Thursday, December 30, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Blades

 Oh, Blades, Blades, Blades what am I supposed to do with you? No, seriously. What am I supposed to do with you? Because I know for certain that the one thing I am not going to do with you is run you as a series of Earthdawn adventures for six to eight PCs of circle six to nine. 

I'm being snarky, of course, but this time the snark is not directed at the book, but at myself. I am dead certain that if I attempted to run this adventure, it would be a complete disaster. The question now is how universal my experience might be. It would be pretty arrogant of me to declare that just because I can't do something it means that it can't be done. 

However, I'm not sure it can be done. Blades is meant to be used as an ongoing subplot in a larger campaign. At some point (canonically, the end of Shattered Pattern, but really, whenever) you find the titular blades and, like all Earthdawn artifacts, you must find the key knowledges necessary to unlock their powers. This book is a series of five adventures, the first four of which offer a key knowledge as a reward.

And I have to say, before anything else, that I love this structure. Magic items unlocking new powers as you learn more about their history is probably Earthdawn's best mechanic. And a set of seven identical magical items, all with the same key knowledges, bundled together as an adventure path meant to weave throughout the entire campaign, drawing the entire party in and acting as the adventure rewards in a very organic way - it's sheer perfection. From a purely design perspective, I'm in awe.

So what was all the "this may be impossible to run" hand-wringing about? Well, it all comes down to the fact that the specific adventure associated with these specific blades feels really fucking urgent. The way it's supposed to work is that you advance your ranks in your magic item gradually over time, spending xp to level it up and going on the Blades adventures only when you reach the bottleneck ranks and can't advance any further without the key knowledge. Since unlocking the next rank can cost hundreds, or even thousands of xp, you'll have to do a lot of adventuring in-between, especially if you want to advance in your Discipline, in addition to your magic item mastery. For example, the adventure that gives you the level 5 key knowledge awards a base of 3100 xp, but buying the rank 5 and 6 advancements on the blades cost 5500 xp, requiring at least an extra full adventure just to qualify for the next chapter of the story.

And that's a perfectly fine bit of pacing, except that the blades, in addition to being powerful magic items that can benefit any Discipline, are also cursed with the trapped spirit of an ancient Horror, who inspires treachery and murder in anyone the PCs get too close to. That rank 5 adventure I was talking about? At least a dozen innocent (ish) people die because of the blades' curse. You're captured by a a group of Tamers (people who deliberately turn their backs on human technology in order to live in harmony with nature) and their leader, a powerful beastmaster, slays them all in the night before eventually committing suicide from grief once the curse wears off and she realizes what she's done. And sure, they were planning on sacrificing you to the forest spirits (based on the wacky belief that you've brought evil into their homeland), but this keeps happening. Later adventures in the series rack up an even higher and innocenter body count, and it's kind of implied that this is going on even in your unrelated adventures (the original owners of the blades were so oblivious for such a long time that it led to the downfall of the entire kingdom of Cara Fahd).

That's why I think the whole arc might be impossible to run. At the end of the first adventure, you learn that the blades are cursed, and will cause death and destruction everywhere they go, but the only way to break the curse is to fully power up the blades and then use them to slay the spirit trapped inside. The powered-up blades are its biggest weakness. It's not quite impossible to kill the Horror with other weapons, but the damage rating of all other attacks is reduced by 10 (which is a lot).

And let me reiterate - there is very definitely a trail of bodies the PCs are leaving behind them while this whole powering-up process is going on. So it's kind of hard for me to imagine the events of Blades as anything less than the PCs' top priority.

Although, I think Blades would be a difficult series of adventures to run even if you promoted it from "subplot" to "plot." It all comes down to some very challenging questions about the nature of responsibility and agency.

You roll into town and the villagers start having nightmares of terrible violence, and then one of the victims acts out his nightmare while sleepwalking. A whole family is destroyed, children are left orphaned, and the sickness lingers even after you leave. If you come back later, you discover the first incident set off a whole chain reaction of revenge murders. And yes, it's all down to the Horror who has infected your blades, and there's not anything you can do to stop it (even if you bury the blades, the Horror can exploit the connection of your activated magic item levels to continue to act through you), but once it becomes obvious that these reactions are inevitable, maybe you have an obligation to at least try and mitigate the damage by staying far away from populated areas. Although, since the information you need to break the curse is usually in a populated area, that becomes a tough dilemma to navigate.

And then there's the question about what to do with the Horrors' victims. The book treats them as if they were somehow culpable in their atrocities, but it doesn't strike me as a very convincing position. First of all, the mechanics of how someone becomes "corrupted" suggest some pretty powerful and direct mind control. You roll a check based on how much the PCs have leveled the blades (the Horror gets stronger alongside the heroes) and that check targets the victim's spell defense. The roll gets a bonus if the victim has prior feelings of anger and jealousy, and maybe you could interpret that as a form of complicity, but I feel like it's at most a shifting of probability. It doesn't take much of a success to get the victim to do something they wouldn't otherwise do, and given Earthdawn's exploding dice, in theory anyone can be influenced to do anything. Towards the end of the adventure, the Horror is tossing out rank 12+ influence effects against NPCs with spell defenses of 3 or 4, meaning that maximum level successes are more common than literally any other result. The guy who attacked his wife while sleepwalking never even had a chance.

The adventure has a very grim atmosphere, as a result. The typical antagonist doesn't even want to be there. In fact, they weren't even an enemy until you came along and exposed them to the mind-control field that turned them into enemies. You fight the ghosts of ork heroes (who were tortured by the Horrors during the Scourge and can no longer tell the difference between friend and foe), corrupted obsidemen (who are the remnants of those who gave their lives trying to defeat the Horror the first time around), and even the shade of Kragen Overtall, who betrayed the Seven Spokes, sworn defenders of ancient Cara Fahd (after succumbing to the Horror's mind control). It is only at the very beginning (when the Horror's influence is so weak that it can only nudge people who were planning shit anyways) and the very end (when you fight the Horror itself) that you face foes who were unambiguously in control of their own actions.

The biggest thing this adventure is missing is the sense that you are on a healing journey, that you are doing this all just as much for the benefit of the people being coerced into opposing you. In the end, when you slay the Horror, a psychic wave goes out, informing its victims of their tormentor's demise, but there's not much of a sense that it's worth it. That you, the PCs, can be forgiven for bringing the corruption aura into town with you because that was the only way to rid the world of the greater evil.

And that's a big part of this adventure's difficulty to run. Am I a good enough GM to sell the bittersweetness? To somehow bring these dozens of ruined lives into a coherent theme about . . . I don't know, the preciousness of personal autonomy or something. Also, can I pitch this to my PCs in such a way as to earn both their buy-in and their patience. "You are on an incredibly dark path that will burden you with some impossible moral choices, but you can't rush it because everything is going to get worse at a very deliberate pace that is only marginally under your control."

I don't think Blades is a bad adventure. I think it's a terrible adventure, in both the good and bad sense of the word. I'm not ready to rule out the possibility that there's some virtuoso GM out there, with a group of PCs invested enough to pull it off (and if this adventure is ever going to work, it's going to need the active cooperation of the PCs), but I am positive that I am not that GM.

Ukss Contribution: The first villain, who likely would have been an ass even without the influence of the blades, lived inside a fortress made from a "hollowed out fossil skull of a gigantic lizard from a distant age." I love it when fantasy goes big.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Hellbound: The Blood War

There's this idea that keeps cropping up in these Planescape books. To paraphrase - "the first thing the Clueless want to do when they reach the planes is go to hell." And every time it comes up, I have the same reaction - "what the fuck are you talking about?"

Not to be so shitty about it or anything, but maybe this is one of those situations where you can just take a beat and acknowledge that you're making a game and perhaps the PCs are not a representative sample of the population at large. Player characters want to go to hell because they are powerful adventurers who are either greedy and blood-crazed enough to want to take on the legions of the damned or are driven by such important goals that they are willing to brave perdition itself. So if you're sitting at the crossroads of all realities and someone like that comes up to you and says "which way to hell," maybe that's an unusual experience for you. And if it's not (and I'll admit, I am kind of amused by the idea of a Sigil that's just constantly seeing traffic from the half-dozen local apocalypses that are happening at any give moment), then maybe your stereotype of the Prime Material Plane shouldn't be that they're "clueless," but that they're "frightening beyond all reason."

"In my years as a guide to the portals of Sigil, I must have directed more than a hundred Primes to the lower planes. Sometimes they were fools, yes, but mostly they wanted something desperately - to save a kingdom or a world or a single soul. And all of them, even the fools, had the same look in their eye - a kind of manic need, balanced on the knife's edge between greatness and death."

I only bring it up because Hellbound: the Blood War is a book about ordinary people going to hell and getting mixed up in the politics there, in exchange for nothing more than some rather unremarkable sums of money. 

"Cross a cursed battlefield in the bleakest regions of hell, where billions of demons have died over the past ten million years, their blood staining the ground so that even the plants have a vicious hunger for the ichor of fiends, and retrieve from there the secret battle plans of a diabolic general."

"Ah, so that we may deliver them to the forces of light and ensure the safety of mortal-kind for generations to come?"

"Nah, the plans will be changed almost immediately, but they still retain a certain value on the secondary market. Your cut of the profits will be 5000 gold."

And that's the most well-compensated of the adventures. The more general campaign suggestions include couriers, mercenaries, and spies. In hell. For demons.

Oh, sorry, "calling the fiends by the d-words is no better than insulting any other group of people because of the way they look or act" according to one of the book's occasional bits of alignment-related gibberish. After all, if it were a human who was living in a giant tower made of sealed metal cages containing captives who were immobilized by razor-wire, but kept alive through the meticulous efforts of an army of servants so that their anguish could be prolonged for no reason other than an exaltation of degradation and pain, you certainly wouldn't call them a demon, would you? That's just judging someone based on the way they act.

