Monday, March 25, 2024

(Shadowrun) Super Tuesday

Guys, I need to be real for a moment. It is sooo haard for me to read old bits of politically-themed genre fiction and not immediately try to put it into the context of the 2016 US Presidential election. It's one of those things where, on an intellectual level, I realize that the world was probably always like this, but I still have a vivid memory of my illusions crashing down around me. The only comparable experience I've ever had was back in 2010, when George W Bush published his memoirs and openly admitted to authorizing the US torture program and it became clear that he would face absolutely no consequences from doing so.

Oh, man, just thinking about it is stirring some shit up inside me. I think it might have been genuinely traumatic. I was, what, 28 at the time. I wasn't a rube. I knew the elite had a separate system of justice. But there was a part of me that still, somehow, believed in America. That thought that equality before the law was more than just a pretty slogan. I knew the government did illegal things, but I suppose I took comfort in knowing that those crimes were at least nominally furtive. I figured that if a man would openly confess to committing crimes against humanity, that would be enough to provoke a response, even if he was a President. We have a law. He broke the law. And we don't need hearsay or witnesses or search warrants because he fucking published a book bragging about it! If that wasn't enough to merit an indictment, then the USA's much vaunted rule of law would be an absolute fucking joke.

Spoiler alert: there was no indictment.

But the shocking thing to me is that, despite all that. Despite my absolute disgust at the self-serving cravenness of the Democratic party leadership in failing to hold Bush accountable, there was still a small scrap of faith left to extinguish, because the election of Donald Trump shocked the hell out of me. I'd come to terms with the notion that all my elected officials, as contentious as their public disagreements could be, were essentially part of the same social circle and had a broad consensus on issues like like elite legal impunity. But I also, apparently, assumed that they were smart, self-aware people who at least valued the appearance of competence, respectability, and just a general connection to our basic physical reality. 

And, yeah . . .

Which is maybe too heavy a thought to bring into a silly 1996 book about a hypothetical 2057 election where one of the candidates is a literal dragon, but my reactions are my reactions and when I read Super Tuesday (Stephen Kenson with background material by Tom Dowd) and it says "Brackhaven is a racist with secret ties to the Humanis Policlub. He knows that he cannot express many of his more radical racial opinions if he wants to succeed in his quest for public office, so he has become very skilled in hiding the depths of his bigotry while subtly promoting racism and discrimination in his sphere of influence." Well, I just want to scream:


But that's not really fair. I'm not really mad at FASA. I'm mad at my younger self.  I should probably be more forgiving, though. I can't imagine that I would ever have a political conviction strong enough to line up and execute 100,000 of the opposition's grandmas, so how could I (or anyone, really) have predicted that the 2020 Republicans would regard it as disqualifying for a candidate to not do it to their own grandmas?

It does, however, make reading a book like this into a surreal experience. It's obvious that Dunkelzahn, with his breathlessly pious yet technocratic 90s liberalism, was being set up as the "good ending" candidate. And why not? This is a fantasy game after all. It's fun to imagine a dragon president. And back in the Before Times, I loved this plot point (even if I was only familiar with it from the 3e setting recap). But now, in the year 2024?

I read his announcement speech, and when it came to the stirring message of hope and unity, "over the past three hundred-odd years, you have managed to create and sustain a civilization based not on shared blood or cultural conformity, but on shared ideals" my thought was not "wow, what a wise and perceptive dragon" or even "wow, what a cunningly manipulative dragon." It was, "wow, this clown would have absolutely adored Hamilton."

And look, I loved Hamilton too. I still think LMM is a national treasure. But looking back with the benefit of hindsight, we should have all read the fucking room. 

It's embarrassing to admit, but I spent a significant portion of my time here scrutinizing the text for parallels between Brackhaven and Trump. There were some, even aside from both being racists. They were both the scions of privilege who grew up as borderline-failing students only to graduate into a career of lucratively unethical business dealings and both had fraught relationships with their more traditionally successful (and super racist) fathers. But it's likely that those were not consciously established parallels. My memory of this time was dim, but I'm pretty sure Trump was still in his "tabloid fixture national punchline" phase and Brackhaven is meant to be a more serious, credible villain than that. The similarities likely come down to the fact that this particular kind of character has been a persistent blight on the body politic since the founding of the country. Super Tuesday might, therefor, have some insight into a dangerous tendency in American politics, were it not for the fact that it wholesale replaces the country's racial baggage with metahuman nonsense.

It's something I've come to recognize as a FASA trademark. Someone down at HQ must have been fairly well-educated about these matters, relative to the standards of the time, because they keep using progressive ideas to interrogate fantasy tropes, but because they focus on making such nuanced fantasy, they keep giving us these ice-cold takes on real world political issues. One of the commentors actually points out that America is built on stolen land and this provokes an unhinged rebuttal from the white guy - but Captain Chaos, moderator of the Shadowland BBS, brutally shuts that down, deleting 1mp worth of racist ranting . . . leaving only the racial slur the guy used to open the post.

They're sort of the anti-White Wolf in this regard. White Wolf wore its real-world politics on its sleeve, and in my opinion was sincerely and enthusuastically opposed to the various -isms, but would just consistently whiff on being good representation, thanks in large part to its unreflective use of problematic genre tropes. 

