Sunday, February 26, 2017

Dungeons & Dragons 5E at High Level - Weirdly Fun and Familiar (and challenging my sense of tradition!)

A year or so ago I started a high level D&D 5th edition campaign with each PC starting at level 10, and we ran it right up to everyone hitting level 14. That campaign was put on hold for a while but recently I returned to that setting with a mix of the old and new players gained since then, and the game has been progressing from 14 to 15 at a reasonable pace.

One of the fun things about high level play in D&D is just how easy it is, but there are some other notable bits worth deliberating, too: key among these observations is just how different high level play in D&D 5E feels compared to high level gaming in D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder. In the older editions, it was almost inevitable that once you reached some point between level 10 and 14 that the DM would (barring being one of those special DMs who loves that high level play and has lots of free prep time) burn out, badly. The time and effort necessary to prepare challenging or meaningful encounters in 3.5/PF is a major issue, and the only way around it for time-strapped DMs is to purchase as many pre-made stat blocks as you can, or use online tools to auto-generate high level foes. You then run in to an "investment" problem with pre-made stat blocks, high levels there is a LOT of information on those stat blocks and the DM who has limited prep time often has limited time to think about how to best use the information for a tactically interesting challenge.

Anyway, with 5E the experience is completely different: you will spend about the same amount of time prepping for a high level game as you do a low level game. Monster stat blocks for high level foes do have more information to absorb, but here's the thing: it's right there, and the mechanical effects are almost all spelled out --except for spells, ahem. Those you as DM will just need to get used to either memorizing or referencing. My tendency is to jot down a couple notes on a copy of the sat block about the spells I anticipate will come in to play, for example.

Beyond that, high level play in 5E mainly requires the DM to think about what their characters can do: that is to say, keep in mind if you've got spell casters with teleport circles, or banishment, or plane shift. Make sure your planned adventures and encounters will function regardless of whether or not such spells are used. There are fewer "adventure bypass" spells as I like to call them in 5E, which makes consideration of such effects much easier in 5E than in PF and 3.5, too. Many of those spells still exist in some capacity, but they require components or conditions that the PCs need to pursue first, which means that you can't accidentally prep for a lot of content and then watch all of it get bypassed by the PCs in two seconds like can accidentally happen in PF/3.5. Sure, you can try to account for all variables in those editions, too....but it's hard. Besides the fact that there was a lot more material being out out for 3.5 (and still being out out for PF!) the variety and range of racial and class options for PCs meant that keeping up with it all for most DMs was a losing battle. 5E has fixed that by tightening up how much content is out there, and that means as DM you can remain pretty much familiar with all of the official resources you like, and cherry pick the dmsguild resources to your heart's desire.

5E has also managed to somehow find a sweet spot with "powerful but still vulnerable PCs." One of my players observed that she was impressed that in one encounter when the PCs were breaking free of a slaver ship, she could legitimately consider razing the entire vessel with fire as a parting act of vengeance, but at the same time the PCs felt a need to get out of there because they knew 100 seasoned pirate slavers were going to be an overwhelming fight for them. Even if the slavers were mostly lower CR creatures (say 3-7) that would still be an intense and likely losing battle for at least some of the PCs given the circumstances.

Another player of mine summed it up like this: when the PCs are coordinated and focus-firing on their foe, they are deadly and unstoppable. But when they are caught in separate, smaller groups even lower challenge groups of monsters can quickly overwhelm them. Thus as a group they could disintegrate a gorgimera in like two rounds, but three of the party were separately ambushed by six drow elite warriors and two of the PCs almost died.

He's not wrong at all! Our favorite rogue player who regularly wanders off into dangerous scenarios on his own loses a PC almost every other session.

That gets to the last interesting bit I've noticed with high level play in 5E: character mortality is still a thing to keep in mind. Death comes slightly less quickly to high level PCs than it does to the fragile level 1-5 crowd, but it is still always on the table. In the time I've run the high level game, since going from level 10 to 15 the group has lost at least two PCs and almost lost two more last night. Death is still a viable threat in high level 5E gaming, which means that the game still carries a sense of high stakes urgency when fights start.

The main difference is that higher level PCs have more resources to intervene before an ally near death encounters in which an ally is pulled from the brink are not uncommon and often a lot of tense fun. This is an element similar to 4E design, which many liked; 5E has that "risk element" baked in, and a coordinated group can pull their asses out of the fire with some good teamwork. You also see this in PF and 3.5, to be fair; but the main difference is that you'll feel "at risk" more often in 5E, where challenges are more like actual encounters should be. In PF/3.5 similar situations usually felt more like gimmicks..."let's see what's on our character sheets that are effectively Get Out Of Jail Free cards for this encounter," type moments, if you will.

