Monday, February 28, 2022

(Scion 2e) Mythical Denizens

 I took a detour from my usual pattern in order to read a really short book and potentially get back on pace for my goal of reading 100 books in 2022. It was probably misguided, because I still have to read and post about another full book by the end of the day to get up to 16 books in 2 months, but nonetheless, I'm glad I made the decision because Mythical Denizens is pretty delightful.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the book's habit of presenting its creatures as specific individuals and then breaking down their entire life story. Like, when an ogre is terrorizing the town, do I really care about its fraught relationship with its parents (this is no exaggeration - one of the monsters here is Grendel's sister)? The M20 book Gods and Monsters did the same thing, though, so I'm guessing it's just Onyx Path's signature style for its Monster Manuals.

I think, on the balance, I like it, because it allows a simple supplement such as this one to double as a setting book and an adventure book. We learn some interesting new tidbits about Scion 2nd Edition's World, like the "Icelandic legal tradition of making sure no civil engineering project disturbs the dwelling-places of the elves" or the fact that the USA kidnapped a bunch of centaurs to basically enslave them (they were compared to Chinese railroad workers) and actually included them in their imperialist wars against the Native Americans in the late 19th century. Also, the World has a lot of paranormal reality shows, and they're kind of a joke, even though their versions of Ghost Hunters ("Nekro-Filez" or "Spirit Stalk") are in constant danger of finding real ghosts (the cast of both shows meet a grisly end at the hands of a haugbui and the nuckelavee, respectively).

We might be treading real close to the central tension of Scion, 2nd Edition though. In this supplement, the World feels more like a living world than it ever has, but the reason the World has so far felt so vague was laid out in the 2nd edition Hero book: 

Several themes run through Scion. One is intentional choice: Purposeful, thoughtful creative decisions both enrich roleplay and reduce offense. Another is prioritizing out-of-character comfort and safety over in-character concerns: Your right not to experience discrimination supersedes my right to align the game with my personal creative preferences.
And it's an editorial choice I respect, but much as I predicted in my Scion: Hero, 2nd Edition post, it's not an ideal that can survive contact with a real table, because real tables require specifics. Case in point:

When the Teōtl made a grand fucking mess of their various Suns (until they finally got it “right,” the fifth time out), rather a lot of living things suffered for the sake of the Gods’ slapdash rough drafts.

Is this the sort of thoughtful, intentional cultural sensitivity that prioritizes out-of-character comfort and safety? I mean, maybe it's okay. I couldn't find any evidence that the Aztec religion still has contemporary followers, and even if it did, maybe describing the creation of the world as "a grand fucking mess" is an uncontroversial opinion. But it certainly feels like a roast.

The thing is, roasting the gods for the . . . colorful parts of their myths is absolutely something that makes the World feel more real. If Jesus walked down the street today, you just know someone would heckle him about the fig tree. However, in context, it feels careless, as if the author forgot they weren't supposed to editorialize.

That's the conflict that is always threatening to tear Scion apart - the fact that sometimes this stuff is silly and awesome and fun to play with . . . and sometimes it's sacred. I have to assume that Onyx Path did their research and felt comfortable with their representation, but I've also heard that the wendigo doesn't really belong in cheesy western horror stories. The Wendigo here seems to me to be respectfully treated and not just a generic movie monster, but also, one of the suggested Story Hooks has the PCs filming a reality TV special where they track down a guy who may have been turned into one.

The core book leaned pretty hard on the "this stuff is sacred, be careful" side of the dilemma, but this book is pretty firmly on the "divine-themed superheroes" part of the divide. There's even an archeologist who find a magic amulet and turns into a vigilante crimefighter with super-soldier abilities, and the pulp isn't even subtext. One of her Story Hooks involves her founding "some manner of divinely powered crime-fighting team."

And look, I'd read that comic. Mythical Denizens is my favorite Scion 2e book so far precisely because it feels so playful, but yeah, it's a change.

Ukss Contribution: One of the Story Hooks suggests that a biotech company captures the nuckelavee and develops a toxin refined from the creature's excretions that is a super effective pesticide. These kind of stories, where industrial evil tries to control fantasy evil, for the glory of capitalism, always intrigue me.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

(Earthdawn 2e) The Way of War: Makers of Legend, Volume 1

I was worried before I started that The Way of War was just going to be a dismembered reprint of 1st edition's The Adept's Way.  Luckily, it wasn't. It was just a follow-up volume presenting very similar subject matter in a very similar style. That's awkward, because it's good (for people like me, who own very nearly every Earthdawn book) that this new book is not redundant with the old, but problematic (for the hypothetical people who started Earthdawn with second edition) that it often seems to be riffing on a conversation whose first half is missing.

The bad part isn't too bad, though, because The Adept's Way was largely setting flavor, and so this additional, non-contradictory setting flavor can simply act as an alternate starting point. We can figure out the difference between Gallant swordsmen and Bladesman swordsmen from context . . . probably. 

So now that we've established that the book has a reason to exist (you're welcome, everybody), how is the actual content itself?

I'd say it's good, even if the book itself is a bit of a workhorse. I'm probably not the right person to ask, because The Way of War focuses on the combat-oriented Disciplines, and that's the part of tabletop roleplaying that I'm most ambivalent about. On the one hand, it's usually at the heart of a game's spectacle - and I'm a sucker for spectacle. On the other hand, the very process of getting in to combat usually involves someone (either a PC or an NPC) acting like a total jerk, and the consequence for doing it poorly is that a player might lose their character. Thus there's a temptation for me to dismiss this book as being about "people who hit stuff good."

But some of these guys are jumping out of airships and going berserk on whoever's near the landing zone. Some of them are swashbuckling fencers who taunt their enemies with cutting wit. Some of them are blind archers who use their attunement to the astral plane to target their arrows without sight. There is plenty of spectacle to be had.

I guess my final verdict is that I'm glad I read it, but I kind of wish that Earthdawn as a whole was more dialed in to the high ranges of the power curve. Even high level abilities are pretty subtle, and it's unclear, without analyzing the math, exactly how much of a strategic asset a powerful adept is supposed to be (eyeballing it, I want to say one 15th Circle Warrior is worth about 50 non-adept soldiers, but that may just be because I don't know the broken builds). The implication of both this book and the original The Adept's Way is that your PCs are not too terribly unusual in the context of the world, and that ultimately means that they are probably still operating on an individual scale, even if they reach the top level of advancement (normal caveats about spellcaster shenanigans would apply, but there aren't any spellcasters in this particular book). Let's just call it a mystery for later books to clear up.

