Tuesday, December 29, 2020

(Trinity 1e)Three Field Reports

I decided to read these books in a bundle because they were 24 pages each and even taken all together were less than a night's worth of reading. I can't say the format is growing on me, but I guess I can see the advantage of having a cheap format for niche topics. The Field Reports Alien Races and Extrasolar Colonies should probably not have been made, simply because their subjects are too interesting to confine to the small books, but I suspect I wrong about their purpose. I thought they existed to summarize the metaplot, but now that I've actually read the adventures, I realize they serve more to preview the metaplot. If Trinity, 1st edition, had died even just a couple of months earlier than it did historically, Field Report: Extrasolar Colonies might have been the best setting book we ever got. Scary to think about.

Anyway, here's a book-by-book breakdown:

Extrasolar Colonies

This one puts the "space" in "space opera." You've got jump ships capable of traveling to other planets, and here are some planets for you to travel to. I'd say that in retrospect, it's the weakest of the Field Reports, if only because it is supplanted by the fewest books. There's no real need to have both this one and Stellar Frontiers.

That said, the plot hooks here work. There's a labor dispute on Averiguas, open warfare with Aberrants on Khantze Lu Ge, and the Qin homeworld is pretty suspicious too. White Wolf may have been a bit too fond of mystery for my taste, and they glossed over Far Nyumba, the best of the first edition colonies, but as a starting point for building campaigns, it works.

Ukss Contribution: New Hope, the town run by a renegade labor union. Blue collar pride, people.

Psi Laws

Psi Laws is probably the ideal subject matter for this particular medium. It gets in, talks about its niche subject, and then gets out before it wears out its welcome. The main use I see for it is as a source of obstacles when you have games where the PCs have to pose as law-abiding citizens, though with a little adapting, the "case studies" might work as adventures. . . well, okay, probably not the one where the courts have to decide whether precognitive danger sense justifies "self-defense" before an attack actually occurs. And also probably not the one where forensic accounting proves that an electrokinetic witness lied about psychically reconstructing data, but the one where the Norça pull strings to get a case dismissed against a shapeshifting rapist, that could probably support a campaign.

Oh, yeah, the Norça do not come off well in this book at all. They're buying judges and sinking extradition treaties, and just generally acting like a criminal syndicate. I think there's a narrow tone, perhaps one that envisions a personal freedom so radical it borders on science fiction, where the "South America has legalized drugs and now they're rich because of it" that might work, but this book here misses the mark. Second edition expands the continent's shtick to transhumanism in general, and that interpretation would have helped Psi Laws quite a bit in its South America section.

Ukss Contribution: Texas outlaws psionic abilities altogether. Texas?! As implausible as their choice of location for it turned out to be, a state where it is forbidden to use the game's special abilities is a potentially useful location.

Media

This one was pure fluff. I kind of adore it for that. It doesn't really do much for the game except add texture to the setting by detailing how news and entertainment are produced and consumed, but that's valuable enough. So much of the game revolves around secret agents and superheroes, and it's nice to get a glimpse of how ordinary people live.

I could rag on it for not getting the internet exactly right (oh, wow, thousands of channels, you say), but I get it. It was 1999, and they still thought broadcast television and magazines were going to be relevant formats forever. Besides, it's canon that they rebuilt the internet to make it deliberately work worse, so maybe I shouldn't be so smug about channels being gone forever.

The one thing I want from this book is more specifics. We only get about a half-dozen named Holo-programs, and one of them is the popular sitcom Tuna Sandwich, and I don't have anything more for you that will make that make a damned bit of sense. Strike Team Psion - an animated action-adventure series - I understand. Montressor! - the semi-fictionalized soap opera based off real stories of the Aesculapian Order - that I understand. Tuna Sandwich - the family friendly comedy centered around a campus deli and starring a guy named "Father Elmo" - I've got nothing. At least the implication is there that tuna fish survived into the 22nd century. Good for them.

Ukss Contribution: The world of Trinity has seen a resurgence of live theater, largely thanks to the fact that when the old internet crashed, traveling theater companies "not only cheered bowed spirits, but were a source of news and gossip for places just trying to survive." I like that, a collapsed civilization that keeps itself together by trading actors among settlements.

Monday, December 28, 2020

(Trinity 1e)Alien Encounter: Deception

I've got a certain ambivalence towards rpg adventures. What I like about them is the way they can act as a window into the setting. You see things from a player-level view and often learn how the designers meant for the world to look. What I dislike about them is the way they, by their very nature, must attempt to second guess the most chaotic and perverse people on the planet - i.e. average player characters.

Alien Encounters: Deception has a particularly unsubtle example of this in its second adventure. "The Norça try to stop the characters from shooting the drones or the sasq, since the aliens are the only possible way out of their current situation." It's a variant of an idea that comes up a few times in this book - if the PCs look like they're going to do something to derail the story, have a nearby NPC remind them that it's not a good idea.

To a degree, that's just weak design. In an rpg, whatever happens at the table is the story, and thus if you're going to try and tell an rpg story, you've got to be flexible enough to just run with whatever the players try and do. So maybe instead of having the Norça scold the PCs for trying to kill an alien, you let them do it and then instead of the rest of the game being about infiltrating the mothership, it is now a guerrilla campaign set on the planet the Coalition is plundering. Of course, that's a whole different adventure than what Alien Encounters: Deception is about, and since the book can't be infinite pages . . . well, that's just  problem with pre-written adventures. Hence my ambivalence. I think the best you can do in these situations is point out the off-ramps and wish people luck.

Since they don't do that here, this book winds up being useful mostly for the narrow track where the players think like show-runners and have their characters do the dramatically appropriate thing at dramatically appropriate times. However, let's take it as read that the diplomacy-focused story have players who buy into the concept of diplomacy, and the infiltration-focused story will have player who buy into infiltration, and simply accept the book on its own terms. Do the adventures work?

Sort of. Both adventures offer a tantalizing glimpse at potential Trinity campaign models, but as written they each have a fatal flaw.

For the first adventure, the flaw is subtle - the book is not entirely behind the idea that you're supposed to play it. Seriously. There's a sidebar called "Why Them?" that struggles to find an answer more convincing than "because they're PCs."

"Honestly, field-agents wouldn't normally be sent to negotiate with high-ranking alien officials," but the question left unasked is "why are the PCs field agents?" You've got a scenario built around diplomacy, where the characters are going to the opera with diplomats, hopping from embassy to embassy, operating at the highest levels of government - so why aren't the PCs themselves diplomats? So many of the obstacles in the scenario are made more difficult because there's absolutely no reason why any of these people would put up with these random weirdos butting in and asking questions, and it's completely unnecessary. I figure it's a bad habit Trinity inherited from the World of Darkness. Your various vampires and werewolves and mages are outsiders, who must operate in mortal society indirectly, whereas if the Qin ambassador only wants to talk to someone who speaks on behalf of the UN, that's something Trinity PCs can actually be.

If you get past that hump, the first half of Alien Encounter: Deception has potential. Someone tries to assassinate the alien ambassador! The PCs investigate, but find that the ambassador is strangely reluctant to assist them. Aeon wants to know what's up, but the human-Qin alliance is paramount, and thus the PCs must be circumspect in their investigation. They discover the seedy underbelly of Qin politics and must carefully navigate the competing alien factions while calming the fears of their fellow humans, who are primed to see betrayal around every corner.

It's a setup you build a campaign around. This book isn't quite enough, on its own, to run it, but it's a useful starting point.

By contrast, the flaw with the second scenario is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. There's no delicate way to put this - the Coalition are rapists. Content warning ahead as I talk about this.

There were parts of this book that were tough for me, an ordinary guy with no direct experience with the subject, to read. One of the briefing materials is a transcript of the first contact mission. . . ugh. You visit a never-before-seen inhabitable planet that the Coalition is harvesting for resources . . .  including the genetic material of the natives. At one point you have to rescue prisoners.

Something I've been struggling with lately is the construction of villainy in genre entertainment. If you want heroes, you have to have someone for the heroes to stop. And if you want the people stopping these someones to actually be heroic, then the things they're getting stopped from doing have got to be bad. And yet "no, it's all right, we're depicting the thing and showing it's bad" isn't an air-tight excuse. You may be depicting the thing voyeuristically or fethishistically, and then covering your ass with a pro-forma "it's bad." It may be unquestionably awful to tie people up and hit them with whips, but if I make a whole villain faction that specializes in that sort of behavior, people are going to ask questions.

The Coalition are probably on the right side of the line. . . technically. We're supposed to be horrified by what they're doing, and I was. There's no apologetics for their behavior and the ones responsible, the Progenitors, are not portrayed as cool or powerful or enviable in any way. This isn't like the sidebar from Exalted: the Lunars, putting this kind of behavior in characters meant to act as a player power fantasy.

However, it was unsettling to read and it made me unhappy, and thus I much prefer the second edition presentation of this species.

Assuming you can make your peace with the Coalition's villainy, it's a fairly decent adventure. If the players are the sort to make good decisions, you can even play it as-is. I think it probably works better as a campaign model, where the events of the adventure are stretched out over 3-4 stories, but maybe that's just because I found the Coalition's victims to be pretty sympathetic, and I wished there was more you could do to help the stone-age people of Beta Canum Venaticorum or the chemically-enslaved masses of the Coalition Ark ship.

Overall, I'd say that Alien Encounter: Deception works best as a setting book. The strongest parts were the descriptions of various locations and the people or creatures who lived there. Beyond that, it's a useful source to mine for campaign ideas. As for the actual stories themselves . . . well, if things play out that way, good, but it would be a mistake to include the NPCs who exist only to nudge the players back on track.

Ukss Contribution: Something simple and from the real world this time - the Russian city where the PCs escort aliens to the ballet has natural steam baths. It's kind of a visual cliche in the crime/thriller genre, but I like it nonetheless.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

(Trinity 1e)Alien Encounter: Invasion

 Alien Encounter: Invasion is, unsurprisingly, an rpg adventure about an alien invasion. But this time, the humans are the aliens and they're the ones doing the invading. The book doesn't have quite as much fun with the inversion as I might have liked, but it is, nonetheless, a pretty interesting story.

The planet being invaded belongs to the Chromatics, a species who, until the past 20 years or so, had a culture and technology are meant to evoke humanity's distant past. Shortly before Trinity's start date, they were technologically uplifted by the Doyen (the series' resident jerks) who wished to exploit their naivete and powerful innate psionic abilities to create an army of fanatics to attack and destroy the human race.

