Monday, March 29, 2021

Three More Old School Modules

 Someone save me from these damned old-school modules. 

Maybe that's a harsh thing to say, but they operate under assumptions that are utterly alien to me and every time I get mixed up with them, I find myself lost and confused. It's not a good feeling.

Two out of the these three at least made an effort to include story elements, but they're stuck in this mindset where "story" is just presented as a series of rooms. I didn't even notice my copy of Rahasia was missing its first two pages until sometime on page 5 or 6, and it occurred to me that I should know who these people are (a state of confusion that initially eluded my notice because The Isle of Dread didn't bother explaining who any of  its people were until the very end of the module).

I don't want to be too much of a crank, though. It's clear, now that I've seen a cross-section of modules through time, that people were getting better at writing them as the years went on. Isle of Dread, from 1981 takes pains to explain that it's going to be a "wilderness" adventure, as if somehow wilderness wasn't the bulk of your average fantasy world. Did you know that interesting things can happen between dungeons? It's true. And early D&D was there to demonstrate an adventure that was not confined to the controlled environment of a linear dungeon by describing the wide-open world in terms of a series of rooms.

Curse of Xanathon was from 1982, and there is actually a point to all the fighting. Its opening page warns that it is "an unusual module, in that much of the players actions will be in the form of detective work," and promises such exotic modes of play as "discovering clues" and "deciding on a proper course of action," even if, in the end, the only real course of action available to you is proceeding through a series of rooms.

Still, CoX's rooms have a context to them. The first and last rooms in a particular area are plot related, and there is some effort to explain why you can have rooms with a mummy, gargoyles, and ogres in the same area (it's a temple, with a tomb, magical statues guarding an altar, and fuck it, the priests captured a couple of ogres and locked them in jail.) It's not like Isle of Dread which has two consecutive encounters with a pteranodon and a roc, respectively (to be fair, they're like 50 miles apart on the map, but they are numbered 15 and 16 and if you follow the river that connects them, you will not have any other officially sanctioned encounters)

Rahasia is from 1984, and I'm assuming is even more story-driven. It's hard to say when I'm missing the part of the book that explains the module as a whole, but I got the sense that the proper nouns I kept seeing in its series of rooms had some overarching importance. I can't say for sure, though, because I didn't finish it. On page 3 (the first page I had), it said that I would want to kick off by reading the PCs a letter that explained the situation, but the letter itself is on one of the missing pages. I assume that if I stuck with it, I would be able to pick up the gist by context (there's something about missing maidens and a religious cult, but it's unclear whether the cult members are dangerous fanatics or being mind controlled), and honestly I don't need the hassle.

Still, Rahasia has the distinction of being written by Tracy and Laura Hickman of Dragonlance fame, so it's clear that TSR was already getting more concerned with fiction, even at that early date . . .

Or is my theory full of shit, because I looked it up on wikipedia and it turns out that D&D Rahasia, while published in 1984, was actually a reprint of a module the Hickmans self-published in 1979. So that's one timeline fucked. I could preserve my theory by quibbling that it took time for TSR to get into the narrative game, even if independents had been blazing ground for years, and it might even be true, but I would have to know a lot more about early D&D to speak with any kind of confidence.

Let's just say instead that if you look at D&D adventures from the 90s, they, on average, are driven by the narrative, whereas if you look at D&D adventures from the early 80s, they, on average, are driven by the location, and as you move from one period to another, there is kind of a fuzzy transition between approaches.

In the end, these kind of books are the hardest for me to read. I don't actually enjoy this style of gameplay, and thus whatever merits lie within their nuances are difficult for me to detect. Isle of Dread was kind of racist, I guess. The titular island and the routes to it are home to "native villages," which made me exclaim aloud, "aren't all villages, 'native villages?'" I guess there are colonial settlements small enough to be called "villages,"but that's not really the vibe I got from this book. Just goes to show that the colonialist mindset can crop up in the darndest places.

Also, there's a section that makes a big deal about Fano, the "talking chief," so called because the "chief" of his village was a statue that psychically advised him. Except those scare quotes were in the original, implying Fano was not accurately relaying his personal situation. And, I mean, come on D&D, what are you doing? This is a fantasy world. Statues can give people advice. If you told us that the chief of the village was a statue containing the spirits of its departed elders, and that the day-to-day leader was a holy man who interpreted them . . . that's just a thing that can happen. I would not be inclined to disbelieve you. It's actually significantly less dumb than whatever the hell is going on with the Cleric class. Stop making indigenous-coded people the only ones who don't understand how magic works.

Ooh, got hung up on the pet peeve again. If I'm going to talk about the book's racism, I should focus on the part where every village that didn't want the PCs around was filled with cannibals. Maybe the subplot about enslaving the locals and forcing them to work in a gold mine, even if the book says to "discourage this by having the slaves work very slowly and having them rebel often."

Good Lord, that's offensive. Didn't really strike me until I saw it all concentrated in one place.

Anyway, Curse of Xanathon was fine. Not sure if I'm entirely on board with the cursed duke's wacky edicts ("all taxes must be paid in beer" "no artificial light after dark" "all horses must be fed meat"), but it's hard to screw up "evil magic user plots to take over the land, find the crystal that is his secret weakness and beat the snot out of him."

I'm sure Rahasia was okay as well. It was the adventure so nice they published it twice. However, I could not get invested enough to finish it after realizing I missed the beginning (I'm the same way with movies and TV shows, if I miss even part of it, I usually wind up turning the whole thing off).

Anyway, I've still got a couple of AD&D adventures as part of my list, but I'm hoping I've seen the last of this era and style of gameplay.

Ukss Contribution: Only Curse of Xanathon gets one today. I'm sure Rahasia would have too, if I'd finished it, but we'll probably never know for sure.

For good ol' CoX, it's going to be something goofy and super-specific, sorry. 

