Thursday, December 28, 2023

Where to get it: page

First things first, a conflict of interest declaration. The author of this rpg, Peter Schaeffer, has sent me a couple of physical books over the years, and while I think you could reasonably make the argument that sending a book to a book reviewer does not constitute a bribe, if you did, you'd be underestimating what an absolute book goblin I am, and how much my copy of The Well still ranks as one of my most treasured possessions.

With that said, 1-page rpgs are my kryptonite. I've already spent more time writing this post than I did reading the rpg it's about and I haven't even gotten close to an opinion. All that stuff I said in my Alique post about feeling trolled by rules-light games is still true, but it's even more pronounced because "roll a single die to be able to narrate success" is literally this game's entire task resolution system.

But I think, overall, that uses its limited page-count well. It's got a theme (the tension between being "cool" and being "real") and a mood ("late-stage capitalism, yikes, am I right?") and even the beginnings of a setting (Amazon Prime High School). I think you could, technically, call it a complete game, even though there aren't many moving parts.

And I should probably start wrapping up now, lest I write a post about a game that's longer than the game itself. There's enough here that I could use it as a jumping off point to talk about the punk part of cyberpunk (. . . maybe it's short length is thematic? like it's the rpg equivalent of one of those sub-2-minute punk songs . . . but is that something? And even if it is, does that something rise to the level of a theme? Yes?! Anarchy!!! whatever.) but I suspect I'll have other opportunities to explore this subject.

To sum up, I feel kind of awkward saying that was "worth my time," because while that is undoubtedly true, my time investment was incredibly short. Likewise, saying "I enjoyed it" also feels . . . off. I started enjoying it, and in less time than it usually takes for me to register enjoyment, it was over and there was nothing left to enjoy.  Metaphorically, someone's asking me to plot a high-scool anime based on a toxic yellow gumball bought for five cents from a rundown gas station, and look, you can chew it for maybe a minute before it loses its flavor, but I see something potentially iconic in this imagery, so I'm willing to at least give it a shot.

Ukss Contribution: Very little setting here, but the hit rate is 100%. "Amazon Prime High" is both obvious as hell and punk as hell and that combination is exactly my sense of humor. Ukss will probably not have Amazon Prime, but it will have an educational institution with some inappropriate corporate branding.


Where to get it: page

Reading rules-light narrative rpgs can sometimes be difficult for me, because I can't entirely shake the feeling that I'm being trolled.

"Ooh, look at this nerd, he's going to start describing a guy doing some stuff and then he'll roll one of his little dice and if the number is big he'll describe the stuff as happening successfully and if the number is small he'll describe it as happening unsuccessfully and la de da, that somehow feels like a game to him."

And normally, I'd just toss out something like the Exalted 3rd edition core and defiantly proclaim, "ha, this book has a lot of different rules for when to roll dice and for what constitutes a 'high number' in various hypothetical contexts. Knowing those rules and evoking them in the correct contexts is almost like a game."

But if the only thing I had handy was Alique (Aaron Smith), then I'd be forced to hang my head in shame and mumble, "yeah, that's basically the gist of it."

Which isn't a sleight on Alique, or even on rules-light gaming in general. Call it a personal hang-up. Occasionally, I'll look in the mirror and ask myself, "hey, is this hobby that I've spent decades obsessed with, thousands of dollars pursuing, and written multiple novels-worth of blog posts about . . . kind of silly?!" And it takes me a moment to catch my breath and answer, "yeah, but that's okay."

That, incidentally, is how I would describe Alique: "it's kind of silly, but that's okay." You describe what your character is doing, roll a perfectly ordinary six-sided die, and then the number that shows on the die determines which of six outcomes will occur: (1)disastrous failure, (2)ordinary failure, (3)mitigated or partial failure, (4)success at a cost, (5)ordinary success, or (6)triumphant success. Sometimes, you'll role more than one die and the highest die you roll will determine the action's outcome.

There are barely any rules of that, either. You've got character traits that are rated from 1 to 6 and if the action you're describing is related to one of those traits, you can spend temporary trait points to add one or more extra dice. Traits return to their permanent value at the start of each game session (unless optional refresh rules are used).

