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Topics - Spike

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Reviews / The Last Exodus Review
« on: December 23, 2020, 05:08:25 pm »
This is a review of the Last Exodus: The Interactive Story Arc of the Third and Last Dance  by Synister Systems, a Jaffe Brother's Production, Circa 2001

I have had this book for a very long time, but weirdly I've never actually bothered to actually figure it out until recently, when I found it floating around in my garage (it has never even had a place on my bookshelves in almost twenty years until the other day...).  Its a rather confusing little product in many ways, being of odd size, being the only game I have (other than CPv3, less said the better) that I know used actual photographs and a model (I suspect stripper, but...) for the cover art, and then there is trying to understand what the fuck it is all about (you play Jesus. Everyone in teh party plays Jesus. Some are Good Jesus, some are Bad Jesus, but, yeah: Jesus... You'll have to wait to get more from me on that...)

Now that I've finally parsed it out, I figured I'd share.   First there are a couple of notes on this forgotten gem of a game: First is that it was edited by none other than Gareth-Michael Skarka.

The Second...
             Ok. So there is a credit page inside the cover that lists the creator and author as a Nicholas VanZandt, and good old Nicky (and a few others listed) are also in this credits (Ursala Tango, Jaz Michele, etc), while the "Jaffe Brothers" are barely even mentioned.  All of these people are also in setting 'characters' throughout the opening chapter of the book, along with a fellow named Gideon, and the book ends with a moving tribute to Nicky from Gideon, who is his brother, with a date of death in 2001, which would coincide with the publishing of the book.

I happen to be a fan of Starchilde Publications, which are some old crappy game designers from the late eighties and nineties, and the writer/owner is a man going by Gideon, whose Real Name is... somethign VanZandt.

As near as I can tell, that is nothing more than an entirely random coincidence. That closing memorial bit, on closer inspection, reads just a little bit false, and mirrors an opening bit at the beginning of the book.  The Jaffe Brothers do appear at the end of the book to talk a bit about the process of writing and creating the book, with nothing from or about either VanZandt to go with it.  But man, did that cause me a LOT of confusion until I worked it out... and I'm still not entirely certain.

So, on with the review. I'm going to do this slightly out of order, as I'm going to talk about the physical book last, as its probably the least interesting subject.

The book is very much a product of its era, in that it starts with all of the setting information up front, though thankfully lacking in deep, meandering fiction. There are fake hyperlinks and pop up text boxes all through this section, expanding on ideas, concepts and so forth. Frankly, once you've gone a half dozen pages in, its pretty safe to stop reading, as the closer it gets to 'now' the less important the setting information is, unless you care deeply about their pet NPCs. You'll sort out the important bits in character creation much, much faster.

So the Setting:  God exists. He (it) is probably several universes old and probably exists in multiple universes simultaniously to ours. There is a surprisingly clever metaphor for Man's relationship to God that I'll paraphrase here: Mitochondria exists within our cells. There is one in a neuron in your brain. You, understanding and interacting with that mitochondria in your own brain is as difficult as God interacting with you, and that Mitochondria's ability to grasp You is about as likely as your ability to grasp God.  I mean, they could have simply said 'ineffable' but whatever. It works.  For whatever reason they like to use Ahura Mazda for God, at least some of the time, but its not super important (though on the subject of evil... well, we'll get there).

Anyway: Long Ago (millions of years, though I think the grasp of time on this scale by the Jaffe Brothers is lacking....), the Fairies existed as pure souls somewhere in the Universe (which has multiple realities), and they were being attacked by Serpents (the Sib'Haioth) who worshiped Leviathan, Behemoth and Dagon (maybe). They ran from these serpents across the Realities of the Universe until they stumbled into God and He deigned to notice them, and he set them up the bomb with a wicked cool city in the Garden of Eden, which we'll call Atlantis, though I think the book actually calls it Midan or somethign (Atlantis and Midan actually do exist within the setting).  He granted them license to pursue all knowledge except for the Tree of Life, or the Double Helix of DNA (this is not a metaphor, btw). So for a long time they were doing just Grand, learnign everything including the Manipulation of DNA (via the lawyerly loophole in that they only STUDIED DNA, they didn't dink around with it).  Anyway, Lucifer was the current Emperor ruling from the Tower of Babel in The Garden of Eden when the Sib'Haioth showed up again, and wicked pissed that God wasn't doing anything to protect them, he demanded a meeting with God. God, naturally, granted said meeting but also refused to do anythign about the Sib'Haioth, and Lucifer naturally expected this and secretly used the meeting to gather some of God's DNA so they could make their own pet God to do their bidding.

It did not go well. The writing breaks down here a little bit, like many inexperienced writers, they failed to account for their future needs as writers and so do some scrambling. See there are riots in Eden outside the Tower, Lucifer and several other 'IMPORTANT' NPCs leave the science project running in the tower while they fuck off to elsewhere (no where in particular, mind you, they just had to be somewhere else), when the GODHEAD (its all caps in the book too) is born and basically kills everything in the Garden of Eden, billions dead in an Instant. You know, except for Lucifer and the other IMPORTANT NPCs.  The GODHEAD is Ahriman (and here I have to admit that a new concept to me, the heirarchy of evil from Luciferan to Ahrimanic to Sothic Evils) is surprisingly well represented, at least in the Ahrimanic Evil level.  Anyway, the GODHEAD is as potent as GOD, but is inexperienced, and of course you have the Good vs Evil showdown. Ahriman is imprisoned, and that Prison, which he creates around himself, is Earth. He does some fucked up shit like making Humans the default, making Animals 'dumb' to weaken the Beastial Order of Souls when they incarnate, and wipes out dinosaurs or something.  GOD meanwhile starts sending Souls to Earth, where they need to have Coils to survive... see, Souls in the Mortal Plane basically evaporate away (so much for Immortal), while Coils (mortal Bodies) do the same (I think) in the 'higher' realms.

Anyway, along comes Jesus, and he is crucified alongside the "Son of Man", who is his Ahrimanic twin, yadda yadda some shit and in 2001 GOD declares he is going to shut down the whole shebang, and its up to the new Messiahs of the modern age to round up the faithful and get the fuck outta dodge before God closes the gate.   

In short you play a host of divine beings who are incarnated into Mortal Coils, either of the Apostates (Good Guys) or Sanhedrin (bad guys... and name is supposed to be triggering and racist, which... honestly I don't have the room to unpack. The Evil Divine Souls (as opposed to the writers) WANT you to be upset at their chosen appelation, get it?), and you... fight eachother and hell-nazis (I'm not even kidding), while possibly setting up and running cults and doing miracles as you play out the 'last dance'. Also, you can go to higher and lower realities and use divine super-tech, which includes a spiritual internet-thing involving Torii Gates (which... sort of look like rings?), and maybe dog-fight against the other faction in various fightercraft.

I'm gonna pull some details from the Character Section to talk more about the setting. So there are a metric fuckton of Soul Types, including your classic Angels and Demons (not the same type of soul, apparently), as well as more interesting things like Enlightened (humans that just sort of transcend), Karmics (humans who act like Action Heroes, complete with IN SETTING comments that if you don't see the body they aren't dead), exotic alien shit from other worlds/realities, the Fae (one group) beastials (who resent that their forms are dumb animals in Coil terms), Elementals and Robot souls, all sorts of shit. There are about 16 or so 'factions', equally divided between good and bad, formed by the powerful NPC Apostates and Sanhedrin that you can be a part of... I don't recall seeing any 'independent' factions. There is a literal, but currently mostly cold, war between Hell Nazis led by the Son of Man (I think?), and the City of Eden, and the Hell Nazis send out Touton Makouts, which are basically 'living dead' supersoldiers, which I imagine wear trenchcoats and gas masks and jackboots when not on Earth, where they look like normal people.

In case you missed it, its bugnuts. 

How Bugnuts?

Well, I wasn't joking when I said that your Soul could be a robot... or a meercat or something. Lara Croft can be your Soul, complete with the jumping and the improbable ability to survive absurd traps and falls.   The Hell Nazis use decapitated demon pigs as mobile fortresses  to assault Eden, where Angels side with fourth dimensional aliens to shoot at them with Lasers.  I am neither joking or exaggerating for effect.

There is a fair bit of 2edgy4u with 'team evil', however.  The game sets it up so that 'team evil' campaigns (there is nothing explicitly stopping a mixed group from being created... that's entirely on the GM) is meant for 'more advanced players', because the game is NOT joking about Team Evil being, well, Evil. At least one faction is literally a cult of rape and pedophilia, and if you are on Team Evil that is one of the Cults you are expected to join.  And yet: Playable.  The book is liberally branded with 'rated R' and 'so mature' and plenty of disclaimers about how its not real, yet again: the game expects you to play Team Evil, though at least it doesn't demand it.   

So about the rules then?

Well... its a four stat game with a modest number of skills and souls are defined by which groups of miracles they have access too. Miracles appear to be in short supply.  My big issue, and a major reason I would never attempt to play or run this thing, is that it uses playing cards instead of dice for randomizers.   For reasons? 

There is a lot less support for the whole crossing realities than I expected, despite the 'gear portion of the game being nothing but divine/profane 'tech' from the other realities.  I'm guessing when you have the power of being a Messiah you don't care much for uzis or something.  I'm guessing they weren't terribly interested in complex rules for something that is a structural issue for the adventures or something.  In fact the entire exercise is surprsingly light yet reasonably complex. Aside from 'Brood' (Team Good, Team Evil), Soul Type and Cult-faction, you also have your personal 'power over' and your choice of miracles.  All in all, I'm rather impressed and I have to wonder what exactly kept me from actually reading it for damn near two decades. I think I was getting it confused with another 'higher powers' game from around the same era that was nigh on incomprehensible, which book I no longer own and whose name I cannot recall.

Beyond Character Creation, however I should note that the entire rule set appears to be approximately four pages long. Maybe five. Its not a deep system, nor does it pretend to be.

As to the book: its not really a game book sized book, more like a coffee table art book in dimensions. There are three photos (front cover, back cover inner leaf spread) of a modestly attractive model (Enigma by name, according to teh credits) who is scarcely clad and treated with modest special effects. Its glossy pages, not terribly thick, and the artwork (aside from the model) is utter shite.  Credit to GMS, the book is well organized and easy to follow however. There are a lot of different artists credited, and all of them appear to have never graduated from High School Desk Graffiti levels of skill.   It is soft cover, which I rather regret as its long years of neglect means my copy is somewhat warped and wobbly, but the bindings seem strong, so there is that.

I don't really do number grades. I think the setting is interesting, if somewhat... immature theologically, but I've got no use for a card based randomizer system. If that don't bother you, then maybe give this a shot.

EDIT: I keep thinking this is an odd sized book, but really its like.. half an inch taller and a quarter inch wider than the books next to it on the shelf, so its not really that oddly sized. It just SEEMS that way for reasons I cannot adequetly explain.

Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games (RPGs) Discussion / Cyberpunk Red analysis
« on: December 22, 2020, 10:40:06 pm »
This is not quite a review, as I do not own a copy of CP Red and thus did not spend the sort of time with it I would before making a proper review. I was able to peruse a copy of the game, enough to have some... thoughts... on the subject.

I'ma break this down with a bit of a disclaimer, followed by the TL;DR for the lazy  ;)   and then I'll cover the rules changes and finally the setting changes.

For those of you who are not aware, I have been one of CP2020's rabid fans on this forum for a very long time.  Not merely out of nostalgia for the 'bad old days' of gaming, but out of a genuine love of the game, and with plenty of respect for Mad Mike Pondsmith and his works. I, in fact, own most of the Mekton books, a goodly chunk of the Fuzion books (and a much vaster library of fan made PDF Fuzion books), as well as a mostly complete collection of Cybergeneration, on top of the Black Box cyberpunk, every issue of Interface Magazine, and even CPv3 with its doll art, though I have to admit that the last one almost broke me.    As an almost trivial aside, watching Mike Pondsmith talking about CP2077 on youtube five or so years ago actually helped me understand my curious relationship with the Pacific Northwest Accent (I had assumed that my ex, and several friends merely had lisps, but his PNW accent was so... clear (er...) that I finally got it was the regional accent!). 

So, as this is going to be a mostly negative commentary, understand that on some level it pains me to have to say what I'm about to say. 

The TL;DR is that Mike Pondsmith is less a brilliant game designer and more a guy who accidentallied himself into producing a work of genius.  All the weird, fumbling missteps ever since (along with his non-TTRPG successes) appears to be the simple revelation that the Emperor Has No Clothes.  CP Red is an idiotic little cash-grab repackaging of 2020 released in time for CP2077, only with hilariously missed brandings and tie ins.  If you have CP Red and CP 2020, you are better off playing CP 2020 and simply importing the things you like most from CP Red.  CP Red is mostly a poorly thought out setting update that happens to include a few rules tweaks, some good, some bad and mostly indifferent.

Let me clarify an observation I made back in the nightmare days of Doll Art.  Pondsmith has some interesting ideas of where his setting is going, but he doesn't seem to grasp the value of the existing setting to players, nor does he quite understand the success of the Interlock system, which helps explain why the cleaned up, improved Fuzion system has ever failed to catch on, despite his nigh obsessive attempts to push it over the proven (if dated) Interlock.

For reasons that undoubtedly have a lot to do with bio-,mechanics, humans are very comfortable with numbers that work on a decimal basis... you know: Rating things from one to ten, like Interlock does.  One of Fuzions more mysterious failings (in that its not an obvious failing, but I feel it has a great deal to do with WHY Fuzion never caught on...) is that Fuzion attempts to keep the FORM of the 1-10 rating system, while rebalancing the actual numbers to a much less intuitive 1-6.  That Pondsmith never twigged to the fact that Interlock's 1-10 ratings actually worked to his benefit does not speak to the man understanding why he was successful in the first place. Note: Teenagers from OuterSpace works fine with a 1-6 rating system, but then the system literally ends at six, and doesn't pretend to go higher, unlike Fuzion.  That sort of clarity in presentation is equally at play here.

CP Red, of course, is basically Interlock, unlike CPv3, which was Fuzion.  Mostly its a pure re-skinning, but there are some good (or good appearing, as I said, I merely perused the book, which is one of the reasons this isn't a review) rules and some bad rules and some frankly weird choices along the way. One of the good rules is how role skills were altered.  I can't say if its all good, but every change I noticed looked to be an upgrade from the older edition, be in the more complex (and fun looking) Combat Sense rules, to the fact that Nomads are now actually the 'wheelman' Role and not the 'summon biker gang' role, to Cops getting the Summon Biker Gang power vs their old  'extra intimidate' bullshit. 

On the other hand, rather than cleaning up the frankly bloated (even by 1989 standards of game design) attributes, he actually added Dexterity, while doing nothing to rob Reflexes of its role as THE UBER combat stat.  Sigh. I'm not entirely sure where Dex comes into play... it seems to exist to make Ninjas a bit harder to play, not that CP2020 was remotely the game of overpowered Ninjas in the first goddamn place, mostly due to how very very deadly combat tended to be.  Sneaking close to a group of badguys to knife them in the face wasn't exactly OP when you get one attack...   But maybe I missed all the massive Ninja-style CP games back in the day.  Also, this is a setting that has options for thermoptic camouflage, so sneaky sneaky can be as much tech as skills... 

Beyond this one of the things that actually made me face palm, was noticing how Pondsmith has functionally broken the meaning of Role Skill Ratings within the setting when you get to the 'down time income' tables.  A Rating 10 Rockerboy, a Johnny Silverhand at the very peak of his fame and ability is still opening for bigger and more successful acts for a whopping maximum of 800 bucks a week, not gig, week.  A solo who defines himself as a hitman and is operating at the very upper ranks of his profession slums it guarding strippers from stalkerish fans for 500eb a week, or not much more than twice was a noobish, fresh off the boat starting Solo earns (200 eb).   This is a minor gripe, but your ranks in skills, especially Role Skills, was a sort of proxy for your professional reputation. Now... not so much.  The entire 'downtime' charts section is lazy and poorly thought out, and considering that games inspired by Cyberpunk (such as Corporation, by Brutal Games) has done SO MUCH MORE with the idea of Downtime activities, its actually painful to notice how little thought went into this 'edition'. 

Another observation is that now we have very clear rules for overcoming Humanity loss for Cyberware via therapy. Unfortunately that means I have to talk about Humanity Loss for Cyberware. Lets be honest, this was always a 'Meta-Rule', included mostly because Players will happily do all sorts of weird perverse shit to their characters in the name of a bonus or two, and you have to include some sort of rule based penalty to check that shit. Also: Mad Mike likes Bubblegum Crisis, so he had to include some sort of cyber-pyschosis into his cyberpunk setting, and that's fine.  But Humanity/Empathy Loss was always a sort of ugly crap rule, and as much as it pains me to admit it, the Essence Rule from Shadowrun is mechanically superior in almost every single way... though not exactly something you can port into Cyberpunk.  It was perfectly reasonable to assume that some form of therapy might be available, but including the rules for it right there up front utterly negates the main reason for the rule in the first place, which was to check player madness.  Now you can cram EVEN MORE OP CYBERWARE into your body... just go to therapy for a few weeks to minimize the impact to your Empathy!  No Problems!!!

Though I'll note that the Cyberware list remains more or less the same, though with some tweaks. Fashionware is now Humanity Free, but Initiative Boosters cost MUCH MORE... hilarious because the rules of CP generally make the ability to 'act first' somewhat less consequential than simply using smart tactics (also, given how Solos could (Still Can?) more or less utterly negate the advantage of simple initiative boosting by simply being that much faster than anyone else....).   I didn't really read into the list that much, so I might have missed other tweaks to the default list.  Of course, bizarrely this is supposed to be twenty more years into the future of the setting... you'd imagine the cyberware would be a bit more advanced?

As a side note, Pondsmith felt the need to genuflect to the prosthetic community, apparently for woke points. I recall that, thanks to the Humanity rules the CP2020 fandom did always have a few obnoxious voices that were agitating for the differently abled, but Pondsmith has apparently lost any ability to accept that there will always be at least one asshole in any large group of people, so he bent over backwards in the Cyberware section to praise people for having prosthetics... then again where he apparently hired about a dozen or so of the Differently Abled to design his NPCs for the pre-packaged starter adventure. I'm happy for them that they were able to milk him for some dough (I hope they were smart enough to get paid to be his Token Differently-Abled Marketing Ploys), but damn its a bad look to see a man hand you his own spine like that.  I could comment more on the Woke-ism, but frankly this one is the most risible, and frankly I can't be bothered to care at this point.

I am extremely tempted to do deep dive analysis on each of the various rules mistakes, new or classic, such as exactly how the Attributes needed an overhaul, or why making Demolition (and other Technical skills) cost extra to buy and raise is a frequent but incredibly stupid mistake, and the enduring foolishness of the 'selling out' siderule,  and so forth, but frankly I just need to move on. 

The long and short on the rules is that this isn't really a new edition so much as a tweak to the old edition, and that the net effect is effectively neutral.  I can see taking the Role Skill changes and importing them wholesale, and leaving everything else.

Its the setting that gets my goat more than anything else.  Pondsmith has clearly wanted to have a proper Metaplot for his game for a very long time, which is why he evolved the Cyberpunk Setting to the Cybergeneration Setting, then the weirdly transhuman post-apocalyptic setting of v3. And since this is some sort of lateral tie in to CP2077, he had a damn good excuse to do so.

However: Rewriting a setting is almost always a terrible idea. People LOVE settings, even if they intend to tweak them. A fixed setting gives players a firm grounding, a foundation, from which to build. When you disrupt or alter that setting, especially drastically, it makes that foundation unstable. Look: this is a topic that deserves its own essay, m'kay?  And frankly simply pushing the date up twenty years or so but otherwise keeping the setting 'as is' is hardly a terrible idea, in fact its probably the only way to keep people on board for a new, updated edition, even if such fixity of settings don't actually make much sense in the real world (seriously: The idea of not one but two major lawless post-apocalypitic encampment zones (each themselves the size of a fully county) in Shadowrun right outside Seattle is already somewhat hard to swallow.. the idea that they've persisted as such for at least two, if not three, GENERATIONS is downright silly... but we love the Barrens anyway, because we don't really want the setting to change. Foundations, man...).

On top of the, the Two Book Stormfront Adventure that 'closed' CP2020 back in the day, years before WW tried the same damn thing, were... with a significant caveat... one of the best designed adventures I've ever bought.   

