Friday, November 29, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Spelljammer Boxed Set

Holy shit, guys! I think I might own a genuine treasure!

I'm still a little unclear about how it happened. The corners of the box are a little beat-up, but the colors are still really good, and when I opened it up, the contents were in near-perfect condition. There was one small stain, but otherwise very clean pages, with no foxing or wrinkles or smudges. Covers totally pristine. All of the inserts were still in there and still in factory condition. All-in-all, I felt really awkward about reading it. Not infrequently, I would wonder to myself, "what the hell am I doing putting my sweaty paws all over something that could clearly fetch me $200 on eBay?"

It was completely unlike all of my other surviving childhood rpgs. But I think I know what happened. I played Spelljammer as a teenager, but it must have been with my friend's copy. I must have bought this particular boxed set sometime in college, out of some misguided nostalgia, long after I stopped playing AD&D. There's still a sticker on the front of the box from the hobby shop across the street from my school. Eight dollars?!

In some ways, it's a terrible burden to have gotten such a deal. To know that I possess a rare and valued thing that I obtained purely by chance. I really didn't want this sort of responsibility. I'm of the "possessions are meant to be loved" school of collecting. Protect the books. Treat them gently. But don't just leave them on a shelf. To me, there's nothing more pointless than an action figure left in its original packaging.

Nonetheless, as a collector, I can't help feel ambivalence. Maybe this is something wonderful for my heirs to discover. They'll grab Spelljammer instead of The Complete Barbarian's Handbook and they'll think, "wow, uncle John had some cool vintage games," and that will put my more problematic volumes into context.

Morbid thoughts aside, it's an interesting insight into the effects of the internet. I remember that hobby shop very well. It wasn't a very welcoming place. It was mostly devoted to model kits and serious train collecting, but it had a little corner with a random hodge-podge of old rpg books. I always got the sense that the old man who owned the place resented having to sell me Magic: the Gathering cards, so much so that I eventually wound up walking farther away to buy them. However, there was also something magical about the place. Things came through his door and he clearly didn't know what they were, but he'd put a price on 'em and put them on a shelf.

Things are different now. The internet makes obscure things easier to find, but also equalizes prices. There's a different local store I go to now, when I'm in the mood to try my luck with people's castoffs. I've found some good things there, but the prices have generally been much more accurate. If something comes into your shop and you don't know what it is, you can just check.

I suppose it's more fair this way, but I'm still a little wistful. If it weren't for the veil of ignorance that existed in 2003, there's no way in hell I'd be able to own something like Spelljammer.

So, after spilling so much digital ink on the story behind my copy, how is the game itself?

It's good, but good in a way that's impossible to do anymore.

How to put it? There's a certain vital energy when someone tries something dumb for the first time and it somehow works, despite itself. There are choices here that demonstrate the kind of untutored brilliance where you can't be 100% sure if they just got lucky or if you're looking at genuine inspiration, unencumbered by the weight of pre-existing expectations.

Like, the way this game handles gravity is amazing - it's either on or it's off. If you're in a place with gravity, it's always the same strength. The only other option is zero gravity. Nothing greater and nothing in-between. In practice, a lot of science fiction winds up around this point eventually, but to just cut the Gordian knot this way and make it explicit, I feel like it's something that even better games would hesitate to do.

But it's not entirely hand-waved. There are rules about the orientation of gravity. Objects in space have a "gravity plane." And if it's not entirely clear where the gravity plane is supposed to be (it's actually almost 100% along the floor of the ship, but canonically, this is because people build their ships so that it works out this way), then at least it has its own weird fantasy physics to explore. Objects "below" the gravity plane fall "up" towards it. Ships could theoretically be two-sided, having flipped-over chambers on opposite sides of the plane, but since entering a larger-ship's gravity field aligns a smaller ship towards the larger one's plane, this is considered a good way to get half your shit scattered across your ceilings. The fact that, in addition to being a neat bit of fantasy, this also effortlessly justifies the sci-fi convention of two ships approaching each other in the same orientation, like they were sailing on an ocean together, is just a cherry on top (I also love that approaching a ship "upside down" is both a thing you can logically do and an in-setting faux pas.)

Spelljammer has a lot of stuff like that. It defines its planets in terms of elemental correspondences, so that you can't rely on real-world planetology. In game terms, our Sun would be a fire-type spherical planet, meaning that instead of fusing elemental hydrogen, it was actually formed from an inclusion in our universe of the Elemental Plane of Fire. And the reason earth-type planets like, um, Earth have things like oceans is because the dominant elemental type might have impurities. Air-type gas giants can have floating continents with entire civilizations. The sun in Greyhawk has lakes! And no matter where you go, most planets have atmospheres and all have 1G of gravity!

This is space fantasy that is more Flash Gordon than Star Wars and it's kind of amazing.

But the best thing about Spelljammer is that, by its very nature of its subject matter, it manages to wiggle out from under AD&D 2nd Editions sometimes stifling atmosphere (no pun intended) of One-True-Wayism. Just with planets alone, you can have spheres, discs, cubes or elliptical shapes - and those are just the ones that have their own symbols in the legend. It also suggests planets that are carried on the back of giant star-beasts, stars that are cities on the interior surface of light-year-wide crystal spheres, and massive citadels powered by the creative energies releases when their inhabitants practice the arts. The text encourages you to break the rules in ways AD&D rarely did.

Although, even in space, you can never stop being Asian. Seriously, it's weird and gross. One of the factions in Spelljammer is sponsored by the "oriental" lands of Forgotten Realms. But in the description of their Dragonships it says "Shou Lung's approach to space exploration is typical of oriental nations throughout space. While 'western' nations dismiss space travel or turn their attention to more militaristic ends, the oriental nation pushes its experimentation with fantasy space forward."

What does that even mean?!

It's especially baffling when, later on, they talk about how Shou Lung has a fifth elemental classification for planets, the Lifeworlds, that's based on their own cosmology, but then become totally dismissive of it in the sidebar where they explain the concept.
The most western-oriented sages of space marvel at the fact that the otherwise sane and rational easteners will take such a flight of fancy just to make their own cosmology fit the real universe.
Sounds to me like the "westerners" (whatever that means in space) are full of shit, because there's a canon world that's a giant fucking tree.

But out-of-left-field racism aside, Spelljammer is a landmark setting with imagination to spare. Its main flaw is the era in which it was made. There's a roughness to it that would hardly be tolerated today. Information gets repeated between the two books. There's not enough new character options. For all the charming brevity of its gravity system, the space combat rules are too long. It is well within the AD&D tradition of tying all its fantasy elements to he spellcasting classes (fighters and thieves really should be able to handle a spelljammer if the wizard or priest dies). Gnomes get no respect.

It's astonishing that this setting has never gotten a second edition. A hardcover with the same production values as some of the 3rd or 4th edition settings would have been spectacular. As it is, it's a good source of ideas for games, but primitive enough that doing so would require significant adaptation.

Ukss Contribution: There's a lot of good stuff here. Only one accidental revelation. When talking about vampires in space, it did a weird 80s gender-normative thing that, as a side effect, gave us some great imagery. Apparently female vampires can protect themselves from the sun with long gloves and parasols.

It was a real temptation for me to go with southern gothic vampire ladies floating through space on a magically-rigged riverboat. And an even greater temptation to go with the same idea, but replacing the ladies with men in drag. But the whole idea is potentially quite problematic, so it's probably best to steer clear.

I think instead that the Cosmic Sphere is overdue to get its second planet. A gas giant with floating continents. My only worry is that this is such a great setting that it will eclipse Ukss entirely.

Monday, November 25, 2019

GURPS: Illuminati University

It's a little mortifying to look back and realize what terrible taste my younger self had. I mean, I must have been an absolute rube, because I remembered this book as being somewhat amusing. . .

And it's not . . . at all.

So much of this game was just that nails-on-a-blackboard sensation of watching some impossibly earnest person trying desperately to be funny while knowing from bitter experience that they just can't. It was, at times, excruciating to read.

There's a running joke. The school is called "Illuminati University." That is always abbreviated IOU. What does the "O" stand for? You're not cleared for that.

Every time it showed up, I immediately wanted to put my fist through a fucking wall. It is quite patently obvious that the "O" doesn't stand for anything. It's just an obnoxious bit of sub-kindergarten-level "wordplay." An IOU is a thing. You didn't have a good joke to get there from the university's natural abbreviation of IU, so you just went ahead and did it anyway, and decided to cover it with the laziest sort of lampshade "oh, tee he, nobody knows why they abbreviate it 'IOU,'" but you're wrong. We know. We all fucking know exactly why you did it!


Sigh. Maybe the joke's on me. Maybe it is funny to have your cafeteria run by Madame ("not Mrs., not Ms.") Curry.

