Tuesday, April 27, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Creatures of Barsaive

It's difficult to screw up a concept as elemental as the monster book, though Creatures of Barsaive may have found a way. It tells us about 50 of Earthdawn's most unique and dangerous monsters, but it does so with an unreliable narrator who has significant biases, gaps of knowledge, and an unspoken agenda. 

Now, this isn't something that ruined the book or anything, but the Kraken entry was written from the perspective that the Kraken was clearly an urban legend and could only be described in hypothetical terms, only for the OOC rules text to just directly come out and say the narrator was wrong and Krakens do exist. Hey, Creatures of Barsaive, I can assure you that the Kraken was interesting enough on its own - you didn't need to waste my time doing a bit.

But then again, look who's talking, right? Most of the time, the conceit that we were learning about these monsters from an arrogant dragon was, at worst, distracting. Sometimes, like when Vasdenjas reminisces on the deep friendship he had with a manticore, it's actively delightful. Still, I think they went to the "the best strategy for dealing with this foe is to fly overhead and roast it with fire" well a bit too often.

The book's titular creatures mostly follow the Earthdawn pattern of well-thought-out worldbuilding combined with so-so rules. In terms of monster-design technology, it's roughly equivalent to the AD&D Monstrous Manual - A standard block of statistics and one or two unique tricks that mostly require GM roleplaying to make memorable. Sell the basilisk's instant death attack well enough and maybe your players will think it's a fun challenge instead of a cheap move.

One thing that Creatures of Barsaive does that I wish was standard in rpg monster books is to end each entry with an adventure pitch. Most of the ones here are pretty boilerplate - gather monster parts for a wizard, drive off a monster that's attacking the town, etc - but the idea is solid, and occasionally pays dividends. Escort a scholar on a doomed expedition to prove the vicious flying worm monsters are intelligent. Join up with a group of ork bandits and learn to tame the weird mammoth-creatures they ride.

Overall, I enjoyed Creatures of Barsaive, but it undeniably puts style ahead of substance. When it's talking about novel, specific creatures, invented especially for Earthdawn, it does pretty well as a monster manual. But it often struggles when it comes to depicting its public domain creatures in an interesting light. Before the Scourge, manticores were good, but for unicorns, it's the opposite. Nobody knows why and the dragon doesn't have any theories. So it's like, okay . . . good to know.

Also, the Wyvern entry is weird. Shadowrun does the same thing - get a dragon talking about wyverns and they get all defensive and vague, in the way people sometimes do when they're trying to deny a crime they're not sure you've discovered. "Wyverns are not dragons. They have never been dragons and they never will be dragons." Um, okay. It's a coincidence. So why follow up with "Never suggest otherwise to a dragon, unless you want to end your life as a lump of charcoal"? What are you hiding? Oh, we're moving on? Because this is a bit of secret metaplot destined to never be resolved? Got it.

But mostly Creatures of Barsaive was okay. It had a lot of entertaining ideas. Like a species of magical rat that rides larger creatures and mind-controls them into hunting food for them (although it seemed to me that sending your host into a berserk rage and then feasting on the corpses of its slain enemies would provide entirely too much food for a single rat-sized creature.) Or magically corrupted faerie creatures than have the power to telekinetically reshape bones . . . even while they're still inside a living creature. It's an imaginative, useful book with the unfortunate tendency to waste a significant part of its wordcount building up the narrator's characterization.

Ukss Contribution: The globberog is a disgusting, cow-sized land-mollusk that secretes a powerful glue, which it uses to attach dead bodies to itself, both as a sources of sustenance and a form of protective armor. Over time, it become a huge mass of decaying corpses, so large it can no longer move. When that happens, the adult globberog gives birth to a bunch of babies who eat the corpse pile from the inside out. And the cycle begins anew.

Gross as hell, but memorably distinct, with just a ring of biological truth to it. A good fantasy roleplaying monster, in other words.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

(AD&D 2e)The Complete Spacefarer's Handbook

There's a devil on my shoulder, urging me to give in to my worst impulses and roast the hell out of AD&D. It wouldn't be entirely undeserved. I literally have the words "Fucking AD&D" written in my notes three times.  It would have been more, but by the time I got to the stronghold rules in Chapter 9, I was ready to be done with this book. (I mean, the rules themselves weren't all that bad, relatively, but "name levels" were a weird, specific campaign assumption in the core, and it's inexplicable that they've followed us into space).

I really don't want be a grump. I much prefer to focus on the positive, but when the book says of itself, "Since the AD&D game is intentionally humanocentric, there must be a counterbalance that keeps these more interesting races from dominating."

I . . . um . . .

You know that you can make the game about stuff you find interesting . . . right? And maybe if, in spite of all that, you still want to make a game about humans, you could just, you know, make humans more interesting. You don't have to sabotage the other options to make them more attractive by comparison.