Pardon the excessive sarcasm, but it does get to the reason why I didn't enjoy Hellbound very much. It's parked right in the middle of Planescape's worst element. Not the Blood War itself. That's something that's maybe too big and too old (there are repeated admonitions that the PCs should not expect to have any effect whatsoever on the course of the war), but it's an interesting texture. These celestial creatures are fighting over irreconcilable differences in ideology, and they hate each other more than anything else in the universe. It's a good way to inform the motivations of fiends who interact with the PCs. 

Rather, the problem with this book, and by extension the Blood War, and by further extension, Planescape itself, is the reification of AD&D's alignment system. Different factions of fiends fighting each other because they are incapable of compromise? Pretty interesting. Different factions of fiends fighting each other over differing beliefs about the best way to advance the cause of Evil? Please stop.

They are explicitly, in-character, marching under the banner of "Evil." As in, they could charge into battle with the rallying cry, "For Evil!" and that would be inspirational to them. The reason they hate each other is because each major faction thinks the other is not doing Evil well enough.

This is a conflict that may work in a more heightened reality like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (although, even then, just barely), but Planescape wants to be more nuanced. Angels and demons sharing drinks in celestial Casablanca and all that. "Like most evil folks, the fiends think they're doing the right thing."

None of the Planescape books come close to finding the right balance. You've got the fiends, who have their competing ideologies, and they're evil because they're willing to do terrible deeds to advance those ideologies. But then, on top of that, "Evil" is part of those ideologies, and so really they're . . . willing to do terrible deeds . . . to make he world safe for them to do terrible deeds.  This makes the whole conflict feel really gutless, because there is nothing on either side worth preserving or advancing, and thus nothing truly at stake. Either side winning would be equally bad, but only because they would then proceed to attack new foes who do have ideologies worth defending. Will the world end in fire or ice? That's what the Blood War is about.

It's a dour, unpleasant conflict that only really works when it's in the background, serving as a motivation for dour, unpleasant antagonists. Once you start recruiting PCs to do stuff like deliver messages or scout terrain, you're now tying the fate of your campaign in the players' investment in a story whose best possible outcome is an indefinite continuation of the status quo.

Needless to say, I didn't really enjoy this book. The most dynamic part was the big adventure that had PCs traveling through multiple lower planes to find the secret creature that gave fiends their teleportation abilities. It's a competently constructed adventure, a bit linear, but with meaningful choices that impact the difficulty of the final encounter, and it could, potentially, have a major effect on the Blood War, despite the rest of the book's contention about the impossibility of such ambitions. However, I couldn't bring myself to enjoy it due to it being a transparent attempt to introduce mechanical errata in the form of a narrative. Pre-Planescape AD&D gave all demons and devils, save the very least ones like lemures, the ability to teleport, at will, to any plane and that conflicts terribly with the setting's emphasis on the importance of portals, and thus instead of just including the retcon into a destined-to-be-controversial sidebar, they decided to make it into a destined-to-be-controversial adventure.

On the positive side, Blander Mul is back, this time in a margin quote "Just because I'm a fanatic doesn't mean I'm stupid." Oh, Blander, that is almost exactly wrong, but at least you have a sense of humor about it.

Overall, I'd rank this pretty low on the list of essential Planescape books. It had its moments, when it wasn't trying to convince me to take its central premise seriously, but I'm sorry, there is absolutely no way anything is ever going to get me to care about "a struggle for the control of evil itself, for the definition of what evil really is." Wake me up when you realize that you could have replaced the word "evil" in that sentence with "good" and had essentially 99% the same dynamic, but in a way that might actually challenge people.

Ukss Contribution: As usual, Planescape is best in the fine details. The Abyss section of the main adventure had plenty of creepy objects. I hesitate to call any of them my "favorite," but there is a magic wand called "The Despoiler of Flesh" (or, hilariously, the "Flesh Wand") that is made of sewn-together tongues.


But probably in a good way. It was a wasted opportunity not to give the wand therapeutic or transhumanist uses (it can reshape flesh, living or dead, but only cosmetically), but that's something I can rectify in Ukss. It's obviously got to go into the hands of a villain, but villains can do more interesting things than torture.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Skypoint Adventures

 I have only one complaint about this book. When an adventure sends you across the countryside of Barsaive, it lists one of the hazards as "savages." Ouch. That's literally my only complaint, though, and I more or less forgot about it until I went back and checked my notes (although it was kind of a gut-punch moment - my notes say "eek!"). My overall impression of the book is positive.

If I were to sum it up, I'd say that Skypoint Adventures is a collection of "filler episodes." It's three short adventures, meant to wrap up in a single session, that each have a quick, but complete arc.

In "Chasing the Snakeskin Boots" you're hired to find some rare antique (and magical) coins. You track the thief by asking people about his distinctive snakeskin boots. You recover the coins and have to decide between returning them to your employer or their rightful owner or keeping them for yourself because your employer and the coins' owner both kind of suck.

In "A Message to Vivane" you're tasked with delivering key intelligence to the anti-Theran resistance, but literally an hour after you hand it over, the rebels suffer a devastating raid. The guy with the info escapes and sells it to a crime lord and if the rebels are to ever have any chance of surviving (let alone paying you back), you've got to steal it from the crime lord before he sells it to the Therans.

In "Shadows" a slave trader near Skypoint discovers a (whited out for arachnophobia) magical spider that will burrow inside peoples' heads and paralyzes their free will. A friendly NPC, who hopefully the GM remembered to establish long enough ago that it feels organic, has lost his son to these experiments and wants you to rescue him. Ideally, you do, and in the process destroy all the research so no one attempts to replicate this atrocity.

And with one slight exception in "A Message to Vivane" ("should the adventurers lose the scroll through sheer incompetence, return it to them by a stroke of luck or even a deus ex machina"), there is no railroading at all. The stakes are presented fairly and success or failure each bring reasonable consequences. It's not like Shattered Pattern, which put the whole fate of Barsaive at stake, but you still have an impact. Do the wrong thing with the coins and you'll make a powerful enemy. Succeed at recovering the intel and the resistance can bounce back from the raid, stronger than ever (plus they cough up the money they owe you). Fuck up with those spiders and they become a standard part of the Theran toolkit.

This whole book is just another example of Earthdawn releasing a solid, well-made supplement. It never quite takes the big risks necessary to elevate it to true greatness, but it also doesn't screw up the basics. Its ideal use, I think, is to act as an interlude between more prep-heavy sessions. Your characters are near Skypoint and you want to start sowing the seeds for an epic anti-Thera campaign, you can use one of these adventures to tread water while you introduce the PCs to the locals. Or they've just come back from delving into a kaer and you're not ready to start a new dungeon dive, this will buy you a week. Which isn't meant to diminish the book or anything. It's hard to do a filler episode well, and Skypoint Adventures manages it three times in a row.

Ukss Contribution: My absolute favorite thing in these adventures is a shitty bartender, Rapier, who likes to pose as a dashing retired hero. If you get him talking about his alleged adventures, he'll just appropriate various legends, casting himself in the lead role. But what I loved about him was the book's suggestion that he might put his foot in his mouth by unknowingly taking credit for the PCs' more famous exploits. That strikes me as just an incredibly fun interaction for both the players and the GM.

Monday, December 13, 2021

(Planescape) The Planeswalker's Handbook

 With The Planeswalker's Handbook, TSR has made the curious choice of essentially re-issuing the original boxed set, in a barely condensed form. Seriously, the descriptions of the individual planes are cut from a full page to a half page, but the first chapter runs through all of them, incorporating material from the three main boxed sets along the way. It doesn't go into detail about Sigil, and that's a pretty big loss, but it makes up for it by including dramatically more player-facing material - new equipment and spells, new planeswalker-specific kits, and a few new PC race options, including the soon-to-be-iconic aasimar and genasi. A DM is going to need more information, but for players, it's probably the best available entry point into the setting.

Maybe that's why they did it. Players don't read boxed sets, but they do read the "Handbook" series, and the MSRP is 10 dollars cheaper, so it's less of an ask. Nonetheless, it's a ridiculously good value and could well be a full campaign setting in its own right.

And it's here that I have to get myself under control and refrain from going off on my usual Planescape tirade, because The Planeswalker's Handbook really does a great job of embodying the setting - for both good and for ill. I think we can get away with summarizing the gist of it - Planescape pitches you the idea of infinity, uses that pitch to creep a little bit outside the "standard fantasy" mold, and often stops short just when it's starting to get good. Also, it only intermittently thinks through the implications of its own themes and the AD&D mechanics are not up to the task of presenting the setting authentically (for example - the "planar creatures" campaign option, where you play as aasimon, modrons, or genies is actually an excellent idea for a game that would be a nightmare to try and run using contemporarily available AD&D books).

You've heard all this before, so I don't have to get into it again . . . except . . . There is this one passage that completely deconstructs the setting's premise in a way that is nearly impossible to recover from, and it's mobilized in service of . . . actually, I'm not sure what, precisely. I'll let you judge for yourself.

Elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes and the like are scattered around the planes like the other races, but a canny berk'll notice a common theme -- most of the time, they're found only in the realms of their deities. The planes have been around since the beginning of creation, just like the Prime Material Plane. Millennia ago prime demihumans adventured to the realms of their deities, decided they liked it there, and stayed to establish homes and raise families. Communities of planar demihumans are born, live, and die in the specific areas that their gods have established as realms. Few ever leave; if a body lived in the perfect home of her god, her people's idea of heaven, would she bother to go adventuring around the planes? Probably not. Only a trivial number of planar demihumans live outside the realms of their gods.

. . . And that's why you can't play an elf, dwarf, halfling, or gnome as a planar PC. No, really, that's where this ends up: "A player considering a planar elf from Arvandor (for example) ought to offer the DM a darned good reason why that elf's left the home of his gods."

I did the long quote because the whole section left me with mouth agape. It's such an incredibly irresponsible thing to put into print, and I don't understand what it's trying to accomplish. I mean, on a literal, tactical level, okay. You can't be an elf from the planes. . . But you can still be an elf. You just have to come from a prime material world. What is going on? What is the point of all this?

