I Hate This Game and That's Wonderful

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Etherscope #1: I Hate This Game and That's Wonderful

Etherscope was one of many, many pieces of d20 material published in the heyday of D&D 3E. Published by Goodman Games in 2005, it was written by Nigel McClelland and Ben Redmond as a steampunk fork of d20 Modern. It promised “Etherscape adventures in an age of industry, intrigue, and imperialism”. It had high production values for the time and even managed to get a few supplements and a second printing in 2007. Sounds decent enough, right?

So why do I hate it? And what's so good about that?

I was eliding over it earlier, but when I spoke about “pieces of d20 material” I meant “d20 shovelware”. Etherscope was by no means the only mess published by Goodman Games in that era; remember the Confederate apologia of Broncosaurus Rex? Both authors here are British, probably from Manchester (more on that later), so instead of buying into the Lost Cause this book talks up colonialism and British exceptionalism. I doubt much of it is intentional, but it's still there and reading it still feels kinda slimy. Etherscope desperately wanted to be alternate history with a veneer of steampunk, but as the setting shows it's straight up historical fanfic, and the subtext of the fanfic they wrote is plenty odious. Not only does that include the colonialism and conservatism that likes to pass itself off as “steampunk” (aka cogservatism), but there are also strains of cyberpunk and New Age mysticism that just don't work well together.

On top of that the rules text isn't just garden-variety d20 schlock, but instead is a special blend of cluelessness from its designers. This was the part I really enjoyed ripping into. I spent several years posting on the 3E optimization boards (aka 339) and got very good at separating d20 wheat from chaff. And damn does a lot of this look like the scatterbrained concepts of the 3E Monk, CW Samurai, or 3.0 psionic combat. When I said that the tone has an uneasy blend of cogservatism, cyberpunk, and mysticism, all of those are mechanically enshrined. There's a subsystem for getting steampunk-styled attachments, one for exploring cyberspace, and one for using occult powers. None of them interact with each other. The result is that there are just way too many things to occupy limited space on your character sheet. The game has no clue of its gameplay loop, and pinning that down would really have helped to prune and/or refine its individual parts.

In short, I love this book as a prime example of “this is exactly what you shouldn't do”.

Next: I Won't Try to Write Manc

I Won’t Try to Write Manc

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Etherscope #2: I Won’t Try to Write Manc

So what else have Ben Redmond and Nigel McClelland written besides Etherscope? Mostly their output consisted of a bunch of more forgettable d20 products, and d20 Modern in particular, under their Malladin's Gate Press imprint. This was almost certainly why Etherscope isn't just a fork of D&D 3E. And that's not to say this was all they wrote, but their other pieces were anemic and unfocused. A Goodman Games 4E module? Credits on two Witch Hunter splatbooks? Babby’s first generic RPG? Compared to that, It's safe to call Redmond & McClelland stuck in the d20 creative bubble. (If you really dig hard you can find a Norse-themed RPG called Midgard, just by Ben Redmond, that used an abstruse implementation of a dice pool for its RNG.)

On to the game itself! Etherscope’s introductory fiction is simply titled “Jack”. We open with our titular protagonist driving his “Hackney Cab” through Manchester while the audience gets fed a bunch of detail on how this is at once a Victorian industrial hellscape and vaguely cyberpunk. Jack’s trying to sneak into a particular flat, and while something’s up he figures he’s prepared enough to handle things. It turns out, however that someone’s already in the flat and they’ve drawn a rifle on him. Just great for Jack! Our protagonist first tries to bluff his way past Brutus the gunman and his handler Michael, but after that fails Jack realizes that Brutus is actually his target Kevin’s brother, and that they all have common aims. See, Kevin was apparently looking into some “Scope shit”, and told both his brother and his former flatmate about it before dropping off the face of the world mysteriously. Brutus and Michael didn’t know about Jack, but they did know that bigger capitalist fish would be looking for their mate and sensibly took the paranoid approach when ransacking his place. Anyway, neither of them knows much about Scope use (basically the Internet and cyberspace), so they ask Jack to use Kevin’s Scope point instead. Unfortunately most of Kevin’s data and email’s been deleted, but there is one new message that must have come after the data purge. Michael recognizes it to be some occult symbol and our heroes set off for the library. Adventure ho!