Or, to put it another way, compare the fates of the early-appearing queer characters in each franchise. The bisexual heir to a corporate fortune, first introduced in Bug City, meets his canonical end in one of Super Tuesday's adventures - he is quite predictably eaten by one of the giant mantises that was keeping him captive. Whereas the modern-day bard from Tradition Book: Verbena underoges a veritable checklist of gay trauma, to an absolutely upsetting degree, but does at least manage to survive until Revised edition. Those were our options, apparently.  A guy whose sexuality is treated with same sort of casual matter-of-factness as any straight persons, but who is unceremoniously killed off between adventures or a guy who sticks around and is a major part of the story, but the story is an anvilicious tale of highly stereotypical suffering.

I don't know how much organizational continuity exists between old FASA and new FASA, but if anyone wants to make it up to me, I am willing to accept repayment in the form of more Rozko the Unruly content.

But I'm rambling now. I'm more than a thousand words into a post about a silly, 30-year-old rpg supplement and I've made it weird and political and alienating and I've only covered, like a fifth of the actual book. And maybe, if I were a more sensible person, I'd allow this moment of self-reflection to inspire me to go back and start over from scratch. 

I'm not going to do that, however, because Super Tuesday is, in fact, weird and political and alienating. Those are its best features. I mean, it's a book that features a dragon running for president and the dragon is the least interesting thing about it. I haven't even told you Kenneth Brackhaven's big secret yet.

I should. Because it's fucked up. But I'm afraid, because it's the kind of fucked up where I'm not sure I could untangle it even as a pure fantasy conceit and if, during the course of explaining it, I allow myself for even a moment to remember that Shadowrun uses bigotry against metahumans as a stand-in for real-world racism, I will literally fucking implode from pure critical inadequacy.

But because I love what I do, here it goes - the Kenneth Brackhaven who is running for president as a crypto-fascist is not the real Kenneth Brakhaven. Charles Brakhaven's original sun transformed into an ork in the 2021 goblination event. Papa Brakhaven murdered his new ork son in his hospital bed and then some how . . . procured a new child of approximately the same age, who he brainwashed into believing he was the real Kenneth. And then that child grew up to be a huge, fucking racist.

What do I even say to something like that? There's an intuition I've developed as an amatuer critic that tells me there's a lot to say here. Someone who was good at unpacking bullshit would have plenty of material to work with. Words dance in my head. Words like "white rage" and "the intersection between the objectification of children and the objectification of subaltern classes." Maybe even, eventually, "generational trauma" and "is deploying ableist tropes in service to a story about racism more abelist or more racist."

Mostly, though, it's a ringing klaxon: "Do not UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES de-metaphorize this!!!"

There were times when my mind drifted in that direction. Where I remembered the strange quirk of genetics that could cause white parents with African ancestry to have a dark-skinned child. And what might happen if such an event occurred to a prominent member of the KKK. But then, blessedly, my brain shut down in self defense. If you find yourself drawn to continue the thought, I understand, but please do me a favor - after you win history's most inevitable Oscar, kindly leave me out of your acceptance speech.

The adventure itself was pretty good. It was a truncated noir thriller where you discover a dangerous secret about a powerful man and there are meetings and hit-men and payoffs and dead man's drops and ultimately you have to make a choice - do youreveal the truth, knowing that you'll make terrible enemies and ultimately very little will change or do you bury this secret and pretend you never heard it, knowing that once more wicked men will prosper due to your inaction? The only real flaw with the adventure is the ghost of the real Kenneth Brackhaven, who pesters the characters for justice whenever it looks like they'll be too pragmatic. Having him kick things off with a chance haunting that inspires the characters to dig deeper is a nice nod to Shadowrun's fantasy elements. But if you need him to stick around to keep the adventure on track, you shouldn't be running the adventure.

Finally, we come to the real, burning question: which of the six candidates (it's unclear how much of Canada is in the United Canadian and American States, but apparently the US's current incentives towards a two party system are not relevant) I would vote for?

The official endorsement of the editorial board of this blog for the 2057 UCAS presidential election must go to the Democratic party candidate, Arthur Vogel. An unusually effective and committed environmental lawyer, who has secured big settlements for many high profile cases, he has that rare combination of personal principles and ruthless pragmatism that makes for a truly great political reformer. He may lack Dunkelzahn's superhuman intellect, but he also lacks the dragon's aristocratic paternalism.  No candidate is more qualified to go toe-to-toe with the megacorporations on behalf of the UCAS public. 

Of course, I have the advantage of knowing Vogel's dirty little secret,  and while I'm not entirely sure how it played in 1996 (the words "protection racket" may have been used), in 2024, in the context of a crime caper rpg, it makes him look cool as shit.

Like, in the real world, I would not approve of a high powered lawyer who sued corporate polluters and then, when it looked like negotiations would stall, he'd tap his contacts in the radical environmentalist movement to engage in targeted ecoterrorism designed to bring the corporation back to the table.  However, the name of the game is "Shadowrun" and all the megacorporations he's squeezing also use deniable black ops to get their way. If people are already out there hiring criminals for the sake of shareholder profits, then it's nice to know that someone is out there doing it for the good guys too.

The way the book framed the adventure was a little weird, though. It's treated like a revenge thriller, but it's never quite clear what this guy wants revenge for. Sure, he is the sole survivor of an op that went sideways, horribly maiming him in the process, but the overall mission was a success. Vogel won the case, the chemical in question was banned, and the corporation never recovered financially from the hit.

I could see someone resenting the fact that being a deniable asset means poor post-op support or that while everyone has their part to play in the revolution, some people's part is to nearly get killed in terrorist attacks and other people's part is three martini lunches and six figure salaries. But honestly, if I'm an ecoterrorist, willing to lay down my life for Mother Gaia, then I really want someone like Vogel on my side - an educated professional with the knowledge, resources, and connections to turn my radical direct action into lasting legal victories.

