Sunday, July 30, 2023

Shadowrun (1st Edition)

Content Warning: Genocide

Confession time: sometimes I succumb to hubris. I develop a plan in my head and it seems so cool, and hey, the effort and expense can't be that much, right? Occasionally, this leads to great things - buying the full Mage: the Ascension set worked out pretty well, even if I'm now 2-3 books behind the curve. But sometimes. . . more often, if I'm being honest . . . I get in over my head. I get a good night's sleep and when I wake up, I realize that, despite the grandiosity I felt when I went on an all-night wishlisting binge, the game I'm thinking of collecting has a giant back catalogue, a dedicated fan-base that keeps the prices pretty stable, and a lot of edition redundancy that would most likely wind up being pretty dry. Sometimes, I catch myself in time, as I did with Earthdawn 3rd edition, and I make the reasonable decision to not buy a bunch of books I'm never going to use. Other times, it takes an unwise purchase before I catch on. . . as happened with Shadowrun 1st edition.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not feeling any sort of terrible buyer's remorse right now. It's just that I've realized that I have absolutely no use for this thing. It's a lot like the Shadowrun 3rd edition that I fell in love with, but there's less of it. This isn't like Mage, which dramatically changed focus between editions. Nor is it like Dungeons and Dragons or Exalted, where there's a great deal of mechanical experimentation. The rules seem largely the same, with 3e having greater clarity and rigor, but still using the same type of dice to make the same type of rolls. I noticed a few bits and bobs that improved between editions (removing the automatic allergies from metahuman characters was a good move, for example), but nothing that compelled to do a side-by-side breakdown.

Likewise, with the setting. It's less detailed, more implied, but all the major beats are there. It was kind of funny when the history section talked about the Soviet Union's reaction to the events of the early 21st century, but not like ha, ha funny. They still didn't survive to the starting year of 2050, even if the reasons for their break-up were different than the real world's, so it's not even like the bulk of Cold War-era sci-fi where you wind up with Soviets on the moon or some shit. I imagine that, of all the sci-fi franchises that bridged the pre- and post- Soviet eras, the adjustment to match real-world events was among the smoothest. 

And that was the biggest dissonance. Everything else felt very familiar, with setting elements notable only by their absence."Mr Johnson" doesn't even show up until the glossary. And the megacorps are name-dropped, but not explicitly listed. I can say with confidence that Saeder-Krupp (from Lofwyr's "critter" entry), Renraku (from its Seattle Arcology), Aztechnology (the same), Mitsuhama (from the opening fiction), Shiawase (from a Supreme Court decision), and Ares (from the equipment chapter) exist, but if I didn't already know the significance of the names, I'd assume they were just random background elements.

That could be a significant difference. I've been thinking about this book as having a lot of stuff in place, even from the very beginning of the game, but I could be getting the causality wrong. It could just be that when later adventures needed a new corporation, they just used one of the names from the core book, and over time canon solidified around a few popular choices. Maybe the thing about the dragon who owned a corporation was originally a throw-away line, but people found it so interesting that it resulted in Saeder-Krupp becoming a major setting element.

Time is funny that way. The only way I can know for sure is to track the progression of the metaplot in real time, perhaps by assembling a complete collection of 1st and 2nd edition material and reading it in order of release . . .

No, no. Gotta talk myself down here. I've already dismissed that idea. I can't afford it and I don't have the room, even if I could . . . Besides, my 3e stuff gives a pretty complete overview of the Shadowrun world c. 2060, no need to go looking for more. . .

Okay, close call averted. I guess, for all that I complain about it, FASA's metaplot strategy worked on me. First edition starts in 2050, each new book advances the timeline just a bit, and so it's not just a matter of new books contradicting the old. The first edition core felt familiar to me in part because it was the third edition's past. It feels like the most natural thing in the world to be curious about what happened in between.

Still, I'm not going to do that, so there's no point dwelling on it. Let's wrap this up by talking about the big issue with this book, the one I've been conspicuously avoiding so far - its absolutely Not Okay portrayal of Native Americans.

And fuck if I know what I'm supposed to say about this. My natural instinct is to give it points for at least being politically radical. It's sometimes hard to tell, because of the history section's neutral voice, but I'm pretty sure that in the first section, about the "Resource Rush" and renewed conflict between the American government and American Indians, we're supposed to side with the Indians. 

Right? It seems very obvious to me now. The government steals the last of the Native Americans' land, rounds them up to go into "re-education camps" and there is talk of "The Indian Question" that seems like a very deliberate word choice.

But then, when it does bust-out the g-word, it's as part of a rhetorical question, "Was this a deliberate plan of genocide, as Coleman would one day claim?"

I mean, yeah, probably, but why are you asking me? It's an issue that comes up from time to time with older works. John Milton really didn't intend to make Satan so charismatic, even subconsciously. He really did have such a dour and soul-crushing theology that he couldn't tell "better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven" was one of history's rawest lines. To him, the line was a flashing neon sign pointing to this guy being totally and irredeemably corrupt. It was unthinkable that someone could ever think that there was anything better than serving God. That a character would boldly claim otherwise was a sure sign that they were evil incarnate.

So, it's possible that the answer to the rhetorical question was meant to be "no, the United States would never enact a deliberate plan of genocide." Certainly, the "Street Cop" description ("A few cops have, as always, succumbed to the temptation of their positions and become 'bad cops,' but most remain true to their honor") suggests some unexamined conservatism on the parts of the authors (almost as if they're reluctant to really embrace the "punk" part of the genre), but I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt here for two reasons. The first is that I'm familiar with FASA's larger body of work and while they didn't always do it well, it's clear to me that they at least thought about these matters. The second reason is that this book was written relatively recently, and I'm pretty sure 1989 was on the cusp of the 90s trend of reevaluating the historiography surrounding colonialism. Dances With Wolves would win Best Picture for 90-91 and Shadowrun has a very similar vibe.

Also, like Dances With Wolves, this book winds up hitting almost every item on a "how not to write Native Americans" checklist. And that, too, feels authentic to me. I called it "politically radical" not just because it portrayed the USA as a villain, but because of the way that villainy was resolved - the emergence of magic is an equalizing force that allows an alliance of Native Americans to defeat the US military and decolonize much of the western United States. However, while the premise has genuine punk potential, the execution . . . let's call it "idealized to the point of being condescending." The reason the Indians were able to win is because they were more in touch with nature, and thus their innate spirituality let them get the jump on everyone else once magic re-emerged.

The end result is a cyberpunk setting that does almost nothing to explore the punk potential in an oppressed group turning the tables on the capitalist-imperialist hegemony that rules the world. Instead, the Native Americans are used as a stand-in for an environmentalist critique of capitalism (and even then, it's mostly using "technology" as a stand-in for capitalism - in particular, soy takes a real beating here, despite being environmentally much friendlier than most of the foods it replaced). It's not nothing, but also, it's not good.

All that being said, I still really like Shadowrun. It's got a unique voice that's apparent even at this early date, and when it's not being racist, it does a lot of interesting fantasy world-building. There's a lot of room for improvement, but I'm looking forward to seeing if they can pull it off.

Ukss Contribution: I'll admit, the racial issues surrounding this game's depiction of Native Americans are beyond my ability to completely parse. The feeling I got was "well-meaning, but clumsy to the point of offensiveness." It also had some issues with anti-Asian bias (including one appearance of "the Orient") that it clearly inherited from 80s cyberpunk. It didn't make me too terribly uncomfortable, but why would it? I'm as white as they come. It's not as bad as Destiny's Price, which I gave a pass to, but I'm thinking I made a mistake with Destiny's Price. I'm going to pick something, though if you were to come to me and say that Shadowrun was beyond the pale, I wouldn't be inclined to argue against you.

