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.

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