Thursday, May 30, 2024

(d20) Crusades of Valor

So here's the thing about fantasy roleplaying - it's kind of ridiculous. We can say all we want that we're participating in a modern-day version of the ancient tradition of communal storytelling. That we are carrying a torch passed from ancestor to ancestor since the earliest homo sapiens first learned to imagine the world not as it was, but as it could be. That it is a shared experience - of friendship, of creativity, of culture in its purest form.

And it can be that, sometimes. In fact, I'd say that on balance it's more enrching and fulfilling than about 90% of the stuff I do on any given day. But also, we are goofy little nerds who make up silly little bits of fluff and gossamer, stream-of-consciousness-style, with nothing even approaching a polished artistic style (it's why I took to blogging so easily).

Nowhere have I seen this dichotomy more eloquently laid out than in Crusades of Valor (Paul Cockburn). This is a goofy, goofy book inspired by a terrible historical atrocity. The "crusades" mentioned in the title may be off-brand fantasy knockoffs, but the shadow of the real Crusades looms large, both in the writing and in the aesthetics of the art. The cover has armored men on horseback, flying the Polish flag. The afterword rues the victims of September 11th. We are meant to think about the Crusades.

But what the book is about is fantasy religious wars in general. Like maybe one side follows the god of the sun and another follows the goddess of spiders (proper nouns from standard D&D canon are nowhere to be seen, but it wasn't hard to pick up on the winking) and you sort of arbitrarily assign one the role of Christianity and the other the role of Islam.

(Or, at least, I'm willing to meet the book halfway and assume it's arbitrary. Among the sample knightly orders there is a group of evil orc, goblin, and hobgoblin knights who call themselves "the Jihad" and that's not a great look.)

The end result is that you can see both halves of the essential RPGer paradox - the book takes itself extremely seriously, as befits its extremely serious subject matter, but also there are gnomes and shit.

Awhile back I read the AD&D Crusades sourcebook, about the literal historical crusades, and my reaction was essentially, "It's really uncomfortable to roleplay in this particular bit of history, I'd rather not do it, but I appreciate that they went through the trouble of shutting down the 'Deus Vult' crap." By contrast, this book is about nothing real, but its "Deus Vult" energy is off the fucking charts.

Is that okay? There's a part of me that feels like I should be a scold about this and say that it's wrong to cast a silly fantasy story in the shape of a real horror, but there's another part of me that's like, "hey, that's what roleplaying is, isn't it?" Thwarting villainous deeds will inevitably harken back to real crimes because our notions of what is and is not villainous are formed in reality. Even the super-made-up stuff like a necromancer stealing souls and animating the dead can evoke the imagery of serial killers and abusers.

Yet there is a spectrum of uncomfortableness here. Having the PCs fight a dozen goblins who have taken to banitry along the King's Road feels a lot less icky than fighting a dozen goblins marching up the King's Road under the banner of Jihad. I think it's because the former case allows you to gloss over the implicit racial coding. It's not a clash of civilizations, you're just responding to a particular set of circumstances. Except that just about every iteration of D&D has really leaned into the "clash of civilizations" mindset and used that as an explanation for why the unfortunate circumstances with the goblins just keep on happening.

So, in a way, I'd be something of a hypocrite if I didn't like Crusades of Valor.

Hmm. . .

Anyway, there were parts of the book I liked. It's engagingly written and has a good breakdown of how these sorts of identitarian conflicts can gradually escalate. There's some good advice on how to treat the pre-war period as a time of looming dread. The apocalyptic imagery of gods clashing as their respective human followers wage war down below is quite evocative. I'm really impresed with the idea that a fantasy crusade can presage a breakdown of the natural order.

The book's biggest flaw, apart from perhaps its central premise, is that a couple of pages feature these gratuitous and out-of-place pictures of naked women. They weren't particularly offensive, but they did wind up changing the book's whole vibe, and not for the better. 

Overall, I thought this book was overly niche. Despite its attempts at abstraction, it really doubles down on treating every D&D religion like it was medieval Catholicism, like, in a way that goes way beyond the usual careless subtext. I can't imagine it would have very much to offer a setting that went out of its way to avoid that trope. You might get some mileage out of the include mass combat system (and the GM advice for running a wartime game is pretty solid), but it's barebones. I think, if you have need of something like this, you could do worse, but I can't imagine myself every having that particular need.

Ukss Contribution: The Order of Glass. They're the knighly crusader order who are sworn to protect the honor of the God of Thieves, which doesn't actually make a lot of sense, but I do like the name.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Coyote & Crow

 Coyote & Crow put me in the difficult position of having to compartmentalize my usual nitpicking. I have a long and well-documented habit of reading a sci-fi or fantasy rpg, laser-focusing on one little bit of setting minutae (like lunar waste management or whether or not gnomes can fuck now) and turning it into a whole thing. And if I did that with this book, it would have been perfectly consistent with my established character, but it would also have been highly problematic. 

