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.

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