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.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Rifts Misadventures: An Artist's Impression

Perhaps you're wondering what the characters featured in the "Rifts Misadventures" session recaps look like. Well, wonder no more:

Rifts by EUDETENIS
Front left: Max Parkinson, runaway teenager, Human Mystic
Center right: Valerie Cain, Amazon cyborg wildchild, Praxian Headhunter
Center: Katrina Mansfield, Psi-Stalker (who I've mentioned but hasn't shown up yet, in-game)
Top: Arisis Solstice, radiant daughter of Atlas, Titan Cyber-Knight

The artwork of our GM, Kent Bonifield, will always be the definitive take on our Rifts characters, but I still get a kick out of seeing other artists' interpretations of them. This particular version is a piece I commissioned from the Brazil-based manga-ka EUDETENIS that I'm very happy with. I love the "big happy family" vibe emanating from her artwork.

I've commissioned one other Rifts piece -- a character design sheet by the Polish animation artist Precia-T -- which depicts Max in the olden days, shortly after leaving his hometown (i.e. in the original, pre-reboot campaign). It's a lot of fun for me to see our characters interpreted in a style that is so heavily influenced by manga and anime, since I was myself very heavily influenced by those media when I started playing Rifts.

Anyway, sorry for the lack of content (besides eye candy) today. It looks like I will be serving a short stint in the DM chair to kick off a D&D 5E campaign soon, so if you're sick of Rifts posts and want me to get back to the dungeons already, you're in luck. Stay tuned.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Rifts Misadventures: Session 5

Flea by distritopapillon
Last week's session was our first using Fate to run the Rifts setting, which was a lot of fun. (Refresh your memory of the previous session here.) This week, we spent at least half of the session tweaking our characters and fleshing out their "extras" (Fate Core's term for special powers), so we weren't able to get in as much actual play as usual. Much of this session's play was taken up with a big "set piece" battle, which we tried very hard to run 100% by the rules. This meant that we ended up looking at the rulebook much more often than we normally would, and so the fight took us a while to resolve. We still had a great time and learned a lot about how Fate works, and I expect that future sessions will go much more smoothly now.

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

Having overcome an ambush at the hands of the duplicitous Prince of Red Moon Water Village, Borega, Arisis and Valerie get to work cleaning up: Arisis drags the now unmanned Samson power armors into a heap and guards them, and Val recovers a dazed and apologetic Max from the trees he crashed into. Max and Val return to find the neo-Taíno tribesmen conferring with their shaman, who they recognize as the one that attempted to attack them in the jungle earlier.

The shaman introduces himself as Osorio, and there is a brief moment of tension as the young man insinuates that our heroes were in league with Prince Borega, a man who Osorio says killed their rightful king and seized control of the village. Max points out that Borega attempted to murder him and his comrades, and that Max turned Borega's magic against him. "Your prince told us where we could find some property that was stolen from our employer," Max explains, gesturing to the power armors. "We were tricked by Borega, and when he showed his true intentions and tried to ambush us, I killed him," he says, with apologies to Calvo, the Wilderness Scout that Borega had entranced during the fight. This explanation satisfies Osorio, who agrees to Max's request that he and his friends be allowed to reclaim the Samsons. "They are not our property," the shaman says simply. Valerie suggests contacting the authorities in Havana by radio to come and recover the mecha, but Osorio explains that communication in the jungle is difficult, and that the only equipment that can reach Havana is located in a nearby cave.

Arisis and Max trade some professional quips about the cave ("Hmm, I wonder if there might be something in the cave. Something that doesn't like us." "Like a bear, maybe."). Before the group can set out for the cave, however, Max senses impending danger and immediately warns Calvo, telling him to get the villagers to safety. Before the Scout can react, however, an assault begins. Three heavily armed boats are roaring down the river that flows next to Red Moon Water Village, followed by a giant, four-legged walker mecha that appears to be homemade. As if that weren't enough, five bandits riding makeshift flying craft attack from above.

