Friday, October 17, 2014

Rifts Misadventures: Session 8

Adventurers by Razuri-the-Sleepless
Our latest session of Rifts (still powered by Fate Core) featured the triumphant return of the missing member of our original player character team: the Psi-Stalker known as Kat, played by my brother Chris, who joined us via a (somewhat buggy) Google Hangouts feed. The band is now well and truly back together and it's hard to describe how good that feels. The previous session's recap is here if you'd like to catch up.

The Roster (with Fate "high concept" aspects, followed by traditional Rifts O.C.C.s)

Arisis Solstice, Radiant Daughter of Atlas (female titan Cyber-Knight), played by Felix
Katrina Mansfield, Mutant Psi-Stalker P.I. (female mutoid Psi-Stalker), played by Chris
Max Parkinson, Runaway Teenage Mystic (male human Mystic), played by me
Valerie Cain, Amazon Cyborg Wildchild (female Praxian Headhunter), played by Kent

Session Recap
Valerie, Max, and Arisis successfully make their way to Isla de la Juventud, also known as "Isla de Encanta" and "Treasure Island". Shortly after they reach the island, the erstwhile fourth member of their group, the Psi-Stalker called Kat, arrives at the docks, having earlier been summoned by Max via astral projection. Kat is warmly greeted by Valerie, who is openly thrilled to see the Psi-Stalker. Max, still haunted by the senseless deaths of the villagers back on Cuba proper, is somewhat more reserved, but glad to have Kat's particular set of skills on hand for what he anticipates will be a great struggle. Kat has arrived armed for bear, with much of her arsenal of mechanical combat drones, as well as Arisis' carnosaur-like robotic mount, in tow. (The Cyber-Knight is too excited about being reunited with her steed to properly greet her long-missing comrade.)

The group gets Kat up to speed on the nature of their predicament. They've learned that the island is home to a massive prison complex known as Bastille Impenetrable, which is operated by an extradimensional race called the Tisch. Grey-skinned and three-eyed, the Tisch (or at least, the ones running Bastille Impenetrable) are vehemently opposed to the death penalty, and will hold any criminal in one of their pan-Megaversal prisons (for a nominal fee, of course). Thus, they operate this prison out of both philosophical and profit-based concerns. The city surrounding the prison is under strict rule of law, and any infractions are punished with immediate arrest (and, presumably, imprisonment). The group believes that one of the twins they seek to rescue must be imprisoned in Bastille Impenetrable. Max wonders aloud whether it's Asha or Annejah, and under what sort of pretenses they could be held. The mere mention of their names apparently sets off some sort of psychic alert, which the team's psionics -- Arisis, Kat, and Max -- all detect.

Max links hands with the other two and attempts to trace the source of the distress call, expecting to find one of the twins requesting aid. Instead, the three sense another being entirely: one that is guarded by an ogre shaman. Their concentrated will easily thwarts the shaman's attempted mental interference, and they are surprised to find themselves speaking with a presence that identifies itself as the Sunstar Aegis -- the ship belonging to their benefactor, Nysa, which they were told had been seized by ogre pirates. Max, bewildered, admits that he's never telepathically contacted a ship before. He and his companions soon learn that the ship has a magically sapient control CPU, and it is with this artifact that they are communicating. The "rune-puter" (as Kat describes it) informs them that the Neuron Beast Zaal double-crossed the ogre pirates that captured the twins (and the Sunstar Aegis) upon arriving at Treasure Island, and that he has one of them in captivity now. Their conversation is cut short, however, when the ogre shaman that was guarding the Sunstar Aegis resumes control and severs communications. Max attempts to contact the ship again, but proves unable to. (In an interesting feature of the Fate Core system, I accepted a Fate Point in exchange for agreeing that Max would be unable to reach the ship again.)

