Friday, June 24, 2022

(Dark Sun) Dune Trader

 Degree of difficulty should probably count for something. Dune Trader, by Anthony Pryor, is less good than the previous Dark Sun books, and I have to figure that a contributing factor is that it's attempting something more difficult. The Complete Gladiator's Handbook and Slave Tribes were largely about the victims of Athas' powers that be, and Dune Trader is largely about collaborators.

Most of the dynastic merchant houses have a positive working relationship with the sorcerer-kings. Isn't that nice. A true testament to the Merchant Code's oath of neutrality. "I would trade with the dragon itself if it wished" - that's not actually something to be proud of.

So it's kind of uncomfortable that we're talking about introducing merchant houses into a campaign, and most of them deal in slaves. And of the ones that don't, all but one use slave labor to run their business. Some of these guys are clearly antagonists - like the militarist House Stel, that openly attacks its rivals, or the sinister house Tsalaxa, which dabbles in assassination and blackmail. Player characters are probably meant to start their own enterprise, using the rules in chapter 5, or associate with House Wavir, which was founded by adventurers, refuses to associate with defilers, and absolutely hates slavery.

Yet all of the major houses have an "opportunities" section, which describes the sort of jobs someone might be able to get with the organization. 

Maybe I'm just being a prude about the slavery thing. If you remove that element, none of the Houses is really beyond the pale when it comes to playable villain behavior. Oh, no, these fantasy merchants are willing to resort to all sorts of shady schemes to get their goods to market, that doesn't sound like fun at all.

Who am I kidding? I'm already twirling a virtual mustache imagining my rival sitting across the table, forced to come to me for aid after my agents have left their business in shambles. "It was never personal. It's just business."

However, slaves are on the trade goods table. We know the relative demand for captured labor in all the major city states of the Tyr region (though, the chart has an error, because the book is set post-Road to Urik, and thus slavery is outlawed in Tyr). I wouldn't say it goes full on into endorsing slave-trading as an intended mode of play, because it doesn't give a concrete price, but it does have a footnote saying "Cost varies greatly. DM makes decisions for final price."

That is . . . not as much discouragement as I would have liked. It would have been a good idea to at least touch on the subject in the chapter about "Trader Campaigns," but it might be for the best that the book didn't try. It repeatedly calls halflings "savages" and I'm nervous to think what advice we might have gotten.

Other than this single, fraught issue, Dune Trader is a very respectable workhorse of a book. It can sometimes get a little list-heavy, like the part where it describes the dangers posed by raiders and then gives a species-by-species breakdown of typical tactics, or the obligatory 3 forts and one village that are in every major house description (they each have a situation associated with them, but those situations are pretty boilerplate: "frequent target of raids by trade rivals and elf nomads" doesn't really tell me all that much).

Still, the lists are useful for emergency ideas, if nothing else, and the stuff between the lists is good. Each of the major Houses has its own distinct identity and can support subtly different types of campaigns. The minor houses are even better, probably because they only have a few paragraphs to pitch their most compelling idea. I especially liked House Lamnos, which is a small, agile operation that is constantly pissing off the big guys by flying their flags on Lamnos caravans. The book is unclear about whether this is deliberate trademark infringement or just protective mimicry, but both possibilities intrigue me.

The chapter on elvish merchants was probably the best in the book, giving us a diverse and vibrant elvish culture that does not collaborate with the sorcerer-kings, even as they rely on the city-states for survival (by running fly-by-night black markets). I wonder about potential overlap with the upcoming Elves of Athas, but that's a future problem.

Overall, I liked this book. I think it's fair to say Dark Sun is on a streak.

Ukss Contribution: The Decanter of Endless Water. It's owned by an elf. Its inclusion is technically a mistake, because the boxed set explicitly calls it out as an item that does not exist on Athas, but I'm not choosing it to be backhanded. I just like the item. It would likely have been a candidate next time I read a DMG. It's so practical, but somehow it also feels properly mystic and symbolic, like a good magic item should. Plus, you can't help considering its possibilities as a piece of civic infrastructure, and goodness knows I'm a sucker for infrastructure.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

(Dragonstar) Heart of The Machine

 It was recently pointed out to me that I don't pay enough attention to the individual authors of these rpg books I read, and because that criticism was both completely accurate and completely fair, I rashly swore to try and correct that flaw going forward. But now that I'm at the point of writing my first post in the shadow of that vow, I'm wracked with uncertainty. What if I didn't like the book, and the author is anyone else besides Phil Brucato (who I assume is capable of defending himself with dark sorcery)? It's going to feel awkward calling them out by name? Lucky for me, then, that Heart of the Machine is pretty decent. Stefon Mears did good. We can both relax. Although, on a personal note, if Mr. Mears does someday read this - you dodged a bullet not getting hired to write the proposed sequel (A Peculiar Institution). And on a less personal note, Mystic Eye Games dodged a bullet when the line collapsed before they could publish a book about robot slavery called "A Peculiar Institution."

(Like, seriously, damn.)

Anyway, the book itself. Heart of the Machine is a simple story about a gang kidnapping people and selling them to aliens, who proceed to use blashphemous arcane magic to rip out their souls and put them into obedient robot bodies. But, really, it's only the first act. The PCs roll into this newly-conquered planet, encounter someone who is being chased by the gang, raid the gang's headquarters, and then follow the trail back to the aliens, who will probably just pack up their operation and start again somewhere else, but at least you rescued the victims now.

It's a simple structure that's perfect for a one shot - get in a fight, ask around town to learn what that fight was all about, then go to a place, then go to another place - but which could, pending a title that isn't ridiculously offensive, be the start of a whole series of thrilling adventurers as the PCs travel the galaxy seeking the mysterious secrets of the Sel-tava, a species that is both "ancient and evil" and apparently has the ability to animate the severed fingers of their dead into a kind of mad-scientist servitor species.

That last part confused. . . ? intrigued . . .? confu-truiged me. Why, specifically, fingers? Are the Sel-tava really huge and thus their fingers would become medium-sized creatures when severed and animated with necromancy? Except, if that's the case, then what's with the art depicting the Marbuzi (that's the name of these creatures) as humanoids, with eyes and mouths and their own arms and hands, ending in claw-like fingers. Does a living Sel-tava have wriggling, humanoid fingers? Do their fingers' fingers' have their own humanoid fingers? Are the Sel-tava horrifying fractal creatures, presumably with some kind of impossible layered sentience so that in the infinitesimal reaches of its farthest extremities, the appendage-that-is-the-creature can suffer with the full weight of the whole? Lovecraftian horror isn't something Dragonstar has attempted so far, but I can get on board with it.

Or maybe it's just that the Marbuzi are grown from cells cultured from Sel-tava fingers. That raises the question of why they couldn't be grown from other body parts (the book is very specific about this - Marbuzi come from fingers - it's stated, directly, twice). Maybe it's a symbolic magical thing. Marbuzi are meant to be an extension of their creators' will, and thus the hands/fingers represent a principle of acting on the world.

Or maybe the Sel-tava have genitals on their fingers! How gross would that be?! Eww!

I should stop messing around, though. This book isn't primarily (or even any more than very slightly) about the mystery of the Marbuzi's origins. It's only really half about their kidnapping plot. It's mostly about the town of Drelandan on the planet Drelga. The book describes the planet's political role in the Dragon Empire (a backwater centered around resource extraction) and the town's culture and economy (a sleepy refueling and vehicle maintenance spot, except for four times a year when the mines and fisheries rotate personnel, when it becomes a chaotic hub of interstellar migration).

It's a good adventure town, and honestly the book's plot is maybe the third or fourth most interesting pitch we see (the best is probably the one about taking a rock band out to tour among the planet's natives, in hopes of learning something about their music). The only real flaw is that the book doesn't seem to understand that town of Drelandan is a crime against humanity.

See, Drelga is a standard Outlands world, and thus pretty much an example of core-only D&D, with the slight twist that it is stone-age instead of medieval. And the Dragon Empire is coming in and mining all their rare minerals and subjecting their oceans to industrial fishing. That's pretty fucked up. 

To a certain type of person (i.e. people just like me, John Frazer) this was an invisible issue in 2003, but if you ran a game with this book today, you'd pretty much have to address it. Is the Dragon Empire plundering the natural resources out from under their rightful owners because it is ruled by the cruel Mezzenbone, who desires only wealth, regardless of the wickedness needed to get it? Then where does the Lawful Good head of the Drelandan Port Authority factor in? 

To sum up - it's kind of bittersweet to end Dragonstar with this book, because it is in many ways the archetypal Dragonstar book - a jack of all trades (setting guide, adventure, and an appendix containing new spells, robots, and spaceships, as well as a new monster type) that is only tenuously connected to the other books (perhaps more forgivable because it's licensed rather than produced directly by FFG), that nonetheless has a new piece of universal canon that's destined to never be developed (MacFolan's "The Galaxy's General Store" - i.e. Space Walmart, is introduced here for the first time). I think I would have liked to end the series with some closure, but this is likely more fitting.

Ukss Contribution: Are you ready for something ridiculous? I ask, because I want to append the disclaimer that the bulk of the book is non-ridiculous, so my choice is non-representative, but an idea wormed its way into my head and I have to let it out.

The adventure here is of the old-school "list of rooms with enemies, treasure, and furniture" variety, but with a modern twist - the buildings are laid out with an eye towards their practical function. Not necessarily the best choice for an old-school adventure, because you can navigate by inference and only have to visit a few select areas, but having the advantage of verisimilitude. So, in addition to listing laboratories and garages and barracks, you also get things like bathrooms and employee break rooms . . . three of them. Nothing happens in these break rooms. No treasures or encounters, and barely any furniture, but it struck me as amusing that Mr. Mears kept remembering to put them in. Proletarian solidarity, am I right?

