Monday, April 15, 2019

Exalted, 3rd Edition Core - Chapters 1 & 2

Thank goodness, I was able to get the best part of the book out of the way quickly. I'm now one step closer to getting to read the 200 page charms chapter.

Okay, all sarcasm aside, there's very little out there that would be able to convincingly follow an Exalted setting chapter, and 3rd edition's was especially good, even by the high standards previously set by the line.

But I suppose I should disclose my biases here. I am something of an Exalted superfan. Not only do I have all the books (including the tie-in novels, the two board games, and the art book), but I've done extensive homebrewing over the years. I personally rewrote the second edition core book, came up with a complete alternate charmset for the Sidereals, and have created more than a dozen custom martial arts and evocation trees. I have opinions about Exalted.

I'm reluctant to admit this (because it really is earnestly close to my heart), but my fondest dream, as a writer, would be to be in charge of an entire edition of Exalted. I've taken no steps to pursue this goal, because I'm certain that I would be bad at every part of the job that wasn't "be the ultimate arbiter of what goes in the game," but I do look forward to the time (hopefully far in the future), when the licence has lain fallow and the fandom is in chaos, and I can finally write the perfect game for the, like, 8 people who have consistently landed on my side of the innumerable faction-splits the community has endured over the years.

Hopefully, that provides some illuminating context for my upcoming posts about the game. Exalted is something I profoundly love, but with which I also have a long experience in feeling moderately disappointed by its flaws.

With that out of the way, let's break this thing down bit by bit.

The opening fiction was great, in that inimitable way that Jenna Moran has of making things that are awesome and epic, but also just a little bit offbeat. It's the straightforward story of a Solar Exalted getting cornered by the Wyld Hunt, but there's a digression as the principals discuss the setting's regional cuisine and it ends in this ambiguous way that could be a catastrophe or could be the prelude to an unlooked for grace.

The introduction is the best of all the Exalted cores, but mostly by default. First and Second edition both had serious problems with their presentations. Third gets the job done and doesn't embarrass itself.

Chapter one, I have quibbles with. I'm not sure I should go into it, though. Yes, the purpose of this blog is for me to write down all the thoughts I have upon reading these books, but most of those thoughts would be me getting my digs in about minor doctrinal matters that would be confusing and alienating for readers who hadn't spent the last 15 years getting into Exalted flame wars and infuriating and alienating for those readers who had. If you're really curious, go onto rpg.net and start a thread titled "Should Patrons Choose Their Exalted?" I'd be bound to sniff it out sooner or later.

(All of that was my long-winded way of saying "Chapter One was good.")

Chapter Two, however, was better than good. It was probably the best setting material since 1st edition's Scavenger Sons. There are things I take issue with, of course. For example, the Realm has always been presented as the main protagonist on the stage of history, which can come across as imperial-apologist even when the text itself is critical, and that's not a flaw that has been corrected here. Behemoths are shoved into the back of the chapter under their own separate heading. Technically, it's an improvement because they'd been previously relegated to supplements, but they are such a fertile part of the setting that you could get a lot of mileage out of allowing them to inform the chapter as a whole.

And I'm doing it again, sorry.

Back to what makes the setting chapter great. The thing to know about Exalted third edition is that it came after Exalted 2nd edition. And by this I am not simply making a fatuous point about 3 being one more than 2. Rather, Exalted 2nd edition had a certain . . . energy about it.

 I think history, in the long run, is going to be kind to Exalted 2nd Edition's setting choices, but if you were there towards the end, you know it was starting to feel moribund in some undefinable way. It was audacious and interesting in a way you'd never find anywhere else (check out the brick-making passage in Oadenol's Codex and I dare you to not get immediately carried away by the science-fantasy possibilities), but the very things that made 2nd edition unique also made Creation feel like a "solved" setting.

The Setting chapter in the third edition core manages the remarkable feat of "unsolving" Creation. It's no one thing in particular, it's just a combination of little factors. The new locations help. As do the occasional hints that they have weird and irreplicable magic. Also relevant is how no one location overstays its welcome. Almost every place described leaves you wanting more.

It's a very satisfying start to a new edition, which makes it all the more tragic that it's been close to 3 years since the release of the core and we still haven't had a significant follow-up to the new setting material. In a way, it's a testament to how compelling the new stuff is that I'm feeling so frustrated right now, but . . . I don't like feeling frustrated? ::Shrug:: What will be will be.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Guide to the Sabbat

Oh my, was this book a miserable slog. Unlike Guide to the Camarilla, it had a reason to exist, but unfortunately that reason was the perfect excuse for 90s White Wolf to indulge in all of its own worst instincts.

There's a point, where the subject matter is a discussion of how to present the Sabbat's violent atrocities in the context of the game, and by way of example, the book presents a graphic description of a violent rape. Then, immediately after, this paragraph:

Okay, well that wasn't too graphic, was it? Now, let's take show how can take the same scene and the same action and slap the troupe in the face with the imagery.

And true to its word, the Guide to the Sabbat repeats the rape scene, but with even less sensitivity and discretion.

I was pretty tired of the book by that point, but afterwards, it became a pure battle of wills to complete.

Depicting something isn't the same thing as endorsing it, and I'm sure that White Wolf was no more in favor of (redacted) (seriously, those examples were super gross) than they were of murdering people and bathing in their blood to celebrate a promotion. But I'm honestly not sure what point they were aiming at.

Camarilla vampires are your supernatural romance vampires. They stand around in penthouses, swirling blood in a snifter, staring moodily out the window, contemplating how they are monsters who are incapable of love. In your various fanfictions, you can replace them with billionaires with very little loss of coherence.

Sabbat vampires are your action-horror vampires. They're the sort that sleep 20-to-a-single-boarded-up-church and inspire heroes to improvise crosses out of old newspapers as they run howling through the streets and the only one who has a speaking part has an ironically high-pitched voice and says something like "ollie-ollie-oxen-free." In fanfiction, you can replace them with minorities, if you're a racist who wants to be really on the nose.

In standard Vampire: the Masquerade, the Sabbat has a clearly defined narrative role as vampires who have given up on the temptations of feigned humanity. They're not out there trying to run a business. Instead, they roll into town like Halloween monsters and threaten your PCs while they're trying to run a business. All vampires, by their very nature, are evil, but the Sabbat are evil and bad.

As a conflict, it works. Your tormented anti-hero who agonizes about every drop of blood he takes can look at them and see a mirror of everything he loathes about himself, your cynical villain protagonist can be shocked to learn there are lines even she won't cross, and your completely jaded mastermind can be put out by the inconvenience.

You could get a lot of mileage out of a Storyteller book that focused on the Sabbat as antagonists, giving tips on how to present them (oh, fuck, White Wolf, not like that, what the hell is wrong with you?!), how to build a scenario or a campaign that featured them prominently, how to handle the social issues at the table (build a time machine and plagiarize from Urban Shadows, because seriously, 90s White Wolf did not have a handle on this, at all).

Guide to the Sabbat, however, decided to go another way with it, centering the book around playing the Sabbat as protagonists. They did not quite succeed at that goal. What they needed to do was come up with an answer for the question "why are you hanging around in abandoned warehouses with, like, 20 other guys when you could be standing in a skyscraper saying things like 'exquisite?'" that's not "because you're a disgusting sadist and Van Helsing should have dusted you years ago."

Ultimately, they went with the only possible explanation - religious fanaticism and nasty blood magic rituals. So, okay, that's fair enough. That's some good villain texture. The Sabbat is one big, slimy ball of unrepentant moral nihilism, but they try to hide that from themselves by pantomiming a religion of moral nihilism.

Where the book goes wrong is when it tries to explore that in a player-facing form of personal psychology. Or, in other words, Paths of Enlightenment are bullshit.

Timeout for a Vampire: the Masquerade rules primer. In the game, you are constantly worried about becoming a monster, and how your terrible deeds are putting you on the slippery slope towards damnation. This is represented by a stat called "Humanity." Every time you do something shitty (and this can be anything from "having an unkind thought" to "serial killer style murder and sadism") you check it against the hierarchy of sins, a ranked list of awful deeds, each associated wit a particular humanity level. If the evil deed is worse than those associated with your current Humanity, you have to check for Humanity loss. If your Humanity is low enough that the deed is less shitty than those at your current position on the hierarchy of sins, then you don't have to do squat - you no longer care about that sort of thing. Eventually, if you commit too many depraved acts, you will drop to Humanity 0 and you will become a mindless, ravening beast.

A Path of Enlightenment is a philosophy that replaces your character's Humanity, substituting a new hierarchy of sins. Whereas the lowest level of Humanity might be "Torture and Extreme Cruelty," the warrior-based Path of Honorable Accord bottoms out at "Breaking Your Word."

The problem with this is that Humanity isn't supposed to be a philosophy, it's supposed to be the game's thesis about what it means to be a functional person. The reason you fall to the Beast when you hurt and kill people is that you loose track of the value of people, and thus of the value of the person-like qualities within yourself. And when those are gone, all that's left is the hunt.

By and large, the Paths of Enlightenment don't contradict that. You follow the Path of Lilith and at rank 2 you get dinged for failing to inflict suffering on someone, but there's nothing there that prevents you from completely objectifying everyone you meet. The Paths can offer a philosophical justification for maintaining low Humanity, but they don't convincingly replace it.

The Sabbat would have been much better served if they'd just owned being low-Humanity assholes. It would have resulted in fewer Sabbat elders, due to rampant monsterfication, but even that fits in with the lore. They could have been sincere about "all vampires being free and equal" instead of hypocritical about it.