I'm now looking through my notes for random comments to pad out the post length, but honestly, most of them are just individual things that I liked - griffin cavalry, windlings (faeries, basically) that ride hawks, a staff with a built-in flute that whistles as you swing it, the "Hard Glare" Talent Knack that lets you intimidate inanimate objects by staring at them so hard they break - there's a lot of fun stuff here, but not much that needs a ton of commentary.

We do get an entirely new Discipline, and with it some hints at a never-before-seen land outside of Barsaive. "Cathay" has been name-dropped a few times before this, and I know by reputation that it's going to be the subject of a problematic 3rd edition book, but this is the first time we see it in action. We're introduced to the Zhan Shi, one of Cathay's signature Disciplines, and they're more or less D&D Monks. Highly spiritual people who develop their bodies and minds to be able to fight unarmed. 

I'd be lying if I said I had any great problem with its inclusion here, because the Monk has always been one of my favorite D&D classes, but it does hit a lot of the tropes. They're presented in a very mystical way that reads like an idealistic, but shallow understanding of East Asian religion, and it's entirely unclear why they couldn't just be Warriors. The one wrinkle is that the narrator here is someone who traveled to Cathay and then brought the Discipline to Barsaive and she's called-out, in-setting, for at least some of her Orientalism. Her section ends with comments from a couple of her readers remind us that many Zhan Shi do not live up to the narrator's high ideals.

I think the Discipline as a whole winds up feeling pretty unnecessary because it doesn't go nearly as far as the Ork Liberator Discipline in making unarmed combat viable, and it doesn't bring enough other powers to the table, soon enough, to give it a fun secondary niche (my favorite part of the D&D Monk, for example, is their traversal powers). 

It also wasn't a cultural or thematic gap that needed to be filled. I guess its presence makes Earthdawn a bit more like the D&D 3rd edition core, which had just recently been released, but I'd be shocked if that were an actual contemporary concern.

Finally, I looked it up, and "Zhan Shi" does appear to be a real Chinese word, so that's something, but I have no idea what it might refer to. I suspect that this might be a romanization issue. My first google translate gave me a result of "exhibit," which didn't make sense, but that's actually "Zhǎnshì". On a hunch, I reversed the translation and typed "warrior" into the English box and got "Zhànshì," and I'm guessing that's what they were going for. However, it leads to a very weird polyglot sentence early in the chapter: "the Zhan Shi is similar to the Warrior." 

"The [Warrior] is similar to the Warrior." You don't say? I'm starting to have some theories about why the Cathay book has such a reputation for being a hot mess.

Ukss Contribution: I'm trying really hard to figure out how "staring at objects until they're so intimidated they break" can be a setting element instead of a system element, but I'm coming up short. Let's go with Windling Hawk Riders instead.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

(Planescape) The Great Modron March

 What makes an adventure "philosophical?" I ask because that's the yardstick by which The Great Modron March chooses to measure itself. This is not a campaign that centers around "slaughtering monsters or crawling through dungeons. . . Fact is, top shelf planeswalking adventurers are those bloods who can think or talk their way out of a situation as well as fight their way out."

But what does this more thoughtful style of adventuring look like in practice? Mostly it seems to involve never being able to persuade anyone of anything. Preemptively impossible social challenges were so common in this book that I started keeping track. There's an almost escalating absurdity to it. The second-to-last adventure has a paladin visit the PCs, to tell them about an attack his order is launching against the villain of one of the earlier adventures, and "if the PCs insist on accompanying him, [he] puts his mailed boot down and tells them that there's no need for them to come . . . He does everything he can to dissuade the PCs from coming with him, short of physically restraining them."

It's sooo weird. "Here's a thrilling planar adventure that the PCs are going to have a personal stake in, but they are not allowed to come along. The friendly NPC was just letting them know about as a professional courtesy." Of course, it's all to set up the paladin's untimely death in the failed attack and thereby give the PCs a double personal stake in taking out these complete assholes, but I think if you ran it by the book, the players would be completely justified in thinking the DM was jerking them around.

This sense of being constantly thwarted is The Great Modron March's greatest weakness. One adventure has you redirected on a simple fetch quest something like a dozen times:

0. Your employer has been poisoned and only a Beastlands nymph knows the cure.

1. Except that the nymph is losing her powers and memory because her lake is being polluted by modrons wading through the river upstream. So you have to persuade them to leave the water.

2. Except they can't leave the water, because they have a treaty with the Beastlands that forbids them from harming or displacing any animal, so they're stuck in the river unless you can persuade a nearby pack of dogs to move.

3. Except the dogs don't want to move because they're tired of the modrons' bullshit, and maybe you should talk to the druids who lined the opposite bank with impassible thorns.

4. Except the druids are cleaning up some more pollution on the opposite bank and the last thing they need is for the modrons to come along and make it worse. Maybe you should backtrack and find out why they got in the river in the first place.

5. Except when you find the wemics who drove the modrons up-river, they tell you that they were doing it at the request of an elf prince and they'd need his permission to stand aside.

6. Except the elf says that the modrons were headed straight for his town because they were blown off course by a mortai (godlike sentient cloud) and such creatures are too powerful and mysterious to gainsay. He'd of course be willing to compromise if he could get the mortai's permission to return them to their original course.

7. Except the reason the mortai changed their course in the first place was to protect a water nymph sage . . .


But it's not over.

8. And then you go back to the nymph to get a token of her permission to divert the modron. 

9.And then you go back to the mortai with the nymph's token, so you can get the mortai's token to take to the elves.

10. And then you go back to the elves, to get the prince's token to take to the wemic.

11. And then you go back to the wemics to tell them it's okay.

12. And then you go to the modrons to tell them the coast is clear.

13. And then you return to the nymph to get the cure for the poison.

Thus achieving your original goal. At no point anywhere in this chain is anyone open to persuasion by the PCs. You can't even shortcut the last few steps of returning back to half the people you've already talked to. Every step is vital.