That Caveat is significant. Mike Pondsmith, the Game Designer, is very much in love with his own NPCs, and has long identified himself with the NPC of Morgan Blackhand.  In CP2020's core book there is literally nothing wrong with Morgan Blackhand. He's just a grizzled, experienced Solo who has written a book full of advice on being a Solo and tells amusing anecdotes (war stories) to bring the largely implied setting to life, and its great.  But there were warning signs as early as Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads!, where there was artwork of Uncle Mike AS Morgan Blackhand.  By Cybergeneration Morgan had morphed into the godfather of the setting, the Solo who would not die and was personally leading the revolution of the Carbon Plague kids, though Johnny Silverhand and Alt Cunningham (of whom little should be said lest I smash my keyboard in frustration).  I'm sure he was important to v3 as well, but thank you I WILL NOT be revisiting that hellscape of a book just for research.

And that leads to the End of the Stormfront Adventure when the PCs are reduced to watching the NPCs duke it out as the campaign ends with a bang (literally: A nuke goes off and forever alters the setting. Also, the PCs never (As I recall) interact with said nuke in any way, up to and including not even knowing it exists until it goes boom.).  Rache Bartmoss proves they will forever be inferior netrunners as he, from the grave, personally alters the net architecture in 'amazing' ways, Morgan Blackhand faces off with Cyborg Supremist Adam Smasher as the PCs evacuate like the hostage in Predator being told to Get To Da Choppa!

CP Red doubles and tripples down on this trend. Despite twenty years passing the wheelchair bound 102 year old Saburo Arasaka still runs Arasaka Corp, somehow, but one of his granddaughters runs not only a rebel faction within Arasaka Corp, but ALSO has a major detective agency in Night City AND is a massive socialite AND her bodyguard happens to be the only Solo to go one on one with THE Morgan Blackhand and pull out a draw and shoot me now please.

When I first decided to write this, several hours ago after skimming the book, I actually made jokes about tracking down the Pondsmith and putting an arrow in his knee to end his game designing career. I decided not to because I was so goddamn pissed at this GNPC bullshit and how pervasive it is that I wasn't entirely certain it was a joke anymore.   It does not help that there are fake adds and I believe multiple pieces of artwork for this one 'minor' NPC and her detective agency ALL through the book.  I had this complaint about the Witcher RPG, but this is SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO much worse.

Hmm... still not enough OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO's....  but I don't want to run out of bits on the internet, so...

On top of that we have the utter stripping of the setting's finer points from the setting. I mean, sure, there are ads for imaginary products and if you hunt a bit you can find brand and model numbers for things like guns in the book, but mostly all the equipment is bland and generic 'heavy pistol', 'assault rifle'  and so on. This from a game that produced six motherfucking books (the four chromebooks and the two chromebook anthology sets) full of nothing BUT in setting gear porn catalogs, that produced not one but TWO in setting magazines for Solos with lifestyle articles and, yes, more gear porn!  How the fuck could Pondsmith fuck this up so very, very badly?

Let me take a moment with a very little mini-essay.

Cultures are defined in large part by their tools. Ask any Anthropologist or archeologist.  One of the things that creates such rabid fans for anime tv shows that you rarely see for American TV shows is their use of writers bibles that includes artworks and technical specs, creating a sort of false realism. Look at the way Star Wars is treated by our culture even after half a dozen increasingly hacky films from the House of the Mouse!  It isn't 'good enough' that Han Solo uses a Blaster Pistol, we LOVE that he uses a DL-44 Blaster Pistol (er... don't quote me on that, I'm too lazy to walk six feet to a bookshelf and research... or google in another tab...). That MEANS something, and not just to 'rabid fans'.  The pulse rifle in Aliens has stats and rules that reflect how it is used On Screen, and that level of detail is part of why that is considered a 'good movie' and not merely popcorn fare quickly forgotten.   Cyberpunk is not OUR WORLD. It looks a bit like where our world might go, but it isn't Our World.  There is something DEEPLY unsatisfying by declaring that all guns are the same generic gun, that all cell phones are the same generic Cell Phone, that all cars are the same Generic Car.  Despite having maps of Night City, despite an entire chapter of the various Corporations and their Public Face NPCs (complete with art), we have had a fundamental element of our Imaginary Culture, our Setting denied to us, in favor of generic lists of generic catagories of generic items, coupled with a vast swath of art that fails to link itself indelibly to the setting because none of the artists are drawing items we can recognize as distinctly Cyberpunk 2020/Red. Look: Its generic Sci-Fi armored Guys with Generic Sci-Fi rifles of... some sort.


I can literally swap any random piece of art from this book with a random piece of art from, say, Eclipse Phase, and who would fucking know the difference?  It could just as easily be from Carbon 2185, from Starfinder Interface Zero, or any other of half a dozen similarly themed books on my shelf from the last five to ten years.  I could take a still from the live action Ghost in the Shell and apply a paint tool effect to it and get damn near identical art.

I can only conclude that to Uncle Mike that 'Setting' means 'My Favorite Characters' and little else. 

For fucks sake, Chromebook 4 had an entire gooddamn chapter on motherfucking Fashion!  FASHION!!!!!

How the hell did he miss this mark so badly?   How did he take a bare bones concept of a setting and turn out a living breathing wonderland of gear-porn and fashion templates and yet still manage to turn it all around and produce the UPC code white label setting of CP Red?   Did Jon Hamm lobotomize him between dance numbers while we weren't looking?

Reviews / Hero Forge
« on: November 23, 2020, 04:50:35 pm »
This is a bit of a deviation for me, in that instead of reviewing a book I'm going to review a custom miniature site.   Because I can.

I started playing around with Hero Forge in early October and have even ordered, and had delivered, a fully printed, full color, miniature of one of the models I designed. I've also used a few other sites including ANVL.  It should be noted that Hero Forge appears to be updating their site swiftly... if I had written this two weeks ago I would have complained about the way arms are handled, making it impossible, for example, to make a decent cyborg... but not only did they actually implement independent arm customization, they added cybernetic limb options and the ability to have up to six arms on a model... so things are improving.

To start, a TL;DR summary:  Hero Forge is roughly middle of the pack in options to customize models, but by far has the best interface. However, their shit is pricey as hell to buy.  However, my much delayed model (I have to place the blame on the local post office, who took an extra week according to package tracing, to move it from the local distribution center to my house. Seriously), is gorgeous.

Now for the long version.

As noted in the intro summary, Hero Forge has an excellent, easy to follow user interface. The model you are designing is blow up, which can be a bit deceptive, but it makes it very easy to see what you are doing, and if you are like me it actually can serve as a proxy to make up for your lack of artistic skill. It is very easy to colorize your model to further enhance the visual experience, unlike the other sites I tried.  However, the expanded view of the model (five to ten times the actual size) might be a bit misleading, particularly with the garments and outfits, which look ridiculously thick, but are probably exaggerated so they will be apparent on a 30mm (or smaller...) model.

In terms of options is is much easier to design fantasy miniatures than anything else, though some sci-fi and modern options exist. You can make nagas and centaurs, you can mount figures on wolfs, horses, motorcycles and so forth.  There are a lot of options, but at the same time things feel restrictive or lacking, though as I noted they are expanding things.  I did make an experimental werewolf model, but honestly I wasn't too impressed with the final result over just buying one premade from a regular model company, though I should note I merely modeled it.

I will note that you can and probably should sign up for the site so you can save model designs for later, and there is a screen shot option so you can make images of your various designs.

Aside from the outfit and equipment you can choose, what really needs mentioning is the posing option.  I was very... even very very... impressed with the posing options, not merely the range of default poses, but the more advanced posing available.... with two caveats: the facial posing is limited to sliders of very broad expressions (smile, confused, angry, smirk and arrgggh, which controls how open the mouth is), which is both not terribly flexible, and not terribly intuitive where it IS flexible... and the second is that you can do no posing below the waist. Legs and feet are absolutely fixed by the pose you choose, which can be frustrating or even slightly silly (one example I made had a figure in bathrobe and fuzzy slippers in a t-pose on the balls of their feet... the slippers should have remained flat on teh base, but instead were fixed to the feet, unnaturally (THe Dark Side of the force is a pathway to many powers some would say are unnatural..... er, wait, what???)

The ability to color the model is also pretty damn flexible and impressive. With the new arms available I made a decent proxy of Kali and was able to colorize the palms of the hands seperately from the rest of the model, though lacking necklaces of skulls and skirts of hands, or the ability to protrude her tounge it was always doomed to be a half assed model....  though working through the palate isn't quite as obvious at first glance, being icon based, there are other interfaces for different methods of colorizing.

When you are done, its time to buy, or not buy. I haven't found a limit on teh number of saved models... I've got about twenty or thirty designs (versions of the same model in different poses and gear, plus models sent to me by my players), and it hasn't told me I'm reaching capacity.  As noted you can screen shot, or if you pay for the annual membership you can print images as tokens and other things (I have no idea what, I'm still debating if I want to go this route... who am I kidding, I'm playing with the budget and quibbling over when to pay for this option).

Otherwise you can download the print file if you have your own printer, though this is about three times as expensive as other sites I checked at 9 dollars, you can go with a cheap print (15~ if I recall...), a fine cast print (30), a full color print (50), you can print in various metals (steel and copper for certain), you can chose your base, including options like a model you cna mount to a GM screen (er... waste of money in my book...) or a fully based base. Size of the model affects price, but only going up. A halfling costs as much as a half orc, but a centaur will add twenty bucks to a print. Luckily the digital files don't change price.

As for the quality of the print, the full color models are equivalent to the fine cast (.5 micron layers or whatever...), and I got a color model. I don't see any layer lines at all in the print, though it does have a slightly rough texture like it was sintered, but the level of detail even in the coloring is outstanding.  My model has a pretty dynamic pose with a cloak, and is stiff rather than flexible, though his sword is a (wee) bit curved from shipping, so its not rigid.  My eyesight isn't as good as it used to be, so I can't see if his eye color came through... I'd say the printed model is somewhere north of 80% of the image on screen in terms of detail capture, maybe north of 90%, but honestly its good enough that if you are complaining, you might be better off buying the hand-painted option from them, or perhaps finding something meaningful to do with your life...

Honestly, I am impressed, far more than I expected.. not just at the final product, but at the way the whole website works (ok, it does load a bit slowly...). It was PAINFUL experimenting with the other sites after Hero Forge, with their small images, poor interfaces and lack of any color other than basic grey, often on a dark background. I like that I can use the design feature to make up for my lack of artistic skill, that I can dink with proportions, etc.

However, I wouldn't be me if I didn't point out the very real flaws, other than price and inability to pose legs and feet at all.

In terms of 'dressing' your model with equipment you really only have very limited options. You can have two 'side' items, which are almost always going to be a variation on some sort of pouch, and annoyingly if you don't have some sort of bulky leg garment (armor) on, they'll probably stick out from the model's waist on obvious 'pegs', as they don't seem to mold to the body very well. While you do have massive amounts of hand items, and a decent range of options for one (or both) or two handed poses, and a shocking degree of posability after that, it really comes down to supporting your options.  Sheaths, for example, hardly exist, as with slung weapons and the like. You can put items on your back, and other than a few cloaks and backpacks what you cna pick for your back items is pretty much the same menu as your hand items.  There can also be an issue with finding things in the apparently redundant but not really menues. At one point I used a randomized creation and wound up with a surgical mask, but it took searching through several different menus to find where the surgical mask came from to remove it, and I'm not entirely sure if I could find it again if I WANTED a surgically masked character, because its not in the 'mask' or 'face items' menus.

I will also note that while (aside from legs) the posing is very impressive, it is also hard as balls because you have to (non-intuitively) adjust every joint individually... you can't just move an arm, you have to rotate, tilt and/or bend the shoulder AND the Clavical seperately, to move an arm from front to back on a model might require moving three seperate joints, each with multiple sliders, and if you aren't careful you can wind up with a pose that is physically possible but looks impossible because things didn't quite move right (particularly at the shoulder), or looks more strained than it should be.  Clipping is a bit of an issue, I found posing the hair necessary to move it out of the way was a common issue, so 'advanced' posing isn't exactly user freindly, though I was able to do some rather impressive things in only a couple of hours of experimenting... so I wouldn't necessarily say its mind bogglingly hard either.

And there you have it, Hero Forge in a nutshell.

I've been out of reach of good local game stores for years now, but a recent foray into civilization allowed me to pick up a bunch of new stuff... and while I have thoughts about the current state of the gaming industry (too much reliance on licensed 'engines' and generally poor design all around, papered over with culture war allegiances or great art, or both), what I'd like to comment on, and solicit commentary on, is the Red Flags of a bad game. I'm sure people have their own things they notice first when evaluating a new game.

Dice pools; This isn't a deal breaker for me, more a nuisance, but it tells me that the focus of the designer isn't on making a sturdy 'engine' to run the game but on just slapping some shit out there to bolster his amazing setting (or what have you).  To me Dice Pool games show a distinct lack of interest in emulating a world, or to grudgingly use highly fraught language, an utter disinterest in 'simulation', which is something I tend to value highly.   Obviously, using an existing 'engine', such as White Wolf's or the now very popular Mutant Year Zero engine may reflect a loyalty to a system more than an unwillingness to engage in the setting as simulation, and old, legacy Dice Pool systems (such as Shadowrun)  don't necessarily reflect that ideal, as the limitations of the mechanic weren't fully known when they were designed.

Katamari Damancy Talents:  This seems to be the predominant design philosophy of the modern game, and I can blame Savage Worlds for it, I suspect.  I refer, of course, to the idea that 'Talents' under whatever name you give them, are the primary mechanism of character growth, and you just keep sticking on more talents until you are a star.  Among other problems, these games, with their never ending quest for long lists of talents, inevitably wind up making things like... aiming a gun... into a talent that presumably requires lots of experience (level equivalents!) to master.  I can show you thirty seconds of Old Yeller, where a ten year old boy demonstrates 'Aiming', and certainly he hasn't fought a hundred orcs to master that shit.  That's not the only problem.  At low levels, you can actually wind up with deeply incomplete characters who lack basic competencies, simply because they don't have enough talents to even do 'their job', as defined by the game (See again: Old Yeller), and at high levels have so many talents that it becomes easier to start a new campaign than keep track of every exceptional 'thing' that they've learned along the way, most of which will be minor nuisance buffs that may often be forgotten in the kludge of having to remember (and find on a character sheet that inevitably only has room for ten or so Talents, yet might have to accomdate fifty or more in a decently long campaign), that you have a +2 to Endure when walking more than a mile.  Um.. yay?

Meta-Tech/Vidya Gaem Loot: The grand daddy of all RPGs, despite levelling Heros to the point where tossing planets becomes a mathematical possibility, never fucked this one up (though some of their decendents did, and recently too!).  A sharp pointy thing is a sharp pointy thing, no matter what you make it out of.  At the end of the day, while their are real and important reasons to use steel over bronze, the affect on a person stabbed by such a sword or knife, (or clubbed by a mace made of stone even...) is pretty much the same regardless of what metal you make it out of.  Technology, to be blunt, is not something that 'levels'.  Starfinder is not hte first game I've seen, nor Witcher even (though that one is close...) to use video game leveled weapons as a real feature of the setting, but it is ridiculously bad.  It is STUPID, and frankly, I wasn't that impressed by the mechanic in Video Games either. Now note, I am aware that magic weapons are a thing, and they tread up to the border of this ridiculousness, but what did I just call them? That's right: Magic.   Star-finder and the Witcher, and any other games I am currently forgetting or are blessedly ignorant of, are literally declaring that a norse battle ax is a tier leveled upgrade from a francisca, and That.Is.Just.Stupid.    A fundamental failure to understand technology indicates the game is designed by a moron and might well be unplayable as written because clearly only stupid people would write such nonsense.   If I had an earlier example of this entry (I don't, but if I did) it would probably be the more primitive and shockingly common 'One Gun to Rule them All', where a piece of equipment in any given catagory is clearly better than all the other entries, to the point where you wonder why anyone bothered listing all the vastly inferior equipment at all (or alternatively, said item costs so damn much you could buy a small army to do your adventuring for you if you could afford one, utterly making a mockery of hte notion of economics...)

I'm sure I have others, but frankly, reminding myself of these horrors is raising my blood pressure...  :P

Media and Inspiration / Cyberpunk: The best album you never heard
« on: November 14, 2020, 07:23:18 pm »
In celebration of the release of Cyberpunk: Red today(?), I thought I'd give you the low down and dirty on William Broad's 1993 album, Cyberpunk.

In context, this album is one of the most important of the decade it was released, and it definitively established Broad, popularly known as Billy Idol, as the first real life (perhaps only!) Cyberpunk in the world. It also destroyed his career, and it would be 13 years before he released his next and and penultimate album before disappearing into the hellscape of Gieco Commericals.   In order to understand how this musically mediocre album is among the most important of its time, we have to delve into the backstory.

In 1976 Broad was a 21 year old member of the Bromley Contingent, a crowd of fans that also produced musical act Siouxsie Sioux. He joined the band Chelsea, which later became Generation X, and it was one of his band members that crafted Idol's famous image.  Despite the punk background and stylings, Broad it seems was never particularly punk, and in fact is probably best described as a bit of a poser, an Actor playing a Rock Star with a Punk Look. Honestly, one look at the original Album Art for 1981's Billy Idol album and you get the impression he'd be happier performing with Wham. 

During the Generation X period, however, Broad began developing a bit of an ego and the typical rock star habits of overindulgence, and he created friction within the band by locking himself away to write songs on his own, without imput.  Shortly after Gen X splits, and Broad takes with him the last hit written and recorded for Generation X, a little ditty called Dancing With Myself, which he re-releases as a solo act virtually unchanged from its original form. In fact, of the three singles on Billy Idol's debut album, only one, White Wedding, was written by Idol for Idol. Mony Mony was a cover of the Shondels song of the same name.

It it worth revisiting that first album, also Billy's first with Guitarist Steve Stevens, as it channels the pure sound of Broad's musical sensibilities, unaltered by others, including I believe Stevens, who had a massive influence on the Idol sound, most notably in this case in White Wedding and Mony Mony.

In short, Broad, as Idol, appears very much to be a product. In somewhat exotic parlance, here we have the classic example of someone who 'took the ticket' to be a success.  Along the way he lost his artistic vision, his sense of identity, with Broad being entirely replaced by Idol, with his bleached hair, stupid tattoo and contacts instead of nerdy glasses.  Having taken that ticket, becoming a wholly owned and operated 'Product' for the masses was very, very good to Broad, however, as you cannot argue that Idol dominated the entire decade of the 1980, ending on a strong note with "Cradle of Love" in 1991.

Cradle of Love is a remarkable turning point, the apex of Broad's career as Idol.  The song itself was recorded for the Andrew Dice Clay movie, Ford Fairlaine, in which Idol was to appear as an actor, but reportedly a near death motorcycle accident saw him replaced by Robert Englund, and Ford Fairlaine largely disappeared from the pop culture landscape with barely a whisper, though it remains something of an underground cult classic to this day.

In short, in 1991 Broad was a the very peak, poised to dominate a new decade with new music, a prospective acting career (and recall too that Idol himself is nothing but a long running act).  After missing Ford Fairlaine, however, no new acting gigs appeared.  In fact, in his forty five year career, Broad has only netted three acting credits that are not 'Billy Idol':  Cat, in The Doors (1991), Lee Turner in Mad Dog Time (1996), and Mad Man Mulligan in Horrible Histories (2002).

What happened, of course, is the Album Cyberpunk, released in 1993.  At least.... publickly.  There is no obvious reason why Broad didn't continue pursuing acting between 1991 and 1993.   Cyberpunk was an album doomed to failure from the start, so its bombing shouldn't have ended a  very successful career. Broad was opposed at every turn by the record companies, Steve Stevens, who is at least as responsible for the Idol sound as Broad, didn't work on it. It wasn't even properly released through the usual channels. In short, Broad made this album against every single obstacle the studios threw at him, and against all odds, he succeeded. Unfortunately for him.

Or not.

As noted earlier, Billy Idol is an act, a product. William Broad's contributions behind the scenes are not negligible, but neither are they primary. Broad, as noted earlier, took the ticket, trading away his creative freedom for success at the very least.   Sometime around 1991 Broad... changed his mind.  He ripped up his ticket, spat in the face of his corporate overlords and said 'fuck you, I'm doing it Street'.  And with the ticket gone, so too were all the future acting gigs, the  other hallmarks of success.  In 1994 Broad suffered a Drug Overdose (GHB).   From this point on, Broad was relegated to minor appearances, and plagued with mysterious failures.

One might suggest a conspiracy theory of sorts, that somewhere between recording Charmed Life and its release, Broad began fighting over the terms of his corporate slavery, that the accident that utterly derailed his acting career (he was also slated to appear in Terminator 2 as the Terminator...), was either a cover to explain his sudden career downturn, or alternatively a deliberate 'message' from his bosses.  However, this is mere speculation.

Now that we've utterly set the stage, lets talk about the album itself, and how this makes Billy Idol in truth the worlds first, perhaps only, Cyberpunk.

