Thursday, June 24, 2021

Exalted (1e Core)

 This one should not have taken as long as it did. I mostly blame the hectic schedule at work (seriously, we're getting full houses mid-week now, which is unprecedented, even for summer), but I'm also going to put a little bit of the blame on the fact that I'm reading the basic Storyteller system rules for what must be the hundredth time in my life and it's getting harder and harder to muster my enthusiasm for the chore.

So you're not going to get me rapturously describing the experience of having target numbers explained to me, but if you can live with the disappointment, I'd be happy to share my feelings about the Exalted-specific stuff.

It's actually a harder task than I anticipated, though. Primarily because at this point in my life "Exalted" is less a specific game and more this seething mass of lore from a hundred different sources, of which only two-thirds or so are canonical. There's this urge I have to really narrow-focus on fantastically minor details - there's at least one flame war out there that I'll need to retroactively concede because it turns out that a part of the setting I didn't like was, indeed, in the core book from the very beginning (I mean, how can the regent of the empire of super-powered warrior-aristocrats not, himself, have superpowers, considering said superpowers are the primary theological justification for the regime's legitimacy - even so, Fokuf was a mortal, my bad).

However, I ultimately decided that I didn't want to do that as a post, because who the fuck cares, right. It was shortly after writing "Forest Witches, whoa!" that I resolved to just stop making those kinds of notes entirely. What I want to talk about, instead, is the experience of having a franchise that I truly, genuinely love, and then going back to the very beginning, before it truly became itself.

And the nitpicking is part of it, to be sure. Like, you could interpret the various dangling plot hooks as predictions - what did the authors of the first Exalted book think the fans would be interested in? What did they get wrong?

Except that Exalted has a pretty good hit rate. Something like 95% of the stuff name-dropped in the core gets expanded later on, usually into something pretty cool. There are a couple of places here that feel like they're initially pitched as villainously fascist that I know will later suffer from depictions that are a bit too close to "fascist apologist," but even so, they're good locations that are fine additions to the world of Creation . . . in the hands of writers who understand how horrible they're supposed to be. There's one location, Port Calin, that I like to pick on for being oversold, despite getting absolutely no traction with any subset of the fandom, but it's not actually in the core. I believe it's first introduced in one of the novels . . .

And OMG, I'm doing it. The thing I said two paragraphs ago that I didn't want to do (and yet, I'll be damned before I go back and edit them out, the only pedal in this car is an accelerator!), but that's the temptation of being a super fan. So . . . many . . . details.

But despite my endless appetite for discussing them, that wasn't my main experience with the book. Maybe it's all the draining emotional labor I've had to do over the last few days, but what was really going through my mind was a question - "why isn't this making me feel the way Exalted used to make me feel?"

I'm lucky in that I have clear documentation of the last time I read this specific book. However, I'm unlucky in that my old take was almost exactly the sort of post I didn't want to write. Damn you, young(er) John, talk more about your feelings so I can mine them for content!

But honestly, that's an unfruitful source of drama anyways. The only real objection I'd take with my old post is that there's a certain trope I called out as unsatisfying that I would, today, consider "highly problematic."

2014 John:

I finished my reading for today with the section on Wyld Barbarians, and again, it is an example of strong material that nonetheless makes the setting feel smaller. Basically, I feel like most of the example wyld barbarians would have worked better as normal cultures that existed in the blank areas of the map. I think it would have served to make the directions more diverse.

I'm not loving my use of the world "normal," but this is pre Complete Barbarian's Handbook me, so I didn't think of "barbarian" as a racial term (I know, I know). I can reconstruct my line of reasoning here - the key word was "wyld." That's the setting's term for land that existed outside of the physical laws of Creation, and thus "wyld barbarian" really means "expatriates in faerieland." And I think what young me was picking up on is that these people, who the book calls "wyld barbarians" are actually described in unusually . . . anthropological terms.

