Tuesday, January 17, 2023

(D&D 3e) Unearthed Arcana

 Man, this book was dull. That's no great fault, though. Unearthed Arcana (Collins, Decker, Noonan, and Redman) is a clearinghouse of alternate rules ideas, and as such isn't the sort of book you read purely for enjoyment. Best case scenario, one of the sections is really interesting and then ends just when it's getting good (i.e. "Invocations," ritual magic that anyone can use, which distinguishes itself from regular magic by having a specific role in the setting).

But even though this book is not especially entertaining, you can make entertaining things out of it. Something like gestalt characters, where you take two classes and combine them into one, opens up a wide range of customization options. It could make for a memorable campaign with Barbarian Bards and Paladin Sorcerers, but without the compromises that multiclassing normally entails. Likewise, changes to the hit point system will affect how you approach combat, the contacts and reputation systems make it more rewarding to engage with the world, and all the various magic system tweaks make magic more powerful (not that it needed it, but you know how it is).

The best way to use this book would probably be to just skim the introductions to the various sections and read only the ones that you think you may want to use. There is a certain boldness in making a book where you know not everything is going to be for everyone, and being selective with your time investment is nothing more than honoring that boldness. Plus, it would have spared me from having to read the "Sanity" section.

Now, I want to tread carefully here and approach what I'm about to say with maximum kindness, because yes, this section was offensive and boring and weirdly somehow both medical and exploitative, but I knew it was going to be that way as soon as I saw that it was a Sanity system. With the possible exception of Unknown Armies 2e, there's nobody that does it well, and I've yet to read one that wasn't the worst part of whatever book it was in, so I don't want to point a finger and say "you did a bad job making this," because the main mistake was simply doing it at all. At least this section didn't call anything a "derangement." 

Though they did call being transgender a "psychosexual disorder," which had to have been behind the current psychological consensus even in 2004, and nonetheless ridiculous in a world where the polymorph other spell exists (actually, I went back to check - that spell was only permanent in 3.0 and earlier, with 3.5 they changed the duration to 1 minute per level). However, I'm pretty sure that was mostly just laziness. The sanity system borrows liberally from Call of Cthulhu and it's likely that even early 2000s Call of Cthulhu was just coasting on research originally done in the 1980s. At least, I like to think that. I can't say I was any better about trans issues when I was 22, but I also know that I'd be highly embarrassed to have my bad takes dredged up after all this time.

Also, there's some racism, of that nebulous rpg variety where you make up a fantasy race and then describe it using language that resembles real-world racism. Like, in the year 2023, any reasonably self-aware rpg company is going to make you sit in the corner and think about what you did just for pitching the idea of a "jungle goblin," but in 2004, you start their entry with "If monkeys were evil and could speak. . ." Yikes.

It's tricky, because there's only like five sentences in this book that need to be nuked, but they're all in sections that make those sentences inevitable. Just like how there was no way a sanity system was ever going to be sensitive about mental illness, the very idea of doing climate-based variants for the standard fantasy races was doomed from the start. At it's best, it's "gnomes domesticating wooly mammoths," and at its worst, it's recapitulating colonialist stereotypes (though, at least, they had the good sense to exclude humans from this system), but even the middle of the curve is too boring to be worthwhile. Oh, desert dwarves are "acknowledged masters of locating water and digging wells," um, . . . I guess that tracks.

What the section really needed was to dig deeper and really get into the guts of using fantasy creatures as a tool for world-building. But, of course, if they'd done that, there wouldn't have been enough room for alternate level adjustment rules, or the bloodlines system, or racial paragon classes. Call it  a weakness of the format.

There's much more I could talk about (like the way Complex Skill Checks and Incantations presaged some of 4th edition's best ideas), but I'm not sure my random observations would build to anything. This was like reading a dozen mini-supplements in one, and most of them were dry and technical. There are plenty of inspired ideas, but if you, for example, followed the logic of the spelltouched feats to their ultimate conclusion, you'd have to start asking tough questions like, why do "standard D&D feats rarely give your character overtly magic powers?" You could get a lot of use out of this book's rules tweaks, but you'd have an all-around better time if you simply played a game that took its ideas and ran with them.

Ukss Contribution: The system for magical bloodlines has the basic 3.5 flaw of forcing players to give up levels for things that are not worth an entire level, but if you put the rules on the back burner for a second, some of the setting implications are interesting. Like, the Doppelganger bloodline. They don't get any kind of shapechanging ability until 8th level, and even then it's just alter self once per day, but at 4th level, they get a +2 bonus to Disguise checks. That strikes me as interesting. 

There are two possible interpretations of this ability. Either they have some extremely minor innate shapeshifting, below even the resolution of a low-level spell, that gives them a bonus to changing their appearance, or they have a psychological affinity for the Disguise skill, bolstering a learned ability.

