Saturday, July 30, 2022

Apocalypse World

 I bought this book because I was really impressed with Urban Shadows and wanted to see where it all began. That plan, unfortunately, backfired, because it's been years since I've read Urban Shadows and my memory of that book is so vague it would take a painstaking side-by-side comparison for me to really understand what the later book took from its progenitor and what it sought to change (I suppose I could go back and read it again, but I am not so overburdened with time that this strikes me as a worthwhile project).

What I can say is that Apocalypse World, by D Vincent Baker, impressed me with its originality. Which is kind of an odd sensation to have, seeing as how it really should feel like a rougher version of something I've already experienced. I expect it's precisely because of Urban Shadows' greater polish. Reading this book really does feel like being present at the beginning of something, and I imagine the feeling was just as strong back in 2010, when it was first released.

In Apocalypse World, your character stats are mostly abstract - you've got Cool, Hard, Sharp, Hot, and Weird, and these vaguely relate to aspects of your character. If you've got a high Cool rating, then that means your character is cool and calculating, but it really means that you're good at making "acting under fire" rolls, and acting under fire is just a generalized sort of pressure. It can mean sneaking past an alert guard or talking your way out of an awkward social situation or mixing chemicals while your lab is taking artillery fire, and there's nothing on your character sheet that will let you play a steady-handed chemist who is not also a smooth-talking ninja. What your stats ultimately accomplish is suggesting a certain tenor of events that surrounds your character. A Hard PC is constantly getting up into people's faces and taking what they want. A Sharp PC has a really good idea about what's going on in any particular situation. 

I think what makes it work are the interesting character options, which straddle the line between character classes and preconstructs. The Battlebabe potentially (with the right choice of Moves) gets to use Cool instead of Hard when "going aggro" and that's not just a mechanical benefit, it also says something about the nature of the character - they are going to use violence in a calm and calculated way.  Two characters with the same stats, but different playbooks, are going to feel very different in play.

The essence of the book, though, is found in a line that I first saw in Nobilis 3rd Edition. To paraphrase: "a roleplaying game is a conversation." Both books came out at around the same time, so I don't think either one was quoting the other. I suspect it was just an idea that was floating around indie design circles in the late aughts. Yet, more than any other game I've ever read (aside from Urban Shadows, for obvious reasons), Apocalypse World is intensely focused on optimizing that conversation. The game mechanics are largely about encouraging you to say things that are relevant to the story you're telling. The basic moves are as abstract as they are because they are a kind of storytelling grammar. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter if "going aggro" represents shoving a gun in someone's face and screaming or calmly explaining your superior martial arts technique, because what's really going on is that the stakes are being raised and bridges are being burned, and that's going to play out in similar ways structurally, regardless of how an individual character presents themselves. 

There's a phrase that keeps showing up in the MC (the game's term for "GM") instructions "make as hard and direct a move as you like," which sort of gets to the heart of this. Because it sounds at first like wide-open latitude, but then you realize "move" is a bit of system jargon and actually there is a list of allowable MC moves that you have to pick from. But then you realize that these moves are impossibly broad, like "announce future badness" or "put someone in a spot," and it becomes clear - the "rules" are largely suggestions about things to say and timing cues for when it's good to say them. The conversation is being managed.

Reading this book feels like being entrusted with a secret. The overall effect is like someone showing you the guts of how rpgs actually work, and it's thrilling. No wonder it inspired so many "Powered by the Apocalypse" games.

Ukss Contribution: There is almost no setting in this book. Mostly, it's content to just establish a general post-apocalyptic mood and trust that players will wind up creating their own worlds as part of play. So I think I'm going to have to go with something super basic - a character name. One of the example NPCs is called "Joe's Girl," and the thing that intrigues me is the way that it feels like a true proper noun and not an identity defined by a relationship. We never learn any other name for her, but we also never meet any character named "Joe." It's possible "Joe" doesn't even exist. The book suggests that after the apocalypse, names become divorced from their old cultural contexts, so that something like "Mother Superior" could just be an ordinary name. I choose to believe that's what's going on here. "Joe's Girl" is what her parents called her and what's going to be written on her tombstone, and there's just something delightfully weird about that.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

(Dark Sun) Valley of Dust and Fire

 Man, how about that weather, am I right? 

No, actually, I am not, in fact, right. It's probably okay for Valley of Dust and Fire, by L Richard Baker III, to talk so much about the weather. The world of Athas has a very different climate than Earth, and part of describing that world is telling us what the sky is doing. I gush whenever a book tells me what the clothes are like (this book does it too!), so it would be weird if I didn't want to know about the conditions in which those clothes are worn. It's just that there's a lot of it. It's pretty interesting - giant, miles-high dust storms, deadly tornadoes of flame, etc - but it's not until page 50 (out of 90) that the book starts talking about the City of Ur Draxa, which is the whole reason you're out here in the first place.

It's not as if the first half of the book is useless. The first chapter, about the Sea of Silt in general, could help DMs with any number of games where the PCs must brave this major environmental obstacle at the edges of the Tyr region. The middle two chapters, while far more specific, could probably be stripped for parts. Maybe there are Dead Forests and Shard Flats in places other than the Valley of Dust and Fire, or open stretches of lava unconnected to The Ring of Fire. Nonetheless, these places are not destination. You'll only ever be passing through.

I mean, you could probably set a whole campaign in the Silt Archipelago, a series of mud-flats that sprang up like islands in the silt, and which hold numerous villages which have never known the tyranny of the Sorcerer Kings. Although, if you did run that campaign, this book would only give you the broadest of outlines.

You could also probably do something with the Mountains of the Sun, if you're willing to rip out the racist presentation of the local dwarves (they "may be ignorant savages, but they possess a lot of unusual oral legends concerning the days before the Dragon.")  They share the island with deadly giant spiders, and it's kind of intriguing me to imagine a dwarf economy based entirely on harvesting spiders and spider products.