Taking an alternate approach, Kat uses her inborn Psi-Stalker tracking abilities to home in on the residual psychic trail leading to the ship's location, but upon arrival, she and her compatriots are detained by an alarmed Tisch dock inspector. Max, often the voice of the team, attempts to appeal to the inspector's sense of justice by calmly explaining the nature of their situation, but the bureaucrat's insistence that the group lacks the proper permits and must leave the dock immediately quickly wears down Max's resolve, and his teenage distrust of authority asserts itself.  While the Tisch continues indignantly babbling in legalese and prodding Max and associates with a clipboard, they notice that a group of unsavory-looking ogres are staring them down from where the Sunstar Aegis is docked. Max grows increasingly frustrated, and before long the young Mystic goes into meltdown, shouting that "somebody's in trouble and you want us to do paperwork -- this is why nobody bothers with the cops!" (I accepted another Fate Point here, for letting the GM compel Max's Raging Hormones aspect to his detriment.) The inspector angrily responds that he is "not a cop" but suggests that perhaps he should call for backup. The titan Arisis literally carries an infuriated Max away before the situation can get worse, and Valerie flatly informs her young friend that he is "blowing it." Kat steps in and tries to provoke the dock inspector into giving away something useful, with limited results, and it seems that things are about to escalate even further when Val finally takes control. She flirtatiously smoothes over the disagreement, but has little choice but to agree to an evening date with the inspector in order to stop him from calling in armed reinforcements. Max (somewhat sullenly) muses that at least something productive may have come from the group's efforts.

Our heroes, stymied, head into the city that has sprung up around Bastille Impenetrable. Kat and Valerie search for more leads, while Max and Arisis find themselves more distracted by the sights (and tastes) of the city rather than turning up anything useful. Over a strange delicacy known as a "corn dog", Max apologizes to Arisis for his disastrous outburst during the group's encounter with the dock inspector, but asks that she not pick him up like a doll in public again. As he is wrapping up his heart-to-heart with the titan, Max is surprised to see Gia -- the young, unusually attractive goblin he had met in Havana some days prior -- also enjoying a corn dog. (I spent one of my Fate Points to set a scene detail here, since the GM had already expressed an interest in having Gia show up again someday.) Evidently, she is a travelling folk healer who roams throughout the region, plying her trade. Max seizes the opportunity to ask Gia out on a date, which she accepts. Max, naturally, picks the same restaurant that the dock inspector chose for his date with Valerie, since (after all) it's the only nice place in town that he knows of.

That evening, Max spends a little bit too much of his date craning his neck to get an idea of how Valerie's is going, but Gia is apparently only slightly annoyed. Valerie's rendezvous, which the Headhunter is apparently unable to extricate herself from despite her best efforts, is still underway when Max and Gia leave the restaurant to meet up with Kat and Arisis. As they continue to explore the city in search of clues, a gruff-voiced, masked Tisch who introduces himself as "Objection" suddenly makes his presence known to the group. Objection knows that our heroes are in search of Neuron Beast Zaal and informs them that the creature is currently holed up in the embassy that it, as the ostensible ruler of an "empire" in Cuba, maintains in the city. Watched constantly by members of the band of ogre pirates that it double-crossed, the neuron beast is unable to leave his domicile. Zaal, we're told, has one of the twins in a "stasis box" and intends to sell her to a banker named Phket, who clandestinely launders money for human(oid) traffickers. (At this point, Max advises Gia that things are likely to get a bit crazy, and that he wouldn't object if she decided to bail, but she elects to stick around.)

Arisis, Kat, and Max agree to Objection's plan to draw the ogres away from Zaal's embassy. Arisis, no friend to ogres, is particularly keen on this gambit, suggesting that she and her comrades go the extra mile and lead the hulking humanoids all the way back to the docks where the Sunstar Aegis is held. Objection plans to break into the embassy during the chaos that ensues -- "I work alone" -- and insists that "no murders are going to happen in my city", an edict to which Max and Kat scoffingly agree. The group rushes back to the restaurant and rescues a grateful Valerie from her interminable outing with the dock inspector, and after filling her in on the details, she agrees to their plan: Val will head to Zaal's location while the others distract the ogres and withdraw with them in pursuit.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Is Rifts Gonzo?

Nope.

One thing I keep seeing online is people describing Rifts as "gonzo" and "kitchen sink". I have to admit that this rubs me the wrong way a little. Don't get me wrong: I think both of those terms are applicable to the game to some extent. However, I would hesitate to sum up Rifts with either of them. Why do I say this? Well, I'm glad you asked.

