Thursday, September 23, 2021

(Planescape) Planes of Chaos

This book was really good . . . just not at what it set out to do . . . but what it set out to do was misguided . . . but the most misguided thing about it is its unique audacity. . . 

Almost every part of this boxed set is peak D&D. It does exactly what you hope a new fantasy setting is going to do and presents unique, well-drawn locations that incorporate distinctive and memorable magic while serving as an apt backdrop for character-driven adventures. It's some of the best setting work I've seen for AD&D so far, and it has the absolute best version of  the "slay rats for an innkeeper" quest I've seen in any rpg, tabletop or otherwise.

(The rats in question are actually intelligent Cranium Rats and they're getting revenge on the innkeeper by stealing his rat poison and feeding it to his customers)

But why is it in the planes?

A fantasy world can have giant treetop villages. It can have wind-swept caverns, carved by a vanished, ancient civilization to sound like the wailing of grief. It can have forests where the branches of the trees are venomous snakes. You could even put them all in the same world and have it be a place of romance, intrigue, and adventure. Or you could put them in a number of separate and distinct alignment-themed worlds, sorted by how bad each idea made you feel.

And look, on some level I get that this is just me nitpicking. These locations might not be in the same "world," but they are in the same setting, and there's not much practical difference between "Zrintor, the Viper Forest lays many hundreds of miles south of Grandfather Oak. You must travel to the nautilus town of Elshava, on the Ossa sea, and follow the coast to the fortress town of Broken Reach, from whence you may venture into those tainted lands" and "There is a planar conduit near Grandfather Oak that leads to Ossa, the second layer of Arborea, where you can find a portal between Elshava and Sigil, and then, from Sigil to Broken Reach, on the Plain of Infinite Portals, where you can find passage to Zrintor . . . if the price is right."

These are still locations which have a geographical relationship to each other. You may hop from one to another through magical doorways that bypass the normal rules of time and space, but there's nothing inherently virtuous about geographical continuity. Those long journeys between named locations would just have been handwaved away with downtime anyways. It's just weird to me the way these things feel sorted, as if, in a regular fantasy setting, you had "The Continent No One Would Ever Want To Visit" and "The Continent No One Would Ever Want To Leave" (separated, of course, by "The Ocean That Will Atomize You If You Ever Try To Cross It").

To be fair, the Chaos Adventures book indirectly addresses this.

The adventures here should put to rest any mistaken idea that the Lower Planes are where all the fun is, that the Upper Planes are simply too good to be of much interest to an adventurer. If it hasn't become obvious from reading through the rest of this boxed set that the Upper Planes are every bit as dangerous and exciting as the Lower, a quick read through these adventures makes it exceedingly clear.

Not mentioned is the Lower Planes chilling the fuck out for five damned minutes, but I have to assume it's implied. Both these agendas are accomplished in more or less the same way, though - by making the Planes more like an ordinary world where people can be expected to live.

The Lower Planes has towns now. Sure, they're violent and filled with treacherous scum, but you can buy things there, and even stay the night with a rational expectation that the locals will not cut your throat in your sleep.

Likewise, the Upper Planes have commerce. Arborea is "the breadbasket of the planes." The crops they grow are unnaturally large and delicious and they are sold to merchants for a good price. As adventures, you may even find good work in protecting said merchants from the monsters that lurk in the wilderness.

The monsters.

Now, I don't like to think of myself as a total rube. I get that this is all for the good of the game. The peaceful farmers of Peaceful Farmtown need your help! Owlbears have been spotted, and the local militia are worried that they might pose a threat.

Okay, that's a good adventure. Find the source of the monsters, eliminate the threat, save the town. Real hero business. Except, Peaceful Farmtown is literally in heaven. That's what put the "plane" in "Planescape." These places are the lands of the dead, the final destination of mortal souls, and pure emanations of the fundamental building blocks of the soul.

So what we've got is a situation where someone has lived an entire life in the material world, but not just any life, an exceptional life, one in which their actions exemplified not just a benevolent regard for the well-being of others, but also a principled commitment to freedom and personal autonomy. And this is not just a "closest fit" sort of scenario. There's an entire separate realm for "people who mind their own business, do what they want, but are mostly okay." You are Good with a capital G. And your afterlife is one where you work on a farm (and it's explicitly established that "petitioners get the blisters" when the Greek Gods refuse to upgrade their land's tools to iron) in exchange for money and there's a real possibility that your soul may be devoured by a monster, never again to exist in any form.

I feel like maybe the metaphysical implications of this were not entirely thought through.

Of course, the obvious next question is what I'd rather have in its place. What am I going to do, put my foot down and say "no monsters in heaven," and then have exactly the sort of boring game Chaos Adventures went through such trouble to refute? "Why yes, I do agree that the Upper Planes are too good to be interesting, as it should be."

I mean, I don't entirely agree with the solution, but I can see the designers' dilemma. I guess the best way to articulate my problem is to invert the question - what's the point of the Prime Material Plane?

It's kind of a big deal. Its inhabitants are "the Clueless," the ones who don't know much about the afterlife because they were just regular alive, in the place where living things usually come from, and which is the only place in the universe that's not "the planes." There has to be a contrast there, otherwise the Prime characters' ignorance of the Great Wheel would just be ordinary ignorance, every bit the equivalent of the Planar characters' ignorance of the Prime Material plane. Like, maybe everybody is "clueless" about places they've never been been before. . .

Okay, okay, sarcasm aside, it's not clear exactly what criteria go into making a world one of the Planes of the Great Wheel and what makes it a Prime Material world. My inclination is to say that the Prime Material worlds are, um, material. They have the sort of environment that can support the metabolic and reproductive processes of various mortal species. You can travel to the Outer Planes all you want, but the food you find is like Persephone's pomegranate or the feasts of the fair folk - you eat it and you lose at least a small part of your life, becoming tied to the otherworldly realms. Except that's not it, because people grow all kinds of food in Arborea, and not only is it safe to eat, it's better than regular food.

My other thought was maybe the Outer Planes were more abstract than the Prime Material, that they represented pure ideas and the realm of forms that gives the material world its fundamental shape. They can sometimes seem like that, and I'm pretty sure that's more or less exactly what they were, pre-Planescape, but also, the realm of Chaotic Good has deadly monsters.

