Tuesday, December 31, 2019

(M: tAs) Book of Chantries

EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that I let myself fall a little too deeply into Mage nerdery here, and I forgot that not everyone knows what a "Chantry" is. It's basically like a safehouse for Mages - a combination library, laboratory, fortress, and crash-pad and the basic unit of local government. The weakest chantries are only that, but starting at the mid-level, most of them also house gateways to alternate worlds, usually embodying the ideals of the mages who created it, but always allowing them to use magic without fear of paradox. A conveniently PC-sized group of 3-5 mages is called a "cabal" and chantries usually act as the home base for 3-4 of them. The Technocracy has the same organization but their chantries are called "constructs" and their cabals are called "amalgams."

Whoa, this book is a complicated mess. But the good kind of mess, like an old attic filled with forgotten treasures (and only a little bit of rat shit).

As someone who came into Mage: the Ascension late, it was kind of surreal reading it. I'd heard of Doissetep. I'd heard of Null-B. I'd heard of Samuel Haight. But by the time I got on the scene, these were past-tense sorts of references. They were names from the mists of history. The revised-era books would name-drop them, but kind of take it for granted that you knew what they were and why it was tragic (and/or fitting) that they were destroyed.

I actually used Porthos in a game, once. I'd gathered that he was a powerful master mage who boldly defied paradox and used his powers without fear of the Technocracy or of static reality . . . and that turned out to be true. What I didn't know was that he was also a greasy creep who was constantly getting his underlings killed thanks to his own recklessness. It's a little like talking to someone who went to high school with your parents and discovering that they were huge assholes.

RIP, Porthos the Fabulous. My mental image of your character was grounded in ignorance.

Aside from answering some of my long-burning questions about Mage canon, the main thing this book accomplished was to thoroughly muddy the waters of the Ascension war. I'm actually a little concerned about how little this book seems to realize that most of the setting's ethical coherence is flying straight out the window here.

"The Technocracy's Constructs are the twisted counterparts of the Traditions' Chantries" presumably because "misery is the common thread that links the diverse Constructs of the Technocracy?" Okay, fair enough, let's just take a look at one of the sample Tradition Chantries so we can get an idea about the baseline before we peer into the dark mirror.

Ah, here we are, the House of Helekar . . .

A terrifying graveyard realm, filled with serial killers and led by a guy who calls himself "The Grand Harvester of Souls . . ." Um . . .

But seriously, I have to stop joking around for a minute to point out that this location is powered from the lingering spiritual energies of the death camp at Dachau. That's two Mage books in a row that have made really tasteless Holocaust references. I get that the Progenitors are supposed to be villains and the Consanguinity of Eternal Joy are supposed to be corrupt renegades, but maybe it wouldn't have hurt anything for Mage to stay in its lane a bit more and not use the greatest horrors of the 20th century as punchlines in its silly urban fantasy setting.

Okay, time out is over. Back to ragging on Mage for being less than the perfect rpg. . .

Even if we (rightfully) set Helekar aside as an outlier meant to act as the plot-hook for an "internal affairs"-style campaign, the more mainstream Tradition Chantries aren't a heck of a lot better. Doissetep has a guy who is enthralled by vampires and is described as "a manipulator and a killer [who] has never wavered from the Path of Ascension" and another who has been performing lethal human experimentation for more than a century and who has moved on to trying to perfect mind control. This is in addition to their leader, who it's already been established is just constantly losing apprentices because he performs dangerous magic while sleepwalking.

Then again, there's also the awesome African lady who used magic to help win the Haitian revolution, had an instrumental hand in the founding of Vodun, helped the Underground Railroad, and may or may not be the Loa known as the Rainbow Serpent (her name is Aida Wedo, and I can't figure out if that's something someone can just be named or if '93 White Wolf just got sloppy or if it's an intentional ambiguity).

Then again again, she's also part of a cabal of mages that is seeking to take over Doissetep through leveraging their role as the chantry's police to make underhanded alliances that they have no intention of keeping and which will wind up weaponizing the intelligence they've gathered from their from their friendly contacts among the Nephandi and the Technocracy.

When combined with the fact that half the Nephandi in this book are compelled to serve against their will and most of the described Technocrats have serious reservations about he organization's activities, I get the impression that Mage can't quite decide whether it wants to be a game about multicultural rebels fighting the power or whether it wants to present a world where everyone is compromised, but also everyone kind of has a point and it's all very interesting to debate about.

What's funny, though, is that Book of Chantries is either the sixth or the third book released for Mage (the wiki implies it's the sixth, but it really feels like the third) and already the World of Darkness' parody of White Wolf studios (Pentex subsidiary "Black Dog") has released a game called "Warlock: the Pretension". So even though the game has only been out for about 5 months by now, it already has that reputation. Knowing a little something about where Mage is going to end up, I think this jab is both harsh and premature, but I guess the fandom back then didn't have anything to compare it to.

Still, when I set aside the assholes in the Traditions and the angst in their enemies as a case of muddled gothic punk pessimism, I think the defining sin of the Technocracy is supposed to be their obsession with hierarchy. The only problem with this is that every time we see the Traditions, they have hierarchies that are just as inflexible and almost as demeaning. The two groups even use roughly analogous words to describe their organizations - construct vs chantry, amalgam vs cabal, administrator vs high priest, etc. The thematic aims of the Traditions as a fictional organization become a bit hard to discern when it's run by unassailable masters that are near-uniformly hundreds of years old and all of the young mages are destined to stand around twiddling their thumbs waiting for them to die.

Mage, revised gets a lot of flak for blowing up the setting, and the way White Wolf liked to try and "fix" canon by releasing metaplot updates as part of the new books certainly didn't do it any favors, but reading this book made me think that the change was a long time coming. It has so many things it wants to say about things like faith and power and the marketplace of ideas, but it also wants to be this free-wheeling urban fantasy game where anything can happen and the stakes are always kind of whimsical. Sooner or later something was bound to give. Ultimately, Revised decided it wanted to be the ideas game, and that came with a cost.

But circling back around to urban fantasy, The Book of Chantries does some weird things to the World of Darkness. Technically, the idea of Horizon Realms was in the Mage corebook, so nothing here is new, precisely, but it hadn't hit home until now exactly how routine the Realms were meant to feel.

Doissetep is a realm with native trolls and storm giants, where the snakes can control gravity and the spiders weave webs of static electricity. Hundreds of people live there, an army in service to the Traditions. They patrol the borders of the land in magical cloudships.

And there's, like, this shop in Spain where if you go into the back room it will take you right there.

In a way, it's a very bold bit of world-building. It's not something I've seen either before or since - a modern setting with a hundred different Narnias, a whole galaxy of closets and phone booths and sewer grates that will lead you to faerie wonderlands and dystopian sci-fi prisons and everything in between. It sort of leaves the World of Darkness far in the dust, but honestly, it's better. If I ever decide to actually make the high-action, Exalted-inspired version of Mage I brainstormed a few years ago (Ascension X), that might be a neat detail. Expand it so that the Horizon Realms take the place of Avatars. Every human being secretly has a world inside them, born from the highest aspirations of their heart. Mages are those who have learned to sometimes obey those worlds' natural laws instead of their own.