Idol, one of the biggest pop-rock acts in the world recorded it at home on a Mac with Pro-Tools, prefiguring all those wannabe you-tube acts by at least twenty fucking years.  Street as fuck.  He ditched every influence, bringing on like minded individuals to produce the first 'William Broad' album since 1981. Honestly, that is one of the problems with it... Broad is a decent enough songwriter, but his sensibilities aren't really all that mainstream.  Most (not all...) of the rock seems to have come from Steve Stevens, notably absent on this album.  Honestly, if you play a mixed playlist of 1981's Billy Idol with 1993's Cyberpunk, other than the themes in the lyrics, many of the songs could belong on either album, only Cyberpunk really lacks any solid hits to compete with White Wedding or Mony, Mony... Shock to the System is alright, but nobody ever goes... man, i could really dig on Shock to the System right about now, right?

But other than being way too indulgent with intermissions and intros and outros (seriously: 12 minutes of the album is 'not-music'.... swear!), Cyberpunk is a perfectly servicable album, and even lacking the proper Idol sound, Broad was able to make a modest success of it in his native land. Hardly the thing that lays waste to careers.

But Spike... what makes him Cyberpunk?

You mean aside from the in-your-face attack on the corporate suits, and prefiguring the internet of You-tube by AT LEAST twenty motherfucking years?  How about this: It was the first album that was released digitally, well before Napster was a thing. It was the first album with the artist's email address in it.  Motherfucker: it was the first commercial album to be made on a goddamn computer rather than a proper studio.  Sometime between 1991 and 1993 William Motherfucking Broad travelled to the future, took one look at the landscape, and came back and said "You know? I may not have neural plugs, but fuck it, we're doing this shit Tomorrow!"  And so he did.  Alone, with nothing but the Street and his own Edge to carry him through.  At some point, Broad lived Idol so long it seems to have become Real, and the line between person and persona has been crossed. 

You may not know it, but you've been living in his world ever since. 

Disclaimer:  I am a fan.

Disclaimer Two: This probably needs a second draft, maybe one or two more fact checks, and a bit stronger finish... its all there, but frankly I'm pressed for time.  Happydaze reported earlier that Cyberpunk Red was released on DTRPG today, so I gotta get this out stat.  Frankly, I'm a bit disappointed in it, so feel free to stroke my ego and tell me how wonderful I really am... I won't mind.  8)

Reviews / Shinobigami
« on: September 26, 2020, 02:37:37 am »
This is a review of the RPG Shinobigami, from Kotodama Heavy Industries, written by Toichiro Kawashima, and translated by I believe the same people who did Double Cross and Tenra Bansho Zero (don't quote me on that).

I picked this slim little hardback book up for twenty dollars, and I have to admit I do enjoy learning a bit about how the Japanese RPG culture works, though I do suspect some selection bias, as I believe the people finding and translating these games are in fact Storygamers (boo! HIss!!!!). Even if they are, of course, I have to give them full credit for the work they are doing, but if they are ignoring more traditional style games, for shame!

I've noted that Tenra Bansho Zero and Double Cross were remarkably similar in a great many ways, most notably giving you an insentive to grow in power, but also punishing you with permanent death of your character for actually achieving that power... and combining a social/gambling mechanic to 'save' your character at the end of the game/session.  While little else about these two games could be called the same, but in that area they were damn near clones of each other.  I am pleased to note Shinobigami does not have anything remotely similar.

What it does have in common, especially with Double Cross, is that the game is heavily structured around a highly episodic anime/manga style of game play, but more on that later.

Shinobigami is a game about playing Ninjas, particularly ninjas from Ninja themed Mangas, though it does emphasize modern japan, I imagine it wouldn't be hard to adapt it to a more fantasy style setting.  There is a fair amount of emphasis on intra-party conflict, but most notably it is a fast and loose pick-em up style game. And while the rules are simple and loose, they are also innovative and work strongly to support the style of game play that the designers wanted.

As an aside, I think this is the first game I've bought in a while with rough, pulp paper instead of high gloss, and I'm absolutely loving it.  I can compare the simple pleasure of reading from actual paper vs glossy plastic paper to the difference between reading a book and reading a kindle on your phone.  Maybe that's just me, but I'm heartily sick of slick, high gloss paper.

Anyway: Apparently it is a tradition in Japanese RPGs to include a fairly expansive example of Play to teach the mechanics, though I can't recall TBZ doing this, and while Double Cross did, they weren't nearly as obsessive or through about it (though they did use chibi art for their demonstrations, as I recall). ANyway, the first half of the book is one long example of play, and entire session from creating a character all the way to the denouement of the session. I first skipped this, but later read the entire thing and it was quite illustrative and well done.   There is surprisingly little artwork, and what there is manages to be somewhat manga/anime-esque while actually looking not so manga-anime esque... probably because they aren't worried about being inauthentic. 

Characters are handled quite differently than most games in that they are almost entirely defined by their skills, though this does not work as you'd expect.  I need to break this down in a bit of detail so it makes sense.

You have a clan of ninjas (there are six, and there is a cycle of rivalries, though this is mostly flavor). There are six catagories of skill and each clan favors one catagory. Example Catagories are Martial Arts, Sorcery, Stealth... I should just name them all...  The catagories are further broken down into approximately ten skills.  For Example, Martial Arts includes 'Riding' 'Ballistics' 'Unholy Strength', and 'Contortionism'... you might see that these breakdowns aren't quite what you'd expect. Anyway: You get three skills from your clan's favored catagory and three picks of your choosing.  There are no numbers, you either have the skill or you don't.  When you need to do something you roll 2d6 on a difficulty of 5+ the number of steps away from the nearest skill you have (moving to a new catagory is usually two steps, unless it is right across from a skill you have).

Also the Catagories are your hit points. When you take damage, you randomly lose a catagory of skill.

Beyond that you have Ninpo, which are your main ninja powers, taken from a reasonably tight, but very very generic list... Starting Characters get 5.  When I say very, very generic I mean it. Unlike many games where the powers are designed with specific rules to them, generally the Ninpo only has an effect. THe skill you roll to activate it is picked by the player (This also determines the dodge skill, btw), who can also define its special effects.  One example character in the play example based most of their Ninpo on acupuncture, so all their powers involved needles. Another based theirs on pyromancy, and so they had a sword made of fire. 

Then you have one (for starting characters) Ohgi, which is your super secret trump move. Seriously, teh character sheet is designed to be folded at one end to hide your Ohgi from the other players, though this is actually sort of pointless. There are only seven Ohgi effects, from 'does 4 points of damage' to 'does AoE damage' to 'heal yourself 1d6' and that sort, everything else is special effects devised by the player.  Other characters, to include PCs can 'block' your Ohgi only after they've seen it once before, and you can get pretty wild with describing it in action.  Seeing as there are only seven possible effects and the character needs to have witnessed the ohgi personally to block it, hiding part of your sheet is sort of silly. Not completely silly, only sort of.

That is about ninety five percent of your character creation.  You can have some one use ninja items that grant re-rolls, and you have details like your name and your cover identity (because: Ninja, silly!), and there are tables galore to help with setting things up.

BUt that isn't really all there is to the game.

You see, at the start of the game every character (and important NPC) gets a secret and a mission.  Its often quite important to game play to discover the other player's, and the NPC's secrets, and if possible their actual mission, as at the end of the game there appears to be a 'winning' character who gets a 'prize', which is an advantage of sorts that I believe carries on to the next 'episode'.

Because this is very much an episodic game.  Play actually breaks down into three 'cycles' of scenes. Each player gets a scene which they can declare to be a dramatic scene or a fight scene, and the GM can introduce 'Master Scenes' in each cycle. The Player can bring other PCs and established NPCs into the scene, and through this process create 'Emobonds' which is a goofy ass made up term for what is presented as a uniquely Japanese cultural thing. Emobonds is 'emotional bonds', there is a table of six (Most tables are of six), with a single positive and negative trait listed, such as 'Affection or Mistrust', and the player picks which he wants (each character in an Emobond rolls there own).  These Emobonds allows characters to participate in scenes they weren't invited to, and to share information including Secrets, and these scenes are how secrets are discovered (pretty much someone learns a secret in any given scene).

This isn't my style of play, but in this particular case, given how light and loose the game is, I can definitely see how keeping it works to the game's advantage.

I should remark on how combat works, specifically Initiative, which is called 'Plot' here.  Each player rolls a d6, and there is a chart of eight places (0 and 7 are included). THis is rolled in secret. THere is a Ninpo which lets you roll twice, and you can 'guess' another character's Plot roll (this may be a Ninpo too, probably is, I just missed it in the read through), in which case you can 'curse' them by sealing away a random skill catagory.

That's a minor inovation on the bog standard 'high roll goes first', but more interestingly, various attacks have a 'Plot' value... you can only use them if your Plot and your Target's Plot are close enough together. Punching someone in the face? Better have exactly the same Plot value, bub.

And that is it. That is Shinobigami in a nutshell.  There are a lot of things that I don't like on general principle about the design, but I have to admit that the game as a whole holds together rather well. Its simple and episodic, but the designer very clearly also took rule zero to heart, as the play example is littered with all sorts of 'not in the rules' sorts of decisions, and even an out and out mistake in the rules (doing a Combat Scene action during a Dramatic Scene) by one of the players that the GM missed, which is called out in the footnotes, with the advise to just roll with it, as having fun and keeping the game interesting is more important that rules pedantry.

I can get behind that.  And given the price, I can highly recommend this to anyone looking for a neat little game for quick pick up sessions, and to anyone curious about how the Japanese RPG scene looks.

Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games (RPGs) Discussion / Dramatic Scene Structure
« on: September 26, 2020, 01:40:53 am »
I've been seeing a lot of games lately that are heavily structured around very specific arrangements of scenes. First you have a Dramatic Scene, then a Fighting scene, then an Intermission scene, then back to a Dramatic Scene...

Ok, so obviously I'm not singling out any particular game with that really bad dramatization of the structure, but you get the picture. I've commented somewhat lightly on this in the past with Burning Empires, which I think was my first exposure to this sort of structured play (that was... ten years ago, more or less??), and since then I had mostly seen it in Japanese RPGs, which admittedly appear to be mostly translated and introduced to American game markets by Storygamers, so perhaps some selection bias.

But I'm seeing it more, and at last I think I have better grasp on why this irritates me so much. 

Its regressive.

This is one of those 'big' innovations in game design that the story-games crowd loves to pull, but its not an innovation at all. Its not a 'new thing' its a step back, an old, largely forgotten thing... not unlike the barter-gift economy that is supposed to replace money in Eclipse Phase. Good job wiping out thousands of years of social development in the name of progress!

This isn't so drastic as all that, but perhaps I should start at the beginning.

Games, as you probably know, evolved from Wargames, from the players of said Wargames, to whit EGG and Dave Arneson and co. looking at their armies with their cool hero-leaders and deciding to explore 'what if I just had this one dude and how did he get his cool sword'...  and the very first iteration was very true to its wargaming roots. I'm not familiar with Chainmail itself, but I know it is more wargame than RPG, and I can assume that it had a strict turn structure like a wargame.

By the time we get to D&D, and in what appears to be parallel development, Traveller, RPGs were absolutely not Wargames. Turns structure combat, almost by necessity, but play virtually no other role in teh game.

And it worked. It works still.  One of the fundamental appeals of this sort of 'open' game design is that it allows you to... oh god, I'm going to use an ideologically corrupted word... Immerse yourself in the world.  You might expect to delve into dungeons, but you know... if you don't and you still have fun, that's actually cool too.

Like a vast number of gamers, I was introduced to D&D via the mechanism of a Tavern, an old guy in a hooded cloak, and a short trip to a cave that turned out to be the entrance to a dungeon. Its a cliche, but like so many players, I lived it long before i knew it was a cliche.  But no where in the rules did it say I needed to visit the old guy in teh tavern to get the dungeon quest. THat's video game logic, which RPGs never needed, because they ran with human imagination as the primarly operating system.

I have had many game sessions, as a player and more rarely as a GM, where 'nothing happened', and yet the group had fun. I recall joining a game and one of the very first sessions we just hung out in town, in one of the PC's monastery, doing shopping and chilling 'in character'. A bit weird, I suppose, certainly not an ideal game session, but no one was upset.  More recently, in my first 5e game, shortly after leaving the dungeon the rest of the session was spent hiring a donkey cart to go back and retrieve a cool looking statue I'd seen there.  Half the party decided to join in, while the other half did.. stuff.. in town.   No one was upset or bored, and these were players who had only just moved on from pure League style play and were still getting their traditional gamer legs.

Now, a defense of rigidly structured scene 'play' was that you can DO all of that with the rigidly structured scenes. Maybe the statue recovery is a 'downtime scene' (EP 2e actually has that, the only scene structure in the entire game, I belive...).

And sure, you CAN do stuff like that with a highly structured format... but why should you have to 'make it work'? 

My point is that this 'innovation' is first, a return to the wargaming structure that was abandoned for good reasons when the game became 'roleplaying' instead of 'warplaying'. 

And second that it amounts to forcing the GM and the Group to adopt a play style that is probably artificial for them. THe more coded into the rules this play style is, the less flexible the game is by nature.  It trying to force 'advice' into 'laws', and that sucks on general principle.

Structuring everything into scenes, and having a schedule for the scenes to follow, isn't necessarily a bad idea in and off itself. There are many groups and many GMs that can benefit from having a format to follow. Its training wheels for them, and some people really do benefit from having training wheels.  But when you force everyone to use the training wheels they become an obstacle, in some cases for the actual game itself, and I think increasingly that experienced players and groups will start avoiding games that force (with rules) this structure on them, simply because it increasingly gets in the way, but maybe I'm being optimistic.

THe most interesting element of all of this, to me, is that to design a game where every single moment of play is structured and codified, where every possible action must be accounted for in a flow chart of action, rather than simply allowing players to interact freely and organically with open ended tools, must actually be harder to design. It provides an additonal point of failure in the design, an additional way for the game to go wrong. It is extra work for no real return other than the twisted satisfaction of controlling how complete anonymous strangers play your game.

I intend to do a proper review of this book when I have time and energy, but I don't want to get side tracked into a long side-rant when I do, so I thought I'd get this issue off my chest, and open up a hopefully interesting conversation along the way.

Simply to get it out of the way, the creators of Eclipse Phase are quite obviously very much pro-social justice and 'allies' and all of the other issues of the progressive left. This is not meant as an aspersion upon their collective characters, but a simple statement of fact, of where their beliefs lie.  This is relevant to the topic at hand, as presumably they are deeply concerned with being 'allies' if they themselves do not identify as some species of 'queer', and this informs their worldbuilding.

There are three topics of sex that are raised in Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition, which were largely (and appropriately) glossed over in 1st Edition, and the writers of EP seem to have allowed their perceived status to have overcome their common sense in world building. These three topics are, approximately, Homosexuality, Transexuality and Interspecies Romance.  Note that I am forced to condense complex topics into simple subject headers, so please keep your outrage at my 'hate' confined to your pants until I've actually addressed these issues in the post.  Its only going to be a paragraph or two until I get there, you can wait.  As a bonus round I will also briefly gloss on the subject of childcare in the Transhuman Future.

To understand why these are issues, it is necessary to understand the explicit and implicit nature of the Eclipse Phase setting.  The core premise which EP is built around, and thus can define itself as distinct from any and all other Science Fiction RPGs and settings, is the fundamental idea that "you" is not a body but a mind, an 'ego' which can change bodies the way people of today change clothes.  Thus, any attempts to define a person by their origins or flesh is fundamentally doomed to failure. A coded computer program can run a biological body and call itself 'Bob', while the person who was in 'Bob's' body yesterday is now  a digital entity slaving away at processor stacks, probably mining cryptocurrency. 

This has drastic implications for the setting, for Humanity as a whole, and a great deal of the writing for Eclipse Phase involves inviting you to explore those implications.

Well, with a few exceptions.  Namely: You can explore them as long as you are willing to indulge in draging early 21st Century sexual politics into a setting that has fundamentally changed the scene, complete and unchanged.   Frankly I'm surprised BLM didn't get dragged into this new edition... perhaps it hit the presses a couple of months too early? 

When I want to talk about homosexuality in Eclipse Phase, what I really mean to talk about is the entire spectrum sexuality as we understand it.  In a way, this should be my second topic, but I think it is the most interesting so its first.  You see: while in one way Eclipse Phase 'solves' the entire "Problem" of homosexuality in society, what it actually does is make it far more complex and interesting, at least from the perspective of a writer wanting to explore the human condition.  Once upon a time you were relatively limited in what you could do: heterosexual romance, homosexual romance, cross sexual orientation attraction... that is a gay man attracted to a straight man (and how that influences their character dynamics), a straigtht man attracted to a gay woman (etc) and so on.  The first option is the default, and will always be the default simply due to demographics (that is: a majority gay population, favoring a majority gay romance in literature, will quickly spiral into demographic death), and the second is currently the most popular in our modern culture. Both are relatively simple and mined out, you are not saying or doing anything interesting by exploring either. The third option I mention used to be fairly popular, and because it offers complex dynamics could be interesting even in a side character (I'm thinking of Travolta's gay henchmen in the Punisher film, and how their relationship plays out in the film).  But there are only limited ways to play that out. Unrequited romance, tragic unrequited romance, or eventually a homosexual romance.

Enter Eclipse Phase and body swapping. A new variable appears, and the equation gets much more complex.  Allow me to set an example: A man working for firewall goes on a mission to Mars, where he is expected to shoot a bunch of Exhumans in the face. He naturally wants to get into a combat morph, and that means a Fury. He doesn't see himself as a woman, doesn't pick his morph because of the tits, he just wants a solid combat morph, and prefers biomorphs. So, for the duration of his trip to Mars, he is in a woman's body. While he is there he meets a woman who just hits all his buttons. She's hot, of course. All morphs default to hot unless otherwise specified, but there is a real connection.  This woman, as it turns out, is a woman. And she likes him back. As a woman, and plans to follow him back to, lets say Venus, where he normally lives. As a man.

Hopefully, just in the setup of this premise, you can see how this creates entirely new dynamics of sexual attraction and queerness. NEW dynamics, it eliminates the old dynamics entirely.   Unfortunately, I rather suspect that Posthuman studios caught some flak after first edition for 'erasing' the LGBTWTFBBQ issues in 1st Edition, because you sure as shit see a strong emphasis on modern queer identity based issues in the 2nd. No Erasure in this edition, my friend...

Which brings me to my second topic, Transexuality, or to put it a bit more broadly: Sexual Identity Politics. If the 'gay' issue was utterly transformed by the premise of Eclipse Phase, then the Trans issue was completely 'solved'.  See yourself born into the wrong body? Don't worry, mang, you ditched that one long ago for one that is more to your liking. Before the game even started!. I mean: If you are 'lucky' enough (per the setting's premises) to actually have a gendered body at all.     

This is where politics come to the fore, however. You can't just erase the entire Trans movement, and all the surrounding prenumbras of sexual identities just because your setting's core premise magically solves every single issue raised!  Not that EP set out to cure the Trans movement's ills, or this is something they added to the setting because of Sexual Identity Politics... this is the entire premise of the setting, this is the core, the foundation upon which it is built!   

But as I said, Posthuman Studios are very concerned with Social Justice Issues and with being good allies (they go so very far as to insist that their game should not be played by fascists or pro-fascist people.  Curiously, I am unaware of any actual fascists who are interested in RPGs. They are rather hard to find these days, but Posthuman Studios inability to define a fairly well understood political movement is a digression...  The point is that Posthuman Studios absolutely must display their Trans Ally Bonafides or risk being ejected from the club of good-thinkers, regardless of what their setting actually does.  Frankly the end result is fucking hilarious, and it raises far more questions about the setting than it could ever hope to answer. 

For example: While the number of example characters has vastly expanded, and said characters have expanded into fully developed characters rather than frameworks, what is more noteworthy is that now it is super important that we understand each character's biological sex, gender identity AND sexuality. I feel compelled to point out that the idea of neckbeards playing lesbian stripper ninjas is well over thirty years old at this point, Gamers REALLY don't need to be told that they can play whatever gender and sexuality they like, but I digress.  This insistance on providing these details for well over a dozen distinct individual characters means that some... interesting... examples are raised.  Just to prove their virtue, one of the examples was born Intersex, and is listed as Non-Binary.    To clarify the point:

Unless your parents were horrible, evil no-good bioconservatives (and probably fascists!), then you were born into a Splicer  Morph by default, which means that all of your genetics were 'cleaned' to ensure no unfortunate health problems arose. One would naturally assume that 'intersex', the condition of being born with both sets of genetalia (usually with one set being non-functional, or less than fully functional) would have been 'erased' from Splicers, and all 'up-scale' biomorphs even if it isn't seen as being an actual 'health issue'... and if not, why not?  But lets continue delving into this example character's issues, shall we?  Since this character is NOT in a Splicer Morph (because... ew! That's almost as low-rent as being a Flat! (where being intersex would be understandable).    No, they are in a Sylph Morph. So, does this mean that Morph Designers are creating a significant numbers of Intersex models for the tiny handful of naturally intersex individuals and the even smaller amount (presumably) of Intersex afficionados?  I can't speak for everyone, but my explorations of the Interwebz has taught me that far more people would be interested in functional Hermaphrodites and Futas than in the semi-nonfunctional, but all too real, Intersex.  Weirdly, however, Eclipse Phase doesn't have any morphs that I can recall that are Herms, but somehow this individual can always find an Intersex Morph whenever they resleeve. Curious.