I think it must be to justify the books' focus on the new lineup. Githzerai, tieflings, and bariaurs are everywhere, filling the same niche as demihumans, and so you need to explain the absence of elves and dwarves and halflings and gnomes, because you can't just put a githzerai into an elf-shaped hole. Except that you can. You don't need to justify shit. You can just do things differently. The elf-shaped hole isn't real.

Which, ironically, means that the planar elf should be okay. That's what "infinity" is all about. The things that are common on a prime material world, or even a half-dozen prime material worlds, don't necessarily dictate the demographics of the crossroads of all possible worlds. Githzerai come from Limbo, which means that they could easily span an area greater than Oerth, Toril, Krynn, Athas, Mystara, and Aebrynis combined. If so, then it's hardly surprising that you're more likely to run into them in Sigil.

The Planes of Conflict boxed set featured an NPC I really should have mentioned at the time - an Illithid merchant hanging out in one of Bytopia's trading towns. Such a specific and unlikely character, totally at odds with his species' presentation up to that point, and my thought at the time was not outrage or confusion that such a rules-breaking creature could exist, but rather a sort of ecstatic enthusiasm. At last the setting was starting to live up to the hype. Unfortunately, he was a one-off, and I forgot about him until just now, but he goes to show Planescape's potential. It did not break my immersion to see an illithid on the planes. If anything, it was the opposite. Seeing a creature notorious for sudden and frightful violence interact peacefully with these gnome merchants did a great deal to sell me on the breathtaking scope of the world. I didn't need an explanation for why it had to be an illithid instead of a halfling.

And I didn't need an explanation for why the "standard" fantasy races weren't ubiquitous on the planes. Divide a finite quantity (the number of demihumans currently alive at any one time) by an infinite quantity (the size of the planes), and the result is basically zero. Whole lifetimes could go by where you'd never see an elf.

But, apparently, someone needed an explanation, because we got one in the quoted passage. And the explanation in question drives a fucking bulldozer through the heart of the setting.

It is possible to physically attain heaven. It's a place and you can get there by moving. All you have to do is find your god's address and then arrange transportation. Once you do, you and your band of religious pilgrims can plot down and set up shop, and you and your descendants will know perfect contentment . . . forever. We know this is possible, because the elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes have already done it. That's why we never see any of them around.

I feel a kind of dizzying existential horror just thinking about it. This isn't the first time we've encountered this concept, of course. Much of my very first Planescape post was given over to contemplating the concept of physically colonizing heaven, sparked by an off-hand mention that PCs could build a stronghold in Elysium. However, at the time I thought the unexplored implications were an oversight. In their rush to make the planes into a gameable setting, they forgot that these places have religious significance. Except here it is, the religion is out in the open - live your life like a planar elf and you can bodily ascend into heaven.

So why aren't humans doing this? Why aren't bariaurs? Why is Sigil not constantly flooded with a stream of Prime Material religious pilgrims, ready to pay anything, to do anything to find the pathway to their gods.

And why are the gods letting them in when they get there? Isn't there something in their religious doctrines about needing to prove yourself worthy (or, at the very least, be purified by the sacrament of death) in order to get into heaven? Are you not implying that all of "demihuman" culture is nothing but elaborate preparation for a successful suicide? The reason we see humans, tieflings, githzerai, and bariaurs is because they've not yet mastered the eschaton and thus are condemned to live? Is this really the sort of game we're supposed to play?

Obviously not. But you've got to explain the absence of elves.

It's a kind of mental barrier that keeps popping up in these old TSR products. It's like they forgot that they invented the genre they're currently working in and that, having invented it, they could go on to invent something else. Or maybe it's a downside to success. They had achieved market dominance doing a particular thing, so the smart play would be to keep doing it until it stopped working. When I rattled off a list of Prime worlds earlier ("Oerth, Toril, Krynn, Athas, Mystara, and Aebrynis") that wasn't just me being extravagant. I was listing all of the Prime worlds specifically mentioned in the text (except Ortho, homelworld of the Harmonium, which only exists in backstory form) and not coincidentally, all the worlds that have elves, dwarves, and halflings (gnomes are absent from Dark Sun and, apparently, Birthright). Don't get me wrong, there's an admirable diversity of gameplay experiences here, but it's a little weird the way these same guys just keep popping up.

And Planescape is sometimes frustrating because it repeatedly bumps up against that mental barrier, but it can't quite grasp that certain things are "normal" only because twenty years of D&D have normalized them. Even as it's downplaying the "standard" demihuman races, it's panicking about their conspicuous absence, so much so that it's advancing apocalyptic nonsense to explain it. The key insight its lacking is that it's okay to just be its own thing. You really want to be the campaign setting that explores the infinite, all you have to do is learn two little words: "it's allowed."

It always seems so arbitrary what AD&D decides is a bridge that cannot be crossed. Canonically, Earth Genasi can become Paladins, a rare move in 2e's rigid class system. That's why "DMs may decide that genasi paladins are best limited to NPCs."

What is this bullshit? A PC has somehow managed to qualify for being a paladin, despite playing a race that gets penalties to Wisdom and Charisma, and you're encouraging the DM to veto the character because they're "extremely rare?" Rare like an 18 attribute roll, maybe?

As often happens when I read AD&D books, I feel like I'm grappling with something invisible here, some kind of social convention that, were I plugged into it, would make all of this make sense. Earth genasi paladins are a thing that exists, and you make them sound kind of cool, so much so that I, here in the year 2021, am thinking of homebrewing a whole elemental paladin class, but then, one sentence after inventing them, you imply that players wanting to play as this cool new thing is somehow suspect. 

I think what I might be missing is a sense for the virtue of normality. TSR isn't trying to micro-manage my game from Lake Geneva. Rather, they are warning me that when I bring my Earth Genasi Paladin to a new game, I am doing something Not Normal, and that the DM might have the perfectly reasonable reaction of not wanting my Not Normal character messing up their perfectly Normal game. That's why they made the effort to come up with an extremely fatuous explanation for the absence of the Normal PC races, so that the DM would have time to adjust to the fact that Planescape has declared a new batch of races to be the Normal ones.

Or, at least, that's one theory. It doesn't quite explain The Planeswalker's Handbook's dismal selection of kits, however. Each class type gets its own "Planeswalker" kit (e.g. Planeswalker Warrior, Planeswalker Wizard, etc) and "It's recommended that if native planar characters wish to use kits, they stick to these." Why that should be the case is unclear, though, because the kits are uniformly bland ("what if you had the regular class, but gave it a special ability that is useful on the planes"). You're telling me that if I grow up in Sigil, there's nobody around who can teach me to be a beggar thief or a swashbuckler fighter?

What's really frustrating is that they follow this section with an "alternative" system of "Kits Based on Location," that has some really interesting and flavorful kits, like the warrior who's worked as a mercenary in The Abyss or the wizard who learned to fly a glider in the elemental plane of air. And I'm looking at these and thinking, "how can this section and the previous section exist side-by-side?" You did a mediocre job and then immediately after started doing a good job, but then instead of using what you learned from the good part of your work and going back to fix the mediocre part, you just left them both in.

So I don't know, fucking AD&D, am I right?

Eh, maybe that's too harsh. I always feel like such a grump after writing a Planescape post, because I always fall into the trap of focusing on what can be improved. I really need to get better at conveying my love for these books in a way that's more obvious than simply the fact that I went out of my way to own them at all (I ask you, sincerely, is paying 35 dollars for the Planescape audio CD the act of a man who doesn't love the setting?). If it helps, I don't think of what I do as writing reviews, I think of them more as written reactions. What I write isn't an overall judgement of the work, but rather what I most want to talk about right after reading the work. What The Planeswalker's Handbook is is an abridged and condensed version of the setting so far, supplemented with more player-facing material than we've seen in the rest of the line combined. That's a really good thing to be. You should just ignore the part about the DM banning Genasi paladins. Ignore the part about only using the bland kits (which, admittedly, do have a niche for players who don't want to use a more character-defining kit) and just use whatever kits you want. Ignore the part about planar demihumans hiding away in heaven (either that, or make it the central theme of your campaign, where your party of intrepid PCs attempts to bodily ascend into paradise, threatening to throw the whole balance of life and death out of whack, which would definitely be a pretty epic D&D campaign). 

I think, the real barrier to Planescape reaching its potential is just the rift between pre- and post- internet. There has been an explosion of creativity and diversity in the 25 years since this book has been printed. Even Wizards of the Coast is now printing supplements with owl-folk PCs and Paladins of every alignment. And I think that rather than leaving Planescape behind, there is instead an unprecedented opportunity for a reboot. What this particular book most needs is to get in the habit of saying "yes" and the hobby as a whole has shifted to make that stance the default.

Ukss Contribution: Veddish duBran has a shop where he claims to sell keys for every lock in the multiverse. I absolutely love it as a concept. Very magical. Very eccentric. By default, only borderline useful (which, of all the thousands of keys in this shop is the one I need?), but with the potential to be a crucial plot point. What can I say, I can never resist a weird, magical shop.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Shattered Pattern

Shattered Pattern is the first Earthdawn adventure where I really feel like I've been given the keys to the setting. If the PCs fail to recover the dragon eggs from Tyrlaan, the Nethermancer (i.e. necromancer), he will successfully corrupt them into servants of the Horror Verjjgorm, and they'll be a major threat going forward. No reset to the status quo, no other group of heroes coming in and doing the job, no indication whatsoever that the stakes are not real. 

I don't mean to sound so backhanded here, because the other Earthdawn adventures had a lot to recommend them, but it feels weird that the first adventure to feel truly open is also the first one to really indulge in metaplot. I think it may be down to being a higher-level adventure. This one is meant for characters of 5-7, and the core book only goes up to level 8. Maybe it was a case of allowing the PCs to have a major setting impact before they retire. Or maybe it's just a shift in the line's philosophy. I did notice that the setting sourcebooks got more metaplotty as time went on, so perhaps the adventures are on the same arc. It's something to keep an eye on as I go forward.

