Thursday, December 28, 2023

Where to get it: page

First things first, a conflict of interest declaration. The author of this rpg, Peter Schaeffer, has sent me a couple of physical books over the years, and while I think you could reasonably make the argument that sending a book to a book reviewer does not constitute a bribe, if you did, you'd be underestimating what an absolute book goblin I am, and how much my copy of The Well still ranks as one of my most treasured possessions.

With that said, 1-page rpgs are my kryptonite. I've already spent more time writing this post than I did reading the rpg it's about and I haven't even gotten close to an opinion. All that stuff I said in my Alique post about feeling trolled by rules-light games is still true, but it's even more pronounced because "roll a single die to be able to narrate success" is literally this game's entire task resolution system.

But I think, overall, that uses its limited page-count well. It's got a theme (the tension between being "cool" and being "real") and a mood ("late-stage capitalism, yikes, am I right?") and even the beginnings of a setting (Amazon Prime High School). I think you could, technically, call it a complete game, even though there aren't many moving parts.

And I should probably start wrapping up now, lest I write a post about a game that's longer than the game itself. There's enough here that I could use it as a jumping off point to talk about the punk part of cyberpunk (. . . maybe it's short length is thematic? like it's the rpg equivalent of one of those sub-2-minute punk songs . . . but is that something? And even if it is, does that something rise to the level of a theme? Yes?! Anarchy!!! whatever.) but I suspect I'll have other opportunities to explore this subject.

To sum up, I feel kind of awkward saying that was "worth my time," because while that is undoubtedly true, my time investment was incredibly short. Likewise, saying "I enjoyed it" also feels . . . off. I started enjoying it, and in less time than it usually takes for me to register enjoyment, it was over and there was nothing left to enjoy.  Metaphorically, someone's asking me to plot a high-scool anime based on a toxic yellow gumball bought for five cents from a rundown gas station, and look, you can chew it for maybe a minute before it loses its flavor, but I see something potentially iconic in this imagery, so I'm willing to at least give it a shot.

Ukss Contribution: Very little setting here, but the hit rate is 100%. "Amazon Prime High" is both obvious as hell and punk as hell and that combination is exactly my sense of humor. Ukss will probably not have Amazon Prime, but it will have an educational institution with some inappropriate corporate branding.


Where to get it: page

Reading rules-light narrative rpgs can sometimes be difficult for me, because I can't entirely shake the feeling that I'm being trolled.

"Ooh, look at this nerd, he's going to start describing a guy doing some stuff and then he'll roll one of his little dice and if the number is big he'll describe the stuff as happening successfully and if the number is small he'll describe it as happening unsuccessfully and la de da, that somehow feels like a game to him."

And normally, I'd just toss out something like the Exalted 3rd edition core and defiantly proclaim, "ha, this book has a lot of different rules for when to roll dice and for what constitutes a 'high number' in various hypothetical contexts. Knowing those rules and evoking them in the correct contexts is almost like a game."

But if the only thing I had handy was Alique (Aaron Smith), then I'd be forced to hang my head in shame and mumble, "yeah, that's basically the gist of it."

Which isn't a sleight on Alique, or even on rules-light gaming in general. Call it a personal hang-up. Occasionally, I'll look in the mirror and ask myself, "hey, is this hobby that I've spent decades obsessed with, thousands of dollars pursuing, and written multiple novels-worth of blog posts about . . . kind of silly?!" And it takes me a moment to catch my breath and answer, "yeah, but that's okay."

That, incidentally, is how I would describe Alique: "it's kind of silly, but that's okay." You describe what your character is doing, roll a perfectly ordinary six-sided die, and then the number that shows on the die determines which of six outcomes will occur: (1)disastrous failure, (2)ordinary failure, (3)mitigated or partial failure, (4)success at a cost, (5)ordinary success, or (6)triumphant success. Sometimes, you'll role more than one die and the highest die you roll will determine the action's outcome.

There are barely any rules of that, either. You've got character traits that are rated from 1 to 6 and if the action you're describing is related to one of those traits, you can spend temporary trait points to add one or more extra dice. Traits return to their permanent value at the start of each game session (unless optional refresh rules are used).

I'm not sure how I feel about this particular resource-managing mechanic. My gut tells me it's probably backwards from a narrative point of view - characters are much less capable at the end of a session than the beginning - but a lot of that is going to depend on the pacing of rolls. If rolls are rare, then conserving your points at the beginning of the session is going to feel a lot less like operating at partial power and end-of-session characters are more likely to have enough resources to handle a story's climax. If rolls are common, your choices are going to be a lot harder. Maybe it's a good system to model classic D&D's attrition-based challenges, but that's not really my style.

The other notable thing about Alique is that it features significant excerpts from the Fate Core SRD, for much of its GM advice section. I approve of that decision. It's what SRDs are for, and I love to see that kind of cross-pollination. My only quibble is that Fate Core uses "compel" as a noun to refer to a particular rule, and Alique, while it has a similar rule, neglects to establish "compel" as a formal part of its jargon.

Overall, my opinion of Alique is "I can see how some people might find it useful," which admittedly seems like the sort of bland non-statement that is, in actuality, an extremely cutting insult, but here it just means that "rules-light, setting agnostic, narrative rpg" is an exceptionally crowded niche. It's very difficult to do something new in that space. Alique succeeds at bringing something new to the table. That's a genuine accomplishment.

Ukss Contribution: Almost no setting in this one, and so very slim pickings when it comes to potential setting elements. It's a stretch, but its description of Zombies as a character type had a strangely optimistic tone ("The character is dead, but things aren't as bad as they seem. Someone has been kind enough to restore your mobility. Once you learn to live with this condition, it can be quite useful.") It amused me.

To honor that, Ukss will have at least one zombie with a positive, can-do attitude.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

(D&D 3.0) Psionics Handbook

All hands on deck! This is not a drill! The third edition Psionics Handbook (Bruce R Cordell) has changed the depiction of the Thought Eater! It is no longer an ethereal platypus skeleton. It is now an ethereal cat skeleton with the beak of a raptor. Normally, I'm not one to complain about edition changes, but this is just pure cowardice. They took something that was a strong contender for the goofiest thing in D&D (and that's some stiff competition, let me tell you) and they made it look slightly less goofy. But to what end?

TO WHAT END, I scream, sobbing into my keyboard. It was so. fucking. goofy. And now it's nothing. Where has my lost youth gone? Must all things inevitably pass into death? 

Nah, don't mind me. I'm just being super dramatic, because the Psionics Handbook doesn't have a lot of drama to it. It's just a completely regular book about a kind of superfluous alternate magic system that's a little more versatile (because it uses spell points instead of leveled slots) and a little less strong (because a lot of the powers don't scale with level) than the default. It's got a different sort of vibe than regular D&D magic, even if it's not to the degree that the 2nd edition supplement had. There's still a little bit of the new age, soft sci-fi, crystals and psychic aesthetic, but it's been diluted by 3rd edition's implicit dungeonpunk genre. Essential powers like telepathy and telekinesis are joined by very spell-like powers such as (Otiluke's) Telekinetic Sphere and Teleportation Circle. Compared to 2nd edition's selection of powers, it's more complete, but I definitely got the feeling that the gaps were often filled with whatever spell was close enough to what they were going for.

There's more to psionics than just being an alternate spell list with an alternate resource management system . . . but there really shouldn't be. Rolling a d20 to establish your powers' save DC is an extra step in resolution that winds up being roughly equivalent to the standard method in the long run, but at the cost of being randomly better or worse in a way that's unlikely to be narratively satisfying. And giving each Discipline of psionic powers its own key ability is something that could work if psionics are the only supernatural power source in the setting (so that there is a desirable niche for each of the six subclasses), but which winds up making the psion weirdly uncompetitive with other magic users. 

Also, psionic combat is back. Somehow, it's even more niche than it was before. And it's completely vestigial, because it's not even used to make telepathic contact. Instead, it's just a strange subsystem that allows psionics-users to deal ability damage to each other, while non-psionic characters are more or less immune. Again, this is something that could work if psionics was the only supernatural ability available - like maybe the process of opening your mind enough to use psionics also renders you vulnerable to psionic attack, and that's just part of the price you pay for being able to do impossible things - but you can be a wizard or a druid and not have to deal with this bullshit, so it's unclear why the mechanic even exists. It's probably just because it was in 1st and 2nd edition and people were going to be expecting it.

I'm kind of at a weird place with this book, because I liked it just fine, and with the exception of the psionic combat system, there was nothing I particularly disliked about it, but I also know that the very next D&D book I'm going to read will be a strict improvement. The Psionics Handbook is not just a book from an obsolete edition, it's an obsolete book within that edition. In every other use case besides the precise one I have at this very moment, reading it would have been a complete waste of time. But that seems a harsher judgement than is really merited here. It's flawed enough that the Expanded Psionics Handbook probably would have been necessary, even without the transition to 3.5. Nonetheless, it's kind of cool. You're basically a wizard, but you're doing things with crystals (in fact, your familiar is an intelligent crystal with legs). You can summon ectoplasm. You can kind of being a mystic or a hippy. For a period of no more than three years, in the early 2000s, it was a useful thing to have.

Ukss Contribution: Some goblins have a rare genetic mutation that turns them blue and gives them psychic powers. I don't love the backstory (most are killed out of fear, but some wind up mind controlling their way into positions of authority), but I do like the imagery. A blue goblin, waving a crystal, doing new age stuff. I think they might be perfect residents of Ukss' moon.