Like, what do we know about these people? Well, there is a lot of talk about their crafts and their religion, so much so that I know more about the specific tools made by the Northern Barbarians than I do about the ones made in Nexus (a city that gets 5 pages to itself). And when the book says "Southwestern warriors believe that if they eat the brain and liver of fallen foes, the foes' ghosts become the slaves of the tribesman's ancestors" that's just a specific and interesting cultural belief (that the book infuriatingly refuses to confirm or contradict, because while ghosts are definitely real in Creation, we can't be sure that "barbarians" know how they work).

So I can see how younger me might have thought that there was no reason to make any of these people into faerieland mutants. If a group of people wants to make deals with spirits or wear pangolin scales as armor, that could just be part of the cultural tapestry of Creation.

What I didn't pick up on is that this is a trope. The cultures we're talking about are thoroughly depraved. The best of them raid their neighbors for resources, the worst are cannibals and rapists. They're basically orcs. I used a term "the blank areas of the map," and that's exactly what this is - the inhuman denizens of terra nullius that exist only as a threat or an obstacle, and whose cultures have nothing worthy of respect.

The fascinating thing about Exalted is that this is clearly a dodge. All that ugly D&D colonialist subtext is there, but you must understand, it's not that "tribesman" are the problem. It's only when they become corrupted by this alien magical force, the wyld (which can do all sorts of fantasy-radiation things like create animal human hybrids or make animals grow two heads) that they become irredeemable. Even as early as Scavenger Sons, the third book printed for the line, they were drawing a distinction between Icewalkers - a nomadic rural culture of loose clans that worshiped animal totems and occasionally raided cities - and the Northern Wyld Barbarians - pitiless murderers who cannot be reasoned with who are described (and this is me being generous with the book's intent) as neanderthals. 

It's an attempt to solve "the orc problem." Nobody is intrinsically an orc, but if you happen to live too close to the orcforce, well that's just what happens. And the fact that you call the orcforce victims "barbarians" and the settler-colonialists "civilized" is just a coincidence (oh, and no joke about the colonialist part - "Most barbarians in the West are concentrated in the Southwest, where the volcanic and coral islands offer poor harborage, and have thus never attracted settlement by more civilized inhabitants. Not that driving out the natives would be an easy task . . .")

Okay, so obviously it's not a coincidence. Exalted draws from the same well as early D&D. Just for fun, I cross-referenced, the "suggested resources" with Appendix N . . . and the crossover wasn't as thorough as I might have hoped, due to half of Exalted's suggestions being written post-1979, but Lord Dunsany was on both lists, Michael Moorcock was on both lists, and Lieber, Vance, and Howard all get call-outs in the Storytelling chapter. 

This is pulp fantasy, and that kind of colonialist bullshit is just deep in its DNA. Wyld Barbarians are just Exalted's way of trying to get around it - how do we make the leering cannibal natives that are a genre staple not seem quite so racist, well maybe if "leering cannibal" was a circumstance instead of a race. A stereotype can't be racist if it's not applied to a race.

Except, in practice, Wyld Barbarians were almost always treated like a race, thus negating the entire point.

Now, I don't want to pick on Exalted here. Or, at least, I don't want to single it out. I didn't pick up on any of this even as recently as seven years ago, and in a lot of other ways they were trying, but I know for a fact that this "civilization vs barbarism" theme is going to repeat a lot over the next few dozen books, and it's distressing that a book that so openly prides itself on not being D&D somehow managed to keep the one thing that was worst about it.

Although, if you want a nuclear-level take, I don't think Exalted does as great a job as separating itself from D&D as it thinks it does. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Exalted was the first OSR game.

Not mechanically, I'll grant, but the setting, for all of its boldness, it's also weirdly Gygaxian. It tries to be "not-D&D," but in practice, that winds up being "D&D minus Tolkien," a figure whose influence Gygax himself famously resented. It's humans only, with no demihuman peoples except oddities like the Mountain Folk (faeries petrified by elemental earth), big, dangerous sorcery, and pulp influences galore. Playing it is like starting an AD&D game at level 9.

