Sunday, October 10, 2021

(Planescape) In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil

The City of Doors is undoubtedly Planescape's strongest setting element, and In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil does an admirable job of bringing it to life, but I'm left with a single burning question - where in Sigil can an adventurer possibly go to get a drink?

I crack myself up with the sarcasm sometimes. There's actually quite a lot of bars, you see. Although, sometimes they're inns. And one of them is a bathhouse, and if you're a member of the Transcendent Order, you can even eat the floating oranges and lemons completely without charge (outsiders have to pay 3cp for the privilege).

Forget sarcasm, that cracks me up. You've just worked up a sweat in the Great Gymnasium. Now it's time to cool down with a soak, but you know what would really hit the spot? A refreshing bathtub lemon. Mmm, sour, but with a musky hint of unwashed centaur.

Oh, okay, that did veer into sarcasm a little. However, sarcasm aside, I really do count the abundance of pubs, restaurants, and inns as one of the book's strengths. It's maybe not what you'd ask for in a setting bible meant to guide authors and artists, but it's definitely the sort of information a band of wandering adventurers is going to want to know. Even aside from the occasional bouts of R&R, half an adventurer's business comes from shadowy meetings in anonymous public spaces. You can't all meet in an inn if there isn't an inn.

So, Into the Cage is absolutely a great book for games where the PCs are just passing through Sigil. And I don't mean that in even a slightly backhanded way. It's the City of Doors. Its defining feature is that it's filled with magical portals leading to other parts of the Universe. In a long-running Planescape game, the party could pass through Sigil two or three dozen times. And with this book, they could stay in a different, distinct inn almost every time. Plus, they can have plenty of color encounters with pickpockets, corrupt guides, heavy-handed town guards, or Kadyx, the burrowing infernal carnivore/urban legend that does hilarious things with its victims' bones because it's also kind of an asshole (it once ate a vigilante who was tracking down an alcoholic, shoe-stealing criminal, and it left behind nothing but her feet).

The real question, though, is how the book functions as a guide to running Sigil-centric games. There, I have reservations. It's not that In The Cage is a bad book for Sigil games - quite the opposite, really. It may feel touristy, but even when the characters are natives, the players and the DM are tourists, so it works out. No, what's missing is a sense of the civic life of the city. We learn a bit about the laws of Sigil, but very little about how they're passed. I suspect the culprit is the factions. The very next book in the series is The Factols' Manifesto and I'm guessing that relevant material is being held back for it. But since the factions are so important to Sigil's functioning, the gaps are sometimes pretty conspicuous. The faction headquarters usually get about 1-2 paragraphs - even when they are major adventure locations like the Armory or the Civic Festhall. It honestly felt at times like I was reading half a book.

On the other hand, there is very little fat in this particular volume,  and nothing that stands out to me as an obvious candidate for removal, so maybe I'm really saying that Sigil is a big enough subject to be worth 250+ pages. It's not such a bad thing to be left wanting more. 

Short post this time, so let's go to the notes for random comments:

I'm not sure how I feel about the Lady of Pain being able to shrink or grow the size of the city. Something like "the City of Doors" does have an intrinsically fey quality to it, so uncertainty about the place's exact dimensions is thematic, but it's also a place where mortal people live, and calculating the interior surface of a torus is not all that difficult, especially at ranges short enough for parallax to be visible to the naked eye. Maybe it's just a case of the designers underestimating what's possible with medieval techniques and equipment.

There's a restaurant that serves larvae steaks. Larvae, in D&D, are the souls of evil-doers that manifest on the Lower planes as wormlike creatures. I'm not going to say a damned thing about eating a steak made from a giant bug, because really, it's not all that different than eating a cow. But eating a human soul? This is one of those areas where Planescape doesn't realize how weird it is. The Outer Planes are the afterlife, but they are also a place where mortal creatures can exist. So the residents of the afterlife can interact with the living, when they're both on the Planes. So the dead must have a substance that appears sufficiently similar to the material substance of the living. And the living can eat that substance. Or, at least, they can do all the steps of eating. They can cut away portions of the dead. They can handle those portions after they've been separated. They can heat those portions with fire and they appear to transmute from uncooked to cooked. They can put the cooked portions in their mouths. Chew. Swallow. A dead soul.

I feel like maybe that should have been a bigger deal.

