Monday, March 18, 2019

Worlds United for Mythras - Vintage Planetary Romance and Retro SF

The Design Mechanism is hard at work, and Mythras has a new book out in POD: Worlds United, a sourcebook for gaming in a futuristic alternate reality 1959 where you too can now adventure in a world filled with rockets, rayguns and Venusian dinosaurs. I have been waiting for a SF setting book for Mythras for a while now (M-Space is interesting but not really as robust as what I need), and while this isn't quite it either the core conceit of vintage nostalgia planetary romance might be a really useful toolkit for some games.

Anyway, check it out! If someone could do a review I'd love to read more about this so I can determine if it's right for my table or not.

Okay, plug over....Now for a rant on Retro SF:

This got me to thinking about the retro planetary romance genre and specifically about how it seems like there's a strong tendency for many reasons for this sort of retro vintage take on science fiction to perpetuate in role playing games. Long after the genre was more or less abandoned by film (which dives instead into modernized science fantasy), and contemporary fiction to the best of my knowledge doesn't do this sort of thing (it, too, has progressed to a point where there is no return to the vintage form of this sort of genre), the retro SF genre seems to thrive, or at least continue to manifest in RPGs.

Despite being deeply into contemporary variants of the same sort of genre as Starfinder and Destiny, I don't really have much investment in the vintage/retro SF subgenre as its own thing. I have no particular interest in replicating worlds in which Venus wasn't a hothouse to begin with that requires some level of terraforming to normalize, or in which Mars was really like Wells envisioned it all along. Of far greater interest would be a setting which takes what we actually know about the solar system in 2019, extrapolates in to the future, and then figures out interesting ways to reconcile the fantastical elements of prior eras in fiction in a manner which both moves the setting forward and also avoids a conflict with the ever-present sense of verisimilitude that makes good SF feel right.

Given how often this genre continues to pop up in RPGs...we have Worlds United, Slipstream, Space: 1889, Rocket Age, Buck Rogers, various versions of the Barsoom/Mars series, and quite a few others I haven't even thought this a market in high demand, or just a corner of the hobby with a lot of dedicated fans? I'm curious if there's a real market for this, or it's just a niche market with a hardcore base.

I can completely understand the core conceit if it's what excites someone....I don't want to sound like I am denigrating the subgenre because hey, I like Starfinder and I consider that to be a very niche-within-a-niche subgenre of "space fantasy sci fi" as well so I completely understand the idea of liking a very specific take on a genre (I like hard SF for the same reason). But every time I try playing or generating interest in a setting that asks me to pretend like I don't know everything I know about Mars or Venus, I feel like there is a missed opportunity to take everything we DO know about Mars and Venus and then wed that with a futuristic vision that still manages to capture the retro elements of the past without removing the interesting parts of a very real present understanding. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

Vital Resource: Alien Bestiary from Legendary Games (Starfinder)

A very useful book for any Starfinder gamer is the Alien Bestiary from Legendary Games. This is a 450 page monster book filled with much-needed new and reinterpreted beasties for the Starfinder game system. Highlights include:

--Full color format for about 300 monsters up to CR 30
--A bunch of the "best of" from Pathfinder adapted to Starfinder (such as much-needed stat blocks for Neh-Thaglu and other "scifi themed" monsters)
--Cthulhu beasties including Starfinder adaptations of Cthulhu and Hastur
--There's content on using this with Legendary's Aethera setting, but it does not get in the way of using this as a generic resource
--A section in back with new traps, some new rules, spells, and a bit on cults

Overall it's an indispensable book. A small number of monsters have some cross-over with the Alien Archives (mi-go and kytons, for example) but arguably the Bestiary's got more interesting interpretations. The kytons, for example, are provided in elaborate detail and include a bunch of the kyton subtypes that have appeared in the past in Pathfinder, facilitating whatever weird Hellraiser/Event Horizon scenarios you might imagine, and which can complement and enhance the Velstrac (the futuristic kytons in Alien Archive 2).

One area the book is a bit weak in is racial templates for player characters. The Alien Archives include a large number of racial options for players to pick from with the stat blocks necessary to make whatever weird characters you want, but Alien Bestiary omits these racial stat blocks, even when there might be a monster type that would fit well. That said, the majority of the monsters in this book would not, on average, make for good PCs....but for the few that would this omission is noticeable.

One other complaint I have heard but can't verify is that there is a fair amount of recycled artwork. I presume this is art from other Legendary Games products, but don't own many of their other books for Starfinder (yet). Obviously whether this is a problem or not depends on taste, but it is not a concern for me.

The editing and design on the book looks good and I have encountered no real errata issues so far. Likewise I have encountered no stat block issues; everything functions well in Starfinder rules as intended. There is also a 5E version of this book through Drivthrurpg although I have not seen that version, but if you want to add some SF weirdness to your 5E game you can definitely do it.

Overall a Starfinder GM will find a lot here to like. The conversion monsters are worth getting, as they will alleviate the need for you as GM to do Pathfinder-to-Starfinder conversions, and the overall number of creatures that are both new and new to Starfinder make this an invaluable addition to the Alien Archive books; if you have those two tomes plus this then you have over 500 stat blocks of monsters to choose from for your Starfinder games. The book sells for $70 for a print plus PDF edition. Even at that price point this book is well worth the price.

