing the boundaries of the setting's weird magic, but there was very little that called for a comprehensive read-through, rather than the occasional spot referencing.

The most memorable part of the last half of the book was undoubtedly the miraculous arcs. Like everything else in CMWGE, they are inventive, deceptively versatile, and also kind of hard to fully understand.

The issue with the arcs is that they're meant to be generic templates upon which you build up your individual suite of powers, but they're filled with highly specific idiosyncrasies. You're meant to reskin the powers to fit your character, but then you'll get something like the Keeper of Gardens arc which is mostly about creating and ruling a magical alternate world, but which also requires you to be actively toxic wherever you go. Whatever innate connection exists between those ideas is at a level too subtle for me to see, so it really just feels like you're stretching to fit into someone else's box.

In the long run, this can be very satisfying, especially if you have the campaign and you can see examples of how the general arcs adapt to specific characters. But in the short term, it feels so unnatural that you begin to doubt if that's really what you're supposed to be doing.

I guess what I really want from CMWGE is to get to a place of mastery. Where I've navigated its ambiguities long enough that I have an instinctive feel for the terrain, and I can use it to build the sort of games whose potential I now just vaguely sense. But I have to admit, getting there is going to be difficult. This game is a tough sell.

"Hey everyone, do y'all want to play a game where your progress is measured by your emotional experiences and the default setting is a candy-coated mishmash of anime tropes and your assumed character type is a teenaged demigod with subtle and primordial powers, who nonetheless is mostly concerned with the everyday pleasures and stresses that come with growing up?"

I mean, it's cool. Maybe even the coolest thing I own. But when I try to pitch it, I can't help feeling like the earnestly dorky kid who is try to affect coolness. Here's this cool thing, and though I don't entirely understand it, I will attempt to bask in its reflected coolness by becoming its biggest booster.

It's a little embarrassing, but you know what? Screw it. I can't help but be what I am.

Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine set my mind afire. In the history of my personal engagement with the rpg hobby, it is epochal (for fun, here's my best guess at a list of the epochs: AD&D 2nd edition -> Dark Sun Boxed Set -> Mage: the Ascension, Revised -> Exalted -> D&D 4th edition -> CMWGE -> ???) and I'm pretty sure that it will have a similar effect on anyone who is interested in the nuts and bolts of rpg design.

It's rare to get a game that attempts something truly different, and rarer still for that different thing to be creatively fruitful. But that's what CMWGE achieved. It made rpgs feel new again.

UKSS Contribution: Ah, this one is tough, because so many of the best aspects of the setting are little details that wouldn't really mesh anywhere else. It feels more like plagiarism than usual. Then again, it's always been plagiarism, so let's do it - Fortitude Rats.

They're an entire race of Reepicheeps. Tiny adventurers with big attitudes and a flair for the dramatic. A perfect fit for any number of adventure fantasy settings.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine - Chapter 9

This chapter was pretty great. It is inventive and weird (seriously - "pillow teeth tea" - what is that even), but it also expertly deploys well-used tropes and cliches to instantly feel comfortable and familiar. The setting feels like it was adapted from a long-running and extensive fictional canon that we are only getting a brief cross-section of, despite the fact that, near as I can tell, it is mostly original to this work in particular. The closest thing to it is probably the thoroughly worked-out backstory behind the Sentinels of the Multiverse flavor text, and it makes me wonder if there's a similar process at work here.

It made me desperately want to see the Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine anime that surely exists in a more just universe (though, this feeling actually reaches its height in the Glass Maker's Dragon campaign, which, if anything, is more brilliant and more frustrating even than the core book).

The only flaw of the setting, and I'd call it more of a nitpick, really, is that it ties itself to a very particular mood and style of play, when the CMWGE is capable of so much more (and that probably explains why, whenever it comes to actually playing Chuubo's, my first instinct is to go with an alternate setting - my storytelling instincts take me away from the setting's fundamental strengths).

The best way I can describe the feel of Chuubo's default setting is "adult nostalgia for childhood media." It's warm-hearted and whimsical and it has a sort of idealized coming-of-age sensibility, but it's also clear that this sensibility is at least a little bit affected. That affect, though, is probably the setting's secret weapon. They're not everywhere, but there are undercurrents of melancholy, mischievousness, and philosophical insight that keep Chuubo's from being too twee.

Or, to put it another way, if you were a parent interested in roleplaying with your children, it would only take a little bit of tweaking to make Town and its environs completely child-safe, but the book itself isn't for them, it's for you. (Not that I can unreservedly recommend Chuubo's as an rpg for children - the system is pretty complex and requires some moderately sophisticated metagaming, but it's also likely that kids are a lot smarter than I give them credit for).

Like I said, though, that's more in the nature of a nitpick. The strength of Town as a setting is that it immediately foregrounds the sort of stories that CMWGE is uniquely suited to tell. You take Chuubo's Epic Fantasy genre and apply it to something like Forgotten Realms, you're going to be telling stories in a dramatically different way than you would if you were playing D&D, but they're still going to be Forgotten Realms D&D-type stories. Practically nothing else out there is doing games where the main plot points are going on a shopping trip with friends or sitting on the docks watching the sunset.

As much as I love the rest of the game, the Setting chapter is definitely the high point of the book, the part that is effortlessly easy to understand, even coming in cold, and which will undoubtedly provide inspiration for gaming experiences scarcely even imagined in other systems.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine - Chapters 3-8

There are are a lot of novel ideas, both big and small, being thrown at you in these six chapters and it can often feel just a little bit dizzying. The system has a lot of moving parts, and I, personally, didn't see how it all hung together until I read some examples of play and other extra-textual online sources.