But in leaving the genre and theme of the World of Darkness behind, Horizon Realms also challenge Mage to fully embrace fantasy and stop making magic such a pain in the ass. There's a bunch of places in the world where you can cut loose and act like a real fantasy wizard, so why is it that even the 200 year old liberation goddess lady is only throwing around six dice for spells? The rules make it feel like Mage: the Ascension is afraid of magic, and that would almost be forgivable if the setting didn't also have this huge high-magic element.

Let's see, miscellaneous stuff. This book is fairly good about representation in terms of quantity, but quality needs a little work. All the Native American mages are Dreamspeakers, even the Mayans, which doesn't quite feel right to me. And it has a very respectable number of Asian characters (some of whom aren't even in the Akashic Brotherhood - one's a Celestial Chorister!), but it insists on using the adjective "oriental," even when it needs to be more specific than "Asian." Just say the people from Tibet are Tibetan, geez. There's a gay character, but he's described as having "a taste" (quotes in the original) for men, which is just kind of  gross. Plus he's a Hollow One, which is even grosser (I kid because this group is so obviously a stand-in for White Wolf's fans - they're the one that own the "Vampire: the Hidden" and "Lycanthrope: the Rapture" books).

Also, there's a bit of errata at the end. Most of it has long since fallen into irrelevance, but one bit caught my eye - apparently they'd originally meant to include a paragraph in the Sons of Ether description that indicated that women were allowed to join and that the organization was facing pressure to change its sexist name. This is interesting to me because this isn't the last time this piece of information will come up. In Mage: 20th Anniversary Edition, they finally bite the bullet and change it to the Society of Ether.

I always thought that was something that was introduced by canon creep. Nobody blinked at the gender exclusionary name when 1st edition came out, but then over time attitudes changes, so they incorporated the real-world controversy into the metaplot. But no, like the potential defection of the Void Engineers, this was part of the game since the beginning, which just winds up making it totally fucking baffling. Even setting aside gender politics, "The Society of Ether" is the aesthetically and descriptively better name. If you were aware of the problem from the start, why go with the inferior choice? If you wanted it to indicate that the Etherites struggled with sexism, why go out of your way to say they're inclusive?

Finally, Sam Haight. By my era of Mage, he was already an in-joke. "Sam Haight got turned into an ashtray," the book would hint mysteriously, quite clearly chuckling at itself. I gathered that he was an annoying, ill-conceived NPC, but I didn't know the details. So I'd roll my eyes, wonder briefly what the point of all this was, and then move on.

I know the details now. Suffice to say, I can't wait for someone to turn this asshole into an ashtray.

Here's the condensed version of what I learned here (keeping in mind, that much of it is a second-hand summary of events from at least two different Werewolf and/or Vampire adventures). Sam Haight was originally werewolf-kin. He carried the gene, but he couldn't change. This made him bitter, so he ran away from home and became a big game hunter. While chasing ever-deadlier prey, he discovered vampires. He killed one, drank its blood, and became just enough of a ghoul to learn Tremere blood sorcery. Using that sorcery, he either found or developed a ritual that would allow him to become a werewolf by killing and skinning werewolves. He did that, made some enemies, fought one of them, nearly died, and in the process learned to use mage-style Sphere magic.


I think I see what they were trying to go for here. I think they wanted an arch-villain, capable of doing wicked deeds that would be relevant to any or all of the major supernatural types. Sort of like the World of Darkness' answer to Thanos - a threat you're definitely going to need all hands on deck to beat.

There are two main flaws in that plan - the first is that it's absolutely reckless to suggest, in canon, that it's possible to combine supernatural templates. I've noticed that this early White Wolf stuff is less crossover-shy than some of the later books, but damn. Forget what it does to balance, thematically it's just a mess.

The other flaw, possibly the more fatal of the two, is that Sam Haight isn't nearly charismatic enough to pull this off. The plot of his showcase adventure here in The Book of Chantries is that there's this magical tree that grows fruit with the power to create new Nodes (sources of raw magical energy). Sam pops in, murders a couple of people, steals the enchanted heart of the tree, and then vanishes. Not only is this an adventure where the PCs are assumed to be completely useless (not only does it make no provision for them thwarting this villainous scheme, logically they can't be allowed to do so, because that would fundamentally alter the nature of the setting), but Sam himself is arrogant, petulant, humorless, and forgettable. I mean, seriously, if you're going to toss an uber-villain into the mix, at least give him a kick-ass sword or something.

So, that's one lingering mystery from my adolescence solved. I just hope this guy doesn't get much worse before his inevitable banishment to the memory hole.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of cool stuff here. My favorite thing was the swahbuckling Verbena abolitionist who was trying to free the human-animal hybrids in a Progenitor plantation world. Gross antebellum imagery aside, this place was called, in-character, Moreauvia. You know, after The Island of Doctor Moreau, the science fiction novel about an isolated community where a mad scientist creates human-animal hybrids and it famously ends well for all involved.

The thing I liked best about Emily Harden is that in her free time, when she's not venturing to alternate dimensions and rescuing the locals, she writes a popular series of fantasy novels about her own adventures.

I'm a little leery of adding an NPC that falls so cleanly into a PC niche, but that detail is simply too awesome to pass up.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

(WH40K - RT)Into the Storm

How much digital ink do I really need to spill on Into the Storm? It's an expansion to the Rogue Trader core book. Everything here could have gone into the core, were they inclined to make it 600 pages long, but since only Exalted and Chuubo's have that kind of hubris, the material wound up in a supplement instead. In theory, there's not much else to say . . .

I mean, some of the choices are a little questionable. I can't say with certainty that this book was originally 250 pages that got cut from the core and repackaged as a supplement, but if it were, some of the cuts were definitely justified by more than just length. The extra Origin Path options, by adding xp costs to some of your choices, make it possible to naively go through the expanded Origin Path and wind up with an illegal character. The only way to avoid it is to keep careful track of your character creation resources, thereby undermining one of the primary benefits of a life path system.

Alternate career ranks are an interesting idea, and they can potentially add some unique flavor to your characters, but the rules on how and when to use them are a little confusing. They also have the potential to mess up your general character advancement, not just in terms of balance, but by doing things like cutting off access to vital prerequisite talents. And finally, the abilities offered by the alternate ranks are rarely distinct enough to make much of a difference. Getting a separate menu of things you can buy at a particular character level that largely overlaps with your default class, but which may have a few rare talents available instead of the base class's more powerful abilities doesn't seem all that different than just picking up a couple of rare talents as elite advances, outside your normal progression. Though admittedly, this is a weakness in Rogue Trader's advancement system overall. It's largely point buy, and the main function of classes is to tell you what you can't purchase.

Also . . . orks are here. I am so fucking ambivalent about these guys. I like that Into the Storm gives rules for playing xenos characters. You won't hear one word of negativity from me regarding the Kroot. The Kroot are great, though I . . . question the book's assertion that because their genders don't map precisely to "male" and "female" that means that they can neither seduce nor be seduced by a human. Either the FFG people have never been on the internet or they've been on the internet a little too much and are trying to futilely stem the tide of Kroot rule 34 roleplaying we all know is inevitable (oh, btw, it exists, it's off-putting, and I'm not sure who I was trying to impress by searching for it).

