Friday, August 30, 2019

The Complete Book of Dwarves

I'm going to have to try my best not to be overly backhanded in this post, because The Complete Book of Dwarves is really well done for what it is, but what it is is something that maybe didn't need to be done at all. It's hard to say. Time has such a funny way of playing tricks on your perceptions.

You know how dwarves keep popping up in fantasy fiction, and everyone seems to have their own take on them? Dragon Age has them engaged in complex political scheming. Terry Pratchett used them as a comic metaphor for the immigrant experience. The Elder Scrolls says they're an ancient, technologically advanced species that vanished mysteriously after they tried to industrialize God (or whatever is going on in that backstory - I never bothered to find out exactly). You get a sense that all of these different takes are playing off something, some common fantasy inspiration that they all nevertheless saw fit to dramatically change.

This book is that something. Probably not directly. I'm not saying the creators of The Elder Scrolls read The Complete Book of Dwarves, specifically. But they were reacting to an idea, some base grounding of fantasy dwarves that was undoubtedly compelling, but also flawed enough that they saw a need to tinker. And it is here, in this book, that those dwarves get their fullest and most complete write-up.

I hate to use the word "generic" when describing fantasy, because that's only a short way from conceding that certain fantasy tropes are "standard" (and oh, the fights I got into when D&D4 came out and people were insisting that tieflings were more "exotic" than gnomes), but to the degree that intellectual honesty requires me to admit that I understand what people mean when they say "standard fantasy," this book is generic as hell.

And here is where I have to tread carefully, because I don't want to imply that it's bad. It's just . . . something I don't need any more. Oh, I remember when I got my first copy of this book, back in middle school. I loved it. I took it with me everywhere. I was devastated when someone stole it from my backpack. I think if you're 12 or 13 years old, there's a lot you're seeing for the first time, and maybe there is a lot of human texture and nuance that you're not quite mature enough to expect. A book about short, taciturn, performatively macho hairy dudes is just taken at face value. You don't ask the obvious questions.

Dwarf men outnumber dwarf women by 2-to-1? That means that a gay dwarf bar called "The Underground" has a roughly 100% chance of existing, right? I mean, as a young, immature boy I definitely picked up on some weird psychosexual stuff going on with how dwarves were presented in a very gendered way, but I lacked the vocabulary to handle it gracefully (which is a shame, because then maybe it wouldn't have taken me until I was 33 years old to come to terms with my own sexuality).

Also, what's the difference, really, between a dwarf and a goblin? It's relevant here because dwarves' opinions on goblins are extremely ugly. Like "these filthy subhumans are invading our lands and threatening to breed us out of existence so we must exterminate them to the last child," level ugly. It's difficult for an enlightened, 21st-century reader to get a handle on. Dwarves refer to goblins with Nazi-style rhetoric, but it's okay because in D&D world, all those stereotypes are true? It's a very uncomfortable question that gets to the heart of the D&D experience, and I don't know how to answer it except to say that I've completely abandoned the idea of an "evil race" in my personal games (except, perhaps, for metaphysically evil creatures like demons and vampires) exactly because seeing it here, in its most unreflective purity, is an absolutely hair-raising experience.

I guess my criticism of this book boils down to the fact that it's doing that weird AD&D thing where it self-consciously tries to stick to "standard" fantasy even while it is in the process of creating it. D&D Basic (and presumably OD&D) was often unexpectedly and aggressively weird, and so much of AD&D seems like an attempt to scale that back. The aim appears to be to create a truly universal guide, that can be used by players, regardless of what the DM is doing with their campaign, and by DMs, regardless of what the players come into the campaign expecting. To create, in essence, the dwarfiest dwarves imaginable. The final effect, though, feels a lot like it's just chasing popularity

How else do you explain the presence of Dragonlance's gully dwarves? They were bad in the source material. They're bad here. Every time the writer remembers they're supposed to exist, they make whatever he was talking about worse. Seeing as how there's no conspicuous mention of Dragonlance as an AD&D product (not even an ad in the end pages), I've got to assume that they were catering to existing Dragonlance fans, rather than trying to promote a profitable IP.

If you can accept that this is an extremely conservative presentation of the subject matter that takes basically no risks, and that you're going to get a couple of misguided mechanics that are quintessentially AD&D (randomly generate dwarven strongholds by consulting more than a dozen different tables! a pointlessly detailed mining system! alignments, still!), then The Complete Book of Dwarves is well-written and attractively presented (one thing I keep meaning to talk about in these posts is how consistently great the art is in these books - there are full-page color pieces that any fantasy nerd would be proud to frame and hang up on a wall). But honestly, if you've seen, read, or played any media with dwarves in it made in the past 30 years, you won't be surprised by anything you read here.

UKSS Contribution: The time has finally come to reveal a decision I privately made a while back about what I was going to do about all these fantasy species that are basically just "short humans with a shtick." They're goblins. All of them. Dwarves, halflings, gnomes . . . even goblins. They're all just going to be different cultures of a single underground-dwelling race of earth-themed clever folk.

I've made a similar choice with elves, but I'll talk about that when I finally get around to their sourcebook. This is just a heads up. When you go through Ukss, looking for dwarves, check under "G" in the index (ha, like this will ever get an index).

With that in mind, what's my choice for The Complete Book of Dwarves? I really like the name "Deep Dwarves," but if I'm being 100% honest, it's kind of wasted here. This book's Deep Dwarves were an afterthought. There's none of the worldbuilding you'd expect from the premise of  "there's a race that is defined by living underground, and then, within that race, there's an offshoot that lives deeper underground than any of them." Here, they're just kind of like "okay, their bonuses and penalties will be more intense versions of the near-surface dwarves, but culturally, they're . . . neutral? Yeah, neutral. That's the ticket."

I have to resist the urge to project onto them the wonderful cultural depth of Terry Pratchett's deep dwarfs. The Complete Book of Dwarves Deep Dwarves are nowhere near that interesting.

So what I'm going to do is take from this book the concept of dwarves in general, but I'm going to call them "Deep Goblins." Hopefully that will be interesting enough, once I get the other goblin types in play.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Luna Rising: Psi Order ISRA & Luna Sourcebook

This book is sooo 90s. I'm eventually going to make the argument that Mage: the Ascension is the most 90s rpg imaginable, but this book here is pretty darned close. I suppose it's something that could be said of Trinity as a whole, but even so Luna Rising is where the game line's 90s tendencies are given their fullest license to run wild.

What does this mean, exactly? Well, it's not just one thing, it's a lot of little things. One of the bioapps is described as a "zip-drive for the brain," which was an analogy that was helpful for, like, a minute. More significant is its approach to inclusiveness. I don't want to make this a thing, because it was really quite good for 1998 (and, hell, good for 2019 - it would definitely piss off gamergate if it was made today), but also sort of mired in the decade's low level background insensitivity.

For example, one of the profiled NPCs is an activist fighting for the rights of people with a common Moon-induced disability. He's presented in a very positive light, and is quite unambiguously a heroic figure (which relates to another 90's-ism - a lot of shadowy conspiracies and people not being what they seem in this book), but then the last sentence of his write-up is  "Dante Miller is a charismatic social figure, despite his frequent confinement to a wheelchair." They were so close to getting it right, but that word, "despite," it's rough.

I'm inclined to cut Luna Rising some slack there, though, because I just saw what full-on 90s obliviousness looks like in The Complete Barbarian's Handbook, and this isn't even close. It really does seem like they were trying their best. There's even what we would today call a gender-non-binary character, who is handled with relative grace. There's a thing about her description that's kind of a trope among LGTBQ-friendly people of my generation, where she's just too fabulous to be confined to one gender (and I'll admit, it's a blindspot, even to me, today), but if you can accept that it's a very particular late-90s brand of woke, she's a pretty good sample NPC.

But the single most 90s thing about this book is something so subtle and ubiquitous in the background that I'm not even sure it was a conscious artistic choice. Basically, the premise of Luna Rising is that in the future, we are going to export capitalism to the Moon, and it will mostly work out okay.

I don't want to get all Marxist, hoist-the-red-flag, here and go on about how capitalists will surely fuck up the Moon, just like they fucked up the Earth. That's not the point I'm trying to make. Rather, the triumph of Moon-capitalism is conspicuous in how the book just treats it as a matter-of-fact. Of course there are going to be corporations and class stratification on the Moon. The conspicuous consumption of the rich and the criminal tendencies of the poor are just how human nature works.

It's not necessarily an endorsement of the capitalist system. You've got corporations performing dangerous and unethical science experiments and the richest of the rich subverting the justice system. And I've got a strong feeling that at least one of the writers was an outright Marxist (I don't think the sentence "Lenin's legacy of state capitalism is essentially dead on Earth," could have been written by anybody but a 90s leftist). Yet there's a peculiar resignation here. There was a feeling, characteristic of the elder Bush and Clinton administrations, that geopolitics was a solved problem. That the trajectory of the human race was towards a sort of homogenous liberal capitalism that would lead to increasing regional and global cooperation and a blurring of national borders. This historical paradigm is bone-deep in Trinity (the core has a background called Citizenship, which lets you be a legal citizen of up to 6 countries), but it's especially prevalent here on the Moon.