The big mystery of CMWGE is "how did this happen?" Jenna Moran's prose is both engaging and articulate, and most of those extra-textual sources that cleared up my confusion - they came from the woman herself. So why is the book itself so hard to understand?

I think it boils down to something they talk about in rpg theory (yes, it exists, but no, I am not an expert) - narrative stance. At the risk of oversimplifying, narrative stance is the rubric by which a player decides how to roleplay their character. Many different stances have been proposed over the years, but for our purposes here, only two are relevant - actor stance and author stance.

In actor stance, you try to be your character, as much as possible. You make your decisions based on what the character knows. You choose your actions based on the character's motivations and traits. Your goals as a player are basically the same as your character's goals in the fiction of the game.

In author stance, you try to make your character entertaining. You can base your decisions not just on your in-character knowledge, but also on out-of-character and metagame knowledge, like the trajectory of the plot. You probably want your character to act consistently with their traits, but you also want to steer them into interesting situations. Your goals as a player can be at odds with what your character wants, because ultimately you and your friends are an audience for your character's story.

Most games are written around the assumption of a universal actor stance, but even in the most traditional of rpgs, there is some room for nuance here. Players have been making odd decisions in order to stir the pot since practically the very beginning, and even though actor stance encourages you to "do what your character would do" players have gotten around that by choosing characters who would do entertainingly self-destructive things due to their own well-established flaws.

This porous boundary between stances is important because I think it points to CMWGE's greatest weakness. I've mentioned before about how the game does remarkable things to allow players to engage with the author stance on a more complex, satisfying level and all that is still true, but only after my most recent read-through, where I had that specific idea in mind, did I notice that the bulk of the book is written as if it were assuming an actor stance.

Take, for example, the skills section. Skills in CMWGE are player-defined, and since the system is diceless, success and failure on actions are a bit more nebulous. It seems like it would work just fine, but there's an interesting wrinkle - a relatively large portion of the word count is devoted to explaining why you shouldn't use the skill system to break the game. There is, in fact, a half a page (a full column) that tells you what happens if you try to use your Cooking skill to blow up the earth.

In a sense, this is necessary because this is something you can do with an overly literal reading of the rules, but there's a part of me that feels this wouldn't be necessary if the introduction to the skill section had made it clear that CMWGE isn't the sort of game where you need to be overly solicitous of your character points. To put it in perspective: one of the preconstructs from the campaign has a skill of "Good Smile 2" and at one point in the skill section "Superior God King 4" is tossed out as a possibility.

When you look at the skill section as a whole, you can see what it's trying to do - the chart that describes the outcomes of your skill usage does so in terms of "effectiveness" and "productivity." A level 4 result will move you closer to your goals and a level 5 result will make your life better, regardless of whether you are using your good smile or god king magic. And these questions are separate almost entirely from whether the particular action "succeeds" (there's a hierarchy - all productive actions are successful, but not all successful actions are productive.)

There's definitely an underlying tension here. Making your character more powerful from an actor-stance perspective is trivial. The skills Ordinary Kid 2 and Unstoppable Ninja Assassin 2 cost the exact same amount of points. So the reward for spending more points on a skill is really an author-stance reward. The Ordinary Kid 5 is going to be consistently more effective than the Unstoppable Ninja Assassin 1. And yet the whole act of spending points, of having limited numbers of them, of needing to choose between specialist and generalist builds - it's such an actor-stance way of looking at things. The book never quite reaches the point where it openly tells you "don't sweat too hard about making a strong character, your skills actually represent your character's strategy for solving problems and the skills you choose are basically just tags for what you, the player, want your character to be doing when they're looking cool."

A lot of the book's more innovative mechanics are like that. The wounds chapter does come right out and say that the system exists because you have the final say over the ultimate fate of your character, and that your wounds basically act as a limited reserve of vetoes over changes you don't approve of. But then, they're called wounds and they look a lot like a series of health boxes.

While this ambiguity is definitely the major contributing factor for why CMWGE can be so hard to understand, I'm not sure that it isn't a bit of subtle design brilliance at the same time. It offers a bridge between the stances and sort of molds you into an author-stance player through its fundamental gameplay loop. On the other hand, I've got to be wary of slipping too deep into fanboyism here. It's just as likely that the ambiguity is due to the author being out on a limb and having an originally more traditional game morph into an author-stance workshop halfway through development.

Either way, the book up to this point has been a rollercoaster of inviting prose, frustrating lapses in reading comprehension, and breathtakingly bold ideas. The balance is more good than bad, but I am looking forward to Chapter 9, which is pure good all the way through.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine - Chapters 1 & 2

In the Douglas Adams book Life, The Universe, and Everything a ruined supercomputer creates a full-scale model of a spaceship and crashes it into an isolated planet. From the wreckage of that spaceship, the people of the planet are able to reverse-engineer the science of interstellar travel, despite having never even conceived of the existence of a universe outside their own world.

That's how Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine makes me feel. Like I have received a communication from some superior intelligence and it has revealed a whole new sphere of possibility that I had not hitherto imagined.

Which sounds like pretty over-the-top praise (and I must admit that this is one of my top three "save this from the fire" objects, should my house ever burn down), but it's not purely a compliment. Much like a coded message from a pulverized alien computer, this book can sometimes be a bit tough to decipher. It took me a couple of read-throughs and a lot of online conversation to fully realize what Chuubo's was trying to do, and despite my enthusiasm, I've never been able to pitch it successfully to my friends.