Why not make this feel like a bad college paper and start with a definition? Merriam-Webster defines "gonzo" as "bizarre" and "freewheeling or unconventional especially to the point of outrageousness". I know that the term probably means different things to different people -- what doesn't? -- but I'm surprised to see that the dictionary definition actually lines up with the way I see it used when describing RPGs fairly well. The picture I posted up there (found somewhere on the internet -- sorry, I have no idea what the source is) seems to encapsulate the "gonzo, kitchen sink", outrageously bizarre aesthetic so many associate with the game.

I can see what they're getting at. Even people that have a similar take on the game to mine have pointed out that it can be pretty wacky -- after all, my own Rifts campaign has been (fairly accurately) summarized as "a titan-sized Cyber-Knight, a teenaged Mystic, and a partial cyborg Headhunter working for a secret godling to help smuggle mutant animals out of the breeding pens of Texas Nazis". So, yes, there are lot of crazy things in the game's setting, even right out of the box: believe it or not, most of the elements mentioned in that summary are straight out of the original rulebook. (Those "Nazis" are among the elements I can most easily understand having a hard time taking seriously.)

The more books you include in the setting and make available to players, the wilder the world gets, particularly when you incorporate visitors from Palladium Books' other games. In Rifts, a robot, a catgirl, a wizard, and a ninja could very well team up and fight crime, more or less by the book. (That's got to be the textbook definition of "kitchen sink".) This game is sounding pretty damned "freewheeling and unconventional" at this point, right? So why don't I like it when people call Rifts "gonzo"?

The biggest reason is that I don't think it's tremendously more so than any number of other popular properties, particularly roleplaying games. For example, Dungeons & Dragons crams together practically every possible flavor of the fantasy genre, along with bits of horror and science fiction. It's been described as a game where Conan and Gandalf team up to fight Dracula, and I think that's an accurate summary in many ways. Particularly in the more recent versions of D&D, player character options are so diverse that if a DM is permissive, the robot, catgirl, wizard, and ninja team is every bit as doable in D&D and its derivatives (like Pathfinder) as it is in Rifts. Is D&D a "kitchen sink"? Granted, the setting backdrop of Rifts Earth might be harder for some to swallow than the fantastical milieux of D&D, since it's supposedly "our world" in the far future. But is harder to swallow than, say, superhero comics' version of Earth in the present day? Look at the bizarre combinations of characters and locales the Marvel Universe features. Does anybody describe The Avengers as "gonzo"? And what about the outright tongue-in-cheek, elbow-in-the-ribs, "get it?" nature of ostensibly "post-apocalyptic" games like Gamma World?

One could certainly play Rifts like it's a big "lol so random" joke, and more power to those who want to do that. It could probably be a lot of fun, but I think that the idea that it's the only way to play (or that there is an over-the-top level of wackiness that is baked into the game) is an exaggeration. Like most good imaginative properties, there's a fundamental earnestness (as well as an overarching aesthetic) to Rifts that I think makes taking the game at least a little seriously -- Illinois Nazis, Techno-Wizards, Mexican vampires, and all -- worthwhile.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Rifts Misadventures: Session 7

Max Chibi by Azu-Chan
With the missing player from our original gaming group -- my brother, Chris -- now scheduled to rejoin the campaign via Google Hangouts, the last few sessions of Rifts have involved almost as much planning as actual play, as we figure out how to get his character, the psi-stalker Katrina Mansfield (pictured here), back in the mix. We still managed to get into character and play a little bit. Check out the recap of last session if you need to.

The Roster (with Fate "high concept" aspects, followed by traditional Rifts O.C.C.s)

Arisis Solstice, Radiant Daughter of Atlas (female titan Cyber-Knight), played by Felix
Max Parkinson, Runaway Teenage Mystic (male human Mystic), played by me
Valerie Cain, Amazon Cyborg Wildchild (female Praxian Headhunter), played by Kent

Session Recap
Arisis, Max, and Valerie have successfully defended the people of Red Moon Water Village from several waves of vicious attacks, finally driving them off with the assistance of troops from the city of Havana. Osorio, the villagers' shaman (and now leader) advises our heroes to visit three other settlements on the island of Cuba as they continue their search for the elusive neuron beast, both to rest and to ensure that they have not suffered the fate intended for Red Moon Water Village.

