Tuesday, January 23, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Arcane

One big function of Complete Arcane (Richard Baker) is to update the material from Tome and Blood for the 3.5 ruleset. It's handy, to be sure, but I may have gone a little overboard in my notes, comparing the caster levels of the two books' shared prestige classes. The Blood Magus goes from 5 caster levels to 9 . . . probably merited. The Elemental Savant from 9 to 8 . . . okay, fair, though the class is now hovering on the edge of viability. But then, the Acolyte of the Skin still has only 5 caster levels. Yikes. It's a neat class. The idea of flaying a demon and wearing its skin for magical power is evocative and creepy and it's got a tenuous connection to the concept of cause and effect (it's the best kind of fantasy, in other words). But nothing it gets is even worth one caster level by itself, and all of its abilities put together are worth maybe two. Ooh, it can use the spell poison 2 times per day? So can a 6th level druid. (Actually, they can do it at 5th level, if they have a wisdom of 16 or higher, which they really should). 

But honestly, that's just an old problem. Spellcasters in 3.5 are so good that they make everything else worse by comparison. I kind of just need to accept that and move on. If I imagine that 3.5 is actually a game like Ars Magica or Mage: the Ascension, where everyone is intended to play a magic user, then Complete Arcane is a pretty great supplement. It gives your mages a whole bunch of new stuff to do, most of which is pretty cool.

But while I'm nitpicking differences between Complete Arcane and Tome and Blood, I should point out one really egregious one - the head of the Arcane Order has had his name shortened from "Japheth Arcane" to just "Japheth." New players will have no idea why it's called "The Arcane Order" now.

Okay, joking aside, if I'm not going to complain about the imbalance between casters and non-casters, I'm not sure I have much of a thesis for this post. Just a bunch of disconnected observations.

I really liked the new full classes. The warmage was a little weak, relative to the wizard, thanks to their slower spell progression and limited spell list (mostly just blasting spells, really). On the other hand, this is exactly what I want a spellcasting class to look like. Their magic is centered around a strong theme and they do it well. Blast away, guys, wizards are a joke.

The warlock was another good one. My only issue with them was a minor flavor issue - they are said to get their magic from being descended from fiends, and this steps on the toes of the sorcerer. The later refinement of wizards = study, sorcerers = inborn talent, warlocks = otherworldly pacts is actually a pretty good breakdown. The only change I'd make is to tightly curate the subclasses spell lists based on scholastic tradition/magical heritage/the nature of the patron. And while we're wishlisting here, get rid of clerics and druids and instead roll them into this rubric - if your religion is big on studying a canon and your prayers are actually a kind of hermetic theurgy, you're a wizard, if you're transformed into an inhuman celestial servant, you're a sorcerer, and if you've got an intimate personal relationship with your deity, you're a warlock. In the real world, every magical tradition is also a religious tradition. No reason that should be any different in D&D.

Finally, the wu jen. Decent class, questionable flavor. The tricky thing here is that I actually think their arbitrary "follow this taboo or lose access to your spells" mechanic is a good idea as a general limitation on spellcasters. . . but other spellcasters are just as strong, and don't have that limitation, so what purpose is it serving here? Also, "Wu Jen are the spellcasters of the far east."

And really, what can I say about that except that even leaving aside the orientalist subtext, it doesn't even make sense in the context of the game. The far east of what exactly? Where are the wu jen coming from that's to the east of the game's setting? I guess, if your world is spherical (not actually all that safe an assumption in the fantasy genre), then everything is to the east of somewhere. But even to the extent that you want to say that corebook D&D is fantasy Europe and the wu jen come from fantasy China, there's no actual guarantee that these two areas are going to have the same geographical relationship to each other as their inspirations did in the real world.

Though this does remind me of an idea I had for a fantasy setting where fantasy Rome and fantasy China had a very close physical proximity but were separated by a difficult to traverse physical barrier, like maybe China is in transalpine Gaul or Rome is right on the other side of the Gobi Desert. The idea would be that you could play the main mass of each empire totally straight but have the border region be a polyglot blend of the tropes - a location where Gladiators and Monks could quite reasonably interact with each other.