I mean, that's a joke, right? I've known myself to smile at a pun once or twice, the more labored the better. But I've always flattered myself that the best puns have a sort of artistry to them, that it's not sufficient to just match sounds, they also have to incorporate some level of double entendre. Like maybe Madame Curry is not just a lunch-lady, but also a food scientist, pushing the boundaries of culinary knowledge by experimenting with substances of hitherto-unknown spiciness. . .

It's something of a literary mystery, whether or not there is salvageable merit here, for the GM who is willing to do the work needed to dig it out  of the muck.

I did like the "School of Anti-Social Science." That was some pretty solid wordplay. Together with their rivals, the "School of Social Anti-Science," you could have the start of something genuinely funny. It's not a joke on its own, but it's a fertile soil in which jokes can grow. Unfortunately, like everything else in this book, it's only surface deep - any attempt to treat these schools as a true comic conceit would be stymied by the fact that neither is much more than a name.

Names are this book's greatest weakness. It just can't help itself. One of the schools is devoted to teaching students how to time travel. And the very idea is ripe with the potential for hilarity. Student time travelers. They've got access to time machines, but no clue on any of the practicalities of visiting the past. They don't know anything about avoiding paradoxes or blending in with the locals or any of that stuff. That's why they're in school. This isn't even a comedy pitch. It's comedy tee-ball.

So what is the name of this time travel college? It's the College of Temporal Happenstance, Ultimate Lies, and Historical Undertakings. You know, C.T.H.U.L.H.U.. Note: the college has absolutely nothing to do with the Great Old Ones in any way, not even thematically. It's just a funny acronym. . .

Correction. It's one of those absurdly tortured backronyms, of the sort that are often quite funny when the final acronym has anything to do whatsoever with the matter at hand. The book does unholy violence to the English language to arrive at C.T.H.U.L.H.U., and as far as I can tell, it would have done the same damned thing, regardless of what the college was trying to be.

This shallow approach wound up exhausting me. Did you know that the Dean of C.T.H.U.L.H.U. is Dr What? He operates out of a mysterious vehicle that is much larger on the inside than the outside. It's called the TOILET. . .

Excuse me while I storm angrily up and down the carpet for a few minutes. . .

I'm sorry, I just can't. Your campaign concept is that a thinly-veiled expy of the Doctor runs an academy for novice time travelers, and that's the joke you make?!

If you told me someone slipped this book into my collection in an attempt to assassinate me with high blood pressure, well, that wouldn't be very plausible because I've had this book since the early 2000s. But it would communicate an emotional truth.

There's probably the seed of a good campaign buried somewhere in this book. The Illuminati University (I refuse to call it "IOU") Board of Trustees consists of "Benedict Arnold, Genghis Khan, Mephistopheles, Judas Iscariot, Jimmy Hoffa, Richard Nixon, Hermes Trismegistus, Al Capone, and Professor Moriarty." Which is a pretty good list, though I'd replace Benedict Arnold with Thomas Edison (but I don't hold it against the book, because it predates the memeification of the Tesla/Edison feud). Where it falls down is a little bit before the list, where it says.
Technically, the ArchDean isn't the final authority on campus - the University is ultimately ruled by the Board of Trustees. As a practical matter, however, the fact that the ArchDean owns 87% of the University stock lets her overrule them if necessary . . .
Sigh. So unfocused. You've established your over-the-top Council of Evil, but then you pull its teeth before it's even used. That's the book's problem in a nutshell - it never thinks things through. I honestly kind of hate it for that.

Ukss Contribution: Aw. Do I have to? Everything in this book is so aggressively dumb. . . but the book isn't actively evil like The Complete Barbarian's Handbook, so I guess I'll just have to broaden my view of Ukss once more.

Since it would greatly misrepresent the book to choose something relatively unembarrassing, like the botany school that meets inside of a giant tree, I think I'm going to have to go with a pun. Just, please, imagine me hanging my head in shame as I do this.

The cat suit. It's a suit. You put it on, you turn in to a cat. If I squint, I can almost see my dignity from here.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Player's Option: Spells & Magic

I remember very clearly this book being a well-loved treasure of my youth, but it turns out in retrospect that I only really ever used about 25% of it. My mind had been blocking out long, dry sections where it went into minute details about spell components or reprinted the magic item creation rules, yet again.

Its outsized importance in my memories probably comes from entering my life at a very sensitive time. I'd started to feel stirrings of dissatisfaction with AD&D, but I had not yet been exposed to any alternatives. So a supplement that promised to give me alternate magic systems was something I hungered for. Even if I didn't quite understand the Skills & Powers character creation process (funnily enough, this book and Combat & Tactics were the only two Player's Option books I had while I was still actively playing AD&D - Skills & Powers and DM's Option: High Level Campaigns I picked up at used book stores many years after the fact, mostly because I remembered them being cited in these books I really loved).

My teenage campaign settings were heavily inspired by this book. I'd quite consistently chuck PHB standard mages for Artificers or Channelers or Dimensionalists. I was searching for . . . something, though I had no way of knowing that the Spells & Magic alternate magic systems were even worse than the AD&D default.

Oh, they're tricky, because there are some interesting ideas here. If you play a witch, then your character is on a campaign-long arc, where the more they use their magic, the greater the risk of drawing the attention of their dark patrons. Over time, they gain mutations that simultaneously grant them useful abilities and alienate them from human society.

This is accomplished with a percentage roll that you make every time you cast a spell. It starts off pretty modest, but by the time you're in the mid level range, it starts to get to 5-10% every time you cast one of your highest level spells. Since you can only fail 4 times before your character becomes an unplayable NPC, the degeneration is likely both inevitable and rapid. So it's an annoying mechanic that adds an extra step to every spell and eventually trashes your character. But if you could choose the pace and make the degeneration subordinate to your roleplaying it might actually be pretty cool.

Although the biggest problem with the Witch class is actually also the biggest problem with all the new spellcasting models - the new spell points system is a hot mess.

Brief tutorial on D&D's magic system. Spells are divided into 9 levels, ranging from basic level 1 magic like Light all the way up to game-breaking show-stoppers like Time Stop. As your character advances, they get spell slots. Each slot is associated with a particular spell level. So a 3rd level wizard would have two 1st level spells and one 2nd level spell. They fill those spell slots by "memorizing" spells, picking particular spells from their list of spells known to be able to cast. You can memorize spells at most once per day, but if you don't use your spells, they stay memorized. If you want to be able to use the same spell more than once per day, you have to memorize it twice or more.

It's exactly as exhausting as it sounds. It's not so much the resource management that's the problem as it is the constant necessity to second-guess the next day's adventure. In practice, you mostly wind up loading up on your most generically useful spells and hoping for the best.

So, if I told you that Spells & Magic introduced a spell point system to replace the standard way of memorizing spells, you might have certain expectations about that. The obvious idea - spells of different levels have a varying point cost and you spend points from your pool to cast them. The pool refreshes at a set rate, probably around once per day. Simple, easy, elegant. You know, not the Player's Option way at all.

The way Spells & Magic's spell point system works is that you spend points to memorize spells. This gives you more versatility, in that you can basically exchange slots at undesirable spell levels for more slots at your optimum spell levels. But that was never really the problem with the spell memorization system. You've still got to basically try and predict the course of your whole day.

As an option, you can devote some of your spell points to "free" slots, at double the usual point cost, allowing you to cast any spell you know instead of memorizing it. This does address the main problem with D&D's magic system, but sacrificing half your spell inventory is a bitter pill to swallow.

Even so, that would merely be an unnecessarily convoluted refinement to an AD&D system that somehow, inexplicably, winds up retaining the original rules' worst flaws - typical Player's Option stuff - were it not for the fact that the new special spellcasting paradigms then proceed to mutilate those rules almost beyond comprehension.

Take the Channeler, the magic class that draws upon the caster's health and stamina to power spells.
While the character may have some spell points "allocated" or "tied up" in various fixed and free magicks, this actually makes no difference for a channeler. The initial selection of spells is simply used to create a slate of spell powers that the character can access and to define the cost in spell points for making use of these powers. The character may cast any spell that he has available through either a fixed or free magick, except that the the magick does not vanish from his memory once he's cast the spell. Instead, the character deducts the number of spell points required to energize the spell from his spell point total. For example, if a mage with 40 spell points has a magic missile memorized, he can cast that magic missile four times if he wants to! (Editor's Note - Magic Missile costs 4 spell points, making that example completely arbitrary and only slightly illuminating).
The system kind of works, once you've wrapped your head around it. The Channeler almost matches the naive assumptions about how a spell point system should go, but then it also adds the overly-complex spell memorization system on top of that. And it very confusingly uses the same terminology for both. I guess the Channeler is "balanced" by not having access to their whole spell repertoire at any given time . . . except that they are given the option to devote some of their limited slots to free magic, and while the double point cost still stings, it's a bit less of a burden when you regain spell points by the hour. Ultimately, since spell point costs scale geometrically, only your highest level spell really needs to be put in a fixed slot.

