Thursday, October 26, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of the Dragon

Now, at last, I get to utter the phrase that's been at the back of my mind, as a dream of pure hubris, since I started reading Dragon Magic: "I want MOAR DRAGON!"

It's not that Races of the Dragon (Gwendolyn FM Kestrel, Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, Kolja Raven Liquette) is really lacking in that regard, just that, by its very nature, it's a book about creatures that are definitely not dragons. I mean, technically, so is the rest of the Races of . . . series, but this book especially takes pains to remind you. Kobolds claim to be descended from dragons, and maybe they are, but that's not what's interesting about them, what's interesting about them is their Koboldness.

And granted, one particularly interesting part of their Koboldness is that they are apparently responsible for filling the hoards of random dragons by compulsively mining precious metals and then casting them into special commemorative coins that are not legal tender in any sovereign state, but which bear the likeness of the specific dragon the kobolds are trying to ingratiate themselves to, but even with that bit of trivia, there's more to the species than that.

Which maybe makes it sound like I'm asking for less dragon, but honestly it's more that I wish the kobolds were in a book that had a different overarching theme. The kobolds have to be made more dragon, to justify their inclusion in this book, but aside from the hoard thing, they aren't actually made dragon enough. They hold grudges, they like traps and alchemy, and they are all-around better mascot characters than their arch-rivals, the gnomes and they kind of deserve to be in a game that doesn't have racial alignments (although, if the chart in the "Campaigns" chapter is to be believed, one in ten kobold settlements has a "good" alignment). The contrast between the grandeur of the dragons and the scrappy underdog nature of the kobolds is a joke with a really short half-life.

So, I'm in this awkward position where the kobolds are the best part of the book, I enjoyed reading about them, but I do not agree that they should count as a "race of the dragon." Which just leaves us with the dragonborn, the spellscales, and the dragon-descended, which are plausibly "races of the dragon," but which aren't as interesting as dragons themselves.

In fact, they're universally kind of . . . sigh. It's like they're trying to borrow the glamor and majesty of dragons, but completely miss the point. Take the dragonborn. They're fanatics who worship Bahamut and are waging an eternal war against evil dragons, which might be an interesting hook for a species of dragon-people . . . except they're not a species. The dragonborn are just humanoids who undergo a magical ritual to become dragon-like in a way that translates to a lateral move in power. Being dragonborn has certain advantages, but they're balanced against the typical PC race advantages and in order to become a dragonborn, you have to give up your racial advantages. So they're basically just a bunch of people who put on dragon costumes in order to fight dragons. It's weird.

And spellscales? They're nothing. Just literally no point to the entire character type. There's this bad habit that used to be endemic to d20 race descriptions where they'd just tell you about one really specific character and be like, "imagine a whole society filled with that guy," and then you'd have to rely on 20 years worth of deconstructions, remixes, parodies, and forum arguments to establish that no, there actually is a second dwarf personality, but you can read through the spellscale sections in complete confidence that no one is ever going to do that because the one guy they chose to depict isn't cool enough to anchor a brand. That's spellscales. Sorcerers, in D&D lore, claim descent from dragons, so imagine a guy whose parents were such big sorcerers that he was born with dragon scales. He really plays up the hurtful "trust fund magic" stereotype that sometimes clings to sorcerers, but this time with an over-the-top wardrobe (a cloak made of pegasus feathers) and the worst kind of chaotic neutral "let's spin the wheel to determine my loyalties for the day" personality. 

Literal roleplaying advice for this character: "Most of the time, don’t offer apologies. If one is demanded of you, be very specific about what you’re sorry about. Don’t apologize for what you did; apologize for unforeseen or unwanted consequences."

Show of hands who wants this guy at their table? Anyone?