Guide to the Sabbat's saving grace is actually Vampire: the Masquerade's overall mushy genre. It's not just a game of personal horror. It's not just a game of supernatural politics and intrigue. It's also a weird sort of pre-apocalyptic, occult conspiracy-driven urban fantasy. There are ancient, godlike vampires who pull the strings behind the setting's various factions and whatever else the Sabbat is, it's also militantly opposed to the Antediluvian vampires.

Because of this, the book is front-loaded with a bunch of High White Wolf folderol. What is a Kiasyd even? They are faerie vampires that glow blue in darkness? Their main thing is that they love to read, and for that reason they are not recommended as player characters? And they're in the book that's otherwise devoted to playing From Dusk Till Dawn-style vampires? Pure bafflement, except in the sense that nothing ever vanishes from White Wolf's canon, it's just gradually metaplotted into obscurity.

Overall, if I had to do it over again, I'd give this book a miss. It has some useful elements. And some offensive elements. But mostly, I've just outgrown the subject matter. Despite the book's use of "mature content" as a euphemism for tasteless gore, abuse, and horror, it's mostly a juvenile exploration of its own underlying themes. It could work for an edgy 90s kid (except that one part, which, for fuck's sake, why), but I'd like to think that now, on the cusp of the 2020s, we have no more need for shock for the sake of shock.

UKSS Contribution  - I'm going to go really abstract here and say "vampire eschatology." The idea that vampire religion anticipates an imminent (at least by their immortal standards) crisis that will lead to the end of the world. Not sure what form it will take, but it will drive how Ukss's vampires view their place in the universe.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Scion Companion - Chapter 6

This is it. This is the post that's going to ruin me. I will never be in the Senate now. Many years from now, my primary opponent is going to dig up this post, reblog it on social media, and that will be the end of my campaign. Seems fitting, really, seeing as how this chapter of the Scion Companion is a monument to human folly.

I should probably sort my concerns from least to most serious. Some of this chapter is incredibly silly and some of it touches on the darkest recesses of the human soul. It would be a mistake to juxtapose those too starkly.

Firstly - the mass combat system doesn't work. It didn't work in Exalted, 2nd Edition, and it is even more out of place here. We already know the outcome of the war. If the characters are going to change it (but, for fuck's sake, why would they - maybe in Scion's reality, the allies lose without divine help) then it's not going to be from physically confronting the bulk of the enemy's troops on the battlefield, it will be by securing some MacGuffin relic or assassinating Loki or something like that.

Next up is the frankly bizarre choice to conflate mascots with gods. I suppose if you're going to put the Norse, the Greek, and the Japanese gods on the Axis side (and more on that later), then the Allies' divine help starts to look a little thin on the ground. Especially since the Celestial Bureaucracy was pretty much a no-show (from what I understand, each chapter of this book was originally published separately, so maybe it was written without the assumption that players would have access to that material). But it feels weird to compare propaganda with well-documented origins like Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam to ancient gods like Thor and Apollo.

Maybe I've been reading these myths all wrong. Maybe the old gods really got their start as nothing more dignified than nationalist iconography in service to the fleeting reign of a petty king. And maybe the reason they've endured is nothing more grandiose than generations of storytellers deciding their exploits made for enthralling fiction. And maybe, by that standard, John Henry, the steel-driving man will prove to be as immortal as any of them. Nevertheless, it still feels weird.

This could be what it's like to experience cultural appropriation (you knew it was coming) from the other side. Obviously, the scion writers didn't really appropriate American culture, being Americans themselves (I assume), but given the direction my thoughts are turning, I think it might be a fair simulation.

The thought, "maybe you're so good at gardening because your mom fucked Johnny Appleseed" is funny to me. Because that's a real thing that can literally happen in this alternate setting, it's been flitting through my head intermittently for the last 10 hours. It never fails to get a chuckle.

Then I remember that Johnny Appleseed was a real guy. His real name was John Chapman and he really died in 1845. He was a bit of an eccentric and followed a pretty fringe branch of Christianity, but by all accounts he led a fairly blameless life and would not entirely approve of the implication that he was wandering around the pagan afterlife fathering illegitimate children.

So how should I feel about this? There are some characters from history or fiction where adding a coda "and he continued to fuck for a hundred years after his death" would seem a fitting tribute. And there are some where it would seem like a grave insult.

I guess, if I search my heart, I'm not offended. Johnny Appleseed was not someone who was sacred to me. Just a cute little story I learned in grade school as part of a fun little festival where we put on skits and ate a dozen different treats made from apples. However, his use here feels wrong. Not in the sense of moral wrongness (though if someone had that opinion, I would not think it unreasonable) but in the sense of factual wrongness. The pieces don't fit. Using this character in this way betrays an incomplete understanding.

If you were to add a sort of imperialist-colonialist smugness on top of that, as so often happens when Americans appropriate indigenous cultures, I can see how that could come off as down right unbearable.

Despite all that, the Yankee and Allied pantheons might almost work, if you dial it up all the way to High Pulp, bordering on camp. "Mweh, heh, heh. I am the daughter of Madame Guillotine here to finish the French Revolution by severing your Nazi neck! Don't bother calling for help. My friends Robin Hood Jr and Pauline Bunyan have already taken care of your reinforcements!" But like I said in my previous post - it's a fine line to walk. There's a lot of darkness in WW2 that's easy to trivialize, and even if you manage to keep it both fun and respectful, you still run the risk of whitewashing the Allies.

And here is where I lose all hope of a future political career. I'm going to talk about a subject that could easily veer into Nazi apologism, but I hope to head this off by being explicit up front. The right side won WW2, and while many of my countrymen are overly glib about the excesses of the Allied bombing campaign, it is faintly ridiculous of us, sitting 70 years after the fact, to second-guess the decisions made in what must have seemed at the time to be an apocalyptic conflict. It's impossible for us to know, without repeating the whole thing all over again, what the minimum amount of force to subdue the Axis really was.

However (sigh) it is irresponsible to talk about the Allied powers without acknowledging that they were racist as fuck. Britain was sitting atop a global empire that floated atop the blood of centuries. France's colonial adventures were scarcely less terrible, and in less than a generation French colonial misrule would kill millions in Vietnam. The Soviet Union had, even by this point, devolved from a beacon to the workers of the world into a brutal totalitarian state that pursued only a thinly-veiled mission of Russian imperial domination over the Slavs. And the United States . . .

Well, it is one of the bitterest historical ironies that America fought Hitler with a segregated army.

Every one of the Allied countries had home-grown nationalist movements that bordered on Fascism. It is probably only a historical accident that Nazism first took root in Germany. If you went back in time and cured Hitler's mom's cancer and then later pulled some strings to get him into art school, it is entirely possible that in this alternate timeline the Business Plot succeeds or the British fascists become the leaders of the movement, rather than the followers. Or that WW2 is sparked by Soviet aggression into Poland.

I don't want to be overly cynical here. And I especially don't want to give the idea that the Allies were no better than the Axis. But you could just as easily say that the Allies became anti-fascist because they opposed Germany as you could that they opposed Germany because they were anti-fascist. Broader prejudices - against Jews, against the Roma, against gays - almost certainly exacerbated the damage done by Nazi atrocities and led to many of the victims being turned away from help that would have saved their lives. And that's to say nothing of the willing collaborators the Nazis found nearly everywhere they went.

The main lesson to take away from WW2 was that it could happen here. Hitler was not an extraordinary man. He did not wield Odin's spear, Gungnir. He was just a shitty politician who spoke to the garden-variety prejudices of salt-of-the-earth folks and proved that there were monsters inside them all along.

Truthfully, though, the only reason I even bring it up is because here in the year 2019, in the countries formerly known as the Allies, the lesson seems to be wearing off.

The Scion Companion is mostly silent on these issues. American racism is brought up, because there's no way around it when you have John Henry and Bre'er Rabbit in the Yankee pantheon. It mostly comes in the description of Sgt Jonathon Steele. He's got a very cool background, fighting the KKK, but the spirit of John Henry comes to him to convince him to join the Marines "by arguing their fight would never end if people couldn't see that America's so-called second class citizens were ready to make a first class contribution." Which somehow manages to be both inspirational and shitty.

But that brings us right to the heart of the ethical issue. To what degree is it appropriate to gloss over the shortcomings of the Allies in order to make a clear and vigorous anti-Nazi statement?

Because you can present World War Two as a straightforward heroic narrative, with the Axis little better than orcs. Germany  and Japan brought that upon themselves. Like they said at Nuremberg: "To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

I don't think it's wrong to present WW2 in this way. In fact, if it helps cement the idea that Nazis = Villans into the public consciousness, it's actually a positive good. It's just that, in America at least, it's pretty self-regarding. There's just something the tinsiest bit suspect about calling yourself a hero, especially if that heroism is tied to an institution, such as the US military, that you might be tempted to use in a dangerously thoughtless manner.

The other danger is the one this particular supplement fell afoul of - if you make WW2 a black and white conflict, then whoever you put on the side of the Nazis is utterly irredeemable. Working alongside the SS immediately flings you from "antagonist," right past "villain" and straight into "demonic." Yet, bizarrely, Scion decided that was a good role for the Norse Gods.

The Greek gods get off a little easier, because Mussolini wasn't entirely out of line with the autocrats and despots traditionally associated with the pantheon. He was bad, but categorically worse than Sparta? Worse than the Roman Empire? That's for a better historian to say. Still, if you're playing a Scion of Ares, you have to have at least made your peace with the fact that papa supported bloody-handed tyrants. (Although, I have to point out that this chapter's conceit of Rome = Fascist Italy = Dodekatheon is a little thin, considering that Greece was invaded and occupied by the Nazis during the war).

