Monday, August 21, 2023

(Shadowrun) Threats

Threats is an example of what I've come to think of as the classic FASA format - it's got 13 credited authors spread out over 104 pages, presumably because the whole thing is divided into a series of short, system-agnostic stories that each present a villainous conspiracy (or "threat," if you will) along with some brief advice for how to use that story in an rpg. There's maybe three pages of actual rules content in the entire book, but if you're comfortable with a fiction anthology that disguises itself as an rpg-supplement, there's a lot of good stuff here for lore junkies to dig their teeth into.

The strange thing for me is that I got this book on one of my habitual collection binges (in the brief halcyon days between my post-COVID raise and inflation destroying the benefit of that raise), and so this is technically all new material for me, but a lot of it feels familiar. Maybe that's the flip-side of making a metaplot heavy game - new books shake up the status quo, but then the even newer books will say, "hey, remember that event that shook up the status quo . . . well this new thing is an even bigger deal."

Still, it's nice to get stuff in its original context. I always sort of inferred that there were immortal elves, from the way the "commentors" (another FASA trademark - narration getting interrupted by randos who insist the narration is full of shit) would allude to the rumors of immortal elves, but this book is the only time I've seen it explicitly spelled out - "Okay, let's just come out and say it. There are immortals running around the Sixth World." I like that. No teasing, just openly pitching an idea. 

Not everything I learned was to the later lore's benefit, though. I was already familiar with Winternight as a sinister organization with a goal of human extinction, but this is the first time I ever encountered its ludicrous secret agenda of bringing the Norse gods to life by jumpstarting Ragnarok. I don't know a lot about the folklore at work here, but as a plan it's theologically dubious to the point of being an active distraction. I still like the name, though. It's gloomy and spooky and suggestive of the barren world that will be left behind if they succeed. Good branding in service to a bad plan.

The only real strike I'd make against the book is the way its fantasy racism dovetails with real racism. I was on the bus when I read the Alamos 20,000 section, and it made me very uncomfortable to flip to the full-page art with the prominently featured swastika. It provoked one of those anxious internal conversations where I imagined myself explaining, "no, these are the bad guys, you see." Although, as a reading experience, the later Human Nation section was even worse.

Were it not for the temporal impossibility of such a thing, I'd suspect it of plagiarizing the Daily Caller. All of the tropes were there - x percentage of the population, responsible for greater than x percentage of the crime, rapid breeding threatening to overwhelm the superior, but less populous races, lower IQ because of skull shape, etc. I get that it was an attempt to depict what the villains believe, but damn

It's made worse by the fact that, in Shadowrun lore, orks and trolls really do get a penalty to their intelligence score. And orks really do reproduce with superhuman rapidness ("Orks give birth in litters of four to eight.") It's the book's position that all metahumans are entitled to equal dignity and that any organization that argues otherwise is a villain to be opposed, but then it juxtaposes real-world racist beliefs, presented in-setting as an ignorant racist screed, against the naked facts of the game rules, which are in line with the racists' narrative. What the fuck are you trying to do, FASA? What's the end game here?

I'd like to think that it was just carelessness, but that theory is belied by the fact that there was clearly some effort put into the verisimilitude of the fantasy racists. I suspect the real intention was to use fantasy racism as a lens to examine real racism, but the execution was simply inept.

Overall, though, Threats was a good read. There's a certain Shadowrun vibe that it just manages to hit - bleak cynicism coupled with outrageous fantasy nonsense ("Bulldrek, fenrir wolves. Nobody uses them as watchritters. You can't train the fraggers - they're too crazy. They'll rip their handlers to shreds along with everyone else in range.") It may just be a glorified fiction anthology, but I'm highly invested in seeing how this fiction plays out.

Ukss Contribution: I wasn't kidding about being impressed by Winternight's branding. It's a great name for an apocalyptic cult.

Friday, August 18, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Weapons of Legacy

A book like Weapons of Legacy (Bruce R Cordell, Kolja Liquette, Travis Stout) presents me with certain difficulties, because it's mostly really fun, but the only part that's not fun is its central mechanic. I'm left wanting to use almost all the weapons of legacy in a game, but not the legacy weapon system.

The way it works is that these magic items start out with low-level powers and by doing a series of rituals, you can unlock higher-level abilities that ensure the item grows in power alongside the character. In exchange for these magic item abilities, you wind up paying a "personal cost" - a penalty to your attack rolls, skill checks, saves, etc that permanently reduces your effectiveness.