Monday, December 25, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Rimward

Well, shit, I'm going to have to talk about ideology, aren't I? Rimward is the Eclipse Phase book dedicated to transhuman settlements in the asteroid belt and beyond and the defining characteristic of those settlements is that they are all, to one degree or another, driven by ideology. And that led to a rollercoaster of a reading experience:

Whoa: Extropia is a twisting maze of caverns excavated from a large asteroid, filled with hackers, body-sculptors, and strange AIs.

Oh, no: "Their experiment proved even more successful than anticipated as libertarians flocked to the station to participate in their free market utopia."

Of course, the thing about ideology is that it is often ubiquitous and invisible, so it's not like these D&D books I've been reading are less ideological. And depiction is not the same thing as endorsement. But even so, "our form of political organization is working exactly as intended, the ancaps are thrilled" is a hell of a thing to read in an rpg.

If you're anything like me, you're going to start getting difficult questions stuck in your head. Chief of which: What, exactly, is Eclipse Phase's point of view? I've been operating under the assumption that is atheist, given the way it's relentlessly dismissive of religion, and anarchist, given the way its anarchists are always right about everything, but then it will talk about the Jovian Junta and in one breath call it explicitly fascist ("nobody minds shooting space Nazis, right?") and in another it will be inviting us to empathize with them ("presenting the positive and sympathetic elements of the Jovian cause, alongside the negative and terrifying.")

The conclusion I'm forced to come to is that the book is anarchist, but 2012 was a simpler time. The "let's go to fascist country and really vibe with why they hate us" genre of journo-tourism had not yet been invented. It was still considered a best practice to write an antagonist as if their point of view was arrived at for understandable reasons.

But then you get an Extropian explaining anarcho-capitalism, in-character, as "left-wing on economics and government" and it's absolutely surreal.  You've got indentured servitude and debt peonage and oh, "other autonomists - particularly anarchists - are highly critical of these forms of voluntary slavery" - like, no shit, "voluntary" is probably the most weaselly word in politics. You're "voluntarily" entering a labor relationship, because you want money for the debts you "voluntarily" racked up by "voluntarily" opting out of a "voluntary" subscription-based private legal system to protect yourself from "tort claims and legal damages, which is usually the largest expense - spurious micro-torts are a common and notorious hazard in Extropian spaces."

Like, I'm not the only one to see this, right? That it would be profoundly reckless to ever set foot in an Extropian habitat. Capitalism is intrinsically hierarchal and basic inequalities in starting position can lead to unequal "voluntary" agreements that benefit those higher in the hierarchy at the expense of the desperate, exacerbating the inequality and leading to ever-increasing amounts of hierarchy. And because you gain more of a competitive benefit from inequality the more inequality there is, this entire cycle is self-reinforcing. So much so that even if everyone started from the exact same position, it would inevitably devolve into a hierarchy, just from the natural fluctuations of chance. 

All of which is to say, there are absolutely guys like Mizor "I guess they missed that whole voluntary part" Alcor in real life, but you absolutely can't trust them to narrate a travel guide, and an anarchist should know better.

And here is the part of the post where I stare thoughtfully at the ceiling and contemplate whether or not the fact that Rimward has a eugenicist faction that calls outsiders "genestrash" makes the book too uncomfortable to read. 

If I'm being honest, I think I want a sci-fi setting that has Space Nazis, and Space Objectivists, and the Space Chamber of Commerce, because who you choose as your antagonists has a lot to say about your fundamental values. And I think that the urge to meet them on their own ground and give them a complex characterization with understandable motives, even as you set them up as the opposition, is a humane and generous instinct. Unfortunately, it also reeks of privilege - you are able to empathize with these villains because you are not one of their targets, and thus the threat is largely abstract. It's something Eclipse Phase as a line has struggled with since the core.  It's clear that their hearts are in the right place, but often their execution is lacking.

Oh, and Rimward also has a bunch of cool sci-fi worldbuilding in it. It was definitely worth the read.

Ukss Contribution: When I read the Eclipse Phase core, my choice was the bacon-based space habitat called "Turn Yourself Into a Giant Mass of Space Meat for Art!" To me, it represented the best part of Eclipse Phase's worldbuilding - its willingness to tug on the thinnest threads of scientific possibility to suggest something culturally and artistically improbable. 

Now, I'm making the unusual decision to choose the same thing for a second time, because, in the GM secrets section, we learn something surprising and kind of uncomfortable about our friend, Meathab. It is home to an uploaded human consciousness who is "a very humane soul who happens to enjoy having his insides full of a lot of other transhumans."

I don't know what to say to this. I hate it. But it's the kind of hate that inspires me.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of Destiny

Oh, man, sometimes you make a harmless-seeming wish like "I wish these Races of . . . books could be more interesting" and the monkey's paw curls and you get a book like Races of Destiny (David Noonan, Eric Cagle, Aaron Rosenberg) which is ostensibly giving human and part-human characters the same rpg treatment as elves, dwarves, et al, but the net result is just all of D&D's weird race stuff condensed down to its purest essence. But also, it's generally the least vanilla any of this series has ever been, and . . . I HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT ALL OF THIS.

There's a section labeled "Human Psychology." It's a page and a half long. They gave themselves a page and a half to talk about human psychology

Obviously, they've got an unenviable task here, because they can't just say "You know what a fucking human is, you don't need us to explain them to you. That is, in fact, why they're here. Humans are ubiquitous because the game is written by, for, and about people and every person you've ever met is human. Demi-humans are served around the edges as an amuse bouche, but humans are the fucking main course because there are entire libraries filled with books about human psychology and elves are just a thing we made up."

And if you can't say something along those lines, you've got to go with your second choice and try to give humans a "deal" so that they are reasonably competitive with the other fantasy creatures. Usually, that deal is some nonsense like "versatility" or "adaptability" (as if those traits weren't just part and parcel with being an intelligent creature), and Races of Destiny does dabble around in that area, but it also makes the dubious choice of characterizing humans as aggressively colonialist, and that's kind of a bad look.

"Human societies are always moving forward, looking for new place to conquer, new areas to settle, new industries to develop." Combine that with the observation that "In human cities, the streets are straight whenever possible, intersecting with others to form a grid pattern" and you kind of get the key to all this - D&D humans are an idealized version of 20th century Americans. You see, all that stuff about expansionism and capitalism and tolerance of other races and personal ambition and general belligerence . . . that's just human nature.

Honestly, though, I can't be too mad at the book just for that. What am I doing here, looking at a 20-year-old D&D supplement and shouting, "YOU SHOULD BE MORE MINDFUL OF YOUR IMPLICIT BIASES." There was no way that chapter was ever going to be good. They clearly tried their best with an impossible task.

What I can be mad about is the chapter about Half-Elves and Half-Orcs. Hoo boy, that was a rough read. I have to confess, I have a certain degree of . . . let's call it "sympathy" for people who don't want to engage with the racial coding of D&D races. They're absolutely wrong in their position that it's "just a game" and they should definitely grow up and stop being afraid to confront the unexamined prejudice that encoded into the very structure of the game. But I can see how, if you really didn't think about it too hard, you could have a vague idea of "humans vs orcs" as being a matter of team jerseys. It's a game about fighting, you've got a group of guys who are like, "we love fighting, argh! We don't even need much of a reason, grr!" and it makes perfect sense that some people would be all, "hey, we like those guys exactly as they are." 

However, there is absolutely no way to read chapter 2 of this book and still come away with the notion that this is all just in innocent fun. Because it is not fun, like at all. Sometimes, it will threaten to briefly seem like it might become fun, and then it tosses in a line like, "Few half-orcs learn to read or write. Orcs have little use for literacy and humans see little point in teaching half-orc children a capability they will probably never need and might be too dumb to learn."

Like, fuck, man. What do I even say to something like that? Is it even my job to say anything about it? Maybe I should just let the line speak for itself.

I think where things get contentious is that, from a high enough level of abstraction, the chapter is sympathetic to half-elves and half-orcs. Discrimination against them is mostly presented as an unkind and unjust thing that is done to them, by callous humans, elves, and orcs. Maybe you might ask, "why does that kind of racism have to exist in our fantasy setting," but I can see how someone with a pre-internet viewpoint might have difficulty imagining a world where it wouldn't.

And yet, half-orcs do actually, in the objective rules of the game, get a charisma and intelligence penalty. The abominable behavior of the humans who don't teach them to read isn't coming from nowhere. It's not purely in-character prejudice. And you have to take a step back and do the hard work of examining this honestly. I'm sure they didn't do it intentionally, but the mechanics and flavor tell a particular kind of story, and in this case the story was, "what if there was a world where racism was justified?"

Also, the orc-like Sharakim were "twisted into hideous caricatures of humanity by the evil they had committed" and cabals of Illumians, led by their elders, plot schemes from their hidden fortresses, manipulating their human dupes into self-destructive wars.

And look, I actually kind of liked the Illumians. Of the various new creatures in these Races of . . . books, they probably have the most going on. They were clearly meant, without malice, to be the "espionage guys." But it's probably for the best that they seem to have fallen down the memory hole, because, damn, they really said (paraphrased), "cabals of Illumians are responsible for all the world's wars."