Unlike a lot of its contemporaries this piece doesn’t overstay its welcome, lasting for maybe a page and a half. Good job not acting like White Wolf! There’s also an appreciation for detail to draw the reader in, but the writers stumbled here on how much to tell versus how much to show. We can figure out from context that Manchester here is still that Victorian hellscape and that the Scope is some kind of overwrought internet system (Jack has to manipulate “physical” objects with VR gloves), but we have to be told what coffin flats are or how Brutus is part canid. Oh, and we have our first Africa Shoutout where apparently there’s not much use for Scope points. Here the mention is innocuous, but it’s a portent of things to come. Workmanlike, not spectacular, 2.5/5.

The Year is 1984. Welcome to the Great Metropolis.

Remember how I said that our writers were probably from Manchester? See, that “Great Metropolis” isn’t London but rather an urban sprawl that stretches from Liverpool to Manchester. The GM is the industrial capital of the British Empire, and moreover the largest city in the world with a hundred million inhabitants.

Wait, what? You do realize that Britain’s current population is only ~66 million, right? And that even modern metropolitan areas (city + the surrounding community) don’t get above the 30s million because they don’t need to be? This might just be one detail to fuss over, but it shows how much the writers often just misremembered stuff from their sixth form history classes and called it a day.
Anyway, the titular “ether” was first postulated in its modern form by Herbert Spencer. Mr. Spencer was an actual Victorian polymath and contemporary of Darwin, but his specialties in real life didn’t include anything about physics. (They did include what would become Social Darwinism, though!) Etherscope Spencer’s thesis was that the classical Greek elements corresponded to actual states of matter - fire was energy, water was liquid, air was gas, and earth was solid matter. But what about ether? (The book consistently associates this with Plato, but it was instead Aristotle who was its greatest proponent at the time.) Spencer figured that not only was this classical ether the same thing as the luminiferous ether, a pseudoscientific theory mistakenly attributed to Faraday (who had a completely different theory on how light moves!), but that both were equivalent to...entropy. Which is a categorically different property concerned with the disorder present in a system. (Yes, the book expands on this later to really shoot itself in the foot.) This would’ve remained a fringe theory considered to be patent nonsense, as in the real world. But in ES 1874 the fictional Harold Wallace discovered Etherspace, a parallel dimension with basically magic properties, and proved Spencer right. Anyone could access it by carefully magnetic manipulation to do weird stuff like miniaturization, forging of supermaterials, or accessing unlimited clean energy.

We skip ahead to 1914, because apparently nothing else worth even a sentence of detail happened in 40 years. (This gets readdressed later but only slightly.) Archduke Franz Ferdinand got assassinated, mainland Europe went to war, and Britain noped out because “[we] did not consider the Germans a match for our navy and, after all, Kaiser Bill was a cousin of King George”. Wait, what? Do you cretins not realize that royal relations didn’t stop any of the major powers from warring, that Britain went to war because it had signed a pact as one of the major Entente Powers, and that British militarism after its colonial struggles would have made the populace more eager to fight the German upstarts? Anyway, France apparently got conquered handily and Italy soon followed. How’d they get involved in the war when in real life they started out neutral? What did the US do for the entirety of the war? How does Russia of all places hang on until 1922 without either dissolving or losing ground because its industrial base was shit? Their borders eventually were reestablished at the Volga, which is a hilarious amount to actually conquer. (Brest-Litovsk was still significant but with the way the writers go about their counterfactual history it feels like they played way too much Civilization.)

