Monday, January 24, 2022

(Planescape) A Guide to the Ethereal Plane

 Prior to starting out, my hopes for this book were not high. Literally, the first word of my notes was "why?"

The reason for my reservations is because the Ethereal Plane is a transit plane, and so far Planescape has been treating it as an afterthought. The Ethereal is between the Prime and the Inner Planes and the Astral is between the Prime and the Outer Planes, and you needed powerful spells to get use these routes, so it's a good thing Sigil has so many portals. You'd never actually go into them, because if you're in the Ethereal or the Astral, then by definition you're not where you want to be.

The book addresses this issue straight out the gate, saying on the first page: "The Ethereal contains everything material . . . a physical plane that literally is space, and all that space contains." Rick and Morty made the same observation, but meant it as a joke, presumably because it was so fatuous. Space exists between everything, so it could be said that those things are inside space, but space begins where the first thing ends and it ends where the next thing begins, so it's only space when there's nothing there.

The Ethereal plane surrounds all the worlds of the Prime Material plane (the book is coy about whether it exists between Spelljammer's crystal spheres, but by even bringing it up in the first place implies that Spelljammer is still canon, because what the setting needs is two completely redundant types of outer space) and it surrounds all the various Inner Planes, so if we're saying that it contains the things it surrounds, then this book should be about all the Prime worlds and also redundant with The Inner Planes . . .

And you know what, it almost pulls it off. It does what The Inner Planes should have done and is primarily an outer space supplement. It elides the main destinations, giving us no new Prime or Inner Planar locations, but luckily D&D lore has one more trick up its sleeve - demiplanes. Demiplanes are self-contained worlds that are mostly smaller than Prime Material worlds, but sometimes not. Why isn't Ravenloft a Prime Material world? Why aren't the demiplanes of Shadow, Electromagnetism, or Time full-fledged inner planes? Why is the demiplane of Nightmare considered a physical world and not a spiritual world like the Outer Planes? No one can say.

What makes A Guide to the Ethereal Plane such a great book is that none of that matters. You pass through the Ethereal Plane in order to get to some more interesting places, and the bulk of this book is actually about those places and they are generally pretty interesting. So, why the demiplane of Time? Why not? It's a place to go and now you can do time travel stories. Three of the book's chapters are mostly just collections of destinations and, ironically, it's the small destinations that get the most wordcount.

Probably just a byproduct of specificity. The demiplane of electromagnetism gets two paragraphs because it's basically an Inner Plane and thus all we need to know about it is the way it will kill the PCs (minor, but unending sparks on anything metallic). By contrast, The Demiplane That Lives is a character with complex motivations and a strange biology. It's like a giant cell, with continent-sized membranes folding in upon themselves, filled with "organ buds" and an oxygenated fluid that most mortals can safely breathe. Towards the center is the Visage Wall, from which it can form faces that will communicate with visitors, asking them a ton of questions as its child-like intelligence seeks to understand the universe. But don't lose patience with it, or else it will start digesting you, absorbing your memories in the process.

And though that may be the weirdest one, most of the other small demiplanes are similarly well-constructed. Crystal islands floating in gelatinous seas that have healing properties but will eventually trap your spirit. The plane that is like a hollow earth, but surrounding a black hole instead of a star, and where a ruined civilization slowly decays under a blood-red sky. "The City That Waits," which was once home to a bunch of reformed demon-worshippers, who were cursed by their former patron to fall into a deep slumber, its streets now stalked by The Vestige, a being made from their collective nightmares. It has an oddly elaborate canon history (the demon they worshipped was Orcus) and the weird, Gygaxian name of  "Moil," but is not, as far as I can tell, a reference to an old-school module.

It's weird, we're two or three books away from the end of the line (A Guide to the Ethereal Plane is pre-Faction War and it's only because of a mix-up that I'm reading it out of order), but it's only now that it seems like the brakes are finally coming off. To quote the setup to the random demiplane creation table (that is inexplicably not in the original boxed set) -

Because demiplanes are such unique areas, DMs should feel free to let their creative impulses run wild. A realm of solid bone, animated weapons and armor, or intelligent weapons - it's all possible. These pocked dimensions are places where literally anything can happen . . .Turning the multiverse upside down is part of the charm of designing a pocket dimension.

Put this book in a time machine and send it back to 1993, with the "demi" and "pocket" struck out, because it gets to the very heart of what makes portal fantasy so compelling.  It's so good and so obvious that I'm forced to wonder why it took so long to see print.

I suspect it's precisely because demiplanes are so unimportant that they're allowed to be weird. You don't have to commit to making one an entire world. It's just a demi-plane. Most of them are canonically created by an 8th-level spell, so much so that the group of dwarfs trying to build one by collecting chunks of stable protomatter are treated as a (mild) joke. Therefor, you can suggest in your random generation table that a world might be composed entirely of copper coins and act as a refuge for free-willed golems because there's a 143 in 144 chance that the world is no more than 100 miles across. It's the liberation that comes with being an afterthought. Clearly, someone at TSR asked the same "why" question as I did at the start of the post, and Bruce R Cordell answered "why not?"