Yet the real meat of this book is chapter 4 (so much so that it is the only part of the book referenced in "Chapter 5: Campaigning in the Valley"). It describes a new city-state and promises "detailed description of the greatest and deadliest secrets."

That last bit is a little oversold. We learn where the Dragon goes when not terrorizing the city-states of the Tyr Region (A fortress known as "the Dragon's Sanctum," which is most interesting for having a whole forest of Trees of Life, but no animal life "not even insects") and it's teased that there's something more mysterious going on, with The Black Sphere at the center of the Sanctum (I understand a vague outline of what's going on, between reading my friend's copy of Defilers and Preservers: Wizards of Athas and seeing online conversations about this very subject, but I can't say I'm impressed with what I've heard - that the Black Sphere contains an imprisoned wizard who is even bigger and badder than the Sorcerer Kings and the Dragon), but ultimately answers are few and far between.

The new city-state is pretty good, though. It's a grim, unpleasant place, suitable mainly for running games that are pessimistic even by the standards of the setting as a whole, but there are some unique social dynamics at work that could make for a memorable fantasy campaign. The Ur Draxans are a fanatical warrior culture with no one to fight but their slaves and their own outcasts. 

Seriously, they are the most completely useless army you've ever seen, fantasy or otherwise. Their homelands are surrounded by a terrifying moat of lava and a permanent storm of ash that makes flight in or out nearly impossible. The whole thing is enchanted with dragon magic to make teleporting in or out impossible, except through the one dedicated magic gateway, the far end of which is in a blasted valley, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of miles of trackless silt that will swallow up and suffocate anyone who puts their weight on the surface.

I kind of like the pointlessness of the Ur Draxans. They are all nobility. Everyone who is not a slave is a landowner and a warrior-aristocrat in their complex feudal system. They are the army of the Dragon, but the Dragon doesn't need an army. In fact, the Dragon supports them, bringing back metals and new slaves that the city-states of Tyr give it in tribute. It's unclear why the Dragon does this (though I suspect it's an emergency precaution in case new metaplot makes its way to the Valley), but the overall effect is that it's impossible to even pretextually justify this society. They're just these nasty authoritarians that hang out in the middle of a dried-up ocean and believe themselves to be the last "civilized" people to survive in all the world, and despite having all the time in the world, they're too macho to crack open a book (this is actually a major area of friction in this society - they have templars and administrators, to keep the place running and do the Dragon's bidding, but choosing learning or the arts over warrior training leads to loss of status in their society). 

Ur Draxa strikes me as a nice change of pace from the vague "always evil" societies we usually see in D&D (probably because the Ur Draxans are PC-allowable fantasy creatures - humans, half-elves, dwarves, and muls). As dysfunctional and cruel as their society can be, it doesn't seem outside the realm of realistic human behavior. They engage in the daily dehumanization necessary to be an aristocratic minority in a slave state and they're pumped up on legends of their own greatness ("the belief that he or she is a hero of a race of heroes.")

Overall, I think The Valley of Dust and Fire could make for a very credible end-game location for a Dark Sun campaign. Unfortunately, it's unclear whether the people in charge of the setting are still willing to commit to end-game campaign models. The part of the book that talks about PCs fighting the Dragon says, "If properly run, the Dragon is able to defeat even a party of the highest level adventurers," which is maybe a tad ambiguous ("oh, I get it, able to defeat, because it's a fair fight for a party using Dragon Kings material"), but later cleared up in the worst possible way, "If they're here to kill the Dragon, they are doomed." I suspect that what's happening is an attempt to hold the door open for the plot of the novels, and if so, that's really disappointing from a setting that has thus far been willing to cast the PCs as major historical figures. However, I'm not willing to declare myself betrayed just yet. It's only one optional sourcebook, not even about a major subject of interest (at least, going by the title). Plus the section does end with the hypothetical "What if they win," so it hasn't entirely lost the spirit.

Ukss Contribution: The Silt Drake is a giant serpent that lives in the Sea of Silt and devours any sufficiently large prey that crosses its path (it prefers silt horrors and giants, but will settle for a group of PCs). Like many semi-intelligent monsters on Athas, it has psionic powers. Weirdly enough, those powers include Clairvoyance and Precognition.

According to the description, it "uses its rudimentary psionic abilities to locate prey, above or below the silt," but it's never made clear why they couldn't just handwave the use of their physical senses. If the description said they tracked prey through smell, hearing, and tremorsense, no one would be interrogating that explanation. So we have to assume that being psychic is an important part of their whole deal, but like much of old AD&D, it's presented in a very matter-of-fact way that doesn't seem to realize that the weird thing is weird (I don't believe it's an intentional Dune reference, but I could be wrong).

I think I'll put them on Ukss' moon and give them a complicated religious relationship to the human seers that make the place their home (that will be an intentional Dune reference, though).

Saturday, July 23, 2022


I wound up backing this after all. I already posted about this game's Quickstart rules and during that post, I dithered a bit about whether I was going to back it on kickstarter. Turns out, I did. I can't remember exactly why I decided to spend 30 bucks on a physical copy, though I do have a vague memory of being impressed by the design and creativity and somewhat conflicted about the large portion of my gaming budget that was going to used copies of out-of-print books. I think I had some quixotic idea that I was going to start shopping mindfully and use my dollars to support indie creators. My subsequent commitment to that resolution has been . . . inconsistent. I'd say, in the past year, I've bought or backed about 10 truly "indie" rpgs, though that number increases if you include companies like FASA or Onyx Path. The rest of my recent purchase history has been used copies of supplements for Earthdawn, In Nomine, and various d20 systems.

