Thursday, September 23, 2021

(Planescape) Planes of Chaos

This book was really good . . . just not at what it set out to do . . . but what it set out to do was misguided . . . but the most misguided thing about it is its unique audacity. . . 

Almost every part of this boxed set is peak D&D. It does exactly what you hope a new fantasy setting is going to do and presents unique, well-drawn locations that incorporate distinctive and memorable magic while serving as an apt backdrop for character-driven adventures. It's some of the best setting work I've seen for AD&D so far, and it has the absolute best version of  the "slay rats for an innkeeper" quest I've seen in any rpg, tabletop or otherwise.

(The rats in question are actually intelligent Cranium Rats and they're getting revenge on the innkeeper by stealing his rat poison and feeding it to his customers)

But why is it in the planes?

A fantasy world can have giant treetop villages. It can have wind-swept caverns, carved by a vanished, ancient civilization to sound like the wailing of grief. It can have forests where the branches of the trees are venomous snakes. You could even put them all in the same world and have it be a place of romance, intrigue, and adventure. Or you could put them in a number of separate and distinct alignment-themed worlds, sorted by how bad each idea made you feel.

And look, on some level I get that this is just me nitpicking. These locations might not be in the same "world," but they are in the same setting, and there's not much practical difference between "Zrintor, the Viper Forest lays many hundreds of miles south of Grandfather Oak. You must travel to the nautilus town of Elshava, on the Ossa sea, and follow the coast to the fortress town of Broken Reach, from whence you may venture into those tainted lands" and "There is a planar conduit near Grandfather Oak that leads to Ossa, the second layer of Arborea, where you can find a portal between Elshava and Sigil, and then, from Sigil to Broken Reach, on the Plain of Infinite Portals, where you can find passage to Zrintor . . . if the price is right."

These are still locations which have a geographical relationship to each other. You may hop from one to another through magical doorways that bypass the normal rules of time and space, but there's nothing inherently virtuous about geographical continuity. Those long journeys between named locations would just have been handwaved away with downtime anyways. It's just weird to me the way these things feel sorted, as if, in a regular fantasy setting, you had "The Continent No One Would Ever Want To Visit" and "The Continent No One Would Ever Want To Leave" (separated, of course, by "The Ocean That Will Atomize You If You Ever Try To Cross It").

To be fair, the Chaos Adventures book indirectly addresses this.

The adventures here should put to rest any mistaken idea that the Lower Planes are where all the fun is, that the Upper Planes are simply too good to be of much interest to an adventurer. If it hasn't become obvious from reading through the rest of this boxed set that the Upper Planes are every bit as dangerous and exciting as the Lower, a quick read through these adventures makes it exceedingly clear.

Not mentioned is the Lower Planes chilling the fuck out for five damned minutes, but I have to assume it's implied. Both these agendas are accomplished in more or less the same way, though - by making the Planes more like an ordinary world where people can be expected to live.

The Lower Planes has towns now. Sure, they're violent and filled with treacherous scum, but you can buy things there, and even stay the night with a rational expectation that the locals will not cut your throat in your sleep.

Likewise, the Upper Planes have commerce. Arborea is "the breadbasket of the planes." The crops they grow are unnaturally large and delicious and they are sold to merchants for a good price. As adventures, you may even find good work in protecting said merchants from the monsters that lurk in the wilderness.

The monsters.

Now, I don't like to think of myself as a total rube. I get that this is all for the good of the game. The peaceful farmers of Peaceful Farmtown need your help! Owlbears have been spotted, and the local militia are worried that they might pose a threat.

Okay, that's a good adventure. Find the source of the monsters, eliminate the threat, save the town. Real hero business. Except, Peaceful Farmtown is literally in heaven. That's what put the "plane" in "Planescape." These places are the lands of the dead, the final destination of mortal souls, and pure emanations of the fundamental building blocks of the soul.

So what we've got is a situation where someone has lived an entire life in the material world, but not just any life, an exceptional life, one in which their actions exemplified not just a benevolent regard for the well-being of others, but also a principled commitment to freedom and personal autonomy. And this is not just a "closest fit" sort of scenario. There's an entire separate realm for "people who mind their own business, do what they want, but are mostly okay." You are Good with a capital G. And your afterlife is one where you work on a farm (and it's explicitly established that "petitioners get the blisters" when the Greek Gods refuse to upgrade their land's tools to iron) in exchange for money and there's a real possibility that your soul may be devoured by a monster, never again to exist in any form.

I feel like maybe the metaphysical implications of this were not entirely thought through.

Of course, the obvious next question is what I'd rather have in its place. What am I going to do, put my foot down and say "no monsters in heaven," and then have exactly the sort of boring game Chaos Adventures went through such trouble to refute? "Why yes, I do agree that the Upper Planes are too good to be interesting, as it should be."

I mean, I don't entirely agree with the solution, but I can see the designers' dilemma. I guess the best way to articulate my problem is to invert the question - what's the point of the Prime Material Plane?

It's kind of a big deal. Its inhabitants are "the Clueless," the ones who don't know much about the afterlife because they were just regular alive, in the place where living things usually come from, and which is the only place in the universe that's not "the planes." There has to be a contrast there, otherwise the Prime characters' ignorance of the Great Wheel would just be ordinary ignorance, every bit the equivalent of the Planar characters' ignorance of the Prime Material plane. Like, maybe everybody is "clueless" about places they've never been been before. . .

Okay, okay, sarcasm aside, it's not clear exactly what criteria go into making a world one of the Planes of the Great Wheel and what makes it a Prime Material world. My inclination is to say that the Prime Material worlds are, um, material. They have the sort of environment that can support the metabolic and reproductive processes of various mortal species. You can travel to the Outer Planes all you want, but the food you find is like Persephone's pomegranate or the feasts of the fair folk - you eat it and you lose at least a small part of your life, becoming tied to the otherworldly realms. Except that's not it, because people grow all kinds of food in Arborea, and not only is it safe to eat, it's better than regular food.

My other thought was maybe the Outer Planes were more abstract than the Prime Material, that they represented pure ideas and the realm of forms that gives the material world its fundamental shape. They can sometimes seem like that, and I'm pretty sure that's more or less exactly what they were, pre-Planescape, but also, the realm of Chaotic Good has deadly monsters.

I can think of a couple of ways to resolve this. I had an idea that maybe you could split away half the awful stuff from the two lower planes and half the great stuff from the two upper planes, shuffle the eight halves together and get four pretty damned great alternate primes. Planescape then becomes a kind of fantasy Sliders (and no, I don't have a more timely reference for you, what do you want from a guy doing in-depth critiques of 25 year-old rpg supplements) where you hop between different variant campaign setting, but none of it has special religious significance. 

The other way to go with it is an ecological approach - the Outer Planes are these abstract realms of fundamental meaning, but they are also capable of supporting mortal life, and thus mortals are doing what mortals do - expand into any remotely available niche and exploit it for all it's worth. I think this is the general approach that Planescape is going for, but I'm not sure any of the books I've read so far realize how fundamentally weird a premise this is, and they especially don't lean into the weirdness and try to explore its possible implications.

Like, okay, one thing we understand about Arborea is that its magical life energy means that crops grown there are unnaturally abundant, nutritious, and delicious. And that's economically valuable for obvious reasons. But why are the crops being grown by dead souls? "Welcome to free-spirit heaven, let me direct you to your completely mundane 9-5 job." The book is somewhat ambiguous about this point, and there are indications that the main trade cities are populated primarily by mortal transplants, but it's tricky to discern because the transplant cities mostly fit into the general tenor of the plane.

And it's not clear why this should be the case. It actually seems pretty obvious to me that there's not a great deal of overlap between the sort of person who would be admitted into Chaotic Good heaven and the sort of person who sees Chaotic Good heaven and thinks "I bet I could make a shit ton of money if I chopped down that magical forest and used the land for raising crops." And maybe, if we're exploring this line of reasoning, then we could neatly reconcile the "the Upper Planes are too good to be interesting" problem with the "why the fuck are there soul-destroying monsters in the Upper Planes" problem and have the central conflict stem from the unnatural presence of an invasive Lawful Evil agribusiness in the Chaotic Good afterlife.

We could even bring the monsters back into it. Maybe the monsters hitched a ride with the mortals. Maybe they're created out of the psychic dissonance between the intruders and the plane. Maybe they're the plane's immune system, lashing out at an irritant. Maybe the dead are so outraged by the mortals' exploitative practices that they're falling back on their old Chaotic Good virtue to wage a guerilla campaign, using the fantastic creatures of the Outer Planes as both weapons and allies. Maybe it's all of the above.

The mortals don't even have to be evil for many of these plots to work. If they're Lawful Good, then the dangerous paradox monsters may be a natural consequence of their actions, even as the inhabitants of the plane are reluctant to escalate the conflict to open violence.

The main canonical obstacle is the tendency of planar locations to shift out of unsuitable planes and into more compatible locations. There are any number of ways to solve this problem, however - from magical rituals, to simply having a business model that incorporates the cost of resettling every few years to just not having a bit of canon that preemptively shuts down the most interesting types of conflict.