The Transcendent Order charges people 2000gp to use their portal to Elysium. That's about 40 years of wages for an average worker. So the cost of this back door to heaven is approximately the output of a single human life. Aargh! I really wish that Planescape had more to say about capitalism and colonialism, because the metaphor is almost too on the nose.

Ukss Contribution: There's a bar called "The Fat Candle." Its characteristic feature - "a candle the size of a tree-trunk in the center of the room is the only source of light." I love fantasy like this, where it makes me go, "Sure. Why not?" I searched the internet and the Yankee Candle's flagship store has a 1300 lb, 6 foot tall candle that will burn for an estimated 7 and a half years (source), so it's not even something you'd need magic to do. It's just a weird, implausible bar.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd

The thing I like most about The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd is that it's one of the most politically-focused rpg supplements I've ever read, but it's also 100% about the screaming berserker guys you automatically think about when you're asked to picture orks. The Metal Hand tribe is a large band of horse-riding raiders who view agriculture as a crime against the Passion of Nature, and will brutally attack any permanent dwelling inside their territory - now, lets talk about the political marriage between the Chief's daughter and the son of his greatest rival, the Chief of the Broken Fang tribe, and how various power blocs within the tribes are likely to react to the inheritance issues and how the daughter and son plan to merge the tribes over the objections of their fathers. Oh, and both Chiefs are competing for the job of head general of the nation's armies, as the prophetic messiah who has claimed the title of High Chief is preparing to do battle with an encroaching imperialist power and is weighing the value of potential foreign alliances.

It's hard for me to pin down exactly what makes the politics in this book so satisfying, but I think it's the way that Cara Fahd's politics exist in the context of a search for orkish identity. Krathis Gron, the Chosen of the Passion and High Chief of Cara Fahd, is driven by this romantic idea of rebuilding the ancient orkish nation, which fell even before the Scourge. To do this, she advocates for the adoption of an authentic Ork culture, one not beholden to Thera or Throal, but it's clear that this culture needs to be created rather than discovered, because of huge gaps in the archaeological and ethnographic records and the centuries-long ork diaspora. Different factions have different ideas about what this culture should look like, probably because of their vastly different experiences in that aforementioned diaspora. It's nationalist separatism, but the nation does not yet exist.

It's a little problematic that this national identity centers on being an ork. Earthdawn started off as relatively good at avoiding the fantasy cliche of slotting its races into separate and distinct polities. "Here is the elf nation. There is the dwarf nation. Now let's move on to the ork nation." Instead, there was a sense I got that most places were mixed. The culture of the average location in Barsaive is one with a fair mix of the corebook races, and enclaves of one particular race were outliers - part of the reason the Blood Wood is so weird and sinister is because it is emphatically "elf only."

The supplements have often felt like they're trying to disabuse me of that notion. The Serpent River was about t'skrang culture, The Crystal Raiders of Barsaive was about troll culture, and now Cara Fahd is about ork culture, if only be the implications of its absence. And while the books have been great about showcasing diversity within the confines of the races' high concepts - for example, the various ork tribes have different rites of passage, diets, architecture, and economic aspirations - there is still the sense that some important behaviors are tied to race in a way that transcends geography or common cultural influence - for example, all the ork tribes (except one) ride a mix of horses and thundra beasts, instead of picking one animal or another based on local conditions. Similarly, lowland trolls care about honor and only t'skrang can build paddle-driven riverboats. It's a weird middle-ground between "racial monocultures" and  "every fantasy species is as diverse as humans."

I think, on balance, The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd leans in the right direction - the differences between ork immigrants from various parts of Barsaive is something that drives many of the book's conflicts. However, I also think that the decision to make it canon that 70% of Barsaive's orks have migrated to Cara Fahd winds up having the opposite effect on the bulk of the setting. One of the best parts of Earthdawn so far has been the way that sometimes a random NPC will be an ork or an elf or what have you, despite there being no particular reason why an ork or an elf would be especially suited to the NPC's role.

I blame the shortening of the Scourge. This isn't actually an explicit or intentional phenomenon - the Scourge is still canonically 400 years - but lately, the Scourge has started to feel shorter. I think it probably started with the Thera book, but Crystal Raiders has been the worst offender. Basically, we've been learning a lot about pre-Scourge history and that history has been having more and more of an effect on what's going on in the present. I think it's the result of an accumulation of canon. You start off dropping a few hints in early books, then later books wind up having a lot of established facts to draw from, and so they elaborate, and then sooner or later, half your history section winds up being about antediluvian triva. We're not quite at Exalted 2nd edition levels of irrelevance, but we are on the same track. We've got a post-apocalyptic setting that consistently underestimates the trauma of the apocalypse.  Trolls were great airship builders before the Scourge and they kept up the art for the 20 generations where they couldn't see the sky.