I find the latter interpretation especially fascinating, because if you think about it, Doppelgangers are the people on this earth with the least use for a mundane Disguise skill. Doppelganger scions have a bonus to an ability their ancestors never need to use. And I think about the experience of someone who maybe doesn't know they're descended from a shapeshifter. They look in the mirror and they feel something missing, that they can't quite explain, a discomfort with their fixed form. There's nothing they can do about it, but then they discover makeup and prosthetics, and they learn to change their appearance that way. Something clicks into place, and they learn to use the tools available to them with special proficiency. A drive, inherited from ancestors they never knew, gets channeled and repurposed into something they could never have anticipated. I like that. It has a rare combination of mysticism and ecological reasoning.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

(D&D 3rd) Book of Exalted Deeds

 At the end of my last post I predicted I would despise Book of Exalted Deeds (James Wyatt, Christopher Perkins, Darrin Drader) and, look, "despise" is a strong word. There were things that I liked. Some of the art was really nice. The monster chapter was, like, 90% on point. There were some gems among the spells and magic items. I can definitely see myself playing a Swanmay or a Skylord. . .

Now that I'm writing it out, this all seems like aggressively faint praise on my part, but I feel like it's important to start with praise because I'm not at all mad at the authors. I'm certain they are better than this book, and the real error was simply making it in the first place.

It's just hard for me, because the emotion I'm feeling now isn't any kind of hate, but also "I didn't hate it" feels like a less straightforward statement than it did with Book of Vile Darkness. Let's say that Book of Exalted Deeds frustrated me.

Much of that frustration centered around this book's forced parallelism with Book of Vile Darkness. BoVD had Dark Speech, an ancient primordial language that communicated only evil concepts and would kill whoever attempted to utter it without the proper training. Book of Exalted Deeds, by contrast, had the Words of Creation, an ancient primordial language that communicated only good concepts . . . and would kill whoever attempted to utter it without proper training. This kept happening. Warrior of Darkness prestige class vs Annointed Knight prestige class. Archfiends vs Celestial Paragons. Corrupted Spells vs Sanctified Spells 

That last one was especially egregious. "Corrupt Spells" "take a terrible toll on the caster. "Sanctified Spells" are powered by willing self-sacrifice. The mechanics for the two types are 100% identical - cast the spell and then at the end of the duration, take ability point damage. Of course, "Ability Damage" is theoretically abstract enough that you could argue that, say, Wisdom and Charisma damage is fundamentally different than Strength or Constitution damage. But in order for that theory to pan out, the two magic types would have to be consistent about their costs. I didn't do a full analysis and comparison, but a random sampling suggests that each type is more or less random, with the main difference being that Book of Vile Darkness' 3.0 rules will deal 3d6 Constitution damage, whereas Book of Exalted Deeds has enough 3.5 experience to simply say "you die."

Plus, they aren't so much different in presentation as they are different in spin. Why cast a spell so powerful it will overwhelm you and damage your body when you could simply sacrifice your body's health to power an unusually strong spell? It's almost as if attaching a health cost to a spell doesn't particularly incline it to either good or evil.

If this pair of books is in any way forgivable, this kind of bullshit is at the heart of it. Forget "good" and "evil," the alignments are "shiny" and "heavy metal." Holy swords gleaming with sunlight, unicorns, fluffy white clouds, and the sound of trumpets against blood-dripping bone scythes, skeletal horses, evil weather 😈and the wail of a guitar. That could work. I know, because I've played Brutal Legend. I've used Abyssals as the villains in an Exalted game. You will never hear me complain about well-executed shallowness.

But this here, the clumsy parallelism between "good" and "evil" is the bad kind of shallow. Probably because it clings to the notion that it's actually about good and evil. Oh, we're talking about morality as a cosmic force? Capital "G" Good exists and does good in the universe? It doesn't just oppose capital "E" Evil, but is a distinct primordial phenomenon? Wouldn't that make it real awkward to talk about Ravages and Afflictions?

What are Ravages and Afflictions, you might ask. That's easy. They're poisons and diseases. Full stop. The book pretends they're different, but that's a lie. The book just fucking lies to the reader in the most transparent way possible. They use the exact same mechanics. Even moreso than corrupt and sanctified spells. The book says a Ravage is an analogue for a poison, and that it uses the poison rules, and that it does ability damage like a poison, but then also that it's a different thing entirely.

Liar! Liar, I say!