That would be one weird character with some questionable design choices, but it goes on. THe very next character has 'Gender:Female" and 'Sex: Male" listed without a single bit of commentary as to why someone who identifies as female apparently consistently chooses male morphs. I'm not saying its not possible, or even likely, but now that you've raised the issue, you kinda need to tell me why, Posthuman Studios.  This is a very interesting facet to this charater that needs to be given at least some explanation, right?  I mean, if you showed me a D&D Elf who preferred living among Orcs, I'd expect some commentary about why.... or is the answer 'This is nonsense we had to include to appease our fellow travellers and we really don't know why someone would do that in our setting other than to prove a point of 21st century queer politics...'?

Moving on: We have the character with Gender Neuter and Sex:-, which would be fine if they were an AGI, but apparently they were born and raised a person who then decided to live an utterly asexual life as a spider robot. Again: Not saying it can't happen, but isn't the entire point of the modern Gender Politics movement that biological sex is innate, but Gender is a choice? Who were they before they were a spider robot? Small potatoes, lets move on... I'll speed it up: THe next character is also a sexless robot, but this one has a male gender. M'kay...  a few more pages we have an AGI (computer person) slotted into a genderless Synth robot shell who has the Gender of Female, but no Sex...

But I missed one: I missed the character with an 'undefined' gender, a female sex and an apparently (based on Pronouns... for all I know it could be a Riley Denis and 'her' 'lesbian' girlfriend who really enjoyed Riley's dick on the regular. I'm old fashioned, but to me that means Riley is a man, his girlfriend is straight, and everything they say about sex is needlessly complex and probably wrong...). What does Undefined MEAN? That's female looking art and a female 'sex', so what exactly is 'undefined' in this context? Now I don't even know what you mean by Gender OR Sex in these examples!  So Confuse.

I am not, but I thought it would be fun to say.  What I actually mean is that clearly Posthuman Studios threw all of this in the second edition because in the decade or so since the publication of the first edition the Progressive Stack altered RADICALLY and the culture war went hotter than ever, which meant that new, hotter takes were necessary, even if it merely winds up exposing how made up most of this all is, how much of it was crammed into a setting which cannot support it meaningfully, just to make a public declaration of allegiance.

I haven't even got to the best example yet:  In a later chapter on sexuality in the Transhuman Future (A waste of three pages, in all fairness, regardless of your setting...), there is a 'in character' sidebar of some size written from the perspective of a Trans Activist in the setting, pointing out that Trans is still a thing, etc. It is extremely abrasive and in your face and ends with a parting shot about being off to a Drag Show, and the entire thing is so, unbelievably bad... bad optics, bad representation, bad...everything (also: There is a difference between Transwoman and Drag Queen. Yes, yes... plenty of cross over, but they ARE Different Areas of Interest despite the similarities) that I can only think that one of the writers must have been as offended by including it as I was at reading it... it reads like a Poe, or like the writer was TRYING to make the Transhuman Trans Activist look as bad as possible as a passive aggressive shot at whomever insisted he write it. If so: I tip my hat to you, good sir or madam or xim...

But I've gone a bit too long, so lets get to the third point while we are fresh on the topic of the chapter on sexuality.

So, Posthuman Studios really, really wants to make a thing out of sexless robot Case Morphs having romantic dinners with their uplifted Octopus mate, and infomorp AGI sex workers masturbating based on which filing system they use to archive conversations. It is all very, very sad. 

But it fits all too well with one of the less well understood facets of the Progressive worldview, which is that whole Pansexuality thing (you know: Lando Calrissian banging his Droid Co-Pilot...). I'm not suggesting all progressives, or all left leaning individuals go for this, but it is a part of their movement, and Posthuman Studios, with a setting ripe for exploring that sort of weirdness, had to go there.  A huge part of what makes this assumption work is the idea that sexual attraction is all in the mind, biology need not apply. This is an evolution of the post-modernist idea that attractiveness is a social construct, that standards of beauty vary wildly from culture to culture. I certainly agree that different cultures can value different things in 'beauty', but that these tend to be variations within a surprisingly tight tolerance... that biology creates attractiveness, from there a culture layers on additional factors, sometimes to surprising degrees, but never too far out from that biological baseline.

However: Posthuman Studios also thinks that 21st Century Mental Disorders are merely lifestyle choices in the Transhuman future, and thus we are forced to assume they think paraphilias (people who want to fuck cars, or mannikens, or brick walls) are, in fact, on to something rather than people with an actual, if mostly harmless, insanity.  If you start from the premise that car-fucking is perfectly natural and normal, than I suppose assuming that a genderless robot body (with out genitalia or a hormonal system) having a functional erotic relationship with an octopus (a species with absolutely no attraction vectors in common with humanity... I assume. Bold choice, I know.), is similarly natural.

Note that I don't dispute that it is possible. People fuck cars, after all. If you have sentient cars, it is only a matter of time before you find one that is into people rubbing their ugly bits on it.  I do dispute that it is natural, or common, or that it needs to be pimped by the writers as something that should feature heavily in their Eclipse Phase Games about fighting Post Singularity AI-Gods turned Cthulu by body-hopping and shooting things in the face.  I further would argue that someone in a Case Morph (genderless cheap robot bodies) who is sexually attracted to uplifted octopoids is far more likely to succeed at the romance of their dreams by actually getting an octopoidal body of their own.  And if they are in it for the Hentai? Why a sexless robot body?

Why am I asking all of these weird questions? Because Posthuman Studios clearly didn't. And since they wanted to write about it, they sort of needed to.   No one was satisfied by the Lando question being answered with 'It just works', and that was a movie, a 90minute time filler. You are a three hundred page book meant to be explored by groups of, say, four people at time for four or more hours at a shot, week after week. 'it just works' is a cop out. 

Oh, do you care about my opinion on software masterbation via filing systems?  Its three shades of stupid, but lets save time by leaving it at that, shall we?

Part one

Reviews / Carbon 2185
« on: June 29, 2020, 01:20:51 pm »
I saw this game mentioned in a thread on Cyberpunk, and as I'm an unrepentant fan of the genre, I decided to check it out, without knowing anything else about it.  So you get a review.

To begin with, it seems it is only available from the company's website, with prices listed in Euros, so I'm going to guess that they are European?  The book was reasonably pricey, but not obnoxiously so, but it did arrive fairly quickly, I'd say just over a week.  Pleasantly, the artwork on the website is very much in line with the artwork in the book, so no false advertising. I was going to avoid any social commentary, especially involving 'behind the scenes speculation', but I did note that in the credits that someone with a familial name (wife? Daughter? Trans-son?) of the designer/lead writer, was given an art credit, and there is a single piece of stand-out art, in the worst possible way, in the book... like napkin-sketch bad, tucked in behind a much more professional bit of artwork in the character chapter.  Just say no, man...

But I'm already drifting.

Credit to Dragon Turtle Games, the book is beautiful and well put together, with solid artwork that mostly fits a specific theme and style, creating a solid visual cohesion to the work, though there are a few pieces that don't quite fit quite as well thematically, I can only recall the single background piece that doesn't fit qualitatively.  I suspect a couple of pieces are 3d Render art, but done well enough that their only real flaw is that the don't fit with the graphic theme of the rest of the art.  

Carbon 2185 is also well organized as a book, better organized, for example, than the 5E D&D PHB. It starts a basic rundown of the rules, flows into character creation, then into a deeper rules chapter before a clean break to talk about the setting in detail, all while giving you lots of little morsels of setting in an organic and easily digestible format.  

Before I begin delving into the chapters, I should start by explaining that Carbon 2185 is, from a rule standpoint, very little other than a mild variant of 5E D&D.  In fact, I'd say that its greatest flaw is that it doesn't adapt enough, given the conceptual distance between its setting conceits and those of D&D, but that said it does provide some interesting takes on the 5E formula that are worth a deeper look, which we'll get to as we go.  At a skim, however, the basic mechanics of the game are fundamentally unchanged from 5E.

After a brief gloss of the setting (Put a pin in that), and another brief gloss over the rule conceits, we jump right into character creation.  I'll note here that Carbon 2185 does change the names of two of the stats (wisdom and Charisma to Technology and People... and that some adjustments to skills does occur (Perception is now an Intelligence skill)), and that levels are capped at 10 instead of 20, so its not a exact port, but for all that we start with 'Races', and since this isn't Cyber-Fantasy, almost all of the races are actually cultural groups of humans, from Badlanders to Korporate Kids, to Gutterpunks and so forth, the only exception being 'Synths', which are also called Replicants', in a clear nod to Blade Runner, despite otherwise being a very poor representation of Blade Runner Replicants in every other respect... and with this chapter I can't help but think that the core conceits of D&D simply do not mesh well the grittier style of a 'realistic' Cyberpunk setting... I can't help thinking of the general failure of Cyber-Generation, which also pigeon-holed characters into these sort of odd tribal/racial groups based on subcultures.    Further, in 'current gaming' where mechanical balance rules supreme, the very idea of Replicant/Synths as a playable race makes something of a mockery of the concept.   Synths cannot be in any meaningful way more powerful/capable than ordinary humans, and so they also cannot have meaningful flaws as that would unbalance them in the other direction.  Being a Synth is little more than a colorful 'tag' on your sheet rather than a meaningful marker of who and what you are.

After races we move naturally to classes, which as noted above are limited to ten levels, and presumably thus limits the game to ten levels.  The classes are... interesting... in that most are thin reskins of fantasy classes given 'cyberpunk names', though any truly fantastic elements are stripped out.  For example, the Daimyo (the first class presented) is and, admittedly interesting, reskin of the barbarian class. Mechanically it has a Rage Mechanic, which otherwise makes no good god-damn sense, as fluff wise the Daimyo is distinct from the Enforcer (the Fighter Reskin), in that it makes leadership a core feature of the class.  The absurdity of the rage mechanic is driven home with a bit of fluff text involving a Daimyo sniper tapping into their 'rage' to... snipe.  That's just silly.

To clarify, we have six classes: Daimyo (Barbarians with miniguns and leadership), Docs (medics with nano-implants so they can have healing class abilities), Enforcers (Fighters, just... fighters), Hackers (they... hack. They are the 'pet monger' class, as well, having a robot minion class ability), Investigators (more shades of Blade Runner), and Scoundrels (Reskinned Rogues/Thieves, with hints of Han Solo for good measure).  The shorted classes and sometime crude hack job to turn fantasy tropes into Cyberpunk tropes means that the already shallow 5E D&D classes are made even shallower, since there is less room for tinkering in your class.

However, from here we take a very interesting left turn.  One of the more innovative ideas in 5E was their implementation of Backgrounds, something I've seen bleeding into Pathfinder (or rather in Starfinder, but that is an essay for the main forums...).  Carbon 2185 takes a significant departure here, into what I can only call 'Traveller Territory'.   I'm not even kidding, if you've ever seen an iteration of Traveller's character generation, the influence is unmistakable.  In 'background' generation you have a choice of ten very broadly defined 'careers', the first one being 'corporate drone', you take a five year term (put a pin in that), gain a skill proficiency, make a survival check, get some loot, and if you make it long enough, even have a retirement.  Honestly its both shockingly naked theft, and brilliant and seamless innovation all in one. I rather like it, even as I weary of age=competence game design (which is shockingly inappropriate for Cyberpunk, which has always been a 'young' genre. Old punks are sad punks.)

Actually, starting here, inappropriate as it might be for the genre, Carbon 2185 actually starts to shine, as Dragon Turtle (or Marriner-Dodds), struts there stuff, flexing their creative muscles rather than just chopping up D&D to make it fit.  Right after the cheeky steal from Traveller, we get a d100 table of random vices, which doesn't seem to do anything mechanical, but does provide a lot of inspiration for Roleplaying and building character.  While I'm not quite the 'random table' fan that many old school grognards seem to be, I heartily approve of these sort of non-mechanic fillips of characterization.

We take a break from creativity to handle gear, which is painfully generic, and yet manages to squeeze in (barely, to be fair) the 'one item to rule them' sort of weapon design I despise.  To whit: If you want a pistol, you'll always want the one branded pistol, rather than the nameless generic.  Its not massively better, but it is better. Ditto the SMGs, ditto the combat shotguns, ditto the... well you get the idea.  Mostly this is painfully generic, and shockingly thin on specifics.  As a note, while Armor does work pretty much in D&D fashion (making you harder to hit), they do have little bits of innovation in the use of Damage resistances (the modern armors provide either some specific DR against ballistics, or actually provide resistance), which, while modest, is an appreciated touch, and one that could have been used in prior iterations of D&D, making slashing, piercing and bludgeoning damages actually mean something, as well as providing more meaningful distinctions to the various armor choices than simply scaling the numbers...).   As a bit of world building, the vehicles do include three sizes of Mecha, ranging from Power Armor to... abstractly bigger, I assume 10-12 feet tall at the largest simply due to the scale of weapons and vehicle hit points, but we are given no clue or context anywhere in the book.  So this is anime cyberpunk then?

Next we get to augementation, which aren't really gear but exist in a nebulous sort of space between mundane gear and some sort of character power.  I am again reminded that the conceits of D&D do not seem to mesh well with the genre conceits of Cyberpunk, not least of which is that technology is replicable, and the 'cutting edge' of yesterday is commonplace today and is out-dated tomorrow, but since we're working with what we've got, how does Carbon 2185 handle the cyber in cyberpunk?  Badly, but in a new and exciting way, I guess.

So to start with the vast majority of cyberware doesn't actually exist mechanically. Much like being a Synth, its a minor cosmetic detail, so the only cyberware that seems to be in the book is that which has a mechanical effect (Rules that is...). This creates a bit of conflict in the world building due to the balancing mechanic.  You see to keep high cyber characters from dominating, there has to be a limit to how much cyber you can cram into a person (logically we've failed by starting from a flawed, or rather unproven, premise, but its traditional in Cyberpunk games, so we'll roll with it for now.), in this case, it seems that the technology of Carbon 2185 has taken a giant step backwards, in that all their batteries and power-generation technologies are horribly leaky and toxic, so despite advanced medical technology giving people longer, healthier lives, they actually don't live much longer than real world people because they are being poisoned constantly. And every piece of cyberware increases the amount of poison you have to live with. Rules wise you add up the value of your augmentations and compare it to double your Constituition modifier (see here why abstracting away non-mechanical cyberware, like cyber-arms that work like real arms, fails?).  Interestingly, you can go higher, but then you have to take drugs that either raise your con mod by 1 or 2, and do so for short, moderate or long times (1 hour, to one day), making many people addicted to their anti-cyber-toxin meds the default way of life, very Cyberpunkish, actually.)... and since you get your first cybernetics at birth...

Rather than giving a comprehensive list of cybernetic augments, each with their own cost, benefit and penalty (blood toxicity in this case), Carbon 2185 abstracts things down to tiers of Augments, ranging from 0 to 5 (the Tier 0 augments do not raise Blood Toxicity...but also have virtually no rules attached to them).  So, for example, instead of buying a cyberarm, you can get a Tier 0 Augment 'replacement', which allows you to say 'My right arm is cybernetic', but otherwise has no rules attached to it whatsoever.  There are no 'Tier 1 Replacements', but there are higher tier augements that are listed as being arm or leg specific (or eye specific) that are really just set dressing for their specific rule.  For example the Tier 1 'Jager Legs' give you +5 to your movement speed, while the Tier 2 Runner Legs give you +10 to your move and a bonus to your dash action.  

I find this depressingly unevocative.  It is functional, yes, but then so is telling a story of the Hero's Journey by nakedly referencing the mechanical underpinnings of the Hero's Journey. The set dressing is not just for show, its almost the entire point.   None of these Augments has a specific cost, as the key to getting them is to raise something called Influence, which is tied to your level, but I am skipping ahead. In short, if you want Tier 5 Augments (which are explicitely illegal, cutting edge experimental cybernetics, and also would radically transform your character (literally. One is 'extra set of arms', another is 'giant mechanical wings'... which I'll point out is a lot more fantasy than cyberpunk usually allows...), you pretty much have to be level 10. Again, and again, we see the conceits of D&D do not mesh well with the genre expectations of Cyberpunk (one of which is often some ordinary person getting something way out of their league, which either allows them to punch up (to borrow a phrase), or hoists them on their own petard...  technology is ruthless and pitiless, it cares not how deserving its user is, nor how unfair its victims may find its tender mercies...  That is, fundamentally, the paradigm shift embodied in the quote "God man Man, Sam Colt made them Equal".).

From here the game shifts into overdrive, providing a series of micro-rules to alter D&D to Cyberpunk, with Addiction (the bulk of the rules are, of course, actual drugs), and then Influence, divided into Corporate and Street, and would be quite interesting if only it wasn't inextricably tied to one's level.... then on through variations on downtime, resting, travel and so forth.  Some is better than others, and all of it is on some level necessary to alter the setting from a fantasy setting to a near(ish) future cyberpunk one.

This, combined with the combat and rules chapters (weird but understandable division), takes us almost literally halfway through the book. The whole second half is, counting the three part sample adventure, worldbuilding. this is a very generous amount of space, and I wish I could say it was well spent and well done.   I'll save my overview for the end in this case.

So we start with a basic timeline of how we got from today to 2185.  This is VERY thin on details, focusing largely on the megacorporations dealings with eachother, and to drive home just how shallow it is, its divided into roughly 50 year blocks of time.  It... isn't very good, to be honest, and it seems highly misdirected. Does anyone care at all that 100 years prior to the setting that Corporation X bought out the assets of Corporation Z?  I hope so, because that is pretty much the entire focus of the history.   This leads to a common, and here quite a bit more blatant, problem with corporate focused Cyberpunk Settings, the utter failure to understand the relationships between Governments and Corporations.  Here we have no discussion at all of Governments or Nations, as the Corporations apparently rendered them so weak and powerless that they no longer exist.  Great, nothing wrong with that, but it fails to make the conceptual leap that this means the Corporations are no longer beholden to any rules, and more importantly, as Soveriegn Entities, are now effectively Goverments in their own rights.  In, say, CP2020, (which ironically doesn't make this mistake, having real governments with real teeth... weakened and in the background but still present), you can excuse corporations acting as parasitic economic entities rather than the Governments they've become simply because it is a time of flux, a transition period from one soveriegn paradigm to another, but Carbon 2185 presupposes that this state of affairs has been on-going for more than a century.   Eh... this has become a minor hobby horse of mine, and frankly I'm sure many of the classics would equally offend if looked at by my more wisened and jaded eyes.

Anyway, from here we do move into better territory, a fairly extensive list and description of the 19 or so Mega-corporations, giving enough detail to let the setting breath without so much as to smother you with irrelvancies. Each Corp gets a half page (Columnar), but weirdly only 4 get some sort of iconography indicating what their branding looks like.  Then we get a similar treatment of the 'gangs' (more like organized crime groups), and then groups of interest, which as we dial down starts to bring up a real issue with the 'setting', which as we drop into the next 'chapter', brings it home.

You see: Carbon 2185, while giving us a sort of global world building monoculture (including vaguely referenced off world colonies... again, shades of Blade Runner), drops us solidly into a sort of 'bottle setting' of... San Francisco.  Now, I know there is a long tradition of focusing your cyberpunk setting on one, usually west coast (american) city, from Seattle of Shadowrun, to Night City of Cyberpunk 2020, to San Francisco of CyberSpace... but usually it was just that, a focus. You knew, and had details, to move out of the provided city if you wanted. Night City in particular was just an 'example', a generic urban enclave to give you a feel for Cyberpunk cities, with enough details on the rest of the world (particularly america) that you could set the show closer to 'home' quite easily, and in Shadowrun's case, they actually did move on to give you other, wildly distinct, cities quite rapidly.