For now, I think I like it. It's a little odd that the more interesting outcome results when the PC fail. In that case, the sequel campaign will have to deal with cursed dragons serving a primordial Horror from before the dawn of time, whereas if they succeed, then a cult that was a problem is now slightly less of a problem. Don't get me wrong - "hunt down the sinister cult who is trying to throw the land into chaos" is a decent idea for a follow-up game, but the cult's activities are all secret, so if you thwart them at every turn, then the status quo will remain exactly the same. That's a broader problem with genre fiction, though - villains act and heroes react. 

Because it's such a common trope, I can't even count that as a flaw. The only thing I'd say was a flaw is the weird overlap between the guy who hires the PC at the start of the adventure and the villain the PCs fight at the end of the adventure. What happened is that hundreds of years ago, a wicked elvish sorcerer made bargains with the Horrors - he would betray the people he promised to protect, and in exchange the Horrors would teach him powerful magical techniques. And then, after he got what he wanted, he slew the Horrors that gave him the power (I'm using the plural because he did it twice). In recent years, this guy pledged his service to a third Horror, one who is probably too powerful to fall victim to another backstab (I have to assume, otherwise that suggests Verjigorm has a real problem securing reliable help), and since Verjigorm is the "Hunter of Great Dragons," the service involved stealing a dragon's eggs and corrupting them magic.

The person who hires the PCs is a drake, which is a kind of shapeshifter who can switch between dragon and humanoid forms. He worked for the Great Dragon Icewing and he tracked the sorcerer to his lair . . . and was promptly beaten so badly he lost all his memories. The PCs enter the picture when the now-amnesiac drake decides he's going to spend a portion of his mysterious treasure to get a bunch of adventurers to try and uncover the truth of his identity.

The issue is that the drake's humanoid form was an elderly elf. As a result, the adventure is convinced that the PCs are going to get him confused with the villain. The text brings it up in every chapter right up until the final dungeon. And you could not be blamed if you thought this was an intentional ambiguity that is meant to lead to a bunch of mistaken-identity shenanigans. But the text is actually incredibly clear - "The similarity . . . may lead people to the logical but incorrect conclusion that Tyrlaan, betrayer of helpless people to a dreadful death, is the man who hired them. . . If this happens, remind the players that the evidence their characters have found is far from conclusive."

I can see how players might come to think that two characters whose main distinguishing characteristics are that they elvish, male, and old, are the same person. But if the adventure is going to make a point of advising the GM to shut down that line of speculation every time it comes up, then why not just change a couple of salient characteristics of one of the two characters. Like, maybe the sorcerer needs to be old, because he has a Scourge-era backstory, and maybe he has to be an elf, because that's the only fantasy race long-lived enough to be that old, and there's 50 percent chance that he's going to be a he, but then the drake could be female, or take the form of a human, or just not look so old. When you continually bring up how likely it is that these very similar characters will be mistaken for each other, it starts looking like you're doing it on purpose.

That's really the only flaw. Some might object to the fact that the PCs are given three locations to investigate and, while the plot escalates sensibly if they go from nearest to farthest, if they go to the farthest location first, they can short-circuit the entire adventure and defeat the boss before they even know enough about him to mistake him for their employer. I'm not one of those objectors, however, because it's pretty unlikely to happen and even if it does, well, that's just the consequence of a genuinely open design. Needless to say, if I ran Shattered Pattern, I'd ignore the book's advice to shuffle the locations around if it looks like the PCs are going to the wrong one.

Overall, I feel like Shattered Pattern might be the start of a new direction for Earthdawn adventures. I'm hoping that, as we go on, we'll start to see bigger stories with wider scope and more consequential decisions. Then again, there's always the danger of getting so into the metaplot that you start locking out new players. And yet, those weird, insular stories are always the most fun to comment about (what is Earthdawn's answer to Samuel Haight?) so maybe I win either way.

Ukss Contribution: I'm super immature and always giggle when these fantasy books use "bone" as a prefix. All three of the adventure's major locations contain bone circles that are guarded by bone spirits, and I definitely snickered inappropriately, but I do like the idea of an elemental spirit made from bones.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

(Planescape) Something Wild

I think Something Wild might just be a good adventure. It opens with an intriguing mystery - animals in Sigil are going berserk, and the city is haunted by nightmares of being stalked by deadly jungle cats. And then, to unravel this mystery, you have to travel to multiple planes, confronting demons and cultists and the ensorcelled spirits of the dead. And in the end, the PCs undergo a magical ritual that puts them up against a puzzle boss and their success or failure in this endeavor is crucial to resolving the plot. It's not even especially railroady, given it's only 64 pages long. The players can follow the clues in any order they like, backtrack as necessary, and it's possible to completely miss out on a couple of sub-plots. Everything I normally complain about in these posts is notably mitigated. Even the obligatory NPC-who-must-survive-or-else-the-PCs-can't-complete-the-adventure is presented more as a useful expert than a backseat protagonist. The PCs need her to cast the ritual, but if she dies, they can undergo a laborious sidequest to find another member of her order.

So if I can't complain, what do I have left? I guess we can talk about the metaphysical implications of this adventure. Though it starts with trouble in Sigil, none of the main actors or events actually occurs in Sigil. Instead, an evil god is trying to escape Carceri by meddling with the spiritual fabric of the Beastlands, and that's having a ripple effect that influences Sigil. Because, apparently, "The city is particularly sensitive when one of the Outer Planes starts to sour."

Don't get me wrong, that's a great idea, and a useful little fact to help set up a hundred more potential adventures, but it's also the first time I'm hearing about it (although, maybe it was actually introduced in one of the five Planescape adventures that chronologically precede this one, but which I don't currently own thanks to the absolutely ludicrous prices they fetch on the secondary market). It raises a lot of questions about Sigil and its role in the multiverse. 

Is this influence two-way? Could you use Sigil as a throne to rule the planes? How long has Sigil been the way it is? Did it become the "City of Doors" through some past event? Could it become something new in the future? And what of the planes themselves? What role do they play in the proper functioning of the multiverse? Is the chaos in Sigil only the beginning?

None of those questions are answered in the course of this adventure, but at least it doesn't seem ludicrous that they could be.

The other main issue this adventure raises is that of institutional accountability. One of the threads you can tug at to get to the main plot is introduced by an NPC Paladin, Blander Mul (and I just have to say, I love that name). Blander is a member of the Mercykillers, but he suspects that some of his fellow faction members might be corrupt! (Shocking, I know). Some of the prisoners in Sigil's prison have gone missing, and at first he thinks they escaped, but with the PCs help, he'll dig deeper and discover that prison officials have been selling them to the cult of a dark god, which ritually hunts them as part of their sinister devotions. Eventually, Blander goes missing. You find his body later on, in the realm of the god at the center of the plot. He was betrayed by his compatriots, sold alongside a batch of prisoners so that the corrupt Mercykillers could cover-up their misdeeds. In the end, you can use his notes to expose the conspiracy and "depending on the strength of the heroes' proof . . . the authorities either look into the charges or dismiss them as barmy rot."

Forget it, Jake, it's the Lady's Ward.

Nah, as much as that side-plot is a bunch of circular tail-chasing, I actually kind of like how noirish it feels. Sigil's not just the City of Doors, it is a big, grimy, reluctantly anachronistic metropolis all its own, and I'm intrigued by the potential for more modern, urban stories. It's the only place I've seen in D&D where you could plausibly do something like Chinatown, and I really wish the B plot had a supplement all its own.

The only thing that undercuts it is the alignment system. Technically, by the rules-as-written, Blander Mul is in violation of his Paladin oath by associating with these jokers, though of course this just validates the rant I made back when reading The Complete Paladin's Handbook that a corrupt hierarchy is, in fact, a Paladin's natural foil. But nonetheless, the events of the story really shouldn't have surprised him. He has "Detect Evil" as an innate, spell-like ability, and if he had used it even once against literally any of the antagonists, he'd have figured out the mystery a lot sooner -"OMG, the Mercykillers have been infiltrated by a bunch of cruel authoritarians who  are driven more by the lurid spectacle of revenge than high ideals of justice. Who could have seen this coming?"

I think maybe 1996 was just a far different time. A lot of this book's sections end with advice on what to do if the PCs decide to attack various harmless NPCs, which suggests to me that maybe the Mercykiller's credo of violent punishment for minor crimes was not as much of a red flag as it should have been.

Overall, I'd say that I really enjoyed this adventure. I think it might have less untapped potential than Harbinger House (which really could have spun off into its own campaign setting), but it's also much less flawed (in order to get that Harbinger House campaign, you'd have had to throw out much of the book's dismal plot and shaky worldbuilding). It's simply solid in a way that many stand-alone adventures aren't.

Ukss Contribution: I was going to pick Wemics, because they are one of D&D's most iconic weird creatures and they are explicitly called out inside the adventure (as being more susceptible than most to the effects of the Beastlands' corruption), but the more I think about it, the more it has to be Blander Mul. He's just such a perfect chump. Even after he's betrayed by his fellow Mercykillers, he winds up bequeathing his possessions to the faction "in hopes that the worthy may use them to drive out the unworthy."

I think it might be useful to have someone around who is so egregiously doomed.

Monday, November 29, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Parlainth Adventures

 This book is a collection of four adventures set in and around the ruins of Parlainth, and three of the four adventures share the same fundamental flaw. I'll let the "Troubleshooting" section from an early encounter sum it up for me - "If these events do not make them investigate what happened, the adventure is over. A week later, the characters hear tales of a brave band of heroes who entered Parlainth and battled a fierce Horror, saving the lives of Jasom's entire family and earning the everlasting respect of the residents of Haven."