I can think of a couple of ways to resolve this. I had an idea that maybe you could split away half the awful stuff from the two lower planes and half the great stuff from the two upper planes, shuffle the eight halves together and get four pretty damned great alternate primes. Planescape then becomes a kind of fantasy Sliders (and no, I don't have a more timely reference for you, what do you want from a guy doing in-depth critiques of 25 year-old rpg supplements) where you hop between different variant campaign setting, but none of it has special religious significance. 

The other way to go with it is an ecological approach - the Outer Planes are these abstract realms of fundamental meaning, but they are also capable of supporting mortal life, and thus mortals are doing what mortals do - expand into any remotely available niche and exploit it for all it's worth. I think this is the general approach that Planescape is going for, but I'm not sure any of the books I've read so far realize how fundamentally weird a premise this is, and they especially don't lean into the weirdness and try to explore its possible implications.

Like, okay, one thing we understand about Arborea is that its magical life energy means that crops grown there are unnaturally abundant, nutritious, and delicious. And that's economically valuable for obvious reasons. But why are the crops being grown by dead souls? "Welcome to free-spirit heaven, let me direct you to your completely mundane 9-5 job." The book is somewhat ambiguous about this point, and there are indications that the main trade cities are populated primarily by mortal transplants, but it's tricky to discern because the transplant cities mostly fit into the general tenor of the plane.

And it's not clear why this should be the case. It actually seems pretty obvious to me that there's not a great deal of overlap between the sort of person who would be admitted into Chaotic Good heaven and the sort of person who sees Chaotic Good heaven and thinks "I bet I could make a shit ton of money if I chopped down that magical forest and used the land for raising crops." And maybe, if we're exploring this line of reasoning, then we could neatly reconcile the "the Upper Planes are too good to be interesting" problem with the "why the fuck are there soul-destroying monsters in the Upper Planes" problem and have the central conflict stem from the unnatural presence of an invasive Lawful Evil agribusiness in the Chaotic Good afterlife.

We could even bring the monsters back into it. Maybe the monsters hitched a ride with the mortals. Maybe they're created out of the psychic dissonance between the intruders and the plane. Maybe they're the plane's immune system, lashing out at an irritant. Maybe the dead are so outraged by the mortals' exploitative practices that they're falling back on their old Chaotic Good virtue to wage a guerilla campaign, using the fantastic creatures of the Outer Planes as both weapons and allies. Maybe it's all of the above.

The mortals don't even have to be evil for many of these plots to work. If they're Lawful Good, then the dangerous paradox monsters may be a natural consequence of their actions, even as the inhabitants of the plane are reluctant to escalate the conflict to open violence.

The main canonical obstacle is the tendency of planar locations to shift out of unsuitable planes and into more compatible locations. There are any number of ways to solve this problem, however - from magical rituals, to simply having a business model that incorporates the cost of resettling every few years to just not having a bit of canon that preemptively shuts down the most interesting types of conflict.

Planes of Chaos is a marked improvement over the main Planescape boxed set, but ironically, it lacks the radical edge necessary to challenge its own received AD&D legacy. The structure and purpose of the planes were inherited from a game that made some very specific assumptions, and aside from some peripheral noodling that amounts to little more than retconning a few of the more religiously fraught names (they're not "demons," they're tanar'ri) the setting isn't actually allowed to mess with those assumptions (like what the hell is even the point of "planar layers" - can't we just allow heaven to have three different types of terrain). The need to remain compatible with the other campaign settings is holding Planescape back from being its own thing.

Don't get me wrong, though. There's a lot of good stuff here. It's just good stuff that's also careless about the metaphysics, doesn't take advantage of the available scale, and which weirdly shoehorns in the Greek and Norse gods, despite not being nearly Greek or Norse enough to do those characters justice (and, conversely, being in constant danger of losing the plot when it does dip into culturally specific themes - the Greek dead have slaves in the chaotic good afterlife realm . . . don't look at me, I don't know either).

Sometimes I'm struck by an overpowering sense of bemusement when I survey the landscape of the tabletop rpg-derived branch of the fantasy genre. Dungeons and Dragons looms so large here, but what D&D is is a countless number of very talented people playing inside of a sandbox built out of Gygax's peculiar obsessions and half-assed first drafts, but then because they're so talented, they manage to build some really cool shit inside that sandbox (and for all that he's become a problematic figure, I don't want to completely dismiss Gygax either). And the result is these huge snowdrifts of ideas that have just accumulated over the years and sometimes they have enough weight to crack the boundaries of the sandbox, but even as the ideas rush to fill in the genre's newly expanded borders, you still get these weird throwback stowaways that pop up and barge their way into places they have no business occupying (seriously, how the hell are Greece and Noway canon in AD&D - the books may be coy about it, but "on a certain Prime Material world" isn't fooling anyone), and then you get new generations who have never even read the primary sources talking about "generic" campaign settings, and basing whole new settings off of rebuttals to reactions to things that were never really meant as a coherent statement because they've had 30 different authors spread out over 25 different books, written over 15 years.

And then Plansecape exists as bridge between half a dozen examples of this, while also being an example of it on its own, and this is what I'm choosing to critique as "the AD&D afterlife setting." So, I guess what I'm saying is that I have no idea where I get the absolute fucking gall to say that I wish it hung together a little better, but I do, so ball's in your court, Wizards of the Coast, about hitting me up about that remake.

Ukss Contribution: The thing I most appreciate about the "planar" setting is the way it allows the creators to invent magical things that aren't necessarily tied to a magic system. Thus, you can have something like Evergold, (Arborea's improved name for the fountain of youth), without having to imply the existence of a "restore youth" spell. My favorite example of this is Howler's Crag. If you climb up to the top of this cliff, you can shout a message to anyone, living or dead, and they'll hear your words as a voice in the wind. It's just a weird magic rock in the middle of the hell of wind and darkness, but it's such an un-AD&D type of worldbuilding. There's a romantic legend that just happens to be true. You can find it and be a part of it. My absolute favorite type of fantasy.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Secret Societies of Barsaive

An rpg supplement may have a number of possible agendas. It could exist to expand the world, outlining new places to go and new people to meet. It could expand character options, giving players new ideas for PC backgrounds and new mechanical widgets to play around with. It could pitch story ideas, giving the GM the tools to create new adventures. It could just be a thinly veiled fantasy fiction, advancing the settings lore, but existing mostly to be read by people who are invested in the ongoing plot.