Planes of Chaos is a marked improvement over the main Planescape boxed set, but ironically, it lacks the radical edge necessary to challenge its own received AD&D legacy. The structure and purpose of the planes were inherited from a game that made some very specific assumptions, and aside from some peripheral noodling that amounts to little more than retconning a few of the more religiously fraught names (they're not "demons," they're tanar'ri) the setting isn't actually allowed to mess with those assumptions (like what the hell is even the point of "planar layers" - can't we just allow heaven to have three different types of terrain). The need to remain compatible with the other campaign settings is holding Planescape back from being its own thing.

Don't get me wrong, though. There's a lot of good stuff here. It's just good stuff that's also careless about the metaphysics, doesn't take advantage of the available scale, and which weirdly shoehorns in the Greek and Norse gods, despite not being nearly Greek or Norse enough to do those characters justice (and, conversely, being in constant danger of losing the plot when it does dip into culturally specific themes - the Greek dead have slaves in the chaotic good afterlife realm . . . don't look at me, I don't know either).

Sometimes I'm struck by an overpowering sense of bemusement when I survey the landscape of the tabletop rpg-derived branch of the fantasy genre. Dungeons and Dragons looms so large here, but what D&D is is a countless number of very talented people playing inside of a sandbox built out of Gygax's peculiar obsessions and half-assed first drafts, but then because they're so talented, they manage to build some really cool shit inside that sandbox (and for all that he's become a problematic figure, I don't want to completely dismiss Gygax either). And the result is these huge snowdrifts of ideas that have just accumulated over the years and sometimes they have enough weight to crack the boundaries of the sandbox, but even as the ideas rush to fill in the genre's newly expanded borders, you still get these weird throwback stowaways that pop up and barge their way into places they have no business occupying (seriously, how the hell are Greece and Noway canon in AD&D - the books may be coy about it, but "on a certain Prime Material world" isn't fooling anyone), and then you get new generations who have never even read the primary sources talking about "generic" campaign settings, and basing whole new settings off of rebuttals to reactions to things that were never really meant as a coherent statement because they've had 30 different authors spread out over 25 different books, written over 15 years.

And then Plansecape exists as bridge between half a dozen examples of this, while also being an example of it on its own, and this is what I'm choosing to critique as "the AD&D afterlife setting." So, I guess what I'm saying is that I have no idea where I get the absolute fucking gall to say that I wish it hung together a little better, but I do, so ball's in your court, Wizards of the Coast, about hitting me up about that remake.

Ukss Contribution: The thing I most appreciate about the "planar" setting is the way it allows the creators to invent magical things that aren't necessarily tied to a magic system. Thus, you can have something like Evergold, (Arborea's improved name for the fountain of youth), without having to imply the existence of a "restore youth" spell. My favorite example of this is Howler's Crag. If you climb up to the top of this cliff, you can shout a message to anyone, living or dead, and they'll hear your words as a voice in the wind. It's just a weird magic rock in the middle of the hell of wind and darkness, but it's such an un-AD&D type of worldbuilding. There's a romantic legend that just happens to be true. You can find it and be a part of it. My absolute favorite type of fantasy.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Secret Societies of Barsaive

An rpg supplement may have a number of possible agendas. It could exist to expand the world, outlining new places to go and new people to meet. It could expand character options, giving players new ideas for PC backgrounds and new mechanical widgets to play around with. It could pitch story ideas, giving the GM the tools to create new adventures. It could just be a thinly veiled fantasy fiction, advancing the settings lore, but existing mostly to be read by people who are invested in the ongoing plot.

Or it could be like Secret Societies of Barsaive and attempt all of the above at once. What's astonishing about this book, however, is that it actually does a pretty decent job at servicing multiple goals at once. It's a jack-of-all-trades supplement, and even though it is still proverbially the master of none, it comes closer to that mastery than you'd have any reasonable right to expect. It's probably the best Earthdawn book since Parlainth and an overall pleasure to read.

"Secret Societies" is an interesting theme for a book because it can (and does) mean just about anything, but the one thing it definitely always means is "a group of people doing shit that's so interesting they have to keep it a secret." There's occasionally some unfortunate overlap between the organization (these spies work for Throal, these other spies work for the Blood Wood or the two separate groups that assassinate people for their dark patron, but with slightly different methods and goals), but even with the redundancies, they're all people who are doing things that would lead to all hell breaking lose if the wrong people found out about it. And sometimes the PCs want to stop the wrong people and sometimes the PCs are the wrong people, but either way, the campaigns practically write themselves.

And that's what this is, really. A slim book with 14 different mini-campaigns. The super racist worshipers of the god of slavery can be recurring antagonists (if you can handle how uncomfortably like the KKK they are - the metaphor is really on the nose). Or the PCs can get involved in the Liferock Rebellion and just be situated right at the center of any number of metaplot events as they take the fight to the Theran Empire. It's possible that the book might be too versatile for its own good - if one of the potential campaigns hooks you, you're only going to have about a half-dozen pages of material to work with - but if you're a newcomer wondering what to do with Earthadawn, or an old GM, looking for something new to do with Earthdawn, you're going to have a lot of options.

The weirdest thing about Secret Societies of Barsaive - and I'm calling it "weird" because I can't really say that it's either good or bad - is the way it seems to push "espionage thriller" as a fantasy campaign model. A lot of the adventure hooks revolve around learning things you're not really supposed to know, or stopping your enemies from doing the same, or around uncovering moles or safeguarding your organization's operational security to keep it from being compromised. It doesn't get deep into spycraft, but it's clear that it's supposed to be a concern.

The best thing about The Secret Societies of Barsaive, at least from my perspective as a guy who's been following along with Earthdawn from its earliest supplements, is the way that it indirectly fleshes out some of Barsaive's neglected locations. This is probably the closest we're going to get to seeing the inner workings of Kratas or Iopos, barring an adventure that sneaks in a little more setting in the background (as has been known to happen). 

It wasn't ideal to learn about these locations from the perspective of their espionage and law enforcement organizations, but the relevant sections were more generous with information than they needed to be. I especially liked learning about the complex politics of the magically talented Denairastas clan. They work well both as villains and as a potential source of PCs in a morally grey palace politics game. It's a shame they never got a full book.

The only thing I didn't like about this book was the framing device. There always has to be one, and this time it was a series of reports made by Theran spies. Those guys are the absolute worst, always arrogantly deciding to encourage the dark cults to cause trouble for Barsaive. At least we didn't get any slavery apologism this time, though.

Ukss Contribution: There was something to love in every chapter of this book, but I guess I have to choose one. I'll go with Little Dreams, the toy company that acts as cover for Throal's weapon smuggling operations. I'll probably have the different strands of their business dovetail a bit more (weaponized toys!), but even unembellished, the juxtaposition charmed me.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

(Planescape) Monstrous Compendium Appendix

 Ooh, this was a fun one. Monster books are always so easy. Come up with a weird fantasy creature and white a page about it. Very difficult to screw up. Even when you're dealing with the occasional dud, some new idea is only a page away. 

The Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix has a higher hit rate than most, thanks to having a strong theme (monsters you might find in heaven or hell) and the ability to cherry pick from the best of previous Monstrous Compendiums (according to the title page, MC8 "and other sources"). Its main weakness is that it's an AD&D monster book, and thus it's only intermittently cognizant of its monsters as elements of a story

I'll give you the most extreme example - The Translators. They are "messengers of the powers of neutrality" and already we're off to a shaky start, but other gods use them too so there is, at least, the potential for plot. And they are, themselves, kind of neat - elaborately-decorated silver orbs that glow with celestial light and speak every language, intelligent in their own way, but with no desire other than to deliver their messages. Your DM presents you with a situation where you have to heist the theo-mechanical construct containing the direct word of a living god, that's a pretty tight adventure.

Now, the ridiculous part. If you tamper with one, your actions will be noticed, and the god whose word you stole will intervene to try and stop you. It's not ideal that this is automatic, because read strictly this shuts down the heist plot, but it's not that big a deal. Just adds one more step to the theft. However, the mechanics of how the gods intervene are absolutely off the wall. Roll 1d100. On a result of 1-99, the god sends an aasimon (angel). If the result is 100, roll again. If this second roll shows 1-99, the god sends 1d6 + 1 angels. And already this is the most AD&D thing imaginable . . . except if the second result is 100, the god itself shows up. . .

The book is asking you to roll a d10,000. Who designs an encounter like that? I guess it's comparable to botching a 10-die roll in the Storyteller System (6 in 10,000 chance, assuming a target number of 6), but that's a worst-case scenario for including a "triggers on botch" effect. A much more likely scenario is 6 dice vs target number 8, which has roughly the same chance of happening as rolling a natural 1.

Although the more pertinent question is why you're leaving the appearance of a literal god up to an arbitrary roll of the dice. Either you want "potentially drawing the ire of a vengeful deity" to be part of your adventure's stakes, or you don't. So you tie the appearance of the god to the PCs success or failure at various objectives within the scenario, building tension by narrating closer and closer near-misses until a final, fateful roll. You don't just slap four d10s down on the table and pretend that if you roll all 0s, it's completely out of your hands.

Likewise, the number of enforcer angels that show up should be determined by the sensitivity and importance of the message, which is itself, presumably, scaled to what your PC group are qualified to handle (i.e. do the quest at level 1, intercept a farmer's request for rain, do it at level 20 and you have to stop the order that starts the apocalypse). Sometimes 1 and sometimes 1d6 +1, depending on the whim of the dice, doesn't make any sense, even from a "rules as physics" point of view.