Grade: Solid A, a useful book for any Starfinder GM

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Now for the Positive Gaming Outlook Post

So, it't not all doom, gloom and burnout here at the Realms of Chirak. My actual gaming has been working as follows:

1. My wife has been running a Cypher System game set in 1920 featuring pup action heroes in a style that is extremely interesting (I call it interesting because I'm an old fan of pulps from the era but not sure anyone else in the group is, so the net result is....unique and eclectic, to say the least!)'s a lot of fun, which is good, but I admit I remain a terrible player for all sorts of reasons. But a break is a break!

2. When she isn't running that I resumed my Cypher-powered Domain SF setting with a second session and am having fun exploring that weird future universe concept. When my wife isn't running, that is!

3. I continue to run Starfinder every other midweek, and am enjoying it for what it is. The more I run Starfinder the more I see it is an earnest Spelljammer with more techno-trappings, which in turn makes it even more fun to engage with.

4. The bi-weekly night I tried resuming D&D is the only one up in the air right now. I will probably stick with it, but I plan to maybe deliberately undermine the "D&Disms" that I outlined in the prior a game where I specifically avoid all the things I find are taken for granted in D&D and stick to plots and elements that I find more interesting. This will be tough, because the baseline stuff is "no-brainer" material and I realize I've relied on it because of my lack of time to prep, but my goal is to focus on the plots over the process, and pretty much cut out all those default trappings entirely, see how it goes. If that doesn't work, then I'm gonna shelve D&D for a while and run something very different.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

D&D Burn Out Part II

So my thought on why I feel burned out and dissatisfied with D&D 5E has to do with these elements:

1. I have run D&D for four decades now, pretty consistently. The golden era of my enjoying the game has passed, but I still relish the idea of playing a game that gives me that feeling and excitement and discovery I got out of so many games in the past. For reasons I am mulling over D&D 5E really has a hard time doing this for me.

2. D&D 5E is a complex game by any standard but a simpler game than many others such as Pathfinder. I don't really think the issue is complexity, though....or otherwise why would I find Cypher System so appealing? I think that in pursuit of that novel experience I am finding other games (like Cypher) are filling that role better than D&D now.

3. More complex games can accomplish this because they add a layer of fiddly bits that can be almost ritualistic in application. Half of playing Pathfinder or Starfinder is trying to figure our and master the mechanics, for example...and you can spend years playing without achieving full mastery. For that reason they can have an appeal in this case because they add elements through mechanical bits that make the experience more complex and interesting to the old jaded gamer soul. This is a severe case of YMMV though because complexity is not appreciated by everyone (not even me at times). When 5E came out I was really burned out on running high level Pathfinder, for example, and welcomed a change of pace.

4. D&D has a lot of -isms. We know what these all are, but often times when I run games these -isms (also known as tropes) become force of habit. Unfortunately it can be difficult for me to chop my way through the forest for the trees, so these -isms/tropes can be difficult to scrub from a D&D game (and still have it deliver an experience that justifies playing D&D over another different game). Examples of these tropes include:

--dungeons, in all their grid mapped glory as a center point of any game. I have known I am burned out on this trope for a long time, but often it is still a core conceit of many scenarios and what the game supports better than almost anything else.

--Heroic scales. I really crave more realism, with heroes who need to struggle, or who need to manage resources carefully and maybe find escape or flight from a menace to be a sound decision. This is very hard to accomplish in D&D 5th edition without making the game feel unfair. Games that do this very well I feel include BRP, Runequest and Mythras (all related systems). I had a similar complaint to 4th edition D&D too, which was much worse in terms of its "realism" level. D&D has never been about realism, of course....I am not asking it to change for me, just stating I've changed and can't dig it as well as I once did. The heroic scale of D&D has been with it since the beginning (if you level high enough, of course).

--There's a lot of little stuff that is just so very, very D&D: let's make camp; wandering monsters; treasure tables; traps; putting weight on the need to slaughter monsters of CR appropriate levels over a long time to earn XP to level up (admittedly 5E has alternative rules if you want); magic works THIS way; here's seven thousand monster tomes with all the same monsters, over and over again; here are the same classes; here are the same modules and settings, but now in 5E edition; here's the same core conceits of world design, with the same broad range of options; here are the same magic items; these are all "D&D" and frankly all fun and exciting....unless you've run possibly as many as 2,000 or more games (probably more) over five or six editions.

5. Tired of the results of Big Hit Points, Big Damage and bounded accuracy. I liked these design points but over several years they make the game feel less interesting and more generally predictable. It is rare that a D&D game surprises me anymore from a numbers viewpoint.

6. Skill based system. This is an odd one because I like Cypher and it's not skill heavy, but D&D up through 3.X and Pathfinder had a very robust skill mechanic which I miss. It allowed for a lot fo nuance within the scope of a level and class based system. A skill system isn't a deal breaker, but for D&D style play I would like to see something more robust.

7. Story Mechanics. A year ago I would have not thought this was important, but it's become increasingly relevant to my gaming habits, especially after falling for Cypher System. I can mod these in to D&D, and indeed I've adapted the Gamestery Plot cards in to D&D for years now, but I'd love to add in other elements similar to GM and player Intrusion mechanics. XP mechanics for special effects or temporary gains similar to Cypher and other pieces could make a more robust experience....although how to make it still feel like D&D is a question to be answered.

With that said, I think D&D 5E is a fine system, but it may be the first time I wore out on an edition of D&D before a new edition was on the horizon. Worse yet I think I've been on a slow burn with my discontent for over a year now, and it took experimenting with other offbeat games like Cypher, Numenera and Genesys to realize that maybe I just need to give D&D a break for a while, possibly like a really long while.