That's just how AD&D could be, though. It often acted like it needed to micromanage your character choices because of the setting implications. You play an alien mage and you can only get up to level 5 because in this world high level mages make spaceships go fast and those aliens canonically don't have fast spaceships. You can't just be an unusual Giff or Xixchil or whatever. Every decision you make must be generalizable to the species as a whole. If you can be a high level wizard, then your species can have high level wizards, and that means that you have to write the setting as if high level wizard aliens were common.

It never quite clicked for AD&D (and to be fair, this is a tendency that hasn't truly been overcome in D&D as a whole until, like, 6 months ago) that you don't play as populations. Halflings as a species are weaker than humans, sure, because they're half the size, but there's no reason a PC can't be the halfling Hercules. Presumably, a player knows that halflings are small, and if they wanted that smallness to be a part of their character, they could just put their worst stat into strength. If they're insisting on being a high-strength halfling, then it's clear that they're trying to do something here, and maybe the DM may want to ask them to stop, but if they don't then what damned business is it of the book? Same thing with Giff. If a player wants a Giff bard or druid or what have you, maybe that's okay. If the players are interested in some particular race or class, maybe that's what their game can be about. If you really want a "humanocentric" setting, you can signal that by making the bulk of your NPCs human. Then, even if the party is all-alien, it's still a "humanocentric" game because it's about a group of aliens making their way in a human-dominated universe.

And I guess this entire line of questioning is churlish, seeing as how things like racial class and level limits are the easiest thing in the world to house-rule (which is exactly what I did), but the attitude infects the writing, and it never failed to make me roll my eyes. For example, nearly every alien species had a charisma maximum of 18*.

*For their own species. "A maximum Charisma score of 12 applies to all other races."

Fucking AD&D.

Now, let's put that ugliness behind us and talk about the good parts of the book. It's Dungeons and Dragons in space! And it's based off of swashbuckling pirate adventure, so you've got corsairs and missionaries and astrologers and reptilian aliens that breathe fog and can act as an emergency air supply. There are interstellar trading companies and abolitionist vigilantes who test themselves against the spider-folk and mind flayers who literally buy and sell humans as meat. A gnome can put you into suspended animation for a years-long voyage through the stars and when you land you could meet collectivist dragon-centaurs with an evangelical religion living on a disc-shaped planet. And yes, most of that sounds like gibberish, but the rules for all of it are in this book.

And I'm sorry, I know I said I wanted to get away from the negative stuff, but it tears me up inside to see a setting with such limitless fantasy potential being interpreted through a system as aggressively unambitious as AD&D 2nd edition. The tension of that paradox is obvious at several points throughout the book. For example, the Campaign Design chapter says, "The cultures of space tend to not be as good/evil oriented as groundling cultures, and alignment colors interactions less strongly in space than it does on the ground," which is a fucking lie, but also something you can tell should be true, and would be true if they just had permission to make Spelljammer its own thing instead of a bridge between default campaign worlds. (The sections on using Spelljammer in Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance . . . do not do those settings any favors).

With all due apologies for being so backhanded, I'm convinced there's a version of Spelljammer that's genuinely amazing, but this first shot isn't it. There are just too many residual AD&D-isms. However, assuming that the good Spelljammer could actually be made, it's likely that it will have significant parts of The Complete Spacefarer's Handbook in its DNA.

Ukss Contribution: One of the new kits is the Arcanist, a mage who specializes in collecting and cataloguing magic items. In true AD&D fashion, it has one of the dumbest "special hindrances" you've ever seen - they "crave" magic items and "will always use an enchanted weapon in preference to a nonmagical weapon." Like, no shit. Although to be fair, it does point out a couple of edge cases, such as a wizard finding an enchanted weapon that's legal for their class, but which they're not proficient in or being offered the chance to acquire a Ring of Protection +1 when they already have a Ring of Protection + 2. Never mind that both these cases require the DM to be something of a dick ("Oh, sorry, but Glorbo the Magnificent is proficient in daggers and this is an enchanted knife").

However, it's in the midst of describing that kit that they incidentally throw out an amazing character concept, "Imagine a necromancer looting the tombs of the Known Spheres for magic items to sell." I saw that and I was like, "guys, go back to the drawing board because that should be the whole kit." 

Such a great concept. Step 1: Summon ghost. Step 2:Interrogate said ghost about the cool shit they were buried with. Step 3: Dig up cool shit. That's definitely going to be the MO of a criminal gang on Ukss.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Arcane Mysteries of Barsaive

 This book was pretty much exactly what I was hoping for when I read Magic: A Manual of Mystic Secrets - a list of new spells and magic items for the Earthdawn universe. And I was right to want something like this, because it was pretty good.

The end.

