Tuesday, September 26, 2023

(D&D3.5) Dragon Magic

My gut-level reaction to Dragon Magic (Owen KC Stephens and Rodney Thompson) is "OMG, you are being such a dork right now," but you have to imagine me twirling my hair flirtatiously as I say it (you don't actually have to imagine that if you don't want to). It's a book about incorporating more dragon-themed fantasy into your D&D game and even though I came in to this fully forewarned by the very title of the book itself, there were times when I was like, "hey, I think this book might have too much dragon." But overall, I was charmed.

The thing most representative of this uncanny feeling is probably the Swift Wing prestige class. They are divine spellcasters who gain access to the Dragon Domain, a holy breath weapon, and, eventually, dragon wings. And you might think that this is because they worship one of D&D's established draconic deities like Bahamut or Tiamat, but you'd be wrong. You might then guess that they worship a god with some authority over or connection to dragon-kind. Nope. Nor do they have latent draconic ancestry or the tutelage of a dragon-turned-priest. The key connection here is "It's not unusual for these analogies to compare crusading gods and their clerics to elements of dragonkind."

But the thing that makes this prestige class so emblematic of the larger book as a whole is that this metaphor need not be a major part of the church's theology. In fact, "The relationship between a swift wing and the official hierarchy of her church is strained at best." It's not something they're expected to do. It's not something that makes sense for them to do. It's not even something that is logically possible for them to be able to do. But they do it anyway. These guys just happened to think that dragons are really cool, so they added "become a dragon for the glory of God" to their to-do list and somehow the ??? part of the plan worked itself out between level-ups.

Which is kind of great, you know. It may lead to a sense of there being too much dragon, but the idea that there's someone out there saying, "no, I need more dragon" charms the hell out of me. If you couldn't tell by my overly large collection of 837 roleplaying books, I am totally on board with the idea that there's no such thing as too much of a good thing, even if maybe I'm not quite as enthusiastic about dragons as this book might like.

I do wonder if maybe there was some corporate mandate going on behind the scenes, though. The "Draconic Campaigns" chapter starts with the quote "Dragons are an iconic part of the Dungeons and Dragons game, which is hardly surprising given that they have a starring role in its name" which strikes me as a weird thing to say that's half "ha, ha, we really like dragons around here" and half "they are holding my family hostage until I deliver optimum brand synergy." And the later follow-up "Dragons can be featured in encounters at any level, so why reserve them for the climax of a high-level game?" definitely strikes me as PR-speak overwhelming artistic good sense.

I don't know, 2000s-era Wizards of the Coast, maybe dragons can loom large in the imagination of the game precisely because they're usually reserved for the climax of a high-level game. Maybe something can cast a long shadow over the brand by being mysterious or awe-inspiring, in a way that's diluted by "introduc[ing] a new classification of animal . . . whose ancestry has draconic blood mixed in with that of a mundane race of animal."

Like, the Huitzil are cute. They have a good design with plenty of party mascot potential (assuming their habit of hording shiny objects is not used to annoy the players). But when you say they're "descended from the ancient coupling of dragons and birds" you have to understand that's fucking ridiculous, right? . . . Right?

Which is probably the biggest weakness of Dragon Magic as a book. It's mired in that murky area of D&D setting work where the necessities of the game drive the construction of the setting (dragon encounters at every level!) but then, that setting, once established, starts to influence the direction of the game (see: the numerous new widgets that this book gives us to play with). It never really gets ahold of what dragons are supposed to represent in fantasy fiction. They can be an allegory for greed, or a symbol of nobility, or connected to a primordial elemental power, or they could just be big fire-breathing lizards. And Dragon Magic, by its very nature of being a D&D book, can't really commit to one idea or another. So often, the still-charming mandate of "moar dragon plz" can manifest as simply putting a dragon-esque skin on an otherwise unrelated idea.

Unless, of course, you happen to enjoy the notion that once upon a time, a shapeshifted dragon fucked a perfectly ordinary bird.

Ukss Contribution: The Horde Gullet spell. Basically, it's an impromptu Bag of Holding, but it works by you swallowing a bunch of bric-a-brac and then vomiting it up at a more convenient time. It's an all-or-nothing affair, which makes it relatively useless for carrying equipment, but optimal for carrying away treasure, and that's an image that amuses me "ooh, gold! NOM! NOM! NOM!" More magic should be like that - a weird break with your normal physical intuitions that's honestly sometimes a little uncomfortable to contemplate. 