Now that the post is nearing its end, and the time approaches for me to do a summation, I'm not sure I'm any closer to understanding this book than I was at the start. There were actually large stretches of the book that were completely inoffensive, and even inspired. The Illumians are humans who have physically and spiritually melded with a magical language, and with study and contemplation, they can utter an incantation with their final breath that will cause them to shed the dross of their physical form and transcend to a divine state. That's pretty neat. But it's also undeniable that there were parts that made me, a privileged white man, genuinely uncomfortable. Where do I draw the line? What are my values?

In the end, the answers don't really matter. The questions themselves are far too intense for a game as thoroughly silly as D&D tries to be.

Ukss Contribution: Why, oh why did I have to make my line for inclusion in Ukss "evil vs not-evil?" I don't want to be the arbiter of these things. Am I really going to sit here and say Races of Destiny is so harmful that it deserves to be banished from my sight?

On the other hand, am I then prepared to say that Races of Destiny is harmless enough to overlook its use of old racist tropes?

The answer to both questions is "no." I don't think it was malicious. I think it was careless. I've let worse books slide, but not without reservations. So consider this me officially registering my reservations.

With that said, my choice is the Final Seed, the member of an Illumian cabal chosen to live outside the stronghold, with a copy of the group's most important lore, in order to rebuild should the Illumians be destroyed by their enemies.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Illuminati: The Conspiracy

Where to get it: Dedicated website

For much of my time reading Illuminati: The Conspiracy (Stephen Esdale with contributions from Anders Sandberg) I was highly distracted by the question of when, exactly, this thing was written. It's clearly an ancient WoD fan supplement from the early days of the internet, but what was the exact date of its creation? 

I've narrowed it down to a four-year period - it must have been made after 1995, because it references the notoriously controversial Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand, but it must predate 1999, because it uses the word "magick," presents a version of the Storyteller rules that doesn't yet have Bashing damage, and just generally doesn't incorporate any of the reckoning metaplot. My gut says 1996 or 1997, because it also doesn't mention the Kuei-Jin, and I have a feeling that Kindred of the East would have made quite an impression on the "clued into White Wolf, internet early adopter, weird enough to write a fan supplement" crowd.

For the most part, me working out this puzzle was a matter of personal curiosity. I read the equipment section and was like, "oh, wow, this fiber optic camera records to a miniature video tape. . . wait, am I reading an artifact?" But I did also have another agenda - I needed to place this work into a particular time and context so I could better calibrate my reaction to it.

I don't like to draw too much attention to this, because I already have quite a lot on my plate, reading-wise, but I've made an open offer - if you made an rpg, and you want me to read it, all you have to do is send me a copy and I'll put it on the list. Partially, this is a marketing scheme (mweh, heh, heh, if I read an author's book, that will be at least one more person who will want to read my blog, driving up my readership count by at least 2 percent), but mostly it's because I've been led to believe that writing reviews (or whatever it is I do around here) is somehow useful to an author. It's my small way of supporting a medium that I love.

And I bring all that up because sometimes there's a conflict between my conscious goal (doing something helpful) and my integrity as a critic. Illuminati: The Conspiracy is one of those times. Like, if I were to whip out the claws and go full wicked witch mean reviewer mode, the cattiest comment I can make about this work is that it really feels like it was written by a teenager.

But if I ponder the likely publication date, I realize that at least 25 years have passed and it's entirely probable that it was written by a teenager. And I generally like it when teenagers write things. No shade at all towards amateurs being amateurs. It's one of the paradoxes of being a critic (I like to claim I'm a critic when I'm about to pontificate and deny I'm a critic when the label might imply a degree of responsibility) - the more broadly I experience polished professional work, the more I become able to appreciate the merits of unpolished amateur work. So on the off chance that this post falls through a time portal and reaches the young Stephen Esdale, my overall message is this: good job. There are some rough patches, but if you keep practicing, in a few years I think you could really make a go of it.

My message to current-day Stephen Esdale: Hey, your juvenilia made it to the current day without having anything too embarrassing in it - way to go. That's more than I can say for myself. I once wrote a WoD fan supplement, a few years after you did Illuminati: The Conspiracy and I would be mortified to learn that someone was reviewing it. It was super brave of you to let your friend make this request on your behalf. And, writer to writer, I'm going to keep those typos to myself. Believe me, I get it.

Enough preamble, though, what about the book itself? 

I am probably the wrong person to read it, because its central conceit is something that I don't exactly dislike but am reluctant to fully embrace - the badass normal.

The reason this bugs me is because it sits in a weird place where the basic idea is appealing - people with unearned, inborn talents can be surpassed by less talented individuals who are clever, determined, and hardworking. But if you extend the logic of that idea, it more or less implies that the powered individuals are lacking in those meritorious qualities. Batman has a contingency plan for dealing with Superman if he ever goes rogue, because Batman is brilliant, cautious, and willing to put the work in, and that plan is likely to work because Superman is dumb, careless, and lazy enough that his immense starting advantages are effectively cancelled out.

So for me, whether or not a "badass normal" plot works depends entirely on whether or not I'm properly primed for it. If the story prepares me to believe that the villains could be negligent or overconfident, then hell yeah, let's get that regular person in to show them what for! But if it's a character I would otherwise like, such as Superman, then it really just bums me out.

Illuminati: The Conspiracy is about a conspiracy of MUNDANES which out-conspiracies all of the World of Darkness' various conspiracies. And look, I'm not so all-in on the Technocracy and the Camarilla that I'm outraged that they could be beaten at their own game by mere mortals, but there is a certain transitive property of laziness going on. I've been playing Mage: the Ascension and Vampire: the Masquerade under the assumption that the antagonists have a certain degree of competence. To have the villains that have hitherto been so hard to defeat be unceremoniously manipulated by a weaker group runs the risk of trivializing the protagonists' struggles. I came into this book with a pre-existing investment in the lore and reading that, "Years ago, the Illuminati voted to allow the Technocracy freedom to create the Age of Reason" . . . well, it put me on the back foot.

I can, however, imagine a version of the World of Darkness where this might work. Perhaps one where the power and scope of the supernatural conspiracies has been dialed down, or alternatively, one where everything is pumped up 11 and the Illuminati become a parody of the WoD's tangled spaghetti ball of competing conspiracies. Neither of those are the precisely the WoD I'm used to, but it just goes to show - trying to set the various WoD in the same world is a mistake. If you're going to play Illuminati: the Conspiracy, your best bet is to start from scratch and incorporate the supernatural factions into its paradigm from the get go. Probably just remove the Technocracy from the equation entirely (seriously, the overlap is huge - the Illuminati even have their own Men in Black).

Overall, I can't say that this book was for me, but it did delight me to take this trip back in time (biggest nostalgia trip of the book - the crossover suggestions for the fan supplement: Highlander: the Quickening). I'm glad I got the chance to read it.

Ukss Contribution: "Queen" is a gender-neutral title. Not something you see a lot of in fiction.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of Stone

I'm in the awkward position where my opinion of Races of Stone (David Noonan, Jesse Decker, Michelle Lyons) is more or less the exact same as my opinion of Races of the Wild - it's a supplement with an ideal format, covering a subject I care little about. There are nuances I could go on about. Contra to halflings being in the book of the wild, it actually makes perfect sense to classify gnomes as a "race of stone." Goliaths have a better-drawn culture than the raptorans, so it makes sense that they're the only one of these new "Races of . . . " 3rd-stringers to return in subsequent editions. I didn't like that the extra monsters were "potential mounts" instead of "potential friends." (I probably wouldn't have noticed if I didn't read Races of the Wild first, but I did and now the omission is glaring, especially since this book includes rules for riding a Delver - a creature "more intelligent than the average human, and therefor riding and training one is a matter of Diplomacy checks rather than the use of Handle Animal" - sounds like a potential friend to me.)

But as much fun as they are to make, all my little "observations" add up to the same thing - this is a great book to have if you need more vanilla fantasy, and something that can be safely overlooked if you want literally anything else. It's also a good example of why I don't do numerical scores. I'd constantly be saying things like "10 out of 10, but you must burn it with fire." (Actually, that's my rating for Mage: the Ascension, for this book it's more like "8 out of 10 - only read it as part of a dare.")

I kid, though. I mostly enjoyed myself with this one. The only thing I'd directly count as a flaw is the NPC stat blocks. They are too long and contain too little a density of novel information. Each of the book's prestige classes comes with a sample NPC, and in roughly half of those, the NPC stats are longer than the class's description (this is especially funny when the NPC is high level and their stats contain brief summaries of all the prestige class's abilities). That didn't really bother me, though. For my particular use case, a D&D 3.5 stat-block is basically like the free square on a bingo card. If you ever have a secret you're afraid I'll discover, just put it in a 3.5 NPC and I'll be guaranteed never to find it.

Which brings me unceremoniously to the arbitrary thing I've decided I'm going to use this book as an excuse to talk about: gnomes.

They're a difficult creature type for me to talk about, because I kind of dig their whole vibe, but I also kind of hate that they're a separate thing from dwarves. And having both dwarves and gnomes in the same book really emphasizes the redundancies. They're both crafty, earth-themed short folks with beards and hardy constitution. There's distinctions between them, but none of those distinctions rise to a level that would necessitate an entirely new species. Using illusion magic? Talking to badgers? Enjoying practical jokes? Like, maybe there could just be an additional way for dwarves to be.

