Friday, May 28, 2021

ARC Quickstart

 Where to get it: Dedicated website

I know the whole purpose of a Quickstart is to act as a preview for a full rpg, but it nonetheless irritated me to see gaps in the text that more or less said "for the full details about this thing, consult the main text." I feel like I could, at least, have been trusted with the cooperation rules. I guess I'll just have to back the upcoming kickstarter.

And maybe it seems overly combative to set the tone of the post with a complaint, but honestly, it's my only complaint - this Quickstart is only useful for a relatively simple game and if I want to do more than that I need the full product. Which suggests that maybe I don't quite understand the point of Quickstarts after all.

However, with the caveat that I'm going to keep perversely thinking of this as a complete game, despite the text's admonishment that I don't do that, how does it stack up?

I kind of like it.

It does that rules-light thing where the only real mechanic for task resolution is a die roll that points to an outcome matrix, leaving it up to you to decide the difference between a "success" vs "a success with consequence" or "failure" vs "failure with opportunity." And that's really all you need, despite the literally dozens of thick corebooks I own that say otherwise.

I do like that its stripped down roll-under system uses Approaches rather than Attributes (traits range from 1-3 and you add together your Approach rating and your Skill rating to roll under on a d6, task difficulty can modify the final target number). Characters can specialize in being Creative, Careful, or Concerted, though it's unclear to me how penalized over-specialization is supposed to be. The GM can, for example, call for a Creative roll if a character is trying to write a poem, but most of the time, the players choose their approach and narrate appropriately.

It's a neat way to get players thinking about how their characters interact with the world, but so far, it's pretty standard "19-page rules light-internet rpg" stuff. ARC's real innovation, and the reason you might actually be tempted to back the kickstarter, is its use of real-time as a mechanic. 

Tying your short and long rests to actual, real-world breaks in the game strikes me as impractical. Rests are used to heal up and resupply your characters and seem to me as likely to come when your players are deeply invested in advancing the story as when they need to take five for snacks and the bathroom.

However, the other use of real-time, the one at the core of the game, makes up for this by being positively brilliant. Basically, ARC games have a theme - it's not just a generic rules-light rpg, it's a rules-light rpg specifically about the coming apocalypse.  There's a mechanic called "the Doomsday Counter" which has between 6-12 slots, and when all the slots are filled, the world ends. The way it fills up is that every so often, you make a roll based on the number of currently unresolved Omens (sidequests, basically) and add 1 or more marks based on the result of the roll. The great part of this mechanic is that for short (one-shot) and medium-length (2-3 session) games, this roll happens after a set period of real time. It's been a half-hour and you still haven't defeated that cult? Add an extra die to the roll so see if Cthulhu awakens.

I wouldn't actually recommend using the rules for long (4+ sessions) games, because that changes the Doomsday roll to a per-session event, which just seems to me to bypass the best part of the game - the chaotic scramble as you get close to the deadline and realize that there's been entirely too much fucking around.

It strikes me for the first time that maybe the real-time rest rules are meant to wind down the tension. If the Doomsday clock stops during rests, then that would be a much-needed break for the players. However, the text does not make this clear.

The last thing to note is that this Quickstart has some slick production values. It is easy on the eyes, though I'm not sure why they went with the landscape format. The illustration of the Noblin, a cute, spear-wielding bunny person, made me smile.

I can't say whether I'll back the kickstarter or not, but that's most because I just recently spent entirely too much money on old Dark Sun supplements (I finally accepted that the Tr-Kreen book was never coming down in price). Still, assuming that the full core expands the rules in some fruitful directions, I could see ARC becoming a "between campaigns" staple.

Ukss Contribution: Not a lot of setting here, probably because ARC wants to be a setting-agnostic apocalypse game, but I did like the example pitch of "world-ending earthquake brought by a goddess' approaching death." I think I could work that into one Ukss' less -developed regions (I've been looking for plots for the Dragontail Mountains for awhile now - phytomining wasn't cutting it.)

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Trinity Continuum: Aberrant (2nd edition)

 Ah, a new edition of one of my favorite games, using a rule system I'd previously praised. This is sure to be a light and easy post, full of nothing but positivity. Let me just consult my notes . . .

Sixteen pages? Good grief.

No, I kid. My overall impression is actually very positive. Most of my notes are of the genre "notice a difference from 1st edition and speculate about whether it's significant." The Fireman's first act is now saving an apartment building instead of saving a schoolbus - probably doesn't mean anything. The Fireman is now declining an offer to run for US President - probably indicative of a change in the game's focus and themes. Plus, "America has had enough of 'celebrity politicians'" is an obvious, if extremely mild, rebuke of Trump.

It's actually a pretty weird line, because it implies that the Trump presidency is canon in the Aberrant universe, but it sort of glosses over it. I might accuse it of being overly timorous, possibly speculating that Onyx Path didn't want to alienate its Trumpist customers, but that doesn't seem likely. The USA's characterized as struggling to recover from a major loss in international credibility (another obvious Trump reference) and I doubt very much that a book meant to placate the American right wing would have quite so many nonbinary characters.

No, the likeliest explanation is that Trump is not mentioned by name because he has a way of sucking all the oxygen out of the room and completely derailing otherwise productive conversations (point of evidence - consider how extremely entertained you've been so far by this line of inquiry), and they probably didn't want the distraction.

It does, however, have the incidental effect of giving Randel Portman some strange characterization. He is, apparently, almost self-destructively tactful. Oh, can you imagine the field day Fox News would have with that "celebrity politician" line. A well-regarded public figure who had somehow managed to maintain popularity with both sides of the political divide comes out with a statement that is less than worshipful of Donald Trump. The right wing press would chew that bone for years. And it doesn't even earn him points on the left, because it's clearly a bit of calculated diplomacy towards the American fascist movement. Just the worst of both worlds all around. Never mind being president, take away this man's Twitter account before he gets himself in serious trouble.

Anyway, that's one sentence down, only 296.9 pages left to go. Except that digression wasn't just whimsical nitpicking on my part, it's actually related to something broader I noticed about this book that might be worthy of comment - this text was written in 2018 and it shows. I once wrote, of some White Wolf book or another, that there was no way they could know in the 90s that one day sincerity would seem radical. And now I'm looking back at both Onyx Path and my younger self to say that there was no way we could have known in 2018 that this would only last for, like, two years, tops.

