Thursday, December 30, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Blades

 Oh, Blades, Blades, Blades what am I supposed to do with you? No, seriously. What am I supposed to do with you? Because I know for certain that the one thing I am not going to do with you is run you as a series of Earthdawn adventures for six to eight PCs of circle six to nine. 

I'm being snarky, of course, but this time the snark is not directed at the book, but at myself. I am dead certain that if I attempted to run this adventure, it would be a complete disaster. The question now is how universal my experience might be. It would be pretty arrogant of me to declare that just because I can't do something it means that it can't be done. 

However, I'm not sure it can be done. Blades is meant to be used as an ongoing subplot in a larger campaign. At some point (canonically, the end of Shattered Pattern, but really, whenever) you find the titular blades and, like all Earthdawn artifacts, you must find the key knowledges necessary to unlock their powers. This book is a series of five adventures, the first four of which offer a key knowledge as a reward.

And I have to say, before anything else, that I love this structure. Magic items unlocking new powers as you learn more about their history is probably Earthdawn's best mechanic. And a set of seven identical magical items, all with the same key knowledges, bundled together as an adventure path meant to weave throughout the entire campaign, drawing the entire party in and acting as the adventure rewards in a very organic way - it's sheer perfection. From a purely design perspective, I'm in awe.

So what was all the "this may be impossible to run" hand-wringing about? Well, it all comes down to the fact that the specific adventure associated with these specific blades feels really fucking urgent. The way it's supposed to work is that you advance your ranks in your magic item gradually over time, spending xp to level it up and going on the Blades adventures only when you reach the bottleneck ranks and can't advance any further without the key knowledge. Since unlocking the next rank can cost hundreds, or even thousands of xp, you'll have to do a lot of adventuring in-between, especially if you want to advance in your Discipline, in addition to your magic item mastery. For example, the adventure that gives you the level 5 key knowledge awards a base of 3100 xp, but buying the rank 5 and 6 advancements on the blades cost 5500 xp, requiring at least an extra full adventure just to qualify for the next chapter of the story.

And that's a perfectly fine bit of pacing, except that the blades, in addition to being powerful magic items that can benefit any Discipline, are also cursed with the trapped spirit of an ancient Horror, who inspires treachery and murder in anyone the PCs get too close to. That rank 5 adventure I was talking about? At least a dozen innocent (ish) people die because of the blades' curse. You're captured by a a group of Tamers (people who deliberately turn their backs on human technology in order to live in harmony with nature) and their leader, a powerful beastmaster, slays them all in the night before eventually committing suicide from grief once the curse wears off and she realizes what she's done. And sure, they were planning on sacrificing you to the forest spirits (based on the wacky belief that you've brought evil into their homeland), but this keeps happening. Later adventures in the series rack up an even higher and innocenter body count, and it's kind of implied that this is going on even in your unrelated adventures (the original owners of the blades were so oblivious for such a long time that it led to the downfall of the entire kingdom of Cara Fahd).

That's why I think the whole arc might be impossible to run. At the end of the first adventure, you learn that the blades are cursed, and will cause death and destruction everywhere they go, but the only way to break the curse is to fully power up the blades and then use them to slay the spirit trapped inside. The powered-up blades are its biggest weakness. It's not quite impossible to kill the Horror with other weapons, but the damage rating of all other attacks is reduced by 10 (which is a lot).

And let me reiterate - there is very definitely a trail of bodies the PCs are leaving behind them while this whole powering-up process is going on. So it's kind of hard for me to imagine the events of Blades as anything less than the PCs' top priority.

Although, I think Blades would be a difficult series of adventures to run even if you promoted it from "subplot" to "plot." It all comes down to some very challenging questions about the nature of responsibility and agency.

You roll into town and the villagers start having nightmares of terrible violence, and then one of the victims acts out his nightmare while sleepwalking. A whole family is destroyed, children are left orphaned, and the sickness lingers even after you leave. If you come back later, you discover the first incident set off a whole chain reaction of revenge murders. And yes, it's all down to the Horror who has infected your blades, and there's not anything you can do to stop it (even if you bury the blades, the Horror can exploit the connection of your activated magic item levels to continue to act through you), but once it becomes obvious that these reactions are inevitable, maybe you have an obligation to at least try and mitigate the damage by staying far away from populated areas. Although, since the information you need to break the curse is usually in a populated area, that becomes a tough dilemma to navigate.

And then there's the question about what to do with the Horrors' victims. The book treats them as if they were somehow culpable in their atrocities, but it doesn't strike me as a very convincing position. First of all, the mechanics of how someone becomes "corrupted" suggest some pretty powerful and direct mind control. You roll a check based on how much the PCs have leveled the blades (the Horror gets stronger alongside the heroes) and that check targets the victim's spell defense. The roll gets a bonus if the victim has prior feelings of anger and jealousy, and maybe you could interpret that as a form of complicity, but I feel like it's at most a shifting of probability. It doesn't take much of a success to get the victim to do something they wouldn't otherwise do, and given Earthdawn's exploding dice, in theory anyone can be influenced to do anything. Towards the end of the adventure, the Horror is tossing out rank 12+ influence effects against NPCs with spell defenses of 3 or 4, meaning that maximum level successes are more common than literally any other result. The guy who attacked his wife while sleepwalking never even had a chance.