In a way, this is just bad adventure design. If you encountered this in a video game, it would be the sidequest you complained about for the rest of your life. However, it's also plausibly thematic. The modrons are machine-like in their relentless march across the plains, turning aside only for their ancient treaty obligations or the physical impossibility of the route and not for anything as petty as "personal safety" or "there being an occupied orphanage in the way" (the book suggests that a PC-coordinated evacuation can only save 20 of 50 children and implies that even clever plans may still result in dozens of deaths) or even "walking straight into hell." And that seems weird and alien, except that nearly everyone you meet has similarly unshakeable convictions. There is a bit of that modron-nature inside all of us.

Maybe that's what "philosophical adventuring" means - that everywhere you turn you're going to run straight into the brick walls of people's foundational philosophies. That's why your "old friend" won't let you leave the town of Sylvania before you get your party on, why the paladin won't accept your help to defeat your common enemy, why captured modron "insists that its [escape] plan carries the highest chance of success and refuses to consider other options." Because when the stakes of the adventure are Truth itself, any admission of error is to essentially sacrifice the prize.

Or maybe the authors just approached the adventure path like they were storyboarding a tv series or outlining a novel, and thus it's entire agenda is getting the PCs into the right position at the right time.

We may never know.

Ukss Contribution: One of the adventures has the PCs arrested for a crime they didn't commit and given a sham trial ("nothing the PCs can say proves their innocence") and it's a frustrating scenario, but with an interesting twist - the judge in that case is a captured modron. It has not adapted well to being held captive in a chaotic evil town, and always convicts the accused and always pronounces a sentence of death (presumably because its nature is to always follow the law, and the local lawmakers have no interest in either acquittals or mercy), but I really like the idea of a judge also being a prisoner. The town needed a judge, so they enslaved the most qualified jurist they could find, and it sort of works better than the system they had before, even if it is a mockery of justice. It's a fascinating paradox, and I think I'll play it as straight as possible - a judge who is conscious of and resentful of his imprisonment, but who takes the law so seriously that they would never dream of undermining the court by slacking on the job. Of course, the laws of such a society would be cruel and corrupt, and so the correct application of said laws are what leads to injustices of the very sort that put the judge in chains . . .


Monday, February 21, 2022

(Earthdawn 2e) Scourge Unending

This one is difficult for me, because Scourge Unending is not a good book, but the individual parts of the book are better than good, maybe even great. It's not just a reprint of 1st edition's Horrors book, but there are large portions of the text that are just word-for-word identical, and yet, those sections don't actually give you enough information to use their associated Horrors. The fifteen Named Horrors from 1e return, but only the OOC sections that list their stats and suggested adventures. The short fiction that established their flavor is entirely missing. Intermixed with the old Horrors are about half a dozen new Horrors, and they do have in-character fiction to establish them as a presence in the world, but that fiction is in an entirely different chapter, and by the time we actually get to their stats, it's easy to forget which story went with which creature. 

The result is a book that can't entirely stand on its own, but is also partially redundant with its necessary companion volume. If you took the two books, spliced them together, removed the duplicate pages, and reorganized Scourge Unending's novel contributions, it would be without a doubt an all-time great monster book. But, realistically, who is going to do that?

The second half of the book, which covers Minor Horrors and Horror Constructs, is rock solid, though. It too reprints 1st edition material, but it does so in its entirety, and the new additions are largely of similar quality (though nothing is going to be quite as inspired as the Dread Iotans). Some of the new guys seem like their primary purpose is to troll the PCs (The Corpse Thief swallows dead bodies and runs away with them, to be delivered intact to a necromancer; the Wasteshadows have no damaging attacks, but sneak into your camp and spoil all your food), but I don't count that as a flaw. Low stakes encounters are, strangely enough, often the ones the PCs get most invested in.

Let's see, what else? I guess I was wrong when I speculated that the new, regrettable Twiceborn canon would never be seen again. However, it's repeated here almost verbatim from Barsaive in Chaos, so I'm just going to act like my stubborn refusal to acknowledge it is merely a single act of willful ignorance.

I did get the feeling that the Horrors are meant to be more of a front-and-center antagonist in 2nd edition. Early Earthdawn books gave the impression that they were a fading threat and that the main antagonists would be your fellow survivors. This book has people speculating that the strange stabilization of Earth's magic level will lead to a second Scourge and that the Horrors might be getting more powerful over time. Neden, king of Throal, has recently recovered from a Horror Mark (a plot also introduced in Barsaive In Chaos), and that's implied to be behind his rash and disastrous decision to attack Thera.

I wish I could say with certainty that this was a case of the new team needlessly simplifying a complex characterization, and not them advancing a hidden plot point they inherited from FASA, but since the licensing deal apparently came with at least two full books of unpublished material, I don't have a lot of confidence one way or another. That said, the conflicts in 2nd edition are feeling a bit starker and less fraught than in 1st edition. I kind of wish Neden's 2nd edition canon was exploring the gay subtext of his relationship with Rozko the Unruly ("he realizes that the state depends on him finding a wife [but]. . . given a choice, Neden would much rather spend time with his childhood friend and fellow navy commander . . .").

(Note: I'm not normally one to indulge in "these two men are close friends, so they must be secretly gay," but when the relationship is brought up in a paragraph that is otherwise about the young man's inability to secure an heir to the throne, that makes me go hmm.)

Sadly, Rozko is nowhere to be seen, except as a bland entry on the "Table of Throal Characters" in Barsaive in Chaos, so our (probable) last view of Neden is as a man trying to be a Good King, but haunted by his close encounter with Pure Evil. It's not a bad idea for an NPC that's likely to wind up the PCs patron (he founded the Hunters of Throal, which gets a whole organizational writeup at the end of this book), but it's a bit more on the nose than I've come to expect from Earthdawn as a whole.

Ukss Contribution:  I'm going to go with one of the new Horrors, and it's not even a pity-like. The Horror Cauthrunne is sometimes a giant, troll-sized crow and sometimes a sexy elf dressed in black, and her deal is that she flies around battlefields, singles out a mortally wounded soldier, and gives them supercharged combat abilities so that they'll go forth and make more carrion. As a Horror, she's creating misery for misery's sake, but I like the idea of a magical carrion bird with a pro-carrion philosophy, so I'll probably adapt her into a deadly trickster figure who is only as bad as she is because of the depths of human cruelty.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

(Planescape) Doors to the Unknown

 The only problem with this adventure is that there's too much hype. It's a perfectly serviceable story . . . for Oerth, but I get the feeling that when you set it in Sigil, when you involve Aoskar, the dead god of Portals and the Lady of Pain's only true rival for control over the nexus of all realities, and when you establish a millenarian backdrop to the events in question, then you're kind of obligated to make the story something that can break through even the Cage's jaded exterior.

