Monday, October 24, 2022

(Orpheus) Crusade of Ashes

While I eventually mellowed on this book, the first 50 pages or so of Crusade of Ashes were viscerally unpleasant to read. My notes are filled with sad-boy comments like, "ensuring the canon events happen by making the attack brutally unfair" and "the meticulous planning of this attack makes me feel dirty as a GM."  Maybe it's because I'm not really a horror guy. The mercenaries of NextWorld attack Orpheus headquarters and slaughter everyone, from upper management, to the scientists, the facilities workers, and the projecters lying helplessly in their cryogenic cradles. Then, a bunch of specters come and capture the ghosts of the dead, either devouring them on the spot or dragging them to some unknown, terrible fate. And the PCs are so helpless in the face of this brutality that the book actually suggests that they should be somewhere else entirely and only hear about it after-the-fact. 

It depressed me, because it's a cruel plot, with few options for heroes to even mitigate the damage, let alone stop it, but also because Orpheus has so far been my favorite part of Orpheus, and canonically it is no more. There was a part of me that was like, "shut up about your damned 'movie model' for five damned minutes, okay? I'm still trying to grieve." However, upon more sober reflection, I can acknowledge that it was in many ways an inevitable development. "Pride cometh before the fall," and all that. One of the things I enjoyed about Orpheus (the organization) was the foolishness of their pride, and my own genre-savvy smugness that the fall was coming, so I guess it's a little hypocritical of me to see this quite dramatic fall and think, "what the hell is this bullshit?"

I think the problem might be the suggested theme, "loss of control." That makes me uncomfortable. . .

Now let me be real for a second. After writing that last line, I asked myself the question, "what is it about a loss of control that makes you so uncomfortable," and I realized that I am teetering on the brink of turning this post into a therapy session. Maybe it's sufficient to reiterate that I'm not a horror guy, and so I wouldn't necessarily even be able to appreciate the good kind of poking at my deepest fears and insecurities.

However, as a GM, it makes me uncomfortable because I'm not sure I can properly convey the difference between "loss of control" as a literary theme that is indelibly linked to Orpheus' scientism and hubris and "loss of agency," a poor GMing technique that is indelibly linked to me being a dick. Especially because it's not just that Orpheus gets blown up, the player characters are framed for the crime and hunted by the FBI (as well as NextWorld mercenaries and freelancers who are being paid to finish the job). The FBI doesn't care about the characters' guilt or innocence, because it just wants a scapegoat. Their real agenda is to persuade the public (and presumably the Congress who would need to write the enabling legislation) that it should act as the sole regulatory agency for projection technology. Meanwhile, the book also has basically nothing good to say about the media, who are apparently eager to hype up the manhunt for the sake of ratings (though we bloggers are the true heroes - "'blogs' are actually the characters' best hope").

The net effect is a serious discussion about shutting down all the PCs Background points and player advice about how to get along when the entire system is against them (even though most of that advice boils down to a variation of "you probably can't").

I guess a Kafkaesque nightmare where the machinery of law has prejudged your guilt and refuses to entertain evidence of your innocence is also a kind of horror, right? Though if the GM really wants to do it right, they'll have to "ensure the game's hostile tone contains unpredictability and variety."

Ah, hell. I think this book is describing hell.

Oh, I shouldn't be such a grump. I can kind of see the intended game, the fun version of all this that players are going to want to play. You're a noble fugitive, who may be wrongly accused, but who won't let that stop them from doing good deeds, helping the helpless, and investigating the dark secrets that led to Orpheus' downfall. Eventually, you'll turn the tables, find the architect of your shattered life, and bring the fight to them. I mean, that's a Season 5 plot if I ever heard one, given the title of the whole fucking game, but I could see it working, once the players started growing jaded about the game's procedural elements.

I'd feel a lot more sanguine about it if I could remember the identity of Mysterious Antagonist #1 (that's what they're called in the book). This story is going to have a payoff in one of the future supplements, and maybe that will be enough to retroactively redeem it in my eyes (I kind of feel like it must have happened, because my overall memory of the series is positive).

Some of the secrets are pretty interesting, though. Orpheus tested the first intentionally build projection chamber on death row inmates, in a sinister experiment called Project Flatline, and test subjects decided they'd be happier as free ghosts than live prisoners. They are now some of the most powerful spirits haunting the world of the living, with some of them providing muscle to a criminal gang, a few following a charismatic leader known as Uriah Bishop, a few unaccounted for, and one of them anchoring a really gross mission.

Look, it's horror. A death row inmate who can physically possess the living is scary. I get it. The fact that he uses his ghostly possession powers to do really upsetting things to women . . . Ehh . . . Talk it over with your group, I guess. Crusade of Ashes is kind of a poster child for session 0. Personally, I think the Project Flatline guys should be Hannibal-esque murder wizards instead of realistic misogynists, but then, I'm not really a horror guy.

The other noticeable trend in the metaplot is that it is becoming more explicitly a Wraith: the Oblivion game. The Shadowlands are mentioned. The reason Orpheus hasn't discovered ghosts older than 3 years is explicitly because of the Week of Nightmares (alluded to in some of the Mage: the Ascension books, but never something I felt the need to address directly). The specters definitely have more backstory to be shared.

I'm a bit nervous about this development. Wraith brings a lot baggage to the story, and the proper amount can add the weight of history to the setting's secrets, but too much threatens to turn Orpheus from a bold limited-run game of its own into a really niche Wraith: the Oblivion campaign. I mean, I've made peace with the fall of Orpheus as a concept, and I understand why it happened, but we're two books in and already I'm missing the science fiction and procedural elements that made the core book such a unique world. Why couldn't Orpheus' hubris have caught up to it in book four or five instead?