We now know that our current institutions are extremely ill-suited to deal with a global crisis. There's a delay of three months between the first appearance of novas (superhumans) and the UN passing the Zurich Accords, a resolution recognizing their human rights. It took the real world longer than that to agree that people dying of a virus was bad (someone let me know when the clock runs out on that one, by the way).

Which is to say that the old White Wolf would have absolutely had a (vaguely leftist but highly problematic) blast at the chance to write "President Donald Trump vs the Mexican superheroes," but Onyx Path went another way with it.

And make no mistake, Trinity Continuum: Aberrant is a good game, and its less-cynical take on the setting has its merits, but it's one of those things that was destined to feel like a period piece almost as soon as it was written. An example would be the Aberrants.

There was a group with that name in 1st edition, and I probably do need to say something about the strange fate of its signature characters (Corbin and Sophia Rousseau work with Utopia's covert operations now, which is an odd reversal from their 1e versions, who had a principled commitment to exposing Utopia's covert operations), but the 1e Aberrants don't actually have anything to do with the 2e Aberrants, aside from sharing a name.

In second edition, the Aberrants are now the radical arm of the Teragen, and they embody all the same uncomfortable contradictions as their parent organization, but more EXTREME. There's a sidebar in the systems chapter that is not specifically about them, but which sums it up pretty well, "Here's the problem with using superheroes to represent marginalized people . . . Superpowers - key word 'power' - represent agency that systems of oppression actively exclude marginalized people from."

So the Aberrants are a group that sometimes takes radical direct action in defense of nova rights - when the mayor of Tampa bans Teragen members from the city (an event that also happened in 1e, though 2e makes the curious choice of softening his position from "no novas, period" to "no novas with a specific political association that we have no way of verifying"), Geryon assassinates him. But they're also a group that terrorizes baselines (unpowered humans) for no discernible reason - "Members of the Aberrant faction attack downtown Los Angeles, killing hundreds. It's unclear what the motive was for the attack . . ."

I think this is just a common trope in superhero media, villain groups that ride that ambiguity. They kind of have a point, but their methods and ideology are so extreme that they have to be stopped. And while this is something that often draws criticism from the left - Killmonger did nothing wrong and all that - in this case (and probably X-Men) it's probably less an attempt to discredit revolutionary politics and more a natural consequence of trying to navigate an awkward truth of the superhero genre - they are both a vulnerable minority, too small to politically resist any degrading conditions imposed by humanity's overwhelming numbers, and an aristocratic minority, whose small numbers only serve to highlight the extreme inequity of their massive power.

It's therefor pretty natural that the Aberrants, as a "nova rights" group would occupy the unnavigable no-man's-land between "black power" and "white power." I just feel like, if the text were written today, Onyx Path might have felt more pressure to pick a lane.

And in something completely unrelated, but which I'm going to bring up now while I'm still riled up - why the hell is Saxon still a canon character? Just casually mentioned in the Team Tomorrow Europe write-up as another member of the group.

So, in second edition, Slider is still alive because "While the Proteus modus operandi includes sabotage, theft, violence, manipulation, and the destruction of a career or two, assassination is not on the menu." And the sterilization conspiracy is no more, not even as an alternate campaign model. And Cestus Pax is now Sam Williams, driven to distraction by his awesome sense of responsibility, instead of Shelby Eisenfaust, prickly asshole who's obsessed with his own image. And all this is in service to a vision of the setting that wears its unironic love of the superhero genre on its sleeve. Aberrant, second edition could be Superfriends, and so it had to dial back on the parts of the setting that were clearly White Wolf doing awful for the sake of awful. Fair enough.

But then they bring back fucking Saxon as a canon character. Covering up his crimes is arguably the worst thing Proteus ever did (and yes, I'm aware I'm saying this about an organization that secretly sterilized people) and he's just chilling here, as if he wasn't a complete piece of shit.

Although it's entirely possible that, like Cestus Pax, the 2e version Saxon is meant to be a completely different character than the 1e version. It seems unlikely to me that a game as optimistic and inclusive as Aberrant 2e is going to want a character who CONTENT WARNING killed several women by using his giant growth power mid-coitus. I'd be very surprised if that was still canon, even as a potential villain plot. But if that wasn't the intention, why keep him around? Nerds like me are going to freak the fuck out and the name isn't going to mean anything at all to anyone else. What is to be gained? It's not as if "generic heavy named after a northern European tribe" is such a dynamite pitch that you'd be negligent for not attempting to redeem it. It's just a mysterious decision all around.

Also mysterious - the noticeable lack of Mefistofaleez. Surely, if Julian Waters, Utopia's head accountant, can get a name drop . . .

Nah, that way lies madness. I don't want to start nitpicking every editorial decision here. Where's Sloppy Joe? Why is Caroline Fong still walking out and about? Who has the streaming rights to Hardballs? All questions that could potentially have significant answers that reveal insights into 2e's design philosophy, but which more likely are of interest only to fans of 1e who also happen to have no proper sense of perspective.

So my guy Mefistofaleez could just be waiting in the wings for another product. Or he could have been quietly removed for the sensible reason that a lot of what he did was pander to Black stereotypes. 

However, I suspect that the main reason Mefistofaleez went from major spotlight character to complete non-entity is a shift in the game's overall focus. He's kind of a ridiculous character (that's what's great about him) whose niche was to help illustrate the game's media satire - i.e. "a character this ridiculous exists because novas are celebrities and some celebrities are ridiculous." In the more sincerely superheroic milieu of 2nd edition, he doesn't fit in. He's too crude to be a hero and too silly to be a villain, but he's exactly in the sweet spot to be an influencer and 2e so far hasn't made a lot of room for that sort of character.

There's some. Slider (the charismatic teleporter whose shocking murder by Proteus drove so much of 1e's metaplot) is alive and she's a total influencer. She uses her teleportation abilities to make a series of low-effort travel videos and is quite believably popular. And some local superheroes are crowdfunded, which implies a social media infrastructure, but it's not as upfront as a theme as the tabloid stuff was in 1st edition (though "celebrity" is one of the game's suggested subgenres).

