Saturday, April 27, 2024

(Shadowrun) Rigger 2

Hoo boy. This was tough. My level of investment started low and then it just stayed low, the entire time. I would turn a page and congratulate myself for enduring the trial of the Electronic Countermeasure rules, only to find myself facing the Electronic Counter Countermeasure rules. Is this punishment for my hubris? Is it a test of my faith in the beauty of rules-heavy systems? Or is it just that I decided I was going to try and read my Shadowrun books in something approaching order of publication, and because I didn't really understand the edition change when I bought Rigger 2 (Jonathan Szeto) and thus am burdened to read a rules-focused book before I read the game that I bought it for?

Actually, it's none of those things. It's more that I'd gotten used to thinking of Shadowrun books as metaplot driven pseudo-fiction and I forgot that some of them are actually here to work. The only way I was ever going to be invested emotionally in this book is if I were planning on playing a Rigger (or GMing for a rigger player) in a game of Shadowrun. Luckily, I don't need to be emotionally invested to have an opinion.

Now I just need to decide what my opinion actually is. The problem here is that to truly evaluate Rigger 2 you need to wade into one of the longest and most contentious controversies in the rpg discourse - rulings vs rules.

Eh, I feel a little dirty even writing that. Imagine me on the edge of a cliff, with arms outstretched, waiting for the incipient flames to take me. . . 

And now that the drama is out of my system, I can back this up with a quote: "The existing Shadowrun rules relegated the rigger to the status of a non-player character; not because his role was insufficiently thought-out, but because the rigger was not given enough rules within the system to spread his wings. . ."

That's probably as eloquent a summation of the pro-rules side as we're ever likely to see. The idea being that objective, pre-established rules are a way of enhancing player agency. If there's something you want your character to do, you can figure out how to do it and you don't have to ask permission. The book tells you directly what conditions you need to meet and what the outcome is likely to be. You can then trust yourself to the purity of the dice.

Rigger 2 also has the distinction of eloquently demonstrating the strongest counterargument to that approach. To wit, the bulk of the actual text. A particularly notable example: "Because of the special nature of the MSST (mobile subscriber simsense technology) system for remote control networks (the protocol remote-control decks use to communicate with their drones), the rules for electronic warfare against remote control networks differ from the rules for electronic warfare against standard radios (p 184, SRII) and the Electronic Countermeasures rules for Sensor Systems (see Electronic Countermeasures, p.31)."

I left the page references in not out of any passive aggressive urge to pad the quotation's length, but because they convey an essential piece of information - these three very similar activities, that are likely to be performed by a single character, under very similar sets of circumstances, are found in three different locations spanning two different books. And you have to know them all. That's the price you pay for purity.

The question then, is whether or not it's worth it. I think, in the case of Rigger 2, specifically, it probably is. Though my reason for thinking that is nothing more exalted than some intuitive behavioral profiling. I'm making some pretty big assumptions about the sort of player who really wants to play the getaway driver/techhead in a futuristic sci-fi/fantasy rpg. Like me, personally, maybe I would cry if my character was about to fly away in an airplane and the GM fired back with "all the airport has is low-grade fuel, and once you add the loot to the cargo bay, you're going to be overweight, so consult the tables on pages 82 and 83 to determine your overall fuel efficiency and then we'll cross-reference it with this topographical map to see if you can find a safe landing space within your flight range. But a person who really likes airplanes, on the other hand . . .

Wait, I think I might be finding my inspiration after all. Not as a gearhead, per se, but setting it out like that does speak to a longing I've experienced before. The strange urge to go full sim. I make fun of things like Sunward's Martian Time Zones, The Wilderness Survival Guide's fish protein percentage table, and Flying Circus's . . . um, variable weight airplane fuel efficiency calculations, but there's a part of me that gets it. No, more than gets it. Yearns for it. 

But there's always something that holds me back. I think it's the dread that I may one day have to look my friends in the eye, mid car chase, and ask "so who was wearing their seat belt?"

Because there are rules in Rigger 2 for wearing a seat belt. In order for those rules to be worth anything all, there has to be a circumstance in which it's beneficial to wear a seat belt. In order to apply those benefit, you have to establish whether the seat belt was being worn. And since this is a game largely driven by talking, you can only really establish that kind of preparedness by asking the players. But who would say "no" to that question? Most RPG players understand context. They're going to be able to figure out that the GM wouldn't be asking unless the seat belts were going to imminently become very important. There's no upside to not wearing one.

