Friday, September 27, 2013

The Inevitable Disenchantment

It was bound to happen.

After only a handful of sessions of my B/X D&D campaign, DM fatigue is starting to set in -- or it might be more appropriate to label it "Gamer ADD". This is nothing new, and doesn't mean that I'm going to wrap up the Demon Verge game. It's still chugging along pretty nicely, even with my occasional missteps. If it's going to come anywhere near the open sandbox I'd originally wanted it to be, though, I'm going to have to put more work into it. But at the moment I'm feeling uninspired about it, so it'll probably remain a "dungeon crawl of the week" type of thing for a while. I hope my players are cool with that.

I can point to a number of reasons for my vague disillusionment with the campaign. For one thing, I went out of my way to make a fairly "vanilla" D&D setting this time around, in the interest of hitting the ground running and actually playing something instead of just thinking about it. But there's nothing that's stopping me from making things a bit less "standard D&D fantasy" now that I've got a regular game with a stable group of players. Nothing other than my own blasé attitude, that is.

Before I started looking at making a D&D campaign out of Demonlord, I was working on my own weird trashy 80s science-fantasy thing using a mash-up of Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future, but I decided that I was wasting time on a high-concept campaign I was never going to run instead of just making a dungeon and saying "go". I'm starting to think that that might have been unwise. But then again, I've found that no matter how you dress up D&D, people are going to play it like they always have, and that would have just frustrated me more.

Like I said before, nothing is disastrously out of whack with my campaign. But there are a lot of little annoyances -- my own clunky DMing, my constant interest in other games and genres, the difficulty of really cutting loose and getting into character via the strange medium of Google+ Hangouts -- and while they're not killing my campaign, they are getting in the way.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Demon Verge: Session 5

In this session, we picked up where we left off, with the Company of the Closed Fist heading down to the ground floor of Ralu's Redoubt, with the regular cast:

Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H.
Ondola the Blunt (female fighter), played by Chris V.
plus their retainers: "Big John" the charmed ogre, Bardoon, Ralan the elf and Mordal the dwarf

The Company of the Closed Fist engaged in a brief scuffle with a pair of young magic-users, again clad in the green hooded robes they'd seen previously. Their skeletal servants were turned away by the power of Kalseru, thanks to the cleric Aelaran. Having lost their protectors, the robed mages were outmatched. One of them fled at the sight of "Big John", backed by a large and well-armed party. The other found himself backed into a corner by "Big John" and staring into the cursed mirror the Company had strapped to the ogre's chest. He quickly surrendered, his face erupting in painful acne from the mirror's malign magic.

The young magic-user proved largely uncooperative, resisting Magda's attempt to charm him, but revealed a few bits of information after the Company ordered "Big John" to begin breaking his fingers: his name was Galtin Vauk, his cabal was called The Brotherhood of the Broken Crescent, their base of power is "several days' travel" to the east, and led by someone called "Mistress Throga". He also engaged Aelaran in a bit of quasi-religious babble, in which he claimed that "the death of all things" was the only true way to "turn away Chaos".

The Company, exploring the remainder of Ralu's Redoubt, found it mostly abandoned (save for a giant crab spider, which gave Garen-Gen a nasty fright), though it held a few well-trapped rooms and treasure caches presumably put in place by the bandits that had previously occupied the outpost.

En route to D'Ansor to inform Arjon Tenpher of their discoveries, the Company sighted a speck in the sky, which was revealed to be a green dragon in short order. The party took to cover in a panic, but the dragon seemed intent on eating their cleric. Only a foolhardy attack launched by "Big John" saved Aelaran. Sadly, their ogre companion was almost instantly slain, then carried off by the great winged reptile. The Company of the Closed Fist then completed the journey to D'Ansor in stunned silence.

I was very tired when DMing this session, and was running on caffeine and little else. As a result, the whole thing was a good deal sloppier than I generally prefer. In particular, I'm not proud to say that I ushered the players through several empty rooms by saying things like "you explore the next few rooms and they're all empty", and I probably telegraphed where to find treasure and traps a bit too much. Also, I didn't run the random dragon encounter strictly according to the random wilderness encounter rules from the Expert book (largely because I forgot that such a thing existed). But as usual, there was a lot of laughter and I think everybody had fun anyway.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Demon Verge: Session 4

For our fourth session, the Company of the Closed Fist was back up to fighting strength:

Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H.
Ondola the Blunt (female fighter), played by Chris V.
plus their retainers: "Big John" the charmed ogre, Bardoon, Worford, Ralan the elf and Mordal the dwarf

Having neutralized the threat of the orcs and other Nisshar deserters that had occupied the ruins of the Falcon Hall, the Company of the Closed Fist received a summons from Arjon Tenpher, the man who rules the Duchy of D'Ansor in his brother's absence. Tenpher informed the Company that far from being cross about the deaths of two of his personal guard (and one prize sheep) in the Falcon Hall assault, he considered it a bargain, and requested that the Company investigate reports of new inhabitants at Ralu's Redoubt, a roadside outpost that was previously believed to be abandoned after the recent war with Nisshar. Tenpher suspected that a group of bandits that had been raiding caravans traveling between the Duchy and their southern neighbors in the Principality of Timur may have claimed the outpost as their own.