Maybe it's the medium clouding things for me, but the main cultural distinction of WH40K orks seems to be their refusal to use the letter "c." You know, the pointless one we stole from the French and whose primary purpose seems to be to distinguish words with Latinate roots from those with Anglo-Saxon roots. So when the book talks about orc "Kraftsamnship" all it really says to me is that orks never fully reconciled with the Norman invasion of England and thus their spelling of words like "craft" and "chaos" must derive from a branch of the language that split off somewhere in the 11th or 12th century (although, on a related note, the ork spelling of "klan" is not only genuinely upsetting to me as an American, it's also etymologically inauthentic, seeing as how that word entered English through Roman influence on the Gaelic tongue . . . sounds a little like some of that ork genetic knowledge got corrupted by folk etymologies.)

Oh, sorry, I guess I got caught up in a bit. Point is that British accent snobbery means less than nothing to me. Henry Higgins was able to get away with it because he was played by Rex Harrison, but WH40K has not earned that kind of lifetime pass.

I'm not a total curmudgeon. I get why orks are supposed to be funny. Stripped of the obnoxious classism of their presentation, there's something inherently funny about a group that openly embraces the game's violent, macho excess. In the grim, dark future of the 41st millennium, there is only WAAAGH! That's funny. Baroque, over-engineered, smog-belching killing machines, with lots of pointless extra blades and random explosions . . . those are funny. The thing I was incorrectly imagining bomb squigs to be (tiny, grenade-sized mini-orks strapped to a grenade and told to run at the enemy) . . . that was funny.

The problem with orks, however, is something I like to call "the tinker gnome problem." Someone, somewhere was under the mistaken impression that it would ruin the joke if they were allowed to know things.

It's real tricky to get at exactly why this is a problem. The wacky inventor decapitates themself when they try out their coal-fired toothbrush. That's a grotesque, but amusing slapstick image. But it would be a mistake to think that the joke is "the inventor didn't understand the physical principles of combustion." Wile E Coyote probably is a super-genius. Like, if you looked at his math with the rocket boots, it would probably check out. The joke is about the aesthetics and purpose of the technology. Wile E Coyote and the tinker gnomes and the Orks are funny because they want rocket boots and steam-powered toothbrushes and ridiculously giant handguns, and they never realize that those are ludicrous things to want. They have knowledge without restraint.

But there's this misguided idea that because they are comedic characters, they must be denied the dignity of true knowledge. The tinker gnomes' inventions don't work. The orks' inventions shouldn't work, but they're held together with a psychic energy field and in any event they're cobbled together from bits and pieces of mysterious ancient forerunner technology that they subconsciously retrieve from the genetically-encoded memories inside the symbiotic fungus that powers their regenerative and reproductive abilities.

And all that so you can avoid having ork schools and ork mines and ork factories and have a species that is devoted to ONLY WAAAGH! In the end, though, it's kind of a wasted effort because there has to be an implied ork logistics chain, even granting the universe has given them special powers to skip over the complicated stuff. Where are the millions and millions of tiny screws coming from? If they are a true threat to the Imperium, which has billions of soldiers, then they are are going to need nearly endless numbers of tiny screws. Do they have an auto-lathe that churns them out? Are there ork machinists? Slavery of other species can explain some of it, but how do they get to be strong enough to take slaves? They need starships to conquer planets and industry to get starships, so where does it begin?

It's a long way to go just to have a faction that is artlessly ported over from a fantasy rpg with a minimum of modifications. At some point during the second or third paragraph you spend justifying why a magic space fungus allows your sci-fi creatures to live according to trope logic, it stops being funny. Just give them a culture already.

Just to be clear, I'm not anti-Ork. It's just, whatever genre they're supposed to be, I'm not feeling it for Rogue Trader.

And there goes my ambition to have a short, simple post for an uncomplicated book. I really loved the new information about starship crews. It's packed with new setting detail, PC hooks, and adventure ideas. Just an absolutely vein of rpg value.  The expanded endeavor system is an exciting idea. Meta-endeavors that do for your campaign what regular endeavors do for adventures. Can you get the PCs to buy in to the idea that they choose the plot? Can they even be trusted with that much power. Finally, WH40K's religion continues to be confusing. Why can things be "holy"? Did Saint Drusus have any ideals other than "conquer shit?" Does the Cult of the Omnissiah just pick technologies at random to be blasphemous?

Anyway, this is kind of an indispensable book for me as a Rogue Trader GM. I'm glad I was able to buy it before the price exploded.

Ukss Contribution: I've been remiss with my WH40K books so far. I've been picking Ukss entries based on some ideal of generic applicability, and while I've not yet picked something I regret, it is a little weaselly of me to consciously avoid "overly 40K" setting elements. So I'm going to make a vow - every third book or so in this series, I'm going to be very deliberate about picking something that is unmistakably and distinctively (if not uniquely) "40K."

This time? Chain blades. They're swords that have a chainsaw instead of a blade. If this was at all a practical idea, it would have been used by a real military by now, but there is a certain thrill I get from the terrifying excess (also, it greatly confounds the "why orks" question - none of their "it can't possibly work, but it does" technology is more ridiculous than this).

It's cheating a bit to pick this particular item at this particular time, because Into the Storm only has modified chain blades (like a chain blade mounted around the edge of a discus - yipe!), but since one of those modifications is removing the safety guard, I feel like it's fine. I consider it nothing more than correcting an oversight from the core book.

PS: To all of you language nerds who noticed that I mangled the history of the letter "C," I hear you. I read the wikipedia article about it in the middle of composing this post, and on a purely factual level, I'm guilty of some shocking inaccuracies.

Nevertheless, this roast was a long time coming and I regret nothing. "I before E," my ass!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

(M:tAs) Progenitors

I'm beginning to think that White Wolf may have had a villain problem. First Guide to the Sabbat and now this (well, okay, first this and then Guide to the Sabbat, but my feelings aren't bound by the linear nature of time). Ostensibly, the World of Darkness games are about playing as monsters and then discovering that there can be humanity and nuance even in the things that frighten us. And yet, for a series that is normally about finding the space between black and white, it sure seems weird that each supernatural type has an antagonist faction that is ridiculously, recklessly dark. Vampires struggle with the beast inside them, trying desperately to retain some shred of their lost humanity . . . except the Sabbat, who must drink all the blood. Werewolves must learn to balance their primal fury with the higher aspirations of their reason and seek a spiritual connection to the Earth that uplifts and redeems their bestial natures . . . except for the Black Spiral Dancers, who just want to destroy everything.

But, ironically, the group that is farthest away from traditional monsters, who didn't even really need the White Wolf treatment to be sympathetic, somehow manages to have the worst villains of all. At one point, one of the Progenitors, in-character, praises Nazi concentration camps for allowing them to perform unethical human experimentation, and the only reason I didn't throw the book away in disgust is because the narrator of the fiction was as horrified as I was.

What the fuck is even going on here? The Progenitors aren't one of those nihilist villains that wants to unmake all of existence, but you could be forgiven for thinking they are, based on reading this book. It asks us to imagine every shitty thing about modern medicine, agriculture, and genetic science is not merely a careless side-effect, ignored by a callous ruling class, but a product of deliberate malice. The Progenitors have tainted your fast-food hamburgers with experimental mind-control drugs, but they were temporarily thwarted by those wily Verbena and their subversive veganism - better develop a whole new range of toxic pesticides to dull the minds of the Masses and kill within them the spark of magic.