Or, you know, you could just pick a carefully curated list of powerful and thematic spells and "memorize" those to give your character a fixed magical persona, which probably should have just been baked-in to the class from the start, instead of requiring you to do fucking algebra to figure out your character abilities . . . but what do I know?

Anyway, you can see the prototype of 3rd edition's sorcerer in these rules, and that's pretty neat, though Dungeons and Dragons is probably cursed to never have a truly good spellcasting system.

The only other part of this book I ever used was the new spells at the back. They're fine. Nothing stands out as "must have." And very little even seems worth toting around an extra book for, but there are a few gems, like Heart of Stone, which allows a wizard to ritually remove their own heart, thereby making them nearly invincible.

Most of the rest of the book is stuff that's . . . not useless, really, but mostly incredibly dry or needlessly complex. There's a system where you can use your proficiency slots to buy "signature spells," which you never don't want to do, because they give you extra castings as well as making those spells more effective. And there are rules for spell critical hits, which like all rpg critical hit tables, make the game dangerously unpredictable while reveling in the grotesque.

The best parts of the rest of the book are the DM advice, which comes this close to getting it. When it talks about creating new schools of magic for wizards, it almost comes to the realization that the core 8 are kind of awful, and that thematic schools like elementalism, dimension magic, and shadow magic, are much better, but it never quite delivers a value judgement. Instead it just goes for a kitchen sink approach, and suggests that whatever you want to do, it's cool. Not a bad position for a book meant to be universal, but frustrating nonetheless.

Spells & Magic did not turn out to be a very good book. It's a devastating revelation so far as my adolescent nostalgia is concerned, but ultimately kind of a relief. It means that once I finish up with these AD&D 2nd edition core books, I can be done with them forever.

Ukss Contribution: This one is going to be semi-cheating. I am picking something from this book, but the reason this particular entry is interesting to me is because of context from earlier books in the AD&D 2nd edition line.

Spells & Magic introduces a new spell called Leomund's Hidden Lodge. What it does is create for you a sort of temporary house that is disguised as part of the local terrain - a giant boulder, a copse of trees, etc.

What I find so amusing about this spell is how completely unnecessary it is. It's useful, but it's part of a chain that starts with Leomund's Tiny Hut at 3rd level, goes to Leomund's Secure Shelter at 4th, and ends with Mordenkainen's Magnificent Mansion at 7th level (I guess ol' Leomund crapped out before he could get to the deluxe level). Each iteration adds functionality, sure, but given the way D&D magic works, who is going to bother learning them all?

Well, Leomund, obviously. I'm not going to transfer the character directly, though, hilariously, when I looked him up on wikipedia, I discovered that he canonically co-authored a book called Architecture with his friend Mordenkainen, which sounds exactly like a joke I would have made. However, he also did a bunch of stuff that is of no interest to me whatsoever, so I'm just going to steal the concept of house-omancy.

I'm always on the lookout for concepts for new magic wands, and I think a Wand of Shelters might be pretty cool.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

GURPS: Technomancer

Technomancer is a wildly inventive campaign setting that manages to both feel very fresh and charmingly dated. The premise is that, up until 1945, the world is exactly the same as our own, but while testing the first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer inadvertently completed a necromantic ritual with his famous "now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" line. This opened a rift into another dimension that released a shit ton of mana into the world and made it possible for people to use magic. The Soviets later tested their own atomic bomb in Antarctica and that opened an even bigger rift, though the bulk of the magic was wasted on Antarctica and the open ocean.

In a setting with telepathic Maoist penguins and human-spider hybrids with human genitalia (the book was very specific on that point), this is probably the weirdest choice. Most of the world, people have a 1 in 10,000 chance of being born a mage. In the USA, Mexico, and southern Canada, the chance is 1 in 100. And that's fair enough. Magic has a geographical component. But then you say that there was a second origin point, this one twice as large, and you center it in Antarctica.

Narratively, I like the escalation. Each bomb does geometrically more damage to the Earth's manasphere. A third will probably destroy the human race. However, I can't get the idea out of my head that if Technomancer's Soviets tested their bomb in the same place as the historical Soviets tested their bomb, and if the magic had double the geographic distribution as "Trinity's Shadow," the 2000 mile radius around the US's first test site, then the mage population boom covers all of Eurasia, much of North Africa, and about 80% of the world's population c. 1949.

But the way events played out in the book, it seems a lot like they were trying to set up a world where magic was an American thing. They put the second rift in a place where almost no human beings would gain magic, then implied that it was far too dangerous to risk opening a third, so much so that not even the USA's greatest geopolitical rivals would dare attempt it.

I'm turning this idea around in my head, and I just can't figure out why anyone would want that. On the very first page of the very first chapter, there's a brief bit of fiction that incidentally mentions a battle between Russian Army fire elementals and Stalinist Necromancers. And I think about how much more interesting the magical cold war would have been if the USSR had 3 million mages instead of 30,000.

The only conclusion I can come to is that it was a mistake. I can't be sure they didn't write exactly the setting they wanted to, but "High-Magic Earth with Super-High-Magic North America" was kind of a bad thing to want.

That being said, Technomancer is mostly pretty okay. It does that thing that every fantasy game threatens to do at one point or another and just straight-up industrializes magic item production. Boeing produces a consumer-grade magic broomstick. And DuPont has a whole line of magic carpets, though in a typical bit of GURPS mechanics/setting disconnect, they are marketed as much more middle-class than their price suggests - $241,000 for a "family carpet," means that they probably belong exclusively to the 1%.

There's something here. Technomancer sometimes approaches the feel of a retro future, where technology-driven consumerism leads to ever more baroque luxuries. You can outfit your home with self-cleaning windows, buy an oven enchanted with the Cook spell, and teleport to your favorite vacation destination! Lines of credit are available!

If it had leaned into this just a little bit more, it could almost have justified its focus on America, but Technomancer doesn't have a satirical bone its body. It's not overly self-serious or anything, but its humor mostly comes in sly little jokes, like how applying necromancy and divination to archaeology and history led Alvin Toffler to write his famous book Past Shock or the way "red dragons" are just dragons who worked for the Soviets. They're pretty cute, except when they seem in poor taste, like the implication that "The Son of Sam" really was possessed by a demon named Sam.

I think there's probably a tighter, more polished version of Technomancer that could be made. Instead of having Nazi occultists take over Argentina and found the sinister international corporation, The Condor Group, you could have Operation Paperclip target the Thule Society for recruitment. Instead of wasting their bomb in Antarctica, the USSR could exercise its characteristic hubris and try to create a high magic zone near Moscow, leading to a cold war arms race that was as much about spells as it was about space. The fact that Albuquerque is "The City of Wizards," where anybody, even non-mages, can use spells could be played up a bit more.

However, I don't think it necessarily counts as a fault that some of this game's magic has broader implications that would realistically turn the world completely on its head, were it not carefully ignored. There's a spell, called "Preserve Fuel" that quite explicitly says it works even on nuclear fuels, halting their radioactive decay. I'm no physicist, but I'm pretty sure that's an-eyes-bug-out-the-head-grade miracle, every bit as physically improbable as teleporting into orbit (a cool bit of world-building that has been ruined for me by Kerbal Space Program) or creating matter out of nothing, and people are just toting it around as a second-tier utility spell. Yet there is no meltdown of the physical sciences as both our primitive intuitions and most sophisticated mathematical descriptions completely fail to account for reality. There is no major turmoil from the fact that the Youth spell exists, allowing the rich (and potentially everyone who lives within 200 miles of the Trinity test site) to live essentially forever.

If we're being super methodical about our worldbuilding, the Technomancer world should be completely unrecognizable after 50 years of divergence from our own. The notion that the 1st Iraq war could happen at exactly the same time, and for approximately the same reasons, is absurd. We should really be talking about a human race that is in the midst of an unpredictable shift in the very nature of its being.

But really, what's promised and what's delivered is a funhouse mirror 90s, where mages are using spells to make their tvs show cancelled programs. And that's really all I wanted out of this book to begin with.

Ukss Contribution - Spirit Skull warheads. Take a missile. Put in a human skull, enchanted with a spiritual echo of the horror of its owner's death. Launch it at the enemy. In addition to the damage dealt by the missile as part of its normal operation, the impact site becomes ground zero for a rampaging, bloodthirsty specter, who spends the next 24 hours hunting down and slaying every living thing it can find. A large missile might contain hundreds of Spirit Skulls as its primary payload.

This is exactly the sort of overly-elaborate fantasy weapon that I always hope to see more of. People using what they have and adapting it to make it as nasty as possible.

Monday, November 18, 2019

(AD&D 2e)Player's Option: Skills & Powers

They should have sent a poet . . .

