Thursday, May 26, 2022

(Dragonstar) Guide to the Galaxy

 Guide to the Galaxy is Dragonstar's main setting book . . . except that The Starfarer's Handbook had plenty of indispensable setting material and this book had a bunch of new rules. Really, the breakdown is more like the split between the PHB and the DMG. DMs will have to be familiar with both. Players can get away with skimming portions of one. Knowing about the culture of the Dragon Empire aids in roleplaying, so it's in The Starfarer's Handbook, knowing about the history aids in crafting an adventure, so it's in the Guide to the Galaxy

Most of the rules material is pretty function, if a bit too detailed. Gravity levels can modify Jumping, Carrying Weight, Climbing Speed, Falling Damage, Flying Speed, Rate of Ascent, Rate of Descent, Movement Rate, and Weapon Ranges. Each has its own chart, so be sure to remember them all. Similarly, radiation damage is resolved with two steps. Also, there's a long series of tables that you use to generate star systems, but that's actually the good kind of detail-oriented chart navigation, so I'm only including it to round out the list.

The real draw of this book is the setting. It makes some . . . interesting choices. The big one is that thing that everyone notices about Dragonstar, the absurdity of its dynastic setup. Five thousand years of rule by the good-aligned metallic dragons followed by a handoff to the evil-aligned chromatic dragons. Surely it's  a disaster waiting to happen, which is why the book tackles it head-on . . . by saying, "It's irrational and no one who lives under its banner would voluntarily choose it as a form of government."

For those keeping score: we, the readers know the Dragon Empire was never going to work; the authors of the book knew the Dragon Empire was never going to work; and the people in the setting knew that the Dragon Empire was never going to work. At least we're all on the same page, I guess.

Though, to be fair, the actual problem here seems to be intractable - how do you create a good system of government when you need a buy-in from Team Evil? No one would ever purposefully design a system that openly saved a slot for an evil ruler to take the throne. Evil is intrinsically disqualifying. Which is usually why, in real life, people with ambitions towards political power usually deny accusations of being evil. "You're just calling me 'evil' as a way of shutting down my agenda," and all that. It's sort of a phatic term in political context - you call your opponent evil because you want them to lose and it's so routine you don't expect it to actually change anyone's mind. Nobody self-identifies as "evil."

Except in D&D land, where they do, and that presents a serious problem. You've got two similarly powerful factions and they're making peace, then it makes sense to say that neither faction is going to accept a settlement that permanently locks them out of power. But one of the factions organizes around evil, and suddenly fighting evil is a form of partisan oppression. It's even framed that way in the text, where it rues senseless violence based on nothing more than race, religion, or alignment.

It's so frustrating to me, because alignment is just an extra piece of information that I neither want nor need. You've got the various characters motives, actions, and relationships, and then you've got this editorial tag that tells us whether such things are justified, and it would be bad enough if it were just a rule, but it also exists in the setting, and so people can know infallibly whether the author of the universe is on their side. Would you ever submit to a "detect alignment" spell? Would you be confident in what it was going to say? Would you even want to know?

There's actually a pretty interesting conflict at the heart of the example star system. The Dragon Empire found valuable minerals on one of the planets, so they set up shop on the system's inhabited world. But that world was dying. It was limping through the aftermath of an epic war, where armies of orc and goblins, led by an enigmatic figure known only as The Faceless Man, went up against an alliance of humans, elves and dwarves, and almost won, but the so-called Free Nations unleashed terrible magic that knocked the planet off its axis, rendering a wide swath utterly uninhabitable and causing wide-spread death and destruction. The survivors fled to the poles, where scarce land and resources have led to generations of smoldering sectarian violence. 

And now, visitors from the stars have landed and are gradually transforming the largest settlement into a modern city, where their citizens and local collaborators can live in unimaginable luxury while rural refugees must navigate a shanty town that's divided between race-based "militias" that are little more than extortionist gangs that dole out violence based on a centuries' old grudge. And the agents of the Empire, the Imperial Secret Police, encourage this conflict, the better to distract the natives from the ongoing plundering of their valuable mineral resources. So it's a gritty game of survival and hard justice in a city where death is around every corner and the night lasts for months.

Also, it's the Army of the Faceless Man that's Evil. The Free Nations militias will kill all goblinoids ("whether militia thugs or innocent civilians") with "no questions asked," but when the leader establishes a relationship with the  black dragon governor, he "had some qualms about allying himself with such an evil creature."