The thing is, some of the Afflictions are actually pretty interesting as magical diseases. They seem to be keyed off the Deadly Sins. Come down with a case of Pride in Vain (by ingesting something - ???) and you'll become obsessed with status, and as it progresses, you'll just start staring at yourself in the mirror (taking continuing Charisma damage while this is going on). The lust-themed one is especially nasty, because it can kill you with Constitution damage (it "causes insatiable sexual desire while preventing any possible fulfilment of that desire" which strikes me as a particularly agonizing way to die). I'm not sure how amplifying a victim's sin to dangerous levels advances the cause of good, but if you made them as amoral as regular diseases, they'd be an interesting addition to a setting (though maybe don't use Raging Desire).

But they're not diseases, they're Afflictions, and thus the supposed difference is that they only affect Evil (aligned) targets. And here's where the books' shallowness becomes something sinister, because I have no fucking idea what that's supposed to mean. Book of Exalted Deeds is no help at all with this, but even Book of Vile Darkness leaves me wanting. Who gets to have an Evil alignment and who is just an unpleasant Neutral that does unpleasant things? You go down and read the list of evil actions, asking yourself "does this merit dying of fatal priapism" and maybe you can get there with something like murder or damning souls, but then "casting evil spells" feels awfully tautological, and theft seems disproportionate, and their chosen example for bullying is "a ten-year-old-princess who forces bards to sing of her beauty or else they face the wrath of her tyrannical mother (the queen)" and there's an awkward moment where you contemplate the fact that this bratty child may fall on the bottom third of the 3x3 grid and thus be vulnerable to Haunting Conscience, where if she is unable to make two DC 16 Fortitude saves in a row, she will eventually become so wracked with guilt that she falls into a nightmare-filled coma. Because it's entirely unclear whether an Evil alignment represents terrible deeds done in the past or merely the potential for terrible deeds, hypothetically. Are you neutral until you commit your first murder or is having a general openness to committing a murder, should the need arise, enough to push you over the edge?

It's easy for me to square the circle because my position has always been that alignment is bad and bullshit like this is inevitable if you leave it in the game. But the book takes alignment seriously, and it is not up to the task it has set itself. The introduction asks the famously flame-war-provoking question, "Is there any hope for the orc whelps in the stronghold, or should we slaughter them too?" And while it, thankfully, comes down against slaughter, it frames sparing orc children in terms of the threat they pose, and not any sort of naive innocence. No indication of what age they become susceptible to ravages and afflictions. Afflictions themselves are so slow-acting that it is pure coincidence when they affect an active threat.

So, if you think about it, if you are "good," then an affliction is a weapon with perfect target discrimination - ideal for genocide (though admittedly, you'd put yourself at risk without proper protection, but not your nation or your religion, if you deployed it without official authorization).

Okay, that got a little dark, but Book of Exalted Deeds never quite articulates a vision of Good that is distinct from "Evil that aims." I said in the previous post that an Evil attack spell is one that remembers the target has a specific anatomy, and here the distinguishing characteristic of a "good" attack spell is that it only damages your enemies. 

Well, okay, only Evil targets, which does exclude certain classes of enemy. Your citadel of ultimate Good is going to woefully unprepared for attack by constructs or mind-controlled animals, for example. And maybe you're merciful enough that you don't want to use lethal force to stop an attack by someone misguided, yet pure of heart. But mostly your "good" spells have the drawback of working only on the people you are actively trying to hurt. 

Which isn't so much a drawback as an immense tactical advantage that even Evil people could appreciate. You're burning someone alive but leaving your allies unscathed. Useful for a crowded battlefield. But the most insidious part of good spells is the certainty you have with each kill. You know that the target must have done something to deserve it, because if they didn't deserve it, the spell wouldn't have worked.

It's unnerving to have so much clarity around something so vague. How does the spell know? I mean, magic, obviously, but what, you're shooting a laser with a built-in detect alignment? Maybe the holy energy is inimical to evil, but surely that only makes sense for beings suffused with evil energy, like demons and undead. You're just using a holy spell on some guy and in the space of a second it evaluates his whole life? Why is the magic substituting for the caster's judgement?

And that, I think, is the main flaw of Book of Exalted Deeds. It's got this moral cowardice that doesn't appreciate that the complexity and fragility of goodness is a feature, rather than a bug, so it often comes across as admiring the martial strength of evil. "If you use disease as a weapon, that's an evil act, but it's also really effective, so I wish the good side had something like it" - hence Afflictions.

Towards the beginning, there's a section called "Means and Ends" and it says "Good ends might sometimes demand evil means. The means remain evil, however, and so characters who are serious about their good alignment and exalted status cannot resort to them, no matter how great the need." And I can almost respect the refusal to sacrifice principle to mere expediency . . . except that just a little bit down the page, the section labeled "Violence" that starts with the sentence, "Violence is a part of the D&D world and not inherently evil in the context of that world."


