Uncaged: Faces of Sigil Review and Rework Part 1

You can buy it here

[UPDATE 1/6/21: I no longer support spending money on products that benefit Zak S, or giving him positive attention and connection. The short version is that I find credible claims that he has engaged in unacceptable behavior and not made up for it. For more detail, see here for the core of the accusations. To get Zak's side of things, he maintains this separate blog from his main one to post updates on the legal status of these complaints. 
Please consider these claims and make your own decision on their validity, and the implications thereof, before either supporting or shunning Zak.]

While I've been working on the Fellhold reboot recently, I've had an unofficial policy to avoid reading too much "reference material" in the form of other RPG supplements. This is for a couple of reasons. First off, as Zak has pointed out multiple times, a lot of what's been put out for as "Official D&D stuff" over the years has not been great, so why do I want to read mediocre stuff if I'm trying to make great stuff? Secondly, I don't want to get "locked" into imitating stuff that I've seen elsewhere, or read something I like and copy it and miss the amazing idea I might have had on my own.

Instead, I've been trying to hold off when I hear about a book that might do something I'm interested in. So, if a cyberpunk city supplement sounds appealing, instead of reading it and mining it for ideas, I try to think about what could be in there or what I would put in there - and then I can just make that stuff up for Fellhold. Later on I can go back and compare the thing I made with the source that gave me the idea, and see if I missed anything or if their way was totally better.

For some reason, though, the idea of Uncaged: Faces of Sigil just kept creeping into my brain, causing an itch I finally had to scratch. So, over the weekend I gave it a read, and it was basically what I expected (in both the good and bad sense). I probably would have been better off with reading the thumbnail synopsis and then making my own version of it, like I described above, but like I said, I had an itch and I decided to scratch it. Since I gave in and scratched that itch, though, I figured I should do something useful with it, and instead of just telling you what I would change, I'm actually reworking it into something useful (coming up in Part II). Enjoy and let me know what you think!

The Good
First off, the basic idea of what the book is/is for is really good. It's a collection of NPCs that are "ready to go" when a GM needs them. Each is meant to be useful on their own, but they also have various relationships with each other. For an urban campaign, NPCs are where the game is, so having interesting, ready to go NPCs is just as (if not more) important as having a monster manual. I think the reason we haven't seen more of this is because making up interesting/useful people is usually easier than thinking up interesting/useful monsters. Our entire brain is wired to care about other people and their interactions, so we have a lot to fall back on when it comes both to making up people and interacting with them. Making monsters that are fun and interesting when you interact with them in fictional, abstract combat, though, that's tough. 

All that being said, getting good, interesting NPCs handed to you does essentially the same work that good, interesting published monsters do: it saves the GM work and breaks up the "samey-ness" that might happen when they make everything up themselves. Especially in a kooky place like Sigil, getting help with the NPCs is a fantastic idea. And the book does a good job of not just giving you a bunch of humans, elves, dwarves, and other standard types that you could find just anywhere. It takes full advantage of the plane part of Planescape, giving you ogre mages and Genasi and fiends and modrons and sentient plants and more. Another place where the characters shine is that it takes full advantage of all of the levers available with alignment, faction, and personal motivations. There are good characters working with evil characters because they share common ends, there are folks who share a faction but have totally different reasons for working for them, and there are evil characters that can quite likely be useful to the PCs. 

Oh, and how have I gotten this far without mentioning the art? Every single character gets a gorgeous large-size illustration by Tony Diterlizzi (well, the "main" ones - there's a handful at the back with less detail, more on that soon). My favorite one is Zadara the titan. Besides being nice for all the reasons that illustrations in RPG books are always nice, for a book of characters, the illustrations are damn near essential. They make each character more concrete and gives the GM a way to differentiate them. Instead of lengthy description, they can just turn the book to the players and go "they look like this". Now, they could have done more to make the illustrations useful rather than just pretty, but more on that later.