In the wake of all this rigamarole, in 1926 Germany entered into a personal union with Austria-Hungary. Kaiser Wilhelm III married Sofia of Austria, and in 1928 their son was apparently named the heir to both empires. Never mind that Austria-Hungary was already held together very loosely, or that Germany instead favored centralization, or that the earlier Austrian Empire was fine with the Empress Maria Theresa on the throne; somehow they got this outcome to work. In 1929 Karl I of Austria-Hungary abdicated in favor of his great-nephew, and later on in 1946 his parents would abdicate in turn to grant him control of the New Reich. Ugh. Strictly speaking, the German “reich” translates as “realm”. But the problem with using that specific word is that there’s been almost no instance in the past century or more when it hasn’t corresponded with something worrisome if not actually vile. It’s variously corresponded with German nationalism and Naziism, and only the Weimar Republic was able to briefly use it as a purely bureaucratic distinction. Would it have hurt ES to instead call it the New Realm?

In parallel, after the Pan-European War (basically WWI) Russia’s capital of St. Petersburg was flooded with refugees. You know, instead of being put under German administration as part of a “here comes the new boss same as the old boss” calculation. This apparently set off the Russian revolution in 1925, fully eight years after real life and also three years after the end of the war rather than in the middle of it. No mention is made of what happened to the Tsar, but Josef Stalin became the head of a socialist state (where are Lenin, Kropotkin, Trotsky, Kerensky, and other leftist Russian intellectuals) and decided to transport said refugees to the eastern end of the country for reasons. Infrastructure? Apparent planning? Ha!

This in turn heartened British workers, who’d been “denied representation in Parliiament”. When did that happen? Woops, forgot to tell you about that! Anyway, the Communist Party led the north in a 1937 uprising to try to seize economic and political control for those disenfranchised. But unfortunately for them, the British Army had far better technology like power armor and mowed down apparent millions in a bloodbath. Afterwards British leadership had to figure out how to fix its labor shortage, because remember the British Army had killed a large part of their workforce. And the best solution they could come up with? Why, breed and clone more humans with the help of the Eugenics League! (Another word to run away from really fast.) On top of the designer baby chart are “alphas”, superior to standard human “betas”. “Gammas” came next as rodent hybrids (mouse DNA was malleable), but they had loyalty issues (I wonder why) and were succeeded by canid-hybrid “deltas” and equid-hybrid “epsilons” who were more pliant.

True to history, in the 1930s Japan set out to colonize its end of the Pacific. It seized German and British colonies on the Chinese coast (when did they take those?) but apparently avoided Singapore and Hong Kong “to avoid angering the British”. As if they didn’t already; keep in mind that the British first went to war with China just so they could sell the Chinese addictive drugs. The British Empire was fucking awful in how petty and spiteful it could be. But instead the Japanese invaded eastern Russian territories, Russia called in Britain anyway, and oops we had WWII the Pacific War. Unfortunately the Russian pickings weren’t so easy, and in 1943 Japan was set to be invaded when the US got involved on their side. After some saber-rattling and diplomacy the two sides agreed to a peace treaty...which only left Japan with Korea and basically allowed the Brits carte blanche in the western Pacific. That sounds less like a deal and more like Britain winning, but the text won’t admit it because England has to have a flaw somewhere.

Oh, and in one sentence the US occupied half of Latin America. Did Ernest Cline ghostwrite some of this?

Next: Peace in Our Time, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the d20

Peace in Our Time, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the d20

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Etherscope #3: Peace in Our Time, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the d20

So last time we ended with Britain totally not winning WWII (except that they got everything they probably wanted), and the US grabbing half of Latin America in a single sentence. But we’re not quite done with the history “lesson” quite yet; there are a few decades left as well as a discussion on contemporary politics. See, the ability to access Etherspace was previously an industrial process limited to governments and corporations. But shortly after WWII Scope points were developed as miniaturized access sites, placing steam computer technology in the hands of consumers. Well, some consumers. The US heavily subsidized and freely distributed Scope implants (“jacks”), but the British instead clamped down on their access on the pretext of social unrest from below. Instead, across the pond one must either have a license for Scope access, buy time in a totally-not-Internet cafe, or grab temporary access in drug form with a Scope tab. (No mention is made of NR policies, let alone those of anyone else.) And...that’s it for those 40 years of history! Nothing about historical or counterfactual movements in the meantime, like the American civil rights movement or how the hell the NR kept all those different cultures and languages together without any issue. Or, you know, closer to home...what about the Troubles!?