That only tenuously has anything to do with the wu jen class, however. Except that it exemplifies one of my biggest frustrations with D&D historically - it's fantasy, you can do literally anything, so why does it keep doing the same basic thing over and over again?

Anyway, if I apply that standard to Complete Arcane as a whole, it does . . . okay. Warlocks are certainly a mythological well they've been reluctant to go to in the past. And while it doesn't do anything radical with the genre, it offers some suggestions about how you can mix things up - like using breakable ceramic tiles instead of potions or encoding spells inside architecture instead of spellbooks. D&D has released more daring magic supplements, but this one left me with very few complaints (aside from all the bullshit nitpicking I did in this post, of course).

Ukss Contribution: The Spiteful Imp, a magic shield that will "twitter in evil mirth whenever it deflects an opponent's weapon." Absolutely inspired, I love it.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

(Eclipse Phase) Morph Recognition Guide

I keep going back and forth on how much I should write about Morph Recognition Guide. On the one hand, it's a very slight book - all of the various morphs (i.e. empty bodies that players can upload their minds into) from the Eclipse Phase books published by this point each get a full page of art, a text box recapping their basic pitch and mechanical effects, and two or three lines of commentary from a fictional internet discussion group. The average wordcount per page is probably the lowest of any book I own, rpg or otherwise and a lot of it is stuff I've seen before.

On the other hand, the repeated information is universally interesting, and some of it I've never commented on before. Like, the neo-avians (uplifted crows, ravens, and grey parrots) have a "dinosaur identity subculture." It's a phrase so striking that I actually included it in my notes for Transhuman, where it first appeared. There's a lot of incipient worldbuilding underneath that description that I'm just aching to see realized. Is it like the "sigma grindset" for uplifted birds or is it more like a politicized attempt to create a cultural identity for neo-avians? Or is just a meme for bird-bros in the know. Me and the neocorvids are going to get together this weekend, watch Jurassic Park and cheer whenever a human gets eaten. The people (me, I'm the people) demand to know.

There's also some fascinating new tid-bits. The Bruiser morph is big and muscular, which we already knew, but in the comments, it's revealed that there are also "limited edition bruisers based on the genetics of pre-Fall wrestlers and athletes." And this has way too many threads to pull - about identity, about celebrity culture, about capitalism, about fandom, about bioethics - to just get one sentence. There should be a whole adventure about this subject. But then who's going to create it? Me?

Is the book good because it keeps throwing these inspiring sentences at me? Or is it bad because every time it manages to inspire me, the feeling fades by the end of the page?

Trick question, it's bad because of Neotenics. Like, one of the options available to you is a Surya - a biological life form that is engineered to live on the chromasphere of the sun. That is the level of biotechnology that's available here. An immortal body that retains a child-like appearance its entire life is trivial by comparison. And given human nature, it is entirely inevitable that people would get extremely creepy with it. We can infer all this from the general facts of the setting. So why go out of your way to say it? Why establish canonically that there are beings who look like children but are in fact fully adult transhumans, some of whom go into the sex trade?

Pitch me an adventure based on that information, Posthuman Studios, I fucking dare you!

Actually, don't. I wouldn't want to read it. Just like I didn't want to read about Neotenics in the core book and I didn't want to read about them again in the Morph Recognition Guide.

But really, that's only one page. The rest of this book is both enjoyable and useful. I found it very helpful to be able to put a face with a name, so to speak. It wouldn't have been necessary if the original morph entries were accompanied by art (even just a simple sketch, rather than a full-page, full-color illustration), but I can see how it might be more cost effective to do it this way. Overall, I'd call this a nice, relaxing change of pace. I wouldn't want every book to be like this, but it's okay, once in awhile, as a treat.

Ukss Contribution: The Sylph morph can basically be boiled down to "a thin and pretty body, suitable for celebrities and models." I'm not even going to touch on the politics of this, because the intersection between body politics and transhumanism is way too complex an issue for me. Do fat people even exist in the Eclipse Phase universe? None of the art in this book seemed to suggest as much.

Which, as I said, is a lot. However, one interesting fact about Sylphs is that this is just a generic name. If you're out buying a Sylph, you're going to have to choose between several name-brands, all doing the same basic thing. One of those brands is called "Sedusa."

