Sunday, March 27, 2022

(Earthdawn 3e) Kratas: City of Thieves

 Earthdawn is D&D that shows its work, so it was only a matter of time before it did a Lankhmar. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's adventures are deep in the game's DNA, so you've got to have a shady and corrupt adventure town. Some settings have even more than one. Earthdawn itself actually has at least three that I can count - Kratas, Bartertown, and Parlainth, though Kratas is probably closest. So how does Kratas: City of Thieves stack up?

It's a really good campaign book, but it's a rare example of Earthdawn failing to elevate the material. You could just run a game in Lankhmar. Which isn't to say that there's not some fascinating lore connections to the rest of Barsaive, but it doesn't quite catch the tone that makes an adventure town work. It's so bleak. Three times the book takes a break from describing the town to do some Kratas-based fiction, and the first time it's a rural Thief who comes to Kratas and gets absolutely rolled by all and sundry, until he winds up fleeing back home, less his wealth, equipment, and one of his hands. It's a cynical shaggy-dog story that's just a little too mean-spirited to sell the punchline. Like, the narrator was a Thief adept, i.e. someone who was so thoroughly in tune with what it meant to be a thief that he gained magical thieving powers. Seeing him get knocked down a peg is one thing - he was previously the biggest fish in a small pond and now he was going up against true pros for the first time in his life, but it's not to the book's benefit that Kratas defeated him. The last line of the story is "I wondered if I could still plow a field with only one hand." Kratas is "the city of thieves," but its role in a campaign is to be a city for thieves. It's the place where you have these crime-themed adventures and blur the line between "treasure hunting" and "grave robbing." So it would help if the book depicted a learning curve. It's the first time we see the town and the first person we meet inside it is someone who washes out. The lesson is supposed to be "Kratas is a tough town, meant for real badasses," but it comes across more like "Kratas is too unforgiving to be much fun."

Similarly, the second piece of fiction has a classic crime adventure setup - a naive criminal gets their hands on a score that's unexpectedly hotter than their usual fare and has to find a way to stay alive long enough to unload it, but then it takes a weird left turn where she randomly (within the context of the story) runs into the one honest merchant in Kratas, and then as she's walking away with the loot, she's unceremoniously slaughtered by one of the city's violent muggers. I'm not sure how it should have ended, but I do know that I wound up regretting getting to know Sorella, the dwarf Scout, which is maybe not something you want in a piece of fiction. She was kind of charming, and then she died . . . okay.

Finally, the third piece of fiction is just terrible. It's a sleazy tale of implied human trafficking and for, like 80% of it, I thought they were building to a punchline where the cynical Troubadour was going to wind up destroyed by the naive young woman he was attempting to exploit (maybe it's just me, but the line "I'm glad I could find someone like her. I might be in some trouble if I hadn't" seemed like a setup for a rug-pull). In the end, though, he successfully "persuades" her to become a prostitute and we're treated to some lovely and entertaining speculation about her current and future earnings. It's funny, because this story might have worked if it had ended like the first one - with the narrator being ruined because his cynicism was insufficient to the realities of Kratas. It might actually have been satisfying to learn the tough guy wasn't tough enough for the tough town because he underestimated female agency.

What this all adds up to is a dark, noirish setting where all the heroes are tarnished and death is waiting around every corner, and it could make for a very compelling Sin City-style game, but Earthdawn is a (well-made) D&D clone, and thus it leaves some buckles in desperate need of being swashed.

If you can bring that essential element of chaos (and frankly, I've never known a group of PCs to lack much in the chaos department), then what you'll find is a thorough and generous campaign book. It's more than 200 pages long, bigger than even the 1st edition boxed sets, and its filled with diverse neighborhoods, so many npcs they need their own special index, dozens of inns and taverns, numerous adventure hooks, and a two-page spread that reprints one of the original Legends of Earthdawn. In terms of sheer, factual information, you're going to be covered. 

I think the main reason I've been so hard on Kratas: City of Thieves is because for all its elaborate worldbuilding, for all its (admittedly bleak) humanism and keen attention to politics, it misses a small, but significant part of the Earthdawn formula. It's so busy being a Lankhmar that it forgets to be a well-justified Lankhmar.

There's a line that sums it up for me - "most residents of Kratas now realize it is in their best interest not to molest the farmers." It's kind of hilarious in context, because one of Kratas' few laws is that the thieves are not allowed to steal from farmers on their way to and from the food market (robbing them at other times is fine, though), and so you basically decode this as "living in a town is easier when the local government performs even the basic functions of local government." The unavoidable follow-up inference is that even more security might make the town even easier to live in. In fact, the City of Thieves as a whole would be a lot more pleasant if there weren't so many thieves everywhere.

It's got to be something that is on the mind of not only the towns' residents, but all the major powers of Barsaive as well. Kratas' whole reason for existing is to be a place where thieves and raiders can go to sell their ill-gotten goods, and thus it is at best a nuisance and at worst a threat to every honest settlement in the region. It is a rogue state, and thus essentially unstable. It can exist only as long as the societies it preys upon are unable to project military power into their borders. Throal or Iopos or even a town like Jerris is going to be able to roll over them in a war, because the closest thing that they have to a government is a gang that collects protection money and only intermittently provides protection (to farmers, in a particular neighborhood, at particular times of day). It can only exist tenuously, in that narrow sliver of time where the world is still post-apocalyptic, when the land is sparsely settled enough that statelessness is not a fatal disadvantage.

Honestly, it's debatable whether Barsaive is still in that condition, as of the game's start date. It must be, because Kratas still exists, but it appears 3rd edition is set post- Prelude to War, so things we know Barsaive has is armies capable of marching long distances, militarized airship fleets, and professional espionage operations (three things Kratas can't afford because the revenue of its most powerful gang is purely private profit). By all reasonable accounts, Kratas is living on borrowed time. It will soon either become a true state or be destroyed/absorbed by one.