I'm not sure how I feel about this particular resource-managing mechanic. My gut tells me it's probably backwards from a narrative point of view - characters are much less capable at the end of a session than the beginning - but a lot of that is going to depend on the pacing of rolls. If rolls are rare, then conserving your points at the beginning of the session is going to feel a lot less like operating at partial power and end-of-session characters are more likely to have enough resources to handle a story's climax. If rolls are common, your choices are going to be a lot harder. Maybe it's a good system to model classic D&D's attrition-based challenges, but that's not really my style.

The other notable thing about Alique is that it features significant excerpts from the Fate Core SRD, for much of its GM advice section. I approve of that decision. It's what SRDs are for, and I love to see that kind of cross-pollination. My only quibble is that Fate Core uses "compel" as a noun to refer to a particular rule, and Alique, while it has a similar rule, neglects to establish "compel" as a formal part of its jargon.

Overall, my opinion of Alique is "I can see how some people might find it useful," which admittedly seems like the sort of bland non-statement that is, in actuality, an extremely cutting insult, but here it just means that "rules-light, setting agnostic, narrative rpg" is an exceptionally crowded niche. It's very difficult to do something new in that space. Alique succeeds at bringing something new to the table. That's a genuine accomplishment.

Ukss Contribution: Almost no setting in this one, and so very slim pickings when it comes to potential setting elements. It's a stretch, but its description of Zombies as a character type had a strangely optimistic tone ("The character is dead, but things aren't as bad as they seem. Someone has been kind enough to restore your mobility. Once you learn to live with this condition, it can be quite useful.") It amused me.

To honor that, Ukss will have at least one zombie with a positive, can-do attitude.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

(D&D 3.0) Psionics Handbook

All hands on deck! This is not a drill! The third edition Psionics Handbook (Bruce R Cordell) has changed the depiction of the Thought Eater! It is no longer an ethereal platypus skeleton. It is now an ethereal cat skeleton with the beak of a raptor. Normally, I'm not one to complain about edition changes, but this is just pure cowardice. They took something that was a strong contender for the goofiest thing in D&D (and that's some stiff competition, let me tell you) and they made it look slightly less goofy. But to what end?

TO WHAT END, I scream, sobbing into my keyboard. It was so. fucking. goofy. And now it's nothing. Where has my lost youth gone? Must all things inevitably pass into death? 

Nah, don't mind me. I'm just being super dramatic, because the Psionics Handbook doesn't have a lot of drama to it. It's just a completely regular book about a kind of superfluous alternate magic system that's a little more versatile (because it uses spell points instead of leveled slots) and a little less strong (because a lot of the powers don't scale with level) than the default. It's got a different sort of vibe than regular D&D magic, even if it's not to the degree that the 2nd edition supplement had. There's still a little bit of the new age, soft sci-fi, crystals and psychic aesthetic, but it's been diluted by 3rd edition's implicit dungeonpunk genre. Essential powers like telepathy and telekinesis are joined by very spell-like powers such as (Otiluke's) Telekinetic Sphere and Teleportation Circle. Compared to 2nd edition's selection of powers, it's more complete, but I definitely got the feeling that the gaps were often filled with whatever spell was close enough to what they were going for.

There's more to psionics than just being an alternate spell list with an alternate resource management system . . . but there really shouldn't be. Rolling a d20 to establish your powers' save DC is an extra step in resolution that winds up being roughly equivalent to the standard method in the long run, but at the cost of being randomly better or worse in a way that's unlikely to be narratively satisfying. And giving each Discipline of psionic powers its own key ability is something that could work if psionics are the only supernatural power source in the setting (so that there is a desirable niche for each of the six subclasses), but which winds up making the psion weirdly uncompetitive with other magic users. 

Also, psionic combat is back. Somehow, it's even more niche than it was before. And it's completely vestigial, because it's not even used to make telepathic contact. Instead, it's just a strange subsystem that allows psionics-users to deal ability damage to each other, while non-psionic characters are more or less immune. Again, this is something that could work if psionics was the only supernatural ability available - like maybe the process of opening your mind enough to use psionics also renders you vulnerable to psionic attack, and that's just part of the price you pay for being able to do impossible things - but you can be a wizard or a druid and not have to deal with this bullshit, so it's unclear why the mechanic even exists. It's probably just because it was in 1st and 2nd edition and people were going to be expecting it.