No, I should probably do just a little bit more to justify my existence here. That's probably going to involve me nitpicking the parts of the book I didn't like, because if I focused on the parts I did like it would just be me pointing at spells and going - ooh! Seriously, these are some of my dullest notes in ages. They're mostly just a list of spells. "Billowing Cloak" - ooh! "Mist Balloon" - ooh! Sometimes, I'll mix it up, as with "Bone Pudding," where I added a "yikes!" instead (because, instead of making your cloak billow dramatically or create magical balloons to lift objects off the ground, it turned your enemies' bones into a pudding-like substance - yikes!). All-in-all, it's a pretty good spell list.

If I'm going to complain about anything, it's the fact that we are getting expanded content for the classes that need it least. It's the Tome of Magic all over again. Spellcasters got disproportionate space in the core book, and now they're getting half of a supplement too (plus the spellcaster-relevant material in the magic item section). I mean, I understand the impulse, because in a fantasy world magic spells are often critical setting material, but I feel like drawing such a clear distinction just winds up leaving a bunch of your character types out of the fun.

Although in fairness to Arcane Mysteries of Barsaive, it does remember that technically all Earthdawn characters are magic users and subsequently devotes about ten percent of its length to new Talent Knacks. However, Talent Knacks continue to be a system that feels like an afterthought. They're all generally nifty to have, but it's tough to see where they fit in an overall build strategy (though I'll admit, part of this may be my own inexperience with the system).

Earthdawn is sometimes frustrating to me, despite how much I generally like it, because it often seems like an inflection point between AD&D and Exalted. Like, if you had a gaming group that was even split between people who wanted to play AD&D and people who wanted to play Exalted, then Earthdawn would be the ideal compromise candidate. AD&D has this thing where it likes to pretend that high-level fighters and thieves are completely nonmagical and that the high-level numbers that allow them to fight dragons and shit are just the result of swording better. And Exalted has the opposite tendency where you buy your Martial Arts skill up high enough and suddenly you qualify for charms that allow you to sword the concept of time. And then Earthdawn comes along and says that the reason you sword so well is because you know magic, but that mostly what you do with your swording skill is sword with better numbers.

It's a tenuous balance. I went back to the core and did some calculating, and you can almost build a Warrior Adept who is functionally the same as an AD&D Fighter. The Melee Weapons Talent is exactly the same as a mundane Melee Weapons Skill, just with a cheaper XP cost. Same with a lot of the Discipline's other Talents - Avoid Blow, Second Attack, Cobra Strike - they could all easily fall under the category of "swording better." There are a couple of bottleneck levels where you can't get past them without picking one explicitly magical ability or another, but even then, if you're willing to tweak the aesthetics of Stone Skin to just being unusually tough, that's not much different than having 15 levels worth of hit points and being able to tank the dragon's breath.

In the other direction, it's tougher, but not impossible to make your characters more like Exalted-style anime protagonists. Warriors could also buy the Air Dance Talent at level one, allowing them to slide around the battlefield on a cushion of air. The problem is that Air Dance starts at rank 1, and takes significant investment to actually be good (and even then, its primarily utility is as an initiative booster). Contrast that with something like Graceful Crane Stance, which is a starting-level power that lets you use magic to balance on a leaf - and it just works. There's a sense I get that Earthdawn doesn't quite understand that its premise means that Adepts have permission to be awesome and weird. Why, for example, is Billowing Cloak a spell and not just something a Troubador can do?

That's, ostensibly, what Talent Knacks are for. Take the "Bounce" knack and a Warrior can use their Avoid Blow power to mitigate falling damage. Mimic Music allows a Troubador to hum so it sounds like a fiddle or a grand piano (or whatever). These are neat little binary abilities that can serve to make your Adept feel more magical. The only problem is that they're very clearly written in a way that signals they are not meant to be a part of your character's core capabilities. They all require hit points to activate! And even though this book corrects Magic: A Manual of Mystic Secrets' inexplicable decision to not allow you to develop your own knacks, it does so by charging you double xp for them. They are obviously meant to be a dip, which makes it all that much tougher to decide between the dull-but-effective options, like Armor Beater and the cool-but-weak ones like Improvised Weapons (beat someone to death with a loaf of stale bread!).

Also, the Talent Knacks are organized alphabetically, instead of by Discipline or Talent name, making them needlessly difficult to purchase. They're like Charms done poorly (and if you're not familiar with the mess of Exalted Charms at their worst, that's saying something). Does that mean that I'm going to do some sort of bizarre and hideous Earthdawn-Exalted hybrid that takes inspiration from the Charm system to make Talent Knacks more openly fantastic?

No, I just needed something to keep this post from being an obnoxious lovefest ("City in a Bottle" - ooh!), unless . . .