I don't mean this as any sort of deep, dark confessional, though. Really, I'm just wasting time to distract from the fact that the bulk of what I want to say has already been covered in my post about the Quickstart. In retrospect, it was a really good Quickstart, that streamlined the rules of an already streamlined game, while still maintaining the essence of what made that game compelling. The stuff that was cut out - cooperation rules, randomized character creation, and additional spells, monsters, and equipment - was nice to have, but I'd say only the cooperation rules really strike me as an oversight.

So am I advising you to skip the full version and make do with a free version that's one of the most creative mini-rpgs I've ever read? Well, it would be pretty shitty of me if I was, especially considering my stated motive for backing this thing in the first place. Upgrading was definitely worth it, even if I preferred the Quicksstart's condensed, straight-to-the-point presentation of the actual rules. What you get in the full version isn't necessarily a superior game, but is a beautiful reference book filled with charm and creativity that you only see pieces of in the Quickstart.

For example, the Gear section of the Quickstart is stripped down and functional, whereas the full core has an entire category of "Oddities and Valuables" that includes stuff like shrunken monkey heads or a vial of a divine being's blood. What are you supposed to do with them?  Thes charts where you can randomly determine your starting equipment were a lot of fun, though I wonder if maybe their limited size (you roll 3d6, giving each category 16 entries, center biased) may lead to repetition over the long term.

The biggest benefit of the core, to me, was the expanded bestiary. It's well-curated, even for being short, containing a mix of D&D staples (like mimics, lamias, and sirens), strange inventions (like the noblins - rabbit-folk - and petal ambassadors - manipulative illusionists whose head is a single giant eyeball surrounded by flower petals), and Filipino folkloric monsters (like the manananggal - a vampire-like creature that detaches its upper half to fly around by night, preying on those foolish enough to be outside). Like comparable sections in other books, my only complaint is that I wish it was much longer.

Also, the book itself is beautiful. Momatoes, the designer/artist/writer/layout artist really went all-out. Every page is visually interesting, with fonts and headers chosen to draw the eye towards important system terms. On a personal level, I could find it distracting at times (which may be why I thought the simpler layout of the Quickstart was easier to follow), but maybe that's just because I'm the sort of hyper-focusing fuddy-duddy that prefers blank walls to decorated ones. 

The art is great, though. Each piece sets a mood, from creepy to mysterious to cute and though the tone varies, the style is consistently gorgeous. Nothing feels out of place and though the individual pieces are sometime unconnected to anything in the text, the cartoony, impressionist style feels just the right amount of unreal for the game's apocalyptic fantasy. My favorite piece, though, was the chicken in the equipment section.

Look at that cute little lady. Totally justifies her inexplicable inclusion.

Overall, I'd say that this is a game with a lot of potential. It's an easy-to-master rules-light system with a unique real-time mechanic and a whole hell of a lot of character. It definitely has a niche as a go-to system for unexpected one-shots and introducing newbies into the hobby. Pretty much the ideal case study for why it's a good idea to take a chance on indie designers.

Ukss Contribution: There's a lot of fun stuff in this book, but my favorite thing was one of the sample PCs. Sartis the Black Tentacle is "chipper, friendly, gregarious, and extravagant," but also "serving an unknown cult." She likes telling fortunes and is strangely comfortable with violence, and she's an octopus. She'd make a great lieutenant for the Assassin Priest.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

(Dark Sun) The Veiled Alliance

 I'm starting to form a theory about these Dark Sun books - they are good precisely to the degree that they are about the Athasian counter-culture. Dragon Kings was about the most powerful people in the setting, and it was the weakest book. Slave Tribes was about slaves, and it was really good. Dune Trader and The Complete Gladiator's Handbook were somewhere in between. And Veiled Alliance, by Allen Varney, is about a group that is openly in rebellion against the political order, and it's the best one yet.

It could just be that I'm biased. I like stories about heroes fighting the system and resisting its overwhelming power. It's something that resonates with me, far more than cynical "evil" campaigns. Yeah, you can be a Templar or a Defiler or an assassin/Bard and have a Dark Sun game that's basically Vampire: the Masquerade, and it might even be fun, but why put the wickedness front and center if you don't have to? Tyrants exist to be overthrown!

That's only part of the story, though. Veiled Alliance is also just a really good book. It's hard to put into words, but it has a really nice balance in its material. Nothing really outstays its welcome. There is a satisfying mix of high- and low-concept setting details. It describes the multi-generation schemes of a conspiracy of revolutionary wizards . . . and also the clothes they are wearing. It is broad in its scope, talking about the seven major chapters of the Veiled Alliance and their significant local difference, but it manages to avoid both repetitive mundane boilerplate and being excessively goofy in an effort to be unique.

It's also, for some reason, a general guide to the cities of the Tyr region. Each Veiled Alliance chapter is preceded by a broader description of its home city's culture and customs. It doesn't really tell us anything about the Veiled Alliance in Nibenay to learn that "some older people have blue-stained teeth from chewing betel nuts," but it does help in running virtually any Dark Sun campaign set in the city. And this doesn't appear to be an incidental function. Each of the city descriptions begins with a demographic breakdown, list of important local industries, list of significant NPCs and locations, and at least a few local quirks like Gulg's Red Moon Night, where criminals are released into the forest and hunted down for sport, or Balic's traditional respect for "rhapsodes" (bards, basically, but with a lower-case "b." The Bard class is something different).

The fascinating thing about these mini-gazetteer sections is that I'm looking ahead at the future titles on my list, basically everything published for the line, minus the novels and adventures, and I'm not seeing anywhere else they could reasonably go. Of course, it can't reasonably go in Veiled Alliance either, so maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised. 

I can only guess at the behind-the-scenes machinations that went into releasing a book that was half core-overflow and half specialized supplement, but it largely works. Each of the cities is a unique place and that very convincingly sells the idea that its Veiled Alliance chapter needs to be unique to adapt. You really could run seven distinct campaigns out of this 96 page book, and that's a genuine accomplishment.