Max quickly casts a hex upon the riverbank. As a dozen armed humans and lizard men disembark from the gunboats, they find that the sand erupts into adhesive tendrils as soon as they set foot upon it, ensnaring them and preventing them from moving or attacking. Two individuals manage to avoid being trapped in the Carpet of Adhesion, however -- one, a man in dark, tight-fitting garb that Max immediately recognizes as a fellow practitioner of magic; the other, a human with ghastly neuron-like growths limned in electric fire erupting from his head and forearms.

Val springs into action. The chest-mounted mini-missile launchers of Valerie's Saber Cyclone mecha open and launch a Missile Circus of crisscrossing explosive death at the flying bandits, who are forced to take evasive action, firing at the missiles rather than their intended targets. The Praxian Headhunter then takes to the skies, her booster jets positioning her above and behind the bandits, whom she quickly dispatches.

Though the armed grunts are temporarily incapacitated, the dark-clad mage moves to threaten the fleeing villagers. Max moves to intercept him, but momentarily loses track of his foe in the tumult when a beautiful neo-Taíno woman stumbles to the ground in front of Max, begging for his help. The young Mystic's Raging Hormones get the better of him, and he stops to help the woman, who is suddenly revealed to be the dark mage himself, cloaked in a spell of deceit. Barbed tendrils of shadow lash out from the arcanist, and Max tries to absorb their blows, rather than avoid them and potentially endanger the escaping villagers. One of the black tentacles finds a crack in the plates of Max's crystal armor, however, and wounds the young man badly.

Max, angry both at the deception and his own susceptibility to it, taps into the sensation of pain he feels and transfers into a psionic assault on the shadow mage, relaying it to his opponent's nervous system and flooding it with pure agony. The mage howls and doubles over, but his shadowy attack continues. Max ducks out of the way, and still clutching at the deep cut in his side, he blasts the dark magician with a blazing Fire Bolt generated by the twisting, glowing crystals of his armor. The mage, immolated, screams and dives into the river, carried away by its current.

Meanwhile, Arisis has found herself the target of grenade launcher, plasma ejector, and high-powered "scribble" laser attacks from the gunboats and the walker mecha they escorted to the village. The mythic resilience of her race has proven too much for their weaponry, however. Despite being knocked into the water and swamped in the muddy riverbed, the Cyber-Knight giantess has methodically been breaking the boats' arsenal to pieces with the Sword of Baragor, her Psi-Sword, and even her bare hands. The bizarre, neuron-augmented humanoid attempts to halt her determined assault, but while he is able to harm Arisis to some extent with the unearthly, flaming electricity that engulfs his grafts, in the end the titan is victorious, handily defeating the neuron-thing.

The group now turns its attention as one to the jury-rigged walker vehicle. As the human and lizard man bandits retreat to the gunboats, their weapons still mired in the tarry riverbank, Max uses his armor's ability to Call Lightning and strikes the walker. Arisis damages one of its legs badly (spraying herself with coolant in the process), and Valerie leaps atop it, slashing at its hatch with the forearm blades of her Cyclone. When she manages to pry it open, Max sends another lightning bolt crashing down on the mecha. While the team hammers on the walker, the gunboats power up their engines and beat a hasty retreat upriver. Realizing that the tide has now turned completely against them, the pilots of the walker surrender. The triumphant but exhausted trio barely have time to catch their breath before they spy another squadron of flying enemies -- helicopters, bandits, and winged monsters -- on their way to intercept the retreating tribesmen, and realize they must make haste to the cave.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Role & Roll Station: A Tokyo FLGS

Blurry action shot hastily taken while fleeing the store
During my blogging hiatus a couple of months ago, I was traveling in Asia, including Japan. I didn't get a chance to do any gaming while I was there, but I did manage to visit Tokyo's famous Akihabara district. So, here are some brief thoughts on Roll & Role Station, probably one of the best game shops in Tokyo:

There were tons of "replays". These look like manga tankobon (collections or trade paperbacks), complete with glossy covers of cool-looking characters. The interiors are just text recaps of game sessions, more or less similar to the "actual play" session reports I and many others post online. I knew that these replays existed, but had no idea how many were being published. There were dozens and dozens of the things, so obviously somebody is buying them. I found this oddly depressing, in that I wish there was something like these replays available here in the US.