Sedusa. I could live for a thousand years, and I could never come up with a more perfectly horny name for a fantasy or sci-fi creature. It's sublime. Ukss' Sedusa will not be a brand of replacement bodies (probably), but there will definitely be some kind of innuendo-laden creature with that exact name.

"Beware the Sedusa's cave. Those who enter it are never heard from again." Or something. I'll work on it. Try and come up with something that is the funny kind of smutty, instead of the sad kind of smutty.

(D&D 3.5) Complete Adventurer

Reading a book like Complete Adventurer (Jesse Decker) always puts me in a bit of a bind. It presents a lot of solid, interesting fantasy, including some of the game's most narratively satisfying prestige classes, but it's all sort of destined not to be used because in the broader context of D&D 3.5's rules, none of it matches +1 spellcaster level (except, perhaps, the prestige classes that give you 8 or more spellcasting levels).

Take the ninja, for example. In isolation, this is a fun class. In combat, you can run around the battlefield, striking from the shadows. Out of combat, you're this super-sneaky infiltrator with magically enhanced stealth abilities. One of the classic fantasy archetypes, brought to the game as a 20-level standard class at last.

Their capstone ability, gained after 20 levels of single-class progression, is called "Ghost Walk." It allows you to spend some of your ki points to cast the spell Ethereal Jaunt. Ethereal Jaunt is a 7th level spell. Wizards and Clerics get access to it at 13th level. Now, granted, a wizard or cleric isn't guaranteed to have Ethereal Jaunt accessible, because they've got a limited number of 7th level spell slots - a minimum of 4 at 20th level - but that's hardly a recommendation for the Ninja class. If a spellcaster did not have Ethereal Jaunt available, it's because they're using that resource for other things of comparable value. The Ninja will most likely always have Ethereal Jaunt available (I figure at level 20, you've got enough ki points to use it 7-8 times per day, assuming you do nothing else with your points) because they have nothing of comparable value.

And that's not even the most insulting of the Ninja abilities. That would be "Ghost Step" which allows you to spend 1 ki point to become invisible for 1 round. Given the timing rules, it has certain situational advantages over casting the Invisibility spell, but you get a lot fewer daily rounds of invisibility as time goes on, and no increase in functionality comparable to Greater Invisibility (well, it does upgrade to make you ethereal as well as invisible for 1 round, but 1 round of etherealness is . . . extremely situational).

Now, the tenor of my complaints may lead you to think that I dislike the Ninja class and think it's terribly underpowered, but actually the opposite is true. Wizards and Clerics are some of the worst-designed classes in the game. But their faults run towards being bland and overpowered. Ninjas are the magical stealth guys, but spellcasters are better at being invisible, better at being ethereal, and even better at jumping (the jump spell at level 1 gives a +10 bonus to jumping rolls, a ninja's Great Leap and Acrobatics abilities give a combined +10 bonus jumping rolls at level 18, by which time the jump spell has improved to providing a +30 bonus). You could argue that, theoretically, a wizard isn't going to be specced to obsolete a ninja, and really, a +30 bonus to jumping looks impressive, but it winds up being a smaller modifier than the 18th level Ninja's 21 ranks in jumping + 10 bonus. And on a full adventuring day, maybe that wizard is going to run out of jumps, whereas the ninja can just jump constantly.

And all of that is even more or less true. But it is a curse knowing that this interesting class is not the best possible build (or even, really, part of the best possible build) for its signature tricks. 

Also, WotC, what's going on with the weaksauce +2/+4/+6 Acrobatics class feature? Was there something wrong with the Bladedancer's +10/+20/+30? Are you really being stingy with niche traversal abilities in a game where Fly and Teleport are options?

But that's kind of Complete Adventurer all over. I really dig its vibe, I like pretty much everything I see, the Main Character Energy is off the charts, but you're a fool if you use this book to build a character.* 

*Some of the spellcaster-focused Prestige Classes will work all right.

