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second-best since Cantor

Month: January, 2023

RPG review: VOR RUKOTH (2010).

Note: I wrote this review of a D&D 4e product in, what, 2015? 2016? Earlier? Anyway, sometime after 4e had died. In general I stand by it and I’m publishing the old draft unchanged here. In retrospect I’d only add that WotC’s 4e-era ‘Points of Light’ (‘PoLand’) setting — a placeless setting-framework — was an interesting idea, not necessarily to say a good one, but predictably executed without wit, style, or imaginative freedom. Hasbro D&D is boring. That’s their house ‘style.’

In terms of D&D history, the most telling feature of 2010’s Vor Rukoth: An Ancient Ruins Adventure Site is its second sentence:

[Vor Rukoth] is not intended to present a cohesive adventure path, but rather, dozens of locations and hooks that you can weave into an existing adventure or campaign setting.

The idea that players/DMs expect their supplements to be ‘adventure paths’ isn’t surprising — D&D’s chief competitor isn’t Pathfinder, it’s the largely linear world of video games, and has been since the days of 1st edition — but it’s bracing to be reminded that the imagined audience for 4e products sees/saw the illusionist hybrid creature known as the ‘adventure path’ as the baseline D&D experience.

Certain tensions inherent in the product seem to arise from this conception.

Vor Rukoth details an adventure site, which — as the name ‘Vor Rukoth’ clearly signals — is eeeeevil: a former human settlement whose rulers made a diabolic pact to repel a dragonborn army and were thereby transformed into tieflings (devil-people, a core species in 4e and 5e along with dragon-people). The city’s ruler opened a gate to hell, devils overran both invaders and citizens, and Bob’s your uncle, now the gate is the lich-ladylord’s phylactery and everything in Vor Rukoth is bad.

Vor Rukoth was ‘lost to civilization’ for centuries, but now a hobbit-but-wait-there’s-a-secret-here named The Coyote has established a tent city on the outskirts to provision would-be explorers. It’s a Deadwood-ish, Mos Eisley-ish place; the bartender at the saloon(!) is a devil-woman named Inferna. There’s none of the imaginative brio of Mos Eisley nor the poetry of Deadwood, but how could there be? Anyhow that’s just the first few pages. Things are bound to pick up.

So what’s inside?

There’s a generic, uninspiring city map. There’s some breathless workmanlike prose. There’re factions, each with a clear agenda and a subversive working against it, usefully cross-referenced to adventure hooks in the gazetteer (thanks, WotC, for nailing this simple bit of textual apparatus). There’s a list of Events which contains this suggestion…

As a locale where opposing forces are constantly at work, Vor Rukoth is active even when the characters are not there. One way to make the city seem more alive is to introduce events that disrupt the balance of power or change the geography of the area.

…which sounds sensible enough, but then the listed events include ‘earthquake floods the streets with lava’ and ‘prophesied alignment of the heavens brings catastrophe’ and ‘new emperor arises with a hell-army.’ The framing text emphasises verisimilitude (not ‘realism’ duh) yet the actual Events list is basically ‘minor apocalypses that change the tactical situation,’ none of them fleshed out — par for the schizo-course in a supplement that advertises itself as a ‘living city’ and spends a sixth of its page count on factions.

Locationwise, Vor Rukoth is sketchy but not evocative, as by now you’ve perhaps come to expect, and is neither detailed enough to run as-is nor compelling enough to improvise with. Each district of the city gets a bunch of backstory which the players will probably never learn, and a handful of standard D&D hooks (mostly of the ‘a patron with a Hidden Agenda wants to send you off treasure hunting’ variety). There’s magical treasure everywhere. The ‘skill challenge’ mechanic is suggested several times; it remains an awkward, blunt instrument. Flavourwise, stylewise, it’s…well: ghostly prostitutes wander the former red light district, half-orc slavers have supernatural help, there’s a cavern full of blood worms. Everything is Dark and Serious and dull.

In keeping with 4e norms, no effort at naturalism has been made. The city’s built for setpieces, not the slow burn of an urban campaign — it’s a treasure-filled dungeon. Instead of ‘mere (un)life,’ the city’s full of extras, the equivalent of stage actors whispering ‘peas and carrots’ to look like they’re conversing.