So what is this game, and why am I geeking out about it so hard? Some of it goes a bit beyond the scope of the first two chapters. Quests, Arcs, and Issues are important aspects of the formula, and I'm still a few days away from getting there. But the overview in Chapter 1 and the genres in Chapter 2 cover enough ground that I'm comfortable talking about it in general terms.

Ordinarily, when you're playing a roleplaying game, you are describing what your character does and then the GM describes the outcome and then you describe what you're doing next and that sequence of events, whatever they might be, becomes the story. CMWGE doesn't do anything especially different from that, but its mechanics are designed to make you aware of what you're doing. At any given moment, you are on the lookout for opportunities to express the campaign's themes, or demonstrate something about your character's inner life or advance a dangling side-plot because doing those things engages with the mechanical widgets on your character sheet. The net result is an rpg that posits "what if you did the story stuff on purpose."

And that's what made it such a revelation for me. It made me realize that all the stuff about plot pacing and character emotions and player engagement could be part of the game. What you're physically doing at the table doesn't have to be wholly abstracted away from what you're trying to achieve in the fiction of the game. The game rules don't have to simulate the physics of the world. They could, instead, simulate the structure of the story.  I wouldn't say that CMWGE is necessarily the best game out there, but there's no other book on my shelf that will do more to make you a better game designer.

Let's wrap up by getting concrete. What do you actually do? Well, the whole game revolves around earning XP, and much of the space on your character sheet is devoted to your character's idiosyncratic way of doing that. For example, every character has an "xp emotion." This is some exaggerated reaction that you're trying to elicit from the other players, like making them roll their eyes or audibly say "aww." And the fascinating part of this is that serves as a sort of protection for your character's niche in the story. Whereas other games might have you aiming to be "the brawny one" or "the smart one," here you're consciously aiming to be "the goofy one" or "the tragic one."

Other methods of earning xp will be detailed later, but they tend to have their own specific trigger actions that, say, remind the other players of an activity you're doing in the background (like off-handedly mentioning how you just got back from the gym) or play out your character's internal struggles (by staring soulfully off into the distance and sighing) or just demonstrate one of your character's persistent quirks (like, if you're an alien, saying "well, that's not how they do things on my planet.")

And bracketing all the character-specific ways of gaining xp are the campaign specific xp actions that any character can take, and which serve to set the pace for the game at large. For example, if you're playing an epic fantasy game, then the events of the story are going to periodically be punctuated by characters boldly declaring their intentions or succumbing to the temptations of their tragic flaw.

The fun of the game lies in seeking out (or, more accurately, arranging) opportunities to perform these xp granting actions and the game works best when players aggressively move from one action to the next. Because then, story is happening all the time and because players choose their own xp emotion and quests, that story is the one the players want to tell.

It's a remarkable accomplishment and one which I wish I was better at selling to my players, because I'm convinced that once a Chuubo's game hits its groove, it can't help but be anything but amazing.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Changeling: The Lost (2nd Edition) - Chapters 5-7 and Appendicies

One day, I really hope to play in the sort of game imagined by this book's Storytelling section. It's so intense! The book explains how to discuss boundaries before a game, what to do if someone gets too emotional, and even discusses how to use things like safewords. I've never played a game that's gotten anywhere even close to that level. I'm not sure how you get that involved.  There must be some some social convention where by players and GM agree to take a game super seriously.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't explain how to find people like that.

Then again, maybe it wouldn't be so great after all. There's a lot of talk about things like torture and sexual assault and maybe it would be better if this were just a fun, light-hearted game about faeries.

Working backwards, the setting information was pretty good. Much more useful than 1e's Miami. In its brief world tour it shows a variety of changeling courts from Hong Kong to Reykjavik. Its only significant flaw is the same one 1st edition's setting had - there's no example of a "typical" location, that uses the seasonal courts in their default configuration. I think something like that would be really useful for GMs trying to set up their own games.

Overall, the second edition of Changeling was an improvement over the first mechanically, but a lateral move creatively. It's more sure of itself and what it is, but 1st edition felt more out on a limb, more daring, despite its flaws. A proverb about roses and thorns springs to mind. I guess if I had to choose one or the other, I'd choose second edition, but honestly it doesn't feel complete without first.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Changeling: The Lost (2nd Edition Core) - Chapters 3 & 4

I was a bit skeptical about the first two setting chapters, but I think the new system definitely justifies the existence of Changeling: The Lost's second edition. As I observed with Mage: The Awakening, the new system for this edition is much more in line with what the storyteller games are trying to accomplish. And Changeling, in particular, benefits from a system where players have more narrative control.

The thing I like most about the new edition is the changes to the way Contracts work. Before, they were ranked 1 to 5 and you bought each clause in order, meaning that two changelings with the Mirror 4 Contract looked and played pretty much the same. The old system's rigid structure could even wind up saddling a character with powers that didn't fit their basic concept. In second edition, the individual powers are divided into "Common" and "Royal" clauses, and you can select them a la cart.

I also like the new mechanic by which Contracts can be modified by a character's Seeming, so that you could have something like an Ogre with the Contract that gives an enemy bad luck, but since it's an Ogre that used it, the target is also afraid of the unspecified terrors of fate. This is neat and I love it, but each Contract only has two alternate modes, leaving four unspecified. It's a lot of work to fill in the gaps, and I'm hoping that it will get patched in a supplement.