A Guide to the Ethereal Plane's greatest strength, then, is that it is peak Planescape. Its biggest weakness is also that it is peak Planescape. This book is not a team player.  It's a great source of planar adventures, but it is also an alternate model of planar travel that is largely redundant with Sigil and its portals. You can move from demiplane to demiplane by sailing on an enchanted ether-ship or by psychically manipulating the protomatter to propel you forward, but portals are thin on the ground, because if you had a portal, you would have no reason to enter the ethereal in the first place, you'd just skip straight past it to go directly where you want to be.

That's probably why the only portals mentioned here are in the Godsmen headquarters and providing water to a small town on a barren patch of rock too small to even be a demiplane. We've got a new cosmology now and we're not missing the Outer Planes at all! (That was, at most, 65% sarcastic).

Honestly, given the presentation in this book, you could almost do a pure ethereal campaign. The only real impediment is that entering or leaving the plane requires a level 7 spell (either Greater Etherealness or Teleport Without Error). That's because the ethereal also doubles as D&D's explanation for why ghosts can walk through walls. If you're close to a prime world, inner plane, or demiplane, you're in the "Border Ethereal" and there's a kind of mist that overlaps normal terrain. You can see the world, but you can't interact with it physically, nor it with you. Thus every ethereal travel power is also a top-tier spying and defensive power, and not something you can just hand out to PCs (until, apparently, 13th level, then it's fine for wizards to have it). It's a major impediment to the main campaign model - world hopping from one monster of the week story to another, but I figure it's got to be solvable. If you play with the Etherfarer kit, your special benefit is "an item that allows them entry onto the Ethereal at least 1/week, even if temporarily," which suggests that I'm not alone in perceiving this problem, but is also, strangely, a vague and incomplete solution.

I guess I would solve it by introducing a new way of breaching the Border Ethereal that was simultaneously conspicuous, inconvenient, and mundane. That way the stealth aspect of ethereal travel is mitigated, you can't flee from an ongoing adventure without laying some groundwork, and you don't need a high-level wizard to help you. What that would look like, I'll save as an exercise for when I actually run this campaign, but it's definitely something that would have made the book stronger. 

My final impression of A Guide to the Ethereal is that it is an odd book that had no business being as good as it was and if you did ever want to do a Planescape reboot, you should steal from it liberally.

Ukss Contribution: There are so many great options, but what makes this job even harder than usual is that one of the chapters is all about ethereal monsters that assembles a greatest-hits collection of previously published creatures. Phase Spiders, Ebon Tigers, Thought Eaters - all your favorites are here. There are even some strong original creatures like Nathri (venomous goblin-like humanoids that are given full PC rules) or Memes (intelligent patterns that are constantly drawing in nearby matter, cycling it through themselves to create a sort of "body" and then ejecting it in a steady stream, basically like a standing wave in the ethereal plane).

I really like the Gk'Lok-Lok (except for the name). They're these skinny creatures of filigree metal that live on a crystal tree and like to trap the lost souls of dead heroes. Not for any sinister purpose, just to admire them for awhile before sending them off to their final destination, none the worse for wear.

Friday, January 21, 2022

(Earthdawn 1e) Prelude to War

The metaplot cannot be stopped! Literally. At one point, your dashing heroes are set to rescue the maiden, Aardelea (the same magical girl you rescued from fanatic witch-hunters in the Infected adventure), and you can't. The book says so directly. "Despite their best efforts, the player characters cannot rescue Aardelea from the clutches of the Therans." This can happen because the GM has just spent the last few sessions telling the players a lie they have no conceivable reason to disbelieve. 

See, the wizard who kidnapped Aardelea assumed he was going to be followed by some hero or another, so the first thing he did was hand her over to another team. Then he leads you on a wild goose chase, going from town to town, very conspicuously acting like a total dick, and having his assistant play the part of Aardelea, so that anyone asking around about him will get a very detailed account that matches exactly what they expect to see.

It's a perfect plan for thwarting a group of PCs, but if you're a person, living in the world, it doesn't make a lot of sense. It would be better to keep quiet, move inconspicuously, and avoid populated areas as much as possible. Maybe even tag along with the group that's going to "quietly smuggle the girl to the Theran behemoth at Lake Ban." Either that or have the heavily armed fleet of airships meet you closer to the village, so it doesn't matter if you're being tracked.

In the end, you capture the wizard before he can get away and you take him to the dragon Icewing, who eats him, shits out his bones, and then asks you to deliver said bones to the Therans as a message of intimidation. There's no point in objecting to any of this because "the player characters are essentially bystanders in this final encounter."

