Thursday, October 31, 2019

Trinity Continuum Core Rulebook

This book has no business being as good as it is. It actually kind of upsets me, because the only reason I bought the Trinity Continuum Core Rulebook was because I was interested in Aberrant and (to a lesser extent) Aeon. I'm afraid that's going to be the book's predominant reception - it's the thing you have to get in order to play the other Trinity Continuum games. But viewing it that way would be a mistake. I think you could credibly make the argument that core-only Trinity Continuum is actually better than playing in any one of the marquee time periods (and yes, I'm including Adventure!). At the very least, it's a strong contender for the best core book White Wolf/Onyx Path ever made.

What about it has earned it such effusive praise? There are three factors.

The first is that it stakes out an under-served niche and then sells it very effectively. I'm finding myself at a bit of a loss to articulate what exactly that niche is, but if you read the book, you'll get a very clear idea of what it's going for. I guess the best way to describe it is like, those movies and tv shows that are ostensibly set in the real world, on or near the present day, that don't seem like they have a lot of magic and/or sci-fi technology, but then there's an episode of Mythbusters or a Youtube video that proves conclusively that duplicating it in reality is highly implausible at best and extremely dangerous at worst.

I'm sure there are other games that tackle this "Hollywood reality" aesthetic even more directly, with various narrative mechanics, but the Trinity Continuum Core has the advantage of doing it while still being a relatively traditional rpg. It does this through the second great thing about the book - Talents.

Talents are the obligatory superhuman archetype found in every storyteller-family game. You start as a normal person and then you apply the template and become a Talent. In the broader Trinity continuum, Talents have an important role in the metaphysics. They can instinctively sense and manipulate Flux energy, mixing and fusing nearby parallel realities to accomplish superhuman feats of luck and skill. Practically, this manifests in "powers" that are nothing more or less than the ability to apply to your character a variety of genre cliches and lazy screenwriting shortcuts.

Maybe you're in a gunfight, and you lose count of your ammo, so you just keep firing and nobody ever notices that you never reload - that's a Gift. Or you're a private detective, and no matter where you travel, you always "just happen" to have a friend who will let you crash on their couch - that's a Gift. That's how Gifts work. Taken as a set, they make your character feel like they were written by someone who's not too big on sweating the details.

That's the best way to use Talents. Set aside the continuum technobabble explanation and just lean into the idea that their Gifts are narrative-level permissions you have as a player to make your character's life easier. Don't even acknowledge that they're anything but normal (albeit highly skilled) people.

This isn't entirely a hack. There's a sidebar that acknowledges the possibility. It's pretty perfunctory, and I wish that the subject was given the full "alternate campaign model" treatment in the storyteller chapter, but you're not out on a limb if you use Talents to stand-in for "has protagonist powers."

It's hard to overstate how strong the book is if used that way - Talents are the default character type, their Gifts just meta storytelling flags. It all ties back in to the genre stuff I was talking about. You can use this book to play Die Hard, to play an Ocean's Eleven-type crew of criminals, to emulate shows like Person of Interest and Sherlock. That's what it's for.

I can't say with certainty that something like Fate's Aspects or Chuubo's Quests wouldn't work better for establishing that slightly-heightened/slightly-crummy reality of modern day action and procedural dramas, but I do know that the Trinity Continuum Core manages to do what it does while still being, like, 90% of a regular rpg. You wanna play Fate, you're going to have to tell your players to unlearn much of what they've learned playing D&D. Gifts, by contrast, take about a second to explain. "They're spells that look like luck."

This discussion of genre brings us to the third and final thing that makes this book a tragically hidden gem - it's a complete rpg. Now, on some level, this is just my passive-aggressive swipe at Scion: Origin. That book was ostensibly a stand-alone volume, but it nonetheless conveyed a certain incompleteness. Your character options were defined by your relationship to gods who would not be detailed until Hero, your abilities were capped by traits that could not be raised without the rules in the later volume. Origin has a great high concept, but it didn't fully commit.

The Trinity Continuum Core commits. It gives its characters, both normals and Talents, plenty of ways to branch out and grow in power. It provides all the rules you're likely to interact with along with a framework to expand the setting without access to the other Continuum era books. There's nothing here that feels like it's being held back to punch up a future release. And because of that, I truly do believe that the Trinity Continuum modern era has every bit as much ability to support a full line of supplements as any of the flashier legacy settings.

A shame then, that it probably won't happen because the knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss this book as a means to an end, the thing you need to play Aberrant. If it could get past that reaction, it may well come in time to be viewed as one of the great one-volume rpg books, alongside the likes of Unknown Armies, 2nd Edition or Star Wars Saga Edition.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to go with Les Fantômes, the notorious group of high-society thieves with a code. They steal exclusively from the ultra-rich, don't harm innocents, and sometimes indulge in a bit of justice on the side. They could anchor a whole series by themselves, either as antagonists or anti-heroes, and pretty much have a place in any setting where capitalism might run amuck.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

(AD&D 2nd Edition) Reverse Dungeon

Reverse Dungeon is a good adventure that has the misfortune to be saddled with a great pitch. The premise is simple - take the most basic, by-the-numbers AD&D dungeon crawl imaginable, but play it out from the perspective of the monsters. It's an idea that is as amazing as it is obvious, which makes it all the more mysterious that it didn't get published until the year 2000. I can only assume that Gygax's anti-monster rant in the original AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide was so traumatizing that it scared away a whole generation of gamers.

Reverse Dungeon's biggest flaw is its failure to set the right tone. From a certain perspective, there is no such thing as a "reverse dungeon." You can just make your PCs be goblins or illithids or vampires or what have you and play them in an adventure and that's just normal fantasy roleplaying. There's no real reason, aside from D&D tradition, to divide your fantasy creatures into PC options and NPC options.

Similarly, "defend your home from invaders who want to rob you" is just a good adventure plot. At any point in D&D's history, you could have pitched a "defend an isolated fortress from the monster hordes" module, and it's likely that no one would have objected, "oh, so you want to do a reverse dungeon?"

But let's not be disingenuous here. When we saw the title, Reverse Dungeon, we all had a pretty good idea about what that would mean. There is a certain stylized way of roleplaying, a set of genre conventions that when you think about them too hard, you realize that they don't often map well to any sort of objectively good world-building. Like, why are all these monsters just hanging around underground waiting for adventurers to come by and steal their shit? Aren't some of them natural enemies? What do they even eat?

There's certainly room for an operatic version of the "reverse dungeon," one that plays up the oddly ritualized nature of the dungeon crawl. There is a tone, not quite at the level of parody, but just self-aware enough to encourage the players to really chew the scenery, that could have made this concept sing.

Reverse Dungeon never quite gets there. There are glimmers. There's this wizard, Blaise, and the adventure repeatedly uses him as The Wizard Who "Did It." Not in so many words, of course, but enough that it quickly became noticeable. He had a collection of rare magical items, and also a collection of monsters he summoned, captured, or magically bound. Why not use the one to guard the other? Oh, when he was just starting out in the whole demon summoning game, his dark patrons tricked them into taking possession of a dozen "demon seeds" that would slowly grow over the centuries until they eventually bloomed into extraplanar gates that would open the world up to invasion by a demon army? Just shove 'em in a cave and hope the problem takes care of itself.

I really wanted Blaise to show up as a "bad boss." The text repeatedly sets him up as a totally irresponsible dick, but then, when it finally gets to the dungeon's lowest level, Blaise's inner sanctum is effectively abandoned. Blaise has become a demi-lich, his consciousness occupied on the outer planes, with only his magically animated skull remaining behind. My dream of The Office, but with, like, gorgons and shit, was dashed.

Similarly, at the end of the book, when it's time to turn the tables and invade the monastery that is the source of all these pesky heroes, I was hoping for something that was as over-the-top anti-monster as your typical dungeon crawl is anti-hero. Like maybe you put your eye up to a keyhole to peek through and pressurized holy water shoots out. Or perhaps the fighter-priest with the Rod of Resurrection just keeps showing up, no matter how many times you kill him. But alas, instead of a fun-house mirror Tomb of Horrors, all we got was a mostly regular monastery.

Maybe it's my fault for letting my expectations get away from me, but I do think Reverse Dungeon made a mistake in playing it as straight as it did. If I really wanted to deeply explore the motivations and psychology of a monster, I'd just play Vampire: the Masquerade.

Ukss Contribution: There were some neat ideas here. Some of the game's most famous Artifacts make an appearance. The notorious early adventure "Expedition to the Barrier Peaks" (where PCs find a crashed spaceship) is referenced. I hope I didn't give the impression in the main body of the post that this book wasn't fun.

But once again, I have to ignore all that high fantasy goodness to obsess over a small detail that might otherwise go unnoticed.

When you're in the middle of your counterattack against the monastery, you might get side-tracked and wander into the stables. If you do, all the animals flee. Well, all but one. A 600 lb sow, raised by a kindly priest, not as food, but as a companion, will absolutely lose her shit on your undead asses.