I'm kind of at a weird place with this book, because I liked it just fine, and with the exception of the psionic combat system, there was nothing I particularly disliked about it, but I also know that the very next D&D book I'm going to read will be a strict improvement. The Psionics Handbook is not just a book from an obsolete edition, it's an obsolete book within that edition. In every other use case besides the precise one I have at this very moment, reading it would have been a complete waste of time. But that seems a harsher judgement than is really merited here. It's flawed enough that the Expanded Psionics Handbook probably would have been necessary, even without the transition to 3.5. Nonetheless, it's kind of cool. You're basically a wizard, but you're doing things with crystals (in fact, your familiar is an intelligent crystal with legs). You can summon ectoplasm. You can kind of being a mystic or a hippy. For a period of no more than three years, in the early 2000s, it was a useful thing to have.

Ukss Contribution: Some goblins have a rare genetic mutation that turns them blue and gives them psychic powers. I don't love the backstory (most are killed out of fear, but some wind up mind controlling their way into positions of authority), but I do like the imagery. A blue goblin, waving a crystal, doing new age stuff. I think they might be perfect residents of Ukss' moon.

Monday, December 25, 2023

(Eclipse Phase) Rimward

Well, shit, I'm going to have to talk about ideology, aren't I? Rimward is the Eclipse Phase book dedicated to transhuman settlements in the asteroid belt and beyond and the defining characteristic of those settlements is that they are all, to one degree or another, driven by ideology. And that led to a rollercoaster of a reading experience:

Whoa: Extropia is a twisting maze of caverns excavated from a large asteroid, filled with hackers, body-sculptors, and strange AIs.

Oh, no: "Their experiment proved even more successful than anticipated as libertarians flocked to the station to participate in their free market utopia."

Of course, the thing about ideology is that it is often ubiquitous and invisible, so it's not like these D&D books I've been reading are less ideological. And depiction is not the same thing as endorsement. But even so, "our form of political organization is working exactly as intended, the ancaps are thrilled" is a hell of a thing to read in an rpg.

If you're anything like me, you're going to start getting difficult questions stuck in your head. Chief of which: What, exactly, is Eclipse Phase's point of view? I've been operating under the assumption that is atheist, given the way it's relentlessly dismissive of religion, and anarchist, given the way its anarchists are always right about everything, but then it will talk about the Jovian Junta and in one breath call it explicitly fascist ("nobody minds shooting space Nazis, right?") and in another it will be inviting us to empathize with them ("presenting the positive and sympathetic elements of the Jovian cause, alongside the negative and terrifying.")

The conclusion I'm forced to come to is that the book is anarchist, but 2012 was a simpler time. The "let's go to fascist country and really vibe with why they hate us" genre of journo-tourism had not yet been invented. It was still considered a best practice to write an antagonist as if their point of view was arrived at for understandable reasons.

But then you get an Extropian explaining anarcho-capitalism, in-character, as "left-wing on economics and government" and it's absolutely surreal.  You've got indentured servitude and debt peonage and oh, "other autonomists - particularly anarchists - are highly critical of these forms of voluntary slavery" - like, no shit, "voluntary" is probably the most weaselly word in politics. You're "voluntarily" entering a labor relationship, because you want money for the debts you "voluntarily" racked up by "voluntarily" opting out of a "voluntary" subscription-based private legal system to protect yourself from "tort claims and legal damages, which is usually the largest expense - spurious micro-torts are a common and notorious hazard in Extropian spaces."

Like, I'm not the only one to see this, right? That it would be profoundly reckless to ever set foot in an Extropian habitat. Capitalism is intrinsically hierarchal and basic inequalities in starting position can lead to unequal "voluntary" agreements that benefit those higher in the hierarchy at the expense of the desperate, exacerbating the inequality and leading to ever-increasing amounts of hierarchy. And because you gain more of a competitive benefit from inequality the more inequality there is, this entire cycle is self-reinforcing. So much so that even if everyone started from the exact same position, it would inevitably devolve into a hierarchy, just from the natural fluctuations of chance. 