It's not all dire. There are some fruitful changes to the metaplot, which can themselves lead to exciting new adventures, but the thrill of being central to events that will change the face of Barsaive forever kind of loses its shine when your "central role" winds up being little more than having a front row seat to a series of unavoidable screw-ups. Like, if you're starting up your first session and the GM tells you that the King of Throal was recently assassinated, and his impetuous son jumped to conclusions about the perpetrators, executing an innocent family and leading a disastrous counterattack against Thera, which served only to empower his adversaries among the noble class and further the aims of a sinister family of foreign sorcerers, that's a pretty damned interesting situation to find yourselves in. 

But if you take a step back and play as the investigators who were trying to find the old King's assassin, and the way the adventure is written assumes that a successful investigation is one that puts you on the false trail set down by the Denairastas, to frame Thera for the assassination, and the end result of you succeeding at every check presented to you is that you validate the enemy narrative and point the finger at an innocent family of refugees, then that kind of sucks.

So much of this book relies on exploiting the fact that the GM is the players' sole source of information about the world in order to keep the PCs on track with the stories' pre-determined outcomes. The biggest example of this is in the middle of a tense confrontation where the Therans are trying to clear their name and disavow responsibility for the King's assassination.

At this point, grab a pair of dice, roll them, and look surprised. Then re-roll one of them, look even more surprised, and re-roll the other. Flip anxiously through this book for a moment: give the impression that a freak die roll has just thrown the printed adventure off track.  Then tell the players that Drazon has fired a crossbow bolt that pierced Ladacheln's throat and sent him plummeting to the ground far below.
It's a remarkable passage because it somehow manages to cross the nebulous line between "storytelling" and "lying," which is not really something I've spent a lot of time thinking about before now. In the course of playing a normal game, I'll say, "you see an ork coming over the hill," and that's . . . fictional. It's something I made up, because of course my friend doesn't see an ork, they're sitting right across the room from me, but it's a sort of fiction that respects a social contract. My words are interpreted through the context of the story, and in that context, they're truthfully conveying what's going on. And even when the information is technically not accurate, there are still nuances where that false information is acceptable. Maybe it's a shapeshifter instead of an ork, or maybe the character's lore rating is so low that they can't tell the difference between an ork and a troll, then what I'm telling them isn't an honest depiction of the world, but it is an honest representation of the limits of human knowledge.

But this? It's stage-directing a little pantomime for me, one designed to exploit my friends' perception of the normal functioning of the game so that they don't realize they're being railroaded. It's uncomfortable.

And also unnecessary. Drazon is the Denairastas agent who framed those people for the King's murder, and he's firing an arrow here because he recognizes that the Therans have a witness who can identify him and he hopes that wrecking the parlay will keep the long-time enemies from comparing notes. A failed attack roll is going to do that just as well. And he tries to cover for himself by immediately screaming that he saw the Therans getting ready to fire first, and that's actually a pretty plausible fog-of-war type scenario, so maybe you could just start the fight and require difficult Perception rolls from players who try to figure out what's going on while the arrows are still flying. 

But also, in the default scenario, Ladacheln isn't even the person with the info. If the PCs keep their head and manage to board the Theran ship, they're going to be able to talk to the witness anyways. In fact, the adventure assumes that they will, so even in a situation where the GM's poor dice rolls cause Drazon's plan to fail and the PCs are able to deal amicably with the Therans, the only thing lost is a thrilling action scene. I think maybe the mind games are happening for their own sake. Someone had the idea to direct GMs to lean on the fourth wall and it so amused them that they tossed it in. Certainly, the one thing that was never in danger of happening was "throwing the printed adventure off track."

So I don't know. Final verdict - Prelude to War is a fine source for campaign background and a compelling read for those of us who are treating the Earthdawn books as an ongoing fantasy series, to be read for its own sake, but I think it might be irresponsible to subject your players to it. There is virtually no room in any of the material here for the unexpected or the serendipitous, and thus the involvement of player characters in these setting-shaking events is, at best, vestigial.

Ukss Contribution: The dragon Icewing's nickname is "Doll-Maker." The text doesn't explain what it means, but considering his mystic might, the possibilities are intriguing. Ukss will also have a dragon named Doll-Maker, who will have appropriate powers, to be determined later.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

(Planescape) The Inner Planes

 I'm going to open with a hot take - I don't think it's intrinsically bad to set a campaign in a universe with no breathable air where the environment is constantly trying to kill you.

That's what people say, isn't it? That inner-planes adventures are pointless because in almost all of them (with the plane of Air being the one possible exception) it is impossible for mortal creatures to exist without the aid of magic. And, indeed, when you read about, say, the quasielemental plane of Dust, and the text itself says, "what sane person seeks out a land where ultimate disintegration is the only sure fate," maybe that does feel a little like the game begging you not to play it.

However, when I think about hostile environments that inevitably lead to a quick and painful death for the unprotected, I can't help thinking about outer space. Outer space is just as dangerous as the inner planes (maybe even moreso, the plane of Vacuum "is marked by the complete lack of air, [but] there is still pressure and constant temperature"), but it is at the heart of entire genres of stories.

