Friday, July 30, 2021

(AD&D 2e) Legends & Lore

 The first part of this post is going to be all about me trying to work out why I ever thought it was a good idea to buy this book. I guess it goes back to my youth. I've started taking for granted how easy it is to find used books nowadays, but when I started roleplaying, back in roughly 1996, it was a different story.  There were three stores in my town that sold rpg books - Hastings, Borders, and that one place in the mall that I'm going to try and fruitlessly google because it went out of business 20 years ago . . . um, it was either B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, but I can't remember which. Our mall had both, but only one sold rpgs and I forget which it was. 

Of course, in those days, I didn't have a lot of money, so a lot of what I did in those days amounted to little more than longingly browsing the shelves, but between the occasional windfall and some very . . . precise Christmas lists, I was able to assemble a pretty respectable collection. However, Legends & Lore was always something of a white whale. I'd never actually seen a copy in person, but I'd seen references to it in other books, and I don't know how the idea got in my head, but I guess I kind of assumed it was rare because it was controversial. This was the book that was about real pagans and was therefor banned because it validated concerns that the game would turn players into heathens. Needless to say, as a semi-acknowledged teenage atheist (my family knew I was an atheist, and they were tolerant so long as it didn't interfere with any of our mandatory religious activities), this held a terrible mystique for me.

That's why I snatched up 3rd edition's Deities and Demigods. I had more money by then, and I was convinced I'd never see it again. It's also why I bought the 1st edition Legends & Lore, a couple of years before I began the blog. I was like, "whoa, this is a rare book that I'm improbably seeing in real life, better get it while I can." So it was kind of a thing.

However, in recent years, I've been using the internet more and more for my book shopping, and this feeling of scarcity has gradually subsided. The 2e Legends & Lore has been on my Amazon wishlist for a couple of years now, and it's always been oddly stable in price. It never got to a point where I felt the need to pounce on a sudden price drop, and after reading so many other 2e books, I didn't really feel a hunger for more.

And yet, a few weeks ago, I bought it. I think it's because I finished reading all my other core AD&D books and was looking forward to a future where I never had to read any of them ever again. There was a nagging sense that I was leaving something unfinished. My white whale was reasonably priced and easily available, and it would be a real shame if I left AD&D behind without ever experiencing it . . .

And the reason I went through the trouble of telling all that to you (aside from padding out the post length - 2 million words, here I come!) is so you'll have the proper context to appreciate how completely hilarious it was that I only got to the second page before realizing I'd made a huge mistake:

In at least one case, that of the American Indian, many of the deities are complete fabrications of the author, designed to capture the spirit of the culture, not to present accurate descriptions of gods once worshiped by true Native Americans.
I mean, that's my job done, right? I just have to gesture wildly at the excerpt and point out that they're admitting to doing the cultural appropriation thing in just the baldest and most direct terms possible and somehow this is meant as a disclaimer. What intelligent commentary is there left for me to add?

Looking back at my notes, I put stars around one entry, to indicate that it was my direct, personal reaction to something I was reading. The note? *How bad could it really be?*

On the next page of my notes, I ask the rhetorical question, "Will you listen to yourself for 5 seconds."

Now I'm going to have to do a long quote from the relevant section, because my words could not possibly do it justice.

The mythologies of North America are as varied and numerous as the different Indian nations that inhabited [sic] the land. . . Any attempt to incorporate all of the deities worshiped by these various tribes as part of a single pantheon is destined to be full of unexplained gaps and conflicting detail.

Fortunately, there are many analogies between tribes, even those located on opposite ends of the continent. For the purposes of a campaign setting, we can use these analogies to draw some rather broad and coarse generalizations that will allow us to create a unified and consistent pantheon where, in historical reality, one did not exist.

 Will you listen to yourself for 5 seconds?

I'm kind of at a loss as a critic. You know all those things you said were reasons it was difficult for you to do what you wanted to do? Those are also the reasons you shouldn't be doing what you say you want to do. It makes me feel like maybe you know that you're out on a limb, but you're doing it anyway. 

Which is actually a pretty apt description of this book's whole vibe. Later on, in the section on the gods of India, it takes pains to make the hair-splitting distinction between ancient Vedic beliefs and modern Hinduism:

Legends & Lore makes no attempt to translate modern Hinduism into AD&D game terms, but the transition between the beliefs of the late Vedic age and those of early Hinduism is so smooth and gradual that it is impossible to describe one without touching on the other. Many of the concepts discussed below will unavoidably have an Hinduistic echo to them.
Will you listen to yourself for 5 seconds?

Incidentally, that quote is a bit of a lie. The entry on Kali mentions that some of her followers pose as travelers and strangle people with knotted cords, and even aside from how problematic it is to reduce such a complex and important goddess to the worst thing ever done in her name, it also places the source material no earlier than the 14th century CE, about 2000 years after the end of the Vedic age.

I think it would be easier if this were a hateful book. It's not, though. It's actually pretty consistent about cheerleading whatever culture is the subject of the current chapter. And it's clear that they did a lot of what passed for research in 1990 (i.e. go to the library and read books in English, written by white scholars - though it's hard to say because there's no bibliography).

However, just because it's not hateful, that doesn't mean that it is respectful. It's not. It's tough to put into words, but the feeling I get is that the text buys heavily into the idea that it's "just a game." So you'll get chapter introductions that talk about real history and real people, and they all attempt to say "look at how cool these people are" (enough so that the Greek chapter made me a bit uncomfortable with its "foundational values of western civilization" talk), but then, after getting the acknowledgements out of the way, it immediately proceeds to jam these round pegs into the square holes of AD&D's cleric class and overall gamishness. Make a percentage roll to see if you've attained enlightenment, and if the party is attempting to overthrow an unrighteous ruler, there's a 10% chance that the Norse god, Forsetti, will send an avatar to help out. The diversity, nuance, and theological sophistication of the various cultures never even enters as a factor.

