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.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Oriental Adventures (1st Edition)

There's no gentle way to say this, so I'm just going to rip the band-aid off real quick - this book is kind of racist. It's not hateful or anything. In fact, it is very positively inclined towards its subject matter. It's just a little jarring, here in 2019, to see the word "oriental" dropped so casually. It gives the whole book a strangely unwelcoming feel to it. Like, they really enjoy making fantasy inspired by the cultures of east Asia, but they wouldn't want it infecting "normal" D&D.

Seriously, they are so serious about keeping the Asian-inspired elements separated that they practically de-canonized the monk!

As you develop your Oriental Advenues campaign, it is recommended that you remove the monk character class from the European-type campaigns. Why? Because what is found herein is superior and in the proper surroundings as well!
That's from the Preface. And just in case the point was lost, it's repeated in the class section as well. What the hell is even going on here? Why is there such a hard boundary between fantasy-Europe and fantasy-Asia? It just doesn't make sense that you can have a setting where you draw from the Hellenistic Mediterranean, pre-Roman Britain, Germanic folklore and the Italian Renaissance, but one element from China and suddenly it's not in its "proper surroundings." Where's the line here? Russia? Persia? It never comes out and says it, but this conception of the setting has very clear ideas about the boundaries of race (and race as understood from a 20th century American context, at that).

It's a shame that the writing is so lacking in self-awareness, though, because I honestly think that the things that stand out as the most egregious cultural appropriation are really just artifacts of how D&D is.

Example: The land of Kara-Tur is really just a jumble of Japanese and Chinese tropes mashed together without concern for anachronism or linguistic or cultural coherence. It feels careless (even though the authors copped to doing it on purpose), but it's less of a mess than the "standard" setting, which is ostensibly based off medieval Europe, but is so mixed up that it doesn't actually resemble any kind of European culture that ever actually existed. The biggest difference is that in "standard" D&D its cultural and artistic influences are so thoroughly digested that, aside from the occasional infringement-skirting detail (*cough* halflings *cough*) it can be hard to trace where the pieces came from in the first place. In Kara-Tur, the mix is only half-digested, and so it's often pretty obvious when things are artlessly jammed together.

Like, did you know that the Fighter is a "more Western character type?" Good luck with figuring that out.

But I think this book's greatest sin is that it is comprehensive enough to serve as a substitute for the Player's Handbook in about 90% of use cases, and were you to use it so, the resulting game would be a naked improvement over the original. You could seriously just reskin the classes to have more "western" sounding names, like "knight" instead of "samurai" or "thief" instead of "yakuza" (although, how hilarious would it be to have a "mafioso" class?) and the balance of class abilities and progression feels so much more fitting to "European" style fantasy adventure than even the originals. Then, when you think of things that got added to this book over the base PHB, like nonweapon proficiencies and psychic duels, it's just a superior starting point all around.

And the reason that ranks as a sin is because it really strips "western"-style D&D of a lot of its excuses. So much in mainline D&D is taken for granted or done out of habit that when you see a game that is empowered to innovate, you can't help but question why the core is so loathe to change.

Samurais should be Fighters. If you were designing a game that was merely inclusive, rather than actively orientalist, then that decision is obvious. But, maybe Fighters should have the ability to draw on an aura of menace gained from surviving battlefield after battlefield, to drive lesser combatants away in mortal terror. Maybe they should get the ability to call on hidden reserves of strength. Maybe they could use a few more nonweapon proficiency slots, to represent their training in the courtly arts and/or the essential skills of the soldier.

It's frustrating to see. Because I can't help but think the reason we're seeing these character classes with interesting abilities and well-thought-out setting and genre niches is because this is a book about the "mysterious and exotic Orient" (blech) and thus it would be overselling its premise if its characters were merely "normal."

So my final verdict here is ambivalence. I think this is a pretty well-made product, and it's probably the first AD&D book that I consistently enjoyed reading. But I just don't see how you can sit down, in 2019, and say to a group of friends, "you know what would be fun? Oriental Adventures?" Hell, I think that if you're Asian, hearing the blurb on the back of the book - "The mysterious and exotic Orient, land of spices and warlords, has at last opened her gates to the West" - gives you an unlimited pass to use the nearest white person's shower for as long as it takes to scrub off the sleaze.

UKSS Contribution: There's actually quite a lot of neat stuff in this book, and I find when it comes to monsters and magic and whatnot, that this book takes setting and narrative concerns more seriously than prior D&D products (you can usually tell at a glance which spells are new vs which are reprints based purely on the length of the description). The problem is that I have a feeling that I'm going to get another bite at the apple with a lot of the more distinctive representatives of Asian mythology.

So I'll just go with something simple that nonetheless made for a delightful image - the Vessel spell. When you cast it, you fold a paper boat and put it in the water, where it grows to full-size and sails itself at you command, before dissolving a couple of hours later. That's the sort of specific, whimsical fantasy conceit that always gets to me.