Anyway, I'm going to honor this by putting something important or interesting in an employee break room, so that it can be the center of an Ukss adventure.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

(Dark Sun) Slave Tribes

 First things first - it's just a coincidence that I started reading this book on Juneteenth. The Complete Gladiator's Handbook made some references to the overall Dark Sun metaplot, and I realized that these books were probably going to do the 90s thing where each one, despite being ostensibly about different subjects happening at the same point in time, would also wind up subtly (or not so subtly) advancing the timeline. So the boxed set happens in the year of Priest's Defiance and Road to Urik takes place in the year of Wind's Reverence (thanks to the DS wiki for that, though I am kind of bummed out to be reminded of the pure chaos of the series' later canon), and so on and so forth. In order to keep on track, I decided to read these in order of the series number, and the lowest one I had was 2404 - Slave Tribes.

Is this a good way for me, a white guy, to commemorate Juneteenth? Or is it especially offensive to be reading a fantasy book with this subject matter on this, of all days? I don't know. I don't even know how to begin to answer. But it was on my mind.

Also on my mind, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's an AD&D book, published in 1992, by TSR, about the subject of slavery, and throughout most of my read time, I dreaded the moment where they would try and present me with both sides. Luckily, it never came. I'm actually a little shocked. This book is less slavery-apologist than Skypoint and Vivane. It might even be, dare I say, good.

I know, I know, I've been calling Dark Sun "good" in a way that feels really backhanded, and I don't mean it like that. It's just that it really does feel sometimes like the line is getting away with something, like maybe it fell through some loophole in the TSR corporate structure where it was allowed to be creator-driven and not beholden to Gygax's various first drafts.

It's good to remember that TSR had some talented people working there in the 90s, and if Planescape was occasionally bad, maybe that wouldn't have happened if they'd just let Planescape be Planescape, instead of insisting that it also be Manual of the Planes fanfiction.

Anyway, with my critical conscience now salved, I can say that Slave Tribes' claim to goodness can be best understood by looking at its lowest point, where it came closest to crossing the line - the section with the header "Why Is Slavery Necessary?"

There was some definite clenching when I first read that title. It starts off with the pro-slavery arguments (without it "the natural superiors in society would not be free to pursue greater leisure and other endeavors" or the more reasonable, but still pretty fucked up argument that survival on Athas is so difficult "slaves remain the buffer between civilization and barbarity . . . the ends definitely justify the means"), counters with the anti-slavery argument ("civilization is held down by the weight of slaver, and it will not reach its heights until the weight is cut loose") and then the narrator says the dreaded words, "My own view, for what it is worth, falls somewhere in between."

NOOOO!!! The narrator is a . . . gag . . . centerist. The worst possible thing you can be!

Gentle political ribbing aside, he later concludes the section by saying "I long for the day when we can eliminate this immoral and evil practice of keeping slaves" and he's really only a centrist in that he prefers gradual structural reform over violent revolution, which is maybe not quite so mealy-mouthed a position on a world where intelligent life is on the verge of extinction and slaveholding societies have a monopoly on the few parts of the ecosystem that have not been blasted into ruin. Would the sorcerer kings and the templars rather lose the war and give up their privilege gracefully or call upon terrible defiling magic to spoil the prize on their way out? A conundrum that would face any mass uprising.

The real reason I'm focusing on this close call, though, is that even as it's being the most perilous part of the book, it's also a demonstration of the book's biggest strength. The section begins with the words "Some regard slavery as the natural order." The pro-slavery constituency is represented by the vague collective noun "some." Because the narrator is an ex-slave, and he's only conveying this viewpoint second-hand.

That's kind of the key to this whole thing. Slave Tribes is a book about slavery, but it's told from the slaves' perspective. Only slaves (and monarchs, and like one or two miscellaneous characters like the undead horror under the Black Sun Raiders' camp) get names or motivations. They're the main characters, the ones driving their own stories. And they all hate slavery. Even Werrick, the mercenary who gets paid to track down escaped slaves, is only doing it because she's terrified of going back and  "by working with evil and feeding it, she hopes to keep it away from her and her band."

It's not a direction I would be bold enough to explore, but it has a ring of psychological truth to it (as well as perhaps being the only time in D&D history where the "neutral evil" alignment has been portrayed in an interesting way) and most importantly - we never learn the specific names or motivations of any of her clients or former captors.

Normally, a lack of specificity might be considered a weakness, but I felt like it was a refreshing change of pace. It's the exact opposite of most slavery-focused rpg books, where you learn a lot about the different slaveholders, but the slaves themselves are treated as an undifferentiated mass (even in books that loudly and unequivocally denounce slavery as a practice). So, when the narrator says, "only the owners claim slaves are well-treated . . . twice better than terrible is still intolerable" it feels earned, instead of just being a disclaimer.

It's not a perfect book by any means. It could have stood to be more forceful about the horrors of concubinage (it's not especially romanticized, and it's probably for the best that it resorts to euphemism, but making a point of describing ex-concubines as having "few skills to make use of outside their pampered existence" is 100% an unforgivable patriarchy fail). But even with that failing, it's probably as good a discussion of this subject as it's possible to be while still being an entertaining action/adventure fantasy book (whether "entertaining action/adventure fantasy" is an appropriate venue for talking about slavery at all is an entirely separate question).

Ukss Contribution: This one is tough for me, because if I'm being intellectually honest, I'm going to have to pick something to do with slavery. That's what's the book's about, and I don't really have any of my usual excuses. Sometimes, I'll shy away from including an element because it requires an entire context to make sense, but unlike Starships of the Galaxy, where following the book required me to invent a whole new fantasy environment, it's actually extremely plausible that Ukss has slavery. In fact, I directly reference it in two previous entries - King of Commerce Island has a libertarian euphemism for its slaves and Lady Harden is described as occasionally fighting slavers (because that's part of what she did in her original book). 

Plus, you know, it's one of the eternal human evils, that is continually manifesting in a thousand different forms, so it would be weird if I explicitly said that Ukss didn't have it (although, this is coming perilously close to Exalted: the Lunars territory, where I whine "but it's not realistic to not include this horrible thing" - a pitfall I had hoped to avoid by not bringing it up).

Unfortunately, my second go-to excuse ("there was some small thing I liked better") doesn't work either, because honestly, my favorite thing here was one of the titular Slave Tribes, and for it to preserve the thing I like about it absolutely requires a slaveholding society for context.

Sortar's Army is a group of ex-slaves who has decided that they are going to war with the city states, and they are completely badass. I almost had an out about including them, because the narrator was being a fuddy-duddy about the whole thing, describing them as being completely in the right, but framing it in this chiding way. "Make no mistake - Sortar's Army is a bloodthirsty band of berserkers."

And I thought, okay, this is TSR's brand of midwestern conservatism coming out. They put in a passage like "Sortar believes that everything within a city-state caravan was bought or built with the sweat and blood of slaves. As such, it is only right that Sortar and his army of ex-slaves be the ones to liberate those goods from the clutches of the templars," but the reason they softened it with a word like "believes" is because they're going to swing around and say that respect for property rights is a key tenet of "good" and we'll get to a stat block that tries to make Sortar a nuanced chaotic evil.

And if they had done that, I could have, with good conscience, gone with my second choice (the slaves-turned-bandits who were really into theater.), but they threw me the swerve. Sortar is Lawful Neutral. His lieutenants are Chaotic Good and Chaotic Neutral. The only member of the group explicitly called out as "evil" it his ex-templar love interest (also, she's a pretty strong character in her own right, who became a slave due to internal politics, is helping the group out of a desire for revenge, and is plotting her glorious return to power).

Normally, I don't care so much about alignment, because it adds nothing to the game but an out-of-character tag that indicates what the author thought about the characters' motives, but here, it matters because it means that the narrator's tut-tutting wasn't meant to be definitive. Whatever else we can say about Sortar's brutal war of vengeance against the city states, it isn't evil.

So, that's my choice. The principled slave rebellion that "does not limit its targets to only the weak." I will, unfortunately, have to make a slaveholding society for them to rise up against, but I suppose every hero needs a villain.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

(Dragonstar) Smuggler's Run

I wonder if maybe Dragonstar was meant to last forever. Because going through the supplements in order, there's a certain swiss-cheese quality to the line. Each book will introduce new rules and new lore and you can see parts of the setting, but there are all these gaps. And as new books come out, they don't really fill those gaps, they just add more. There's nothing comprehensive about it. The Starfarer's Handbook and Guide to the Galaxy kind of work together, in the sense that TSH gives you a broad overview, and GttG talks about specific places and events, but then the next book comes along and introduces new places which have never been mentioned before and will never be seen again, and the next book does the same, and so on. Until we get to this book that gives us new prestige classes and their associated organizations, and they're just coming completely out of nowhere.

Okay, so there's this Imperial Courier's League and their deal is that they were once a prestigious part of the Empire's communication infrastructure, delivering packages for the Emperor, but then Mezzenbone took the throne and gutted the organization and now it still formally exists on paper, but its dwindling resources are being squandered by its corrupt leadership who scam some money on the side by using it as a cover for smuggling operation.

And that's cool, but why are we just hearing about it now? Because the book is Smuggler's Run? I mean, I guess, except that they're the only smuggling organization we hear about. Just like the Gevise Family is the only merchant house we hear about. We know there are others, because the description of the House Trader prestige class says as much, but Gevise is the only one who gets a specific name. Ever. 

I can't help but think about supplements for other games. I just got done reading Earthdawn and almost every book in the series was about something I already had reason to be interested in. The core book mentions Parlainth and then the Parlainth Boxed Set describes the location in detail. Even the ones about an abstract subject, like magic or wilderness survival, will give a broad overview of their subject. The Adept's Journey: Mystic Paths introduced an entirely new game mechanic, and though most of the organizations were new to 4th edition, the fact that there were a bunch of them and each got a dozen or so pages of context went a long way towards making them seem like an organic part of the world.

(Also, the Messengers would be seen again, in the Iopos book. I hadn't realized that I read them out of order, and didn't understand the significance of the reference until I looked back in retrospect).

I think a big part of Smuggler's Run's problem is that it's just a thin little pamphlet. It only has 64 pages, and those are divided into 5 chapters, so after you factor in the new cargo rules, new feats and spells, and new rules for skill use (we get a chart with penalties for making a Spot check through a video camera!), there really isn't room for much detail on a potential antagonist.