That cracked me up. I'm just imagining the lazy PCs:

"We've got to save that innocent boy by venturing into the monster-haunted ruins and slaying the creature that's feeding on his soul."

"Sounds like a real hassle. I say we skip it. Someone else will come along and do it, I'm sure."

(One week later)

"Wow, you were right. That situation completely resolved itself without us even having to get off the couch."

"Told you. These things have a way of working out."

I wonder how long you could sustain that level of passive-aggressive GMing. "Oh, you decided to pass on the plot hook and avoid the Tower of the Necromancer, well now your shopping trip is being interrupted by the parade the townspeople are holding for the other heroes." It's a rich comedic premise that would probably work in a video game or tv series, but I suspect your PCs would mutiny sooner rather than later.

Now, to be fair, if the PCs do get a bit more involved in the first story, the stakes evolve. Drop out or fail past encounter three and the family dies, but there is a certain stability of the status quo that pervades the other adventures as well. Help Twiceborn, the Queen of the Cadaver Men, fight off a coup attempt, and she will grant you the boon of sparing your friend after he foolishly gambled with his life. Ignore the coup, and she fights it off just fine on her own. Aid the coup, and after she beats both you and the traitors, you'll have to escape her dungeons before she executes you. Really, it's just a stroke of luck for you that there happened to be a coup at the exact same time as you needed a favor from the Queen. Otherwise, she might have said no (actually, she definitely would, the adventure explicitly shoots down every other avenue of persuasion).

Similarly, the third adventure feature a magic box that causes chaos in the town of Haven by generating a magical aura that convinces people that the fondest wish of whoever holds it is easily attainable. It doesn't actually grant the wish or anything, but a guy walks by holding it, and you're convinced his goal of becoming King of Barsaive is a foregone conclusion. The lady who wants to organize the people of Haven to work together and do one massive dungeon raid and split the loot almost takes over the town, because "we're all going to get rich" is pretty persuasive when it's backed by a "plausible" plan, but she loses control of the box rather quickly and all hell breaks loose. Luckily, after a couple of days, Chorrolis, the Passion of Desire, comes and retrieves his lost box and things go back to normal.

These first three adventures all have stakes around the edges, but they are pretty small. Save the nice, but perfectly ordinary family. Save the foolish NPC that the GM introduced several sessions back so you'd get attached before they ran the adventure. Make sure cooler heads prevail until the box situation resolves itself.

I'm not going to be Mr Cynical here and say that these small victories are not worth your time, but it does feel like a bait-and-switch. Play as the epic heroes who make things slightly better for the people caught up in high-fantasy nonsense that is far beyond your pay grade. I doubt it's what the players signed up for.

The fourth adventure probably is what they signed up for - a classic dungeon crawl with genuine stakes (the monster's mind control abilities will likely subvert Haven, if left unchecked for 3-5 months), but there's also not much to say about it. It features a room filled with magical bouncing balls that might, at worst, be slightly annoying, but which pose no threat whatsoever, and that strikes me as a pretty funny juxtaposition with a group that calls itself "The Cult of Pain."

Overall, I'd say that Parlainth Adventures is a weak companion to one of Earthdawn's best products, but there is a glimmer of something here. If the PCs stay on the rails, and never learn that certain outcomes are pre-ordained, then you'll have some pretty memorable stories, but I don't think the odds are good that this will happen organically.

Ukss Contribution: I've got this weird idea of reversing the situation from the first adventure - there's a group of lazy adventurers who travel in front of the PCs, turning down the quests that made the PCs famous, and they've thus developed an intense, one-sided rivalry, but I think that may be too much of a niche parody. Best to go with something sincere.

I actually really like the idea of a kingdom of intelligent undead, and "Twiceborn" is a great title for a monarch. I could probably find a place for that on Ukss.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

(Planescape) Planes of Conflict

 Every time I read one of these big boxed sets I always run head-first into the paradox of Planescape - it is a version of D&D that is empowered to be as big and as out there as anything you can imagine, but it is almost completely unaware of the audacity of its own scope.

They actually start a section with the words, "The sole greater Power to make his home on the Beastlands . . ." The sole greater Power? What does infinity even mean? How are we looking at a book with six different universes, that are themselves composed of anywhere between 2 and 6 different sub-worlds, which are each of them infinite in size (except, inexplicably, Gehenna, where the volcanoes are "merely" hundreds of thousands of miles tall) and then, when it comes to the inhabitants of these places, getting only a small set of familiar characters.

Oh, I wonder if this next god is going to be from Toril, or maybe, if they're feeling daring, Krynn? And wow, Bytopia is full of gnomes, you say? And what are the odds that this diverse trading town has bariaurs, githzerai, and tieflings? And for fuck's sake, why are there so many real world deities wandering around? You realize that you've made the actual, flesh and blood, existing in the history of our own reality, Celts into D&D canon, right? Plus the Chinese, the Greeks, and Norse, and a bunch of others, which might add some much-needed diversity in the game, except they all come from a single world.

The thing that frustrates me about all this is that I feel like either I or the game am on the verge of understanding something important here. And the question at the center of this is - "What, exactly, is fantasy?"

Sometimes I feel like I'm being excessively hard on these books for not having the advantage of my 20 years of hindsight. They're at the beginning of a process whose end I am the beneficiary of. I often find myself going "yes, aannd . . ." like I'm somehow going to be able to coax the next step out of book that was out of print while I was still a teenager. In the Beastlands, there is an area called "The Forbidden Plateau." It's a giant, flat-topped mountain with a jungle on top that is home to a self-contained ecosystem of dinosaurs.

And they are so close to getting it. It's the Beastlands, the animal-themed afterlife. Dinosaurs are animals  and so they are in the Beastlands too. That makes perfect sense. So why is the narration surprised by this?

Nobody's go the dark of why the plateau, the dinosaurs, and the beastmen are here. Once chant says that the Beastlands wanted to preserve these animals that've died out on many prime worlds. But if they're all in the dead-book, why do they exist on the Beastlands? Dinosaurs must still exist somewhere or they wouldn't need a place to call their own on the Beastlands?
Now, I'll admit, I did have some sarcastic fun with this - "dinosaurs, in the afterlife, but they're extinct?!" But I want to focus on a specific line that kind of sums up the flaws in Planescape's world-building. Dinosaurs "have died out on many prime worlds."

This is where I start to think that maybe I'm the problem. Because it's an innocuous enough line, but I keep turning it over in my mind and I can't even begin to understand what they were going for. In our real world, where dinosaurs existed, they didn't just "die out." There was a specific triggering event that led to their extinction. So, do these "many prime worlds" all have their own versions of the Chicxulub impact? Is there some cosmic force that is driving this parallelism between worlds? Is that why there are so many real world gods everywhere? There are thousands, millions, perhaps even infinite prime material worlds out there, and on most of them, there is a Greece and a China and the dinosaurs once lived, but now they're extinct.

I don't think that's what they were going for. The feeling I get is one of groping in the darkness, and taking things for granted that really should have been questioned. Dinosaurs are ordinary animals. Indeed, if you define "ordinary" through a process of picking a random animal from a random time in the history of life on Earth, dinosaurs are about twice as ordinary as almost any other type of animal living today. So it's not surprising that they're in the Beastlands. It would be more surprising if they weren't

And once you realize that, the next step is to realize that you have permission to have dinosaurs in your worlds. They can fill the same niche as contemporary animals. The author, Besop, has written his famous fable "the oviraptor and the grapes" and it's kind of proverbial in Sigil because that particular prime world is at the end of a particularly accessible portal. You don't have to assume that our world is typical. Or that your previously published campaign settings are somehow generic. Our world is the result of specific events. And Toril and Krynn are the result of specific decisions. What Planescape gives you is the opportunity to explore different decisions. Indeed, because it is infinite, it actively cries out for you to make every decision, at least once.

There are times when Planes of Conflict captures this feeling. The Gautiere are a species who built a glorious monument to their god, one so impressive and so beautiful that the other gods became jealous and moved to strike them down. When the god they loved so much abandoned them, to hide from the wrath of his fellow gods inside the very temple that drew their ire, the Gautiere cursed his betrayal, trapping him inside the glorious structure until the end of time. Now, they are a broken and forsaken people, a shadow of their former selves, condemned to the prison plane of Carceri for daring to hold the divine accountable.

That's a whole damned epic that's just tossed out in the description section of a two-page monster writeup, and it's kind of awesome. But why isn't more of the book like that?  The only thing in the actual plane descriptions that comes close is "The Abomination's Lair" in Gehenna:

The creature hails from a prime world called Aebrynis, and more specifically from the continent of Cerilia. It's one of that world's awnsheghlien, or abominations. It was once human, but in its blood runs the power of a crushed god of evil - and the abomination can increase its power by absorbing the strength of other creatures that have godly essence in their own veins.
And I just screwed up. My point was going to be that this was some amazing economy. Just tossing out a campaign world we've never heard of and giving it a plot hook, to demonstrate that there are interesting things happening everywhere and they don't have to all be so solicitous of TSR's trademarks. Except, it turns out that Aebrynis is merely a campaign world I hadn't heard of, and that this is, in fact, a reference to the Birthright™ boxed set. I had a hunch and googled it after pulling the quote and am thus quite disappointed that one on of my favorite original things wasn't actually original after all.

Still, before I found out how wrong I was, this was an example of what I'd consider the ideal Planescape writing. You sell infinity by dipping your toe into concepts that could support entire boxed sets and you do it often enough that you convey the idea that you are allowed to have wildly divergent cosmologies and ecologies and societies and they'll all fit because the amount of space available is limitless.

You are allowed to have cannibal demigods and mortals who defied their creators. You are allowed to have inns that rest in the branches of giant treant and wander around the countryside. You are allowed to have city-sized mimics that aspire to become major trading hubs due to the valuable crafts created by its person-shaped pseudopods. You are allowed to have villages where the people store their memories in elaborate magical tattoos that can detach from their bodies and fight independently against dangerous fiends (at the risk of falling in combat and being lost forever). You are allowed to have dinosaurs.

