Thursday, September 29, 2022

Monster Ambulance

 Where to get it: drivethrurpg

The thing I enjoy most about reading a new Colin Fredericks rpg is that I never have to wonder "why does this exist" or "what's the point." It's always very quickly obvious that I'm seeing something with a unique point of view and a strong central thesis. Sufficiently Advanced was about far-future sci-fi, where technology had grown so powerful that virtually anything was possible. Sorcerously Advanced was that, but with magic (and somehow, despite that 100% accurate description, managed also to be better than the original). And Monster Ambulance continues that tradition. It's a high-stakes medical drama as your predefined team - paramedic, EMT, driver, and dispatcher - race through the city streets to save lives, but it's also a comedy because your patients and coworkers (and maybe you yourselves) are monsters and you all work for Grendel's Mother's Memorial Hospital.

Chef's kiss. Perfect pitch. No notes. Netflix, offer this guy a series already because this is exactly the sort of premise that we would all pretend to be heartbroken over when it's cancelled after two seasons, but would secretly agree lived up to its potential after precisely 20 episodes, and thus would binge watch approximately a hundred times.

That might have come off a bit snarkier than I intended, but I really do mean it as the highest praise. A given group is only ever going to get one campaign out of this game, but it's going to be a campaign they'll talk about for the rest of their lives. It's just so tight a setup.

You've got your emergencies, which take place in the ambulance and primarily use your career attributes. And then when you're back at the hospital, you've got situations, which involve drama, romance, and light comedy with your coworkers (and key off of relationships, which work a lot like attributes) and that's it. You're only ever saving lives from bizarre, nonsense medical conditions or trying to talk your weird monster coworkers into taking their pants off. Everything else fades to black and you just alternate between the two types of scenes. It would take actual, active work (or maybe just a really dull GM) to have a scene that wasn't both interesting and relevant.

But I can't speak for its longevity. Monster Ambulance seems to me to inhabit an awkward limbo where a one shot isn't quite long enough - you want to establish the slow-burn sexual tension between the rookie EMT and the immortal gorgon who works the reception desk, or the rivalry between the brilliant, but troubled paramedic and the cyborg chief of surgery whose human brain lost out to her for valedictorian in medical school - but a full campaign might seem to drag - the basic setup is 1)medical emergency, 2)interpersonal drama, 3)goto 1.

Then again, ER ran for 15 seasons.

The system is dead simple - roll dice based on your attributes (career + drive + hallmarks for emergencies, relationship + drive + hallmarks for situations) and then compare that to what the scene rolls on its dice pool (set by the GM, based on difficulty and pacing). If you win, the scene's dice become weaker, if you lose then either the scene becomes stronger or one of several countdown tracks advance (exhaustion, insecurity, [vehicle] breakdown) and in an emergency, you're trying to avoid being knocked out before drawing the hospital card from the map deck and in a situation you're just trying to reduce the dice pool to nothing, only failing definitively if it gets too powerful. 

It's super bare bones and thus faces the same dichotomy as all other bare-bones systems - there's no conceivable scenario where this system can't work, but also it's so abstract that you might come to feel that you're playing the dice rather than playing the story. If you've been in this hobby any length of time, this is something you've already come to terms with - you either enjoy rules-lite or you don't. I know some people don't like scene-resolution mechanics, but given the game's emphasis on teamwork and ensemble drama, it's as well-justified here as it's ever been.

Overall, this game was a delight. Probably one of the few that feels legitimately exciting even without a combat system, and perfect for people who are keen to really sink their teeth into the medical procedural genre. And while its fun and goofy atmosphere amuse the hell out of me (one of Monstropolos' other hospitals is called "Behemoth Israel," heh), it would also be easy enough to adapt this into a straightforward, modern-day hospital soap opera game. Once again, it's a thing with a strong reason to exist. That's the highest compliment I know how to give.

Ukss Contribution: I loved most of the colorful cast of suggested NPCs like the Chupacabra psychologist or the Fair Folk radiologist, but the one that was easiest to adapt was Unlight, the mimic health inspector. Oversight in the form of an untraceable shapeshifter who could be watching even at this very moment is a concept broad enough to work in almost any genre.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

(Dark Sun) Thri-Kreen of Athas

 I'm going to do something highly unusual (i.e. "bad") and start this post by looking at the advertisement at the end of the book. Coming soon is Beyond the Prism Pentad and it promises major changes to the Tyr region. The Dragon is dead, as are three of the six remaining Sorcerer Kings, and the terrifying new threat that's responsible for this carnage is . . . safely locked away once more, presumably by NPCs in book five of the pentad. We've finally reached it - the border between the boxed set's initial compelling pitch and the metaplot rigmarole. I have to say, I've been dreading this. It's just too much change, too far offscreen. Plus I don't think much of Rajaat as a threat. My understanding is that his goal was to genocide every sapient species on Athas except the halflings, which is not only boring in its own right, but reinforces the assumed ubiquity of orcs and gnomes, et al by providing an explanation for their absence. Just let Athas be its own thing, TSR! It doesn't actually gain anything by being tied into the larger brand.