All of which is to say, there are absolutely guys like Mizor "I guess they missed that whole voluntary part" Alcor in real life, but you absolutely can't trust them to narrate a travel guide, and an anarchist should know better.

And here is the part of the post where I stare thoughtfully at the ceiling and contemplate whether or not the fact that Rimward has a eugenicist faction that calls outsiders "genestrash" makes the book too uncomfortable to read. 

If I'm being honest, I think I want a sci-fi setting that has Space Nazis, and Space Objectivists, and the Space Chamber of Commerce, because who you choose as your antagonists has a lot to say about your fundamental values. And I think that the urge to meet them on their own ground and give them a complex characterization with understandable motives, even as you set them up as the opposition, is a humane and generous instinct. Unfortunately, it also reeks of privilege - you are able to empathize with these villains because you are not one of their targets, and thus the threat is largely abstract. It's something Eclipse Phase as a line has struggled with since the core.  It's clear that their hearts are in the right place, but often their execution is lacking.

Oh, and Rimward also has a bunch of cool sci-fi worldbuilding in it. It was definitely worth the read.

Ukss Contribution: When I read the Eclipse Phase core, my choice was the bacon-based space habitat called "Turn Yourself Into a Giant Mass of Space Meat for Art!" To me, it represented the best part of Eclipse Phase's worldbuilding - its willingness to tug on the thinnest threads of scientific possibility to suggest something culturally and artistically improbable. 

Now, I'm making the unusual decision to choose the same thing for a second time, because, in the GM secrets section, we learn something surprising and kind of uncomfortable about our friend, Meathab. It is home to an uploaded human consciousness who is "a very humane soul who happens to enjoy having his insides full of a lot of other transhumans."

I don't know what to say to this. I hate it. But it's the kind of hate that inspires me.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of Destiny

Oh, man, sometimes you make a harmless-seeming wish like "I wish these Races of . . . books could be more interesting" and the monkey's paw curls and you get a book like Races of Destiny (David Noonan, Eric Cagle, Aaron Rosenberg) which is ostensibly giving human and part-human characters the same rpg treatment as elves, dwarves, et al, but the net result is just all of D&D's weird race stuff condensed down to its purest essence. But also, it's generally the least vanilla any of this series has ever been, and . . . I HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT ALL OF THIS.

There's a section labeled "Human Psychology." It's a page and a half long. They gave themselves a page and a half to talk about human psychology

Obviously, they've got an unenviable task here, because they can't just say "You know what a fucking human is, you don't need us to explain them to you. That is, in fact, why they're here. Humans are ubiquitous because the game is written by, for, and about people and every person you've ever met is human. Demi-humans are served around the edges as an amuse bouche, but humans are the fucking main course because there are entire libraries filled with books about human psychology and elves are just a thing we made up."

And if you can't say something along those lines, you've got to go with your second choice and try to give humans a "deal" so that they are reasonably competitive with the other fantasy creatures. Usually, that deal is some nonsense like "versatility" or "adaptability" (as if those traits weren't just part and parcel with being an intelligent creature), and Races of Destiny does dabble around in that area, but it also makes the dubious choice of characterizing humans as aggressively colonialist, and that's kind of a bad look.

"Human societies are always moving forward, looking for new place to conquer, new areas to settle, new industries to develop." Combine that with the observation that "In human cities, the streets are straight whenever possible, intersecting with others to form a grid pattern" and you kind of get the key to all this - D&D humans are an idealized version of 20th century Americans. You see, all that stuff about expansionism and capitalism and tolerance of other races and personal ambition and general belligerence . . . that's just human nature.

Honestly, though, I can't be too mad at the book just for that. What am I doing here, looking at a 20-year-old D&D supplement and shouting, "YOU SHOULD BE MORE MINDFUL OF YOUR IMPLICIT BIASES." There was no way that chapter was ever going to be good. They clearly tried their best with an impossible task.