But it can't just be automatic, can it? The whole point of having this level of granularity is to provide options and tactical challenges. Maybe you do put in some benefit to not wearing a seat belt - (it's harder to shoot out the window, perhaps). But then, is the GM left to enforce that

If I recall, the last time I used these rules, the way I handled it was "roll an INT check to see if you remembered to buckle your seat belt," which always got a laugh at the table, but is probably bad game design. I probably should have just gotten into the habit of asking every time. It would have been a lot to keep track of, but that's part of the appeal of playing a deep-sim-type game, is it not?

Nonetheless, I can't help but think of the narrative I'd be creating. Even assuming I could muster the focus to remember to ask the question in advance and to remember the answers at the appropriate time and even assuming this was the sort of game my players wanted to play, and they weren't fixing to throttle me for my nitpicking - a truly faithful execution of the seat belt mechanic would require me to ask every time the players got in their vehicle and then for nothing to come of that question nine times out of ten. It completely undermines a simulation if there is a causal relationship between asking about seat belts and the car getting into an accident. Those events must be unconnected. Yet doing it that way flaunts the deepest and most fundamental storytelling rules. It's adding entirely superfluous information. In any halfway competent story "who's wearing their seat belt" is foreshadowing a crash. Because people only have so much bandwidth and so you have to respect that with an economy of detail.

The result is that however much I may fantasize about doing a nitty-gritty game with a million different subsystems, the thought of actually doing it for real scares the hell out of me. Shadowrun 3rd Edition is probably not going to be the game to cure me of this ambivalence, but I'm looking forward to seeing how the past 20 years have changed my perspective.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of perfectly fine vehicles in this book that completely fail to fit in with the aesthetics of Ukss thus far. I'm also at a loss for things like characters, locations, or political concepts that I could adapt (there are a couple of fiction pieces, but they're mostly a showcase for vehicles). Which means I'm going to have to do the thing where I reluctantly expand my vision of Ukss to fit something new.

I guess my favorite thing was a borderline slapstick image - using the Mana Wall spell to knock someone off the back of a motorcycle. See, in Shadowrun, mana spells only affect living creatures and completely ignore technological devices. So the motorcycle passes harmlessly through the barrier, but the rider runs smack into a wall. If something like that happened organically in one of your games, you'd talk about it more or less forever. (The way it interacts with enclosed vehicles is strange - so long as the mage can't see the passengers, the Mana Wall will not affect them, which is why it's vitally important in the Shadowrun universe to always have tinted windows).

I'm not sure how to turn this into a setting element, though. Therefore, I will instead just be adding motorcycles to Ukss. I owe them that much for their role in making me laugh in a book otherwise filled with dry vehicle statistics.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Player's Handbook

 Well, that wasn't as much of an ordeal as I originally feared. Though the Player's Handbook is a dry read, even under the best of circumstances, the impact was blunted by the knowledge of my imminent completion of another blog milestone.

I can't say for sure what exactly I was expecting to gain from the experience of reading this book, so soon (a mere 16 months!) after the 3.0 PHB, but I can say that I feel fully prepared to run a D&D 3.5 campaign. The rules, already familiar due to decades worth of adaptations, revisions, and deconstructions, are now etched ever so slightly deeper into my brain. It's a shame, then, that I only have, like, 20% of a desire to actually play the game.

I suppose I could take the opportunity here to just shut my yap for once, limit my remarks to "okay, so this is approximately 90% similar to a book I already read, and though there are noticeable improvements to various niche issues (rangers get 6 skill points per level now, crit-fishing builds have been nerfed by making keen effects non-stackable, spells are better organized and easier to reference) the fundamental flaws of the edition as a whole remain." 

And you know what? I think I will do that (this paragraph acknowledging my plan for uncharacteristic brevity notwithstanding). The 3.5 Players Handbook did actually inspire me to take notes and write commentary, but almost all of that commentary could have applied to the original PHB as well (like, why is the monk's Slow Fall ability so fucking useless - they're deliberately making it worse than an extremely niche 1st level spell). If I didn't say it the first time round, is it really necessary to say it on my second chance? Am I really so in love with the sound of my own voice that I need to write nearly identical commentary on nearly identical books?