Or it could be like Secret Societies of Barsaive and attempt all of the above at once. What's astonishing about this book, however, is that it actually does a pretty decent job at servicing multiple goals at once. It's a jack-of-all-trades supplement, and even though it is still proverbially the master of none, it comes closer to that mastery than you'd have any reasonable right to expect. It's probably the best Earthdawn book since Parlainth and an overall pleasure to read.

"Secret Societies" is an interesting theme for a book because it can (and does) mean just about anything, but the one thing it definitely always means is "a group of people doing shit that's so interesting they have to keep it a secret." There's occasionally some unfortunate overlap between the organization (these spies work for Throal, these other spies work for the Blood Wood or the two separate groups that assassinate people for their dark patron, but with slightly different methods and goals), but even with the redundancies, they're all people who are doing things that would lead to all hell breaking lose if the wrong people found out about it. And sometimes the PCs want to stop the wrong people and sometimes the PCs are the wrong people, but either way, the campaigns practically write themselves.

And that's what this is, really. A slim book with 14 different mini-campaigns. The super racist worshipers of the god of slavery can be recurring antagonists (if you can handle how uncomfortably like the KKK they are - the metaphor is really on the nose). Or the PCs can get involved in the Liferock Rebellion and just be situated right at the center of any number of metaplot events as they take the fight to the Theran Empire. It's possible that the book might be too versatile for its own good - if one of the potential campaigns hooks you, you're only going to have about a half-dozen pages of material to work with - but if you're a newcomer wondering what to do with Earthadawn, or an old GM, looking for something new to do with Earthdawn, you're going to have a lot of options.

The weirdest thing about Secret Societies of Barsaive - and I'm calling it "weird" because I can't really say that it's either good or bad - is the way it seems to push "espionage thriller" as a fantasy campaign model. A lot of the adventure hooks revolve around learning things you're not really supposed to know, or stopping your enemies from doing the same, or around uncovering moles or safeguarding your organization's operational security to keep it from being compromised. It doesn't get deep into spycraft, but it's clear that it's supposed to be a concern.

The best thing about The Secret Societies of Barsaive, at least from my perspective as a guy who's been following along with Earthdawn from its earliest supplements, is the way that it indirectly fleshes out some of Barsaive's neglected locations. This is probably the closest we're going to get to seeing the inner workings of Kratas or Iopos, barring an adventure that sneaks in a little more setting in the background (as has been known to happen). 

It wasn't ideal to learn about these locations from the perspective of their espionage and law enforcement organizations, but the relevant sections were more generous with information than they needed to be. I especially liked learning about the complex politics of the magically talented Denairastas clan. They work well both as villains and as a potential source of PCs in a morally grey palace politics game. It's a shame they never got a full book.

The only thing I didn't like about this book was the framing device. There always has to be one, and this time it was a series of reports made by Theran spies. Those guys are the absolute worst, always arrogantly deciding to encourage the dark cults to cause trouble for Barsaive. At least we didn't get any slavery apologism this time, though.

Ukss Contribution: There was something to love in every chapter of this book, but I guess I have to choose one. I'll go with Little Dreams, the toy company that acts as cover for Throal's weapon smuggling operations. I'll probably have the different strands of their business dovetail a bit more (weaponized toys!), but even unembellished, the juxtaposition charmed me.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

(Planescape) Monstrous Compendium Appendix

 Ooh, this was a fun one. Monster books are always so easy. Come up with a weird fantasy creature and white a page about it. Very difficult to screw up. Even when you're dealing with the occasional dud, some new idea is only a page away. 

The Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix has a higher hit rate than most, thanks to having a strong theme (monsters you might find in heaven or hell) and the ability to cherry pick from the best of previous Monstrous Compendiums (according to the title page, MC8 "and other sources"). Its main weakness is that it's an AD&D monster book, and thus it's only intermittently cognizant of its monsters as elements of a story

I'll give you the most extreme example - The Translators. They are "messengers of the powers of neutrality" and already we're off to a shaky start, but other gods use them too so there is, at least, the potential for plot. And they are, themselves, kind of neat - elaborately-decorated silver orbs that glow with celestial light and speak every language, intelligent in their own way, but with no desire other than to deliver their messages. Your DM presents you with a situation where you have to heist the theo-mechanical construct containing the direct word of a living god, that's a pretty tight adventure.

Now, the ridiculous part. If you tamper with one, your actions will be noticed, and the god whose word you stole will intervene to try and stop you. It's not ideal that this is automatic, because read strictly this shuts down the heist plot, but it's not that big a deal. Just adds one more step to the theft. However, the mechanics of how the gods intervene are absolutely off the wall. Roll 1d100. On a result of 1-99, the god sends an aasimon (angel). If the result is 100, roll again. If this second roll shows 1-99, the god sends 1d6 + 1 angels. And already this is the most AD&D thing imaginable . . . except if the second result is 100, the god itself shows up. . .

The book is asking you to roll a d10,000. Who designs an encounter like that? I guess it's comparable to botching a 10-die roll in the Storyteller System (6 in 10,000 chance, assuming a target number of 6), but that's a worst-case scenario for including a "triggers on botch" effect. A much more likely scenario is 6 dice vs target number 8, which has roughly the same chance of happening as rolling a natural 1.

Although the more pertinent question is why you're leaving the appearance of a literal god up to an arbitrary roll of the dice. Either you want "potentially drawing the ire of a vengeful deity" to be part of your adventure's stakes, or you don't. So you tie the appearance of the god to the PCs success or failure at various objectives within the scenario, building tension by narrating closer and closer near-misses until a final, fateful roll. You don't just slap four d10s down on the table and pretend that if you roll all 0s, it's completely out of your hands.

Likewise, the number of enforcer angels that show up should be determined by the sensitivity and importance of the message, which is itself, presumably, scaled to what your PC group are qualified to handle (i.e. do the quest at level 1, intercept a farmer's request for rain, do it at level 20 and you have to stop the order that starts the apocalypse). Sometimes 1 and sometimes 1d6 +1, depending on the whim of the dice, doesn't make any sense, even from a "rules as physics" point of view.