As I might have implied, this adventure follows the familiar "furniture, monsters, treasure" format of dungeon design. And the interesting thing about this is that often the furniture is the treasure. On two separate occasions, it mentions a room's tablecloths as potentially valuable bits of treasure (worth 30gp and 100gp, respectively). Sure, you could get some good parody mileage out of adventurers who always make sure to steal the silverware on their way out, but tablecloths?! That's beyond parody.

So Ukss is going to feature at least one luxury tablecloth manufacturer. Those things are going to be damned collector's items.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

I've Got a Side-Side Hustle

 Posting may be unusually slow for the last week of March/1st week of April. I'm working on a creative project entirely unrelated to the blog - Tales of Clickbait, Volume 1

Cool title, right? It's going to be an anthology of internet-era pulp fiction (see, because the original pulp was cheap, disposable paper . . . kind of like the clickbait of today . . . I am very clever). My role in the project is financier/ editor in chief. That's what y'all are getting instead of me spending my stimulus money on six more months of books to read.

I'm actually pretty excited about it. The whole thing is going to be released under a very permissive version of the Creative Commons license, and if the writing samples I've read so far are any indication, it's going to feature the work of some fantastic writers who are seriously slumming it.

Anyway, that's why you may have to wait a few extra days before I tell you my deep, important thoughts about the City of Lankhmar.

Monday, March 22, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Magic: A Manual of Mystic Secrets

I have to take care not to blame this book for not being what I was I hoping it would be. I was hoping it would have a bunch of new spells and magic items and really focus on the big-budget special effects style fantasy that is my not so secret preference. Instead, it had a lot of fiddly rules about various niches and corner cases in its various magic systems. We learn a lot about blood oaths and spirit summoning and, good god, entirely too much about spell design, but genuinely new magic is sparse.

It's not all that bad, except for the spell creation rules. There is some value in knowing that evil mages can cast more powerful spells using human sacrifice and what the different types of elementals look like. And the fact that legendary heroes can make magic items by using them for epic deeds was actually a damned cool mechanic (even if we got no specific examples of what this might look like).

The fantasy elements I most enjoyed were the optional Talent Knacks. They're neat little tricks that do things like allow Cavalrymen to summon a flying spirit mount, Beastmasters to grow claws that act as tools, and Archers to fire an arrow that stops right in front of a target's face. The knacks are generally a bolder form of skill-based magic, suggesting a way of approaching Adepts that is reminiscent of (or, more accurately, presaging) the most interesting parts of Exalted.

Unfortunately, I think Talent Knacks are an example of Earthdawn's mechanics writing themselves into a corner. Even the best of them have a kind of ad hoc quality to them, and even though they expand the Disciplines' abilities, these expansions are only really necessary because the default talent lists or so inflexible. This is part of a more general problem with Earthdawn's system, though. Advancing in your Discipline requires investing a lot of your xp into ranking up your core Talents, and straying from the central path will put you irrevocably behind.

I went ahead and consulted 4th edition. Raising your level is a bit more flexible and Knacks are a bit better organized, but the fundamental disconnect remains the same. A lot of core Talents are just more dice for normal skills, with Knacks being a new mechanical implementation for actions that should either be part of the powers originally or just entirely new Talents added to a Discipline's progression.

There are some great fantasy elements. People mine pure elemental fire by flying over lava in their airships and tossing in explosives. If you travel into the astral plane, you are effectively a spirit and can be summoned by someone who has one of your personal items. There is an alternate reality where the Horrors wiped out all life.

However, those spell creation rules are really rough. They're more than 20 pages long, filled with charts and modifiers and a lot of different rolls. Which is especially rough for something that PCs are only going to use rarely, and which could have been handled by simple level benchmarks besides. I was also a little disappointed that all but one of the magic item creation methods was spellcaster-centric, a bad habit that even D&D should have broken years before. 

Overall, this was more of a utility book than a setting book, which is not my ideal for a magic supplement, but I imagine that if I started playing Earthdawn 1st edition, I'd get a lot of use out of it.

Ukss Contribution: There's also a bunch of rules for miscellaneous magical phenomena like Familiars and Divination. My favorite was the Death Curse. I liked that it was just a thing that any PC could do, not attached to any Talent or spell. It's not just a great setting conceit, but a great game mechanic generally. The player loses a character, but they get one last chance to chew the scenery, do a bit of last minute dramatic editing of the world, and get a bit of revenge into the bargain. So Ukss will have death curses too.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Three Old School Modules

 Last night I read Dwellers of the Forbidden City, Against the Giants, and Descent Into the Depths of the Earth. I decided in advance to do them all as one post, because they were each pretty short (less than 30 pages), but after reading them, I realized it was a good decision because my opinion on all three was exactly the same - OMG, these things are dull. It's just one room after another, and in 90% of them the only thing they say is a list of monsters, a list of furniture, and a list of treasure - usually in that order. Sometimes we'll get a character motivation, but those are few and far between.

To a certain degree, this is unfair. These old modules weren't really meant to be read, they were meant to be played, and if you're into this exact style of roleplaying, then the books provide you with everything you need.  However, I am not into that style, and thus I felt like I was getting punished for something.

It's funny, a while back I read a big batch of BECM Adventures and I recall finding them pretty dull. Ha! It turns out I didn't know what dull was. At least 3 of the 5 books from that batch had actual plots and comprehensible stakes. You'd need a microscope to see the difference between Descent Into the Depths of the Earth and an unprovoked home invasion.

The main difference I see is that the BECM adventures were published in '84-'86, but these AD&D Adventures were from '80-'81. And Against the Giants goes back to at least '78. They are all reprints of convention Tournament games. It's something that came up in the rpg.net thread - apparently they used to play D&D in tournaments.

Dwellers of the Forbidden City actually roughly explains the rules. When it was run in a tournament, players had to use preconstructed characters, they had 3 and a half hours to get through the whole thing, and apparently there was a scoring sheet that was not included here. Narrative is optional.