The premise goes off the rails almost immediately. See, there are these four magical doors that appear for only a brief period every five hundred years. And already, you know that what is behind those doors is a Big Fucking Deal. But Sigil is full of magical doors that are constantly appearing and disappearing, and many of those lead to things that would be a Big Fucking Deal anywhere else in the multiverse. Sigil has a backdoor straight into heaven. That's the level of BFD that we've got as our baseline here.

Now, let me spoil the very end of the adventure, what happens if you fail and the body-stealing villain gets away. "In Sigil, Lathuraz turns the Society of the Locked Door into a true army and leaves before the Lady of Pain notices his presence."

The other thing we know about the doors is that they are terribly mysterious. Only a few people know the keys, and many have died trying to discover them. One involves jumping down a pit with Aoskar's holy symbol (it doesn't work if you lower yourself by a rope). Another involves walking into the open mouth of a creature that will eat you if you don't have the right key. The other two are not as thrilling, but still implied to be secrets worth killing for (you can only open the fourth door by piecing together its passcode from messages scrawled behind the other three doors).

And the reason these doors are so hard to open is that they lead to "corners of the multiverse [that] aren't just unknown, they're impossible to reach by any other means." Take a moment to remember some of the weird places we've seen so far while reading these book (forests where the trees are half-snake, an infinite clock with continent-sized gears, a village on a floating orb that is really just one giant mimic) . . . and then prepare to lower your expectations dramatically. 

Finally, it's just cruel to make our introduction to this mystery be the last prophet of Aoskar, who hurls himself into a pit to escape the Lady of Pain's wrath, presumably at the guidance of his dead god, because the pit is actually the second of the Four Doors (always capitalized) thereby implying that whatever mystery is behind these portals must have something to do with the murky and sinister origins of the current regime.

What I'm saying here is that it's a great setup for a mini-campaign, but the hype level is dangerously high, even before we finish the prologue.

Living up to that hype was always going to be a tall order, but Doors to the Unknown whiffs it almost instantly.  The first two destinations are only trivially unique. Acheron's junkyard layer, where weapons from every reality lay decaying in giant heaps - that's somewhere PCs can definitely go. It has come up. And the deepest layer of Pandemonium, where the caverns close off into sealed chambers that entomb those things the gods wish forgotten - well, it hasn't shown up yet, but when Planes of Chaos described that area, it certainly implied that PCs might want to go there.

So really, when we talk about places that are "impossible to reach by any other means," we're really saying there's no other path to this specific corner of the infinite junkyard or to that specific prisoner among all the other forgotten vaults of Pandemonium. And look, they're fine for a group of level 2-4 (recommended range for the first chapter) or level 4-6 (recommended for the second chapter) characters, but there's no reason to think that they were particularly interesting to the God of Portals, going back however many thousands of years ago this thing started.

The last two doors are a little closer to what the adventure calls for, but each has their own problems. The third door leads to a prime world where high technology reigns and magic is impossible, which is distinctive enough for the whole 500 year cycle, but it's ruled by a Modron and has been socially and scientifically static for several cycles. It's only really daring in the outline. It poses no threat to the setting and no temptation to the PCs. Any of their devices will break 1-4 days after leaving the plane.

The final door is potentially the most promising. It leads to a "higher reality." That's what started the whole plot in motion. A thousand years ago, a pair of perfectly ordinary brothers emerged from the door and discovered a world where everything was like a dim shadow of existence. Their greater reality offered them incredible power over the new world, and one of the brothers went on an unstoppable spree of conquest, until the other brother risked his own life to stop him. Both wound up sealed away at the end of the last cycle, but now the evil brother wants to return to "hyper reality" to recharge his powers and the good brother is so seriously wounded that all he can do is direct the PCs to the three artifacts that are spread through the first three doors that will allow them a chance for victory in the fourth.

You may recognize the evil brother as Lathuraz, the guy who runs away from the Lady of Pain if the PCs fail.

A big problem is that the book gives us concrete stats for these Mercurials, and they are not nearly beefy enough to be that much of a threat. They've got 14 hit dice, 0 AC, 20% magic resistance, and their most damaging attack does 1d12+ 2 damage (save for half). The text spends time building them up as this great threat, but a Solar Aasimon will eat one alive. It's hugely intimidating when we learn that our weapons aren't real enough to do them harm. We're like shadows to them, and no threat to them at all. Then, you read the stat block and it says that "enchanted weapons deal only temporary damage" and that's not the same thing at all as being notionally invincible. A +1 weapon can't kill him, but it can knock him into insensibility as many times as it takes. 

Plus, their greatest power - the ability to cast Wish once per turn, is exactly backwards. It only works in hyper-reality, when in fact it should work everywhere but. The Mercurials are so real that even their dreams seem real to us. The way I'd handle it is to give them commoner stats in hyper reality and the invincibility and reality warping powers in ordinary reality.

Also, I'd just skip the bit where they can vomit up their internal organs and shove them in another body, hollowing it out from the inside and driving their skin and bones around like a mech. That's just gross and unnecessary.

Oh, yeah, and the homeland of these Mercurials? It's an isolated region of Mount Celestia. Because AD&D is allergic to mystery.

The most frustrating thing about Doors to the Unknown is that it's actually a good adventure . . . for literally every fantasy setting except Planescape. Mysterious doors appearing every five hundred years ago is the sort of plot that demands an out of context problem, but Sigil, by its very nature, exists in every context, so the only authentic way to approach these events is to be destructively jaded, and the adventure simply isn't robust enough to withstand that level of irony.