The Translators' backup roll is merely the logic of the book taken to the extreme, though. Even the more lore-heavy entries still stumble at addressing how the monsters are likely to be used in play. By the very virtue of being a Monstrous Compendium, the text misses out at developing its various fiends, angels, and elementals into vibrant characters that occupy a niche in the Planescape setting.

Take Arcanoloths. They're these dapper, nerdy jackal-demons who negotiate mercenary contracts for their fellow demons, and half their entry is about how to fight them. Nothing about stealing their scrolls or shaking them down for information or hiring them to represent you when the Harmonium puts you on trial in Sigil. 

I mean, look at this guy:

Do you want to fight this guy? Or do you want to run into him in a seedy extraplanar bar and listen to him complain about his job and hey, maybe you could help him out, he could make it worth your while?

When I posted about the Planescape Boxed Set, I saw comments to the effect that Planescape was meant to be TSR taking aim at White Wolf, but if so, they missed a key element - the talking bits are way more fun than the fighting bits, and this first Monstrous Compendium doesn't give us near enough talking bits to work with. I suppose that's probably a side-effect of being largely legacy material, collated and reprinted to coincide with the new setting, but written long before Planescape was even a thing.

Anyway, my complaints thus far have given the impression that I'm much more down on this book than I really am. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. The best part, as Mr Arcanaloth up there can attest, is the art. There are so many spectacular pieces that I'm tempted to make this a big art post. My favorite is the Night Hag

This lady is definitely going to feed me a poison apple and I love it, but almost every monster portrait is distinctive, inspiring, and fun. . . except maybe some of the monsters whose deal is that they look like beautiful women. Like, okay, I get why the succubus looks a little porn-y, fair enough. And the Erinyes is supposed to be a terrible spirit of vengeance and not a lingerie model, but the monster description was way off base, so I can't really pin that on the artist. But why is the sexy cat lady staring directly into my soul? And the tiefling is just gratuitous.

Still, if I'm reading the credits page correctly, the whole book was illustrated by just one guy, which is wild to think about. I hope TSR compensated Toni DiTerlizzi well, because he has been carrying this whole setting so far. I'm hoping that as we go on, we'll start to see some writing that consistently rises to the level of the art design.

Ukss Contribution: Despite my backhanded words, a lot of the individual creatures were pretty interesting. I really liked the mephits as a group, though I was a bit shocked when I took a closer look at the stat block and realized they were canonically 5 feet tall. It's a weird decision because they're these comically annoying mascot characters and absolutely adorable if you imagine them as 1 foot tall (which I always did when I DMed Planescape back in the 90s). I guess they don't lose much by being the goblins of the elemental planes, but the sensation of being so wrong for so long is a little jarring for me.

Anyway, my favorite variety was the dust mephit

They don't just look goth, they say things like "A dust mephit I am, lest dust I become!" OMG! Sooo cuuute. I'm going to continue picturing them as 1 foot tall, though, because that's the size of the plush I desperately want to buy from Hot Topic.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) The Theran Empire

 Why is Barsaive in Ukraine? That's the question I have to ask before I can even begin to form an opinion on The Theran Empire. It might not seem entirely relevant, but the bulk of the book (120 out of 176 pages) is devoted to fleshing out Thera's conquered provinces, regions that are politically very much like Barsaive, but which have not declared independence (yet), so if I can work out the process by which Barsaive was constructed as a setting, then I can determine how surprised I should be by the worldbuilding in this book.

So far, Barsaive has mostly been "what if D&D, but it showed its work," and it's been great. There's these places and sometimes they're a trope (like Kratas, the city of thieves), and sometimes they're riffing on a unique idea (like the Blood Wood), but they're still D&D-fantasy-style places. That's not to sell Earthdawn short or anything. It's done D&D fantasy as well as anyone ever has, but it's clearly working within a genre. You could call it "generic fantasy," but it has a very specific set of assumptions. Or perhaps "European fantasy" except that it doesn't really resemble any specific place or time in European history.

And that's important, because it seems like the answer to "Why is Barsaive in Ukraine" is "Why not?" Maybe it's because I don't know a lot about Ukranian folklore, but there doesn't seem to be anything in the setting of Barsaive that demands that it be in this specific location. The coastlines match up, but everything else about the cultures, the cosmology, and the creatures of Barsaive suggests that this is more of a riff on Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk than a deep dive into Slavic mythology.

Something like that could go anywhere. You probably want to keep it in the vicinity of Europe, to avoid any unfortunate "this land was once home to an ancient society of white people" nonsense, but Barsaive could be in Germany or France or Great Brittan and we wouldn't be terribly confused about the strange location of this prototypically Ukrainian fantasy world.

That being said, I don't think the choice of location was entirely arbitrary. If you're making an rpg that is the secret history of the Shadowrun universe, even as just a sly little easter egg, then you want it somewhere that people can look at geographical landmarks and make the connection, but if you want it to be able to stand on its own, you don't want to be too on the nose about it. With all due respect to my Eastern European readers, for whom I'm sure the coastline of the Black Sea is immediately recognizable, Ukraine offers a nice compromise. Point it out, and you'll get an "oh, yeah," but you're not dealing with a province of Talea type situation

Can you guess where this location is in our real world?

People who've read The Theran Empire will probably have picked up on what I've been building up to, but that map there is more articulate than anything I might have said. You might ask "Why is Barsaive in Ukraine," but there is never even a moment's doubt as to why Talea is in Italy. The text is somehow less subtle than the map.

The province of Talea is divided between fractious Dukes who must contend with the powerful Signori who rule the cities and employ mercenary armies paid for by their extensive mercantile interests and all of them answer to the leader of a celibate religious order, called the Pompate, who worships a god that preaches the virtues of poverty, but whose church is massively wealthy and houses its important priests (called "paders") in opulence while building an enormous number of expensive monuments. . .

And look, I'm not saying it's bad, but it is a style of worldbuilding we've not seen in Earthdawn before, and is extremely weird in a place that is literally the physical location of the culture it's plagiarizing, just 8000 years in the past. You could pitch me "Renaissance Italy with the serial numbers filed off, but in a fantasy world with elves and dwarves and gender equality," and I'd be mostly okay with it. I'd probably ask what you were planning on doing with Christianity, and I wouldn't be entirely comfortable if you replicated this book's approach (the church is convinced that some important figure is going to be born in the future, and have assembled some kind of ramshackle theology based on what they think his teachings are likely to be, an approach described in-character as "mind-bending nonsense"), but I get it. By basing it on history, you get some automatic verisimilitude and by making it fantastic, you're ensuring that your players can't peek at your campaign notes by browsing Wikipedia.