The only thing I really dislike about the new system is the new personality traits - Needle and Thread. These work a lot like the Nature and Demeanor of the old world of darkness . . . and that's it. That's the flaw. Nature and Demeanor were a nebulous personality mechanic that gave you a modest reward under circumstances that were difficult to remember and harder to judge. They almost never came up in the WoD games I played, and I doubt their counterparts are going to get much more of a workout here. Plus I find those names "Needle" and "Thread" to be a little twee.

But that was the only complaint I have about this particular section. Other than that, new changeling is almost uniformly better than old changeling. And when it's not, it's at least no worse. Like, the new Pledge system is something of a step sideways. It's much faster and easier to use, but it accomplishes that by basically just ripping out all the elements of the old Pledge system that made it feel like a secondary freeform magic system. I'm calling it a wash, but I'm sure there will be some who would be devastated by this change.

Now that I have the driest part of the book out of the way. I expect the rest to go very smoothly. I was pleased by what little setting information I got in these two chapters (the Hedge has more geography now, including a few fixed locations, like the village where giant spiders force a few terrified captive humans to LARP as normal medieval peasants in order to lure travelers to their deaths). Chapter 5 looks like it's going to expand the world of Changeling: the Dreaming beyond 1st edition's Miami, and I am greatly looking forward to it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Changeling: The Lost (2nd Edition Core) - Chapters 1 & 2

First, a quick note for people who might be clicking here from the sidebar - there is no introduction post for this book. Maybe you weren't expecting one, because this new format that I'm experimenting with paid off, and so you've grown used to me just starting in on a book right away, but maybe I'll go back to the old way instead. I haven't decided yet. But you're not missing anything. This is the beginning.

With that out of the way, let's talk about the first 85 pages of Changeling: The Lost, 2nd edition.

This isn't at all like reading Vampire: the Masquerade and Vampire: the Requiem back to back. These editions are too similar to each other, so mentally they kind of blur together. That's just a blogging error. I thought it would be easier to compare and contrast the differences if I read them close together, but mentally, I'm having trouble remembering which is which.

The main thing I noticed in second edition is the superior organization. The book wastes no time getting straight to the parts players will reference most often, with Seemings, Courts, and Kiths being in the first chapter, instead of being separated and buried in unrelated chapters, like they were in 1st edition.

I'm not sure how I feel about the changes in mechanical implementation for Kiths and Seemings. Before, you had to assign your changeling's faerie archetype from one of six super-categories called Seemings - if you were a half-man/half-wolf, you'd be a Beast, if you were more like a djinn or efreet, you'd be an Elemental, and so on. And then within each Seeming, you'd choose the Kith whose mechanical expression best matched your faerie form. So Beasts that were fleet-footed predators would be hunterhearts and those that were turned into birds would be windwings.

It was a pretty neat system. Your body was transformed by strange faerie magic to have these gross mutations, and there was a list of widgets you could play with to model them mechanically.

But even in 1st edition, some of the Kiths were weird. Like you could be an Artist. And, okay, that's what the Fae enslaved you to do in Arcadia, but, well, an artist can look like anything. It's entirely mental. There's no visual hook that helps you imagine a character. It's not like the Fairest Kith that makes you part dragon or the disgusting, seaweed-covered saltwater Ogre. It's a job. You start out as a default Wizened, and then you change the character so they're more Artist-like. What does that even mean?

And, unfortunately, it is those profession-based Kiths that largely made it to second edition. It was a good move to decouple Kith from Seeming, because there was a lot of overlap in the original Kiths (like a waterborn Elemental and a Water-Dweller Ogre), but it's weird that most of your choices are so abstract. Even after reading the description twice, I have no idea what a Chatelaine is supposed to look like.

Maybe this is on me, though. I had a notion in my head that Kiths were meant to give weight to all the subtle variations within a seeming, to make your goat-man distinct from your swan-maiden, but it's possible they serve another function in second edition. But I will admit, the old kiths helped a lot when it came to visualizing a new character.

I have no complaints about chapter 2. I said what I wanted to say about Changeling's themes in my post about 1st edition, and maybe I'd have a different opinion about 2nd edition and maybe I wouldn't, but I'm actually still too close to it to be sure.

That being said, compared to its equivalent chapter in 1st edition, chapter 2 does some interesting things. It breaks nearly every subject up into "what it was like when you were abducted" and "what is is like now that you're a changeling" and this organization is much more digestible than it was before. I wouldn't count it as an unqualified improvement over 1st edition, mainly because the repetitive structure tends to break up any building tension as you move from one subject to another, and the text as a whole feels less cloyingly oppressive than its 1st edition counterpart. Believe it or not, I consider that a slight demerit. The 1st edition text works better as the introduction to a horror game. Second edition is still good, but I feel much safer reading it.

And, of course, this is where my criticism really hits a wall. Do I feel safer reading second edition because it is, in fact, a safer text or do I feel safer reading second edition because this is mostly repeated information that I recently read in a slightly different form, and thus I don't have the same sense of anticipation and discovery? I am not discerning enough to say.

I will end on a high note, though. Second edition introduces one completely novel bit of setting that nonetheless blows the fucking roof off how I see Changeling: the Lost as a game - in the Hedge, you can encounter ghosts.

And maybe this doesn't seem like such a big deal to people who haven't been playing White Wolf games for the last 20 years, but this is huge. Normally, games in the WoD family tree have been somewhat coy about crossovers. Vampire: the Masquerade is its own game that stands alone and has no need for the rest of the World of Darkness, but it is also explicitly a setting where werewolves and mages exist, and if you just happened to want to use the other books for them . . . well, it might take a bit of fiddling, but they technically work together. The New World of Darkness made this integration smoother mechancially, but the games still had a great deal of siloing, giving their subjects a lot of background stuff to do that wouldn't even make sense in the context of the other games.

