D&D Solar System Syncretism I: How This Works

This post is pretty self-indulgent, but it’s also 36 hours past when I usually post the Friday article, so I think it’s pretty clear at this stage that it’s either a self-indulgent post most people will skip or a non-existent post that all people have no choice but to skip.

My recent musings on setting syncretism came from a hobby project to combine as many D&D settings as possible into a single solar system, that you can travel between using some kind of Spelljammer-esque space magic. I’m dealing with copyrights held by like eighteen different companies here, so I could never actually release a finished product, but it’s a fun exercise anyway. Some things fit in, others not so much. I’m going to go through the construction of this setting before delivering the final result, so you can sort of look at this as an example of how to syncretize different settings. I’m doing this on a lark and not because I think it’s actually a good idea, which means I’m not applying the usual standards of “this setting is too lame, we’ll have to exclude it completely” that you’d want to get a really good syncretist super setting, but other than that, I stand by these methods.

First of all, let’s look at what we’ve got to deal with: The 5e DMG lists seven official D&D settings, those being Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Eberron, Mystara, Dark Sun, and Birthright. Not listed but officially supported is Ravenloft, the setting for the Curse of Strahd AP. Supported by previous editions but now not so much as mentioned are Ghostwalk and Council of Wyrms. Also the super-settings Planescape and Spelljammer, but those are obviously mutually exclusive to this single solar system idea, although we will be borrowing elements from them.

Right here we run into an immediate problem: Over half of these settings are very similar. Greyhawk and Mystara have a ton of overlap, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Birthright are politically and tonally distinct but culturally and climatologically similar, and even Eberron is more different in the civilization that occupies its landmass than in what that landmass actually is. They’re all temperate mostly-European settings with usually some jungles and deserts tossed in at the edges. Only Dark Sun and Council of Wyrms have an environment that immediately makes you think “yeah, this is a different planet,” although Ghostwalk and Ravenloft have enough weird weather stuff going on that they kind of work as different planets if you squint (and Ghostwalk isn’t anybody’s favorite setting, so if we make it super cold, no one will complain).

Luckily, we’ve got plenty of settings left to build our solar system from, so we can always use these climatologically similar settings as different continents on the same world or, especially for the smaller ones, moons orbiting other worlds. That still means we need to plumb other settings for what our major planets are going to be, however.

Continue reading “D&D Solar System Syncretism I: How This Works”

Sew You Want To Be A Hero: Finale

Cecelia Quest 5

Cecelia enters the dungeon, stepping through the woods at the edge. She’s attacked by a massive raggedy man, but Threadbare’s LitRPG mechanics don’t care about size and level 7 is level 7, so Cecelia and what’s left of her crew – the necro-knight Graves and also Anise – tear through it with no difficulty. As they approach, she realizes a few things: One, the trees are all wrong, including the one Caradon notched to measure her height on her birthdays, which is a weird detail for him to forget. Two, like the raggedy man, the house is ridiculously massive. Kind of like it would seem from the perspective of someone about twelve inches tall.

She got to the top, and peered down the hallway. There, at the very end, was her grandfather’s room. Light spilled from under the door, and she could hear the old man humming, as he did when he sat up and worked before he went to bed every night. An old familiar melody, but she knew it for the ruse it was now. “He left you behind, didn’t he, Threadbare?” She said, looking instead to her own room, darkness beneath the crack under the door.

“Left you behind to stall me, while he escaped. Come on. It’s me, Cecelia, all gr-grown up now,” she said, tears spilling from her eyes. “Come… come out and we’ll talk about this. I’ll get you some paper to write on or s-s-something.” Oh, the tears came freely now, and she tugged off her helm, shook her head. Her hair bounced, short but frizzy as it had ever been.

I think I got that paragraph break right. It looks wrong as a single mega-graph, but there’s a page break right there so it’s hard to tell. In any case, Cecelia’s hair has been a recurring motif for the past couple of chapters. She decided she was going to get it cut short after she finished murdering a village because it had gotten in the way while she was stress vomiting over it (this scene wasn’t as noticeably botched as the time Celia stress vomited over a screaming eagle having tried to kill her, but it was unexceptional enough that I didn’t bother commenting on it). The idea of shaving her head out of some kind of guilt or something has since been referenced once or twice. There’s a joke in here somewhere about that one time she ran a gauntleted hand through her hair, but I can’t find it.

