Saturday, November 26, 2022

(Alternity) StarDrive Campaign Setting

Normally, when I take more than two weeks to read a book, it's because I spent a lot of time goofing off, doing something else. I'd read the book in a total of three days, but only after I spent 13 playing video games or watching youtube videos. This time, however, I kept up a relatively stable pace. I took a few days off, sure, but mostly I read this 253 page book in 12 sessions of 20-30 pages per day. 

It's very dense. It describes seven major star systems, and each one gets approximately 20 pages worth of detail. First it talks about the high concept, and then the history, and then the geography of the most populous world, then various adjunct lieutenants and smuggler captains of that world, and then the less inhabited worlds and their flora and fauna and mid-level functionaries, and then a few dangling plot points, and by the time it's all over, I was like "I've been a very good boy, studying all this new information and taking notes, time to cool down by playing a video game."

I think I have to count this as a strength of the work. David Eckelberry and Richard Baker were clearly setting out to lay the groundwork for not just an rpg campaign, but an entire franchise, and, well, it definitely captured the feeling of clicking on a random article on Wookiepedia and discovering that the background character who was in that one movie for 5 seconds had an entire series of novels based on their life and they are so filled with incident that even reading the summary takes the better part of an afternoon. In many ways, it was even better. At no point did I read something in this book and feel the need to exclaim, "oh, come on, there's no way that's a thing."

Well, maybe with the Picts, a group of ultra-violent space pirates who form one of the six Baronies that control a former prison colony while maintaining a brutal system of medieval-style serfdom. I kind of felt like, balance of power or no, the other five Baronies would not really want these guys as neighbors. Also, their poor economic output and lack of technical acumen might be a bad fit for a world where humans can only survive inside sealed habitats. But, aside from that one thing, almost everything else felt like someone put some serious thought into it.

Where it gets awkward for me is that while StarDrive is clearly aiming to be a franchise, it was not a franchise I have any emotional connection to or nostalgia for in any way. In retrospect, this is not my first encounter with the setting - it's one of the campaign models pitched in d20 Future, and I've read that book at least one and a half times, but it had a very unassuming presence, with no more wordcount than the half-dozen other campaign pitches which were not based on existing properties with hundreds of pages worth of canon. And it's not like I need to draw on nostalgia to enjoy these books . . . but it helps.

On the other hand, it's not like I didn't enjoy it. It's more that I spent the entire book on the cusp of enjoyment. I read through the whole thing, chapter-by-proper-noun-stuffed-chapter with the recognition that I could come to really enjoy it, were I willing to put in the effort to become invested in its splatbook-friendly factions and ongoing plotlines. The only thing really standing in my way is my own lack of exciting stories to recount about the StarDrive universe.

Which is weird, because I am all-in on other settings where I have a similar deficit. Never ran a game of Changeling: the Lost, but I love the setting to bits. Same thing with Eclipse Phase, Reign, and Earthdawn.  

I could just chalk it up to timing - I happened to encounter this elaborate science-fiction world when I was in grumpy mode and had no inclination to try and immerse myself in it. However, I don't think my disconnect is so circumstantial. I think there really is something holding me back and that something is theme. Namely, I'm not sure it has one.

This is a book that is very clearly trying to deliver a fully-formed alternative to Star Wars, and if that's the goal, I'd say that it almost succeeds. StarDrive is a more complex and dynamic setting, with more points of entry for new players and new stories, and a greater versatility in the kinds of stories that it's able to tell. I'd say, for worldbuilding, it even compares favorably to Star Trek, the other expansive science-fiction setting that serves as a clear source of inspiration. However, it lacks something vital that lies at the heart of both of those franchises - an articulate moral vision of humanity's place in the universe. At times, it felt like reading one of those "the empire did nothing wrong" or "the Federation is as corrupt as all its rivals" fanfics that pop up to plague us from time to time.

The book used the objective voice for things that absolutely were not being described objectively. "Heretics grew in number and the normally reclusive and peaceful Brethren were forced to put down several splinter groups." Forced, you say? Anything more we should know about these splinter groups and the nature of their specific heresies? No? Well, I guess I'll just take your word for it that these religious wars were uncharacteristic for the Brethren.

Or the whole deal between Voidcorp and the Sesheyans. The Sesheyans were an alien species that lived a hunter-gatherer type lifestyle until Voidcorp made contact with the planet and "offered" them a "contract" that purported to exchange advanced technology for the entire species' indefinite servitude. Ahhh!!! 

