Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide

Waagh! Work is hard! Believe it or not, I read this book as fast as I could (days off playing video games notwithstanding). But for some reason, people decided to stay at my hotel on weekdays for a change. Six of the the last eight days have been my busiest in close to a decade.

I only bring it up because having my reading split up like that really messes with my process. Usually, while I'm reading a book, I'll develop a thesis, and then I'll keep my eyes open for passages that support that thesis (I'd like to say I have the intellectual integrity to also keep my eyes open for contradictory passages, but we all know my initial gut reaction is never wrong). This time, though, any building theories I've had about the book have been swept from my head by a constant stream of interruptions.

Therefor, my impressions of this book are of something stitched together from disparate pieces, united only by their presence in this particular book, and given a theme only in so far as the book's setting is a direct inference from the movie canon. Something must have happened to bridge the gap between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy. This book is that something.

On the one hand, this impression is total bullshit. I don't think I need to draw a diagram between how I read The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide and my emotional reaction to the experience. And yet, there's a little bit of that feeling whenever I read any Star Wars rpg material.

I think it comes from the Star Wars universe being so diversely sourced. There's a lot of Star Wars media out there, of various degrees of canonicity and the rpgs have never been shy about mining it all. So there's always this mosaic of the familiar, the novel, and the naggingly half-remembered. Like, Thrawn is here. All I know about him is that he's king shit of the EU, so I guess he played a role in the transition between Republic and Empire? Similarly, the Dark Side Prophets - were they those guys hanging out with the Emperor in Return of the Jedi? Or are they entirely an invention of the books? Does it matter?

What's interesting is that The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide ostensibly draws inspiration not just from generic inter-movie gap-filling, but from a specific piece of Star Wars media. One I am intimately familiar with because I recently played it twice in a row for reasons that now seem obscure and confusing.

(Un?)fortunately, this book doesn't do anything super interesting with The Force Unleashed background. We learn a bit about Juno Eclipse's atrocities and that Proxy is a robot with the skills of an experienced Jedi knight (literally, a level 9 Jedi - normally it takes until level 7 to qualify for the Jedi Knight prestige class), but nothing that would make Starkiller even the slightest bit more charismatic or the plot of the games any less eye-rolling. I guess in 2008, it was a boon to the rpg to tie into an exciting new video game, but in retrospect, it adds less than nothing here. The book has a remarkable "Campaign Guidelines" chapter that gives a ton of useful advice for creating suspenseful political-thriller-type games, and if you added any of The Force Unleashed crew to that, you'd almost instantly ruin it.

Overall, this is a book in search of a mission. Because it's based on filling in an empty part of the timeline, it lacks the movie-ready aesthetic of other, more popular time periods. Maybe if it were made after Rogue One, but I think the book probably makes the movie weaker, even in retrospect. I've seen this time period covered three times - Kyle Katarn's adventures, which felt like they tried entirely too hard to be marketable. Starkiller's adventures, which had that same market-pleasing sensibility, but aimed towards a different demographic. And then the story of Jyn Erso, which definitely had a stronger presentation, but also felt, in its own way, like it was riding the current historical moment.

Maybe this time period is just cursed. Maybe we were never meant to know what happened between the prequels and the original trilogy. Maybe this rpg is the best we're ever going to get.

I actually wouldn't go that far. But The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide is at worst bland. At times it really gets into its material, but then, a chapter later, it will just present generically useful stuff, like it's as good a place as any to put the Independent Droid prestige class or the power hammer melee weapon.

UKSS Contribution: From the second I picked up this book, I knew Ukss was going to be home to some version of Juno Eclipse. She has the most on-the-nose Star Wars name imaginable and was wasted in The Force Unleashed series as one half of the least convincing romantic relationship in all of fiction. I very virtuously told myself that I was going to rescue Juno Eclipse from the scrap heap of forgettable Star Wars EU characters and make her into something cool . . .

And then I learned that she was responsible for genociding an entire planet. Before she was assigned to ferry Starkiller around the universe, she had another job as the leader of Darth Vader's crack genocide squad and got her "promotion" to top-secret shuttle pilot as a "reward" for bombing the planet Callos into a radioactive wasteland.