The Translators' backup roll is merely the logic of the book taken to the extreme, though. Even the more lore-heavy entries still stumble at addressing how the monsters are likely to be used in play. By the very virtue of being a Monstrous Compendium, the text misses out at developing its various fiends, angels, and elementals into vibrant characters that occupy a niche in the Planescape setting.

Take Arcanoloths. They're these dapper, nerdy jackal-demons who negotiate mercenary contracts for their fellow demons, and half their entry is about how to fight them. Nothing about stealing their scrolls or shaking them down for information or hiring them to represent you when the Harmonium puts you on trial in Sigil. 

I mean, look at this guy:

Do you want to fight this guy? Or do you want to run into him in a seedy extraplanar bar and listen to him complain about his job and hey, maybe you could help him out, he could make it worth your while?

When I posted about the Planescape Boxed Set, I saw comments to the effect that Planescape was meant to be TSR taking aim at White Wolf, but if so, they missed a key element - the talking bits are way more fun than the fighting bits, and this first Monstrous Compendium doesn't give us near enough talking bits to work with. I suppose that's probably a side-effect of being largely legacy material, collated and reprinted to coincide with the new setting, but written long before Planescape was even a thing.

Anyway, my complaints thus far have given the impression that I'm much more down on this book than I really am. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. The best part, as Mr Arcanaloth up there can attest, is the art. There are so many spectacular pieces that I'm tempted to make this a big art post. My favorite is the Night Hag

This lady is definitely going to feed me a poison apple and I love it, but almost every monster portrait is distinctive, inspiring, and fun. . . except maybe some of the monsters whose deal is that they look like beautiful women. Like, okay, I get why the succubus looks a little porn-y, fair enough. And the Erinyes is supposed to be a terrible spirit of vengeance and not a lingerie model, but the monster description was way off base, so I can't really pin that on the artist. But why is the sexy cat lady staring directly into my soul? And the tiefling is just gratuitous.

Still, if I'm reading the credits page correctly, the whole book was illustrated by just one guy, which is wild to think about. I hope TSR compensated Toni DiTerlizzi well, because he has been carrying this whole setting so far. I'm hoping that as we go on, we'll start to see some writing that consistently rises to the level of the art design.

Ukss Contribution: Despite my backhanded words, a lot of the individual creatures were pretty interesting. I really liked the mephits as a group, though I was a bit shocked when I took a closer look at the stat block and realized they were canonically 5 feet tall. It's a weird decision because they're these comically annoying mascot characters and absolutely adorable if you imagine them as 1 foot tall (which I always did when I DMed Planescape back in the 90s). I guess they don't lose much by being the goblins of the elemental planes, but the sensation of being so wrong for so long is a little jarring for me.

Anyway, my favorite variety was the dust mephit

They don't just look goth, they say things like "A dust mephit I am, lest dust I become!" OMG! Sooo cuuute. I'm going to continue picturing them as 1 foot tall, though, because that's the size of the plush I desperately want to buy from Hot Topic.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) The Theran Empire

 Why is Barsaive in Ukraine? That's the question I have to ask before I can even begin to form an opinion on The Theran Empire. It might not seem entirely relevant, but the bulk of the book (120 out of 176 pages) is devoted to fleshing out Thera's conquered provinces, regions that are politically very much like Barsaive, but which have not declared independence (yet), so if I can work out the process by which Barsaive was constructed as a setting, then I can determine how surprised I should be by the worldbuilding in this book.

So far, Barsaive has mostly been "what if D&D, but it showed its work," and it's been great. There's these places and sometimes they're a trope (like Kratas, the city of thieves), and sometimes they're riffing on a unique idea (like the Blood Wood), but they're still D&D-fantasy-style places. That's not to sell Earthdawn short or anything. It's done D&D fantasy as well as anyone ever has, but it's clearly working within a genre. You could call it "generic fantasy," but it has a very specific set of assumptions. Or perhaps "European fantasy" except that it doesn't really resemble any specific place or time in European history.

And that's important, because it seems like the answer to "Why is Barsaive in Ukraine" is "Why not?" Maybe it's because I don't know a lot about Ukranian folklore, but there doesn't seem to be anything in the setting of Barsaive that demands that it be in this specific location. The coastlines match up, but everything else about the cultures, the cosmology, and the creatures of Barsaive suggests that this is more of a riff on Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk than a deep dive into Slavic mythology.

Something like that could go anywhere. You probably want to keep it in the vicinity of Europe, to avoid any unfortunate "this land was once home to an ancient society of white people" nonsense, but Barsaive could be in Germany or France or Great Brittan and we wouldn't be terribly confused about the strange location of this prototypically Ukrainian fantasy world.

That being said, I don't think the choice of location was entirely arbitrary. If you're making an rpg that is the secret history of the Shadowrun universe, even as just a sly little easter egg, then you want it somewhere that people can look at geographical landmarks and make the connection, but if you want it to be able to stand on its own, you don't want to be too on the nose about it. With all due respect to my Eastern European readers, for whom I'm sure the coastline of the Black Sea is immediately recognizable, Ukraine offers a nice compromise. Point it out, and you'll get an "oh, yeah," but you're not dealing with a province of Talea type situation

Can you guess where this location is in our real world?

People who've read The Theran Empire will probably have picked up on what I've been building up to, but that map there is more articulate than anything I might have said. You might ask "Why is Barsaive in Ukraine," but there is never even a moment's doubt as to why Talea is in Italy. The text is somehow less subtle than the map.

The province of Talea is divided between fractious Dukes who must contend with the powerful Signori who rule the cities and employ mercenary armies paid for by their extensive mercantile interests and all of them answer to the leader of a celibate religious order, called the Pompate, who worships a god that preaches the virtues of poverty, but whose church is massively wealthy and houses its important priests (called "paders") in opulence while building an enormous number of expensive monuments. . .

And look, I'm not saying it's bad, but it is a style of worldbuilding we've not seen in Earthdawn before, and is extremely weird in a place that is literally the physical location of the culture it's plagiarizing, just 8000 years in the past. You could pitch me "Renaissance Italy with the serial numbers filed off, but in a fantasy world with elves and dwarves and gender equality," and I'd be mostly okay with it. I'd probably ask what you were planning on doing with Christianity, and I wouldn't be entirely comfortable if you replicated this book's approach (the church is convinced that some important figure is going to be born in the future, and have assembled some kind of ramshackle theology based on what they think his teachings are likely to be, an approach described in-character as "mind-bending nonsense"), but I get it. By basing it on history, you get some automatic verisimilitude and by making it fantastic, you're ensuring that your players can't peek at your campaign notes by browsing Wikipedia.

And if Barsaive were specifically Ukrainian, I could probably leave it at that. "Oh, they're doing to Italy what they did to Ukraine, the so-called 'Age of Legends' is just a funhouse mirror version of our current historical age and so everywhere you go, you're going to run into tropes." But Barsaive is not Ukrainian. It's 95% fantasy nonsense, and so my reaction was more like "whoa, what game am I reading and what did it do with Earthdawn."

Now I'm forced to talk about cultural appropriation. Sometimes I get the dark suspicion that my reluctance to venture into these waters is an affectation. "Ooh, I'm so humble, I know I don't know enough to have an informed opinion, but the book is forcing me to talk about it" . . . and then somehow getting into this situation at least three or four times a year, but The Theran Empire really does some weird things with culture and I've been treading water in this post to delay talking about it, but I've already dipped my toe in Talea so I might as well take the plunge.

So . . . Thera is an empire. It goes around the world conquering and enslaving people. Its book, then, is largely about the places it's conquered. And this is important to note because cultural appropriation, as a concept, is about imperialism. It often gets simplified into the idea that it's wrong to use ideas from cultures you don't belong to, but that was never really the issue. The issue is more about which voices get heard when you talk about a particular culture.

Look at it this way - Alice and Bob go out to dinner with Charlie. There's a fundamental difference between Charlie saying "Alice, tell me about yourself" and Charlie saying, "Bob, tell me about Alice." The second question is extremely rude, because we assume that Alice is capable of speaking for herself. 

It doesn't necessarily have to be. There are mitigating scenarios. Maybe Alice and Charlie don't share a common language and Bob has to translate. Maybe Bob and Charlie are really good friends and Alice is just tagging along, taking no interest in the conversation and playing on her phone. There are any number reasons why Alice may be perfectly content in not participating in the conversation.

Now, imagine that Bob has a history of exploiting and abusing Alice. Suddenly, this line of speculation got a lot less fun. Even if those old excuses still happened to be true, the conversation is now undeniably creepy.

"Cultures influence each other" - it's not just something people say when they don't want to talk about cultural appropriation, it's also important, good, and true. The world would be a pretty barren place if we didn't have the capacity to learn from each other. That's the rub, though. "Learning," in order to be actual learning, must come from a place of humility and respect, or else it might cross that fuzzy line into "copying" or, god forbid, "parody."

It's the difference between "I traveled to a distant land and the artisans there really helped me improve my bowl-making skills" versus "look at this cool bowl I made all by myself" (oh, and in the interest of not replicating this error - this post owes a lot to the cultural appropriation primer) versus "isn't it funny how dumb this bowl looks, that's how they make them in a distant land." It can be frustrating that such a fraught issue can rely on something as ephemeral and subjective as "attitude," particularly when there's no guarantee that your attitude will be judged with generosity, but it is what it is. 

And I made this long digression because I have not the slightest clue what The Theran Empire is trying to accomplish, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with at least some of the stuff I just said.