One very important side note is that part of my issue is changing times: I have less time (a lot less time) to spend prepping and even thinking and reading about gaming now than ever before in my life, due to family and work. As a result, my free time to properly enjoy RPGs is at an all time low, and with what time I have I need systems that I can handle in that limited time, and which feel like I'm making good use of that free time I do have. Ironically the main reason I am enjoying Starfinder is because it redesigned the 3.X mechanics to be more streamlined for the GM, and an amazing person made, without which I'd never have a chance to design statblocks every other week.

This also explains my ongoing fascination for Cypher System, a game designed to make the most out of a lazy or time-deficient GM's life to run games. With Cypher System I can world build and plot design without worrying much about mechanics....Cypher is built with my style of GMing in mind. It is also a game which can comfortably run without ever leaning in toward violence as a storytelling medium, and this may sound wackadoodles to some, but I really enjoy games these days where violence is the threat of last resort rather than the core conceit. Don't know why, I just do.

Critical D&D Burn Out

Oh boy...I may finally have to confess to myself that I have played so much D&D that I am now burned out on it.

Since the new year began (two frickin' months ago) I've run exactly two games of D&D: one was to wrap the tail end of a campaign from last year to give it some closure, the other was last night, to try out a new campaign starting at level 5. I ran a fairly straight forward dungeon module I'd devised but had some plot-focused quest options floating around for flavor.

What I realized (posthumously to the session) was that I think I have finally, at long last, burned out  --badly-- on the "D&D experience."

I don't know if it's just D&D as a system, though....or 5E specifically. Here's the conundrum:

1. I continue to enjoy Starfinder (which is just space Pathfinder)
2. Last year the few games of Pathfinder I ran were a lot of fun and I did feel engaged
3. D&D 5E, every game I have attempted in the last year or so has ultimately been a chore for me.

So...could it be the game system? Could I really just not have much interest or investment in 5E as a game? My only satisfaction really had to do with games I ran for my son, and I have enjoyed the plot-intensive campaign wraps, although with the caveat that not all of that particular campaign was as fun as it used to me (it was honestly a long drag to get to the conclusion, much longer than it needed to be).

I know that Pathfinder is a hard sell to my players, moreso even with PF2.0 on the horizon, but I almost feel like I owe it to myself to explore that system some more, as maybe it's just "different enough" to add back in elements that I really like in D&D that have been missing from 5th edition. Like a more robust/meaningful skill system, for example. Or maybe the flashy, wacky numbers of Pathfinder just feel more substantive to me than the bounded accuracy of D&D, even though I felt that the bounded accuracy was a good solution to controlling runaway numbers.

Or, well, maybe (and I do know this to be true) inflated hit points and damage totals in 5E aren't all that fun for me as the GM.

I do know that if I had picked some other system last night for the game, such as BRP (Magic World), Cypher System or even (I suspect) Pathfinder that I might have enjoyed it more. I think....I think as much as I hate to admit it, I am craving some combination or either novelty, complexity or realism in my games such that D&D 5E is just a poor fit for the kind of gaming I want to do now.

Things to ponder!

(EDIT: I was wondering if this issue ties in to my discontent with Fantasy AGE, but I don't think so. Fantasy AGE suffers, if anything, from being too underwhelming and too simple, much like 5E.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Cypher System: The Doman Universe Concept

I recently ran a one-shot which for various reasons did not continue (reasons worth a future blog post I suppose), but the actual game was a lot of weird fun. Here's the write-up used as the premise for the's not a precise recreation of what went down, but was the foundation for it:

Setting Concept: The Domain Universe Campaign

Earth has become a “game reserve” managed by aliens called the Recorders, who have maintained a special archaeo-construct created in the ruins of old earth, where they have been methodically attempting to reconstruct portions of the old world for their archaeological record. The Recorders are machine intelligences, who have taken to attempting to recover the memory of lost species, particularly biological species, which they have found evidence of throughout the galaxy. Their reasons for this are seemingly benign if unexplained, but it is suspected that they are attempting to decipher their own origins, seeking their creators. The Recorders call this experiment on earth the Incunabulum, after the old Latin meaning of “the cradle.”

The recorders appear to be “alive” in that they have biological functions of a sort, but they are in fact immortal synthetics made of complicated but ultimately simulated tissues. They use complex nanomachines to reconstruct lost sites, along with a process of “Temporal Reconstruction” using extradimensional physics to recapture portions of the past in elaborate, nearly complete simulations. The simulations will eventually deteriorate and fail, but until they do, they can learn a great deal by looking at an accurate snapshot of the past.

