Friday, December 6, 2019

(AD&D 2e) DM's Option: High-Level Campaigns

The paradox and the mystery of this book is best typified by the way it defends demihuman racial limits.
Demihuman characters are usually forced to retire or assume secondary roles in the campaign once human player characters begin to reach high levels and the demihuman characters reach their advancement limits. That is exactly what's supposed to happen. Many DMs are tempted to ignore demihuman advancement limits, especially when players are unwilling to retire their high-level demihuman characters.

Do not ignore demihuman advancement limits; they are the price players must pay for gaining demihuman advantages at lower levels. Ignoring the advancement limits unbalances play by placing high-level power in the hands of characters who already have extra abilities, and it is grossly unfair to players who have chosen human characters and have labored long and hard to get to the point where their choices begin to pay dividends in the form of unlimited advancement.
I don't usually like to do such long quotes, but this is a real masterpiece of missing the point. Each sentence is somehow more disconnected from reality than the one that came before. It makes me wonder if there was perhaps some kind of D&D authors' clique that exclusively played games with each other using RAW and had a set of cultural conventions that could make those rules work. Because this theory of career-arc balance, where a benefit gained at first level is paid for by a cost you won't see until 10th level? The only thing it could possibly accomplish is to make both 1st and 10th level unbalanced in the moment.

And your game mechanic seems to be that an acceptable price for character abilities is that at some point you're going to have to prematurely stop playing the game. A party of adventurers stuck together through thick and thin, the equivalent of 50 dungeons in the game and more than a year in real life, and then suddenly they reach the level cap and the humans get to keep going, but their loyal elf and dwarf companions have to retire. What are the players doing during all of this? I've just lost my 14th level elf mage in a game that's destined to reach level 30 - what am I playing as the human characters reach level 15?

The thing that astounds me most is that the book acknowledges there's a problem. But then it gets really defensive and suggests that the problem is actually a function of the rules working as intended. It says "human characters . . . have labored long and hard," but it doesn't question the absurdity of that construction. Dungeons & Dragons is supposed to be a game. Why are people laboring at all?

And that's DM's Option: High-Level Campaigns in a nutshell. It's full of ideas that are probably pretty radical for this hypothetical designer-clique AD&D, but which seem to brush only lightly against anything I'd recognize as actual play experiences. There are twenty pages devoted to an elaborate spell-dueling system that as near as I can tell is destined to be purely speculative because it can at most involve two PCs at a time, will much more likely involve the entire group sitting around waiting while one PC duels an NPC, and which most likely won't be very interesting because the huge list of special spell interactions serves only to underscore the profound unlikelihood of two mages having memorized and deployed appropriate counters at any given time.

This book opens with the surreal spectacle of being shocked at its own audacity.
Utter the words "high-level character" to just about group of AD&D fans and you are certain to get a strong reaction. Veteran players often shake their heads in disgust, but the are a few whose eyes gleam with fond memories. Referees often look pained or confused. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on high-level play.
But I can't help thinking, from my vantage point where I've played Exalted and I've run Nobilis, that the book is grossly misdiagnosing the problem here. It's not high-level play. It's AD&D. It doesn't really know what it is, and any time it works or fails to work, it's completely up to chance.

Ukss Contribution: Of the book's innovations, the one with the greatest setting implications is the 10th-level spell-casting system called "True Dweomers." Unfortunately, it's uniformly bad. Do you like doing algebra every time you cast a spell? Is your favorite part of normal D&D casting the material components (or at least, would it be if only those components weren't so easy to acquire and keep track of)? Do you not mind that it takes careful min-maxing of the system to avoid coming up with something strictly worse than your regular spells?

And with all those problems, it didn't even produce one example spell memorable enough to get an honorable mention.

I was therefor forced to stretch myself a little. One of the special abilities available to high-level priests is "Detect Deception," which would be pretty neat if it weren't filled with caveats and failure points. But it's pretty easy for me to imagine an esoteric order of Priests of Truth who have a version of the ability that's worthy of being a character power.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Council of Wyrms

My feud with AD&D is starting to heat up. I don't know if I can forgive it for this book. Council of Wyrms is well-written and has a great high concept, but it is weighted down with far too many AD&D sacred cows and as a result it never quite comes into its own.

The quick pitch is this: there's this chain of islands where dragons are so common that they've built a civilization. They divide up territory among themselves and rule whole societies of dwarves, elves, and gnomes, filling the same general niche as aristocrats in an oligarchic society. Though each dragon is a law unto itself, to ensure they don't kill each other, the oldest and wisest dragons gather in a Council of Wyrms, to mediate duels, recognize territorial claims, and address threats to all dragon-kind. Council of Wyrms, the book, not only presents this setting (which would be pretty badass, even if you were just playing it from the demihuman perspective), but it also allows you to play as the dragons themselves.

