Saturday, April 30, 2022

(Earthdawn 4e)Elven Nations

 So, Elven Nations took me 11 days to read. Now, about 75 percent of this delay can be blamed on Warframe. I recently got sucked back into it, and O . . . M . . . G, so much grind. And I mean that as a good thing (believe it or not, but I, the man who is systematically reading a giant list of books, meticulously assembled over the span of decades, am fairly susceptible to grind-based gameplay loops).

However, despite spending close to 90 (! - I shouldn't have looked it up!) hours in the past two weeks playing a video game, I do think a full 25% of the blame for me dragging my feet can be attributed to the fact that the first half of this book is more or less a reprint of 1st edition's Blood Wood. I went back and checked. The organization is different. Some sections got trimmed down while others were expanded. But substantial portions of the text were identical.

I don't really have a problem with this, in the abstract. What am I going to do, yell at the youngsters, "hey, if you want to know about the Blood Wood in your fancy, modern edition of Earthdawn, you should do what I did and find a copy of a book that's been out of print for 25 years." No, a new era requires a new supplement, fair enough. And if 4th edition has been so conservative with the existing lore that the old sourcebook can be used with few changes, then that's no great fault either.

However, it did make the question of whether I wanted to work on the blog or play more Warframe a bit more fraught than it otherwise might have been. Seriously, nine of the past eleven days were spent "reading" the first half of this book and then I read the second half in two days (while still playing an admittedly unhealthy amount of Warframe). Is it really too much to ask that every rpg supplement be written to satisfy my jaded craving for endless amounts of novelty? Apparently.

Okay, okay, enough about me. What about the book? I do think that the Blood Wood section benefits from being shorter. I didn't do a page-by-page comparison or anything, but it feels like less of a fortress now. Still isolationist. Still dangerous. But I suspect that a lot of the cut material was the stuff that made it feel impenetrable to outsiders. Plus, the adventurer-friendly section about the Heart of the Forest (the group who wants to cure the Blood Wood of its whole . . . situation) had been expanded. It's overall a better introduction to the area than the 1st edition supplement.

And then we get the expanded lore. Two new locations that were merely mentioned in the old books - the Western Kingdoms and Shoshara. They are well-drawn locations, with some great personalities, intriguing occult mysteries, and a fascinating political dynamic where they try to navigate the fallout from the growing schism in the elvish religion. However, they also suffer from the downside of Earthdawn's humanistic worldbuilding - the new societies feel a lot like humans. I mean, they're bickering about a culturally and religiously significant tree and forming factions based both on theology and on economic and political considerations, where it's hard to say which priority undermines the other, and it's all very mature and thoughtful, but also nothing that you couldn't do with a nature-based religion in an all-human setting.

Which brings us to the sticky question of . . .elves? Why are they? This is actually something Earthdawn has struggled with. It inherits from Shadowrun the idea that dwarfs and elves and trolls, et al, are simply humans who have transformed into fantasy creatures due to a high background magic level, and as a result its go-to move has been to give their demihumans the full range of human motivations and foibles. It's resulted in some electric worldbuilding, but, well, Earthdawn is not Shadowrun, and lacunae that are playful or mysterious in a futuristic cyberpunk setting can feel like simple gaps in a traditional fantasy world.

Like, in the year 2065, it's not surprising when a dwarf doesn't act like a Dwarf. In fact, you'd probably get punched in the mouth for even mentioning it. That's because they're humans who have been transformed. That's the history of their people. Likewise, when the elves start acting like Elves, that's weird. There's probably a mystery there. Where are they getting all this from? Who said Elves were a thing?

However, in 8000 BCE, these are not questions that are going to come up. Nobody even remembers the time when the metahumans were just humans. There is such a thing as "Elf culture" and people take for granted that this makes sense. But in Earthdawn, the words "elf" and "dwarf" are doing a lot of heavy lifting. The books never actually establish that it means something to be an elf or a dwarf (even 1e's Denizens of Earthdawn really just described things in terms of Throalic or Wyrm Wood cultures, rather than some truly non-human mentality), but instead rely on 20 years of vanilla fantasy baggage to set people's expectations. Dwarves live underground and elves live in the woods, and there's no need to question it.

Except, Elven Nations describes a new society of seafaring elves and now the questions we didn't ask start to come back to bite us in the ass. What is it about seafaring that alienates the Shosharans from the community of elvishness? What is it about being an elf that sets Shoshara apart from the nearby human seafarers of Khistova?

The book struggles to find an answer and to the extent that there is one at all, it seems to be "racism." As in, the thing that ties elves together is that they are racist against non-elves. The reason Shoshara was Separated by decree of the Queen in Wyrm Wood is because they weren't quite racist enough. They actually learned something (the art of building seaworthy ships) from non-elves, and it is completely unacceptable to even admit that non-elves might have something to teach.