I once made the snarky comment that Aberrant's greatest asset was that "White Wolf was clearly under the mistaken impression that they were too cool to write a superhero game." When 1st edition was running on all cylinders, that attitude gave it just the right amount of jaded distance to establish a unique voice - superheroes as pro wrestlers, superheroes as gossip fodder, superheroes as amoral mercenaries (keep in mind, I don't think Aberrant would have been better if WW was correct about being too cool for superheroes). It just came with a big downside when they went too far - the superhero who was a perfectly ordinary office worker who teleported to avoid traffic, whatever fucked-up decision making process led to green-lighting Saxon's plot in Teragen.

Second edition avoids the worst of 1e's excesses, and is probably the better for it (assuming the Saxon thing is no longer canon), but I will confess to missing at least some of the bitter notes that came with it. The N! cable network has been replaced by N!Sight, the social media portal/streaming service by novas for novas - a fair update, but there's no exploration of the effect of superhumans on post-truth politics (and, more frighteningly, vice versa). Some city defenders are crowdfunded, and OMG, your setting needs to parodically cover the nova hustle culture and superhero gig economy. That feels like classic Aberrant to me.

Hey, if anyone from Onyx Path is reading this, here's a product pitch for you - Aberrant: 24/7 - "People think that when you're a nova, the world just lines up to give you fame, fortune, and respect. What they don't see is the work that makes it happen, the pressure to always be 'on,' even when you're not getting paid. You want to be a superhero? It's not just about busting bad guys and saving civilians, it's about living the lifestyle. All day. Every day. Even when it eats you up inside.

Narrated by Mefistofaleez, Slider's dark reflection and only true rival for number 1 social media clout."

Although, again, I do want to be clear that you should not interpret my grognardish longing for "the way they used to do it" as saying "it sucks now." Trinity Continuum: Aberrant is a decent superhero settings with a lot of individual strengths. It's even better than 1st edition at being a global superhero setting, and even directly addresses the elephant in the room re: Utopia's programs and philanthropic colonialism. And I would say that it is as good as any other superhero setting out there at creating memorable, distinctive characters that are not obvious clones of someone from the big two. Homelander is clearly Superman, but Cestus Pax isn't. And the Trinity Continuum's overall historical arc continues to be fascinating. I think it's up to individual tastes whether it's a strength or a weakness that it's all wrapped up in a package that feels like it could seamlessly cross over with the MCU.

There's plenty more I could say about the setting (like how in the hell does Maxwell Mercer have a granddaughter - wouldn't that imply that he's had sex at least once, pretty unlikely from where I'm sitting), but we're past 2000 words and I still haven't talked about the system.

It's better than 1st edition's by a huge margin, but that's not saying a lot. I don't think it quite has a handle on the upper ends of the power range, especially with regards to the scale system. It's possible for a starting character to get access to Scale 10 strength effects like moving a planet out of orbit or punching so hard you rip the fabric of space and time. It's not even that hard. It's actually a pretty obvious build (64xp for Quantum 5 + 60xp for Mega Strength 5 + 12xp for Mega-Lifting + 12 xp for Mega-Crush = 148xp out of a total of 150). It's better than Wild Talents, which allows starting characters to obliterate all matter and energy in the visible universe, but in a way it's worse because you still might stumble on this nonsense accidentally (it doesn't take a total power-gamer to come up with the character concept "me strong").

My suggested errata - Mega Crush gives you +1 scale for attacks, maximum. Mega Lift doubles your lifting capacity, relative to your scale, so that the scale 5 character is as strong as two wrecking balls, instead of an earthquake.

I think this is merely the result of a well-intentioned attempt to simplify the math, but simpler math doesn't count for much if you're not clear about what the numbers are supposed to mean. Mega-Strength 7 allows you to move major land-masses. Quantum Agent with the 7x Horde tag allows you to summon 250 disposable mooks with a dicepool of 2, both require Quantum 7, but that version of Quantum Agent costs 12 more xp.

Although, to be fair, if you ignored the Horde tag and just went with a single agent, you could summon a champion with Mega-Strength 7 at the same xp cost as getting Mega-Strength 7 yourself, with room to later buy the Horde tag, so that at the cost of two maxed-out Mega-Attributes you could summon up to 250 MS-7 brawlers . . . which is properly frightening. 

Although to be even more fair, it's distressing that there's this much potential for char-op, even from a cursory read of the text. It's probably unavoidable in an effects-based system.

Speaking of which, Techniques are weird. Techniques are a mega-edge that allows you to buy new powers at an extreme discount, provided you tie them to one of your existing powers. So, for example, if you have Quantum Anima (basically telekinesis) at level 5, that costs you 60xp. Then you can spend 12 xp to buy a Technique for Quantum Anima and that can be any power with an xp cost of 60 or less. So now you have, say Flight 5 and Quantum Anima 5 for a total of 72xp instead of 120xp. 

I don't hate it as a mechanic, but it's a weird bit of system mastery because it's tucked into the Mega-Edge section, where you might gloss over it, instead of just being rolled into the way you normally buy powers, like it should be. It's also unclear what happens when you spend xp to improve the base power. And the Technique Mega-Edge is limited to 5 ranks (although you can buy it separately for each of your base powers), so I'm not sure what happens when, say, Storm discovers a sixth thing she can do with weather manipulation.

I think if you avoid stress-testing the extremes, Trinity Continuum: Aberrant's system works as well as any other supers system I've encountered, and even its faults are hardly unique. It's easy to get degenerate builds in Mutants and Masterminds too. The main reason to pick it over any other is its rational way of approaching scale (even if scale shifts of more than 2 ranks or so wind up completely derailing your character), and the fact that you can easily incorporate Talents from the Trinity Continuum core.

Overall, I'd say that this book is definitely pretty good. It's a decent system and a decent setting, and as an introduction to the Aberrant world, it's clean, clear, and friendly. My only real caveat is for old, returning fans like me - this is a book that speaks best in the new Trinity Continuum voice and less well in the old Aberrant voice we came to both love and fear.

Ukss Contribution: I liked Violet "Tank" Chao - an invulnerable pacifist who uses her probability manipulation powers to minimize the collateral damage that comes with high-powered super fights. Just a neat idea.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Horrors

 The "monster-book, but told from an in-character perspective" gimmick from Creatures of Barsaive is back, but it works better here, and I think the reason is a matter of genre. Horrors is, unsurprisingly, a horror-fantasy book and thus when it talks about its titular monsters, there is something furtive and uncertain about it. Like maybe we simply shouldn't be talking about the mysterious spiritual orb that erupts its unblinking eyes into the physical world. Maybe talking about it draws its attention. Maybe most of the people who would be in a position to talk about it are dead, and the only clue we have to what killed them is a fragmented diary that gradually descends into incoherent ranting about how the author is constantly being watched

And then it cuts off, and we're left to fill in the blanks.