Unfortunately, while they manage to complete the journey to the next village without significant incident, the group find it completely annihilated: burnt to the ground, with no survivors. Max surveys the carnage and wishes aloud that he was able to use his magic to restore the victims of the massacre to life. (This is something his teammates have witnessed firsthand in the past, but of which he is currently incapable, having "burned out" his ability to do so for the time being). Instead, Max supernaturally melds into his charnel surroundings in order to commune with the slain. The young Mystic fades into the ashes, asking the spirits of the villagers to explain what happened to them: "Tell me how you died." He effortlessly overcomes an astral servitor of the neuron beast that tries to interpose itself, and learns that the beast's armed forces destroyed the village and its people in retaliation for their defeat at Red Moon Water Village, then marched to another settlement that Osorio had mentioned, two days' travel away. The neuron beast's spirit minion takes physical shape and is instantly reduced to dust as Max returns to corporeal form.

Our heroes resolve not to allow another such slaughter to occur, and set out for the second village with haste: the Mystic uses the adaptive systems of his techno-wizard-constructed armor to maneuver through the canopy jungle, with the Cyber-Knight hurling the armored Max ahead ("fastball special" style) and cutting a path through the underbrush for the Headhunter to follow on her mecha-motorcycle. Along the way, Max and Arisis realize that their psychic sensitivity allows them to "pick up" communications between multiple beings that are apparently sharing information on the groups' activities. It does not take long to realize that they are inadvertently eavesdropping on the psychic network of several neuron beasts, considering that they refer to each other as "Neuron Beast Zaal", "Neuron Beast Tobril", etc. (apparently through a quirk of their mental "language").

The trio arrive at the settlement in one day rather than two, catching the neuron beasts' forces completely by surprise. The enemy, who were preoccupied with rounding up villagers and putting them in chains rather than preparing for an assault, are never able to organize an effective defense. Max disperses a unit of gunmen with a Fear spell and sets a "neuron thrall" (another of the human-neuron beast hybrids they've faced in the past) ablaze with a well-placed Fire Bolt. Valerie rips into a group of lizard men armed with melee weapons with a barrage of mini-missiles, and their leader, a lizard woman psychic, literally turns tail and runs. Arisis squares off with a cybernetically enhanced troll after her attempt to invoke her supernatural aura of awe is ineffective ("Trollborg does not understand human emotions", her opponent helpfully explains), but struggles to cause any lasting physical harm to the cyborg. Max opts to trade foes with Arisis, shutting down the troll's central nervous system via psionic Bio-Manipulation before things get out of hand, and Arisis overpowers the Gigantes (mutant giant) that had threatened Max. Valerie removes the threat posed by a walker mecha by nonchalantly decapitating the gunner perched atop it, sending his head tumbling into the cockpit below and terrifying the war machine's pilot.

The mecha pilot and Gigantes quickly surrender as the few remaining allies that have survived the trio's surprise attack disperse into the jungle. The team radios the Havanan forces they left behind at Red Moon Water Village and asks them to send a contingent to take care of the enemy captives. As Valerie severs the oversized bionic arms of the immobilized Trollborg with the CADS-1 blades of her mecha, Arisis and Max question the captured walker pilot. "Neuron Beast Zaal", they learn, is in charge, and has taken at least one of Nysa's twin sisters to Isla de la Juventud, to the south, where there is apparently some sort of prison facility in which she is incarcerated. The pilot also tells them that the third village Osorio asked them to visit is the domain of a bruja ("witch") and that Zaal's men take care to avoid it. 

The pilot's tale turns out to be true -- when the group reach the third village, they find themselves unwelcome, and have little choice but to strike down the bruja and her harpy pets (a task which they complete without much difficulty). With the last village out of the way, the group head toward a pirate-run coastal town they have heard lies to the south, in the hopes of securing passage to Isla de la Juventud.

(If you're wondering, yes, that is another piece of commissioned artwork up there. This one is courtesy the illustrious Azu-Chan. I love it, and I imagine it's about as far from how the creator of Rifts imagines a typical character should be depicted as possible.)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Let Me Tell You About My Character's Mom (Sort Of)

I've been busier than usual at work this week, and had kind of a dud session of D&D on Sunday, so I haven't had much time to think up a topic for a blog post.