The only thing in the book that addresses this is one of the secret societies, The Magisterium Resurgent. They're trying to restore the system of government that existed before the Scourge and honestly it's a little weird that they're the only ones who see this opportunity. The city should be filled with people who believe "Kratas should have a system of government . . . my system of government." But the one and only example of such beliefs are a cult that worships a dead tyrant. "Inventing the new Kratas" really should be one of the major campaign models.

Now, we're close to the end of the post so I want you to take almost everything I've said and throw it in the garbage, because my final verdict is that Kratas: City of Thieves is a really good rpg supplement. It may not be exactly on target with its genre or especially well-observed politically, but it does have lots of stuff that will help you run a roleplaying game, and in the end, isn't that what's most important?

Ukss Contribution: Also, it has a bunch of fun setting stuff. Berry Blossom, the windling Horror Stalker. The pissed off shepherd who becomes an assassin and uses his crook as his signature weapon. games of chance that are elaborate religious allegory.

However, my favorite thing was the Darks, a bar that's accessible only by one of about a dozen secret passages. It's favored by spellcasters, and some of the secret passages might actually be mystic portals, but even if it were totally mundane, I'd like its over-the-top mysterious vibe.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

(Planescape) Dead Gods

 This was a surprise addition to my collection. It apparently became available as a PoD sometime in the window since my last big order of Planescape PoDs and the time when I actually finished reading my last big order of Planescape PoDs. Would this at last be a chance to explore the fate of that one dead god that the supplements keep bringing up whenever they needed an example of a god that died, and who had an active cult devoted to his resurrection?

Nope. It's Orcus.

I have to be incredibly careful about interrogating my motives and reactions here, because I spent the vast majority of this book being incredibly annoyed whenever Orcus showed up, and I'm not entirely sure why.

One of my notes said, "it feels like I've stepped into a previous generation's nostalgia," and I think that's part of it. The adventure only works if it centers around an iconic villain, one who whose very name counts as a spoiler. Throughout much of the text, he goes by the alias "Tenebrous." There are times when the DM advice actively admonishes you not to reveal that Orcus is involved in these events. Whenever he comes into conflict with one of Planescape's original characters, he absolutely dominates, with a kill list that includes Primus, god-overseer of the modrons and the illithid god of secrets. He can do this because they invented a never-before-hinted-at ultimate weapon for him to use at the start of the story.

It all points to the payoff being that "oh shit" moment where players think they have a handle on things, until they realize - Orcus is back.

And I wonder if the reason it didn't work for me is because I have no emotional connection to him as a character. The Wand of Orcus is one of the example artifacts in the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, and so I have to imagine that a lot of people whose formative D&D experience was in the 70s-80s had fond memories of going up against its wielder, but I started playing in late 2nd edition, when they'd already gone through the trouble of removing the "satanic" elements from the game, so I didn't even know about him until sometime in 3rd edition, where he was such a perfectly forgettable presence that I had to go back to the wiki to remind myself which book I saw him in (Manual of the Planes, by the way). 

For me, he was always "the example demon."  He's the demon you use when you want a demon who looks and acts exactly like a demon. To the extent that I'd want to use the hells at all, I'd want to go beyond that and invent a villain who was a little less one-dimensional. Imagine my surprise when I found out he had a convoluted backstory.

 Short version - He lived, being a generally assholish high-tier boss monster. This allowed him to advance to the rank of god. He was then killed by the drow Goddess of vengeance who erased his name from history. Somehow, for reasons that are never adequately explained, he came back to life, much reduced in power. After futzing around for an indefinite amount of time, he discovered that the gods apparently left a whole stash of cheat codes buried in the ground with only passive traps and mid-level monsters to defend them. He learned the most boring one (kill.character) and destroyed the rest. Then he used The Last Word to slay Primus, a much more interesting god, and briefly take over the modron hive mind, dispatching the Great Modron March several decades ahead of schedule to search for his missing wand. Other stuff happens, and it turns out using the Final Word so much is slowly killing him, so he desperately needs his wand to boost his power level back up. A group of adventurers comes along to play keep-away long enough for him to perish once more, but despite their precautions (no, seriously, it happens no matter what the PCs do "Voridan can easily overcome any locks, barriers, guardians, or magic wards put in place to protect the wand") his high priest manages to recover the wand and enact a foul ritual to resurrect the twice dead god. There is a desperate, last-minute race against time as heroes try and stop the ritual, but whether they stop the ritual or not, the outcome is the same - the priest and the body of Orcus vanish. No resolution is forthcoming and eventually he shows up in later editions like nothing happened.

And look, don't let my snark fool you. Dead Gods is mostly a pretty okay adventure. Hop from plane to plane unearthing the secrets of the past and thwarting the return of a dark god - it's a bit of a basic plot, but it makes good use of the Planescape setting. The only thing wrong with it is the way it tries to stretch out the big reveal.

At one point, the PCs are literally in Orcus' stronghold and it says, "the PCs should be remain in the dark. There shouldn't be any way for them to link Tcian Sumere to either Tenebrous or Orcus" and no, I couldn't figure out why they weren't allowed to know the alias either, because I guess making the mental leap from "mysterious citadel in the Negative Energy plane" to "maybe those demons we've been fighting have been acting under someone's orders" would be too much context, too soon. Seriously, real quote: "if the PCs (and the players) are frustrated and confused as to what's going on . . . the DM should know he's done his job well."

I keep thinking about the big moment, when the DM announces, "you make a shocking discovery - Tenebrous is actually Orcus!" And I ask myself, how much plot coherence and player agency is it worth sacrificing to make that moment happen? Because it does not seem improbable that the response is going to be, "Cool. . . Who's Orcus?"