My choice here - a dragon owning a major corporation. Not Lofwyr, specifically, because he's too iconic to Shadowrun, but essentially the same archetype.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Monster Manual III

Ah, the Monster Manual III, a true milestone in any edition. All the low-hanging fruit has been used up. You've done the iconic monsters. You've done the obscure fan favorites. You've done all your most obvious ideas. But you're still going. You need 150 more monsters to fill a book, and thus no idea is too out there. How about a golem made of light?

Is that anything? Does it even make sense. It's a prismatic golem. It has no physical form and is made from light gathered from the plane of Elysium. It has no Intelligence score and a neutral good alignment. What? It doesn't make sense? Fuck it, it's in the book anyway.

This book isn't quite as wild a ride as Planescape Monstrous Compendium: Volume III, but that's probably because it has Eberron to lean on. It's WotC's bold new campaign setting with soon-to-be-staple creatures like changelings and the warforged, so some of the entries, at least, are grounded in a firm campaign logic. But other times, it definitely feels like it's throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

And some of it does, indeed, stick. That's when the book is at its best. Maybe I think the Hangman Golem should have been an undead creature made from used nooses stolen from the gallows, instead of what is essentially just a weird construct made from animated rope, but that's almost certainly what everyone thought when they first saw that creature, and it's such a memorable and interesting idea that it's practically an inevitable revision if this thing ever shows up in canon again.

Turning away from the "G" section, I could easily name another half-dozen creatures from this book that inspired and delighted me . . . so I will. The Armand, armadillo folk from the desert that specialize in martial arts. Dread Blossom Swarm, pretty flowers with spikes for roots. They are inexplicably from the Upper Planes and they will kill you. Plague Brush, a colossal tumbleweed. Crystaline Trolls. Topiary Guardians - trim your hedges into the shape of a triceratops, animate that triceratops with magic, and have it maul intruders. Forestkith Goblins. They change into trees during the day, and it's enough to remind you that in a better universe, goblins could have been Fey. 

There's more, but I'll stop there. There are also some duds, of course, where it just seemed like they tossed a nonsense name on a perfunctory concept and called it a day, but my goodwill towards this book is pretty high at the moment, so I'm not going to call any of them out.

Overall, this book had a better balance of lore and mechanics, with many of the entries actually getting into some interesting worldbuilding. Despite the Eberron provenance of many of these creatures, the "X in Eberron" sections often felt like an afterthought, though. They're on roughly half the entries and I suspect the deciding factor of which monsters get them is nothing more or less than the remaining space on the page (the "X in Faerun" sections are even more blatant about this). When they were good, I was glad they were there, but "Cheliceras prowl the Howling Peaks, north of Zilrago" means less than nothing to me (it's been a while since I read the Eberron book). I guess it's a mountain range where this mountain-dwelling creature might live?

While we're on the subject of mechanics, I did make a conscious effort to be more mindful of stat-blocks this time around. . . but I don't think it did me any good, because I have no remaining 3.5 mechanical intuition. The Chelicera and Chraal are both CR 6 monsters, but the first has 19 AC, a BAB of +9, and 66 hp, whereas the second has a 21 AC, a BAB of +6, and 85 hp? I guess that's within the same ballpark, but I kind of feel like the Chraal is going to be a much more tedious fight.

That's just 3.5, though. The system was okay with characters of the same level having wildly different combat stats, so challenge rating was always going to be something of a guess.

Final thought - I really wish MMIV and MMV weren't so expensive on the secondary market, because this book feels like a real turning point. It isn't exactly where I want it to be, in order to be an ideal monster book, but it's probably the best one I've read for D&D since Planescape Monstrous Compendium Volume II.

Ukss Contribution: There's a magical war machine called a Slaughterstone Eviscerator, which the book implausibly claims is made of a single block of carved stone, despite the art clearly depicting a machine made of multiple metal parts (and also, the general silliness of making something that's intended to move out of a single block of stone). But despite my love for on-the-nose names that don't even pretend towards euphemism, it's not quite the machine by itself which drew my attention. Rather, it's the Eberron section, where it's put forward that these things, which, I remind you, are called Slaughterstone Eviscerators are used as protection in banks. Like, right in the lobby and everything. "Oh, hey, I'm new here, how do I find the teller?" "No problem, sir, it's straight ahead of you, just circle around the death machine with the giant blades and you'll see it."

What's that? We're going to have capitalism in our fantasy setting and one of the themes will be the relationship between private property and the ability of the bourgeoise to mobilize the violence of the state on its behalf? Fuck it, subtext is for cowards.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

(V:tM/M:tAs) The Red Sign

The Red Sign (Brian Campbell, Conrad Hubbard, Jacob Kl√ľnder, Carrie Lewis) is a toolkit-style adventure that really should have been a metaplot book. There's a sense, especially on the last page, when it talks about how to handle "background lawyers" (rules lawyers, but with WW's expansive lore) that maybe, in the final days before the old World of Darkness is to come to a close, the company has started to chafe under its reputation for publishing intricately connected game supplements that each require all the others to properly use. Actually, the book seems to tell us, White Wolf has a "fondness for free will," and doesn't want to give us a bunch of official answers. The Red Sign can be used in multiple ways, with no official canon ending. It's merely a tool for the GM to tell the story they want to tell.

And they really shouldn't have done that. As well as the hands-off, no metaplot approach worked in the Chronicles of Darkness and Exalted, it's completely the wrong vibe for this book at this point in the World of Darkness' history. There's only one more supplement between now and Gehenna (and it's not clear from the wiki when The Ventrue Chronicle takes place, chronologically). It's not only too late to try and earn a reputation for being chill, it's the exact opposite of why we buy these books in the first place.

There's this scene that keeps cropping up in shows and movies - our viewpoint character is a teenager or young adult, but they've got a reputation for being kind of sheltered and stuffy. Then, one day, the parents go out of town and leave our protagonist in charge. Somehow, this turns into a big party at the protagonist's house and the story becomes one of internal conflict - they like the attention and notoriety of throwing a party, but they are still responsible enough to not want to destroy the house. So you follow them around the party and they're constantly saying things like "coasters!" even as they're trying their hardest not to be a buzzkill, so that they are not to blame for the party coming to a premature end. With very few exceptions (and, in fact, none that I can think of at the moment), the audience is inclined to side with the coasters and against the party.

That's what reading The Red Sign was like. It will say something like, "Outside the context of the game, how can we possibly define the impossible with game mechanics? How do we assign a probability to a task like making a vampire mortal again? And after it's been done once, what's to stop other aspirants from accomplishing the same feat again and again?" and I can't help but hear the cracking voice of a socially awkward teenager, desperate to be "cool," but acutely aware that "the rules are there for a reason."

"If you document rules for doing the impossible, the players will find a way to exploit it to bring other drastic events into your game." And I'm like, oh, honey . . . yeah . . . that's kind of the point. Your friends making out on your parents' bed is why you throw a wild party, it's not a side-effect to be contained. It's okay that you're not cool with it, though. We like that you're a nerd. It's exactly that sort of stick-in-the-mud behavior that we've come to know and love.

Just like all you readers have come to know and love my habit of using obtuse extended metaphors when a direct approach would be more illuminating. The Red Sign is about an occult conspiracy to "redeem" a vampire, turning them back into a living human. Sinister vampire manipulators (who think the process might be adapted into a weapon, or a method of having immortality and power without the drawbacks) exploit guilt-ridden seekers of redemption (who wish only to be freed of the agony of their curse) and together they recruit the aid of mages - ranging from the sci-fi fascists who think vampirism is a disease to be "cured" to religious mages who believe that redeeming vampires is a holy mission, to mystery-obsessed occultists, who view it as a puzzle to be solved.

Most of the book is given over to establishing a wide cast of characters who are interested in reversing vampirism, detailing their motives and methods, and vaguely hinting that something terrible may happen if they are allowed to succeed.

I cannot overstate how careful The Red Sign is to tell us that what they're trying to do is "impossible." It's supposed to be thematic. The curse of vampirism supposedly came directly from God, so to reverse it is to court his wrath. It only becomes an option now because the world is about to end, and the impossible becoming real is one of the signs of the apocalypse.