Now, we don't actually get stats for the militia leader, so it's possible that he too has an evil alignment, but at the very least, it's implied that his rank and file followers don't. It's such pointless side-taking. In the sample adventure, the PCs try to track down a half orc who has been kidnapped by the Free Nations, and they talk to a bugbear cab driver who was outraged at the poor treatment of his colleague and an old orc woman who expresses concern about the victim's safety, and they're perfectly ordinary conversations. It's nice. Refreshing even. But over the course of the adventure, the only living people you fight are orcs (you do fight some ghouls, and they are intelligent enough to be counted as people, but that's a whole other thing). When you finally do catch up to the kidnappers, they bluff about wanting a ransom, but eventually give him up without a fight. The justification is that they were too weak to be in any kind of negotiating position (their squad was almost wiped out by an orc militia), but it's a curious coincidence. Alignment only appears in a full stat block, and you only need the stat block for characters you're going to fight. So we know the orcs are Chaotic Evil, but for the kidnappers, we're in the dark.

It didn't have to be that way. It's an interesting adventure. Go in to an orc neighborhood to rescue a half orc from humans. The gangs are brutal and hold the people in thrall, but you and your friends are the invaders. You're on a mission from a paladin reporter who wants to uncover evidence of the Imperial Secret police's involvement in stoking racial violence, but even so you and your whole mission are a part of imperialism's tightening grip on the planet. Is it wrong for the locals to hate you? Even if your best intentions prevail and you uncover the corruption, under imperial law, the whole planet is still owned by the black dragon house Noros (unless they decide to sell it back to the natives, which is implied to be the metallic dragons' standard way of doing things).

I think, at times, Dragonstar falls more into the camp of "depicting" imperialism rather than "critiquing" it, but you could nudge it into a critique very easily by getting rid of the fucking alignment system. Gold dragon goes in, gives the primitive locals all sorts of technological and development aid, is on good terms with local elites, and very generously grants the deed to the planet back to its inhabitants. Now they just owe the same standard income taxes as any other imperial citizen (a flat ten percent, regardless of your personal circumstances). Nothing at all to read into the fact that the gold dragons are explicitly labeled "good."

Anyway, Mezzenbone is just the worst. He going to do all the things that people are afraid he's going to do, and probably worse (when he restarts the dragon war, he has no intention of sparing his fellow chromatics, so that he may rule the ashes uncontested), but his plan to exploit the power of the empire to launch a devastating first strike, is really more of a thousand-year plan, so the text also says "this dreaded event was not the catastrophe that many feared it would be . . .Mezzenbone failed to satisfy the predictions and prophecies of the doomsayers. He did not declare himself emperor for life, dissolve the Imperial Council, suspend all civil liberties accorded to imperial citizens, or impose martial law."

Maybe I'm sensitive, but this "declaring yourself out of the woods because the fascist hasn't tipped his entire plan 4% into his term of office" really gives me the willies. We know he's going to betray the empire, not just because of the out-of-character, for-DMs-eyes-only plot section, but because he explicitly identifies as chaotic evil and worships a god named "the Destroyer."

That's what alignment does to a setting. The routine machinery of empire greedily stealing everything in sight, but with the occasional nod towards the concept of consent is Good. And Evil is the well-telegraphed disaster that you can't do anything about until after it's hurt a bunch of people, lest you be labeled a "doomsayer.". Yikes.

Okay, so we're at about 1500 words and I haven't even started talking about the other weird choice that defines the Dragonstar setting, something that, in my notes, I called "the vanilla of deep time." There was a big bang that happened billions of years ago (confirmed by the gods, though those same gods are still a bit cagey about whether they approve of the Unification Church), and the Dragon Empire is a lonely cluster of about 1000 settled worlds, in an infinitesimal sphere of a million stars, with more than 99.999987% of the galaxy left unexplored. And everywhere they've found so far can be built with the 3rd edition Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and Monster Manual.

The worlds aren't all identical. Heck, the one example we get would have made for a fairly unconventional campaign. But the differences are really more of a matter of curation. The description of a "scarce biosphere" in the star system creation rules puts it thusly, "There are planets in the Empire that gave birth to only a single sentient humanoid species, planets where there are no living oozes or motile plant life forms, and even worlds where there are no magical beasts or aberrations."