The position that the Technocracy is meant to embody the evils of capitalism becomes much stronger with this book, but only in a way that makes capitalism itself unrecognizable. The Progenitors aren't really seeking profit, they're just doing incredibly petty shit because it makes people miserable. You know how the media can foster a destructively negative body image in young women? It's because the Progenitors periodically seed pop culture with genetically-engineered super-women made from the cloned cells of Helen of Troy.

I honestly don't even know what to do with this information. Is the book feminist because it acknowledges that toxic misogyny is one of society's great evils? Or does it undermine feminism by giving a complex problem a simple (some might even say trite) origin?

The answer, of course, is "yes."

All-in-all, it's a very 90s style of paranoia. The CDC, the FDA, the insurance companies, even your local corner drug dealer, they've all been taken over by this conspiracy, man. They put chemicals in your food, your medicine, your cigarettes (what, you thought they caused cancer "naturally.") that are specifically designed to make you sick, to keep you dependent on the phony "cures" they sell you at ruinous mark-ups and ensure that you're always too afraid, too weak, and too financially insecure to oppose the government.

There's something there, sure. You could probably thread the needle and make a very sinister organization that did not quite devolve into Captain Planet-style motiveless villains. Progenitors doesn't quite manage it, but it's possible. It's just that sitting here in the 21st century, the whole thing has a very reactionary vibe to it. Not necessarily in its intent, but definitely in its aesthetics. "You can't trust power" segues very seamlessly into "you can't trust expertise." And it would be irresponsible in America to ignore the way that "preference for local control" was often a thinly-veiled disguise for "massive resistance to civil rights."

It's the anarchist's dilemma, really. Ideally people should be responsible both to and for themselves. Centralized authority can't possibly understand all the details and nuances of your particular situation, and thus any rules it makes must, on some level, be better suited to the interests of lawmakers than to your own. And yet, it is often the very indifference of that central authority that works to keep you honest. They don't care about your situation, sure, but they also don't care about your excuses. And that may well protect you from a myriad of petty tyrannies. It is often only your neighbors that care enough to oppress you.

So what's the balance? How do you reconcile the dispassionate justice of distant oversight with the flexible, empathetic humanity of local control? Hell if I know. All I really know is that I have absolutely zero interest in learning about the Technocracy's role in Ruby Ridge.

Progenitors also adds a new wrinkle to the debate about whether Mage: the Ascension is anti-science. It is weirdly ambivalent about the birth control pill. The book refuses to come down definitively over who invented it, but it offers two possibilities. It was either the Cult of Ecstacy, in which case it was "to allow Sleepers greater access to their sexuality." Or it was the Progenitors, who intended to "use these compounds to detect and destroy nonhumans born into the human population."

It's not entirely supported by canon (though it can be hard to tell, with this book's unreliable narrator), but one way to look at it is that the Technocracy falsely takes credit for science. They invent some things, but mostly just those that impoverish, pollute, and oppress. The technology that liberates was either invented by the Traditions or by the Sleepers themselves. The Technocracy was never about science, but about the nightmare of science.

I don't entirely buy it, because the game I remember was often wildly inconsistent on this point. Ultimately, science isn't just an aesthetic, or even a body of knowledge, it's an aspiration - a rigorous dedication to the pursuit of truth through reason and empirical observation. Even to the degree that the Traditions contribute to science through things like inventing birth control pills, they don't really embrace those ideals. The Technocracy doesn't really come close either, what with its deeply counterfactual worldview, but it does occasionally talk a good game. It's tricky - you can't call it "anti-science," because the "science" it is against is barely recognizable, but you can't call it "pro-science" for exactly the same reason.

Although Mage is going to get much deeper into this particular set of weeds before all is said and done. As of this book, the Progenitors are still using spells, the introductory fiction describes their practices in-character as "magic," they can use drugs to shapeshift, and they're prone to breeding genetically-engineered dragon-monsters. It's entirely consistent with the last book, where they were transforming people into magic spiders, but it's also a long way from where they're going to end up.

I can't say that I care much for this vision of the Technocracy, but it's still early in the game's lifespan, so there's time enough to it to evolve into something a bit more comfortable.

Ukss Contribution: Primessence, a terrifying drug that transforms a victim's blood into a glowing magical ooze that mages can use to power their spells. It's a pretty neat image, even if it is evil as hell.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

(M:tAs) Loom of Fate

Loom of Fate quickly and decisively validates my decision to read all these Mage: the Ascension books from the beginning. It's the sort of thing that could not, would not, and indeed probably should not have been made later on in the game's lifespan. It more or less drives a bulldozer through future canon in service to a barely-coherent damsel-in-distress plot that nonetheless delivers an occasional flash of the brilliance this game is capable of.

Here we get a minor hint that the Technocracy is associated with European colonialism, when they talk about the Void Engineers' (nee Void Seekers) role in founding San Francisco . . . by magically binding Cob, the invisible magical spider that mitigates earthquakes.

Honestly, it's a pretty perfunctory critique of colonialism. The European settlement of the Americans and their accompanying Technocracy hangers-on aren't described as good, but the reasons given for why it was bad betrayed a certain 90s cluelessness. It's almost on point when it reveals that Francis Drake angered the spirits when he claimed the land for Britain, but it was only the natives who suffered in the subsequent earthquake. That got me to sit up and take notice. "Whoa, are they actually satirizing Europe," I thought. But then I read the next paragraph:
Before Europeans arrived, Native Americans accepted magick as a natural part of reality. They had only slightly bound the Wylderness through the natural process of human nature attempting to impose order and structure on the unknowable. The Europeans, under the fledgling Technocracy, changed all that.
And scene on our Ohlone friends. They play no further role in either the adventure or Mage's canon history. I suppose technically, it's an improvement over the way these things were handled in the past. Bless their hearts, the mage writers were trying. "Mage" is the name of the game and thus magic is good. The Ohlone embraced magic and therefor they are good. But it's a form of acceptance that comes off as at least a little bit condescending. It's nice that you're on the side of the Native Americans, but they're more interesting as people than they are as rhetorical stand-ins for your game's philosophical thesis. You couldn't even be bothered to learn their real name. I had to look it up.

I don't want to be too ungenerous, though. I was but a wee child when this book came out, so I don't remember 1993, but I do remember 2003, and learning about non-European history wasn't exactly trivial. If the native culture you were looking up wasn't indigenous to the exact area you happened to be in, it's likely that your local libraries and book stores wouldn't have any specific information. So, it would be unkind of me to judge them by the ten seconds of effort it took me to find this out. Still, they probably should have gotten it done.

Getting back to the adventure, Loom of Fate revolves around the impending death of Cob, the order-spinning spider spirit. Because San Francisco was such a free-spirited place, it became rich in the sort of chaotic Wyld Energy that is anathema to a creature like Cob. It's slowly poisoning him, and if nothing is done soon, he'll die and then the San Francisco earthquakes will get really bad.

Enter Norna Weaver. Yes, that's her name.The Scion, 1st Edition-level of on-the-nose naming makes me think that this adventure might almost work in a Scion game.