This book is truly awful. As in, I am literally full of awe right now. I don't want to say that it's "bad," because that would imply that it was unbalanced or unfun, and . . . it may be, or it may not be, but it's actually impossible to tell because what it definitely is is a total mess.

The book's pitch is pretty simple and appealing - what if you increased the flexibility and diversity of AD&D's character creation process by adding in point-buy mechanics. Unfortunately, the execution of this pitch feels a lot like it's a point-buy system designed by someone who only really heard about the concept of point-buy second-hand, from someone who was super drunk at the time.

There is still a lot of vestigial AD&D mechanics in Player's Option: Skills & Powers makeup, and they are deployed with breathtaking whimsy. The most obvious D&D-ism is the fact that you're still expected to roll your Abilities. They don't interact with the new character points system in any way. There is one option that says it uses character points, but then gives you a whole new pool of CP just to spend on Abilities. You can't save any of these points for later in character creation and you can't use the points you get later for extra Abilities.

This siloing of character points is the weirdest part of the Skills & Powers system. It could work pretty well, if available point totals and the related point costs were designed with any kind of precision, but if there's any design principles at work here, I cannot discern them.

For example, it costs 40 character points to play an elf and 30 character points to play a halfling. Which, aside from the brutal slam on the value of halflings, seems fair enough. Elves are traditionally heroic figures who stand astride the events that define the turning of an Age, and halflings are traditionally the bumbling every-man, who gets reluctantly dragged into adventure and brings to the table more optimism than skill. The obvious next question is then - how many character points do you get and what can halflings spend their 10 extra on?

But you're thinking too logically here. The answer is that elves get 45 character points and halflings get 35 character points. The way it works is that each race has a menu of special abilities that mostly seems to draw from their historically published variants (eg elves can spend 10 points to get the aquatic elves' underwater breathing or 15 points to get the drow's spell-like abilities) and there are a number of standard templates that have totals equal to your starting points-5. You can either spend your full pool to play a better-than-average sub-race like the drow or you can customize your character to be some kind of unique Elf+ or you can save up to 5 character points for later in the process.

The number of character points vary wildly between the races, but also the costs of the racial abilities seem to follow no earthly logic. It's tough to get apples-to-apples comparisons, but I did manage to find a good one. Both halflings and half-orcs can buy "Mining Detection Abilities" for 5cp.

Here's the halfling version:
Determine approximate direction underground, 1-3 on 1d6
Detect any grade or slope in the passage they are passing through, 1-3 on 1d4
Here's the half-orc version
Detect any grade or slope on the passage they are passing through, 1-2 on 1d4
Detect new construction in stonework, 1-2 on 1d6
What the fuck is even going on here? Class point totals are somehow even worse. Fighters get the fewest cp, with 15. Priests get the most with 125. Is this a reflection of class power? Probably not, because Mages get 40 and thieves get 80.  Near as I can tell, the available character points are a reflection of class complexity and are directly proportional to how many sentences it takes to adequately describe the class's abilities. But then the point costs are on a completely different and incomprehensible metric. Thieves can spend 10 points to get the Pick Pockets ability. And Clerics can spend 10 points to get major access to the Necromantic sphere. You know, rummaging around in someone's pockets for spare change vs reaching beyond the veil to return the dead to life. Those sound about balanced against each other.

So much of this book feels like they were given a mandate to add this new character points system, but also strict instructions to not accidentally fix anything about AD&D in the process. It's frankly bizarre, the way things that you'd expect to get improved by a la carte class customization nonetheless wind up getting baked into the Skills & Powers system by things like the curation of powers lists or just straight-up exceptions to the general rules. Demihuman level limits are still in. Why? No earthly mind can possibly know.

I guess what I'm saying is, don't get this book. If you want what it promises, play D&D 3rd edition. If you want to play AD&D 2nd edition, play AD&D 2nd edition. This? It combines the worst aspects of both, but, like, if they were misleadingly presented by someone who wanted to slander the systems in question. I'd call it a historical landmark in how not to design an rpg.

Ukss Contribution. For the riding proficiency, it uses as an example a halfling who rides a giant lizard. Halflings are goblins in Ukss, but it's a pretty neat image for a wandering hero the PCs might meet.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

GURPS: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

I need to reassess this book. The original version of my post was under a misapprehension about what it was and what it was doing, but after quickly popping in to the video game version of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, I realized GURPS: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri was a much different beast than I'd originally made it out to be.

See, the problem is that I have a lot of good memories of SMAC, so I was inclined to be very generous about its merits, but a corollary to that is that the more generous I was to the video game, the more I was tempted to discount the unique contributions of the book.

The thing I remember very clearly about Alpha Centauri the video game is that it had a rich and fascinating back story, and when I read the rpg adaptation, my primary feeling was "none of this surprises me." So, I guess I just assumed that everything that was good about the book was present in the original game.

The turn around came when I was writing my first post's Ukss contribution. I went with The Dream Twister, and was a little frustrated with how little detail the book had about it. So I decided I would look up its entry in the game's Datalinks, and use that that to flesh out my entry. Only, when I did that, I discovered that the Datalinks entry was just a couple of sentences and, in fact, the book went into dramatically more detail.

It was a very weird feeling. Everyone knows that Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri is the gold standard when it comes to 4X games with a plot. And make no mistake, it's still so great that I very nearly got sucked in to playing it all over again, but it's shocking how much it is just roughly sketched and left to your imagination to fill in. The Dream Twister has this creepy, evocative video that absolutely sells what a terrifying psionic weapon it is, and it's so effective that you never really notice that the game never comes out and tells you that's what it is.

So I'm not sure I can really fault GURPS: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri for being vague. What I wanted was a detailed write-up of The Dream Twister as a location. What would it be like to set an adventure there? What horrors would the PCs witness as they walked its halls? What sounds would take up permanent residence in their nightmares? The book answers precisely none of those questions, but it does give us three paragraphs of social and technological context, which comes to about six times the information in the video game.

All-in-all, the book is a slim volume which doesn't quite provide enough useful information to run an rpg. There's more original detail than I gave it credit for, but it really is quite conservative in its extrapolations. It never commits to building a concrete Alpha Centauri canon, and as a consequence often comes across as pointlessly vague (it's filled with things like, "the faction which built this device . . ."). So it never really gives you the benefit of immediately gameable scenario ideas like, "the turmoil that resulted when Morgan Industries monopolized the Longevity Vaccine." Which is a definite weakness. The video game needed to keep its options open, but when you try to put things into a narrative, you've got to make choices.

Ultimately, GURPS: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri feels like a curiosity. It's a fun little illustrated guide to the game's backstory, and it was an absolute blast to experience the world again in a new form, but if you don't have the benefit of nostalgia, I'm not sure it makes a very compelling case as to why you'd want to use it as the basis for a sci-fi rpg.

Ukss Contribution: I'm really spoiled for choice here, because SMAC has a lot of bold science fiction ideas, but I'm going to stick with my choice from the first version of the post. The Dream Twister is a creepy psychic WMD, and I'm just going to have to come up with the ground-eye view myself.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Charlemagne's Paladins Campaign Sourcebook

Charlemagne's Paladins is an AD&D campaign sourcebook with the radical, yet appealing premise of playing an AD&D game, but set in a fantasy version of medieval Europe.

Oh, okay, that was needlessly catty. This book is really quite good, but I'm still annoyed by all the times AD&D pigeonholed Asian-inspired fantasy as belonging to an "exotic oriental setting." According to this book, in Carolingian France, the job of Parish Priest was so unattractive that the local lords would often have to conscript their serfs into doing it. "Occasionally, the village idiot or another equally useless person would be chosen since he had no other practical value to the landlord."

Damn. But more than being an uncalled-for burn on Christianity, it's such an interesting and specific bit of world-building. I've been playing and running this game for decades and it never occurred to me to answer the question "how was this priest called to service" with "their landlord thought they were useless, so gave them this position in the near-certain conviction that they'd be so weak-willed and ineffectual that the noble lord would be able to come by and raid the tithing box whenever they felt like it."

Could you even imagine if that shit showed up in Greyhawk? Like the priests of Pelor are constantly butting heads with a secularized aristocracy that follows the faith for reasons of cultural identification, but which alternately resents and condescends to its moral teachings for seeming otherworldly and better suited to a docile peasantry. We'd never hear the end of how "sophisticated and complex" OD&D's politics were.

I guess that's the advantage of drawing from real life. Like Age of Heroes, this book has a near-perfect level of detail for rpg use, to a degree that it seems almost shameful that fictional settings don't follow its example. Also like Age of Heroes, the only part of the book that doesn't work is when it tries to apply the AD&D rules.

In theory, there are three different genre settings for your Charlemagne's Paladins game - historical, full fantasy, and the compromise option, "legendary." But oddly enough, you can play a cleric, complete with magical spells, in all three options. In a Legendary game, you can also play a wizard, but only a specialist.