Monday, September 18, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Transhuman

This one took me a long time, not out of any particular quality of the book but because I wound up getting really into playing Starfield . . . approximately 100 hours since it first came out, less than two weeks ago. I'd bring the book with me to work, fully intending to read it, but then only getting through a page or two before I remembered that my laptop was right there, and that the solitude of my night job meant there was little stopping me from playing a video game at work. Who knows how long this pattern might have continued, had I not, this very night, forgotten to pack my laptop power supply. The need to preserve precious battery power was precisely the motivation I needed to only play video games after I've done my previously scheduled reading.

Transhuman was probably the ideal book to read in this series of disconnected bursts (approximately 100 pages on September 4-5, 100 pages on September 17, and the remaining 20 pages spread out over the two weeks in between). It's a grab bag of unrelated topics, ranging from alternate rules for character creation, to tips on roleplaying an artificial intelligence to rules for using a nano-fabricator. Parts of it were extremely dry (the eleven pages devoted to all the fiddly, specific things a flexbot can do very nearly put me to sleep), but there's also a lot of interesting setting going on.

It's at this point that I kind of regret copping out with my post for the Eclipse Phase core. I was in some kind of mood when I wrote it because "I don't want to go into a 2000 word digression discussing the Ship of Theseus" is exactly the opposite of my usual deal. I'm not going to make the same mistake this time. While Transhuman is kind of a microcosm of the core book's . . . a-lot-ness, its wide-ranging interests do provide plenty of material to address some of the game's broader themes.

Let me just spin the Wheel of Criticism and see what it lands on . . . Oh, hey, would you look at that: Transhumanism and the Objectification of Nature! What are the odds? (Approximately 100%, because I am transparently doing a bit).

One of the big things this book talks about is "uplift morphs," animals like octopuses, ravens, pigs, whales, etc that have been subjected to a combination of genetic, cybernetic, and surgical modification to become "self-aware," with human-level intelligence. I believe they're discussed in more detail in another book, but this one does go through the broader strokes appropriate to a player's guide giving them unique new character traits and background packages, discussing the roleplaying challenges of depicting a non-human intelligence, talking briefly about their role in society and the difficulties that would come from trying to make their own authentic culture.

Not discussed: where did the human beings of the Eclipse Phase setting get the absolute, fucking gall to do this in the first place? At the risk of outing myself as dangerously vegan, these animals were fine just the way they were. But there's more at work here than just the ethics. One could argue that there's no real harm in creating a chimera, that a new mind is only itself, and thus creating an uplift isn't something you do to an animal, it's just making a new person using science. This would necessitate ignoring the suffering and death that took place in the intermediate steps, but as of the game's start date, this is an established technology and maybe there's no significant difference between creating a new neo-octopus and having a new human baby. Plus, most of the people most directly responsible have been brutally killed by rampaging machines, so there's a certain element of cosmic justice at work here.

However, that doesn't answer the question of why you'd make one in the first place, nor the question of why you would continue to make them even though the scarcity of living space for biological creatures is one of the major setting conflicts. This isn't a plot hole - I'm certain the characters in the setting have their own motivations - but it's hard to imagine an answer to these questions that does not fill that potential plot hole in the grimmest fashion imaginable.

The only real explanation I can see is the humans of Eclipse Phase have a rampaging sense of self-regard. You make an uplift to see if you can, to imprint the shape of the human mind on as much of the world as possible, a kind of super-science graffiti with no message more exalted than "I was here."

There's something that repeatedly pops up throughout the book, so casually and so frequently that I'm not sure it's a deliberate theme so much as an unexamined philosophical assumption - that intelligence, consciousness, and self-awareness (assumed to be largely, but not exclusively identifiable with the human experience of these things) are unmitigated goods. It is better to be smarter, better to be aware of the self, better to be a self-directed agent. The hypercorporations have to program in limiters to stop their functional AI systems from developing consciousness, and the conscious AI community (called AGIs, for "artificial general intelligence") object that this is a violation of the AI's rights. Because, of course, being an expert program that manages a habitat's life support is much worse than being a robot with a habitat body who just so happens to have a bunch of humans crawling around inside it.

So it's never really questioned (except as a fringe position amongst politically radical uplifts) that taking an animal and making it into a person is an action that rebounds to the animal's benefit. You take a pig and make them into a neo-pig, and that neo-pig has no cause to be anything other than grateful for the gift of life. . .

