Friday, August 31, 2012

"The Dangers of a Mutable System..." and other thoughts inspired by AD&D

"The Dangers of a Mutable System..." A telling quote from Gygax himself in the intro to the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide....the premise being, its possible to move too far in one direction, altering the game to suit to taste, only to find that the direction traveled was perhaps not ideal, and the game has been altered too much to sustain itself, leading to a short and possibly unpleasant campaign. If you look at later editions as being "official" extensions of this philosophy that 1st edition held, that each table was its own mutation of the system, then one can imagine why not all later versions sat well or lasted long!

So yes, I have the Premium AD&D books in my hands FINALLY AND AT LONG LAST!!!! 'Bout Damn Time! I thank Mandi at Active Imagination for being able to get me copies, and I thank my awesome gamer wife Jody for letting me get them (because she'd like to play some more 1st edition, y'see) although I did bribe her with a copy of Guild Wars 2, so yes, much money was spent today on entertainment of a most foul and suspect nature (the best kind, of course).

I played AD&D mainly from 1980-1984 or thereabouts, with some on and off stints after that, until about 1987 when I had more or less moved away from AD&D and was playing other games entirely (chiefly T&T, Palladium Fantasy, Runequest 2nd edition, GURPS 1st and Dragonquest). This lasted until 1989 when I was off to college and my first gaming group (most of whom I have since reconnected with through Facebook) after a campaign of Dragonquest talked me into checking out the new AD&D 2nd edition books. I had all but abandoned by AD&D 1st edition collection by was something I associated with my younger gaming years at that point, basically, and so I dared to pick up the new AD&D 2E books and sure enough, that was what helped me to recapture the magic.

I didn't play AD&D 1st edition again until 2007 when my local group in Albuquerque went through a repurposing phase, and a new member (Jason) joined who was not only a diehard AD&D 1st edition grognard, but he hadn't even been involved in the hobby outside of that edition since the mid-80's. The rest of the group was like me: we were playing 3rd edition because it was current, but we all had fond memories of really getting into 2nd edition, or of it "bringing us back." So it was with the addition of Jason that we decided to abandon 3rd and went to a hybrid of 1st and 2nd edition....I sort of used a mashup of the various books, most of which I had to secure from Ebay once more (you see, I had a vast collection of books, once, but a fairly staggering amount of gambling debt from my second marriage--my ex had some issues--led me to sell most of it on ebay. Ah, the irony.)

That went on until 4E came out, which that particular group tried for a heroic tier campaign, and after deciding 4E was not going to work for them we cast about, trying some more AD&D, then C&C, and at last settling on Pathfinder when we gained some new players who were keen to try the latest edition of the ever-evolving D20 system.

So now I'm in a new zone once more. I'm keen to try more C&C and have managed some games recently, but Pathfinder dominates the crowd. However, with the premium AD&D books there's a newly emerging interest in the original AD&D system, and not just among those who have played it before. Myself, I am finding that there is a lot of meat in those books that I arbitrarily tended to dismiss back in my turbulent teens due to the fickle nature of youth; the AD&D DMG was like a bible to me from roughly age 10 to 14, and I remained enamoured with it even afterward, despite the fact that from roughly 1984 to 1990 I published a bi-monthly fanzine aimed at T&T and other non D&D RPGs, with a crowd of readers and contributors who were all very much on the "not D&D" side of the gaming fence. I wrote a lot for these other games, ran other games, and generally had fun....but I would usually go back to the AD&D books and ponder their arcane complexity and obscure minutiae with private interest, occasionally running games for them but never feeling I could indulge thanks to the peers I ran with. That's why it wasn't until I went to college that the floodgates opened and 2nd edition was able to blast its way 1989, everyone I knew wanted to play AD&D, and not Dragonquest or Runequest (well, some did). So I managed to get weekly sessions of AD&D 2E in throughout college. Good times.

One of my Favorite Modules. The province of Eor'nin, Hyrkania in the Middle Kingdoms of Lingusia is where I placed this module (thus the city of Eor).

Anyway, it's a lot of fun revisiting these books, more than I expected it would be. I remember going on a picnic in the Chiricahua Mountains with my family in 1985 or thereabouts, with my AD&D books tucked along, so while everyone else was barbequeing and picnicking I was at the fold-out table rolling up random dungeons to put my adventurers through (it was sometimes hard to get regular games in the Ass End of Nowhere, Cochise County, Arizona). I remember running a crazy dungeon with Yeenoghu as the top villain for my sister and a mutual friend who I think in retrospect might have been a bit freaked out by our shared sibling intensity at playing the game. I even remember going to cons circa 1986-1988, and talking the DM into letting me play my vicious warlord princess Lakuna Helbyrn, a halberd-wielding fighter who was professionally neutral evil.

It might just be the nostalgic buzz and the general satisfaction of reading the books again, but hopefully not. I think I'm going to construct and run a new campaign, probably centered in my Warlords of Lingusia setting, since that was the game world that sprang forth from my introduction to the hobby in 1980 and which has evolved continuously for thelast 32+ years now. I've already ordered the Fiend Folio from someone on ebay (because back then the FF was the fourth most iconic and important book to all my old campaigns, and is the reason grell and hooked horrors factor into any and all editions I have ever run). I'm also snagging a copy (hopefully not falling apart) of Arcana Unearthed, because by the time it was released back then I was not running AD&D, and so missed its integration into play. I recall reading it and questioning the value of the book overall, although I think ironically AU contained within it the seed of virtually all that was to come in D&D's future development.

I actually think the Fiend Folio has more iconics than the Monster Manual, at least for me...

Thursday, August 30, 2012

More Spec Ops

Well, seems I can't quite stop writing about Spec Ops: The Line. Extra Credits posted up their spoilerific Part II to the discussion of this game and it had some interesting bits I hadn't realized in play (as well as a few bits I am in disagreement with). Go check out the video first right here (make sure you've played the game first, though) and then read on...

First off, as they pointed out in the video, you really do find yourself going downward, constantly, throughout the game....and when you think you've hit bottom you find yourself up high again, once more about to descend I felt this was an allegory for a sort of Dante-like descent reference, and supported the notion that we're experiencing Captain Walker's purgatory.

That said, I am surprised (and bemused) that I didn't try some of the bits they suggested in some of the moral choice scenes....and also perplexed that one option didn't work for me. Specifically, when confronted with the angry civilians I did try to force my way through the crowd, but to no avail. It did not occur to me to fire into the air....sort of wish I had tried now.

Second, when faced with the scene where you must choose between killing a soldier and a civilian while trained snipers wait for your decision, I did in fact try to shoot it out with the snipers. I must not be as good at this game as the Extra Credits guys, because I repeatedly got wasted when trying this. In the end, I settled for shooting the soldier (more culpability in his actions and responsibilities, I reasoned) and of course much, much later on when Walker is confronted with the truth about Col. Konrad a flashback reveals his memory of this scene....that in fact there was never a trap, or two men facing execution by Walker's hands, just two corpses long since executed. So....hmmm.

Another theory I have is that the Extra Credits crew are professional game designers, by and large....or at least, they're more closely involved in the design of video games than I am. As a result, when they are playing Spec Ops they are thinking, "What did the designers account for? What are my limits in this scene?" and as a result they push and prod and pull to see what they can get away with. I, however, am nowhere close to being a computer game designer, instead being very much a player. As a result, I come to these events in the game with a different perspective conditioned by years of play, asking, "What did the designers intend for me to do here? I've been killed by snipers ten times in a row...perhaps I really am not able to defeat them, and instead need to pick a hapless victim to kill; the designers intended for me to see Walker's fatalism as he plays into Konrad's game...that must be it." And so I played along, never realizing it was never just two choices.

Interestingly, while the game does provide a lot of narrative (chiefly in load screens) with dialogue that I personally felt was referencing Walker's state of mind (i.e. the cognitive dissonance being a reference to the moment he snaps when he realizes he not only killed a lot of the 33rd Batallion but evacuating civilians as well) ....I was very surprised to see that Extra Credits interprets this dialogue as being aimed at the player, with the intent of making the player uncomfortable at the dichotomy of "playing a shooter game for fun" and "this game is not fun." Interesting interpretation....and yet....I still can't quite buy into it. Does no one in video game land read or experience fiction that contains a disturbing or uncomfortable narrative? Is the idea that one can enjoy an otherwise disturbing and ethically ambiguous tale about war somehow not normal? I suppose maybe there really is a larger crowd out there for which this experience is novel....but for myself, I tend to demand this sort of thing, expect it, and was pleased to find in a game, a place you typically don't find uncomfortable or disturbing narratives (except maybe in Silent Hill). So perhaps that is why I simply didn't notice's not so easy to feel the cognitive dissonance (I am enjoying this/I am not enjoying this or shouldn't be enjoying this) when you find that discomfort enjoyable on some level, or reasonable in the context the game offers.