Horrors is a tricky book because it's actually a lot of fun, but it may be too difficult to use. The bulk of the pagecount is devoted to 15 named Horrors, each of which has its own iconic horror plot, from Giftbringer, who plays elaborate mindgames meant to foster deadly paranoia and jealousy, to Ubyr, who's just a big fucking worm that will smash your town. Any one of the entries here could serve as the central premise of a campaign. However, you kind of need to use them that way, because they are also so powerful that if you just toss them at PCs like a regular monster encounter, you will most likely kill them dead.

And I suppose there's nothing wrong with that as a premise for a supplement. Probably better than the regular practice of trying to cover the whole gamut of character power in every monster book. These are the guys who forced the whole world to cower in underground bunkers for the bulk of the last 500 years, and they are beefy enough to make that reaction justified. . . at least, according to the introduction (oh, sorry "Game Information" section), which inexplicably comes at the end of the book. Yes, tell us the design assumptions and optimal use case of the book on page 106 out of 110, that's not weird at all.

Actually, I think that's just FASA's house-style. I recall a lot of Shadowrun books that were the same way - front-load the exciting fiction elements, and then have a thin bit of rpg-crunch to try and make the fiction into a game. It makes for entertaining books, granted, but I'm not sure about the wisdom of explaining the format of a stat block after I've already read 15 stat blocks. My recommendation here is to simply read the book out of order. Game Info first, then the Horror entries.

Overall, this book is a keeper. It's a bit end-game to be immediately useful to any given game, but with a little bit of adaptation, you could use its various entities as arc villains for Earthdawn games that emphasized the setting's horror-genre elements. Start the PCs off slow, facing minions and constructs, and only gradually move them towards one of the big Named Horrors. Or just start a high-level campaign and have them brawl directly with Verjigorm, the Great Hunter of dragons, who is so powerful that he features prominently in a draconic creation myth. It would be interesting to see if the system could handle it.

Since this was a short post, I'm now going to talk about some odds and ends from my notes.

The first story featured something that hearkened back to the very first book I read for the blog, D&D Basic. Back then, I thought it was odd that adventurers were having their bodies and possessions delivered to their surviving relatives (less the "death tax"), but here it's a major plot point. The narrator eventually wanders down the exact same road as his deceased adventurer brother and it's so on the nose that I can't help feel like this is based on an actual game ("my character died, but his brother with identical stats is ready to carry on his legacy.")

The entry for Druistadt has the narrator repeat a story they heard second-hand, putting a framing device inside their framing device. Two layers deep is pushing it, guys.

Ristul is a Horror who represents the torment of eternal corruption, and is almost entirely an abstract concept. So much so that the bulk of its stats (including its hit points) are "NA." Immediately following that was Taint, the Horror without a physical body that twisted magic (but which had stats and could be fought on the astral plane). Either of those Horrors would have been fine on their own (though does Earthdawn really want to be the sort of game that has villainous abstract concepts), but being so close together did neither of them any favors. The book really needed to settle on a mechanic for its non-physical enemies.

 Gnashers are mindless Horror minions that just eat everything around them. Their entry says players can fight them "guilt-free," which suggest to me that the problem of "always evil" races was a conscious concern. The intelligent undead community in Parlainth probably wasn't a fluke.

Finally, the Flydrop Coat is one of the most evocative cursed items I've seen so far. It gradually turns you into a spider monster, but it starts off just being a useful magic item that kills pests, until about a week in when "the thought enters the wearer's mind that the flies killed by the coat probably taste good." Gross, but in an awesome way.

Ukss Contribution: I had a lot of choices here. Most of this book is filled with cool stuff. The Flydrop Coat almost made it. As did the Giftbringer, whose initial description made me think "hot, young Santa" or Tempter, the psychic Horror in the form of a seed. However the final choice goes to the Dread Iota. They're a microscopic species of Horror minions. They look like tiny humanoids and they infect people like a disease.

Literally. You get what you think is a wasting disease and then some sage looks at your tissues under a microscope and sees that there's these scaly little people dancing around your cells, wrecking shit. Eventually, they master high ritual magic and use necromancy to control your body (alive or dead, it doesn't matter), until they trick or coerce you into passing on some infected food or water to another victim.

I figure Ukss' disease-people will probably be less nakedly demonic, and merely be a threat because they treat their home with the same respect and care that humans treat ours, but I do like the idea of getting sick because a miniature society is homesteading your body.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

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

 I was worried about this one. After Arabian Adventures, I feared that anything born of the Al-Qadim setting would have all the same faults. But from my, admittedly almost entirely ignorant, viewpoint, The Complete Sha'ir's Handbook looks . . . kind of okay.

Don't take that as a final judgement. I suspect that a part of this is simply that I no longer have someone else's notes to crib from. However, if you're willing to accept that I'm attempting to apply what I learned from the Asians Represent livestream, then this book is not entirely blameless, but also manages to avoid the worst of its progenitor's excesses. 

I think it's because of the subject matter. Zakhara is a fantasy setting that's ostensibly based off a real place, and thus when you talk about it in general, you're in some sense talking about a reflection of real Arabs. Any stereotypes you have floating around in your head wind up making their way in. Whereas this book talks about the most explicitly fantastical people in the setting, so there's no temptation to try and make them "realistic."  You're not getting anything like "oh, that's not how the historical genie summoners did things."

So there's some mentions of "honor" and some mentions of "station," and one really bad sentence that I'm sure was only as bad as it was because the author didn't know the definition of the word "concubine," but largely this is a book that's more concerned about astrological conjunctions, cunningly crafted sword-wielding crab robots, and the politics of the genie realm. It's mostly too busy to be racist.

I think. This is a tricky question. Orientalism, as a form of racism, is all about othering people, treating them as "mysterious" and "exotic." For a regular person, this is demeaning. But wizards are supposed to be mysterious and exotic. It's practically part of the job description. At the very least, they're weird people with weird interests who are constantly on the lookout for weird things like eye of newt or the severed hand of a condemned man. Their methods and habits are supposed to clash with your everyday common sense, because what they do is magic. If there was a clear, explicable connection between cause and effect, anyone could do it.