Ghosts emerging from the Hedge bursts the silo apart. In every other World of Darkness game, ghosts have their own shadow realm, accessible only by specialized magics and a complex internal politics and metaphysics. Making ghosts an organic part of the Changeling-specific setting elements just makes the whole world feel more complete and less piecemeal. Perhaps it's a dividend of not having to share a corebook with the other WoD games.

I'm really looking forward to digging into the mechanics in the coming chapters. Not thrilled to read the basic Chronicles of Darkness rules a second time, but I've got high hopes for Contracts, Pledges, and Oneiromancy after seeing the improvements to Mage: The Awakening's magic system.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Changeling: The Lost (1st Edition Core) - Reaction

Damn, the NWoD books are dense. Every one I've read so far has taken me around a week. At first, I attributed it to the busyness of the holiday season, then to the ol' depression flaring up, and while those have been factors, I think the main reason it takes me so long to read them is because they have a lot of words. I'm not about to break out the calipers, but I'm willing to bet that they use smaller font and less art than other books of similar length. Either that, or I'm just getting old and less able to endurance read than I was in my youth.

Which is to say, Changeling: The Lost (1st Edition) is a really good value for the money. One of my favorite books, and a difficult one for 2nd edition to live up to. It's hard to pin down exactly what makes it so great, but it has a consistently high level of craft and an intriguing premise.

So, of course, the first thing I'm going to talk about is its one major flaw. Changeling bills itself as "A Storytelling Game of Beautiful Madness" and that's . . . kind of . . . a bad thing to be? The bulk of the text, with the exception of certain excerpts from the Introduction and Storytelling sections, are fine, wonderful even, but I've read a few rpg sanity systems so far, and the one thing they have in common is that they are all terrible. The C:tL 1e Core benefits, as a book, from having its sanity system in the World of Darkness Core, but it still, you know, calls its mental illnesses "derangements."

In this case, though, it's not (only) about using a more sensitive modern term to describe the issue. Rather, the problem is that it centers itself on madness and then has a completely inadequate understanding of what that actually means. The text seems to use "madness" as a shorthand for "epistemological uncertainty about whether your immediate perceptions adequately map to a shared objective reality," but that's not what madness is. That's just the human condition. "Madness" is what society calls the more uncommon strategies for dealing with it.

That's not to minimize mental illness, of course, but it's a spectrum. Sometimes people grab the knife by the blade and wind up cutting themselves, but we're all trying to slice up the same thing. RPGs tend to treat madness as "you've got your normal character, but we're going to direct you to make them act like an asshole" and it's just not fair. To quote Mr Nietzsche: "Madness is rare in individuals - but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule." Putting it on a ten-point scale, with a high rating indicating correct thoughts and a low rating incorrect ones misses the point. What matters is functionality. The depressed person who thinks there is no point to life, that their future will be filled with nothing but pain and misery, and that they are bound to die alone may be seeing with absolute Clarity, but it is our delusions that get us through the day.

Besides, despite the book's claims to the contrary, I don't think madness is actually a major theme.  When I see the Fae described as frightfully whimsical creatures of incalculable power, who respond to alien urgings and whose apparent nature can totally change without warning, I don't think "whoa, crazy people." I think "this is a child's view of their parents."

Much is made of Changeling: The Lost's allegory for abuse, and that's a heavy throughline, for sure, but taking an adult and turning them into a child is abuse. There lies the horror of the game - to be rendered powerless, to be taken from your home, to not understand. It is the horror of becoming a child again, stripped of the romanticism that usually entails. Clarity is less "sanity" and more "adultness." As you sink in Clarity, you experience once more the terrors (and perhaps the wonders) of childhood, as your imagination seems real, but there is confusion, because that is also the state of Fae things in general. In the Hedge, all the horrible and beautiful things you imagine have a literal existence, and to become lost there is to dwell among them. It is only in the mortal world that the loss of Clarity is a disadvantage.

It's interesting to contrast this with Changeling: The Dreaming, which turns the dynamic inside out. The morality stat still measures the same basic thing - adultness, but in Dreaming it is called Banality and it is a thing to be avoided rather than a resource to be cultivated. In Lost, Arcadia is a place to escape from and in Dreaming it is a place to escape to, but it still represents the same thing - childhood. Even in Dreaming, it was dangerous, and even in Lost, it was beautiful, but the emphasis was different. In Dreaming, your characters are likely children or teenagers, eager to hold on to what they have before growing up takes it away. In Lost, your characters are most likely adults, trying desperately to hold onto that.

This connection is not too surprising. Despite the dark and gritty makeover/revival they've gotten in recent years, faerie stories (even, or, perhaps, especially the ugly ones) were always meant for children, and it's impossible to talk about them without making childhood your central subject, even if, as with Changeling: The Lost you seem to do it accidentally.

It does, however, make me wonder about what changed between editions. Perhaps the writers got older, had children of their own. Maybe the world itself changed, and seemed much less safe for children. Maybe it was just a new team, with new interests and obsessions. Regardless, as someone who had an unhappy childhood, who didn't discover himself until a decade after adolescence (assuming, of course, that I actually have), and who had no particular desire to go back, Lost resonates with me a lot more than its predecessor. I love the strange magic and the romance and the intrigue, but I do not want to disappear into that world. In fact, the very though fills me with a frisson of dread. And that, I think, is a good place for dark-fantasy to be.