Incidentally, here's the character quote from the bottom of the neo-pig sample character's page: "The bacon I'm eating? No, it's not weird at all. It's human bacon. Eat up, long pig."

Which gets us right to my original point - there's a pervasive sense throughout the game that human beings can do whatever they want with nature. You can see it in both parts of the chosen quote - humans could take a pig and turn her into a talking neo-pig, but then they can also take the meat of a human being and turn it into human bacon. Because the pig is just a medium on which technology can operate and the human body, absent a controlling mind, is exactly the same. Because the neo-pig is as smart as a human, it gains the same prerogative over flesh. The human bacon isn't weird at all.

Of course, it's this primacy of the mind over the base matter of the physical universe that puts the "trans" in "transhuman," but it makes me wonder about the setting's big threats - the TITANS that went rogue and killed 95% of the human species, the Extraterrestrial Intelligence that left behind the computer virus that caused them to do it. Is their unaccountable free hand with human bodies and minds really all that different, ideologically, than what human beings are doing to the uplifts?

I would like to believe that this is intentionally thematic, that it is part and parcel with the inner system's reliance on indentured (read: slave) labor, that it is saying something fundamental about the nature of power through the genre medium of post-cyber cyberpunk.

What gives me pause is that the groups in question, the post-singularity TITAN AIs and the hypercapitalists of the Planetary Consortium are portrayed pretty consistently as villains, but it is the heroic anarchists of the automatist alliance that are most likely to treat a human body like a disposable object.

It is, of course, a core conceit of the genre - the mind is software that runs equally well on a computer or a brain, and so the hardware is not important - but one of the effects of this book's condensed grab-bag format is that there is a clearer juxtaposition between indentured servitude/debt peonage and something like two far-flung anarchists sharing each other's bodies in an Airbnb-style swap arrangement.

There is a glib hair-splitting going on to distinguish indentured labor from slavery. The IndEX market is not a high finance exchange where you can buy and sell people, it is a "centralized exchange market for indenture contracts" (emphasis added). Yet the thing those disembodied minds are willing to go into debt to buy is a physical body. The body represents freedom, independence and the ability to control the circumstances of your own life. Therefor, to have a body is, in essence, to live. Which raises the uncomfortable question of whether the anarchists are being any less fatuous when they claim to abandon the coercion of the state, but still have procedures in place to ration the scarce available bodies at their disposal. This is a world where, regardless of your political affiliation, it is possible to be alienated from the ownership of your own physical body.

In other words, it's an ideological ground that is fertile for the expansion of slavery. The thing that's supposed to make it better is that a person is not their body in this world. They are only their mind.

Except, "the commodification of indenture contracts led to increased interest and soon there were also speculative markets where investors could buy egos from cold storage and pro-actively farm them out for profit as individuals."

Granted, this is villain behavior, but it is also a case of buying and selling minds, as well as bodies (though I suppose, technically, they're only buying the digital storage devices where those minds are backed-up). We know, via narration, that this is something the anarchists decry, but what I don't understand is why this is not what the game is fundamentally about.

The anarchists will do what they can to help the infugees (infomorph refugees, i.e. mind-state back-ups of humans killed by the TITANs), but it is also clear that "what they can" is "not enough," and rather than treat this shortcoming as a major problem that's allowing a historic injustice to continue unchecked, the game just sort of shrugs and goes "life goes on." Realistic, perhaps, but not in a way that speaks to any great artistic ambition.

Instead, the main designated protagonist faction is Firewall, and what they do is hunt down "X-risks" (events or technology that threaten humanity's continued survival). They're cool enough, in that blandly apolitical superhero way where they're a safe group to be front and center because no one could possibly object to hunting down the bizarre creations of murderous, super-intelligent robots, but also they're vigilante spies because apparently, in-setting, some people do.

However, what they mainly do is serve to establish the thesis that an unassailable capitalist infrastructure that ruthlessly commodifies human life is not enough of a threat to anchor a story by itself. That's a bad look for a work that wears its leftist politics on its sleeve. It's like if the 2011 Justin Timberlake vehicle, In Time, had been primarily about fighting Terminators (in this hypothetical film, Skynet mysteriously disappeared 10 years ago and the hilariously on-the-nose metaphor of time as money is just a background element of the post-apocalyptic society that rose from the ashes).

