Monday, May 29, 2023
(V:tM) Clanbook: Tremere
Friday, May 26, 2023
(D&D 3e) Epic Level Handbook
Saturday, May 20, 2023
(V: tM) Clanbook: Toreador
Monday, May 15, 2023
(D&D 3e) Enemies and Allies
Sunday, May 14, 2023
(V: tM) Clanbook Giovanni
Thursday, May 11, 2023
(D&D 3e) Hero Builder's Guidebook
Tuesday, May 9, 2023
(V: tM) Clanbook: Gangrel
Monday, May 8, 2023
(D&D 3.5) Savage Species
Friday, May 5, 2023
(V:tM) Clanbook: Brujah
I hate to be so negative, so let me wrap this up with an alternate pitch for Clan Brujah. They're warriors. Full stop. Granted, this has the disadvantage of being almost as boring as "the vampires who want things to change," and as an rpg-class equivalent, it broad enough to step on a lot of other clans' toes, but at least it's a concrete thing that people will consciously and deliberately choose to identify as. We may all roll our eyes at "the international brotherhood of warriors," but it has its provenance in history.
Although, I wouldn't want to leave it at just that. I'm actually taking my inspiration from Vampire: the Dark Ages lore, where the Brujah were one of the "high clans" (i.e. Clans that moved among the aristocracy, rather than the peasantry). And, if you view the modern Brujah, Toreador, and Ventrue as the three Camarilla Clans that trace their lineage back to medieval aristocracy, certain things start to fall into place. Because you can view the medieval aristocracy through three different lenses - those who make laws and wield legal authority (the Ventrue), those who enjoy the luxuries of wealth (the Toreador), and the strong arms that enforced the aristocracy's military rule (the Brujah).
Tuesday, May 2, 2023
(D&D 3.5) Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords
Thanks to the influence of Japanese anime, Hong Kong action movies, and popular video games, the notion of a fantasy setting has grown very broad in the last few years. Fantasy gaming isn't just about knights and castles and dragons anymore . . . More than any other, this book represents "culture-blind" D&D: fantasy gaming in a world where silent ninjas and wandering kung-fu masters live side-by-side with noble paladins and fearsome monsters. Tome of Battle isn't your parents' D&D - it's bigger, bolder, and more fantastic than ever before.
Sunday, April 30, 2023
(V: tM) Clanbook: Assamite
Saturday, April 29, 2023
(D&D 3e) Defenders of the Faith
Dungeons and Dragons has traditionally been bad at depicting religion. This should come as no surprise to those who have been following the series, but it's necessary to restate it, in order to put Defenders of the Faith (Rich Redmond and James Wyatt) into context. There was no way it was ever going to be "good," because in order to be a good roleplaying book about adventurers who wield the powers of the gods, it would have to ask difficult questions about spirituality and tradition and community and metaphysics. It would have to depict people who surrendered themselves to powers beyond death and who act as a vessel for a mystery beyond words. And it could never do that, because D&D Clerics are mostly just Heal Technicians. Their religion is basically just medieval Catholicism, stripped of all purpose, complexity, and substance, distorted by a pop-culture mirror that ensures it can never rise even to the realm of the controversial. An order of sacred knights guards their Holy Grail - a chalice which caught the blood of a solar avingion as it dueled a tanar'ri. Because the paradox of the crucifixion, the holy inversion, where love defeats power, is too subtle a concept. Better to just be literal.
And I'm being something like 80% non-sarcastic here. You could maybe have a roleplaying game that dug deep into Christian theology and made it a key aspect of gameplay, but it wouldn't be Dungeons and Dragons. It probably wouldn't even be fun. And maybe that's just my bias as an atheist showing, but I'm pretty sure that the hypothetical audience for Aquinas: The Epistolary RPG of Scholastic Monasticism would not consider "fun" to be an appropriate goal. There's a spectrum here, is what I'm saying. D&D as a whole gets its place on the spectrum wrong, probably since at least the early 80s, when the Cleric class went from "thinly-veiled Van Helsing knockoff" to "key part of the campaign world's religious expression," but the worst thing you can say about Defenders of the Faith is that it doesn't move the needle significantly in either direction.
The book works well when it's ticking along inside its wheelhouse. It describes the way a "church" works - with its Services and Rituals, Expenses and Income, Charity and Advertising, and Adventurer Support and Adventuring Priests (because, oh yeah, this is an adventure game) - and if you're dealing with the deities that quite clearly take after European Jesus, it works. Pelor, Hieroneous, Saint Cuthbert - okay, this makes sense. You could probably even make Hextor work as Confederate Jesus (though, it's hurt by the fact that people in D&D world self-identify as evil, and Wizards of the Coast was not prepared to take the artistic and political risk of making a Lawful Evil religion that identified as good and valued an outward appearance of chivalry . . . you know, like the Confederacy).