Overall, I think this book can make for some enthralling reading, and killing off the titular organization a third of the way through the line is certainly a fearless move. However, I also think that if I were ever to use Crusade of Ashes in a game, I'd probably have to go with the watered-down version of the plot where Orpheus survives in diminished form. The Season 1 finale is simply too early for a late-series shakeup to the format.

Ukss Contribution: We learn that specters "hate the beach with a notorious passion." It's unclear from context whether that means all specters hate all beaches, or if it's just that the specific specters in that single Artifact write-up happen to hate the specific beach where the ghost radio was found, but since I love the beach, it makes me happy to think that evil ghosts do not. I'm not sure how I'll work it in, but the beaches of Ukss will have anti-haunting properties.

PS: It's another good time to donate to RAINN.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Trinity Continuum: Assassins

 I watched all three John Wick movies in preparation for this book (they're streaming on the Roku channel for now, if this is useful information to you) and I'm glad I did, because I don't think I'd have properly appreciated it otherwise.

Or maybe I would have. Maybe I'm the sort of sophisticated media connoisseur that just gets irony right away. "This isn't crummy world-building, it's actually hyper-stylized to evoke a particular genre feeling and the dissonance between the high stakes of the action and the aggressive indifference of the witnesses is actually a visual joke, as is the conspicuous consumption of an ostensibly covert criminal class and the mind-bending logistics it would require to make this economy possible" . . . is what I surely would have said, even if I didn't have the films as reference.

But without the films, I don't think I'd have entirely believed it was true. John Wick and Cassian trade shots with their silenced pistols in a crowded subway station and nobody has any kind of reaction and it's the dumbest damned thing I've ever seen, but also somehow it's really cool. Yeah, okay, give some gold coins to a guy and he'll come and clean up the dead bodies in your house, no questions asked . . . I suppose I'm willing to accept that this makes some kind of sense as long as I get to watch Keanu terrorize gangsters. That is a tradeoff that I'm consenting to.

And so it would be a little weird if I didn't extend the same courtesy to Trinity Continuum: Assassins. It's not John Wick, the rpg, because there's also some Assassin's Creed in there, but the tradeoff is the same. There's a secret society. It's glamorous and decadent, and the bodycount is high, but it doesn't disturb the peace, so ordinary people just ignore it. Understood.

Assassins very strangely offers a sci-fi explanation for its hyper-stylized genre conventions. Assassins are a type of Talent (reality-bender) that focuses on violence, and because of their specialization, their reality bending powers evolve from covert and deniable probability manipulation to overt supernatural techniques. And it is the concentration of this reality-bending in the Assassin societies that "keeps outsiders away but also creates anachronisms that appear where Assassins gather." They exist in a sort of close alternate dimension called Shadow that ordinary (or "Daylight") people can barely perceive without extraordinary effort, and so long as their activities remain confined to Shadow (or, at least, to the in-between criminal underground of Twilight) then they are largely immune to consequences from the Daylight world.

I'm not sure I'd accept that complex an explanation in a work of ordinary fiction. Like, "that's the genre, deal with it" is at least honest, but "here's an undirected physical process that just so happens to create a genre-establishing forcefield" leaves me with too many questions (chief of which is "what?!"). However, I can respect it in an rpg. It's reassuring the players that the genre boundary is reliable. When the Daylight NPCs ignore your killing spree because all the victims were Shadow-dwelling Assassins, this is not something the GM is simply roleplaying out for the sake of genre. Technically, the GM is not allowed to have the regular cops suddenly take an interest. To do so would violate the rules of the setting, like having an orc in D&D suddenly sue you for a personal injury claim. That orc doesn't have access to a human legal system and those bystanders are literally unable to perceive a Shadow-on-Shadow battle. You can rest easy knowing that when you finally face down your rival in a crowded subway station, you'll be able to do it in peace.

Now, all of the above may make it seem like I'm down on Assassins and its whole deal, but it's actually the opposite. I love when the genre is strong, especially when it zeros in on a very specific reference pool. You are stylish rogues committing improbable crimes in a starkly amoral world and Trinity Continuum: Assassins provides the trappings and the spectacle and advice for populating the bleak, yet striking stories that take place in this world. It's getting by purely on the vibes, but the vibes are strong. Probably the closest the Trinity Continuum has gotten to Apocalypse World.

Unlike Apocalypse World, however, Assassins takes place in a specific setting. It's not just genre trappings, it is organizations and conspiracies and NPCs with names and ideologies and individual quirks. Which places me in the awkward position of having to judge whether the new setting plays well with what's come before or, alternatively, whether it can stand on its own. The answer to both questions is "sort of."

The big problem with integrating it into the existing continuity is that it is vastly more violent the setting it's joining. The regular Continuum is about modern action-adventure, and so it's not pacifist by any means. There's already room for shootouts and brawls and murder mysteries, so at worst Assassins inflates the bodycount a bit. And yet, all of the new organizations are organizations of assassins, i.e. people who kill for money, and that means even the best of them will be at odds with the core book allegiances, and yet the new Assassin Societies are not written as villains, and I'm not sure a game can survive without taking sides.

As the introduction would have it, "Assassins never punch down . . . the idea that violence is universally a moral ill favors the powerful and the status quo. Those with a monopoly on violence do not want others to turn it against them. Assassins have the power to upend this status quo and strike fear into the hearts of the elite."