My favorite piece in the book
The various characters are all linked to other people in the book in different ways, and as you read through, you become aware of a few distinct but sometimes related plots. This is actually kind of a neat idea, and I think with a deft enough hand could be done "artistically" - kind of how the key in Deep Carbon Observatory is ordered so that the GM reading through the adventure has a building sense of discovery of what's going on with a "punch line" at the end, or how the interconnections between the different things going on in Maze of the Blue Medusa become clear as you read through the key in order. I'm imagining something that has a metafictional justification for being a collection of short biographical sketches - like a book of royal genealogy or a guide to members of a society or something, and as you read through it, you get pieces of a story that becomes clear by the end (but each entry is still a useful and gameable reference). Anyhow, in Uncaged, you don't get as carefully crafted a build up, but the characters are linked into intrigues and their are hooks to involve the players, which is nice.

In the appendix at the end of the book, there’s a handful of less detailed NPCs that get about a paragraph or two of description, and no detailed workup of powers/combat abilities and so forth. Then you get a half dozen “quick ideas”, which give a name, a bare minimum stat line (race, gender, hit dice, class, level, faction, alignment), and then two sentences or so of characterization. Honestly, these are some of my favorite characters and some of my favorite writing in the book. A booklet of 50-100 interesting, evocative NPCs in this format with a little thumbnail mugshot? That would be awesome.

In terms of layout and information architecture, there's a few high points, but unfortunately, most of what I have to say will be in the next section. As for the good stuff, though, I almost overlooked the table of contents, which gives a little one sentence description of who/what this character is and why you might want to reference them. They're terse and evocative and useful, which is great. The introduction explains the point of the book and how to use the characters presented, and it’s a pretty useful orientation. Within the write-ups themselves, each character has a summary that takes up about a quarter of a page, and in typical late 2E fashion focuses mainly on describing special powers and combat info, but there are some tips on how to roleplay and where to find them. The best part of the summary, though, is the “See Also” section. This little blurb tells you the other NPCs from the book that are especially connected to this NPC and mentioned in their write up.

For the whole book, my favorite piece of information architecture is at the back in the “Ties That Bind” appendix. This brief section provides a list of which NPCs run establishments and what sort it is, which NPCs provide services (and what they are) and little diagrams that show the various intrigues, with a summary of what the intrigue is about. Besides the specific plots, there is also a diagram of “Bigwigs with Jink” which shows the three especially rich/influential people presented in the book, who are their allies and who they oppose. This whole section neatly summarizes the interesting and gameable stuff throughout the book, and it is very much appreciated. There’s also a little section on locations mentioned in the book organized by Ward, with a brief mention of it’s relevance (so and so lives here, this guy runs it, et cetera). 

This is a pretty close runner up for my favorite piece
The Bad
Okay, so a lot of what we’re going to talk about here will not come as a surprise, and a lot of it is more along the lines of how they fell short with the good stuff. Like, there’s nothing terrible about the book, and most of the stuff I’m most upset about is seeing the potential implied not get fulfilled. I’m gonna rag on it a bit here, but it’s all the set up for how we could do something better with the same concept and same characters in part II.

First off, remember back in the “Let’s Talk About Campaign Settings” post on the second edition settings where we talked about padding? Yeah. That. This book is an exercise in padding. A disertation on padding. The platonic ideal of padding. Okay, I exaggerate, obviously, but the padding is strong with this one.

Above, where I said that you don’t need to waste time on a lengthy description if you have a good picture? They do that anyway. You get long backstories and detailed descriptions of stuff that could be usefully (and more interestingly) summarized. There was even a “bait and switch” moment I experienced when reading the introduction. First we get this sentence:

Each entry in this volume includes the same basic information about a Character: personal history, physical appearance, goals, personality, occupation or activities, favorite hangouts in Sigil, and potential connections or utility to the player characters.

And I’m thinking “wow, those are some good headers for NPC entires, if each entry is organized with those, you’ll get plenty of info and it’ll be easy to reference!” Then I read the next sentence:

But you won't find these topics set apart and labeled within the body of the text. Each entry is meant to be read as a narrative one that tells you everything you need to know about a character without reducing him, her, or it to a list of facts.

But, but, but an NPC is a list of facts - that’s what’s useful to the GM. They don’t become a character until those facts are acted out or described by a person. I actually laughed out loud when I read this because it so clearly embodies the late 90’s RPG writing ethos that is now so thoroughly rejected by the DIY D&D crowd. Later on there’s a nod to the fact that that’s not a useful format for GMs in the heat of play, so that’s why they have the “Quick Chant” summary sections mentioned above.