The Incunabulum on Earth is such an attempt, a reconstruction of Los Angeles in 2231, right when the Warp Drive was first created and tested. There is a theory among their kind that the manifestation of their species started with the manufacture of artificially intelligence space probes long ago, from a developing life form. They know Earth was successful, for a time, in advancing in to interstellar space as they have encountered hundreds of colonies which became isolated during a time now called the Cataclysm, when an unknown species or entities appear to have attacked and badly disrupted the sprawling commonwealth of humanity, rendering most of Earth’s colonies either extinct or regressed to the stone age. Worse yet, this appears to have been done to dozens of sprawling ancient interstellar civilizations, across nearly seventy million years of time. There is a suspicion that something eludes their detection in the galaxy and beyond, which deliberately seeks out and destroys Type II civilizations. The recorders feel it is only a matter of time before they are targeted, and seek to learn more of their own origins as well as clues to how to prevent this extinction from happening.
The Recorders are not the only current active species in the galaxy. There are dozens of other species, most pre-interstellar, which have been encountered. When a healthy species is discovered the Recorders intervene to assist the new species in understanding the risk of their interstellar development, and provide resources to work with the Recorders to advance into space at a slow and guarded pace. Some such species include:

Kellik – insectoid coleopteroids who are driven by intellectual curiosity and engineering skills
San – a race of polymorphic semi-liquid entities with low-gee adaptation
Dessur – a species of tall semi-humanoid warriors with seven eyes and heavy chitinous natural armor, who renounced war after nearly wiping themselves out in a system-level nuclear conflict
Pelladri – pale skinned humanoids who look similar to humans but are seven feet tall on average with mottled white and black skin, believed to have been a case of parallel convergent evolution, but their DNA is not even remotely similar to humans.

Orions – the strongest recovered human colonials, the Orions were approached by the Recorders and invite into the Interstellar Union. The Orion Confederation is aware that the Recorders seem to be unusually obsessed with the ruins of their civilizations of old, and the Orions independently are seeking their own answers as to how the Old Empire of Humanity fell.

1. Character Generation is Tier 1 beginner, and any background listed for Modern, Historical or Hard SF setting options is permitted (Expanded Worlds and Core genre sections).

2. You can take equipment picks from any of those genres, too.

3. The setting default: Los Angeles, 2231, an era of expansion in to the solar system, hub of the Tether, a massive Space Elevator used for easy transportation of material resources to and from space, and colonial expansion has traveled throughout the solar system. You may or may not have left earth before, but all of you are currently in L.A. in the Tether District, a high tech area dedicated to the space program run by the United Coalition of Earth, the ruling "superbody" representing Earth interests among the larger space conglomerates. 

4. Though not well known, it is believed that the Coalition in conjunction with three Orbital interests have developed a working warp drive that would allow FTL travel. You might all be privvy to or involved in this research in some way, through the Bering Institute, an independent Research Group which is funded by multiple nations and corporate interests for a common good.

5. Aside from all of this, each of you knows and works with a cool sentient bioform AI, an artificial intelligence occupying a synthetic body grown in a vat who calls himself Recorder. Recorder is ostensibly here to observe your work on the monumental new Warp Drive project or associated jobs.

Initial Scenario
The PCs are working in the simulation known as the Incunabula when an odd person with a thick and unplaceable accent named Alana Cord approaches one or more of them with questions about who they are and what they do. It seems like an espionage issue, but when Recorder seems to take an unusual interest in her she departs quickly. Before she goes, she slips an information drive to one of the players and tells them “The key is in the data. And the key will set you free.”
Unknown to the players, Alana Cord is an agent of the Orion Survey Group, the OSG being the organization which is attempting to reconstruct the pieces of the old Human Empire, and to map it out as they do. Many questions are unanswered and the OSG seeks to find those answers, including:
--How much time has passed since the Collapse? On Orion it is believed that the collapse happened twenty seven thousand years ago, and it took this long for humanity to recover fully.
--What or who caused the collapse? Did the Recorders have anything to do with it?
--Why does the collapse target interstellar civilizations?
--How many other human colonies have recovered, or remain waiting to be found? Why have the Recorders been so reticent to discuss what they have found?

The Thumb Drive
Alana Cord, if no intervention is forthcoming, will seem to disappear, but if they PCs investigate the thumb drive they find a wealth of strange information:
--She explains to them that they are living in a complex simulation operated by a combination of temporal mechanisms and nanotechnology
--She explains that the Recorders are not utility and assistance droids but are the actual machine controllers masterminding this recreation
--She explains that the PCs are genuine recreations, ghosts pulled from the “shadows of time” captured by the temporal mechanisms, bodies sustained by nanotechnology, but that they cannot exist for long outside of the simulation, and the Recorders could decide to turn the simulation off at any time.
--To survive outside the simulation, she tells them her vessel is located beyond the westernmost approach along the security wall in sector C118, and provides the access code. She says there are medical pods which will offer permanency to the forms of the “simulants” that the PCs are, but they have to get through the wall, first. She says her ally, Syphon, can help….”seek the water.” Syphon is a San, one of many who have also questioned what the Recorders tell them.

The simulation that runs is a combination of extracted temporal data and nanotech rendering physical the ghosts of the past. The process “recreates” a precise simulation of an ancient time period, but the Recorders cannot actively manipulate the data without risking a deterioration and failing of the simulation. However, with the intervention of the OSG agents, a certain amount of deterioration is beginning, which in turn tips off the Recorders that their experiment may need a reboot.
Temporal arcs are a form of dimensional warping caused by manipulation of the fundamental vacuum energy known as Dark Energy in some circles. This allows for the utilization of otherwise quantum or collapsed dimensions to impact and even warp time as well as space in strange ways. The stabilization mechanisms in the Incunabulum keep Ancient Los Angeles stable, but leaving the field causes a deterioration, as does any major deviance from what came before; the past is only  as stable as its behavior in the present, and so no simulation can run for more than a few decades before experiencing total collapse due to the build-up of quantum variance over time.
In this case, the destabilization causes horrific moments when the temporal field falters, causing terrifying field distortions that rip apart the previously stable environment and people in gruesome ways before the “ghosting” that created the simulations evaporates, leaving behind simulated “meat” from the nanomaterial underlying the physicality of the recreation.
Worse yet, once the Recorders realize the recreation is destabilizing, they will (humanely, from their perspective) shut the simulation down, leading to an escalating “brown out” of the environment followed by monstrous recycling machines entering the now dead site to begin collecting and reconstituting the nanomaterial for re-use.