So, um... maybe you're wondering what one of the characters mentioned in this post looks like. Well, wonder no more:

Artha Parkinson by K-Bonifield

This is Artha Parkinson (née Serris), a tough-as-nails woman who happens to be a powerful psychic (and also happens to be my Rifts PC's mother), drawn by my good friend Kent Bonifield (who happens to be the GM of our Rifts campaign). He nailed it. I love the strange mashup of "fantasy world" and "high fashion" that Artha is rocking -- particularly the purse.

I imagine that requesting artwork of your character's mom has to be pretty high up on the "RPG mental illness warning signs" list, but to hell with it. You can't argue with the results.

So yeah, no real gaming content for you, once again! Next week's will be a meatier post, I swear.

Friday, September 19, 2014

More Mercenary Teams

We Are Mercenary by madspartan013
Here, have some more (mostly antagonistic) mercenary teams for Rifts. Many of these are a bit tongue-in-cheek, which I suppose might not work for some people. I had a little help from people in my Google+ circles in coming up with several of these. Some were heavily reworked by me, but I've given credit where it's due, regardless.

Wild Hurricane. In many ways a typical Juicer mercenary company, Wild Hurricane are worthy of mention due to their membership (over 130 members at last count) as well as their reputation as completely amoral adrenaline junkies. Wild Hurricane have no qualms about accepting virtually any job from any employer, as long as they are allowed to execute it in their trademarked fashion (which typically involves flying in on jetbikes equipped with colored smoke exhaust, blasting pre-Rifts stadium rock and jock jams at maximum volume). All members use outlandish monikers like "Duke Raiden", "Blacules", "Velocity Maxx", "Slam Atoms", etcetera (exemplified by the current leader of the organization, "Chief Administrator Golgo Superior") and tend to wear brightly patterned workout clothing. Now based in Puerto Rico, the Wild Hurricane organization's membership is constantly shifting, thanks to combat casualties and Last Call, but they have surprisingly consistent success in attracting new recruits. Company legends say that Wild Hurricane's founder was once a member of a rival Juicer outfit called Happy Jo's Funtime Adventure Club, who supposedly "doctored their prescription" to create a more relaxed, "blissed-out" state of awareness -- something that is seen as an abomination by Wild Hurricane. (It has been speculated that Wild Hurricane uses a similarly variant combat drug cocktail or injection rig that produces tenser, more violent Juicers.) It is unclear whether the Funtime Adventure Club ever actually existed, but mercenaries in southern North America sometimes speak of a strange group of Juicers that traveled in a rainbow-colored APC called "the Bus". Wild Hurricane members are known to deride those deemed "not extreme enough", including more well-adjusted Juicers or those that detox before Last Call, as "Happy Jos" or "Funtimers". (Some example Wild Hurricane member names by Cole Long and John Carr. Happy Jo's Funtime Adventure Club concept by Benjamin Baugh.)

The Great Volunteers are a highly professional and competent group of soldiers of fortune that operates primarily in the Magic Zone and its surrounding regions. They were so named by their benefactors because they arrive unexpectedly and volunteer their services to anyone who requires them, particularly if they are having some form of conflict or disagreement with the expansive forces of the Coalition States. The Great Volunteers' commander, Dana Roskos, assures the prospective client that a long-term payment plan can be arranged afterwards. If the clients decline -- which they often will, if they are familiar with the company's reputation -- the mercenaries simply leave. If they accept, the Volunteers engage (and drive off) the enemy, then exact their payment under threat of force. The Great Volunteers are backed by the sorcerers of the Federation of Magic, and their masters expect to be paid in human slaves (who are usually later sacrificed in their black rites). The mercenaries return repeatedly, over a period of many years, to collect their dues. The majority of the rank and file of the Great Volunteers do not necessarily relish this duty, but much like their sworn Coalition enemies, they are hardened soldiers who regard their activities as a necessary evil. (Concept by me.)

Providence Express Protection is a mercenary company led by a clairvoyant psychic known only as "Melgren", who directs his compatriots to pre-emptively eliminate major threats he detects with his precognitive abilities. His predictions are almost never incorrect, but the issue of securing payment for PEP's services is often a sticky one. Fortunately, none of them are above extorting their fee from those they insist that they saved from a terrible fate. (Concept by Cole Long.)