She has a destiny, see. Norna has an incredible affinity for the magic of chance and fate, which makes Ms Weaver the perfect candidate to be transformed into a new pattern spider, to replace Cob after he dies.

Ultimately, the problem with this adventure is that it is a decent pitch for a YA novel and a terrible one for an rpg. Every problem your characters will have during the course of this story ties directly back into the fact that Norna Weaver is useless baggage with no agency, and you're constantly having to rescue her from the Technocracy.

Nearly every scene in the first two acts of this book has some variant of the note, "If Norna is not with the characters, she gets kidnapped off-screen." Sure, it makes a certain amount of sense - the conflict in the story comes from the fact that dangerous people want to capture this innocent naif, but nothing in the text indicates why she'd be worth the effort.

I mean, there's generic humanitarian sentiment. She's a young mage, doesn't really understand her powers, has a whole life of potential in front of her. And being turned into a pattern spider by the Technocracy (yeah, they use magic to make people demigods . . . apparently) sounds unpleasant at best, and at worst represents a sort of spiritual death. Saving her is a kindness.

It's just that the only way this adventure becomes fun is if the players fall in love with Norna as an NPC. It sometimes happens. The players latch on to some key trait of a background character and adopt them as a party mascot and unofficial member of the team. Then you could make a really memorable story by giving that character an arc. There's nothing players love more than helping Spunky the Goblin become chieftain of his clan.

The potential is there for Norna to reach this kind of place. A goth girl with uncontrollable luck powers is exactly the sort of semi-cute hard-luck-case that PCs love to collect. Yet the book doesn't offer any sort of guidance on how to get your group there. Chalk it up to lack of experience. White Wolf hadn't been doing this sort of thing for long, and thus, while it's obvious to us now that you need to spend at least a few sessions trying to ingratiate Norna to the group, back then it might have seemed sufficient to just throw all the plot elements together and hope for the best.

But the single weirdest thing about this book, whether you wind up liking Norna or not, is that it's not at all clear whether it's better to succeed or fail at the central mission. There's even a chart that lists potential results if you try to convince her to go along with the Technocracy and voluntarily submit to spider-fication. "Become a magical spider or San Francisco drops into the sea" is an interesting dilemma, but it feels off to pose the age-old ethical question of whether the safety of a large group of people is worth sacrificing the dignity of a single innocent and then not present a heroic third option where the PCs quest for another way to stop the earthquakes. Perhaps they could have found some sort of advanced technological device, although that raises the question of who in the setting could possibly build such a thing.

(Sorry, I just can't get over how the Technocracy's solution to the problem of coastal earthquakes is to magically transform a teenager into a spider god).

In the end, nothing you do amounts to very much. If Norna goes through with the procedure, the resulting pattern spider is effective, but not under the Technocracy's control. She's better able to cope with Wyld energies than her predecessor and San Francisco becomes a more magical place. If she doesn't transform . . . there's no immediate disaster because it turns out that there's a nearby group of werewolves who have their own earthquake-mitigating spirit allies. It's not a total victory, because your redundant back-up system is no longer online, and on the werewolf side of the story, they're less interested in protecting San Francisco than ensuring the continuing slumber of a creature they call "Cataclysm," but either way not much changes about the status quo.

Maybe the Werewolf: the Apocalypse supplement Caerns: Places of Power (helpfully referenced at the end of the adventure) would shed light on what's going on, but I'm not about to track down a 25-year-old book for an entirely different game just so I can find out (or am I . . . it's the sort of thing I tend to do . . . no, no, maybe it's okay for some things to remain a mystery).

Anyway, this book is a weird, weird artifact of a version of Mage: the Ascension that I barely recognize. I can't say that it's definitively worse (say what you will about the spider-summoning Technocracy, but at least they engage honestly with the metaphysics of the setting), but it's not what I was expecting. It's actually kind of wonderful to be able to see an old game through new eyes.

Ukss Contribution: Don't fret, Mage fans, the Technocracy hasn't completely abandoned its sci-fi aesthetics and embraced occultism. They upgraded Cob with cybernetic implants. Maybe I was wrong about the Technocracy's fans embracing it because it was the setting's only standard-bearer for the naturalist worldview. Maybe it's because they were the sort of wild visionaries who could look at a lesser spider god, living embodiment of the cosmic principle of order, and think, "you know what that thing needs? Cybernetics!"

I'm not sure how it will manifest exactly. I don't want to port over Cob, directly, because one spider god is more than sufficient, but the technological augmentation of the divine is exactly the sort of heady, borderline-nonsense idea that makes magic feel magical to me.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

(WK40K - RT) Stars of Inequity

I may have to rethink my thesis on Warhammer 40k. Stars of Inequity wasn't satirical in the slightest. There are comic-relief orks who are "funny" in a kind of insufferable way, but mostly it plays Rogue Trader's "dark Star Trek" completely straight.

It's the book's best quality, really. The bulk of its page-count is taken up by a variety of useful subsystems and GM advice. We get rules for randomly generating star systems and a colony-managing minigame. And though they're unfit for their ostensible purpose, the random planetside adventure tables nonetheless contain a lot of good story ideas (ultimately, their flaw is merely that the largest of them contain only 10 entries, which means they needed to be a lot more abstract).

Overall, then, Stars of Inequity is a nifty little book that's very useful for Rogue Trader GMs and moderately inspiring even if you're interested in other sci-fi rpgs.

It also has the unfortunate side effect of demonstrating that the WH40K universe cannot support the weight of its sci-fi premise. Or, to be more precise, it could, if it didn't insist on being so WH40K about everything.

The basic setup of the game is that it's roughly 40,000 years in the future. Humanity has spread to the stars . . . at least twice. After an initial wave of colonization put human settlements across nearly half the galaxy, there was a dark age where interstellar communication fell apart and the old order atomized into a million different worlds. Then, after about 5,000 years of that, a new empire arose which united most of the human planets, but still, after 10,000 years, has not yet reached the extent of the prior age.

One way it does this is by sending heavily-armed capitalists into its border regions to economically exploit isolated human worlds and foster an imperialist relationship of dependency in advance of an all-out military conquest (which the traders may decide to effect themselves, seeing as how they're so heavily armed).

So far so good. Where it loses me is when I think about the fact that we, in the modern day, are about as far away from the people of WH40K as we are from the neanderthals. And in-setting, the rogue traders entering the Koronus sector are as far removed from the people they're meeting as we are from the earliest recorded writing . . . times 3.

When you think about those kind of time scales, you start to realize that WH40K is really underselling its universe. Even if a human planet completely lost all technology when the first galactic civilization collapsed, they would have enough time to rebuild all of it from scratch. And that's to say nothing of the planets that didn't lose all their tech.

Which means that going into the Koronus Expanse, an explorer could potentially find anything. There should be new human subspecies, separated from Homo Sapiens by millennia of evolution. Human societies that have a cultural history 100% divorced from Earth, and thus are as alien as any xenos. Interstellar federations more technologically advanced than the Imperium. And, potentially, societies that are all of the above.

Plus, there are true aliens, psychic mutants, and your FTL drive works by taking a shortcut through Hell.

Given all that, it would be nice if we could get an objective description of literally fucking anything.

