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.