My experience with 3.5/PF went something like this: even the most monumental foes were easily defeated,  most of the time, so long as the PCs had ample defense and attacks that exploited or countered the enemy. In such cases they were essentially unstoppable. But once in a while some foe would show up with some attack or feature that the PCs had no prep for, and usually that followed an unexpected near-death moment or instakill. My PF players usually were more annoyed and felt slighted by such could they not have been prepared for it? Their characters were like walking tanks, so to run in to the rare creature that was tougher than them felt almost like the GM was hitting below the belt, and throwing too high a CR foe their way. This was always an annoying element of grappling with challenging encounter designs.

5E, to contrast, lets DMs manage to take foes from CR 5 on up to CR 20 and construct encounters that a level 14-15 group will find challenging. A single CR 15 foe might be scary but still fall faster than a gang of CR 7s, for example. It's really interesting seeing how threats at high level can remain both exotic and more conventional, with minimal effort by the DM to need to carefully balance it to avoid either a cakewalk or certain doom.

My goal here isn't just to praise 5E and trash PF/3.5 though. It's to talk about why I like 5E and provide some context for why the same levels of play in prior editions were problematic for me. I know of a number of great and dedicated PF/3.5 GMs for whom high level play is an exciting challenge. But in my defense, those guys were REALLY dedicated to mechanical mastery, and the simple truth is: for me, I'm in it for the story, the adventure....and I want the rules to support that, but otherwise fade in to the background as much as possible.

We have one player who spent about 15 minutes on a combat round, highly atypical of 5E combat pacing (if you spend more than 5 minutes on a 5E combat round you're probably doing it wrong, or you may not be very familiar with the game or your PC). We were joking that he had moved in to Pathfinder standard round pacing. There's a lot of truth to this: the extra levels of complexity in prior editions can be overwhelming with variables. Last night's game had four major encounters and three notable exploration/role-play events. We accomplished in one session what would likely have taken two-three games in Pathfinder, simply due to the extra level of complexity (and also likely need for maps and minis to navigate combat effectively).

I'd still happily run Pathfinder, don't get me wrong. I just see it as a game that works best from levels 1-10, after which the net gain of fun vs. the loss of enjoyment due to needless layered complexity starts to grow disproportionately relative to one another. Think of me as an "E10" kind of guy with Pathfinder.

Anyway, we're all in this campaign for the long haul, to reach level 20. Once we get there, I may just have to take a look at the Epic Level books currently on offer at to see if we want to keep going! I can safely say this is the first time in many years that high level play has felt like fun, and less like a drag.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review: Dead Set (currently on Netflix)

I saw Dead Set a long time ago....apparently before I ever did my first Halloween Horror Month a few years back, because I could have sworn I would have reviewed it back then. Apparently not! Recently it showed up on Netflix, so now you can watch it without jumping through hoops. Originally a 2008 British five part mini-series, Dead Set is a tale of Big Brother's final season, right before a zombie apocalypse descends upon the world to insure that we are no longer forced to endure reality TV least, not as living humans.

In Dead Set, the entire cast and crew of the latest edition of the Big Brother UK series is in the middle of the latest "voting out of the house" when a coincidental (?) national emergency descends, catching the revelers off-guard as zombies appear and begin to kill....making many, many more zombies in short order. The survivors consist of a handful of lucky souls and the stars of Big Brother, who isolated in their house spend a full night there blissfully unaware of the apocalypse going on outside.

In short order the eclectic range of personalities come to clash, as the narcissistic actors contend with working together as the only reliable protagonist Kelly (Jaime Winston) does the best she can while both she --and her boyfriend-- hope the other is alive somewhere. Eventually their stories converge, but right when it seems like there might be some chance of cooperation and order, everything goes horribly south, chiefly due to the selfish machinations of the conniving show producer.

As you might expect, this is a formula with potential. Zombie films seem to work well when you have survivors who work both with and against one another, and this film is no exception. It plays the apocalypse straight: this is not really a comedy at any point, but it delves into some dark humor on several occasions, and spends just enough time with its five part story arc setting up the characters to all be "just interesting enough" for you to feel bad when they meet their ultimate fate. And yes: this is a good zombie film, one which knows that in a zombie apocalypse, it's never about whether you die or not, but rather when, and what sort of foolish error in judgement brought you to your fate.

The movie seems to shoot for a metaphor, about the show itself and its audience, zombie-like in its desire for more episodes, more dirt on the cast. The zombies of the film, which are done with excellent FX (and some eerily creepy eyes), seem drawn to the Big Brother compound like moths to a flame, which only exacerbates the plight of the survivors. They remain the dedicated fans of the show, just now with an insatiable and very much literal hunger for the cast and crew.

If you've been craving a really good, classic-style zombie apocalypse film be sure to check this one out! I give it a solid A.

Five fun things about Dead Set (minor spoilers):

1. The fact that it is portrayed as an actual set for Big Brother (so far as I can tell; haven't seen that show in at least 15 years) adds to the verisimilitude of the film, even as it dates the movie a bit. Does this show still exist?