There were D&D Encounters posters (which looked exactly like the US versions, but in Japanese) everywhere, but the most popular games appeared to be Call of Cthulhu, Sword World (an indigenous fantasy RPG) and GURPS. All of the CoC and GURPS stuff seemed to have no stateside equivalent. Most of it looked very impressive.

I didn't notice any Western RPGs for sale other than the ones I just mentioned.

There were many, many Euro boardgames translated into Japanese. Boardgames are not really my thing, but I found it interesting anyway.

There were several tables of people excitedly playing CCGs, boardgames, and RPGs, D&D among them.

About a third (!!) of the customers in the store were female. That's... not how it is here, which I think is a shame.

There were homemade D&D t-shirts that looked really cool and (from what I could understand) seemed to have been made by store regulars. They were monochromatic prints (like white on a blue shirt, etc.) and had anime-style illustrations of each of the four basic classes as well as English explanations of what they were about. I would have loved to have been able to buy them all. They were out of my price range, sadly.

It looks like I will probably visit Japan again in the not-so-distant future. Next time I will do my best to fight off the sensory overload that is Akihabara and get a clearer picture of what was going on there.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Let Me Tell You About My Character: A Rifts Timeline

Max (Commission) by Precia-T
I am a fairly obsessive player when I'm engaged, and I'm fully engaged in our current Rifts campaign. As evidence of this, have a look at something I wrote up a few weeks ago: background for my player character, Max (and his family, and the North Cascades Combine a little), written as a timeline.

Do you care? I dunno... maybe?

A lot of things that happened in the original high school campaign have been forgotten (or, more often, thrown out for being dumb). But we've definitely established that our characters were recently part of the so-called Gathering of Heroes against the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, so I've assumed that the current year in-game is around 103 PA. I'm getting that date from this site.

In the original campaign, each of us ran many more characters than the "core" ones we've chosen to use in the current one. Some secondary characters have made brief cameo appearances in play, and some others are assumed to have worked with the core ones at some point in the past (possibly during the aforementioned Gathering of Heroes). I'm not mentioning any of these characters in this timeline unless we've explicitly established where and when we met up with them.

(Oh, this makes more sense if you read about Max's hometown, the Barony of New Bizantium, first. But probably only a little.)

41
David Feng Parkinson is born in Iron Heart.

59
David joins the recently organized Coalition States military and shows great promise.

62
David begins a secret relationship with one of his superior officers, a Psi-Stalker woman named Millicent Reece.

David begins to experience terrible headaches after coming under psionic attack from a Mystic. He soon manifests powerful surges of psychic abilities. Millicent agrees not to reveal his developing Mind Melter powers to their Coalition superiors.

64
When Millicent becomes pregnant, she and David are forced to go AWOL and into hiding. Shortly thereafter, Millicent gives birth to a daughter, also a Psi-Stalker, but dies during childbirth. David names his daughter Alison Sarah Parkinson and flees Iron Heart with the infant, killing several Coalition soldiers in a botched attempt to sneak over the border.

Artha Kesmai Serris is born in the Barony of New Bizantium.

76
David and Alison arrive in the Barony of New Bizantium after living a bandit’s existence for over a decade. David quickly finds favor as a hired assassin for the Baron, the kobold Chulgrem Shran.

79
David Parkinson is now the Baron’s right-hand man, officially in his employ as his top enforcer. He is given a luxurious home in Hightown.

81
David, now 40, marries Artha Serris, a psionic teenage girl, at the urging of his employer, the Baron, and with the approval of the Serris clan.

Marcus Itomas Parkinson (nicknamed Rex), the first of David and Artha’s children, is born in the Barony of New Bizantium. The spitting image of his father, Rex is a master psionic. He can do no wrong in his father’s eyes.

83
Scott Rowmock Parkinson, the second of David and Artha’s children, is born in the Barony of New Bizantium. Scott possesses minor psionic abilities, but is intellectually disabled and requires constant attention. David begins to physically and mentally abuse Artha, who offers only token resistance despite her powers.

