Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Earthdawn - 1st edition core

There was a point in reading this book that I felt compelled to go digging through the various boxes that are holding my rpg collection so I could compare it to 4th edition. See, there were long passages that felt eerily familiar, and while I have read this exact book before, that was about 20 years ago. I flatter myself at times, but my memory isn't that good.

Turns out, Earthdawn 4th Edition recycled long stretches of text from the original core. Not having access to 2nd or 3rd edition, I couldn't tell you whether this was because Earthdawn was generally conservative with its edition changes, or whether it's because 4th edition, specifically, was a deliberate throwback, but I'll admit, I've grown used to new rpg editions being completely rewritten. Even when there aren't major errors to correct or new mechanics to experiment with, seeing the common locations, characters, and themes from a new perspective has been one of the great pleasures of rpg collecting.

Still, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Most of my commentary for the 4th edition Player's Guide and Gamemaster's Guide still holds true.

Hey, does this mean I can wrap this post up early, just take this one book as a freebie? Or should I take this opportunity to go more in-depth about subjects I glossed over last time?

Oh, fine. Earthdawn's magic item rules are pretty good. They were good in 4th edition too, but they didn't impress me until I realized they were thought up in 1993. Basically, your character's signature items will level up with your character, but in order to unlock the various upgrades, you have to discover more and more of the item's backstory.

One of the best things about Earthdawn in general is the way it embraces and explores the archaeological nerdery implicit in the whole "dungeon" concept, and its magic items are simply another piece of the puzzle. Lots of games will try and blow smoke up your ass about magic items being unique treasures with individual names, but few would dare follow up with,"so if you want that extra +1 damage, you're going to have to go to the decaying ruins of the city where it was forged so you can find the ledgers that prove which of the master's six apprentices was the one to actually make this particular blade." (That last part was a paraphrase of a real example).

My only real problem with the Key Knowledge system, as presented, is that you have to discover the facts in a fairly rigid order. Like with the Frost Pouch - at level 3 you have to know the name of the glacier that provided the ice, and then at level 5 you have to know the name of the air elemental who helped create it, and while learning the name of a spirit is canonically the more difficult task, it's not inconceivable that events would conspire to reveal the information in the opposite order. It feels weird to me that a PC could be running around with a level 5 Key Knowledge, but be unable to use it because they're stuck at level 3. I guess if I were running it, I'd rule that Key Knowledges could be used in any order and simply rely on the fact that later ones are harder to keep things generally moving in the right direction.

Oh, and I finally twigged to the logic of the Step system. This was no great leap on my part, because the book says what it's supposed to be (a dice-pool's Step is the average number you'd roll with those dice), but it took me longer than it should have because the book's explanation was wrong. So, with the first few Steps, the ones that use single dice, it's sort of true. Step 3 is a d4 because even though the average roll on a d4 is 2.5, you could also say that half of all rolls will be 3 or higher. Same with d6=4, d8=5, d10=6, and d12=7. 

Where it starts to go off the rails is Step 8 - 2d6. I made a note about that when I read it. The average roll on 2d6 is 7. Everyone knows that. The game of craps is built around it. So how were they getting 8 as an average value? Turns out, the answer was easy, but I retained too much of my mathematical training to see it. A d6 is Step 4. Step 4 + Step 4 = Step 8. Thus 2d6 . . .

My God . . .

I suppose it's not that bad. You're really just trying to generate a number here, and maybe the higher you go, the less relevant precise math is going to be because who cares if were talking about mode vs mean vs whatever unholy thing is going on with Steps if the difference is only a few percentage points? However, the math gets real weird at the boundary points when you change the total number of dice being rolled. Step 7 is a d12, which gives you a 1-in-12 chance of rolling 12. Step 8 is 2d6, which gives you a 1-in-36 chance of rolling a 12 (Interestingly enough, the odds of rolling 8 or higher are exactly the same, for Steps 7 and 8 - 5-in-12 versus 15-in-36).

Then again, maybe it might be a good thing to have greater center-bias as skill levels increase. It might allow extreme low-level rolls to threaten typical high-level rolls. It's an open question, anyway, because I'm not sure it was a deliberate design feature, given the way the difficulties scale.

Although, if we're going to be super-precise, we've got to factor the exploding dice into it. . . Or not. We're talking about a system that's remained mostly unchanged since 1993, so it's likely that there's plenty of empirical evidence that it more or less works out.