1.       Group is doing its work for the Bering Institute when Alana Colt approaches them, asks to meet in private
2.       Group either meets or grows suspicious…encounter plays out
3.       Alan flees but gets drive to PCs before doing so.
4.       PCs decrypt drive and find bizarre information on it. May investigate C118 and meet Essuary.
5.       Further investigation means they are “off script” from temporal ghosting and strange things start to happen.
6.       Destabilization event….people and things are coming apart; future history flashes forward; the grim end of the human race places out in accelerated time
7.       Each PC finds themselves touched, warped, in ways unexpected, as their nanomaterial and temporal fix begins to waver
8.       The recyclers arrive and begin trying to recycle all!
9.       Group arrives at the C118 wall and the fountain where the San named Essuary aids them in a quick escape to the scout ship
10.   The group arrives, and the medical bays stabilize their forms, then “write” their temporal shadows on to their physical bodies, making them permanent. They are now all living beings made of biosynthetic material.
11.   Outside, they see the real world for the first time: a blasted land of the dead, with primitive scavengers, mutant monsters and a sprawl of ancient relics from an age undreamed of that collapsed thousands of years after the era they come from.
12.   Essuary asks them to help free Alana Colt, who has been taken to a Recorder prison in the Yellow Fields, where they maintain their observation base, the infamous Glass Tower.
13.   Afterwards, he promises, questions as they learn about the Orion Survey Group and the mission of mankind’s first restored colony, as well as the mysteries of the fallen empire.

Alien Species in the Domain Universe
The Recorders (level 3 average; Level 5 Enforcer; Level 7 Abstractor)
Health 9 (recorder); 25 (enforcer); 70 (abstractor)
Damage by level; melee generated weapons, ranged lasers or projectiles grown from body
Special: can repair damage done to their forms over time, at the rate of 1 health/hour. Must be destroyed or take damage equal to negative health or will be restored.

Synthetic lifeforms, the Recorders appear to be an evolving form of synthetic life created from an unknown source, operating a vast network they call The Domain. Their bioforms are clearly engineered, and it is not impossible they originate from a transgenic society which migrated from bioflesh to augmented “sleeves” long ago. Their mental capacity is immense but they seem to be “locked” AI, which is to say they have been engineered to serve as general purpose AI and not develop in to ASI attributes, though many feel that the undisclosed “homeworld” of the Recorders may be dominated by such an advanced artificial intelligence.

The humanoid body pattern appears to be a default and has led many to suspect they are patterned after humans, including possibly the Recorders, who seek out evidence of their origins on human colonized lost worlds.

Kellik (Level 2; warriors are level 4)
Special: 1 point of natural armor, primary claws deal level in damage
The insectoid coleopteroids who are driven by intellectual curiosity and engineering skills are an early ally of the Recorders, and regarded as untrustworthy by many. Their tendency toward hive minded groupthink makes them hard to predict, oddly. They have been allied with the Recorders for a thousand years, and maintain a very low “warp” footprint to lower detection risk. The kellk are convinced a species of “civilization killers” exist out there.

San (Level 1-7 depending on size)
Special: This is a race of polymorphic semi-liquid entities with low-gee adaptation that makes them easily menaeuver in space. A San gets 1 asset in their favor when engaged in zero gee stunts and movement.

The San are closely allied with the Orions and have long suspected the Recorders as being inimical to their own existence. They are blob-like polymorphs, capable of taking their boneless- single-muscled body that is not unlike a free-flowing mass of fluid and shaping into almost anything they want. Their adaptation is due to their incredibly low gee moon homeworld around the gas giant in Eti Orionis.

Dessur (level 4 normal, level 6 warriors)
Special: 2 points of armor, exceptional eyesight (asset)
The Dessur are a species of tall semi-humanoid, reptile-like warriors with seven eyes and heavy chitinous natural armor, who renounced war after nearly wiping themselves out in a system-level nuclear conflict. The Recorders are regarded by many dessur as saviors to their kind, bringing wisdom and illumination in the wake of their own near destruction. Unlike other races, they regard the Recorders as kindly and helpful rather than suspicious and controlling, and feel that the evidence of a catastrophe across the galaxy is proof that war leads to self-destruction. Their species as a whole has forcibly adapted to a pacifistic way of life, which has been enhanced by genetic modification to reduce their biological predilection for conflict.

Pelladri (level 2-4)
The Pelladri are pale skinned humanoids who look similar to humans but are seven feet tall on average with mottled white and black skin, believed to have been a case of parallel convergent evolution, but their DNA is not even remotely similar to humans. Unlike humans Pelladri seem to have developed two brains with distinct separate cognition, and appear to maintain as a natural state separate personalities and “minds” within their collective heads. The notion is difficult for unaugemtned humans to follow, but seems exceedingly natural to the Pelladri, who find the notion of “one voice” anathema.