Which all seems well and good when talking about the Daughters of the Jacobins, and their goal of "freedom, liberty, and equality by eliminating anyone who stands in the way." Or The Signal, a decentralized collective of revolutionaries that targets those who exploit or abuse marginalized communities. But the Daughters have been lead by the same family for close to two centuries (because of their hereditary precognition) and the Host of the Signal's signature radio program is a friendly AI who wants to help humans by eliminating the bad ones. For all their ideals, these liberation organizations are intensely undemocratic, but that's kind of intrinsic to their very existence. Even if the Daughters of the Jacobins' elections didn't favor a political dynasty, and even if the Signal's programming was managed collectively from the bottom up, they'd still be secretive organizations whose activities are driven by an unrepresentative clique with elite skills. Not everyone can be an Assassin, and so ultimately the choice of using Assassin skills to change the world is going to fall upon the individual. The best that any Assassin organization can be is a vanguard party charged with dismantling the bourgeois state and overseeing the transition to a classless society. . . and there's something about that plan that gives me pause.

Which means that you've got to put this in contrast with the idealists of the Aeon Society. Aeon is still aristocratic in its conception, but it has the advantage of not challenging the state's monopoly on violence. Not to say that states are using that monopoly in a just or humanitarian way, but at least a state will usually operate on a theory of legitimacy. A democracy's power theoretically comes from the consent of the governed. When Assassins decide to change the direction of a government, the governed don't even have knowledge of the plan, and you can forget about consent. Say what you will about the reformism of a group like Aeon trying to work within the system, but a self-appointed vanguard movement that is not actually at the literal vanguard of a popular movement is just another kind of authoritarian coup.

If you put Assassins in the main Trinity Continuum, you have to ask yourself - are they the extremists that jeopardize legitimate political movements or are the Daylight Allegiances merely controlled opposition, failing to challenge the status quo by confining themselves to tactics that may be safely ignored? Maybe what you're doing is enough of a crime caper that the question never even comes up, but the thematic clash is real.

Now, as far as a stand-alone setting goes, Assassins works a bit better, because there's nothing to contrast the strangeness of its politics. This is a world where powerful people gift each other with professional assassinations, and so murder is just a job you do. All your friends, acquaintances, and rivals are in exactly the same business, so there's no reason to question it. However, I'm not sure that the radical factions have a robust enough conservative pushback. There's a purely mercenary Society (the corporate office-workers turned Assassins of the Swarm) and a classically aristocratic Society (the Society of Leonidas, which implausibly excludes known white supremacists), and for some reason some Russian nationalists (the Krugu Vorov), but they all only have one seat on the Council, and they don't vote as a bloc. Which really just means that our so-called radicals are in fact complicit in the whole rotten edifice of Assassin culture.

I think if you're doing a pure Assassins game, you kind of have to address head-on the ways that assassination is surely going to be used as a tool of oppression. People hire the Assassins of the Shadow for large amounts of money, and thus the most lucrative contracts are always going to serve the interests of people with a lot of money. Despite the game's Introduction, that's almost certainly the status quo. If you really want to do a radical plot in the Assassins universe, it pretty much has to start with a cynical present that leads into a crisis that breaks the characters' complacency and sets them against the very notion of the Assassin Societies as a whole.

Or, you know, you could just do stylish murder stories in a world where death comes with a price tag. Maybe don't think about how bleak it would need to be to keep itself going. The targets can be dictators and corrupt CEOs and the only thing you have to worry about is how cool your character looks while they're gunning down mooks. I'd be lying if I said it didn't sound like fun.

Ukss Contribution: One of the historical Assassin Societies was the Heavenly Immortal Corps, who used alchemy to gain superhuman killing skills. That sounds like a good idea for a fantasy organization, though I'm inclined to make them explicit villains, despite the book's easy-going attitude towards killers-for-hire.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Orpheus (Core)

I need to revise my list of White Wolf games I'd like to see adapted to television. I'd completely forgotten about Orpheus, despite its near-perfect procedural premise. It's the not-too-distant future (actually, it's 2003, but it's the not-too-distant future of 2003, not 2003 the historical era - obviously, you'd want to update the timeline) and a shady cryogenics corporation has discovered that some of its clients have seen things while they were frozen. Specifically, while they were in that twilight state between life and death, their spirits wandered through the world of ghosts. Acting on this discovery, the cryogenics company rebranded as The Orpheus Group, and now their main business is paranormal investigation and elimination. . . Though the corporation has dark secrets and mysterious benefactors, and rumors are that its astrally projecting agents can haunt the living just as well as any ghost, especially if the price is right.

It's just so good, people. This has all of the characteristic White Wolf tropes, but they're all used really well. The very fact that it's about ghosts brings in the horror element. Despite the other elements of the setting, this is consistently played straight. Ghosts are murder victims or tormented by obsession or trapped and confused and you've got to deal with them. But then, there's the conspiracy stuff too, and it's unusually satisfying because the questions are concrete. How did this mysterious corporation get its occult technology so quickly? What did board member Jane Kennedy see when she was frozen? Who made the decision to use the projectors for espionage, blackmail, and intimidation? And there's the hubris of science. Orpheus is messing with forces it can't understand or control, but because there's aspects that are quantifiable and repeatable, it can approach this sublime mystery through the lens of technology and the fools actually think that's going to keep them safe. Mage and Werewolf wish they could do "what has your science wrought" so elegantly. There are hints of antediluvian monsters, but the flood was just three years ago so it feels like an immediate mystery. Then there's the power fantasy of projectors themselves, who not only have unique superpowers, but also a kind of super-hero-like unaccountability (because the law is not yet progressive enough to deal with ghosts and astral projection). And the urban fantasy element of living in a world where (informed) people just kind of know ghosts are real, so you've got rivals like the mercenary company with its own projectors or the international gang run by ghosts possessing human bodies. The Orpheus universe somehow gets it all right.

Which brings us to a minor flaw - technically, the Orpheus universe is just the World of Darkness. I mean, the idea shows up in a sidebar about how the other supernatural conspiracies have not yet noticed Orpheus and then a little bit in the description of the Occult ability, but otherwise is quite wisely ignored. However, with the possible exception of Wraith: the Oblivion (which has unsurprisingly donated a lot of its system terminology and basic cosmology), I can't think of a single WoD crossover that would not instantly ruin this game's whole vibe. More than just about any other World of Darkness game, Orpheus needs to be its own thing, with its own worldbuilding.