Also, Loki never fucks a horse. How, exactly, did he "help" to build the walls of Asgard, Legends & Lore? It was important enough to include in his entry, but you never say how.

Anyway, my take on Legends & Lore is that it's not the sort of book that could be written today, and for very good reason, but it could have been so much worse. You want to make a D&D campaign inspired by the nations of pre-columbian America? This book is not much of a resource. You want to set a game in medieval China? This book is not much of a resource. But it is almost certainly less racist than its intended audience (and once again, I am including young me in this assessment), and compares favorably to, say, Dead Magic II, which was written more than a decade later.

Let's just chalk this one up to an unwise purchase, but it's not something I'm going to actively rue.

Ukss Contribution: Ooh, now this is a tough one. This book is jam-packed with egregious cultural appropriation, and even though I'm convinced its heart is in the right place, I don't necessarily want to pick some cool thing and then find out later that its a half-assed misrepresentation of something important and sacred.

So let's just go with the Wild Hunt. It probably would have been a contender even if I weren't being timid, although I'm not sure I entirely buy this book's contention that it exists to "[fight] evil with evil's weapons, namely fear and ferocity."

I actually did a double-take on that bit. Went to the internet to see if maybe I wasn't thinking of a different Wild Hunt, and . . . it's complicated. This thing is scary and sinister and an omen of ill-fortune, but sometimes it's led by a heroic figure of legend. But modern pagans incorporate it into their religious practice as a symbol of the dark side of nature. Not entirely sure I understand it, but it has a broad enough footprint in European folklore that it doesn't feel wrong to try and do a unique take on it.

I'll probably do some version of the evil-fighting Hunt, in deference to the donor book, but I like the frightening spirits, so it will definitely be the sort of evil-fighting that you wish were happening somewhere else.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)The Book of Exploration, Legends of Earthdawn: volume 2

 This book was cute.

That's exactly what I said about Legends of Earthdawn: Volume 1, and it continues to be true. Cuteness has been preserved. It's just a really fun and interesting idea to present a setting by making a bunch of urban legends and travelers tales and then suggesting ways to adapt them into adventures (and if the pattern holds up, I'm  probably the only person who's ever going to call Unknown Armies "cute.")

Of the two Legends of Earthdawn titles, however, I think Volume 2 is probably slightly less cute than volume 1. I think it comes down to volume 2 having a more focused premise - it is ostensibly a collection of journal entries, obtained by the Great Library of Throal and assembled into a handy reference for adventurers. Which, okay, is just how FASA liked to do things, but in this case, it did mean that the stories sometimes fell into a formula - "oh hey, we're somewhere no one's ever been before . . . my god, what is that thing that is killing us . . . I, as the sole survivor, am writing this account so people don't go back to where we were and get killed by the thing."

And then, of course, it's adapted as an adventure, where the PCs do, indeed, go back.

Now, I don't want to be too cynical here. Plenty of the stories broke the mold. One was told by the monster itself, fondly reminiscing about how it killed those people who got shipwrecked near the lighthouse it was inhabiting. PCs can't go there, because the monster is long gone, but they might run into in during their travels. And on a more positive note, there was nothing at all creepy about the Skytree River, a river that ran on the top of the trees and contained living, memory-preserving emeralds that the talking tree-top piranhas would catch for you if you impressed them with your ability to ride the rapids nude (everything in that river hates "the work of Name-Givers," up to and including clothes).

Actually, there was something a little creepy about the way the narrator used the fish-friendly skinny dipping as an excuse to sneak a peek at his female adventuring companion, but he had the good grace to be embarrassed about it, and it all came across as fairly innocent. In the end, nobody died at all. 

Also, we got a couple of examples of the nested framing device reaching a third layer. The Great Library's compilation contains a journal that relays a story told to the adventure. Has there ever been an rpg setting built on a purer form of hearsay?

I'm kind of embarrassed at how short this post is turning out to be. I'm looking at my notes and all I'm seeing is little bits and pieces I liked from the stories, but the stories themselves are so short (all come in at under two pages) that there's little difference between a summary with enough context to demonstrate what I liked about it and a full-blown spoiler.

So I'll leave you with something I liked from one of the stories' set ups. The first story in the book came to the Great Library when one of the scholars shot a bird for dinner and discovered a note tied to its leg. An unlikely coincidence, to be sure, but an amazing way to start an adventure. I'd love to spring that on a group of PCs some time. "While out hunting, you find a plea for help . . . one that will never be answered because of you." You'd have to be some kind of monster to ignore that prompt.

Anyway, I really liked this book. Another example of Earthdawn working right in its wheelhouse. It's a shame this "minifiction + adventure seed" format never really caught on (as far as I know), because I'd love to see what sort of tidbits other settings might offer up.

Ukss Contribution: One of the stories was called "Masquerade of Death's Dreams," and it presented a unique way to bring the dead back to life. What you do is wear a special mask and do a ritual to transport your sleeping consciousness to Death's realm. There, you find a masquerade ball, filled with a bunch of random ghosts . . . and the ghost of the person you want to bring back to life.  You go around the room, dancing with and chatting up the masked ghosts and when you think you've found the person you want to resurrect, you unmask them. If you're right, they are brought back to life. If you're wrong, the ghost unmasks you and steals your life.

I like it because it's mythic and spooky and gives you some great roleplaying opportunities. Much better than a bland "raise dead" spell, even if it fills the same gameplay niche.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Sorcerously Advanced

Where to get it: drivethrurpg

Ah, so what we've got here is a fantasy version of sci-fi Nobilis. . .