Luckily, Thri-Kreen of Athas by Tim Beach and Dori Hein is mostly metaplot neutral. You could use the bulk of it straight out of the core. But then, there's a bit about the Thri-Kreen population in Raam openly eating elves and getting away with it because of the chaos on the streets, and that doesn't quite track unless Abalach-Re is dead. However, it mostly deals with the insect people who live deep in the desert and don't really stay abreast of current events, so it has a kind of timeless quality.

Except when it's setting the table for its own metaplot. There's an empire far in the north that was previously inaccessible due to a large mountain range blocking the way, but a recent earthquake has created a navigable rift in those mountains, and like all empires, the northern mantis people are looking to expand. 

It's an interesting potential conflict, and a good look at a hitherto undetailed part of Athas, but it suffers from the logic of the metaplot - it felt like a lot of stuff was being held back for some future adventure. The book even comes right out and says it, "future releases will deal with the civilized tohr-kreen and other creatures of the northern lands beyond Tyr" and presumably, that's why, if the PCs decide to try and follow the tohr-kreen back to their homelands, they "are not meant to pass the barrier in the Rift at this time."

Hey, if you've got something to say to me, just say it. Do you not realize how annoying this is going to be decades in the future when those supplements are long out of print and only available for hundreds of dollars? Or do you think that summer is going to last forever? This just feels like a tease.

Of course, maybe it's okay to tease the tohr-kreen in a book that advertises itself as being about the thri-kreen, like, I don't know, it's a related, but not identical subject matter and so it gets touched on, but not fully detailed. Maybe if they gave me the full scoop on the tohr-kreen and their imperialistic society, that would scarcely leave room for the nomadic hunting packs of the thri-kreen.

Which brings us to the touchy subjects of species, race, and culture. Namely, what the fuck are we even talking about with this tohr-kreen business? I always thought that "thri-kreen" was the name of the species. And in 1982, when they were first created, it probably was. But we're in a new edition now and old canon is being stripped down to be repurposed into new. "Kreen" means "people" and "thri" and "tohr" mean "nomadic" and "settled" respectively. Which leaves us with no good name for the species. Except that we get six of them - six separate types of let's-call-them-"kreen" with different physiology and appearance. They all have different colored chitin and different variations on their mandibles and antenna and that's fine as far as it goes, but then the text volunteers abstract information like how the Jeral are "cultured" and the J'ez are "militant" and the Tondi are "reclusive" and it starts to feel a little uncomfortable when the book is also cagey about mixed parentage, saying "though interbreeding is possible, the physiology of members of different species differs enough to make successful procreation rare."

That just feels like the worst possible implementation of diversity to me. Maybe making them fully separate species would be worse, but that's hard to say, because this version still has all the implications that race-mixing is unnatural, but in a package that feels more like human races. Or maybe it's something that should feel like human races, but exaggerates their physical differences, making something that should be simple needlessly fraught. So, to sum up - yes to more diverse kreen, no to making their differences anything more than cultural and/or cosmetic.

So, about the Tohr-Kreen. Their empire is made up of all six sorts of kreen (and three of the six types also have individual nations of their own, though all of them have diverse residents), and it is implied that the thri-kreen of the Tyr region were a subjugated race (the To'ksa) and their overseers (the Jeral) who split away thousands of years ago. Possibly they escaped, possibly they were a failed colony, but the two groups were isolated enough from each other to follow completely different paths of social development.

Or, at least, they would be, were it not for the species ancestral (the book calls it "racial") memory. That's the explanation for why these completely isolated groups can share the same language (they learn it almost as soon as they are born), why thri-kreen NPCs don't necessarily need class levels to pose a threat (what, you thought those Monstrous Manual stats were a convenient shorthand?), and why, when thri-kreen explore up north in the included adventure, they get ominous warnings at crucial points in the plot. 

I don't hate the idea of a species driven by ancestral memory. It's a speculative fiction concept with a lot of potential, but it's deployed in a pretty perfunctory manner here. It mostly exists as a substitute for the childhood education that becomes impractical for a species that lives 25 years. It gets into some good territory, with the thri-kreen preferring to lay their eggs in graveyards, in hopes of unlocking more of the wisdom of their ancestors, but it stops where it should start, and never really creates an alien psychology that explores the tension between this indelible cultural legacy and the short and brutal life of the present.

Similarly, I thought the "clutch-mind" was an idea that could have been polished into something special. The thri-kreen have this hormonal and pheromonal process by which they bond with other intelligent creatures, usually, but not exclusively thri-kreen, and subsequently become exceptionally loyal to and protective of the bond-mate. I enjoyed reading about the ways that differing expectations in relationships made communicating with humans difficult. I just wish there had been more about personality conflicts inside the clutch-bond, different thri (or tohr)-kreen cultural expressions surrounding the bond, and philosophical schools that tried to make sense of the bond and its relation to individual freedom and identity. A human might balk at implementing what amounts to self-imposed mind-control (the bond "transcends alignments," forcing kreen to act lawful and good towards clutch mates even if they are chaotic and evil by inclination) just to fit in better with their friends, but the kreen can't seem to live without it. What does that mean?

Overall, I'd say that Thri-Kreen of Athas is a decent sourcebook. It contains the seeds to quite a few good ideas and I can't entirely blame it for not having enough room to let those seeds fully blossom. I wish there was less metaplot and more philosophy, but I can't necessarily count that as a flaw because if I had my way then every rpg supplement would be nothing but speculative noodling. I'd use most of this material in a Dark Sun game, even if the words "prism pentad" fill me with a nameless dread.