Which makes me extremely curious how well a synthesis would work. Exalted without Exalted. Set in Creation, but with an OSR ruleset. Scavenger Lords - a team of mortal savants, warriors, and adventurers who loot Solar tombs and First Age ruins, fighting bound demons, disarming cunning traps, and carting off extravagant treasures . . . despite not loving the style, I'm intrigued.

So, the thing I didn't appreciate in 2001 or 2014 or any of the years in between is how D&D's long shadow fell across Exalted as a game, but my shit-stirring notwithstanding, the things that I love about this game have a lot to do with the ways it broke from D&D (as young me understood it at the time). I love the way Exalted says "yes," even when, as a highly tactical rpg, it shouldn't. You can buy a Gem of Incomparable Wellness as a starting character and be basically unkillable by conventional means. It's not even that expensive. And it's not an accident. Making people unkillable is what the gem is supposed to do.

Or the Rune of Singular Hate. This was the spell that sold me on the game, though it was banished from later editions. It just straight up mauls any enemy you use it on, permanently reducing their stats and changing even terrible dragons and ancient ghost-kings into (metaphorical) pussy cats. And the only thing stopping you from using it is its ridiculous cost (a bunch of trait points that might add up to a hundred xp or more). A single use will absolutely wreck the setting, and there was none of that mealy-mouth Wish spell nonsense about "interpreting" it to minimize the damage. A player wants to burn their character out of spite for the big boss, you let them.

That blew my mind. I didn't know that rpgs could do that. It completely shifted my perception of what power levels meant and (eventually) the PCs' role in ownership of the setting. 

Although, I have to admit, I'm saying that mostly from memory. It's what I was expecting to feel while reading the book. It's what I wanted to feel while reading the book. But I was much too stressed to actually connect with it in that way. What I mostly wanted was more and deeper lore. Mainly because I know it's forthcoming and the stuff I'm seeing here is only the beginning.

Ukss Contribution: The tricky part here is keeping the proper objectivity to choose something based on what it is in the book, rather than what I know it will later become. A lot of stuff doesn't really become super interesting until it gets the spotlight in a later book. The Forest Witches are described as "bandits." The demon hierarchy is clearly not yet established.  Tepet Ejava is only a little bit Julius Caesar.

So I'll pick something that gets less interesting when it's expanded in a future supplement - the city-state of Paragon. It's ruled by a tyrant called "The Perfect" who extracts magical oaths from the citizens to always follow the laws. Second edition would become a little too enamored of the Perfect's authoritarian charisma, but for now it's just a neat fantasy idea.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Over 1 million!

 When I was brainstorming ideas for this post, I was convinced it was going to be so funny, but now that I'm actually sitting down to write it, I've got literal tears in my eyes. I'm completely overwhelmed emotionally. Which is silly, because it's really nothing more than a career milestone I privately made up about six months ago, and which I've been semi-secretly counting down to for roughly half that time (I say semi-secretly, because if I've physically spoken to you in the last couple of weeks, I've been unable to shut up about it . . . sorry).

Maybe it would help if I explained what the hell I'm talking about, though. As of just a few minutes ago, I have officially blogged over 1 million words!

Excuse me while I ruin a kleenex over here.

Now, to get to this total, I did have to include my other blog, but that feels fair to me. The last blog ate up a lot of my life and it's almost exactly the same thing I'm doing now, so maybe I should have just kept the first one going and combined their mission statements . . .

No, I think I prefer the clarity of doing it this way.

The official breakdown is

Decadent Gamer - 1097 posts for a total of 588,594 words
It Came From the Bookshelf - 319 posts for a total of 413,419 words

My average words per post is 707, but my longest post, The World of Ukss, has more than 56,000 words.

It's what I've been telling you all from the very beginning - quantity over quality people!

No, I'm not really that self-deprecating, but I do wonder about the roads not taken. I've averaged a novel a year for the last seven years, and maybe I'd be in a better place if I'd just written the damned novels.