What I can be mad about is the chapter about Half-Elves and Half-Orcs. Hoo boy, that was a rough read. I have to confess, I have a certain degree of . . . let's call it "sympathy" for people who don't want to engage with the racial coding of D&D races. They're absolutely wrong in their position that it's "just a game" and they should definitely grow up and stop being afraid to confront the unexamined prejudice that encoded into the very structure of the game. But I can see how, if you really didn't think about it too hard, you could have a vague idea of "humans vs orcs" as being a matter of team jerseys. It's a game about fighting, you've got a group of guys who are like, "we love fighting, argh! We don't even need much of a reason, grr!" and it makes perfect sense that some people would be all, "hey, we like those guys exactly as they are." 

However, there is absolutely no way to read chapter 2 of this book and still come away with the notion that this is all just in innocent fun. Because it is not fun, like at all. Sometimes, it will threaten to briefly seem like it might become fun, and then it tosses in a line like, "Few half-orcs learn to read or write. Orcs have little use for literacy and humans see little point in teaching half-orc children a capability they will probably never need and might be too dumb to learn."

Like, fuck, man. What do I even say to something like that? Is it even my job to say anything about it? Maybe I should just let the line speak for itself.

I think where things get contentious is that, from a high enough level of abstraction, the chapter is sympathetic to half-elves and half-orcs. Discrimination against them is mostly presented as an unkind and unjust thing that is done to them, by callous humans, elves, and orcs. Maybe you might ask, "why does that kind of racism have to exist in our fantasy setting," but I can see how someone with a pre-internet viewpoint might have difficulty imagining a world where it wouldn't.

And yet, half-orcs do actually, in the objective rules of the game, get a charisma and intelligence penalty. The abominable behavior of the humans who don't teach them to read isn't coming from nowhere. It's not purely in-character prejudice. And you have to take a step back and do the hard work of examining this honestly. I'm sure they didn't do it intentionally, but the mechanics and flavor tell a particular kind of story, and in this case the story was, "what if there was a world where racism was justified?"

Also, the orc-like Sharakim were "twisted into hideous caricatures of humanity by the evil they had committed" and cabals of Illumians, led by their elders, plot schemes from their hidden fortresses, manipulating their human dupes into self-destructive wars.

And look, I actually kind of liked the Illumians. Of the various new creatures in these Races of . . . books, they probably have the most going on. They were clearly meant, without malice, to be the "espionage guys." But it's probably for the best that they seem to have fallen down the memory hole, because, damn, they really said (paraphrased), "cabals of Illumians are responsible for all the world's wars."

Now that the post is nearing its end, and the time approaches for me to do a summation, I'm not sure I'm any closer to understanding this book than I was at the start. There were actually large stretches of the book that were completely inoffensive, and even inspired. The Illumians are humans who have physically and spiritually melded with a magical language, and with study and contemplation, they can utter an incantation with their final breath that will cause them to shed the dross of their physical form and transcend to a divine state. That's pretty neat. But it's also undeniable that there were parts that made me, a privileged white man, genuinely uncomfortable. Where do I draw the line? What are my values?

In the end, the answers don't really matter. The questions themselves are far too intense for a game as thoroughly silly as D&D tries to be.

Ukss Contribution: Why, oh why did I have to make my line for inclusion in Ukss "evil vs not-evil?" I don't want to be the arbiter of these things. Am I really going to sit here and say Races of Destiny is so harmful that it deserves to be banished from my sight?

On the other hand, am I then prepared to say that Races of Destiny is harmless enough to overlook its use of old racist tropes?

The answer to both questions is "no." I don't think it was malicious. I think it was careless. I've let worse books slide, but not without reservations. So consider this me officially registering my reservations.

With that said, my choice is the Final Seed, the member of an Illumian cabal chosen to live outside the stronghold, with a copy of the group's most important lore, in order to rebuild should the Illumians be destroyed by their enemies.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Illuminati: The Conspiracy

Where to get it: Dedicated website

For much of my time reading Illuminati: The Conspiracy (Stephen Esdale with contributions from Anders Sandberg) I was highly distracted by the question of when, exactly, this thing was written. It's clearly an ancient WoD fan supplement from the early days of the internet, but what was the exact date of its creation? 