That's why I started this off by singling out the province of Talea. It's an example of that rude, 3rd person conversation, but I'm pretty sure Alice and Bob have a decent relationship. It's the Age of Legends and what are things like in the region that will one day be known as "Italy?" They're like a fantasy version of renaissance Italy, but everything is under an alias and maybe some of the philosophy and theology is a bit sloppy because this is just a game.

Fair enough. Now let's look at the province of Creana. "It is known for the fertility of its central river" and "fabulous monuments to the dead." It is ruled by a monarch called "the Pharon" who sits atop a rigidly hierarchical society called "the pyramid of Name-givers." Also, there are mummies.

Can you guess where in the world Creana is supposed to be?

Okay, that was a gimme. Now for the tough one - what does it mean that Creana isn't that much like Egypt after all? It's a subtle point. Barsaive isn't Ukraine, it's European fantasy tropes, but Creana isn't Egypt . . . it's European fantasy tropes . . . about Egypt. It's all very surface, but the surface is very consistent.

When I think of the way this book handles Egypt and India and North Africa, what I'm most reminded of is Oriental Adventures (Italy and German were also Oriental Adventures, but they're European so it's . . . okay . . .?). Which is to say that I got a sense of moderate amounts of research deployed in compiling a list of cool ideas and then using those ideas in a fairly slapdash way to build a setting by more or less the same process as you used to create the base campaign world. And because this is Earthdawn we're talking about, that slapdash worldbuilding does tend to be better justified than most - the reason not-Egypt has so many rogue undead is because a leftover Horror is blocking passage to the Lands of the West (the afterlife) and so the spirits return to their original bodies and just sort of mill around . . . except for mummies, who have their brains removed as part of the process and thus get reanimated as mindless killing machines (because, apparently, the brain still serves a purpose, even to the undead).

But despite being more than a little bit Oriental Adventures, these sections are also a product of 90s FASA, so they're plausibly, if confusingly woke . . . relatively speaking . . . for the time period. Near the beginning of the India Indrisa section, it talks about "the moral bankruptcy of Thera's imperial aims" and that's kind of a running theme throughout the book. Like a lot of other Earthdawn products, The Theran Empire is kind of a book within a book within a book. Ostensibly, we're reading first-hand accounts, collated by Merrox, chief of Throal's Great Library, and then . . . published . . . by FASA? So the pattern is that the bulk of the book is from the Theran perspective, and it's pretty awful, but then the framing device says, "look at this dickhead, the concrete details are probably correct, but don't trust his spin" and thus the majority of the actual information is tainted, but you're supposed to know it's tainted, and FASA knows you know, but you know that they know you know, and I guess the conclusion is that slavery is very definitely bad, but it's not as if Thera invented it . . .

The thing I want you to know is that this has been a very difficult post for me. I'm on something like hour 12 of trying to hammer my thoughts into place, not counting all the pacing back and forth I did while reading the book, muttering to myself "how the hell am I going to turn this into a post?"

What's getting me all tied up is that Earthdawn is advantaged in the fact that Barsaive is the victim of imperialism, so the game is automatically inclined to say the right things about imperialism, but also Barsaive is white, and so the suspicion is there that this is just special pleading . . .

I don't think that's what's going on, but the evidence is largely contextual. There are sections that definitely, without a doubt, attempt to justify imperialism and slavery, but the narrators of those sections are specific characters that the book means to portray as assholes . . . except maybe that one guy who was Thera's leading philosophical proponent of slavery, who the narrator "half-expected . . . to be an evil man. . . Instead [they] found him to be kind and moral but profoundly self-deluded. [They] could not bring [themselves] to hate him. But he and Name-givers like him must be driven from power before Barsaive can be truly free."

What am I supposed to do with that? I think maybe I need to acknowledge that I've been radicalized in the last few years and that this is generally a good 90s take. If we pull back and become even more contextual, we can see that the book puts the lie to Thera's rationalizing that they only enslave criminals by seeing an example of them boosting their slave numbers by arbitarily criminalizing the population of Marac (north Africa). That's a trenchant observation - the tyrants can't be trusted to play by their own rules. If your territory isn't producing enough "criminals" to meet their labor demands, they'll diplomatically recognize the rump government of a deposed tribal leader and declare two thirds of the country in open insurrection.

Then the framing device will say it's uncomfortable with assassination as a tactic, even as other parts of the framing device suggest that the Barsavians could stand to learn a thing or two from the other provinces' resistance movements.

That's the paradox of this book, though. The Therans are the evil empire, but they're also the ones doing most of the talking. This was so prominent in the chapter on Indrisa that it made me uncomfortable. There's no doubt in my mind that the text views the Theran conquest of Indrisa as wrong. Indeed, this is the region where the Therans are most nakedly brutal. They started off their invasion by destroying a city that was home to hundreds of thousands of people. What's unnerving about the chapter is that it's mostly about how these terror tactics worked. There are rural communities who combine banditry and political resistance, but the big cities are so cowed by Thera's air power that they pay their tribute and try to  go about their lives.

And I don't know. Maybe this just isn't a story I want to hear about India - about how it's a profitable colonial holding for a ruthless imperial power. The chapter casts the right people as villains, and it eschews the "white man's burden" narrative as forcefully and directly as it can while still pretending to be written by characters who were born 8000 years before Rudyard Kipling ("All that mess-hall slop about the blessings of Theran civilization isn't designed for provincials. It's designed for us - to make us feel better about what we're doing. . .It's stupid to tell a people you're subjugating that you care only about their well-being. Most of them will see this as the paper-thin nonsense it is.") But in the process it still manages to be all about how Thera feels about the conquest.

So The Theran Empire gets one . . . two . . . three slow-claps from me. I know that you know what you're doing is kind of offensive. But maybe you could have just not put yourself in this position? Maybe you could have worked fantasy India into your antediluvian prequel setting in a different way? 

But I guess the name of the book isn't "The Indrisa Boxed Set" it's The Theran Empire, and because of airships and mumble, mumble, mumble, the Empire included India and Egypt, but none of the lands between.

I've been jumping all over the place, and have so far included none of the cool fantasy stuff that made it into my notes (one of the Theran noble houses is based out of a mile-long, sword-shaped floating citadel), but I'm ready to wrap this up. I can't tell you whether this book is good or bad. If I were inclined to be snarky, I'd say that it's Earthdawn committing to its "D&D, but, like, on-purpose" bit by replicating the embarrassing part of the Forgotten Realms where it has grafted-on continents that are just non-white-cultures-as-genre and then trying to make an anti-imperialist statement about it. But honestly, the anti-imperialism isn't forceful enough to be impressive and the worldbuilding is at least a tier below Barsaive. I think this is one of those "exists to fill a slot" supplements that would have benefited from a bit more sense of purpose and a lot more time in the oven.

Ukss Contribution: The morality of this book is beyond my ability to judge, but I think it's on the side of good, and there were definitely parts I liked. My favorite is the Fruit of the Passions. "Passions" are what Earthdawn calls gods and the story is that Vasgothia's (Germany's) native gods decided to hang back during the Scourge and fight the Horrors head on. The result was a draw. The land was twisted by the power of the battle, but it was not tainted or destroyed by the Horrors. Also, most of the gods died during the conflict, leaving behind magical fruits that contained a fraction of their power. It's loot that PCs are definitely going to want, and by its very nature it justifies venturing into a creepy, monster-infested forest. Exactly what I love most about Earthdawn as a game.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Trinity Continuum: Under Alien Skies

 I probably owe The Blood Wood a bit of an apology. I said it was more lore-heavy than adventure focused, and I stand by that assessment, but when I was writing my previous post, I sort of forgot that revealing the setting's lore can be a reward in itself. "Let's go into these spooky woods." "Why?" "To find out what makes them so spooky." - A classic adventure hook.

I say this because Under Alien Skies is almost pure lore and it's actually pretty good. It reduces a potential GM's workload by a very small amount (there's a GM advice chapter that I would cavalierly summarize as, "you can do regular Aeon stuff, but with aliens"), but it makes up for it by being extremely fun to read.

What the book mostly does is recap, expand, and retcon the setting's canon aliens. Now, even the Howlers are getting a sympathetic treatment. The only reason these guys exist in the first place is to make the Chromatics more sympathetic. They're tunnel-dwelling psychic cannibals that are only capable of coherent thought in a brief window after consuming the flesh of a sapient creature. Pure horror movie monsters that explain why the Chromatics are so culturally comfortable with the concept of genocide.

And here we learn that if a young Howler dies, its mother will consume its flesh and gain self-awareness for just long enough to mourn. "This is both a blessing and a curse for the hunger-driven howlers who lacked capacity to consider the child's death until that moment."

Well damn, now I'm shedding a tear for the Thing. 

Which is both a strength and a weakness of this book. There's a lot of thought put into the various alien species and their societies, and they're presented in a sympathetic way that respects the core of their personhood, even when they do things that we'd consider immoral. However, this approach gets a little sloppy when it comes to characters that are supposed to be villains.

For example, we learn that Coalition pheromones are not mind control. It's true. The book came out and directly says it: "pheromones can modify behavior, sometimes to a degree which feels like mind control. While the phyle Edges are very explicitly not mind control, these powers can make players deeply uncomfortable. . ."

Oh, glad that's cleared up then. 