Which is a compelling story. A sinister occult ritual, driven by hubris, powered by dark sorcery, results in an unprecedented, unthinkable event - a vampire becomes mortal - and you're left with a burning mystery - how could something of such unholy provenance have an outcome that looks so much like grace? A prophecy has been fulfilled. The doomsday clock strikes 11:59. The redeemed vampire will play a pivotal role in upcoming events . . . find out how in Gehenna, coming spring of 2004.

The Red Sign has glimpses of that, but it insists on giving us multiple options for how the story will end . . . and multiple options for how it will begin. And also, the middle is a little soggy too. There are some good bits - I liked the ancient remnants of House Tremere, the ones who stayed mages instead of becoming vampires, trying to reverse their predecessors' greatest mistake - but it lacks the essential White Wolf magic. I am not as good at this as Justin Achilli, and reading a book that was basically just the component parts of a potential metaplot event just served to drive that home.

Of course, there's a balance here, between not being given enough to work with and laboring under the oppressive thumb of a game company that pronounces its One True Way, but I can't help but feel that The Red Sign overcorrects from White Wolf's previously spotty track record. It's not general enough to be a universal "cure vampirism with a Mage: the Ascension crossover" supplement, so the bulk of its appeal is as a last chance to tie up previous plots and set the stage for the really truly final Vampire: the Masquerade supplement. And it doesn't do that. Looking back, I feel like I was being trolled.

Ukss Contribution: The strongest part of this book is its central hook: what if "curing" a vampire was the first step in a dark prophecy? It will go well as an element of vampire eschatology.

Monday, July 24, 2023

(D&D 3e) Monster Manual II

Reading Monster Manual II was a strange experience, because it's largely a better book than the original Monster Manual, but it greatly suffers from the fact that most of the really iconic monsters have all been used up, presumably due to the first book's insistence on having 500 monsters in 300 pages. This book has half as many monsters in 2/3rds as many pages and while it's still not entirely where I want it to be, in terms of the relationship between fluff and mechanics, it did generally feel better to read (when it wasn't repeating the long, dry rules for "improved grab" and "swallow whole" about 50-100 times).

And while it didn't have any truly iconic monsters, it did have a few almost iconic ones (I'm defining "iconic" here as "could Hasbro profitably release this creature as a plush"). You've got the Neogi and Thri-Kreen, gem dragons and Galeb Duhr, Myconids and Grell. The cast has got some charisma.

Unfortunately, it feels like the bulk of this book's charm comes from previous edition holdovers. It's hard to say with certainty, because even by this point D&D was swamped by decades of old canon, but I'm going to do an internet search for the first appearance of a few of this book's best monsters (whose origins I don't immediately recognize):

Yak-Folk - Land of Fate boxed set.

Clockwork Horror - Monstrous Compendium Spelljammer Appendix 1.

Glimmerskin - original to this book.

Corpse Gatherer - original to this book.

Which is actually a better-than-expected ratio, if I'm being honest. And I know that's kind of a shitty take for me to have ("the identifiably old stuff is noticeably better"), but it's not really an assessment of the book's craft so much as an observation about the power of the nostalgia filter. The brand-new stuff is competing against things that were hand-picked from a previous edition as notable stand-outs, so of course if you compare the hit-or-miss process of creating new monsters to the guaranteed hit process of just picking the known hits, that's not going to be a favorable match-up. However, I do think that it's an indictment of the edition's editorial choice to have long stat-blocks accompanied by short flavor descriptions. There's no reason at all that the Abeils (bee-folk) couldn't have been as popular a Lawful-neutral foe as the Formians (ant-centaurs), if only they'd gotten a Planescape-style lore dump.

All that being said, this book was mostly an enjoyable read, despite the fact that the more 3e-style stat-blocks I see, the more each new one feels like a unique brand of torture (I am serious about that "improved grab" thing. I was getting sarcastic about it towards the end, "oh, is this creature going to get the ability to maintain a grapple with a -20 penalty, how original"). But that may just be me refusing to bear the cognitive load of decoding them. In theory, a Gravecrawler's Combat Reflexes and Mobility feats are going to be an important part of its combat repertoire, but am I going to remember to use them?

The biggest weakness of this book is not, however, its monster-statting methodology, mechanics-lore balance, or overall monster curation. Its biggest weakness is more of a branding issue. I'm not sure I'd ever remember that this book exists. There are useful creatures in here, but if I'm building an adventure or plotting out a game, I'm going to reach for the first Monster Manual, and if I don't find what I'm looking for, I'll probably just adapt something, rather than reach for a second volume. I think a more focused monster supplement, that just gave me creatures from a particular location (like the outer planes) or with a particular theme (like all undead creatures), would greatly aid discoverability.

Although, even as I say this, I realize that's maybe too much to put on this book. In a way, Monster Manual II's haphazard creation is simply an artifact of the first Monster Manual being assembled in exactly the same way. And I can't really blame the first Monster Manual for doing it that way, because it's a core book, with a mission to serve a wide variety of potential games. The origin of this fault was simply the naive (or possibly hubristic) notion that you could just slap a roman numeral on a core book's title and make the new volume core as well (this is one of the few faults I'm willing to concede about my beloved 4th edition).

Overall, my assessment of this book is "why not?" I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again - monster books are nearly impossible to screw up, having a more-or-less perfect fantasy format, and Monster Manual II is no exception to the trend.

Ukss Contribution: This one's a little bit cheating, because the thing I'm picking was likely a runner-up for the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual, but what can I say, I kind of love these little guys - the Myconids, sentient mushroom people who are peaceful by nature, but if you attack them, their defense is to get you high as fuck.

Friday, July 21, 2023

(Exalted 3e) Tomb of Dreams

I'm not sure how much time I should waste having an opinion about Tomb of Dreams (Stephen Lea Sheppard). It's a 58-page introductory adventure for Exalted 3rd Edition, half of those pages are given over to a quick summary of the 3e rules, a quarter to five different sample characters, and the rest to a nothing of a story that is probably a superior alternative to "you all meet in a bar," but which serves a more or less identical purpose. I only bought this book because I had an otherwise complete Exalted collection (including the board games and the novels) and I only read it now because Exalted: Essence reminded me that I was one book shy of having read all the Exalted books (the rpg ones, anyway, I've only got through about half the novels). 

I think it would be fair to say that I knew, going into this, that this book wasn't meant for me, and having read it, I've confirmed that it was, indeed, not for me, and that's fine. I'm not sure how well it would work to entice people into playing Exalted - the initial pitch was more efficient than its Exalted: Essence equivalent, but there was less of it and the rules are worse - but assuming you've cleared that hurdle, it works fine as a single session shakedown run. You have a reasonable change to dabble in most of the game's essential mechanics, but the stakes are pretty low (the main antagonist more or less wants you to succeed). You don't see any of the setting's iconic locations, but you are exposed to the fact that the Solars' previous incarnations could sometimes be total dicks.

It's fine. There's a demon. In the First Age a group of solars bound it with sorcery, put it into an eternal slumber, and then hid a bunch of treasure in its dreams. Now, it's thousands of years later, the demon is sick of this, and so it has called out to the reincarnated spirits of its captors - "come and pick up your shit." There's an NPC who's on board with this plan, and another NPC who's not. You navigate their conflicting agendas, get some cool treasure, and maybe fight the demon, maybe let it free. I might have asked for a more charismatic demon (he spends most of his time being the dream landscape) or a more interesting location (the whole adventure is spent on an imaginary dream island with a volcano containing treasure and an ocean trench containing treasure and some caves containing a different treasure), but, again, I'd be surprised if this adventure lasted even a full session, so you can just use the set-up to get the group together in the physical world and then do a more consequential adventure after that.