The adventure has a very grim atmosphere, as a result. The typical antagonist doesn't even want to be there. In fact, they weren't even an enemy until you came along and exposed them to the mind-control field that turned them into enemies. You fight the ghosts of ork heroes (who were tortured by the Horrors during the Scourge and can no longer tell the difference between friend and foe), corrupted obsidemen (who are the remnants of those who gave their lives trying to defeat the Horror the first time around), and even the shade of Kragen Overtall, who betrayed the Seven Spokes, sworn defenders of ancient Cara Fahd (after succumbing to the Horror's mind control). It is only at the very beginning (when the Horror's influence is so weak that it can only nudge people who were planning shit anyways) and the very end (when you fight the Horror itself) that you face foes who were unambiguously in control of their own actions.

The biggest thing this adventure is missing is the sense that you are on a healing journey, that you are doing this all just as much for the benefit of the people being coerced into opposing you. In the end, when you slay the Horror, a psychic wave goes out, informing its victims of their tormentor's demise, but there's not much of a sense that it's worth it. That you, the PCs, can be forgiven for bringing the corruption aura into town with you because that was the only way to rid the world of the greater evil.

And that's a big part of this adventure's difficulty to run. Am I a good enough GM to sell the bittersweetness? To somehow bring these dozens of ruined lives into a coherent theme about . . . I don't know, the preciousness of personal autonomy or something. Also, can I pitch this to my PCs in such a way as to earn both their buy-in and their patience. "You are on an incredibly dark path that will burden you with some impossible moral choices, but you can't rush it because everything is going to get worse at a very deliberate pace that is only marginally under your control."

I don't think Blades is a bad adventure. I think it's a terrible adventure, in both the good and bad sense of the word. I'm not ready to rule out the possibility that there's some virtuoso GM out there, with a group of PCs invested enough to pull it off (and if this adventure is ever going to work, it's going to need the active cooperation of the PCs), but I am positive that I am not that GM.

Ukss Contribution: The first villain, who likely would have been an ass even without the influence of the blades, lived inside a fortress made from a "hollowed out fossil skull of a gigantic lizard from a distant age." I love it when fantasy goes big.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Hellbound: The Blood War

There's this idea that keeps cropping up in these Planescape books. To paraphrase - "the first thing the Clueless want to do when they reach the planes is go to hell." And every time it comes up, I have the same reaction - "what the fuck are you talking about?"

Not to be so shitty about it or anything, but maybe this is one of those situations where you can just take a beat and acknowledge that you're making a game and perhaps the PCs are not a representative sample of the population at large. Player characters want to go to hell because they are powerful adventurers who are either greedy and blood-crazed enough to want to take on the legions of the damned or are driven by such important goals that they are willing to brave perdition itself. So if you're sitting at the crossroads of all realities and someone like that comes up to you and says "which way to hell," maybe that's an unusual experience for you. And if it's not (and I'll admit, I am kind of amused by the idea of a Sigil that's just constantly seeing traffic from the half-dozen local apocalypses that are happening at any give moment), then maybe your stereotype of the Prime Material Plane shouldn't be that they're "clueless," but that they're "frightening beyond all reason."

"In my years as a guide to the portals of Sigil, I must have directed more than a hundred Primes to the lower planes. Sometimes they were fools, yes, but mostly they wanted something desperately - to save a kingdom or a world or a single soul. And all of them, even the fools, had the same look in their eye - a kind of manic need, balanced on the knife's edge between greatness and death."

I only bring it up because Hellbound: the Blood War is a book about ordinary people going to hell and getting mixed up in the politics there, in exchange for nothing more than some rather unremarkable sums of money. 

"Cross a cursed battlefield in the bleakest regions of hell, where billions of demons have died over the past ten million years, their blood staining the ground so that even the plants have a vicious hunger for the ichor of fiends, and retrieve from there the secret battle plans of a diabolic general."

"Ah, so that we may deliver them to the forces of light and ensure the safety of mortal-kind for generations to come?"

"Nah, the plans will be changed almost immediately, but they still retain a certain value on the secondary market. Your cut of the profits will be 5000 gold."

And that's the most well-compensated of the adventures. The more general campaign suggestions include couriers, mercenaries, and spies. In hell. For demons.

Oh, sorry, "calling the fiends by the d-words is no better than insulting any other group of people because of the way they look or act" according to one of the book's occasional bits of alignment-related gibberish. After all, if it were a human who was living in a giant tower made of sealed metal cages containing captives who were immobilized by razor-wire, but kept alive through the meticulous efforts of an army of servants so that their anguish could be prolonged for no reason other than an exaltation of degradation and pain, you certainly wouldn't call them a demon, would you? That's just judging someone based on the way they act.