Um, let's not think too hard about the answer to that question. I've still got two more of these core books to go.

Ukss Contribution: Monks get an ability called Tongue of the Sun and Moon that has an unusually simple natural language description - "A monk of 17th level or higher can speak with any living creature." 

That's literally all of the rules guidance we're given. For an ability with absolutely staggering philosophical implications. Apparently, there's just a random Nobilis-style power tucked away where no one will ever encounter it, as a high level class feature of a single-class monk. It's such an un-3.5 detail to include, particularly in a class that very conspicuously doesn't get access to Feather Fall.

As a fantasy element, I love it. Refined mystics who can communicate with animals and plants and every human or nonhuman culture. They won't necessarily be martial artists in Ukss, but they will have a monastery.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

(Shadowrun) Mob War!

Organized crime occupies a strange niche in the cyberpunk genre (and arguably real life). The megacorporations are above the law. The biggest ones have literal extraterritoriality, allowing them to write their own laws within the confines of their facilities. So why wouldn't the mafia's traditional businesses - drugs, gambling, prostitution, etc - just be another product for the megacorps to package and sell? BTLs (better than life chips, shadowrun's censor-friendly sci-fi drug stand-in) may be illegal in UCAS territory, but is there any reason you couldn't just walk into the Renraku arcology and buy them off the shelf? Maybe you have to use them on-site, but that's just another profit opportunity, really.

Although, this works the other way too. What's to stop the existing criminal cartels from designing their own letterhead, issuing stock, and becoming true megacorporations themselves? They already shroud themselves in the trappings of legitimate business, for purposes of money laundering. If the general direction of the economy is trending towards corporate lawlessness, wouldn't that mean that organized crime and international corporations would gradually converge? As the corps start hiring shadowrunners to commit crimes on their behalf, the criminals become more and more mainstream until it's impossible to tell the difference?

It might be an issue of scale. It's hard to research exact figures online, but even if you use the larger estimates, groups like the mafia and the yakuza have a fraction of the revenue of the biggest corporations. A hundred billion a year would not get you onto the top 50. . . but it might get you close enough to be a valuable acquisition for one of the big players.

Mob War! (Stephen Kenson) at one point speculates that all of the Japanese megacorporations have been infiltrated by the Yakuza, and that criminals are calling the shots at Mitsuhama, in particular, but how realistic is this? The reverse situation seems more likely. At most, they could be a highly-organized faction of shareholders, but would they even want MCT to do anything besides its usual business? If the criminals were really in charge, would you even be able to tell?

It presents a challenge for me as a potential Shadowrun GM, because the PCs are criminals for hire, in a criminal subculture, and they usually work for the megacorporations as deniable assets, but this book posits a series of adventures where they work for organized crime instead, and I can't quite figure out what the dynamic is supposed to be. What is the mafia's social and economic niche? Why does it matter that Seattle's capo was assassinated?

Near as I can tell, they're the biggest fish in a small pond. If you're a regular criminal, like the PCs, you have to tread carefully around them, because they're organized enough to ruin your day, even if you successfully kill some of their goons. But if that's the case, it's unclear why they wouldn't just monopolize the shadowrunning racket like they do with vice? Why is Mr Johnson going to a random dive bar to hire freelancers when they could instead drop a few choice words to a "business associate" in the comfort of their country club and then know that the situation will be taken care of by someone on the boss's regular payroll?

I think it's a case where sci-fi is just recapitulating the modern world without really examining it. The mafia exists and are kind of the scary apex predators of the criminal underworld because that's how it worked in the 1990s, when Mob War! was written. You've got the independents doing whatever hustles they can and above them the street gangs, who control territory and watch each others' backs, so you don't want to mess with them, and then above them are the true syndicates - the mafia, the yakuza, the triads - who are able to call upon international resources and large numbers of full-time professionals. 

But that only really makes sense in a world where crime is illegal. When the megacorps are immune to consequences, then maybe the mafia is just another mid-tier corp to take over and subsequently hollow out. You're not buying drugs from the mafia, you're buying Mafia (tm)- brand drugs, manufactured by Aztechnology, available at Stuffer Shacks across the nation! Just circle round to the back alley and "Ask for Rocco" (tm)!

I should be kinder, though. It's tough to satirize capitalism in a way that is not immediately eclipsed by the absurd reality of the contemporary world.