Which . . . uh, ew. I never thought I'd say this, but she and Starkiller deserve each other.

So the Ukss contribution is still going to have Juno Eclipse, but she's going to be a fascist villain instead of a fun and rebellious antihero. Technically, that's me respecting her agency.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Complete Paladin's Handbook

Now this is what I'm talking about. The Complete Paladin's Handbook is what I remember the PHB supplement series to be - a comprehensive guide to playing a particular class with a bunch of well-thought-out, flavorful kits and roleplaying advice that is largely solid, if overly constrained by inexplicable D&Disms, and as unracist and unsexist as any product of 90s American culture can reasonably claim to be. It has its flaws, but it is on a whole other tier of quality than the first four Complete* books. That's almost certainly down to being written 4 years after The Complete Wizard's Handbook, when AD&D 2nd edition was more established and the writers were more confident about what the game was and what players actually wanted.

Now, to rip it apart.

No, just kidding. The only real "flaw" of this book is that it reads like an accidental Pendragon supplement. Which comes as no surprise, since D&D paladins are basically Arthurian knights with the serial numbers filed off. It just makes it a little awkward when the setting they are clearly talking about is the County of Cornwall in Mythic Britain, but they have to pretend that they are being generic.

At times I wanted to scream "CHRISTIANITY! The think you're talking about is Christianity. That's the element that ties this all together." Honestly, the book is a little incoherent without it, and as a result can sometimes find itself flailing with the idea the Paladins are feudal knights, but not really because they are, by definition, servants of "Lawful Good," and so their main source of inspiration only lines up with AD&D's anachronistic cosmopolitan polytheist fantasy but coincidentally.

However, I want to make clear that The Complete Paladin's Handbook is the first book of this series that I would unreservedly describe as "good." Like The Complete Wizard's Handbook, it's undermined by the implicit setting assumptions that stem from AD&D's patched-together mechanics, but the Wizard book was also, on top of that, kind of a crummy book. With the possible exception of the Witch kit, it didn't really seem to know what people liked about wizards or understand the variety of mystic archetypes the class was capable of.

This book doesn't have that problem. It knows what it's on about, and it sells the Paladin class very effectively. So effectively, in fact, that you can see where it strains against the limits of AD&D's rules.

There are two main culprits here. The first is AD&D's unnecessarily specific strictures about the Paladin's wealth and associates. I've talked before about how AD&D 2nd edition awkwardly straddles a shift in the way rpgs are played (not my idea, but one I find convincing). This is especially apparent here. The Complete Paladin's Handbook wants to talk about things like character motivation and the way their relationship with their faith shapes the world around them, but sometimes it gets stuck having to reconcile itself with early AD&D's paranoid style of antagonistic gamesmanship.

For example, this is a thing:
To ensure that a paladin stays within his limit, it's important to clarify who owns each of the party's magical items. In general, a paladin won't use a magical item unless it is his [. . .]

Conversely, if a paladin has 10 items, he won't borrow items from other characters. A paladin won't look for ambiguities to exploit; he remains true to the spirit as well as the letter of these rules.
Um, actually, the spirit of these rules is that a paladin has a mind elevated above base concerns like the pursuit of worldly wealth and thus does not horde treasure beyond what's necessary to see to their needs and the effective pursuit of their mission. The idea that this translates into exactly 10 magical items at all times and under all circumstances is . . . well, it's nothing. It's an artifact of a system that assumes that players are only choosing the Paladin class as a pretext for cool, holy-themed powers and that they can't be trusted to roleplay their characters in a consistent way, so you've got to put an exact number on it.

If, say, a Paladin was in the middle of clearing out a monster-infested dungeon and found a cache of 11 healing potions, it would be in the spirit of their oath to pack them all up and use them as needed, donating the remaining potions to a worthy charity once the monsters were driven off and the town was out of danger. However, that would violate the letter of their oath because each potion counts separately as one magic item, and so even if the Paladin started with only mundane equipment, they would have to preemptively designate one of those potions off-limits and not use it even if drinking the potion meant the difference between victory and defeat.

Which brings us nicely to the second of the two culprits - D&D's alignment system. It's bad. That is all.

No? Sigh. Okay.