Pascal's Rascals. A wildly unpredictable, but mostly heroic mercenary team that debuted recently, Pascal's Rascals have met with a rate of success disproportionate to their small size (five members), poor equipment and unorthodox fees. Many of their clients suspect that something strange is going on with Pascal and his compatriots, though none have yet realized that they are, in fact, a clutch of hatchling Thunder Lizard dragons that have taken up the mercenary life (and human form) as a lark. (Concept by me.)

The Scabs are a fairly large and well-equipped mercenary team that has a wide operating range covering much of North America. "The Scabs" is, obviously, not the official name of the company -- they have been known to operate under many names, including Axon Syndicated, Elegant Assistance LLC, Kotter's Marauders, and Falcon Standard -- but they are known as such by their peers in the mercenary business. Scab troops move into a known conflict hotspot, find the most vulnerable settlements, and then undercut the prices of whatever companies are currently in operation there, driving them out forcibly if necessary. The Scabs then gradually raise prices to exorbitant rates. When the communities that employ them are unable to afford the Scabs' services any longer, the mercenaries typically ransack them, usually leaving them to the mercy of whatever it was that threatened them in the first place. The natures of the Scabs' operations prevent the formation of a strict chain of command, but a Manistique woman named Camilla Gold is believed to ultimately be in charge, and likely in league with some arm of one or another of the Black Market criminal organizations. (Loosely based on a concept by Benjamin Baugh.)

Zach & Suns are a group of vampire hunters active in the upper parts of the Southwest that are gaining notoriety for the flashy, sun-emblazoned, full-environmental golden body armor they always wear, and for their tireless crusade against the wild vampires that prey upon the rural communities of the region. "Father Zach", the group's leader, is secretly a master vampire named Armand Zacharias, who claims to have walked the Earth since before the coming of the Rifts. The other members are his secondary vampire "children", and the wild vampires they create are the predators they hunt down and "rescue" their clients from (though they rarely actually destroy them). Every community Zach & Suns "aids", regrettably, loses several members to the vampire attacks, and yet the mercenary company's ranks continue to slowly grow... (Based on concepts by Chris F. and Benjamin Baugh.)

Captain Jack's Daisies. Jacinta Hayson -- the "Jack" mentioned in the outfit's name -- is a rough-looking, tobacco-chewing, horse-riding, no-nonsense woman who looks every bit a part of the real Old West. She could not be more different from the dandily dressed, robo-steed-riding group of men that make up the rest of her group. Despite her employees' appearance, Jack's company is well-known for their skill, resilience, and professionalism. Their focus is on bodyguarding and long-range protection, expertly escorting clients across the entirety of the North American continent. "Famous last stands a specialty." (Concept by Matthew Adams.)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Rifts Misadventures: Session 6

That cape from the ending scene... by kawacy
Our third session using Fate to run Rifts was a relatively short one, though you might not be able to tell from reading this recap. Our GM hadn't had much time to prepare, and so we ended up spending a decent chunk of the session just catching up and shooting the breeze. Good times either way.

The Roster (with Fate "high concept" aspects, followed by traditional Rifts O.C.C.s)

Arisis SolsticeRadiant Daughter of Atlas (female titan Cyber-Knight), played by Felix
Max ParkinsonRunaway Teenage Mystic (male human Mystic), played by me
Valerie CainAmazon Cyborg Wildchild (female Praxian Headhunter), played by Kent

Session Recap
The inhabitants of Red Moon Water Village flee in the face of an aerial assault, with our heroes bravely bringing up the rear, protecting them from the neuron beast's minions. Several valiant (but hopelessly outgunned) warriors from the village attempt to engage the enemy, but Max and Arisis convince them that while their valor is admirable, their people would be better served if they ensured that they reached the cave alive. As they make a run for it, Valerie draws the fire of the flying bandits, nimbly dodging their attacks, but the group faces several challenges from the ground.