The rough sequence of events is that humanity captures a high-ranking Chromatic, the PCs interrogate him to learn the location of the missing teleporters, there's a quick sideplot where he's kidnapped by mercenaries, then after the PCs recover him, they take him with them to Chrome Prime for reasons that are not adequately explained. The mission to rescue the teleporters goes sideways, and the group escapes into the desert. Along the way, the PCs learn about Chromatic culture and begin to suspect there's more to the aliens than just antagonists, while the prisoner learns that not all humans are hopelessly corrupt and maybe the Gods of Light (the Doyen) were . . . misinterpreted.

In the end, the PCs get a second chance to complete their mission, if they can successfully team up with Chromatic outcasts, a move that requires freeing their captive from his psionic restraints. With their combined forces, they can take out the psionic dampener that's keeping the teleporters from escaping, but only if they can survive the Aberrants that show up at the last minute to wreck things for everybody. In the end, if there's to be any hope of peace between the species, the PCs must intervene with their superiors and ensure that the bomber squadron that comes to rescue them from Chromatic territory only attacks the Aberrants, demonstrating to these aliens that they share a common enemy and are honorable enough to hold up their part of a truce.

As an outline for a novel, the story works great. As an adventure for four to six random characters . . . it's fragile. Ultimately, it comes down to the pacing of the emotional arc. The PCs have to go from viewing the Chromatics as an implacable alien foe to respecting them as a people and as individuals, and they've got to hit the right beats at the right time. It's easy to imagine a group that remains prejudiced up until the very end, wrecking any chance they had at rapprochement, but just as damaging is a group that trusts too quickly and gives Vermillion (the Chromatic captive) too much slack. He has his own arc to go through, and he's supposed to start off hostile and borderline violent. In theory, his attitude warms as the PCs' does, but the thing that worries me is that first impressions might last forever . . . or that the PCs trust him while he's still an avowed enemy, and I'd feel compelled to make them regret that trust.

It's a balance, to be sure, though maybe I'm overthinking it. Suffice to say, if you can manage to reach roughly the correct relationship milestones at roughly the correct time, the adventure will be a memorable one.

Provided, of course, that you don't get derailed by the anthropological and linguistic mystery at the start of the story. That's the other failure point I foresee - that talking to a genuine alien is so much more interesting than whatever else you might have planned (and that talking as an alien might be too interesting a roleplaying exercise for the GM). On the one hand, that's a good problem to have. On the other, it's not something you need a whole book for.

That's probably why there's a kidnapping. When in doubt, send some mooks in with guns to shake things up. It winds up being a completely pointless digression, but it's undeniably a kick in the pants when it comes to pacing.

The main question I have, after reading this book, is "where, exactly, are the Chromatics as a species." They're described as "bronze age" on several occasions, but when it comes to their culture and especially language, they seem more paleolithic. They call spaceships "high-far-rafts." They do not have verb tenses or articles, giving all their talk a real "caveman" vibe. Seeing as how classical human cultures had sophisticated astronomy, philosophy, and theology even before they started using bronze, we really should be seeing more depth to their language.

It's a tricky thing to puzzle out - what parts of this are an alien species with a totally different physiology and way of speaking (if people communicated using flashing lights, you can bet that the grammar would be different), which parts are a legitimately different path of cultural development (the Mayans had all that artistic and scientific stuff, even if they never learned metal working, so why can't aliens get it the other way around), and which parts are just White Wolf being lazy about giving us a shorthand for "primitive" people (the word "savage" is tossed around as a noun at least a couple of times, though never in a way that gave me the impression the book approved)?

All-in-all, I liked Alien Encounter: Invasion. My gut instinct is that the way to play it is as an inversion of a 50s B-movie about aliens who come to Earth only to learn that it's possible to coexist in peace after befriending a plucky teenager, but even without the genre twist, it's a good expansion to the Trinity Universe's setting.

Though, I was floored by the part about the Lunar crime boss, who was known only as "The President" being really into US Presidents, even to the degree that she calls her advisors "the Cabinet," decorates in a red-white-and-blue motif, and says things like "four score and seven years ago" for no reason. I've read almost every other Trinity book in existence, and this is the first I'm hearing about it. Maybe they decided it was unworkable to have a major antagonist also be a huge dork.

Ukss Contribution: I liked that the Bronze-age Chromatics also just randomly had hologram technology. When you can shoot a laser with your mind, why not use them to etch 3-D images into crystals?

Monday, December 21, 2020

(Trinity 1e)Darkness Revealed 3: Ascent Into Light

I have to open this post with a correction. In my review of Stellar Frontier, I assumed that I was the only one to notice the unfortunate confluence of imagery between how the Psi Orders wanted to treat the Upeo wa Macho and historical African slavery. Turns out that White Wolf noticed too, enough to put a sidebar into this book, where the plot is introduced. They just decided that since the motivation wasn't racial, and because the Upeo recruited from all nations, that it was okay to include, so long as it was handled with sensitivity (they even predicted my complaint about the awkwardness of making Cassel a mastermind, albeit by pointing out that Cassel, especially, wasn't concerned "with who the Upeo were, but with what they could do").

Umm . . . Geez, I always feel like such an imposter when I have to untangle these sort of complicated representation issues. One time, with The Orphan's Survival Guide's weird crack about bisexuality, was I able to talk with anything approaching a position of real experience. This . . . ?

I guess my original guess that this was all a bit of well-meaning 90s colorblindness was pretty close to the truth. Except . . . they knew how it looked. I mean, slavery is an odious part of the human condition, but it has never not existed, so it's not wrong to put it your fantasy and science fiction, not inherently. Shitty people with power are always going to hate paying wages and allowing their workers to quit, so it's an easy sort of villainy to understand. And in a story with heroes, the villains have to be doing something to warrant a response.

However, this evokes a very specific real world atrocity, one that even today many people refuse to condemn or address, and it's obvious enough about it that it merited a sidebar in 1998, so I guess, in my position as self-appointed, half-assed judge of the historical context of problematic rpg content, I have to call a foul ball on this one.

Though there is a dark humor here. It reminds me of the episode of The Magicians where Penny is enslaved by the Library, and the white Librarian reassures him "we shackle people of all races and colors here." A slaver desperate to distance himself from the racial implications - "I only wanted to enslave you for your abilities," like no shit. That's where all slavery begins. The Europeans invented whiteness and blackness to try and justify it to themselves.

On a related, but tangential, note, I did not buy the "Theme" section's framing of the issue. "The Upeo wa Macho made a bad moral choice (and indirectly helped kill millions) by valuing personal freedom over their duty to help other psions get to the Esperanza (although Proxy Atwan had every reason to suspect it was a trap)."

This is why I hate trolley problems. That statement was way too strong. I think you could argue that the Upeo's decision was an error, in the sense that the worst case scenario for them staying was still less damaging than what actually happened when they, but they had no way of knowing what was going to happen, and from their perspective the likely consequence of them staying was much, much worse than the likely consequence of them fleeing, and it's not their fault that an unlikely event happened at almost the exact same time. Ten people escape slavery, and by coincidence on the very same night there's a fire that kills 100 innocents, a fire that the escapees could have extinguished if they aborted their escape and diverted across town to assist the sheriff that would have been tasked with hunting them down.

The Upeo made the best possible decision, given their situation. The blame, in both situations, lies with the slavers.

But between this and the Huang-Marr coverup, Trinity seems really determined to let Cassel get away with everything.

Oh, right, there was an adventure that we were supposed to discuss. The weird thing about Ascent Into Light is that it's about stopping an alien invasion, but it's set against the backdrop of the UN's hearings on the Huang Marr conspiracy. In the first half, Aeon sends the PCs to another star system to prevent them from testifying in open court (don't worry, Aeon's counsel has prepared a statement on their behalf). In the second half, the PCs have to bust in to UN headquarters to completely derail the proceedings with news of an imminent Chromatic invasion

But don't worry, guys, the psi orders make it through with their reputations intact.

That's been the creepiest part of the Darkness Revealed series so far, all three books of it. This repeated theme of "won't someone think of the reputations of these abusers."

It's weird that in a story with fanatical alien warriors and beings of pure psionic energy who possess and manipulate human beings for sinister purposes, that Aeon feels like the biggest villain of all.

Not even kidding. A major turn in the second chapter comes when the Aeon representative meets with the PCs and an Upeo agent who decides to break the boycott to warn Earth about the aliens. The Aeon rep uses a covert psionic dampener to prevent her from teleporting away . . . which is exactly what the Upeo were afraid was going to happen, and thus completely justifying their decision to flee.

I think you can build an interesting story out of the Darkness Revealed books, but you're going to have to dig into their guts and assemble your own theme. Sometimes, Trinity wanted to be a bright and hopeful superhero game and other times it wanted to be a dark and grim game of dueling conspiracies, and maybe it's okay for an rpg to be that versatile, but once you start getting into specifics, like with this adventure, it gets muddled. There were times when I felt like it was expecting me to interpret the cynical "we must commit these crimes for the greater good" aspects as if they were a morally uncomplicated superhero plot. Aeon is the bad guy here, and they are called out as such, but they survive with their reputation unscathed, and that's presented as a victory.

Then again, Proteus (one of the three arms of the Aeon Trinity) is headquartered out of an underwater base, so maybe that should have tipped me off that "Aeon is not exactly the kindling organization it presents itself to be."

Ukss Contribution: I liked Ravit Simon, the clairvoyant space pilot. She's just a backup character, in case there's no PC who can fly the ship, but she's pretty cool.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

(AD&D 2e)A Mighty Fortress Campaign Sourcebook

 Man, these AD&D historical reference books are an emotional rollercoaster. One minute, they're telling me about Elizabethan cutlery and the politics surrounding neck ruffs ("size was limited by royal decree"), and I've got a huge grin on my face (seriously), but then it starts talking about using these terrible historical atrocities as the backdrop for a game and I'm like, "Dude . . . too soon."

I don't know what it is, but A Mighty Fortress has crossed the invisible line in my brain between "distant enough that it's basically most of the way towards fantasy already" and "recent enough that it's relevant to current politics and culture." Maybe it's Jamestown. This book covers the years 1550-1650, and while the USA wouldn't exist for another 130 years, it's still a period that's deep enough in our cultural mythology that Ted Cruz sees fit to lie about it.