Ukss Contribution: One of my most arbitrary decisions yet. This entire book is just a list of neat fantasy ideas. Some are neater than others (for example, I'm not sure why Illusionists need both a "Blindness" and a "Blinding Glare"), but it's a generally strong set. I can't really pick a favorite, so I'll just go with the one that has the strongest setting implications - Council of the Forest. You cast it in the forest and it summons every significant plant spirit in a 1-mile radius. You don't control them, they'll just come to your location and debate you (well, more like "hear your petition concerning matters of importance to the forest," but the debate is pretty much inevitable).

There will probably just be one Council of the Forest in Ukss, tied to a specific location, but there will definitely be a magical ritual that lets you summon it into session.

Friday, April 16, 2021

(AD&D 1e) Two Lankhmar Modules

 The fascinating thing about the two Lankhmar adventures, Swords of the Undercity and Swords of Deceit, aside from the implication that all Lankhmar stories revolve around swords, is that they wind up telling me more about the city than the book specifically dedicated to the task. Not in terms of quantity of pure information, to be sure, but definitely in the sense that they convey the feeling of living in Lankhmar much better than the campaign book.

Probably because there aren't quite so many lists. There are some. I'm confident that I could tell you about all the furniture in the vampire Myrria's townhouse (although in an unexpected departure from the old school module format, most of the rooms have neither monsters nor treasure, making the repeated listing of furniture seem almost pointless). However, that list of rooms is actually only one small part of a more interesting story - Myrria is a Lankhmar vampire, which means she has an uncontrollable bloodlust every full moon. During one of these rampages she killed a priest of the Gods of Lankhmar (those italics are obligatory, which I think comes across as nicely sinister), and now, for the first time in years, the Night of Fear, in which the Gods of Lankhmar stalk the streets of the city, is occurring on a full moon. Myrria first shows up playing the ingenue, as part of a convoluted plan to get the PCs to fight the assassin demon for her. Then she goes into a blood rage and you kill her and take her furniture.

And that's only one of the three stories in Swords of Deceit. The others are a creepy revenge story where a noble buries his older brother alive in order to inherit the title, but the brother escapes the grave, runs away to a foreign land to study magic for 20 years, and then comes back and starts tormenting his betrayer. I feel like a more modern version of the story would be more sympathetic towards the brother instead of just portraying him as an evil wizard who must be stopped, and the end of the story relies on the PCs being unable to save the noble's life. But it's a good framework for a game. If I were running it, I'd probably stretch it out to a mini-campaign of two or three adventures and give the PCs more agency in how they want it to resolve.

The other adventure in Swords of Deceit is a sequel to what I'm assuming is the most off-the-wall of the Lankhmar books, The Swords of Lankhmar. To recap the recap, what happens is this - intelligent rats try to take over Lankhmar, the Gods of Lankhmar try to stop them, but they're defeated when the heroes manage to summon the War Cats to battle. A lot of other weird stuff happens, including the Gray Mouser drinking a shrink potion and infiltrating the rat society, but I'm going to be honest - I'm surprised to see the plot return. I figured if they were going to base an adventure around one of the Lankhmar books, they'd have chosen one that wasn't goofy as hell.

Still, the disgraced former King of the Rats is back and out for revenge. Worshiping a new and foreign Rat God, he and his fanatical followers have kidnapped Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, potentially throwing the human-rat treaty into peril. The PCs must drink Lankhmar's disgusting shrink potion (it conserves mass, leaving a puddle of organic goo behind that you must rejoin before the potion wears off) in order to visit the city of the rats, using a combination of stealth, diplomacy, and combat to rescue the canon characters. It's a wild, wild story.

Swords of the Undercity is the less ambitious of the two, though still a pretty interesting story. There's a gem that turns people into sewer mutants and the sewer mutants want it back, because it's the only way they can reproduce. It's not clear why they can't be allowed to have it, but it may be because the PCs were the ones who found it in an old temple. That's the rule in rpgs - if you dig it up, you get to sell it. Or maybe it's because they kidnap people and turn them into monsters against their will. Despite being a straightforward fantasy tale, it justifies being set in Lankhmar - a corrupt noble tries to double cross you when he learns the fake treasure map he sold you was real, the middle act is all about how fencing valuable loot is fraught in a city with a thieves' guild, the sewer mutants hire an assassin.

It's funny. After reading Lankhmar: City of Adventure, I felt like maybe the setting was overhyped. People liked the books, so they gave too much credit to a licensed rpg that was often kind of bland. However, after reading these adventures, I get it. This is the sleazy, out of control "dungeon crawl meets crime caper" sort of game that I sensed in potentia. It was real, and not just something people projected onto a sub-par book out of wishful thinking. However, by the same token, I don't think you can just use the main Lankhmar book on its own. These adventures show us a living city, suitable for PCs as wild as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser themselves. Honestly, they're my favorite AD&D modules yet, and probably the only ones besides Reverse Dungeon that I would even consider running.