I've narrowed it down to a four-year period - it must have been made after 1995, because it references the notoriously controversial Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand, but it must predate 1999, because it uses the word "magick," presents a version of the Storyteller rules that doesn't yet have Bashing damage, and just generally doesn't incorporate any of the reckoning metaplot. My gut says 1996 or 1997, because it also doesn't mention the Kuei-Jin, and I have a feeling that Kindred of the East would have made quite an impression on the "clued into White Wolf, internet early adopter, weird enough to write a fan supplement" crowd.

For the most part, me working out this puzzle was a matter of personal curiosity. I read the equipment section and was like, "oh, wow, this fiber optic camera records to a miniature video tape. . . wait, am I reading an artifact?" But I did also have another agenda - I needed to place this work into a particular time and context so I could better calibrate my reaction to it.

I don't like to draw too much attention to this, because I already have quite a lot on my plate, reading-wise, but I've made an open offer - if you made an rpg, and you want me to read it, all you have to do is send me a copy and I'll put it on the list. Partially, this is a marketing scheme (mweh, heh, heh, if I read an author's book, that will be at least one more person who will want to read my blog, driving up my readership count by at least 2 percent), but mostly it's because I've been led to believe that writing reviews (or whatever it is I do around here) is somehow useful to an author. It's my small way of supporting a medium that I love.

And I bring all that up because sometimes there's a conflict between my conscious goal (doing something helpful) and my integrity as a critic. Illuminati: The Conspiracy is one of those times. Like, if I were to whip out the claws and go full wicked witch mean reviewer mode, the cattiest comment I can make about this work is that it really feels like it was written by a teenager.

But if I ponder the likely publication date, I realize that at least 25 years have passed and it's entirely probable that it was written by a teenager. And I generally like it when teenagers write things. No shade at all towards amateurs being amateurs. It's one of the paradoxes of being a critic (I like to claim I'm a critic when I'm about to pontificate and deny I'm a critic when the label might imply a degree of responsibility) - the more broadly I experience polished professional work, the more I become able to appreciate the merits of unpolished amateur work. So on the off chance that this post falls through a time portal and reaches the young Stephen Esdale, my overall message is this: good job. There are some rough patches, but if you keep practicing, in a few years I think you could really make a go of it.

My message to current-day Stephen Esdale: Hey, your juvenilia made it to the current day without having anything too embarrassing in it - way to go. That's more than I can say for myself. I once wrote a WoD fan supplement, a few years after you did Illuminati: The Conspiracy and I would be mortified to learn that someone was reviewing it. It was super brave of you to let your friend make this request on your behalf. And, writer to writer, I'm going to keep those typos to myself. Believe me, I get it.

Enough preamble, though, what about the book itself? 

I am probably the wrong person to read it, because its central conceit is something that I don't exactly dislike but am reluctant to fully embrace - the badass normal.

The reason this bugs me is because it sits in a weird place where the basic idea is appealing - people with unearned, inborn talents can be surpassed by less talented individuals who are clever, determined, and hardworking. But if you extend the logic of that idea, it more or less implies that the powered individuals are lacking in those meritorious qualities. Batman has a contingency plan for dealing with Superman if he ever goes rogue, because Batman is brilliant, cautious, and willing to put the work in, and that plan is likely to work because Superman is dumb, careless, and lazy enough that his immense starting advantages are effectively cancelled out.

So for me, whether or not a "badass normal" plot works depends entirely on whether or not I'm properly primed for it. If the story prepares me to believe that the villains could be negligent or overconfident, then hell yeah, let's get that regular person in to show them what for! But if it's a character I would otherwise like, such as Superman, then it really just bums me out.

Illuminati: The Conspiracy is about a conspiracy of MUNDANES which out-conspiracies all of the World of Darkness' various conspiracies. And look, I'm not so all-in on the Technocracy and the Camarilla that I'm outraged that they could be beaten at their own game by mere mortals, but there is a certain transitive property of laziness going on. I've been playing Mage: the Ascension and Vampire: the Masquerade under the assumption that the antagonists have a certain degree of competence. To have the villains that have hitherto been so hard to defeat be unceremoniously manipulated by a weaker group runs the risk of trivializing the protagonists' struggles. I came into this book with a pre-existing investment in the lore and reading that, "Years ago, the Illuminati voted to allow the Technocracy freedom to create the Age of Reason" . . . well, it put me on the back foot.