It also helps that the Veiled Alliance is an intriguing fantasy organization in its own right. It stakes out a very particular niche - "Though not in itself heroic, the Alliance's goals often match those of heroic player characters." They fight defilers and oppose the sorcerer kings out of self-preservation, but there's no backing out of the struggle for them. It's life and death and the planet is just along for the ride. 

That's the kind of cynicism I can get behind. You can run anything between a shadowy espionage game and a full-fledged heroic epic (or, more likely, the first will gradually transition to the second) and the Veiled Alliance has a useful role, either as patrons and employers or as unreliable advisors and allies. They'll probably need the PCs as much as the PCs need them, and that creates opportunities for political drama where everyone is focused on the good, but no one can agree on what that means.

Now there's just one more big issue to discuss, and I don't know how to broach it because I'm not sure what may final take should be. Let's just work it out stream-of-consciousness-style and hope that I get some clarity by the end of it. 

Some of the world building . . . borrows from the real world in ways that can be a bit . . . sloppy. And I'm not sure how much this matters. Maybe it's even good? I don't know. It lands on a very awkward fault line in the subject of cultural appropriation and my knowledge here is super shallow (plus, if this book is guilty, then I, personally, am only slightly less guilty for things I was writing back in March of this year, and that's not a good feeling).

Let's start with the easy one - the city-state of Balic is heavily inspired by greco-roman civilization. The upper class is called "Patricians." It has its own highly classist version of democracy (only patricians, approx 5% of the population, get to vote). The fashion and names are a mish-mash of pop-culture classicism (the sorcerer-king is named "Andropinis"). Of course, there are olives. 

It's a little bit cringe, but it does immediately paint a picture. What then, are we to make of Draj's "Flowery Wars" or Nibenay's monks who seek Nirvana or Raam's caste system and women who wear saris? 

And I don't know. It's an issue that has weighed on my mind for a while - how to do representation in secondary world fantasy. You want to say, "this world is not whites-only" and that's easy enough to do. This book handles the task about as elegantly as possible - "no two families on Athas seem to have quite the same skin color." Which is maybe problematic because it ignores race as a cultural force in the reality where the book was written, but does have the advantage of giving players explicit canon permission to always make a character who looks like them, regardless of where the game is set (and ensures that there's no in-setting excuse for obnoxious real-world racism). However, the flip side of this is that maybe you're just putting an all-color gloss on the ten square miles around Oxford University. Maybe a diverse version of fantasy medieval Europe isn't all that diverse in practice. You can play as a Viking with black skin, but not a Black Viking.

One solution to this is the Standard Fantasy Atlas - you've got Fantasy Europe (that's in the core) and then Fantasy Arabia and North Africa to the south and Fantasy Asia to the east and Fantasy America across the sea (those are all in supplements, many of which are long out of print) and those are done with varying degrees of grace. Historically, it's been white writers doing it and the results have been pretty bad, but lately writing teams have been getting more diverse and it may one day result in a Standard Fantasy Atlas that's actually good. Certainly, stranger things have happened.

The big problem with the Standard Fantasy Atlas is that it kind of locks you into a singular historical vision. You can start talking about "anachronisms" and "inaccuracies" and it's essentially a bad-faith argument to say "this isn't technically Earth." This approach solves the problem of representation by making an analogue for every particular culture that exists in real life, ideally translated by that culture's internal concept of fun fantasy stories.

But sometimes you can't do that. You don't want to point at things in your setting and say "this is Fantasy [Blank]." You're trying to create something wholly imaginative, and real-world references are only for verisimilitude. "These clothes are realistically something people could wear." Or "This religion is realistically something people could practice." And if, in doing this, you don't want to create an all-white world, you can't limit yourself to European cultures for inspiration.

But let's be honest - this is the dictionary definition of cultural appropriation. You're not considering the culture in its entirety, but looking for cool little baubles you can cherry-pick and pull out of their context. 

And I don't know if there's any good answer for when it's acceptable or how much you're allowed to get away with. The whole point of the exercise is to recontextualize things, to play with anachronism and try and invent fictional cultures that feel like they can be real. And I suspect the real answer is an unsatisfying "it depends." Every culture has things that are sacred and which cannot be lightly used and things which natives are tickled to watch outsiders discover and you just have to do your research and take responsibility for your risky choices. Respond with grace and humility when someone corrects you and don't try to defend an aesthetic choice that was made on a whim.

So, Balic is not Rome (it doesn't have Legions or Senators or aqueducts) and Raam is not India (I'm not even going to say what it doesn't have, because that would betray my completely superficial understanding of classical India), but when it comes to inspiration, the clothes are probably all right, but the caste system is probably too politically fraught to be invoked so carelessly (this is complicated by the fact that "caste systems" in rpgs have often had an unfortunately orientalist contrast with the "more open" societies of Fantasy Europe, but maybe that doesn't apply to Dark Sun because the social order throughout the Tyr region is more or less uniformly unjust - what I'm deciding to call "The World of Darkness" problem).

Anyway, Ukss is probably problematic in exactly the same way (even moreso when you factor in the blatant trademark infringement), so this is not a rebuke, but merely a rhetorical question. It's not actually any clearer to me for all this reflection.

Overall, I really liked this book. It's a little too essential for its pitch (it really should be called "The Veiled Alliance and The Seven City-States"), but am I really complaining that an rpg book is too densely packed with value?

Ukss Contribution: It feels really awkward doing this when I just wrote 500 words about why it was reckless, but since the real purpose of this section is to single out something concrete and specific I liked about the book, I'm just going to take my future cancelation in stride.

