Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Star Wars Saga Edition - Chapters 9-16

Part 1

I'm on the fence about whether SWSE's comprehensiveness counts as a strength or a weakness. On the one hand, it's a one-volume Star Wars rpg. The core book has everything you need. Not just heroes, but creatures, droids, vehicles, setting, campaign suggestions, and GMing advice. It's a hell of a bargain, and you'd be hard pressed to find a more thorough book at 240 pages.

And yet, the downside to that thoroughness is that a lot of the GM stuff feels half-baked. The setting chapter is 10 pages, with 19 planets getting about a half-page each (and these are SWSE's oddly-sized square pages, at that). It's not really enough. The locations get a quick outline at a very high level of abstraction. Enough to start the work of world-building, but literally only the first step.

The creatures are even worse. The Star Wars universe has a bunch of wild and improbable space monsters, but the book just sort of throws up its hands and gives you a barely-functional class system with which to build them yourself.

There are examples of how it will work, covering some of the series' most iconic creatures, but if you used the Rancor's stats as written, you'd be setting your party up for one of the worst fights not only in d20, but possibly in all of D&D-family gaming. It's basically D&D Basic-level monster technology, but with none of that system's virtues of simplicity. Luckily, D&D 4e monsters are fairly easy to adapt to SWSE, so the universe of the game need not be barren, but using the core only, you'd have to seriously consider using humanoid enemies exclusively.

However, I am not sure I really need to ding SWSE for this. We all know what Star Wars is, and what a Star Wars story should look like.  Because of that, the book's paucity of setting information isn't really that much of a problem. I'm not sure what the overlap is between "people who want to play a Star Wars rpg" and "people who need the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire meticulously explained to them," but I'm certain it isn't large.

In the end, my verdict on this game is colored by my experiences with it. I ran a SWSE game that was basically core-only (the supplements were available to use, but I'm the only person who ever read them) and it ranks as one of my better rpg experiences. The players all had a lot of fun, and my baseline familiarity with the material let me do a lot of worldbuilding without consulting the books. So, for the sake of notalgia, if nothing else (certainly, it's improbable that a lot of new players are going to swallow the $70 price tag a used book fetches on Amazon) I have to give this a thumbs up.

(Enough that I'm looking forward to running a new game with it, at least).

UKSS Contribution: I think this is a milestone. The first primarily sci-fi game to go into UKSS (Heroes Unlimited had sci-fi elements, but superpowers are easy to reskin as magic). I'm excited to see what reading these books is going to do to UKSS' genre.

Still, I had to work a little with this one, so as to avoid borrowing anything too iconic to the movies. I wound up correlating something from the Species chapter with a blurb about one of the planets in the setting chapter - Ithorian floating eco-cities.

These Ithorians are weird snail-creatures that love environmentalism and specialize in rehabilitating ecologically devastated worlds. They are so committed to ecology that on their home world, they don't even live on the ground anymore. Their cities fly above the earth, presumably using some sort of low-emissions sci-fi-type engines.

That little detail might be cool for a druid-inspired faction in UKSS.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Star Wars Saga Edition - Chapters 1-8

Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Guide to the Anarchs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then you also have stuff like this:

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

Material conditions, people. Have you heard of them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Complete Fighter's Handbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The verdict today?

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

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

Monday, June 10, 2019

AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Tome of Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Book of Artifacts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two case studies.

Case #1 - Queen Ehlissa's Marvelous Nightengale.

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

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

Its curse?

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

Case #2 - Scepter of the Sorcerer Kings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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