I mean, I guess I get it. I'm not sure it's a format that promotes very good adventures, but there's a challenge there. Plus, if we didn't have the tournaments, we would never have gotten such classic Gygaxian character names as Flerd Trantle, Beek Gwenders, Frush O'Suggil, or Gleep Wurp, and those weren't even the highlights - they're all that ridiculous. If Chuck Tingle himself designed an AD&D module, it could not seem any stranger (though I do think Chuck would have a bit more fun with the "Great Tentacle Rod" that was wielded by one of the NPCs)

Now, let's do a quick breakdown of each adventure:

Dwellers of the Forbidden City is the most imaginative of the three. It is apparently the origin for classic D&D monsters like the Yuan-ti (snake people), Bullywugs (Frog people), and Aboleths (psychic horrors from an age before humanity, but they kind of look like fish). And there's a lot to like about the setting that's presented here. However, it hits a major pet peeve of mine, and I'm not sure I can forgive it for that.

At the beginning of the adventure, you're in a village nearby the titular Forbidden City, and the local shaman is giving you the lay of the land. At the end of the conversation, the DM is warned "Naturally, the shaman will not tolerate any questioning or mocking of his ideas and will refuse to cooperate with any who do."

Okay, so the shaman is a proud man. A bit prickly. That's a valid character trait. But what are his ideas that he's so protective of?

To summarize - The Forbidden City is haunted by the ghosts of the tribe's enemies, who will viciously attack any member of the tribe who dares set foot inside it. The shaman can keep them contained by setting up magical spirit poles, but forces inside the city itself are constantly tearing them down.

Are you laughing yet? Do you see the joke? No? All you see is a perfectly plausible scenario for a fantasy world, a potential springboard for some interesting worldbuilding to explain why this rural culture has enemies in a long-ruined city, and a great excuse for the tribal leadership to involve outsiders in their business?

Don't you get it? The shaman is 100% wrong about what's going on! Ha. Ha. Ha. You're not going to bravely venture into a ghost-wracked ruin of an ancient and decadent civilization to grapple with the sinister forces of the underworld who would enact their baleful blood curse on the living descendants of their traditional enemies. What a silly thing to believe. No, the real Forbidden City is nothing more than the home to a bunch of C-list AD&D humanoids. 

Can you even imagine, an adventure about fighting vengeful ghosts and demon-men instead of Bugbears and Tasloi (I guess they're kind of like jungle goblins - they ride giant wasps and talk to apes and are actually pretty cool, even if they're never heard from again)?

Sorry for my sarcasm, but that sort of shit bugs the hell out of me. I can't help wondering, though, what sort of cues were present in the original game to warn the PCs that their best source of local information was completely full of shit. Right, like I'm an adventurer in D&D world and the local wise man tells me that the ruin is full of ghosts, that's valid tactical information. Okay, let's make sure we bring a cleric. Maybe stock up on holy water and platinum swords. There's no part of me that's going to think "hey, when this dipshit says 'ghosts,' he probably means, like, frog-people and shit."

There's a dark part of me that suspects the big clue is the word "shaman." Maybe that one word is the signal for the DM to roleplay a lazy indigenous stereotype, possibly with an offensive accent and diction. Maybe, if we were calling him a wizard, this whole digression would never have come up. 

I don't know. The book doesn't come right out and say what's going on, so I'm left with a lot of maybes. Is that enough to condemn the adventure as a whole? Probably not, but it can consider itself scolded.

Next up is Against the Giants. It's got the closest thing any of these modules have to a plot - Giants are attacking, go and teach them a lesson! But as far as plots go, it's basic. You could argue that it's another example of the problematic colonialist plot at the heart of D&D, but honestly giants read more like Vikings than natives to me. They've got steadings and Jarls and a bunch of other European cultural signifiers, so I think it's pretty safe to treat them as big, man-eating monsters instead of as a cuttout of imperialist propaganda.

I need to make a special note of that because in this adventure, you kill their children. This is probably not merely incidental. Gygax himself breaks the fourth wall to tell us that his playtest group did exactly that. "The rationale of this whole series of adventures is a fight to the finish."

It's gross. Incredibly gross. But it's probably a "what the fuck's wrong with you"-level gross, rather than a full-on hate crime.

My two takeaways from this adventure are 1)Don't kill the giant bebes and 2)Yeti with a sword. Also, describing a lady giant as "comely to those of her ilk" is just a stone cold burn. Why are you threatened by powerful women, Gygax?

Descent Into the Depths of the Earth was also there. It might have been a bit of an error to leave the "Kuo-Toa sacrifice captives to their aquatic goddess" bit of lore until after you described their whole town (I was mostly reading that adventure thinking - "why can the PCs not simply walk through the area without killing anybody.") However, if this is your style of adventure - explore map, fight stuff you find, then the book works fine. "Beautiful woman with the head of a lobster" is going to keep me up, though.

Overall - if I had a choice, I would have preferred to pass on these. They were found in a crate in my most recent move and I have no idea where they came from. They're an artifact of primordial D&D, though, so even though I'll never play them, it was good to learn what they were like.

Ukss Contribuiton: Okay, three books, three picks. From Forbidden City, the god egg. The Bullywugs are incubating it, with the help of a human wizard, and that's what's keeping them loyal to the Yuan-ti's goals. It's actually a dragon egg, because old D&D were a bunch of cowards, but in Ukss . . . who knows.

Against the Giants: I mean, I gotta go with the Great Tentacle Rod, right? There were other well-chosen details here (a giant princess has a pet cave bear, there's a dashing female thief locked up in the basement who doesn't get a name because Gygax was afraid of strong women, frost giants use fire beetles to light their homes), but in the end, a magic item like the Great Tentacle Rod simply doesn't come along every day.

As for Descent . . . ehhhh . . . this is probably one of those cases where something old wound up becoming so iconic that the future can't help but see it as hopelessly basic, but this adventure was as hopelessly basic as anything featuring an underground society of reverse mermaids could possibly be. But if I have to choose . . . the leader of the Kuo-Toa was a cleric/assassin. That's an interesting class combo. I'm not going to use his ridiculous name, Va-Guulgh, but there could be a merfolk assassin-priest who acts as an antagonist to the undersea kingdoms.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Glitch

 There's been a longish gap between posts, but, unusually, this time I've been reading almost every day. When I saw that Glitch was 400+ pages, my first thought was that I would break it into parts like I've done with other large corebooks. Then I got about 100 pages in and I realized that there was going to be no part of this book that I felt comfortable taking out and looking at in isolation.