Overall, I'd say that Earthdawn is a pretty solid core. The system is a little goofy, but it's got a ton of good ideas. My intuition about the 4th edition player/gamemaster split was right - the game is much better when it's all in one book. Barsaive is still one of my favorite settings - largely "traditional" fantasy in its aesthetics, but well thought-out details and a willingness to get weird when the situation calls for it. I'm looking forward to reading the supplements and getting some expanded setting information.

Ukss Contribution: Lots of great stuff here. I've got about a half-dozen candidates in my notes: blood pebbles, gemstones that are implanted into your skin to act as armor or the astral eye, an amber sphere that burrows into eyesocket and lets you see magic, airships, a crow that tests your hospitality and gets really mad if you're less than perfectly polite.

I am, however, going to have to go with something I called out in my 4th edition post - the wind catcher talent that allows sky raiders to jump off of airships and make precision paratrooper attacks. In Ukss, they'll jump off airplanes, but the idea is the same.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

(AD&D 2e)The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook

 Ah, but why did the Romans have so many enemies?

The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook clearly doesn't realize what thin ice it's standing on. It talks a lot about Rome, but it makes the mistake of largely taking Rome at its word when it comes to the context of its imperial conquests. Rome is constantly "adding new provinces" whereas "barbarians" are "overrunning Rome's borders."

I wouldn't call this book a complete white-washing - there are definitely times when it points out Roman atrocities, and there are bits and pieces of the history that are not told from the Roman perspective. However, I can't help but feel that, historically, the way Rome was used as a story was to support a very conservative and hierarchical cultural mythology - one where kings were like "the Good Emperors" or slave-holding colonial aristocrats had the dignity of the Senate - and nothing about this book challenges those hagiographic narratives.

Where's my Rome-punk, damnit?!

I mean, I get it. This was 1993, and TSR wasn't exactly a radical company. There likely wasn't a market for a mean and gritty street-level Roman game where all that nonsense with the Senate and the Legions are merely a backdrop for your day-to-day hustle. And even if there were, well this is a time naive enough to assume the graffiti in Pompeii ("Crescens the Net Fighter holds the hearts of all the girls") was both heterosexual and true (I mean, it's pretty obvious that Crescens wrote that himself, right).

Would The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook really have been better if it had taken time out to explain that one of the few things we know for sure about Roman culture is that people would shit all over the street? Probably not. But it might have spared us at least some of the two and a half pages devoted to describing the offices of the Roman government. That may just be a danger that comes from writing about such a literate and self-regarding people, though. They were most interested in the deeds of powerful men and the various titles they gave each other, and thus that is what survives to the present day.

I shouldn't be such a curmudgeon, though. I think it was probably plenty obvious that a Rome sourcebook was going to focus on Senatorial intrigues, Legionary conquest, and gladiator-drama. "Rome" is basically a genre, and "people who have completely justifiable grievances with Rome, existing in the cracks of a system that oppresses and exploits them" is really more of a fringe commentary than a part of what the genre's about.

So, if I look at what the book was trying to accomplish rather than what I wished it would be, how does it fare? It's a good supplement. It has less of what I like most about the green books, but the day-to-day details are not entirely absent. I liked that it gave specific dates for the Roman spirit-appeasing festivals (the 9th-13th of May). There were also some interesting hints about a unique form of organized crime (siphoning off water from the public fountains to illegally deliver to the houses of the rich). And if it focused a bit too much on high-level politics for my taste, at least it was good about tying those politics into potential adventure hooks.

Mechanically, it's pretty solid. It's much more pragmatic about adapting the magic system to a semi-historical setting (no spells of 6th level or above, no evocation school), even if it's still under the mistaken impression that specialist wizards are notably less versatile than regular mages (yes, you lose one or two schools, but you get an extra slot to spend on spells you were probably going to memorize anyways). I'd still rather do a 4e all-martial party, but assuming you're okay with wizards and priests getting nerfed to hell, these rules largely work.

Overall, I'd say that The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook is decent, but it doesn't do much to elevate the material. It needed either more fantastic elements or more mundane minutiae, but winds up taking a middle of the road approach that is serviceable, and sometimes even engaging, but which never really surprised or challenged me.

Ukss Contribution: According to this book, Rome's fish market smelled so bad that people met up there to avoid the prying eyes of the upper class. Not sure I believe that, but a criminal fish market is a fun location, so maybe there's a bit of truth to it after all.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

(Aberrant) Church of Michael Archangel

 Oh, I don't know about this one. It's fine for setting texture, I guess. There's a church in the Aberrant setting that hates novas. Their theology is a bit . . . unrealistic - pre-millenialist Christians who nonetheless find common cause with Jewish and Muslim nova-haters. It also does that unnerving fantasy thing where a group is bigoted against some magical creature, but their fears are presented as reasonable. Roderick F Smith assassinated Starbell, but one of Starbell's forcefields careless blew up his car with his family inside, and Starbell faced no significant legal consequences. That certainly sounds like a serious systemic issue that society needs to address. So it's kind of weird that the Church of Michael Archangel is lumped in with homophobes, racists, and other bigots.