So I  kind of have to assume that the antagonist is so overwhelmed by grief and pain that he's no longer thinking clearly. Otherwise, the adventure would be very weird with its "how fitting, the environmental activist, killed by the very chemical he fought to have banned, on account of its unnecessary deadliness. Ironic."

Overall, I'd say that Super Tuesday would be a very effective adventure series.  . . were it not a relic of our lost national innocence. I can only hope that coming years will leave us with a democracy for it to fail to represent. Nothing would depress me more than looking at old cyberpunk and wistfully mourning it's unrealistic optimism.

Ukss Contribution: The second adventure has the PCs dosed with a substance that erases their recent memories. Later when the people that dosed them are trying to recover a stolen item the PCs were trying to traffic, the investigation is stymied by their total and sincere lack of memory about the time period when the crime took place. Bit of an own goal by Tir Tangir. But the potential for such hilarity makes Laes, the memory erasing drug, a nice inclusion for the world of Ukss. There will probably also be a polity that uses it for routine border enforcement, just like the Tir, because I like to see the abuse of power backfire.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Psionic

Complete Psionic (Bruce R Cordell and Christopher Lindsay) is a deeply weird book. The mean way to put it is "it feels like a psionics book for people who don't like psionics." The nice way to put it is . . . "hey, man, I get it. Psionics are an acquired taste and don't exactly fit in with D&D's overall vibe."

Taken on its own merits, Complete Psionic is a fine book, but, well . . . it fits in with D&D's overall vibe. That's why you're going to want to use it. You like the Expanded Psionics Handbook's spell point system, but you want to play a cleric or a paladin.

I'm not exaggerating. One of the prestige classes is called the "Illumine Blade" and they build off EPH's Soulknife class to create a psychic blade infused with positive energy that is especially inimical to undead. They're a cool class with an attractive niche - you're exploding skeletons with a holy light sabre - but there's nothing even the slightest bit new age or weird-tales-esque about them. Call me a grump if you must, but in my day, psionics was either crystals and meditation or biopunk aliens from beyond the realms of human understanding, and paladins were something else entirely.

I mean, the book isn't totally unhip. Illithids are here, and PCs can buy a series of heritage feats to gradually transform into one. Many of the magic items incorporate crystals. There are two distinct powers that let you explode someone's head like in Scanners. And the new Synad race - human-looking aliens that have a three-part composite mind and manifest ghostly extra heads when their psychic energy is low - is properly weird. But it never quite reaches the two previous psionic books' levels of genre-bending.

Which leaves me wondering - why bother bringing psionics into this at all? Why not just give more stuff to regular spellcasters (for example, there is nothing at all that would break about the Storm Disciple class if you replaced its manifester levels with spellcaster levels)? I'm not complaining. I like psionics both as a genre and as a system. I could easily see myself running a game where the psion class is reskinned to represent the setting's wizards. But there is something inherently unsettling about seeing a fault line, even if it's in no danger of being an immediate problem.

Honestly, though, my notes for this one were pretty sparse. Mostly just nitpicking rules decisions - like why can't the granted power from a psionic location be renewed after it wears off? You go to the Crystal Node, attune with it, and gain 5 extra power points for the next year, but then once that year is up, you gain nothing by going back. And it's unclear exactly what the balance consideration is really supposed to be? If 5 extra power points are too strong to give someone indefinitely, then they are too strong to for a year's worth of adventures (which may well be an entire campaign, rendering the limitation truly moot). Similarly, if you can trust a PC to have them for a whole year, it's unlikely that something new is going to break in year 2. But really? It would be a pissant move for me to make that the book's problem. It's the easiest thing in the world to houserule.

Setting those aside, the other theme of my notes is "things I liked" - the aforementioned synads, the implication that there's a mountain range whose frequent storms are caused by frolicking blue dragons (I choose to believe that they're frolicking because the color-coded dragon alignments can kiss my ass), or the feat that lets you wear an astral construct as armor. Why are there not more ectoplasmic mechs in fiction? The world demands an answer!

Overall, I'd say that Complete Psionic will linger in my mind as "more D&D" and that's okay. I may be happiest when I pick up a new D&D book and it shows me something that's not quite D&D, but I'm also perfectly content with excess. We are a "more is more" blog around these parts, and on that score Complete Psionic delivers.

Ukss Contribution: Synads. They're strange and unprecedented enough to pose a real challenge to incorporate, but I think I'm up for it. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

(Shadowrun) Bug City

One thing I really appreciate about these old FASA books is their unabashed fiction-first approach. It makes them easy to read. Instead of feeling like I'm pushing my way through a series of encyclopedia entries, I feel like I'm listening in on a conversation, where characters with different personalities and points of view react to interesting fantasy/sci-fi happenings in a realistic way.

The downside of this is that sometimes, as happens in Bug City, you'll get a situation where you spend 2-3 pages of valuable rpg supplement real estate on technobabble error messages, characters shouting each other's names in a panicked role-call, and just generally being confused. Yeah, congratulations FASA, you effectively communicated the confusing nature of the early days of the Chicago quarantine by being legitimately confusing to me, as a reader. What's going on? Bedlam. I get it. A more responsible rpg supplement would have condensed that down to a single sentence, "The underground shadowrunner message boards were in a panic as access to the outside grid was shut down," but you do you.

And, if I'm being honest, I'd have found my suggested approach to be terribly dry, so there are advantages to doing it your way. It's just not very efficient.