And it's this willingness to make mages strange that makes this book and The Complete Necromancer's Handbook the only two objectively good magic books I've read for AD&D so far.  The Complete Wizard's Handbook seemed determined to make them ordinary trades-people (half the kits were simply reskins from the Complete Fighter's Handbook, for crying out loud), about as mysterious as your local blacksmith.

It's actually kind of instructive to look back at TCWH's Wu Jen Kit to demonstrate why I think this book here avoids the worst case scenario. The Wu Jen were 1990 AD&D's attempt at an "oriental" wizard, and it was racist as hell. The existed to "add a touch of oriental intrigue and exotic culture to a western-based party" and their special hindrance was ritual behavior that "may seem trivial or even ridiculous to other characters." 

That was the wrong way to do it. The Wu Jen are only mysterious as a function of where they're from. They're the stoic, inscrutable Asian man - "It is unlikely that the Wu Jen shares the party's goals or moral code; if he agrees to join the party, it is probably due to his intellectual curiosity." Sure, because no Asian person was ever motivated by gold, glory, and adventure. And their "strange taboos" are so hard to understand, as if a regular "western" wizard isn't carrying a bag of bat shit around with them in case they need to light something on fire.

The Complete Sha''ir's Handbook doesn't do that. There's one use of the word "exotic" on the back cover, and I think it shows up once in the first chapter, but even though it introduces a half-dozen unique mystical practices, the main reason for its characters to do something strange is because they know something regular people don't.

This is a book that very clearly takes inspiration from the golden age of Islam. Things we learn about Zakhara in this book - "The people of Zakhara have a relatively sophisticated system of numbers, including a mathematical system that is second to none," their astronomical knowledge is similarly advanced, and a few of their more daring mages have begun experimenting with steam engines. That's why they have access to the Digitologist, the Astrologer, and the Mechanician kits. 

It's kind of a shame that the mechanics are as half-baked as they are, because there's a lot of fantasy potential here. You've got things like the kit that weaves spells into magical pieces of cloth or the ghul lords whose spells are accompanied by spooky special effects (ghostly lights, sinister whispering, temporarily adopting a skeletal visage, etc). This is what magic users should have been the whole time - people with highly specific, highly flavorful magical abilities that fill a distinct niche. In fact, the biggest flaw with most of the kits in this book is that they're "Wizards."

There's always been a somewhat nebulous boundary between a Kit and a Class. Kits modify classes, adding a special bonus in exchange for a special hindrance. However, the limits on what counts as a "special bonus" are never defined. So, in theory, you could have a "special bonus" that was an elaborate new game mechanic or level-by-level menu of special abilities, and a "special hindrance" that amounted to losing your base class' signature ability, and that would be a Kit, despite being a new class in all but name. 

Which is largely what's going on in this book. The Ghul Lords don't cast spells so much as use "manipulations" of negative energy to attack, defend, or travel. Their magic is fueled by their own life energy and while they can mimic certain effects, it's always tainted by their dread power. The Mechanicians build robots, and these robots can use spell-like effects based on which wizard spells the Mechanician knows, but the character themselves can't cast spells.

And the Spellslayers . . . well, they're an example of TSR almost accidentally discovering good class design. They don't cast spells at all, but they do gain thematically appropriate spell-like abilities at every level that are narrowly tailored to allow them to fulfill a gameplay niche (anti-wizard assassin) and they really should have been a Warrior or Rogue subclass.

I guess what I'm saying is that the magic in The Complete Sha'ir's Handbook is very clearly being different for the sake of being different, but the sense I got was more one of exploration than of attempting to make their setting seem strange and foreign.

Or maybe that's wishful thinking on my part. Because I really do think this book is doing what wizard books in general should be doing, and I'm not sure if that's a coincidence or not. Like, maybe the whole thing is Orientalist in its very conception. There's this exotic foreign land and your mandate is to make it as unrecognizable as possible in order to sell the foreignness and exoticism, and in the process you accidentally invent High Islamic Steampunk.

Or maybe I'm being paranoid here, and the real explanation is that someone was given an assignment and they knocked it out of the fucking park. "The Book of Ingenious Devices was cool as shit, let's make a class out of that."

It's probably some combination of both. Let's talk about secret societies.

This is another one of the book's ambiguities. Wizards and secret societies just go together. If we were talking about Mage: the Awakening, we wouldn't even be having this conversation right now. However, one of the secret societies introduced in this book is called "The Viziers," and their whole deal is that they are an all-female order who are "masters of seduction, interrogation, and intelligence, often able to gain information from targets who will never know they let their secrets slide."

That feels like a trope to me. The art that accompanied this group made me kind of uncomfortable too:

There's a difference between using medieval Arabia as the jumping off point for designing a new fantasy world and in basing your fantasy world off the "Hollywood Arabia" genre. The Complete Sha'ir's Handbook walks it a bit better than Arabian Adventures, but it's far from perfect, and honestly, I could not tell you precisely where it crosses over, but the art in general, and that picture in particular, are definitely on the wrong side of it.

Overall, I can't tell you exactly where I land on this one. I'm never going to play AD&D again, so I could just virtuously foreswear the book and that would be easy good-boy points with no downside for me. However, if I'm being honest, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. There are ideas here that I would love to see fleshed out in better games. More genie politics! More crab-bots! More spooky semi-undead wizards! And so my relationship to this book must remain complicated. 

Ukss Contribution: It has its inappropriate moments, but it's not by a longshot the worst book I've read (hell, it's not even all that comparable to the other Al-Qadim book I've read). So I will go with an Ukss contribution this time, and there's only one thing it could possibly be - crab bot!


I mean, look at him. He's got a sword.

Monday, May 17, 2021

I did a thing

 Although maybe the "I" in that title is doing a bit of heavy lifting here. I was just the capitalist, the authors did most of the work. Still, I was involved in a small, but critical way. I had money, and now I don't, so I need strangers on the internet to give me money until I get my money back (and maybe for a little bit afterwards . . . if they're feeling generous).

For what, you may ask, as if your mind didn't immediately leap to the short, cryptic post I made back in March? It's Tales of Clickbait. It's real. It happened. And now you can own it.