And if Barsaive were specifically Ukrainian, I could probably leave it at that. "Oh, they're doing to Italy what they did to Ukraine, the so-called 'Age of Legends' is just a funhouse mirror version of our current historical age and so everywhere you go, you're going to run into tropes." But Barsaive is not Ukrainian. It's 95% fantasy nonsense, and so my reaction was more like "whoa, what game am I reading and what did it do with Earthdawn."

Now I'm forced to talk about cultural appropriation. Sometimes I get the dark suspicion that my reluctance to venture into these waters is an affectation. "Ooh, I'm so humble, I know I don't know enough to have an informed opinion, but the book is forcing me to talk about it" . . . and then somehow getting into this situation at least three or four times a year, but The Theran Empire really does some weird things with culture and I've been treading water in this post to delay talking about it, but I've already dipped my toe in Talea so I might as well take the plunge.

So . . . Thera is an empire. It goes around the world conquering and enslaving people. Its book, then, is largely about the places it's conquered. And this is important to note because cultural appropriation, as a concept, is about imperialism. It often gets simplified into the idea that it's wrong to use ideas from cultures you don't belong to, but that was never really the issue. The issue is more about which voices get heard when you talk about a particular culture.

Look at it this way - Alice and Bob go out to dinner with Charlie. There's a fundamental difference between Charlie saying "Alice, tell me about yourself" and Charlie saying, "Bob, tell me about Alice." The second question is extremely rude, because we assume that Alice is capable of speaking for herself. 

It doesn't necessarily have to be. There are mitigating scenarios. Maybe Alice and Charlie don't share a common language and Bob has to translate. Maybe Bob and Charlie are really good friends and Alice is just tagging along, taking no interest in the conversation and playing on her phone. There are any number reasons why Alice may be perfectly content in not participating in the conversation.

Now, imagine that Bob has a history of exploiting and abusing Alice. Suddenly, this line of speculation got a lot less fun. Even if those old excuses still happened to be true, the conversation is now undeniably creepy.

"Cultures influence each other" - it's not just something people say when they don't want to talk about cultural appropriation, it's also important, good, and true. The world would be a pretty barren place if we didn't have the capacity to learn from each other. That's the rub, though. "Learning," in order to be actual learning, must come from a place of humility and respect, or else it might cross that fuzzy line into "copying" or, god forbid, "parody."

It's the difference between "I traveled to a distant land and the artisans there really helped me improve my bowl-making skills" versus "look at this cool bowl I made all by myself" (oh, and in the interest of not replicating this error - this post owes a lot to the cultural appropriation primer) versus "isn't it funny how dumb this bowl looks, that's how they make them in a distant land." It can be frustrating that such a fraught issue can rely on something as ephemeral and subjective as "attitude," particularly when there's no guarantee that your attitude will be judged with generosity, but it is what it is. 

And I made this long digression because I have not the slightest clue what The Theran Empire is trying to accomplish, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with at least some of the stuff I just said.

That's why I started this off by singling out the province of Talea. It's an example of that rude, 3rd person conversation, but I'm pretty sure Alice and Bob have a decent relationship. It's the Age of Legends and what are things like in the region that will one day be known as "Italy?" They're like a fantasy version of renaissance Italy, but everything is under an alias and maybe some of the philosophy and theology is a bit sloppy because this is just a game.

Fair enough. Now let's look at the province of Creana. "It is known for the fertility of its central river" and "fabulous monuments to the dead." It is ruled by a monarch called "the Pharon" who sits atop a rigidly hierarchical society called "the pyramid of Name-givers." Also, there are mummies.

Can you guess where in the world Creana is supposed to be?

Okay, that was a gimme. Now for the tough one - what does it mean that Creana isn't that much like Egypt after all? It's a subtle point. Barsaive isn't Ukraine, it's European fantasy tropes, but Creana isn't Egypt . . . it's European fantasy tropes . . . about Egypt. It's all very surface, but the surface is very consistent.

When I think of the way this book handles Egypt and India and North Africa, what I'm most reminded of is Oriental Adventures (Italy and German were also Oriental Adventures, but they're European so it's . . . okay . . .?). Which is to say that I got a sense of moderate amounts of research deployed in compiling a list of cool ideas and then using those ideas in a fairly slapdash way to build a setting by more or less the same process as you used to create the base campaign world. And because this is Earthdawn we're talking about, that slapdash worldbuilding does tend to be better justified than most - the reason not-Egypt has so many rogue undead is because a leftover Horror is blocking passage to the Lands of the West (the afterlife) and so the spirits return to their original bodies and just sort of mill around . . . except for mummies, who have their brains removed as part of the process and thus get reanimated as mindless killing machines (because, apparently, the brain still serves a purpose, even to the undead).

But despite being more than a little bit Oriental Adventures, these sections are also a product of 90s FASA, so they're plausibly, if confusingly woke . . . relatively speaking . . . for the time period. Near the beginning of the India Indrisa section, it talks about "the moral bankruptcy of Thera's imperial aims" and that's kind of a running theme throughout the book. Like a lot of other Earthdawn products, The Theran Empire is kind of a book within a book within a book. Ostensibly, we're reading first-hand accounts, collated by Merrox, chief of Throal's Great Library, and then . . . published . . . by FASA? So the pattern is that the bulk of the book is from the Theran perspective, and it's pretty awful, but then the framing device says, "look at this dickhead, the concrete details are probably correct, but don't trust his spin" and thus the majority of the actual information is tainted, but you're supposed to know it's tainted, and FASA knows you know, but you know that they know you know, and I guess the conclusion is that slavery is very definitely bad, but it's not as if Thera invented it . . .

The thing I want you to know is that this has been a very difficult post for me. I'm on something like hour 12 of trying to hammer my thoughts into place, not counting all the pacing back and forth I did while reading the book, muttering to myself "how the hell am I going to turn this into a post?"

