Wednesday, August 10, 2022

(Dark Sun) Earth, Air, Fire, and Water

 I suppose I asked for it. Not directly, to be sure, but in the shape of my rhetoric. I'd ask, all confounded, if the rules to AD&D really meant that the Thief class really had to be thieves, and that would create the implication that perhaps a character's class in the rules layer didn't have to map directly to their job in the fiction layer. Maybe a Thief could really be a detective, or perhaps a Fighter could steal things and thereby become a thief. Maybe a Priest doesn't need to be a priest.

And then there's Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, by Shane Lacy Hensley. It tells us all about the Priest class in the Dark Sun rules, but almost nothing about the religion of the Tyr region. In terms of lore, the Priests of Athas are actually closer to later editions' Warlocks than they are priests - they make pacts with beings from the elemental planes and in return they gain appropriate elemental powers. These elemental beings are explicitly not gods (in fact, the book scoffs at the very idea - "Many earth shamans are known to worship the 'God of the Volcano,' for instance. That deity does not exist, but entire cultures have arisen based on such false beliefs"), but the book never makes clear why that matters. Okay, so what you're worshipping isn't a "god," but somehow "ineffable spirit of the land" is less dignified.

The introduction poses the question, "In a world with no gods, what do priests serve," and that betrays to me a certain bias. As an atheist, it feels a little redundant to me, but I'm trying to mean that in a spirit of genuine inquisitiveness, rather than snark. The truncated question "what do priests serve" is an important one for building a satisfying setting. My atheist answer is "the community or the culture," but I'm not sure any version of Dungeons and Dragons, even the modern ones, is on that same page. 

Community is thin on the ground here. There's bits about Earth Priests teaching sustainable agriculture and Water Priests purifying water, but mostly the text treats priests as powerful individuals and not part of a cultural tradition. I get the feeling that the gods being real has been doing a lot of heavy lifting for D&D's depiction of religion thus far. You can infer anything you need to know about Pelor's doctrine, or his church, or his ecclesiastical organization by drawing on your knowledge of the nature of Pelor. Priests are like the god's assistants, and so they just sort of act in a way that furthers his goals.

It's an approach that definitely shows its limitations when you remove the god from the equation. The priests of Athas are still vaguely assisting their patrons' agendas, but now the patrons are primordial elemental forces, and thus the agendas are super-simple. They really just want to exist more. Fire priests go around encouraging the growth of forests and cities, because both are combustible. Water priests get mad at people wasting water. There's not a lot of room for ordinary believers (hell, there's nothing much to actually believe).

I think Athas definitely feels poorer for the elemental priests not having a coherent theology. We don't learn anything about weddings and only a little about funerals (Fire priests encourage cremation, even though the elements as a whole benefit most from burials), no holidays, festivals, moral lessons, or theories about the afterlife. Just encouraging the existence of elements, all day long.

It wouldn't be so bad, Priests being Warlocks, except that it exacerbates one of the setting's biggest problems - the existence of too many types of magic. Wizard magic is hated because it is powered by life force and greedy mages are responsible for the desolation of Athas. Fine. Fair enough. But then you have other things which might look like wizard magic, and they're not hated. You can draw a distinction between the internal power source of psionics and the external power source of magic, and that's meaningful on the level of the setting's physics, but . . . can the average person tell the difference? Maybe they can. Maybe the ubiquity of psionic powers gives people a sense for when psionics are used. Wizard magic feels unnatural, and so it is shunned. It helps that in AD&D, magic really was broadly more powerful than psionics, and thus a realistic temptation.

But actually, there are two types of wizard magic. Defilers destroy life to gain their powers, but Preservers don't. They draw life energy from the world, but in a way that leaves the natural balance intact. And in this case, you don't want the average person to be able to tell the difference. That's how you get an underground society of Preservers like The Veiled Alliance. Practically, that means you can't just have people look for the piles of ash and say, "hey, that's the kind of magic we hate." Casting of any kind is suspect.

Which brings us to Priest magic. It too is external magic, and while you could draw a distinction between Preservers "draw from the world, but no more than it can handle" and priests "draw from the elemental planes which compromise the world," the difference is likely to be lost on a layman. Add in the fact that Priest spells are cast in a very similar manner as Wizard spells (with Verbal, Somatic, and Material components, from a list memorized each day) and the natural question to ask is - why aren't Priests treated with the same suspicion as Defilers? That they're doing different things is only obvious to us because we can see their character sheets.

Earth, Air, Fire, and Water gives priests a lot more to do, and offers helpful suggestions for roleplaying them, but in the process makes them more redundant with Preservers than they've ever been.

Ukss Contribution: Curse of the Black Sands. It's a spell that makes the target leave behind oily black footprints whenever they step on bare earth. Useful, but also just a neat visual.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Flying Circus

 I'll admit, I was worried about the potential for Nazi subtext. Maybe it's because I've been doing so much (admittedly half-assed) literary criticism for the past couple of years, but I've found my sensitivity to these things to be getting stronger and stronger. Towards the beginning of the blog, I was like "Warhammer 40k does seem to be using a bit of fascist imagery" and now I'm like "is this free-spirited pastoral fantasy based loosely on late 19th/early 20th century Germany actually a back door for an idealized white-supremacist mythology about 'pure European' culture?"