I'm no longer an absolute pacifist, but the absolute berserk hypocrisy of this section still hits me as hard as it did in the early 2000s. Like, the rules about having just cause and not attacking helpless foes are well-taken, even if it gets a little hair-raising with "the mere existence of evil orcs is not just cause for a war against them, if the orcs have been causing no harm." (If they aren't causing harm, how the fuck do you know they're evil.) But juxtapose the circumstantial permission for violence with the absolute purity demanded not even one page earlier, and it becomes obvious that you're not talking about ethics, you're talking about gameplay.

Violence is inherently evil. It's not even a particularly complex question. If you are doing violence, you are attempting to damage the body of another living being. Take you categorical imperative and apply it to the act of sticking a sword in someone's guts. If you can do it for a good reason, you can do it for a bad reason. Yet, somehow ethical discussions about violence always seem to bundle it up with its context. Murder is always wrong, but self-defense is a duty.

Young me, the pacifist, would have left it there, pointing out that the only difference between murder and self-defense is motive and circumstances. However, these days I do agree with drawing a distinction between murder and self-defense, and that distinction is motive and circumstances, things that also apply to every evil action you might be tempted to do. What, you can't lie to the murderer about the whereabouts of their potential victim because every lie undermines faith in universal truth, but you can hit them in the head with a lamp and what matters is the thing you were trying to accomplish because nobody's going to try and universalize that into a philosophy of might makes right. Okay, let's do the categorical imperative thing - Lying is always wrong, but counter-intelligence can be justified if true information would be used in a harmful way and mere omission would tip the attacker off.

Of course, if D&D alignment had any explanatory power at all, this would be a classic case of Lawful versus Chaotic Good.

LG: "This line of thinking treats the purity of a good character's soul as a commodity . . . it is not a personal sacrifice, but a concession to evil, and thus unconscionable."

CG: "Violence against evil is acceptable when it is directed at stopping or preventing evil acts from being done."

LG: What?! How does that contradict what I just said?

CG: You said the ends can never justify the means, but I just gave an example of some good ends and the evil means they justify. 

LG: But "the cause of good expects and often demands that violence be brought to bear against its enemies."

CG: Why am I not surprised that the one form of wickedness that you're willing to indulge just happens to be the one that lets you coerce others into obeying your arbitrary rules?

LG: Arbitrary rules?! Would someone who was being arbitrary swear a vow of chastity?

. . . and so on. The temptation of violence is that it is the ultimate context. If you ignore violence, nothing else is possible. Thus, if someone uses violence against you, your only hope of resistance is to somehow be better at violence. No other form of activity has that property. You can't force someone to agree to a dance-off if they're bad at dancing, at a riddle contest if they don't know any riddles, but if you attack someone, they're in a fight whether they like it or not. It even lets you "win" at non-violent contests, just by eliminating the competition. Ever play a 4X game and go to war to prevent the AI from winning a cultural victory? Same thing.

Which is why it is such a favored tool of evil. The only quality you ever need to cultivate is excellence at the very thing that gives you maximum scope for cruelty. Get good enough at hurting people and you will always get your way.

It's funny, but if I were to try and give a workable definition of the difference between good and evil, I'd say that good makes space for weakness. Primarily in the arena of violence - good won't make you go to war to correct an injustice, even if they are certain to win - but also in other contexts - good will forgive debts if you get too sick to repay them, or in the dance contest, good will celebrate creativity and enthusiasm, even if you aren't fit or flexible enough to do the complicated moves. Which means that good's most characteristic quality is a lack of easy clarity. You have a benevolence for all living things, but every individual you meet is going to be on a different path. They will have different strengths and weaknesses, and consequently different needs. If you want to do good by someone, your first step it just to try and understand. And understanding always begins in ignorance.

Maybe that's just evidence of my chaotic nature, though. I don't trust the urge to substitute your judgement with hard and fast rules. I understand the vertigo that comes with the assertion that what is wrong in one situation may be right in another, and I can see how clarity can be comforting, but I'm suspicious of a categorical imperative that praises big, strong heroes like the police, the military, the protagonists of most stories, and the player characters when they get into a kick-ass action scene, but condemns the weak and fearful when they try to find alternatives. Say "violence is wrong in all circumstances" and you'll get, "what, so you don't support the troops (or the king, or the paladins, or whatever)" Say "lying is always wrong" and the authorities will say, "we agree, that's why we never do it, now tell us the truth or things will get ugly. " How can I trust any ethical argument that always seems to flatter power?