Pardon the excessive sarcasm, but it does get to the reason why I didn't enjoy Hellbound very much. It's parked right in the middle of Planescape's worst element. Not the Blood War itself. That's something that's maybe too big and too old (there are repeated admonitions that the PCs should not expect to have any effect whatsoever on the course of the war), but it's an interesting texture. These celestial creatures are fighting over irreconcilable differences in ideology, and they hate each other more than anything else in the universe. It's a good way to inform the motivations of fiends who interact with the PCs. 

Rather, the problem with this book, and by extension the Blood War, and by further extension, Planescape itself, is the reification of AD&D's alignment system. Different factions of fiends fighting each other because they are incapable of compromise? Pretty interesting. Different factions of fiends fighting each other over differing beliefs about the best way to advance the cause of Evil? Please stop.

They are explicitly, in-character, marching under the banner of "Evil." As in, they could charge into battle with the rallying cry, "For Evil!" and that would be inspirational to them. The reason they hate each other is because each major faction thinks the other is not doing Evil well enough.

This is a conflict that may work in a more heightened reality like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (although, even then, just barely), but Planescape wants to be more nuanced. Angels and demons sharing drinks in celestial Casablanca and all that. "Like most evil folks, the fiends think they're doing the right thing."

None of the Planescape books come close to finding the right balance. You've got the fiends, who have their competing ideologies, and they're evil because they're willing to do terrible deeds to advance those ideologies. But then, on top of that, "Evil" is part of those ideologies, and so really they're . . . willing to do terrible deeds . . . to make he world safe for them to do terrible deeds.  This makes the whole conflict feel really gutless, because there is nothing on either side worth preserving or advancing, and thus nothing truly at stake. Either side winning would be equally bad, but only because they would then proceed to attack new foes who do have ideologies worth defending. Will the world end in fire or ice? That's what the Blood War is about.

It's a dour, unpleasant conflict that only really works when it's in the background, serving as a motivation for dour, unpleasant antagonists. Once you start recruiting PCs to do stuff like deliver messages or scout terrain, you're now tying the fate of your campaign in the players' investment in a story whose best possible outcome is an indefinite continuation of the status quo.

Needless to say, I didn't really enjoy this book. The most dynamic part was the big adventure that had PCs traveling through multiple lower planes to find the secret creature that gave fiends their teleportation abilities. It's a competently constructed adventure, a bit linear, but with meaningful choices that impact the difficulty of the final encounter, and it could, potentially, have a major effect on the Blood War, despite the rest of the book's contention about the impossibility of such ambitions. However, I couldn't bring myself to enjoy it due to it being a transparent attempt to introduce mechanical errata in the form of a narrative. Pre-Planescape AD&D gave all demons and devils, save the very least ones like lemures, the ability to teleport, at will, to any plane and that conflicts terribly with the setting's emphasis on the importance of portals, and thus instead of just including the retcon into a destined-to-be-controversial sidebar, they decided to make it into a destined-to-be-controversial adventure.

On the positive side, Blander Mul is back, this time in a margin quote "Just because I'm a fanatic doesn't mean I'm stupid." Oh, Blander, that is almost exactly wrong, but at least you have a sense of humor about it.

Overall, I'd rank this pretty low on the list of essential Planescape books. It had its moments, when it wasn't trying to convince me to take its central premise seriously, but I'm sorry, there is absolutely no way anything is ever going to get me to care about "a struggle for the control of evil itself, for the definition of what evil really is." Wake me up when you realize that you could have replaced the word "evil" in that sentence with "good" and had essentially 99% the same dynamic, but in a way that might actually challenge people.

Ukss Contribution: As usual, Planescape is best in the fine details. The Abyss section of the main adventure had plenty of creepy objects. I hesitate to call any of them my "favorite," but there is a magic wand called "The Despoiler of Flesh" (or, hilariously, the "Flesh Wand") that is made of sewn-together tongues.


But probably in a good way. It was a wasted opportunity not to give the wand therapeutic or transhumanist uses (it can reshape flesh, living or dead, but only cosmetically), but that's something I can rectify in Ukss. It's obviously got to go into the hands of a villain, but villains can do more interesting things than torture.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Skypoint Adventures

 I have only one complaint about this book. When an adventure sends you across the countryside of Barsaive, it lists one of the hazards as "savages." Ouch. That's literally my only complaint, though, and I more or less forgot about it until I went back and checked my notes (although it was kind of a gut-punch moment - my notes say "eek!"). My overall impression of the book is positive.

If I were to sum it up, I'd say that Skypoint Adventures is a collection of "filler episodes." It's three short adventures, meant to wrap up in a single session, that each have a quick, but complete arc.

In "Chasing the Snakeskin Boots" you're hired to find some rare antique (and magical) coins. You track the thief by asking people about his distinctive snakeskin boots. You recover the coins and have to decide between returning them to your employer or their rightful owner or keeping them for yourself because your employer and the coins' owner both kind of suck.

