Thursday, November 30, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Gatecrashing

In the course of researching this post (yes, sometimes I do research, though I usually take pains to make sure it doesn't show), I accidentally exposed myself to Roger Ebert's asinine opinions about video games. It really upset me and threw me off my usual rhythm. I think the thing that gets under my skin is that I otherwise hold a great deal of respect for the man. He was really good at what he did and left behind a body of work that (with certain notable exceptions) anyone should be proud of. On those days when I get tempted to think of myself as a literary critic, I am inevitably drawn back to earth by the sobering thought of comparing myself to people of his caliber. He was a lot better at this than I am, with a broad perspective borne of decades of experience, and it's a shame that his knowledge and experience gave him the ability to engage in the sort of high-grade sophistry that lesser intellects will struggle to refute.

I bring this up not because I want to pick a posthumous fight with one of the 20th century's great intellectual luminaries, but because getting these feelings off my chest helps me reset my emotional state. Now that I'm roughly back to the baseline, I can share the thought process that led me to google "are games art" in the first place:

I just read a book for a game, and I was planning to critique it as if it were art.

Okay, okay, smartass answers aside the real catalyst was Gatecrashing reminding me of a thought I had while I was still blogging about video games - that games were uniquely suited to presenting "setting-focused fiction."

It was a theory I never really developed, but the basic gist was that there's this way of thinking about fiction that boils down to "telling a story" and that puts video games in a weird place, because they can undeniably tell stories, but a lot of those stories are bad. I used to say that the only good video game stories were Borderlands 2 and Saints Row IV and that sounds like a joke, but it wasn't. I was just making the observation that most video game narratives fall apart if you include the stuff in-between the cut scenes as part of the story (cue: "bandits try to rob the Dragonborn" meme).

However, "telling a story" isn't actually a comprehensive (or even particularly enlightening) way to talk about fiction. Once you start exploring how to tell a story, you start to realize that the "story" part of telling a story is kind of optional. You ask yourself "does a psychological novel really need a plot" and the answer is "what do you mean by 'plot'?" It probably needs "events" that "happen," because humans are creatures that exist at a particular place and time, and thus are always at the mercy of happenstance, but the mere juxtaposition of events occurring sequentially in time (or separated in time, but united by a theme, possibly out of chronological order) does not, in itself, constitute a story. 

And that got me into a place where I started thinking about how I conceptualized fiction - perhaps it was more broadly a practice of curating an experience. A "story" might focus on plot, but if you could have a different type of fiction that focused on exploring a character, to the detriment of plot, maybe you could also have a third type of fiction, one that focused on exploring a setting.

(I know, I know, Tolkien and Herbert, but please stick with me here).

When I think about great video game experiences, I think of two things: 1) Tetris, and 2) the experience of being in a place. You take something like Bioshock and it has two or three great story beats, but what sticks with me, after all these years, is just the pure delight of exploring Rapture - its decaying art deco grandeur, its undersea gloominess, the oppressive miasma of unfathomable pressure without and sudden, frightful violence within. 

A couple of years ago, I went on a four day roadtrip, visiting the Painted Desert and the Getty Museum, driving up California Highway 1 from LA to San Francisco, and winding up in Sequoia National Forest. It was a life-changing experience that no fiction has ever come close to equaling, but Assassin's Creed: Odyssey has probably missed the mark the least. It's not that video games are only worthwhile for setting, or that only setting-rich games count as art, but rather that creating a setting and then giving it to an audience to explore is the thing that video games do better than any other medium.

Now, all of that was a long-winded introduction for me to eventually start talking about Gatecrashing, but there's a reason I got on this train of thought - we think of rpgs as "story games," but this book here resolutely refuses to tell complete stories. It introduces a dozen separate mysteries, but none of those mysteries have solutions. The reader has to make those up themselves. But it's still an intense artistic experience, because each of those mysteries is associated with a place.