Max finds himself under mental assault from a slimy, serpentine psychic presence. He wards off the attack, but nearly stumbles and falls in the process. Arisis helps him to recover, but an elite squad of soldiers loyal to the neuron beast -- including an earth Warlock, a super-powered merc with gravity-manipulating abilities (presumably from the Heroes Unlimited reality), a supernaturally strong D-Bee, and a flower-sniffing bishounen samurai (!!) -- attempt to stop Arisis in her tracks. Briefly, it seems as though they will succeed, as the super-merc traps Arisis in a gravity well while his allies rush in to finish her off. But the titan knight draws on her memories of her father, the legendary Atlas (in Fate terms, invoking her Weight of the World aspect) and shrugs off the attack, knocking the boulder the Warlock magically hurls at her into the super-merc with an uprooted tree she wrests from the D-Bee's grasp. The samurai attempts to trip her up with his sword, but Arisis is unaffected, and soon sends the group scattering into the jungle.

As our heroes near the cave, Max notices that a hill they are passing is, in fact, alive -- a rocky, plant-covered beast that is preparing to pounce on the fleeing villagers. The young Mystic overpowers the creature's will before it can act, commanding it to sleep, and soon he, his friends, and the inhabitants of Red Moon Water Village are inside the cave tunnels, safe for the time being.

The village's shaman, Osorio, leads them to the communications array he had earlier spoken of -- in reality, little more than a ham radio set up in a grotto with a vertical "chimney" fissure that opens to the sky, with a tall, makeshift antenna reaching all the way to the surface opening. A neo-Taíno operator starts to activate the equipment. Valerie, mentally exhausted from the bandits' attack and frantic chase, seems to "check out" for a moment as she takes in the cool, lush splendor of the cavern. Max notices that she seems distracted and gently reminds her (in a Zen koan sort of way) to stay on her toes. He lets his own guard down in the process, though Arisis spots the shadow-caster Max faced back at Red Moon Water Village, partially cloaked by a Chameleon spell and calmly walking down the passage as if its surface were horizontal.

Arisis alerts her allies and leaps upward, delivering a glancing blow to the mage with the Sword of Baragor. Max, still in his techno-wizardry-powered armor, summons his Psi-Sword and soars up the shaft. As Max flies past his opponent, he lances him with his Psi-Sword, wounding the shadow mage, but not badly enough to stop him from slicing the radio antenna with his own dark energy blade. The radio operator cries out that he has lost power, but Max reassures the neo-Taínos, saying that he has other ways of contacting Havana. Arisis, who has been leap-climbing back up the tunnel, now tries to grapple the enemy spellcaster, but finds herself tackling a straw effigy instead. The mage has escaped, again.

Having discovered the opening, the neuron beast's air forces initiate another attack. Val tears out of the cavern on her Cyclone in motorcycle mode, zipping past the walkers and picking off the weaker, less heavily armored soldiers. Max finds a corner of the cavern and begins to enter a meditative trance, guarded by the vigilant Arisis. The young Mystic projects his consciousness into the astral plane, and Arisis uses her own psychic sensitivity to accompany him, as do the warrior villagers the pair had reassured earlier.

With the tribesmen and the titan piggybacking on his jaunt, Max's astral form swoops out of the cavern and high into the sky, a thin silver cord connecting him back to his unconscious body. As an artifact of techno-wizardry, Max's armor is still usable in the astral plane. From his vantage point, Max sees several of the jury-rigged walker mecha similar to the one he and his friends fought at the village, as well as the astral forms of the neuron thrall Arisis had bested earlier and the demon-serpent that had psychically assaulted Max on the way to the cave.

Max telepathically contacts Valerie, warning her of the incoming mecha. He also relays the locations of the neuron thrall and demon's physical forms, since they too are bound to their bodies by astral silver cords. Seeing that the serpent-thing is preparing to lunge at Max from below, Arisis slashes at its slithering tentacles with her Psi-Sword, but does not dissuade the demonic creature from attacking. Its tendrils lash out at Max, intent on violating his psyche, but they are blocked by Max's mental shielding. The neuron thrall moves to intercept the Mystic, but bolstered by the psychic presence of Arisis and the neo-Taíno warriors, Max blasts it with bolts of astral fire, destroying its silver cord and sending its consciousness hurtling into the sky, out of control.

Valerie reaches the slime-encased body of the serpent demon, but before she can slay it with the vibro-blades of her mecha, Max uses the psychic capabilities of his armor to encase the demon's astral self in a crystalline shell, which he then shatters with the force of his will. The demon's soul, or whatever black thing serves as one in its place, is obliterated, and the foul being is slain.