I can think of a few ways to fix Doors to the Unknown, but they'd involve hacking it into unrecognizability. Maybe take this whole "reality levels" business to heart and have each of the doors lead to an alternate Sigil that exists at a particular reality level. At the very least, what this adventure absolutely needs is a detour where the PCs visit a lower reality, where they have invincibility and wishing powers, so that they may be tempted to try the same sort of imperialist tourism as Lathuraz (and incidentally get a fresh perspective on how utterly difficult he's going to be to stop anywhere but his home plane).  From there, there are a lot of ways you could go with it, but you'd definitely need to get past any hang-ups you might have about adversarial DMing or game balance, because if something is only showing up once every 500 years, it's because it would wreck the world if it stayed the rest of the time.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked the Cortelestials, giant creatures who have portals in their mouths and if you walk in, maybe you go to another world or maybe you get eaten. The one that shows up here is explicitly not unique, but it doesn't say where it goes the rest of the time. Ukss very pointedly does not have alternate realities, but I think they may work just as well if their gates are merely interplanetary.

Friday, February 18, 2022

(Earthdawn 2e)Barsaive in Chaos

 How much leeway should I give to a book that's mostly okay, save for one terrible betrayal? I can just decanonize the part I don't like, right? The book says it's going to be canon for all the Earthdawn products going forward, but I happen to know, thanks to it being twenty years after the fact, that Living Room Games only made three more books after this, and thus it's unlikely to even come up. So, really, on the scale of grognardish refusal to accept new lore, it's actually pretty mild for me to bury my head in the sand and pretend that Barsaive in Chaos never said, "Twiceborn is a puppet for a group of Horrors known as the Gharmheks (see the Parlainth Box Set, p.76) The Gharmeks control her every decision, action, and impulse."

It was, perhaps, a little petty of me to go back to the Parlainth Box Set to check the reference and make note that rather than being terrible creatures who fed of anguish and fear, they were the pathetic bottom-feeders of the Horror world, who create cadaver men to feed off "revulsion and disgust," and that they exchanged their powers for Twiceborn's protection. Far from being shadowy masterminds, they were scatological doofuses who "display an unpleasant preoccupation with decomposition and other biological processes usually avoided in polite society."

I'm not sure what motivated their promotion to sinister puppetmasters, but fortunately, that whole plot is really easy to ignore, even in its chapter of origin. Twiceborn's write-up says, "If a sentence says 'Twiceborn does something,' what it really means is that 'The Gharmheks command Twiceborn to do something,'" but that one little disclaimer is all we see of that dynamic. Most of Twiceborn's actions and motives are attributed to Twicesborn herself. The terrible character assassination of a writeup is forgotten almost immediately. ("Twiceborn has lived for lifetimes, growing more cunning with each passing decade. . ." don't you mean, "With each passing decade, the Gharmheks have commanded Twiceborn to become more cunning.")

I probably shouldn't invest so much ire into such a small thing, but Twiceborn's kingdom really stood out to me as representative of Earthdawn's best quality - its habit of bringing humanistic nuance to its fantasy inventions. Twiceborn's kingdom was dangerous, to be sure. They'd absolutely turn you into an undead creature without your consent. But they weren't monsters. They generally wouldn't kill you unless you did something to provoke them. Hell, there's a whole 1st edition adventure that revolves around them interacting peacefully with the town of Haven and having a legal due process to handle a guy wagering his life (and eventual undead-ification) on a game of cards.

I wouldn't say that "The March of the Undead" chapter is entirely without merit, but it's jarring to move from a nuanced characterization to a much more conventional fantasy presentation. The chapter opens with Parlainth's Kingdom of the Cadaver Men peacefully migrating across Barsaive to settle in the ruins of Vivane, (for reasons that are never adequately explained) and along the way King Neden dispatches Throal's airship fleet to slaughter them, and this perked me up. "Oh, the cadaver men have been established as essentially a Name-Giver society, so this is setting up something poignant about the human capacity for cruelty." But then, Vivane's Horror Cloud moves in to stop the attack and the real theme seems to be "Horrors gotta stick together."

There's a really strong campaign in that chapter - the conflict between an undead kingdom that can peacefully coexist with the living and one that can't, and the difficulty the living have in knowing who (and how) to trust, but it's framed nonsensically. My first note, upon hearing about Twiceborn abandoning an established kingdom for a new and uncertain one all the way across Barsaive was, "maybe they don't need infrastructure." 

I think the way to make the scenario work is to kill off the Gharmheks. According the the Parlainth Box Set - they were either Twiceborn's subdued captives, obeying her orders under threat of death, or they were pretending to be under her thumb to fool the masses (because they feared being slain by would-be heroes) and had a mercenary relationship with the Queen. Either way, they were in a precarious position and bought their lives by being indispensable to the kingdom's reproductive processes. If they were to be slain, say by a group of 6-8 Adepts, then the demographic doom of Twiceborn's kingdom would be inevitable. It may not be immediate, but it would be a disaster great enough to warrant uprooting the entire nation and marching it hundreds of miles across hostile territory to start again from scratch. Then you still get the great undead civil war stuff, but the battle lines are between a faction that wants to use the Horrors as a tool for survival and one that wants to use them as a vehicle for revenge.

Anyway, that's one chapter down (and really, only like, two paragraphs of that chapter), so what about the other five? They're mostly okay. I prefer the ones that are more like campaign setups ("The Horror Stalker Crusade" and "To Strain Against the Shackles") to the ones that focus on specific events ("The Death of a Denairastas" and "There Must Be Chaos,") but they're all much better than previous metaplot books about leaving room for the PCs. The stories have canon endings, but there isn't the same emphasis on insuring the canon ending. As a GM, you can take your thumb off the scales and let them just play out. I think the book has largely stumbled on the formula - have the setting-defining stuff happen off-screen and then have the PCs adventure in the aftermath. They can still have a major effect (up to and including the life and death of major NPCs like King Neden of Throal), but there's much less danger of PCs missing out on the interesting stuff by being too effective (which I suspect is the main motive for all the most railroady GM advice in previous volumes).

Overall, I'd say this is a pretty decent book. Ironically, my favorite chapter was also the one I complained most about, but that may just be a personal pattern I should look into. It will probably require more work from the GM than previous Earthdawn adventures, but it makes up for it by giving GMs more scope to work with. 

Ukss Contribution: I really like the Dust Men. They're a form of undead obsidimen (semi-organic rock people) who died by pulverization. It's just a neat concept that this species with an unusual biology also has a unique enough way to die that they merit a special category of ghost. They also have a cool signature move where the animate pile of dust can cling to the exterior of a victim and move them around like a puppet. I may have to stretch a little to adapt the imagery (or perhaps just add obsidimen as a 2-for-1 deal), but I think they'd make a great encounter.