PS - A late thought: the truest representation of madness in the game is probably the seasonal courts. Each represents a response to trauma - excess, anger, fear, and depression - taken to an unhealthy extreme. To keep the Fae away (I know I said the Fae are your parents, but they are also your trauma, and if we really want to maximize the symbolism, they are both - the trauma caused by the decisions your parents made that you still don't understand) you need a progression of all four seasons. You can't wallow in one at the expense of the others. To be healthy is to be in balance, but none of the courts act at random. They have reasons for what they do, compelling ones. It's easy to fall into the orbit of one court or the other, to embrace a strategy for coping that is not recommended, not safe. But the courts are still useful. They are not something to be pitied or shunned. They are, in their own way, beautiful.

I like that. It's nice. Much better than getting a "derangement" for "failing" a "degeneration" check.

UKSS Contribution - This one is a no-brainer. Goblin markets. Mysterious traveling bazaars, staffed by fantastic creatures, selling wonders and curses for a price not measured in coin. What's not to love?

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Changeling: The Lost (1st Edition Core) - Introduction

From the Back

You remember your home.

You remember what it was like, before They took you. The sound of your family's voices, the smell of your home, the colors of your neighborhood. Even after the blinding glories and pitiless dark waters of Faerie, you remember.

Your memories were a beacon. Without them, you would never have found your way back through the twisting maze of the Thorns, to collapse torn and exhausted on the cool earth of the world you were born in once more -- to find that your home was no longer yours, than an imposter had taken over your life, that you had been changed. Yours is beauty and grotesquerie, illusion and iron, insight and madness.

Where will you go now that you are Lost? Who will you love, who will you war against, who will you make of yourself? How will your tale end?


I've read this game before, so I have a pretty good idea of what to expect - a weird, melancholy trip through a lavish world of modern high fantasy, only slightly undercut by the New World of Darkness's tendency to short-change its power levels.

The hardest part of reading this, I expect, is going to be powering through my resentment at not being able to read 2nd edition just quite yet. However, after reading Mage: The Awakening 2nd edition and missing some crucial context from 1st, I didn't want to repeat the same mistake. It's important to see how the line developed over time.

Luckily, this is one of my favorite game systems. I wound up tracking down and buying almost every supplement for 1st edition, read them all at least twice, and backed the 2nd edition kickstarter. It's inconceivable that anything could go wrong.


Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual - Reaction

This one was cute. That's probably not the reaction they were going for, but hey, I wasn't the one who chose the art. I'm not in a place where I can post photos, so I'll just have to try and describe it in a way that doesn't make me sound like a total dick.

If you were to make a movie about a sad, but creative teenager, who made up for their lack of popularity by having a rich inner life, and you wanted to show that your main character wasn't really an artist, but they did have an active imagination, you would probably direct the professionals in your art department to create something that looked exactly like the cover of the AD&D 1st edition Monster Manual.

Which is to say, if I saw something that looked like that today, I'd assume it was a professional doing an impression of an amateur. In 1979? Maybe it's the most expensive professional TSR can afford, having no contacts in the underground comics scene and only an rpg-company's budget. It's probably at least another decade before they can afford those Frazetta-inspired watercolors that I've come to associate with "D&D art."

Aside from the art, it's serviceable. It suffers from comparison to its 2nd Edition follow up, which is probably the greatest fantasy bestiary ever printed, but it delivers what it promises - plenty of monsters to use in your campaign, from the iconic (dragons, orcs, giant spiders) to the thinly-veiled pop-culture references (don't think I didn't notice that flesh golems are just one long riff on Frankenstein) to the needlessly bizarre (so, a "Thought Eater" is basically a psychically-endowed platypus skeleton that floats around in a nearby alternate dimension and steals magic spells . . ?). In other words, it set a tone early, and D&D has stuck with it for more than 40 years. I can respect that.

The only complaint I have, and this is going to sound churlish because it's fundamental to the very concept of an rpg monster book, is that AD&D monsters are kind of . . .poorly executed. I'm not talking about anything on the fiction layer here, just their mechanical implementation.

The upside is that they've got very simple and easy to use stat blocks. But the reason these blocks are so easy to use is that they all describe basically the same encounter - whittle away at this sack of hit points while avoiding these mechanically interchangeable attacks. The only thing that varies is the numbers.

Sort of. There are also special abilities, which are usually just spells from the players handbook (or inexplicable instant-death effects, like the bite of a poisonous snake), and occasional descriptions of battle tactics, which only have teeth if the DM decides to give it to them. Of course, it's probably no worse than the opposite extreme - in a game like Exalted where every serious enemy is exactly as complicated as a fully-developed player character.

 It's a hard act to balance, and not a task I envy, but I can't ignore that in our time, this is basically a solved problem - D&D 4th Edition's encounter-balanced monsters are pretty much the gold standard for rpg enemy design. Here, in AD&D world, when creatures get powers at all, they're pretty much on a daily recharge, and I can't help wondering - who is this for? Who is tracking this monster's entire day?

You know what, though, that complaint is basically nothing. Most rpg monsters are poorly executed. These were no worse than average and better than some. So overall, I'd have to call the AD&D Monster Manual a good book. Not just on the curve for older games, but in general. There's a lot to discover in its pages, and it is only slightly annoying that it mentions an Ogre Magi from Japan, a Rakshasa from India, and a Portuguese Man of War.

UKSS Contribution: This is kind of a target-rich environment here. The thing where you could subdue Dragons was included here, so that could almost carry over, but I figure a new book merits a new bit of canon.