I think the secret to Orpheus' success is the fact that it was conceived as a limited-run series. They always intended to make precisely six books, and so from the very beginning, they're working towards a plan and with a fairly strenuous page-count budget. As a result, this book has what is probably the least ponderous Storyteller chapter of any old-school WW core. Doesn't even talk about "theme" or "mood" at all, despite the fact that Orpheus has plenty of both. Although, you could just as easily argue that there are some things that are being transparently held back to sell the supplements. There are only two Horrors (special ghost powers) per Shade (type of ghost - poltergeist, banshee, et al) and the way Nature (personality) groups are structured indicates that there are three entire shades that have yet to be revealed. It's the worst kind of supplement slow-drip, but since we know there are only going to be five of them, that takes some of the sting out of it. . . I guess. White Wolf's first limited run series is also its first to require all six books to play the game. 

Nonetheless, this particular book shows admirable focus. It is absolutely well-tuned to play out the early chapters of a sprawling sci-fi/fantasy/horror epic, and if the book seems overly focused on setting a scene, it at least has the advantage of being a really interesting scene. The introduction uses the term "The Movie Model" to describe its approach, saying that the core is like "the opening premise of the movie, those first 15 to 20 minutes before the major plot twist," but I think there's a little bit more meat on these bones than that. It's more like the first 3-4 episodes of the first season of a long-form drama. Of course, that wouldn't have been a very relateable metaphor back in 2003, but that's the advantage of living in the future - you've got all kinds of hindsight.

Although, I may have to confess to just a wee bit of disingenuousness on my part. I'm not coming in to this book a pure, unspoiled newbie. I've actually already read all the way through to Endgame. Granted, that was something like 15 years ago, but I do remember bits and pieces of how the mysteries get resolved. And reading the book with that knowledge, I can say that it's pretty fair about telegraphing the stuff that's yet to come, but maybe it's a problem that the most enticing of its lacunae are destined to be filled. I wonder about the practicality of running a game where you, say, investigate the source of Pigment, the mysterious street drug that allows users to see ghosts when there is a definite canonical answer to this mystery, but they won't let you know what it is until book three, which won't be out for another two months after the core. It's not that long in the grand scheme of things, especially when compared to the glacial pace of current rpg releases, but it's still potentially 8 weekly sessions spent spinning your wheels or diverging from canon, for one of the setting's main plotlines.

Then again, it's all very theoretical now. The entire series has been out for close to twenty years (damn, I'm old) and any GM who really wants to get the most out of the game is probably just going to read all six books before starting anyway. . . but that swings us back around to the "limited run series" issue. Like, yes, it's good that we're not going to be strung along for years and years by a volatile metaplot the core was never meant to cope with, but the certainty of having a known end date does seem to have tempted the line developer into taking the supplements for granted.

Other observations:

Storyteller system is still Storyteller system. This version neither corrects any of its flaws nor takes any risks on new mechanics. I'm wary of the fact that you use your hp for mp, but the regeneration rate can be pretty generous (potentially as many as 5-6 per day for even the slower spirit types) and the way Vitality is usually lost doesn't seem terribly lethal for ghosts. 

The Natures/Demeanors section continues to be a major drag, but at least it has some justification for its existence here (natures now belong to one of eight "Nature Groups" and certain ghostly powers, mainly those related to freeing a ghost from its earthly fetters, can only be used on a target who is part of your same Group). I feel like it was a design error to say that the Natures' bonuses to starting Vitality, Willpower, and Spite would always add up to +5, though because that gives high-Spite Natures a double disadvantage. First, the points you lose from Vitality and Willpower, and second, the fact that Spite itself is a bad thing to have (accumulate 10 points and you'll become a Specter - an unplayable evil NPC ghost). Objectively, the best Nature is Defender, which gives +3 Vitality, +2 Willpower, and +0 Spite. It's the only Nature that doesn't increase Spite (even Caregivers get +1) and it is typically possessed by cops. So yeah . . .

Actually, Orpheus is 2000s White Wolf, not 90s White Wolf, so it occasionally says things that are problematic (for example, one of the Attribute descriptions has a character puppet another character into saying a racial slur, to get said character into a fight with his Asian criminal associates), but it doesn't revel in the grotesque. Like, there are female characters with rape as a backstory element, but no suggestions that you play out that trauma on-screen (and, in fact, a warning that you shouldn't include that element if it would make any of the players uncomfortable). 

The biggest pre-woke legacy problem for me (besides "derangements") was actually a major setting element - the fact that there's no way to heal a specter, despite the fact that it's possible to become a specter by experiencing trauma. It especially hurt in the description of the Lost Boys - they're the ghosts of children who died from neglect and their pain was so severe that they immediately skipped being normal ghosts and went straight to being evil cannibalistic ghosts. I suppose that there's something in-genre about ghost-hood being as arbitrary, unjust, and cruel as death itself, but I'm not sure I can entirely stand a universe where there's no hope for those poor babies.

Finally, a minor gripe. In fact, let's not call it a gripe at all. Let's call it a question. Two types of projectors? Sleepers, who are put into cryogenic chambers and kept on the very cusp of death so that their spirits may act as ghosts even though they are technically alive. And skimmers, who have mastered esoteric meditation techniques that allow them to leave or reenter their bodies, more or less at will. Am I the only one that feels like the existence of the second undermines the absolutely delicious techno-gothic imagery of the first? Like, the Orpheus Group's whole deal is that they are hubristically trying to technologize and commodify the soul using their proprietary machines, so to have this less macabre, more spiritual technique exist alongside the creepy pseudo-coffins could be interpreted as a dilution of one of the game's biggest themes. It serves as an interesting contrast, and I could see how Skimming might be a technique that exists in this world belonging to psychics who don't fit into Orpheus' technocratic culture, but in the hypothetical show, that would probably be a season 2 or 3 reveal (actually, it would be perfectly placed in the Crusade of Ashes section of the plot, but I'm getting ahead of myself).