It's kind of dumb encounter, because while she is hefty for a pig, at this point in the adventure one of your character options is a minor death (which is exactly what it sounds like - an incarnation of the grim reaper himself, given independent existence thanks to a mishap with a Deck of Many Things), so there's no way this fight is anything but one-sided.

You know what, though, I kind of love her. The best part? Her name is Diva.

She's fat. She's fabulous. And she is putting up with precisely none of your demonic bullshit. She's Diva, the undead-slaying pig, and you'd better show her some respect.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Transhuman Space: Fifth Wave

Hey guys, I don't mean to alarm you, but I may have noticed some flaws in capitalism.

That's the tricky part about reading a book that prides itself on creating a sci-fi universe where the global political order is essentially unchanged from the present day - it winds up pushing me into the nebulous space where I can't be sure whether I'm critiquing the book or critiquing society.

The best way to describe this book is with an inadvertent self-own I got from a sidebar titled "Not Your Father's Cyberpunk." In what way is this book not your father's cyberpunk, you might ask.

Well, for starters, it's not punk.

Give me ten thousand days, and I don't think I could write a better joke than that. Transhuman Space calls its approach "optimistic," but it's a weirdly blinkered optimism. If I'm being super generous, I'd call it "naively apolitical" with the understanding that I'm using the word "politics" in the same sense as those guys who want to "keep politics out of our video games." It's obvious in retrospect that every weird and upsetting thing about Broken Dreams can be traced back to the necessity to remain compatible with this book here.

It's not that the book's bad. It is, in many ways, the model of what you want an rpg setting book to be. It is clear, concise, creative, and well-researched. You know, when you talk about Quito, Ecuador, and how its location makes it an ideal commercial space port, but you start your history section discussing the city's founding by the pre-Columbian Incas - that shows me you are not just dicking around. But in a way, the book not being bad makes my dilemma worse. How much should ideology count?

Because, make no mistake, this Fifth Wave is steeped in ideology. This is best characterized by the way that it seems to define "optimistic future" as "the sun sets on another century without the west suffering a reckoning for its many, many injustices." It's optimistic for somebody, that's for sure.

But that's just implicit bias, apparent only in the shape of the book as a whole. For a more direct example, you'd have to look . . . three pages into the first chapter. There's a section that bears the header "Doing Well by Doing Good," and it's ostensibly about a social trend of corporations that made an honest profit by helping the poor, undeveloped world gain access to critical technologies.

The centerpiece of this section is Ithemba Biotechnologies. It created a cure for AIDS, and its business model was to go to the governments of impoverished nations, offer to cure their citizens for "free" and take a mere token in exchange . . . controlling interest in state-run mines, farms, and industries. What an uplifting tale. Those poor Africans get cured of AIDS, even though they can't afford to buy it the "right" way, and all those terrible state-run industries get privatized, the way God intended.

Blech.

And I don't want to get too deep into a debate about the merits of privatization. I'll be fucked if I know enough about the economic nuances to argue one way or the other. All I know is that it's a policy that tends to get pushed by the sort of people who advocate the terrible policies I do understand. However, that's not what's pertinent here. Instead, look at the way these industries were privatized.

There's a terrifying continental pandemic, people are dying, and Ithemba can save them. But it won't. Not until they hand over the bulk of the continent's mineral and agricultural resources. You see someone drowning, you call out that you have a life preserver, but before you throw it, they need to sign away their inheritance. That goes beyond capitalism as usual. It's pure evil.

Ideology is the force that lets you write that and think you are describing "Doing Well by Doing Good."

In a similar vein, Fifth Wave's account of the origins of advanced biotech is just as tone deaf. "When governments in the global north regulate genetic research to prevent environmental contamination and dangerous human experimentation, certain scientists flee to nations that will give them a blank check to do as they please in exchange for a cut of the profits? Wow, what a great pitch for your sci-fi horror game . . . It's not meant to be horror? It's 'optimistic'?! Dude."

And I guess that brings me to the part of the post where I talk about racism. At this point, it's become a bit of a ritual where I start off with a disclaimer that I'm the last person in the world who should be treated as an authority on this subject. But this time I really, truly, definitely, 100% have to say that I am far beyond my comfort zone. This is some advanced cultural studies shit, and my entire education on this subject comes from reading progressive blogs 10 years ago.

With that in mind, Fifth Wave isn't really racist in the same way that The Complete Barbarian's Handbook is racist. It doesn't trade in offensive ethnic stereotypes. Sometimes, it presents a fairly shallow view of what a particular country is like, but that can be attributed to the fact that most country entries are about a paragraph long. Where it goes wrong is in what it doesn't say.

So, one of the pillars of Transhuman Space's worldbuilding is that in the enlightened year of 2100, intra-human racism is largely a thing of the past. Compared to an uplifted sea lion, or a ghost-driven robot with fractal bushes for arms, there's no configuration of natural phenotypes that is going to seem that threatening. And while that right there is an . . . old-fashioned conception of racism, what really pushes it over the edge is when the gameline publishes a book with a list of very nearly every country in the world, a few of them new, complete with tables that detail their political and economic circumstances, and you somehow fail to notice that there is a startling correlation between a country's poverty and instability and the average darkness of their residents' skin (this is only barely an exaggeration, by the way - the poorest country in the western hemisphere is Haiti).

To be clear, I don't think this was any sort of deliberate political statement. My best guess as to the writing process is that it started with an atlas that got converted to a checklist that guided a whole bunch of afternoons at the library, looking up basic facts and extrapolating those into sci-fi scenarios. The counties that were poor in 2002 are generally the same ones that are poor in 2100, save the ones that house the occasional sci-fi Macguffin.

The biggest evidence for that being the process is a chart in the middle of the book that purports to break down the nations of the world by their "technological wave." The name of the book is Fifth Wave and that represents the absolute state of the art. Third wave is roughly where we're at today, and Fourth wave is somewhere in between. Interestingly enough, the USA and China, the two most powerful nations in the Transhuman Space universe, are only 4th wave. The true fifth wave is in Europe, British Columbia, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and . . . Chile.

Chile is the only South American country to make it to the fifth wave. Chile. And look, I don't want to impugn the ingenuity or the industriousness of the Chilean people. It's not implausible that they could be world leaders in robotics technology 80 years hence. However, there's something about singling out Chile that gets my neoliberal sense a-tingling.

I'm not saying the author of Fifth Wave was a Pinochet apologist, but I'm certain that whoever wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial that clearly inspired that particular bit of setting was.

None of that would be racist on its own. If your setting history says that in the next 100 years nobody does anything substantive to address the structural inequalities of global capitalism, then it's not surprising that the relative positions of the world's nations remain more or less the same. Of course, if you then go on to say that in your setting, racism is a thing of the past, that's pretty fucked up.

I guess what I'm saying is that Fifth Wave is no more racist than global capitalism itself.

I could (and probably should) point out other examples of the book putting its foot in its mouth regarding race, but I'm getting tired and it's shaping up to be 3-for-3 when it comes to 2000+ word Transhuman Space posts, so I'll confine myself to merely the most egregious.

There's a political organization, called The Human Alliance, and its basic philosophy is that radical genetic engineering is dangerous and immoral. It's notable for two other things. One; its sidebar begins in the middle of the section on Africa, and two; it is one of the only places in the book where the word "racism" is mentioned. Now, The Human Alliance is based in the USA, so the placement was probably a coincidence, but I feel like maybe somewhere in the editorial process, someone should have noticed the dissonance of putting sci-fi "racism" in the middle of a bunch of countries that were exploited by centuries of racist colonialism, especially since the so-called racism in question could be described as "opposing eugenics."

("You know, I told that Human Alliance guy about my plans to alter my child's DNA and he flipped out, I think he may be racist against pure Aryan supermen.")

It is difficult to convey how fucking palpable the irony was. On the opposite page, Chad gets its one paragraph, and it's about how "hunger-driven violence is common," thanks to "the southward march of the Sahara Desert." And it's like do you not see the connection?

The global north takes the petroleum out of Chad, burns it to fuel centuries of economic growth, but that changes the climate, which devastates the global south, while the people responsible are insulated by the wealth they extracted from the people worst-affected. That's racism. European cyborgs jerking off in MMOs while the people of Chad riot for food, and it's going on a century into the sci-fi future because the problem is structural, and then right across from that you've got a vivid reminder that there are forces at work in your setting that want to extend that structural inequality into the human genome, in essence making geographical and class-based phenotype superiority into a reality, and it's the people opposed to it who get the label "racist."

Guys, guys, guys. The "punk" bit is actually a pretty important part of cyberpunk.

I'll admit, this book puts me in a terrible spot. I don't want to get in the habit of judging these things too ideologically. I mean, if a book is offensive, that's one thing, but if it's like this one, and merely oblivious I don't know what the fuck to do. I don't object in principle to a sci-fi rpg where liberal capitalism continues to win, any more that I'd be inclined to ding a fantasy rpg for making monarchy look good.

But look, Fifth Wave talks about the changes in economic class brought about by mass automation, and it divides a "modern" society into three groups - the underemployed, who have been made completely obsolete by technology and survive on welfare, the professional class, which works in slow-to-automate knowledge jobs, and the leisure class, which lives off investments. And it doesn't seem to realize that the first class and the third are basically the same. Right? Wealth, from the labor of the only people in society who work, gets taken away in taxes to support the many and gets squirreled away into capital, to support the few, but somehow it's only the underemployed who get cast as "unskilled."

