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.)

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