Like humans the Pelladri are often suspicious of the Recorders, but many of their kind have willingly gone into service to the synethics, with the notion that their machine intelligence is ultimately superior to biological intelligence. This obsession with machine perfection is unusually typical of pelladri belief.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Ancestors The Humankind Experience

My entire family is excited about the announcement of this game:

Here's the E3 promo:

This game is from Panache Digital, and if I now correctly understand it, this is a studio with some of the creators of Assassin's Creed   (my mistake for thinking it was an Ubisoft studio). My comments remain....Ubisoft has been great at leveraging low-key SF and fantasy elements in their Assassin's Creed series for years, so it is nice to see Panache Digital experiment with more in this style, by once again demonstrating that you can make history (and science) interesting enough for video games.

Anyway, a game which takes the evolution of hominids into humankind and makes it a 3PS adventure game sounds amazing, I hope they do it well.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Apex Legends

Apex Legends dropped this week pretty much out of nowhere, with an explanation from the developer at Respawn Entertainment that they had a serious hurdle to overcome: EA, the publisher/owner of Respawn, has a reputation in the toilet; the Apex Legends game is not Titanfall 3 (but it is set in the same universe); and it's yet another battle royale game....of a sorts.

The good news its a free to play game, so you can download it and draw your own assumptions. Their revenue model is basically loot crates, with cosmetic options. I'd question this sort of model in an FPS where the player never sees their own character but apparently people are willing to spend money on this stuff; Call of Duty and Overwatch prove that not seeing your own avatar doesn't dissuade you from dolling up. 

The best review I can offer on the game right now boils down to these points:

1. It's a very solid shooter. If you've played prior Titanfall games this delivers that sort of experience, but without the Titanfall signature items (pilots with wall walking and giant mechs). 

2. It offers only a single mode: 3 man teams, ten of them against each other. This is great if you happen to be one of those rare internet sasquatches who can assemble a three man team out of the ether and not rely on random people. More on that in a minute.

3. The game leverages layers on death. You can get knocked down, but its harder to die. When you die, an ally can grab a respawn token and take it to a vendor to bring you back. 

4. The whole game is built around large maps encouraging careful, thoughtful movement. Until the storm converges, then you better book it and get shot! So, like most all battle royale experiences in that regard.

5. The game is closest etymologically to the Call of Duty feel but with Overwatch team up elements. 

So. All that aside, here's the first week experience:

--My son has played it for hours. He loves it. He wanted me to give him the headphones so he could communicate with the occasional other players with headphones. I was like, "are they kids?" The answer was no, so no headphones. Sorry, adult gamers, I know you too well to trust you for two seconds. The kids in Fortnite are on average much more well behaved.

--Despite the fact that we meet the golden criteria: my wife, son and myself could all log in and form a team, I think it may not happen that often. We already do that in Fortnite, and while we might find some time to do it in Apex Legends, I'm not sure I am willing to deal with yet another game with RMT to get skins and nonsense. Sorry Respawn, Epic already took our money!

--Personally I loved the play style but I am just a terrible team player. I like solo mode, and I like team modes that don't discourage me from doing my own thing. Apex Legends, I immediately noticed, works best when you work closely as a team, and the experience was interesting but exhausting. Obviously YMMV on this but for a "strategically solo" player like myself, the lack of other modes means I have to be in exactly the right mood to play this game....and I am almost never in that mood, to be honest.

Either way, if it sounds like something you might like download it and try it out. The gameplay is rock solid, so you won't be disappointed there. The real question is whether Apex Legends will appeal to a broader audience over time, and I feel it's a game tightly designed for a niche within a niche, the subset of battle royale fans (or Overwatch fans) looking for a specific kind of experience and burned out on other games. I don't think I'm that person. Indeed, I am getting the same sort of "wow, I wish this game was designed for me" feel that I get with Overwatch. Does it mean it's bad? No, but it does mean I am definitely not this game's target audience.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Realms of Chirak; The Black Kyanite of Theliad; a Boon and Curse of Immortality

Black Kyanite

   Though it is speculated by some that the immortals of Theliad might be descended from true Inadasir blood,  and others have suggested that they might be avatars of some sort, the reality is a bit stranger. Deep in the bowels of an ancient cavern in the Agardash Mountains there lies a special vein of arcane crystals called the Black Kyanite.  This particular source is almost utterly black unless under strong light, revealing a deep, dark blue quality to the stone. The Black Kyanite appears to have strange properties, not unlike the divine Zodiac Stones, in that those who even touch the stone are gifted with great boons as well as immortality. The ability of one to  make something of such a gift is highly dependent on the recipient of the  gift, and many fail to even survive the initial touch of the stone. Others are wracked with curses and disease worse than the gifts bestowed; the ones who are able to harness the power of the Black Kyanite are most likely those few immortals now known to be like demiurges to the Theliadics.

   Black Kyanite can be found in only a few locations. Some is known to have been stolen away and is kept in an ancient dungeon deep beneath the city of Zheranos by the Canerous King Azeros, who himself has been bestowed with immortality at a terrible price. The lost Cavern of of the Agardash Mountains is the source of the purest and most powerful Black Kyanite, and it is believed that each of the “true” immortals of the land visit this cavern, and possibly took a piece of the powerful stone with them. Other sources of the stone may exist, and one rumor is that the ground beneath the ruin of Afar is riddled with impure versions of the stone.

   If someone comes in to contact with the substance it will grant them a Boon, and also a Curse unless they succeed at a DC 21 Wisdom save, or sometimes a DC 21 Constitution save if the desire of the intended recipient of the boon seeks a great physical enhancement. Failure still grants a boon and immortality (no longer ages), but also a curse. Success, which happens rarely, leads to the boon and agelessness without a major curse, though debilitating side effects of the boon may still be evident.

