Procession of the Psychopomp

Game Summary for 2/22/09, a somewhat abbreviated due to the presence of Rock Band

The Party (Idariel 7, Twonkey, Josepi, and Stan McStan ) made its way back from the SludgeWorks, with their captured Zombot-ratipede corpse and a bunch of the Thaumivorous Ghost-Moths that they had discovered.  They boarded the platform and were being winched back up to level 1, when they noticed a bunch of commotion in the Web, with G-Nome couriers racing back and forth on their rocket-skates. This triggered their paranoia pretty badly, as they became convinced they were about to be ambushed, but they made it back to Barbis Boltbiter’s Adventure Emporium (No Adventure Too Dangerous! No Fee Too Big!)  safely. After collecting their fee for investigating the Zombot Infestation, they began discussing cashing in on the Moths with Barbis.  As a Dwarf of honor, he insisted that they would have to negotiate with the owner of the Sludge Works, Lord Shadrach (one of the few non-Elf, non-Dwarf Lords of Infrastructure).  Somewhat surprisingly, the party saw his point. Before they got too far, however, one of Barbis’ nephews burst in with the news that a huge black blimp had docked at the Zep (the zeppelin docks), bearing the Psychopomp of Anathem, and there was going to be a procession.

The Psychopomp of Anathem is the ruler of the city of Anathem, a city that New Ark City had been at war with up until recently (a few game sessions ago) where they practiced the forbidden arts of Necrotech.  Josepi announced that there was no way he would buy that there was no connection between the Zombots they’d been encountering and the situation with Anathem. The party decided to go check out the procession.

They used their connections to find a second floor window above an apothecary from which they could watch the procession route from the Zep to the Palace of Instrumentality, where the Lord of Infrastructure meet.  The parade route was packed with people, trying to get a glimpse of the mysterious Psychopomp.

First came the music, a Heavy Metal dirge. Then came the marching guards, seven-foot-tall cadaverous humanoids in tattered gray cloaks, indistinguishable save for the slight variations in the black patterns on their ivory masks, rifles over their shoulders.  Following them was the Psychopomps float, drawn by a pair of Zombie Mammoths.  Occupying the rear of the float was a steam calliope, from which the music wailed.  In the center of the float, supported on iron bars, was the Psychopomp itself…a grey metal sphere, 10 feet in diameter, bound in loops of darker metal. Nobody knows whether it is a machine intelligence, a sentient artifact, or is there something else, something organic, encased inside.

Kneeling around the Psychopomp were pairs of figures, one set each of the Precursor races, Human, Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Orc, Dryad and Satyr…all attractive and richly dressed in elaborate robes and jewels, several wearing crowns, and all chained by their necks to the Psychopomp’s float.  Their eyelids have been sewed shut.

Behind the Psychopomp’s float, row after row of iron-collared human soldiers bearing spears.

Just then, as the party was discussing “Why aren’t we at war with these guys any more?” a small figure skidded from one of the cables that make up the web, and tumbled to the street in front of the stamping feet of the Zombie Mammoths. It was a G-Nome girl, with small goat-horns and little cupid wings, who had slipped as she was racing by….

Stan McStan started desperately slapping together a robot, knowing that there was no way he could finish in time.  Twonky contemplated jumping from the window, only to conclude that he would crush more people than rescuing the kid would save.  Idariel and Josepi stared helplessly.

The mammoth’s foot descended, then stopped in mid-air.  Kneeling beneath the foot, holding it up with one hand, was a figure completely swathed in bandages, wearing a red, hooded cloak.  The other mammoth, being just a zombie, obliviously tried to continue forward, and the float started to swerve.  The Corpse Guards turned, raising their enormous rifles. The figure scooped up the G-Nome girl and darted from beneath the foot, the mammoth stumbling then continuing onward.  Red-cloak deposited the girl at the side of the road, just at the edge of the crowd, as the Guard leveled their rifles.

By this point Stan had snapped together a hawkbot, and sent it winging towards the scene, with instructions to interpose itself between the riflemen and Red-cloak (and the crowd), international incident be damned.  Before the riflemen actually opened fire, there was a sonic boom, glass rattling and cracking in most of the nearby windows and the rifleman were knocked from their feet…the first row of riflemen’s weapons all snapped in half, and Red-cloak was gone.

