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.

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