Sunday, April 30, 2023

(V: tM) Clanbook: Assamite

You ever walk into the middle of an interesting-sounding conversation, pick up enough contextual clues to understand that it is indeed interesting, and then feel a sinking disappointment as you realized it would have been a lot more interesting if you'd been there from the beginning?

Yeah, Clanbook Assamite (by Clayton Oliver) has a lot going for it, but it never actually explains who the fuck Ur-Shulgi is supposed to be. Like, okay, there are facts - he is an ancient vampire, who lived thousands of years ago, and he was directly Embraced by the Assamite clan founder, so he was privy to a lot of the clan's mythic history, and he was apparently asleep for a long time, until quite recently, when he woke up and tore the clan in half, as he demanded obedience to his archaic ideas about its intended mission and values.

And that's technically enough. I can understand the Assamite Clan's internal conflicts, and the stakes of the schism in these dangerous final nights. It is meaningful to me when the book explains that the clan's formerly leading sorcerer, al-Ashrad, is leading the schismatics to join the Camarilla, even as Ur-Shulgi is driving the loyalists to new heights of anti-vampire fanaticism. And I can appreciate the unique social dynamic that comes from a largely Muslim organization (according to his book, Islam has a plurality of Assamites at approximately 33%) having to deal with a new leader who was born thousands of years before the creation of Islam. That's a tricky thing to navigate, what with vampires mostly being sacrilegious by nature (pretty sure that blood-drinking, specifically, is haram), but it's also an interesting thing to navigate - you don't instantly lose your faith just because someone turns you into a vampire.

I picked up on all that. I liked most of it. But I still don't know what Ur-Shulgi looks like or where he was born, or when he first fell asleep or how he's adapting to the modern world. And I couldn't help but come away with the feeling that I would know all of this, if only I'd been keeping current (retroactively, in the late 90s timeline) with all of White Wolf's various supplements.

I should probably just look it up . . . It took some doing, because the White Wolf wiki cited the reprint, but I guess I was only missing out on one relevant book: Clan Novel 7: Assamite, but maybe a lot happened there. In any event, the sensation I got from reading this book was that big events were happening and I had to jog to keep up. Unlike Time of Thin Blood, this doesn't feel like a virtue. It's definitely not a fatal flaw, but it is a flaw.

I also suspect that this clan book shares an agenda with many of Mage's revised tradition books, and that it's course correcting on an overly-simplistic presentation of the clan in previous editions. It's supposed to be really surprising that the Assamites have "viziers" who study science, technology, history, and the arts and aren't assassins at all (why they're called "viziers" and not "scholars" I can only speculate). The book actually calls the stereotype that all Assamites are warriors and assassins "the Great Lie," attributing it to propaganda from their enemies. That's a classic White Wolf move, making something kind of dumb and racist and then trying to cover by saying "no, it's because our characters were dumb racists). But unlike Mage, I wasn't actually here for the earliest part of the conversation, so I'm really just relying on pattern recognition.

Whether Clanbook Assamite got out from under mid-90s orientalism or not, I can't say. I mean, I literally have no idea. It seemed fine to me, but my knowledge of this subject is incredibly shallow.

So let's move on. I kind of wish this book was dumber (but only if it could do so without being more racist, obviously). The best thing in the entire book was the story of Zev Bennison, a Jewish vampire who, in the late 40s, led a team of vampire assassins to hunt down and slay Camarilla vampires who collaborated with the Nazis. And while that's not, strictly speaking, "dumb," on account of being awesome, it is indicative of a dumb tendency that I wish would have gotten more attention. The Assamites think they're better than other vampires, morally, and that they have a mandate from their founder to act as guardians for mortals (you're allowed to drink their blood, but not abuse them), and so they'll often act as judge, jury, and executioner for out-of-control vampires.

That's the sort of comic-book story that I'd want to see addressed head-on as a campaign model. Heroic vampire assassins, who hunt vampires. Maybe it shouldn't be Clan Assamite's whole thing, and maybe you'd want to relegate it to an alternate character interpretation, in order to stick to the dark and gloomy vibe of Vampire: the Masquerade as a whole, but it's undeniably the most fun it's possible to have with these specific guys, so it was kind of a shame that it only showed up by implication (I actually get the feeling that this book was written specifically to stop people from playing their Assamites this way).

Overall, a decent book. It didn't have anything to shock me (except one line about Hitler that was . . . hard to parse), but it also didn't bore me. I think the occult conspiracy and millenarian aspects of the Ur-Shulgi plot would have worked better if more of the pieces were present, but it worked fine as a political problem. I'm fairly sure I bought these clan books purely because they were on the shelf of my local bookstore, but I'm not feeling any particular buyer's remorse. 

Ukss Contribution: Once again, the best thing in the book requires real-world context that I'm not eager to import into Ukss, so I'll have to do something a little unconventional and just take vampire-hunting vampire assassins as a general concept. I'm thinking less Path of Blood and more Blade, though.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

(D&D 3e) Defenders of the Faith

 Dungeons and Dragons has traditionally been bad at depicting religion. This should come as no surprise to those who have been following the series, but it's necessary to restate it, in order to put Defenders of the Faith (Rich Redmond and James Wyatt) into context. There was no way it was ever going to be "good," because in order to be a good roleplaying book about adventurers who wield the powers of the gods, it would have to ask difficult questions about spirituality and tradition and community and metaphysics. It would have to depict people who surrendered themselves to powers beyond death and who act as a vessel for a mystery beyond words. And it could never do that, because D&D Clerics are mostly just Heal Technicians. Their religion is basically just medieval Catholicism, stripped of all purpose, complexity, and substance, distorted by a pop-culture mirror that ensures it can never rise even to the realm of the controversial. An order of sacred knights guards their Holy Grail - a chalice which caught the blood of a solar avingion as it dueled a tanar'ri. Because the paradox of the crucifixion, the holy inversion, where love defeats power, is too subtle a concept. Better to just be literal.

And I'm being something like 80% non-sarcastic here. You could maybe have a roleplaying game that dug deep into Christian theology and made it a key aspect of gameplay, but it wouldn't be Dungeons and Dragons. It probably wouldn't even be fun. And maybe that's just my bias as an atheist showing, but I'm pretty sure that the hypothetical audience for Aquinas: The Epistolary RPG of Scholastic Monasticism would not consider "fun" to be an appropriate goal. There's a spectrum here, is what I'm saying. D&D as a whole gets its place on the spectrum wrong, probably since at least the early 80s, when the Cleric class went from "thinly-veiled Van Helsing knockoff" to "key part of the campaign world's religious expression," but the worst thing you can say about Defenders of the Faith is that it doesn't move the needle significantly in either direction.

The book works well when it's ticking along inside its wheelhouse. It describes the way a "church" works - with its Services and Rituals, Expenses and Income, Charity and Advertising, and Adventurer Support and Adventuring Priests (because, oh yeah, this is an adventure game) - and if you're dealing with the deities that quite clearly take after European Jesus, it works. Pelor, Hieroneous, Saint Cuthbert - okay, this makes sense. You could probably even make Hextor work as Confederate Jesus (though, it's hurt by the fact that people in D&D world self-identify as evil, and Wizards of the Coast was not prepared to take the artistic and political risk of making a Lawful Evil religion that identified as good and valued an outward appearance of chivalry . . . you know, like the Confederacy).

However, what the fuck is supposed to be going on with the "Church of Nerull?" It's kind of a universal worldbuilding question to ask, "what are the parishioners getting out of this church," but for a neutral evil religion that explicitly only cares about cruelty and personal advancement, the question is doubly important. Are the followers propriating the God of the Undead? Are they bargaining with him to be undead themselves? Isn't that what the priests are doing? Is there a lay congregation that is hoping to one day get divine powers for themselves? How often are they successful? What's the bait on this particular hook?