What's getting me all tied up is that Earthdawn is advantaged in the fact that Barsaive is the victim of imperialism, so the game is automatically inclined to say the right things about imperialism, but also Barsaive is white, and so the suspicion is there that this is just special pleading . . .

I don't think that's what's going on, but the evidence is largely contextual. There are sections that definitely, without a doubt, attempt to justify imperialism and slavery, but the narrators of those sections are specific characters that the book means to portray as assholes . . . except maybe that one guy who was Thera's leading philosophical proponent of slavery, who the narrator "half-expected . . . to be an evil man. . . Instead [they] found him to be kind and moral but profoundly self-deluded. [They] could not bring [themselves] to hate him. But he and Name-givers like him must be driven from power before Barsaive can be truly free."

What am I supposed to do with that? I think maybe I need to acknowledge that I've been radicalized in the last few years and that this is generally a good 90s take. If we pull back and become even more contextual, we can see that the book puts the lie to Thera's rationalizing that they only enslave criminals by seeing an example of them boosting their slave numbers by arbitarily criminalizing the population of Marac (north Africa). That's a trenchant observation - the tyrants can't be trusted to play by their own rules. If your territory isn't producing enough "criminals" to meet their labor demands, they'll diplomatically recognize the rump government of a deposed tribal leader and declare two thirds of the country in open insurrection.

Then the framing device will say it's uncomfortable with assassination as a tactic, even as other parts of the framing device suggest that the Barsavians could stand to learn a thing or two from the other provinces' resistance movements.

That's the paradox of this book, though. The Therans are the evil empire, but they're also the ones doing most of the talking. This was so prominent in the chapter on Indrisa that it made me uncomfortable. There's no doubt in my mind that the text views the Theran conquest of Indrisa as wrong. Indeed, this is the region where the Therans are most nakedly brutal. They started off their invasion by destroying a city that was home to hundreds of thousands of people. What's unnerving about the chapter is that it's mostly about how these terror tactics worked. There are rural communities who combine banditry and political resistance, but the big cities are so cowed by Thera's air power that they pay their tribute and try to  go about their lives.

And I don't know. Maybe this just isn't a story I want to hear about India - about how it's a profitable colonial holding for a ruthless imperial power. The chapter casts the right people as villains, and it eschews the "white man's burden" narrative as forcefully and directly as it can while still pretending to be written by characters who were born 8000 years before Rudyard Kipling ("All that mess-hall slop about the blessings of Theran civilization isn't designed for provincials. It's designed for us - to make us feel better about what we're doing. . .It's stupid to tell a people you're subjugating that you care only about their well-being. Most of them will see this as the paper-thin nonsense it is.") But in the process it still manages to be all about how Thera feels about the conquest.

So The Theran Empire gets one . . . two . . . three slow-claps from me. I know that you know what you're doing is kind of offensive. But maybe you could have just not put yourself in this position? Maybe you could have worked fantasy India into your antediluvian prequel setting in a different way? 

But I guess the name of the book isn't "The Indrisa Boxed Set" it's The Theran Empire, and because of airships and mumble, mumble, mumble, the Empire included India and Egypt, but none of the lands between.

I've been jumping all over the place, and have so far included none of the cool fantasy stuff that made it into my notes (one of the Theran noble houses is based out of a mile-long, sword-shaped floating citadel), but I'm ready to wrap this up. I can't tell you whether this book is good or bad. If I were inclined to be snarky, I'd say that it's Earthdawn committing to its "D&D, but, like, on-purpose" bit by replicating the embarrassing part of the Forgotten Realms where it has grafted-on continents that are just non-white-cultures-as-genre and then trying to make an anti-imperialist statement about it. But honestly, the anti-imperialism isn't forceful enough to be impressive and the worldbuilding is at least a tier below Barsaive. I think this is one of those "exists to fill a slot" supplements that would have benefited from a bit more sense of purpose and a lot more time in the oven.

Ukss Contribution: The morality of this book is beyond my ability to judge, but I think it's on the side of good, and there were definitely parts I liked. My favorite is the Fruit of the Passions. "Passions" are what Earthdawn calls gods and the story is that Vasgothia's (Germany's) native gods decided to hang back during the Scourge and fight the Horrors head on. The result was a draw. The land was twisted by the power of the battle, but it was not tainted or destroyed by the Horrors. Also, most of the gods died during the conflict, leaving behind magical fruits that contained a fraction of their power. It's loot that PCs are definitely going to want, and by its very nature it justifies venturing into a creepy, monster-infested forest. Exactly what I love most about Earthdawn as a game.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Trinity Continuum: Under Alien Skies

 I probably owe The Blood Wood a bit of an apology. I said it was more lore-heavy than adventure focused, and I stand by that assessment, but when I was writing my previous post, I sort of forgot that revealing the setting's lore can be a reward in itself. "Let's go into these spooky woods." "Why?" "To find out what makes them so spooky." - A classic adventure hook.

I say this because Under Alien Skies is almost pure lore and it's actually pretty good. It reduces a potential GM's workload by a very small amount (there's a GM advice chapter that I would cavalierly summarize as, "you can do regular Aeon stuff, but with aliens"), but it makes up for it by being extremely fun to read.

What the book mostly does is recap, expand, and retcon the setting's canon aliens. Now, even the Howlers are getting a sympathetic treatment. The only reason these guys exist in the first place is to make the Chromatics more sympathetic. They're tunnel-dwelling psychic cannibals that are only capable of coherent thought in a brief window after consuming the flesh of a sapient creature. Pure horror movie monsters that explain why the Chromatics are so culturally comfortable with the concept of genocide.

And here we learn that if a young Howler dies, its mother will consume its flesh and gain self-awareness for just long enough to mourn. "This is both a blessing and a curse for the hunger-driven howlers who lacked capacity to consider the child's death until that moment."

Well damn, now I'm shedding a tear for the Thing. 

Which is both a strength and a weakness of this book. There's a lot of thought put into the various alien species and their societies, and they're presented in a sympathetic way that respects the core of their personhood, even when they do things that we'd consider immoral. However, this approach gets a little sloppy when it comes to characters that are supposed to be villains.