The choice this time is the Shadow Tree in Gulg. What can I say, I'm a sucker for weird trees. This one is possessed by the ghost of a defiler and is manipulating the head of the local Veiled Alliance, filling his head with visions of a restored Athas, but skimming life energy off the top of all his terraforming projects. Ukss doesn't have defilers, but it does have a land in desperate need of terraforming and I can probably find some equivalently wicked spirit to take advantage of that.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

(Werewolf: The Apocalypse) Kinfolk: Unsung Heroes


Canonical wolf fucking! Arggh!

There. It's out of my system. Let's move on and never speak of it again.

But I guess we do have to talk about eugenics. It's always a tricky subject when you're dealing with hereditary superpowers. Werewolves inherit their lycanthropy and that immediately raises the subject of how to go about making more werewolves. And maybe it starts out innocently enough, with tracing family trees and consensual matchmaking, but then maybe the werewolf genes land in somebody who doesn't want to be part of a multigenerational werewolf breeding project or in an otherwise ordinary wolf whose story I'm not going to talk about because it's gross, and what you get is something weird and challenging, but not necessarily in a good way.

Kinfolk: Unsung Heroes, by Deena McKinney with Forrest B Marchinton, is about the people who are part of these werewolf families, but not actually werewolves themselves. And it gets weird and uncomfortable and eugenics-y and I'm not sure that the writing is deft enough to pull it off. Kinfolk can earn renown for their great deeds, just like Garou, but their chart is unfairly punitive. Why, you can get a -4 hit to your Honor for "refusing to mate."

I'm choosing to interpret this as "openly proclaiming your intent to live a child-free lifestyle" rather than "rebuffing a specific werewolf's advances" because I still have some hope left in this world. However, the message is clear - if you have a working uterus and the werewolf gene, you're obligated to churn out the next generation of baby werewolves.

But the thing that gets me is that this is not a theme. These everyday horrors keep showing up, but they just pass by. One of the narrators is a nurse and she says, "I've seen more than one Kinfolk girl in my practice who begs me to keep her condition secret, so she won't be locked up for nine months." 

And it's not as if the book condones this sort of behavior. It's clear from context that "cloister[ing] pregnant females like nuns" is a practice the narrator disapproves of, but "I've dealt with some pissed-off Garou spouses and parents, but when I tell them my concern is for both mother and child, they usually back off" is not treated as the giant red flag it ought to be. Oh, okay, you're dealing with a patriarchal obsession with controlling women's reproductive choices, but it only sometimes turns violent? Carry on.

The thing is, it could be a theme. We are at a particular historical moment (and yes, the book was written in 1997, but even then, these were pertinent issues) where "escape from the werewolf sex cult" could be a game that people might want to play (with, I'm assuming, a robust session 0 and well-worked-out safety tools). Like, "your reproductive capability belongs to the race" is creepy horror territory, but then you add ". . . and the race is werewolves" and that becomes a fucking allegory.  There is definitely a tradition of transgressive resistance horror . . .

But I am certain that Kinfolk: Unsung Heroes is not it. I can say this because this theoretical campaign model was pertinent in 1997 and was exactly the sort of thing that old White Wolf would have recklessly charged ahead with in a way that was somehow more sexist than the thing it was satirizing, but if we look at the Tribe of explicitly feminist (and therefor pro-choice) werewolves, it's clear they were not operating on that wavelength.

[D]on't think for a minute that all Fury Kin are either slathering bull dykes or nurturing mother figures. There are some, well, bimbos. You know, the ones that like to control CEOs and topple careers. That tart Senator Porkbarrel was found in bed with may well have been Kin. We have the same variety as any other women, whether that means we live up to certain archetypes or not - we just have a generous helping of self-esteem.

I have to be careful, because I was 15 in 1997 and I definitely wouldn't have noticed anything wrong about this paragraph ("it's saying that they have 'variety' - it's only misogyny if you say the stereotype applies to all women.") However, it seems odd to me that the original design of the game carves out space for an all-female Tribe of feminist werewolves, presumably to counter the toxic masculinity encoded in the game's very premise, and then somehow, in a book where feminists are needed more than ever, this is the way you go with it.

I'm thinking that 1992 was even longer ago than 1997, and maybe it felt like a push just to have lady werewolves as protagonists. You look at books from the late 80s like GURPS Basic Set or The Complete Fighters Handbook, where they take a quick beat to remind you that women exist and female characters are allowed, and you think, maybe the 90s were the decade where people started noticing when you leave out half the population. The Black Furies were raging feminists dredged from the nightmares of rural talk radio, but at least they were there.

Ish. They're actually MIA in the parts of this book that talk about unequal power relationships and their expected sexual components. Probably because those sorts of abuses are just casually accepted. Undesirable, perhaps, but just a part of life, not something to make a political issue out of. There's very much a #NotAllGarou vibe to it. It probably doesn't even crack the top ten examples of White Wolf offensiveness, and hell, there's nothing in here as directly insensitive as even the third or fourth worst thing about The Orphans Survival Guide, but there is this constant needling. Female kinfolk are abused in these horrible ways, but that's not what the game's going to be about.

Aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play? I'd say that it has some interesting and useful material, but it never quite articulates a distinctive niche for Kinfolk games. It has some decent adventure pitches - rescuing a werewolf from a sinister laboratory, guarding a particular neighborhood from the forces of evil - but they never stop feeling like watered-down Werewolf: the Apocalypse games. Serve Gaia and fight the Wyrm, but do it without superpowers. I suspect it's because of old White Wolf's supplement treadmill. The whole reason this book was commissioned and published was to be part of "The Year of the Ally" and thus it sort of represents a snapshot of how Kinfolk were perceived at the time, rather than any sort of true inspiration for Kinfolk games. It's competently written and developed, but it likely would have been a better book if it had waited until someone really wanted to write a book about Kinfolk.

Ukss Contribution: I'd say that this book more disappointed than offended me. Its main failing was not being better than you could expect for the time (and, again, White Wolf has published stuff that was way grosser than this, even in later years).