Thankfully, Erika Chappell addresses this head-on in the "Politics" chapter. To paraphrase, "yeah, the potential is there, but please don't." I like that. It's direct, sincere, and conscientious. It makes neither excuses nor apologies, but it does try to head off the worst sorts of harm by drawing a distinction between "fantasy inspired by central Europe" and "fantasy where everyone is white." This is meant to be a game about cool airplanes and the cool people who fly them, and its choice of setting is not incidental (because Germany was a pioneer in early aviation), but neither it is an excuse to indulge in racism.

I also like that this approach is clearly visible in the worldbuilding as well. There isn't just one Himmilgard culture or people, and the idea that there is (or should be) is associated with an antagonist faction, the Goths, that's described as "the worst that people can be" (another, more on-point quote might be "they're fucking nazis.") It may undercut your point a little to include a nazi faction in your explicitly non-nazi "Central European" fantasy, but it does at least remove some ambiguity. If these guys are the nazis, then everyone else is, by implication, not.

Also, there are ethnic groups that intentionally and transparently stand-in for the Jewish and Romani people, and so I suspect that the aim was to try and present a truthful (or maybe truth-ish) translation of how Central Europe actually was, in hopes of forestalling a fascist pseudo-nostalgia. I'm not sure how apt it is to make your Romani stand-ins into airship-dwelling nomadic astronomers who have mastered the art of gliding in magical feathered wingsuits, but the central point - that Himmilgard has always been a diverse crossroads of peoples and the idea that the Himmilvolk are somehow the "true" people of the land is an imperialist project spread by people with a wicked agenda - is well-taken.

As the "Inclusivity" section puts it, "Himmilgard shares these problems with our own world as a mechanism for representation," which is a risky ploy, but a valuable bit of context. This is very much a game that's interested in the perspectives of marginalized people (the Survivor background directly says it's "a metaphor for what if feels like to be a transgender person escaping an unwelcoming or abusive situation") and in order for that to be authentic, there has to be marginalization somewhere. It makes little sense to say, "the culture of pilots in [this] universe is essentially a queer one" if the people left on the ground aren't basically straight.  However, I also think the bolded, underlined piece of advice "You shouldn't play out trauma, but you can play out recovery" is useful to keep in mind, and not just for this game in particular.

But enough about politics, what about the true draw of this game - sheer, unabashed airplane nerdery? Sadly, I'm not enough of an airplane nerd to say. This is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, but a lot of the in-flight moves seem to have more to do with physics than they do with drama, and so you can't really go into aerial combat with the same expectations of abstraction as you might have for Apocalypse World, but it's not exactly what I would call a hardcore sim, either. You use range bands and theater of the mind, but there's also precise tracking of your speed and altitude, and it matters what type of engine you're using and what fluid is in your radiator (if you use the optional advanced rules). 

My intuition here is that it will all come down to how you feel about the Instrument Panel. It's like a character sheet for your airplane, but with trackers for altitude, airspeed, and g-forces that kind of look gauges you'd see on an early airplane. It's cute an immersive, but also contains a lot of fiddly information. There's a 5x5 grid that tracks modifications to your stats based on how much cargo and fuel you have aboard and there's a designated spot for a picture of your sweetheart. This is a brand of nerdery that is right at the intersection between genre and sim, and if you're on board with it, then learning the intricacies of the combat system will be a delightful adventure.

The on-foot portions of the game are much closer to what I expected from a PbtA game (what, with my two previous examples), but the most interesting part of the system is the way it sets up episodic play with "the Routine."

The Routine is a cyclical pattern of scenes that is driven largely by resource management. When you're on a mission, you accumulate Stress, and too much of it will severely penalize your character. However, removing Stress from your character sheet is the only way to gain experience points, and so the Stress Relief portion of the cycle is vital. But it's not necessarily trivial to relieve Stress. You can indulge vices, spend quality time with loved ones, or have complex personal drama (the book suggests "ill-advised sex") with your fellow pilots, and each of these has their own failure states (becoming addicted to the vice, your loved ones finding out about the ill-advised sex, etc) that may result in you carrying Stress for longer than intended. In the end, missions and stress relief eat into your limited budget and you have to start looking for work so you can start the cycle all over again.

It's a clever way to marry the aircraft stuff with the slice of life stuff and overall it feels like a satisfying structure for a game, but it also puts you pretty deep into the PbtA "play to find out what happens" ideology. If players come in expecting a grand narrative. . . that's still possible, but the system will probably work against them.