Friday, February 11, 2022

(Planescape)The Deva Spark

 Ooh, a short one. Only 32 pages. It's a complete adventure, but it feels rushed. A lot of stuff happens in the first encounter and the PCs have a narrow window to get on board with it. The result is something that, if it works, it'll work, but if it doesn't, the players are going to bounce right off it, and the only way to know which scenario is going to happen is just to jump right in and try it.

Backstory time - there's this monadic deva (an angel, basically) who was assigned the task of infiltrating the Abyss and spying on one of the demons there. But he has a problem, his angelic light is so obvious that he'll be spotted instantly. His solution? Remove the part of himself that gives him his angelic powers (the titular "deva spark") and stash it in some worthy soul until he finishes his mission. So he pops over to the Prime Material plane and finds some rando who looks like he's doing a good deed - saving a young girl from a burning building. But it turns out that the guy was really the one who started the fire in the first place, and though he lacks the vocabulary to describe the sudden burst of power he got from the deva spark, he does know that he's going to use it to do a whole bunch more arson. Then he promptly dies, shot by the homeowner whose house he burned down. His soul, along with the attached deva spark, goes straight to the Abyss.

This is where the PCs come in. Sort of. There's still more, but the start of the adventure overlaps the end of the backstory. The PCs are in a Sigil bar (you can tell because there is an aasimon and a tanar'ri having a drink together), when their sexist stereotype of a waitress ("generally being a nuisance - in a cute and ditzy kind of way") gives them the wrong change. One of their coins turns out to be a gate key. 

A slight digression - the DM's notes for this exchange are wild. "Among the coins is an electrum ingot with strange markings on one face - a crude infinity symbol pierced by an arrow pointing down. The other face is blank. . . The nature of the coin shouldn't even be hinted at by the DM. Don't point out its strange appearance. Don't single it out as an item of interest. Just let the PCs pocket their change and be on their way."

With this strange coin in their possession, the PCs carelessly walk through a portal, finding themselves on the Abyss!

In another tavern. And who else should be there but the disguised deva. It is at this point that the soul of the dead arsonist barges in. He's being chased by a demon! The deva recognizes his spark and tries to fight off the demon, but is mortally wounded by creature's poison (because the bulk of his power is inside this random dude). The demon eats the damned soul, deva spark and all, and the backstory officially ends with it fleeing into the darkness.

Now, if you're like me, all of the above inspired three wrong guesses about what this adventure was going to be about. It is not going to be about stopping an angelically-powered super arsonist. It is not going to be about  scouring the Abyss for this one specific soul. And most surprisingly of all, it is not going to be about tracking down this demon and slaying it to recover the spark.

It's actually all an elaborate setup for the convoluted moral dilemma in the final encounter. The deva can be healed if it is reunited with its spark, but he insists you escort him back to Elysium so he can report his espionage info to his boss. Luckily for him, the demon is gradually being corrupted by the spark, becoming a creature of good (this manifests by the demon killing random people and then feeling guilty about it), and it heads to Elysium on its own initiative to attempt to understand its bizarre transformation.

Yada, yada, yada, after you and the deva and the demon all team up, the sages of Elysium tell you that you must seek the three plot coupons and take them to the heart of the allegorical forest, wherein you will be presented with the power to determine the fate of the deva spark - leave it with the demon, who is now "good" and let the deva die; give it back to the deva, "killing the good creature the demon would become;" splitting the spark in half, so that each of the recipients becomes a diminished version of its full potential; or merging the two celestials into an entirely new being (i.e. the decision the adventure has been unsubtly telling you is correct).

It's not as railroady as it appears, because there are a lot of failure points along the way and the adventure is generally willing to let those failures play out (although some of the choices are pretty inexplicable - like what happens if you attack the angels in order to protect the demon, instead of just explaining the situation). I guess if I were to characterize it, I'd say it's a high-wire act of persuading the PCs to care just the right amount. If, at any point in the adventure, they get a strong idea about the importance of any particular goal, that is going to wildly change how they approach the adventure's obstacles and the story will quickly veer off the map. Similarly, they are not getting paid for this and none of the events or characters have anything to do with them specifically, so it's both tempting and easy for them to walk away at literally any point in the adventure.

So, I don't know. I guess I have to give Deva Spark points for trying something original, even if its dilemma is extremely weird ("the demon grew an organ that lets it feel guilt, so now it deserves to live"). I don't think it will actually work in practice, but it couldn't hurt to give it a try.

Ukss Contribution: Honestly, I think the first implied adventure, with the angelically-supercharged arsonist, would probably be a better adventure. And even though the opening fiction stated that he saved the girl more or less by accident, I think a guy who starts fires specifically so he can get the godlike rush of "saving lives" would be a damned interesting villain.

So that's what I'm going with. A god-ridden arsonist who starts fires to set himself up as a hero.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

(Earthdawn 1e LRG)Path of Deception

 I guess it was bound to happen one day. Read enough books and sooner or later, one is going to be perfectly average. Your players will almost certainly enjoy it, but it's unlikely that it's going to be a memorable episode that they're going to talk about for years to come. It's very linear, but given the straightforward goal, you'd have to be a really heavy-handed GM for it to come across as a railroad. It's so easy to run straight out of the box that it's a shame it's not an introductory adventure.

Brief plot summary - A callow young swordswoman inherits the family business. She does all right as a bureaucrat, but she prefers adventure! So she hands temporary control over to her younger brother and goes to "negotiate a trade deal" by joining up with an adventuring party set to explore the ruins of Parlainth. The party gets in over its head and gets captured by the cult of the Mad Passion Vestrial. The brother hires you to find the sister. You retrace her steps and then, if you manage to get there in time, you discover the shocking twist - one of the company's investors decided he'd rather have the brother in charge, so he bribed a member of the adventuring party to assassinate the sister. But the bond of facing common foes was so strong that the assassin backed out and thus the traitor decides to cover his tracks by having a bunch of mercenaries ambush you after you complete the rescue (but before you get back to town).

Along the way, you navigate through the ruined city of Parlainth, fighting monsters and slavers, solving riddles and disarming traps, and seeing more than your fair share of carefully described furniture.  There are also investigative bits in the frontier town of Haven, where you work over the locals to narrow your search, and those would be the parts most likely to feel like a railroad, but honestly, the adventure's plot is so simple that it's hard to imagine PCs even wanting to derail any of these scenes. The biggest risk here is them prematurely outing Belstraum as a traitor, but even then, he has so little presence as a character that it's unlikely the PCs will even notice him before the final twist.