My favorite thing here was probably the Spirit Chasing numina. It was a path of mortal sorcery that allows you to take on the characteristics of particular items or creatures, so long as you study the spirit of those things. Follow the poison ivy spirit and people will get a rash by touching you!

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

(Dark Sun) Dragon Kings

 Dragon Kings puts me in a bit of a dilemma. I think it might be one of those books that's great, but not necessarily good. It has its good moments - customizable thief skills are a neat house rule, and spellcasting sensory effects would be a neat house rule if not for the unfortunate number of charts and modifiers - but it never quite comes together into a coherent whole.

The book's most obvious agenda is Timothy Brown trying to make good on his promise from the boxed set that high-level Dark Sun games would put players at the center of history and get them swept up in grand events that would affect the course of the setting. Nowadays, we'd call that transitioning the game to the epic tier, except that at the time, "tiers of play" weren't really an articulated concept. So, it's a guidebook for epic tier campaigns that doesn't entirely know what the epic tier even is.

And I don't want to undersell the vision here. It feels weird to say, "this is a sloppy epic-level handbook" in reference to what may well be one of the first epic level handbooks to ever exist. It obviously didn't invent the concept, coming six years after the BECMI boxed sets, but unlike those previous attempts at a tier system, Dragon Kings is beginning to grapple with the idea that high-level play is a narrative shift, and not just a mechanical one.

The most direct contrast is with the companion-level domain management rules, where it felt a lot like a community-sim minigame. It's possible, even likely, that the BATTLESYSTEM rules are just as rough and spreadsheet-number-crunchy as the Companion mass combat rules, but I wouldn't really know that from Dragon Kings because it mostly talks (in a desultory and too-brief way) about character motivations. A high-level fighter is someone whose reputation has spread far and wide, capable of great deeds, but only if he proves worthy of the stories.

The end-game plan for the caster classes is even bolder. It is now possible for them to become "advanced beings," peers for the sorcerer kings themselves, and it's all laid out in a level-by-level breakdown. (It's actually such a bold move that I felt disappointed when the book explained the process of granting Templars spells with irreplicable plot magic). Preservers get their own transformation, becoming a creature of light and life known as an avangion. Canonically, it's never been done before, so potentially, your PC will be the first.

I love, love, love that choice. Holding open a major setting milestone for a player character. Later Dark Sun books would undo this choice (if I recall - my understanding of the revised era canon is spotty at best), but for now it's a breath of fresh air - here's something that could majorly change the status quo and maybe even resolve its central conflicts, and we're just going to let the players make the call. The avangion is sort of the anti-Elminster.

Unfortunately, it all starts to fall apart when you try to put it all together. Fighters have a cool epic campaign, focused on war and politics. Spellcasters have a cool epic campaign, focusing on transhumanism and the ecological fate of Athas. Psionicists have a . . . possible epic campaign, focusing on the sinister machinations of an elite psionic organization known as The Order (the only things that really stop this from being great are the Order's bizarre ideology, which is basically just AD&D "neutrality" at its worst and the fact that psionicists don't get notably more powerful at level 21, making the few sensible parts of the Order's agenda seem pretty incoherent - "The Order is not at odds with the sorcerer-kings in any way . . . Since their psionics are inherently corrupted with magic, the Order does not perceive them as a threat to psionic purity.")

Still, if it were just a thematic clash, that could be resolved. It might even be pretty badass, to have all these disparate threads come together in the campaign climax. However, such a plan would be held back by the mechanical impossibility of running these games side-by-side. You need approximately 6-7 million xp to even begin the path of an advanced being (20th level spellcaster + 20th level psionicist). At similar xp totals, the other classes are already approaching level 30. Then, the advanced beings need another 6-7 million to max out their transformation.

In the time it takes an advanced being to reach max level, you could run a 1 to 30 campaign for the other characters twice. This could, in theory, be mitigated by exploiting the character tree - a would-be avangion could keep their spellcaster active all the time, and other players could rotate out (or maybe all PCs have both types of character, a la Ars Magicka's troupe play), but such options aren't really discussed in the book.

Also, we have yet to talk about the other classes yet - rogues get weak multiclassing features as part of their epic progression (A level 21 rogue has the same spells per day as a level 3 mage, which is kind of hilarious - "you've transcended lesser thieves in skill, demonstrating abilities that leave theirs far behind . . . low level illusion spells"). Druids get cool new powers that are only useable on their guarded lands, giving them a kind of anti-campaign. Templars aren't allowed to go past level 20 at all. And though Dark Sun is better about this than most of AD&D, given that everyone has unlimited levels in the psionicist class, there's still the issue of demihumans being left far in the dust.

What this book desperately needs is a discussion on upgrading the character tree into full-on troupe play (especially the frank discussion about unequal power scaling among the classes), so that players and DMs can dial in on epic-level Dark Sun's different genres. It needs seasonal play, so that there's a ready answer for what to do when your advanced being goes on retreat to build a power-focusing monument or slumber in the heart of a crystal tomb for 2d12 months. It needs to balance martial, magical, and skill characters, in spotlight if not in power. It needs, in short, to be an all-around more sophisticated book than TSR was capable of publishing in 1992.

But it comes closer than most of its contemporaries. It feels like a credible prototype of the sort of book it needs to be. That's why I'm comfortable in calling it "great."

Ukss Contribution: Also great: some of the spells and powers.  My runner up is the "Mysterious Traveler" telepathic devotion. Create an aura around yourself that makes you extremely memorable, except that no one can recall where you came from or where you're going. If someone's following you, they'll be directed to the four winds and you'll be nothing more than a local legend.