It might work if you cast that as flaw of the Wyrm Wood culture. Some elf once found a magic tree and built a whole society around it and authentic elvish living came to mean "rigorous imitation of the lifestyle of those closest to the tree." But . . . is Barsaive meant to be the center of the universe? Wyrm Wood culture should start at the Oak Heart and then spread out from there, which means that it must have been constantly coming into contact with elves who were not part of it, outsiders who had their own ways and who had to be converted to the Elf Queen's service. And if we're talking about outsiders changing their ways, then there's no intrinsic reason why only elves can follow the ways of the Wood, so the fact that Wyrm Wood was the spiritual heart of the elvish people is actually a deliberate artifact. They recruited only elves in order to build an Elvish Identity and that's why racism is so baked into everything they do.

I'm pretty sure this was unintentional, though. You don't just put something so fucked up into your setting and then treat it as another background element. If "the purity of the elvish culture" were meant to be a dogwhistle, then we'd probably see more dogs. There is an element of this in Shoshara, where non-elves are starting to agitate for greater political rights, and that kind of looks like the book playing to a theme, but then you're forced to consider that the Western Kingdoms and Blood Wood "avoid" this issue by refusing to allow non-elves to even live inside their territory, and Shoshara starts to look unironically progressive even as it has a race-based political hierarchy.

What I think is going on is an accidental equivocation between "racist" and "fae." Elves are associated by a feeling of apartness, and that winds up defining them even in settings where that doesn't make a lot of sense. That's because the mythological antecedents of the elves, the Fair Folk and the Alfar, were these divine beings who only intermittently dealt with our world. Even Tolkien's elves are immortals who are only temporarily (by their own long-lived standards) visiting the mortal world and who, as of the events of The Lord of the Rings are starting to retreat back to their mystical homeland. So, for a mythic elf, apartness isn't a choice. Their home, their natural state of existence, is in a world where humans can't go, and thus for them to actually connect with a human, or admire the things of the human world, is to set up a tragedy. It is a kindness for them to act aloof, or, at least, it's understandable, because it represents an attempt to safely navigate an inherently dangerous relationship.

But if elves aren't otherworldly immortals, but rather just regular people with pointy ears, then the protective aloofness just makes them look like total jerks. The Blood Wood is an interesting twist, because it is sort of fae. It started out as an ordinary place inhabited by ordinary people, but through blood magic, it became otherworldly, and the people adapted to that would have trouble existing anywhere else. You've got this imagery of a rose with its thorns, beauty undergirded by danger, a whole society that is goth by birth and not by choice, and it makes sense for these people to be aloof. They may not be divine spirits in human form, but they have their own experiences that could justifiably be described as "inhuman." Their world is not ours (this is probably why the Blood Wood was so impenetrable in 1st edition, too).

Yet, Earthdawn's elves didn't start out that way. The elves of the Western Kingdoms act like they did. And the Shosharans are half-heartedly recovering from that viewpoint. But it was never earned, just like it was unearned when the Wyrm Wood started the tradition. And I'm not entirely sure what to do with that.

Ultimately, I guess I'd want to see one of two things happen - either elves become a lot stranger, enough to justify an entirely different mode of existence (perhaps, by finally putting the mystery of the "Great Elves" to bed and just making the entire species potentially immortal), or by showing us a second autochthonous elf culture, one with no ties to Barsavie or Wyrm Wood, which could then show us what elves might look like when they are being normal. Yes, the three Barsaive-centered elf cultures all revolve around different reactions to the collapse of their old religion of acting exactly like the Queen of Wyrm Wood and avoiding "cultural contamination" from all those filthy non-elves, but that's a specific dysfunction of a particular cultural tradition, and not something that is intrinsic to being an elf.

My final verdict of the book is thus - it gives us some neat locations and cultures, with enough details to significantly aid the GM's prep work, but it needs to be more precise with the use of its tropes. I especially found the beastmen attacking Shoshara's prospecting camps to be borderline Not Okay.  "Savage attacks" by creatures with "almost-Namegiver-level intelligence," seriously? If they can build a ship (and they can), they can have a culture. And if they have a culture, they have motives worth knowing. I get why it's there, but like "elves are otherworldly" being used despite the fact that Earthdawn elves are mutated humans, this "the borderlands of our fantasy realm are under assault by creatures who have no ability to negotiate" is something that was inherited and then not subject to enough scrutiny.

Overall, a decent enough book, but it could benefit from a new round of development.

Ukss Contribution: The Amethyst Spire. I just think it sounds pretty.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

(Dragonstar) Starfarer's Handbook

 Dragonstar is not weird enough to be this weird.

I know, I know, I'm rambling, but I just finished the Starfarer's Handbook, and I'm struck with a dilemma - is this setting actually good? I could definitely roast it. Its take one the alignment system is absolutely bizarre. The laws of the Dragon Empire operate on "The Principle of Active Morality" (and yes, it deserves the capitals, because it is literally the name of a literal legal doctrine), which states that you can't discriminate based on alignment, only on what people do.

Because core book alignment detecting spells are canon in this setting. And they're accurate. And paladins work for the government. And the alignment spells are "used all the time" (an in-character quote, from an ostensibly "good" character who urges we follow the example of tolerance he sets with his practiced indifference to the fact that he serves in a military unit with evil soldiers, under the command of an evil emperor who "piously" worships the Destroyer). But despite all this, you aren't actually allowed to discriminate against people who self-identify as "evil."

