Tuesday, October 19, 2021

(Planescape) The Factol's Manifesto

 Wow, alignment is really vestigial, isn't it? Once again, my main stumbling block with an AD&D book is the way they'll just arbitrarily declare a character "good" or "evil" with a meaningless label in the stat bloc. Duke Rowan Darkwood, the Randian tax farmer who ruthlessly collects debts and causes misery wherever he goes in his reckless ambition to conquer Sigil - Chaotic Good. Factol Skall of the Dustmen, the lich who doesn't do anything - Neutral Evil. The Mercykillers formed when a Lawful Good group (The Sons of Mercy) merged with a Lawful Evil group (the Sodkillers) and both agreed that following the law was more important than morality? Sure, whatever.

I think where The Factol's Manifesto differs from other AD&D products is that once you get past the pointlessness of alignment, there are more interesting things going on. It is actually kind of fascinating that the Bleak Cabal, a group centered around aggressive nihilism, is also the most charitable of the factions and devotes the bulk of its resources to providing services to the poor and the mentally ill. That's good, complex characterization. Then it goes on to say shit like, "The chaotic evil fellow will dish up broth with the same speed and determination as chaotic good partner, though his heart may not be gladdened by the deed."

Stop it. Just stop it. These reductive labels are accomplishing nothing.

But if you ignore alignment, most of the factions wind up being pretty interesting. . . except the Xaositects, who are the absolute fucking worst. Speaking in emojis is not a thing. How are you acting like it's a thing? What am I supposed to be picturing when you excerpt an interview and transcribe a sentence "Seen place is when eyes of a wonderful, 🐦through the 🌣 multiverse the chaos."

What does that mean? What does it sound like? ("it sounds like a purple", probably). OMG, the xaositects are so random! LOL, their alignment is probably "chaotic quirky" or something.

I worry I may be starting to sound like one, myself. Maybe there is something to their philosophy. If you act absolutely insufferable at all times, you may exhaust people enough that they give up on trying to tell you what to do and just push you out into a slum where they don't have to deal with you.

Other than that, this book is rock solid. Except for one thing - I still don't know what the hell a "faction" even is. There's a new bit of tantalizing canon history that's introduced here, called "The Great Upheaval," a troubled period, roughly 700 years ago, when the Lady of Pain decreed that Sigil had too many factions, and gave the residents a short window to reduce the number from 49 to 15.

It's funny how I've had this book for more than 20 years and yet in all the years I played Planescape as a teenager, it never occurred to me to be utterly confused by this development. Is 49 distinct belief systems really all that many in a city of more than a million people, especially if it has magical portals connecting to literally everywhere in the multiverse? Why does the Lady of Pain even care how many factions there are? And if she's culling factions, wouldn't a selective targeting of problematic belief systems be more useful than just accepting whichever groups are left standing after the scramble to reduce to an arbitrary number ("ah, at last, the factions are at a manageable 15, let me first forward my congratulations to the group who wants to destroy the entire universe.") And streetfighting casualties aside, aren't all the same people still around, just now organized into larger, more powerful groups? And if the goal was to prevent factional in-fighting, then wouldn't a hard faction cap just make the stakes higher? If the Sons of Mercy and the Sodkillers combine to fit in the limit of 15, that doesn't mean that the rival groups have put aside their differences, it just means that whichever group wins the civil war now gets to control the resources of both factions.

It's extremely weird, but the weirdest part is also the most obvious question -  how can you look at a group of people with similar beliefs and tell that they are a capital-F faction? It's apparently pretty obvious in Sigil, or else we wouldn't get a situation where there must be no more than 15 Factions, and somehow we're able to count the Independents who refuse to join other Factions and the Anarchists who want to destroy the Factions. Neither of those groups even have a Factol (official leader), which is an office that somehow ties into the governance of the city in some obscure way that is never adequately explained.

I feel like if I were in the Hall of Speakers in Sigil, I could make the case that maybe one of the precious 15 slots should go to a group like the Ring Givers of Ysgard or the Mathematicians of Mechanus, who could bring valuable services to the city, instead of the Revolutionary League, which wants nothing more than the destruction of everyone with a vote in the chamber.