That's why I wonder if Dragonstar might have worked if it were evergreen, with a hundred supplements, because then new merchant houses or infamous pirates or defunct imperial organizations could have been introduced piecemeal, as needed. A traditionalist might prefer a more rigorous adherence to subject matter - like maybe a dedicated Merchant House book or something - but we'd have gotten a full setting eventually.

One thing I will say for this approach, though, is that it does make the supplements completely modular. You don't need anything besides the two cores to make sense of Smuggler's Run . . . but also, none of the supplements released so far would be of any help.

I guess this book is okay. It has a couple of iffy moments ("The machine of war consumes a lot of fuel, and someone has to be hired to deliver it" - okay, book from shortly after 9/11), but it's really just a broad cross-section of stuff that's useful in running a particular type of campaign. Maybe too broad, because very little of it is given the wordcount it deserves, but nonetheless useful. I like that there's a class of cargo ship that was designed by copying a mysterious derelict space hulk made by an unknown species. That the example star system has a corrupt noble who's trying to keep the Dragon Empire secret from his people until he can broker a deal with the dragons to put him in charge of his whole world. That one of the robots is just a safe with legs that runs away when people try to break into it (and it's a real shame that Dragonstar robots don't have sentience, because I want to explore that guy's whole life - it and the Contract Drone, who can only communicate by printing legal documents).

However, for all the individual good stuff, the book as a whole left me wanting more . . . and not in a good way.

Ukss Contribution: The book is littered with these "help wanted" ads that are mini pitches for full adventures. That's a fun format that I think a lot of books could use to their advantage.

The ad I liked the most was looking for a qualified ship to deliver a "funerary vessel" with the caveat "Deceased spirit is linked to vessel, please do not lose. Will not pay for vessel without attached spirit."

I love that adventure pitch. Hiring a courier to ship a ghost. Really good integration of magic and technology. Dragonstar living up to its full potential. I'll try to do something similar in Ukss.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

(Dark Sun) The Complete Gladiator's Handbook

 The Complete Gladiator's Handbook presents me with a certain difficulty. Its subject matter is half "unforgivable atrocity of the ancient world" and half "professional sports." And maybe, from the perspective of modern morality, it's easy to say, "we don't need to fuck with a sport where participation is involuntary and losing means severe injury or death," but . . . it's Dungeons and Dragons, and the paradox of "this would be horrifying in reality, but it's fun because it's pretend" is where the game lives.

 "Oh, there are bandits targeting ore shipments from the mines, I guess we need to gather up a gang of mercenaries to enact lethal violence on them. It's our first, and only, recourse."

So look, you're going to fight in the arena. You'll use unique Dark Sun weapons like the Trikal (a polearm with three ax-heads at the end). You'll fight strange creatures like the deadly Athasian Sloth (which kills with "incredible speed"). You'll have to navigate special arena challenges like Queen's Puzzle (a cage match, basically) or brutal Urik-variant football, played in a repurposed obsidian quarry where the sides of the field are walls of scorching-hot glass. If you win, it means sponsorships, luxurious treatment, and the crowd screaming your name! Your character doesn't want to be there, but you'll want your character to be there, because that's where the excitement's happening.

And I guess it's okay. I get nervous when it feels like we're supposed to play with slavery, but this is something with a lot of mythology built around it and it feels unreal. That's not necessarily a good instinct to have, because obviously the mystique is born from the excuses the Romans used to allow themselves to keep doing it, but also, it's not (as far as I know) a practice that was taken up by other slave-holding cultures. So "gladiator" is kind of just a job, you know. It's pro-wrestling (complete with faces and heels, which you can create with the included fame/infamy rules), but you're not allowed to quit.

Because you pretty much have to play as a slave gladiator. The Complete Gladiator's Handbook offers alternatives - you could be a noble, slumming it, or a freeman from the countryside, enchanted with the big-city spectacle, but those are not fun stories. Not when you put a little bit of thought into it and realize they are both stories of a (relatively) privileged person fighting and killing slaves. It's kind of a paradox. The gladiators not wanting to be there is part of the atrocity of the game, so you might think that two people who don't want to be there is worse than one person who doesn't want to be there and one person who does, but the story only works when the killing is involuntary. Voluntarily killing another human being is just murder, no matter how you dress it up in the trappings of sport.

But if the PCs are slave-gladiators, that's on-theme. The world is ruled by evil, and thus to live inside the system is to become complicit in that evil. The fighting's a metaphor. Kill to survive. You don't have a choice. Unless you set yourself against the system and brave the immense power it can bring to bear. It's a whole arc.

And the intended mode of play. The Complete Gladiator's Handbook still exists in the rarefied company of "AD&D, but good" and so it doesn't mince words - "The DM should always portray slavery as a cruel and inhuman institution." And the "Gladiator Campaign" chapter is pretty clear about how it's going to end up - " When the PCs tire of being slave gladiators, their escape from the chains of slavery can provide nights of exciting adventure."

There's a certain hypocrisy here. "We start with something horrible, and we acknowledge that, so of course it's going to end with the characters escaping that horror, but in the middle part, there's no reason not to wallow in the decadent spectacle and use it as a backdrop for some sick-ass fights." It's easy to see how something like that could devolve into the grotesque - privileged white men deciding that slavery and exploitation will add a little spice to their beer-and-pretzels game.

But at least it's not colonialism? No, seriously, the question mark was on purpose. Dungeons and Dragons at its worst could seem like propaganda for colonialism. So far, Dark Sun has been good about not doing that. Slavery exists, but it's not justified. City States will war over resources, but it's framed as nothing more noble than armed robbery. Not saying it's super woke or anything (it's not - this book needlessly clarifies that the people of Athas can use "Oriental-style martial arts"), but the framework of the adventures has been more "you're in a bad situation, try to make the most of it" and less "here's some land that nobody's snatched yet, drive away the inhabitants." Is this an advantage of gaming in a world ruled by evil? Heroes don't align themselves with power?

Villains have to do villainous things, and when the whole system is the villain, then that creates a niche for institutional villainy like slavery. And if heroes are opposing it, then maybe it's okay that they are the victims, rising up to rebel. And if the story they tell in the process is a fun story, with lots of action and weird creatures, and funny/awkward things like being a slave with a fan club, then is that such a bad thing?

Not a rhetorical question. I really don't know. It's a better question than I'm accustomed to taking away from an AD&D book, though.

Ukss Contribution: Also, this book describes the fucking clothes! And cuisine. It's great. Find a particular red cactus, cut it open to extract the grubs that live nowhere else, they're a great stadium snack.

However, my favorite bit of background culture was the Hurrum, a flightless pet beetle that the nobles take with them into the stands because the beat of its wings produces a gentle breeze. I like the image. It's both luxurious and alien.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

(Dragonstar) Galactic Races

I had trouble sleeping today, which gave me a prime opportunity to get some extra reading done, but at the expense of making my memories seem like a wobbly dream. Which is a shame, because I suspect that even were I 100% awake, reading Galactic Races would have seemed like a wobbly dream.

It's the damned "relations" section that happens near the start of every new creature entry. "Orcs, half-orcs, and their kin are considered unclean filth and the pershala avoid contact with their kind whenever possible." Or, in the lizard-folk entry "Non-drow elves find them uncultured and crude, and gnomes find their near-total lack of a sense of humor to be a near-fatal racial flaw."

Okay, Mr. Gnome, ranking all the races on a tier-list, let's hear your opinions about kobolds next. (Actually, there's nothing specific there, which is surprising given their traditional enmity in base D&D lore).

There's just this huge bioessentialism happening in every. single. entry. and it gets weird. Like, okay, you graciously concede that some Derro might not be evil, but why would the majority be "filled with hate towards a universe that shunned them and drove them underground." That may be the standard D&D backstory for these guys, but this game is set in space. How can they be underground and in spaceships at the same time? Why do they have the same backstory on, apparently, hundreds of worlds? What the fuck are you even trying to do, Dragonstar?

There's a sinister space empire that's run by the Mind Flayers. They have advanced biotechnology (creating an entire playable race of psionic warriors, the Ith-Kon) and are the main external threat to the Dragon Empire. And also, there are the regular subterranean populations of fantasy Mind Flayers who are unconnected to the Dark Zone (as revealed in the Ith-Kon entry).

Everything has a place. Centaurs always love nature and are friendly with elves. Kobolds are cowardly and when they tinker with high technology, they don't really understand it (the book uses a term which I believe has come to be seen as an ableist slur). Doppels (short for Doppleganger-kin) are compulsive liars.

I'm not necessarily a hardliner against this sort of thing. One of my favorite areas of philosophical speculation is the convergent evolution of intelligence. What would it even mean to encounter a truly non-human consciousness, one not inherited from a common ancestor? I'm fascinated by elephants and dolphins and corvids. 

So I really like it when fantasy species have a . . . thing. Not necessarily a whole alien outlook, but a physiological or psychological quirk that has ripple effects out through their cultures and lifestyles and philosophies. I actually like that Doppels have this fraught relationship with the concept of identity. They're shapeshifters, they are most comfortable relating to the world through the personas they create, and they will often lie when they don't need (or want) to because the unvarnished truth makes them feel nervous and exposed.This appeals to my philosophical curiosity. I want to create a character that comes with themes.

Where it starts to break down for me is when the book gives me a whole "personality" section. "Doppels tend to be reserved individuals" or "someone who exposes a doppel without permission will certainly be marked for retribution." Why are you telling me this? How am I supposed to use it? There should be enough room for a whole party of Doppels, for whole societies' worth, with all the strange and magnificent variety of a similarly large number of humans.

The way it should work is you give the species their thing and then you encourage the PCs to riff. "For a Doppel, identity is inherently volatile. Whatever their temperament or beliefs, they will always see it as a tool to be used." An outgoing Doppel might adopt personas to rapidly bond with new acquaintances, always trying to be the perfect member of their peer group. A reserved Doppel might craft an inconspicuous persona to discourage other peoples' interest. A Doppel bard may explore new artistic frontiers by truly inhabiting the characters they play on stage, taking a variety of their most prominent roles onto wild adventures. A Doppel paladin may have chosen their path when they realized that the ability to become anyone they wanted to be implied a responsibility to try and become the best thing imaginable.