The biggest surprise in Vor Rukoth is how little 4e this 4e product contains: just twelve statblocks, only five of them for threats (the others are items), and no bestiary as such. It’s practically an edition-neutral product, which is a good thing — beyond a few holdouts, there’s no 4e market left anyway. So how does it stack up against, say, other recent D&D adventure material, official and fanmade? Not too well, I’m afraid: it’s a standard WotC product, all workmanlike writing and generic fighty-fantasy art and Abandoned Streets echoing with the Cries of the Angry Dead. It certainly brings the sketchy 4e setting to life; the trouble is, that setting is utterly undistinguished. Beefy fighers with lots of buckles on their armour fight weedy little spellcasters in colour-coded robes, and the sound of your name advertises your alignment: if you’ve ever looked at a d20 product before, you’ve seen this one. On the open market for imaginative RPG projects without edition buy-in (lock-in), Vor Rukoth is a weak entry.

Summary judgment: I didn’t feel compelled to steal any ideas from this book, and I bet you won’t either.

A note about evocative writing

WotC’s D&D is like a network TV drama: no swearing, no nudity, no eroticism (but the occasional brief scene of soft-focus missionary sex), no consequential violence, no idiosyncrasy, no poetry — and no useless beauty, i.e. no time given over to the ‘vivid continuous dream’ of fiction. Whether for lack of talent, lack of editorial freedom, lack of taste, or lack of will, WotC’s work is never really terrifying or beautiful; it never quite evokes madness or the Weird; its content (for what it’s worth) is adolescent despite the creative team’s pretensions to seriousness. Mostly, it’s boring: WotC’s writers and artists never ever surprise you with ideas or presentation. (Anyone who’s ever been brought up short by a WotC product’s ingenuity just isn’t reading widely enough, sorry.)

It’s not impossible to write beautiful, compelling RPG books that double as highly functional technical writing. Plenty of folks have managed it: S. John Ross writes evocative prose (extraordinary, actually). Ken Hite too. Zak Smith and Patrick Stuart do it. Gareth Hanrahan and Robin Laws at Pelgrane, Stolze and Tynes and Detwiller at Arc Dream: check. Jonathan Tweet gave us Over the Edge and Everway, c’mon. Jenna Moran can’t not write interesting prose. Vincent Baker, Luke Crane, even the ludicrous Ron Edwards: boom. Greg Stafford, Greg Costikyan, Aaron Allston, John Varley. James Wallis — you realize his Munchausen game is an honest-to-God literary classic, right? Benjamin Baugh. Malcolm Craig. The odd damaged people responsible for GURPS Goblins and The Whole Hole. The late John M Ford and Tom Moldvay. Zeb Cook. Bruce Cordell. Bambra, Morris, Davis, and Gallagher (the Night’s Dark Terror and Death on the Reik teams.) Ansell, Brunton, and Forrest (Realms of Chaos.) Schwalb. Wick. Some White Wolf dweebs whom I don’t know because I can’t stand White Wolf’s house style. And a host of amateurs and obsessives who’ll go unnamed today.

Notice anything about that list? (Other than the fact that RPG publishers need more women writers, I mean.) Several of those folks have written for WotC — but with the exception of Planescape’s Zeb Cook, they’ve all found the creative freedom and institutional support to do their best work elsewhere. (Monte Cook made his name at TSR/WotC, but he’s best known for his 3e design work; like Stolze, he can sound a bit tiresome and familiar when he’s off in Imaginationland.)


Irreal life top 10, late January 2023.