In "A Message to Vivane" you're tasked with delivering key intelligence to the anti-Theran resistance, but literally an hour after you hand it over, the rebels suffer a devastating raid. The guy with the info escapes and sells it to a crime lord and if the rebels are to ever have any chance of surviving (let alone paying you back), you've got to steal it from the crime lord before he sells it to the Therans.

In "Shadows" a slave trader near Skypoint discovers a (whited out for arachnophobia) magical spider that will burrow inside peoples' heads and paralyzes their free will. A friendly NPC, who hopefully the GM remembered to establish long enough ago that it feels organic, has lost his son to these experiments and wants you to rescue him. Ideally, you do, and in the process destroy all the research so no one attempts to replicate this atrocity.

And with one slight exception in "A Message to Vivane" ("should the adventurers lose the scroll through sheer incompetence, return it to them by a stroke of luck or even a deus ex machina"), there is no railroading at all. The stakes are presented fairly and success or failure each bring reasonable consequences. It's not like Shattered Pattern, which put the whole fate of Barsaive at stake, but you still have an impact. Do the wrong thing with the coins and you'll make a powerful enemy. Succeed at recovering the intel and the resistance can bounce back from the raid, stronger than ever (plus they cough up the money they owe you). Fuck up with those spiders and they become a standard part of the Theran toolkit.

This whole book is just another example of Earthdawn releasing a solid, well-made supplement. It never quite takes the big risks necessary to elevate it to true greatness, but it also doesn't screw up the basics. Its ideal use, I think, is to act as an interlude between more prep-heavy sessions. Your characters are near Skypoint and you want to start sowing the seeds for an epic anti-Thera campaign, you can use one of these adventures to tread water while you introduce the PCs to the locals. Or they've just come back from delving into a kaer and you're not ready to start a new dungeon dive, this will buy you a week. Which isn't meant to diminish the book or anything. It's hard to do a filler episode well, and Skypoint Adventures manages it three times in a row.

Ukss Contribution: My absolute favorite thing in these adventures is a shitty bartender, Rapier, who likes to pose as a dashing retired hero. If you get him talking about his alleged adventures, he'll just appropriate various legends, casting himself in the lead role. But what I loved about him was the book's suggestion that he might put his foot in his mouth by unknowingly taking credit for the PCs' more famous exploits. That strikes me as just an incredibly fun interaction for both the players and the GM.

Monday, December 13, 2021

(Planescape) The Planeswalker's Handbook

 With The Planeswalker's Handbook, TSR has made the curious choice of essentially re-issuing the original boxed set, in a barely condensed form. Seriously, the descriptions of the individual planes are cut from a full page to a half page, but the first chapter runs through all of them, incorporating material from the three main boxed sets along the way. It doesn't go into detail about Sigil, and that's a pretty big loss, but it makes up for it by including dramatically more player-facing material - new equipment and spells, new planeswalker-specific kits, and a few new PC race options, including the soon-to-be-iconic aasimar and genasi. A DM is going to need more information, but for players, it's probably the best available entry point into the setting.

Maybe that's why they did it. Players don't read boxed sets, but they do read the "Handbook" series, and the MSRP is 10 dollars cheaper, so it's less of an ask. Nonetheless, it's a ridiculously good value and could well be a full campaign setting in its own right.

And it's here that I have to get myself under control and refrain from going off on my usual Planescape tirade, because The Planeswalker's Handbook really does a great job of embodying the setting - for both good and for ill. I think we can get away with summarizing the gist of it - Planescape pitches you the idea of infinity, uses that pitch to creep a little bit outside the "standard fantasy" mold, and often stops short just when it's starting to get good. Also, it only intermittently thinks through the implications of its own themes and the AD&D mechanics are not up to the task of presenting the setting authentically (for example - the "planar creatures" campaign option, where you play as aasimon, modrons, or genies is actually an excellent idea for a game that would be a nightmare to try and run using contemporarily available AD&D books).

You've heard all this before, so I don't have to get into it again . . . except . . . There is this one passage that completely deconstructs the setting's premise in a way that is nearly impossible to recover from, and it's mobilized in service of . . . actually, I'm not sure what, precisely. I'll let you judge for yourself.

Elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes and the like are scattered around the planes like the other races, but a canny berk'll notice a common theme -- most of the time, they're found only in the realms of their deities. The planes have been around since the beginning of creation, just like the Prime Material Plane. Millennia ago prime demihumans adventured to the realms of their deities, decided they liked it there, and stayed to establish homes and raise families. Communities of planar demihumans are born, live, and die in the specific areas that their gods have established as realms. Few ever leave; if a body lived in the perfect home of her god, her people's idea of heaven, would she bother to go adventuring around the planes? Probably not. Only a trivial number of planar demihumans live outside the realms of their gods.

. . . And that's why you can't play an elf, dwarf, halfling, or gnome as a planar PC. No, really, that's where this ends up: "A player considering a planar elf from Arvandor (for example) ought to offer the DM a darned good reason why that elf's left the home of his gods."