I think most people, if asked to boil Jenna Moran's work down to a single word would describe it as "whimsical." There's a lot of that here. There's a character in this book who is "dying of trademark infringement" - fate conspires that her actions just happen to strongly resemble those of a "famous idol" with a similar name, and the universe punishes her for her unintentional plagiarism. There's another character whose title is "The Prince of the French Fry that Fell in the Corner." At one point he saves the universe (though the canonicity of this is dubious -  it was in one of the always delightful microfictions that are a Jenna Moran signature). If you're coming to this for the whimsy, you're going to find it.

However, Glitch made me think, and I'm persuaded that a better word for Ms Moran's body of work is "intricate." The good kind of intricate, mostly. The kind of intricate that demonstrates craftsmanship and care, that you largely marvel at because of the elegance of its many interlocking parts. But also the kind of intricate where material you're reading on page 320 would have come in really handy for understanding concepts introduced on page 30. Also, sometimes, if it's late and you're a little zonked from the time change, you'll have no fucking clue what's going on.

As a follow-up to Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine it's fascinating. Chuubo's was a singular accomplishment that will likely never be repeated, but I think it's fair to say that the thing it accomplished was to expose the superstructure of rpgs as a storytelling medium and point the way towards designing new games that took its insights to heart. Glitch is exactly that sort of game. It owes a lot to Chuubo's, but it's not Chuubo's. 

In many ways, it's a strictly superior game. When it directly inherits a concept, that concept is usually subtly improved. For example, "genre actions" have been replaced by "spotlighting." If you read closely, spotlights replicate a lot of what genre actions actually did, but they're presented as more abstract and more like a character power than a player obligation. You use a spotlight to make the GM or another player stop and elaborate on whatever they were just talking about. The specifics of what they're supposed to do with the spotlight are often similar (for example, Chubbo's epic fantasy genre had the "Decisive Action" where you're supposed to give a speech about what you're going to do, and then do it and Glitch allows you to "spotlight a test" and buy an automatic success if the character gives a speech about what they're about to do), but the difference in framing, and, heck, the new, more evocative name, make the concept a lot more attractive.

Similarly, there's a change to the quest system that is, quite frankly, inspired. Now, players take turns being the "focus" of a session. You can only advance your storyline quests while your character is the focus, but for the duration of the session, so can the other players. They can trigger your quest flavor options and earn one xp for you and one xp for themselves. The implications for player investment in each others' stories is staggering to contemplate. I am positively salivating for the next edition of Nobilis.

Which brings us to . . . not exactly the downside of Glitch, but let's call it a "caveat." Glitch is weird. Even for a Jenna Moran game it's weird. You may have noticed that I've not yet explained what Glitch is about. That's because what it's about is roughly 3-layers deep of Moran-verse self-referential. People think Glass Maker's Dragon is insular, but there's only one thing you need to know about Glass Maker's Dragon - and that's that we'd all gladly die to protect our Best Boi Leonardo de Montreal (or Seizhi Schwan or Jasper Irinka or, hell Chuubo himself - that is one damned charming campaign).

However, for Glitch I have to take several steps back. So, there's this game called Nobilis, and in that game you play people with the power of universal concepts. A character is something like "The Power of Fire" and you've got a broad ability to define what that means, getting as weird and as epic as you want. Set whole worlds on fire? Yes. Light a fire in someone's heart and convince them to pursue their dreams? Sure. Grant humanity the Promethean fire and boostrap it into a new age of technological plenty? If that's what "fire" means to you and the rest of the group doesn't rebel at you hijacking the setting, knock yourself out.

Now, the Nobilis have enemies. They're not just out there in the cosmos doing cool shit, there's a war going on. There's a faction called "The Excrucians." Their goal is to destroy the universe and their powers are beefy enough that they're uncowed by the frankly ludicrous strength of Creation's defenders.

With me so far? Good, because there are actually four types of Excrucians, and they all approach things a little differently. Deceivers have these infectious self-referential paradoxes that they use to corrupt the things of Creation. Mimics wield roughly the same powers as the beings that empowered the Nobilis, but in doing so they make a mockery of the laws of the universe. Warmains will just directly fuck your shit up. And then there's Strategists, with their signature power of The Worldbreaker's Hand, which can make things, even the abstract properties of ordinary objects, just not exist anymore, and because of this dread power they enter Creation doomed to die, usually pretty quickly, only to come back again and again in an endless cycle of resurrection.

Glitch is about the Strategists. But not the Excrucians. It's about the Strategists who decide to drop out of the war and live their doomed lives as best they can. They're still dying. They still share the Excrucian's fundamental conviction that Creation is a crime against the Void. But instead of attempting to slaughter the Powers that defend the universe, they solve mysteries.

That doesn't even begin to really describe the game. That's just what you need to know before you can say whether you're interested in what the massive expansion in canon will explain.

And honestly, you should be interested. It's very interesting. It's alternately funny and scary and thought-provoking, and Jenna's "wise, with a smirk" voice is used as artfully as it's ever been. But . . .

In Jenna Moran's own words, "You can think of Glitch as a kind of improv ethical philosophy and comedy jam session."

And that's . . . It's . . . Are you trying to sell the game or presage the exact parody your detractors are going to use to dismiss it as being made for absolute wankers?

There are several examples of play, and they're quite useful for understanding the game, but they are so arch and verbose that even I, no stranger to discursive quips and self-indulgent meandering, had to roll my eyes a couple of times. Even as I was being absolutely charmed by the wit, I was rolling my eyes.

Two out of the five attributes are called "Eide" and "Flore" and good luck guessing what they do (the other attributes are "Ability," "Lore," and "Wyrd," and they're not exactly straightforward, but at least they have existing fantasy provenance).