2. Is it just me or does Kevin Eldon (as Joplin) make a great English Steve Buscemi?

3. The film's least endearing moments are, unfortunately, some shaky-cam action sequences, but they work in the context of a film that is 1/2 normal production and 1/2 "found footage" in feel.

4. The two keystone cops who show up feel vaguely like a nod to 28 Days Later or something else I might be missing from British TV.....any ideas?

5. This film sticks with the more traditional "who knows why zombies are here" method of handling what's going on. As such it feels like it could be part of the broader Romero film canon easily, or perhaps displaying a corner of the world in 28 Days Later (though maybe not, as the zombies in Dead Set are clearly actual walking dead types).


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Tricky Grey Apocalypse - a Bat**** Crazy Savage Worlds Campaign Starter

I actually used the outline on this for a one-shot, with some modifications. The actual campaign, should it continue, will likely deviate from the initial outline below, but I have to say I was greatly amused at the idea of a multi-pronged apocalypse that has the players guessing as to what the real cause of the end of the world is:

The Tricky Gray Apocalypse Campaign

You are all people in the near present who have found yourselves one month out from an apocalyptic event*. You were each either chosen, invited or kidnapped by the Reverend Wilhelm Sikorsky to his mountain retreat, the "Temple of the Healing Earth" located in the White Mountains east of Sedona. Traditionally Sikorsky is known as a medicine man and healer, something of a mystic, and a major believer in UFOlogy and the presence of aliens in our affairs, even if we don't know it. One day, abruptly and unexpectedly, Sikorsky invites all of his attending guests to the "cave" where he conducts his spiritual healing ceremonies with the Earth and find yourself unexpectedly locked away, the cavern entrance in the mountains protected by a sealed vault door that can only be opened from the outside....

This is where your tale begins!

Suggested archetypes include: the wealthy millionaire looking for a relaxing vacation, the eccentric conspiracy UFO theorist, the healing crystal follower, the skeptic who was out to debunk Sikorsky's "Cult of the Healing Earth," the complete innocent person who was kidnapped from a local diner in the nearby town of Alpine by two of the cultists and locked in a, anachronistic, secure prison chamber in the network of tunnels behind the "healing cave," or perhaps even a halpess cultist who was just trying to help the newcomers feel comfortable and is completely oblivious to why the Reverend closed the foot-thick steel door that you had always been told was designed to keep the cave a "living" environment by preventing its internal moisture and atmosphere from evaporating. 

Equipment is limited (obviously) by what you would have reason to bring to this "cult spa and resort" but stuff you might have in your bags could be inventoried in the event you escape the cave....

Everyone can start with 10 XP (so, 2 picks). No arcane magic, weird science, anything. Zero magic world. Any profession that fits "today, or not too far from now" works.

The Apoclayptic Event:

Each of you is certain doom is nigh. The apocalyptic event you believe in is as follows (pick one, because none of you think it's the same):

1. Asteroid 2015 GL5589 has been rumored to be on close approach, passing between the orbit of the moon and the Earth. You believe (either rightly as an astronomer or wrongly as a fanatic) that there's a deadly risk it is really going to strike the earth and the government is hiding this from the populace. (FALSE)

2. You recently heard about the bizarre outbreak in South America of the mutating Small Pox Virus that is completely resistant to all vaccines and is deadly so far in 94% of those infected. The news claims the virus is quarantined and under control in Brazil, but rumors are that three cases cropped up on the border in the US...(TRUE)

3. In the wake of belligerent diplomats and politicians, a major conflagration took place in the South China Sea between the US and China. Bombastic rhetoric on both sides could be the lead in to nuclear war....or more noise...but either way you're not taking any chances. White Mountains are way off the grid....(TRUE)

4. The sudden surge in UFO sightings in the last several weeks, culminating a month ago in approximately 200 exotic ufo sightings over Mexico City, Phoenix and Denver have level heads stating it's a product of military build up due to the South China Sea conflict, but you know better....this is the culmination of a pattern that began over twenty years ago, a pattern of invasion....! (???)

5. You can't say it's the "end of the world" but a month ago you attended a conference on the American Association of Biology on the adverse risks of CRISPR technology. One scientist warned that it was already suspected that North Korea had used CRISPR technology to create a cordyceps sinensus that was extremely robust and hearty, primarily (it was suspected) to harvest a more robust form of aphrodisiac for Kim Jung Un. The results were questioned however when it was found that the fungus could infect and grow on large scale hosts outside of ants....and rumors were that North Korea had moved it to weapon testing. Disturbed by the concept, you made your way to the retreat a month later to clear your head, after an ex-GF suggested it was a great place to veg out, if you ignored the crystal stuff. (TRUE)

The Set Up
The post-apocalypse was caused by a startling convergence of events. In sequence the following events transpired in the last month which led to an unexpected apocalyptic scenario…an existential crisis for humanity at large:

Day 1
Yellowstone Erupted. The entire American continent is cast in shadow and darkness, and most of the mid-western states are essentially gone. In the White Mountains several inches of ash dust the region, but the real devastation is a winter-storm effect that blanketed the entire country. Over the course of a month the disruption to electronics and the basic infrastructure of the country is devastating.