No, at this point we just have a wrap up of some contemporary vignettes. As something of an inversion of real-life circumstances, the US has become a social democracy with universal healthcare and a strong welfare state. Many of its major cities are covered by enormous domes, ensuring far cleaner air than the smokestacks of European industry. We’re told that the US is not as industrialized as Britain, but that begs the question of how these dome cities get built and maintained in the first place. As in real life there’s oil in Texas, but with everything running on steam or some ether process it’s used more as an input for plastics and other hydrocarbon materials than for fuel. Meanwhile...the Ottoman Empire still exists. Inexplicably, considering that the historical Ottomans already had enough uprisings and territorial hemorrhage even without being on the losing side in WWI. Otherwise they are little more than a footnote in the ES canon; besides their existence, all we’re told about them right now is that they have access to oil (challenging US plastics) and that “[their] rulers are even more decadent than London’s elite and lack our traditional restraint”. Yeah, that’s a really weird note to end on - moral censure and British exceptionalism at once.

Once more the book tips its hand too much. We get one last discussion of the Great Metropolis, but for just one city it’s longer than the previous two vignettes combined. Apparently the local death rate is comparable to that of post-WWI Russia; many die from crime or industrial accidents, and even child labor still oils its gears with human sacrifice. Somehow all the Factory Acts, instituted over more than a hundred years, got repealed so easily? All of Manchester blames London, somehow, as the forces of capital suffer under high taxes that they have no control over. Somehow. Lobbying and tax evasion mysteriously don’t exist. As a result of these common injuries, the Northumbrian movement has begun to simmer and boil despite the best efforts of propaganda to blame things on the US. Really, all of this feels forced, like the premise from Sigmata that fundamentally misunderstands how political alliances and movements interact. If anything I would more expect that the complicit and hypocritical plutocrats would have already engineered things to their satisfaction (as with American big business for over a century), or that the proletariat would not be so eager to join with the local leaders in the sociopolitical hierarchy.

But let’s table that discussion for a moment, because out of nowhere is a huge swerve in tone. It turns out our narrator for all this history is actually a Lemurian rather than a human, and so this is where the strain of mysticism starts to show. See, unlike real life where it was an occult theory disproven by modern understanding of plate tectonics, in ES the continent of Lemuria actually used to exist. But of course it doesn’t any more, because as it turns out all this business with Etherspace isn’t just a benign source of steam magic. Etherspace was sealed for a reason, our narrator tells us, and by unsealing it again humanity has roused Hell itself from sleep. Really, it’s like DOOM 2016 except more self-serious and written years earlier. It could be an interesting premise, except that it’s competing for attention with the half-dozen other things the game wants to do and so gets few words until one of the splatbooks. A few namedrops, four monsters, and that’s it.

We next have a short section on “What is Roleplaying?” As a general discussion on tabletop roleplay, it’s nothing special but I can’t find fault. But as a specific discussion on play in the world of Etherscope, well, we get the same sort of unfocused cluelessness that indicates the book just hasn’t pinned down what it’s about. Is it concerned with cyberspace? Or perhaps the implications of the cyberpunk retrofuture in the real world? What about the Great Game of espionage? Or class struggle? Perhaps archeological adventuring to search for Lemurian secrets? Gunslinging in the “Savage South” (a passing colonialist nickname for South America)? Pin it down and iterate on that, dammit!