Okay....enough of Spec Ops: The Line. Gotta stop talking about it before I try playing the game again. I admit, it's tempting....if only to push the limit on those moments where, apparently, there were more options than I realized. A second play-through might be comparable to, say, watching The Sixth Sense a second time to see if it all holds up to the reveal at the end of the first viewing....or Fight Club, another great example of films that touch upon the same literary hat tricks that I think Spec Ops: The Line is trying to pull from.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Pathfinder: Mythic Adventures

Well this is really interesting: I just caught the recent blog that outlines one of next year's hard cover releases for Pathfinder called mythic Adventures. The quick and dirty summary: it's an "add-on" book that provides rules for more epic or mythic level game play in Pathfinder. It's designed to make all levels of play more..well...mythic, from level 1 to 20. It adds in mythic classes and rules, designed to enhance the core Pathfinder system to allow for scenarios that might be worthy of Hercules, Arthur, Elric or perhaps even Conan.

This is an interesting idea, and also interesting in that it is probably very much "against the grain" of a lot of the "less as more" movement in gaming today (of which the OSR and the indie scene are but two pieces of the puzzle). So if playing a gaggle of level 0 commoners in Dungeon Crawl Classics is on one end of the scale, then Mythic Adventurers can climb onto the other end and balance it out, I suppose.

The bit in the blog about mythic monsters interests me. Right now the idea of a "true first monster" or epic version of monsters is a recurring theme in my Enzada campaign, which contains a "true" gorgon, minotaur, harpy and so forth, part of a collective known as Immortals who were cursed with monstrous, unending life thousands of years earlier.

Play Dead

A new amazing short film on Vimeo. I don't know if Play Dead is a sign that the zombie genre has been completely tapped out for ideas, or if it's a sign that we've barely scratched the surface....but it is definitely worth watching. It's about 15 minutes long.

Important warning! This is still a zombie survival horror flick, no matter how canine the stars are. Expect the usual body count when it comes to zombie flicks, amongst both men and dogs. But trust me, if you're into zombie films, this is a must see.

Play Dead (2012) FULL MOVIE from Andres and Diego Meza-Valdes on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Swords & Wizardry Kickstarter

Okay, obviously I am not lurking on the Kickstarter site enough, because the first I heard about this was through Tenkar's Tavern, who mentioned a Swords & WIzardry Complete Kickstarter. "What kickstarter is this?" I pondered, going to google for a quick search.

Lo' and behold, I found this! It's a bit of a confusing Kickstarter....for example, at the $55 mark you get two copies of the rulebook, but at the next goal ($70) you get one copy of the rules and the monster book. Then at the $90 level it jumps to one of each plus the module and GM screen. There are bigger goals, too....and a $100 add-on if you want Rappan Athuk added in on top of all that.

So the $90 level seems like the best base deal, I think. It is vexing me right now because I still need to pick up my Premium AD&D books that I understand are supposed to be coming in (at last!) at the FLGS. I was going to do that Friday, but that would be a $96 price tag (I get a nice discount). So which is it going to be? If I don't contribute to the kickstarter, which ends in 7 days, I will miss it.

I guess I could always remind myself that these are both games I have owned or do in fact have one or more versions of right now at this very moment on my game shelf. Although I am keen on both as a collector, it's not like I'm at risk of overlooking something significant to my future entertainment.

There's one other Giant Money Elephant in the room this week, too...the number 2, to be exact...Guild Wars 2, that is! That's going to put myself and my wife back a pretty penny, but I am sure it will provide a cornucopia of gaming henceforth.

Also, I need to buy all the talking Winnie the Pooh dolls for Marcus. We got him Tigger last week and he goes completely bonkers over it.

Damn it's hard to be a good consumer these days! Too much stuff to buy, not enough money.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Spec Ops: The Line - War as Horror and Madness

I said I'd eventually get back to talking more about Spec Ops: The Line once I got a chance to play through it, and as I have now finished the campaign (on what is arguably the "happy" ending) I thought I'd do a  review/discussion. I'll talk spoiler-free parts first, then announce the spoiler-laden part afterwards.

First off, this game is effectively a tribute to the genre of war films that seek to portray war and conflict in general at its worst, the sort of military engagements that fly off the rails and descend into madness. This is the first game so far as I am aware to try this; it's taking a cue from Apocalypse Now, Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket and other films which seek to portray war in as grimly realistic and shocking a light as possible. It's especially poignant in terms of how the Vietnam War has often been viewed, as Spec Ops: The Line seeks to present an unusual scenario where there is no good guy, no clear enemy, and a mass of confusion as to precisely what is going down. It uses this confusion to great effect to weave together a plot that only at the end starts to make any real sense.

As a video game it's a solid shooter with a compelling story. It's a rare blend of military shooters and the horror genre; one who enjoys Silent Hill or Amnesia is, ironically, about as likely to enjoy this game as any Call of Duty or Battlefield fans will. In fact, it is probably a safe assumption that the fan of horror games may enjoy SOtL more than the military shooter fans simply because that visceral level of enjoyment one gets from the horror genre is going to be a necessary requisite to really appreciate this game; if you're fondest memory of playing CoD is your TDK count and how much fun Nuketown is....Spec Ops might just drive you up the wall with its grim presentation.

The spoiler free summary of Spec Ops is like this: you control Captain Walker and his two allies, Adams and Lugo, sent to Dubai sometime after a calamitous disaster in which a great sandstorm engulfs the opulent city, and the entire city...skyscrapers and all....become entombed in the dunes. This is such an amazing disaster that it seems almost surreal (and for good reason, I later decided). As the three investigate, it becomes apparent something strange is going on. You're looking for American soldiers from the 33rd Batallion sent into to aid in the evactuation of civilians, and after the storm became too dangerous everyone fled, except for the 33rd. Walker and his two men are here to find out what happened.

At least, that's how it starts. Before too long you're dealing with rogue American soldiers, a CIA plot, hapless citizens trying to survive amidst all of this, and what appears to be a madman, Col. Konrad (not Conrad!) who has somehow gone rogue or traitor. A great deal of third-person cover-based shooting ensues.

Without spoiling any more than that, the game is worth playing if you like a meaningful story. It is probably the first time in a long while I've played a shooter like this where I was more interested in the story than the mechanics...and the mechanics, while solid, occasionally cause problems (as all third person shooters do in which one can accidentally get stuck to cover or do the wrong thing with the press of an incorrect button). I often died, and had to restart, to the point where the game would nag me to go to a lower difficulty level. I persevered, however, determined to finish it without defecting to an easy mode.

There is one complaint I can make: it has a multiplayer component and a co-op sort of  "spec ops" mode. They seem tacked on.....or at least, I suspect they are, because finding live players to play against is impossible (in the PC edition, at least). I have spent some time queued up to no avail. No worries for me, though. The meat of this game is in single player, and I have plenty of other multiplayer games in the buffet to sample from.

Although, having said that, if you interpret the multiplayer component as a representation of the madness of Dubai after the 33rd settles in....well, I doubt it really does that. Somebody had to be busy massacring civilians, hanging people all over the city, and I suspect that the multiplayer component doesn't really go into any of that. Nope; I'm pretty sure the multiplayer is here because someone in marketing said, "military shooters need multiplayer," and so the developer was required to meet this minimum standard.

From here on out there Be Spoilers!!!!

What Spec Ops The Line was trying to do, according to the original author (or so Wikipedia says) was to provide for an open interpretation of its story and message, but that he personally felt the game was a portrayal of Captain Walker's own personal purgatory. I like this interpretation because I myself thought it made sense (especially after the bloody sand "tower" hallucination scene) and thought of it around that point. This feels like Walker is paying very much for something, and some nepharite somewhere is pulling his strings. (Kult reference). In fact I'd say that Konrad himself was probably that Nepharite. But enough referencing esoteric horror RPGs....there's more than one way to interpret this game's tale.