Which is kind of what I feel like this book is doing. It says, "Lawful Good characters by no means have a monopoly on goodness." And I'm like, who ever thought that in the first place? Then I have to look at the rest of this book, and its talk about martyrs and oaths saints and the virtues of poverty and forgiveness, and the lip service to CG and NG starts to make a certain sense. "Most Exalted Good" in this book's language means anodyne non-denominational pop-culture Christianity. If Book of Vile Darkness was the D&D your conservative parents thought you were playing, then Book of Exalted Deeds is the D&D you told them you were playing. It is possible to play a capital-G Good character without upsetting the status quo. Your characters are still going to go into dungeons to slay monsters. You're never going to encounter anything as challenging as an Oath of Veganism or a God of Democracy. The only orcs you can't kill are women and children.

This is now officially my longest post. I actually finished the book about a day and a half ago, and most of my time since has been spent either writing or thinking about what I wanted to write. And I still haven't said everything I could say (or even everything I need to say). But I'm ready to move on. Book of Exalted Deeds took a lot out of me, but unlike its counterpart, it didn't really have any terrible lows. Just a constant chipping away that somehow made blandness feel like an attack. 

Ukss Contribution: It'd be real ironic if this book about the Good alignment made my rarefied list of evil rpg supplements, but honestly even its badness doesn't reach that high level. It doesn't use racial slurs or advocate genocide. It's a little problematic the way it equates the aesthetics of Christianity with ultimate good, but it's so shallow that it feels more like it's missing a target than drawing one. There's very little in here that would upset a fascist, but that's because it's trying to depict what fascists are pretending to be. There was a lot that exacerbated me, but nothing that felt especially dangerous.

Plus, I did genuinely enjoy certain parts. I like the shiny aesthetic, when it's self-aware enough to know it's just an aesthetic. So that's why I'm going with the goth-iest thing in the book: The Rain of Black Tulips spell. Like most other spells in this book, its actual effect is pretty bland (moderate damage and nausea to evil creatures in an area of effect), but the imagery is memorable.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

(D&D 3rd) Book of Vile Darkness

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual violence, body horror, eye trauma

Y'all ready for a shock? I didn't hate this book. I was expecting to. I'd heard bad things, and it certainly lived down to its reputation, but . . . I guess I'm jaded. I've read M20's Book of the Fallen. I've read Guide to the Sabbat. I read Aberrant: Terragen. And while Book of Vile Darkness (by Monte Cooke) could be pretty damned gross, there were only a few fleeting moments where it even managed to break 1.0 White Wolfs on the grossness scale (although, there is one bit that would have been the fifth or sixth grossest thing White Wolf ever published, and I'd quote it here except that it's so out of place it's hardly salient to the rest of the book).

Maybe I should be a bit harsher on a book that's transparently going for shock value, but it's all so affected that it almost seems . . . cute? Reading this book is like watching middle-schoolers look up swear words in the dictionary. Yeah, that language is inappropriate, and it would be awkward if you repeated it around the dinner table, but just look at the little guy, trying so hard to be edgy. He's still wearing his Ninja Turtles T-shirt!

The T-shirt, in this metaphor, is gnomes. I didn't count, but there are at least three evil gnomes, and they're all jarring. Who will stop the sinister schemes of Narma Glitterhome? We can assemble a band of heroes, but let's hope they don't run afoul of evil weather. (That particular juxtaposition of words so amused and delighted me that I actually put an emoji in my notes when I first read it "Evil Weather 😈")

Don't get me wrong, the book could be offensive in its gratuitousness - one of the evil gnomes is a rapist - but even then, D&D's overall sexlessness makes all but the worst of it seem neutered. Mostly what you get is standard D&D villains, but at the last moment Monte Cooke remembered this was supposed to be an "adults only" book and slapped a sex crime into the description. The high priest of Dispater is a necrophiliac. Not as part of his cult activities, or in order to please his dark master, but just as a random personality quirk. By day, he is a domineering figure in a religion of tyranny, by night he fucks corpses in a church mausoleum that the locals have come to appreciate as being notably free of necromancers (it's a real hazard in D&D world). Yeah, it's vile, but . . . how is this meant to play out in an adventure? I try to think of something and my brain just returns a null object error. The result is numerous instances of things that should be over the line, but Mr Cooke doesn't seem to know how to make the moments land.

The main thing holding this book back is a stunning lack of self-awareness. The conclusion states "the material in Book of Vile Darkness will inject added depth and realism."

Counterpoint: Nipple Clamps of Exquisite Pain.

That's a real magic item that no one who read this book would ever forgive me for omitting from the post. It's definitely the silliest thing here, but strangely, it also feels like the closest this book gets to being actually good.

Take all that speculation about the nature of evil and put it in a box (because it is uniformly terrible). Focus instead on the villaincore aesthetic. Skulls and chains and spikes and, like, fucking demon worship, man. It's not evil, it's eeevill *sick guitar riff.* Cast the spell that gives you a really long tongue and praise Asmodeus! This is the D&D the Christians thought you were playing back in the 1980s.