These aren't impossible questions to answer. Most specific D&D settings even try to take a stab at it (with varying degrees of success), but it's incredibly out of place in this book. It couldn't even really handle the Chaotic Good and Chaotic Neutral religions. A God of Thieves is a fine concept, but what does religion even mean to a thief? Whatever it is, it probably has more to do with the tenuousness of their lives and their precarious liberty in the face of a law that wants to destroy them, and less about going to consult a priest and tithe their income to a church (even if the shrines are usually secret). You could probably take inspiration from the Mafia's weird relationship to Catholicism and talk about a thieves' guild that devoutly attended the church of Hieroneous, but that's what I mean when I say D&D is bad at religion - there is absolutely nothing in its narrative or mechanical framework that could handle that all-too-human paradox.

The Cleric class winds up having the same basic problem as the Wizard class - it's too broad a concept. It's not quite as bad, because "magic user who gains their powers from pacts with otherworldly beings" is technically a narrower niche than "magic user," but not by much. From a historical perspective, it's actually really odd to even make that split at all. So if you arrange Clerics on a line from "theurgists who serve the community in a capacity resembling medieval clergy" to "diabolists and necromancers, aesthetically indistinguishable from a dark wizard" Defenders of the Faith does well with the first type, but for the second, Tome and Blood would probably be the better resource. 

Overall, this was a fine book. I enjoyed reading it. But ideally, I'm building my fantasy world in a way that renders it largely obsolete.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to do something I don't ordinarily like to do and pick something the book explicitly says not to do. "A Paladin with scores of scrolls stuck through her belt and bandoliers of dozens of potions just looks silly."

Speak for yourself, Defenders of the Faith. Speak for yourself.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

(V: tM) Time of Thin Blood

Once again, I'm in a bit of a pickle. Time of Thin Blood (Dean Shomshak and Sarah Roark) is the worst kind of rpg supplement, but as an actual book, it may well be my favorite one in all of Vampire: the Masquerade (it definitely is so far). Like, I should, right now, be outraged on behalf of the c.1999 White Wolf fandom, for this optional supplement that shakes up the metaplot and creates a narrative rift between the 2nd edition and Revised settings, which can only be bridged by assiduously collecting all the new splatbooks, whether you want them or not. However, what I'm really thinking is "Damnit, White Wolf, you've done it again! You've pitched half the CW's fall lineup and somehow they're all shows I want to see."

"Vampire Dad," the innovative horror sitcom where a suburban real-estate agent is turned into a vampire by a bloodthirsty cult, only to have his new dark mistress perish in a well-timed garage door opener accident. Can he use his new powers to keep his secret, keep his job, and keep his family together? No, he cannot, but the ever-deepening spiral of chaos and despair, as he uses the Dominate Discipline to correct the thing that went wrong the last time he used Dominate, is sure to inspire both existential dread and twisted dark humor.

I mean, as a character concept, it's a bit solitary, but I would watch that show (actually, I may already have - it's called Santa Clarita Diet). However, I'm not sure the Vampire Dad template would even make a good NPC. How would the player characters even get involved, and if they did, would that not just completely disrupt the very dynamic that made him interesting? He's only really useful if you don't take him as a literal game resource and instead view him an example of Time of Thin Blood's intended vibe.

Which I would characterize as "yeah, there are vampires, but nobody knows what the fuck is going on." The world of the occult is gripped by millenarian fever. Vampires and the psychically sensitive are having strange visions. New supernatural powers are emerging, that no one can categorize. And a few things are happening that are completely unprecedented, even in the long lives of the vampire elders - a sinister red star, vampires whose curse is so weak that they cannot create childer, but can endure the sunlight, and the emergence of the strange half-human/half-vampire dhampir. Nobody knows what's going to happen, but the signs point to the end of the world.

It's a unique take on the urban fantasy genre, especially if you're reading it twenty-four years after the fact and know that they're not bluffing about the incipient apocalypse (although, as someone who remembers WW's vociferous denials of the very possibility of a book like Gehenna, I wonder how much of that was bluffing and how much of it was just them changing their mind).

There's only really one obstacle to getting involved in this chaos-mode interpretation of the Vampire: the Masquerade setting - and I'm using the word "obstacle" very deliberately here, because it's not even a flaw or a shortcoming or even an impediment, just something you'll have to stop, take a beat, and then choose to embrace - and that's White Wolf's weird insistence that playing a weak and ordinary character is somehow good for the soul.

This isn't like Initiates of the Art. The suggestion that you play at the very bottom of the vampire power curve is not something that breaks the game. I'd even go so far as to say that playing 14th and 15th generation vampires (the titular "thin-blooded," measured in degrees of separation from Caine, the mythical 1st vampire) is a good idea. It's the only way you'll ever get anything close to "Vampire Dad," for example. 

However, it is annoying. Because Vampire is genre fiction, and scour the genre all you want, but there's nowhere else where "easy to kill and bad at their job" is treated as a synonym for "compelling" (I was going to point out that Wolverine is immensely popular for being the exact opposite of this, but I couldn't think of an elegant way to say that the thin-blooded are the worst at what they do). Sure, the bildungsroman is a popular genre structure, and its main character usually starts off callow and vulnerable, but they don't often stay that way, and in any event, the structure is really just a pragmatic choice for fantasy because it allows you to explain the world and its rules to the reader through the guise of educating the character (also, many genre readers happen to be "coming of age" themselves, so it's just savvy marketing).

So Time of Thin Blood makes this great pitch "enter this world of confusion by playing a complete naïf that doesn't know what's what," but then it uses the word "kewl" again and says things like "lazy players define their characters by their Clans or Disciplines." Was 90s White Wolf just not capable of being normal for, like, five damned minutes? The place this book really needs to go is in the opposite direction - once they've shown us the cool and compelling concept of being weak and confused, they need to expand it so that you can be confused at every part of the power curve. Show me how to be confused while I turn into a wolf and hypnotise the media. Help me set up a game where the player characters are low-generation elders and still terribly confused. That's what gives Time of Thin Blood its horror and excitement - the world is coming to an end and old certainties no longer apply.

But, like I said earlier, I very deliberately didn't use the word "flaw," because while the book doesn't quite hand you the full range of campaigns on a silver platter, it does give you plenty of tools to build them yourself, and so this is really just an old White Wolf quirk, like their love-hate relationship with angst (seriously, the section titled "Angst" is accompanied by the parenthetical "You know we couldn't get away from it.")

Moving towards a wrap-up, I'll close with a couple of observations. In the course of trying to no longer be weird about the Roma, this book gets weird about the Roma. The G-word gets tossed around a lot, and not always in that innocent US way where you think maybe they don't realize it's a slur (also making an appearance, the N-word, in a passage explain that "caitiff" is a comparable insult among vampires). Also, I kind of thought that using a hurricane in Bangladesh as cover for a fight between vampire gods was in poor taste. I did an internet search, and I don't think it fictionalized a real event, but the Week of Nightmares hurricane had 6-figure fatalities, putting it in line with historically deadly Bangladesh hurricanes and . . . I don't know, it just made me uncomfortable.

Which is a shame, because the rest of the Week of Nightmares stuff was pretty cool. In fact, references to this book's appendix in Mage are the whole reason I bought it in the first place. Put some blame right here for the heroic Technocracy:
>>Code: Ragnarok
>>Operations Budget: Unlimited
>>Permissible Weapons: Unlimited
>>Permissible Casualties:
>>Local Inhabitants: 100%
>>Associate Personnel: 100%
>>Enlightened Operatives: 100%

Chilling, but awesome. Say what you will about the Technocracy, but they're willing to put it all on the line when it counts . . . and that's really not something you should be saying about sci-fi fascists, so something had to give. You can only keep one half of the characterization, which half do you choose? I know what choice my younger self made, and I don't know. I'm still quite a big fan of awesome things, but I'm also more highly motivated to take a hard stance against fascists, so I refer you back to the bulk of my output for the year 2020 (oh, shit, has it really been that long) wherein I have complicated feelings about Mage: the Ascension.