87
Maximillian Arksam Parkinson is born prematurely in the Barony of New Bizantium. He struggles with poor health for most of his childhood and shows no evidence of having inherited his parents’ psychic abilities. David's behavior grows increasingly erratic and violent.

90
David breaks Artha’s leg in a physical altercation. After being threatened by the Serris clan and reprimanded by the Baron, David’s emotional outbursts and physical abuse of Artha largely cease. Artha walks with a cane from this point on.

The Barony of New Bizantium is attacked by mecha from Mount Hood for the first time.

97
With the support of the Serris clan, Artha becomes a Congregat in the Church Tolmeti and is seemingly being primed for the priesthood. The Church reveals to Artha that it engages in the sacrifice of the old and infirm; a fact that disturbs her. Frightened of what the Serris clan will do if she leaves the Church, Artha feels she has little choice but to participate in these rituals.

The Kingdom of Weirminster and the Barony of New Bizantium make a pact of mutual defense against the Pilots of Mount Hood.

98
David Parkinson discovers that the Church Tolmeti is engaged in human sacrifice. He accuses his wife of planning to hand Max over to the Church's clutches and soon resumes his old pattern of abuse.

Artha reads her husband's mind and learns he is plotting against the Baron and the Church.

99
Torn between her loyalties to her family, her clan, and her religion, Artha Serris-Parkinson flees the Barony of New Bizantium for parts unknown. She attempts (but is unable) to bring Max with her. David is enraged.

Realizing that their family home is now completely unstable, Alison escapes into the Barony's Undercity with Max in tow.

100
Chulgrem Shran, the Baron of New Bizantium, dies. David Feng Parkinson, secretly his assassin, becomes the new Baron and immediately enacts a bloody campaign against the Church Tolmeti.

Max and Alison go into hiding in the Undercity, avoiding their father's operatives, who are hunting down Tolmetians and practitioners of magic (and also searching for Max).

Max and Alison are assaulted by Undercity thugs they had believed to be friends. Max is left for dead, but is taken in by Chenoxl, a D-Bee Mystic. Max quickly displays considerable psionic and magic potential. Alison disappears.

101
Max continues to train under Chenoxl's instruction, shielded from his father by his master's magic.

The Kingdom of Weirminster shoots down a Coalition reconnaissance plane.

102
Chenoxl releases Max from his tutelage. Max rides south through the Pecos Empire with an assortment of mercenaries and petty warlords, hoping to find one that will make good use of his powers. (This does not work out well for Max.)

Hathli seizes power on Mount Hood and reaches out to Weirminster and the Barony.

A disillusioned and dejected Max meets Valerie Cain in El Paso. Privately vowing to serve as her advisor, he agrees to travel to Ciudad Juarez (and then further into Mexico) to hunt vampires alongside her.

[Other Max & Val adventures happen]

103
The North Cascades Combine alliance is formally declared.

Smithville requests membership in the NCC, but emissaries from Weirminster find the town obliterated.

Max and Val travel to Atlantis to save a True Atlantean mage's daughter from slavery in Splynn. They join up with Katrina Mansfield and Arisis Solstice in the process. Max receives a magical tattoo (Phoenix Rising From the Flames) as a reward for the successful rescue.

Max, Val, Kat, and Arisis travel to Africa and participate in the Gathering of Heroes, joining other warriors (including Reez and Mian Feng) and destroying the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The Sealth Chieftaincy is accepted into the NCC. Shortly thereafter, the Cougar Mountain Holdfast requests membership.

[More adventures with Max, Val, Kat, and Arisis]

As the new Baron's purge continues, Rex Parkinson is killed in action against followers of the Church Tolmeti. His body is never recovered.

["Rifts Misadventures" begin]

Max, Val, Kat, and Arisis arrive in Serendipity. Kat leaves to meet with wild Psi-Stalker tribes. The other three meet Nysa and agree to head to the Caribbean to find her sisters.

Max, Val, and Arisis meet Gia and Arim in Havana.

["Rifts Misadventures" continue...]

