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.

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