The Sons of the Constitution arrive at the Crystal Healing Ranch to take over, having heard rumors that there’s plenty of resources hidden in the healing cave….they find the ranch abandoned, seemingly devoid of life….a pickup truck is attached to the cave door to pull it off. The noise alerts the lurkers in the woods….for it turns out that the compound survivors were all part of a unique ritual, one which Reverend Sikorsky had intended to be the “point of ascension” for his flock to join the Messengers of the Stars.

The Messengers did indeed hear them, and descended, to take possession of each of the cultists. Only those in the healing cave, ironically, were allowed a chance to live….

The new Hunters, lean and oily with black and gray skin, transformed from their human hosts, quickly make short work of the Sons of the Constitution….and the human abominations protected in the Healing Cave are next….!

Day 2-15
In the middle of this event, China abruptly makes a move, strongly and decisively moving in on the west coast under the pretense that it is providing aid and assistance initially, but rapidly taking pains to secure territory on foreign soil. Two weeks in to what started as humanitarian aid, the west coast collapses into anarchy. Nuclear weapons are abruptly engaged, though few know who made the actual call….rumors of a rogue five star general Arnold Mcallahoun usurped control from the President and made a decisive first strike against China abound, but the reality was that China quickly retaliated. The devastation to most major population centers and military installations in the US was swift and devastating….and the remainder of the country collapsed.

Day 4
Rumors of an immense creature, blackened and ruinous, veined with burning light, moving through the devastated Midwest, are largely disregarded as the ravings of PTSD survivors of the event.

Day 10-20
In Asia, North Korea uses its weaponized Cordyceps fungus as a bioweapon against China and South Korea, sparking additional local conflict and war. The cordyceps virus proves even more devastating than anticpated due to its manufactured airborn quality and the virus spreads across the Pacific and throughout Asia rapidly. By day 20, Canada, the US and Mexico are facing an unprecedented catastrophe as desperate people are turned into fungal zombies. Worse yet, the fungus behaves strangely in the “Super Small Pox Virus” which has been hitting South America during this time….people who succumb to the super pox and then are infected by the cordyceps seem to live on unnaturally past the life span of their body and mind….

Day 12 
In a crushing state of alert, stories of refugees from Idaho, both covered in ash and bombed by a Chinese attack, are compounded by stories of thousands killed while seeking escape when the immense creature that was previously sighted days ago appears and seems to “drain” the life of all around it for a mile.

Day 21-29
Desperate militia groups, civilians, rogue military and more are seeking out pockets of safety and resources throughout the country to batten down the hatches in the wake of a grotesquely overwhelming nuclear war coupled with the super volcano eruption. The teeming masses of fungal victims from the coast and the south are initially seen as one more aberration but as their numbers increase, the survivors realize that the only hope is to find a way to hide out, and wait for the devastation to past. Meanwhile, along the southern borders the first of the infected “pox” victims succumbing to the cordyceps fungus begin to attack survivors in that region.

Day 30
Acting President of the US Mcallahoun declares that the state of Emergency has moved from martial law to a need for all citizens to arm themselves and maintain defense of local interests until “such time as the United States can restore its essential governance and infrastructure.” He signs off and the national broadcast goes dead….

The Awakened “Nata’aska”
(use Enjerar stats, but they carry serrated blades)
Ancient beings reglected in Amerind folklore, the nata'aska have awakened to aid in purging the earth as the gitche manitou arises to destroy the world....

The Volcano Monster is called the Gitche Manitou….the Great Being

(Use the living god stats)
The gtiche manitou, also known to Amerind belief, has at last awakened with the eruption of Yellowstone. It's destructive path will be vast and encompassing! The gitche manitou is here to usher in the fabled era of the Fifth World. This will be brought about through a number of mechanisms, and a number of ancient mythical beings, most of which have long since been forgotten by mankind.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review: Assassin's Creed (film)

I waited a long time for this one to show up in the dollar theater. The general consensus online seemed to be that it was another "video game to film failure," and that it was otherwise a terrible movie.....barring those who said it was good for what it was, or said it seemed to be fun if you were already invested in the Assassin's Creed games. Being one of the latter I knew I needed to see this, but I didn't want to risk spending full price on a ticket. Plus...this was not the kind of film my wife wanted to see, and too violent (in a muddy gray ethical zone) for my son to watch with me, so that meant I needed to find some time on my own to view the movie.