A science fiction and fantasy anthology, released under the Creative Commons so that people can write all the sequels, spinoffs, and adaptations their little hearts desire. Or they could just enjoy some amazing stories written by skilled authors and compiled by a massive dork.

But hey, this is a brag, not an ad. So loyal readers, if you don't want to drop 4 bucks on a fiction anthology that will literally change your life, I am extending a standing offer - email me at, mention your favorite post here at It Came From The Bookshelf, and I'll send you a free copy. Also, I will go on your podcast.

I dare you to name a better deal than that.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)The Adept's Way

 The Adept's Way raises one of the fundamental questions of tabletop rpg design - to what degree are the mechanics of the game meant to literally exist inside the setting? There's usually a spectrum at work here - "mundane" skills are probably an abstraction. The Great Leap skill may represent an objectively measurable long-jumping ability and have 15 discrete levels, but nobody's arguing that if you plotted the long jump distances of Basaive's citizens, they'd fall into 16 neat little rows. Because that's not the way it works in real life. Even if you set up a system of "Jump ratings" based on a standardized system of measurement, most people would fall between the upper and lower bounds of any particular category. They'd say "my Jump Rating is 2 and a third" or I have a "JR of 10.645" because we're talking about a continuum here. And that's just for something that's relatively easy to define. What benchmark are you going to use to differentiate between individuals' Academic Rating or Charisma Quotient? Exactly, the very thought of trying is a nightmare.

Thus skill systems exist mostly as a matter of convenience. However, on the other end of the spectrum, magic is usually pretty literal. "Fireball" is the name of a spell and people identify it as such. It's written down in a book. That's how you learned it.

"Hey, I heard a rumor that there was a grimoire in the ruined kaer that contained the 'Fireball' spell."

"That's great! Ever since I became an elementalist, I was looking forward to casting 'Fireball!' Let's go get it!"

-- A perfectly reasonable conversation in the Earthdawn setting.

It's a little weird that this dynamic seems to hold across every fantasy setting, seeing as how the only remotely comparable thing like this in the real world is computer applications. I'm guessing it's because magic isn't real, so it doesn't have to map neatly to any real-life human capability. Spell memorization in D&D comes to mind. Nobody learns something well enough to do it once a day and then forgets it immediately after. And forget ever making sense of memorizing the same spell more than once a day. And then if you don't cast one or more of the spells, they stay memorized for as many days as it takes, until you cast them, and then you forget again. No form of learning or expertise works like this, it's a naked game mechanic, but since the laws of magic are whatever you want them to be, you can just say that the observable reality matches the game rules.

Where it gets fuzzy is in the grey area between mundane traitss and wizard spells - when your magic is based off a skill or your skills utilize magic. You look at a spell description and it says that it has a certain effect based off your spellcasting skill, one that's objectively measurable like area of effect or duration and you run into the long jump issue again - you have to assume that the discrete and consistent values are a rules convenience. Presumably there are people who casting a spell that lasts for ten minutes and thirty seconds, or has a range of 101 yards. There probably aren't meant to be exactly 16 viable categories for every effect. Same thing with the magical version of Great Leap - there is probably a whole continuous range of big magic jumps.

Or maybe not, because what this book establishes is that classes and levels are precisely known in the world of Earthdawn. It's kind of a plot point. Nethermancers are suspicious of other mages approaching them for mentorship because they learn the Willforce talent at the third Circle instead of the 5th Circle, and they resent the idea of teaching their secrets to people who aren't really interested in Nethermancy. Weaponsmiths have a professional organization in every major city, and you have to be Eighth Circle or higher to get the leadership job. They know what Circle you are because there's a ceremony that accompanies each advance in level. By implication, it's possible to work out the Talent prerequisites. And while it's not necessarily the case that Talent ranks are reified, the Talents themselves definitely exist.

I don't know if this counts as a complaint. I guess the issues I've got with Earthdawn's inflexible class system become exacerbated if we're talking about true descriptions of actual people, instead of just convenient widgets for a game system. Real people have rough edges and complicated histories and you can never be entirely sure about what they can do. I accept the necessary simplification that comes with making rules, but the bargain is that we're not talking about the setting.

Most of the time. The Adept's Way is talking about the setting. Sometimes it works. The spellcaster classes kind of make sense, for the same reason that overly literal magic works in general. The more specific classes are also probably fine - you could sell the Swordmaster or the Sky Raider as esoteric paths, and they have some nice integration with the setting. There are Swordmaster tournaments, and the Sky Raiders are so associated with highlands troll culture that non-trolls who follow it adopt troll customs and beliefs. Then you have utterly generic Disciplines like Warriors and Archers. Or Thieves. How weird is it that there's this group of people who go around calling themselves "Thieves" and they brag about teaching each other magical techniques for stealing stuff and they're just sort of allowed to exist.

I think I would have preferred it if the Disciplines were more specific. Like, instead of being called "Thieves," they were "the Order of the Shadowed Hand" or something, and were based out of the shady criminal-run city of Kratas. That would make the whimsical characterization choices, like Archers being obsessed with truth because arrows fly in a straight line and since they combine skills with magic, their skill becomes a metaphor for their life. Something that specific and weird works fine for a narrow tradition or cult, but are a poor fit for something meant to be a full one-fifteenth of your possible character options.

And it's likely that on some level, the authors of The Adept's way agree with me, because it's made clear that the 15 in-character narrations for each of the Disciplines are merely one possible perspective and other viewpoints are possible. Although, even then the alternatives are implied to be narrow and specific, just in a slightly different way (for example, some "Thieves" are actually "Spies," but it's always possible to tell the difference between the two). 

Overall, I'd say this is probably the weakest Earthdawn book so far. It's not bad, exactly, but it does demonstrate the shortcomings inherent in trying to explicitly justify all of your game's fantasy tropes. It's often interesting in the specifics (I loved a lot of the Elementalist chapter's incidental details about spirits and the balance of nature), but the repeated pattern of eccentric philosophy - apprenticeship and advancement details - stereotypes about other Disciplines - winds up feeling a bit silly in its broader effect. 

Ukss Contribution: It's a bit simple, but I liked the flower spirits that elementalists sometimes summon. They don't get more than a name drop here, but it's a cute image.