Overall, this is one of my favorite White Wolf games and I think, as we approach its 20 year anniversary, it holds up better than most (although, there was probably no way for them to know that the Health Insurance Background would one day be hilarious). I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Ukss Contribution: Ghost elephant. It's a sad story, in-context (was put down after "an incident" at the zoo), but I like the implication that elephants are sentient enough to leave behind a ghost. It rings true to me that the continuity of the tree of life would exist even in a setting where the supernatural is real.

EDIT: Oh, by the way, you should donate some money to RAINN, if you can.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Alternity Player's Handbook

Well now, isn't this a fascinating artifact. Late 90s TSR trying their hand at pure science fiction, with a system that's post-AD&D 2e, written by Bill Slavicsek and Richard Baker, who would later go on to work on D&D 3rd edition. I'm not sure how much I want to pick this apart, looking for clues that will hint at the system to come, but I will say that I'm probably reading it at the ideal time. I'm in a kind of limbo between 2nd and 3rd edition, having exhausted the one and anticipating the other at some vague point in the future - just like Alternity itself.

I can certainly see an alternate timeline where Alternity became the foundation of 3rd edition. It reads a lot like a systematized version of 2nd edition. Imagine - thief skills and proficiency checks and saving throws and attack rolls, but they all use the same dice mechanic . . . roll-under on a d20, with penalties represented by plusses and bonuses represented as minuses. Then complicate that just a little bit by getting rid of static modifiers and making your plusses (penalties) and minuses (bonuses) into extra dice you roll in a step-system. You roll your Skill  +1 and that means you have to roll under your Ability score + skill ranks using a 1d20 + 1d4. The same roll at Skill -1 would compare the target number to 1d20 - 1d4. Bigger modifiers change the size of the second die: +/-5 is 1d20 +/-1d20.

It's interesting, and it looks like it would work, but a d20-system conversion would be easy as hell and make the game much, much better. Because this has all the swinginess of d20 (seeing as how they both use d20s as their primary die), but it adds a bunch of baroque embellishments that mostly just seem to slow things down. You're going to be rolling extra dice and doing extra math and for, like, 90% of use-cases, d20+modifier vs target number is going to work just as well. 

But that's just me being churlish. I'm from this game's future, and I'm like, "hey, this is just a less sophisticated version of the thing you guys are going to do next, so I don't see why you're bothering," as if that foreknowledge (i.e. "hindsight") is at all useful. It's a new core system. It's halfway between second and third edition D&D, but it's coherent. I'm sure it has its flaws, but nothing that really leapt out at me, except that routine rolls might be a little too complicated. I could see myself playing this.

Now, onto the real question - how well does it carve out a niche for itself as a sci-fi game? This is tricky for me, because I fully understand that it's trying to be a generic science fiction game, capable of running stories in multiple genres and settings, but I don't think it's really earned the right to do that. Which is maybe a bit of a hot take, and I'll admit, I might be influenced by the game's D&D provenance to be harder on it than it deserves, but I kind of felt like Alternity was taking a very "Dungeons and Dragons" approach to being a science fiction game.

Which is to say, a typical D&D book is notionally "setting agnostic," where maybe Greyhawk or The Forgotten Realms are used as the default setting in some examples, but it is both expected and encouraged that the DM (and lately, players) will develop a homebrew campaign. So it's a "generic fantasy" toolkit and nevermind that it has a bunch of highly specific assumptions baked right into the race and class descriptions about what "generic fantasy" is supposed to look like. Most people (even, to some degree, myself) overlook this contradiction out of an (in my case grudging) acknowledgement that D&D is the inheritor to a decades-long tradition that has fundamentally shaped what modern fantasy looks like. Elves and dwarves and whatnot, all very "generic," don't you know?

Alternity feels like it's trying to catch that same vibe, but it does not have that same weight of tradition behind it. It's out here making very specific choices about sci-fi concepts like cyberspace (it's called "the Grid" and your gridpilot will use their gridcaster to create a shadow to navigate the gridscape . . . it's less "decker problem" than it appears, but not by much) and psionics (it's optional, but if you include it, it's going to work in a very specific way, within a very specific power level) and FTL (every jump through drivespace, regardless of length, takes precisely 11^2 hours, which is an idea I would like a lot more if it didn't imply that an arbitrary unit of time - approximately 1/24th of the rotational period of an unremarkable lump of rock - was an important cosmic constant, but that's probably more of a lingering social contract from my mathematics training - you only leave a value expressed as an exponent if it's exact, if it were just an estimate, you'd say "121 hours"). And so, maybe you could use this book as a starting point for any number of sci-fi settings, but if you're not playing the implied setting, you're going to have to tinker with a lot of stuff.

But like I said, Alternity hasn't really built up the trust (or, at least, the unstoppable cultural inertia) to ask that from me. I actually like the implied setting just fine, and would be happy to play in it, but first I'll need a real setting guide. I'm not going to guess. And I'm certainly not going to make it up from scratch.

Ukss Contribution: Irony alert! Not really picking something goofy per se, but I am picking something based not on how cool I think it is intrinsically, but rather because a quirk of how it was described made me smile. "Jet Ski: A form of recreation on most worlds . . ."