The Norse gods are a bit trickier, because they were the gods of the vikings and the vikings were awful. So the question of "would the vikings and the old Germanic pagans have had any problem with what the Nazis were doing?" is a tough one to answer. Conquering people and taking their shit, and even committing brutal, unforgivable war crimes in the process? They'd probably be okay with that. Industrialized death camps? I don't feel comfortable giving an answer either way.

The basic setup tracks historically, though. Nazi occultism invoked the Germanic deities, which were largely aliases for the Norse deities, and so, in Scion's backstory, Nazi occultism worked instead of being the deluded preening of a drug-addled officer class. The Nazis were right. They really did have the support of Donner and Wotan and Fricka.

Yet despite Nazi occultism largely being confined to the upper ranks, the Norse Gods were apparently a spiritual version of the "clean wehrmacht." Gosh darnit, they were just running a decent, honorable invasion of the other Overworld Realms while their mortal counterparts were doing whatever it is they were doing down on Earth. They didn't notice anything hinky going on in Poland, nosiree. Heimdall's sight couldn't make out the smokestacks, and Odin's insight never noticed anybody missing, and Loki's cunning never penetrated the lies of the official story. It was all completely above board and the Aesir were horrified when they found out the truth.

Let's take a break and talk about the Japanese gods for a second. I haven't forgotten them. I have just had so much else to say that I've not yet fit them in. Hoo boy, does this chapter let the Japanese off light. It does describe the Japanese war effort as "unpleasant," but that is seriously as harsh as it ever gets. No mention at all of the numerous atrocities committed in the name of Japanese imperialism. In fact, it kind of comes off as imperial-apologist, framing the war as "spreading prosperity" and using euphemisms like "purity of culture." It's gross, and I don't like it.

But the treatment of the Holocaust is the worst. It is inconceivable that the Aesir did not know about it, and yet the text asks us to think of the entire Norse pantheon as a bunch of hapless Colonel Klinks. Why, Hel herself, she of the endless freezing underworld where the inglorious dead are tormented with poison and hunger, when she finds out one of her children was a warden at a concentration camp, she physically rips him apart. No SS in Valhalla, that's for sure.

And I guess this performance of contrition is supposed to be exculpatory. The Aesir worked with Hitler. They gave him spiritual blessings, possession of mighty magical weapons, including Odin's own spear, and fought a shadow war in heaven on his behalf. But they only found out about the Holocaust after the war, and they were very unhappy about it, so it's okay that they are a player-character faction in the modern day.

Grr. The reason we can get along with modern-day Germany, and consider them a free and open society is because there were trials. All the Nazi leaders were removed from power and sentenced to death. As much as they could, the victors of WW2 went out of their way to root out anyone who had anything to do with Germany's atrocities. Time took care of the rest. We can regard Germany as different, because the people are different. It has been purified by the rite of generational succession (well, that and reparations).

Except that there is a whole class of high-ranking Nazi officers that completely escaped punishment and are still alive today. And, in fact, will be for decades or centuries to come. Yikes.

Maybe that's something that you could build a plot around. A scion of Odin sacrifices and eye for wisdom, just like his father, and in the process learns of the Aesir's role in Nazi Germany's rise to power, and then decides to trigger the twilight of the gods as their justly-deserved punishment for crimes long concealed.

But the worst part of Scion's treatment of the Holocaust is how coy it is about its unbelievable horror. That's not really something I want in my rpgs. It's not even something I need in my rpgs. And if Scion were a gritty simulation of small unit combat, or a subtle game of intrigue and espionage, or even a pulp adventure with only borderline-superhuman masked heroes, then we probably wouldn't be having this conversation.

But Scion is a game where people's religious beliefs have a real, tangible effect on the material world. You could literally bump into Dionysus in a trendy LA hotspot, hook up with him, and then nine months later find yourself caring for an honest-to-goodness baby godling.

Part of the reason the Yankee and Allied pantheons stand out as being so weird is that America, Britain, and France already have a religion, one that is conspicuous in its absence (aside from some mentions of the "shield of Joan of Arc," and who knows where that came from). And, like all times that Europe is talked about without mentioning Christianity, it comes across as shallow at best and incoherent at worst. But I feel like, even more than regular Scion, Christianity is MIA because it would raise an awkward question:

If the gods actively intervene in the material world, where the fuck is the God of Israel?

And if you are not prepared to answer that question, then what the fuck are you doing writing a game about the gods intervening in WW2?

Scion Companion - Chapters 1-5

Oh, I thought I was going to be so clever and efficient doing this book all in one post. "It's just a grab-bag of miscellaneous stuff that didn't really have a place anywhere else in the Scion line. I'm going to wind up repeating my boilerplate Scion critique and it's going to be super dull and repetitive."

Then I got to the last chapter. The one about setting a Scion game in WW2. I could write volumes about that chapter. I could start a whole new blog where I just broke it down page by page. It's so weird, but also kind of offensive, and maybe a little bit awesome, but only if you were the kind of roleplaying virtuoso that could balance on the hair-thin wire over the massive yawning chasm of awful that threatens to swallow the whole thing without the slightest warning. I wish "Demigods of WW2" was its own distinct gameline with a hundred supplements so I could buy them one by one and hate them all.

So I guess I should get the rest of the book out of the way first.

Chapter one is about the Irish pantheon. These guys keep showing up in rpg books and I never really got my head around them. Far be it from me to sit at my comfortable, 21st century desk and lecture the ghost of an Irish pagan about the benefits of branding, but for all the times I've read about them, I still couldn't pick 3/4ths of them out of a lineup. I have a feeling this is a personal failing, though. If I actually bothered to read the original literature instead of receiving it second-hand, I'd probably feel more of a connection to the material.

Chapter two is just mechanical odds and ends. An advanced character creation process that allows you to directly create God and Demigod characters, but forces you to do it wrong. More Knacks and Boons, which are fine as far as they go, but share the game's main weakness of forgetting that anyone capable of throwing around a level 10 boon is more or less a peer to the powers that created the universe. If Scion were good, this would be my favorite chapter, but it's not so it isn't.

Chapter three is about Chinese mythology, and it's pretty great. I'm not in love with the "Chinese" font that they use for section headings, but at least White Wolf has finally grown out of its "mysterious east" phase. The only real problem here is that it's starting to feel really obvious that Scion is straining at the limits of its own premise.

"Hero who is half-human/half divine and accomplishes a lot of legendary deeds" is something that is widespread across human cultures and probably not unfamiliar anywhere, but it's also far from a universal theme in all folklore. Hell, the more I think about it, the more it seems plausible to me that Zeus' legendary philandering was back-engineered into his character by generations of Greek storytellers independently using "well, let me tell you about this real cool guy, so awesome he must have had Zeus as a father" as a common plot device. And here we are, thousands of years later, and they've more or less back-engineered it into Scion for exactly the same reason (there's a sidebar in Chapter 5 which kind of dances around this idea, but doesn't quite pull the trigger on questioning the game's premise).

And look, I don't know enough about Chinese mythology to say whether half-divine heroes are a significant part of the Celestial Bureaucracy. Certainly, Scion's premise is compatible with the Celestial Bureaucracy (though its mechanics have backed into a corner when it comes to playing the descendants of lesser celestial functionaries), but it seems to me that a full Celestial Bureaucracy setting would be bigger than that. There's a couple of mentions of ghosts getting promoted to full gods. Why can't that be my character's origin?

Chapter four is more mechanical odds and ends. Some GMing advice and plot points (including one that I interpreted to mean that Thoth, the Egyptian ibis-headed deity of knowledge, invented Twitter as affliction on mankind, but which actually said no such thing because Twitter had already existed for years by the time this book came out).

The chapter is mostly notable because it marks the first and only time that Scion attempted to tackle monotheism head on. It's not the most respectful take - an ancient occult conspiracy is attempting to metagame the fatebinding rules to promote an arbitrary Babylonian deity into some kind of unstoppable super-god, and that's the origin of the Abrahamic religions (or, perhaps, the conspiracy is only piggy-backing on Abrahamic monotheism because the hard part of the work is already done).

Honestly, though, I don't think there's a great option here. A fundamental pillar of Scion is that polytheism is basically legitimate. A fundamental pillar of western monotheism is that polytheism is totally illegitimate. There's no way to reconcile those. One of them will have to be compromised.

And this is where being an atheist makes me a poor choice for a critic of Scion, because I wouldn't hesitate to throw Christianity, Judaism, and Islam under the bus. Let's go straight to the most secular sort of proto-Jewish Canaanite archaeology and speculate about the folk polytheism that must have existed contemporarily with the earliest parts of the Bible. Jehovah is just one god out of a pantheon that got too big for his britches and wound up writing his family out of the history books. But he's still got brothers and cousins and an ex-wife floating around out there in the Overworld.

Of course, that's a much more controversial stance than White Wolf was willing to adopt, and I can't say I blame them. A safer route would be to say that the sort of intermediary spiritual entities that crop up in western folk religion - angels, demons, saints, and prophets - are the equivalent of scion's gods and the capital G God is some other order of being. But then that runs into problem of privileging western religious ideas. Perhaps modify it to say that Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe their God is a special case, but nobody's been able to find his Overworld to verify, but then, again, that raises the question of why only western monotheism is singled out as being empirically unverifiable.

I think the whole area is kind of a mine field, and personally, I blame Augustine of Hippo (but then, that's my go-to reaction whenever Christian theology poses an inconvenience). The solution the Scion writers came up with wasn't particularly elegant, and didn't really solve any of the problems monotheism poses for the game's premise, and it will turn out to be a huge problem in chapter six, but you can build a plot around it, and it probably isn't too offensive, so whatever.