I blame it on the same cynical naivete that White Wolf always brought when it tried to get political. No one would believe an antagonist organization that was based on pure malice with no explanation more sophisticated than garden-variety prejudice. All you villains have to have a coherent, intelligible point of view. Ah, the year 2000.

Overall, this was kind of a weak title to round out my time with the Aeonverse. I have no one to blame but myself, though. I knew I should have read it before Adventure!, but I couldn't wait to get started on the most complex and interesting game in the Aeon Continuum.

I really don't mind it so much. The Church works fine as a villain to blindside PCs who've grown complacent about ordinary humanity. And the bit about the nova with the split personality, who was both a pro- and anti- nova preacher at the same time was amusing. Verdict - the book has its place, but that place is not "closing statement on a beloved series."

Ukss Contribution: Most of the setting here is Christians being angry about superpowers, so there's not a lot to work with. I guess . . . the Houston Tornado. Very little is known about this character because he was assassinated by a mob before the core book's starting date, but he was fast and could control the weather, which does give me something to work with.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Adventure!

I guess I should say something about the colonialist subtext in Adventure!

There are subjects I'd much rather be talking about. This book is a watershed title in the Aeonverse, and probably the single greatest influence on the direction of 2nd edition. I could talk about how Daredevils are the prototype for Talents, and occupy an exciting mechanical niche rarely seen in other games.

Or I could go on about the new revelations in Aeonverse canon. Surprisingly, this turned out to be the only book, across three gamelines, that directly states Maxwell Anderson Mercer can time travel. And Dr Primoris, nee Michael Donighal, lately Divis Mal gets some very interesting character development. Yes indeed, there's a lot to talk about. . .

And I will, but first the colonialist subtext.

I wish I was better at this, because most of what I have here is intuition (and even that is but a euphemism for "wild guessing"), but the issue is this - Adventure!, broadly speaking, is anti-colonialist - every time the issue comes up, the text rightfully points out the sins of the colonial powers - but that anti-colonialism never escapes the fundamental colonialist framing and thus fails to be anything more than conservative moralizing (you'll have to grant me a world where anti-colonialist conservatives actually exist, but if we were in such a world, they'd sound a lot like Adventure!)

A concrete example, from the section on India

Nowhere else in the Empire has "the white man's burden" been so dutifully addressed, and nowhere else are its fallacies so painfully clear."
Plucked out of context, it's an absolutely bonkers line, but in context, it's even weirder. Here's the paragraph leading up to it
For many decades, India has been the jewel in the British Empire's colonial crown, a distant, exotic land crying out for justice, equality, and civilization. Since gaining control of the country in the 1850s, the British colonial government has labored hard to bring India into the modern age, instituting legal, social, and educational reforms amid a tangled maze of conflicting religious laws and ancient customs. In the process, the British have ridden roughshod over a society that has existed for thousands of years, redefining political borders and with righteous self-confidence and brutally suppressing any attempts at protest.
The entry continues for another page or so, but it embodies all the same contradictions. It's a section that, in my judgement, is against the British rule over India, but it also takes for granted that the British have good motives and that the Indians are erratic, irrational actors who need to be taught how to govern themselves. I mean, look at that paragraph again - "exotic land crying out for justice" that's literally the first thing you learn about Orientalism.

You read something like this, and you have to start asking questions. How much of it is an apt characterization of the narrator, Sarah Gettle, socially progressive and cosmopolitan 1920s reporter who, by virtue of her era, is still almost painfully white? How much of it is 2001 White Wolf just not getting it? And how much is fundamentally baked into the genre that Adventure! has chosen for itself?

It's usually pretty obvious when a character spouts some era-appropriate bit of bigotry. Whitley Styles' sexism is regarded as a character flaw by the more enlightened members of the Aeon Society for Gentlemen (irony of the name notwithstanding, Max Mercer was keen to recruit women from the very beginning). There's a villain in one of the fictions who says something so nakedly racist that I feel uncomfortable repeating it, but the text is pretty clear that his attitudes are part of his villainy.