I bring it up, because it's a great example of the game not quite understanding that it can change the rules to suit its setting (or genre, for that matter). Priests (presumably above the level of the local parish, at least) play an important part in the setting, so you can never ban the Cleric class. Because Clerics are priests, and thus priests must be clerics. And you just have to not think too hard about how their spells are a poor fit for Christian miracles.

But with all the magic using classes, the book sort of half-asses their mechanics in order to kind-of/sort-of bring them in line with the setting. Clerics get access to only a limited number of spheres. But spell curation within the spheres is extremely limited. In the sample adventure, one of the antagonists uses Darkness and Call Lightning, despite the fact that it was ostensibly for the "historical" version of the setting. It's sloppy.

But if you accept that you pretty much have to build all the rules stuff from the ground up (or, better yet, use this setting to play an all-Martial game of 4th edition), then Charlemagne's Paladins is an admirable setting book. In fact, there are significant swaths of this book that I wish would just get appended to any fictional setting that proclaimed itself "standard medieval fantasy." If it then turned out that doing so would too dramatically change the nature of the world, then maybe the authors could rethink a thing or two.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to go with a detail that charmed the hell out of me because it was exactly the sort of weird thing that real medieval Europeans were always doing, but which never winds up making it into "medieval fantasy." In one of the romances to spin off from the Song of Roland, the warrior Ogier the Dane performed a great deed of heroism and was rewarded by Charlemagne with a blade that bore the inscription, "Wear Me Until You Find A Better."

It's good to remember that the ancients also liked to have fun.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Transhuman Space: Deep Beyond

This book really wants me to critique libertarianism. It keeps waving the flag in front of my face, daring me to charge it, but I'm not going to be goaded.

Even though it has a list of important outer-system organizations that includes a "Duncanite Charity" called "The Free Minors Association" which specializes in offering legal aid to help "take an abusive parent to court," I am very heroically going to resist. The world does not need my half-assed political philosophy.

Oh, but it's a strain. I've gone red in the face as I wrenched my trembling away from the keyboard . . . Their society requires an abused child to initiate a civil suit against their parents, and if they do, there's a charity which "may" offer assistance. . . I don't write, because seriously, the huge philosophical blindspot that libertarianism has for children would be the work of months or years to untangle. It's the job of a serious scholar, not some yahoo with a gaming blog.

I'm beginning to suspect that Transhuman Space as a whole has a right-libertarian bias. Because you don't shove a subject that suggests horrors into a throw-away paragraph near the back of the book if you think it's a serious problem with the philosophy. Depiction doesn't equal endorsement, of course, but it looks suspicious when you spend three pages describing their for-profit legal system and not once do you mention any of the huge fucking problems with making your entire legal code based on contracts and then resolving disputes through binding arbitration paid for by the litigants themselves. It didn't even think to answer the obvious question of what happens if one of the parties attempts a procedural deadlock by refusing to agree to a venue.

And I'm doing it. I don't want to do it. Maybe I can turn away . . .

Okay, one last dig, and I'm done. This book finally explains who Silas Duncan is and it turns out that it's not a sci-fi philosopher who helped found the Duncanites, but a real guy. A 19th century naval officer . . . with the keen political instincts of a 19th century naval officer. I don't want to get too into it, because I've basically done about 15 minutes of research on the guy, and he, a captain in the US Navy, sailed down to the Falkland Islands, blew up some "pirates" who may or may not have just been the Argentine Navy, and then, as legend has it, declared the Falklands "free from all government." And all I can thinks is, if the year is 2002, and you know who this dipshit is, then not only are you obviously a huge libertarian, but you've clearly never thought critically about colonialism, like, at all.

Or, maybe you're just a US history nerd. This guy did have three warships named after him.

Still, an unreflective reverence for colonialism does put a lot of Transhuman Space's setting choices into focus. One of the more important runners through this book is "The War Under the Ice." Basically, life has been discovered on Europa. A scientific outpost has been sent to study it. Also, the Green Duncanites are there and they've been introducing genetically-engineered invasive species in an attempt to change the ocean's chemistry in order to make it habitable for their cold-adapted bioroids.

And one thing the book fails to make clear is, holy shit, what the fuck do the Duncanites think they're doing? It's the most important discovery in biological science since Charles fucking Darwin, and they're literally shitting all over it because . . . Nope, I'm drawing a blank. Because the vast empty spaces where they were previously living were basically a solved problem? Because they're mad scientists who just get off on the thought of terraforming planets, even if they have to travel to the most inhospitable regions of the solar system to find a candidate?

What they're doing is beyond interfering with scientific research. Beyond vandalism. It's a bona fide crime against humanity.

Opposing the Green Duncanites is the Europa Defense Force, which the book describes as "terrorists." But the weird thing about that designation is that they are so obviously in the right here that it makes me wonder about the other "radical preservationist" groups they're supposedly tied to. Negative Growth didn't seem to have all that great a point when they were trying to blow up the Martian space elevator, but if terrestrial law enforcement cares so little about the peaceful scientific exploration of the solar system that they'll allow the rogue terraformers of the Ares Conspiracy to ruin another planet, than maybe I've got to factor that in to my ethical calculations.

I guess that could be an interesting philosophical question, though. What if you've got a conflict where one side is 100% in the right, like so much so that it's almost funny how lopsided the disagreement is, but then the correct side is full of inflexible fanatics who are willing to use lethal force to accomplish their goals.

What the Green Duncanites are doing on Europa is a travesty - threatening to destroy, through thoughtless techbro arrogance, the legacy of an entirely separate abiogenesis, an environment that would allow scientists their one and only chance for centuries of addressing some fundamental questions about the nature of life. And they absolutely should be in jail for that. But having their habitat blown up and every cell of their body scorched by lasers so their proteins won't contaminate the fragile Europan ecosystem?

All I can say for sure is that Deep Beyond has successfully cemented my intuition that human pantropy is a reckless idea and that the survival of the human species would be more effectively secured if its adherents devoted even half that energy to preserving the Earth.

Since this is my last Transhuman Space book, I guess now is as good a time as any to get into my thoughts about the line as a whole.

It's frustrating as hell.

It's really hard to reconcile the line's meticulous attention to detail with its almost willful lack of vision. It's a sci-fi world with wondrous, transformative technology, but politics that rarely stray from late-90s - early 2000s conventional wisdom.

Why are there poor people in space? It's the books' most consistent plot-hole, from the run-down communities in L5 to the nomadic comet-herders of the deep beyond. Transhuman Space is full of charming, hard-working, ridiculously educated people getting by with nothing more than gumption, moxie, and their own personal fusion reactors. I have to figure that if the tech and resource level necessary to reach an equilibrium with the void of space and live hand-to-mouth billions of miles from Earth is a 1 out of 10, then a solid-gold space station constructed by a swarm of self-replicating factory bots has got to be about a 1.1, 1.2 tops.

Transhuman Space's greatest weakness its the refusal to engage with these questions about the ways technology can both empower the people who have access and disenfranchise the ones who don't. Funnily enough, it's the times when it's being the most "out there," that ring most true. Habitats full of a rich guy's clones, or the white supremacists who somehow infiltrated the "Jefferson Mission," or the immortal cyborg dictator of Kazakhstan or the "infomorph homeland" on Triton. These are ideas that speak to the transgressive nature of transhuman technology, the ways it is dangerous to existing social structures, both just and unjust.

In its mission to be neither a utopia nor a dystopia, it forgot to take its own "Fifth Wave" terminology seriously. The world of THS's 2100 is as different from ours as the industrial world of the early 20th century was from pre-agricultural nomads. If we're 3rd Wave, now, then Transhuman Space is attempting to describe a world that underwent a fundamental, unimaginable transformation . . . twice.

It doesn't quite do that, though I'm willing to admit that part of the problem may just be that in-setting they're jumping the gun on declaring the fourth wave over. People do tend to get over-excited when they learn terms like that. Truthfully, in the real world, we'd probably want to play it safe and say that all this disruptive stuff we're going through with apps and automation are simply the crest of the third wave finally catching up with us.

Ultimately, what I want most from Transhuman Space is an alternate setting that runs parallel to all of its intricate world-building, never contradicting concrete, established events, but rather giving them a much-needed radical spin that would subject the whole edifice of techno-colonialist capitalism to the skepticism it deserves. Maybe one day I'll just run it that way.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to go abstract here and pick the concept of asteroid homesteading. Deep Beyond never quite gets down to that level of resolution, so I can't pick a specific example, but I like the general idea of families and small communities making their own custom-built worlds, so I'll allow that to inform my depiction of the Cosmic Sphere.

Friday, November 8, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Age of Heroes

Age of Heroes exists in a weird space where I think it may be good, but I'm not sure what it's for.