The list of inspirational sources is...similarly telling. Something I remember from the release of the Starfinger core book was that a bibliography should be as much about what’s excluded as what’s included. Starfinger’s list was unfocused, to all appearances simply a giant list of all the science fiction works its authors could think of. In contrast, that of Eclipse Phase was only interested in specific themes like cyberpunk, transhumanism, and modern space exploration. Space opera or mecha? Largely absent. So when I compare those two, consider what themes apparently show up in Etherscope:

Seriously, look at this:

Even in these opening pages, it strikes me that Redmond and McClelland were focused foremost on writing their setting and only secondarily on figuring out how it should be used. That they kept thinking of things for PCs to do, wrote those down, and figured that telling you rather than showing you about Cool Thing X to interact with was enough. That they hadn’t pinned down the major gameplay loop. That they wanted to present justifications for the particular future they envisioned so it wouldn’t look like they were just tossing something off, but ended up with just enough heft that a canny reader could shoot holes through it. And given all of that, implementing the game as a fork of d20 Modern rather than D&D 3E makes a staggering amount of sense.

Next: Just a Twelve-Step Program

Just a Twelve-Step Program

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Etherscope #4: Just a Twelve-Step Program

I should go over task resolution real quick, just to clarify. The general idea is that you’re always going to be rolling 1d20 + modifiers against some Difficulty Class (DC), and if you roll at or above the DC you succeed. Real simple, but lacking in nuance; there’s no provision for results beyond binary success and failure.

At this point we’re only 17 pages in. It sure seemed like longer when I first read that half-baked mess, right? But it’s refreshing to see that the game won’t just dump out nearly a hundred pages of setting detail that really doesn’t belong at the front of a sandwich press. New players shouldn’t just be thrown into the deep end without learning to figuratively swim, and veterans probably know half of what’s there already. That aside, chargen sounds simple enough:

  1. Make a concept, with virtue/vice/allegiances.
  2. Spend points for ability scores.
  3. Select your race.
  4. Choose a social template.
  5. Pick a class for 1st level and record statistics for it.
  6. Pick a starting talent
  7. Choose your skills.
  8. Choose your influences.
  9. Choose your starting feats, probably two.
  10. Calculate derived values for your...wait what’s this?...Scope avatar.
  11. Select starting gear.
  12. Show your sheet to the GM for approval.
Anything I’ve marked with ? Yeah, those have issues. We’ll deal with everything in due time.

Ability Scores

Ability scores are the most basic attributes of a character. Usually you won’t use your ability scores directly, but instead you’ll derive modifiers and use those. Subtract 10 then divide by 2, rounding down, to get this secondary value. Thus a 10 or 11 in Strength is “average” with a +0 modifier, while an 18 is about the best you can do at chargen for a +4 modifier. If you’ve played anything that derived from D&D you’ve probably seen these before in some form or another:
Each ability score may be associated with certain skills or used in a raw ability check. For example, you would add your Strength modifier any time a Strength check were required (to kick down a door) or when making a Climb check. Not all ability scores are created equal, however. You can analyze and understand new things with Intelligence, or be a social butterfly with Charisma, but all you can do with Constitution is absorb punishment. It has one associated skill, Concentration, and even in D&D that was a skill only for casters who couldn’t get out of the way fast enough.

So how do we select our ability scores, anyway? Etherscope exclusively employs a point-buy system to choose your starting six. This was a secondary option in its predecessors, but ES made the sensible decision to flatly block you from potentially fucking over your character sheet by only giving you the one option. All six ability scores start at 8, and you can then spend points from a pool of 25 to increase them. The progression isn’t entirely one-for-one - picking up that coveted 18 in an ability score costs 15 points rather than 10 - but you still have some leeway. I should note that the progression isn’t quite what WotC used in its products. Apparently there was a clause in the OGL or some other license that prohibited third-party publishers from using the exact character generation and advancement rules of D&D and d20 Modern, so instead those publishers who wanted to release standalone products had to change things just enough to pass legal scrutiny. The result here is slightly more lenient, though the difference will probably be meaningless half the time in practice.