Overall, Time of Thin Blood was almost all upside for me (except the damned FONTS!!! The narrator saying "It has been pleasant . . . to imagine you squinting with your weak eyes at my terrible handwriting" isn't really cute when it happens to you in real life). It's probably more enjoyable as a piece of fiction than as a campaign guide, but basing campaigns off of enjoyable fiction is something like half the hobby.

Ukss Contribution: The "Hemetic" flaw. Take it and you're so disgusted by blood that you can't keep it down unless you're maddened by hunger. Pretty awkward for a vampire. I probably won't introduce the flaw as a general thing, but it might be fun to have an NPC vampire who's afflicted with it.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

(D&D 3e) Tome and Blood

Tome and Blood (Bruce R. Cordell and Skip Williams) puts me at war with myself. My favorite part of any fantasy setting is its magical elements, and many of my favorite characters in both fiction and gaming have been spellcasters. But the D&D Wizard (and to a lesser, but similar extent, the Sorcerer) are some of my least favorite classes, purely from a design perspective.

I'm currently making an effort to soften my pop-culture opinions, so I can acknowledge that there is a certain strategy to playing them, one that many D&D players find appealing. Manage your limited resources, think ahead and plan your spell loadout based on your anticipated challenges, collect new and more powerful spells. It's something of a puzzle, and puzzles can be satisfying to solve. However, if you're like me and you don't enjoy the puzzle, then all that's left is a class that is aggressively bland.

No, that's not right. The Wizard is hegemonically bland. It is the imperialist monarch of bland, leading an ever-expanding empire of bland, that threatens to swallow up everything non-bland about D&D and convert it to bland. And I am here to identify the source of this all-encompassing blandness and place the blame exactly where it belongs: on Specialist Wizards.

Or, more accurately, on what the mechanics of Specialist Wizards say about the construction of the D&D world. A Specialist Wizard gets one extra memorized spell per spell level per day from their chosen school of magic and they are forbidden from using one or more other schools of magic. Which means that every specialist is just shy of being a generalist. They don't need to follow a theme. They don't get any special benefit or drawback from the magic they wield. They don't even really need to do more than take their school's best spell at every spell level and then just continue to be a regular Wizard. And the schools themselves . . . blech.

Necromancy? Okay. Illusion? Okay. Enchantment and Divination? Yeah, those are still something. But Conjuration? Abjuration? Transmutation? Those aren't even a theme. They're just verbs that summarize things more interesting magic can do.

I wish I could say that Tome and Blood avoided the speedbumps, but it really didn't. It hit every single one. It gave us advice about what spells to learn that included "some fight it, but eventually, every sorcerer and wizard picks magic missile." And it broke down the different possible specialties with suggestions about which schools to skip, and somehow it always seemed to come back to Divination, Illusion, and Necromancy. Better to lose three full schools than even one of Conjuration, Evocation, or Transmutation. It's just a bad divide.

The strategy advice also wound up breaking 3rd edition's already tenuous game balance, though perhaps that wouldn't be obvious for some time to come. It suggested making scrolls of your less commonly-used spells and wands to let you keep casting once your daily spell roster was used up. We can now officially say goodbye to the Rogue. It was nice knowing you.

Wizards bug me, is what I'm saying. Having a "magic user" class in a fantasy game is as bad as having a "fighter" class in an action-adventure game. Give me classes that approach the game's fundamental activities in a unique and interesting way.

For all my griping, you might be forgiven for thinking I disliked Tome and Blood, but really I only disliked pages 4-9, 20-21 (maybe, if you have to ask what the difference is between Spellcraft and Knowledge [Arcana], that's a clue that you have one skill too many), and 81-83. That's only 10% of the book, pretty consistent with the series' track record. Once Tome and Blood gets past the questionable mechanics of the Wizard (and to a lesser extent, Sorcerer) class, and into actual fantasy flavor, it has a lot going for it.

Certainly, from a world-building perspective, this book's Prestige Classes are the best in the series. I especially enjoyed the transhumanist ones like the Dragon Disciple, which allowed a sorcerer to turn into a dragon-human hybrid, the Acolyte of the Skin, who replaced their own natural skin with the flayed hide of a demon, and the Elemental Savant, who demonstrated such profound elemental mastery that they became an elemental creature.

Mechanically, they have their flaws, what with the Dragon Disciple gaining abilities best suited to a front-line fighter, the Acolyte of the Skin losing five caster levels for some flavorful, but limited use abilities, and the Elemental Savant only benefiting from using elemental attack spells (though that's just as much a problem of the spell list as anything else). Given the edition's notorious caster/non-caster divide, it's probably a good thing that many of the Prestige Classes are weaker than just taking 10 levels of Wizard, which makes it a real shame that they won't see much use . . . due to being weaker than taking 10 levels of Wizard.

The rest of the book is also solid, if not quite as inspired. I liked all of the magical organizations, even if they were a little basic (though we covered this ground with Sword and Fist - the basic stuff needs to be written down somewhere, so why not here). My favorite was the Arcane Order, but only for an absolutely ridiculous reason - their leader is named "Japheth Arcane." That made me laugh ("No, no, you see it's the 'Arcane' Order, as in the Order that follows a guy named 'Arcane.' The fact that it does arcane stuff is just a coincidence.")

Overall, I'd say that this is probably my least favorite book in the series so far. Its high points were among the highest, but I feel like when all was said and done, the wrong side won my internal war. After reading the book about Wizards and Sorcerers, I was more convinced than ever that their cool stuff should be divided up and given to the game's other classes. "Magic" is simply too broad a niche.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked Phantom Ink, the special alchemical ink that could be made to only show up under certain predefined lighting conditions. Writing a note that's only visible in moonlight is pure Tolkien, and I'm here for it.

(V: tM) Blood Magic: Secrets of Thaumaturgy

There is only one thing wrong with Blood Magic: Secrets of Thaumaturgy and that thing is the entirety of chapters one and two (approximately half the book). I don't say this to cast aspersions on the writing - it was perfectly pleasant to read - but because the chapters themselves were a mistake on a conceptual level. What this book wants to be is a general reference guide about a mysterious vampiric ability - the use of blood to power strange and unnatural sorcery - and what the opening chapters were about was the Tremere.

It's easy to see how this happened. Blood magic is the signature Tremere ability. They're the best at it, and it's the thing they're best at. So you couldn't have a book about blood magic and not talk about the Tremere. However, they're only one clan out of 13, so to the degree that Thaumaturgy is a Tremere-specific thing, it belongs in a Tremere-specific book. You wouldn't really want to do a full supplement that was only useful to 1/13th of all player characters.

And in this book's defense, chapter four, about non-Tremere blood magic is great. The Followers of Set wield ancient Egyptian sorcery powered by the divine spite of their namesake. The Assamite clan of vampire assassins is aided by a secluded cadre of elder sorcerers who drink the drugged blood of their servitors to gain mystic visions that reveal the vulnerabilities of the clan's prey. The Tzimisce of eastern Europe call upon the ancient tradition of the koldun to wield the elemental power of their homelands. All of these guys, plus the Tremere, could definitely use a book that expands their fell powers and suggests plots, settings, and characters that put sorcery at the foreground of the story. 

Unfortunately, this book is not quite that. It has elements of it, but it doesn't seem to recognize the advantages of cross-pollination. Each branch of sorcery is powered by its own carefully-guarded Discipline (so that Setite, Assamite, and Tremere sorcerers each call upon a different trait) and each one has its own set of Paths and Rituals. I think, in practice, you'd probably say that it was okay if a koldunic sorcerer wanted to learn their own version of the Hearth Path or the Court of Hallowed Truth Ritual, but the book does not directly come out and say that it's possible.

Which leads to a chapter 2 that is ostensibly about the theory behind blood magic, but which mostly talks about the Tremere's Hermetic occult philosophy . . . and the Tremere's internal hierarchy . . . and the Tremere's network of chantry-houses . . . and the experience of apprenticing to a Tremere. It's all welcome material, but it's not what I signed up for when I picked up a book promising the "secrets of thaumaturgy."