What's less obvious is that all of the setting section, even the really fantastic stuff like the underground civilization of E'tah, is defined by a colonialist gaze. The narration trends towards the empathetic - it's empathetic to the Congolese, to the Chinese, to the Peruvians, even to the E'tah, but this empathy operates in a context where imperialism is normal. It's enthusiastic about modernity, but it identifies modernity with Eurocentrism, and thus everywhere the advance of European interests or power is conflated with a nebulous "progress."

At one point, the text actually says, "but with the unrest in China occupying much of America and Europe's attention, it is unclear who will rise to the challenge of saving Japan from a descent into imperialism."

I . . .
 

I . . .
 

I've got nothing.

But this colonialist gaze isn't just about politics. It's also baked into the very structure of the expected gameplay. Adventure! is a modern occult kitchen-sink by way of early comics and adventure fiction. It's about every weird pulp speculative fiction thing being real and being hidden somewhere in the world. In other words - it's about going to distant places and seeing some fantastic shit.

Which is great. Really. Except that it inherits some rather specific tropes from its genre of inspiration, and these tropes make it clear that "distant places" means "places distant from white people." In the world of Adventure!, Africa, Asia, and South America are so full of lost temples, crashed alien spaceships, "cannibal tribes" (a direct quote from the book and if you'll excuse me, I have to go wash my hands after typing it), and other assorted SF rigamarole, that it's a wonder that there's anywhere for indigenous people to live.

I'm not sure it's even possible to make a game that is recognizably pulp without having some version of this problem. Like, maybe with a radical racial inversion and genre parody . . . a kind of Don Quixote for superheroes, told from the perspective of a native Sancho, but even then that would be the sort of delicate work that could only emerge from a singular vision. Onyx Path is working on a second edition of Adventure! that apparently is more sensitive about issues of colonialism, but I can't even imagine how they're going to pull it off.

Anyway, I love Adventure! I just genuinely and unabashedly adore it. It more or less invented the Aeonverse. Oh, there were connections before, but what this book did was take those connections out of the realm of easter eggs and into a kind of mission statement for the setting - the history of this world is defined by "eras" that exemplify some form of over-the-top genre fiction. You've got Adventure, Abberrant, and Aeon, but those are only three examples. You can have as many notional games as there are genres and/or titles starting with the letter "A." It's really quite breathtaking to contemplate.

Also, I'm going to break with a vocal segment of the fan base and say that I am totally at home for the relationship drama between Maxwell Anderson Mercer and Divis Mal. I like Adventure!'s lineup of signature characters in general, because it really does feel like the cast of a long-running animated, and it's easy to imagine any number of canonical adventures that they might have gone on, but the two leads, especially, I find compelling.

RPG players can have a bit of a thing about designated mentor/leader NPCs, and there is some justice to the complaint that these guys are squatting at the top of power curve, taking up a potential PC niche, but I genuinely like both of these characters. Mercer, largely for the same reasons that I like ISRA - he's perfectly set up to pop in to a campaign, drop a plot hook, and then pop out without micromanaging. Mal, because he's a top-tier villain with a built-in philosophical excuse to not destroy the PCs until they power-level.

Now, I'm going to break with the segment of the fandom that likes Mercer and Mal by saying that I do not ship them, like at all. I'm way more invested in the weird dynamic of the Divis Mal/Jeremiah Scripture relationship, and I kind of have Mercer pegged as asexual. He has a sort of big brother chemistry with all his other obvious ships (mainly Sarah Gettle and Whitley Styles), and my theory is that he tried to slip into that dynamic with Micheal Donighal, but it backfired.

(That last paragraph was exclusively for the hardcore Aeonverse fans, sorry casual readers).

Now, with all that being said about Adventure!'s canon characters, I do agree that they are somewhat ill-used in this particular book. Mercer, especially, is treated as a PC stand-in in all three of the interstitial fictions, and while I found those fictions entertaining, having one character recur so many times did make him feel like a main character for the entirety of the Adventure! setting.

Overall, this book was a tough one for me - hugely imaginative, hugely problematic, innovative, yet flawed, laying on the cusp between old White Wolf and new. I don't think it's something that can be ranked or scored. It's an essential part of my own gaming history, but I am as ready for a second edition as I have ever been.

Ukss Contribution: My actual favorite thing was in the opening fiction by Warren Ellis, but he's a creep, so fuck him (and donate a few bucks to RAINN, if you can) - I'm not even going to say what it is.

Second choice is the Order of Murder. Despite the name, their real business is helping rich people fake their deaths. This does, sometimes, involve murder, if they need a peasant's corpse to sell the ruse, but these days they use mindless clones as stand-ins. A real weird group that can be both ally and foe.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

(Aeon 2e)Aeon Aexpansion

 Aeon Aexpansion is one of the better core-overflow books I've read. It probably has something to do with being a kickstarter stretch goal. They were going in with specific topics they wanted to write about, instead of just including whatever odds or ends they couldn't fit in the main book (though I suspect the particular topics got pitched because they couldn't fit in the main book).