Because more than just about any other book I've read, Coyote & Crow reads as a deeply personal labor of love. This isn't just a science-fantasy rpg about an alternate history where the European colonization of the Americas never happened. It's also an attempt to rebut the ideology of colonialism, both as a general historical and cultural force and as one of the unspoken pillars of the modern fantasy genre.

So I could have my usual fun of getting into the weeds of something like the setting's canonical lack of artillery or weaponized high explosives and the serious implications that would have had for the role of defensive fortifications in the All Tribes War. But that would run the risk of me spinning off into a neck-bearded rant about how, actually, the European way of doing things was inevitable. And I don't want to do that.

Besides, Coyote & Crow isn't really that type of alternate world sci-fi. Properly speaking, a lot of the miraculous technology is powered by unobtanium. Seven hundred years prior to the game's starting date, an event known as The Awis (Darkest Night) occurred. It was a massive meteor strike that led to a disruption of global climate patterns and a dramatic advance of the arctic permafrost. One of the side-effects of this is that all over the world, plants and animals gained purple markings called the Adanadi. With the proper application of advanced biotechnology, the Adanadi can be manipulated to create wondrous effects - superhuman abilities in humans and the antigravity fields that power hovering vehicles. 

The result is something that strays pretty far afield from a hard sf premise of "an advanced society that explored a different branch of the tech tree" and into the science fantasy territory of "this macguffin has the exact properties necessary to advance the plot." The hovering yutsu barges carry corn-derived biological feed stock for solar-powered 3D printers over meticulously managed wilderness, and at no point is anything like a road, mine, or factory necessary to this process. 

And maybe that sounds like a worldbuilding complaint, but it really isn't. It's more a recognition that the important stuff here is the aesthetic and the ideological. This is a world designed to be conspicuously non-European, to operate on an idealized indigenous mindset. For all its weakness at being alt-history sci-fi, it's actually pretty great utopian sci-fi.

I should probably unpack this a little, because Coyote & Crow takes deliberate pains to point out that its world is not utopian. And that's true if you're using "utopia" to mean "perfect paradise," but it's right in the wheelhouse of utopian sci-fi as a literary genre. The afterward, where Connor Alexander denies creating a utopia, actually does a pretty good job of summing up the difference:

If it feels like a utopia to you, maybe because Cahokia has no homeless, no involuntary unemployment, no people in debt over health care, no minorities being marginalized for their sexuality, no people going hungry, it may be because you’re not asking the right “what if” question. Try this one. What if we didn’t live under centuries of racist colonial capitalism? It doesn’t mean we’d live in a utopia. But it might mean that humans would be free to tackle bigger, more meaningful questions during our brief time on this planet.

Utopian fiction, as a genre, is an exercise in moral imagination. It doesn't have to be a world where all humanity's problems are solved, it just needs to posit a world where a different form of social organization, and its accompanying ideology, allow humanity to avoid problems that, to us, seem intractable. Despite the developer's protestations, the city-state of Cahokia, in particular, is idyllic to the point of outright romanticism.

The source of this idyll just so happens to be the fact that Cahokia is organized along a sort of idealized indigenous social schema - self-sufficient multi-generational households that practice traditional crafts (the 3D printers can create generic parts for most common technologies, but they still must be assembled and customized by the end user) and whose cultural expression favors community engagement over solitary activities. There's no real place for the anonymization of urban life, nor for capitalist alienation and the exploitation of labor. Nowhere is this system critiqued or interrogated. At one point the book says, "a vocal minority claims that The Council and the judges play favorites at best, and are deeply corrupt at worst," but there's nothing to indicate whether or not the minority actually has a point.

That's not a fault, by the way. I'd actually say that on the idealism/cynicism scale, Cahokia probably ranks roughly equivalent to Aldea from Blue Rose - it's a place that's got its shit together, so games are mostly going to focus on preserving and defending the status quo, but it's not actually a problem that threats are largely external and/or rare antisocial aberrations. Not everything has to be punk.

The comparison to Blue Rose does put me in mind of Coyote & Crow's one true weakness, however. I kind of got the feeling that the creators were operating on a shallow reference pool, re: other extant rpgs. It's just a hunch. A couple of times, they'd say something along the lines of "unlike other roleplaying games," while talking about something relatively common and it would feel like they were really saying, "unlike this one specific rpg, you know the one." I appreciate a story-focused game that eschews combat for social interaction, clever solutions, and compromise, but that's not actually as rare as the Storyguide advice seems to think.