You can't see me right now, but I'm chuckling pretty heartily at how colossally bad a take that would be. Sorcerously Advanced, despite being a diceless rpg set in a deeply layered fantasy multiverse with ubiquitous magic, isn't really that much like Nobilis at all. I think it might be an outgrowth of its provenance as a science fiction game. You still have these broadly-defined traits that reflect the setting's metaphysics (the "Natures" - Communion, Industry, Mystery, Self, Trickery, and War), but they are much more carefully defined and feel much more like material processes. They are also much more concrete in scope. The "physical strength" magic caps out at "Lift massive timbers and stones" instead of "sleight of hand the moon, like you're in some kind of avant garde cartoon." You can still work effects that could potentially affect the whole universe, you just have to use the ritual system and be willing to devote the necessary time, though for the life of me, I could not figure out what's supposed to happen if your modifiers wind up pushing the ritual time past the top of the chart (100 years). Nevertheless, it's notionally possible to do things like create new planets or alter the nature of time. There are even organizations in the setting who have done so.

Strangely enough, though, the overall effect winds up feeling more grounded than Sufficiently Advanced. I think it's because I'm more inclined to take fantasy at face value than I am science fiction. You present me with a civilization that uses nanotech to digitally scan people down to the molecular level and then simulate them inside a high-resolution virtual world, where they then proceed to have a very conventional form of captialism, and I start to ask questions . . . about the metaphysics of the self, and what it means to live in a simulated world, and how it's even possible to have a society in which the wealthy have monetized even the very fabric of existence itself, such that if you can't pay your rent they throttle the simulation so that you're living in a scaled-down, pixelated world for no discernible practical purpose aside from allowing the rentiers to remind you that they own your reality. Whereas, if, in your fantasy setting, you have a faction that uses time magic to recreate physical echoes of ancient ruins and then populates them with their own descendants, pulled them backwards in time in an effort to colonize the whole planet with their ever-expanding, immortal progeny, well for that, I'll just nod and say, "it seems like a bit of a paradox."

Which is to say that when talk about the unexpected implications of a physical universe that doesn't necessarily conform to our naively developed intuitions, that somehow feels like the art is less literal than a fantasy world that often does make intuitive sense, even in situations that would lead to a logical contradiction. The GM section calls this "an ascientific world." Laws have exceptions, so the giant eagle can fly, weight ratios be damned. And, logically that shouldn't happen. A world where that could happen is one that would quickly run into all sorts of paradoxes, but they don't, because "it's like a bird, but bigger, so I'm not surprised to see it in the air" is a thought that makes perfect sense.

The most direct comparison would be between Sufficiently Advanced's wormholes and Sorcerously Advanced's travel lattice. An infinite void, filled with bridges that are always precisely 10 miles long which connect arbitrary points all over the multiverse is a pretty whimsical idea, and something that could never actually exist, but it works exactly like you think it would - cross the bridge, get to the place. Wormholes are not nearly so baroque. You pass through and are instantaneously transported to another location in the same universe, but because of the weird rules of relativity, every wormhole is, by necessity, also a potential time machine. Wormholes could exist in the real world, and it's kind of weird that of the two methods of travel, the only one where you run the risk of bumping into yourself heading the opposite direction is the one that is not, technically, magical.

It's probably on purpose. Sufficiently Advanced gets its title from that Arthur C Clark quote - it's about technology that's indistinguishable from magic. Presumably, Sorcerously Advanced comes at it from the other direction - magic that's indistinguishable from technology. So the games have subtly different feels to them, though they're both pretty great in their own way.

The central premise in Sorcerously Advanced is that, up until about 400 years ago, it had a fairly standard distribution of magical power - a privileged few were born with magical talent, and they lorded it over everyone else. Then, without warning, the Gift happened, and everyone got the ability to do magic, often at levels "that rivaled the most powerful wizards at the time."

This leads to a lot of really interesting, high-powered fantasy concepts - there's a faction that invades Hell, enslaving the demons as revenge for their tormenting humanity before the Gift. That's pretty metal. So there's this permission there to go as big as you want with it.

Where I have an issue with the worldbuilding is when it comes down to portraying whole societies of super-mages without ever getting into the nitty-gritty details. There's a sidebar about childhood education and it sets the benchmark for learning the default magical Expressions at age 20. It also says that people are taught how to gain immortality as part of their standard education, but even if they weren't, they "tend to figure it out around age 50, if their Self score is high enough."

And the question becomes, "what do scores really mean." You need a Self of 2 to stop aging and Self 3 for broad immunity to most things that can kill you. Are 2-point scores the equivalent of a high school education, or do you just develop them without trying? How much work is getting up to a rank 3? Or a rank 5? Is that like "professor at my local community college" level or "Michael Jordan-esque once-in-a-generation talent" level? What about multiple 5s? 

I tried to make some inferences based on the sample character templates. None of the characters from the main civilizations had even a single Nature score at rating 1. Some characters from the less powerful civilizations of "the Unruly lands" did have the occasional 1, but only the "Bonded Healer" had more than one (and their other scores were a 5, a 4, and a 3, making them a pretty hefty character nonetheless). My guess is that level 2 magic is like basic literacy. It's a skill. You need infrastructure and support to learn it, but it's a very realistic goal at nearly any stage of life and it doesn't take a lot of effort to maintain it.

I also averaged the first twelve template arrays, just to get an idea about what the "typical" stat range should be and the mean was 18 points, spread across the six natures. Which means that a score of 3 is pretty unremarkable. The two characters I saw with straight 3s were "the First Responder," "the Idler" and "the New Arrival," and it was rare to see a character who didn't have at least 3 of the stats at 3 or higher. I guess I'd peg that level as "the parts of your education that stuck." You passed the driving test and you drive every day, so you have driving 3. Only if you were a notably bad driver would you be reduced to level 2.

Rating 4 seems . . . unsurprising. The guys I mentioned with the straight 3s and "the Gardner" (3 3s and 3 2s) were the only major civilization characters to not have at least one Nature at rating 4 or higher. This seems to track with an area of professional focus, but is not necessarily associated with a particular level of fame or prestige. You're a chef at a restaurant, you've got Cooking 4, but that place isn't getting any Michelin Stars.