So let's assume that it makes sense for the mafia to exist in the world of Shadowrun and that you can know what they're like by watching literally any mafia movie. If that's the case, then Mob War! gives you the tools to make a pretty good mafia movie. The don is killed and his daughter comes back from Harvard Law School to buck tradition, take over the family business, and get revenge, all the while dodging traitorous underlings, aggrieved traditionalists, and rivals from competing syndicates. I'd watch that movie.  It also makes perfect sense that in this situation, the normally closed-off criminal organizations would want to bring in freelance criminals to fill some of the gaps. It's a satisfying premise for an adventure that is executed well . . .

From a certain point of view. Personally, I have no issues with the way Mob War! does things. It's not technically an adventure. It's just a single event and a list of various factions and NPCs who are reacting to this event. Its main use is to run a sandbox campaign in the aftermath of the mob boss' assassination, and while it has a couple dozen suggestions for specific adventures, those suggestions are incredibly bare bones (the book itself is only 64 pages long, which is why my post took a swerve straight from the start). Normally, I'd whine about having to do most of the work by myself, but in this case the suggestions are so tightly related, and tied to detailed, interesting NPCs that they really do feel very helpful for building a starting situation. It's not like those drive-by adventure hooks that leave me frustrated by highlighting a gap in the setting ("Ooh, what's at the bottom of the mysterious dungeon . . . you have the power to decide"). Most of my lingering questions are about the future - i.e. the thing that's going to be highly dependent on how the PCs deal with the starting situation.

Overall, I'd say that I really enjoyed Mob War! It hits a good sweet spot for a metaplot-driven rpg supplement, where it really shakes up the status quo, but it doesn't make you feel like you're playing a whole new game. Even if you'd been involved in a long-running Shadowrun game where the PCs worked for the mafia and developed a major personal relationship with James O'Malley, the players are going to be emotionally prepared for the possibility that he's been assassinated off-screen. That sort of thing happens to mafia bosses all the time. So it's got a weird thing going on where the more it disrupts your existing game, the more it makes your game resemble the genre it's emulating. Definitely a top-tier supplement.

Ukss Contribution: My choice today is a kind of silly detail that nonetheless tickled me greatly - the boss of the Yakuza has an estranged daughter who fled from home and became a shadowrunner. Her birth name: Keiko. Her street handle: Kiku. I get that it's "a play on her real name" but that's the opposite of what an alias is supposed to do. I can't help but think that she'd be an incredibly funny NPC for the players to try and set straight.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Champion

Dungeons & Dragons is an odd beast, because I have a lot of D&D books. It was my first game. It is, by dollar value anyway, my most-collected game. It was, for a long time, my most-played game (I've got an inkling that Exalted may have surpassed it, though I don't have precise figures). It's probably the game I'd have the best change of recreating from memory, if that was ever required of me for some reason. Hell, I chose the d20 system as the basis for Ukss Plus, the most elaborate rpg shitpost since Dungeons: the Dragoning 40k 7th Edition, and even as a joke, you don't write a quarter of a million words because you hate the subject matter. 

And yet, despite all that, I'm permanently at war with the game's implied setting. It never fails. Every time they show me something from the blobby, half-formed recesses of inchoate D&D-land, my first thought is "well, that's something I'm going to need to fix." I think it's because, more than any other rpg setting I own (including approximately half a dozen official D&D campaign worlds), D&D-land has that "designed by committee" feeling. It's a consequence of being the first and the biggest. So many ideas, from so many sources, get dumped into the trough and in one sense, everything that makes its way into a book is D&D, but in another sense, people will write the books in an attempt to fit in with existing D&D, and the result is that you begin to treat paths of least resistance as if they were some kind of grand master plan. So the implied D&D setting, the product identity of the brand, if you will, is half made up of weird one-off ideas so memorable that they were preserved long after the death of their context and the other half is areas of smoothness, where ideas passed from hand-to-hand have been polished into a kind of flatness that betrays deep biases and cultural assumptions.

Case in point: Complete Champion. This is one of those late-period 3.5 books where they're just really good at making Dungeons & Dragons supplements. The edition changeover is just a few months away, and at last they know how to write for 3.5. You want to play a character who is a divine champion of one of D&D-land's various default gods? You're going to find a lot of useful material for doing that, some of which is even competitive with just taking extra levels in cleric or druid (on the lower end of optimization, let's not go wild here).