So, I don't know, maybe your group has the exact right cultural touchstones to make Dead Gods a relevant adventure, but if I were running it today, I'd skip the alias entirely and reveal the stakes in the middle of the Tcian Sumere chapter, probably around the time the PCs find the giant statue of Orcus (sorry, an unnamed "muscular, ram-headed humaniod" who really could be anybody).

Also, there's a second bookend adventure about a ruined temple in Sigil, controlled by the Athar, which contains spiritual remnants of a dead god who may have been in Sigil before the arrival of the Lady of Pain, but there's a splinter group of the Sign of One who wants to use the power of their collective belief to bring the god back to life. Yeah, that's right, it's the saga of the never-before-seen rain god Badir.


Sorry, a lost track of what I was doing, though it is funny to me that when you're trying to stop the high priest of Orcus from completing the resurrection ritual, and the spirit of Orcus reaches out to trap you in a false reality, there are three signs that the world is an illusion:

'Course, many canny bloods will realize that this horrid scene can't be real, and the Rule of Threes (ed note: I've written it in my notes for at least a half-dozen books, but the "Rule of Threes" is absolute garbage - and for an example why, consider what it is adding to this very passage) dictates why. First of all, a body can enter Sigil only through a portal - no other means of magical transportation works. Second, gods can't get into the Cage, so Zeus and the others couldn't possibly lie at Tenebrous's feet. And third, the Lady can't be beaten in a simple brawl.
I mean, in context, it's not such a big deal, because the thing that's being disbelieved is that the PCs were suddenly transported into a bleak future Sigil where Orcus was triumphant and that's not a very plausible scenario when they started the scene standing on top of Orcus' dead body, but this was an out of character section that is pretty much setting absolute limits for the adventure's stakes. What is this worldbuilding even trying to accomplish?

Overall, I'd say that I'm the wrong audience for Dead Gods. I thought the basic plot was done better in Doors to the Unknown, and even then I think Planescape has the potential for stories that are a lot more interesting than "go to these isolated locations to find the macguffins that will thwart the return of a dark god" (though, interestingly enough, Dead Gods does send you to the fourth layer of Pandemonium - a place that I thought was not quite unique enough to justify being the endpoint of a 500-year portal in Doors to the Unknown). If you buy into the main villain's star power, though, it does seem like a perfectly serviceable story.

Ukss Contribution: It comes as something of a shock to me, but my choice this time comes from the adventure's detour to Oerth. Because Orcus was killed by a drow goddess, he needs some information from a drow warrior in order to recover his wand. Thus, you must travel to the Vault of the Drow first.

The entire Vault has some definite potential, because it's in the middle of a civil war where two powerful nations (the githyanki and the illithids) use the various combatants as proxies by exploiting sectarian differences in the drow religion, and I'm absolutely certain that it is not intended as a metaphor for cold war meddling in the middle east, but it could very easily be made into one.

However, that would require more layers of context than I usually like to add with a single entry. So I'm just going with the Vault's initial description, "Filled with phosphorescent fungi and strange, glowing minerals, this underground chamber has a subterranean beauty unlike any other. Within this dark fairyland . . .[boring and obvious stuff about the drow]"

It's lovely imagery (and from what I understand the new edition of D&D is starting to lean in to it, so that's nice), and I think I can use it as inspiration for one of Ukss' underground kingdoms.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

(Exalted 3e) Hundred Devils Night Parade

 All hands on deck, there's a new Exalted book! Truthfully, I think at this point I'm still coasting on the memory of being deep in the fandom around ten years ago, but those memories are still fond enough for me to make Exalted a high priority. Hundred Devils Night Parade didn't rekindle my obsession with the series, but it was a worthy entry, and I enjoyed the detour.

Of course, monster books are usually pretty easy. They're just a series of cool fantasy ideas, each individually short enough that even the duds don't wear out their welcome. I suppose you could screw one up by having long stretches of picayune variations on a small number of generic templates, but I'm hard pressed to think of any examples of that particular error. Most of the time, it's damned near impossible to get bored with a monster book.

Hundred Devils Night Parade is better than most, because it's beautifully illustrated in full color and because Exalted, as a game line, prides itself on not doing the obvious. Sometimes, they'll do the second-most-obvious thing, as with this book's bloodthirsty unicorns, but with the exception of some of the animals (especially spiders and giant constrictor snakes, which are so obligatory to the pulp genre that it's a wonder they weren't in the core), nothing in here feels obligatory. Everything feels like it had to survive a pitch.

Maybe that's down to the book's origins as a series of small pdfs, each featuring a pair of creatures. If it's not interesting enough to secure 50% of a sale, just by name, then it was never going to see print. I can't say I've warmed to the format, now that I've seen all the entries, but luckily, I don't have to. I bought the compilation, and it feels like it's assembled from nothing but highlights.

Depending on your disposition, you may or may not consider that a weakness. In addition to being generally pretty interesting, it also feels like a deliberately broad cross-section of the setting's non-human antagonists. It has five chapters, and it could probably be spun off into at least 3, maybe 4 books. "The Dead" could anchor a whole monster book. "Demons" (one half of chapter 3) could anchor a whole book. "Strange Beasts" and "Animals" could be a full book together. "Elementals" and "Creatures of the Wyld" feel legitimately like partial books (because there's never been a great setting reason for distinguishing elementals from gods or creatures of the wyld from Creation's general fauna), but it wouldn't seem outrageous to try and stretch them out. There's an admirable diversity here, providing something useful, no matter which direction you want to take your Exalted game, but it also means that if you warm to a particular subject, and are inspired to start, say, a demon-hunter campaign, then you don't have a lot of guidance to expand outwards.