So why not a fantasy version of that? Why say that outer space is cool, but the inner planes are pointless? I think what it comes down to is how the methods of survival help to define the setting. In science fiction, the architecture and engineering goes a long way towards building a genre. If you're in one of tiny orbital tin cans of hard SF, constantly oppressed by the closeness of the void, that says something very different than crystal domes on the moon and personal environmental forcefields. There's a problem, yes, but that problem is an opportunity for you to explore how the problem is solved.

The inner planes could be the same way. They aren't, at least not if The Inner Planes is taken to be the definitive word on the subject, but they could be. What it really comes down to is the blandness of AD&D's magic system. How it works is that you have a problem and then you cast a spell to solve the problem, but the way spells solve problems is by just . . . working. Cast "Water Breathing" and you can breathe underwater. Need to breathe in the thin, dust-choked atmosphere of the Quasielemental Plane of Dust? Cast "Breath Smoke, Dust, and Ash" instead. There's no specificity here, no sense that you are overcoming an obstacle by exploiting an understanding of cause and effect.

For instance, rather than give a character a cloak that protects him from all fire and heat, the DM could create a cloak of elemental magma survival. With this item, the wearer would be able to survive in the Paraelemental Plane of Magma, but he'd still be vulnerable to fireballs, red dragon breath, and even magma paraelementals. Likewise, a ring of elemental earth travel might let a cutter move through the substance of the plane of Earth, but not through normal stone in any other plane. Thus, special items provide the opportunity to adventure in the Inner Planes without giving the PCs too much magical power.
Ah, of course, the "Ring of Surviving in the Setting of the Adventure," why didn't I think of that? Such an elegant solution.

Like, maybe this is just me pitching oddball ideas here, but you've got a need for mortal colonies in the world where everything is constantly on fire and you've got the rare treasure of Eternal Ice, which always stays cold and never melts under any circumstances. Maybe those things might have some connection. Then you could work out the logistics of how the ice is used to cool human settlements, and there could be a trade route by which the ice is transported to where it's needed, and maybe the natives aren't happy about that and by exploring the economic and political implications of your technological solution, you could do some complex and engaging worldbuilding that leads to a whole campaign's worth of adventures.

Or, you know, whatever.

I do have to rein in my cattiness here. The Inner Planes has a lot of good fantasy ideas. The City of Brass is an iconic location. The plane of Water has thousand foot long sharks. The plane of Ooze has overly friendly animentals (elemental animals) - "There are few things as revolting as having an ooze cat hop into a sod's lap or a slime dog lick her face." (Speak for yourself! I guarantee 90% of the time that's going to be the highlight of the campaign). The writers, Monte Cook and William W Connors, were good at their jobs, but I'm not sure they understood the assignment. 

Or, maybe, whoever gave them the assignment didn't understand the assignment. It's hard to say. The Inner Planes is probably the most methodically-paced rpg book I've ever read. The four main elemental planes get 10 pages each. The paraelemental planes get 6 pages each. And everything else gets 4 pages each. Often, in an rpg supplement that has to share space between subjects, the division won't be nearly so clean. The more interesting subject usually eats a couple of pages from the less interesting ones (for example, in The Factol's Manifesto, the Harmonium gets 12 pages and the Transcendent Order gets 8). But that doesn't happen here. The plane of Ash starts developing a plot about the legacy of Vecna and the ambitions of the Doomguard remnants (it's a whole thing that we're going to have to talk about later), but it reaches page 4 and cuts off. Whereas with the plane of Vacuum, it goes all the way to page 4, even though half its word-count is "no, really, we mean there's nothing here." Towards the end, I got the feeling that most of these chapters were being written up to meet the page count, rather than being edited down to fit in the space allotted.

It's this lack of conviction that is the book's ultimate undoing. You get 4 pages to describe the quasi-elemental plane of Lightning, then what I want to hear is a condensed version of Storm World, the 250 page core book that spawned its own line of supplements, set in an archipelago of floating islands, with cities protected by rings of lightning rods, which harness electric power to drive advanced industry and magical research. Where transport is via airships fitted with lightning impeller drives that catch the bolts of lightning and ride them at 20,000 miles per hour. Where gods and heroes wield the thunder and where ancient treasures lie in the great ring of storms that surrounds the habitable lands. You know, the setting that people are excited about, and which could support any number of epic campaigns.

Instead, we get, "the vast majority of the quasiplane is little more than one storm-cloud after another. A few areas, however, stand out as curiosities." We learn that "the mephits have no doubts that something or someone lives in the tower [of Storms]." Dude, "something or someone?" That's what you're going with, in the one and only spotlight this mysterious tower, which was teased in the original boxed set, is ever going to get? Am I even meant to be playing this? Who is it for?

Planescape challenges me because it's clearly a labor of love, and a chance for TSR to stretch its creative muscles, but also so much of it seems half-baked. Maybe it's a side effect of making 30 books in 4 years. You're passionate, sure, but you've got a month and a half turnaround time so you stick to the template. Getting Here. Hazards. Moving About. Quasielementals. Animals and Monsters. Major Players. The Sites. Planeswalkers. One down, seventeen more to go. Repeat. If you've only got a day to work on each plane, maybe you don't want to pitch anything that's going to take more than a day to develop. Sticking to the pattern would definitely help.