That's something Eclipse Phase in general does very well. I talk about the game's "alotness" and make fun of things like Sunward including the Martian Time Zones, but I think you could make the argument that there's an artistic purpose to forcing me to read about the logistical preparations for exploring the far side of a stargate, or introducing four new gate-operating skills to compete for my limited points, or spending a half page each on the fiddly rules for survival equipment like the Faraday Armor or Bio Defense Unit. It's not always good game design and if I read this stuff in a novel, I'd probably send some ill-advised all-caps letter of complaint to the author, but they do contribute to the illusion of being in a place (I should also, at this point, apologize to those old-school modules for complaining about them spending so much time describing furniture - I get it now).

The only real question I'm left with after reading this book is whether the locations in Gatecrashing are, overall, a good fit for the Eclipse Phase setting as a whole. See, I love this kind of book, and I really enjoyed most of the specific things in this particular book, but I'm not entirely sold on gatecrashing (small "g") as an Eclipse Phase campaign model. The issue I have is that it takes focus away from the Solar system's transhuman politics and technology and it fails to put that focus back onto anything else. 

Rushing quicky through the context: At some point in the future, humanity builds military AIs with the capacity for exponential self-improvement. Those AIs start scanning and the Solar System and use their super-intelligence to figure out the subtle clues that lead them to an alien communication. Except, the reason the clues were so subtle in the first place was to act as a snare for super-intelligence. The communication is a multi-vector virus from an impossibly advanced species that corrupts the AIs and turns them against their creators. Those AIs kill 90-95% of all human beings and then mysteriously disappear. After that, the surviving people discover five Pandora Gates, which allow for interstellar travel, using advanced technology that violates their (and our) current understanding of the laws of physics. This book is all about using those gates, and what players might expect to find on the other side.

Which is all very well and good, except it doesn't really do anything with that context. The locations, by and large, would not be out of place in Trinity Continuum: Aeon (and, in fact the giant psychic fungus organisms that are each the size of a large forest reminded me greatly of Trinity's myriasoma) or one of the filler episodes of Star Trek. The characters in the setting believe the gates are the means by which the TITANs fled the Solar System. Those who read the GM's section of the core have reason to think they were made by a hostile, galaxy-spanning Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Neither of those threats directly appears anywhere in this book (not even the out-of-character GM's section).

I think the game's creators might be overestimating the mileage they can get out of nameless dread. Transhumanity is tinkering with a mystery of deep time, one which operates on principles they can't even begin to understand, but it mostly turns out okay. Going through the Door Last Used By the Things That Almost Killed Us is proving to be the right choice . . . for now. But when the book wants to make a point about humanity's reckless hubris, it really makes that "for now" do a lot of heavy lifting.

Maybe this is just a reader's problem, though. The book is inviting me to be a co-author of the setting, and if I were to GM a game of Eclipse Phase, I could put whatever I want on the other side of the gates, so my frustration at not having definitive answers to the mysteries is in part because I'm not using the book in its intended fashion. However, I could also counter that it's putting a lot of unnecessary work onto me, and that I'm not getting enough support to run the most obvious gatecrashing stories. If I'm not learning about the ETI's other victims or the fate of the TITANs, if I am, in fact, just doing more stories about the conflict between the outer system anarchists and the inner system hypercapitalists, I'd just as soon set those stories on a more-detailed Mars.

Overall, I'm going to call this book, "maybe a good start." Maybe.

Ukss Contribution: One of the gates is controlled by the anarchists of the Love and Rage Collective. We don't learn much about them here, but it's a great name, so I'm yoinking it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of the Wild

Oh, man, 21 days since my last post. I know it's irrational, but I'm embarrassed by that. Some days I look at my overall mission and think, "approximately 400 books at an average of 2 and a half days per book, I could get done in another 3 years," and then other days I'm like, "more than 400 books at more than three weeks per book, I could get done in another never." I want to finish, but it can be hard sometimes to have faith that it's even possible.