Although, that may not actually be it at all. "The New World" gets precisely one page and barely shows up in the timeline. The focus is almost exclusively on Europe. I guess the sense of immediacy comes from the fact that this is a time and place that actually tends to get covered in high school history. There are parts, especially when it's summarizing the era's wars, where it feels a lot like the first chapter of an American History textbook (for those of my readers who were not educated in the USA, these things usually began with 20 pages or so that can best be described as "why the world was incomplete until the founding of the USA" and 16th century European religious wars feature prominently).

It's a little uncomfortable to see a discussion of this time period that doesn't cover the slave trade, colonialism, or the ongoing genocide of the Native Americans. Not necessarily because I want those things in my fantasy rpg, but because they are such foundational elements of the modern world that their absence makes the history feel overly curated. 

Not that I'd call it especially racist or anything. It's Eurocentric as hell, but I feel like that's mainly because it chooses to center itself on Europe. It wants to be about Catholics versus Huguenots and not about the equally interesting things going on China and Japan (despite mentioning them in its timeline), and that narrow focus might even be acceptable were it for the fact that the European nations were in the process of becoming global powers.

I think the worst you can say about it though is that it's slightly Spanish-apologist:

In spite of the black legends surrounding the Spanish in America, their rule was probably less severe than that of most other European colonizers. Legally, at least, managers of the Spanish encomiendas (manors) had to treat their Indian subjects nearly the same as they would have treated Spanish subjects back home. The extent to which such laws were enforced in the remote American wilderness is anybody's guess. But it is noteworthy that only the Spanish and the Portuguese left any lasting European influence in their colonies; all other colonial powers treated  native people with undisguised disdain.
I'm not even sure what to do with that. It's not wrong, exactly, but I couldn't tell you what it was for, especially considering that this is the bulk of the book's text concerning political interaction between Europeans and the Americas. I think it might be a generational divide. Maybe the author is correcting a misconception from his own history education and reminding us that we can't just offload the sins of colonialism onto the Spanish.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't get far enough outside its Eurocentrism to actually justify attempting nuance with colonialism. You want to talk about the Europeans deplorable conduct in the Americas, do it through the perspective of an American.

But you know what, I've talked a lot about what the book isn't, maybe I should spare a paragraph or two to talk about what it is.

A Mighty Fortress is the supplement you reach for when you want to turn your Europa Universalis save into a tabletop roleplaying campaign. You can be a mercenary in the 30 Years War. A Calvinist preacher. A vagabond with an old-timey-sounding criminal specialty (my favorite was the the Prigman - "A vagabond who appears to wander aimlessly but in fact steals drying clothes from hedges").

It's a fascinating time period to set a D&D game in, because it almost, but not quite escapes the technological and social trappings of "standard" fantasy - there are still swords and princesses and eccentric alchemists and such, but they're starting to be subjected to modernist criticism. The sword is an affectation. The princess might marry a bourgeois merchant for his money. The alchemist is a crackpot.

My main complaint about A Mighty Fortress is that it focuses on these dour religious and political conflicts and not on early-modern European folklore. A lot of our current fairy tales date from this period of history and there's a lot of great fantasy potential there. We do get a brief chapter about the subject, but it feels perfunctory. Stories aren't linked to places and they don't do a great deal to integrate with the setting.

Mechanically, A Mighty Fortress is decent. Clerics get their spellcasting nerfed to hell, in exchange for nothing, so it's questionable why anyone would even want to play one. Wizards have their casting times increased, instantly obsoleting all of their combat magic, but hilariously their main drawback is that DMs are encouraged to actually enforce the rules about spell learning failure chances and material components. There's an interesting new rule that allows thieves to swap their thief skill percentage points for extra nonweapon proficiency slots, but that's less a creative innovation and more the game gradually stumbling towards a coherent skill system.

My final verdict on this book is confusion. It does a stellar job in building a world, so much so that I can heartily recommend it as a source of authentic-sounding details for anyone who wants to make a similar fantasy setting. But maybe it builds its world a little too well, because it sounds like absolute hell to live through, and I'm not sure I want to make light of that.

That's the central dilemma of historical roleplaying, though - in the words of the book "Please excuse us if we seem to glorify war." 

Ukss Contribution: My favorite thing from this book is actually a misapprehension I had for about an hour before breaking down and looking it up on the internet - Pope Sixtus V. My mistake was mixing this name up with Sextus V, meaning roughly "Sixth, the Fifth," but apparently the two names are etymologically unrelated. It was still pretty cool to learn that there was a Pope whose name sounded like an anime robot, though.

My second favorite thing is the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Unfortunately, I don't think I should use it because the thing I like about it is how much I don't like it. I've got an idea for a cool fantasy religion, but it would undoubtedly be rooted in an antagonistic understanding of Calvinism, and that would be kinda uncool. Maybe, as an American, I have a right to satirize them (the USA is a country that aims to turn you into a Puritan, regardless of what religion you are), but why take the risk?

Third choice - ruffs. A ridiculous bit of fashion, but it's undeniably a look. I may be the first person to combine neck ruffs and mirrorshades, however.

Friday, December 18, 2020

(Trinity 1e)Darkness Revealed 2: Passage Through Shadow

 This adventure is not about institutional accountability. It should be. If you're running it in 2020, you're probably going to want to make it be. There are events and characters that evoke the now-familiar ways that corporations, governments, and powerful individuals avoid answering for their wrongdoing, but they aren't what the adventure is about. The adventure is a manhunt followed by a chase followed by a brawl, and it works, but it also has lines like:

"I understand that some of you take the  rumored - I repeat rumored - improprieties at Beaulac as fact. Whatever the true circumstances that took place on Luna, there is no cause to mistreat the former Lunar personnel who now work here; allegations against them have yet to be proven"
And you wind up with the sense that the real bad guys are going to get away with it. Zweidler here is talking about remaining open-minded and forgiving of people who were credibly accused of abetting kidnapping, torturous medical experiments, and mass murder. Maybe some of the low-level people are innocent, but the Aesculapian Order has absolutely not done the due diligence necessary to make that call.

Part one is full of that sort of guilty behavior - closing ranks against outsiders and the outright denialism that comes from believing a noble mission is enough to prevent a slide into corruption. It's a frustrating environment to search for a fugitive, but a convenient one for an organization that wants to escape a major scandal without doing any meaningful introspection.

Also, Alexander Cassel knew about Huang-Marr the whole time and dispatched assassins ahead of the PCs' investigation to eliminate any conspirators before they can compromise the reputation of Orgotek . . . and maybe leave a few alive, with edited memories, if their involvement can be concealed and Cassel finds them useful.

I guess the claim is that Cassel knew the Huang-Marr project would be unethical, but he didn't know it would be that unethical, and thus his murderous coverup is somehow forgivable because all he cares about is the safety of humanity (less the specific humans that get in his way, obviously). It's honestly a quite chilling characterization, made doubly frustrating because he is too powerful to confront and in the end makes away with all the sweet loot the PCs take from the aliens.

Oh yes, there are aliens. That's the biggest takeaway. First explicit mention of the Doyen in canon (assuming you don't have the updated core), and they dispatched the Chromatics to recover some of their spy technology. It's a whole thing, and the book doesn't offer nearly enough guidance on how to keep the scenario balanced, but a pretty cool set-piece to end the middle entry of a trilogy. I was a little surprised to learn that the Doyen still use tools. I thought their psionic powers had grown to the point where they were beyond such things. Also, the Chromatics are treated pretty sympathetically, which means they began getting redeemed almost as soon as they were introduced. So, overall, this was a pretty fun book for setting information.

It's just a little depressing that the PCs are "urged by Aeon to tie up the Huang-Marr conspiracy quickly, so that public-relations damage is minimal." Justice would have been better.

Ukss Contribution: The Aberrant Wycoff exploded in the middle of the USA's farm belt, creating an area of dangerous comic-book radiation called "The Blight." The fascist FSA government is encouraging corporations to move into the outskirts of the Blight by allowing them to pollute all they want.

A horrible practice, to be sure, but I kind of love how cynical it is. A supernatural event has screwed up the land, fuck it, that means anything goes from now on. I think Ukss could use a place like that - a magical atrocity exploited by capitalism.

Monday, December 14, 2020

(AD&D 2e)Celts Campaign Sourcebook

The most interesting thing about the Celts, from a fantasy worldbuilding perspective, is how uninteresting they are. I don't mean this as a slight against Celtic culture or anything, but just an observation. Dungeons and Dragons was a stew made of many influences, but almost all of them run through Celtic culture at one point or another. For example, I learned that Conan the Barbarian drew inspiration from Celtic myth, which actually didn't surprise me in the slightest once I thought about it for one second. And The Celts Campaign Sourcebook in particular often cites Caesar's The Gallic Wars, and maybe it's unfair to the Celts to have their culture described by their worst enemy, but it does go to show the influence they had on classical culture, even if only as antagonistic outsiders.

So many of their mythological themes are embedded bone-deep in English-language fantasy, undoubtedly due to the fact that they are an unalienable part of British culture. It is probably impossible to even talk in English about magic and monsters and heroes without incorporating some level of Celtic bias. Even Tolkien, who self-consciously rejected Celtic inspiration, wound up using a few characteristic tropes in building his world.

It all lends the "historical fantasy" of  the Celts Campaign Sourcebook an eerily familiar feel. I implied it was "uninteresting" in the first paragraph, but a better description would be "unsurprising" (and no, I am no going to go back and edit my opening). The Celtic-inspired fantasy of this book feels like what fantasy is supposed to feel like. And much like with the Vikings book, it falls short only in the sense that you could build a core book and a line of a hundred supplements off this book's pitch and wind up creating a very satisfying fantasy world.

It was kind of a surreal experience, seeing a version of D&D that evoked Exalted, with its over-the-top "heroic feats" (like jumping a chariot or throwing a spear with your feet) or Changeling, with its talk of faerie worlds just out of sight, where time flows differently and from which men may never return. Mainline AD&D never quite got there, and it probably couldn't handle it if it did, but it's kind of fascinating to think of a version of the game where Neil Gaiman made it into Appendix N.

The Celts Campaign Sourcebook wasn't quite that, unfortunately. Probably because it wasn't interested in building a coherent world. The Celts were a wide-ranging people, and the book acknowledges that. As a result, it's mostly a grab-bag of Celtic-related topics. Useful, inspirational, but it never congeals as a setting.