Although, I wonder if maybe the composite nature of Planescape might have something to do with it. So much of the setting is inherited from the rough sketch at the end of the Player's Handbook and it mostly has to stay canon. There's a plane of Ooze and there's nothing anyone can do about it, and so you just try to get through the six pages with dignity. Yet Planescape also has a lot of innovation. Sigil, the factions, tieflings and aasimar and genasi, most of the Outlands. Things that are voluntary in a way the planar checklist is not. Maybe that's why the Sigil books feel so original and this one feels so obligatory - because that's exactly what they were.

It's certainly a theory, though I'd be remiss if I didn't post the counter-evidence. That stuff with the Doomguard I alluded to earlier - it's a spoiler for the Faction War adventure. Here's what we know from the description of the Crumbling Citadel: There was a big war in Sigil. The Armory was destroyed in the fighting. "The Lady of Pain outlawed all the factions." And, I guess, we can infer that the Doomguard's four quasielemental citadels were divided up between different cliques inside the faction, because each of the different citadels gets a different attitude towards the inevitable decay of the universe.

I guess I kind of assumed my historical distance would inure me to these kind of metaplot blindsides, but what?! Outlawed the factions? What does that even mean? How is Sigil being governed? Why would you blow up the setting so close to the end of the line and then publish books set after the big event? Ending the series with a big even makes sense, but did you think Planescape had another couple of years left in it and that's why you wrote the last three setting books post-Faction War? If it was a marketing scheme, I guess it worked, because I'm just going to tab over to ebay and . . .380 dollars?! . . . ::choke:: ::gasp:: . . . um, let this remain a mystery for now (yes, I know I could get the pdf, but I'm holding out for a PoD).

Still, it pokes a hole in my theory that the Sigil stuff was the passion-project aspect of Planescape. So I don't know what's going on here. I guess maybe the para- and quasi- elemental planes are kind of an afterthought and this is just a relentlessly checklist-driven book. It has its moments of inspiration, but it probably would have been better if it had just covered the four big elemental planes and left the others as locales inside their nearest counterpart. Thirty pages per plane would have made the workhorse parts of each chapter ("here's how much damage you take just from existing in this location") into a lot smaller percentage of the wordcount, and given the good parts of the planes - the creatures, locations, and treasures - much more room to breathe.

Overall, I'd say that this book is . . . okay. For almost anywhere in the Inner Planes where you might want to set a game, you'll have to write almost the whole thing by yourself, because it frequently confuses the concepts of "there is no large body of canon lore yet" and "there is nothing significant to know about the place." It keeps saying that there's only one "major player" in each of these lesser planes, but that is clearly only the case because the chapter is running out of pages. The Plane of Steam is infinite, so how can the only being of significance be the silly-talking Slaad who narrated the chapter? Why not the rival gangs of tinker gnomes who power fabulous war machines with the plane's infinite energy and make them fight each other in ever more devastating spectacles, oblivious to the fact that fiendish infiltrators are busy taking notes?

Sorry, I drifted into brainstorming mode there. That's kind of best use of this book, though. You're going to do most of the work yourself, but the 4-10 pages might serve as inspiration, and the frequent, if fleeting good stuff can make a cameo.

Ukss Contribution: This is a tough one. There are a lot of candidates. Brine Dragons. The Fields of Nevermore, a region in the Plane of Magma where a cursed chillsword has frozen the plane into rock, creating a habitable bubble. Giant icebergs floating through lightning storms, appearing to glow from within. Beacon Seeds, that lead you back to their parent plant when you swallow them.

But, of course, it's got to be ooze kitty. Normal cats are already about 20% ooze. Going the rest of the way gives you dangerously high levels of party mascot potential. Ah, let's do slime dogs too. When the bait's this obvious, you've got to snap it up.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

(Earthdawn 1e) Throal Adventures

 Let's start this post out with an embarrassing confession. As I was reading the plot synopsis for the third adventure in this book, my thought was, "whoa, this is the third adventure in a row that takes place completely underground. Why is this book so gloomy?"

Throal is the dwarf kingdom. In the interest of preserving at least some of my mystique as a critic, I will refrain from telling you how long it took me to put those two facts together.

It's fair to say that one thing that Throal Adventures definitely gets right about adventuring in the dwarf kingdom is that it largely involves venturing into tunnels and looking for the Thing That Shouldn't Be In The Tunnel. We get three variations of that and they all just work. They are repetitive in a way that would make them hard to play back-to-back, but over the course of a full career a single group could experience all three and come away satisfied. FASA has been getting better at making adventure books over the years, and it's a shame that this is the second-to-last one.