Usually, when a notionally generic system starts in with the "on most worlds" bit, it gets my dander up, but I this time, I was tickled at the thought that jet ski riding was a universal constant, throughout space and time and alternate dimensions, even among alien species. Maybe it's a lingering frustration that Moebius didn't get to ride one on Loki. Maybe I'm more of a sucker for branding than I thought. But this time, I am picking up the gauntlet Alternity is throwing down - I can't speak for "most worlds," but you can add Ukss to the list.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

(Dark Sun) Psionic Artifacts of Athas

 There are two types of rpg supplements that are more or less impossible to screw up - monster books and magic item books. Probably because their subject matter demands a very specific and forgiving format - toss out a new idea, explain it in a maximum of 1-2 pages, move on to the next. Sure, you sometimes get some individual entries that are total duds, but no one bats 0.00. Even an average level of skill means you are hitting more often than you miss.

Psionic Artifacts of Athas, by Kevin Melka and Bruce Nesmith, is no exception to this pattern. It's a magic item book. It's good. I was a little worried on the first page, when Gulem the Gray murdered a child for asking a really obvious question - why are they teaching about "psionic magic items" in a psionics academy - but thankfully, that was just a pointless introductory fiction and the seemingly contradictory term "psionic magic items" is never brought up again. 

But in addition to being good in the expected way, Psionic Artifacts of Athas is also extraordinarily weird, and not just by AD&D's aggressively vanilla standards. The weirdness is so pronounced, in fact, that it's forcing me to contemplate and concede the good aspects of the revised-era metaplot.

At its best, it feels like it's digging into the deep periphery of Appendix N - past even the boundaries of fantasy and into science fiction. It's like a late-period Dune sequel, or Zelazny's Lord of Light, or the more jaded Foundation novels. There's this ancient sweep of history, trippy psychic powers, inhuman technologies, and a clique of antediluvians behind the scenes pulling the strings. It almost makes me forget how utterly boring I find Rajaat and his whole deal. 

Sorry, that one got away from me there - I mean that Rajaat's thinly-sketched motive of being the "ugly" pyreen and inventing magic as a way to get revenge on the rest of the world by returning it to the control of the halflings, via genocide, is the only part of the revised backstory that doesn't really work. I don't really need the Dragon to be Borys of Ebe, Butcher of Dwarves. He can just be an ancient sorcerer who used the knowledge of a previous to become the transhuman ruler of the barren wastelands of the fallen age. I mean, assuming we can't just go back to the Dragon being an allegory . . . no? Okay, a post-apocalyptic world ruled by people who were party to the apocalypse actually works pretty well. Or would, if AD&D's overall . . . AD&Dness didn't lead to one of the conspirators being called "Pixie Blight." It's like fingernails on a chalkboard.

But Psionic Artifacts of Athas is rooted in the good part of the backstory. An ancient culture mastered life-shaping technology and created many wonderous things, some of which endure to the modern day, but which seem a lot like magic because that culture destroyed itself in its hubris, and the bulk of their knowledge was lost.

So you get an AD&D book talking about the difference between a creature and a tissue, between a graft and a parasite. There are treasures that can be mistaken for monsters and a fantastic aesthetic like nothing else in D&D before or since (although a lot of the items in this book would have felt at home in White Wolf's Trinity, published the previous year, though I'm assuming it was just something in the pop-culture zeitgeist).

Also, there are a bunch of decent, if perfectly ordinary magical and psionic items that you can add to your Dark Sun game. The Wand of Desert Winds and the Aura Mirror aren't going to make it onto anyone's list of most memorable treasure finds, but they do flesh out the random tables nicely (oh, yeah, you know this book has 24 - out of 128 - pages of random tables).

Snark aside, there is a lot of great stuff here. The Erdlu Canteen - a magically enchanted egg-shell that regenerates its yolk seven times a week. The Clothworms, who will crawl over your body and weave you a one-time-use outfit over the course of a half-hour. The Jade Marquess, a carnivorous living boat that sails through earth instead of water and grows more decks if you feed it enough meat. I love when fantasy gives itself permission to strike out into the unknown and show me things I've never even imagined. AD&D needed more of that.  I wouldn't say I left the best for last (my candidates for best AD&D book are probably - Complete Book of Necromancers, Faces of Sigil, Monster Mythology, A Guide to the Ethereal Plane and the original Dark Sun boxed set, in no particular order), but I'm certainly going out on a high note.

Ukss Contribution: Are you ready for an amazing magic item that you're going to want to build a whole adventure around, regardless of what fantasy game you're currently playing (and I'm including modern horror like the WoD and Call of Cthulhu in this)?

Introducing: the Tongue of Glib the Mad. It's a disgusting leech-like creature. You put it in your mouth and it devours, then replaces your tongue. Forever after, all your lies are supernaturally persuasive. But you have only partial immunity to the tongue's effect. Botch a roll (in the d20 conversion, I'd say "if you roll a natural 1," but it's actually just a flat 5% chance per lie) and you believe your own lie. Phenomenal social power, but at the cost of slowly slipping into the dream world of your own deception. A rare artifact whose curse is completely natural and thematic, and also a ton of fun to play out (the book says you should only give it to a PC "if he is willing to play along with the curse," but I have a hard time imagining any player who wouldn't jump at the chance to chew the fuck out of that scenery.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

(Scion 2e) Demigod

How much do I deserve to be pandered to? Or, at the very least, how much pandering can I reasonably request before I start to sound ungrateful? Those are the questions at the forefront of my mind as I try to come up with a coherent reaction to Scion: Demigod (2e).

Because what I want from the demigod book is actually pretty simple - divine-themed superheroes in the power tier between street-level and cosmic. And when I ask myself whether Scion: Demigod delivered on that, my honest answer is "yeah, on page 187 of Scion: Hero, where it describes Feats of Scale." It's finally time to play a character that can dropkick the Statue of Liberty or sway multitudes with a speech and that's represented by a certain number on my character sheet going from 1 or 2 to 3 or 4. Demigods don't need new powers because the Scale system is robust enough that they can just use their old powers . . . more.