I'm going to go with the Giant Lynx. There are a lot of giant versions of normal animals in this book, but only the Lynx could speak the common tongue and only the Lynx got a cheesy little comic where cute, cartoon adventurers expressed their shock and disbelief at this fact.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual - Introduction

From the Back

This book provides a complete alphabetical list of all the "monsters" encountered in the various works which comprise the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game system. It is an invaluable resource to players and dungeon masters alike.


Ooh, back cover contradicts the DMG, do I smell trouble? No, obviously not. I'm pretty sure all that stuff about the necessity of keeping information secret from the players was mostly just posturing. I'm sure, even in the 70s, groups rotated DMs.

There's no real way this book can go wrong. It's going to be goofy D&D monsters, presented in those minimalist old-style statblocks. Worst thing I'll be able to say about it is that my brain refused to process the numbers and thus most of the book was unintelligible. But that's fine. I'm not here to run detailed analysis on each of these games, judging their numbers against an abstract notion of balance. I'm just collecting impressions. And I expect my impression of this book to be favorable.

I am hoping to be shocked by something super weird, though.


Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide - Reaction

I think this book may be a genuine Classic. I don't necessarily mean that as an unalloyed compliment. And I don't necessarily don't mean it as a compliment. I think the book is beyond all that, beyond our petty judgements of good or bad, right or wrong. It belongs to history now, and it is only in history that it may be judged.

It's just funny. Many times I would read a bit of the Dungeon Masters Guide and I'd be stunned to find the seed of about a half-dozen flame wars I've had over the years. It's all there, right from the beginning. That's what makes it a Classic (with a capital C). It is so foundational to the hobby that even its flaws would describe whole branches of gaming's grand taxonomy.

It used to be a pet peeve of mine when amateur games (or even the occasional older professional one) would go out of their way to point out how they weren't like D&D, but I get it now. I respect Gary Gygax. I'm extremely grateful for his contributions to our shared hobby. But there were times in this book when he would talk about the nature and limits of the game, or about what made for a good roleplaying experience, and he'd be flat-out wrong.

And I don't mean this as a dig at Gygaxian-style dungeons crawls. This isn't a case where he was presenting a set of guidelines to create a particular Gary Gygax type of fun and I'm dinging him because I have a different set of preferences. After reading this book, I can, indeed, see the appeal in doing things his way.

But, he had an unfortunate tendency to not see himself inside the context of the hobby as a whole, and instead to declaim from on high as the ultimate roleplaying authority and there's no kind way to put this, but it was just obnoxious. I don't know exactly how many times it happened, because I didn't bother to keep count, but there would be whole paragraphs where he would shoot down some particular idea as being a surefire disaster that would inevitably ruin any game, and I'd know for a fact that some later game did exactly that and was positively great. But he always sounded so sure of himself, so willing to condescend to any who might disagree. There were times when I simply had to set down the book and shout "Oh, come on!" to the ether.

I'll give you an example, so you don't think that I'm pulling such a harsh criticism entirely out of my ass. Consider the following passage:

Enumeration of the limits and drawbacks which are attendant upon the monster character will always be sufficient to steer the intelligent player away from the monster approach, for in most cases it was only thought of as a likely manner of game domination. The truly experimental-type player might be allowed to play such a monster character for a time so as to satisfy curiosity, and it can then be moved to non-player status and still be an interesting part of the campaign - and the player is most likely to desire to drop the monster character once he or she has examined its potential and played that role for a time. The less intelligent players who demand to play monster characters regardless of obvious consequences will soon remove themselves from play in any event, for their own ineptness will serve to have players or monsters or traps finish them off.

He is just flat-out calling players who want to play monsters stupid. What the hell, man?! You realize that your definition of "monster" is just "any living thing that shows up in an encounter, including stuff like benign human merchants," right? And that there are tons of monsters that are just fun classical fantasy creatures, like centaurs, fairies, goblins, and snakemen? And that, despite what you said earlier about fantasy needing limits to be relatable, your selection of PC races was completely arbitrary? Or that there would be a dozen rpgs on my shelf alone that prove you wrong, some even produced by TSR.

I don't want to get too far into it. It was aggravating, but now its over. Lets move on to the bones of the book - the actual AD&D system . . .

Play BECM. Play 5th Edition. Play any number of OSR games. Google "fantasy heartbreaker" and play the one that is damned with the faintest praise. There are many games out there that try to capture the AD&D experience, and almost without exception, they wind up out-AD&Ding AD&D itself.

Look, I don't mean to be cruel here. I don't want to underplay the AD&D rulebooks as an accomplishment . . . but they needed an editor. They needed someone who didn't know the rules to go over the first draft and try to learn the rules from the manuscript. The rules for initiative (to just choose an example, avoiding the low-hanging fruit of the grappling rules) are two paragraphs (and these are full-throated Gary Gygax paragraphs, mind) long when they should be two sentences, and they still manage to be completely misleading - the party with the higher roll is said to "possess the initiative," but every subsequent example shows the party who rolled lowest with the advantage.

There are the bones of a good game here. But that game is D&D Basic.

Which isn't to say the whole book is bad. There are moments of inspiration. The last third of the main text (before the Appendices) is devoted to magic items, and those are pretty decent. Hell, more than decent - memorable, fun, occasionally iconic, and only sometimes completely baffling. I'm pretty sure it's reprinted almost word-for-word in AD&D 2nd edition, and has heavily inspired similar sections in both 3rd and 5th edition. And for good reason. It's one of the all-time greats.