The book gets flak for including sexual fetishes and drug addiction in its depiction of "the most vile and monstrous evil," and it's all very well deserved, but they are also central to the best possible use of this material. It's sex, drugs, and D&D, man!

At the risk of revealing too many of my own proclivities, I'm certain there are some people for whom Scahrossar, The Domme Who Will Actually Kill You, is not a dealbreaker. Sure, if you take her entry literally, she is at the center of a religion that practices terrible sex crimes, but "known by all as the Mistress of Exquisite Pain, Scahrossar is usually portrayed as a woman covered entirely in studded black leather so that even her face is concealed." I see you, Monte Cooke.

Sadly, the bulk of the book is not that fun. It all comes back to the lack of self awareness. Let me quote for you the actual most evil passage in the entire book: "A dictator might order the elimination of an entire race of good creatures because she believes them to be evil."

Now, as a critic, I should attempt to unpack that line . . . but I don't want to. You can't make me!

Oh, okay. The dictator in question is described as "a villain," despite being in a section about people doing evil without self-identifying as "evil." But there's something about the word "good" in that sentence that is gnawing at me. There's an implication, there. That maybe if the race wasn't so good, it could be eliminated with a clean conscience. That the dictator's sin isn't genocide, it's being wrong.

And this isn't purely a matter of me reading into some negative space. There's a line earlier that puts this into context. "An objective concept of evil allows players (and their characters) to avoid most ethical or moral quandaries, particularly the kinds that can derail a gaming session. If you run an adventure about killing gnolls, you don't normally want an entire session consumed by a philosophical debate about whether killing gnolls is a good thing or a bad thing."

I would argue that avoiding the stress of confronting those sorts of question is one of the most fundamental, if not the most common, motives for evil. Later on, the book says, "Even killing an evil creature for personal gain is not exactly evil (though it is not a good act), because it still stops the creature's predations on the innocent. Such a justification, however, only works for the slaying of creatures of consummate, irredeemable evil, such as chromatic dragons."

Lucky for us, then, that there's a cash prize for getting the answer wrong. This is so much more uncomfortable than all the gross-out stuff. The book is filled with evil spells, tagged with the "evil" keyword, and most of them are just gross attack spells or things like Hellfire (basically a fireball, but it does less damage and isn't subject to fire resistance). However, please indulge me taking a moment to create a true evil spell.

Rezarf's Detect Alignment
Enchantment [evil]
Level: Bard 1, Sorcerer/Wizard 2
Components: Verbal, Somatic
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Self
Effect: Strengthened Personal Belief
Duration: Instant
Save: None
Spell Resistance: None

When you cast this spell, you enchant yourself to believe that you are detecting the alignment of one definable group of creatures you can currently see (i.e. an individual, an entire adventuring party, or all the kobolds, but not every third person in a crowd or all the left-handed people, unless those groups have a visible distinguishing feature). The "detect alignment" effect returns whatever result is most convenient for you at the moment, usually confirming your gut feeling or preexisting bias. Because it instills absolute conviction, you may subsequently convey this "revelation" with convincing sincerity, adding a +5 morale bonus to any checks made to persuade others about these creatures' alignment.

This spell may be considered a Divination spell for purposes of who may use it (and it is learnable even by people who have Enchantment as a forbidden school, provided they are allowed to learn Divination spells). Furthermore, it requires a DC 30 Spellcraft check to identify this spell's true function, whether it is an observer watching it being cast or a wizard copying it into their spellbook. If the Spellcraft roll returns a result of 16-29, Rezarf's Detect Alignment appears to be an alignment-detecting spell of the Divination school. Anyone who has cast this spell at least once may take 20 on the Spellcraft check, but only if they are willing to confront what they've done under its influence. Non-evil characters may learn and cast this spell.

Obviously, as a DM, you would never put that spell into a campaign, because it would be a total dick move, but I was moved by this book's not-so-secret second agenda - depict terrible, adults-only villains, sure, but also do so in a way that doesn't disrupt D&D's core gameplay loop. This book is about evil in D&D. The evil of D&D should not be questioned.

Another very-nearly self-aware example. Adding the [evil] keyword to existing spells. 

Some would point out that a fireball spell is likely to cause undue suffering and it could be used to kill a group of orphans. Does that make fireball an evil spell?

Fireball, by itself, simply creates a blast of fire. Fire can be used for evil purposes, but it is not intrinsically evil. Contrasted with a spell such as shriveling, whose only purpose and only possible use is to wither the flesh of another living creature in a painful and debilitating fashion, it becomes easy to see why shriveling is an evil spell.