Overall, I'd say that Coyote & Crow's system is . . . decent. It's like a streamlined version of the classic storyteller system with dramatically pared-down combat. The most novel part of it is that it uses d12s for its dice pools and the extra dice you get from rolling 12s have their successes scored in kind of a quirky way. I'm not a great fan of rolling variable dice pools against variable target numbers and subtracting one success for every die that shows a 1, but it's functional in practice. Most of the problems with that set-up come from edge cases anyways. It will probably be fine.

My final thoughts - I'm glad that Coyote & Crow exists and I'm happy to have read it. It's rare for me to finish a 450 page core book in 2 days (even accounting for the book's larger-than-usual print size) and that's almost entirely down to the novelty of the world and the boldness of its central idea. It's good to be exposed to a genuinely new perspective and the world of Makasing presents some unique roleplaying opportunities. I could definitely see myself running a game, though I'll admit that I found myself much more drawn to places like Ti'Swaq or the Ezcan Empire, which had more familiar forms of class conflict or imperial aggression. 

Ukss Contribution: Little known fact about me - I love elephants. I just find them absolutely fascinating animals that have a lot to teach us about the convergent evolution of intelligence. Which is why there's only one thing that I could possibly choose from Coyote & Crow - Moobi Mosii - i.e. "Grasps With Nose." Intelligent wooly mammoths.

My notes literally say, "ZOMG!"

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Encyclopedia of Angels

You do any job long enough and you're practically guaranteed to see something utterly bizarre, bordering on the inexplicable, that maybe the average civilian wouldn't even think to question, because they have little intuition for the boundaries of the possible. Encyclopedia of Angels is just such a mystery. It's a series of baffling decisions, and I'm not sure how it came to be. 

Let's start at the beginning, with the cover.

This cover has nothing to do with anything. And maybe you're chiding me right now, for having an embarrassing lack of cynicism. "Oh, John, we all know why they put a pretty, half-naked lady on the cover. Why are you pretending not to understand this transparently sweaty marketing?"

And I guess the reason for my willful naivete is the fact that the book is called Encyclopedia of Angels. No one who's interested in that title is going to give two shits about a cheesecake cover. In fact, it would be an active detriment, because there's nothing happening on that cover that at all resembles what you hope will happen when you add an angel to your D&D game. And, indeed, the cover is a poor representation of the text, which, with maybe one or two exceptions, is barely sweaty at all (and to the degree that it is, that's more down to the fact that 9 out 10 of these angels are depicted as hot guys with wings).

But it's weird, right? The target audience for this supplement is going to hope that the cover is a lie. And, in fact, the cover is a lie. But it was also a choice. It makes me wonder, did the person who picked this cover have any idea at all what would be in the rest of the book?

It's a question that would occur to me many times throughout the reading.

Like, it was a choice to include monster stats for Ahura Mazda and the Gnostic Demiurge. And if you're screaming at your screen right now, accusing me of making up utter nonsense in lieu of doing real writing - congratulations, you're starting to get how surreal an experience this book has been.

My working theory is that Encyclopedia of Angels has eight credited authors and maybe they all got different memos about what they were trying to do. Some of the angels have very tight d20 stats that seem in line with the Monster Manual celestials, others feel more freeform, where they have a couple of unique traits, but none of the underlying celestial chassis. Sometimes you'd get a long list of spell-like abilities and other times you'd get "casts spells as a 16th level sorcerer." Most confusingly, some of the entries read like they're trying to adapt real angelology for a fantasy setting and some of them seem to assume that your D&D game is going to be set in the real world (Pope Honorius I gets name-dropped in Hochmel's entry). At no point is it clear how you're meant to be using these stats.

But the strangest part of the book, to me, is that it doesn't seem to be lazy, or even careless. Each individual entry shows definite signs of effort, particularly in the realm of research that would have been pretty tough to do in 2003. It's just effort that doesn't seem to be pointed towards any particular end. Like, is it possible to assemble an rpg supplement without doing any sort of designing at all? Because that's what Encyclopedia of Angels feels like - a book assembled by a group of very smart people who nonetheless did not understand the assignment.

Overall, I found this book interesting to read, but I don't think I'd get much use out of it, even if I were running a D&D 3.0 game. Everything in here is highly specific, but not in a way that feels like you could just drop an isolated angel into a random fantasy world. Even the ones that made some effort towards acknowledging the existence of D&D land felt like they were carrying the sort of theological baggage that you'd have to build your setting around. I could see a niche for a book that talked about angels in the abstract and offered advice on how to build a form of fantasy monotheism supported by an elaborate celestial hierarchy. But this book was not that. I could also see the value of a book about gaming in a fantastic version of medieval Earth, where Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism explicitly exist and players engage with their major mythological figures. But this book wasn't quite that either. In the end, it's something that you could maybe mine for ideas, but only if you already had strong ideas of your own going into it.