Carbon 2185 doesn't really do any of that. Sure, the rest of the world... exists. I mean, it sort of has to, what with Mega-corporations having origins in places like South Korea or South Africa and whatnot, but make no mistake, nothing outside San Francisco actually exists beyond its nominal placement.  Yet despite that, the treatment of San Fran is remarkably... shallow.   It is divided into five districts of increasing wealth and safety (again, tie the district your players can operate in to the character level/Influnce/tiers of augments...). Each District gets a one page description, the only map is flat black with white borders of the districts and a very very few street marks barely visible in greyscale, there is no artwork of the city itself. You have the gangs, the corporations, and the local brands, and a general idea of what each district is like... now go find an actual streetmap of the real city to overlay with the district if you want to make it real (In other words, do it yourself), despite having lots of pages dedicated to the setting, and narrowing the setting down to a single city, Carbon 2185 just.... fails to deliver the goods. There is no there, there.

What they do deliver is about three pages of random NPCs, apparently a reward to their kickstarters, followed by some twenty pages of random tables of events and encounters and such.  Sure, I can appreciate the random tables, some of which seem quite evocative, but I'd much rather have twenty more pages of actual... you know... world?  

Now, earlier I did praise the layout, but I will say that there is a minor failure right about here, as crammed between the random tables that replace proper world building and the 'monster/badguy manual' portion is a small bit on traps and starting wealth that belong in the first half of the book.

I won't spend any time on the Monster Manual portion... its D&D 5E rules, and its a single fat-ish chapter in a single book rather than a book in itself, so that pretty much tells you the whole story, good bad or indifferent. I will say that a three part introductory adventure seems positively generous, though I wouldn't exactly call it deep or complex, it is a bit more than Shadowrun's "Food Fight", just to name one relevant game example.


Carbon 2185 is a perfectly servicable re-interpretation of 5E D&D for a sci-fi setting with cyberpunk aspects. Its cyberpunk elements will not shift the paradigm, and with a little tinkering it could be a more generic near-future D&D just fine.  If 5E is a bit shallow, gameplay wise, this is probably a bit worse, though it isn't without some interesting ideas, and, as noted, the book is quite professional and generally attractive.

Where it fails miserably, and taking half its page-count to do so, is in the world building, which is flat, generic and lack-luster in almost every way. There are good bits that can be ported to other, better, cyberpunk settings, but that is only a further condemnation of the lack of setting here, as there is almost nothing that needs to be trimmed away to reduce or eliminate the distinctly Carbon 2185 portions of them (as there isn't really anything about Carbon 2185's setting that is, in fact, distinct...).  

For someone like me, the lack of a good setting isn't really the issue. I'm just as happy to buy games without settings as I am to buy games with settings, but I find the wasted space mildly offensive.  Still, random tables galore, and I'm... pleased?... that the backers got to fluff their egos a bit with NPCs for the setting, if in the least creative execution of that Idea I've ever seen.

At the end of the day, if you were to ask me if I'd recommend Carbon 2185, my answer would have to be a question: Do you enjoy 5e D&D?   That is the make or break point of Carbon 2185.

Reviews / The Witcher RPG
« on: May 01, 2020, 12:34:29 am »
By Pondsmith & Pondsmith

It seems I must begin my newest bout of Reviews with a Disclaimer, so here it is: I have never read the Witcher novels, played any of the games, nor have I seen the TV show, except for a single exerpted fight scene on Youtube, analyzed for HEMA accuracy or some such.   I bought this book out of my enduring love of Cyberpunk 2020, which not even Doll-Art could break.

On with the Actual Review:

It is axiomatic that to adapt a work of fiction from one medium to another is fundamentally transformative.  Each type of Adaptation imposes certain conditions upon the works. To turn a novel into a movie is to condense and simplify, to turn a movie into a television series is to expand and elaborate.   Failure to heed these conditions is predicative of failure, ipso facto.  An entire academic textbook could be written, much less a humble internet essay, on the various means and ways of such transformations and their successes, failures and even exceptions, but alas, this is a review of The Witcher, and not the place for such unexpurgated nonsense.

And on the topic of transformative works, The Witcher RPG fails on a shockingly basic level, given its pedigree.

This is, by my count, the FOURTH iteration of the Witcher Saga, the third adaptation of the saga of Geralt of Rivia.  It comes, of course, from R.Talsorian, built on a proven, if not perfect, game engine, and with a lineage to one of the single most popular video game adaptations in recent memory, and certainly of the Witcher itself.  

When adapting a work of fiction, be it a Video Game, a Novel, or a Movie into an RPG the nature of the Transformation is by necessity, expansive.  Even in the most limited of state, that is attempting to only recreate those elements (characters, sets, events) that occurred in the original work, players will never be content to simply relive the exact scenes as they played out, but will attempt to act as they feel best within those confines... and that isn't even discussing the role radomizers, most commonly dice, play in outcomes.... imagine if you will an iteration of Aliens RPG where you can only play hte movie characters, in the scenes in which we see them on film, where for example Pvt Hudson rolls a Critical Success dodging the Aliens pulling him through the floor. How could you reasonably call youself a 'game' if this didn't fundamentally alter ALL of the scenes which follow?

The most enduring and successful adaptations inevitably expand upon the lore, upon what is seen, because it is the very nature of Gaming, at a table and with a human GM possessing agency and imagination, which allows you to immerse yourself in an entire world devoid of the hidden walls of limits imposed by, oh... coding time (try leaving the province of Skyrim...), or the tight confines of scripted storytelling and 'plot armor'.  Star Wars is almost an ideal example, not only in just how much the world is expanded, but how much of that expansion comes from previous transformative adaption (that is the Extended Universe novels), and even with near half a dozen iterations has yet to produce a true failure.  

The problem with the Witcher RPG is a simple one: It fails to be an adaptation at all. It is, to be put bluntly, a crude attempt to put the experience... the whole experience... of playing the Witcher 3, the vidya gaem, into a table top format.  Oh, not completely, not entirely, but it is there, taking up whole chapters, ravaging whole sectors of the RPG experience in an attempt to be something it is not, and could never be.  

I could talk about minor issues that plague the book.  It is beautiful, by the way, full of excellent and characterful artworks, but they pale before the monumental failure of concept that plagues this book. I could mention the two POV characters that narrate much of the book, and how distracting and even tedious and awful they are, and how this reflects upon giving game writers their own private version of a GMPC (as the two characters are avatars of Cody and Lisa Pondsmith, itself a testament how nepotism does not imply greatness...)... but honestly, almost every real criticism eventually comes back to the original creative concept: Play the Witcher 3. With Friends.  And Dice.


Let us discuss the principle failure in order from least to greatest.

The book practically opens with character sheets for the main characters of the Witcher Saga.  This might be chalked up to being a minor etiquette failure, but in general it is a good idea to not emphasize established, powerful, NPCs... by whose standards the Player Characters will never, ever, meet.  The Rules will not allow you to make Geralt of Rivia... though to be fair perhaps with enough XP you might be in his general league.  I can think of NO other game which put, front and center... right square at the beginning of the book, before Character Creation even, powerful, established NPCs from the setting. Even those cases where I can think of games that proffered powerful characters, important to the setting, somewhere in the book, they were generally speaking 'rules legal', and comparable to the characters made by players.  

More: each also comes with a long written history establishing just how influential they are on the setting, how much history, and how much cool stuff they've done, even the more minor characters are vastly more influential and important (and competent) than your peon character. Peasant.  

Related, there is an entire chapter devoted... not to laying out the setting of The Witcher for you to engage in, but rather in how to adapt the setting based on various potential endings of (I assume) the choices you could make in The Witcher 3.  By itself this isn't 'all bad'.  I can see the wisdom of the 'old ways' of presenting a setting as a fixed entity based on a 'canon playthrough', trusting GMs that prefer other options to have the ability to alter the setting to suit their own choices, but I can see the potential in laying out this sort 'chose your own setting' as a possibility. The problem is that The Witcher never really gives me a sense of the world itself, but rather relies far to heavily on pre-existing knowledge of the setting. Oh, I'm not saying that setting information is absent... far from it... but its so scattershot and disorganized that I have real sense that I'm supposed to supplement this information with experiences in the world from other media (specifically, again, The Witcher 3, which Cody Pondsmith admits to liking enough to have played through... twice. I weep at my hundreds of hours in Mass Effect, Cody... I do.).

This particular failure galls me more than it should, compared to what I know is coming. The Setting of The Witcher is essentially a Bottle Culture, largely self contained in the areas of familiarity and interest to the main character (Geralt of Rivia, in case you forgot). As such that area is remarkably well detailed, complete with a reasonably long, if not necessarily well detailed, history.  This works just fine for Vidya Gaems and somewhat less so for Novels, but it works. But an RPG needs to do more than merely address that there is a larger world out there, it needs to make it possible to peel back the curtains and SEE the rest of the world. This is that Expansion I spoke so much about earlier, which makes this particular medium (RPGs, specifically Tabletop RPGS) unique.  Maybe the World of The Witcher simply isn't good enough to sustain that sort of expansion, but Pondsmith and Pondsmith don't even try.   Also, on a personal note: I'm not terribly fond of the worldbuilding I see, but as I expect people interested in The Witcher RPG won't have my specific issues, I'll merely make note and move on...

We first start to see real issues in the equipment chapter, and I'll note that this is not the only game I've seen recently to make this mistake of importing Vidya Gaem equipment into an RPG setting. Instead of providing us a list of various weapons and armors and miscellany as EVERY OTHER RPG EVER has done, The Witcher gives us One Sword, then the Improved Higher Level (but different) sword, and then the More Improved Even Higher Level Sword, followed at at last by the Most Improved Highest Level Sword.  Note that there isn't a logical progression to these things either. This isn't like getting a mithral longsword to improve over your iron longsword... no, this is literally different types of swords. Let me consult the text...  So, for swords the progression is: Iron Long Sword, Arming Sword, Gleddyf, Hunter's Falchion, Krigsverd, Esboda, Kord, Vicovarian Blade, Torrwr.   What are some of these swords? Well... from what I can tell the Kord may be a Cutlass, but honestly, this bleeds a bit into my previous point about failing to deliver on the World. Instead of practical descriptions of the weapons, we get colorful folksy crap from Cody Pondsmith's GMPC telling us that this sword is quenched in blood, that sword is good for chopping wood.... this one is being smuggled, and the Torrwr is probably a two handed blade of some sort, because people are using it to chop horses in half. Obviously the Pondsmiths have never considered that some/many players will not simply fire up their copy of Witcher 3, consult their inventory and/or codex and simply SEE what a goddamn Vicovarian Blade is supposed to look like, rather than smugly smirking that, yes, their PC in their table-top game has finally got ahold of one, because wasn't it just awsome when they got one in their vidya gaem?

This isn't real world fine gradiants about technique and style and local culture, this is about upgrading your sword (if that's your thing...) to the next highest damage dice.  I, for one, realize that a Falchion is not considered by anyone in the real world to be an 'upgrade' from an Arming Sword, or that in any meaningful way would a soldier trade his Arming Sword for, if I'm interpreting the color right, some sort of rapier in the form of the Esboda.  This is, again, Vidya Gaem logic, and it colors every single element of the design from this point forward*.   **

Where the game really begins to break down is in Crafting.  That seems like a really odd thing to say, given how little attention to crafting generally there is in any RPG, but in the case of the Witcher it practically informs some quarter of the book by volume, an ranges from merely immersion breaking failures in abstraction and adaption to actual mind-bending 'wtf' color coded charts of near pure insanity... and since alongside XP for upping those skills makes the second and only other leg on the ladder of character growth (at least in rules... luckily R.Talsorian has no real history of rule making for emergent play properties, though the Lifepath and its history of turning your fumbling virgin into a literal manwhore in his past, has returned.).

Crafting, in an RPG, is fundamentally an abstraction, as are more things you do in RPGs.  Your character is not literally slaving over a hot forge swinging a hammer at a chunk of metal and turning out a sword every eight hours, you are simply rolling dice and buying, usually abstracted, materials at some fraction of the cost of the finished product (sometimes that fraction is 1, but its still a fraction, technically).  The GM is, normally, not concerning themselves with the availability of iron, or the legality of importing catoblepas ivory, or demanding a host of vaguely unrelated crafting skills (carving vs forging, fitting of the handle, sheath making, etc...), but assumes that your generic Blacksmithing skill covers everything you need to make a whole and complete sword.  

Crafting, in a Vidya Gaem, is fundamentally an abstraction.  Typically this is a sort of mini-game, designed to engage players interested in doing things other than grinding out kills for gold and Xp. It is meant to be fun and engaging in and of itself, involving gathering of resources, learning specific recepies for "the good stuff' and so on.  Since programmers have much better things to do than actually code real world mineral veins and mining, and buying raw materials for 'godslaying sword of awsome' isn't really a fun minigame, this abstraction is usually very far removed from the real world tedium of actual crafting.  For any number of reasons, including the coding elements, but also for 'balance' in a game world where there might literally be thousands (millions in World of Warcraft at its height) interested in owning Godslaying Swords of Awsome, there are often absurd, but necessary, restrictions on crafting... such as not being able to teach others the pattern, or in many cases even trading or selling the finished product of your labor. You made the Godslaying Sword, you use it.  

There are significant differences in approach due to the nature of programming vs descriptive imagination, the relative populations of Player Characters, and even the visual vs imaginative aspects of the mediums in question, as well as the resolution methods. In a Vidya Gaem killing two hundred and thirty Dark Dwarves to 'farm' enough Black Iron to craft the Hammer of Blackstone, might be a fun afternoon with your friends, with each fight taking a few minutes at most. In a tabletop, even a reasonably fast one, it might represent several weeks of grinding, grueling dice rolling sessions that feel more like work than a fun experience (though again: Friends and snacks, where you virtually ignore what is going on 'in the game' because it is tedious and boring, in favor of what is going on with your friends...).

For some reason, The Witcher RPG seems to prefer the Vidya Gaem Abstract for Crafting, embracing almost every single element, I assume lifted entirely from the Witcher 3, though I recognized it immediately as Vidya Gaem crafting. Your Player Character literally has to get a Diagram, which is consumed in the crafting (well, for the Relics at least... you can apparently memorize INT (1-10) diagrams, apparently learning to craft a slightly different type of sword is as arduous as learning to craft the orginal...), along with absurd (from a Tabletop RPG/real world analog) ingredients. For example an Arming Sword requires Timber (x2), Steel (x3) and Hardened Leather (x2).

This is annoying, if survivable. Despite the volume it takes in the book, I imagine most GMs could just as easily scrap it entirely and call for a skill check, a nominal amount of money for 'Steel x3' or what have you, and move on.

Where it gets weird is Alchemy, which not only includes Normal Alchemy, but all the Witcher Only Alchemy, which honestly is a problem that is baked into the cake, so to speak.  Here Pondsmith and Pondsmith decided to start replacing, apparently at random, the usual list of ingredients with brightly colored abstract art to represent various alchemical 'super-substances' which are derived from a host of relatively mundane substances.  While this is VERY VERY VERY (add at least three more to get my actual mood...) annoying, it would be... acceptable-ish, except that the Witcher Alchemy is several chapters away from the basic alchemy, and doesn't have any reminder or note that a Purple Circle with a < in it is Vitriol, meaning that you'll be either learning a new, if small, abstract visual language to play this game, or you'll be constantly searching for that Alchemy intro to understand what fucking components you need to craft shit is.  And yes, I expect almost everyone is going to want to play a Witcher, and yes, they ALL apparently perform alchemy on a regular.

I should point out that depending on how you count it there are at least three distinct Vidya Gaem Crafting systems in this book, the last being for 'relics', which are basically magic items. Oh yes, you don't find the sword of the atlantean kings in The Witcher, you Make It.    I'm not even going to waste time ranting at this layer cake of stupidity, mostly because its redundant at this point.

I'll be blunt and to the point. The Witcher Setting isn't really for me, and I've tried to avoid making this review about the failures of the setting.  Rules wise you are getting a fantasy version of R.Talsorian's classic interlock system, very modestly updated. The Magic rules seem functional enough, and again are probably so heavily influenced by the video games that any problems they have structurally would eventually devolve back into the problem of adaption.  

But if you are a Fan of the Witcher Setting, I still think this game isn't for you.  This game is meant for a vanishingly small audience of fans who really, really dug one specific video game and really, really, REALLY want to try to recreate that experience sitting around a table with their friends, presumably in some post apocalyptic world where computers and internet gas are things of the past.  In some regards this feels like an over-budgeted Vanity Project, where no one could tell the "celebrity" designer that his ideas were bad ones... yes, that is a allusion to the Star Wars prequels. No, I DID have to tell you, because if I hadn't written it myself, even I wouldn't have gotten that too subtle reference.

For me, perhaps the most interesting thing to be lifted from this, and the reason I even bought the book, was the possibility of bringing in a decent magic system to Interlock.  Its not that I couldn't design one myself (or that I'm entirely happy with what I've seen), but that I'm a lazy git who didn't want to do it myself in the first place.

* This is more true of the review than the actual book. The actual next chapter is, in fact, the World of The Witcher, which SORT OF expands to the "entire" continent (in truth one of the biggest setting elements appears to be the conquering nation of Nilfgaard, and I'll point out that the laughably named The Continent map cuts off at some point midway through the lands of Nilfgaard, never mind what lies east of all this nonsense (which is, I should point out, land... and presumably occupied land. With cultures and peoples and all that....)

** I am aware that an essay, at least, could be written regarding upgrading armors dating back to D&D, and the role of magic equipment. I'm going to sadly leave out the wall-of-text digression on armor and tell you to 'wait for it' regarding magic weapons. Don't wait too hard, though. You'll probably be disappointed. In me, or in the game, maybe both.

EDIT: Just realized there was a prior review up. Having read that, I think it's safe to say that the approach to the reviews is wildly different, and I encourage you to read the other one as well if you are curious about this product...

Reviews / Adventure System
« on: April 04, 2020, 05:50:52 pm »
Disclaimer: I was contacted via PM by the creator of Adventure System offering me a free copy to review. However, due to the timing (It arrived after I had taken a hiatus and thus was over a month old before I returned), I did not accept. However, I feel I should advise you, the reader, that I do feel some minor obligation to not be utterly savage in my review out of respect for the offer.  On the other hand, I also still hold that the best reviews are fundamentally focused on the flaws and failures of a product, regardless of its overall quality.   I do not feel my review is, in fact, compromised, by integrity demands the disclaimer, and so here we are...

I purchased a copy of the PDF on Drivethru for a mere 9.99. I hate reading PDFs in general, but my current circumstances and a desire to expedite this review prevented me from splurging on a full book at this time.  As is my wont, I will review the product as a physical (digital, anyway) object first before delving into the contents.  Obviously there isn't much to say... its a PDF. It does have more than adequate bookmarks, and the cost was very reasonable.  The artwork is acceptable, clearing falling into a single cohesive style, full color.  It has that 'blurred painted artifice' that I generally dislike, but my personal preference is merely that, though I will note that one or two pieces were much worse in this regards than usual.

It is rare that I read the Editor's essay that traditionally accompanies many books, but in this case I made an exception. I found it mildly enjoyable and unfortunately it raised some false hopes for me, as it references 2d10 mechanics for RPGs, and several other comments about play-style that fall neatly into my wheelhouse... which unfortunately does not reflect the mechanics present in this game.

Normally I would divert directly into said mechanics, though I do like to go in order with the book, but I would be doing a disservice to the game if I did not mention the opening fiction.  Game Book Fiction is an often risible topic of conversation, and the overly long and pretentious short stories favored by White Wolf don't help.  However, while the opening fiction itself is rather unremarkable and over-long, it is also, so far as I can tell, the ONLY example of such fiction in the entire book, and more interestingly, later in the book is in fact references explicitly to explain the mechanics of game play at the table. I like this, a lot.   Unfortunately, we need to put a pin in this, as I will be complaining about it a bit later with regards to integral, or perhaps implied, settings.

Mechanically the Adventure System is a very stripped down take on the original Deadlands (or perhaps the Margret Wies Cortex system), as viewed through a lens of 5E D&D.  This is... unfortunate, and there is a lot to unpack here.  

For those unfamiliar with my references, The Adventure System rates a character by using the various Polyhedral Dice common to gaming. Your attributes are rated in die sizes from D2 to D12, your skills are ALSO rated in die sizes from none to d12.   You also have the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic most famous from its implementation in D&D 5E (though I believe Mongoose 2E Traveller beat them to the punch with Boons/Banes by a few months...).  This is the very first system I've seen designed around that mechanic explicitely, and it reveals the horribly shallowness of the concept as nakedly as you can imagine. Mind you: In MongTrav I could appreciate the simple addition, which was almost literally bolted onto the existing mechanics with no other changes, and having (at last) played 5E a few times in the last year, can see how and why D&D was fundamentally altered to bring, for the first time in decades, the numbers into alignment with the dice... in a game where there were no underlying mechanical structures, the Advantage system essentially replaces ALL aspects of game design, and its fucking tragic.  Yes, that obscenity was quite deliberate.