Now, I don't want to get sucked into a discussion on the metaphysics of the mind (partly because it's a distraction and partly because I'm a strict determinist and I know my opinions on this subject are alienating and weird), but if there's such a thing as "mind control" that's meaningfully distinct from normal communication, then obviously efficacious pheromones are mind control. There's an Edge on the opposite page that gives a PC pheromones that cause affected people to "blurt out the secrets they most want to hide." If it's making people do something they don't want to do . . .

I'm not sure "it's mind control, but we're going to do a sidebar that blatantly lies about it" is necessarily a winning approach, especially in a game that already allows heroic characters to buy the Telepathy psionic aptitude.

And I think it boils down to a diffidence about villainy. You can play characters from the Coalition, but only members of the servant phyles who have gone rogue and oppose the Progenitors. Almost everything in the relevant chapter focuses on the servants - their lifestyles, perspectives, and unique physiologies - which is damned refreshing for an oppressive society in an rpg, but also winds up short selling the best possible use for the Coalition society - as villains who need to be overthrown.

That's an assessment that applies doubly if you are playing heroic rebels among the Phyles. You'll be put in the ironic position of having the book that gave you the information to make PCs in an epic campaign about the overthrow of an atrocious system of sci-fi slavery not also provide you with enough information about that atrocious system of sci-fi slavery to make an epic campaign out of. What are the systems of control? How are transgressions punished and consequently what are the stakes if you're caught? What sort of defenses surround the Progenitors and what will they say when you have them under the barrel of a gamma rifle? It's great that the book focuses on the perspectives of the oppressed, but these are questions the oppressed are going to want answered, and Under Alien Skies simply does not deliver.

We do learn that the sasqs and the envoys pirate digital media from the Progenitor databases so that they can hold "movie nights." That's super cute (and I'm being approximately 0% ironic here).

I suspect that what's really going on is that the Coalition is a bit of legacy setting, inherited from 1st edition, which does not quite fit into 2nd edition's new tone, and they're being manhandled into shape with various degrees of elegance. They've genetically engineered their captive populations to have chemical glands that influence their actions, but they don't do anything as awful as "mind control." They're actually the kind of slave-taking, eugenicist, and genocidal interstellar marauders that you can include in your game without having to navigate any especially problematic political subtext.

(And it is at this point that I'm trimming a long digression where I got deep in the weeds about the narrow difference between 1e's rape aliens and 2e's eugenics-but-pointedly-not-rape aliens that I'm cutting because I had no idea where I was going with it and I was up to something like my sixth "on the other hand.")

The general theme of my tangent was "how evil is too evil for an rpg villain," and it was a fascinating question, but when the answer seemed to run straight through chattel slavery and sexual exploitation, it occurred to me that my white, male perspective wasn't necessarily one that needed to be heard. Suffice to say, Onyx Path's discomfort with this conversation was palpable.

Moving on, this book has a few new species, in addition to the old. I'm not entirely sure I agree with the choice to make them extinct instead of active, but archeological mysteries are a strong addition to the setting. You find the remnants of a species on a malfunctioning generation ship where the survivors uploaded their minds to a simulation so long ago that they neither remember the real world nor wish to return, and that's just a mystery. Your reward for solving it is that you get to know what happened. 

I think I forgot that when I read Blood Wood, partly because Earthdawn in general is so tied up with its well-justified dungeon crawling that other campaign models seemed like an afterthought. If Under Alien Skies has a defining strength, it's that it's good at selling mysteries.

If it has a weakness, it's that mystery isn't always useful. We learn more about the fate of the recently extinct Hexers - they were destroyed by murderous AI Talents (and the revelation that AI could be Talents more or less blew my mind) - but even though it's a great adventure pitch ("solve the mystery while these AIs try to kill you"), the book went with a multiple-choice backstory about where those AIs came from that was only marginally useful in actually running the scenario. I guess I'm okay with having the freedom to work out the story implications for myself, but it also means that if I'm going to use that material, I have to work out the implications, because whatever they are is going to be vital for informing my portrayal of AI opposition. It's a bit of a wash, especially when I think about the high likelihood of the question getting a canon answer as the line goes on.

Overall, I'd say this is a fun, imaginative book that finds a very nice balance between hard and soft sci-fi (i.e. it's not at all hard sci-fi, but it embraces hard sf tropes like deep time, non-humanoid aliens, and an ecological approach to history and psychology, even as it proposes fantastical ideas like a species of eusocial creatures which become sapient for nine days after reading an inscription from an ancient tower). It's probably my second-favorite Aeon book so far, and one that could easily spin off a dozen different campaigns.

Ukss Contribution: The Doyen got some nice detail in this book, even if their civilization remains a bit one note (they're divided into factions, but all those factions revolve around different ways to be absolute bastards towards less powerful species). The coolest bit of lore is that they have an artificial psionic amplifier that allows thousands of Doyen to combine their powers to lob asteroids at near light speed. It's one of those details that kind of exists just to fill a plot hole nobody was complaining about (i.e. the standard psionics rules say that they were not quite strong enough to cause the disasters they were canonically responsible for), but I like the imagery - massed ranks of psychics, concentrating on a common focus to achieve results all out of proportion to their individual strengths.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)The Blood Wood

Everything's covered in blood! This will be a Blood Post, written on my Blood Computer, consulting my Blood Notebook that I hand wrote with my Blood Pen.

I kid, but the Flora and Fauna section did give us Bloodberries, Blood Ivy, Blood Oak, Blood Monkeys, Blood Ravens, and Blood Wasps. And then there are the elite Blood Elf magicians known as the Blood Warders. I mean, I get it, it's the Blood Wood, so blood is kind of their whole deal, but maybe something could be "sanguinary" or "crimson," just for a change of pace. Just spitballing.

It wasn't really that bad, though. One of my favorite details was actually blood-related. When your foot sinks into the soft earth of the Blood Wood, blood will seep into the footprint you leave behind. That's pretty damned creepy.

Which is as good a segue as any to move into my main . . . observation about this book. It's not entirely clear why it exists. I mean, branding, obviously - Earthdawn uses a lot of difficult to trademark vanilla fantasy elements, so when they invent a never before seen elf variant, it makes sense to give them a book - but beyond that, I'm not sure how I'm meant to use this book.

You see, when we talk about previous geographical supplements like The Serpent River and Throal: the Dwarf Kingdom, those are places you can actually go. You can legitimately say, in-character, "Hey, let's go to Throal, we can take the Serpent River."

(True story - after coming up with that last sentence, I took the Barsaive boxed set off my shelf to consult the map and make sure it made geographic sense. My conclusion is that the Serpent River will shorten your journey to Throal considerably from just about anywhere in Barsaive, but you're still in for a bit of a hike for the last few days . . . unless you're in southern Barsaive and pass through Lake Ban to sail up the Coil River tributary that feeds into the Serpent, but I suspect that the Coil is unnavigable at the altitudes near Throal itself).

And, of course, once you get to either of those places, there's going to be something for you to get involved in. Many mysterious factions are forming around the ailing dwarf king, assuming you don't get sidetracked by the constant infighting among the rival aropagoi. 

You try that shit in the Blood Wood and the Blood Elves will fucking kill you. And if the patrols don't get you, the magical traps or enchanted shifting pathways will. It's a matter of policy. People outside aren't allowed in, and people inside aren't allowed to leave.

Of course, that could all just be set up. Dangerous area = opportunity for adventure, and all that. And . . . I guess. It's not as if adventure is impossible or anything. It's just that there aren't really any ruined kaers (well, there's one, but it's buried under a fortress) or valuable caches of treasure. The woods are a good source of True Wood (basically, a magic item component), but harvesting it is a skilled technical trade. Players might be interested in solving the mystery of the Forest Heart to try and save the Blood Wood from the corruption that is slowly killing it, but that's more of an extended campaign premise whose resolution would change the face of Barsaive forever (and also, it wouldn't pay very well). And it's certainly possible to contrive reasons to go into it ("we need this rare herb" or "our friend has gone missing and we're certain they need help"), but if so, the bulk of the book is going to be of very little use.

The best possible use of this book is probably to run self-contained Blood Wood games. You play as Blood Elves and you get involved in the politics of the realm. It's not a place with especially dynamic politics - it's ruled by an absolute monarch who banishes (to distant parts of the Blood Wood, lest you think this is a PC backstory hook) anyone who disagrees with her too effectively and there is no mechanism in either law or custom for anyone to object to this - but, assuming that your players are okay with chasing the favor of the queen, there are factions and agendas and rival noble houses to give PCs plenty to do.

Ultimately, though, this is worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. The reason you get this book is that you're invested in the story of Barsaive and are intrigued by these sexy goth elves that keep showing up and want to know the secrets of their homeland and the details of how their society actually works in practice.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am exactly the target audience for this book, and I enjoyed it, as expected, but it's not one you'd point to to showcase Earthdawn's strengths as a game. Like, the book is so certain that you're not going to fight Queen Alachia that they don't even give her a full stat block, but she's  pretty great as a literary villain - she's imperious and vain, ruthless in the protection of her power and dignity, but she's also courageous in her opposition to Thera's evil. The only reason she really counts as a villain at all (aside from being an autocrat, but that's just par for the course in fantasy) is because she made a terrible choice in an impossible situation and is now committed to the idea that she alone is able to deal with the consequences.