No oozes, you say. Is it even possible to imagine such a world? Sarcasm aside, this definition of "scarce" puts "standard" into context. Standard is that everything in the Monster Manual is canon. In the literal sense. The explanation is that the gods only had so many ideas and so they put the same species, with roughly the same ecological and social niches, on every planet. That's how we know who to side with on the example planet. That's why early spacefaring gnomes, from a gnome-only planet, were able to found the Star League (the state that existed before the Dragon Empire), because the people from the more standard worlds were able to recognize them as gnomes from another star, and thus already knew something about their habits and temperament.

I don't know. It's a choice. The endpoint you're after is "D&D in space," and this is a path that gets you there. But what is this universe? It works here a little better than The Starfarer's Handbook, because we get specifics and the example planet isn't exactly cookie-cutter, but the end result is still a space opera setting that avoids engaging with the concept of diversity. There's probably a way to do this that's satisfying, maybe make it part of the little-discussed subgenre of theological science fiction and use the repeating nature of life to say something about the character of the gods. But Dragonstar, thus far, has not been doing the work. What does it mean that there's a "standard" type of planet? What does it mean that some planets are different? What does it mean to move from one planet to another? Is there a difference between a planet that is diverse because it attracted interstellar migrants and one that was created to be diverse from the beginning? How do the planes figure into all this (we know they exist in Dragonstar because it occasionally refers to extraplanar incursions as a kind of common planetary crisis that even the Dragon Empire must treat carefully, and I'm intrigued at the plot's potential)?

But that's just speculation on what might have been. Focusing back on the present, I can't say that I have a verdict on the series yet. Weird, considering that I'm two hardcovers in. I guess, when I bought my first Dragonstar book, back in the early 2000s, I was impressed that it was trying something different with D&D, and now that I've got an extensive, decades-spanning collection, I'm a little disappointed that it's trying something different . . . with D&D.

Ukss Contribution: With all that criticism out of the way, this is still a book that has some inspired details. I liked hearing about mithral skyscrapers, magical cybernetic implants installed with "runic surgery," and the chainsaw pit trap. However, I think I'm going to go with Star Dragons. They float through space, subsisting entirely on solar power, and as they age they glow with color of increasingly energetic stars. Unfortunately, they don't have an ultimate black hole stage of their life cycle, but I can easily add one.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

(Earthdawn 4e) Travar: The Merchant City

 I always feel like a real goon when I lead off with a flaw, but in this case, the flaw is kind of the key to cracking this thing wide open. There's a great campaign you can run out of this book, but in order to do so you have to tackle the flaw head on. . . but you can't correct it, because the flaw is also at the heart of this hypothetical campaign. There's no alternative to simply doing the work.

The flaw is this - Travar: The Merchant City makes the Scourge feel shorter than it ever has before. Even Elven Nations gave it more heft, and there are several canon elves who went into the kaers as children and survived long enough to come out as elders. Travar is a predominantly human city, so a 400 year Scourge plus 100 years since the kaers started opening means that roughly 20 generations have passed in which the major merchant families have survived as distinct entities.

Let's all care about the disposition of the Shakespeare estate. That's how it feels when the book talks about the Dumojoren family. Oh, there were two legendary brothers, one of whom was caught outside of Travar when it decided to seal itself away, and now the lineage descended from that brother is back and wants to merge with the branch of the family descended from the brother who stayed in Travar? What about literally every other human in both locations? That's how populations work. According to ancestry.com, I am mostly British. Therefor, it is highly likely that I'm descended from every single person who was alive in Great Britain in the year 1522 who has a line of descendants that survived to the modern day (though, sadly, this rules out Shakespeare). If 25,000 people go into the fallout shelter, and 400 years later slightly fewer than 25,000 people come out, those survivors are all going to be cousins.

So right away, you've got all these plots that rely on continuous organizations putting a pause on their operations and then emerging centuries later relatively unchanged and picking up exactly where they left off. And that's rough. None of the merchant houses was founded after the Scourge, despite the post-apocalyptic power vacuum, despite the fact that 100 years is more than long enough for a small venture to blossom into a major enterprise, despite the fact that the pre-Scourge houses were merchants, i.e. people who made money by moving goods from one place to another, and thus were 400 years out of practice because of their enforced confinement in a single area.

It's a flaw. But the reason I think this flaw might be massaged into a great campaign is because one of the implications of the short Scourge is so ghastly that it could easily be spun off into satire, and the longer the Scourge, the ghastlier and more satirical it gets. It's unjust when you're talking about the estate of your grandfather, absurd when you're talking about the estate of William Shakespeare, and fascinatingly ludicrous when Shakespeare died in a fallout shelter following a global catastrophe.