Stan recalled his hawkbot before (he hoped) it could be observed by any of the Psychopomp’s minions. It was at this point that he noticed some wetness on his upper lip… his nose was bleeding. Nobody else suffered this (they all made their vigor rolls), and he shook his fist at the Psychopomp and muttered something about “Keep out of my head!”  Eventually, after a bunch of men in the livery of the Lords of Infrastructure showed up and had earnest discussions with the Psychopomp’s servants, the procession straightened itself out and made its way out of sight towards the Palace of Instrumentality.

The rest of the session was spent discussing what the Red-cloaked figure could possibly have been, whether they should try and find the G-nome girl, who they saw had been grabbed up by her mother, why the sudden peace with Anathem, and what the connection might be between the zombots and the Psychopomp.

Descent into the Fetid Depths

Session Summary for 1/4/2009 Elves & Espers campaign

This session we had a new addition to our gaming group: Andrew, Elyssa’s step-brother, and his girlfriend Sarah (who had never gamed before, but agreed to come along and watch).  Andrew took over playing Tank McSplatter, and Doug switched to a new character he’d come up with since we last played.

Last session our intrepid band of adventurers (Idariel 7, Elven Technomancer; Stan McStan, Dwarven Robomancer; Tank McSplatter, Hobbit Trooper; Bon Go, Human Enforcer; Josepi Vincenti, Human Roguechemist) managed to get paid for clearing the Pigsies out of Batwings & Things despite the subsequent destruction of the entire shop by a group of mercenaries apparently hired to burn the place, possibly to destroy any evidence of trafficking in Zombot dust, by the simple expedient of not mentioning the shop’s destruction when they went to pick up their pay.

This session they decided to take the contract from Barbis Boltbiter, their Adventure Broker, to investigate a possible sighting of Zombots in Poisonville, the sewage-disposal and heavy industrial chemical plant section of town…which is right down on the roof of the arcology below the spire, to keep it out of the way.  They figure that there’s no way the Zombot Dust they found (when it turned the dead Pigsies into Zombots) could be unrelated to possible Zombot activity elsewhere.  Also, the pay (4000 creds for a simple look-see) is nothing to sneeze at, despite the potentially highly unpleasant nature of the surroundings.

Determining that the best (free) way to get down to Poisonville was to take the elevator, they were winched over the side of the disk on an open platform cranked by an Ogre-M.A.G.E (Magically Augumented Genetically Engineered) and lowered into the greenish stinking fog that hung over Poisonville.  Arriving at the bottom after about twenty minutes of swaying and lurching, they found themselves standing in a landscape dominated by industrial-sized pipes, covered in blotchy rust and slime, surrounded by foul fetid greenish fog that made their eyes sting and noses water (Josepi had particular problems, having failed a Vigor roll, and fashioned a makeshift mask out of a handkerchief).  Shapeless things humped and slithered along in the shadows, and a ratipede (a mutant rat with a hundred legs) scuttled across the street as bold as you please in front of them.   The street was dotted with puddles of rainblow (sic) colored ooze.  The contract they had listed as their contact a Dwarf named Carvin Spiker, a supervisor at the SludgeWorks.  They found the plant, where gigantic transparent tubes blorped and gurgled disgusting brown and black sludge, and decided that Idariel and Josepi would go talk to Carvin while the rest of them hung around outside, so as not to spook him with an army of heavily-armed goons.

They climbed the rickety, rusting stairs and entered the plant through a submarine-style hatch; there they found a catwalk high above the tanks and pipes of the works, and a tiny office with windows that might once have been transparent back when the sun was yellow.  But maybe not even then.  In the office, piled high with the bureaucratic detritus of ages, punctuated by the occasional out-of-date Miss Galaxy calendar or “sexy” dwarf pin-up, behind the desk they found an amorphous blob of flesh.  Could this actually be the Dwarf they were looking for?  It opened one rheumy eye and croaked, “Yah?”