So, you know, you've got a chapter that's largely about VARGs and it's pretty great. There are entire games that revolve around entirely around mech pilots. One such game was, in fact, Trinity Battlegrounds (I think). These things are an essential part of the series lore, even if, every time they pop up, they feel like a bit of an afterthought.

This book is probably the first time it's felt like Trinity/Aeon really gets what makes mechs appealing. The Trinity Technology Manual had an admirable diversity of design, but Aeon Aexpansion adds one small, but critical element - "All VARGs have at least one unique ability." These abilities are not always more significant than having ludicrously heavy weapons and armor, but they're all nifty to have, enough to make you care about the difference between a Silverfish-type and an Orca-type. The storypath system doesn't have a lot of fiddly numbers to compare, but the potential for vehicle-nerdery was there.

Despite the giant death robots, my favorite sections were the ones about peaceful and everyday technologies. Once more, it fails to describe people's clothes, but that's okay. I'd have liked more detail on the economy - people prefer not telecommute, but there's no indication of what they're doing that's worth not telecommuting for. It does establish some unique sci-fi aesthetics though.

Houses and cities and computers are made of bionengineered organisms and they have minor psychic powers. Your smartphone can read your emotions and your house can detect when you're cold and turn up the heat. To be truly great sci-fi, the book would have had to go more into the petty annoyances and side-effects, but it's amusing to think that the human beings of Aeon are turning into the weird psionic aliens with the organic ships that always seem to show up in space opera.

The other main thing about the book is the new character types. You've got psiads, which mostly exist to fill a metaplot gap and are only really interesting to people who are obsessed with Aeon-verse minutiae. Quantakinesis is humanity's signature power now! We are unique in all the galaxy for being able to use it. The implications of this are not fully explored, but it's definitely a potential theme.

Superiors are a bit more interesting, though they might technically be a crime against humanity. Japanese scientists identified the gene that turns people into novas/psions (it's the same gene) and they've been secretly dosing their populace with a retrovirus that eliminates it. Given the damage dealt by the Aberrant war, it's understandable, but furtive genetic manipulation of an undesirable population is pretty gross. Thankfully, there's a third option - a different genetic alteration that gives these potentials amazing physical and mental powers. It's not entirely clear where the Superiors fall in the Trinity Continuum's cosmology - my instinct says "low-powered novas" and the throw-away line about "stalwart individuals" ("stalwarts" were what Adventure! called its nova-analogues) seems to confirm it, but they can use psionic biotech, which has been established as a no-no. My new guess is that the super-science exclusion rules break down at the low end of the power scale. It may just be possible to be such a weak nova that biotech doesn't die when you try to use it.

Overall, this book mostly just whet my appetite for more information on its various subjects. But that's okay, that just means that everything in it is interesting.

Ukss Contribution: A psychic, living city that can detect when people are having trouble walking its streets do things like change the texture under the feet of pedestrians. It probably has a mind of its on, but scientists are too cautious to make that determination yet.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

(Trinity 1e)Field Report: Oceania

 Where to Get it: drivethru rpg

When I read a full series, I usually like to do it in order of publication, because then I can spot when new ideas are added or when old ideas are called back to. With the Trinity Universe, however, I didn't have the full series when I started, and I had no plans to get it, so I just read it in a more or less random order. Which is to say, I have no clear idea about the appropriate context for Field Report: Oceania.

I guess I could focus on the difference between first and second edition. In second, Oceania is a geographically discontinuous nation of undersea and floating city-states, whereas in 1st edition it's not anything. Near as I can tell "Oceania" doesn't refer to any particular organization in the setting, because this book is jut about a random assortment of undersea and floating city-states. As a result, this Field Report doesn't really feel like it's about the ocean per se. It feels more like it's about Nippon and the FSA and Turkey (ie New Ottoman Empire . . . apparently) as seen through the perspective of their oceanic settlements.

It's not bad. Because the book is so short, only one of the locations feels like a story-hook. You could definitely set games in the decadent Pearl City or the libertarian monarchy of Neptunia, but they don't really have plots associated with them. And the alien-dolphin communication project of Qingjing or the mysterious creatures of the Peru-Chile trench are certainly situations, but Trinity being Trinity, they are left so mysterious that they're less a hook than a blueprint of a hook.