Okay, now do Power Word, Kill. But seriously, is this actually fooling anyone? I have an idea for an upgraded version of shriveling that's even more painful and debilitating - it sets the enemy's flesh on fire. I mean, potential civilian uses of fireball notwithstanding, are we just supposed to forget that being burned alive is widely considered one of the worst possible ways to die?

The real difference between normal attack spells and this book's "evil" spells actually seems to be that "evil" attack spells remember that they are targeting the body of a living creature, with a specific anatomy, and normal spells elide their horror under the abstraction of the hit point system. The average peasant has 1d4 hit points. A cone of cold, cast by a minimum-level caster, does 9d6 points of damage. Which means that if you think about it, being killed by this spell would be exactly like those stomach-churning liquid nitrogen accidents that you sometimes see in horror films. You cast this at a group of bandits and suddenly a half dozen formerly living, breathing human beings are being scattered in icy chunks across the battlefield. 

But the cone of cold description doesn't explicitly spell that out. So it's seething eyebane that gets the "evil" descriptor, because it explodes the target's eyeballs, even though you really don't want to contemplate the state of someone's eyeballs after being hit with a cone of cold.

As gross as they are, I actually kind of prefer this book's anatomy-specific spells, at least as a world-building conceit. Weaponizing magic is intrinsically a dark art, and the people who do it are nerdy little creeps who try to one-up each other by coming up with creative new ways to break a body. Get these supposedly "morally neutral" death spells out of my face. I mean, magic missile directly states that it does nothing to inanimate objects, so it can only be used to kill. That's the definition of an "evil" spell, right?

But, of course, Book of Vile Darkness doesn't want to go there, because for all its talk about being a mature, adult exploration of evil, it actually cleaves to D&D's most juvenile mechanic - the easy sorting of creatures (and even individuals) into "good" and "evil" alignments. People aren't good or evil, actions are, and people just have to make their choices as best they can. Magic missile should have the "evil" descriptor because when you're using it, you have evil intent towards the target's body, even if the overall situation makes it a necessary evil. The desire to use it and then go to bed thinking of yourself as a "good person" is, in fact, the root of much human evil.

(Practical upshot: while I didn't hate Book of Vile Darkness, I am very likely to absolutely despise Book of Exalted Deeds).

Ukss Contribution: Is there some way to do evil weather without being as dorky as D&D? Probably not. I feel like the spirit of the exercise demands I choose something eeevill, though honestly my favorite new spells were mirror sending, which allows you to replace someone's reflection in a mirror with your own image, in order to send a message and identify transgressor, which is "able to divine the answer to a single question, as long as the answer is a single person's name." One is a great image and the other is probably the best-balanced divination spell I've ever seen, but none of them are in theme (despite identify transgressor inexplicably having the "evil" keyword).

Let's go instead with heartclutch. If the target fails their save, you magically pull out their heart and they die. Much better than whatever finger of death is supposed to be.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

(Orpheus) End Game

Over the course of its limited run, Orpheus has frequently described its approach as "the movie model," comparing itself to horror films like Alien and Event Horizon, but after reading End Game, the piece of media that I'm most reminded of is How I Met Your Mother.

That's not meant to be a burn (well, okay, maybe a light scalding). What I mean is that in retrospect it's obvious that the end of the series was planned from the beginning, that plan was noticeably telegraphed at various points in the series' run, and the full potential of the planned ending was exhausted approximately halfway through. Shades of Grey had exactly the right amount of Underworld mystery, and those tantalizing hints of another world were not surpassed now that we have a book that actually lets us go there.

It's not that it's bad. There's something to be said for the stark imagery of Orpheus' Underworld. It is a wasteland of the dead, made up of long stretches of featureless grey dust, occasionally unsettled by massive storms of blood and detritus, inhabited by roving gangs of spectres and resting atop strange ruins that seem to exist outside the stream of human history. You cross over to "the other side" and it's just . . . nothing, a place where the lingering strands of memory that make up a ghost go to wither away.

It could be thematic. It's not, but it could be. What it really is is a giant Wraith: the Oblivion easter egg hunt and I'm not really sure who it's for.

People whose favorite part of Wraith was its bleakness and its intimations about the inevitable triumph of entropy? They're deep in the lore about Stygia and the Emperor and the Legions, but what they really want to see is a reality where it all went away, where the spectres won.

And I'm not sure that category of hypothetical fan actually has any members. I know, it's the internet, and I know that every setting that features a distinct villain has spawned "what if the villain won" scenarios. But I'm pretty confident in saying that no one wanted to see the spectres win. Because they're not just villains, but troll villains, and gross troll villains at that. "Mweh heh heh, I'm going to make cufflinks out of your eyeballs and then you will finally see the beauty of darkness, and by the way I read your diary and it was cringe as shit" . . . Okay, let's explore that guy's triumph over a bunch of cool goth antiheroes . . .