What I find really interesting is that the guys at Extra Credits along with Tom Bissell and some other game writers and journalists in the industry have all taken it on themselves to interpret SOtL as a criticism of of the military shooter as a genre, by simultaneously empowering the player with all the tools one expects of such a game, yet using the story to show the consequences of the player's actions. This seems like a plausible but flawed premise; for one thing, if you play through it, you may notice (as I did) that there are several problems with assuming the game is really a critique of that genre or even you, as a player in that genre. Specifically:

You lack real agency in the story. You are most definitely experiencing the tale of Capt. Walker, albeit one filtered through his unstable mind. The very first time you get a hint of something being "wrong" with the protagonist it's just strange enough that for a second I thought the game was glitching on me. Gradually it gets more obvious that something is up, but the truth is, when you get to a difficult moral decision, you are never given a chance to do something "right" by any standard (until the very, very end, anyway). Each and every unpleasant decision is made with a measure of certainty, something Walker endorses, essentially. As such, what we're really experiencing is the sort of man, and the sort of mind, that comes out of the meat-grinder level of violence one experiences in this genre. So in that sense, it most definitely is deconstructionist, but not in a "game blames the player for enjoying it" sort of way.

No, I'd call it more of a, "We know not all of you play military shooters because you seek empowerment through violence in video games. Some of you want a real story, which deals with the realities of what's happening in the game. Some of you want to walk in another man's shoes....even if that man is very, very bad." It's the dark side of escapism.

Given that it became evident that this was a tale about a protagonist who was not a good guy, even if he thought he was, I found that I most definitely did enjoy it. I applaud those who feel horrible after being forced to choose between saving Cooper and civilians (only to have Cooper die anyway), or those of you appalled at the fact that Walker didn't hesitate to use the white phosphorous (as in, we had no choice other than to consent to his madness). And for the record, while I am firmly anti-war in Real Life and in fact feel that its abandonment as a weapon is necessary (and find the distinction between humane and inhumane weapons to be sort of missing the point of true disarmament), the truth is: in the context of the game it's use against such a seemingly overwhelming force was portrayed as Walker's eyes. So the game does a fine job of getting you to see the rationalization of need that Walker has already reached. If you project too much of yourself into the game's character, then I could see how it might be disturbing. For myself....I tend to look at this sort of experience as more of a ride in someone else's nightmares, so I found it less disturbing and more intriguing to see how Walker and the others dealt with the choice...especially once they realized the unintended consequences.

I mean, what other choice did they have? There before them was the enemy, the 33rd Batallion, and there next to them was a quick and dirty way of annihilating a majority of their enemy. Presumably there was no way around the enemy...and after they had been shot at for half the day, it seemed like walking down and talking to them wasn't really an option, right? A truly sane man might have backed up and moved away....sought out some other route. Or even, you know, evacuated the city on foot and tried to go for help. But this is Walker; he wasn't just there to investigate the matter and then bug out. He was there to confront his old pal Konrad, no matter what it took.

Anyway, I could keep going on about the interesting bits in this game, but it's really better to experience it for yourself. Likewise, I could keep speculating about possible meanings to it, but I really like the author's personal interpretation the best, it fits so well. With any luck, Spec Ops: The Line will do well enough that we see more like it in the future. There aren't enough grizzly, realistic "war is hell" games out there, and it's nice to play something that hadn't scrubbed itself of all the unsightly bits. CoD doesn't even hold a candle with its "No Russian" level or its gas-warfare cuts scenes--seriously; those are quaint little "shock value" efforts compared to what Spec Ops accomplishes. Hell, you could get through that CoD level without firing a shot at the civilians. Not here.

You know what, though? This is why the multiplayer was a bad idea in Spec Ops: The Line. When all is said and done, I appreciated what this game delivered....but I don't want to keep doing it, over and over and over. I think I'll stick to Call of Duty for my military shooter multiplayer; it's just a bit cleaner and doesn't remind me of anything..well...bad.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Castles & Crusades - Now in Colorvision!

My Castles & Crusades tomes arrived today...I participated in the kickstarter program for the next printing to be in full color, and it was well worth it; I regret only that I couldn't fund at a higher level to get a cool C&C carry case and other amazing options, but at the $40 level, with stretch goals, I got a module, character sheets and not one but two copies of the colorized Player's Handbook, one signed and one ready for the game table. Excellent deal! I plan to participate in any future kickstarters the troll lords decide to muster up, it was well worth it.

For those curious, the book's new full-feature art cover looks very good, and the interior is A grade, like looking at a Paizo book except with slightly better quality paper and Peter Bradley's art. There's nothing really new here that I could tell, but seeing the book in color makes me feel like I could talk some of my Pathfinder regulars into giving it a try on the aesthetics alone.

I assume Troll Lord Games will have copies up for regular sale now, so I strongly recommend checking them out for a copy, if you are into C&C and all it has to offer. It's been my personal choice for retro-style D&D-like for years now.

La Bestia Scarlatta Con Sette Teste

I love Vimeo, the strangest stuff shows up there. Real quick, the following music video from Get Well Soon  is probably NSFW as there's some brief nudity and it's basically ...I think, anyway....a music video designed to look like a either a trailer for or highly abridged mashup of a Hammer Horror / Italian Western / Werid 70's Sci Fi action flick called "La Bestia Scarlatta Con Sette Teste," complete with cheesy special effects, weird bit characters, outlandish constumes and obligatory brief nudity. Check it out, if you dare...

GET WELL SOON - Roland I Feel You [Official Video] from bildundtonfabrik on Vimeo.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Blood & Treasure is Out! Also, other stuff.

Blood & Treasure Complete Game (Soft Cover)

John* Stater's latest masterpiece (trust me, I haven't seen it yet I admit, but this is one of those things I am confident on) Blood & Treasure Complete is now out. The tome is on Lulu in hard cover and over here on soft cover; and there is also a Player's Tome and Keeper's Tome if you prefer your book in two parts.

B&T is Jim Stater's effort at doing an old school original D&D-like that relies unabashedly on mechanics both new and old to evoke the feel of the classics but maybe with some of the polish of the moderns....or that's what I've been gathering so far. Key features that have me interested in the system include 400 monsters (robust), full range of classes, skills, and basically an effort to get a 100% complete game in one hefty volume.

I won't be able to order my copy just yet, probably next week (or whenever I can time a big order on Lulu with a discount offer) but it's high on my list of "wants." The reason being my FLGS has acquired another set of the AD&D Premium tomes that they are supposed to have in today, and I do not intend to let them sell yet another copy before I can get it. Yeah, I know I talked about my less than ideal nostalgia factor with these books, but let's face it: that was just me rationalizing away to help ease the agony of not getting my copies in the first place. I do want them, and frankly while I may not have a lot of nostalgia for the books (that's debatable, I'm sure) I definitely feel that they improved with age and that there's a lot in the old tomes that would be of greater interest to me in my 40's than there ever was to my counterpart in middle school. So yeah, looking forward to grabbing those today.

(UPDATE: I think I jinxed myself a second time...maybe a third? Called the store, said they missed their shipment. That said, they expect a re-delivery...but it turns out Pathfinder's new stuff may be out too, creating the usual quandary: buy books I will literally be using next Wednesday, or buy books I will admire and enjoy but possibly never use...Agh. If only I made Even More Money this would not be a problem. Sigh)

Speaking of doing things I said I wasn't, the other reason I can't buy B&T yet is because I ordered Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition for the PC on Steam last night (although I did so through Green Man with their 20% off code). Yes, I have bitched endlessly about how unusually difficult this game is purposely designed to be. However, two interesting bits: when I played Dark Souls before it was on the 360, but I only had a silver account at the time so online features were unavailable. Turns out, playing on PC with those online features is a huge boon, as people will leave all sorts of cryptic messages for you, and you can even see the spirits of those other players wandering about. Not all player messages are helpful....and some seem to be willful traps, but they add a surprising level of depth to the game. It's like having a cryptic decoder in the game that occasionally turns chaotic evil.

I got about an hour in last night after my son went to bed, and couldn't help but notice that I was remarkably more successful on the PC for no good reason I could discern other than that I was trying to be very, very careful about what I did. Still died a lot, but I think I can deal with it, in controlled doses. It's a good break from all the shooter madness I've engaged in recently.

Raptr doesn't seem to like the first time I boot a game takes it a while to notice the game has been installed, so I figure Dark Souls will register on it's radar eventually, I imagine. Raptr is a weird tool, and sort of like consensual spyware, but I like seeing the raw play data, it shows trends in interest (and also sometimes how spastic my attention can be) and on occasion helps me spot a program running in the background that shouldn't: i.e. Champions Online, which I loaded on Steam, installed, checked out for a few minutes to see if the magic was still there....and it wasn't. So I quit, decided to come back later. Noticed eventually that Raptr said I had been playing for two days straight. Sure enough, Cryptic had the program running silently, tucked away. Killed that and uninstalled; do not know what was wrong with it, but did not like that the game continued to function without telling me while I was under the impression it was closed out.