And look, I like this game. Quite a lot, actually. But if someone called it pretentious and impenetrable, I would not be able to deny the justice of those accusations. It's a niche within a niche and I'm actually kind of astonished that it exists at all.

But you shouldn't necessarily let the book's worst qualities scare you off. It will also take you to places that you've never dreamed of and show you things you'll see nowhere else. It's the double-shot espresso of fantasy. The things there are to love about the genre, Glitch has, more extreme and more specific than just about any alternative.

Ukss Contribution: Did you write down your predictions for Eide already? If not, I can wait . . .

It's the power of being your most iconic self, exploiting your self-created personal mythology to do mythological-type things. It gets pretty weird, because the Strategists have this super-specific relationship to the metaphysics of the setting, but, for example, if being a baker is your signature Technique, you can use Eide to win at even ludicrously-rigged baking contests (only the judges absolutely refusing to taste your food and just corruptly tossing the contest to your opponent even has a chance of beating you, and that itself is unnaturally difficult to arrange)

One of the lesser powers of Eide is "Costuming" and it's exactly what it sounds like. Your legend is bound up in a particular identity and you can always find the props necessary to signal that identity. If you're a doctor, you can get scrubs on the moon. If you're a princess, you'll have your tiara, no matter how many times the revolutionaries take it away.

It's absolute nonsense, but it's the sort of inspired nonsense that keeps me coming back.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium, Volume 3

CW: Misogyny, racism, and sexual violence

Welp, that was a thing. I was expecting the section on the Vistani. I steeled my mind for it. Then, BAM! The section on hags came out of nowhere. I guess I've never really thought about them as a monster type - if I wanted an evil magic user who lived in a swamp, I would just do that. So I was unprepared for this book's astonishing new addition to hag lore:

"Hags who are early in their lives, before the Change, are indistinguishable from human females."

Um, excuse me? Are you absolutely sure that you want a monster type whose whole deal is that they're beautiful women who turn 40 and suddenly start to undergo "the Change" (always capitalized) and turn into hideous old crones who despise all life. And the distinguishing characteristics of the three types are that pre-annis are excessively butch, pre-greenhags are excessively slutty, and pre-sea hags are excessively naggy?

Is that what you want to do AD&D?! Is it?!

I went back to the Monstrous Manual to see if this was simply a bit of obscure canon I hadn't noticed before, but it appears new. The hags from the MM reproduced by disguising themselves as beautiful women, getting pregnant, and then magically implanting those fetuses into unsuspecting human women. The baby hags would kill their human mothers and then presumably they'd be retrieved by the hags for training.

This book debunks the "magically altered pregnancy" angle and instead says that the hags give birth to their own children, but that those babies appear human and the hags insinuate them into human society, usually by kidnapping an infant girl and swapping her out for the hag's daughter. Those daughters later grow up to be misogynist stereotypes until menopause, but don't feel too bad about their horrifying transformation, because they were "born evil" (and that is seriously the advice that Van Richten gives us at the end of the book).

I have a feeling, though, that someone, an author, an editor, or a developer, must have known what thin ice they were on, because Van Richten also cautions us to be absolutely sure we're dealing with a real hag and not just an unpopular woman or one with an unconventional lifestyle. "The evil of hags is difficult enough to contain and recognize without those who would battle it being blinded by cultural prejudice."

And it's like - grr! These fools already have all the information necessary to understand why this is a bad idea. I know they do, because they printed it in their book. But, fuck, what were they supposed to do, just not write about a monster that already existed?

Of course, this is Dungeons and Dragons, and it follows a very strict law of conservation of canon. I checked the future Monster Manuals and the hag remains in editions 3, 4, and 5, though blessedly their life cycle does not. In 3rd, it doesn't get mentioned at all. In 4th and 5th, they're fairy creatures, which honestly seems for the best (this book says they're inspired by "wicked witches" and "fairly lore," which is in the same wheelhouse . . . but then they get weird with it).

The hags share a section with Witches, and the Witch information almost seems like an apology for the hag stuff. Witches are a force on the side of good, deadly enemies of the hags, and if you accidentally kill one, thanks to their superficial similarities (Witches have covens and hags have coveys and though the words sound similar and describe exactly the same thing, they are etymologically unrelated and I couldn't begin to tell you why that choice was made) then you are a monster as bad as those you would hunt.

My guess is that Witches are AD&D's way of saying that not all female magic users are going to fall into hag stereotypes. But then it does that weird AD&D thing where because they're describing something with a unique name, they have to make it work in a unique way. Witches and Warlocks (the male version of Witches) are not "magic users at all." Actually, they're fighters or thieves with a kit that allows them to cast spells that stem from their hereditary magical bloodline. The thing to remember about Witch and Warlock magic is that it straddles the very important distinction between wizard and priest magic. And it's gender essentialist too - Witches are priests who splash wizard and Warlocks are wizards who splash priest, and they cannot directly combine their magic because mixed covens are inevitably torn apart by "lust and desire," because apparently Van Richten has never heard of gay people.

Now, let's talk about the problematic part of the book.

I keep getting myself into these situations where I'm obliged to comment on these things that I barely understand. I've got only a passing familiarity with anti-Roma racism. I've got no cultural context for it. I haven't even seen much of that gothic horror where they're a stock character type. Honestly, the bulk of my experience is a report on the Czech Republic I did 20 years ago and old roleplaying books like this one.

However, even with that limited knowledge, I can see that it's Not Good. I mean, there's probably nuance to it. The clear mission of that section of the book is to cure Van Richten of his hatred of the Vistani, and to do that by showing the beauty and variety of the Vistani culture. From this book, we are supposed to learn that the Vistani are definitely not evil.

However, they are dangerous and untrustworthy, with strange powers of cursing and precognition. And the good parts of their culture still strongly resemble the Roma. We get a description of their clothes! But those clothes paint a very specific picture.

It's massively culturally insensitive, and I'm not sure what the aim of it all was supposed to be. The nearest I could see to a mission statement was when it reminded me that "the Vistani should remain forever enigmatic to the heroes."