It's hard to say. The reason I got into blogging in the first place is that I wrote my first novel and it was . . . not well received. It completely crushed me because it took me a year to write and for like 11 and a half months of that year I genuinely thought I was making something good.  I carefully considered the prospect of learning something from the experience, treating my first outing as practice, and just moving on to the next one with a resolve to get better . . . and I just couldn't handle it. I figured I would have to write multiple practice novels just to get to where I wanted to be, and even to the degree that I could accept needing years to hone my craft, I couldn't accept the idea that each and every attempt would take months to realize.

So I chose, instead, to publicly share my unsolicited video game opinions, and I haven't looked back.

Well, mostly. Obviously, I looked back a little or I wouldn't have known I reached this milestone. Looking back a little more and rereading my first blog post, I can't say with confidence that I've improved in skill over the past seven years. I think I may have dialed into a personal style, but on a technical level, I've plateaued. . . or become complacent.

Maybe it's time to look forward for a change. After my first year of doing It Came From the Bookshelf, I toyed with the idea of writing an Ukss novel for National Novel Writing Month. At the time, I was talked out of it for some very good reasons, but I'm thinking now that I might enjoy doing it as a side-project. Maybe if bang out a fundamentally unsellable practice novel, I'll rediscover my love of writing fiction. At the very least, there's no pressure and no expectations.

The other thing I'm going to do is change my pdf policy. From now on, I will not restrict myself to reading free pdfs. Instead, I'll read anything where someone officially connected with the book sends me a review copy. I've gotten pretty comfortable reviewing things, so maybe I could occasionally review books that are actively searching for an audience instead of spending 90% of my time with hot takes on stuff that's barely available on the secondary market.

Anyway, despite never going viral and becoming the internet's most successful niche blogger, I'm actually pretty proud of my body of work. It's been a satisfying first million words, here's to one million more!


 This book is a fucking treasure trove. It's exactly the sort of artifact you always hope to find when you pick up a new rpg book - it's a strange little thing, filled with these fascinating little odds and ends that sort of work together, but also kind of meander in every which direction. It's exactly what you're wrongly remembering the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guides to be. It's alienating in its specificity and the intensity of its interests, but it's also compelling, as it shows you pathways whose ends you cannot anticipate.

Do I love it? Am I saying I love it? I don't know. I think, at its heart, it's kind of a reckless book. It's one of those slim rpgs. I could explain its core rules in about 15 minutes. If you cut out special powers, artifact creation, and domain management, the actual rules of the game wrap up after 22 pages. And then the bulk of the rest of the 200+ pages is all about the PCs' phenomenal cosmic power.

Godbound is a freeform, narrative game disguising itself as an "old school" rpg. Or maybe it's a freeform game with an old school combat system grafted on. Most of what you're going to be doing is navigating resource costs. There's a mechanic where PCs can spend a special meta-game currency to make whatever changes they like to the setting, and the rules for this are largely guidelines to the GM for setting costs. And then the players spend the cost and the change happens. The king agrees with your impassioned moral argument - spend Dominion points. You mutate a bunch of villagers so they have wings and know kung fu. Spend Dominion points. You do have to try and justify it with your character traits and for large expenditures, the GM might require you to complete an adventure. But ultimately you've got a large latitude to make setting changes almost purely through narration.

And warrior angels have precisely 10 hit points and get a +10 bonus to attack rolls.

I think it will work. My intuition tells me there's a niche here. A game style that's basically "bullshitting, bullshitting, bullshitting . . . and now it's time for the dice to hit the table."  Run well, it may even be the best of both worlds. You've got wild plans that provoke huge shifts in the status quo, thrones tremble and the pillars of heaven shake, but then, at a critical juncture, the chaos of the dice steps in to remind you that you're not entirely in control.