The thing that makes Paladins such a great character class is that they are knights who walk the walk. All that stuff about truth, justice, valor, mercy, and charity? They actually believe it. A Paladin's natural foil, then, is a hierarchy that does not (and, in your more thoughtful works, cannot) live up to their standard. And yet so much of this book revolves around policing the Lawful Good alignment, as if that were an objective thing that could be measured and taken into account. As if feudal governance itself weren't a deeply flawed system that perpetuates routine cruelties to sustain itself. As if "all of your hirelings must be of Lawful Good alignment" doesn't become absurd when you're talking about setting up morality traps for the guy you've hired to do the tile in your castle.

The book is pretty clear. A Paladin must renounce their allegiance if the organization they serve ever stops being Lawful Good, but it elides the most interesting questions of the Paladin's condition - like, how would they even know? Maybe the deep corruption of the organization is offset by good members, like the Paladin. Maybe the organization is corrupt, but still generally does good work, or at least allows the Paladin to do better work than they could do alone. Maybe it still ostensibly stands for Lawful Good ideals, and could be reformed. Maybe a public break with a trusted organization, even if it has become corrupt, could undermine the public's trust in Lawful Good ideals. Maybe destroying the organization would cause more harm than letting its corruption continue? Maybe it's all those things at once.

A pretty interesting situation for a Paladin to be in, no? Unfortunately, Lawful Good is a thing with very clear and precise boundaries which can be detected with Paladin magic, so, eh?

The book never quite squares the desire to place a Paladin into a realistic feudal context with the fact that the D&D rules mean that a truly feudal Paladin should lose their powers almost instantly. Like, for all that it talks about Paladins shunning excess wealth, it also talks about them maintaining the accoutrements of the gentry and attending aristocratic galas. Which would be fine if AD&D were the sort of game that could let boundaries blur, but it isn't, and the book never quite forgets that it isn't.

The result is a book that is mostly very good, with only the occasional total absurdity.

UKSS Contribution: This one was a nail-biter, because its genre was barely D&D, and even less Ukss. I was worried I'd have to make another major compromise. Luckily, something came along that did not simply allow me to avoid incorporating chivalrous romance, but which I would probably have unironically chosen regardless of any genre concerns.

The Barding of Aerial Excellence. You put this armor on your horse, say the command word, and suddenly your destrier has sprouted 20-foot span metal wings! Take to the skies on a techno-organic fusion of horse and technology you wonderful religious fanatic, you!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Starships of the Galaxy

I have to confess an embarrassing personal fantasy - I dream of one day having a roleplaying group that gets really into it. Like, if we're playing Vampire: the Masquerade then they will remind me when the time comes for a Humanity or Frenzy check. Or, with Shadowrun, maybe they'll really get into the Matrix rules and memorize them by heart. Or, to pick a totally random third example, we'll be playing Star Wars Saga Edition, and I'll announce that there's a massive space battle and it's time to roll out the grid, and they'll respond with an enthusiastic "hell yeah!"

It is in pursuit of this fantasy that I bought (and, indeed, continue to buy) books like Starships of the Galaxy. It's a book that is entirely about one particular subsystem of the SWSE rules, expands those rules to make them more complex and involved, and then dares people to use it. It's not the most baroque space combat system I've seen, not by a longshot, but it definitely requires a player to be mentally invested in it, and sadly, that's not something I've ever seen happen.

Of course, part of my problem might be that I'm the one that obsessively collects supplements and then systematically reads them whenever we play a game, but also I'm invested in at least a dozen different gamelines, and flit between them at a whim, so my players never really get the time necessary to become true experts in any given game. But that would imply that my problems are somehow my own fault . . .

Anyway, the bulk of this book is taken up by descriptions of the various, um, starships of the galaxy, and they're . . . fine. They're statted like monsters, and SWSE's monster design is some of the worst in the d20 family, but if you assume all the encounter-interesting stuff is going to be done by fleshed out NPCs, they work okay. It was a neat nostalgia trip seeing these familiar designs from the movies, and I've got a feeling that if I were more into the expanded universe, then that sensation would only have grown.

Overall, this was exactly the sort of super-specialized book that I come to prize as an essential GMing reference. Dry as hell, of course, but I'm not (usually) reading it for pleasure.