And maybe it sounds a bit churlish and condescending for me to be saying that, because all the things I just mentioned were in this book, and thus something the writers knew they were allowed to do. Except, this is also the book that will enumerate the gods in an infinite plane and then explicitly state that these are all that exist. This is also the book that keeps going back to the two (or three, apparently) worlds we've seen before. This is also the book that confidently states that "the vast majority of petitioners on Bytopia are gnomes."

Resolving this contradiction has proven to be the most challenging part of reading these Planescape books. From my perspective in 2021, I keep thinking "they obviously know it's possible to go big, so why do they so often insist on staying small," but I wonder if maybe that wasn't actually that obvious in 1995. Maybe everyone knew what fantasy was supposed to be - elves and dwarves, wizards and orcs, kingdoms and medieval technology, and a tacked-on religion loosely modeled off of Christian misunderstandings of classical polytheism. And because that's what everyone knew, then every move away from that must be justified. When you add things like dinosaurs, you aren't just doing fantasy, you are actively risking a break in the genre. So you put the dinosaurs on a high mountain in the middle of the animal afterlife and act really surprised they're there, to reassure people that most of the Planescape setting is normal fantasy.

It's sometimes hard for me to remember that Planescape is one of the things that opened my eyes to the possibilities of the fantasy genre. So much of it seems timid to me now, but in 1997-1998, when I first started getting into it, I was shocked to discover that you could play D&D in a way that wasn't just a Tolkien fanfic. The setting's conservatism didn't even register with me. This is some of the boldest, most original setting work AD&D ever did and it's not entirely clear where I get the nerve to ask for more.

Ukss Contribution: I've already mentioned most of my candidates, and I'm inclined to pick something specific and weird, but the more that I think about the book, the more I realize that the truest tribute would be to go broad and break my own habits. So I'm going with dinosaurs. It's a bit of a fad to include dinosaurs in a fantasy setting as ordinary animals, but that's exactly why I should do it. I'm usually predictably quirky with these Ukss choices and it will do me some good to get back to basics.

Monday, November 15, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Infected

 This adventure has one serious problem - the antagonists are total dicks!

Now, normally, that wouldn't be much of an issue, except it really seems like the book expects the PCs to make friends with them. As a group, they're too powerful to confront directly, and their stated motives are noble. So, I guess the takeaway is supposed to be that fighting them would be a tragedy, and probably wouldn't work, besides.

Never mind that they are authoritarian fanatics who have imprisoned an entire village and are constantly on the verge of killing an innocent girl. The ends don't justify the means, obviously, but when you get to the "quarantined" village and they politely ask you to surrender your weapons, "an unprovoked attack also puts the players at a significant disadvantage when attempting to deal amicably with the Legion later on in the adventure."

I suppose this is a good opportunity to interrogate my own psychology here. Infected is a courier mission where a merchant hires the PC to figure out why his home town has lost contact with the outside world, and when you get there you find that a group of Horror hunters (the Grim Legion) has falsely concluded that one of the villagers has gained magical powers from being tainted by a Horror, and have decided that they won't let anybody leave until the mystery is solved. 

And every time I picture myself in a PC role in this story, I can't help but imagine the bloody havoc I'll wreak when the guard at the front gate tells me I can't complete my letter-delivery mission without surrendering myself into his power and then being held prisoner for an indefinite amount of time.

I think some of my hostility just comes from the sense of being thwarted. Obviously, in real life things thwart me all the time and I don't go on a berserk rampage. But extend that thwarting into my entertainment, into a game where I am a dashing adventurer and suddenly I feel like some essential social contract has been violated.

Though that's not entirely what's going on. The villains are also just really shady, using Horror-adjacent magic like zombies. And while normal PCs wouldn't have this information without doing some unintuitive investigation, apparently in the Earthdawn lore, zombies ("cadaver men") retain some of their consciousness and usually hate and resent the magicians who animate them. They can even communicate this displeasure with other people, in the short window between being killed and their throat decaying too much to allow for speech. Which kind of seems like a fate worse than death, especially when the only reason this person is a zombie in the first place is because you're the one who killed them.

So I'm really primed and ready for these guys to get their comeuppance. But that's unlikely to happen. It's one possible ending, certainly, but given the adventure's level recommendation, it's a sub-optimal path. The best way to resolve the plot is to exonerate the supposedly Horror-tainted girl by finding the enchanted book that is the real source of her unexplained powers. The easiest way to resolve the plot is exploit the rift between the opportunists and the true believers in the Grim Legion and get them to fall to infighting.

And maybe this last one seems a little like justice, but if the wrong person wins that battle, he'll just stay at the village permanently, turning it into his personal fiefdom.

I guess you could praise Infected for presenting a complex and nuanced situation with no easy answers, especially when contrasted with Terror in the Skies video-game cliches, but reading them so close together, I guess what I want is a balance between the two.

I mean, I swear, if I run into that child-threatening necromancer again and she "save[s] the adventurers' bacon when they face certain death at the hands of a ravening pack of Horrors," I can't be held responsible for what I may do.

What, then, is my verdict for Infected as a potential adventure? That's tough. I think it might be good, but if so, it is good in a slightly off-genre way. It's the sort of adventure where the epic heroes rely on their talent for measured compromise and not rushing to judgement (in fact, there's a whole subplot where, on the trip to the village, one of the towns along the away offers the PCs hospitality as a scheme to put them directly in the path of an anticipated raid from a rival village, and you only get the full xp award if you negotiate a peace between these traditional enemies), and maybe that's okay, but in all likelihood, the points on my character sheet are going to reflect a high-action sensibility that simply has no place here, except as a failure state.

Ukss Contribution: I actually really like that Earthdawn zombies retain a significant portion of their humanity, and it just happens to be repressed by the magic that controls them. It's creepy and tragic and horrifying, and I'm going to make it a rule of Ukss necromancy too.

Monday, November 8, 2021

(Exalted 3e) Heirs to the Shogunate

Heirs to the Shogunate is the longest overflow book I've ever seen. It's more than 250 pages! It's longer than some full core books. Maybe that's just Exalted 3rd edition's signature style - it's the really long roleplaying game. Or maybe it's a consequence of being a kickstarter reward book. People gave Onyx Path a lot of money to make this thing, and so Onyx Path made sure they got their money's worth.

The most intuitive use for all this material is just to think of it as more pages added to Dragon-Blooded: What Fire Has Wrought. That does mean that, in this construction, the 3rd edition Dragon-Blooded book is a 600 page monstrosity, but honestly, that's what reading this felt like. There were multiple times when I had to stop reading and go back and consult What Fire Has Wrought to remind me of some necessary context. This was especially necessary when it came to expansions on some of 3e's new material - like the Cult of the Violet Fang, an Outcaste group of Exalted who have unholy and incestuous ties to the Fair Folk, a pretty darned cool group of rpg characters I'd entirely forgotten about because their canon thus far has been one paragraph in a book I last read 2 years ago.

As much as I enjoyed it, large portions of this book feel like picking up in the middle of a conversation, and ironically, the more space devoted to a subject in What Fire Has Wrought, the less well it works here. I think probably because the stuff that got a lot of wordcount has already had its strongest material see print. Lookshy got the bulk of a chapter and so when they pick up talking about it here, it feels like we're seeing stuff that was expendable enough to get cut from the chapter. This is less of an issue for Prasad, a new region that has gotten little development, almost a non-issue for Heaven's Dragons, a group that was little more than a pitch, and a complete non-issue for modular setting elements like NPCs, Artifacts, and Charms.

It's that last bit that most gets me. One of the best parts of an Exalted 3rd Edition book is the charms! Wild. I credit the Kickstarter backers. A lot of these were specifically requested as part of a reward tier (and then, presumably, the others were added to fill out the charm trees) and it wouldn't be a much of a reward if it wasn't a cool signature move. I especially liked the charm that allowed you to enchant magical masks, the one that let you create cool clothes out of elemental energy, and the one that let you drag your enemies into the earth. The non-backer charms are pretty good too, and I'm just going to assume that the authors were inspired to raise their game. Plus, there was no need to resort to the apocryphal keyword, which is a nice change of pace from 3rd edition's other book of kickstarter reward charms.

I think where I'm at is that this book of odds and ends is at its best when it's sticking to odds and ends. I loved the entire artifacts chapter. The NPC chapter was a source of much-appreciated gossip. The expansion of miscellaneous outcaste groups worked pretty well. The chapters devoted to larger groups . . .

I don't know. I guess the thing that bugs me about them is that they all seem to dive right in and start talking about large extended families, and somewhere around the fifth or sixth overly-controlling aristocratic family with an elaborate web of alliances and rivalries it starts to feel a bit repetitive. I may, at one point have exclaimed, "Lookshy's Gentes are just the Realm's Dynastic Houses with weaker branding!" (And if I didn't exclaim it, I was certainly thinking it very loudly).

It makes sense. The Dragon-Blooded are the type of Exalted that have hereditary magical powers, and so they've automatically got all these siblings and ancestors and cousins and whatnot who have similar magical powers and you're going to want to know about their goings-on. I don't want to be a grump and complain about yet another well-worked-out fantasy genealogy, but I wouldn't mind seeing more structural variation in the different groups. Lookshy is a militaristic bureaucratic state with a very modern presentation (it's ruled by "The General Staff" and has an "Operations Directorate"), so maybe it could place less emphasis on lineage.

Or maybe not. "Magical Aristocrats" is practically a genre all its own, and so why not have more than one way to do it? I think I'm just cranky because apparently I have a hitherto unexamined "maximum density of aristocrats" that has been reached for the first time ever (someone remind me of this joke when I read the Game of Thrones rpg, though).

Actually, I think if you use this book in its most relevant context - as reference for building a game around one of the example groups, it will largely be fine. No real need to read them all back-to-back unless you're writing a blog post about the book.