I am a fan, perhaps rather guiltily, of the old Deadlands, and the Margret Wies house system (I was playing a Sovereign Stone campaign with 3E came out an crushed the fantasy market utterly, as well has owning my second copy of Serenity at this time...).  I can fully admit these games are not necessarily mechanically very good, but they are fun and satisfying to play.  But here is a key: You have a number of mechanical systems to augment the core concept of using 'all the polyhedrons', from rolling multiple dice, to adding bonuses to the die total, and often came up with very creative methods to manipulate the dice along the way.

All of that is utterly stripped from Adventure System. You get ONE die and no means to manipulate your odds other than 'Advantage', which is, of course, to roll two dice and take the better, or worse, of the two. That is, fundamentally, the entire system.    Words cannot express the devastation, the wasteland, of gaming potential I see when I look upon this system... and it boils down irreducibly to that singular mechanical idea.

That isn't to say that Adventure System doesn't have other poor ideas in it, mechanically. I can talk about the Fate/Destiny mechanic, where you... again somewhat like OG Deadlands... you spend your potential experience points for benes in game, or the christmas tree talent system, which to be perfectly fair, is one of the better and less annoying implementations of that system.  It also uses toughness checks for hit points, and implements a 'wealth stat' instead of tracking money, which for me has never worked outside of large-scale organizations (Rogue Trader, for example), and even then never without hickups and idiot-ball failings.

Since the actual in play mechanics are stupid simple, lets focus entirely on the components of a character instead.  I have my own well worn prejudices in these regards, so I'll use those as a baseline in discussions

Attributes: Called Statistics here. Whatever floats your boat.  I find that a range of 4 to 7 is ideal, generally, but I'm quite flexible.  Adventure has 12... four physical, four mental and four derived. Though a bit bloated by my standards, the breakdown and 'neatness' of the pattern makes up for that.   Here we are introduced to the basics of the system, so it should be noted that any time you see a +/- 1 in this game it refers only to changing the size of the die, this comes up with surprising frequency in creation.

Skills: Again, I find there is a general 'sweet spot' in the number of skills, lets say 22-36 or so, too few skills and characters are hypercompetent as the skills become unreasonably broad, too many skills and the game devolves into pixel-bitching and convincing the GM to let you roll your Advanced Physics Skill rather than demanding you roll Sub-Orbital Physics, which no one in the party possesses... yes, I do like GURPS, but I am not blind to its flaws.  Adventure System has, at my count, 38 skills, which is 'close enough' to the Sweet Spot that we can let it pass. Here we run into a problem of sorts, one that is the eternal thorn of game design... how to get Stats and Skills to synergize without one overwhelming the other?  Adventure System does not solve this problem... in fact it probably solves it worse than many others...  your Stats merely alter the Destiny (XP) cost of raising your skills.   This is marginally worse, in my opinion, than simply having them not interact at all (say, as in Fragged Empires, among others), but better than having the stats overwhelm the skills (GURPS does this, especially in high point games...).  I think the worst I can say about it is that it is 'too damn fiddly'.

Talents: This is a... topic.  I was an early fan of Feats, a la 3E D&D, before the bloat set in, before the process of chaining feats set in (where you had to commit to buyign the same feat at subsequent levels on some sort of treadmill), and before playing games (Rogue Trader, since I've already name-checked it, or anything like the Savage Worlds system...) where your ever-growing list of 'stuff'... anything remotely descriptive about your character, was relegated to a Feat/Talent or other you had to buy to access.  Have a pet wolf? That's a talent, bub. Three arms? Talent. Steely Gaze? Talent. Last survivor of a doomed race that is utterly identical to humanity? Talent. Able to aim down the barrel of a gun? You better believe that's a motherfucking talent!

Adventure System is, honestly, one of the best implementation of Talents as a growth mechanic I've seen, and that is saying something.  It isn't without its flaws (Literally: Aiming a weapon is a talent, but I think that's the biggest offender in the entire list.).  Mostly, talents are used to track your supernatural abilities, both in accessing them (I has Magic!), and what you can do with them (I has Fireball!), and honestly that is the best possible use for a Talent System... though mixing and matching relatively mundane abilities in with actual magic power is dicey at best, I think Adventure System does a reasonable job in making it work.  

Having got that triad of building blocks out of the way, lets delve a little deeper, shall we?  Full credit to the designers, they do strive mightily to provide a complex and interesting system within the self-imposed limits of their mechanical choices.

Races:  This is rather mixed. The default listed races are almost bog-standard fantasy race material, though some credit goes to being more inclusive by including smart 'monster' races like goblins and full orcs and even 'trolls', rather than just, and somewhat inexplicibly, relegating them to 'sword fodder'.  Simply making your elves 'tall' (6'4") isn't very creative... in fact the heights listed for the races is rather amusing in the wrong way.... our big, menacing Trolls average... 5'10", the same as Humans, while our presumably less big, but still big and menancing orcs are... six foot even.  With the exception of the dwarves, none of the fantasy races really stand out as particularly... not-human sized.  Mechanically they are boring but servicable, with that near obsessive fixation on balance that has come to dominate game design for the last two decades. Again: As a purportedly Universal Game, there are rules for Sci-fi races as well, and thankfully they aren't 'space Furries', but more classic staples like 'Heavy Worlders'. I guess I should note that Adventure System... how to phrase this delicately... pays homage to a lot of 'nerd settings' that you would recognize.  This isn't a complaint... by all means if the existing rules for gaming in certain settings don't 'do it' for you, and you like Adventure System... play them in Adventure System!  Its not like I've never praise Fading Suns for being a 'Serial numbers filed off' for, oh, Star Wars, Dune and other settings all blended together.

What IS lacking in the Sci-Fi races is, well, any actual alien races. I've got a rather uncharitable theory or two as to why, but I'd rather just point out they are missing and move on.  Instead we do get a functional race creation system. Functional, because it essentially is the mechanics of character creation/advancement distilled down and exposed for this purpose. Its a nice inclusion, but in a rather tragic way it also removes any sense of immersion in the various races.  Suddenly Elves aren't mystical creatures, they are humans with certain talents and pointy ears.  THis isn't a failing specific to Adventure System, but rather a side effect of the 'balance uber alles' game design mentality that I mentioned elsewhere.

Alignment: Here I will heap some praise upon the heads of hte designers for their efforts and creativity.  Rather than having an alignment system that is binary and often utterly ignorable, or alternatively a 'be good or else' moral hit point system,  Adventure System tracks three aspects of behavior in positive and negative ratings, with benefits and penalties for moving up or down each leg of the scale.  While it didn't blow my mind, per se, I'm hard pressed to say any morality mechanic ever has, but they seem proud of it, and I honestly can't say their pride is unjustified.  At the end of the day it IS an alignment system, with all that it implies, but it is not binary and static, but rather a dynamic measure of how your character has acted, and that alone is worth noting.

To leaven my praise a bit, one of the three legs is Sanity, which just seems really odd when you think about it. You can make your character less crazy by acting more sane?  In fairness, if we use game mechanics to simulate the 'reality' of fiction, rather than attempting to accurately reflect reality itself, it does work, but we are still implying that Hamlet literally drove himself mad because he pretended to be mad too many times?  Eh, this feels like it might devolve into either a chicken/egg argument or an internet war over the three-fold model, so I'll just stop...

Wealth and Equipment: In general I despite abstracted wealth mechanics. As I get older I increasingly see a fundamental flaw in the paradigm of gaming we have (for the main), where wealth is seen as the only true measure of power, and thus needs to be restricted or abstracted out.... but I digress, and poorly at that.  As Adventure System is, or rather purports to be, a universal game system AND it has no mechanical complexity beyond Advantages, the equipment chapter is about as inspiring and insipid as you can get.  You've got bronze age untanned hide armor listed alongside space age power armor, and none of it rises above mere character color.   In all honesty there is a little more to it than that (power armor is mechanically better than hides, obviously), but not so much that it would strain the very limited, constrained, mechanics of 'fit into this simple die schema'.

To Sum up the Mechanics:  Adventure System feels like a good game that had all the good bits stripped out of it and replaced with a crude One-Size-Fits-All solution.

Now, lets talk Setting. It might seem a bit odd, because Adventure System attempts to set itself up as a sort of universal game system, but it really isn't.  GURPS and HERO, or even CORPS (I do not stand by this last choice...) Can get away with being Universal Systems because they focus on mechanical effects. This can make them a bit bland and 'samey', which is why game designers occasionally run ads 'against' that sort of effects based design.  Adventure System, however, has a metaphysical underpinning baked right into the design, wether the designers intended it or no. By building your supernatural effects as 'mechanically balanced' sets of talents all using the same resolution system, you wind up instead with a very specific implied setting (with, admittedly, flavors), where all these supernatural 'powers' appear based in a single, unstated, metaphysical system.  More: you build right into the system fantasy races, supernatural powers, and high-tech... instead of having a unversal system where anything is possible, you wind up with an implied setting with different timelines. Fantasy past, urban-fantasy present, space-fantasy future, where Orcs and Elves and Dwarves, and elementalist spell casters and Psychic Mindbenders all coexist.

Worse: That in-game fiction that started the entire book (and review? Remember what I said about putting a pin in it? Yeah, I didn't...), gives us exactly that sort of setting, a grim Urban Fantasy modern setting where undead gunslingers face off with goblins in Central Park while a Necromancer harvests magic crystals to trade for an orc shaman's totemic magic...

There is nothing wrong with this setting.  This is an interesting, evocative setting, with lots of playability to it.

But, because they want to be 'Generic Universal System', they won't commit to it, and it is precisely that lack of commitment that galls.  It isn't Generic or Universal, that's not a label you can just slap on something and have it be true.  And honestly? I've got a few big name 'generic' urban fantasy books on my shelf right now, and they all suffer this exact same problem: They give you a very specific setting, only with all the interesting details filed off so they can claim its generic.  Gnoll pimps in D20 Modern are Setting. Undead Gunslingers and goblin gangbangers, and crystal harvesting, are all very specific to a setting, and the game supports that setting reasonably well.  Its that qualifier word, reasonably, that annoys. Commit to the damn setting or actually design a system that truly lacks a setting. We have plenty of examples of how that can be done.

Because once you strip out all the Fantasy Elements you are left with much less of a game. If you include the Fantasy elements you are now stuck with a very specific flavor of fantasy. Its not a bad flavor, but unless you buy the settings also produced (or at least advertised in this book) by this company, you've only got 'half a meal'.

Before I close this out I will have to say that the GMing tips and advice in this book were on point.   As a veteran GM, and one who took to GMing after too many incidents of poor GMing, I found I had nothing bad to say about the advice in this book, and that is saying something.   I will also point out that there is a LOT of stuff in this book that I didn't even touch upon, such as the actual sub-systems of supernatural power, the chapter on Divinities, the massive list of 'Allies and Enemies' and so forth.  Part of that is a simple acknowledgement that nothing in those chapters redeems, or destroys, what I've already covered. If you like the game system presented, you'll probably appreciate all the work that went into supporting it. If you don't like what I presented, then these aren't going to save it.  It would be grossly unfair not to point out that this is a fairly weighty tome, and you are getting an awful lot of book.

Back when Numenera was still just a Kickstarter project, Monte Cook started hyping up his biggest idea yet, the notion that a character could be described by, even built from, a Sentence. The Dude that does the Thing with That Other thing.

You know: I am a Half-Orc Samurai who Fights Duelling Style...

...oh, wait, that's my last D&D character.

Lets try something from the Invisible Sun RPG instead.

I am a Phlegmatic Order of the Vance who Understands the Words.

Dressed up in mis-applied fancy talk (in the abusive fashion of the Invisible Sun RPG) that certainly sounds nice, but honestly its rubbed me the wrong way ever since the Numenera days.  And I think I finally worked out the single biggest flaw.

See, I do think its a clever idea, though as evidenced by my first example, not nearly so clever as it was presented. Players have always reduced their characters down to a few identifiable elements as a short hand to talk with other players. The exact information presented varies depending on the conversation and the exact game being played.

Boiled down to its essence, the problem with the Cook Idea is that his sentences are both Limiting and Reductive.  Rather than expanding your horizons, or making deeper and richer characters, you wind up smaller and less interesting as a result.

Lets go back to my D&D character. Without the Cook Idea, the sentence could just as easily be 'I'm a 3rd Level Half-Orc Samurai with the Sword of Kas' (Note: I do not have the Sword of Kas…). Or I could be a Lawful Good Samurai, or a Half Orc Fighter with a Katana, or the Fighter who Fights with His Persuasion Skill...

I can shape that sentence however I like to convey information as needed. Its a bit of hyperbole to suggest the number of sentences I can create about/from a single character are infinite, but certainly they are broader than the single, fixed format suggested by Cook.

But its also reductive. Looking at a single character there are only so many ways I can actually describe my singular character, certainly, but taken from the broader context of D&D as a whole, the number of possible 'setences' I can create approaches the infinite in truth... and not merely because I have far more choices than a mere simple sentence allows for.

Take again the Cook Sentence, which in the Cypher System, and in Invisible Sun, you end your sentence with some 'big flash thing' that goes beyond the basics of race and class. In Invisible Sun this is your Forte, and Monte Cook provides some twenty or so Fortes.

And that is it.  Sure, they are all colorful and exotic. Bears an Orb, fuses Fist and Nightmare, Shepards the Mind... one might honestly suggest your Forte is far more colorful and interesting than the means by which you make magic (Your Order).

But it requires Monte Cook to have dreamed it up for you. More absolutely in Invisible Sun than the equivalent in the Cypher system, as you need a solid ten powers arranged in a leveled tree, which is beyond the scope of your typical homebrew rules.

But again: Look to D&D. My equivalent 'forte' might be the specific fighting style I prefer, or a prominent magic item (one of several I bear), or even a choice spell-metamagic combo I use a lot.  When the unique thing that separates my fighter from another fighter is taken from the character, rather than used to create the character, the options are much more open, and can change.

Looking at some of the Fortes in Invisible Sun the question I wound up with was 'what if my character joins that cult during game play? Why wouldn't they then have two fortes?', which is an unnecessary question to create.  By going backwards, by creating the description before the character, you create a series of rules that can conflict with organic, evolving characters who change and grow, eventually necessitating additional rules to patch the problems created by working backwards in the first place.

Forgive me if you are all five years ahead of me on figuring this out...

Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games (RPGs) Discussion / Why Faerun?
« on: December 15, 2019, 11:57:43 pm »
Honestly I'd love to make a simple yet surprisingly deep joke about existential philosophy regarding the title of my post, but simply put I can't quite pull it off in text... Also, that's not where I want to take this post.

If anyone had asked me 5 years ago, I would have told them that picking Faerun to be the new Core Setting for D&D, the focus of the core books, was a bad idea. Its a notion that has only grown since the release of 5e, but I haven't taken the time to really dig into why that should be.  So yes, this may involve a bit of brainstorming, since my PHD in D&Dology is not at risk for publishing an ill conceived thesis, I can get away with it.

To begin with let us turn to WHY Hasbro turned to Faerun and the Forgotten Realms to begin with. For some reason it has been massively popular for thirty damn years as a setting for books.  This, by the way, is no small part of why its a BAD idea to use Faerun, but lets explore the positive value: Built in fanbase.  Much like buying an existing IP you can literally print money from fans who might not be interested in your product, but will buy it out of brand loyalty.  That's the theory. But, as a given, all Forgotten Realms books are by default part of the D&D over-brand, and thus that 'fan-boy money machine' is actually already baked into the cake. If you really feel that FR's appeal is bigger than D&D, you don't have to warp D&D to tap that, and warping will occur as I will explain.

There are other positives to using the Forgotten Realms, I should add.  Forgotten Realms is rich, even positively lousy, with Lore. Ed Greenwood has a flair for naming things that puts Oerth to shame. The Elves feel elvish, at least in their cities and lost empires and mythals and what not that seems positively Ringian in the best possible way.  Old D&D Tropes like the Underdark, Menzoberanzan and so forth either got their start in Faerun, or became so synonymous with it that they became inextricable.  

So lets talk about some negatives, and in no particular order.

First, the setting is a mess. Part of the reason it is a mess is because so very much as been written, and by so many people, over the last thirty fucking years, many of whom had a weak ass idea of D&D in the first place, and its all 'canon'. The very richness of Faerun is a problem because its an incoherent richness. Take, for example the 'Solid Liquid Culture'... yes, I just made that up, but let me explain before I forget my own brilliance.

See: Cultures are liquid in nature. Imagine pouring two pools of liquid on a table. IF they are close together they will mix, or if not mix (oil and water)... interact heavily. If they are far apart the level of mixing will be minimal, as the pools slowly spread out to fill the available space.  Books are often written about only the cultures they are about. Bottle Cultures, the liquid within contained, not spreading or mixing, because it falls outside the confines of the story within the book.  In the setting of Faerun, these bottle cultures are set down and, by necessity of being a setting, the bottle is removed. The Culture, however, fails to spread and interact with the surrounding cultures meaningfully, as if still bottled up.  At least until someone writes another story involving two or more interacting cultures... but even then you wind up with only bigger bottles of mixed cultures, instead of spreading across the landscape.  This is how you wind up with a bronze age egyptian style culture smack dab in the middle of a continent full of high mideval european cultures virtually unchanged.  

This manifests in other ways too. The world of Faerun manages to be rather horrifically dynamic while also being agonizingly static. No matter how earth shattering (Toril shattering, if you prefer) an event, in two or three years everyone is right back to business as usual. You might not realize this from reading the D&D books, but only five years ago in the setting an entire continent was shifted to another plane of existance (Abeil) and a continent full of Dragonborn was shifted from there onto Toril/Faerun. Nobody blinked at this, because in the last fifety or so years the goddess of magic was murdered... TWICE... wreckign the entire setting for everyone.  In fact a whole BUNCH Of gods died horribly (after, you know, being stripped of their divinity for a while), but they got better. Because of course they did. That is also why the heroes of the RA Salvatore Novels got their own private heaven for a few decades before they were all totally reincarnated just so they could keep adventuring with good old Drizz't.  

That's right, bubie: Five years ago there were no Dragonborn on Faerun, but remember what I said about 'warping'? D&D has to warp to conform to Faerun, and Faerun has to warp to conform to D&D. New D&D demands core Dragonborn, so Faerun gets 'em, not matter how fucked up the process is. An older 'static' setting (due to general death/fan apathy) is much more tolerant of this sort of change, by the way. As is one written for the implied setting you WANT to give people (eg One with Dragonborn in it...).  Faerun's age becomes a problem, simply because its old enough to have gone through plenty of edition changes as it, but is also still 'living' unlike (and I'm sorry for all the Oerth fans I may offend), Greyhawk.  Or a setting DESIGNED for the Edition, as Eberron was (only... moreso?).

The other problem with the 'living setting' of Faerun, is there is a whole bunch of shit that is absolutely core to Faerun that isn't in D&D at all (sort of like Eberron, which works as an alternate setting, but not so much as The Core.). Things like Spell-fire, Silver Fire, Chosen of Various Gods (which, aside from the absolute SHIT that is Forgotten Realms MANY Mary Sue Uber-NPCs, is something that reasonable players would be calling for their higher level characters to become... good job, D&D designers. Now you have to come up with 5e Rules for all of Greenwood's Mary Sueness that Player Characters should totally have access to.  Or, you know, piss off all those fans you were catering to...).

See, that is the core of the problem right there: The 'default setting' and the 'core rules' should absolutely reflect one another.  Faerun, for all it seems to exemplify D&D (Underdark, yadda yadda) actually doesn't because it both adds a whole bunch of very specific things that don't reflect 'Core D&D' at all, and because Core D&D as envisioned by the Designers adds a whole host of things that now have to be forced into Faerun like a bad case of canon-rape.  

And we won't even talk about our new Corporate Overlords and their Family Friendly Ways, and how that conflicts very deeply with the fact that Ed Greenwood (and thus Forgotten Realms) is a Happy Pervert.  *

In essence we have the crux of the issue. We have the concept of a proper 'default setting', so lets explore that idea a little.

To repeat: A Default Setting must reflect the Core Rules, and the Core Rules should reflect/build the Default Setting.

At its heart, as explained above, Forgotten Realms simply does not meet this criteria.

It can be made to work, but the 5e crew didn't want to put in the work.

An older, mostly static, forgotten setting (Oerth) would have been a much easier 'fit' to update, but Our Corporate Overlords apparently thought it would make them Less Money, so 5e was too Greedy.