Continue reading “Sew You Want To Be A Hero: Finale”

Sew You Want To Be A Hero: The Final Battle Begins

Cecelia Quest 3

The good news (besides Threadbare’s second interminable Very Special Chapter about racism) is that it does look like this book’s climax is actually going to be about Cecelia and Threadbare confronting one another as enemies rather than pulling a bait and switch where Cecelia and the stormtroopers show up just after Threadbare has left. The people of Outsmouth say they have nowhere else to go and don’t know how to live except by fishing, so they formally swear allegiance to Threadbare, Lord of Outsmouth, and get ready for a fight. Now Cecelia’s inbound with two hundred trash level stormtroopers and a couple of mid-level knights and casters. At the beginning of the chapter, she meets with Zuula’s daughter, and the dialogue dances around the fact that they both know Zuula but have opposite opinions on her without actually getting either of them to realize this:

“Well, nothing can make or break you like family. I should know that. I owe everything I am to my father, as well. Well, that and surviving the barn fire that was my mother. Fucking green bitch.” Mastoya barked laughter. “Guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the rotten tree.”

“I’m sorry. The only half-orc woman I ever knew was a good mother”

“Would have been nice to have that kind of mom,” Mastoya said. “Ah well. The past is past. All right, Dame Ragandor, you’ll have your shot.”

This is another bomb under the table moment, where instead of making the reader wonder what’s going on right now, the book is making us wonder about what will happen next. Narrative law demands that eventually Mastoya will confront her family (unfortunately, I do not find it likely that this will result in her killing Zuula permanently), and here the narrative alludes to the question of which side Cecelia would take in such a confrontation.

After getting the small talk out of the way, they get to the point of the meeting: There’s an old one cult in Outsmouth, which means the whole town has to be completely torched. Cecelia is not a fan, but is convinced that there isn’t any other practical way to quash the cult and prevent them from ushering in the end of the world. Also, Cecelia still hates Anise Lay’di specifically for “wearing her mother’s face” even though, again, Cecelia never knew her mother, so why is this violation so personally compelling for her? Anise also gets on her soapbox about how daemon cults are okay but old ones are doubleplus ungood. I’ll leave out the second part, because it’s the first I’m interested in:

“Yes. Daemons just want to show people the folly of virtue and torment the weak until they either get stronger or perish so that they stop sucking down resources,” Anise said, matter-of-factly.

This is a pretty stock villainous philosophy, but it is a philosophy beyond “mwahaha, mine is an evil laugh,” so normally I’d approve of this sort of thing. For this story specifically, though, isn’t this basically just Zuula’s philosophy? Like, sure, there’s some minor differences – Zuula is explicitly indifferent, rather than opposed to, traditional virtues, and she advocates immediate murder of the weak rather than torment that may eventually result in murder of the weak – but its fundamental principles are identical. Is this intentional? Is Threadbare actually going somewhere with this? Or is this story so lacking in self-awareness that it can give a protagonist and an antagonist explicitly stated near-identical philosophies in the same book without even noticing? If it is intentional, they’d better wrap that up by the end of this book, because after Outsmouth, I doubt I’m ever reading Right To Arm Bears, even if the title is kinda funny.

Continue reading “Sew You Want To Be A Hero: The Final Battle Begins”

Sew You Want To Be A Hero: Threadbare Really Needs To Stop Trying To Criticize Racism

At long last, my work on my Kickstarter is mostly complete. There’s still a bunch of data entry to do and I have to manage my freelancers, but while that can be time consuming, it doesn’t drain focus the way writing stat blocks or assembling maps does. That means that focus is freed up for reading books and then writing snarky blog posts about them, so Threadbare is back! When last we left our heroes, they were investigating a vaguely Lovecraftian cult that is super into having sex with sea food, something which our protagonists never fail to comment upon as weird and creepy, which leaves me wondering why the author felt the need to actually include it if he was going to put so much effort into distancing himself from it. It’s not like it’s a requirement of the genre or anything.

Chapter 11

Pastor Elpy Hatecraft lingered for a moment more, dwelling on the artifacts of an antediluvian nature retrieved from the very depths of what in aeons past had been a submarinic trench. The local peasantry had mistaken it for a mere lake, and more ignoramuses they, for it was clearly a hoary relic from a bygone age, when squamous tentacles reached forth deep from umbral places beneath the earth, to rend and manipulate the soil and the geography about them. Lake? Bah! The brobdingnagian body of water the quaint and curious locals referred to as Lake Marsh deserved a far more Sesquipedalian surname. He had a few in mind, but he’d been waiting until the engraver got back to him with quotes, for changing all the signposts.

This spoof of Lovecraft’s writing is pretty good, though. There’s some pretty archaic words in there, but the author actually knows how to use them, so it doesn’t come across as thesaurus abuse. Well, not as much, at least. The juxtaposition between the brooding cosmic horror and waiting on quotes from the engraver is funny, too.

Hatecraft is having his deep one lackey load up the boat with the treasury he’s amassed soaking the townspeople for all they’re worth.

“Load faster! Make haste!” He commanded the beast, and it muttered and grumbled, in its loathsome way. The barbels on its cheeks twitched in time with its irritable susurration, its very existence evidence of an uncaring cosmos full of helpless gods, a form that offended the reasonable man’s eye and raked at the very sanity of all logical onlookers.

Though, the effect was somewhat spoiled by its pants.