Anyway, Raptr has helped with my child's arrival because it is a firm reminder that even though I feel like I have less free time (I do), relatively speaking I'm still getting more game and leisure time in than average....just mostly between 8ish and midnight after Marcus goes to sleep, and during nap times. Unless I am smart enough to also nap when he is (not usually that smart). I remember my old days in Seattle when I was a workaholic, I was pulling 60 hour weeks, doing night shifts, and dealing with insane traffic and weather; I was lucky to get one tabletop game in a week, and I was probably averaging at most 2-4 hours of video game time (once I had a console and later a decent PC). My ex was not a gamer, either, so there was no sympathy and a lot of pressure to give it all up. Those were  tough days, a period I like to think of as "when I was on the primrose path to conformity." I'm still walking the fine line of that path today, but am more conscious of it.

Marcus with his auntie eating an apple

Marcus is getting incredibly active. He's about to turn nine months this weekend and he's already standing for a minute or two on his own. He's got two front teeth that he is remarkably good at using to eat somewhat harder foods like grapes and apple chunks. He loves mom's fried talapia (that I have carefully picked through to remove bones) and he loves beans, which he got from his dad. He's also obsessed with computers. The sight of mom or dad at the computer is enough to demand that he be on our laps, trying to assault the keyboard. I found an old keyboard that I set up for him to smack, but it's clearly not the same: he's already figured out that there's a possible association between hitting "this thing" and making things do stuff on the screen. The Nook is also his obsession....I need to shop around and see if there are manufacturers out there who make child-friendly tablets that I can load up full of interactive children's books.

*I see John referred to as Jim all the time. Is that a reference to the initials? I be Confused.

The Shooter Report

When I'm not working my ass off, playing dad, running tabletop on Wednesdays and the occasional Saturday, reading, cooking, or cleaning, I am enjoying the time honored tradition of gunning down virtual foes in digital land.  So here are a few more games I tried recently that are worth talking about (or warning you about...). As always, I remind you that I am not always playing these games for very long (especially if the initial experience was horrendous) so my comments will be based on the actual length of time spent in the game.


Not sure what to make of this. I played it a bit, and noticed that it felt like a competent shooter which tried hard to emulate the control scheme and even the feel of Call of Duty. It's basically a shooter title portrayed as a lethal gameshow event of the future, where glamorous gun-stars blow each other up then get resurrected to come back into the fray; it only has two play modes, one of which was team deathmatch and the other I don't know because I couldn't find a game. On my brief play through I noticed the following features/issues:

1. The match lasted a long time. It was basically a "whoever has the most kills wins after 15 minutes" type of approach and frankly felt excessive.

2. Quick match making was troublesome....I tried several times to get into a game, any game, before it finally took.

3. Starter characters have almost zero customization; the game's cash shop is built around making you look prettier, although you can earn cash to unlock stuff. One full game was just short of enough cash to unlock one interesting trait; at 15 minutes a pop, it was clear that doing it the free way would be tedious. I didn't stick around long enough to see if the game supported the "pay to win" concept, a deal-breaker by far (looking at you, APB).

   My fifteen minute play through suggested there's potential here, but not enough to recommend this game over other F2P shooters, especially Blacklight: Retribution which is a very solid and enjoyable game, and even though Blacklight has a cash shop I still haven't figured out how it benefits me, too much fun playing it.

I wonder how much time and money it takes to look this cool in Bulletrun

Team Fortress 2

I don't even know what to say about this anymore. I loaded it up (again) to check out the co-op experience recently added (Mann vs. Machine or whatever). The game inevitably throws me into the tutorial mode (maybe I need to skip that sucker) and in doing so I am reminded that TF2 is a game about spazzy super-fast characters, insta-kills, general insanity and a total lack of cohesion in the classic old-school style. Uninstall, scrub brain, move on, enjoy videos about characters without playing. This is the third or fourth time I've tried to play TF2 and I can't get ten minutes in before I question why it is so popular. I guess I know, but it's just not my cup of tea: TF2 is in the same genre as Nexuiz, Unreal Tournament, Quake Arena and other older-era shooters where characters move ridiculously fast, cover is something you duck behind while mouse-strafing faster than a jackrabbit, and there are no chest high walls because the dude who's crouching is also dying. In other words: a game that appeals to a very specific segment of PC shooter fans who don't grokk realism or an attempt at such in favor of characters who can mouse spin faster than a normal human could ever manage without passing out.

I mean, I could be wrong....but it doesn't matter, something about TF2 just rubs me the wrong way.

Counter Strike: Global Offensive

I've only played beta so far, but the game unlocks...tomorrow, I think (writing this Monday night). I decided to get in on the newest iteration. I've played the old version, and it's sort of lacking in this day and age, though I can see within its crusty shell the bits and pieces of a game that would have been far more interesting five or ten years ago (had I been more into shooters back then....bear in mind, my engagement with this sort of game is a fairly new phenomenon, a sort of liberating assertion that youth is not the sole requisite for enjoyment of games in which you play a murderhobo with a shotgun).

Anyway, the beta is kinda cool, but the maps so far seem a bit small compared to what I'm used to in other games, although it does keep the focus tight. They have a bot mode which is always commendable, though I noticed that the difficulty ratchets up from "retarded" to "lethal every time" with virtually no step in between. Also, the bot mode seems sort of hollow and just less interesting than regular competitive mode with live players. This is in contrast to some other bot modes I've enjoyed, such as Black Ops or Gears of War 3, where bots seem just fine and (usually) act smarter than your fellow man, so I would suggest there's more of an issue with the way they are programmed in the game than with bots in general. But I plan to play more pvp directly once it goes live. For the pre-order price ($13.49) it was hard to resist.

UPDATE: since I wrote this CSGO went live and I've been playing it a lot's matches are pretty quick. About the worst thing I could say is, "some of these guys are damned good," but given the lengthy history of this game that's no surprise. I do have two observations after playing a bit: is it just me or do the terrorists always lose? And, sorry to those allies who died thanks to my twitchy gunfire! I'll get better, I promise.

This game does have its claws in me, and I like that I can play it in short bursts and feel satisfied. The maps are, as I mentioned earlier, very "tight" so the angles of approach and accompanying strategies become apparent for each one after only a few playthroughs.

Max Payne 3

I'll get this out of the way right off: I liked the multiplayer so much in Max Payne 3 I went ahead and bought the season pass. This is highly unusual of me (last and only time I did this was with Gears of War 3). It's that fun. Not everyone would agree.....the vast majority of players in the new player zone  might disagree and some of the people I spoke with seemed downright frustrated. I had two suggestions for them:

1. try the softlock mode if they weren't already (hard lock is for the mouse/keyboard people, I think)

2. Get a controller. This game is clearly optimized for controllers and might be accused of being a proper console port, but I'd say that Rockstar did that in a good way.

So I haven't even played the single player campaign yet and I can't get enough of the multiplayer in this game. It's third-person perspective, you get a random mook of various nationalities and ethnicities, and you shoot the hell out of all sorts of exotic locales (with many more available in the DLC). It's wonky, it's got a variety of additional play modes I am looking forward to exploring. Most importantly, after two games in the noob zone I felt so bad for everyone I was ganking (averaging an impressive KTD ratio the likes of which I've never seen before) that I moved myself over to the full regular game experience because it wasn't fun blowing away all the noobs with their enigmatic control schemes on the keyboard tripping them up.

Once I was in the regular area with experienced players I felt more comfortable; these were people who "got it" and although I saw accusations of hacks flying around, the people so accused were clearly not hacking, because I wasted them plenty and often....I think our entitlement gamer culture can't handle the idea that they might simply not be very good at something; "I  can't be bad at this, no! It must be the other guy is cheating. Yeah, that's it." Mhmm. (exception: boosters in MW3; those guys suck)

I'll report more on this game soon enough. It's addictive fun, and maybe I'll even get to see the single player experience at some point. It's definitely moving into my "continue to play" corral.

(UPDATE: Finally got to try the single player. Another story-driven hit for Rockstar, I'll have to devote a future blog just to talking about this game. Interesting stuff.)

Follow up on the Other Games

Still keeping up with Mass Effect 3's multiplayer, if only because I'd like to unlock everything, and it's still actually fun. The moment it goes from "fun" to "grind" I'll be closing it out, though.

I played a bit more Gotham City Imposters. Was startled to find myself in a game with a couple level 600 dudes. How does that even happen? These were extremely good players. If the game starts to fall into that pit, as they often do, of games dominated by a handful of elites to the detriment of less experienced players then I may eventually give up. We'll see. Is it even possible to get level 600 under ordinary circumstances in that game? How many hours would that take? If one reasonably advances about 3 levels an hour, which seems about right for my game experience so far, then to reach level 600 would require 200 hours of play time invested in the game.

