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 functional, 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.

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