There's this myth of upward mobility. The "Eloi" character type even makes it a point to say that "the term is misleading as many leisured people have reached their status through decades of hard work." And I have to call bullshit. The Transhuman Space setting has superhuman AI. Literally every job is replaceable, and thus there's a hard cap on how much any wage-earner can make. Wealth will continue to concentrate in the hands of capital. The idea that it's possible to save your way into wealth by living long enough is a laughable fantasy.

I guess at some point, Transhuman Space's conceit that the rising tide will lift all boats and that a system conditioned on built-in and expanding inequality will somehow right itself without a catastrophic movement towards justice starts to feel less like an ideological disagreement and more like a basic failure to observe the world. It's a utopian vision in the most literal sense of the word - it's no place.

But maybe I've let the past 16 years make me jaded and cynical. Let's call it a product of living in a cyberpunk world, without the cyber.

Ukss Contribution: I must confess, there was a part of me that hoped the Space Elevator thing would be a permanent running joke. But it's the coolest thing here, so in it goes.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

(Changeling: The Lost) Goblin Markets

Ooh, I should do a short post for this book, because it's so short. It's only 47 pages and very focused in its subject matter. It's all about Goblin Markets (gasp!), one of my favorite fairy-tale conceits.

I don't know what it is, but it speaks to me. Part of it must be the collector mindset. It's not difficult for me to imagine a magical shopping experience, where I'm pawing through a bunch of shoddy junk and suddenly my heart stops because I've just laid eyes on something I've long coveted, or, better yet, something I had not yet known to covet, but which instantly fills in a gap I never knew was there. That's the best. I can definitely understand why one might make ill-advised deals to acquire oddities and wonders. (I also like the "mysterious vanishing curio shop" trope for a similar reason.)

Like all Changeling books, the best thing about Goblin Markets is the details. You can buy a snowglobe that will show you the future weather around whatever tourist trap is depicted inside. Or trade your hair color for a beautiful singing voice. And you can make these deals inside a haunted church or enchanted carnival. Maybe you buy from the shift-eyed hyena man, but only if you don't run into Mr Pinch, the security guard with the silent steps that you'll never see coming.

If Goblin Markets has a fault, it's that it's too short. I could seriously have read another 100 pages of this stuff. Just a big catalogue of locations, market-goers, and products. That's just an indulgent dream, though. The book is more concerned with giving the broad outlines of Changeling's goblin markets than it is with providing out-of-the-box usable examples. It's an approach that would work well, if it weren't missing one critical element - it doesn't actually help the Storyteller address the main problem with goblin markets as a concept: how do you get the players to care?

I mean, on one level, it's pretty easy. The goblin market can basically just be a magic item shop. However, to really get the most out of the concept, you've got to have the players trading in goods both terrible and sublime, and dealing in prices not measured in gold.

If you were writing a story and the hero trades away the memory of their first kiss in order to obtain a vital piece of equipment, that's going to matter. You'd probably devote some time in the next couple of chapters to just periodically reminding the reader about what was lost. It's bittersweet and melancholy, and will probably touch on your story's themes. But in an rpg, there's nothing to stop the players from being totally callous about it. They have no use for background texture they probably hadn't even thought about before, but they do have use for the magic item. So what reason is there not to make the trade?

If your players are as intense and weird as I always hope mine will turn out to be, it's no problem, but in practice Goblin Markets suggests charging the players xp for good deals that result in more trait points (or other long-term advantages), and I guess that's probably the best possible compromise. I've never met a player that wasn't extremely solicitous of their xp.

But that's not really a complaint about the book ("it should have had . . . something to compensate for my inadequacies as a GM, don't ask me what.") Ultimately, it's just a bit more Changeling: the Lost magic, coming after I thought it was already done forever, and I'll always love it for that.

UKSS Contribution: One of the sample goblin markets is The Spider Bazaar and it's exactly what it sounds like. It's a traveling market, run by talking spiders. They sell items made from their silk. They eat more than their share of the local wildlife. And then they move on. It's just the sort of creepy I tend to enjoy.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Transhuman Space: Broken Dreams

Confession time: I don't know what the fuck I'm doing.

Sometimes, I think I'm doing a review, and in retrospect, all of my least favorite posts are ones where I let that thinking influence me too greatly. Really, whether a book is good or bad is often the least interesting thing about it.

Sometimes, I think I'm doing a critique, but truthfully, good criticism is an art of its own, and I . . . don't . . . really . . . do that. Oh, sometimes I try. And I may flatter myself to think that, occasionally, I even succeed. But mostly? I don't really work in a way that would make good criticism possible.

My process is that I take notes as I read a book, then I sit in front of my computer and skim my notes until I find something memorable to latch onto, and then I spew out a stream of consciousness until I run out of steam. Then, if the post turns out to be 750-2000 words, I stop. If I haven't reached that point yet, I find another thing in my notes that stands out and I start a new train of thought.

This mostly works because the blog as a whole is the project. I'm trying to get through my whole collection in a more or less orderly manner, which means that I read each book precisely once and then quickly move on to the next. I don't spend a week and a half meticulously going over each text, noting themes, developing arguments, and pulling quotes so I can produce an 8000 word analysis of "Random and Forgotten Optional RPG Supplement 6b, c. who the fuck cares, no one's played that game for at least a decade."

But sometimes, a book comes along that makes me think that maybe that's what I should be doing. Broken Dreams is so complex, so challenging, so . . . fucking frustrating, that it deserves a level of care far beyond my usual half-assed gonzo criticism. There's a part of me that thinks I should just pack it all in, say, "fuck it, this is a Transhuman Space blog now. November is going to be Broken Dreams month."

The last time I felt that way was with the WWII chapter of the Scion Companion, and probably for the same reason. There's this subject matter that is intensely political in a surprisingly relevant way, but also, it's kind of just a game. Like, why is this a game? At what stage of the writing process do you take this emotionally charged cultural issue and give it a +2 to AC?

I wound up taking the unusual step of tracking this book's author down on social media (semi-accidentally - there's a twitter link on his Google search results). It's not something I plan on making a habit of, but I had a burning curiosity about the political assumptions that went into the writing. I will also admit a certain fascination when I learned from wikipedia that this book and Transhuman Space: Toxic Memes were the only rpg books Jamais Cascio ever wrote, and that both before and after he worked as a respected futurist.

So that's an interesting little fact to tuck away. Apparently in the early 2000s Steve Jackson Games was all just, "hey, did you see that interesting article in Wired, maybe we should see if the author wants to write a supplement for our sci-fi game." (And Mr Cascio, if you're reading this, that's just how I'm always going to assume it went down).

Knowing that the author was a futurist only deepened the political mystery for me. See, Broken Dreams presents a very keenly observed sci-fi future, moreso even than the Transhuman Space core (and thus, by the transitive property, more than just about every other sci-fi game in existence), but it is also scrupulously non-judgemental, and I am just enough of a clod to need my political conflicts spelled out in big, bold, underlined letters. (True fact: in the part of my notes where I write about WTO operatives engaging in heavy-handed copyright enforcement by going undercover and setting up elaborate sting operations, I also include the question, "but are they villains or heroes?")

I've mentioned before that I think that Transhuman Space as a whole is a sci-fi universe rooted in the post-Soviet "consensus" - the future would be driven by open markets, free movement, regional alliances and that all these things would serve to spread political liberalism. Broken Dreams caught my eye by doing absolutely nothing to contradict that view, but also depicting the economic and cultural imperialism that would naturally follow in its wake. And so many times, while reading it, I would catch myself thinking, "is this on purpose?"

I'll give you a concrete example. There's a thing in this game, it's called "Social Transition Stress Disorder." It's basically anxiety and depression triggered by "economic disruption or transitions, encounters (particularly unpleasant or threatening ones) with new technologies, and paradigm shifts resulting from assimilation of new memeplexes." And it's the dumbest fucking thing. One of the sample NPCs has it and really, he just hates robots because he lost his job to a combination of automation and outsourcing. That's not an illness. That's just accurately perceiving the world around you and having an appropriate, if misplaced emotional reaction to your difficult circumstances.

But then I thought: It's not an illness. There's a sidebar describing the "treatment" and a price list for the "anti-STSD medicine" and oh . . . my . . . god . . . the developed nations in Transhuman Space have medicalized the perfectly natural reaction to the stresses imposed by late stage capitalism and they're selling pills to "cure" the "disorder" they both invented and caused.

And of course it was on purpose. So much of this book could be converted to an over-the-top cyberpunk satire by . . . doing nothing but imagining the text wagging its eyebrows suggestively as you read it. There's a microfiction where the narrator is flying a drone into the cone of a tornado to capture full-sensory data for a VR audience and they spot a dead body flying through the debris, and then shortly thereafter learn that the footage has tripled in price. An espionage thriller where the MPAA action-response squad plays a deadly game of cat and mouse with digital pirates trying to smuggle cracked movies through the sneakernet is one of the default campaign models. If you're genetically engineered, you may have to pay a licensing fee to a biotech company before they unlock the DRM on your sperm.