Various nations of Earth established Lunar colonies over the past century (90s alert: the Russian colony is called Yeltsingrad) and while they are independently governed, they've all signed on to a Lunar Unity Agreement that ensures they are able to cooperate on certain important matters. What, specifically, you might ask. Oh, you know, law enforcement, extradition, disaster relief, and, of course, a unified currency based on the . . . ahem . . . platinum standard (I'm sorry, that plot point will never stop being funny to me). Basically they cover all the bases of the turn of the century "political consensus." The only settlements not to sign on are shady corporations, disorganized squatters, and . . . ugh . . . libertarians.

In the end, the weirdest thing about Luna Rising's vision of the moon is how utterly not weird it is. It's basically just cities in space. The most alien thing about it to a 21st century American is the efficiency of its public transportation. There are mutants and aliens and psychics and the occasional threat of explosive decompression, but mostly it's the sort of place where you tell the same kind of stories as any earthbound city.

I think that's probably to the game's credit, though. As I mentioned in my Technology Manual post, Trinity is not a game where you spend a lot of time trying to emulate thoughtful, idea-laden literary sci-fi. This is a game optimized for playing an amped-up version of Total Recall, and the moon is the perfect setting for that.

From a world-building perspective, I'd question the choice to make the Moon's largest city, Olympus, into a place where you've got space bankers living in elegant towers inside a giant glass dome, and then to have the poor live in crime-ridden neighborhoods with really on-the-nose names like "Underworld" and "the Pit." There are some pretty baked-in ideological assumptions going on with that kind of setup. However, from a game standpoint, it makes sense. Sometimes you have a game where people go to fancy cocktail parties to have arch conversations about politics, and you need a place for that to happen. And sometimes you have a game where psychic vigilantes have shootouts with space-gangsters, and you also need a place for that to happen. Trinity's version of Luna is a place that can fit in both scenarios. As a backdrop for sci-fi-action and/or political thrillers, it works.

But let's move on from a contentious subject like politics and into something a bit less fraught, like . . . um . . . religion (dammit).

Psi order ISRA isn't really a religion, not even a whimsical sci-fi religion, but its leader is a very religious man, and thus his faith has a strong influence on the group as a whole, and thus it becomes something worth talking about.

Only problem is, I know basically nothing about the Baha'i Faith. I first learned of its existence back in '02 or so, when I read the Trinity core book for the first time. I haven't really learned anything more about it in the subsequent years, but reading Luna Rising this time, I had an intuition that the term "Messianic Baha'i" might be Not Okay. So I did a little research, and, well, I'll just link to an actual Baha'i's thoughts on the subject. It pretty much tracks with my suspicions - Otha Herzog is a pretty cool guy, but theologically, the Baha'i Faith of Trinity is on shaky ground (but please, don't take my word for it, I'm almost completely ignorant on this subject). Also, the Arabic was butchered, but that's just par for the course.

I'm hoping this is something that gets improved in 2nd edition, because otherwise ISRA really is one of my favorite factions, not just in Trinity, but generally. They're a group that has a general goal of helping humanity, but which takes a really laid-back approach to advancing their agenda. They don't really have a hierarchy, but rather members just take it upon themselves to follow-up on any plot hooks that interest them and their leader is a guy who rarely gives orders, but will often pop in unannounced to introduce cryptic prophecies and is so personally inscrutable that you can pretty much attribute whatever happens to his mysterious plans. It's like they were custom built to make things easy for the GM.

Anyway, overall I really like this book. I think it suffers a bit from the fact that we've had some absolutely brilliant Solar System-focused sci-fi rpgs in the 20 years since this was published (a couple of which are on my list for later), and if it never reaches the heights of Transhuman Space, it does have the advantage of being in an adventure-filled pulp-sci-fi world that never lacks for things to do.

UKSS Contribution: This is tough, because I already picked ISRA as a whole as my contribution from Trinity, and they were the best part of this book as well. I guess the runners up would be the Vacuum Emergency Response teams. They're like action space plumbers. Most of the time, they run around fixing leaks in the Moon's life support systems, but sometimes those leaks are caused by invading mutants and they have to throw down. They're the only non-military group on Luna authorized to use heavy weapons. Yeah, Mario is cool, but he never had a portable rail gun.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Complete Barbarian's Handbook

I believe I've mentioned a couple of times that I was 1 book away from having a complete collection of the Player's Handbook Supplement series. I was only holding out on The Complete Barbarian's Handbook because the price online was higher than I was willing to pay. Well, about a week ago, I found a discounted copy and I decided to go for it. Nothing I hate more than having gaps in a collection . . .

Or so I thought.

This book . . .

Wow. . .

You know how I criticized the first batch of PHB Supplements for having the "Savage" Kit, which drew on uncomfortable racial stereotypes about indigenous peoples? Now, imagine an entire book worth of that, but worse.

Like, it's a little . . . embarrassing to own two books titled Oriental Adventures. That's not a good look in 2019. But the books themselves are . . . okay. A little bit problematic, but mostly just because they are conspicuously enthusiastic about drawing inspiration from East Asian folklore and cinema. Despite some (admittedly awful) exoticising of the subject matter, the first book, at least, built up Kara-Tur in the same basic manner as any other D&D setting - as a recklessly anachronistic mish-mash of everything the authors thought was cool. If a person of Asian descent gave me a pointed look and said, "Oriental Adventures? Really?" I'd blush and shuffle my feet and refuse to make eye contact, but I wouldn't worry about our relationship being in trouble. It's something we could work past.

The Complete Barbarian's Handbook?  I think . . . I think I may be ashamed to have a copy of it in my home. There's a genuine worry that one day I will die, and my survivors will be clearing out my possessions, and one of them will pick this book at random off the shelf, read a couple of paragraphs, and be like, "Did Uncle John keep a collection of white supremacist literature because he was one of those alt-right millenials we read about in history class?"

So, I first encountered the Barbarian class in D&D 3rd edition, but I never thought about it in racial terms (and if you ever want a quick definition of "White Privilege" you could do worse than "I never thought about the Barbarian in racial terms.") To me, it was more of a cross-cultural character archetype than anything you could trace back to a specific ethnic group. It was just what you called the generic heavy, the guy with the RAWR SMASH fighting style who was too earthy and uncouth to be invited to fancy dinner parties. They were the guys who fought more with ferocity than technique, and I never really questioned why they got Nature as a class skill or were always depicted wearing loincloths and fur boots.

But this is AD&D, where you can't have ninjas without fantasy Japan. Barbarians need a culture to explain where they come from. Specifically, they need a "barbaric" culture.

Let's just take a look at a couple of the Barbarian kits, shall we?

The Plainsrider. Expert horsemen. Their abilities are "counting coup" and "war cry." Huh.

Maybe the Islander. He believes in a life force called "Mana" and wears a grass skirt and shell necklace. . . Okay.

Flip forward a bit to the Barbarian priest kits. The first one, the Dreamwalker. They refer to the world we live in as "the Dreaming." Very interesting, but I'm starting to sense a pattern. Maybe we should let The Complete Barbarian's Handbook tell us what these "barbarian" cultures are like . . .

Actually, you know what, let's not. The original plan was to pull quotes from the book that showed how incredibly fucking racist it was and perhaps accompany them with a bit of snarky commentary that demonstrated that I knew exactly how awful all of these quotes were. But then my shift ended before I started writing and on my drive home, I cooled down and realized that the original plan would have been but a hair's width away from just me being a white guy sitting around and making tasteless race jokes.

I think you just have to take my word for it. This book is bad. Really bad. I am being 100% literal when I say that there were times my jaw dropped as I was reading this book because I could not believe that the words in front of me actually existed. I could not believe that a book written so recently could be so ugly.

And maybe I do have to quote something after all, lest I grant the book some kind of bad-boy mystique.  So I'm going to pick something bland and mechanical. It's not really the most racist thing in the book, but it is emblematic of the book's approach to race and/or culture:

Although there are no fixed maxima for a Barbarian's Intelligence and Charisma scores, the DM may wish to simulate his cultural limitations by a penalty from -2 to -6 (determined by the DM) to all Intelligence and Charisma checks made in the outworld. The barbarian uses his normal scores for checks in his homeland.
Yikes. I don't even know what to say to that. I think it cuts to the heart of the book's problems, though. The Complete Barbarian's Handbook posits a game where the "barbarians" are heroes. Seriously, neither of the introduced classes is allowed to have an evil alignment. And yet, it also presents a setting where "barbarian-" coded things are treated with contempt. Every aspect of the heroes' culture is just outright worse than what "civilized" people do. Even though the overall tone of the book is positive, it's just dripping with condescension.

Did you know Barbarians are superstitious? Barbarians are superstitious. In a fantasy game. There are elves and wizards and goblins and cursed items and dragons and literally a half-dozen creatures whose name is a synonym for "ghost," but the spirit-appeasing rituals of the Spiritist priest kit "have no obvious effect."

You know that the Spiritist is a fucking spellcaster, right? "He may address a tree by name?" Speak with plants is a fucking priest spell. He "fall[s] to his knees and beg[s] for mercy during a hailstorm?" Control Weather is a fucking priest spell.