It's a mechanic that makes the items nearly unusable. Balance in 3.5 is hard to judge, but even to the degree that the benefits of the item outweigh the costs, personal costs just feel bad. You get this thing that's supposed to be a power boost and it's making you worse at your job. You get a sweet new +4 sword, but also a permanent -3 penalty to all attack rolls. Or you're a skill-focused character and in exchange for a few low-level spells, you lose 18 skill points.

It's unclear what this mechanic is trying to accomplish. Why give with one hand and take away with the other? Why not give just a little bit less? For that matter, what are we even comparing a weapon of legacy to in the first place, that they require this extra sacrifice? Because a lot of the time, the powers you get are just strictly worse than the spells a full caster is getting at that level. In theory, the reason martial-types don't get high level spells is because they've got superior hit points and attack rolls, but these weapons reduce your hit points and attack rolls and they're still only giving you a 6th or 7th level spell that you can use once per day. The most insulting are the ones that require the sacrifice of high-level spell slots, because they can only be used by full casters, because they wind up being, at best, a lateral move for those who can use them, but would be a much-needed power boost to those who can't.

I suspect what's going on here is that, rather than being excessively powerful in their own right, weapons of legacy break the item slot economy, giving you the utility of a belt, hat, pair of boots, etc, but only requiring a single magic item slot. This can free up your other slots to give you even more magical bonuses. Theoretically, 3.5 has limitations on bonus stacking to prevent this from getting out of control, but in practice, there are so many bonus types that weapons of legacy might well break the power curve. At the very least, they make characters significantly more versatile, which is one of those things that old rpgs greatly overvalued in terms of balance estimates (in fact, one of the major flaws with 3.5 is that it seemed to think a character optimized in one field was equivalent to a character who could do two things half as well).

But picking on a 3.5 book for poorly balanced mechanics feels like a cheap shot. I wasn't coming into this expecting to be impressed. I'm a little surprised at how punitive the personal cost system feels, but mostly the random power levels and weird caster supremacy are classic 3rd edition. 

If you set the mechanical issues aside, what you're left with is a collection of distinctive magic items that range from "good" to "very good." Without consulting my notes, there are none that stand out as particularly memorable . . . maybe Merikel, the formerly angelic blade that gained dark powers when its wielder fell to hubris, but that works both ways. There's not a single dud in the entire book. I didn't care much for the spelling of Dymondheart, but the actual blade itself is kind of rad - a longsword made of living wood that has significant defensive abilities (it's strangely not as nature-themed as its background lore suggests). 

I guess the Hammer of Witches had some dubious setting implications. There's this sect within the church of Pelor that is all about persecuting arcane spellcasters. Officially, they're heretics, but they still get their priestly spellcasting. It's a little hard to parse, because the shape of the plot only really makes sense if you really lean into the church of Pelor being a transparent copy of medieval Christianity, and then also grant that D&D's arcane magic fills the same cultural niche as European witchcraft. This winds up feeling weird, because in the game's default implied setting, a wizard is basically just a specialized professional, like a blacksmith or a cobbler and the weapon's description backs that up by saying that these guys have absolutely no doctrinal support. So it wind up being hard to even slot the Hammer of Witches into a plot. Plus the name of the item, evoking as it does a real-world atrocity, is a bit too problematic to actually use.

Maybe one dud, then. But the rest fall right into vanilla D&D's wheelhouse of "interesting, but not audacious." You could take any item in the book and build a character or an adventure around it, but none of them would feel out of place with the core.

Strangely enough, while I feel like that last paragraph was a backhanded compliment, that actually reflects more on me than the book. "My problem with this D&D book is that it was too D&D."  Let's call it a personal paradox. By my actions, I am undeniably a D&D superfan, but it exists in my head almost purely as a starting point, something to be moved away from. My instinct, when presented with a bunch of perfectly serviceable D&D ideas, is to ask how they can be bigger or spookier or stranger. You give me a magic ring whose ultimate ability is called "pull down a star" and I start thinking in very literal terms. Conjuring an elder fire elemental once every two days isn't going to do it for me (now, stellar elementals, with strange powers beyond the scope of merely terrestrial fires, who are themselves august and sacrosanct in the elemental courts. . . )

If I used this material in a game, I think I'd just completely rip out the personal costs and eliminate all the fixed-use magic items from the core (possibly taking the best of them and using this book's "upgrade a standard item to a legacy item" rules, like they did with the Holy Avenger and Staff of Power). This gives every item in the book a significant power boost, but that should be fine because there are no longer any standard items for them to be balanced against. As an alternate model of how magic items work, the legacy weapons really shine. Each item has a story, and they are all reasonable to hold onto for a character's entire career. Instead of just being random treasure, they are a version of magic items that enrich the fictional world, making it more complex and nuanced, and giving the player characters a tangible connection to its past.