   The stone can be touched once a year to gain further boons (and curses), though each subsequent effort to do increases new saves by 1. If the save is ever critically failed (natural 1) the subject is killed immediately and transforms into Black Kyanite with all the properties of the stone. On a natural 20 the subject always gains the boon with no curse.

   Characters who undergo this transformation gain the following perks from touching Black Kyanite:
1 Boon (see DMG for samples, or see more below)
Gain immortality (ageless; still can die of unnatural causes)
Gain one minor impairment as a side effect of boon (example: ability to cast burning hands at will also requires PC to sleep on nonflammable material at night or they catch on fire)
On Save Failure Gain Major Curse (see chart below)

Sample Curses from the stone include:

D20                  Curse
1                                            Lose immunity to disease and roll at disadvantage on disease saves
2                                            Lose eyesight
3                                            Lose hearing
4                                            Become hideously deformed (disadvantage on Charisma and Dexterity Saves)
5                                            Grow 1D3 extra eyes
6                                            Must concentrate or turn into a blob like mass
7                                            Animals attack on sight
8                                            Lose all sense of touch (disadvantage on tactile Dexterity checks)
9                                            Develop vulnerability to metal (any contact with metal deals double damage, or causes 1 damage per round for passive contact)
10                                        Lose ability to benefit from a short rest
11                                        Plagued by nightmares; Must make a DC 17 Wisdom save each night to benefit from a long rest
12                                        Lose half hit dice permanently
13                                        Reduce Int and Str to 3 permanently
14                                        Reduce Cha and Dex to 3 permanently
15                                        Gain Disadvantage on all magic saves
16                                        One limb transforms into living Black Kyanite; susceptible to spells like Shatter as if an inanimate object
17                                        Lose ability to eat, can only sustain life with blood
18                                        Develop incurable lycanthropy
19                                        Lose ability to speak (either lose voice, or all dialogue is babble)
20                                        Translucent skin reveals organs; gain disadvantage on Charisma checks but advantage in Intimidation

Examples of Additional Boons Granted by the Black Kyanite:

Flame Control: gain the ability to cast burning hands at will; cannot control while sleeping

Stone Skin: develop skin of pure stone, but unable to “feel” like normal again.

Invisibility: Become permanently invisible, but all clothing and objects remain visible.

Ability Enhancement: Gain +5 points in one ability of choice but lose 5 in another ability (to 20 max).

Flight: gain the ability to fly, but lose the ability to touch the ground (must always hover just above the ground). Falling becomes a non-issue, but sleeping becomes difficult, as does any other act that benefits from being grounded.

   Any boon from the DMG, accompanied by an appropriate minor curse of hindrance, is acceptable as well.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Return to Theliad - an Update and Revision to the Northwestern lands of Chirak

The History of Theliad

   Northwestern Chirak is a remote location, isolated from much of the central civilizations of the Sea of Chirak region, and only tenuously connected by trade and warfare with certain regions of the West and the North. Syrgian traders have been journeying to the eastern regions of Theliad for two centuries now, and on certain occasions the Madigar and Abraheilites have engaged in trade by way of the difficult sea and land routes to Theliad. Still, it is not as isolated as Far Therias, and its people know something of the wider world, though their insular cultural groups are not receptive to outside influence.

   Theliad is described by some as a land that has moved on. While the rest of the world still mourns the loss of old gods or eagerly awaits the rise of new avatars and demiurges, Theliad has dispensed with the old pantheon in disgust and created its own new ways. Chiefly, the earliest arbiters of civilization were several clans who claimed trueborn blood of the old Inadasir, and that this was divine blood, which asserted their ultimate destiny as ascended beings. The first true civilizations to rise in Theliad after the Apocalypse were driven by these early god-kings, and the concept prevailed. The notion of a leader being directly equivalent to a god is commonly accepted among the people of this land, and their belief that mortals can ascend to divinity is very strong.

   Theliad’s history has not been without conflict. The earliest god kings arose in three primary cultural groups, including the Atarthic kingdoms, the Shellas, and the Adenar. These three groups rose from the ashes of the Apocalypse within three or four centuries, and it was around seven centuries that the first self-proclaimed god kings manifested. The first such was the enigmatic being called Hakarthos. This man ruled Atarthis as a benevolent ruler, who claimed to have visited a cavern in the Agardash Mountains, where he was spoken to by a divine spirit some claim to be Pallath and others claim was Pornyphiros (and still others believe something else entirely happened; see Black Kyanite later on). The legends say that this variably named divine spirit passed on the essence of godhood to Hakarthos, who then went on to rule, as an immortal, for nine centuries before his fall during the Keterash Uprising.

   Two other divine beings manifested during this early period, including Nimrasa, the divine queen of Shellas, and Sulturian of Adenar, an amorphic being who, though starting as a man, eventually transformed in to a terrible entity. Like Hakarthos, Sulturian was eventually deposed, though his followers found they could not slay him, and instead entombed the terrifying being in the deepest levels of the catacombs of his great city, and then abandoned it. This city is known today as Afar, and it is said that the blood of the entombed god poisoned the land all around, turning Adenar in to a dead land.

   Nimrasa is the only one of these ancient ascended beings to remain alive to this day. Though her kingdom collapsed long ago, her loyal priesthood spirited her away to a place of safety during the time of the Keterash Uprisings and kept her safely hidden. A century after the collapse of the old empires she was revealed anew, though Nimrasa swore she would never again demand servitude of mortals. The goddess dwells to this day in her venerable mountain temple just south of the lake city of Typhonis.