Ukss Contribution: Oh man, you have no idea how spoiled for choice I am. There's a prestige class that lets you use stealth with your horse. A conspiracy of freelance spies whose goal manipulating various nations into peace. The Ghost-Faced Killer prestige class, which made me do a deep dive to figure out why they named a class after a rapper, which led me to learning of the existence of a 1979 kung fu movie called The Mystery of Chess Boxing. The suggestion that I could adapt a good-aligned prestige class that focused on hunting evil by changing its alignment and coming up with a more sinister name than "Shadowbane Inquisitors." The Vigilante prestige class having a signature character called "Beasly 'the Nightstalker' Bigums." Minotaurs making musical instruments out of the horns of minotaur heroes.

I just absolutely love so much of what this book has to offer.

In the end, though, I have to go with ninjas. I really like that Complete Adventurer was willing to go there, I just kind of wish that D&D 3.5 was the sort of system that allowed it to really go there. And don't get me wrong, I don't blame the author for not making ninjas fantastical enough - it is entirely the fault of D&D's weird idea that breaking verisimilitude, even in a small way, is a high-tier power (but also, somehow, spellcasting does not break verisimilitude) - but I yearn to see them in a setting where they can be allowed to flourish.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

(Eclipse Phase) Panopticon

Waah! I read the Eclipse Phase books out of order and so spent most of my time with Transhuman talking about the fucked-upedness of uplifts, but then Panopticon gave me a whole lot more material to work with and now it feels like I can't talk about it again because I'd be largely retreading ground I covered before.

I guess I'll just have to accept it as a valuable lesson in researching publication dates before reading an rpg series. Take it from me - uplifts are even more fucked up than you're imagining. And if that means the book thinks I'm a neo-primitivist, then so be it.

Luckily for me, Panopticon is actually divided into three broad sections, and so uplifts are only about a third of the material. Unfortunately, the middle section is all about the various types of space habitat, and thus uplifts constitute roughly half of the interesting material.

No, that's unnecessarily harsh. The habitat chapter was fine. It's fairly inevitable in any highly-detailed science fiction setting that sooner or later you're going to get a 45 page filibuster about space logistics, and this compares well with similar sections in Transhuman Space. There's a wide variety of stuff out there in space, and we get to read about it in excruciating detail. Fair.

Which I guess just leaves the first chapter of the book to be the subject of the post, by default. By sheerest coincidence, it's also the chapter that is most in line with the book's title - Surveillance.

The most uncanny part of reading any Eclipse Phase book these days is its combination of radical anarchist politics with technological optimism. It feels like somewhere along the line, the left has just turned against the idea of technological progress. I don't want to overgeneralize or anything, but there are certain circles - largely kind, thoughtful, conscientious circles, mind you - where it feels like you can't be excited about the prospect of a self-driving car without someone going, "lol, just build a train." Somehow, "tech" became synonymous with "tech-bros" and everything that isn't full-on goblincore is now apologism for capitalism.

And all of that may seem terribly passive-aggressive of me, but you have to believe that it's only a little passive-aggressive. Sometimes something comes along (to pick an example totally at random - the first chapter of this book) that reminds you that the technological pessimists do actually have a point. The "Surveillance" chapter of Panopticon is like a fossil of the extinct dream of Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism.

It posits a hellscape of omnipresent corporate surveillance that tracks individual behavior through a hundred different channels, in every even remotely public space, to the benefit of governments, businesses, and technologically-savvy stalkers . . . but also, maybe it's not so bad, because the window goes both ways. You no longer have any privacy, but neither does your boss or your congressional representative. "Sousveillance" - monitoring from below, for the purposes of accountability.

And that's a very attractive dream for an anarchist. It's the idea that a decentralized structure, operating purely on people power, can act as a check on hierarchy. I will pause now to let you get the laughter out of your system . . .

Okay, if we've moved past that, I think the most instructive part of Panopticon's "Surveillance" chapter was the multiple times it comes just shy of outright saying "wikileaks will save the world." 