Ukss Contribution: The kreen don't sleep. They are biologically incapable of it. But the detail that most amused me is that they also don't understand it. They think it's some kind of character flaw, like mammals are just choosing to sleep because they don't want to be active all night. That sort of stubborn misunderstanding is my favorite part of playing a non-human character. I probably won't have mantis-people in Ukss, but there will be some kind of unsleeping creature that is under the mistaken impression that everyone else is just super lazy.

Friday, September 23, 2022

(Aberrant 2e)Swine and Cheese Party

Did you know these posts of mine could technically be considered gonzo journalism? I mean, okay, technically anything "can be considered" anything, but to the degree that book reviews are a form of journalism and to the degree that said reviews normally attempt to focus on things relevant to the book, my habit of making pointless personal asides and telling meandering stories about the experience of shopping for the book I'm reviewing could fit the broadest definition of gonzo journalism as a genre. Because what separates worthwhile gonzo from just doing a bunch of drugs and then being bad at reporting is that gonzo seeks to grapple with the problem of objectivity. The reporter makes themselves part of the story because, by being a part of the culture the story is about, they are already a part of the story.

You know, you write a story about a pizza parlor being raided by the police as a suspected money-laundering operation, and you disclose your conflict of interest if you're a shareholder in the pizza parlor, but not if you watch six episodes of Law and Order a week and have internalized its implicit lessons about the inconvenience of due process. If you'll forgive me for using a problematic expression, "the inmates are running the asylum" necessarily implies that the inmates are also the ones reporting on the asylum. You are not the one sane man in a world gone mad, so you might as well stop acting like it.

(And that's why my timorously confessing a passive participation in America's white supremacist culture right before I point out a book is racist is exactly the same as Hunter S Thompson's legendary drug-fueled rampage through the Nevada desert).

I don't bring this up in the context of Swine and Cheese Party to make some supercilious point about being gonzolier than thou (though I may have been influenced by a desire to show off my cleverness at coming up with the phrase "gonzolier than thou"), but to highlight how weird it is to try and write gonzo fiction.

And I don't mean "weird" in the sense of "LOL, gonzo," but "weird" in the sense of weird. It's a genuine literary paradox. Like, the whole point of gonzo is to undermine the authority of the objective stance. The reporter is not outside of the story, dryly relaying facts, but rather inside the story, desperately trying to wrangle the chaos of real life into a coherent narrative (and the fact that gonzo so often seems incoherent is part of it, the point is you can't).

But being outside the story, knowing exactly what's happening to who, when, where, and why is already how fiction works. You have the authority to relay facts because you are literally the author. Anything you say about the fiction is by definition objectively true about the fiction. There's no wall to break down.

You might be able to do it with the grimmest forms of literary fiction. Combine a thinly veiled personal account with heavily telegraphed editorializing by the author whose personal account it is ("this story is true, the facts have been changed to protect the guilty"), but even then, I'm not sure how you'd tell if you succeeded. "Oh, wow, that fiction you wrote feels super unreal. I can't believe it actually went down that way."

In other words, the one and only piece of genuine gonzo fiction has already been written and it's called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

When you make the jump from literary fiction to genre fiction, gonzo becomes nearly unthinkable. You're too deep into fantasy. There's nothing at stake. You can try, as this book does, to indulge in the hypothetical. You're not really doing gonzo fiction, you're just imagining what gonzo journalism might be like in your fictional world. And to his credit, Justin Achilli has gotten better at it since Aberrant: Fear and Loathing. This book has less over-the-top vulgarity and thus may not sound entirely like the iconic Hunter S Thompson you're remembering, but it's also more political, and thus truer to the spirit of his work. It's just, by nature of its subject matter, it can't be a journey into the surreal. I'm not challenged when Duke Rollo tells a story of camping out in the woods of Romania to capture a live bear, in imitation of the new superhero fad of bear tossing because I have no complicity in that. It's like, maybe people in his world would have to think carefully about the way they applaud whatever novas do, and how that might encourage them to engage in such pointless and elaborate cruelty, but I'm only guessing because everything I know about that world comes from these books and this is the first I'm hearing about it.

And I know I'm being the asshole here. What we're really talking about is a couple of stories, told in an unusual way, as a tribute to a beloved author. And the stories are fun, and they are told in an interesting way, and the tribute is fucking lovely. So what's with the stick up my ass?

I certainly don't want to come across like I'm trying to gatekeep gonzo (and I can already anticipate the comments, "then why do you sound exactly like you're gatekeeping gonzo?" My reply - "No I don't, shut up!"), but I can't help wondering why the Duke Rollo character even exists. The likeliest explanation is that Justin Achilli likes writing him, and if you can get the developer of Vampire: the Masquerade onto your roleplaying game, even in this minor capacity, why wouldn't you. But when it comes to his larger role in helping to establish the voice of the Aberrant line, I can't help but think that maybe he exists to further the game's media satire. With a guy like this running around, you can never have true superheroes, you can just have tough guys in spandex bodysuits.