She's not, though. The book makes clear that the Blood Elves are in constant pain, thanks to the magical ritual that caused them to sprout thorns from underneath their skin, and that this pain is sometimes so unbearable a significant fraction of elves don't survive the ritual (between 10 and 30 percent, depending on the age at which it is given), and of those that do survive, it is not uncommon to commit suicide shortly thereafter.

And now that the Scourge is over . . . they keep doing it. Their entire society has just decided that they're okay with torturing children . . . well, except for the dissidents who are kept far away from the court and any suggestion of political power. Most of the conservatives think they're doing it to preserve the Blood Elves' unique culture (of being constantly tortured throughout their unnaturally long lives), but the Queen knows the real reason - the corrupt heart of the forest requires massive blood offerings to survive.

Look, lady, I don't want to gainsay the choices you made in a moment of crisis. The survival of your people was at stake, I get it. But it's time to step down. You gave cancer to the mystical tree that is the spiritual heart of the elvish people and now you're stuck between feeding that sickness or letting it die, and you are clearly in over your head. It's a complicated technical problem, sure, but master sorcerer or not, you don't have the right to keep the bulk of the world's elf population out of the loop . . .

Oh, right. I hate monarchy IRL and it's bleeding into my critique. Point is, the text is pretty clear that Alachia is not going to solve this problem, and is, indeed, the biggest obstacle to other people solving this problem, but she is not a boss fight. In fact, even meeting the Queen is a rare privilege, seldom granted to common elves and almost never to outside adventurers.

And that's this book's main weakness. You get the view from the top, complete with write ups for the land's important nobles and academic and cultural luminaries (who are often one and the same, because the elves have a very class-stratified society), but only rarely the people the PCs are actually likely to meet. 

It's other main weakness is metaplot. It spoiled the canonical ending of Prelude to War (Hey, I was going to get around to reading it, I swear!) and dropped hints of mysterious setting secrets without providing closure. Queen Alachia is probably an immortal Great Elf and may have already been queen under a different name, but the only reason I have to think that is a series of incredibly unsubtle hints. I guess I shouldn't get too upset about it, being the style of the time, but it bugs me. It's clear that you've got something worked out - the hints about the Denairastas were far too specific for a location that has not been mentioned since the Barsaive boxed set - but you're holding back for a future book that may or may not even see print. I guess I'm lucky that these 1st edition books are pretty cheap on the secondary market.

Overall, I liked this book. It didn't set my mind aflame with new adventure ideas, but it was a pretty decent read. The late 90s was kind of a golden age for rpg products that blurred the line between game supplement and fiction, and Earthdawn, in particular, has always been especially good at that genre.

Ukss Contribution: There's some interesting imagery in this book, most of it blood- or thorn- themed, but there's really only one thing it could have ever been - giant carnivorous squirrels. They're big squirrels who swarm-attack larger creatures and tear off pieces to bury like normal squirrels bury nuts. It's all part of the cycle of (corrupted by obscene blood magic) life.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Planescape Boxed Set

 Oh man, this is one of the big ones. A legendary campaign setting from AD&D's golden age. I have to say something really intelligent about it or my blogging credibility goes straight out the window. No pressure.

Here goes nothing - I liked it. It has potential. Wizards of the Coast should hire me to helm the reboot, because it really didn't stick the landing.

I feel bad for saying that, because it blew my mind as a teenager, and I can still see why it did that, but also, now that I'm older and have read approximately 200-300 more rpg books, I can see that it's all surface. It's attitude and the intimation of scope, but conservative in its structure (this book opens the planes up to low-level characters! and advises the GM to keep the low-levels "close to home") and half-assed in its worldbuilding.

Like, why is the city of Curst? No, really. Why is it?

I suppose I'm going to have to get deep into the weeds of Planescape setting details. I'll try to be quick - Planescape is about adventurers who explore the Great Wheel, a collection of 17 alignment-coded afterlife realms, each with its own distinct (ish) appearance and character. Sixteen of these realms are placed in a ring. You've got the Neutral Good realm at the top, and then going clockwise it's "Neutral Good with chaotic tendencies" followed by "Chaotic Good" followed by "Chaotic Good with neutral tendencies" and so on. In between this ring of 16 realms is the 17th, the realm of pure neutrality.

It's a structure that dates back to before AD&D 1e's Players Handbook (though the PHB quite sensibly puts the material world in the center, instead of some BS plane of neutrality), and you know what, it's a genuine meme. It's a transparent exercise in nerd-obsessive grid-filling, with half the entries existing only because something had to go in the slots, but for all that, it's memorable and fires the imagination. It's good . . .

As a start. Planescape is tasked with turning this thinly-sketched idea into a living campaign setting, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. One of the things it does is change the names and character of certain of the planes. The neutral plane, which as recently as the 2nd edition PHB was called "Concordant Opposition" is now "the Outlands" and it really should just be the material plane because the best thing about it is that it's a place where people can live relatively normal lives, and the worst thing about it is that it's still the plane of profoundly ridiculous take on the concept of neutrality.

I'll quote the book:

Ask a petitioner [ed note: dead soul] of the Outlands to do one thing and he does two. . . See, the petitioners there have this feeling that every action they take affecting the balance of good and evil (or law and chaos) must be offset by an equal action to the opposite side. . .

. . . if an Outlander petitioner smuggles a body away from the hunting fiends of Plague-Mort - a good act by most standards - then he's going to feel compelled to fix the balance. That same petitioner might raise the alarm as soon as the sod's out of town, or he might betray the next berk that's hunted by the fiends. A petitioner's balancing doesn't have to be done immediately. Pure fact is, most of them carry little tallies of their deeds, sometimes in their heads and sometimes in little books.
What in the everliving fuck is that morality even trying to accomplish?

Sorry, that's a diversion. We were talking about Curst. For that conversation, all you need to know is that the Outlands borders all the other planes, and mortal creatures sometimes live there in small settlements. If the settlement is close enough to the border that you can cross over to the other planes, it's called a Gate Town. One of those Gate Towns, close to Carceri, the "Neutral Evil with chaotic tendencies" plane, is called Curst.

Carceri is kind of a neat fantasy location. It's the "prison of the gods," a series of nested spheres, each one contain ever more terrible horrors, sealed away so that they may never again trouble the other worlds.

Curst is the town built just outside Carceri.

Bleak and dusty, Curst's little more than a collection of shanties perched on the edge of Carceri, where those exiled from elsewhere on the Outlands dream out their bitter lives . . .

Every sod in this gate town is here because of one reason: They've got nowhere else to go. They've been driven from power, cut off from those they one thought loved them, and stripped of all their vanities save ego. Now, the thing that makes the work's the collective desire to crush those unbanished.
And here's the thing. It's unthinkable that "they've got nowhere else to go." The whole book is filled with places to go. It's kind of the campaign's central conceit. Even if you're banished from other parts of the Outlands, the Outlands are huge. You could just have gone to some third part that didn't quite suck so much, because it's not as if your banishers are going to put the effort to track you down. If they gave a damn where you went, they'd have just cut off your head. There's literally nothing stopping you from just walking away.

Well, except the town guards. "Those leaving Curst, on the other are required to state reasons for wanting to go elsewhere and show proof they can make it." But it's not clear why they're doing this.

The guards are fellow exiles. The people commanding them are fellow exiles. There's no clear indication that any of the above have anything to gain by keeping people in town. It's an open-air prison, in a temperate location, where the prisoners are the guards and nobody's paying them.

Maybe it's spite? If the leaders can't leave, no one can. Except the leaders can leave. There's nothing keeping them there either, except their desire to return to exactly the place that exiled them and nowhere else. But you could easily plot your glorious return from anywhere, because it's not as if Curst has any great revenge-aiding resources. Just a bunch of bitter people nursing entirely different grudges.

So it's not clear why this town exists. I could think of a few reasons it might. If it was a large group, like a rebel army, that all got banished together, and they all shared the goal of going back to the exact same place, then they could have built a town while they gathered their strength, and the precise location of their landing is as good as any.

Or it could be a prison. Somebody in Sigil could be paying the leaders to keep people to prisoners, and the gate to Carceri is just a threat. Stay in Curst, where there is some distant hope that you might be released, or get tossed into the trap plane with all the monsters too dangerous for the gods. That could be a pretty chilling location.

Or maybe there's something that the inhabitants hope to get from Carceri. All these scary-ass monsters could be useful in getting your revenge, and the town of Curst is a magical research center devoted to getting them out.

But the book doesn't say any of that. I mean, Curst does have a mercenary market, but it's implied that the market followed the town, rather than the other way around (you are allowed to leave if you hire a bunch of mercenaries and plan on going back to exactly where you came from, apparently).

Now, I don't mean to single out Curst here. All of the Gate Towns are like this to one degree or another. You've got a plane in the Great Ring, and then a town that's like a watered down version of that plane. Outside the plane of Baator, the realm of ultimate law in service to ultimate evil, there's the town of Ribcage. It's a totalitarian dictatorship. Outside Ysgard, the rowdy Norse-flavored plane, there's Glorium, which is a town where people enjoy drinking and fighting and manly honor. In fact, it's so much like Ysgard that it's in danger of breaking off of the Outlands and drifting into Ysgard, a fate that the local inhabitants think is awesome.

This setting concept, that locations in one plane can drift towards other planes, is emblematic of Planescape's worldbuilding. At first glance, it's interesting and has a lot of adventure potential - this town is drifting, some people want to accelerate it and other people want to stop it, that's where the PCs come in. But dig even a little deeper and the necessary logistical infrastructure just isn't there.