It's all part of the truce that established the Dragon Empire. The evil dragons were afraid that they'd be persecuted for "natures given to them by the gods," so they demanded a constitutional right to be evil. This may seem absurd, but the narrator assures us that it is a vital protection for good characters, now that the throne has finally gone to an evil dragon, after 5000 years of being ruled by good dragons.

And the thing that really sets me off about this is that, minus the alignment nonsense, this is a great backstory. Different clans of dragons had a war among the stars, one that threatened to escalate until all life was destroyed, so they came together for a power-sharing arrangement. Each clan would rule for 1000 years, and at the end of that time, they'd pass the empire to the next clan in precedence. It was a system that worked for 5000 years, creating a peaceful, stable galactic civilization that valued diversity and tolerance. But dragons have long memories, and now a day long-dreaded has come. One of the most brutally antagonistic clans, whose leader carved a swath of terror across the galaxy during the war, has finally gotten their turn at the throne. The once benign Dragon Empire has began a policy of rapid and aggressive expansion, while internally crushing dissent. It is a time ripe for heroes . . .

Except the dragons are color-coded, in accordance with D&D lore, so the entire thing has a weirdly deterministic feel to it. As soon as anyone suggested that Red Dragons would get a chance to rule the galaxy, everyone knew it wasn't going to work out. They're evil beings who embrace an evil identity and will wield their power to do evil things, and that's not propaganda from their enemies, that's their campaign promise. "Put me on the throne and I guarantee 1000 years of evil." And the empire's pro-evil constituency cheered.

And yeah, maybe that's preferable to guaranteed total destruction, but it just feels fundamentally different than agreeing to a constitutional order where your ideological enemies will occasionally wield power. Like, you may think that they're corrupt and cruel and authoritarian, and you may even be right, but you at least know that they won't explicitly and unapologetically start worshiping a deity whose primary doctrine calls for the destruction of all life.

But the strangest thing is that this isn't just a concern for good characters. People with an evil alignment would also prefer to be ruled by a good emperor. You think Mezzenbone's relatives are sitting around thinking, "now, at last, one of our own rules the empire. It's only a matter of time before he sees the wisdom of sharing the spoils?" And yes, in real life, people really are that gullible, but in real life they don't have a magic spell that calls upon the primordial forces of creation to unambiguously and truthfully identify people as chaotic evil.

Exploring how a society could possibly function under these constraints may actually make for some compelling speculative fiction (in fact, Blue Rose plays with this idea in some fascinating ways), but that is not what Dragonstar is trying to do. The Principle of Active Morality exists so that characters in the setting can politely pretend that alignment doesn't. Because as bad as alignment is in regular D&D, it is completely unworkable in a setting with mass media and a modern bureaucratic state. However, for some reason, the creators of Dragonstar overlooked the much simpler and more satisfying solution of simply removing alignment from the game.

Oh, right, all of the above was meant as a prelude to me not roasting The Starfarer's Handbook. But it does serve as an example of my main criticism of the book - what Dragonstar is doing is taking the 3rd edition Player's Handbook and putting it in space. . . with only the bare minimum of changes (fighters can choose firearms feats as part of their class bonus, wizards can keep their spellbooks on a portable computer, etc). 

It's very weird, but it's not always weird in the right kind of way. There's a juxtaposition of genres, but not a blending of genres. It's vanilla D&D in space, but with only a few exceptions, the D&D elements are not given space opera tropes and the space elements are not given fantasy tropes. Which is a shame, because those exceptions are real highlights. Take Dune-esque Houses of space aristocrats and make them dragons . . . yeah, that's cool. There's an order of paladins, but they have power armor, exclusive bionic implants, and are known by the unexplained backronym "SOLAR?" Okay, you have my attention.

Unfortunately, that attention is squandered by things like a Barbarian class that is just sort of there. They decided, apparently, that the compelling thing about the class was its implied cultural background, and thus they come from "primitive" worlds and don't understand technology by default and this is in lieu of reimagining them as sci-fi warriors with berserk fury and uncanny physical resilience. Likewise, there is no thought given to the common space fantasy conceit of "melee combat inexplicably in the future." Shields are "obsolete," and there is no light-saber equivalent. 

So is Dragonstar good? I honestly don't know. I'd say that it's on the cusp of goodness. It's got ahold of something good. It is good when it is doing something distinct to itself. But it's half-baked. It doesn't always have the conviction of its premise. It sometimes feels to me like Fantasy Flight Games was rushing to get the first ever d20 firearms and spaceship rules into print. The OGL led to a great flowering of creativity in the rpg scene, and Dragonstar is on the leading edge of that, but it's like they didn't know what to do with the freedom.

Also, it doesn't help that the book falls into some of the design traps that later d20 products learned to avoid. The Technomancer prestige class has multiclass requirements and its own, weak spell progression, which could lead, in theory, to a 14th level character with a Base Attack Bonus of +6 and access to a single 4th level spell (this is probably the strongest Technomancer build too, you could get 7th level spells by waiting until wizard 13 and meeting the 8 Use Device requirement with a cross-class skill, but then you're trading your 8th and 9th level spells for a single 3rd level spell.) Likewise, the Pilot class has nine dead levels, middling BAB and HP, and gains only a few small bonuses to a niche activity. These are not mistakes the designers would have made even two or three years later.