And I think WotC must have agreed with me, at least a little, because this book gives gnomes some new stuff to do. Unfortunately, much of that stuff is fucking ridiculous. "Really into the arts" isn't a cultural trait (let alone something that requires gnomes to be their own species). It's barely even a piece of information. You gotta have something to say about the specific arts they produce. Then there's the thing with gnomish technology, which the book is kind of diffident about ("Inventors are considered artisans, not scientists"). And I'm like, it's exactly that sort of genre-preserving cautiousness that has made me so skeptical of this whole "gnome" thing in the first place. Do you even want gnomes? Because no one's forcing you to have them (actually, who am I kidding, people complained up a storm when 4e delayed them to the second players' handbook).

But I think the weirdest thing this book does with gnomes is trying to sex them up. I can just about get on board with the idea that the goddess Sheyanna Flaxenhand "is said to be the ideal of gnome beauty" because, I can infer, logically, that such a thing must exist, but then the book goes on to say, "Gnomes joke that clerics of Sheyanna are trained extensively in the amorous arts," and my brain goes into stand-by mode. The book goes on to clarify that it's just a bit of ribald frippery, but it's too late. It's already planted the idea in my head. I am officially pondering the existence of a gnome sex academy, where "the most attractive gnomes in a given community" (canonically, Sheyanna's clerics) go to learn how to fuck good.

I swear, I'm not being weird. One of the adventure pitches is about a high-priced gnome assassin! How can there be high-priced gnome assassins if they aren't trying to imply that gnomes fuck now? It is objectively the sexiest possible profession!

Oh, you think this is funny? Keep laughing and I'll have no choice but to share with you the cursed knowledge. I'm not kidding. It's real, and you can't unknow it!

I see. Fine, but don't come to me later and say you weren't warned. Here it is:

You know what, WotC, I'm calling your bluff. I actually think this character is really cool, and plan on using her in a game. Maybe you could describe her for me, so I know how to explain her appearance to my friends? 

(Fun fact: while I was brainstorming this post, I considered a different version of the previous bit, where I just went full-on "men writing women" parody, and I decided against it because I didn't want the phrase "proportionately massive gnome gazongas, barely restrained by her dungeon-punk overalls" on my permanent record).

I was, of course, cherry-picking in service of a whimsical thesis. Despite "the bard race" becoming their thing, "the gnomes who fuck" are actually a pretty small part of the book. It's just that if you take that away from them, they don't have much left. Look at that Whisper Gnome art again. Now look at this art of Lidda, the signature halfing:

They are clearly the same person. Which is a problem, because it feels a lot like they're moving away from "gnomes are dwarves without the stick up the ass" into "gnomes are halflings . . . oh, were you expecting more?" There's still a mechanical reason to play as one, because they get some cool abilities that other races don't, even if I can't understand why their "speak with animals (burrowing only)" ability is only available for 1 minute per day (obviously, to prevent them from breaking the game with their badger alliances, but aside from that). However, there isn't really a compelling setting or lore explanation for why they need to exist, and Races of Stone noticeably flounders in trying to find one.

But like I said near the beginning - if you can accept that dwarves, gnomes, and goliaths should exist (and I can agree with at least 66% of this statement), then Races of Stone is pretty much the ideal way to learn about them.

Ukss Contribution: I don't normally subscribe to the notion of intelligent weapons. It's an idea that's kind of neat as a one-off, but the DMG gives it such a disproportionate amount of real-estate, with detailed mechanics that seem to imply that it happens all the time, and that really soured me on the concept. However, one of the Ancestor Weapons (intelligent weapons animated by the spirit of a dead dwarf) was so boldly designed that I'm compelled to stand up and applaud. I'll just quote its personality description in its entirety:

"In life Gharriakha was a dwarven defender and the weapon that contains her ashes shares her selfless, protective spirit. It is content to remain quiet and stay out of the spotlight, while offering all the help it can to its wielder. Generally, its only communications are the feelings of encouragement and support it sends its wielder."

I'm going to make a sweeping statement here, but I'll stand by it - this is absolutely the funniest personality a +4 dwarven defending waraxe could ever hope to have.

"You just critted that ogre and saved the caster! I'm so proud of you!"

"Don't worry about that miss. Everybody has off days. Just square up and try again. I believe in you"

Thanks, battleaxe. I haven't known you long, but I am already prepared to die for you. Putting you in Ukss is the least I can do.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Gatecrashing

In the course of researching this post (yes, sometimes I do research, though I usually take pains to make sure it doesn't show), I accidentally exposed myself to Roger Ebert's asinine opinions about video games. It really upset me and threw me off my usual rhythm. I think the thing that gets under my skin is that I otherwise hold a great deal of respect for the man. He was really good at what he did and left behind a body of work that (with certain notable exceptions) anyone should be proud of. On those days when I get tempted to think of myself as a literary critic, I am inevitably drawn back to earth by the sobering thought of comparing myself to people of his caliber. He was a lot better at this than I am, with a broad perspective borne of decades of experience, and it's a shame that his knowledge and experience gave him the ability to engage in the sort of high-grade sophistry that lesser intellects will struggle to refute.

I bring this up not because I want to pick a posthumous fight with one of the 20th century's great intellectual luminaries, but because getting these feelings off my chest helps me reset my emotional state. Now that I'm roughly back to the baseline, I can share the thought process that led me to google "are games art" in the first place:

I just read a book for a game, and I was planning to critique it as if it were art.

Okay, okay, smartass answers aside the real catalyst was Gatecrashing reminding me of a thought I had while I was still blogging about video games - that games were uniquely suited to presenting "setting-focused fiction."

It was a theory I never really developed, but the basic gist was that there's this way of thinking about fiction that boils down to "telling a story" and that puts video games in a weird place, because they can undeniably tell stories, but a lot of those stories are bad. I used to say that the only good video game stories were Borderlands 2 and Saints Row IV and that sounds like a joke, but it wasn't. I was just making the observation that most video game narratives fall apart if you include the stuff in-between the cut scenes as part of the story (cue: "bandits try to rob the Dragonborn" meme).

However, "telling a story" isn't actually a comprehensive (or even particularly enlightening) way to talk about fiction. Once you start exploring how to tell a story, you start to realize that the "story" part of telling a story is kind of optional. You ask yourself "does a psychological novel really need a plot" and the answer is "what do you mean by 'plot'?" It probably needs "events" that "happen," because humans are creatures that exist at a particular place and time, and thus are always at the mercy of happenstance, but the mere juxtaposition of events occurring sequentially in time (or separated in time, but united by a theme, possibly out of chronological order) does not, in itself, constitute a story. 

And that got me into a place where I started thinking about how I conceptualized fiction - perhaps it was more broadly a practice of curating an experience. A "story" might focus on plot, but if you could have a different type of fiction that focused on exploring a character, to the detriment of plot, maybe you could also have a third type of fiction, one that focused on exploring a setting.

(I know, I know, Tolkien and Herbert, but please stick with me here).

When I think about great video game experiences, I think of two things: 1) Tetris, and 2) the experience of being in a place. You take something like Bioshock and it has two or three great story beats, but what sticks with me, after all these years, is just the pure delight of exploring Rapture - its decaying art deco grandeur, its undersea gloominess, the oppressive miasma of unfathomable pressure without and sudden, frightful violence within. 

A couple of years ago, I went on a four day roadtrip, visiting the Painted Desert and the Getty Museum, driving up California Highway 1 from LA to San Francisco, and winding up in Sequoia National Forest. It was a life-changing experience that no fiction has ever come close to equaling, but Assassin's Creed: Odyssey has probably missed the mark the least. It's not that video games are only worthwhile for setting, or that only setting-rich games count as art, but rather that creating a setting and then giving it to an audience to explore is the thing that video games do better than any other medium.

Now, all of that was a long-winded introduction for me to eventually start talking about Gatecrashing, but there's a reason I got on this train of thought - we think of rpgs as "story games," but this book here resolutely refuses to tell complete stories. It introduces a dozen separate mysteries, but none of those mysteries have solutions. The reader has to make those up themselves. But it's still an intense artistic experience, because each of those mysteries is associated with a place.

That's something Eclipse Phase in general does very well. I talk about the game's "alotness" and make fun of things like Sunward including the Martian Time Zones, but I think you could make the argument that there's an artistic purpose to forcing me to read about the logistical preparations for exploring the far side of a stargate, or introducing four new gate-operating skills to compete for my limited points, or spending a half page each on the fiddly rules for survival equipment like the Faraday Armor or Bio Defense Unit. It's not always good game design and if I read this stuff in a novel, I'd probably send some ill-advised all-caps letter of complaint to the author, but they do contribute to the illusion of being in a place (I should also, at this point, apologize to those old-school modules for complaining about them spending so much time describing furniture - I get it now).

The only real question I'm left with after reading this book is whether the locations in Gatecrashing are, overall, a good fit for the Eclipse Phase setting as a whole. See, I love this kind of book, and I really enjoyed most of the specific things in this particular book, but I'm not entirely sold on gatecrashing (small "g") as an Eclipse Phase campaign model. The issue I have is that it takes focus away from the Solar system's transhuman politics and technology and it fails to put that focus back onto anything else. 