It's surreal at times. I'll read a line like "The arrival of anonymous leaks groups brought to light the sad state of mainstream journalism" and I'll think - this was written by someone who has not experienced the trauma of 2016 or 2020, who has not seen the democratized channels of "citizen journalism" co-opted by Russian state propaganda, nor the peer-to-peer feeds of social media degenerate into conspiracy theories, right-wing ethnonationalist propaganda, and science denial. Part of this is because or methods of communication (and thus our main avenues of cultural expression) exist entirely within a private property paradigm that guarantees they'll serve the philosophical and economic interests of the oligarchic ownership class, but part of this is that it was always misguided to fantasize about the possibilities of sousveillance without also grappling with the problem of vigilantism. The decline of social media was probably inevitable, even absent the threat of right-wing billionaires enshitifying it for profit. No matter how punk a leftist might get, they're never going to have the fascist instinct for vigilante justice.

But while I can look at the techno-optimism of something like Panopticon and say, "no, really, even in 2011 you should have had more foresight than that," I do also feel the nostalgic pain of innocence lost. The liberal response to the decay of the open internet has largely been to scoff at its ideals of openness and yearn for a return to professionalism. "The sad state of mainstream journalism" is purely a right-wing talking point. The explanation and rebuttal is that people need to be more willing to pay professional journalists what they deserve.

There's an element of truth to this, but whenever I see someone make this point, my fingers start to itch because they don't always make the distinction between billionaire owners who are unwilling to pay for quality investigative journalism and paycheck-to-paycheck working people who are unable to pay for quality investigative journalism. Similarly, "citizen journalism" could mean a distrust for expertise, but it could also be an attempt to escape from capitalist alienation through a process of despecialization and active engagement in public affairs. Are we really saying that you have to be a reporter in order to do reporting? Why can't a bus boy or a convenience store clerk be a dedicated amateur reporter in their spare time? Is it automatically disrespect for expertise to speculate that expertise might be decoupled from specialization?

Of course, there are objective benefits to specialization, it's not just a scheme to manufacture artificial scarcity in the labor market. But that's where technological utopianism comes in, with the notion that it's possible to create a set of tools that will allow a dedicated and well-meaning person to offset a lack of specialization. "Do your own research" not just as a slogan to justify ignoring the experts, but as an expression of the capacity to actually do your own research. That's what Eclipse Phase posits - that the tools put in place for capitalist exploitation might also be used for a more effective resistance. The government is surveilling you, but you are surveilling the government.

And I have to admit, sitting here in 2024, this does seem like foolish optimism. Counting on citizen journalism really seems to underestimate the amount of chaos available to the average citizen. And for all that ubiquitous cell-phone recording has exposed police wrongdoing and empowered the BLM movement, the professionals in charge of the levers of power have been doing a pretty good job of stalling progress indefinitely.

I think the lesson of the 21st century is that technological progress is not, in itself, a solution to anything. Without a renewal of society's values, and structural reforms that reflect those values, technology will mainly serve the interests of the ruling class. And I think Eclipse Phase gets that on some level, because the most powerful governments run roughshod over human rights and use its sci-fi inventions to further inequality. But even they are generally improved by the presence of things like ubiquitous surveillance, body swapping, artificial intelligence, and programmable minifacturing. And I wonder, were they just naive, or have I forgotten how to dream?

Ukss Contribution: The "Dyson Tree." It's a space habitat. It's a giant tree. It's two of my favorite things together at last.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Expanded Psionics Handbook

It was a mistake to read the Expanded Psionics Handbook (Bruce R. Cordell) so close to the Psionics Handbook. I guess, in the back regions of my brain, I'd let the fact that it's better fool me into thinking that it was different. I mean, it is different, but also there's a lot of overlap. Things got added that needed to be added and taken away that needed to be taken away, but the stuff that was already fine was allowed to say more or less the same.

I really appreciate that both books have the exact same author. WotC did me a real solid, there. I shudder to think how awkward this post would be otherwise. "Well, you see, it's a strict improvement. There's nothing in the first book I like more than the second. It is better in every particular, and it's not even that close." Yikes, that would be a rough thing to say if I weren't just observing that the author had gained knowledge and experience in the intervening years. I'm pretty sure "it's a strict improvement" is exactly what you want to hear if you go through the trouble of making a second version of your previous work. So, good job Mr. Cordell. I think you made a lot of good choices with the update.