The trouble with the “Quick Chant” sections is that they display mid to late 2E’s typical obsession with combat stats, special powers, and statting everything by PC rules - an obsession that would later find its full flowering in third edition. Now, don’t get me wrong - if you are using all those powers and they are relevant to your game, I’m sure they’re useful to have called out and summarized, but they’re kind of weirdly intermixed with the roleplaying info in the summary. In order, you get a detailed statline, a description of all special abilities (and every character has several), then you get three or four words to summarize their personality, then special equipment, then spells, then spell-like abilities, then the location you can find them, then notes on roleplaying them, then notes on running them in combat, and finally the “see also” we mentioned earlier. Does that order make much sense to you? Cos it doesn’t to me. 

Speaking of combat and special powers - almost all of the characters listed in here are powerful, classed figures. And the descriptions of them often specifically indicate that they use their high level powers to stop people from screwing up the status quo. Want to steal something from that shop? Too bad, she’s got crazy golems made out of the wares. Try to fight the nice gnomish bookstore owner? He’ll wreck your whole day with crazy illusions and his demon paladin friend. 

Such shenanigans could be handled well if they gave a feeling of “wow, Sigil’s a crazy place where you would need ingenious ways to stay on top of things!" Instead, almost all of these kinds of examples feel painfully specifically like “if the players try to fuck with this person or place, here’s how you shut them down.” It’s gross.

This Guy Really Wants to Rub Your Shoulders

Now, there are one or two people who are special or influential despite being 0-level normal folks, but the correlation is usually important = good at fightings. Another typical 2E-ism is that there’s a lot of powerful “good guy” NPCs that are probably intended to be DM-stand-in allies for the PCs, which is kind of boring. One of these powerful good guys runs a day spa. The entry goes on at great length about the services available there (manicures, pedicures, acupuncture, full body massage, facials, you get the drift) and how amazing they are. Somebody contributing to this was way into spas. Don’t get me wrong - spas can be good stuff for RPGs, check out Arnold’s adventure here. But there’s zero indication of why the PCs might care. There’s no intrigue happening there, the spa doesn’t grant you any bonuses or remove any conditions, it reads as if it’s simply a place to encourage “good roleplaying” of the late 90’s sort - describe stuff about your character because it isn’t rules-relevant, or you’re not really roleplaying.

Guess I got a bit worked up about spas too. 

Let’s go back to some of the issues here. I mentioned before that the book includes several intrigues or plots that various NPCs are involved in, which is good. What is less good is that the intrigues are a bit boring and are lacking any serious “so what?” for the players. The main intrigue involves an angel (excuse me, “deva”) running upper planar weapons to the Blood War between demons and devils (ahem, between the Baatezu and Tanar’ri). The angel figures all the fiends will wipe each other out and stick to their own turf if they don’t have to go get weapons elsewhere. Some evil people involved think that the weapons will keep the war going, which they want for their own evil reasons. And some people just want to make a bunch of cash running the weapons across the planes. That’s it - that’s the plot. 

It assumes that the players will care about the blood war because they’re heroes and fiends are bad, right? Another typical 2E-ism. Or, even worse, it perhaps assumes that the GM will present clues to a thing, and the players will investigate because that’s the adventure that was prepared. 

It took me awhile to realize something reading this book, but it was thinking about this plot where I realized something was ringing false. The book sounds like a very sandboxy kind of tool - a grab bag of NPCs to be used as needed as the PCs run around a big, complex city. Having grown used to the modern DIY D&D mindset, I assumed it really was just such a sandboxy tool, since it was not a specific "adventure", where I would have been on guard for railroady bullshit. 

Near the end of the book, though, it clicked that this was written by people caught in the grip of an age of pre-planned storyline adventures. Even if the intent was for the characters to be used in a sandboxy way, the plots they pursue all feel just a bit too “complete” - like "this is the story this person is a character in, no others!" Each PC has very specific goals, actions, and interactions spelled out, and the connections between the NPCs are very tight. This makes the NPCs less modular, which is a shame. Any one character kind of needs all the other ones they're involved with to do anything more interesting than provide a good or service. In other words, when you bring one of these NPCs in as written, you're committing to a particular storyline adventure.