I love this idea. The only way it could possibly go wrong is if you somehow reduced the majesty and splendor of dragon-kind to an elaborate color-coded hierarchy where nearly all of their powers, temperament, and moral philosophy was rigorously determined by their ancestry as interpreted by a slavish adherence to the parameters set down in the Monstrous Manual. Oh, and make the types completely unbalanced with each other, so that there is an objectively best choice of character and it seems like you are actively punishing players for choosing dragons based on aesthetic or sympathetic factors, so much so that the recommended style of play is to pick your dragon randomly. And don't forget to expressly forbid popular types like the Red, Green, and Black dragons because your rules say that they are always evil and you don't want to encourage evil PCs (though, at least with this last one, there's basically nothing to the rule - all of the information you need to play a chromatic dragon is in the book, they just leave them out of the random generation table).

The thing that gets me, though, is how easy it would have been to do it right. Just say that every dragon is different and that the ones in the MM are just specific examples that demonstrate tendencies. Give players a blank dragon template that they can fill up with special powers, magic, and combat abilities in whatever mix they desire. Let them design the appearance of their dragons however they want. And drop alignment off a fucking cliff, because seriously, its only purpose is to simultaneously defang the politics of the metallic dragons and make the chromatic dragons into cartoonish caricatures. There is a Green Dragon clan called Evilwood. Evilwood.

I see so much potential here, I'm very nearly losing sight of the real game. If Council of Wyrms had Ars Magica-style troupe play, where each player made a dragon and characters for all their fellow-players entourages, it could really get into the politics of the setting and dragons would feel much more like the awesome solitary monsters they're supposed to be (one of the included adventures sums itself up by saying it "pits four to six adult dragons against the evil genius of a crazed dwarf" which pretty much sums up the uncanny feeling of playing a party of adventuring dragons). If it had some kind of generational or legacy system for its demihuman "kindred" characters, so that you could skim through the epic sweep of time that's defined by a dragon's lifespan (seriously - the book sometimes makes it seem like you're going to be leveling up your dragon PCs from hatchling to great wyrm, but that's 1200 years minimum - it is completely unprepared to handle that kind of scale), it could really dig in and explore the social and psychological nuances of the demihuman-dragon relationship.

Sadly, Council of Wyrms doesn't have that kind of ambition. Or maybe it just doesn't have the room. It attempts to cover a lot of ground in just three slim, 64 page booklets. Either way, it's easy to see how the campaign can be improved and I'm not sure if that means that it's bad, because its weaknesses are so obvious, or that it's good, because I find the subject matter so effortlessly inspirational.

I guess that's just what AD&D does to me.

Ukss Contribution: There's a section that discusses what happens to dragons when time catches up to them and they begin to experience senescence. One of the suggestions is that some of them might cheat death by magically merging with the landscape and becoming guardians of nature. I'm a stone-cold sucker for mystic living scenery, so this is right in my wheelhouse. I'm thinking that at least one mountain in Ukss is going to be the semi-conscious remains of a dead dragon.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Player's Option: Combat & Tactics

I can't tell you what a relief it is to no longer have Player's Option: Combat & Tactics looming in my future. It wasn't the driest of my remaining books, not when there's another edition of GURPS left to read, but it was definitely not in the sweet-spot for entertaining vs informative content. It reads a lot like game rules, which I suppose is the point of the exercise, but it's always a little offputting to be reminded of that.

Combat & Tactics does have the distinction of being the first one of these Player's Option books that is not objectively worse than the material it supplants. It might be controversial as to whether a highly-detailed, miniatures-focused tactical combat system is desirable, but if you come down on the book's side of the issue, you're mostly going to get a system that is robust and functional. It feels exactly like what it is - a prototype of D&D3's combat. There are ambiguities that are destined to get cleaned up, and there's more bookkeeping involved, but there are also more features. I'd never want to use it, but I don't hate it.

The only major flaw of this book (aside from the fact that it's 190 pages devoted to combat, the most boring part of every rpg) is that it does not overcome core AD&D's curiously limited vision. This is probably something that rankles me more right after reading Spelljammer than it would have if I'd read it when I first intended to, but the equipment section of this book is probably as pure an expression of AD&D's bizarre historiographical priorities as we're ever likely to see . . .

Let's put in 20 types of polearms and separate equipment lists for the Dark Ages, the Crusades, and the Hundred Years War, but India is basically in the Middle East, right?

It's depressingly Eurocentric. There's a section devoted to martial arts. You know, the famous Shaolin styles of A, B, C, and D. Also, you can't use improvised weapons with martial arts. I guess I've been long under the impression that Oriental Adventures was inspired by Hong Kong cinema, so how does this happen?