How the fuck do you start with a character who believes they are surrounded by divine beings who will grant protection, guidance, and worldly power if treated with respect, add a class that gives people magical spells for staying faithful to their divine patrons and not somehow connect the dots between the two. This spellcasting adventurer who's granted power by their religion is somehow superstitious for believing that spirits intervene in the material world.

What the hell are you thinking? What is going through your head as you write this stuff? What is wrong with you?

Oh, yeah, racism.

UKSS Contribution: I'm not going to take anything directly from this book. I hate to break with tradition and leave a gap, but I'd feel gross. There are some cool things here, mostly associated with the spellcasting kits that are transparently appropriated from real-world cultures, but I have a feeling that those are watered-down and mutilated versions of beliefs and stories that are complex and interesting enough to anchor whole campaign settings when told correctly. I'll try to track one of those down and take something directly from the source.

In the meantime, I hate this book too much to immortalize it in that way.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Trinity Technology Manual

The Trinity Technology Manual is a useful supplement to the Trinity core that has the same fundamental flaw as most rpg sci-fi worldbuilding - it presents the amazing world of the 22nd century almost exclusively through the lens of the occupational needs of small-unit paramilitary operations. Which is fair enough, really. Who is going to sign up for a campaign pitch of "it is the 2220's, humanity has made amazing developments in energy production, biotechnology, and space travel. Verifiable psychic powers exist within approximately 1% of the human species and mutated space monstrosities threaten the fledgling extrasolar colonies. The former United States of America, still reeling from nearly losing a war with power-mad superhumans, has descended into a fascist corporatocracy where motorcycle gangs prowl the desolate wastes of the radiation-scourged midwest in running battles with the remnants of the US army for dwindling supplies . . . and you and your friends are the staff of a struggling bed and breakfast in rural Maine who have to deal with the deleterious effects all of the above has had on the seasonal tourist trade."

So, you know, a supplement that focused on the tools and equipment a group of 3-6 people can use to have thrilling space adventures was probably the right call. I'm just going to have to make my peace with the fact that it is not the in-depth exploration of the setting's sci-fi conceits that I was hoping for.

Although, if I'm being completely frank, I'm not sure how much sci-fi exploration is really possible in rpg form. Think about writing about our world as if it were an 1890s sci-fi novel. What would be the most pertinent detail to your 19th century audience? Was it "and there are light bulbs fucking everywhere and we keep them lit all the time." The biggest cultural gulf between the 18th and the 20th centuries lies in the way widespread mechanical clocks and electric lights fundamentally changed humanity's relationship to the concept of time, and in 1890, they were right in the middle of this process whose full implications would only be obvious in retrospect. So as much as you might want to impress the 1890s guy with nuclear bombs and trips to the moon, if you leave out the thing about the light bulbs, you're depriving them of a key part of our current cultural vocabulary, one so ubiquitous as to be nearly invisible.

But try putting that in an rpg book. People in the 1890s knew the light bulb was going to be huge, but their intuitions about how it was going to be used could be a little off. I think if you were going to ask someone in the 1890s about 2019's electric lights, they'd make some whimsical guess about how elaborate our moontowers must be. Sometimes, contemporary science fiction can feel the same way. Extrapolation from the current cutting edge, and the compromises necessary to deploy it in the real world, leads to a kind of blinkered view of the future. It's like today, but bigger and faster.

The part of the Trinity Technology Manual that leaps to mind is where they talk about high-powered people wearing holographic contact lenses and how "contact wearers can be distinguished by their speech patterns - which include quotes by famous people and a great deal of unusual trivia - and by blank, distant stares." It doesn't occur to them that they've basically reinvented the teleprompter, and that politicians, journalists, and business leaders might value creating personal connections more than showing off their mastery of obscure trivia, and that even if you've got a sci-fi computer agent doing in an instant what speechwriters previously took hours or days to accomplish, the job is still going to remain functionally the same.

If you really want to know how access to limitless information is going to change how people communicate, consider the case of an rpg blogger who once read an Atlantic article about moontowers a couple of years back, and thought it was a really apt metaphor for the way people can have trouble envisioning sweeping technological changes, and thus diverted about 15 minutes of effort double-checking that it fit correctly in the timeline he was creating to illustrate his point. He wouldn't have been able to do that in 1998, but then, nobody would have been able to imagine that he'd want to.

I'm being a little too hard on Trinity, though. It never really pretended to be the sort of thoughtful literary sci-fi that speculates about the metaphysical questioning that human civilizations are going to be confronted with. It's more about the big spectacle cinematic sci-fi. Psychics in bioengineered power armor fighting tentacle monsters on the moon instead of "how does the possibility of ubiquitous, portable fusion power change an individual's relationship to nature and their overall patterns of consumption?"

And within that framework, Trinity is actually very clever. Its backstory includes a berserk ex-superhero with technology-controlling powers blowing up the entire internet in one destructive burst of energy, and it only being rebuilt under a series of paranoid security measures that ensures it doesn't work very well . . . thus neatly explaining why the information technology of the early 22nd century has a late 90s feel to it.

The funny thing is, writing about this book 21 years after the fact, it's obvious that they could have had no way of knowing that the people of the future would be extremely interested in their thoughts on sci-fi battery technology, but would not be able to get much use out of their listed benchmarks because we now have high-efficiency light bulbs and nobody wears a watch. Twenty minutes to recharge an electric car was a pretty good guess, however.

My summary - this is a good book because it has lasers, giant death robots, and spaceships. Those things are cool and good. And I am a dork for wanting to know more about the social implications of cheap commercial fusion power. Also, it's a mistake that only psions can get full use out of bioapps, because it closes off a lot of weird sci-fi speculation, but on the other hand, I will concede that it makes the worldbuilding a lot easier.

UKSS Contribution: Reforestation Prowlers. Giant, bioengineered beetle-slugs which dig ancient DNA from deep below the soil of the Amazon and reconstitute it into synthetic seeds, which it then plants in the trail of fertilizing slime that it leaves behind it. Given current events, I can agree that this seems like the simplest and most likely solution to our current ecological short-sightedness.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Complete Psionics Handbook

For 3-4 years, when I was a teenager, this book was my most prized possession. Well, not this book. Rather, my previous copy. The one I used so often it disintegrated. The one held together with hot glue and hope. The one I replaced a couple of years ago because it was a total mess.

There's something a little frightening about coming back to something so cherished. I recently revisited something I once kind of liked (The Complete Fighter's Handbook) and found it to be a lot more inconsistent and problematic than I remembered. Perhaps my reactions here would be even more extreme, and I'd be forced to throw my cherished memories into the scrap-heap of "things that kids are too ignorant to know are bad." But hell, discovering things like that is half of what this blog is all about.

So, The Complete Psionics Handbook?

Um, it's my favorite thing in AD&D thus far, but that's much fainter praise than I'd have imagined in 1996 (This book was published in 1991, but I didn't get it until '96). Thankfully, its aged well, politically. It's not perfect. There are things I could harp about. The art in this book (with a couple of exceptions that look like they were pulled out of one of those Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown books) is absolutely amazing, illustrating various cool-looking fantasy psychics using the specific powers in the books, and near-universally captioned with some over-labored wordplay ("Animate Object: Raji turns the tables on his attackers"). But if you look carefully, you'll notice that in 15 pieces of art, there are only 4 women. That's total. Counting not just the main subjects of the art (and if the art shows a psionicist, it's a man 100% of the time), but antagonists and people in the background. And of those background women, two of them are dead and only showing up in a psychic vision. There's no one piece that I would specifically call out as problematic, but as a set, it's pretty bad.

But there's nothing in there that makes me look furtively around the room in case someone is reading over my shoulder. It's embarrassing that I didn't notice the gender imbalance, but what can I say, I was 14 and privileged.

The other thing that may have lost its shine is its mechanics, and yeah, this book has problems there too. It's not so much that some psionic powers are underwhelming, it's that they exist in a game with ridiculous magic. And it's not so much that the psionicist is a poorly-designed class, it's just that it leans very heavily on ability-checks and in AD&D, it's a dead certainty that your abilities are not going to be very good. Take a random power, like Life Detection. If you've got an 18 Intelligence, then making the Int -2 check required by the power is pretty simple. Eighty percent of the time, you're detecting life. But 18s are supposed to be pretty rare. A 1-in-216 chance if you're going by the default rules, and not much higher if you're using one of the other random stat methods. It's not something I noticed at the time, because my group wound up just using a highly unbalanced and non-canonical form of point buy, but looking over the numbers now, as a guy with a math degree, they are damned punitive. A more realistic psionicist, one who only has the bare minimum of Intelligence, would only have a 50% chance to detect life.

I think psionicists could work, even as written, as an alternate AD&D magic system, but in a game where mages can do better stuff with 100% precision, it's mostly just a class for players who like to do weird for the sake of weird (ahem, or so I've heard). I think in a game where the thief only has a 45% chance to climb walls, messing up roughly half of your psychic powers is just par for the course.