The problem with bringing him back for Swine and Cheese Party is that second edition has so far not been satirical. It plays superheroes mostly straight, with maybe just a bit more humanism than your typical comic book setting, but with the implication that the ones calling themselves the good guys are at least on the right track. That's probably why Duke Rollo was banished from the core and exiled to what will likely be a pretty inessential supplement (although, if he gets back in to more prominent products later in the line, remind me to eat my words).

If there's a gonzo story worth telling in the Aberrant universe, it's going to be one that puts Onyx Path squarely in the crosshairs. Not because OP particularly deserves to be taken down a peg, but because that's the sort of force you're tampering with when you borrow Hunter S Thompson's credibility. Imagine, creating a simulacrum of one of America's great counterculture critics and not turning him on yourself . . . or your audience. If you're not biting the hand that feeds you and fucking with the money, what are you even doing?

And there's definitely room for this. The superhero genre has issues. They historically exhibit a reverence for the status quo and an unspoken great-man driven proto-fascism. The wicked get beaten up, and except for the times when the author is trying to Make a Point, the guys at the wrong end of the fist aren't the imperialists or the capitalists or their agents of state violence, but rather nebulous "criminals" or "terrorists" who just happen to look a lot like the people we're trying to colonize. Aberrant is less guilty of this than most, and indeed, one of the stories in Swine and Cheese Party is about a terrible nova warrior, The Lady of Wounds, who leads her cult in some ill-defined insurrection in rural Armenia, and Duke Rollo talks about the connection with the capitalist foreign policy of the west, but why is he in Armenia? Why does he go to Romania for a story on petty animal cruelty? Why is he not at the heart of the American Dream, wherever that happens to be in fictional 2028, reporting on things that are extremely normal (like religiously-driven violence and animal cruelty)?

It all feels very safe. I am extremely normal for liking superheroes and this extremely normal roleplaying game is presenting me with superheroes who are easy to like. The not normal stuff happens in Eastern Europe. I have no further questions.

Ukss Contribution: There's a line here that really intrigued me. As Duke Rollo is trying to track down the true story of the Lady of Wounds, he speculates that there's more of it than will logically fit into the 9 years since N-Day. Because of that, he wonders, "Maybe we have another Maxwell Mercer on our hands."

That's not the Ukss contribution, it's just a question I hadn't thought to ask before, suggesting an answer I would never have dared to give - that Mercer has a high enough superhuman profile in the Aberrant era that people have theories about him. However, I do like what this says about the Lady of Wounds. I like the idea of a major figure emerging out of a murky and uncertain past.

It probably won't be the Lady of Wounds herself. It's probably a coincidence, but she reminds me too much of the Lady of Pain, and there's a reason I didn't pick her from any of my Planescape (she's too iconic and too edgy - pun unsuccessfully resisted).

So it's super abstract this time - a monster with a history that doesn't add up. I'll worry about the specific implementation later.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

(Dark Sun) Road to Urik

 Oh, man, I was not a properly responsible steward of this book. I suppose I had no way of knowing at fourteen that my fun new toy would one day become part of my future self's collecting hobby. There are penciled-in notes on some of the pages and I actually removed the preconstruct characters from the spiral binding. It was a physically painful thing to witness. Yikes.

Still, the unique, two flip-book Dark Sun-style adventure was mostly intact and still entirely useable, so I guess have to just accept that maybe it's a miracle that it survived my childhood at all. Then again, most of my other D&D books from this era are still in pretty good shape . . . except for my first Player's Handbook, Monstrous Manual, and Complete Psionics Handbook, which all disintegrated and had to be replaced. Survivorship bias, maybe?

But this is a very personal and not-at-all-relatable experience, let's talk about the actual text.

It's a little weird to read a completely normal adventure from 1992. It's ambitious. It puts the PCs at the center of Tyr's military mobilization against invasion by the neighboring city-state of Urik by presenting a series of non-linear encounters where you interact with the Tyr's various factions, persuading them to contribute to the war effort, and then uses the mass combat rules to allow the PCs to make a fair, objectively determined contribution to the actual battle. It's big on social interaction, in-character problem solving, and using reasonable consequences to give meaning to player agency. So maybe it's even better than a normal adventure. David "Zeb" Cook knew what he was doing.

Yet it was also from 1992, so it could be a little weird about it. The introduction warns us about the strange nature of this adventure:

This adventure does not follow the progression used in many other modules. The characters do not spend all their time journeying or exploring an underground setting. . . Instead, player characters are involved in a swirl of events . . .You cannot simply describe what is waiting behind the next door: you must create situations, conflicts and sometimes interpret your players' unstated desires to fashion an exciting adventure.

Whoa, really? The PCs are going to get "involved" in "events?" I'm not sure I can cope with such a radical idea.

Okay, sarcasm is fun and all, but what is not sarcastic at all is the visceral, full-body clenching I felt upon reading this line: "Allow the players ample time to make their plans, up to as much as a full gaming session: remember that their characters have four or five hours to plan."

No, no, no, no, no! I understand that the early 90s were a different time for rpgs. People had different expectations. You had to spell out that they were allowed to interact socially with NPCs, but . . . real time planning of imaginary military operations? Did people really do that? I'm thinking about various Shadowrun session where huge chunks of time were lost to excessive planning driven by player risk aversion and I'm aghast that anyone would try to cultivate that on purpose.