Making a new setting out of whole cloth would have been slightly more work than properly updating Faerun (which, note, they haven't actually published a gazateer for, just for the Sword Coast region), and would have opened up the possibility of entirely new books that won't be left on the shelf for being redunant, warmed over rehashes of older books. Of course, it may simply be that the 5e Crew lacks the ability (or the faith in their ability) to craft an evocative, interesting setting from whole cloth... and we can almost garauntee that our Kindly Corporate Overlords simply didn't want to pay for the work.

In essence the Forgotten Realms as Core is sort of the Emperor's New Clothes of Core D&D. If you like it you are blind to greed, laziness and incompetence in the making of the new edition. If you don't like it, well....  **

*Yes, I put that right after Canon-Rape deliberately. Aren't you clever for noticing and reading my footnote? Yes you are... clever little reader.. who's a good reader? Yes, you... you are!

** A disclaimer of sorts. I actually do like 5e, with plenty of caveats. I find it inferior to 3e in the main, but with some good ideas. By 'In the Main' I find 5e to be the dumbed down 'little kids' version, stripped of anything that might make it 'unfun', and thus slightly boring.  A lot of interesting new features seem half baked rather than fully realized, but the addition of backgrounds (to pick one) is marvelous.  I, at least, can clearly see how the designers are at least a little petulant that their precious 4e experiment went so badly, and how (in my bitterly cynical worldview) they're trying to sneak many of the same ill-concieved ideas into D&D despite us, by dressing it up in the skin of the older, superior edition.  But that's me...

So I saw a comment in another thread about complaining about all the D&D Monsters and the changes in 5e specifically, and I saw no one had actually made the suggested thread (or... it got buried? Dunno. Don't care...), so I figured I'd kick it off. Because if there is one thing I'm good at, its finding shit to bitch about.  That and swearing. Ok, if there are two things I'm good at....

Aight. So the 'ground rules'. I'm only talking monsters here, not general bitching about 5e changes in general. Me? I just grabbed the MM and I'ma go through it in order, but by all means feel free to hit up Volo's and Mordenkainen's books or what have you. I expect an unfair fight. Biting, spitting and eye gouging and general uncharitable takes for the lulz. I expect to see NO gentlemanly conduct... also, since I don't currently have a copy of the previous editions MM's handy don't expect much in the comparison with older editions.

Aarakocra: Could that name BE any harder to spell?  Seriously: Its bird men. One of several examples of Bird Men in D&D. Bird men are inherently boring and stupid. Also, these guys are 'default good guys' which I feel is a gross misuse of alignment and monsters in game.  But they also lead me to my first general complaint with the 5e Monster model: by default an Aarakocra is a low level 'gang up to handle a party of 1st level characters' sort of 'threat'.  5e has removed the tools a GM could use to easily and consistently beef up an intelligent 'race' type critter, like the Aarakocra, by giving them levels and what not. While I CAN, eventually, work up some house rules for getting back to that state, I shouldn't have to. 5e seems to consistently hamstring the GM by assuming that we're all happy to play with the already finished products they deign to give us, instead of leaving us the basic building blocks we need to make our own shit.

Aboleth:  Meh. I mean, the write up is... okay?  It lacks the charm I recall from older Aboleths, and now they seem to be some sort of psuedo-elemental immortals?  In a game with soul stealing magic/magic items I feel like if you're gunna write some shit like that into your monster write ups, you better have a good idea how that sort of thing will interact with that other sort of thing, yanno?  Also, Legendary and Lair actions. I... think... Legendary actions are a good edition to the game, in concept. In execution, however, they are BADLY lacking. Partly because they are over-used.  This probably requires a bit more discussion, so I'll leave it flopping there like a beached aboleth...

Angels: In specific the write up regarding Fallen Angels calls into question the entire concept of aligned planes, theological implications of beings like Angels 'falling' with no real attempt to write up about Demons/Devils etc 'Falling' (Rising?), which I suppose is a delightfully nihilistic view of reality, where evil only prospers because only the good can 'fall'.  Later we discover (in teh Decent in Avernus 'module' that a blow to the head can create brain damage that changes a devil's alignment. The metaphysical implications of that throw away encounter are.... not good.).  Then you have the three 'angels' listed (Devas, planetars, Solars), which is another general complaint about the entire book: It feels so 'thin' in selection compared to the rich source materials available, like too much space was wasted on bullshit, so the list has been pared down. Unfair you say? Read the damn rules!

Animated Objects: You know? I miss having 'universal' rules concepts like 'Constructs' or 'Undead' meta-rules. Instead we have to go case by case and learn/look up the specific immunities of every related critter.  See the Aarakocra entry for more on this thread.

Ankheg: Here I'll complain about the artwork (beautiful I guess, but also somehow less informative than the older art), AND the bizzare rules-lite/narrative bullet point style entries that have replaced the old style 'beastiary' style entries.  Instead of telling me about the Ankheg critter, its a long text entry to remind me of what the rules already say (they burrow).  While taking roughly the same amount of space it somehow conveys less than a tenth of the information, outside of being redundant to the actual monster entry.

Azer: We can get redundant here, but I'll refrain. Instead I'll comment on how small the new edition makes the planar universe of D&D. Instead of being told Azer are rare/reclusive etc, allowing for vast hidden numbers in teh infinite expanses of the Elemental Plane of Fire (or what have you), we are instead told that they are few in number because of how they reproduce.  Boo.

Banshee: You can't tell me that Banshee can't stand to see their own reflection and NOT include some sort of rule, no matter how thin, about what happens if a party busts out a mirror when fighting one. Barbarian rage? Forgets to use her powers in favor of clawing randomly? Targets only the mirror until it breaks? C'mon bro! Do you even DM?

Basalisk: Ima Grammer Nazi up this bitch.  The write up for Petrifying Gaze more or less starts with 'the basalisk can force a con save'.  This is a vastly inferior way to replace the old metric of 'if a character meets the basalisks gaze they must make a con save'. And on that note, I find it a bit weird that the idea is that a tough bastard can just shrug off being turned to stone because 'steroids', when the metric should be 'avoiding gaze' which... honestly?... seems like a wisdom thing. I say that as a 'pro-fighter' sort of player. Also, teh text suggests that the typical statues seen around basalisk lairs are 'warriors'. You know: with their 'Proficient' Con saves? I mean, even a first level fight with a middling Con should have better than even odds of resisting petrification.

Behir: So... they don't speak common, but we get a comment (presumably in common) from a behir. Also they apparently use their full AC against swallowed targets trying to cut their way out (and on that note: Where are the rules for properly cutting oneself out of being swallowed? What's this regurgitate crap?). Lastly... crap, I forgot. Forget I said lastly, m'kay?

Beholders: If I've got this right, Beholders went from being a standard run of the mill 'high level monster' to being some sort of god-things.  I'd guess a lot of this comes from supplimentary write ups in previous editions, but now its all right there, taking up what looks like a fucking mini-chapter of the book. Aight, if you love you some flying eye monsters, but honestly I prefer my beholders to be on the margins of D&D, not front and fucking center.  Also, I find beholders to be inherently self contradictory... D&D can't decide if they are supposed to be antisocial paranoid Objectivist Hero solo monsters, or highly social autocratic god-king monsters.

Blights: I can't even. What is this Gulthias Tree nonsense? Is this a widely spread generic monster or a module specific unique threat?

Bugbears: Honestly? Read earlier entries or pick up... um... volo? Mordenkainen? Which ever it is where they get a much more detailed write up.

Bulette: Am I the only one who really thinks they should just stick with the Land Shark name? Put them in the L section, assholes.

Bullywug: Same problem as every other intelligent monster race: GIve me the damn tools to tinker with them (you know: smoothly and properly add class levels or what have you...). Also we have a sort of self contradiction: The Bullywugs, we are told, are highly sociable in that they see themselves as 'kings', and tend to perform a mockery of etiquette and so on when interacting with other races, right on for an evil monster race... but then you notice that the only language they speak is... Bullywug.  Sloppy. Really damn sloppy.

Cambions: I have felt, for some time, that the Cambions are an unfortunate 'appendix' sort of legacy monster, what with all the half fiends and tieflings running around, they don't really fit in the legendarium the way they used to. If this was a fair and honest thread I might say something about how at least 5e appears to be attempting to use them fully, but that ain't happenin here, bucko.  Cambions reinforce the notion that we're missing rules for tweaking monsters, given that one of their rules is little more than a footnote to their AC. Way to remind us we lack the tools inherent in 3e's model to tweak monsters properly, bruh.

Carrion Crawler: I hate the artwork.

Centaur: Yay! another 'good' 'monster' race with no rules to tweak them to the party's level other than increasing the number used.  5e really is the 'for dummies' edition, innit?

Chimera: Let me get this straight... its a dumb beast monster that is susceptable to flattery?  The write up spends more time being the chimera's psychotherapist than anything else.

Chuul: So... am I the only one that finds it insultingly redundant that we need to be told the Chuul are immune to the Condition "Poisoned" literally right after we were told they were immune to the damage 'Poison'? Is that where our society is at now? Is this how far we've fallen as a people? Why are the Chuul giving me an existential crisis? What does it all mean?  Also something something about mis-using spells for senses and thus having rules crisis that were easily avoidable... but lets save that for another entry...

Cloakers: A monster whose entire schtick is to pretend to be something ordinary and interesting (cloaks, in a game with lots of magic cloaks..). Lets give it artwork that utterly ruins the illusion, lets make it ogre sized, so it couldn't possibly perform its innate schtick without violating the laws of internal logic, and generally miss the motherfucking point entirely by trying to make it a combat beast that flys around looking for adventurers to fight.  Do I have that right?

Cockatrice: We have so little idea what to say or do about petrification chickens that we literally filled three quarters of the page with a picture of said petrification chicken. Enjoy.

Couatl: Oh, goody. Another 'good' monster race, and another pan-dimensional godling race that somehow makes a mockery of the supposed infinitity of the outer planes (instead of elemental planes) by being described as 'few in number'.  So... once again the infinite possibilities of the planes is shrunk down by measly and miserly reproductive logistics.  Bro, do you even infinity, bro?

Crawling Claw: Why are they immune to Turning or being controlled by necromantic magic (okay, that later part is only in the fluff text, but that's a separate complaint entirely!).  No, seriously: This is a fundamental function of undeadedness, that divine/positive energy channelled by clerics and shit is their great weakness. Why is this, lowest of the low of necromantic creations, immune to something that is more than a mere nuisance to, I dunno... liches and shit?  THis is 'ad hoc' magic, magic tea party shit. You are casually breaking the metaphysical laws that govern your magic system just because. DON'T.DO.THAT.

Cyclops: For funsies, read the opening fluff bullet point on 'nonreligous', then read the last paragraphs of the bullet point 'unsophisticated'. Self contradict we much? Also there is something patently absurd about any intelligent race rejecting religion in a world where the gods are provably real, actively engaged in the world at large, and also explicitly (since Faerun is now default) punish non-believers for all eternity for the sin of being nonreligious.  D&D, I gotta ask you why you keep hitting yourself in the face like this? Its embarrassing.

Darkmantles: Seriously: You couldn't think of anything interesting to say about flying choke monsters? I learned in 3e days that any level of adventuring party could be made to hate and fear a sudden attack of darkmantles, but that mostly came down to the grappling rules I think. Damnit, now I gotta read up on grappling in 5e so I can properly understand this monster again. Damn you, 5e MM, damn you...

Death Knight: The classic. One of the more powerful gribblies in teh game, and clearly a monster that should have a sweeping and interesting back-story, but their write up is so bland, boring and unevocative you can be forgiven for assuming they are high-level fodder mobs to be killed in droves with a hint of a yawn at the mundane task of clearing trash.

Demilich: Its a skull that drains your soul. It sits there. Oddly, its challenge rating is less than the Death Knights, yet for all that it gets so much more detail and interest from the writer that its maddening that this is the very next entry. This is the sort of treatment the Death Knight should have gotten a page ago.

Demons and Devils: I could write paragraphs on each of these monsters, but in the name of brevity, I'll merely point out how fucking annoying it is that the fluffy paragraphs on each entry are organized away from the picture/rule box for each demon and devil.  As an unfair side note: While I won't complain about the lack of entries on the various lords/princes in the Monster Manual, I WILL complain that they've managed to republish the same damn lord/devil entries in multiple other books instead of just making a singular resource for them (such as a Monster Manual 2, maybe?), making the game line, in general, so much harder to use.

Dinosaurs: Honestly? I've never really liked Dinosaurs in my D&D. that's me. On the other hand, if you are going to put 'Dinosaurs' as an entry in your Monster Manual, you could at least.. I dunno... pretend like you care?  This is probably the prize winner for 'least fucks given' in an entry yet.  Might as well have shuffled them in the appendix with all the dogs and chickens.

Displacer Beast: Ok, so I'm down with a Feywild origin for Displacer Beasts, and a reminder of their classic feud with Blink Dogs. That being the case, why are they still listed as monstrosities instead of 'fey'? Also, I notice Blink Dogs are shuffled into the back alongside ordinary dogs, but the Displacer Beast is still a proper monster. Not that D-Beasts should be rendered unto the appendix, just that it sort of reminds us of how badly conceived the organizational properties of this book/game line are...

Doppleganger: Least.Evocative.Artwork.Yet. Bland 'monster man' image that a PC should never, ever see (without high level magic like True Sight, anyway), no indication of their shapechanging ways in the art. Seriously?   You paid for 'quality' full color artwork for the entire book, but couldn't be assed to ensure that dopplegangers were shown disgusing themselves as someone else... you know... like every other edition took the effort to do?  Seriously?  Also the 'bullet point' on Changlings leaves me with... questions. Too many questions.  Its insulting that a tossed off bulletpoint is far more evocative than the actual art that should be depicting the critter in its natural state.

Dracolich: Actually: this is the first entry in the Dragon sub-chapter, only these lazy fucks couldn't be bothered to actually note that this is the dragon sub-chapter. You know, like they did for Devils and Demons, and like every other edition of D&D did.  This means we're subject to pages of redundant rules and sloppy organization, all of which reduces dragons to one of the less important monsters in a game literally named after Dragons.  Very sad. Presentation matter, yo.

Drider: Honestly: I'd rather have seen these grouped with the Drow.  I don't care much for Drider in general, so I'm not going to go any deeper than that.

Dryads: Just a reminder that D&D is corporate and family friendly now. You are not permitted to see tiddies, citizen.

Deurgar: Just a reminder that 5e is badly organized. If you want your Deurgar fix, pick up the adventure module Out of the Abyss instead.   Repeat tired complaint about stripping out the DMs tools for tweaking intelligent race type 'monsters'.

Elementals:  I vaguely recall that in 3e, maybe in prior editions, you could adjust the power, size and hit die of Elementals as desired. Not anymore, citizen. You WILL use Large Elementals, and they WILL have 12 Hit Die and they WILL BE challenge Rating 5.  We clone them that way, you see?  

Elves: Drow:  No, seriously, that is how they are written up. Look up Elves, find only Drow in their own mini-subchapter.  Seriously though: You could take the page count in this heading alone for various examples of Drow and use those same pages to write up basic rules for tweaking  monsters, giving class levels to individual monsters (and how to adjust challenge ratings), and be fucking done with it, but no. Instead you get pre-digested pablum entries.  I will note, unfairly perhaps (read the rules...) that the corrolarry to this is that so many adventures have entries that literally say 'Drow Priestess', adn expect you to come here, to this book, to look up the pre-digested pablum entry for that critter, compared to the much more accessable methodology of actually putting relevant (and unique) stat blocks for individual monsters/NPCs right where the DM needed them.  Pablum D&D by lazy designers.

Empyreans: Challenge Rating 23. Entry like a bland, fightable monster. Fluffy bulletpoint regarding 'Evil Empyreans' is orthogonally at odds with D&D cosmology (which includes, I'll remind you, Evil Gods. Empyreans being the children of Gods...).  

Ettercap: honestly the best part of the entire text is the last bulletpoint about enemies of the fey. Other than that, its a servicable monster with a bland and somewhat confusing idea of how it should be used... monster despoilers of nature or sneaky assassin ninjas. Pick a lane.

Ettins: Again: Do the designers of D&D know anything about D&D's methodology for classifying monsters? I mean Ettin are written up as Giants, but then we are told they are demon-cursed Orcs.  I mean: I get it, sure. Demogorgon has two heads and is crazy, but Giants have the Ordening and their own gods and history... not every 'big man-thing' is A Giant.

Fairy Dragon: I'm just going to point out here (and again later, because I'm an asshole) that Psuedo-dragons are also an entry in this very book.

Flameskulls: See, this is the art demiliches should have got. Also, I'm not sure the writers are very clear on how smart/personable Flameskulls are supposed to be, so I, as a player/DM/reader am also not entirely clear on how smart/personable (Yes, yes... I can clearly see they have a (...) 16 Int) they are supposed to be.

Flumph: So... the weakest, least offensive joke monster in the history of the game, a memetic monster if you will, now gets a serious write up as a real monster? Um... okay?  Also not a threat, but somehow I feel like the joke went over the writers' heads.

Fomorian:  So. Are the cursed feywild beings of huge size, or are they huge giants who lived in the feywild?  See also: Ettins.  No, I'm not going to look it up elsewhere, this book is supposed to tell me these things properly.

Fungi: You know... I don't think its a great idea to make a sub-chapter for Fungi, and then just group some (not all) of the various fungi monsters into that sub-chapter. Either make a proper fungi chapter or don't, but this six of one, half dozen of the other shit is not going to cut it in my book.

Galeb Dur: This is, and has ever been, a dumb monster.  Some reason it seems to be very popular with the current crop of writers, which is sinful enough that I'm not even going to bother reading the entry to say more.

Gargoyles: For some reason they aren't happy with 'animate statues that kill you' and they feel the need to really give Gargoyles a 'big treatment'. Yay for Ogremech origin lore? Huzzah! They be elemental beings now?  Sure, whatever. Animate statue things that kill you vs. Animate Statue things that kill you+.  Nah, adding the plus doesn't improve it.

Genies: Honestly?  Since they did a sub-chapter thing for elementals, why didn't they go all out and cover the spectrum of elementals instead of giving us four blandly identical themed elementals? What I'm saying is that Genies are Elementals.  THere seems to be a chronic (all editions) mishandling of the cosmology of D&D when it comes to Elementals and the Elemental Planes, that always manifests in writeups of, well, Genies.  Here is the 5e version of that endless fail.

Ghosts: why do they have Etherial Sight? Is that a thing now for ghosts? Incorporeal beings in general?  Should this be some sort of universal rule for interactions between incorporeal beings and the etherial plane? I think it should be. Instead we will get endless ad hoc special case treatments that will inevitibly cause rule cruft. All because some asshole thought ghosts should have etherial sight.

Ghouls: Oh, goody. Ghasts have been folded in. Since, in D&D/Faerun, Ghouls are now supposed to be the manifest creation of Doresain, much as Gnolls are supposed to be the manifest creations of Yeenoghu... why isn't that actually mentioned in their write up? Just sayin'.

Giants: So nice big sub-chapter, covering all that stuff I've been saying regards to other 'giants' already in the book (and more to come, I'm sure...). And since they are intelligent, and other books will have special custom class giant variants of the existing giants, this means you can plug in the standard, repetitive complaint about the lack of support for DMs here. There you go.

Gibbering Mouther: So... yeah. It exists.  Does anyone else get a weird incestuous vibe from Warhammer's Chaos Spawn here? I do. Someone break the cycle before it happens again!

Gith: Now a core monster, despite having little to no impact on Faerun in its entire history (I'd be perfectly happy to give a dissertation on why Faerun is the worst of all possible choices for Core D&D, but honestly).  Insert standard refrains about DM Tools, rinse repeat, make sure to lather up good along the way.  Despite getting four pages, somehow it feels hollow compared to the much simpler days of the Fiend Folio.  

Gnolls: Making them a sort of mortal demonic sub-race is one of those things that just chaps my hide like few other changes in the entire book.  So much so that I'm actually going to say very little on the subject simply to keep my blood pressure low, and this post to something akin to a managable size.   Also, they get a much... more involved... write up in the... tome of foes? (mordenkainen?). Repeat other standard complaints.

Gnome, Deep: Um... yeah. rinse, repeat. cycle.  Then again, they've always been sort of an afterthought, more so than most of the 'underdark variant pc races'.

Goblins: I have mixed opinions on the new art design, so given the nature of this thread, lets say I hate it. Also we have teh same issue as the bugbears and later the hobgoblins (along with teh gnolls, duegar and on and on and on...).  And honestly, now that I think about it, shouldn't there be a 'goblinoid' sub-chapter?  I mean just about everything else gets one?

Golems: Subchapter. Boring. Also: why not universal construct rules?  Nothing to see here, move along.