They're not humans. They will be faced with choices that we'd never have to contemplate. So what happens when two of them choose differently? When their unique circumstances and upbringings and personalities take them down different paths? What are their big questions? What are their fashions, their entertainments, and their political conflicts? How do they complement each other to form a functional society? How do they fail to do so?

It's a line you have to walk, to be sure. You can make them basically humans, which is okay, if a bit of a waste. Or you can go too far, define too much in advance, and make an entire species into a single stereotype. At best, it's boring, at worst it's potentially offensive.

I don't think Galactic Races successfully walks the line. It has some inspired ideas, but most of the entries feel like they're describing the One Character You Can Play of This Species (except for the Elem - knock-off Genasi - who feel like the The Four Characters You Can Play of This Species). I went in to this book thinking it might be a good opportunity to do some deep incidental world-building, but unfortunately the world it built didn't make a damned bit of sense.

Ukss Contribution: There were high points though. I liked the Eleti, intelligent free-willed undead who require so little in way of life support that their spaceships have open windows. That's a really neat dovetailing of fantasy and sci-fi that I hadn't considered before - space is an environment that is incredibly hostile to living things, but necromancy lets you put human-level intelligence into a non-living package. They're like the creepy fantasy version of Star Wars' droids.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

(AD&D 2e)Dark Sun Boxed Set

I have something of a . . . complex relationship with AD&D 2nd Edition. It was my first rpg, and as a result, it is my most collected rpg (even today, decades after I stopped playing it, I'm tempted to pick up books I wanted as a teenager, but couldn't find/afford at the time), but I don't actually like it all that much. 

So I was going into the Dark Sun Boxed Set with the expectation that it would disappoint me. It was my favorite rpg book in the days before I was exposed to non-D&D rpgs, but that was probably just because it was self-consciously different. I'd read it again for the first time in 20 years and I'd realize that it was like Planescape or Dragonstar - superficially trying something new, but relentlessly wedded to mainline D&D in ways that proved ultimately self-destructive.

But that's not what happened. Instead, I read it with the jaded eyes of a middle-aged collector/critic and I realized . . . It might actually be good. And I don't mean in any of those condescending, qualified senses. Not just "good for nostalgia" or "good by AD&D standards" or "potentially good after a deconstruction and rewrite." I mean that it may actually count as a bona fide classic of the genre that holds up even today. All the big stuff that rpgs have been learning about in the past 20 years of internet-driven cultural hyperawareness - the complex relationship between genre and mechanics and presentation and theme - it's already here. Obviously not addressed with the same forthrightness as a modern indie game (today, the half-dwarven Muls would require a whole safety conversation all their own, and the halfling tribal culture is going to need a paragraph or two later on in the post), but the groundwork is there. This is a game that is trying to be a specific thing, and though it may sometimes be held back by the AD&D rules, it largely succeeds at communicating that vision.

It mostly happens in small ways, like how a high-level fighter's followers are incorporated into the mass-combat rules, instead of just hanging around (and yes, this is a BATTLESYSTEMtie-in, but it speaks to an ambition - your characters are going to get caught up in the epic sweep of history and - the book says it best - "removes the outcomes of important battles from the hands of the Dungeon Master  and puts them on the tabletop where they belong"). Or the fact that Dark Sun characters start at level 3, which is sold as a reaction to the extreme danger of Athas, but really winds up bypassing the comically fragile lower levels to allow you to play fantasy fiction protagonists straight out the gate. 

The magic system has a role in the setting. It presents an ethical dilemma and has shaped the evolution of Athas' societies. Sorcerers draw life energy from the land to power their spells, and it is only through careful discipline that the balance can be maintained. Which explains why the present day is such a shit-hole. Characters are the inheritors of their ancestor's reckless legacy, their world dying thanks to the greed and impatience of generations past.

And that's why metal is so rare. "Our ancestors devoured our ore supply, leaving to us little but their scrap." It's a genre aesthetic - weapons of bone and glass and stone and wood, taking us away from the gleaming metal of pseudo medieval high fantasy - but it's also effortlessly justified and entirely on-theme.

Like the ruins - yeah, some are filled with treasure and monsters, but they're also an essential part of the game's overall vibe. The stuff that actually gets described is purely decorative - an old bridge over a dried up river bed, a cobblestone path leading to nowhere - but it drives home the point. The world is dying. Its best days have passed.  Even if you find the treasure, it's nothing more than the resolution of a loose end.

Like The Dragon. It doesn't have a name. It's not part of a species. It's just The Dragon (or, sometimes, The Dragon of Tyr). So. Fucking. Elegant. As laser-focused a biblical allusion as we've ever seen in D&D, and you don't even notice because it fits so well. It's the monster that exists after the end of the world, a living embodiment of the voracious consumption that choked the green lands and turned the sea to silt. It's a defiler's defiler, a nightmare for nightmares, draining life not just from plants, but from every living thing. An endless hunger. An endless greed. Seemingly eternal, a personification of the planet's decay. A fucking capitalism elemental. And it's clearly positioned as a campaign end-boss (its action economy - 4 attacks + 1 spell + 1 psionic power - is ludicrous in any other role).

The King of This World. The Dragon. You're in the apocalypse. That's the theme.

But it's not exactly bleak. The nuance is hard to capture, and there may be some who will accuse me of inventing it whole-cloth, but while the world is shaped by this cynical brutality (raiding is a way of life, slavery exists everywhere, the masses love the blood-sport of the gladiatorial arena), I think that brutality exists to allow for adaptation and survival. You are in the apocalypse. The world is ruled by evil. But you're alive. To quote The Wanderer's Journal:

"Though the picture I have painted so far is of a stark and rugged land, I do not mean to say that Athas is dreary or monotonous. To the contrary, it has a majestic and stark beauty. When the first light casts its emerald hues over the Sea of Silt, or when sunset spreads its bloody stain over the Ringing Mountains, there is a certain feral beauty that stirs the untamed heart in all of us."
So the other half of all this is that you have to look at the way the people of Athas fit in to their local conditions. To preserve their tyrannical rule, the Templars and the nobles forbid all others from learning to read and write, but the merchant houses have a highly elaborate way of "keeping accounts" that more or less amounts to full literacy. If you step in the wrong spot near the Sea of Silt, you'll fall into 15 feet of dust and suffocate within minutes, but the dwarves are building these vehicles with giant wheels that can roll across the compressed layer. It's the apocalypse, but people still have agency. They can still solve problems. They can still be heroes.

It's a tempting formula - a crapsack world for the PCs to fix - and it works as well here as I've ever seen it, but also, this is definitely an rpg that needs safety tools. It can be so matter of fact about its terrible elements. Like, there's widespread slavery, and Dark Sun is very consistent about framing it as a cruel and unjust practice. There are no sympathetic slave owners. There's no attempt to justify it by claiming that the slaves are better off (in fact, it seems to be the position of this book that the main advantage to being a "well-treated" slave is that it puts you in a better position to escape). Slave rebellions are presented positively. However, you can also play as a character class that may summarily execute slaves as a 1st level ability.

It's not something the book endorses. The Templar class description calls them "an organization of wicked men looking out for their own wealth and power" and summarizes their mission as ensuring that "terror is maintained among their subject populations." But if that description doesn't put you off, then you can be one. The book is clear "there are no good templars," but you don't have to make a "good" PC.

And it's like, it's fairly clear that the book expects you to play epic heroes who pit themselves against the evils of the world, gathering armies under their banner, and mastering magic through the Preserver's path. But also, thanks to the way cleric spells were reworked, only Templars have access to the really effective healing spells.

You're going to need to talk it out, is what I'm saying.

Which brings us, at last, to what I consider the book's only real flaw - Halflings. There's a quote that sums it up: "Their concept of right and wrong is so different from ours that it is absurd to hold them to the same moral standards."

That line is in reference to cannibalism. The Halflings are a wise, spiritual people, with complex and beautiful traditions. They live in harmony with both nature and each other, knowing nothing of war and settling disputes through competitive gift-giving. Also, they consider all other forms of life, including intelligent halfling-like creatures (such as human beings) to be a valid source of food. You go into their lands and you run the risk of being hunted and killed. You've been warned . . . literally every time halflings were mentioned.

On the one hand, this is just funny. I'm positive that's why it's here. Halflings are cute, harmless-looking mascot characters. They are also known for their epicurean tendencies. "What's for second breakfast? I think it's Boromir." It's a solid gag.

However, Athasian Halflings are jungle-dwelling tribespeople. The word "witch doctor" is mentioned. Part of their gift-giving custom is bringing prisoners back to their village to be eaten by their chief. There are tropes at work here. 

So I don't know, maybe don't use that element. The rest of the book is rock solid, though.

Ukss Contribution:  Bards get a bit of a rules rework that makes them largely redundant with Thieves - losing their magic, but gaining access to all of the thief skills - but there was a bit of new lore that tickled my fancy. Nobles will send each other Bards as a customary gift. Because it's nice to hear some music in your fabulous estate. Of course, these Bards are definitely spies, and probably thieves, and maybe even assassins. You know that. They know that you know that. But socially, you can only turn down the "gift" from an openly declared enemy. And, of course, we're all friends here . . .

So catty. So much drama potential. I love it.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

(Dragonstar) Player's Companion

 Dragonstar is so chaotic, guys. I keep reading these books and I keep thinking there must be plan, but that plan has so far failed to materialize. I know I'm not going to shock you by suggesting that the Player's Companion (which purports to be all about new character options) is a stealth setting book, but the thing that seriously threw me off was that it's an essential stealth setting book. Like, the setting is at least 25% more playable after reading this specific book.

It's mostly down to the prestige classes. Unlike the Paths and Disciplines in Earthdawn, a prestige class in Dragonstar is not necessarily an in-character thing. Sure, you can tell when someone's a wizard, because they're casting spells out of a spellbook, but if two characters have similar abilities - say a Paladin and a Fighter/Cleric - they're more or less going to have the same role in the setting. So a class like the Infowarrior can actually be a lot of different things (basically, any character concept that incorporates magically enhanced hacking skills). And more importantly, the organization associated with the Infowarrior prestige class, the Guild of Tinkers, can be made up of anyone who shares the same goals, not just trained Infowarriors.