They explained they were there to investigate the Zombot sighting, and after some grumbling, Carvin told them that while he filed the report, it was an employee who had actually spotted the Zombot…They asked to speak with him, and Carvin called over Tw-0N (key->green), or as he called him “Twonky”… an ancient robot, from a time back before aesthetics had been invented.  Twonky (Doug’s new character) was a fairly featureless grey, boxy humanoid, with various hazard stickers affixed to him, his call-letters stamped on his back, glowing faintly with magical radiation.  Idariel asked if they could borrow him for a while, and Carvin indicated that he would appreciate if they not only borrowed him, but managed to lose him.  The plant had been trying to decommission him for ages, but been thwarted by red-tape: Twonky had unfortunately at one point, back when Gax had just begun losing its grip, been mis-classified as human and the robot bureaucracy had been unable to correct the mistake since classifying a human being as a robot would have violated the First Law.

Twonky led the entire party towards Sludge Vat #7, where he had seen the potential Zombot.  The Zombot had been in the form of a Ratipede, but it shambled rather than scuttled, and had metal jaws and (organic) eyes protruding on metallic eye-stalks, so Twonky had steered clear and simply reported it as per plant procedures.  Climbing and descending metal ladders and crossing swaying catwalks over glowing green radioactive goo, they headed towards Vat #7.  At one point, they found themselves in the middle of a swarm of giant, glowing albino moths with ectoplasmic wings, that settled on their clothing and hair.  Idariel (with an amazingly good Arcane Knowledge roll) managed to identify them as a giant, mutant version of a rare thaumivorous (magic-eating) moth.  After a brief panic that the moths were after their goods, they decided that they were just feeding on the magical soot that was coating them from the fog that permeated Poisonville.  Idariel decided to gather a bunch of the moths in a handy sack, for further study, and after accomplishing this, they made the rest of the way to Vat #7 without incident.

There, they found places in the metallic wall where something had chewed new rat holes, annoying Twonky, who had cleaned the area just a few weeks ago.  Stan snapped together a mini robot with a camera, and sent it down the hole to take a look, telling it to sound an alarm and run away if anything started chewing on it.  It didn’t take long before they heard the whoop-whoop of the robot’s alarm, and it came scuttling back, trailing one damaged leg.  Idariel began scanning the hole with his Pentacorder, looking for what did it, while Stan replayed the robot’s memory; they both came to the same conclusion: the robot had been attacked by a Zombot Ratipede that was even now shambling through the tunnels in the wall towards them to feast on their flesh.  The video from the robot was technically all they needed to fulfill their contract (and this group was nothing if not technical about fulfilling their contracts), but they decided to fight the Zombot anyway, if only so it wouldn’t be following them.

As soon as the Zombot Ratipede poked its nose (and eyestalks) out of the hole, Tank opened fire with his Multi-Gun, and blew big gobbets of flesh off it, revealing the glistening tubes and wires that animated it.  It twitched and lay still.  Stan, as an expert on robots, recalled that Zombots would regenerate after “death” unless they were burned.  At this point, Idariel 7 had a brilliant idea.  They would unleash the thaumivorous moths on the corpse, and see if that would prevent it from regenerating.  Stan and Josepi were dubious that it wouldn’t just result in Zombot moths that would destroy the entire arcology, but Idariel was insistent that since the Zombot dust could only infect you through a wound and the moths weren’t wounded, there was nothing to worry about.  Besides, the party was overdue for unleashing a setting-destroying horror.

To everybody’s surprise but Idariel’s, the plan worked, and the Zombot Ratipede failed to revive.  Further scans of the area revealed no more Zombots (itself somewhat puzzling), but evidence that the other Ratipedes had been giving the infected one wide berth, and the party decided that some combination of the lack of any life-forms to infect besides the wary and swift Ratipedes and the presence of the thaumivorous moths in and about the area had contained the Zombot infestation.  At this point, Idariel realized that this might be the big score he had been looking for… the ticket back to getting the 100,000 creds he needed to reinstate his license.