This is The Complete Book of Bards all over again. Dungeons and Dragons is experimenting with turning genre tropes into character powers, and it's hilarious and awesome, but it needs to be part of a more daring, self-aware game. It is absolutely on point for a telepath to be able to make an ability check to be mysterious, but why is it a power? Where do you go from there? Are you really going to build a telepath that doesn't have the ability to become mysterious at will? Why is there a character creation tax on such a basic bit of functionality?

Anyway, everyone else who has been making a game with telepathy has just been put on notice . . .

Actually, that technically includes myself, so Ukss will probably get something like this, just not now, because Dragon Kings has a spell that is even cooler: Storm Legion.

The way it works is a priest gathers up their followers and marches into a storm. Once the casting finishes, the followers are uploaded into the storm, disintegrating and becoming part of its substance. The caster joins them last and directs the storm to anywhere they want, at about 10-40 miles per hour. Then, when they reach the destination "the caster and army literally rain out of the sky. Descending as drops of blood, bone, and tissue, the fragments reassemble themselves in 10 rounds (ed note: "minutes") into the individuals they once were."

That is, without a doubt, the coolest bit of arcane travel technology I've ever seen. It's good to be reminded that sometimes D&D could be metal as fuck, and that Dark Sun has a higher concentration of that than average.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Revised Core

 I honestly thought nostalgia was going to push me through this faster. The busyness of the last couple of weeks didn't help (the hotel where I work got sold, I had my 40th birthday, the 4th of July weekend was surprisingly busy), but I think the bigger issue was my failure to emotionally connect with the material. I averaged about 20 pages per day, and it was something like - blaze through the setting chapter in the first day, reluctantly drag my ass through the system material over the next ten days, perk up again at the umbra chapter, power through the storyteller chapter (made easier by the inexplicably huge art that dominated 17 consecutive pages - a baffling editorial choice that felt like page-padding), and finally finishing strong with antagonists, spirit mentors, and magic items.

I think even the dry middle parts would have gone faster if I cared more about werewolves, though. I mean, this seems like something I should care about - fantasy creatures waging a hopeless and one-sided war against the coming apocalypse in the form of corporate polluters and weird creatures from beyond the borders of mundane reality - but there's something about garou culture, with its masculinism, militarism, appeal to tradition, and veneration of death that doesn't quite sit right with me. It's like, it's somehow both ecological and fascist, um . . . ecofascist?

No, no, I'm not going to pretend I just coined the term ecofascism or that I'm the first person to notice its applicability to Werewolf: the Apocalypse, but it's definitely an element. The weird thing, though, is that it's kind of an anachronism. I doubt very much that an ideological marriage between environmentalism and far right politics was even on the radar circa 2000, let alone in the early 90s when the first edition of Werewolf was originally conceived. I suspect the culprit is actually just White Wolf's formula - you're playing the monsters, so werewolves are these violent, dangerous beasts, but they also have a human side, and it is the navigation of these conflicting worlds that's supposed to be the source of the game's drama. They have a relatable, even sympathetic motive of trying to save the environment, therefor they need an extravagant monstrousness to balance it out. They go insensate with rage and brutally kill their enemies . . . and anyone else who happens to be in the way. Fair enough. But when they then also have a culture that normalizes that sort of behavior, that's when you start to get into "eco-terrorists talking about blood purity" territory. One of the thirteen tribes is a bunch of wolf supremacists who want to exterminate the entire human species. I guess the fact that it's fantastic is supposed to help us overlook the fact that it's genocide.

It's all probably serendipitous. We discover the recipe for and appeal of eco-fascism by breaking down the tropes. White Wolf liked to have unreasonable authority figures for the cool kids to rebel against, so werewolf society was undemocratic, but then wolf packs suggest a certain dominance structure (especially with the old, debunked theory of "alpha wolves"), so there's this rule by strength. Add in a spirit world, and there's a pretty clear chain from spirituality to religion and religion to tradition. And if lycanthropy is hereditary, then that signals an interest in family and lineage. So you've got a heritage, and part of the heritage is a culture, and part of the culture is a warrior ideal, but you don't have a choice because this isn't a democracy and the strong rule over the weak . . . therefor fascism. Add in a concern about ecology and you have ecofascism.

But it kind of bums me the fuck out, you know. Also, I could have done without the wolf fucking. That made looking at the author credits kind of awkward. I'd stare at the page and think, okay, which of you nine people is responsible for the Expression Ability's microfiction: "Waterdancer knew he'd never seen female Kin, wolf or two-leg, as beautiful as the one who prowled near him now in the snow . . ."  

I'm choosing to lay the blame at the feet of line developer, Ethan Skemp, because he had to have been the last person to sign off on printing what was, basically, wolf erotica, but I've also decided that this is going to be the playful kind of blame. Maybe we can all just pretend that Werewolf: the Apocalypse wolves are a different type of creature than real world wolves. Waterdancer was a lupus-breed Garou, who was born a wolf, underwent wolf puberty, and then gained the ability to change into human form, so maybe it's perfectly natural that he's sexually attracted to the wolfish form and we can ride the ambiguity of when and how he gained human-level intelligence to overlook how weird this all feels.

Except that it is also canonical that every Garou has both wolf and human ancestors (and in fact needs both types in relative balance to maintain the spiritual qualities that allow for the werewolf transformation) and it is also canonically impossible for werewolves to mate with each other (the product of such pairings are called "metis" and they are both sterile and affected by mutations that the book calls "deformities," which feels problematic), so we can infer with near certainty that human-born garou were historically fucking entirely normal wolves (and also that wolf-born garou were fucking humans) and I just have to assume, for the sake of my sanity, that this means that in the World of Darkness ordinary wolves are intelligent enough to consent to sex.

Besides, it's probably not Mr. Skemp's fault directly. It's probably a bit of legacy setting that showed up in 1st edition and just stuck around and nobody thought too much about it and then someone decided that it would be fun to depict a lupus-on-wolf seduction and the year was 2000 and everyone was like, "this is extremely normal."

