Monday, February 13, 2023

Midnight, 2nd Edition

My first impression, in the opening pages of Midnight, 2nd Edition was that the world of Aryth seemed almost painfully vanilla. There are elves who live in a magical forest and dwarves who have elaborate underground cities. The two human cultures are transparently modelled after the Vikings and the medieval Arabs. Orcs are beastly creatures who serve evil with terrifying violence. In the early sections, where the book was describing the history of the world, before the Shadow took over, there was a heavy sense of recognition, bordering on dread - I've seen all this countless times before.

However, as I got further into the book and started reading about the contemporary state of the setting, I began to respect the choice. This wasn't Dragonstar, where the vanilla elements were used thoughtlessly. Here, they had a point. The world felt familiar because it was meant to feel familiar. It was telling The Standard Fantasy Story, but it subverted the ending. The dark god Izrador has this completely stock Evil Overlord energy, so that we may instantly understand what it means that he won.

I cannot oversell how thoroughly Lord of the Rings this game feels. Far more so than regular D&D, which often sought to distance itself from its Tolkien influences. For example, there is no way I'd ever believe it was a coincidence that the victory of Izrador's forces marked the end of the Third Age. I mean, you could argue that it's more a result of the Rule of Threes than a deliberate reference. But it's completely unthinkable that anyone could write this book without being aware of the inevitable comparison to Lord of the Rings. And it's highly unlikely that anyone would write this book without being enough of a Tolkien nerd to spot the parallel. And mathematical inevitability or not, once you're aware of the similarity between "at the end of the Third Age Sauron was destroyed and Aragorn ascended to the throne of Gondor" and "at the end of the Third Age Izrador conquered and enslaved the human kingdom of Erenland" then you've got a choice to make - rewrite to sound like less of a fanfic or leave it be and just lean into it.

Midnight leans into it, though if it were nothing more than an upside-down Lord of the Rings, it would merely be an interesting curiosity, rather than a compelling setting in its own right. Luckily, Midnight has plenty of well thought out specifics, giving it a firm identity of its own. We're taken around the continent of Eredane and we learn about the flora and fauna of each particular region, the inhabitants' characteristic crafts and languages (but only intermittently their clothes), and see a bunch of magical sites, daring resistance groups, and sinister Shadow plots. There's a lot in this book to hold your interest.

Although, the more that I think about it, the more that I think Midnight does an extraordinary job of walking a very difficult line. Because specific detail is what separates an interesting setting from a great one, but you can't redeem vanilla just by making it detailed, specific vanilla. 

I know, I know, not everyone is as down on vanilla fantasy as I am, and that's fair. But let's try a little thought experiment - imagine how you'd feel if a GM you'd never played with told you that their next game was going to be set in the Forgotten Realms. Then, compare that to your hypothetical feeling if a new GM told you that their game would be set in their homebrew world that's exactly as thick and as dense with proper nouns as the Forgotten Realms, but which had no other distinguishing characteristics.

I mean, technically, homebrew GM is more impressive, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that it's possible to do vanilla D&D better than Forgotten Realms, but come on, what are the odds that this homebrew is going to be better by enough to justify that level of work (both on the GM's part and on yours)?

Which is to say, the baseline vanilla setting of Midnight is well done. It elevates the game's high concept. But at the same time, it needs that high concept in order to be worth my time. That's no great fault, though. I could say the exact same thing about Earthdawn, and that's one my favorite games.

Although, sticking so close to vanilla fantasy does come with a cost, even beyond just being unfairly judged as "generic" (not that I would ever do such a thing ::innocent look::). When you do vanilla fantasy (or even just weird fantasy with vanilla elements), you are also subject to much of vanilla fantasy's political baggage. The big one, of course, being racial essentialism. 

This is another book that really tasks my knowledge of the subject. If it were purely bad, that would be easy for me. The year 2005 is recent enough that rpg writers really should have been questioning the way race is used in fantasy, but it was also long enough ago that we can take it for granted that they weren't. "Midnight's handling of fantasy race was no better and no worse than main-line D&D's at that same period of history" would have been an easy take for me to have. Unfortunately, it's 100 percent wrong. It is both better and worse, and I'm not sure what to do with that.

On the "better" side, it has a crude version of the ancestry/culture split that is our current best practice. You get your universal elf or dwarf or halfling traits, but then you also get a second set of traits that depend on whether your elf lived in the north or the center or the south, or whether your halfling was from a settled or nomadic group. And when it comes to mixed characters, half their traits are innate and half depend on which parent raised them.

However, the universal traits include among them things that really shouldn't be universal, like weapon proficiencies and familiarity with metalwork. And maybe even worse is the reverse - things explicitly labeled as cultural tendencies that would just be massively problematic, even as a physical difference - like adjustments to mental attributes. Worst of all, they do this to human cultures, making the typical "these humanoids are strong, but have a penalty to intelligence" subtext into outright text.

On the other hand, the humans they do it to are the whitest ones in the setting, and I'm not sure that having your Viking guys get +2 Str, -2 Int is actually going to be much of a deterrent. Sure, it's an insult to the historical Vikings these guys are transparently based off of. And it validates the worst kind of race science by outright saying that there are humans with less than full human intelligence, theoretically opening the door for more outrageously racist culture depictions in the future. But, it's hard to believe that someone who was intrigued by this Viking-esque character type is going to be upset that they have to play a big, dumb Viking. Giving the Arab-inspired Sarcosans a bonus to Charisma and Intelligence is arguably worse (a 40% swing in average intelligence, explicable only by culutre . . . yikes).