They took the Zombot corpse with them, contained in a metal box along with some of the moths (with holes in the lid, of course), and hurried back to Carvin’s office to use the phone, both to tell Barbis about the Zombot they had found and potentially negotiate with him over the discovery of the mutant moths.  The conversation didn’t begin well, with Barbis having just found out from the very unhappy Grismerelda that the shop had burned to the ground–Idariel attempted to persuade him that it wasn’t any of their doing (true enough) even though they hadn’t somehow seen fit to mention the incident to Grismerelda when collecting their pay.  The conversation wasn’t going well, even with Idariel coming clean over exactly what had happened at the shop, including the Pigsie that reanimated as a Zombot, until he happened to mention his potentially lucrative discovery and willingness to cut Barbis in on the action.  “Cha-ching!”   They agreed to meet and talk in person, rather than over an unsecured line in somebody else’s office. Meanwhile, the rest of the party was engaging Carvin in conversation, attempting to keep him completely distracted once they realized that Idariel was discussing this potentially immensely valuable find in the presence of a third party, one moreover with interests and responsibilities to his employer that ran counter to the party’s scheme to make themselves rich with something found in that employer’s factory….this seemed to be successful, particularly once they got Carvin–secretly something of a civic booster–started on the topic of how Poisonville’s reputation for pollution and ill-health was really undeserved, why, look at him, he’d been working at the plant for hundreds of years now and he was still a fine figure of a Dwarf, if he said so himself…

And there we broke for the evening.

Situational Ethics

Session Summary for 12/7/08: Elves & Espers

When a typical Rambling Bumblers session starts up, there’s often quite a bit of dithering, and we try to find our feet in the scenario, and try to recapture exactly what it was that we were going to do next, which, after a break, doesn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. I used to think that was only natural, since often months or even years can pass between sessions of a particular campaign. As it turns out, even if we only have a week in between sessions, there’s still dithering.

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Elves & Espers: The Broken Spire

The Broken Spire is the Westernmost of the spires that comprise the New (upper) part of New Ark City.  It is called Broken not because the physical structure has been compromised, but because all the systems have failed and cannot be repaired.  When queried, Gax–the Giant Thaumaturgic Brain in charge of the city–always replies that repairs are underway as he has done for at least the past millennium.  No broadcast power reaches the Broken Spire, and all equipment that hasn’t been modified to be self-sustaining, including but not limited to all standard models of air-car and beam weaponry, cease to function well before they get to the edge of any of the Broken Spire’s discs.

Visual inspection with image amplification shows that the discs and tower itself are mostly intact, with some signs of wear, but the Web connecting them is in tatters, and all the cables that ordinarily connect the spires to each other have fallen.  Most of the visible buildings are at least partially ruined, and appear to have been damaged by some combination of fire, weather, weaponry, and neglect.  High levels of thaumaturgic radiation prevents a closer inspection with any scrying gear, though at night the naked eye can see the glimmer of campfires.  The spire is dark and brooding, and most inhabitants of the other spires prefer not to regard it too closely, to the extent that the regions of the discs closest to it (save for the Eastern disc on the far side of the Spire of Ark, and the Spire of Ark itself, which lacks all discs) are the “low-rent” areas of the city.

Adventurers occasionally mount expeditions to the Broken Spire, and those that return tell tales of primitive tribes, cut off for so long from the rest of the city that even the descendants of the Elves have forgotten their common heritage and speak a language unknown to modern ears.  The pervasive thaumaturgic radiation has given rise to horrible mutations, and the primitives of the Spire are barely recognizable as the descendants of the species that inhabit the rest of the city if indeed that they are, and not some other races that once lived in New Ark and have now been forgotten, or invaders from outside the Arcology altogether.  Monsters and abominations abound, again whether the mutant offspring of domesticated creatures such as the beasts of burden that pull the bulette-trains or the various helpful oozes that keep the city clean, or invasive species from elsewhere that have colonized in the absence of the city’s normal security systems, none can say.

Wondrous treasures are said to be found there, relics of an almost forgotten era when New Ark City was in full flower, and all the city’s functions were efficiently carried out by Gax, while the college of the Tower of Ark turned out marvels and miracles of modern thaumatology, the design, construction and operation of which have since been lost, or the parts having been cannibalized to patch the increasingly creaking and overburdened systems of the aging arcology and the vast spires, once teeming with more millions of inhabitants than now seems conceivable, now a shadow of their former glory.