Which, of course, is exactly why this book was made in the first place. Like I said at the beginning, this presents me with certain difficulties. Is Weapons of Legacy a successful book because it provides me with new inspiration on practically every page? Or is it unsuccessful because the first thing I need to do with that inspiration is come up with a new system for how the magic items are supposed to work? Most likely, "success" and "failure" are the wrong terms to use. Weapons of Legacy gives me something no other D&D books, and few other rpg books (even, to a degree, Earthdawn, which had a similar system 30 years ago) can reasonably match. If it's doomed to be just a starting point, at least it has the benefit of being a good starting point.

Ukss Contribution: My favorite part of almost every individual item description was, with few exceptions, the item's "omen." An omen is just a weird magical quirk that indicates the weapon of legacy is no mere +1 sword. Standouts include a sword that roars when drawn from its scabbard, a pair of gauntlets that lets you look into someone's eyes and learn their name, and a polearm that instantly dries you off whenever you emerge from a body of water. My favorite, though, was the Planeshifter's Knife. Set it down on a table and it will flip up to balance on its point. It will spin in the presence of extraplanar creatures, but that function is merely incidental to why I like it. It's just an item that sells its innate uncanniness by casually defying your physical intuitions.

Planeshifting doesn't really exist on Ukss, per se, but I think it will still be an interesting omen, even if the item in question has a different function.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase is . . . a lot. It's one of those books where I really should have devoted 6-10 separate posts to unraveling all my thoughts about it. Certainly, there were many times while reading where I sort of drifted off thinking about which real-world philosophical thought experiment I was going to make the centerpiece of my trademark "not actually talking about the book" section (I have opinions about the Color Room Experiment), and, honestly, they would all have been great, thought-provoking posts (don't laugh).

But they, too, would have been . . . a lot.

So I'm thinking of taking a step away from the myriad of abstract discussions we could be having about this book, despite the obvious fun we could be having at this very moment if I revived the interminable Ship of Theseus/continuity of consciousness debate.

It's a shame, though, because I had some really great rhetorical questions lined up. I think Eclipse Phase brings that out in people because it's one of those rare games with a really intense and specific point of view. When I search for the most appropriate comparison, it's not something like GURPS: Transhuman Space, which deals with similar subjects and themes, but actually Mage: the Ascension, which also incorporates its ideology deep into the game's design. This is a book that's unapologetically physicalist and unapologetically anarchist and it's kind of great that it exists, but also, it's going to invite you to have . . . opinions.

The challenge in front of me right now is how to talk about this book if I am (theoretically) unwilling to divert for two thousand words to ponder the nature of qualia. At its heart, Eclipse Phase is a richly detailed science-fiction universe that is bold in its speculative ambitions, but noticeably held back in some ways by its point of view. In retrospect, its unflattering portrayal of the capitalist goonery of the inner-system Planetary Consortium and open fascism of the Jovian Junta were, if anything, underselling the case, but by the same token, its optimism about social media and the reputation economy didn't age well at all. And its handling of the cultural fallout of its apocalyptic backstory is borderline offensive.

A quick summary - it's some indefinite time in the future. In the realms of artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and nanotechnology, humanity's knowledge has more or less become "sufficiently advanced." They've got devices that are not quite Star Trek-style replicators. They can make arbitrarily precise images of human brains and digitally simulate those images with an arbitrary degree of accuracy (I'm carefully choosing my words here, because this is the number one thing people have opinions about). They've got AIs that can recursively and exponentially increase their own intelligence.

Ten years before the game's start date, a group of military AIs, collectively known as the TITANS (obvious backronym) cross some critical threshold and begin an out-of-control process of growth, overwhelming the planet Earth and killing between 87.5 and 95% of all human beings (different parts of the book give competing numbers) before mysteriously disappearing through an interstellar FTL gateway. Now, the survivors live in scattered space habitats, fearing to return to Earth lest they be hunted by the remaining TITAN servitors, and the main cultural conflict is between the well-organized capitalists of Venus, Luna, and Mars and the scattered anarchists of the asteroid belt and beyond (also, there are some neocons in the moons of Jupiter and they just generally suck).

Structurally, this is fine. It's just an apocalypse story. "What if the infrastructure and environment supporting our current society were to vanish, to be replaced with something new, built practically from scratch?" It's a classic area of speculation. We've got all these weird sci-fi societies because most of the people in the old ones died. Fair enough.