UKSS Contribution: Ooh, I was hoping this day would not come quite so soon. I am at a crossroads, and am forced to make a choice. But first, let me explain a certain implicit design principle that I've been using for awhile, but have not yet expressly articulated - Ukss is one world.

So, I wanted Ukss to be a kitchen sink setting, taking a little bit from every rpg book I read to produce something gloriously over-the-top. However, I've been avoiding two ideas in particular - alternate universes and interplanetary travel. And the reason for this is simply that they make the kitchen sink idea too trivial. Have something that doesn't quite fit with your previously established canon? Easy, it happened in an alternate universe, or on a distant planet. There can be a fantasy world, a steampunk world, a transhuman world, a roman world, whatever. They don't have to interact with or inform each other in any way.

It was my hope that I could do Ukss without ever introducing the idea of outer space. But this book here, it's all about exactly that. You can't read Starships of the Galaxy and not deal with the idea of space travel.

Now, there's a loophole. Certain things that could be adapted. Maybe the Millenium Falcon could be an airship (hey, it worked for Final Fantasy XII). Or, hey, Admiral Akbar is mentioned by name several times. He could be a naval admiral instead of a space admiral, but basically the same character. It wouldn't even be a totally fatuous choice. I like good ol' Akbar just fine. And he's a squid-person, so commanding a ship at sea would actually make total sense for him . . .

But I realized, while working through those ideas, that I was violating the spirit of the UKSS project. I think the fact that I spent the better part of a week updating the setting may have influenced me. I started to feel more like the setting's author than its curator. I didn't want to include any of the space stuff because it didn't match my vision of what Ukss was like.

I think I have to do the honorable thing here and kill my darling. I must follow the source material wherever it leads, even if it results in setting details that don't jibe with my imagination. Therefor - the main UKSS contribution from this book is going to be the very concept of space travel itself.

But because I learned my lesson about choosing too abstract an idea when I couldn't find a place for "swashbuckling" I'm going to reify that contribution by choosing the actual coolest thing in the book (sorry, Admiral Akbar) - The Super Star Destroyer.

That's right, Ukss is going to have a 19km long, bristling with weapons, wedge-shaped space battleship orbiting it like a second moon.

Deal with it.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Complete Wizard's Handbook

The first thing The Complete Wizard's Handbook does is discuss the nuances of the game's eight schools of magic. It was somewhere around the second page of this, when they were explaining that the Alteration school got Melf's Minute Meteors and Death Fog as their heavy-hitting offensive options that I finally allowed myself to admit something that had been building for a long time - the AD&D magic system is bullshit.

This is hardly a fresh observation, and I'd be almost embarrassed to make it, but I think my criticism here is a bit different than the boilerplate. Most people focus on the baroque spellcasting mechanics which cause you to play a very peculiar type of resource management game that doesn't remotely resemble anything in fiction (and to be clear, there is some advice on that subject here and it does, indeed emphasize how unwieldy and awkward it is to try and play "second-guess what the DM has planned for the day" every time you memorize your spells). However, when I say "the AD&D magic system is bullshit" I'm instead focusing on the fact that there is no rhyme or reason to what spells wizards get except that it is canonically true that the wizard spell set as a whole can do almost anything, shy of healing wounds and bringing back the dead.

I mean, they devote a little more than a page to adjudicating the Wish spell, and for fuck's sake why is there a "Wish" spell in this game? What sort of half-assed "our mechanical typewriters didn't have delete keys back then" brand of game design went in to approving that monstrosity? It's not thematic. It's not flavorful. It's barely even fun. What little entertainment there is in the spell lies in when the DM tries to twist your wish to stop it from being overpowered, and you can really only do that once or twice before it gets old, so why do they keep putting it in the game, allowing it to distort the upper ends of the power curve and suck up so much DM advice real estate?

Oh, right, because this is Dungeons and Goddamned Dragons and every idea anyone ever had is canon except Warlords and the "mysterious lands of the east."

Oops, that came off across as a little angrier than I intended, but in the spirit of AD&D, I'm going to leave it in and just treat it as an unalterable fact I'm forced to contend with until the end of time. What started this rant was The Complete Wizard's Handbook's handling of Alteration specialists and the way that was like the Wish spell in miniature, revealing the game's purported taxonomy of the mystic arts to be nothing but a tissue of lies.