Rating 5 is a bit more selective, but not shockingly so. You figure that an "Architect" or a "Merchant" or a "Healer" is a person with some special skill, and the status that comes along with it. Maybe your restaurant does get that Michelin Star, but not necessarily more than one. It probably is roughly equivalent to a typical PhD, but maybe you teach at a state university.

Which is kind of a long digression, but I needed the baselines so I could go back to the Nature descriptions and find the baseline level of power, possessed by almost everyone you're going to meet. You could walk down the street in the Sorcerously Advanced universe and see people throwing fireballs, creating elaborate illusions, shapeshifting into animals, having accurate visions of the past, conjuring useful objects from thin air, and healing bruises by laying on of hands, and at no point would you think, "wow, I saw a wizard today."

I guess there is still room for society to exist. There are still specialized jobs. Nearly everyone can conjure nourishing food for themselves, but it takes notable effort unless you've made a point to study conjuration, and the book says default conjured food is pretty bland. And despite the fact that nearly everybody regenerates completely from nearly any injury, there is a benefit to having a healer speed you along. And the cooperative magic rules do incentivize gathering a bunch of average people to do the bulk of your work during major rituals.

And yet, it all seems like it should be radically voluntary, because it doesn't require very much at all for an individual to be completely self sufficient. Expand that to any random group of 20 people who just happen to share similar aspirations and values, and that's a recipe for massive millenarian exoduses that really should decimate any society that makes things too unpleasant for its lower classes.

I think, in the balance of its civilizations, that Sorcerously Advanced squares this circle a bit better than Sufficiently Advanced. Most of them feel like projects people could get excited about. Even when the average person is roughly ten miles from every other location in this universe and the next, you could understand why they might want to invade hell or live in space, monopolizing extraterrestrial ley lines. It's unclear how the Diadem is able to have a "penniless underclass," though it seems at least notionally possible to deny people access to the knowledge necessary to learn magic, provided you start young enough (those 1s in the Unruly lands have to come from somewhere). A little more guidance would have been nice to have, though.

When it comes to rules, the main thing you need to know is that prior knowledge of Sufficiently Advanced is not required. All of the base rules are reprinted here, suitably modified for the different genre. There are subtle changes to the way Twists (the meta-currency) works - you store it in your Natures (though each nature always has six points of storage, regardless of its rating) and your theme-equivalents are now tied to your six Natures, limiting which Twists you can spend on certain effects. I don't really know how I feel about this, though. I thought the super-categories in Sufficiently Advanced were kind of unnecessary, and this new scheme does at least give them a coherent structure. However, it also means that your plucky, Twist-focused near-mundane protagonist has to jump through a few more hoops to have the universe bend in their favor. My gut instinct here is that min-maxing for high Import is a little less satisfying than in the science fiction version of the game. Which is, again, surprising. "Small town nobody pulled, unprepared, into the world of legend" is kind of the foundational trope of fantasy.  You can still play Peregrin Took, but Sorcerously Advanced is going to make you work for it.

The only rules change that I actively dislike is the Tradition system. Traditions themselves are fine. They are a power source and a method for harnessing that power source and a short list of advanced techniques for your Natures (most techniques are accessible to all Traditions, barring certain Tradition-specific weaknesses, but you get a Reserve discount when using your Tradition's signature effects). And they work perfectly well.

But you can have more than one Tradition. And even that is no big deal. This family of games is super-permissive about character creation. You can give yourself all 5s on your stats, you can add a few bonus Expressions to your list. Why not? Maybe I'd charge a point of Import for the privilege, but it's not going to be dramatically effecting the game balance.

Where the Tradition system loses me is in the fact that your various Traditions have independent Nature ratings, and subsequently, independent Power and Import scores. You can only have one active at a time, but it's unclear what's actually happening in the fiction when you switch between them. And maybe it's irrational for me to feel this way, but I don't like the way it seems to invite you to manipulate the Import system. Sufficiently Advanced was pretty neat in its solution for balancing disparate power levels in the same party, and it kind of bugs me that "walking plot device"-type characters can swap over to having protagonist powers just by . . . choosing not to use some subset of their knowledge for a brief period of time? (I really have no idea what's happening when people change their active Tradition).

So that's my house rule for this post - you can have multiple Traditions, but they all share a fixed set of Nature ratings and you lose one point of Import for every six additional Core Expression you gain in this way.

Overall, I think Sorcerously Advanced is the superior of the two games. Its tone is easier to grok, its civilizations are more iconic, and its setting abounds with the best kind of fantasy audacity - the entire world is a giant bowl, two million miles across, held in the hands of a giant golden creator-god, and that's the least interesting thing about it. The Worlds chapter could have been ten times as long and I would not have gotten bored.

So I think I have to count this one as another unqualified recommendation. I'm grateful it's crossed my path.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of good stuff here, but I especially liked the Living Pantheon of the Unroyals. It's unclear whether they are actual independent entities, or just personas the Unroyals adopt when they're in the mode to try out a new identity (or when they need the persona's specific abilities), but I kind of like them as gods. My favorite is The Thief of the Unwanted, "who quietly relieves people of those things that bring them no joy."

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Princess Bride Roleplaying Game

 For the life of me, I can't remember why I ever thought The Princess Bride Roleplaying Game was a good idea.

That's not meant as a knock on the book, though. It did as good a job as anyone could reasonably expect. It's just that in retrospect, making a Princess Bride rpg is probably impossible. The movie simply doesn't have that much untapped potential.

Believe it or not, that's a compliment. Imagine a Princess Bride sequel or prequel or remake . . . 

The horror you just felt was a perfectly human reaction to the unmitigated hubris it would take to try and improve on perfection. The Princess Bride was a movie so sublime that you don't even want more of the same. If I wanted to see more of the characters or the story, I would just put the thing on repeat (actually, that gives me an idea for my weekend plans . . .)