Rushing quicky through the context: At some point in the future, humanity builds military AIs with the capacity for exponential self-improvement. Those AIs start scanning and the Solar System and use their super-intelligence to figure out the subtle clues that lead them to an alien communication. Except, the reason the clues were so subtle in the first place was to act as a snare for super-intelligence. The communication is a multi-vector virus from an impossibly advanced species that corrupts the AIs and turns them against their creators. Those AIs kill 90-95% of all human beings and then mysteriously disappear. After that, the surviving people discover five Pandora Gates, which allow for interstellar travel, using advanced technology that violates their (and our) current understanding of the laws of physics. This book is all about using those gates, and what players might expect to find on the other side.

Which is all very well and good, except it doesn't really do anything with that context. The locations, by and large, would not be out of place in Trinity Continuum: Aeon (and, in fact the giant psychic fungus organisms that are each the size of a large forest reminded me greatly of Trinity's myriasoma) or one of the filler episodes of Star Trek. The characters in the setting believe the gates are the means by which the TITANs fled the Solar System. Those who read the GM's section of the core have reason to think they were made by a hostile, galaxy-spanning Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Neither of those threats directly appears anywhere in this book (not even the out-of-character GM's section).

I think the game's creators might be overestimating the mileage they can get out of nameless dread. Transhumanity is tinkering with a mystery of deep time, one which operates on principles they can't even begin to understand, but it mostly turns out okay. Going through the Door Last Used By the Things That Almost Killed Us is proving to be the right choice . . . for now. But when the book wants to make a point about humanity's reckless hubris, it really makes that "for now" do a lot of heavy lifting.

Maybe this is just a reader's problem, though. The book is inviting me to be a co-author of the setting, and if I were to GM a game of Eclipse Phase, I could put whatever I want on the other side of the gates, so my frustration at not having definitive answers to the mysteries is in part because I'm not using the book in its intended fashion. However, I could also counter that it's putting a lot of unnecessary work onto me, and that I'm not getting enough support to run the most obvious gatecrashing stories. If I'm not learning about the ETI's other victims or the fate of the TITANs, if I am, in fact, just doing more stories about the conflict between the outer system anarchists and the inner system hypercapitalists, I'd just as soon set those stories on a more-detailed Mars.

Overall, I'm going to call this book, "maybe a good start." Maybe.

Ukss Contribution: One of the gates is controlled by the anarchists of the Love and Rage Collective. We don't learn much about them here, but it's a great name, so I'm yoinking it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of the Wild

Oh, man, 21 days since my last post. I know it's irrational, but I'm embarrassed by that. Some days I look at my overall mission and think, "approximately 400 books at an average of 2 and a half days per book, I could get done in another 3 years," and then other days I'm like, "more than 400 books at more than three weeks per book, I could get done in another never." I want to finish, but it can be hard sometimes to have faith that it's even possible.

It doesn't help that November was a hard month for me, re: depression. None of the things I normally find enjoyable were even the slightest bit tempting (if I'm embarrassed by my lack of blog progress, I'm mortified by how little work I've done on Ukss d20 . . . or at least, I would be if anyone besides me was expecting it to happen).

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not disclosing all this because I feel like I owe anyone an explanation. I'm not sitting here imagining that there's someone out there getting steadily more frustrated by the thought that I'm laying around wasting time when I could be working on cranking out another half-assed blog post about a decades-old rpg supplement. I'm telling you all this because it turns out that suffering a depressive episode really fucks with my normal process, in ways that extend beyond the obvious.

Normally, when I start writing these things by staring at a blank page while thinking about my overall experience of reading the books, paying particular attention to any lingering questions or unresolved issues. That's why I can sometimes seem to be strangely hard on the books I like the most - because the thing that makes me love a book is its potential for firing up my brain and putting it into question mode. 

I can't really do that with Races of the Wild (Skip Williams) because my predominate experience for the last three weeks has mostly been being pretty sad and my most frequent question while reading it was, "why can I not bring myself to concentrate on this for more than five damned minutes at a stretch?" And neither of those things is fair to lay at the feet of the book. If I look back at my notes and try my best to approach them through a stance of objectivity, I actually kind of have to conclude that Races of the Wild is a near-ideal rpg supplement.

I might quibble with the notion that halflings are "of the wild," but if you put a pin in the appropriateness of the overall theme and just take it as a book about elves, halflings, and raptorans (you may recognize this last one as a birdfolk species that was invented especially for this book and then subsequently never mentioned by anyone ever again), it has everything I could possibly want. Every chapter starts with "a day in the life" of a member of that species, which is a type of worldbuilding that I absolutely love. They talk about childhood education, customs surrounding love and death and war, and they even describe the clothes!

(I always put an exclamation point on the clothes thing not because I'm super into fashion, but because in the real world clothes are so culturally specific, and so indicative of things like chains of production, environmentally available materials, and patterns of trade that describing them is an extremely efficient way of saying a lot about how your world works while also giving readers something concrete to imagine. The next best thing is cuisine.)

I do wonder a little about the book's overall utility. As delightful as the worldbuilding was, it's all very much "corebook implied setting." The elves are super elfy, in that particular D&D way where they're not really fey, but they are ren-faire cosplay fey - pretty and skilled and long-lived, but not fundamentally inhuman. In an rpg, the primary use of worldbuilding is to help a player come up with a more well-rounded depiction of a character, but I'm pretty sure players were already roleplaying their characters like that.

So it seems like the book's primary use (aside from the new prestige classes, feats, etc, which are nice to have but not actually as good as the pure setting stuff) is to give D&D lore nerds something to geek out over, and this is where my depression really fucks with me because my knee-jerk reaction to more "D&D implied setting" lore is "who the hell cares?" And I can recognize that as the depression talking, but if I'm being totally honest, it's not purely the depression talking.

Oh, how I wish I was young again. That's what my aversion to vanilla D&D is really about. I get bored with it because I've seen it a million times before, but that wasn't always the case. There was a time when it was all new to me and I fell into it in a big way. Nostalgia time:

I actually wrote my first rpg before I read my first rpg. Strange, but true. When I was about 10 years old, I was allowed to sit in on a session of D&D being run by one of my stepfather's friends. I played a half-elf wizard, despite not really understanding the rules or the setting, and I was immediately enchanted. We were pretty poor in those days, enough that spending the money on a corebook of my own was unthinkable, so I tried to reverse engineer the experience, based on what I remembered from that one session, the rules of the Hero Quest board game, and what I gathered from fantasy books like The Hobbit.

It was, obviously, awful, but it was a creative outlet and over time I had a dozen spiral notebooks filled with maps, character types, monsters, and statistically dubious random encounter tables. Sadly, those notebooks have been lost to time, and are probably rotting away in a landfill somewhere, but they were definitely the start of something. As time went on, our circumstances improved, I finally got my own Player's Handbook, and over the years I assembled a collection one birthday and Christmas at a time. 

The point of this digression is that, in the beginning, I was super into vanilla D&D. I absolutely devoured everything that even remotely resembled the implied setting lore. I read the Dragonlance Chronicles multiple times (there is nothing on this earth better than a library). If you had sent Races of the Wild through a time portal back to 12-year-old me, it would have blown my fucking mind. But I got older, my perspective broadened, I learned new things, and vanilla D&D started to feel like it was frozen in time. It didn't really grow alongside me. For awhile, I got into Dark Sun and Planescape and those each seemed like a breath of fresh air, but I didn't start with those until 1997 or 1998, and by that time TSR was already a moribund company.

So I ask myself again, in reference to Races of the Wild, "who the hell cares," and I have to realize that lots of people are going to care. Young me would have cared. People coming in to D&D fresh in 2005 would have cared. I may cast my jaded eye at this book and think, "oh, wow, those elves sure do seem like elves" or "I guess the halflings' transition from hobbit to kender is now mostly complete," but people don't start off knowing this sort of thing. The way you learn that a particular elf is notably elf-like is by reading about elves, by reading books like this. And if I think about Races of the Wild in terms of "books like this," then it is, in fact, a really good "book like this." Someone new to the world of vanilla D&D would be lucky to have it as a starting point.

Ukss Contribution: My favorite line in the book is at the start of the monster section. The introductory paragraph describes the upcoming creatures as "potential friends." It's a little bit undercut by the first such potential friend being described as a creature the halflings slaughter for meat (I guess it was potentially a friend or potentially a meal), but I kind of love that as a framing for an rpg bestiary. You hear me WotC? Do a whole book of "potential friends," you cowards!

But that's not really a setting element. I only bring it up because the primary purpose of this section is to single out specific things I admire about the book, and that's the thing I admire most. As far as setting elements are concerned, my favorite was probably the halflings' passive aggressive prayers to Yondalla. "A prayer for healing might begin 'I am in such fine health, yet . . ." and a prayer for intercession might begin 'a minor annoyance has been visited upon me. . . '"

It's super funny, it makes me want a whole book about Yondalla-ism, and I think it would be a really fun bit of texture for some as yet to be fleshed-out fantasy religion.

Monday, November 6, 2023

(Shadowrun) Harlequin's Back

I definitely have feelings about Harlequin's Back. I wrote multiple beginnings to this post, all sarcastically proclaiming my enthusiasm for the return of Harlequin, and after each one, I'd look back and think to myself - wait, am I really not excited at all to see Harlequin again? And in each case, the answer would be the same: "uuummmmmmmmmm . . . "

I guess I kind of like Harlequin . . . in theory. Which is aggressively faint praise, I know. But I am feeling strong emotions here. It's not one of those cases where I've got neutral feelings about something bland or outside of my experience. I'm not out here opining about baseball's designated hitter rule. I am not just ambivalent, I am powerfully ambivalent.