One of the merchant families loaned people money to build their own kaers. On the understanding that they would be paid back, with interest, once the Scourge was over (in the form of valuable minerals mined during the Scourge), and if the kaer dwellers failed to meet the agreed-upon price, their descendants would become "indentured servants" to House Achura.

This is actually one of the adventures. A kaer is refusing to open up because they don't have the minerals (turns out digging out the floor of your underground bunker is a bad idea when the bunker is protecting you from creatures who know how to dig a hole) and the residents don't want to be dragged away to work for the descendants of the people who loaned their ancestors money (which never actually arrived because it was sent through monster-infested country at the last possible minute). How the fuck is this even enforceable? Obviously, Travar's courts are massively corrupt, but even so, this is only a hair's more legitimate than just sending in a mercenary army and enslaving random strangers.

This is something that could work as a post-apocalyptic story -"oh, right before the bombs dropped in WW3, the President of the United States sold Colorado to Citibank, and even though none of the financial systems from that period survived to the present day, one of the novitiate scribes found a copy of the deed in a pile of dusty old documents and long story short you owe them a million dollars, which we're choosing to interpret as 1000 ounces of gold (because, obviously, the dollar no longer exists), so enjoy working without pay for the next 40 years, let's hope you get it all paid off before you die so your kids don't inherit the debt."

It's a weird post-apocalyptic story, but its weirdness could make it fun. I'm a little hung up on the way it dovetails with the Thera plot ("our ancestors gave your ancestors the technology to survive the apocalypse, so we get to rule you now"). Thera is openly imperial and comes to take slaves, and they are met by the united armies of Barsaive. Travar is capitalist neo-imperial and comes with antediluvian contracts to enforce debt peonage, but the book has you playing as the enforcers of House Achura. If you were aware of the hypocrisy, you could wring a lot of good social commentary out of the parallelism, but this book does not seem to have that awareness. 

The "climax" section of the "Legal Documents" adventure says "There is no clear answer," but that's not true. The answer is very clear - the contract is void. Everyone who was party to the contract has been dead for hundreds of years, and no reasonable legal system would enforce penalties after all that time. Sorry, House Achura, but your ancestors made a bad investment, write it off as a loss, just like you did for the full century where the kaer remained undiscovered. Trying to extract payment from these people is basically indistinguishable from banditry. 

And I guess the counterargument would be that if it is intrinsically illegitimate to sign a contract on behalf of your great, great x 20 grandchildren, then why would House Achura have even loaned the money in the first place? Wouldn't they have preferred to keep it in a hole for hundreds of years until it had value in the post-apocalyptic world?

And my counter to that counter would be - yeah, capitalism on the cusp of the apocalypse sure is bizarre and reckless, someone should make a game about that.

Anyway, Travar: The Merchant City really could have used a bit more of the weight of ages, but if you grant it a mulligan on that flaw, it's a decent fantasy city, with colorful characters, unique traditions, and a healthy dose of both political intrigue and magical mysteries. Also, they choose their leaders with a tournament. It makes a little bit more sense than AD&D's Ierendi, because it's the merchant who finances and sponsors the winning team that becomes Magistrate (and thus most likely the winner has at least some organizational competence), but it's still really quaint. You can put your characters through a really cute adventure where they play fantasy sports (rules included) to get their employer a job.

Ukss Contribution: According to this book, prominent merchants will hire people to walk out in front of their entourages in order to push random pedestrians out of the way. It's probably less effective than just waiting in traffic, because the merchant has to toss a few coins to whoever they knock down, but apparently there's a lot of status involved in traveling like a complete dick. It's a very decadent custom, and I always appreciate fun new ways to slander the wealthy.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Trinity Continuum: Prometheus Unbound

 It's strange, sometimes, being an old fan. Prometheus Unbound is a perfectly serviceable book. It contains good, useful information to help with running games set around any of the eight psi orders, plus a free-form psionics system that may actually work, and new technological devices that help flesh out the sci-fi future of 2123. Yet I can't help but compare it to the first edition order books. 

