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!"

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