The issue with Harlequin is that he's potentially a very good character, but from a GMing perspective, he's got a high degree of difficulty. The players going, "I hate that fucking guy" is not just a failure state, it's the likeliest possible outcome. The second-likeliest outcome? Unfathomable levels of sheer cringe.

Here's how the book recommends I depict him: "A high-strung, sarcastic comedian on a verbal tear." Not included: even the slightest recommendation for how to actually fucking do that. 

I get the appeal from a writerly perspective. It's the beginning of an epic quest, the fate of the world is at stake, and you've got a mentor/questgiver-type character who's the closest anyone in the story ever gets to seeing the whole picture. Normally, these sorts of scenes are ponderous and staid, with big, important speeches and admonitions about the absolute seriousness of the task at hand.  So it's theoretically pretty fun to have a character who takes the opposite approach. This whole thing is deadly serious, but the person who's telling you about it doesn't seem to be taking it seriously. It's not just whimsy for the sake of whimsy, it's a deliberate subversion of a stock fantasy character.

And I do have to cut FASA some slack here. 1994 was a long time ago. The fact that this particular kind of subversion has, itself, become old hat is not something that I can lay at the feet of the book. I don't have enough of a pop-culture memory to say for sure whether it felt fresh at the time, but I can certainly grant it the grace of accepting it on its own terms.

However, as much as "the heroes are told about the imminent apocalypse by a weird clown" might be an audacious choice for a book or a movie, the medium in question here is a roleplaying game and so it's not just a genre parody - it's an improv challenge.

Here's the test to see if you can successfully portray Harlequin. Say the following quote out loud:

"When Fate taps you on the shoulder, you'd best pay attention. Unfortunately, she has the blasted habit of tapping you on the opposite shoulder, so that when you turn around she's actually on your other side, giggling like a deranged schoolgirl. I hate that."

How did that feel? Natural? Like you're just being the funny trickster mentor, imparting your hard-won life experience in the form of a humorously over-extended metaphor?

Personally, I think it's a writer's line. We get that way sometimes, valuing cleverness over a strict adherence to realistically depicting speech. It's emblematic of Harlequin, though. He's definitely a writer's character.

The question I'm left with, regarding Harlequin's Back is whether that counts as a fatal weakness. It's hard to say, because for all that he can sometimes be an insufferable character, he's also the most interesting thing about the story.

The basic plot of the adventure is that it teases a potential Earthdawn crossover. Because of metaplot nonsense, the Horrors are threatening to breach our reality many hundreds of years ahead of schedule, resulting in widespread death and destruction as an unprepared Earth is invaded by millions of terrifying magical beings. Some poorly-explained cosmic force has assembled a team consisting of Harlequin, his kidnapping-victim-turned protege, Jane Foster, and the player characters for a quest into the deepest reaches of the astral plane, to gather the several ingredients necessary to close the pathway into our world.

On a practical level, this takes the form of a series of short alternate-universe adventures, where the PCs must solve a problem in a different genre of game (post-apocalyptic, western, Arthurian romance, etc) in order to be rewarded with the thing they need to advance the plot. Technically, Harlequin only shows up at the bookends, to tell the PCs what's going on and to cast the magic ritual they gathered the parts for, but in each of the alternate universes, there just happens to be a guy who looks a lot like Harlequin, undergoing a challenge that is representative of the real Harlequin's past and of the conflicts inside him.

As the introduction puts it, "the overall Astral quest is in many ways Harlequin's journey . . . players can do little except observe the battle in Harlequin's psyche." 

The two halves of that quote are separated by, like, 3 pages, but I put them together in a single thought because they really do capture something essential about the adventure - it really does work better as a story when the world-saving stuff is in the background and your attention is focused on getting to better know this weird clown. He's an immortal sorcerer, who used to be a knight and a hero, until the grief of accumulated tragedy and failure, and the sheer weight of years brought him low. His cynical goofball persona hides a deep sadness and tarnished honor, and there may yet be one last noble quest inside him.

The tension inside Harlequin's Back is between the desire to effectively use its title character and the basic rpg reality that the players are the story's true protagonists. As a result, it really seems to meander at times, and it never really lands the moments it needs to land, giving it a weird theme-park vibe when it clearly has the ambition to be something more.

Funnily enough, I think the real culprit behind the weaknesses of Harlequin's Back is not Harlequin, but rather the fact that he's back. The adventure would probably work best if Harlequin has been a part of the game for a long time. If he's a recurring mentor or employer (or even an antagonist), then the dynamic changes from the PCs tagging along on someone else's quest to the PCs doing a quest and being rewarded with lore as a form of loot. You really want to wait to run Harlequin's Back until the PCs start asking, unprompted, "what's the deal with that weird clown."

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to go abstract with this one. I'm not super fond of Harlequin, but I did like his overall arc - a burnt-out immortal who has forgotten how much he has to offer or even how to care about how far he's fallen. I think I could make a compelling NPC with a similar story.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of the Dragon

Now, at last, I get to utter the phrase that's been at the back of my mind, as a dream of pure hubris, since I started reading Dragon Magic: "I want MOAR DRAGON!"

It's not that Races of the Dragon (Gwendolyn FM Kestrel, Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, Kolja Raven Liquette) is really lacking in that regard, just that, by its very nature, it's a book about creatures that are definitely not dragons. I mean, technically, so is the rest of the Races of . . . series, but this book especially takes pains to remind you. Kobolds claim to be descended from dragons, and maybe they are, but that's not what's interesting about them, what's interesting about them is their Koboldness.

And granted, one particularly interesting part of their Koboldness is that they are apparently responsible for filling the hoards of random dragons by compulsively mining precious metals and then casting them into special commemorative coins that are not legal tender in any sovereign state, but which bear the likeness of the specific dragon the kobolds are trying to ingratiate themselves to, but even with that bit of trivia, there's more to the species than that.

Which maybe makes it sound like I'm asking for less dragon, but honestly it's more that I wish the kobolds were in a book that had a different overarching theme. The kobolds have to be made more dragon, to justify their inclusion in this book, but aside from the hoard thing, they aren't actually made dragon enough. They hold grudges, they like traps and alchemy, and they are all-around better mascot characters than their arch-rivals, the gnomes and they kind of deserve to be in a game that doesn't have racial alignments (although, if the chart in the "Campaigns" chapter is to be believed, one in ten kobold settlements has a "good" alignment). The contrast between the grandeur of the dragons and the scrappy underdog nature of the kobolds is a joke with a really short half-life.

So, I'm in this awkward position where the kobolds are the best part of the book, I enjoyed reading about them, but I do not agree that they should count as a "race of the dragon." Which just leaves us with the dragonborn, the spellscales, and the dragon-descended, which are plausibly "races of the dragon," but which aren't as interesting as dragons themselves.

In fact, they're universally kind of . . . sigh. It's like they're trying to borrow the glamor and majesty of dragons, but completely miss the point. Take the dragonborn. They're fanatics who worship Bahamut and are waging an eternal war against evil dragons, which might be an interesting hook for a species of dragon-people . . . except they're not a species. The dragonborn are just humanoids who undergo a magical ritual to become dragon-like in a way that translates to a lateral move in power. Being dragonborn has certain advantages, but they're balanced against the typical PC race advantages and in order to become a dragonborn, you have to give up your racial advantages. So they're basically just a bunch of people who put on dragon costumes in order to fight dragons. It's weird.

And spellscales? They're nothing. Just literally no point to the entire character type. There's this bad habit that used to be endemic to d20 race descriptions where they'd just tell you about one really specific character and be like, "imagine a whole society filled with that guy," and then you'd have to rely on 20 years worth of deconstructions, remixes, parodies, and forum arguments to establish that no, there actually is a second dwarf personality, but you can read through the spellscale sections in complete confidence that no one is ever going to do that because the one guy they chose to depict isn't cool enough to anchor a brand. That's spellscales. Sorcerers, in D&D lore, claim descent from dragons, so imagine a guy whose parents were such big sorcerers that he was born with dragon scales. He really plays up the hurtful "trust fund magic" stereotype that sometimes clings to sorcerers, but this time with an over-the-top wardrobe (a cloak made of pegasus feathers) and the worst kind of chaotic neutral "let's spin the wheel to determine my loyalties for the day" personality. 

Literal roleplaying advice for this character: "Most of the time, don’t offer apologies. If one is demanded of you, be very specific about what you’re sorry about. Don’t apologize for what you did; apologize for unforeseen or unwanted consequences."

Show of hands who wants this guy at their table? Anyone?

The dragon-descended also fail to find a niche. They're plagued by two problems. The first is that 3.5's level adjustment rules make them nearly unplayable (something that is discussed at length in the text, so it's not like they didn't know). The second is that half-dragons have this really grim "abandoned by their dragon parent, outcast from their other parent's society" narrative that attaches to them, which really goes to undercut the fact that most people want to play them because they are metal as fuck. I just want to play a cool dragon man with sick-ass wings and the ability to breathe fire, he doesn't need a tragic backstory, WotC.