Obviously, WH40K has this thing, where the unreliable narration is an indelible part of its brand, and there are times when I can respect that, but it has the annoying tendency to make the limitless sci-fi potential of its fundamental premise into something bland and predictable. Oh, you've discovered another human planet, thousands of years diverged from your culture? What's it going to be, a huddling of poor, benighted souls in desperate need of the light of the Emperor's guidance? Or perhaps a seething hive of degenerate heresy, begging to be cleansed by a holy crusade? Maybe we could put a pin in both those ideas and just start off with a description of what their clothes look like?

No? Oh, fine, have it your way.

Don't get me wrong, I love Rogue Trader. It's a game of space pirates flying around uncharted regions in giant Gothic cathedrals loaded with WMDs and given a literal license to do whatever the fuck they want so long as it turns a profit. As an rpg uber-geek, I adore games that get right down to the bedrock of what this hobby is all about.  There are just times I wish it wasn't always the way it was.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of this book steers you towards the well-trodden paths of "typical" WH40K stories. That's not a problem, per se, because it's a GM reference book, and you kind of want those to tell you what the game's "supposed" to be like. It does, however, mean that if I took the real best element, Corsair Captain Jalthas Mettiere, the sample antagonist who is, strangely enough, a stock heroic type - the dashing pirate with a code of honor - it would just wind up being really generic out of context.

So I'm going to pick something incidental from one of the book's too-short "other xenos" sections, the orbiting crystal cities of the Dominion of Fhjor. What the hell is a Dominon of Fhjor? Hell if I know, that's the first and last time they're mentioned, but they have orbital cities made of crystal, so they must be pretty cool.

Monday, December 16, 2019

(M: tAs) Digital Web

A major problem with the ubiquity of information in the present day is that you sometimes forget how to react to things naively. If you've got a question, you can just ask it. There's rarely a need to simply sit in bafflement and accept your ignorance. Confusion is simply the fire that drives the engine of research.

This impulse was a real impediment to enjoying Digital Web, a book about the magical internet written in 1993. When it claimed that addictive video games were a Technocracy plot to numb the minds of the Masses and destroy their imaginations, I had to wonder what exactly counted as an "addictive" game back then. Tetris, sure, but what else? So I dropped everything I was doing to look it up.

Turns out that '93 was a pretty good time for games. Right in the middle of the golden age of 16-bit. After Street Fighter II, but before Ultima Online. The same year Doom came out, and, I guess, shocked the normies. My own mental timeline was off because I didn't even get a SNES until, like '94 or '95.

And I'm way off topic, because that's what the internet does to you. You get the opportunity to be as deep and as detailed as you want to be, but the price is the constant threat of distraction.

It's something that Digital Web completely failed to understand about the internet, and as a result the book kind of winds up feeling like it's about nothing in particular.

Though, to be clear, I'm not counting it as a fault that rpg writers in the early 90s did not successfully chart the course of technological and cultural development decades in advance. I'm not an ogre. It's obvious that the White Wolf crew was pretty clued-in, for their day. They knew all about the BBSs and warned their readers about flame wars and system crashes (terms that needed to be put in a glossary back then). They subscribed to subversive magazines like Wired and Boing Boing.

The main flaw with Digital Web is not that it's completely out of touch with anything resembling the modern world. The main flaw with Digital Web is that a fantasy/horror supplement that was an archaeological deep dive into early 90s internet culture would be an absolutely amazing thing to have today, and this book is unfortunately not that either.

Obviously, there is no way the authors could have known that one day the sight of a pale face, sitting in darkness, illuminated only by the flickering light of a monochrome CRT monitor while they typed dangerous occult questions into a text-only message board would itself become a potent gothic-punk image. The internet was new to them, so they leaned into the flash.

It was disorienting at times. At one point, they described a wireless keyboard, a completely unremarkable item, and then followed up with "it uses Correspondence magick" and I was like, "oh, right." This wound up having the amusing side effect of making their descriptions of the Virtual Adepts' magical technology more closely resemble modern tech than White Wolf's later deliberate sci-fi predictions in Trinity.
. . . Also these "decks" are very portable. Often, an Adept's computer will be no bigger than a cellular phone or clipboard (for those who like decent-sized screens.)

Virtual Adept computer decks potentially have incredibly powerful multi-media systems. They recognize and respond to their user's voice commands and are capable of producing human-sounding speech patterns. Radio transmissions link these computers to networks, as if they all contained cellular phones. Some may have more than one cellular line, making them capable of connecting to more than one network at a time. Virtual Adepts have taken communication one step beyond phones. Their computers can receive television and radio transmissions, including signals from satellite stations. They may also be used as frequency scanners and all types of transceivers. Any type of machinery that responds to radio transmissions can be controlled by these systems. Adept systems may also receive e-mail with special anteroom programs that can operate the deck and answer the telephone while unattended . . .
Sure, but what's the battery life like?

Seriously, though, if they then imagined a world where more people had those things than running water, they might have gotten pretty close to the real 2019.

 Unfortunately, I didn't get much out of reading Digital Web aside from a smug feeling about living in the future (though, admittedly, that was pretty fun). Ultimately, the book failed to answer the question, "but what is this all for?" You can kind of use the Digital Web for what passed for super-effective hacking in 1993, but mostly it's just a playground. Mages create immersive VR realms in the magic internet because it's kind of cool to be able to live in your favorite Jules Verne novel. There's no sense of data getting put to work.

And that last part ties in well to the 1st core's big problem - a Technocracy that's more Borg than realistic threat. The parts of the Web they control are like something out of Tron (namecheck in the original) - all right-angles and neon. It made me want to scream, "no, you fools. The Technocracy is going to create digital spaces that feel just like your living room, and all your friends will be there. They'll be built by spying on you 24 hours a day and they'll exploit your good feelings to sell you shit."

But, again, the sorts of minds that were capable of seeing the threat of Big Data all the way back in '93 would have been wasted writing an rpg. They probably didn't even exist at all. If they had, maybe we'd have been able to prevent it.

Ukss Contribution - This book poses a unique problem. I don't really want Ukss to have an internet, but also this book isn't really about the internet in any recognizable sense. I could just choose an amusing fantasy detail, but that wouldn't feel entirely honest. It may just be best to make an environment capable of sustaining hacker tropes before Matrix (Shadowrun) forces my hand . . .

Okay, hold on, this is going to get pretty esoteric pretty fast. According to this book, the Digital Web occupies a unique place in the grand unified World of Darkness metaphysics. It exists within the Gauntlet (a barrier that separates the mundane world from the spirit world) nearby, but not directly adjacent to the CyberRealm, which from what I gather is just the Werewolf: the Apocalypse magic internet, and the two realms are connected by a literal spiritual web created by The Weaver, the WoD's spider-goddess of absolute order.

What I'm picking from this book is The Weaver, but only in her information-network-reifying aspect. Ukss will not have an internet, but it will have an Astral Web, which does pretty much the same thing, but instead of using computers, it will use magical rituals that telepathically contact the mind of an ancient spider goddess.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Mage: The Ascension (1st Edition Core)

When I decided to buy every Mage: the Ascension book, it was on a whim. I had a chunk of money from an unexpected windfall and as a sort of "ha, ha, wouldn't it be wild if . . ." impulse, I pulled up a list of all the Mage books, added the ones I didn't already own to my Amazon shopping cart, and saw that the total was less than the money I had to spend (although not by enough, it turned out - it was touch and go for a couple of days), and I was like, "wait, could that really happen, a complete collection of a seminal rpg?" So I took the plunge.