But it's also about the religion of D&D-land. And the religion of D&D-land is . . . well, not Christianity, exactly, but like . . . various extruded substances poured into a Christianity-shaped mold, and the final result is . . . something. It's like, religion without theology, without culture, without history, without art. A thing in the shape of a religion, but without substance.

Maybe that's fair. Maybe we aren't going into D&D for stories of great substance. Slap a cassock on that guy, give him an Aspergilum (a new vocabulary word that I'm likely to immediately forget), and have him shoot lasers at a zombie. That's enough for the game's limited ambitions.

It just feels a little off. Halflings have tent revivals. What are they reviving? The eternal and unanimous worship of Yondalla, the goddess of halfling supremacy?

No, that's unfair, all of the "racial" gods are offputtingly militant. Corellon's "church" (every god has a church, which I'm choosing to interpret as a broad term for "any religiously motivated form of social organization") has an absolutely hair-raising approach to Drow: "killing Drow is holy work, because each dark elf soul sent to the Abyss is another step towards completing the work begun by Corellon Larethian so long ago."


All told, Complete Champion is a competent execution of an area of the implied setting that I have particularly little use for. It comes from being an atheist, I think. My approach to fantasy religion is culture-first. This is an activity that human beings (and human-like creatures) engage in, and so it's always something the society needs, or wants to express about itself, or, in my more cynical moments, is burdened with. The truth or falsity of a particular belief is irrelevant.

Digression: this is another reason that I favor doing away with the arcane/divine split. Wizards are often theurgists who use spiritual and religious reasoning and people who work divine miracles often wind up being a lot like secular magic users, whether the theology is on their side or not. In either case, the validity (or "truth" if you prefer) of a religious belief is orthogonal to the pragmatic power of a magical practice. There's a very thin line between binding a demon to servitude by speaking its seven secret names and gaining power from a god by prayer and a pledge of service. The notion that the relationship between god and worshipper must be one of genuine reverence and not a transactional bargain for services rendered is characteristic of modern monotheism and not necessarily something you even want to translate into an rpg.

Anyway, D&D throws a serious wrench into religion-as-worldbuilding-element by insisting that each and every religion must be associated with a literal god that definitely, truly exists. So religion in D&D-land isn't primarily a cultural phenomenon and does not necessarily serve human needs.  Not only does this lead to shallow worldbuilding on the face of it, it also places an incredible amount of pressure on the gods themselves to be charismatic enough (IRL, to the readers) to make an organization staffed by their flunkies seem like a vital part of a living world. Not all of them are able to pull this off.

I was probably never going to love Complete Champion, but I do respect it. The prestige classes take some interesting chances, design-wise, such as having multiple different classes for a single NPC organization, so that characters with different classes can approach the same concept from different starting positions. As a reader, I prefer it when the Prestige classes are all distinct, but having two or three different interpretations really helps when centering a campaign around a particular organization. You don't need to be a spellcaster to benefit from membership in the Paragnostic Assembly. You can simply be an Initiate instead of an Apostle (although, the main ability of Initiates is "assist casting", which I kind of hate).

I've now read all of the Complete* books, many of 3.X's most prominent supplements, and a bunch of obsolete 3.0 material. All I have left is specific campaign settings - Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Eberron. Looking back at the edition as a whole, I think I love it, but in a really backhanded way. I enjoy what it might (and will) become, but a lot of what it actually was, doesn't really hold up. The math (and the balance issues created by that math) undermines the game's ambition to become a universal toolkit, but I absolutely adore that it had that ambition. This was an edition that did not recognize its own limitations, even when it really should have, and I think that energy is infectious. 

Ukss Contribution: Dragon Rubies. A dragon eats a gemstone. Later, it shits that gemstone out. Thanks to its harrowing journey, the gem has magic powers now. Be sure to wash your hands after handling one.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

(Shadowrun) Portfolio of a Dragon: Dunkelzahn's Secrets

I had a hard time concentrating on the fantastic conceit of Portfolio of a Dragon (Steve Kenson, Mike Colton, Todd Bolling, Jon F Zeigler). I was too distracted with thoughts of wealth inequality.

I mean, it's not as if I didn't care about the book's plot. A dragon is elected President of the United Canadian and American States! He is promptly assassinated on the night of his inauguration! Everyone's a suspect! Ooh, he left a mysterious will!