I did the long quote because the whole section left me with mouth agape. It's such an incredibly irresponsible thing to put into print, and I don't understand what it's trying to accomplish. I mean, on a literal, tactical level, okay. You can't be an elf from the planes. . . But you can still be an elf. You just have to come from a prime material world. What is going on? What is the point of all this?

I think it must be to justify the books' focus on the new lineup. Githzerai, tieflings, and bariaurs are everywhere, filling the same niche as demihumans, and so you need to explain the absence of elves and dwarves and halflings and gnomes, because you can't just put a githzerai into an elf-shaped hole. Except that you can. You don't need to justify shit. You can just do things differently. The elf-shaped hole isn't real.

Which, ironically, means that the planar elf should be okay. That's what "infinity" is all about. The things that are common on a prime material world, or even a half-dozen prime material worlds, don't necessarily dictate the demographics of the crossroads of all possible worlds. Githzerai come from Limbo, which means that they could easily span an area greater than Oerth, Toril, Krynn, Athas, Mystara, and Aebrynis combined. If so, then it's hardly surprising that you're more likely to run into them in Sigil.

The Planes of Conflict boxed set featured an NPC I really should have mentioned at the time - an Illithid merchant hanging out in one of Bytopia's trading towns. Such a specific and unlikely character, totally at odds with his species' presentation up to that point, and my thought at the time was not outrage or confusion that such a rules-breaking creature could exist, but rather a sort of ecstatic enthusiasm. At last the setting was starting to live up to the hype. Unfortunately, he was a one-off, and I forgot about him until just now, but he goes to show Planescape's potential. It did not break my immersion to see an illithid on the planes. If anything, it was the opposite. Seeing a creature notorious for sudden and frightful violence interact peacefully with these gnome merchants did a great deal to sell me on the breathtaking scope of the world. I didn't need an explanation for why it had to be an illithid instead of a halfling.

And I didn't need an explanation for why the "standard" fantasy races weren't ubiquitous on the planes. Divide a finite quantity (the number of demihumans currently alive at any one time) by an infinite quantity (the size of the planes), and the result is basically zero. Whole lifetimes could go by where you'd never see an elf.

But, apparently, someone needed an explanation, because we got one in the quoted passage. And the explanation in question drives a fucking bulldozer through the heart of the setting.

It is possible to physically attain heaven. It's a place and you can get there by moving. All you have to do is find your god's address and then arrange transportation. Once you do, you and your band of religious pilgrims can plot down and set up shop, and you and your descendants will know perfect contentment . . . forever. We know this is possible, because the elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes have already done it. That's why we never see any of them around.

I feel a kind of dizzying existential horror just thinking about it. This isn't the first time we've encountered this concept, of course. Much of my very first Planescape post was given over to contemplating the concept of physically colonizing heaven, sparked by an off-hand mention that PCs could build a stronghold in Elysium. However, at the time I thought the unexplored implications were an oversight. In their rush to make the planes into a gameable setting, they forgot that these places have religious significance. Except here it is, the religion is out in the open - live your life like a planar elf and you can bodily ascend into heaven.

So why aren't humans doing this? Why aren't bariaurs? Why is Sigil not constantly flooded with a stream of Prime Material religious pilgrims, ready to pay anything, to do anything to find the pathway to their gods.

And why are the gods letting them in when they get there? Isn't there something in their religious doctrines about needing to prove yourself worthy (or, at the very least, be purified by the sacrament of death) in order to get into heaven? Are you not implying that all of "demihuman" culture is nothing but elaborate preparation for a successful suicide? The reason we see humans, tieflings, githzerai, and bariaurs is because they've not yet mastered the eschaton and thus are condemned to live? Is this really the sort of game we're supposed to play?

Obviously not. But you've got to explain the absence of elves.

It's a kind of mental barrier that keeps popping up in these old TSR products. It's like they forgot that they invented the genre they're currently working in and that, having invented it, they could go on to invent something else. Or maybe it's a downside to success. They had achieved market dominance doing a particular thing, so the smart play would be to keep doing it until it stopped working. When I rattled off a list of Prime worlds earlier ("Oerth, Toril, Krynn, Athas, Mystara, and Aebrynis") that wasn't just me being extravagant. I was listing all of the Prime worlds specifically mentioned in the text (except Ortho, homelworld of the Harmonium, which only exists in backstory form) and not coincidentally, all the worlds that have elves, dwarves, and halflings (gnomes are absent from Dark Sun and, apparently, Birthright). Don't get me wrong, there's an admirable diversity of gameplay experiences here, but it's a little weird the way these same guys just keep popping up.

And Planescape is sometimes frustrating because it repeatedly bumps up against that mental barrier, but it can't quite grasp that certain things are "normal" only because twenty years of D&D have normalized them. Even as it's downplaying the "standard" demihuman races, it's panicking about their conspicuous absence, so much so that it's advancing apocalyptic nonsense to explain it. The key insight its lacking is that it's okay to just be its own thing. You really want to be the campaign setting that explores the infinite, all you have to do is learn two little words: "it's allowed."