Granted, efficiency isn't necessarily what you want when you're trying to tell a fantasy/sci-fi/horror story about a city being locked down and abandoned after an extradimensional invasion by body-snatching bug spirits, but just a little bit more efficiency might have helped me focus more on potential shadowrunning activities. As it was, I spent most of the book thinking, "whoa, these guys are really screwed, aren't they?"

As an adventuring environment, bug-ridden Chicago has a lot going for it. You're trapped behind these makeshift walls, and if you get too close to the barrier, the UCAS military will gun you down. There's an oppressive claustrophobia to it that really heightens the bleakness of the breakdown of public order, the roving gangs and warlords (though the book doesn't actually make clear what the difference is), and the brutal survival elements (money is basically worthless, so you have to barter and ration your essential equipment if you're going to get anything done). Then you have the insect spirits themselves as a persistent inhuman threat, combining body horror with the reflexive disgust that comes from seeing a really gross bug. 

There's a tenor of apocalyptic desperation where Bug City would work really well - you're fighting monsters with one hand and defending yourself from human threats with the other, all the while the world is falling down around you and there's a sense that it doesn't need to be that way. If the UCAS were a better government, if it actually cared about its people, it wouldn't have abandoned them. It's a pointless waste of human life and potential, driven by a timorous and indifferent response to a genuine outside context problem. You can definitely make that into a memorable game.

The only thing that really holds Bug City back is the titular bugs. So much about the insect spirits is needlessly . . .  Shadowrun-y. The fact that they're spirits, for one. It's a decision that's very logically rooted in the setting metaphysics - they're invaders from the metaplanes, those uncharted spirit worlds beyond the astral that no one's quite sure whether they literally exist or are created whenever a person thinks about them too hard - but their origin overwhelms every other interesting thing about them. The reason the locals are having such a hard time dealing with the invasion has more to do with the fact that the invaders are spirits than the fact that they are bugs. Some of the creatures spend most of their time manifested, and nobody's sure why they do that because in astral space they are immune to most conventional weapons. They need to infect physical bodies in order to reproduce, but a successful reproduction results in a new spirit and the half-bug physical creatures known as "flesh forms" are just weak merges. Someone tried to blow up a hive with a nuclear bomb, and that didn't really kill them, but it did cause inspect spirits throughout the containment zone to go into a kind of torpor where they rest inactively in the astral realm until strong magic passes too close and they wake up again. And this last thing is a big mystery because magical theory suggests a nuclear bomb shouldn't have done anything at all.

That's not how you do zerg, guys. The way I see it, the insect spirits need three traits to be an effective apocalypse/horror threat. First, they need to be primarily physical and act mostly in the physical world. You need to be under the impression that this is a threat you can answer primarily with bullets. Second, they need to reproduce and expand at an exponential rate, so that it becomes clear that containment was never a viable long-term plan. Finally, they need to be just strange enough that your most obvious ideas won't necessarily work. Nuking the hive buys you some time, but it doesn't actually decisively solve the problem.

The way I'd do it is reverse the relationship between true forms and flesh forms. As it is, only the most powerful insect spirits can exist as pure spirits, which ultimately means that their attempt to establish a beachhead in the physical world is more of a side-effect of the queens' presence in the astral than it is a direct goal. If they were weak and tenuous in astral form and only really gained their full powers in physical form, then that makes the physical world the ultimate prize in the conflict. Destroying their physical bodies would be a significant victory, but it's not decisive, because they can bounce back from spirit form.

Or to put it another way, fighting a queen is supposed to be the boss battle, but if the queens are strongest as true form spirits, then only the magical characters can truly contribute. If their power comes instead from their physical forms, then the climax of the adventure happens when the whole party is beating the shit out of them, and the part about getting rid of them once and for all by banishing their spirits back to the metaplanes can be part of the denouement. Or, maybe, the queens are just helpless baby factories that would be easily dispatched . . . if you didn't have all these flesh form workers and soldiers in the way. 

It's a minor complaint, though. I wonder if it just comes from having high-level access to the mechanics of the game. Maybe players who were encountering flesh forms as terrain hazards in unrelated heist or human v human conflict games would just view them as creepy bug monsters (i.e. all they ever had to be). 

This is also, indirectly, a sourcebook about using the city of Chicago in the Shadowrun universe. The setting chapter is very helpfully written as an "out of date" guide to Chicago as it was, with insect-invasion-related changes added on as annotations to the text. It's a useful bit of cyberpunk worldbuilding, with corporate conflict, a corrupt relationship between city hall and organized crime, and the occasional weird fantasy stuff.

I'm not sure how I feel about "ghoul rights" being framed as a civil rights issue. Yes, they are fully intelligent people, suffering from a disease that they didn't ask for (there's even talk of second-generation ghouls, who were born infected), but some of them also really sound like they want to kill and eat people. I guess I'd need a little bit more context to know for sure which side I'm on (it's unclear exactly how radical "murder for purposes of anthropophagy" is among Chicago's ghouls). Post-invasion, they make an interesting third faction - able to defend themselves against the insect spirits, thanks to their ghoul powers, but with no love lost for uninfected metahumans, who herded them into an open-air prison and threatened to wipe them out before all this shit went down. I do feel like Ghoultown's post-apocalyptic practice of hiring street gangs to bring them "food" (i.e. living humans who they will subsequently kill and eat) makes them considerably less sympathetic. But I do kind of like the idea the containment zone is trapped between an incipient bug apocalypse and an incipient zombie apocalypse, and the zombies just happen to be the doom that can be reasoned with.