Ukss Contribution: Kadmiel, one of the few female angels, assists people who are giving birth. By itself, it's a little on the nose, but the way she assists is hilarious. "Kadmiel can shrink a baby to enable it to pass from the mother with more ease."

It's blowing my mind a little that I have never once imagined this application for the reduce person spell, despite the fact that it's something every village wizard could easily do and it would have an immense positive effect on a medieval-type world. I have to find some way to work this into Ukss.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Shadowrun 3rd Edition Core

The original Shadowrun was published in 1989 and was set in the year 2050. If the timeline had not advanced between editions, we'd have passed the halfway point on its timeline five years ago. Shadowrun 3rd Edition was published in 1998 and set in the year 2060. We'll pass the halfway point in its timeline in 2029. In either case, I'm in the awkward position of feeling like the timeline's endpoint is less foreign than its beginning.

Maybe it's a matter of being middle-aged. I definitely remember a time when CDs felt really futuristic, and certainly when I first read this book, all those decades ago, I never even blinked at the idea that we'd still be listening to them in 60 years, but that person - the callow, fresh-faced sixteen-year-old who had barely even heard of the internet and whose experience with capitalism was purely second-hand and abstract - seems utterly alien to me now. I still occasionally cringe at his social faux pas, and sometimes am a little bitter at the way he squandered his potential, but it's all so distant. The late-capitalist cyberpunk distopia of the year 2060, on the other hand . . . that shit feels imminent.

At various points in the text, I'd find myself asking "who is all this for?" Upon reflection, it was mostly for that know-nothing kid, and only a little bit for me. . . 

And I'm not just talking about the superficial stuff, like the fact that the equipment section had futuristic pagers and ruinously expensive computer memory (a hard drive capable of storing a single two-hour movie would, by strict reading of the rules, cost as much as two months of rent). I'm actually part of a dying breed who can still remember when scamming a free long-distance phone call from the telecom company was an impressive bit of techno-wizardry. No, I found Shadowrun 3rd Edition to be unsatisfying on aa deeper level - it's a distopian sci-fi world that somehow manages to miss most of my current anxieties about the future.

I mean, there is pollution and the privatization of public services, but not one word about global warming. There's a deadly pandemic, but they kind of gloss over it.  Fools! Twenty-five percent of the global population dies and that gets one paragraph. Did they not have any idea how utterly traumatic it would be for even one tenth of one percent of the world to die of a deadly plague? That shit changes you.  I still flinch whenever I hear someone cough in public.

Even the megacorps are . . . off. Don't get me wrong, they're still evil. They still plunder the world out of a reckless pursuit of profit. But they're also cradle-to-grave-employers who actually make products. Not one of the AAA megas is just a shell company with one employee who occasionally smacks the side of an automatic foreclosure machine while a bunch of fascists trade the stock back and forth with each other. Even the healthcare system is not quite so ruthlessly profiteering. The hospitalized lifestyle costs 500 nuyen per day, and it's not clear what that would be in dollars, exactly, but it's about a half of a month's worth of low lifestyle, which is just an unbelievable deal from where I'm sitting (I make about 30k a year and even one night in a hospital would ruin me financially).

None of that is necessarily something I'd elevate to a fault, but it does make the book feel weirdly old-fashioned. Although, I suppose that's just the curse of sci-fi. Every few years, people get a new thing to stress out over. I'm sure that 6th edition feels much more contemporary. You can even see this process at work in 3e itself. The list of megacorporations was heavily biased towards the Japanese for all of 1e and 2e, but things are shaking up. One of the Japanese corporations went bankrupt, another moved to Russia. There's a Chinese corporation now. Because in 1989, the rapidly growing Japanese economy was seen as a threat to American business, but a decade later those fears proved unfounded.

I think, as a critic, I really need to meet Shadowrun 3e where it lives - as a crime simulator with magic and elves and shit. And as a crime simulator it works okay. There were times in the last week where I was reading these densely packed rules and really hating my life, but they're probably not all that bad in practice. Most tasks can be broken down pretty simply into 4 steps - the action, the response to the action, the outcome of the response to the action, and the response to the outcome of action. Successes upstream have an effect downstream, usually at a rate of 2-to-1, and the only thing you really have to remember is what dice pool to roll and which of the hundred modifiers you're going to apply to the target number. You sometimes get something that seems complicated, like the hacking system, but most of that complexity turns out to be a dozen different dice pools you have access to and/or target numbers you can impose on other peoples' dice pools. It's a lot to remember, but it's a lot of the same sort of thing, so it's not quite as bad as it could be.