But if you filter out the weird early AD&D stuff, Road to Urik is a solid adventure. The plot is thin - recruit your army, march your army, fight with your army, but in theory you could spin off the related-but-independent recruitment encounters into a whole huge story about the city's politics. Sequel potential - where the PCs are popular military heroes who must deal with the jealousy and ambition of Tyr's aristocratic class - is through the roof. And the whole thing is early enough in the Dark Sun line that it's not hopelessly bound up by canon. There's actually a suggestion that the PCs might screw up so thoroughly that they put King Tithian's throne in jeopardy.

In the end, there is some table-setting for the novels. It just outright states that people interested in continuing the war story should read The Crimson Legion. It's pretty mild as far as metaplot railroading is concerned, but it's clear to me from reading this book that Dark Sun is going to be a pioneer in the genre.

Overall, though, my assessment stands that Dark Sun is AD&D at its best. Road to Urik, with few modifications, could be published today and it would still feel like a bold attempt at something outside the norm (though mostly for its high degree of player agency and tier-straddling aspects, rather than the fact that it tries to tell a coherent story). It's enough to make me bitter that my copy looks like total garbage.

Ukss Contribution: This one is tough, not because the adventure was boring, but because it was so basic. The locations are a market and a villa and the desert. The NPCs include an aristocrat who's jealous of your growing popularity and tries to sabotage you to further his political ambitions, a templar-turned-general whose gross incompetence becomes a military liability, a hot-headed gladiator whose eagerness to fight causes its own set of problems.

Stock characters, basically. It wasn't bad, and I have to consider the possibility that using stock characters was as new an innovation in adventure design as "involving PCs in events." But they bring basically nothing to a new context.

So I'm going to go broad and take the entire city of Tyr. That is not a stock location, and actually does something that you rarely see in fantasy - it is a fledgling democracy. Popular organization is still slapdash, ineffectual, and corrupt, but that's because no one knows how to properly do it. Plus the city is saddled with the lingering problem of being in the aftermath of an especially bourgeois revolution. One of the grievances against Kalak is that he commandeered slaves, and maybe that did mobilize the landowners against him, but preserving the slaveholding aristocracy intact, even in the face of emancipation, is going to cause trouble down the line (trust me, as an American, I speak from experience here). 

It all makes for some fascinating internal conflicts that serve to elevate the entire adventure just by being in the background. I imagine it will work similar magic in Ukss.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

(Planescape) Monstrous Compendium Appendix III

This is another one of those books that I have a fraught history with. Appendices I and II were treasured items of my youth, but I didn't even know there was an Appendix III until something like 2012. My reaction, roughly speaking, was, "what the fuck?!" Having two volumes of a three-volume collection irritated me like you wouldn't believe.

It's something I struggle with as a collector. Well, maybe "struggle" is the wrong word. "Should struggle," maybe. "Am afflicted with," perhaps. I am two PoD volumes away from having a complete Kindred of the East collection, and I don't even really like that game.

I do like Planescape, however. And that's a struggle. A full collection of Planescape books would be great, and the only reason I don't have one is because they're ridiculously expensive.  I'm only eight books away, and the estimated price is more than 2300 dollars. A good chunk of that is in a couple of outlier books, but even the skinny adventure books are 50 dollars. Since I'm always a bit ambivalent about adventures anyway, I've resigned myself to the notion that the full collection is going to stay out of reach. And yet, The Monstrous Compendium Appendix III felt like an exception. I don't know what to say. The volumes were numbered and I only had two out of three. It bugged me.

So every few weeks I'd check. People were asking 90 dollars for this thing, and I just couldn't justify it to myself. But these things fluctuate. There's a trick to it. You check frequently and prepare yourself emotionally to pounce on a deal when it comes up. I'd done it before. That's how I got a copy of the Trinity Player's Guide for $15 when it customarily hovered around $60. But it's something that requires a weird combination of frugality and spend-thriftness. 

Anyway, it worked. In October of last year, I got my hands on a copy of this book for "only" 50 dollars . . . except that it never arrived. Maybe the boat ride from England was more treacherous than I imagined. Hard to say, because I never got a tracking number. I have a cynical suspicion that someone listed the book, and then after they made the sale, finally decided to check ebay, saw it was regularly closing for 2-3 times that price, and decided to wait me out. It wasn't until late December that I reluctantly asked for a refund.

The whole incident really undermined my resolve to wait for a "reasonable" price. Maybe I was wrong and that 90 dollar price tag wasn't an aberration, but the new normal. Maybe, as copies got progressively removed from circulation, it would climb, 120, 150, 200 . . . sky's the limit. I would need to do as I'd done with A Guide to the Astral Plane (the only other Planescape book who's absence from my collection feels like an acute oversight) and write it off, hoping some day for a possible PoD. Then the Colorado government sent me a check for $750 and I was like, "how can I most irresponsibly use this unexpected windfall?" and by coincidence, there was a copy with an asking price of $80, a mere 5 dollars over what I'd previously pretended was my ceiling price for a 128 page softcover supplement for a vintage rpg I never wanted to play again.

Never mind that this is only 10 dollars less than a price that I had, years before, decided to try and wait out. I think I can accept my C-minus-level consumer savviness. The real question is - after all that, was it worth it?

Hell, no! Of course not.