The only real mystery here is the cast of sample characters. Most of them are from the 1st edition caste-books, but they're not from the same region or Circle (some of the 1e characters were obviously intended to be part of the same adventuring party, others weren't), but then one of the characters is 3e's new signature Dawn Caste and I can't help wondering why you wouldn't take the opportunity to introduce all of the new signature characters. Certainly, if the book had done that, we'd be having a very different conversation right now.

Volfer's okay, I guess. A reckless brawler who's kind of an asshole but redeems himself by always picking fights where he's the entertaining underdog. I'm not surprised to learn there's not more to him than that, but I am kind of surprised that they'd more or less say as much in print.

Overall, I can't say that I liked this book, but neither did I dislike it. If you'll excuse a somewhat labored analogy, it's like I was a decades-long collector with a library of more than a hundred Exalted books, all of which I've read, and I was reading through a short pamphlet directed at total newcomers. 

Ukss Contribution: I'm kind of scared of picking Mirror Flag, the self-centered revolutionary hero who is constantly remaking her own past, but I figure that's okay, because if you're not scared of her, you probably aren't paying attention.

(D&D3e) Oriental Adventures

Writing about a book like this, whose very title I'm reluctant to say too often, raises certain . . . temptations. "Okay, this book has a racist title, a reputation for being racist, and is actually kind of racist, so all I have to do is pull a few racist quotes, wag my finger at them, and avoid saying anything too personally revealing and that's another one in the can."

Right? Like I don't need to have a good opinion of Oriental Adventures (James Wyatt). It's the year 2023. There are better options for East-Asian roleplaying out there, and a notable social consequence to presenting even the appearance of racism, so there's no upside to me praising this book.

And at this point, you may rightfully be wondering if I'm building to a "but." I'm not. Overall, this book was pretty mid. That's true both of its awkward place in early 3e, where design principles are not fully established (why does the blade-dancer prestige class require spellcasting to qualify for? none can say) and its status as an example of the rpg hobby's unfortunate racial baggage.

The best example of this last part is the book's description of sushi, "fish . . . served raw on vinegar-treated rice." I'm not sure that rises to the level of offensive, but also why would you describe it like that?

But (oh, shit), it would be fundamentally dishonest of me to write any kind of critique of this book without making myself personally vulnerable , so here it is: I used to love this fucking thing.

I don't remember the exact order of events, but around the time I got this book, I also saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That was my first exposure to Wuxia as a genre and I was instantly enchanted. I wanted to play something like that in D&D, and at the time, this was as close as I was going to get. Multiple hours of young John's life were spent pondering the exact combination of feats, class features, and spells that would allow me to make a Blade Dancer build equivalent to Li Mu Bai.

And that puts me in a complicated position, culturally. Like maybe I'm trying to argue that my pure and sincere enjoyment of a film by a Taiwanese director somehow exempted young me from being a racist little shit. Of course, there's nothing racist about enjoying a movie. And nothing racist about wanting to play that movie in D&D, but if you're going to talk about the problematic aspects of Orientalism and the way it others people of Asian descent, then yeah, that was part of the appeal for me.

If you'd come to me in late 2001 and said, "you like that stuff because you think it's exotic" I probably would have said, "yes, that's the word I was looking for, exotic. I like it because it feels new to me, like something I haven't seen a million times before." (I may, in fact, have said something almost exactly like this on multiple occasions).

And I don't necessarily want to frame this as a confession, or even a regret. Because sometimes, you're nineteen years old, the internet is barely a thing, and you learn something new. And that new knowledge enriches your life by expanding the horizons of what's possible. I dreamed new dreams because of that movie, and this book helped me bring those dreams to life.

As easy as it would be to label this book naked cultural appropriation (and it is - there's not a single identifiably Asian name on credits page) and therefor A Bad Thing From the Past, fit to be ignored, that's not how I experienced it. My experience of the book was as a stumbling first step into a wider world.

So, of course, my fond memories were immediately betrayed by the first line of the Introduction, an excerpt from the original Oriental Adventures I had previously called out as being notably racist, even by the standards of the book:

"The mysterious and exotic Orient, land of spices and warlords, has at last opened her gates to the West."

Now, to be entirely fair to the book, the introduction immediately walks that back . . . sort of. "Since then, the world has changed - we rarely refer to the countries of Asia as 'the mysterious Orient,' for one thing. . . Fantasy Asia is no more or less exotic and mysterious than any other fantasy.

But, at the same time, I look at that and I think, how didn't they see. They quoted that gross line, but somehow didn't realize that by reusing the title, making a book with the exact same premise, they were continuing that same gross legacy.

Of course, I didn't realize either, not until just now, so I'm hardly in a position to cast judgement. 

I do sometimes think there's a kind of generational privilege that comes along with the language we use to discuss cultural appropriation these days. The young'uns don't entirely understand how much less accessible the world was 20 years ago. These days, if I were to give advice to a doppleganger of my younger self, who was just starting to develop an interest in East-Asian fantasy, I'd say - watch a variety of Wuxia movies on your various streaming services, ask respectful questions of people more familiar with the genre, seek out rpgs by East Asian creators, or at least those made with the aid of compensated sensitivity readers.

But in 2001, I don't think I'd have even known how to begin doing any of those things, even if a time-traveler had told me they were best practices. I would march down to the local library, open up the card catalogue (which, even at that late date was still mostly on cards) and just drawn a blank. The real reason I bought this book - it was what was on the shelf at the bookstore. My interest in Asian fantasy was shaped, from the very beginning, by cultural appropriation, and it's likely that even if I'd gone beyond the obvious, every library-driven deep dive would have been as well.

Which isn't meant as an excuse, just as a lens for understanding the book, Oriental Adventures. I don't think you can necessarily put it on a binary. I think it's a spectrum. A book about Asia, by white people, for white people . . . it can co-opt the culture, or it can carelessly toy with the culture, or it can be an ambassador for the culture. Young John Frazer doesn't even know which questions to ask, but someone older, better-read, more worldly, like a certain James Wyatt, backed by the resources of Wizards of the Coast, could ask those questions in my stead and then write the answers down in a book, and put that book on the shelf at B. Dalton's.

So is that what happened? Is that the book we got?

It's hard to say. I think it was the book's ambition, but then there's this bit from the introduction that struck me as somewhat insensitive:

In the meantime, a collectable card game somehow managed what generations of roleplaying games based on the fantasies of Asia never quite did: create a living world drawn from Asian history and legend that did not pretend to be history, never claimed to be accurate, and yet appealed to a larger and more vocal fan base than the original Oriental Adventures setting of Kara-Tur or historical Japan ever did.

He's talking about Legend of the Five Rings here, and I suspect he's just being generous with his praise, in celebration of the new corporate partnership, but "more popular than actual Japan," does not strike me as the sort of sentiment that's going to presage a respectful sharing of cultures.

My gut tells me that a lot of this book isn't actually an attempt at "Fantasy Asia" so much as a second-hand curation of previous attempts at Fantasy Asia. Like, how much of the book's necessary research was farmed out to the Legend of the Five Rings backstory? Not all of it, to be sure, because about half the monsters and classes are called out as non-compatible with Lo5R, so they must have come from somewhere, but at the same time, there's a carelessness here. You get something like the Wang-Liang, and that obviously comes from a primary or secondary source. Wikipedia tells me that it's a genuine word from Chinese folklore and it does refer to a specific type of monster, but that no one quite agrees on what it looks like. It's entirely plausible that someone flipped through a book about the monsters of East Asian legend and just D&D-ified a cool-looking entry for inclusion in this book.

But there's no interpretation going on here. It's just used in a completely superficial way. Like, every word you could find that was a synonym for "monster" gets transliterated and assigned stats, without any real consideration for what those words meant in their original context. Why do we get "hopping vampires," but also "Rokuro-Kubi" aka "long-necked demon?" 

The obvious answer is that this is just how D&D always does things. There was never any historical difference between an ogre and a troll or a ghost and a wraith or a goblin and a kobold, but that Monster Manual isn't going to fill itself. And that's a fair answer, but it immediately raises the follow-up question - if we're still doing the same basic thing in the same basic way, why do we need to go to Asia for that?