It doesn't help that November was a hard month for me, re: depression. None of the things I normally find enjoyable were even the slightest bit tempting (if I'm embarrassed by my lack of blog progress, I'm mortified by how little work I've done on Ukss d20 . . . or at least, I would be if anyone besides me was expecting it to happen).

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not disclosing all this because I feel like I owe anyone an explanation. I'm not sitting here imagining that there's someone out there getting steadily more frustrated by the thought that I'm laying around wasting time when I could be working on cranking out another half-assed blog post about a decades-old rpg supplement. I'm telling you all this because it turns out that suffering a depressive episode really fucks with my normal process, in ways that extend beyond the obvious.

Normally, when I start writing these things by staring at a blank page while thinking about my overall experience of reading the books, paying particular attention to any lingering questions or unresolved issues. That's why I can sometimes seem to be strangely hard on the books I like the most - because the thing that makes me love a book is its potential for firing up my brain and putting it into question mode. 

I can't really do that with Races of the Wild (Skip Williams) because my predominate experience for the last three weeks has mostly been being pretty sad and my most frequent question while reading it was, "why can I not bring myself to concentrate on this for more than five damned minutes at a stretch?" And neither of those things is fair to lay at the feet of the book. If I look back at my notes and try my best to approach them through a stance of objectivity, I actually kind of have to conclude that Races of the Wild is a near-ideal rpg supplement.

I might quibble with the notion that halflings are "of the wild," but if you put a pin in the appropriateness of the overall theme and just take it as a book about elves, halflings, and raptorans (you may recognize this last one as a birdfolk species that was invented especially for this book and then subsequently never mentioned by anyone ever again), it has everything I could possibly want. Every chapter starts with "a day in the life" of a member of that species, which is a type of worldbuilding that I absolutely love. They talk about childhood education, customs surrounding love and death and war, and they even describe the clothes!

(I always put an exclamation point on the clothes thing not because I'm super into fashion, but because in the real world clothes are so culturally specific, and so indicative of things like chains of production, environmentally available materials, and patterns of trade that describing them is an extremely efficient way of saying a lot about how your world works while also giving readers something concrete to imagine. The next best thing is cuisine.)

I do wonder a little about the book's overall utility. As delightful as the worldbuilding was, it's all very much "corebook implied setting." The elves are super elfy, in that particular D&D way where they're not really fey, but they are ren-faire cosplay fey - pretty and skilled and long-lived, but not fundamentally inhuman. In an rpg, the primary use of worldbuilding is to help a player come up with a more well-rounded depiction of a character, but I'm pretty sure players were already roleplaying their characters like that.

So it seems like the book's primary use (aside from the new prestige classes, feats, etc, which are nice to have but not actually as good as the pure setting stuff) is to give D&D lore nerds something to geek out over, and this is where my depression really fucks with me because my knee-jerk reaction to more "D&D implied setting" lore is "who the hell cares?" And I can recognize that as the depression talking, but if I'm being totally honest, it's not purely the depression talking.

Oh, how I wish I was young again. That's what my aversion to vanilla D&D is really about. I get bored with it because I've seen it a million times before, but that wasn't always the case. There was a time when it was all new to me and I fell into it in a big way. Nostalgia time:

I actually wrote my first rpg before I read my first rpg. Strange, but true. When I was about 10 years old, I was allowed to sit in on a session of D&D being run by one of my stepfather's friends. I played a half-elf wizard, despite not really understanding the rules or the setting, and I was immediately enchanted. We were pretty poor in those days, enough that spending the money on a corebook of my own was unthinkable, so I tried to reverse engineer the experience, based on what I remembered from that one session, the rules of the Hero Quest board game, and what I gathered from fantasy books like The Hobbit.

It was, obviously, awful, but it was a creative outlet and over time I had a dozen spiral notebooks filled with maps, character types, monsters, and statistically dubious random encounter tables. Sadly, those notebooks have been lost to time, and are probably rotting away in a landfill somewhere, but they were definitely the start of something. As time went on, our circumstances improved, I finally got my own Player's Handbook, and over the years I assembled a collection one birthday and Christmas at a time. 