Finally, I've got to say something a bit uncomfortable - this is a book about futuristic sci-fi Chicago that does not have a single identifiably Black character. A couple of the art pieces could be interpreted to have Black subjects, but it's ambiguous (because it's a black-and-white drawing with moody lighting and post-apocalyptic levels of dirt and ash). Certainly, none of the named characters in the "movers and shakers" section were identified that way (though not all are white - one of them is Sioux). I'm pretty sure this is just a 1994 oops, but it's particularly noticeable here because there is a bit of fly-by bisexual representation (the son of a powerful corporate executive who has not yet been eaten his mantis spirt domme because he's too cute). So we know for a fact that FASA was capable of remembering this sort of thing, but they inexplicably didn't

Overall, I thought this was a pretty fun book that pitches a campaign I'd actually want to play (with only a little bit of tweaking), but it doesn't really reach the heights of FASA at its best, so I'm inclined to judge it more harshly than if I were reading the exact same book from some of its contemporaries. Still, I bought it because it filled a metaplot gap that I'd long been curious about, and I was largely satisfied with its performance in that regard. I guess, technically, it's the second-best Shadowrun book I've read so far (Threats was more interesting and more gameable), but I have a feeling that's because I'm just getting started.

Ukss Contribution: In the old, pre-invasion Chicago, there was a series of conflicts known popularly as "the Alderman Wars." As a concept, it's not that amusing: different districts of the city competed for resources and tax dollars, so their local representatives hired criminals to wage proxy wars on each other in a mad scramble for civic graft. But I do find the name to be absolutely precious. I think it's because "alderman" is such a specific and old-timey sounding title. It adds a certain charming fin de siecle quality to your wide-ranging gang wars. There will be a city in Ukss with a similar governmental structure that is similarly corrupt.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Mage

To me, the image that will forever exemplify Complete Mage (Skip Williams, Penny Williams, Ari Marmell, Kolja Raven Liquette) in my mind is the "Rod of Many Wands." It's a magical rod that lets you slot in up to three magic wands, and subsequently activate all the loaded wands at the exact same time.

I'm trying to imagine how I would feel, as a DM, if a player came to me pitching that bullshit as a homebrew. I think I'd find it funny, but I'm haunted by the idea that I'd find it so funny that I started to be a bit rude about it. Because it really does seem like something from the depths of power-gamer parody ("let me tape these three wands together so I can use them with a single action"), so much so that it's hard to believe that idea was offered in good faith. My knee-jerk reaction would be to assume that the player was testing me, seeing what ridiculous nonsense they could get me to say "yes" to. I worry that I would so quickly leap to that conclusion that I might inadvertently quash the enthusiasm of a novice player.

And yet, here it is, in an official supplement. This baroque, power-gaming monstrosity is canon. And that is something I find very funny. But I don't wanna be a dick about it. The item is probably roughly balanced by the massive number of wand charges it consumes (one per wand per wand, so a maxed out rod would use nine total wand charges - three from each of its three wands) and the burden that would place on your expected wealth per level. My only real problem with it is aesthetic. The Rod of Many Wands feels like something that was designed backwards from its effect, rather than as something that grew organically out of the logic of the game world.

That's what makes it so representative of the book to me. Very little of the Complete Mage material is similarly laughable, but most of it shares that same function-first agenda. You've got the Eldritch Disciple and Eldritch Theurge prestige classes, which are obviously meant as Warlock/Cleric and Warlock/Wizard multiclass patches, a la the 3.5 DMG's Mystic Theurge, the reserve feats, which are meant to mitigate the notorious 15 minute workday by giving casters more endurance in exchange for not using their highest level spell slots right away, and a bunch of magical locations that, while not unappealing, were clearly designed by moving down a checklist and creating one for each school of magic.

I never got past the sense that I was reading a pure workhorse of a book, something that tweaked arcane casters by identifying mechanical hooks for new abilities, but which never quite got around to building up a fantasy universe.

It wasn't all (or even mostly) bad. I actually quite liked the direction they were going with the Eldritch Disciple. A pact mage that worshipped their patron, despite the various fey, demons, and devils being a tier below true gods, or maybe just a heretic priest who had a really inappropriately personal relationship with the faith's deity. Both of those interpretations would make for great character concepts and intriguing hooks to explore religious expression in a fantasy world. But while the text drops a few nods in those directions, it never really gets off the ground. I'd say it stops just when it gets interesting, but it actually stops some time before that point.

It's an experience that kept happening throughout the book. There were moments when it would flirt with the sublime - like the stormstrider boots that allowed their wearer to turn into a lightning bolt and flash across the battlefield or the Crystalline Memories spell, which somehow transforms the target's thoughts into a small crystal that shoots out of their head like a bullet (the accompanying art is disgusting in the best possible way, but of course it only does 2d8 damage) where the caster can later examine it at their leisure - but every time it gets close, it quickly moves on to more box-checking filler. Ultimately, it was a book about the arcane caster classes, not about characters in the setting who wielded arcane magic.

And maybe that's actually okay. It is a supplement for a roleplaying game, after all. It's entirely fair for it to cover its mechanical bases and leave the stuff about themes and worldbuilding to the players. I may not have enjoyed reading it as much as I did Magic of the Incarnum or Tome of Magic, but I am significantly more likely to use it in a game.

Just warn me before you try and buy a Rod of Many Wands, okay? It will take time for me to react appropriately.

Ukss Contribution: I once again find myself in the awkward position of having my favorite thing in the book be something incredibly goofy. I always wonder if I'm being mean by liking something like this, because I find it funny in an unironically enjoyable way, but I can't tell if it was meant to be funny, or even just understood as possibly being funny. I'm going to go forward here, though, because I'm sure they at least suspected someone would have this reaction when they wrote the Tomb of Bigby.