 Arisis' mind returns to the physical world as Max's astral form speeds toward Havana at the speed of sound. She and Valerie defend the cavern while Max contacts Governor Milan's shaman, informing him of the attack on the village and requesting Havanan aid. The young mystic's consciousness returns to his body, and along with the scout Calvo and a ghostly cadre of fallen Cubano warriors from throughout history (summoned by the shaman Osorio), the group manages to hold off the neuron beast's forces until Milan's reinforcements arrive two hours later. Eventually, the attackers are defeated when Havanan forces -- a mix of conventional troops and techno-wizards in flying machines -- join our heroes and drive off the enemy.

The Havanan troops escort the neo-Taínos back to Red Moon Water Village, set up camp, and recover the power armor that had been stolen from La Fantasma. Though Osorio offers his sincere thanks to the team for rescuing his people, our battle-worn heroes realize that his village is now effectively under the control of Governor Milan, and Max silently wonders if he and his friends have been manipulated.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Down, Down to 5E Town

Although my last attempt at running Dungeons & Dragons was ultimately unsatisfying, I can't stay away from D&D for long. I've picked up every official edition of the game since the arrival of AD&D 2nd Edition, and the latest iteration is no exception. One of the two local gaming groups I play with, being well-acquainted with my love-hate relationship with D&D, started to bug me about running it as soon as the 5E Starter Set was released, and I quickly caved to their demands. Although the angst of the defunct Demon Verge campaign that I ran via Google Hangouts still weighed heavily on me, I comforted myself knowing that I was only committed to running an introductory scenario, after which a rotating cast of friends would be occupying the Dungeon Master's chair, with the option for me to return if I wished.

I ended up purchasing the Starter Set because it was ridiculously cheap, despite being leery of running a published module. After all, the Demon Verge campaign had taught me that modules and I aren't always the best of friends. Besides, what I had heard about the introductory adventure, which bore the unpromising title of Lost Mine of Phandelver, didn't exactly set me on fire: it sounded like the standard "small town in trouble / goblins in the caves" setup. As much as I like D&D, I've been down, down to goblin town more times than I care to admit. As it turned out, that description does apply to Lost Mine in practically every meaningful way. It also turned out not to matter, because I and my players had a great deal of fun playing our first session of D&D 5E with it last weekend.

The Good:

  • Combat moves fairly quickly again. I found 3E combat very slow, and 4E combat murderously, unbearably slow, so this is a huge improvement.
  • I like the advantage/disadvantage mechanics, supposed mathematical problems be damned. Likewise the proficiency bonus stuff, which I think is really slick, elegant design.
  • I like traits, bonds, and flaws, and handing out inspiration for showing them off in play. My recent experience with games like Fate Core has given me an appreciation for touchy-feely mechanics that reward people for playing in character even when it's not tactically sound.
  • Backgrounds are fun, even when multiple players take the same one. (There are no less than three nobles in the PC party.)
  • Speaking of which, nearly all of the player characters seem to be at least a little shady, if not downright smarmy. This makes a boilerplate scenario like Lost Mine much more interesting. I'm usually very much in favor of shiny heroic characters in fantasy stuff, but I love that many of these heroes also happen to be jerks.


The Stuff I'm Not So Sure About:

  • Characters still felt fairly fragile despite their inflated HP totals, but I'm not sure if this version is lethal enough for me. It seems like it's relatively easy for characters to be knocked out of a fight, but unlikely that they will die. They're probably not as unkillable as 4E ones, in my experience, but I'm used to death coming a bit more easily in D&D.
  • In 5E, if you can cast spells, you've almost definitely got a magic zap attack power that never runs out. I didn't find these "zonks", as one friend called them, to be overly powerful, but the image of magicians tearing into enemies with at-will magic beam attacks all day, every day has never really sat well with me. It's purely a matter of personal taste; I'm well aware that being the zapper is what many people expect out of spellcasters. I'm probably just out of touch on this.

So, when you total it all up, I'm pretty happy with the way things are going with this game. Honestly, any session in which I get an opportunity to act out a speak with animals spell cast on a couple of hungry, semi-tamed wolves is going to be a good time for me. For the first time in a while, I felt like I had as much (or more) fun than the players did, and I am legitimately looking forward to running the next session.