What does the "Alteration" school do? It alters things. As in, changes one thing to another. Or changes the location of a thing, you know, by moving it. And when I say "thing" I'm getting pretty abstract here. One of the things you can change is Time. Speed time, slow time, stop time, that sort of deal. And when I say "change" . . . eh.

Let's get a refresher on Melf's Minute Meteors - what it does is create a bunch of little fireballs that you can throw at your enemies. It doesn't require any existing fires to transmute into balls, nor any existing balls to transmute into fire. They just come from nowhere and you can throw them. The only thing being "altered" here is your state of not having fireballs to a state of indeed having fireballs.

That's what Alteration does. It's the type of magic where after you use it something has changed. And you can specialize in it. You can play a wizard specializes, specializes, in using magic to make things different than they were before.

And that, ultimately, is why the AD&D magic system is bullshit. All of your fantasy elements are spells. All of the spells can be used by one of two classes. Other classes can use some magic to a lesser degree that isn't really competitive and doesn't help them all that much (if your 9th level paladin is getting a significant power boost from their one first level spell per day, perhaps you need to reconsider your build), so much so that it almost seems tacked on. The result is just huge asymmetries in what the classes can do and how much they can participate in the world's fantasy.

It's incredibly frustrating.

Oh, yeah, also the racist shit is back. "Savage wizard" just makes me want to hurt somebody, and the Wu Jen is our most nakedly orientalist class option yet. They have strange taboos that they must observe to keep their magic. "[They] may seem trivial, or even ridiculous to other characters, [but] the Wu Jen takes them quite seriously."

How can a wizard be superstitious, TSR? How can a wizard be superstitious?

Anyway, my numerical verdict is 6/10. The thing that's broken about the book is merely that which is broken about AD&D as a whole, and The Complete Wizard's Handbook is generally perfectly serviceable within that context. And the racism isn't unique to the book. I owe the author of the Fighter's and Priest's books an apology. Because the Thief's book didn't have the more problematic kits, I thought they were his inventions, but I see now that there was some kind of editorial mandate from the top (and here, the Amazon Wizard having the exact same special ability as the Amazon Warrior not only doesn't make sense, it doesn't even help her with her primary shtick). So really, what this book is is a few extra spells and magic items, some beginner roleplaying advice, and a guide to casting spells under water.

UKSS Contribution - The Sage Tree. It's a tree, haunted by the ghosts of hundreds of sages. It can answer questions, but only after it's argued with itself about it first. It's a pretty neat image, and one which has some versatile uses.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Complete Priest's Handbook

I think I may be too long out of the AD&D bubble, because I can't for the life of me discern what the point of this book is supposed to be. For what it's worth, it seems to be trying to be comprehensive, giving rules for 60-odd types of specialty Priest, but there's a treacherous part of me that suspects that all this wouldn't have been necessary were it not for AD&D's half-assed character customization.

Certainly, I have failed to appreciate the necessity of giving nuanced descriptions of the followers the Priest receives based on their choice of religion. A priest of Lightning gets "three third-level priests and six first-level priests of the same priesthood and one fifth-level warrior, two third-level warriors, and four first-level warriors." Whereas a priest of Thunder gets "three third-level priests and six first-level priests of the same order, plus three third level fighters and six first-level fighters to act as guards."

Why are you doing this, Complete Priest's Handbook, especially when you already established that the followers a priest got depended on the player's preferences, the circumstances surrounding their stronghold, and what made sense for the game? The book is only 128 pages. Why waste two paragraphs per entry making the game less flexible? You surely weren't in need of extra padding.

(Then again . . . Lightning AND Thunder . . . maybe ideas were running low)

Nonetheless, I guess there might be some utility here. It's a ready-made guide that allows players to jump into any of a number of fantasy religions without anything being more than incidentally unbalanced (as opposed to letting the player deliberately game the system by choosing the right combination of abilities a la carte).

And the surrounding advice about creating a religion and working out a priest's role in the campaign world was . . . okay. It lacked anthropological insight and seemed, at times, to draw too heavily on medieval Catholicism, but if you're starting from square one, it's a decent enough place to start.