I can't help dwelling on a passage from the introduction: 
We've made the attempt to move beyond the obvious "book of spells" concept. In fact, of this book's many words, only half are devoted to game systems and new powers. While this no doubt put the book into the "that sucks, I wish it had kewl powerz" column for many people, those who are looking for storytelling hooks for their chronicles shouldn't be disappointed.

Aside from being a classic example of White Wolf writing a book and then inexplicably daring you to enjoy it, the thing that strikes me about this passage is that its prediction is wrong. I'm actually largely satisfied by the book's cool powers (I don't know what to tell you about that sarcastic spelling, it was a thing in the turn of the century White Wolf fandom and the developers sometimes encouraged it, contrary to their own artistic and commercial interests), but I was indeed disappointed with the storytelling hooks. 

Like, there's a section about summoning ghosts and demons, and it's written from the perspective of a rogue Tremere, who talks about the utility of spirit magic, the occult theory behind it, and vaguely about its risks. And that's instead of the out-of-character section we could have gotten about spirits' personalities and motivations, different possible arcs for a summoning narrative, or a sensual description of the rituals themselves. That may just be a weakness of the fiction-driven approach, though. It doesn't have room to treat "storytelling hooks" as a tool for storytellers, because the storyteller doesn't exist in the context of the narrator. Chapter 4's encyclopedic approach does offer some useful hooks just by being open-ended and factual. The revelation that Setites can desecrate cryogenically stored bodies in lieu of increasingly rare Egyptian mummies does immediately suggest a possible plot.

But the thing that bugs me most about the introduction is its false dichotomy. It doesn't seem to realize that the cool powers are the storytelling hooks. You've got these sinister undead intellects, driven by obsession, willing to endure danger and privation and humiliation for decades on end in the hopes of unlocking the profane power of the blood . . . so tell me about the prize. Tell me what they are going to do with it. Tell me what's at stake if the players cannot stop them (or, more likely in a villain-protagonist game like Vampire: the Masquerade, if they're not stopped by a group of unlikely NPC heroes).

The description of the Court of Hallowed Truth ritual includes the line 
Several princes have come to rely on this, much to their undoing, as either the prince becomes preposterously indebted to the Tremere or other Kindred resent his heavy-handed tactics and refuse to attend meeting. This power invariably erodes the power of princes who rely on it, though some are too short-sighted to understand it.

What's that, a storytelling hook inside one of the kewl powerz? More plot in two sentences than the entire two and a half pages about Tremere Chantries? Because "the power to compel truth inside a magically-prepared chamber leads to resentment and chaos in the deception-driven world of vampire politics" is a great elevator pitch for the game's starting situation? I was led to believe that mechanics and story were incompatible.

Although, don't read too much into my sarcasm here. I expect that a lot of this book's weakness can be laid at the feet of the short turnaround time of early 00s rpg supplements. My guess is that Blood Magic: Secrets of Thaumaturgy went from pitch to publication in less than 3 months and that's why it has nine credited authors. This really needed to be one coherent book whose sections built off each other and which advanced a concrete, specific vision for blood-magic-driven campaigns, but it probably had too many cooks to ever really be that. In the end, it winds up being a halfway decent book of spells.

Ukss Contribution: The Necromancy section has me super sweating the upcoming Clanbook Giovanni. I won't disturb you with the specifics, but the phrase "after that, the Giovanni will have to come up with something really perverse" is used in reference to them trying to top a super fucked-up bit of necrophilia.

However, that section also contains my favorite detail in the entire book - the modern update to the Authoritative tradition in western necromancy. Instead of crowns, robes, and scepters, modern Giovanni impress the dead with "Rolex or Cartier watches, money clips distended with high-denomination bills, mahogany office furniture or expensive designer clothing."

This bit of imagery amuses me to no end. A sorcerer trying to impress a ghostly rube. "You want to do what I say, look at my fat stacks of cash." It's silly, but in a way that I unironically enjoy. The Giovanni as lifestyle influencers, selling the sigma-grindset hustle to the damned. I'm going to try and figure out a way to make it work in Ukss.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

(D&D 3e) Masters of the Wild

I've realized that I'm reading these books in a more or less arbitrary order. For whatever reason, Masters of the Wild (David Eckelberry and Mike Selinker) was the third softcover from the left in the D&D section of my bookshelf and I was like, "okay time for the next one," without any other thought process. It's only (barely) relevant now because Masters of the Wild is also the last one of these books to be printed (I know because it referenced literally every other volume in the series) and it shows. This book is notably better-designed and better-conceived than either of the other class books I've read so far.

This mostly shows up in the Prestige Classes. There's not a one of them that's just a fundamental build for the base class. Well, maybe the Frenzied Berserker (what if: a barbarian that raged), but even the Deepwood Sniper, the Shifter, and the Foe-Hunter do their shtick remarkably better than the base classes. The only one that's really a dud is the Exotic Weapon master, and that's mostly because "exotic weapons" aren't really a thing. I mean, they're a thing in the rules - weapons that are powerful and unique enough to merit charging a feat for proficiency - but that's not something that would have any meaning at all within the setting.  "Oh, you're an expert at the blowgun, the whip, and using a bastard sword one-handed? Wow, what an . . . interesting life you must lead."

It's not just the extra design experience that makes this my favorite book in the series (so far). I also like that it has a strong theme. It's not like Sword and Fist, which put two classes together because they were both ostensibly skilled at fighting (one of the fundamental aspects of the game). Nor is it like Song and Silence, which put two classes together because they were both rogue sub-types in 2nd edition. This book is all about characters who thrive in the wilderness . . . even if the Barbarian sometimes felt shoehorned in.

Don't get me wrong, the primal Barbarian from 4th edition, with its elemental and shapeshifting rage powers, is one of my favorite classes in an edition filled with great classes, and I think you can trace that back to this book. Maybe not directly, but I figure that the decision to label the class a "wild" class, rather than a "martial" class must have put it in a conceptual space where the primal Barbarian was possible. It's just that, given the mechanics of the 3rd edition Barbarian, the game was really doing the class a disservice by making it a cultural practice rather than a personality.

"Warrior who fights with reckless disregard for their own personal safety" is a concept that transcends culture, or even genre. It's the Incredible Hulk. It's Jayne from Firefly. It's Viking berserkers. It's Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai. In other words, a very appealing character type. You could easily do an "urban barbarian" and have it make more sense than an "urban ranger" (a character option included in this book, which I don't exactly dislike, except in the sense that it adds "determined tracker and manhunter" to a class that's already overburdened with too many archetypes - two-weapon fighter, archer, nature guy, semi-priest, violent racist - pick a lane . . . except maybe that last one).

However, as we saw with 2nd edition's Complete Barbarian's Handbook, the Barbarian class has the misfortune to sit smack dab in the center of D&D's worst quality: it's unexamined colonialism. Yeah, we get "savage" as a noun, though frankly the way this book uses it as an adjective (along with "primitive") is also pretty borderline. Barbarians are from hunter-gatherer type cultures (i.e. "barbarians") and they get Intuit Direction and Wilderness lore for the same reason they get illiteracy - they are assumed to come from a culture without advanced technology. They are "masters of the wild" by default. That's probably why their material here is relatively weaker than the Druid and Ranger focused stuff.

That being said, I think Masters of the Wild makes a pretty persuasive case that these books work better with three classes instead of two. It really only has room for one dry exploration of a niche rules topic:  an excruciating discussion of the Ranger's favored enemy mechanic, in which the suggested advice is inadvertently a point-by-point breakdown of why it's a bad mechanic ("you might be tempted to choose undead as a favored enemy. Resist the temptation. All undead are immune to critical hits and mind-influencing effects . . . Thus, favored enemy bonuses are all but useless" - no, seriously, if you find yourself in a position where the nature guy can't have a burning hatred for necromantic abominations, you've written yourself into a corner and should start over). The organizations and general worldbuilding are missed, but they were really more of a DM thing anyways.