Maybe it's just me, but I'm not feeling it. The driving force of the adventure is a conflict between the inhuman evil of Grandmother's spectres and the formerly-human evil of the Malfean spectres and it's like, I don't know who these guys even are. The very concept of a Malfean was introduced in The Orphan Grinders, but only discussed in vague and evasive terms, and now there's a bunch of them and they're coming up with plans and having agendas and getting destroyed by Grandmother and I'm supposed to just quickly buy in to the idea that they are the last thing standing between humanity and total destruction and I should be contemplating an alliance with the lesser evil. It's cosmic-scale drama, but there's no human-scale hook.

Of course, it's easy to criticize from the back seat, but it does raise the question of how I would end Orpheus, if given the responsibility. My gut reaction is to say, "I wouldn't," which is definitely a bit of a cop-out, but I'm not the only one who's thinking it. Near the end of the book, when it talks about continuing the campaign after the resolution of the metaplot, there's a section called "Endgame Ignored" that suggests:

A troupe might also want to explore how the world changes as the number of ghosts and projectors increases. The chronicle could take a more science fiction tone, with post-life existence as the "science" whose implications are explored.

How does the widespread knowledge of ghosts and projectors affect law and politics? Do conscious post-life entities demand civil rights?

And so on, through a bunch of other questions about religion and national security and ethics that are collectively so interesting and fraught that you could easily get five full rpg supplements out of them. A lot of that section had me going, "wait, are they just now thinking about this for the first time" because I kind of assumed that was going on in the core book. Thinking back, though, I realized that these issues were only lightly touched upon, because those are the sort of questions you ask if you want to make Orpheus, but also exactly the sort of questions you'd desperately avoid if you're making a World of Darkness game. Why don't the easily-provable supernatural powers of the various WoD splats wind up dramatically changing the world? Shut up. You haven't noticed a "plot hole," you're just deliberately prodding the conceits of the genre.

So I guess the main thing I would do to improve the end game is just not make it a stealth Wraith: the Oblivion reboot. The best part of Grandmother and the Underworld plot is that it gives shape to the theme "Orpheus doesn't know what's out there," and that's ultimately what they need to be - an "out there" that makes a mockery of the setting's scientific hubris. The science-fiction premise of the game is that there's a new technology that makes people think they can conquer death, and the thing that makes it good science fiction is that death has a thing or two to say about that.

You can keep the wasteland and the ruins and the storms. You can even keep Grandmother, if you make her one hazard of many instead of "God's Evil Twin" (actual suggestion from the book). But in addition to all the bleak and dangerous stuff, you also need a temptation. In the throes of your hubris, you will think of this as a bold new frontier, and in the first act you'll be right, but there's more out there than you can possibly imagine. 

And yeah, that kind of sounds like the overall arc we did get, with the haunted houses and shady crime stuff being the temptation and the Underworld being the stuff that punctures the dream, but that stops working once the Underworld becomes a place you can go. The role of the Underworld in the campaign is as a backdrop for the players' confrontation with Grandmother, where failure dooms humanity and success ensures a continuation of the status quo. And that's fine as far as it goes, but it's also presented as a place. A whole world with inhabitants and landmarks and rules for travel and navigation. So what happens if you step off the critical path? If you go to the Underworld simply to be in the Underworld?

I don't want to give the impression that End Game gave no thought to this issue. There are suggestions on the last five pages for alternate Underworld campaigns - treasure hunting, archaeology, colonization. However, the bulk of the rest of the book describes an Underworld utterly dominated by monsters, with treasures and landmarks that mainly serve to oppose said monsters, and that's not quite enough.

There should be non-spectre ghosts there, and a reason for those ghosts to be there. And the game should just directly confront heaven and hell and reincarnation as concepts, maybe not giving direct answers, but at least acknowledging that they are questions people are going to want answered.

This is all starting to sound very Wraith: the Oblivion, but I was serious when I said I wanted less Wraith baggage. Because the Wraith material here winds up mistaking easter eggs for payoff. Once you start introducing Wraith elements, the game winds up being about the resolution of Wraith conflicts.  I may wish there was more to do in the Underworld, but I'm wishing for Orpheus type activities - scientific exploration, criminal capers, intelligence operations, and the attempted monetization of the sublime. And then maybe monsters come and screw that up because there's always something you didn't know.

Although, now that I'm pitching it, that just sounds like the core Orpheus experience, so why do we even need an Underworld at all? That's a question neither I nor End Game can answer.

Ukss Contribution: Excalibur. If early 2000s White Wolf wasn't afraid to be so on the nose with a fantasy element, I'm not either.

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