Chapter five is about the Hindu pantheon and I'm just going to swear off this one. I don't know enough about Hinduism to be a fair judge. I liked it. I thought it was pretty cool. But there were times, especially in the description of the Pantheon-specific Purview, where I got a twitchy feeling, like maybe I was seeing an important part of a major world religion reduced to a silly game mechanic.

And maybe that seems hypocritical, considering how, but a few paragraphs earlier, I confessed my willingness to bulldoze through millennia of profound theological thought in the Abrahamic tradition, but the part you're missing is where I'm perfectly willing to admit that my version of Scion would be offensive as hell, and that's why I have not written a Scion.

Still, I haven't seen any sort of impassioned Hindu critique of Scion yet, so I have to assume it's at least okay. Which is nice, because I really did think the Deva chapter was pretty cool.

At last, we get to chapter six, and you know what, I'm going to have to do it as a separate post. It's too big a subject, and I've already gone on too long. So strap in and get ready, because I am going to tear this one-sixth of an optional supplement for an obscure roleplaying game a new one.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Urban Shadows

Not since Microscope have I become so quickly enamored with a new game system. I was going to do a post at the halfway point, but I was so intrigued by its concepts that I wanted to see how the whole thing played out. Many thanks to Atlictoatl for recommending it (I was going to start with Apocalypse World, but Urban Shadows was something like $20 cheaper and it just fit better into my budget right now).

So what is it about Urban Shadows that hooked me? I guess it just operates at a level of abstraction that I find very satisfying. Which is kind of a squishy answer, I know, but we're working in kind of a narrow space here, so bear with me.

Let's pull back a bit and come at rpgs from the most general perspective possible. The way almost every rpg rule system works is by breaking down the fiction into three (more or less) distinct stages.

Stage 1: Declare what is interesting about the player character and translate into numbers on a character sheet.

Stage 2: Translate the numbers on the character sheet into a die roll.

Stage 3: Interpret the result of the die roll as some change in the character's circumstances or environment.

That's pretty much as vague as I can make it. But the reason I'm interested in making it so vague is that once you understand this common thread, you can see shifts in how these stages are interpreted. This is a well-trod subject, and if you want to read more about it, you should probably google "GNS theory of rpgs." I, however, am not going to be using the established terminology because the second thing you'll learn about GNS theory is that it's massively contentious and a lot of digital ink has been spilled both defending and decrying it. And personally, I don't want to perpetuate the bad blood.

So I'm going to make up some new terms for basic approaches to rules - the intuitive approach and the meta approach. The intuitive approach is where characters are described in very concrete terms - how strong they are, how smart they are, their skill at underwater basket weaving, etc. The intuitive approach has within itself various fashions and philosophies. Some games are very interested in specificity, differentiating between very narrowly defined fields - like broadswords are different than rapiers which are different than shortswords. Other games favor broad skills, like having one Close Combat skill that covers all forms of hand-to-hand combat, from swords to bare fists to axes and everything in between. Some games try to be comprehensive, having a full character description that attempts to cover all fields of human endeavor. Others are focused, covering only the subject matter that the game is interested in.

Any particular game may be anywhere on either spectrum - specific and comprehensive, general and focused or vice versa. What all intuitive-approach games have in common is that your character stats represent real things within the fiction.

The meta approach engages with the character as a character in the fiction. Stats are things like "plot armor" or structured around themes, like a "cats" skill that applies whenever the character is doing things with cats, but which doesn't map to any particular in-setting capability, just a tendency for events that happen whenever the character is around. Sometimes, a meta-skill can even be a backwards thing - a character might have a "colossal fuck-up" skill at maximum level and when it's used, they colossally fuck up in the fiction, but gain compensatory resources or broader control over the direction of the narrative.

This may sound familiar, if you read my discussion on actor-stance vs author-stance, but this isn't quite the same thing. Author-stance tends to work best with a meta approach, and there's something about the meta approach that gets you in the author-stance mood, but often the meta is just grafted on to a base layer of intuitive approach mechanics.

Which is a long way to go to talk about Urban Shadows. But I feel like it is very gently nestled in-between the two approaches. You could call it the broadest sort of intuitive, with stats like Blood, which relates to combat and evasion, or Mind, which is for knowledge and senses. Or you might view the stats as a particularly grounded sort of meta, which exist mostly to show you what sort of scenes your character will do well in. And the game is mostly played from an actor-stance, but mechanics like Debts, Faction, and Corruption will frequently throw your character off balance, forcing them into dramatically interesting situations whenever they risk too much or need an extra boost of power beyond their normal abilities.

But mostly what Urban Shadows does well is understand and adapt to the realities of roleplaying as a medium. Especially with the GM-facing mechanics, which encourage every roll to change the status quo. It is a game that seems hell-bent on eliminating lulls in the conversation while simultaneously encouraging an improvisational GMing style. It all comes across as extremely pragmatic and sensible.

Overall, I'd say that Urban Shadows is an elegant design that is extraordinarily versatile while also being easy to understand. I'm not necessarily a fan of its kitchen-sink approach to urban fantasy, but I could see how it could be adapted to a more focused setting fairly easily. It's a little dismissive of Vampire: the Masquerade style intrigue, but it would work fine for Werewolf or Mage, given custom playbooks.

Also, since I'm so often coming at this from the other direction, I feel compelled to point out - I am impressed by this book's sensitivity and level of social consciousness. It's radically inclusive, which is apt for a game set in the big city. Frankly, though, it's just nice to be less woke than one of these books for a change.

UKSS Contribution: There's not much setting here to work from, but I suppose The Tainted are kind of interesting. They're humans who have been merged with a kind of demonic spirit that gives them extraordinary powers. Maybe base a religious or mystical order around making these bargains and wielding their power.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Guide to the Camarilla - Chapters 5-8

In the end, this book was less its own thing and more like 50,000 words that could have been added to the core. It was useful, enlightening even, but it did not succeed at making the case for the Camarilla as a discrete, distinctive setting element.

Part of this comes down to the fact that the Camarilla way of doing things really is Vampire: The Masquerade's default. The thing with the vampire Princes and their council of shadowy advisers from the various clans - those are Camarilla institutions. In fact, to a large extent they are the Camarilla. Which is all well and good, except that your players already know this. All vampire politics are local and a character who does not quickly learn about the Prince and the Sheriff and the Scourge is one not long for this world.

It's not a fault of the book, per se, but it does mean that it comes of as a bit more of a workhorse supplement than it otherwise might. A lot of space is devoted to describing things that would be generically useful in just about any Vampire campaign, like the psychology of elder vampires, or the concept of history.

Overall, I'd say this book is very handy for prospective Vampire storytellers and a worthy addition to my collection. It's a little dated (talking, as it does, about the difficulty of adapting to fancy modern technology like fax machines and email), and I wish it had done a bit more to induct the player characters into the conspiracy, focusing more on stuff like what it means to bribe a dirty cop or intimidate a journalist. And it certainly could have stood to be more explicit about the workings of the Inner Circle and their agenda for the world. But those quibbles aside, just about every page of this book has something useful on it, and that's a high achievement for an rpg supplement.

UKSS Contribution: Oh, I don't know. I guess the Inconnu. They're ancient, powerful vampires who have apparently achieved some degree of inner peace and the one thing everyone can agree upon is that they're terribly mysterious.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Guide to the Camarilla - Chapters 1-4

You are being lied to. A mortal danger looms around you, threatening your life, your dignity, your very soul. And the institutions you rely on to protect you, the police, the media, the church - they will turn a blind eye. They are compromised, infiltrated. But this is not a conspiracy of men. They do not seek power for its own sake. Nor do they pursue wealth, except insofar as it furthers their aims. They want you docile and quiescent, trapped in a cage of ignorance, but they care little for your obedience. They are not the servants of an ideology or a faith or a creed. Nothing so human for them.

They are fattening you for the slaughter. One night, and it will feel to you like any other, because they have suborned the watchmen, their teeth will be on your neck. And then you won't feel anything at all.

They are the Camarilla and they rule from the shadows. Their agents are everywhere, addled with sorcery and fed the tainted blood of ancient gods (when they aren't corrupted by ordinary cupidity, that is), keeping you in the dark so that the deathless aristocracy of the night can feed upon you at their leisure. They stand astride the centuries, unrelenting in their cannibalistic hunger, and to them you are less than livestock. You are a toy, a pawn in the ceaseless games of power and pride with which they while away their immortality.

This book isn't really about them.

I mean, in the strictest sense, it is. It is the Guide to the Camarilla and its subject matter is indeed the Camarilla vampires from Vampire: The Masquerade, but I think, on some level, it has lost the plot. It's about an ancient occult conspiracy, but it doesn't really convey the oppressive mystery, the seductive danger, or the constant paranoia of such a thing.

But neither does it really get into the dry details of how the organization works. At least, not in the first half of the book. It just sort of repeats and expands on the core book. That makes a certain sense, as "Camarilla vampire" is the expected default mode of play, but it's nevertheless a little disappointing that they didn't take the opportunity to bring some new insights into the material.

The most useful part of the first four chapters would probably be the expanded Discipline powers. They're only available to elder vampires (or to PCs who have somehow managed to diablerize an elder), but since, in a Camarilla game especially, the elders are going to be major campaign antagonists, I expect that GMs got significant mileage out of them.