For those not up on their D&D nerdery, Bigby is a famous name due to a series of distinctive spells (Bigby's clenched fist, Bigby's crushing hand, Bigby's forceful hand, Bigby's grasping hand, Bigby's interposing hand, and the newcomer published here Bigby's Slapping hand . . . and those were only the official ones I could find with a 30 second internet search). In this book, we get a peek at his final resting place.

Can you guess the decorating motif?

I don't know what I find funnier, the idea that Bigby built this tomb for himself, implying that he lived his life very conspicuously being "the hand guy" (I'm picturing a b-list celebrity going around offering people high fives and then being disappointed when they don't immediately lose their fucking minds) or that he was actually kind of just a regular wizard who got on a roll with this particular magic, but after he died that was all people remembered him for and so they built him this garish, hand-themed tomb out of a misguided urge to honor him. 

Either way, it's hard to imagine using the location in a game without it rapidly devolving into farce . . . but then again, everyone loves a good farce, so why not go for it?

Friday, March 15, 2024

Eclipse Phase ( 2nd Edition )

First things first: thanks a bunch to Adam from Posthuman Studios for sending me a review copy. Even though I already had a copy thanks to the BLM bundle, I'm humbled and grateful for the vote of confidence. 

Now, to repay that honor with the most brutal takedown the internet has ever seen! Mwa, ha, ha!

Oh, wait, I actually thought Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition was pretty okay, which maybe sounds like kind of a lukewarm endorsement, but it's really more of a situation where my specific use case made me the wrong person to read this particular book at this particular time.  I have just finished reading all the 1st edition lore. The last thing I need is a condensed and streamlined version of the previous books that cherry picks the best parts of canon and presents them in an attractive volume that acts as a compelling entry point to this expansive and fascinating sci-fi universe. 

I mean gawd, what were you thinking? Real boneheaded move on your part. Know your audience, people (that audience being obsessive internet weirdos who buy the complete series, leave it untouched on a bookshelf for the better part of a decade and then stubbornly insist on reading it all at once - you know, the core fans).

Oh, I do have fun around here sometimes.  Anyway, my main experience with this book mostly involved alternating between approval that the rules are noticeably easier to use (though not light, by any means) and repeated deja vu. Going over my notes, it doesn't look like anything stood out as new or surprising, but religion and ethnicity are handled a bit better. You still get some of that atheist spicy take, but it no longer feels like something I should be apologizing for. 

The other big thing going through my mind right now is the same thing that always happens when I read a conservative new edition of a beloved rpg - I'm wishing it was considerably less conservative. 

It's probably my most broadly contentious rpg opinion, but I really like it when subsequent editions shake things up, even at the cost of being incompatible with each other. Maybe it's just projection on my part. I constantly feel the urge to tinker, even (no, especially) with things I love. Hell, I just finished writing 500 pages of Ukss d20 and I couldn't even get through the announcement thread without brainstorming a rules overhaul. 

However, I don't think it's pure projection. It's probably equal parts the collector's curse - a need for novelty sufficient to justify my expenditures. Though, the biggest factor is just that I love seeing multiple variants of the same basic idea (my second biggest hobby is video games, but 3rd place is collecting Tarot decks, and there are few things in this world that thrill me more than an artist trying their hand at the Rider-Waite minor arcana). Call me jaded if you must, but when someone impresses me with a cool new setting, the main thing I want is for them to do it again - by going back to square one and redesigning from first principles. To me, the mark of a successful adaptation is when it gives me a whole new set of things to complain about. 

And by that standard, Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition is not a successful adaptation. Don't get me wrong,  I'd use it in preference to 1st edition 100% of the time, but I still have all the same issues - I wish it were more openly punk, that its focus be more on factional conflict, that the TITANs and ETI were slightly less mysterious and slightly more gameable. Though only that last one comes close to being a fatal flaw for me - when a mystery is too mysterious, I'm more likely to check out than be intrigued.  . . I mean,  c'mon, why are you being so coy about the party responsible for the interdiction of Earth? Sure, there are multiple interesting answers, but they aren't so interesting that I would be served better by having the freedom to decide myself than I would by having the answer well-integrated into the rest of the setting. 

My overall opinion of Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition is positive. I still greatly enjoy the world and have high hopes for the stories that can be told in that world.  It carries the torch admirably.  . .

And I made it. I got through the entire series without getting mired in the Continuity of Consciousness debate. What? You thought I didn't notice? That I merely overlooked this major theme? No, my friends, I was sweating bullets, trying to find literally anything else to talk about. 

It's not that I find the subject uninteresting. Quite the opposite, actually.  It's more that conversations about it always seem to run in circles.  I think because the idea of copying an entire human mind is so far out of our experience that we don't have the metaphysical vocabulary to talk about it productively. 

Like, am I really going to develop a theory of asymmetrical ontology just to talk about an idea from sci-fi that is at best an untenable engineering problem on the scale of a Dyson Sphere?  It's basically the coastline paradox applied to the the most complex structure in the known universe. To even get to the point where you can talk about the implications of mind state duplicates for the nature of identity, you have to first decide how much of your brain you're comfortable losing to rounding error, because I guarantee that there's no conceivable technology that will reduce it to zero. 