The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd commits to the idea that nomadic cavalry has always been a part of ork culture and not just something they decided to start doing after emerging from the fallout shelters, despite the fact that the Barsaive boxed set went out of its way to establish that rapidly changing customs were a natural side-effect of the short ork lifespan, and I do think I have to count that as an error, but I think it's more of an error of wasted potential than any great mistake. Cara Fahd itself is a very interesting and well thought-out fantasy location, with plenty of opportunities for mercenary employment and rogue archaeology (or you could take the advice of the GM chapter and pitch a campaign where players are "loggers, miners, or construction workers"), and you could easily port it to any setting that has room for an ork kingdom (Forgotten Realms players, this is basically the closest you're ever going to get to a sourcebook for The Vast). The fact that it doesn't get maximal use out of Earthdawn's backstory is just a nitpick.

Overall, I think The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd was a fine way to finish up 1st edition's setting books. It's got a nice balance of fascinating human drama and high fantasy nonsense - one of the kingdom's lost treasures is a mountain that has been shrunk down to fit in a bottle and then subsequently used as a mace, because orks gotta ork.

Ukss Contribution: The Metal Hand tribe got its name because its founder came across some fellow orks who were being put on trial for raiding and the dwarf magistrate decided to add some noxious cultural insensitivity to the proceedings by throwing the accused ork's ancestral sword into a cauldron of molten bronze. Heva Ulya was so outraged that she went berserk and stuck her hand into the metal to retrieve the priceless heirloom. Inspired by how utterly badass that was, the orks rose up and escaped, forming the core of a group of radical primitivists that robbed people for the sin of living in houses and working on farms.

Not sure I care for the primitivism ("any who do not live by the natural order of the world do not deserve to live peacefully in it"), but I do love an awesome origin story. I'll have to keep my eyes open for ways to adapt it.

Friday, October 1, 2021

(Planescape) Planes of Law

 I feel like a lot of my commentary for Planes of Law is just going to repeat what I wrote in my Planes of Chaos post - it's weird that this game is set in heaven and hell. It's weird that real-world gods are showing up in D&D (this time the Egyptians and the Chinese). It's weird that the best parts of this book could just be ported over as locations in an ordinary fantasy world and work even better than they do in their original context.

If there's a difference between the two boxed sets, I'd say that Planes of Chaos was more willing to take the big swings and commit fully to its high fantasy conceits (one of its adventures had you seeking out a book that contained every lie ever spoken by a mortal creature, which is exactly the sort of absolutist, system-transcending magic that justifies an outerplanar setting), but Planes of Law is more disciplined and thematically coherent.

And the degree to which that was an intentional choice, given the alignments involved, or simply me subconsciously projecting the alignments onto the text is a question that's just going to have to be left open. My current theory is that I've witnessed a real phenomenon, but it's a coincidence.

Which is as good a transition into talking about alignment as I'm ever going to get. AD&D's alignment system is the foundation of the Planescape setting. And as far as foundations go, it's just about the shakiest it's possible to imagine. Alignment purports to categorize a person's (or creature's or society's) moral worldview using two independent axes. Characters are either "Lawful" or "Chaotic" and distinguishing between the two can sometimes be tricky, but it broadly makes sense. People who care about society's rules are Lawful and people who do their own thing are Chaotic, and just don't think too hard about people whose "own thing" involves following an elaborate personal code or societies whose "laws" are extremely permissive (or even transgressive - "her only law is that the strong should survive" is an actual quote).

But while the Law vs Chaos axis can sometimes lack nuance, it is not nearly as bad as the other axis - "Good" vs "Evil." And I just hate it so much. It's the worst fucking thing. I know that I sometimes use the word "evil" in my critiques, but it's not the words I object to. I'll call a book "evil" when I think it does active harm to the people who read it, but I also think of books as an action taken by their authors. I wouldn't extend that label to the authors, because it's my firm belief that evil is something you do, not something you are. It might be possible that a person could commit so many vile acts that evil became an indelible part of their identity, but even then I'd hesitate to call the person evil. Partly because it's prejudicial, but mostly because it lets the evil-doer off the hook. If you are evil, then it's not surprising when you do evil. In fact, you could hardly be expected to do anything else.