Why should one plane care whether a town drifts into it or not? All the planes are infinite. And they remain infinite after the shifts in territory. Maybe the people in the town might care, but . . .

If the people of Glorium wanted to live in a town in Ysgard, they could have just built a town in Ysgard. That's allowed. In fact, it's more than allowed, it's suggested. In the section on portals, the book casually drops the bombshell, "a permanent portal might . . . land them in a field on Elysium, not far from a small keep they've built."

Holy shit.

"Mortal people, colonizing heaven and hell" is a fucking amazing campaign pitch. Heaven is a real, literal place, and you can physically go there, and you can build a house, by like, picking up rocks and shit, and you can live out the rest of your life in paradise. People have already done this. Nothing in my collection even comes close to the potential there is in this concept.

And yet Planescape doesn't quite seem to comprehend the scope of that potential. It pays lip service to ideology as a setting element, but doesn't seem to understand what ideology is for. There's a group called the Xaositects and the main thing we know about them is that they like to jumble up the words in their sentences ("annoying this not is") and occasionally they appear to be able to pronounce the wingdings font (at least, if the quotes where they use it are to be believed). How is this something that people are interested in participating in? 

There's almost no effort spent in grounding this setting in practical human concerns. The factions are all about the meaning of existence and not, say, the best way to get everyone food and shelter, or what to do with all this magic that's flying around, or even the fate of souls in the afterlife, an issue they are able to directly investigate by going to the afterlife and seeing what happens to souls.

I wonder what Planescape would be like if it did focus on those concerns. Cities slide into adjacent planes if they don't fit well enough into their home plane. People can build cities inside the paradise realms of the Upper Planes. I'm picturing a region of the Outlands called "The Fallen Cities," places that were originally Upper Planes colonies until they slid away, thanks to the inhabitants impurity and mortal frailty. What are these places like? Are they unusually holy, even in their fallen state, or have they curdled into bitterness and resentment? What is the regional culture like, among these people who have tasted heaven and been found wanting? Do they draw Outlands petitioners who might wish to piggyback on their attempts to reclaim their prior place?

Similarly, I'm picturing cities on the threshold of the Lower Planes. They would have the opposite problem. The demons and devils would want to have outposts outside hell so they can attract people who are obviously too smart to physically enter a hell realm, and prefer to safely deal with fiends from neutral territory. These outposts would offer infernal gold and underworld gems in exchange for captured souls and favors performed in the material world, but by their very nature they would stoke the greed and cruelty of their inhabitants, placing their wicked patrons in the ironic position of having to find ways of leavening their assets with imported goodness. What are the different strategies for achieving this result?

I've complained a lot about Planescape in this post, but I'm still prepared to say it's one of my favorite campaign settings. I think it's because all my complaints are "fertile" complaints. It's easy for me to see "solutions" to its "problems" and from those solutions indefinitely riff on all sorts of new adventure and setting ideas. Like, it's kind of weird and upsetting the way the character race list has been pruned down to humans and some completely novel fantasy creatures that TSR is now able to trademark. Don't get me wrong. I really like tieflings, and githzerai are kind of cool, and bariurs . . . well, I don't dislike them, even if I totally get why they never gained traction (weaker, less iconic centaurs who have sheep for their lower halves and have a frankly upsetting degree of gender dimorphism), but if Planescape is really the game it says it is, then there should be a hundred different options. Not just elves and dwarves, but really outre stuff like the kangaroo people from kangaroo world. Everything from every published campaign setting, plus a bunch of stuff that was never published. Dig deep, TSR, I know you must have said "no" to a few dozen pitches before you settled on Planescape.

But, like I said, this is easily solved. "The Complete Book of Humanoids is legal and you don't have to justify shit." You want to be a goblin paladin from a world where goblins are lawful good and dwarves are servants of the dark lord? Approved.

And I don't know, maybe it's wrong of me to give so much credit to a fixer-upper setting like this. A lot of what I'm enjoying about this campaign is stuff I invented for myself, but I meant it when I said this game blew my mind as a teenager. A lot of what I loved about it turned out to be superficial window-dressing, but that's okay because I was only able to appreciate it on a superficial level. The cant has a rhythm and music to it, makes the books sound like they're being whispered to me in a seedy bar. The razor vines and the cutting gaze of the Lady of Pain were both literally and figuratively edgy. You could get tattoos of that shit. It was an rpg book that was giving me permission to be weird and cynical, even if, in later years, I'd discover that it wasn't nearly as weird and cynical as it could have been.

Ukss Contribution: Also, there's a lot of stuff that's just really cool. We don't always have to be looking for the implications of things. Dead gods in the astral plane. Universe-sized lightning storms. Mysterious strangers who are just a little bit demonic. It's actually a bit hard to choose.

I'm going to go with Nic'Epona - they're rainbow colored horses who can travel between planes and who may be tamed with the power of friendship. They're not necessarily my absolute favorite, but Ukss already has talking horses and a region that has been corrupted by extradimensional color, so I've got a perfect niche for them.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

This Title Is Probably Not A Clue

It's approximately 3 months after I released a fiction anthology, and in that time, it's sold approximately 3 copies. I'm beginning to think I may not be the brilliant rogue underground publisher I thought I was when I decided to recklessly spend your tax dollars.

Nevertheless, the writers I hired did some amazing work and it would be a damn shame if it never gets read, so here's the book for free.

And look, I'm not saying you are under any obligation to later go back and buy a copy off amazon if you happened to enjoy it, but I am saying that you should definitely trick your friends into doing so.

Friday, August 20, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Earthdawn Survival Guide

 It's Earthdawn's answer to AD&D's Wilderness Survival Guide and I feel like the predictable thing for me to do is point out how it's better, but that would be misleading. It is better, but mostly because there's less of it. Don't get me wrong, it's well-written, but the confluence of subject matter with FASA's fiction-driven style means we're subject to the part of the bildungsroman where the callow young hero learns the most efficient way to pack for a camping trip. Later on, a book within the book will describe herbs.

It's the exact same incomprehensible vision that drives the Wilderness Survival Guide, but instead of 5 pages of rules for food gathering, breaking it down between plants, fish, and terrestrial animals, it's 5 paragraphs that amount to "roll high to not die."  Like I said, it's better because there's less of it. 

Or is it? If we're talking about a campaign model where you can go out into the middle of nowhere and die because you didn't add the right items to your equipment list, then maybe there's a place for that extravagance. The more rules there are, the more ways there are for you to die, and thus the more ways for you to avoid that death by, like, eating a fish or something.

Certainly, if this were a combat-focused book, I'd say that bigger is better. But that's because combat is a central element in nearly every rpg out there. Different foes have different feels and require different strategies, because that's baked into the numbers on your character sheet and the powers you have access to. It would require bottom-up design to make a game that was as focused on survival and exploration.

The Earthdawn Survival Guide is not that game, however. It makes an effort, but it never really offers a payoff for its rules. The things you care about, the events and people that drive the story, are still found in between all these bouts of wilderness travel, and the book doesn't make a very good case for why it's cool when you arrive at the dungeon half-dead from starvation, or when you surive the dungeon and wind up getting killed by the weather.

I think it's the fluid nature of time in rpgs that makes survival so difficult to use as a story element. Time compresses between each significant event and expands when such events happen in rapid succession. Thus, a two minute fight can stretch out to an entire session, because each jab and block and dodge gets individually called out, whereas a two month voyage can last roughly as long as it takes to say, "you travel for two months without incident." You can extend the time you spend in the voyage by slicing the abstract "travel" into more concrete actions like gathering food or taking shelter from the weather, but are you really going to subject your players to the 60 distinct foraging rolls? Do you have what it takes to make, "the day when we couldn't make much progress because of the rain," into a memorable setpiece, comparable with delving into monster-infested ruins?

Obviously not. So you're still going to wind up handling the voyage with abstraction, compromising at some point between dismissing the entire trip in a single line of downtime and running the whole thing in turn-by-turn initiative order, but unfortunately, the book doesn't really help you narrow in on where exactly that compromise should be. It just gives you some numbers to roll and some status effects to impose.

But at least it's short. The rules take up 30 out of 119 pages, and that's enough. The bulk of the book is fiction, which is of mixed utility. The parts where the narrators encounter completely mundane hazards like snowstorms or muggings are immersive enough, but I kind of feel like I don't need to be reminded to wear boots or not flash my money. As the GM, I would also feel like a total jerk if I enforced those strictures on my players. But I liked the parts where it described fantasy dangers like breathing True Air or previously undetailed regions like the Wastes or the Badlands. It expanded the world in some interesting ways and offered new potential adventure ideas.

Overall, I'd say that this is a decent enough book for the concept, but the concept itself was too weak to support a book. The new locations could have supported a supplement (I especially liked the Poison Woods, where all the plants and animals are undead), and the hazards could have been part of the core rules, but the parts with potential were too short and the parts with the rules were too long. I enjoyed reading the fiction, but I have little interest in using the book in a game.

Ukss Contribution: It's revealed in this book that windlings, the foot and a half tall fairy creatures, will hunt boar. Considering that boar hunting is a dangerous pastime for even burly, full-grown humans, this is an absolutely wild image. I have no idea how a creature that small is ever going to take down one of the orneriest animals ever to live, even if there's a whole horde of them, but I love mock epics and would be happy to see them try.