Ukss Contribution: From Swords of the Undercity, the fence who double-crosses you has a lot of interesting furniture (these books are much better than earlier AD&D modules about the furniture-to-story ratio, but there's still a ton of furniture), but because his main profession is "religious extortionist" (basically, he acquires religious relics and ransoms them back to their temples), his furnishings consist of many strange and exotic wonders - like a bathtub made from the half-shell of a giant clam. It was given to him by the priests of an aquatic god and it's a simply wild bit of characterization. Somebody big and flamboyant in Ukss is going to get something similar.

In Swords of Deceit, the rat city has a location called "Cat's Cradle," named for a legendary rat leader who kept a cat as a pet. Maybe one of the intelligent rats of Ukss can also be so bold (what can I say, I love it when my NPCs live large.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Parlainth: the Forgotten City

Parlainth: the Forbidden City had just the right amount of dungeon crawling. Which is weird, because Against the Giants had entirely too much dungeon crawling, despite being a quarter the length.  Even when you factor in that Parlainth's 144 pages also included a nearby town, magic item and monster descriptions, and more complex stat blocks, you've still got nearly double the pure dungeon material.

But maybe that's something. Twice the dungeon in four times the space. Perhaps the issue is one of density. There are no room-by-room descriptions here. The ruins of Parlainth are divided into nine geographical areas and each area has a list of inhabitants, treasure, encounters and adventure hooks, but the bulk of the actual furniture is left to the GM to imagine. You could make the argument, then, that Against the Giants is more purely useful. Use that module and the main rulebooks, and within ten minutes you and a group of eight random strangers you met an a convention can be playing a D&D adventure. You don't even need to read it first. Just the first page of introduction and a quick glance at the maps and you're set. You can learn about the rooms at the same time as your players. So Parlainth is going to take longer to read than Against the Giants will to run.

I think that's largely a good thing, though. There's only one Against the Giants adventure, but assuming you used every suggestion in this book, you'd be playing more than 30 out of Parlainth. And the situation, setting, and characters provides potential for many, many more. I guess that's why it's called a "campaign set" and not a "module." Maybe I just prefer campaign sets to modules. That seems . . . likely.

But I also think it may be a 90s vs 80s thing. I went back and looked at Reverse Dungeon, because I remember liking it, and it did the room-by-room thing too, but even among the rooms, there was a lot more consideration for the social and political situation of the dungeon, and the motivations of its inhabitants. Although I also have to acknowledge that part of this may just be a generalized increase in production values and institutional expertise. I may have to check out an official 5th edition module just to see what direction adventure design has gone in 2020.

But enough about Parlainth in the abstract. What is this book all about, specifically? Well, Parlainth is a city that chose an alternate path to avoid the Horrors - instead of burying themselves underground, they decided to telelport the whole city to an alternate dimension with no physical connection to the rest of the world. Totally isolated from any potential danger, they could wait out the Scourge in peace and comfort. There are many unanswered questions here (like where are they getting air), but the most important concerns the plan's biggest and most obvious flaw - what happens if a Horror gets into the city before it disappears?

Turns out that they use their mind control powers to inflame preexisting political tensions to start a civil war that leads to the entire population being slaughtered in the first few years. After that, the Horrors find themselves trapped for a few centuries, in which they have nothing to do but knock down buildings, make big piles of shiny things, and create armies of golems and walking dead to fight for their amusement.

Fifty years before the game's canonical start date, Parlainth returned to Barsaive, through a series of convoluted adventurer-type shenanigans that were documented in one of the official tie-in novels. In those 50 years, the easy and obvious treasures were looted, a dragon moved in, and a town of would-be adventurers sprung up in the city outskirts. Nowadays, you can only strike it rich through long and complex dungeon delves, launched from a gold rush town whose richest citizen is the troll who owns the general store and where the greatest threat may well be the bands of desperadoes waiting to rob you after you've succeeded.

And really, how in the hell is Earthdawn so good at this? I kind of went into this book with a jaded attitude of "oh, sure, it's going to be another Earthdawn signature well-justified dungeon - yawn," but I was not expecting that it would also be a western. It's such a fruitful combination of genres that I'm unwilling to believe it was pioneered by a book this late in rpg history, but it's been so long since I've seen it used so explicitly that it feels refreshing, even now (seriously, it is driving me to distraction trying to remember another, earlier example of "dungeon explorers are essentially old west prospectors" - google is no help).