However, what the fuck is supposed to be going on with the "Church of Nerull?" It's kind of a universal worldbuilding question to ask, "what are the parishioners getting out of this church," but for a neutral evil religion that explicitly only cares about cruelty and personal advancement, the question is doubly important. Are the followers propriating the God of the Undead? Are they bargaining with him to be undead themselves? Isn't that what the priests are doing? Is there a lay congregation that is hoping to one day get divine powers for themselves? How often are they successful? What's the bait on this particular hook?
These aren't impossible questions to answer. Most specific D&D settings even try to take a stab at it (with varying degrees of success), but it's incredibly out of place in this book. It couldn't even really handle the Chaotic Good and Chaotic Neutral religions. A God of Thieves is a fine concept, but what does religion even mean to a thief? Whatever it is, it probably has more to do with the tenuousness of their lives and their precarious liberty in the face of a law that wants to destroy them, and less about going to consult a priest and tithe their income to a church (even if the shrines are usually secret). You could probably take inspiration from the Mafia's weird relationship to Catholicism and talk about a thieves' guild that devoutly attended the church of Hieroneous, but that's what I mean when I say D&D is bad at religion - there is absolutely nothing in its narrative or mechanical framework that could handle that all-too-human paradox.
The Cleric class winds up having the same basic problem as the Wizard class - it's too broad a concept. It's not quite as bad, because "magic user who gains their powers from pacts with otherworldly beings" is technically a narrower niche than "magic user," but not by much. From a historical perspective, it's actually really odd to even make that split at all. So if you arrange Clerics on a line from "theurgists who serve the community in a capacity resembling medieval clergy" to "diabolists and necromancers, aesthetically indistinguishable from a dark wizard" Defenders of the Faith does well with the first type, but for the second, Tome and Blood would probably be the better resource.
Overall, this was a fine book. I enjoyed reading it. But ideally, I'm building my fantasy world in a way that renders it largely obsolete.
Ukss Contribution: I'm going to do something I don't ordinarily like to do and pick something the book explicitly says not to do. "A Paladin with scores of scrolls stuck through her belt and bandoliers of dozens of potions just looks silly."
Speak for yourself, Defenders of the Faith. Speak for yourself.
Thursday, April 27, 2023
(V: tM) Time of Thin Blood
>>Code: Ragnarok>>Operations Budget: Unlimited>>Permissible Weapons: Unlimited>>Permissible Casualties:>>Local Inhabitants: 100%>>Associate Personnel: 100%>>Enlightened Operatives: 100%
Chilling, but awesome. Say what you will about the Technocracy, but they're willing to put it all on the line when it counts . . . and that's really not something you should be saying about sci-fi fascists, so something had to give. You can only keep one half of the characterization, which half do you choose? I know what choice my younger self made, and I don't know. I'm still quite a big fan of awesome things, but I'm also more highly motivated to take a hard stance against fascists, so I refer you back to the bulk of my output for the year 2020 (oh, shit, has it really been that long) wherein I have complicated feelings about Mage: the Ascension.
Overall, Time of Thin Blood was almost all upside for me (except the damned FONTS!!! The narrator saying "It has been pleasant . . . to imagine you squinting with your weak eyes at my terrible handwriting" isn't really cute when it happens to you in real life). It's probably more enjoyable as a piece of fiction than as a campaign guide, but basing campaigns off of enjoyable fiction is something like half the hobby.
Ukss Contribution: The "Hemetic" flaw. Take it and you're so disgusted by blood that you can't keep it down unless you're maddened by hunger. Pretty awkward for a vampire. I probably won't introduce the flaw as a general thing, but it might be fun to have an NPC vampire who's afflicted with it.
Tuesday, April 25, 2023
(D&D 3e) Tome and Blood
Tome and Blood (Bruce R. Cordell and Skip Williams) puts me at war with myself. My favorite part of any fantasy setting is its magical elements, and many of my favorite characters in both fiction and gaming have been spellcasters. But the D&D Wizard (and to a lesser, but similar extent, the Sorcerer) are some of my least favorite classes, purely from a design perspective.
I'm currently making an effort to soften my pop-culture opinions, so I can acknowledge that there is a certain strategy to playing them, one that many D&D players find appealing. Manage your limited resources, think ahead and plan your spell loadout based on your anticipated challenges, collect new and more powerful spells. It's something of a puzzle, and puzzles can be satisfying to solve. However, if you're like me and you don't enjoy the puzzle, then all that's left is a class that is aggressively bland.