I can, however, imagine a version of the World of Darkness where this might work. Perhaps one where the power and scope of the supernatural conspiracies has been dialed down, or alternatively, one where everything is pumped up 11 and the Illuminati become a parody of the WoD's tangled spaghetti ball of competing conspiracies. Neither of those are the precisely the WoD I'm used to, but it just goes to show - trying to set the various WoD in the same world is a mistake. If you're going to play Illuminati: the Conspiracy, your best bet is to start from scratch and incorporate the supernatural factions into its paradigm from the get go. Probably just remove the Technocracy from the equation entirely (seriously, the overlap is huge - the Illuminati even have their own Men in Black).

Overall, I can't say that this book was for me, but it did delight me to take this trip back in time (biggest nostalgia trip of the book - the crossover suggestions for the fan supplement: Highlander: the Quickening). I'm glad I got the chance to read it.

Ukss Contribution: "Queen" is a gender-neutral title. Not something you see a lot of in fiction.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

(D&D 3.5) Races of Stone

I'm in the awkward position where my opinion of Races of Stone (David Noonan, Jesse Decker, Michelle Lyons) is more or less the exact same as my opinion of Races of the Wild - it's a supplement with an ideal format, covering a subject I care little about. There are nuances I could go on about. Contra to halflings being in the book of the wild, it actually makes perfect sense to classify gnomes as a "race of stone." Goliaths have a better-drawn culture than the raptorans, so it makes sense that they're the only one of these new "Races of . . . " 3rd-stringers to return in subsequent editions. I didn't like that the extra monsters were "potential mounts" instead of "potential friends." (I probably wouldn't have noticed if I didn't read Races of the Wild first, but I did and now the omission is glaring, especially since this book includes rules for riding a Delver - a creature "more intelligent than the average human, and therefor riding and training one is a matter of Diplomacy checks rather than the use of Handle Animal" - sounds like a potential friend to me.)

But as much fun as they are to make, all my little "observations" add up to the same thing - this is a great book to have if you need more vanilla fantasy, and something that can be safely overlooked if you want literally anything else. It's also a good example of why I don't do numerical scores. I'd constantly be saying things like "10 out of 10, but you must burn it with fire." (Actually, that's my rating for Mage: the Ascension, for this book it's more like "8 out of 10 - only read it as part of a dare.")

I kid, though. I mostly enjoyed myself with this one. The only thing I'd directly count as a flaw is the NPC stat blocks. They are too long and contain too little a density of novel information. Each of the book's prestige classes comes with a sample NPC, and in roughly half of those, the NPC stats are longer than the class's description (this is especially funny when the NPC is high level and their stats contain brief summaries of all the prestige class's abilities). That didn't really bother me, though. For my particular use case, a D&D 3.5 stat-block is basically like the free square on a bingo card. If you ever have a secret you're afraid I'll discover, just put it in a 3.5 NPC and I'll be guaranteed never to find it.

Which brings me unceremoniously to the arbitrary thing I've decided I'm going to use this book as an excuse to talk about: gnomes.

They're a difficult creature type for me to talk about, because I kind of dig their whole vibe, but I also kind of hate that they're a separate thing from dwarves. And having both dwarves and gnomes in the same book really emphasizes the redundancies. They're both crafty, earth-themed short folks with beards and hardy constitution. There's distinctions between them, but none of those distinctions rise to a level that would necessitate an entirely new species. Using illusion magic? Talking to badgers? Enjoying practical jokes? Like, maybe there could just be an additional way for dwarves to be.

