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 . . .


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 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.