It always seems so arbitrary what AD&D decides is a bridge that cannot be crossed. Canonically, Earth Genasi can become Paladins, a rare move in 2e's rigid class system. That's why "DMs may decide that genasi paladins are best limited to NPCs."

What is this bullshit? A PC has somehow managed to qualify for being a paladin, despite playing a race that gets penalties to Wisdom and Charisma, and you're encouraging the DM to veto the character because they're "extremely rare?" Rare like an 18 attribute roll, maybe?

As often happens when I read AD&D books, I feel like I'm grappling with something invisible here, some kind of social convention that, were I plugged into it, would make all of this make sense. Earth genasi paladins are a thing that exists, and you make them sound kind of cool, so much so that I, here in the year 2021, am thinking of homebrewing a whole elemental paladin class, but then, one sentence after inventing them, you imply that players wanting to play as this cool new thing is somehow suspect. 

I think what I might be missing is a sense for the virtue of normality. TSR isn't trying to micro-manage my game from Lake Geneva. Rather, they are warning me that when I bring my Earth Genasi Paladin to a new game, I am doing something Not Normal, and that the DM might have the perfectly reasonable reaction of not wanting my Not Normal character messing up their perfectly Normal game. That's why they made the effort to come up with an extremely fatuous explanation for the absence of the Normal PC races, so that the DM would have time to adjust to the fact that Planescape has declared a new batch of races to be the Normal ones.

Or, at least, that's one theory. It doesn't quite explain The Planeswalker's Handbook's dismal selection of kits, however. Each class type gets its own "Planeswalker" kit (e.g. Planeswalker Warrior, Planeswalker Wizard, etc) and "It's recommended that if native planar characters wish to use kits, they stick to these." Why that should be the case is unclear, though, because the kits are uniformly bland ("what if you had the regular class, but gave it a special ability that is useful on the planes"). You're telling me that if I grow up in Sigil, there's nobody around who can teach me to be a beggar thief or a swashbuckler fighter?

What's really frustrating is that they follow this section with an "alternative" system of "Kits Based on Location," that has some really interesting and flavorful kits, like the warrior who's worked as a mercenary in The Abyss or the wizard who learned to fly a glider in the elemental plane of air. And I'm looking at these and thinking, "how can this section and the previous section exist side-by-side?" You did a mediocre job and then immediately after started doing a good job, but then instead of using what you learned from the good part of your work and going back to fix the mediocre part, you just left them both in.

So I don't know, fucking AD&D, am I right?

Eh, maybe that's too harsh. I always feel like such a grump after writing a Planescape post, because I always fall into the trap of focusing on what can be improved. I really need to get better at conveying my love for these books in a way that's more obvious than simply the fact that I went out of my way to own them at all (I ask you, sincerely, is paying 35 dollars for the Planescape audio CD the act of a man who doesn't love the setting?). If it helps, I don't think of what I do as writing reviews, I think of them more as written reactions. What I write isn't an overall judgement of the work, but rather what I most want to talk about right after reading the work. What The Planeswalker's Handbook is is an abridged and condensed version of the setting so far, supplemented with more player-facing material than we've seen in the rest of the line combined. That's a really good thing to be. You should just ignore the part about the DM banning Genasi paladins. Ignore the part about only using the bland kits (which, admittedly, do have a niche for players who don't want to use a more character-defining kit) and just use whatever kits you want. Ignore the part about planar demihumans hiding away in heaven (either that, or make it the central theme of your campaign, where your party of intrepid PCs attempts to bodily ascend into paradise, threatening to throw the whole balance of life and death out of whack, which would definitely be a pretty epic D&D campaign). 

I think, the real barrier to Planescape reaching its potential is just the rift between pre- and post- internet. There has been an explosion of creativity and diversity in the 25 years since this book has been printed. Even Wizards of the Coast is now printing supplements with owl-folk PCs and Paladins of every alignment. And I think that rather than leaving Planescape behind, there is instead an unprecedented opportunity for a reboot. What this particular book most needs is to get in the habit of saying "yes" and the hobby as a whole has shifted to make that stance the default.

Ukss Contribution: Veddish duBran has a shop where he claims to sell keys for every lock in the multiverse. I absolutely love it as a concept. Very magical. Very eccentric. By default, only borderline useful (which, of all the thousands of keys in this shop is the one I need?), but with the potential to be a crucial plot point. What can I say, I can never resist a weird, magical shop.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Shattered Pattern

Shattered Pattern is the first Earthdawn adventure where I really feel like I've been given the keys to the setting. If the PCs fail to recover the dragon eggs from Tyrlaan, the Nethermancer (i.e. necromancer), he will successfully corrupt them into servants of the Horror Verjjgorm, and they'll be a major threat going forward. No reset to the status quo, no other group of heroes coming in and doing the job, no indication whatsoever that the stakes are not real. 