Overall, I'd say that Masters of the Wild really shows 3rd edition starting to come into its own. We see here the potential for the edition's mechanical complexity to support strong flavor choices, and the abundance of options really does feel more liberating when many of those options are objectively cool (Oozemaster Prestige Class, anyone?) I probably should have saved it for last, because it's going to be a tough act to follow.

Ukss Contribution: I've got a lot of great choices here. I'm tempted to go with the most off-the-wall pick - opposable weapons. They're magic weapons that can be wielded by creatures without human-like hands, thanks to incorporating their own built-in thumbs. I can't even imagine the spatial logistics for how this might work, and every time I try my brain drifts into the realm of cosmic horror ("This enchantment creates one or more thumblike projections on the weapon. These artificial 'thumbs' fold around the appropriate limb of the wielder to allow proper use.") Normally, this is exactly the sort of fantasy I like, but the final product is so niche I can't imagine anyone with both the ability and the motive to make them.

So I'm going with my second choice, the almost as whimsical Cloudwalkers spell. "You create gaseous pads of cloudstuff on the subjects' feet, allowing them to walk on the clouds." I love it when spells are allowed to drift into absurd cartoon logic.

(Vampire: the Masquerade) Ghouls: Fatal Addiction

CONTENT WARNING: sexual abuse, animal abuse, child abuse

I suppose, when I got into this racket, I on some level knew that I'd one day read a White Wolf book where they waited until 3 pages from the end to introduce a character who commits casual bestiality. In fact, I've read this specific book once before, so it's possible that this very shock is part of what formed my overall impression of the company. It came as a surprise, because it's been 20 years and I only remembered the vague outline of Ghouls: Fatal Addiction (by Ronni Radner and Ethan Skemp), but it really shouldn't have been that much of a surprise. That's on me. I should have known that this would not be a fun way to follow up seeing Renfield in the theater. It's a White Wolf book. We're supposed to chuckle at the word "fun."

Nonetheless, the "Revolting Revenant" template threw me off balance. Up until then, I was mostly having fun. I look back at my notes and see something I chose to summarize as "p. 56 - gross, gross, gross" and, looking back, it was indeed super fucking gross, but it hits a bit different as a last impression. Up until about 20 minutes ago, my overall impression of the book was that it was a sometimes overly edgy soap opera that occasionally drifted into comic book territory. And I still think that's an accurate summation of about 90% of the book, but yeah. . .

I'm not even sure how much I should object to the grossness, though. Honestly, as much as there are things in this book that I absolutely would not depict in a game. As much as there are things that I wish I could scrub from my memory, it actually comes out ahead of many other White Wolf books in terms of responsibility. The gross things are here for the sake of being gross, but you don't get anything like the advice in Guide to the Sabbat or The Orphan's Survival Guide that suggests you should be gross as a player. So what is the horror genre, anyway? Is it that thing on page 56 about trapping pedophiles using a monster that looks like a child? Is it ancient families of inbred aristocrats, subject to horrific magical experiments that trap them in a shadow-life just short of true undeath, the madness of which occasionally inspires one of them to try and get impregnated by a dog?

I don't know. It certainly made me uncomfortable, but was I afraid? I guess I was afraid of being uncomfortable. Is that a thing? Horror fans would know better than me.

This book is also a guide to using ghouls (humans who have been fed vampire blood to become supernaturally loyal servants, like Renfield from Dracula) as player characters, and unlike their werewolf counterparts from Kinfolk: Unsung Heroes, it actually makes a case that there's a compelling campaign in the idea. Ghouls are motivated by grand and terrible passions, distinct from the vampires that created them. Even the best of them must navigate addiction, obsession, and a loss of control. They live in a moral paradox of being the vampires' most degraded victims while also abetting the worst of their atrocities, and if they somehow manage to escape, you have the irony of living humans hunting vampires in order to drink their blood. There are some great stories to be mined from this material, and the best part of this book is the Storytelling chapter (I know, I'm as shocked as anybody else).

The biggest weakness of the book, aside from the fact that it measures about 1.2 White Wolfs on the grossness scale, is that it focuses too much on vampires. Large portions of the book are devoted to giving a clan-by-clan breakdown of the ghoul experience, and that's really too much of the wrong kind of information. The ghoul's vampire domitor is an immensely important part of their story, to be sure, but canonically, it's rare for any ghoul to have specific information about the kindred. You need three dots in the Vampire Lore skill to even know the name of the local prince. A list of broad domitor archetypes (i.e. "the paramour," "the taskmaster," "the experimenter," etc), perhaps with a brief list of the Clans where they commonly appear, would likely have suited the book better. If the experience of being a ghoul is one of being thrust into a mysterious world, fraught with danger, perhaps a more mysterious tone would have gone farther in communicating that experience.

Overall, though, I'd say that Ghouls: Fatal Addiction ranks fairly high in terms of pre-revised content. It's kind of obvious now why the Ravnos got nuked in the Week of Nightmares (they were really using the Roma with a thoughtlessness that bordered on malice), and I think they might have overestimated how much putting offensive words in the mouths of villains might insulate them from criticism, but there is fun to be had here, which makes it better than some other titles I could name. Approach with caution, I guess.

Ukss Contribution: This is another one of those books that's on the bubble. White Wolf liked to push buttons for the sheer anarchic joy of being edgy. But, if I'm being honest, the edginess in this book was more disgusting than offensive. If someone came to me saying that it was over the line, I'd definitely back them up, but it wasn't over my line (which, I guess, would be the book explicitly coming out and saying that a lack of squeamishness is a virtue).

So, I guess my choice is the least problematic of the revenant families - the Obertus. Their whole deal is profane Lovecraftian scholarship and reckless mad science, and they secretly study their vampire masters in hopes of transcending their condition and gaining immortality without all the strings attached.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

(D&D 3e) Song and Silence

Sometimes, you'll just be reading a fun little book about rogues and bards, then BAM! Nine pages worth of musical instruments. It wasn't an entirely terrible experience, but it did kill the book's momentum. It's that weird overlap between rpg-books and encyclopedias. Maybe more useful in 2001, when Song and Silence (David Noonan and John D Rateliff) was published, but kind of obsolete these days, when anyone can just google "unusual bard instruments" and find dozens of listicles and forum posts that cover all this same ground. Song and Silence does redeem itself a bit by giving its example instruments unique rpg mechanics (for example, playing bardic music through a masterwork alphorn allows you to inspire people several miles away), but at the same time, they had to know that some of these instruments would never see use. You're giving me the option to play a bard that specializes in the harpsichord? Gee, thanks, that'll be really useful in all the encounters that take place inside a noble's parlor (but nowhere else on the estate). That's a great use of my skill points.

But that's only 10 percent of the book. And then you've also got the 10 percent devoted to expanding the trap creation rules, which perhaps should have been something for a DM-facing book instead of a character class guide. But the other 80 percent is solid.

The highlight, for me, was the magic items. You've got a sword that loves singing, a bottle that breaks when you say the command word (it's no more durable than a regular bottle, but it does mean that you can use a steel flask instead of a fragile glass vial to deliver your contact poison), and a possum pouch that will graft to your skin. Not sure it was necessary to make the Jumping Caltrops as cute as they were (when deployed they "immediately try to scurry under the interloper's feet"), but I appreciate the whimsy.

The actual most useful part of the book was another GM-facing section where it talked about different types of thieves' guilds and bardic colleges. Players could get some use out of it if they wanted to have "renegade fantasy mafioso" as part of their background, but mostly it's just a section full of adventure hooks and setting background. I might find fault with it for being a little obvious, but that's just the thing with the musical instruments all over again - when you can't rely on two decades' worth of archived conversations and think-pieces, it can be useful to have the obvious written down.