I think I still really like this book. It was the fifth one released in the PHB Supplement series, and it's sort of awkwardly straddled between the first four books, which feel more like they used the class as a jumping-off point to talk about other rpg topics, and the rest of the series, which really delved in to honest-to-goodness variants and explorations of the classes' themes. The Complete Psionics Handbook doesn't have any of that early-series cruft. We're not talking about Amazon Psionicists getting a completely unthematic attack roll bonus, or Peasant Psionicists who add basically nothing to the class. Yet we're also not talking about specific Psionicist kits which allow players to do a deep dive into pop culture psychics and tune their characters to resemble their favorites from various movies, books, or tv shows. The book is on-point, but never exceeds the merely functional. Inspiration will have to wait for Dark Sun supplements.

Honestly, though, I think it comes from having to devote so much space to building the class up from scratch. It spends 78 of its 128 pages on power descriptions, not leaving a lot of room for variants or off-topic tangents.

I'm actually pretty happy with how this read turned out. I can't say that I'll be stampeding to use AD&D psionics again any time soon. And with the exception of the art, there was very little in this book to surprise and delight. But also it wasn't ruined. I am still comfortable counting this book among my prized possessions.

UKSS Contribution: This is a pretty generic, setting-agnostic book, so there's not a lot here that can simply be repurposed. The most iconic monsters are pretty damned goofy (like the psychic parasite that looks like a platypus skeleton), but there are a couple of cool ones. However, I think I'm going to have to set a new ICFTB precedent and choose something not from the text, but from the art


Hey, TSR from 25 years ago! MAKE THAT GAME!

Obviously, I'm going to have to come up with some elaborate fanfiction about Hosni and Gustafa. Who they are. What they're doing. Why there are flying eyeballs and tentacle flora in the background of their fight. But damn, this is the sort of next-level pulp sci-fi weirdness that I am hungry for.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Trinity - Part 2, System

It is at this point in my blogging career that I get the nagging feeling that I should have read my White Wolf books in something approaching a chronological order. Trinity has a refined and updated version of the basic Storyteller system, but I'll be damned if I can put it into any kind of historical context. I can tell you how it's different than, say, Vampire, Revised or Exalted 1st edition, but in terms of progress, fashions, or other general trends? I got nothing.

Overall, I'd say it's an improvement over the World of Darkness version of the system. It's certainly no worse. Fixed target numbers make probabilities easier to eyeball, though the new way of figuring difficulty doesn't have much resolution at lower levels Basically, given the dice pools involved, there is a significant difference between requiring 3 successes and requiring 4, but not much between requiring 1 success and requiring 2. (The probabilities, with a relatively modest dice pool of 6 are approx - 95%, 77%, 46%, and 18%, respectively - I could probably have proven my point more dramatically with a size 8 dice pool, but that would have been a pain to calculate). It's not something I'd say rises to the level of a problem per se, but it seems likely that someone who was both a fan of the Storyteller system and naive about probabilities might think that Difficulties 1-2 are more of a barrier than they are likely to be in practice (if only because players are, with few exceptions, unabashed character optimizers).

There are other streamlining features. Soak is no longer rolled. Demeanor is a thing of the past. The system generally moves faster. It's just a shame they left in the two biggest Storyteller system time-wasters - multiple actions and extended rolls.  Those continue to grind the game to a halt whenever they appear, and the combat system, for all its improvements, still basically requires players to at least try to split their dicepool between attack and defense. So there's a way to go.

Changes aside, Trinity definitely feels like a classic White Wolf game. It has the same basic tropes - characters who start as "normal" and then get generally better by becoming a supernatural entity. It winds up being a little offputting here. Psions get psionic powers, which, of course, totally fair, but then they also get two extra attribute points and the exclusive ability to use the best biotech? For a game that is ostensibly pushing the "psions are just humans with psychic abilities, unlike those Aberrants who allowed their superpowers to corrupt them" story, it seems an awful lot like psions are supposed to be considered a superior form of life.

Although, with the typically broken Storyteller-system character creation being the way it is, the loss of points is not necessarily as big a disadvantage for neutrals as it could be. Trinity also has the distinction of basing the psions' power stat off of a formula derived from their attribute ratings, so there is an extra point where character creation can result in wildly divergent character point totals.

The other big White-Wolf-ism I noticed was psychic attack powers being noticeably less effective than shooting someone with a gun. Granted, the guns here are futuristic sci-fi lasers, but the principle is the same - as much of an advantage as a perfectly concealable weapon is in real life, the circumstances where it's an advantage in the game are much rarer. "Oh, an Orgotek Hornet VI Pulse Laser can only be concealed in an overcoat? I guess I'm just wearing an overcoat wherever I go, then."

But I know the real technological question you've been dying to know the answer to - "what dumbass thing did have in their sci-fi future that fills the same niche as a smartphone while somehow being infinitely worse?" And I have to say, to their credit, they almost got it. A mini-comp has roughly the same dimensions as a smart-phone. I know because I measured mine with a ruler and compared it to the measurements provided. The only one they got wrong was thickness, which they listed as 3cm instead of 1cm. Its user-interface is unwieldy (foldable keyboards) and it has too many peripheral slots. Also, there's no mention of battery life, which is the sort of detail that of course would needlessly bog down an rpg, but would be the first question I'd ask when buying one. But really, they came pretty close.

My personal biggest takeaway from the equipment section was that people of the 22nd century are going to perform overwrought sadness when their blankets die, but knowing human nature, these performances are going to be a maximum of 49% ironic.

(Oh yeah, there's a blanket. It's alive. When it senses that you're cold, it can crawl over to you and wrap itself around you. If you're in extreme danger, it can act as medical life support for up to three days before it "exhausts its own resources to maintain the user's life." - Not mentioned in the book: the 2-week delay between when they're first released onto the open market and when the first one gets an anime waifu printed on it).

UKSS Contribution - I'm going to go with ISRA, the Clairsentient order. They have psychic powers of prophecy, they're hippies, and they live on the moon. I probably won't cleave too closely to their overall backstory, but I can definitely find a use for psychic moon hippies.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Trinity - Part One, Setting

Trinity is 90s White Wolf's take on the sci-fi genre and it is both exactly as interesting and exactly as fraught as that sounds. The premise is that it's ~120 years in the future and about 2-3 generations ago, the world very nearly lost a war against superheroes.

While the world has largely recovered, in the process of digging itself out of the hole, it fundamentally changed. The economic and cultural centers of the old world, located primarily in the global north, were the hardest hit in the fighting, whereas the global south was relatively untouched. That means that, along with China, South American, India, and Africa are the new leaders going into the 22nd century.

Which is a fresh, interesting setup for a sci-fi universe, almost as much in 2019 as in 1997. It's a shame, then, that White Wolf didn't quite land the execution.

I really should be panicking as much now as I did during my read of The Complete Ninja's Handbook, but I mostly got that out of my system (for now). It makes me uncomfortable when I have to do my "woker than thou" routine, because in 1997, I really wasn't. It was getting exposed to diversity through things like White Wolf books that set me on the path to seeking out more knowledge about these subjects. So now I have 20 years of hindsight and the benefit of the internet, but back when I first read Trinity?

I was like, "Wow, it's really cool that Africa is a major world power, now tell me more about the Moon." (Yeah, I was blithely racist in the same way that any sheltered white American was racist. It's embarrassing, which is why I'm always inclined to cut these books a little slack).


Now, the problem with Trinity is that its setting was conscientiously inclusive, but the actual text turned out to be really, really white. I think it's a matter of subconscious biases informing editorial priorities. Sort of how it's empirically proven that people will think a group with 20% women is majority female. It's the sort of thing that takes an active effort to overcome, even if you're aware of the problem generally.

For example, take the Psi Orders. In Trinity, a number of people have latent psionic powers. To unlock those powers, they must get dunked in a special tube called a Prometheus Chamber. There are eight such chambers in existence (for plot reasons not yet revealed in the text) and each one is controlled by an organization known as a "Psi Order."

Every Psi Order specializes in a different form of psychic power, but because they are actual organizations that require physical facilities to do their stuff, the Orders are also tied very strongly to bits of the setting's geography. The clairsentients are based on the Moon, the telepaths in China, and so on.

The psychokinetics, the largest psi order, are based out of Australia. The second largest, out of the former USA. The third, out of Switzerland.

The smallest order was based out of India. They were wiped out by the others for backstory reasons. The second smallest, out of Africa. They all mysteriously disappeared before the game begins.

Don't get me wrong, the African psychics were teleporters - the coolest discipline and one with a huge effect on the setting. But it's not a good look to preemptively remove your majority black faction. It's just a coincidence, to be sure (and keep in mind, all of the orders are explicitly global organizations that recruit from all over the world), but too many coincidences starts to look a pattern.

Like, I have the second printing of the Trinity book (not recommended, really - the binding on my copy has started to fall apart after only very gentle use) and in the back it lists the planned order/geography supplements. Most of them eventually got made, but three never saw print. South America was released as an ebook. China was written, but never got to the publishing stage. Eventually its pre-layout text was released unofficially.  The Africa book was never even written (the teleporter order did get a book, but geographically it covered the extrasolar colonies).