I don't mean to sound so backhanded here, because the other Earthdawn adventures had a lot to recommend them, but it feels weird that the first adventure to feel truly open is also the first one to really indulge in metaplot. I think it may be down to being a higher-level adventure. This one is meant for characters of 5-7, and the core book only goes up to level 8. Maybe it was a case of allowing the PCs to have a major setting impact before they retire. Or maybe it's just a shift in the line's philosophy. I did notice that the setting sourcebooks got more metaplotty as time went on, so perhaps the adventures are on the same arc. It's something to keep an eye on as I go forward.

For now, I think I like it. It's a little odd that the more interesting outcome results when the PC fail. In that case, the sequel campaign will have to deal with cursed dragons serving a primordial Horror from before the dawn of time, whereas if they succeed, then a cult that was a problem is now slightly less of a problem. Don't get me wrong - "hunt down the sinister cult who is trying to throw the land into chaos" is a decent idea for a follow-up game, but the cult's activities are all secret, so if you thwart them at every turn, then the status quo will remain exactly the same. That's a broader problem with genre fiction, though - villains act and heroes react. 

Because it's such a common trope, I can't even count that as a flaw. The only thing I'd say was a flaw is the weird overlap between the guy who hires the PC at the start of the adventure and the villain the PCs fight at the end of the adventure. What happened is that hundreds of years ago, a wicked elvish sorcerer made bargains with the Horrors - he would betray the people he promised to protect, and in exchange the Horrors would teach him powerful magical techniques. And then, after he got what he wanted, he slew the Horrors that gave him the power (I'm using the plural because he did it twice). In recent years, this guy pledged his service to a third Horror, one who is probably too powerful to fall victim to another backstab (I have to assume, otherwise that suggests Verjigorm has a real problem securing reliable help), and since Verjigorm is the "Hunter of Great Dragons," the service involved stealing a dragon's eggs and corrupting them magic.

The person who hires the PCs is a drake, which is a kind of shapeshifter who can switch between dragon and humanoid forms. He worked for the Great Dragon Icewing and he tracked the sorcerer to his lair . . . and was promptly beaten so badly he lost all his memories. The PCs enter the picture when the now-amnesiac drake decides he's going to spend a portion of his mysterious treasure to get a bunch of adventurers to try and uncover the truth of his identity.

The issue is that the drake's humanoid form was an elderly elf. As a result, the adventure is convinced that the PCs are going to get him confused with the villain. The text brings it up in every chapter right up until the final dungeon. And you could not be blamed if you thought this was an intentional ambiguity that is meant to lead to a bunch of mistaken-identity shenanigans. But the text is actually incredibly clear - "The similarity . . . may lead people to the logical but incorrect conclusion that Tyrlaan, betrayer of helpless people to a dreadful death, is the man who hired them. . . If this happens, remind the players that the evidence their characters have found is far from conclusive."

I can see how players might come to think that two characters whose main distinguishing characteristics are that they elvish, male, and old, are the same person. But if the adventure is going to make a point of advising the GM to shut down that line of speculation every time it comes up, then why not just change a couple of salient characteristics of one of the two characters. Like, maybe the sorcerer needs to be old, because he has a Scourge-era backstory, and maybe he has to be an elf, because that's the only fantasy race long-lived enough to be that old, and there's 50 percent chance that he's going to be a he, but then the drake could be female, or take the form of a human, or just not look so old. When you continually bring up how likely it is that these very similar characters will be mistaken for each other, it starts looking like you're doing it on purpose.

That's really the only flaw. Some might object to the fact that the PCs are given three locations to investigate and, while the plot escalates sensibly if they go from nearest to farthest, if they go to the farthest location first, they can short-circuit the entire adventure and defeat the boss before they even know enough about him to mistake him for their employer. I'm not one of those objectors, however, because it's pretty unlikely to happen and even if it does, well, that's just the consequence of a genuinely open design. Needless to say, if I ran Shattered Pattern, I'd ignore the book's advice to shuffle the locations around if it looks like the PCs are going to the wrong one.

Overall, I feel like Shattered Pattern might be the start of a new direction for Earthdawn adventures. I'm hoping that, as we go on, we'll start to see bigger stories with wider scope and more consequential decisions. Then again, there's always the danger of getting so into the metaplot that you start locking out new players. And yet, those weird, insular stories are always the most fun to comment about (what is Earthdawn's answer to Samuel Haight?) so maybe I win either way.