But I can also see the failure state - a game system that takes away a lot of the traditional limitations that also serve as the players' hook into the world, so that they can go anywhere and do anything, but there's nowhere and nothing that they're actually invested in. A character might be motivated by wealth, but for players, money is trivially easy to get and doesn't do much for you when you have it. This whole hobby is, of course, a dressed-up game of make believe, but some rules systems are better than others at disguising this fact.

However, I've never been one who particularly needs that disguise, so I think I love Godbound

Or, at least, I've got a crush on it.

I think the source of my ambivalence (and, to be clear, I'm mostly fluctuating between "Godbound is one of the most impressive games I've seen so far" vs "Godbound is one of my favorite games, that I've seen so far") is that it's clearly operating on a very specific wavelength, and I can't be sure that it's one I share because it doesn't easily fall into one of the categories I've previously built for myself. 

It's hard to convey the precise sense of vertigo you get from the contrast between the utilitarian math of its bare-bones rules system and the absolute permissiveness of the power rules. Godbound characters have access to "Words," which are basically just broad descriptors for the sorts of divine miracles that you have access to. If you've got the Word of Earth, you can cause earthquakes or raise fortresses or just become really durable, and just generally do anything you can imagine that falls under the category of "stone, earth, strength, hardness, or durability." And you can use them all right from the beginning, as a 1st level character. The first thing you do in the first session can be to start and earthquake, and it will be just as effective as the earthquakes being thrown around by max-level characters at the end of a years-long campaign.

The main limit to your power is your reserves of "Effort." You start with two Effort, you gain one point per level, and you can buy more as a Gift ("Gifts" are specific tricks you do with your Words that you get an Effort discount on because you spent character points to learn them, but anything you can do with a Gift, you can do with a regular, full-cost Miracle, and I suppose that technically applies to buying extra Effort too, but since you have to spend Effort to replicate a Gift, you'd wind up net losing points on that deal).

So it's a little weird. Your character level is very precise about your stats - your hit bonus, your savings throws, and even the damage you do with your Words, but if you're talking about things that can't be quantified on the character sheet, the sky's the limit. You're just starting out. You've got 8 hit points and a +1 to attack rolls, and merely two wishes per day.

The result is something that seems like it should care about game balance, but is incredibly sloppy about it. You can get end-game level optimized Armor Class fairly trivially as a starting character, but attacks only improve with level. So it's perfectly possible to be nigh-invincible against enemies you have a hard time hitting. Almost every enemy has multiple attacks, and the damage is usually enough that focus-fire will kill a PC per round, but spread out it's relatively harmless. And given the unpredictable power spikes, the notion of any kind of challenge rating system is a whimsical dream.

The resolution of the paradox is supposed to be the fact that Godbound is meant to be a "Sandbox" game, and thus the GM really shouldn't concern themselves with meticulously scaling the challenges. The stats of typical mortal foes are pegged so low that they barely pose a threat to unoptimized characters, even in huge mobs, and it's kind of expected that the typical combat experience is crushing victory by the PCs. The way you encounter Angelic Tyrants, Parasite Gods, and other top-tier threats is by going to where they are. PCs can always control the balance by sticking to the lower-level parts of the setting.

Like I said earlier - it's easy to imagine this working perfectly . . . and easy to imagine it not.

Now, let's talk about the setting.

Godbound has this absolutely amazing cover art. It's an empty throne in a cathedral-like building, set upon a raised dais and the stairs leading up to it are covered with skeletons, all in a desperate climbing posture, implying that they reached the throne with the last of their strength and perished while attempting to seize it, even as they lay dying, unworthy of its power. It's a stunning image, and it quite aptly sums up the setting as a whole.

Everything in this world is marked by a sort of theology of cynicism. In the distant past, human beings solved all of their material problems, and then decided to go to war over petty ideological differences. Even when they had the magical might to storm the gates of Heaven, they arrived to find the Throne of God empty, and the Creator vanished. So they trashed the place and stole the furniture on their way out, but it turns out that some of that stuff was load-bearing furniture, and now the universe is falling apart and things are getting worse and worse as time goes on.