It's just, he leaves behind an open-ended bequest to whoever can develop communications between humans and dolphins, elephants, and/or satyrs that includes "the Cayman Island of their choice." It shouldn't really be possible for a person to own something like that, let alone give it away as a prize in an inventing contest. Even in a cyberpunk universe where the ultimate rule is that of the almighty dollar, it seems . . . excessive. I get that they were trying to go for a modern take on the gleaming dragon hoard, but damn, this guy owns Prince Edward Island (generously returned to the UCAS government), a lost da Vinci notebook, and several original Shakespeare folios? He should not have been allowed to own those things. I feel like even admitting to possessing them could very reasonably be interpreted as a mishandling of antiquities and a crime against the global heritage. And what on Earth gives him the right to bequeath Excalibur to Harlequin, of all people? It's not even in his possession. He had to offer a bounty to whoever could find it.

Then again, his will also disbursed funds to pay for an assassination, so I have to figure that the legalities here are deep into the realm of speculative fiction.

Nonetheless, it somewhat irks me that even the signature "good guy" dragon is such a hoarder. I guess that's part of the whole dragon shtick, though. They are a metaphor for greed, relentless accumulators who can never be satisfied and who barely seem to appreciate or enjoy the riches they've gathered. Dunkelzahn could have replaced the random car he destroyed at any time. He didn't have to make restitution as a bequest in his will. But apparently, he just couldn't stand to part with his 1964 -1/2 candy apple red Ford Mustang convertible while he was alive. . . 

Although, it occurs to me that maybe he replaced the car at the time of the incident and then on the occasion of his death decided that the person whose car he totaled would be a good destination for his much nicer personal car. That's not how it comes across in the text, but it's a valid interpretation. But even with the benefit of the doubt, this whole will thing comes across as someone trying to pull strings and exert control even from beyond the grave. When you consider the tiny size of his bequests, relative to the speculated size of his fortune (estimated to be around 100 trillion nuyen, with an average bequest size of a few million nuyen), well, maybe it's a bit of overdue characterization. Perhaps Dunkelzah was not as different from other dragons as he liked to pretend.

It's something that tracks if you dig into the game's Earthdawn connections (and if you're a fan of those kinds of easter eggs, this is definitely a book you want to read). Mountainshadow, the 4th age dragon most likely to be Dunkelzahn, was aristocratic and haughty, and was strange among his cohort for relying so heavily on humanoid agents, but he never really thought of them as equals. His transformation into a charming talk show guest and approachable man-of-the-people always struck me as a minor inconsistency, but I'm getting a picture here of a guy with a massive stick up his ass who nonetheless wants to convince people he's chill. He's not, as evinced by the fact that even in his will he gives away less than 1 percent of his fortune (and even this figure is skewed by one guy who got 30 billion nuyen and the assumption that things like Prince Edward Island and the megacorp stock transfers are in the 10s of billions range - I'm not sure the author of that one line quite understood how big 100 trillion actually is).

I could see it as something of an arc. Perhaps the events of the last 8000 years have humbled him and he was in the process of becoming the person he was pretending to be. It's a tough call, because the "master manipulator" archetype is usually villain-coded, but theoretically, there's nothing stopping a hero from using similar methods (in much the same way that someone who was really good at fighting and constantly solved problems by punching people in the face would be insufferable in real life, but in rpgs, they're like 90% of the characters you're ever going to play). Still, at the risk of armchair psychoanalyzing a fictional dragon based on nothing but a few scraps of lore and the contents of his (dubiously legal) will, I'd say that need for control, along with its accompanying conviction that you deserve to exercise that control, is a major character flaw that needs to be corrected. There's a fine line between "social responsibility" and "aristocratic paternalism" and it's not clear the Dunkelzahn is on the right side of it.

Of course, this is Shadowrun we're talking about and things being "not clear" is right in its wheelhouse. I can't be entirely mad at Portfolio of a Dragon for being an rpg murder mystery that leaves a bunch of unanswered questions, because answering those questions is one of the goals of playing the game. But I can say that it's one of those cases where ambiguity works at cross purposes to nuance. Is this mystery actually solvable? Is the Draco Foundation working on some kind of posthumous master plan or not? What's the deal with the Jade Dragon of Wind and Fire? I'd feel better if I had more to work off of than a series of writing prompts.