When we talk about a licensed rpg, it's usually in terms of the extended universe. Your games might not be canon, and they might not even feature any of the official characters or locations, but they do tap into the well of untold stories that you can sense at the fringes of the universe - what else is happening on the Wookie planet, what were the elves of Rivendale doing while Frodo carried the ring into Mordor, how did the rest of the world deal with the nuclear war in the Fallout universe?  And this is possible because elaborate worldbuilding is a major feature of these franchises.

The Princess Bride doesn't really have much of that. Sort of. It's kind of a conceit of the novel that the "original book" by S. Morgenstern did have a bunch of supernumerary worldbuilding that William Goldman "abridged" to get to the "good parts" (sorry about using so many scare quotes, the novel is very sarcastic). Presumably, you could build an extended universe out of that implied setting. However, this particular rpg is quite explicitly based only on the movie. In fact, the one time it ventures into the novel's territory, describing Humperdinck's Zoo of Death, it actually breaks off prematurely, lest it spoil the book. That's the order we're doing things, apparently - movie, rpg, then book.

In any event, the movie-only approach leads to a situation where there's no real justification for the rpg's existence. The movie was already structured like an rpg adventure. Inigo, Fezzik, and Westley are a party and they infiltrate a castle with a ridiculous plan that shouldn't possibly work. It's great, but there's no need to go back. We've already seen the best story that anyone's ever going to tell about the Fire Swamp or the Cliffs of Insanity, and nothing about the movie implies that there's more left to be explored.

So The Princess Bride Roleplaying Game doesn't really try. It's really just a perfectly serviceable low-magic, rules-light rpg that sometimes (read: frequently, to the point of being distracting) quotes a famous movie in its rules explanations. I've actually got nothing major to complain about from a rules perspective. Some nitpicks - the Professions are almost entirely superfluous, and the skill list includes certain skills that are proper subsets of other skills, despite having the same cost (for example, the "Watercraft" skill is just a bundle of the Boating, Fishing, and Swimming skills, which are available separately because Inigo canonically could pilot the boat, but not swim) - but, the basic technology here is the FUDGE system and it works.

I guess, in my heart, I was hoping that there could be an rpg that makes me feel the way the movie made me feel - a very specific combination of warmth and humor and comfort, but of course that's a ridiculous thing for me to want, because I can't be ten years old again and play this game for the first time and be enchanted by the broad characters and easy-to-understand stakes. I can't be 15 again and realize it's slyer and more clever than I gave it credit for. I can reasonably simulate being 30 and coming to appreciate the sweetness of the relationship between the kid and the grandfather, but that wasn't really part of the rpg. Calling the meta-currency "Grandpa, Wait" points was cute, to be sure, but my heartstrings remain untugged.

The only part of the book that really dialed into that Princess Bride feeling was one of the sample adventures, where the PCs play preconstructed circus performers who are in Florin City on the day after Buttercup is kidnapped and wind up getting mistaken for Vizzini's crew. That could potentially hit the right mix of comic, heartfelt, and adventurous to justify the game's license, but I'd hate to try and follow it up with the adventure where you go to the Fire Swamp to gather alchemy ingredients for Miracle Max.

I think the book would probably have worked best as a compilation of adventures, rather than a full game in its own right. It might, at least, have spared us a tour of era-ambiguous Europe that encouraged us (literally, in very direct terms) to play up national stereotypes.

Overall, I'd say this book is a miss. I don't hate it, but it didn't do what it most needed to do. It didn't sell me on there being a vast Princess Bride expanded universe to explore. It didn't teach me any useful new tips for running light-hearted comedy rpgs (in fact, it said a couple of things I'd be better off forgetting). And most of all, it didn't really make me laugh, except perhaps at the occasional obvious fan-boyism (and look, I get it, believe me, there's no part of me that can ever consider "liking The Princess Bride too much" to be a fault). At the end of the day, the issue is that I have books that do fairy tales better, books that do adventure better, books that do romance better, books that do humor better, and so, if I were really hankering for some Princess Bride roleplaying, I'd probably use one of them (off the top of my head, my top 3 choices would probably be Blue Rose, a custom playset for Fiasco, or a Chuubo's mortal-level game).

Ukss Contribution: This one is tough, because how do I know I'm not just picking my favorite thing from the movie? Or maybe that's what I should be doing. I do have a tendency to get a little stealth with these choices sometimes. If I want it to be a true kitchen sink and not just my personal pet project, I have to have the guts to go for the iconic.

So let's see, my favorite part of the movie is . . . strangely enough, Humperdinck and Rugen's conversation outside the Pit of Despair. I just love the casualness of it, and especially the gentleness of Christopher Guest's performance. "If you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything," he said, sweetly, in an absolutely psychopathic context. Actually, come to think of it, Rugen is always a delight as the secondary villain. 

I mean, come on, "That's the worst thing I've ever heard . . . how marvelous." Such an asshole, but soft spoken and calm. I don't really get what makes him tick, but he never fails to make me laugh. I guess that means the choice has to be Count Rugen, the six-fingered man. . .

If I were picking something from the movie. Because, honestly, the choice is entirely based on the performance. As far as something I enjoyed because of the way it was written in the book under discussion, I guess I'll go with the Woeful Marsh. It's an okay location, but the memorable thing about it is the way it's written to be a transparent parallel to the Fire Swamp - there are waterspouts instead of flame spurts, sucking mud instead of lightning sand, and alligators instead of ROUSs, but it's totally different than the Fire Swamp.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)The Serpent River

I've been trying to write this post for about 18 hours now. Literally 20 seconds ago I just completely discarded about 500 words, because my first approach got deep into the weeds of "proper nouns are hard," and while that's true (this book has a lot of fucking proper nouns, only two of which I actually remember), it's not all that big a deal. I was just cranky because it's been 4 months and 27 books since I last read Denizens of Earthdawn, Volume 1, and all the T'skrang-specific jargon was making me feel like I failed a test. I have a feeling that if I read this book back in March, I'd be busy singing its praises.

Because it's kind of exactly what I've always said I wanted - a guidebook to a fantasy species that doesn't treat them as a monoculture, but shows deep and significant differences between rival groups.