Now, for the part that is less useful in retrospect, but which was my primary draw for buying the book all those years ago - the prestige classes. They're all pretty decent, but they seem trapped in an early-3rd edition mentality where they haven't quite worked out what a prestige class is supposed to be. So you've got a couple that should just be builds for the base class, like the thief-acrobat, dungeon delver, and most egregious of all, the virtuoso bard (it's the prestige class you take if you're a bard who wants to specialize in music, though, strangely, the best virtuoso build might be a wizard who dips one level into rogue to meet the skill requirements). And then there are the classes that have a good central idea, but make questionable mechanical choices - the spymaster is just generally worse at being a spy than 10 levels of rogue or bard would be, thanks to its requirement that you spend 2 skill points per level in buying craft, knowledge, or profession skills for your cover identities. I get what they were going for, but it's actually a problem that's solved by the Jack of All Trades feat, printed for the first time in this very book, and which would have felt like a power boost to get for free.

But there are some gems. The Temple-Raiders of Olidammara are exactly what a prestige class should be. They're sacred thieves who specialize in robbing the temples of rival gods. I'd quibble that they should get "+1 in spellcasting class" instead of their own limited spell progression, but they're a fun character concept that can't be built, even approximately, with the base class, and they add something interesting to the world's lore. 

Likewise, the Fangs of Lolth explore some intriguing design space. They're rogues who pick up a cursed magic item that grafts to their skin and gradually turns them into weird spider-creatures.It's probably too specific of a concept to really merit one of the book's limited prestige class slots because, seriously, there's no way there's ever going to be two of these guys in the same campaign (and even in successive campaigns it would feel weird to have a different player going through the exact same arc, again), but I like the idea of a spell or magic item whose effects are so profound that they become your class progression.

Overall, I liked this book, but I'm wondering if maybe I'm reading the series in a bad order. This is the second one of these thin class guides that's felt like it was a solution in search of a problem, like they were going to do a book about all the core classes, whether they had ideas or not. I shouldn't complain, though, because I know that books like this used to be an important revenue stream for rpgs, back before big full-color prestige books became the norm. And besides, there's still plenty of time for amazing things to grow out of the seeds planted here. Onward! Towards 3.5!

Ukss Contribution: We learn something quite shocking about elf-run thieves guilds. Sometimes, they "case a location for decades." It's a detail meant to demonstrate the patience born of their long lives, but I couldn't help thinking that maybe they needed to work on upping their throughput. But the more I lingered on the idea, the more it charmed me - immortal thieves, planning heists that can be measured against the rise and fall of nations. What sort of treasure is worth that kind of effort? What sort of treasure even stays in one place long enough to make decades of planning useful? And what sort of defenses would make decades of planning necessary? It's an intriguing idea for a campaign, and thus a worthy challenge to put in a campaign setting.

Monday, April 17, 2023

(M:tAw 1e) Left-Hand Path

I'm trying to think of something really scathing to say about Left-Hand Path (Dave Brookshaw and Malcom Shepherd) and I am coming up totally blank. Which, of course, is a good thing, except that my motive for being so uncharacteristically vicious is that I am also at a loss for something extraordinary to praise. I generally liked the new Legacies. I thought Cloud Infinite, the techobro-parody mystics who practice distributed magical computing on hijacked souls with their mystical botnet in order to gain superhuman intelligence, was a great addition to the villain line-up and could easily anchor an adventure that really leaned into the satirical proletarian horror.

On the other hand, the Tremere. I think this might be a case of Mage: the Awakening falling victim to its own success. Back when the core first came out, it was obvious that the Awakening setting needed a group of dark magic guys who stole souls in order to grant themselves eternal youth. Clearly, if you're doing modern occult horror, you gotta have guys like that. But then Mage kept chugging along for another 8 years and accumulated a canon of memorable villains like the Daksha and the Echo Walkers (plus, I guess the Seers of the Throne really got fleshed out at some point) and it was no longer enough to be just those guys. Sophistication. Fair enough.

But in remaking the Tremere, Left-Hand Path goes back to Mage's weakest element - whatever the hell it is that's going on with Atlantis - and the new Tremere backstory is now too baroque and arch for me to even attempt to summarize. The practical upshot is that they now do this thing where they hunt down and eliminate rival soul-stealing Legacies, both for Atlantean gibberish reasons and in order to replicate their abilities with stolen souls. "The Legacy that parasitizes Legacies" isn't a terrible idea, but this book stumbles into its most obvious failure point - potentially, the stolen Legacies are going to wind up being more interesting than the original, but now you've burned them forever because they are canonically extinct, eaten by the Tremere. We're never going to get a full version of the Nagaraja, who steal their enemies souls in order to become master of their vices, or the Seo Hel, who can draw forth a victim's prized possessions so long as they possess their soul. Thanks, Tremere.

But even that's not really me being scathing. NuTremere are still a perfectly serviceable villain group, and that's kind of where I'm at with the book as a whole. I can't help comparing it to Banishers, and my thought is that Left-Hand Path has a better overall vibe, but Banishers was better when it came to actual, specific villains.

Ironically, though, I think they both make the same basic error, only coming at it from opposite directions. Both books fail to (completely, consciously) realize that the best Mage: the Awakening villains are the ones that occupy an in-between place in mage society. The best part of Banishers was when they introduced characters who could really just be asshole mages, and the book weakened that by making the banisher condition metaphysically distinct from regular awakening. By contrast, the best part of this book is the way it kept emphasizing that "left-handed" (i.e. "sinister," no shade on my left-handed comrades) mages could remain undetected inside mage society for long periods of time, thanks to regular mages', ahem, moral flexibility, but that message was undermined by the relative scarcity of NPCs that were compelling enough to put in a game.

Part of this comes down to the book's short length. There were undoubtedly some sacrifices to wordcount. Better to be abstract and versatile than specific and niche. But also, "Blood of the Lamb," the psychopathic churchgoer who misinterpreted the gospel and thought Jesus "forced himself into the devout through His blood" and now sacrifices women to his "Un-God." What is that? That's nothing.

I really would have liked to see more of chapter 1, where it talks about "Heretics and Apostates." Sometimes, you've got villains who take the philosophies of the Orders too far, or who are used as deniable assets, or are normal mages who get some strange ideas. And sometimes "left-handed" is a political label. "However much mages dislike having to judge the Left-Handed against a code of behavior, they dislike having their own conduct called into question more."

That is something that really narrows in on the gothic-punk wavelength. You could write a whole campaign around just that one sentence. You're an outsider not because of the crimes you commit, but because of the crimes you refuse to commit. Maybe it's a bit high-minded, but it really does work with the urban fantasy genre.

Overall, this was a decent cap to my time with Mage: the Awakening. I go back and forth on whether I want to invest more into the series - my natural completionism wars with the fact that I'm rapidly running out of shelf space - and this didn't exactly clear up my ambivalence, but I can see more of the game's potential, and I think this book would be helpful if I ever did decide to run a game.

Ukss Contribution: The Cwn Annwn. This is a Legacy that would be great villains in another setting (the only reason they don't really work in Mage: the Awakening is that the metaphysics of the setting require some additional cruft that doesn't really add to the concept). The basic pitch is that they use spells to disintegrate items in order to replicate them in their luxury demiplane (they can also do this to people, but the replicas are lifeless automatons). A simple idea that combines the heist genre with personal horror (the disintegration is how their demiplane gets the information necessary to make the duplicates, so they wind up doing things like dusting famous artworks and straight-up murdering people). And if I place it in a pure fantasy world, I don't need to include the part about the whole thing being a trap that allows the denizens of the Lower Depths (represented here by the skinless invisible dogs that symbiotically power the mages' disintegration spells) to siphon off the energies of creation. 

I mean, cosmic horror is a thing that Mage: the Awakening occasionally does pretty well, but it feels like one idea too many to me. I'm content with callous thieves who would make the real world into a wasteland if it meant they got to live in paradise.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

(D&D 3e) Sword and Fist

 As a collector and an amateur critic, my thoughts often return to the subjects of sophistication and the cultivation of taste. Get deep enough into any hobby, fandom, or interest and your opinions start to become . . . alienating. You stand in front of Rothko and are moved to tears by its power and beauty, but when it comes time to explain it to your dad, words fail you. Or you find yourself delighted when a new game is "Souls-hard," and have a hard time believing people might want a difficulty slider. Or you claim with a straight face that James Joyce's Ulysses is your favorite novel.