I don't regret it, but it does mean that I am coming at this without a plan. I doubt it comes as much of a surprise that I have opinions about Mage, but I've got 50+ books to read in this series, so I've got to pace myself. I don't want to get to Mage: 20th Anniversary Edition and find myself forced to stitch together bits and pieces of posts I've made months before.

It also doesn't help that it's been a couple of years since I've read a Mage book. Not since my M20 book arrived in the mail, actually. So the natural thrust of this post - "let's go back to the beginning and gawp at what's different" - is proving a bit more difficult than I anticipated.

Like, did you know that the potential for the Void Engineers to defect to the Traditions was already there in the first M:tA book ever written? I always figured it was a fanon thing. A faction that was initially written to be villains becomes so popular with the fans that the books wind up teasing them joining up with the good guys. But no, it was a part of their deal right from the start.

Shit or get off the pot guys!

So there's a bit of fun to be had trying to figure out the things this book got wrong about the game Mage: The Ascension would eventually turn out to be. My vague memories complicate that goal, but don't completely obviate it.

I've got a list of stuff here that's pretty esoteric to non-fans, but potentially dynamite to nerds like me. The Technocracy created the Gauntlet! Technomancers (a word used more or less wherever later editions would use "Technocrat") use spells! That weird thing where some among the Traditions believe Copernicus moved the Earth in the heavens when he came up with the heliocentric model? Canon!

I should probably focus on more thematic stuff, though. How does the first edition of Mage support the various flame wars that have consumed the community over the years?

First, it's pretty squarely RBD/HAP. . .

Oh, there are possibly people reading this who haven't been squabbling over Mage rules for the last couple of decades. Short version - in Mage you run the risk of Paradox if your magic is too obvious and disruptive, but it's possible to avoid Paradox by shrouding your spells in coincidence. Instead of hitting someone with a lightning bolt, you divert electricity from a power outlet to shock someone, you find a twenty dollar bill in your pocket, who's to say anything happened at all - that sort of thing.

Simple enough, but over the years, there have been many arguments about what counts as a "coincidence." Arguments that have a whole raft of abbreviations associated with them. Suffice to say, there's a strict interpretation and a casual interpretation . . . and then there's Mage 1e's interpretation, which lies far beyond even the most generous definition of "coincidental."  Taking the text at face value, it seems to suggest that coincidental magic is something reality does for you. A mage will cast a spell using the coincidental techniques, and then they wait to see how it will work out. They don't even know beforehand. But more than just calling upon luck, this version of coincidental magic will hide behind illusions. If a regular person witnesses a coincidental spell, they will see whatever they need to see to make sense of the effect.

It's actually kind of a remarkable rules choice. Even 26 years after the fact, I feel successfully trolled.

The most interesting thing I've learned, however, is something I don't necessarily want to get too into just yet, if only because it's going to be relevant to almost every other book down the line, and I'm convinced there's going to be a better place to talk about it. Still, it's important to document, so here it goes - the Mage: the Ascension 1st Edition core book makes a critical world-building mistake that is going to haunt the whole series and is responsible for all of its most contentious and least productive arguments - it conflates the villainous organization, the Technocracy, with metaphysical materialism and the cosmological principle of stasis.

The reductionist way to look at is that it has a central conflict of science vs faith, but there's a little more to it than that (. . . most of the time, sometimes it's exactly that). Later, more sophisticated analysis is going to try and associate the Technocracy with the modernist project at its most thoughtlessly arrogant. Scientism instead of science. You know, the type of "classical liberalism" that is deeply illiberal. The context-free "facts and logic" that are driven almost entirely by rage and traditional prejudice.  The Technocracy eventually becomes identified with colonialism, not just of the land, not just of culture, but of the very underpinnings of reality itself.

Which is a pretty good hook for a villain, especially if your heroes are a multicultural alliance of radicals. But, here at least, none of that is really apparent. The Technocracy's flaw is that it's too rigorous, too concerned with the material world, too wedded to the idea of objective knowledge and too eager to define all of reality.

This may not seem like such a big deal, but Mage: the Ascension is basically a game which asks, "what if your religion gave you super powers?" And while you don't have to (and probably shouldn't) just play a character who shares your religion, it's nonetheless relevant that some of us who love the game are atheists, materialists, and humanists.  Because of that, well, a lot of people in the fan base who in real life wore themselves out arguing that there is good in atheism, good in materialism, good in humanism, they found themselves arguing that there must, therefor, be good in the Technocracy too.

I think that might make a pretty amazing game, honestly. If the conflict were just about methodology and priorities. Sci-fi vs fantasy, security vs freedom, reason vs intuition. But that's only intermittently the game we actually got, and thus a lot of Mage arguments just wound up being players slugging it out over their real world beliefs.

Yet the "the Technocracy is just a personification of the sins of the West" theory doesn't really pan out either. Its implicit construction of "power = science = the consensus" did not age particularly well (it's the prime reason I'm going to call Mage: the Ascension the most 90s game ever made, though funnily enough, it doesn't make much of an appearance here), and I have a feeling that it probably was never as strong a correlation as the books might suggest. In the years leading up to this book, science said there was an AIDS crisis and power didn't do anything about it.

So what you've got, especially here in a time when nobody noticed when 95% of your art was of white people, is a vision of the Traditions that feels distressingly right-libertarian. Consensual reality (a term that has not yet been coined) is the collective heritage of all humanity. The Technocracy are Marxist-Leninists, who ostensibly want to hold it in trust for a time when the people are ready to take possession, but somehow never forget to pay themselves first. The Traditions are anarcho-capitalists, who want to homestead it at will and make only token provisions for those who lack the power to stake their claim.

Again, an interesting conflict, but it winds up being punk without solidarity, which is possible, but never appealing.

But, of course, a lot of that won't be apparent for some time to come. It gets its start here, though.

I got my start with Mage: the Ascension, Revised and while it's totally cliche to say that your favorite version of a game is the one you were introduced to, there's a lot of texture in the later books that I'm desperately missing here. What I called "the weight of canon" in Vampire: the Masquerade winds up being "living up to the promise of multiculturalism" in Mage. Of course, the later books were simply drawing on half a decade's worth of research done for various supplements, but it was kind of jarring to read about the Euthanatos and not see one word about heretical Hinduism or to see a version of the Dreamspeakers that was so blandly New Age that it barely even counted as cultural appropriation.

I'm going to be very interested in seeing how the game evolves as time goes on, though ironically I have the feeling that this first book is going to wind up feeling like one of the least essential.

Ukss Contribution - Another occasion where I'm definitely going to have to pace myself. Nearly every cool thing about this book, I'm going to get another chance to select. Best to go with something fleeting and specific.  The Verbena sacrifice blood to their sacred trees and that turns them red. It's probably the purest fantasy line in the whole book.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Rogue Trader

I have a confession to make. I don't care much for Warhammer 40k. This isn't a criticism so much as it is me being weird and impossible to please, because I love Rogue Trader and it's undeniable that a significant part of that is due to setting elements it inherited from the 40k universe.