The first adventure is called "Purloined Provisions" and it's about a group of Pale Ones (the underground variant of the T'skrang - i.e. lizardfolk) whose river mysteriously dried up and have been forced to steal food from Throal's Grand Bazaar. You start out trying to track down the thieves, who are operating out of another dwarf adventure staple - The Tunnel That Shouldn't Be There - but end up beating up the elementalist who diverted the river to better harvest motes of True Water, thereby saving the village and ensuring that the villagers no longer need to steal to survive.

The strongest part of this adventure is the way that it acts as a moral test for the PCs. What is the nature of justice? How can you punish those who are merely trying to survive? And so on.

The weakest part of the adventure is the fact that it doesn't seem to realize that the moral dilemma is its strongest part. It ends with the Pale Ones thanking you kindly for your help and then going back to living their lives, with no effort made to offer restitution for all the shit they stole . . . unless the PCs insist, in which case "The lahala will reluctantly agree to this." I guess all that angst in the opening fiction about how they must swallow their pride and dishonor themselves to survive was just posturing, then?

No, I'm being unfair. I'm sure the main component of the lahala's reluctance is the fact that restitution also comes with the obligation to turn over the raiders who slew a couple of the Bazaar guards in the adventure's first encounter. It wasn't the Pale Ones' intent to murder anyone, but they were interrupted mid-robbery and things went south. Throal justice requires that the murderers face trial, but they committed the crime while acting under orders from their own government, and thus to punish them exclusively threatens to make them into scapegoats for the village's collective decision. It's a complex moral, political, and diplomatic conundrum of the sort that PCs just love to try and clumsily "solve" and it really could anchor a whole adventure by itself . . . which makes it a damned shame that it's such an afterthought. I think the presumed arc here is that the PCs start off doing mercenary work for a bunch of merchants, but discover in the course of their investigation a community in genuine need, and then decide that the heroic thing is to solve the real problem instead of the immediate problem they were hired to solve. By the time they're in any position to demand that the murderers return to Throal to face trial, they've probably been through so many thrilling encounters with monsters and mages that they've forgotten why they got involved in the first place.

I think there's a chance that things will just naturally shake out that way, but it's much likelier that the whole thing will completely derail the first time the PCs are told "no." "What do you mean we can't take the murderers with us - they killed two people! You can't just opt out of justice." Honestly, the way I'd do it is make the Pale Ones' village the final stop in the adventure, with the diversion of the river being something the PCs knew about in an unrelated context before they even went down there. Maybe they've heard talk in the Bazaar about a recent earthquake or Horror attack, or, if you want to go really deep into the moral quagmire, about Throal's recent success at diverting a river for their mining operations. That'll cut nice and deep - does Throal have the right to judge the actions of people it has impoverished?

The second adventure is "Deep Trouble" and it could be the most straight-forward of the three. There's a Horror That Shouldn't Be In The Tunnel and the PCs have to Get It Out Of The Tunnel. Where it strays from pure straightforwardness is in the fact that the PCs' mission is meant to be secret. The tunnel in question happens to be near the city of Hustane, which Throal is building speculatively, in hopes of attracting immigration from the surface and relieving overcrowding amongst the urban poor. These aims might be jeopardized if people were to find out there's a giant beetle digging around the city's foundations, attempting to collapse the chamber and kill thousands.

That makes the adventure's stakes really weird. Because your main opposition, aside from the giant Horror, is a bunch of people who don't know what's going on and are trying to be (what they think are) the first people to find out. If they actually knew what you were up to, they would support you completely, but then the nobles who sponsored them have their own reasons for embarrassing or blackmailing the king and maybe that's something you want to prevent. Can you successfully keep the public in the dark? Would you kill to keep the secret? Do you even care?

Well, if you didn't care, you wouldn't have gotten the job, though the adventure fails to anticipate that most people probably won't care ("Don't you see, we have to preserve the status quo of the monarchy! None of the commoners would consent to live in the new city if they were informed of the dangers of possible Horror attack!") Maybe that's just me projecting my own politics onto the text, though. "We have to conceal this danger from the public, lest we start a panic," is a pretty common trope in disaster fiction. I don't like it. I think it's infantilizing and authoritarian. But Throal Adventures didn't invent it.

So, with the caveat that if you've got a player like me at the table, they won't care about this specific premise, it is actually kind of an interesting premise for an adventure to do "this should be a completely uncontroversial monster hunt, but everyone's acting really weird about it." My advice if you run this adventure - make it more complicated. Just throw in an absolutely overwhelming number of agendas. You'll know when you've reached a point where they stop making sense and have to rely on ridiculous leaps of logic and deliberate ignorance . . . that you should make one or two more, just to be safe.

(Sorry, recent times have replenished my store of cynicism).