Or, to choose a more pertinent example, you're an rpg blogger who has read 400 books over the past 5 years and your first question when encountering a new one is "does this adequately justify its existence?" What kind of question is that to ask? How is that in any way a sensible way to relate to a new piece of art?

Nonetheless, I keep doing it. If you've ever wondered about the seemingly whimsical criteria by which I judge these books, that's a big part of it - I like it when a book justifies its existence to my satisfaction, never mind that the more books I read, the harder it is for that to happen.

It's very difficult to describe this phenomenon without sounding like a snob ("I guess I just like art that's not accessible to novices"), but I don't think it's actually snobbishness (I say, fully aware that I'm exonerating myself from such a charge). I think it's a matter of practice. You engage with a form of art often enough and long enough, then certain aspects of that engagement become . . . easier. You encounter a new work and that inevitably raises questions, and the work captures your attention for exactly as long as it takes to answer those questions. So when you ask and answer a particular question often enough, it can no longer hold your attention for long. Sophistication, then, is a preference for works that force you to ask the questions that arise once you know all the obvious answers.

I'm torn between the perspective that sophistication is value neutral, because it is largely a function of time and exposure and the perspective that sophistication is a tribute to the power of art. Shunning sophistication as mere snobbery seems to me like you're denying the ability of art to expand your perspective. If sophistication is not a meaningful distinction, then the obvious is the only thing that can exist. But, of course, there's a trap for the critic too - how might you bring yourself to reconnect with the obvious, because the entry points, the simple questions and easy answers, are inevitably what drew you to the art in the first place (and if I had a definition of "snobbishness" it would probably be "the belief that you can skip the obvious without losing anything of value")?

Which is a long-winded way of saying that Sword and Fist, by Jason Carl, is basic as hell, but I don't want to hold that against it. This is actually a book from my "old collection" (defined here as the books I bought primarily to use, before I started identifying as a collector). I've had it since practically its date of publication, and I have no memory of being jaded about it the first time around. Insomuch as I have any memory of this book at all, I seem to recall being impressed by the versatility of the 3rd edition rules, and I loved that for the first time in my D&D career, I could play characters like the Drunken Master and actually feel like the rules supported me.

But that's just a (possibly confabulated) memory of an opinion. My opinion this time is a) the Drunken Master prestige class is pretty cool; and b) wow, they didn't anticipate any of 3rd edition's flaws, like, at all. They're out here talking about giving up your iterative attacks in order to take a movement action like it's a tactical decision and not a serious design flaw. And yeah, sure, I'll consider the possibility of "wizard, sorcerer, cleric, and druid Ravagers," because "their ability to cause terror in their foes is a very useful defensive measure" and there's nothing that you could possibly get with your eight skipped caster levels that will match using an Aura of Terror as a supernatural ability three times per day (also, the only thing the Aura does is impose a slight penalty to savings throws, which is maybe useful for a spellcaster, but not worth giving up spellcasting for, and definitely not worth relying on as a defense, but also, Ravagers get no class abilities that call for a savings throw until level 10, so that's kind of a weird design).

But look, it's easy to be snarky, and in all honesty, what I'm complaining about is really the caster classes and not anything in this book. I actually really like the magic level of this book. Join the elite warrior order of the god of slaughter and learn to use supernatural fear as a weapon. Give up your name to become a Ghostwalker and so long as your enemies don't know who you are, you can feign your death and walk through walls. Get the capstone ability for the Ninja of the Crescent Moon class and you become this sneaky little guy, constantly taking 10 on stealth checks, regardless of the circumstances (which is just hilarious to imagine). Nothing in this book is worth giving up 10 caster levels for, but I could see how 5 Fighter feats might be a good trade-off. And I would definitely play in a world where this was all magic was - neat little tricks that supplement skill, rather than replace it.

But that's not the 3rd edition we got, so there was a certain sense of doom reading Sword and Fist. This is a book that's dedicated to the Fighter and the Monk, two of the game's lowest tier classes, and nothing from this book is even going to slow that assessment down. 

On the other hand, that's a pretty unreasonable thing to expect from a book so early in the edition's life cycle. If you give Sword and Fist a mulligan on D&D3's mechanical problems, then it serves an admirable niche - it demonstrates various ways you can adapt the new system. It shows you how to build a knight or a swashbuckling duelist, and though it will eventually prove unwise to blur the lines between a prestige class and a character build (and, in fact, this book advises players to build towards the prestige classes they'll eventually want to take - one of the big complaints about the edition as a whole), it does feel good to see these different Fighter concepts have distinct mechanical expressions.

I'm pretty sure I found it terribly impressive, back in the day, even if I now think it's basic as hell.

Ukss Contribution: Mercurial swords. They're hollow swords with a reservoir of mercury inside them. I guess the operating principle is that the mercury sloshes around as you swing the sword and adds momentum to your hits. It's absolutely off-the-wall nonsense, but it perfectly illustrates the distinction I was making between "basic" and "sophisticated."

"Basic" asks an obvious question: what if there were a sword that was better than a normal sword? And it gives you an obvious answer: a magic sword.

"Sophisticated" takes that one step further: how can you represent the magical action of a magic sword, to make it visibly better than a normal sword? And it gives you a less obvious answer: by taking an off-the-wall nonsense idea and saying that the people of this fantasy world have figured out a way to make it work.

Monday, April 10, 2023

(M: tAw 1e) Banishers

Order mages practice magic in ways the Banishers find unacceptable, and in return, order mages find the slaughter of their own by Banishers unacceptable. Both sides are responsible for atrocities committed against the other, and neither side is likely to change their point of view.

Aw, c'mon, Pentacle mages. Shouldn't you at least consider the possibility that you deserve to be slaughtered? I mean, you oppress us with your existence, and also you claim that we oppress you by trying to eliminate your existence. What's clear is that oppression is going on, and as reasonable people who are foes of oppression, we should be able to come up with a compromise that eradicates your foul practices from the face of the earth without necessitating your violent deaths. It's called "reaching across the aisle." My hand's already out. Where's yours?

Oh, man, that felt bad to write. I'm not saying that Banishers (by Jackie Cassada, Matthew McFarland, John Newman and Malcolm Sheppard) is crypto-fascist. I'm saying that it is so morally incoherent that it reads like a catalogue of demons, swerving into fascist arguments with total unawareness, when it's not being just generally murder-apologist or naive to the point of dangerousness.

"The Feared don't use the word lich to describe themselves and take offense at any comparison to the Tremere."

. . . I'm . . . sorry? They're two groups that eat souls to unnaturally prolong their lifespans, but unlike the Tremere, the Feared only eat the souls of people they were already planning on killing for unrelated ideological reasons, so that makes it . . . okay?

The difficult thing about reading Banishers was that it would be a fine villain book, if it had the conviction to just be a fucking villain book! Half the page-count is given over to example Banisher cabals and most of them work pretty well as antagonists. You've got your roving band of killers who take cover in a creepy carnival, the pack of cannibals who suppress their human intellects and hunt mages like beasts, the extremely thinly-veiled scientologists of the "Militant Auditing Division," the conflicted Christians who run people down in their hippy bus for being witches, and so on. If the book had just been twice as many groups of villainous mages, it would actually be pretty good (modulo old White Wolf's propensity for putting horrifying things like child abuse and rape in their villains' backstories).

The main thing holding Banishers back is that it keeps trying to make "Banishers" a thing. "Mages who hate magic" that's all it ever had to be. We don't need legends of those the Atlanteans called "Timori" (the Fearful). We don't need speculation about how their Awakenings went wrong. We especially don't need "high Wisdom" Banishers who "confront sorcerers as counselors and evangelists and try to talk their quarry into giving up the Mysteries."

Or, more accurately, we don't need any of those things to be "Banishers," a metaphysically distinct order of being that is mutually exclusive with being a mage. To paraphrase my notes: Is a Banisher not just an asshole mage? Why do you need forebearers to be an asshole? Did any of this call out for an explanation?