Fifth Wave capitalism is terrifying, and I've confirmed with the man himself that it was all by design.

I guess I was thrown off by all the talk of technological "waves." This has struck me as potentially (though not necessarily) problematic. There's a temptation to view history as linear. You compare two countries and one has internet and advanced medicine and twenty different kinds of mayonnaise and the other does not, and maybe you think the second country is like the first country's past. You think it needs to "catch up," to "develop." It doesn't have internet or advanced medicine, and only four kinds of mayonnaise and maybe you start coming up with some spurious correlations. Maybe you start to think of history in terms of counting mayonnaise. Country two gets its fifth mayonnaise and that's "progress." They'll probably get the internet around mayo 10 and MRIs at mayo 18, like life is just one big game of Civilization.

But in reality, the fates of the two countries are intertwined. Country 1's internet is made from minerals imported from Country 2. Their medicines are derived from the traditional knowledge of Country 2's indigenous population (who somehow do not get their own WTO secret agents working to protect their copyrights). Yet despite their connection, we often say that the "advanced technology" of Country 1 "imports" materials from the "undeveloped" Country 2. Even at our most critical, we tend to use language that reflects the same hierarchy (i.e. "Country 1 exploits Country 2.")

Yet wouldn't it make more sense to talk about the "Country 1 + Country 2" system? If you've got a magical technological device that has a critical component made from a mineral mined with slave labor, you can't just abstract that out of the process. It's not "the device is made by well-compensated labor" and "the mining was done by slaves." It has to be "the device was made with slave labor." In GURPS terms, tech level 7 is "information: internet, transportation: jets, rare earth extraction: slaves." Country 2 isn't Country 1's past, Country 2 is the system's present.

To bring it back to Broken Dreams, I don't quite buy into the idea that technological waves are a geographical phenomenon. The "fifth wave" nations economically exploit the "developing world" in a variety of ways - through using their markets to offload overstock of obsolete tech, or to extend the long tail of mature, but saturated technologies; through exporting industrial and medical waste to their landfills; through pressuring their governments to allow unlimited IP rent-seeking. And if, say, revenue from draconian copyright enforcement goes to fund Indus River Studios' latest production, then maybe it's all just a case of the benefits of the Fifth wave being unfairly distributed.

I think Broken Dreams probably understands that on some level, because all the facts are there. I don't think you can write, "the hyperdeveloped states have taken an interest in regions, but not always to the benefit of locals" and not have an awareness that all that stuff you've just spent the last 70 pages saying about the lopsided economic relationship between the two is a huge part of it. However, this particular quote also does a great job of demonstrating why so much of this book tasked me. "Not always" is a very soft way of putting it. Very generous to the "hyperdeveloped" states. Sometimes that hedging reads as an endorsement of the system.

Another example: The Transpacific Socialist Alliance has a "(somewhat) irrational fear of the Fifth Wave citizens becoming immortal supermen." To me, given the context of the rest of Transhuman Space, it seems like this could just as easily be the "(mostly) rational fear of the Fifth Wave citizens becoming immortal supermen." There's a weird tension between the bulk of the book demonstrating why the TSA has a tremendously good point, but then the bulk of the TSA states being patterned on the worst of 20th century Marxist-Leninism. It's like, if the TSA actually walked the walk on its egalitarianism, it would too obviously be the designated heroic faction (a complaint familiar to anyone who has read the thematically similar Eclipse Phase).

I don't know what it takes to be a futurist. I don't know if it is reasonable to expect someone in 2003 to foresee the threat of a rising illiberal capitalism, although I suspect that even if it was, it's probably too much to ask from an rpg supplement. I think I'll have to take it as a miracle that the contradiction between "automation is an unalloyed good, so much so that people who are distressed by it are diagnosed with a psychological disorder" and "widespread copyright infringement threatens the global economy" actually made it to the page, even if I am so dense that I'd be more comfortable with a giant neon sign that pointed to the relevant passages and said "WARNING! IRONY HERE!"

As if we couldn't work out for ourselves the absurdity of believing both "replacing a working man's sole source of income with a complex robot is a technological marvel" AND "replacing an artist's sole source of income with ctrl+V is a terrible crime". As if it weren't obvious that this particular combination of ideas is part of a memeplex that privileges capital and disregards labor. Then again, maybe infosocialism is an easier pitch when you can just say, "it's basically making Patreon a public utility."

Let's see. Wrap-up time is coming and I still have a few odds and ends.

There was probably no good way to write The Islamic Caliphate's treatment of women, but I'd have preferred one that centered itself in a female perspective. All the talk of how governments negotiated womens' rights to make peace among themselves felt a bit too objectifying.

Kazakhstan is an example of what could happen if all of the setting's technology had been isolated under the elite's control and used in the most abusive way possible, and it's kind of great to have this creepy location where an immortal king uses ubiquitous surveillance, mind-altering cybernetic implants, and an incorruptible robot army to maintain control. However, if I'm being super-cynical, I can't help but think that the core book's promise that the 22nd century is not a dystopia really just means that violence happens only where it's currently expected.

It would be very helpful to know exactly how effective memetics is. Sometimes it's portrayed as near-perfect psychological manipulation, allowing its wielders to control how others act. Other times, you get things like political protests being described as "memetic warfare," and that doesn't seem very effective at all. Maybe I should have read the Fifth Wave book first.

I'm guessing that playing with a "Hamas" model bioengineering template may have seemed less fraught in 2003 than it does today.

On a similar note, I thought that the Congo deploying a limb-destroying bioweapon was in poor taste. Maybe this is one of those cases where the big, condescending warning text would have been warranted.

Okay, so that's about 2/3rds of my notes. And only 2300 words. I may have a knack for this after all. Overall, I'd say that this is a very smart book. Maybe too smart, for rpg purposes. GURPS has this weird organizational issue where the system is so generic that a supplement like this one can just be 90% sci-fi riffing. Even when it is focusing on mechanics, something like the Sterile disadvantage has about 6 words of system terminology and two paragraphs of explaining the setting.

As a piece of literature, it's fascinating, but I think that means that most of its value is as literature. Still, Broken Dreams will make you think, and I'm sure we can always find an application for that.

UKSS Contribution: One of these days, I really am going to get my last chance to include a Space Elevator. I just have to hope it's not today, because unfortunately this book has something even cooler. Zarubayev, the dictator of Kazahstan experimented with making digital copies of his mind. Then, in a move whose outcome he really should have seen coming, he put two of those copies into badass robot bodies and made them his top generals. Naturally, they were just as ambitious as he was and rebelled, throwing the country into chaos. I think I could definitely get some use out of an event like that.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

(Changeling: The Lost) The Equinox Road

The Equinox Road is a supplement that revolves around ending a Changeling: the Lost chronicle. It offers a lot of specific, actionable advice on subjects like staging a memorable campaign climax or running an adventure where the PCs return to Arcadia. It also offers a bit of woefully inadequate advice for running crossover games. It's not anything an experienced GM would wind up needing, but nobody starts experienced, and so for what it is, it's very useful.

Where the book gets more interesting is when it talks about the landscape of Arcadia and the psychology of the True Fae. They get very abstract and metaphysical. The Fae are Realms within Arcadia, but they are also Actors within those Realms and the Props those Actors wield. It does an amazing job of conveying a sense of the divine, and would serve as an apt backdrop for campaigns where the PCs are themselves peers of the gods . . . were it not quite so wedded to the game's most pessimistic assumptions.

By their very nature, True Fae are total dicks, because though they are complete and omnipotent within themselves, if they retreat into solipsism, they wind up amplifying and echoing their own chaotic internal impulses and losing the signal in the noise. It is only through opposition to other sovereign minds that they are forced to maintain coherence. Meaning comes from confronting a reality outside themselves, and pushing up against the limits of their power. They are an enemy to all other intelligences because only enemies push back.

Philosophically, it's all very thought-provoking, but I think it undermines the endgame by making Faerie a place of pure pandemonium. It is a war of all against all, and to the extent that faerie things interact with the mortal world at all, it is as exploiters and abusers. So when you say that high-level Changelings have the potential to become Fae themselves, it is only ever a temptation to corruption (and thus no temptation at all to a player, except as a tragic coda to their character's story).

I can't say with certainty that the possibility of "good" Fae would have enhanced the game, but I do have to look in askance at the final chapter's advice that "the phrase 'adventure' [...] should serve as a warning. Care should be taken to make sure that the quest aligns not only with the themes of Changeling, but the World of Darkness as a whole. Even a glorious knightly sally into the Hedge should be grim and dark, more Band of Brothers than King Arthur."

First of all, King Arthur? Context implies that they're talking about the 2004 movie, and that's just embarrassing. I remember that movie, and it is baffling that anyone would think it a useful cultural touchstone, even as early as 2008.