I would get very, very sick of fake Batmen and punky Joker-wannabees after about hour 60, I think.

Not quite related, but I decided to clear out Rage to make some room on the hard-drive. I think I was about 1/2 of the way through the campaign, but despite some very comfortable shooter elements, I'll be honest: playing through Quake 4 again recently, and anticipating the Doom 3 HD BFG edition has only reminded me of id's old greatness, and Rage falls short. They should have left the car combat parts out and gone for classic id formula, instead of making it a crude faux-sandbox/Fallout wannabe with some fun but hollow drive-y bits. Or, they could have made it a real sandbox game. If Rage had actually been like Fallout 3 or GTA IV, instead of a pretedn cardboard mockup of the same, it would have done a lot better, I think.

Finally there is the aforementioned Blacklight: Retribution. I'm only playing an occasional game here or there, but I remain impressed at this free to play title. Still haven't figured out what their motivation is to get me to buy stuff with money. Still haven't seen direct evidence that it's got a pay-to-win element. If I keep playing, I may eventually buy stuff just to support them, because the game is very smartly designed and provides a very solid experience so far. Not a match yet that wasn't interesting or enjoyable.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Stuff and More Stuff: Mortal Kombat Memoirs

I've run out of immediate things to post on my blog. I have a metric ton of stuff I've written, but I haven't established what I'm doing with all of it just yet (the RoC revision....the Warlords of Lingusia Pathfinder project....the entire Enzada campaign) so until I determine what's destined for a future print product and what can be cleaned up for the blog, I'll just have to rely a bit more on my own effort at new content. Gah!!!!

I picked up Mortal Kombat - The Komplete Edition over the weekend. It was an entertaining trip down memory lane, and also a reminder that there are some games out there that I may not be all that good at.

Back in the early nineties I enjoyed Mortal Kombat in the arcades. It was a fun game, and cool for what it did for the time. I remember living in Wilcox, AZ in 1995 or thereabouts, working hard to figure out what in the hell I was doing with my life while living with a woman who had taken violent bipolar-induced rages to an art form, even as I struggled with a post-college minimum wage job as a floor manager at a truck stop. I had little disposable income, my PC was dying, and I was away from any sort of meaningful population center so I was cut off from friends and, now out of the University life, I was left with a lot of empty free time that once were absorbed by by studies.

Amidst all this, there was a Mortal Kombat arcade machine that I had some fun with where I worked, but there was rarely any free time to play, so I rented a Sega Genesis along with a copy of Mortal Kombat 3 at a rental shop in Wilcox. It was a weird, solitary beacon of enjoyment in an otherwise desperate period of life when simple survival was a struggle. For that alone I keep a special place in my memories for the Mortal Kombat franchise.

(1995 was so bad that I got almost zero tabletop gaming in for most of the year, I ostracized myself from my buddies in Tucson over the matter of this girlfriend with whom I was having such an unhealthy relationship, and it was not until a long time friend of mine showed up in September, suggesting I move up to Seattle for a fresh start, and that he would help with the move, that I was able to make the break).

The movie, which came out in August of 1995, was probably the last film I saw in Tucson before moving to Seattle. It was not arguably a good movie by any stretch, but it did (for the time) manage to be a fairly correct portrayal of the otherwise frenetic and confusing storyline (such as it was) of the Mortal Kombat universe.

The Mortal Kombat Komplete edition has been out for some time now. Years ago I learned that I was not really that good at the console-style arcade fighting games, though I did like playing them. I've played most all the other MK games as they came out, but I kept away from this one, largely because I knew it wasn't going to be an absolute "must have" like a Bioware title would be, and since it's publisher was going to deploy a lot of pricey DLC I figured eventually it would all get placed in a game of the year edition at a budget price and I could snag it then. Low and behold, it was!

So with the wife and child house-sitting for a week I decided to dive into the new Mortal Kombat game. Before doing that, however, I downloaded the coupon that came with it for a free copy of the original movie by way of Zune (Zune, Microsoft's Achilles' Heel). It was fun to watch the movie again, and also surprising, as some things I remembered from way back when didn't quite resonate in the same way as they do now. So some observations:

The movie was, and remains, a relic of that unique era of film-making that predates ID4 (the first movie to herald in truly impressive CGI graphics) and the last of the old-guard of weird and wonky action films that dominated the 1980's and early 90's. It utilizes some CGI effects, but they are mostly atrocious or have that sort of weird, vaguely inappropriate feeling of cheapness to them. There is also Goro.

Goro is the four-armed boss monster at the end of the MK games (up through 3 at least; he shows up often in later games, as does a female version of his kind, but he was the Big Bad right before Shang Tsung (the soul-stealing guy) and Shao Khan (the evil emperor dude who uses the same stylist as Skeletor). Goro is taller than most men and has four arms. He would be served very, very well by today's CGI special effects....I mean, John Carter features an entire species of similarly proportioned creatures and does so without missing a beat. So to see a four armed monster like him in a 1995 film is kind of a Big Deal.

Back in 1995 I remember having a suspension of disbelief problem about Goro, which was why what I noticed today surprised me: first, he looked a bit stiff; I recall in the theatre that his movement didn't always seem to match the background properly. Second, his scenes were cleverly staged; obviously the guys he interacted with, when we did see interaction, were fighting something else entirely that had been green-screened out. Finally, I remember thinking how cheap but necessary his defeat was; they obviously couldn't figure out how to make a good fight between him and Johnny Cage, so they had Cage kick him off a cliff. Even the cliff fall is only marginally better than the atrocious Joker falling death of the 1989 Batman film.

Today (well, Sunday night) I noticed a few different things: first, Goro's FX actually looked a lot better in HD than I remember it from back then. I did not notice any jarring inconsistency with his movement and the scenery this time which surprised me, because I distinctly remember noticing it in the theaters. Second, his actual animations were smooth enough that for the first time I realized that if this really was a CGI creature it was pretty good for that time (and in contrast to the rest of the film's effects) so I think he was actually a costume with some puppetteering. Wow. In that context, he looks damned good. I don't know why I didn't notice that before. All that said, he is still given the worst fight scenes, which have to use clever camera work to make the combats look better. Once again, current CGI would smoke anything this movie has on offer, and makes me think a new Mortal Kombat film would greatly benefit from an update. Not necessarily going in the direction of the recent fan short trailer, though; the feel is good, but the revisionism of the characters bugs me a lot.

Aside from Goro, the movie managed to somehow craft a tale out of the threads of plot that somehow weave together to keep the fighting game vaguely coherent. The acting was typical for that era of filming, and we often saw dialogue and events that lacked proper context. When Goro slays Art Lean,* for example, the reaction of Sonja is over the top, especially considering the last time she even saw him (as far as the audience can tell) was days ago for two seconds on a ship, in passing. There's this implication that they had a closer relationship, since she seemed to care about him....but like most late 80s/early 90s action flicks there's also an assumption that the director kindly removed all that talky, mushy emotional stuff so we could get right to the action. Also, the wandering aimlessly around Outworld for endless hours so that the set decorator could show off his crazy set pieces they put together.

The movie had a few other bits I only now have really noticed: a lot of the combat is intentionally staged in linear battle zones, to simulate the game's 2D battlefields. There are scenes that deviate, but when Liu Kang and Sub-Zero face off, its mostly linear; likewise with Cage and Scorpion and later with Liu Kang and Reptile. Not all arenas work like this, but the ones that are most evocative of the game (right on down to crazy, weird set pieces designed to look like environments you might fight while playing the game) seem to start or end in such a manner.

Speaking of fighting zones, I never could figure out why Johnny Cage is in a vast field of orchards on this tiny, weird island. Was he just "there" or was that actually the arena? This scene along with many others feel like there was a minute of film footage right before that which explained everything, lying somewhere on a cutting room floor.

And those set pieces. In HD, they look more than ever like set pieces, begging you to look closely for evidence of the plastering, some sign of the wire mesh underneath. The sets looked interesting in 1995, but today in 1080p they beg you to scrutinize them for the facade they really are. They have this weird, hollow sort of iconography with a lot of "dead warrior" statuary all over the place. It's weirdly evocative on some occasions (the Greek hoplite warrior suggests the agelessness of the tournament) while also being utterly devoid of any real-world meaning; no writing, imagery that feels like it was ripped from a high school student's doodles, and a sense of vagueness about whether it wants to be its own thing or true to its Asian roots.

Anyway, Mortal Kombat as a movie was amusing but not terribly deep fun, with special effects that range from atrocious (poor Reptile) to better than remembered (Goro). Then, of course, there is the game.