Yeah, okay, but I was expecting a bunch of cool new Boons, and I'm kind of disappointed (the new Knacks were pretty good, but I can't get over my distaste for Knack slots and swapping out your active Knacks). Tell me how to inundate a small town with a thunderstorm, damnit! I am a little baby and remembering to invoke a Feat of Scale through one of my Legendary Titles while using a Purview Marvel is just too many steps for me.

And speaking of too many steps, the new Demigod mechanic: Dominion Boons. So, technically, there are new Boons in this book, and they are universally underwhelming in their outlines, but may in fact be good if they're invoked judiciously enough to shape the overall tenor of the game. The way they work is you spend two Boons (remember you get precisely one per Legend rating, and it's unclear whether you can retrain your existing Boons or whether you just have to bank the Boon you get at Legend 5 to unlock your first Dominion at Legend 6) and you get sort of a magical aura related to a particular purview. This allows you to perform minor (read: "not mechanically helpful") miracles for free and for your allies to benefit from extra options for spending their excess successes (called "stunts" in Scion jargon - i.e. when you make a melee attack roll, you can spend one of the roll's successes to knock your down or, if your friend has the Darkness Dominon active, you can spend 2 successes to steal the target's dreams and get the equivalent of a point of armor for the rest of the scene).

I mean, I kind of get it. You're a magical being, and that magic is spilling out into the world around you, manifesting through casual gestures and the smoothing of mundane details. That's what the Dominion aura does - ensures that you are surrounded by manifestations of your divine power, and it's not really that big a deal to you because it doesn't require resources to maintain. However, I have two nitpicks.

Nitpick the first: stunts aren't really that good. I mean, they're great as a mechanical innovation of the Storypath system. Your characters will be using stunts all the time and every single time they're going to be like, "oh, sweet, a stunt." But extra successes are not going to be so abundant that spending 3 successes to benefit from the Scion of Dionysius' Bacchanal Dominion Stunt is going to be anything but a niche move (oh, I only rolled 2 extra successes on that Encourage Behavior roll, I guess I'll stick with the universally useful Enhanced, Complicated, and Difficult stunts). Most of the Dominion stunts are pretty cool, but they're another thing to remember and another thing to compete for your limited successes.

Nitpick the second: when you enable Dominion Stunts, that's your magic, but it's your friends who are using the magic. I'm so in touch with the universal concept of Death that people standing nearby me can animate dead corpses as zombies. If my Dominion is Epic Strength, then my allies get the ability to toss around cars. That seems a little weird. I mean, sure, if my concept for the character is just "a strong god" rather than "the god of Strength" then I don't have to take Epic Strength as a Dominion. And I'm in control of what stunts get handed out, so I could easily avoid my Demigod of Death being necromancy patient 0 by just, you know not enabling necromancy, but sometimes the Dominion mechanics feel like they're diluting the characters' theme. You're the Lord of Winter and you can make people as unbothered by the cold as you are - perfectly fine. Or you can give people the power to decide to be as unbothered by the cold as you are, if they're willing to make the effort. Functionally very similar, but I can't help feeling that the person who has the power should be the one with the agency.

Still, I don't dislike Dominions as a mechanic. They do definitely add something and I can see how they could shape a campaign's feel. I'm not sure they're worth two whole boons, or even just one. They could probably stand to be baked directly into the Legend progression chart (the main benefit to giving them a cost seems to be that it allows for the option of not having one), but it makes sense that a player would want one (or two, if they're willing to go the entire Demigod tier without buying any more Boons). There's a part of me that's a little salty that we got Dominions instead of larger-scale Demigod Boons, but I just have to calm myself and remember that the larger scale of Demigod games is baked into the foundational logic of the system. I don't need the book to explicitly remind me that I can do bigger, cooler stuff now.

Except I kind of do. Just on an emotional level. Which brings us back to the question of pandering. I've probably never felt less pandered to than I have when reading this book. Open with the storytelling advice chapter? Why the fuck not? Open the storytelling advice chapter with an offputting and highly specific campaign arc that ties your mechanical progression to a series of five predetermined literary themes in the apparent aim of making this squad-based game of modern-day occult action into a solitary, introspective look at the nature of divinity? Yeah, sure. (I mean, some kind of alarm must have sounded when you were commissioning the interstitial fiction about the signature character Brigitte de la Croix and the plot is about how she has to say goodbye to all her friends because the journey to apotheosis is one that can only be completed alone).

Focusing the first part of the apotheosis arc on the supposition that you are on the path to usurp your divine parent and recapitulate their defining myths - that is probably a step too far. I mean, the text later swings back around and advances the much more palatable notion that you'll forge your own destiny and become an entirely new god, but it's weird that this is the afterthought. Right? Like, I'm not some kind of pervert coming into this book with the idea that it would be more team-based, divine-themed superhero action, just on a bigger scale. I didn't really need to break down Legend levels 4-8 into five thematic steps: The Second Calling, the Parting, the Threshold, the Descent, and the Theophany. I was content with: The ass-kicking, the ass-kicking in the underworld, the monument drop-kicking, the more bigger ass-kicking and the token philosophy episode. And even if I wasn't, why would I want to usurp my divine parent? Like, the whole reason I chose them as a parent is because I liked them in the role of a patron or an antagonist, what with the being of a whole separate person and all as parents and children usually are, and even to the extent that I might want their job, I've probably become at least somewhat attached to my personal brand. 