Monday, May 3, 2021

(AD&D 2e)Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures

I'm going to open this post by giving an up front acknowledgement and credit to the Asian's Represent podcast, whose Critical Read of Al-Qadim I listened to before and during the reading of this book. And on the off chance that this post reads as more insightful than my usual fare, a lot of that is down to them shaking me out of my regular complacency. 

With that in mind, I have to remind myself that it's not my job to defend this book from accusations of racism. Although "accusations" is probably a bad word to use. It implies that there's some controversy here. As if the racism weren't just out in the open, in the words the book uses to describe its fantasy-Arabia setting.

I think I'm inclined to be charitable with these old books because I'm getting up there in years myself, and I remember what it was like to be ignorant. I largely gave late-90s/early-00s White Wolf a pass because I have clear memories of myself from that time period and I was no better. I don't have those same memories for 1992 (I was 10 years old), so I don't know where to put Al-Qadim in my own personal journey. I believe I got my copy in 1997 or 1998, because I still had a character sheet tucked into the pages, and my last AD&D 2e game was no later than 2001 (I converted to 3e almost instantly), and I can say that I have no strong memory of thinking this book was racist, so I've got no real moral high ground to speak of . . . although my primary interest in the book was the Sha'ir class, and I never really used the setting material . . .

No, no, let's not play the game where I try to exonerate my younger self. I probably should have noticed something off about this book, but was too sheltered in my extremely white little world to give these matters much thought. However, with the concession that young-John's attitudes contributed in their own small way to this train wreck of book, I'm actually still going to be pretty generous here. I don't think Al-Qadim is the way it is because of any particular racist intent (for all that that matters). In fact, I've been reading a lot of AD&D 2nd edition lately, and the writing of this book bears the hallmarks I've come to recognize as them REALLY TRYING.

They don't always. Spelljammer has this really weird thing about Asians, and I can't even begin to speculate as to what they were going for - a detail I neglected to mention when I was talking about The Complete Spacefarer's Handbook was some typical drive-by WTF-ery. The space religion known as The Path and the Way, which believes in an interstellar celestial bureaucracy by which the gods divide up the universe, has a "bias toward humans from Oriental cultures."

I didn't say anything at the time, because it was just one sentence fragment and seemed relatively benign, but maybe I should have because it's also extremely weird. What is it trying to imply - that there are millions of planets in the universe, but most of them have an Asia, and they're similar enough to each other that if you meet an Asian in space, you can make certain assumptions about their culture and politics? It would be one thing if the parallelism between worlds was a major setting feature, with similar cultures showing up under various aliases throughout the universe, but no other people got that sort of treatment. Only Asians. And East Asians at that.

It's strange, until you realize that AD&D was largely written by white nerds and whether they consciously knew it or not, they were adept at policing the boundaries of whiteness and so, at best, "Asian" was a genre to them. Things could fall into "normal" "western" fantasy, or they could be . . . something else. Spelljammer's weird thing about space Asians is what it looks like when they're not really trying. There's also a pretty clear example of that kind of thing in Al-Qadim - the Beggar Kit.

Including a beggar-thief class in your "Arabian Adventures" game could potentially be quite problematic, evoking Orientalist tropes of the downtrodden masses of brown people in desperate need of a White Savior, but you could make the argument that it's meant to be the opposite - that the beggar-thief, especially as a PC in an rpg game, is a roguish hero, turning the table on the aristocracy and expressing a fantasy of class-conscious agency. That the beggar-thief is, in fact, one of the classic heroic archetypes, not tied to any particular culture.

And that argument might even be persuasive. The beggar-thief is one of the classic heroic archetypes, so much so that they're also in The Complete Thief's Handbook. They're . . . already . . . in . . . The Complete Thief's Handbook . . . and they're repeated here. . . Strange, no other kit gets that treatment. What does Arabian Adventures have to say for itself?

"The Complete Thief's Handbook contains a more Western or European beggar kit, with many similarities to this one. Characters belonging to the Western kit become sa'luks (ed note: the "miscellaneous" kit) in Zakhara; they do not become beggar-thieves as described here."

And there it is. That's what not trying looks like. This is ordinary AD&D racism. Policing the boundaries of whiteness. There's already a beggar kit, but you can't just use it because you need to distinguish between special "Arabian" beggars. What's the difference? Not much, really, and I suspect the bulk of it really comes down to the extra 2e design experience gained in the years between 1989 and 1992, but the CTHB beggars get 4 bonus nonweapon proficiencies and a -2 to NPC reactions, whereas the AA beggars get 1 bonus nonweapon proficiency, the special benefit of being able to disappear into crowds, and a -4 to NPC reactions. My judgement is that the CTHB beggar is better, but probably not out of any geographical chauvinism.

However, that should not be read as an exoneration. The Arabian Adventures kit entirely failed to justify its existence, and the very fact that such a weaksauce kit was deemed necessary in the first place does indicate some problematic attitudes that might have been deniable if beggar-thieves had just been a recommended character type or if the AA beggar-thief was an acknowledged errata, meant to be back-ported into "western" (and I can't tell you how gross it feels to use that word in this context) games to nerf the absolutely overpowered 4 bonus proficiencies version of the class.

It's instructive to contrast this careless racism with the racism of the setting chapter, though, because I honestly think that the setting chapter is a novel type of well-meaning liberal racism, distinct from AD&D's regular overwhelming whiteness.

Content warning for the rest of the post. It gets into some anti-Arab stereotypes and implied sexual violence.

Let's start with the worst thing in the entire book, and possibly the worst single paragraph not written by Phil Brucato that I've encountered so far in the course of the blog:

Aside from murder, only one crime is great enough to warrant punishment by death: amorous impropriety. Contrary to popular belief among foreigners, no honorable desert warrior would ride off with his enemy's screaming wife - even in the midst of a feverish camel raid. (Such raids, incidentally, are not considered stealing.) Nor would he ride off with his enemy's unwed daughter unless a marriage were to be arranged somehow. In fact, if a desert raider were to return to his camp after committing such a crime, his brothers might strike him down on the spot - thereby sparing the family honor.
I don't even know where to begin with this, really. You really should just watch the Asians Represent stream. However, my unsolicited white guy opinion here is that if you set aside the dense tangle of Arab stereotypes (and you shouldn't), what's going on is an attempt to preemptively debunk a racist trope, but doing so with densely packed racism.