Gorgons: Never mind the sheer mindboggling insanity (Dating back to Saint E.G.G, hallowed be thy name...), of making Gorgons giant iron plated poison gas bull monsters... gorgons are giant iron plated poison gas bull monsters. What I wanna know though is: Are they delicious?

Grell: I'm pretty sure these were relegated to the 'curious idea' compendium that was the Fiend Folio, but somehow they've lept into the big leagues, getting an entry in the main (only) Monster Manual. This feels like Monster Affirmative Action.

Grick: See Grell.

Griffons: Unaligned, which should instantly make you wonder why so many other monster things are not also unaligned.  Also, since these days they seem mostly domesticated in D&D lands (being trainable mounts, and wild griffons are more viewed by sensible adventurers as a source for eggs for trainable mounts than 'threats') why they haven't been shuffled into an appendix along with the dogs and chickens and shit. Like the Blink Dogs.

Grimlocks: Ah, the perfectly bland and boring 'blink cafe dwelling morlock men' entry. Meh. Hard pass from me.  No. Wait: Faerun is Core Now, so why haven't you mentioned that the Grimlocks of Faerun are relatives of the Uthgardt tribes of the surface?  Way to not use your own lore, assholes.

Hags: Subchapter. Utterly fails to reconcile how these low challenge monsters are such power players in D&Ds cosmology. You know, like inventing the entire Yugoloth 'class' of 'demons'?  Like... seriously there is a narrative convention that Hags are talky talky monsters not stabby-stabby monsters, and that puts their power level on opposite ends of a wide spectrum.

Half Dragon: Read the Cambion entry, only replace Tiefling with Dragonborn and also remove any hint that the D&D writers are actually trying to make the Half-Dragon relevant to the setting. Done.

Harpy: Take a generic, well trod monster and suddenly add, for no reason, a deep and... umm... compelling?... backstory involving two different gods and some unnamed 'dread power' because god knows there aren't enough monsters in D&D that actually need that sort of thing but aren't getting it.  Also remember the Dryad entry? Here are your corporate approved monster-girl Tiddies, Citizen. Sort of. Fuckin' tease.

Hell Hound: Remember back in the Angel entry when I talked about how nihilistic the setting is if only Good Guys can change sides?  Remember when I mentioned that there is a canon Devil that turned good because of a motherfucking HEAD INJURY?  Remember when I mentioned the stupidity of the Crawling Hand being immune to Turning, and what that implies about the cosmological rules governing magic and internal logic? Yeah: Hellhounds have a paragraph explaining that they are 'evil to the core' and can never be anything other than a mad-dog killer, untrainable. You know: except for all those evil things that will, inevitably, use trained hellhounds at some point.  

Helmed Horror: You know, way back in teh beginning I dealt with the Animated Objects, which includes Animated Armor.  This is just... a second type of Animated Armor.  

Hippogryph: See Griffon

Hobgoblin: See Goblin. See Bugbear.  On the other hand, they do get a pretty serious write up which reflects the actual danger an organized society of evil dicks actually should pose to a fantasy setting (more so than rampaging violence fetishests (orcs, I'm looking at you...) do, which only serves to highlight how little value anyone actually places on Hobgoblins in their fantasy settings based on D&D. Ah... what could have been...

Homunculus: I... have no idea where they are going with the artwork. Is it... supposed to be Porg-cute? IS IT Porg-Cute? No, no...

Hook Horror: A signature D&D classic Monster that feels so very out of place in modern D&D.  Also... they are sympathetic and freindly in OUt of the Abyss? What even is this?

Hydra: Reads Entry. Notes role of Tiamat. Notes name check for Leraean. Checks alignment... Unaligned. Sigh.

Intellect Devourer: Cute little doggo-brain things. Notes also that psionics are not really a thing in 5e. In fact they seem to be an anti-thing now. Pets cute-little-doggo-brain thing before euthanizing it as pointless.

Invisible Stalker: Is now an Air Elemental. Notes that teh art makes it super-visible.  Notes, once more, that 5e designers appear to hate classic D&D.

Jacklewere: So, why not a Lycanthrope Sub-chapter? Also: Does anyone actually care about jackleweres? I mean: werebears, werewolves, wereBOAR!... and then you have a fucking jacklewere. Just... don't.

Kenku: Ah, our second intelligent, possibly playable, bird-men race. If I were being fair I might give them points for creativity in how they are presented, but mostly I'm irritated how this minor niche race seems to have risen to 'core', and is now everywhere. Also: You have to play them like Bumblebee the Transformer, talking in radio-quote. Fuck you, D&D. Neither I, as DM, will do this, nor will I allow a player to do this, because I value my time and/or sanity too much.  Take your bird-kender transformer and fuck right the hell off.

Kobolds: You know, in classic mythology, Kobolds are not dog-lizard things, but more like hairy gnomes. Knowing that, I can never ever take D&D kobolds seriously. Also, repeat standard comment about intelligent monster races here.

Kracken: Fuck-heug sea monster, two page write up for an incredibly niche threat. Also, apparently you're supposed to find them in lairs?  So we expect players are planning vast undersea campaigns actively hunting these things because... reasons?

Koa-Toa: I'll repeat the same refrain. Got it? Ok, moving on: Read the fluffy bullet point on God-Makers. Refer to standard issue rants about internal logic of teh cosmology. Realize D&D's creative team are shit writers and repent for all your various misdeeds. Preferabbly before a made up god that the Koa-Toa just wished into being, utterly wrecking your entire metaphysical model of reality because you couldn't make weird fish-men interesting in their own right.

Lamia: Such a low challenge boss monster its painful.  Also notes that Grazz't is now the single most name-checked divinity (Demon Lord, whatever) in the entire setting. For some fucking reason.

Lich: Again: this is the sort of write up the Death Knights deserved. Also recalls that D&D is now explicitly Faerun because dumb reasons, which is a setting chock full of Liches acting like living high powered wizards and realize that the write up for liches is utterly disconnected from the setting being used. Again.

Lizardfolk: Redundant scaled race with the usual problem of 5e not understanding how to use intelligent monster races.

Lycanthropes: Oh look... they DO get a sub-chapter. Whoda thunkit?

Magmin: Another type of Elemental that belongs in an Elemental subchapter. Also, like their cousins the various mephits, they seem to be wildly more popular with the writers/designers than they do with players/DMs...

Manticore: haha.. I want to call it a manticorp. The drawing is inexplicably goofy looking.

Medusa: You know: the write up seems to imply that Medusas are Pretty, and that just reads all sorts of wrong. We also see a return of the 'forced' language for saving throws, which was discussed earlier.  Fuck you with your pretty medusas, d&d...

mephits: Small, intelligent, always evil elementals that show up in every product ever produced by D&D (or so it feels) and never, ever in a home-brewed adventure.  Your personal anecdotal example of a home-brewed mephit based adventure is invalid.

Merfolk: included because, well, you sorta have to, I guess? With all the verve adn energy that sort of 'well, we gotta, right?' implies.

Merrow: hilariously the next entry is a much more evocative D&D version of merfolk. So yay for redundancy?

Mimic: D&D has a whole host of these sort of Meta-Monsters, including teh earlier entry of the Cloaker, and honestly the entire lot should have been taken out behind the chemical shed about three or four editions ago.

Mind Flayer: I touched on this earlier but 5e needs to make a choice between gutting psionics utterly or including all these psionic monsters. This vague handwavium of 'its a sort of spell casting' and burying your head in teh sand like a fucking lobster (I know...) is just making the problem worse.  

Minotaurs: Now the demonic minions of baphomet. See also Gnolls. Slightly less annoying than the earlier example, but only slightly.

Modrons: Everyones least favorite extraplanar alignment exemplar is back, and now in Core!  Oh hey, did you know that the Great Modron March is now an often repeated bit of lore for D&D, mentioned every single fuckign time Modrons are mentioned (Which is... far to fucking often). Oh yeah, and if you want to know MORE about it, well have I got great news for you! The Planescape module that actually covers that is long out of print, and sells for the super-cheap price of 150 dollars on Amazon!  Or, you know, you can wait until sixth edition when they finally either remove Modrons again, or actually print a new set of lore covering it.

Mummy: Liches and Demiliches get two pages each. Deathknights get one very sparse page. Mummies get four pages.  You might be forgiven for thinking mummies are the be all end all of Undead in D&D. But nope, in 5e they are closer to construct/mindless trap undead, just more powerful.  Mummies just love to spend centuries or millennia hanging out in sarcophagi just waitign to be disturbed so they can wreck yo shit, while the other powerful undead pursue... I dunno... kinghood or godhood, or just wander teh astra plane like the world's oldest stoners.  Four fuckign pages.  [Editors Note: the writer of this post was so needlessly angry that he forgot how to count. Its three pages. THREE. Not Four. His argument in invalid, enjoy your day.]

Myconids: DIdn't we have a Fungus Entry earlier? We did? Well. Have a new one.  Another minority niche monster raised to core status because... reasons. No, having a big old adventure book set in the Underdark totally isn't the reason why the core rules had to be warped, why would you think that?  Oooh...look. Talking Mushrooms! How... Exciting!

Nagas: This... is one of those entries where they cut everythign to the bone, then tried to do too many things with what was left. Ancient enemies of the Yaun-ti, evil and good versions in teh same entry, blah, blah... have your magical snake man rules and be happy that the writing isn't trying to moebius the setting into eating its own ass.

Nightmares: Evil steeds. See also Griffons

Nothic: I... what even is this and why is it in the main Monster Manual? I need more booze to talk about this, and I'm busy drinking coffee right now, so you'll have to make up your own vitriol here, I can't even bother.

Ogres: I hate the new artwork. I hate that we need entirely redundant rule entries to cover 'ogre with a battering ram', 'ogre with a ballista' and 'ogre with goblins riding him like a pony'. This is even worse than the standard 'intelligent monster refrain', because we aren't actually changing the ogres at all, just changing their equipment.  This is a bad design decision on every level. [Editor's Note: Don't believe him. He is drinking heavily. He clearly didn't bother to read the Ogre Entry before posting, since all those sub-classes are actually in a different book.  Another invalid entry, clearly.]

Half Ogre:  Also known as the Ogrillion. Sometimes the blandly descriptive name is used, sometimes the stupid wierd name is used (See also Bulette). Pick a fucking lane, D&D writers. God damnit!

Oni: Also known as the Ogre Magi. See Half Ogre. Also this is D&D trying to have its cake and eat it too, since they have always played a coy game of 'is it, isn't it' with the whole Ogre thing, despite being demonstrably NOT a D&D ogre, which only makes an interesting monster bland and boring due to confused writing.

Oozes: Now a sub chapter. Always my least favorite monster type, and not just because they are ecologically suspect on the face of it.  Behold the mighty adventurer, Conan, laid low by a slime mold. Fuck you EGG.

Orcs: Redundanty Chaos Hobgoblins, much as with the devil/demon divide. Only one half of the split can really be interesting, making the other half forced to be boring in the shadow of the more compelling example.  Somehow in D&D land the more interesting example is always the chaotic one, because organized evil is somehow less scary than wild savage mindless beast evil.  How depressing.

Otyugh: Somehow the goofy ass old artwork was far more compelling than the weirdly self-consciously serious take on it in this book. This is not a serious monster that needs to fill an ecological/evolutionary niche... its a magical abberation that should be vaguely disgusting and goofy looking at the same time.

Owlbear: Ditto. Now it is literally a four legged owl. Sigh.  Also they are doing their damnedest to make them tameable critters now, so we can start shuffling them into the same 'needs to be in the appendix with the blink dogs' we are doing to the griffons.  Yay for progress!!!

Pegasus: Speaking of griffons....

Peryton: The return of a classic. Minus the strange shadow shenanigans, because why not?  They seem to have that strange 'writer fave' thing going on for them that I've mentioned earlier, adn I hate that about them.

Piercer: What the everliving fuck, D&D?! That doesn't look at all like a rock monster stalagtite thing. It looks like a fuckign worm. By Saint EGG, I curse thee!!!!

Pixie: Now they are nice fairies for some reason. Pacifists and shit. SO... not... monsters?

Psuedo-dragon: See Also Fairy-Dragon. I know D&D has created an awful lot of redundant shit in their long reign of terror over the fantasy gaming landscape, but if you were only going to put in ONE Monster Manual (instead of the three or four of previous editions...) why in gods name would you actually include multiple entries for what is functionally the same goddamn critter!

Purple Worm: Its a penis joke. Need I say more?  Fine. For some idiot-savant reason, the writers took the time to tell us that the... helmeted love warrior... is not just a monster that eats you, but that it fulfills a valuable ecological niche in teh underdark by exposing ore and gems and shit.  

Quaggoth: Another psionic monster in the non-psionic 5e. Another Drow Slave Race and Underdark Only Monster, because this edition is teh Underdark Edition...

Raksasha: yet another anomaly from the early days of D&D, a demon/devil monster that defies conventional classification in the legendarium of D&D because its lingering like a bad stench...

Remorhaz: YOu know, I think all the crawly worm-bug monsters with elemental powers could be rounded up and turned into a single monster with themes? No? Fine, keep this redudant ice worm thing then. See if I care.

Revenant: Another incredibly niche monster (undead this time), that somehow made it into the only Monster Manual we are going to get.  These are the noble-not quite friendly undead that only want to kill the bad guys, like an undead batman, so... I mean, you can use them as villians and all but surely there are otehr, better undead for that? RIght?  ALSO immune to Turning, because fuck internal logic in favor of narrative amirite?

Roc: Ah.. the classic entry of a monster you don't so much fight as experience. I'd say 'never change, D&D' but then I'd be lying.

Roper: I am always offended by critters that ignore the law of conservation of mass. Cutting off roper tentacles does not affect the roper because the tentacles are a special effect and not a part of its biology, and that make me HULK SMASH!!!!!

Rust Monster: And we have the return of the 'classic fuck the low level fighter needlessly' critter. Sometime around 3e this sucker was a living joke monster that no sensible designer, writer or DM would ever actually use as a threat, but 5e are smart, yo, so here it is complete with the ugliest artistic take its ever had, which makes me sad, since it was always rather cute in previous editions.

Sahugin: A compilation of every repeated complaint we've had so far. Also the art sucks.

Salamanders: yet another Elemental race... also, this constant refrain about efreeti slaving makes me wonder if I missed a subtle dig at white guilt?  I mean aside from Grazz't themed monsters, the second most popular thread in this book is a deep discorce into the social structure and moral failings of Efreeti society.  Apparently the TRU CALLING for Adventure is to end slavery in the Elemental Plane of Fire. Who knew?

Satyrs: Mythologies favorite rapists, now in your corporate, family friendly D&D, Citizen. Also plagued by being essentially not particularly monsterous (Chaotic Neutral), and of course an intelligent race, with all that implies in 5e.

Scarecrow: Was this written around Hallowween or something? Ooohh... its a construct but its also an intelligent monst.... fuck you. Its a spirit with a body, not a goddamn construct.  YOu know, D&D actually tries to make rules and catagories for things, it really does... but its never been particularly good at it, and 5e fails harder than most.

Shadow: So... its a ghost, but its not a ghost. And so its written differently. But its totally a ghost.  

Shambling Mound: Honestly I feel like this belonged with the Blights earlier, but no, they had to do their weird thing about the Tree of Gregory or whatever, so here is the poor shambling mound, off on its lonesome, with no friends and no one to love it. Also, they've largely been relegate to monster-pets and walking garbage disposals by generations of module writers, which kinda robs them of their monsterous magesty.

Shield Guardian: yet another Construct.  C'mon, its really just a fancy fucking golem, innit? Why can't D&D acknowledge that simple fact and, you know, stick it with the fucking golems already?

Skeleton: Its boring. Its a bone golem but its treated like its not. Its mindless but somehow wicked. Sure. whatever helps you sleep at night, bub.

Skeleton Minotaur: And THIS... THIS RIGHT HERE... is why the old template model fuckign worked. But no. 5e can't have nice things. You don't get flexible tools to create neat things on your own, you get spoon fed what we want to make, citizen.

Slaadi: Another Fiend Folio critter elevated to Core. Also a perfect example of how the cosmology of D&D changed and evolved,  but the writers are too chickenshit to change the monsters to fit. Also wolverine rip-offs.

Specter: How many ghosts are we up to now? Four? Five?

Sphinx: Look at dem alignments. Are these monsters or plot devices. You tell me.

Sprite:  Somehow... Somewhy... these chaotic beings of the Feywild are perfect judges of moral character.  That is... as completely fucking retarded as pacifist pixies.  What, was this monster manual written by a preteen girl?

Stirge: Uglies artwork yet. I mean, I guess its supposed to be ugly, but DAMN.  Never mind that this thing is very clearly a 'monster pest'. As in, its just a pest creature made a bit more monsterous. Even low level characters aren't really threatened by them, at the end of the day, except in very large numbers.  Complete waste of the rules, really. This should be some sort of swarm, but I guess we sort of did away with generic swarm rules, along with all the other useful templates...

Succubus/Incubus: Honestly, they should just go with the single popular name (succubus), given everything. And they should be devils (were they devils before? No... they were demons, which was totally inappropriate for the cosmology...), but instead they chickened out and made them 'random fiend things'. Also this is the Corporate and Family Friendly D&D, Citizen....

Tarrasque: Why? Just... Why?

Thri-Kreen: Why are there so many intelligent races that are not really monsters at all in htis damn book?

Treant: Monsters I will never use for 500, Alex.  Good. Plot Devices.  Also a boring legacy rip off from Tolkeen, given a stupid name change for legal reasons back in the day. BUt, I guess if you are running an 'evil nature despoilers campaign' you can fight them.  Or, if you manage to contort, distort, fold mangle and mutilate 5e enough to run armies and seige campaigns with it, you can totally have them in your army, since they ahve seige rules.

Troglodytes: A much more interestingly named, but somehow more boringly presented, lizardfolk. Also: Intelligent Monster Race rant here.

Trolls: The classic D&D mong.  Also a classic example of how to horribly misunderstand action economies and translating them into new rule-sets...

Umber Hulk: Remember when I said Hulk Smash earlier? This is the Hulk I was referring to.  What? I don't want Disney to sue me.

Unicorn: A perfect storm of complaints. Its a good aligned plot device critter that will often show up as a pet, and thus should have been appendixed with the BLink Dogs and the Griffons. Also gets a massive write up, sucking up space better used elsewhere.

Vampires: Four. Fucking.Pages. Count Strahd. Four. Pages. [Editor's Note: This time the author has, in fact, counted the pages, as the earlier boozing has worn off. Carry on...] Yet, somehow, they still have a monster of the week effect. Also, not immune to turning. No, that awesome power is restricted to animated hands and undead batman.

Water Weird: Most forgettable monster ever. Oooohhhh... attack water. Get a dog.

Wight: Stick in standard rant regarding universal templates, stir until mixed.

will o the wisp: Has anyone, in the history of D&D, ever actually used these as monsters? Plot devices? Sure. But Monsters? Not Fucking Likely. No, your story about that one campaign doesn't count.

Wraith: Oh, look. Another Ghost.

Wyvern: Discount Dragons. Also reduced to mounts. Stick them next to the Griffons.

Xorn: Another writer favorite for some idiot reason.  They only exist so asshole GMs have an excuse to take treasure from the party for no return.

Yeti: two pages for a random niche monster with no real impact on campaigns other than 'kill it so we can get to the next encounter'? that seems... odd.

Yaun-ti: So much wasted potential, given so many pages in order to waste all that potential. You know the drill about Intelligent Race Monsters, right?  Well, Yaun-Ti take that and crank it to elven, since they not only have potentially levels and classes, but due to their mutations and levels of evolution within their own race, this is the perfect opportunity for a modular system of 'build a boss', but no. Take the premade cookie cutter villians and like 'em. Because that's what you get.

Yugoloths: Said it all before.

Zombies: Said it all before.

The above list is in fun and is not a meaningful criticism of the monsters in the book or the design of 5e, which is of course perfect and flawless and perfect, and no one would ever say a bad word about it ever. Any attempt to read deep and real and heartfelt complaints about the design decisions of 5e found in the above commentary is entirely in your own delusional head, citizen. If seen, report to your nearest Hasbro facility for mental correction.

Have a nice day.

So the local group I'm vaguely in (work, etc...) has a guy running a one off on Halloween, and he mentioned this 'great' product called, well, Stronghold and Followers that he had recently acquired. Now, that sort of product is sort of my jam as a player, so I looked it up, intending to make purchase, sight unseen.

It seems its produced by MCDM, unless there are multiple products with this name currently out, and lets say that the opening page upon google search has me questioning the designer's intent (a three page vanity essay where you brag about your 30,000 posts on RPGnet? um.....)...

So has anyone see this thing?  Is it what it advertises: A product about building strongholds and managing followers, or is it some thinly veiled political screed about how awesome pudding is?

Inquiring minds want to know.

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