The most contentious part of the book is probably the poorly-explained metaplot. The Gangrel are no longer part of the Camarilla. It's not a surprising twist, because there was always an undercurrent of condescension between the Gangrel and other Camarilla vampires, but it's not really deployed with any efficacy here. They're using a supplement to shake up the status quo, but 90% of the book is business as usual. Maybe it will pay off somewhere in the last four chapters, but for now it just looks like change for the sake of change.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Scion: God

I'm only doing one post for this book because I know the bulk of my observations are just going to be the things I've already said about Scion: Hero and Scion: Demigod. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. The monsters and mythological deep cuts are cooler! Their stats are even more nonsensical! The system is even more unbalanced! There's still an uncomfortable amount of rape in the text!

I guess I could make a bunch of specific observations. Eric Donner has finally reached his peak as a character that is superficially a combatant, but built in such a way as to guarantee his failure in combat.  Boons have always been curiously underpowered, but at the god level, they are bafflingly so. Only a few let you do truly godlike things, and even those are plagued by strict limitations and preconditions. Like, level 10 of the Death purview allows you to bring back the dead! Provided they've been dead for fewer minutes than your successes on the activation roll. Even optimized, that's like an hour, tops.

Pardon my surliness here, but what the hell is up with that? I'm playing a literal God of the Dead, I want some cosmic-scale powers to go along with that. I want to pull off some shit that makes nations worship me as a central figure in their religion. I want to be able to unbalance the cycle of reincarnation, build a paradise realm for the souls of the elect, crack open the vaults of the underworld and allow long-dead heroes to walk the earth once more. I want it to be clear that I am not fucking around.

To be fair, the game does give you a taste of cosmic power in the form of Avatars, but the way Avatars work is that you spend a quarter of your Legend Points to activate them, and then the rules throw up their hands in defeat and say, "you can just, like, do whatever." But even then, they're only available if you max out your purview in a pretty counterproductive way.

While it's a little disappointing that Scion: God doesn't really put the metaphysics of the universe into play, the setting material almost makes up for it. The book goes into detail about the Titans and it turns out that in the Scion universe, they are not anthropomorphic at all. They are, in fact, living geographies that radiate multiple personalities to carry out their complex and often contradictory agendas.

It's all very interesting to read, though it sometimes suffers from the same problem as D&D's elemental planes, where players are expected to adventure in a world that is constantly trying to kill them. Being gods should mitigate that somewhat, though given Scion's unbalanced point-based system, I'm fairly sure only Eric Donner is capable of surviving the sample adventure (well, the environmental part - Eric's build would crumple before any of the major antagonists)

Actually, after reading this book, I'm beginning to question the wisdom of the game's central premise. Not only did reading about the Titans start to feel oppressive in its baroque hatred for the PC archetypes, the very black-and-white conflict between God and Titan made for some pretty odd character choices. Thor's mom is evil! Prometheus is a sleazy manipulator! Gaia threatened to blow up the earth! A little nuance would have been appreciated.

Okay, so that's the last of the core Scion books. I can now issue a definitive opinion on first edition as a whole . . .

It's bad, people. My lip is quivering as I write this, because on a word-for-word basis, I genuinely love, nay adore, something like half of the text. But half isn't enough, you know.

The good news is that second edition is coming soon. Redemption is possible.

UKSS Contribution - Typhonian peacocks. They're the size of elephants, but rather than being terrors on the battlefield, they have posh accents and magic powers. If you get ahold of one of their feathers, it will make you pretty.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Scion: Demigod - Part 2

Once again, the antagonist section is the best part of a Scion book. Though I feel I need to clarify something from the equivalent section of my Scion: Hero review. When I said the antagonist chapter was 99% good, I was referring only to the antagonist descriptions, the flavor paragraphs where they explained what these things were and how they interacted with scions. The creature statistics were actually pretty bad. I point this out because the monster descriptions in Scion: Demigod are even better, and the stats go from bad to unconscionable.

The reasons for this are largely what I complained about in my previous post, so I will just leave you with one specific observation - the antagonist section contains an NPC band of scions that's meant to be a parallel to the sample PCs and act as their rivals in the included adventure. One member of this group, Victor Fingers, Scion of Ares, can solo the entire PC band. The only default PC that can damage him is Eric Donner, who has an accuracy of 7 dice to hit his defense of 17. The only PC that can hit him is Yukiko Kuromizu, who does 10 damage against his soak of 13. And nobody's Epic Stamina is even close to countering Victor's damage. They might as well have listed his stats as "Victor kills 1 scion per round, except for Yukiko, who might survive for 3-4."

Okay, one more comment on the antagonist section. It's nice that they have a heroic trans woman as a signature character, but it's kind of embarrassing in retrospect to see the sloppy job they did in addressing her gender. A trans person's pronouns don't need to go in quotes, guys, even if you are talking about her before she came out. I can't say I was any better in 2007, so this is officially not a scolding. Just a heads-up for anyone picking up this book today.

Working backwards, the next thing to address is the sample adventure. It's okay. Nothing offensive like in Scion: Hero, though like its predecessor it comes across as a little bit railroady. I like the idea of racing to the ruins of Atlantis under the ice of Antarctica to stop a dark ritual from ushering in the apocalyptic winter that will spell the doom of the gods, but the start of the adventure seems to be written under the assumption that the players won't take the bait and you have to trick them into it. I don't know. Once you get into it, it's basically just a dungeon crawl, so very little can go wrong, but I'm not sure you'd want to run it without the player buy-in.

Finally, I can talk about the first chapter of Part 2. It's setting, guys! At last, some direct indication of what the Scion universe actually looks like. It's all pretty good, with mystical shortcuts through the realm of platonic ideals, hidden lands that house villages of spirit-folk or long forgotten sorceresses, and detailed descriptions of the various pantheons' lands of the dead. I love it. I really want to play in this world (Circe, of course, is problematic, and the minotaurs are terrible, but . . . source material?)

The tricky thing here is that as we get a closer look at Scion's setting, the clearer it becomes that some of its assumptions would work better if they were explicitly spelled out. Like, there's not a Masquerade, per se, but people don't really believe in the gods, and everyone can see what the PCs are up to, but nobody puts two and two together? It's a little confusing.

Overall, Scion: Demigod is a book of dizzying highs and terrible lows. It's a beautiful mess. Borderline unusable, but with some inspired ideas. I love it, but I hate it for not being what it could have been.

UKSS Contribution - Shit-eating vampires!

No . . . no . . .

On a more considered opinion, that would not be optimal. I guess I just felt compelled to inform you that Scion: Demigod suggests the existence of shit-eating vampires, though mercifully it neglects to provide their statistics.

Let's go with something that actually impressed me. The Yokai village. I did some cursory research to make sure I wasn't trampling on something real and holy, and my 5 minute Google search suggests that this is one of those "fun" myths that is suitable to be adapted to entertainment (though the name of the specific town in the book, Horai, seems to be associated with something entirely different than the book suggests).

The idea is pretty simple. A small town, inhabited by ghosts, spirits, and monsters. Some friendly, some not. Hidden deep in an inaccessible forest, where humans dare not tread too deeply, thanks to the signs and portents that surround it.

I like this sort of thing. I'd probably make it a bit lighter and a bit friendlier than the book, but a hidden monster town, where the ferocious-seeming inhabitants regard the human interlopers with a mixture of curiosity and fear, is just a delightful image.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Scion: Demigod - Part 1

This book really broke my heart. I suppose it's because the "Demigod" power level is generally my favorite - resilient enough that you can face some absolutely absurd opposition and engage in wide-ranging, almost cartoonish set-piece battles, but not so invincible that there's no element of risk. I like my rpg characters to be roughly as powerful as major multinational corporation. Unfortunately, Scion: Demigod completely botches the execution.

Scion: God is worse. Every flaw in the system becomes magnified by the greater scale. But somehow, it doesn't quite matter as much. Like, God is so broken you kind of just have to treat it empirically. Things happen, then other things happen, and who lives and who dies is pretty much random. Scion: Demigod still feels like it should make some kind of sense.

But it doesn't. You can add 22 successes to a Perception roll? What does that even mean? Was the GM not giving you the full story when you were only adding 16 successes to your Perception rolls? And, hey, Manipulation and Charisma at that level will allow you to beat any opposition, but it's probably overkill because social rolls are invariably resisted with Willpower + Integrity, and thus ineligible for an Epic Attribute bonus.

The only realm where ludicrous success totals have an objective, scalable meaning is combat, and the sheer range of variance here totally kills the system. Are you specced to counter the opponent's build? No? Then you're dead. Yes? Then is the opponent specced to counter your build? No? Then you're invincible. Yes? Then you most likely perfectly balance each other out and are going to wind up running the battle like you're both mortals.

It's just aggravating all around.

Boons aren't any better. There's always been an imbalance in their cost in the character creation system, but at this level it's enough to make it completely untenable. You get 10 points when you apply the demigod template, which is enough for 10 dots of Epic Attributes, each one of which brings with it a new knack. Or you can buy 2 mid-level Boons. Why do the designers hate boons?

It would be bad enough if the Boons were consistently powerful, but honestly, a lot of them are kind of underwhelming. The Sun and Moon purviews each have a level 7 Boon that summons a chariot that flies at 500mph . . . and vanishes at sunrise or sunset, respectively. It's useful, but in a modern setting, commercial airlines are more practical in almost all conceivable use cases. The GM pretty much has to design scenarios that have something time-critical happening at short notice a significant distance away.

And those are some of the better Boons. Chaos 7 starts a riot. Which sounds cool, except . . . why can't you do this with the dozens of successes you'd get from a dramatically cheaper Epic Charisma 7? Animal 6 lets you turn into your chosen animal, but then, why are you making players wait until mid-demigod tier for this power that will probably just wind up being a lateral move in effectiveness? And the less said about the Fertility Purview the better.