But that's just me being petty. The real issue here is Changeling: the Lost's relationship with horror. Horror is an essential ingredient to Changeling: the Lost's formula. I often find that when text is most in danger of getting just a little bit too twee, there's a bit of something awful or grotesque just around the corner to ruin the mood. However, horror is just part of the recipe. Wonder, intrigue, romance, and whimsy are all just as important, if not moreso.

And that's something C:tL 1st edition didn't quite get, at least not in its first batch of supplements. It's a good horror game, but it has the potential to be a legendary urban fantasy game. And I'm not sure that idea was even on White Wolf's radar when The Equinox Road was being written. That's perfectly understandable, of course. These things often only become apparent with historical distance. But I can't deny that it was pretty disappointing to see GMing advice that was pretty much, "stop having fun, your game needs to be grim enough for the World of Darkness."

So once more, we have an example of a perfectly good independent game being held back because of its connection to a setting that really only exists in potentia. The "World of Darkness" is what you get when you strip away those elements the various White Wolf games don't have in common. That's probably why the crossover advise is so uniformly disappointing. By their very nature, crossover games move their characters at least a little bit into the poorly-thought-out meta world.

Ultimately, I'd say that The Equinox Road is about 75% of what I want from a Changeling: the Lost endgame book. I'd love it if high-Wyrd PCs could have truly world-shaking powers, if Arcadia were a place with more ethical nuance, that could hold promise as well as peril, and if the optional free-form narrative rules that governed the Fae could dovetail just a bit more elegantly with the PC scale. However there are a lot of good starts here, and even if the book doesn't give me everything I want, it provides a solid foundation if I were to decide to build an endgame of my own.

UKSS Contribution: Once again, the specific setting examples are the best part of a Changeling supplement. This book is a little trickier, because the Arcadia locations are also all faeries, and thus the best are hard to adapt and the worst are too vague to serve as inspiration. However, there was one magical location that hit the sweet spot: The Twilight Wood.

It's a forested swampland where the trees are so thick that hardly any sunlight penetrates to the surface. It is home to fireflies in a rainbow of colors and haunted by will-o-wisps. Some of the trees are haunted by the souls of the unhallowed dead and move when they are unobserved and bleed blood-red sap when cut. I figure it will be a pretty good home for the Frog Nation.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

(GURPS) Transhuman Space

I was pretty nervous when I picked this book. The last time I read it was more than a decade ago, and my memories had elevated it to the status of a classic. Would it hold up? Or would it prove to be another one of those things that was only impressive to me because I didn't know any better?

I won't keep you in suspense. It was indeed as good as I remembered. Possibly even better. The first chapter opens with a bit of micro-fiction that tossed something like a half-dozen heady sci-fi concepts at you in the first paragraph. And they all made sense. They all worked together to build a coherent setting whose constituent pieces were individually compelling while also enhancing the whole.

Transhuman Space is where I was exposed to a lot of sci-fi ideas for the first time. I'd never imagined the software emulation of human consciousness or 3D printing or augmented reality or space elevators. This was a near-future setting that was deeply interested in exploring the implications of its technology and creating a realistic extrapolation of the present as changed by a redefinition of what it means to be human.

 It's an absolute classic. Unfortunately, it does not succeed. It's not its fault, not really. It's just that its conception of history and politics feels impossibly dated.

I'm sure that part of it is that some portion of Transhuman Space's future is actually our past. That's always something that feels super precious when you encounter it in old sci-fi. Did you hear about the human clone who was born in 2010? What's the latest word on the reunification of South Korea and North Korea? It got started in 2012, so they should have made significant progress by now.

Of course, it's easy to be needlessly condescending about specific predictions. Transhuman Space is better than most in that it tends to err on the side of the conservative guesses. We're not nearly as close to fusion power as the book thinks we should be, but we probably could have been, had the nations of the world decided to invest in it as much as they did in the fictional universe. In some ways, it's even behind the times. You want to know what computer technology is like in fictional 2019? Imagine Google Glass hooked up to a fanny pack. For all of its much-deserved reputation for hard sci-fi perspicacity, Transhuman Space never quite picked up on the fact that no one was ever going to wear a technology that interfered with them getting laid.

But the element that makes this book feel the most dated is its overwhelming optimism about arc of 21st century history. It's not all sunshine and rainbows. There is a major war in the 2080s. But looking at it from a 2019 perspective, the remarkable thing about the Pacific War is that it happens for more or less explicable economic and ideological reasons. China, as the world's predominate economic power, has a much different stance on intellectual property than it does today, and the South Asian military and economic alliance that pirates their designs really is building weapons of mass destruction. Millions are dead, but no one fabricated a casus belli because they wanted a war for the sake of a war, and none of the various leaders' obvious daddy issues come into play at all.

Ah, so that was what 2002 was like.

Actually, I'm 100% sure that the entirety of this book's text was written prior to September 11, 2001, and that March of 2002 is merely when it was published. There's one line, in particular, that drove this home. "Moderate Arab States, led by Saudi Arabia, form the Islamic Caliphate."

Um, ooh, awkward.

I mean, in the game the year is 2049. Scientists have discovered life on Europa. Anything is possible. But, ouch. That was a misfire. And not just because of Saudi Arabia's support of terrorism. Today, we have lurid proof that declaring yourself a Caliph is a monumental act of hubris that could only result in (or possibly stem from) complete pandemonium. The only way a state is ever going to call itself "The Islamic Caliphate" is if they care so little about maintaining good international relations that they become willing to break Islam.

And I kind of feel that maybe that's something someone should have known, back in 2001, but then I look at the USA's actions in the region in the subsequent decade and I think, "holy shit, we really didn't know. The Bush administration started a war in the region, and they didn't fucking know."

I really could just post a link to my rant about the 90s influences in Trinity and leave it at that. Most of the same observations apply to Transhuman Space's version of the 21st century (regional alliances become more influential than national identity, the people of Africa decide they're just going to be Africans from now on and unite into a single state, the world in general is more liberal and more prosperous, and it's all thanks to capitalism). However, I'm going to come at it from a different angle, and talk about its failure to truly predict the internet.

It's not the biggest deal in the world, because Transhuman Space gets it sort of right. There is an internet, and it is important, but it's kind of just there. Funnily enough, I think The Trinity Technology Manual might have gotten closer, despite being written 4 years earlier, when it said that people would have the internet with them all the time and use it to whip out random trivia in an attempt to sound smart. (I suppose this resolves the nonexistent argument over who was dorkier 90s White Wolf or 90s Steve Jackson games, though I suppose it's just as likely that the White Wolf staff skewed younger.)

I don't want to over dwell on the things this book gets wrong about internet terminology, even if it would be kind of fun. Early on, it drops the phrase, "When people talk of visiting the web . . ." and I had to do a double-take. Or later, towards the end, when it suggested "Anyone registered with a com service can use a radio communicator as a cellular audiovisual phone." I had to suppress a really dry response to that, that's for sure. But that's just naive stuff. Treating the internet as another bit of sci-fi technology instead of an invisible part of daily life.

When I say that Transhuman Space didn't get the internet quite right, I'm talking about something a bit subtler than all that. It presents a version of history that is strongly driven by treaties. The Outer Space Treaty is name-checked several times, and it often seems like every region of the world gets a NAFTA to call its very own. But what Transhuman Space fails to capture about improved communications technology is how inside baseball it has made everything, both culturally and politically.

Like, right now, at this very moment, the USA is going through some turbulent political shit of the sort that would definitely be put on a hard sci-fi rpg timeline, and what is the level of discussion? I've got three different threads that I personally follow, each of which is filled with people playing amateur body-language analyst, trying to figure out if a particular photograph helps or hurts the president.

I actually greatly admire how committed Transhuman Space is to presenting a version of 2100 that is neither utopia nor dystopia, but simply a continuation of history, for all its ups and downs. In a way, that's a bold artistic statement all on its own. But it utterly fails to convey how history repeats itself as farce.

There's an idea floating around in this book. They call it memetics (and it's not the book's fault, but it took all my willpower not to laugh out loud when it talked about "powerful memes"), and it's basically the rigorous quantification of psychology. The people of this sci-fi future can scan your brain and emulate it with a computer program. They know what makes a mind tick. And one application of this knowledge is that a sufficiently advanced AI can make what amounts to near-perfect advertising for whatever ideas you might want to disseminate (less certain concessions made to its semantic expression and the influence of other competitive super-memes).

In the setting, the existence of memetics is widely known. People are aware that corporations, governments, and activists have access to high-tech, nigh-magical methods of persuasion and that they use them all the time. Transhuman Space posits that this means people have come to accept that culture and ideology are contingent on environmental factors and as a result take a more casual approach to their own beliefs. Disagreements that would have caused wars in a less enlightened age are now seen as part of the vigorous marketplace of ideas. Why fight when you can just outflank your opponents with superior memery?

And it is at this point that I wanted to shout at the book, "you are not writing about human beings, you are writing about aliens," because we live in a world with multiple-choice truth, and it didn't take manipulative super AIs to get us here, just a lot of people talking loudly, all at once, so much so that you have to curate, to maintain your own sanity, and then, without noticing, the curation becomes bent by bias and you find yourself in an echo chamber. "Facts and Logic" become the prizes of your various cultural grievances, just one more frontier to fight over, and if you lose ground, then maybe it's just smart tactics to change battlefields and silence your opponents with physical violence.