That's why they implied that "Vistani" was more like a type of fantasy creature than a human culture - "aliens of a superior race." They're basically elves. There's a bit where some of them appear untouched by age. One of the tribes has an uncanny sympathy with animals, able to train them to do tricks that seem to require human-level understanding (at one point, a cat is sent to deliver a message - successfully!). Their crafters can forge items of cunning and subtle magic (though only if they fall under AD&D's nebulous definition of "cursed"). If you want to play a Vistani, you can't. The closest race is half-Vistani.

That's weird. It's weird that a group that is thinly based off a real-world ethnicity is basically portrayed as elves. Somewhat spooky and disreputable elves, but elves nonetheless. Turns out the reason they're "not in the business of kidnapping" is because "such practices would poison their blood heritage."

I mean, it's so transparent. One of the tasques (I guess they're like clans, but based on professions) is called Kaldresh, and they focus on blacksmithing, animal husbandry, and medicine. The Kalderash are a group of Romani renowned for their metalworking. At least try to disguise it a little.

I don't know. Is it good to be elves? Elves are cool. The Vistani, even when they "take advantage of the unexpected intimacy to rob the heroes" are cool. Or, at least, I get the sense that they were written with an avowed intent to make them cool.

I think the problem is that it's poisoned fruit from a poisoned tree. In D&D world, all rogues are sexy bad-boys (or girls) and mysterious fortune tellers are just a way for the DM to feed you clues. But when you are basing your bad-boy fortune teller off a real-world culture that gets called "rogues" by people who think they're naturally criminal and"mysterious" by people who are looking to see them as less than human, it stops being fun. Once you know that these are not genre tropes, but the product of real-world hate, you just have to . . . stop.

Also, there's a part of this book that's about demons. It's actually some of the best demon material, AD&D has done (for one thing, it's allowed to use the word "demon"), but I can't bring myself to talk about it now. I don't think this book was meant to be malicious, but it is so relentlessly inept that I'm not sure that it matters.

Ukss Contribution: Nope.

Monday, March 8, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Denizens of Earthdawn, Volume 2

 I'm fascinated by the concept of alien psychology. I like the big questions - how much of our behavior, our very perception of the world, is innate to the functioning of consciousness and how much is a legacy of our biology? Could there be other paths to intelligence and culture? Is there a universal common ground for communication or is the construction of language so dependent on the quirks of specific brains that there must forever be a barrier between species? What, exactly, is the difference between a person and an animal anyway?

It's an interest that can sometimes lead me astray when it comes to fantasy creatures. Because let's face it, they're all human. Elves are mystical and flighty humans. Dwarfs are serious and disciplined humans. Orcs are how racists see the vast majority of humans. It's a whole thing.

That's why I try and be extra conscious of fantasy monocultures. When all of your elves and dwarfs and whatnot wind up acting the same way, your fantasy cultures start to feel like thin stand-ins for human cultures. They are people-who-live-in-the-forest and people-who-live-in-the-mountains and by making them into fantasy creatures, you both under-sell the diversity of the human species and indirectly imply the kind of "culture as biological destiny" that has a bad track record in the real world.

The way I like to do it is to identify some trait that is distinctly and universally elvish and then try and brainstorm at least three different ways this trait could manifest culturally. Ideally this trait would be something fundamental and abstract enough to feel like an evolutionary vestige - something akin to survivorship bias in humans. It's easy to imagine a mind without it, but it's also easy to see how it affects almost everything we do.

That's why I really liked this book's introduction of the concept of "gahad." It's a physiological trait in orks. They get symptoms akin to indigestion when they suppress strong emotions. If they ignore gahad for too long, it becomes like a hangover. Thus any orkish society is going to have to have a means of coping with the fact that there's a physical cost to acting with an emotional filter. There have to be different strategies, each of which could anchor a culture - maybe there are scrupulously polite orks who avoid triggering each other, and also orks who embrace their passion and have a formal dueling code, and so on.

Unfortunately, Denizens of Earthdawn doesn't really do that. Earthdawn as a whole is better than most about humanizing its fantasy creatures, and each of the four chapters makes clear that dwarfs and trolls and such are individuals, but at the societal level, you have Throalish vs non-Throalish, and variants in custom ("differences have remained, even among clans and settlements separated by only a short distance"), but the overall structure of a given species society remains pretty constant. For example, all trolls have the same division between personal, family, and racial honor, even if the specific offenses and proper reactions vary from clan to clan.

I may have given volume 1 too much credit. I like Earthdawn so much that I picked up on subtle distinctions and attributed them to a more modern sensibility than was reasonable to expect. Since volume 2 doesn't have the mandatory diversity that comes with having a humans chapter, and since it covers dwarfs, who have aggressively spread the Throalish culture, it seems a lot more like 1 species = 1 culture to me.

This is justifiable, since Barsaive is roughly the size of the real world's Ukraine, and thus the various cultures of Barsaive are in close enough contact to have common lines of descent (the 400 years spent in underground bunkers notwithstanding), but in that case, why are they breaking down along species lines? Shouldn't there be significant overlap between dwarf and ork cultures (especially since dwarfs enslaved orks in the time before the Scourge)? Shouldn't Throalish (aka "lowland") Trolls have the same ignorance of honor as any other non-highlander?

I mean, honor is far too complex a concept to be genetic. It has to be learned, especially if its as prickly and whimsical as Troll honor is portrayed to be. In troll culture, asking someone about the meaning or purpose of their art is a deadly insult, because art is intensely personal and by asking about it you're implying that you have a right to know all the troll's secrets. There is even an anecdote about a troll who understands that it was an innocent question and forgives the interloper. Her own family kills him and challenges her to a duel because allowing that insult to pass diminished the family's honor.

That shit isn't innate. It's something you absorb over a lifetime of reinforcement.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that Denizens of Earthdawn, volume 2 is a bad book. Its worst sin is merely that its focus is a bit too abstract, and as a result it makes its titular denizens a bit too homogeneous, but that's hardly a sin unique to Earthdawn (I say with dry understatement). If you grant it a mulligan on that score, then it continues the series tradition of amazing worldbuilding (it tells me what people's clothes look like!) and its character-driven narration is highly engaging. Plus Mereelva Gadj, the lusty old ork heroine is just an all-around great fantasy character. I could read a whole novel about her youthful exploits (kaer explorer, mercenary, liberator, and mother of ten).