I think, at this time, I am going to refrain from rendering a final verdict. I've still got five more of these books to go, and the way I see it, there's a lot of room for growth. If the setting gets stranger and more specific as it's further developed, if the rules get tighter as the developers gain more experience, if the vestigial D&D elements fall away as it becomes more of its own thing, then Dragonstar could go beyond merely good into actively great . . . or it could stumble and never find its voice. Since this is the only book in the series I've ever actually read, I'll be excited to find out which way it goes.

Ukss Contribution: I don't know how I'll use it, but I liked the fact that imperial soldiers nicknamed the medical robots "reapers." It's something meant to help them, but it doesn't work very well, so they call it something insulting. A very human bit of worldbuilding.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

(Earthdawn 4e) Questors

I don't know about these unreliable narrators. Questors gives us more information than we've ever had about the titular questors and their patron spirits, The Passions, but in classic Earthdawn style, it expands the lore by having the new lore come out of the mouths of people who have reason (either conscious or unconscious), to misrepresent the lore.

I can see the upside of doing it this way - you're basically getting a 2-for-1, telling us about a new thing in your fantasy setting while also building up the surrounding culture by telling us what people think of the new thin in your fantasy setting. How do followers of the Mad Passion Vestrial justify themselves? Not well, as it turns out - "Without terrible crimes, there is no purpose to law."

But it kind of leads to more questions than answers. Vestriel wasn't always a Mad Passion, and the stories from the more benevolent time still exist in Barsaive's collective mythology. So what are they? How much of that old nature still exists inside the Passion? How is it that everyone seems to know that the former Passion of good-natured trickery has now become the Passion of cruel and hateful trickery (you'd think Vestriel's skill at trickery would help keep that under wraps)? What happens if someone who was raised in isolated kaer was inspired by the pre-Scourge stories and decides to become a questor of the good version of Vestriel? After reading this book, I'm as in the dark as I ever was.

Of course, the obvious rebuttal is that questions are a good thing to have, because each question is a potential adventure. And I guess I have to concede that that's 100% correct, but I'm still going to sigh heavily because it's unlikely that I'll get to play those adventures, and thus my questions must remain forever unanswered.

Some of them are kind of interesting, though. Like, it's obvious that the questor of Dis (Passion of Bureaucracy and Slavery) is making a fatuous argument when he says that Dis likes slavery because she wants to encourage a mental and spiritual numbness that will make most people invisible to the Horrors, but also . . . What was the trauma of the Scourge? So much of what we see from this period is about the Horrors corrupting people as an attack, but what about when people corrupt themselves as a defense?

We do already have the Blood Wood for that particular question, but there is a lot of room in the setting for different variations of apocalyptic trauma. I feel like a more objective viewpoint could have explored the subject in greater depth.

At times it seemed to me like the book was trying to create the impression of depth by flipping the script on most of the Passions. Thystonius isn't just the Passion of War, he represent all struggle. Why, sometimes just getting out bed is a struggle, and when it is, Thystonius is by your side (encouraging both you and your mortal enemy to never back down from a fight). 

When this worked, it worked pretty well. When it didn't, we got the Lochost chapter. I guess the theme was "excesses of the revolution," and yeah . . . You shouldn't torture people, even if they're slave traders, so what point, exactly, is the book trying to make when it tells us that a fanatic who tortures people has gained the favor of the Passion of liberation? Oh, that abolitionist god whose followers have hitherto been shown as heroically risking their lives to oppose the slave-taking Theran empire . . . what if he had a dark side?

It's all very 1990s interesting, and I can see how you're trying to shine more light on the inhuman nature of these entities (an approach that worked well when it was revealed that the Passion of joy literally cannot understand the existence of sadness), but I guess recent years have shaken me, because this is a story I have little interest in trying to tell.

Overall, though, this is a good lore book. I'm not sure I agree with the Game Information chapter when it says "Passion worship is not really a religion," because aside from there being "no sacred texts" literally every other aspect of this activity is described in religious terms. "I'm going to stop for the night in this roadside shrine and ask for a blessing while the guy who performs miracles for the faithful tells me a traditional story with a moral lesson, but no, I don't have a religion." Maybe it's just unconscious Christian bias. A cluster of deeply ingrained cultural practices that revolve around superhuman entities that take a personal interest in the human condition isn't a religion because nobody compiled those practices into a book.

Eh, that sounded saltier than I intended. I think there's definitely room to explore the difference between secular culture and religion, in a world where the gods verifiably exist and are not always conveniently well-behaved . . . or at least there would be if so much of the book wasn't given over to unreliable narrators.

Ukss Contribution: Not all of this book was deliberately perverse. There's at least one part of the book that is incredibly on the nose. Take the story of the Keeper of the First Seed. I am going to do a 100% not sarcastic paraphrase.