Which means each Prestige Class comes with a campaign model and a history and various enemies and allies who help define the shape of the world, and the sort of stories that are told within it. We learn that there is an insurrection (called "The Insurrection") that dovetails with an ongoing metallic vs chromatic cold war, largely waged through proxies and each kingdom's pet intelligence agencies. Also, the dragons are sacrosanct by the laws of the Dragon Empire, but not above hiring specialized Dragon Slayers, straight out of heroic high fantasy, to assassinate their rivals.

Also, we learn something interesting, yet completely predictable, about the Dark Zone - that the mindflayers had a "strange biotechnical civilization." The pieces are all starting to come together.

Though I suppose the biggest thing I've learned from The Player's Companion is Dragonstar's intended mode of play - naked, unashamed colonialism, all day long. The bluntest and most hilarious manifestation of this is in the description of the tsalokhi (a human subspecies from near the Dark Zone that genetically modified itself to have psionic powers long before encountering the Dragon Empire).

"In their arrogance and pride, the tsalokhi refused to acquiesce to the Dragon Empire's demands of subservience and their society was destroyed."

It's such a strange framing, like it's blaming this conquered people for being victim's of the Empire's unquenchable greed. But it gets even weirder.

"As a whole, tsalokhi are not a very popular people in the Dragon Empire, and that is largely due to an excessive hubris."

Geez, guys, stop being so bitter about the invasion of your homeworld, you're really bringing down the vibe.

So there's kind of this huge issue lurking in the background - a refusal to engage with and interrogate imperialism. That the Empire should exist and should continue to expand is not even questioned. The brutal tactics of the Chromatic dragons are usually called out, and there are characters in the setting that ineffectually oppose them, but then you have things like the missionaries of the Unification Church sneaking onto uncontacted worlds and "engage in 'guerrilla theology.'" You know, destroying the distinctive characteristics of ancient cultures to bring them in line with an empire-friendly homogeneity. This is an "open-minded approach to missionary work."

"Knowing that his own god is actually a reflection of the widely-worshipped Father . . . is comforting. The Outlander understands that he is not an outcast in the empire - and neither are his beliefs."

Yep, that's exactly how it would go down, I'm sure.

Still, this kind of talk helps us narrow in on a theme. It's kind of the ultimate expression of the unspoken Americanism in D&D fantasy. You've got this imperial core of "civilization" and a frontier of "wilderness" that is nonetheless highly populated, and then adventurers go into these areas and get into fights with the natives, who are portrayed as evil (or at best ignorant) for trying to possess land that rightfully belongs to the player character races. 

But then Dragonstar exaggerates this conflict - the "uncivilized" Outlands are made up of regular D&D worlds, and unlike, say, the orcs of the Vast (from Forgotten Realms) the people of the Outlands don't even pose a threat to the imperil core, nor to the citizens who live on the frontiers of the empire. They can't even reach the Dragon Empire (except, perhaps, for the occasional high-level magic user, as an individual). And thus there is literally no justification for adventurers to go there. But they do, and when they find a new people, that is almost always the prelude to an expansion of the empire. It's pure greed, and it is supported by both the "good" and "evil" factions of the Empire.

It would read as parody, if it was more self-aware, but here it's just . . . D&D in space. The magnified scale makes the absurdity easier to see, but it was something that was always there, and Dragonstar lets it pass unexamined.

Ukss Contribution: It feels weird transitioning into this section right as I'm realizing that the fundamental construction of the entire line is settler-colonialist propaganda, but there's no evil in Dragonstar that doesn't lurk in the heart of D&D as a whole, so I'm just going to do my usual thing.

Gross spell time - Flesh to My Flesh. It is a high-level insta-kill spell, a la Power Word, Kill, but it has a twist. The spell strips all the flesh from the target's bones and then adds it to your own, dramatically increasing your mass

Why? I keep picturing it in my head, and I hate it. I hate it so much. I haven't hated anything so much since the Flesh Wand from Hellbound: the Blood War. A hate like that you gotta cherish.

Friday, June 10, 2022

(Earthdawn 4e) The Adept's Journey: Mystic Paths

 Books with new character options are my favorite type of rpg supplement. People sometimes call them "bloat," but I always found that term uncharitable. These kind of books let you build more specific, more esoteric characters, fleshing out the corners of the setting and suggesting entirely new campaign models. You want to be a Messenger? Suddenly a long, message delivery arc is possible.

The Adept's Journey: Mystic Paths doesn't just give you new Talents, Knacks, and Disciplines (although it has some of each), but rather it introduces an entirely new character advancement mechanic. The titular "Paths" are kind of like sub-classes, separate from your chosen Discipline. You can be a Scout-Messenger or a Troubador Messenger or a Thief Messenger, and the only real difference is which of the unlocked Messenger Talents you'd want to specialize in. Some Paths synergize best with specific Disciplines, but you're never actually locked out. It's a smart move that gives the book more versatility than, say, a collection of d20 prestige classes. You can use the bulk of it in any campaign, regardless of your party composition, and there's no real downside to the entire party choosing the same Path. Want to recreate 2e's "Horror Stalker Crusade?" You can.

The only thing that even slightly bugs me is Earthdawn's broader pattern of reify its mechanics. And it's not even really a problem that there are in-setting magical paths that grant, say, superhuman powers of scholarship and research. But why do the names have to be so incredibly on-the-nose? Many of the Paths are just named after the thing they do. Sometimes, this works out okay. Horror Stalker, Liberator, Purifier - these are, technically, abstract descriptions of an activity that don't imply the existence of a particular group, but they're esoteric enough that they can at least seem like proper nouns. No one's going around purifying things with mundane methods to such a degree that they start identifying as a purifier. It's not an ambiguity that will often need clearing up "oh, no, I see the confusion - I'm a purifier, not a Purifier. Can you hear the capital letter?"

But Scholars? Messengers? I guess this is just an aesthetic you have to get used to when you're playing Earthdawn. The Disciplines are the same way - you follow the ancient occult tradition of "Warrior" or "Thief," with no further clarifying details.

I think the main difference between generic-sounding Paths and generic-sounding Disciplines is that, at least in theory, you can pretend the Disciplines are simply game mechanics. The Paths are explicitly social organizations. You have to swear a blood oath to join one.

With the caveat that I think the Scholars should probably be "The Scholars of the Great Library" or something, I can say that I find all of the example Paths to be pretty interesting. The Messengers are playing with fire, being both a politically neutral mail delivery service and an anti-Theran espionage organization, but playing with fire is a great way to start a campaign, so I'm on board. Similarly the Horror Stalkers, the Purifiers, and the Liberators all have great built-in pitches.

Some, like the Fire Eaters, the Tail Dancers, or the Brotherhood of the Stone lack a specific campaign role, but are specific enough to enrich the setting. I especially like the Fire Eaters, because they take the game's boldest idea - that orks have an entirely non-human emotion called "gahad" - and turn it into a personal spiritual journey (plus you can set people on fire with your suppressed rage).

The closest thing the book has to a dud is the Journeyman path. And it's not really that it's a bad path. It's just confusingly named - "journeyman" already has a meaning in Earthdawn system jargon, being the second tier of abilities after PCs graduate from Novice (and because I know from experience that your first instinct is going to be to ask - no, the "Journeyman" Talent is not a Journeyman Talent, it's actually a Master-tier Talent). It's other flaw is that it builds off one of the setting's weakest bits of lore. Journeyman is the human-specific Path and it allows its followers to learn any Talents they like, because humanity's shtick is that they are "versatile." The ultimate Journeyman Talent (which is actually a Master Talent) is "Morphism," which allows the Journeyman to do some minor shapeshifting to gain the other races' special abilities and attribute modifiers. It's kind of interesting, in that by the old Shadowrun lore all the humanoid fantasy creatures were actually mutated humans, and thus you can infer that humans must have a unique potential for these kinds of transformations, but nothing else about the Path suggests that it plays off humans' unique role as the progenitor species, so it's really just kind of a weird choice. A shapeshifting power in a magical tradition that is otherwise not about shapeshifting.

Overall, though, this is just a fun grab-bag of Earthdawn ideas. There's something like 150 pages of new Talents and Knacks, a whole Discipline's worth of new spells, new spirits, new equipment, and that's on top of the setting-expanding fiction that comes with each of the Paths. It's definitely going to see a lot of use if I ever run an Earthdawn campaign.

Ukss Contribution: The Shaman Discipline (which seemed more or less inoffensive to me, even if I couldn't entirely figure out its cultural niche in Barsaive) has a couple of spells that involve cooking a big meal for the party and granting them buffs based on how many people are eating said meal. I like that. It's a nice, earthy aesthetic for a magic using class, creating miracles based on a wholesome domestic task and it's role in a shared community. Ukss will therefor have some form of magical cooking.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

(Dragonstar) Imperial Supply

 Imperial Supply was fine.

Yep, that's what I want to say about this book. It was fine.

Okay, maybe I've been spoiled recently by a string of rpg books (including previous titles in the Dragonstar series) that were high concept and had a lot to say for themselves. Books that strove to craft a new world with fantastic sights to beggar the imagination and inspire a lifetime of stories. I'd kind of forgotten that sometimes an rpg book is just supposed to be functional. Here's a bunch of high-tech gear that you can add on to your character sheet, let's spend half a page describing the extremely specific resolution of this weird grenade, no need to think beyond the tactical implications.

And that's fine. No, really. I keep saying "it's fine," and sometimes that's code for something not being fine, but look, you're playing in the Dragonstar universe, you're going to want your character to have stuff, and this book is filled with stuff. Sometimes, an equipment book can be a backdoor setting book, as it describes not just the stuff you have, but the logistics of its manufacture, the sci-fi technology behind its operation, and the motives and circumstances of its most prominent users, but Imperial Supply rarely indulges in those impulses.

We learn that there are orc pirates, who operate out of Naster station in the Galinak system, but little else about their culture (aside from the fact that their leader adopts the honorific "Her Most Supreme Bruteness," which would be kind of cool if it weren't so on the nose). Also, there is a light-saber analogue, called the Sunsword, which is wielded by the paladins of SOLAR (although, I forgot to share my disappointment when I learned from A Guide to the Galaxy that the backronym meant "Special Outlands Army Recon"). The book is a little coy about whether they genuinely use divine magic to channel the nuclear inferno from the heart of a star, which is weird for a reference guide that otherwise uses an objective voice, but I'm going to choose to believe, because it was a rare bit of memorable specificity.