The only thing left worth mentioning is that this book has all the same gender and racial problems as The Complete Fighter's Handbook, but that's not a surprise since it's the exact same author. A lot of the kits are one-to-one correspondences with the Fighter kits (such as Amazon Priestess, Barbarian Priest, Outlaw Priest, Noble Priest, Peasant Priest and, sigh, Savage Priest) and the Amazon has the exact same baffling "men underestimate me" weakness. The Savage Priest is . . . slightly less racist, possibly because being in touch with mystical forces and cleaving to an otherworldly morality is what Priests are supposed to do anyway.

I'm convinced the author meant well, but missed the execution. In the section with the Specialty Priest builds, gods would fall into one of four categories - usually male, either male or female, usually female or . . . always male. (To be fair, there is also exactly one "always female" god - the goddess of wisdom, but it certainly didn't fit a trend). I couldn't begin to tell you the logic of how these work, but for this enlightened 21st century reviewer, they seemed to be mostly arbitrary, with just a bit of gender essentialism put in ("The strength-god is male." Okay, tough guy, whatever you say.)

The funny thing about this series so far is that I have such positive memories of the red books as a group. That's why I went through so much effort to get a nearly complete set (that damned $35 Complete Barbarian's Handbook) But to varying degrees they've all been disappointments so far. Not entirely useless, but not the indispensable game-changing reference guides I've been remembering. I guess it's true that you can't go home again.

UKSS Contribution: There are a few cute details in this book. Like the suggestion that priests of the God of Metalwork oversee the minting of coins. Or that priests of ELEMENTAL FORCE have a duty to officiate weddings. But I'm going to go with something brought up in a discussion of how Priests might have to participate in holidays and festivals - Vine Day.

Vine Day is scheduled after the last of the grape harvest comes in and is a celebration of all things wine. It's basically fantasy Mardi Gras. Since Mardi Gras itself has a lot of gaming potential, I figure off-brand knock-off Mardi Gras should be almost as good.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

I promise, I've been working! (Ukss update)

Those of you who have been following along with the blog may have noticed that I've been shamefully lax in keeping the Universal Kitchen Sink Setting up to date. It's been stressing me out for months, becoming a bigger and bigger project with each day that I procrastinated. But there's good news - I bit the bullet and just sat down over the last few days and pounded it out. I am now completely current . . .

With the exception of "Swashbuckling" from The Complete Fighter's Handbook. It seemed like a good inclusion at the time, because swashbuckling is super fun, but it's sooo abstract. I don't know what I'm supposed to do with it. There's some implied swashbuckling in the Wardens of the Sky section, but that's pretty vague. I thought about arranging a duel between Baron Von Hendricks and Ledaal Kes, but that would be an rpg-crossover fanfic deep cut that would resonate with approximately 3 people in the whole world. Let's just call this an open ticket, okay.

In the future, I hope to keep up with it by adding entries as I read the books, but that's just an aspiration. I don't want to commit myself to anything too rigorous at this point.

Going forward, there is a danger that Ukss might too quickly mutate into its own thing. I found myself tempted, several times, to smooth out details in order to make the entries work better with each other. Ideally, that's where we'll end up, but for now I've still got a couple hundred books left to read and I want to leave the door open to more core ideas.

Anyway, check it out - it was a lot more work than I initially suspected when I proposed this silly idea.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Jedi Academy Training Manual

I've always been a bit ambivalent about the Star Wars Extended Universe. I approve of it in principle. I'm glad it exists. I definitely think that everyone who wants to should be allowed to write their own Star Wars stories. Yet I've never really been able to connect with it. Sometimes I'll hear about something that sounds kind of cool, like, say the Fallanassi, which is a Force-based religion that believes its adepts should submit to the Force rather than try to control it. It fills more or less the same niche as the Jedi, but it's got a totally different feel to it. That's the sort of thing I like - consistent with the established lore, but giving it new nuance and context.

But just as often, when I hear about something from the Expanded Universe, it's more like Irek Ismaren, who has lightsabers "implanted in his wrists, elbows, and knees." Sure, lightsabers are cool, but that's too many lightsabers.