Although, I'm actually probably okay with calling something a true duplicate, even with a certain amount of error.  . . provided it's the right kind of error. They say drinking alcohol causes brain damage, and you don't have people shrieking in horror about how they can't recognize themselves in the mirror every time they enjoy a glass of chardonnay, so there are probably parts of the brain it's safe to round off. I wouldn't necessarily bet my life on it, but I can see how characters in a story might be willing to take that risk.

Though on an immediate level, that means I can't really talk about this with the proper level of investment.  I'd be comfortable saying that a "suffiently similar" duplicate would truly be me, and I would then proceed to blow minds by staking out the position that this is not contradictory with the statement that "I am not the duplicate." I would then explain that I thought the mere existence of this technology would irrevocably change the very nature of our being, to become something more akin to clonal megaflora and the relative independence of each individual bud does not detract from my sense that the interconnected structure as a whole is a meaningful form of immortality. 

Except I'm not going to do that, because I don't think "suffiently similar " is a realistically achievable goal. And that belief changes what sort of questions I'm interested in. Complexity theory argues persuasively against the possibility of duplicating a specific human brain, but it also suggests that making a generic human brain might be easier than you'd expect (the Google search you want is "algorithm for creating Sierpinski Triangle"). It may even be the case that the complexity of the human brain is not a design necessity for intelligence and consciousness, but rather an artifact of biological life's low temperature tolerance, meager energy budget, and evolutionary path dependence. I.e. it's not a minimally complex intelligence machine, but rather the form an intelligence machine takes if you build it stepwise under the constraint that you can only power it with nuts and berries and thus each increase in capability must directly translate into better berry collecting abilities. 

I'm left wondering how those two tendencies - the inevitability of rounding error and the possibility that you can still achieve human-like intelligence with a simplified brain - might dovetail in a transhuman setting.  Like maybe the technology is only half baked, so that no one is claiming (persuasively) that mind state emulations are true duplicates of the people they came from, but they are still undeniably people and that's the state of the art when the singularity happens. 

The selection pressure of the apocalypse means that when the dust settles, the bulk of the survivors are the mind state emulations of those desperate, naive, or ignorant enough to think that this was a viable means of escape. Perhaps the Jovians and the inner system elites were the only ones to escape with their original bodies intact, and the punk element is driven by the fact that these guys see themselves as the only real people in a world of ghosts (not to justify their worldview, but to reify a metaphor for how bigots and the rich already view the people they oppress). After the Fall, millions of minds woke up and realized they were not exactly as they were before, and that they would never truly be the person they remembered themselves to be, but they were, indeed people and they were still alive, which means that despite the burden of that knowledge, they would have to make a life for themselves in the ashes of the world their progenitors destroyed (although, if you really want to twist the knife, increase the level of responsibility the "surviving humans" have for the apocalypse  - who built the TITANS, who deployed them in a military capacity- why it's the very same people claiming your infomorph is property/an unholy abomination).

Anyway, that's where I'm at. I read most of the published Eclipse Phase books and I'm inspired to run two fringe variants - the world of low-res ghosts and the activation of project kudzu. Maybe I'm in a pessimistic mood.

Ukss Contribution: Some asteroids deter claim jumpers by having booby traps that will fling an intruder away at the local escape velocity.  This willingness to put such a cartoon image into a role playing game with such heavy themes is precisely why I love Eclipse Phase as much as I do. 

Sunday, March 3, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Divine

 We're in a Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy world. What does it mean that there are gods? That they can grant their followers magic powers? That it's possible for a mortal to become a god? That it's possible for a god to die?

Complete Divine (David Noonan) doesn't even pretend to address those questions. It's mostly just a pretty decent magic book. I shouldn't fault it for taking the Cleric, Druid, and Paladin classes for granted. It would be unreasonable of me to expect it to overturn 30 years of D&D failing to understand religious magic (or even, really, Christian miracles).

But I can't entirely get past it. The gods are just these guys, you know? There's a god of slaughter. Why is there a god of slaughter? And to be clear, I'm not saying there shouldn't be. But you've given this guy a bunch of priests and made those priests the same class as the Van Helsing-inspired priests of Pelor and the total nerds who worship Boccob, and . . . why is that? What is Erythnul's role in Dnd-land's culture? What stories do people tell about him? There's a historical precedent with man-slaughtering Ares, who was often scorned, but also a part of the fabric of Greek life. Does a farmer with a shrine to Pelor in their fields call upon the dark curses of Erythnul when the militia is in pitched battle with bandits or goblins?

No, of course not. The gods all run separate and parallel organizations. The situational evocation of different deities based on the needs of the moment is too complex. It doesn't let you put people into neat little boxes. Erthnul is an evil god, and so he has a bunch of evil followers who just want to do evil all day long.

I find it kind of hard to care about this style of worldbuilding. The Church Inquisitor prestige class has an alignment restriction of "Lawful Good or Lawful Neutral." Not only do we have the priests of slaughter setting up a tax-exempt religious organization, we've also got the good kind of Inquisition. And . . . I just . . . can't.

I mean, I guess I could, if I wanted to. There's some good flavor here. I really liked the Stormlord prestige class. Again, not sure why they're priests, but "cool lightning powers" is something I can get behind. It might be possible to break down the D&D pantheon and whip up a myth cycle that puts them all into a coherent cultural context.

How would I do it, exactly? As is traditional, the first thing to go would have to be alignment. After that, I'd go after the redundancies between the human and the non-human gods. Consolidate the overlapping roles under the more interesting of the two characters - so Erythnul becomes Gruumsh, Heironeous becomes Bahamut, etc. Then I'd try to work them into a creation story - an allegory for humanity's relationship with the natural world. 