The dragon-descended also fail to find a niche. They're plagued by two problems. The first is that 3.5's level adjustment rules make them nearly unplayable (something that is discussed at length in the text, so it's not like they didn't know). The second is that half-dragons have this really grim "abandoned by their dragon parent, outcast from their other parent's society" narrative that attaches to them, which really goes to undercut the fact that most people want to play them because they are metal as fuck. I just want to play a cool dragon man with sick-ass wings and the ability to breathe fire, he doesn't need a tragic backstory, WotC.

That goal is reachable with the right feats and prestige classes, so it's not as if this book is entirely out of pocket, but it was also kind of achievable in Draconomicon, so what am I even doing here?

A lot of these 3.5 books task me, because the great thing about them is the way they can act as a clearinghouse for ideas, and I don't need a 100% hit rate for that to be worthwhile to me. And yet, sometimes it can be frustrating to read ideas that I know aren't going to pan out. My main take away from Races of the Dragon is that I'm really interested in reading a kobold-focused supplement that treats them as protagonist-ready demihumans.

Ukss Contribution: The Dragon Devotee prestige class had a line that really leapt out at me: "You love to speak Draconic and to talk about dragons with others who likewise admire this most noble of creatures." And on the one hand, this is just WotC doing the "overly-specific character" thing again, but on the other hand, I get it. Unlike the Single Spellscale Character, I could picture using this person in a game - someone who is just super-obsessed with how cool dragons are and takes any opportunity to rattle off dragon facts, even in socially inappropriate contexts. I'd be tempted to learn the names of the dragons' bones, just so I could properly roleplay this character (I may, in fact, already be this character, but with rpgs). So Ukss will have a dragon devotee.

Friday, October 20, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Sunward

Oh, man . . . intricate, meticulous worldbuilding . . . that's the good stuff. The authors of Sunward even thought about the Martian time zones. I didn't want to read about the Martian time zones. I am (resolutely, defiantly) never going to use the stuff about the Martian time zones. But I like that they thought about it. That's the dream of rpgs - that you can disappear into another world. If I visited Mars, I'd definitely be like, "um, how do I set my clock?"

Of course, I can never quite achieve this vaunted state of immersion, even when I know things like the Martian times zones or the name of a dragon's bones. If anything, I find that kind of detail distracting in practice. Lucky for me, Sunward also has a bunch of the sort of details I can use - balloon cities in the upper atmosphere of Venus, dusty railroads connecting the isolated homesteads of Martian terraformers, just absolutely and utterly improbable magnetic whales living in the Sun's Chromosphere.

Then there are the details I don't think I should use. The book has two separate female characters who were high status professionals before the apocalypse, lost their bodies to killer robots, and then had AI emulations of their consciousness forced into sex slavery. Coincidence? I mean, yeah, probably. The likely explanation is that this book has eight credited authors and whoever wrote that one part of the Mars chapter didn't know what was going to be in the opening fiction. But if this were a coherent work by a single individual, I'd strongly suspect that someone had issues with powerful women.

And, honestly, that's kind of on the shallow end when it comes to the parts of this book that make me uncomfortable. There's a city on Venus, Parvati, that is somehow all about sex work and it has a notorious black market where people can arrange sex crimes for hire. 

It's an issue I've danced around before. You want a villain? Villains do bad things. You want a world that needs to be saved? It's probably going to be pretty dark. Eclipse Phase is remarkable for just nakedly presenting the sci-fi anarchists as heroes, and their natural foil is a capitalist hellscape.

So where's my line? Indentured servitude is basically indistinguishable from slavery. That makes sense. And it's not surprising that a society that's okay with slavery would move on to the sexual exploitation of its victims. And the fact that this is not enough to satisfy the most depraved appetites of the ruling classes is well observed. There's an undeniable logic. But do I actually want to tell that kind of story?