The book gets a lot of mileage out of its genre inspiration. There are labor unions and imperial agents and the local bar "makes a big profit on broken furniture." Tall tales are told in rowdy saloons. A shady guy takes bets on the fortunes of the golems' perpetual mock war. At one point a missionary shows up to minister to the poor, mad tunnel-dwellers (the "foul folk" - one of the book's few missteps, saying that the Horror-tainted of Barsaive are drawn towards the Palainth catacombs to become "little more than savages" - gross). It is about as western as you can possibly get without making it obvious that you're doing it on purpose.

And as a result of this, you've got a whole genre's worth of potential stories to work with. While you explore the ruins, you find a man fleeing bandits, but oops, he's actually in league with them and is trying to lure you into an ambush. Collect a bounty on the bandits who flee into the ruins to hide. Take a job from a naturalist to retrieve a rare plant.

To a certain degree, a lot of this stuff is just baked right into the colonialist assumptions of "traditional fantasy" But I can't just dismiss it as an accident, because Earthdawn, especially for its time, did a lot to consciously distance itself from the most toxic colonialist tropes. I mentioned in an earlier post about how Orks and Trolls, traditional fantasy monsters, are presented in a very humanistic way, but it's an approach that's consistent among every intelligent inhabitant of Barsaive, except perhaps the Horrors themselves (and it's important to remember that the Horrors are invaders from another universe - you never go to where they're from and wipe them out).

The Eastern Catacombs of Parlainth are home to a kingdom of cadaver men. They were created by the Horrors, and their queen may yet be engaging in dark pacts to borrow the power to maintain their numbers, but their presentation is very clear - this is their home and they're defending it against "adventurers." They're dangerous, they will reanimate your corpse to recruit you into their society, whether you like it or not, but they never really read as "evil." They mostly kill in self-defense, or at the order of their no-more-than-usually ruthless Queen. They can be approached for trade or conversation. They've got peculiar customs and preferences (for example, they're constantly trying to learn new skills to stave off or counteract the decay of their brains). Even to the extent that they have a very dysfunctional point of view (being the five-hundred-year-old survivor of a dead civilization will do that to you), they are at least given the dignity of having motives and culture.

The fucking undead. Even the falsemen (golems) get a "is this robot truly an automaton or is it conscious" plot.

Plus, on top of that, the self-regarding bullshit of the old Theran Empire is explicitly called out. "The city, like the Empire it represented, was a facade of dazzling glories covering a dark and sinister reality." I can't say with certainty that Earthdawn succeeds at creating a fantasy world that escapes the genre's implicit colonialist framing, but it has so many individual elements that appear to be trying to sidestep these issues that I can't be sure it wasn't a deliberate design goal. 

I don't know. What were the politics of rpgs like in 1994? FASA made Shadowrun, which imagined a cyberpunk world where indigenous peoples broke free from European settler societies, but they did it by being more magical than the white man . . . which I think might qualify as being progressive . . . in intent . . . for the time. So it's not out of the question that the same company made their fantasy game with a similar intent. But if that's the case, I have to wonder about the subtlety and precision of Earthdawn's apparent genre critique. If the company was really capable of that much nuance, why didn't more of it make its way back into Shadowrun?

My conclusion here is that it's a combination of things. There is an intent here, but there are also some coincidences and happy accidents, and I'm sure that I'm reading too much into certain choices out of the wishful thinking that this game I like also happened to share my personal values, and, of course, I barely know what I'm talking about in any case.

As for the book, I'd say that Parlainth: the Forgotten City is a pretty darned successful campaign set. If you want to use it, you're going to have to put the work in, but it is rich with jumping-off points and the setting is just the right combination of old-school door-kicking nonsense and new-school situational storytelling to make for some great potential games.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of good stuff here, but I liked the Screaming Fountain. Once it was the Singing Fountain, and it made beautiful music, but the Horrors corrupted it and now it runs with blood and regularly lets out shrieks to freeze the heart of even the stoutest adventurer. Maybe Ukss' version will have some kind of point to it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

(AD&D 1e) Lankhmar: City of Adventure

 This one is tricky for me, because its shortcomings are obvious and its strengths are subtle, but I have a feeling that in the end, its strengths outweigh its shortcomings.

So let's just jump straight into the worst thing about it - the fucking lists.

Lankhmar: City of Adventure likes to build its world by listing things. There's a five page list of potential NPCs drawn from the Lankhmar books, and maybe that sounds like a pretty useful thing, except that most of the entries are like:

Thief: 6th level
Social Level: 2
Alignment: Lawful Neutral

He is one of Gray Mouser's crew on the ship Flotsam. He was once a thief in Lankhmar.

Now, to be fair, I did pick one of the blander entries, but not by an exceptional amount. There are 50+ more of these. And then, in the next chapter, it lists the Guilds:

Thieves' Guild
Entrance fee & dues: 20 GR/ 5 GR(ilds: Beggars'
Apprentice: 1st social rank
Journeyman: 2nd social rank
Master: 4th social rank
Guild Officials: 6th social rank

Unquestionably one of the most powerful guilds in Lankhmar, the Thieves' Guild has had good and bad times recently. They virtually controlled the city until the dead master thieves revived the ancient worship of themselves, at the cost of some living master thieves.