Final verdict - Flying Circus is a specific thing, and I'm saying that as a high compliment, not out of any desire to be vague. It's clearly animated by a vision, and that vision is apparent in every detail, and because of that, it could potentially be off-putting to some people. Yet it is that very willingness to alienate that made it such a thrilling thing to experience.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to go pretty abstract with this one - there's a mythic figure, Sigvird the first king of Gotha, who is an important cultural touchstone for both the Himmilvolk and the Städter peoples. What interests me is that the urban Städters regard him as a demigod, but the rural Himmilvolk see him more as a culture hero. The same person, revered in both, but with two different interpretations. It's interesting to me to see two cultures that are so close and yet so far from one another.

So that's my choice - there will be some figure who plays a prominent role in multiple mythologies, but with significant variance. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

(Dark Sun) City-State of Tyr

I must confess to feeling a sense of dread when it comes to these classic rpgs with heavy metaplot. Every time I crack open a new book, I can't help thinking, "is this it? Has the serpent finally gotten ahold of its tail? Are we on the verge of collapsing into something totally self-referential?" There's a sense I have that the longer this all goes on, the likelier it is that the other shoe is going to drop and I'll find myself drawn irrevocably into the decadence of the expanded universe, where the clear theme and/or easy mass-market appeal that drew me to the original is just a distant memory.

City-State of Tyr, by Walter M. Bass, is, fortunately, not that other shoe, but I can definitely see its shadow. There's a whole chapter, called "Personalities," that is largely just character sheets for important figures from the novels. 

King Tithian, who "it is doubtful that any PCs will ever personally encounter" gets his psionic powers listed as "current level of ability unknown." That's a big red flag. The book is supposed to be an objective reference to the City-State of Tyr. The way that facts about the city and its residents become known is by being written down in books exactly like this one. So how can his "level of ability" be "unknown" when anything you write down would, by definition, be the true and correct answer? Unless, perhaps, you're holding something back. If maybe the rpg supplements don't have the authority to establish new canon, but are merely supposed to report on it. If the novels now take priority.

It's a sobering thought, but luckily, we're not quite at the worst case scenario. It's not like Pendragon where the player characters sometimes feel like intruders into the canon. There's no scenario that's like "The PCs will attempt this and fail because Rikus and Neeva are going to come along and solve this issue in Book 4 of the series." City-State of Tyr is mostly a useful setting guide with only the occasional bit of frustrating bread-crumbs towards the ongoing metaplot. The king is missing, because he's left the city to participate in something called, "the search" (the quotes are in the original text), and it's kind of a problem because he's supposed to be a major part of the civic life of the city, but also it's not something that bears further exploration, because that's literally all we know about it.

I think, if you're going to use this book, you have to keep it low-level and away from the palace. Stick to the bars and inns. . . 

Yeah, that's right. Just like In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil, the city of Tyr has a thriving hospitality industry, with plenty of places to meet shady contacts and discuss vaguely disreputable "adventures." And while it's well-suited to be a place where the PCs are just passing through, it also has plenty of local color (like a pottery shop, a perfume store, or a jeweler with a complex backstory) that allows it to serve as a permanent base of operations.

Also, if we give it a mulligan on Tithian's mysterious bullshit, it's a unique and interesting location for some really intense political games. The old sorcerer king was recently assassinated, the slaves were freed, but the rest of the social order is largely in place. Most of the templars still have their old jobs and the nobles still own most of the land (about 20% of the farmland outside the city was redistributed to newly freed slaves as part of a whimsical homesteading scheme). So what you've got is a king who is a reluctant reformer, who had to be pressured into adopting progressive policies by his Council of Advisors (many of whom were responsible for the assassination that put him on the throne), and yet because those machinations are behind the scenes, the masses only see the results and reward him with immense popularity. Versus an educated hierarchy of bureaucrats and administrators who are emblematic of the old regime, and thus a tempting target of vigilante violence, who therefor must rely heavily on the new order for protection even as they undermine it with corruption. Versus revanchist nobles who have no particular love for the old king, but who took a major economic hit from the revolution. Versus radical progressives who want to push for even more equitable political change. Versus a lumpen proletariat of newly freed slaves that the system is ill-equipped to absorb, which doesn't so much as have an agenda as a dangerously volatile anger that may find itself directed against any number of perceived outrages.

The city is ready to burst, and PCs are poised to be at the center of it. In order for it to be a truly great campaign book, it would have to dial in a bit more on the factions, their motives, and their methods, but the broad outline is there. And the physical geography of the city itself is well-covered. And the book describes clothes! Overall, I'd say that it's a good addition to a prospective Dark Sun campaign, even if it does sometimes fill me with a metaplot-based foreboding.

Ukss Contribution: There's a bar, called House of Fingers, that is a sort of neutral meeting ground for Bards. The book got a little carried away with the idea that Athasian Bards will sometimes moonlight as assassins and wound up making the Bard bar into a really grim Assassin bar, but as far as grim Assassin bars go, House of Fingers is memorably awful. "The thousands of [severed, humanoid] fingers that line the wall create a surreal and macabre atmosphere."

Eek.