Although, if I were in the mood to be petty, I could point out the Expanded Psionics Handbooks one objective mistake - Blue goblins get a +1 level adjustment when you play one as a PC. I think it's a matter of wires getting crossed in the changeover between (semi) editions. In the first version of the book, blues got a suite of psi-like abilities, but no level adjustment because that mechanic hadn't been invented yet. In the second version, those psi-like abilities were replaced with psion class levels, making a blue maybe a little bit better than a regular goblin (because, like all psionic creatures, they start with 1 power point), but not as good as, say, a gnome. I figure that there must have been a stopgap set of rules where, for a time, you could play as a 3.0 blue with a relatively sensible level adjustment (putting aside how bad a mechanic it was in general) and a full set of psi-like abilities, but then the new version came around and the abilities were removed while the level adjustment was carelessly ported over.

And now that I have that all written out, I see it was even more petty than I thought it was going to be. But what can I say, aside from that one flaw, Expanded Psionics Handbook is my second favorite 3.5 book, right behind Book of Nine Swords.

I believe I have now seen the last of D&D 3.5's alternate magic systems, and I think, out of all of them, this is my overall favorite. Incarnum had some really bold ideas, and its fashion-based magic was certainly distinctive, but it had a real problem with flavor. The Tome of Magic systems were interesting, but I think they were hurt by the space constraints of putting three in one book. The Expanded Psionics Handbook feels like it could anchor both a game and a world. A spellpoints based system where you can charge your abilities with extra points is a fun way to depict casters. Wilders, the emotion-based psychics with fewer known powers but more ability to boost their strength, are probably the best caster class in the game (not the strongest, but certainly, the ones I'd be least hesitant to put alongside non-casters as equals in the same party). Likewise, the bug-people and crystals aesthetic is just so different from the corebook's usual vibe. It's exactly what I love to see in fantasy - somebody showing me something new.

I can remember creating at least two distinct campaign worlds based on this exact book, and though I never got to play them and the notes have been lost for years, they rank among my favorite unused roleplaying ideas. . .

Oh, it's going to bug me trying to remember them. I think the first was relatively low concept. It was just a fantasy world where I made some different choices, but those particular choices all revolved around psionics as a theme. The available demihumans were the Dromites (small eusocial insect people) and the Thri-kreen (aggressive hunter mantis folk) and in place of the standard D&D psuedo-monotheism, religion in this world revolved around these transhumanist cults that would crystalize around these charismatic high-level psions, who promised to share esoteric spiritual practices that would unlock the power of the mind. If I recall, each one was far along in the process of abandoning their physical form and they all had these themed monasteries/fortresses that reflected their favored discipline. Losing that one hurt, because I remember having a really detailed map with all sorts of weird crystal fantasy bullshit on it.

The other one didn't get much farther than a concept phase. It was about three interconnected worlds. The prototype world that was fading into nothingness, the current material world, and a new and improved world that was currently under construction. I used xephs, humans, and maenads to represent the population of each world, though in-setting they were basically the prototype, the beta version, and the newest build of humanity, respectively. I'm not entirely sure where I was going with it, back in the mid 2000s, but it feels like an idea I might like to revisit, now that I'm older, wiser, and funnier than I was in my early 20s.

And that's not even getting into the inchoate idea I've been having recently of combing the EPH with the Book of Nine Swords. That's something I've only really been contemplating from a game-balance perspective, but I'm thinking of basing it off of Jianghu . . . just as soon as I get enough free time to do the necessary research. 

I know psionics is a controversial subject in D&D. It's weird for the sake of weird, and its connection to the vanilla fantasy genre is . . . tenuous. But the Expanded Psionics Handbook is my favorite kind of rpg supplement - one that gives me a big heaping plate full of options, divorced enough from a predetermined canon that I feel like I have the freedom to explore all the possible combinations.

Ukss Contribution: Usually, I go with something super specific, because there's nothing that delights me more than a small, but inspired idea. Sometimes, though, I need to remind myself to zig as well as zag, so this time I'm going as broad as possible - crystals as a magical aesthetic. It won't necessarily dominate Ukss's overall presentation of magic, but there's going to be at least one location where they go all-in on the vibe.