As far as the mechanics go, I'm long out of practice, especially with 3e, but I'm going to say that they mostly look fine, in the sense that the typical creature has 2-3 tricks that will make its combat interesting before they are inevitably slain by the PCs, though I also did not get the impression that 3rd edition has fully solved the problem of making non-Exalted opposition truly feel like credible threats. 

This is a subtle issue, and maybe a lot of Exalted fans are going to disagree with me here, but historically, "group of heroes take on a big, dangerous monster and it is only by pushing their abilities to the limit that they were able to prevail" has been the one thing that's both ubiquitous in its media inspirations, and also nearly impossible to model with the rules. What it comes down to is that Exalted's charm system is a complex minigame where PCs and PC-analogue enemies, have a plethora of options, and non-Exalts, as creatures who do not have charms, have few, if any, answers to those options. The monster can roar all it wants, but it's going to be limited to single digit accuracy while PCs can drop +5 to defense whenever they are targeted with an attack, and even a single solar is able to break the action economy over their knee.

Third edition's Quick Characters are a step forward, in that even normal animals have a variety of special actions (I'd reckon that an auroch is as complex as any non-spellcaster from AD&D's Monstrous Manual, for example), but while the fight's more interesting than before, it's still incredibly one-sided.

Of course, maybe a demigod should have a relatively easy time taking on an angry cow, but it becomes a bit more problematic when you have Keregost, the hundred-handed giant, and he's only rolling 9 dice to attack, and can, once per scene, make a second attack in a single round (for 15m, 1w, making it by far the worst extra action charm I've ever seen - on a creature defined by its unnatural capability for taking multiple actions).  It can also detach its arms to form a battle group, but that's just a good way to lose a shit load of arms.

I probably shouldn't complain too much about a single understatted monster, but it's kind of emblematic of Exalted's worst tendency - the way it can sometimes act like the main characters being the top of the human power curve means that nothing should be able to threaten them. Call me naive, but I don't think it really reduces the mystique of the Dawn Caste if an experienced solar warrior could be put on the back foot by a behemoth so horrifying it can't even be depicted on the page (Keregost has 8 visible arms on his right side and one visible left arm in his art, and even if you assume symmetry, that's 84 short). "You're such a badass that the sorcerers had to give this guy 49 extra heads to be able to beat you," sounds plenty epic to me.

Another issue is that they didn't make these simplified creatures quite simple enough. The ones who can use magic are still left tracking motes. In a character without a full charm suite, this is a completely vestigial mechanic. You've only give them a half-dozen charms, to represent the tricks that they're going to pull out in the 3-5 rounds they're estimated to live, you don't also have to budget their whole day. It's just an extra layer of tracking that obfuscates the fact that you want to treat these fights as asymmetrical challenges. If you're not designing your boss encounters to be able to tank a full party's action economy, then the fact that you've attached a 5m cost to their basic defense charm means only that it now has a hard deadline before the PCs mote tap it and take it apart.

Don't get me wrong, Hundred Devils Night Parade gets closer to getting it right than any Exalted book I've seen so far (and I've seen all of them), but it still has a long way to go. 

Anyway, with all that said, I'd count this one as a top-tier monster book. Sometimes it's not going to matter that the PCs will utterly destroy a monster. Sometimes, they might have bad builds, or be mortals, or maybe you'll just be inspired by the amazing flavor. My notes are four pages long, and approximately three of those pages are me just copying down something I liked - Ankou, the first death of the year who gets conscripted to act as the grim reaper until the next Ankou is chose, incredibly pretentious cloud people, you can go full circle with the Final Fantasy inspiration and ride a giant terror bird,  unless you prefer an enormous stick insect, plus I suspect the author of the elephant section was almost as impressed with them as I am.

Ukss Contribution: The toughest part of this entry is going to be narrowing it down. I wasn't kidding about my notes. I think I'm going to go with the Cloud People, though. And my reason for this is purely pragmatic. I have a certain region on Ukss, the Funnelcloud Plains, that I've been having a hard time developing, but between the Storm Kings, the lightning people, and now the cloud people, I'm starting to get some ideas for how it might work out.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

(Earthdawn 2e) The Book of Dragons

 I was not disappointed with this book. It sounds like a noncommittal, milquetoast thing to say, but it's actually high praise. My expectations were through the roof.

So why not just directly compliment the book? Why not just say it was fascinating or satisfying or excellent or something like that? Why waste time being so backhanded? It's because my expectations were not merely high, they were also of a particular type, and I was not disappointed.

So let's talk about my expectations. What it comes down to is the "metaplot-heavy" theory of game design, where each book doles out information with the promise of future payoffs, and it can be super fun to follow along, but a new book always requires a new emotional investment, and is also a wager that the line won't go defunct before the payoff arrives.

The Book of Dragons has a damned good payoff ratio, so much so that it might even compromise its utility as an rpg book.

The best part of this 125 page book is the 55 page middle chapter where it discusses the personalities, powers, and agendas of a dozen different dragons . . . and fuck you if you ever want to fight one. Don't get me wrong, you can oppose their schemes. You may even survive their wrath. But a spellcasting step number of 37 is "fuck you" territory and physical defense scores of 25 aren't much better. Remember, the theory here is that an action's step number is the average result it rolls on the die. For adepts (PCs) with relentlessly optimized attributes, operating at max level, the maximum step is 24 (before factoring in magic and equipment bonuses, so it's possible that there might be some really effective build that makes this more reasonable). You could justify these stats as an endgame, high epic-tier fight, like the god stats from OD&D - something to challenge your party of 7 circle-15 characters, and that's definitely a valid niche, but it's also only going to come up in 1% of games, tops. What The Book of Dragons is really good for is hot gossip.

Oh, I suppose you can write an entire campaign around the gossip. What's Mountainshadow interested in? How are his agents involved in this scheme or that? What are his enemies willing to do to stop him? Player characters are often mercenaries who travel to distant and dangerous places on the promise of payment, and here are a dozen major characters, each of which has a literal ton of cash, so there's plenty of useful stuff here, even if the titular dragons are basically just plot devices.