For example, we learn that Coalition pheromones are not mind control. It's true. The book came out and directly says it: "pheromones can modify behavior, sometimes to a degree which feels like mind control. While the phyle Edges are very explicitly not mind control, these powers can make players deeply uncomfortable. . ."

Oh, glad that's cleared up then. 

Now, I don't want to get sucked into a discussion on the metaphysics of the mind (partly because it's a distraction and partly because I'm a strict determinist and I know my opinions on this subject are alienating and weird), but if there's such a thing as "mind control" that's meaningfully distinct from normal communication, then obviously efficacious pheromones are mind control. There's an Edge on the opposite page that gives a PC pheromones that cause affected people to "blurt out the secrets they most want to hide." If it's making people do something they don't want to do . . .

I'm not sure "it's mind control, but we're going to do a sidebar that blatantly lies about it" is necessarily a winning approach, especially in a game that already allows heroic characters to buy the Telepathy psionic aptitude.

And I think it boils down to a diffidence about villainy. You can play characters from the Coalition, but only members of the servant phyles who have gone rogue and oppose the Progenitors. Almost everything in the relevant chapter focuses on the servants - their lifestyles, perspectives, and unique physiologies - which is damned refreshing for an oppressive society in an rpg, but also winds up short selling the best possible use for the Coalition society - as villains who need to be overthrown.

That's an assessment that applies doubly if you are playing heroic rebels among the Phyles. You'll be put in the ironic position of having the book that gave you the information to make PCs in an epic campaign about the overthrow of an atrocious system of sci-fi slavery not also provide you with enough information about that atrocious system of sci-fi slavery to make an epic campaign out of. What are the systems of control? How are transgressions punished and consequently what are the stakes if you're caught? What sort of defenses surround the Progenitors and what will they say when you have them under the barrel of a gamma rifle? It's great that the book focuses on the perspectives of the oppressed, but these are questions the oppressed are going to want answered, and Under Alien Skies simply does not deliver.

We do learn that the sasqs and the envoys pirate digital media from the Progenitor databases so that they can hold "movie nights." That's super cute (and I'm being approximately 0% ironic here).

I suspect that what's really going on is that the Coalition is a bit of legacy setting, inherited from 1st edition, which does not quite fit into 2nd edition's new tone, and they're being manhandled into shape with various degrees of elegance. They've genetically engineered their captive populations to have chemical glands that influence their actions, but they don't do anything as awful as "mind control." They're actually the kind of slave-taking, eugenicist, and genocidal interstellar marauders that you can include in your game without having to navigate any especially problematic political subtext.

(And it is at this point that I'm trimming a long digression where I got deep in the weeds about the narrow difference between 1e's rape aliens and 2e's eugenics-but-pointedly-not-rape aliens that I'm cutting because I had no idea where I was going with it and I was up to something like my sixth "on the other hand.")

The general theme of my tangent was "how evil is too evil for an rpg villain," and it was a fascinating question, but when the answer seemed to run straight through chattel slavery and sexual exploitation, it occurred to me that my white, male perspective wasn't necessarily one that needed to be heard. Suffice to say, Onyx Path's discomfort with this conversation was palpable.

Moving on, this book has a few new species, in addition to the old. I'm not entirely sure I agree with the choice to make them extinct instead of active, but archeological mysteries are a strong addition to the setting. You find the remnants of a species on a malfunctioning generation ship where the survivors uploaded their minds to a simulation so long ago that they neither remember the real world nor wish to return, and that's just a mystery. Your reward for solving it is that you get to know what happened. 

I think I forgot that when I read Blood Wood, partly because Earthdawn in general is so tied up with its well-justified dungeon crawling that other campaign models seemed like an afterthought. If Under Alien Skies has a defining strength, it's that it's good at selling mysteries.

If it has a weakness, it's that mystery isn't always useful. We learn more about the fate of the recently extinct Hexers - they were destroyed by murderous AI Talents (and the revelation that AI could be Talents more or less blew my mind) - but even though it's a great adventure pitch ("solve the mystery while these AIs try to kill you"), the book went with a multiple-choice backstory about where those AIs came from that was only marginally useful in actually running the scenario. I guess I'm okay with having the freedom to work out the story implications for myself, but it also means that if I'm going to use that material, I have to work out the implications, because whatever they are is going to be vital for informing my portrayal of AI opposition. It's a bit of a wash, especially when I think about the high likelihood of the question getting a canon answer as the line goes on.

Overall, I'd say this is a fun, imaginative book that finds a very nice balance between hard and soft sci-fi (i.e. it's not at all hard sci-fi, but it embraces hard sf tropes like deep time, non-humanoid aliens, and an ecological approach to history and psychology, even as it proposes fantastical ideas like a species of eusocial creatures which become sapient for nine days after reading an inscription from an ancient tower). It's probably my second-favorite Aeon book so far, and one that could easily spin off a dozen different campaigns.

Ukss Contribution: The Doyen got some nice detail in this book, even if their civilization remains a bit one note (they're divided into factions, but all those factions revolve around different ways to be absolute bastards towards less powerful species). The coolest bit of lore is that they have an artificial psionic amplifier that allows thousands of Doyen to combine their powers to lob asteroids at near light speed. It's one of those details that kind of exists just to fill a plot hole nobody was complaining about (i.e. the standard psionics rules say that they were not quite strong enough to cause the disasters they were canonically responsible for), but I like the imagery - massed ranks of psychics, concentrating on a common focus to achieve results all out of proportion to their individual strengths.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)The Blood Wood

Everything's covered in blood! This will be a Blood Post, written on my Blood Computer, consulting my Blood Notebook that I hand wrote with my Blood Pen.

I kid, but the Flora and Fauna section did give us Bloodberries, Blood Ivy, Blood Oak, Blood Monkeys, Blood Ravens, and Blood Wasps. And then there are the elite Blood Elf magicians known as the Blood Warders. I mean, I get it, it's the Blood Wood, so blood is kind of their whole deal, but maybe something could be "sanguinary" or "crimson," just for a change of pace. Just spitballing.

It wasn't really that bad, though. One of my favorite details was actually blood-related. When your foot sinks into the soft earth of the Blood Wood, blood will seep into the footprint you leave behind. That's pretty damned creepy.