I have to acknowledge that what I'm doing looks a lot like me peering through a crystal ball to divine the thoughts of someone decades in the past and absolve them of racism, but I think this example is a pretty clear indication of why "intentions aren't magic" is a good piece of advice. I'll just come out and say directly that I think the intention of the quoted paragraph is to be anti-racist. No, really. I try my best to parse it and I think the point it's trying to get at is that Zakharans (aka "fantasy Arabs") think rape is bad.

As well they should. This should be so obvious and uncontroversial a statement that it goes without saying. So why didn't it go without saying? Why did it need to be said?

That's the first layer to all this. You identify a group and then ascribe to this group a completely anodyne moral sentiment. Regardless of how obviously true a statement you're making or how laudable a principle you're espousing, there's something vaguely insulting about the fact that you saw fit to make a statement at all. It's a basic principle of human communication that novel information, presented without context, is assumed to be relevant. I tell you "Most left-handed people believe murder is wrong," and the natural follow-up question is "what did you hear about left-handed people?"

Now, in this particular case, there's a rhetorical flourish that tells us what the relevance is. It's the clause "Contrary to popular belief among foreigners." This is something that shows up a couple of other times. When Arabian Adventures uses the word "foreigners" they're inevitably being meta. They're addressing the (presumed white) audience and saying, "this dumb thing you believe is wrong." It shows up again in the section about harems, where it explains that "a foreign lothario" might get the wrong idea. I don't want to give them too much credit here, because the alternative explanations are usually pretty insulting, but for me, at least, the meaning was loud and clear.

Primarily because of how absurd "foreigners" would be if we interpreted it literally. Do they mean "foreign to Zakhara?" as in Faerun? We in the real world hear these unflattering things about Arab culture because of deep-seated racism in Hollywood and the news, based in a long history of colonialism and religious and ethnic bigotry. So we can just dismiss unflattering Arab sterotypes as false. Where, then, is Faerun getting its information? Some guy in Shadowdale hears the "popular belief among foreigners" that Zakharan desert warriors "ride off" with their enemies' wives and daughters and who's telling him this? And why? It's not as if the Shadowdale guy is Christian and he mistrusts the Muslim Zakharans. He's not watching Fox News here. Faerun and Zakhara are barely aware of each others' existence, and wouldn't have the same "clash of civilizations" dynamic even if they were. If that kind of story is traveling halfway across the world in the absence of a global trading network, then something very much like it must have happened at least once.

This weird, backhanded validation of racist nonsense brings us to another layer of messed up here - Arabian Adventures cultivates an anthropological distance that attempts to be nonjudgemental, but winds up being both credulous and sheltered. Look back at the sentence "Nor would he ride off with his enemy's unwed daughter unless a marriage were to be arranged somehow." I think the arranged marriage is supposed to be a mitigating factor here, but if that's the case, why is he still "riding off" in this scenario? That's an odd way of saying "departs his fiance's household in order to relocate her and her possessions to their new home."

Maybe this is just the cynical crystal ball at work here. but I feel like the euphemism is a little too blatant to be anything but an affectation. "Amorous impropriety?" You mean like waiting four days between texts? Something bad is going down, but you're not saying what it is, because it's the word that's abhorrent and not the practice. "Mommy, why is that horse-man carrying away that woman?" "Oh, they're . . . getting married, child." And in that light, Arabian Adventures' cultivated tolerance is sinister. It doesn't debunk myths about Arabic culture so much as argue that the cultural context justifies practices it can't quite bring itself to endorse.

But let's talk about "rid[ing] off with his enemy's screaming wife." It's such a . . . specific thing to have not happen. So much so that it shows up again in the Horse Riding proficiency along with a new failure condition "Should, for example, a damsel happen to punch her would-be rescuer, the horesman's attempt would fail."

So . . . much . . . subtext. What circumstances are leading up to this PC horse-rider attempting to scoop up a woman onto his horse and getting a punch for his trouble?

On second thought, don't tell me. I'd rather not know. But it's such a clear image. A mounted Arabian warrior, grabbing a woman off the ground and carrying her away. I feel like I've seen something like that before. And I'm certain that the authors of Arabian Adventures have seen something like that before - to both play it straight when warning readers- ahem, foreigners, not to expect it and then, in a completely unrelated example, parody it for comedy. What movie are they referencing? 

Which brings us all the way round back to ordinary AD&D racism. "Arabian" isn't a culture, it's a genre and so the book shows you the elements you expect to see in a genre narrative, the things that are meant to distinguish it from "Western" (ugh) or "European" (ugh, but also totally wrong) fantasy. And at best that means a theme-park version of real places and cultures.

That's not even an interpretation, really. The book's introduction says nearly as much

The third Araby comes from our own culture and its Hollywood movies - films that are occasionally humorous and quite often inaccurate .  .  . These films offer a third lens through which we can view the world of the Arabian Nights. They are entertaining rather than education, but this is the Arabian fantasy world that most of us know first, through Saturday TV matinees.
Well, that's a hell of a thing to openly admit. Especially when the goal is to explain your games' conflating it with the first (actual Arab history) and second (Arabic folklore) interpretations of Arab fantasy.

I mean, I get the impulse. Usually "broader, louder, and dumber," is a good recipe for fun. Except . . . the thing with the horses wasn't very fun at all. Which is probably why they went out of their way to say it never happens. But it's not just about one image. The whole "Hollywood Arabia" genre is shot through with harmful stereotypes and because of its provenance and state goals, Arabian Adventures inherits (and thereby spreads) those same stereotypes. I really do believe that the intent is for us to respect and admire Arab culture through the lens of Zakhara, but intent alone isn't enough to make the presentation both respectful and good.

Ukss Contribution: I don't think Arabian Adventures was motivated by malice. And there are parts here that are genuinely cool. I still like the Sha'ir class quite a lot - it's a fun alternate magic system where your familiar (a cute little mini-genie) travels to another reality to beg, borrow, and steal spells on your behalf. However the rough parts of this book are really rough. It generally tries to present Zakhara as a noble civilization, but still indulges in Orientalist cruelty like cutting the hands off a thief (as if the British didn't just execute them on the gallows). And look, I'm going to be direct - the genuine anger I saw on the Asians Represent stream both surprised and moved me, so I'm just going to give this book a miss for Ukss.