I honestly think there's a kind of bias at work here. All eight of the authors have white-male-sounding names, and for all the radicalism of the book's politics, it's got kind of a detached voice when it comes to some of the most serious issues. Like, they're concerned with the intellectual puzzle of atrocity as a world-building element, but it doesn't occur to them that they're telling a story that should disgust people or piss them off. You've set up a group of people with particular motives and particular resources and realistically they should be stone-cold terrible. . . thus Parvati.

But it's not an approach that necessarily works very well. Early on, there's a line, discussing the desperate evacuation of Earth as it came under attack by killer robots: 

"Some countries were too poor or too low on the totem pole to get their people to safety - just take a look at the criminally small percentage of African nationals who made it off Earth, compared to their percentage of the pre-Fall population. Some would call that defacto ethnic cleansing."

Oh, come on. The only people who would call it that are those who know what "defacto" and "ethnic cleansing" mean. And, honestly, the only real contentious part of that description is the "defacto." This is a setting with multiple space elevators. You know, the things that have to be built near the equator and are a centerpiece of the proto-post-scarcity economic infrastructure. And with that in mind, tell me again how few Africans were able to get into space.

As an intellectual puzzle, it's distressingly easy to solve - the inflexible engineering requirement that space elevators be equatorial did not result in a new wave of African prosperity and African refugees being in an optimum position to escape Earth because the colonialist nature of the global order did not fundamentally change between the real world's present and the game's vaguely-positioned future. The Europeans stole Africa's centripetal force just like they stole its mineral resources.

Again, there's no rule saying you can't make a dark world where fucked-up shit happens, but there is kind of a rule that if dark, fucked-up shit happens in your work of fiction, you need to take pains to communicate that you understand how dark and fucked-up it is. Not necessarily in a heavy-handed disclaimer or direct, moralizing speech by the protagonist, but at least in the way that characters react to it. Maybe the word "criminal" in your description isn't a platitude. Maybe there are some African characters who are mad as hell about it. Maybe they have some goal or agenda that would make for an interesting adventure or location.

Spoiler alert: these Africans never show up. Indeed, the whole situation is not mentioned again. So, what we've got is a backstory where the people of Africa were defacto ethnically cleansed, and that's why there are so few of them around, leading to the actual, literal game Eclipse Phase being defacto ethnically cleansed of African characters.

Writing tip: if you establish "these people were almost wiped out," then that's something that calls for more of those people to be in your story, not less. Because you're not going to conceive of any use for that information more interesting than exploring the people's reaction to almost being wiped out.

I'm certain that it's just carelessness, rather than malice. but that's the nasty thing about bias. It sneaks up on you. The reason we don't get an African legacy reclamation faction is because grappling with cultural identity in a post-apocalyptic context, where the physical destruction of your homeland means your culture can never truly be what it was before is not what the game is interested in. What the game is interested in is . . . Martian time zones?

Or, more broadly, the physical and social challenges created by having transhuman post-scarcity technology and living in space. We learn about the Martian time zones because the specific sort of fun we're aiming for is the kind that comes from imagining what it would be like to live on another planet. We need to save our brain space for the knowledge that oxygen is a buoyant gas on Venus and so it might be possible to live safely inside a giant sapphire balloon. In contrast, "The Venusian balloon people still have an entirely justifiable grudge against the European Union, for its deplorable conduct in seizing military control over Kenya's space elevator and denying access to the locals even as fleeing the planet came to be a matter of life and death . . ." is actually a pretty good idea for a story. I have no idea where I was going with that.

Ultimately, I blame the TITANs. They are consistently the game's weakest element. They're the explanation for why the game is set in space and not on Earth, but having completed that job, they don't do much more than suck the oxygen out of the room (metaphorically). They are too urgent and intractable a threat, and thus they're The Guys You're Obviously Meant to Fight, even when you've already got other antagonist factions that are clearly in desperate need of a punch to the face.