Now I'm dangerously close to just being one of those smug assholes who spring a gotcha ("ha, you silly leftists, you fell right into the trap of Capitalist Realism"), but I couldn't help but notice that this setting has at least three character types described, in the objective narration, as being basically people (uplifts, AGIs, and high-quality forks) and also subject to laws that treat them as property. And even to the extent that a person's mind is the only thing they truly own, securing run-time on a system that will allow you to actually experience the world requires a monthly subscription. And the very thing that enables these horrors is the transhuman technology that the books is otherwise so gung-ho about. That paradox is the nucleus of a hundred punk stories vastly more interesting than "robots are evil."

But, of course, this is an rpg, so making those stories is not just allowed, but encouraged. I just wish the books themselves gave them more support.

Anyway, that's approximately one of the eight posts I should have made shortly after reading the core book. I never even got into the equally viable alternate interpretation of transhumanism as a metaphor for queerness - if a body is just a material object, then there's nothing at all remarkable about customizing it to your exact preferences - and I may have left the false impression that my concerns about transhumanism as a way of objectifying nature meant that I was opposed to the idea in principle (it's really a much more nuanced position of "of course the body must yield to the desires of the mind, but to view the two as separable runs the risk of turning morphological freedom into yet another avenue of capitalist consumption, also don't eat pork.") But that's what comes from reading a set of rpg books that are clearly based entirely on philosophical thought experiments. It's a sign of well-constructed sci-fi that these sorts of conversations don't feel at all off-topic. You'll just have to forgive me for not being purely specific to Transhuman on its own.

Ukss Contribution: There's a section of the book that is presented as in-setting document where a corporation tries to explain the use of Muse technology to children - "your muse is a pet that you can teach to do tricks, but it can also teach you and any questions you might have about the world around you when your parents are not around." This is one of those things where I can't be entirely sure that the book knows how creepy it's being (muses are AI assistants you store in a cybernetic implant and communicate with through augmented reality, and the books have largely portrayed them as an indispensable modern convenience), but assuming it's being creepy on purpose ("some transhumans use pruned forks of people they know . . .while a template-based muse is easy to ignore or argue with, a fork of your character's mother is harder to contradict") then it's a type of creepiness that I kind of enjoy. A sort of slow-burn psychological horror where there's this common practice that's so ubiquitous that people don't notice it's fucked up. There will be a society on Ukss where it's customary to give every child their own servitor spirt/government-sanctioned snitch.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Tome of Magic

Is Wizards of the Coast even aware of the practice of individual DMs developing their own campaign settings? There are signs that they might be. "The DM's World" is something that gets mentioned from time to time. DM-focused products usually come with worldbuilding advice. There are optional rules and setting elements that certainly seem to imply that they're meant to be used a la carte. And, of course, the writers of the game are recruited almost exclusively from the players of the game, so it would be weird if they've never encountered this common idea that is part of the cultural bedrock of the hobby.

Then I read a book like Tome of Magic (Matthew Sernet, Ari Marmell, David Noonan, and Robert J Schwalb) and it really makes me wonder. This book introduces three new varieties of magic, each with a dedicated caster class, along with appropriate prestige classes, magic items, monsters, and professional organizations. And each one brings a unique and fascinating fantasy flavor. And two out of the three are functional enough to use alongside the core classes. But the book never even entertains its most obvious use case - creating new fantasy worlds where its new magic systems are just how magic works in that world.

I mean, I don't think I'm completely out of line for bringing this up. There's a general procedure for creating fantasy that I'm following here - you think about what you want your magic to do, both on a literal and a thematic level, and then you sort of shape the rules of how magic works to fit with those goals. Then maybe you extrapolate new things that may happen while still following those established rules and either tweak the rules to not allow things you don't like or just follow the chain of logic to create new things you didn't expect when you first set out. Because the role of magic, in fantasy, is to be a well of strangeness that takes us away from our mundane world (though the best fantasy does so in a way that has something real to say) while at the same time being coherent enough that we can feel like this new world might be a genuinely real place.

And judging by that standard, Tome of Magic might well be the second or third best magic book D&D has ever had . . . except it still keeps the core game's terrible "arcane" and "divine" magic as canon. Which means that you're not playing in a world where rare adepts of shadow can reach through the emptiness inside of themselves to draw forth the twisted prodigies of creation's dark reflection. You're playing in a world where people who do that are seen as a strange and limited variety of Wizard.