Strangely enough, a big culprit is the rules. I wouldn't have thought that possible, given that the Druid and the Bard are two full character classes that draw a line of descent almost directly back to Celtic culture, but they get converted in some baffling ways. Druids lose their weird organization, but also their high-level granted abilities and a huge chunk of their spellcasting. Bards lose their thief skills in exchange for basically nothing (well, the ability to use Bestow Curse, but they could already do that with their spellcasting, though admittedly not until level 10, raising a ton of balance questions).

I think what's going on is a misguided fidelity to an ideal that never existed. The two most Celtic classes get nerfed in the Celts book because their abilities don't map neatly to surviving Celtic stories, but there's no real exploration of the new stories you're supposed to tell. The Celts didn't have roleplaying games, but if they did, you can bet your ass that they'd see no contradiction between "high fantasy" and "historical fantasy," and certainly wouldn't put up with weaksauce "realistic" magic, just because a particular feat hadn't been seen yet.

Chariot-Jumping requires 4 non-weapon proficiency slots! Over and above the one you spent to get chariot driving in the first place. That's way too much to charge for a niche ability whose only real use is to look cool. It's frustrating to see something that's so close to the point of heroic fantasy and yet so far from actually getting it. But then, that split - fantastic things are caused by explicit magic, anything else has to cleave to a fairly rigid implementation of the laws of physics - is at the heart of what Dungeons and Dragons has always been. It's something that has occasionally hurt the game (as it does here), but I can't say it comes as a surprise.

Overall, the Celts Campaign Sourcebook is probably the weakest of the historical reference series. I mean, I still have two to go, so this is a verdict that might be overturned, but despite having some genuinely good information, the laws, customs, and economy of the Celts are so deeply ingrained in what we think of as "generic European fantasy," that this book sometimes feels like generic European fantasy, salvaged only by the more non-AD&D-friendly bits of Celtic cultural weirdness. I'd still recommend it, because it states a lot of things that most fantasy setting guides take for granted, but it doesn't feel nearly as subversive as Charlemagne's Paladins or Crusades (though it may be that I'm simply getting jaded after reading so many good "Medieval Europe" supplements, and Celts merely has the misfortune of being the most recent).

Ukss Contribution: Avalon, the deathless island where all wounds are healed. I like this one because it somehow manages to be both sacred and spooky. There's probably a reason why it gets reused so often.

Friday, December 11, 2020

(Trinity 1e)Darkness Revealed 1: Descent into Darkness

 The Huang-Marr conspiracy looms large in Trinity's first edition metaplot. It's mentioned in nearly every book in the series and it completely changes the characterization of two major factions. So I already had a vague idea about where this book was going. I knew that there was going to be unethical medical experimentation and a sinister coverup. What I was not expecting was that the experiments were naked atrocities and the coverup would be so cruelly cynical. 

Jerzy Grabowski, the leader of the project on the Moon, collapsed the roof over Freak Alley. Hundreds were killed, and there wasn't even a scientific justification for it. He wanted to expand his laboratory and Freak Alley just happened to be in the way. It's unclear why he couldn't just expand in another direction, but I have to assume that a big part of it was that the Freak Alley people were poor enough that no one would in power would care.

I don't want to spoil too much. Suffice to say, he gets what's coming to him, but it makes me question whether the Aesculapian Order or Orgotek even deserve to survive. A small, well-hidden cabal, performing grotesque experiments and remaining undetected is certainly the sort of thing that would require an intense reckoning, but actual premeditated mass murder, followed up by a change in assignments meant to cover-up the crime . . . it should not be possible for that to happen under your nose. Society should, in fact, operate under the assumption that it isn't. 

I mean, if they're using your resources to commit mass murder, and you don't know about, doesn't that mean you're giving people sufficient resources to commit mass murder, but not providing even the minimal oversight necessary to make sure those resources are not misused? A bulldozer can be used equally well to create or destroy, but presumably you've got some procedure in place to stop the guy with the keys from driving away and selling it to a shady dealer of used construction equipment. So why does this same procedure not stop the guy from using the bulldozer to run over schoolchildren?

Frankly, if I were Grabowski, I would just say that I was dong unethical medical experiments and then pocket the money. Clearly no one back at the home office is ever going to check. I guess the Huang-Marr project stays on course because the people who are in an oversight position are also in on the conspiracy. If that's the case, then the institution as a whole is compromised. The Aesculapians' book says Zweidler didn't know about it, but if so he was probably the only person in Grabowski's chain of command who didn't. At some point, the authorities in the Trinity universe have to bite the bullet and say, "we're going to have to make a new Red Cross."

Orgotek is not quite as implicated, if only because their operation is so much smaller, but they do wind up dispatching their elite commando unit to assassinate anyone with knowledge of the project. While this does implicate the highest levels of Orgotek in the coverup, it's at least possible to imagine the ruthless death squad as a punishment. It does go to show, however, how weird it is that Trinity has a heroic sinister corporation as a major setting element. They'll kill to keep their employer's secrets, but most of those secrets are being kept for the good of humanity.

It's also questionable how deniable Option 8 really is. They are highly-trained and well-equipped electrokinetics who are constantly acting in the interests of Orgotek. It seems unlikely to me that Alex Cassel's many enemies are going to trace a bunch of crimes back to Option 8 and then suddenly throw up their hands and say, "whoops, trail's cold." You don't need to prove the connection to use it as a justification for acting against Orgotek, especially not if you're a fascist state like the FSA.

But I'm most disappointed in Aeon. Their reaction to uncovering the conspiracy is pretty reprehensible. They create a cover story that pins the blame for the murders on a made-up aberrant cult. "Aeon understands that a coverup means deceiving the friends and loved ones of the murder victims. The Trinity believes that this sacrifice will be justified if all the guilty parties are brought to justice."

And I don't know. I guess I can see why you'd want to avoid releasing all the details of the case, to avoid tipping off potential suspects, but a coverup means committing to a lie, and when that lie is exposed, any trust you've built up over the years is quite rightfully compromised. 

Maybe it's a 90s thing. They liked their superheroes dark and gritty back then, which means even the good guys do shitty things. This was meant to reflect the duality of the human condition and the difficulty in making moral choices in a where the line between good and evil runs straight through the human heart. 

This is a fine theme, as far as it goes, and an important thing to consider, even in less cynical works, but seeing it out of its original context, it kind of lets these powerful people off the hook. If doing good requires evil actions, then there's no real way to criticize doing evil in the name of good. You can't really sacrifice your own morality for the sake of others, because when you are doing wicked deeds and causing suffering, it's really your victims who are doing the sacrificing. The families of the people murdered by Huang-Marr are going to grieve when they hear the cover story, and they are going to grieve again when they learn the truth, only the second time they're also going to have to deal with betrayal from a formerly trusted institution.

Of course, as with all things, there's a balance. We're in an age when earnestness feels radical, and thus 2nd edition's Aeon would likely have handled it differently, but the problem with straightforward morality is that it's easy to become simplistic. First edition didn't have that fault, but I'm going to have to see the next two volumes before I decide whether or not it's too cynical for its own good.

Overall, I'd say that Descent Into Darkness is a decent, but not great adventure. Its main flaw, aside from its moral murkiness, is that it doesn't want to commit to a campaign premise. As a result, it's full of distracting "ifs." "If the PCs are with Aeon . . ." "If they're working with the Lunar police. . ." "If they're just random busy-bodies poking their nose into things that don't concern them. . ." And that's not even getting into the occasionally bandied idea that you might just skip a chapter or two and only use one of the three scenarios (despite them being a direct sequence of events - chapter 3 literally starts with you chasing down the scientists who escaped in chapter 2).

Plus, you know, it's a murder mystery where the detectives are psychics. It's something that can work, but it's probably not a coincidence that this book introduces a rule out of nowhere that extreme violence clouds pychometric visions.

Still, I'm interested in seeing where the story goes next, even if I am spoiled on the end by various future Trinity supplements. That's worth something at least.

Now, let's end this post by taking a moment to honor the passing of the Summit Center. It was less than a week between me learning of its existence for the first time and me reading about its tragic destruction at the hands of a careless assassin, but I will always remember its pointless and impractical design and nebulous place in the Chinese government's plan to claim sole sovereignty over Mars. I mistakenly thought it revolved around a crater instead of the top of Olympus Mons, despite Hidden Agendas saying nothing of the sort, probably because I'm not used to thinking of mountains as having "rims." Hopefully, the next piece of civic architecture I choose for Ukss will endure for longer than one book.

Ukss Contribution: I say this, even as I choose Freak Alley as my contribution from this book. What can I say, I like the name, even if it is something of a blank slate due to being destroyed before the PCs ever encounter it.

Monday, December 7, 2020

(AD&D 2e)Vikings Campaign Sourcebook

As the first book in AD&D's historical reference series, Vikings Campaign Sourcebook has not yet worked out the "Historical/Legendary/Fantasy" split that we see in later volumes. It is, instead, just a pure Viking fantasy game. It's set in the historical North Sea region, but there are giants and Linnorms and Dock-Alfar, and all the other elements of Norse fantasy, maybe toned down a little, but still explicitly magical and presented without much by way of explanation.

It's actually a pretty great setting that could easily have supported its own entire game line, and if this book has a flaw, it's that it's ultimately pretty shallow about something that has a lot more depth to be mined. For example, it never mentions that the seiðr was traditionally considered a feminine practice. We get as complete a list of Odin's nicknames as I've ever seen, but nothing about his gender-bending. 

Granted, it's 1991, and whoa, that would be forward thinking even for a game not as characteristically hidebound as AD&D, but on two separate occasions the book stops to point out that Viking women had an unusual amount of autonomy for the middle ages, and thus it was appropriate to make female Viking PCs . . . and maybe they could have tossed in a bone about how magic was basically considered a women's job. Every adventuring party needs a mage, and thus even the most "realism" focused D&D groups should have had no problem with at least one female character.

I mean, it's sort of brought up. "The sagas make mention of several wizardesses, some favorably." But even setting aside the awkwardness of the word "wizardesses," the book got magic completely backwards.

Which is strange to me, because it has an extensive-looking bibliography. Is this a case of historiography changing dramatically in the last 20 years? Were the books cited here guilty of projecting contemporary sexist assumptions back onto the Viking culture and it's only because my own introduction was from a new generation of scholarship that I even noticed? Possible. Maybe even likely. At least, it's something to look out for.

Although, if the fantasy elements have been done better in other products, the Vikings Campaign Sourcebook does manage to do the thing that these green books have excelled at and make us really stop and think about what life is like in a Medieval European-inspired fantasy world. It talks about architecture, diet, and fashion, as well as laws and customs, and it gives a great sense of setting. It's not the best of the series, but it's easily ahead of 90% of the pure fantasy stuff out there.