But this is why I prefer not to do reviews, and instead just randomly start some of these things off with tedious shopping anecdotes. Because "not being worth the years of obsessing and bargain hunting and eventually overpaying for" is not the same thing as "bad." (Funnily enough, this also works in reverse - a book can be incontrovertibly bad, but also absolutely worth it, like certain parts of Mage: the Ascension).

Although, to be clear, The Monstrous Compendium Appendix III is kind of . . .not "bad" exactly (and, in fact, often the exact opposite of "bad") but maybe . . . terrible? In the original sense of the term, as in we should all be feeling terror that this thing exists. A whole series of events had to go wrong for me to be in the position I am now, and it's kind of breathtaking to contemplate.

This book should never have been conceived, but having been conceived, it should never have been green-lit. But having been green-lit, it should never have been made. But having been made, I never should have bought it.

And yet, here we are.

Keep in mind, if this were a review, it would be a positive one. We assigned the class a personal essay and the weird kid turned in a harrowing account of his summer working at the sausage factory and intellectual honesty demands I give it a B+.

This is a book filled with interesting fantasy creatures, made at the pinnacle of AD&D monster design and presentation, authored by Monte Cook, who has an rpg bibliography to die for. It's a book that is firing on all cylinders.

But . . . It's all in service of Planescape's worst campaign pitch. This isn't just a book filled with 3rd-string monsters, neither iconic nor obvious enough to make it into the first two volumes. It is, in fact, a companion to The Inner Planes, and thematically centers on weird elemental creatures to make these strange and dangerous places feel more alive. And the thing about The Inner Planes (the book, not the planes) is that no book I've ever read, tabletop rpg or otherwise, has made it so obvious that no one involved really wanted to be doing the job.

The MC3 is a fun book, filled with unique creatures that you're absolutely going to want to meet, but all these creatures live in places you're absolutely not going to want to go (except, perhaps for the Mineral Quasielementals). "This plane of loneliness and desolation offers visitors nothing." Oh, good. I wonder what sort of encounters they're going to have when they get there.

Actually, to be fair, I chose one of more pointless quasielemental planes for that quote (Dust) and the MC3 had no specific native creatures (except the quasi-elementals) for that plane. Still, the point stands that the environments covered in this book are going to be used only in extremely niche adventures, and I'm not sure that it's a niche anyone really asked for or wanted. The big feeling of this book is that TSR was a machine for churning out supplements and MC3 is one of the last irregular, unsightly products to come off the line before they shut the machine down for being irreparably broken.

I cannot emphasize enough how un-iconic this book is. I seriously doubt anyone has ever been planning a game and thought, "hold up, I really need the stats for a devete and a khargra and can't go any farther until I have them, why, oh why weren't they in the first Monster Manual?" At best, this is a book you flip through and say, "why not?"

Which isn't actually a bad thing to be. There's a real sense of discovery here, and I quite enjoyed the sensation of never knowing what was going to be on an upcoming page. However, there was a reason I never suspected its existence prior to being blindsided by its entry on Amazon. Unlike the inner planes, ethereal, and astral books it supplements, it wasn't even obligatory. Its strangeness doesn't fill in the setting's noticeable gaps so much as emphasize how rote those gaps were to begin with. The opening line for the ooze sprite entry sums it up "Is every creature that hails from the plane of Ooze just a big joke?"

It's a rhetorical question, but it gets at the heart of the issue - did Planescape even want to incorporate the inner planes? For all of its virtues, this book does not offer compelling evidence that the answer was "yes."

Ukss Contribution: I say, even as this proves to be one of the more difficult Ukss entries to narrow down. I really liked a lot of the individual entries, precisely because they were just pointless noodling. No one's yearning for the Garmorm, a mind-absorbing worm-like creature that grows multiple humanoid mouths in grotesque imitation of its victims, the better to sing its warlike chants in harmony with itself, but it's going to be a memorable encounter.

My favorite of these inexplicable one-offs was the Ravid. Despite featuring the unfortunate line, "Would you rather face a creature of negative energy that wants to drain you or a beast of positive energy that wants to pump you full of life," it's actually a pretty fun creature - a more or less benign floating snake thing that causes absolute havoc wherever it goes by having an aura that brings inanimate objects to life. It isn't really intelligent enough to understand the chaos it causes, but it does like to see things move, so it's constantly on the lookout for new objects to animate, all the while avoiding the already-living creatures that seem to resent its presence. So really, it's a single creature that is multiple encounters all by itself. PCs are most likely to stumble upon the aftermath of its passage and then be compelled to solve this mystery before things get totally out of hand.

I love it, because this is what I think gods should be like - miraculous power, wielded in innocence. Changing the world just by existing within it. Having a tread too heavy for ordinary reality to bear. This is definitely something I can work with.

Monday, September 12, 2022

(Dark Sun) The Will and the Way

 Sometimes, you just get a workhorse of a book. Why does The Will and the Way, by L Richard Baker III, exist? Because Dark Sun decided that a half-baked class from an optional supplement would be a central part of its setting, and thus needed the Complete* series treatment. We get some really basic kits (the Noble Psionicist is a psionicist while being a noble, the Mercenary Psionicist is a psionicist while being a mercenary, and the Psiologist is a psionicist who is good at psionics), some powers that range from the bland, but useful (deflect) to the flavorful, but game-breaking (time travel), and a bunch of background stuff that we could probably have inferred from context (the various city-states each have their own psionic academies that reflect the character of the polis).