I can see, though, why all my Shadowrun games tended to devolve into pixel-hunting heist planning sessions. The game encourages that sort of thinking. Many of the challenges are easy if you bring exactly the right sort of tool and near-impossible if you don't. I think, in the future, if I ever run this system, I'm just going to lean into that aspect of the game. My previous habit - stewing behind the GM screen, grinding my teeth waiting for the players to finalize the damned plan so we could get to the action already - that was unhealthy.

Now, do I have to talk about the weird race stuff again? Because Shadowrun is weird. When it talks about all the metahuman varieties, the "human" entry is as perfectly succinct and non-judgmental an explanation of the concept of privilege as I've ever seen. But then the "troll" section has a line about how people "assume trolls are dumb because [they're] big" and then a few pages later the trolls get a -2 Int penalty (in a game where attributes are rated 1-6). 

And that's not even getting into how it deals with real world ethnicities. It's probably good that I'm seeing a bunch of specific Native American tribes, but is it okay that sometimes the context is nonsense like the Salish-Sidhe Council? Like, maybe it undermines the triumph of indigenous people against the forces of colonialism just a little bit if a real nation like the Salish have to share billing with something out of Irish folklore. And it definitely feels uncool to characterize Tsimshian as racist authoritarians who destroy the environment. Sure, it's "realistic" that if you're creating a half-dozen new governments out of basically nothing, then at least one would be oppressive, but seriously, what did the Tsimshian ever do to you? I feel like, given the history between European settlers and indigenous peoples, you've got to have at least some justification more robust than "someone had to draw the short straw to be the bad guy."

It's really a shame, because the peoples of the Pacific northwest have some really interesting ideas that could work well in a cyberpunk setting - like, what does it mean to celebrate something like the Potlach in the context of a global economic system of decaying capitalism? FASA should absolutely not have explored that, but it makes me wonder what sort of Tsimshian or Tlingit or Salish sci-fi we could have gotten if the world were just a little more just.

Let's wrap-up here. This very book was my entry to the Shadowrun franchise, and twenty years ago, I absolutely adored its juxtaposition of genres and thorough game mechanics and even hoary old tropes like cybernetic implants and decking through the matrix felt new and exciting to me. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I still find that stuff kind of cool, but to really get into it I have to revert mentally to the person I was back then, and young me was . . . an ignorant jackass. It's a hard thing to convey (and an embarrassing thing to admit), but I found the Native American Nations to just be cool in concept. Looking at the familiar map of North American and seeing these unfamiliar, non-European names, that was enough, in itself, to impress me. I didn't think to ask any follow-up questions. So I can't help feeling like Shadowrun is a really cool rpg setting . . . provided I don't ask any follow-up questions.

Considering how much I'm looking forward to reading the rest of my 3e books, I am probably more comfortable with that bargain than I should be.

Ukss Contribution: It's kind of a backhanded one this time, but it's not quite ironic. The equipment section quite specifically lists both katanas and dusters (i.e. trench coats) as things you can buy. The uncontrolled burst of pure 90s nostalgia was almost too much for me to handle. Ukss has gotta have at least some trench coat and katana guys.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual 3.5

During the course of reading all these hundreds of rpg books, there's one idea that I've clung to with steadfast conviction - that it is nigh-impossible to make a bad monster book. Monster Manual 3.5 has put that assumption to the test.

It's not that it's bad per se. In many ways - organization, presentation, mechanics - it's better than the 3.0 book it's replacing. And every fault it has was present in the original. But maybe that's the problem. This is a book that got longer in the revision, but it didn't grow. It's just a list of one set of monster stats after another, with minimal flavor text (and the bulk of that just being a physical description) and little understanding of monster encounters as anything other than a physical brawl to the death. 

I partially forgave the 3.0 version for this fault, because it was a brand new edition and I felt like it was just giving a mechanical conversion for the players' assumed AD&D monster libraries, but by the time 3.5 came around, that excuse was getting pretty thin. A lot of 3.5 players were, in fact, d20 system natives, with little connection to the old lore and little access to the out of print books that would have explained (to choose a totally random example) that the Ravid was, in fact, cool as shit.

What 3.5 needed was not just an update to the original Monster Manual, but a new methodology for how D&D's monster books would be written. Unfortunately, that would only come with time.