No women are allowed into the Thieves' Guild. A thief must be a guild member to work in Lankhmar. Consequently, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are constantly in trouble with the guild.

I actually chose one of the more interesting fantasy guilds there, because I wanted to convey to you how much detail was given to one of the setting's signature elements and the single most anticipated antagonist for those who come in having read the source novels. So what do you think the other 30+ Guilds are like? Thank you, Lankhmar: City of Adventure, now I know that the Jewellers' Guild buys and sells jewelry. That was worth cutting two paragraphs worth of adventure-related material.

Although, again, I have to concede that most of the Guild entries do contain at least a sentence or two of pertinent world-building. However, the point stands - this is not a campaign setting that uses its page count well. I mean, look at this thing:

I kind of like the idea of these geographical worksheets, but there are 11 of them in a 96 page book. And it's not like they needed to be there. Was AD&D really expecting me to write in my book? A single generic template near the end would have served just as well.

Overall, I'd say that Lankhmar: City of Adventure really struggled with the single most difficult aspect of making a licensed rpg - curating the source material in such a way that the world could stand alone, without the source's specific plots or characters. There's not quite enough here to make a new Lankhmar story, minus Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and there's definitely not enough to create a new Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story, despite the fact that both characters are included as preconstructed PCs.

So why do I say that the book's strengths outweigh its weaknesses? Because it is abundantly clear that Lankhmar: City of Adventure is on the right track. The book opens with a bunch of summaries of the canonical Lankhmar stories, and just about every one sounds like someone's dumbass D&D campaign . . . in a good way. Like, I read a bunch of these things in a row and  my thought was "Oh, I get it - Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were the original murderhobos."

It's not hard to see the potential here. The city of Lankhmar, with its corruption, its competing factions, and its open criminality, is a place that is the perfect base of operations for a "dungeon crawls = thinly veiled home invasions" style of game. It wouldn't quite be accurate to say that it reads like a parody of D&D, because it is a throwback to one of D&D's main inspirations, and so it's more like a distillation of something highly specific that's been inside D&D from the very start.

And it's obvious that this could work well, but Lankhmar: City of Adventure, as a specific book, really needs to be less Saints Row and more Saints Row 2 (actually, I'd prefer Saints Row: the Third, but that's just the kind of game I like to run). Or, to get away from an obscure and alienating metaphor - what this book really needed was a thesis, and not just an inspiration.

For example, you may have noticed from my picture above that one of locations deemed important enough to make it onto the map was a wig shop. And that's a very strange and specific choice that should say a lot about what you want your game to be. However, it's presented in the most straightforward way possible and it becomes clear, later on, that it was included because it was a place frequented by the Gray Mouser in his canonical adventures.

That's not the way you're supposed to do it. The map entry wastes one of its three sentences telling us that "The building is five stores tall and in reasonable condition." Who the fuck cares?

Sorry, I don't mean to be nasty. Put the pieces of the puzzle together and you get a shop run by a sweet old lady that nonetheless manages to survive in a city of thieves by selling wigs, makeup, and costume pieces of high enough quality to make it into the regular toolkit of an adventurer-thief, and it's a completely ordinary thing. That's a great setting element. What the players (and consequently, the DM) need to know is what the experience of entering the shop is going to be like. What old lady knicknacks are on the counter? What shady customers are you likely to bump into when you visit? Does Laaryana know that her shop is a hub of criminal activity, or do the rough customers who buy her disguises play it cool? What's the social contract here? For the love of all that is good and pure in this hobby, the detail that "the second floor is used by a tailor [and] the others are rented out as apartments" could not be less relevant to the role this wig shop is going to play in a typical campaign.

It's hard for me to forgive how utterly workmanlike this book is. Its factual tone doesn't stop it from being camp, it just ensures that the result is bad camp. Someone point me to a version of this setting that knows what it's about.

Although, if we're going to not forgive this book for anything, it really should be for how unreflectively sexist it is. I hate to bring it up, because I actually have a lot of goodwill towards the book, despite my grousing, but it is not something that's in line with contemporary sensibilities. I go back and forth on whether it's even plausibly deniable enough that you could willfully ignore the sexist elements.

I think . . . probably. Certainly, there are White Wolf books that are worse. Most of Lankhmar: City of Adventure's worst offenses are merely careless. Like above, where it just casually mentions that the Thieves' Guild doesn't accept women. And I get that this is something it inherited from the source material, where it's a significant plot point, resulting in Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser teaming up with several different lady thieves in the course of their rivalry with the Guild, but the book doesn't even consider that this might be a burden for female players. I'm not sure it even entertained the idea that women might want to partake in Lankhmar adventures.