Jaspree, the passion of nature had this valuable thing called the First Seed, that had something to do with protecting nature. He wanted someone to watch over it, so he looked around for a guy who was already protecting nature and asked him, "do you want to watch this thing for me, it protects nature?" And the guy was like, "yes." And so Jaspree gave him the thing and it worked out perfectly. That is the story of the first ever questor.

I had to reread the story to make sure there wasn't some hidden irony or riddle or spiritual lesson, and nope, it was just an incredibly amicable job interview. The reason it's in this section is the follow-up, when the guy was ready to die. He handed off his First-Seed-watching duties to an absolute novice, on the theory that the inexperienced questor was like a seed, and would grow into the role, given time.

I like that. I don't feel like the allegory was entirely earned by the story leading up to that point, but it's an interesting religious practice. Give an extremely important and prestigious lifetime appointment to a complete newbie as an act of faith. No reasonable person could possibly think that's a good idea, but with the god's blessing, it's always worked out so far.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Trinity Continuum: Four Tasty Bits

 Just going to get this out of the way real quick - I went into this skeptical about Onyx Path's "Tasty Bits" format and after reading four them, I remain unconvinced. It's largely an irrational feeling, because I enjoyed everything I read, and if I'd spent 25 dollars on the print version of a 100 page tasty bits compilation, I'd likely think it money well-spent, but I feel what I feel. I don't care for PDFs and I don't care for micro-supplements, and as good as this stuff was (and it's top-tier work, highly recommended if you don't have my hang-ups), I'm just too set in my ways.

I feel like an ungrateful oaf for saying that, because I was very generously given these documents for free, so let me shamelessly shill for a moment - these tasty bits expand the Trinity Continuum, two for the core setting, one for Aberrant, and one for Aeon, and if you haven't experienced it yet, you should correct that immediately. They are smart, genre-savvy games with a fun, flexible system, satisfying power trees, and a beautiful presentation, and these tasty bits are right in line with that.

Now, let's break them down one by one.

Amalgamated Idea Dynamics

This might be the weakest of the four, but only because it's trying to do too much. It's a sci-fi corporation that sponsors a diverse team of superheroes and explores dimension-hopping technology. But sixteen pages is too few to really develop any of these threads, especially when eight of the pages are character sheets. Like, Dr Yuki Yanagi is a super-scientist who wants to be the first person to ever make contact with an alternate universe, but also she's statted like a a starting character and thus that's something of a long-range goal. There's not much sense of what she's going to need to get there, so mostly what she does is day-to-day benevolent comic book corporation activities - disaster relief, crime fighting, and inventing stuff. You can use her as a rival or a patron, but the main thing she brings to the table is the notion that interdimensional travel is possible. You've got to build pretty much an entire campaign from there.

The best use for this material that comes to mind is to steal liberally from the "Capers Incorporated" chapter of In Media Res. The novas included here would make an appealing set of preconstructs for a higher-powered version of that adventure, one that focused more on the interdimensional conflict than the stolen technology. Between the two, I sense the potential of an entire dimension-hopping supplement (or even full game-line . . . "Apostasis," maybe), but so far, all we've got is a start.

Ukss Contribution: It's a pretty charismatic crew, all told. I especially liked that Ginni "Firelight" Castigliano, a glowing green woman with pyrokinetic powers, got a hefty payday by acting as the spokesperson for the gas company. I'm not sure what that advertising campaign even is, but I'm picturing something charmingly cheesy.


This reminds me a lot of some of those 1st edition microsupplements, like Field Report: Psi Laws or Field Report: Media. It's more or less pure setting flavor. It technically adds a new mechanic (you know, owning a pet), but mostly it's just describing a little-considered aspect of 22nd culture. In addition to cats and dogs, you could own a robot or a psionic biotech monstrosity. It's all very interesting, even if it doesn't immediately suggest an adventure . . .

Actually, I can think of two. Both, ironically, were suggested by some of the supplement's incomplete thought. The first was inspired by the discussion of terrestrial pets on alien worlds: "Natural-born and gengineered animals from Earth are often restricted, or at least highly regulated, as they’re most easily prey to the alien conditions and organisms." It occurs to me is that this is a door that swings both ways. There are undoubtedly a huge number of Earth animals that would wreak absolute havoc on an alien ecosystem, some of which humans keep as pets.

So, idea the first is set on the human embassy Qinshu. Little Billy, the diplomat's son, has lost his pregnant cat, who has gotten loose into the planet's wilderness and is now threatening to cause an interstellar diplomatic incident by preying on any number of small biotech organisms.

My second idea comes from the revelation that alien pets are forbidden "for biosecurity reasons." Not discussed is the fact that wherever there's a restriction, there are criminals who seek to make a profit violating that restriction. There's definitely some adventure potential in the interstellar trade of exotic animals, both as criminal smugglers and as the Aeon task force assembled to stop them.

Maybe I'll make it a trilogy with my illegal Lunar garbage dumping adventure. That makes me laugh, getting the players hyped up to play futuristic superheroes and then sending them on a series of increasingly niche environmentalist missions.