That goal is reachable with the right feats and prestige classes, so it's not as if this book is entirely out of pocket, but it was also kind of achievable in Draconomicon, so what am I even doing here?

A lot of these 3.5 books task me, because the great thing about them is the way they can act as a clearinghouse for ideas, and I don't need a 100% hit rate for that to be worthwhile to me. And yet, sometimes it can be frustrating to read ideas that I know aren't going to pan out. My main take away from Races of the Dragon is that I'm really interested in reading a kobold-focused supplement that treats them as protagonist-ready demihumans.

Ukss Contribution: The Dragon Devotee prestige class had a line that really leapt out at me: "You love to speak Draconic and to talk about dragons with others who likewise admire this most noble of creatures." And on the one hand, this is just WotC doing the "overly-specific character" thing again, but on the other hand, I get it. Unlike the Single Spellscale Character, I could picture using this person in a game - someone who is just super-obsessed with how cool dragons are and takes any opportunity to rattle off dragon facts, even in socially inappropriate contexts. I'd be tempted to learn the names of the dragons' bones, just so I could properly roleplay this character (I may, in fact, already be this character, but with rpgs). So Ukss will have a dragon devotee.

Friday, October 20, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Sunward

Oh, man . . . intricate, meticulous worldbuilding . . . that's the good stuff. The authors of Sunward even thought about the Martian time zones. I didn't want to read about the Martian time zones. I am (resolutely, defiantly) never going to use the stuff about the Martian time zones. But I like that they thought about it. That's the dream of rpgs - that you can disappear into another world. If I visited Mars, I'd definitely be like, "um, how do I set my clock?"

Of course, I can never quite achieve this vaunted state of immersion, even when I know things like the Martian times zones or the name of a dragon's bones. If anything, I find that kind of detail distracting in practice. Lucky for me, Sunward also has a bunch of the sort of details I can use - balloon cities in the upper atmosphere of Venus, dusty railroads connecting the isolated homesteads of Martian terraformers, just absolutely and utterly improbable magnetic whales living in the Sun's Chromosphere.

Then there are the details I don't think I should use. The book has two separate female characters who were high status professionals before the apocalypse, lost their bodies to killer robots, and then had AI emulations of their consciousness forced into sex slavery. Coincidence? I mean, yeah, probably. The likely explanation is that this book has eight credited authors and whoever wrote that one part of the Mars chapter didn't know what was going to be in the opening fiction. But if this were a coherent work by a single individual, I'd strongly suspect that someone had issues with powerful women.

And, honestly, that's kind of on the shallow end when it comes to the parts of this book that make me uncomfortable. There's a city on Venus, Parvati, that is somehow all about sex work and it has a notorious black market where people can arrange sex crimes for hire. 

It's an issue I've danced around before. You want a villain? Villains do bad things. You want a world that needs to be saved? It's probably going to be pretty dark. Eclipse Phase is remarkable for just nakedly presenting the sci-fi anarchists as heroes, and their natural foil is a capitalist hellscape.

So where's my line? Indentured servitude is basically indistinguishable from slavery. That makes sense. And it's not surprising that a society that's okay with slavery would move on to the sexual exploitation of its victims. And the fact that this is not enough to satisfy the most depraved appetites of the ruling classes is well observed. There's an undeniable logic. But do I actually want to tell that kind of story?

I honestly think there's a kind of bias at work here. All eight of the authors have white-male-sounding names, and for all the radicalism of the book's politics, it's got kind of a detached voice when it comes to some of the most serious issues. Like, they're concerned with the intellectual puzzle of atrocity as a world-building element, but it doesn't occur to them that they're telling a story that should disgust people or piss them off. You've set up a group of people with particular motives and particular resources and realistically they should be stone-cold terrible. . . thus Parvati.

But it's not an approach that necessarily works very well. Early on, there's a line, discussing the desperate evacuation of Earth as it came under attack by killer robots: 

"Some countries were too poor or too low on the totem pole to get their people to safety - just take a look at the criminally small percentage of African nationals who made it off Earth, compared to their percentage of the pre-Fall population. Some would call that defacto ethnic cleansing."

Oh, come on. The only people who would call it that are those who know what "defacto" and "ethnic cleansing" mean. And, honestly, the only real contentious part of that description is the "defacto." This is a setting with multiple space elevators. You know, the things that have to be built near the equator and are a centerpiece of the proto-post-scarcity economic infrastructure. And with that in mind, tell me again how few Africans were able to get into space.

As an intellectual puzzle, it's distressingly easy to solve - the inflexible engineering requirement that space elevators be equatorial did not result in a new wave of African prosperity and African refugees being in an optimum position to escape Earth because the colonialist nature of the global order did not fundamentally change between the real world's present and the game's vaguely-positioned future. The Europeans stole Africa's centripetal force just like they stole its mineral resources.

Again, there's no rule saying you can't make a dark world where fucked-up shit happens, but there is kind of a rule that if dark, fucked-up shit happens in your work of fiction, you need to take pains to communicate that you understand how dark and fucked-up it is. Not necessarily in a heavy-handed disclaimer or direct, moralizing speech by the protagonist, but at least in the way that characters react to it. Maybe the word "criminal" in your description isn't a platitude. Maybe there are some African characters who are mad as hell about it. Maybe they have some goal or agenda that would make for an interesting adventure or location.

Spoiler alert: these Africans never show up. Indeed, the whole situation is not mentioned again. So, what we've got is a backstory where the people of Africa were defacto ethnically cleansed, and that's why there are so few of them around, leading to the actual, literal game Eclipse Phase being defacto ethnically cleansed of African characters.

Writing tip: if you establish "these people were almost wiped out," then that's something that calls for more of those people to be in your story, not less. Because you're not going to conceive of any use for that information more interesting than exploring the people's reaction to almost being wiped out.

I'm certain that it's just carelessness, rather than malice. but that's the nasty thing about bias. It sneaks up on you. The reason we don't get an African legacy reclamation faction is because grappling with cultural identity in a post-apocalyptic context, where the physical destruction of your homeland means your culture can never truly be what it was before is not what the game is interested in. What the game is interested in is . . . Martian time zones?

Or, more broadly, the physical and social challenges created by having transhuman post-scarcity technology and living in space. We learn about the Martian time zones because the specific sort of fun we're aiming for is the kind that comes from imagining what it would be like to live on another planet. We need to save our brain space for the knowledge that oxygen is a buoyant gas on Venus and so it might be possible to live safely inside a giant sapphire balloon. In contrast, "The Venusian balloon people still have an entirely justifiable grudge against the European Union, for its deplorable conduct in seizing military control over Kenya's space elevator and denying access to the locals even as fleeing the planet came to be a matter of life and death . . ." is actually a pretty good idea for a story. I have no idea where I was going with that.

Ultimately, I blame the TITANs. They are consistently the game's weakest element. They're the explanation for why the game is set in space and not on Earth, but having completed that job, they don't do much more than suck the oxygen out of the room (metaphorically). They are too urgent and intractable a threat, and thus they're The Guys You're Obviously Meant to Fight, even when you've already got other antagonist factions that are clearly in desperate need of a punch to the face.

The corporations on Mars deliberately introduced flaws into the genetic code of the bioengineered bodies of their workers, so that the workers would have to continuously pay a subscription fee for the privilege of not getting needlessly sick. And there's a fucking Titan Quarantine Zone on the very same planet. So when we take a tour of the various Martian settlements and learn about their security forces, what we mostly see is an assessment of their ability to handle an outbreak from the TQZ, and only intermittently do we learn what they'd be like as opponents in a cyberpunk story.

Overall, I'd say that Sunward was a pretty good read. I have my nitpicks and concerns, but it is a richly-detailed science-fiction universe, one that I am pretty happy to explore.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked the Venusian balloon cities, but that concept has too much overlap with the Aetherian floating continents. I'm not sure I could make it work. I will go with the idea of a ruling class that exploits its workers by deliberately giving them a treatable, but incurable disease.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Draconomicon

One of the hazards I should have come to expect in the course of this project of mine is frequent lessons in the nature of hubris. Yet somehow, it always catches me by surprise. I'll finish a book like Dragon Magic and think, "that had slightly too much dragon, but maybe it's not so bad to want ALL THE DRAGON!" And that idea will sit and stew in my head for a few days, and I'll gradually come around to agreement. "Yes," I say, "please give me all the dragon." Then, I'll pick up Draconomicon (Andy Collins, Skip Williams, James Wyatt) and it will say "Oh, you want all the dragon, do you? Prepare to learn the names of their fictional bones!!!"

Okay, Draconomicon, well played. The next D&D book on my list is Races of the Dragon, and when I go into that, I'll be hoping that it doesn't have too much dragon. I have been humbled.

(For now, mwa, ha, ha. . . )

Anyway, absurd complaints about there being too much dragon information in the dragon book aside, Draconomicon was a really fun read. I did sometimes get the feeling that WotC's behind the scenes must have resembled the Key and Peele Gremlins 2 sketch ("let's go around the table and have everyone design a dragon"), but since that sketch is absolutely adorable, that's not really a downside. Whatever the real process was, it gave us the punk-rock-looking Howling Dragon:

So, obviously, they're doing something right. The main strike against the book, other than the fact that they didn't follow up on the Howling Dragon's amazing art by ditching the original concept and just devoting a whole book to making one unique dragon for each sub-genre of rock and roll, is that dragons themselves are not mechanically diverse enough to warrant dozens of separate monster entries. At some point, someone should have realized that the twelve age categories with their increasing stats, long lists of spell-like abilities, and standard draconic chassis could have just been abstracted into a modular "create a dragon" system. 