I'd say it works to the story's detriment. The double-crosser isn't your employer, he doesn't come with you on the adventure, he isn't even the brother's main advisor. He just sort of hangs out with your employer's posse, biding his time until the end of the adventure. It's technically a dastardly betrayal when he hires those mercenaries, but it's probably going to come so far out of nowhere that it barely even registers.

The funny thing is that he's actually got a really weird an memorable motivation - he's not doing any of this out of greed or ambition, but rather because he's so bizarrely loyal to the company that he can't stand that the primary heir is less qualified (and interested) than the next person in line. His backstory states that he once ratted out his own father for "skimming a mere ten silver pieces off the profits from a deal that he had just closed."

That's the context you have to judge the assassination plot by. The brother isn't even in on it. In fact, he'd be horrified if he knew. There's just this creepy fanatic who decides to take matters into his own hands. If you really wanted to take this adventure to the next level, I think you'd have to find a way to make Belstraum more of a foil for the PCs in the investigative scenes. Maybe put him in charge of expenses or logistics, so that he's enough of a pain in the ass that the players start asking "what's up with this guy." Otherwise, I see no conceivable way the PCs are even going to care enough to find out the details of his backstory.

Don't get me wrong, the adventure works fine if you don't do this, but you're going to have to put in the work if you want it to be better than just "fine."

Two other weird things about this adventure. When you get to the temple of Vestrial, assuming you don't just kick down the door and barge right in, you can sneak around and get the drop on the cultists. To aid you in this, the book provides an hour-by-hour breakdown of the schedule of everyone in the temple. Right up to hour 20, when they decide to finally execute the sister, rendering your adventure pointless.

I'm not complaining. It actually gives the players a lot of agency in brainstorming their approach. But it's also 3 and a half pages of:

Hour 6

  • Garron is in the Magic Experimentation Room, testing new illusions on slaves and being assisted by Perri.
  • Mospatt is in the Torture Chamber, mixing poisons.
  • Ichabod is moving between the storage rooms, taking inventory.
  • Thule is in his room, sleeping.
  • Naria is in her room, sleeping.
  • Two Guard Zombies are outside of Thule's room.
  • Two Guard Zombies are outside The Magic Experimentation Room.
  • Seth is in the Writing Room, working on books.

I don't hate it, but it's a lot of work for a very narrow bit of utility ("we got to the dread temple where our employer's sister is being held captive . . . let's wait and see if a more opportune time to strike presents itself.")

The other weird thing about this adventure might actually count as a flaw, though. It's . . .  excessively clever when it comes to poisoning the PCs. The easiest poison to avoid is near the beginning of the dungeon-delving segment. Just outside the walls of Haven there's a merchant that will sell you discount healing potions (approximately 20% off), but the potions are really poison! The poison is unlikely to kill you, but you'll also be taking it when you're already pretty desperate. 

But, like I said, easy to avoid. Just look that particular gift horse right in the mouth. What's a bit tougher is a scene towards the end of the investigation sequence, when Mospatt (the cult's poisoner, as seen in the quoted schedule) decides to preemptively shut down your rescue by poisoning your wine glasses. Not the wine inside the glasses, mind you, but the glasses themselves, on the outside surfaces. Because when people cast detect poison spells, they usually target the food or drink. You get advance warning when the server collapses from handling too many doses in a short period of time (it's delayed action, but handling it 6 times in a row shortens the delay), but it's likely that this scene will largely be about getting the antidote in time.

I don't know if I could pull that off as a GM - "oh, no, you see, when you cast detect poison, you cast it at the liquid inside the glass and not the glass itself, and even though you didn't drink the wine, you did handle the glass before the server fell ill." But I will admit, it's a good trick for a fantasy murder mystery.

The poison makes a return when you raid the temple. You find Mospatt's stash of poisons, but you have to be careful, because the outside of the containers is poisoned in the exact same way. I figure that even the most argumentative PCs will agree that the second time is fair, though.

Overall, I liked this adventure. I generally like my games to be a little more high concept, but Path of Deception works. It's perfectly fine.

Ukss Contribution: Although, if you did want to go more high concept with it, you could do worse than Thule's specialty magic item - the Diorama of Shaping. It's a little model of the temple that he can play with to make large scale changes to the temple itself. Move a wall here, collapse a ceiling there. Its only weakness is that it takes a couple of minutes to work.

The Diorama of Shaping is a powerful and versatile artifact, because it can be moved and attuned to a new location, but I think I like it best as a fixed feature of magical architecture. It could be a real selling point for your next evil lair.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

(Planescape)On Hallowed Ground

It turns out one of my go-to Planescape jokes wasn't actually a joke at all. I would ask, rhetorically, if the reason we kept seeing all these Greek and Norse and Egyptian gods was because there were multiple Prime Material planes, each with their own Greece and Norway and Egypt? On Hallowed Ground confirmed that was the case.

Not only that, but it provided me with a concrete numerical estimate on how often it happens. According to the chapter on "The Reclusive Pantheons" (and we're just going to have to put a pin in that mess for now), the Chinese, Indian, and Japanese gods "exist across hundreds of crystal spheres" (ed note: solar systems). Now, this may seem like a very small amount - "oh, out of infinity worlds, there are hundreds of Chinas out there, okay" - but for Planescape's whimsical understanding of scale, that's quite a lot. In Planes of Chaos, they pick a bunch of random examples from the "infinite layers of the Abyss" and the highest they go is 643. The notion that infinity could contain numbers in the millions or billions or the absurd range exponential notation (layer 1.0e+82, anyone?) is never even countenanced. "Hundreds" means "lots."

I say that, because we also know that the Celtic, dwarvish, elvish, Greek, and Norse pantheons "pervade the cosmos" and, while we don't have particular figures for any of these, I've got to figure that European gods are not going to be more than ten times as common as Asian gods . . . right? 

I mean, it's really hard to read this book and not come away with the impression that the multiverse is predominantly white. Even aside from notional divine demographics, everywhere you go feels like Europe. Take a benign example, from the Finnish chapter - it literally starts with the words "Far to the north, in the lands of snow and ice . . ."