Friday, August 1, 2014

Mercenary Team Black Fortress

Mercenary Team Black Fortress, more often simply called "Black Fortress", is a travelling company of soldiers of fortune that have recently made Serendipity their base of operations. Unlike some of the city's other mercenary militias, the group is large -- over 100 members strong -- and well-equipped. Black Fortress is widely assumed to have the unofficial backing of important individuals in the Coalition States, or possibly even the CS government itself.

Black Fortress does little to dissuage this perception. Much of their arsenal consists of decommissioned and repainted Coalition weapons, mecha, and vehicles, equipment to which no other mercenary company seems to have as much access. Many Black Fortress troops wear the infamous old-style "Dead Boy" armor of the Coalition States, but even those that opt for the (nominally standard issue) modified Urban Warrior body armor typically personalize it with CS-esque skulls and similar insignia. Though these motifs are never identical to the standards used by the Coalition, they are close enough to make a connection clear, at least in the eyes of Black Fortress' critics.

These critics say that the "Mercenary Team" is little more than a clandestine wing of the CS military, a deniable private army used to carry out black ops missions in which the Coalition cannot be openly involved or implicated. In truth, the situation is slightly more complex: Black Fortress is sponsored by a single powerful Chi-Town family, the Espinozas, who can boast of more than a few Coalition war heroes in their family tree. While not a household name to their nation's general populace, the Espinoza family is well-regarded by the Coalition's upper echelons, who tolerate (and in some cases, even tacitly support) the existence of Black Fortress. This tolerance is dependent on their ignorance of the lengths to which the Espinoza family are willing to go in order to secure what they see as the greater goals of the Coalition, however. Unlike most of the CS elite, Meyer Espinoza, the family's patriarch, is an idealist who believes that the Coalition has lost its way. In his eyes, the Imperial family's drive to take control of a horrendously chaotic situation has slowly ossified into a zeal for totalitarianism. Meyer believes that Emperor Prosek is more concerned with consolidating power for himself and his family than with helping humanity recover from the apocalypse.

Black Fortress never accepts a contract that would work directly against the interests of the Coalition. However, they regularly bend or break rules that would restrict their operations. For example, while they are much more tolerant of psychics and mutoids than any official Coalition organization would ever allow, the company of Black Fortress does not accept non-humans or practitioners of magic into their ranks. However, they have much more nuanced, inclusive policies than the Coalition when it comes to interacting with these groups. In other words, they are willing to work with them when it would advance their objectives (and generally not a second longer). Perhaps most intriguingly -- and dangerously, since the Espinoza family courts treason by condoning it -- among Black Fortress' various subdivisions is a clandestine paranormal research unit dubbed Grey Gate, which works to scientifically study magic and extradimensional phenomena, a practice which was banned by Imperial proclamation decades ago.

Black Fortress' recent relocation to Serendipity has been a cause for unease in the community, and was vociferously opposed by more than one organization (the Quang family among them). Serendipity's D-Bee and mutant animal populations, in particular, are fearful of the company. Thus far, however, Black Fortress' mercs have caused minimal disruptions -- in fact, with a few exceptions, they have behaved with a level of professionalism and restraint that puts the bulk of the city's other militias to shame.

Notable members of Mercenary Team Black Fortress include:

Brigadier Omar Espinoza is the leader of the Black Fortress mercenary company and a former Coalition special forces operative. Once a gifted soldier, Omar was badly injured in an encounter with a Thornhead demon in the ruins of old Chicago, and although ostensibly restored to combat readiness thanks to a full bionic conversion, he seems to have yet to become accustomed to his new body (possibly because of the trauma he experienced). He nevertheless expects the best from those in his command and drives them to excel, tolerating nothing less than excellence and upstanding behavior from those in his employ. Never a strategic genius, Omar takes his marching orders from his his father, Meyer Espinoza, and his trusted advisors in Ivory Tower, Black Fortress' strategic unit. He is curt, guarded and reserved. Omar lacks much of the fiery idealism that drives his father and sister, and while he believes in their objectives, he is secretly uneasy with his role, and increasingly disturbed when asked to order his men to violate the code by which he lived during his military service. He is also displeased that his sister, Quinn, has joined Black Fortress, and firmly believes she does not belong there.