I have a theory. The Foreword says that Combat & Tactics' goal was not to make combat more realistic, but rather to make it more believable, and it occurs to me that believability is one of those things that is as much in the minds of the audience as it is in the context of the fiction. It only takes a little effort for a person to believe all sorts of improbable things.

So maybe when we look at a fantasy history being "believable" we should look less at the detail and nuance of its world-building and more at what the reader is already primed to believe. It reminds me of something I said in my video game blog, while I was playing Europa Universalis IV:
It's like they're saying that way things played out in the real world was inevitable, but I'm sure that if you replayed human history 1000 times, starting in 1444, in 999 of those timelines, China would be the preeminent global power going into the 19th century. So why not let the game play out that way? Why pretend that the real world outcome is the likeliest or most plausible?
I was referring to EUIV's mechanics that sidestepped the rules of the simulation to nudge the game towards a "historical" outcome, but I think the question is even more salient when talking about creating a fantasy setting. It was a train of thought kicked off by Combat & Tactics' discussion of bronze age technology:
Unlike Stone Age or savage cultures, Bronze Age cultures are almost never found as contemporaries of more advanced civilizations.
First, the obligatory "Savage cultures? Really?!" Though at least Combat & Tactics has the good grace to acknowledge and condemn European colonialism
Historically, many African, Asian, and Malaysian nations were considered "savages" by Western European explorers as late as the early part of this century. These unique cultures suffered terribly at the hands of their supposedly more-civilized visitors.
Which is nice to read in one of these books for a change, but raises the uncomfortable question, "if you know that, then why are you still using the word 'savage?'" And the slightly less uncomfortable, but still difficult question, "if you know that, why haven't you let it inform your world-building."

Why is it that Stone Age technology can coexist with more advanced techniques like iron? What trait or quality do stone-using cultures have in common, that sets them apart from iron using cultures?  It's a question with a lot of racist baggage, but the answer really does seem to be nothing more complicated than geographic isolation. Small populations of people never developed the infrastructure and specialization to allow for the exploration of metallurgy, so they were still using stone when they made contact.

Which brings us back to the quote that started this all. Why can't bronze coexist with iron?

Because, historically, it didn't. That's the only reason. I mean, except for the 500+ year period where it did, because the reason it got supplanted was a continental trade network that moved goods, people, and ideas along a giant meta-civilization that allowed people to benefit from the accomplishments of people thousands of miles away . . . and that process takes time. But there's no real reason why it would have to shake out that way in a fictional world.

When you use the term "Stone Age" to refer to everyone from Homo Habilis to the Aztecs, you kind of lose the ability to talk about it as if it's a uniform technological stage (a fact acknowledged by this book, ironically, but never explored to its logical conclusion). And that opens the gate to historical counterfactuals. "What if the Mayans discovered bronze?" It's not an outrageous idea. They had a rudimentary version of the number 0, almost a millennium ahead of Europe. It makes you wonder, when the book says "Bronze Age cultures are almost never found as contemporaries of more advanced civilizations" what's the sample size?

Believability seems married, in D&D, to an unspoken racial essentialism. A "believable" world is one where you have fantasy-Europe and fantasy-Asia and fantasy-Africa, and never the twain shall meet. Your viking-inspired culture can't have blowguns because blowguns aren't European enough. It suggests a view of history where our world has taken the form it has due to the inevitable unfolding of immutable natural law.

With all due respect to Marx, though history may indeed largely be driven by material circumstances, chaos theory counts as material. "For want of a nail" isn't just a poetic truism. A first principle of fantasy worldbuilding should be to identify the nails, and what happens if they're wanting.

I mean, a "western" culture that also happens to practice martial arts as a monastic discipline or a samurai wielding a pole axe don't even come close to violating the laws of physics. So why do the rules discourage them in worlds where you can violate the laws of physics?

Of course, that's a lot to pit on an optional rpg supplement that mainly exists to make TSR's existing customers into unwitting playtesters for their new edition, but sometimes with these posts I just follow where my train of thought takes me (especially when the book itself is as resolutely generic as this one).

Ukss Contribution: Oh no, there is so little setting stuff here that it's almost impossible to choose. Maybe on some asteroid the residents practice "Martial Arts Style B" (actually, despite this being a joke, the idea of a culture with a martial arts tradition, but no imagination is beginning to intrigue me).

To save myself from getting super weird, I'll go with something that's only implied to exist by a literal reading of the book's rules. One of the new innovations was the weapon mastery system, where single-class fighters could go beyond mere weapon specialization and achieve the ranks of master or grand-master. One of the weapons listed in this book is the "combined weapon" known as the sword-pistol.

Logically, then, there must be Grand-Masters of the Sword-Pistol.

Technically, that's the coolest thing about Final Fantasy VIII, but I'll take it.