No, that's not right. The Wizard is hegemonically bland. It is the imperialist monarch of bland, leading an ever-expanding empire of bland, that threatens to swallow up everything non-bland about D&D and convert it to bland. And I am here to identify the source of this all-encompassing blandness and place the blame exactly where it belongs: on Specialist Wizards.
Or, more accurately, on what the mechanics of Specialist Wizards say about the construction of the D&D world. A Specialist Wizard gets one extra memorized spell per spell level per day from their chosen school of magic and they are forbidden from using one or more other schools of magic. Which means that every specialist is just shy of being a generalist. They don't need to follow a theme. They don't get any special benefit or drawback from the magic they wield. They don't even really need to do more than take their school's best spell at every spell level and then just continue to be a regular Wizard. And the schools themselves . . . blech.
Necromancy? Okay. Illusion? Okay. Enchantment and Divination? Yeah, those are still something. But Conjuration? Abjuration? Transmutation? Those aren't even a theme. They're just verbs that summarize things more interesting magic can do.
I wish I could say that Tome and Blood avoided the speedbumps, but it really didn't. It hit every single one. It gave us advice about what spells to learn that included "some fight it, but eventually, every sorcerer and wizard picks magic missile." And it broke down the different possible specialties with suggestions about which schools to skip, and somehow it always seemed to come back to Divination, Illusion, and Necromancy. Better to lose three full schools than even one of Conjuration, Evocation, or Transmutation. It's just a bad divide.
The strategy advice also wound up breaking 3rd edition's already tenuous game balance, though perhaps that wouldn't be obvious for some time to come. It suggested making scrolls of your less commonly-used spells and wands to let you keep casting once your daily spell roster was used up. We can now officially say goodbye to the Rogue. It was nice knowing you.
Wizards bug me, is what I'm saying. Having a "magic user" class in a fantasy game is as bad as having a "fighter" class in an action-adventure game. Give me classes that approach the game's fundamental activities in a unique and interesting way.
For all my griping, you might be forgiven for thinking I disliked Tome and Blood, but really I only disliked pages 4-9, 20-21 (maybe, if you have to ask what the difference is between Spellcraft and Knowledge [Arcana], that's a clue that you have one skill too many), and 81-83. That's only 10% of the book, pretty consistent with the series' track record. Once Tome and Blood gets past the questionable mechanics of the Wizard (and to a lesser extent, Sorcerer) class, and into actual fantasy flavor, it has a lot going for it.
Certainly, from a world-building perspective, this book's Prestige Classes are the best in the series. I especially enjoyed the transhumanist ones like the Dragon Disciple, which allowed a sorcerer to turn into a dragon-human hybrid, the Acolyte of the Skin, who replaced their own natural skin with the flayed hide of a demon, and the Elemental Savant, who demonstrated such profound elemental mastery that they became an elemental creature.
Mechanically, they have their flaws, what with the Dragon Disciple gaining abilities best suited to a front-line fighter, the Acolyte of the Skin losing five caster levels for some flavorful, but limited use abilities, and the Elemental Savant only benefiting from using elemental attack spells (though that's just as much a problem of the spell list as anything else). Given the edition's notorious caster/non-caster divide, it's probably a good thing that many of the Prestige Classes are weaker than just taking 10 levels of Wizard, which makes it a real shame that they won't see much use . . . due to being weaker than taking 10 levels of Wizard.
The rest of the book is also solid, if not quite as inspired. I liked all of the magical organizations, even if they were a little basic (though we covered this ground with Sword and Fist - the basic stuff needs to be written down somewhere, so why not here). My favorite was the Arcane Order, but only for an absolutely ridiculous reason - their leader is named "Japheth Arcane." That made me laugh ("No, no, you see it's the 'Arcane' Order, as in the Order that follows a guy named 'Arcane.' The fact that it does arcane stuff is just a coincidence.")
Overall, I'd say that this is probably my least favorite book in the series so far. Its high points were among the highest, but I feel like when all was said and done, the wrong side won my internal war. After reading the book about Wizards and Sorcerers, I was more convinced than ever that their cool stuff should be divided up and given to the game's other classes. "Magic" is simply too broad a niche.
Ukss Contribution: I really liked Phantom Ink, the special alchemical ink that could be made to only show up under certain predefined lighting conditions. Writing a note that's only visible in moonlight is pure Tolkien, and I'm here for it.