Sunday, June 12, 2022

(Dragonstar) Player's Companion

 Dragonstar is so chaotic, guys. I keep reading these books and I keep thinking there must be plan, but that plan has so far failed to materialize. I know I'm not going to shock you by suggesting that the Player's Companion (which purports to be all about new character options) is a stealth setting book, but the thing that seriously threw me off was that it's an essential stealth setting book. Like, the setting is at least 25% more playable after reading this specific book.

It's mostly down to the prestige classes. Unlike the Paths and Disciplines in Earthdawn, a prestige class in Dragonstar is not necessarily an in-character thing. Sure, you can tell when someone's a wizard, because they're casting spells out of a spellbook, but if two characters have similar abilities - say a Paladin and a Fighter/Cleric - they're more or less going to have the same role in the setting. So a class like the Infowarrior can actually be a lot of different things (basically, any character concept that incorporates magically enhanced hacking skills). And more importantly, the organization associated with the Infowarrior prestige class, the Guild of Tinkers, can be made up of anyone who shares the same goals, not just trained Infowarriors.

Which means each Prestige Class comes with a campaign model and a history and various enemies and allies who help define the shape of the world, and the sort of stories that are told within it. We learn that there is an insurrection (called "The Insurrection") that dovetails with an ongoing metallic vs chromatic cold war, largely waged through proxies and each kingdom's pet intelligence agencies. Also, the dragons are sacrosanct by the laws of the Dragon Empire, but not above hiring specialized Dragon Slayers, straight out of heroic high fantasy, to assassinate their rivals.

Also, we learn something interesting, yet completely predictable, about the Dark Zone - that the mindflayers had a "strange biotechnical civilization." The pieces are all starting to come together.

Though I suppose the biggest thing I've learned from The Player's Companion is Dragonstar's intended mode of play - naked, unashamed colonialism, all day long. The bluntest and most hilarious manifestation of this is in the description of the tsalokhi (a human subspecies from near the Dark Zone that genetically modified itself to have psionic powers long before encountering the Dragon Empire).

"In their arrogance and pride, the tsalokhi refused to acquiesce to the Dragon Empire's demands of subservience and their society was destroyed."

It's such a strange framing, like it's blaming this conquered people for being victim's of the Empire's unquenchable greed. But it gets even weirder.

"As a whole, tsalokhi are not a very popular people in the Dragon Empire, and that is largely due to an excessive hubris."

Geez, guys, stop being so bitter about the invasion of your homeworld, you're really bringing down the vibe.

So there's kind of this huge issue lurking in the background - a refusal to engage with and interrogate imperialism. That the Empire should exist and should continue to expand is not even questioned. The brutal tactics of the Chromatic dragons are usually called out, and there are characters in the setting that ineffectually oppose them, but then you have things like the missionaries of the Unification Church sneaking onto uncontacted worlds and "engage in 'guerrilla theology.'" You know, destroying the distinctive characteristics of ancient cultures to bring them in line with an empire-friendly homogeneity. This is an "open-minded approach to missionary work."

"Knowing that his own god is actually a reflection of the widely-worshipped Father . . . is comforting. The Outlander understands that he is not an outcast in the empire - and neither are his beliefs."

Yep, that's exactly how it would go down, I'm sure.

Still, this kind of talk helps us narrow in on a theme. It's kind of the ultimate expression of the unspoken Americanism in D&D fantasy. You've got this imperial core of "civilization" and a frontier of "wilderness" that is nonetheless highly populated, and then adventurers go into these areas and get into fights with the natives, who are portrayed as evil (or at best ignorant) for trying to possess land that rightfully belongs to the player character races. 

But then Dragonstar exaggerates this conflict - the "uncivilized" Outlands are made up of regular D&D worlds, and unlike, say, the orcs of the Vast (from Forgotten Realms) the people of the Outlands don't even pose a threat to the imperil core, nor to the citizens who live on the frontiers of the empire. They can't even reach the Dragon Empire (except, perhaps, for the occasional high-level magic user, as an individual). And thus there is literally no justification for adventurers to go there. But they do, and when they find a new people, that is almost always the prelude to an expansion of the empire. It's pure greed, and it is supported by both the "good" and "evil" factions of the Empire.

It would read as parody, if it was more self-aware, but here it's just . . . D&D in space. The magnified scale makes the absurdity easier to see, but it was something that was always there, and Dragonstar lets it pass unexamined.

Ukss Contribution: It feels weird transitioning into this section right as I'm realizing that the fundamental construction of the entire line is settler-colonialist propaganda, but there's no evil in Dragonstar that doesn't lurk in the heart of D&D as a whole, so I'm just going to do my usual thing.

Gross spell time - Flesh to My Flesh. It is a high-level insta-kill spell, a la Power Word, Kill, but it has a twist. The spell strips all the flesh from the target's bones and then adds it to your own, dramatically increasing your mass

Why? I keep picturing it in my head, and I hate it. I hate it so much. I haven't hated anything so much since the Flesh Wand from Hellbound: the Blood War. A hate like that you gotta cherish.

No comments:

Post a Comment