The corporations on Mars deliberately introduced flaws into the genetic code of the bioengineered bodies of their workers, so that the workers would have to continuously pay a subscription fee for the privilege of not getting needlessly sick. And there's a fucking Titan Quarantine Zone on the very same planet. So when we take a tour of the various Martian settlements and learn about their security forces, what we mostly see is an assessment of their ability to handle an outbreak from the TQZ, and only intermittently do we learn what they'd be like as opponents in a cyberpunk story.

Overall, I'd say that Sunward was a pretty good read. I have my nitpicks and concerns, but it is a richly-detailed science-fiction universe, one that I am pretty happy to explore.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked the Venusian balloon cities, but that concept has too much overlap with the Aetherian floating continents. I'm not sure I could make it work. I will go with the idea of a ruling class that exploits its workers by deliberately giving them a treatable, but incurable disease.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Draconomicon

One of the hazards I should have come to expect in the course of this project of mine is frequent lessons in the nature of hubris. Yet somehow, it always catches me by surprise. I'll finish a book like Dragon Magic and think, "that had slightly too much dragon, but maybe it's not so bad to want ALL THE DRAGON!" And that idea will sit and stew in my head for a few days, and I'll gradually come around to agreement. "Yes," I say, "please give me all the dragon." Then, I'll pick up Draconomicon (Andy Collins, Skip Williams, James Wyatt) and it will say "Oh, you want all the dragon, do you? Prepare to learn the names of their fictional bones!!!"

Okay, Draconomicon, well played. The next D&D book on my list is Races of the Dragon, and when I go into that, I'll be hoping that it doesn't have too much dragon. I have been humbled.

(For now, mwa, ha, ha. . . )

Anyway, absurd complaints about there being too much dragon information in the dragon book aside, Draconomicon was a really fun read. I did sometimes get the feeling that WotC's behind the scenes must have resembled the Key and Peele Gremlins 2 sketch ("let's go around the table and have everyone design a dragon"), but since that sketch is absolutely adorable, that's not really a downside. Whatever the real process was, it gave us the punk-rock-looking Howling Dragon:

So, obviously, they're doing something right. The main strike against the book, other than the fact that they didn't follow up on the Howling Dragon's amazing art by ditching the original concept and just devoting a whole book to making one unique dragon for each sub-genre of rock and roll, is that dragons themselves are not mechanically diverse enough to warrant dozens of separate monster entries. At some point, someone should have realized that the twelve age categories with their increasing stats, long lists of spell-like abilities, and standard draconic chassis could have just been abstracted into a modular "create a dragon" system. 

The temptation is to call out the dozens of dragon types for being unimaginative reskins of the same basic creature, but I think the essential problem is quite the opposite. Dragons are the quintessential "this monster actually has a personality and backstory" creature type, and that's something that's best served by making each and every one unique. There are a lot of designs in this book that I really love (the howling dragon, the cloud-like storm drake, the craggy mountain landwyrm, the goth-industrial Tarterian dragon), but there's not a one of those that I'd want to put two of into the same campaign.

It's a dilemma that's eloquently demonstrated in the book's final chapter. It gives us one specific dragon in each of the twelve age categories for each of the ten basic types and the hit rate is high enough that we get a lot of decent new NPCs, but there is an undeniable redundancy going on. For crying out loud, there's a gold dragon and a red dragon that share about 90% of the same backstory (orphaned after their parents were killed by ideological foes, now dedicated to taking down their parents' enemies, though obviously this is framed differently in terms of alignment).

But it's unfair to act like this is specifically a problem with Draconomicon. It's actually baked directly into Dungeons and Dragons' overall monster design philosophy. Everything is a member of a species. You don't fight Medusa or the Minotaur, you fight a medusa or a minotaur. There are, occasionally, unique enemies - Orcus gets his own stat block - but by and large, monsters are treated as just another kind of animal.