The temptation is to call out the dozens of dragon types for being unimaginative reskins of the same basic creature, but I think the essential problem is quite the opposite. Dragons are the quintessential "this monster actually has a personality and backstory" creature type, and that's something that's best served by making each and every one unique. There are a lot of designs in this book that I really love (the howling dragon, the cloud-like storm drake, the craggy mountain landwyrm, the goth-industrial Tarterian dragon), but there's not a one of those that I'd want to put two of into the same campaign.

It's a dilemma that's eloquently demonstrated in the book's final chapter. It gives us one specific dragon in each of the twelve age categories for each of the ten basic types and the hit rate is high enough that we get a lot of decent new NPCs, but there is an undeniable redundancy going on. For crying out loud, there's a gold dragon and a red dragon that share about 90% of the same backstory (orphaned after their parents were killed by ideological foes, now dedicated to taking down their parents' enemies, though obviously this is framed differently in terms of alignment).

But it's unfair to act like this is specifically a problem with Draconomicon. It's actually baked directly into Dungeons and Dragons' overall monster design philosophy. Everything is a member of a species. You don't fight Medusa or the Minotaur, you fight a medusa or a minotaur. There are, occasionally, unique enemies - Orcus gets his own stat block - but by and large, monsters are treated as just another kind of animal.

Even when they shouldn't be. Something I will lay at the feet of Draconomicon is its continuation of WotC's deeply misguided "dragon encounters at every challenge rating" philosophy. The Introduction waxes poetic about "the tiny wyrmling at the bottom of an adventurer's very first dungeon," so let's just flip ahead to the anatomy and life-cycle chapter (skimming lightly, lest we accidentally learn the names of the dragons' fictional bones) to see exactly how a "wyrmling" is defined. . .

0-5 years?! As in a fucking literal infant?!

Dragons are intelligent creatures, capable of articulate speech. Which means they are, by definition, people. And their babies are, by extension, baby people. Sure, they've got claws and scales and deadly breath weapons, so they're not exactly as helpless as a baby human, but c'mon, they're at most five years old. No matter how you frame it, killing one is morally reprehensible.

Party Paladin: "Oh, no, that baby got their hands on a military-grade flame-thrower! Do you know what that means?"

Rest of the Party (in unison): "At-level XP!"

It's deeply unsettling, even before we get to the part about raising a dragon as a mount, where it crosses the line into just plain creepy (tip: if, at some point, you are going to have to teach them to read, you have crossed the line from "taming a steed" to "adopting a child" - that's not your pet, it's your son.)

It's a relatively small part of the book, but I just can't get over it. The Dracolyte prestige class (credit where credit's due: great name) gets a class feature at level 5 called "Foster Dragon." In the words of the book, they are "entrusted with the care of a wyrmling dragon."

And look, it's a full-caster class, so maybe it does need that kind of nerf . . . wait, is it intended as a power boost? ("the wyrmling dragon follows the dracolyte loyally, and will even accompany him on adventures")

So help me, if anything happens to that poor, innocent creature, finding an atonement spell is going to be the least of your worries. 

Also, let's take a beat to savor how fucked up it is that D&D has an atonement spell.

Although, all this talk about the atonement spell and dragon babies does threaten to get me onto the subject of one of my perennial D&D complaints: the awfulness of the alignment system and, in this particular context, the way it flattens the dragon types and makes them less interesting, but I don't really have anything new to say about that. I can't really blame this book for not solving the problem, but also, it's really weird that we were still dealing with it as late as 2003.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Maybe it had a little too much dragon, but I have no doubt that I will once more be overcome with the hubris to ask for more.

Ukss Contribution: The psychology of silver dragons really fascinates me. They're dragons, but they prefer to take humanoid form. In these forms, they fight evil, generally with zeal, but also less effectively than they would as a badass dragon. I'm not really keen on "dragon types," so I probably won't go with a whole species of silver dragons, but I think a single paladin-like character with a typical silver dragon background would make for a very interesting NPC.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

(Shadowrun) Harlequin

My path to the ownership of Harlequin is kind of a twisty one. It was the early 2000s, my only real experience with rpgs was AD&D, and though I'd been enthusiastic about the transition between 2nd edition and 3rd edition, it hadn't really broken through my head yet that other rpgs would have editions as well (it's how I wound up buying the Book of Shadows for Mage: the Ascension, despite owning the revised core). So I'd just started getting into Shadowrun, owned the 3rd edition core, and was looking to expand my collection. Cue the not-so-friendly local hobby shop near my college, the one where I got my ridiculously discounted copy of the Spelljammer boxed set. They'd always have an eclectic, if underwhelming selection of random rpg material, priced cheaply but with a clear indifference to curating any sort of coherent rpg inventory. One day, I go in and I see a Shadowrun supplement - Harlequin's Back. Who's Harlequin? Why is he back? Where did he go that he needed to come back from?  What is this Shadowrun thing all about anyway? Neither I nor the shop owner could say, but the book was only a couple of bucks so I bought it.

Fast forward a couple of decades. I'd just finished getting a complete Mage: the Ascension collection and it gave me all sorts of wild and untenable ideas - what would be next? It turned out to be the Aeonverse, but there was a point where I was making good progress towards Earthdawn and I thought, "why not Shadowrun after that?" And though, subsequently, good sense prevailed and I stopped myself from chasing after a complete Shadowrun collection, it was only after I snagged a few volumes that I hoped might answer some lingering metaplot questions. Numbering among those questions "Harlequin?" And thus I bought the book Harlequin, almost twenty years after I last read Harlequin's Back.

I'll let the "Running Harlequin" section at the end of the book summarize what I gained from the experience, "Even the gamemaster does not see or know the big picture. Ehran and Harlequin's dance of blood and vengeance is the secret, master story while the storyline involving the runners is only an offshoot of that deeper plot. The gamemaster knows only enough of the storyline to interweave a number of adventures, gradually letting their surface plot become revealed. About all that he [sic] and the player characters can do is make educated guesses about the master story, based on the little information they can obtain . . ."

DAMN YOU FASA!!! ::shaking fist::

Oh, and I guess I also learned that the Harlequin who died in an example on page 87 of the 1st edition corebook is a different guy from the Harlequin, which I kind of figured already, though it's funny that they went through the trouble to confirm this canonically. Was the character of Harlequin inspired by that example, and subsequently made distinct or was he independently invented and then, before the book was finalized, someone pointed out that there was already a guy almost exactly like that, but he died, and so they had to clarify that it wasn't the same person.  The other possibility is that they are in fact the same guy, but that Harlequin is such a tricky fellow that sometimes he appears to be dead when he's not. Presumably, this option was discussed behind the scenes and dismissed, in favor of preserving the objective voice of the mechanical example sidebars.

Which leaves only one last lingering question: did corebook Harlequin really die from a run-of-the-mill summoning accident or was he murdered? Because one thing we've definitely learned about the famous Harlequin, from the Harlequin adventure, is that he is entirely petty enough to arrange for a trademark-infringing wannabe to suffer an "accident." 

Justice for Harlequin 2! The people demand answers!

Anyway, I should probably focus on this book here. It's . . . 

It's . . . 


I guess Shadowrun, overall, likes to tell a particular story - professional criminals accept money to commit crimes for mysterious employers - and that's basically what this book is. The players are offered money to commit a series of crimes, and these crimes are connected by the fact that they're all for the same mysterious employer.

Fair enough. Where Harlequin stumbles is that its titular character isn't really that likeable a guy, and even to the degree that likeability isn't a necessary trait in a shadowy underworld contact, he's also too powerful to turn the tables on, and his overall agenda is petty to the point of inscrutability (Ehran the Scribe wounded him in a mock duel hundreds of years ago and now is the time to get revenge through a series of burglaries designed to humiliate him in the eyes of ???).

In other words, the plot is as shallow as advertised in the GM advice section. It's fine if the PCs are the sort to just accept an envelope full of cash to kidnap an innocent woman, but I don't really want to read a story about that kind of person, you know. 

Also, there were parts that didn't age so well, like the nearly-unavoidable sidequest where the PCs are mercilessly tortured. Or the poor treatment of the people indigenous to the Amazon (I guess it's not technically a colonialist stereotype that the Jivaros will cut off their enemies' heads and shrink them, because they are a real people who really used to do that, but it's all kinds of colonialist fucked up to take those real people and use them as expendable mooks in a random jungle encounter).

Overall, I'd say Harlequin was pretty skippable. Maybe in 1990 "weird guy who is inexplicably a literal clown in a crime-caper setting" was a fresh enough idea to anchor a book, but now, I need something a little more substantial. I expect that if you name an adventure book after a specific character, that character is going to be just as compelling as the adventure itself. That's not a bar that Harlequin reaches, and it probably wouldn't even if you spotted it his later appearances (for example, he appears in Earthdawn under the alias "Har'lea'quinn" which is just ::chef's kiss::).

Ukss Contribution: The thing with the Jivaros made me uncomfortable enough that I'm just going to skip this book. It's probably not as bad, objectively, as some of the others I've skipped, but it literally calls an actual, extant culture "savages" and that's not cool.