It's weird that this is a thing. And it's even weirder that it's the first thing that book decides to do. The book as a whole isn't bad, and I wouldn't even say that it's bad that this material exists, but it's not what I expected, and it's not what I wanted, and at times it made me feel like I accidentally picked up the wrong book by mistake. But maybe it's okay that I didn't get exactly what I wanted, because what I wanted was embarrassingly basic - 1st edition's Demigod book, but with mechanics that actually worked. This is a unique thing with a unique point of view. It challenged rather than pandered and it made me think about the middle chapter of a Scion game in a new way. I grudingly respect it.

Ukss Contributions: One of the "casual miracles" of the Order Purview is "Impel animals to obey human laws (squirrels obey traffic Do Not Walk signs, rats vacate a building after closing time, etc.)" - it does not yet make much sense to me as a setting conceit, but it's an adorable and hilarious image, so I'm going to figure out a way to make it work.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

(Dark Sun) Defilers and Preservers: The Wizards of Athas

As I get older, it becomes harder and harder to resist the urge to become a reactionary crank. "This isn't how they did it in my day," I'll think, and the only thing that will stop me from looking like a ridiculous old person is my ability to preemptively remember that my day has passed. The new generation is doing things in a new way, and they are not misusing the legacy of my youth, they are merely adapting it to needs I could scarcely have imagined. That is the fate of all things that were built to last.

Where this becomes surreal is when your hobby is reading decades-old roleplaying books and you have the exact same emotional response to changes that have long-since been settled. "Why-oh-why have they absolutely butchered the setting's backstory. Can't this 27-year-old book go back and recapture the magic I felt when I first read its 31-year-old prequel?"

Which is to say, Defilers and Preservers: The Wizards of Athas, by Nicky Rea, has a "history of magic" section that summarizes the 1st edition metaplot (at least as far as arcane magic is concerned), and it kind of bums me out, seeing it all in one place. I think it's because of how impressed I was by the original boxed set's restraint. It had a melancholy vibe to it - "as far as anyone remembers, this is the way things have always been, though, of course, we can see the scars that prove otherwise." Here, we learn that history has a protagonist, his name is Rajaat, and the reason things suck is because Rajaat sucks. He invented both preserving and defiling magic and taught defiling to his secret, evil students in order to further his goal of global genocide. The ensuing war lasted so long and used so much defiling magic that Athas was rendered barren. Also, at various points in its history, people drained magical energy from the sun, turning it from blue to yellow to its current-day red.

At the risk of being a grump, none of this really called out for an explanation. I just assumed that the world was barren because the ancients used it up, that the sun was red because it was impossibly old. Call it a lack of intellectual curiosity, if you will, but I was perfectly willing to accept the status quo. I only really needed to know how the PCs were going to change it.

That's a lot to lay on a 96-page class-focused supplement, though. Really, the contentious part was when TSR decided that Athas was going to have a backstory that would be fleshed out in various adventure modules and tie-in novels. I can't blame Defilers and Preservers: The Wizards of Athas for summing it up.

Nor can I blame it for the new cosmology. Presumably it followed the same trajectory from novels to revised boxed set to the supplement on my shelf, and it is only my relative lack of investment in the line that has led me to first encounter it here. Nonetheless - the Gray? The Black? I won't say I hate that these demiplanes are so blandly named, because that's pretty close to my standard naming aesthetic. What I will say, however, is that they are transparently a hack to keep Planescape out of Dark Sun. The Gray "separates Athas from the Astral and the Ethereal, making planar travel difficult." Also, it's where ghosts are, and it would be completely unnecessary if you didn't insist that all the TSR settings had to share a single over-arching meta-setting (actually, they share two, and we also learn that Athas' crystal sphere is similarly impenetrable to normal spelljammers).

The hardest part of reading this book was trying to put all of my inane, old-man complaints to the side so I could consider the book on its own. What would it be like to come into this without baggage or expectations, simply as a wizard enthusiast looking for a new variation on their favorite class?

I would say that it's the third-best wizard book in all of AD&D, but with, like, huge gaps between 2nd and 3rd and between 3rd and 4th. It fundamentally gets the point of kits, unlike The Complete Wizards Handbook or The Will and the Way, but it doesn't quite have the sense of whimsy and inventiveness that make up the best kit selections. Most of the kits are social roles like "arena wizard" or "tribal wizard," that make sense for the setting, but are otherwise pretty straightforward. Then there are a few like the Cerulean Wizard, the Shadow Wizard, and the Necromancer which fiddle with energy sources but don't dramatically change things up.

Two kits deserve special mention, though. The Restorationist is bland, but functional, being a kind of preserver+ that uses plant magic to reverse ecological damage to Athas. A valid niche that can be contrasted with a preserver that's just trying to get along. But then you've got the Exterminator, which is a defiler who is not just careless, but is actively waging a war against all plant life. It's baffling, even when you consider that someone might have a grudge against dangerously mutated carnivorous plants. It only really makes sense as forced symmetry. If preservers can get a kit that's more preserver than preserver, why can't defilers get their own version of defiler+? (Because it's silly, that's why.)

The rest of the book is mostly what you'd expect. A few new Proficiencies to compete for your already-limited slots, more spells, and the decision to reprint only the wizards' chapter of Dragon Kings. All very useful if you want to play a wizard in a revised-era Dark Sun, but nothing that's going to break through the jaded exterior of a grognard who's determined not to enjoy something new.

Final verdict - my opinion is worse than useless. Objectively, this is a well-made book with a lot of potential to spark the imagination. But it's not my version of Dark Sun, so I couldn't help sulking about it.

Ukss Contribution: I did like some of the new spells, though. My favorite was "Cooling Canopy." The wizard summons a small cloud to hover over their head and shelter them from the harsh desert sun. Pure flavor for any game that does not have a dedicated sunstroke system (note: revised boxed set might), but it's so cute an image that I don't even care. Casual cloud parasols as low-end weather magic is absolutely something I can get behind.