It is, of course, villain behavior, and it's no great crime for a sci-fi setting to have realistic villainy. The problem is that the book has very little pro-Sesheyan editorializing. It says that their "attempts to win freedom are crushed whenever they are discovered," which does convey something of Voidcorp's ruthlessness, but later on in the book, when it talks about the Sesheyan colony on Grith, it portrays them as criminals and outlaws. Escaped slaves made their way to a distant planet, set up a thriving colony, and came up with a cover story where they pretended to be transplanted by a friendly elder civilization a thousand years before the Voidcorp "contract," and that's called "a monstrous lie." Oh, no, when they arrived as refugees, they attacked the previous human colony and drove off the settlers from the theocratic Hatire Community! Couldn't they see that this was an entirely different group of humans than the ones that condemned them to eternal slavery?

Which isn't to say that they should have attacked those uninvolved colonists, but seeing as how there were mitigating circumstances, maybe the book could have been a little bit more sympathetic. At the very least, it should push back on the idea that Voidcorp has a claim on their descendants, hundreds of years later. Because that's how the conflict is framed - if the Grith Sesheyans' secret is ever revealed, then they'll fall back under Voidcorp's jurisdiction. The book doesn't seem to understand that it's describing the Fugitive Slave Act in the Year 2501.

I think the setting as a whole would work better if it was presented from the perspective of the Galactic Concord. The Concord is kind of a space-UN, established after the Second Galactic War as a neutral peacekeeping force that has a responsibility to arbitrate disputes in "Open Space" (areas not controlled by the surviving nations as of the end of the last war).  There are times when the book flirts with them as the Obvious Protagonists, but it winds up settling on portraying them as just another galactic power, of roughly equal status to the nations it deals with (it actually controls territory made up of the colonies of nations whose capital-worlds were destroyed and/or conquered in the Second Galactic War, which strikes me as a bit of a conflict of interest).

What the book doesn't seem to understand is that it's portraying humanity in a really terrible light - a parasitical, planet-devouring species that runs roughshod over other species as it pursues infinite expansion driven by an unstoppable exponential population growth (roughly 10 trillion humans as of the start date, and that's after a war that killed billions). And you have to assume that maybe the reason each of the 14 surviving stellar nations seems driven by one bad idea or another is because no one sensible could have possibly committed the atrocities necessary to be a "victor" of the last war. But they did one reasonable thing and gave their space UN an independent military so that international law might actually have some teeth, and that's really what the game should be about - a group of idealists running themselves ragged riding herd over these ravenous colonialists.  The bulk of the setting focuses on the Verge, an area of space that lost contact with the stellar nations for more than a century during the last war. The Galactic Concord has jurisdiction over this entire area. Yet the book doesn't quite recognize the pattern of the stellar nations repeatedly coming in and "claiming" entire societies that have had generations of independence. It could say something interesting about colonialism, but it doesn't. It never even seems to occur to it that the Klicks, who attacked humanity's most distant colony, might possibly be waging a war of defense.

Overall, I think StarDrive features some masterful worldbuilding, and as a result the book has a lot of utility in running any number of games set in its universe, but I think it would benefit greatly from having a stronger thesis and a little less gritty 90s "nuance."

Ukss Contribution: About 50 years before the game's start date, everyone on the planet Bluefall mysteriously vanished. All 10 million of them. Then, a decade later, a bunch of colonists found the deserted world, listened to the scavengers tell them the tale of how nobody knows how or why it happened, but it was so sudden that the machines were left running, and then said to themselves, "sweet, free buildings," and settled down without coming even one iota closer to figuring out whether it might happen again. 

There's something about this oblivious bull-headedness that rings true to me. So Ukss will have a city-state or an island with a similar backstory - the previous residents disappeared under mysterious circumstances and new people moved in without first establishing that the danger has passed.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

(Orpheus) Shades of Gray

Man, why do the supplements for this sci-fi/horror rpg always have to feature such grim events? Oh, right. I like this particular shocking twist a bit more than the shocking twist from Crusade of Ashes, primarily because it doesn't overturn the fundamentals of the setting, but it makes up for it by being even more grim.

Although it's probably not the plot that's especially grim. You've got a drug, pigment, that when you take it you can see ghosts. And if you die while high on pigment, you automatically become a weak type of ghost known as a "hue." So, if the villains were to suddenly need a lot of ghosts very quickly, they could poison a big batch of pigment, and take advantage of the horde of weak and confused hues to advance their nefarious underworld schemes. A classic supervillain scheme.

But then, the authors of Shades of Gray made the choice to luridly describe the symptoms of strychnine poisoning, and the grief and chaos that would naturally happen in the wake of a mass poisoning, and it stops being a superhero plot and starts being an atrocity.

I suppose it's an artistic line that I don't often notice. I can watch Spiderman thwart a mugging or a bank robbery and think "ah, this is a fun adventure," but realistically, there's nothing fun about this at all. Even in a robbery with no casualties, people get PTSD from having armed men screaming and pointing weapons at them, and the stolen money that seems so abstract in a comic book is, for a real person, a rent payment or a month's worth of meals, or a child's medicine. To describe the perpetrators as "villains" or even just "criminals" is to put a blanket of bland words around some actually pretty horrifying behavior.