And calling people "good" is scarcely better. There are people who habitually perform good actions, and who have developed a reputation for those habits, but how many times do we have to be betrayed by "good" people and institutions committing terrible deeds in the dark before we realize that "good" isn't a state of being you can simply achieve and then forget about. To paraphrase Solon of Athens, "count no one good until they are dead."

Or, in the case of Planescape, even that may be premature. Because AD&D's alignment system attaches the labels of "Good" and "Evil" directly to people, and it gets as weird and uncomfortable as you might expect - in both directions. 

The "evil" people are evil because they just like hurting people and take pleasure in deceit and betrayal. It makes Baator, the Plane of Ultimate Law and Evil completely incoherent. There is an elaborate system of ranks, and advancement is often through assassination. Judges and guards take bribes. Lawfulness is just as much a part of their identity as evil, but no one ever thought to make assassination or bribery illegal. What it should be is Law as a force for evil, made all the more terrible because it is perfectly incorruptible. What we got was an ostensibly lawful plane that was an exemplar of all the ways law could be subverted and corrupted. A lawful plane that was in many ways the antithesis of law.

Funnily enough, I can pinpoint the exact sentence where Baator went wrong - "Note that these spirits are not here because they're being punished."

Ooh, this is such a complex idea. On the one hand, it's something that flows inevitably from the game's premise. All of the planes are independent and coequal. You go to the Lawful Evil plane because you are Lawful Evil, and it would be weird if the Lawful Evil rulers of that plane punished people for being Lawful Evil. However, "punishment," as a concept, is right in Lawful Evil's wheelhouse.  I don't want to imply that punishment is inherently evil (because I don't have the philosophical vocabulary to even begin that discussion), but I think it's pretty undeniable that punishment may allow the scope for evil, while still working in the confines of a lawful society. You can't injure, confine, or degrade random citizens, but you can do that and more to criminals, and punishment doesn't become any less lawful for being disproportionate. 

Not that I'm saying Baator should have been the plane of punishment. The whole reason it was renamed from The Nine Hells in the first place was to downplay associations with the Christian afterlife. However, it could have been the plane of oppression or the plane of conquest or the plane of unforgiving purity. If the point of a Lawful Evil afterlife is to reward people for being Lawful Evil, then the plane itself should reflect the activities and principles that Lawful Evil people value. To them, it's a reward to be the oppressors, it's a reward to be the conquerors, it's a reward to be the elect that gets to cut away the impure. But no matter how you slice it, it is never going to be a reward to be turned into a Lemure (barely sentient blob-devils that have no individual identity and are constantly being tortured).

I think the reason Baator can't have a mission is because a mission might accidentally do some good. Or, at the very least, be aided by individual virtue. If Baator is punishing people, it might sometimes punish the guilty. If it's a conquering army, it will benefit from its soldiers' loyalty and courage. Baator isn't evil because they do evil deeds. Rather Baator is evil, and as such, whatever deeds they do, you gotta take 'em and evil-fy them at least 25%. It's wicked to take a bribe, so their guards take bribes, never mind that the thing they're guarding is usually some torture chamber or another, and that letting people out, even for money, is a kindness and letting people in, even if they're not there to rescue anybody, will disrupt the torture. The guards can't do their duty and they can't believe in their work, because they are evil. And that's why Baatezu start off as blob creatures and not grim-faced soldiers in matching uniforms. Because when you are evil, you are maximally cruel at all times, even when doing so would violate your mission statement.

Although, I suspect that "evil" in AD&D means "doing harm for no reason." As soon as you have any reason at all, that automatically bumps you up to neutral at worst (and I've been doing my best to avoid talking about the Neutral alignments, because they're a whole thing). 

Which brings us to the other half of the "Good vs Evil is a reckless idea for an alignment axis" discussion . The plane of Arcadia, which lies between Lawful Good and Lawful Neutral, has a whole plotline that is like the worst case scenario for a "good is something you are" ethic.