The only thing I'd really count as a flaw is more of a meta-issue. The Lookshy chapter talks about their relationship with the Forest Witches. The Prasad chapter talks about their ambitions for the Dreaming Sea and antagonistic relationship with Ysr and Volivat. The example scenario "The War in the West" features a naval campaign where House Peleps goes up against Azure, Skullstone, and the Wavecrest Archipelago. 

Those locations are all thousands of miles apart. It's one of those things that's a common understanding in the community - that the Exalted map's scale is so huge that there is room in the blank spaces for entire regions of multiple countries, each as important as anything in canon. And yet, when the game gets concrete and talks about things like international relations or Big Plots, the same set of canon locations keeps coming up. This is regarded by many as one of the great failings of second edition, and it's a little weird to see it crop up again here.

Then again, what are they going to do, invent a whole bunch of new places we have zero investment in, just to fill out space in some fairly conventional setting and campaign descriptions? It's unclear how much of its own thing Heirs to the Shogunate is supposed to be, so it may not be worth the effort to put in novel information that could better fit inside its own dedicated product. An upcoming Dreaming Sea supplement may well have a dozen new locations for Prasad to antagonize.

Overall, I liked this book. I like Exalted, and this is more Exalted. It's not complicated. I actually have no problem with the Dragon-Blooded book being 600 pages long.

Ukss Contribution: I really love the whole vibe of the Forest Witches - here are a bunch of magical mysteries all stacked on top of each other and there's a cult of arrogant hedonists who are camped out nearby to take advantage of them. But a "vibe" is a vague thing to try and appropriate (plus I'm going to get another bite at this particular apple when I read 1st edition's Outcastes book).

I could also choose one of the new artifacts. I loved all of them, especially the way that each one came with its own built-in story. The magic whip that thwarts cattle rustlers and the mysterious orb that teaches sorcery and leads its wielder to lost treasures were particular standouts.

However, I think the thing that's going to linger longest is just an incidental scrap of information - one of the various heroes who owned the magical courthouse boat defeated a pirate named "Jill-of-the-Nine-Lives" and even though we know very little else about this battle (Jill apparently captained a living ship and captured slaves), I just happen to think that's an awesome pirate name.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

(Planescape 1e) Harbinger House

The first thing that leapt out at me about this adventure is the fact that the main villain's plan is destined to fail. A succubus has infiltrated Sigil and she has two goals - steal the titular Harbinger House by causing it to shift into the Abyss and complete an elaborate murder ritual in the presence of the House's planar anomaly which will cause her to ascend to godhood. The first goal won't happen because the Lady of Pain has the absolute power to decide what enters or leaves Sigil and that includes mysterious creepy houses. The second goal is impossible because the succubus is missing a key component of the ritual - she's not a whimsically described "crazy" person who possesses a poorly-explained "spark of divinity" (an odd thing to say about a literal demon, but whatever).

So the actual goal of this adventure is a bit different than what the PCs will think the goal is supposed to be. They think they're rushing around to stop this Dark Ascension and the subsequent turmoil it will introduce into the Great Wheel's balance of power, but really the villain's plan is going to implode on its own, so all the PCs are really doing is mitigating the damage it does along the way.

This isn't necessarily a bad idea for an adventure. There's a Law vs Chaos theme at work here and you could make something out of that. This demon is stirring up shit that you're constantly having to clean up, and it's all completely pointless. That the demon's goal is doomed actually adds to the threat, because it means that everything that happens is totally absurd. I can see how it might provoke a motivating outrage among PCs with the right mentality.

But if you're going to do that, I think you need to be upfront about it. You don't want the players believe the game has a certain level of stakes, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. "Great job, guys. The main plot would have turned out exactly the same if you hadn't been there, but there are some minor NPCs who are still alive, thanks to you." Kind of takes all the steam out of the climax.

Plus, if you made it clear from the beginning that the succubus was destined to fail, you could play the revelation that the secondary villain does have the "spark of divinity" as a twist. See, she let a serial killer out of an asylum in order to cause a distraction while she prepares for the ascension ritual, but the killer has decided that he should be the one to become a god, so he's been incorporating the ritual into his murders. When the time comes for the final sacrifice, the succubus and her pawn fight over who gets to impale themselves on the blade infused with planar energy and become a god. If the succubus does it, she just dies. If the killer does it, he becomes a new god of murder.

That would be a fascinating scene for the PCs to get involved with, except the only way they ever learn any of this is the hard way.  They don't become aware of the true stakes of the adventure until it's too late to make decisions based on that knowledge.

The other structural problem with this adventure is the way it has the PCs tag along behind the main plot. They start investigating this rash of strange murders and are always one step behind the killer as he continues his deadly work. This is preordained by the book itself directly addressing the DM - "However, while the PCs should be made to feel as though they had a chance to stop the murderer, under no circumstances should they be allowed to kill him or prevent him from escaping through the portal." This is in addition to all the times in the adventure where it says that if the PCs manage to save one of his victims, he just kills another person later on.

The funny thing is that, between the killer's savings throw and spell resistance, a Hold Person spell has about a 25% chance of working, and there is absolutely no DM handwaving that's going to get him out of that jam.

So I guess I'm saying that I didn't really enjoy it. The actual Harbinger House is a pretty neat location. It's filled with mysterious doors and some extremely odd people that the Believers of the Source think are close to becoming gods. It also includes magical phenomena that don't precisely fit the AD&D rules, presenting a slightly wilder brand of fantasy than is typical for the line. At one point, a corpse starts talking to the PCs, completely unprompted, to warn the PCs about the perils of the gate town, Curst. "Things happen in the multiverse that nobody can explain." Nice. And, of course, there are the god candidates themselves, who all have strange powers that exist outside the class system. It broke my heart when Factol Ambar referred to them as "spell-like abilities" in an ostensibly in-character passage, but it's still nice that there's a guy who can control the weather without having to be a level 8 weather-mancer or something.

The best part of the adventure was probably the sub-plot that revolves around Trolan, the other person the succubus released as a distraction. He had a weird romantic obsession with the Lady of Pain, and it's a mystery why he's still alive. Apparently, instead of killing him, she had the Dabus escort him to Harbinger House, where he could be safely tucked away with all the other potential gods. The succubus impersonates the Lady of Pain and tells him that she wants to build her a cult, but of course the real Lady of Pain hates being worshiped and a bunch of cultists die as a result. Trolan emerges from this plot none the worse for wear, and that's pretty weird.

I feel like an entire adventure could have been built around trying to discover this guy's whole deal. Maybe learn some new info about the Lady of Pain and the inner workings of Sigil along the way. 

The last thing I need to talk about is something that's been a long time coming. Planescape, as a whole, is really weird about mental illness, and it kind of bums me out. Some people are just "barmies," and that's that. You can tell when someone is barmy just by looking at them, and there's a certain interchangeableness to the characters that indicate they share a common affliction - they all act pointlessly wacky, and some of them are unpredictably violent. It's just a bunch of gross, ableist tropes and I guess that's just what the 90s were like. I've made my peace with it, but it was especially dense in this book, and it didn't need to be. The guy who can control the weather with his mind is clearly operating on a different level than the rest of us, and it would have been a lot more interesting to treat his viewpoint with respect than it was to say he "worships an unnamed god of evil who he refers to as 'the Mad One.' The barmy priest believes that the best way to convert a sod is to bash his head in."

Overall, I'd say this is entirely skippable. There are worthwhile elements, but the whole thing is a big shaggy dog story. Even if you totally whiff it and create a new god inside of Sigil, the Lady of Pain shows up at the last moment to banish him. The villains' plans are nothing compared to the overwhelming power of canon.

Ukss Contribution:  Despite my disinterest in the plot, I'm actually digging many of the adventure's fantastic conceits. There's a universal gate key in the possession of Factol Ambar, and it kind of hit the right balance between spooky (it's made of an unknown blue stone and it's constantly changing shape and sprouting spiky protrusions) and greed-worthy (with it, you can go anywhere!). But then the book decides to give it the inexplicable secondary power of constantly recording images of its surroundings, and it becomes entirely too obvious a plot coupon.

I also really like the idea of a boarding school for would-be deities, but I feel like that's an entire campaign pitch on its own (either that or the premise of a series of YA novels).

So my choice here is Galkin, the guy who can turn himself into a lightning bolt. This isn't super useful to him, except when he wants to clear out some meddlesome PCs, but I like non-biological shapeshifting, and I love that this guy doesn't even transform into normal matter. Maybe I'll make a whole species of lightning people.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Gamemaster's Pack

 I'm trying to figure out a way to make this post less obligatory and absolutely nothing is coming to me. This is a core overflow book that has a few new rules, a few new magic items, and a bit of gamemaster advice and I guess there was a reason the core couldn't be 50 pages longer, but I'm not sure what it is. Presumably, it was down to the realities of the early 90s publishing industry. These days it would be a kickstarter stretch goal.

It came with a GM's screen, which is kind of nice. The art on it depicts a stepped pyramid that, to my untutored eye, looks vaguely Mesoamerican, but that's not something that really made it into the line later on. 

My notes for this are pretty short, only two pages. I guess I found it . . . interesting to see bits of the game's intended design philosophy - this book talks a big game about FASA's upcoming metaplot. It's also a strong supporter of GM authority. At one point they are supposed to offer the PCs in-game rewards like money and xp in exchange for the players keeping a real-life journal of their adventures. It's not a terrible idea or anything, but I've never met a player that was that invested in their character's advancement.

I really wish there were some nice, juicy lore bits for me to sink my teeth into, but the closest is the Blood Magic stuff, which I've largely seen before. It draws a distinction between self-sacrificing your hit points to swear an oath and full-on human sacrifice and categorically forbids the latter to PCs. And that's an interesting choice. Earthdawn doesn't have an alignment system, but it does directly address the player and say it expects them to be heroes (and thus to have lines that they absolutely will not cross), which is somehow both stronger and weaker than the way D&D usually does it. I think I like it.