Unlike Magic of the Incarnum, which had the exact same fatal flaw, it's easy to adapt the new Tome of Magic systems to their actual proper use, but the book inexplicably does not help you to do that. It's like the idea was not even on WotC's radar. All of the classes and organizations get an "Adaptation" section and it's all folderol like "what if the class's alignment requirement were different" or "You can substitute in any generic death god if you're not using Orcus in the game." They're not entirely useless. Some of the advice sections might well suggest some fruitful tweaks. But they're all operating from a base assumption that whatever you do, you're still going to be in D&D-land.

It is an absolutely absurd proposition (bordering on the impossible) that when this book was being written, no one even entertained the notion of making a world where Truenamers fulfilled the same niche as wizards. There's a whole sidebar that begins, "The magic of names has been a theme in fantasy literature for as long as the genre has existed." And from there, it's only a short trip to the question, "hey, what exactly is going on with a spell's verbal components."  It's not going to take a diagram to draw a line from the Fireball spell to the in-character action of "speaking the secret name of fire." But the book doesn't do that. And I have to assume it was an intentional choice. There must have been some behind-the-scenes discussion about Tome of Magic's potential for inspiring homebrew settings where they made the conscious choice to just not mention it directly.

It's part of a trend I've noticed in the game, going back at least as far as the middle part of the Dark Sun metaplot, where the official products seem really reluctant to split the setting. You can't just have a self-contained world, off doing its own thing, that just so happens to use the D&D rules. No, every new thing that's introduced is part of the same world, and at most you'll have an explanation for why the different parts of the world do not interact with each other (or, at least, why they haven't up until now).

It speaks to a fundamental disconnect between myself and the game's creators about the purpose and nature of the game's content. I always viewed things like new classes and creatures as a kind of cafeteria menu. In the process of building a world, I'd take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and I wouldn't use everything all the time, but even the stuff I wasn't using had value because maybe in a future game, I'd use a different set of ingredients in a different combination. By contrast, a lot of the community (and this has been a major source of friction for me, over the years) seems to treat new content as a dish that has been ladled onto their plate whether they like it or not. If they don't like a new thing, then that's not just an unused option, it's an active problem they have to work around. 

I used to think that the second opinion was just a matter of griping by reactionary cranks, but I'm coming around to the notion that the books encouraged it. Earth Genasi paladins are indisputably canonical, but the book says they're rare, so you have to ask your DM if they're allowed. Or, to use an example more fitting to the book at hand, the churches of Hieroneous and Vecna will put aside their differences to persecute users of Pact Magic, and that's why you may not have heard of it until the DM decided to introduce it into the game.

Overall, I think Tome of Magic ranks pretty high on my list of favorite 3.5 books, precisely because the it's so much better as three new items on the cafeteria menu than it is as an expansion to the core. Like, True Name magic doesn't work because the way its DCs are calculated means that you get worse at your job as you advance in levels (and not just in the sense that high level utterances require higher rolls than low level ones - if you're an unoptimized character and you want to use the level 1 healing word on yourself, you have to roll an 8 or higher at level 1, but a 13 or higher at level 20 . . . assuming you have access to the item that gives you a +10 to your checks, otherwise it's flat-out impossible), but even to the extent that it does work, it would be absolutely unforgiveable to allow players to use spells with a Truename component. You know the thing people do where they have the true name of an enemy and they speak it as part of a terrible curse that utterly unmakes them, as if they never were? That's a Wizard ability. Truenamers can't do it. Which is maybe low hanging fruit as far D&D 3.x criticism is concerned ("oh, yeah, wizards can steal other classes schticks, but it's supposed to be balanced because they can only do it a limited number of times per day"), but it's only trite because it's true. Tome of Magic is a much stronger book when it stands on its own.

Ukss Contribution: I kind of like the truename wand that's built to work only on a specific person, but I feel like, given the importance wands have to the Ukss setting overall, that a Wand of Fuck That Guy in Particular would have a far different feel. 

I also really liked the vestiges as a group. They had that "Biblically accurate angel" thing going on, where even the relatively benign ones were strange and offputting (one is described as a wheel made of lion's limbs). If I were to pick one to single out, it would have to be Focalor, the Prince of Tears. His overall appearance is relatively tame - a handsome human man with "griffon's wings" (and no, I don't know why you'd describe a winged character by citing a creature that notoriously has the wings of an entirely different creature), but there's something about a cosmic being that's constantly crying that really speaks to me.