I went back to check the NPC section, and it does not do the thing where it gratuitously lists every female character's Charisma stat. I only thought it did, because it does it half the time. It also contains this doozy of a detail: "[Eesafem] was insane for a brief time until magically transported to Lankhmar where an early morning seduction by the Gray Mouser returned her mind."

What the everliving fuck?

Lankhmar: City of Adventure mostly made me yearn for a more self-aware, contemporary take on the source material. I can understand how it blew some minds in 1985, but from my perspective, we've got 35 years worth of proof that it's possible to do better.

Ukss Contribution: Man, that part where Gray Mouser cures a broken lady brain with his dick makes this a hard one to include in Ukss, but my opinion is that it's more ignorant than malicious. Its worst offenses are unfortunate old tropes. 

Anyway, the choice here is Cash Street. Lankhmar in general has these on-the-nose street names that really do deserve to be in a more anarchic book ("Atheist Avenue," "Cheap Street," "Cutthroat Alley"), but Cash Street is the most iconic and versatile. Just a total fuck-you to any pretense that you're playing a civilized game of heroic adventurers. It even makes me forgive the existence of Pimp Street, if only because I imagine that Lankhmar's gangster rap writes itself ("If you want to find me, check the corner of Pimp and Cash" - an actual Lankhmar address).

Friday, April 2, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Legends of Earthdawn, Volume 1

 This was such a cute book! I'm not sure "cute" was what they were going for, but I've pondered my word choice and I'm sticking with it.

So why "cute" and not "fascinating" or "ambitious" or any of the other usual fantasy fiction words? It's a gut feeling, but I think it's because the individual legends are so short - 30 crammed into 60 pages, often with full-page art. Because of their short length, the stories tend to end on a punchline. Like "The King Who Ruled The Passions" - a myth about a king who persecuted the Questors (priests) until the Passions (gods) themselves came down and submitted to his rule. Only they were too effective at their specialized jobs, so the Passion of Justice ran a court system that was so fair it bankrupted the kingdom and the Passion of Nature grew a garden that swallowed the king's castle, and so on. It ended with:

Passions rule Nam-givers, not the reverse;
This truth refus'd invites Vestrial's curse.

Oh, yeah, this particular legend was a poem, but more relevant is that it was a fable. It wrapped up with a tidy little moral. A lot of the legends were like that. Sometimes the moral was "if you run into a Horror, you'll die," but the point is that most were vaguely instructive, teaching us about the values and beliefs of the people of Barsaive.

So in addition to being cute, it was also a pretty good setting book. It's also interesting as an rpg supplement, because it accompanies the 30 legends with a similar number of adventure ideas, monsters, or magic items. That's not something I think I've seen before. Usually, an adventure is an adventure, and span the course of the whole book. Sometimes, there will be more than one, but they'll be linked by a theme or a location or be a series that shares the same overarching plot. This "here's 30 things about our setting, and they're accompanying adventure pitches" thing might actually be a more fruitful approach, depending on how much work you're willing to do as a GM. Certainly, using this book's plots requires a lot more preparation than running Against the Giants.

However, I think I prefer it. Legends of Earthdawn is a book that is dense with value, both as a setting guide and a GM resource. And I'm kind of embarrassed that I don't have more to say about it. It was a fast read, and entertaining, but aside from breaking down the stories one by one (I especially liked the one that demonstrated the death curse mechanic), there's not a lot for me to say. I guess, now that I've started dipping my toe into the fiction anthology game (Tales of Clickbait: Volume 1, coming soon!), I have a greater appreciation for the book's firm editorial direction. Despite 10 credited authors and the occasional bout of poetry, everything in this book feels like Earthdawn - humanist, mostly-vanilla fantasy with attention to detail and the occasional dip into horror - which is pretty impressive, given how specific that is.

Ovearll, I'd call this book a success. It's stacked a lot towards flavor, and is probably closer to gaming fiction than a lot of people would prefer, but it doesn't forget that its fiction is meant to be used, and what can I say, I'm a sucker for world-building.

Ukss Contribution: There's a story here about a greedy man who falls under the sway of a Horror and kills his whole village in order to steal its horde of silver. He is thwarted by the village's last survivor and sealed in with monster and the treasure he so recklessly lusted after, but one single coin rolled out of the vault as the door shut for the final time - a silver coin that bled whenever it was held by one who had made a bargain with the Horrors.

The actual game mechanics of this proved a bit weaker than the story implied, presumably because no responsible GM is going to hand the PCs a skeleton key to many of the setting's most important mysteries, but I like the fictional version. It felt very mythological to me, and I am far from a responsible GM.