Again, I don't think this was part of any sinister racist agenda. I believe the writers of Trinity did indeed intended to create a unique, vibrant sci-fi setting that was anchored by a de-colonized global south, but it just so happened that the bulk of the words that actually made it to the page were about white people and their problems.

One last example - the list of major 22nd century corporations. Europe, now an irradiated hellscape because grotesquely mutated ex-superheroes deorbited a giant space station on top of it, killing millions and making most of the survivors into scavengers and refugees - 3 corporations of note. Africa, the new hope of the world, center of a thriving economy - the same.

Or North America, now a totalitarian fascist state centered on the decaying ruins of the former USA - 9 major corporations. Versus South America, vibrant, cosmopolitan, and rapidly growing, which has 5.

That doesn't prove anything, of course. Maybe the reason Africa and South America are doing so well is because they have relatively few major corporations (certainly, it's implied that North America is outright ruled by its home-grown corps and that's a big part of why it's such a shithole). In the end, there's more to intelligent criticism than tedious page-counting. It's just . . . it's another coincidence.

Like making the telepathic Ministry of Psionic Affairs into a secretive and labyrinthine bureaucracy, utterly inscrutable to outsiders and a bottomless well of paranoia . . . and then basing it in China. I mean, on the one hand, what are you going to do - have sci-fi telepaths and not make them into a terrifying conspiracy with chilling implications for privacy and personal freedom? Be real. But it's weird that they just so happen to be Asian.

Look, I don't want to be sleazy implication guy. I'm not trying to dance around an accusation of racism here. I'm being indirect because the book is directly blameless. This isn't a situation like Oriental Adventures, where the whole thing needs to be sealed away behind a mental barrier of "this is a historical artifact, and product of its time, and thus, even as a piece of art, it needs to be considered with a certain critical distance." Trinity isn't embarrassing. It's largely pretty good.

And yet it's important to remember that for all its good intentions, it was indeed written with a certain point of view. And though it was progressive for its time, it also tends to mirror the peculiar concerns and prejudices of the time and place of its origin.

Take Trinity's South America. There's no doubt that the text is bullish on the continent. The text, while noting that things aren't perfect, nonetheless strikes a hopeful tone. There's no doubt that it is a region on the rise, full of charming, intrepid people who will become the economic, technological, and cultural leaders of the 22nd century . . . by saving the rain forest and legalizing the drug trade.

I think if you're a young liberal working for White Wolf in the late 90s, there's nothing cooler than imagining a future where people discover a path to prosperity through ecologically sustainable green technology. And, of course, ending the destructive drug war with an expansive amnesty that brings the cartels into the fold of the international capitalist consensus is just a sensible and enlightened idea all around.

But just maybe, there are deeper and more contentious entanglements between the drug trade and the USA's history of high-handed economic and cultural meddling in the region. And maybe the locals are less than eager to forgive the cartels for their brutality and the way they corrupted the region's civic institutions. Maybe they are not viewed as modern-day robin hoods and prospective pillars of the community at all, but vicious criminal gangs, created by a hypocritical global north's endless appetite for dangerous substances they are unwilling to produce themselves.

Just speculating here. Actually, I think the issues with Trinity's setting can mostly be boiled down to the relative ease, in 1997, of doing original research.

The best evidence for that is Trinity's Africa. The book doesn't have a bad thing to say about it, not even in that backhanded way where the positivity is rooted in normally unflattering stereotypes. But it does lean just a little too heavily on the word "tribal."

I don't want to pretend to be an expert here. I've read like two books on the subject. My understanding is that "tribes" are kind of a thing, but even to the extent that they are a thing, a lot of of the time, "tribal" is just a black-coded way of saying "rural." We don't talk about the tribes of Bavaria, Prussia, Baden, et al coming together in the 19th century to negotiate the creation of a pan-German state. But if we were being consistent, we would. Nearly any use of the word "tribe" would improve clarity if it were replaced by "nation," "language," "culture," "village," or "family" (the fact that "tribe" is used alternately to refer to any of these things and more is the root of the problem).

So when Trinity describes the United African Nations (an organization that stretches from Cairo to Johanesburg in a particularly . . . expansive version of pan-Africanism) as an "intertribal forum" that is perhaps not as helpful as they might imagine. In fact, it's really fucking vague.

The most realistic vision here is a sort of African-focused UN or (less-realistically) EU - something without true sovereignty, subordinate to national governments. You couldn't even really call it a regional alliance, because the actual area covered is too damned huge. The only problem with this is that none of the nations of Africa get individual write-ups.  Kenya and Nigeria get name-checked as part of the UAN's space program, but it's unclear how much regional autonomy they have.

This is where that research thing comes in. No delicate way of putting this, but in the USA, at least when I was a kid (and presumably earlier, when the White Wolf writers were kids), they teach you all of jack shit about Africa. It's a huge oversight, given the number of African-descended people who live in our country, but . . . no, there's no excuse. It is one of the uglier expressions of American white supremacy.

So, you're writing about Africa in 1997, roughly 5 years before Guide To The Anarchs claims with a straight face that the Internet was nothing but hype, how do you go about it? Go down to the library, get the "A" volume of the encyclopedia, maybe look up some stats in the CIA Factbook. If you're lucky, they might even have a specialized book on the subject of African History. Under those circumstances, it seems almost understandable that you'd completely fail to note the existence of Lagos, Nigeria, a city of 7-15 million people (depending on how you define the borders of the city).

And I know I harped on the exact same point in GTTA, but it really is emblematic. It's such a big thing not to know about. The regional breakdowns in this book are actually pretty short, and except for perhaps the moon, none are comprehensive. But if Europe can mention Rome. If Australia can mention Sydney. If South America can mention Rio de Janeiro. Then maybe Africa could spare a word or two for its largest city.

Now that you've stuck with me through all of these detailed, specific complaints let me completely undermine any general point I was trying to make by characterizing Trinity's setting section as a whole as "good, bordering on great." A lot of the shortcomings of this section come down to the fact that they gave themselves 150 pages to cover the entire Earth, complete with a century of alternate history that involved fighting evil mutant ex-superheroes, the whole solar system, a half dozen alien worlds with three well-drawn alien civilizations (one of them was uncomfortably rapey in that edgy 90s White Wolf way, but even so, only about 5% as bad as that passage in Guide to the Sabbat), eight whole organizations of futuristic psychics, and a bit of social and political commentary (and a really bad plot about saving the world economy by switching currency to the platinum standard) all with evocative full-color art and for some reason published in an eccentric digest size.

In other words, I really did nitpick every flaw in the text.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Complete Ninja's Handbook

It's finally happened. I'm completely out of my depth. I built my personal brand on telling people which old roleplaying books are racist and I've finally exhausted my 101-level Cultural Sensitivity knowledge right when I'm set to read a book with the potential to be hugely problematic, but also really cool.

Don't get me wrong. There were a couple of moments when I was like, "whoa there, Complete Ninja's Handbook, that's totally not cool." Like, even I know that you can't say, "Western culture promotes self-advancement and individuality over conformity, so the introduction of [class and family loyalties] will strongly reinforce to the players that this is a very different setting." I'm pretty sure that even in 1995, that was over the line.

But full disclosure: Once upon a time, I loved this book. I was exactly in its target audience of nerdy, action-movie-loving 13-year-olds who nonetheless fancied themselves interested in the historical details of foreign cultures. Seriously, my copy of this book is kind of gross, with the page-edges stained yellow-grey with skin oils and the occasional 25-year-old food stain from when I re-read this book for the dozenth time through hastily-eaten dinners. So the urge to be gentle in my criticism is nearly overpowering.

There's a part of me that wonders if maybe I'm not out of my depth after all, but rather that I'm simply reluctant to admit that this book is mired in Orientalism and is nearly unsalvageable. I know that there's a temptation to imagine that my teenaged self, who loved this book so unreservedly, was not a racist little shit, but actually saw genuine virtues in this text. But I'm not going to play that game. I'll just admit right up front - I'm a middle-aged white guy who still thinks ninjas are kind of cool.

And I don't mean to frame this as a deep, dark confession. It's both good and proper to enjoy the products of a wide variety of cultures. It makes the world a richer place for everyone. But let's not kid ourselves. The Complete Ninja's Handbook is nearly textbook cultural appropriation - a book about Japan, written by a white guy, for a white audience. That doesn't make it automatically evil or anything, but it does mean that we (well, I) need to be cautious, and not forget the colonialist and imperialist context behind this book as an artifact.

(Yes, I am aware of the irony of me, the whitest guy you're ever going to meet, inexpertly using this academic language developed by PoC for the sake of his own vanity project, and how me talking about cultural appropriation could be construed - with some justice - as a form of cultural appropriation. And I don't know what to tell you. I'm out of my depth. If any of my readers know of a Japanese critique of this book, let me know and I'll link to it. In the meantime, I'm just going to muddle through).

So with my biases out in the open and the general knowledge that it's possible I'm going easy on this book in a subconscious attempt to absolve my own past self, I have to say, it's not that bad. An improvement over 1e's Oriental Adventures, at the very least. The book is about a Japanese-inspired character type, and the setting is clearly fantasy-Japan, rather than some ultra-generic "Orient." There's still references to "oriental blades" and "oriental cultures," and, god-forbid, "oriental people," and it's still pretty embarrassing, but at least it feels here like they're trying to avoid saying "Japanese" all the time. That's almost forgivable, given how rare other real-world adjectives, like "Celtic" or "Roman" are in D&D's fantasy worlds.