However, that's not why I was looking forward to this book. It's also largely not what I enjoyed about this book. What I wanted was secrets.

The Book of Dragons is very good about making you feel like you're reading something you're not supposed to be reading. The first couple of chapters are narrated by Vasdenjas, the blabbermouth dragon from Creatures of Barsaive, and it's bracketed by commentary from Mountainshadow about how it's unprecedented in its forthrightness and potentially telling us things the dragons would rather we didn't know. And then, the big chapter comes and it's framed as a briefing to the Denairastas about the strengths and weaknesses of Barsaive's dragons, and Mountainshadow's comments switch to admonitions that some of the material might be deliberate lies, council to be patient and consider carefully how to act on the information, and the occasional dark speculation about things the text only hits at. Plus it's all narrated by an outcast Great Dragon, who prior to the Scourge mated with a human and founded the whole Denairastas family. 

Whoa! A major shakeup to the status-quo, and something that's definitely going to have serious repercussions down the line . . . or would, if this weren't the last book FASA ever produced and the second-to-last book LRG ever published. I'm not sure which of the two companies this canon came from (my copy of the book is "Revised and Expanded" and mentions events from Barsaive in Chaos), and I'm not sure whether it's going to survive into 3rd and 4th edition, but while it's here, I'm shaken. You could argue that it weakens the Denairastas as villains to make them the products of a hidden draconic mastermind, but I like the implied dynamic in the Outcast's narration. He seems to have a lot of faith in his descendants, and it's strange how wholesome it can feel, even though the Outcast is 100% sleazy and manipulative. I'd call this vibe "proud grandpa lich." ("yes, my pretties, you're twisting mortal frailty to your own dark designs, just like Pop-pop, very good job.")

Oh, and speaking of juicy secrets, we now have virtually bulletproof confirmation about what's up with Earthdawn's wyverns. To refresh your memory, every time they've come up prior to this, some dragon or another was always, "Hell no, they aren't related to us. You're letting a superficial similarity mislead you. And I'll kill you if you ever do it again." You know, just being really weird about it, to a suspicious degree.

Well, the Outcast casually spills the beans on the mystery:

The Liaj jungle is known to be the home to many wyverns, the first progeny of Usun since the Scourge to near maturity. Life in the jungle forces the wyverns to be tough, strong and cunning in order to survive. The dragons who Emerge to Name themselves will be warriors and hunters like their guardian.

Mountainshadow objects, but only to the implication later in the paragraph that the new dragons will be unquestioningly loyal to their mentor. Since Mountainshadow's notes are ostensibly meant for his fellow dragons, if this were misleading info about the dragon life cycle, he would not have felt the need to emphasize the independent streak of dragonkind.

This is the good stuff, the reason I can read 38 Earthdawn books over approximately a year and still get excited about this one. Because the mystery is solved, but now there's a whole new avenue of speculation - why are the dragons always so weird about this. As a strategy for keeping dragon-hunters from targeting their young, it honestly seems like a wash. Some people might kill more wyverns, knowing they are immature dragons, but others might take pains not to kill them, for the exact same reason. Possibly, there are those who would seek to systematically destroy all dragons, who might overlook wyverns as being merely dragon-like, but honestly that always struck me as a weak bluff. "Oh, these creatures that look exactly like adolescent dragons who adult dragons are constantly being cagey about and have no observed reproductive cycle? They can safely be ignored."

Ooh, so . . . much. . .canon. You get in the habit of reading rpg books like they're fiction, and then one comes along that's almost pure fiction and it feels really good. While I'm still riding this high, let's talk about Shadowrun.

That's the other big source of anticipation for this book. At least for awhile (it's no longer current and I'm not sure whether it was the same c. 2004, when my copy of the book was printed), Earthdawn and Shadowrun shared a universe. The connections were never deep, but you would occasionally get immortal characters making cryptic comments about a previous age of magic, and chief among these cryptic immortals are the dragons. The Book of Dragons knows what it's about, and if you want to play the game where you speculate about who in this book survives until the 2060s, you can. 

Mountain Shadow is probably Dunkelzahn, and if so, it's kind of fascinating to get this extra characterization. Dunkelzahn had a public image of being very meta-human friendly, to the degree that he sought and won election to the presidency of the United Canadian and American States. Mountain Shadow is unique in the degree to which he uses Name-Givers as pawns, and operates out of the shadows, always playing the long game, even if he seems generally benevolent. He's also the son of a renowned first-generation dragon and the closest thing these notably individualist creatures have to a scion of royalty.

And once we start pulling that thread, we can then conclude that Ghostwalker, dragon tyrant of Denver, is actually Icewing, Mountainshadow's younger brother and second-most prestigious of Barsaive's dragons. It's not a bulletproof connection, because Ghostwalker is "ivory with blue highlights" (I went back to Dragons of the Sixth World to check) and Icewing is "silvery-blue," but 8000 years is a long time. Maybe dragons can go grey, especially if they're nethermancers (as both Ghostwalker and Icewing are). I like to think it's true, because it amuses me to think of Ghostwalker emerging from that astral rift a couple of decades late and discovering that his older brother has once again risen the bar unattainably high and he'll always be known as "the brother of that dragon who became president."

I could go on with this speculation (no, seriously, I could), but I trust I've made my point. The Book of Dragons was like catnip to a nerd like me, and I fell completely under its spell.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of cool dragons here, but I'm going to go with the Outcast, who founded a clan of sorcerer-princes. I don't care much for royalty, but I do like it when royal families trace their lineage back to some improbable mythological figure. "We deserve to rule this land because 1000 years ago our great-great-great-etc grandmother made it with a dragon." It doesn't make a damned bit of sense, but it's tough to argue with.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

(Planescape) A Player's Primer to the Outlands

 I need to write this post while everything is still fresh in my mind. I just spent approximately an hour and a half listening to the Planescape audio CD and I have only a limited time to capture that feeling in words. Already, it's starting to feel like something out of a dream world. . .