It's also the strongest, mechanically, of any of the green books I've read. Which is weird, for being the first, but I think comes down to never trying to pretend to be purely historical. The thing about allowing specialist wizards, but not mages is still a little weird, because spell schools aren't narrowly tailored enough to make those kind of blanket bans very thematic, but we are at least spared the spectacle of clerics in an ostensible "non-magic" campaign.

Plus the new classes are pretty cool. The Berserker is basically the AD&D barbarian done right, and it's fun that they get wolf and bear shapes at higher levels. "Mostly fighters, but with a few magical tricks" is a class niche that AD&D should have gone to more often. 

And the Runecaster class, despite the gender mixup, is pretty decent as well. Its powers are generally weaker than mages or priests (with the caveat that they're not leveled, so it's possible to get some unusually strong abilities at level 1), but it fits better in a historical milieu than any of the "historical" rules modifications we've seen so far.

Overall, this was a pretty straightforward book. Vikings and Norse mythology were already pretty deep in D&D's DNA, and so the setting and the system mesh unusually well, better even than many pure fantasy setting explicitly designed for D&D. The result is a book whose monsters and magic felt a lot like what D&D should have been doing all along, but also one that is not really surprising in any way. Let this be a lesson to would-be game designers, specificity is good.

Ukss Contribution: . . . he said, while preparing to come up with a new element of the most hopelessly muddled fantasy world ever devised. Anyway, Vikings ate kale. I don't know why this is such a surprise to me. I guess because I first heard of kale about five years ago when it started becoming a fad, and I just assumed that it was a new thing. You know, like those new crops they're constantly discovering. . .

Yeah, I could have preserved my mystique as a cool customer by keeping this bit of surprise to myself, but it did amuse me to think of these macho Viking guys eating like a California vegan, and so I will memorialize the smile this put on my face by adding extensive kale production to Ukss.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

(Trinity 1e)Hidden Agendas

 Hidden Agendas is one of those short corebook-overflow supplements that White Wolf liked to do. It's filled with odds and ends, and is mostly pretty interesting, but it doesn't go into depth on any one subject and the material is not connected by a theme.

The biggest surprise for me was learning that the Trinity universe has space pirates. I guess this is something that maybe I should have inferred, based on the fact that spaceship stats were printed in both the Core and the Technology Manual, but I don't know what to tell you. I guess I had the vague feeling that they were supposed to be rare. You can't have pirates if the very fact that you're in a spaceship automatically narrows down the pool of suspects to, like, eight guys.

So I went back and checked the earlier books. I'm vindicated by the confirmation that none of the other entries directly mentioned pirates. However, I'm also embarrassed to learn that the one time we get hard numbers for a spaceship's production run (for the Offworld Enterprises Ltd Pathfinder freighter) the figure is 100 ships a year, with probable demand easily being twice that much.

The funny thing is that I have no excuse for this. I remember reading these spaceship descriptions quite clearly. I think what happened is that I internalized the idea that space travel = interstellar travel, and there is a legitimate bottleneck when it comes to FTL. Only the teleporters and the new jump ships can make it, and there is explicitly only one jump ship, now that the Upeo Wa Macho have disappeared. I guess I just forgot that there could still be a lot of traffic between areas of our own solar system.

Thus pirates.

This book mainly discusses their ambush and combat tactics, but unfortunately doesn't get too deep into their culture or history. There's enough material to inspire an adventure (I like the idea of rescuing someone who is being held hostage aboard one of their vessels), but not quite enough for a campaign.

There's also a tantalizing bit of metaplot here in the section about fringe religion. There a new cult that worships the hidden progenitor aliens who empowered the Psi Orders, and though the text implies that they're mostly guessing about that, the group's name is the "Doyo." Do they genuinely have contact with the Doyen or is the name based off of something else? Intriguing. 

That section also answers another niche question that I would never have thought to ask, but which I remember from a Baha'i's commentary on the religion's use in Trinity. The reason the Baha'i headquarters was relocated to the moon is precisely because they were kicked out of Mount Carmel by Temple Judaism.

It's a plot point that makes me vaguely uncomfortable, just because there's no clear indication of Temple Judaism's context within the greater Jewish faith. Having a rogue sectarian faction close the borders of Israel is maybe the sort of story you could tell in a sci-fi universe, but only if you center it on the Jewish diaspora and the displaced local population. Without having Orthodox and Reform Jews sitting on the sidelines disapproving, Temple Judaism feels kind of antisemitic. Unintentionally, I'm sure, but it's definitely something they should have spent more care on.

What else? Let's see . . .

Antarctica is rapidly become a capitalist hell-hole, but the process is slowed because the continent is mysteriously cooling. I know global warming wasn't as big an issue in 1998, but that's a weird plot hook.

Also, the Antarcticans call themselves "Borealites," which is a neat name, but wrong for the hemisphere.

Some Chitra Bhanu may have survived. Further details will have to wait until they write some.

There may be an AI in the Trinity universe, but it's not directly confirmed, and the book it would have been in (The Ministry splatbook) was never published.

Finally, swinging back to pirates, they occasionally use fusion warheads to attack ships, implying that such things are commercially available. I don't even want to think of the setting implications.

Overall, Hidden Agendas was a fun book and a quick read, but nothing that I was terribly missing from my Trinity collection (aside from the obvious bit about the ubiquity of space travel, that is).

Ukss Contribution: There's a brief, but desultory section about an avant garde architect that had some neat sci-fi buildings. My favorite was The Summit Center. A big skyscraper that was mounted on a rail that circled a Martian crater. It made one revolution per day for no apparent reason. Every great science fiction or fantasy setting has to have something so pointlessly impractical.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

(AD&D 2e)The Crusades Campaign Sourcebook

 This fucking book.

It's not that it's bad. Quite the opposite, really. The Historical Reference series has had a pretty high level of quality, and The Crusades Campaign Sourcebook doesn't disappoint. It's just . . . It's a book about the Crusades, published by TSR in 1994.

It would be easier if the book were racist. I know how to handle a malevolent book. However, this particular one tries - and largely succeeds - at presenting a humane and balanced look at the time period. But it also has lines like -

"Although early Crusades were often marred by episodes of brutality and religious intolerance . . ."

Oh, were they?! Religious intolerance? In a Crusade?

I could pull quote after quote of this curious semi-naivete. One more -

"The few incidences of Frankish brutality greatly hindered the process of negotiating peace with their Muslim neighbors."

I mean, I'd quibble with the word "few" here, but the general sentiment is correct. The Crusades Campaign Sourcebook doesn't shy away from the awfulness of Crusades, but it also never quite gets away from the idea that we're supposed to find that surprising. That we will sympathize with and excuse the Europeans is simply taken for granted.

We're not supposed to. It's not a good impulse. The book goes out of its way to highlight the achievements of Islamic culture and urges us not to look at the Muslims as "evil pagans." Saladin is "the most glamorous figure of the Crusades" and the book has not a single bad word to say about him. But it also assumes we're going to be heavily invested in the successful prosecution of a Crusade.

It's weird as hell. I think the DMing chapter is as close as we ever get to a concrete expression of the book's point of view: "This sourcebook has not glossed over the injustices and petty hatreds that often (ed: "often"?!) dominated the Crusades, but a campaign should approach the era differently . . . When obsolete medieval attitudes (bigotry, xenophobia, casual cruelty) would keep players from fully enjoying the game, replace those attitudes with more modern beliefs."

I think we're supposed to view it like a team sport. The pope will call for a Crusade, the Fatimid Caliph will counter with a Jihad, and Jerusalem passes back and forth between sides like a football, but in the end, it's all in good fun. You get some outdoor exercise, maybe slay a few infidels in a rough and tumble manly sort of way, but there's no hard feelings.

And I don't know. Maybe 1100 CE is long enough ago that the wounds have healed. I'll admit, it doesn't always feel that way, but I think that may be because Islamophobia has gotten worse over the past 25 years.

Plus, I've played two different "Crusader Kings" games, and it would be pretty hypocritical of me to start demanding that the Crusades be treated with all the same sensitivity we expect for more recent atrocities.

Despite some Orientalist leanings - the two major Islamic states are described as corrupt and "ripe for conquest" and the Assassins are literally called "terrorists" (which I'm pretty sure was a racially-loaded term even in 1994, and is only forgivable because it's somewhat accurate and they are presented as being allied with the Franks) - I do feel compelled to recognize that TSR published a book about the Crusades, in 1994, that directly and unambiguously rebuked the fucking "Deus Vult" memes we're seeing today. That's not nothing.

Mechanically, this book is about as good as you can expect for AD&D second edition. Priests inexplicably keep their magic powers in "historical" games, but the rules for modifying those powers are better thought out than we've seen in the past. For more fantasy-oriented games, it suggests using the Sha'ir kit from Al Qadim to represent both Arabian sorcerers and European witches, which is an idea so good and so obvious that I'm ashamed I didn't think of it first.

The curation of spell lists is a little weird. There's a suggestion that you could replace mages with psionicists for fantasy-genre games (a good idea I did have), but when it trims the power list, it says that Control Flame is inappropriate, but somehow Disintegrate is fine. I'm not saying they picked powers at random to exclude, but I can think of no better explanation.

Overall, I'd say that The Crusades Campaign Sourcebook is better left as a historical curiosity. It's not nearly as bad as the worst of its contemporaries when it comes to presenting non-European cultures, but it does fill a niche - minimally cynical fantasy adventure against the backdrop of the Crusades - that simply doesn't need to be filled. Try using it today and your best case scenario is that your players are as confused as I am.

Ukss Contribution: One of the new kits was the "Pardoner" rogue. They're con artists who pose as priests and sell indulgences and relics. The fake relic trade is one of those historical oddities that I always found morbidly fascinating, and I could probably find a place for it on Ukss.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

(M20) The Book of the Fallen

I almost gave up on this book after reading the Preface. It was titled "Evil Is Not A Toy" and it attempted to set a mood for The Book of The Fallen. This was going to be a book about the sort of grimy and unglamorous monsters that might exist in real life. It does this by relaying a series of various upsetting anecdotes from Brucato's past about people he knew who were threatened, assaulted, or worse. It broke my heart about a half-dozen times in a row, but once I'd recovered a bit, I was forced to ask," if evil is not a toy, then why are you using it in your game?"