And that is where I think this book gets itself into trouble, re: cultural appropriation. Despite the protestation of the introduction, it never really makes a case for itself besides being "mysterious and exotic." 

I worry about this same issue in my own work and I try to draw my personal line by asking myself "am I learning something from this other culture or am I merely copying it without understanding?" And truthfully, I can't say I always fall on the right side of the line, but that's what I aim for. 

When I apply this same standard to Oriental Adventures, well, it automatically fails because of its title, but even granting a mulligan on that, I'm forced to consider the "Rewards" sidebar at the end of the "Campaign Design" chapter.

One common feature of the Dungeons & Dragons game causes problems to many Oriental Adventures players and DMs: the practice of looting the bodies of fallen foes. For members of Rokugan's noble class (including all samurai and shugenja characters), and for many people in lands based on historical Asian cultures, the idea of touching a corpse, let alone rummaging around on it for anything of value would be totally abhorrent.

Fun fact - looting the bodies of your fallen foes is technically a war crime. . . sort of. What I found online suggests that there are grey areas. Like, recovering fallen arms and armor, whether from friend or foe, is a practice that is as ancient as warfare itself, and for obvious reasons - it's useful for resupplying and it denies the enemy the chance to rearm from the corpses of the dead. By contrast, taking personal items or money from enemy corpses is frowned upon, but not actually against the rules, unless it's something like gold teeth, which would make identifying the body more difficult. Further contrasted with taking items from a civilian corpse, which is straight-up a violation of the Geneva convention.

And if you're learning from Asian cultures, you're going to be asking yourself, "what was it about warfare in China, Korea, and Japan that made things different" and, of course, the answer is "absolutely nothing." The fact that there are rules against it is proof that it actually happened. No one would say "it's wrong to loot the dead" if people weren't out there looting the dead.

It's something I noticed all the way back with The Complete Ninja's Handbook, when the Japanese rules about social class were taken extremely seriously, but somehow "a rigidly hierarchical society where social mobility is rare and most peoples' lives are determined by the circumstances of their birth" didn't trigger any familiarity with medieval Europe at all. It's like the authors of these books don't even understand their own ancestors.

What's really going on in "standard" D&D is that, of course, everyone understands that the European feudal system was a rigid system of oppression, but there's no real reason to compromise the fun of our fantasy roleplaying game by deferring to the social opinions of some long-dead Earl. And I can't help thinking that if these authors actually understood Asia, they would offer it the same sort of grace.

Which is a strike against "ambassador" and a step towards "co-opting." The other big evidence - honor.

Full disclosure - this is a subject I don't really understand. However, I watched the Asians Represent Podcast stream of both the original Oriental Adventures and the Al-Qadim book and the negative reactions towards "honor" as an orientalist trope were immediate, visceral, and unanimous, so I have to figure that this issue isn't new, that even in 2001, this is a complaint that would have reached your ears, if you were setting out to rewrite Oriental Adventures.

What I can say, even without being an expert in orientalism and the use of "honor" as an othering trope is that this book's use of honor is fucking ridiculous. D&D already has a weird, arbitrary mechanic to represent ones personal code and adherence to society's rules - it's called the alignment system, and here's the sidebar has to say about it:

"In comparison to the standard Dungeons & Dragons game, alignment is somewhat less important. In many Oriental Adventures campaigns, a person's ethical code is summed up in the idea of honor rather than notions of good or evil, law or chaos."

Because why even bother taking five damned seconds to think about the silly rules of your own silly game? That maybe there might be some cultural differences between what different people think of as "lawful," but there's absolutely no reason to go inventing a new term that means essentially the same thing. Like somehow it's surprising to you that someone who is a team player, victorious in battle, well-dressed, and always keeps their word has a better reputation than someone who presents themselves as a criminal or a loser. Ah, yes "committing treason" - no way to put that on the alignment grid.

What's especially weird is that this version of the book is in some ways better than the 1e version, because at least it doesn't have a numerical list that assigns PCs a set "honor value" based on a bunch of context-less actions or events, but it still has "honorable" and "dishonorable" weapons that deal extra damage based on a character's honor status. Maybe you're just supposed to estimate.

Although, the worst example of "honor" comes from the Rokugan setting chapter: 

"A heimin [ed note: "commoner"] who compromises a samurai's honor by being rude or insubordinate can expect to be killed on the spot, and the samurai faces no legal consequences for preserving his honor in this way."

That's not a sentence you write about human beings. It's a sentence you write about space aliens. What you're talking about is aristocratic bullies going around committing profound injustices because their fragile pride demands violence as an answer to even slight inconveniences, and they get away with it because they're part of an enabling system that so prizes the power to commit violence that they're willing to let fragile bullies get away with whatever they want, so long as the victims are of a subaltern class. And it kind of raises problematic issues, because saying "that's fucked up and shouldn't be allowed" does fall into the Orientalist trope of "eastern tyranny," but at the same time, you still have the option of just not including it at all, like you do for European fantasy, which could just as easily justify it.

Anyway, I've been writing for a long time now, so I think I should start wrapping up. My final verdict on this book that I've decided doesn't need to be named anymore: death is a blessing, it comes even for tyrants. Which is to say, it's a relic of a different time, and I'm not inclined to mourn that its time has passed. It does get me thinking that I've never really encountered a good example of East Asian fantasy roleplaying, and maybe that's something that's now easily rectified. 

Ukss Contribution: As some of you may have figured out, the purpose of this final section isn't really to mine material for my weird private rpg setting. The purpose is to end each post on a positive note, by calling out something specific that delighted me. That's why I don't take contributions from evil books - because I mean this section as a respectful tribute, and sometimes I very conspicuously don't want to pay my respects.

But that's also why I try to keep a pretty high bar for what I consider "evil." It's got to have a combination of harmfulness, carelessness, and callousness that indicates the book has no redeeming qualities. And if I'm speaking from the heart, I don't think this book qualifies. I think it was made with good intentions, and not quite enough care. From my position in 2023, they should have taken more, but I know that in 2001, it completely went over my head. It's on the bubble, but in acknowledgment of the fact that I once really loved this book, and I can still see what I used to love about it, I'm going to pick something.

Smoke ladder. It's a spell. It creates a ladder made of smoke. You can climb up it. When the spell ends, the ladder drifts away on the wind. Magic that looks like a cartoon is my favorite kind of magic.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Exalted: Essence

If there's any one impression of myself that I hope to leave with my blog, it's that I am not, by nature, a grognard. I've got my preferences, same as anyone else, but I try and make a conscious effort to avoid reflexive edition conservatism. And the reason I do that is because it goes against my most fundamental creative philosophy - that the highest joy of creation is the potential for inspiration to grow and spread and mutate and take a thousand different forms, beyond the capability of any individual to predict. A great idea is like a torch, passed from hand to hand, its light spread without diminishment. It's like a seed, thrown to the wind, taking root in unknown lands, blossoming, over generations, into a boundless field of flowers.

And the thing I love about this hobby is that it's the only form of culture that actively encourages this as part of its very nature. Which isn't to say that sharing and co-creating are exclusive, or even universal, to rpgs, just that with other media and genres, that sort of creative activity is a function of the community, rather than intrinsic to the medium (the fandom encourages fics, even if the creators try to pretend they don't exist, that sort of thing). Whereas, with an rpg, the whole point is to share stories. Even the most heavily draconian, missing-the-point, IP-protecting zealot still makes an rpg with the understanding and ambition that strangers are going to use that rpg to tell their own stories set in that rpg's universe.

So it would be downright perverse to complain that a story changed in the retelling. That new storytellers did something unacceptable with your beloved canon. That one should be affronted by change, because it's an insult to what came before. 

And yet, Exalted: Essence brought me closer to that feeling than I've ever been in the past.

It's not that I hated it. Actually, quite the opposite. As a thing taken in itself, I liked it quite a bit. As a template for the potential direction of a 4th edition, I thought it showed promise. As a quicker-playing substitute for the full Exalted experience, I think it would serve admirably.