Now having seen it I have to say I really enjoyed the movie, but completely agree it was a flawed and perhaps poorly conceived effort for various reasons. The movie does delve in to the lore of the Assassin's Creed games, but it does so in an interesting way, where the narrative of the games themselves feed the film without directly relating to it. You have a tale of two ancient orders --the assassins and templars-- feuding over lost treasure of a civilization that predates known history, for example. You have the development of the Animus, which can read DNA that contains actual memories of past lives, allowing a current subject to experience directly the ancestors of his past. This, in turn, puts the crux of the story on the modern individual subjected to the Animus by the templar-controlled Abstergo Corporation, which is using said assassin descendant Cal Lynch (Fassbender) to explore memories of a time when an ancient artifact, a so-called piece of Eden, had been found.

From there it's a movie steeped in "grimcool" which is the only term I can use to describe movies like this right now.....and interestingly it seems to me that most movies of the last few years that are excessively "grimcool" seem to be doomed to box office failure. Too much effort at making everything in this fashion appears to be an audience turn-off.

The movie also seems to sacrifice the core conceits of the film, at least stylistically, for the sake of doing something more visually enticing. The Animus machine, as an example, is basically a "plug in and tune out" experience in the game, where you lie down and the machine constructs something akin to either a virtual hallucination or a lucid dream experience. In the film it's a giant arm that grabs Cal  uncomfortably around the waste and then moves him around in conjnuction with his memory experiences, which makes for a cool cinematic effect but...well....the problems with this approach are made obvious as the film progresses, and it is clear that Abstergo's mad scientists are playing with fire and are frequently burnt.

I could go on for a long time about little technical issues like this, but the film has more pressing concerns. Here's what they are (spoilers ahead):

1. The movie suffers from being so deeply immersed in the moral grey zone that the only ethical dilemna we are allowed is whether to side with the murderers because then at least we retain free will, or side with the spooky suit and hood wearing templars, because at least they intend to stop the murderers, even if it means stripping humanity of free will in some somewhat undefined fashion using the piece of Eden.

Or put another way: there were literally no good guys in this movie. Even the video games generally allow for you to feel justified in taking sides, and paint the templars as (usually) unremittingly evil, and the assassins as driven but flawed antiheroes.

2. The movie spends a lot more time in the present than the past. We get a glimpse of a fascinating Spain in 1492, but we are not given nearly as much of it was we will realize we wanted.

3. When things finally come to pieces and the assassins break out of their controlled prison, they do it really easily. How did Abstergo think that leaving so many antique assassin weapons on display was a good idea? How did they not have better measures in place for this? If we assume that this movie is in the same continuity as the games, then hey have ample reason to believe that this sort of shit can and will happen.

4. A person watching this movie who is not a fan of the series will leave wondering why everyone was so worked up over a round ball-like thing that glows a bit. We never got to see the Apple of  Eden do its thing, as the games are prone to demonstrating. The movie also made precious little attempt to clarify exactly what the Apple of Eden was for the layman, which is a shame, since I suspect we won't see more AC movies.

5. We saw leaps of faith start, but not end. Were they just being coy about the reality of the physics of landing in piles of hay, or was there some other reason not to show this? The rest of the movie did a surprisingly good job of making the assassins look like their parkour hurt and took a lot out of them.....a welcome change from other recent movies I've watched. So why balk at showing the leap of faith landing?

6. This movie really should have started with a retelling of the original Assassin's Creed (imo) but clearly it felt like a decision was made to both progress the story where it currently is in relation to the games and also stay the hell away from Middle Eastern assassins as main protagonists. A shame. I can't fault them, but it shouldn't have to be this way.

7. If you saw this movie, can you explain to me WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED AT THE END???? So Cal just wanders in to the highly secure Templar symposium, ganks the CEO, takes the Apple of Eden, and walks away while the crowd files out as if they expected this to happen all along, without even some shot showing him being chased by pissed off Abstergo guards? WTF???? I really didn't follow the logic of this sequence.

8. Oddly, I really expected to see a five minute monologue between the assassin and his victim after each successful murder. Yes it would have been narrative madness, but too many years of AC games have taught me to expect this, I guess.

9. I wish the Spain of 1492 in this film had been presented in a game. I want to explore that madhouse that the film lets us barely glimpse.

Okay. So I did enjoy this movie but was disappointed to see the choices made in producing the first AC film (and probably only AC film) to appear on the big screen. I'd give it a solid B for being a decent effort, but I also am disappointed because I think with a better script and some reconsideration of the core particulars of what makes this franchise most interesting, it could have been an A.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Savage Worlds: Nemezis, Savage Rifts and Other Coolness

I've been pressed for time lately, and my blog count is suffering! As I've been neglecting the blog new and interesting stuff has been creeping up out of the woodwork, this time for Savage Worlds...

First off, Savage Worlds' adaption of Rifts is now in the wild and no longer in pre-order. The many tomes and PDFs are available right here. The deluxe bundle was a bit rich for me, but I did snag all the print books, dice and special bennies (the bennies Pinnacle makes are amazing, ceramic poker-chip quality with great art).