So if you wanted to, you could select an array of 15/14 x5 for a “well-rounded” character. Or inversely, you can take 18/12 x5 for a specialist. I don’t think I’d recommend either over moderate min-maxing with 16/16/12/12/12/10, but at least we don’t have full casters to make the power gap horrendous.

Character Race

Aaaaand we’re right back into the forest of ill-conceived social commentary, this time with the of eugenics. Redmond and McClelland just couldn’t leave well enough alone, but instead felt compelled to include this sidebar:

Etherscope posted:

A Note on Eugenics
Eugenics is an important theme to consider in Etherscope. The game looks at the impact of Victorian ideas on a more advanced society. It explores how a society can rapidly advance technologically, without allowing them to grow in the same democratic way as our society. Eugenics was an important aspect of scientific thought in the late Victorian period and the early half of the twentieth century. Now, in the twenty-first century of our world, eugenics is reviled, mainly due to the influence of Nazi Germany’s extreme interpretation of what was a widely accepted theory at the time. However, it is now understood by most geneticists — both in our world and that of Etherscope — that the negative eugenics, as Hitler and the Nazis practiced in the most bloodthirsty manner, is based on flawed understanding. Now we understand that even harmful genes are likely to be beneficial in the heterozygous state. Each gene has two copies, normally requiring both to be present for any detrimental effect. However, if only one copy is present, known as the heterozygous state, the individual has a better chance of survival than if no copies of the gene are present. A classic example of this is sickle-cell anaemia, in which one copy of the gene makes you immune to malaria, whereas two copies renders you ill for most of your life. It is a point of theory that any harmful gene must have a positive impact in this heterozygous state, otherwise evolution would have expelled it. As a result, having a diverse genetic heritage advances an individual’s genetic health and superiority. The Eugenics League understands that there is no such thing as a “pure race” and, most importantly, that the advantage lies in becoming as genetically mixed-race as possible.
Look, I figure that this is borne out of ignorance rather than malice, but eugenics is still an ethical minefield that is hard to deal with tastefully. You can’t just go barging in with your keyboard and wave a figurative magic wand to declare that There Are No Problems Here. There’s certainly the potential for abuse very real so long as meaningful population differences exist, ie always. What about privileged access? Or the potential for cultural erasure, even unintentionally? I’m guessing that Redmond and McClelland didn’t bother to consider any of that, but instead just wanted a thin justification for cribbing off Shadowrun/D&D/Aldous Huxley. And as we’ll see, they really really should have considered that stuff.

Most of the “races” present are some strain of human and thus nominally of the same species. Like with D&D, humans get an extra feat at 1st level and additional skill points over their career (4 at chargen, +1 per additional level), but here in ES that stuff is already factored in. Humans were already a very strong choice in 3E, so orienting things around them makes sense. Usually other races were about pushing ability scores around and/or handing out increasingly irrelevant bonuses, while +1 feat and +1 fully leveled skill never stopped being relevant. So when we get to the one race that isn’t human, haha are they the usual hot garbage that’s probably not worth it if you don’t have an extremely compelling story reason.