Still, it's very aware of race in kind of an offputting way. You know that thing I said about the original OA? Where with just a bit of reskinning, the book would work amazingly as an alternate core for European-inspired fantasy? Well, The Complete Ninja's Handbook doesn't make me work for it this time. There's a whole section about changing the class's name to "Spy" . . . and altering it in no other ways, because Ninjas are just spies. They do espionage things in Japan. You'd think maybe the "Spirit Warrior" kit, which lets you play more cinematic magical ninjas would at least change, but no, they're "often used as a mission specialist, seldom as a mission leader."

Which is good. Really. Except that the book then immediately forgets this until the last 2-3 pages. At one point, it says they "would seem very much out of place if they arose in a fantasy campaign that resembled Viking Sweden or Moorish Spain."

And look, I'll grant the Viking thing, but was there nothing going on in Spain during the Moorish rule that might call for characters with skills in intrigue and stealth warfare? There's no medieval Muslim archetype at all that springs to mind as fitting in with the ninja class? When the book was talking about spies only coming from societies "considered culturally advanced and sophisticated compared to the cultural average of the world," somehow Moorish Spain didn't ring a bell?

Really, though, the book's "in order to make a Ninja, you must first invent Japan" approach is a case of too much of a good thing. Remember, this is a system where the thief class is composed of literal thieves (though, regrettably, thieves by the rules make better ninjas than ninjas do - they've got more skill points and though their weapon selection is limited, that doesn't matter because they have access to the best weapon in the game) and the druid class is composed of a literal ecclesiastical body of nature worshipers. So despite what The Complete Ninja's Handbook says, you can't just have ninjas who are simply characters with a diverse range of weapon and infiltration skills. They have to actually have the trappings of fictional ninjas.

Thus, fantasy Japan.

And fantasy Japan is actually pretty cool. It's just, when the book puts this much effort into fantasy Japan, you really start to notice how half-assed base AD&D gets with fantasy Europe. Like, did you know that fantasy Japan has a class system? Not the fun rpg-class system, but like a hereditary hierarchy where your birth determines your job. Could you imagine a version of fantasy Europe where some people are awarded privilege and authority due to a mere accident of birth? But, of course, no one would believe it, because unlike fantasy Japan, submission to authority is not a cultural value - all those books and treatises in medieval Japan extolling the warrior class to forgo ambition and practice absolute obedience, they existed because the aristocrats who commissioned them saw how obedient and fearless their subordinates already were and decided to memorialize that in print.

Oh, sorry, I got sidetracked by sarcasm there. The point I'm meandering towards it that The Complete Ninja's Handbook presents a pretty fun setting, but its latent Orientalism misses the biggest trick of all - that "familiar" European-inspired fantasy should be just as exotic and weird, because medieval Europe was like another goddamned planet compared to modern society. This book treats ninjas strapping themselves to giant kites so they can glide over castle walls as a serious proposition, and I love it for that, but it makes me wonder why the only obviously-fabricated tall tales and boasts to get this sort of treatment are the ones originating in Asia. I want, more than ever, a setting where that silly "End Him Rightly" move gets built up as a majorly effective combat technique, where Historical European Martial Arts get listed alongside Akido and Karate, and the level 3 tech for the Broadsword is "pommel throw."

But we don't live in the sort of world. Not now, and certainly not in 1995. In the end, The Complete Ninja's Handbook provides some interesting ideas, but fails to develop them in a fruitful way thanks to the oft-observed mental forcefield 90s writers had around anything Asian. Ninjas put all sorts of hidden modifications and gadgets on their equipment? Cool. But why is that not something all rogues can do? Why do ninjas have to be in fantasy Japan, but The Complete Druid's Handbook is able to conceptualize spelljamming space druids? Espionage specialists with implausibly effective techniques is quintessentially Japanese, but somehow the priests of the Celtic religion aren't characteristically Celtic? Why can't we have spelljamming space ninjas?

(Aside from the obvious - because it would have overloaded the poor, fragile heart of my 13-year-old self and I'd have died from awesomeness-induced hyperventilation).

What's the takeaway, then? To the degree that you can ignore the Orientalism, this book is actually pretty interesting? The ninja is kind of a disappointing class, redeemed only by the genre tropes they bring with them? That I know only the first thing about racism and I'm really overtaxing my limited knowledge base by inelegantly applying it to every situation?

Um, yes?

In conclusion, fantasy Japan is a land of contrasts.

UKSS Contributions - I really want to pick giant, human-sized kites, but Ukss already has giant mantises and biplanes, so that's not really going to add anything.

I think I'm going to have to go abstract again and say "the concept of specialized defense contracting." They won't necessarily be ninja clans, per se, but there will be groups in Ukss where you can hire privately owned special forces and espionage units. And because this never works without a specific example, I will personify this in the form of the "Serpent Ninjas," though I'll probably call it something more modern like "The Serpent Company" or "Serpentis Corporation."

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Complete Druid's Handbook

Spelljamming space druids! Spelljamming space druids! Spelljamming space druids!

I feel like my entire review could just be this phrase, spammed 300 times. It wasn't a major theme of the book, and indeed, appeared only once (well, twice if you count the part where they described spelljamming space druids, but didn't directly call them that). However, it's something that instantly burrowed its way into my head. On my deathbed, someone is going to ask me whether I have any regrets, and I'm going to rattle out, "spelljamming . . . space . . . druids," and everyone will just politely agree to make up some more dignified last words for me.

Which isn't to say that The Complete Druid's Handbook doesn't have some fun with the concept. It introduces druids from various habitats, which is nice in that it makes an already-cool class even more versatile. But then it does a weird thing where it undermines the new druids by putting in unnecessary new restrictions. The default "forest" druid can shapeshift into any reptile, bird, or mammal, but the desert druid can only turn into desert creatures. Why the hate, guys?

Oddly misplaced geo-chauvinism aside, there's some cool stuff here. There's an underground druid with the ability to mentally control various types of slime (and if this doesn't sound that impressive, remember, an AD&D slime will fuck you up). There's an insect druid. There's a conspiracy of evil druids (although not evil™ because in AD&D, there's a difference between being an "extremist" who wants to destroy all civilization and having an evil™ alignment - druids are by definition neutral, even when they are doing things that seem to our ordinary language like good and evil). There's the Savage Druid . . .

Oh, God. We're doing this again, aren't we? Okay, so there's this racist kit. And I don't know what to tell you. All of the stuff that's really racist about it dovetails nicely with the class as a whole. Nobody's going to be that surprised when you say, "my druid character is at home in the wilderness and finds cities to be alienating and confusing." But does that make it better or worse? You're playing a character from a hunter-gatherer type society, but you chose the one character class where all the stereotypes just coincidentally happen to be true? Let's call it gross and unnecessary.

Let's see. What else? I guess it's weird that Druid is a job. It's part of a trend in AD&D, though. Classes are reified in the campaign world when they really should just represent character archetypes. Thieves aren't just dexterous clever guys, they're thieves. And druids aren't just obsessive nature-mages with shapechanging powers, they are actually practicing priests in a living religion. And at 11th level they fight each other for the privilege of advancing to 12th level. And this bit of highly specific worldbuilding is just baked right into the class.

Dungeons and Dragons can get like that sometimes. At one point, this book confidently claimed that "in most fantasy worlds, the forest druids exercise the most influence," and it's like - no D&D, no. In most fantasy worlds, druids aren't even a thing, because at some point in the past, you decided to just pluck a caste Celtic scholar-priests out of their historical context and use them as the vague inspiration for your nature-mage class, and while lots of people found that compelling, it's still only a drop in the ocean of the fantasy genre. I mean, I like druids, but pfft, come on.

I already touched on this when I mentioned the evil, civilization-destroying druids, but the only real flaw in this book is once again AD&D's alignment system. "True Neutral" is bullshit. With the exception of spelljamming space druids, who were "exiles from a world that would not accept their neutrality," most "neutral" druids spend a lot of their time things we'd think of as "good" - preserving the environment, helping communities that have fallen on hard times, working to find peaceful solutions to conflicts over natural resources. It often seems like it's only the fact that D&D has decided to label most of its wilderness-dwelling humanoids as "evil" that allows druids to claim neutrality at all. The "good" humans want to farm this land. The "evil" orcs want to hunt in this land. The "neutral" druid is an honest broker between these two groups, and is so weird for not having a preference between "good" and "evil."

But honestly, if I let a book get ruined every time the alignment system forced me to contemplate something ridiculous, I would never be able to enjoy Dungeons and Dragons. Remember people - alignment is bad, and it makes everything worse.

UKSS Contribution: You might think it's going to be spelljamming space druids. Won't lie. That's tempting. But then I'd have to explain "spelljamming" and that's just a hassle.

No, I'll go with something a little be more . . . down to earth . . .

Hee, hee. That was a pun, but only I know it because I haven't told you what I'm thinking about yet.