The last adventure involves a shady nobleman who wants to open up an old smuggling tunnel so that he can secretly move resources and personnel without gaining the notice of the crown, but he only has half the map, so he needs a group of adventurers to go in and plot the route from the halfway point to the surface. Conveniently, along the way, you run into Something That Should Not Be In The Tunnel, specifically a fort belonging to a bunch of pirates and mercenaries that Thera is sponsoring to raid and enslave the peaceful communities of the Pale Ones. It's not part of your mission, but if you free the slaves and route the raiders, the locals will be happy to share their knowledge of the tunnels with you, dramatically reducing the amount of work you need to do to finish your job. But you have to be careful, because the Theran stooges don't actually know that there's a secret passage into the heart of Throal, and if they found out, that would lead to major trouble for the dwarf kingdom (and even its corrupt nobles).

It's a fine adventure. There's a bit of colonialist subtext in the way the Pale Ones are depicted. Their leader wears a large, elaborate feathered headdress, despite living a hundred miles away from the nearest entrance to the surface ("Hey, you know those weird creatures that drown in the river and wash up down here? Their skin would make a nice hat"), but they're on the side of the heroes and have valuable information, so they're probably okay (I will, however, dig my heels in and refuse to use broken English to represent your bilingual guide. Real shady, FASA.)

Overall, I think this is a pretty successful adventure book. The best part of Throal's setting book was the complex and petty palace politics, and those only peripherally factor into these adventures, but they are here, and you can dial up their influence, if desired. I'm not sure how I feel about this format where the three adventures are completely unconnected, even by a theme. It might have made the book stronger if the adventures were not just unconnected, but deliberately diverse - one adventure that shows Throal the liberal haven, one that shows Throal the cultural imperialist, and one adventure that shows Throal the unstable transitioning monarchy, to really highlight the contradictions of the place. However, my issues with curation are ultimately pretty minor. These are solid adventures. Provided Prelude to War doesn't totally whiff it, the first edition of Earthdawn is looking to finish on a strong note.

Ukss Contribution: My choice here is actually a spell from the core book, but it gets called out specifically here, in a really memorable way. 

"If the group includes a nethermancer who wishes to use the Experience Death spell . . .the spell will only reveal the survivor's slow death without giving the nethermancer any information about the nature of the menace below the city."

Now, this is really just a description of how the spell normally works. It allows you to relive the last 5-10 minutes of a dead person's life, and the reason the quote is talking about a "survivor" is because she "survived" the monster attack long enough to get back and report to headquarters before succumbing to her wounds. So there's no reason for a PC to even think that casting it would help, but I like to think that this bit, instead of being a passive-aggressive swipe at players who don't read their powers, is just how nethermancers normally operate. 

"Why are you trying to relive the last moments of the victim's life? They died of slow-acting poison. The killer was probably miles away when it happened."

"I know, but we nethermancers believe every death is a lesson."

Creepy. Ukss' "Experience Death" spell will be used rarely by investigators and frequently by a bunch of voyeuristic weirdos.


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

(Planescape) Uncaged: Faces of Sigil

 I don't know what you're doing as you read this, but I'm going to need you to sit down, relax, and prepare yourself emotionally for an absolute bombshell of a revelation that's going to change the way you see Planescape forever.

Are you ready? I hope so, because here it comes:

The Fat Candle is vanilla scented!

I don't know what to do with this. Every time I try to wrap my head around it, I start laughing uncontrollably. I'm not even making fun of it. This is something so weird and inexplicable that it's brought genuine joy into my life. In rpg terms, I feel like I've just gained enough experience points to advance in level, and I'm testing out my new powers for the first time.

For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, here's a quick summary. Sigil is the city at the center of the multiverse. It contains countless portals to every place you could possibly imagine, worlds of fire and ice, deserts and seas, even heaven and hell. The main industry is catering to adventurers, as people from a hundred different worlds come to seek their hearts' desires out in the infinite planes. As a result, it has inns, taverns, and hostels to suit every proclivity. One such tavern is called "The Fat Candle," and it is both figuratively and literally shady, as rogues, assassins, and bounty hunters make secret deals in a room lit only by a single, tree-trunk-sized candle.

And the candle is vanilla.

I don't have a joke, an observation, or even a comment. I just love it. The thought of all those rogues, coming back from their shadowy underworld meetings stinking of vanilla. . . it overwhelms me. 

It's probably wasn't a great idea to open with this little anecdote, because it's not really representative of the tone of the book, and I'm like 90% sure it wasn't even intentional. My theory is that a person writing in 1996, as part of a civilization where candles have been purely decorative for nearly a century, was trying to picture a plain white candle and they just assumed that vanilla scented candles were what happened if you didn't add anything special to the mix. It's an inadvertently apt metaphor for D&D as a whole, though - put a lot of effort into making something specifically vanilla, but at no point realizing that "vanilla" isn't the same thing as "default."

Ironically, though, Uncaged: Faces of Sigil is one of the least vanilla AD&D books I've read to date. It has a few moments where it threatens to teeter over into vanilla - one of the NPCs is a scholar of the Prime Material plane and he name-checks every active AD&D setting (minus Mystara), but literally nothing outside those. And with only one exception, every Prime character mentioned in the book comes from Toril, Oerth, or Kyrnn. But mostly this is a Sigil-focused book, and thus it gives itself permission to be weird in a way D&D usually isn't.