From reading the PDFs it is clear that this is the version of Rifts I have been waiting 26 odd years for. I think I'll have to spring this on my players soon. About the only thing I miss at the moment is the impressive nineties-style black and white comic-style line art of the original Palladium-System powered books. Still, I suspect those tomes will still make great resource material for Savage Rifts, with these books serving as the "conversion document."

Next up is Nemezis, the sci-fi setting from GRAmel for Savage Worlds, a setting which I like to characterize as somewhere between Warhammer 40K, Cthulhu: End Times and Mutant Chronicles (except powered by the gloriously elegant Savage Worlds system, of course.) I'm thinking about using it as the basis for my Destiny-inspired ongoing campaign madness in Savage Space, actually. Assuming they don't find a rift and end up on apocalyptic earth, that is...

Nemezis is not "new" exactly, as it was printed a few years back in a hard-to-read black-and-white format, but recently GRAmel added it to the POD lineup on for a print color edition....this is a good thing, as it's a nice looking book and the original black-and-white print was really hard on the eyes.

Nemezis also has a decent expansion book out: Nemezis Galaxies, which is a compilation of three prior PDF releases. I found a print copy, which was much easier to read (this time), being designed for a black-and-white print. If you can find  a copy, get it....Nemezis is a worthy setting for your SW collection.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Savage Seas: Blackbeard's Black Plan

The final plot as I ran it worked out a bit differently than the plotline below....but if you're interested in a weird blend of Cthulhu Mythos and Pirates of the Spanish Main, read on! This plot was used in the Savage Worlds' powered Pirates of the Spanish Main, but could easily work with a Blood Tide/Call of Cthulhu cross-over, too.

Blackbeard’s Black Plan

Edward Teach has conspired to seek out immortality as part of his plan to “retire” from piracy. He has communicated at length with one “Leopold George Rakoczi of Transylvania*” regarding an artifact that Teach found in a cave off the coast of Grand Cayman near Bodden Town. The odd, pyramidical device seems to be some sort of container….and he alludes only to those around him that opening the box is very difficult; indeed, Teach performed a dark ceremony and sacrificed a dozen men to even reveal the hidden passage to prehuman ruins which contained the pyramidical container.

Teach confided in a letter to Rakoczi that he knew the box contained a unique skull made of worked crystal, and that the skull gave him a strong compulsion to seek out its rightful resting place….a place which Teach claims showed him a great road beneath the waves, which led to a submerged city of “twin gods of the sea.” Unknown to Rakoczi, Teach did not mention that with the arrival of this artifact on his flotilla of ships a weird plague befell the sailors. He grew desperate as he also contracted the strange rotting disease and sailed to Charleston, SC where he blockaded the city until medical supplies were procured to treat his crew. In the interim, Teach placed the skull back in to the pyramidical case and sealed it up….only then did the plague recede. Appalled at the black magic if the device he handed it off to Captain Pierce, on the Black Cormorant, a schooner which Teach then commands to carry the box back to Nassau.

From reading in John Dee’s tome Heptarchiae Mysticae, Rakoczi feels may be a relic of divine angels, an artifact that points to a greater power. He wrote back to Teach and told hi his suspicions, and after a second exchange they agreed to meet…..Rakoczi receiving ill-gotten funds from Teach to head to the West Indies on the HSM Enigma, once Morgan’s ship. With the Enigma was a diving bell, specially commissioned….Captain James Shaw was in command of the HMS Enigma, a royal merchantship but captained by a man loyal to Edward Teach who felt he owed his life to the pirate.
While Teach established an alliance with SC’s Governor Eden to gain a certain immunity, the Black Cormorant arrived in April of 1718 at Nassau, per instructions. There, Rakoczi and Shaw set about to waiting, but a strange man claiming to be an ally of Blackbeard named Obeah Chinonso awaits them, with his own crew of followers on the Black Cormorant (assuming the PCs take an offer…), formerly one of Blackbeard’s ships freshly arrived from South Carolina….he claims that Blackbeard’s ultimate destiny lies near, and that the pyramidical box is Rakoczi’s to bear should he so desire.

Chinonso’s goals: to get the ship(s) to Bimini, where he informs Rakoczi the box calls them to. The box, in fact, did reveal this….but only after Chinonso, who was stowed on board the Black Cormorant as a slave, opened the box in a ritual that sacrificed the entire crew of the ship. The undead crew now haunts the Enigma, and will climb aboard on the nights of a new moon to slaughter any living crew.

Chinonso believes that the box contains the means by which he can control a great Loa: the Ghede Dagon and his sister, Scylla. He has had it revealed to him that he must use a powerful bokor’s blood to power the ritual on Bimini to reveal the temple of Dagon. To do so, he is determined to sacrifice Rakoczi, which he has divined is special in a unique way, since Blackbeard remains cleverly out of reach in South Carolina (because Blackbeard’s own visions of his fate have shocked him in to abandoning his interest in the box).