Omar is a heavily modified and customized cyborg whose design is patterned after that of Free Quebec's FX-320C Dervish; a towering, four-armed combat unit. Though he was once regarded as a handsome man, is said that the Brigadier's face is now horribly scarred, and he is never seen in public without his olive drab exterior armor (including a faceplate) in place. He wears oversized military-style formal uniforms or fatigues that fit his cyborg frame.

Specialist Noa Quintanilla Espinoza is a young Rogue Scientist, highly driven but brusque; a transwoman and sister to Omar. Technically the second-in-command of the Grey Gate paranormal research unit, "Quinn", as she prefers to be called, is for all intents and purposes in charge of Grey Gate's research efforts (by dint of her enthusiasm if nothing else). Both fascinated and frightened by the supernatural, Quinn is a major psionic, and possesses the power to sense magic and dimensional disturbances as well as an ability to cloak her own psychic nature from detection -- abilities which she uses to aid her research. Like her father, Meyer, she believes strongly in humanity as the rightful inhabitants of Rifts Earth, and in the core ideals of the Coalition. She is deeply disturbed by the atmosphere of enforced ignorance in which her countrymen live, however, and enamored of the freedom that being away from Chi-Town affords her in her studies. At this point, Quinn would likely be unwilling to return to the CS.

Quinn is tall and thin, a striking young woman with dark skin and hair. She is a child of privilege, with an expensive, if unorthodox, sense of style. Her appearance does not conform to the stereotypical image of the bookish scientist: she has numerous tattoos and is fond of gold jewelry and piercings (even her universal headjack ports are gold). Quinn has a cutting sense of humor many find insulting, and her professional obsession with accuracy carries over into her social interactions. She often comes across as confrontational or overly critical as a result. Despite her annoyance with being assigned a subordinate position in Grey Gate by Omar, she is devoted to her brother, and is concerned that he is not adjusting to his new form.

Master Sergeant Jesse John Ross heads Red Rampart, the military operations wing of Black Fortress, and personally manages the company's battlefield actions as well as training and screening new recruits. An ex-Coalition Psi-Stalker from Lone Star with the Stetson and the drawl to prove it, Ross is rarely seen without the company of his two loyal Dog Boys, Barb (a female Labrador Retriever) and Bree (a female Boston Terrier). Though neither are legally Ross' property in Serendipity, both are extremely subservient to him, and always refer to him as "Master" -- a fact which disturbs many (particularly Serendipity's free mutant animal population), and which Ross relishes.

Ross is perhaps overly fond of food and drink -- things which he barely requires to survive, yet indulges in regularly. He is a paunchy, heavy-set man, something that is highly out of the ordinary for a Psi-Stalker, but has the lightning reflexes, chalk-white skin and pointed ears common to all his kind. A deeply unpleasant individual who finds fulfillment only in violence and excess, and disdains those he perceives as weak, Ross somehow manages to keep his brutal drives and vices in check when in Omar's presence, maintaining a disciplined veneer around him.

Technical Sergeant Kanuka Kladivo is the Operator in charge of The Keep, as Black Fortress' garage and supply division is known. A native of Ishpeming who relocated to Serendipity several years ago and was only recently hired by Black Fortress, Kladivo prefers Northern Gun technology, regularly (and loudly) reminding her superiors that the Coalition surplus that comprises over half of their armaments is "shabby Chi-Town shit". She does her best to keep everything in working order, but isn't above declaring something "unfixable" and procuring a non-CS-manufactured substitute. Kladivo is uncomfortable with Quinn -- especially her research into the supernatural -- but for once hasn't openly voiced her opinion thus far.

Boisterous and brash, the Technical Sergeant of Black Fortress is not an unattractive woman, but seems built for power rather than grace. She has shoulder-length, reddish-brown hair which is generally kept pulled back under a baseball cap, and stunning, piercing blue eyes (not natural, but bionic implants). Kladivo is a mutoid with several redundant internal organs and an anomalous brain structure, but is unaware of this fact. She is also an alcoholic, but insists that she "can control it".