There's a half-angel that runs a spa. He hires four-armed mercenaries to give massages and a steam mephit to power the sauna. There's a bariaur who will taste-test poisons and potions, and is so enthusiastic about drinking anything put in front of him that he almost went to jail for quaffing an elixir of madness. A foppish demon, a foppish exiled titan, and a foppish shapeshifting ogre mage are all competing for control of the city's criminal underworld (fashion is apparently very important for would-be power brokers). This is a book that feels as diverse as Sigil is supposed to be.

And this is normally where I'd interject a caveat about Planescape's muddled themes, but honestly I think this book is as close as the line has gotten to ever getting it right. It's a bit enamored of the idea of celestial arms dealers trying to prolong the Blood War and the irony of a demon who wants to make peace, so as to better serve the cause of evil, but the actual characters involved are pretty interesting, so there's some appealing noir potential on top of the misguided 90s broad-mindedness. 

It also takes for granted that "the Clueless" is a meaningful category that players are going to understand and care about. There's a populist who spews "anti-Clueless" rhetoric and the aforementioned Prime scholar who is constantly seeking interviews with the Clueless. And at no point does it seem aware that it is taking about the vast majority of living mortals, and a huge part of Sigil's economy.

But like I said, these concerns are smaller here than they are elsewhere. Uncaged: Faces of Sigil is just a series of 41 bits of short fiction about the setting that includes forgettable NPC stats as a thin excuse to call it an rpg suplement. And that's great. Like most AD&D books, the weakest part is the stuff that is specifically and characteristically AD&D, and here the bulk of that weakness is helpfully separated out into easily skimmable sidebars (seriously, it's difficult to overstate how inessential these stat blocs are - Estavan, the Ogre Mage crime lord, uses almost exactly the same stats as a generic Ogre Mage, except that Estavan's stats correctly apply the ogre's strength modifiers to attack and damage, and incorporate the effects of a +2 weapon that most generic ogres don't possess).

Which brings us, finally, to the metaplot. This book does something that is a little goofy, but a lot helpful by giving us an appendix that summarizes the big plots and includes relationship diagrams so we know which of the various NPCs are involved (although, the charts themselves are little more than character names connected by inexplicable arrows that add virtually no new information).

At least one of these named plotlines ("The Blood War Plot") dovetails cleanly with a book I've already read (Hellbound: the Blood War) and most of the others sound like they could similarly anchor adventures. The one that intrigued me the most was "The Dead Gods Plot." Whether this has anything to do with the adventure Dead Gods will have to remain a mystery until the market cools down and people stop trying to charge 200 dollars for it, but assuming it does, it will be the payoff to something that has been teased since the original boxed set - the fate of Aoskar, the God of Portals.

So, Planescape has this weird thing with the Lady of Pain. She's the mascot of the whole line, but she's also pretty terrible in a lot of ways (anything that touches her shadow is cut, as if by razor blades, and this is not merely something that she is callously indifferent towards, but which she actively uses to hurt people who annoy her, such as the worshipers who gathered in the b-plot of Harbinger House), but also she's presented as this cool, confident, in control sort of horror. She decided there should be 15 factions in the city. She keeps the gods at bay, preventing them from taking control of Sigil. Sigil's portals open and close only with her consent.

It's a weird tension where this character is both awful and untouchable and it can sometimes get uncomfortable, like in The Factol's Manifesto, where it's flat-out stated that the Lady killed hundreds of thousands of people following the Great Upheaval. I like Aoskar because he feels like a counterbalance to this. There was a time when Sigil had an alternative, which means that it might have one again in the future. They don't have to be ruled by this murderous tyrant forever.

The one thing I'd change about this canon, though, is the implication that Aoskar attempted a rebellion and failed. That sort of implies that the Lady of Pain is an unalienable part of the city. My preferred alternative is that he was the power that she defeated to gain control of Sigil. Maybe Aoskar was the first, maybe he wasn't, but at least that way, there's something else the city can be.

Overall, I'd say that Uncaged: Faces of Sigil is one of the essential Planescape supplements. It's a much needed-companion to In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil and The Factol's Manifesto, and together, the three books actually do an amazing job of bringing the city to life (though their synergy does raise questions about their completeness as separate volumes). A lot of times, Planescape's worldbuilding can feel overly beholden to the extended AD&D canon, but Sigil is a standout exception. It's the one truly original thing in the setting, and the benefits of that care are fully on display in this book.

Ukss Contribution: So many options. The temptation to make the Fat Candle vanilla is almost overwhelming, but I don't have the audacity to pull it off. I think I'll go with Arcanaloths, the dapper, magic-using lawyer-demons who look like anthropomorphic canines. There are two major arcanaloth characters in this book, and they're both pretty great in their own way (the friendly, but vaguely sinister shopkeep and the vain, well-connected power broker). It'll be good to add cultural depth to my existing werewolves by giving them a more scholarly community.