To the north of what, I ask. Are we talking about Sigil here? Or maybe Baator?

"Yeah, I've got some unfinished business, down south, if you know what I mean"

"Do . . . do you mean, hell?"

". . . yeah."

It's something that keeps popping up. "The Ancient Pantheons?" Ancient compared to what? You want to have worlds ruled by the Babylonian and Sumerian gods? Okay. Cool. But what does it mean to say "The Babylonian pantheon is most popular among folds who live in emerging cultures and those in fertile river valleys."

When I first saw this book's index, I was afraid that it was just another reprint of Legends and Lore, but it's got an entirely different agenda. The pantheons here aren't just a toolkit for building your own setting, they are actual characters in the Planescape setting. Aphrodite has a kind of hot girl club with the other fertility goddesses where they split custody of The Evergold (fountain of youth) and the elf goddess Hanali Celanil is specifically called out as her most stable friend (the book is oddly sarcastic about the notion that Baldur might be worthy company for this group, because D&D is for straight boys only). Similarly, the Dagda is friends with Garl Glittergold and Ares has managed to piss off both the Orc and Goblin gods (who are, themselves, mortal enemies).

And I bring that up because the fact that this is not a generic book makes it all the more mysterious when it tries to say that Sumeria #351 is a carbon copy of Sumeria #001. It takes a god that exists in the real world, gives them a weird, specific relationship to the world of Toril (Tyche has moved in and become two goddesses - Tymora, who brings good luck, and Beshaba, who brings bad luck), but then it implies that for all the hundreds or thousands of times this god appears throughout the multiverse, it's always in the same cultural context.

Let's go back to "The Reclusive Pantheons." The name of the chapter is only the first of the regrettable choices this book makes with Asia.

"In the mysterious East, in the steamy jungles and open plains, the forgotten temples, crumble under the weight of vines and lurking creatures, and civilization flourishes in the crowded cities. Here is the Orient, the land of ancient secrets."

The passage keeps going and keeps being extremely weird, but  . . . but . . . east of what? And mysterious? This is a book that has an entire chapter that reveals the ultimate fate of the souls of the dead. That's the level of the bar you've set for whether something is mysterious or not. So . . . what the fuck are you talking about?

I don't want to get too high and mighty here. There's definitely some strange racial stuff to unpack here, and I can't explain how On Hallowed Ground manages to feel like a step backward from Legends and Lore, published 5 years earlier (my theory is that this book is even more explicitly a game, and thus even more careless about cultural insensitivity), but I can leave those questions for people who are qualified to answer them. I just want to focus on how absolutely out of left field the worldbuilding is.

Like, you have a setting that revolves around these magic portals that can take you anywhere you can imagine, but it also has a mysterious East. In fact, it canonically has hundreds of Easts and they're all mysterious (this, incidentally, is compatible with the bizarre treatment of Asian-inspired cultures in Spelljammer), despite the fact that they are also similar enough to each other that we can say with confidence that worshipers of the Japanese gods "are said to be islanders." And the Norse gods are always worshiped by "northmen" who live near fjords and so on.

I have a real problem squaring the unbound imaginative potential of the game's premise and the almost willful lack of vision shown by some of its editorial choices. It's like finite diversity in two or three combinations over here.

Maybe it's supposed to be respectful. Maybe you shouldn't divorce a culture's sacred stories from their historical and ecological context. Does it even make sense for the tropical vikings to think the world was made by slaying the ice giant Ymir? But if that was your intent, why even use real gods in the first place? This book cribs from Monster Mythology, and TSR's trademarked campaign settings, so maybe it could have just made those characters into the plane-hopping meta-deities with complex cross-world relationships with their counterparts in other realities. Why bring Hera into it? And why mention that she instigated a conflict on the Plains of Illyria, thereby making the Trojan War, and by extension our  entire real world, into explicit Planescape canon?

On Hallowed Ground is so strange that I'm not even sure whether it's offensive (I've already quoted the most racist passage, so I'll let you be the judge), but I can say that it's so strange that I doubt its usefulness. The opening chapters should be useful, because they tackle head-on the religious implications of the setting, but the first sentence of the "Priests" chapter is "On the Outer Planes, priests play a much more important role than anyone'd ever give them credit for on the Prime."

You know, organized religion, the force that has been famously neglected and sidelined in nearly every culture in human history. 

It goes on to make a distinction between knowledge and faith - "A priest can head for his deity's realm and ask a high-up there exactly what it is the power wants of him - and he'll likely get an answer"- but it stops at a pretty shallow level. Belief is food for the gods, and priests are like farmers. The stuff about Proxies and Petitioners is similarly pragmatic. We learn about "memory cores" which detach from the petitioner and float around in the Astral Plane when they die, but which conveniently reattach when the petitioner is raised from the dead (apparently the soul takes the exact same route forwards and backwards on their spiritual journey). 

It all winds up feeling irreverent and weirdly rigorous, which is something that I should maybe feel more comfortable with as an atheist, but there's this lurking setting incoherence that I talked about earlier, and so we've got all these old stories from all around the world, where the literal details are the same (down to proper nouns), but which are stripped of their thematic weight, and thus barely mean anything at all. And the appropriated, repurposed details aren't given enough fictional context to hang together in their new form. Scion 1st Edition shared many of this books sins, but chaos in the Overworld and a new war with the Titans was a strong enough plot to work past them. On Hallowed Ground has all the blasphemy of depicting real gods in a silly fantasy roleplaying game, but the plot is that you're traveling between barely distinguishable alternate realities and most of them are super white.

Ukss Contribution: Oh, I don't know about this one. It's the first book in awhile that I've actively disliked, but its main moral failing is casual 90s racism, rather than any sort of active slander. "On Hallowed Ground is a game supplement, and as such the author has taken certain liberties with various characters" and all that. I don't have enough of a stake in any of the depicted cultures to make a call.

I'll go with something purely fictional, just to be safe. Cyric, the Forgotten Realms' god of "Strife, murder, illusion, intrigue and deception" had the sinister idea to write a magical book that would cause any who read it to worship him as their primary deity . . . and then he read it himself. Now he's stuck in a self-destructive feedback loop of extreme narcissism that can only be satisfied by conquest of the entire multiverse and I find that to be pretty hilarious.