After a break of about 24 hours, I decided that it would be a shame to get so close to the end of Mage and not see it through, so I dove back in. Eventually, I would find a fairly useful and intermittently interesting book, but that "why are you doing this" was never far from my mind.

I couldn't quite figure out an answer until near the end, in the Storytelling chapter - "[It] can be fun and intense in a sort of disgusting, under-the-skin, vulnerable sort of way." So many times, I'd read something in this book and think, "that's intense" or "that's disgusting" or "that really got under my skin" and my reaction would be "how could you write that and then continue to write the rest of the book - how are you not seeing the many, many off ramps you keep putting in the text." In retrospect, I guess they thought they were describing something fun.

I'm not a total prude. I understand the concept. Discomfort is not totally incompatible with pleasure. "Those hot wings were delicious - my mouth was on fire." Absent the important context of the first part of the statement, the second part would sound strange. "I bit into this chicken and now my mouth is burning" - "OMG, I'll call poison control!"

That's what significant portions of The Book of The Fallen are like, like I've just wandered into one of those macho spicy food conversation. Brucato likes his roleplaying sessions so intense that you need aftercare when they're done. The very idea makes my skin crawl.

There's a sidebar in this book, called "Cartoon Evil and Realistic Evil" and it pretty much sums up the book's philosophy: "Realistic evil is uncomfortable as hell and rooted in atrocities people actually commit. . .Mage is a game, of course, and so even a realistic-evil approach should be, to some degree, enjoyable to play." My notes for this section are literally "WHAT?!" But while I could roast the hell out of this section (describing your own game as "to some degree enjoyable" is almost as big a self-burn as the Mage Storyteller's Handbook suggesting that GMs "chuckled at the word 'fun'"), I'm going to refrain because I think it gets at something important.

Brucato very graciously concedes that "cartoon evil" has its niche, but I think he fundamentally misunderstands the dichotomy at work here. When we're talking about evil as a narrative element in fiction, we should probably be talking about "tame evil" vs "wild evil." I'm not an academic, so don't expect a rigorous definition here, but what I mean, roughly is that tame evil stays within the confines of the work, as a piece of fiction and wild evil tries to get under the skin of the real person who's experiencing the fiction.

This isn't necessarily a moral distinction. Wild evil has its place, in works that seek to educate or inspire empathy or advocate for a cause or are so literary that they no longer worry about something as frivolous as "enjoyment." However, on a personal level, I feel much more comfortable with tame evil.

It's not something that necessarily maps to Brucato's distinction, though. Cartoon evil has certain advantages, given that it's practically tame by default, but it's easy to imagine going so over the top with the descriptions that it starts to make the audience feel unsafe. Similarly, realistic evil carries with it a certain risk, but that risk can be mitigated with framing and presentation so that it's tame in practice. The KKK is undeniably a realistic-evil villain, but there's a difference between a story that uses them as punch-fodder for the heroes and a story that delves deep into their point of view and tries to present it as an understandable product of their circumstances (even if they are still villains, in the final reckoning).

Although the really ironic thing here is that even if I were to grant the "Cartoon vs Realistic" split as productive and necessary, this book draws the lines wrong. According to the sidebar, realistic evil means "Anyone can be evil," whereas the Nephandi pursue evil for the sake of evil, a hallmark of cartoon evil. If you really wanted to make realistic evil a theme of your game, why wouldn't you just focus on the institutional and personal abuse that happens in the other factions? What goes on behind closed doors of a master-apprentice relationship? What crimes has the Technocracy committed in pursuit of its ideology of dominance. If the whole point of the book is we don't need supernatural conspiracies to explain evil, that real people are all too willing to commit atrocities without any prompting, then what need is there for the Nephandi to act as an intermediary? The Goatkids are already "what probably happened within five minutes of founding the Cult of Ecstasy." Why not just write "The Book of Fucked Up Shit You Can Do With Magic And By The Way It's Happening All The Time."

Fortunately, the book is mostly wrong about its own themes. There's a lot of interesting stuff in the middle that is sometimes gross and occasionally disturbing, but mostly pretty tame. There's a faction of Nephandi called the Exies, whose goal is human extinction and are mainly tech-focused mages who try to attract near-earth asteroids and engineer zombie plagues. I love them as antagonists, but, well, way to avoid "cartoonish," Book of the Fallen

The biggest contradiction inside The Book of the Fallen, though, is in the overall curation of its material. Frankly, for a Storyteller and a villain book, an awful lot of this only makes sense if it's player-facing. Like, the merits and flaws have point values. You can probably justify it as an attempt to provide the Storyteller with a rough guide to balance, but it's tough to pretend that their primary use is to help create NPCs (especially when the Infernal Investments pretty much throw up their hands and say "The cost-benefit ration errs on the side of disorder, not balance"). Likewise, it doesn't mean much as a gesture to omit the background point cost of your more disturbing magic items if you then proceed to include the instructions for how to build those items in their descriptions. Yeah, you don't want players buying them, but since you included concrete sphere numbers, it's actually pretty easy to figure out how much they should cost.

A few months ago, I got mad at Brucato for the terrible storytelling advice in The Orphan's Survival Guide - basically, "It doesn't matter if you cross the line, it's only a game." It's clear from The Book of the Fallen that he's grown a lot in the last 20+ years, because he now warns against crossing boundaries in the strongest possible terms, but it's also clear than in some ways he's still the same guy, because his advice here basically amounts to "get as close as possible to the line, because it's not just a game."

Content Warning: I am going to quote extensively from this book's section on sexual abuse. (whited out for discretion)

It’s important to be open, honest, and consent-minded if you consider bringing sexual violence into your game in any way, let alone to do so with Nephandi who can magickally force a victim’s body to respond, bend a person’s emotions toward unwanted desires, or alter people’s minds to that point where the victim remembers consenting to or enjoying the abuse. A Nephandus could use a Qlippothic approach to the Life Sphere in order to force an orgasm or a pregnancy. Forces and Correspondence allow an abuser to assault her target from a distance. A shaytan or adsinistratus might want to get up close and personal, though, and forego magick entirely in order to hone and enjoy his skills with intimate violation. Any and all of these assaults require direct communication between the Storyteller and the players, even something just as simple as stating, “I’m considering including sexual content in this game. What are your limits, and what would you like to be included or left out entirely?"

I added some emphasis there to show exactly what I'm talking about. The section is about how to include sexual abuse in your game. This is the last paragraph, after discussing how personal and fraught the subject can be. It opens with good advice about seeking consent and it closes with good advice about what seeking consent might actually look like, but then the middle part is all about how sexual violence is possible within the game rules.

Who is that for?!

Well, not me, obviously. I do have to remind myself that this is a spicy pepper-type conversation. If the material were truly awful, just bringing up consent every now and again wouldn't be enough to redeem it, but the horror genre is deep and wide and I'm definitely out of my depth. Plus, I really enjoy Changeling: the Lost, which has similar themes (though if I had to pin down the difference, it's that C:tL is about survivors, whereas BotF is about the perpetrators), so I'm not going to get high and mighty here. 

However, if I'm being honest, my feeling is that the execution was inept. The parts about demons and evil wizards and other things you could punch was good. The esoterica chapter, though its only conceivable use was as a setting pitch, was good in a weird way. The mechanics were bad, but only because Storyteller system mechanics are always bad. However, the parts of the book that were trying to get me to take this all seriously wound making me take it so seriously that I no longer wanted to use any of this in a game. There's no way I would ever want to read a book that truly merited this book's Preface, let alone use it as inspiration for a witch vs cyborg story.

Ukss Contribution: This was not an evil book. Misguided. At times annoying. The first full paragraph so upset me that I wound up putting the whole thing down for about an hour after reading it. But not evil.

I think I'll go with the concept of an evil clothing company that makes murder suits for serial killers. Realistic.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

(M20)Gods & Monsters

 I wasn't planning on reading two of my remaining three Mage books in a row, but I peeked inside the cover of Gods & Monsters, saw that it had 11 credited authors instead of just one, and felt a strange surge of optimism. And that optimism was well justified, because Gods & Monsters is the best book yet in the M20 line. The World of Darkness is too cool for anything as purely functional as a "Monster Manual," but if we acknowledge that the entry for "Cultist" is going to focus on a single, specific cultist and detail her whole backstory (while also not giving us any specific character stats), then the book still works as a rich source of encounters, plot hooks, and setting details.

Setting, in particular, is the ground that Gods & Monsters is going to live or die on. Though the book is admirable in its creativity and diversity - introducing sexy holograms, snakes with the head of an elephant, and the god Anansi, it raises some difficult questions about Mage: the Ascension's place in the urban fantasy genre.

Djinn get their own section heading. There's two full pages about their culture and history. The three sample djinn don't get presented as archetypes, but as individual characters with complex backstories. It's like the book is saying that Mage is set in a world where there just happens to be djinn out there. You take your kids down to story-time at the local library and maybe that one kooky librarian with the melodious voice could be slipping little Billy a book that had never been written, but which fires his imagination like it was made specifically for him. That's just a thing that might happen.

Now, you come to me and say, "hey, in this fantasy setting I'm working on, genies once lived on Earth, but King Solomon developed powerful occult techniques to trap them in vessels and make them do his bidding, triggering a massive war that humanity eventually won, but now it's thousands of years later in the modern day and Solomon's magic is mostly forgotten, leading to a new generation of genies who are willing to venture outside the City of Brass to find their missing and enslaved kin, unaware that the sorcerers are still out there, desperate to resupply their dwindling stock of genie slaves" and I will reply, "Good God, yes! Is this a five-book series or are you planning on milking that idea forever?"

However, we're not actually talking about "Wishes in the Wind, the Djinn Chronicles Volume 1," we're talking about Mage: the Ascension. And we're not even really talking about Mage: the Ascension, we're actually talking about the World of Darkness, and so the use to which we're supposed to put these djinn is unclear. Is the World of Darkness like Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Are you supposed to introduce monsters of the week drawn from real-world folklore and just fail to explore the setting implications until season 3 of the spinoff? Or is the djinn material meant to act as a specialized resource for Arabian and/or Taftani adventures?

I'm reminded of the Power Armor issue. Just as it would be weird to surprise your Vampire players with mechs, it would also be strange if they had to randomly deal with genies. . . But Mage is the game with Power Armor and genies and where you can write a letter to Santa asking him for rocket skates and your GM will have canonical support for making it happen.