Even when they shouldn't be. Something I will lay at the feet of Draconomicon is its continuation of WotC's deeply misguided "dragon encounters at every challenge rating" philosophy. The Introduction waxes poetic about "the tiny wyrmling at the bottom of an adventurer's very first dungeon," so let's just flip ahead to the anatomy and life-cycle chapter (skimming lightly, lest we accidentally learn the names of the dragons' fictional bones) to see exactly how a "wyrmling" is defined. . .

0-5 years?! As in a fucking literal infant?!

Dragons are intelligent creatures, capable of articulate speech. Which means they are, by definition, people. And their babies are, by extension, baby people. Sure, they've got claws and scales and deadly breath weapons, so they're not exactly as helpless as a baby human, but c'mon, they're at most five years old. No matter how you frame it, killing one is morally reprehensible.

Party Paladin: "Oh, no, that baby got their hands on a military-grade flame-thrower! Do you know what that means?"

Rest of the Party (in unison): "At-level XP!"

It's deeply unsettling, even before we get to the part about raising a dragon as a mount, where it crosses the line into just plain creepy (tip: if, at some point, you are going to have to teach them to read, you have crossed the line from "taming a steed" to "adopting a child" - that's not your pet, it's your son.)

It's a relatively small part of the book, but I just can't get over it. The Dracolyte prestige class (credit where credit's due: great name) gets a class feature at level 5 called "Foster Dragon." In the words of the book, they are "entrusted with the care of a wyrmling dragon."

And look, it's a full-caster class, so maybe it does need that kind of nerf . . . wait, is it intended as a power boost? ("the wyrmling dragon follows the dracolyte loyally, and will even accompany him on adventures")

So help me, if anything happens to that poor, innocent creature, finding an atonement spell is going to be the least of your worries. 

Also, let's take a beat to savor how fucked up it is that D&D has an atonement spell.

Although, all this talk about the atonement spell and dragon babies does threaten to get me onto the subject of one of my perennial D&D complaints: the awfulness of the alignment system and, in this particular context, the way it flattens the dragon types and makes them less interesting, but I don't really have anything new to say about that. I can't really blame this book for not solving the problem, but also, it's really weird that we were still dealing with it as late as 2003.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Maybe it had a little too much dragon, but I have no doubt that I will once more be overcome with the hubris to ask for more.

Ukss Contribution: The psychology of silver dragons really fascinates me. They're dragons, but they prefer to take humanoid form. In these forms, they fight evil, generally with zeal, but also less effectively than they would as a badass dragon. I'm not really keen on "dragon types," so I probably won't go with a whole species of silver dragons, but I think a single paladin-like character with a typical silver dragon background would make for a very interesting NPC.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

(Shadowrun) Harlequin

My path to the ownership of Harlequin is kind of a twisty one. It was the early 2000s, my only real experience with rpgs was AD&D, and though I'd been enthusiastic about the transition between 2nd edition and 3rd edition, it hadn't really broken through my head yet that other rpgs would have editions as well (it's how I wound up buying the Book of Shadows for Mage: the Ascension, despite owning the revised core). So I'd just started getting into Shadowrun, owned the 3rd edition core, and was looking to expand my collection. Cue the not-so-friendly local hobby shop near my college, the one where I got my ridiculously discounted copy of the Spelljammer boxed set. They'd always have an eclectic, if underwhelming selection of random rpg material, priced cheaply but with a clear indifference to curating any sort of coherent rpg inventory. One day, I go in and I see a Shadowrun supplement - Harlequin's Back. Who's Harlequin? Why is he back? Where did he go that he needed to come back from?  What is this Shadowrun thing all about anyway? Neither I nor the shop owner could say, but the book was only a couple of bucks so I bought it.

Fast forward a couple of decades. I'd just finished getting a complete Mage: the Ascension collection and it gave me all sorts of wild and untenable ideas - what would be next? It turned out to be the Aeonverse, but there was a point where I was making good progress towards Earthdawn and I thought, "why not Shadowrun after that?" And though, subsequently, good sense prevailed and I stopped myself from chasing after a complete Shadowrun collection, it was only after I snagged a few volumes that I hoped might answer some lingering metaplot questions. Numbering among those questions "Harlequin?" And thus I bought the book Harlequin, almost twenty years after I last read Harlequin's Back.