Ukss Contribution: Biotech pets can be engineered with psionic powers. The desirability of such a thing in real life is debatable ("my cat can now knock things off the mantle from across the room"), but it is an amusing image.


This was probably my favorite of the four. It's a high concept pitch that fills in some gaps in the Continuum's timeline. Thanks to the game's special brand of  sci-fi nonsense, people can gain powers, becoming psychics, novas, and talents, but also sometimes animals and plants or entire places can become similarly "inspired." The same process can even effect inanimate objects, giving them strange and unusual powers.

What do you do about these potentially dangerous sources of moveable supernatural power? Maybe start a secret conspiracy to gather, catalogue, and study such items eventually storing them in a mysterious underground facility known only as "The Vault." Yes, it sounds a lot like Control or Warehouse 13, but the Inspiration Media sidebar has a simple explanation for that - it's an rpg supplement that's meant to evoke Control and Warehouse 13.

For only being 8 pages, it manages to cram in a lot of good campaign preparation, discussing Polyphemus' organization and major personnel, hinting at The Vault's occult secrets, and providing a thin justification for the building's 1960s decour. In a better world, this would be a whole book all on its own, but even so, it was pure fun from beginning to end.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked the flux-infused weapons and armor. Weapons and Armor in the Trinity Continuum are defined by tags, which give the items particular combat options. When a weapon is Flux infused, you pick a bunch of tags (up to 6 for a 3-point weapon) and and occasionally (once per session) swap them out based on your anticipated needs (using between 1 and 3 at a time, depending on the item's point value). Having a gradually shapeshifting weapon sounds pretty neat.

Les Fantômes

I had no worries about this one, and I was right to feel that way, because it was delightful. Les Fantômes were my favorite part of the Trinity Continuum Core and while Polyphemus may have recently supplanted them in my affections, they're still pretty great. What's not to love about a gang of high class burglars who exclusively target the ultra rich? There are any number of movies based on this exact premise, and they're almost always fun.

I will say that they are presented here as more altruistic than I had them pegged for in the core. They deliberately target corrupt rich people for vigilante justice, instead of simply ratting out people they were going to rob anyways. It probably works better for a protagonist organization, but I think I prefer them to be a little more roguish. Thieves with a code instead of vigilantes who steal, if that makes sense. However, you're still pulling elaborate heists, living the high life, and being in all ways impeccable, so it's kind of a narrow distinction.

This supplement also has the distinction of being the most useful, mechanically. The Dramatic Editing mechanic was built for heist reveals, and we get some discussion on how to make it work, along with a whole bunch of new stunts to represent the twists and turns of the genre. Its also general enough to be useful in most any Talent-based game, so I can thank it for expanding my understanding of what the game can do.

Ukss Contribution: There's a new Gift (Talent power) that lets you vanish like Batman. It's more of a mechanic than a setting thing, but since I already put the entire organization into Ukss, I'll just try and find a way of making it work.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Earthdawn Companion, 4th Edition

 This is a big, dense book that I don't have a lot to say about because it's almost purely practical. It extends the level cap from 8 to 15, adds a bunch of new monsters and magic items, and introduces some very conventional crafting rules that work fine, but have the same basic flaw as most crafting systems - you spend a lot of time cross-referencing charts and trying to squeeze out marginal bonuses to make a roll that is not at all interesting if it fails.

(My current thinking on crafting systems is that if it's something the character is allowed to have, they should automatically succeed at crafting it, with a single roll determining how long it takes to make and how over budget they are. If the character is not allowed to have the item, then making it a longshot on a table doesn't really benefit anyone.)

Books like this are generally my favorite ones to buy, because they are applicable to a wide range of campaigns and have utility even when you're doing experimental stuff like alternate settings or niche campaigns. It was probably, however, a big mistake to read The Earthdawn Companion three and a half years after the core (my word, has it been that long? I am going to be pursuing this goal forever.) Do the new powers fit in well with the core book's progression? Are they balanced and thematic? Does the math make sense? ::shrug:: Um, I guess?

Now, I wasn't entirely asleep here. I noticed that most of the 4th edition Talents seemed to stay within a particular tier (the tiers are Novice, at levels 1-4, Journeyman at 5-8, Warden at 9-12, and Master at 13-15). Because I made a note of it in the 1st edition companion, I was also able to remember the Life Check talent, which warriors get at Journeyman tier (level 6 in 1st edition) and Cavalrymen get at Warden tier (level 15 in 1e). So there are still some gaps between Disciplines with the acquisition of Talents, but nothing quite as extreme. I expect if I did a comprehensive survey, I'd find that a full tier is now the biggest gap. 

Also, the Weaponsmith discipline lost its spellcasting abilities. I'm not too broken up about it, because it always felt like a tacked-on ability that mainly served to allow weaponsmiths to enchant items (because Earthdawn 1e shared D&D's bad habit of tying downtime-scale magic crafting to tactical-scale spellcasting), and now the Enchanting rules are more permissive, with Weaponsmiths explicitly getting Talent Knacks that allow them to harvest True Elements and create Orichalcum, without needing to dip into another Discipline's specialty. However, I am kind of left wondering why these guys aren't staying with the forge, where it's safe. Still, they have some useful buff abilities and what looks like a respectable selection of useful combat powers, so I guess they're in the same nebulous space as Troubadors - B-tier adventurers with a useful secondary skill.