Atlantis Deep is the one that works best. You've got a location (shabby blue collar mining settlement), a situation (ethnic tension and a management/labor split that doesn't quite break down along ethnic lines), and actual characters and stakes (the various union bosses and the future of the settlement's exploitative practices), which is a lot to cram into three pages.

And even with all that, I've still not talked about three of the book's section headings. The book is broad, but shallow, and I can't quite figure out a way to make that into a satisfying ocean pun. I'm not sure about it as an introduction to the Trinity setting (a role made tempting by its zero-dollar price tag), but it's a nice bit of miscellanea to round out an edition.

Ukss Contribution:Neptunia. It's libertarian seasteading. And it has a king. Because of course it does.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

(Aeon 2e)Terra Firma

 Reading Terra Firma had got me thinking about Adventure!. No, not the abstract concept, but rather the third of the original Trinity Universe's game lines.  Adventure! was set on a wild version of Earth, one where the "unexplored" regions contained mysteries and wonders. I'll have to stumble ass-backwards through the colonialist implications of this when I read Adventure!, but for a book like Terra Firma, I can confine myself to the superficial - this is the first time the Aeon-period Earth has really felt like the Adventure!-period Earth, 200 years in the future.

Now, to be entirely fair to Trinity, I'm really looking at first edition backwards. The only Trinity book to come out (officially) post-Adventure! is Terra Verde (and I have to acknowledge that it might be more Adventure!-esque, I've never read it), and thus it really is an issue of Adventure! adding a whole bunch of unprecedented stuff into Trinity's past. However, I think that unprecedented stuff really gave the setting a shot in the arm . . . or would have if it had not been almost immediately canceled.

So, you know, Terra Firma is a book long overdue. It's got a whole chapter devoted to strange goings-on and pseudo-scientific mysteries, and it's great. It leans a little heavily on "An Aberrant did it," for my taste, but it's no great fault when the Aberrants are supposed to one of the time-period's main antagonists. There is one genuine "superscience gone awry" problem, in the form of the out-of-control biocomputer that took over an entire forest, and one "ancient mystery of Inspired origin" in the form of the Gorgon Karst (a network of caves that transform those who linger within into crystal, originally explored in the time of the classical Greeks), but I could have used more.

Which isn't to say the Aberrant-inspired ones aren't great too. There's an Aberrant on the moon that is in the process of transforming into a new universe, and he has already created a pocket dimension that's a miniature Hollow Earth with himself as the sun. Time within the anomaly moves at an accelerated rate and the paleolithic culture inside it is descended from lunar colonists who were trapped over 8000 of their years ago. And you know what, the rest are just as good - talking dolphins, dueling AIs that may unleash or contain a nanotech plague, and an "acausal computer" that exists within a timeloop and distributes its calculations over the entire length of its existence. Over-reliance on Aberrants or no, I could have read another 100 pages of the "Earthbound Mysteries" chapter.

Oh, yeah, there are other chapters in this book. The first one, giving brief writeups of 10 different futuristic nations is good. Some of the best worldbuilding Trinity has ever done. It does have the problem of a lot of near-future sci-fi where it describes real places, adds a sci-fi twist, and then makes it seem like the twist is what defines the nature of the place. This is mainly a function of length, of course. The 6-7 pages each location gets isn't quite enough to do much more than give a theme-park version of the societies in question.

I wouldn't call it simplistic, though. We learn definitively that Mt Fuji survives (though it's become an active volcano. . . thanks to an Aberrant), and we learn this fact in the context of a brief discussion of the Japanese culture's "reverence for nature," which is a nice little interruption from the sketching-out of an elaborate arcology nation. However, we also learn that in just 2-3 generations, the people of Japan have become utterly, almost biologically, opposed to being outdoors, so much so that the Imperial Gardens "often go empty," despite being open to the public. One-hundred years is not that long a time, especially since it's only really like 60 since the Aberrant War changed everything.

I don't want to downplay the consequences. The Bharati Commonwealth makes a bit more sense now that I've learned that 700 million people died in India during the Aberrant War. It would take a miracle to bring India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh together, but that kind of crisis might be enough to do it. It creates a new setting mystery, though. Like, I always assumed that the shift in global power structures happened because Aberrants migrated to areas that were wealthy and powerful, and thus those are the places that suffered the worst attacks during the War. Africa, South America, India, and China are the new great powers because they were passed over.

But nowhere, not even the now-fascist Federated States of America, is described as losing hundreds of millions of people. The FSA lost New York and DC and Florida and a huge chunk of the midwest, and presidents were assassinated so frequently that the line of succession couldn't keep up, but there was no talk of horror on that kind of scale.