Okay, I'll say one thing - perfectly healthy plants with no other notable qualities, as many as you want!

I cannot convey how much I yearn to find something redeemable in Scion: Demigod's system. I mean, the cover is so fucking cool! Brigitte De La Croix is in her tophat with the cute skull decoration and she has a cane with a glowing-eyes skull topper, looking for all the world like a death-themed Broadway dancer as screaming poltergeists and mysterious green underworld energy surround her in the ruins of Atlantis. And I want to play that game.

But I can't. Not with the contents of this book. And that's why Scion: Demigod breaks my heart.

(Also, there's a bit of shady mid-aughts era political incorrectness in the opening fiction that just comes off as kind of gross now, but I'm not going to get into it because I've already panned this book enough.)

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Scion: Hero - Chapters 9 - 12

CONTENT WARNING - RAPE

There was something I could (and perhaps should) have mentioned in my first post about this game, but I knew it would be relevant again here, so I saved it. Scion: Hero made some very dubious editorial choices with the allocation of its limited page count. Nearly 40 pages for its opening fiction and a little more than 60 for a sample adventure. And while these things weren't entirely useless, I can't help but wonder what a version of Scion that devoted 80-90 pages in the corebook to discussing its setting and/or genre assumptions might have looked like.

But there's little point in speculating about what might have been. Let's talk about what we actually got. The antagonist chapter is very good. It's really fun seeing figures from ancient myth updated to the modern world. Like the alfar who moonlights as a supermodel, or the "centaurs" who are half-human, half-motorcycle. It's 99% cool.

But I guess that 1% is something that I need to talk about. Scion: Hero is just the teeniest bit rapey. Not as rapey as it could be, given that Zeus is a major character, but well, 2007 was at the cusp of the Great Internet Wokeness Explosion, and this book in particular just happens to fall on the wrong side of the cultural divide.

To be concrete - there is a modern-day nymph, called Peggy Bluewater who is a bit of an urban legend. She threatens a small town with plague unless, one per year, they send her a virginal young boy for her to have sex with. No subtext here. It specifically calls out an age range: 14-17. Gross.

But maybe you're thinking "well, it is the antagonist chapter," and I'll admit, she'd be an interesting villain. But Peggy is listed as a potential 4-dot Guide. Immortal child molester is a mentor. (Also, while I'm calling things out, I'm just going to go on record with my discomfort in the book describing her migration to the Americas as "strange, red-skinned natives discovered . . .")

I don't necessarily want to give the impression that this is a dominant theme in the book. I mean, the real thing that's wrong with Peggy is the sexual double-standard that will hopefully be unintelligible to the next generation of scholars citing my blog in 20 years (hi there, keep up the good work!) And the thing with Horace Farrow's backstory, where he was conceived via rape-by-impersonation, well that was probably just a thoughtless recapitulation of a common mythic trope.


The only thing that's truly unforgivable is the scenario in the sample adventure where Dr Aaron Tigrillo has to kidnap a woman for his god to rape.

The book doesn't explicitly say that's what's going on, but it does dance around the issue. It describes the scenario as a test of Dr Tigrillo's morals. And it does come out and say that the reason Tezcatlipoca assigned him the mission is because he wants to have sex with Iseldia Alvarado. And the art that accompanies the scenario has the God looming on an altar while Iseldia lies supine and crying in a revealing evening gown. And it never actually talks about her agency or motivations. And an uncomfortably large portion of the scenario is about potential approaches to kidnapping.

Technically, it never uses the r-word. I'm not sure what else "kidnapping, coercion, potential adultery, or worse" could be referring to. But technically it gives you an out. I mean, describing it as "potential adultery" sounds consensual. Maybe you could approach it as a matchmaker. After all, gods tend to be pretty hot. And though Iseldia's marriage is described as happy, maybe she's open to a fling.

Let's be real, though. The scenario is about a woman getting raped by a dark god. And it very disgustingly centers the narrative on a male character's moral anguish at fulfilling his religious duties. The book's squeamishness at calling the crime by its proper name is not to its credit.

Maybe, maybe, the story could work as an arc on a prestige drama. But trying to run this scenario as a tabletop rpg is a surefire disaster.

And now it's time for me to move on and talk about the rest of the book!

Okay, now that I've written it out, it turns out that scenario affected me more than I realized. It was deeply uncomfortable to read, and I knew I would have to say something about it, but until I got the words down on the page, it wasn't really my dominant impression of the book. It would feel weird, after that, to go on to examine the intricacies of the fate system or to come up with some cutesy little contribution to my fake campaign setting.

Maybe I'm being too sensitive here. It's only three pages, out of 330. And it's not as if it's saying that rape is good. It's merely a piece of entertainment that uses gratuitous and shocking violence against a female character as part of a male character's motivation. And even that is only implied. Maybe it's not even there. Maybe I'm reading too much into the text.

I think what I'm going to do is call it a misstep. I am of a certain age, and though I've always considered myself on the side of social progress, I too have made mistakes in my attempts to write "mature" and "gritty" fiction. It's not an easy distinction between "depicting a bad thing doesn't automatically equate to endorsing that thing" and "it's not okay to casually use a terrible trauma that affects real-life people as a superficial shorthand for a bad character, especially in an otherwise light-hearted genre piece."

It's not a pass, because that's not in my power to give. But it is the difference between "the author should be embarrassed" and "the author should be ashamed."

UKSS Contribution: Because I mostly liked the book, I'm not going to let a single awful scenario completely derail me from tradition. I'm choosing the Shinobi, cultists so devoted to a sinister Titan of Shadows that they give up their voices, becoming stealthy and perfectly silent assassins.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Scion: Hero - Chapters 4-8

It feels a little bit like cheating for me to draw on my knowledge of Scion: Demigod and Scion: God when critiquing Scion: Hero's system chapters, but I can't pretend to an innocence I don't possess. Scion as a whole breaks in some pretty spectacular ways, and though it's not quite unusable yet, you can already see the cracks.

The biggest flaw in Scion: Hero is that Epic Dexterity is so much better than anything else you might want to buy, and by quite a large margin. Especially if you took the totally broken "Untouchable Opponent" perk (and it is to my lasting shame that I, in a sense of misguided loyalty, defended it on message boards for far longer than reasonable; with the clearer perspective of distance, it's shocking that such a thing made it through editing). It's such a good choice that it pretty much boils down to a binary choice - do you want to be a combatant or not. If the answer is yes, then maximum Epic Dexterity is a must.

But it's important to note that, as of Scion: Hero, Epic Dexterity was merely disruptively optimal, allowing a character to have a consistent baseline that was roughly in line with a lesser character's peak performance. It could be overcome. You wouldn't want to bet on an Epic Dex 2 over an Epic Dex 3, but it's possible that the less dexterous character could have other advantages that would tilt the fight in their favor. By the time you reach Scion: God, that will no longer be true.

However, this particular unbalanced choice is just the tip of the iceberg. Scion: Hero is full of trap builds, overpowered bombs that look harmless on the surface, and basic mechanics that practically force players into particular builds.

Take the combat system. Its foundation is taken from Exalted 2nd Edition. Despite that game's notoriety, its fundamental mechanics actually worked pretty well. It only really fell off the rails when powered individuals got involved (which, admittedly, was not a small problem). What's fascinating about Scion is that it only makes a few small tweaks, but these changes cause the system to fall apart in completely different ways than the issues that would plague its inspiration. For example, the change to soak (damage resistance). In Exalted, soak would subtract from raw damage, reducing the amount of damage dice you roll. In Scion, you roll your entire raw damage and then soak subtracts from the successes on the damage roll.

Maybe it's not entirely clear why this should be a problem . . . until you take into account that the average character's damage and soak is not significantly changed between the games. So without doing anything special, every PC, enemy, and monster in the game has double the damage resistance it would have in Exalted. You also have to consider that unlike Exalted's soak system, Scion's could reduce the effective damage of an attack to zero. In practice, this meant that it would take an optimized fist-fighter to consistently take down average noncombatants with unarmed attacks (and mirror-match brawler vs brawler would have a predicted fight time that approaches infinity as their absolute skill level increased).

I haven't even gotten into the character creation system yet, whose point-based approach allows PCs of wildly different power levels right from the start, and which is so unbalanced that the order in which you spend character creation points can net you significant amounts of experience points down the line. Or the fact that a serious mismatch in point costs makes Epic Attributes dramatically more cost effective than Boons (the thematically appropriate powers of the gods, like Zeus' thunder or Hermes' ability to fly). Or that non-physical attributes and abilities have no robust systems attached to them, requiring GMs to basically bullshit their way through, say, a 10 success Intelligence + Academics roll.  Or the way that a straightforward reading of an otherwise unobtrusive Boon would seem to suggest that it could provide double-digit dice pool bonuses for a span of weeks.

Or . . .

Look, this game has a lot of problems. I would not blame you if, based on this post, you chose to give this game a pass. It's probably the right call, honestly. Because the one thing that a simple rundown of the mechanics can never capture is the electric feeling of what it was like to be there. You are telling new epics for a modern age! Look at the geometric progression of the Epic Attribute bonuses and imagine how awesome it's going to be when you're character is a god! Check out that sweet-ass cover with Eric Donner looking all buff and determined, surrounded by lightning and crows, holding an implausibly huge revolver while standing in front of a skyscraper!

What I'm saying is that it took me far longer than it should have to even notice these flaws. I wanted to believe.