Anyway, there's a section about megaliths, because druids, therefor Stonehenge, and one of the suggested uses for magical megaliths is to place them in earthquake-prone areas and enchant them to stabilize the earth. I like that. I think it's a neat fantasy detail that introduces some serious working magic.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Complete Ranger's Handbook

A question I find myself grappling with as I read these old books is "Did AD&D know it was weird?"

I don't want to use my blog as a platform to score points in long-dead internet flame wars (oh, who am I kidding), but I distinctly remember conversations with people who adamantly insisted that new versions of Dungeons and Dragons should stick to "standard" fantasy. Meaning, presumably, the fantasy established in old AD&D books.

And, okay, those people have a point of view. When we're talking 15 years after the fact (well, 26 now), maybe there's a type of fantasy that you grew up with, and you take it for granted that it's "normal."

But I wonder. At the time, when the books were first being written, did they know they were being weird?

There's the Greenwood Ranger, who has such a profound religious devotion to nature that they become a human-plant hybrid, capable of photosynthesis and of growing a third arm from their chest which they could use to attack with blinding speed. They must have known that was weird.

But then there's the section where the book gives you advice on what to do with an unwanted animal follower. To be clear, I'm not talking about game-modification advice, where players who like the ranger class, but don't care for the animal companion feature can remove it and replace it with something else. By "unwanted animal follower," I mean literally an animal that starts following the character around and is so obnoxious that the player wants it gone.

Because the ranger doesn't have any control over their animal companion class feature, either in-character or out-of-character. In fact, at the beginning of the relationship, the ranger might not realize that's what's going on. An animal starts following them, and it's ambiguous. Is this animal a follower, i.e. a long-term friend and ally, or is it just a "follower," i.e. a creature that's shadowing the ranger's movements for inscrutable animal reasons of its own? You're meant to roleplay this uncertainty. It's not a mystical process. Sometimes an animal will keep showing up and then gradually, without fanfare, it's part of the ranger's posse.

And sometimes, that animal "with negligible trainability may prove to be more annoying than helpful" or smell so bad it makes the party uncomfortable or just be expensive and difficult to keep fed. So, helpfully, the book provides you with options ranging from "abandoning it in the wilderness" to "securing it a place in a zoo." Whichever way you go, it counts against your 2d6 lifetime limit of followers, though.

What the hell was going on at TSR during the 90s? This book is overall pretty firmly on the "rpg characters are the players' fictional avatars" side of the game vs story divide, but it somehow did not pick up on the idea that an animal companion is more of a fashion accessory than a fully independent entity in its own right. Imagine, playing AD&D back in '93, picking the Mountain Man kit, and all you want is a grizzly bear as your best friend, but instead you keep rolling under 20% on a d100, so you get a succession of humans, dwarves, and gnomes just following you around as you tromp through the wilderness, never quite as robustly manly as you imagined yourself to be when you chose your class.

Honestly, though, Rangers themselves don't make a lot of sense. Why are they even a class? I think D&D may have invented them. Historically, you've got characters like Grizzly Adams who live a kind of idealized wilderness lifestyle. But then Robin Hood is kind of implied to be a ranger with the Forest Runner kit, and he's just a warrior who happened to live in the woods. And there's the original ranger himself, Aragorn, who's an all-around competent guy that we only see for the year or so that he spends traveling through the wilderness.

There's something there, to be sure. "Wilderness expert," is an appealing archetype. But they get two weapon fighting because Aragorn fought with two weapons that one time? And they cast clerical spells because AD&D 1e did not have a skill system and so magic was the only way to represent their facility with plants and animals. But now rangers are religious folks who don't just live in the wilderness, but worship it. And then you throw in a bunch of early 90s scientific ecology into their worldview, so they're doing things like maintaining the balance between predator and prey in the face of over-hunting and pollution.

There are games where some version of the Ranger would make sense. But in AD&D 2e, where you've got the "Fighter" class, that is meant to cover everything from martial artists to swashbuckling fencers to armored knights to wilderness scouts who are not explicitly good-aligned and mystically connected to the forces of nature? It's too specific, too much of a niche.

They had to have known they were creating something weird. But if so, the book doesn't give any indication. It's played completely straight. Of course rangers are a thing that exists. We know their complete demographics too (half male and half female, which was nice for 1993, even if 2019 demands a non-binary ranger squad, like yesterday). It makes perfect sense that they cast divine magic, we even included a section about what it's like when one apprentices with a cleric.

Anyway, this is a top-tier PHB Rules Supplement. Not as philosophically fraught as Paladins, nor as reluctantly subversive as Bards while still having the second half of the series' high standard of quality. There's not even any racism worth mentioning (a couple of mentions of "primitive societies," but that seems positively benign in context). It may well be the best one yet (even if my heart yearns for the camp hinted at in The Complete Bard's Handbook).

UKSS Contribution: It was just a brief thing, but it's stuck in my head. At the end of the Kit chapter, they suggest additional kits you might want to homebrew, and one of the options they list is "Crypt Ranger." They only spare two sentences to the concept, but the mind reels at what they imply.

Their favored terrain is graveyards and tombs? Like how the default "forest" ranger knows everything about the forest and can discern meaning in disturbances to the underbrush and the movement of animals, but, you know, for graves? How . . .? Why? What?!

And then they get non-evil undead as followers. Um. Non-evil? Am I following? Non-evil undead? That's a thing now? And they're following these guys around?

What is this guy's life? And how do we get it into a book?

Something to think about, at least.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Scum and Villainy

Jawas are scum!

At least, that's my dominant thought about Scum and Villainy. I guess because it came so early in reading the book. The first chapter is "character options" and begins with a bunch of new alien species to play, most of which are unfamiliar (I guess the Clawdites did technically show up in Episode II, but they're shapeshifters, so it's easy to forget that they're a separate species) and then BAM! On page 9, the Jawas.

And that seems a little unfair, you know? I mean, what do the Jawas do that's so scummy? They find some droids in the desert and resell them. I guess I don't know a lot about property laws in the Star Wars universe, because maybe there's some sort of official salvage process that you have to go through that the Jawas don't care about. Maybe with still-functional droids like R2-D2 and C-3PO, you have to make some documented effort to contact their original owners and there's a waiting period before they can rightly be considered salvage. Maybe the Jawas just didn't pay the proper taxes to the Tatooine government.

I guess it makes sense that people have lingering ill-feelings towards the Jawas, because the droids are the heroes of Star Wars' first act, and getting captured poses a serious obstacle to their mission (though not really, because they wind up exactly where they need to be by the power of plot conven-, um er, the Force), but as near as I can tell, the Jawas' only crime was treating the droids as property. Which, technically, they were. The Jawas are scum? Was uncle Owen scum for buying them? Is galactic society as a whole scum for treating these clearly sapient beings as disposable property?

Maybe. But if the Jawas are scum, then I say it's high time we put the whole damned system on trial!

Or maybe I'm reading too much into a book's title and it just happens that the Jawas had to go somewhere. But what are the odds of that?

It actually ties into my main criticism of Star Wars worldbuilding in general. The Jawas we see in the movies are a little shady, so all Jawas, according to the book "are regarded as thieves at best, vermin at worst." The movies have a weird and fanciful alien show up as a one-off character and then the supplementary material assumes the character comes from a whole species that resembles the character. Watto was kind of a jerk, so the Toydarians "have an unsavory reputation." Jabba the Hutt was a crime boss, so all the Hutts we see in the game are crime lords too (and what is with all of them being called "the Hutt?" In this book alone we've got two separate crime bosses - Zietta the Hutt and Prello the Hutt - but it kind of defeats the point of having a nickname if everyone of your entire species shares the same one). It's just ridiculous and lazy and it bugs the hell out of me.

But that's par for the course for Star Wars. If I was able to let it go with no more than a snippy aside in previous Star Wars books, why even bring it up here?

It's because I think I may have seen the ultimate in half-assed extrapolation from a single movie scene. I am referring, of course, to Boushh.

You know that part in Return of the Jedi, where Leia was trying to infiltrate Jabba's palace and she was disguised as an alien bounty hunter? Well, it turns out that she was impersonating a specific person, Boushh.

Which, okay. Fair enough. Maybe you don't get into Jabba's palace just because you've caught Chewbacca. Maybe you've got to have a certain reputation. The crime lord needs to know who you are, know that you're established in the underworld and can credibly operate at this level. So sure, Leia wasn't just disguising her appearance, she was using this guy's reputation.

But the more you learn about Boushh, the stranger he becomes. Turns out Boushh loves using grenades. Leia had a grenade that one time, so Boushh uses them in preference to other weapons. But wait, Boushh "was known for being somewhat suicidal." So that thing Leia does where she uses the Thermal Detonator to threaten the whole room as a negotiation tactic, that's like, Boushh's signature move. Leia wasn't doing something bold and risky to allay Jabba's suspicions and bolster her disguise, she was actually doing what she thought the real Boushh would do . . .

How does this get past the editor? I get that the entry here is just recapping something from some EU novel or other, but how do you write that backstory and not get the feeling that something is seriously wrong?