It's hard to reconcile. You've got wild, anything goes kitchen-sink fantasy, but then you've got Paradox and Unbelief working to make sure that nothing disrupts the status quo. Which is the "real" Mage? I can't help thinking that Ascension works on an inversion of the Assassin's motto "Everything is true; nothing is permitted."

And maybe that's a cynical take, but it hangs over Gods & Monsters like a cloud. There's a ton of great material here, but also a sense that maybe you're not allowed to use it. Well, maybe "not allowed" is a bit strong, but Chapter 5 is "Crafting Characters" and provides rules for creating your own cyborgs or mythological creatures as player characters . . . while suggesting you take the "Unbelief" flaw which can kill you in as few as 7 rounds if you ever leave the comfort of a compatible "reality zone."

It's a little weird to think that here, in the second-to-last published book, more than 25 years after the first Mage core, we're still stuck in that same dilemma - is magic furtive and subtle or is it the embodiment of every fairy tale, myth, and fantasy epic in the history of the written word?

I suppose Gods & Monsters is a genuinely great Mage supplement because it can support both ideas while also being incredibly frustrating in its lack of commitment.

Oh, and we get a character write-up for Jesus Christ. It doesn't have much reason to exist, because it doesn't take a side in the culture war (describing him as a "Rorschach test for the human soul"), but it does provide an interesting contrast to the write-up for the god Pan, which is far more specific, respectful, and over three times as long. "No wonder the Church felt threatened by Pan. In his core, the god was an equivalent of the Nazarene shepherd . . ."

Even with 11 writers, M20 is still a game with a point of view.

Ukss Contribution: First, a snarky observation from me - there is a sidebar about the fraught cultural baggage associated with the word "totem" and the inappropriateness of using it as a piece of game terminology and it seeks to reassure us that Mage, as a brand, is aware of the issue and doesn't approve of that kind of cultural appropriation . . . and ends with the conclusion that they are already in too deep to change the name of the "Totem" background. Which might have almost been enough, were it coupled with an actual apology and the title of the sidebar were something other than "Controversy is My Spirit Animal."

:slow clap: great job, guys

I only bring it up because my Ukss choice happens to be one of these Patron Spirits (hmm, maybe renaming the Background was pretty easy after all), and I would be remiss if I let that wild sidebar pass without comment (seriously, the game would have been less problematic if that section had been left out entirely, which is presumably not something you want in your sensitivity disclaimers).

Anyway, my choice is Mr Black, the stylish spirit of wealth who is in reality what tech billionaires and Wall Street guys imagine themselves to be. He makes conspicuous consumption look cool.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

(M20)Book of Secrets

 BRUCATO!!!

 Sigh.

I'll confess, for the past seven months or so I've had this bizarre one-sided rivalry with Satyros Phil Brucato. Ever since I read the ridiculously offensive storytelling chapter of The Orphan's Survival Guide and very nearly challenged him to a duel to the death. 

It's probably for the best that I didn't, because I believe now that he may well be a real-life sorcerer. How else does one explain the precision-guided death curse that was this book's "Gender, Sex, and Magick" essay? Somehow, three years before I even made my intemperate comments, he must have  sensed them with his magickal abilities and wrote this section, secure in the knowledge that its deadly power would be delivered to the one and only person in all of human history stubborn enough to read it in its entirety.

No, I kid. The essay is more or less unobjectionable, saying more or less the correct things. It only made me uncomfortable because I've been spending the better part of the last month reading 1000+ pages of Brucato's writing and I've come to the conclusion that he is most likely a certifiable Weird Dude, and thus to have a two page essay about this particular subject so close to the end of the book, when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel . . . well, it felt a lot like what I imagine it would be like to be cornered by him at a party.

Brucato . . . Brucato . . . Brucato! Nobody asked. We were talking about mystically-themed superheroes in an urban fantasy rpg. We've all just sort of agreed to politely ignore the "sex and sensuality" instruments you've shoehorned into every other mystical practice. Do us all a favor and stop bringing it up.

I probably shouldn't be so harsh. It's clear to me that M20 bears the marks of his most deeply held religious beliefs, and as tempting as it would be to treat them with the same carelessness as he reserves for "fundies" or materialist atheists, I actually respect the choice. This is a work with a particular point of view, and as much as I don't personally agree with it, it does what art does - provide a window into another way of looking at the world.

It's just that he does The Thing again.

You know, The Thing. From The Orphan's Survival Guide where he includes a paragraph that is little more than a long list of slurs. The context is different. Instead of encouraging us to use these terms to make our portrayals "less PC" he is now inviting us to take a long look in the mirror and realize that the Nephandi are manipulating us through our hatred (yes, all of us, which is why "cracker" and "Rethuglican" get a place on the list alongside the genuine hate speech).

I think the context probably saves the section from being "evil," but it's also a huge mystery. A little while later, he asks the rhetorical question "Is this cutting a little close to home? Have the last few sentences seemed kind of heavy for your storytelling game?" And I can't tell how much self awareness he actually has here.

"Maybe they are. If so, the Nephandi can remain a distant presence in outer space, occasionally showing up as freaky cultists trying to summon a tentacled horror from the Void."

Is he really just pitching a much better idea that he should have gone with from the start, or is he talking down to us, calling us chicken because we might not want something as raw as a rape-apologist villain?

That's the downside to making your religion into an rpg. Making people uncomfortable starts to feel like a noble commitment to truth. 

It also means that you take certain things super seriously that the uninitiated would barely even notice. Book of Secrets winds up resolving one of M20's enduring mysteries - what does Brucato have against Revised's Resonance rules that he had to constantly take potshots at them in the core? Turns out it's a literalist interpretation of an arcane theological point so subtle that Brucato himself forgets to explain it. The only reason I was able to discern it was because I was given page references.

"In game terms, Synergy gives a new name to the Trait called 'Resonance' in Mage's Revised-era books. Because that trait essentially reversed the previous definition of Resonance (and even the definition presented on pps. 197 - 198 of Mage Revised), Synergy presents an optional rule that lets you integrate both traits into the same chronicle."

Now, if you read that sentence and thought, "wow, at last Brucato has cleaned up the train-wreck of Revised's Resonance rules," congratulations, you might be a wizard. However, if you're like me and you're totally confused about what the hell he's talking about, you might be tempted to go back and check the references.

If you're a Muggle like me, you might come away with the conclusion that the description of the Resonance trait and the definition of Resonance are 100% compatible, with no inconsistencies at all, let alone a total reversal. However, you're not seeing like a mystic and reading between the lines. The flaw in Revised's Resonance is that it divided Resonance into categories of Dynamic, Static, and Entropic.

You see, a materialist like me would read the Resonance categories as a taxonomy. Dynamism, Entropy, and Stasis are White Wolf's Metaphysic Trinity and every phenomenon in the Tellurian contains a balance of all three forces. Thus I would conclude that when a Mage has a Dynamic Resonance, of say "Fiery," then that is just an example of the sort of thing that would have a larger portion of Dynamism. Brucato, on the other hand, would say that if you call a Fiery Resonance "Dynamic" then what you are really claiming is that the Resonance is an emanation of Dynamism. 

And that is why he felt it was very important to point out that "Thematically, however, the distinction between internal and external origins is important. Mage is about self-willed individuals making powerful choices and changing the world, and so the notion of 'power-puppets' on cosmic strings contradicts a vital theme of Mage."

There's a part of me that wants to get angry at this sort of nit-picking. I'll admit, when I first read this, my thought was "Really, that's what was bothering you? That's what all that heavily-emphasized 'optional' business was about? That's what merited a dedicated sidebar and passive-aggressive renaming?"

But I think I get it. Throughout these books, Brucato keeps taking these driveby potshots at Revised, even when doing so is pointless and out of place (for example, he erratas a rule from Forged By Dragon's Fire to be exactly the same, almost to the word), but when you look at M20 as a work of religious faith, the pattern makes sense. Revised was the edition that was about "magic" instead of "magick."

Brucato keeps putting in these self-deprecating jibes about "the pretentious 'k'" but in the FAQ he explains it in direct terms: "Magick is an extension of the person who uses it, changing the world in accordance with that person's will to change it. 'Magic' is fundamentally different from magick, and so we brought back the original Crowleyian spelling of the word. To me, those two words mean very different things."

And that's not pretentious. Culturally specific, maybe. Offputting at times, sure. And I could definitely live the rest of my life in comfort never again hearing Aleister Crowley being referred to as "Uncle Al." But it's not pretentious. It's sincere. And as much as Brucato can get on my nerves at times (I guess having completely incompatible world views will do that), I can't help but respect the hell out of anyone with the guts to be that sincere . . .

(So long as he stops trying to talk to me about sex magick, Seriously. I just want to get to the punch bowl)

Ukss Contribution: Once again, Brucato is all over the place on Marauders, and maybe could use a more thorough education on sensitivity towards mental illness, but they are also one of the few places he allows himself to be truly mythic when it comes to the game's fantasy elements. I liked The Sleeping Lord, a sentient tree who intoxicates anyone nearby with raw chaotic energy.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Nobilis 3rd Edition

 Nobilis is less difficult than I remember.

I always feel a little self-conscious saying things like this, lest people are all, "ooh, John once thought Nobilis was difficult, what a dolt!" Or worse, "So John thinks Nobilis isn't difficult, let's double-check everything he says about it to make sure he's telling the truth."

But you know what, that's just my hang-up. I'm sure anyone reading this is a kind, generous soul who will give me the benefit of the doubt. Let's just say that the first time I read this book, I had a number of unanswered questions, whereas this time I didn't, and that's something that's probably attributable to reading Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine and various online conversations with people who had similar questions.

The thing that became abundantly clear to me, coming in to the book with this new experience, is that I was greatly overthinking it. A good many of my old questions would have been answered if I'd just taken the text at face value and interpreted it literally. In my defense, though, the writing here practically encourages overthinking.

Take this example from a section headed "Movements of the Soul"

The blueprint for a miracle is not in the Power's mind but in their heart and soul. It is not possible for them to plan out miracles of absurd elaboration; rather they make what is elemental in then, what is aesthetic to them, what is right to them. Their miracles are complete. They are things of incredible complexity and detail, for all things existing in the world are things of incredible complexity and detail. They are marvels, for to exist is to be a marvel.

But they are works of art and not design.

And so on, for another long paragraph. But the concept she's trying to get at is actually pretty simple - "Respect the social contract and don't waste your fellow players' time by trying to outwit the literal genie." It's a good warning, because you've got these godlike powers and there's going to be a strong temptation to try and get incredibly specific with them, but that's not to the game's benefit. Yet for all the utility of the rule, it's presented as a consequence of the setting metaphysics and given an ornate philosophical justification.