 Let's just use this CD as a prop in our D&D game. See, it's like a mimir, a special magic item that takes the form of a floating skull. People store knowledge on it by telling it things, and then you can ask it questions, and if, at any point in the history of its existence, it was told the answer, it will repeat it for you. We'll simulate this by you asking me, the DM, a question, and then I'll play the appropriate track. Okay, you want to know about the Vale of the Spine? Let me just skip to track 31. Pleas be patient while I press the "next track" button 30 times.

For you young people who might be reading this blog, or for archeologists recovering the data hundreds of years hence, CD players in 1995 would not generally let you select a specific track. You had to press the "next" or "previous" buttons to cycle through the tracks one at a time. Also, the "previous" button doubled as the "return to the start of the track" button, and so you always had to press it at least one more time than the number of tracks you wanted to go back (a fact that caught me up more times than I'm comfortable admitting). 

Some of you might be precisely the right age to wonder why you couldn't just use a laptop (i.e. old enough to remember that laptops used to come with CD drives, but young enough to not understand why I'm shaking my head ruefully at the very thought), but that would have been a pretty out-there option for 1995.

In any event, assuming you were comfortable with the logistic hurdles inherent in this form of information-sharing, what would "the mimir" have to told you about the Vale of the Spine? Approximately 45 seconds of a perfectly nice lady adopting an inscrutable half-british/half nerd accent to scoff at the ludicrous concept that the ribcage shaped mountains surrounding the town of Ribcage could actually be the ribcage of some titanic ancient creature. She's sure it was the result of a "natural geological process" and never mind what that even means in a magical world that exists beyond the bounds of infinity.

However, I don't want to fall into the trap of roasting this CD, despite the fact that it is eminently roast-worthy (actual line of dialogue: "Just do it! [beat] Hm, that's a catchy phrase."). I have to assume that this is just an example of TSR blowing a bunch of money to do something fun. There are no credited voice actors anywhere I could find, and the likeliest explanation for that is that they just asked a bunch of people around the office.

That's the feeling I got, anyway - something amateurish, but done with a lot of effort. There were silly accents and sillier scripts, but also background music and ambient sound effects. They used some kind of distortion effect to make the Mimir sound more robotic. The only thing that was really lacking was expertise in presenting an audio drama. According to the CD cover insert, they did this a half dozen other times, with Karameikos, Mystara, Red Steel, and a few others. Maybe if they'd kept at it, they'd have gotten good at it, but I doubt the format would have ever gotten lucrative enough to make the investment worth it.

There were a few high points, though. Learning about the income inequality in Curst was a useful bit of setting lore, and the Hinterlands track was actually an effective campaign pitch. Apparently, beyond the gate towns, moving away from the Spire, there are "whole civilizations," some of which aren't even humanoid. It's a difficult area to explore, because the landmarks shift, but it's one of the few times where Planescape has really captured the feeling of infinity.

Which is as good an excuse as any to transition to the boxed set's accompanying book. Now, I've got to start this part with an embarrassing story - I managed to win this boxed set in an online auction for a surprisingly low price, and there was a period of about 5 minutes where I felt really good about myself. . . until I saw the item description and realized that the book was missing. I'm not mad or anything, because I can't say I wasn't warned, but it was disappointing enough that I went ahead and bought the pdf.

It's a real shame that the booklet is so impossible to acquire, because it's some solid setting work, and probably should have been a full boxed set on its own, instead of just a 32 page pamphlet included as a supplement to a weird, experimental CD.

Seriously, how weird is it that Planescape's only Outlands supplement is an ill-conceived multimedia project. Sigil and the Outlands - that's what transforms the setting from The Manual of the Planes to Planescape. They feature in very nearly every adventure, but this book is as good as it gets.

Anyway, we were talking about infinity. This book establishes that the Outlands' notional infinity is no barrier to travel. "A cutter can journey past Tradegate for a year and day, and still never lose sight of the spire behind him. Then he can turn around and be back in Tradegate in just a few days." So it's "infinite," but not, like, containing millions or billions of actual miles. Just indefinite, psychically determined distances. We get some actual numbers here. Adjacent gate town are separated by a random distance and take 3-18 days to traverse (and it's not necessarily the same distance each time). This is also the amount of time it takes to move from one "layer" of the plane to another (layers in the Outlands are determined by the maximum power of spells that can be cast, with all magic and godly powers being disable at the very center). Thus, the Outlands are a circle whose diameter is slightly larger than its circumference (18-step journey vs a 16 step one) and as a result it must be infinite in some technically formal way, but it's not going to feel that way to most travelers.

The practical upshot of all this is that we can now say with certainty that there are very definitely huge masses of prime material religious pilgrims and/or economic migrants in every case where prime-to-Sigil portal is not a major bottleneck. The worst case scenario, only having access to a portal that leads to the directly opposite gate town and having to walk to where you want to be, leaves you with a maximum journey of 144 days (although, this will most likely be around 84). The real world's Oregon Trail took 4-6 months to traverse. 

You might object that the presence of roving packs of fiends and slave-taking authoritarians in the lower-planes adjacent parts of the Outlands might be too much of a physical hazard for anyone to risk the worst case scenario, and I'd agree (though, honestly, this sounds like a much better mission for the Order of the Planes Militant), but it would also take an extremely perverse reading of the material to assume the worst case scenario is common. One of the 16 gate towns is called "Tradegate," for crying out loud. That strongly implies a steady stream of traffic in and out of town, otherwise, who would be doing all the trading?