Where Eclipse Phase gets itself in trouble is that it breaks two informal rules of the apocalypse genre - the story it tells is not a local story and there is no historical gap sufficient to explain a clean break with the past. 

These are "informal rules" because they are not strictly necessary to tell an apocalypse story, but if you're going to violate them, you've got to really raise the bar on your worldbuilding. Normally, you keep the story local in order to avoid implying your survivors represent the whole of humanity, and you make it far enough in the past that you don't have to answer questions about why a particular custom or bit of knowledge failed to endure. If you presume to talk exhaustively about every large group of survivors and establish that the event left near-complete back-ups of the entire pre-event internet, then you put yourself on the hook for talking specifically about who survived and how.

The result, in Eclipse Phase's case, is an anarchist sci-fi setting where people openly talk about eugenics and there are almost no Jewish people or Africans. Yikes.

I'm certain that there was no malice intended, and that it's just a classic case of STEM blinders failing to account for the humanities. But it forces me to grit my teeth and acknowledge that the theists have a point when they object to this atheist sci-fi setting failing to properly account for religion and I hate having to do that. This setting really needed to be more careful about the way it depicted real-world identities, and despite its fascinating worldbuilding, it has a bit of a -bro stink on it as a result.

Nonetheless, I really love this setting. It's not afraid to really push the boundaries of its technologies. In this version of the solar system, the Sun is inhabited. It's kind of brain-bending to think about. Digital intelligences download themselves into space whales that protect themselves from the Sun's corona with powerful magnets and my gut reaction is "there is no part of this plan that's a good idea," but my second, more considered thought is, "oh, so when you say that the singularity is going to change humanity in ways that are impossible to imagine, you really mean impossible to imagine. I'm on board."

I can think of a dozen ways I'd do things differently (for example, I'm wondering about a version of the setting where the biological death toll was 100%, leaving AIs and infomorph brain backups as the only survivors), but I can't help but regard this as one of the game's strengths. I rarely feel the urge to tinker with things that don't impress me.

Ukss Contribution: Turn Yourself Into a Giant Mass of Space Meat for Art! (Exclamation point in the original, but yeah, it's a mood). It's a space station in orbit around Saturn and it's made out of bacon. On the surface, it's goofy for the sake of goofy, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it's not one of the setting's harder sci-fi ideas. Like, biological cells are the original grey goo nanotech, so maybe you'd just need some core technology to encourage their growth, and then the dead cells on the exterior can insulate the live ones on the inside, and you've got a highly efficient machine for turning calories and carbon into a highly-organized structure . . . still goofy as hell, of course, but it certainly helps to establish a universe where the only brakes put on technology are self-imposed.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Magic of the Incarnum

I'm going to start this reaction with the second-cattiest comment from my notes (the first cattiest, "the class of dubious fashion choices" was a bit reductive). It's just a quote from the book, but it's a quote I chose to document out of an extremely arch sense of detachment: "characters who can shape soulmelds are known as meldshapers."

Some of you may already understand what I'm getting at, but to clarify, lest you think I'm just being weird and mean - Magic of the Incarnum (James Wyatt, Richard Baker, Frank Brunner, Stephen Schubert) is an extremely interesting book that presents an entirely new magic system for use with D&D 3.5, one that has unique aesthetics and setting implications, but also . . . that fucking jargon, man.

A "soulmeld" is a magical object made of solidified soul energy. The person who created it can wear it as a piece of equipment and gain a minor magical power. That power can be boosted through the infusion of extra soul energy (known as "essentia") to create more consequential effects. And every soulmeld has at least one (and as many as 3-4) upgraded forms where it is "bound to a chakra," unlocking even more potent magic. 

For example, the Lammasu Mantle gives you a +2 bonus to AC against attacks from evil creatures. And if you invest essentia, you also get a +1 bonus to saves per point invested.  But if you bind it to your arms, you extend those bonuses to your nearby allies. Or you could bind it to your shoulders, in which case you gain an aura that prevents non-good creatures from getting closer than 10 feet. Or you could bind it to your totem and gain the ability to breathe fire. And what this looks like in practice is you start with a cloak of fur and feathers and then, you can either cause your arms to grow fur (arms-chakra variant), cause the cloak to merge with your back (shoulders-chakra variant), or you can gain a think, lion-like mane (totem-chakra variant). 