Next up is Talent Knacks. They're useful and feel like a more organic part of your Adept abilities than they did in 1st edition, but if you'll forgive me for being a crusty old-timer, I wish they'd taken more inspiration from the whimsical side of the system. "Improvised Weapon" is back, but unlike its first appearance in Arcane Mysteries of Barsaive, there's no suggestion that a stale loaf of bread is a valid improvised weapon. To be fair, there's also no suggestion that it isn't, but I guarantee that 99% of groups are not going to interpret "The adept suffers no penalties when using improvised weapons" (the whole of the knack's description) permissively enough to allow it. And as if that weren't bad enough, you can't even intimidate inanimate objects any more! Just thinking about all those chairs and wagon wheels and handcuffs that suddenly feel secure doing whatever they want gets me so steamed!

Nah, just kidding. It may all be very practical nowadays, but there was nothing that stood out to me as a dud. Some of them allow you to use new mundane skills with your Talent rating, which is maybe too subtle an effect to be very satisfying, but in terms of Legend Point costs, it's a good deal for PCs. I'm sure it's all deliberately in service to a more serious tone.

All the rest of my notes are calling out things that I liked . . . except one, which calls out something I'm ambivalent about. The new Horrors seem more creatively sadistic than some of the ones I've seen in the past, which I guess is a good thing for people who like the game's horror elements, but it bummed me out a little. "Oh, you've sewn the head of a farm animal onto the decapitated body of a great hero so that you can animate the resulting abomination as a zombie and humiliate it for your own amusement? Well, congrats, it's definitely a dick move. What, the spell ensures that the creature retains some dim memories of its former life? Well, fuck, man. I feel shittier knowing that. Was that your goal?"

Like I said, I'm ambivalent. Knowing the Horrors are gross, petty edgelords will certainly make the more satisfying to slay. But at what cost?

Overall, this is a utility book that felt pretty useful. It was long, but it contained enough creative fantasy stuff that it didn't feel like a chore to read. If I ever run a high-level Earthdawn game, I imagine I'll refer to it often.

Ukss Contribution: My unironically favorite thing in this book is Kellimar's Armor of Rose Petals. It's magical armor that looks like rose petals. Love it.

However, I think this is a case where I have to go with my ironic favorite instead. It's not something that I ordinarily like to do, but the irony levels here are so dangerously out of control, that I question the safety of overlooking this candidate. People who have read the book may have an inkling of what I'm talking about already, but I think I have to begin by setting a mood.

Imagine a fairly long and comprehensive monster chapter. It could occasionally veer into the whimsical (we learn there are Elk in Barsaive because a breeding population was kept in an underground bunker for 400 years), but it was mostly pretty conventional. Some of the monsters were strange. Some felt like the authors were trying to put a distinctive mark on some basic ideas. But overall, it felt like a professionally written book attempting to quickly explain diverse fantasy fauna.

Then there were the Dire Wolves.

I can't possibly do this justice.

"At some point in the past, someone decided they needed a giant wolf which could be ridden.It was probably a dog lover who was upset with all of the different riding cats which were available while there was a distinctive lack of riding canines . . ."

This keeps going for another two and a half paragraphs, somehow escalating in weirdness the entire time. Far be it for me to decry a dizzy, conversational writing style (in fact, it's something I strive for), but this is the only thing in the entire book that is like this. I keep trying to come up with an explanation.

Placeholder text that got left in accidentally? Something slapped together at the last minute, when they discovered the Dire Wolf entry missing? A passive-agressive swipe at a developer or overeager forum thread that hassled them about riding dogs?

I suspect there's no real explanation. Someone probably just wrote a gag first draft and it so amused the team that they decided to run with it. If it means that Barsaive's Dire Wolves become a meme, well, that was always something that was possible anyways.

In honor of this reckless game design, Ukss will also have rideable Dire Wolves. They will also be a meme.

Monday, April 4, 2022

(Planescape) Tales From the Infinite Staircase

It's a curious phenomenon, but I think reading all of these Planescape books might have made me excessively jaded. My knee-jerk reaction to many of the locations in Tales From The Infinite Staircase was "I've already seen this, can't you show me something new?" 

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if maybe it's part of the purpose of an adventure book to put the already established setting material to work. Instead of thinking, "this is a Planescape adventure that takes us to a bunch of familiar locations," I could, in fact, judge it against a "standard" adventure, which might take the players to a forest then a swamp then a lich's tower. Don't think of Tales From The Infinite Staircase like I'm a blogger that's just spent the last eight months reading the bulk of the published supplements, instead think of it as if I were a new player, weaned on the implied setting of the corebook. . .