There's this very technological and materialist feel to divine and magical things that runs through the setting. The laws of reality are maintained by "Celestial Engines" which can be broken down and stripped for spare parts that will go on to power magic items or give PCs a magic boost to make bigger and more lasting setting changes. Characters are "godbound," but the only gods to make an appearance are "Made Gods" - constructed in the distant past with powerful lost sorcery, in order to embody the ideals of a particular society - or "Parasite Gods," who have intercepted the misdirected energies of a broken celestial engine and grow dependent upon them, even as they gain potent magical abilities as a result. Missing entirely is a sense of reverence.

I'll admit, as an atheist, there's something comfortable to me about Godbound's setting. There are different forms of life with different powers and abilities, but there is also the basic continuity - everything can be understood in biological or technological terms, and there's no gap where anything as mysterious as a god is necessary.

On the other hand, the only explicit atheist representation, the Church of True Reason, is a pretty shabby organization, a deliberately ignorant cult with an inflexible hierarchy whose unexamined doctrines inevitably lead souls to hell. You win some and you lose some, I guess. It's actually mostly all right with me to have villainous atheists in a game about gods, but "atheism is really a form of religion, and just as arbitrary as the fundamentalism they claim to oppose" is a trope that never fails to annoy me.

 The rest of the setting is pretty good. It does something that I'm obliged to point out as unrealistic, even as I admit it's my favorite type of fantasy worldbuilding - it gives each of its various nations its own high concept fantasy twist, and makes that high concept the center of fleshing out the nation's culture and politics. So you've got the Bright Republic, which is essentially just a magitech version of modern society, and its whole deal revolves around these ancient and irreplaceable magical macguffins that make its technology possible. Then you have the Ulstang Skerries, who are basically viking necromancers who terrorize coastal villages in their zombie-rowed longships. And they both just sort of coexist with each other.

In other words - almost everything about the Realm of Arcem reminded me of an Ukss entry, which frequently made me smile. For the average newcomer, I'd say that it's a world with a lot of diversity and some well-worked-out lore that only occasionally feels like it's stitched together out of spare parts.

Although, you could argue that the "stitched together" feeling was intention, given that the most influential canon event was the Shattering, where greedy mortals' plundering of heaven lead to the previously singular universe cracking apart at the seams, leaving the survivors in disconnected realms separated by a soul-consuming cosmic void.

It can sound a little grimdark at times, but the book directly explains its reasoning - "The best problems are the ones that the PCs can face directly, even if they might not win." Which I'm interpreting to mean that things have to generally be bad enough that it justifies playing heroes with phenomenal cosmic powers.

Overall, my opinion of this book is very positive. I'm not sure it will ever be my go-to high-power game, but it has some intriguing ideas that I wouldn't mind trying out. You don't have to take my word for it, though. There's a free version available. My understanding is that the only thing missing from the full version is the last chapter, a mishmash of miscellaneous topics that are nice to have, but mostly nonessential. If that's the case, I would say the only thing that you're going to really miss is the rules for creating your own realm. The mortal character rules might make for an interesting alternate campaign, but if you're using them, it's because you've already decided you need a break from playing godbound characters. My favorite part was, of course, the rules for playing Exalted in the Godbound ruleset, which are completely transparent in their intent, but also hilariously coy about what they're actually doing - "some games" have "vaguely described Exalted mechanics." I'd love to see the reaction of someone who'd never heard of these "other games." There must be at least 10 pages that seem completely and bafflingly pointless.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of good stuff here. I'm going to go with a classic, though - there's sorcery that allows a mage to drain a victim's remaining lifespan and add a portion of it to their own. This particular implementation has a neat twist, though. The more you use that spell, the more mutated and inhuman you become, even to the point of gaining "uncanny abilities." I like it when magic dabbles in transhumanism.