As near as I can tell, the way government works in Sigil is that there's this big debate hall and access is controlled by the Sign of One, which allows random citizens to walk in off the street and propose laws, but only according to their own esoteric values. And then once those laws are proposed, the debates are spun off into smaller conference rooms, where interested parties negotiate the actual wording of the laws. Then the final laws are sent to the Council Chamber where the 15 official factions, including the Sign of One itself, which unilaterally controls every part of this process up to this point, send appointed representatives to vote on whether to enact the law. However, two of the 15 factions don't have representation because their ideology prevents it. And the rest of the factions self-select their membership based on their perceived advantages. And there is some way of officially registering paperwork to become a faction, which apparently the Xaositects were able to do, and which, again, does not filter out groups like the Doomguard or the Revolutionary League, which are inimical to the system as a whole. And then, at some point, these factions are assigned vital roles in the city's government, like being solely responsible for all law enforcement (the Harmonium), tax collecting and maintenance of property records (the Fated), or running the courts (the Fraternity of Order).

It's dumb as hell, but I can sort of see it working. The two biggest obstacles are the arbitrary limit on the number of Factions and the Faction monopolies on the organs of power.

Yeah, it might be kind of interesting to have this city at the center of the multiverse be run by a theo-democracy, where representation was based on religious affiliation, and the legislative body was made up of ecclesiastical appointees from every "valid religion" which possesses a certain number of local members. Then, different offices in the city could possibly attract employees with viewpoints that match their office culture, and those could resemble the Factions we already have. 

I think the main thing standing in the way is Planescape's weird reluctance to really embrace the concept of diversity. We're at the meeting point of an infinity of infinities, and there are exactly 15 groups that matter, instead of the hundreds or thousands of viewpoints that would logically accumulate. It's the ideological version of the the thing with the fantasy species - of all the worlds we visit, we keep seeing the same 4-8 variations. Why are there so many Bariaurs, Tieflings, and Githzerai everywhere? Why is the absence of elves on a prime world supposed to be shocking? Obviously, these Planescape books can't be a million pages long, but they should be tearing fences down instead of building them up.

I'm going to call it a technical error, though, rather than an artistic one. There is an admirable diversity of thought here. If the text said "there are a hundred factions in Sigil, here are 15 interesting examples," this book would be almost purely great (it's that alignment issue again, factions should care whether their members are good or evil, especially when there's a relatively common spell that allows you to check). And so, if I like 14 out of the 15 Factions as individual groups, it would be weird if I disliked them as a set. 

Overall, I think the main use of The Factol's Manifesto is to strip it for parts. There are a lot of great elements, like the Harmonium's backstory being that they came from a prime world where adventurers actually succeeded at their attempt to "rid the country of chaos and bring peace to the land." Which is just kind of hilarious when taken in context of their complete failure to do so in Sigil. However, as great as many of those parts are, other parts are simply too AD&D or too 90s for their own good (or both, like the part where the Harmonium achieved its goal by genociding their homeworld's elves). However, if you were to use this book as a jumping off point for building "Planescape Infinite," you'd have some fruitful seeds to work with.

Ukss Contribution: I'm inclined to go with one of the charming, small details, as is my wont (surprisingly, one of my top three choices was the Xaositect's unexplained ability to find lost objects, which is fun because it's a rare example of AD&D introducing a fantasy element without trying to rationalize it to death), but it's been a long time since I've risked a major setting shake-up, so I'm going to go with a big pick - the Mercykillers. They work great as an antagonist organization because they are absolutist and cruel, but they are also something the governments of the world might not mind having around, so you can't just declare a campaign of destruction against them without making yourself an outlaw.

But they are definitely villains. "Punish all law-breakers, no matter what" is a dubious enough ideology as it stands, but when punishment for minor "crimes" like "jaywalking, begging, or vagrancy" is 10 years hard labor in the lower planes (i.e. hell) and the group gives no consideration to whether the laws themselves are just or unjust, that becomes something out of a nightmare. I might actually soften them considerably just to dial them back to an appropriate level for antagonists.

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