Then you have orcs, which have one-hundred percent of their problematic tropes, played more or less straight. And yet, they probably have the ideal presentation of the work-around people sometimes propose as a way to have Tolkien-esque orcs without the necessity of an "always evil" race. Orcs are the way they are because their god demands it. At a basic level, this is nearly as offensive as "always evil" because "this culture is barbaric because they worship a cruel heathen god" is also an idea with terrible colonialist provenance. However, it comes close to working here, because the orcs aren't cruel as a matter of religious doctrine, they're cruel because they are constantly being brainwashed by invasive dreams, sent by their god (which they only worship because a grieving mother bargained with the dark god to bring her dead child back to life, and it just kind of snowballed from there).

The way it's described is pretty awful:

The endless dreams come early to all orcish children, usually after their sixth birthday. Male orcs turn to what they know when the night-terrors begin. They lash out with tooth and claw, seeking to escape the pain and fear in violence.

And that is, at least, a start towards interrogating "always evil." You could view the orcs as the first and closest of Izrador's victims. A bunch of poor, abused children trying to please their abuser by living down to his expectations. However, the book only shows rare glimpses of that interpretation, usually granting them enough agency that they begin to look like "standard fantasy orcs" played straight.

Like with the cannibalism. The book actually gives them a humane and reasonable motive for consuming their own dead - every dead humanoid, whether elf or human or orc, has a significant chance of spontaneously reanimating as a ravenous undead creature. So each culture has its own little ritual for preventing that. The human Dorns burn their dead. The halflings cut off their heads and drain their blood for use as a ceremonial incense. And the orcs eat them. This both destroys enough of the body that reanimation is no longer possible and preserves precious calories in their desolate arctic homes.

That's not even the worst of Eredane's burial rituals. That honor would belong to the dwarves, who place elaborately carved rocks on top of their dead loved ones, so that the resulting undead creature is pinned in place until it rots. A practical solution, except that the Fell (Midnight's name for these spontaneous undead) retain their intelligence and alignment upon reanimating . . . at least at first. A combination of an insatiable hunger for flesh and the physical deterioration of the brain ensures that they become ravenous anthropophages eventually, but at least for the first week or so, the "moans, screams, and curses" are pretty horrifying.

But here's the thing - orcs don't just practice reasonable prophylactic cannibalism. They also gleefully eat some of their human and halfling slaves. It's like they're trying to have it both ways - orcs are an intelligent culture with their own well-justified practices and also orcs are the savage invading horde who eat their enemies because they revel in atrocity. They're both respectfully-described ritual cannibals and a racist stereotype brought to life. Like I said, "It is both better and worse." (I think the fact that orcs are described as having no significant native crafts tips the balance over to "worse," though).

In other news, Midnight is more than just high concept and genre deconstruction. It also makes some interesting modifications to the d20 system. The biggest change is the magic system, which uses a really bare-bones spell point hack (spells cost 1 point per spell level to cast and you get one spell point per level in the Channeler class). It makes magic much more flexible, but a lot less common and I have no intuitive sense of how it might work out in play. My gut tells me that it probably narrows the caster-martial gap in combat effectiveness, but likely exacerbates the spellcaster's tendency to obsolete skill classes with their utility spells, since you don't have to have them memorized in advance. Although, another thing to consider is that the new magic system is largely feat-driven and so non-channeler classes can easily buy themselves a few extra magic tricks. Overall, it's probably better, but I think there's still a lot of room for improvement (just don't ask me to come up with something quite yet).

Another new mechanic is the Heroic Paths system, which is just a list of abilities your character gets, one per level, from levels one to twenty. It's all upside, so a strict power boost over ordinary characters, but I like the extra degree of customization. The only problem is that some paths seem better than others. The Beast is out there getting claws that are as strong as a mediocre weapon, while the Healer is getting is a respectable suite of cure spells (especially for a setting where all divine magic goes through Izrador) and the Dragonblooded is like having 33% more levels in the Channeler class.

Finally, I really dug Covenant Items - magic items that grow more powerful alongside the character - and Power Nexuses - locations suffused with mystic power that allow you to create permanent magic items and/or cast certain spells at a significant spell point discount. The only real problems here are that Covenant Items mostly top out at a +2 enhancement bonus, making them largely inferior to boring old static magic items, and because of setting unpleasantness, Power Nexuses will probably get you killed. Still, they both had a way of fleshing out the setting and making it feel more lived in, which is basically all I want from a game's magic.

Time to sum up. Midnight is really good, but its bleakness takes some getting used to. A key aspect of its vanilla-ness, that I didn't realize until I was deep into the book, is that its familiarity can make the triumph of evil feel like a gut punch. So often it talks about a beautiful thing being destroyed or a proud people being oppressed and I could feel the sense of loss, because even when the text did scarcely more than sketch the original thing out, I could always picture it perfectly. There were times when it wore me down - the sense that this wasn't how things were supposed to go, that it wasn't fair and there is no hope (at least not without spurning the setting pitch). You could make the argument that light shines best against the darkness, and I totally get it, but I won't say that reading Midnight came entirely without struggle.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked the Dorn funeral custom - building a ring of standing stones to use as a centralized place for cremations, and then returning to consult with the spirits of your ancestors, who you believe will linger within.

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