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.

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