I shouldn't. Those old books were strange and problematic. I dropped a lot of words ranting about the disturbing implications of the Huang-Marr plot, or the creepiness of the orders' plans to enslave the teleporters. Second edition is probably better for losing them. However, it really does feel like something is missing. I'm not sure someone coming in fresh would agree, and they almost certainly would not fill whatever gaps they felt with a conflict between the Port-au-Prince and Montressor branches of the Aesculapian Order that would sometimes border on overt racism, but like I said, I'm old now, and things being different is starting to feel like a personal attack on my youth.

Which is definitely a me problem. The closest it gets to being a book problem is with the Upeo Wa Macho chapter. It spends a lot of its time detailing the friction between those teleporters loyal to Bolade Atwan and those who resent their time in exile, implying that the order is on the verge of a major schism, but it kind of forgets to establish a reasonable motive for fleeing in the first place.

I suppose you could walk to meet them halfway. The psi orders, manipulated by the Doyen, engaged in a brutal purge of the quantakinetic order, for the crime of experimenting with aberrant DNA, and so when the Upeo found a colony of friendly novas and kept it secret, that may be a similar crime, meriting similar punishment. However, second edition has been establishing a friendlier, more humanist vibe to its protagonists, making a purge of the Upeo seem like less of a foregone conclusion. Thus Atwan was reacting to a worst case scenario that had not yet manifested. It seems much more cowardly than first edition, where they were fleeing an active attack.

It's probably better that way. Instead of having six sinister psi orders, we now have one that was just a bit too flighty, but the Upeo were my favorite order in first edition, and I kind of wish we got a bit more sympathetic a take here.

My favorite part of the book was the Chitra Bhanu chapter, probably because it is an organization that did not get significant coverage in first edition, and therefor doesn't impinge on my nostalgia for the old lore. I especially like the introduction of SK Bhurano as the Aeonverse's third overpowered immortal NPC. I know it's a controversial character type, but I enjoy the symmetry. Three sources of superhuman abilities, three canon mentors to sponsor young groups of adventurers.

It helps that she's used effectively here, with her trauma at being possessed by an alien telepath and forced to watch as her former friends slaughtered her students is made the driving motive behind her organizational choices with the reborn Chitra Bhanu order. The cell structure isn't just a security measure, it's a repudiation of the Doyen's philosophy of top-down control. 

I do wonder if we'll ever see the psi orders face a reckoning for their actions surrounding the purge. Seeing it from the perspective of the survivors makes it a lot less abstract than it has been in ages past. It's always seemed like a bit of a spat, with the heroic psions "cleaning up" after their naughty coworkers. And even when the presentation leaned away from pretending it was a bloodless affair, it never quite rose to the level of reminding us that the quantakinetics were real people with real relationships . . . until now.

The book seems to be setting up a human vs doyen conflict, but it was human beings who actually carried it out, and with only a few exceptions, they don't appear to be suffering any great deal of dissonance about these events. It's like, "yes, I took a paramilitary force to summarily execute a bunch of my colleagues based on preliminary evidence of vague misdeeds, but that feels exactly like something I would do, so there's no need to go looking for sinister outside influences." Maybe the doyen were micromanaging the events of that day, controlling or deceiving every single individual in the area, but as far as the perpetrators are concerned, they voluntarily committed an atrocity, and at some point they're going to have to confront that.

Also, it's unclear how human beings are supposed to fight the Doyen anyway. Each one is a potent psychic and collectively, they can (and will) destroy entire planets. You can get an interesting campaign out of playing an intricate game of cat and mouse, where you try to probe the aliens' weaknesses while remaining too insignificant to pose a threat, but it's unclear that the mouse actually has any real way of turning the tables on the cat. I'd have liked to see the dilemma addressed more specifically, because "you have definitively established that this foe is far out of your league" seems like a bummer of a way to end a story.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It's more of a workhorse than some of the other Trinity Continuum: Aeon offerings, and it's mostly useful as a means of rounding out other, more dramatic plots with a bunch of order-specific locations and characters, but the Trinity Continuum continues to be one my favorite settings, so more is always appreciated.

Ukss Contribution: Owl Necrostimulant. It's a drug that you inject into a corpse, thereby making it a valid target for telepathy. Aeon's sci-fi has often relied on soft-SF implementation of hard-SF ideas and this is a great example of that tendency done right. You've got the space fantasy trope of psychic powers, but it's engaging with a transhumanist idea of death as a cessation of a material process. So, naturally, you can add something material to that dead body to allow it to link up with your perfectly scientific telepathic abilities. It's creepy, it's weird, and it perfectly captures the best of the Trinity Continuum's voice.