But also, there were times when I was reading this book where I felt an unaccountable sorrow, bordering on fear. Times when I looked at Exalted: Essence and saw the death of a thing I love. 

How can I put this?

"I'm in the mood to play Exalted, let's use the Essence edition rules" - a prospect I have absolutely no problem with. In fact, I actually think it sounds like a pretty good idea.

Contrast that with:

"Wow, Exalted: Essence has everything you need to play the game in one volume. No need for those shelf-busting hardcovers" - shut your damned mouth right this second, because I can't be held responsible for what happens if you continue this line of reasoning.

As an accessory to Exalted, a new way of engaging with the setting and a new set of mechanics for realizing Exalted powers, I think this is a good, possibly even great book. But the thought that someone is going to come into the game fresh and come away thinking that this is what Exalted is . . . distresses me.

Which puts me on dangerous ground, re: my self-image as an open-minded lover of creative explosion, but what can I say? I'm complicated. There's a thing people do, when they're under the mistaken impression that they're being conciliatory, where they try to give permission for a new thing to exist by saying, "It would be a perfectly fine X, my only problem is that it's claiming to be Y." Just a completely obnoxious habit.

So let me be explicit. Exalted: Essence is Exalted. It's even a very good version of Exalted. A version I would be happy to play, and if I did, I wouldn't need to much tweak the rules much at all, but for all its improvements (the venture system is a much-needed addition to the game's toolkit and actually runs the risk of making extended rolls interesting; the social influence system preserves the best aspects of 3e's while being easier to use, the streamlined traits are generally better as a set and more iconic individually, even if I think they should have done whatever they needed to do to bump the number of skills from 14 to 15, the charms I'm going to have to talk about separately), it also feels like it's missing the number one thing I love about Exalted, as both a setting and a system - its sense of overwhelming, possibly even decadent, abundance. At the end of the day, "one volume Exalted," as useful as it might be to have, goes against what I always perceived to be the spirit of the game.

It's like the difference between a tasting menu and an all-you-can-eat buffet. In theory, they're the same thing, or, at least, very similar, structurally. You can try a bunch of different things without committing too much to one dish or another, and a well-crafted tasting menu is going to be pretty close to as much as you'd reasonably even want to eat, so it's not even a matter of value. But they're not the same thing. Even when it fills you up, a tasting menu isn't all you can eat. The basic nature of the experience is different.

And that's why I felt sad when I flipped through the 4-page Exalt-type spreads that focused almost entirely on anima powers and only perfunctorily on lore. It never actually felt to me like this book gave me enough. There wasn't enough lore. There wasn't enough flavor (the lack of chapter fictions is the first thing I noticed and the thing I most miss). Heaven help me, there weren't enough charms.

Okay, that last one needs more explanation. I actually think, as a whole, Exalted 3rd edition has too many charms. The result is a bunch of fiddly effects that don't really add anything to a character concept, take up mental real-estate, and make character creation a complete chore. Fewer, more consequential charms, ideally between 6-12 per Ability or 150-200 per Exalt type, would be a much better way to go.

And that's what Exalted: Essence gives us, which is part of the reason I'm so open to using this book as an alternate system for Exalted. Not only that, the way the game presents charms is a pretty inspired idea - you've got a bunch of universal charms that serve to set a general level of competence, and then these charms are modified by modes, which customize them in ways specific to the Exalt type. So you get something like "Spirit Slaying Stance," which allows you to attack immaterial spirits. But if you also destroy their motes (mp), then that becomes Ghost-eating technique, a classic solar charm. By contrast, if the charm works just as well against Fair Folk, it becomes Demon-Drinking Fang, the Lunar Exalted's unfortunately-named equivalent.

This is a tricky area for me because, I think, in general, this is the right way to do it. But part of the decadence (and thus, for me, the appeal) of Exalted as a system is that each Exalt type gets their own thick hardcover in which they reinvent the wheel by having a comprehensive set of charms that cover all the bases while being arbitrarily different. 

The asymmetry between the character types is a selling point, but the need to relentlessly tweak even workhorse effects, just to achieve the sense of asymmetry has contributed to a lot of the previous editions' mechanical problems. There's probably a balance between extremes, and as a tool for finding that balance, the universal + mode system of charm creation seems like it should work really well, but I don't think Exalted: Essence actually finds that balance.

The problem is that modes seem to be applied haphazardly. Not every charm has a mode for every exalt type, and it's not always clear whether the presence or absence of modes is being used in an illustrative manner, as in you could come up with a Lunar specific mode for Monkey Leap Technique, but this book doesn't in the interest of not being 1000 pages long or whether the gaps are intentional, to create different strengths and weaknesses for different exalt types. 

I suspect it's probably a combination of the two. The book seems intent on flattening the power curve enough that differences in Exalt type mostly wind up being down to preferences for a particular style or aesthetic. 

Which is something I'm ambivalent about. I don't object to having a specific mechanical interpretation of Dragon-Blooded and Solars that are roughly equivalent in power. Because that's always something you could just chalk up to an overlap in the power curves. At this particular snapshot in time, they're equivalent, with the understanding that the Solar is much younger than the Dragon-Blooded. But Essence purports to cover a whole career arc, from Essence 1 to 5, and that becomes harder to reckon with.

Each Exalt type does get its own section of exclusive charms, and that helps, but the sections themselves are only 7-8 pages long and the curation is similarly haphazard. I never really got the sense that the Exalt types were properly asymmetrical or that their charm sets were designed as a whole set. For example, every single one of the Infernal Exalted's exclusive Presence charms was just an alternate prerequisite for a charm from another ability. The sets in this book work fine as substitutes and stop-gap measures, but they don't feel real to me, in the way that the individual hardcovers' sets do.

It also doesn't help that the charms' condensed descriptions don't leave a lot of room for flavor text (also, I think the format where you put all the activation and cost information inside the charm description, rather than in a header, may save space, but it makes each individual charm harder to use).

The way I'd do it, in a notional 4th edition based off this book's approach, would be to get rid of exalt-specific modes entirely. Instead, optimize it for Exigents (the "miscellaneous" exalted), but making the modes general descriptors like "luminous," "water-elemental," "fated," "unholy," etc. Then, you could build up an approximation of the major exalt types by making exigent approximations (this would, of course, necessitate making Exigents, rather than Solars, into the core Exalted, which is definitely something I have mixed feelings about, but since it's never going to happen, it's fine to speculate). Later on in the line, when it comes to the fat-splats, you could reprint the entire universal set with the appropriate modes (suitably tweaked) factored into the text, and supplemented by Exalt-specific charms, in order to create the semi-cores that have been so long a staple of the series.

And if that seems like kind of a long digression, let's call it a testament to the true Exalted nature of Exalted: Essence - I couldn't make it through the entire book without giving in to the urge to tinker. Beyond that, I'm not sure how I'm going to wrap this post up. How do I feel about Exalted: Essence as a whole?

As a whole, I kind of hate it. But that's neither an accurate nor fair impression of the book. I liked all the individual parts. I liked the way those parts came together. The whole is the only thing I have any objections to. I remain unconvinced about the book's very conception, its central pitch and very reason for existence. I can accept "one-volume Exalted" as a supplement, a tool, but my mind rebels against the thought of making it a goal. It's the "Reader's Digest condensed books" version of Exalted, which means it's more accessible, more respectful of a newcomer's time and budget, less of a commitment or an investment, but it also means that much of value was lost.

When I first heard about this book, I was worried it would create a fatal edition-split, dividing an already-dwindling fandom into two incompatible camps. What I didn't anticipate was that I could potentially land on the Essence side of the split (what I'd need is a complete set of powered-by-Essence fatsplats which include all the excised lore and a more carefully curated set of modes and unique charms). However, I find myself filled with a new and unanticipated kind of dread. I can see how Essence is a more accessible entry point into the series, and I can see how Essence can be useful to experienced Exalted players who can bring the 20 years of lore into more streamlined mechanics, but I don't think those use cases entirely count as the same game. And given Exalted Essence's bare-bones presentation of the series flavor, I'm not sure that the book alone can act as a bridge between the two. I'm not sure this book is capable of turning the Exalted-curious into Exalted fans.