Speaking of which, Imperial Supply repeatedly refers to a hitherto unseen bit of the setting in a way that suggests it's not just making something up for the sake of examples. They were probably getting this information from a design document that contained guidelines for a future supplement that never got made. Because we get our first real peek into the Dark Zone (previously established as a no-go area inhabited by illithids) and it's very consistent about the fact that the weird psionic technology of that region is studied by a group known as the Edgecrafters  and gathered by people called the Dark Edgers in a place called Kalibrig,on the edge of the Dark Zone.

It's a neat little implied setting, with distinctive themes - a powerful and prosperous spacefaring civilization whose technology nonetheless has serious limits encounters a region a space that defies their power, which remains shrouded in a nebula that blocks conventional sensors and from which, most expeditions never return. But individuals can accomplish what empires cannot, and small groups of explorers, ones that don't pose a threat to the powers deep in the nebula, may sometimes emerge with strange technologies that appear to defy the known laws of physics. Nobles, industrialists, and intelligence agencies will pay handsomely for this salvage, to better gain an advantage over their rivals. Thus the edge of the Dark Zone is a place of intrigue and mystery, where fortunes can be made . . . if you can resist the lure of the voices beyond.

However, that's me extrapolating from, like three or four equipment entries. Sadly, Imperial Supply runs afoul of Dragonstar's overall lack of a clearly articulated sci-fi aesthetic. There are spaceships and robots and railguns, but they don't really build towards anything. The game isn't about using magic to overcome the limits of hard sf. Nor is it about encountering diverse civilizations with unique ways of solving the same technical problems. Nor is it about the scientific vertigo of unearthing incomprehensible post-singularity tech from the ashes of deep time. It's all just kind of here. There's science-fictiony type stuff and it's presented in a list.

It's fine.

Ukss Contribution: There's a drug called Perfection. Habitual use raises your Wisdom, but lowers your Intelligence and Charisma. Some monastic orders (nicknamed "dark monks") will take so much of the drug for so long that they go catatonic and must be sustained on life support, presumably with their superhuman wisdom still intact. I find this to be an interesting philosophical idea, and will enjoy trying to expand on it.

Monday, May 30, 2022

(Earthdawn 4e) Iopos: Lair of Deceit

 It's the lunar garbage crisis all over again. I noticed something about a fantasy world that wasn't being discussed in the text, and now all I can do is fixate over it. Earthdawn keeps showing me human families that still retain cohesion after 20 generations, and I'm like, "how are these identities being maintained."

It's not necessarily a huge inconsistency. After all, the Hapsburgs are still around. But, well, they were notoriously inbred. Compare to clan Fraser in Scotland, where it spread so far and wide that even my own half-assed spelling ("Frazer") is shared by thousands of people I'm never going to meet. Tens of thousands of people still have a name from 700 years ago, but it's still just one guy who owns the ancestral land.

What's getting me hung up is the whole thing with their kaers. A big reason I don't get a chunk of the clan Fraser inheritance is because of the Scottish diaspora. I'm on a whole other continent than the other branches of the family, so reasonably speaking, it's fair to treat "Fraser" and "Frazer" as two separate entities. It would feel weird, but there's no scientific reason I couldn't date a Fraser (although even as I say that . . . ew).

So, what's it like when you don't have the diaspora, or the population growth? When all of your ancestors come from the same city, and there are actually more of them 500 years ago than there are today? Iopos has several clans, and membership does seem to grant social and economic benefits (only official clan members are allowed to practice polygamy, for example), so how did they stop themselves from all merging into one super-clan, along with the rest of the city?

Inheritance laws might play into it. It may be a mathematical certainty that you can trace your ancestry back to the pre-Scourge clans to exactly the same degree as any other person in Iopos, but if you didn't inherit the name, you don't count. It's a puzzle, though, because some of the clans practice matrilinear inheritance (also allowing polyandry) and some practice patrilinear inheritance (plus polygyny) and I guess that could be a gap that people could fall through - a man from a matrilinear clan marries a woman from a patrilinear clan and thus the children inherit no clan identity - but it also gives family lines two bites at the apple for acquiring a clan (even before figuring in the practice of polygamy). 

Then there's the practice of child abandonment. Every year, the city throws a festival called "The Selection" where they make children undergo this absolutely brutal multi-stage obstacle course, that, among its various dangers, runs the risk of kids being thrown off the city walls (each Selection "has a number of deaths"). Children who perform well are "stolen" by the Denairastas clan and drafted into public service. Children who perform poorly are often disowned. It's unclear exactly how frequently that happens, but there are enough abandoned children that they form a long-lasting gang called The Forsaken. 

So there are ways to lose an identity. It's not unbelievable that clan membership would shrink, if there are strict inheritance requirements and high attrition (it's said that the clans were largely responsible for defending against the Horrors, until the Denairastas grew powerful enough to openly rule and retroactively steal their valor). I'm still intensely curious about their exogamy customs.

Though, I must admit, it's a ridiculous way to read an rpg book ("I want meticulous details about post-apocalyptic fantasy probate law, damnit!"). It would be even more ridiculous if Iopos: Lair of Deceit didn't invite the question.

There are two rival groups engaged in high-stakes genealogical research - the Bloodline, created by Uhl Denairastas himself to round up loose scions and bring them to the flesh forges (it's as gross as it sounds) for magical experimentation - and the Begotten, who want to stop them from doing that.

Ironically, this lineage-focused plot actually sidesteps my nitpicking, thanks to the fact that the Denairastas have so much magical nonsense surrounding them that it's impossible to say how many of them there should be. Yes, every human in Iopos is descended from all the humans that initially entered the kaer, but the Denairastas as dragon-kin with unnaturally long lifespans, so the beginning of the Scourge was in the time of Uhl Denirastas' grandfather. On the other hand, they potentially reproduce a lot faster than humans (Uhl had 12 siblings), but many of them (including Uhl) are infertile. Then again there was a dedicated breeding program to increase their numbers, but its records were sloppy enough that lost scions who demonstrate the family's characteristic mutation are still undiscovered. All you can really say is that the Denairastas population ran out of control in that historical sweet spot where it's long enough ago that genealogical records are unclear, but not so long ago that one of them is a common ancestor for all living Iopans.

This has been a fairly pointless diversion, but I think it's illuminated something for me - I wish I knew less about what Barsaive was like before the Scourge. Sometimes, this knowledge is useful, when we're talking about Thera or dragons or, to a lesser extent, long-lived people like the Denairastas and the elves, but most of what I've learned has brought me grief. Earthdawn's campaign pitch relies on the idea that the Horrors broke history, and this slow piecing together of the continuity is distracting me from the setting's strengths.

But enough of this destructive thread-pulling, what about the book as a whole? I think Iopos is a well-drawn culture. We learn about multiple facets of their lives - religion, family life, architecture, recreation - so they don't seem as one-dimensional as some locations that get a high concept and nothing else. However, there is a certain sameyness to Iopos' multiple dimension, because almost everything we learn about them is grim and pessimistic.

They have a festival where kids get the absolute shit beaten out of them and which ends in families being torn apart. But also, they are such a thoroughly brainwashed authoritarian surveillance state that almost everyone is a snitch, often against their own friends and family. But also, crime is punished with extreme severity - refusing to swear the loyalty oath is punishable by death and more typical crimes carry a penalty of slavery or mutilation. But also, the people enjoy betting on pit fighting, with certain illegal arenas hosting fights to the death. But also, the ruling family is constantly backstabbing each other. But also, their leader is performing secret and involuntary transhuman experiments to create weaponised monsters to help conquer Barsaive.

Geez, take a step back and tell me their favorite dessert, at least.

Still, it's a fun book. If you need a villain city, where even walking down the streets puts you in peril and the best the PCs can do is join a resistance group which may have had to make its own share of compromises, then Iopos: Lair of Deceit works well. Its great to expand the lore beyond the places detailed in 1st edition, and there are a lot of moving parts for players and GMs to interact with. It's a little less nuanced than I'm used to seeing in an Earthdawn book, but at least it doesn't repeat Skypoint and Vivane's mistake and read like apologetics for the characters' villainous actions. Overall, a worthy edition to the series.

Ukss Contribution: There's a plot in this book where a mine collapsed during the Scourge and the Denairastas blamed an unknown Horror, but really it was just ordinary industrial negligence and the Horror was just a cover story. But then, Raggok, Passion of revenge, came along and animated the miners as cadaver men, so they could eventually strike back. I really like the idea of proletarian undead waging class warfare on the living.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

(Dragonstar) Guide to the Galaxy

 Guide to the Galaxy is Dragonstar's main setting book . . . except that The Starfarer's Handbook had plenty of indispensable setting material and this book had a bunch of new rules. Really, the breakdown is more like the split between the PHB and the DMG. DMs will have to be familiar with both. Players can get away with skimming portions of one. Knowing about the culture of the Dragon Empire aids in roleplaying, so it's in The Starfarer's Handbook; knowing about the history aids in crafting an adventure, so it's in the Guide to the Galaxy

Most of the rules material is pretty functional, if a bit too detailed. Gravity levels can modify Jumping, Carrying Weight, Climbing Speed, Falling Damage, Flying Speed, Rate of Ascent, Rate of Descent, Movement Rate, and Weapon Ranges. Each has its own chart, so be sure to remember them all. Similarly, radiation damage is resolved with two steps. Also, there's a long series of tables that you use to generate star systems, but that's actually the good kind of detail-oriented chart navigation, so I'm only including it to round out the list.

The real draw of this book is the setting. It makes some . . . interesting choices. The big one is that thing that everyone notices about Dragonstar, the absurdity of its dynastic setup. Five thousand years of rule by the good-aligned metallic dragons followed by a handoff to the evil-aligned chromatic dragons. Surely it's  a disaster waiting to happen, which is why the book tackles it head-on . . . by saying, "It's irrational and no one who lives under its banner would voluntarily choose it as a form of government."