And I guess that's it. They can't all be digital doorstops. Overall, I'd say I enjoyed this book. Certainly, it did not outstay its welcome, and that's refreshing.

Ukss Contribution: Almost all of the setting info comes from the magic item section, but it's fantastically lucky for me that one of those items just happens to be exactly the sort of magic that I unabashedly love - the Puppet Familiar. It's a wooden animal puppet that can store extra spells for you. But after you get it up to rank 4, it comes alive and acts as your familiar. It's the perfect balance of charming and creepy.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

(Planescape) Monstrous Compendium Appendix II

 Aw man, can't I just skip to the Ukss contribution already? I guess that's one of the perils of reading these books whose whole deal is just being a list of ostensibly interesting things, presented without commentary - sometimes they're right about being interesting, and that makes commentary much more difficult.

Giant owl-folk? Intelligent clouds who know deep lore about the multiverse, but are tough to communicate with, because they are actual, up-in-the-sky, miles long mountains of mist? Cursed crows that follow you around, afflicting you with a mysterious illness as they feed off your life force? Whatever the fuck a Hollyphant is (some kind of miniature, winged woolly mammoth whose trumpet can exorcise demons)?

Yes, thank you. These are all relevant to my interests. I could go on. . . so I will.

The guardinals are pretty cool. Though it's  little weird that the ultimate champions of pure good are also AD&D's most straightforward furry races. Not to impugn the moral rectitude of the furry community or anything, it just seems to me like Leonals (lion folk), Equinals (horse folk), Lupinals (wolf folk), et al would be great candidates for an anthro-fantasy-centered campaign setting, and it's weird that we're seeing this concept for the first time by making them the social equivalent of the angels.

But then, genre was always D&D's Achilles Heel. It flirts with it, and sometimes even manages to do some pretty interesting things (it's no coincidence that most of my favorite entries from this particular book are the ones that evoke fairy tales or borderline-sci-fi weird fantasy, like the straigt-outta-Dark City race known as the Keepers). However, it always tries to keep at least one foot in its comfort zone. Even Dark Sun still has elves and dwarfs.

So you look at this conservatism, and it's sometimes a little confusing. "Fantasy world where all the intelligent species are human-animal hybrids" is a dead simple pitch with obvious appeal, and your multiverse-spanning portal fantasy is the perfect place to test the waters and maybe sneak it in through the back door, but AD&D decides that the animal folk will be the celestial manifestations of Neutral Good, to match the Lawful Evil Baatezu, the Chaotic Evil Tanar'ri, the Neutral Evil Yugoloths, the Lawful Good Archons, the Lawful Neutral Modrons, the Chaotic Neutral Slaad, and the newly introduced Chaotic Good Eladrin and True Neutral Rilmani.

I'll admit, there's a certain charm in the grid filling, but sometimes I wish AD&D could just use its ideas as ideas. There's some good stuff here, but it's weakened by trying to fit it into such a rigid structure.

Like, seriously, what is up with the Rilmani. They definitely needed another pass, because it's clear that they were designed towards the needs of the structure and don't have much identity beyond it (actually, the guardinals are the same way - of the three new celestial supercategories, only eladrin can really stand on their own). They are a collection of True Neutral species, with each phenotype filling its own mechanical and narrative niche, just like the numerous types of demons, devils, and angels. But the niches they serve are all variations of D&D's worst alignment.

The thing is, they're not, on the surface, a poorly designed group of creatures. They have a very interesting visual style (mostly thanks to DiTerlizzi, who also did 100% of this book's artwork and continues to be the setting's MVP). And their role in the story isn't too bad either - they've got this weird alien imperialism thing going on where they travel to different worlds and impose their ideology on the locals with means that vary between military force (the ferrumachs), assassination (the cuprimachs), to sending advisors/agitators (the argenachs).

The general impression I got was of an imported space opera trope - the serene elder aliens who take it for granted that their superior technology gives them the right to meddle and whose abstruse philosophical creed is so mysterious to the younger peoples that it can barely be parsed as morality. This is an impression that is furthered by the fact that their various sub-species really feel more like character classes or social strata than they do like distinct physiological adaptations (there's no mistaking a succubus for a balor, but the plumachs and the aurumachs definitely look like cousins). They're a group of people who may be tough for the PCs to relate to, but they are also a civilization with its own unique values.

And from a high enough level of abstraction, it works great. "Diplomatic observer in the inner planes, empowered by their home government to make policy on the spot" is an amazing idea for either an antagonist or an ally (or both!). Except that the rilmani are not mysterious elder aliens. We actually can understand their civilization's values . . . and they're fucking ridiculous. Make sure there's an equal amount of good and evil in the universe? Okay, buddy, whatever you say.

Believe it or not, though, the last four paragraphs were praise. Everything that's uniquely Planescape about the rilmani is good. The one thing about them that they inherited from mainline AD&D is not. If I seem especially hard on them, it's because they're C+/B- work and the rest of the book proves beyond a doubt that this team is capable of making A's.

I'd go so far as to say that Monstrous Compendium Appendix II is the very best Planescape setting book to date, and I'm including the boxed sets in this assessment. I think it's because it shares a certain quality with the Sigil and Faction books (hitherto the best Planescape books) - it feels like it was written for Planescape. The first Monstrous Compendium had some good stuff, but it was a compilation. The boxed sets had a certain boldness to the design, but could never quite stop being the Forgotten Realms' afterlife. The entries in this book were dense with lore and demonstrated real thought being put into things like the food chains of the lower planes, the migration of intelligent species from non-PHB-compatible fantasy worlds, and the logistics of interplanar travel. It's a book that's specific enough to potentially be alienating, and it makes the world feel more lived-in as a result. My hope is that this represents the series turning a corner, and that it will become more its own thing as time goes on.

Ukss Contribution: Finally, we made it, and I used only two of my top three picks as examples in the main body of the post. My final choice is actually an example of a tendency in the book that slightly annoyed me - making creatures that are little more than "planar" versions of already existing Prime Material species. There's absolutely no call for drawing a distinction between Neogi (the anthropophagic, slave-keeping spider pirates of Spelljammer) and the Tso (anthropophagic, slave-keeping spider pirates, but on the planes). Neogi are good villains and it's a fruitful idea to have a population of them in the outer planes, but it's like having separate entries for Prime humans and Planar humans. It arguably detracts from the appeal of the game to say that they're too different.

However, my Ukss choice is another example of this - the khaasta. They're lizard people, but on the planes. I think they wind up justifying their existence by having a distinct culture (cutthroat mercenaries and raiders who wander from score to score) and some great art (naturally), but my reason for picking them is much sillier than that. . .

They ride giant lizards. Lizard-folk who ride lizards! Something about this idea appeals to me on a fundamental level.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Terror In the Skies

 The most interesting part of this adventure is that it has you exploring a Windling kaer. Windlings are tiny, fairy-like creatures that average about 18 inches tall. That means that a human or ork is going to be approximate as tall as one of their three-story buildings. That's some fun imagery - a band of adventurers wandering through a miniature city like they were some kind of mercenary kaiju.

It becomes less fun when the Windlings were slaughtered by interdimensional bugs and their tiny skeletons litter the ground underfoot, but it's still something that sticks with you. Terror In the Skies would have been a much better adventure if the bulk of its plot were just directly replaced by a list of challenges imposed by the mismatch in scale.

The problem with the Terror In the Skies is that it is a fairly straightforward example of what tvtropes calls "The Macguffin Deliery Service." Monsters are attacking the town! Wow, what luck, there's a wizard who knows exactly where we can find the Tome of Banishment so we can send them back to where they came from! Hey, wait a minute, this creepy underground ruin is not quite as the wizard described. Is anyone else weirded out that the magical lock that seals away the Tome can only be opened by "the purest of heart?" Oh, no, we got the book by solving the ancient riddle, but it turns out the wizard is bad! He's stolen the Tome and is using it to summon more creatures? That's the opposite of what we wanted to do! Okay, he's dead now, let's banish the creatures and restore peace to the town.

If you saw this plot in a video game, you'd think it was basic as hell, but you might forgive it for being made in 1994 (I know, because I forgave Final Fantasy IV for essentially the same sin). In an interactive tabletop rpg, it's just not going to work. The book straight out says, "At some point, Tyrannisis/Rasper-Nor must succeed in snatching the Tome."

Oh, must they? Railroading is bad enough, but this is railroading the PCs into a situation they're really going to hate. The same thing happens near the end of the adventure. Once you kill the wizard and banish the Horror who was controlling him, his airship starts to crash. If the PCs somehow manage to heroically save it from doing so, a local NPC will come by and thank them for donating an airship to the town. Absolutely under no circumstances must the players be allowed to retain control of this airship.

Come on, Terror In the Skies, put at least some effort into understanding player psychology. Your parent gameline puts airships in the core and it's guaranteed that the players have wanted one ever since. So your adventure puts one right in their laps and the closest thing it has to a legitimate owner is that demon-possessed ghoul who was trying to summon a horde of monsters. The right answer to "what happens if the PCs manage to save The Shadow Skulker?" is obviously "I guess your game becomes an airship-centric campaign now."

I suppose what I'm saying is that you can definitely run this adventure in a fairly straightforward way, but the odds are good that you're going to lose the plot before it's all over.

Let's end with something I really liked - the titular "Terror in the Skies" is actually a species of Horror minion called the Rakken, and they've got a pretty neat design. They're these toothy, winged creatures, but they've got arms that shoot flame. These arms swivel on flexible joints and the streams of fire can be used both as weapons and maneuvering thrusters. It's such a bold break from the D&D aesthetic. They're custom-made to be an airship's worst nightmare and as a result they have approximately no fantasy antecedents. It's almost a shame they all get banished at the end.

Ukss Contribuiton: Fuck it, Rakken. The planet Aetheria has sky whales, it could also use a natural predator. Let's keep the legend alive.