   It was approximately eleven hundred years ago that the second pantheon arose. This time, the first scended mortal was a man known only as Agarthis, a warlord of the Ekarthask clans, he was a powerful figure, and in this era he conquered a great deal of territory. On one occasion, near the edge of the White Desert, he was visited by a seductive spirit, a woman who claimed to carry the blood of the god Ga’Thon in her veins named Ierata. As the tale goes, she seduced Agarthis, and gave him a taste of divine godflesh from her father’s own body. Agarthis was transformed, and rode forth to declare his status as risen god. He conquered much of the known world in that time, and his own troops were now prepared to venture across the burning sands of the White Desert to sack the fabled city of Eristantopolis, when he was confronted by a man named Pallath Eridanos, a chosen avatar of the sun god, who allegedly united the surviving foes of the risen god with the troops of Eristantopolis to at last stop the mad immortal. Agarthis was imprisoned, again found to be unkillable, beneath a massive stone monument, usually called a tomb, but known also as a temple by his followers to this day. Even imprisoned, his voice can be heard in the dreams of men of great desire and power, and it a common term to speak of one who has fallen to madness as having “received the dreams of Agarthis” as an explanation for his insane behavior.

   The mysterious Pallath Eridanos is still revered by the people of Theliad today, though little is known of this man. He is said to have studied for a time in Eristantopolis after saving his people, and then to have traveled to the western islands, where he founded the modern city and kingdom of Theliad before passing on in to time. His whereabouts to this day are unknown.

   The Demon Kings of old were feared and reviled by all, and Theliad, much like the rest of the world, was not spared their rampaging shortly after the Apocalypse ended with the death of the gods. In this region it is known that many such ancient demon kings settled, as they tired from their ceaseless rampaging or were at last captured, imprisoned, or sometimes even destroyed. Scholarly records suggest that eleven demon kings were left alive or imprisoned in the land, and to this day there are Cults of the Eleven in the region, which revere and seek dark power from these entities.

   The last thousand years of history in Theliad have revealed two more “ascended immortals.” One is a man named Krytias, a scholar and student of lore who discovered, some say, the very cavern in which Hakarthos gained his divinity. Krytias manifested his divinity two centuries ago, and has been a peaceful ascetic ever since, teaching others how to achieve spiritual unity based on his visions prompted by the visits he makes to the sacred caves. His temple is located in the isles of Nelindiros.

   The other immortal is a man of mixed infernal heritage, whose mother may have been taken by one of the Eleven, specifically the infernal king Naramaeos. This son, named Tyrios, rose to power by virtue of his wiles and charms in the city of Masar, where he has ruled with an iron fist now for four centuries. Masar is a decadent kingdom of dark delights and opiates, reveling in the slave trade and the exploitation of others. It serves as an unpleasant bridge between the westerlands of Abraheil and the rest of Theliad.

   Of the many lands in the region, Theliad and Ekarthask are unique in that they eschew all faith in magical teachings, and disdains sorcery in all forms. These people only nominally tolerate divine practitioners, and seek instead the guidance of men who are enlightened through conventional wisdom.

    In contrast to these two lands, Nuliria and Nelindiros venerate their divine practitioners, and keep a watchful eye out for others who might claim potential immortality. These lands believe that the old age of gods is gone, and the essence of the gods has been imbued in mortal flesh, to be revealed at a time of their choosing. As a result, there are perhaps two dozen cults to various “living gods” in these lands, as well as certifiable ones such as Krytias and Nimrasa. A short list of these more popular living gods include:

Katharios the Wise
Chelisana the Divine Mistress of Light
Traidoros the Living Spirit of Strength
Macharadan the Healer
Setrinara the Oracle
The twins Tython and Ulistrana, divine sparks of Pornyphiros.

   Further east, in Sytaris, the people are less prone to worshipping living gods, though it does happen, and they instead venerate the ancestral dead, where they believe that the immortal spirits of their kings are all descended from the first true god, Hakarthos. They believe that Hakarthos was a unifying god-spirit, and that all of his descendants carry his spark. This ancestral cult is not unlike those of Nubirion, although with the added belief that each reincarnation brings an ancestral spirit closer to divinity.

   In the distant east, the city states of Ghurthal tend toward the worship of their resident goddess, the ancient Nimrasa, but there are cults and factions to many other gods as well. In an alarming trend, there are those who worship the entombed gods, Sulturian and Agarthis, and feel that they must follow the “children of Ga’Thon.” Where such teachings begin is a mystery, though rumors of Ierata’s hand in the matter are troubling. This mysterious entity, branded a Thousandspawn by the Preservationists of Eristantopolis, is believed to have secret designs on Theliad at large, and that she is partly to blame for the enigma of the so called ascended immortals and living gods in the land.

   In recent years, through the determined scheming of many lifetimes Ierata has consipired to manipulate the Theliadic Emperor Tiraeus into mad schemes of grandeur. Emperor Tiraeus has initiated a plan to conquer all of Theliad, to assassinate all of the immortals, to clean the slate for his great empire. He will then establish himself as a new, living god. Even as Ierata uses the emperor to destroy her enemies, Tiraeus quietly conspires to destroy the witch as well, using the maddened creature that was once Agarthis, whom he freed from imprisonment to use as his guide in his new war against the world.

Next: Black Kyanite