So I guess it's just a question of which genre conventions I'm willing to accept. There probably shouldn't be a single "troll culture" or "dwarf culture" or "ork culture" or "obsidiman culture"(or maybe that last one is okay because they are all these weird rock people who are mystically connected to the spirits of the earth), but accepting that these things are inevitable, then at least Denizens of Earthdawn gives us some well-drawn cultures to work with.

Ukss Contribution: I really like Mereelva Gadi's first baby. Before he was born, she had a prophetic dream where the baby spoke to her in over-the-top epic dialogue:

"I am Dakarga Bral, your son," he said. "You shall give the struggle I demand from you. Lay me down at the fork and unwrap me. The fork represents two paths I must choose from. One is domination, the other subjugation. May I choose wisely in my life.

"When you name me Dakarga Bral, I shall be naked to the world and helpless. You shall snap a thorn and cut the tender soles of my feet with it, to show me that my way shall never bee easy and that the earth does not welcome my tread. Then lift me above the fertile soil so that my blood drips into it. This will show my answer to the unfriendly ground - choke on my blood! Buunda! I will shackle you to my will!"

 I had to quote the whole speech because I couldn't single out a part that was any less awesome than the rest. Mereelva says that this sort of vision is just a regular part of the orkish birthing process, which strikes me as a bit odd, but also the sort of magical nonsense that could happen in a fantasy world. Seeing as how Dakarga became a merchant, and never did anything cool enough to justify that opening speech, I kind of have to assume it was wishful thinking on the part of his mother. Then again, he did wind up dealing in elemental earth, so maybe there's something to it after all.

In any event, I think that there's going to be a character in Ukss about whom this kind of story is told.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

(AD&D 2e)Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium Volume 2

 These Van Richten books are a fucking emotional rollercoaster. They're good on average. Certainly, the concept is sound. They're a guide to using horror movie monsters and they're narrated by the old-timey monster hunter who would show up in the first act of a horror movie, mentor the main characters, and then promptly die. When the book is in its wheelhouse, it's pretty decent. Some of the out-of-character sections, where they talk about how to run horror stories, are even actively good. But then sometimes, without warning, it gets bad.

Where it gets challenging for me is that sometimes Van Richten's Monster Hunter's Compendium is bad in a funny way, and that's what I really want to talk about, but every so often it's bad in a racist way and I skipped talking about that in Volume 1, so now I have to get right into it.

Van Richten has a racist backstory. I didn't realize that the first time I read this book because I first heard of the Roma people when I was in my early 20s, but Ravenloft has this group of people called the Vistani who are basically Roma stereotypes and are repeatedly referred to by a racial slur. The Vistani stole Van Richten's son and sold him to a vampire.

This is . . . I don't know. I don't even have an analogy to describe it. We're in blood libel territory here. Ravenloft took the most odious historical stereotype about the Roma and for setting's thinly-veiled Roma stand-ins, they made the stereotype true.

Then there's Van Richten repeatedly going off on them. Bringing up some nonsense like "the dreaded evil eye" and tossing around the g-word. It was worse in volume 1, but it's still going on (volume 3 has Van Richten's Guide to the Vistani, which I shudder to think about). I think it's supposed to be a genre trope (I suspect, like me, the earliest D&D authors didn't realize that the traveling fortune-tellers and rogues that show up in gothic horror were based on old-world hate speech), but it didn't age well at all.

It's a relatively small element, though. At least until the next volume. Let's pivot to the ways this book is incredibly ridiculous. Here's an alternate reality fan-fic pitch for you, based on Van Richten's Guide to Ghosts - what if, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge had hired Van Helsing to come in and slay the ghost of Jacob Marley with a platinum sword?

This, by the way, is not a hypothetical extrapolation of the game rules. It's a paraphrase, "Clearly, Marley was a miser. Perhaps it might be possible to keep his spirit from entering an area by ringing it with gold coins. Perhaps only weapons made from precious metals could harm the creature, with a platinum sword doing its normal damage to the spirit. . ."

In the book's defense, it follows this up with a much better suggestion of helping put Marley's ghost to rest by helping Scrooge, but the fact that reenacting the redemption arc was the second suggestion just goes to show how completely out-to-lunch this book can be.

Here's a fun drinking game for Van Richten's Guide to the Lich - take a shot every time a narrator describes a lich in a voice of breathless terror while the lich itself is being completely harmless. "I turned the corner and came upon a figure leaning over one of our crystal balls. . . I must have made some noise to alert it to my presence . . .What turned in answer nearly frightened me to death . . .I recognized it immediately as a lich and raised my hands to cast a warding spell. However, it employed some device and faded from view before I could complete my incantation, most likely returning from whence it came."

I don't want to go full alternate-character-interpretation here and cast the liches as innocent victims of Van Richten's extremism, but a lot of the time, he was just describing a bunch of spooky nerds. So much of what the liches are doing is just sitting quietly in their homes reading books. 

Even when they're at their most frightening, it's as often as not in the context of defending their homes from invading adventurers. OMG, the foul lich killed all but one of that adventuring party . . . and then pretended that the sole survivor managed to slay it . . . so it could lie low and cool it with the evil schemes for a couple hundred years so that all of its enemies are felled by the scourge of old age!

I think you have to meet the book half way when it comes to its implied setting.  When it says the lich transformation potion requires a heart "preferably from a sentient creature," maybe you just read that as dark rituals, human sacrifice, and the blasphemous consumption of souls. Maybe when it talks about demiliches resting quietly in ruined fortresses, exploring the higher planes, you could assume they're doing some kind of damage to the natural order. You know, when a lich reaches the highest levels of mystical development, it starts causing natural disasters and undermining the metaphysical underpinnings of existence instead of being a sedentary pile of dust that occasionally casts sinister cantrips ("Sinister Cantrip" is, incidentally, the name of one of this book's custom spells for liches).