Which means that the likeliest real worst case-scenario is prime-to-Sigil, Sigil-to-Tradegate, Tradegate-to-Ysgard. That's a 12-72 day voyage, but through the congenial upper-planes adjacent Outlands, and the only people who are even making this trip are people whose ultimate heaven is Ysgard and thus are inclined to view a brisk trek through the wilderness as part of where they want to be in the first place.

Also, there are infinite reaches of good, arable land in the region, and so even if you didn't want to live in heaven, you might still be drawn to the easily accessible homesteading opportunities. What does land ownership even look like in this setting? There's mention of a potential war between the adjacent gate towns of Rigus and Ribcage, but no discussion of the customs of sovereignty. It may seem like I'm being a nitpicking little twerp here, but this is one of Planescape's recurring things. It is very clear about following the Player's Handbook's outline of planar geography, and in its own . . . unique interpretation of the alignment system (From Excelsior, the lawful good gate town connected to Mount Celestia: "sometimes a strong paladin and his followers challenge the High Chancellor's right to lead. A challenge like that tends to be short and bloody, and all the paladin usually winds up with is a spot in the deadbook.") What's missing is any sense of politics or economics rooted in the actual needs and concerns of living people. 

It makes the setting as a whole feel slightly unreal. You can talk all you want about demons trying to subvert the town of Plague-Mort and draw it into the Abyss, but you just know that the worst part of living in a chaotic evil town is negotiating the tangled mess of its water rights.

I shouldn't single out this book for that, though. The larger culprit is the entirety of Planescape as a line, and even then, blame should probably go to the assumptions and priorities of the genre as a whole. Besides, I've actually seen what it looks like when you do focus on water rights, in lieu of cool fantasy stuff (specifically, the book The Emirates of Ylaraum) and it's hardly better.  I do, however, think Plansecape, specifically could use just a little more attention on these details. It wants to position itself as being about the jaded, cynical people who live on the doorsteps of heaven and hell, and it's somehow both more than you can possibly imagine and also not everything it's cracked up to be - and to really sell that, I think you need to show people actually living.

As far as this specific book is concerned, it's right in that strange, Planescape wheelhouse where its fantasy elements are a tier above "regular" D&D while also not being anything that you couldn't just do in regular D&D. In the town of Fortitude, they have a civic arena they call "The Confessional," and it's where they do all their civil justice. The whole town is the jury and they declare punishments by polling the mood of the mob. But strangely, it only seems compulsory for outsiders. The townspeople will go there voluntarily, confessing their sins and submitting to the judgement of the town in a ritual of social self-flagellation (one of the punishments is "simple verbal abuse" . . . from maybe 1000 screaming strangers). That's some fascinating speculative fiction shit there, but arguably, the connection to the plane of Arcadia weakens it.

Okay, maybe not. An idea I keep having is the notion of "Fallen Cities" that want to be in heaven, but slid into the Outlands for being insufficiently pure. A city on the threshold of heaven, where the citizens loathe themselves for not being good enough, and thus willfully and gleefully embrace these ugly and abusive civic "rituals of cleansing." Yeah, I can do something with that. Though, unfortunately, A Player's Primer to the Outlands can't, because it only gives itself one page to talk about the entire town, and its section of the audio CD is just the absolute worst (I seriously cannot do it justice, just listen for yourself. Content warning: fatphobia.)

However, the thing where some Outlanders live in castles that walk around on giant magi-tech legs? That is definitely something you could have been doing the whole time.

Strangely enough, though, I think we can blame this on The Player's Handbook. It all comes back to an extremely minor point that was nonetheless important enough to get a callout in the introduction:

The Outlands are known to the Clueless as the "Plane of Concordant Opposition." (Fact is, they get most of the planar names wrong, which is a sure way to mark a prime.) . . .


Another problem is that primes figure their out-of-touch universe is the center of everything. When they found the Outlands — a plane connected to all other Outer Planes — they had to cobble up a quick reason why it couldn't be the center of the multiverse. So they called it the "Plane of Concordant Opposition," the idea being that the Outlands are opposed to the other planes.
This is a just-so story that explains why Planescape contradicts the PHB, but is also subtly ridiculous world-building because it assumes that all the countless prime worlds are going to misname the plane in exactly the same way, for exactly the same reason. It just doesn't make any sense on even a basic level. These worlds don't regularly communicate with each other, so for this cultural meme to spread, it must originate in its common point of contact - either Sigil or the common multi-plane pantheons of gods. . . And there's no real reason why the Greek or Norse gods would have to promulgate this particular bit of esoterica.

What's going on, of course, is that all prime worlds are assumed to be the implied setting of the PHB (or largely compatible with such, like Krynn or Toril), and as we saw in On Hallowed Ground, that implied setting has its share of problems. It is largely an unarticulated codification of the first thing people thought to do with Dungeons & Dragons, that carries with it all the faults and limitations of the fact that the first thing it had to do was satisfy the preferences of a small clique of mostly white, mostly male, mostly Christian midwesterners from the 1970s.

This points to a rift that has been at the heart of D&D for a long time. What are the core books for? My view is that the ideal use of a PHB is as a fantasy worldbuilding toolkit. You want a superabundance of options, including options that a lot of people will never use, because what you're trying to do is allow different subsets of the core options to support dramatically different worlds. You may do "Tolkien-style" fantasy with humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings or gothic-style fantasy with humans and tieflings, or classic pulp with humans only, or anything else you can imagine. 

It was only with a series of long and bitter flame wars that I came to realize that there's an alternate position that has a longer history of support. The purpose of the core books is to be specifically Dungeons and Dragons, the classic 1970s metasetting with its own set of tropes. And thus, more options in the PHB isn't a superabundance of worldbuilding tools, but rather D&D not being D&D any more. 