Playing Mortal Kombat yet again always reminds me that I should have been playing a lot more of Feng Shui: Shadowfist the Action Move RPG from Atlas Games than I have. I own it, and I am going to break it out again soon and see if I can get a game going. It's a wonderfully bizarre, evocative game with over-the-top stories and mechanics. It is also a game that can reasonably be said to have more than a passing influence from the Mortal Kombat aesthetics and concepts, even if it also manages to borrow from a wild and crazy array of Hong Kong action flicks. It's a fantastic game.

The Mortal Kombat game itself, of course, is plenty of fun but its once again reminding me that my fighting skills at these games are fair to middling. It does seem to dumb down opponents if I lose too often,** and it provides a rather hearty (so far) storyline mode that actually provides a structure to the fighting and lets you move through multiple chapters focusing on different participants. Pretty cool.

I've only played it a little bit so far, and not really intending this as a review I won't say much more than "you get what you want out of this sort of game." It's a return to form for Mortal Kombat, with side-scrolling combat using 3D graphics, a cartoony environment, less offensive fatalities than I expected (more graphic than ever before and yet the violence is so over the top it becomes literally unreal; the X-Ray zoom-ins work against instead of for the graphic nature of it all). The story mode is hillariously dubbed at about the quality of any cartoon and yet still manages to be a bit more involved and elaborate than the movie I had just watched. It's like the game contains all the dialogue and exposition missing from the film.

So in a moment of irony I realize I bought Mortal Kombat in the wake of big changes at work, which could lead to most of my staff being laid off, and likely will lead to my unemployment as well. When I played MK in 1995 I was out of college, desperate for a job that paid a living wage, and soon to move to Seattle to make things better and to escape a predatory relationship. Things aren't that bad now, but the stress of my monthly medical bills and the need to provide for my child and wife make things feel comparable in some ways. So....I guess its good to know that for whatever bizarre reason Mortal Kombat continues to occupy a weird zone to me as the video-game equivalent of comfort food.

*When you're a new character in a franchise film and appear to have been invented whole cloth just for the movie, odds are you're gonna die.

**I say this because it seems fairly evident that I am not getting better, but instead the AI-controlled opponents eventually start acting stupider.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Exodus of the Zarathel: A Historical Plot Point in Chirak

A while back I toyed around with the idea of a "historical" campaign in my Realms of Chirak campaign. it would have worked best with some of my established players who could piece together both when and where events were taking place, but as things worked out I never got around to developing it beyond this outline, which may contain some useful scraps and ideas for future campaigns.

The Exodus of the Zarathel

A Realms of Chirak Campaign Set Approximately 100 years after the Apocalypse


   The campaign begins in the small enclave called Zarathel. Here a few hundred souls have found protection against the dire elemental storms that periodically scour the earth outside, and struggle to survive in a harsh land. The Winterblight is not entirely safe; it is located in the outer hub of a deep network of ancient caverns, in which darker and more dangerous beings lurk. It is a harsh place, but the occupants do their best to survive.

   Much of the immediate history of a century past is gone. Almost all written records were destroyed when the great flood inundated the entire civilization of old. The people of old called themselves the Mythrics. The survivors of this drowned culture have taken on the Mythric word for survivors, “Zarathel,” and named their enclave after it. That was two and a half generations ago.

   Recently, incursions from the deep have been causing problems, as strange entities from the subterranean lands have been encroaching on Zarathel, seeking food in the form of its hardy survivors. This has prompted a need to find a new place for the Zarathelites to settle. They are looking among their sturdiest survivors to take on this quest.


   The settlement and people of Zarathel is located about thirty miles from the coast of the Great Sea caused by the flooding of the Mythric Empire. Zarathel is located in the entry to a cavernous network that stretches deep in to the Old Mountains, as they are called, in the region one day to be the location of the Grelmanic city of Breseggan.

   In this era, the geography of the land is still wild and untamed, suffering from the rippling effects of the near-death of existence brought about by Ga’thon’s power. There are other bastions of civilization, but they are few and far between. Coin from the old empires is sometimes still exchanged, but less frequently than goods.

   The after-effect of so much divine and arcane energy being released in the final days of the war has left a strange magical radiation to seep across the world, and large regions are rendered deadly as a result of this strange seepage. Creatures not poisoned or killed by the magical radiation are sometimes transformed in to hideous beasts.

   There are several regions of note:

Wilds of Grelmaine: The future land takes its name from an old Mythric province, named after a legendary prince of old. In the century after the Apocalypse there are no civilizations here. It is a wild, untamed land and almost all of the people who survived have been reduced to primitive savagery. Orcish warlords roam freely, as well, seeking out survivors of the Mythric and Inadasir empires to enslave.

The Ruins of Inadasir (Xaxican): The people of this land have not yet arrived, for the great outpouring of Occultic-descended people is still happening far to the east. The Xaxican temples and ruins often attributed to these people dot the land, however, but are in fact the lost Inadasir ruins that stretch out in a vast swathe. Remote towns and a couple cities still function. Atos, deep in the war-ravaged ruins of Inadasir, still has a modest population of survivors.

Bral: More significant is Bral, which has become a city of madmen, ruled by the power-hungry eladrin Zarybdas. The orc warlord Garmsrath covets Bral, and plots how he will overcome its ancient defenses and claim its treasures for himself.

The Kingdom of Khorus: Here lies the foundations of the ancient Masirians, around the lush Sea of Khorus that is not a dead sea at all in this era. The Masirians of this time are actually a royal family: self-proclaimed sorcerer-king Dal Masir and his wife, who appear to be pre-Apocalyptic sorcerers that survived the destruction and also seem to hold the secret to immortality. The scheming king has united a great many people under his rule, and Khorus thrives compared to many other regions of the land. Khorus has an absolute sense of power and will seek to crush or absorb any other kingdoms that arise around him. He has had more success in the east, quelling and enslaving the crude barbarians who call themselves the “Legans,” on account of their strange relations with spirits.

   Khorus’s largest problem these days is the enigmatic prophet named Chirak, who sows peaceful dissent against the sorcerer-king, calling for a reform of the government. Chirak is believed to have moved eastward, where his message of freedom and peace has been reinterpreted by the legani as a sign they should rise against Khorus. Chirak’s exact whereabouts are unknown.

 The Black Dome: This dome functions now as it will in the future, but it is much, much more aggressive in this era. The dome was a manufacturing facility for the unfathomably powerful armies, and though many factories like it were destroyed, the Black Dome fights on. In this era, Nethragram, the Facility Attendant, is still fanatically loyal to the Betrayer Gods and is sending out minions to gather parts abroad for recycling and the creation of new agents. It has not evolved a god complex, yet.

Eristantopolis: This solitary city survived, thanks in no small part to the sacrifices of many defenders and mages who gave their lives to protect it. The once fertile lands of the region are gone, obliterated through  magical radiation, leaving only the blighted sands of the White Desert. The denedaki elves are presently a group of elven and eladrin kin who survived the mind-warping death of the feywild by virtue of the magical protections placed on Eristantopolis. They have no common unity, instead belonging to the various elvish factions across the world, and are only now beginning to take on their own identity. Denedaki means “calm ones” in the elvish tongue.

   Eristantopolis is currently ruled by a loose council descended from the survivors of the war, amongst whom one man named Garus Dethorin has been elected regent and general-protector. Eristantopolis was the home of the enigmatic scholar named Chirak for two decades, and thanks to his knowledge and general skills the city was restored to working condition and made habitable, even against the encroaching desert.
Other Major Threats:

Thousandspawn: still young, the thousandspawn are everywhere, though most are terrifyingly large, mindless monsters ravaging the land. A few have begun to experiment with shape shifting powers.

Dragons: The dragons were devastated in the war, but many homeless dragonkin now roam about, seeking to establish new personal empire for themselves while also seeking revenge on their other kin who fought for the opposite side.

Orcs: The orcs are everywhere, for they were made most numerous with Shaligon’s fall as her blood was spilled on the land. Shaligon’s aspect is male ascending, and so the warlords are dominant, seeking blood and conquest.

Generals of the Last War: 99% of all combatants died in the final conflict, but those who survived are inevitably powerful, ancient beings who now roam the land, seeking remnants of divine power for succor, guarding planar rifts as they find them, to try and find a way back to the planar realms. The Spirit Plane is very close to the mortal world in this time, and it is easily accessible. Many of these powerful beings an demons have manipulated the Spirit Plane when they find rifts to create demiplanes for themselves.

Undead and Insane Fey: The Weeping Wall is still fresh in the West, and indeed the ancient empires in the West are still fighting. The rest of the world is forced to deal with the madness caused by the destruction of the feywild, which left many of its surviving denizens insane. Moreover, most of the fey that perished after the feywild was destroyed have returned as undying. In this era, the reasons for the undying as well as the means to insure a fey does not rise again are as yet unclear among all save the few elves that are sane.