Anyway, given that I've spent all this time complaining, you might get the impression that I dislike the book, and that wouldn't quite be correct. It's more that I didn't particularly like it. On balance, it's pretty middle of the road White Wolf. It's got the weird sex stuff, but less than Vampire: the Masquerade. It's got the weird race stuff, but less than Mage: the Ascension. It's got the weird politics stuff, and those are pretty close to peak weird, but even then they're merely weird in a different way than the other lines. But in a way, it's that very quality of being the platonically average White Wolf game that weakens it. 

Vampire has the rigid hierarchical politics, but since the PCs are inhuman parasites wickedly clinging to their miserable existence by consuming the blood of the innocent, the game has the ability to say "this shit is toxic, and if you play by their rules, you'll become toxic too." It's kind of the whole theme. How do you keep your humanity in a situation where survival requires inhumanity?  

Mage has the romantic"reject modernity" stuff, but it then goes on to ask, "so, do you have anything better" and then gets into heady political questions like the nature of freedom and how to properly allow for accountability in a society where power is intrinsically unequal. And the whole question of whether it is desirable, or even possible to reject modernity is what drives the setting's major conflicts.

And don't get me wrong, both games have pretty wide failure states. It's easy in Vampire to just be absolutely fucking gross. And Mage, at any given moment, is one poorly chosen argument away from being an active hate crime. But the potential is there. These are games rooted in critique. Werewolf . . . ?

Maybe I'm just not seeing it. I started off by needling the game about its ecofascist subtext, but to be fair, the book isn't exactly endorsing Garou society. I can't point out a particular passage, but you don't make a whole tribe of feminist werewolves (even if they are noticeably course-correcting away from being man-hating straw feminists) if you are unaware of the patriarchal slant of werewolf society. You don't make pacifist werewolves if you are unaware of werewolf militarism. So I don't think I was ruffling too many feathers when I pointed out the regressive elements of the Garou. However, aside from occasionally dipping its toe in that direction with the Children of Gaia (peaceful werewolves) and the Fera (non-wolf shapeshifters brought to the brink of destruction by the Garou in "the War of Rage"), the book doesn't really dare to ask "what if they're wrong."

Brace yourself for an incredibly superficial take - but look at the games' subtitles. It's possible to be wrong about the Masquerade, and fail to retain even the appearance of humanity. It's possible to be wrong about the Ascension, and fail to achieve enlightenment. But what does it mean to be wrong about the Apocalypse? You can fail to prevent it, but that failure proves you were right. The Garou have a bleak, fatalistic worldview, but they are, essentially, correct.

Let me throw you kind of a radical pitch - what if the Garou were wrong? What if they took a step back from their role as the self-appointed guardians of cosmological balance and everything just turned out fine? Not necessarily because fears of the upcoming apocalypse were overblown, but because without these rampaging were-beasts wrecking their shit, humanity is able to rise to the moment and solve the crisis themselves. It turns out that the masses do have agency, and the hard men standing on the walls were totally unnecessary (or even did more harm than good).  What if the enemy wasn't the enemy, but rather someone you could work alongside for the betterment of all?

It would be a little tricky to do, because I wouldn't want to let real Exxon off the hook, but at the same time, as someone the Garou would likely consider "the enemy," I kind of want to let myself off the hook, at least a little. Sometime between 1st edition and revised, human beings started reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone and that's part of humanity too. It's not a binary. It doesn't have to be a war.

Mostly, though, I'm thinking about the metaphysic trinity - The Wyld, The Weaver, and The Wyrm - the cosmic principles of creation, order, and decay. The titular Apocalypse is going to be caused by the Wyrm going out of control, magnifying pollution, corruption, and human evil to untenable levels that will ultimately wipe out all life. This is exacerbated by the insanity of the Weaver, who empowers science and technology and is seeking to spread the sterile web of modern society as far as possible in an effort to contain the Wyrm, never mind that she is smothering the very possibility of new life. Maybe the out of control Wyrm drove the Weaver insane with fear. Maybe the Weaver's desire for control led her to try and trap the Wyrm, sending it into an outraged frenzy. All we know for sure is that the Wyld is thus far uncorrupted and therefor blameless.

Not coincidentally, the Garou believe they are protecting the Wyld. It's interesting to me hat you could have an interdependent cosmic cycle of three coequal forces and only two of them could be broken. Obviously, if they are failing in sequence, one of them has to be the last, but maybe we shouldn't buy the official story. Some contemporary Garou want to exterminate the human species. Historically, they attempted (and made strong progress towards) exterminating the non-wolf shapechangers. Before that, they culled humanity with such violence that even now, thousands of years after the fact, human ancestral memory causes them to freeze with terror when they see a werewolf in its hybrid form. Maybe this is a pattern. Maybe there is something wrong with the cosmological force they serve.

At least, I think Werewolf: the Apocalypse would have been a stronger game if it felt like this was an acceptable question. It bills itself as "a game of savage horror" and there are rules for the savagery going too far and slipping out of control, but it never explores the horror of deliberate savagery, working as intended. There's very little critique, and thus you pretty much have to play it at the dumbest level possible - furry superheroes vs Captain Planet villains - and hope that the ecofascist subtext stays subtext.

Ukss Contribution: That said, I don't hate this game. I am, in fact, playing a character in a Werewolf 20th Anniversary Edition game at this very moment. So I will pick an Ukss contribution and do so in relatively good conscience (it's probably not okay that there's a werewolf tribe named after a certain taboo Algonquian spirit, but it seems more ignorant than malicious to me).

I liked the Stasis Vector, a dangerous Weaver spirit that takes the form of a complex geometric structure and which seeks to lock a physical region in place, ensuring that nothing inside it ever changes. It's a threat and a puzzle, but too alien to even really count as an enemy.