Like the Theran-collaborater House, K-something (oh, fine I'll look it up - K'tenshin) is in a perilous position of having cut ties with their imperial overlords in the wake of Thera's defeat in their first attempt to reconquer Barsaive, and despite entering into the Free Trade Compact with the other T'skrang Houses, is beginning to harbor imperial ambitions of its own and still relies heavily on slavery to drive their economy. That's an interesting fantasy society (even if, like Thera, their sections tend to treat slavery as a background cultural element rather than as an ongoing atrocity for heroes to topple). And it could not be more distinct from House Syrtis (a name I remembered without needing to go back and look at the book, yay!), who are full of ancient dignity, claiming descent from mythological figures in T'skrang folklore and being the only aropagoi to assign positions based on aristocratic lineage .

And here I have to take a break and whine about something - Earthdawn has invented this term for the largest unit of T'skrang organization, "aropagoi" which supposedly has a specific and nuanced meaning, not easily translated (it's kind of like a corporation whose CEO is an ecclesiastical leader and whose shares are distributed by ethnicity), but then when it comes to giving them specific names, they're all called "Houses." Why not say "t'skrang are divided into houses" instead of "t'skrang are divided into aropagoi?" Or, failing that, call the individual houses by their setting-specific names, i.e. "K'tenshin Aropagoi" instead of "House K'tenshin."

Oh, wait, I'm slipping back into the proper noun rant. Let's move on quickly.

I suppose the question this book raises for me is "exactly how much diversity is necessary before you can say that a monoculture has been successfully broken up?"

The aropagoi are presented more or less as different nations. They have capital cities and controlled territory and different methods of selecting key offices. There are different cultural values and fashions and architecture. Yet they also have a lot in common - the top leaders of the aropagoi are all shivalahala - wise women who have inherited the memories of all their predecessors. All of the aropagoi are divided into nialls (powerful extended families) that specialize in some vital trade or another (House K'tenshin, for example, has twelve nialls, including Abanos, the slave-traders, Zeugmani, the glass-blowers, Meru, the farmers, and Gamaroon, the underwater farmers). They all ply the rivers with magical fire-driven paddleboats whose designs they jealously guard against non-T'skrang (even pirates and outcasts will keep this secret). They all revere brashness and derring-do. So what, exactly, constitutes a "culture?"

I can't help thinking of medieval Europe. You wouldn't call France and England the same culture, but they both had kings and emperors, nobles and peasants. At least up until the reformation, they had the same religion, with Bishops that answered to the same pope. They had knights and castles, and they both told stories from the same Arthurian canon. And, of course, their ruling families were often directly related, even in times when one wasn't trying to conquer the other. The aropagoi are at least as distinct. So where's the line?

I think you could make the case that culture manifests in a hundred different things that exist below the resolution of rpg supplements - cuisine and fashion, the decoration of weapons and homes, musical styles and the specific curation of a shared canon. And when you talk about large-scale and powerful things, like the feudal system, you can cite the advantages of having a compatible understanding of governance and borders and diplomacy and property rights. And, of course, cultures influence each other all the time, so that it makes sense to talk about distinctly English and distinctly French cultures, but also a broader European meta-culture that stems from centuries of interactions from all over the continent.

But if that's the case, then why are the T'skrang's shared cultural elements confined to the T'skrang? Shouldn't there be at least one human aropagoi? Shouldn't there be elf pirates who follow the custom of Bakshevas (a kind of toll-by-force with its own formal rules for ship-to-ship dueling that limits escalation of hostilities and where the loser pays the winner a double toll, even if they were initially the aggressors)? The Adept's Way did imply that learning a Discipline also carried with it some of the originating culture's particular quirks, but on a larger scale, this has not yet made an impact on the setting. The Serpent River is almost entirely about the T'skrang, and though non-T'skrang are mentioned as living in the T'skrang cities and even having important roles (one of K'tenshin's nialls is made up of Theran defectors and is only about half T'skrang), there is little sense that what's being presented is a Serpent River meta-culture. Really, it's the T'skrang's world, and everybody else is just living in it.

I'm going to call this one a near miss. There are a lot of good details, but it felt less like they were developing a region of Barsaive and more like they were fleshing out their completely original fantasy species of swashbuckling semi-aquatic lizard people.

Ukss Contribution: Don't let my unsatisfiable expectations for Earthdawn fool you - this book does some great worldbuilding. All of the major capital cities are pretty great locations. House K'tenshin has a city of 16 towers, connected by rope bridges. House V'strimon is headquartered in a floating city, built on a platform of woven, still-living reeds. But my favorite was House Syrtis, who rule the ancient Cliff City of Lalai Gorge. It predates the Scourge and has still not recovered its former population. It has room for 60,000 residents, but only a tenth of that maximum actually lives there, giving the streets an eerie, haunted feeling that well suits the intrigues of the the decaying nobility of the Syrtis aristocracy.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Sufficiently Advanced, Second Edition

Where to Get it: drivethrurpg

Whoa, this came out of nowhere. I guess I'd heard tell of it, over the years, mostly getting name dropped in various forum posts, and so it was on the edge of my consciousness - "have you heard of Sufficiently Advanced?" someone might hypothetically ask, and I'd say, equally hypothetically, "Yeah, I think it's an indie sci-fi rpg." However, having read a review copy, generously provided by the author himself, my gut reaction is that this definitely feels like something I should have been obnoxiously shilling to my friends for years. Like, I barely knew it existed two weeks ago, and now I can easily imagine my Thurston Howell voice say, "oh, you're definitely going to want to use Sufficiently Advanced for a game like that."

(I only use the Thurston Howell voice when I'm being 100% sincere, but want to give myself a cushion of ironic distance in case someone calls me out on having overly sophisticated preferences)

So what is it about Sufficiently Advanced that merits these convoluted layers of emotional artifice? Well, with profuse apologies to Mr Colin Fredericks for the overly reductive analogy - it's like a science fiction Nobilis. Now, this is a comparison that was anticipated and persuasively refuted in the design notes section.