   Most elves who retained their sanity were very young children during the final war or were born shortly thereafter. All elders and other adults who were unprotected at the time the feywild was devoured by Ga’thon were driven mad by the destruction of their native realm and the Primal Mother. This led to an entire generation of young elves being forced to raise themselves and survive in the presence of their insane kin. This has had a decidedly negative impact on the elven culture as a whole.

   Eladrin are few and far between in this era, save for a handful who returned to the world after the feywild was destroyed. Some have remained, to try and help their fallen and damaged kin. Others have simply washed their hands of it and returned to the planes, unable to bear the supreme sense of emptiness that they now feel when stepping in to the world.

Soldiers of War: the world is littered with relic machines and soldiers. A century ago, the final day of the war was one of such intense devastation that barely one in a hundred soldiers lived to tell the tale, and even then most of the survivors were so scarred and wounded that they did not survive much longer. Most had no home to go to; either their cities were obliterated, their temples sunk,their planar gates shattered. Such soldiers who survived and did not later perish often sought out like-minded survivors, and gathered in small communities that they would fiercely defend.

   One hundred years later, few soldiers are still alive, although a few long-lived races (including highbiorn Mythrics and Inadasir with longevity spells) and half-mad eladrin and elves still roam, able to tell tales that will curdle the blood of all listening at the carnage.

Demons: Less human survivors were left with even more bizarre issues. Many of the demonkin were recruited from the Abyssal world of Periditon, but all gates to Perdition died with Ga’thon and Minhauros. A return to their homeworld was impossible, it seemed. In this era the exodus began, and a new Abyss was subsequently founded when gateways to the Infinite Planes of Chaos were discovered across the world.

   One hundred years after the war, however, many demons still roam the world, desperately seeking an escape. The final escape would not come until the discovery of the Rift of Chaos beneath the Sea of Chirak, in to which the demons would pour, seeking escape from the mortal plane at last.

Elohim: The sky guardians still fight, protecting a handful of sky-cities from constant assault by the immense, mindless thousandpawn Sky Gaunts that ravage the skies. Ruins of some of their cities can be found abroad. Some elohim descend to the ground to assist survivors in need, their overriding sense of goodness sometimes overwhelming common sense. In this era, knowledge of what the Thousandspawn are is only in the hands of the Elohim, who know that Ga’thon was sundered in to countless pieces as he fell to the earth, and that he somehow imbued his soul and stone in each of those pieces.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tales from the Watchers of the Sullen Vigil: Thaerinal

For prior articles and adventures in Sarvaelen check the link list here!


Thaerinal - The Hag's Land

South of the Aeronost-claimed Stormsinger Coast along the Pavain Sea lies a stretch of no-man's land known for its murky swamps and battered coastland. The region of beset by hurricanes for much of the year, and life in this lengthy stretch of coast is unpleasant and frought with uncertainty for those who persist here.

During the period of chaos and disorder after the fall of the old Empire of Camrinal, The coastland fell into utter disarray. Few can say for sure what happened to the people of this land, but it is known that the region was, at least then, a prosperous kingdom which engaged in a great deal of trade with the northerners and the southern kingdoms of Yakhal, Neremune and even barbaric Sammar across the sea. It is even suggested that the old kingdom of Thaerinal had amicable relations with the naga of Stoneblight Isle (also known as Manak'tagar). All of that changed with the final magical fury of the emperor of Camrinal.

Whether Thaerinal was struck directly and left a wasteland or suffered indirectly as the fleeing survivors and the monsters unleashed by the emperor's final magical solution to the conflict invaded the land, no one can say now. What is known is that this length of lowland coastal towns and cities was in a matter of less than a decade almost completely abandoned, and no neighboring land could claim that its citizens had sought refuge across their borders.

Travelers who make it all the way to the borders of Yakhal and Neremune, two lands distant enough not to have suffered the destruction of the Final War, will find that there are many conflicting tales of what went on with their northern neighbor in that time two centuries ago. Some stories suggest that the southern kingdoms saw and heard nothing from the north for a decade until tentative expeditions investigated, only to find the haunted cities and castles of a land bereft of people. A few tales, especially in the rural towns, speak of a night when a great many refugees reached the border, moving by in large numbers in the night, but that those who dared approach these refugees recoiled in horror as they saw that every single one of the fleeing folk had hollow, dead eyes and was driven as if possessed by an animating force. When light struck with dawn, the walking corpses disappeared.

What is known today is that all of Thaerinal is haunted to both lesser and greater degrees, and that about one hundred and fifty years ago the first of the Auslander tribes from the people of Atlenar arrived to settle in the region and repopulate. The first three Atlenar Clans were said to have been exiled by the king of their folk at that time, though some question the varacity of this tale, for no one knows of any true kings of Atlenar since the old days.

The reason for the exile of these clans remains a mystery, though folklore in the region tells tales of the so-called auslander tribes as rejecting the worship of Nevereth. There is evidence of truth to this, for visitors and merchants who travel here from Aeronost are shocked to learn that the people of Thaerinal have no churches or temples to the goddess, and only a handful of local towns even hold simple shrines to Nevereth. The profession of priest seems almost unheard of, at least publically.

Behind closed doors and in the dark of night, however, there are indeed strong cults among the auslanders of this region. There is a secret history which has been recorded in such blashphemous tomes as the "Articles of Survival in Thaerinal" by the mad monk Olestor, and the "Tome of the Black Hag," by anonymous though most believe it was written by the insane wizard Maladastre Findoar who some say still lives, nearly immortal, in the ruins of the old capitol of lost Thaerinal called Alchesnar. These books and others paint a picture of a land in which the people were destroyed or forced away by monsters, beasts created by the black magics and witchery of a dark creature called the Black Hag. Maladastre Findoar gave her a name, calling her Threides, the queen of Old Thaerinal. Such knowledge is regarded as intensely profane, and to speak of such in public is regarded as rude by the auslanders and punishable by the lash in the eyes of Aeronostians. Still, among the few people who harbor faiths and lore closer to the southerners of Yakhal and Neremune they find such information emminently sensible and of practical nature; the reality of the Black Hag is accepted by the shamans of Yakhal and the folk wizards of Neremune. The Black Hag is an evil force and a maker of monsters that they fear and respect. If she happens to have come from a long-dead queen of old only adds to the layered mystery of her origins in their eyes.

The Black Hag was, indeed, Queen Threides, once a great ruler of the old kingdom. Though the knowledge of her legacy is lost to modern history, it is possible some ancient tomes remain preserved within the numerous ruins that dot the land, or perhaps in the library of the local wizard Maladastre Findoar. Secrets such of this might be coveted by the right folk.

As the whispered and hidden tales go, Threides was wife to the king of Old Thaerinal, by name of Jonask. It is said that Jonask opposed the emperor's reign and intended to take up arms against Camrinal with the rest of the subject kingdoms that were at last rebelling against the tyranny of the emperor. Early in the conflict Thaerinal was subjected to occupation by the Imperial Army, which did great damage to the coastal kingdom before it left, sacking and pillaging, leaving the land without a strong army. It was to be one of the first of the rebel kingdoms that the emperor  sought to make an example of. Yet unexpectedly, their work not yet complete, the emperor's forces picked up and left, to deal with border skirmishes to the south before marching on Atlerar's mountain fortresses.

Why this happened as publically regarded as mysterious. Most felt Jonask had submitted to the emperor, and several weeks later he was assassinated in the streets of Alchesnar. His queen Threides stepped forth and took the reins of rulership. She carefully kept the kingdom out of harm's way, and did not commit what remained of Thaerinal's resources to the war against Camrinal.

Officially this was all that was known. However, the first hint of truth was leaked by the seneschal of the ruling house called Cullen of Merestar, who said that the queen had lain with the emperor, and that either she had bewitched the emperor into leaving her lands alone in exchange for their neutrality in the conflict, or that the emperor had bewitched her with his black magics. Perhaps both possibilities were true at once. In any case, Cullen felt that the king's life was at risk as a result of this dark tryst and he even predicted to the day that the king would die on a day of ill omen, during a solar eclipse. Such did come to pass, and for his accusations Cullen was cruelly hanged by Threides, and his home town of Merestar was sacked by the royal guardsmen, his kinsfolk rounded up and enslaved. Some stories from that dreadful time said that even after his body was lifeless, hanging from the gallows, that Cullen's corpse twitched and writhed for days as if unable to give up its burning hatred for the queen.