Some older roleplaying books seem to exist purely to save their readers a trip to the library. Age of Heroes is about 75% one of those, quite clearly condensing a bunch of books about Greek history and culture into one slim volume. And you know what? That aspect of the book is pretty great.

If the historical sections of Age of Heroes were a new campaign setting, they'd hit pretty much the exact right level of detail for roleplaying. There are sections about fashion, trade, laws, and religion that don't begin to do justice to the complex and fascinating culture of classical Greece, but also don't overstay their welcome, and give you just enough detail to sketch out a backdrop to an adventure. Reading this book does not feel like homework.

It even does something that I wish ALL rpg settings would do - it walks us through the typical day of a well-off Athenian. From gossip in the barber shop during the morning to watching the ships getting built after lunch to working out at the gymnasium in the evening, it brings the city to life in a way I rarely see in any rpg material. It's actually kind of distressing to see what should be setting-guide best practices in a book from 1994 and realize that almost nothing in the subsequent years has followed its lead.

Then again, Age of Heroes may be cheating, having real history to work from. Still, the "day in the life" stuff is something I'm going to take pains to incorporate into my own worldbuilding from now on.

Where Age of Heroes doesn't really work is its AD&D material. It tries to give options for both historical and fantasy games, but it never quite manages to break free of certain vanilla AD&D assumptions, so you've got things like the suggestion that players stick to upper class Greeks, because characters like freed slaves wouldn't have the money to outfit themselves with equipment - you know, because character classes are jobs and only certain people can afford to be fighters. What it really needs is a frank discussion of things like "theme" and "genre," but D&D discourse wasn't really there yet, and fantastic Greece, especially, suffered for it.

Though funnily enough, it was in the course of the book once again being a total pill about AD&D rules that it accidentally pitched one of the best campaign ideas I've ever seen. To set the scene - it's explaining a chart that contains monsters from the first couple of Monster's Compendiums that you should not use in a Greek campaign, and then it offhandedly throws this out:
[A] Companion on a fantasy campaign with Alexander the Great might find himself facing a rakshasa who takes poorly to the notion of Alexander's legions conquering India.
Excuse me, what? You're just going to toss this out there to explain why your "forbidden encounters" aren't always forbidden, and you're never going to mention it again? You had the idea that Alexander of Macedon maintained a crack squad of monster hunters who traveled alongside his armies to face off against each region's native supernatural creatures as he conquered his way across half of Eurasia, and then you didn't develop that into a series of fantasy novels that got optioned into the mid-2010s most popular prestige drama? It's infuriating, that I can't buy a campaign guide that is basically just that.

I think in 1994, Age of Heroes was as close as AD&D got to an A+ book, and if it's less useful now, then it's still pretty concise and accessible, and there are worse places to start when building your Greece-inspired rpg.

Ukss Contribution: Aw man, this one is tough because the best stuff in this book is the real history. The fantasy stuff I know has the potential to be cool, but generally it's not used in a very cool way here.

Fuck it. Sparta. I'm going to encounter a lot of fantasy civilizations that will try to be "Sparta with X," so I might as well nip those in the bud and just put in the real thing. Maybe if I do that, I can control the narrative and show what a hateful, cruel, and hypocritical place it really was.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Transhuman Space: In the Well

Finally, I can write about one of these Transhuman Space books without feeling compelled to go off on a tangent about capitalism.

I could. Despite this being a much less economically-focused book than its predecessors, there are a couple of real juicy quotes that could support years and years of arguments all by themselves. But I don't need to. In The Well is much more interested in the science fiction side of the setting, and most of its politics revolve around the ethics of terraforming, with only a hint of nationalist rivalry thrown in for spice.

Oh, okay, one quick dig at capitalism, for the sake of tradition. When talking about claiming land in outer space:
"[The Revised Outer Space Treaty] doesn't use the word 'owned,' but rather suggests that the occupants are holding the land in stewardship for humanity. The distinction amounts to nothing."
Arggh! Why, Transhuman Space, why? You've got rogue engineers illegally terraforming Mars vs militant environmentalists willing to do anything to preserve it, and you could so easily draw us in to a purely speculative sci-fi conflict, but then you have to go and write shit like this. Forget capitalism, you've just set humanity back to the 16th century. That's what people are going to fight about - the near certain knowledge that the first few generations are pulling the ladder up behind them, and that anyone who doesn't become a transhuman space-dweller as early as possible is going to get left hopelessly behind.

Which is as smooth a transition as I'm going to get into my main observation about this book - it kind of . . . sort of . . . from a certain point of view . . . completely and utterly demolishes Transhuman Space's underlying setting assumptions.

That's probably not the take-away most people are going to get from this book, but when you start to add up all the little inconsistencies, the conclusion becomes inescapable - there is precisely zero reason for any of these people to be in space. Mars is a giant money pit, even with the magic of sci-fi imprecision speeding up the terraforming process by 1000-100000%.  But even to the extent that it does have an economy, its main export is food. Food. To the thousands of people who themselves are living in outer space for no discernible reason.

There's a group that's introduced in this book, called the Truckers. They ship cargo from place to place on Mars, and they have a whole subculture, including a rigorous code of honor about always delivering cargo on time, and for a fair price, and helping out both fellow travelers and each other. Romantic. But the interesting thing about the Truckers is that they are, literally, trucks. As in, AIs or uploaded humans are put into robotic cargo vehicles and that vehicle becomes their body.

Once you've introduced that concept, it's all over. Minds are cheap enough that you're using them to haul cargo, which means that they're going to be even more profitable at the more fundamental levels of your industrial processes. Especially when you factor in the need to engineer those processes to include pointless empty spaces filled with oxygen and kept at the (relatively) sweltering temperatures necessary to preserve human life.

This is something we can attach numbers to. According to the book, "Estimates of personal wealth that include infrastructure say everyone living off Earth is fabulously wealthy!" That's a tricky statement from a rules perspective, because it could mean anything from Wealthy (150,000$) to Very Wealthy (600,000$), but either way you slice it, a fully sapient AI with average human intelligence (100,000$) + a computer to run it (50,000-200,00$) + a (frankly, over-designed) humanoid body (145,000$) is anywhere between six months and three years of life support and no more than 11 years of regular wages. If you can get away with a low-sapient AI, the cost goes down dramatically. And a ghost (software emulation of a human mind)? Sixty thousand for the software + computer, and then the regular price for the body. When you take the humanoid body out of the equation (and with it the automatic need to miniaturize the AI's computer) and put your workers directly into industrial machinery that no longer has to compromise function to accommodate human physiology? The economic choice could not be more obvious.

By the rules of the game, and, honestly, the basic common sense Transhuman Space prides itself upon, the civilization that roams the solar system should be a machine civilization. At the very least, there's no reason to send something as fragile as a human to mine heavy metals on Mercury.

It's clear that the setting started from a desired result (humans living and working in space) and then worked backwards to come up with the justification for it. That's probably why we're talking about terraforming in the context of decades rather than millenia, and why you can have 2 million people living on Mars, despite the fact that most of them would die from carbon dioxide poisoning if any of the fragile systems keeping them alive were to fail for even a short amount of time.

That's not a complaint, by the way. Because, seriously, how much of a curmudgeon would I have to be to be like, "Well, by your own logic, Transhuman Space, you have no reason to actually exist." Nonetheless, it's kind of noticeable when you've got a central conflict about how much humans are permitted to alter Mars to suit their needs, but the only reason they're even on Mars is demonstrably an irrational and bull-headed compulsion to shove a human in any remotely human-shaped niche, regardless of the cost in resources or human lives.

I just kind of wish that was what Transhuman Space were about.

Ukss Contribution: There are so many little details here that are kind of awful, but which I also sort of love. On Mars you can play as a "grizzled prospector" who may be "genetically part grizzly bear" . . . And, how can I continue as a critic after that? Seriously, how do I go on, knowing this exists?

Or maybe you want to get involved in pointless territorial dick-waving, so you buy a self-guiding seeker missile that is usually non-sapient. That's the character you build your transhumanist sci-fi around. The missile whose guidance AI slipped through the cracks during QA and wound up fully self-aware. What is that person's story?

Or maybe I should repay In the Well for granting my wish for more billionaires with ridiculous hobbies and include the guy who wanted to hoax the world into thinking there were native Martians, so he genetically engineered a bunch of fake aliens, put them into elaborate "alien" cryogenic chambers, and then had them wake up inside the fake Martian ruins he had built, where they were tricked by "records their ancestors left behind" into believing they were the sole survivors of the ancient Martian civilization. Like all the best practical jokes, it's both hilarious and pointlessly cruel.

But honestly, any one of those thing would require me to explain so much social context that I'd basically be importing half a near-future sci fi setting to get it to work. So I'll go with something simpler - the Martian settlers' culture of martial arts.  While I wish a little more had been made of the pun, it's nonetheless pretty cool to juxtapose Wuxia and outer space.