But would that leave enough room for FASA's signature style of punctuating their in-character narration with unproductive asides from the peanut gallery? Seriously, one exchange of comments was "What's the point of this bedtime story?" answered by "Read to the end of the paragraph, drekhead." Well observed. I really feel like I'm on a lightly moderated message board (Captain Chaos is definitely one of those "free speech" mods - when someone complained about a pro-Humanis post, he threatened to ban the complainer for "name-calling." Ah, the 90s.) But is reading this really helping me to better GM an adventure based on Dunkelzahn's will?

Maybe a little. I guess it helps to get into the Shadowrun mindset. I think as a reader, though, I'd prefer more of that hot goss. 

In the end, Portfolio of a Dragon performs better than average on that metric, so I can unreservedly recommend it, even if I think there was more fascinating content to be mined from Pesident Dragon.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked that the main headquarters of the Wuxing corporation were designed with a strict eye towards Feng Shui. My understanding is that this is a real practice that was less known to the American mainstream in the 90s (Shadowrun really dropped the ball when it came to predicting China's role as a major 21st century economic power), but I enjoy it in this context because it's implied that shaping the building's chi will lead to tangible monetary benefits, and that blend of magic and cyberpunk is the soul of the game.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Scoundrel

You know, maybe the true Scoundrels were the friends we made along the way. . . I say, because Complete Scoundrel (Mike McArtor and F. Wesely Schneider) never makes it entirely clear what, exactly, it thinks a "scoundrel" is. Broadly, I think a "scoundrel" (per this book) is supposed to be anyone who is quick-witted, strategic, and sometimes a little bit sneaky. But that really does just describe something like 90% of all D&D characters.

The book must be aware of this, though, because the inspirational media section is all over the place. Like, okay, I'll give you Indiana Jones, but Captain Kirk is a stretch, and Aragorn is a fundamental misread of the character. Then I got into the first chapter and the book starts pitching scoundrels of every alignment and every class and for a second, it annoyed me. I mean, I'm actually kind of intrigued by the idea of a Paladin with scoundrel-ish elements, but, also, there is a definite thematic tension there. Is the Paladin overcoming a scoundrel-y past? Are they using their scoundrel skill to compensate for a deficit of martial strength? Are they slowly losing the plot, re: their holy oath, performing underhanded deeds for the sake of "the greater good?" These are interesting questions, but perhaps they are too interesting for this drive-by treatment and even the Gray Guard prestige class (concept: a Paladin that's allowed to . . . generously interpret their oath for purposes of special operations) seems more like it's trying to substitute class mechanics for a literary theme. In any event, when it started talking about "Lawful Good scoundrels" my knee-jerk reaction was "is it even possible for a character not to be a scoundrel, under this book's definition?"

Eventually, however, I chilled the fuck out and just got on board with the book's jargon. And I'm glad I did, because it's a solid late addition to the game. It's a weird quirk of D&D 3.x that, despite having the most useless niche in the game, the rogue-focused books tend to have the strongest fantasy flavor. I think it comes down to the fact that "highly skilled, but basically mundane, with maybe one or two specific magical abilities" is more or less the quintessential fantasy fiction protagonist. So when you deviate from that ever so slightly, as one might do when designing a prestige class, you wind up with characters and organizations that are ideally suited for complex worldbuilding. The Psibond Agents aren't nearly as powerful as a Telepath Psion, but "what if there were people who could hijack your senses and the strongest of them could subtly nudge you with telepathic suggestions" is a premise that you could base a novel around. And sure, in the balance of the game as a whole, it's kind of a rip-off that skill-based characters have to expend valuable resources to become good at highly specific niche abilities whereas full casters can learn a variety of spells that each have comparable or superior utility (for example, a Psibond Agent needs to be an 11th level character to get Suggestion, but a telepath can get it at level 3 and a bard or wizard can get it at level 5), but when it comes to making good fiction, I really want these more focused magical elements. Give me a neat core ability that explores deeper into its implications as the character grows in power, rather than a grab-bag list of powers that aren't necessarily (or even likely to be) related to each other thematically.