Attempting to sum up my feelings for this book, I'm left with a deep conflict I don't really know how to resolve. To be blunt, I didn't like it. But I like many of the things that came out of it. I've got a ton of AD&D 2nd Edition books that are among my most prized possessions. And that makes me feel like I should like it. For the sake of the things I love, I should make peace with their immediate ancestor.

But that's not my truth. In the end, I simply did not enjoy myself while reading this book. I saw the shadows of things I would eventually come to enjoy, but they were not enough.

UKSS Contribution - This one is a bit subtle and meta, but I kind of like magic wands. Not necessarily as they are implemented mechanically - as spell batteries with limited charges - but as they are presented in the flavor text - as instruments for working a particular type of magic. I like the idea of having, say, a Wand of Illumination, which can control and manipulate light in various ways, and having that as the basis for a mage's magical discipline. To be a mage, then, is to learn to control a particular wand, with its own particular legend.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide - Introduction

From the Back

Dungeon Masters everywhere, rejoice! Too long have you had to suffer along with crucial charts and tables spread through many works. Too long have you had to use makeshift references trying to solve the problem. You now have a complete compilation of the most valuable material for your refereeing. The Dungeon Masters Guide. Herein you will find:

Combat Matrices
Encounter Tables
Monster Attacks Alphabetically Listed
Treasure and Magic Tables and Descriptions
Gem Values By Type
Random Wilderness Terrain Generation
Suggestions on Gamemastering

And a whole lot more. It is an absolute must for every Dungeon Master!


Surprising to see the term "game master" used so early. Not sure what the rpg scene in the late 70s was like, but it must have mutated just a little bit by this point. Whether AD&D learned anything from that remains to be seen.

Honestly, I'm not looking forward to this. I have a feeling that it's going to be dry and technical, but also weirdly specific about the "right" way to play the game. Still, it will be another core book behind me. One closer to being able to only read flavorful supplements and setting books.


Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook - Reaction

I got my start in roleplaying with AD&D 2nd Edition. I can't say that I read those books especially closely (mainly because I doubt 14-year-old me read anything closely by my current standards), but I did read them repeatedly. So my experience of reading AD&D is odd - it's like looking at something familiar in a funhouse mirror. Everything's a bit off. A bit shabbier, less polished, but still recognizably the same.

I can't say that I like the AD&D Players Handbook. It's just filled with these inconsistencies and questionable choices. Like spell ranges being measured in inches, to represent space on a tabletop battle-mat, but then the inches themselves having contextual translations based on the conditions of the game. If your characters are outdoors 1 inch equals 10 yards. If they're indoors 1 inch equals 10 feet. But that's only for spell ranges. Areas of effect use the inch = 10 feet translation regardless of where the spells were cast. It's needlessly confusing, even before you count in the fact that sometimes the text slips up and uses true measurements in the descriptions. Like, seriously, what is "Darkness 15' Radius" even supposed to mean?

It feels weird to say this, but BECM D&D was a more sophisticated and polished game. Perhaps not surprising, given its later release, but still, I thought the "advanced" in the title signaled something. There is some added complexity, but I'm not sure it adds all that much. High attribute levels have a larger variety of effects, but in practice a simple modifier does almost everything that you'd want with much less fuss. And decoupling race and class theoretically offers more diverse character options, but in practice only the halfling thief was better than its BECM counterpart.

I was interested to see what was cut from AD&D 2nd edition - a couple of spells, the half-orc race, and the assassin class. I'm guessing they wanted to get rid of the evil options as the game became more popular. I'd bemoan the loss of prime anti-hero material, but honestly, AD&D doesn't do well with the concept. Alignments are very non-porous. Good is good and evil is evil. There's very little room for nuance, like a character who is kind towards his friends, but ruthless towards his enemies, or someone who is generally good, but pragmatic enough to use poison. The game seems to work as well as it does because its basic mode of play is utterly mercenary - go into trap-ridden underground chambers and steal treasure, possibly fighting monsters along the way, but ideally avoiding them if possible. It's all about the loot and scoot. And in such an endeavor, good and evil can work side-by-side.

Ultimately, this book is highly flawed and I don't think it has enough of an upside to overcome those flaws. Dungeons and Dragons, taken as a whole, with all of its myriad expansions and spinoffs, is fertile enough with brilliant ideas that this book is worth it for the foundation it provides, but it cannot stand alone. Hell, even to the extent that you might like old-school D&D, this book can't stand alone. It lacks all of the basic rules for combat and exploration and treasures. Those will be in the Dungeon Master's Guide, which apparently wasn't yet released at the time. It's odd to think that there was a period of time where Dungeons and Dragons was literally unplayable, but I guess it was backwards compatible. The players could work from the advanced book while the DM used the original book, and apparently that was functional, but in retrospect it could potentially be a trap for people looking to get back into old-school roleplaying.

UKSS Contribution: This game does not have the same out-of-control weirdness as BECM D&D, but that may be because it doesn't focus on setting elements. Most of its unique character comes from its spell list (roughly half the book, grr). The most interesting thing is the Clone spell. The mage creates a duplicate of the target with all of its memories and abilities, but the clone and the original cannot abide the existence of the other, potentially going insane if they persist too long.

Dungeons and Dragons resolutely avoids allowing its magic to greatly affect the setting, but I think it would be fun to explore the implications of this. Maybe tone down the forced insanity (AD&D, for all its "rulings not rules" philosophy, doesn't shy away of enforcing genre cliches in its spell descriptions) but play up the paranoia, existential angst, and transhuman decadence that would inevitably result from this power being in the hands of the rich and well-connected.