The system for Nobilis is driven by effort. You have a certain base (godly) level of ability, and if you want to do more you put in the blood, sweat, and tears for it. . .

In SA2, the philosophy is freedom of information and difficult choices. You typically know your opponent's ability levels. You know your own very well. Almost every conflict results in a Complication.
And it's an apt distinction, even if I didn't pick up on it until it was pointed out (don't fall into the trap of thinking I'm good at this game criticism thing). Sufficiently Advanced does have a very deterministic resolution system, powered by very specific and literal character traits . . . which then gets subverted by a player-level dramatic editing system that allows you to spend a meta resource (Twists) to change the context of scenes to fit those rigid abilities.

It's actually quite clever.  Characters have "themes" like Romance or Terror or Wonder and each theme gives you a way to spend Twists to affect the course of the game.  One of the examples from the book is a character with the Intrigue (stumble upon) theme who isn't skilled enough to eavesdrop on a particular target, but spends Twists to stumble upon a rival surveillance setup that was already in place, so they could eavesdrop on them.

If I have a nitpick with this system, it's with the way that Themes are subdivided and attached to characters. You never have access to the Action theme, for example, but you can make a character with the Action (One Man Army) subtype. In which case you can always nudge events to make your character's one man army shenanigans more plausible.

And this works fine for establishing a toolkit of character-defining tropes for individual PCs, but it also means you can have dramatically clashing parties - the person who chose Romance (lovable goof), Empathy (too naive to judge) and Wonder (aw shucks, that's neat) is going to be in the same group as Action (grizzled survivor), Terror (no way out), and Intrigue (it's not paranoia) and the game will be all over the place as a result.

Now, obviously, that's an issue that can only be solved by table talk, and no mere game design is going to be able to preemptively solve an problem as fundamental as "conflicting genre expectations," but I do feel like negotiating the campaign's allowable themes is going to be an inevitable part of the setup phase for any Sufficiently Advanced game.

I also think there's a niche for "campaign themes," i.e. themes that embody world or story tropes that any player can use. One of the book's example themes is Wonder (big, dumb objects) and that lets you play a guy who's always finding big, dumb objects, but I really don't see why that has to be a particular character's shtick. If you're telling the sort of story where wasteful megaengineering is a major part of the aesthetic, why not just say that it's always appropriate for a player to spend twists to find a Dyson Sphere or geothermal borehole cluster or what have you?

I could also take issue with the lack of fluidity amongst themes. Like maybe the supercategories aren't entirely necessary or helpful. Take that Intrigue (stumble upon) character from the book, add Magnetism (mistaken identity) and Comprehension (forced monologuing) and you've got a recipe for someone whose life is total chaos, but is surprising effective anyways. So why not just extend that into other arena's like action? Maybe they get in a firefight and suddenly their missed shots are rupturing pipes and short-circuiting consoles in ways that quite implausibly advance their tactical interests. Perhaps it could require some kind of Twist surcharge or backlash Complication.

Anyway, don't take my nitpicks as indicative of any general shortcoming. Honestly, the only reason I'm pitching house rules in a review is because the system's potential was so obvious that it inspired me to find other ways to use it. What I like most about it is the way it gives structure to the players' dramatic editing abilities. 

I'm currently GMing the Trinity Continuum Core, which also prominently uses dramatic editing as a game mechanic, and my players haven't been taking much advantage of it. A lot of that has to do with me as a GM - so far I've been tossing them the kind of softballs that don't really need luck powers to resolve, but I suspect another part is just that "dramatic editing" isn't a power that's written down on the character sheet, so it's easy to forget it exists. And when you do remember, the field is wide open - you can do whatever you imagine and the cost is based on nothing but how improbable you get. Ironically, I think limiting those possibilities might make dramatic editing use a bit more common, as you now have a framework for the effects you generate and trying to find maximum utility within that framework is a fun little roleplaying challenge.

I think there's a sweet spot that might be less permissive than Trinity Core and more permissive than Sufficiently Advanced 2e, but if I'm being honest, Sufficiently Advanced is closer to hitting the target.

The Twist economy is also a neat way of balancing characters. First, let's take a step back and talk about the thing that most reminded me Nobilis - the Capabilities system. It's actually trivially easy for Sufficiently Advanced characters to have godlike powers. There are five broadly defined branches of fictional science that are rated on a scale from 1 to 5. So, if you're a Biotech-rating 1 character, you're more or less an unenhanced human, of the sort you could see on the street today, but if you're a Biotech 5 character, you can shift your physical body into any imaginable configuration by entering a cocoon and sleeping for a few days, heal yourself incredibly fast, and have incredible physical strength on the scale of tons, and that's in addition to all the benefits from the lower levels. Stringtech 5 gives you nuclear-bomb-strength weapons and the ability to teleport through self-created wormholes. The Cognitech, Metatech, and Nanotech Capabilities are similarly impressive. 

However, the higher your Capabilities, the higher your Tech rating and Tech subtracts directly from your most common sources of Twists - the full refresh you get at the start of each session and voluntary, self-imposed Complications. If you max out your Capabilities at the start of the game, then the only way you're getting any extra Twists at all is by taking a Major Complication, like spending the whole session in the hospital. If you're a completely mundane human with all Capabilities at rating 1, then you can generate a near endless stream of Twists out of Minor Complications like being suspended from work for a week (and you'll probably start out each session maxed out on free Twists besides).

It creates an interesting dynamic - high tech Transhumans with their space-ship bodies, hand-waving replicators, and thousand years of experience vs plucky young protagonists, probably hailing from some isolated planet with 18th century technology, who always seem to figure centrally in the schemes of the technogods. You could also play somewhere in the middle, I suppose, but it honestly seems like the worst of both worlds to me (although, one of the things you can spend Twists on is "Plot Immunity," and given the math involved, it might be good to be one point away from the maximum Capability ratings so that you can pull an emergency, life-saving edit out of a single Critical Complication).