When it comes down to evaluating the book as a whole, I'm torn. The best possible way to play D&D 3.5 is with a party made up of nothing but C-tier classes and if you're doing that, Complete Scoundrel adds a lot. But are you really going to do that? Because if you aren't, then Complete Scoundrel is just a bunch of new C-tier material. The Rod of Ropes is a super cool magic item that shoots grappling hooks and zip lines, but it's never going to compete with the ability to fly. Likewise, skill tricks fill a long-overlooked niche in D&D fantasy by allowing characters with sufficient ranks in a particular skill to access more efficient or effective actions (such as leaping off a horse and attacking an enemy on the way down), but the chosen power level - slightly weaker than feats with similar prerequisites - is the opposite of what it should be. There really needs to be more support for martial characters evolving into "peak human" superheroes at high levels, and Complete Scoundrel never quite gets there.

I guess my approach to these kinds of books is to view them as transitional fossils. We're less than a year and a half away from 4th edition at this point, the new mechanics are probably in a late stage of development, 3.5 is reaching the end of its lifespan, and that is the context for Complete Scoundrel. In that context, what's most interesting to me is how little 4e actually wound up in this book. I know it's theoretically possible, because Book of Nine Swords has been out for awhile, but it looks like maybe that was a one-off. We get references to the Spellthief and the Beguiler, but not the Swordsage. A real pity. What that says to me, though, is that this is a dying branch of the game. More 3.5 after 3.5 as a whole became moribund.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite read that way. There's no real sense of throwing caution to the wind. If I didn't know better, I'd say they were planning on continuing 3.x support for another decade, at least. But if we don't get the wild experimentation of people with nothing left to lose, at least we don't also get a half-assed effort from people who've given up hope. I think the Cloaked Dancer, Master of Masks, Mountebank, and Malconvoker (a demon summoner who's deluded into thinking they can be harnessed to serve the cause of good) are great additions to the game. Likewise, many of the magic items and legendary locations would make for great loot (though maybe only the Frog God's Fane and Iron Wyrm Vault could anchor an adventure by themselves . . . and possibly also the Highest Spire, if you fleshed out the pre-competition intrigue and trash talking). 

Overall, I'd say that Complete Scoundrel is a mature D&D 3.5 supplement, with setting flavor and game mechanics done as well as 3.5 ever did. I'll leave it to you to decide whether that's a recommendation or not.

Which just leaves us with one last order of business - surprise Planescape content!

Yep, one of Sigil's factions makes it into the book as a "scoundrel organization." It's kind of a shock, because as far as I know, this is an isolated incident. None of the other "Complete" books have gone into Planescape lore. And certainly, of the scattered references that pop up from time to time, I've not yet seen a recap of Faction War. So it's very clearly an intentional and loving callback to a classic campaign setting.

And yet, the faction they chose to bring back was The Free League, aka the Indeps aka the "none of the above" faction. Their leadership has been banished to an extradimensional maze, they have fled the city of Sigil, and now they are headquartered in the Outlands where they advance the cause of freedom by . . . not doing much at all, really. They are such big believers in freedom that they have no dues, no resources, no operations, no leadership, and no responsibilities. To join, you simply start wearing their symbol and maybe you, I don't know, oppose tyranny or something, when the opportunity presents itself, and maybe some shopkeepers will see your symbol and give you a discount or feed you rumors. 

I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, here. I'm really, genuinely glad that someone is keeping the torch burning on one my favorite rpg settings (seriously, all the shit-talking I've done about it comes from a place of love), but why these guys, in particular? The only thing that ever kept them together was their self-appointed role as Sigil's defiant political outsiders. It was a running joke. They were the faction that was in denial about being a faction. Take Sigil and the other factions away from them and what's left?

Not much, as it turns out. I guess it was good to see them, but it was the rpg equivalent to running into one of your brother's high-school friends at the supermarket. You vaguely remember having roughly positive interactions with them, and then at some point you'll squint and say, "hey, didn't I play D&D with you that one time?"

Ukss Contribution: This book does one thing that I absolutely adore and wish more rpg supplements would do - it illustrates its concepts and mechanics through these delightful minifictions. Hey, they're talking about a thieves' guild, let's take a peek at one of the guild's secret correspondences. My favorite appears early on. A king is being manipulated by his (dare I say) scoundrel of an advisor - "a cat-sized dragonling."

ZOMG! Sooo cuute! I want one so bad!

Ahem. In any event, there will be some nation of Ukss where the power behind the throne is an unnaturally cunning baby dragon.