Alphas are “a new generation of superhuman”, privileged both in the setting and in the mechanics. Yay. Alpha humans all look similar with “a pale grey-brown skin tone, large eyes of all normal human colours, and dark hair” - designer babies to a T. The entire program is pretty new by the setting’s standards, with even the oldest alphas still in their late twenties. Generally they’re born to high society, but in theory you have the option to play a lower-class alpha bastard. Mechanically, alphas get the usual human bonuses plus some extra stuff. They get +2 Dexterity/Intelligence/Wisdom/Charisma, but -2 Constitution. And a +2 bonus to resist disease or poison. And they get bonus influence points in the same manner as extra skill points for humans, at 4 for chargen and +1 per additional level. What’s this all cost them? Well...they can’t take a working class social template and have an XP debt of 100, enough to reach 2nd level. (The text says 1000 XP but this was altered in errata as a consequence of that same OGL clause about character advancement.) Or if you take the option of playing a bastard, you don’t get more influence points but you also aren’t restricted from taking any social template you like. This is the usual sort of balancing argument between alternatives that was taken seriously at the time, and yet with hindsight we can see it as laughable. (Anyone remember the Lightning Warrior, and how it gave up its familiar?) And because ES is clueless here from a mechanics standpoint, it ends up justifying the very scientific racism that it should have avoided. Alphas are just plain better than normal humans. I’m frankly flabbergasted that the writers didn’t understand their own subtext.

Betas are just baseline humans. They only get the standard human benefits above, but like I’ve said those are still very nice. Next!

Gammas, deltas, epsilons, and fey.

Gammas were the first new strain developed by the Eugenics League. Unlike the complex process that made alphas, the one for producing gammas just spliced in some rodent genes in shotgun fashion. As a result the eldest strain is both resilient and numerous, just like the rodents they share characteristics with. “Bred for...a rapid population growth”, “their incisors are enlarged”, “gamma eyes are...exceptionally small and beady”, yeah they’re basically rat-people. Despite being “phased out” in favor of deltas and epsilons, there are still a lot of gammas in the urban areas that wanted them most. Especially in the sewers, because did you get that these are rat-people yet?

As rat-people in all but name, gammas are of Small size. This makes for a couple of fiddly modifiers in combat but ends up not doing especially much. What really mattered in 3E combat was if you went up to Large or down to Tiny, because all of a sudden you had more or less reach and space in the combat grid. In addition to that, gammas get a +4 bonus to resist disease (which in a setting without clerics does matter more), and +2 Dexterity/Constitution but -2 Strength/Intelligence. If you are playing a “transgenic race” it is mechanically enshrined that you are mentally inferior. Sigh. How did this get written without self-awareness, again?

Deltas were another iteration on the gamma framework, but this time made to be more useful (well, compliant) to their capitalist overlords. Rather than reinventing the genetic wheel, scientists in the Eugenics League took the more expedient option of reengineering what gammas already were. The results here were deltas and gammas, dog-people and horse-people respectively. Delta humans themselves are the rarest of the planned underclasses, but were still useful enough to see inclusion in various rungs of society like industry or the military. Rarely are they the ones in charge, of course.

Mechanically speaking, avoid playing a delta. They get +2 Constitution/Wisdom but -2 Intelligence/Charisma; adding +2/-2 to ability scores is something of a fad in this book. As dog-people, deltas also have a pronounced sense of scent. By default this allows you to detect odors at a range of 30 feet, with some modifiers if it’s strong or upwind/downwind. If they’re within 5 feet or move after you detect them, you can instead pinpoint their location. You can even use this to track someone else with Survival, at DC 10 + 2 per hour but without the usual increases, if you already have the Track feat. It’s neat as a niche effect but sadly not as amazing as the designers thought. In particular it can’t make up for how deltas only get one excellence point at chargen rather than three. We’ll get to exactly what excellence points do later, but right now I’ll just say that they’re the metacurrency of ES. So being down that far on a vital resource in the name of modelling their “reduced spirit” sucks.

Like deltas, epsilons are ultimately derived from gammas. As noted above, they were spliced with horse genes in order to make perfect laborers (ie, hardy and accepting of abuse). They’re more common in the modern day than deltas, but compared to gammas they’re still a limited underclass, “not as often found outside of the poorest city boroughs or farming communities”. And just like how gammas are smaller than normal as rat-people, epsilons are larger than normal at over six feet tall.