Despite all that, I largely enjoyed this book. My notes are my usual random fare ("Behirs hate dragons - is this worldbuilding?") Looking for a pattern, I'd say that I had mixed feelings about the way this book supported "monsters as characters." I found the demihuman entries, which would essentially just reprint their PHB stats, to be terribly tedious, but I also desperately wanted to play a Vampire Monk/Shadowdancer . . . if it weren't for the punitive ECL modifier. I guess I like monster characters in theory, but MM3.5 has the quick and dirty version of Savage Species greatest fault - creatures are overstatted to make them a threat to a team of PCs, so when you reverse-engineer them to be player characters, you have to cost in all the extra boosts they get to not go down like chumps. 

Okay, the minotaur has 19 Strength, sounds good. Give me a +4 strength bonus, I'll slap it on my standard array's 15 and wind up with a cool, muscular cow-man. I'll leave the Constitution score up to chance and forgoe the racial hit die for normal class levels and we could maybe get this done with a +1 ECL.

Except, of course, you have to assume that the monster stats are for a completely average specimen, so the Minotaur PC stats have to give a +8 Strength adjustment and a +4 Constitution adjustment and six racial HD, so you wind up playing a level 8 character who is somehow both less interesting and mechanically worse than an equivalent PHB character. Damnit, WotC, I just want to play a guy with big horns and big muscles. What is so hard to understand about that? I can't speak for all of humanity (but I will, just watch me), but I'm positively certain that people want to play monsters because they're intrigued with the monster's concept, not because they want an exact match for the creature's MM stats. If you're going to provide stats for monster PCs, the least you could do is make them viable PC stats.

In any event, the lack of a 3.5 vampire class is a real missed opportunity. 

Moving on, several of the monster entries came with a second stat block, to show a version that had class levels or which had undergone the monster advancement process. I guess these were moderately useful, though only one is actually going to linger in my memory - the Truly Horrid Umber Hulk.

I like that a lot. More monsters should be named by a hyperventilating Victorian. 

And I've probably come to as good a place as any to wrap up. My conclusion - the 3.5 Monster Manual does what it needs to do, but it only does what it needs to do, and maybe that's something I can respect, but it's not something that I can bring myself to love.

Ukss Contribution: A rare bit of flavor - sometimes older female dragons will not want the hassle of raising another clutch of dragon babies and give their excess eggs to "nondraconic foster parents."

I have no idea what, precisely, is being imagined here. I'm guessing the dragons are being raised by powerful creatures of the dragon's alignment, like a sphinx or a lich or something, but all I can picture is an ordinary human family who has been thrust into a hilarious domestic comedy. "My Daughter, the Dragon" or somesuch.

As per my wont, I will be implementing my own half-assed interpretation into Ukss.

Monday, May 6, 2024

(Shadowrun) Target: Smuggler Havens

After reading Target: Smuggler Havens I can't help but feel just the teensiest bit responsible for 90s FASA's absolutely chaotic supplement release strategy. The Game Information chapter, in the course of giving me rules and plot-hooks to go along with the book's smuggling-related fiction content, bid me to reference twelve different Shadowrun books (not including the core, which I have to grant as a gimme, because that's what corebooks are for). I think about this and I ponder the alternate reality where I say, "fuck my dwindling shelf space and modest budget" and proceed to collect a complete set of Shadowrun supplements and . . . it feels like seeing what happened to the other guy, after I passed on the Monkey's Paw. And maybe it doesn't make a lot of sense to feel responsible for something that happened when I was a teenager and only owned something like eight AD&D 2nd edition books, but I'm keenly aware of the fact that the target audience for this book was people almost exactly like me.

Which is probably why I enjoyed it as much as I did. I'm not entirely sold on the idea of smuggling as an alternate Shadowrun campaign model, but that's less a shortcoming of the book and more a lack, on my part, of any great experiences with "rural cyberpunk" as a genre. I can see how evading the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, and Customs Enforcement is a parallel challenge to the corporate security and privatized police forces of the game's normal heist capers, but I can't quite wrap my head around it as a team activity and Target: Smuggler Havens really didn't make a case for the illicit transport of cargo across international borders as a form of punk rebellion against satirically exaggerated capitalism. I can't help but think back to Broken Dreams and its smuggling plot-hook of outwitting the MPAA by transporting pirated movies on physical media. The contrast with this book's toothless and vague trade in telesma (spell components, basically) is palpable. That's embarrassing - being out-punked by Transhuman Space, of all things.

Target: Smuggler Havens almost gets there, when it suggests that New Orleans is a hub for zombie smuggling, but it barely scratches the surface of the concept's potential to be a 21st-century parable. Zombies "never ask for raises or strike for better working conditions?" Whoa. You may really be on to something. Take it a little farther, tie it in with the genre's overall themes of corporate lawlessness and the objectification and commodification of the human body for the sake of capitalist rent-seeking. Oh, no, we're done? Okay. I guess one paragraph is enough for this potential game-changer of a campaign arc. It just seems a shame, because this is one of the few times that Shadowrun's juxtaposition of genres actually enhances, rather than distracts from, the overall political critique that is so essential to good cyberpunk.