I think what it comes down to is that Star Wars, to me, is a series of movies. The prequels and the sequels and spin-off tv shows can introduce whatever half-baked nonsense they want, and because it's on the screen, accompanied by pretty exploding lights, I buy into it. The written word has a steeper hill to climb. No novel is ever going to "feel like" Star Wars to me (though video games or comics might) and a summary of a novel in an otherwise unrelated rpg book has even less of a chance.

That being said, there are a lot of good rpg ideas in this book and it is obvious that we owe that almost entirely to the expanded universe. Like I said, ambivalence.

The main reason I bought Jedi Academy Training Manual in the first place was the expanded Force options. They seem okay. A few start to get a little outside the boundaries of what's been established in the movies (like the one that lets you touch things and set them on fire), but that's okay. If you're going to do the thing where you reskin Saga edition to be a different sort of fantasy game, this book is a good resource for giving your mages more things to do.

Overall, I liked it. It's a fairly comprehensive take on its subject matter, for being only ~160 pages, and if some of the ideas it ported over from the EU were goofy as hell (and also there are too many Skywalkers, plus Kyle Katarn was there and he and I have a history) then at least another, better idea is usually just a page or two away.

UKSS Contribution: Tricky, because UKSS is only a little bit Star Wars, but I kind of like the Wardens of the Sky. They're a Force-using tradition that has taken it upon themselves to watch for trouble in the interstellar-travel industry.

And while both the Force and space travel are unlikely to make it into UKSS, I do like the idea of a vigilante conspiracy that hangs around ports of call and has thrilling martial arts battles with pirates. So, possibly mutated, the Wardens of the Sky will have their niche.

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Complete Thief's Handbook

It's kind of weird that "thief" is one of the major AD&D classes. It's something I've always glossed over. Like, I've just taken it for granted that "clever, sneaky guy with a variety of useful skills and an endless reservoir of dirty tricks" is a classic fantasy adventure archetype, and I figured that if you're basing a class around it, you have to call it something, so I never really questioned why AD&D should feature "thieves" so prominently.

But holy shit, guys, AD&D thieves are supposed to be thieves.

Long-time readers of the blog are undoubtedly shaking their heads and saying something catty like "there's those famous John Frazer powers of observation at work again," but honestly I don't think I'm the asshole here (also, screw you, people I just made up!) Your character class isn't really your job, right? You may have "thief" written down on your sheet, but that's not what you do for a living. Your job is "fantasy adventurer." You don't make money by robbing rich merchants and mugging people in dark alleys, but instead by exploring ancient ruins, slaying fearsome monsters, and confronting strange magics.

So it would be weird if you took a group of people who only practice lock picking when they encounter a dread portal or oddly over-sized treasure chest and treated them like they were career criminals - mob safecrackers who only do that dragon-fighting shit as a hobby. Right?


Anyway, a couple of mediocre kits aside (Q: what do Adventurers, Investigators, and Spies have in common? A: "no special abilities or hindrances") this book is all about playing urban criminals in heist- and intrigue- focused games. It has a niche, then. In the right circumstances, it could be very useful. But it also puts that terrible line from D&D Basic into context. It would be in-character for PC thieves to steal from their party because stealing stuff is just what they do. It's not just a name for a class.

Despite the shocking narrowness of its subject matter, I thought The Complete Thief's Handbook was a very solid entry in the series. It has much fewer race/gender gaffes than The Complete Fighter's Handbook. One example of referring to people as "savages" and a hilarious section that gives stealth advice that basically amounts to "wear blackface." Forgivable, because it really was just night camouflage with no ulterior implications, but also kind of shitty in that the book is openly assuming all of your characters are going to be white.

Still, it's progress of a sorts, and I'm confident that by the time I get to the end of this series, I may even encounter a book with nothing embarrassing in it at all.

UKSS Contribution: The book devotes quite a lot of territory to various kinds of thieves' guilds, so I'm probably going to go with some form of organized crime, but I think I can narrow it down at least a little bit. I liked the suggestion of a criminal circus, even if the book did go a bit over-the-top in dragging it as a hoary old cliche ("Players with any degree of gaming experience will have learned to keep well away from circuses.")

I also really liked the suggestion that the head of the thieves guild could be some sort of supernatural creature. So maybe a sinister carnival that's secretly run by a demon?

Or should I save that for when I get around to reading the Carnivale rpg?