I think, if you come at it with fresh eyes, this adventure might blow your mind. Pass through a magical doorway and find yourself in the hive-city of the ant-centaurs. A wicked curse has infected these industrious creatures with a magical malaise and now half the town is flooded. Brave these dangers and follow the clues to a bleak world where a dark power lurks in the waters and the natives gain magical powers by allowing worms to burrow into their skin. Then go to Limbo, which, to be a buzzkill, is used in a pretty boring way here (I think, ironically, the fact that the entire plane is pure chaos means that it also feels homogeneous - no location is durable enough to have unique properties). But this lull only lasts for a little while, then you're off to a ruined city on the edge of dreams, a metropolis floating in the clouds, and an infinite library that exists in the space behind a mirror. Wind up in a city made entirely of dangling chains, where you confront the diabolic chain-creatures who just spent the previous seven chapters trying to spread this spiritual plague.

It's an epic adventure through these incredible fantasy worlds, and it's kind of weird that my reaction should be, "Wow, Baator is doing something Lawful Evil? What a surprise. Yawn." Maybe it's the dark side of grid-filling. Assign every conceivable thing a location in your cosmology, and you start to feel a complete lack of shock when a new thing slots perfectly into your system, and thus comes from exactly where you expect it to come from. 

Maybe just take the events empirically and enjoy the ride. Don't try to figure out how these locations relate to each other, and forget the cosmology that links them. It's a real irony. This is a characteristically Planescape adventure that uses Planescape as effectively as it's possible to use Planescape, but the weakest part of it is the baggage it inherits from Planescape. Like, it's pretty effective and creepy that the Iron Shadow (the apathy curse that drives the plot) reduces the Rilmani to their essential salts, but when you explain that this happens because the paragons of True Neutrality can't endure being infected by Lawful energy, that . . . takes some of the magic out of it.

Weirdly, I don't think I am alone in this feeling. Tales From The Infinite Staircase sometimes feels like it's holding the broader Planescape setting at arm's length. Part of this is subtle. It largely eschews the cant, and when it does show up, it's usually with a parenthetical explaining what the slang means. But there's also a much larger clue - the titular Infinite Staircase itself. This isn't the first time it's shown up, but as the centerpiece of this adventure, it feels a lot like something that fills the exact same niche as Sigil, but better.

This isn't even me projecting. The text basically says as much, "Once a body's found a place like the Infinite Staircase, she can forget about mucking around with all those sodding portals and their thrice-damned keys." Now, granted, that's an in-character sentiment from one of the margin quotes, but it does persuasively sum up the whole vibe. There's this huge, twisting staircase that branches and folds like Escher-space and every so often there's a landing with a door that connects to a random door in the multiverse, and you can just pop in and out with no problems. All the utility of portals, but much less finicky. Some of the landings are even big enough to house entire villages. You can make the Planeswalkers' Guild your new home base and you never have to go to Sigil again (unless, hilariously, you fail the mirror-library quest and discover that the rare tome you were seeking is also available on the open market).

So what we've got with this adventure is a fairly interesting plot that happens in some fairly interesting places, connected by a framing device made entirely out of redundancy. It really is optimally suited for groups that want to play a Planescape adventure without actually playing a Planescape campaign. It's up to you to decide whether that's a strength or a weakness.

The other interesting thing about this adventure is the way it's structured. In theory, it's possible to visit any of the seven locations in any order. It's unclear what would happen if you went to the chain city first, because the Iron Shadow spreads like a disease and the vectors are already out there, so you can confront the creature that decided on this plan, but you won't have the cure and the damage will be going on in the background, but most of the other locations are fairly interchangeable. Each one has a piece of the puzzle and each chapter begins with a timeline that adjusts the adventure based on things the PCs may or may not have already done (these are extremely boring, but they become less confusing as the adventure goes on).

It's an ambitious design and I'm curious how it worked in practice. The way it's set up, the keepers of the Infinite Staircase give the PCs a list of places where they've detected the Iron Shadow, and the PCs can either work their way down the list or skip around at their pleasure, and I guess that's a species of freedom, but it also feels like a choice that's so arbitrary it might as well not even exist. Which of these seven meaningless names most piques your curiosity? If you pick anything other than the next one numerically, you're going to force the DM to adapt the adventure on the fly. Nonetheless, I admire Tales From The Infinite Staircase for trying something different.

Overall, I'm fairly comfortable pronouncing this adventure "good." There's some great imagery and memorable locations, even if the antagonists tend to lack a significant presence. The real adversary is a magical disease/curse and that's a bit impersonal. If you run it, it might be a good idea to introduce Quimath (the chief of the chain-monsters, who wants to spread the Iron Shadow as far as possible) earlier in the story, so the PCs can put a face to the opposition. And it does sometimes feel like an alternative to Planescape, rather than an introduction to it. But I think there's a solid foundation here.

Ukss Contribuiton: I rather liked Blurophil, the floating city. It harnessed windmill power, in a vaguely medieval technomagic way (the windmills powered the spell that keeps people from accidentally walking off the edge). It had a Festival of Lights that sounds pretty neat. And it was founded by refugees from one of Planescape's few completely original Prime Material worlds (Ortho, the place where the Harmonium successfully "brought peace to the land" by, among other things, ethnically cleansing Blurophil's founders, the Riven).