Notes

The Broken Spire is intended to be the “Gamma World” part of the city, and a suitable place for wild-and-woolly mutant-filled adventures without leaving the arcology entirely for adventures in the Badlands.  Stuff powered by the characters Power Points will still function, but ordinary gear (such as laser pistols, communicators, blasters and the like) won’t work unless the characters spend extra money to equip themselves with (bulkier) self-powered gear.

Bait and Switch

This month, the RPG Blog Carnival topic is “Transitions and Transformations,” so I’d like to talk a little about Baiting and Switching campaign premises in RPGs.  The basic idea, seductive in its simplicity, is that you emulate a common staple of fantastic fiction where the protagonists find themselves in a setting or situation that is a radical change from their everyday lives and for which they are unprepared (as when a group of children find a strange world in the back of the wardrobe in the house they’re staying in, or a dying prospector is astrally transported to Mars) by having the players prepare characters as if they were going to play in a particular setting (e.g. the Old West), and part-way through the first session plop them in a new one (Barsoom).  In one swell foop you short-circuit any temptation to meta-gaming in the character build process, eliminating any difficulty over professors, reporters and nurses curiously well-versed in the handling of shotguns and dynamite in your Call of Cthulhu game, and you present the players with the exact psychological experience that the characters have of being gobsmacked when their plans for their lives are turned upside-down.  That’s a pretty rare thing to be able to accomplish in an RPG, so it’s quite tempting.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking that I’m going to warn you against doing it, because the risks are too great.  The players might not like the new premise that they didn’t buy into; they may have built characters that have rich connections with the original premise and are reduced to hollow shells in the new one or may have an obsessive motivation to return to the original; if the characters aren’t built with the setting in mind they may be ineffective to the point of not being fun to play; if any characters are lost the switch in premise might make it impossible to neatly add new ones, etc.  In essence you’re playing a trick on the players, and what they might have cheerfully agreed to if you’d presented it openly they may end up resenting when it’s forced upon them, ruining a perfectly good campaign for a brief moment of epiphany when they realize what the game is really about.

Let me tell you, though, that when it works, it’s beautiful, and can cause great awe and glee around the table.  To me, that’s worth the risk.

That’s not to say that there aren’t things you can do to minimize the risk.  Take, for example, the Escape From Tartarus game I ran.  You might want to read the recaps of Part 1 and Part 2 before going further.

I knew going into it that the bait and switch I was planning was tricky, so there were some things that I did  specifically to address that:

  • The game was planned as a one-shot, instead of a full campaign.  If things had gone badly the number of sessions ruined would be minimal (it ended up taking two sessions, but it was also apparent by the end of the first session that it was going to work).
  • The players were all given pre-gens.  This reduced their investment in the initial character concept (nobody spent two weeks working on a back-story that would be completely discarded), and allowed me to make sure that everybody had something they could do once the switch occurred.
  • Because I know my players well, I was able to tailor the pre-gens to their preferences, to the extent of having them be reminiscent of characters that they’d already played and enjoyed.
  • It was presented as “Here’s what I’m running this week.”  Slightly high-handed, but again reduced the players investment in the initial premise and eliminated any hint of breaking a promise to deliver them a game based on what had been previously agreed to.
  • The switch granted the characters a step up (in this case a big one) in importance and ability to exert an influence on the course of events.  It’s much better for player buy-in for the alleged madman to find out he’s Corwin, Prince of Amber than for Corwin, Prince of Amber to find out he’s actually a madman hallucinating in the loony-bin.
  • The shift left a goodly amount of continuity between pre and post.  In this case, the literal setting remained the same, while the power-level and style underwent a radical change (from gritty prison drama to super-agent adventure).  I think continuity helps: change the setting, keep the style; change the style, keep the setting; change both, at least keep the themes.  If you change everything, the players may feel that you’ve just switched games in the middle.

The Escape From Tartarus was one of the most succesful games I’ve run, and everybody had a really good time.  In fact, it’s one of the settings my players have indicated an interest in returning to some day.