Another time happens a little later in this same book, when discussing Japanese whaling vessels - "Of course, the whales fight back now." Big salute to our magically-awakened cetacean comrades, organizing in community defense against imperialist aggression. Someone should make an rpg-scenario about that someday.

I'm being a little too hard on Target: Smuggler Havens, though. It's not really an adventure book, it's more of a setting expansion, taking us to corners of the Shadowrun universe hitherto unseen (I'm assuming). I can now theoretically run games based out of Vladivostok and New Orleans.

And as sci-fi/fantasy locations, they're pretty good. You've got international intrigue and different criminal factions (though, as pointed out in Mob War! it's unclear how the Mafia continues to justify its existence) and that extra Shadowrun special sauce of weird swamp monsters and insurrectionist taiga shapeshifters. But I'm feeling that same dilemma I always feel when an rpg goes to real places - it's cool to see the world through this fantastic lens, but what sort of hash is the fantasy making of the place's real culture and history?

With Vladivostok, I don't have even a glimmer of a starting point. On any average day, I spend approximately 0 minutes thinking about it. Shadowrun's Russia is going through a bit of a hard time, thanks to sectional conflict and an authoritarian central government, and I might normally say that such a depiction is in poor taste, but seeing as how neither fictional nor real-world Russia has much respect for Ukranian sovereignty, I'm kind of okay with it. It's not like they're depicting a historically marginalized group like the Lakota as a bunch of trigger-happy xenophobes . . .

Oh, right. Although, I suppose the worst you could say about that is that it's pretty typical for the setting. If you're caught smuggling almost anywhere, border patrol will shoot you. No real reason to think the Native American Nations would be the exception.

New Orleans is trickier. Call it a victim of early Shadowrun's half-assed worldbuilding, but I'm finding it difficult to square the city's history of fraught racial politics with the notion that it considers itself the "cultural and spiritual capital" of the Confederated American States. Likewise difficult to swallow - the notion that it lost the status of political capital to Atlanta. Maybe my brain has been rotted by too much contemporary politics, but having two of America's most iconically Black cities form the core of a state whose borders exactly mirror the Confederacy gives me the heebie jeebies. I once said the lack of Black characters in the Chicago book was an oops. This shoots past that to a full-on yikes.

It doesn't help that Shadowrun also has this weird thing where the fantasy races act as a stand-in for racial prejudice, but also the real world races they're standing in for are still there, just hanging around (this shows up in the Vladivostok chapter too, where a lot of the city's population are metahuman refugees who fled persecution in Japan, but then there's a thing where the nearby oceans are unsafe because Japanese corporations will hire Chinese and Korean pirates as expendable assets). The absolute recklessness of this approach is perfectly captured in the following quote:

"Because voudoun began as the magic of the oppressed, it touches the outcasts of New Orleans, especially the poorer metahumans pushed to the outskirts of the metroplex. The tradition is strongest among orks and trolls. . ."

Ahhh!!! I am not nearly smart enough to do this work. I feel like I'm just one or two supplements away from reading about the vibrant and creatively rich tradition of orkish rap music. Like, you can't just take a Black thing and make it a goblin thing, right? Not in a world where Black people exist. Not even if you're overall positive about the culture you're borrowing. 

I think that's probably the essence of Shadowrun, though. This is a future where much of the world is decolonized . . . because indigenous people are just that more magical than the rest of us (not just in America - Russia lost a large chunk of its territory to native Siberian shamans). It's probably a pretty bad form of representation but . . . do they get point for trying? I don't fucking know.

Now I feel a little guilty for ragging this book about its missed opportunities for anti-capitalist satire, because it turns out that a big part of the game's appeal for me is a similarly shallow "but the elf has a machine gun." By that standard Target: Smuggler Havens is exactly the sort of book I'm looking for.

Ukss Contribution: I really like zombie smuggling as the premise of a mini-campaign, even though I'd prefer the PCs to be trying to shut it down. However, reading this book has made me keenly aware of the fact that Ukss does not have anything like the Free City of Kronstadt - an anarchic stateless port of call for pirates, smugglers, and rogues of every description. Every fantasy setting needs a place like that. Sorry, zombies, I don't make the rules.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide

The Dungeon Master's Guide is the quintessential book that you read exactly once and then only intermittently reference for all the rest of time. I think I may actually be at precisely three full reads - one that I finished just now, the 3.0 version I read six months ago, and the 3.0 version I read 20 years ago. At no point between those occasions have I ever felt the urge to do it purely for pleasure.