I honestly think Wizards of the Coast aggravates things by trying to play both sides without acknowledging the rift, but I think TSR might have just been naive. It's the only way to explain Planescape. Both AD&D editions had core books that were strongly in the "implied setting" camp, but they kept releasing alternate settings that would play with the rules . . . culminating in Planescape, which by its very premise demands an "individual worldbuilding" environment. But instead of really embracing that potential, and despite having the example of all their (sometimes wildly incompatible) campaign settings still being Planescape canon, they just sort of cordon off the implied setting into the prime material plane. The primes are "Clueless," but they're all clueless in exactly the same way

And so, you're left with an outer-planar setting that, by virtue of being not-clueless, is free to do the individual worldbuilding stuff that D&D really could have just been doing the whole time, but it's stuck in a cosmology that's beholden to the implied setting. Tradegate is full of gnomes because gnomes are in the PHB, and thus most prime material worlds have gnomes who subsequently die and love spending their afterlives doing gnome things like craft and commerce. You can do something interesting with Tradegate's government, like making it into a plutocratic pseudo-democracy where any citizen is free to vote in parliament, provided they have "a nonevil alignment and at least 500,000 in gold" (how you're supposed to get both things at once is left a mystery), but you can't have the town inhabited by peaceful goblin merchants, because where would such beings ever come from?

Of course, once you start entertaining the idea that the prime material plane is infinitely diverse, you run into the problem that there's no real need for the distinction between planar and prime. In fact, the campaign premise probably works better if you didn't need to reconcile the physical proximity of the afterlife. That's just the paradox of Planescape, though. It's D&D attempting to explore the full potential of the fantasy genre, without explicitly acknowledging that there's a fantasy genre outside of D&D.

Anyway, the A Player's Primer to the Outlands book should be longer. Neutrality is such a bland alignment that it falls to the wayside almost immediately, and I have a feeling that if they were presented with more space to fill, they would quickly start to go even farther afield.

Ukss Contribution: You know, the more I think about it, the more I think The Confessional would make a memorable and creepy centerpiece to an adventure. I'll just have to think of a local eschatology weird and insular enough to do it justice (no pun intended, unless . . .).

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

(Earthdawn 2e) The Wanderer's Way: Makers of Legend, Volume 2

 It is just now occurring to me that I should have read The Wanderer's Way and The Way of War as a single unit, because my take for both volumes is exactly the same - a workhorse book that adds some commendable detail to the Adept paths, but can't really stand on its own. I could potentially draw a distinction in my preference for skill/intrigue-style classes as opposed to pure combat classes, but while the Discipline lineup for The Wanderer's Way is overall more my style, I have to say that seeing them all grouped together like this really drives home how beholden Earthdawn is to the early-90s AD&D ecosystem. Don't get me wrong, it's doing a lot of interesting things, but if you're inventing a hundred class-based rpgs from scratch, how many times are you going to come up with something like the troubadour (bard)? "Let's go search for treasure in monster-infested caverns, but first, we need to recruit a singer-songwriter."

Likewise, the Thief continues to be a baffling class - they are literally criminals who steal stuff as their job. Their stealth and exploration skills can come in handy in a dungeon situation, sure, but why put those skills in such an anti-social package? This book even takes pains to emphasize that the class prefers solitude.  Obviously we are talking about a line of descent - Dungeons and Dragons was inspired by Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and Earthdawn was inspired by Dungeons and Dragons (the ED Thief's starting Talents are exactly the same as a D&D Thief's class abilities, right down to the backstab). 

It's a reminder that Earthdawn is a very cleverly put-together, but the thing that's most clever about it is the way it rigorously justifies D&D tropes. . .

And I just realized that I was about to launch into the same rant about Thieves that I did after The Adept's Way (i.e. it's weird that there's a magical thievery school that people just openly advertise and it's somehow allowed to exist), but that's not surprising, because this is essentially the same book.

As an expansion to The Adept's Way it works pretty well. The Air Sailor Pirate build blurs the already tenuous line between Air Sailor and Sky Raider, and the urban Scout build blurs the tenuous line between Scouts and Thieves, but it's nice to get a ground-level view of the setting. It's best to think of this as a fiction anthology and just ignore the fact that sometimes you get fiction where a troubadour explains the concept of active listening. All of the stories are a bit basic - like the introduction of the "gentleman" air pirate - because they're really just introducing character concepts, but, yeah, sometimes they cross the line into actively condescending (the Archer chapter in The Way of War had a section explaining that people have physical senses).

Overall, I liked it, though. A lot of the new Talent Knacks are pretty cool. You can potentially do a double-jump or extend your Gold Sense to include iron or jewels. Resist Taunt seems niche, but I think you could build a really strange and memorable character around the Fool Self knack. Some of them are reprints from 1st edition, but I approve of the generally more experimental tone of the 2nd edition newcomers.

There's also a new Discipline, the Mountebank, that is kind of fun and kind of disruptive - they're magical con-artists whose ultimate ability is to control people like puppets. I'm not sure it can stand up to wilderness or kaer-exploring adventures, but it's a real powerhouse in town. It fits in well with the original Disciplines if you're okay with the eccentric old-school theory of balance where a character can excel in one arena at the expense of the others (and this is, still, a game that has a "Warrior" class, two if you count the Zhan Shi). In an ideal world, it would be versatile enough to allow diplomat or leader builds, but that might be a job for a 3rd attempt at this supplement.

Ukss Contribution: One of the new Talent Knacks, the Shortest Path, allows you to learn the shortest route to any known location. There are two interesting facts about this Knack - the first is that its short range optimizes its use for cities (in most natural settings, the shortest path is a straight line) and the second is that it works by summoning a minor elemental spirit who leads you along the route. It's an incredibly cute image and I'll have to figure out a way to work helpful urban pixies into the setting.