And I think WotC must have agreed with me, at least a little, because this book gives gnomes some new stuff to do. Unfortunately, much of that stuff is fucking ridiculous. "Really into the arts" isn't a cultural trait (let alone something that requires gnomes to be their own species). It's barely even a piece of information. You gotta have something to say about the specific arts they produce. Then there's the thing with gnomish technology, which the book is kind of diffident about ("Inventors are considered artisans, not scientists"). And I'm like, it's exactly that sort of genre-preserving cautiousness that has made me so skeptical of this whole "gnome" thing in the first place. Do you even want gnomes? Because no one's forcing you to have them (actually, who am I kidding, people complained up a storm when 4e delayed them to the second players' handbook).

But I think the weirdest thing this book does with gnomes is trying to sex them up. I can just about get on board with the idea that the goddess Sheyanna Flaxenhand "is said to be the ideal of gnome beauty" because, I can infer, logically, that such a thing must exist, but then the book goes on to say, "Gnomes joke that clerics of Sheyanna are trained extensively in the amorous arts," and my brain goes into stand-by mode. The book goes on to clarify that it's just a bit of ribald frippery, but it's too late. It's already planted the idea in my head. I am officially pondering the existence of a gnome sex academy, where "the most attractive gnomes in a given community" (canonically, Sheyanna's clerics) go to learn how to fuck good.

I swear, I'm not being weird. One of the adventure pitches is about a high-priced gnome assassin! How can there be high-priced gnome assassins if they aren't trying to imply that gnomes fuck now? It is objectively the sexiest possible profession!

Oh, you think this is funny? Keep laughing and I'll have no choice but to share with you the cursed knowledge. I'm not kidding. It's real, and you can't unknow it!

I see. Fine, but don't come to me later and say you weren't warned. Here it is:

You know what, WotC, I'm calling your bluff. I actually think this character is really cool, and plan on using her in a game. Maybe you could describe her for me, so I know how to explain her appearance to my friends? 

(Fun fact: while I was brainstorming this post, I considered a different version of the previous bit, where I just went full-on "men writing women" parody, and I decided against it because I didn't want the phrase "proportionately massive gnome gazongas, barely restrained by her dungeon-punk overalls" on my permanent record).

I was, of course, cherry-picking in service of a whimsical thesis. Despite "the bard race" becoming their thing, "the gnomes who fuck" are actually a pretty small part of the book. It's just that if you take that away from them, they don't have much left. Look at that Whisper Gnome art again. Now look at this art of Lidda, the signature halfing:

They are clearly the same person. Which is a problem, because it feels a lot like they're moving away from "gnomes are dwarves without the stick up the ass" into "gnomes are halflings . . . oh, were you expecting more?" There's still a mechanical reason to play as one, because they get some cool abilities that other races don't, even if I can't understand why their "speak with animals (burrowing only)" ability is only available for 1 minute per day (obviously, to prevent them from breaking the game with their badger alliances, but aside from that). However, there isn't really a compelling setting or lore explanation for why they need to exist, and Races of Stone noticeably flounders in trying to find one.

But like I said near the beginning - if you can accept that dwarves, gnomes, and goliaths should exist (and I can agree with at least 66% of this statement), then Races of Stone is pretty much the ideal way to learn about them.

Ukss Contribution: I don't normally subscribe to the notion of intelligent weapons. It's an idea that's kind of neat as a one-off, but the DMG gives it such a disproportionate amount of real-estate, with detailed mechanics that seem to imply that it happens all the time, and that really soured me on the concept. However, one of the Ancestor Weapons (intelligent weapons animated by the spirit of a dead dwarf) was so boldly designed that I'm compelled to stand up and applaud. I'll just quote its personality description in its entirety:

"In life Gharriakha was a dwarven defender and the weapon that contains her ashes shares her selfless, protective spirit. It is content to remain quiet and stay out of the spotlight, while offering all the help it can to its wielder. Generally, its only communications are the feelings of encouragement and support it sends its wielder."

I'm going to make a sweeping statement here, but I'll stand by it - this is absolutely the funniest personality a +4 dwarven defending waraxe could ever hope to have.

"You just critted that ogre and saved the caster! I'm so proud of you!"

"Don't worry about that miss. Everybody has off days. Just square up and try again. I believe in you"

Thanks, battleaxe. I haven't known you long, but I am already prepared to die for you. Putting you in Ukss is the least I can do.