The Company first contacted two survivors from the first Falcon Hall operation: the jittery, knife-wielding Otto, and the arrogant (if capable) Bardoon. Only the latter accepted their offer of re-employment. Aelaran chose to employ a town crier for a nominal fee, which reaped considerable rewards: several capable-seeming retainers, including a dwarf and one of the rarely-seen elves, offered their services. A new pay scheme was determined for the Company's retainers: a fairly generous flat monthly fee, plus salvaged weapons and armor, with opportunities for formal registry into the Company's roster (and thus, access to the various advantages of a royally chartered mercenary group) for particularly loyal and doughty retainers. (I love watching players come up with this kind of stuff, by the way.)

The Company then spent a good deal of time planning a ruse intended to lure the bandits out into the open, involving a wagon and a pair of draft horses borrowed from Tenpher, and a cart purchased with Company funds. Elaborate plans involving the lashing of demihumans to the undersides of these conveyances, the donning of false pilgrims' costume, and the inconspicuous transport of charmed ogres were hatched. Finally, the Company and their companions set out on the two-day journey southward to Ralu's Redoubt.

Despite conspicuously camping in view of the outpost, the ambush they expected never came. After a nervous evening spent waiting for a bandit attack, Garen-Gen decided to reconnoiter the Redoubt along with the elf Ralan. They found a large, conical hill with two cavernous openings apparently manned by watchmen and dotted with withered trees. Magda the Witch and her ogrish friend, "Big John", decided to approach the outpost with Garen-Gen and Ralan observing from cover. As soon as they came within roughly two hundred feet of the outpost, the "watchmen", who were now seen to be skeletons, signaled a green-robed figure who cast a sleep spell upon the witch and her would-be protector. Both were instantly sent into a slumber. Before the skeletal guards could approach, Garen-Gen and Ralan burst from the bushes and awakened their ensorcelled comrades. The four then fled for cover, with "Big John" howling in rage and confusion, as three skeleton warriors and two very nervous-looking green-robed magic-users emerged from the complex, and then quickly returned to it.

Hearing the ogre's screams, the rest of the Company came to the rescue, and the assembled party then entered Ralu's Redoubt at its upper opening. They soon found a Timurian merchant (named Nomahr) in chains, who told them the bandits that captured him had apparently been overrun by wizards some days previous. The group decided to have Worford take Nomahr and their cart and wagon back to D'Ansor and inform Arjon Tenpher of the developments. They found little else of interest on this level -- save, of course, a magical mirror that robbed Magda of much of her already meager strength when she gazed into it. The session ended as the Company took a downward-leading staircase, "Big John" in the lead, with the evil mirror strapped to his ample torso.

I let the players spend a lot of time planning their counter-ambush this session -- in retrospect, probably too much time, but I didn't want to give away that the bandits they were expecting were no longer the threat. I'm also finding it difficult to get the sort of engaged roleplaying I enjoy going on Google+, which is much more my own fault (and that of the somewhat awkward nature of Hangouts) than that of my players, but I'm planning on forging ahead. I wonder if my players have yet figured out that this whole campaign is really just a way for me to learn how to DM again.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Hug a Jug o' Wine

If you're here for Dungeons & Dragons content, you'll probably want to move on. Today I'm writing about Rifts. A lot.

I have spoken in the past of the Rifts campaign I and my friends played in for years as young adults. Rifts is a game with a lot of warts, but its setting remains one for which I have a lot of affection. We've returned to it once before, in a play-by-post campaign that fizzled out (as they all do eventually). Recently, my good friend Kent has started a private Google+ Community for the old gaming group, and is slowly building a new campaign backdrop: Serendipity, an independent town with a commanding position at the mouth of the Mississippi River, since New Orleans was completely submerged after the apocalypse. Kent asked us to pitch some ideas for neighborhoods in Serendipity, and I obliged.

So, with a tip of the hat to the Borderlands video games and to Neil Hamburger's track of similar name, I give you:


The ramshackle bungalows at the northern edge of Serendipity are home to scrapyard workers, petty operators, and rail laborers. These people unload and process the scrap and excavated technologies taken from the McComb Metal Reclamation Camp, several miles further north. They work hard and drink hard. Sandrine Quang is happy to cater to their needs, and from her sprawling establishment, the Scrap Car Saloon, she effectively rules the neighborhood that has come to be called Jugtown.