So that's a thing now. The different settlements in the Cosmic Sphere will all have their own home-grown martial arts traditions.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Trinity Continuum: Aeon

I can't stop thinking about the sci-fi Lunar garbage crisis. I was so hard on High Frontier for not taking it more seriously. I don't know what it was, but the imagery really affected me. Growing up, I was inspired by pictures of the moon. Seeing disc of the Earth rising over that serene, silvery landscape sparked my imagination and awakened both my intellectual curiosity and my sense that we are all one human family, trying to make it on our ridiculously small and fragile blue orb. So there was some romantic and sentimental part of me that was troubled by the thought of 290,000 Lunar residents just dumping willy-nilly their mine tailings, broken drill bits, dead batteries, and god knows what else.

In the world of Trinity Continuum: Aeon, there are 50 million people living on the Moon. And I'm haunted by the question, what are they doing with their garbage? Damned Transhuman Space. If I'd read these last two books in the opposite order, I'd never even think about this issue, but now it's all I can think about. The book doesn't say that the people of Olympia use the Lunar surface as their own half-assed garbage dump, but it also doesn't say that they don't.

I guess the fact that their city is made of implausible soft sci-fi crystal domes and impractical sealed-environment skyscrapers would at least give them an incentive to keep their immediate environs beautiful. And it's completely unclear what productive economic activity makes it preferable to settle the Lunar south pole, rather than, say, Detroit, so I don't necessarily have to imagine vast swaths of mining and heavy industry. In the end, though, what calmed my fears most about the potential for a sci-fi trash apocalypse was the certain knowledge that the Aeon Trinity would never stand for it.

But I think I have to admit that's a pretty thin thread to tie my hopes onto. The Aeon Trinity is a nebulous group of comics-inspired do-gooders. They are financed by a global cabal of impossibly wealthy philanthropists who prefer to remain anonymous (presumably because if they were ever given anything so concrete as an identity, we'd start to wonder why bank-rolling an organization that meddles in everything from public education to developing the technology to invade alien planets doesn't instantly bankrupt them) and the only thing we can be absolutely certain about is that they are on the right side of history.

It's kind of a weird train of thought. Central to Trinity Continuum: Aeon's pitch is the idea that the Illuminati is real, they're actually pretty good guys, and in the future they'll go public. It almost seems like I'm pushing it a little too far to also imagine that they'll use their diplomatic and economic clout to ensure that the Moon's waste-disposal regulations are robust enough to preserve its beauty for generations to come.

There's a treacherous part of me that wants to make this the centerpiece of an introductory adventure. You've just been recruited by Aeon, a venerable conspiracy of two-fisted adventurers and action-scientists whose self-appointed mandate is to act as a force for interplanetary justice! Your first mission? To find out who has been illegally dumping their rubbish on the outskirts of Olympia (womp womp).

But, of course, we all know how that would play out. The group starts off grumbling in disappointment. Maybe the team rebel even storms off in a huff. But the team leader gives a speech about how "everybody has to start somewhere" and "they can't all be vid-worthy." And then, in the course of their investigation, they discover the illegal dumping is tied to a sinister corporation, and in the course of infiltrating that corporation, they learn that it is a secret front for a mutant-worshipping cult, and maybe the team rebel's earlier tantrum puts them in the optimal position to stage a timely rescue, and in the end, they all band together to expose the conspiracy, but the main perpetrators get away and the team has just earned themselves a powerful and persistent enemy. Time for brevet promotions to the Aeon task force that has been tracking them for years!

Call it the power of genre at work. Genre is Trinity Continuum: Aeon's greatest strength. It's got a charming and self-aware approach, making explicit 1e's convention of associating each region of the setting with a different science-fiction sub-genre (seriously, there's a chart in the "Storyguiding" chapter and everything).

This is where I have to slow down and tread carefully. Trinity Continuum: Aeon corrects or improves almost every problem I had with the first edition of Trinity (and I've got, like 4 pages of notes that I'm just now realizing would be too tedious to recap, filled with things like "Legion no longer mercenaries😀 - working for UN, but sometimes rogue?"), but now that there are fewer speed-bumps, I can better see how objectifying such an approach might seem.

Nippon is where you set a game if you want a sort of 90s retro-future look, with robots and video screens everywhere, set inside a giant arcology that covers most of the home islands (or perhaps "only" about 33% of Honshu - there are contradictory passages), and the backstory is that in the chaos and uncertainty of the Aberrant war, it made some kind of economic and strategic sense for them to strip-mine their entire nation to make themselves a 100% artificial environment. And look, I'm no scholar of Japanese culture, and I can't speak authoritatively about its relationship with nature, but I'd be surprised by a timeline where the Japanese leveled Mount Fuji and "sifted it for minerals," and I'd be a little bit heartbroken if they tore up the cherry trees.

Now, this is science-fiction we're talking about, and not your subtler, more thoughtful science fiction at that. An entire country inside a single massive building is cool. And when you're shopping around for a place to put that, Japan works as well as any. But in a very real sense, if you do that, then in your setting you've destroyed Japan. There is no Japan in Trinity Continuum: Aeon. There is something where Japan used to be, and it carries with it a dusting of Japanese flavor, but when I look at Nippon and ask myself what details were chosen to make this fantastic arcology nation evoke the Japan of our day, I can't help but go hmm.

I am probably being relatively unfair to Trinity Continuum: Aeon, by targeting it at possibly its weakest point. I could have made a similar observation about any of the regions. To a certain degree, that's just the nature of time. If you look a century into the past, you're going to see a lot of familiar things that are barely recognizable, but you'll also see the roots of thing that have endured.

Which is to say, the interregnum provided by the Aberrant War can explain away a lot, but is it sufficient for Pakistan and India to unite under a single political authority?

Trinity Continuum: Aeon is another mid-future sci-fi rpg that likes to bill itself as "optimistic," and it's interesting to compare its version of optimism to Transhuman Space. For me, the most direct point of comparison would have to be Chile. In THS, it's a triumph of conventional capitalist wisdom, a thriving post-industrial market economy that specializes in robots. In TC:Aeon, it's the Mapuche Nation, and the native-descended people have been given full ownership of the country's genetic IP (I'm not sure what that comes out to in yuan, but it sounds valuable).

There's a definite contrast, there, but I'm not sure I can deliver a definite conclusion. Is this the result of a decade and a half's worth of cultural change or just a difference in the authors' values? Perhaps, in time, Aeon's sci-fi future will age as poorly as THS's, and I'm simply too close to the issue to see it. I feel like there's something, there, some insight that will allow us to better understand the shifting artistic and ideological priorities of the early 21st century Anglosphere, but that will probably have to wait until the blog's 15 year retrospective, where I go back and complain about how none of these rpg books presaged the 2030s obsession with recycling your own urine to fight back against climate change.

I think, overall, it would be a mistake to look for Trinity Continuum: Aeon's optimism in the fate of any particular nation. Parts of it are downright grim. Like, the Federated States of America are a more keenly observed fascist state, with a pointless and one-sided, but distressingly plausible rivalry with the United African Nations that is so mean-spirited they are financially backing Al-Qaeda. I mean, I've been known to be overly cynical at times, but damn.

The optimism in Trinity Continuum: Aeon comes from the same place as my conviction that there won't be a garbage crisis on the Moon - the idea that however bad things may seem, Aeon is there to help. It's a vision that has the potential to be as awkwardly aristocratic as any superhero fantasy, but is more or less saved from that by the fact that Aeon is really just an amped-up NGO. The good work it does is made possible by thousands of people on the ground, pitching in as best they can. That's nice, the idea that people can work together to solve the world's problems.

Although, yes, there is also some magical superhero-designed technology to make things easier.

I'd say that Trinity Continuum: Aeon is pretty much the ideal 2nd edition. For veterans, it's a distillation of everything that was good about 1st edition, but with the rougher and more awkward edges smoothed away. For newcomers, it's a great place to get started, comprehensive enough to let you keep up with the fandom's conversations, but self-contained enough that you don't have to. It's dramatically more niche than the Trinity Continuum Core, so I don't think it has the same potential to become a landmark title, but it's clear that the Trinity Continuum as a whole has a bright future ahead of it.

Ukss Contribution: China in this game is weird. I hesitate to even bring it up because, like the rest of us, TC: Aeon sees the inevitability of an upcoming Chinese Century, but it never quite settles on a coherent vision of what that will mean. However, there is one little detail that is maybe a bit too condescending to apply to a real nation state, but which is perfect fantasy fodder.

Basically, a lot of stuff in the Aeon era is left over detritus from when superheros roamed the Earth and deformed the world's culture and economy by producing regular miracles. One such example was in China, where a child with the apparent power of super-insightfulness advised the government to make a whole bunch of laws nobody but she understood. And the government followed that advice. And it worked. So now that the superheroes have been banished to the outer reaches of space, China has a complicated legal code that protects it from market shocks, but which no one understands well enough to amend or replicate.