The culprit here is just the alignment system, though. It allows you to simply label a creature "evil" in lieu of showing it doing specific evil deeds. Van Richten has a really on-the-nose example of this when he talks about Liches' power rituals (spells which grant the lich extraordinary magical strength at the cost of potentially massive backlashes - which is why liches are always careful to cast them far away from populated areas). He says, "I'm sure that a lich would take great delight in destroying a religious structure to clear an area for the ritual."

Why is this phrased as a hypothetical? Why not just say that the desecration of holy ground is a key component? Or, at the very least, give a concrete example of a lich taking delight in destroying a religious structure. It makes Van Richten sound really petty.

"I'm sure you'd love it if you got to knock down a church to cast your evil magic."

"First of all, the magic isn't evil, it's just dangerous, and secondly, when have I ever destroyed a church? Can you name even one incident of me taking pleasure in vandalism?"

"Not yet, but I just know it's the sort of thing you would do."

But the frustrating thing about alignment is not the way it sometimes substitutes for characterization. The real damage alignment does is when it starts to substitute for worldbuilding. There's a lot to like about Ravenloft, but one thing I absolutely cannot stand is the way that it takes creature types which normally have a variety of alignments and then insists that in the "Demiplane of Dread" they are always evil.

This kind of works with vampires and liches. They're corpses brought back to life with dark magic and they exist for selfish reasons. They became immortal to pursue their pleasures or obsessions and maybe that cuts them off from something essential in humanity that allows us to live benevolently. Desecrate yourself and you'll have no problem desecrating the world.

And maybe with werebeasts and golems, there's a needle you can thread. Like, I can't remember the last time I was afraid of a werewolf, I've gotten so used to thinking of them as just another form of animal life. A fantasy setting's got elves and goblins and wolf-people and they're all just demihumans. To suddenly have their characterization so limited felt jarring to me. And Ravenloft's approach to flesh golems is just ass-backwards. The whole reason golems are dangerous is because they rise to the level of evil with which they're treated. Humanity can't coexist with the created because of its own judgemental cruelty.

I'd go so far as to say that, given how Ravenloft bills itself, it's actually the setting least suited to strict alignment, because the alignment system can't distinguish between something that's evil and something that's harmful. And that distinction is at the crux of the problem with the ghost section.

In nearly every ghost story worth telling, the ghost is the character most in need of help. Sometimes it'll be the ghost of a murderer who just wants to continue murdering after their death, but mostly a ghost is a soul in torment. Your default stance is supposed to be compassion - "we must bring peace to this spirit and allow it to rest," that sort of thing. The challenge of the ghost story is one of communication. The ghost is in such pain that it can't really see the world of the living. The harm it does is not done with intent, but is rather tied to a fixation. They reenact the trauma that trapped them in the shadow-world, and their flailing poses a threat to the living. The way you "defeat" a ghost is to let it know that it is understood and to correct the imbalance that keeps them from moving on.

Or you could, I guess, just slap a label of "evil" on them and talk about how they're vulnerable to certain spells and magic items or being confronted with the thing that killed them (there's an example of a ghost who died after being tortured and is subsequently destroyed with a flaming blade . . . it's pretty fucked up)

It's kind of wild to think about, though. A ghost hunting team that gets rid of ghosts by exploiting their trauma to terrorize them. ("You were betrayed by a man who sent you roses . . . then we'll shove bouquets in your face until you flee the area"). It kind of breaks the dramatic rules of haunting stories - reminding a ghost of its drama is the one thing most guaranteed to get you mixed up in it - and it's ridiculously cruel, but you might be able to mine the concept for humor. It's also AD&D's default mode of play, so grab your platinum sword and keep those ghosts away from Scrooge!

Finally I guess I have to talk about mummies. They're kind of the odd one out when it comes to classic movie monsters, because the word "mummy" sounds kind of funny (which is probably why they go with "Ancient Dead" in the title), and they're only really threatening to archaeologists and grave robbers. They're the only monster that only attacks if you ignore the prominently posted warnings and dodge the gauntlet of deadly traps specifically put in place to keep you as far away as possible.

I guess you could say that in D&D world, you sometimes get mummies who decide to leave the tomb of their own volition and then kill people for no adequately explained reason, but it really feels like the authors are reaching when they do that. It's a rare mummy who manages to both feel properly villainous and also be reasonably like a mummy. Usually, the villainous mummy winds up just being a lich by another name. The only ones who really manage to hit the sweet spot are ancient kings who come back from the dead to pick up where they left off.

Which skirts right up against the most awkward part about using mummies as a fantasy monster - technically, mummification is an honor. They don't do it for villains, or at least, not for the sort of villains who are out of sync with the values of their society. It's possible, even probable, that a well-regarded tyrant could be made into a mummy.

Van Richten's Guide to the Ancient Dead tries to have it both ways by pointing out that elaborate embalming rituals are a respected cultural practice, but only lawful evil priests will turn an embalmed corpse into an undead creature. This calls into question the very notion of mummies as an undead category - why aren't they just a well-preserved strain of zombies - while also being a total cop-out. If it weren't for naturally-mummified anomalies and the occasional reborn king, almost every mummy in existence would be doing a religious duty - defending temples, tracking down and punishing grave robbers, etc. The most evil thing about them is that their punishments are often disproportionate to the crime. 

Overall, I'm enjoying these Van Richten books, but these swerves can be disorienting. One minute, you've got some solid AD&D writing that is among the best in the line, and then the next minute you've got something completely laughable, and there's never any warning. I can't even separate it out into sections. Every book, every chapter, every subsection of every chapter - they all have both.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to pick some of the mummies who really had no business being mummies. They call themselves the Ghost Clan. They were a family of bandits and now they're all dead and hanging out as mummies together, still occasionally doing the banditry. One of them was defeated by bagpipes.

I'll probably leave that part out, but then again, maybe not. Maybe this is a two-for-one and Ukss has bagpipes now too.