Every soulmeld has its own abilities and appearance, and you can mix and match them at the beginning of each day, in anticipation of the likely threats and challenges you're going to face. During the course of the day, you can shift your essentia investment (but not chakra allocation) from soulmeld to soulmeld, tweaking the strength of your abilities to the needs of a particular encounter.

Like I said, interesting. But . . . soulmelds? It's an unpleasant word to say ("meldshaper" is even worse). Aside from just, you know, not being as melodious as "cellar door," it's also a term with no mythological provenance, no genre connotations, and just no . . . anything. It's an artless portmanteau made up to refer to this specific thing and nothing else. And even towards the end of the book, when I'd started to vibe with its whole deal, that word never lost its nails-on-a-blackboard feeling. 

The reason I bring it up first, before anything else, is because when I think about my preferred alternatives to the terms "soulmelds" and "meldshapers" my kneejerk answer is "spells" and "wizards." And I swear, that's not just me being a cranky-pants (well, maybe a little). I actually think it's the key to unlocking the book's full potential. It's a new magic system for Dungeons & Dragons, a game that already has a (famously contentious) magic system. All of the mental real-estate it needs to occupy is, in fact, already occupied. Try to layer it on top of what's already come before and of course it's going to be ugly (it doesn't help that all of the good synonyms - sorcerer, warlock, witch, arcanist, enchanter, thaumaturge, etc. - have all been used for other things), but that doesn't mean the idea is bad. You just have to clear the way for it.

I really think it's the book's format that's holding it back. Magic of the Incarnum is treated as a source of new classes to add to the core's implied setting and it's ill-suited to that role. You need only look at the "Incarnum Campaigns" chapter to see that. The first half is just variations on "how do you introduce this thing to your game when no one's ever heard of it before." Maybe some ancient seal has been broken. Maybe it's been around this whole time, but it was kept a secret. Maybe it's how magic works in some distant land, and it's just now coming to the place where the PCs are. And these are all good plots . . . in a world where magic doesn't already exist. Oh, the last survivor of an ancient progenitor culture has been located and now various factions are racing to find him and hopefully unlock the mytic secrets of the old civilization, leading to an invasion of the characters' homeland by a hitherto unsuspected imperial power from beyond the sea . . . let's ask Elminster what we should do about this. The plot can't land because the default game already has something that occupies the same niche, but better (or, at least, more powerfully).

The question of "how does magic work" is at the heart of any fantasy worldbuilding project. You don't necessarily want to get too nitty-gritty about the details, but you have to address it because the knock-on effects are huge. What does this mean for the world's culture? For its metaphysics? For its religions? Its economy? And Incarnum works really well as a starting point because it unavoidably touches on these sorts of questions. You gain magical power by manipulating souls! A wizard will grab a loose soul, transform it into a pre-determined shape, and use that soul to perform miraculous, superhuman feats. Amazing. What does it mean that there are all these loose souls floating around? How does this factor in to the cycle of life and death? If a loose soul can power a magic spell, why can't a soul that's already inside a body? What would have happened if that one dark wizard had succeeded at "storming the Bastion of Unborn Souls?"

Magic of the Incarnum can't really answer these questions, because D&D already has a minimum of three different types of magic (arcane, divine, and psionics) and any attempt to really lock the Incarnum power source to the world's lore is going step on some toes. As a book, it's kind of stuck in this limbo. The only way to engage with it is as a novel set of mechanics, which necessitates it having jargon in lieu of flavor, and that's to the benefit of neither the player, the setting, nor the game. 

Also, while I'm being negative, I have to scold it about its far too frequent use of the word "savage," and in the bad context as well. The Totemist class is the best part of the book, but its core idea (what if: a shapeshifter class that could fill a spellcaster niche by changing into the form of D&D's iconic magical beasts and using their spell-like abilities) is undermined by the fact that it's wrapped in the worst of D&D's racist nonsense. Things we know about the Totemist: they're illiterate like Barbarians and they're the favored class of "savage humanoids." Plus, I'm pretty sure it's inappropriate to use the word "totem" the way this book does.

Overall, I'd say that Magic of the Incarnum is a good enough book to anchor a whole campaign setting. . . which makes it a shame that it doesn't. I enjoyed reading it, but mostly as a historical oddity. This was an experiment in the limits of D&D mechanics and while it could occasionally be fascinating, I never forgot that I was reading an experiment.

Ukss Contribution: I liked the Threefold Mask of the Chimera. It has three faces and three sets of eyes and while wearing it you can see out any of them, with each face filtering the world in a different perspective. It's not quite as mystical as it could be, but I could easily give it a broader set of powers.