There's a section where they talk about ubiquitous computing and its potential for surveillance, and apparently, "In practice, this sort of "Big Brother" monitoring is restricted to a few states or colonies with authoritarian regimes." And it's almost as if they never stopped to consider that maybe your online photo album would be the one do it, building up an elaborate psychological profile of you so accurate it could predict you were pregnant before you yourself even took the test, and it would use this information to try and sell you pickles and ice cream, but we all sort of just put up with it, because what are you going to do, not share your photos online?

I thought briefly about what it might be like if Facebook had Transhuman Space-style memetic technology, and I don't think anything but a dystopia would be honest.

But then, every decade seems to have its obsessions. For the 90s (and in my opinion, the 90s didn't truly end until 9/11/2001) it's the idea that the sun will never set on liberal capitalism. For the 2020s? My guess is it will be something like, "nobody has any secrets, but also, somehow, nobody knows jack shit." I can't really fault a near-20-year-old game for following its obsessions, rather than mine.

UKSS Contribution - Oh, I so desperately want to choose the Space Elevator. It's such a cool idea, and I don't know if I'll ever get another chance. However, there was something, right near the start of the book, that captured my attention more directly.

The opening fiction has a bit where space marines fight martian gangster robots to liberate a factory where they produce biological androids for sale on the black market. You know, your typical space stuff, nothing to get too excited about. But the organization that deployed them was interesting, "Hir Majesty's Government."

That was something that passed me by the first time I read the book. I don't think we need to retread how unwoke I was. I just thought it was a typo. This time, I decided to double-check. I consulted the glossary in the back, and sure enough, it was a deliberate gender-neutral pronoun. Sure, the definition used some . . . outdated terminology to refer to transgender people (not to mention that "hir" is the wrong pronoun to use for a lot of trans people), but hell, 2002, this wasn't even on my radar. So I figure this is something you have to grade on a curve.

I have previously resolved that Ukss was going to have a gender-neutral character who wasn't a fabulous stage performer, and if we ignore the obvious overlap between that concept and royalty, this is probably going to be my best opportunity to introduce one. So that's the Ukss contribution. Hir Majesty, the Sovereign.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Winter Masques

I should have taken better notes on this book. I'm sitting here, staring at a blank screen, trying to come up with something to say, and I'm just drawing a blank.

In my defense, Winter Masques enchanted me almost immediately. It is another one of those books that is ostensibly about some dedicated subject - here it's fleshing out kiths and seemings - but which mostly winds up expanding the Changeling: the Lost setting, creating dozens of new fantastic locales and hinting ever more about life in the magical realm of Arcadia. I could easily read a dozen more books that were just filled with similar fantastic conceits.

It's interesting how much this book manages to just get my own aesthetic sensibilities. There are dark forests, filled with brambles, human beings who are living candles, and ifrits in their city of brass. It's hard to pinpoint the thing I love most about this book.

It is, however, pretty easy to pinpoint the thing I love least about it. Or, at least, the thing that stops and makes me question, "should I love this as much as I do? Is it even okay?" Winter Masques is also the book where they try to take Changeling: The Lost global, and my instinct is to like it. I want desperately to like it. But then it does something like suggest that Coyote could be a type of Native American faerie creature, and I'm forced to go hmm.

I mean, the faerie in Changeling: The Lost are presented as really, really evil. So I'm just sort of taking it on trust that when Winter Masques presents some creature or spirit from an unfamiliar culture, that it's the kind of dangerous monster that would be at home in its particular horror milieu. However, if I'm being honest, I'm not entirely confident that they're actually pulling it off. Call it a hunch, if you like, but when I look at the mythological cross-pollination that I am familiar with - like the idea that the lords of the faerie realm might be Christian demons or Grey Aliens out of modern ufology - then what I'm left with is just the tiniest bit of genre disconnect.

Like, you've got these mysterious creatures that capture people and do terrible things to their bodies and souls, and at the broadest literal sense, that might be demons. It might be aliens. But the stories don't quite feel right. There's a whole canon of (for lack of a better term) celestial fantasy, featuring earthbound angels and demons, that has its own set of tropes that don't match up very well with what Changeling is trying to do. I mean, yes, there was an angel in Neverwhere, but by and large, it would be weird if elves and goblins and such started showing up in The Omen.  Which is not to say you can't do good, compelling work that equivocates Faerie with Heaven and Hell, but just that it's surprising. It doesn't quite fit.

And if the things I know about have that feel of being awkwardly stitched together, how can I trust at all that the things I don't know about are being used respectfully? Ultimately, the stakes are pretty low, and it's interesting hearing about all these mythological figures being interpreted as faeries, so I'm mostly okay with enjoying this book on a personal level. But I'm certain the readers of this blog have come to expect a higher standard from my professional opinions, so I'm forced to point out that it is a potential issue. I guess my advice would be to do your own research, not take anything for granted, and if you decide to turn your Changeling: the Lost game into a podcast or youtube series, consult with a member of the relevant culture before incorporating any of this book's material that you're not personally familiar with.

UKSS Contribution: Sometimes, a book filled with richly imaginative fantasy will pose a challenge to me, because I'll basically want to steal everything. And sometimes there's a book that would be like that, were it not for a single concept that effortlessly rises above the pack and stands out as exceptional even in an otherwise strong field of contenders.

Winter Masques manages to be the second type of experience thanks to a wonderfully awful idea that is still banging around in my head, even after 12 hours of procrastinating and a complete failure to take notes: Manikin Town.

The faeries would kidnap people, turn them into living dolls, and then pose them in cute little model towns, complete with a whole collectible cast of other toy-like residents, some of whom were real people, similarly trapped, and others who were but cunning automatons. Sometimes the faeries would be interested, and wind up the town to bring it to life, and sometimes the faeries would get bored . . .

::shudder::

Saturday, October 12, 2019

GURPS Basic Set (3rd Edition) - Chapters 13 - 23 (plus appendicies)

Ow, I think my brain might have melted out my ears. This book is dry as hell. That wouldn't be a problem, per se, but GURPS has this weird thing where it seems proudest of all the things I like least about the system.

I may have been slightly premature when I said it compares favorably to AD&D 2nd edition. The bones of the system are good. It is admirably consistent in sticking to its 3d6, roll under resolution mechanic. But there are so many modifiers.

It's not that any particular system is overloaded (though ranged attacks come close, especially the bit where you figure your to-hit penalty on a moving target by calculating its speed and direction of travel), but they just keep coming. Every particular circumstance you can imagine adds its own pluses and minuses to that 3d6 roll, and never does the book come to the point of admitting that you can just eyeball it, giving a big modifier if there's a lot of confounding factors and a small modifier if there's only a few. No, it's a -4 to hit a target that's precisely 1 and a half feet long and a -5 to hit a target that's one foot long.

They call this "realism."

What I think is going on here is a culture of the same sort of adversarial tournament-focused dungeon-crawling as characterized AD&D. GURPS didn't want to be like that. It brags about "making true roleplaying possible," but it couldn't escape its historical context. Its understanding of "true roleplaying," is rooted in being able to write "geology" and "prospecting" down on your character sheet as separate skills, despite no major mechanics being associated with either one (not that I'm asking for them, mind you). It has only a vague and intermittent understanding of things like story structure and flow of play.

And there's nothing wrong with that. It's all part of being written in 1988. Even the Storyteller family of games wouldn't really get it until some time in the early 21st century.

However, I have to confess, that if I were ever to run GURPS, I would deliberately do it wrong.

UKSS Contribution: Computer hacking did eventually make it into this book, in the appendix they added in the 1994 reprint, though they mainly referred to it in its role in the cyberpunk genre. I think I'm going to have to go, instead, with the most prominent information technology that managed to make it into the initial printing: telegraphy.

That's right, GURPS has a skill specifically for measuring how fast your character is at sending and decoding telegraph messages. It breaks it down to words per minute, giving you two for free and then imposing a -2 penalty for every two words per minute faster than that. Out of respect for GURPS, I will decline to even speculate about what game circumstances would make this relevant, let alone worth spending some of your limited amount of character points.

But telegraphs themselves are pretty cool. So I can feel comfortable saying that Ukss has them.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

GURPS - Basic Set (3rd Edition) - Chapters 1-12

This book tricked me into feeling really old. I was reading a sidebar near the front, page 10. It was about character types. It started in with warriors, and the first sentence read, "Whatever the time period, he (or she!) knows several weapon skills . . ."

That parenthetical, with its jaunty little exclamation point that seemed to scream "look at me, I remembered women exist, aren't I progressive" . . . it was kind of dizzying. What was going on here? It sent me racing towards the title page. Copyright 2002.

This book was printed in 2002, and it put an exclamation point on a reminder that warriors could be women. I found that odd. It made me alert for other archaic ideas and attitudes.

Like when it said that characters with dwarfism couldn't have average physical appearance because "you can either be thought 'cute and charming' or noticeably unappealing." My first reaction was, "whoa, that's ableist as fuck," but then, a moment later, my second thought was, "wait, was Peter Dinklage not in the public eye in 2002, is that the reason 'sexy as hell' isn't one of the options?"