So, of course, when your genre is horror, maybe you just lean into it. I can respect that, even if it occasionally makes for a painful read. However, now that I'm at the halfway point in the series, I can officially say that I'm conflicted about Orpheus as a whole. It's still my third or fourth favorite World of Darkness game (maybe even second, if it turns out that both Hunter and Demon are less cool than I remember), and it's probably the one most likely to withstand the test of time. Yet I'm coming to think that I only really like a watered-down version of the creators' original vision. I like the occult/sci-fi procedural element, where you're working for this mysterious corporation, using its sinister technology and the ghost stuff is merely spooky. Ooh, there's life after death, and humanity is recklessly charging ahead in its exploration (and exploitation) of the most primordial mystery of the human condition, but maybe you're just solving a difficult murder or bringing peace to a haunted house and it all stays very PG-13. 

Orpheus wants to do more than that, though. It also wants to present a frightening horror experience . . . by which I mean it wants to creep you out . . . by which I mean it sometimes feels like it was written by a bunch of creeps. 

Okay, that may sound a little harsh. I meant "creep" in the horror-genre sense of the word. Like "that clown with the big knife is a total creep." Or like, "that Jessica Fletcher, she's a real creep, isn't she?" It's obvious that they're trying to push our buttons, is what I'm saying.

The reason the villains need so many helpless ghosts is because they are building a Spectre Hive, an underworld structure that influences victims in the living world towards self-harm or depraved acts of violence. Helpfully, there are specific suggestions. And yeah, they go there. 

This isn't 90s White Wolf. They didn't revel in specific imagery, but that's something I had to read. My day was made worse by reading this book. And I suppose it's allowed. This is entertainment for adults, and some adults like being creeped out. I just have to accept that I'm going to keep feeling ambivalent.

Another source of ambivalence - the fact that the main plot sets the PCs up to fail. This is one of those delicate situations where failing to thwart the plot leads to a more interesting outcome than going in and being a big hero. The question is how to do this without annoying your players. The book suggests withholding information until it's too late . . . which is maybe realistic enough to be forgivable, because, seriously, how often are the PCs privy to drug deals, let alone extra-secret deals where ghosts have tainted the product with strychnine? There's a balance to navigate. If the players know about the poisoning before it happens, but can't stop it, they might feel cheated. If the players don't know about the poisoning in advance, and then later find out about it, that's not an rpg blot - it's just a background event in the world. You might be able to present it as a mystery to be solved, just like the hauntings in a regular procedural game, but the solution this adventure aims for is making mitigation feel like a victory. The players get there just in time to save some of the victims, but it's still a total shitshow.

It could work, especially if you're playing with a group that's more into the horror elements, but I think it would be tricky to pull off. That may be why the book has a sidebar literally titled "This Sucks," which I might as well have quoted in its entirety because it makes all the same points I did in the previous paragraph. Still, I'm glad it was there, because it does at least make me feel like the book has my back. It knows it's trying something difficult, and encourages GMs to rise to the challenge. It's kind of funny, though. I don't think I've seen any rpg company be more willing to point out its own flaws, "yeah, we see those red flags, but we're going to just charge right ahead." It's a tendency that aggravates me when White Wolf is being maximum gross, but I appreciate it here.

Now, let's switch gears and talk about this book as a miscellaneous supplement for Orpheus as a whole. It's exciting, because it adds a whole new Shade (ghost type) and some fun new Backgrounds, but there's no reason, aside perhaps for space reasons, that Phantasms couldn't have been in the core. I guess the lore reason is that their Nature group is rare in the setting and Orpheus hadn't found any yet, but Phantasms are largely drawn from "Architect, Avant-Garde, Celebrant, Dreamer, Gambler, [and] Visionary" Natures, which are going to be highly appealing to a certain type of player. It feels really arbitrary that they were excluded. 

And, look, it probably was. They have to put something in the "Unearthed Players' Guide" chapters, and the one in Shades of Gray was probably already running short as it was. That's the only explanation for the inclusion of new Roles. Those are brief suggestions for a character concept, accompanied by some suggested traits. Like the "Prospector" who is super imperialist and prioritizes both Physical Attributes and Knowledges. Roles are as useless here as they were in the core, and, really, they should have been taken out to make room for the extra Shades (although it might be premature for me to lump them all together. I have a vague memory of the later ones being a bit better justified as late game surprises).

The book also has a new tier of ghost powers, the level 3 Horrors, and while I'm certain they were core in Wraith: the Oblivion, they do at least feel legitimately like a game-changing revelation to be discovered along with the new lore.

Overall, I'd say that Shades of Gray is a successful supplement. I feel significantly less jerked-around than I did after Crusade of Ashes, yet somehow I also feel like the stakes have been raised and the players are being drawn into entirely new kinds of conflicts. Don't mistake my ambivalence about the tone and genre for a disinterest in the mysteries.