Which, I suppose, is thematically appropriate.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Scion: Hero - Chapters 1-3

I'm going to have to talk about cultural appropriation again. Is that just going to be my thing from now on? Am I going to be the guy who's always going on about cultural appropriation in rpgs? It's not as if I have any special knowledge on the subject. Hell, I barely understand it. It would be grossly inappropriate for me to position myself as an authority here. But I can't exactly ignore it when it stares me so blatantly in the face.

Now, to be clear, I don't think Scion: Hero crosses the line, but you have to take my opinion with a grain of salt. I'm an atheist, so I think that taking these figures of religious mythology and using them as the foundation for a high-action modern fantasy setting is kind of cool. I mean, the closest I'm going to get to being a religious minority is my status as an ex-Mormon. If I'm imagining the LDS mythos (and to be clear, I'm kind of a black sheep here, the rest of my family takes this very seriously) used in the most ham-fisted way possible, with the angle Moroni going around impregnating people and the prophet Lehi appearing in people's dreams to give them superpowers, then my main thought would be, "Joseph Smith was a conman, not a writer, none of his characters are cool enough to justify their inclusion here."

So, you know, my opinion on the proper use of the sacred as raw material for popular culture is not exactly one that you want to lean on. That being said, I think Scion is caught between the hammer and the anvil here.

If your pitch is "the old gods of classical mythology are running around in the modern days and the children they have with mortals are basically superheroes," then you've got a couple of "safe" pantheons. The Norse pantheon is more or less the communal property of Anglo-Germanic culture. Most of the English days of the week are named for the Norse gods. They've been used in fiction, both low and high, for centuries. If the Saxons didn't want us to make comic books and rpgs about their sacred figures, they'd have stayed in Denmark where they belonged.

And, of course, the Greco-Roman gods are part and parcel with Rome's imperial domination of Europe. It is impossible to overstate their influence on secular art from the Renaissance forward.

A version of Scion that was just Norse and Greek gods would be a pretty fun and goofy thing. You wouldn't have to worry about trampling over the theology of those belief systems, or oppressing their followers (modern revivals of these religions post-date the bulk of the pop-culturization of their traditions, so I have to assume their followers have made their peace with it). But a game like that would also be awfully white. That's the hammer.

If the only active gods are Norse and Greek, that raises questions that aren't really easy to answer. "Are Greek and Norse the only real gods?" "If the other pantheons are real, why don't you run into them when you travel the world?" "But [sacred figure x] would never act like a superhero, and even if they did, they'd never have an illegitimate child with a human" And so on.

Treating the non-European cultures with respect and dignity, while also fitting them into your casual-Saturday-entertainment, high-fantasy paradigm, especially when many of those cultures were destroyed (the meso-American pantheon) or dramatically transformed by (the Loa) the worst excesses of European colonialism - that's the anvil.

Does Scion: Hero manage to get out from between them? I can't say. I don't know enough about the individual cultures represented by the pantheons, and besides that, I'm inclined to think that inspiring an awesome superhero is a higher use for a mythological figure than as an object of worship.

However, if I were to venture a guess, I'd say they didn't quite nail the execution. And to my mind, the strongest evidence for this is the game's coyness about Abrahamic monotheism. To me, its lack of inclusion signals that the authors were aware of the boundaries of the sacred, and thus made a deliberate choice as to which traditions they didn't have to worry about transgressing.

You could make the argument that the game's premise doesn't work unless you've got polytheism (or at least henotheism), but that seems to imply that theological correctness is only really important when it comes to the dominant western religion.

You could also make the argument that you didn't want to court controversy by taking lightly the majority religion of your primary customers, but that, in a way, is even worse, because it's almost like you're saying that it's okay to offend people who are too weak to deliver serious retribution.

Of course, the counterargument to this is that the Hindu gods were also left out. So maybe the distinction is between living traditions and dead ones, but if that's the case, then White Wolf just plain got it wrong. (Also, the Hindu gods show up in both the Companion and in 2nd Edition, so that's probably not the explanation).

I don't know what to tell you, here. I like Scion. I think it's pretty neat. And there's nothing here that strikes me as offensive, per se. I do think the authors took care to be as sensitive as possible, while still making a game about demigods fighting monsters for the fate of the world. But then, the list of authors doesn't strike me as especially diverse. I could be wrong, of course. You can't tell just by a name whether someone is an adherent to Shinto or Voodoo. Maybe they did their due diligence and consulted with the represented peoples to come up with a fair and respectful depiction.

Like I said at the beginning. I am not expert on cultural appropriation. It's not bad enough for me, a white ex-Mormon atheist, to feel offended by proxy. But it is here enough for me, a white ex-Mormon atheist, to notice. So, there it is, whatever that's worth to you. And hell, maybe my intuition is wrong, and it is a common fantasy of marginalized minority religions everywhere to have their sacred figures get the super-hero treatment. Maybe there's a huge contingent of native-descended Latin Americans who are just dying for one of the Aztec gods to get a Marvel comic, just like Thor.

If so, well then . . . Scion: Hero is actually not a good fit for that, for reasons I'll get into next post, when I read the bulk of the game's mechanics and weep.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Dragonlance Adventures

OMG, guys! Dragonlance is bad!

I knew that was going to be a possibility, going into this. In fact, it was more than a possibility. It was a likelihood. I remember reading a huge number of Dragonlance books in high school, where I was a late-blooming nerd with an incredibly shallow reference pool. And my recollections of these times were (hell, are) fond.

Poor little Tasslehoff, crying about his friend's death and thinking deeply about mortality for the first time. It really got to me.

And Raistlin, the scrawny dweeb who was bad at sports and yet still managed to be a sexy bad boy (seriously, a major plot point in one of the novels is the way he manipulates a beautiful priestess with his sexual wiles, which . . . um, okay) who took no shit from anyone thanks to THE POWER OF HIS MIND - somehow that spoke to me in a very personal way.

But I was just a boy. I'd not yet read Paradise Lost (though to be fair, I didn't accomplish that until I was, like, 30). I had almost no exposure to serious history or philosophy or the classics of the western canon. I'd never even heard of Terry Pratchett. I did not have the tools to discern good from bad.

Of course, over the years, I grew up. My experience broadened. My standards became higher. I never revisited the Dragonlance books, primarily because I had 1001 other interests that took priority, and so they stayed, in the back of my mind, as something cute and fun, and maybe a bit shallow, but generally okay. Yet there were moments, when I'd remember some plot point from the books and I'd experience a moment of dissonance. "Was Dragonlance bad?"

My first version of this review was incredibly snarky. There's a lot here to pick apart - attempts at humor that ranged from the eye-rolling to the offensive, worldbuilding that never goes anywhere, and a frankly nonsensical take on the alignment system.

But that would have been too mean. For all of its faults, Dragonlance is undeniably earnest, and I can't hate it for that. You take something like the Knights of Solamnia and they don't really make much sense as an organization. How are they funded? How can they be both the righteous defenders of the innocent and hated almost everywhere? Why would the Knights of the Rose have ever required royal blood? Where were all those nobles coming from? And so on. But then you realize that their real purpose is just to embody the tropes of chivalry while also having plenty of excuse to hang around with a party of weirdos (the odd thing about reading this book so soon after Pendragon is that it was incredibly obvious that the Dragonlance knights were skin deep, but also that the thing I'd wished for at the end of Pendragon - the romance and idealism of Arthurian fiction, without all the historical baggage - was a pretty misguided thing to want).

And a lot of Dragonlance is like that. Something that seems cool from a kneejerk reaction (the Orders of High Sorcery - Wizards who get their powers from the three moons), but then falls apart if you put even ten seconds of thought into it (wait, one of the Orders is openly and explicitly evil and people are okay with this this? They just go around wearing black robes and thus easily identifiable at all times and the reason that they're not instantly burned at stake is because the "good" and "neutral" wizards will come to their aid, in defense of the craft of magic, without regard to how it's used?")

I'm saying, in other words, it's an easy thing to sneer at, but its style-over-substance approach does have one benefit. It is easy to get into this setting's way of thinking. It does some things weird, but rarely are even those weird things unexpected. Play an Irdra, which is basically an ogre, but they're beautiful because they turned good before the ogres were totally corrupted by evil, and they have unique shapeshifting and magical powers, but these beautiful, talented, good-hearted people are outcasts from society, hunted wherever they go, so they must bear the burden of being scorned and hated, despite their abundant natural gifts.

And I'm doing it again. I'm going to the snarky place (and I haven't even touched on the small races, which are uniformly cringe-inducing). But I was on my way to a point. Dragonlance is bad, but it has a constituency. And I don't want to go too much into why I think the setting appeals to them, because it will surely be undeservedly condescending on my part. But this Dragonlance constituency is good. I like them. I used to be one of them. They should be able to have their fun without some pretentious blogger shitting all over them.

That being said, Dragonlance fans should not get Dragonlance Adventures. The book is a mess. The mechanics are mostly functional in that AD&D 1st edition way where balance is naught but a dream, but the bulk of the text is devoted to recapping canon. I dinged Pendragon for being too canon-conservative, but this book is a whole other level. It's less that it holds the events of the books sacred than that it doesn't bother engaging with the material as an rpg-resource. The city of Palanthas is mentioned several times as a center of trade and culture (and thus somewhere you might want to feature in Dragonlance adventures), but Dragonlance Adventures only mentions it in relation to prominent historical events. Despite being the largest surviving pre-Cataclysm city on Krynn, there's nothing about its population, major landmarks, laws, customs, fashions, or politics.

Over and over again, the book will present some setting element, but instead of providing descriptions of how it looks from a player-eye level, it talks almost exclusively about plot. That would be a weakness in any book, much less one about a setting as aggressively unambitious as Krynn. So if you're interested in Dragonlance (and despite all my mockery, I still have a fondness for it), I would suggest looking towards later supplements. This one is barely helpful at all.