I'll let the "Running Harlequin" section at the end of the book summarize what I gained from the experience, "Even the gamemaster does not see or know the big picture. Ehran and Harlequin's dance of blood and vengeance is the secret, master story while the storyline involving the runners is only an offshoot of that deeper plot. The gamemaster knows only enough of the storyline to interweave a number of adventures, gradually letting their surface plot become revealed. About all that he [sic] and the player characters can do is make educated guesses about the master story, based on the little information they can obtain . . ."

DAMN YOU FASA!!! ::shaking fist::

Oh, and I guess I also learned that the Harlequin who died in an example on page 87 of the 1st edition corebook is a different guy from the Harlequin, which I kind of figured already, though it's funny that they went through the trouble to confirm this canonically. Was the character of Harlequin inspired by that example, and subsequently made distinct or was he independently invented and then, before the book was finalized, someone pointed out that there was already a guy almost exactly like that, but he died, and so they had to clarify that it wasn't the same person.  The other possibility is that they are in fact the same guy, but that Harlequin is such a tricky fellow that sometimes he appears to be dead when he's not. Presumably, this option was discussed behind the scenes and dismissed, in favor of preserving the objective voice of the mechanical example sidebars.

Which leaves only one last lingering question: did corebook Harlequin really die from a run-of-the-mill summoning accident or was he murdered? Because one thing we've definitely learned about the famous Harlequin, from the Harlequin adventure, is that he is entirely petty enough to arrange for a trademark-infringing wannabe to suffer an "accident." 

Justice for Harlequin 2! The people demand answers!

Anyway, I should probably focus on this book here. It's . . . 

It's . . . 


I guess Shadowrun, overall, likes to tell a particular story - professional criminals accept money to commit crimes for mysterious employers - and that's basically what this book is. The players are offered money to commit a series of crimes, and these crimes are connected by the fact that they're all for the same mysterious employer.

Fair enough. Where Harlequin stumbles is that its titular character isn't really that likeable a guy, and even to the degree that likeability isn't a necessary trait in a shadowy underworld contact, he's also too powerful to turn the tables on, and his overall agenda is petty to the point of inscrutability (Ehran the Scribe wounded him in a mock duel hundreds of years ago and now is the time to get revenge through a series of burglaries designed to humiliate him in the eyes of ???).

In other words, the plot is as shallow as advertised in the GM advice section. It's fine if the PCs are the sort to just accept an envelope full of cash to kidnap an innocent woman, but I don't really want to read a story about that kind of person, you know. 

Also, there were parts that didn't age so well, like the nearly-unavoidable sidequest where the PCs are mercilessly tortured. Or the poor treatment of the people indigenous to the Amazon (I guess it's not technically a colonialist stereotype that the Jivaros will cut off their enemies' heads and shrink them, because they are a real people who really used to do that, but it's all kinds of colonialist fucked up to take those real people and use them as expendable mooks in a random jungle encounter).

Overall, I'd say Harlequin was pretty skippable. Maybe in 1990 "weird guy who is inexplicably a literal clown in a crime-caper setting" was a fresh enough idea to anchor a book, but now, I need something a little more substantial. I expect that if you name an adventure book after a specific character, that character is going to be just as compelling as the adventure itself. That's not a bar that Harlequin reaches, and it probably wouldn't even if you spotted it his later appearances (for example, he appears in Earthdawn under the alias "Har'lea'quinn" which is just ::chef's kiss::).

Ukss Contribution: The thing with the Jivaros made me uncomfortable enough that I'm just going to skip this book. It's probably not as bad, objectively, as some of the others I've skipped, but it literally calls an actual, extant culture "savages" and that's not cool.