When the final days of the war came, Thaerinal stayed out of the picture. When the Final Spell of the emperor was unleashed hell descended upon Camrinal and its enemies, but far-away Thaerinal suffered greatly. Its people were slain to a man, and a great many rose up in death. It is said that only Threides lived at the end, and that even her husband, dead in the grave, came back to life and dug his way out, in an attempt to kill her. Though no one knows who witnessed it, anonymous transcripts written with an unsteady hand and recorded in a folio of parchment buried beneath a coastal lighthouse relay a terrifying evening in which the undead of Thaerinal descended upon the palace at Alchesnar to slay the queen, and how she in turn called upon terrible necromantic sorcery to send them away. So it is that the story of the southern refugees who were dead may have had a spark of truth. The queen, however, sacrificed much of her humanity to accomplish such magic, and she was left a whithered, warped and blackened hag.

Today, if the Black Hag still exists, she is said to live in the greater inland wilderness called Kachim's Woods, which runs along the length of the vast swamps sometimes called "Hag's Land" by the hearty local auslanders. The ruins of Alchesnar remain uninhabited, as many of the ruins in the land do, for like Alchesnar the ghosts and undead of the past still linger. The hearty auslanders have wisely chosen to either build new towns or to knock down the rotting walls of the old ones and start fresh. They find the habitation of these old structures lead to nothing but curses and folly.

The cults of the auslanders fear and worship the Black Hag as well as other dark spirits that they claim suffuse the earth of this land, and even its waters. They say that the unholy bond between the old queen and the emperor led to her sharing his dark fate. The land seems to reflect this, and the warlocks and witches who indulge in this fascination for the worship and study of the works of the Black Hag seem to bear support to such beliefs, as they seem to be able to grow quite powerful in their study of dark magic in the region. Still, the auslanders are a superstitious lot as a whole who have forsaken all gods both old and new save those of the most evil sort, and even a practiced warlock must be wary of who he shows his knowledge and status to lest he be hunted down and burned at the stake. There is an entire society of hedge knights among the auslander tribes called the Witch Finders, who revere no god save the sword and its cleansing power to slay. They have promised only to vanquish the land's evil and protect its people; this is a key source of balance between the cultists of the Hag and her undead agents and the common folk of the land.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Quest for Power: A Post-Apocalyptic Scenario

Back when the new Gamma World came out I worked up a scenario that I was going to use....but as is common, the chance to play never came to pass. I present now the scenario/location for use in Gamma World or pretty much any other suitable post-apocalyptic campaign...w

Quest for Power

A Tale in the Ruins of Old Sanaf and Kirkie
Introduction: Emergency in the Village of Bern

   The villagers of Bern have come to inhabit the ruins of a large, seemingly resplendent ancient building. The building in question included an amazing store of food, kept in a unique “freezer” powered by an unknown source. Until recently, this reserve was in no way threatened, but unexpectedly the enigmatic power source has gone out.

   The village elders (named Moxo, Paz, and Erna) have gathered and asked the PCs to seek out a means of fixing or replacing the power source for the “freezer.” They know of two likely sources: Kirkie is a vast metropolitan ruin and there may be lost tech that can replace the power source; in Old Sanaf there is a known tinkerer called Electro Bill, who is reputed to be extremely savvy with lost tech and might be able to repair or bring the power back on line.

   Bern is only ten miles north of Kirkie. The ruins of Kirkie suffer from two primary threats: first, the Great Crater with the ruins of what some call a “Martian” Sky Platform in its center, and second: the legions of the Super Mutant called Noximus ( a serf). Noximus is said to have found a vast cache of lost weapon tech, and he has used this to make his raider gang the most powerful in the region. Kirkie City is his domain, and he lords over what used to be a fairly friendly community to the south.

   Old Sanaf suffered less during the Cataclysm, but still has problems. The ruins are thick with overgrowth and rumors of strange plant mutants abound. The technologist named Electro Bill is supposedly now working for the enigmatic order of the Restorationists, and it is believed that he is dwelling in an ancient Vault in the mountains just north of the ruins. Problem is, raiders from Noximus’s army have also been searching for the technologist and his allies for some time now; there is also the problem of the indigenous plant-based mutants, which are notoriously hostile to all beings.

   The elders have decided to task the new young heroes with this job. They have opened up the village’s cache and will let the heroes each pick one piece of omegatech from the resources at hand to help them on their journey to save the village’s previously unending food supply.

About Bern

   Bern is described as:

“A fabulous village built inside an ancient structure. It is filled with brightly colored boxes from which the coins of the ancient spill in endless quantitity; these can be smelted and turned in to useful tools. The long cooridors and open spaces of this structure have been turned in to indoor protection for dozens of huts and families, constructed from the many strange boxes and other materials left intact after the Collapse. It is most famous for the so-called “restaurant” in the back which is still in working order and run by a mutant called Cook. The restaurant is connected to a storage unit called the pantry, which in turn provides a unique sort of freezer called a “Stasis Freezer,” in which vast quantities of food can be found. The machine that operates this device has been repeating verbally to Cook that it detects that the “fusion cell” is powering down and either needs to be repaired or replaced.”

GM ONLY: Bern was built inside the ruins of the Star Casino, and the machines within disassembled or smelted down to make construction materials or tools. The actual furnace and smithy is located outside, but the surprisingly intact main structure now provides shelter for an entire town. About nine years ago the open-air section of town inside the old multi-story car garage was lost when the garage collapse. Since then, the villagers (about 200 of them) have lived off of the vast amount of food inside a very long-lived Stasis Freezer, which keeps its contents perfectly preserved (and might even do so to living beings trapped within). The freezer is powered by a cold fusion cell manufactured from the alternate timeline that the casino comes from, and had a 200 year lifespan which is now winding down. A new power source as well as a technologist or mechanic of decent skill (DC 28) can fix it and get the device working again, before it shuts down completely and the food is spoiled.

Locations in Bern:

The Smithy: Run by Chos, a big burly fellow, this is where materials are smelted and cast in to new molds. Chos comes from Phenx and is famous for his learned talent as a smith. He can make real weapons for the PCs if they ask, though he likes trade for services rendered.

Chos: Giant yeti (level 3)
The Cache: Once a bank vault in the casino, this is now where the village omegatech cache is kept. Many items acquired through salvage found inside the building and abroad can be found here, and many of them aren’t even very well understood. It is guarded by an android named Mike.
Mike: android pyrokinetic (level 4)
The Smokes and More: this was once the gift shop, now converted in to a store front for the village and run by the woman Yasna. She’s always looking for new items for trade. She is known for being able to stalk fresh tobacco smokes, made and traded to her by the Westos Trading Guild. Her main contact with the Westos Traders is Tom Orlan, a Badder from somewhere out west.

Yasna: radioactive cockroach (giant spider level 2)
The Glitterhall: this is the largest central area of the casino, where more than three dozen “huts” made from reworked slot machines and tables have been turned in to housing.
The Restaurant: Here is where Cook serves the food he “prepares” from the Stasis Freezer. Villagers eat free, but guests must pay; Cook likes ammo in trade for food best; he has quite a collection of arms in his private room.

Cook: seismic elektrokinetic mutant (Level 3)
Hall Watch: the old security room has been turned in to a makeshift office and is used by the android cockroach swarm named Moxo as the constabulary headquarters. The security cams still work, and he uses them to monitor the village, though he suspects they too will go off, once the “fusion core” expires.

Moxo: android sentient cockroach swarm (level 4)
The Wastelands outside of Bern:

   Traveling outside of Bern is always risky. The following represents a sampling of the threats that might be encountered (typically encounters happen on a 5 or less on a D20 once per hours of travel in the region 10 miles around Bern):


D20                        Encounter
1                              An undiscovered cache of omega tech (1D4 omega draws)
2-4                          Raider patrol for Noximus (800 XP):
                                1 dabber sharpshooter (scout), 2 hoop warriors,  2 porker marauders, 1 porker       warhog
5-8                          independent raiders (600-1000 XP):
                                Pick 2D4 from Random mutant list
9-10                       Pack of Green Folk Gren (850 XP)
                                3 gren headhunters, 2 gren archers
11-12                     Blight flight (850 XP)
                                2 blight hunters, 2 blight venomwings
13-14                     A lone android named Praetorius willing to trade (has 1D6 omega tech)(650 XP)
                                1 android, 4 badder steading guards, 8 mutant cattle pack animals
15-16                     A lone Orlen named Chud arguing with himself (350 XP)
                                1 Orlen
17-18                     Pack of wild mutated dogs (600 XP)
                                6 wild mutant dogs

19-20                     A predatory sep land shark attack (600 XP)

                                3 sep land sharks