Take, for example, the Venus Valley bed and breakfast. It's a wondrous place where an undisturbed Hallow sheds its excess mystic energy to create an aura of peace and contentment, which not incidentally makes the B&B an enchanting destination for couples looking to rekindle the spark in their relationships. The owners believe that harvesting the Hallow for mana would destroy its aura and ruin the valley's natural beauty, so they defend their territory with lethal force, killing any mage who comes around and attempts to exploit the Hallow.

That's already a Mage story. Mages having turf wars over Hallows is already an established part of the setting. Making the defending mages into a charming hippy couple who want to protect a precious natural resource and share its benefits with community is giving them an interesting and sympathetic motive. Saying they use poison to preemptively strike at any mage who passes through makes it a small-town murder mystery - a staple of the occult procedural genre. This is absolutely something you can run, and it will probably be a fun and memorable adventure.

So, why would you then add on top of that the information that "Their son, William, is a mage himself, but is a member of the Free Council and is not a Banisher, a fact about which the couple remains ignorant." Like, the concept of small-town mages not realizing their son is one of the big city mages they frequently kill is a fine bit of drama. But what is "not a Banisher" supposed to mean? Not a murderer? Because most people aren't murderers. It's a piece of non-information.

Except in the context of this book, where "Banisher" is something you are, not just something you do. Banishers have special Banisher-style awakenings and can recognize each other, even if they have nothing else in common. The Carnival of Innocents will release the Banishers of the Militant Auditing Division from their deadly trap because they recognize a pan-Banisher solidarity and part of the mystery of Banishers as a phenomenon is the fact that "no mage has ever successfully rehabilitated a Banisher." There is only limited permeability between the two groups, so much so that mages who join Banisher cults are not entirely trusted, because even though they are mages who stalk and kill mages, they are not Banishers who stalk and kill mages.

It's the dullest, most frustrating type of conflict. Fanatics who want to kill you for something you can't control, and who you can never get through to because they don't consider you to be the same species . . . and they're right, at least about the fact that they're different enough to not technically be hypocrites.

"Banishers invoke a theme of violent ignorance." Oh, good. But at least it's still fantasy. Except "the stories of Banishers are the stories about the denial of all that wonder."

The best thing I can say about this book is that it did not consistently succeed at what it was setting out to do. It's a useful, and occasionally even fun, rpg supplement, but only when it forgets it's supposed to be about "Banishers."

Ukss Contribution: One of the groups, the Translators, believes that mages are actually aliens in disguise, so they use a homemade "Translation Chamber" to teleport them back to their planet of origin. Except that it's not a teleporter. It's just a disintegrator. They're unwittingly vaporizing mages while under the impression that they're defending Earth with a compassionate alternative. It's not actually a plausible plot if you strictly follow the rules of the game (because disintegrating someone is more difficult than teleporting them, generally, and uses different Arcana besides), but it is an interesting conflict. An equivalent group on Ukss is more likely to believe in demonic possession than alien abduction, but the tropes are close enough that I think the concept will . . . translate (the pun is, sadly, intentional, but I tried thinking of an alternative and the synonym "carry over" is actually discussed in the book's text, so I bowed to inevitability.)

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Saturday, April 8, 2023

(D&D3e) Monster Manual

I don't know how I feel about the 3rd edition Monster Manual (Skip Williams, Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook). It's a monster book, and monster books have an airtight formula that's nearly impossible to screw up, but it's also part of a lineage of monster books that are largely better written and better curated, and what am I supposed to do with that?

This isn't purely an objective assessment. I took a moment to review the 1st edition Monster Manual and everywhere the 3e book is weak, the 1e book is weaker. Its descriptions are shorter, its fights are less interesting, mechanically, it has less variety and less worldbuilding. But the 1st edition book was also noticeably amateurish . . . and believe it or not, I'm counting that as a strength. You read the 1st edition Monster Manual and it feels like you're peeking at the sketchbook of some imaginative nerd, whereas the 3rd edition book is a slick, professional product . . . that shows little evolution in gameplay and mechanics. Like, in 1st edition, if you see a nymph disrobe, you've got to save or die, because D&D was designed as a game for horny teenage boys who were afraid of sex, but the 3rd edition nymph has the exact same ability except she deliberately evokes it a maximum of once every 10 minutes and can do it even when her clothes are on. What the fuck is that even supposed to be? Don't get me wrong, I am not sitting here longing for the way things used to be. The D&D nymph has always been a poorly designed encounter, but "she's so hott teh nekkid, it burns" is at least an idea. What we have here is the memory of an idea.

It's a sensation I felt most acutely with my beloved Ravid. There's absolutely no reason a creature this weird and niche should have been made core. I can only assume that Monte Cook was pressed for time and still had the text for Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix III saved on his computer. However, upon making the decision to include this positive-energy, object-animating worm creature, it is kind of unforgiveable that they omitted all of the original creature's personality and motives.


The ravid, composed of life-giving energy, is creation incarnate. In its wake, things simply come to life. That makes it one of the most volatile and dangerous creatures a body's likely to come across. . . Most of them see the multiverse as a sad, lonely expanse that needs to be filled with life, and take it upon themselves to bestow this great gift upon as many objects as they can . . . Folks encountering a ravid may never actually see the creature itself, but instead find themselves in a desolate area where everything is alive.

And that's only an excerpt from its two-page description. It gets other cool abilities like instantly healing the damage it deals with its attacks, mutually annihilating itself and any undead it comes into contact with, and casually creating new elementals when there are no nearby objects to animate.

Now, from the MM (3e):

Ravids are extraplanar creatures embodying positive energy. These bizarre entities imbue creatures with energy by their touch and animate lifeless objects around them . . . Ravids that make their way to the Material Plane wander about aimlessly, followed by the objects to which they've given life.

I've omitted some text there, too, but not nearly as much, and the stuff I'm skipping is not nearly as good as the stuff I skipped the first time around. It sort of exemplifies the book's largest fault - it took things that are weird and unique and dramatically cut them down. The facts are there, but not the feeling, or most of the story hooks. And the only reason I can think of for this vandalism is that they really wanted to hit that 500-monster milestone they advertised on the back of the book (for comparison, the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual had 300 creatures in 165% of the page count). 

I'm wondering if maybe it's an artifact of the edition change. Wizards of the Coast had this huge back catalogue and could safely assume that players returning from previous editions would have access to all the flavor they needed, so they just decided to cram in as many mechanical conversions as possible, so that, no matter what was going on in your old campaign, you could convert it to the 3rd edition rules.

I don't want to be too harsh on this book, though. It does have its strengths. While it's not exactly a revolution in monster design, there is clearly at least some thought put into the numbers. We get challenge ratings for the first time, and you can use this book for your characters' entire career. And there's a lot of variety - powered by minimalist descriptions, sure, but for most creatures, minimal is enough. Not every monster is going to be a metaphysical mystery like the ravid. 

It also introduces bold new concepts like monster levels and templates, which will one day contribute heavily to 3rd edition's reputation for decadence. But I like decadence, so I'm looking forward to these mechanics raging out of control.

Overall, my opinion of the 3rd edition Monster Manual is shaped by my opinion of 3rd edition as a whole. The edition is going to be wild and alive in a way that even better-designed editions will struggle to match, and if this early book can sometimes feel perfunctory, I can at least appreciate it as a necessary jump-start that contributes to the edition's building momentum. Make of that what you will.

Ukss Contribution: "Bronze dragons are inquisitive and enjoy polymorphing into small friendly animals to observe adventurers." Cute. I'm not sure why you'd make this the behavior of an entire species, rather than a personality quirk for a specific NPC, but that's really more of an issue with D&D as a whole - it takes singular creatures from myth and legend and makes them part of a class (see: the medusa). I am under no such constraint, so Ukss will just have a single inquisitive shapeshifting dragon, but maybe it will be even cuter.