The Quang family claims Cajun, Creole, and Vietnamese heritage. They have roots in the area going back to the time before the war, where they helped to operate the Ponchartrain Vineyards once located in the town of Bush (now a half-submerged ruin). The Quangs are still winemakers, growing grapes not far from the Ottley farming operation, but now produce a cheap, easily manufactured variant of the spirit labeled "Rasteau Pardo Tonic Wine". Detractors say that the Quang wine is adulterated with corn syrup, turpentine, and less savory additives. Sandrine Quang insists that it is “fortified”. At any rate, Pardo has been popular with the local workers for generations, and the trademark one-handled glass jugs in which the beverage is sold litter the streets and corners of the neighborhood. It is from these discarded containers that Jugtown takes its name.

The Quang family has its hands in more than making cheap wine. Sandrine's husband, Sullivan, works to ensure that the best pieces recovered from McComb find their way onto the black market. Her sister, Corette Quang, oversees prostitution and drug dealing in Jugtown. And Sandrine’s son, Orson, is directly involved in enforcing the family’s protection racket. (A full-conversion cyborg with the words “BOW DOWN” emblazoned on his chest, Orson Quang is among Serendipity’s least popular residents.) Quang family members are involved in practically all areas of business – and crime – in Jugtown.

Since the residents of the area depend either directly or indirectly on railyard activity for their livelihood, Jugtown's political affairs are largely handled by Serendipity's Rail Guild. However, the Quangs have assembled the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, a militia named after a trade union from the Age of Man, and are aggressively recruiting area toughs to join it.

According to Sandrine Quang, the BMWE (or “Brotherhood”, as it is more commonly known) was formed to voice the unique concerns of Jugtown's workers. More often, they try to strongarm the Rail Guild into paying Sandrine in return for the militia's (and therefore, the workers’) support on the council. The militia is made up of two dozen or so local hardcases loyal to the Quang family, mostly low-level men-at-arms with cheap body armor and weapons. However, the Brotherhood supplies a valuable defense asset to Serendipity in the form of a fully operational Titan Combat Robot, purchased by the Quang family and piloted by the militia's leader, Rachel Bailey. 

Bailey, a former combat pilot, had a history of squabbles with the Rail Guild before joining the Brotherhood. When still a newcomer to Serendipity, she married into the Quang family without fully understanding what she was getting into. A conscientious deserter from Whykin who disliked her homeland's increasingly xenophobic military policies, Bailey found herself pressured back into the pilot's seat and into acting as a figurehead for the BMWE. She has an honest desire to better represent Jugtown’s citizenry, but has found herself alternately manipulated and intimidated into serving Sandrine’s interests by her husband (and Sandrine’s nephew), Denis. As a result, her standing in the community is steadily plummeting.

The Scrap Car Saloon

Sandrine Quang's saloon is, like most of the buildings in Jugtown, a jury-rigged, ramshackle structure, apparently bolted together from the bits of a half-dozen other buildings. Unlike most of the quietly depressing drinking holes in this neighborhood of Serendipity, however, the Scrap Car goes for bombast. Bright orange power cords are strung haphazardly both inside and out. A loudly buzzing neon sign advertises “SCRAP CAR - WINE - GIRLS - WILDE - NTERTAINMENT [sic]” in hot pink letters, and loudspeakers pointed in all directions blast skip-ridden recordings of Vietnamese pop, Cajun zydeco, and Gobblely drum n’ screech (often all at the same time). 

Past an entrance guarded by large, largely disinterested doormen lies a poorly lit, smoky, but slightly less shabby interior. Beyond what one would expect to find in a saloon – i.e., a bar -- the Scrap Car boasts a small stage for live performances (complete with scavenged sound and lighting system, and which can be surrounded with chicken wire at a moment’s notice) as well as an octagonal pit used to host tough-man tournaments, cockfights, dog fights, and the like. (An ill-fated experiment in carnosaur baiting once nearly led to the destruction of the saloon.)

The entire operation is monitored via video camera by Sandrine Quang, who occupies the well-guarded second floor of the establishment with a rotating cast of other Quang family members. While there are nude dancers (Thursday is “D-Bee night”), and plenty of alcohol is available, hard drugs and sexual favors are not offered here. (Customers interested in such services are quietly directed to other venues, also Quang owned and operated.)


A pidgin language composed of bits of half-remembered Vietnamese and Cajun French, mixed with American (and more recently, Gobblely), used exclusively by the Quangs. "Quanglish", as outsiders derisively call it, has allowed effectively coded communication among family members for generations. Individuals not raised in the Quang family -- even those that speak the languages that make up its vocabulary -- find Quanglish incomprehensible, as it also incorporates cross-lingual rhyming slang.