Monday, June 7, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Skypoint & Vivane

 Aw man, it's another tough one. I didn't make it any easier on myself by reading it so slowly, but in my defense, I tried my best. A coworker got covid and I've been working literally every day since my last post. And it was during the Juco tournament, one of the hotel's busiest times. My average of ~20 pages a day (and the pace on this was surprisingly regular) was actually pretty good, if I do say so myself.

So my memories of the three books in this boxed set are all over the place. I look at the first page of my notes and see the mysterious word "Vasgothians" and I'm like, "wait, do they mean Visigoths? No, they can't, this whole setting is antediluvian, taking place in an alternate magical history of central Europe, 8000 years past, so having any connection at all between the Vasgothians and the Visigoths would be as absurd as saying that the 'exotic' land of Indrisa, with its 'ferocious war elephants' and capital city of Calcutana is somehow related to modern India."

Which is kind of a roundabout way of saying that this book establishes Thera (the setting's designated Evil Empire) as a global civilization (they even crossed the Atlantic ocean to find a "mysterious land" of hot and humid jungles), but it doesn't quite make the globe interesting enough to justify it.

It's a bit of a disappointment, really. Earthdawn has consistently impressed me with its nuanced, empathetic descriptions of traditional fantasy creatures, but somehow Africans . . . sorry, the "easily enslave[d]" "dark-skinned local peoples" of Anzan . . . can't get quite the same treatment. Maybe it's just a matter of space concerns. Anzan did only get a single paragraph to both describe its features and establish its existence in the setting for the very first time, so maybe an Anzan supplement would have proceeded with the same complex humanism that I've come to expect from this series.

Or maybe not. I think, in attempting to describe Thera, that Earthdawn has discovered its Achilles heel. Following the line's usual practice of considering its characters' circumstances and points of view, Skypoint & Vivane comes dangerously close to both-sidsing slavery.

And this is an awkward subject for me to talk about, because the book is from 1995, and I have documented proof that young John Frazer was doing similarly bad takes as late as 2002 (the NWO fan supplement I wrote has a "the American founders were men of their times" passage that absolutely mortifies me and I hate that there's nothing I can do about it now), but it's still a little gross to see a passage that describes a Theran raid that "killed all the old-folk and children and enslaved the able-bodied adults" and then, literally one page later

"While the majority of non-Therans sincerely believe that the Empire represents an evil that must be eradicated, a certain percentage of more sensible folk recognize that Therans cannot be lumped together as a single entity."
Where's the contradiction, folks? But also, the next page has a passage written, in-character, from a Theran point of view that runs down the typical list . . . slavery had a salutory effect on the slaves, the Theran values of curiosity and cultural openness are worthwhile additions to the world, and besides it's not like Therans invented slavery, there are actually a lot of local forced-labor customs that could fairly be described as slavery, so it's kind of hypocritical to focus on the Therans, maybe it's because you hate science and civilization . . .

And it might occur to you to wonder where they could have found inspiration for such a realistically depraved defense of the institution of slavery, but the depressing answer is that all they had to do was ask nearly any white American.

Which is really the heart of this. Thera is the United States of America. I'm certain this wasn't an intentional parallel. I'm guessing that if the authors were asked to name the area of their setting most inspired by the USA, they would probably say the liberal capitalist dwarfs of Throal. I think it's more likely that Thera is an archetype that lurks deep in the white American subconscious and is always in danger of rising to the surface - "yeah, they practiced slavery, but they also arguably saved the world, so . . . even?" That it keeps showing up is accidentally revealing.

And I do think it's accidental. The chain of logic is pretty clear - they're attempting to humanize their villains. There's no such thing as an entire society of monsters, so you can't characterize a whole society entirely by its worst traits. They must have virtues of their own, accomplishments and beliefs that express the fundamental greatness and goodness of all human beings. At the very least, the average member of that society is probably just a regular schmuck, who does nothing worse than keep their head down and try to make it day to day.

To try and see people that way is an impulse that expresses a fundamental decency. It indicates an unwillingness to scapegoat and oversimplify. But it also runs the risk of erasing the victims. For example, we never learn the individual name of any single "pleasure slave."