I’ve run other Bait and Switch games, some wildly successful (The Midnight Special), some failures (The Irvine Effect) and I think the above hits upon the key points to make it work:  Minimize the Bait, by not letting the players get too invested in or put too much work into the initial set-up, and carefully target the switch so that the players can experience some sense of continuity and the switch leaves them in their comfort zone as to the kind of characters and situations they like to play, or places them there if that’s not where they started.  Done right, and it’ll be a game to remember.

Elves & Espers: G-nomes

G-nomes are the descendants of pre-Apocalypse gnomes, and embrace genetic engineering with the same enthusiasm (and sometimes explosive results) as their ancestors embraced mechanisms and before that alchemy.  They use magical viruses to rewrite their own genetic codes to cosmetically alter their appearances and give themselves interesting and unusual animal parts and abilities. They are the size of gnomes (about the size of a human child) and are always humanoid, with large eyes, but sport a wide variety of fur, scales, feathers, or brightly colored skins, as well as accouterments like horns, claws, fangs, and so forth.

In New Ark City they’re often found as Web Runners, using their rocket-skates to traverse the cables that make up the web delivering messages hither and yon, or in similar professions where regard for one’s personal safety is regarded as a handicap.

G-Nome

Small (-1 Toughness)
Natural Weapons (Str+d6 with one, or Str+d4 with two) – G-Nomes may choose what natural weapons they have, and may choose to shed them and grow different ones, though the process takes a week during which they will have no usable natural weapon.
Attractive +2 CHA. G-Nomes may look bizarre, but they see no reason to be unattractive, and whatever look they adopt will be designed to be aesthetically pleasing
Low Light Vision.  Their large eyes give them low-light vision.

Elves & Espers: Zombots

Zombots are corpses that have been infested with nanite colonies that grow mechanical linkages to make them lurch around in an unholy resemblance to life.   Zombots are hideous travesties, with wires and rods piercing their flesh, writhing under their skin and snaking around their bloody and decaying bodies, manipulating them like grotesque marionettes.  In settings where the Guts skill is used, encountering a Zombot requires a Guts check.

Zombots have no other drive than to create more Zombots and consume flesh and circuitry to sustain themselves, though forbidden Necrotech can be used to command them.  In its inactive form, the nanites are a grey dust (Zombot Dust) that is harmless unless it comes in contact with a corpse or an open wound.  A corpse will become a functioning zombot in 1d6 rounds; a living being will have to make a Vig roll every hour or suffer a Wound and once it becomes Incapacitated will rise as a zombot.  Zombots require flesh to function (it’s part of the programming of the nanites), so although fire won’t destroy the mechanical parts, if you burn away all the flesh, the Zombot is destroyed.  Zombots require a steady infusion of new flesh and circuitry to sustain their activity, and will always be on the prowl trying to consume; once a Zombot has killed a victim it will spend 1d4 rounds feasting, ignoring what else is going on unless it comes under attack. If it spends more than a day without being able to consume anything, it will go into hibernate mode, remaining motionless and emitting no energy readings until a victim gets within movement range (Pace).

When deciding what to attack, the Zombot will go first for the closest person who attacked it, next for the closest victim (choose randomly for equally distant targets); count all robots, computers, and sophisticated machinery as potential victims. Zombots will only employ ranged attacks (if the form has them) if it is not possible to close to melee.  Zombots will incorporate whatever weapons the victim was carrying into itself and use them.  Zombot infection, however, is only carried by natural weapons, not incorporated ones.

Trafficking in Zombot dust (and all forms of Necrotech) is punishable by death in New Ark City.

Zombots

Zombots have stats as their living counterpart with the following exceptions:

Str: +2d Smt: Unintelligent Pace: -2.

Undead: +2 Toughness, +2 to recover from Shaken, No Called Shots, No Wound Penalties
Infectious
: creatures bitten/clawed by Zombots must make a Vig roll every hour or suffer a wound, and will become Zombots after they’ve been Incapacitated
Regeneration
none while active, Fast once killed
Weakness Fire, double damage, prevents regeneration