Which is as good a segue as any to move into my main . . . observation about this book. It's not entirely clear why it exists. I mean, branding, obviously - Earthdawn uses a lot of difficult to trademark vanilla fantasy elements, so when they invent a never before seen elf variant, it makes sense to give them a book - but beyond that, I'm not sure how I'm meant to use this book.

You see, when we talk about previous geographical supplements like The Serpent River and Throal: the Dwarf Kingdom, those are places you can actually go. You can legitimately say, in-character, "Hey, let's go to Throal, we can take the Serpent River."

(True story - after coming up with that last sentence, I took the Barsaive boxed set off my shelf to consult the map and make sure it made geographic sense. My conclusion is that the Serpent River will shorten your journey to Throal considerably from just about anywhere in Barsaive, but you're still in for a bit of a hike for the last few days . . . unless you're in southern Barsaive and pass through Lake Ban to sail up the Coil River tributary that feeds into the Serpent, but I suspect that the Coil is unnavigable at the altitudes near Throal itself).

And, of course, once you get to either of those places, there's going to be something for you to get involved in. Many mysterious factions are forming around the ailing dwarf king, assuming you don't get sidetracked by the constant infighting among the rival aropagoi. 

You try that shit in the Blood Wood and the Blood Elves will fucking kill you. And if the patrols don't get you, the magical traps or enchanted shifting pathways will. It's a matter of policy. People outside aren't allowed in, and people inside aren't allowed to leave.

Of course, that could all just be set up. Dangerous area = opportunity for adventure, and all that. And . . . I guess. It's not as if adventure is impossible or anything. It's just that there aren't really any ruined kaers (well, there's one, but it's buried under a fortress) or valuable caches of treasure. The woods are a good source of True Wood (basically, a magic item component), but harvesting it is a skilled technical trade. Players might be interested in solving the mystery of the Forest Heart to try and save the Blood Wood from the corruption that is slowly killing it, but that's more of an extended campaign premise whose resolution would change the face of Barsaive forever (and also, it wouldn't pay very well). And it's certainly possible to contrive reasons to go into it ("we need this rare herb" or "our friend has gone missing and we're certain they need help"), but if so, the bulk of the book is going to be of very little use.

The best possible use of this book is probably to run self-contained Blood Wood games. You play as Blood Elves and you get involved in the politics of the realm. It's not a place with especially dynamic politics - it's ruled by an absolute monarch who banishes (to distant parts of the Blood Wood, lest you think this is a PC backstory hook) anyone who disagrees with her too effectively and there is no mechanism in either law or custom for anyone to object to this - but, assuming that your players are okay with chasing the favor of the queen, there are factions and agendas and rival noble houses to give PCs plenty to do.

Ultimately, though, this is worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. The reason you get this book is that you're invested in the story of Barsaive and are intrigued by these sexy goth elves that keep showing up and want to know the secrets of their homeland and the details of how their society actually works in practice.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am exactly the target audience for this book, and I enjoyed it, as expected, but it's not one you'd point to to showcase Earthdawn's strengths as a game. Like, the book is so certain that you're not going to fight Queen Alachia that they don't even give her a full stat block, but she's  pretty great as a literary villain - she's imperious and vain, ruthless in the protection of her power and dignity, but she's also courageous in her opposition to Thera's evil. The only reason she really counts as a villain at all (aside from being an autocrat, but that's just par for the course in fantasy) is because she made a terrible choice in an impossible situation and is now committed to the idea that she alone is able to deal with the consequences.

She's not, though. The book makes clear that the Blood Elves are in constant pain, thanks to the magical ritual that caused them to sprout thorns from underneath their skin, and that this pain is sometimes so unbearable a significant fraction of elves don't survive the ritual (between 10 and 30 percent, depending on the age at which it is given), and of those that do survive, it is not uncommon to commit suicide shortly thereafter.

And now that the Scourge is over . . . they keep doing it. Their entire society has just decided that they're okay with torturing children . . . well, except for the dissidents who are kept far away from the court and any suggestion of political power. Most of the conservatives think they're doing it to preserve the Blood Elves' unique culture (of being constantly tortured throughout their unnaturally long lives), but the Queen knows the real reason - the corrupt heart of the forest requires massive blood offerings to survive.

Look, lady, I don't want to gainsay the choices you made in a moment of crisis. The survival of your people was at stake, I get it. But it's time to step down. You gave cancer to the mystical tree that is the spiritual heart of the elvish people and now you're stuck between feeding that sickness or letting it die, and you are clearly in over your head. It's a complicated technical problem, sure, but master sorcerer or not, you don't have the right to keep the bulk of the world's elf population out of the loop . . .

Oh, right. I hate monarchy IRL and it's bleeding into my critique. Point is, the text is pretty clear that Alachia is not going to solve this problem, and is, indeed, the biggest obstacle to other people solving this problem, but she is not a boss fight. In fact, even meeting the Queen is a rare privilege, seldom granted to common elves and almost never to outside adventurers.

And that's this book's main weakness. You get the view from the top, complete with write ups for the land's important nobles and academic and cultural luminaries (who are often one and the same, because the elves have a very class-stratified society), but only rarely the people the PCs are actually likely to meet. 

It's other main weakness is metaplot. It spoiled the canonical ending of Prelude to War (Hey, I was going to get around to reading it, I swear!) and dropped hints of mysterious setting secrets without providing closure. Queen Alachia is probably an immortal Great Elf and may have already been queen under a different name, but the only reason I have to think that is a series of incredibly unsubtle hints. I guess I shouldn't get too upset about it, being the style of the time, but it bugs me. It's clear that you've got something worked out - the hints about the Denairastas were far too specific for a location that has not been mentioned since the Barsaive boxed set - but you're holding back for a future book that may or may not even see print. I guess I'm lucky that these 1st edition books are pretty cheap on the secondary market.

Overall, I liked this book. It didn't set my mind aflame with new adventure ideas, but it was a pretty decent read. The late 90s was kind of a golden age for rpg products that blurred the line between game supplement and fiction, and Earthdawn, in particular, has always been especially good at that genre.

Ukss Contribution: There's some interesting imagery in this book, most of it blood- or thorn- themed, but there's really only one thing it could have ever been - giant carnivorous squirrels. They're big squirrels who swarm-attack larger creatures and tear off pieces to bury like normal squirrels bury nuts. It's all part of the cycle of (corrupted by obscene blood magic) life.