One of Sigil's factions, the Harmonium, has set up shop in the Land of Perfect Good and they're running a little experiment - they're trying to see if they can convert Chaotic characters to the Lawful alignment by heavily regimenting their daily schedules . . . involuntarily . . . and punishing noncompliance with brutal beatings . . . that sometimes lead to death. As a consequence of this experiment, one of the layers of Arcadia (and I can't tell you what a "layer" is or why they exist, because every one I've seen so far has seemed completely pointless and could easily be interpreted as just being a location within a plane) has fallen off into Mechanus, the Lawful Neutral plane.

As a plot, it's aggravating because it has so little to say for itself. I'm not sure it even really understands that kidnapping people, keeping them prisoner, and beating them with clubs is an evil act - "Their methods of securing this good are so draconian that the land was pulled away from the plane of good toward a more evil tone (in that neutrality contains more evil than good)." The word "evil" is used, but it's hedged. It's not "a more evil tone," it's just evil. It's not neutrality that is evil by comparison. It's just evil. "They watch these good creatures wither and die away from their homes, and simply go out to get more." Aaagh!

Maybe it's a triangulation thing. The plane of Arcadia is good and the Harmonium is evil, so the average of those two is neutral. Except we can say with confidence that the Harmonium is not capital-E Evil, because the petitioners of Arcadia have the innate ability to detect alignment at will and they attack evil creatures on sight. Setting aside the question of whether it's ethical to launch unprovoked attacks on someone based on their alignment (maybe it's impossible to be evil-aligned without committing at least one deed worthy of the death penalty . . . except that's never been how alignments have been presented), we can at least establish that members of the Harmonium are canonically Lawful Neutral at worst.

It's a weird thing about alignment. It purports to be an objective measure of morality, but it doesn't ascribe moral weight to specific actions. The morality of an act is highly contextual, based on who's doing it and why. In Mount Celestia, the Lawful Good plane, there's a group of people called the Order of the Planes Militant, and their goal is to capture territory from Arcadia and the Outlands and shift it into Mount Celestia. And I guess this is something they're allowed to do, despite the fact that losing planar territory is apparently distressing to people. The Harmonium was more concerned with concealing they lost a layer than they were with hiding the literal atrocities that led to that loss. Mechanus is working hard to keep the layer, despite the fact that Mechanus is made up of giant gears and Nemausus is a forest. The planes are infinite, but also land has value, and as little sense as that makes, it still means that taking something of value is, by definition, stealing. And that's not even mentioning the Order of the Planes Militant's habit of launching "raids" on the Lower Planes. You can draw a distinction between aggressive violence and violence in defense of others, but trying to distinguish between aggressive violence and preemptive punitive violence strikes me as splitting hairs.

The hardest part about reading these old Planescape books is that alignment is the only thing that's really wrong with the setting (well, aside from the difficulty it sometimes has wrapping its head around the idea of infinity - there are exactly 8 mobile castles on all the numberless cube-worlds of Acheron), but it is also the setting's foundational idea. The only thing wrong with the setting is its foundation. Almost everything else about it is great.

Clockwork universe where machine spirits regulate the motion of continent sized gears - Great!

A pastoral paradise where the rivers turn at right angles and the native plants are arranged with geometric precision - Great!

A galaxy of floating iron cubes that are constantly clanging into each other and where the inhabitants adapt by building underground bunkers from which to wage a never-ending war - Great!

Having to fit these worlds in a 3x3 ideological grid, when 2/3rds of the options are variants of "we think good things are good" and "we think bad things are good" - a nightmare.

I don't even know what the take-away should be here. I really enjoyed reading this boxed set . . . aside from the parts that gave me extreme soteriological vertigo. So maybe just enjoy it without thinking too hard about it - adventure in worlds that break the "standard fantasy" mold, heroically raid the hell-realm where nobody's being punished and everyone wants to be there . . .

Aw, fuck, I'm doing it in the recap. I guess I can't deny the urge to dig deep into Planesecape's guts and assemble a more coherent setting. My enjoyment of the books has to be viewed in that context. I like a lot of what I'm seeing, but the one thing I'd change about it is the foundation.

Ukss Contribution: I liked the Storm Kings of Arcadia. They're just these four regular people (two are women, but all bear the title of "King") who live in the sky and control the weather. Since each one only contorls one aspect (Wind, Clouds, Lightning, or Rain), they have to negotiate and work together. This probably won't be how all of Ukss' weather works, but I can see it being an interesting hook for a single region.