UKSS Contribution: I'm going to go with Dargonesti. They're elves that can shapechange into dolphins. That's a pretty neat image, and an interesting idea for a fantasy society. I'll probably twist it, though and make Ukss' version into dolphins that shapechange into elfin-type creatures when they want to deal with humans. Put more emphasis on the alien nature of these majestic creatures.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Pendragon - Part 3 (Mostly Setting Stuff)

Okay, so that Assassin's Creed: Odyssey is a pretty neat game. If I were still blogging about video games, I'd have a thing or two to say about it, that's for sure. But I'm not, so the only thing I'm going to say is that I lost the better part of two weeks, and that's a little embarrassing. But the rpg-reading train is back on its tracks and the time has come to wrap up Pendragon.

The last third of this book contains rules for creating female characters and magicians, which kind of irks me a little, because I gave it a pass for its lack of diversity on the theory that it was uncompromising in its specificity. It feels like the worst of both worlds to allow those characters, but make them utterly ineffective. Pendragon would have been a better game if it stubbornly stuck to its initial premise.

Putting that aside, the rest of the book is pretty good. The chapter on magic would have been better served if it had ditched the player-facing magic system and just talked about the weird occult stuff that players might encounter on their knightly adventures, but it's not totally unsalvageable. At the very least, it can be used for sorcerous antagonists.

The scenarios chapter is also mostly good. The introductory adventure gives a lot of specific, actionable advice for how to be a GM that is, frankly, missing from almost every other product aimed at beginners. Stuff like "Half of the job is for the gamemaster to propose questions to the players which they answer for their characters. . . Just let them do as they wish, describe the passive events as well you can, and keep asking questions when something exciting is happening."

It's good advice, and a lot more pragmatic than the rest of the book had led me to expect. The intro adventure is set up a lot like a video game tutorial - a trivial task to get players used to rolling dice, a low-stakes horse race to introduce the concept of opposed rolls, a friendly joust, then a hunt, and ending with a nontrivial fight against bandits. Each stage ups the challenge and complexity and introduces a new mechanic. Then it all ends with an official knighting ceremony and the players' first winter stage. Generally a well-structured start, assuming the players come in as complete newbies.

The rest of the scenarios are less detailed, but the book has a pretty efficient format for presenting them in a limited amount of space. It devotes a paragraph or two to the set up, then outlines the major characters, a couple of possible plot-twists, the expected solution, and then the rewards. Because this game is based on one of the foundational texts of western fantasy (and, indeed, storytelling in general) a lot of the individual scenarios have something of an elemental feel to them (at least three are variations on "this knight has kidnapped a woman and now you have to rescue her), but it's kind of okay.

The only real flaw is that it becomes clear that Pendragon is a little too wedded to Arthurian canon for its own good. A couple of the scenarios literally revolve around players failing at some quest the canon Knights of the Round Table later succeed at. The PCs are basically the nameless nobles who couldn't pull the sword from the stone so that Arthur's feat could be properly legendary.

To put it in perspective, an average PC knight, over a lifetime of serious, but not fanatical adventuring, might be expected to earn 10,000 glory. It might be possible to double that, though half is much more likely. Sir Lancelot is just starting out, as of the game's default start date, and he has 50,000.

Sure, you're going to want to have a few of the famous knights be really high end, in order for the PCs to have peers if they ever reach the big leagues, but that total is absurd. It's not even notionally attainable. Gawain is the next biggest at 32,000. It all serves to give the impression that players are meant to be peripheral figures in Arthur's court and stay that way.

Which, you know, is not necessarily what I want for a game about King Arthur's knights. I think I'd prefer a game that was more of an Arthurian pastiche. One that let me play out stories that were kind of like the medieval romances in a setting that resembles Camelot, but which had room for lady knights and peasant heroes and useful magicians (and, of course, I couldn't read the sections of Fine Amor, without thinking "sure, but how do I make it gay?"). Would that game necessarily have been better? I can't say. But it could probably have managed to capture everything I enjoy about Pendragon.

UKSS contribution: This one is tricky, because a lot of the setting is just England and Wales, but with old-timey names for everything and the occasional superstitious explanation for stuff that exists in the real world. Like, Merlin upgraded Stonehenge with a couple of new monoliths, which is interesting, but not really the sort of thing that can be ported over to a generic setting.

I guess the most versatile setting element would have to be the Questing Beast. I'm not sure precisely what it is except that it is obtrusively elusive. You can't catch it or kill it, but you always know when it's near and you can track it for miles. It's probably a religious allegory, but I like to think that it's an intelligent creature that trolls hunters on purpose.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Pendragon - Part 2 (Mostly Game Mechanics)

The best part of Pendragon is the Winter Phase. It's a simple enough thing - a series of checks that determine your character's education, aging, and economic circumstances, but that it exists at all is a powerful statement of the game's intent. The game has a very definite and unusual approach to the passage of time. Your knightly adventures are framed in a yearly cycle, which itself is put in the context of a generational cycle. Death, whether on the battlefield or in the sickbed, is inevitable, and yet the story goes on. Your character will adventure, yes, but he will also live. Fighting monsters, rescuing maidens, and getting into pointless and petty personality disputes with heavily armed men are your character's job, but they are not the sum total of his life.

So that's pretty neat.

Certainly, the dynastic progression is the main reason to play Pendragon, over, say, Dungeons and Dragons. A case could be made for the unforgiving wound system or the prominent role Glory plays in your characters' development, but even those things are incorporated into the cycle (a lingering wound may be the reason a character stays home from the yearly adventure, whereas gaining glory can improve your marital and economic prospects). The actual system itself is only so-so.

Its big flaw is that it's overly enamored with providing fiddly modifiers to your various actions. It's not as bad as some systems I could name, but especially in combat, the tendency is there. On the other hand, those modifiers usually amount to a 5-10 point swing on a d20 roll, so they're easy enough to just eyeball. I'd say that it works, even if I'm not especially inspired by it.

Overall, I'm glad to have gotten this middle part out of the way so I can finally focus on the meaty fantasy stuff in the final third of the book. Upcoming is magic and creatures and adventures! Huzzah!

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Pendragon, Part 1 (Mostly Character Creation)

I chose to read Pendragon because I've had cultural appropriation on the brain. It's pretty much the opposite of Oriental Adventures. It attempts nearly zero cultural appropriation, it treats medieval Europe as the complex and alien culture that it truly was, rather than taking for granted its "neutrality" vis a vis the modern day, and it is laser-focused in the specificity of its influences. This is a game where you play background characters in the Arthurian canon, damnit, and nothing else!

And before we get into the meat of my critique, I must offer up an apology to the game. I'd previously dismissed it as "boring," and allowed that perception to color my opinion of the game for years. I think it has something to do with the dryness of its presentation (its very simply laid out, with large columns of text, no page decoration, and only the occasional black and white art). I was also put off by the narrowness of its subject matter. I got this game more than 15 years ago, and it is only with the onset of early middle age that I can truly appreciate its attention to the nuances between Cambria and Cumbria.

But my biggest problem with the game is something I now realize is its greatest strength (even as I'm more aware than ever how problematic it is) - Pendragon, to a degree greater than just about any rpg I care to name, eschews diversity.

This isn't some anti-SJW chip-on-its-shoulder sort of reactionary thing, but something fundamental and essential to the game's very construction. That being said, I'd be lying if I claimed to be entirely comfortable with how much this game is exactly what alt-right nerds have always claimed to want.

However, I am willing to give Pendragon the benefit of the doubt for three reason.

One: the astonishing specificity of its source material. There's a quick test for whether you can use a particular work as inspiration for the game - is it about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table?

Two: the game's lack of diversity extends into areas where even the most reactionary of gamers usually likes to see it. Not only is "white, Christian male" the heavily preferred character type, but the suggested default characters are all from the same small county in central England and they are all knights from the same extremely narrow social and economic class.

So, basically, Pendragon is a game where you play as a group of well-connected bros, all trying to get into the same elite fraternity. You can differentiate your characters by being "the party bro" or "the super religious bro" or "the buff bro," but ultimately, when they cast the movie based on your campaign, they'll never have to audition anyone not named Chris.

And, when you think about it, that's highly weird. If the game was trying to be racist and sexist, it wouldn't make that decision. People like to play different character classes with different, distinctive abilities. I've been roleplaying for 20 years, and only once has anything even remotely comparable happened with any degree of spontaneity. Playing D&D, during the usual and reflexive check-in between players (to negotiate the sort of character boundaries that explicitly exist to prevent a Pendragon-style game from happening accidentally) we all separately floated the idea of playing a dwarf character and then, in a bolt of inspiration, someone suggested we all make dwarf characters and play a generally dwarf-themed campaign.

It was kind of a magical moment, but even then, we all had very distinct character niches in the form of our classes (which were, I believe, a fighter, a cleric, and an assassin).

That's pretty much why I shelved this book for so many years. I never wanted to pitch a game that, in D&D terms, would be "all human fighters."

The third reason I'm willing to give Pendragon the benefit of the doubt is that it's actually pretty good. I'm no expert on Arthurian legend, but just from the first 75 pages or so, it looks like this book is very thoroughly researched, and a lot of thought was put into its decisions. Nothing seems arbitrary (or, at least, the book is pretty good about arguing that the things that seem arbitrary were probably based on some pretty messed-up stuff in the source material). It all holds together as an art project, a style of game rooted in its own peculiar obsessions.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this book. Hopefully, it continues to justify its own existence through a frankly unsettling degree of hardcore geekery.