But that's really the good thing about having a workhorse - you can put it to work. It's not an exaggeration to say that The Will and the Way is an essential supplement for anyone who wants to play a psionics-heavy Dark Sun game, and at least half the information here is abstract enough that you could port it to basically any setting. No complaints here. . .

Except, it doesn't really solve the essential problem of psionics existing alongside magic. I've said in the past that I think AD&D's psionics system could replace its magic system, and my reasoning is that psionics has so far been mostly a crummier version of magic. Which maybe doesn't sound like much of recommendation, but if you're looking for a class that's competitive with the Thief or the Fighter without relying on an ill-conceived "career balance," then having weaker, more unreliable abilities can be an advantage. If you view them as a peer to Thieves that have a 50% chance of failing to pick a lock or move silently, then their only real flaw is that strong powers like Disintegration and Metamorphosis are not level-gated (instead having a soft level restriction based on your available PSPs). 

Where you run into a problem is when you have psionicists in the same setting as mages and priests. Then they get tricky to justify. "Like a wizard, but objectively worse" is not much of a niche. It could be a niche in Dark Sun, where arcane magic destroyed the world and is in the process of using up what little is left, but neither the boxed set, nor the original CPHB, nor The Will and the Way actually bothers to stake out that niche. It's a lesser power, accepted because it does not bear the terrible cost of sorcery, but we never learn what magic can do that psionics can't, nor how people distinguish between them in practice, nor about conflicts and synergies between them (except in Dragon Kings, where 10th level spells require being a 20th level psionicist to use, but by that time in the campaign, it's too late to start asking questions that have been relevant since level 3).

It pains me to say it, but I think what's going on is that Dark Sun is experiencing the weaknesses of its AD&D chassis. Psionics and wizardry and elemental priest magic are all separate phenomena because psionicists and wizards and priests are all separate classes. Your character sheet says "psionicist" and therefor you are axiomatically something different than a character whose sheet says "mage." The people in the setting can instinctively sense this, which is why it's okay for Draj to have The House of the Mind, even though the people would go berserk if someone tried to set up a sorcerous academy. 

The thing is, from a setting perspective, this is all very solvable. What you do is restrict yourself to One Weird Thing - on Athas, people have the ability to sense and manipulate life energy to create extraordinary supernatural effects. If you restrict yourself to your own life energy, that's psionics, and it's considered both fair and natural. It's your life energy, so you can do what you want with it. However, the psionic capability isn't purely an internal power. You start by sensing your own energy, but that sense, once opened, can detect the external life energy in the world around you. Likewise, the faculty by which you harness your own internal power can be extended into the world. You grab on to the energy in the air and the earth and the waters, and that becomes sorcery. Go a little farther, and you can take the life energy of other creatures, prematurely withering them, and that's defiling.

It's a continuum, and the boundaries between the magic types are ethical boundaries. Psionics is safest and weakest, you only use what's yours. Preserving magic (aka "priest magic") is just a stronger version of psionics, drawing from deep wells of sustainable energy that are too diffuse to support the grandest of effects. Defiling magic is the strongest psionics, because it is indiscriminate, taking whatever just happens to be available without regard for consequences. Characters in the world can tell the difference between the types (or, at least between purely internal psionics and external psionic sorcery) because everyone on Athas has that psionic sense. They can feel the motion of life energy when it's taken from the world around them (and especially when it is stolen from them personally, by defiling) and when an apparently supernatural effect happens without triggering that sense, they assume the person is being responsible. Therefor, culturally, it only counts as "magic" when it's big.

From a game design perspective, this gets a little tricky, because what you really want is a hybrid class, one that is tempted to transgress the boundaries between the magic types. But you don't necessarily want to sort the types into clear tiers. The quick and dirty way to do it would be: 1st 2nd, 3rd level spells are psionic; 4th, 5th, and 6th are preserving; and 7th, 8th, and 9th are defiling. Except that you kind of want players to be able to be defilers from level 1 and to remain psionicists even at level 20.

Maybe you could refigure the PSP economy. You have a basic pool of PSPs that you can play around with, which increases by level, and so long as you're only using those, you're wielding psionics. But then the more impressive powers have higher PSP costs. You can wait until you're high enough level to use them, or you can call upon a bonus pool of external PSPs. Gathered slowly, these PSPs are preserving magic, and gathered rapidly, they're defiling magic. At various decision points in your class progression, you can select class features that optimize one of the three paths, but you still retain access to each.

It might work, though the game you're playing at that point is barely AD&D any longer. Also, this whole line of speculation is getting pretty far afield of what The Will and the Way actually brings to the table. It introduces some new mechanics to make psionics more competitive with magic, which is maybe not great for the lore, but is helpful in making the classes more balanced. Now you can improve you power scores with extended meditation. This patches one of the biggest weaknesses of the class (your signature abilities fail half the time or more), but at the cost of being extremely tedious. Want that Telekinesis to go from a Wis -3 check to a Wis -0 check (thus from a 60% chance to a 75% chance, assuming a 15 wisdom score), all you have to do is take your character out of commission for 80+ days and succeed at 8 savings throws vs spells (one every 10 days, if you fail 3 in a row you have to start over). In theory, they can also use psionic meditation to improve their base Wisdom score (for psionic purposes only) and get that success chance up to 90%, which is actually pretty decent. But it does require you to not play your character for large stretches of time.