Anyway, Scum and Villainy is a reliable workhorse of a book. Like most Star Wars Saga Edition books, it attempts to be both a supplement for PCs and a GM resource and it more or less works. It references The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide more than is entirely healthy, but its character options are attractive and its GM advice is decent. There's a forgettable adventure at the end, but it works. Overall - serviceable.

UKSS Contribution - This was a tough one, because most of the setting material in this book is fairly bland. I was tempted to pick Boushh, but I just did an entry about the thing in the book that made me roll my eyes the most.

So I think I'm going to go with the Jawas. I don't usually like picking something so iconic, but the book called them scum and I think they deserve better than that. They are also described as "slight rodent creatures," which makes me think of the Awakened Rats I stole from Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine. If I am to avoid falling into the same "racial stereotypes derived from the first on-screen character" trap as the EU, I should perhaps work to diversify my nonhuman cultures.

Jawas can be Awakened Rats who live in the desert and reject the chivalry of their more urbanized relatives. Not scum, per se, but definitely tenacious survivors who don't feel the need to play-act a resource-draining "nobility."

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Complete Bard's Handbook

This book is so close to being what it should have been. There were a couple of times where I caught a glimpse of the amazing rpg experience that we might have had if AD&D had been bolder, more audacious, and more culturally fluent.

There's a new spell in this book. No reasonable person would ever use it. Its metaphysical and setting implications are dizzying to contemplate. For a typical AD&D game, it's a bad spell, but there is a hypothetical game for which it is a bit of inspired brilliance. It fascinates me to think about what might have been, had the author allowed himself to forget he was writing for AD&D and just tug at the thread, following it to the bizarre glam-rock, high-camp musical fantasy rpg that is lying in potentia behind this spell.

It's called Summon Audience. . .

Summon Audience. . .

Summon Audience . . .

I can barely wrap my head around it. A bard casts this spell before giving a performance, then over the next few minutes, people start filtering into the venue, 1d4 per level. They watch the bard perform, and then they leave.

And maybe you might be thinking that this is me putting a hyperbolic spin on narrow, but sensible niche magic. That maybe Summon Audience works by sending a psychic signal, drawing in nearby people, half through telepathic compulsion, half through fate, who might be willing to sacrifice up to 4 hours of their lives to watch a musical performance.

The school of the spell is Conjuration. Not Enchantment. Not Illusion. Conjuration. These are real, flesh and blood creatures brought into existence for the sole purpose of watching the bard perform. They eat snacks and mill around during intermission. You can engage them in conversation, but they are evasive about their personal backgrounds. They take care to only appear and reappear when people aren't looking.

So just to be clear, this 3rd level spell creates ex nihilo both matter and consciousness and then obliterates it a few hours later just so the bard can have an audience for their performance.

I'm thinking of the musical episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. I'm thinking of Brutal Legend. I'm thinking of nonexistent abilities, like snapping your fingers to summon a spotlight. And I'm thinking of real abilities, like the Gallant Kit's special power to delay death just long enough to give a dying soliloquy about his own premature mortality.

And I wonder - "what if AD&D had the guts to actually go for it." To make magical abilities that weren't framed as spells. And to give off-model class abilities actual teeth. There's an illustration that accompanies the Jongleur kit, of a motley-clad acrobat, balancing on a tightrope and somehow dodging a hail of knives, but one of the knives is aimed directly for his midsection and he deflects it with a gem held gingerly between his thumb and forefinger. It's the wildest, dumbest thing you've ever seen and it's awesome.

But the Jongleur's ability to dodge perils with a successful save vs paralyzation quite explicitly does not apply to missile attacks and so the art is a lie.

I think the book as a whole is summed up nicely by a quote early on
Carrying a lute around in the dungeon is hard enough without worrying about a large metal shield banging around and getting in the way.
Which is to say, the book is aware that being a bard is kind of weird, but rather than embrace that weirdness, it attempts to to keep it grounded, balancing the fact that the class is unusual with mechanics that ensure it's not very good.

That being said, The Complete Bard's Handbook is pretty good for people who are not in the habit of demanding that AD&D overthrow itself and abandon its sacred cows to embrace other, stranger genres of fantasy. The fact that bards get so many unconventional special abilities means that the kits are a lot more diverse in how they play, and unlike, say, The Complete Thief's Handbook, your choices here are more than superficial. It never quite escapes the feeling of holding back a better, weirder fantasy game that's struggling to get out, but even a little bit of that can go a long way in spicing up an AD&D game that's otherwise committed to staying in its lane.

Racism Watch: Only a little bit, but what's there is peak 90s. It's nice that there isn't a special Asian Bard kit, but it's only a small step forward in the spirit of global understanding when you point out that the Blade kit is especially impressive when "Oriental Blades [use] weapons such as the three-part-rod, the nunchaku, or the katana." Only one of those is even a blade, people.

The other big thing is the . . . sigh, Gypsy-bard kit. I didn't get the impression that it was moved by any particular anti-Roma animus, but man is it embarrassing. Like, gah! It's bad. It does the thing where it takes old racial stereotypes and turns them on its head by breathlessly proclaiming them to be signs of some higher enlightenment and . . . I guess this is just one of those historical artifacts where you have to have a frank and judgement-free conversation about changing attitudes and the nature of art before you engage with it on its own terms, because damn. Just damn.

Only one use of the word "savage" and it's not even a kit! It's just a suggestion for a hypothetical kit you might want to homebrew. Progress!

And one last thing that isn't really racism, but something that fits here because structurally it's very similar to a problematic element from a previous book:
If your campaign does not have a Viking culture, but a player still wishes to play a Skald, assume that the character left his distant homeland and has journeyed to the existing campaign setting.
 To refresh your memory, this is basically the Samurai's dilemma from The Complete Fighter's Handbook, but here it has a different punchline. I'd like to assume that this represents a shift, over the course of 3 years, in expectations about player agency and their ownership in the campaign and is not, say, a case where players can override the DM for a Viking Skald because it makes sense for white people to exist, but they need the DM's permission for a Japanese Samurai because Asian people are "out of genre."

To be clear, it's two different authors, writing in two different years, so it's not surprising that they got two different results. It's just something that gave me pause.

UKSS Contribution: Now, I don't want to be an asshole here. I don't want to get in the habit of choosing the worst thing from each book and going "Ha, ha, ha! Ukss is a world built from the mediocre detritus of 40 years of rpg history." But, but . . .
"My name's Dark and I'm a Blade. I take my name from the black garb that I wear at all times. I'm actually not exceptional in this, as all Blades wear dark clothing. But the name has stuck and I like it."
 I mean, fucking 1992, right? It was one of those weird coincidences. The in-character introduction to the Blade kit kept going and it was filled with gross assassination stuff that read for all the world like an over-the-top parody of the grim 90s antihero, but it was the genuine article, here in its original context. I literally laughed until I cried.

So, I'm proud to introduce the sworn enemy of Baron Von Hendricks, Dark the Blade. He will do anything to get revenge, and until that day his turbulent heart will never know peace.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Realm

It's a bold move to give a book such a bland title. "Trust us, everyone who needs to know what this is, already knows what this is." You've got to have a lot of confidence to try and sell a book called The Realm.

And you know what, that confidence really does show up on the page. It's not the Peoples' History of the Dragon-Blooded Empire that I was hoping for in my most unrealistic dreams, but it is a bit of mature Exalted world-building, fleshing out an area of Creation that has mostly been off-limits in your typical game (because only the Dragon-Blooded could walk there openly, and they would but rarely have need to leave their palaces and estates).

I really liked this book. I've made a private (and utterly inconsequential) decision that Exalted is my Final Fandom (a new thing I invented, where I imagine a hypothetical situation I'm systematically locked out of all the things I enjoy until I have but one possible hobby or interest left, and though such a thing would break my heart, Exalted is the one that would hurt the least) and so I'm ever-hungry for new material for this game.

Which you would think would lead me to having a ton to say about it, but . . . I already said most of it on my rpg.net thread. Sorry. That's just how it is. The fandom comes first. It's invigorating to be a part of it again, though I have to confess, my appetite for arguments is a little less endless than it's been in the past (maybe I'm too used to declaiming on high, from my unquestionable position as a blogger).

The Realm is actually pretty good in that regard, in that its potential for generating arguments is no greater than any other new bit of canon for a property that's existed for nearly 20 years and has a devoted fan-base. It was mostly consistent with the shape of old arguments and its new material is not yet developed enough to inspire contentious schisms.

It does continue 3rd Edition's pattern of adding new life and new possibility to the setting, and it will probably enter my personal list of top-tier exalted books for its comprehensiveness and timeless approach.

UKSS Contribution: This is easy. In Exalted, there are magical buildings called manses. Manses are often headquarters for major characters, storehouses for valuable items, and general dungeons and adventure areas. Manses in general are cool, but I've got a specific one in mind. It's called "The House of Not Yet Midnight" and I just love that name. The book doesn't do more than name-drop the manse and mention it has time-bending powers, but I was sold on the name alone. I want to read a book with that title. I imagine it would be a weird fairy-tale-esque YA fantasy where some sensitive teenager learns to question the nature of their reality.

I don't know what Ukss' House of Not Yet Midnight is going to look like, but I don't need to know to promote it on a name alone.