Truthfully, India's writeup didn't quite sell the horror either. I suspect it's a matter of an author thinking in overly abstract mathematical terms. Don't get me wrong, it's portrayed as bad, but it looks like the thought process involved taking a big number and making it smaller without really taking into account the sheer scale of the numbers involved. If India loses half its population, there's not going to be an India any more. Not even as a member state of the Bharati Commonwealth. When we start to talk about population losses in the double-digit percentages, that's a complete breakdown in social order. Infrastructure becomes impossible to maintain, distant regions lose contact with each other (especially in the wake of the overnight destruction of all the world's internet), institutions collapse. There are 31 languages in India with more than a million native speakers. I don't know enough about the region to tell you where the new borders shake out, but I do know human nature enough to know that if the various regions get subsumed into a new federalist structure, they're definitely not going to see themselves as a bloc.

My guess is that the culprit here is an inherited idea that made me uncomfortable in Aberrant 1st edition and which I'm surprised to see make a return in 2nd - "India syndrome" - the idea that Indian people are more likely to see Novas as gods. To be fair, there are a lot of Aberrant cults in 2nd edition, at least one nearly everywhere modern Aberrants appear, but the suggestion that there were so many in old India that they created history's greatest atrocity . . . it's problematic.

And I've gotten away from the point. Which is that Terra Firma, when it's not being Adventure: 2120! is full of imaginative, but imprecise worldbuilding. It's a good source of ideas for roleplaying games, but it also sometimes seems like a compromise with the uncomfortable truth that the modern economic realities of the industry make it impossible to give these locations the full sourcebooks they deserve.

Ukss Contribution: The Plaguelands are an idea you could build a whole franchise around. Something lurks in the Venezuelan jungle (spoilers: it's an Aberrant) that is mutating the wildlife to become ridiculously dangerous - like "having biological organs that jam radio communications" - level adapted to fucking up humanity's shit. It's enough of a problem that there needs to be a permanently fortified border with the jungle, and even with all the guns pointed inward, freaky nightmare-beasts still break through. Maybe there could be some kind of malevolent hyper-evolution somewhere on Ukss too.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

(Trinity 1e)Trinity Players Guide

What, exactly, is the Aeon Trinity? It's a question that's been floating around in my brain for almost 20 years now, and I couldn't give you a solid answer until Aeon 2nd edition came around. If only I'd read the Trinity Players Guide sooner, I would have . . . still been pretty confused, but maybe I'd have been able to make peace with that.

See, the thing about Aeon is that they are the sort of organization that doesn't exist in real life - they're an NGO with an espionage wing. There are so many contradictory and implausible things about them that it can be hard to pin down how they actually work. There's a pair of sidebars where an Aeon administrator wants to extract a dissident scientist and tries to requisition special forces and VARGs (mechs), and then his supervisor chews him out because the proposed course of action would start a war with China . . . implying that Aeon did, in fact, have all this hard-hitting military capability, able to match a full battalion of the setting's most modern military, but that the suits in charge are cautious about deploying it.

Who has that kind of power? And who, amongst the setting's various governments was asleep at the wheel long enough for them to acquire it? Second edition cleared things up for me by leaning farther into the superhero angle ("oh, they're like SHIELD, but liberal and internationalist"), but it was kind of fun trying to see if I could reach that conclusion just by reading 1st edition sources.

The answer is . . . sort of. Like, the only way any of it works is if you allow for this comics-style break from reality, but the text itself never quite gives you enough of a genre vibe to make it feel natural. Aeon's headquarters take up most of an arcology! It's got chapter-houses in every major city and human colony! They have mechs! But also, they have no official status anywhere. They work behind the scenes, wielding influence and gathering information. They are widely known as a humanitarian and philanthropic organization, but people also expect them to fight Aberrants (so much so that they feel betrayed when Aeon doesn't show up to fight any particular Aberrant).

I think I just have to accept that the people of the Trinity universe have grown accustomed to living in a world where something like Aeon exists, and if they are at all confused by it, they just assume that confusion is their own fault. I'm sure, if anything, I would have a hard time explaining our world to them ("What do you mean, your world has nothing like the Aeon Trinity in it? Who do the governments offload all the weird, expensive shit onto while complaining endlessly about threats to their sovereignty?")

The best explanation I've seen for the organization as a whole is that there was a complete breakdown in the international order during the Aberrant War, humanity was in genuine danger of extinction, and this mysterious group with more money than God came out of the shadows and propped up various institutions until they could become self-sufficient again. The main difference between our world and the Trinity Universe is that in theirs, gratitude in politics lasts longer than a week. It works better in second edition, because Aeon is also an organization that recruits Talents (ie "normal" people who are so implausibly skilled that they fit right into a comic book reality), but I'm not sure first edition had even come up with the concept yet.