I will say, to the writers'/editors' credit, none of these plots have a specific outcome defined, so maybe I should say a pseudo-storyline type adventure.

Okay, enough ranting about what is lacking in the intrigues, I think you get the idea. Let’s talk about the writing a bit. As mentioned before, it’s quite wordy, and every entry would benefit tremendously from being maybe one quarter the length (which, coming from me is a bit rich, I know). The entries are also presented in a variety of “voices” - sometimes a personal narrative, sometimes an interview, sometimes the typical disembodied all knowing sage of monstrous manual tradition. If this had been done well, it might have been interesting, but instead it just felt kind of grating to me. Your tastes may vary on this obviously, but it felt a little to me like “ooh, look how creative we’re being!” 

The quality of NPCs and their write ups was also variable, which I presume is a remnant of the fact that they came from multiple sources (several appeared first in Dragon, some in adventures, - the original sources are included at the back of the book. No authors are listed in the credits, just an editor. Presumably the “special thanks” section includes the authors). On the plus side, the Planescape cant isn’t too strong - I’m a fan of it when used sparingly, and this one gets it about right. There’s a bit of fun at their own expense - a rogue modron presented in the book uses too much cant and uses it wrong. Unfortunately, some of the humor is fairly “hurr, hurr, see what I did there, guys?” - such as a character in conversation “forgetting” that the realms are on Toril, not Krynn (Get it, you guys? Forgotten Realms, you guys. You guys.). 

And speaking of published campaign settings, I felt like they were referenced too often when talking about the prime material plane. I assume this was TSR trying to push the “interoperability” of Planescape with the other campaign settings, but it just made the prime feel smaller - you keep referencing the same three planets when there’s supposed to be an infinite number out there? Weak sauce. Another way that some of TSR’s questionable business drivers crept into the book is that you get a few wiffs of loathsome metaplot. Some of the entries reference the build up to the forthcoming faction war. I know this sort of stuff was all the rage back then, but I hated it even as a kid, and I hate it even more now. Bleh, keep your stories out of my campaign setting, we’ll make our own, thanks.

Pretty picture, not so easy to quickly find character details
Ahem. Let’s talk about the problems with the layout and organization. Despite the positive things I mentioned above, overall I was not super happy with this aspect of the book. Each NPC entry is an average of 3-5 pages, and that is nothing but straight up prose. Nothing is done to set off important or rules-relevant material in this wall of text, the only formatted section is the “Quick Chant” described above. This sidebar is printed over a faux-parchment texture that made the text over it damn near unreadable at times (at least in my pdf scan - it might read better in print). 

The entries are basically in alphabetical order, but because some characters have last names and others don't, the fact that characters are ordered by their last names if they have one made it somewhat non-obvious, and I imagine it would make flipping through difficult. As I said when talking about the introduction, I would have loved for each NPC to have the sections they detailed as actual headers, or at a minimum, have a little thumbnail that describes that stuff along with the six pages of so-so prose.

And the art! The art was beautiful and large, which is appreciated, but more could have been done, oh yes, much more! Little thumbnails of the character’s faces in the table of contents, some kind of icon for the different plots, more diagrams of how characters are related to each other right there in their entires. Reprints of the art in another section without text so you can show players without giving stuff away. More of it bigger, because you didn't waste space on thousands of words. Basically it was presented as nothing more than decoration, when it could have also been treated as a game aid.

What I'm Gonna Do About It
Okay, enough grousing: since I went to the trouble of reading all of and thinking about what it could have been, hell, should have been - let's just totally go there.
Here’s what I'm thinking:
     - Create headings for the essential stuff and organize the content below them
     - Summarize the good stuff, cut out the bad, lightly edit 
     - Make little face thumbnails for everybody and include them anywhere that character is referenced
     - Tweak the plots to be more open ended, with more hooks for self-interested PCs
     - Create icons for each plot and include them whenever that plot is referenced
     - Make "no words" pictures to show the players - "They look like this"
     - Re-organize the order based on the first word of the name
     - Make better diagrams of relationships and include them with each entry (with the thumbnails from above)

I'll post the results in part II, but there's a lot of culling involved, so I'm not sure how long it'll take. Stay tuned.

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