  1. Still Mastodon. It’s quieted down as the panicked #TwitterMigration has slowed, leaving people wondering what the hell they’re doing on a service that provides none of the twitch-speed algorithmic coercion of Twitter and all of the one-to-one accountability of an old-school BBS. What remains turns out to be its own thing — a ‘social’ media network that honestly doesn’t deserve those scare quotes. Clicking the Donate button on our server’s webpage I felt a rush of affectionate nostalgia, reminded so strongly of using Plastic and Metafilter back during GWBush’s first term in office. Mastodon has that energy and that potential, not least because its open and still-evolving platform makes room for innovation (how about choosing your own recommendation algorithm?). If it fails it’ll be fondly remembered as a beautiful experiment. Same if it succeeds, I hope.
  2. ‘You have to be with other people, he thought. In order to live at all.’ (Philip K Dick, Do Androids…?)
  3. What We Do in the Shadows. I never saw the film, and checked out the TV show just to see Matt Berry — only to discover (after the usual, slightly stilted pilot) the most perfectly balanced ensemble comedy in years and years, a sweetly humane study of a semifunctional Staten Island vampire family with a poisoned edge befitting its odd mix of Kiwi, UK, and USA sensibilities. (It’s one of the most sexually progressive shows on TV too, maybe in mainstream TV history.) All five leads could carry their own shows; Berry and Natasia Demetriou, as Laszlo and Nadja, are my favourite onscreen couple ever. And the expansive, empathetic love story of Nandor the Relentless and his familiar Guillermo is as compelling as Sam and Diane. I’m rewatching it, this time with my wife, grateful for its irresponsible lightness and unexpected emotional weight; we laugh embarrassingly loudly several times each episode. A gift.
  4. Hawaii. ‘Island time’ is real. For an East Coast neurotic like me there’s a couple-day adjustment period, but by your fifth or sixth mai tai it all starts to make sense. Preposterously expensive and necessarily parochial in certain ways, for reasons of geography — and with the usual dark colonial history — but the complexly, matter-of-factly integrated present-day culture of the islands gives me hope.
  5. VALIS. PKD’s career was spent exploring themes that eventually (predictably?) overwhelmed him late in life. His hallucinatory/visionary experiences of Feb/Mar 1974 drove him to write his 9,000-page ‘Exegesis,’ from which several novels partially (never fully) escape; after his publisher asked for edits to his first concerted attempt to fictionalize those experiences (published posthumously as Radio Free Albemuth), he instead poured out this first draft in two weeks. Less a novel than an obsessive elaboration and criticism of his own breakdown and reconstruction in the wake of the ‘2-3-74’ events, VALIS splits PKD in two to stage a confrontation and then collaboration between more and less skeptical parts of his psyche. Which is to say it’s a spiritual confession — genre with unanswerable question mark at the center — a funny one at that, and gets away with being monumentally, monomaniacally boring by being incomparably brave in its self-inquiry. Everyone should regularly experience art where there’s no way of determining what it would mean for it to be ‘good.’
  6. Clash Royale. One important but poorly understood bit of Terrible News this terrible decade is that for many many people, ‘video games’ increasingly means mobile games — a commercial sector of very nearly pure and perfect exploitation and mindless sugar-snack pleasure. Because mobile-gaming time is budgeted in 5- and 10-minute increments and largely happens during brief moments of ‘downtime,’ deep thinking doesn’t come into it, indeed can’t. Clash Royale looks like a thinking game (there are ‘cards’) but what scares me is the realization that, for most good players, ‘strategy’ means spending their 3-minute games in a more or less threatening holding pattern until they can pop off a combo. Indeed, that’s all ‘strategy’ means in a broad range of games. Which makes sense, since that’s how typical players spend their workdays and schooldays too — waiting anxiously for a chance to really live. I hate this pay-to-win game with a screaming hatred, and have poured years of my life into it over the last two months. No more.
  7. Bob Marley and the Wailers, Sausalito, Halloween 1973 on KSAN. Because of the incredible reach of Island’s ubiquitous Legend compilation (25M copies sold!), when casual listeners think of Marley they hear the refined sound of his mid/late-70s band, with the I-threes on vocals sweetening the mix and psych-blues guitar washing over or through. No shame in that — the post-1974 Wailers were among the great bands of that decade. But Marley was a hit even before white audiences and stoners picked up on what was going on, and stayed real even after they did. This crew (minus Bunny Livingston) is tight-loose from the gun, with impossibly fluid chemistry and a percussive funk sound sweetened only by Wire Lindo’s organ. Marley’s incredible charisma comes through as always, but without guitar solos or the ladies’ gorgeous vocal harmonies the group ‘merely’ sounds like an all-timer party band — their connection to the source still unmediated. Timeless somatic intelligence.
  8. ‘Outside the cars are beeping / Out a song just in your honor / And thought they do not know it / All mankind are now your brothers’ (Regina Spektor, ‘Human of the Year’) A nice idea, maybe the nicest idea — ‘you are not alone’ — and the first episode of the astonishing Mike White/Laura Dern collaboration Enlightened climaxes with Dern striding with rediscovered purpose toward an uncertain fate as Spektor’s voice broadens and grows, her left hand’s own rising stride matches Dern’s; the actress’s face betrays just a moment of uncertainty and then she looks up past the camera into private light, ‘Hallelujah’ sings the young woman and means it, and Laura Dern’s smile is everything and wise like daybreak; she looks beyond us into herself and sees—
  9. Drafts folder. Museum of you, no wall text, each room an unrecoverable moment. Please step this way, here we have an untitled work dated late 2022: ‘Your eyes will be drawn to what represents life for you (though not only that)’ — no punctuation in the original. But we’re not able to be so free, are we, ladies and gentlemen.
  10. DC charging. The reduced range of electric cars relative to gas, and the sparse availability of charging stations in parts of the country, makes travel with an EV weirdly old fashioned. Planning a drive down the coast with friends quickly turns into a search for waystations, like old Pony Express. Puts a certain kind of idiot nerd in mind of Star Wars of course; in that fictional universe the fastest way to send information across the galaxy is by courier, and news spreads slowly. Ugh, why do I know this shit.