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.

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