Sigh. I really should GM a few games, spread the word. That's how stories stay alive, by being told.

Ukss Contribution: Volcano Cutter. It's a sword, you stick it in the ground, mini-volcanoes erupt from the earth. Exalted-style nonsense at its best.

Monday, July 17, 2023

(D&D 3e) Manual of the Planes

Something I've noticed about edition changes in long-running rpgs is that there's usually an awkward period near the beginning where they're mostly just repackaging and reformatting old material from the previous edition. It isn't necessarily a strictly chronological process, because you do often get a few early supplements that are like, "hey, look what we can do now," but there is a nebulous border zone, where the identity of the new edition hasn't been fully established yet and so the shadow of the old one falls heavy on what should ostensibly be new material. For D&D 3rd edition, I'd say that the Monster Manual and Deities and Demigods were heavily retrograde, the softcover class books were essentially new, and Manual of the Planes (Jeff Grubb, Bruce R. Cordell, and David Noonan) is perched awkwardly on the inflection point.

When I started reading it, I resolved not to compare it to Planescape. I didn't think that was fair. Planescape was its own distinct thing and Manual of the Planes never promised or presented itself as a continuation. It's just the planes. For D&D 3rd edition.

Needless to say, I frequently compared it to Planescape. Honestly, though, the comparison was not particularly unfavorable. The two settings are comparable in their weak points (an apparent failure to truly grok the nature of infinity, and alignment is kind of a drag), but with different strengths. Planescape was all about setting up a particular feel and making everything into one big contiguous setting and Manual of the Planes gives you a lot of options and things to tinker with. The best part of the book was the appendix, where it started talking about variant planes and cosmologies. It felt like something new, like a hint of d20's promise to be a lingua franca of fantasy roleplaying systems.

The appendix should have been the heart of the book, rather than an afterthought, but it was largely held back by the need to touch base with AD&D's canon. 

Not that this was purely a fault, mind you. A lot of that canon is still pretty interesting. I think if this book was your first exposure to D&D's planes, you'd come away satisfied. However, there's also just a sort of arbitrariness to it all. Why is Acheron, the plane of eternal warfare, also a bunch of cubes floating in space? Why is the Abyss the only plane with infinite layers (and, really, why are "layers" still a thing)? Why the Beastlands? Because that's the way it was done in AD&D 1st edition, that's why. 

But if you can get past the notion of a default setting (the prime material plane is officially Oerth from Greyhawk in this edition), there's still a lot of stuff you're going to want to use. The only parts that I would compare unfavorably to Planescape are the description of Sigil, which is just a sad shadow of a great setting, and the second layer of Arborea. In Planescape, it was called Ossa and it was largely shallow enough to wade through, making it a strange fantasy landscape with its own fey-like quality. In Manual of the Planes it's Aquallor (which is "the elvish name" that showed up in Planescape, but which I find to be terribly on the nose) and it appears to be a normal ocean. Maybe I'm just being picky because it was one of my favorite images from the setting, but so what if I am? It's a loss.

It also wouldn't be a 3e book if I didn't spare at least a little time to complain about the mechanics, but this is one of those situations where the errors are mostly pretty small. I don't love planar alignment traits or magic traits, but at least we're not getting the big table of fiddly modifiers we had in 2nd edition. Also, the prestige classes were pretty neat, but the spellcaster class is inexplicably better than the non-spellcaster classes, even when you don't factor in spellcasting. Why, for example, would a wizard-focused class get Plane Shift at-will when a rogue-focused class gets it only once per day, especially considering that the wizard can memorize and cast extra Plane Shift spells. It's almost like it's okay to give extra magic to the class that already has a lot of magic, because once you've got a lot of magic, adding more doesn't significantly increase your power level, but even a little bit of magic is going to dramatically increase a rogue's capabilities, so you have to keep it limited, in order to keep them feeling like rogues. Either that, or it's a way to balance out the Gatecrasher's unlimited-use +2 insight bonus to bluff, diplomacy, gather information, intimidate, and sense motive checks (no, you look up what sort of enchantment and divination spells a cleric or wizard gets at 9th level). 

Finally, Orcus. Fuck that guy. The canonical ending to Dead Gods is that the events of that adventure had on effect on anything whatsoever. Which may seem to say that the Dead Gods adventure did not canonically take place and they're just retconning to new status quo, except "Orcus revitalized his wand, and with its strength initiated a spell of resurrection cast by one of his last faithful servants, the half-ogre Quah-Namog. Heroes from the Material Plane seemingly disrupted this ceremony at the eleventh hour, but Orcus returned all the same."

Who on Earth is out there thinking Orcus has even one-tenth the villainous charisma necessary to get away with this kind of bullshit? You could have just said that the canonical ending to Dead Gods is that no one bothered showing up. Why say that PC-analogues succeeded at the adventure and then the DM just went ahead and made the bad thing happen anyway?

But aside from that one thing, I don't think Manual of the Planes' flaws are much worthy of comment. They can mostly be attributed to being an early 3e book, made before 3e was well understood as a system and to being a relatively condensed book, which didn't have nearly the wordcount necessary to fully capture the multiple boxed-sets, supplements, and adventures that came before. It's actually my second-favorite 3.X book so far (behind Book of Nine Swords) and there are parts of it, like the alternate Prime Material worlds and new cosmologies, that I really love. Overall, a solid addition to the game.

Ukss Contribution: Dead gods floating in the Astral Plane. People build cities and fortresses on top of them. Metal as fuck.

Friday, July 7, 2023


In a disappointing turn of events, I did not get to play Microscope (Ben Robbins) for my birthday. It's a shame, because it's probably the best rpg I own. Not the most interesting, not my favorite, but certainly the one most likely to played by a fifth-grade literature class when the teacher is too hung over for the regular lesson plan and then subsequently survive in the oral tradition for a thousand years after the nuclear apocalypse.

Part of this hypothetical longevity comes down to the game's simplicity - I could explain the rules well enough by the end of this post that you could theoretically reverse engineer the bulk of the game - but it's not just that. You could get that in a game that was merely very short. Microscope has that special kind of simplicity where it completely occupies an elemental niche. It has exactly enough rules to be a cooperative storytelling game about the grand scope of history, and I'm not sure you could possibly improve it by either adding a rule or taking one away.

The closest comparison I can come up with is Tetris. It's a game that somehow finds the bones of the medium. It's what would be left behind if you started with an average game and took away all the parts that were not purely a game. It isn't necessarily an exemplar of what gamers like about gaming, but it is an exemplar of what makes non-gamers into gamers. Most of the books I read are potential substitutes for Dungeons and Dragons. This book is a potential substitute for charades.

At it's most basic, Microscope is an improv exercise. Its two most important rules are "don't contradict anything that's already been established" and "only the person whose turn it is gets to talk (well, talk, officially, in a way that's relevant to the game - it's not draconian about silence or anything)." Aside from those, every other rule is geared towards getting people to improv about the same thing.

The course of the game involves going around the group filling in a timeline, starting with the most abstract level - Periods, which are sections of history that span years or decades, then moving in to Events, which are things that happen over the course of days or weeks, and finally Scenes, where the players get down and freeform roleplay about a particular historical question (i.e. "why did the count betray the king?") Each one of these things is established by a player telling a short little story, and then a summary is written down on an index card - Periods go right to left, Events go from top to bottom underneath their overarching Period, and then Scenes are stacked vertically underneath their relevant Event. You don't have to play in chronological order, and each player can explore whatever they're most interested in.