The character tree might make that style possible, but I think I'd just rather have a functional class. The Will and the Way noodles around the edges, but doesn't necessarily make a compelling case for psionics as a whole. What Dark Sun really needs is a dedicated system of its own, something that can handle the psuedo-science fiction of its ubiquitous psychic powers as well as the sword and sorcery implications of its arcane magic. This book is, as I said, a workhorse. It doesn't have that kind of ambition. It will improve your AD&D games, but ultimately, you're still playing AD&D.

Ukss Contribution: I liked a lot of the new powers. My favorite was "molecular bonding" which let you use telekinesis to cold weld/glue inanimate objects together. Imprison someone in their own armor! If I ever play another AD&D psionicist, that's going to be an essential tool in my kit.

However, the idea with the most long-term potential is actually just a concept that keeps showing up - intelligent, psychic undead. The sci-fi version of psionic powers downplays the spiritism that was historically associated with psychic abilities, but I kind of like the idea of a ghost existing because of advanced telepathy, rather than necromancy. I'll have to brew something up.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Monster of the Week

 I'm feeling conflicted about my process. Sometimes, I think I may not be doing these books a favor by reading similar ones back-to-back. Monster of the Week, by Michael Sands, is the fourth Powered by the Apocalypse game I've read in the past six weeks and I think perhaps the system has lost its power to surprise and delight me.

Don't get me wrong, Monster of the Week is a fine game. It is a solid implementation of a solid ruleset, and probably the most diverse PbtA experience since Urban Shadows, but it failed to excite me.

I'm sure that a significant part of this is just that I've had a busy couple of weeks. Played the new Saints Row game for about 60 hours, went to the dentist, miscellaneous stress. However, I also expect that the game's genre might also be a factor. Monster of the Week seeks to replicate the feel of supernatural procedural mysteries like The X-Files, Buffy, or Supernatural, but, specifically, the, um, "monster of the week" episodes. And me, I'm a myth arc guy, all the way.

To be fair, there is an entire chapter on Arcs, and there's no reason to assume that a long-running Monster of the Week campaign can't eventually become as convoluted as X-Files or Lost, but at the same time, PbtA's "play to find out what happens" philosophy practically guarantees that your arcs will turn out as coherent as, well, X-Files or Lost. Score one for genre emulation, I guess.

It does feel like I'm unfairly singling out Monster of the Week, though. Really, it merely had the misfortune of being last. What reading so many Powered by the Apocalypse games in such a short period of time has wound up teaching me is that genre probably isn't enough. All the best rpgs play with genre and it's subtly noticeable when a genre thesis is missing (for example, Planescape, despite its elaborate worldbuilding, never really articulated a distinct commentary on the fantasy worlds it bridged, and thus wound up often feeling superfluous), but I don't think you can really have genre in potentia. The "monster of the week" is a format and while the convenience with which it fit into the reality of making an episodic television series has made it iconic in its own way, you don't really watch Angel to see what weird creatures the writers can come up with, you watch it to see Angel. The creatures are largely an excuse, an opportunity to see him do something interesting for forty minutes.

But this is not a failing exclusive to Monster of the Week. It goes all the way back to the original Apocalypse World. Turns out, after some reflection, that it matters to me how the apocalypse happened. An out-of-control bioweapon and a civ-killer meteor demand two different thematic approaches. They're both, broadly, the "post-apocalypse" genre, but the nuances are important. You can't simply swap out The Stand and Fallout. There's this notion in rpg circles that lore is just a GM indulgence, that too much concern for it indicates a frustrated novelist, rather than honest roleplaying, but I you can't really dispense with it, and I'm not sure any PbtA game has successfully made the case that you can simply improvise it either. Genre is intrinsically abstract, and it's the lore that brings that abstraction into the realm of the concrete. There is no pure genre work, they are all tainted by off-genre specifics.

On-balance, having a plan will make those specifics more satisfying to engage with. That some people overdo it is no reason to write off the entire practice. Luckily, every PbtA game I've read so far, including this one, is flexible enough that you can simply tuck that part of the "GM Agenda" into the "soft maybe" pile. As good as their improvisational style can be, they'd probably be better if you did the work to bring a compelling world to the table.

And despite my grousing, Monster of the Week does have some unique strengths. Its collection of playbooks is one of the strongest I've seen, running the whole gamut of types from its inspirational media - you can play a Chosen, like Buffy, a Flake, like Fox Mulder, or a Spell-slinger like Harry Dresden, plus another nine types that are all instantly recognizable. For all that I talk about not entirely trusting improv, the well-defined character niches will go a long way to establishing a party chemistry.

Overall, my verdict is that this game works. You want its specific type of feel, you will get pretty close by following the rules. I'm not sure that I'm sold on its strongly episodic format or default antagonistic approach to the urban fantasy genre, but I can acknowledge that not everything is meant for me. 

Ukss Contribution: Let's end this post on an up-note, with something I liked about the book. One of the richest veins of setting was in the Spell-slinger's list of spells. I thought the necromantic wall, which drained the life of anyone passing through it, was properly spooky. Who should we really be hunting, huh guys?