The Imperium of Man is a bureaucratic nightmare and a feudalistic nightmare and a capitalist nightmare, and at the intersection of those three tendencies lie the Rogue Traders, a group of peripatetic merchant/soldiers (ie "pirates") who troll the fringes of the empire in search of uncontacted worlds they can ruthlessly exploit for profit. I like it because it's a grandiose sort of villainy where you're a larger-than-life figure, thoroughly enshrined in the trappings of obscene wealth and aristocratic privilege, and your goal is to keep getting away with it.

And all of that is possible because of the Warhammer 40k background. Where it gets a little uncomfortable for me is that WH40K's style of presentation is terribly inconsistent. Basically, it's a mish-mash of influences. Space travel evokes the age of sail, not just in the thoughtlessly mechanical way that most space sci-fi seems to do, but also in its fashions and its military organization and its mercantile politics. Architecture is over-the-top Gothic, even on things that have no business having buttresses and gargoyles (like spaceships). Armor is positively medieval, as interpreted by careless Victorian scholars and with a needlessly inflated scale that reeks of machismo.

The Imperium of Man takes a base of Rome and Byzantium, adds a whole lot of Imperial Brittan, and just a little bit of Nazi Germany and the worst parts of America, and then seasons with a very superficial parody of Catholicism that is so extreme even Bill Donohue couldn't object. It's like the Golden Age of White People, filtered through the most fevered imaginings of the "European Identity" assholes. A lot of the time, it is self-aware and satirical and you get a proper sense that the Imperium is transcendentally awful - it is as corrupt, as unjust, as inefficient, as ignorant, and as self-defeating as a society is possible to be, its power and its grandeur existing only to expand the scope of its failings into the ludicrous.

When it's most like this, Warhammer 40k is actually pretty good, but sometimes it seems to get a little . . . lost. The text forgets that the Imperium is supposed to be a joke and revels in its aesthetics and its military might. You're playing space fascists, but you're encouraged to be awesome instead of ridiculous, and when you catch that happening, it's always a little . . . ew.

The practical upshot of this is that a book like Rogue Trader becomes a paradoxical minefield. It's ostensibly informative, but it's got an unreliable narrator. It leaves open questions about things that would be useful for running a game (like what sort of technolgy exactly, the cult of the Omnissiah finds heretical) and you can't be sure if it's an oversight, an artifact of trying to sum up 30 years of ever-evolving and highly complex canon in a book of finite length, deliberate vagueness, or a joke about how dogma-driven technology has become.

A good example of this is in the sample adventure. You're looking for a derelict treasure ship containing the plundered wealth of an entire world, and the world in question is described as "a world of vast wealth and blasphemous grandeur."

I can't help wondering whether Krystallian was blasphemous or merely "blasphemous." In WH40K, you can deviate from imperial dogma by embracing ideas like free thought, scientific inquiry, social equality, and accountable government OR you can deviate from imperial dogma by worshiping a minotaur who wants to drown the universe in blood. The Ecclesiarchy reflexively conflates the two because they are the dumbest motherfuckers ever to live.

Warhammer 40k is at its best when it nods its head and agrees that these are, indeed, some dumb-as-hell motherfuckers, but the colossal monument they've built to their own wrongness is so vast and intricate it will take millennia to collapse under its own weight. It's at its worst when it tries, straight-faced, to say, "no, the metaphysics of the setting are such that democracy does lead inevitably to demon-gods from the realm of nightmares devouring your whole planet."

I love Rogue Trader because it's aggressively and gleefully a sort of nega-Star Trek. Your continuing mission is to seek out new life and new civilizations and steal all the shit that isn't nailed down. And then steal the nails. And then steal all the shit that used to be nailed down. You're basically what the Ferengi should have been in TNG - a force that blurs the lines between commerce and militarism and puts the lie to the unctuous niceties of imperialist capitalism.

When I think about the game in those terms, it makes me wish that Rogue Trader could have included among its adversaries a society of galactic do-gooders, some kind of Federation expy to act as a foil for the PCs' campaign of ruthless exploitation. Maybe not large, but technologically advanced and far enough away from the main body of the Imperium that it would not be instantly annihilated. Unfortunately, this is the 40k universe, and thus the only people who ever survive long enough to become a serious threat are the absolute bastards.

All this really means is that when I play Rogue Trader, I tend to do it off-book. Yes to playing the villains, but no, their enemies aren't always conveniently worse.

As far as the game itself is concerned, I mostly like it. It's not going to be remembered for any great innovations, but in a way, that's comforting. At its core, it's a simple percentage-based system that uses a lot of very conventional mid 2000-s ideas about things like player agency and action economy. It could probably be converted to d20 with very little loss of fidelity and in fact does that thing that D&D 5e does where it keeps the bulk of 3e's tactical complexity but pretends the grid is a needless imposition and tries to do everything "theater of the mind" style without actually abstracting away the fiddliest parts of the system.

When I read that the Overwatch action allowed you to take a shot at anyone entering a 45 degree arc in front of your weapon, I spent about an hour trying to figure out a simple geometric shortcut to let you define the cone from the midpoint of a square's edge, but I wound up giving up when I realized I'd need a compass to bisect angles. And that might seem like a mark against using a grid, but the alternative of doing it purely in the imagination means that you're eventually going to wind up having to be just a little bit whimsical in deciding which enemies get successfully Overwatched by your players.

Rogue Trader does do a couple of interesting things, though. Character advancement is done through a hybrid point-buy/class system that might have potential (basically, your class and level determines what you can buy with your points), but which in my limited experience almost instantly resulted in players trying to subvert it through optional "elite advances."

The other thing I liked, despite the fact that I've never encountered the necessary level of player buy-in, was the Endeavor system. The short and sweet version is this - Players in Rogue Trader start off super rich. So rich, in fact, that even the "poor" ones are better served by an abstract resources system that replaces detailed currency accounting with a simple percentage roll. But the goal of the game is to get even richer than that. Endeavors are an attempt to put your wealth-gaining activities on an objective footing by tying them to an adventure-pacing mechanic that can be influenced by characters' actions. The players say that they want to set up a new trade route and then the GM gives them a list of Objectives - short adventures - that if they accomplish them in suitable style will indicate that all of the tedious background stuff also got accomplished in the meantime.

It's a good idea that gives players a role in defining the narrative, but it's also a style of play that will take a bit of getting used to in an otherwise very traditional rpg.

To sum up - Rogue Trader is far from perfect, and there are many difficult and dangerous ideas that need to be negotiated to get the optimal use out it, but sometimes it can be fun to play as a crew of self-serving miscreants, and few games do that with quite so much style.

Ukss Contribution - I'm going to be a coward here and shy away from the more distinctively 40k setting elements. Instead I'm going to pick a small thing that I thought was pretty neat - the fractal blade. It's a spiky sword, but if you zoom in on the spikes, it turns out that they are themselves miniature spiky swords. And those spikes are also super-small spiky swords, and so on, forever. If you break off one of the spikes, you can plant it in the soil of a certain world and in time it will grow into a whole new fractal blade.

It's not world-shaking, I know, but I like the image.

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 of AD&D's characteristic tropes 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.