Or later, with the epilepsy disadvantage, where it claimed that "savages" (ugh) would sometimes worship a character who had a seizure in front of them (or run in terror if the persuasion roll failed). That was a real holy shit moment, because it's just, you know, unadulterated racism dropped into the middle of a fairly dry book.

I was wracking my brain, trying to remember what 2002 was really like. I was in my second year of college at the time, and I do have memories of people being noticeably less sensitive, but "human beings with dwarfism are either cute little cherubs or disgusting trolls" and "people without advanced technology would shit their pants at seeing a common medical condition" - were those acceptable things to say in public?

That got me thinking. There is something conspicuously missing from the book's otherwise comprehensive skill section. It has separate skills for packing animals, poetry, skiing, accounting, and plumbing . . . but no hacking. The extant computer skills mention writing programs, playing games, and calling up data, but nothing about email. The research skill contains precisely 0 words about the internet.

There was a moment where I allowed myself to feel really old. Where I recalled Guide to the Anarachs, published the same year, and the way it said the internet was basically overhyped, and wouldn't dramatically change anything about the way we lived.

Maybe I've lived through a major cultural transformation. Maybe it happened when I was young enough that my own youth now seems alien to me. Maybe my habits, expectations, and even values have been so changed by a seismic shift in technology that I could not recognize the world in which I grew up.

Or maybe, the GURPS 3rd edition Basic Set was initially written in 1988, with minor revisions in 1994 and my particular book had a copywrite date of 2002 because that's just when it happened to be printed.

So, um, I guess GURPS 3rd edition looks all right compared to AD&D 2e. When I think about the low points of the Complete* series, maybe "only male characters can take the eunuch disadvantage" doesn't seem so surprising. It was of its time and place. Maybe a little better, but not by enough that it becomes worth mentioning.

And mechanically . . . it's better than AD&D 2e, I'll give it that. However, the GURPS Basic Set introduction has one of the worst game pitches I've ever heard. It just comes off as terribly naive. It's generic because it doesn't make sense to have different rules, all you need is one framework plus options. It's universal because it's realistic. Things are measured in pounds, inches, and seconds. That means you can convert other products easily. It's roleplaying because . . . it just is, okay. It's not hack and slash (despite so much of its rules being devoted to combat and weapons), it's a system designed to "make true roleplaying possible." And it's a system, because it wasn't cobbled together over the course of years from a dozen different ad-hoc house rules, which maybe seemed like a more pointed statement in 1988 than it does today.

I don't want to seem too down on GURPS as a project. There's a lot of really interesting rpg stuff that would never have seen the light of day if not for its ambition. It's just that seeing the 1988 perspective, it's clear that they hadn't even begun to understand the real controversies that would come to define the medium. It talks about the "twin traps of watered down combat [. . .] and incompatibility." And, it's like, neither of those things is even in the top ten concerns I have when comparing roleplaying systems.

Just applying the term "watered down" to combat is betraying a fundamental doctrinal assumption that a lot of games would disagree with. Maybe the reason a lightning bolt and a .45 pistol feel the same is because the game doesn't care to model combat with any degree of precision beyond "some things will kill you dead." I'm trying at this moment to think of how GURPS: Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine would work and I'm getting hung up on the idea that it "waters down" combat to such a degree that getting shot with a .45 pistol is mechanically very similar to someone looking up your name in the phonebook (now I'm showing my age).

I guess what I'm feeling is a kind of second-hand embarrassment at the arrogance of youth. You're just starting out in the world, you see opportunities to make your mark, and you're certain that you can improve upon the things that inspire you. And you probably can, but your narrow range of experience fills you with a grandiosity the world cannot sustain. I was that way in 2002. And GURPS was that way in 1988.

The GUPRS introduction was convinced it could solve roleplaying. It didn't, of course, but I'm glad that it didn't, because from my elevated viewpoint here in 2019, one of the most beautiful things about the last 40 years of rpgs are their startling diversity.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Autumn Nightmares

I think I made a mistake with the order I've been reading these Changeling books. Somehow, I failed to realize that Autumn Nightmares was the first one written. I had Rites of Spring sitting first on my shelf, and I guess I just thought of Spring as the beginning of the year. It's probably for the best, though, because Autumn Nightmares is in contention for the most consistently high quality book I've read for the blog thus far.

There's really only one weak patch, and that's its discussion of "mad" changelings as potential antagonists. It really didn't age well. It was just a little too quick to equate mental illness with being erratic, unpredictable, and prone to violence. When it came to specific examples, like the Cat King, a changeling who could shapeshift into a giant cat and hunted children for food, the book was on solid ground. If there was ever a setting that needs a wide variety of grotesque magical serial killers, it's Changeling: The Lost. But the word "derangement," that's rough to see.

That's genre madness for you, though. It's always brought out as an excuse to have characters act in extreme and incomprehensible ways. If I had too much of a problem with it, I'd barely be able to cope with this hobby at all.

Fortunately, the weak part of the book is only about 4 pages long. The bulk of the book is rock solid.

A lot of it is GMing advice, of the sort that I panned in The Complete Book of Villains. It makes me think that maybe I was being too hard on the older book. As Victim on the rpg.net thread pointed out, actual story-building advice was extremely rare in AD&D second edition. So my expectations, set by the much superior advice in books like Autumn Nightmares, may have lacked proper historical context.

How exactly is the GMing advice superior? That's a bit difficult to pin down. Mostly it's about greater precision. When Autumn Nightmares gives us a list of general archetypes for faerie kidnappers, things like "the Hag," "the Paramour," and "the Shadow" tell me a lot about the game's genre expectations and suggest NPCs directly, rather than give me a random table in the vague hope of rolling something inspirational.

Of course, maybe the reason this book can afford to be more precise is that it's less versatile. Maybe if it had to do more than baroque horror/fantasy, its advice would feel more generic.

Lucky for me then, that it is what it is. Nonetheless, this book is at its best when it's being specific. If it were just abstract essays about the motives of faeries or the way fetches conceive of their role as imposter duplicates, it would merely be very interesting. What elevates this book to greatness are the new antagonists and monsters.

It's not so much that Autumn Nightmares is a great monster book. There are some solid creatures here, but it would have to be about 100 pages longer to really match the Monstrous Manual or Creatures of the Wyld. However, if you look at the sample creatures as merely being a cross-section of what's possible in the Changeling universe, you'll start to get a deep intuitive feel for its particular brand of horror-fantasy. This is a setting book disguising itself as an antagonist book. And since the setting is Changeling: The Lost's greatest strength, I'm pretty sure I've just reached the high point in the series.

UKSS Contribution: There's a type of lesser faerie creature called The Laughing Ones. They're shapeshifters who can assume a variety of animal forms. They use that ability to perform cruel practical jokes on hapless humans. I'm not going to choose them directly, because I want to tamp down on any potential proliferation of intelligent humanoids. However, they did have one signature prank that amused the hell out of me - taking the form of lost horses, waiting for a stranded traveler to come along in need of a ride, allowing them to mount, and then bolting the fuck out of there like they're being chased by demons from hell.

I think that might become a favored pastime for any intelligent horses who might be out there in the plains of Ukss.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Complete Book of Villains

The Complete Book of Villains is a mostly system-agnostic guide to creating antagonists and plots for roleplaying games. This mostly takes the form of high-level advice about things like character motivation and power vacuums. It's decent, as far as it goes. If it has a fault, it's that it will make you neither a great writer nor a hack. It's really more of a reminder that you can apply the stuff you learned in high school literature class to your D&D games.

Many of the book's individual points are illustrated with pop culture references of varying relevance. It's probably okay to mention that Frankenstein's monster was as much a victim as he was a villain, but citing Curley's wife from Of Mice and Men as an example of a villain motivated by lust to cause trouble is . . . not a good reading of what was going on in that novel. There are likely a lot of C- English papers this book has to answer for.

As a group, I'd say that these reference probably obscure more than they reveal. Sometimes one will illuminate a truth about creating a memorable villain, but mostly they just take me out of the D&D mindset.

Luckily, a much greater wordcount is given to original NPCs and organizations. These still only serve as examples of the book's abstract advice, but since the same characters are used from chapter to chapter, you get a real sense of how The Complete Book of Villains' step-by-step villain creation process is meant to work.

Being used as character-building examples winds up compromising the sample characters' effectiveness as villains, so much so that I doubt anyone from this book ever showed up in a reader's real game, but they do work for the purpose they were intended for. I don't buy into the idea that Dog-Eater, the warlord, eats dogs because it's part of his nightly routine, and the bit about him secretly wanting to be a priest despite his violent anticlericism strikes me as the sort of thing that only maybe makes sense in a world where priests get magical powers.

I did, however, find it hilarious that when talking about the Corn Kings (a sample villainous organization), the book was just one or two fantasy cliches away from simply describing capitalism. Yes, they perform human sacrifices to a dark god in order to bless the land's fertility. And yes, their political opponents have a convenient way of turning up dead, only to be reanimated as zombie farm workers, but their whole villainous plan is to get rich selling grains by making the peasants do all the work and then keeping the bulk of the profits for themselves.