Monday, August 16, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Throal: the Dwarf Kingdom

 These good books are always the hardest for me to write about. Throal: the Dwarf Kingdom is better than decent, but it's not great. It's not even "great, but flawed." It's just a skillfully made rpg supplement. It's got a good high concept and it's executed well.

And maybe, if I were a more skillful critic, that's something I could get some mileage out of. These old Earthdawn books are very consistent about punching above their weight class. Don't you see, it's a dwarf kingdom and it's underground, but the book is largely about the king's relatives, and sometimes the drama at the library. . . and I would not blame you one bit for nodding off in the middle of that sentence.

The wild thing about this book, though, is that my snarky description was not all that reductive, despite giving the entirely wrong impression. I suspect I would have finished this book in two days, had I not been hit with a flare up of depression, and yet, if I were to tell you what captured my interest, it would be nonsense like, "some people know about the king's mysterious illness and other people don't," and "some people respect the young prince, and other people don't" and the ever-popular "some people are in favor of the kingdom's liberal reforms, and other people aren't."

I think at this point I have to acknowledge that I might have a greater than average investment in the story of Barsaive. I'm 8 books away from a full 1st edition collection, and it's practically a certainty that I'm going to eventually get those missing volumes. I'm exactly the sort of fan that FASA was deliberately trying to cultivate, and this book was aimed more or less exactly at people like me. The introduction says it best, "Throal: the Dwarf Kingdom is a transitional product in the Earthdawn line. In addition to providing gamemasters with basic information on the center of recovering civilization in Barsaive, it sets up several conflicts to be developed in subsequent Earthdawn products."

All aboard the metaplot train, people!

However, I don't think that's it. I think this book's strengths lie in intangibles like pacing and editorial focus. There are descriptions of various locations and NPCs and they strike a nice balance between having enough detail to make them all distinct, but not being so long as to wear out their welcome. And interspersed are plenty of adventure suggestions, giving you ideas about how to use all the stuff you've just been reading about. In other words, nothing that should surprise you, but rather the fundamentals of the genre, done well.

But even that's not entirely it. I can't stress enough how this is a book about an underground dwarf kingdom with elaborate laws and a well-developed culture of craftsmanship, because if you lose sight of how extremely conventional it all is, you won't be able to experience the dissonance that comes with it also being somehow 100% distinctly Earthdawn.

Here's a relevant quote:

Longtime residents of Throal tend to see the Royal Guards as their friends and protectors, a role the guards cherish. When dealing with citizens disposed to like and trust them, they uphold public order in a firm, but cheerful manner . . . 

In the new cities, the guards frequently take a harder approach, sometimes even coming to regard the people they are protecting as their enemies.

A lot of settings have fantasy racism, but Earthdawn is one of the few to have fantasy structural racism. And that's a deliberate aesthetic choice. Throal is the dwarf kingdom, but all of the other fantasy races live there, to some degree, and the book takes the time to work out what that might be like. It's not a deep dive or anything, but I'm hard pressed to think of another example of "the cops will hassle you if you're a minority," even in more cynical works. The effect can sometimes make the connection between fantasy races and real world minorities seem overly explicit (there's a section about orkish difficulties with educational attainment in a dwarf-dominated school system that is a bit . . . uncomfortable), but that same connection also leads to the Earthdawn books treating their fantasy creatures like actual people. It would take a keener social observer than me to really untangle these books and work out what they're trying to do, but it is definitely distinct.

It's tough for me because in a lot of ways I'm grading on a curve, and when the contrast is, say, Forgotten Realms' treatment of regions like the Vast, it's easy for me to say "this is self-aware and socially conscious," but it's also a book that has a character say that Throal has "a civilizing mission" and then the OOC narration acknowledged that he was talking bullshit, but was "not far off the mark." Throal's whole deal is spreading its watered down monarchist liberalism through cultural imperialism, and the book doesn't have the vocabulary (or perhaps the inclination) to critique that. But also, there are plenty of people who resist or resent Throal's influence and they're not entirely villainous, so I don't know. 

Hey! Look over there! It's a bar called "The Tattooed Human." How hilarious is that?

If I had a complaint about this book, it would be that I wished it would lean a bit more into the setting's post-apocalyptic elements. What you've got is, in essence, a giant, city-sized fallout shelter and right outside its doors is a ramshackle settlement called "Bartertown," and it works well enough as a fantasy location, but if it used a few more relevant tropes, the concept could really sing. Parlainth: the Forgotten City dared to be a western and it was one of the best campaign books I've ever read. Throal: the Dwarf Kingdom is pretty darned good, but it lacks that level of ambition.

Ukss Contribution: There's a group called "The Mirage." They believe that the material world is an illusion and that suffering is caused by an alienation from a person's true spiritual existence. It's mostly a benign religious movement that offers solace to its followers, but there's an offshoot that's all like "nothing is real, which means that every shitty thing I do is an illusion, might as well just indulge my worst impulses." There's not a lot of depth to it, but I like "the Mirage" as a name for a criminal organization.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The Well

Where to get it: Creator's website

What's this, an actual physical object, sent to me by a blog reader? I am so completely honored and humbled that I'm going to feel like a real ass if I have to say anything bad about it. . .

Lucky for me, then, that The Well is pretty great. First of all, it's just gorgeous as an artifact. It uses black and white to a very striking effect, especially with the pencil-style monster drawings, and I don't know much about paper, but the cover is very smooth and pleasing to the touch. I'm not sure there's really such a thing as a prestige softcover, but if there is, then this is it.

The system is slight, almost to the point of nonexistence, but it's also extremely clever. For most actions, you roll a single d6 against a target number, but you can get bonuses by risking injury to your character, giving even routine rolls a sense of genuine stakes. And if you fail a roll, your failed roll still reduces the difficulty of future attempts for the same task.

It gets to the heart of rpg mechanics as a decision engine - you roll the dice to determine whether the GM has permission to say "yes" or "no." Except, in this game, the GM's options are more like "yes" and "later." True failure is always going to be on the players' terms. "Success" is inevitable, but both time and risk are resources that can run out, and a big part of the game's strategy lies in recognizing when an action will take too long or result in too much Stress.

It's elegant the way the mechanics mesh with the story. You play "gravediggers," a grudgingly legal class of mercenary adventurers who venture into undead-haunted catacombs. It's an important civic task, because the undead are a serious threat to human life, but your only pay is the treasure you manage to loot from the tombs of your ancestors. The system guarantees that you'll have plenty of ability to push farther and farther into the ruins of the past, but also ensures that if you press your luck too far, you'll wind up limping home while terribly injured, permanently traumatized or, worst of all, empty-handed.

The feeling I get, especially with the provided GM tools, is of a roguelike video game. Which I guess brings us full circle, because roguelikes themselves were inspired by tabletop dungeon crawls. The Well is a game of managed risk and careful resource management that hearkens back to the earliest forms of the hobby while still honoring a more modern, improv-esque social contract of "yes, and." It's a lot to pack into 120 pages, and if there's one thing I admire most about this book, it's the economy of wordcount. There are a lot of potential adventures in this little book, and plenty of room to grow both the setting and the system, whether in homebrew material or official supplements (I could easily use 101 more treasures or a full bestiary, for example).

Which brings us to the setting. I liked it, but it was thoroughly contrived. No, wait, that's not right. I liked it because it was thoroughly contrived. That's the part that reminded me most of a roguelike,actually. You've got this gameplay loop that obviously came first, and then an entire world built around it. In this case, literally.

The titular "Well" is a giant hollow shaft going an indefinite distance underground. It's ringed by a spiral staircase and every so often, a door appears. It's unclear where these doors came from, and at first, there's nothing behind them, but through judicious use of magic and brute force, human beings can tunnel out an elaborate civilization, which they have to do constantly, because there's some mysterious force that reanimates the dead as flesh-hungry monsters. Every 50-100 years or so, the people of Bastion have to abandon the top layer of their city and migrate down the Well, lest the dead overwhelm the living (and they can't just burn the bodies, because that leads to something worse).

The setup, then, is that the higher you go in the Well, the farther back in human history you go, to old abandoned cities, filled with reanimated corpses that have had centuries to grow in power and mutate into strange new forms. I.e. it's "an environment that justifies the simple tradition of higher levels being more dangerous."

It's more of a clever answer to a riddle than it is spectacular worldbuilding,and despite the sidebars' suggestions, I don't think it's even possible to come up with satisfying answers to the setting's big mysteries (chief of which is, of course, "what's the deal with this big, fucking well"). However, clever counts for a lot, and Bastion is a fine base of operations, with just enough intrigue to give your between-dungeon-crawls downtime a necessary bit of spice. Every setting should be lucky enough to have such a well-drawn Adventure Town.

Overall, I'd say that The Well is exactly the sort of book I love having in my collection, while also being exactly the sort of book I'd never think to buy myself. It's going to have a pride of place in my collection.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of the most interesting stuff about this setting lies in the ways people adapt to living around a giant, underground well. However, there are a few more general things that could fit in nearly any fantasy setting. My favorite was the "Mysterious Metal Lozenge." Swallow it and it will heal any single wound, even going so far as to replace lost limbs with strange, living metal prostheses. A priceless treasure, to be sure, but an even cooler bit of fantasy imagery. More games should make their utility effects this otherworldly.