Which is as good a cue as any to talk about another remarkable thing about Sufficiently Advanced's system - by default, there's no experience points or character progression. All that stuff about the balance between mundanes and immortal cyborgs comes down to the choices you make at character creation. It's a choice that intrigues me, because there's literally nothing stopping you from starting at the ceiling. It's this unblinking commitment to player empowerment that most reminds me of Nobilis.

Now I guess it's time to talk about the setting.  And the real issue here is how much I want to talk about capitalism.

If I don't talk about capitalism at all, this section is going to be short, but glowing. There are a ton of unique sci-fi ideas, arranged in a modular fashion to allow you to build a variety of settings that conform to the Sufficiently Advanced aesthetic. Take a handful of the 14 sample civilizations, populate them with whichever societies most interest your players, and unite the whole thing by a campaign premise. Nearly every combination is going to work. My favorite campaign was "Sublight," which removes FTL technologies and casts the players as shadowy, behind the scenes manipulators who transmit their uploaded minds between far-flung stars to meddle in local politics, becoming in the process a caste of unaccountable immortals in a galaxy where humanity is an ancient presence. It's both a sweeping historical epic (space travel is over 100,000 years old!) and a melancholy meditation on the nature of time. Just an incredible premise for both setting and plot. I'd gladly read a hundred novels set in that universe (and hey, it's Creative Commons, so get on that, people).

Even outside the campaign pitches, the pieces and parts are also pretty interesting. Like the Nanori, who build super-advanced nanotech with nothing but a survival instinct and try and use artificial selection to evolve them into specialized tools with surprising undocumented features. Or the Instinct-Builders, who use genetic engineering to encode memories and skills into their children's normal development, so they can start doing algebra at two years old (and other extreme helicopter parent shit). Sufficiently Advanced is extremely good at postulating new and fascinating applications for sci-fi tech, and nearly every setting element in the book builds upon and expands on these plot seeds.

And I can't go any farther without talking about capitalism at least a little. I'll admit, for a significant portion of my reading time, I worried that this book was trying to be extremely ideological. You've got these weird sci-fi societies like the guys who feed themselves into Replicators and cheat death by making endless copies of themselves, and they've got rich and poor and ways of making money through savvy investments and owning companies and their bank accounts pay compound interest. And socially, they're not an outlier. Very nearly every civilization has economic inequality and international trade and fiat currency.

At first, I got the impression that the author was trying to Make a Point, but then I got to the design notes and the section entitled "On Capitalism" and it's actually pretty weird. I'll just quote it: "Some people have asked why capitalism is still around in the setting. . . This is a tough one to answer, primarily because the I know very little of economics."

It definitely made some things click for me -  "oh, so when you were talking about those extreme pacifists who use biotech to hack their own immune systems to isolate, rather than kill bacteria and then you go on to say that they boycott banks that do business with arms dealers, you really were just naively speculating about what people with the power to rewrite their own physiology to survive off sunbeams would do with their money. I see."

It turns out the book is ideological, but it's just the sort of ideology that is passively absorbed from society and doesn't question fundamental assumptions. That's . . . not the best fit for science fiction.

I have to tread carefully here, because I'm kind of a political maverick - vaguely on the far left, but not really a Marxist, and I believe most people of the "capitalism is when you buy and sell stuff" persuasion probably have their hearts in the right place. So I don't necessarily want to take the critical position that a work of science fiction must be a socialist manifesto to have merit. However, this game's particular brand of capitalism by default is, indeed weak sci-fi. It would have undoubtedly been more interesting if it did have an axe to grind about the inevitable and eternal triumph of private property.

Like, one of the sample universes is called "The Patent Office" and it revolves around super AIs that can talk to themselves through time portals and use their phenomenal power to enforce international copyright protection covenants (and also manipulate humanity towards eternal peace or something like that), and it doesn't ask any of the obvious questions. What are IP terms like in a society where half the population is biologically immortal? How many cat memes do I have to make to afford the plans to a fusion reactor? If replicators are the source of most people's daily sustenance, and the only thing people buy and sell are licenses for replicator templates, wouldn't that mean that sometimes piracy could be considered a human right? What, exactly is the public domain lifestyle even like? And then, on top of that, add all the wrinkles introduced by transhuman technology and interstellar travel.

The thing that Sufficiently Advanced is most missing is the sense that money and banks and copyrights are really just forms of technology, subject to the same speculation as any other sci-fi invention. They exist to solve particular problems, and if they still exist in 20,000 years, it's because people are still having the same sort of problems even after all that time. What do those problems look like in a world where replicators are common, nuclear transmutation is a desktop app, and antimatter can be decanted out of normal matter for a net energy gain?

I'm actually pretty curious about how you would do truly capitalist science fiction in a world where technology has obsoleted mines. I have to figure that even for Brookings Institute 40k, keeping money in a bank is going to seem positively stone age, but without a clearer picture on the challenges to and pressures on private property in the far future, it's hard to imagine the alternative.

So, it's a weakness. Sufficiently Advanced is great at working out the technological implications of its sci-fi conceits, but GMs and players are going to have to be the ones putting in the work to explore the social and political implications. I'm fairly confident that this is not entirely by design, but it's also a fascinating topic, so it only barely counts as a strike on the game.

It's kind of a bummer to end on a negative note, but overall I really, really enjoyed Sufficiently Advanced (for my own mental health, I try not to write 2600 word posts on books I don't respect). It's a unique game with some solid design, and I am probably going to buy a physical copy one day. A total pleasure to have experienced.

Ukss Contribution: With Cognitech 5, your brain is such a sophisticated supercomputer that you can host thousands of ride-along AIs without much effort, simulating an entire city for them while also going about your business. That's really cool, and the perfect activity for some strange god or master sorcerer.