The point of this digression is that, in the beginning, I was super into vanilla D&D. I absolutely devoured everything that even remotely resembled the implied setting lore. I read the Dragonlance Chronicles multiple times (there is nothing on this earth better than a library). If you had sent Races of the Wild through a time portal back to 12-year-old me, it would have blown my fucking mind. But I got older, my perspective broadened, I learned new things, and vanilla D&D started to feel like it was frozen in time. It didn't really grow alongside me. For awhile, I got into Dark Sun and Planescape and those each seemed like a breath of fresh air, but I didn't start with those until 1997 or 1998, and by that time TSR was already a moribund company.

So I ask myself again, in reference to Races of the Wild, "who the hell cares," and I have to realize that lots of people are going to care. Young me would have cared. People coming in to D&D fresh in 2005 would have cared. I may cast my jaded eye at this book and think, "oh, wow, those elves sure do seem like elves" or "I guess the halflings' transition from hobbit to kender is now mostly complete," but people don't start off knowing this sort of thing. The way you learn that a particular elf is notably elf-like is by reading about elves, by reading books like this. And if I think about Races of the Wild in terms of "books like this," then it is, in fact, a really good "book like this." Someone new to the world of vanilla D&D would be lucky to have it as a starting point.

Ukss Contribution: My favorite line in the book is at the start of the monster section. The introductory paragraph describes the upcoming creatures as "potential friends." It's a little bit undercut by the first such potential friend being described as a creature the halflings slaughter for meat (I guess it was potentially a friend or potentially a meal), but I kind of love that as a framing for an rpg bestiary. You hear me WotC? Do a whole book of "potential friends," you cowards!

But that's not really a setting element. I only bring it up because the primary purpose of this section is to single out specific things I admire about the book, and that's the thing I admire most. As far as setting elements are concerned, my favorite was probably the halflings' passive aggressive prayers to Yondalla. "A prayer for healing might begin 'I am in such fine health, yet . . ." and a prayer for intercession might begin 'a minor annoyance has been visited upon me. . . '"

It's super funny, it makes me want a whole book about Yondalla-ism, and I think it would be a really fun bit of texture for some as yet to be fleshed-out fantasy religion.

Monday, November 6, 2023

(Shadowrun) Harlequin's Back

I definitely have feelings about Harlequin's Back. I wrote multiple beginnings to this post, all sarcastically proclaiming my enthusiasm for the return of Harlequin, and after each one, I'd look back and think to myself - wait, am I really not excited at all to see Harlequin again? And in each case, the answer would be the same: "uuummmmmmmmmm . . . "

I guess I kind of like Harlequin . . . in theory. Which is aggressively faint praise, I know. But I am feeling strong emotions here. It's not one of those cases where I've got neutral feelings about something bland or outside of my experience. I'm not out here opining about baseball's designated hitter rule. I am not just ambivalent, I am powerfully ambivalent.

The issue with Harlequin is that he's potentially a very good character, but from a GMing perspective, he's got a high degree of difficulty. The players going, "I hate that fucking guy" is not just a failure state, it's the likeliest possible outcome. The second-likeliest outcome? Unfathomable levels of sheer cringe.

Here's how the book recommends I depict him: "A high-strung, sarcastic comedian on a verbal tear." Not included: even the slightest recommendation for how to actually fucking do that. 

I get the appeal from a writerly perspective. It's the beginning of an epic quest, the fate of the world is at stake, and you've got a mentor/questgiver-type character who's the closest anyone in the story ever gets to seeing the whole picture. Normally, these sorts of scenes are ponderous and staid, with big, important speeches and admonitions about the absolute seriousness of the task at hand.  So it's theoretically pretty fun to have a character who takes the opposite approach. This whole thing is deadly serious, but the person who's telling you about it doesn't seem to be taking it seriously. It's not just whimsy for the sake of whimsy, it's a deliberate subversion of a stock fantasy character.