The brethren and sistren had put their foot down about that, they wanted YGlnargle’blah’s envoy to wear pants when he wasn’t engaging in blasphemous rites. Which was absurdity of the first order, but they HAD insisted, and so the herald of the octopodlian apocalypse, the evidence irrefutable of the truth of YGlnargle’blah, and the prominent celebrity in the rite of blasphemous conception now had to wear canvas shorts when he was off duty, as it were.

So Hatecraft is super racist against fish people, like how Lovecraft used his stories about fish people to express his racism for regular people. This is not a bad angle, but the details of the execution come across like a missed opportunity. If you’re going to make a character a direct critique of a real, actual person, you need to make sure that the character reasonably resembles them in more than just the specific aspects you want to critique. I brought up in the last post that having Hatecraft be an investigator rather than a cultist would be a better fit, and that is triply true if the character is meant to be a criticism of Lovecraft’s work and ideology.

Rather then a cultist exploiting the town (something Lovecraft never did), Hatecraft would be an investigator who just kind of assumes that the fish children are evil, the townsfolk who get it on with the fish man are deranged lunatics, and everything is being done according to the will of a hideous elder god, but then it turns out that no, the local townsfolk just find this fishman super charming, his betentacled sea god religion caught on because of his popularity, and that religion doesn’t have any norms against polyamory so he’s had kids with a bunch of women around town. You could still hit most of the same beats just by having the party encounter Hatecraft before the townspeople. Threadbare and company accidentally awaken an elder god early causing a revolt against the king’s garrison, the party goes to the church to investigate the “evil rites” and end up having a tea party with fish children, they go to the library to figure out what’s up. The cultists can still show up to take Annie Mata to meet their deep one herald of the abyss, and then the deep one just takes her on a candlelit dinner and tries to sweep her off her feet, and when asexual Threadbare running Annie Mata expresses no interest throughout, the deep one, understanding but dejected, goes home to listen to sad Taylor Swift music. And then Hatecraft’s investigations bring in the US military Darth Villainous’ stormtroopers.

Continue reading “Sew You Want To Be A Hero: Threadbare Really Needs To Stop Trying To Criticize Racism”

Syncretism

“Syncretism” is the religious concept that two or more previously separate religions were secretly the same all along. Sometimes this is presented as “both religions contained part of the whole truth” and sometimes this is presented as “your religion is just my religion wearing a funny hat.” We’re not actually talking about religions, here, we’re talking about fictional settings (anyone who thinks adding a “what’s even the difference” joke is still edgy will be flogged), which means we are focusing mainly on that first one, the challenges of combining different settings together.

This comes up a lot in free form roleplay. All my examples are ten years out of date because I last did this kind of thing in high school, but while the specific settings that are popular have changed and the medium for creation has almost certainly moved away from the forums and chat rooms I used as a teenager, I expect the basic principles still apply to babby’s first crossover setting even today. Back before I reached my elderly twenties, the most common crossover setting was Kingdom Hearts. It was popular amongst the kinds of nerds who did freeform roleplay in the first place and had what appeared to be a built-in means of stitching any number of settings together. One example I remember in particular involved someone making a map of an expanded gummi map that included four different worlds from Star Wars (I remember Bespin and I think Coruscant, but the details don’t matter).

I bring up this example because it’s a good demonstration of how not to do syncretism. Method #1: Different settings are haphazardly jammed together without any means of influencing one another, and quick excuses are used to paper over why they have completely different tone, technology and even physics from one another. I’m sure there was some explanation for why the Millennium Falcon could travel to Bespin but not to Halloween Town, even if it was just “we never explored what lay beyond these four worlds because they seemed pretty sufficient,” but the seams between worlds are extremely obvious. The Final Fantasy style fire/lightning/blizzard magic has some overlap with the Force (Force lightning is a thing), but there’s no precedent for mind tricks and telekinesis is a very high-level trick in KH, usable only temporarily as part of a special super-transformation, while it’s one of the first tricks that Jedi learn. Star Wars ships are buckets of bolts clearly distinct from gummi ships, which, as the name implies, are made of some kind of gelatinous or play-doh-like cartoon substance. The fact that the Galactic Empire has a giant army of stormtroopers and star destroyers demonstrably capable of traveling between some worlds doesn’t lead them to become an immediate and overwhelming threat to all neighboring worlds because their inability to travel past the original Star Wars worlds is handwaved away.

This method also has precedent in the “wormhole randomly opens up between Federation Space and the Galactic Empire” conceit that was popular in the 80s and 90s, and while that’s perfectly forgivable in the context of a Star Trek vs. Star Wars hypothetical situation, it’s not so forgivable in the context of actual Trek/Wars crossover fanfiction or roleplay, again because the seams are so obvious that it makes the setting very obviously artificial. It also means that the only thing you gain from the syncretism is the ability to take characters from one setting and put them in another. There’s no shared history.

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