For those keeping score: we, the readers know the Dragon Empire was never going to work; the authors of the book knew the Dragon Empire was never going to work; and the people in the setting knew that the Dragon Empire was never going to work. At least we're all on the same page, I guess.

Though, to be fair, the actual problem here seems to be intractable - how do you create a good system of government when you need a buy-in from Team Evil? No one would ever purposefully design a system that openly saved a slot for an evil ruler to take the throne. Evil is intrinsically disqualifying. Which is usually why, in real life, people with ambitions towards political power usually deny accusations of being evil. "You're just calling me 'evil' as a way of shutting down my agenda," and all that. It's sort of a phatic term in political context - you call your opponent evil because you want them to lose and it's so routine you don't expect it to actually change anyone's mind. Nobody self-identifies as "evil."

Except in D&D land, where they do, and that presents a serious problem. You've got two similarly powerful factions and they're making peace, then it makes sense to say that neither faction is going to accept a settlement that permanently locks them out of power. But one of the factions organizes around evil, and suddenly fighting evil is a form of partisan oppression. It's even framed that way in the text, where it rues senseless violence based on nothing more than race, religion, or alignment.

It's so frustrating to me, because alignment is just an extra piece of information that I neither want nor need. You've got the various characters motives, actions, and relationships, and then you've got this editorial tag that tells us whether such things are justified, and it would be bad enough if it were just a rule, but it also exists in the setting, and so people can know infallibly whether the author of the universe is on their side. Would you ever submit to a "detect alignment" spell? Would you be confident in what it was going to say? Would you even want to know?

There's actually a pretty interesting conflict at the heart of the example star system. The Dragon Empire found valuable minerals on one of the planets, so they set up shop on the system's inhabited world. But that world was dying. It was limping through the aftermath of an epic war, where armies of orc and goblins, led by an enigmatic figure known only as The Faceless Man, went up against an alliance of humans, elves and dwarves, and almost won, but the so-called Free Nations unleashed terrible magic that knocked the planet off its axis, rendering a wide swath utterly uninhabitable and causing wide-spread death and destruction. The survivors fled to the poles, where scarce land and resources have led to generations of smoldering sectarian violence. 

And now, visitors from the stars have landed and are gradually transforming the largest settlement into a modern city, where their citizens and local collaborators can live in unimaginable luxury while rural refugees must navigate a shanty town that's divided between race-based "militias" that are little more than extortionist gangs that dole out violence based on a centuries' old grudge. And the agents of the Empire, the Imperial Secret Police, encourage this conflict, the better to distract the natives from the ongoing plundering of their valuable mineral resources. So it's a gritty game of survival and hard justice in a city where death is around every corner and the night lasts for months.

Also, it's the Army of the Faceless Man that's Evil. The Free Nations militias will kill all goblinoids ("whether militia thugs or innocent civilians") with "no questions asked," but when the leader establishes a relationship with the  black dragon governor, he "had some qualms about allying himself with such an evil creature."

Now, we don't actually get stats for the militia leader, so it's possible that he too has an evil alignment, but at the very least, it's implied that his rank and file followers don't. It's such pointless side-taking. In the sample adventure, the PCs try to track down a half orc who has been kidnapped by the Free Nations, and they talk to a bugbear cab driver who was outraged at the poor treatment of his colleague and an old orc woman who expresses concern about the victim's safety, and they're perfectly ordinary conversations. It's nice. Refreshing even. But over the course of the adventure, the only living people you fight are orcs (you do fight some ghouls, and they are intelligent enough to be counted as people, but that's a whole other thing). When you finally do catch up to the kidnappers, they bluff about wanting a ransom, but eventually give him up without a fight. The justification is that they were too weak to be in any kind of negotiating position (their squad was almost wiped out by an orc militia), but it's a curious coincidence. Alignment only appears in a full stat block, and you only need the stat block for characters you're going to fight. So we know the orcs are Chaotic Evil, but for the kidnappers, we're in the dark.

It didn't have to be that way. It's an interesting adventure. Go in to an orc neighborhood to rescue a half orc from humans. The gangs are brutal and hold the people in thrall, but you and your friends are the invaders. You're on a mission from a paladin reporter who wants to uncover evidence of the Imperial Secret police's involvement in stoking racial violence, but even so you and your whole mission are a part of imperialism's tightening grip on the planet. Is it wrong for the locals to hate you? Even if your best intentions prevail and you uncover the corruption, under imperial law, the whole planet is still owned by the black dragon house Noros (unless they decide to sell it back to the natives, which is implied to be the metallic dragons' standard way of doing things).

I think, at times, Dragonstar falls more into the camp of "depicting" imperialism rather than "critiquing" it, but you could nudge it into a critique very easily by getting rid of the fucking alignment system. Gold dragon goes in, gives the primitive locals all sorts of technological and development aid, is on good terms with local elites, and very generously grants the deed to the planet back to its inhabitants. Now they just owe the same standard income taxes as any other imperial citizen (a flat ten percent, regardless of your personal circumstances). Nothing at all to read into the fact that the gold dragons are explicitly labeled "good."

Anyway, Mezzenbone is just the worst. He going to do all the things that people are afraid he's going to do, and probably worse (when he restarts the dragon war, he has no intention of sparing his fellow chromatics, so that he may rule the ashes uncontested), but his plan to exploit the power of the empire to launch a devastating first strike, is really more of a thousand-year plan, so the text also says "this dreaded event was not the catastrophe that many feared it would be . . .Mezzenbone failed to satisfy the predictions and prophecies of the doomsayers. He did not declare himself emperor for life, dissolve the Imperial Council, suspend all civil liberties accorded to imperial citizens, or impose martial law."

Maybe I'm sensitive, but this "declaring yourself out of the woods because the fascist hasn't tipped his entire plan 4% into his term of office" really gives me the willies. We know he's going to betray the empire, not just because of the out-of-character, for-DMs-eyes-only plot section, but because he explicitly identifies as chaotic evil and worships a god named "the Destroyer."

That's what alignment does to a setting. The routine machinery of empire greedily stealing everything in sight, but with the occasional nod towards the concept of consent is Good. And Evil is the well-telegraphed disaster that you can't do anything about until after it's hurt a bunch of people, lest you be labeled a "doomsayer.". Yikes.

Okay, so we're at about 1500 words and I haven't even started talking about the other weird choice that defines the Dragonstar setting, something that, in my notes, I called "the vanilla of deep time." There was a big bang that happened billions of years ago (confirmed by the gods, though those same gods are still a bit cagey about whether they approve of the Unification Church), and the Dragon Empire is a lonely cluster of about 1000 settled worlds, in an infinitesimal sphere of a million stars, with more than 99.999987% of the galaxy left unexplored. And everywhere they've found so far can be built with the 3rd edition Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and Monster Manual.

The worlds aren't all identical. Heck, the one example we get would have made for a fairly unconventional campaign. But the differences are really more of a matter of curation. The description of a "scarce biosphere" in the star system creation rules puts it thusly, "There are planets in the Empire that gave birth to only a single sentient humanoid species, planets where there are no living oozes or motile plant life forms, and even worlds where there are no magical beasts or aberrations."

No oozes, you say. Is it even possible to imagine such a world? Sarcasm aside, this definition of "scarce" puts "standard" into context. Standard is that everything in the Monster Manual is canon. In the literal sense. The explanation is that the gods only had so many ideas and so they put the same species, with roughly the same ecological and social niches, on every planet. That's how we know who to side with on the example planet. That's why early spacefaring gnomes, from a gnome-only planet, were able to found the Star League (the state that existed before the Dragon Empire), because the people from the more standard worlds were able to recognize them as gnomes from another star, and thus already knew something about their habits and temperament.

I don't know. It's a choice. The endpoint you're after is "D&D in space," and this is a path that gets you there. But what is this universe? It works here a little better than The Starfarer's Handbook, because we get specifics and the example planet isn't exactly cookie-cutter, but the end result is still a space opera setting that avoids engaging with the concept of diversity. There's probably a way to do this that's satisfying, maybe make it part of the little-discussed subgenre of theological science fiction and use the repeating nature of life to say something about the character of the gods. But Dragonstar, thus far, has not been doing the work. What does it mean that there's a "standard" type of planet? What does it mean that some planets are different? What does it mean to move from one planet to another? Is there a difference between a planet that is diverse because it attracted interstellar migrants and one that was created to be diverse from the beginning? How do the planes figure into all this (we know they exist in Dragonstar because it occasionally refers to extraplanar incursions as a kind of common planetary crisis that even the Dragon Empire must treat carefully, and I'm intrigued at the plot's potential)?

But that's just speculation on what might have been. Focusing back on the present, I can't say that I have a verdict on the series yet. Weird, considering that I'm two hardcovers in. I guess, when I bought my first Dragonstar book, back in the early 2000s, I was impressed that it was trying something different with D&D, and now that I've got an extensive, decades-spanning collection, I'm a little disappointed that it's trying something different . . . with D&D.

Ukss Contribution: With all that criticism out of the way, this is still a book that has some inspired details. I liked hearing about mithral skyscrapers, magical cybernetic implants installed with "runic surgery," and the chainsaw pit trap. However, I think I'm going to go with Star Dragons. They float through space, subsisting entirely on solar power, and as they age they glow with color of increasingly energetic stars. Unfortunately, they don't have an ultimate black hole stage of their life cycle, but I can easily add one.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

(Earthdawn 4e) Travar: The Merchant City

 I always feel like a real goon when I lead off with a flaw, but in this case, the flaw is kind of the key to cracking this thing wide open. There's a great campaign you can run out of this book, but in order to do so you have to tackle the flaw head on. . . but you can't correct it, because the flaw is also at the heart of this hypothetical campaign. There's no alternative to simply doing the work.

The flaw is this - Travar: The Merchant City makes the Scourge feel shorter than it ever has before. Even Elven Nations gave it more heft, and there are several canon elves who went into the kaers as children and survived long enough to come out as elders. Travar is a predominantly human city, so a 400 year Scourge plus 100 years since the kaers started opening means that roughly 20 generations have passed in which the major merchant families have survived as distinct entities.