And I do have to cut FASA some slack here. 1994 was a long time ago. The fact that this particular kind of subversion has, itself, become old hat is not something that I can lay at the feet of the book. I don't have enough of a pop-culture memory to say for sure whether it felt fresh at the time, but I can certainly grant it the grace of accepting it on its own terms.

However, as much as "the heroes are told about the imminent apocalypse by a weird clown" might be an audacious choice for a book or a movie, the medium in question here is a roleplaying game and so it's not just a genre parody - it's an improv challenge.

Here's the test to see if you can successfully portray Harlequin. Say the following quote out loud:

"When Fate taps you on the shoulder, you'd best pay attention. Unfortunately, she has the blasted habit of tapping you on the opposite shoulder, so that when you turn around she's actually on your other side, giggling like a deranged schoolgirl. I hate that."

How did that feel? Natural? Like you're just being the funny trickster mentor, imparting your hard-won life experience in the form of a humorously over-extended metaphor?

Personally, I think it's a writer's line. We get that way sometimes, valuing cleverness over a strict adherence to realistically depicting speech. It's emblematic of Harlequin, though. He's definitely a writer's character.

The question I'm left with, regarding Harlequin's Back is whether that counts as a fatal weakness. It's hard to say, because for all that he can sometimes be an insufferable character, he's also the most interesting thing about the story.

The basic plot of the adventure is that it teases a potential Earthdawn crossover. Because of metaplot nonsense, the Horrors are threatening to breach our reality many hundreds of years ahead of schedule, resulting in widespread death and destruction as an unprepared Earth is invaded by millions of terrifying magical beings. Some poorly-explained cosmic force has assembled a team consisting of Harlequin, his kidnapping-victim-turned protege, Jane Foster, and the player characters for a quest into the deepest reaches of the astral plane, to gather the several ingredients necessary to close the pathway into our world.

On a practical level, this takes the form of a series of short alternate-universe adventures, where the PCs must solve a problem in a different genre of game (post-apocalyptic, western, Arthurian romance, etc) in order to be rewarded with the thing they need to advance the plot. Technically, Harlequin only shows up at the bookends, to tell the PCs what's going on and to cast the magic ritual they gathered the parts for, but in each of the alternate universes, there just happens to be a guy who looks a lot like Harlequin, undergoing a challenge that is representative of the real Harlequin's past and of the conflicts inside him.

As the introduction puts it, "the overall Astral quest is in many ways Harlequin's journey . . . players can do little except observe the battle in Harlequin's psyche." 

The two halves of that quote are separated by, like, 3 pages, but I put them together in a single thought because they really do capture something essential about the adventure - it really does work better as a story when the world-saving stuff is in the background and your attention is focused on getting to better know this weird clown. He's an immortal sorcerer, who used to be a knight and a hero, until the grief of accumulated tragedy and failure, and the sheer weight of years brought him low. His cynical goofball persona hides a deep sadness and tarnished honor, and there may yet be one last noble quest inside him.

The tension inside Harlequin's Back is between the desire to effectively use its title character and the basic rpg reality that the players are the story's true protagonists. As a result, it really seems to meander at times, and it never really lands the moments it needs to land, giving it a weird theme-park vibe when it clearly has the ambition to be something more.

Funnily enough, I think the real culprit behind the weaknesses of Harlequin's Back is not Harlequin, but rather the fact that he's back. The adventure would probably work best if Harlequin has been a part of the game for a long time. If he's a recurring mentor or employer (or even an antagonist), then the dynamic changes from the PCs tagging along on someone else's quest to the PCs doing a quest and being rewarded with lore as a form of loot. You really want to wait to run Harlequin's Back until the PCs start asking, unprompted, "what's the deal with that weird clown."

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to go abstract with this one. I'm not super fond of Harlequin, but I did like his overall arc - a burnt-out immortal who has forgotten how much he has to offer or even how to care about how far he's fallen. I think I could make a compelling NPC with a similar story.