Rakoczi’s Goals: the man who will become the Comte de St. Germain has not yet polymorphed into an ascended immortal but his sorcerous nature runs strong. He realizes that the relic skull in the box is of such power that being exposed to it seals any man’s fate, but he also believes it alludes to a reference in John Dee’s writings which imply that the location the skull draws one to is the source of a fallen angel’s corpse…and the wellspring of a spring of eternal life. He is not wrong….something (just not an angel) did indeed fall there, and it does provide a source of hideous, immortal unlife.
The important thing from Dee’s perspective is that the calling has been revealed to both Teach and now Chinonso. He can use Chinonso to find the wellspring of eternal life without himself being exposed to the curse of the skull. To sweeten the deal, he has convinced James Shaw and will also try to speak to the adventurers about the possibility that the wellspring of life exists at the end of this trail…and there will be plenty for all. He also alludes to the possibility that Ponce de Leon, in his search for the fountain of youth, did succeed and had he not been poisoned he would have lived without aging. Furthermore he may have left some riches concealed in the location, realizing how secure and difficult to find it was, explaining an absence of wealth recorded in old Spanish records from Puerto Rico.

James Shaw’s Goals: James Shaw intends to follow through on this, and has developed a keen trust for Rakoczi, who has confided his bastard noble heritage from Transylvania in him. The man is mad, Shaw feels, but in a way safely different from Edward Teach.

Blackbeard’s Goals: Edward Teach had a close call with the box, and it also revealed that his fate was near. After establishing his alliance with Governor Eden he grows bolder, raiding up and down the American coast constantly, before deciding it is time to resume his quest for immortality before his final doom arrives. He sails back to Nassau in time to realize that the Enigma has gone missing…and stories in Nassau of the suspicion that the ship arrived commanded by no crew, only the obeah Chinonso leave him to suspect betrayal…..he will set off to find him (and the Black Cormorant) at once, following his visions revealed by the skull to Bimini.

At Bimini

Bimini and the rest of the Bahamas was once populated by a remote tribe called the Lucayans (the Lukku-Cairi). Although the islands were all but depopulated by Spanish efforts to enslave the local peoples, there are still a handful of ancient Lucayans left….each of the lucayans who remain are immortal, having bathed in the sacred pool of the Tenu-Aiki, the “Pool of the Eternal One” in their all but dead language.

The two dozen or so who remain on the island hide well, and avoid contact with all visitors. However, they will stalk and attempt to stop any who arrive from finding any of the following three objects on the island: the The Bimini Road, the Pool of Eternal life (the Tenu-Aiki) or the crumbling remains of the temple mount entrance at the high point on the island. More on these three secrets:

The Temple Mount: on the north island is a rock formation at the high point on the island of basalt, which one who is possessed by the divination of the pyramid-case of the ancient skull can find. This will reveal an ancient entrance to a forgotten deep one temple, in which a circular structure holds a mount exactly sized for this box, as well as what appear to be slots for eleven others. Placing just one box on the altar is sufficient to create an image of the island, and show the sprawling remains of a great city and a massive road that leads north from the island to an immense temple that appears to be made entirely of gold….all now beneath the water.

The temple mount is guarded by an ancient dimensional shambler which will come when the device is activated. It will slay any who do not have deep one blood in them and seek to drive them out of the temple (it will not pursue). If it is left alone, the dimensional shamble will take the box and skull and spirit the artifacts away to a new location, possibly the very ruin in the cave Blackbeard found them in.

Still, once the image is seen by all, it will be impossible not to walk out and know just where a diving bell could be used to see an ancient ruin…

The Fountain of Youth (Tunu-Aiki):

Any who are touched by the skull know inherently where to go. Located on the south island, this area is dense with foliage and obscured from sight until stumbled upon. Once found it seems to be an anomalous fresh spring that is also a blue hole, but if the party has not dealt with the protectors of the last Lucayans they will attack….the Lucayans are more than human now, ancient but powerful, and seem resistant to harm. They have such hatred for foreigners and what has happened to their people that they are unlikely to listen to any reason. They will strike and seek to kill all who would try to find the pool.

The pool itself seems so calm and inviting, but each person must make a Spirit check, and get a +2 if they have an arcane background like voudon. The pool is deep, and at the bottom is the sense that the rest of the body of the creature that had the head in the box can be found. Voudon practitioners will realize that this is an area simultaneously blessed and cursed….blessed by Ezruli and cursed by Azagon (Baron La Croix). One who bathes will find immortality, but only because the spirit of the body is not allowed to escape death….the person who bathes becomes ageless, but his or her soul will also never escape the body, which is still vulnerable to unnatural causes of death such as wounds or poison. Trapped as ghosts (duppies) in the mortal plane, tethered to their rotting, corporeal remains, the person quickly goes mad.