Okay, so we've got Bahamut, who represents the force of law and that can be generalized to a benevolent organizing principle. So his counterpart, Tiamat, should represent base physical matter, the primordial elemental forces that make up creation, as befits her five dragon heads. It is the union between these two (a marriage? a battle? both?) that results in the current physical world - senseless, intractable matter brought under the rule of cosmic law. That, incidentally, suggests a metaphysical basis for magic. Perhaps a branch of theurgy that seeks to recreate this fusion in the microcosm.

Then we lead into the other gods. I keep thinking about the fact that Corellon's got two major antagonists - Gruumsh and Lolth. It makes me think that maybe he's the problem, that antagonism is part of his whole deal. If we approach him from that angle, I think we can roll D&D pantheon's other big antagonist pairing - Garl Glittergold vs Kurtulmak - into him as well. Corellon is GG now too. This screams "culture hero" to me. So let's define the pantheon around Corellon's rivalries. The eldest gods are the trio of Gruumsh, Lolth, and Kurtulmak, the original children of Bahamut and Tiamat.

What I want to say here is that Guumsh, Lolth, and Kurtulmak should represent a thematic triad. Specifically, they are the natural world as it is before it was tamed by human(oid) industry. What we know is that Gruumsh is all about battle and slaughter, Lolth is a trickster who is associated with darkness and spiders, and Kurtulmak . . . is kind of a joke, actually, though his associations with traps and kobolds offers some possibilities. Let's call them, collectively, the law of pure survival. The ancient terrors. The animal emotions - rage, fear, and hunger. Civilized people want to deny them, but they are always there. They will save your life when all your arts and knowledge and values have failed you. They are invoked into secrecy and desperate times, when there is an enemy you must destroy, a secret you must hide, or an object you must possess. 

Corellon represents the ability to operate outside that rubric. He is the rebel against the rule of survival, the Author of Joy, the god of skill and knowledge in the abstract and he has a thousand stories about things he invented, tricks he played on the first gods, victories against hatred, ignorance, and greed that he won through applied cleverness. I think he's an ascended mortal. And in true D&D fashion, I think the other major demihuman deities are an adventuring party he recruited to oppose the three. Kord was chosen to counter Gruumsh - strength used for protection, self-improvement, recreation, and honest competition, as opposed to "defeat means death, and thus victory at any cost." Yollanda has most of Pelor's purview now, and she is bright and honest and nurturing, in contrast to Lolth's tendency to horde secrets, hide in darkness, and look out only for herself. And Moradin is a counter to Kurtulmak. The cunning god of hunger uses his intellect to accumulate and consume and prey on others, but Moradin is about using craft to multiply blessings, to make the whole community richer than it was before.

All the intelligent species honor the entire pantheon, but there are nuances. Collectively, they are called "the Four, the Three, and the Two," and there's disagreements about what the emphasis for mortal devotion should be. Like, most organized settlements will say that the Four are the only suitable objects of worship. You call upon Kord when you've got hard work you have to do, Yollanda when you have an injury that needs healing, a child that needs to be cared for, or a crop that needs tending, Moradin when you are trying to build or create something, and Corellon when you need to do something really well. The Three are frequently invoked under this paradigm, but furtively. It's dark magic, and technically forbidden, but people do forbidden things all the time. The Two are considered too abstract to be much concerned with mortal affairs. There's a paladin order that's dedicated to Bahamut, but he's more of an ideal than a patron.

(Incidentally, the demihuman gods work a bit differently here. Instead of various peoples being created by particular gods, they all just sort of emerged at the birth of the world. Corellon is associated with elves, because it's believed that Corellon was an ascended elf, likewise, Kord is traditionally an ascended human or orc, Yollanda an ascended goblin or halfling, and Moradin an ascended dwarf or gnome, though honestly, each of the gods has a hundred different depictions - the centaurs believe that all of the Four were originally Centaurs and that humans and horses came about because Corellon lost a bet with Lolth).

Although, that's not the only way people relate to the gods. Some people, not even particularly wicked people, put the Three at the heart of their religion. They are ultimately the terrible gods of nature that connect humanoid creatures with their animal roots. They are the law of survival, and groups that honor the Three often make the case that it dishonors their ancestors to act like the urges they relied on are somehow dark or dirty. They view the Three in a more naturalistic light, admiring Grummsh's fearlessness, Lolth's adaptability, and Kurulmak's pragmatism, and don't necessarily agree that surrendering themselves to the primal emotions automatically means they plan on victimizing other people.

Some people put the Two at the forefront, but it's considered a particularly intellectualized brand of theology, and thus mostly appropriate to theurgists, wizards, mystics, and dragons.

There's even a religion that speculates that there must have been a One, to precede the Two. Most people have a hard time denying that it would fit the pattern, but conventional wisdom says that if there is a One, it can have no particular properties because it has nothing to contrast itself against.

Well . . . um, I guess I wandered pretty far off course when talking about Complete Divine. That's because my overall opinion of the book was that it was pretty okay, provided you're willing to spot it D&D's ridiculous portrayal of religion. It's got a bunch of useful prestige classes, even if some of them borrow too much from medieval Christianity. The collection of feats and spells is attractive. I think the relic system has the same basic problem that crops up whenever D&D tries to do a new, themed category of magic items - the extra backstory behind the items makes them so much more interesting than default magic items that I wind up thinking I'd rather just change how magic items work than use this new category and the old-style items side-by-side.

In other words, I had very little to complain about, so I had to make something up.

Ukss Contribution: Armor of the Fallen Leaves. I just think it's a cool image.