Just like with deltas, avoid playing a gamma. They get +2 Strength/Constitution but -2 Intelligence and -4 Charisma. This design mistake is unfortunately all too common in D&D and d20, that boosting Strength gets overvalued. Sure, an increase to both melee attack and damage helps, but not so much that it outweighs the benefits of other ability scores like Dexterity (bonus to Defense and ranged attack) and Intelligence (more skill points). If anything, effects like this just serve to pigeonhole characters when overspecializing is already a significant problem. Otherwise gammas get shafted as badly as deltas! Sure, they can lift more (who cares if you aren’t dungeon crawling?), but in return for that they get the same reduced spirit for only one excellence point at chargen.

Fey are the last race in ES, and the only one that is distinctly not human. Instead, well, they’re our ancient Lemurians! Fey look mostly like humans but in aggregate are tall, thin, angular, and pale - essentially they’re just ersatz elves. Not much is known about them in modern society, and the majority of the world doesn’t even know they exist. Hell, many fey don’t even know that they are fey! Naturally this begs some big questions about they didn’t die out if they’re an entirely separate species from humans. For right now? The one human who does know the most about them goes only by the pseudonym Veritas, publishing their research anonymously on cyberspace. They speculated that, just like how humans were a distinct evolutionary branch from the other extant great apes, that the fey were yet another primate descended from aquatic apes. (Not coincidentally there’s an actual psuedoscientic theory that humans came from aquatic apes! ) By now any such traits would be vestigial, so while the theory isn’t well supported it has been latched onto by fey exceptionalists.

Mechanically, fey are pretty meh. They don’t get the standard bonus feat and skill points like humans, so already they’re in a hole. They get +2 Dexterity/Intelligence but -2 Strength/Wisdom, apparently the result of being “graceful and intelligent” but weak and alien compared to humans. Fuckdamn, stop ascribing all these reasons for altering really broad categories down to very specific modifiers! Elves Fey also get +4 to Bluff/Diplomacy because they’re so graceful , but -4 to be treated with surgery by humans due to “unusual anatomy”. At least the writers didn’t see an excuse to fool around with excellence points more. But more than the rest, fey have an affinity for etheric energy. First, they can sense it through touch. Spend an excellence point and roll Wisdom + your level; DC 15 detects the existence of ethertech, DC 20 detects a person using occult powers, but only DC 30 actually gives you a vague clue of what’s going on. This could be so cool, if it weren’t absolutely hobbled! Second, they get a Scope familiar, which is frankly more vestigial than their ether sense. Sure, your familiar can’t be destroyed, but all it can do is to hang around with you in cyberspace and provide a small bonus to you. Want that bonus in reality? Nope, only in cyberspace. Want it to scout? Nope, if it goes more than 30 feet from you then you have to make a DC 20 Will save or lose 500 XP per level. Success merely halves that. Either is absolutely crippling, since the XP rewards got rebalanced to a tenth of what they are in D&D. The effect is that if you fail you probably lose a lot of levels, at best dropping 6 levels if you’re at 20th level or at worst dropping to 1st level if you’re at 11th level or below. Success isn’t far behind either. The one saving grace here is that it has no actual stats or rules to be taken away if you don’t want that, so in practice it’s just a minor bonus that you’ll probably forget half the time.

After all this it’s just depressing to see how players are told on the one hand that they can Play Anything They Want...and on the other hand get shown that half of what’s here is patently inferior in some way. That, once again, scientific racism is ignorantly being enshrined in the rules. If I had my way here I’d first off jettison all of the ability score modifiers, secondly toss out the arbitrary excellence point penalties, and more generally just rework all the races entirely with distinctive bonuses without any attempt at justifying otherwise. Players shouldn’t be told why they can’t put together rules elements A and B, but rather that that’s fine but that they could do even better by choosing C instead of B. If you’re the designer, build your giant robot of offense in its entirety - don’t forget to include the head, and especially don’t be a dumbass who only included the legs! I have no doubt that Redmond and McClelland at least had good intentions, but in contrast their actions are just euughuugh exasperating.

Next: The Social Wars