But don't let that give you the wrong idea. I'm not down on the DMG at all. I think it's a perfectly fine reference book. In many ways, I greatly admire it. It aspires to a kind of transcendent blandness, to be such a perfect non-entity in itself that you'll be tempted to use it for everything. Whether it succeeded or not is hard to say, though the history of the d20 boom suggests they made some progress in that direction. Certainly, there were long stretches where it felt like I was reading a generic gaming encyclopedia (normally, I dislike using the word "generic," but when a book spends seven straight pages describing various types of architectural features - including door hinges and tapestries - I feel like maybe it's a little bit warranted).

Now we come to the part where I comment on my more specific observations. Just for fun, I went back to my post on the 3.0 DMG, to see if I already covered anything from my current round of notes. Amusingly, I jotted down the exact same quote both times through - "high-level fighters always hit with their primary attacks and other characters rarely do." I guess there's to pretending that wasn't an intentional design feature, despite the fact that it makes no fucking sense.

But aside from the stunning revelation that I have the exact same opinions about two books that are 75% identical (the 3.5 DMG is approximately 50 pages longer than the 3.0 DMG, but most of those extra pages are devoted to butchering Planescape or making a less functional version of the Epic Level Handbook), most of my observations are tiny, almost annoying, nitpicks. Like, I understand the game balance logic behind putting divine spells onto scrolls, but theologically, it's absolutely wild to think about. You've basically got an IOU from God for one future miracle, redeemable by whoever happens to hold the scrap of paper it's written on. I would say "make it make sense," but I don't actually want it to make sense. I want to port the idea into Nobilis or Unknown Armies or Mage: the Ascension and make it the centerpiece for the world's dumbest heist story.

Is that really a D&D 3.5 thing, though? It might just be a bit of general D&D weirdness. . . time to consult the archives!

It's actually in every version of D&D (and both editions of Pathfinder) except D&D 4th edition. So I can't blame 3.5 for how weird an idea it is (if a Cleric of Erythul grabbed a Resurrection scroll scribed by a Cleric of Pelor, they could just, what, bring the world's most depraved necromancer back from the dead using Pelor's divine energy and there's no mechanism anywhere in the planes to stop that kind of shit from happening). But the lone counterexample also means that I can't just give it a pass either. The game doesn't have to be that way. 

Let's see, what else?

Complaints about the alignment system? Yawn.

They nerfed the Ring of Jumping for no real apparent reason. A bonus of +30 feels like a genuinely cool magic power, but what is this new +5 version supposed to do? Is it one of those things where the level 2 characters need a bit of trash treasure to make them appreciate the cool stuff they'll get later on? Or is it just a matter of finding big numbers to be scary? Perhaps a bit of tactical rebalancing? If you give a martial character the ability to extend their horizontal leaps by 30 feet, that might make them too effective at positioning themselves. I don't know. All I can say is that it's a bit of a personal bugbear. I love making characters who can do massive jumps and the old Ring of Jumping was one of my most wishlisted items.

Do I have more? Yes. Is it all similarly inane bullshit? You'd better believe it. 

I suppose it speaks well for my mood. I was a little worried that having to read a second set of 3rd edition core books was going to be an unbearable chore, but it turned out to just be a regular chore. Core books, by their very nature, spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about boring stuff (or else they are so abstract that don't feel like they're talking about much at all), and the 3.5 DMG was no exception. My overall opinion - on the balance an improvement over the first version (anti-jumping bullshit notwithstanding), but maybe not by enough to justify its existence. Even looking into the future and giving it credit for all the great supplements it supported, that's balanced out by all the stuff it suddenly invalidated. 

Even with all that ambivalence, though, it's sobering to think that this is almost certainly the last time I'm ever going to read this particular book (but then again, I thought the same thing back in 2001, so who knows what the future will hold . . . )

Ukss Contribution: I'm thinking of something that's been in every version of the DMG I've read thus far, but is silly enough that I strongly suspect it's my last change to pick it - The Broom of Animated Attack.

It's something that only exists because of early D&D's weird antagonistic relationship between the players and the DM, but it's never failed to make me smile. The players think they've found an enchanted flying broomstick, hop on, and try to make it go, but then BOOM! It starts beating the shit out of them. 

From a world-building perspective, it's a bit of a challenge. Flying on brooms has to be common enough that people will see a broom and think, "wow, that's one of those flying brooms," but then there has to be some quirk of the enchantment that leaves open a possibility that one of those brooms is going to be a complete asshole. I think I'm up for it, though.