The most AD&D thing about this book is the continuing blight of the alignment system. I'm not really sure having a lawful good "villain" makes any sense. They may go on a fanatical crusade, but if they're truly lawful and good, wouldn't they only crusade under justifiable circumstances? Or maybe, if they're crusading in a villainous way, they're either violating the law or being evil.  Either way, it's kind of a nonsense section. The whole point of having an alignment system in the first place is to separate heroes from villains.

Also, "True Neutral" doesn't make a damned bit of sense under the best of circumstances, and The Book of Villains may well be its ultimate nadir. There's a wizard who wants to "restore the balance of good and evil" . . . by capturing humans and orcs and forcing them to breed, in the hopes that the resulting surge of half orcs will bridge the gap between the races. Aside from the obvious flaw - any plan that rapey is going to be pure evil - it doesn't make a damned bit of sense why anyone would want that.

I can't say this book has a lot of longevity for me. I'll probably never bother reading it again. I've got better sources of DMing advice and there's not quite enough fun here to make the duplication worthwhile. But it wasn't a totally useless book. Had I read it 25 years ago, I might have managed to learn something.

UKSS Contribution: "Dog Eater" really is a great warlord name. I don't care for much else about the character. His cause is tedious (kill all clerics) and his motives are absurd (because he wants to be a cleric, but can't), but there's a certain over-the-top villainy to eating people's pets as a show of dominance. Also, I need someone to wear the coin armor, and this just feels like it fits.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Lords of Summer

I think I may be subconsciously grading these books on a curve. I gushed over The Complete Book of Necromancers, because it was essentially "AD&D with a genre," but I've got reservations about Lords of Summer because some of its exploration of Changeling's rich themes aren't entirely on point.

My biggest issue lies with its presentation of the Winter Court. Each of Changeling's seasonal courts has a ruling emotion. Spring has desire. Summer has wrath. Autumn has fear. And winter has sorrow. It's a beautiful set-up. Poignant and bittersweet, the four seasons work together to form a theory of trauma.

Lords of Summer is a book in which Spring courtiers are hedonists, diplomats, and celebrants. Where the Summer changelings are soldiers, knights and generals. Where the court of Autumn is full of witches and Halloween monsters. And what do they do for Winter?

They are spies and assassins. They excel at stealth, know everybody's secrets, and their enemies vanish without a trace. Large portions of their section involve things like cover identities, covert communications, and safe houses. At one point, it mentions that the Winter Court stole espionage techniques from cold war spies. Sorrow barely makes an appearance at all.

I'll admit, I was a little bit blindsided by how . . . muscular this book makes Winter's purview seem. I barely recognized its version of the court. So much so that I had to go back to the core book and double-check that it wasn't invented out of whole cloth.

I was disappointed to learn, in retrospect, that the Winter Court's pitch was much weaker than the other three seasons. All of the weird James Bond stuff was in the core book, even if it didn't quite reach the same heights of overcompensating. I'm not entirely sure where the game went wrong.

One possibility is that the courts started as rpg archetypes - Spring = Face, Summer = Fighter, Autumn = Mage, and Winter = Rogue. Then maybe the emotions were grafted onto that structure with varying degrees of elegance. Or it could have been the other way around, and it just so happened that they didn't have a good, distinctive idea for sorrow. Personally, though, I'm leaning towards the theory that the writers never quite reconciled their ambivalence with the idea of making sorrow (and to a lesser extent, fear) the defining emotion of a protagonist faction.

Ultimately, sorrow isn't very heroic. You sometimes get heroes that experience an overwrought grief at some tragic event, but in most cases that is channeled into a more narrative-friendly rage. And while I wouldn't be the first person to point out how creepy it is that anger (and especially violent anger) is seen as the only socially acceptable form of emotional expression, I don't think that's precisely what's going on here. I think looking at the book's treatment of the autumn court might be illustrative.

"At their worst, changelings of the Leaden Mirror can degenerate into serial murdering lunatics . . . "

That was a real record-scratch moment for me. It sent me running back to the core book once more. Blessedly, this is a new interpretation of the Autumn Court's mandate, but it does center in on something - fear is to be inflicted upon others, and only incidentally to experience oneself. It is the strong that make the weak afraid. So to be fearful is to be weak.

This is moderately acceptable, because the changelings do genuinely have powerful enemies, but for some reason, it seemed important to Lords of Summer to establish that they were not at the bottom of the hierarchy. There were people who were afraid of them.

That may be why the book sometimes felt like it lost the plot when it came to fear. Being a serial killer isn't inspiring fear. Foreclosing on a struggling family (real example from the book) isn't inspiring fear. Those are just examples of being the danger that fear is meant to warn about.

The point of the court passions is that they're all meant, in their own way, to be life-affirming. They are all a response to trauma, but beyond that they are a strategy for escaping trauma. Yes, your desire is a gift. Yes, your wrath is a gift. But also, your fear is a gift. Even your sorrow is a gift.

There's an interesting divide at work here. The spring and summer court write-ups didn't have any trouble explaining how their courtiers embraced the seasons' ruling passions. Fall and winter felt the need to distinguish between embracing their emotions and spreading their emotions. Desire and wrath are things you enjoy and fear and sorrow are things you suffer.

But why? I think we all know what it means to suffer from excess desire. There's a major world religion built on the idea. And the connection between wrath and suffering should be obvious. Yet the Spring and Summer sections do not get little asides about their courtiers suppressing or overcoming their emotions and weaponizing them against others.

I think it's because culturally, these emotions convey an idea of strength. We admire someone who goes after their desires. We associate expressive (male) anger with leadership.

Sex addiction is treated as the punchline of a joke. When we talk about the ultra-wealthy, it's always in terms of justice and rarely of compassion. People who have no problem seeing a person who hordes 40 cats as mentally ill will praise someone who hordes 40 lifetimes worth of wealth as ambitious. There is something intrinsically laudable about pursuing things the consensus counts desirable, even if the sex brings you no joy, even if the money will never be spent.

Wrath, in its way, is even worse. It is sometimes acknowledged as a failing, but somehow the wrathful keep succeeding. To subject another person to your anger is to exert dominance over them, especially if they shy away rather than respond in kind. The ability to direct anger towards your enemies is seen as a necessary precondition to personal dignity. Although, ironically, anger is only permitted to those whose dignity society already acknowledges. Women, minorities, and economic subordinates are discouraged from getting angry at people higher in the hierarchy.

Because desire and wrath are so often seen to emerge from a position of strength, they are only intermittently regarded as sickness. And that distorts the Changeling court structure.

I mentioned when I read the core that the Clarity system was a poor model for mental illness, and that the seasonal courts were a more truthful representation. The fact that they're seasons is an important bit of symbolism. Because there is a season for sorrow, just as there is a season for wrath and a season for desire, but the important thing about seasons is that seasons pass. To be associated with a seasonal court, then, is to be stuck.

A lot (though by no means all) mental illness is like that. The realization (either sudden or gradual) that you are stuck. There is something other people can get past that you cannot, so you keep swirling through this loop. And maybe there's something you get out of it. Or maybe you worry that there's something you're getting out of it. But it doesn't actually matter, because the loop hurts you. It keeps you from doing things you might want to do or forces you to keep doing things you don't want to do.

It might be fruitful to think of the seasonal courts like that. Autumn courtiers are people who resist the passing of fear. Winter courtiers are people who resist the passing of sorrow. It puts your reflexive perceptions of strength into new perspective. Maybe it's not so noble after all to resist the passing of wrath. Maybe there is a sickness where you don't want your desires to be fulfilled, because then they might go away.

And while it's stretching a metaphor to be so ordered, you could also view the progression of the seasons as part of the psychology of the courts. Summer courtiers embrace wrath because when wrath ends, then comes fear. The winter court loses themselves in sorrow so that they don't have to face their desires. Or maybe the seasons' obsessions stem from a desire to escape what comes before. Autumn teaches itself to be afraid, so it doesn't hurt others with its wrath. Winter embraces sorrow because in that nihilism, there is nothing left to lose.

The seasons, in Changeling: The Lost, are probably overburdened. There's a rich symbolic language there to be explored, but also they're rpg classes. Lords of Summer is a pretty good book for the rpg-class nature of the courts, so maybe I'm just being a little too demanding in expecting a detailed explanation of the symbolism as well.

UKSS Contribution: Oh, the other thing about this book. In fact, arguably the main draw, is its generous helping of new entitlements. Those are like social clubs/prestige classes/cool powers for advanced changeling characters. A lot of them are very lore heavy, but I didn't take particular issue with any of them. They're all worthy additions to the Changeling: the Lost setting.

The most versatile was probably the Knights of the Knowledge of the Tongue. They're chefs who delve deep into the borders between realities to find exotic, near-impossible ingredients, cook them, and eat them. I have a soft spot for characters like that, who operate at odd angles away from the main thrust of a game and distort the genre by their very existence. Fuck beautiful horror, Changeling is now a game where the wonders of the universe must get in my mouth.