Ukss Contribution: I'm super immature and always giggle when these fantasy books use "bone" as a prefix. All three of the adventure's major locations contain bone circles that are guarded by bone spirits, and I definitely snickered inappropriately, but I do like the idea of an elemental spirit made from bones.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

(Planescape) Something Wild

I think Something Wild might just be a good adventure. It opens with an intriguing mystery - animals in Sigil are going berserk, and the city is haunted by nightmares of being stalked by deadly jungle cats. And then, to unravel this mystery, you have to travel to multiple planes, confronting demons and cultists and the ensorcelled spirits of the dead. And in the end, the PCs undergo a magical ritual that puts them up against a puzzle boss and their success or failure in this endeavor is crucial to resolving the plot. It's not even especially railroady, given it's only 64 pages long. The players can follow the clues in any order they like, backtrack as necessary, and it's possible to completely miss out on a couple of sub-plots. Everything I normally complain about in these posts is notably mitigated. Even the obligatory NPC-who-must-survive-or-else-the-PCs-can't-complete-the-adventure is presented more as a useful expert than a backseat protagonist. The PCs need her to cast the ritual, but if she dies, they can undergo a laborious sidequest to find another member of her order.

So if I can't complain, what do I have left? I guess we can talk about the metaphysical implications of this adventure. Though it starts with trouble in Sigil, none of the main actors or events actually occurs in Sigil. Instead, an evil god is trying to escape Carceri by meddling with the spiritual fabric of the Beastlands, and that's having a ripple effect that influences Sigil. Because, apparently, "The city is particularly sensitive when one of the Outer Planes starts to sour."

Don't get me wrong, that's a great idea, and a useful little fact to help set up a hundred more potential adventures, but it's also the first time I'm hearing about it (although, maybe it was actually introduced in one of the five Planescape adventures that chronologically precede this one, but which I don't currently own thanks to the absolutely ludicrous prices they fetch on the secondary market). It raises a lot of questions about Sigil and its role in the multiverse. 

Is this influence two-way? Could you use Sigil as a throne to rule the planes? How long has Sigil been the way it is? Did it become the "City of Doors" through some past event? Could it become something new in the future? And what of the planes themselves? What role do they play in the proper functioning of the multiverse? Is the chaos in Sigil only the beginning?

None of those questions are answered in the course of this adventure, but at least it doesn't seem ludicrous that they could be.

The other main issue this adventure raises is that of institutional accountability. One of the threads you can tug at to get to the main plot is introduced by an NPC Paladin, Blander Mul (and I just have to say, I love that name). Blander is a member of the Mercykillers, but he suspects that some of his fellow faction members might be corrupt! (Shocking, I know). Some of the prisoners in Sigil's prison have gone missing, and at first he thinks they escaped, but with the PCs help, he'll dig deeper and discover that prison officials have been selling them to the cult of a dark god, which ritually hunts them as part of their sinister devotions. Eventually, Blander goes missing. You find his body later on, in the realm of the god at the center of the plot. He was betrayed by his compatriots, sold alongside a batch of prisoners so that the corrupt Mercykillers could cover-up their misdeeds. In the end, you can use his notes to expose the conspiracy and "depending on the strength of the heroes' proof . . . the authorities either look into the charges or dismiss them as barmy rot."

Forget it, Jake, it's the Lady's Ward.

Nah, as much as that side-plot is a bunch of circular tail-chasing, I actually kind of like how noirish it feels. Sigil's not just the City of Doors, it is a big, grimy, reluctantly anachronistic metropolis all its own, and I'm intrigued by the potential for more modern, urban stories. It's the only place I've seen in D&D where you could plausibly do something like Chinatown, and I really wish the B plot had a supplement all its own.

The only thing that undercuts it is the alignment system. Technically, by the rules-as-written, Blander Mul is in violation of his Paladin oath by associating with these jokers, though of course this just validates the rant I made back when reading The Complete Paladin's Handbook that a corrupt hierarchy is, in fact, a Paladin's natural foil. But nonetheless, the events of the story really shouldn't have surprised him. He has "Detect Evil" as an innate, spell-like ability, and if he had used it even once against literally any of the antagonists, he'd have figured out the mystery a lot sooner -"OMG, the Mercykillers have been infiltrated by a bunch of cruel authoritarians who  are driven more by the lurid spectacle of revenge than high ideals of justice. Who could have seen this coming?"

I think maybe 1996 was just a far different time. A lot of this book's sections end with advice on what to do if the PCs decide to attack various harmless NPCs, which suggests to me that maybe the Mercykiller's credo of violent punishment for minor crimes was not as much of a red flag as it should have been.

Overall, I'd say that I really enjoyed this adventure. I think it might have less untapped potential than Harbinger House (which really could have spun off into its own campaign setting), but it's also much less flawed (in order to get that Harbinger House campaign, you'd have had to throw out much of the book's dismal plot and shaky worldbuilding). It's simply solid in a way that many stand-alone adventures aren't.

Ukss Contribution: I was going to pick Wemics, because they are one of D&D's most iconic weird creatures and they are explicitly called out inside the adventure (as being more susceptible than most to the effects of the Beastlands' corruption), but the more I think about it, the more it has to be Blander Mul. He's just such a perfect chump. Even after he's betrayed by his fellow Mercykillers, he winds up bequeathing his possessions to the faction "in hopes that the worthy may use them to drive out the unworthy."

I think it might be useful to have someone around who is so egregiously doomed.