I don't want to lean too far into psychoanalysis here. I could close-parse the campaign suggestions and conclude that "freedom fighter" is in scare quotes rather than title quotes, just because Barsavians are "likely to regard the Therans as wicked, enslaving imperialists." I mean, I regard the sky as blue, but it's a little weird to phrase it that way. But that would be ungenerous. Later on, the Theran perspective "Barsavian barbarian terrorists"is definitely in scare quotes.

(Although, if I were in the mood to psychoanalyze, I might be very curious about the choice of the word "terrorist" - it's such a conspicuous anachronism, perhaps they were more aware of the Thera = USA connection than I'm giving them credit for).

I suspect the big culprit here is 1995. I look at, say, White Wolf books from this period and there's that same reluctance to pick a side. Thera and the Technocracy are undergoing the same arc, just offset by a couple of years. Fighting the fascists didn't have the same sense of urgency we feel now.

Yet you look at the laws of Vrontok, the mercantile town built in the literal shadow of the book's titular Skypoint, and it has a 50sp "guest tax" that visitors have to pay, or be enslaved. And if you try and flee, you have to pay the 30sp "exit tax" or suffer the same fate. There's no way you write that and think "these are a people with a healthy society."

Except Vrontok isn't actually a Theran city. It's run by Barsavians who sell slaves to the Therans. The Therans look down on them for doing it, which struck me as a hilariously on-point observation about the human condition - since the people of Vrontok "would sell their own kin as slaves, [they] are plainly lacking in every decent moral code, and therefor their living conditions and behavior need not concern an uprighth Theran."

It's a good bit of characterization, but part of an unfortunate pattern - collaborators and non-Therans who climb the hierarchy are invariably "weak and craven" or "an over-awed little stooge." The Therans themselves mostly get to be the cool, competent sort of fascists. There's no real way you can use this book to portray the Therans as heroes (and, indeed, even the Theran-apologist "Playing Theran Characters" section doesn't do much more than say that they're not much different than regular people anywhere), but it does wind up feeling oddly like Theran propaganda. I guess there was no way to know in 1995 that fascists would take the Darth Vader comparison as a compliment.

Leaving aside all that stuff I just said Skypoint and Vivane does feature some memorable imagery and useful plot hooks. There's a fortress where the Therans commemorate the slaying of a Horror with a statue that they periodically cover with the flayed skins of condemned prisoners (because they're ultimately no worse than you or me). There's a bar that caters to the undead, The Dead Man's Hand. Some soldiers wield crystal spears filled with elemental fire.

Also, the Brotherhood of the Bone. 

No, you don't get any other context to that one.

And, of course, Skypoint itself is kind of a neat fantasy location. It's a fortress/airship landing area built atop these 800-foot-tall pillars. There's a cool picture of it. It looks like a sky-scraper-sized kitchen table that straddles a small medieval city, and it's got a bunch of little castles orbiting it (Theran airships look like castles instead of sailboats). It's something that is unique even among this borderline-science-fiction magitech fantasy subgenre and I would have liked to see more stuff like that and less advice to "take a neutral stand on slavery and portray the Therans as simply misguided." I mean, call me old-fashioned, but I say that if you're going to make your setting have a group of magitech fascists, you should just own that shit.

Ukss Contribution: I wouldn't say this book actually crosses the line into slavery apologism. It gets rough at points, and I think it's fair to say that it's the weakest Earthdawn book yet, but it's really more awkward than wicked.

So my choice is the Brotherhood of the Bone . . .

No, just kidding. They're not that interesting. They're just a group of military comrades who all wear the same type of magical brooch that's fashioned out of a bone. I just like saying the name.

I'm actually going to go with the Petals of the Lily. They revere a certain hallucinogenic flower and want to spread it everywhere. The book describes them as "eccentric," but I think they could be a properly sinister cult. Maybe something closer to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers than Cheech and Chong. (Or hell, maybe halfway between both).