Let's all care about the disposition of the Shakespeare estate. That's how it feels when the book talks about the Dumojoren family. Oh, there were two legendary brothers, one of whom was caught outside of Travar when it decided to seal itself away, and now the lineage descended from that brother is back and wants to merge with the branch of the family descended from the brother who stayed in Travar? What about literally every other human in both locations? That's how populations work. According to ancestry.com, I am mostly British. Therefor, it is highly likely that I'm descended from every single person who was alive in Great Britain in the year 1522 who has a line of descendants that survived to the modern day (though, sadly, this rules out Shakespeare). If 25,000 people go into the fallout shelter, and 400 years later slightly fewer than 25,000 people come out, those survivors are all going to be cousins.

So right away, you've got all these plots that rely on continuous organizations putting a pause on their operations and then emerging centuries later relatively unchanged and picking up exactly where they left off. And that's rough. None of the merchant houses was founded after the Scourge, despite the post-apocalyptic power vacuum, despite the fact that 100 years is more than long enough for a small venture to blossom into a major enterprise, despite the fact that the pre-Scourge houses were merchants, i.e. people who made money by moving goods from one place to another, and thus were 400 years out of practice because of their enforced confinement in a single area.

It's a flaw. But the reason I think this flaw might be massaged into a great campaign is because one of the implications of the short Scourge is so ghastly that it could easily be spun off into satire, and the longer the Scourge, the ghastlier and more satirical it gets. It's unjust when you're talking about the estate of your grandfather, absurd when you're talking about the estate of William Shakespeare, and fascinatingly ludicrous when Shakespeare died in a fallout shelter following a global catastrophe.

One of the merchant families loaned people money to build their own kaers. On the understanding that they would be paid back, with interest, once the Scourge was over (in the form of valuable minerals mined during the Scourge), and if the kaer dwellers failed to meet the agreed-upon price, their descendants would become "indentured servants" to House Achura.

This is actually one of the adventures. A kaer is refusing to open up because they don't have the minerals (turns out digging out the floor of your underground bunker is a bad idea when the bunker is protecting you from creatures who know how to dig a hole) and the residents don't want to be dragged away to work for the descendants of the people who loaned their ancestors money (which never actually arrived because it was sent through monster-infested country at the last possible minute). How the fuck is this even enforceable? Obviously, Travar's courts are massively corrupt, but even so, this is only a hair's more legitimate than just sending in a mercenary army and enslaving random strangers.

This is something that could work as a post-apocalyptic story -"oh, right before the bombs dropped in WW3, the President of the United States sold Colorado to Citibank, and even though none of the financial systems from that period survived to the present day, one of the novitiate scribes found a copy of the deed in a pile of dusty old documents and long story short you owe them a million dollars, which we're choosing to interpret as 1000 ounces of gold (because, obviously, the dollar no longer exists), so enjoy working without pay for the next 40 years, let's hope you get it all paid off before you die so your kids don't inherit the debt."

It's a weird post-apocalyptic story, but its weirdness could make it fun. I'm a little hung up on the way it dovetails with the Thera plot ("our ancestors gave your ancestors the technology to survive the apocalypse, so we get to rule you now"). Thera is openly imperial and comes to take slaves, and they are met by the united armies of Barsaive. Travar is capitalist neo-imperial and comes with antediluvian contracts to enforce debt peonage, but the book has you playing as the enforcers of House Achura. If you were aware of the hypocrisy, you could wring a lot of good social commentary out of the parallelism, but this book does not seem to have that awareness. 

The "climax" section of the "Legal Documents" adventure says "There is no clear answer," but that's not true. The answer is very clear - the contract is void. Everyone who was party to the contract has been dead for hundreds of years, and no reasonable legal system would enforce penalties after all that time. Sorry, House Achura, but your ancestors made a bad investment, write it off as a loss, just like you did for the full century where the kaer remained undiscovered. Trying to extract payment from these people is basically indistinguishable from banditry. 

And I guess the counterargument would be that if it is intrinsically illegitimate to sign a contract on behalf of your great, great x 20 grandchildren, then why would House Achura have even loaned the money in the first place? Wouldn't they have preferred to keep it in a hole for hundreds of years until it had value in the post-apocalyptic world?

And my counter to that counter would be - yeah, capitalism on the cusp of the apocalypse sure is bizarre and reckless, someone should make a game about that.

Anyway, Travar: The Merchant City really could have used a bit more of the weight of ages, but if you grant it a mulligan on that flaw, it's a decent fantasy city, with colorful characters, unique traditions, and a healthy dose of both political intrigue and magical mysteries. Also, they choose their leaders with a tournament. It makes a little bit more sense than AD&D's Ierendi, because it's the merchant who finances and sponsors the winning team that becomes Magistrate (and thus most likely the winner has at least some organizational competence), but it's still really quaint. You can put your characters through a really cute adventure where they play fantasy sports (rules included) to get their employer a job.

Ukss Contribution: According to this book, prominent merchants will hire people to walk out in front of their entourages in order to push random pedestrians out of the way. It's probably less effective than just waiting in traffic, because the merchant has to toss a few coins to whoever they knock down, but apparently there's a lot of status involved in traveling like a complete dick. It's a very decadent custom, and I always appreciate fun new ways to slander the wealthy.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Trinity Continuum: Prometheus Unbound

 It's strange, sometimes, being an old fan. Prometheus Unbound is a perfectly serviceable book. It contains good, useful information to help with running games set around any of the eight psi orders, plus a free-form psionics system that may actually work, and new technological devices that help flesh out the sci-fi future of 2123. Yet I can't help but compare it to the first edition order books. 

I shouldn't. Those old books were strange and problematic. I dropped a lot of words ranting about the disturbing implications of the Huang-Marr plot, or the creepiness of the orders' plans to enslave the teleporters. Second edition is probably better for losing them. However, it really does feel like something is missing. I'm not sure someone coming in fresh would agree, and they almost certainly would not fill whatever gaps they felt with a conflict between the Port-au-Prince and Montressor branches of the Aesculapian Order that would sometimes border on overt racism, but like I said, I'm old now, and things being different is starting to feel like a personal attack on my youth.

Which is definitely a me problem. The closest it gets to being a book problem is with the Upeo Wa Macho chapter. It spends a lot of its time detailing the friction between those teleporters loyal to Bolade Atwan and those who resent their time in exile, implying that the order is on the verge of a major schism, but it kind of forgets to establish a reasonable motive for fleeing in the first place.

I suppose you could walk to meet them halfway. The psi orders, manipulated by the Doyen, engaged in a brutal purge of the quantakinetic order, for the crime of experimenting with aberrant DNA, and so when the Upeo found a colony of friendly novas and kept it secret, that may be a similar crime, meriting similar punishment. However, second edition has been establishing a friendlier, more humanist vibe to its protagonists, making a purge of the Upeo seem like less of a foregone conclusion. Thus Atwan was reacting to a worst case scenario that had not yet manifested. It seems much more cowardly than first edition, where they were fleeing an active attack.

It's probably better that way. Instead of having six sinister psi orders, we now have one that was just a bit too flighty, but the Upeo were my favorite order in first edition, and I kind of wish we got a bit more sympathetic a take here.

My favorite part of the book was the Chitra Bhanu chapter, probably because it is an organization that did not get significant coverage in first edition, and therefor doesn't impinge on my nostalgia for the old lore. I especially like the introduction of SK Bhurano as the Aeonverse's third overpowered immortal NPC. I know it's a controversial character type, but I enjoy the symmetry. Three sources of superhuman abilities, three canon mentors to sponsor young groups of adventurers.

It helps that she's used effectively here, with her trauma at being possessed by an alien telepath and forced to watch as her former friends slaughtered her students is made the driving motive behind her organizational choices with the reborn Chitra Bhanu order. The cell structure isn't just a security measure, it's a repudiation of the Doyen's philosophy of top-down control. 

I do wonder if we'll ever see the psi orders face a reckoning for their actions surrounding the purge. Seeing it from the perspective of the survivors makes it a lot less abstract than it has been in ages past. It's always seemed like a bit of a spat, with the heroic psions "cleaning up" after their naughty coworkers. And even when the presentation leaned away from pretending it was a bloodless affair, it never quite rose to the level of reminding us that the quantakinetics were real people with real relationships . . . until now.

The book seems to be setting up a human vs doyen conflict, but it was human beings who actually carried it out, and with only a few exceptions, they don't appear to be suffering any great deal of dissonance about these events. It's like, "yes, I took a paramilitary force to summarily execute a bunch of my colleagues based on preliminary evidence of vague misdeeds, but that feels exactly like something I would do, so there's no need to go looking for sinister outside influences." Maybe the doyen were micromanaging the events of that day, controlling or deceiving every single individual in the area, but as far as the perpetrators are concerned, they voluntarily committed an atrocity, and at some point they're going to have to confront that.

Also, it's unclear how human beings are supposed to fight the Doyen anyway. Each one is a potent psychic and collectively, they can (and will) destroy entire planets. You can get an interesting campaign out of playing an intricate game of cat and mouse, where you try to probe the aliens' weaknesses while remaining too insignificant to pose a threat, but it's unclear that the mouse actually has any real way of turning the tables on the cat. I'd have liked to see the dilemma addressed more specifically, because "you have definitively established that this foe is far out of your league" seems like a bummer of a way to end a story.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It's more of a workhorse than some of the other Trinity Continuum: Aeon offerings, and it's mostly useful as a means of rounding out other, more dramatic plots with a bunch of order-specific locations and characters, but the Trinity Continuum continues to be one my favorite settings, so more is always appreciated.

Ukss Contribution: Owl Necrostimulant. It's a drug that you inject into a corpse, thereby making it a valid target for telepathy. Aeon's sci-fi has often relied on soft-SF implementation of hard-SF ideas and this is a great example of that tendency done right. You've got the space fantasy trope of psychic powers, but it's engaging with a transhumanist idea of death as a cessation of a material process. So, naturally, you can add something material to that dead body to allow it to link up with your perfectly scientific telepathic abilities. It's creepy, it's weird, and it perfectly captures the best of the Trinity Continuum's voice.