Ukss Contribution: My favorite of the new Horror powers was "Beckon Relic" where you just sort of reach into the depths of the underworld and draw out a random item. You can control the size, based on how much Vitality you spend, but other than that, you can only control the purpose for which the item will be used. Reach for a weapon and you might get a broadsword or you might get a tommy gun. Go for broke and summon a car, and you could get any model from the entire history of the automobile. It's the fun sort of chaos power, and maybe Ukss could have a magic wand or enchanted bag that does something similar.

PS: Remember RAINN

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Alternity Gamemaster Guide

Oh, right, I've committed myself to reading a whole bunch of core books. I mean, it's fine. These sorts of books are, dare I say, the core of our hobby, so I wouldn't be in this position if I didn't, on some level, enjoy reading them. However, that enjoyment has always been a sort of mercenary, transactional enjoyment. I like a core book because of what it can do for me, because it enables me to play a game in a fantasy or science fiction universe. And while my opinion of Alternity (by Richard Baker and Bill Slavicsek), after reading its two cores, is positive, I can't deny that it came with a cost - having to force myself to remain engaged while the book explained the concept of gravity.

It was a bit harder with this volume than the Players' Handbook, and my knee-jerk explanation is just that I've already used up all the novelty. This is a similarly dry book, with a similar subject matter, but there was very little inside it that I was encountering for the first time. But it's probably not completely superfluous. I've already forgotten most of it, and my notes are of little help, but it's got the starship creation rules, and stats for various animals and alien creatures and . . . um, a social status system . . . and, look, these two 240 page books could have been a single 300 page book and it likely would have been better, but this is peak 90s game design here. There are charts with modifiers that would have taken up a lot of space in a combined book.

Plus, there's plenty of GMing advice. And maybe most of it is technically supernumerary, like we need the book to tell us that you can use the racing rules for swim races or that "the primary purpose of [the Fortitude Perk] is to give the hero an edge in resisting exhaustion and knockout" (seriously, that got its own header). But you do get a TSR product with a bunch of now-standard GM advice "set a scene," "establish a mood," that sort of thing.

And I think I might be running out of things to say (a real awkward position for someone who likes to hear himself talk). It's bland. It's functional. It doesn't do anything notably good or bad. You could probably get away with running Alternity without it, but there's something like four chapters (out of 17) that you're going to miss. 

Funny thing is, I have a bunch of notes, but they don't build to any particular idea. Just a bunch of unconnected observations.

"The katana is superior to the primitive spear" - maybe an uncontroversial opinion in 1998, but I'm pretty sure I've seen a half dozen youtube videos disproving it.

The radiation rules say, "The risk of contracting leukemia 10 years down the road doesn't come into play in most roleplaying game scenarios," but they also don't say that your characters won't get leukemia. Since this is an extremely plausible turn of events, I have to assume that it canonically happens all the time, but is simply outside the scope of the rules.

Oh, also, this book does pitch what is probably the weirdest campaign model I've ever heard. "No Statistics!" (Exclamation point is in the original, but it does also mirror my feelings.)

No Statistics mode is not, as you might guess, a freeform version of Alternity. Characters do, in fact, have all of their usual statistics, used according to the standard rules. It's just that players are not allowed to know what they are. Seriously. "You think you're pretty strong. . ." and the GM rolls all the dice.

(Calm down, John. Breathe. It's just a sidebar. It can't hurt you. Clearly, someone was just dicking around and they decided to leave it in. It could have been worse. You could have first encountered this idea in an Exalted storytelling chapter).

::Shudder:: The very idea stresses me out. I consider myself a fairly democratic and easygoing GM, but I do have one rigid rule that I generally try to stick to - "Each player is solely responsible for knowing what their character can do." It's something I implemented not just to save myself the mental load of remembering everyone's character sheets (because, honestly, back in the days when I was regularly GMing, I was also in the habit of frequently re-reading the core books to try and internalize the rules), but also as a kind of hedge against the temptation to kibbitz. I can't intrusively suggest a course of action if I don't know precisely what you're capable of. Poor GMing technique is often satirized by suggesting the GM should just go and write a novel, but No Statistics mode seems to demand that style of play.

Alternity is kind of at an awkward historical moment where it's GMing advice has graduated from old-school adversarial, but hasn't quite discovered player agency. "What the gamemaster says, goes," but also the player characters "need to be the center of the story" (so the GM should arrange for that to happen.

In the end, I can't say I enjoyed reading this book (it was . . . tolerable), nor can I say that I'm inspired to run an Alternity game (it still needs a setting), but I can say that I'm confident that if I did run an Alternity game, it would turn out more or less okay.

Ukss Contribution: Giant, carnivorous, land-dwelling starfish. My kind of weird.