The beauty of Microscope is that you can play it as a party game, you can play it as a world-building exercise, and you can even play it as a regular rpg. It's a short, 70 page book that, if there was any justice in the world, would be a family game night staple. Get that Monopoly shit out of my face, we're playing Microscope!

I actually feel a little embarrassed by how effusive my praise has been so far, so I want to be clear - it's the best designed game on my list (as far as I know so far), but what I mean by that is that when it's your birthday and your mother wants you to come over and play one of those roleplaying games you're always talking about, and your brother is in town and he's never roleplayed in his life, and you have to contemplate a single game you can explain, start, and get through in a single night - Microscope is the choice you can make and not feel like you're compromising. However, it's not the game you play every week for years. It's not the game you go on the forums and argue about. It's not the game you're obsessed with. You put it on the shelf next to Yahtzee and break it out in case of emergencies, but if you've got the luxury of playing something more complex, you're probably going to get more out of that.

Ukss Contribution: Not much setting here, but it did have plenty of examples. I liked the period of history where the corrupt emperor was persecuting martial arts schools. It's clearly inspired by the history of Shaolin, but I've always found that a fascinating dynamic in fiction - a centralizing state attempting to secure a monopoly on violence that runs up against an important cultural tradition, and thus it's an attempt to seek political legitimacy that undermines its own legitimacy. I'm not sure I'll be as openly analogous to real history, though.

Thursday, July 6, 2023

(D&D 3e) Deities and Demigods

Let's just address the elephant in the room head-on. This is the fourth (possibly fifth, if you count Monster Mythology) time I've read more or less this exact same book. And, honestly, I don't know how I should be feeling right now. There's a reason I wanted to read these books, but I've forgotten what it was. Deities and Demigods (Rich Redman, Skip Williams, and James Wyatt) has made me forget.

It is, in many ways, a deeply flawed book, but the flaw is the same flaw it shares with this entire tradition of D&D supplements, going back to the original 1st edition Legends and Lore (and presumably to the version of Deities and Demigods that preceded it) - it's a monster manual that shouldn't be, and doesn't want to be, a monster manual. 

So I could just say the same thing about this version that I said about Monster Mythology - it would be a much better book if they just tore out all the stats and made each entry twice as long. But I can't say that, because this book differs from previous outing is that if you tore out all the stats, each entry would be 3-5 times as long. 

And if you do that math, you might think you see the fundamental problem - obviously, they shortened the deity descriptions to make more room for stats. That would be a serious flaw, and the exact opposite of what they needed to do. But that's not what's wrong. I went back and checked. If you excise the mechanics, the flavor part of each individual entry is roughly as long as it has been in the past. Maybe a bit shorter than Monster Mythology or On Hallowed Ground, but longer than both versions of Legends and Lore.

The difference is that the stat blocks are now up to two pages long!

And that brings me back to my opening question. Why did I want to read this book in the first place? What was I hoping to gain? Why was it even published?

I'm not sure the authors of this book could answer the question any better than I can.

My feeling here is that it can be broadly considered a "toolkit" book. It's filled with elements and options that allow you to insert gods into the game, whether as distant, mysterious figures, active adversaries, or even potentially peers to the PCs. Yet it kind of feels like the sort of toolkit that might be designed by someone who's only encounter with an actual tool is the allen wrench you get when you buy flat-pack furniture.

This book doesn't seem to understand religion, or faith, or mysticism, which is maybe a lot to expect from an rpg book (and certainly something I feel awkward, as an atheist, calling someone out about), but it also gives us game mechanics that would allow a literal man to fight a literal god, somehow without ever incorporating any of the elements of a classic "man vs god" story.

(Oh, fuck, have I just found myself yearning for a "Theme" and "Mood" section? Maybe I owe White Wolf an apology.)

The disconnect here is that when you put the gods into a story, even just as distant patrons or an overarching campaign villain, you've entered the realm of mythic storytelling, where heroes engage with, at least, the ruling values of their culture and, at most, the primordial mysteries of human existence, and even if the only story you're telling is about how a bunch of rogues punched them in the face, by necessity, those rogues are punching them in the face mythically.

But though it occasionally relays stories from classical myth, Deities and Demigods never really engages with the concept of myth, either as a worldbuilding element or a genre element. In the divine ascension section at the end, one of the suggested adventures is about someone who meets all the known prerequisites for ascension but fails to become a god. And so they hire the PCs to investigate why the ascension failed.

Could you imagine reading that story in a religious text? Or hearing it around the campfire? It's barely even a fantasy story. Oh, let's investigate the gods, so we can see what they're hiding about the process of transcending your mortal form and gaining the limitless power of the divine. I mean, why not, right? If you can fight them, then surely you can take them to task for misrepresenting the true nature of apotheosis. Just a different sort of conflict, is all.

Which is actually where I think the root of this all lies. D&D is only good at depicting certain types of conflict, and therefor only good at telling certain kinds of stories, and in almost all of those stories, the gods are at best a mascot. Something for the cleric to shout out as they're clubbing an animated skeleton with their mace.

You can keep a little bit of the mystique of such beings by making them pure plot devices, but the second you make them actual characters in the world, they just become another sort of monster. And while it's certainly possible to depict monsters in a way that makes them feel spooky and mysterious, D&D 3rd edition kind of prided itself on being able to put a setting's mysteries into a predefined box (oh, please, do not get me started on how similar most of the gods' statistics are - Hephaestus can Use Rope with a +41 bonus, Tyche and Athena are limited to +37).

Those comfy little boxes are probably how we wound up with the Divine Salient Abilities section. I actually had to write down in my notes a reminder not to harp on how weirdly underwhelming almost every single one turned out to be. So, just one example, the power of Create Greater Object.

To gain this ability (which, I must emphasize is the greater version of this godly power), you must have a Divine Rank of 11 (an Intermediate Deity - for reference Demeter is rank 10 and Dionysus is rank 12) and an Intelligence score of 29. It allows you to create any object you can imagine! Up to 100 pounds per Divine Rank. And if you create something that costs more than 100gp, you have to rest afterwards - 10 minutes per 100gp of value past the first 100gp.

And look, that's not unimpressive. You never have to worry about encumbrance or petty-ante gp accounting ever again. And I suppose, if you had 16 hours of downtime, you could use that to add a single 10,000gp diamond to your True Resurrection stockpile. But let me pitch you an alternative. How about, with a single full-round action, you can create any object that will fit in your hands, regardless of value, and you can do it as often as you like. And if there's any significant downtime at all, you can create palaces, fortresses, megalithic statues of yourself, or anything else you can think of.

The natural objection here is that such an ability would be incredibly overpowered. A character who could do that would break the setting over their knee. Every single encounter or challenge would have to factor in their ability to simply create whatever item they need to address it. You would have to put them in ludicrously contrived situations that will seem more like jokes or folk tales than rpg adventures . . .

Ah, of course. The fact is, Deities and Demigods uses a 3rd edition rules chassis, and the implicit gameplay assumptions that come along with it, so there was never going to be any way that it could handle the scope of its own premise. 

Which brings us back to my original quandary. Why does this book exist? Who is it for? What did Wizards of the Coast hope to achieve by publishing it? My theory is that it was made to cross an item off a checklist. It was a supplement people expected to see, and so it was made to satisfy those expectations. It's not completely bereft of insight or merit (certainly it has the advantage of being less offensive than 2e's Legends and Lore, albeit at the expense of being less diverse), but it also doesn't quite manage to sell a vision of bold new gameplay possibilities. I'm actually kind of relieved it's the last version of this supplement WotC ever made.

Ukss Contribution: My opinion of the book wound up sounding pretty dire, but aside from the stat blocks, it was mostly okay (Loki fucks the horse, which isn't a selling point, per se, but does at least indicate an intention to deal with the subject matter honestly). My favorite part was when they were discussing methods of divine ascension and one of the suggestions was that the gods would hold a tournament and grant apotheosis to the winner. And, look, I know that's not what the plot of Mortal Kombat was actually about, but it's what I've always imagined it to be about, and now I want to do it in D&D.