Sunday, May 10, 2020

(Aeon) Distant Worlds

OMG, I love this book! It was just pure fun from cover to cover. It's got that special Aeon (nee Trinity) mix - two parts soft sci-fi nonsense mixed with one part superhero nonsense, blending together to form a heightened space opera reality. It couldn't appeal to me more if it were designed for me personally.

The original Trinity was probably White Wolf's most daring game, and the second edition is a fitting follow-up, introducing new elements that fit seamlessly into the established setting. The interesting thing to me, though, is how some of the old stuff get reinterpreted through the new edition's less cynical attitude. For example, there's a Nor├ža research facility on Averiguas and the book took special pains to remind us that it's "adhering to strict ethical and safety practices." I'm pretty sure that 1st edition wouldn't have bothered (I actually went back and checked - it mentions "[no] human or psion test subjects" which is hardly the same thing).

This repeats often enough to be a noticeable pattern - hierarchies are flatter, the novas of Eden teleported a would-be cult leader into the sun, the criminal gang in the Karoo mining colony is a little less vicious (and also called "The Tigers" instead of "The Leopards" for some reason). I'd say that the softening of the setting is overall an improvement. It definitely feels like it's fulfilling the original game's promise of a diverse, tolerant future.

I also appreciated the book's consistent approach to non-humanoid aliens. I'm not sure nine-legged creatures would ever evolve into megafauna, but at least it's taking the idea of alien evolutionary processes seriously. There are probably at least one too many communal organisms, given that the myriasoma from first edition still exist, but I do admit that the pelagic megamedusoza are suitably spooky and the pre-sapient puppeteers are an intriguing problem waiting to happen. I guess, with the existence of psychic powers in the Trinity Continuum, "colony of creatures that coordinates through the psychic medium" is just a common ecological niche.

Still, it's not all human beings making friends with prophetic crabs and telepathic slugs. The game's traditional villains are still here, despite the more optimistic tone. The Chromatics are treated so sympathetically that they had to have new antagonists invented for them (the darkness-loving cousin species known as Howlers who can only think coherently after they've eaten Chromatic flesh), but the Doyen are still as shitty as ever. We see a couple more planets they've royally screwed over. And, of course, there are still monstrous Aberrants, though the context feels different when we see them mixed in with novas who are trying to be helpful (whether successfully, as those in Eden or with gross, possibly taint-driven incompetence like those on Marfisa or Scream). The new top-tier Aberrant is a great horror antagonist, though - a glowing octopus creature where if you look at him (even through video) the language centers of your brain rot away and you're struck with permanent aphasia. Project Rewrite really justified its existence when they destroyed all the tapes of this guy, that's for sure.

But you know what, this post could be nothing but me quoting things I liked and it would be almost as long as Distant Worlds itself. So let's talk about theme. Distant Worlds corrects a subtle flaw in the original Trinity. It's something I brought up in my post about 1st edition's Stellar Frontier - there used to be a feeling of finitude in the Trinity Universe. Finding planets was difficult, so there were six of them out there and there would probably be more eventually, but the scope was pretty well set. You could read 2nd edition the same way, but 18 planets feels qualitatively different. There's much less of a feeling that I could keep them all in my head at once.

Beyond that, though, there was also a shift in how the planets are talked about. First edition, the planets they gave you had been discovered. Second edition, at least half of them are being discovered. The intro to the second chapter even gets explicit about it - the new planets are meant to be ones that the PCs are first to discover, at least potentially. It's a little less than convincing when the robo-apocalyse world has resident researchers and the psychic crab world has an embassy, but the message is clear. Space exploration is an intended mode of play. (This was technically true in 1st edition as well, but between the disappearance of the teleporters, the near uniqueness of jump ships, and the lack of explicit support, it all seemed very theoretical).

The other great thing about Distant Worlds' setting additions is a sci-fi theme that is much more fashionable now than it was in 1997 - deep time. A lot of the setting's mysteries have answers that go back thousands or millions of years. The main antagonists are themselves an elder species who transcended their physical forms 4 million years ago. I love it. It really gives a galaxy that lived-in feel. It also means that on those rare occasions you stumble across a recent event (the planet with the murder bots went to shit only one year before humans arrived!), it has a stunning sense of urgency.

My only real disappointment with Distant Worlds is how it once again fails to explain why Brazil gets to claim a whole planet. But at least, this time, it feels like a much smaller portion of the universe.

Ukss Contribution: Oh, so much good stuff here. I could probably do an Ukss contribution from every individual world. I'm going to stay pretty modest though. Mgitu, the gas giant, has an improbable native ecology, including airwhales. They're a bit more sci-fi than Mongo's air whales, but I took it as a sign. I'm going to enrich the life of Aetheria by picking another aerial species - the beanstalk. It's a plant that grows in a cloud, and then extends roots down to other, more nutritious clouds miles below. Just a neat fairy tale image in the middle of our sci-fi, why not.

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