I don't want to come down too hard here, because this discursiveness is one of the text's best qualities, but it also means that when you have a simple question, you won't believe that it has a simple answer. Or, at least, I didn't. It's a very clever book, but I wasn't doing it any favors when I assumed that it must therefor have hidden meaning on every page. When it says "A game of Nobilis is a conversation" that's not a metaphor or an analogy, it's a specific and useful piece of advice.

I also think a part of what's going on is that Jenna Moran is getting better as a game designer. CMWGE was a revelation, but Nobilis 3rd Edition is merely very good. When I wrote about CMWGE, I talked about the actor/author split in rpgs, and the way Chuubo's straddled the gap, but Nobilis doesn't really do that. The characters are so powerful that they are able (indeed are obligated) to assume some of the GM's traditional authority, and as a consequence it works best if the players are willing to indulge in author-stance-type reasoning, but it does not yet have a core gameplay that encourages that kind of thinking. You've got certain traits that replenish your MP if they inconvenience you, but that's not at all unusual for an actor-stance game. Hell, I'm pretty sure even D&D is doing it now.

It's this relatively traditional structure that got me into trouble. You make characters in a very actor-stance type of way, with character points that can be spent on skills, magical traits, and special gifts and that lead me to assume a traditionally antagonist GM/player split, but I was overthinking it. The book never told me that I should GM like a Dungeon Master, and indeed counseled the exact opposite, but I never took it at its word. I assumed I needed to up my game to cope with the PCs incredible powers.

It was only on this most recent read-through that I realized I was still beholden to the psychology of the dice. The rules of the game are that you can do what your traits say you can do, but sometimes you can spend points to temporarily raise your traits. My brain initially interpreted this to mean that point-spending filled the same mechanical niche as dice-rolling. 

In a traditional rpg, if you want to do something contentious, the GM has you roll the dice and a successful roll gives you permission to say, "yes, I do that." But the other part of that is that a failed roll gives the GM permission to say, "no, you don't." And so my instinct was to look at the intention system and the miracle effects chart and think, "how can I make spending points feel more like rolling dice - how do I get to say, 'no'"

Yet Nobilis isn't the sort of game where the GM often gets to say, "no." The PCs power level guarantees that - "The Nobilis can shatter mountains. They can break or rebuild souls. They don't even have to work very hard to do it." - but it didn't emotionally prepare me for the reality of what that means. It's structured like a traditional rpg, but it can't play like one, and that's why I initially found it so difficult. But once you get used to the idea that you're supposed to be saying, "yes, you can shatter that mountain . . . let me tell you about all the interesting shapes you see in the dust" then it actually becomes a pretty simple game.

So I'm an unapologetic Jenna Moran fan-boy, but I am forced to recognize that Nobilis is a work in progress, an inchoate form of ideas that would be developed to greater sophistication in later works. Yet I still love it, because when it's not being ambiguous about its rules methodology, it's got that unique blend of whimsy, imagination, and horror that characterizes Moran at her best. Cute balloon people! They'll drop you from the stratosphere if you insult them! Wear a parachute when you go to visit.

This book is frequently funny, often breathtaking, and only occasionally frustrating as hell, and that's why it's one of the treasures of my collection.

Ukss Contribution: So many great ideas, so specific to Jenna Moran's sensibility. I liked the suggestion in the character creation section that you could play a five dollar bill that was awakened to consciousness and granted godlike powers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

(M20)How Do You DO That?

Oh, I thought I was going to be so clever. I had a plan. You see, over the years (and especially over the last year), I've noticed certain . . . shortcomings in Mage: the Ascension's magic system. These would always get a call-out in my notes, but usually they were in books that had more interesting things going on, so I'd barely mention them. But I knew that sooner or later, I'd get to this book here, the one that's all about the magic system, and it would be so utilitarian and uncontroversial that it would be the perfect place to talk about the various ways that Mage's highly-technical, highly vague magic system failed to truly deliver on the varied, specific mysticism of its ridiculously ambitious premise.

What I failed to anticipate, however, was that How Do You DO That would be a strong candidate for the single worst mechanical book of any game I'd ever read. This is a Players Option: Skills and Powers-level debacle. Whatever problems Mage's magic system might have are far in the rearview mirror, because even by the standards of Mage, this book is a total mess.

I'm not sure how to even begin. So . . . regular Mage: the Ascension magic is like this unholy amalgam of a word puzzle and an odds-pushing dice game. You've got nine Spheres of magic and five levels to each of these Spheres. The first step to casting a spell is to frame your desired outcome in a way such that it can fit into as few of these 45 categories as possible (or, at least, into the subset of that 45 which you happen to possess). This may take a certain degree of glibness, but creativity is encouraged. Then, you consult the third axis of effect, the Magickal Feats chart and you start to negotiate - is it a standard feat like "altering your shape" or is it a difficult feat like "transforming yourself into a radically different shape." Then, since there's something like a 95% chance that whatever you want to accomplish is going to take more successes than you can reasonably hope to achieve on your 2-3 dice, you have a choice to make - is this worth giving up several of your combat turns to do, or, if you're out of combat, are you likelier to succeed before you inevitably roll a botch. Then you roll the dice a whole bunch of times until your Storyteller begs you to stop.

This is not a great system for any number of reasons, but it is, at least, vaguely functional. How Do You DO That is, ostensibly, a guide to step 1. It promises to give you examples of common effects and tell you where in the 9 x 5 x 20+ matrix these effects should stand. Unfortunately, the answers it gives you are frequently wrong.

I know, I know. What kind of stones I must have to claim that the book is the one that doesn't understand the magic system. How Do You DO That? was written by Phil Brucato himself, the main credited author of the M20 core. It is, by definition, as authoritative as you're going to get. And I honestly don't know what to tell you here. As far out on a limb as I am here, How Do You DO That? frequently gets the rules of the game wrong, and often in ways that take an already shaky magic system and make it complete garbage.

I'll give you an example of a simple, concrete error to try and ease you into my thesis a bit. The section on bypassing common security measures says "Entropy 2 . . . can toss glitches into equipment." And it absolutely can't. Entropy 2 is one of the most sloppily written Sphere levels, and thus the one most likely to get thrown randomly into a conjunctional effect "just in case," but the wording of Entropy 3 definitely resolves this ambiguity. Entropy 2 allows you to "Control Probability" which can, and often does mean just about anything, but Entropy 3 allows you to "Affect Predictable Patterns" and it explicitly calls out "making computers fail" as part of what it can do. You could, I suppose, make the argument that any given machine always has the chance to fail, and thus Entropy 2 should allow you to manipulate the probability of it failing, but by that logic, any event that has some finite probability of actually occurring, Entropy 2 can cause to happen.

Now, I trust, you can see why me picking on poor Entropy 2 is a low-hanging fruit in the realm of arguing about Mage on the internet, but it's important for you to understand that when I talk about How Do You DO That? introducing new bullshit into Mage's magic system, I am not talking about a book with any great degree of mechanical rigor. I would classify a lot of this book's mechanics more as "vandalism" than "innovation" (let alone "explanation" :shudder:).

Let's just jump right in to the worst example. Telekinesis requires the Mind Sphere. . .

I read these books alone, at night, in a quiet hotel lobby and I very nearly rioted. This is not just a bad rule. It's not just an erroneous rule. It is, in fact, a full frontal assault on the very premise of the game. 

Because you don't need Mind to move objects with the Forces Sphere. You need Mind to move objects with your, um, mind. Your Will alone, acting through nothing more than your knowledge of Forces 2, is sufficient to move objects. But if you want to move objects with your mind, you need Forces 2 and Mind 3.

I'm not sure I can even do anything here but rephrase the problem in increasingly dumbfounded ways. The rules are requiring the Mind sphere because the decision of how and where to move the objects is made in the mind, or perhaps because the mage believes their mind is responsible for the movement, but taken to its logical conclusion, this sort of reasoning would lead you to always penalizing a mage who believes in a particular theory of magic - if your elemental powers are a gift from the spirits, your Forces effects would require the Spirit sphere to use. If you believe that your martial arts practice cultivates internal energies, you need to supplement your moves with Prime.

Oh, wait, those last two examples are real. What's especially egregious about the second one is that you also have to spend Quintessence on effects that don't normally require it. Good thing you have Martial Arts equal to your Sphere level, or otherwise you wouldn't be able to use those techniques . . . like a common Brawler.

That's the hardest thing about this book to swallow, these weird, out of nowhere attempts at verisimilitude that mostly serve to elevate Brucato's personal hobby horses to the level of canon (one thing I can be absolutely certain of after reading this book is that there is nothing in the universe that will summon a taxi cab to you besides the Mind Sphere . . . or Entropy 2).  You can use martial arts as a mystic practice if you are a fencer who wields a sword with the Martial Arts skill, but not if you're a swordfighter who wields a sword with the Melee (aka "sword-wielding") skill. Although, in that case you should probably have Melee at a decent level because a realistic martial artist trains their Melee as a common secondary skill (don't blame me for this, blame the sidebar on page 59).

In order to create something with Matter magic, you also have to know how to build it without magic. No waving a magic wand and changing a pumpkin into a carriage, not unless you are already a master carpenter. And no cheating by downloading skills into your brain. This is explicitly called out as "a cool fantasy," but Brucato is not in the business of making a cool fantasy game, and thus it is not allowed.

And I haven't even gotten to the math yet. You know how you're supposed to use magic to deflect an incoming bullet? You're supposed to use your Arete as a dodge roll. If you followed the core's character creation advice (and you shouldn't have), that dice pool is 2. You could do worse by standing up, slack-jawed, and staring at the gun, but not by a lot. The thing that made me write "ARGH!" in my notes, however, was the subsequent suggestion that if you rolled double the attacker's successes, you could reflect the bullet right back at them.

I guess I should just go ahead and add "completely overhaul the Ascension magic system" to my rpg bucket list.

Ukss Contribution: Since this wasn't an offensive book, merely an ill-favored one, I guess I should probably pick something. I liked most of the example fictions (except the anatomically dubious one that suggested lady witches masturbate with their broomsticks . . . because Brucato), but it was a throwaway line near the beginning that I'll most remember fondly - if you transform a murderer into a mouse, you'll wind up with a mouse that looks like it wants to murder you. Cute.