It's hard to say. The advantage to reading Trinity completely out of order is that I can see the little hints that the books drop for future metaplot. There's a throwaway line here about how Maxwell Anderson Mercer is "'unstuck' in time and able to appear through force of will" and it's tossed in among enough other implausible-sounding rumors that it would be easy to overlook, but it gets me wondering. How much was worked out in advance, and how far in advance? I wouldn't be surprised if the time-travel connections were intended from the original core, but I don't think Daredevils (the Adventure! splat that led to 2e's Talents) were a worked-out idea yet, if only because this would have been the perfect place to hint at them.

They would have improved the "Normal Characters" section immensely. The Trinity Players Guide presents rules for non-psionic characters, but never quite gets past feeling like those characters are a second choice. They are "supporting cast, experts, and sidekicks." The idea that maybe people will want to play futuristic people in a futuristic sci-fi world without the inducement of psychic powers is only tentatively broached.

Which is a shame, because Trinity is such a richly realized world that there's plenty to do - mech pilot, interplanetary explorer, anti-corporate rebel, post-apocalyptic scavenger. More mechanical differentiation between "normal" characters would have given the game a lot more versatility (one of the reasons 2e is such an improvement). Not that this was necessarily a task for a Players' Guide, it's just that if Daredevils were already in the works, this would have been the perfect place to mention them (the Aberrant Players Guide does mention them, but in a very obscure way).

And I've very nearly forgotten my point. Which is merely that the "normal characters" section needed more confidence. I suspect it's probably an artifact of being a White Wolf game - nobody plays Vampire: the Masquerade to just be some guy, so it's possible that they might have thought of psions as the game's signature supernatural group. I personally think the game doesn't need to rely on them, but maybe White Wolf wasn't there as a company yet.

Speaking of normal people, I liked the section about contemporary society, but it needed to be about 5 times as long. It was a little vague about the effects of automation. It's good enough to eliminate "most housework, service work, and office-work," but nobody has yet built a robot that works well outdoors, so that pretty much leaves knowledge work, resource extraction, and construction as the only remaining jobs. It seems like kind of an arbitrary line, but even so, it would have been nice to get a deep dive into what society would have been like. Same with micro-settlements and increased population mobility two social trends created by cheap fusion power and the depopulation of the Aberrant War. There are ideas here that could have very credibly anchored some serious social science fiction, but it's too short a section to really get into them.

The last notable thing about this book is the freeform psionics system. The way it works is that instead of having fixed powers at each of your Mode levels, you construct effects from a menu of power factors that give you things like effect potency, range and duration in exchange for successes on an activation roll. It dramatically increases a character's versatility in exchange for giving players a lot more rules to navigate. Maybe I've been burned one too many times by being the only one at the table to know the game's rules, but my impression of the system was that you'd never find a group committed enough to learn it. Then again, it's simpler than Exalted, so it's probably just a matter of sticking with the game long of enough to trigger an obsession.

Overall, I like the Trinity Player's Guide. It was a bit of a workhorse book, but that's no great fault. It's main flaw was including Flaws (a dubious mechanic at the best of times, moreso when you have to include a sidebar explaining why physical ailments that give you extra character creation points also happen to defy the setting's advanced medical techniques). Aside from that, I could have done with less of the trademark White Wolf mystery. Why only give the first dot of Quantakinesis? Why not tell me what's really going on with the Aeon Council? Do you not trust me? What are you holding back for?

When it comes to Trinity 1st edition as a whole, my opinion is that White Wolf did its best work in the mid 2000s. The New World of Darkness was slick, genre-savvy, and smart without being unnecessarily pretentious. Trinity was like a foreshadowing of that era. It's held back from standing alongside Vampire: the Requiem or Changeling: the Lost by some unfortunate legacy White-Wolf-isms (specifically, the reliance on metaplot and the need to dilute its genre with 90s cynicism), but it was also showing a growing creative maturity and the potential the company had to make something new when they weren't tied to the existing canon of their own juvenilia. Honestly one of my favorite game lines and one that somehow, inexplicably, gets even better in its second edition.

Ukss Contribution: One of the advantages of being a neutral character is that the tabloids will hound psions mercilessly. That's a concept that's not used often enough in fantasy - an adversarial relationship between supernatural creatures and the press. So Ukss will have sleazy newspapers that harass magicians, sorcerers, and Yokai.