It treads a little close to the "mysterious Asian" stereotype to be completely comfortable, but it amuses me, so I'll overlook it. In the setting, the child is nicknamed the Bodhisattva, but I don't know enough about the cultural context surrounding that term to properly understand how it should be used, so I'll just call her The Incarnate.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Transhuman Space: High Frontier

Why must these Transhuman Space books task me so? They're so complex. I was so smug when I started reading High Frontier. I thought I had it all figured out. But every time I made the mistake of letting my guard down, something new would appear to force me to re-evaluate my opinion.

I've not always had the kindest things to say about the various Transhuman Space supplements, but it is becoming clear to me that the series as a whole is a bona fide classic. Now, people who have followed me for any length of time will realize that this isn't necessarily the blog's highest compliment (that would be "garbage fire of awesome"), but it does mean that I think Transhuman space is something that needs to be taken seriously.

Not that I will, of course, because High Frontier has a lot of stuff that can rightfully be considered laughable.

Some of it is along expected lines, where the book will just state, as a matter of fact, some naively libertarian setting detail and then just not explore the implications. The Lunar colonies will privatize their search and rescue response? Is this an adventure seed? Are the PCs going to have to clean up the wreckage of corporate callousness? Will a poor community need help it can't afford?

No, it's just a thing, and it mostly works out fine. Same with the private space junk clean-up teams. It's not full-on libertarian "privatize the roads" - the corporations in question take public contracts, but the book just takes it for granted that private companies can Do It Better.

The funniest manifestation of this unspoken ideology is when the book talks about space craft registration and orbital law enforcement. "Flags of Convenience aren't just popular with legitimate operators who want to avoid taxes or stifling regulations. They're also a haven for various criminal organizations with a toehold in space."

I decided I was going to be really condescending and sarcastic about this, because the alternative is shouting at the top of my lungs about a world gone mad. Imagine my "oh, honey" voice as you read this next part - it's weird the way High Frontier gets 90% of the way towards understanding the problems of global capitalism and then stops.

There's this luxury resort on the moon. It's underground, but the walls project images of the lunar surface . . . the old lunar surface. Because as of the game's start date, the part of the Moon directly above the Moonshadow resort is within sight of an active mine, and thanks to an absence of "stifling regulations," the miners feel free to just dump their garbage any old place. And that's it. Nothing happens to the moon miners. There's no environmental advocates, not even strawman terrorists. There's no bad publicity. The companies get to pick and choose which laws they want to follow, so it's not even as if they have to fear a government. Thus, trash on the Moon.

Once more, Transhuman Space frustrates by presenting a world whose building blocks should inspire punk stories and then forgetting the "punk" part. The Moon is owned by whoever gets there first, and they can strip it for parts and cover it in their waste and nobody can stop them because the promise of endless economic growth puts you above the law. Humanity's legacy, a celestial body whose beauty has inspired generations of poets, scientists, and dreamers, gets ruined because that's what's most convenient, and . . . nothing. The setting is "optimistic," which means that nobody is going to get in trouble for the honest pursuit of capitalism.

Anyway, that's my standard critique. That's the thought I have to get out every time I read one of these books, lest my heart burst open and I lose my "kind of left-ish, but too frivolous to count on" credibility forever.

Where High Frontier threw me through a loop is in not being only that. A lot of this book is merely incredibly dry. There's talk of the different types of orbits, a brief mention of the fact that rocket burns in space don't necessarily have intuitive effects, a lot of talk about the geology of the Moon (rock composition, the practicalities of navigating a crater, etc), and careful attention paid to things like radiation and vacuum.

It's real bedrock space nerd stuff, which I can only imagine is the reason no one thought better of chapter 2.

One of the persistent complaints about Transhuman Space as a game line is that there's no obvious campaign model (a claim that, in general, is only true if you take its "optimism" at face value), so it appears that High Frontier is generously providing us with one. . . I assume. I can't imagine any other reason that you'd devote a whole chapter to the subject of orbiting space junk and the intrepid blue-collar subculture that cleans it up.

Reading "The Vacuum Cleaners" gave me flashbacks to The Wilderness Survival Guide. It's clearly something that received a lot of thought, and there's something admirable about its thorough, meticulous world-building, but who is this for? I'm trying to imagine pitching this campaign to my players.

"You fly around space, collecting dangerous debris before it collides with valuable satellites and vulnerable habitats. There's some really precise rules for spotting objects in lower and higher orbits. Think of it like a treasure hunt, except none of the treasure is especially valuable. . . I mean, there are complications sometimes too. Some of the garbage is old military stuff that may be booby-trapped. Some of it may even be active military equipment that is so classified it doesn't appear on any of the charts. Then you'll have to very carefully run away and sort out jurisdictional issues after the fact. There may even be times when you're called upon to play 'garbage detective,' and find the original owner of a derelict bit of space debris so you can determine who must be billed for cleanup under the requisite international treaties."

I mean, I'm not saying it's a bad idea for a campaign, but I've never had a group of players who wouldn't treat it as a joke.

The most challenging part of High Frontier, however, are the chapters on the L4 and L5 colonies. I wouldn't say that they break from Transhuman Space's overall philosophy, but it does seem like editorial control was a bit looser in these chapters. Some of the colonies feel almost speculative.

This isn't always done in the most effective way. For example - Margaret, the all-female space habitat/lifestyle dojo, is just a mess, politically. I can't even with regards to its take on gender. I literally. . . can't . . . even.

If I have to try. . . I guess it's like politically lesbian TERFS, but it's from 2003, so maybe that's a little bit woke and it's okay to use the phrase "elective hermaphrodites" to refer to what we'd call nonbinary people, because the context is advanced biotechnology giving people control of their physiology as well as their presentation and identification . . . and that's(?) why it's okay that there are no visible trans people, because medical treatments in 2100 are so effective it would take a molecular scan to out someone. In any event, the population of Margaret is greying because there's so much gender equality on Earth that the younger generation doesn't need feminism, and never mind that in this timeline Saudi Arabia still doesn't let women drive, because they don't count for some reason. Despite a constant refrain in the setting being the way advanced geriatric medicine means the young can never escape the domination of the old, "patriarchy" gets scare quotes in the text because who has time to figure out what that even means.

Sometimes, Trnashuman Space can be just totally exhausting. There are plenty of interesting things here, social, economic, and political fracture lines that would be ripe for both engaging conflict and stimulating speculation, but which never get off the ground because the books seem pathologically adverse to asking the tough questions. It's like there's this complex and fascinating sci-fi world and we're learning about it by watching CNN.

There was a little glimmer of something, though. One of the habitats was originally the vanity project of an arrogant billionaire, but unbeknownst to its creator, one of his closest associates was actually an infosocialist infiltrator, who goaded him into giving in to his hubris and bankrupting his company to create a space station that was also a work of art. Then, through complex financial fraud (that doesn't actually seem very plausible in Transhuman Space's world of savvy capitalists), the billionaire's primary creditor was an infosocialist front company. And now this subversive conspiracy of . . . data pirates, operates out of a state-of-the-art space station and works to undermine the economic order of settled space through, frankly, some over-the-top spy shit that was probably meant to build them up as a threat, but which kind of wound up making them seem pretty cool.

I'm not sure if the IAs ("Intellectual Artistes") were meant to be a heroic resistance movement, but the very fact that they are reasonably admirable (much is made of their pacifism and respect for pan-sapient rights, in contrast to the bad socialists from Earth) and also willing to act to oppose the obvious injustices of 5th Wave capitalism made them a refreshing break from the line's otherwise monolithic politics.

I don't know how they got in the book. My hunch is that since High Frontier had seven credited authors, a bit of ideological diversity could happen to sneak in around the margins. Maybe that's too cynical, though. Maybe it's just a case of things in orbit being pure sci-fi inventions, and thus freer to explore wilder ideas.

Once again, I'm finishing a Transhuman Space post both humbled and physically and emotionally drained. There's a lot I didn't cover, but I kind of want to get started on my next book before forever. Ultimately, I think this series is shaping up to be a real "critic's" rpg. It's brilliant in ways you really wouldn't want to duplicate and bad in ways that are fascinating to unravel. But honestly, I don't think it's possible to play it without first hating it just a little.

Ukss Contribution: There's this billionaire, and I think the book wants us to think of him as a bit of a creep, who builds an expensive space station and fills it with thousands of clones of himself. I'm sure in 2003, this was one of the book's more shocking and fantastic sci-fi conceits, but all I can think now is "yep, that basically tracks."

The hardest thing to believe about Transhuman Space is that more billionaires aren't doing similarly bizarre and offputting things with their historically unprecedented wealth.

Still, a tin can flying through space stuffed with the clones of one narcissistic weirdo is a pretty amusing idea.