Despite this, Chinonso will bathe in the water and proclaim his loyalty to Azagon. When he does, a great skeletal hand will rise up from the waters and grab him, dragging him down!
Blackbeard, should he find the pool, will also bathe….but quickly and be out of the water, even if he witnessed what happened to the Ougun. It is by this means which he may elude his later fate at the hands of Maynard, though he does not realize that even the ritual he cast to reveal the skull has cursed him for certain…

Rakoczi will first perform an invocation from Dee’s tome and drink a tonic he has crafted before entering the pool. When he emerges, refreshed, he proclaims that Rakoczi is dead, and he will hereafter be known only as Comte de Saint Germain. If players ask for the chance to do the same, he explains that he will let them read the tome….for it is now useless to him….but that the ritual is personal, and he has spent a decade perfecting it. Imbued with the essence of a fallen angel, St. Germain now believes himself an ascended immortal.

The Bimini Road and the Temple of Dagon:

Beneath the waters of the north island of Bimini are the submerged ruins of a lost Deep One city, which thrived six thousand years ago and was a major source of activity for the aquatic race. Now the ruins are a haunted graveyard, all but abandoned by the deep ones who have gone deep beneath the waters, but the awakening of Azagons’ skull in the High Mount Temple will call forth the guardian of the ruins….a special breed of Kraken. Its purposes it to destroy all who would reveal the temple. The Kraken will spawn creatures comparable to nightgaunts which it will send out to destroy those on land.

The adventurers who witnessed the “map” made in the Upper Mount Temple will know that the mysterious temple appears to have an entry and possibly air pockets in its interior…the diving bell can reach the ancient temple, filled with its lost relics of gold and crystal. Assuming they are crazy enough to do this, they will first encounter a lone deep one priest of Dagon, once a Lucayan long ago named Unaki, who still manages a few human words of warning….he is the last protector of the ancient temple.  “Dagon’s daughter waits,” he explains. “Only the gift of the twelve fallen will awaken her, to do less invites doom.”

In the heart of the temple lies a great octagonal chamber in the center of which appears to be a massive statue of a strange, many headed serpent creature made of crystal, with a beautiful, fair-skinned woman tapped in the center. Nearby lie the eleven other pyramidical coffins containing the heads of fallen sky-beings….the Azagon pyramid would be the twelfth. If all 12 are placed in their positions around the statue, the crystal flows away and the human nymph form of Scylla awakens, speaking either an ancient deep one dialect of ancient Greek, and appearing bemused at her existence. If fewer than twelve boxes are placed around the crystalline statue, the adventurers watch as her human form is subsumed and ripped apart within the crystal, which pumps red with her blood and viscera as 1D4 rounds later the statue comes to hideous life as the dire god Skylla, a protected servitor of Dagon. She will then demolish the entire temple in the process of trying to slay the PCs and everyone else nearby.

If PCs are too cautious, have Shaw, Blackbeard or someone else take the diving bell and try the stunt…it will lead to a suitably bizarre ending to the whole sordid affair!

*In later years to become Comte de St. Germain.....

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is now out

Modiphius has released the PDF editions of Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of as well as the first scenario pack, Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth.

I'm really torn, much as I was with the Kickstarter for this (which, in the end, I decided not to back). The actual final books look intriguing, but people have mixed feelings about the 2D20 mechanics of the Modiphius game system. I have three games from Modiphius on my shelves right now, and they are each ominously large tomes filled with interesting lore and mechanics that just haven't grabbed me: Mutant Chronicles (EDIT: but not Fragged Empire) is definitely 2D20 powered under the special 2D20 mechanic, but the third, Mutant Year Zero, is intriguing to me while still being hard to get in to for other odd reasons.

Honestly, I just kinda like my games to get to the point these days, especially on the mechanics. D&D might be the only exception to this rule, but if there's absolutely one thing I feel every game designer should take away from the OSR design it is that you ought to be able to expalin your game in 100 pages or less....and (again, my opinion only) those rules ought to be easy to find and up front. If you're mixing and matching mechanics and setting too heavily, it can get very annoying.

I'm not saying Modiphius necessarily does this....but given the enormous size of their tomes, it's been too difficult for me to find the time and effort to invest in exploring what they have on offer. Conan may be the first game that necessarily breaks the rule....but I am loathe to buy in to the print editions until I've really figured out if the mechanical implementation is really any good or not. I had read playtest tales that left me more than leary it was not my cup of tea.

Anyway, I may snag the PDF and possibly even just stick to PDFs on this one, if only because it would be interesting to see if I A: did like it with less immediate investment, and B: in doing so, wonder what a challenge it would be to run a game like this entirely from the PDF. Hmmm.

EDIT #2: I picked up the first two books in PDF. It's Conan....I could not resist. I'll try to read up and post details this weekend.

EDIT 3: Goddamnit by Crom I really like this. More soon.